Indian cuisine cannot be boxed into any one category and this diversity is what makes different parts of the country worth exploring, says Karen Anand.
"What's cooking?" That is the first question that my sons, who are in their late 20s and live away from home, ask me when I invite them over. I am sure they are, to some level, interested in our company - the lively conversation and sharing of family gossip - but the real carrot is undoubtedly the food.
Food ticks many boxes - the obvious one is taste. We love tasty food, but in India our food appeals to a heightened sensitivity and palate. It is umami, and once anyone eats anything made in India, they simply cannot go back to their previous diet. Then, there is the emotional box, one where the mere mention of a dish can evoke aromas of childhood and memories of love or romance. There is also the intellectual box, where food is the new poetry and food photography the new art. Lastly, food is an equaliser. It is democratic and crosses the boundaries of religion and politics. It unites and brings people together.
Goa beyond beaches
Back in the days, people went on a holiday to relax and visit friends or family in the countryside. They would spend their holidays in a safe, comfortable environment, where they did very little. Today, a holiday involves experiences and entertainment, which is important for personal growth and social interaction. And food has become a large part of that growth. It is both nourishing, a talking point and has a recognisable set of values. So, food is neutral and rises above any controversy or discussion.
So, where in India do you travel for these culinary experiences? Well, just about anywhere, really. Thanks to entrepreneurs and living tradition, good food is available in restaurants, boutique hotels, on backwater boat rides, as well as in the homes of people who choose to share their culture.
I have had many memorable meals in Goa. Most people do not know that I am Goan by ancestry. Though I have never lived in this lush green, laidback land, I have been visiting for over 30 years. India's sunshine state has attracted wave after wave of settlers, from Europeans looking for a bit of inexpensive, warm bliss, to the intellectual "literati" who seek the tranquillity to create and write. As for me, it is the Goa of great food and culinary traditions that I love to explore. There is so much more to Goa than drugs and beach bumming. There is still a very fine, deep-rooted food tradition and a love for life that is second to none in India. Scratch the surface and you will find it. I anticipate each visit with a yearning to eat, drink and relax - my holy trinity - and to feel blessed by the sight of Goa's rich red soil. Over the years, I have discovered its backwaters, local haunts, famous ingredients and seasonal nuances.
So, what is Goan food? To the uninitiated, it usually starts at a beach shack. Shacks offer no nuance, no subtlety and no claim to authenticity. Visit a modest local restaurant, speak to a Goan home cook, read a couple of books (I recommend Gilda Mendonsa's The Best of Goan Cooking and Maria Teresa Menezes's The Essential Goa Cookbook) and you will encounter a rich culinary world where Portuguese customs intermingle with local traditions, where Catholic dishes differ from Hindu and where restaurant food catering to the tourists' palate is light years away from home-style cooking.
I remember learning Hyderabadi dishes from Mumtaz Khan, at her home in Hyderabad, decades ago. What I came away with was not just recipes and techniques, but stories of a bygone era, of a Nizami culture beyond imagination, of nawabs and palaces and adaab and the sound of thumping silver to make varq near Charminar. It was not just the taste of the safed pulav which was important; it was the fact that somebody sieved the rice and khoya through a muslin cloth several times in order to achieve the necessary refinement. Moreover, Hyderabad is probably the only place in the country where you can find kachcha gosht biryani, in which raw meat and rice are cooked together. This is an art form, which only really skilled cooks can achieve with perfection.
Secrets of the royal kitchens
This is true of Lucknow too. Home to the Nawabs of Awadh, the city has become the centre of North Indian or 'Mughlai' cuisine. Most of the great dishes of what we know as North Indian cuisine today were invented here. When the British exiled Muslims in Delhi, after the 1857 mutiny, most of the good cooks from the royal courts subsequently found themselves jobless and fled to Lucknow (Awadh) and Hyderabad, where local Nawabs were keen to employ them.
One great name is Imtiaz Qureshi, from whom I tried to learn some culinary secrets many years ago, in vain. He is an ingenious chef with many secrets up his sleeve. The old charmer, whose forefathers cooked for the Nawabs of Awadh, cleverly manoeuvred the conversation to another topic, every time I asked him for his recipe for garam masala (undoubtedly one of his real secret weapons). Was he still capable of cooking a simple recipe though, the kind you whip up in a couple of minutes, which does not need a thousand complicated ingredients? Within a second, he asked for some breast of chicken and a pair of scissors. He said, "I am going to show you how to make kainchi kebab. This was invented when there was leftover raw chicken or mutton, intended for pasanda, in the house." He sprinkled a bit of this and that, asked me to mix the lot and watched carefully out of the corner of his eye, as if to test my skills. Within a minute, the kebabs were dusted with besan, deep fried and gobbled up by all of us.
Lucknow is also the place for wonderful pulav. It is hard to find a genuine pulav in restaurants nowadays. For commercial reasons, everyone seems to serve what they call 'biryani'. Real pulav is more than some peas and curry powder thrown into rice. Pulav was considered superior to the biryani in medieval Delhi. It was made with rice, meat and stock cooked together, whereas in biryani, the rice was cooked separately and then mixed with cooked or marinated meat, then cooked again.
Chaat for the soul
Unbeknownst to many, who simply know Lucknowi biryani and tunday kebab, Lucknow has some of the best chaat in the country. Chaat is something we excel in. Nowhere in the world can you find the sensation of sweet, sour, crunchy and spicy served on or off the streets. If there is one thing you cannot miss when you are in Delhi, it is the chaat (An Indian savoury snack, which also means 'to lick'). Gol gappa or pani puri, raj kachori, aloo tikki, dahi bhalla, and so on - all topped with sweet tamarind and green chutneys, chaat masala and sometimes sweet yoghurt, are simply irresistible. You can still find the best dahi bhalla at Natraj in Chandni Chowk and the tastiest chhole bhature in Sadar Bazaar, but a much more civilised place to try them all is the Bengali Market in New Delhi. Chandni Chowk in the old city, near Red Fort, was once home to the best street food in the city. However, it is still worth fighting your way through the crowds for the jalebis at the Old Famous Jalebi Wala, the rabdi kulfi next door and the glass waali rabdi from Giani's di Hatti. It is easy to see the Mughal legacy with the number of halwais (sweet meat shops) and syrupy drink vendors in this part of the city. For me, Delhi is most beautiful in winter, when the air is crisp and cold. Familiar sights are cart loads of Rewdi and Gajak, nut and sesame brittle made with jaggery, red carrots, tender peas in their pods and plump white turnips on every street corner sold by men in sweaters, furry hats and mufflers hiding their rosy cheeks. I love the little bunches of purple narcissus you can buy in Bengali Market and kanji, a black carrot juice, spiked with roasted jeera; not to mention hot parathas and aloo matar and a plethora of winter pickles.
I spent much of my adult life in Mumbai and to me it is still home. When I smell Amul butter on a tawa of bhaji ready to be scooped up onto a plate next to some buttery pav, when I am asked if I want pani puri made with mineral water at Elco Arcade, and when I can walk into a restaurant in the bylanes of Kala Ghoda in South Mumbai and devour the best and most succulent crab in the world, I know I am in Mumbai.
And what do I look forward to eat while I am travelling? Something to comfort my soul, a taste or texture, which will excite me and definitely a recipe or two to take back home.