Curry: a Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham imparts a lot of delectable information about the cuisine of India. I am only up to chapter 2, ‘Biryani’, and I’m already basking in the new found knowledge that the former foreign secretary of Great Britain, Robin Cooke, declared Chicken Tikka as Great Britain’s national dish, albeit not without protests from disgruntled food critics. My parallel reading of Curried Favors by Maya Kaimal Macmillan, (done while eating, cooking and I don’t remember what else) also enlightened me to the difference between the cuisine of northern India and southern India.
I found it interesting that I relate so much to the cuisine of Southern India, which is only natural, because Malaysian cuisine is somewhat largely influenced by it. Banana leaves as plates. That’s a south Indian tradition, which I believe is still practiced today in a predominantly Indian district in Kuala Lumpur; Brickfields. It is also interesting to note that a lot of our Malay words are actually Tamil words, such as rasa (taste), negara (country), and asam (sour). One of the languages spoken in Malaysia is Tamil; a language I was heavily exposed to growing up, since I went to school in Brickfields. I never picked it up though.
I now understand my puzzlement over Indian food when I was first exposed to it here in the States. The Indian food I knew growing up was more down to earth than the ones I was exposed to here. After reading the books, I found out why. The Indians I have gotten to know here are mostly from the north, and not so much from the south. In the north, the dish is more dairy based, and somewhat more ‘royal’ in nature. Instead of rice, bread is more common as the grain group. In the south, rice is more common than bread.
I think I now appreciate the Indian cuisine available in Malaysia after reading about South Indian cuisine in Curried Favors. One of my favorite Indian dishes (and I have a lot of favorite Indian dishes!) is a snack called Putu Mayam (string hoppers), a snack usually sold by street hawkers. To be honest, it has been at least 11 years since I last had one, and even though I remember biting into soft white fine strings of vermicelli flavored by broken pieces ofpalm sugar, the memory is quite faint. If I was asked to make and serve it, I wouldn’t know how to serve it. What I do remember is the taste of plain and airy rice vermicelli well complimented by the sweetness of palm sugar. In your mouth, the vermicelli seems to swell up all the way to the roof of your mouth in airyness, but the palm sugar brings it back down as if dissolving the airiness in the depth of its sweetness. After swallowing a bite, you can’t seem to get enough and you go for more. That’s how I would describe the experience of eating Putu Mayam, but other than that, I don’t really remember.
Teh tarik is a beverage usually associated with the Indian community in Malaysia. When you say Teh tarik, most Malaysians would conjure an image of an Indian hawker, clad in a flimsy white shirt and casually wrapped sarong holding two tin cups in each hand and pouring tea sweetened with sweetened condensed milk from one cup to the other. What makes this beverage unique is how the seller makes it. He not only pours the tea from one cup to the other, but it looks as if he is stretching the tea as one cup is raised well above his head while the other is lowered as low as his hand can manage, all while the pouringis going on. This is done with skill, so the tea is not wasted on the ground. The result: a frothy cup of Teh tarik. Malaysian style Frappucino.
And who could forget Roti Canai, one of my favorite breakfast item, that was also my childhood snack and lunch while I spent my after school hours in my father’s clinic for most of my elementary school years. One order of Roti Telur would provide me with a plate of a thick, square fried dough, consisting of fine crisp layers, not unlike filo dough, encasing cooked scrambled eggs, and a bowl of accompanying curry as the dipping sauce. Eagerly, I would tear one piece of the square dough, my fingers digging into the depths of the eggs, filled with air as the heat both cooks it and fries the dough to crispy layers. Soft strips of cooked shallots amidst the eggs add a sweetness to a mouthful of Roti Telur dripping with spicy curry.
So, as I continue to read both books that explore the depths of the cuisine of the subcontinent, memories of Indian dishes also continue to flood my memory banks, giving me a new appreciation for Indian cuisine in Malaysia.