Travels with George: India Week 3

Indian cuisine has a long and storied history. Many culinary experts consider it to be one of the world’s most complex, so I can only write about our experience from a lay point of view. To pretend to have any expertise would be disingenuous. Another qualifying statement would be that most of the food we ate was in luxury hotels, so we can’t even speak about the state of the restaurant business as defined by individual entrepreneurs. All that being said, we loved the food in every region through which we traveled in Northern India.

I offer some observations that might enlighten a traveler curious about the food in this fascinating country.

Most menu items are either cooked in a tandoor oven or braised in copper pots over extended periods of time. We toured a number of kitchens and were always impressed by the quality of tandoori cooking. The ovens are fired by burning wood and reach temperatures of up to 900 degrees, so the products cook quickly and evenly. We enjoyed prawns, chicken and lamb done tandoori style with their flavor sometimes complimented by a marinade of yoghurt with garam masala, a spice mixture that is a of a blend of peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, peppers, nutmeg, star anise, cardamom and coriander. Every meal comes with naan bread that is cooked from raw dough toasted inside the oven so it is attractively burnt and slathered in butter and garlic (this bread is absolutely addictive).

Braising is an Indian specialty and allows the chef to use the famous selection of herbs and spices at their disposal. Fenugreek, cumin, mustard, turmeric, cardamom, garlic, ginger and lots of interestingly spicy/hot chilies are the most common flavor enhancements. Typically, every Indian meal comes with a selection of dishes that are both protein and vegetarian based. Expect to see chicken, lamb, shrimp, a wide variety of seafood and lots of vegetable and paneer (cheese) based recipes. If you are a steakhouse fan, India is not going to your favorite dining destination!

How about alcohol? If you are an enthusiastic wine drinker, India can be a challenge. First of all, every one of the 28 states seems to have a different taxation regimen when it comes to wine. In Delhi, a glass of south Indian sauvignon blanc was $12 U.S. Also in Delhi, but in a bordering state, a glass of chardonnay from the south of France was $10 U.S. Given the spicy nature of much of the food, we typically drank the local beer, which in most cases was a brand called Kingfisher. Indians are also great fans of whisky and gin, a legacy from their former colonial masters, the British, so your range of choice and price is excellent. I read in the Hindu Times, an Indian newspaper, that only 20% of Indians have ever consumed alcohol at all and that some areas, Darjeeling for example, have just outlawed alcohol consumption at any level, including tourists. We avoided Darjeeling.

Take a look at this menu for better context to my descriptions. It is from a restaurant called Esphahan in the city of Taj where we had one of our best meals.