Sunday, December 4, 2011

Confusion

With work a little slower than I'm used to I've had some time to think lately. I tend to think about things very deeply. With all the holidays coming back to back it seems, I've had food on my mind a lot. As with all things in India I find my thoughts on this topic sometimes confusing. Now I can't help but wonder if it's the food choices, selections and tastes that I'm really having trouble with or if I'm just missing the convenience and flavors of America and that is making me think I'm having trouble here.

It can be very confusing and difficult to completely change your way of life. This includes food. There are some major differences between food availability, quality of food, grocery stores, restaurants, tastes, flavors, cooking methods and more between India and the US. Most everyone is aware of the difference in spice usage between the two countries so I won't even touch on that. Using the spices is not a big deal but, the spices are even purchased differently here.

Most spices are purchased in whole seed form. They can be purchased powdered but this is not the norm. Many Indian households still toast and grind their own spices as needed. Some foods are cooked with the spices whole. This can be a bit much for a foreigner, who is used to the milder powdered versions, to adjust to. While whole spices can be purchased in the US, this is not the norm there.

Then there is cooking. I have yet to see an American style stove here. Instead the stoves are (mostly) gas cook tops that resemble camping stoves in the US. They can be purchased with 2, 3 or 4 burners and are hooked to a large gas cylinder. The cylinders are replaced as needed. While the stoves have adjustable heat, it's not the same as adjusting an electric burner. The flames rise and you can turn them too low and the gas flickers out. If you put them up on high then fumes and an intense heat come from the burner.

Vegetables are fresher tasting here. The sizes are typically smaller since they're not loaded with chemicals like miracle grow. Meat portions are also not as large and there's not massive 3lb Wal-Mart sized chicken breasts (not complaining on that one). Sometimes the colors of the vegetables is also different. Most carrots are a reddish pink color for example. I also haven't noticed a wide variety of vegetables. One example would be corn. I'm used to being able to find corn in white, yellow, silver queen, red and blue varieties. Here you get corn and that's it. Corn is corn and it only comes in one color. Another thing of concern is that while most people think (because they are told so by the store workers) that mutton is lamb it is not. It is actually goat.

One thing I don't understand is how the cow is so highly revered for giving milk, yet most of the milk used in the homes is buffalo milk. You can get cows milk but it is not the norm. I'm not a big milk drinker or user so this isn't much of an issue but, considering many Indian women make their own ghee, curd, yogurt and paneer in the home and then use it to cook most of the dishes they make, there is a significant amount of milk products consumed here. Thanks to one of my readers, I was alerted to the fact that buffalo milk is much harder to digest than cows milk and can cause digestive problems for those not used to it.

A vast majority of Indian foods include what they refer to as 'gravy.' This in the US would also be called sauce. I've never been much on sauces and I prefer fresher, less cooked foods. I do eat sauce, just not that often. I actually prefer the flavor of natural foods and I rarely add other flavors in to cover that up. Thankfully, many Indian foods can be ordered "dry" or without the gravy portion at restaurants. Sometimes having all those flavors mixed can be like a flavor overload so ordering it dry with a side of rice can be comforting. At home, cooking things with those gravies greatly extends the amount of time you spend standing over a gas stove inhaling harmful fumes. Which brings me to the next item that is vastly different.

The majority of the kitchens in India have a pressure cooker. These can be great for cooking things I don't doubt. I myself have never learned to use one and hubby thinks they are dangerous so he doesn't want me to. The concept is to put everything you want in the dish into the cooker, close it up and turn on the gas. It whistles while it cooks and you count the whistles so you know when the food is done. (Or you watch the time depending on what is cooking.) The value is that you can cook without being in the kitchen. The down side is that everything you throw in there has one flavor and one texture. There is no depth to the flavors. You may have 30 ingredients but there is only one flavor and that is very boring to me. When I eat I like to taste all the foods. I want my taste buds to get excited with each bite from the various flavors. (Now this isn't a lot different than cooking a huge stock pot full of soup in the US but I'm no fan of those either.)

Needless to say I'm glad I bought a toaster oven. I haven't seen an American sized oven here either. I'm not sure how you would incorporate it either because the kitchens aren't typically large kitchens and the ones that are still don't have an abundance of counter space. I'm not even sure if you could embed one in the wall. Though a nice brick oven would be feasible for sure if you had the space.

Here at the grocery store (I've only been to 3 different chain stores) there is one full aisle for oils, 2-3 aisles for dry goods like flour and sugar and only one aisle dedicated to canned and boxed goods. There is a full 2-3 aisles devoted to beauty products, one for cleaning supplies and 2 for snacks. The produce sections are small as most produce is purchased in your street area. If there is a frozen food section it is very, very small - only one cooler! The cheese section is tiny and the butter sections are about the same as in the US. A lot of these things are made at home or purchased in the street. Even the large grocery stores are significantly smaller than a US grocery store and the selections are much narrower.

All of these differences, and several more smaller ones I haven't even mentioned, make it very difficult to determine if I'm indeed missing all the variety available in the US or if I am experiencing the starvation I sometimes feel I'm going through. (This is not the same thing as when I quit eating a few months ago.) Sometimes even with food in the house I feel like I'm sick of all of it. I do eat the same foods far too often because of the limited availability of food varieties to me - some from them just not being here and some from the food restrictions and allergies I'm facing. Some days I wonder if I shouldn't just give in and risk my health just so I can eat more food but I know that's not smart at all. I honestly think the difficulties I'm having with the food here and the repetitive eating of the same vegetables sends me into a sort of panic mode. I'm constantly craving for foods (not junk food) so I know I'm suffering some vitamin deficiencies even with all the pill vitamins I take. This has been by far my biggest challenge adjusting to India. I love food and I always took it for granted in the US. Now that food has become such an obstacle I'm realizing the value of living in such a diverse society as the US.

12 comments:

  1. Gas stoves are better than electric-any chef will tell you that-because you can control the heat better. Not so widespread in the US (where I'm from too) but used all over Europe/Asia. Pressure cookers are used everywhere-some Americans are more familiar with them than others.

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  2. I am so used to the gas stove I now find it impossible to cook on an electric stove, it's far easier to control temperature on a gas stove, especially when you have to bring it down to a simmer immediately after reaching the boiling point, in Europe that ment me transfering the pan to another plate ont he stove to achive that :)

    I don't know about powdered spice, they are used a lot in the South judging by the range avaibale in Supermarkets, and my MIl in LUcknow uses powdered spices exclusively, maybe that si something specific to punjab? And yes buffalo milk isn't healthy, and though to digest, and I'm surprised you get that one more easily than cow's milk, because in the South or in Mumbai cow's milk is more avialable than buffalo, in our current building there is a guy that came asking if we wanted buffalo milk because my maid was horrified by our milk packet and the fact that my daughter drinks soy milk, we turned the guy down, because we put my daughter on soy milk because cow's milk was already filling her too much for too long making her refuse to eat solid food, but yeah India has a big thing for milk, and especially the full fat thing, they think kids HAVE to drink 2 glass a day and that if the kid isn't chubby it has to be full fat or the buffalo milk as for sme reason fat=nutricious.

    I know the confusion you are talking about, don't worry it does get better with time, I have been there for 8 years, once you figure out the ingredients and quality it gets easier.
    After 8 years I am bored to death of the typical daily indian veg food, so I don't eat it and don't cook it, DH has it for his lunch tiffin, and I eat lighted continental food full of crunchy veggies and grilled meat. One thing most people in India don't seem to realise is that the typical overcooking of veggies is actually killing a lot of vitamins, DH and I used and still compensate by eating tons of fresh fruits, my MIl think we are crazy spending that much money on fruits, but it's health management for us :)

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  3. Hi, When you visit Delhi next time, try to visit INA(Indian National Army - but don't use the full name just use INA) Market which is not very far from the US embassy ( 10 min drive ) I am sure you would find most stuff you are craving for....Most diplomats and expats throng this market for every reason, it is a bit on the expensive side but you get what you want, also I have never seen my mother or any other family friends grinding spices, they have always used (already grinded packets) available in the markets, I guess that is more related to the place you are living, I grew up in delhi and don't agree with most of the things mentioned on your blog except a few.....you can't generalise the entire country based on your experiences living in a small town like amritsar, I know India lags behind on many fronts when compared to the US of A but come-on.....it is not that bad .......and what prompted you to declare that Indian homes dosen't have the american style stoves, my house in delhi has one and I have many friends who have them.....so lady don't jump the gun ......you are yet to see India, based on your little town experiences living in a low income family where most family members are trying to con each other, you are forming an opinion about the whole country called India !!
    Also ask Rohit to take you to areas like 1)Greater Kailash - 1 M Block Market,2) South Extension, 3) Saket and there you might get an idea what I am talking about.......... 

    Sorry to be rude .....

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  4. I use a gas cooker here in Scotland but grew up using electric. I am surprised that you prefer electric though! I feel like gas just gives so much more heat control.

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  5. I've never had much luck regulating the heat and keeping it consistent on a gas stove here. It's been too long since I used one in the US to remember how well it cooked then but I don't remember having the same problems. Gas stoves are dangerous though just from the fumes they release. Even with a significant amount of ventilation I find myself inhaling enough fumes that it makes me sick, weak and dizzy quite often. Also, no matter how much I try to adjust them, the heat is nowhere near as easily regulated on this type of gas stove. Professional chefs tend to have much more expensive and much better equipment than home chefs so maybe that's why their opinion is that it's better. In a home kitchen, I personally find that electric heat is much safer, easier to use and regulate and cooks much better.

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  6. Maybe it is Punjab or just Amritsar, I'm not sure, but buffalo milk is the most widely available and cows milk only comes in tetra pak cartons (that I can find) on the non-perishable aisles at Hyper City. Now, some packages are not labeled as to what kind of milk they are so maybe it's more available than I think but I know the milk man only brings buffalo milk to the door and it's the exact same unmarked packages that Hyper City has. (Obviously I'm still learning but I do pay very close attention to a lot of details so I can try to figure it all out.) I can't drink soy milk because of the thyroid issue I have. Soy products actually slows your metabolism but more importantly the react with my medicine and make it not work at all so it's significantly worse for me. Normal people wouldn't have the same issues lol.

    The powdered spices are available but not consistently and it's a small section at the grocery stores. I try to keep them around and stock up when I can find them. I like fresh spices too but just like veggies I haven't seen them come through the neighborhood consistently either.

    I'm with you on the less cooking of veggies. When I cook them I try to go for steaming or adding them in at the end of the cooking time so they barely cook at all. I love the crunch. Lucky for me Rohit doesn't like his veggies "mushy and slimy" at all lol so he will eat them when I cook them. I've converted him to eating a lot of veggies he never ate before I got here so it's good for both of us. Like you though, I get so tired of the same old veggies every single day at every meal. Some days I don't eat just because I'm tired of the same thing and I have no motivation left to cook it. I think my biggest issue right now is that I'm tired of it all - the fuss, the frustration, the aggravation. I'm sure it's from the culture shock but that doesn't make it easier to deal with. I think I just need a plane ticket home to get a long break and then come back ready to face the challenges again.

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  7. Well it is a personal blog. Everything I write is based on my personal experience and I've been quite a few places outside of Amritsar and have not seen anything much better. Yes, Delhi is significantly more modernized and maybe there you have more westernized kitchen equipment but I've yet to see it (as I said originally - I never declared there were none, pay attention to the words I used). The majority of the stoves in the US have a large oven under them and it's commonly known that baking is not the norm in India. Our stoves are very large and tall and sit on the floor, not a counter top. It's not just my opinion, the stoves aren't here (very much) because there isn't much market for them. I do know quite a bit of people who live all over the country, they don't see anything different than I'm seeing and they have the same complaints. Realistic means not denying the differences but facing them head on and admitting them.

    Also, for me Amritsar is nowhere near being a small town. It's nowhere close to the definition by any standard. That doesn't mean it's big like Delhi or Mumbai, or as crowded but it is not a small town. Growing up in Delhi, you of all people should realize just how diverse India can be. You didn't mention having visited Amritsar so maybe you don't see just how immensely different it is here than Delhi. Delhi is about 95% different than Amritsar in every way and just about the only similarity is the fact there are mostly Indians there. It doesn't look the same, it doesn't smell the same, the stores are not the same and the availability of EVERYTHING is completely different. If I lived in Delhi I a quite sure I would feel significantly different about India and would not have the same views and opinions.

    Just because you don't agree doesn't mean my views and opinions are not valid. Whether you admit it or not, India is a vastly diverse country and just because you have not seen the country as I have does not mean that the thins I write about do not exist. I write about what India is to me...not everyone else because I'm not walking in their shoes.

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  8. Oh for your fix of continental herbs and spices I strongly recommend the brand Keya, it's an Indian brand, that is more of an upmarket thing, so you might be able to find it only in biggers store like Hypercity, they have a wide range, and they just started single servings of soups. Now I can't find the website now, but they have asystem where you can place an order with them in an email, give them the address of your local mom and pop store along with your phone number and they will ship it there and let you know it arrived for you to pick it up. I have no idea if it really works though, I live in an area where the brand is easily available in store. The spices and herbs come in glass jars with a sprinkle top like in the west, and before they launched I had a real though time finding some good finely powdered cinammon for my cakes and cookies as well as my cereal fix, and their dried herbs are awsome, cooking continental food with these is a snap.

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  9. Hello White Babi, I can understand your boredom about Indian food. When I go there on holidays after a few days I would do anything for a crisp lettuce and tomato salad and a plate of pasta, it must be hard wired in my brain/stomach !

    I have a pressure cooker at home which I use only for rice and/or dhal, but I never go out of the kitchen until the gas is turned off. Vegetable I always do French way : boiled or roasted or fried or in the oven.

    I've been using a lot of recipes from the website "One Page Cookbook" lately and when I do these my husband seems happy although I use considerably less spices than him - and I am also happy because they are hassle free recipes :) Yesterday for example I did mint flavoured rice, it was different and quite subtle and very nice with roast lamb.

    I think if you could go out more often and spend some time in food markets you would maybe get more inspiration to cook.

    Then cravings might be a sign of a detox ; I notice when I have less animal flesh and alcohol, I get savage cravings and headaches.

    Take care!

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  10. Hmmm....I think I need to find that website! I do need a change, I know that. I'm going a little stir crazy to say the least. I love food too much not to want to eat it any more. I think you are right about the cravings too. I had some horrible cravings early on even when I was still excited about the fresh veggies here. Thankfully those have become less and less but I haven't gotten past the meat cravings yet. If I go too long without it I feel weak in addition to the cravings. It all gets to be too much sometimes. Hopefully I can figure out most of this soon.

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  11. That's the website : http:// ramkicooks.blogspot. com/
    I'm a foodie too. Hope you find some good recipes.

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