Good timing, what with the thread about starting up a curry board, but I’m back from India, and have written a very long and very self-indulgent post on the food over there. (Matches my very long and self-indulgent blog I wrote talking about my travels as a whole…) Thought it might be of interest, anyway, so here it is…Firstly, and most importantly…On authenticityAnyone remember this…?http://boards.fool.co.uk/Message.asp?mid=9802373I'm off to India in a month or so, and nothing would delight me more than to find an authentic Indian restaurant serving chicken tikka, just for the sheer joy of being able to shut up the legions of food bores who hold this dish up as proof that the English are peasants with no taste…Well, to my absolute delight, I managed to find chicken tikka masalla. On my very first night in Mumbai. And not in a tourist-oriented ‘food like Findus makes it’ place but in a very good North Indian place. Needless to say, I had to order it – in fact, it was all I could do not to leave the restaurant and head straight to an Internet café so I could tell you all about it. What was it like? Absolutely superb. But it poses a bit of a dilemma for anyone who cares about authenticity in food. As we know, every time a food bore wants to complain about the Brits’ eating habits, he’ll bring up the fact that chicken tikka masalla isn’t actually Indian, that it was invented to suit the British palette, and so on. So where does an Indian version stand? This one was very different to the standard UK version – the sauce was much less creamy, and far more fiery. Does this make it inauthentic? Should I have mocked the kitchen for its inability to understand the subtle nuances of 11.30pm curry house staples?The correct answer, of course, is ‘no, of course not’. Because (a) authenticity is entirely secondary to how good something tastes, and this tasted absolutely fantastic. And (b) it was my first evening in India, I was still absolutely terrified, and they could have served me a Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodle and I still wouldn’t have had the guts to complain about it.Chicken tikka masalla-related gloating aside, for a total food geek, though, it was still really interesting to discover how English Indian food stands up against Indian Indian food. From Mumbai, we headed down to Kerala – a choice that was heavily influenced by the fact that, for different reasons, Rasa and Manus* are two of my favourite Indian restaurants, and that they both claim to serve Keralan food. If the food is that good in the UK, the reasoning went, just how good would it be in Kerala itself?The answer? Absolutely delicious. But – and this was strangely disappointing – not a lot better than Manus, on the whole. And not a whole lot different. I was absolutely amazed by how authentic the food that Manus serves is. We ate a huge amount of fish curry in Kerala, and even the best places wouldn’t put Manus’ version to shame. Which surprised me. I expected some sort of revelation. The difference between a competent pub singer doing “I Say a Little Prayer” and the original Aretha Franklin version – the same notes, the same words, but one of them far, far superior. When it comes to Manus, that wasn't the case. (Rasa, for anyone who has visited - and Helen, I think you have the cookery book? - is a different matter. I think you'd have to describe it as Keralan-influenced cooking - far, far more refined than anything I had out there. Far more subtle. Like comparing a three-starred Michellin French place to a rustic bistro. Personally, I think I'd prefer the bistro...)It wasn’t just Keralan food, either. We went to a fairly flash North Indian restaurant in Mumbai – not quite top end, but not far off it. And it was great – really good, especially everything that had been cooked on the tandoor. But actually, not much better than Tayyibs, a Pakistani place near Whitechapel tube. (Funnily enough, the prices were extremely similar too – luxury restaurants in India seem to do about as much damage to your wallet as ultra-cheap places in London…)Ok - it's not a fair comparison. I'm talking about two of my favourite restaurants in the UK and, yes, food over there was streets ahead of the run-of-the-mill high street curry house. And I suppose it also shows that living in East London means that I’m spoilt for choice - Manus and Tayyibs are both far from your bog standard curry house. But it does also show that there is some really great – and really authentic, if that’s your thing - Indian food to be had in the UK, if you hunt around.On regionality Even for an Indian food geek like myself, I was still blown away by the variety of cuisines over there. Sure, most places I visited had enough restaurants to cover the full range – it’s as easy to eat North Indian food in the South as it is to eat South Indian in Delhi. But there were really clear differences between the different regions. Even in Kerala, there were noticeable differences from one end of the state to the other. One of the most blissful parts of the whole holiday was a stay near a wildlife sanctuary in the hills, where we obtained near-rock star status, purely by virtue of being white – wildlife sanctuary or not, Europeans were rare enough to mean that people pulled over and got out of their cars to say hello when they saw us walking along the side of the road. The food here was a revelation. Totally different to anything else we had in Kerala – very strongly influenced by Ayevedic medicine, far fish-oriented than most Keralan food we had, and much less dependent on coconut. Still identifiably Keralan, but very distinctive. In one of those events that I thought only happened to other people, we ended up being guests of honour at an engagement party, and the food was a highlight. Served on a banana leaf, there was such a variety of tastes and textures, with some absolutely fearsomely hot pickles and raitas to accompany it.There were things that I didn’t expect – hadn’t even heard of. Food from Andhra seems to be a really big thing in India – the gold standard when it comes to veg thalis. And deservedly so – although I didn’t visit the region, the thalis I had from Andhran restaurants were absolutely fantastic. The one from the RRR restaurant in Mysore was particularly good. Enough heat to take your head off, but some beautiful flavours with it. I started to get a bit of an English chip on the shoulder about it, actually. Felt a bit depressed that there was such an incredibly rich culinary heritage and diversity in India. But then I started to put it in perspective and compare like with like. It took me 27 hours on the train to get from Mysore to Mumbai – both South Indian cities, but even Mysore is still a long way north compared to cities right at the bottom of India. The only fair comparison is between Europe and India, rather than the UK and India. Then it starts making sense – you’re not comparing Scottish and English cooking, you’re comparing British and Spanish food.On heatOn a par with the chicken tikka massalla line is the one about heat, with self-professed experts talking about how hot curries are designed for philistine Brits who want to burn their mouths instead of taste the food.This, happily, is absolute rubbish! The standard warning from waiters was that “This is a bit spicy…”, and asking whether something was spicy or not was almost invariably perceived to be because I was looking to avoid anything hot, rather than because I was actively seeking out the fiery dishes. On the whole, when I made it clear that the spicier the better, the reaction was great – although they still asked if I wanted “hot, or ‘Indian hot’ ”. Asking for Indian hot guaranteed a big smile, and a meal that was perfect for perking you up on a hot afternoon. In fact, the hottest meal we had was in one of the least tourist-oriented places – the RRR restaurant in Mysore. Despite its Lonely Planet recommendation, there wasn’t another tourist in there, and when the Aussie asked for cutlery, they had to scrabble around to find a teaspoon for her. The thali that turned up was absolutely roasting hot. Delicious, but by the end I was struggling, and the Aussie had given up the ghost entirely.On table mannersNot great. But fun. The more off the beaten track the restaurant, the less likely you were to get any cutlery at all, unless you asked for it. At the wedding celebrations, we were laughed at by our hosts for eating the food with the only spoons they had in the house – especially in the South, I think, eating with your hands is the norm. Easy with bread – the delicious parathas are perfect for scooping up the food. Less so with rice… takes a bit of practice to get any good at that. The knack is to mix the curry into the rice, then shape your fingers into a kind of scoop, and then use your thumb to shovel the gloop onto your fingers. Then raise your hand to your mouth and reverse the process. Difficult to do with any kind of finesse… I loved it though. Was like being a kid again, except without your mum to tell you to stop playing with your food.Must admit that some of the eating habits I saw were pretty offputting. Call it Western prudishness, but the sight of someone shovelling food into their mouth, with yoghurty rice up to their knuckles isn’t great. I think it might be a bit like farting. Fun when you’re doing it yourself, but you don’t really want to have to watch other people doing it…On hygieneI went to India with the full knowledge that I’d get ill – and, more than likely, get ill a few times. Started off living in fear, with dire warnings about Delhi belly combining with total culture shock meaning that me and the Aussie were terrified to eat anywhere. Terrified to drink anything, at that – scared witless of stories of people refilling mineral water bottles with tap water, and reluctant to trust anything that wasn’t bottled (water, soft drinks) or brewed (Kingfisher…) We got more confident, but the first day we went to Chowpatty Beach for Bhel Puri (the best snack food you can imagine – puffed rice and deep fried sev served with chopped tomato, potato, coriander, onions and spicy-but-sweet sauces) we were convinced that we would wake up the next morning with our first dose of food poisoning.Similarly, a week later, when we ate at the wedding party, we were pretty sure we’d come down with anything – water is the main cause of stomach bugs, apparently, and, of course, coffee plantation workers don’t spend a lot of money on bottled water. On that occasion, I didn’t care – the experience was so amazing that I’d have still have eaten even if I had a doctor’s note guaranteeing that I’d spend the next two days on the loo.And what happened? The Aussie made it through her two and a half week tour of duty without a hint of stomach problems. For me, it took four weeks before I got anything, and even that wasn’t too bad – a sleepless night and unbelievably sore thigh muscles (stomach bugs and squat toilets are not a good combo). Now here’s a question – is it because I’m a slob? Because with food standards like mine, it would take a concerted effort to introduce me to bugs that I haven’t already carefully incubated in my own kitchen? There could be something in that… when a few friends joined us for the cricket, despite being far more careful than we were with food and drink, they were laid out for a day and a half within four days of touching down in Mumbai.See… there’s no need for cleaning. It’s bad for you. Case proven. :)On dosasOK. While I stand by the statement that it’s possible to eat curries in the UK that match even the best in India, dosas are an exception. They’re like giant pancakes, made from fermented rice and lentils, with the fermentation meaning that the texture is almost like a crumpet, and usually served with a spiced potato filling and, crucially, sambar (a kind of thin vegetable curry, usually pretty spicy) and a coconut relish. If you’re a fan of curry, then they are the best breakfast you can possibly imagine… Bangalore, a place that I hated, had one redeeming feature – the best dosas I have ever had. Drenched in ghee and served with a grape juice and a coffee, they are the perfect way to set up your day. (The healthy version is iddly – steamed rice cakes served with the same sambal and coconut relishes. These are something that Manus serves, and I never really saw the point of. But for breakfast, they make perfect sense.)Sadly, I’ve not come across anything nearly as good in the UK. I think I might have a mission – to find the perfect English dosa. Might have to experiment myself and have a go at making them – will report back with details if I get around to it.The best meal in India?So much choice. For setting and hospitality, the wedding celebration was so far ahead that there’s not really any point in talking about it. For the meal itself though, there were so many great places to eat. I think my favourite might actually be Fry’s Village Restaurant, in Ernakulam, Kerala. Took us an age to find it, but it was worth it when we arrived. Fantastic Keralan cooking, properly ‘Indian hot’ – another waiter who wasn’t far off getting an insurance waiver before serving the fish curry to Westerners – but really subtle and complex at the same time. And it served up what may be the culinary highlight of the whole trip – parathas brought to us straight from the cooker, blisteringly hot and beautifully crispy and flaky, while also having a deliciously soft, chewy inside. Imagine a savoury Danish pasty, served straight from the oven, and dunked into fiery Keralan fish curry. Perfect. Didn’t hurt that for two of us, the whole meal (complete with second and third helpings of the amazing parathas) came to about 135 rupees – maybe £1.50.* A little, family run place in Stratford, East London. Absolutely fantastic. If you’re anywhere near, then it’s well worth a detour. I have friends who come over from South London just to eat there…
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