It’s time we had a chaat.

What’s sweet, sour, smooth, crunchy, spicy and hot – and that’s ‘hot’ as in hip? According to The New York Times it is a distinctive style of snack, traditionally sold from street stalls across India, called chaat (pronounced like ‘chart’) that has become popular on the streets of Manhattan. Across the Atlantic, Camellia Panjabi’s, Amaya, serves up a menu of Indian street food including a selection of chaat. Panjabi, author of the essential 50 Great Curries of India, is credited with making Indian food ‘smart’ in London. I have been in enamored with chaat for years. It’s one of my favorite Indian eats and I have my preferred chaatwallahs (vendors) in Delhi – a city renowned for chaat.


Mobile chaat wallah. Rajkot Gujurat


The basic components of the chaatwallahs trade are universal; sticky, sweet and sour tamarind chutney; a sharp, invigorating green chutney ground from fresh coriander and green chilies; salted yogurt whipped to a smooth creamy consistency; chaat masala, a magical blend of spices made pungent with black salt and dried green mango powder; a plain boiled chickpeas and cubed potato; an urn of the spice infused broth called jal jeera. and a pile of gole or puri( crisp hollow puffs fashioned from either wheat flour or semolina dough) and papri ( crunchy discs of ajwain flavored pastry).

From these singular components the chaatwallah composes the dishes of his trade. To make papri chaat, he builds a base with a handful of papri and a smattering of the potato pieces and chickpeas. This is then dressed with a generous ladle of yogurt, a good slick of tamarind chutney; a swirl of green chutney and a sprinkle of chaat masala. All of the genus chaat are variations on this theme and the alchemy that takes place when these tastes and textures are combined inevitably induces sighs and grunts of satisfaction from the consumer. The literal meaning of chaat is ‘to lick’ and scooping up the last remaining rivulets of sauce in the dish with one’s fingers is an automatic reaction – good manners forgotten in an attempt to prolong savoring such sublime flavors.


Railway station snack vendor Jharkhand


The makings










Chaatwallahs extend this basic repertoire with bhalle, a fritter made from ground urad dal that gains its unique fluffy texture from being fried then soaked in water and wrung out; rajgole, as the name suggests, a king-size version of gole that becomes the chaat equivalent of a hamburger with the lot, garnished with ruby red pomegranate seeds and slithers of white radish and red winter carrots.

Fortunately, a visit to Delhi, London or New York is not a pre-requisite for enjoying chaat. For those who like to undertake their culinary adventurism in the kitchen chaat is reasonably easy to prepare. This recipe for papri chaat makes an interesting first course at an Indian style dinner or served as a light lunch or brunch dish on the weekends.

Papri Chaat

makes 6 servings

Chaat Masala 


I tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp roasted ground cumin seeds

1 tsp powdered ginger

1 tsp ground rock salt

1 tsp kala nemak (black salt)*

1 tsp red chili powder (or to taste)

1 tsp amchur (dried mango powder)*

1/2 tsp asafetida*

1 tsp brown sugar (optional)


Mix all the ingredients together and store in an airtight jar.

*Available in Indian or Asian grocery stores.



1 ½ cups plain flour

½ tsp salt

1 tsp ajwain or cumin seeds

2 tbsp ghee, melted

1cup ghee for cooking


Sift the flour and salt together into a bowl; stir in the cumin seeds. Add enough cold water to make a soft dough. Knead the melted ghee into the dough until the dough is soft. Roll out to approximately 3mm thickness. Cut out small discs from the dough. Prick with a fork.

Heat the extra cup of ghee in a wok or deep saucepan.

Deep fry the papri a few at a time until golden.

Drain on kitchen paper.

Sonth ki Chutney (Tamarind Chutney)

My thoughts turn to heaven whenever I taste this chutney. It will keep in refrigerator for several weeks – if it lasts that long! It can be used to give a tantalizing lift to all manner of dishes.

Makes 1 cup


½ cup tamarind pulp

¾ cup jaggery, finely chopped or grated

1 tsp rock salt, ground

1 tsp kala nemak (black salt)

1 tsp powdered ginger

1 tsp roasted, ground cumin seeds

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

¼ tsp chili powder


Soak the tamarind in one cup of hot water for 20 minutes.

Strain the pulp and water through a sieve into a small saucepan, pushing it through with the back of a wooden spoon to extract all the pulp.

Add the remaining ingredients and bring to the boil; reduce the heat and simmer over a low heat until the chutney thickens a little. Cool.

Hare dhaniya ki chutney (Green chutney)

This recipe requires a bit of labor and it should be used fresh. In India green chutney is ground on a grinding stone. If you don’t happen to have grinding stone handy a blender is the next best option (a food processor won’t give the right texture). The finished chutney should have a smooth texture.

Makes approximately ¾ cup


1 bunch washed coriander leaves, stalks removed

1 tbsp peanuts, coarsely ground

¼ cup green chilies, chopped*

2 tsp salt

1 tsp brown sugar or crushed jaggery/palm sugar

1 tbsp fresh lime juice


Grind the coriander, peanuts and chilies to a fine paste.

Add the salt, sugar and limejuice. Mix well and serve.

To assemble the chaat

small cubes of boiled potato and cooked chickpeas

yoghurt whipped smooth with a fork

chaat masala

Place the papri on one large plate or divide amongst six smaller ones, scatter over a handful of potato and chickpeas, smother with curd, add a generous dollop of both the chutneys and a sprinkle of chaat masala.




Nimish: seminal gastronomic foam?


Over years I have been researching and writing about Indian food I would periodically come across reference to a curious confection called nimish, particularly in historical or memoir material about food in the Avadh (Lucknow) region. The writer in question inevitably rhapsodised about this dish, a subtly sweet ‘lighter than air’ milk based foam, and described the essential environmental conditions for its production, yet never fully explicated it. My pieced together understanding of its production was that an earthen vessel of milk was left out on a lawn or terrace on moonlit winter’s and by morning the overnight dew had magically transformed the milk it into a whimsical froth, solid enough to hold in soft peaks when scooped up but that this form was inherent instability. If the nimish was not eaten within the early hours of the day it would collapse. Exact ingredients, technique and the chemistry that allowed this foam to form were never revealed. I was curious about nimish however the unusual combination of conditions required for its production, as I understood these from my readings, made me think my chances of encountering this dish were small.

P1010064One of my most rewarding field research methods is to wander at random through the bazaars and lanes of Indian cities keeping a keen eye out for food ‘finds’. This was just what I was doing one winter’s day in Lucknow when I spotted a throng of vendors outside Akbari Gate all standing behind identical conical glass cases containing what looked like a captured cloud. I felt a rush of excitement: was this the ethereal nimish I had read about?


I inquired of a vendor: “nimish hai?”. He responded with that distinctive Indian gesture of moving his head from side to side: an ambiguous movement that I chose to interpret in the affirmative. I usually try to determine a more precise meaning of this non-committal waggle but on this occasion my heightened expectation about the mysterious nimish overrode my tenacity. (My Australian accent debilitates the pronunciation of my limited Hindi vocabulary and people often do not understand me causing me to feel frustrated as know I am using the right word/s and it can be time consuming to persist with the process).


At the first mouthful of my purchased portion I thought: “this is more like sweet whipped cream, much heavier than a whimsical milk froth would be”. I also wondered how these vendors could be selling something in the middle of the day that was reportedly so fragile that it had to be eaten before sunrise. None-the-less I pushed my doubts aside and decided that what I had eaten was nimish.

I described this experience in the draft manuscript for The Penguin Food Guide to India. My editor came back to me with a query. She had spent many winters in Lucknow as a child and recalled eating a dish identical to the one I described as nimish, however she knew it as malai makkhan. This term translates as ‘cream butter’ and indeed this was a better description of the substantive dish I had sampled. I investigated. I learnt that malai makkhan is made by whipping unsalted butter to a frothy cream, sweetening it with sugar and flavouring it with various combinations of saffron, cardamom, pistachio and rosewater, and discovered that the term nimish was used flexibly and was sometimes used to describe what was actually malai makkhan. So had I eaten nimish or malai makkhan?

IMG_0198Another year and I am in Varanasi wandering the meandering alleys and bustling markets of this ancient city.. A large karahi (iron cooking pot) sitting on the ledge of a small non-descript stall half filled with golden foam sprinkled with finely chopped pistachio nuts catches my eye. I inquire of the vendor: “Nimish hai?. He responds with an unquestionably affirmative “Hanji”. I eagerly buy a plateful. One mouthful affirms it as the ethereal concoction I had read about: a light touch of sweetness before its enigmatic body melted on the tongue trailing behind it a subtle memory of rosewater, pistachio and saffron. I feel assured now that I can pronounce my Lucknow experience as malai makkhan.

IMG_0197I‘ve learnt how to make nimish. Fresh milk is mixed with a small amount of cream and a dose of cream tartar and left overnight in the refrigerator (dew and moonlight can be dispensed with it seems!). In the morning sugar and rosewater are added to the mixture, which is beaten/whisked until foam forms. This is scooped off and collected in a separate bowl. The beating and scooping continues until all the milk is used up, a process that can take several hours. The acidic cream of tartar denatures the protein in the milk allowing it to ‘hold up’ as foam. An older practice is to add a piece of cuttlefish to the milk to catalyze the same chemical process. Given the lengthy process of making nimish it is not surprising to find most recipes of that name are based on whipped cream such as this one from Rick Stein.

It seems that nimish had been close at hand when I lived in Delhi without my knowing it. In the capital it is called daulat ki chaat and is sold by vendors in Old Delhi over a few weeks in winter. This set me pondering why I had not seen it during my field explorations of that part of the city and I remembered that I had done most of my research there in spring and summer. While I may have missed (thus far) enjoying a plate of daulat ki chaat I rejoice that seasonal food specialties are still to be found all over India. In Australia we can buy Christmas cake and pudding all year round stripping any specialness out of these once seasonal items.

If you fancy trying to make nimish/daulat ki chaat I recommend you use the recipe from Priti Narain’s classic book The Delhi Cookbook that Pamela Timms has reproduced in this post .

The Royal Falooda

Falooda are fresh sev (thin vermicelli style noodles) made from cornstarch.

Falooda could be seen as a microcosm of Indian food as it has several of the hallmark features that characterize this nation’s cuisine

1. It’s complicated.

2. Spelling variations

Falooda, faluda, faloodah

3. Variations

A small mound of cooked falooda drizzled with rose syrup can be served with kulfi (an ice-cream made from reduced milk, sugar, nuts and saffron). This dish is properly referred to as ‘kulfi falooda’ but it is often just called falooda.

Falooda is also a drink cum dessert. It is alternatively sipped and eaten with a spoon. The basic formula is some type of starchy or gelatinous ingredients such as falooda (the noodles), tapioca pearls, jelly or takmaria/basil seeds layered into a tall glass with cold milk, rose syrup and crushed nuts poured over.

Semiya (wheat flour vermicelli) are sometimes substituted for ‘falooda’ noodles.


kulfi falooda

  1. Variations of versions

Ice-cream (of various flavor) has become a popular addition to falooda (the drink cum dessert). This turns it into something like a cross between a milk-shake and an ice-cream sundae or a somewhat more liquid variation of kulfi -falooda. This variation might be referred to as shahi or royal falooda (see recipe for my take on this). Dried or fresh fruit such as banana, mango or grapes might also be added.

A regional specialty of Madurai in Tamil Nadu is a drink cum dessert called jil jil jigarthanda (variously translated as ‘cool cool heart’ or ‘cool liver’) made from sweetened reduced milk mixed with small pieces or pearls of agar-agar jelly (kadal paasi) , nannaari (syrup made from Indian sarsaparilla/hemidesmus indicus ) and ice-cream. Jil jil jigarthanda is said to have been developed in Madurai by Arab or Muslim traders come into the city (see history) and some versions include rosewater and nuts which makes the connection to falooda more obvious.

Famous Jigarthanda Madurai

Famous Jigarthanda Madurai

  1. A history (with variations)

Falooda belongs to a family of Indian sweet items, such as halwa, jalebi and kulfi, of Persian/Middle Eastern origin. It is said to have come into India with the Mughals (who looked to Persia as their cultural model). The fourth Mughal emperor Jahangir (ruled 1605-1627) was reportedly found of falooda eaten with cream and fruit (which suggests the noodles rather than the drink). An alternative theory is that it came into India with the Persian king Nader Shah when he invaded India and toppled the Mughals in 1738. He only stayed around for a year though spending this time looting and pillaging rather than embedding a cultural imprimatur so I am going to give it to the Mughals.

Falooda was originally an ice based concoction (it still is in Iran). Ice was an expensive and luxurious commodity in India (and elsewhere in the world*) up until the early 20th century, making chilled items the prerogative of the wealthy. Now that refrigeration is widely available the milk is usually pre-chilled although ice may still be added; if ice-cream is added that serves the same purpose as ice. Ultimately what is important is that the falooda is cold and therefore cooling.

  1. It’s all about digestion

A distinctive ingredient of falooda is turkmaria or basil seeds. These are soaked in water prior to use causing them to swell and become like a soft jelly (resembling frogs eggs). When used in falooda it serves more as a textural component than flavor element. Turkmaria is reputed to have various health benefits such as aiding digestion, cooling the body, relieving stress and minimizing appetite.

  1. Contribution to world food

Many of us (in western countries at least) understand basil (ocimum basilicum) as a fresh herb of Italian/Mediterranean origin but it is actually native to India/Asia and is considered to have first been cultivated in India 5000 years ago. Since that time it has spread widely resulting in many different cultivars in use across the globe. It took a lot of searching to ascertain the variety, ocimum pilosum, from which turkmaria is harvested from the flowers. I do not claim absolute certainty on this though because I could not understand the finer details of the scientific language used to classify plants.


The Royal Falooda

photo photo

While researching The Penguin Food Guide to India I enjoyed a particularly fabulous and rejuvenating ‘royal Falooda’ one hot steamy afternoon at Aswad Upahar in Mumbai. For a recent lunch at Merricks General Store I used this particular experience as the inspiration for dessert. I did not think that a falooda in its drink form would be suitable so I added an influence of colonial India and turned it something more like a trifle/parfait. I serve it layered in glasses. I do not have specific recipes for any of the layers so I will just describe these as each is easy to make. If you make this in summer you could also add a layer of finely diced fresh mango (a fruit native to India)

As texture is a feature of this dessert do not put it together too far in advance or you will loose the crunch of the pistachio macaroons. If you are going to pour the jelly directly into the glasses/containers make it up and allow it to cool and then pour a thin layer and refrigerate it (it should set within 20-30 minutes). Sprinkle the cashew nut brittle on just before serving so that it retains its crunch.

Layers (from the bottom up)

  1. Poach thin rice vermicelli noodles in sweetened coconut milk flavoured with cardamom (I let the coconut milk reduce so that is thicker and sticks more to the noodles). If the coconut milk it too runny just lift out the cooked noodles with tongs or a slotted spoon and put them into the bottom of the glass and cover with a tea spoon or two of the milk (you don’t want it to be too runny).
  2. Pistachio macaroons made he old fashioned way – not the shiny uniform ones you get everywhere now- from egg whites, sugar and ground pistachios . It does not matter if these are ‘rough’ as they will be broken up into the glass.
  1. Thick (real) vanilla custard
  1. Rose water jelly.

To make this I prepare a sugar syrup (500 ml water to 500 gm. sugar) that I flavor with rose water and a tiny bit of pink food colouring. Make this up into jelly as per the instructions for the gelatin product you use. You can either pour it directly as a layer in the glass or pour it into a tray and slice it up into cubes when its set and put these into the glass.

  1. Cashew nut praline. I make a toffee with cashew nuts and when it is set I roughly crush it for the final layer.


*In areas where snow and ice are naturally occurring chilling or freezing items would not have been a novelty (more likely that frozen food would have been an annoyance/pitfall in such places). It was only the rich who could afford to build ice-houses to store ice for year round use, or in the case of the Mughals the manpower to have it transported from cold mountain regions.

Sound, sight and sardines

kerala toddy shop

India is often described as ‘mysterious’, typically in relation to some spiritual/esoteric/religious aspect. Personally I find some of the more mundane characteristics of life here far more mysterious than anything to do with gurus, sadhus or saints. So I thought I would write an occasional series on the ‘mysteries’ of secular life in India and relate these to food.

Indians generally do not enjoy being by themselves; even if an individual’s natural inclination is towards solitude the societal pressure is to conform to communalism: being alone is seen and experienced by Indians as something undesirable (such an expansion population also limits the possibility of aloneness).

The mobile phone has been a boon to Indians for now one need never experience one minute of solitude: just keep talking …and talk they do … under all noise conditions (and India is a extremely noisy place). Here then is the mystery: despite the Indian ability to hear someone on the other end of a mobile phone, even under industrial strength noise conditions, many people here are oblivious to the sound of an approaching motor vehicle that is mere centimeters away from them and they will step out in front of it. Even if they deign to notice the moving vehicle that I am sitting in, that seems to me like it is about to run them down, they barely flinch. Despite some VERY close encounters with pedestrians I fortunately have never been in a vehicle that has hit someone but I never fail to feel anxious about the possibility, and after the danger has been averted I then seethe with indignation at this seemingly reckless conduct.

I originally thought that this behavior was due to a failure in hearing (hence my opening gambit) but in pondering this conundrum I think I have solved it. After years of observation I have concluded that anything to do with moving vehicles in India is related solely to sight. It works like this: if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist; and the only thing you need to see is what is directly in front of you. So the noise of a taxi barreling down upon you is irrelevant to your safety: if you don’t look at it, it can’t hit you.

This led me to conclude that perhaps the Indian government should run a health campaign to improve its citizens eyesight such that the eyeball is able to move beyond the fixed forward position it habitually adapts when encountering anything to do with road usage. The following recipe is my contribution to that campaign should my suggestion ever be taken up (while this is a ‘tongue in cheek’ piece an alarming number of people die on Indian roads every day).

Sardines are commonly eaten by coastal fisherfolk in India. They sell the larger fish as these bring a better price in the market and keep the less financially lucrative small fry such as sardines for their own consumption. These are packed full of nutrients such as omega oils, which are reportedly beneficial for eyesight. In the traditional Indian Ayuvedic medicine system curry leaves are prescribed to improve eyesight. Given the prolific use of curry leaves in South Indian cookery you would expect that the people of the south would have perfect vision but the incidents of pedestrian dare devilry are just as high as in the north where the curry leaf is not used so prolifically. Never the less I am still going to put forward a recipe with curry leaves as it may be that the it is the combination with sardines will activate the sight improving factor in these. A similar dish, more heavily mined with red chili, can also be found in toddy shops in Kerala: perhaps it helps men to better see their way home after a few rounds of this alcoholic beverage.


Muthi kari (toddy shop sardines): Kuttanad Kerala

Toddy Shop Sardines 

Serves 6-8


½ tsp turmeric

1 kg sardines

10 black peppercorns

2 tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp fenugreek seeds

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 medium sized red onion, finely chopped

2 tsp ginger paste

1-2 red chillies roughly chopped or 1 red capsicum finely diced

2 tbsp garlic paste

1 stalk curry leaves

salt to taste


Clean the sardines and sprinkle with the turmeric and salt, mix and set aside.

Dry roast the peppercorns, coriander and fenugreek seeds and grind to a powder.

Heat the 1 tbsp of oil over a medium high heat and when hot add the curry leaves. When these have changed colour mix in the onion and ginger paste. Cook for two minutes and add the red chilli or red pepper. Cook until the onion is translucent and the chilli softened.

Mix the garlic paste with the spice powder and a little water to make a paste. Add this to the onion mix, salt to taste and cook for two minutes.

Place a large shallow fry pan over a medium high heat with one tbsp of oil. Place a layer of sardines in the pan spread these with some of the onion mix, another layer of sardines and more of the onion mix. Pour over enough water (perhaps with a little white wine or lime/lemon juice mixed in as well) to cover and cook until the sardines are cooked through and the gravy has dried off a bit.

Serve hot with rice or bread.


A nursery Rhyme Meal

Slugs and snails

And puppy-dogs tails

That’s what little boys are made of.

I gleefully chanted these lines from a traditional English nursery rhyme as a child but they obtained a more visceral reality for me at dinner last evening, and a paraphrased version has been running through my mind ever since: slugs and snails and puppy dogs that’s what Naga cuisine is made of.

Nagas are renowned for having very broad palates indeed—fluffy white rats, frogs, worms, grasshoppers and hornets larvae were for sale at the market in Kohima as ediibles on the morning I visited and last night I was treated to dinner in a Naga home of several of their favourite delicacies : dog meat, silk worm and snails ( you can understand from this menu why that particular rhyme suddenly resonated). And it was a meal which now holds prime place in my culinary memory as the most confronting I have eaten in India.

While I observed the preparation of the dog meat dish with interest, when it came to the tasting I could not bring myself to eat it: memories of various beloved pet canines stimulated biliousness rather than appetite.

I normally pass on animal protein of squidgy or slimy texture—crunchy grasshoppers, scorpions or firm snake meat are fine— but on this occasion I did sup on silkworm and snails. I appreciate that both these food items were of wild and unadulterated provenance —the gastropods had been collected from a neighbouring paddy field —and therefore nutrient rich yet I do not imagine that I will replicate either of these dishes in my own kitchen but you might like to. I expect that obtaining a quantity of silkworms outside of Nagaland might prove challenging so I will give you the recipe for the snails as these are somewhat more widely available. You will likely need to do a do a bit of substitution to create this dish. If I was making it at home I would use golden miso as a substitute for the Naga fermented soya bean paste and canned bamboo shoots — the Nagas collect these fresh from the forest— soaked in a little white vinegar as a substitute for the fermented bamboo shoots, which have a sour/tangy flavour.


Noyla ga (snail curry)


2 tsp fermented soya bean paste

1 tsp red chilli powder or to taste

1 tbsp lard

50gm piece of smoked pork

1 cup fermented bamboo shoots sliced into thin batons

1 kg snails

2 tsp roasted sesame seeds

salt to taste


Put the fermented soya beans, chilli powder, smoked pork, pork lard, fermented bamboo shoot and salt in a pot large enough to hold the snails along with 3 cups of water. Bring to the boil and cook for 20 minutes. Add the snails and sesame and enough hot water to cover the snails. Bring it back to the boil and cook for another 5 minutes stirring the snails to ensure they are coated with the sauce. Serve hot with plain rice. 

First Bite of India

I felt somewhat unfaithful as I took my first bite of India. I was in Delhi and if I was being true to the culinary heritage of this city I should have disembarked the plane and headed to the nearest tandoori joint and tucked into robust paneer tikkarotichanna masala or kali dal. Instead I made a beeline to Sagar restaurant for a taste of the south.

The weather can take the blame for my cultural/culinary misdemeanor. For most of the year Delhi is a dry place but I have arrived with the receding monsoon. The air is still sticky with humidity, more like the atmospheric conditions encountered (with seasonal variation) year round in the tropical south – hence my appetite for southern Indian khanna (food).

Excuses made: let the eating begin. Glasses of chilled buttermilk flavoured with fresh coriander started us off.  Next were lentil dumplings in yoghurt sauce (dahi bhalla):lentils (urad dal) are soaked over night and ground to the paste which is salted and beaten until it is fluffy; spoonfuls of the batter are cooked in hot oil, soaked in water and gently wrung out. Finely shaved fresh coconut and slithers of tomato are mixed into yoghurt seasoned with salt and sugar (Sagar’s version is quite sweet) and tempered with dry roasted cumin seeds to make the sauce. Both the bhalla (dumplings) and the dahi (yoghurt) are chilled – the two only put together upon serving (otherwise the dumplings will disintegrate in the sauce). A sprinkle of crispy tidbits (think rice bubbles for a visual and textural reference) made from besan (chickpea flour) finished the dish.

Whilst we devoured the dahi bhalla the table was loaded up with small bowls bearing various sauces and condiments to accompany the dosa – savoury crepes most commonly made from ground lentils and rice cooked on a flat iron grill plate the batter spread out in a circular fashion to create thin crisp edges and a thicker soft middle. We had chosen two exotic versions: rava dosa made from semolina; its lacy edges perfect for excavating the silky mound of potato cooked with onion and tomato buried in its center and neer dosa; delicate sticky steamed rice crepes. Accompanying these were green and red chutney; the former a zingy paste of fresh green chillies, coconut and ginger; the latter tomatoes, red chilli and spices cooked to an unctuous mass; fresh coconut chutney; the spiced chilli infused sauce called sambar and a thick stew of vegetables and coconut.

South Indian ‘café au lait’ and a rich almond fudge (badam halwa) did what ‘dessert’ is meant to do – that is to ‘close off’ your appetite.

Tea and Trains

Of all the things India needs to change for the better – women’s rights; civic cleanliness; sanitation; roads, road rules, driving skills – it had to choose chai – a beverage that was in perfectly good working order as it was.

When I first came to India more than a decade ago when you traveled on a train chai was served to you in small clay cups. These added a particular earthy flavour to the tea and when you were finished you threw the cup onto the railtracks if at a station, or out of the train window if you were en-route. The cup would break and time would recycle it back to it’s original organic form.: dust, earth. The chai itself would be a preparation of tea leaves brewed in milk — some chai wallahs (tea sellers) might add a few spices— liberally sweetened and always hot*. Whilst it wasn’t a brew your tooth enamel appreciated it was an essential accompaniment to any train journey.

I recently arrived at New Delhi railway station to catch the train to Kolkata with plenty of time to spare catch so I naturally thought I would have a cup of tea whilst I waited. I parted with 5 rupees and was presented with a plastic cup  in which a teabag was stewing in watery milk (or was it milky water?). Although it was sweet and hot, this could not redeem it from being truly awful. How sad that the ancient voluptuous clay vessel – each one unique —has been replaced with the uniform anorexic brittleness of plastic.

It didn’t get much better on the train— a Rajdhani Express with meals and drinks included in the fare. The chai was do-it-yourself —a thermos of hot water, two tea bags, a sachet of dairy whitener and two bulging sachets of sugar. The resulting brew might have been ok it I was camping but in these circumstances my expectations had been much higher and I was not satisfied.

At 6.30 am we pulled into a station somewhere in rural  West Bengal— and I spotted a chaiwallah. I indicated to him that I would like some chai. He automatically reached for a plastic cup: ‘Ji nahin’ (no!) … I wish I could say I launched into perfect Hindi about how I preferred the clay cups he also had but I just pointed. Oh it was good — and when I it was finished I dropped the cup onto the tracks – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

There is no difficulty getting a truly hot drink in India. I ordered a hot chocolate in Flury’s in Kolkata and it was actually ‘hot’ – without me having to plead with the barista to make it ‘really, really, really hot’ only to still end up with a warm drink. Why is it that in this unbearably hot and sticky climate people get hot drinks right? 

Tea and Trains II

At 12pm on Saturday I boarded a train in the middle of India (Shahdol in MP); nearly 48 hours later I got off in the south (Kerala). In all that time I did not see one clay tea-cup (nor did I have a good cup of tea – though I had many very sweet ones). I got off at each station -major junctions and small towns all – and scanned for an old style chaiwallah: alas I did not see one. Perhaps they don’t come to the 2nd class A/C end of the train (which admittedly is a very long walk given the snaking length of most Indian trains).

I can report though that the clay tea cup is alive and well in Calcutta. Streetside chai stalls are legion in this city and most of them  offer a choice of cups – clay, glass and ceramic  -from which to take your tea. Disposable clay cups are preferred by those who have issue with drinking from a cup that another ‘s mouth has touched. For a devout Brahmin drinking from a cup that had been used by someone else would be anathema and require them to undergo a convoluted cleansing  ritual to restore their caste purity. Others may simply prefer them over the ceramic and glass cups that will in all probability have been washed in water of questionable hygiene.

Sadly I did not enjoy any clay cup chai while in Calcutta. My stopping anywhere for more than a few seconds results in an instantaneous crowd of beggars, peddlers of various items and slimy men surrounding me. On one occasion I stopped  to look at my map and a nearby policeman said ‘madam can I help you with anything’ …all the time playing with his crotch and smirking towards a group of fellow officers (what a hero!). As streetside teastalls are patronised almost exclusively by men I could not be bothered subjecting myself to the staring, giggling and jostling of each other (while fiddling with their googly bits) that would ensue because a white women was in close -stationary- proximity taking a cup of tea.

Instead I took myself to the Oberoi Grand hotel to take respite from the hasslers and where I had expected I would get a decent cup of tea (in the ‘british style’). After placing my order it took 20 minutes for the tea to arrive. When it did the waitress poured me a small cup of some luke warm tasteless brew (it was meant to be Earl Grey) from a large pot (with no hint of a refill). This non-descript brew cost me 155 rupees: that is 31 times the going rate of 5 rupees for street or train chai. I figure  the 145 rupee difference was the price of having it in peace.

Sweet Salve

One of my favourite Indian sweets – mishti doi, or sweentened yogurt, is also an auspicious food in Bengal; no celebratory spread of comestibles offered to any deity (to then be consumed by earthly beings) would be complete without it in this eastern state. It is made by boiling milk until it reduces and thickens. To this is added a syrup of caramelised sugar or more traditionally date molasses (khajuri gum) and the mixture poured into earthernware (clay) cups and left to sit overnight. The porous clay  allows water to evaporate contributing to the thickening of the milk. This process works  in Bengal where the climate is perfect for natural fermentation  – i.e., it is hot and sticky most of the year – but attempts to reproduce mishti doi in other climes will most likely require the addition of a small amount of yogurt to assist the mix to thicken.The best mishti doi has a thin layer of solidified cream on the top.

Describing the taste of  mishti doi  is like trying to describe the taste of vanilla – very difficult. You will have to trust me when I say that at its best it is ambrosial – and it is not as cloyingly saccharine as Indian sweets often are.

I have been on a misthi doi spree in Calcutta and when I work out the categories thing for this blog I will post my picks. I will also add a recipe once I have had the chance to develop and test one.

As sweet salve to your appetite in the meantime here is a recipe for Shrikand, another delicious yogurt based dessert that is popular all over India. This is my version which is pretty damm good. I like the yogurt to be quite thick but if you were short on time it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you didn’t hang  (see recipe) it at all (although it won’t be as nice). Yes you can use thick Greek style yogurt but it is still not as good as hung yogurt, also the Greek variety is usually part cream (yes that is why is tastes so good) and it is too rich for this dessert. If you have fresh mango at hand add some mango pieces. Enjoy.


Serves 6


a pinch of saffron threads

½ tablespoon hot milk

4 cups of whole milk yogurt

½ cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon rosewater

2 tablespoons roasted almonds, sliced

1 tablespoon shelled pistachio nuts, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons dried apricots, finely sliced


1. Take a clean tea-towel and wet it. Lay the tea towel over a colander and sit the colander in the sink. Spoon the yogurt into the colander. Gather up the edges of the tea-towel and ‘hang’ it over a tap somewhere where it can drip into a sink. Leave it hanging for at least two hours. The longer you hang it the thicker the yogurt will become.

2. Heat a heavy based pan over a medium heat. Add the saffron threads and roast until brittle. Powder these in a mortar and pestle, stir into the hot milk. Blend the milk into the yogurt.

3. Blend the sugar and rosewater into the yogurt. Reserve a few of the nuts for garnish and mix the remaining nuts and apricots into yogurt. Serve chilled or at room temperature and garnish with the reserved nuts.

Please to be Compensated

One of the unfortunate truths about India is that the weather is unbearable for the a large part of the year but mother nature does offer some compenstations for the beastly climate.

As the heat of summer starts to stifle the subcontinent succulent mangoes come into season. These are not the uniform – relatively tasteless varieties – that we get in Australia. The mangoes of India are diverse; official accounts put them at around 500 different kinds – although not all these are commercial varieties, the majority would be limited to  small local culitivation, perhaps to a single orchard.

Indian mangoes come into season at different times during the summer and each is distinct in its size, shape, perfume and juiciness. Every Indian will have their favorite mango: so much so that while India is the world’s biggest producer of mangoes it exports relatively few of them such is the demand in the local market.

At the height of summer – and it is a height, the average temperature in the north hovers above 40c – the gods smile on their parched underlings and send forth the lychee. Within the rough rose pink shell of this most beautiful fruit – crisp, juicy, delicately perfumed- lies pleasure so great that it takes your mind of the hades like atmosphere around you.

Then as suddenly as they appeared the lychees are gone: it’s a sign that the monsoon season in nearing. I have lived through an entire Indian summer and I can cope with the dry heat but I cannot bear the monsoon months; 35- 39c and 98% humidity – truly hideous.

Whilst I disparage the monsoon for the intolerable living conditions it creates (great for the skin though – it is like a having a deep cleansing facial each day) the monsoon is vital for it is the time when India gets most of her rainfall and if the monsoon fails the result is disastrous.

The late monsoon is when hilsa come down from Bangladesh to breed in the waterways of Bengal. The flesh of this fish is like no other: slightly sweet and rich in flavour; a not too firm not too soft texture; it is also full of tiny bones. Bengali’s absolutely worship hilsa: they don’t even mind all the bones; so adapt are they in dealing with these that they are able to maneuver them in their mouths into a small ball which they spit out (figuratively, sometimes literally) when finished. Having recently been in Calcutta on the tale end of the monsoon I don’t think the hilsa, as toothsome as it is, is compensation enough for the horrors of the weather there. Then again I don’t have to live there, perhaps if i did I would be equally as keen to focus my attention on a fish to take my mind off the weather.’s

Bengali’s commonly cook fish with mustard oil and/or mustard seeds. The recipe below is inspired by my visit to Calcutta – which is a great food city but my advice is don’t even think about going there in the summer /monsoon months. This is a very easy dish to prepare and cook, great for a tasty work day evening meal paired with the accompanying salad.  I have not suggested you hilsa as it is not easily available outside India. You can use any firm flesh fish but it works best with salmon as its firm oily flesh stands up well to the mustard and green chili in the crust.

Salmon with a mustard and green chili crust

Serves 4


2 tbsp black mustard seeds

2 tbsp yellow mustard seeds

2 green chilies

½ tsp salt

1 tsp brown sugar

1 tsp turmeric

1-2 tbsp mustard oil

4 salmon steaks


Grind the mustard seeds and green chilies to a paste and then blend in all the remaining ingredients with the exception of the fish pieces.

Pre-heat the oven to 180ºc. Heat an oven tray or dish.

Rub the fish steaks with oil and then coat one side with the paste.

Place the coated fish steaks onto the hot tray with the coated side up and bake in the oven until the fish is just cooked through, approximately 15 minutes (depending on the thickness of the fish).

Pear and sesame salad

mixed salad leaves of your liking

1/2 red onion sliced as thin as possible

1 crisp  pear sliced into matchsticks or thin slices

a generous handful of fresh coriander leaves

1 lebanese cucumber, sliced or diced

2 tbsp roasted sesame seeds

2 tbsp mustard oil

1 tbsp white balsamic vinegar (or use the darker stuff if that is what you have)

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

½ tsp Brown sugar

1 tsp salt

freshly ground black pepper

Mix all the salad ingredients together in a bowl.

Blend the dressing ingredients together and dress the salad with it.