Indian Palate Awareness
Tamarind, tumeric, garam masala, asafoetida, coriander, cumin, bitter melon, kalonji seed and chaat masala. These flavors will make your taste buds sit up and take notice. India is not a country to tip-toe around the food markets nor by-pass the street vendors. If you dive in, you will be rewarded with culinary enlightenment, if you will. India is a place where you can learn about Buddhism and foodism. Cultivate your knowledge about the four noble truths while enlightening your five senses of taste.
Some countries you go for the culture, the museums, the history, or sense of adventure. Some countries you go to to eat. In India, you can sample everything. It’s kind of like my favorite dish: the thali.
India wasn’t the easiest place for me to travel. It was my introduction to Asia, and to be honest, I hated India in the beginning.
To state the obvious, India is hot and crowded. You sweat as you dodge rickshaws, dance around cows in the local convenience stores, haggle a price for everything, and are stared at 100% of the day.
Once in Rishikesh, a major pilgrimage site for Indians and Westerners alike, my friend Lauren and I bought a few mangos and sat on some steps to peel the juicy fruits. I was fully concentrated on the task at hand until Lauren nudged me and told me to look up. A crowd of people had formed a semi-circle around us to watch us eat. We got up awkwardly and tried to side-step away, but most people followed at a safe distance. In India, you will experience situations that may make you feel a bit uncomfortable. I never felt threatened or unsafe, just challenged by daily interactions. But the mangos made up for all that… 🙂
India is a curious, intriguing and delicious country. And huuuuge! I took a four month jaunt through the country and only fell in love with it after two. It took that much time to get used to the challenges, the climate, the way of life. I lived in Old Delhi, in a quarter called Mukherjee Nagar where I paid $80/month for a room in an apartment. During monsoon season, the water would settle in the streets at thigh level. Cows pooped everywhere and blocked our gate to the apartment. Monkeys shook the doors and jumped on the roof, which of course I mistook for murderous robbers. I took showers with a bucket and had a whole in my bathroom for a toilet (albeit it flushed!). But I eventually came to love it. I loved the man on the corner who made fresh naan with daal makhani, chana masala and freshly pickled onions and hot chilies for breakfast. I would stand outside on the corner at his booth and eat an incredibly savory meal for 10 rupees (or about 25¢). I also adored the man who squeezed fresh juices and knew to add extra spice to mine. The rickshaw drivers eased up a bit with the bargaining and I think even the cows became accustomed to my presence in the neighborhood.
But eventually I felt the need to leave Delhi. I dropped out of the college courses I was enrolled in and took a 40+ hr. train ride to Chennai. Even the train rides in India are an experience. Tea wallas (or vendors) sing their way through the aisles to announce their presence. For 5 rupees you get a terra cota cup with a few ounces of sweet chai tea. The red clay is rough on the lips and imparts an earthiness to the tea. I remember I sat there with my cup the first time not knowing what to do with it when I was finished. It was so pretty and fragile. Was it mine to keep? And then I noticed that the cups went right out the train windows, along with any and all trash. India delivers beauty and debris all in one cup. Drink up.
I wound my way down through the most southern point of India, meeting incredibly interesting people along the way. Travelers and Indians. I saw the old capital in Hampi, met friends of friends in the french town of Pondicherry, saw countless temples and stupas, ruins to boggle the mind, and many dingy hotels.
The food was never short of exciting. In Aunty Gopa’s house (a friend’s mother), I ate fresh coconut and mint chutneys with idli, and bowls of house-made yogurt. In Kerala, Lauren and I bought seafood from the fishermen right out of their nets, took it to a little shack on the beach with a single burner, and ate fish that had only been out of the water for mere minutes. We consumed lots of coconuts and drank even more coconut juice. Mangos were in the height of season while I was there, so every morning i mushed one up in a cup with a few tables spoons of milk: the perfect mango smoothie. The mangos are unlike any mango you will ever eat in the states. India even has an international mango day in early summer (I’m still sad I missed it) where they feature over 550 types of mangos!!! The fruit in India is one of the highlights actually.
I learned to eat with my hand. Right hand only, please. The technique is awkward and difficult at first. But now I prefer eating with my hands. There’s something so right about combining touch and taste, both carnal pleasures. I still find myself sitting in a fancy restaurant and using my hands…oops!
One of the most memorable meals I had was right outside of Kerala with my rickshaw driver I’d hired for the day. At lunch time, he asked me what I was in the mood for. I told him to take me where he normally went for lunch. He looked at me sideways and then asked “really??” We drove to a little spot just off the beach, surrounded by palm trees and many other rickshaws. The shack only had a few seats, so everyone was elbow to elbow. Some sat outside in the sand. A man unrolled a banana leaf in front of me and started piling tumeric rice, chutneys, curries and pickles on my ‘plate.’ It may have been partially the experience, but the food was just so perfect. The seasonings were bold yet nuanced. The flavors melded and combined. Any swoosh of the hand through whichever piles created flavor combinations that floored. I sipped my salty lime soda and asked for seconds.
I have so so many memories of India. And most of them involve food. But the painted elephants that walked the streets, the monkey temples, the Bollywood movie we danced in (!)…India was an experience that pushed and pulled at every sense. It was challenging at first, but then I felt so fulfilled (literally and figuratively) for being patient. It’s not an easy country to travel in, keep in mind. But after a few weeks, India becomes beautiful. It challenges your heart, your soul, your sense of comfort and space, and your palate. And it’s definitely not a place to be scared to eat, because you will miss out on too much. To only eat in restaurants (or worse, only hotel restaurants) would be like going to New York and only seeing Times Square. You won’t get a real sense for the country, culture, nor the people if you don’t eat with the locals.
How much? $1=45 Indian rupees
average cost of guest house: 150 rupees
street food (such as pakoras or pani puri): 5-10 rupees
bottle of water: 13-15 rupees
kingfisher beer from store (650 ml): 50 rupees
a cocktail in a club: 300-400 rupees
Bargain for everything. Well, maybe not in the local convenience stores or McDonald’s (where you can try the aloo tikka burger!)
There are Internatinal Tourist Bureau’s in many train stations, so you don’t have to wait in the crazy long lines with everyone (unless you’re so inclined).
I prefer bottom bunks in trains because they’re obviously more comfortable…but I feel the top bunk is safer for your belongings because they’re less available to
Carry toilet paper with you.