Saturday, June 16, 2012

Eating Out, At Home And Abroad

Wherever I go, part of me is always looking or thinking about food!  It's not that I feel the urge to eat constantly, but I like to look at the ingredients, manner of cooking and presenting food and ultimately of course, think about what it's doing to us in terms of nourishment and renewal.

Exploring the local food market, Nagaland

Meal steamed and served in a banana leaf packet, Sri Lanka

On my travels this time, I found it easy to eat tasty and reasonably healthy food in Europe and the US, something that is hard to come by in India.  (Restaurant food in India tends of be overly heavy and spiced).  I was taken aback, as I usually am each time I first arrive in the US, by the amount of disposable plastic and paper ware and the enormous amounts of meat, white bread and fried things that are being dispensed!  The junkier the food, the cheaper it is.  Of course, the things I indulge in are fresh greens, fruit, seafood and occasionally, some of the grilled meats.
Seafood bar, New Orleans

The food scene had changed a little since I last visited.  Pizzas were popular as always, but there was a lot more variety in toppings - even strange ones like mashed potatoes and broccoli were sold out!  Pesto is definitely "in" and has replaced some of the mayonnaise and other flavourings used in sandwiches.  Mozarella appears to be a common substitute for processed American cheese.  Hot sandwiches are much more easily available, made with different flat breads.  There was even something called nanini (a combination of naan and panini)!

I also ate some very tasty salads, there seem to be many more fresh and flavourful ingredients and it was a treat (good salad ingredients are very hard to find in India).   Though it was not quite summer, berries, peaches, apricots and sweet cherries were plentiful and some of the Mexican mangoes were almost as good as the Indian ones!  On the whole, it was not difficult to find enough stuff to keep one healthily occupied at mealtimes.  There were many places which served pleasant food at a reasonable price but for very good food, one still had to go to expensive restaurants - I suppose this is a   universal phenomenon.

Fancy flambeed orange dessert, on a cruise down the Arabian Sea

Reluctantly, I tried some restaurant catered Indian food in the US this time and was surprised at how well made it was, much better than most things we would get in our own country!  The standard is fairly high.  I sampled a range of north Indian food bought from different places (by different friends) and it was all extremely good.  There is enormous difference between the mildly spiced, well seasoned, fresh Indian food available today and the aloo gobi (reminiscent of 'Bend it like Beckham') and frozen chapatis of yesteryears.  There seem to be several Indian eateries, especially around Indian neighbourhoods, that cater to a more discerning clientele.

Of course, when one thinks about it, the largest market for good Indian food should be India!  With busy lifestyles, both partners working, longer school and office hours and more internal tourism, the food and catering business is apparently booming in the country.  But strangely enough, it is very hard to find reasonable, healthy and tasty food outside the home (and often, even within the home).  Chillies (especially the ubiquitous red chilly powder), additives and various processed foods have had an unfortunate and pervasive influence on cooking and serving food.  In the spirit of an old Hindi song, I lament, "Khansama, khansama na rahaa, Dhaba dhaba na rahaa.  Zindagi hamein tera, aitbaar na rahaa.." (Cooks are no longer what they were, Dhabas (roadside eateries) are no longer what they were.  Oh Life, I no longer have the faith I used to have in you..).

Indeed, those good old days when one could walk into any dhaba (or home) and get a wholesome, satisfying meal (and plenty of gratuitous gossip) seem to be ending.  Where are those slivers of ginger, the freshly picked green chilly, the coarsely chopped onion, the dal drenched in home made butter or ghee?  It's all processed butter (or worse) and spoonfuls of chilly powder now.  Sigh!  What we need is a little retro-cooking and lots more time to sit and enjoy those slow cooked meals as we once used to.

"Welcome.  We respect speed, but speed also requires time"- sign on a dhaba, Himachal Pradesh

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