My very first taste of Indian food (in India) was sambar (a rich vegetable and lentil stew) and potatoes, which we had for breakfast over eggs and roti. This was the morning after our 30-hour trip. The dish was delicious, restoring in a way only thick, spicy food can be, with a flavor so complex I couldn't distinguish more than a few ingredients. So I called room service and asked what was in it. "Onions, ma'am".
Later, I looked up the most common used spices in Indian food. Amchur (mango powder), bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, cumin, curry leaves, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, basil, kokum (this gives dishes a purple hue), lemongrass, mace (the red lacy membrane that grows around the nutmeg seed), mint, mustard, nutmeg, pomegranate, poppy seeds, pepper, sesame, tamarind, saffron, and turmeric.
In Hyderbad, our first stop, I tasted biryani - the typical Hyderbad one-dish-meal served with raita - and was so taken by its flavors I called the server over and asked how to go about preparing a dish like this. What do you put in it? He thought for a second. "Onions, ma'am". Further research revealed that some of the ingredients of Biryani are rice (although I also tried one with millet), saffron, milk, papaya paste, yogurt, chili powder, ginger, garlic, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, mint, green chili and lime. And, yes, onions.
Hyderabad offers a mix of Hindu and Muslim cuisines. And I can say I tried a good number of the dishes in that region. How? Well, we were invited to a wedding. Number of guests: 25,000. (twenty five thousand, so you don't think that’s a typo.) It resembled a colorful, exotic, particularly joyous trade show, with a whole pavilion dedicated to food. I went from stand to stand trying really small bites of everything (except the international booths - who needs to try Italian food in Hyderabad?)
My two favorites were a dish that someone said was made with "the hottest chili pepper known in India" which I ate with gobi (cauliflower) and was so tangy it made my mouth pucker; and a sweet pistachio based dessert covered in vark (edible silver foil.)
We spent the rest of our trip in the Tamil Nadu region, known for some of the world's most delicious vegetarian food. The term "curry", in fact, comes from the Tamil word "Kari", black pepper. It turns out that what I knew as Indian food - daal, tandoori, naan, aloo gobi, lassi, tikka - comes from Punjab, a state up North. Fortunately for me, there are an additional 29 states in India, each with its own distinctive cuisine.
Our two favorite dishes from the south were dosas, soft, thin crepes made with fermented rice flour that you then dip into chutneys and relishes; and idlis (steamed cakes of fermented rice flour and daal) - which you eat with sambar ladled on top. (Luca and I took to exclaiming "IDLI!" whenever we saw them on a menu.) We also loved palak paneer (fresh cheese and spinach curry) and pappadams (crispy, super thin daal wafers with buried cumin seeds in them.)
The fundamentals of food in India haven't changed for thousands of years. Ayurveda is an ancient science of diet and healing and is, to this day, the most widely practiced form of medicine in that country. Often, ingredients are added to a dish for their curative qualities, as much as for their flavors. (For example, turmeric is anti-inflammatory, and cardamom relieves heartburn.)
The basic principle is that you cannot sustain a healthy body with unsuitable food. One purpose of Ayurveda is to maintain balance – you must eat in accordance with your own individual needs. Put simply, you crave what you are missing in yourself.
As soon as the jet lag subsides, I'll try to figure out exactly what that says about me.