South India had a special place on the ancient maritime trade route, and its spices continue to be an international favorite, Belle Taylorreports.
On the night a friend and I visit Vedas, routinely cited as being among the best Indian restaurants in Shanghai with a clutch of awards toprove it, about half the clientele are Indian - always a good sign. The smiling Indian waiter greets us at the door and leads us to our seats.The restaurant is decorated with sophisticated Indian-style furniture. Soft, pink lighting illuminates the walls, and the whole effect whispersunderstated elegance.
It is, no doubt, a slightly different setting than what greeted the sailors aboard merchant ships that sailed the maritime Silk Route centuriesago. When they landed at southern Indian ports, they were probably not immediately poured lemon-scented water and handed a wine list.Sometimes things change for the better.
The food of India boasts many regional cuisines, though beyond India's shores they tend to get lumped together. It also, not surprisingly, getsbastardized depending on where it ends up.
Vedas, we are assured, can offer us the real deal. But unfortunately, they have only a few dishes that are specifically from the southernreaches of India.
We start with samosas (30 yuan, or $4.75), a dish that actually originated in or near Persia - another significant stop on the Silk Road - butquickly spread to India. They are now closely associated with the Indian subcontinent. The samosas served at Vedas have a crisp butperfectly moist shell that gives way to a slightly spiced potato-and-pea filling. For mains we ordered the chicken Madras (68 yuan) andlemon rice with cashews (58 yuan).
"Madras curry" is an English name to an Indian dish that was probably originally called somethinglike "curry". The name is said to have come from the British sailors who landed in the city ofMadras - now named Chennai-in 1640. They would have eaten something probably not too farremoved from what is being served in Vedas today.
Both dishes we ordered featured ingredients that are characteristic of southern India, spices thathave been used in the food of the region for hundreds of years, the most important of which isaromatic curry leaves (Murraya koenigii).
These, we are told, are one of the main ingredients that differentiate the foods of the north andthe south of the country. Our waiter brings out a plate of the leaves for us to smell. They have amusky scent and quite a strong aroma.
Our waiter informs us that when Indian chefs move abroad and want to cook South Indian cuisine,the first thing they do is try to source curry leaves. If they cannot do this, they will struggle torecreate the dishes with anything resembling authenticity. Perhaps this is why so many Indianrestaurants outside the country, including in China, focus on northern cuisine.
The lemon rice with cashews sounded pleasant enough on the menu, but on the plate it was arevelation: Perfectly fluffy yet moist rice with a sweet burst of lemon, a nice nuttiness thanks to thecashews in the dish and a musky depth of flavor from the curry leaves.
The chicken Madras is light and spicy, with a smoky tomato base. The flavors are distinctive, andthe whole dish has an excellent texture. The chicken is moist and succulent. Again there is thatdistinctive flavor of the curry leaves.
The skilled chefs at Vedas don't drown their food in heavy sauces, but let each ingredient speakfor itself.
If the dishes we sampled at Vedas are any indication of the cuisine eaten by travelers along themaritime Silk Route, it's not surprising that the spices of India were eagerly traded across theworld.
A fragrant trail of seeds and leaves
The spice trade reached a frenzied peak in the era of the Silk Road. But such commerce incinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper and turmeric is documented between historicalcivilizations of Asia, northeast Africa and Europe back to ancient times.
India's southwest state (province) of Kerala had established itself as a major spice trade centeras early as 3000 BC, which history generally considers the beginning of the business. Indianspice exports are mentioned in the works of ancient seafarers such as Ibn Khordadbeh, al-Ghafiqi, Ishak bin Imaran and Al Kalkashandi. The seventh-century Chinese traveler and monkXuanzang mentions the Indian town of Puri on the Bay of Bengal, where "merchants depart fordistant countries".
India's legendary curry (and curry powder) is not a single spice but a blend of many, which canvary in different regions of that country and even more in places where spice traders took itabroad, such as Malaysia and Thailand.
There is, however, a curry tree－and the resulting spice sets South Indian dishes apart. The currytree (Murraya koenigii) has fragrant leaves that are also prized in Sri Lankan cooking. In bothcountries, the leaves are usually fried with chopped onions in the first stage of a curry'spreparation. In their fresh form, they have a short shelf life, even in the refrigerator. Dried leaveslast longer, though many chefs pooh-pooh that option as the aroma is second-rate.
While leaves from the curry tree are most commonly used in curries, they can add flavor to manyother dishes. In Cambodia, for example, Khmer people toast the leaves until crispy and thencrush them into a sour soup called maju krueng.
Overland routes stimulated the spice trade initially, but the development of sea lanes led totremendous growth in commerce. In the earliest days, traders successfully kept secret the sourcelocation of the spices, often associating them with fantastic tales such as Sinbad the Sailor.
Much later, Portuguese colonial settlements saw traders such as the South Indian Chettis,Chinese from Fujian province and Arabs from Aden involved in the spice trade. Indian traderstook their cuisine to Southeast Asia, notably present-day Malaysia and Indonesia, where spicemixtures and curries remain popular.