Naan stuffed with paneer.

Cardamom and Curry and Chapati! Oh, My! – The Best Foods I Had in India

Before I went to India, one of my friends remarked that he didn’t like the Subcontinent’s cuisine because, to paraphrase him, “it’s basically just a bunch of vegetables and lentils boiled down to texture-less mush.” I’d disagreed with him then, and after eating my way across Rajasthan for a week, that feeling intensified by about a thousand. I know that I only tasted the barest fraction of the delicious food the region had to offer, but what I did eat was some of the best food I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. And I ate as much of it as I could. About halfway through our trip, one of my friends had remarked, “I think we’ve all learned at this point that you’re willing to try anything. ‘Well haven’t had a bite of that one yet…’”

As I’m never one to skip an opportunity to making a ranked list, here are the eleven best foods I ate while in India, in no particular order. Don’t read this while you’re hungry.

1.)   Navratan KormaIt’s not exactly a secret that India is home to some truly bangin’ curry, and I did my best to taste as many delicious varieties as I could. Of all of those, navratan korma was probably my favorite. In Hindi, it translates to “nine jewels,” which refers to the variety of vegetables, nuts, and fruits used in the dish. Mine had cashews, paneer, carrots, green beans, carrots, and potatoes in it, to name just a few ingredients. There was hardly any oil in it, unlike a lot of the other curries I’d eaten, and the cashews added a huge amount of creaminess. The thing that made navratan korma stick out to me was the inclusion of pineapple. It made for a surprising note of sweetness in what would have otherwise been a pretty mild (and even bland) curry.

Navratan Korma
Navratan Korma

2.)   Aloo ChaatAloo chaat is traditionally street food, but I had it in the famous LMB (Laxmi Mishtan Bhandar) restaurant in Jaipur. It’s made with diced baby potatoes that are marinated in a bevy of spices like turmeric, coriander, cumin, and chili, fried, and then tossed together with other fresh vegetables like tomatoes and red onion. Ours was served with garlic chutney so strong that I’m pretty sure my breath afterward could have dropped a legion of vampires in their tracks. Even though the main component is fried, aloo chaat still feels like a light snack, and the gamut of spices in this dish are as delicious as they are fiery.

Aloot Chaat at LMB in Jaipur
Aloot Chaat at LMB in Jaipur

 

3.)    Gulab Jamun – Gulab jamun…of all the things I ate in India, this sticky, sweet dessert fills the most daydreams. It’s made from khoya, or the solids that are collected from the top freshly curdled milk (which would make most Westerners go “ewww,” but trust me). The khoya is kneaded into small balls, deep fried, and then served in a thin sugar syrup that’s flavored with rosewater, green cardamom, and other spices. My gulab jamun were also filled with chopped pistachios, almonds, and more cardamom, and I’m pretty sure the first bite made my eyes roll into the back of my head. Admittedly, it is deathly sweet, almost to the point of being cloying. I’m glad that my order consisted of only two of the little spheres. Any more and eating them would have been a battle between my bursting stomach and my greedy tastebuds.

Gulab Jamun...so delicious you can only eat one or two at a time. Anything more and your blood sugar will go as high as Mount Everest.
Gulab Jamun…so delicious you can only eat one or two at a time. Anything more and your blood sugar will rocket as high as Mount Everest.

 

4.)   Lassi – Perhaps it’s cheating to throw a drink on this list, and it might seem strange to include something so basic, as well. After all, lassis are just yogurt and ice blended together, with some additional fruit like bananas or mangos added in if you want it a bit sweeter. In a country renowned for its spicy dishes, though, these drinks proved to be my savior more than once. After a bite of piping hot, spicy curry, water might extinguish the fire in your mouth temporarily, but the cool yogurt tang of a lassi does the job much better. I was partial to the banana and mango varieties, but the salted kind, which just has a plain yogurt base, was pretty good, too.

 

5.)   Murgh Makhani – Okay, so technically this is just the eponymous “butter chicken” that’s so popular in every generic Indian restaurant the world over, but doesn’t murgh makhani sound so much more exotic? I’d had this dish before going to India, but it had been mild and almost sugary. Comparing that to what I ate in India just seems like a crime now. The murgh makhani I had in Varanasi was chockfull of rich, caramelized tomatoes and was fierily hot, to the point where I went through two or three lassis just to keep my mouth from bursting into flame. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender, and I’m pretty sure I mopped up every drop of curry that I could with my naan.

Murgh Makhani, otherwise known as "butter chicken."
Murgh Makhani, otherwise known as “butter chicken.”

 

6.)   Bhelpuri – I already wrote about how much I loved the bhelpuri I ate on my first day in Delhi, but it bears a second mention. I still can’t get over how the crunchy pomegranate seeds and semolina puffs combined so perfectly with the juicy diced tomatoes, tangy red onions, spicy fresh coriander, and the dozen or so other spices that I still can’t name. All street food I eat now has to compete with the enviable standards that bhelpuri has set.

Bhelpuri...even without the sweet crunch of pomegranate, it's still heavenly.
Bhelpuri…even without the sweet crunch of pomegranate, it’s still heavenly.

 

7.)   ThaliThali’s a dish made for people who love to eat. It’s basically a sampler platter loaded down with whatever’s being offered as the daily specialties: various curries, dal (split lentil soup), fresh vegetables, some naan, and maybe a dessert or two. It’s perfect when half a dozen different things are calling your name on the menu and you just can’t decide between any of them.

The thali I ate in Varanasi. Counterclockwise from foreground left: pulao (like Indian fried rice), dal fry, paneer masala curry, vegetable kofta, cashew curry, tomato raita, gulab jamun, fresh vegetables, and papad. Stacked in the middle is butter naan and stuffed paratha.
The thali I ate in Varanasi. Counterclockwise from foreground left: pulao (like Indian fried rice), dal fry, paneer masala curry, vegetable kofta, cashew curry, tomato raita, gulab jamun, fresh vegetables, and papad. Stacked in the middle is butter naan and stuffed paratha.
Another thali, this one eaten at a home cooking demo in Orchha. Counterclockwise from foreground left: pulao, chapati, fenugreek poori, fresh guava chutney, aloo saag (spinach and potatoes), dal fry, poori raita, and aubergine curry.
Another thali, this one eaten at a home cooking demo in Orchha. Counterclockwise from foreground left: pulao, chapati, fenugreek poori, fresh guava chutney, aloo saag (spinach and potatoes), dal fry, poori raita, and aubergine curry.

 

8.)   Poha – Like aloo chaat and bhelpuri, poha is another snack food. It’s just flattened rice with red pepper, nuts (peanuts seemed to be the most common) and, as always, plenty of mustard seeds, fresh coriander, and chili to add in some spice. It was present at nearly every breakfast I ate in India, and only took two or three days before I began looking for it in every hotel’s morning spread. I was never a huge fan of rice growing up – or at least the American variety; believe it or not, it’s totally different (and far below, in my opinion) from Japanese rice – but I loved poha’s flattened grains. More surface area means more room for spices to cling to every grain, and that’s always a good thing.

 

9.)   Masala Chai – I am a confessed chai tea latte addict. I love chai…and India only fueled that addiction. (And spoiled it, too…Starbucks, we need to have a talk about the dirty water you’re passing off as chai tea lattes.) I had masala chai with breakfast. I had it with lunch. I had it with dinner. Sometimes I drank it four or five times a day. By the end of my trip, I think I drank enough masala chai that the stuff was flowing through my veins instead of blood. Masala chai is pretty basic: black tea brewed along with ground cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, star anise, and cloves and served with milk and sometimes sugar. It’s a pretty robust tea, so it even stands up to being directly steeped in milk.

Every single cup of masala chai that I drank over that week was slightly different. I drank a cup that cost all of seven rupees on the train to Orchha, and it was distinctive from the brew I drank at my hotel in Agra. The first pot I drank in Jaipur (the one that started it all) wasn’t the same as the tea I drank, from a clay cup that was discarded on the ground after finishing, on the streets of Varanasi as the sun set. Some of them went heavy on the cinnamon, others on the ginger. Sometimes it wasn’t so sweet at all, and sometimes honey was used instead of sugar. There are a million different varieties of masala chai, and I’d happily spend the rest of my days in India and try to taste them all.

 

10.) Carbs – Carbs hold a special place in my heart, especially the fluffy, doughy, yeasty kind. (Unfortunately, this has also led to more than one of these moments. “What do you mean I can’t eat all that I want?! It’s so light and fluffy, it can’t possible be bad for me!) It seemed like I found a new favorite carb in India every single day. It’s impossible to pick one carb to rule them all, so I’m cheating and just lumping them all together.

Garlic Naan
Garlic Naan

Of course, there was the famous naan: leavened (as in, made with yeast) bread made with white flour and then baked in a traditional tandoor oven. I ate more naan in one week than I think I’ve had in my entire life. Garlic naan was my favorite, but I also had kabuli naannaan that was stuffed with cherries and coconut flakes and then topped with dates, cashews, and shredded paneer – that was the stuff that dreams are made of. That’s only the beginning of the carbohydrate heaven that India holds, though.

Kabuli naan, stuffed with cherries and coconut and topped with cashews, dates, and shredded paneer.
Kabuli naan, stuffed with cherries and coconut and topped with cashews, dates, and shredded paneer.

Flatbreads are most common in India, but there are a few outliers. The one I encountered most frequently was idli, or steamed buns made from rice flour dough. They were dense and fluffy, and from the first time I saw them at breakfast, they called my name insistently. It took approximately one bite before my eyes had widened and I started happily ladling spoonfuls of vegetable stew to top idli after idli.

Naan stuffed with paneer.
Naan stuffed with paneer.

There’s also roti, which is unleavened flatbread made with whole meal flour. Chapati is kind of like roti, except it’s made with whole wheat flour, slightly thinner, and either pan-fried or simply puffed up over a flame. Also in the “unleavened flatbread” family is poori (or puri), which is similar to chapati, except that it’s deep-fried. “Deep-fried bread”…has there ever been a more beautiful phrase? This was also a staple at many of our breakfasts, and it wasn’t long before our guide caught on to my affinity and began ordering fresh baskets for our table. Poori is the stuff of magic. Its exterior is light and crispy, but inside, the dough is still awesomely chewy. I learned how to make poori at a cooking demonstration we attended in Orchha, but I haven’t made it at home yet, mostly because I know that I’ll end up consuming the entire lot in one sitting.

Stuffed paratha in Varanasi.
Stuffed paratha in Varanasi.

And last, there’s paratha, the heaviest and most substantial of the lot. Paratha is layered chapati that’s fried in ghee (clarified butter). It’s far more buttery than its unleavened counterparts and it stands up to being stuffed with hearty ingredients like paneer, potatoes, cauliflower, and other vegetables. It can be used to scoop up curry, but it can also stand on its own just fine.

 

11.) Badam Elaichi – Confession: originally this list only had ten entries, but I had to make a last minute addition as I was leafing through my travel journal. I only had badam elaichi once, and if I’m honest, I totally forgot about it until I wrote this. I have no idea how I could have thought of leaving it out; even now, I’m reviewing the contents of my pantry to see if I can make a mug of it tonight. (Note to self: stop at grocery store for almonds.) Badam elaichi is made by steeping chopped green cardamom, crushed almonds, and a few saffron threads in milk for a few minutes and then sweetening the mixture with sugar. And that’s it. You can serve it either hot or cold; I had it chilled, but I imagine it’d be an amazing hot drink to have on a cold evening. As with all of the other cardamom-containing foods I had in India, my spice blend of glass of badam elaichi was perfectly balanced. If there’s one lasting impression that India’s food had on it, it’s that I’m a total cardamom convert now. I think I’ve gone through more in two months than I have in the past year.

So…are you hungry yet?

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