ArchiveMarch 10, 2007

The Real Magic of India

For me, the real magic of India, comes not just from the stunning temples, palaces and vibrant colour but from the myriad of street foods, cooked on the little stalls and portable kitchens in every city, town and village all over the country. 
India is the world’s largest democracy and the economy is growing at a rate of 9% a year. 

In the 12 months since my last visit, the change is palpable. The number of new cars on the roads is increasing at a rate of 20,000 a day. In large cities like Mumbai and Delhi flyovers are being built at a frantic rate, but the traffic is fast becoming unbearable. Everywhere the roads are being dug up to make way for high tensile cables and there are acres of glitzy malls under construction. 

Tuc tuc’s and rickshaws are being eased out of city centres, they don’t fit in with the new cosmopolitan image that these cities are so anxious to portray. Needless to say, I don’t go to India to visit the latest Mac Donalds or KFC. They are all there and many more besides, desperate to get a piece of the action in this fast-growing economy. I’m looking for the quintessential Indian experience.

Tourist numbers are also at an all time high but sadly many travelers never get a real taste of India, scared by the prospect of a bout of ‘Delhi Belly’ they steer well away from street food and rarely venture into the roadside dhabas where I’ve had some of my most delicious and inexpensive bites. This is simple food by Indian standards and challenging by Western hygiene standards but most is freshly prepared from food brought in the morning market. It is cooked as you wait, some like naan breads and dosa are cooked in a Tandoor oven or in a iron tava others like samosas, bajiis, pakoras catchoris and pooris are deep fried in huge iron woks called Kad. Idli of south India are steamed and served with little bowls of sambar. The Indians love to snack, some poorer families don’t have any kitchens, few rural families have ovens. So all cooking is done over wood fires or with dried cow pats. In villages, towns and cities breakfast, lunch and evening meals come from street stalls, that specialize in just one or two items . 

Hard core foodies who want to enhance their Indian gastronomic experience need to develop a sixth sense survival strategy. First observe the stall quietly, not quite so easy when you are conspicuously white and foreign. As ever, its best to gravitate towards the busier stalls. If locals are already queueing up its likely to be the best choice in the area. Ask for the food to be cooked in front of you, rather than accepting an item that was cooked earlier. Much of Indian food is vegetarian. If it contains meat it will be referred to as non veg, Chicken or mutton (meaning goat) are the most usual meats. In some areas close to the sea, local fish can be very good. 

As far as street foods are concerned. Calcutta or Kalcota as it is now known, was by far the most vibrant and varied. We headed for the office area near Dalhousie Square just before noon when all the government clerks spill out of their offices and take a break from filling in dusty ledgers.

Just behind the office area and all around the corner there are food stalls on both sides of the pavement. The variety is staggering and affordable. As we wander down the street the vendors are gearing up for the imminent onslaught. One is chanting a puja around his stall. Several have little auspicious garlands of limes and chilli hanging from their umbrellas to ward off evil spirits. One romali roti maker feeds his first stuffed ‘handkerchief bread’ to the brazier as he murmurs a prayer, presumably to ask for a busy lunchtime trade. Indians of all ages and creeds are exceedingly devout.

All the ‘mise-en-place’ is done, bread dough made, vegetables chopped, pickles and chutneys at the ready. Big pots of mutton and chicken biryani are steaming hot ready to serve.

Other stalls are piled high with the ingredients for an ‘egg toast’ with chopped onion, green chilli, fresh coriander added to the beaten egg. It is fried on a hot tava in a little sizzling oil on a hot tava, then cut into quarters, sprinkled with pepper and coarse salt. Can you imagine how delicious that is. The skill and speed at which they work is astounding. Several are doing vegetable and non vegetable versions of the famous Kolcata Kati roll. 

Other stalls are piled high with flaky triangular Shingaras (Bengali savoury samosas) and moghlai parathas, stuffed with mince.

Another vendor is selling roast hard boiled eggs with pickles and chatt masala, yet another roti and gravy. Cauliflower is in season so yet another has crispy little cauliflower fritters which have been dipped in a gram (chickpea flour) batter laced with chilli powder and turmeric, so moreish. Many of the foods are served in little leaf baskets on banana leaves or in recycled newspaper bags.

Juice Wallahs have their stalls piled high with watermelons, pineapples, pomegranates and mangos. Tea shops making sweet chai and spicy marsala chai are also doing a roaring trade. 

There was much, much more, chickpea stews, dahls , fresh and cooked, vegetable salads, always spiced up with a hot sauce and served with a segment of lime.

Indians have an incredibly sweet tooth, several other stalls are providing a variety of sweet meats. One chap is piping thin spirals of a batter into hot oil to make Jalebas. When they are crisp they will be dropped into a heavy syrup to provide a tooth-wrenching sweet, but other favourites are the famous Rosagulla made from casein.

Sadly while we were there the Times of India carried a lead story that the Indian government planned to ban street food in Delhi. 

This may well be the beginning of the end for this kind of food which provides a livelihood and inexpensive nutritious food for literally millions of Indians of every class and creed every day.

Here are a few examples of some of the street foods I enjoyed.

Indian Spiced Vegetable Pakoras with Mango Relish

Serves 4-6
1 thin aubergine cut into 3 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) cups Chick pea or all-purpose flour
1 tablesp. chopped fresh coriander
1 scant teasp. salt
2 teasp. curry powder
1 tablesp. olive oil
1 tablesp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
6-8 fl ozs (175-250ml) 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) medium sherry
2 fl ozs (50ml) water
2 fl ozs (50ml) white wine vinegar
2 tablesp. sugar
2 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
2 teasp. salt
Pinch of ground mace
1 mango, peeled and diced
1 small red pepper, seeded and diced
1 tablesp. 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.


250ml (9fl oz) full fat milk
2-3 cardamom pods
2.5cm (1inch) piece of cinnamon
3 peppercorns
3 teaspoons loose tea leaves
500ml (18fl oz) boiling water

Put all the ingredients except the tea leaves and the sugar into a saucepan, bring slowly to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Bring back to the boil, add the tea leaves, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer for 1-2 mins. Turn off the heat and allow the leaves to settle. Serve in tea cups.

Cauliflower Fritters – from India’s Vegetarian Cooking by Monisha Bharadwaj – published by Kyle Cathie

Phoolkopir bhaja

Serves 4
For the batter:
150g flour
½ teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon ajowan seeds

Sunflower oil for deep-frying

300g cauliflower, cut into medium-sized florettes

Make a thick batter of all the batter ingredients and batter as needed to achieve the consistency of thick custard.

Heat the oil in a deep kadhai or frying pan until it is nearly smoking.
Dip each cauliflower florette in the batter and gently add to the hot oil. Reduce the heat to allow the cauliflower to cook through. Do this in batches, a few at a time, frying until golden, then drain on absorbent paper.
Serve hot with Pineapple Chutney or tomato ketchup.

Potatoes and Green Pea Samosas – from India’s Vegetarian Cooking by Monisha Bharadwaj

Mutter ke Samose

Serves 4 (makes 12 samosas)
Samosas are very popular all over the world and can be served as a snack, a main meal or a picnic treat. In India they are served with tomato ketchup, sweet and sour tamarind chutney or a spicy mint relish. The potatoes in this recipe need to be cut up finely, almost the size of a fingernail. They should retain their shape but melt in the mouth. Although they are traditionally deep-fried, Monisha bakes hers.

2 tablespoons sunflower oil
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
¼ teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
300g potatoes, peeled, cut into small cubes, boiled and drained
150g frozen green peas, cooked and drained
500g frozen ready-to-use filo pastry

Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the cumin seeds until they turn dark, for a few seconds. Reduce the heat.

Add the spice powders and stir in the potatoes at once as the spice powders will scorch easily. Add the peas and salt and cook until well blended, for a couple of minutes.

Line a baking tray with tinfoil and preheat the oven to 220C/gas 6.

Lay a sheet of pastry on a flat surface. Fill with a bit of the potato and pea mixture. Fold the pastry to make a triangle and continue similarly for the rest of the filling. (Folding technique: lift the top centre corner and fold over the filling to be in line with the bottom edge, making a triangle shape. Now lift the right bottom corner over to the top and then the top left down again. Carry on until you have a triangular parcel).

Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, turning over once to cook both sides.
Serve hot.

Foolproof Food

Indian ‘French toast’

Serves 4
4 thickish slices of good white bread
3 - 4 free range eggs
1 green chilli chopped 
4 tablespoons of freshly chopped coriander 
1 small onion chopped 
rock or sea salt 
freshly ground pepper

First lightly toast the bread (in Calcutta it was chargrilled over charcoal). Whisk the eggs in a flattish dish; add salt, finely chopped onion, green chilli and coriander. 

Dip one slice of bread into the egg, turn over to make sure it is saturated on both sides. Slap it onto a hot pan with a little sizzling oil. Cook until crispy on both sides. Cut in quarters, sprinkle with rock salt and serve. 

Hot Tips

Launch of Diversity Awards 2007
The launch of the Diversity Awards 2007 will take place on Monday 22nd March at the Stephen's Green Hibernian Club. 
Funded by the Department of Justice, Equality & Law Reform, under the 'National Action Plan Against Racism' (NPAR), the mission of the Diversity Awards is to recognise and celebrate the initiatives, policies and practices taken by both companies and individuals who embrace diversity within the Irish Hospitality and Tourism Industry. 
The Diversity Awards were first launched in 2006, and were met with great success. Now in their second year the Diversity Awards will be open to applications within a range of categories. 
For more information email Helen at 

Burrenbeo Information Centre and Café Beo reopen after winter break

The Burrenbeo Resource Centre and Cafe Beo - located in Kinvara - is now open, Wed - Sat, 10am to 6pm daily. Featuring: Images of the Burren - a stunning collection of photographic images of the Burrens rich heritage, Multilingual factsheets and other free Burren information, free broadband internet access, as well as an extensive range of Burren reference books to browse through while you relax with a cup of the best (fair trade) coffee in the Burren!

Diploma in Speciality Food Production – at University College Cork
2 April – 16 May 2007. This course is for individuals who are starting a speciality food business and also for those involved in this sector including producers, retailers, culinary specialists, buyers, food designers and journalists. For details contact Mary McCarthy Buckley, Food Industry Training Unit, University College Cork. Tel 021-4903363


Past Letters