Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Few Ironies of Indian Cuisine

Trays of Turkish Delight for sale in an Istanbul
store window (Photo by TheMightyQuill)
Last weekend, we had a wonderful dinner with friends who had just returned from an amazing holiday to Istanbul. One of the lovely gifts they brought back for us was a box of Turkish Delights, a popular sweet they enjoyed in many restaurants and little cafes they visited. At the bottom of our box of pistachio, hazelnut, and coconut goodies were the curious words “hindistan cevizli.” Obviously something related to India, but it was unclear what. As our friend noted, though “Hindustan” is the Indian name for India, it implies that most of its citizens are Hindu when actually it actually boasts a diverse mix of religions, and so “Hindistan” would be a more accurate name, implying it’s the land ("-istan") of Hind, the ancient name for India, which at one time stretched from West Pakistan to Burma.

In any case, I found the Turkish phrase curious, since it obviously had something to do with India, even though Turkey and India are not countries whose cuisines have much overlap. A quick Google search led me to find that “hindistan cevizli” is the Turkish name for nutmeg. Which is also curious, since nutmeg originally hails from Indonesia, not India. Did the name come from a historical misunderstanding, like when the “West Indies” gained its name from Christopher Columbus thinking he’d landed on the shores of India instead of the Americas? Not sure – I’ll have to do some more research and get back to you on this little mystery.

In the meantime, up until a few years ago, the ingredient I probably most associated with India would have been chili peppers. It was through food historian Dave DeWitt’s fabulous “spicy” cookbooks that I learned spicy chilis went from the Americas to Asia and that, until then, South Asians used white pepper and ginger to spice up their food. These days, I even use extra ginger as a substitute for chilis to tone down my Indian cooking for the kids’ sensitive palates. (It’s so delicious that it really amps up the flavor as well).

(Photo by Snarkmaster)
The English word “ginger” comes from the French (“gingembre”), which in turn comes from the Latin (“ginginer”), which ultimately comes from “inji ver” in the South Indian language of Tamil. I always though the word was also a synonym for “lightly,” but Merriam-Webster defines the English word as a synonym for “pep.”

Also known as ginger root, it’s mostly used in the west in sweets (think ginger ale, gingerbread, ginger cookies), whereas in many eastern cultures, it’s used as a spice, such as in Burmese salads, Malaysian and Vietnamese soups, Korean kimchi, and of course that yummy pickled ginger used in Japanese sushi, noodles, and tofu. Both easterners and westerners add it to tea and coffee for extra flavor and sometimes for its natural medicinal properties, such as for digestion, anti-nausea, and its overall calming effect. But in India, ginger is commonly used in almost any kind of dish from breakfast to dinner, main entrees to sides, drinks to desserts. I could make an entire meal using ginger – adding it to grains and lentils, meats (including marinades), breads, vegetables, salads, soups, puddings, and even a refreshing lemonade.

On the other hand, I’ve never tried white pepper in any Indian dish (not that it isn’t used somewhere, just that I’m not familiar with its use in Indian cooking). Black pepper, however, is a big cash crop in some parts of the country.

Perhaps the most unusual food I’ve tried in India (well, other than cow tongue) is Bombay duck, also called bombil, bummalo, or bumla. The fish is native to the waters between Mumbai and the district of Kutch on the western coast. It’s not actually poultry as the name suggests but seafood. And a not very attractive piece of fish, I might add. The English name is supposedly “lizard fish,” and that’s probably a generous name for it. 

In all its raw glory (Photo by sazerac2k)

Bombay duck, prettied up (Photo from
In many Mumbai restaurants and even in little stalls street side, the fish is dried, salted, heavily seasoned, battered, and deep fried before being served typically as an appetizer. Even with all the prep work, it’s still extremely smelly (words just can’t convey). It’s also bony and doesn’t have much meat on it. Yet it’s a favorite in many cities along India’s western coast. And not sure how the Europeans prepare Bombay duck, but before a short-lived EU ban on the product a decade ago, the UK alone imported 13 tons of the fish.

Don’t know about you, but I think I’ll pass on the bombil and help myself to another Turkish Delight.


  1. Oh, my. The photo of the Turkish Delight has me drooling. Tomorrow I'll be near a shop that sometimes has it, and I get some if they do. I used to work with a woman from Turkey who brought some back. It is wonderful.

    This is an interesting post. The name for nutmeg amuses me. Here in Italy, it's called "noce moscata." A google search identifies that as "nut of Mascate," the capital of Oman. Why is that, I wonder?

  2. Now that's interesting, Patricia, cause I associate "moscata" with that delicious sweet apertif. No? What does Oman have to do with anything? Looks like we both have some research to do.

    Come on over -- we've got Turkish Delight to spare. :)

  3. I'm with Patricia, drooling over that lovely Turkish Delight. It reminds me of a treat I first sampled in Shiraz called masghati. Might be the same thing, different name. Do you know what it's called in Turkish? Probably not Turkish Delight, huh?

    Interesting about the Tamil work for ginger. It's almost the same in German: Ingwer (pronounced ing-ver). Love these linguistic wanderings...

  4. I'm told it's called "lokum" in Turkish. And I meant to mention, it reminds me very much of an Indian sweet called "burfi."

    Wow, the German and Tamil are almost identical! Who knew...

    BTW, I corrected my explanation of "Hindistan" in the lead paragraph. :)

  5. Alas, the shop that sometimes has Turkish Delight was bare today. Now I'm on a mission to find another source.

  6. Oh man, so sorry! We might just have to meet somewhere in the middle (say, Istanbul) and refresh our supplies, huh?