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Archive for the ‘Delhi’ Category

Most people embarking on a journey to India, start and/or end their trip in Delhi. This post can then serve either as introduction (in the form of preparation for such an undertaking, or as a conclusion of what one has already experienced. Indian cuisine is so varied, Travel chairwith such a wealth of recipes – some of which were already recorded in Sanskrit in 500 AD. It was notable for me on my vegan culinary tour of India how the food changed with every 20 kilometers I travelled! Food is very much respected in India, and never taken for granted – no matter what your economic status. I have never in the month of visiting India seen, as one does in especially countries of the new world (America, Australia, England etc.), school children or anybody walk and munch on something. Sit-down mealtimes are enjoyed with the family at specific times of the day; city workers would buy meals from the stalls and stand and eat at the stall.

Cardamom tea being offeredMy travel partner and I never got sick the entire month. This was largely due to not consuming dairy, meat or fish but also keeping to sensible hygiene habits. We always boiled our water, let it cool down in the kettle and then poured the water through a Seychelle waterbottle filter as well. The Kingfisher brand of bottled water is apparently also the only bottled water to be trusted, so any other bottles in restaurants we poured through our filter bottles. Eating fresh fruit is the safest in the big hotels, where the fruit is washed under filtered water, then chopped up to be presented on large platters (especially for breakfast buffets). It you do buy fresh fruit and vegetables at the markets, pour some filtered water into the basin in your bathroom. I also add about 12 drops of GSE – concentrated grapeseed extract – that will deal with any nasty bacteria or even pesticides. There is a huge range of dried pulses for sale at various markets. Take a nut milk bag with you and sprout these – such as chickpeas, lentils, mung beans, adzuki beans – in your bathroom (soak overnight in filtered water and rinse everyday with filtered water – you’ll soon get used to this!). It is then easy to supplement any non-dairy vegetable curries or baked vegetable dishes with your sprouts. Good quality nuts are also available at markets; little corner stalls (the best shops for nuts in Goa were liquor stores!); or place a handful of extra nuts from the breakfast buffet in a travel zip-lock plastic bag. I never travel without small packets of protein powder, some of which even contain at least 8 strains of friendly gut bacteria. This becomes my ‘yoghurt’ for breakfasts: simply pour into your bowl, add filtered water or vegetable juice from the breakfast buffet, stir and add cut fruit. Ask for a helping of uncooked, plain oats. Dahl (yellow split peas or mung beans) are usually prepared in water (not stock) – but make sure. Chickpeas are mostly cooked in tomato with onion and spices, but check this also.

Ghee is added to most dishes during the cooking process (especially in the north of India, and not so much in the south), and this presents a problem for vegans who cannot just walk in at an informal eatery or buy street food. However there are some breads that are not made with yoghurt or milk in the dough, and only has the ghee brushed on after baking. One can request to have the bread served plain. The adding of ghee is seen as a way of making a dish pure, since cows are considered sacred animals in India. So while treading softly and respectfully with this understanding around the issue of making Indian vegetarian dishes vegan, it’s best to simply state that one is choosing not to consume dairy due to a dairy allergy. Some societies have started to accept the fact that going dairy-free is more healthy: while I was in Udaipur a long article appeared in one of the national newspapers where the Minister of Health was quoted saying “Indians should go vegan”. Millions of people have diabetes type II, heart disease and strokes which high cost to the medical system the Minister of Health said the country cannot afford. As a growing economy, a large chunk of their budget is poured into education.

Churning goat milk to make butter

Churning goat milk to make butter

I realize one doesn’t always want to go to the big, five star hotels while travelling – I prefer to experience local life and traditions myself. However, in order not to miss out on the incredible taste experience of the wealth of Indian cuisine one’s best bet is to pre-arrange a vegan dinner or simply notify the hotel that one is vegan. Often the head chef will draw up a separate vegan menu for your stay, Guruor will come and talk to you everyday to discuss the meals to be prepared. In this way they are ready to substitute the meat or cheese for pulses (thus boiled in water and not meat stock). A great advantage of travelling in India is that large parts of the country’s population is vegetarian, so vegetables are already given centre stage! In my experience, large hotel kitchens were happy to substitute the milks and yoghurt sauces with almond or cashew cream and still use their lengthly prepared spice combinations. Most hotels offer tofu or tempeh as a replacement for paneer. This way, you don’t miss out on an authentic culinary experience. Often your fellow diners will TASTE exactly the same as your veganized version, so everyone around the table are able to join in and talk about the food, since the sauces and spices for particular dishes would be the same, just with vegetables, pulses and tofu replacing the meat and fish. Another hint is to when you ask for a meal to be prepared, request it to be made “like the Jains”. (More and more Jains are choosing to go dairy-free, so it’s about a 50-50 split between vegetarian and vegan Jains.)

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Cycle rickshaws

Cycle rickshaws in Old Delhi


Breakfasts at The Imperial Hotel are sumptuous affairs that need to be enjoyed unhurriedly. As I sat in the glass enclosed conservatory with its wicker chairs, pot plants and large brass storm lanterns hanging from the high ceiling, I tucked into various freshly cut fruits, choice of over 10 different nuts and seeds, soy milk, freshly squeezed vegetable juice, rice pancakes with spicy coconut chutney and herbal tea. Knowing that our culinary tour group would be out in the streets all day, plus being a seasoned vegan traveller, I knew I had to make my own preparations for meal and snack times. So I wrapped a wholemeal roti in my serviette, took an apple and a banana from the large bowls of fruit, packed a handful of mixed nuts and dried fruit from the muesli section and lastly, begged one of the staff for a cupful of dry mung beans. After being brought an assortment of various colours and types of split mung beans and lentils – not surprising from a country that grows over 400 different types of chickpeas alone – I was finally presented with a bag of shiny green whole mung beans which I will soak overnight to start sprouting the following day.

Vegetables in the marketFor our morning’s excursion, our tour group hailed a number of traditional three-wheel cycle-rickshaws which peddled us through the backstreets of Old Delhi. As we held on to the sides of the rickshaw (not because we were going fast, but the road was so full of potholes that the bumps nearly threw us out our the seats), we noticed how various trades and businesses tended to group together: streets of only book and poster printing; areas that specialized in automotive parts or selling just car tyres; stalls with an assortment of biscuits which are baked in the backs of the dark shops; tailors and fabric shops; musical instruments and children’s toys. The crowded streets of bicycles making deliveries, 3 wheel electric tuk-tuks, white Brahman oxen pulling wooden carts, stray cows and camel trolleys are truly bewildering. By comparison, London’s population density is about 1800 people per square km while in Old Delhi it’s 19 000!

Deep-fried pooris

Deep-fried pooris

We explored the labyrinthian network of narrow alley ways. The group stopped at nearly 10 different stalls to buy and sample various foods. I observed the foods and made mental notes of how one can veganize the dishes. Most of the food either contained dairy or meat; were deep-fried balls of dough or were too sweet for me. Lunch was way off the tourist path deep in the smelly parts of the old city. I bravely followed the culinary group into a goat informal restaurant. I amused myself simply watching people work at the next table (which was part of the kitchen): a young boy sitting on the food preparation table rhythmically rolling balls Sweet shop Delhiof dough into disks while an old man with a contented smile on his face pasted them into the tandoor oven (a pit with coals at the bottom) and then hooking the cooked flat breads out with a curved instrument. Luckily I came prepared and munched on my breakfast buffet nuts, dried fruit and wholemeal roti. In the afternoon when the rest of the tour group bought a box of beautifully made Indian sweets at one of the busiest sweet shops in Old Delhi, I had my banana. The sweets are made from milk boiled down with tonnes of sugar, ghee and probably some food colouring to make the various decorations.

Life is lived in juxtaposition in Delhi: one would see women wearing silver-thread woven saris and the next moment completely naked men who belong to the Zen religion of abstinence from all earthly belongings; sinewy old men pushing make-shift wooden wheel-barrows next to luxury vehicles driven by uniformed private chauffeurs; well-fed healthy cows in the streets and sickly, thin abandoned dogs; apartments with rooftop gardens and families living on the middle curb in the traffic. These contrasts are played out in the cuisine as well. A complicated Balti dish is simply paired with roti; an intensely sour and fresh tasting dipping sauce balanced by deep-fried battered cauliflower florets; a deeply orange coloured dish is served with potato dice.
Flower sellers

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Afternoon tea & British Raj

Palanquin

Palanquin travel chair

Arriving in Delhi, especially from Singapore, can feel tremendously overwhelmed – especially for first-timers to India like myself. No travel documentaries, books or other travellers’ experiences can possibly prepare you for the sensory overload: the sheer masses of people, volume of traffic, blaring city noise and stifling heat will make you momentarily wonder why you agreed to fly there. But then your own curiosity takes over as you stare at all the people going about their everyday business, the bright colours of the saris, foods and architecture, the neatly dressed and polite school children and the dazzling range of interesting stall holders. The history of the Indian sub-continent is so intriguing, one cannot help but delve deeper into ancient civilisations, fairy-tale family sagas of hundreds of years ago and outcomes of battles won and lost – even if history was the first subject many of us dropped at school!
Muslim temple Delhi

A stay at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi is hugely cosseting against the hubbub of this mega city. Harking back to the British presence in India, it is colonial in style with its avenue of palm trees, tall pillars, huge chandeliers, gallery of paintings and brass embellishments. There are also welcome Indian touches of intricately laid marble floors, meters long drapes in colourful fabrics and Indian antiques. The hotel was built in 1931 and reflects Victorian and Art Deco styles in its exterior architecture.

The hotel’s newly built spa – a fair-sized underground Imperial spa complex with the clever use of skylights – is a peacefulhaven of white marble inlaid with colourful small marble cut-outs in floral patterns. Not being used to spa attendants who actually undress and dress you again, comb your hair and put slippers on your feet, it is best to go with the flow and except these gracious acts of loving care with your own humble thankfulness to be there and experience it all. After a superlative 4 hand massage I sunk against the white bolster cushions in the women’s relaxing lounge enjoying ginger tea, creamy raw cashews and white raisins. While listening to the trickling sound of a nearby fountain I paged through a book showing how saris can be folded in over a 100 different ways.

Afternoon tea in the atriumAfternoon tea was served mini-buffet style in the Atrium. Being vegan, there was nothing for me to eat, but I was more than happy with the many choices of tea on the tea menu, the relaxed atmosphere in the sun-drenched atrium, the very attentive service, listening to the Indian background music and straining my ear to try and overhear the impressions of Delhi from near-by tables. I also requested that a special smoothie be made for me: blended papaya and soy milk with a touch of cinnamon. The reaction was a bemused one for such an unusual request, but for the rest of my stay I was offered this smoothie, which will hopefully appear on their drinks menu from now on! This will not be the first time I’d request items from the breakfast buffet to be served later in the day as snacks or as dessert…

My reason for travelling to India was to do a culinary tour of the various regions in India, and discover how the dishes can be veganized. I joined my group of fellow gastro-nomads for the next few weeks – although I was the only vegan in the group. Quite a highlight was our guided tour by the head chef at the Imperial Hotel of the maze of adjoining stainless-steel kitchens between the two main restaurants. The Indian restaurant, Daniell’s Tavern, will cater to any diet requirements. The menu is a re-creation of regional cuisine from the early 1800‘s, inspired by notes in the diaries of travellers at the time to India. The Maitre D’ treated my request for a veganized Indian meal with great respect and humility. The two vegan dishes were mild chilli but pleasantly strongly spiced lentil, pea and bean stew and an aromatic mixed vegetable curry. An assortment of vegan breads were specially made (wholemeal roti and wholemeal naan) – made from scratch without yoghurt in the dough or ghee brushed over.

The other restaurant is a South-East Asian restaurant called The Spice Route. The wooden pillars and walls were beautifully painted in mythological scenes and figures with flower and vegetable dyes that took the painters, brought in from a temple in Kerala, 7 years to create. The room is divided into 9 themed areas (Myanmar pillars; Malaysian pagoda; Thai courtyard with lily pond; Vietnamese Palace etc.). We were spoiled by an aromatic 9 course dinner: my dishes were vegan versions of what the rest of the group were having. Ingredients that tantalised the taste buds were: beans cooked in a coconut broth with galangal; tofu dice in a sauce made from black tamarind and palm sugar; peas, cauliflower and cherry aubergines cooked with 12 spices; stir-fried bitter greens and black mushrooms with salty soybean paste; dessert made from rice flour, spiced with star anise and served with a light coconut sauce.

The Spice Route restaurant

The Spice Route restaurant

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