When carbs met carbs, and more carbs
Indian cuisine is delightful, as we all know. Who doesn’t love a chicken tikka, a tandoori-cooked fish, a masala, a biryani or indeed, a roti? Nobody, that’s who. Some of the best food I have ever eaten has hailed from this continent.
I can’t recall ever being too abstemious about carbs when eating Indian food in England. I mean, I usually walk away feeling too full so the pilau rice and slabs of greedily torn garlic naan may indeed be the culprits.
But compared to the cuisine on offer here, in Sikkim, a curry dinner in England is the equivalent of a die-hard Atkins powder.
I like a carb. But there is a point when there are just TOO MANY of them. Like when your natural taste for breads and rices and the like becomes slowly extinguished by a constant, unescapable, necessary stream of carb at breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner and after-dinner. The thing with carbs is that they breed the desire for more carbs.
But here’s what doesn’t breed desire for more carbs, or indeed, for doing anything but lying in a large bed drifting in and out of a glycemic stupour. Noodles mixed with potatoes, served with rice, and rolled into parathas. Nor that meal’s predecessor of a bowl of white toast with nutella and chilli eggs on the side, with sweet (three heaped spoonfuls of sugar) and milky tea. Nor its sequel: a snack of Masala Fire crisps and sweet tea. Nor indeed, its grand finale: dinner of rice, papadum and shredded potato stew. One night last week, Tom and I went out for dinner. Searching out vegetables and necessitous of heeding Tom’s vegetarian requirements, we somehow ended up with vegetable biryani (I counted two small florets of brocolli and three peas within), roti stuffed with potato, veg pakoras (fried patties), potatoes in raita and chilli baby corn. Tricky. In Tom’s view, this was a light and nutritious meal compared to the one at Taste of Tibet, which involved spring rolls with more oil than a tanker normally carries and each the size of a fajita, gloopy soup (this was where we looked for vegetables) and fried rice.
Don’t get me wrong – the cooking is good, and the cooks extremely generous. The locals look smooth and glowy of skin, and slender. There’s a chance that I haven’t been exerting all the willpower I could be or making all the choices that one could. I mean, when one is peckish of an evening due to having eaten nothing but carbs all day, what is one to do but nip across the street and buy what there is for a snack? What is there are cookies and crisps, alas. I did try to move towards health by purchasing bananas. But somehow bananas have become the mere accompaniment of toast and rice.
Ok, so yes, it may be me with the problem (currently draining a mug of sugar tea as we speak). But after a week of tasty potato and noodle stew, served alongside bread and rice, and followed with chocolate biscuits, I hit a carb wall this weekend. We took a trip to an absolutely beautiful retreat in West Sikkim, a bastion of heritage elegance and hospitality. They prepared us the finest delicacies of the region: homegrown pork; hand-rolled beef momos (a kind of dim sum-esque dumpling) and immaculate, if challenging soups (for instance, cottage cheese and chilli). Not knowing how poorly we had fed ourselves en route (breakfast of paratha with peanut butter and nutella, several sugary nescafe coffees, Thai-imported crisps, biscuits), on arrival our kind guests served us several delicacies: a sort of rice granola and some delicious sugared pastry leaves that looked like rolls of dusky-gold manuscript paper. The pastry leaves were beautiful and demanded the full compliment of mass consumption by all present.
But it wasn’t long until the house speciality – chaang – an enormous flagon of sweet millett beer (8%) was served. Each chaang chalice is served with an entire big thermos (the sorts you see at conferences or big family picnics) of hot water, which you use to top up the chaang. It soaks up ever more water, providing a drink that tastes just as rich and strong in the fourth hour as the first.
After this you don’t feel hungry. You want a light, undressed salad – perhaps composed of chard, kale and spinach. Perhaps a few blueberries for dessert. Dinner, a spectacular array of pork and pork belly fat, rice, fabulous daal and curd, followed by sugar and curd-soaked Indian honey dumplings, was beautiful. It was just a bit more than my system could take.
In the West, there is much avoidance and consequently, much fetichisation of carbs. Perhaps the best way to learn to limit them is not by adopting a diet of deprivation, a la Atkins, but to place yourself in a situation for a few weeks where the only available safe, customary, cheap, tasty and popular food revolves around carbs, carbs and more carbs. In this way I feel that I have had too much of a good thing and will return to England looking only for greens and blueberries.