When the Mouth is on Fire… Culinary Encounters in India
For gourmets and gourmands the Indian subcontinent can truly be the Promised Land, in particular when it’s about chicken, fish, lamb or vegetarian specialties. In Punjab state for example you can get yourself in touch with the original version of world famous Chicken Tandoori, while in the west Bengali food will give you how adorable a fusion of Indian and Thai kitchen can taste like. Also North Indian cuisine can be pretty hot, in particular when a hellish ingredient is coming into affair, an ingredient that is used by Indian military to give its teargas the last finish, which is the extremely hot Bhut Jolokia chilli.
Solely lovers of beef dishes might India dislike a bit as even mentioning that you could ever harm a cow will lead to stoning-like looks at you complemented by a reproachful “you cut the cow?!!” In particular North India is the origin of countless rich dishes, if not to say very rich. Hence when knowing about one of Indian food’s main ingredients, that is Ghee (resolidified butter), it comes as no surprise that Indians are often bursting at the seams and funnily even vegetarians have a pretty voluminous aspect. Fat is a flavour carrier though and if some of the world’s most fantastic spice mixtures are getting involved, then all things are set to make you eating through India. Your hips give you props for that… ;-)
Pepperiness is surely a macho topic, but when even Indians use the term “super hot” then better prepare yourself for survival. Defibrillators appear in your mind’s eye and you see yourself already covered with earth halfway in a roadside ditch lying somewhere among wild dogs. Does your health insurance cover self-mutilation, when you’re setting your own mouth on literal fire?
In Calcutta it’s no problem to get the powder of Bhut Jolokia, a chilli being about 1 million Scoovil hot. That is so hot that the spicegrocer is warning you to cost it, even if it’s only a point of a knife. When having this stuff in your hand luggage it gets confiscated at all airports, as this stuff is so painful that even the Indian military is using it to “spice up” its self-made tear gas.
Doesn’t matter if Bhut Jolokia or conventional chilli, there’s something good about hotness as bacteria & co don’t get a chance to bother you. Already the first contact with Bhut Jolokia is devastating. It feels like continuously chewing on a bunch of needles and every pin is drilling itself into the pink flesh of your oral cavity and the breathing rate increases. However, it is kind of extra-terrestrial that despite this extreme hotness you can still taste something…
A small point of a knife is already enough to set a big pot of food fully on fire. Green chillies eaten raw funnily taste very mild now. At the latest after the second bite the connection between throat and stomach transforms into an aseptic downpipe unresistingly handing over any food to stomach and bowels. Farsighted people already know now that this stuff also has to leave your body again…
Making a stop in Calcutta, you can have a rendezvous with sublime Bengali kitchen. It doesn’t surprise that this area surrounded by India and Thailand (roughly spoken) is not only a geographic but also a culinary interface between those two countries. Hence you’ll meet the first dishes gently underlined by coconut milk and palm sugar as well as lime and green chilli as main ingredients. On Calcutta’s road you will bump into small shops selling a milk-made candy that is funnily squeaking while chewing. I forgot the name of this Calcutta-typical speciality but it can be doubtlessly enjoyed at frequented places. Tasty stuff!
The level of service is different… The culture connecting eating and communication doesn’t seem to be all too appreciated in India. Maybe because I was travelling alone, but on the other hand it is quite a fauxpas getting the dessert served between first and second main course, while not being told that what you’ve ordered comes in two courses. Sometimes food and bill where that much on the table that the one-way taxi ride to the restaurant took longer. In particular Calcutta’s “Kewpies” didn’t score that point, which is sad as food and interior were quite good.
Looking for a really good Chicken Tandoori or Chicken Tikka when staying in Agra? Then just tell your driver to bring you to Mu’urgha (also “Mama Food”). This snack stall has only stands/tables, no seats, but is heavily patronised by the locals and definitely serves a Chicken Tandoori/Tikka that you will never forget. Also Agra’s “Silk Road” restaurant is serving decent food, but since its menu consists mainly of several spinach curries things can quickly become a bit boring though.
Another restaurant recommendation is the Jaipur-based „Venus“, which can be found not far away from the Wind Palace. In particular their Chicken Tikka Butter Masala was a highlight as it was basing on yoghurt with a dash of butter milk plus fenugreek and most tender chicken meat. Also Jaipur’s Rainbow Restaurant, being more patronised by tourists, is a lunch or dinner worth, to try their excellent Chicken Rice Biryani.
One of the best places in Jodhpur is the roof top restaurant Indique being located not that far from the Clock Tower. Besides offering a marvellous view to the illuminated Mehrangarh Fort also great food is served, for example their Silver Thali, a menu that once was served to maharajas only. Doesn’t matter if you indulge yourself into meats or vegetarian food, this Thali is a must-have and their Chicken Tikka is honestly one of the best being served across North India. Also their curries are awesome as you can taste every single spice used; though, Biryani-style food isn’t their strong point. Also you should try sweets being sold on the streets of Jodhpur, for example stuff like Gulab Jammun, a sweet little sin that will go straight onto your hips.
At Amritsar-based Surjit Restaurant the boss himself showed me how Tandoori Chicken & Co are seeing the light of the day. The kitchen crew was visibly unpleased when the wrinkly left his cashier booth, went up the stairs leading to the cooker and took over the command at the interestingly violet painted kitchen.
Cooking on flash flame he began dishing up three different curries and also showed how the marinated and pierced chicken disappears in the Tandoor oven to finally land on our plates as Tandoori Chicken. At least in terms of (abdominal girth) oven and boss were correlating at is best, though if looks could kill then I wouldn’t have survived the kitchen crew, whose system and organisation got heavily jumbled by their superior.