During our post-pandemic travel through India we found that the breakfast buffet at all the hotels have converged to a standard menu. Cut fruits, some salad, sprouts and a cheese platter are close to the beginning, next to fruit juices and tea or coffee. The fruits are predictable: pineapple, melons, papaya, or watermelon. You could have a pile of bananas or orange nearby, but I don’t think I’ve seen chikoo or custard apple at breakfast. Confronted with this again on our weekend visit to Chilika lake, I decided to practice my plating. I placed a few cubes of the industrial cheese, and some fruits and sprouts, before squeezing lime over the fresh ingredients.
The next stage through the buffet brings you to cooked food: idli and dosa, parathas or kulchas, and sometimes puri. This being Odisha there were puris instead of paratha. The family committed sacrilege on the plate by having her puris with yoghurt. I kept to the straight and narrow path: potato sabji. Plating Indian food is never easy, and I had to depend on the colour to make the serving look good in a photo.
The meat comes late. In fancy places you can get cold cuts and an egg station where they’ll do your eggs to order. Here I they had boiled eggs and cooked sausage. I’m more fond of potato wedges (The Family raised a quizzical eyebrow) than the sausage, but protein is protein. The peas did not assuage the eyebrow.
Finally it was time to sit back and relax. I’d had several cups of tea through the rest of the breakfast, but I can always have another. There was surprising amount of choice in the bakery section to make me vacillate between a croissant and a slice of brown bread. But The Family picked carrot cake, so I had a slice of tea cake to go with my last tea. I’m glad my daily breakfast is so much simpler.
We’d spent our days in Leh looking for a good place which serves Ladakhi food. The usual social networks for tourists directed us to a popular place which served ddishes known in cities, some Tibetan, others not. The town was full of cafes and bakeries, and generic Indian food. We asked the dependable Mr. Kanlon, and he had an immediate answer: Namza. So we went there for our last lunch in Leh.
From outside it looked like a regular house. But when we passed the front door it opened into a kitchen garden, an urban farm if you wish. A wood and glass cabin was the dining area, perhaps eight tables, bright and cheerful in the afternoon light. The menu spoke of fresh ingredients from the local market and from the garden. We looked out: potato, tomato, beans, pak choy, were in evidence. One of the wait staff pointed out local herbs.
We turned to the menu. After ten days of looking at the wildflowers of Ladakh, I was beginning to wonder how much of it found its way into the kitchen. Often a lot of local plants go into food, but they are not considered to be suitable for guests. As a result, many of these interesting tastes drop out of restaurant menus. So I was happy to see that a nettle soup appeared on the menu. The soups all sounded very interesting, but I settled for the nettles because I wasn’t likely to taste this ingredient elsewhere. I’d not seen much in the way of meat in the local food, so it was interesting to see that they made sausages in house. That was clearly something else to try.
The Family had ordered khambir (the Ladakhi yeasty naan) with an yogurt dip which arrived at the table rather quickly. I shared a bit of it, but I held back, because I suspected that I’d over-ordered. The nettle soup had bits of soft chhurpi (the yak-milk cheese of these heights) and slivers of chicken in the broth. The sausages were redolent of herbs. All I needed after that was a dessert, but Ladakh does not really do desserts. There were stewed apricots on offer, and I took it (that’s the featured photo). It was perfect, just plain local apricot freshly stewed without additives.
East-Indians are a less known community centered around Mumbai. If you haven’t heard of them before, you might be tempeted to think that they are smaller in number than the Parsis. But, in fact, there are six times as many East Indians in Mumbai as there are Parsis across the world. The East Indians were the original inhabitants of Mumbai. They are Marathi speaking fishermen, the Koli, of Thane, and Vasai who converted to Christianity after the arrival of the Portuguese, and with whom they had extensive dealings. This was at the time that the Portuguese used Vasai as their second most important port in India. I was quite puzzled by this name for the inhabitants of the western part of India, until I realized that I had to think like the confused Portuguese. For them this was India to the east, whereas Central and South America were India to the west.
The gratuitious featured photo shows two Indian Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris canidia) which I photographed in the ruins of the Vasai Fort. It is a place worth visiting. East Indians live in the villages around it, still farming and fishing as their ancestors did.
Their method of making sausage yields a wonderful product. Salt-cured shoulder of ham and bits of the neck are chopped fine and mixed with the a mixture of ginger and garlic, turmeric and cumin. A little red chili is added, but the much less than the fiery heat of the Goan chourico. The mixture is pickled for a night in toddy vinegar, yielding a fresh and mildly sour taste. I wolfed down a plateful with toast, pausing only at the last sausage to take a photo. It really is that good.
On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures
William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene 2)
Swells which ride on a tide never quite drain away. That seems to be the fate of the second wave of epidemic around us. Still, we brave the rip tide a couple of times a week: once by going out to eat, then again by meeting friends and family, one couple on one. On our last two outings we ordered, among other things, sausages and bread. Once it was Lebanese sausages with its flat bread (featured photo), the second time it was a Goan sausage with pao (below). These are wonderful, satisfying tastes. First the kick of the starch, then the garnish with its salts and sours and chili, and finally the long finish of the umami. If you are a meat eater, you know the satisfaction of well cooked starch and meat.
It led me to wonder about the universe of flavours that we build daily in our kitchens. Some searching led me to a well-written review of the current state of our knowledge about tastes. The first thing that surprised me is that taste and the perception of flavour are different. In fact, there are taste receptors in our stomach and intestines which order our bodies to metabolize food, but they don’t add to our perception of flavour. But the major surprise was how tightly the sensation of taste is connected to survival. It is not a complete surprise of course, because it is fairly common knowledge that many plant toxins are extremely bitter in taste, and we tend to avoid sharply bitter food. What is less widely known is that bitterness can involve pre-emptive nausea to remove the toxin from our stomach. The increased sensitivity to mild bitterness is said to trigger nausea during the first trimester of pregnancy when the major organs of the fetus begin to develop. It is also the identical response which we seek to suppress when we advise people not to drink on an empty stomach.
The ability to taste umami seems to have evolved in the pre-human lineage as they diverged away from our nearest living relatives and started foraging in grasslands, and decreased their reliance on fruits. Unlike us, chimpanzees cannot taste this component of our food. The umami taste appears as proteins denature slightly, either by rotting or cooking. We can tell when proteins in food reach the state when our stomachs and the pro-biotic bacteria inside us can begin to digest them by the glutamates and ribonucleotides that are sensed by the umami taste buds in our mouths. Fresh meat does not have an umami taste, so carnivores do not have these receptors. Sea-lions have evolved very far from other mammals by losing all sensation of taste, since they use their visual senses to identify prey and then swallow it whole. Perhaps only the dinosaur ancestors of birds had as finely developed developed a taste for umami flavours as us.
Our liking for starchy food is more subtle. I could not think of a specific taste of starch, but I love it when I eat it. Many animals can digest starch through enzymes produced in the pancreas. In us, and strangely, also in rats, this is supplemented by the production of the same enzyme in our tongues. This breaks down starches very rapidly in our mouths, so that we have no difficulty in swallowing dry toast or thick porridge. There are taste receptors on our tongue that sense both this enzyme and the malty predecessors of glucose (called by mouthfuls of names such as malto-oligosaccharides) that it produces by pre-digesting starch in the mouth. These receptors connect to parts of the brain which process taste without actually being identified as a distinct taste. I suspect that large scale addition of starch to our diets has been so recent, on the evolutionary scale of time, that our brains have not evolved to consciously processing these sensations as a separate taste.
Our brains may not have begun to process starch as a separate taste, but already our bodies have begun to evolve to identify these tastes. Some of us have more amylase receptors on our tongues. Such individuals seem to trigger production of insulin even before the starch reaches the stomach, and thereby lower the glycemic response to the food. Could the observation that diabetes runs in families similarly signal individuals who have heritably lower levels of these receptors? How did rats evolve this sense? Did they have it before they became ancient household pests, or did human agriculture and storage stimulate this evolution in rats? A tasty lunch seems to be a lesson about evolution in action.
If you noticed that my responses to comments was a little late and terse recently and wondered why, here’s the answer. I spent a couple of weeks traveling in China. The Family and I reached Shanghai late at night. By the time we checked into the hotel, there was only one dinner option which did not involve much walking. You may not think of a trio of sausages with sauerkraut as Chinese food, but I temporarily went by the principle that any food which you find in China is Chinese food.
Looking through the menu I found a beer on tap called Goose Island. I hadn’t tasted this before. It turned out to have an interesting bitter and sweet taste. A quick scamper through a tunnel in the great firewall showed that it is brewed in Chicago. Gulp! The Family, busy with a mushroom soup and garlic bread, asked “This is comfort food for you, isn’t it?” Strangely enough, it is.
It was late. We were tired and sleepy. But this was Shanghai. Even though the night temperature would have been unbearably cold in Mumbai, we took a stroll through the deserted streets of a city which we don’t mind going back to. A few people hurried by, hands deep in pockets. We stopped in front of a kiosk selling sour plum soup. “Maybe tomorrow”, The Family murmured. We walked back to the hotel. The next day was going to be long.
What is the food that Berlin eats? The Family wanted to find out and I was happy to help. In search of Berlin’s own food, we scoured the city from Mitte to Ku’dam, from Oberbaumbruecke (featured photo) to Potsdamer Platz (below). The answer was scrawled on walls everywhere: currywurst, bratwurst and pommes in that order. For those of us who need a translation, the last two are grilled sausages, often in bread like a hot dog, and French fries.
Currywurst? Invented by seasoned street-food vendor Herta Heuwer, according to Wikipedia, there is an element of mystery about its evolution. As CultureTrip put it “Maybe Herta stumbled upon the recipe through trial and error or maybe her matured palate after years of slinging grub to the street omnivores knew what the people wanted.” NPR Berlin assures us that its fans include Angela Merkel. Currywurst is nothing more than grilled sausages chopped into pieces and dunked into ketchup with curry powder sprinkled into it, just the thing that would be invented in 1949 by a smart housewife running an imbiss in the British-occupied sector of Berlin.
I love walking through markets when I’m in a different country. It gives you a good feel for what you might get to eat. Our exposure to Myanmar is so small, that I was happy when we got some time to walk through a market in Mandalay. I would find out what the Burmese grow and eat. There were fruit shops at the mouth of the market. Almost all the fruits were exactly what you might see in India. No surprises there except for a pile of dragon fruit. Perhaps we had not travelled far enough to the east to begin seeing the really exotic.
One of the things that I learnt on a recent visit to Chennai is that fruits and bananas are different things. So I was not surprised to see a banana stall near the stall of fruits. The variety was amazing: Myanmar has quite as many kinds of bananas as one could expect in southern India. We got to eat some of these varieties later on. There was a sweet and buttery tasting variety with mottled yellow skin which was nice and quite different from anything I’d eaten before. I guess one can find some of these varieties in north-eastern India if one looks hard.
The next few shops sold vegetables. I recognized most of them, although I would think of some as mildly exotic. There was eggplant of a slightly different shape than I’ve seen in Mumbai. The chinese cabbage looked large and crisp. Lotus stem and various beans were placed next to the usual staples of potatoes and onions. The only exotica was this white fungus. I recognized it as the main component of a tasty salad I’d had the previous night. I wonder whether it is farmed or collected.
The impression that the food was not very different continued when I passed a stall full of fish. The featured photo shows some of the fish, but really showcases the plates which they are put on. I’ve never seen such beautiful plates for fish in any Indian market. Nearby was this man sorting through a stack of paan. Nothing exotic here for us except for the longyi which the man is seen in. I’m not a fan of paan, but strangely even The Family skipped it. We’ll have to go back to find whether there is a large difference in flavour between the Indian and Burmese variety.
If you think that placing this photo so prominently in the blog is exoticising Myanmar, then you are right. You would also do it if you walked through a market where almost everything was boringly normal, and then suddenly chance on a vendor selling insects. In a thought-provoking article in Science the agricultural scientist M. Premalatha and her colleagues write “The supreme irony is that all over the world monies worth billions of rupees are spent every year to save crops by killing a food source [insects] that may contain up to 75% of high quality animal protein.” I find that I can eat and enjoy almost everything that other humans can eat. I did not share a language with the vendor so I could not ask how to prepare these animals for the table. Nor could I figure out what they are called. So, as a tourist without access to a kitchen, I lost this opportunity to taste something really different. Another time.
This lady was very amused by me stopping to take a photo of everything I saw. She was selling meat, and called me to take a photo. Her style of dress was different from that of the others, and she had a short head covering. From this I guessed that she could be Muslim. If so then could it be that Muslims specialize in butchering and selling meat in Myanmar just as they do in India? In India this started and is perpetuated by a remnant reluctance among Hindus to kill land animals. There could not have been such a taboo in Myanmar. Perhaps this is an inconsequential coincidence, and perhaps she is not Muslim after all. Preserved meat also plays a significant role in Burma’s food, if the market is anything to go by. There were several different kinds of sausages and dried fish. I later tasted dried fish in congee one morning at breakfast, but I never got to taste the local sausages. The list of reasons to go back to Myanmar is quite large, as you can see.
The last shops I came across before leaving the market had sweets and pickles. The sweets in the front are mostly candied fruits and vegetables, similar to some traditional sweets in eastern India. The pickles were quite different. We got to taste some pickled tea at this shop. Later I searched for and found pickled tea in salads a couple of times for lunch. Unfortunately one could only get the tea in little plastic bags which didn’t seem very leak proof, otherwise it would have been nice to bring some back to add variety to our daily salad.
As always, I’m left with a nice warm and fuzzy feeling after a walk through a market, even if I do not buy any food. We went out and had Burmese style tea with large amounts of condensed milk, and sweets called monbao.