Staff members here at Formaggio Kitchen regularly travel the world to seek out the unique products that we carry. While our trips have tended to focus on Europe, my colleague Tim and I recently had the opportunity to travel to India (a first for both of us!). We were able to make the trip thanks largely to a small business grant from British Airways that gave us 10 round-trip tickets for use this year.
The primary motivation for our trip was to visit tea country. Initially, we looked into visiting the region of Assam – flat and plains-like, it is well-known for its tea. However, eventually we decided to explore the region of Darjeeling – mountainous, cool and verdant, it is nestled in the skinny part of India that sits between Nepal and Bangladesh.
Throughout the course of our trip, Tim and I sampled a wide variety of teas – from overly extracted, astringent tea on our flight to Bagdogra, to a beautiful, peachy first flush tea at the Makaibari tea estate, to an autumn flush at our hotel in Delhi. We tasted in all four of the major tea groupings: black, oolong, green and white.* For more information on the teas that we discovered in India (including the ones we now carry at Formaggio Kitchen) and an account of our visit to the Makaibari tea estate, be sure to check out Tim’s travelogues!
While tea played a major role in our trip, meals and snacks received a lot of attention too. As a fan of dairy products – be it cheese, ice cream or buttercream frosting – I was alert to the use of milk in India. It is employed quite differently than it is here in the States and cheese is not as large a component of the Indian diet. However, ghee (clarified butter) is used regularly in cooking, cream is employed in sauces and I tasted several variations on the “spoiled milk” theme that reminded me of yogurt and buttermilk, including lassi and kheer.
I was also a particular fan of the breads that we ate – naan, chapati, roti and poppadoms. While we were in Delhi, each evening, Tim and I would share our “top 3″ moments from the day over a drink or dinner. One of my “tops” was our visit to the spice market Khari Baoli where, as a baker, I was thrilled to see two different styles of bread-making in quick succession.
Although we were not able to communicate much verbally, many smiles were exchanged and I was given permission to snap a few photos of the bread-making in progress. We saw breads being made on a griddle and stuck to the inside of what looked like the kilns we used when I took pottery in grade school.
In general, because of the heat, Tim and I would have a large breakfast, skip lunch (but drink a lot of water!) and then have an early dinner. Not surprisingly, rice was a major part of our diet, particularly in the evening. When we went to the Khari Baoli spice market, we saw a good selection of different rices. We also saw a wide variety of lentils – dal, a lentil based dish, is an Indian classic. Popular all over the country with regional variations, dal is somewhat comparable to American mac & cheese, a comfort food that is consumed in all 50 states but is often made with locally influenced variations – from jalapeño peppers in the South to lobster in New England. In India, different regions prefer different lentil varieties for their dal and different seasonings, many of which were on offer in the market.
While Americans have lately been rediscovering their agrarian roots, in India, the agrarian life is still very much integrated into society. Walking through Bagdogra, a town that serves as a staging point for access to Darjeeling, we passed a small market where fish were being filleted. We regularly crossed paths with various animals such as cows and goats. A few minutes further down the road, a goat was being butchered and a few yards away a chicken was receiving similar treatment. In Delhi too, horse or ox drawn carts were not uncommon, animal husbandry was not out-of-place and we saw a lot of food preparation (such as the bread baking) taking place in public.
The time we spent in India was a continuous learning experience – there was always something new to look at and something new to taste. I feel like we just scratched the surface. India is a country with both a rich cultural and culinary history. What we saw will provide food for thought (literally and figuratively) for weeks and months to come!
*For more information about the distinctions between the four tea categories, please click here.