I've never been to India but I know people who have.
I've listened to their stories and impressions; some are Utopian glimpses of a country as seen through Merchant Ivory colored lenses. They tell of majestic vistas, magnificent carved stone temples, sultry gardens vibrating with exotic fruits and flowers, and women with dark mysterious eyes draped in silks the color of jewels.
Then there are those who tell of a different India and speak only of oppression, abject poverty, suffocating crowds, dust and lost children. The dichotomy of their tales makes me wonder if they all traveled the same country. But when I think of the places I've been, I realize that India isn't so different from anywhere else.
One recent traveler spoke at length about the food of India: the diversity of street food, rustic dishes in private homes, and a lavish multi-course meal served in a palace. I listened to the descriptions with equal interest, although one in particular captured my imagination. It was of gulab jamun— deep-fried semolina pastries soaked in rose syrup— served with yogurt, pistachios, coconut, and dried fruits. The pastries themselves were described as very dense and sweet, but it was the combination of aromas and flavors that spoke loudest to me of India.
I was thinking of that dessert when I puffed pasta tubes that were cooked in cardamom tea and stuffed with coconut yogurt. Even then I realized that I had made a type of cannoli, which holds no place in Indian cuisine, but I went ahead and added rose and saffron macerated apricot and crushed pistachios. The dish, like the stories, is an impression of a place.
Someday I'd like to see India for myself, but in the meantime I can experience it through food. The flavors and aromas of a cuisine tell the most authentic stories.