An Impression of India
By Chef Stephanie Michalak, Turner Farm Culinary Manager
Those who enjoy long flights are a special breed. I love traveling and even people watching in airports in a quixotic, “Love Actually” way, but the flight itself isn’t necessarily a glorious endeavor. Traveling from New York City to Delhi, India overnight with a 30-minute stop in Newfoundland, I found it difficult to relish the journey. This was especially true when the cabin pressure was off and something I ate wasn’t sitting well.
As we all descended towards Delhi, I was filled with a mix of emotions ,primarily because I was so physically shaky. Yet I was still excited to experience a whole new world. It had been a bumpy landing, but the plane still had two wings when we taxied up to the terminal. When we disembarked through the maze of a chaotic airport and out to the taxi line, there was absolutely no reprieve. Especially once our taxi driver jerked the car around walls of traffic and through dilapidated streets, whipping us around like a carnival ride.
The was my first impression of India.
The city of Delhi is a dense and easily overwhelming endeavor for travelers. However, if you’re able to steal glimpses of life whizzing along, you find yourself suddenly immersed in the succulent smell of jalebi being fried in a tucked away street corner. The beauty all around will make you stop in your tracks. The lack of personal space can be overwhelming, but so too are the colors, sounds, and smells in which you find yourself submerged.
One of the best ways to dive in and truly understand a localized identity is through food. When it comes to understanding the depth and variety of dishes within the country of India, it does help to realize that one of the key distinctions tends to be on foods originating from southern versus northern India. Obviously, it’s not so completely binary and there are many more variations, even within one household. India is a huge country and is the second most populated country behind China. However, for us mere culinary tourists, north and south is a great starting point.
Primary driving forces that create significant distinctions between northern and southern Indian dishes stem from climate, crops, and cultures. In many ways, the regions are entirely different far beyond their foods. Just look up how many languages are spoken throughout the whole country. If we were to compare just the food differentiations between the two, it would be like comparing what’s indigenously available in Maine and New Mexico. We could group these two states together because they are both in the United States, but they are entirely different.
Major distinctions between northern and southern Indian cooking includes different cultural influences, primary ingredients of dishes (including proteins), main starches, spices, and even textures of sauces. For example, northern India tends to have a lot more wheat-based items, like naan, paratha, and chapatti, whereas southern Indian dishes highlight more rice—all great for picking up sauces rich in spices.
It is true that some foods overlap with minimal to extreme variances, such as pakoras (which are known as bhaji in other areas). These are deep fried savory fritters that can be made from chickpea flour or other flours mixed with a variety of vegetables and spices. Either way, they are delicious and a lovely snack.
If a dish is made well and you enjoy it, perhaps the origins don’t truly matter in the moment. However, I like to think that understanding distinctions, even simply within food, allows us to get a better inside perspective on how others exist, the stories behind the flavors, as well as what may have deep significance and meaning to others.
There’s something about buying a piping hot dish directly from a vendor on the side of a bustling, dirty road halfway across the world from home that makes you realize we’re all on the same Earth trying to get through roughly the same orbital rotation. We’re all in this together, whether we choose to have rice or bread with our meals.
To find out more about Chef Stephanie’s culinary journey, join her for “A Taste of Northern India” in the Turner Farm Teaching Kitchen on July 31.