Wednesday, September 12, 2012

One day I'll go back to coffee, but meanwhile

Hotel chai looks boring, just like coffee.
India is how I imagine much of the world was until a century ago: unregulated, fecund, profuse, haphazard, earthy, dirty, vital. It's like a giant compost heap, and I mean that in the nicest way. Driving through San Francisco on our way home from the airport I thought, where are all the people? Where are all the carts? The animals? Where is all the life?

Back to cookbooks, with preamble.

The highlight of the trip to India, for me, came on the last day when our bags were packed and I was counting the hours until takeoff. We were staying in New Delhi, which is (relatively!) clean and orderly. We decided to visit Old Delhi, which is not. We found ourselves in a byzantine warren of alleys and streets that I imagine looks little different than it did in 1912. It seemed to stretch forever in all directions, both temporal and spatial, and was teeming with people, spice shops, silk shops, kitchenware shops, ribbon shops and at least one man with a cobra in a box. I saw things I have never seen, like sticky, wet cakes of asafoetida. I saw people selling khoya and paneer and milk pails and stands that have been producing deep-fried snacks since the 1870s. Vendors were squeezing green oranges into juice, which was almost irresistible given the heat, as were the open bottles of fresh lime soda. I saw pots of chai boiling on little burners right there on the street and served in tiny cups on overturned crates. There was also a lassi stall where they served the yogurt in disposable terra cotta cups. Walking around here was my favorite hour of the entire trip.

Unfortunately, I did not feel it was prudent to eat those snacks or drink anything at all, but in another life, on another vacation, traveling without an 11-year-old boy, married to a doctor who could hook me up to a Cipro drip? I would.

Twelve hours later at the airport bookstore I bought:

-Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries of India. This is a beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully written cookbook. Panjabi begins by explaining that what most Westerners know of Indian cooking is actually Punjabi cooking, from one small corner of India, and that there is much, much more. Which is true. Then she explains that she sifted through the mountain of regional Indian recipes and pulled out the very best, most classic recipes. I planned to start cooking from this book the second I got home. Alas, once I did, perusal of negative amazon reviews made me doubt the merits of the book. What do I do? Should I try a few recipes just to see? I'm undecided. I hate false starts.

-Delhicious by David Elias. Bright softcover with lots of gorgeous photos of people, cows, and street food accompanied by recipes for things I wanted to try, but couldn't, like limeade with black Himalayan salt. (You have to be an incredibly thirsty Westerner walking around Delhi to understand how alluring such beverages can become. Trust me on this.)

-The Suriani Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala by Lathika George. How could I not? Just the title alone. I am especially intrigued by the crab curry and banana jelly. Amazon reviews are glowing, though no one seems to have cooked from the book. Do I plunge into this one?

Thirty hours later, we got home and I fell into a fathomless pit of sleep.

The next morning I pulled out Delhicious to try the recipe for chai. You all know about chai, right? It's a hot, milky, spice-infused black tea that is served in India everywhere, at all times of day. It is supposedly healthy because of the salubrious spices. I don't know about that, but I see no reason you couldn't make it with green tea, which would definitely be healthy.

The ingredients in the Delhicious recipe -- whole cardamom cloves, cinnamon stick, tea -- were listed out of order. That was a bad sign. I proceeded, although the quantity of tea leaves seemed scant and the tea was not steeped. It was no surprise that the chai was weak and pale. Big demerit for Delhicious. I'll keep it for the photos, but will probably not cook from it.

The next morning I made chai according to this Kitchn recipe and it is superb.

The next morning, I was colossally tired and made coffee, thinking it would perk me up. I fell asleep mid-morning.

Yesterday, I made chai according to a recipe from this blog, started by a couple who went on a chai pilgrimage. It was excellent, but I didn't like waiting for the water and ginger to boil for 10 to 15 minutes.

This morning, I combined the same couple's house chai recipe with the Kitchn's, and it is the best chai I've made. This is what I did:

3 cups water
a few slices fresh ginger
1 small piece cinnamon stick
10 green cardamom pods, crushed in a grinder or mortar
1 clove
5 allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
a big pinch saffron
1 heaping tablespoon black tea
1 cup whole milk
sugar to taste (optional and delicious, though I don't use it because I consume enough already)

1. Start heating the water while you slice the ginger. Add the ginger to the water along with the cinnamon stick. Let this come to a boil while you gather your other ingredients at a leisurely pace.

2. Add your other other ingredients. Bring the tea back to a boil. Turn off heat. Steep for 2 minutes. Strain into a teapot or very large mug and drink immediately. Serves 2.

On another subject, I just read T.C. Boyle's new novel, San Miguel. In closing I will share the Depression era dinner menu cooked by one of his characters:

"In addition to two legs of lamb, mashed potatoes, chili beans and the traditional hot sauce, she was planning a pudding of canned pineapple, odds and ends of bread, cornmeal, sugar and leftover bananas that had gone black and densely sweet since the last delivery, the whole to be tied up in a muslin sack and steamed in her big pot. To start, there'd be clam fritters wrapped in bacon, and a half dozen loaves of sourdough bread. . . "

It sounds repulsive, that pudding, but I can't get it out of my head.


  1. Curious: What's with the Dutch magazine on the coffee table?

  2. Is that Dutch? I thought so, but wasn't sure. I guess it was left by a Dutch tourist.

  3. I vote for The Suriani Kitchen. It sounds like fun.


  4. OK, that was a tease, right? You are going to give us a little more of a vicarious trip to India? How frustrating it must have been to be a foodie and not eat when you liked! Did you at least have a lassi while you were there? Glad you're back. You were missed.

  5. Welcome back. I have a book of curries that often makes me feel defeated before I've really begun. But on days when I have all the ingredients, the results are worth the effort. I would love to cook Indian from the hip the way I do with boring homestyle American food.

  6. Oz -- Unless someone else weighs in, I'll do Suriani.
    Beckster -- What would interest you? I feel like travel logs are boring unless you were the one traveling. I did not even drink lassi. What if they watered it down or put ice in it? I trusted no one, which made me feel like a jerk.
    Layne -- I have just been reading recipes that call for coccum, which I have never heard of, and curry leaves, which I must drive to Berkeley for since my curry tree died. It is daunting but exciting.

  7. I think your impressions are what would most interest me. Seeing a foreign world through another's eyes is intriguing, no? What did you most want to bring back with you, what were you most glad to leave behind, other than potential food poisoning? But, didn't mean to pressure you, I know you are probably worn out with it. I like Americanized Indian food, but the authentic Indian food I have had prepared by Indians in their homes was not something I enjoyed much. I am aware it could be their cooking or their choice of recipes, so I am looking forward to your Indian cooking from Suriani.

  8. I travel blogs (and mentioning food) can be terribly interesting and I find your account fascinating. I've been to India 3 times, traveled in different regions. The traffic overwhelms me (only as a passenger) and I'm hyper alert, afraid there's going to be an accident.

    There's a newish restaurant on Valencia near 16th called Gajalee (sort of Bombay type seafood), gets great reviews.

  9. What do you mean by disposable terra cotta cups? Terra cotta colored? Or actually made of terra cotta? I wish I could visualize this.

  10. Anon -- Gajalee is going on the list!
    Kristin -- they look like this:

    and supposedly when people are done w. the lassi, they throw them out on the street and they eventually melt back into clay. I did not do this or see this, but this is what I was told.

  11. So I have avoided chai because I'm allergic to ginger -- but your recipe looks intriguing. Thoughts on how it would taste if I left the ginger out?

  12. Hi, I have the Camilla Panjabi book. I've found the curry recipes to be a little too mild and bland for my taste, but the vegetable side dishes at the back of the book are all very good

  13. Have you considered Madhur Jaffrey's most recent book, At Home with Madhur Jaffrey? There's a lamb-chop recipe and a tandoori fish that have become staples in my house.

  14. it's the writing, stupid! just your description of old delhi alone made me want more, more, more. (i saw it on one of those bicycle rickshaws which made it fly by so fast it was even more surreal).
    we want more because of the way you connect everything through almost absurd but somehow perfect imagery. your twisted little takes on things. and did i mention the humor? your travel writing is very funny.
    so get back to work!

  15. I collect Indian cooking books (well, the whole subcontinent, really) and I would second any of Madhur Jaffrey's cooking books - they all work out beautifully. I usually take less meat in the meat curries though. I started collecting these books after I bought "Indian Cooking" by Sherezad Huzain (sp?) on Conough Place in New Dehli, that is also a good one. I have the one you mentioned but I always felt the recipes are a bit off - I can't say why exactly, but they seem a bit wrong. I approach Indian cooking as a challenge - I'll invite people for dinner, then select some recipes and cook it up - usually I have never done any of the recipes at all. And I just can't see that approach for the 50 curries.

    I found India overwhelming, too - would love to go back some day, but I need a holiday after it! It is such an intense country...

    I am looking forward to your reviews of the Syrian Christians' cooking book, that is one I haven't got yet...