ArchiveMarch 18, 2001

The Spicy Smell of India

For years I’ve longed to go to India, even the dire warnings of my friends and graphic descriptions of the misery of Delhi belly didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Nonetheless it was with a certain trepidation that I recently embarked on a 10 day culinary tour of South India , Mumbai, Goa and Kerala.  Surprise, surprise, even though we ate for Ireland we didn’t have the slightest twinge of gippy tummy. Even more remarkable, no one of the entire group of 20 people was ill, although we ate food everywhere from street stalls, to local restaurants, plantation houses, to palatial hotels.  Even as we landed early in the morning at Mumbai Airport, we were aware of the characteristic spicy smell of India. The airport was a heaving mass of people, terrifying when one is bleary eyed after a long haul flight.  Fortunately we were rescued by the staff of the lovely Leela Kempinsky Hotel who came especially to meet us. The hotel is just five minutes from the airport and even at 4am we were warmly greeted with the traditional Indian welcome. Beautiful girls in saris put the bindi on our foreheads and slipped garlands of French marigolds and jasmine flowers over our weary heads – so beautiful we felt instantly revived.  After we had grabbed just a few hours sleep we donned our runners, joined our group and started to explore. Mumbai, the economic powerhouse of India, is an exhilarating city, home to approx. 18 million people, and the industrial hub of everything from textiles to petro-chemicals.  A city of extreme contrasts, from the glamour of the Bollywood film industry (the largest in the world) and cricket on the maidens at weekends, sacred cows wandering the streets, to Asia’s largest slums. Its relative prosperity has made it a magnet for India’s rural poor. Like many Asian cities it is fuelled by an amazing entrepreneurial energy at all levels.  The poor , of which there are millions, are endlessly creative in their pursuit of a livelihood or even mere existence. The culture shock is extreme and difficult for even seasoned travellers to cope with.  One of the most fascinating sights we saw on the first morning, was the Djobi Ghat, a unique and colourful laundry where men do all the washing in sinks and tubs in the open air, the clothes emerge miraculously clean and are delivered starched and ironed all over the city. One of the great landmarks, The Gateway of India, a honey coloured basalt arch of triumph, was originally built to commemorate the visit of George V and Queen Mary in 1911. Ironically it was from there that the last British regiment departed in 1948.  Nowadays, even though it has become a tourist spot, it is still a favourite meeting place for locals in the evening. Pedlars, snake charmers and balloon sellers all give it the excitement of a bazaar. You must see the Fort Area where most of the city’s impresive colonial buildings are situated and the Victoria Terminus where carvings of peacocks, gargoyles, monkeys, elephants and lions are perched among the turrets, buttresses, spires and stained glass windows.  There are wonderful views of the city and Arabian Sea from Malibar Hill.  Try to get to Mani Bhavan, a small museum dedicated to the life and works of Mahatma Ghandi, and if time allows the Prince of Wales museum to see the extensive collection of fascinating 18 & 19 Century miniature paintings, elegantly carved ivory artworks and a rich and gorgeous collection of Nepalese and Tibetan art.  But we were on a culinary tour so apart from all these delights the main focus was the food. Mumbai, meaning ‘good bay’ as Bombay is now called, has apparently the best selection of restaurants of any Indian city. The amazing variety of food reflects all Indian creeds and cultures and gives an insight into the history of the metropolis: Parsi Dhansak, Muslim kebabs, Mangalorean seafood, Gujarati thalis and of course Mombai’s great speciality the bhelpari. For that, go along to Chowpatty beach in the evening when darkness blots out the ugly surroundings and the grim waters of Back Bay.  The locals come with their kids to enjoy the amusements in the cool evening breeze. When we tumbled out of our bus at about 9 pm, the beach was throbbing with excitement, merry- go- rounds, monkey trainers, paan wallahs, mystics, card players, philosophers, con artists, boat trips, pony rides, … Several people were having vigorous massages on the beach.  There was row after row of food stalls with braziers and huge iron wok like pans and griddles selling Indian snacks, samosas, spicy potato cakes and the famous bhelpuri – delicious snacks of crisp noodles, puffed rice, spiced vegetables, crushed puri, chutney and chillies. Here too you can find some of the best kulfi in Mumbai. The best seafood we ate was at a city centre restaurant called Ttishna, next to the Commerce House in the Fort area. The food is a fusion of South Indian and Mangalore, a delicious fish called pumphry from the Indian Ocean, marinated in turmeric and lime and seasoned with freshly crushed black pepper and cooked in the tandoor oven. The steamed King crab served with melted butter was the most divine and succulent we ever tasted. Huge spicy prawns and Surmai tilski were also superb.  After lunch we explored the colourful indoor Crawford market, Bas reliefs by Rudyard Kipling’s father Lockwood Kipling adorn the Norman Gothic exterior and an ornate fountain he designed still stands, surrounded by old fruit boxes in the centre of the market. The animal market at the rear sells everything from dogs to cockatoos. The meat market is certainly not for the faint-hearted and would cause our environmental health officers to have apoplexy. Perhaps we should study this as many Indians certainly have antibodies and an immune system the envy of Europeans and Americans whose systems have recently been dumbed down by lack of challenge from bacteria now that so much food has been rendered almost sterile by processing.  Having said that, about 70% of Indians are vegetarians. Meat, when it is eaten is often cooked within hours of being killed, with a judicious mixture of spices, many of which have antiseptic qualities. It certainly didn’t deter me from trying everything that was put before me – some of the most exciting flavours I’ve ever tasted.

Indian Spiced Vegetable Pakoras with Mango Relish

Serves 4-6

1 thin aubergine cut into * inch (5mm) slices
1 teasp. salt
2 medium courgettes, cut into 1 inch (2.5cm) slices, if they are very large cut into quarters
12 cauliflower florets
6 large mushrooms, cut in half
6 ozs (170g/1*) cups Chick pea or all-purpose flour
1 tablesp. (1 American tablesp. + 1 teasp.) chopped fresh coriander
1 scant teasp. salt
2 teasp. curry powder
1 tablesp. (1 American tablesp. + 1 teasp.) olive oil
1 tablesp. (1 American tablesp. + 1 teasp.) freshly squeezed lemon juice
6-8 fl ozs (175-250ml/*-1 cup) iced water
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Garnish: Lemon wedges and coriander or parsley

Put the aubergine slices into a colander, sprinkle with the salt, and let drain while preparing the other vegetables.  Blanch the courgettes and cauliflower florets separately in boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Drain, refresh under cold water, and dry well. Rinse the aubergine slices and pat dry.  Put the flour, coriander, salt and curry powder into a large bowl.  Gradually whisk in the oil, lemon juice and water until the batter is the consistency of thick cream.  Heat good quality oil to 180C in a deep fry. Lightly whisk the batter and dip the vegetables in batches of 5 or 6, slip them carefully into the hot oil. Fry the pakoras for 2-3 minutes on each side, turning them with a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in a moderate oven (uncovered) while you cook the remainder. Allow the oil to come back to 180C between batches. When all the vegetable fritters are ready, garnish with lemon wedges and fresh or deep fried coriander or parsley. Serve at once with Mango relish.


Mango Relish

2 fl ozs (50ml/* cup) medium sherry
2 fl ozs (50ml/* cup) water
2 fl ozs (50ml/* cup) white wine vinegar
2 tablesp. (2 American tablesp. + 2 teasp.) sugar
cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 teasp. salt
Pinch of ground mace
1 mango, peeled and diced
1 small red pepper, seeded and diced
1 tablesp. (1 American tablesp. + 1 teasp.) lemon juice

Put the sherry, water, vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, salt and mace into a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the mango, pepper, and lemon juice, lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes more. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. Spoon into a screw top jar and refrigerate until required.



Past Letters