A whirlwind visit to India in late October was more than enough to tease and please the senses and stomach. Let’s just say I came for the research with woman farmers and found myself absolutely head over heels in love with India’s food culture.
Forty-two meals in fourteen days: from the northern district of Uttarakhand, bordering with Tibet, to Delhi during Diwali – one of the biggest Hindu festivals in India – to the warm flats of Rajasthan, and all the way down to green and steamy Madurai.
I ate my heart out in India, and although it was really just a fleeting taste of her diverse (and complex) geographies, cultures and cuisines, it was enough to write home about and certainly enough to leave me longing for more.
Diwali in Delhi
I landed in Delhi on the eve of one of the largest Hindu festivals in the country: Diwali, the festival of lightness over darkness.
My hosts welcomed me whole-heartedly into their Diwali rituals. I participated in a three-hour Hindu ceremony to cleanse and bless the home; made rangoli creations (beautiful sand mandalas) outside the doorstep with their children, lit a candle at the temple, and marveled at the firecrackers that lit up the sky for six consecutive hours.
Oh, and I ate.
Yes, what I didn’t realize about Diwali is that, like all good celebrations, it’s expressed in food – many delicious foods – and sharing with friends and family.
I ate elaborately concocted sweets, including my favourite, soan papdi, small flaky squares made from gram (pea) flour, cow ghee, pistachio and almonds. It’s such a refined sweet, the thousand-layers melting lightly on the tongue like heaven. The stores were full of intricately designed desserts, brightly coloured, shining silver and gold like a thousand lights.
My host’s sister-in-law, a cheerful woman with an enthusiasm for cooking and baking, prepared a rich and succulent murgh makhani (butter chicken) that I couldn’t get enough of. While butter chicken is a popular dish in Western-Indian cuisine, my Diwali butter chicken was the real deal, or rather, the real dish.
The sauce was flavorful, tasting of roasted garlic, tomatoes, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, fenugreek and fresh cream. Of course, the meat fell off the bone. I dipped hot roti into the sauce, devouring every last morsel.
My favourite Diwali dish was called dahi bhalle, a famous north Indian food from Punjab.The soft lentil balls were swimming in fresh yogurt and drizzled with tamarind sauce.
The dish is known as chaat food, a term describing savory snacks. To me, the pairing of savory lentils with sweet tamarind sauce was just simply divine. It was a brilliant dish.
Indo-Tibetan Eats in Uttarakhand
From Delhi, I boarded a five-hour train to Dehradun, a city in the northern district of Uttarakhand and from the city we drove up, up, up a snaking pass to a destination of 2000 meters above sea level, where the hills became the Himalayas.
The mountains emerged from cold thin air, tufts of cloud that ripped swiftly across the sky. It was incredulous to see how people had settled on the sharp slant of rock.
Their homes suddenly appeared above us, square boxes set atop one another, stacked high, one after the other. It seemed impossible to live so close to the sky. We passed men and women carrying massive bundles of sticks on their backs, secured by a strap around the forehead.
“They’re Tibetan refugees,” my friend explained.
They’d come in the many, building homes, farms, livelihoods – and restaurants, too.
In the touristy streets of Musoorie, a picturesque city bustling with shops and vendors and food carts, we ate at “the best Tibetan restaurant in town”. My friend ordered for us plates of fried rice and steaming dumplings.
Momos, as the Tibetan-style dumpling is called, are filled with mutton, or chicken and vegetables. Ours were spiced with cinnamon. We dipped them in chili sauce and the momos quickly disappeared from our plates. I couldn’t get enough of ‘em!
Outside, the sun was setting behind the Himalayas and the ‘winter line’ divided the soft pink and bright tangerine light from the cobalt gray air in the land below. I shivered and wrapped my scarf tightly around my torso.
We bought tiny plastic cups of ginger chai from a street vendor and at sipped the spicy liquid. The ginger, I realized, was the perfect antidote for a cold evening in northern India. The light in the Himalayas was exquisite.