India has the most varied vegetarian cuisine in the world. A large part of the country’s population tends to eat vegetarian. Although they may do so for religious reasons, many Indian people are vegetarians simply because they don’t consider meat to be a requirement for a complete taste experience. Some of my colleagues who were born and raised in India were well into their twenties when they ate meat for the first time. But although there are countless vegetarian restaurants in India, the menus of Indian restaurants in Europe primarily offer meat dishes.
Sara Sayeed and Shubham Singh are joining me for dinner tonight. They don’t know each other, but both of them started the MSc in International Business this summer. Sara is studying Strategic Marketing and Shubham is studying Strategy & Innovation. Both obtained a technical bachelor’s degree in India. Sara came to Maastricht because of the double degree programme offered by SBE and the French business school EDHEC. For Shubham, it was largely a matter of value for money: UM has a good reputation, and this degree programme was many thousands of euros cheaper for him to enrol in than similar programmes elsewhere in the world.
Spice of India
There are two Indian restaurants in Maastricht: Spice of India and India House. Sara and Shubham don’t have a preference, as they haven’t been to either restaurant yet. Neither have any of their friends. They agree that Indian food in the Netherlands is far too expensive, so they’d rather cook it themselves. I prefer Spice of India (Achter het Vleeshuis 27), so that’s where we’re headed tonight to try their food.
The menu quickly finds its way to our table, but settling on what to order proves to be more of a struggle. For each dish on the menu, my dinner companions regale me with stories of the history behind it, what region of India it comes from, how their mothers used to make it, etc. Although they rarely agree on the details, they’re both bubbling over with enthusiasm for their country’s cuisine.
Indian eating habits
Once Sara and Shubham have decided what to get, we discuss Indian eating habits. Rule number one: eat while your food is hot. Rule number two: finish what’s on your plate. Rule number three: eat your curry with naan or chapatis before you dig into your rice with lentils. Rule number four: wait to drink water until after eating, or you’ll feel full too quickly. In other words, Indian food culture might not be for you if you’re trying to lose some weight.
My suggestion to have soup as a starter is met with little enthusiasm. I’m told that Indian people only eat soup when they go out, not as part of a meal. Instead, we order onion bhaji, a snack made of spicy onion deep-fried in chickpea batter. This is a very popular street food in India. The taste is excellent and the texture is good, too – very crispy, yet soft inside. Unfortunately, the onion bhajis aren’t served with the green coriander chutney they’re usually eaten with in India.
We’ve selected four main courses: saag paneer, vegetable biryani, bhindi bhaji and dal, with garlic-herb naan on the side. The naan bread is divine. It’s fluffy and a touch greasy, with a nice, soft crust and a good garlic flavour that doesn’t overpower the other flavours.
All three of us are also very happy with the saag paneer, spinach (saag) with a fresh cheese (paneer) that plays a major role in Indian vegetarian cuisine. Sara and Shubham were sceptical when we ordered it; they’ve had bad experiences with paneer outside of India. The paneer at Spice of India is excellent, though, and my dinner companions are impressed. It’s soft, but still has structure, and isn’t too dry or too cheesy. This paneer is clearly homemade and combines perfectly with the spinach.
Bhindi bhaji is an okra curry. Sara and Shubham love it, but I’m not particularly fond of the somewhat slimy texture of this vegetable. Vegetable biryani is a rice dish with vegetables, usually served with yoghurt. This biryani wasn’t prepared in the authentic style, but it still tastes good. The dal (lentils) are fine, though nothing special.
To properly conclude our meal, we order Indian tea with cardamom and milk. This turns out to be a mistake; the tea is too weak and contains too much milk, so it’s more like watered-down milk than fragrant tea. Apart from this minor mishap, we were very happy with our meal and I was brought completely up to date on Indian cuisine and eating habits in an intensive two-hour course.