Food, Beer, and Travel

a dump from the mind of Jon Piper

Posts Tagged ‘India’

India – Summary

Posted by jwpiper on January 25, 2009

I left for India cocky and proud. The food there taught me a lesson in humility. It is fitting that my last post was after eating at Nazim’s, because this was the meal which started it all. For days I insisted on my normal response to a solitary meal which tweaks the old digestive system – keep on eating as soon as possible as if nothing happened. Turns out this isn’t the best course of action when you have a serious bacterial infection in a foreign country without clean water or facilities. Lesson learned. Well, kinda. Turns out it was something of a good idea to keep eating since my trip was cut short, but that’s a different story.

Keeping on the topic of food, my final days in India were much more of a roler coaster gastronomically speaking. A return trip to Karim solidified it as the best food of the trip. On another day, after eating the worst meal of the entire trip, the Bengali Sweet House (click here to see it on a map) provided a tasty redemption. There I sampled a cardamom nut ice cream served with sweet noodles, good gulab jamon, and the tasty carrot dessert with crushed cashews. Other restaurant experiences in Delhi varied from terrible to decent. At the worst, gravies left out warm all day below a boil at what turned out to be a cockroach infested restaurant (Kake da Hotel) couldn’t have possibly helped my stomach. And the pizza I had at an Indo-Italian (aka, bad Italian) restaurant certainly wasn’t the best way to end my trip to Delhi, but that’s a different story.

The hotel in Chennai, however, provided some good recovery food with fresh yogurt and fruit (something which didn’t often present itself in Delhi) – including pommegranate seeds, apples, pears, passion fruit, pineapple, figs, papaya, etc. Of course, eating a kilogram of fresh fruit caused some discomfort for the rest of the day before my return trip to the US.

Aside from the food, the biggest differences I noted upon landing in Chennai were the blue skies and slightly more orderly traffic. Delhi had some beautiful days while we were there – but never did you see the blue sky or bright sun. Everything was filtered through the thickest brown fog – much worse than anything I’ve seen in LA and purportedly worse even than the largest cities in China. The food was also certainly different, but my exposure was limited because the trip was shortened and my stomach demanded a respite from the deluge I had thrown at it for more than a week.

In all, this will be a memorable trip. I won’t soon forget the auto-rickshaw (or “auto”) rides which started with me getting punched by a beggar and almost ended in a wreck or fight in the street. I won’t soon forget that its possible to fit five people onto a small motorcycle. I won’t soon forget that large Indian travelers don’t have the same arm-rest etiquette as large American travelers do, nor that seat 22F on the Boeing 777-200ER does not allow you to stretch your legs during the 14.5 hour flight from Delhi to Newark. And I won’t soon forget that any travel case devoid of a powerful anti-biotic is one which shouldn’t touch down in India.

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Delhi – Nizam’s Kathi Kabab

Posted by jwpiper on January 15, 2009

Kanak, always looking out for my gastronomic needs, wanted me to sample typical West Bangali food, so we sought out Nizam’s which was promised to serve food typical of the Kolkata (Calcutta) streets. After a short (Delhi standards) drive into downtown Delhi, we arrived to a large commercial area. Some meandering through streets brought us to the restaurant.

Since the restaurant wouldn’t serve alcohol, we went to an upstairs lounge across the street, Knight World Cuisine Lounge, where I was committed to again have the typical Indian experience. So we took an Antiquity Blue, domestic whiskey, on the rocks. In South India, I’m told this is pronounced “Auntie-Kwe-Tee”. I found it to be just terrible, so after polishing that off, we moved on to a domestic rum, Old Monk. I’m told there is no drink more typically Indian. For a cheap rum, it actually wasn’t too bad. The backdrop of paid karaoke singers completed the modern Indian experience quite nicely. Listening to American music sung above the recorded synthesized background music was a treat in itself.

For dinner we ordered double chicken double egg rolls and mutton biryani. The rolls were chicken kebab with fried eggs, pickled red onions, and fresh chilies all rolled up in a flakey butter naan: an oily, rich delight. The biryani was served alongside curd (this stuff was like a cross between yogurt and cottage cheese), and a chicken gravy (or curry, as its called in the rest of the world). With the curd and gravy mixed in, this was easily the best biryani I have ever had. Kanak rates it a 5/10. Huh? I guess I’ll see later. The highlight of the biryani was the generous spicing with whole cardamom pods and cloves which lended an exotic flavor to the whole bowl, but also resulted in the periodic explosion of flavor in the mouth.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should mention that this food has given me a terrible case of the runs the next morning. Completely and utterly worth it.

See Nizam’s Kathi Kabab on a map.

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Delhi – The Great Kabab Factory

Posted by jwpiper on January 14, 2009

We tried another kebab restaurant on a recommendation. Only 2.5 km away, it took the obligatory 20-30 minutes to reach. It turned out to be an all-you-can eat type of restaurant, similar to the Brazilian churrasco restaurants which can commonly be found in the States. We went the 100% meat route for the kebabs, and were treated to a variety of preparations.

The salad course, consisting of cucumbers, papaya, and tomatoes with a strawberry dressing was fresh, bright, and quite good. The produce is very good at the restaurants we’ve been frequenting, with the exception of the lettuce which no one eats for fear of parasites which attack the brain. Huh? The interesting drink for the night was a buttermilk with chopped mint leaves. Buttermilk has never been my favorite, but this wasn’t offensive. I ended up drinking a couple of sweet lime sodas instead. The search for Kingfisher Strong continues.

Following was the deluge of kebabs, starting with a Kaloti kebab. It seemed to be a puréed lamb pâté which was pan-seared to a crispy exterior. The texture was sublime and the flavor spiced, rich, and enticing. In addition to this came tandoori chicken, a mint chutney rubbed chicken preparation, chicken tikka, tandoori mutton chops, a fish meatball preparation, and likely several more that I’m forgetting. Alongside were severed several dosas and parathas. To supplement, we ordered tandoori prawns which were incredibly succulent and tasty in their crispy spice rub.

I could have continued in this vein for the whole night, but the next course was a dahl and biryani course. Kanak ordered a paper thin paratha for me, which ended up being a good way to not eat too much bread with the ridiculous amounts of food I was consuming. There were two dahls served – a brown lentil dahl and an orange-lentil dahl. The orange lentil dahl had flavors quite reminiscent of the yellow lentil Ethiopian dish I love so much, Kik Alicha. The brown dahl actually wasn’t as wonderfully earthy as my first experience at the Indian Pub, but was still pretty good. The biryani wasn’t exceptional, but the paneer dish was welcome.

To finish, there were four dessert choices, and I decided to sample them all. First I tried a shaved carrot dish which turned out to be the gem and the only one I greatly enjoyed. They shave the carrots and cook with sugar for hours and hours, making a pleasantly sweet and subtle dessert. Then I tried their firnee which was not nearly as satisfying as Karim’s and a pistachio custard which I was excited upon seeing, but ended up lacking complexity or much flavor. Finally, the gulab jamon was simple and not terribly compelling.

If a return were ever to be in my future, I would gorge myself on the kebabs and leave all the other stuff behind. The restaurant was good, but not great, especially on the heels of my visit to Karim’s, and it seemed substantially more expensive.

See The Great Kabab Factory on a map.

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Delhi – Karim

Posted by jwpiper on January 13, 2009

It started as an innocent drive at 20:30 filled with the now usual though comical and scary adventures of driving in Delhi traffic. A few new observations: 1) Green arrow means yield; red light means go. No, I’m not kidding or exaggerating, that is quite literally the rule – at least at this particular intersection. 2) It is perfectly normal for a passenger to get out of a vehicle and cross traffic to walk off the road. First I saw this on city roads – ok, whatever – but then on the highway. 3) If you miss your turn and there isn’t oncoming traffic immediately apparent, it is recommended to drive the wrong way on a road in hope of finding a place you can flip a u-turn. As soon as a wall of oncoming traffic comes racing toward you from around the corner you were blinded to, calmly stop, lay on your horn, open your door, yell to the car(s) who followed you to back up, and backup to make enough room so the angry drivers, presumably in the right of way, can move around you slightly for you to maneuver through the cars to continue on your wrong way. And finally, 4) if you get to your destination unscathed, it was a successful journey – there are no points for finesse.

We exited the car and began walking, guided by our companion who I found out later hadn’t been to this restaurant since 1983. We meandered through the narrow walkways immediately greeted with the smell of stale urine, the sound of beggars and street vendors, and the sight of litter. Soon the smells mixed with varyingly pleasant aromas of street food, though today wouldn’t see me consume the risky morsels.

Finally, we were under the large yellow sign announcing this landmark restaurant, Karim, which has been serving classic Delhi food since 1913. The best restaurant in the worst neighborhood. The decor could be described as classic Hindi movie or straight from an early James Bond scene representing middle eastern establishments. Whatever the surrounds, this restaurant can’t have a more cult following – clearly not a tourist trap, just the best no frills food available in Delhi.

The meal delivered on the promise. We started with minced lamb kebabs, tandoori chicken, and a whole tandoori fish – all brilliantly executed, crispy and succulent with bright and savory flavors. Following was chicken briyani, raan (mutton) in a rich gravy, and pillowy roti. To finish, we each polished off classically subtle firnee presented in an earthen vessel which served to remove some of the moisture from the pudding, giving it an pleasant gelatinous texture.

This was easily the best North Indian meal I can remember ever having and rivaled some of the homemade South Indian meals I savored in my childhood – but with delicious meat. Indeed, the memories flooded back as I finally felt truly comfortable eating Indian cuisine with my hands for the first time since those days. It conjured a warm, homey feeling which undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment of this meal I won’t soon forget.

See Karim Restaurant on a map.

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Delhi – Pubbles Street

Posted by jwpiper on January 12, 2009

Best pub food… and worst pub beer.

We started with appetizers of lamb meatballs and a tandoori patter (pictured). Everything was extremely tasty, but the meatballs were absolutely unreal – spicy, spiced, succulent and rich, it was difficult to identify all of the flavors.

While I’ve had it before (under both its Asian name and American name, Taj Mahal), I thought I’d give Kingfisher a try near the source. Some of the bottles were brown and some clear. Not too surprisingly, there was a taste difference, presumably contributed by light skunking since the labels are the exact same: avoid the clear bottles. An unsatisfying experience caused the ill-advised switch to Tiger. My reviews are below, both poured at cooler temperature from 650ml bottles into 300ml pilsener glasses. Fortunately, I think I got sampling the light lagers out of the way early on in the trip.

For the meal, I tried a chicken dish, marinated in cream and spices. The dahl was incredibly earthy and played well with the bright and savory spices on the chicken. Kanak introduced me to what I call the chili chaser: taking a bite of your meal and then a bite of fresh green chili to add the fresh, sharp flavor and spice – delicious. It was so refreshing to be back to eating Indian food with my hands – something which consistently draws strange looks in Indian restaurants in the US.

Across from the restaurant, we enjoyed a treat of beetle leaf stuffed with spices – my second street food experience after being warned by everyone not to eat street food. Huh? It was referred to as an aphrodisiac, a breath freshener, as well as a digestive aid. I was instructed to stuff it in my cheek like chew, and slowly work it into my mouth since eating it too fast is bad for you. Huh? This treat seems pretty shrouded in myth. It was pretty unique: very refreshing flavors of mint and anise, honey sweetness, and some exotic savory spices.

My first real meal in India did not disappoint – and I’m told to expect better as we go.

Kingfisher Premium Lager

Appearance
3
Clear light golden yellow color with a decent white head which clung to the glass as it was gulped. A strange hope of a decent, clean, lager arises.
Smell
3
Some funky, yeasty notes which were strangely fairly pleasant – reminiscent of a light saison. I fear, however, that the funk was not intentional. All is discord between the label, the appearance, and the smell. But each in its own right is not too bad at all.
Taste
2
Whoa, downhill from here. The flavors are light, watered down, and still a little funky – is this open fermented? Were nasty local yeasts allowed to impart that funkiness? The brown bottle (reviewed) at least had much less skunky notes. But this isn’t very good.
Mouthfeel
2.5
Light. Actually had a mildly pleasant dryness.
Drinkability
2
Not horrendous. Actually, somewhat easy drinking as per the style, but why?
Overall
2.45
Again, not terrible (better than many American macros), but why?
Price
165Rs/650ml. Not even close to a value. Sparkling water is better and cheaper.

Tiger Beer

Appearance
2.5
Clear golden with a decent white head. Nothing about this is reminiscent of any good beer I’ve had.
Smell
2
A lighter smell than the Kingfisher, with nothing really inviting about it. Maybe a little malt on the nose – much like an American macro.
Taste
1.5
This was pretty terrible – light, a little malty. Nothing very redeeming about this.
Mouthfeel
2
Not as pleasantly dry as the Kingfisher, but still clean on the palate.
Drinkability
2
I mean, these are meant to be drinkable. I just don’t find them so. It’s like drinking bad water.
Overall
1.9
Speaking of water – pass me the water. I’d take a Kingfisher over this anyday. Now there’s a good beer!
Price
165Rs/650ml.

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Delhi – Traffic

Posted by jwpiper on January 12, 2009

Driving in India is pretty amazing, and I’m told I haven’t seen anything yet. I must admit, while I’ve seen some crazy driving (eg, Haiti), I’ve never seen it with so many cars on the road. I say cars, but the diversity of transportation represented on the roads is just as impressive as the nearly undescernable laws which govern the safety of those who navigate them.

Pedestrians, bicyclists, tricyclists with makeshift truck beds, donkeys with trailers, cars, and buses all share the road with an impressive non-deference. It is unclear who ultimately has the right of way, and it seems to be up for grabs based on position, utilization of the horn, and whim. I fully expected to experience at least a bumper tap here or there with the lack of lanes, safe trailing distances, or clear traffic laws identifying who’s turn it is. However, all proceeds with notable efficiency and without incident. As far as I can tell, alongside trust in the rules of the road (which I have yet to completely understand) to ensure safe travel, there is a silent heavy reliance on the gods prominently perched on the dashboards of every driver.

Since the comparison begs to be made, while the traffic is a bit more intense and the rules/laws equally unclear, the roads are in substantially better condition – at least in Delhi – than in Haiti. After some time to learn these unspoken rules, I welcome the opportunity to try my hand at navigating these roads.

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