Monday, July 12, 2010

Health, Taste, Joy Trifecta

The signature dish of Hyderabad is biryani, a dish of Muslim origin that combines some kind of meat (or vegetables if you're "vej"), lots of rice and and spices in one pot of yummy. We've had two radically different versions of biryani, both delicious in their own way. We ate a mutton based one heavy on cloves and cinnamon, at Irani Chai--a well recommended restaurant and hookah lounge. Our driver misunderstood what we wanted, and took us to a tea shop filled with Iranian men... Um, no. We ate our second biryani at Cafe Bahar, which was recommended to us by our driver (who, I am quite positive, questions our ability to find decent food for ourselves). Our meal was half a chicken roasted in rice with cumin and coriander, served with a thick gravy and yogurt.

At Cafe Bahar, and at a tea place in the Charminar market, we ate in the "family room". The street level and/or main part of the restaurant is exclusively for men. Women, with male family members, eat in the family areas of the restaurant. I'm not sure what would happen if we tried to go to the not-family side of things, but we weren't really given the option at either place. Interestingly, with the conference attendees last week, we ate as a mixed group (Indians and westerners, men and women) at the truck stop, which also had a "family room". No one stopped us from doing that, but no one stopped staring at us either. I am fairly confident that we were the first and possibly last western women to eat outside the family room at that particular place.

Being "brought up" North Indian in my tastes, however, I am still looking for spic-I-E-R curries, cilantro chutneys and wheat based flat breads. While we have been eating fabulously at this hotel--dosa, idly, sambar, uttapam to name a few dishes we've enjoyed a lot--I have been feeling a bit short on the fruits and vegetable end of things. But, happily, my search ended tonight. Our usual spot for dinner was closed for a private party so we went to the upscale place in the hotel--not my usual choice given that food is usually overpriced and under-good in these kinds of places. Not so here! Wow!

I saw palaak paneer (a north Indian spinach curry with cubes of cheese) on the menu and my greens-deprived immune system cried out, Yes! Yes! Yes! I want that! But, give me a side of garlic naan, and I could be back in the US at the ubiquitous "Indian restaurant" which serves the under-spiced, overcooked, Americanized, "north Indian" hits. It's a little bit like Tex-Mex--good enough if you're lucky, but not exactly the real thing. I was prepared for, well, spinach cooked to death, and decided to take one for the team--nourishing my body that is, over satisfying my taste buds. What I wasn't prepared for was eating one of the best meals of my life.

I realize this is high praise, cuz y'all know I've eaten a lot of good food, but I'm not kidding. The garlic naan (I couldn't resist) was crispy, thin and literally covered in roasted garlic. The paneer cubes were soft and soaked up the rich flavors infused from slivers of ginger and whole cayenne peppers (yowsas!) in the subji. The spinach puree was the greenest I have ever seen, and although I have no idea who grew, picked or cooked this food, it tasted as fresh as if it came from my own garden. Having made this dish myself, I know it takes several pounds of spinach to make one kadai (single serving bowl) of palaak, and I scooped up every last bit of rich deliciousness with a bit of yogurt, mango pickle and garlic naan in every bite. Finally, the flavor explosion, I have been seeking! And a yogurt, garlic and spinach health trifecta on top of that! Add to that, the privilege and joy of sharing this meal with a friend, whose presence in my life means more to me than words can say, and I feel blessed beyond imagination.

After eating all this healthy goodness and sharing all the laughs with Jen in these crazy last two weeks, I think I might actually live forever. But if I had died at any moment during that meal, I would have died happy. But, then I might have missed dessert, which was a small chalice of exquisitely ripe papaya sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. In season here, fresh, whole and beautiful in simple, unaltered perfection, promising the eternal return of life.

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