Friday, August 20, 2010

End of the beginning

India is an incomparable land of bewildering beauty, vast diversity and intricate complexity.  It is an immense country of composite textures, teeming productivity and plentiful paradoxes. It throbs with vitality while retaining the burnished ambience of a multi-layered history and lived-in humaness. The food of India reflects the collage of people, faiths and land it is made of, and defies any all-encompassing label or definition. Over thousands of years, India has embraced and absorbed cultural and culinary influences from as near as Afghanistan, Central Asia, Turkey and Persia and as far as China, The Middle East, Portugal, Holland and England. Waves of invaders, settlers, traders, travelers and tourists have all contributed to the great patchwork quilt of flavors that makes Indian food. The threads that weave through this quilt and hold it together are spices. The language, the very DNA encoded in Indian food lies in the lavish use and careful balancing of spices—native spices and imported spices, some aromatic, others flavorful and some for exquisite color and delicate fragrance. Regions are spread thousands of miles apart yet are connected through the lavish use of spices.  Handfuls go into cooking pots transforming ingredients into multi dimensional taste sensations.
India has always been a place in transition, soaking up foreign ideas—and foods like a sponge always transforming them into something Indian. This is true more than ever today, with the invasion of imported soft drinks, software and fast foods.  Pepsi is spiced up with hot pepper powder, salt and a squeeze of lime. Burgers are made from lamb and smothered in hot sauce, chutney and pickled green chilies. Pizza is topped with crumbled paneer cheese, corn, cumin and hot peppers, and potato chips come in flavors like tandoori and tomato-garlic. Flavors and foods might be borrowed and adapted or new riffs played on classics, but the integrity and identity of Indian food remains firmly based in tradition. Each region is proud of their cuisine and perhaps thinks it is THE cuisine of India! When you eat in India, you discover the heart of its culture and hospitality. In India, you will be welcomed like a long lost family member and fed like a Maharaja. There is no place where people with so little will share so much. Some travelers go to India seeking spiritual nirvana, but I found culinary bliss in cooking with both renowned chefs in 5-star hotel kitchens and home cooks in simple spaces. The recipes I learned and the lives I intersected resulted in this book.

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