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  • 08/06/14--10:30: Iconic Eats: India
  • Samosas

    Fried or baked, triangular or conical, samosas are perhaps India’s most ubiquitous snack. Sold by street vendors and fine-dining restaurants alike, the pastry is typically filled with spiced potatoes and peas and is almost always accompanied by a chutney or mint sauce. While the vegetarian variety is most prevalent, meat and paneer versions are also delicious.






    Mango Lassi

    Made by blending mango pulp, yogurt, and milk, the mango lassi is a rich, refreshing drink that serves as a great counterpoint to heavily spiced Indian foods. Often sweetened with sugar and honey and flavored with cardamom, lassis are most common in northern states like Delhi and Punjab, but can be found at markets, street food stands, and casual restaurants across India.






    Biryani

    Essentially a layered dish of spiced rice and meat, fish, or vegetables, biryani takes on various forms depending on location: The fragrant Mughlai biryani is dotted with almonds, cinnamon, and saffron; brought to India by ancient Persian kings, it is most popular in the Delhi area. Hyderabadi biryani, a spicy rice- and yogurt-marinated lamb biryani topped with fried onions and cilantro, is one of the most famous biryanis throughout India. In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a milder Lucknow-style is preferred. Whereever you try it, biryani offers a unique and singular taste of place.



     



    Achaar

    The Hindi word for pickle, achaar refers to a wide range of preserved fruits and vegetables brined in oil, salt, and spices. Ubiquitous on the Indian table, they range in flavor from tart to spicy to sweet; mangos, chiles, and limes are especially popular varieties. Try achaar served as condiments tableside at restaurants, and purchase glass jars at markets to take home as souvenirs.




     

    Naan and Roti

    Two of the most popular breads in india include naan, a pillowy, leavened flatbread blistered from the high heat of a tandoor oven, and roti, an unleavened flatbread made with high protein whole-wheat flour and cooked on a griddle, resulting in a chewier texture. Both are served alongside most meals to scoop up soupy dishes from dal to curry. 




     

    Kebabs

     Originally introduced by the Mughals, kebabs are still a staple street food in any Muslim neighborhood. Skewered cubes of meat marinated in spices or spears of ground seasoned meats can be grilled, pan-seared, or even deep-fried.
     




    Gulab Jamun

    These donut-like fried, milk-based dough balls slowly cooked in boiling syrup are available street-side or at any sweets shop.





     

    Chaat

    Topped with crunchy, fried bits of chickpea dough, chaat, or snacks are hawked at street stands throughout India. The most popular version boasts an addictive blend of potato pieces, fried bread, chickpeas, and spices, but variations abound, from aloo ki tikka, spiced potatoes with onion and coriander, to aloo pakora, potatoes with chili powder and mango.
     




    Kulfi

    A denser variant of the American-style ice cream pop, these frozen treats can be found at kulfi stands in markets and in shopping malls and come in a myriad of flavors like rose, cardamom, mango, and pistachio.





     

    Chai

    Chai is the word for tea in India, and though serving preferences change from city to city, the most iconic version is masala chai: a sweetened combination of strong black tea, whole milk, and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Order some from a street-side chai wallah for an afternoon pick-me-up.


     
    Illustrations by Katie McBride








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  • 07/28/14--10:46: Acquired Taste
  • Hyderabadi BiryaniEnlargeCredit: Ingalls Photography My prandial pickiness merits its own chapter in our family lore. Growing up, the list of items I eschewed—nuts, lamb, seafood—far surpassed those I ate. The most trying time for my parents was a brief childhood spell during which I subsisted on nothing but bread and butter. 
     
    A fussy palate is particularly burdensome when your family hails from one of the world’s great culinary cities—in our case, Hyderabad, the capital of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The city’s position in the south-central part of the country makes it a prime crossroads for culinary cross-pollination from the north and south. Its role as a wealthy seat of cultural influence in the Muslim world led to the assimilation of ingredients from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Persia. The result is a refined medley of flavors that has earned die-hard devotees the world over.
     
    And yet, I’d never counted myself among them, not even when it came to Hyderabad’s most famous dish: biryani, a gossamer cloud of spiced rice layered with meats, seafood, vegetables, and even fruits. The dish is served in many parts of the subcontinent, but according to Mumtaz Khan, a doyenne of the city’s cuisine and an old family friend, “Hyderabadi biryani is very different. It’s the only place where they make it with raw meat.” Elsewhere, the meat is an add-on; in Hyderabad, the rice and meat mingle, cooking together in one pot, the ghee steaming, to create the harmonious version of the dish known as kachchi biryani.
     
    Though I’d visited my grandparents frequently throughout my adulthood, traveling from my home in Cape Town to see them, I’d managed to avoid biryani, a staple of my grandmother’s table. But when my grandfather passed away last year, the threads connecting me to my past became more tenuous. So I flew to Hyderabad to be with my grandmother, Hya. This time, I was ready to give her biryani its due.
     
    A few days into my trip, Hya took a seat by the stove, where her cook, Khaja, had amassed a trove of ingredients. What followed was a scene that plays out in many kitchens of a certain social strata: matriarchs guiding cooks, rarely dirtying their own hands in the process. Maintaining appearances is critical.
     
    “I used to teach them, but I didn’t know how myself, so I’d hide a cookbook in the pantry,” Hya confessed. “I’d go sneak a peek, then return and act like I knew what I was doing.”
     
    Now, my grandmother’s attitude was confident. Khaja followed her directives, and, once the cooking was done, I stole a bite from the pot. A surge of elaichi (cardamom) wafted down my throat, followed by an ambrosial blend of clove, cinnamon, ginger, and garlic. The kinetic composition of flavors, long banished from my palate, resonated deeply with my taste buds. Despite a lifetime of resistance, the biryani tasted like home.

    See the recipe for Kachi Yakhni Biryani (Hyderabadi-Style Steamed Chicken and Rice) »


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  • 08/08/14--09:30: Cape Town Classic
  • Avocado mint milkshakeEnlargeCredit: Laura Sant On a blistering summer day, one milkshake puts all the others in the world to shame: the fresh avocado and mint shake at the Royale Eatery, a burger and shake shop on Long Street in Cape Town, South Africa. Made with just three components (mint, avocado, and vanilla ice cream), it is as dense as poured concrete and as sweet as a summer love.

    My first visit to the Royale Eatery in Cape town, South Africa, was almost a decade ago. The Royale was young then; it opened its doors in 2003. One of the staff members at Daddy Longlegs, a nearby boutique hotel, first pointed me toward the restaurant. He said that it was locally owned, and that the burgers and shakes were outstanding.

    I had no idea.

    I wavered over the selection of hand-ground and mixed burgers. Did I want ostrich? Lamb with roasted red pepper pesto and caramelized onions? Wagyu on a pretzel roll? But where the milkshake was concerned, the decision was easy. My appetite lunged for that gorgeous green shake and there was no stopping it.

    Over the years, I've tasted the Royale's other shakes. Some, such as Horlicks—a malted milk drink similar to Ovaltine—or  chocolate-coconut, cater to my inner child; others, like the chai and fresh banana; espresso, Jack Daniels and peanut butter; and Patron coffee tequila, are decidedly grown-up. They're all delicious, but when the sun pounds down, the avocado-mint alone beats the heat.

    The glass comes filled with pale green chill and coated with condensation, with a sprig of fresh mint standing at attention at the juncture of glass and cream. Sinking the straw into the milkshake demands delicate, stubborn negotiation. (Sure, it's possible to cheat and use the long-handled spoon to dig in, but where’s the fun in that?) What's in the glass is as fresh as a winter morning. The shake is high-cal sin: rich and dense, with a creamy texture bolstered by the fat of the avocado. The fruit cuts through the ice cream's sugar; unlike most milkshakes, it's just sweet enough instead of cloying, and the mint adds a fresh, herbal flavor to the freezer-fresh temperature. The first mouthful sends summer scurrying—proof that cold comfort can be the best.

    Royale Eatery
    273 Long Street
    Cape Town, South Africa
    Tel. 021/422-4536


    See the recipe for the Avocado-Mint Shake »








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  • 08/11/14--09:15: The School of Small Bites
  • India Coffee HouseEnlargeCredit: Kelly Campbell
    Wherever my 80-year-old father, Amartya Sen, travels in India, a scrum of students encircle him, eager to shake his hand. As popular as a Bollywood star or pop singer, he came to his fame through his work as an economist: He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998. But he was not always a dutiful student, he told me when I joined him on a recent visit to his alma mater, Presidency College, in Calcutta. In fact, he spent most of his college years playing hooky at a café across the street. My father started his studies back in 1951, four years after India won its sovereignty. He was on his way to register for classes when a friend, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, stopped him.

    “Forget that,” Chakravarty said. “I'm taking you to the Indian Coffee House.”

    The two crossed College Street, climbed a dingy staircase, and entered a broad, smoky hall where waiters carried coffee cups and vegetable fritters paired with tangy chutneys on steel trays. The bubbling stream of conversation was so loud that one had to shout to be heard.
    Adda nurtured revolutionary ideas that went on to define the subcontinent over the next half century


    India is mostly a tea-drinking country; the Coffee House, now a worker's cooperative, was established in the early 1940s by the coffee industry to promote this alternative brew. Countercultural from its founding, it became a temple to the Bengali concept of adda—chatting sessions that swoop from poetry to politics, grand theories to local gossip. Over potato-filled samosas and strong coffee, my father discovered a world where books were handed around like priceless treasures, where the writings of American economist Kenneth Arrow and Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm were as eagerly parsed as romantic exploits. By his final year, my father had skipped so many classes to go to the Coffee House that sitting for his qualifying exam required some negotiation.

    For my father and his classmates, this adda nurtured revolutionary ideas that went on to define the subcontinent over the next half century. The filmmaker Satyajit Ray and the singer Manna Dey were denizens of the Coffee House, too, and Chakravarty, the boy who first brought my father there, later helped design India's Five-Year Plan economy.

    Sixty-three years after his first coffee with Chakravarty, my father and I strolled across College Street, climbed the stairs, and settled in at a table. As a waiter brought over a tray of milky coffee and sandwiches, police guards held a crowd angling for cellphone photos of my father at bay. But within a few minutes, the hubbub outdoors was drowned out by the familiar din of adda.

    See the recipe for Samosas (Potato-Filled Pastries) »








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  • 08/13/14--12:00: Holy Cow
  • Cow in IndiaEnlargeCredit: James Roper
    Cows in India live pampered lives. They idle in grassy fields and amble across urban roadways without a care. Their quality of life is a product of their sacredness. For at least three millennia, Hindus, around 80 percent of the Indian population, have revered the cow, associating the animal with Lord Krishna, who is often depicted as a cowherd. The esteem cows garner stems in large part from the vital role that milk plays in Indian cuisine. The milk of the water buffalo and that of the zebu cow, a humped breed native to South Asia, is soured to make yogurt, churned for ghee, and curdled to make the fresh cheese called paneer. Milk curds and boiled milk are also the base for a universe of sweet confections, including sevaya kheer, a soupy vermicelli pudding garnished with pistachios and sweetened with jaggery. Cattle are essential beyond dairy, too. They pull plows, turn waterwheels for mills, and supply the dung that fuels village kitchens. While Indian Muslims do eat beef, strict Hindus would never harm their most hallowed of creatures.


    See the recipe for Sevaya Kheer (Vermicelli Milk Pudding) »








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  • 08/14/14--19:00: The Last Tappers
  • Toddy TappersEnlargeCredit: James Oseland I remember that rainy evening 17 years ago. Crickets pierced the wet air with their shrill harmony, as my mother struggled to bring to life her smoky stone stove, blowing on the dying embers, stirring them with dry twigs. She did not lift her face, despite the ashes stinging her eyes. I thought she was weeping, but why? Outside, my brother was plying paper boats, ferrying stranded ants in the puddles in the yard. My dad sat on a stool by the stove, his chin resting on his clenched fist; his thoughts seemed heavy. That night, a decision was made: I would become a toddy tapper, just like him.

    Toddy tapping has been a traditional job among the Thiyya caste, one of hundreds of Hindu castes in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where I grew up, since the 14th century. The job involves scaling palm trees to the top, cutting open the leaves, and collecting the white sap that pours out. That sap is fermented anywhere from a few hours to a full day (the longer the fermentation, the more potent the drink), turning it from a sweet to a slightly bitter and sour alcoholic beverage known as toddy, or palm wine—a fixture of working-class taverns throughout the region.

    It is a perilous job. Some people fall off those trees. Some people die. For those reasons and more, Kerala’s young men are turning to better jobs in distant places: tech work in the United States, data entry in the Middle East. Fifteen years ago, there were more than 100,000 toddy tappers in Kerala; now there are around 40,000. Many wonder if the occupation will survive the next few decades.

    Many wonder if the occupation will survive the next few decades
    While my mother feared both the social stigma and the dangers of tapping, Dad saw things differently. To him, I was a man at 18 years old. I was in need of a livelihood. He had little faith in my dreams of becoming a journalist. After all, he had once had dreams, too. As a young man, he’d worked happily, rolling the thin Indian cigarettes known as beedie, a job that allowed him to wear crisp white cotton garments that distinguished him from the toddy tappers with their dishrag shirts tucked around their waist. Beedi rolling didn’t pay much, but it was enough for a bachelor. Then he got married, had children. He moved to Mumbai, where he worked in the trucking business. But life in a one-room slum home knocked the wind out of him.

    Eventually he gave in, returning home to Pinarayi on the Malabar Coast to become a tapper, work that he continues today, even into his 60s. Like my father, most men turn to tapping reluctantly, knowing that once they start, they’ll be bound to those palms until the day they die. Quitting is a sign of weakness, something that causes friends, even family members, to look down upon you as less masculine.

    A few months after Dad’s decision was made, I started working alongside him atop the trees lining the village river. This went on for seven years, until one evening, when everything changed. It was monsoon season, and our village had an outbreak of viral fever. I was laid up for days. Just as I started to recover, Dad came down with the sickness and asked me to pick up his slack in the trees. That evening, as I slowly scaled a tall palm, everything below started churning. My knees and hands went weak; a cold shiver ran down my spine. While I somehow managed to finish the work, a newfound fear was born within me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I knew my life as a tapper was over. Though I kept at it for the remainder of that year, there was a terror in my heart from which I could not recover.

    There was a terror in my heart from which I could not recover
    Finally I told my father, “I can’t climb anymore. I am too afraid.” He shot me an icy stare. “We are all afraid,” he said. “But we have got to work!” Still, we both knew it was over. Soon after, I began brushing up on my English, started post-graduate work in English literature, found a job teaching classes, and, finally, became a journalist.

    I know my father is still afraid, especially now, after one of his fellow tappers recently fell to his death. And yet he pretends to remain unfazed. As I sit in my newspaper office miles away from home, typing my latest story and living out a dream neither of us considered possible, I think about him up there, high above the ground, gambling with his life for that sweet, potent sap.

    VK Sreelesh is a journalist in Thalassery.








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  • 08/17/14--15:30: Feeding Mumbai
  • EnlargeCredit: James Roper In the middle of the night, when the sky is pitch black and the rest of Mumbai is fast asleep, the wholesale produce market in the neighborhood of Byculla is a hive of frenetic activity. I first discovered it at the end of a long night out, but each time I return, its rhythm is the same. Trucks loaded high with watermelons, eggplants, and long beans rumble by, their hauls to be unpacked by an army of workers, like the men pictured here, who carry woven baskets overhead. The deliveries, hailing from Nashik, Maharashtra's agricultural heartland, about 100 miles away, supply this city of 20 million people. By 3:30 a.m., vendors have said their daily prayers and are on to a brisk business, selling fresh produce to middlemen for neighborhood markets and home-delivery services. Damaged goods don't go to waste—they are fed to the cows ambling about in return for good karma. As the sky brightens, the din starts to fade, and by 10 a.m., it's a leisurely murmur.









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  • 08/19/14--10:00: The Love of Tea
  • Tea Waiter in AssamEnlargeCredit: James Roper Wherever you are in India, you're never far from a tea vendor peddling chai, a sweet, milky tea, from trays of steaming glasses. India is the top consumer of tea on the planet, but this wasn't always the case. While tea is native to the subcontinent—an indigenous variety, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, grows in the northeastern state of Assam—it wasn't until after the British had established plantations to supply the UK that the Indian tea plant was cultivated. For decades, nearly all of India's tea was exported. In 1881, however, the Indian Tea Association was formed to promote tea drinking within the country, and Indians embraced it. Each region puts its stamp on the drink. In the north, a chai wallah might infuse the brew with a smashed nub of ginger and finish it with a sprinkle of pink salt or threads of saffron. And in the northeast, epicenter of India's tea industry, you'll find an extravagantly spiced version known as masala chai suffused with ginger, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, and black pepper. Yet here in the south, they like their chai flavors pure: just milk and sugar, double brewed with a fistful of fragrant black tea.

    See the recipe for Masala Chai »

    http://cf.c.ooyala.com/RlcmJnbzq2jVvXHvclgYi-lMCXfeHcLv/Ut_HKthATH4eww8X4xMDoxOjBzMTt2bJ








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  • 08/19/14--19:00: The Heart of South India
  • South India Field WorkersEnlargeCredit: Penny de los Santos I am in Rajahmundry, a town on the banks of the mighty Godavari River, as part of a slow, delicious journey to explore the many, varying cuisines of Andhra Pradesh. I am just about to eat in a mess.

    Andhra messes (short for mess halls) serve freshly made vegetarian food very cheaply. Hotel Vasavi is a dark, basement joint where, for a dollar, I am offered two types of rice: one plain and one flavored with a well-spiced tomato sauce. Rice is the base of the meal. To add variety of flavor, texture, and nutrients, there's majjiga pulusu, mixed vegetables cooked in a buttermilk sauce; palakoora vepadu, a stir-fried spinach; a curry made from jackfruit; and sambar, a spicy lentil-based stew. Since fried foods are essential to the soft, wet meal I'm having, I order kosu vepadu, a crispy cabbage fritter, which looks a bit like Medusa's head, with the strands of shredded cabbage providing a crunchy, unruly halo. All of the foods are startlingly, marvelously hot.

    Along with rice, there's a passion here for the pungent and sour
    Andhra Pradesh, near the Bay of Bengal, is known for its chiles, which are cultivated in the Guntur district, along the state's southeast coast, and are used to flavor the rice grown in the area's countless patties. Along with rice, there's a passion here for the pungent and sour. The sourness, which perks up meals and seems necessary to combat the soupy tropical climate, can come from limes, tamarind, vinegar, green mangoes, sour oranges, star fruit, and other local plants.

    Seafood also figures prominently here. On a small island in the Godavari River, which runs through Andhra Pradesh to the bay, I watch as a home cook named Ramanna sets up an open wood-burning fire outside her thatched hut. She squats in her printed blue sari, cooking a simple dish of gongura, red, sorrel-like sour leaves with tiny river shrimp, the two main ingredients flavoring each other.

    EnlargeCredit: Penny de los Santos
    I drive farther west to join other aficionados at the Babai Hotel, a small but popular eatery in the city of Vijayawada known for the softest idlis, flying saucer-shaped steamed cakes made with rice and urad dal, black lentils. Large steamers huff and puff in the kitchen, turning out dozens of idlis at a time. Each is anointed with ghee and served with a pat of butter. They melt in the mouth. They may be eaten with a dry chutney known as podi or with sambar. Equally loved here is the pesarattu, Andhra's savory pancake. Made with a batter of whole mung beans, soaked, blended, and spread out thinly on a griddle, pesarattu is large, crisp, nutritious, and quite addictive. I eat mine with a creamy coconut chutney and some sweet, milky coffee on the side.

    The region slowly developed a unique cuisine that was part northern Muslim and part southern Hindu
    But the foods of Andhra are not all beans and vegetables. To feast on meat, I travel to the city of Telangana, in the northwestern part of the state. Since the 14th century, Muslim emperors from Delhi sent governors to rule the Telangana area, now known as Hyderabad state. The governors often rebelled and set up their own kingdoms, and the region slowly developed a unique cuisine that was part northern Muslim and part southern Hindu. A Telangana-style chicken cooked today by a Hindu might well have both the south's coconut milk and the north's yogurt, southern seasonings like curry leaves and lime juice, and northern spices like mace and cardamom.

    It was the Nizams, the dripping-in-diamonds-rich rulers of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, starting in the 18th century, that had both the money and the leisure to become active patrons of this composite cuisine at its most elaborate. To taste it, you have to visit one of India's grandest hotels, the Falaknuma Palace. It's here I watch the making of a kacchay gosht ki biryani, a dish where rice and raw marinated meat are cooked together so magically that these disparate ingredients are done at the same time. Better yet, you have to be invited by one of Hyderabad's ever-courteous old families. I was lucky enough to receive a welcome from one aristocratic family while visiting. There I watched a housemaid named Rehana prepare a wonderful nihari, slow-cooked beef trotters, seasoned with potli ka masala, rare expensive spices, including sandalwood and rose petals, tied in a muslin bouquet garni. Rehana also prepared khatti dal, soured with tamarind and seasoned with curry leaves and mustard seeds. Pressure cookers whistled and hissed, and when we sat down to eat, there was plenty of rice for the dal, naan for the nihari, and pickles to eat with everything.

    See the recipe for Khatti Dal»
    See the recipe for Palakoora Vepadu»

    Madhur Jaffrey is the author of Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking (Barron's, 2003)








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  • 08/24/14--14:00: Required Eating
  • EnlargeCredit: Ingalls Photography

    “I don't like fish so much,” my grandmother used to murmur at lunch, as her slender turmeric-stained fingers reached into a small brass bowl for a piece of white-fleshed fish in tangy broth. Her insistence on eating a food she disliked every day of her 93 years on earth was a testament to her sense of cultural identity: She was Bengali, so she ate fish. It couldn’t be any other way.

    You see, no Bengali meal is complete without rohu or some other long silver river fish from the region, which is plentiful in bodies of water. To make the simple stew known as maacher jhol, the fish is often simmered in a tomato-based curry scented with the region’s distinctive mix of five spices: toasted fenugreek, nigella, cumin, black mustard, and fennel seeds.

    Eating this dish requires some dedication. Fork tines are too wide to elegantly pull out the spiny fish's tiny bones, so you must pick them out with your hands. And opening and slurping one's way through the most prized portion—the muro, or fish head—is an intricate and absorbing process. It’s worth the effort, however. The oils, meats, juices, and jellies offer an adventure in texture and flavor, not to mention a potently healthy source of vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Indeed, my grandmother credited fish for keeping her hair black well into her 80s. Still, we grandchildren were always mystified by her determination to eat something she claimed not to like. "Why do you eat it?" we would squeal, only to be shushed. "Don't talk," she'd chide. "Concentrate on looking for bones."

    See the recipe for Maacher Jhol (Bengali-Style Fish Stew) »








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  • 08/25/14--10:00: Fire in the Desert
  • Burning ManEnlargeCredit: Jim Urqhart/ Reuters

    Burning Urge

    Every summer, tens of thousands of “burners” descend on the Black Rock Desert, toting survival supplies for the weeklong performance-art fantasia called Burning Man. Here, across more than 3,500 acres of sand under the relentless August sun, they build massive interactive art installations—a fractal meditation pod made from timber and climbing nets; a fire-breathing dragon that melts down aluminum cans for sculptures; a 21-foot-tall tetrahedron of baseball bats and softballs—and they erect hundreds of themed encampments. At the festival's apex, a 90-foot-tall effigy, The Man, is set ablaze. I've been attending for eight years. Out in the desert, there's no running water or electricity; we bring everything we need in and out: construction cranes, club-quality sound systems, and freezer trucks. Best of all, the whole place runs on a gift economy—no bartering, no buying, only giving—including the “restaurants.” I love to explore the culinary camps, where scrappy cooks whip up a bacchanalian spread—North African lamb stew, ice cream frozen on the spot with liquid nitrogen, sushi made from salmon flown to the desert. Festgoers set up countless makeshift cafes, bakeries, and supper clubs where you're free to go in and eat your fill.

    Enlarge
     

    Feels Like Home

    Music plays a central role at Burning Man, where revelers like the Mohawked woman at electronic music encampment Distrikt have their choice of dance parties. But camp themes are wide ranging: Last year I came 2,000 miles from my home in New Orleans only to happen upon another French Quarter here. Five hundred people built a fever-dream version from scratch with blue, yellow, and pink pastel facades, and a massive generator powering the enclave. As in the original, food was at the heart of this French Quarter: The Santopalato Supper Club featured a different chef's cooking each night. I traveled there, and everywhere, from my tent using the festival's preferred mode of transportation: a bicycle. It's amazing what you can discover peddling through the dust, like the Pacificana pop-up at Santopalato. Marketing consultant Victoria Davies grilled ginger flank steak and chile-laced sweet-potato cakes over an open fire. Down the street, Darias Jonker and other volunteers at Black Rock Bakery turned out crusty breads from an old airport Cinnabon oven. The efforts of these temporary restaurateurs are astonishing. Yehonatan Koenig, an Israeli-born ad agency director from California, started planning six months out for his special boil dinner, for which he flew in 100 pounds of live crawfish, cooking everything in two 80-quart pots.

    EnlargeCredit: Nick Vivion

    City Limits

    Even with room for 68,000, Burning Man sold out last year. It may seem impossible to find anyone or anything in this sprawling temporary “Black Rock City,” but it's laid out with street signs in a semicircle around The Man and a central temple. Some camps are mobile, though, setting up off the packed, curving grid of streets in unannounced locations: To find the popular Dust City Diner—a '50s-era greasy spoon run by California artists Michael Brown and David Cole—I biked into the central open sand, searching for its LED sign. At a Formica counter jerry-rigged in a flatbed truck, servers in blond beehive wigs sporting names like Dixie dished out coffee and pancakes on classic blue china. At other eateries, some of my favorite things are the sweets. When you're tussling with sandstorms, you just kind of want a treat—something like Davies' yogurt cake with passion fruit sauce—to keep your spirits lifted and primed for yet another crazy experience on, say, a 30-foot pendulum swing or an animal-shaped art car.

    EnlargeCredit: Nick Vivion








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  • 08/27/14--08:00: Persian Roots
  • Persian Influenced Mumbai DishesEnlargeCredit: James Roper When I was growing up in Mumbai, Sunday lunch with my family was always dhansak: caramelized rice walled in by mutton kebabs and drowned in a dal cooked with green chiles and garlic and spiced with turmeric and cumin (top right). We ate it with a plate of condiments (top left) that included sliced onions, limes, and cilantro.

    My family is Parsi, followers of the prophet Zoroaster who began immigrating to India around the eighth century from Persia. The cuisine still bears that ancient influence: meats and vegetables paired with sweet and sour flavors and lavished with diverse spices.

    My Sunday family lunches are a thing of the past now. But when I pine for the old days, I make my way to Ideal Corner, a Parsi restaurant in Mumbai's Fort district, where most of the world's Parsis live. They serve kheema pattice, mutton-potato patties (middle left); veg dhansak, brown rice with dal and vegetables, like eggplant and pumpkin (bottom left); and kolmi papeto capsicum, prawns with tomatoes and chiles (bottom right). I always order a dish my mother used to make: jardalu ma marghi, chicken and dried apricots in gravy (middle right). The sharp, sweet notes of the fruit, and the spices that infuse the rich gravy—chiles, cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom—make for a complex interplay of tastes: sweet, sour, piquant. The currents of flavor transport me back through the years.


    See the recipe for Jardalu ma Marghi (Parsi-Style Chicken Curry with Apricots and Shoestring Potatoes)»









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  • 08/28/14--13:00: Heavenly Meal
  • Lenti Stew at Jagannath TempleEnlargeCredit: James Roper The Hindu deity Lord Jagannath, creator of the universe, is worshipped all over India, but with particular intensity in Puri, Odisha, where Jagannath Temple is located. On the day of my visit there, late one hot, spring morning, Brahmin priests gathered in the temple kitchen to oversee the preparation of steamed white rice and dalma, a common Odisha-style stew of lentils bolstered with the ingredients fundamental to the cooking of the region. The dish is offered to Jagannath and then distributed among visitors to the temple as prasad. For worshippers, the meal is a means of bringing the divinity of the temple into themselves, the act of eating a form of prayer. As devotees received their meal, I, too, was handed a platter of food. The lentil dalma was fragrant with coconut and enriched with silky, thinly sliced cooked onions and long-simmered sweet potatoes that fell apart at the touch of my spoon. Enraptured, I ate every blessed drop.


    See the recipe for Dalma (Lentil Stew with Coconut) »








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  • 08/30/14--10:00: Lovely Lassis
  • EnlargeCredit: James Roper Traveling in India as spring was lapsing into torpid summer, I was grateful to find creamy chilled lassis everywhere to sip in the heat. On city streets and in village shops, in homes palatial and humble, people rolled the wooden handles of star-shaped churners between their palms, frothing glasses of milk- or water-thinned yogurt to mix with flavorings for the cooling drink. At a canteen in Delhi, I indulged in a sugary lassi that was milkshake-thick with mango purée and a thinner one drizzled with Rooh Afza, a scarlet syrup fragrant with rose and screw pine. In Lucknow, a savory version was briny with black salt and pungent with cumin. And in the Himalayan foothills, mulberries were blended into a sweet-tart elixir topped with a layer of cream. Indeed, lassis are as varied as India's geography. In Punjab, crushed pistachios and dried fruit might be added as garnish, while in the south, a mix of ginger, mustard seeds, curry leaves, and cilantro seasons the drink. Delicious. But none of them matches the one found at Lingaraj Lassi in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha. Here, the lassi is made solely with milk, heated ever so slowly so that its sugars caramelize, its flavor deepens, and its complexion turns the color of honey. Topped with chopped cashews, it is a lassi of which legends are made.
     
    See the recipe for Caramel Lassi »
    See the recipe for Hyderabadi-Style Sweet Lassi »
    See the recipe for Mango Lassi »
    See the recipe for Strawberry Lassi »








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  • 09/02/14--08:00: Good and Plenty
  • Indian IngredientsEnlargeCredit: James Roper
    Across India, an assortment of produce is common to kitchens. (1) Coconut is integral in coastal regions, used in sliced, grated, and liquid forms, while (2) green, unripe mangoes are everywhere, cured as pickles and added for tartness in dals and curries. Indian cooks don't shy away from bitter ingredients, such as (3) cluster beans, (4) fenugreek leaves, and (5) bitter melon, salted to mitigate their punch or mixed in with mellower ingredients. Some vegetables are used in both sweet and savory dishes, particularly (6) carrots and (7) beets. Others are ideal for fritters, including (8) cauliflower and eggplants like (9) bharta and (10) rhim jhim. A slew of other vegetables familiar in the West are also popular: (11) Cucumber and the sweeter (12) Indian yellow cucumber are eaten raw, (13) cabbage is shredded and stir-fried, (14) green peppers punctuate pilafs, and (15) okra is beloved fried and stewed. Leafy greens like (16) Indian spinach, an indigenous climbing perennial distinct from the Western plant, and hearty (17) amaranth greens are added to stir-fries and curries. The long pods known as (18) drumsticks are favored in the spicy lentil-based stew sambar. Gourds, including (19) bottle, (20) pointed, (21) ivy, and (22) snake, are prepared in a number of ways: stir-fried, stuffed, or simmered in soups. (23) Taro root is fried like potatoes, while (24) flat beans are found in dals and spiced stir-fries. (25) Tomatoes and (26) potatoes, introduced by the Portuguese, have become curry staples.









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  • 09/04/14--19:00: Amid the Flock
  • EnlargeCredit: James Fisher Harvest season had begun in Rajasthan. Mustard, chickpeas, and okra were ripening in fields beside the Aravalli mountains. Bullock carts trundled wheat sheaves to a threshing ground. Girls pumped drinking water into clay pots at a temple well. A boy pushed along a tire with a stick, firewood balanced atop his head. And after a day of prodigious heat, an elderly goatherd from the Rabari tribe turned his flock homeward. These nomads traversed the Thar Desert on camels for more than a thousand years; many have since settled in villages. “What are you doing here?” he asked, bemused by the appearance of an outsider on the road into his house, as animals pressed around us. In India, there is a saying, often quoted from the Mahabharata: Atithi devo bhava, the guest is god. Soon the goatherd was lounging on a rope cot as his married daughters in saffron saris pulled me into their kitchen courtyard. Excited children gathered. Fires were lit. Dough was rolled. Chai was offered in clay cups. Meals in rural Rajasthan are shaped by the severe landscape, so the same rustic goat stew, heavy with black cardamom, cinnamon, chiles, and garlic, will be served in a mud-caked hut as well as a prince’s hunting tent. But it was precious ghee lavished on a single fire-singed flatbread, obviously all they could spare, that was the sign of a devout generosity to a stranger on their doorstep.








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    Anu Vaidyanath prepares to celebrate PongalEnlargeCredit: Kelly Campbell So much has changed in Molasur. I used to drive past this isolated agricultural hamlet in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu on my way home to the nearby town of Pondicherry. Twenty years ago, the village was a jumble of thatch huts and farms. But in the wake of India’s economic reforms, those farms have been replaced by concrete buildings and gated communities. Bicycles and bullock carts have given way to motorcycles. Molasur is slowly becoming a town.

    Yet for all the change, the four-day South Indian harvest festival known as Pongal is still observed each January. For me, the highlight takes place on the second day: a vegetarian feast like no other, featuring the best and most bountiful crops this town has to offer—from earthy sweet potatoes to meaty coconuts, nutty broad beans to creamy bananas. As landlord families throughout South India have done for centuries, the Reddiars, former feudal masters over 85 villages in the area, host the meal, which is meant to honor the land’s abundance, the weather gods, and cattle. Each year, for generations, the family has decorated cows in flowers and painted horns and opened the doors of their vast whitewashed home to feed the village’s approximatley 5,000 residents.

    The start of Pongal is determined by the beginning of the sun’s six-month journey northward, which Hindus consider auspicious. This year, the feast was held on January 14. I was invited by my friend R. Sathyaranayan, or Sathy, the youngest son in the Reddiar household. His family began their preparations at 7 am, just after dawn, gathering in the courtyard to watch a clay pot filled with milk and rice that would determine the coming year’s fortune. They were relieved to see the pot boil evenly on all sides, a signal of prosperity and abundance for the year. Pongal, after all, means “to boil” in Tamil, and of the range of pongal dishes, this dish—sakkarai (or sweet) pongal—is reserved for its namesake festival.

    Pongal in Tamil Nadu, IndiaEnlargeCredit: Kelly Campbell
    Not far from the clay pot, Gopal, the family cook, worked with his helpers, slicing vegetables and cleaning lentils. Gopal is 80 years old but looks much younger. He heaved gunny sacks of rice; he lifted logs of wood and stoked the fires—Pongal feasts are cooked traditionally over wood, never gas.

    The best part of the meal is the special dish that shares its name and annual appearance with the festival itself: sakkarai pongal
    At midday, we moved to the pooja room, or meditation room, where a ceremony was held amid incense smoke and ringing bells to honor the gods and the family’s ancestors. The ceremony over, we moved on to the serious business of the day, the feast itself. A score of family members and friends gathered in the living room for this meal made mostly with ingredients from Molasur’s fields. Outside, villagers milled around as we ate; they would be invited into the home to eat later.

    Assisted by his helpers, Gopal, shirtless and glistening with sweat, spooned helpings of food from brass buckets onto banana leaves spread across the concrete floor. Many of these wholesome, simple dishes reminded me of food I had eaten throughout my childhood. There were five types of poriyals—sautéed vegetables including yams, broad beans, sweet potatoes, and bananas, all infused with the distinctive South Indian flavor of coriander and curry leaves. I was also impressed by Gopal’s variations on classic dishes. His pumpkin poriyal, for example, was heavily seasoned with grated coconut.

    Sweet Rice PuddingEnlargeCredit: Ingalls Photography The best part of the meal is the special dish that shares its name and annual appearance with the festival itself: sakarai pongal. It is traditionally made with the season’s first rice and fresh milk, mixed with jaggery, raisins, and cashews, and then boiled until it is almost a paste. We didn’t wait to finish the rest of the dishes to eat this delicious dessert; we scooped up the sweet pongal with our hands between morsels of the main dishes.

    After the meal, Sathy and I went for a walk to the end of the village and sat at the edge of his family’s fields, by an ancient temple, its granite façade blackened over the years. Sathy told me that Molasur’s traditional agricultural life had withered amid India’s new economy. The young were no longer interested in farming; they preferred to work in the cities, in technology, at call centers. “Soon we probably won’t even farm here anymore,” he said, running his hand across the horizon, the length of his fields.

    A young boy from the village came running over. He asked Sathy when the feast would happen and Sathy told him it was being served at that very moment.

    As the boy ran off to eat, Sathy said, “I’m happy I can still open my doors once a year and feed the people of this village.” He looked at the ground, his hands in his pockets. “At least we can still do this.”

    See the recipe for Sakkarai Pongal (Tamil-Style Sweet Rice Pudding) »

    Akash Kapur is the author of India Becoming (Penguin-Riverhead, 2012)








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  • 09/11/14--08:00: The Rewards of the Road
  • EnlargeCredit: Ariana Lindquist We are hot, tired, and hungry when we spot a dhaba, one of the ubiquitous truck-stop eateries found along India’s highways, at half past noon. I have been navigating potholed roadways since sunrise with my friends Vatsal, Thuy, and Gabriel in a pair of mud-splattered three-wheeled carts. We’re making our way west from the dripping wet northeast state of Meghalaya to Jaisalmer in the desert region Rajasthan for the Rickshaw Run, a 2,000-mile rally across India for charity. I gear down and steer the sputtering auto rickshaw onto a massive bumpy dirt lot.
     
    Along the far edge of this dusty field is the dhaba, the barest structure framed by a concrete back wall and a low-slung thatch roof held up by bamboo poles. Its kitchen and four khatiya, makeshift beds constructed from a wooden frame wrapped with jute ropes, are exposed to the open air. In front, a barefoot boy draws water from a hand-pump well and, a stone’s throw away, a dozen young men in tank tops splash rainwater from a concrete cistern, washing themselves and their motorcycles.
     
    We collapse onto two of the khatiyas. The young boy approaches our table—just a wood board set across the wooden frame—with the customary welcoming dish of dhabas everywhere: a round metal tray of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and lime halves, along with a plastic plate of roasted green cayenne chiles.
     
    Typical of dhabas all over rural India, this one beckons truck drivers, who mostly hail from the populous northern states, with the heavily spiced home cooking of their birthplace. Among the day’s offerings are stir-fried vegetables, paneer (yogurt cheese) dishes, a dal of stewed chickpeas, and various curries. Vatsal nods subtly to the proprietor, a wiry man with a shock of black hair, and he comes over to take our order.
     
    The chapati cook is fast at work at the coal-fired tandoor oven
    One cook starts chopping vegetables at the counter. To his left, the chapati cook is fast at work at the coal-fired tandoor oven, rolling out rounds of dough and toasting them on the domed surface of an inverted tawa (a wok-like pan) set over a burner. Finally, he lays each flatbread directly on the coals, flipping each one over once it puffs up to brown the other side.
     
    When the chapati and other dishes arrive at our table, I tear off a strip of the smoky flatbread and dip it into the dal. Many dals are smooth, but this chana (split chickpea) dal is hearty like a meat stew, with tender bits of tomato, caramelized onion, and an abundance of chiles bobbing in a thick turmeric-tinted broth. The baingan bharta is equally tantalizingvelvety bite-size chunks of eggplant draped in a rich savory gravy of ginger-garlic paste, green chiles, curry powder, and cumin seeds.
     
    “You should get some of the bitter gourd before Thuy eats it all,” Vatsal says.

    Strips of the crocodile-skinned squash in the karela sabzi are nutty from pan-frying in mustard oil and punctuated with sweet sautéed onions and lemon juice. But my favorite is the bhindi masala, a stewed okra dish punched up with bitter fenugreek, smoky ground chile, and the sour green mango powder amchoor. The taut okra, slicked with a spiced mix of tomato and red onion, pop when bitten, releasing their seeds.
     
    The proprietor refills our dishes until we beg him to stop
    The proprietor refills our dishes until we beg him to stop. Marking the end of the meal, the young boy reappears with two metal bowls of fennel seeds and sugar crystals. I scoop them into my palm and put them in my mouth. Closing my eyes, I savor their bittersweet flavor and listen to the soothing murmur of Hindi and Bihari from nearby tables, where truck drivers lean back in their chairs. Soon we must return to our rickshaws.
     
    We will encounter many more hours of cratered roadways and chaotic traffic, lumbering livestock and hair-raising detours, before we reach the finish line. But tomorrow will bring another day, another dhaba, another dal.

    See the recipe for Bhindi Masala (North Indian Okra Stir-Fry) »








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  • 09/12/14--08:00: Mango: King of Fruits
  • Mango King of FruitsEnlargeCredit: James Roper
    Each summer, mango season brings India to its knees. It's a time when everyone comes together to celebrate the fragrant, yellow-fleshed fruit. People eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Street vendors slice it and serve it chilled and spiced. More than a thousand varieties of mango are indigenous to India. Everyone loves the creamy Alphonso, which grows abundantly in the south, but there are turf wars over which region has the best, and people anxiously read the newspapers for the latest updates on price and availability. When the season is over, pantry shelves are stocked with mango chutneys, pickles, powders, and dried fruit—wistful reminders of the best days of summer.









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  • 09/15/14--13:00: Acquired Taste
  • Hyderabadi BiryaniEnlargeCredit: Ingalls Photography My prandial pickiness merits its own chapter in our family lore. Growing up, the list of items I eschewed—nuts, lamb, seafood—far surpassed those I ate. The most trying time for my parents was a brief childhood spell during which I subsisted on nothing but bread and butter. 
     
    A fussy palate is particularly burdensome when your family hails from one of the world’s great culinary cities—in our case, Hyderabad, the capital of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The city’s position in the south-central part of the country makes it a prime crossroads for culinary cross-pollination from the north and south. Its role as a wealthy seat of cultural influence in the Muslim world led to the assimilation of ingredients from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Persia. The result is a refined medley of flavors that has earned die-hard devotees the world over.
     
    And yet, I’d never counted myself among them, not even when it came to Hyderabad’s most famous dish: biryani, a gossamer cloud of spiced rice layered with meats, seafood, vegetables, and even fruits. The dish is served in many parts of the subcontinent, but according to Mumtaz Khan, a doyenne of the city’s cuisine and an old family friend, “Hyderabadi biryani is very different. It’s the only place where they make it with raw meat.” Elsewhere, the meat is an add-on; in Hyderabad, the rice and meat mingle, cooking together in one pot, the ghee steaming, to create the harmonious version of the dish known as kachchi biryani.
     
    Though I’d visited my grandparents frequently throughout my adulthood, traveling from my home in Cape Town to see them, I’d managed to avoid biryani, a staple of my grandmother’s table. But when my grandfather passed away last year, the threads connecting me to my past became more tenuous. So I flew to Hyderabad to be with my grandmother, Hya. This time, I was ready to give her biryani its due.
     
    A few days into my trip, Hya took a seat by the stove, where her cook, Khaja, had amassed a trove of ingredients. What followed was a scene that plays out in many kitchens of a certain social strata: matriarchs guiding cooks, rarely dirtying their own hands in the process. Maintaining appearances is critical.
     
    “I used to teach them, but I didn’t know how myself, so I’d hide a cookbook in the pantry,” Hya confessed. “I’d go sneak a peek, then return and act like I knew what I was doing.”
     
    Now, my grandmother’s attitude was confident. Khaja followed her directives, and, once the cooking was done, I stole a bite from the pot. A surge of elaichi (cardamom) wafted down my throat, followed by an ambrosial blend of clove, cinnamon, ginger, and garlic. The kinetic composition of flavors, long banished from my palate, resonated deeply with my taste buds. Despite a lifetime of resistance, the biryani tasted like home.

    See the recipe for Kachi Yakhni Biryani (Hyderabadi-Style Steamed Chicken and Rice) »








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