I have now been in Udaipur for almost three months, and I am long overdue for a second blog post. As I have been pondering what to write, one topic keeps coming to the foreground as the one I feel like I can talk about the most: food.
In my experience, food is the default topic of conversation in India. It’s generally the third question I’m asked when I meet someone (Where are you from? Are you married? How do you like the food?), and its power to connect people and build relationships is well known here. Indians have a deep culture of hospitality. In Hinduism there is a saying that “a guest is a god.” When guests come to the house, you invite them in, serve them chai (Hindi for tea), and then if they stay for more than a few minutes, serve them food in generous quantities. As a result of this hospitality, I have had the privilege of sampling the home cuisine of many different families in Udaipur — widely accepted to be the most authentic and best-tasting way to experience Indian cooking.
Food is seasonal. I know well from growing up on a farm that different vegetables ripen at different times of the year. Certain foods store well, and others must be eaten soon after harvesting or else they will spoil. In India, there is a further understanding that foods have the power to warm you up or cool you down, and so should be eaten at the appropriate time of year. Arriving in the heat of summer, and after enduring two bouts of heat-related illness in my first few weeks, I have become well-acquainted with the cooling foods: yogurt, raw onion, melons, coconut water, wheat-flour; and I have learned to moderate my consumption of warming foods: cloves, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, meat, corn on the very hottest days. We are now entering the rainy season here in Udaipur, and as the weather cools, people’s diets are changing accordingly.
Food is regional. There is no “one” Indian cuisine. Any Indian will tell you that every 100 kilometers there is a new culture, a new language, and new varieties of food. Even within a given city or town, every family has a slightly different cooking style, depending on their caste and religion, and personal taste.
Of the many different kinds of breads made here, very few are leavened at all. There are far too many breads to name, but I’ll describe a few. The most common by far is roti or chapati: a “simple” flatbread made from whole wheat flour and water and cooked on a dry pan. A person is not considered to be a good cook until he or she can reliably make round roti that inflate like a balloon, which takes considerable practice to master. Other flatbreads include parathas, which are folded with oil between the layers of bread and occasionally filled with spices, cheese, potatoes and the like; puri, which are similar to thick roti, but they are deep fried, rather than pan-grilled; and naan, which is made with white flour and leavening and mostly made at restaurants or catered events. The specialty bread of Rajasthan is bati: a round roll, which was traditionally roasted in the coals of a fire, but nowadays is usually cooked in a stove-top cooker. Often the finished bati are cracked open and drenched in ghee, so the whole roll is infused with buttery flavor.
Dal bati’s cousin dish is dal dokli, which uses a similar dal, but with small pieces of dough cooked into the dal.
Another dish common in Rajastan and also in the neighboring state of Gujarat is pakora kadhi (pronounced “kuddy”). This dish consists of deep-fried chickpea flour fritters, “pakora” in a yogurt-based gravy. It is most often served with roti.
Many of the people in Udaipur — including all of the Brahmins and Jains — are “veg” and do not eat meat or eggs. However, Rajasthan also has a mutton (goat) dish that is specific to the region and truly delectable: “jungle maas.” Jungle maas literally means “wild meat” and refers to a rich, spicy stew. The story goes that in older times, when the rulers of Mewar and other Rajasthani kingdoms would go hunting, the hunting party could bring only a few spices that were easy to carry — nothing too bulky or perishable — so they would bring garlic, dried chile peppers, and salt, and prepare the hunted meat in the field. The secret to the rich taste of jungle maas is slow simmering for several hours over a fire, allowing the meat to cook in its own fat until it slides off the bone. A slightly more modern version of this mutton dish is “lal maas” which means “red meat” and is a similar stew, but with tomato and onion to fill out the gravy and more spices such as cloves, cinnamon, coriander powder, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and black pepper. I have had the luxury of being served both of these dishes by Rahul and Sandeep (the koftgari artists I am learning from) who cook the meat over a wood fire on their rooftop terrace.
The last dish I’ll mention is the humble “bindi ki sabzi,” which is spiced, stir-fried okra. This dish is beloved by nearly everyone I have talked to, and is a quick and simple meal to prepare on a busy day or late night. Paired with roti and (in the summertime) fresh mango juice, it makes for a delightful meal.
As much as I think about and talk about food, I am still very actively engaged in my research of Indian weapons and metalwork here in Udaipur! You can expect another update in the coming weeks regarding that research, with some photos of what I have been working on. In the meantime, if there is any particular topic you’d like to hear more about, send me an email, and I’ll do my best to work it into another blog post!
Special thanks to Surveer and to my landlord Buwanesh Tanwar Narayan Kothi. If you ever need a tour guide or a place to stay in Udaipur, Buwanesh is the guy to talk to: Hotel Picholi +91 94142 63314