A few years ago my wife Mitzy and I had dinner at an Indian restaurant. It was so good that she started cooking Indian food at home. Then we began listening to the music and learning more about the culture. Some day we might visit India, it is an amazing country. Here are some of our observations.
India has been heavily populated for thousands of years. The people are clever but generally very poor which has led them to evolve the best ways to do many things cheaply.
The foundation of main dishes in Indian cuisine is beans and rice. In an Indian food store you will see dozens of different types of lentils. Don't worry about the spices being too hot. Although some chutneys and packaged frozen dinners tend to be hot, Indian restaurants generally offer all the dishes mild, medium, or hot.
Indian food is easy to cook, inexpensive, very healthy if you cut back on the oil and salt, and full of unusual flavors. Indians use lots of spices, which may be a quarter of the cost of a meal, and some of them are unfamiliar. The spices are often fried in a little oil to activate them before they are added. Even people who don't care for rice will probably love basmati rice. The grains are long and slim and the flavor is rich and nutty; it should be cooked so the grains don't stick together. Throwing a few whole cloves in the cooking water helps the taste of any rice.
Most of the ingredients do not require refrigeration. The beans, rice, and spices are all dried. They heat butter to clarify it to a yellow oil called ghee which keeps well; instead of milk or cream many recipies use yoghurt, which also keeps well. Instead of refined sugar crystals they use unrefined sugar in cakes that look like bee's wax molded in flower pots. It has a rich molasses flavor. Meats are always well cooked.
The Indian wok is different from the Asian wok. I bought one at a thrift store and used it for several years before I found out it was Indian. Indian woks are made of thick steel and are hemispherical in shape with no flat spot on the bottom. Their handles are two large round rings that stick almost straight up. The design makes them ideal for cooking over a fire. The heavier steel reduces scorching and keeps the wok upright when it is hung by its handles. The handles make it easy to set the wok right in a fire and handle it with one or two sticks. The hemispherical shape makes it easy to keep the wok level when it is in a fire. We consider an Indian wok the cooking pot of choice when camping because of these features.
Many of the serving dishes are stainless. This puzzled me at first because stainless steel seemed like a high cost material for poor people to use. Then I realized that because it never breaks, corrodes, or wears out it can be used thousands of times so the cost per use is actually very low.
Indians eat chutneys instead of salads. These are like pickles but the ingredients are chopped or ground up; they may be very hot, or sweet, or salty, or flavored in ways you have never tasted before. You nibble small bites during a meal for a complete change in flavor. Frequently you eat the chutney, or the main dish, scooped up on pieces of bread. One of the most interesting and tasty types of bread is called papadams. These are very thin and crispy chips the size of tortillas that are made from lentil flour. You buy them soft then bake, fry, or microwave them to crisp them up. Sometimes they are spicy.
There is a drink called a lhassi that is a combination of yogurt and fruit juice, frequently mango. You can make a simple cheap lhassi by combining half and half orange juice and whole milk. This only takes a little stirring compared to yogurt. If you have never mixed milk and fruit juice the idea may seem strange but try it; you may be surprised at how good it is.
Nothing in this world is all good so there is a down side to Indian cuisine; it is generally ugly. The main dishes are usually lumpy sauce on rice. The sauce may be red, yellow, green, or brown with lumps of meat or vegetables. It can be funny to look at a fancy Indian cook book full of big colorful pictures of the meals and see how they try to dress them up with pretty dishes and table cloths. Contrast this with Japanese cuisine where there are pictures made out of food.
The Indians have also evolved an excellent way of consuming drugs; it is called pan. A paste is made up of spices and other ingredients that may include tobacco, betel nut, or other substances. This is wrapped in a heart shaped leaf called a pan leaf. A clove pins it together. You stick this between your cheek and gum like chewing tobacco and keep it there. The flavors seep out gradually and whatever you have wrapped up in the pan leaf is enjoyed over a long period.
Visit an Indian restaurant; try a completely different cuisine.