Sunday, May 25, 2014

Beating the heat - Lychee seller in Old Delhi

In the 1700's, lychees came to India from Burma (they are actually originally from China). 

They have adapted well to India; and they grow well especially in Bihar, which today produces 75% of India's lychee crop. It's a difficult fruit, mainly because it has only a week or so of shelf-life, from the time it is harvested.

Lychees ripen on the tree, are harvested in May-June, and they show up on Delhi's handcarts immediately, where they are sold by weight.
Here's a closer look. There are many varieties of lychees in India, but mostly they are pale in colour by the time they come to the market. This is because fruits are transported at normal temperature conditions i.e. without pre-cooling. The market reach is limited to places/cities which can be reached quickly, since the fruits lose their attractive red colour after 48 hours.
The most popular variant is called Shahi (photo above); it is a sort of deep pink in colour, with an oblong shape and rounded end. It is grown in North Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh; and it comes to the Delhi market in May. Shahi has a distinct rose aroma; and it has a thin, more delicate skin compared to other varities of lychees.

When lychees are harvested, it is always along with the twigs and leaves (you can see the twigs in the photo). Care is taken not to let the fruit fall to the ground during harvest. They are packed in baskets along with grass, twigs and leaves, and sent to the nearest city.

Lychees growers rarely market it themselves. They actually pre-sell their crop to contractors, who then take over the orchard during harvest time. The contractor has full control over the orchard for that period. After harvest, the famer is back in control of the orchard. Of course, the contractor makes most of the money.

Better facilities for cooling, storage and transport would really improve the returns from lychee (export markets will open up more). It will also allow farmers to market directly to the cities. As always, it's a question of scale and infrastructure.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Thoughts on Delhi-Belly and how to avoid it

"How can I avoid Delhi Belly?"

I get asked this question very regularly, so I thought I'd post a reply here.

Travellers get stomach upsets in India due to multiple reasons. The primary reason is of course hygiene, or rather, the lack of it.

If you're eating at an upscale restaurant or a five-star hotel, you can be more or less sure that the food is hygenic and the ingredients are fresh. Even in mid-range restaurants, there are lots of places which are very popular and where the food turnaround is quick.  If you're on a driving tour, your driver will know of such places. They are usually places where lots of tourists go, and where the drivers are often offered free meals.
Restaurant near Agra highway, nothing fancy, but good food, our driver took us.
The street stalls are definitely iffy. Avoiding street food is a good idea, although that usually means missing out on some of the best food in the country. If you want to try street food, then eating at places where the food is fresh, where it is cooked right before serving, is a good idea. Many stalls often offer freshly cooked or fried food, but their eating utensils and the water they use to wash them in are questionable. If you're just eating a freshly deep-fried samosa off a piece of paper, you will actually be ok, but eat a little, and don't gorge whole platefuls. 
Typical stall in Old Delhi - sellling pakoras, samosas, jalebis, etc.
Eating vegetarian is an even better idea, especially if you are on a budget, because at cheaper non-vegetarian stalls, there is usually no refrigeration and the quality of the fish and meat is questionable.

The second (and bigger) reason why people get stomach upsets is the nature of the food in restaurants. Indian food tends to have a complex set of spices, and while this makes it delizioso :) :) it also makes it difficult for your stomach.
Spices, chutneys and pickles at Paranthewali Galli
When I travel in Rajasthan, I always get stomach upsets because the masalas and cooking techniques of Rajasthani food are different from what I use at home. Also restaurant food tends to be more greasy and buttery than the light food we eat at home. The way to handle this is to try and mix familiar and unfamiliar foods in your trip. For foreigners visiting India, I would recommend eating Western breakfasts and dinners, and Indian lunches (while sightseeing). This gives your digestive system the ability to handle things well. Another major secret is yoghurt. Indians drink lots of lassi, and eat lots of yoghurt. This keeps our internals in good order.
The famous lassi at Mishrilal, Jodhpur
Some other do's and don't: Stick to bottled water. Avoid fresh juices from street stalls. Avoid salads that have been in the open too long. Stay in places where the food is of good quality. Bring hand sanitizer. That's about it. Beyond this, you have to trust to luck!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Oven-baked Amritsari Aloo Kulcha

My version of oven-baked Amritsari Aloo Kulcha.

A desi-pizza, really!

Very, very tasty. Stuffed with masala potatoes, garnished with chaat masala, red chilli powder and fresh coriander.

Dough: made just like pizza dough, refined flour + yeast, raised and made to sit for 2 hours.

Stuffing: Boil and mash potatoes, add salt, amchur (dry mango powder), red chilli powder, coriander, cumin.

Roll and pat by hand with oil, into small circle. Add a spoon of stuffing, fold and pat again by hand into kulcha shape, flip from hand to hand to stretch.

Heat oven to 250C and bake for 4-5mins.

Garnish with chaat masala and a little red chilli powder and coriander leaves. Serve hot.

We are having it with tadka dal, i.e. dal tempered with cumin, garlic, green chillies. We also made biryani, but that was because I thought this kulcha wouldn't work out.