If you’ve eaten at an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world, chances are you’ve mopped up a red slick of butter chicken with a folded wedge of naan. And yet that ubiquitous flatbread, like so much else that defines the cuisine of the subcontinent (potatoes, tomatoes, chilies, tea), is really a foreign dish, prepared using refined flour, which came across the Himalayas from central Asia in the twelfth century, along with Muslim settlers. Before that, North India’s unleavened wheat-based flatbreads—rotis, chapatis, and puris—would have been made from whole grains, while the rice-eating South elaborated its own distinct set of breads from batters of rice and lentils.
Like so much else in India, the bread traditions vary along a North-South/wheat-rice axis (with other grains like sorghum, millet, amaranth, and semolina making occasional appearances). But the staggering diversity of India’s breads also reflects a long history of trade and invasion, of cultural and culinary syncretism. It would be virtually impossible to capture the full diversity of India’s breads (though Saee Koranne-Khandekar makes an admirable attempt in her new book Crumbs!), or even to say what, in India, counts as bread. But here we’ve given it a go. I went about it like this: if it’s starchy and used as a utensil, it’s bread. (more…)
It’s a safe bet that when you think of India, you think of spices: cardamom and cloves and peppercorns, cinnamon and cumin and coriander, fennel and mustard and turmeric. And while Indians use these aromatics with as much delicacy and finesse as anyone, they’re far from the only ones that do. Indian spices are world-shaping commodities that have lured colonists and built empires obsessed with the flavors that at one point were only found on the subcontinent and in Southeast Asia.
But it’s a different story for India’s souring agents—twangy sources of acidity that define regional Indian cooking just as much as some key spices. Where an American cook may brighten a sauce with a squeeze of lemon or dash of vinegar, and Indian might turn to powdered green mango to tart up a kebab spice rub, or add a curl of tamarind-like kokum to a seafood a curry.
Since these flavors never really traveled beyond India’s borders, they may not pack the romantic punch (or heady nose) of a north Indian garam masala. But they’re at least as central to Indian cooking—and undoubtedly more unique—than the spices that first made India rich. Here are seven worth knowing. (more…)
In 1941, Jane Holt, a writer for The New York Times,walked into one of Manhattan’s smattering of Indian restaurants, stuck her face over a simmering pot, and breathed in the scented steam rising from its surface. In her column, “The News Of Food,” she wrote about the “rare Oriental ragout that is called curry” she experienced there, prepared in a variety of styles she described—quite spuriously—as “the true foods of occult India.” (more…)
Victos Fernando had been missing for four days when his body washed up, bruised and salt-soaked, off Sri Lanka’s northern coast. He’d disembarked with three other fishermen on April 2, 2011, from the crowded harbor of Rameswaram, a small island off India’s southeastern coast, to sail for the fertile breeding shoals on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, the narrow body of water that separates the two nations. The day before, the governments of India and Sri Lanka had both issued warnings against going out to sea. The two countries were slated to play a cricket match that day and tensions would be high.
Madhya Pradesh, which roughly translates as ‘Heart Land’, is both superlative and peculiarly untouched. In the state’s eastern wilderness, peacocks wander wild through teak forests and tigers prowl through several of the country’s best wildlife sanctuaries. To the north, the 10th-century temples of Khajuraho, covered in ecstatic erotic sculpture, are reminders of India’s ancient artistic heritage and rich history of sexual diversity, so different from its conservative present moment. In the centre are grand mosques and holy rivers, millennia-old Buddhist monuments and Paleolithic cave paintings – so much of the subcontinent’s unimaginably long history compressed into a single, vastly under-appreciated region. (more…)
In several of the dialects spoken among the Naga tribes, who live in remote hilltop villages along India’s northeastern border with Myanmar, there is no single word for ‘hello.’ Instead, people greet each other by asking, ‘Have you eaten?’
By the time I learned this, I’d already spent three weeks traveling around the Indian state of Nagaland, bumping along muddy tracks waterlogged from near-nightly thunderstorms, dipping into banks of fog, and rounding blind corners over deep valleys bursting with bamboo and bananas and giant ferns. I’d tasted winged beans in a tar-black paste of fermented mud crab and sesame seed, snakehead eels electric with the numbing zap of Sichuan peppercorns, and a thick curry of pig intestines cooked in blood over the open fire that is the center of every Naga kitchen and home.
Yes, I had most definitely eaten.
I first tasted Naga food about three years earlier when a friend’s sister-in-law invited me over for a dinner of home-cooked dishes from her native state. She prepared smoked beef, pungent with a fermented soy paste called axone, smoked pork with fermented bamboo shoots, and fresh pork in anishi, a black gravy made from pounded and smoked yam leaves, all served with heaping mounds of rice. These were bold, confrontational flavors and textures I’d never associated with India.
Many people avoid India during the monsoon, or rainy season—which is starting now and runs through September. But the heavy rainfall, which is vital for crops, offers its own charms for visitors: lush, verdant growth and a romantic tranquility devoid of tourist crowds. Here, our top picks for where to go during this under-the-radar time. (more…)
LIKE MANY AMERICAN KIDS, I read SE Hinton’s angsty Bildungsroman The Outsiders in middle school. First published in 1967, the book features teenage characters with names like Ponyboy, Sodapop and Cherry, who drink and smoke and get into knife fights. The boys belong to two rival gangs, divided along socio-economic lines: the Greasers—the eponymous “Outsiders”—characterised by their long hair and leather biker jackets; and the Socs, short for “Socials,” who have “good grades, good cars, good girls, madras and Mustangs and Corvairs.”
“Madras” here refers to the Socs’ predilection for clothing made of madras check, a fabric that was, and is, a powerful metonym for preppy fashion—that whole peculiar complex of styles and affectations with its roots in the Ivy League and Country Club cultures of the north-eastern United States. The Official Preppy Handbook, an obscenely popular satirical guidebook first published in 1980, used madras checks on its dust jacket, as did Christine Nunn’s Preppy Cookbook, published over 30 years later. The book Tipsy in Madras is not a long-lost Graham Greene novel, but rather, as its subtitle proudly proclaims, “A Complete Guide to 80s Preppy Drinking.” In 2011, a website called Ivy Style launched its summer season coverage with what it called “Madras Week,” and in July 2013, the New York Times published a story titled “Preppy Drinks Never Go Out of Style” featuring a cocktail called—you guessed it—The Madras. (more…)
When I want to buy cucumbers, which is often, I don’t need to go more than twenty-five steps from my front door. At the end of my dead-end lane there’s a guy named Pankaj who mans a pushcart loaded with vegetables, one of the 420,000-odd hawkers working the streets of greater Mumbai. From his cart, I can buy cucumbers and bottle gourds and eggplants, sweet limes and carrots and bunches of fresh dill or coriander. I can get bell peppers and string beans and, when I’m lucky, deep purple amaranth to fry with garlic and fresh coconut (ingredients, alas, that I have to buy elsewhere). It’s a quick, easy transaction. I rarely spend more than two hundred rupees in one go (about $3.20 US), or buy more than I’ll use in the course of a day. I don’t need to; I can just come back tomorrow. If I don’t have exact change, I can always bring it back later. Pankaj knows me—he’s my vegetable guy, my subzwalla—and that’s still how these relationships work. (more…)
Not too long ago, I found myself doing some work for the wife and unofficial business partner of a wealthy Mumbai real estate mogul, the sort of mind-numbing, ego-bruising work that freelance writers pick up in slow periods and disown immediately afterward. At some point toward the end of the project, when my patience and pride had both worn thin, we ended up chatting inanely about Bollywood (which is probably the only way to chat about Bollywood). She said she thought the worst thing about the industry was the way it glamorized drinking and drunkenness. (more…)