Taste of India

I am not a foodie, far from it – I eat to live, however living in China means that your day-to-day life is filled with food and food related stuff, even a trip abroad wouldn’t make an escape…

Before my latest trip to India, same as always, my friends worried I might suffer from lacking for culinary options. As hard as I ridiculed the worry, I couldn’t produce any solid evidence to back my argument, end of the day I was the one to blame, I just couldn’t recall any detail of the dishes I had previously.

I must hasten to add – I usually don’t have a clear memory about food, it would take me a few minutes to recall what I had for lunch or breakfast, my brain somehow doesn’t have much space for that aspect of life.

So this time, in order to rectify the misperception about my beloved India, I decided to keep a photo journal of adventures on palate, again I must hasten to add – I was still experimenting in vegetarian lifestyle during my stay, and I usually have two meals only a day – breakfast and lunch – hence, only a dozen of photos are available here.

Ok, shall we? Let’s start from the appetizers:

1. Dilli Ki Chaar

A combination of typical northern Indian delicacies – Bhalla, Papdi, Dahi gola pappa, and tikki; Ingredients include raisins, cashew nuts, sweet chutneys and yogurts. It’s usually served cold, taste slightly sweet with a faint trace of sour.

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2. Salads & Papadoms

Call it a side dish if you like, but crispy papadoms are usually served before meals, compare with the plain ones I prefer the spicy version.

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Move on to the entrees –

3. Subz Rogenjosh

You must have heard lamb rogenjosh, here lamb is replaced by subz, which means vegetable, as its color suggested, it could be spicy for some, but I love it.

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4. Palak Aap Ki Pasand

Usually it’s a combination of corns and cottage cheese, but I am really not a big fan of the latter so I asked for corns only, don’t be fooled by its rather calm colors, it surprises your tastebuds unexpectedly.

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5. Subz Briyani

Come on, everyone knows briyani! Indian style fried rice, this is a vegetarian version, filling but will not make you feel heavy.

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6. Amristar Choley

Chick peas prepared in masala sauce, so it will have a kick after a few bites. Light in stomach, pleasant on palate.

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7. Zeera Aloo

You are right, aloo means potato, and I love all potato dishes. By now you probably have figured out that I love spicy food too, that explains why Zeera Aloo is one of my favorites. The green bits are cumin seeds and shredded corianders.

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8. Dal Makhani

Made of whole black lantils and red kidney beans, I prefer Dal Makhani to any other dals, not just for its robust taste, but also the creamy texture. Bear in mind it’s quite heavy. I always had to have a cup of strong coffee to keep me awake after savoring romali roti with the black dal.

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9. Kadhai Paneer

Paneer is cottage cheese, although not a big fan, I occasionally order it for proteins. Thank to the special slow fire cooking method, cottage cheese absorbed all the flavors from various seasonings and spices, which is helpful to soften the not so soft texture.

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10. Poori Bhaji

Poori is the roundish Indian bread, unlike naans, pooris are deep fried. It’s potato in the soup, very tasty. Poori Bhaji is probably my favourite Indian breakfast, especially on a wintery Sunday, it warms me up inside out.

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11. Uttapam

Another option for Indian breakfast, uttapam is similar to a thick pancake, with toppings cooked into the batter, served with curries and curd (yogurt), up to you how you want to wake up the tastebuds.

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Sweet ending is a must to complete a meal properly, especially in India, I don’t think I had ever tried anything sweeter than Gulab Jamun, our item 12 – a milk solids based desert, served in syrup, which made it extra sweet.

12. Gulab Jamun

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13. Shahi Tukra

As you can see from my note, it is a bread pudding dessert of fried bread slices soaked in hot milk with spices, including saffron and cardmom. Not as sweet as gulab jamun, but it’s not for the sensitive teeth. I love its aroma.

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14. Gajar Ka Halwa

Carrots based dessert, light and refreshing.

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15. Moong Dal Halwa

Halwa means “sweet” in Arabic, this is another rendition of carrots based sweets, unlike Gajar Ka Halwa, Mong Dal Halwa is served warm.

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I’d better stop here before work up myself feeling sentimental, it will be another 12 months till I visit the incredible India again. Please forgive me for not being able to give you a more detailed explanation of each dish – I can’t cook, I can’t cook at all. My only cookery education is from watching Nigela Express, and I was more interested in Nigela Lawson’s curvaceous figure and satin dressing gown than her food.

Moreover, I want to add that photos can’t do justices to Indian cuisine, which is definitely more than what meets eyes. In my humble opinion, its special ways of preparations may have contributed to the rich flavors, but on the other hand, have also restrained the possibilities of fancy presentations.

Anyway, this whole exercise is to prove that I ate well in India. In contrary to my friends’ concern of lacking options; I often walked along buffet lines back and forth in an agony of choice.

As a testimony, despite the hundred percent vegetarian diet, I put on 2kg within 4 weeks, that’s right – I ate like a horse; well, what to do, the food was delicious!

Bon appetit!

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Something Odd About Weddings

I don’t go to weddings if I can help, because I don’t like to be questioned by distant relatives and acquaintances about my choices of life. I once told my mother that I would prepare a list of “FAQs” for her to distribute at these occasions so both of us can be spared from feeling awkward.

I can count with one hand the number of weddings I have been to (exclude the ones my parents forced me to when I was a lot younger…). The first three were weddings of my best friends, and I emceed two for not having to give a big fat red envelope with a wad of cash (sorry for being stingy but I didn’t have much to spare then…). The fourth one  I was obliged to go, and the fifth one – that’s ultimately the most exciting one, no family interrogations, no judgment, just colors, music, mixed with exotic traditions, moreover, the fun! I enjoyed it so much that I had forgotten my limited tolerance of alcoholic beverage; I was the most inebriated girl in the north hemisphere… Ever since then I realized maybe I do like weddings, as long as there are no distant relatives of mine.

Well, here I am in my beloved India, and it is the wedding season again in the holy land. so I thought it may just be a seasonable moment to share with you all an interesting article I read in Times of India a while ago, my mother-in-law loved it a lot when I messaged her the bits and pieces, I hope you’d enjoy too …

Bengali weddings:  women from the bride’s family rise at the break of dawn and arrange a plate of aarti complete with sweets, twigs and incense, and go over to invite the Ganges to the wedding of their daughter. The holy river is believed to bless the girl in her future life. 

Bihari weddings: This could be a rather curious post-wedding ritual performed by any groom’s-side-of-the-family on bringing the bride home. Here an eager, expectant bride suddenly finds herself grappling with a huge earthen pot set on her head by her mother-in-law. Without losing time, few more pots are added to the pile while she is expected to bow down and touch the elders’ feet. As the dramatic scene is played out, all and sundry gather to see how many pots the new bride actually balances, which is ostensibly an indicator of her skills at striking a balance in the family.

Tribal wedding in UP: Sarsaul, a small town in Kanpur district has given a new dimension to wedding hospitality. In keeping with the tradition, the baaratis here are not greeted with flowers and rose water spray, instead tomatoes and potatoes are hurled at them followed by a round of choicest abuses. Your sides might hurt imaging such a welcome, but the tradition takes root in the belief that a relationship that doesn’t begin on a not-so-happy note always culminates in love.

Rabha weddings in Assam: The weddings of the Rabha tribes of Assam is an aesthetic affair. Performed as per Gandharva marriage tradition, the ceremony involves a simple exchange of garlands – no pheras around the fire, and a lavish feast to round it up with. An extremely patriarchal ritual, the newly wed on their first day together at the boy’s family home is expected to give a hand in cooking the afternoon meal and serve only to the male, elderly members of the family. For the rest, food is served in subsequent batches by the helpers.

Kumaoni weddings: The use of flags in the marriage ceremony sets Himachali weddings apart. Traditionally, a white flag called ‘Nishan’ leads the marriage procession representing the bridegroom, followed by drummers, pipers and a white palanquin carrying the groom. The last man of the procession carries another flag, of red colour, representing the bride. When the marriage party returns from the girl’s home after completing all ceremonies, the red flag takes the lead followed by a red palanquin of the bride, succeeded by the white palanquin of the groom, and the white flag at the tail end of the procession.

Tamil Brahmin weddings: At an Iyer wedding, just as the groom is about to step into the mandapam for the actual wedding ceremony, he has a change of mind and decides to pursue ‘sanyaasam’ (asceticism). An age-old Brahmin tradition ‘Kasi Yaatrai’ this, the bride’s father too plays his part of a distressed father by reaching out to the groom and convincing him to take up ‘Grahastham’ (family life) with his daughter who would in turn support him in his spiritual pursuit. Umbrella, Bhagwad Gita, hand fan and sandals are the props used by the bride’s father to win his would-be-son-in-law back.

My personal favorite is the Bihari pot balancing act, I wonder how long does the bride have to practice?

Coincidently this morning when I was browsing on a website, I found an article introducing odd wedding rituals around the world, here are the few abstracts.

Korea: In Korea, after the wedding ceremony, the Groom’s friends take off his shoes, tie his ankles together and beat the soles of his feet with dried Corvina-a type of fish! Apparently this will make the groom stronger for his wedding night.

 Finland: In some Finnish weddings the Bride’s mother in law or godmother places a china plate on the Bride’s head before the happy couple performs the first dance. When the plate falls, the pieces are collected and counted by the guests. The number of pieces determines how many children the newlyweds will have.

Ethiopia: On the day of an Ethiopian wedding the Groom and 3 or 4 of his ‘best men’ go to the Bride’s house. There, the entrance to the house will be blocked by the Bride’s family and friends. The Groom and his best men must sing strongly in order to ‘force’ their way into the house. Once inside the first best man sprays the house with perfume.

 Borneo-Tidong: The Tidong people can be found in Sabah, Malaysia and East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Newlyweds in this tribe are not allowed to go to the toilet for 72 hours. They are put into isolation and watched by their families. They are allowed small amounts of food and water. If they cheat, it is believed they will bring bad luck, like the death of their child.

China-Tujia: The Tujia people from Central China are the 6th largest ethnic minority in China. A month before her wedding the Bride cries for about an hour. Ten days later, her mother joins in. Another ten days later the Bride’s grandmothers, aunts and sisters also join in. This is called the Crying Song, unsurprisingly.

Carry on reading if you are not bored yet, I can tell you a few episodes of my own wedding.  Unlike the other brides, my only duty for the wedding was to get dresses of my own and the flower girls. The rest was all taken care of by my husband.

I ordered a white Chinese dress which confused the tailor in great deal, because in China, red is for weddings and the white is for funerals. Red is the symbol of joy – and what is more joyous than a wedding?

My wedding took place in South Africa; obviously it is too far to apply the Chinese color restrictions. Days before the wedding, I thought my dress may crease in suitcase so I took it out and hung it in the room; my sister-in-law panicked,  she told me the groom is not supposed to see the wedding dress before the day else it would bring bad luck… thank heavens the-groom-to-be was out for a party. The dress then had to settle in the back of a teenage girl’s wardrobe.

On the wedding day the photographer came to ask for my garter for a photo – I had no idea I need one – why on the earth someone wants a piece of bride’s underwear? It turned out there was no single adult male at our wedding, so I was relieved no one would be grumpy about no garter to catch.

The following day I found a silver sixpence in the envelope my mother-in-law gave me before the ceremony, only then I realized I was supposed to have that coin in my left shoe when walking down the aisle to attract fortune and success to marriage… until today I have no heart to tell her I missed it completely… I would not be able to manage it with open toe high heels anyway…

Apart from all these mishaps it was still a beautiful day, I will always remember the old lady decorated the whole reception with orchids to symbolize my oriental heritage.

When the world is so big it is impossible to know all traditions and customs of all cultures, “odd” and “bizarre” are subjective when the practices are foreign to our own, however if we look through the facade of “strangeness”, all the rituals across the globe are aiming for the same goal – a happily married life with balance, harmony, and abundance. I see weddings throughout of the world are great fun fairs, draped in traditions and customs, pinned with high hopes and happy thoughts. Regardless how marriages turned out years later, weddings are always one of the most unforgettable events of any married couple.

If you are like me, avoiding weddings just to shrink from distant relatives and acquaintances, maybe crash a wedding of total strangers will be a good fun. After all, it is the wedding season!

p.s.: If you ever did crash a wedding, please do let me how it went…

To read more about Oddball Indian Wedding Rituals, visit http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/relationships/man-woman/Oddball-Indian-wedding-rituals/articleshow/11682353.cms

To read the full story of Weird Weddings, visit http://www.shfamily.com/articles/2012/07/28/weird-wedding-customs/   ImageImageImage

I have been to India for a dozen times, yes, literally a dozen times. When I first backpacked here 7 years ago, I knew I’d be coming back, but I didn’t know I’d come back so often.

I love this country.

My colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic can’t understand my passion for India, most of them had suffered from first-hand experience of Delhi Belly, to them, India stands for I Never Do It Again. We have a leader board of those who missed work for the very same reason in our on-site office, ironically the 2nd place is actually held by a Delhi boy, at least Delhi Belly doesn’t discriminate…

My friends back home can’t make sense of my obsession either, the most frequently asked question is – “What do you eat there?” India to them is a place where busses are overloaded, streets are dirty, curry is the only form of food available, people sing and dance all day… just like the scenes in Bollywood movies.

Then my husband says – “Sweetie, if you fancy some good briyani and samosas, we could just go to Durban…”

My parents frown over the media reports – protests, bomb blasts, and recently, rape cases…

Every time someone heard I was leaving for India, they gave me a sympathetic look, as if I got the short end of the stick; when I told them that I actually love India, they ask – why?

To be honest, I don’t actually know.

I was first drawn to India for its fascinating history, rich heritage, and colorful cultures. When my friend toyed with the idea of visiting India over a drink in Bangkok, I didn’t give her any time to change mind – three weeks later, we reconvened at Panjim airport in Goa, started our month long exploring.

While my friend entered the country from Chennai, I landed in Mumbai instead, and my first night in India was in a Salvation Army guest house (recommended by Lonely Planet), frankly, I was not impressed.

Gregory David Roberts wrote in Shantram that the first three things he noticed in Bombay (Mumbai) were – the smell, the heat, and the people. So did I. I’d add on one more – the noise. Trust me, it wasn’t a good first impression.  The noise was overwhelming, the smell was pungent, the heat was suffocating, and the people – Mumbai is home for over 20 million people, what would do you expect?

Then we partied on Goan beaches, strolled in Chennai’s French quarters, drifted on the backwaters in Kerala, stumbled in the caves in Ajanta, enjoyed high tea at Taj Palace overlooking the Gateway of India, admired the sublime beauty of Taj Mahar in Agra, amazed by snake charmers in the “Pink City” Jaipur, paid tribute at Gandhi’s tomb in Delhi, and trekked in Kashamir, we had seen so much, and there were still so much more to see… I was, and am still in awe of diversity of nature India has to offer.

I’d be lying if I tell you it was all smooth sailing, it’s not. A couple of times we were stranded on trains, and another couple of times we were crammed into busses, left frustrated and annoyed. Fellow passengers took great interest in our apparent foreign looks, it took us a while to get used to the staring. Eventually we figured out there was nothing hostile, it was sheer curiosity.

I remember kissed Zeni good bye at Delhi airport before we parted our ways, we reflected on our trip over a coffee, only found we both had mixed feelings about this holy land. So there, I said – I’ll be back.

Two years later an opportunity appeared and I grabbed it in no time, I was back for six weeks, and ever since, I’d come to India every year.  Learnt from my first visit, I was well prepared, for the heat, the noise, and the always crowded streets. I spent many early evenings strolling around, chatting to the locals, and I made friends. I’ve become more than an innocent tourist.

Despite the fear of “Delhi Belly”, my Chinese genomes prompted me to take on the local food. Anyone thought Indian cuisine equals curry would be surprised. The selection is wide – taste varies from the south to the north, flavor differs between the east and the west, I once thought “naan” means Indian bread, it is actually only one of over forty kinds. I ate with fingers, struggled at the beginning but after few rounds of practice – hey, food just tasted nicer!

I took this culinary experience a little bit further, during the last few trips, I opted to be a seasonal vegetarian. In the months of my stay, I had never being bored of eating veggies or missed meat. India offers the biggest selection of vegetarian food in the whole world. You wonder how it is even possible the boring ingredients like peas, potato, spinaches, and mushrooms can be cooked in so many different ways yet palatable.

I turned on TV, tuned into music channels, and indulged myself in the Bollywood glamour. On screen girls don big black silky long hair and perfect curves, guys sport six packs and eye-catching biceps… excuse me for the cliche – they are so hot, it’s almost illegal. The forever going on singing and dancing, the upbeat rhythms and sexy moves, and the glittering costumes, all these are just so mesmerizing that the world seems falls into oblivion.

I read the papers, went through page after page of Matrimony classifieds and felt relieved that I am already married. I collected clippings of oddball Indian wedding rituals, but that’s a story for another time.

I watched cricket, on TV, on the road side, in parks, and in stadiums… The passion for cricket in this country is unparalleled, anywhere there’s an open space, there would be cricket actions going on. Sachin is the most popular name for baby boys, after the living cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. In India, there are not one, but at least two national channels broadcasting cricket 24/7 – I thought ODI was a brand when I first visited, now I know the difference between long leg, short leg, and square leg, and every other fielding position… You don’t pick up cricket knowledge here, it is in the air, you just breathe in.

On the uneventful days I attempted to familiarize myself with names of those mystical gods and goddess, and their duties respectively, after all it was the rich tapestry of numerous ancient mythologies and thousands of traditional rituals brought me to India in the first place. It’s riveting yet confusing, however the only story I can recite is the one that young Krishna showed his mother the universe and infinity in his mouth… but if you ever read Life of Pi or watched the movie, you’d probably know the story anyway…

I shopped, till I dropped! Avoiding malls and department stores, I bargained in local markets and shops in alleys. The return was more than pleasing. Impeccable craftsmanship and unique designs often made Indian accessories most sought after gifts among my friends. I have also developed an unwavering liking for Indian cotton over the years, if you see me wearing something simple, elegant, donned with ethnic elements, highly likely it’s one of my purchases from India.

Then I ventured a little further each time too, and each time I was rewarded with nice surprises. Took one hour flight from Delhi, I found myself soaked in the zen spirit of Tibetan Buddhism at the foot of spectacular Himalayas. Then about an hour pleasant express train ride to the north from Delhi, in the Punjabi capital Chandigarh, a rose garden houses more than 50,000 rose bushes over 1600 species. If travel by car for an hour from Delhi, I would be in the new town called Greater Noida, where  no car honking, no cow wandering, there may be occasional engine roaring afar from the F1 track,  adding on a bit of excitement to the otherwise quiet community life.

From the courtyard of Jama Masjid to the porch of Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, from the lawns in Basillca of Bom Jesus to the hilly McLeo Ganj Buddhist temple, I saw gods’ followers brush shoulders with each other before they entered different shrines. There is respect, respect the fact we are all different; there is tolerance, tolerance of dissimilarities, and there is peace.

It is always the people that make a journey unforgettable, the same for India. Again Gregory David Roberts got it right in Shantram, after the smell and the heat he wrote  –  “Then there were the people.  Assamese, Jats, and Punjabis; people from Rajasthan, Bengal, and Tamil Nadu; from Pushkar, Cochin, and Konarak; warrior caste, Brahmin, and untouchable; Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Parsee, Jain, Animist; fair skin and dark, green eyes and golden brown and black; every different face and form of that extravagant variety, that incomparable beauty, India.”

On these excursions, I met people from all walks of life, from all over India, they are always so readily to assist and so eager to help. It is in India that I experienced the most attentive services any hospitable establishment could offer.

I have been to India for a dozen times, yes, literally a dozen times, and it has never failed to amaze me. There are still so many places to visit, so many things to do. Neither has it stopped surprising me that how much its infrastructures changed and how well its traditions kept.

I have spent lots of time here working and touring. There were days things got so frustrating that I could only laugh, there were also days I felt so touched that my eyes were moist with tears of joy. Each time I leave, I’d be prepared for the next trip again.

If you are thinking of visiting India, I’d suggest you to be prepared, for the noise, the smell, the heat, and the overcrowded streets, the last but not the least, to be prepared to be back here again, and again.ImageImageImageImage

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