Video: A Day in India

The flavors, animals, trains, landscapes and people of India are all captured phenomenally in this latest episode of The Perennial Plate. Chef Daniel Klein and camera-girl Mirra Fine are currently on a world food tour that would make anyone supremely jealous. This video is only their first from India and it has me watering for more; the wealth of experiences conveyed are absolutely amazing.

Definitely be sure to check out their other videos we have previously featured, including their travels to Vietnam, Japan and China. Soon they will be traveling too Argetina, Sri Lanka and Italy. I simply can’t wait for more!

Cheap, tasty Indian food in London

Indian food in London is often mediocre and overpriced, and a good curry joint is as highly prized as a traditional neighborhood pub. I’ve been to a lot of Indian restaurants in London and a new discovery I made last week ranks as one of my favorites.

Simply Indian is one of those places you’ll only find if a local tells you. Located on 25 Tabard St., it’s away from the tourist center and easy to miss. It’s poorly advertised and its website doesn’t seem to work. The food and service, however, are fantastic, and that’s all that really matters.

The menu offers all the usual favorites like Chicken Jhalfrezi and Lamb Pasanda, along with less familiar fare such as Murgh Sagrana, a mild chicken dish that’s creamy and not too spicy.

“Not too spicy” is a key term here. For heat rating I ordered a medium, which in London still often means you need to call out the local fire brigade. For too many people in this town, eating curry is some sort of endurance contest, best done after fourteen pints of lager. Indian food in India is generally not like that. At Simply Indian the spices are well balanced and are there to be tasted, not simply tolerated.

The service was friendly too, with no surprises when the bill came (something to watch out for on Brick Lane) and only came to a reasonable 27 pounds for two people. They don’t have a liquor license but you can buy booze at the supermarket right around the corner and there’s no corkage fee.

If you’re going to London’s South Bank and are hankering for some good Indian food, check them out. Tucked out of the way as they are, and not catering to the after-pub crowd, I fear for their future. Competition between London’s restaurants is fierce and I hope they’re still there when I return. Their phone number is 020 7407 5006.

[Photo courtesy Fin Fahey]

Dreaming of Bali – A guide to Indonesian food

Pizza lovers, did you know Indonesians adore Pizza Hut? True, your typical Indonesian pie probably has more crispy fish pieces, shrimp and corn on it than you’re used to back home. And you probably won’t find avocado milkshakes as an option at the soda fountain back in Grand Rapids. But the Indonesians in Bali are lovers of pizza much like you and I, dear reader, and unashamedly so.

At this point, more experienced travelers are probably scratching their heads. Who travels to Indonesia and writes about American fast food?? But the truth be known, this odd love for all things pizza illustrates a surprising fact: Indonesians are cultural chameleons when it comes to eating. This immense island nation is a place criss-crossed by trade winds of diverse culinary origin, bringing together influences and ingredients from places as far-flung as China, The Netherlands, India and even Mexico.

Whether you’re just visiting Bali or making a larger exploration of the Indonesian archipelago, expect to be surprised by Indonesia’s spicy, exotic, and altogether unexpected blend of delicious eats. A taste of the tropics, and a taste of home at the same time. Ready to dig in? Keep reading below to begin your exploration of Indonesian (and Balinese) cuisine.The World’s Pantry
It was the world-famous islands of Maluku that first put Indonesian cuisine on the world map. Back in the 1500’s, this string of remote islands was the only place in the world European traders could find the elusive spice Nutmeg. It didn’t take long for the rumors of these fertile tropical islands to spread; soon the English and the Dutch were demanding their piece of the lucrative trade, adding coffee and tea plantations to the mix.

The Europeans were soon mingling with the Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern traders who already knew Indonesia well, introducing a bewildering array of new foods. Peanuts and chili peppers came from the Americas, leading to Indonesia’s ubiquitous sauces: the mouth tingling Sambal and the spicy peanut sauce used to top grilled skewers called sate.

These new ingredients were mixed with more familiar Indonesian staples like rice, a grain you’ll see growing in paddy fields everywhere, and coconuts, another tropical staple that finds its way into the country’s flavorful curries. Add in the country’s ever-present and wonderfully fresh seafood, some wildly exotic fruits like Durian and rambutan, and you begin to get a sense of the diverse ingredients available to the typical Indonesian chef.

Local Specialties
Upon this palette of flavorful and exotic ingredients, all sorts of fantastic Indonesian specialties are possible. What’s worth a try during your visit to Bali? Make sure to keep an eye out for uniquely Balinese specialty Babi Guling, a spit roast pig stuffed with spices and roasted in coconut water. Many travelers will swear Ibu Oka in Ubud is the place to try. We have to agree…the crispy pork skin, roasted for hours over hot coals, is sublime. Bebek, the local Indonesian duck, roasted in banana leaves stuffed with spices (Bebek Betutu) is another favorite.

Balinese cuisine also tends to be a microcosm of larger food trends in Indonesia. Nasi (rice) is practically the Indonesian national dish. You’ll find Nasi Campur (mixed rice, meat and vegetables) and Nasi Goreng (fried rice with meat & vegetables) on menus everywhere. And there are the desserts – weird as it may sound you’ll never go wrong with an Es Apokat avocado smoothie, doused with a liberal helping of chocolate sauce. And if you’re looking for a totally unique dessert experience, track down some Es Campur. It’s a sweet soup made of coconut, condensed milk, ice and a mix of chewy jellies. Bizarre, but quite wonderful.

Padang: A Taste of Everything
No matter what food you find to your liking in Indonesia, you’re sure to be overwhelmed by the delicious options at some point. That’s when Padang food comes in handy. Although Padang cuisine originated on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, it’s become a universal favorite – nearly every city in Indonesia has a Padang restaurant, including in Bali. Look for the dishes of food stacked in the window and spicy scent wafting from inside, and you’ll know you’ve arrived.

Don’t know what to order? Not to worry… just walk up to the dishes and start pointing at whatever looks delicious. The server will add a healthy spoonful to your plate. You’re likely to end up with specialties like Rendang, a buffalo coconut curry, or some leafy green kangkung (water spinach) and a few pieces of ayam goreng (fried chicken).

The flavors are mix of just about everything your tastebuds could want: spicy, milky, bitter and savory. The textures – crispy, creamy and chewy. It’s like an Indonesian Old Country Buffet – execept with just a tad more spice, much fresher ingredients and some of the best home-cooked food you’ve had in life. In fact Padang cuisine is a lot like Indonesian and Balinese food itself – a wildly diverse mixture of flavors, textures and cultures, coming together into something that tastes like much more than the sum of its parts.

Dreaming of your own visit to Bali? Read more about Gadling’s “visit to paradise” HERE.

[Flickr photos by burgermac and closari]

Gastro-diplomacy and the politics of food

Food has been a trending topic in travel circles for some time now. But though a good meal can tell a traveler much about the local culture, it’s not often that food is thought of as a force for political change at home. Yet, in a recent article for the Jakarta Globe, writer Paul Rockower makes just such a claim, part of a growing school of thought called Gastro-diplomacy.

Increasingly Asian nations, including South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, are turning to their national cuisines as a way to promote their country’s brands abroad, gaining increased attention and burnishing their image among the international community.

As the argument goes, people are more likely to relate to other cultures in terms of its cuisine, resulting in economic and political gains. In many ways, the effort seems to be working – the Thai government’s “Global Thai” campaign, which successfully helped open thousands of new Thai food restaurants in the U.S. alone, is seen as a model for other nations now following similar strategies.

So does a bowl of noodles create new paths to cultural understanding? At first-glance, Gastro-diplomacy does make a simplistic linkage between food and genuine cultural understanding. After all, food can just as easily become a stereotype (rice in Asia, tacos in Latin America) as it can be used to deepen cultural knowledge. But there are some signs that gastro-diplomacy has had success – Sushi, anyone? In the years ahead, look for politicians to not just try to win hearts and minds, but also stomachs.

[Via @EatingAsia]

[Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt]

Learning to cook Thai food

I’m sort of obsessed with Thai curries, and if it weren’t for that I’d be more obsessed with other Thai dishes. I love the balance of bitter, salty, spicy, and sweet, and I’m always trying to guess which ingredient in each dish supplies one of those four elements.

I’ve never had the budget to attend a Thai cooking school (which are everywhere in Thailand), but I made it a point on my recent two-week trip to the country to allow for one. Since I was spending close to a week on Ko Chang, I chose the class at Blue Lagoon on Khlong Prao, because I’d stayed at the guesthouse on my Lonely Planet research trip last year and loved it. The food was always spot-on, with most of the produce coming from an organic garden, and made even better by the ambiance of small eating pavilions that hover over the lagoon. Friendly staff rounded out the offerings, so I booked a 1200-baht (about $35USD), five-hour class.A staff of four instructed and prepped for our class of seven. As a group we decided which dishes to prepare (tom yum, tom kha, curry, pad thai, chicken with cashews, and mangoes with sticky rice and coconut milk). Two staff prepped the dishes, making sure we had the proper ingredients and portions, while the other two instructed us on how to chop vegetables, when to add stuff to the wok, how to extract coconut milk from the flesh of the fruit (it’s not the juice inside, by the way), and generally had a good time with us.

One of the instructors was the granddaughter of a woman whose original kitchen is available for tours; the recipes in the cookbook we got to take with us were all hers. While the dishes were typical, mainstream meals that are universally “Thai,” I still like the idea that somebody’s grandmother had added personal touches to some of my favorite foods.

Of the food we prepared, curry proved to be the most difficult. I’ve always believed that anyone who can read can cook (even though I’m a disaster in the kitchen), but with curry you also need some arm muscles. In theory you can use a food processor to make the paste, but, as with pesto, it is believed that using a mortar and pestle better brings out flavors and aromas. Grinding all of the ingredients up took at least 20 minutes and was more labor-intensive than kneading dough. Thankfully the staff had bulging biceps and took over for most of us.

I got to sit back and listen to one of my favorite Thai sounds, the “thock thock thock” of the mortar and pestle, and afterward enjoyed a Thai feast that I hope I can repeat back home.