Everyday Indian Food
In an Indian household it is generally considered polite to love your meal so much that you can’t help but eat more than you ought to (‘FoOd is LoVE’ in India with a symbiotic relationship between the cook and the eater).
Indians like to show their appreciation for a meal well cooked; a little burp or a big belch after dinner is ‘thank you’ enough to the cook, demonstrating that you’ve enjoyed the feast you’ve just devoured.
And so, the continued daily-struggle with the often not so faint gurgling of your digestive juices is a common noise to behold. Not surprising then that the need for fast, effective solutions was born in India too. And, even if you haven’t overloaded on Indian food – a little help with digestion after any meal is often very welcome.
There are many culinary aids in India / used by Indians to help facilitate the process of digestion. Most of these are based on the use of spices to help release the gastric – well, lets stick with “tension”.
Fennel, Cardamom, Ginger, Gulcand (caramelized rose petals) – are all said to help ease the onward journey of your meal, and all are used with a thick hand throughout Indian cooking, particularly in post-meal aperitifs (digestifs of sorts). Often, funnily enough, these same spices are added onto a dessert – perhaps to help you squeeze a little more in!)
Many of these Indian digestifs revolve around the use of fennel. These beautiful delicate, green-brown striped seeds are actually the natural spice used in Gripe Water. Remember that from when you were little? Gripe water is given to babies to help ‘burp them’. It’s a happy, delicately aniseed flavor, with an ultra-sweet, heady aroma, that babies and adults alike usually lap up.
Across South Asia a paan is chewed on, particularly after a meal.
The thickly vined, bright green beetle leaves of a tailor-made paan are usually loaded with the aforementioned spices, especially cardamom and sweetened fennel seeds. They are often further sweetened with sugar and syrups, or laced with tobacco.
Adults in India can often be spotted chewing on a post meal paan, or at least seen with their cheek-of-choice convexed outward, as the stuffed paan leaf is nestled into one side of their mouth – allowing the juices to flow out gradually. A paan is never rushed. It’s sucked on and savoured by the paan’ee.
Paan wallahs are crucial in the process: they’re the guys who sit on street corners in little tobacco kiosks making up the paans fresh to order depending on taste rather than medicinal need: “Go easy on the fennel and heavy on caramelized rose petals” (apparently).
Paan can make your lips turn blood red as you chew if you opt for particular ingredients, with the release of its juices. There are an awful lot of blood-red stained walls and red splats on the roads in India from where the paan has been flobbed away. That a grievous paan-spitting-crime was committed is as evident as the splats of chewed-gum on the pavements in urban cities in the western world.
Though a paan is now common street food (apologies for the pun. paan. I mean pun!) – it actually began life in more regal surrounds, and has its thinking firmly rooted in traditional Ayurveda (the ancient Indian system of medicine).
If you’re not comfortable with digesting your meal by looking like you’ve gone 10 rounds with Mohamed Ali, there are other more elegant versions of the Indian digestif. One of the more common is the sweetened fennel seed mix. The mix is store-bought with a varied concoction of breath fresheners and herbal esophagus plungers (see above photo).
A handful of the stuff is swiftly, nay dextrously, whipped up and tossed into the mouth by Indians. It’s as skilled a trick as drinking water without your lips ever touching the sides of the communal glass or bottle. There should be an Olympics in neat Indian eating tricks.
Finally. Perhaps the most common digestif is the easiest and most globally recognized drink. Chai. (Not chai tea. No. Never say chai tea. That’s like “cappuccino coffee”. Nonsensical).
Chai is best translated as Spiced Tea. No “dip dip” tea bags here, but a tea that’s been slow cooked with spices and milk.
The beauty of Indian chai is that you can up (and down) each spice flavour to your taste, or indeed change the spice mix according to how the wind blows…
Chai can be more ‘medicinal’ if needed than described here below. If you have a cold or cough – add cloves, black pepper and black cardamoms to the mix.
So, here’s my daily chai fix. I don’t think about the daily benefits – it just tastes comforting after a meal. Before a meal. Indeed, any time of the day – just like a regular cuppa tea!
Crush all the spices in a pestle and mortar (including the chunk of ginger). Don’t worry about grinding it all to cinder – you just want to release some of the flavours.
Add the mushy mixture to boiling water in a sauce pan, and let the mixture bubble for a few minutes.
Add the tea bags and milk. Bring back to the boil and then allow the chai mixture to simmer on a slow heat for approximately 15 minutes.
Sieve if you feel the need to (I quite like finding a fennel seed in my chai!).