Familiar food in a foreign avatar
Indian food is a playground for spices and herbs to tango and seduce the tongue. It is an explosion of flavours in every bite, heat and sweet mingle, sour and bitters make you pucker. Every region in the country harnessed the local produce to make a dish so unique that food is identified with that region, south Indian or north Indian or of Bengali or Marathi.
Little wonder therefore, if the average Indian, say a couple of decades ago and maybe to a tiny extent, even today, does not experiment with ‘foreign food’. Wait! I take back my words, how about the invasion of the pizza? Pitzza, as it was pronounced, as a new ‘food group’ could not be ignored, but slowly, we sought to change the ‘unique-ness’ and adapted it to suit our palette, think tandoori pizza!
And of course the ever popular, Indo-Chinese, the grand fusion of two cuisines, customised to suit our tastes. But I digress, I am talking of how we have customised international foods to our liking. How did that adaptation come so naturally to us? It is the underlying magic of the herbs and spices? Think of it, most cuisines use similar spices, just in varying quantities and combinations to make it unique to their country and cuisine.
Compare the Indian tomato kachumber / kousambri/ koshimbir to the Mexican fresh salsa, the very basic ingredients are tomato, onion, cilantro, lemon juice, green chilies/jalapeno (pronounced: hah-luh-peyn-yoh), the difference lies in the preparation (in salsa, the ingredients are combined and pulsed in a food processor, resulting in different taste and texture). Here is another comparison, think vegetable pulao, rice, vegetables and whole spices, herbs, right? Mexican rice, rice, vegetables (peas, corn, onions, bell pepper) tomato, garlic, oregano (herb). The Mexicans use Tortillas (pronounced: (tohr-tee-yah) is made from corn flour (makke di roti!), whole wheat flour (chapati?), to make burritos/wraps, filling them with varied fillings, from beans, salsa, guacamole, vegetable fajitas, rice, meat, cream, cheese to make it a meal in itself!
Of late the husband and I like to visit the neighbourhood Ethiopian restaurant, when we crave ‘comfort food’ of a different type. So how does comfort food become a ‘different type’, oxymoron? Let me elaborate, the Ethiopian cuisine has similarities to our cuisine and more importantly, it has variety to offer to a vegetarian, who sometimes has limited options when eating out in the US. The Ethiopians make Injera, a flatbread, similar to a crepe or imagine a sorta, sourdough Kerala appam? The ingredients are not similar, the Injera is made of teff flour, but the making involves fermentation and spreading on a hot skillet like a dosa/appam. As a common vegetarian accompaniment to Injera, there is a variety of lentil curries to choose from, for ex: Misir Wot, a stew made of red lentils ( Masoor) and Berbere paste (made using spices like cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, fenugreek/methi, pepper, ginger, garlic to name a few). A spoonful of this fiery stew is enough to awaken all your taste buds, if they be in slumberland and before you know it, you are stuffing morsel after morsel of the stew that is familiar, yet perplexingly exotic, (scooped up using the Injera, very like roti-subzi) and yes, you are eating with your hand, like you do at home. Comfort food delivered!
Irrespective of colour and race, there is so much we all share. The one thing that binds us is food ( no, I am not giving you the Miss India answers, humanity, love, blah, blah....) Sustainable food, you say love makes the world go round, I say it’s food, love don’t feed, in fact when fed, grows, didn’t grandma say, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach?