But when we were out and about doing our budget travels, most Indian food looked and tasted pretty much the same. It had a pretty mushy consistency, and was fairly spicy. We stuck to vegetarian dishes after our first few brushes with "mutton" (stringy goat meat) and chicken (it made you feel bad to chew this desiccated fowl that clearly led such a tough life). We also figure that the chances of suffering from poor food handling are greater with meat.
To accompany all this spice, there is usually come sort of "curd" or yogurt to combat the heat in your mouth and guts, and generally keep your intestines in order. In the north, it is often a liquid yogurt called "lassi", and the town of Jodhpur is noted for its "makhaniya" lassi which is made with cardamom and saffron. We tried this delicacy in several places, including the famed "Agra Sweets", but decided our favorite version was made by the Fort View Restaurant in the Govind Hotel. Mr. Sadarangani, who owns and runs the hotel and restaurant, was kind enough to take me into the kitchen to watch one being made, and to supply the recipe.
Govind Hotel's Fort View Restaurant
Mr. Jagdish V. Sadarangani
Step 1. Make yogurt by boiling milk, letting it come to room temperature (luke warm). For each liter of milk add 1 tablespoon of yogurt curd (with live culture). Stir, keep warm, and wait until it firms up -- about 7 or 8 hours. Depending on the quality of the milk, the yogurt may leave a little "water." If it leaves very much, filter it with a cloth.
Step 2. Using the curd that is left after filtering, blend with a hand mixer to liquefy.
(Note: You could also just substitute a good quality plain yogurt for these two steps.)
Step 3. Add: 1 crushed cardamom seed (or about 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom); about 3 teaspoons of sugar per glass of lassi and a healthy sprinkle of rose water. Stir,
then add 2 or 3 pieces of saffron. Some people stir in the saffron at this point, but Jagdish advises against this until after it is served. He says it brings out the flavor more to stir right before drinking.
Step 4. Add one heaping tablespoon of heavy clotted cream to the top. (Jagdish uses the solidified cream skimmed off the top of the un-homogenized milk). I figure you could also substitute whipped heavy cream (unsweetened).
Step 5. Sprinkle a scant handful of cashew nuts on top and serve.
While I'm not going to go into the various dishes and styles of Indian cooking here (there are a large number of good Indian cookbooks--and with any luck, good Indian restaurants in your area--that can guide you in making and tasting these various Indian cuisines), I will share a few observations.
BREAD: We loved all the different types of bread in India--naan (baked in a tandoori oven), chapatis or roti (flat but puffy rounds of bread made of flour and water and cooked on a hot plate), parathas (fried in butter and often with additions of cheese, vegetables and spices), papadams (deep fried paper-thin lentil flour rounds, sometimes spiced, sometimes not). And the Indian versions of western-style bread were good too (our favorite was a light white bread we got in Bombay with just a hint of dill). The only thing we couldn't handle were the extra-sweet Indian desserts.
CHEESE: Cheese in Indian cooking is not the same as what Europeans or Americans think of as cheese. It is closer to a dry--very dry--cottage cheese, and is called "paneer." It is made by causing milk to curdle with something like a good dose of lime juice, vinegar or rennet. After it curdles, it is strained through cheese cloth or something similar and cut into squares. Sometimes it is coated with a chick-pea batter and fried (pakora) or presented in various sauces such as a palak paneer (cheese cubes in a spinach sauce).
FRESH LIME SODA: This is truly one of the great but simple wonders of Indian cuisine. It calms the tummy, and is very refreshing. (By the time I left India, my diet consisted almost entirely of boiled rice and fresh lime soda). It is simply the juice of at least 1/2 juicy lime and a bottle of soda water. Sometimes sugar or salt is added, but you can have it plain, depending on your mood. I've had all versions, and like every way--although some places get the "sweet" version too sweet. It's safer to order plain and do your own doctoring. Besides its fun--adding the sugar causes the soda to boil up and hiss.
This is not to be confused with commercially produced "Limca" lemon-lime soda found throughout India. It is a little more lemony and sweeter than western versions, and the mention of its name brings instant visions of India to most travelers who have visited.
COFFEE AND TEA are usually served very milky and very sweet (in fact, the tea or "chai" is usually brewed with the milk and sugar right from the start). Train stations are filled with men yelling "chai!chai!chai!" no matter what time of night your train pulls into the station. The chai in train stations is often served in sun-baked clay pots that you drink from and then toss on the tracks (but then again, everything is tossed on the tracks, which keeps the rats happy).
We had a wonderful ginger tea several times, and were told various things about how it achieved its flavor. The addition of a grating of fresh Indian ginger that looked more like an albino carrot was one, but we never did see this kind of ginger. The most persistent explanation was that it was made with a special "tea spice" that comes from the north of India. This seemed the most plausible--and it was described as consisting of fresh powdered ginger and cardamom with a pinch of white pepper thrown in, to be added after the tea is brewed, but before it is served. I can hardly wait to experiment!
SWEETS: Indian sweets are just that . . . sweet. Very, very sweet. Many of them were so sweet, even our sweet-hound, Cassidy, couldn't eat them. But one treat she became enamored of is candy wrapped in thin, beaten, edible silver sheets (think of sushi where the nori is made of silver, and the contents are fairly smooth and brightly colored with no fish on top). We suspect that the basic sweet is made from boiled down milk and lots of sugar with various flavorings (such as ground pistachio nuts or rosewater) announced by their various bright colors (such as hot pink and neon green).
**TANDOORI: From northern India and refers to the clay oven in which the food is cooked after marinating in yogurt/spices. It is usually milder than other Indian foods an is quite tasty.
*THALI: Is an all-purpose description for a meal made of several dishes (similar to a "bento" in Japan). It is often an all-you-can-eat vegetarian meal. It is purported to be completely nutritionally balanced with "curd" (plain firm yogurt), and rice, lentils and usually spinach and other vegetable (perhaps with a bit of paneer) accompanied by various Indian breads.