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Please Pass The Paneer

Posted on Thursday, May 14, 2009 in Wanderlust & Wonder

 

One of the true highlights of our time in India has been all of the wonderful meals we have enjoyed. Some of the best meals we ate were actually in Mumbai but there was some other standouts along the way.

 

Here are some of our favorites:

 

Masala Dhosa. This is a thin crispy pancake-like filled with a savory mix of potatoes and spices. You can also get them with paneer (Indian cheese) and tomatoes. This is a southern India specialty so we were a little alarmed as we left the Mumbai/Gujarat regions and saw fewer and fewer of them on the menu. But every now and then our hearts leapt when we came across a restaurant in other towns in the north that offered southern Indian food on their menus.

 

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On the side as accompaniments, it is typical to receive a tomato-based pickle sauce and a cooling sauce made from ground coconut paste.

 

Pav Bhaji, a spicy mix of saucy vegetables that comes with little bread buns that remind me of the ones we got served in hot lunches in elementary school.

 

Kadai Paneer, a tomato-based spicy sauce in green peppers and other vegetables.

 

Malai Kofta. Yes, I know these look like sad, lumpy little balls in some questionable murky gray gravy, but it is pure goodness. Trust me.

 

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Palak paneer, one of Cousin Shannon’s favorites, was a dish we returned to again and again.

 

Bhel puri, a puffed rice and vegetable snack dish that comes with a savory mix of crispy, crunchy, chewy textures that keeps your jaw working hard.

 

Aubergine and tomato curry was another highlight during our time in Udaipur.

 

Paneer Tikka. This is breaded paneer that is roasted in the tandoori oven. Exquisite.

 

One of our stand-by treats for the entire length of our journey has been garlic naan. When it comes with the edges a little bit charred from being heated in the tandoori oven, you know it is going to be exceptional.

 

This is what Indian fast food can look like. It was actually pretty tasty. And in the far left corner, you can see my favorite dessert: the delectably succulent gulab jamun.

 

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And of course, present at almost every meal is a delectable sweet lassi. We developed quite high standards for what can be considered a decent sweet lassi. It has to be very, very cold (not a given in such a hot climate) and thick and rich. Sometimes to turn a plain lassi into a sweet one, folks will just dump a couple spoonfuls of large-grain sugar into the glass. While it can be exciting to crunch down on the bits of sugar by surprise, we do not really approve of this shortcut.

 

So many tasty flavor combinations! I did remarkably well as far as only eating with my right hand, but then I was told that it is okay to use utensils with the left hand so I have been incorporating that into my eating style.

 

There was only one time when my being left-handed was met with some dismay. Cousin Shannon and I had several late evening hours to kill before we caught a train out of Jaipur so we decided to go into one of the waiting rooms in the train station to relax before our journey. At the entrance to the waiting room was a little old man and his buddy sitting in front of a small table with a huge register book. He handed me his pen and asked me to fill in my information.

 

I took the pen and began to write my name on the line with my left hand. He snatched the pen away, laughing. He shook his head emphatically and pointed to my right hand with the pen. I pointed back to my left hand. This is the one I use. He laughed again and shook his head. Silly girl. He put the pen into my right hand and nodded encouragingly. He did not want to accept that I was left-handed.

 

So I took the pen in my right hand and painstakingly wrote out my name in lettering that my four-year-old nephew could have improved upon. Pure chicken scratch. Barely legible. But as I handed the pen back to him, he bobbled his head in approval. That’s how it’s done.

 

And now: back to the food!

 

One of the absolute highlights of our journey so far in regard to food was an all-you-can-eat thali restaurant called Natraj Lodge in Udaipur. Thalis are kind of like a pre-fixe lunch or dinner meal that consist of several little bowls of different spicy vegetable dishes and some bread (chapatti or naan) or rice.

 

This place was packed with locals when we arrived and we were the only foreigners in the entire place. As soon as you sat down at your place in front of the table, a server would come and turn over your eating tray and produce several small bowls and a cup of water. Soon other serves would come and fill your plate with the different dishes like dal (lentil soup) or spiced potatoes and veggies. They also gave you a little cup of fresh plain yogurt and some pickled sauce and a green chutney along with garnishes of lemon and raw red onions.

 

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Then you got down to business. The moment one of your little bowls was nearly empty, a server would appear and, quick as a flash, he would take out his ladle and pour some more goodness into your bowl. They move so quickly that after a couple of times, I realized that it was going to be too much food so we had to start turning their offerings down. But it was an intense and wonderfully flavorful experience. And for only 55 rupees, it was an incredible value.

 

And I got so caught up in switching around and trying one spoonful of the dal and then one scoop of the curried veggies that after a few moments I realized that my mouth was afire. And it took me quite some time to decipher exactly which dish was the culprit. It turned out to be the dal.

 

Besides our staple sweet lassis, we were also very excited when we would come to a restaurant that served fresh juices. We would get a sampling sometimes, but our favorites were the orange and carrot juices.

 

Here again the carrots were bright red instead of orange. Sometimes it kind of messed with your mind and you had to think it through before taking a sip.

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We also had some phenomenal fruit salads complete with curd and honey as a quality breakfast. Obviously this was something offered at the restaurants that cater to tourists since most traditional Indian places will be ready to serve you some hot, spicy curries for breakfast just as they do for lunch and dinner. We tried that a few times, but preferred a more Western start to our mornings.

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This fruit salad earned a five-star review from us. This is about as aesthetically pleasing as a fruit salad can get!

And one of most surprising favorites along this journey came from a restaurant in Pushkar. It was called a makhania lassi. Now, I am not normally one who advocates any sort of beverage that involves a lot of chewing. But this would definitely rank first on the list of exceptions. We ordered one the first time we saw it just as an experiment and then we came back again and again because its unique flavor and texture combination had captured our hearts and our palates.

 

 

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It is made with a mix of saffron, cardamom, rose, cashews, pomegranates, coconut shavings, pistachio, pine nuts and almond slivers. While many saffron-flavored drinks we sampled along the way were way too perfume-y and musky, this was the perfect mixture of sweet and tangy. And its appearance is quite captivating as well.

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  1. […] By the way, cousin Helen has some awesome stories and pictures up on her blog too – some of the stuff that I might have missed (or am too embarrassed to blog about!) so check in on her personal blog. […]

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