Crossing the countryside of Uttar Pradesh and Uttar Anchal, you come into close contact with the extraordinary hospitality of Indian people. You are always welcomed with good milky tea (chai) scalding hot, sweet and spicy. This is a popular drink, and is consumed at any time of day, for a break or a moment of relaxation. Tea is drunk in all houses and can also be bought in kiosks along the roads of towns and cities. The flavor and perfume vary from one area to another, because the spices added to the tea are varied; there are countless recipes and secrets but the result is always delicious, refreshing and has digestive properties, giving a feeling of well-being. The basic ingredients are: water, black tea, assorted spice (cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, pepper …) and cane sugar. This mixture is boiled and then full-fat cow’s or goat’s milk is added: often this is the milk of the goat or cow you see grazing next to the house.
But tea is not the only pleasant surprise you will have when visiting the houses of country folk in Uttar Anchal: if you drop in at a mealtime you will certainly be invited to taste whatever they are eating. The daily diet is based on cereals, vegetables and fruit and the dishes are served with boiled basmati rice (one of the many local varieties).
Chapatis – thin, flat bread made from cereal flour, water, and salt and cooked on the fire on slightly concave hotplates – are used like paper napkins: you use them to pick up the food and hold it while you bite it (no cutlery is used here) but they are also food in themselves, and are served throughout the meal. Corn, wheat, rice, amaranth and millet flours are used to make chapatis, and the consistency, thickness, aroma and flavor change completely according to the mixture used.
Rice chapatis are thinner and lighter, and typical of southern India, while the corn and wheat versions are similar to Mexican tortillas; lastly those made with millet (white or black) and amaranth flour are thicker and rougher. You probably will not find Chapatis in Indian restaurants, because they are considered to be ‘poor’ food, typical of family cooking, and have been replaced by more refined products. Chapatis are more likely to be sold in dabas, the typical little kiosks that liven up the city and village streets.
Vegetables cooked and prepared with spices and flavorings are the main dish of the meal. Potatoes, lentils, chard, lady’s fingers (okra), cauliflower, peas and many more, cooked individually, are served on one plate arranged in a ray pattern. Often large leaves, folded and dried in the sun, are used as serving dishes. Daal, a lentil soup, is served hot in bowls and comes in different colors, according to the lentil variety and the spices used. Some of these soups are thicker than others, mustard yellow, or orangey-red, or dark brown, almost black: wonderful evidence of biodiversity! The chief flavoring in the soups is chili pepper, either red or green – but the latter is hotter.
Aloo jeera, aloo gobi and aloo mattar are three common ways of cooking potatoes (aloo means potato). Aloo jeera are boiled, diced and then fried in a frying pan with oil, and flavored with onion, cumin seeds, ginger and fresh coriander. Aloo gobi and aloo mattar are cooked respectively with cauliflower and peas.
Chutney is a delicious green spicy sauce usually served with the meal. It is quite tricky to make. The ingredients are ground between two stones, one of which is wide and concave: mint, garlic, hot green chili pepper, and spice are mixed with seed oil and a little water, to make a fairly thick sauce ready to serve on the table.
Traditional Indian cheese making is limited to paneer, a light, and delicate fresh cow’s milk cheese, wrapped in a cloth and pressed until solid. Indians usually eat it smothered in curry and spice sauce, making sure the cubes of paneer (which is not very tasty, to tell the truth) are soaked in the sauce. Another dairy product is butter, greatly used in cooking and also spread on hot nan (larger, softer loaves than chapati).
No self-respecting Indian table will be without a sweet: you might taste kheer, a tepid cream of boiled millet or rice, mixed with yogurt, cane sugar and flakes of coconut, or some other fruit. Frankly, it doesn’t look all that appetizing, but you will overcome your reservations when you taste it: the balance of the various flavors is remarkable.
If you prefer fruit, choose a freshly picked, peeled and chopped mango: its sweetness is the only thing that will really refresh you on muggy afternoons in the Indian countryside.
Giovanni Bellingeri is the coordinator of the Slow Food Praesidia Office
Photo: a woman cooking chapatis (http://tsunami.mg-soft.com)