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VEGETARIAN

Himalayan Simplicity

At a tea estate near Darjeeling, the food is light, fresh and totally vegetarian.

February 04, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAHANADI, India — I can't get over how good the meals are at Goomtee Tea Estate. This is the tea garden that I am visiting on my way to Darjeeling.

My lodging is an old Raj-style guest bungalow, and since I am the only visitor, the food is prepared just for me. The ingredients are simple: a few vegetables, very few spices, no fresh herbs--and no meat.

Goomtee's owners and managers are vegetarians who exclude even eggs from their diet, yet I never feel deprived. The food is delicious, light and very fresh. It is radically different from what I am accustomed to in Los Angeles, where Indian dishes are routinely over-spiced and over-sauced.

Goomtee is nestled in the Himalayas, about an hour and a half by winding road from Darjeeling. The vegetables I am eating are grown locally. In Mahanadi, the nearest town, I see mainly cauliflower, cabbage, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, peas and red onions the size of an overgrown shallot.

These, along with dal (lentils) and rice, are transformed into sumptuous dishes by Goomtee's cook, Prem Pradhan. Like most of the tea garden employees, Pradhan is a Ghorka whose ancestors came to West Bengal from Nepal. He has cooked at Goomtee for about 15 years.

When Pradhan learns of my interest in food, I am invited into the kitchen. It is a bare, dark room. At first I don't see the stove because it is flat and smooth, like a built-in counter. Then Pradhan lifts a round lid, and I see coals blazing inside. I am surprised to learn the stove is made of iron. It looks like concrete, thanks to a coating of clay for insulation.

Once a dish is cooked, Pradhan sets it aside on the broad, smooth, hot surface, and it stays warm until served. The coals are extremely hot, and Pradhan cooks the dishes in a small wok-shaped pan (karhi).

As Pradhan works, the bungalow manager, Bandhu Rauth, explains each step, and I scribble down the recipes. This becomes a routine. Before lunch and dinner, I go to the kitchen and watch the preparation of each dish. It is easy to gauge the quantities because Pradhan is working with small amounts. I can count, for example, the number of cloves or cardamom pods that go into a dish.

The first night, Pradhan asks me to choose a vegetable, any vegetable. I go to the refrigerator and select a small eggplant. Soon it is in the karhi, along with onion, ginger, green chiles and spices spooned out of small metal containers stored in a metal box.

The seasonings Pradhan uses repeatedly include cumin, brown mustard and coriander seeds, ground turmeric and a redder chile powder than I have ever seen. He also uses a lot of fresh ginger, which is a major crop in this part of India. And he adds sugar to some dishes. The sugar here is very coarse, and the shiny crystals look to me like something that would command a high price in fancy markets at home.

The eggplant also receives a dash of panch phoron, a popular Bengali blend of five spices: mustard, fennel, cumin, fenugreek and kalonji. I taste the eggplant and I can't believe how wonderful it is. Fragrant with spices, it possesses an intriguing nip of heat from the chiles and ginger.

The other dishes Pradhan prepares for dinner that night are cauliflower combined with carrots and peas, rice pullao with vegetables, home-fried potatoes and freshly made chapatis that are smaller and far more delicate than those I encounter in restaurants in India. For dessert, there is preserved fruit from a hybrid orange-lime that grows on the property. The fruit is deep orange in color but has the sharp taste of a lime.

One of Pradhan's most intriguing dishes appears at lunch the next day. It is fried rice with cucumber, a combination I have not seen before. Pradhan garnishes the dish with finely shredded potato he has fried to a golden brown. The seasonings are minimal: some onion, salt and two quintessentially Bengali ingredients--mustard seeds and mustard oil.

I am so taken with the rice that I ask Pradhan to pose for a picture holding the platter. As fussy about his appearance as he is about his cooking, he takes a few moments to change into a spiffy white chef's jacket.

For this same lunch, Pradhan cooks spicy green peas, a dish I love. He uses fresh peas that, when cooked, are firm to the bite and wonderfully seasoned.

Pradhan also prepares dal, using small yellow lentils he has cooked previously in a pressure cooker, which is a basic utensil in many Indian homes. The dal is a wonderful blend of lentils, eggplant, tomato, carrot, potato and spices.

A crisp, freshly roasted papad (lentil wafer) and more of the preserved orange-lime follow. And, as usual, there is freshly brewed tea from the estate. It is a treat to sample the golden beverage that has made Darjeeling world-famous. The custom is to serve sugar and a pitcher of hot milk on the side for each person to add as desired.

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