Taste of India, with a pinch of phoren

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While India cosies up to fast food one cheesy pizza slice at a time, Alys Francis finds comfort in a plateful of idlis and a warm cup of chai.

It’s hard to live in India without food laying claim to a larger slice of your consciousness.

If I’m not currently eating, I’m thinking about when I next will be, where it will happen, and what I will have: Piping hot jalebis that go from frying, to syrup dunking to crunching between teeth in a matter of seconds in Pahar Ganj, the spicy, tangy taste explosions doled out by the Pani Puri wallah near India Gate, crunchy bhelpuri from Connaught Place, and in between the call of ‘chai chai chai’ — as the tea wallahs bellow — is always just around the corner.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s lived or travelled in India – food here is amazing, varied, cheap and everywhere.

You won’t find yourself stuck choosing between a meat pie that’s been in the warmer for 48 hours and a Chico roll that looks like it was grown in a petri-dish, like you can in some Aussie milk bars.

So what’s new? Well, a lot actually.

India’s urban food scene, much like country as a whole, is rapidly developing.

Fuelled by cashed-up kids with a taste for foreign flavours, a passionate love for the traditional food they grew up with, and a generous slathering of Masterchef Australia (which is bizarrely more popular in India than the local version of the reality cooking show) – anything can happen, and it often does.

The other day my friend took me to Nirula’s, a restaurant chain that has the dubious claim to fame of having been the first to bring the fast-food culture to India in the 1970s.

With its unforgiving strip lighting and uniformed staff, Nirula has tempted Delhiites away from chapatis and dal with the promise of burgers, pizzas and ice cream.

Sitting down to a meal at Nirula’s today is a journey in flavours like the bright bold colours of an HD TV, where if you get too close you will surely do some kind of damage to your organs. Each bite of margarita pizza, so entirely slathered in cheese that there were no visible signs of crust, felt like swallowing a week’s worth of calories. As one does when eating fast-food, we washed it all down with a drink that was 99% sugar: a lime spider.

Nirula’s may have been the first to sink its roots into Indian soil but a hell of a lot more fast-food chains have sprouted up since.

McDonald’s, Domino’s, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut, KFC and more, all eyed the bellies of India’s burgeoning population and promptly got their menu makers onto the task of enticing customers away from India’s home-grown chains – Café Coffee Day, Karim’s, Nizam’s and Aggarwal Sweets Centre, to name a few.

The results of said recipe scrambling can be terrifying and ungodly, like Domino’s Cheesy Boloroni – a pizza stuffed with Bolognese sauce and macaroni, topped with ‘barbecue flavoured liquid cheese,’ topped with more Mozzarella cheese, and some token vegetables.

I had the honour of trying this Franken-pizza in January. All I can say is, the Italians made pasta and pizza as two separate dishes for a reason, and we are far better off not questioning their judgement, that and Domino’s liquid cheese will likely be the only thing to survive global warming.

Just as fast-food has sunk its greasy claws into India, so too have other elements of global food culture: food festivals, high-end restaurants serving international cuisines, health freaks lauding the benefits of ‘forgotten’ Indian grains, celebrity chefs and food bloggers are all a part of the foodscape in India today.

The other day I was at an event where MasterChef Australia judge Gary Mehigan was cooking lamb in front of a crowd of squealing children and only slightly less squealing adults as part of OzFest at the Australian Embassy in Delhi.
Finding myself standing next to two middle-aged Indian food bloggers, I decided to grill them about where I could find sourdough bread – one food that seems non-existent in Delhi.

“Oh, that’s difficult. There’s no sourdough in Delhi really – you might find it at one of the good hotel restaurants in winter,” one woman told me, before going on to reveal that she knew a Delhi woman who had been making sourdough with a culture she had kept alive for 12 years. So, sourdough does exist in this city, but only for this woman’s family and friends.

The mental image of this woman lovingly guarding a tub of culture in the back of her fridge, feeding it flour and water once a week like a creepy fridge pet, for 12 whole years, really struck me.

I think it’s safe to say that Indian people have a passion for food, and not just from their own culture.

This has resulted in a melting pot of Indians added their own spicy masala twist to international food trends, with fusion cuisine and Indianised versions of western fast-food bubbling up everywhere in India.

But at the end of the day, when I’m coming home late and my stomach is so hungry it’s about to eat my liver, I still turn time and again to my good old local south Indian restaurant – there’s nothing like some well-fermented, sour idli, spicy sambae and a crunchy plain dosa.

But my biggest question after first tasting such food was this: Why on earth can’t you find great idli in Australia?

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