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India Pt. 7 – The best eats of the trip

Travel is just eating in a place we’ve never been. ~Jim Gaffigan

There are reasons to travel that have nothing to do with food. Or so I am told. There’s no easier way to intimately connect with a new place than to experience how the locals feed themselves. My new favorite past time is to walk uninvited into restaurant kitchens and just ask to hang out – I never got turned down once. Here’s how the guys at the Gujarat Bhavan in Delhi do their chapati – griddled then puffed on open flame:

As most hipster-foodies will know, India is home to many regional cuisines. The vegetarian thalis of South India are worlds away from the rich curries of the northwestern states. We got to dive into two wonderful culinary worlds: the fresh, mustardy tastes of West Bengal and the Tibetan-infused heartiness of mountainous Sikkim. Here’s a look at some of my favorite encounters.

Perhaps an odd place to start, but the food on Indian trains is actually awesome,if you’re in the right mind set. Serious Eats has written about the joys of shitty airplane food. Indian train food comes in two varieties: (1) from the official rail service kitchen (either on board or loaded at stations); and (2) freelancers who hop on at stations (usually available only in the legit non-AC couch classes). The photo above is course 2 of 3 in a first class cabin, some basic chicken curry, dal, rice and chapati.  It’s no delicacy, but there’s magic sitting down to some lightly charred chapati as you watch the world go by  

This ain’t much to look at, but let me tell you: this is some seriously awesome Bengali food. Top left is a potato/lady finger/bitter gourd dish cooked with poppy seed paste (posto) – basically the go-to veggie standby in Kolkata. The show-stopper is in the bottom-right: a banana flower mash with yellow mustard and dried lentil cakes for textural contrast. It’s a delicious, vegetarian umami face-punch. Just awesome.

Not food per se, but what a kitchen. This particular clay, wood-fired stove was in the Sunderbans, where temperatures averaged 97 degrees in the middle of the night. You can imagine what this kitchen felt like mid-day. But the wood-fired dal that came out of this pot was fabulous, even though it was basically just lentils and water.

Feel superior if you need to, but the malls of Asia have some really killer eats. I’ve had some great meals at the MBK, Siam in Bangkok. Needing a place to kill some time in Kolkata before an overnight train, we hid out in the air con South Mall. Unfortunately the dosa (left) and chaat (right) where pretty pathetic by any respectable standards. But at just a couple bucks a piece for dinner, these sorts of places are good to keep in mind if you need some sanctuary from the streets.

From Kolkata we headed north to the famous hill station of Darjeeling. From that point forward we would eat momos at least twice daily, or in my case as often as manageable. A momo is a simple Tibetan dumpling with a medium-thick wheat flour wrapping. Veg momos always include cabbage, and in dire situations not much else. Decked-out versions get ginger, watercress and other greenery. “Country chicken” momos are available at most joints in West Bengal and Sikkim. Country chicken, locally, refers to the guy you saw on the street earlier this morning, as opposed to commercial broilers which aren’t widely available here.  Beef momos are available, depending on region and demographics. (During our trip a man was lynched in a conservative Hindu region for secretly eating beef, setting off a nationwide uproar). The chicken momos above – from Kunga in Darjeeling – burst with the sort of brothy explosion that we pay $50 for at Din Tai Fung.

Here’s a shot of making momo wrappers:

My mother is from Ruston, Louisiana, and I’ve had a fair share of fried okra. Without the least bit of doubt, the best I’ve had is just over the Nepal border in Singalila National Park. We did a day’s worth of hiking along the famous Singalila ridge that wanders between India and Nepal, stopping in tea huts every 15-20 minutes for refreshments. The fried okra above was shatteringly crisp in a rice flour (?) dredge, but not overcooked. If you served this in Shreveport you would have a line around the block. As it was, there were just yaks.

Also encountered on the Singalila hike, this cheese is made from cow’s milk, then cut into these strips and cured above an eternally-running wood stove. (In smaller operations it’s just hung in the kitchen). The resulting product is cut into small cubes and has a texture that ranges from vulcanized rubber to concrete. Apparently – this is no joke – it is now sold in London as a fancy dog chew toy. Traditionally men will stick a wad of this in their cheek during long days in the hill. We tried the cheese a number of places, and where edible it was like a wonderful smoky cheese jerky.

Finally, I share with you my secret weapon for culinary success in New Delhi. Each pradesh (federated state) in India maintains a bhavan/bhawan (house) in the national capital. These serve as something of an embassy for the state and carry on various business we don’t particularly care about. But, each bhavan also houses a cafeteria catering to the tastes of its corresponding region. Bingo!  The bhavans are a brilliant solution to experience authentic regional cuisine.

Some of the bhavans for smaller states (sorry, Arunachal Pradesh, I’m looking at you) are pretty basic. Still, we had an exciting meal at the Nagaland house a few years ago, that featured the only pork I’ve ever eaten in Delhi. The shot above is an outstanding pure vegetarian thali from the Gujarat house (about $1.50 per head). I highly, highly recommend you check some of these out if you’re in Delhi. How cool would it be if D.C. had something similar?

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