13 August 2012


"So, how was the food?" This is a common question when people hear I've been to India.

I have liked Indian food from my first bite. That was in London, January 1996. My Karen and I were there for a church music symposium, and a couple from our church flew over (airline personnel) to meet us and spend 3 days after the event. They were more experienced and adventurous travelers, and they introduced us to Indian food. That restaurant was dimly lit; we could hardly see the dinner sampler tray laid out for us. But - mmm - could we taste it! I had discovered a new cuisine to enjoy. Karen, not so much.

Wheaton has an Indian restaurant that I like to visit. I'm not there often, but always enjoy it. Our India team had a very nice Sunday afternoon dinner at a different place, and it was also very good. One of the students asked, "Is this pretty authentic, or Americanized?" The response was, "Look around you. Who is eating here?" We were the only all-Caucasian table. Most tables were all Indians. Yep, good food, highly recommended.

So, anticipating the food in India was rather pleasant. And we (or, OK, most of us) were not disappointed!

Mostly, though, what people are asking is, did we get sick? The main thing was we had to be careful and thoughtful about what we were being offered. Was it thoroughly cooked? That is, was everything in any given item/dish cooked and still hot? Then it was considered safe. This did leave most of us increasingly hungry for fresh vegetables and fruits. I planned by the end of the first week, to buy a green salad from any vendor in the Newark Airport as soon as we got through Customs . . . at 4:30 in the morning!

Not that we were stuck without fresh: mangoes were in season mid-July, and as they were washed, peeled and cut by our own cook, under a trained eye, with filtered water we ate them without fear and without abandon. Mmmm ... mango. Lalmuni (our cook) also occasionally served up "salad" - fresh cucumber, carrot, and radish, peeled and sliced and nicely presented on a platter. OK, so maybe the adults enjoyed this more than the students. It was refreshing.

Every other place, though, fruit and vegetables were off limits. We were warned to be as suspicious of a 5-star restaurant as we would be of a street vendor. Unfortunately, on our last weekend, some of us forgot that, and came home with a stomach bug. Which kept me, in the end, from getting that early morning green salad in Newark!

Spices: I wonder if Indian food is so spicy because they mask the rather challenging, prevalent livestock odor. Others suggest that the spices may serve to counteract bacteria. Whatever the reason, I love the spicy food, including the spices that aren't hot. If it can be served spicy, I'll take that option.

Lentils: "dal" is a staple in the meals we had. Lentils, served up with quite a bit of variety. Our Varanasi guest house is a vegetarian home, so our meals were necessarily without meat. (Eggs were obviously OK, and we enjoyed quite a few breakfasts with eggs: hard-boiled, scrambled, or omelets.) Lentils were a good protein source, and a tasty part of every meal. "Dal" can be a simple street vendor option, a mild breakfast side dish, or an expensive restaurant entree.

My last dal was ayuverdic: I had found my way up to the restaurant (roof-top) on our last Sunday, having been stuck in the room all day with a tiresome lower intestine. Hungry (when am I not hungry?) and alone, but I knew my options were limited. I asked the waiter for plain steamed rice. He doubted me. I explained why. He offered me an Indian solution, what Indians eat to settle an upset stomach. An ugly American would certainly have pushed back. I rarely push back on anything, and in any case here I was in Delhi on my last full day, and mourning that I had already (under the circumstances) eaten my last Indian meal. I agreed to take Kitchari instead: it is rice and lentils, steamed together, with an herb(s) providing taste but not heat. It is served fully cooked (yea!) with natural yogurt. It is very smooth, comfortingly tasty, and gentle. I ate it without bread, and that was my only disappointment.

Because whatever else I am, I am a bread-eater! I dare say my bread-eating is legendary. Seriously, when I was in high school and friends were at our family meals, jaws dropped to see how much bread I ate. Of course, much of that bread was fresh-baked by my mother. Who was probably still baking for a family of 11, even though by then there were only 5 or 6 of us around at any given time. And granted, I had the weight and girth to prove my title as champion bread eater.

Our first night in Delhi, after the students and adult women were retired to their hotel rooms, the men - 2 suburbanites, and 2 expatriates - hit the street for some vendor food. When we found just the right place (a conversation worked out between the 2 expats, based on their dietary needs and preferences) we sat under a noisy fan in a hot corner and watched the naan being made. You really must see this video to appreciate the experience. I can't swear that none of this footage is from where we ate . . . it might as well be!

Naan, Roti, Chapati - I guess there are distinctions. All I know is that they are all flat, all come hot (ideally), and I believe I can still outeat any teenaged boy when it comes to this bread. At least, I know I did! The main thing about these breads is that for most meals throughout our two weeks . . . the bread was also the only eating utensil. Man, that is some eating - when your bread has to last till the very end of a meal it can hardly be wrong to keep asking for more!

Lots more to say about the food, but now I've made myself hungry so I'd better stop.

No comments: