Food

Dear Paneer – A Love Letter to India and its Food

This is the story of my longest, most stable relationship. It has lasted more than 20 years and has never been disappointing.

It’s about my love affair with Indian food.

People know me as the “cheese lady”, and yes that is an apt description, but running parallel to my love of the dairy products is also my love of Indian food.

I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney – a melting pot of cultures and cuisines. But it wasn’t until I hit university that I discovered Indian food.

This came in the unlikely form of a restaurant on Oxford Street in Darlinghurst called Tandoori Palace. Not only did it serve up a decent curry and onion bhajis, you could also descend to the basement and sing your heart out thanks to a karaoke machine. I loved it so much I had my 21st there.

This was cemented by the very popular North Indian takeaway places that began popping up around Sydney in the 1990s – three curries and rice for five bucks. hard to argue with that!

So…24 years later, this love affair with Indian food continues unfettered.

Of course there is always samosa

Indian friends often ask me why I love it (the food, the country, the vibe) so much. It’s hard to pinpoint.

Like the country itself, the food is diverse, the spices heady. Each region and state offers its own interpretations – that you can cross the country and experience completely different flavors is fascinating to a foodie like me.

Starting my search for cheese in Mumbai

Believe me, it’s more than just butter chicken (although a bloody good butter chicken is a thing of beauty).

From the rich meat-heavy gravies of the north through to the coconutty seafood curries of the south.

I also love a country that makes a national pastime out of snacks – flaky samosa stuffed with potato, the crazy mix of flavors in a dahi puri chaat, the rich, red gravy in a pav phaji.

The country itself can, lets face it, be a challenge, especially for someone like me with a mild case of agoraphobia. My silent scream meltdown in a Mumbai street food area is infamous.

It’s noisy. It’s loud. There are unidentified smells and always people just loitering on the street at 3am. Yet its those confronting crowds, that noise and sheer energy is also what I love about the country.

And the people – so passionate about food and their identity. Something we can all learn from.

At the Golden Temple in Amritsar

I also love that food and eating is an art form in India – even what they would consider humdrum – take for example their thalis (set menus presented on a tray usually eaten for lunch) are a study in composition.

thali at kababs & kurries

Perfectly composed thali

One of my favorite trips was to Hyderabad, where I was given a lesson in the myriad of steps to prepare the local and famous version of a biryani. Yet it can also be simple – like the layers of vegetables in a Bombay Veg sandwich.

Then of course, there is the cheese. The paneer of this post’s title. Listen it’s not the tastiest cheese you will find and it ain’t a truffle brie. But, it soaks up the flavor of anything it comes into contact with. Be that a silky saag (spinach) or spicy tomato sauce.

Taj Mahal with 7 million of our closest friends

Living in the Middle East and having the luxury to travel has also shown me the influence Indian food has had on its neighbors far and wide. This comes into focus very starkly in a place like Qatar – where Indian migrants have lived and visited for generations. I see it in the local version of biryani (less spicy), their lentil curries and even their lamb dishes.

I’ve also seen that influence in Zanzibari food with their deeply spiced seafood curries and of course, as far as the UK with its love of a good curry.

Qatari food at Al Baranda

Indian influence in Qatari food

Indian food has even permeated my own kitchen. I cook curries more often than I cook a pasta or a roast. This is mainly because it suits AZ’s taste, but also they are more challenging for a home cook – layering, balancing and tempering the spices. A couple of weeks back I made two passes at making a simple coconut chicken curry because I kept burning the curry leaves.

Masala spices

My home masala spice tine

I’ve been to the country around 14 times – from Amritsar near the Pakistani border to Chennai in the south and many places in between.As many of my Indian friends will attest, there are some glaring omissions in my Indian travel patterns – namely Jaipur and Kerala.

This oversight will be fixed later in 2017 I promise!

This is probably the most proasic love letters ever written. Literally – I came, I saw, I ate all the things.

Nothing wrong with that.

Dear India – keep being you.

Love, Rachel

Categories: Food, India

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12 replies »

  1. Hi Rachel,
    This is a beautifully written ‘love letter’ that simply made me nostalgic. You have seen the West and the South. I would invite you to visit the East (Kolkata-the city of food and culture, the land of fishes and music; from Kolkata you can head further east to the mesmerizing view of Kanchenjunga mountains in Darjeeling and Gangtok. I love the momos (dumplings) in the local outlets and thupka, simply delicious.

    Best wishes for more such trips and keep filling us with your wonderful experiences. Loved it!

    Cheers!

  2. Wow, Rachel !!! It is true that we all know you as the Cheese lady!! When you say “….it’s more than just butter chicken… ” , that tells how much you have explored the Indian cuisine. Great Post!!

  3. A Tribute to authentic Indian cuisine..!! Loved each & every bit of it. More Brits searched for Indian food than Indians themselves..I would like to invite you to try south indian seafood curries if u like..Sharing meals could turn strangers to friends.😊

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