In continuation of my culinary tales from ‘north to south’ in India…
A Meal for the Desert Kings and Queens in Rajasthan
It was a two-hour drive to the south from Delhi to reach Rajasthan, the land of kingdoms and camels and stretches of golden deserts.
Along the way, we passed men dressed in white cotton shirts and loose pants herding goats with bells tied round their necks. Temperatures could climb to a cruel 45 degrees Celsius in Rajasthan, the largest state in India, located in the northwestern part of the country and home to mostly desert landscapes.
The northeastern corner; however, was fed by an alluvial basin and was covered in scrub brush, red badlands and farm plots stitched together. The sandy soils, somewhat miraculously, produced wheat, millet, oilseeds and vegetables, using groundwater irrigation. The bright green crops contrasted sharply against the hues of tan and faded gold soils.
We arrived in the village of Sanoli, located in the Alwar district, a town of mostly taxi drivers and farmers. We passed the colourful painted cubic homes, made of concrete, where men had parked their cars and camels, alike. Women walked the streets in colourful invisibility, their faces completely concealed by stunning silks of fuchsia and cerulean blue.
Inside the home of Anil and his wife, Yashwanti, my hosts and I were treated to a colourful Rajasthani spread of food for our lunch. My eyes were as big as my stomach. Yashwanti had prepared a feast for kings and queens.
She sat beside me, wearing a stunning forest green, burgundy and gold accented silk scarf around her head and gestured to help myself to the bright yellow daal, a creamy lentil-dish that is a staple in Rajasthani cuisine. More, more her smiling eyes gently demanded and I took a second spoonful onto my large metallic plate.
She offered me several roti, whole-grain pitas, still warm from the pan and a deep-fried cracker, infused with minced herbs, that was dripping with oil. I dipped the cracker into the daal and the oil caught at the corner of my mouth, dribbling down my cheek, unconsciously.
Yashwanti drizzled a spoonful of ghee, liquid cheese made from buffalo’s milk, onto the roti. The bread tasted full of the whole grains, grown locally, and was complimented by the ghee’s warm salty flavor. It was food to fill one up, desert food.
Traditional Rajasthani food, I learned, was often cooked in milk or ghee, due to water scarcity – which made the daal full and creamy. Food was prepared to last, to carry the nomad and to sustain the farmer for a few days at best.
“This is the most delicious food I’ve eaten in India,” I told Anil and Yashwanti, as I wiped my silver plate clean with the last bite of roti. I felt Yashwanti’s generous eyes on me, beckoning me to eat more, though the hearty bread and ghee had satisfied my appetite.
“Food that gives joy is good food,” Anil answered with a proud smile.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
To the Southern Tip of India – Spicy Madurai
We boarded a four-hour domestic flight (appropriately named ‘Spice Jet’) from Delhi to the southwestern tip of India, to land in steamy Madurai, located in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The heat and humidity in Madurai smothered, dousing the dry, desert heat we’d experienced only days before in Rajasthan.
The landscape was a tropical green. Madurai was in the beginning of the monsoon rains and farmers were preparing the ‘paddies’, standing ankle deep in flooded plots, sowing rice seeds. Large boulders emerged on the landscape and fields of palm trees and bananas swayed like longhaired girls with hands at cocked hips.
The majority of people in Madurai belonged to the Tamil culture, differing from the north in language, appearance, customs, and, no doubt, in cuisine.
My first meal was taken at the Arul Anandar College, which was run by Jesuit priests and brothers. The only woman at the table, I sat amongst the friendly priests and accidentally swallowed a tiny green pepper. My cheeks flushed red and I could barely breathe. Not a great way to begin my stay with the Jesuits, who were helping to facilitate my research with women farmers in Madurai. I was flush with heat and embarrassment.
Oh yes, Southern Indian food is spicy food.
But traditional Tamil cuisine also provides balance. So while the spicy sauces laden with chili and black pepper and ladyfingers (okra) – eaten on idli, rice flour pancakes – put fire in the mouth and belly, the fresh yogurt, the wheat roti and the coconut milk chutney cool the flames.
All of the meals at the college in Madurai, though featuring spicy dishes, I digested with satisfaction and ease – certainly not suffering from the classic ‘traveler’s diarrhea’ that people expect when you visit India for the first time. This is what Tamil food intends: that each taste has a balancing ability to provide complete nutrition, minimize cravings and ease digestion.
At breakfast, I’d enjoy idli with sauce, millet porridge with cane sugar, and a spoonful of mung-bean sprouts.
A cup of sukku coffee, instant coffee mixed with spicy ginger, stimulated the senses by midafternoon, coupled with a sweet snack of custard apple, a sinfully delicious desert fruit with a green scaly exterior and creamy white interior, to keep hunger at bay.
But the best meal I ate in Madurai (and, quite arguably, in all of India) was the famous masala dosa at a small restaurant in the middle of the city. The plate was hot and packed, a single room of twenty tables, the chairs back to back.
No sooner than I sat down, my eye caught the sight of the dramatic dosa, large and long, golden and coiled like a dramatic sail on a banana-leaf plate. Within a matter of seconds, round silver plates, lined with banana leaves, were set in front of us.
Holy dosa, was I hungry!
Dosa is a fermented crepe, or pancake made from rice flour and black lentils. It’s a staple dish found in southern Indian states, including Tamil Nadu. It’s eaten as bread for dipping, or stuffed with masala, a mixture of spicy vegetables and chickpeas.
My first ever masala dosa was an absolutely divine experience. The fermented crepe was crunchy on the top and soft on the bottom, saturated with masala. I ate using my hand, tearing off bits of the dosa and dipping it in three different chutneys, coloured red, white and green. The white coconut chutney was my favourite – made from coconut and sprinkled with black pepper. It was cool and hot, at once. It was wildly refreshing, satisfying.
We ate quickly, in less than twenty minutes. Just as soon as we washed out hands and pushed our chairs back, the next round of dosa lovers had already sat down. The place was popular and packed for good reason.
The dosa masala in Madurai was made immortal in memory – and I’m quite certain that any dosa I’ll ever eat again will never compare to my first.
42 Unforgettable Meals, Sigh!
I read somewhere that Indians are much like Italians when it comes to food: ingredients matter, preparation matters and with whom you share the complex dishes that define the different regions of the country, also matters.
Of the 42 meals I ate in India, during a whirlwind tour of north to south, there wasn’t a single meal that disappointed. And though it was just a taste of her real diversity (east, west, north, south) it was enough to bring me to this point, here, singing like a mad, nostalgic glutton about the ingredients, flavors and complexity. Oh, the food!
Food, my friends, is a good enough reason to want to visit India, and a much better reason, I’ve learned, to go back again for more.
Happy travels, happy tastings!