Experiencing Indian Culture Through Food

India is filled with a medley of rich cultures, all really unique but forming a small part of larger Indian culture, and I personally feel that one of the best ways to experience the differences and similarities in the cultures is through the food. Throughout this summer, Varshini and I have travelled to different cities, eaten various cuisines in Delhi, and have both decided with resounding conviction that food in India is better than food anywhere else we have been. There is so much traditional Indian food that gives us a peek into each culture, yet also more urban, modern cuisine that is irresistible because of combinations of Indian spices and flavors with other global flavors. Three of the most memorable meals of this trip have all been really different.

In Amritsar, we ate at a traditional Punjabi dhaba, an establishment usually found on roadsides of highways in the Punjab state or in small alleyways, to serve locals and hungry truck drivers. As someone who visits a dhaba once every time I come to India on the way from Delhi to Punjab, I was pretty excited for this. Now, dhabas are popular amongst people all over. We took a rickshaw ride to Kesar Da Dhaba, found in the back corners of Amritsar. It is iconic in Amritsar, and rightfully so! This place has been around since before the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947! This definitely shows – as soon as we entered, we could see paint chips, older looking looking walls, and other decor aspects characteristic of an old building and dhabas. Sitting in a restaurant that has been around for so long, and served everyone from your local handyman, truck drivers, tourists, and even Indian celebrities. In the interest of not blocking our arteries, we chose to not go crazy. We got half portions of 2 dishes – mixed vegetable dish and Kadai paneer (firm Indian cottage cheese cubes in a thick gravy of cream, spices, and tomatoes), as well as lachha parathas (Indian flatbread made with wheat, this one specifically made with intricate layers that become flaky once cooked).

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Lachha paratha (a layered paratha) with mixed vegetables.

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Missa paratha (mixed grain flatbread) with shahi paneer (paneer cooked in rich tomato gravy)

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Closeup of the missa paratha with herbs, spices, and ghee

This highly anticipated meal turned out to be indulgent and rich thanks to the creamy paneer and gravy, flaky and crispy parathas, and loads of ghee. While this was a memorable meal and took us a while to finish, it also represents a rich part of Punjabi culture. Ghee, creamy gravy, and paneer are staples in this region. The no-nonsense decor and service in the dhaba are typical of what dhabas represent – filling, delicious food for busy, hungry customers. Punjab is the agricultural heartland of India, where many people farm vegetables, wheat, rice, and other Indian staples. The seasonal menu in the dhaba, offering vegetables that are grown in Punjab at that season, represents the true essence of Punjabi culture.

In Jaipur, we ate a traditional Rajisthani dish called Dal Baati Churma. Comprised of a mix of dals (lentils), baati – balls of dough made from wheat, milk, and ghee, and churma – an unbaked version of baati with sugar and cardamon. This combination of dishes evolved over time in Rajisthan to what it is today, and was originated when Rajput troops left unbaked baati to bake under the sun in the Rajisthani sun (which was intensely hot, as we learned firsthand). The baati can come with various stuffings, the dal is pretty traditional, and the churma is sweet and delicious. This dish has such a rich culture in various Indian empires that ruled in the area, and is directly related to the peoples’ love of spices and use of their environment. A must-eat if you’re in Rajisthan!

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The third meal was very different from the first two. We live in Gurgaon, which is in Delhi NCR and has a lot of young people, there are many things to see, do an explore, including amazing food. One such place that we were dying to try was a restaurant in Sector 29, a place filled with restaurants, bars, clubs, and all the hustle bustle of a happening place. The menu in Prankster is everything I love about modern Indian fusion food in India – Thai prawn kulchas, Indian style hot dogs, and Tandoori lamb chops. We got chicken chettinad shawarma (a twist on the classic chicken chettinad curry from Tamil Nadu), Chilli Chicken Paneer Paratha tacos – a cool new way of approaching a delicious parathas (hot Indian flatbread cooked on a tawa pan) and paneer tikka Egyptian pizza, which had a flaky crust. These dishes took the best Indian flavors and concepts, and applied them in unique, global dishes. This kind of food is really popular in India, especially amongst the urban and suburban crowds, and I’m really going to miss being able to walk in to any restaurant and eating such flavorful food.

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Chicken chettinad shawarma rolls and chicken and paneer paratha tacos

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Egyptian pizza (a light flaky, layered crust) with paneer tikka on top (paneer and onions, peppers, and chillies, cooked in spices)

 

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About Hareena Kaur

Class of 2020, majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Health Care Management. Intern at Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Gurgaon, India, in summer 2018.