Siddiq Rafiq was a family friend of my parents. He migrated twice in his life, the first time as a child on a dark night from India to Pakistan, the second from Pakistan to Scotland, where he married Marjorie, a friend of my mother’s. When my brother was born, Siddiq was co-opted as Paul’s godfather. So we all grew up with the taste of his curries, which he also taught my mother to make.
I learned from her, and then when at business school in Durham bought a cook book and learned how to make the curries from scratch (sorry, Mr. Sharwood). I’ve cooked curries ever since. So I’ve always liked Indian cooking.
Of course, the guys here didn’t know that. In the three weeks plus I was here, you have no idea how many times people were concerned that I might not like it, might find it too spicy, too hot, too intense, too strange. I’d shock them every time.
“No, please don’t try that one, it’s very hot.”
“Really? Then I must!” I said, as I heaped a big spoon’s worth onto my plate. It was just right. Even a little less hot than the ones I can cook up (to the horror of my family’s palates). “Hey, I lived in Mexico – I love chile!”
I’m sure I’m one weird dude to these guys. Bad enough I like the hot weather and sunshine, but this! They can’t figure me out. “Remember I was raised as a child in tropical countries”, I would say, “I actually feel at home with this”. Yep, one weird dude.
Anyway, I’m houseguesting with Ganesh and his parents, so his mother is doing most of the cooking. They are Hindu; Ganesh and his father eat some meat but his mother is vegetarian. Most of the food, therefore, is vegetarian. And it’s absolutely delicious! Man, I like this stuff.
I tried going vegetarian before, when at university in Durham. I gave up after three weeks, as I couldn’t fill the hole in the middle of the plate. Indian cuisine is exquisitely attuned to using and mixing vegetables imaginatively. Never was there that famous hole. They were worried I was eating little, but the fact is I was trying to lose weight and if I had let myself rip I would have eaten them out of house and home (and gained a whole bunch more kilos).
Occasionally they would buy in tandoori chicken so the males could do their carnivore thing. Other times we would go out to the restaurants (all very good), all offering “veg and non-veg” menus. Frankly I didn’t eat much meat, and I didn’t miss it either, until I got to the end of the third week. Then I began dreaming of a juicy beefsteak sizzling on a grill …..
I tried to learn the traditional eating style of eating with fingers. I’m a clumsy klutz most of the time; I’ve already tried Indian style eating before and made a mess of it. Sure enough….. Well after a bit of practice I improved, but not much.
Now I know why there is almost always a bowl of dhal (a loose lentil soup) – it provides liquidity so that the drier curries can be “mashed” with the rice into a sticky ball that fingers can raise to the mouth. I also found out that the trick is to mix everything together in one heap, then eat picking from the heap. The other trick is to use chappatis (unleaven bread) to swab up the heap.
Having got that far, I went back to the fork. Mostly I wanted to keep the tastes separate: each one is so good (try eating fragrant steamed basmati rice by itself) that I didn’t want to lose the individual flavors. Plus I was eating a whole bunch of delicious chappatis, which are fattening. Losing battle here ….
Meals are the same whatever time of day. What is served for lunch could equally be served for dinner or breakfast. This is just like the old, old style of eating in the West before breakfast became a different type of meal. Curry for breakfast isn’t at all bad – the spiciness really wakens the mouth.
India is nothing if not traditional (still). What there isn’t, at home at least, is variety outside the local cuisine. Rather like Italians, in fact. Great variety in the local cooking, equally excellent, but not very adaptive to including other cuisine into home cooking. Since the local food is so good, just like in Italy, you can almost forget other styles, but then it comes back to hit you – I’d like to eat something other than curry every meal.
Ganesh’s parents were great. They let me introduce fresh fruit into the breakfast meal, not least because it was the start of the mango season. I found out there are over 300 varieties of mango – I thought there was only one! Then there are papayas, melons – and “fruta da conde”, as I know them from Brasil, which here are called custard apples (now I know what that means – I had never figured what Kipling was taking about before).
Eating out – well the food is just plain superb, whether it’s a sizzler at 100 Degrees, Szechuan prawns at Bowl o’ China or samosas at the outdoor food stall just by the theater. Just excellent.
Especially the biryani (ok guys, I know you would kill me if I didn’t mention the biryani).