Thanks to Karen Anderson for the shout-out on her Savour It Allblog about my “Eating India” article in the newest issue of City Palate. The article highlights my travels through northern India in late 2015 with Alberta Food Tours–a truly delicious adventure.
I’m happy to say I’ll be making a return trip with them in the fall – this time to Mumbai, Goa, Kerala, and the Cardamom Hills!
You can read Karen’s post here – and see my full article in blazing colour in the digital edition of City Palate here.
There’s a look that appears when a chef shares his/her work with you.
A banked fire behind the eyes. A quickening of movement like a tiger eyeing its prey. A lilt to the voice that hints of energy barely contained.
I see it in Sumeet Nair as he stirs prawns into his kadhai and talks us through the finer points of tempering India’s myriad spices. He offers techniques and tastes from a two-burner stove in his yard in a Delhi suburb, and his passion is palpable.
Sumeet, if asked, wouldn’t refer to himself as a chef at all. With his Stanford degree and his career in design, he might describe himself a skilled home cook at best, a product of parents “obsessed with food”, and a frequent dinner host to friends and colleagues. But his home is a 2.6-acre organic farm where he grows and grinds his own wheat; his kitchen, the daily well-spring of fresh homemade yogurt and chapatti bread; his garden, a laboratory of cultivation for anything that might grow in Delhi’s semi-arid climate. And a digression from his usual holiday destination in Goa to a bungalow in Tamil Nadu has seen him become lead author on a cookbook that attempts to capture the unique and disappearing cuisine of Chettinad.
“I sat behind a simple banana leaf on which 23 different courses arrived, ” he explains. “And the flavour profile was so different in each dish, the juxtaposition of flavours so scientific, that I thought: I have to document this food .”
The embers behind his eyes flare into flame.
I see the look again 400 kilometres to the north in the city of Amritsar, widely- acclaimed as the street food capital of India.
Word has it that Bollywood stars flock here from distant Mumbai just to sample the vibrant offerings at its dhabas . It’s food that the Hindustan Times describes as “almost a character in itself, a sort of stereotypical Punjabi inviting you to share in his legendary largesse and appetite for life”.
The Hindustan might have been using Surjit Singh as their model for the stereotype, so apt is the description for the tall, crimson-turbaned man who welcomes us to Surjit Food Plaza. His manner is magnanimous, his smiles broad, but he is all intensity and attention when it comes to deciding what menu choices might best present his food to us. Surjit’s culinary career began in a small stand near the railway station where he drew fans for his unique masala-coated makhan fish. As his popularity soared, so too did his food offerings, and in 1976 he moved his kadhai and tandoor to his current location in the Lawrence Road food district.
His bright white digs may hum with fluorescent light and air-conditioning, but the kitchen on display through a wide pane of glass still lives in the alley – albeit the most speckless alley, I suspect, on the planet. It’s to here that I follow to watch him at work, tossing chicken tikka with vegetables and spices over a flaming grill. Here, too, I discover, is where his burn is the brightest and his hospitality billows warmest into the night.
High in the Himalayan foothills to the east of the Punjab, copper pots glow from their hooks in the sparkling demonstration kitchen of Ananda Spa. Built on the leafy palace grounds of the Maharaja of Tehri Garwhal, this spa restaurant couldn’t be aesthetically-further from Amritsar’s gritty streets – but a similar passion flames in the face that appears beneath the chef’s toque of Arun Kala.
Chef Arun has come full circle in the geography of his 15-year career: born and raised in nearby Dehradun, he earned his credentials as a pastry chef under India’s university culinary program, honing his skills at restaurants and five-star hotels around the country before venturing off to the UK. With notches to his belt from Aberdeen, Scotland and Michelin-starred Le Gavroche in London, Arun returned to his home state two years ago to skill-up in Ayurvedic cuisine at this world renowned resort.
His mien is earnest, his manner affable, as he fashions the locally-sourced pulses and organic greens into fine-textured soups and subtle hors d’oeuvres. But when our conversation turns to the Diwali sweets he learned to make at his mother’s side and the puff pastry I devoured with today’s mushroom ragout, his animation springs into full blaze.
There’s contagion in that look. A contagion that’s the fuel to my food writing. That has me mimicking the creations of Sumeet, Surjit, Arun, and others at home in my own kitchen. And that gives me the confidence – every once in a long while – to dare to create something new of my own.
Two intense weeks of indelible experiences: weaving through the holiday crowds of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk bazaar; mingling with pilgrims at the Punjab’s incomparable Golden Temple; dodging motorbikes on a high-adrenalin tasting tour of Lucknow street-food. We met and mentored with chefs in Delhi, Amritsar, and Narenda Nagar – and took our palates on a roller-coaster ride from the heat of a masala poriyal through the creaminess of a chicken malai tikka to the delicate nuances of a palak soup. And under the gentle guidance of Jojo Brooks, we practiced an unforgettable yoga session on a sandbank of the Ganges River.
India has so many stories to tell. Over the coming months, I hope to sort out and share some of them.
But after one week home, the impression of India that remains strongest with me is the warm and engaging demeanor of her people. From the first winning smile of the HI Travel rep who greeted me at Indira Gandhi International airport, to my final bear-hug with Luv Jawad (tour guide extraordinaire) in a Himalayan palace, the people I encountered throughout Northern India were amiable and interested and keen to connect.
Perhaps the young Sikh man I met enroute to his grandfather’s Punjabi home and the genial grandmother who was my seatmate on an Air India flight to Delhi were simply infused with the good cheer of Diwali. The classical dance troupe at the Amrit Rao Peshwa haveli and the attentive staff at Ananda in the Himalayas might only have been demonstrating their dedication to service. And maybe the rickshaw wallahs of Delhi and Varanasi were just gunning for a tip.
But there’s no denying the true generosity offered by Sumeet Nair, his wife, Gitanjali, and his daughter, Janaki, as they opened their home to us for a day of cooking and conversation beneath the huge ficus tree in their backyard. Nor the hospitality and inclusiveness of Prem Syal and his family and friends as they welcomed us to their spectacular Diwali celebrations. You invited us in to share your lives and your passions, and for that I will be ever grateful.
Kudos to Karen Anderson of Calgary Food Tours for the relationships she has nurtured over the years to offer these connections. Consider the stories to come a small tribute to you all.
Almost 12 years ago, I made my first trip to India, with a husband and two ‘tweens in tow. Together, we explored the princely palaces of Rajasthan, braved the bazaars of Mumbai, and breathed the mists rolling off the tea plantations of Darjeeling. We rode camels in the desert, spotted tigers in a nature preserve, watched the sunrise kiss Everest’s storied peak, and rocked-in the New Year in Delhi. Three weeks of sensory overload showed me only a sliver of all that is India, and I knew that I needed to return.
This month I’ll be back, sans children and husband (who are decidedly jealous). Under the guidance of Calgary Food Tours‘ Karen Anderson, I’ll be sampling Wazwan cuisine in Delhi, and Awadhi cuisine in Lucknow; learning the secrets of Chettiyar cooking in a chef’s kitchen and serving pilgrims in a community kitchen in Amritsar. We’ll explore Hinduism on the bank of the Ganges, Buddhism at Sarnath, Sikhism at the Punjab’s Golden Temple, and Islam in the architecture of the Mughals. We’ll practice yoga on the ghats of Varanasi and near the ashrams of Rishikesh. While we’re there, the whole country will explode with fireworks for Diwali – and we’re invited to the party.