There’s so much more to Indian food than just ‘curry’

I've been working at Just Hospitality for a year and half now… and for all that time, various colleagues have asked me about Indian food on a personal level - be it recommendations for places to eat, where to source ingredients etc. I have come to realize - there’s still so much people in the UK don't know about real Indian food. Here I am, giving you a sneak peek into food from my region - Maharashtra. 

Moving to London 8 years ago, I was quite amazed at the British fascination for curry. So, when I got asked if I could cook a curry - I was a bit confused - what is a curry??

Most of what is available here in that name does not bear any resemblance to real, Indian food. Yet, thousands flock the ubiquitous curry houses or even queue for hours to get their hands on some trendy “Indian”!

India is a large country and as expected, owing to its size and diverse population, the food varies from state to state, region to region and even sometimes family to family. As everywhere else in the world, recipes get passed on from one generation to the next and each generation adds their own touch, and variations to adapt to tough schedules or even to availability of ingredients. 

Is curry then a generalized term for all this food? That’s a bit of an unfair generalization I think! So, I've taken up the task of telling you a little bit about Indian food, as I know it - food from my region. And it’s definitely nothing like I have seen or eaten, here in London! 

 Alphonso mangoes from Ratnagiri

Alphonso mangoes from Ratnagiri

I come from a vegetarian family from the Western state of Maharashtra, most famous worldwide for its Alphonso mangoes and Kolhapuri mutton. It is also home some of the most diverse cuisines depending on what part of the state you live in or even what community you belong to (the community thing applied quite rigidly in the past, but some food traditions still live on) - Khandeshi, Kolhapuri, Warhadi, Konkani, CPK / Saraswat Brahmin to name just a few. There is also a huge variety of street food and snacks specific to Maharashtra. This is one state and there’s 29 in the country! So imagine the variety of food - no more chicken tikka masala!

A typical day

Generally, mornings in a Maharashtrian household start with a strong cup of tea (made with full cream milk and a spoonful of sugar) and a hearty breakfast. Some breakfast dishes include:

Poha: Flattened rice, soaked in water, fluffed up and tempered with onions, green chillies, boiled potatoes, peanuts and served with a generous sprinkling of grated coconut and chopped coriander.

Thalipeeth: A savory multigrain thick pancake made with a flour called bhajanee, that consists of roasted grain like wheat and millets, legumes and spices. Each family will have its own preference for the proportions in its blend and we often preferred to eat these at certain aunty’s houses for their special mix.

Sabudana khichadi: Sago pearls soaked in water overnight and tossed with roasted peanut powder and potatoes. 

LUNCH

Lunches are simpler affairs today - with the need for being able to pack them into tiffin boxes or dabbas. (P.S. - The 'dabbawalas' of the Harvard case study fame - are from Mumbai - the capital of Maharashtra.) They’re still a balanced meal with an emphasis on a vegetable main dish accompanied by a salad, and a flat bread like chapati or bhakri (made with millet flour). 

A vegetarian lunch or dinner will typically have the following elements:

Flat bread: poli (whole wheat flour) or bhakri (millet flour) for every day and deep fried pooris (refined wheat flour) for special occasions

Koshimbir: salad with fresh crunchy vegetables - tomatoes and onion or even cucumber and onions with lemon or sometimes yoghurt and lots of fresh coriander. We often add roasted peanut powder for an additional dimension (and protein kick!)

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Bhajee (vegetable): usually a dry or semi dry preparation of whatever is in season - could be okra, aubergine, cauliflower, cabbage, gourds etc. 

Patal bhajee (wet vegetable) : A wet preparation of leafy greens like spinach, coloccasia, amaranth or fenugreek

Usal: A sprouted or unsprouted legume like mung beans, chickpeas, black eyed beans etc. cooked with sweet spices (goda masala). 

Aamti or varan (dal): Made with pigeon peas (mainly) - a soupy lentil, usually topped with some ghee and eaten with boiled or steamed rice. 

 Homemade mango pickle

Homemade mango pickle

Pickles and chutneys: Pickles are an integral part of the meal - adding the mildly bitter element to an ayurvedic diet. Marathi food also has a range of dry chutneys – red chilli & garlic, fresh green chilli  & cumin thecha, karale (flax seed) chutney and a classic favorite - methkut (fenugreek powder) among others.

Rice: Usually boiled or cooked with the absorption method, rice is sometimes eaten at the start and end of the meal or just at the end.

Cooling drink: taak (buttermilk which is plain or with ginger and coriander), Solkadhi (with coconut milk and kokam juice) or just a plain bowl of homemade yoghurt accompany any meal to provide respite from all heat of the chillies and spices. 

Each of these elements have a specific spot / placement on a plate - eg. all chutneys, pickles, snacks and salads are to be served on the left side of a plate and the vegetables, patal bhajee and usal on the right and bread, rice and varan in the centre. This is from a perspective of the order it is to be eaten in as well as for balance from a visual and nutritional perspective. Children are often asked to help set the table and taught to serve all the small cold elements in their right spots on a plate – getting them to understand nutrition and balanced diet from a young age. 

STREET FOOD

Street food and snacks are a very popular category of food. Snacks can either be served along with lunch or with tea in the evenings. Some street food are one dish meals too. Some typical dishes include:

 Misal pav

Misal pav

Vada pav: Spiced mash potato deep fried with a chickpea flour coating, sandwiched in a bun, with a red chilli & garlic dry chutney. 

Misal pav: sprouted legumes in a tomato and onion-based sauce served with buttered bread and raw onions and crispy sev

Kothimbir wadi: Spiced coriander leaves in a chickpea flour parcel. 

Aluchi wadi: Large coloccasia leaves are applied a layer of steamed and spiced chickpea flour and then rolled and cut into small discs and deep fried. 

As you may have noticed, all this food is also vegan friendly if you avoid the ghee!

I cook a lot of Maharashtrian food here in London. And I am able to source 90%  of the ingredients from grocery stores like Waitrose & Tesco and from a local vegetable supplier in Shepherds Bush Market. For the few specialist items, I use either a trip to Alperton or an online service via Amazon. 

Indian food isn’t tricky or complicated and contrary to its popular image it’s not greasy and heavy either. But unfortunately, regional home style cooking from India hasn’t made it to the mainstream restaurant scene, perhaps because of its over simplicity. As the clean eating movement gathers momentum, I’d urge you to give some of this food a try - I promise you, you’ll come back for more. Tweet to me for recipes on @JustHospitality or @swatistweet