In the past three weeks, I’ve eaten more Indian food than ever in my life. Truth be told, Indan was never among my favorite cuisines. Perhaps because I grew up eating Japanese food, I prefer lighter preparations, vegetables that resemble their original form, translucent sauces, and plain rice. Folks seem to gravitate toward unfamiliar cuisines just because they’re “different,” but to me that’s not enough.
Then, in Mumbai, I was fortunate to stay with my friend Phiroze, whose housekeeper, Abelin, is a fantastic cook. Suddenly I liked Indian food–or, perhaps, homemade Indian food.
Perhaps this conclusion would apply to any cuisine. Whether Chinese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, or Indian, native diners always say of standard restaurant fare, “We never cook like that at home.” One discriminating source tells me that Indian food is good only if made in small batches at home (or at very good restaurants); otherwise, I quote, “it’s just slop.”
Well, Abelin made chapati like I’d never seen before: With millet or ragi flour and water, she’d form a ball of dough and then pound it into a circle. After cooking each side on a flat pan, she’d toss it on the gas flame. I never grew tired of watching it puff up like a balloon! Brushed with a bit of ghee, it was chewy and satisfying on its own, a far cry from soft, store-bought, tortilla-like chapati.
Home preparations are less likely to be doused in sauce or to contain too much garlic or spices, sugar or salt. Her dal, her vegetables, her rice–agreed with my palate and my stomach.
In Pune, I ended up occasionally buying tiffin lunches (which I’d spread over lunch and dinner) from Mrs Thuse, who lives directly across the street from RIMYI and a standby for visiting students. Leave your tiffin and chapati containers on her front-porch swing in the morning; return at noon for your 75-rupee takeout/takeaway meal.
While not at Abelin’s level, her meals were nice: plain rice, soupy dal (occasionally spicy), cooked vegetable (my favorite was okra), and four whole-wheat chapati.
When I ate at restaurants with my Kelowna friends, I got to try a variety of dishes. Not everything agreed with me, but I discovered that I like South Indian “snacks,” like idli: a steamed cake made from a batter of lentils and rice, on which I add chutney and sambar to my liking. Can’t go wrong with that!
An edible highlight: the local tropical fruit–papaya, mango, guava, pomegranate, banana–that I buy from street vendors. The smaller carts congregate near the Toyota traffic circle, while the larger operations set up shop between just north of the More “supermarket.”
I usually buy my papayas from the familiar couple who park their cart just outside RIMYI. This fruit reminds me of Hilo, my hometown; they are larger than Hawaii papayas, unpredictably yellow- or red-fleshed, and often seemingly seedless.
My fellow Canadians and I all experienced some degree of GI upset. I had one minor bout mid-month, and my prime suspect is a large papaya with poppy-colored flesh (although I’d consumed several others without trouble). I’d made up my own cleaning system, washing fruit two or three times with dishwashing liquid and then rinsing them with a diluted Dettol solution.
Some colleagues recommended grapefruit-seed extract (GSE) but its efficacy is not scientifically proven; also, most commercially sold GSE is adulterated with synthetic antimicrobials anyway. So I might as well go for the big guns. Anyway, my recovery was quick and I immediately bought a couple more papayas.
Drinking options are limited to bottled beverages. India’s water supply system is a disaster. With no potable tap water anywhere (plus water rationing for municipal users), the bottled water industry is essential. After going through three 5L bottles, I was loathe to accumulate more non-recyclable plastic (and tired of lugging heavy bottles to my apartment). So I set up water delivery: get a 20L bottle for 60 rupees (the same price of a 5L bottle!), delivered to your apartment. Having a good stock of water was a huge relief!
Food and drink can make or break a trip. Especially in India.
Image: Millet chapati, Indiaphile