Being in India is a bit like riding a roller coaster. You often find yourself hurtling toward the unknown with not a thought in your head other than to get through the experience, but having a lot of fun nevertheless. And yes, there are many times you just want to throw your hands up and scream.
I have lived 20 years in the United States now. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are more relevant to me than Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi are. I turn my nose up at fast food, I dream of cutting down on “stuff” rather than collecting it, and I rant about too many cars and emissions. I am an American, and the land of my birth — immersed in a capitalist frenzy since I left in the mid-90s — grows farther with each visit and feels almost foreign at times now.
But cutting off the umbilical cord is not easy, nor even possible. In many ways, India remains home — a second home, but home nonetheless. The crowds and the noise jolt me, but they don’t shock me or deter me to the extent they would a mere visitor. The poverty does not overwhelm me, but I find it hard to shut it out as easily as I did when I lived here. The omnipresent McDonald’s restaurants with their Maharaja Macs that delight India’s upwardly mobile annoy me because they’ve replaced the Irani restaurants with their maska pavs (crusty, buttered bread rolls) that were so uniquely Indian.
It’s been more than a week now since our return to Washington, but I am finding it hard, as always, to shake India off. Not that I want to. I feel a little bit like Jay who has been asking every day: “Mom, can we go back?”
I hoped, during this trip as I have done in the past, to share with you photos and vignettes of life in the cities I visited. Unfortunately, I was having too much fun — and was too busy visiting family and friends — to do that.
We landed in Bombay, the city where I was born and grew up in, where I met Desi, where we lived until we moved to the United States, and where we eventually adopted Jay from. No place in India sucks the air out of your lungs quite the way Bombay does. People who have a passing acquaintance with the city will often paint a picture of horrors: miles and miles of slums, local trains too crowded to set foot into, thieves who will make away with your diamond ring and very likely the finger it’s on, beggars who will cling to your feet and not let go until you’ve parted with your money. And while there is truth in all of that, the Bombay I know is a beautiful one. It’s of a city that’s always alive, hopeful, and where people surmount impossible odds with grace. Like this man who sat calmly on a chair outside his home — a makeshift shack of two bamboo poles and a sheet of plastic stretched against the wall next to the railway tracks – watching the traffic at midnight for entertainment. Or the homeless children, bouncing and giggling as they played under a bridge with discarded soda cans for toys.
The hotel we stayed in, the exquisite Taj Mahal Palace, was — like the thousands of expensive buildings and skyscrapers that dot the city’s skyline now — a far throw from this world of poverty, but a reminder of other problems that we all live with in our times. From our room we had a beautiful view of the Gateway of India, a graceful Gothic structure overlooking Bombay Harbor, built in 1924 to welcome royalty to British-controlled India. I remember many outings at the Gateway with family and friends, and then going on to the ethereal Elephanta Caves in a choppy boat. Later, as journalists, forced by deadlines to spend the night in the city after missing the last train, we’d take a short cab ride to the temporarily peaceful Gateway. At the time you could walk under the dome and to the back to watch the waves lap against the sides of the monument. But since the two terror attacks in its proximity, including the 2008 attack at the Taj Mahal Palace, the Gateway has been sealed off to visitors and you can only admire it from the outside. One night, seeking food, we ended up at another old haunt not far from the Taj, Leopold Cafe, also a target of the 2008 terror attacks. A couple of guards standing outside checked our bags: a strange experience while eating out, but perhaps a necessary one. Inside the cafe, more grim reminders: bullet holes left behind by the terrorists in the walls and the ceiling.
One of the best things about being in India is the food. In our home Indian food is on the dinner table most days, but even so, eating Indian food in India, made by friends and relatives, is a highlight of our trip. When we do eat out, in familiar cities like Bombay and Madras, we seek out old favorites, although street food is a strict no-no because of the legendary — and very real — Delhi belly.
No matter where you eat, there is one thing you can always be sure of: the food is delicious. It’s true that I was born with a bias for Indian food, but there is something to be said for a cuisine so rich, so varied, and so artistic as well as scientific in its balance of grains, legumes, vegetables, spices and fat. Vegetarianism has thrived and survived in India not only because the food is delicious, but because it is also healthy and ensures your body gets all the nutrients it needs, keeping you in good health.
After returning home to Washington, I’ve been on a quest to make more traditional Indian foods, and the recipe I have for you today was almost necessitated by a large harvest of chili peppers that awaited me in my backyard garden.
Now before you click out, your mouth already on fire, hear me out. This Mirch ka Salan — chili peppers in a creamy peanut sauce — is not really very spicy at all, and certainly not more so than most Indian food. You do have to take care with the preparation — although it may not be as complicated as getting the poison out of a blowfish, it certainly helps to follow directions.
In fact, even 8-year-old Jay really enjoyed it. You deseed the peppers which takes a lot of the spiciness away, and then you fry them which takes away more of the heat. Dunked into the creamy curry, the peppers are flavorful without being overwhelmingly spicy.
Mirch ka Salan is a specialty of the cuisine of Hyderabad, a bustling city in south India known for its rich and delicious cuisine, and more specifically for its biryanis. In fact, this curry is traditionally eaten with a biryani, although it goes just as fabulously with any Indian bread or just plain rice.
- 6-8 long green, moderately hot, long chili peppers. (I used cowhorn peppers which are medium-hot and grow really long. Substitute with poblano, or, if you want to go milder, with Anaheim peppers)
- 1/2 cup peanuts
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp poppy seeds optional
- 1/2 cup coconut milk
- 1 tbsp coconut oil + enough for frying the green chili peppers
- 1 medium onion thinly sliced
- 12 leaves curry
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tspfenugreek seeds methi
- 1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp paprika optional
- 1 tbsp coriander powder
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 1 tbsp level tamarind extract
- 1 tbsp sugar or jaggery
- Salt to taste
- Trim them by discarding the stem end, and then make a lengthwise slit without cutting through. Remove the seeds and ribs. One trick to keep your hands from getting rather fiery when handling chili peppers is to coat them with some oil.
- Heat enough oil in a wok or saucepan to form a 1/2 inch layer. Fry the prepared chili peppers, a few at a time, allowing the peppers to sear only slightly, about a minute on each side. Remove and reserve.
- In another larger saucepan, dry roast the peanuts, sesame seeds and poppy seeds for 3-4 minutes over medium heat. Remove to a blender and add coconut milk. Add enough water to make a very smooth paste. Set aside.
- In the same saucepan, add 1 tbsp coconut oil. Add the mustard seeds and when they sputter add the cumin seeds and fenugreek seeds.
- Add the onions and saute until they start to brown.
- Add the curry leaves and ginger garlic paste and stir-fry for another minute.
- Add the coriander and cumin powders, paprika if using, and turmeric. Stir well to mix. Add the peanut paste and mix well again. Add the tamarind paste and enough water to make a fairly thin gravy.
- Bring the sauce to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover and let the sauce cook about 20 minutes.
- Now add the reserved chili peppers and bring back to a boil. Cover again and simmer for another 20 minutes.
- Add salt and sugar or jaggery. Stir well and turn off the heat.
- Serve hot.