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Feb 7, 2010 05:03 AM

eating indian food

limster writes in

"...more interesting if it allowed one to taste the different ingredients separately, and then in different combinations to see how different flavours complement or synergise (not a new concept, try a thali sometime)"

actually, indian meals are all about mixing, matching, dabbing. it is never about starter, main course and dessert - the division in the meal is the transition between chapati and rice if at all. so when you design an indian meal, do it so that the dal, the pickles, the vegetables and the meat (if present) can all work together.

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  1. """A deconstruction dish would have been more interesting if it allowed one to taste the different ingredients separately, and then in different combinations to see how different flavours complement or synergise (not a new concept, try a thali sometime).""""

    isn't that limster's point? that the thali allows one to do exactly that?
    what made me laugh? the "tinkle" of pepper on the shrimp carpaccio.

    4 Replies
    1. re: alkapal

      i'm not disagreeing with limster - i'm trying to emphasize that virtually ALL indian meals, not just thalis, should be thought of in the way he describes.

      1. re: howler

        Cool - thanks for clarifying.

        Question - is that generally true of all the cuisines from India or are the region/cuisine-specifics? Also, are there formal banquets that rely more on a sequence of dishes (what about wazwan, which I came across in one of Rushdie's books)?

        1. re: limster

          its generally true. remember that the underlying philosophy is on getting the spice combinations in harmony which in itself tends to produce variety. indeed, the way your plate looks has a certain aesthetic to it and i remember my grandfathers generation would often indicate what they wanted more of by tapping the appropriate spot on the plate!

          the kashmiri banquet is an interesting quasi exception: there are a ton of dishes, but they arrive plated in groups. so once again, each plate must have its own inner logic.

          exceptions have to do with income, not with region; sadly the very poor have to do with just chapati/pickles or dal and rice.

    2. The sequence and/or structure of the authentic Indian repast is less important to me than the quality--and to a lesser extent, authenticity--of the individual dishes. I'm entirely comfortable ordering a soup or appetizer, followed by an entree, and then a bowl of kulfi, if it's on the menu.

      1. howler, I beg to differ. Traditional Bengali meals are often served in a particular sequence akin to the course of a western meal. First, vegetables, served lightly fried or as a curry, with daal. Then they move onto a non-vegetarian main course, which is usually fish, but may be chicken or goat. Rice is served thoughout the savoury courses. Then palate cleansers in the form of chutney and papad. Then finish off with sweets or sweet yogurt. Bengali wedding feasts are completely over the top, starting with fried breads with a rich daal and rich potato curry, then followed by fried fish, then onto quite rich meat fish or meat curries served with pilau, then papad, chutney and finishing off with a variety of sweets. Last but not least, betel leaf (paan) with the appropriate fillings to aid digestion!

        31 Replies
        1. re: medgirl

          very good - you found the exception! trust the bengalis to be different.

          one of my better buddies in high school was amit chaudhary, who came from a very distinguished bengali family. i ate a lot of meals at his house over a couple of years, and i must say my memory is that they ate pretty much like us - everything on the table at the same time.

          other than that, i have eaten but sporadically at bengali homes. so my memory could well be at fault. in fact, i would've guessed that the closest cuisine to starter/main course/dessert as parsi, but now you've given us a better example.

          still, don't the bengalis care about an 'inner logic' to the plate as i've described it? now THAT would be surprising. i make the point because i'm often amused at the way non-indians fill their dish at indian buffets - it always looks so wrong. and as i've tried to howl on about no such thing as 'indian' cuisine over the last 10 years on chowhound, my new mission is to howl on about getting away from starter/main course/dessert.

          1. re: howler

            It's more convenient to have everything on the table at once, which is why most families have long since defaulted to that mode. Thalis were never a big thing in Bengali cuisine. Even with everything on the table, a lot of Bengali people will eat their veg and daal first, then move onto fish or meat, then finish up with some sort of palate cleanser, either pickles or chutney. Buffets may be more popular now, but when I was growing up, the guests all sat in rows and servers cames with food on trays or in huge buckets and served in a particular order. I always got the impression that it was a way to get people to eat their veg before moving onto the more attractive fish or meat curries, but I'm told it has something to do with the digestive system!

            Bengalis care a great deal about food, which is why meals are carefully planned ie. certain foods go together and others don't, certain foods are meant to be eaten in particular weather, there are preparations specific to festivals, etc. I suppose this is the case with most cuisines in India.

            Wow, you went to high school with Amit Chaudhary! My husband (a big fan of Indian writing in English) is jealous!

            1. re: medgirl

              i apologize for the name dropping - i really wrote that recalling where i'd been eating bengali meals - and they ate pretty spectacularly too.

              but now. it just aint bengalis who care about their food passionately - all of india does, i'd say. and we all think we eat better than everybody else.

              1. re: medgirl

                As an American-born Bengali, I am learning something new here! I do eat in exactly the order you mentioned, but I never thought about it or was taught to do it that way. How bizarre to hear people explain my lifelong eating habits on the Internet. I will have to ask my parents if there's a reason for that order.

              2. re: howler

                Isn't the original thread about deconstructed dishes?

                Whilst I agree a Thali is the best way to eat many Indian meals I would disagree that it is analogous to a Thali. A Thali is a set of complete dishes that can be mixed and matched, whilst a deconstructed dish is a set of components or ingredients that can be re-combined.

                1. re: PhilD

                  The dishes might be different, and the properties of the components might be different, but the underlying principles are the same: to have the diner combine different components to see how individual components interact, how the sum of those interactions add up to a final flavour and to provide a series of different sensations by combinations of the components.

                  1. re: limster

                    Sorry it is fundamentally different.

                    A Thali is a presentation of complete dishes that enables you to combine the flavours from these dishes. It isn't dissimilar to how many cuisines are presented, including the simpler meat and two veg in UK food i.e. you load your fork with different combinations. Where the thali does differ from the western convention is that it isn't a set of discrete courses instead the food is served together.

                    I would actually suggest that few restaurants serve dishes were you don't combine flavours, think of the sauces, purees, different preparations of the same ingredients on the same plate in a three star restaurant. You are clearly expected to combine these elements in different ways to get different flavour profiles.

                    A deconstructed dish is different, it is a composed dish separated into its individual elements which allows the diner to recompose the dish in different ways. Put it all back together and you get the "authentic" dish, eat it in different ratios and combinations you get a different dish.

                    But to me the really big difference is that in the former examples each component is able to stand alone and works both in isolation and combination. In the latter, deconstructed examples the individual components don't necessarily work in isolation, they are in effect ingredients. It is the recombination that makes them a dish.

                    For me a deconstructed dish rarely works, whilst I love to eat Thali's and similar meals (and those words are important, a Thali is a way of serving a meal, a deconstructed dish is simply one dish). Your example of the Glu-glu pizza sums it up, and as you say: "Good flavours, but I'd much rather have an integrated experience in a good slice of pizza".

                    1. re: PhilD

                      i'm sorry to say this phil - given your evident passion and love for the cuisine - but you are wrong.

                      think about dal/kadi etc - they make no sense by themselves, but require chappati/rice to make them come alive. similarly for the vegetable dishes and pickles - they are never meant to be eaten by themselves. the seperate dishes in the thali (indeed, in most indian meals) are meant to be combined and contrasted with each other: that is your skill as a diner - take these colors and paint something on your palate with them!

                      1. re: howler

                        But the dal is a complete dish, the lentils and the spices have been carefully blended and cooked, the pickles are complete, again carefully blended and are complete. I agree you maximise the pleasure of the food by skilfully combining the tastes and flavours of different dishes. Indian food is best when lots of dishes are served together as in the Thali allowing maximum scope for individual combinations.

                        However, this is not unique to Indian food, other cuisines are similar; think of lamb and mint sauce, or lamb and gravy, or lamb mixed roast potato and gravy, maybe some roast potatoes with some cabbage. Combinations are just as prevalent in other cuisines - even the humble British roast dinner. I agree Indian food takes this to another level, a higher plane, however the principle is similar, meals/courses made up of complimentary elements.

                        But in contrast imagine a what a deconstructed Molaghashyam may look like: there would be a bowl with some cooked lentils and chillies, a pile of fried curry leaves, a bowl of tomatoes cooked with mustard seeds, a jug of warm coconut milk, and maybe a pile of turmeric fried with shallots to sprinkle on the top. You would then put these back together to recreate the Keralan dal.

                        To me that is a completely different (and slightly mad) proposition compared to the pleasure of combing dishes that have been carefully cooked and structured. But that is what deconstruction means in contemporary cooking.

                        1. re: PhilD

                          dal is never eaten by itself. neither are the vegetable dishes nor are most meat dishes. and although they are all cooked separately, they serve as paints for your dining palate - mixing and matching is the point.

                          1. re: howler

                            Maybe it is terminology. When I say "dish" I don't mean to imply it is eaten on its own. I simply mean an individual recipe. So a thali is a set of individual dishes, some meat curries, some grilled meats, some vegetables, some dal and some rice or bread. And I agree you combine the dishes to make the meal, mixing and matching at will.

                            My point is that a deconstructed dish is one where the elements or ingredients have been puled apart, you are presented with the main constituents of a dish, you then re-assemble them to get back to the singular dish.

                            I see the two a very different concepts.

                            1. re: PhilD

                              We can all debate about the terminology, but the concepts and principles are the same: the combination of parts into a whole.

                              The properties of the parts and whether they stand alone aren't important, but if it makes it easier to explain to you, don't forget that poached eggs or cheese or cured meats are often eaten alone, and are made using individual recipes.

                              1. re: limster

                                I believe you hit the nail on the head, so to speak.

                                The parts of a deconstructed dish are assembled to form the whole dish. There is one end point and the point of deconstruction is to explore the routes/variations to get back to that end point. With a set of complete dishes that make up a meal (as in a thali) there are a multitude of end-points, all different, all adventures in their own right.

                                With the carbonnara in the deconstructed example you need a combination of every ingredient for it to be carbonnara, miss some ingredients and it could simply be egg and bacon (and thus misses the point of the deconstruction). With a thali you can mix and match as a many or a few as takes your fancy. That is why I see them as fundamentally different concepts.

                                1. re: PhilD

                                  Nope, as I mentioned several posts up and in the original post, an optimal deconstruction is to try and understand how each the components interact, i.e. asking how the egg and guanciale interact, how the egg and cheese interact or how the egg and cheese and pasta etc... The number of these combinations and the combinations between different parts of a thali can be summarised with the same mathematical function. These are all fundamentally about combining parts into a whole.

                                  1. re: limster

                                    We are clearly have very different views. IMO the interaction of two ingredients like the egg and bacon is simply that; an interaction of egg and bacon and is thus distant to carbonnara. To me that is outside the context of a deconstructed dish, you need all the elements to interact to get back to the dish.

                                    Personally I don't like the concept, in my mind it to an artifice used to show off that rarely adds to the original concept.

                                    1. re: PhilD

                                      Nope, the interaction between egg and bacon is part of the interactions that comprise the carbonara. The goal of deconstruction is to gain an understanding of how all these interactions and combinations of interactions add up.

                                      I'm pretty neutral to the concept of deconstruction, in some cases it works, in others it doesn't.

                                      Sounds likes we'll just have to agree to disagree.

                                      1. re: limster

                                        Thanks everyone for the facinating discussion on Indian food.
                                        I think there maybe some misconception on what the term deconstruction means when applied to food.
                                        These threads maybe helpful in getting a better understanding:


                                        1. re: celeryroot

                                          CR good insight. I fear I (we) are guilty of using the term incorrectly. Many dishes labelled as deconstructed on menus aren't really deconstructed they are simply a plate of ingredients. True deconstruction, and I like the Fat Guy's explanation, is really about creating a new dish. For example Adria's sperical olives or Atherton's BLT in a glass i.e, a different way of experiencing and thus understanding the dish.

                                          1. re: PhilD

                                            Exactly ......One of Adria's interesting one is the tortilla where he uses potato chips and changes a few other things. The problem is too many chefs do not understand an this leads to menu items wrongly being called "deconstructed" as you pointed out. On the other hand it is a poor term to use "re" might be more applicable.

                            2. re: howler

                              Yes I have to go with Howler on this one, in my experience a desi "main" dish is thought of from the outstart as a dish plus carb, as in such and such dish requires rice, such and such dish needs special kulchas or naan from the bazaar, such and such dish needs a corn flour rather than wheat flour bread, etc. The dish is conceptualized as dish + carb always.

                              1. re: luckyfatima

                                Luckyfatima - I don't think you followed the discussion. This element came from the comparison of a deconstructed dish with a thali.

                                1. re: PhilD

                                  Oh, my bad. Yes, I was misunderstanding what "deconstructed" meant.

                                  1. re: luckyfatima

                                    actually, you're good! btw, nice post below about bengali cooking.

                        2. re: PhilD

                          I always thought a deconstructed dish was a an ensemble of ingredients subjected to the withering gaze of Gilles Delleuze. Either that or a food that does not exist in "reality" but only within the linguistic confines of the oppressor class.

                  2. re: medgirl


                    I read this amazing book on Bengali food, Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji. She is a ghoti, I think her parents have village connections but she is from Calcutta, and she married into a Bangladeshi Bangali Muslim family and lived in Bangladesh for a number of years, and she explores cuisine and recipes on boths sides of the border. The books is just so rich and full of information on Bengali food-culture and how foods are connected to seasons, plus has great recipes. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is passionate about desi regional cuisne. In the book, Banerji also describes the sequencing of Bengali meals at home and at weddings.

                    However, I lived in Bangladesh for a period and I must say that in the homes I visited everything was set out on the table at once. Perhaps the traditional mode of consumption is becoming less common in modern times.

                    Hmmm, I thought I hit "reply" to the thread on Bengali food above, but somehow my reply ended up here. Anyway...

                    I just wanted to add that Pakistani (at least Southern Pakistani where the food is "desi" or "Indic" as opposed to the more Central Asian-ish Northern peoples' food) the daily meal is served and consumed as Howler described. Usually chappati is eaten first with foods that taste best with chappati, and then rice is eaten. Supposedly Punjabis (I mean Punjabi Pakistanis here) are supposed to prefer chappati and people from Urdu speaking families (meaning from some Urdu speaking place in India) prefer rice, but in my experience both Punjabis and Urdu-speaking people serve rice and flat bread at meals, it is just that Urdu speakers eat rice with somethings that Punjabis might have with chappati. Pickles, kasaundis, relishes, and a "salad" (a plate of sliced vegetables which are not mixed together, like radish, carrot, tomato, and cucumber) are served.

                    In restaurants, many menus include starters. There is a whole genre of North Indian starters like paneer stuffed mushrooms and so on. But in my observation from dining with N. Indians and Pakistanis at home is that the items offered in US restos as starters like pakoras and samosas and such are sometimes served with a meal to bulk up the menu at parties, but more often served at tea-time, "high-tea", or as a snack on a daily basis.

                    1. re: luckyfatima

                      Fatima, I always assumed that restaurants had appropriated street food snacks to create their "starter" menus and menus have starters only to conform to western menu structures. Am I correct in thinking that families would buy these snacks from the street food vendors for home consumption? (with the vendor coming around to the house to sell them).

                      1. re: PhilD

                        In my observation a lot of restos have followed a Western pattern and have starters like lollipop drumsticks, hara bhara kabaabs, stuffed mushrooms and so forth. I am guessing that this is emulating the Western menu structure, and go beyond the pakora and samosa. I have no idea how long the restos have been doing starters but Indian restos within India also have starter menus. Sometimes I am with people who order a chaat dish as a starter, if we are at a resto that has chaat as well as main-dish items.

                        I think pakoras are typically made at home. During Ramazan there are special pakora vendors, though, especially of veg and stuffed pakoras. Samosas, most people I know get them from shops, and even use frozen. There is a large contigency of people who don't like things like samosas and similar items "from outside" because of hygiene concern, quality of ingredients, and ritual purity issues, and make these at home always. So I think it depends on the family. I think house-to house vending is there but it depends on the class of neighborhood and size of city and so on.

                      2. re: luckyfatima

                        Re: Bengali meal sequencing. No, you are right that during informal meals and in most modern formal meals dishes are all placed on the table at the same time, but as Medgirl and Pia noted above, there is a sequence to when the different dishes are eaten. I didn't notice it either until I read the Wikipedia about it a few years ago, but it is daal/vegi first, then fish, then meat/poultry, then the sweets/doi. Pickles are always on the table and although more often then not they are eaten after the meat dishes, daal with pickles or meat dishes with pickles mixed into the rice is not out of the ordinary. Also, although food is not eaten off of a thali, little piles of each dish are still organized around a central(ish) bed of rice.

                        That is, at least in my family's "bangal" Bengali home and the homes that I've been to.

                        1. re: adrienne156

                          "..although food is not eaten off of a thali, little piles of each dish are still organized around a central(ish) bed of rice"

                          yep, thats what i meant by the inner logic of the plate.

                          1. re: howler

                            Never realized how neurotic my eating habits are - the positioning of the protein, veggie, daal even mimics the same positioning on a thali now that I think about it...

                            1. re: adrienne156

                              exactly mently. funny thing is, we all pick this aesthetic by osmosis - nobody teaches it to us.