Out of India: Sizzle and sting on the palate

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NEW DELHI - I knew I was finally getting used to India when my cook shovelled five teaspoons of black pepper into the spaghetti sauce and I didn't weep with the heat, my nose didn't stream, and my tongue didn't feel like it was being pounded on an anvil, which is usually how I react to the torture sessions that they call lunch and dinner here.

Lots of chicken vindaloos from my local Indian take-away in London, I thought, would make my taste-buds fire-resistant to the culinary furnaces that awaited me in the subcontinent. But I was wrong. A Westbourne Grove vindaloo is as different from a Madrasi or Goan vindaloo as, say, a low simmer is to a rolling boil or a firecracker to a hand grenade. Even a fairly tame-looking tandoori can blister your innards.

Ah, protest my Indian friends, you can blame all this spiciness on the Portuguese. They were the ones who, in the 16th century, brought green chilli peppers to India from the New World. That's true enough, but long before green chillis burst on to the Indian palate, southerners were downing huge quantities of black pepper growing in the Kerala jungles.

Southern Indians explain that spice is a good preservative, and that it does the body good to sweat in the tropics. Dishes do tend to get milder north of Rajasthan, where you find a dish called Lal Maas, which calls for 2lb of goat cooked with 60 whole chilli peppers. Lal Maas means Red Meat in Hindi, which refers as much to the state of your belly after a few bites as it does to the colour of the goat.

But even up in the Himalayas, you find some diabolical exceptions to the rule that higher is cooler. A favourite dish of the Bhutanese mountain-folk is lung stuffed with cheese and chilli peppers. I never asked which animal volunteered its lung, and just the vapours rising off the chilli-cheese reminded me of the time I was tear-gassed by Pakistani police in Rawalpindi.

But after the callus wears off your tongue, other wild and strange tastes emerge: mixtures of tamarind, cinnamon, cardamom, mint, cumin and ginger. As Madhur Jaffrey, the actress, writes in her cookbook, A Taste of India, Indian food isn't just hot, it's 'hot-and-sour, hot-and-nutty, sweet-and-hot, bitter-and-hot, bitter-and-sour, and sweet- and-salty'. Notice how 'hot' keeps popping up?

India's crank-up-the-volume tastes are a matter of desperate interest to several multinational food companies wanting to open shop here. The more arrogant firms thought that any snack that went down well in Britain or the US would naturally be gobbled up by the aspiring Indian middle-classes.

Amit Bose, an executive director of Pepsi Foods Ltd, said: 'When we first got here, Pepsi tested out 40 of its best-selling snacks on the market. Only four of them were acceptable. The rest were too bland.'

For Pepsi's 2,000 Indian tasters accustomed to sizzle and sting, eating salt and vinegar-flavoured chips was as much fun as eating mud. India may be the last bastion against McDonald's hamburgers, not only because of Hindu strictures against slaughtering cattle, but also because its secret sauce would be too dull for many Indians.

Discouraged but not defeated, Pepsi sent its taste-scientists out to the bazaars, where they nibbled on street delicacies such as chickpea patties jazzed up with cumin and lime or paratha breads bursting with pomegranate seeds. The company also bought up as many recipe books as it could find and tested them.

As Manjit Gill, a food consultant for one of Delhi's best hotels, explained: 'There are not too many cookbooks around. Most families use the recipes handed down by their mothers and grandmothers. It used to be that when Delhiwallahs went to a restaurant they'd go for something they couldn't get at home - Chinese food.' But now, Indians are going out more and exploring restaurants which specialise in various regional cuisines.

And what did the Pepsi food laboratories concoct? Mr Bose held up a bag of Monster Munchies with lots of green, hearty monsters. 'We sell Monster Munchies in Britain, but these here are quite different.' I crunched one. 'Can you guess the flavour?' I couldn't. 'It's sour mango.'

Suddenly, I knew I would always be a stranger in India. Sour mango, indeed. What I would have given at that moment for something ordinary and familiar, like salt and vinegar crisps.