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Feature Sat Sep 27 2008
I'd fallen in love with India over her beautiful food, accepting her dusty and sour streets as they were. Last year, a friend put me up with her family in Bombay and showed my hungry stomach around the neighborhoods she used to stomp around in. Then weeks ago, I flew to Delhi to tag around with another friend on her South Indian family's vacation.
We toured important cultural monuments, and of course, ate very well. Vegetarian food in India seems almost as common as hamburgers in America, and vegan isn’t terribly impossible. Vegan seemed a bit trickier in Copenhagen, where I had stopped off for some five days to very informally study and snap photos of their elaborate bicycling infrastructure. Copenhagen might, however, have the final word on café culture, with its cozy restaurants spilling onto brick streets that are more pedestrian thoroughfares than avenues. The city’s love of the bicycle seems to help her people get about in a friendly way where cyclists in chic clothing seem to dance with motorists as if they were beautifully choreographed onto the extensive bike lanes. Cafés are easy to find on the tight and quaint old streets, and the bicycle lets Copenhanegers roll right up to them.
Copenhagen’s public spaces make it a lovely city to lounge around in with food. King’s Park is filled with Copenhageners who rode their bicycles to hang with friends, picnic and play games. The city’s streets often come together at plazas where you’ll find rows upon rows of bicycles lined up, locked to themselves, next to their owners sitting at a restaurant’s table, or enjoying carry-out on the bricked ground. Restaurants spill their tables onto pedestrian-centric streets, where diners peacefully mingle with careful motorists who diligently crawl their car through a narrow passage between the outcroppings of opposing restaurants. Cafes, whether on a square, in a green park, or inside the botanical gardens, seem to serve coffee in glass cups, inherited from the French café style, I hear. It’s not espresso poured into water, like an Americano is made. There seems to be a button on the espresso machines that pours drip style coffee, rather than strong espresso, right from the mouth of the machine.
In India, the dining alfresco I experienced was limited to the simpler places. We ate at a roadside diner called a dhaba, beside a truck driver who was napping on a shaded cot a few feet away. The cot is what made this a true dhaba, my friend told me. In India, it’s common to rinse your hands in a washbasin before eating. Here, we washed our hands over a plant aside our table, sparingly pouring from the pitcher of water we didn't drink. Bottled mineral water was the way to go, to be sure I wouldn’t get sick. On my last journey to India, my goal had been to try as much food as I could reasonably handle from Bombay sandwiches on the sidewalk to upscale sit down. This time, I would be successfully if I could simply make it through the road trip without getting sick for three days like I had before. I stayed clear of chutneys. They were uncooked and made with water. I stuck to cooked foods, and fresh fruit that I rinsed and peeled myself.
At this roadside spot, a tandoori oven sat in an open-air kitchen. It was a small hole in the stone counter in which hot red pieces of wood burned next to our onion parantha. We often ate stuffed paranthas for breakfast. This one’s onions were soft and tender, as if they’d been cooked before being rolled up in the dough. The whole flatbread was super tender, soft and hearty, and the kitchen sliced it in half with the side of a metal bowl. The next time I saw an open kitchen in an open restaurant was in Delhi. There weren’t cots to nap, but I did get up to the kitchen for another look at a tandoori and a few videos of a man patting dough onto the sides of the hot oven with his bare hands, and scooping the cooked flatbread out with a long metal tool.
In Copenhagen, I drank a fair bit of coffee. I didn’t taste a variety as strong as our hometown Chicago roasters serve, but it was smooth and did very well nonetheless. The coffee feels weaker in India, where there seem to be two varieties. Either it’s instant like Nescafé, or drip coffee that’s often served in South India in small stainless steel cups. As a lover of thick, rich coffee, I might be inclined to distance myself from an instant coffee, but it’s lightness goes brilliantly with India’s heat. Instant froths quite well, too. I remember the bubbly soymilk my friend’s mom served me last time in Bombay. Drip or instant, when it’s served in metal cups, often there's a second, shallower, stainless cup. You pour the coffee back and forth between the two cups to get it foamy, cool it, or mix in sugar. Or use the shallower cup to cool your steamy hot coffee a bit for instant drinking. In some cities I’ve been to, a few American style coffee shops have popped up. You can get off the dusty street and into a shop called Coffee Day, where you can sit in a clean, comfortable chair with American music playing and MTV on the TV. Or head next door to their competitor, Barista.
I’m a big fan of asking non-vegetarian Chicago kitchens to make me something vegan. If it’s not obvious what I might get, I look at their menu, see what ingredients the have, and ask them to assemble something that somewhat matches something they already serve. A kitchen that serves fancy sandwiches might have portabello mushrooms, avocado, hummus, and plenty of savory fixings like fresh black olives. They might just not offer it all together in a sandwich, but perhaps they could if one asked. And they often do. Likewise, an Italian spot might have a good red sauce, or garlic and olive oil that could toss up brilliantly with pasta that disappears under fresh vegetables like wilted spinach and sundried tomatoes.
Chicago also has a rather good offering of restaurants that have made their name, at least in part, by serving extremely good vegan food. When I travel to other cities, these are the types vegan spots I seek out. It’s easy in San Francisco and New York to find spots that, as in Chicago, turn out vegan meals so good that even the most ardent meat eater could very well enjoy. I’d searched for such places in Copenhagen on reliable Web sites like Veg Dining and Happy Cow, and plotted them on my personal vegan favorites map that I’d taken with me, but I found myself eating mainly Mediterranean food in a part of Scandinavia that I'm sure has its own local specialties. Copenhageners speak rather good English. But since I didn’t speak or read Danish, I could not interpret the local menus to ask for customizations. Still, I found some very adorable spots. Imagine walking down a narrow street, peaking down into a few sidewalk-level windows, and down a handful of stairs into a basement café where they fix you up a container of lunch from behind a counter that’s fronted by wooden boxes of fruit. There’s enough room for just one table, and while the adorable bread shop across the street has little tables and chairs outside, this one doesn’t. With my take-out in hand, I headed down the street and into in a gated playground in the middle of a street lined with charmingly old building facades. I sat across from other Copenhageners on their benches, between two one-way streets that quietly ran along the old buildings. My penne with pesto was slippery just as I like it from a generous, but not excessive, hand of oil. My takeaway also had butter beans, tender lime potatoes, spoonfuls of hummus, tender beets with apple, deep woodsy black beans and chickpeas that had the taste of a mellow but deep garlic burn. The fresh crunch of green beans finished it just right.
Another spot, a little coffee shop and natural food store called Verde Food and Coffee, came into the picture with dark chocolate blobs with peanut, fresh dates and rolls, and coffee with soy. The espresso machine dripped it all right out into my glass with no need to add water, which I sipped looking out the window at a counter with an iMac and free internet, sitting on a tree stump stool. Near the end of the trip, I stumbled upon a spot called Wagamama, where I suddently felt a rush of comfort not just from a staff that totally got the vegan thing, but another patron who was photographing food like I had been.
Fast-forward to India, where eating vegetarian is made easy by an established culture of elaborate vegetarian food. To take it one step closer to vegan, egg is considered non-veg. Vegans ordering off a vegetarian menu may pretty much turn their focus to avoiding dairy, which tends to be a bit illusive in ghee (clarified butter) form. The most obvious dairy to avoid may be curd.
India is an amazingly vibrant and contradictory place, where soft scents of velvety cardamom, rich fresh coconut and sights of street vendors selling fresh mango and frying in hot vats of oil sharply clash against an occasional foul smell and plenty of filthy streets. The first time I had come to India I think I rolled very well with the dirty downsides. After my first night’s sleep, I was fully embracing Bombay’s lively streets, following my friend to place after place that she knew from growing up and living there. This time, the road trip format provided more opportunity for reflection, and the hotels gave a more impersonal feel than I had remembered from staying at my friend’s family home in Bombay. Finally, the food lured me back in. But it took me some five or six days until I'd fully accepted India and put to rest all stray thoughts of leaving on an early flight.
Several restaurants from my journey are currently running about through my mind. Although we were in the North, we sought out the vegetarian South Indian food that my friend’s South Indian family enjoyed. In Jaipur, a nice and shiny clean South Indian vegetarian spot called Dasaprakash served me what could possibly have been my first experience with fresh coconut inside a dosa. Rava is semolina, but it’s also referred to by the trade name Cream of Wheat. The freshly grated coconut lent a meaty mouth feel, but when picked out and eaten alone without the surrounding dosa, the coconut tasted bland. You must eat the coconut together with the oily dosa for a combination that tastes both rich, juicy and meaty. You’ll often find dosas rolled over a filling that’s centered in the middle. Break off a bit of the dosa pancake and use it to scoop up a bit of the filling, and then pop it all into your mouth at once. Start with the dosa pancake that’s over the center of the filling in order to make a hole to dive into the filling through.
Dasaprakash’s menu had other types of dosas, and items from the wholesome "iddly family." The basic "steamed rice cake" is perhaps iddly in its simplest form, or at least the kind that my experiences have conditioned me to most intuitively associate with the iddly name. There’s also a deep-fried donut-shaped version called iddly vada, and a "shallow fried rice ball with spicy potato filling" that’s named gulliappa.
Gulliappa redefined this trip to India, because once tasted, this steamy ball sent me through some streets of Delhi, the next city where we had sufficient downtime, in search of the proper cookware to prepare it. It's like a donut hole, with a steamy and moist inside that's somehow extremely moist and yet fully cooked. It's crispy on the outside like a hushpuppy. You put a gulliappa pan on your stovetop like you would a skillet, but it has small wells that you lightly oil and then pour your batter into for it to pan-fry. I’d found my pan at a small storefront shop jammed with cookware in the Karol Bagh neighborhood of New Delhi. We were in North India, and perhaps since gulliappa is a specialty of South India, I struck out explaining what I was looking for at a previous shop. This time, the store’s sign prominently displayed Tamil Nadu, the name of a state in South India. While I hear gulliappa is a specialty of Udupi, a city in the neighboring state of Karnataka, this shop knew just what I was talking about. (I’d be curious to see if I’d have the same problem in the Indian cookware shops on Devon Avenue in Chicago, where I hear most of the restaurants are of North India.)
We speculated that Dasaprakash made their gulliappa with iddly dough, a reasonable conclusion considering the menu's listing it under the iddly family heading. One of my friend’s family described how to make gulliappa instead with leftover dosa batter. The first day you use your dosa batter, it makes for a crispy dosa. The second day, after it has had more time to ferment, the batter doesn’t yield quite as crispy of a dosa. She suggests mixing in onion to change it up a bit. By day three, your dosa batter might be better suited for making gulliappa. Oil the wells on your gulliappa pan, heat it up, and pour the dosa batter right in. Wait for them bottoms to crispin, flip, and brown the other side.
In New Delhi, I became good, if only very temporary, friends with two of its restaurants, both a few minutes walk from our hotel, and also in the Karol Bagh neighborhood. The streets were filled with contrasting storefronts. Fancy and sparkling air-conditioned clothing shops, both Indian shops styled like Raymond and Western ones like Benetton, sat not far from a storefront flourmill where a women in traditional Indian garb sat in the shade sorting grains by hand. I could buy local fruit on the street from the vendors of wheeled carts, but I preferred to get South Indian thali at a place called Om Saravanan Bhavan. I ordered coffee to come before my meal, contrary to the Indian style to take it afterwards. It was most likely an odd request that our server confirmed once if not twice. Guruprasad Udupi Restaurant was my second friend here, serving me up dosa’s fluffy and soft, less oily and perhaps more healthy cousin, named uttappam. I remembered the fresh coconut dosa from Jaipur, and took my uttappam with coconut.
The orderly streets of Copenhagen are almost the complete opposite of the mad jumbles of traffic in India. Copenhagen streets are often divided into three sections. A curb at the side of the lanes for motorized traffic rises up to a dedicated and wide bike lane, and then another curb goes up to the sidewalk. Hoping on a bike in Copenhagen seems as commonplace as hoping in a car in an American suburb. Overall, half a million Copenhageners pedal their bicycle every day to get somewhere.
Traffic lights for motorists are often different from those for cyclists or pedestrians, and the intersections between them are frequently very clear, with bright blue pavement marking the areas where bikeways intersect motorized lanes. Cyclists queue up at a red light in a very orderly fashion that can back up for a block. They leave the sidewalk clear. When there are two side-by-side bike lanes, one for going forward and a second for turning right, the cyclists leave the right-hand turn lane clear. Almost everyone waits for a red light to change to green, even in the dead of night. Copenhageners on bikes turn left by making a box turn going forward through the intersection on the right side of the bike lane, turning 90 degrees to face left, and then stopping to waiting for that light to change. Cyclists casually and briefly throw their left hand up to indicate they’re about to do this, like a soft old-school right turn hand signal, but in a much more relaxed fashion. It all makes sense, as cyclists passing them on their left can see the hand and know exactly what they’re about to do. In the end, everyone gets to the café a little faster, more efficiently, with a little more fun along the way.
In Delhi, cycle rickshaws stand ready to pick passengers getting off a brand new clean, quick and tidy Metro where electronic signs tell you the minutes until the next train. Bicycles and motorbikes are tossed together into the streets with cars and trucks, all wiggling together in a big mess as if the lanes were a car lot. Two lanes could just as well be four, or six or eight when you mix in smaller vehicles. Drivers continuously honk to tell trucks that they’re squeezing through past blind spots, which the truckers welcome with "Horn OK Please" colorfully painted on to their vehicles, especially on the highway. Other times, drivers honk to tell others to move over. Sometimes, just as you're about to go around, the other driver or his conductor (read: assistant) puts his hand out to tell you they're getting out of your way. You slip back behind and go around passing on the side that should have probably been passing on in the first place. Or maybe they’re not getting out of your way, so you continue on the slow side, on the left (India drives on the right). You're barreling down upon the truck in the lane in front of you. Its slow speed becomes more and more apparent the closer you get, when you more fully realize how much faster you are moving. Finally, you realize that you can’t make it. You break hard, slow down and pull in back of the vehicle that you didn’t quite pass. Other times you make it.
On dusty divided highways, trucks and motorbikes may sometimes go by without lights. You don't see them so much as you see the outline of their pitch black shape against stray light that’s diffused around them. Or you’re slightly blinded by bright lights coming toward you. Maybe there’s a scooter driving against traffic on the shoulder, but it could just as well be a truck. At intersections, where the traffic jams most, you're quickly lurching forward to wiggle into a spot, and then stopping hard when you get there. Sometimes there’s a light or a traffic conductor on a raised platform in the middle of the junction motioning instructions. There are so many vehicles, and such approaches seem par for the course. And somehow, after a while of being in the back seat, you convince yourself that this is moderately safe. On the side of the roads, young people could be engrossed in some sort of roadwork with pickaxes, or in a nearby lot carrying construction materials on their head in a bowl. Our driver was excellent. We made it through accident-free, which amazingly also appeared quite common.
By the time I was back home in Chicago, I was longing for the food I had just left behind. I had brought five regional cookbooks back with me, and two general Indian cookbooks, committed to learning how to prepare many of the dishes myself. I like to think I’m a reasonably good cook, but my first two attempts at some recipes have been humbling. I’m somewhat familiar with eating Indian food, but this doesn’t necessarily qualify me to prepare it. I know that the savory chowder known as sambar feels rich and creamy in the mouth, but I don’t know the ratio of blended dahl to water that it will take to get it there.
I don’t know yet if the recipe I’m looking at is leaving something out, or if I just don’t know something that it’s presuming I should. It can not help that I’m replacing the ingredients it calls for with ingredients from my cupboards that I cannot be sure are sufficient replacements. My first attempt at sambar used boiled chana dhal because it was already in my cupboard. I didn’t cook the chana dhal long enough to get as soft as I probably should have, and the somber turned out pasty and way too thick. After stumbling through the sambar and tearing apart my cupboards (I skipped the recipe’s call for fenugreek seeds after a quick but unsuccessful search), I decided to call off my initial plan to also make rasam, a South Indian soup. Somehow, two hours had already passed with wine and a friend’s company, and we hadn’t finished potatoes needed for the dosas I wanted to make for dipping into the sambar. The potatoes needed more flavor, but I had completely freestyled them and somehow wiped out miserably along the way without noticing. They needed something, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t more salt or any more of the random Indian boxed spice I’d tossed in. Like the sambar, it was not all that it should have been.
My second try was a bit better. I had found red gram dhal in my cupboard after all, under the name toor dal, another name for split pigeon peas in a different region. This time, I cooked the dahl until soft, smashed it and cooked it a bit more. I mixed it into a pan of sautéed veggies, adding water to loosen it all up. It thickened fast and needed more and more water. I used dried chilies that added a deep smoky flavor to the sambar that I associated with the bitter flavor that also came through. I replaced the recipe’s gingelly oil (a golden version of sesame oil) with my olive oil, and substituted its “new tamarind” with a thorough mixing of my kitchen’s tamarind concentrate and water. My friend Megan had been helping me with this second try, and she went home with some leftovers, reporting in later that the bitterness had completely faded by the second day.
That night, I also took my first try at rasam. The tamarind substitution applied here, too, and I needed to Google sambar powder for this recipe, and I focused in on one of at least two sambar powder recipes on bigoven.com. I focused in on its mention of coriander seeds and ground some up in my mortar, slamming the wooden pestle down to break up the hard seeds. I skipped everything else in the sambar powder listing. I’d previously given up on finding fenugreek when the sambar asked for it. Asafoetida and red chillies were already in my rasam recipe, and so was dhal, although the Bigoven listing called for chana dhal instead of red gram dhal. Back to the rasam recipe, I guessed at the amount of salt, and ended up with a very savory and spicy flavor that I was quite pleased with. It was just the reassurance I needed after the previous night.
My Indian cooking will continue on, and I’ll be looking forward to packing up containers of it to take on picnics in the park on my bicycle. Copenhagen has given me a taste of how public spaces can improve in Chicago, and India’s chaotic streets have made me appreciate the amazing bikeways and parks we already have. India’s food, however, would be very hard to beat. My Tamilian cookbook is written in fluid English, but the occasionally clumsy-sounding language such as "Some dhals do not cook soon" might hint at the authenticity of its recipes. I’ll be looking forward to a more accurate sambar to appear in my kitchen soon to dip dosas into. I’ll soon be pan-frying leftover batter into gulliappa and dreaming of eating it outside on a lovely, quaint, charming street where the traffic moves slowly and my friends are all around.