I have finally made it to India. After a bunch of frustrating delays, I have made it to the madness. It feels really great to be here and so far every day has been a joy. Admittedly I have only been here a few days, it could all get more dramatic at any moment. This country has such a reputation for confounding/frustrating travellers that I am surprised at how easy it has been.
I have been here before and at times it drove me nearly crazy. I was reading my journal from the last trip which was 15 years ago & my first big trip with a backpack. It is funny to read it now, my first entry for India starts “everyday India makes me feel excited, frustrated, annoyed, enchanted, hassled, intrigued, inspired & TOTALLY PISSED OFF! It’s an emotional rollercoaster”.
I travelled with a friend and we used to say that on an hourly basis we saw something which made us want to cry, something which made us want to vomit and something which made us laugh our heads off. Maybe I am old and jaded, but it is really not having that effect on me this time. It is still exhausting and at the end of the day I have been happy to lock the hotel door & have a good sleep, but it is exhilarating rather than stressful.
There is still grossness, stinky garbage, horrifying poverty and thankfully hilarity, but it does not have the same emotional impact as before. I think 5 years in South America and running a restaurant in Cusco have taught me some patience & more tolerance than I had before. I have learned when to accept that you just have to sit back and wait for things to happen (like trains arriving after 9 hours instead of the scheduled 5). This attitude definitely makes India easier. As does the acceptance that you are going to get stared at (all the time), hassled to buy things, given the wrong information, followed by random men and proposed marriage at least once a day. That said, I suppose I could go crazy at any moment.I arrived in Mumbai which is so much cleaner than it used to be & there are new roads & unbelievably, traffic lights. It was chaotic and hot but so much more pleasant than I remember (last time I stepped on a dead dog in the street & nearly puked – it is a horribly vivid memory). It was so hot I had no appetite and only ate one thing in 2 days, but it was a goodie, the best Masala Dhosa I have ever eaten. This is a Southern dish, a thin pancake made from fermented rice and lentil flour filled with delicious curried potato, pungent with mustard seeds and asafoetida. It was served with a fragrant coriander sauce, spiced yoghurt and sambal. SUPERYUM!
I remember saying that I would never eat dal & chapattis again after the last trip, the food was so repetitive. Already I am enjoying the food much more. The revelation so far has been the cuisine of Maharashtra. It is a large state and has lots of variety but is basically the best vegetarian Indian food I have ever tasted. Almost everything I have eaten has been highly spiced with lots of chilli to stand up to the intensity of the spices. My main regret has been that my appetite has been small, I wanted to try everything but have only really eaten once a day. I have had the following 4 outstanding dishes. I am going to link them to recipes I found online which I think are the closest to what I ate.
Shev (Sev) Bhaji is a curry sauce with chickpea noodles & fresh coriander. I really loved this dish. It is really complex and quite hot with plenty of chilli. The noodles(Sev) are really soft and satisfying, like a wheat pasta but not as glutinous. If you can get the noodles then I recommend giving it a try. This recipe looks pretty close to the dish I had. If you can’t get the noodles there are various recipes online showing how to make them or you could use a thick wheat pasta. Serve with rice to soak up the sauce. I also had chapatis because I love them.
Along with the Shev Bhaji I had some Dahi Wada. These are lentil dumplings in a fragrant yoghurt sauce. So far this is the best thing I have eaten. It was a revelation. The texture of the dumplings was incredible, they stayed crispy on the outside despite being covered in sauce and they were light and fluffy, spongey even, inside. They were spiced very lightly, no heat just some aroma from garlic, ginger, onions, cumin and mild fresh chilli. The yoghurt was whipped to make it lighter and I think they had added Kewra water for fragrance. It seems they are often served with chutneys but I didn’t find I needed them, it was perfect like this. There are lots of recipes online for various versions of Dahi Vada (or Wada, depending on where you are) but I have bookmarked this one to make when I get chance.
I am currently staying in Aurangabad to see the cave temples at Ajanta & Ellora. It is fairly quiet for an Indian city, although I always seem to end up in a hotel next to a Mosque. I know the call to prayers is beautiful but I don’t like it so much at 5am when it makes the hairs on my neck stand up. Anyway, I came back exhausted yesterday after a long hot, dusty day of sightseeing & decided on room service. This was not a bad choice as the food was delicious. That bad boy with the spices & chilli you see above is a Dal Tadka (or Tarka). Lentils with tempered spices. This is one of my all time fave things to eat as it is simple, healthy & incredibly satisfying. I make it at home all the time. When I ordered it the receptionist advised me to order something else as it would be very very spicy. I told him that I hoped it would be. I reckon he asked the chef to tone it down as it was really not that hot but it was flavoursome.
I think dal is one of those versatile recipes that everyone adjusts to their own tastes. I like to cook the lentils in some turmeric, cumin & coriander powder and then add tempered garlic, asafoetida, chilli and mustard seeds. Here is Madhur Jaffrey’s everyday dal recipe. It sounds lovely.
I had it with Aloo Mutter, potato & pea curry. This was really lovely, not something I have had before & hotter than the dal. The potatoes were very floury & had soaked up lots of the sauce & the sweet hits from the peas really made it special. I found a number of recipes for this dish online and many look quite dry but the Maharashtrian style version has lots and lots of sauce. This one looks closest, the ingredients list is long reflecting the complex flavours & it has loads of gravy.
I have used a number of blogs to gain a better understanding of the food here. When I have asked people what they eat they have given me some great recommendations but seem to think that a foreigner is not going to like their hot dishes. One Hot Stove is an excellent site with tons of information written by a lady from Maharashtra. There are reviews of books, a fab A to Z of regional Indian food & the recipes are varied and delicious.
Tomorrow I am going to make it a priority to eat some more local food as I am heading to Goa in the evening. I will be sad to leave this area because the food is exceptional. I intend to learn more about it & eat like a pig whenever I am here. Every morsel I have tasted was perfectly cooked and seasoned, even at makeshift roadside stands. I think that says a lot about how much the people enjoy their food. Nobody gets away with serving tasteless pap – we could learn a lot from that in England where the majority of pubs serve bland microwaved rubbish.
I shall finish with a few of my favourite photographs so far. If ever you find yourself heading to this region you should make a plan to visit Ajanta & Ellora, they were both truly spectacular, even to a jaded traveller.