Finally in India, Finally Fooding! (June Edition)

!ncredible !ndia Aga!n!  The one country (among the ones I’ve visited so far) where when you ask for a vegetarian meal you can be sure that nobody will say something like “Why would you want that?”  or “But it’ll taste better if there’s meat in it?” or “Come on, it’s no big deal, it’s just goat brain.”

The one country (again, so far) where no matter where you are you can be sure that there are not only vegetarian options, but that there are vegetarian restaurants; and not only that there are vegetarian restaurants, but that there are several varieties of them; not only that there are several varieties of them, but that they each state their style loud and clear: VEG, PURE VEG (eggs no, milk and yogurt yes), and even JAIN (no animal products, no onions, no garlic).

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In a 5 minute walk along MG Marg (Mahatma Ghandi street) in Gangtok, one passes at least ten veg and pure veg restaurants.   Best part is, that’s not even abnormal!

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Up until last May, I had been on a sort of self-imposed mission to prove that it is indeed possible not only to get by but to thrive on a vegetarian diet, even in countries where loads of locals imagine it’s not.  No more!  Now the hardest thing about getting a veg meal is not scouring the town in search of a restaurant that will provide one, but rather looking through the dozens (sometimes hundreds!) of options available, trying to remember the difference between Methi Paratha, Palak Malai Kofta, Navaratma Korma, and Rajma Paneer Masala, and trying to recall which ones I’ve tried and which one I haven’t.

For those who are curious, the much-feared Delhi Belly hasn’t been much of an issue…with the one notable exception of a “Dal Tarka” (some sort of lentil soup) with about a centimeter of oil floating at the top, the consumption of which left my incapacitated for the entire following day, limping meekly back and forth between the WC and my bed.  Thankfully, it was in a fairly swank hotel room in Kohima that had been provided to us free of charge by a Big Banking Benefactor.

Anyway, aside from that single extremely unpleasant, gaseous, combustive incident, the “fooding” here in India has been pretty swell.  I haven’t done the greatest job of documenting it, but here’s what I’ve got to show for June:

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The most basic of basics – simple Chapati flatbreads, potato curry, and some very salty mango pickles (already eaten.)

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Along the same lines, this one is a Paratha (I think), which is like Chapati but either bigger or stuffed with potatoes or cauliflower.  Served with a simple salad and a thin lentil soup.

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On a roll (no pun intended) with the flatbreads.  This one is a Laccha Paratha, also made from flour, water, and salt, but somehow tossed, spun, and otherwise manhandled until it separates into layers and gets a bit flaky.  Served with a soupy potato and green pea curry.

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Veg chow mein, or just “Chow” for short, always available at tiny diners and snack shops.  Pure oil, salt, and carbs.  Definitely not recommended, not even for cyclists.

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“Veg Thali,” India’s bread and butter.  Essentially a set menu that consists of a full day’s load of rice with one or two dry curries (here, green beans and chickpeas), one soupy lentil and/or potato dish (poured onto the rice), some sort of pickle, and one green leafy dish if you’re verrrrrry lucky.

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When you’re not lucky, you wind up with something like this: rice and dal, papad, and three different potato and onion dishes: one fried with salt, one fried with cumin, one fried with chillies.

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Rice, dal, and potatoes again; there were times when the food got a bit repetitive.  A meal like this costs about 40 Rupees ($0.67) and generally includes free refills of anything on the plate.  I’d rather spend more and get more, but I guess for someone working odd construction jobs ($2-3 a day) to make ends meet, this is about as good as it gets.

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Slightly more upscale Thali.  From 12 o’clock going clockwise: Potato and chickpea soupy curry, lentils, yogurt, salad, mango pickle, something I don’t remember, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, and some sort of veggie soup.  Not to mention a lovely, crispy papad.

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Thali served on some sort of oversized aquatic plant leaf.  Dried fish pickle on the left, dhal, pickled chili, one chunk of squash and rice.  By the time the fish curry and fried snackies came out, my hands were already too soiled to take another photo.

(Photo Courtesy of Chris Buchman # fromatobe.com)

Homecooked Thali courtesy of Mr. Sharma and family in Bisnawath Chariali.  Fried dhal puck, greens sauteed in mustard oil, dhal, and chickpeas with blended mustard leaves.  Finally, some new flavors!

Rice segmented into “reasonable amount” (bottom left), which is about what Chris and I can put down after a long day on the saddle, and “Indian man’s light snack,” (that plus upper right), which dudes routinely finish off for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner, day after day.  They still ask for refills.

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Lest you think it’s all rice and dhal (though it does kind of feel like that sometimes, I present you with some snacks, themselves presented to us by the staff of State Bank of India Medziphema.  They had been instructed to do so by the VP of SBI’s northeast section.  What luck!  Mango and guava juices, red bulls (which none of us touched), bananas, toast, kachuri (the pucks, filled with a savory lentil mix), and SAMOSAS (filled with potatoes, green peas, cumin, and other spices).  I can’t believe it took me this long to mention Samosas in an Indian food post. Then again, when they’re 12 for $1, one tends to overeat and then tire of them entirely.

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Speaking both of things I can’t believe I have mentioned yet and of things that sell for about 12 to the $1…Chai and sweets!  Every village is full of little shops selling samosas, not-quite-biscotti sticks, sweet lentil “laddu” balls, juicy donut holes, or odd compressed sugar cakes that often taste either of camphor or of parmesan cheese.  All are great little post- or between-meal snacks, all are probably equally terrible for your teeth and gut.

Best part: no trash!  Unbest part: freshness most definitely NOT guaranteed.

(PCoCB@fromAtoBe.com)

Wow, I totally didn’t know India had these!  Veg roll, aka a burrito without the beans and cheese.  Generally $0.50-0.$67.  Also available with egg or chicken.  A nice snack, good for when you’ve already had a late/giant lunch and don’t want much for dinner.  Or when you want a little afternoon nibble but prefer something fresh to a samosa or deep-fried treat which has been sitting on the vendors cart for an unknowable number of days.

(PCoCB@fromAtoBe.com)

Now we’re talking!  In Indian English, for whatever reason, a “hotel” is generally just some place that serves Thali.  Real hotels (that is, places that offer “lodging” in addition to their “fooding”), also called “hotels”, often have restaurants (by the way, just plain “restaurants” don’t exist, but “bar cum restaurants” do, but they don’t serve meals, just snacks to go with your booze) where you can pick from a long list of standard north Indian favorites.  Potato dishes, green pea dishes, paneer (cheese) dishes, and different sorts of breads.  Pictured above: “Bindi Bhaji” (AKA Vendi Bhaji), which is a “dry” fried okra curry, alongside “Matar Paneer,” or green peas and cheese chunks in “gravy.”  Served with Chapati, AKA Tawa Roti, or pan-roasted flat bread.

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More hotel (not “hotel”) food: Rajma Masala, or kidney bean gravy curry.

 

(PCoCB@fromAtoBe.com)

For those times when you can’t make up your mind, it’s never a bad idea to go with the “Navaratna Korma.”  I’m sure that’s spelled wrong.  Various mixed veg, plus paneer, raisins, cashews, and a little bit of cream.  Hard to go wrong with those last four.  You could put them on a saltine or piece of wonderbread and it’d probably be incredible.

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“Peanut Masala,” a splendid appetizer made of fried peanuts, diced onions and chillies, and tiny papad chips.

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If you happen to be wondering whether there’s any healthy food in India, the answer is…only very occasionally.  It’s actually remarkable that I haven’t been sick more often, since there’s very rarely any trace of raw veggies, steamed veggies, or non-salty pickles.  One of June’s few exceptions was this meal served, not at a restaurant, but at a “hostel” (like a boarding school, but just the boarding part) in Makhan, Manipur, run by a Mao tribe family.  Apparently they haven’t adopted Hindu-style cooking; they keep their food simple, free of any seasoning other than onions, garlic, chillies, and a bit of salt.  Might sound boring, but after a week where everything tastes like turmeric and cumin, it was a welcome change of pace.  9 o’clock was a nice, gentle rice and blended green veggie porridge; 3 o’clock is steamed fern fronds, bottom right a nice spicy salad, 5PM a good, chunky split chickpea dhal, 6 o’clock boiled glutinous potatoes and greens.

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Feast your eyes on that!  Kind of hard to believe this is a picture of “Indian food,” isn’t it?

I’m sorry to say it, but this definitely incomplete smattering of random meal shots is all that I managed for food in June.  No systematic attempt to get restaurant fronts or interiors, cases full of sweets, or any sort of really thorough presentation.  Hope for more in July!

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3 Responses to Finally in India, Finally Fooding! (June Edition)

  1. wd says:

    Jainism sounds just delightful.

  2. myra says:

    WOW SUCH AMAZING CHOICES