Thursday, January 19, 2017

Where's the Beef? – Erich

We have been in India now for about two weeks. And it has been different, surprising, unexpected in many ways, mostly good. Not all good.

My post today will about the new kinds of foods we are trying. But I did want to mention one other difference as a way of an apology. Internet access has not been all we might have dreamed. So I am just getting to posting in the blog now, because I haven't had strong enough access before this.

Now, on to food! We have gotten to try so many new foods, variations on foods we know, and live-in India authentic version of Indian foods we thought we knew.

We started in Kerala, which is one of the states. Kerala (pronounced like the name Carol and then uh at the end) is in the southwest of India, bordering the Arabian Sea. The first several days we were in the Kochi area. Next, we were in Kumily.

We are told Kerala is unique among Indian states in that it is the only one in which beef is sold and eaten without any sort of taboo. In Hinduism, cows are sacred and therefore not eaten (or if eaten, it is a guilty pleasure.) But for some historic reason that prohibition was never in place in Kerala.

I've seen different stories as to why. Some stories say that Kerala was unique in having Hindus, Christians, and Muslims who basically all got along pretty well. In fact, one group of Christians in Kerala extends back earlier than there were Christians in Europe. According to legend, St. Thomas, one of the original disciples, came to Kerala soon after the crucifixion and began proselytizing. Regardless, recipes passed back and forth through kitchens of Christians, Hindus, and eventually Muslims, and everyone got used to eating the same things.

Another story says it had to do with water. Kerala is very wet and grows many trees. These block the sun from reaching garden vegetables. And therefore, they had to eat cow as a matter of necessity. Now, I recognize that there is a missing step in that argument. Few vegetables means more cow, less mutton? If you don't get it, you're in good company.

The point is, you can eat beef. But not everything I want to talk about has beef in it. In fact, most things don't.

Let's break it down and start with breakfast. Our first morning, we ate dosa masala. Dosa is sort of pancake, but with a slightly sour flavor. Inside a dosa masala is a paste made of potato and curry. There were even chunks of potato. We have also enjoyed dosa with a dal curry on top. (Dal is a type of lentil. I'll mention dal again! I like it.)

One morning Alrica tried porridge, which was much like oatmeal. We've enjoyed appam. Appam is also thin like a pancake, but made of a fermented rice flour. It is purely white in color. Some appam have an almost sourdough flavor. Others are not as strong in their fermented flavor. It can be topped with fruit and sugar or with a curry. (Curries for breakfast seem very popular.)
This is appam (like a snow white pancake cloud)
The kids favorite was idli. Idli is sort of a rice vermicelli that has been shaped into patties. Of course, you can eat it with a curry on top. But you can also eat it with mashed up banana and cream and sugar. That's the way the kids loved it.

Another Indian breakfast we tried is putu. Putu is made of a fine rice powder cooked in some container so the end product has a shape. The traditional putu container was a bamboo section, so putu often has a cylindrical shape. But we also had it where it had been cooked inside a coconut shell, and so was more of an egg shape. You won't be surprised to find out you cover it with a curry, will you?

Let's get to other meals. Much of southern India specializes in vegetarian cuisine, but there are plenty of meat alternatives too.

I mentioned that in Kerala one can eat beef. In fact, Kerala is known for a dish called the Kerala beef fry. It is strips of beef cooked in a spicy sauce served with some peppers. I enjoyed it.

We had pizza with Tandoor chicken (cooked in a tandoor oven) and paneer on it. Paneer is harder to explain. It is small cubes of a soft dairy substance sort of halfway between cottage cheese and cheese curd. (If you don't know what cheese curd is, I realize that this description doesn't help you. Let's just say paneer has a bit more solid a texture than cottage cheese, and the curds are bigger.)

Another delicious meal is aloo gobi which literally means potato cauliflower. And that's what the main ingredients are, potato and cauliflower. But it is in a delicious sauce. Some places make the sauce a bit spicy, others do not.

I particularly enjoy dal, those lentils I mentioned. I have tried a couple of varieties: dal tadka and dal fry. Dal tadka is made with ghee which is more or less like lard. Dal fry is much spicier and in a darker sauce.
A banana leaf plate. Also, the yellowish dish on the side is made of papaya.
One night we ate rice and curry off of banana leaves, no plates. In India, the traditional way to eat is with your hands, not with forks and knives. Of course, forks and knives are often (but not always) available for Westerners. Anyway, you scoop your curry and rice up with your right hand. Never use your left! Left hands are unclean. (Sorry left-handed people, this is not my rule, just reporting it as I am understanding it.) You can also use your thin bread to scoop it up. That thin bread might be chapati which is made in a frying pan and looks like a pita, though has a different flavor. Or it might be paratha which is fluffier and airier. Or it could be nan, which is even airier and is made in a tandoor oven. When you are all done, you go and wash your hands. Every restaurant has a sink available (even those that don't have toilets available) for a postprandial hand-wash.
Happy banana leaf eating family (and another family)
What about fruits? Did you know that in Kerala they grow fourteen different varieties of banana? We tried several, some are tiny little yellow ones, some have a wicked curve to them, some have red peels instead of yellow, some are small yellow ones on the outside, but the inside of the banana is a darker slightly reddish color. They all have the same basic taste of banana, but a distinct flavor of their own almost as if a small addition has been made to the flavor.
Look at all those choices. That's a lot of potassium!
The pineapple in Kerala is the best I have ever had, super sweet. We enjoyed delicious fresh grapes. We also tried a couple of fruits we don't have at home (in addition to the new banana varieties.) One was green, shaped like a plum tomato, had a white inner flesh, and was not as juicy as an apple. The fruit vendor called it vil (and I am guessing at the spelling.) Another fruit we tried was red and round, like a cherry tomato, but bigger. It was perhaps a bit smaller than a racquetball. It was a kind of plum and had a small pit in the center.

Another very popular fruit in India (and in Southeast Asia) is tamarind. There are two varieties. In Southeast Asia we saw the long variety in which is comes almost like a foot long rope. In Kerala there is also a small variety in which it is just a couple of inches long. You peel a brown peel and inside is a dark red fruit which is quite sour, but also sweet. Carver, ever the fan of sour things, loved it. I enjoyed it too.

I am not personally a tea fan myself, but Alrica and the kids love tea. Of course India is a prince among tea growing nations, and there is no shortage of great tea (or so I am told.) Your typical tea is a chai tea (though that just means spiced tea.) It is usually opaque because it is served with milk. And then several spices are added, possibly nutmeg, cinnamon, all-spice. And there is plenty of sugar.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a field of tea! And my daughter.
Speaking of sugar, let's talk faloodas! A falooda is an ice cream dessert. It is made in layers. There are ice cream layers, fruit jam layers, basil seeds layers (though even these layers are full of sugar), and a rice vermicelli layer. Different flavors of jams and ice creams are used in various faloodas. But you can be sure there is no shortage of sugars in them.
So much sugar, so little stomach volume
India is an adventure for the tongue and the stomach. It's an adventure in a lot of other ways too, but I'll leave that for a different blog post.

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