India unplugged
Argha Sen
India Unplugged

In the world of Indian food, there are "wheels within wheels"

First published in South China Morning Post, Hong Kong  September 8, 2002


When Rupa got married to Rajinder one fairytale night, little did she foresee the drama that would ensue the morning after. Being a Bengali from Kolkata in eastern India, a breakfast of hot fluffy Luchi ( deep-fried disc-like pancakes ) and Alur Tarkari ( potatoes spiked with nigella seeds) was to her the perfect start to the day and  their marriage. Rajinder, a burly Punjabi from North India scoffed at this and demanded his Makki di Roti (maize flour chapattis, roasted on a heavy iron griddle and drizzled with butter) and Sarson da Saag (mashed mustard greens). Sparks flew, tables were banged, cutlery was thrown and the word divorce mentioned at least twice. < XML="true" PREFIX="O" NAMESPACE="">

A year later, things are happier at the dining table. Rajinder has half-accepted the Bengali obsession with river-water fish and dutifully trudges to the fishmarket on Sunday morning to buy the wriggling Koi ( Perch), Pabda (a pink-bellied Butter Fish) Rui ( Carp) and the king of fish - the , silvery, glistening, oily Hilsa that sends his wife to the moon every time she eats it. Rupa  cooks the Rui into a Jhol - a light turmeric gravy spiced with ginger paste, cumin and coriander - steams the Hilsa with mustard, douses the Koi in a yoghurt sauce, uses the fishheads in dal (lentil soup, eaten with rice) and fries the fish tail with vegetable peels and scrapings in a stinging charchari. 

Hilsa in mustard sauce: guaranteed to send a Bengali to the moon

She in turn has developed a taste for the Punjabi Tandoori Chicken - a full plump juicy chicken, marinated for hours in a paste of yoghurt, ginger, garlic, red chili powder and turmeric, and cooked over charcoal in a tandoor (clay oven). She sprinkles rock salt on it, squeezes half a lime on top, and eats it with a mint chutney, much to the delight of her husband. And they both love washing this down with some Lassi Patiala, a true-blue Punjabi concoction of chilled yoghurt, sugar and a pinch of saffron, whipped till light and frothy and drunk out of tall glasses.

Lassi - the summer refresher

Being a nostalgic Bengali living in Hongkong myself, I often crave lost delicacies like the enchor ghonto (green jackfruit in a spicy chili-cumin-tomato-clove mish-mash  ) or borar jhal (spicy lentil balls in a mustard sauce) that my grandmother used to make. But the food I fantasise about, the one that makes my mouth water at the very thought, is the one I eat on the beaches of Goa in western India. 

Whenever we can, my wife and I take off to Baga beach in Goa, my favourite place on planet earth, where the river meets the sea and the craggy hills overlook the swaying palms and lush green fields. There we sit in a beach shack and watch the locals ferment the toddy (palm sap) to make Feni, a white liquor that can put Tequila to shame with its electric zing. Then the food arrives and for three hours we are in heaven.

First we use the soft Goan bread to mop up Prawn Balchao, a fiery pickle-like dish made with palm vinegar, palm feni, crushed shrimp cakes and fresh prawns. Then comes the Pork Sorpotel, originally a dish made with curdled pig blood but now simply boneless pork and liver shredded fine and stir-fried with vinegar paste and simmered in pork stock and coconut feni. I can never do without my Pork Vindaloo, a mean dish cooked with lots of vinegar and red chilies. Sometimes we nibble at  mussels or clams cooked in a green coconut paste , soured with tamarind pulp and sweetened with molasses. Often we have the Goan curry with rice, usually shark or prawns cooked in coconut milk and tamarind pulp. And end with some rich Bibinca, a layered dessert made with coconut milk, egg yolk and honey. Then we totter on to the sand to watch the multicolour sunset. 

Pork vindaloo from Goa - a dish to die for

Southward bound from Goa along India's Mangalorean coastline, the emphasis is still on fresh seafood and the ubiquitous coconut, but with a whole different taste. Delicious curried crab that still smells of seaweed in a thick coconut-based gravy, prawns cooked with green mangoes, fried fish roe and my personal tongue-tickling favourite - the baby shark gassi, a curry with a little more body than usual, made by grinding together red chilies, cumin, coriander, tomatoes, and sweet-sour Kokum in tamarind water. 

Once we travelled down this coastline all night to the southern port city of Cochin in Kerala and were greeted with a heavenly breakfast of Appams and Mutton Ishtew  - a combination that has probably brought more tourists to Kerala than the famed backwaters and white sand beaches. The Appams were  thin whisper-soft pancakes with lacy edges, made from a rice flour batter fermented overnight with palm toddy. We scooped them up with a white mutton stew cooked in coconut milk and oh-so-subtly flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves, and curry leaves. That morning I  understood why Kerala is called God's own country.

Appams from Kerala: the best breakfast ever

Another mouthwatering early morning memory is from the Muslim quarters in Mumbai, in western India. People start gathering in a little restaurant at 6 am after their morning prayers and sit around 12 huge pots sunk in the ground, their lids sealed with dough. Cooking inside these pots, all night over a slow fire, are cow, sheep and goat trotters, revelling in their own juices, the meat sticking to the bone like gelatin. This is the famed Paya (trotters) cooked in Bara Handi (12 pots) - a Bohri Muslim delicacy. Next door another tiny restaurant serves the incomparable Nalli Nihari: thick slurpy chunks of meat and bones from the buffalo thigh, served with a spicy gravy, garnished with thin slivers of ginger and chopped green chillies.  

No such carnivorous pleasures in the neighbouring state of Gujarat however. Here the food is mostly vegetarian and the ultimate delicacy is Undhiyu, a dish created in the underworld. Beans, baby potatoes, tiny eggplants, sweet potatoes and other diced vegetables are coated with sesame oil, spiked with carom seeds, a pinch of cooking soda and stacked inside a clay pot lined with edible leaves. The pot is sealed with dough, turned upside down and buried in the ground, and woodsticks all around it are set on fire. The vegetables, the spices, the scent of the earth, the flavour of the leaves and the smoky fire mingle to create magic for two hours inside the pot, and the Undhiyu is ready. The Gujaratis slurp it up with a coriander-garlic chutney and sweet and sour sauce and lick their hands in contentment.

And which home flavours do Indians in Hongkong crave? A quick survey on brought out many mouthwatering food memories. The sublime Biryanis and Kababs of Hyderabad (South India) and Lucknow (North), the yoghurt-based, saffron-tinged cuisine of Kashmir from up north, Parsi SaliBoti (small mutton balls in a velvety brown gravy, topped with straw potatoes), comfort food champions Rasam (pepper-water) and Sambar (lentil soup) from the south, and even the spartan no-onion/garlic vegetarian dishes flavoured with asafoetida from Varanasi (Central) where purity of food is believed to bring spiritual advancement.

Hyderabadi Dum Biryani

Finally, a word about the fascinating hybrids: Bengali Chinese and Punjabi Chinese dishes. Doused in Indian chili, tomato and soy sauce, hot, oily and often MSG-touched – no Chinese cook would probably recognize them. But boy, are they yummy !