Sunday, December 11, 2016

Indian food is more than curry

Before I went to Hyderabad, I equated Indian food with curry because that's basically what I've been exposed to. I couldn't get my head around the idea that people there could eat only vegetables (or vegetarian cuisine) and have as much variety as omnivores experience. But many of my ideas about Indian cuisine was debunked as meals at the ICRISAT cafeteria became my introduction to the mild version of Hyderabadi food.

Breakfast was centered on a steamed cake called idli, which strongly resembled the Filipino steamed rice cake called puto. However, instead of being paired with sweets like the puto, the idli is eaten with savory sauces or soups. In my case, I kept pairing the idli with sambar, a soupy dish that contains a lot of stewed vegetables and lentils, and with chutney, a thick sauce that can come in many different flavors. I usually took the one with nuts and yogurt.

Lunch and dinner for me were always with rice pulao (rice cooked in broth instead of in water). The pulao I usually got was the one with cashews mixed in. It's quite spicy so I normally paired it with yogurt curd (really sour). An assault to my palate, true; but I enjoyed the strong contrasts (on the other hand, Southeast Asian cuisine appears to be about freshness and blending until the dish achieves an indescribably balanced flavor). With the pulao, I'd get sambar again and sautéed vegetables (whose names I never got).

Come to think of it, I didn't even eat meat the whole time I was on campus! The pulses and the spices provided the umami flavors to the otherwise vegetarian dishes. It was very interesting.

The exception, of course, was when I had mutton biryani on my first day on campus because it was served every Friday, and when I ventured into the old city of Hyderabad to try the chicken biryani.

I was told, though, that the meals I was eating at ICRISAT were adjusted to appeal to the tastes of the expatriates living on campus and those eating at the cafeteria. If I were to eat Hyderabadi cuisine in Hyderabad, I might find the meal too spicy for me. I think I have to agree because the ICRISAT meals were already a tad too hot for my taste buds.

And this is when I started hypothesizing why Indians tend to prefer their tea with milk rather than with lime or calamansi. I think that the mixture neutralizes the spiciness of the dishes. This can be done with milk on its own, of course, but it's more delicious with tea.

This trip to India was an interesting introduction to authentic Indian cuisine. I understand that regional cuisines can be quite diverse; hence, I'm exciting to visit India again someday.