Q. Can you share a memorable dining experience from India?
A. One of my most memorable dining experiences was at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It is said that the temple feeds up to 100,000 people a day. The entire production is run by volunteers!
As I was first approaching the kitchen and dining area, I began to hear a symphony of clashes and bangs, and as I got closer I could see the huge mass of people washing dishes. Steel plates were flying through the air and banging everywhere. I got in line and surprisingly quickly was handed a plate, a spoon, and a glass. The next thing I knew I was being filed into the large dining area and sat down on the floor with my plate in front of me. People began walking by with buckets of food, ladling it onto the plate. The meal was roti, daal, and kheer. It was so simple and delicious. They came by a couple of times and offered extras of everything.
I got up and started following the mass of people out of the building with my plate in my hand. I found my way to the banging sounds and handed my plate to a guy standing by the main dish area. As quickly as my plate was in his hand, he threw it in the air behind him, and it landed in a huge steel crate with hundreds of other plates. I meandered around for a second, and someone walked over and handed me a cup of chai. I enjoyed that chai immensely. From there I found my way to a area where I saw hundreds of people peeling and cutting vegetables. I joined in and diced some onions for a while, then went back to the main temple area. I will always cherish that experience and I have a deep love for the Golden Temple. It is a very special place.
Q. Do you have a favorite Indian dish?
A. I don’t know if I have a favorite Indian dish, as my preferences seem to change with time. There is, however, a specialty available only in Varanasi and only in the winter called ‘malaiyyo‘.
They take cream (malai) and boil it in the evening with saffron and sugar. Then they put it in huge matkas and let it sit out all night. It turns into this sweet, airy, fluffy saffron cream and the sweet, milky liquid settles to the bottom. The seller scoops some of the airy fluffy cream and puts it in a tiny clay cup, pours some of the saffron milk in and tops it with sliced pistachios and almonds. It is literally weightless.
I cannot describe to you that taste, you have to just taste it yourself. It is heaven, and its impossible to eat just one cup. I don’t really know exactly how it works but people say it has something to do with the chilly morning dew that comes in off of the Ganges. As the mixture cools the clay matka pulls out some of the moisture from the malaiyyo, making it near weightless. Again, I don’t understand it but people have tried to make it in other places and it just doesn’t come out right.
If you are ever in UP in the Winter, go to Varanasi and eat malaiyyo. A good spot is The Markandeya, a small blue window with no sign. It’s in Thatheri Bazaar.