To say that I am a foodie is a grave understatement. Food is one of the things that brings me the most joy in life, and trying new food is perhaps the main reason that I love to travel. Beyond the awesomely-humbling array of tastes that exist around the globe, the preparation and sharing of a meal is a heart-fulfilling experience. I believe that to eat with people is to get a glimpse into who they are. Just like language, music, and dancing, meals are a manifestation of a culture’s spirit. Because, when you take that food from your plate or palm leaf, you’re not just ingesting calories, you’re accepting the time, effort, care, and expenses that went into preparing it for you. And you can tell a lot about people by how they eat: whether it’s loud and hectic, formal and “proper,” sitting on the floor, using forks and knives, or eating with hands, tortillas, or rotis. People tend to let their guard down when they’re eating within the comfort of their own home.
I have tried a lot of different kinds of food during my travels, and luckily, I seem to have a stomach of steel, so I can handle most all of it. From home-cooked Southern food to the surprisingly delicious creation known as a Kümpir (an Istanbul street food that is a baked potato packed full of cheese, corn, peas, ketchup, carrots, pickles, red cabbage, black & green olives, sausage, lintels, and yogurt sauce), I love it all. I’d have to say that the craziest thing I’ve ever tried was either alligator tail in the backwoods swamps of south-central Florida (which was excellent, by the way), or freshly-killed and boiled capybara in the rainforests of southern Belize. My first reaction upon seeing the hunks of capybara simmering in broth over an open fire was, Oh man. That looks weird. I can’t eat it. But then, I knew that I couldn’t turn down an offering made by this stranger, who had welcomed us into her home and taken us in for the day. I knew that their family would only eat meat perhaps once a month for special occasions, and to turn down her food would be to turn down her hospitality, and in essence to turn down her. So, I took a bowl of rice and capybara, and while I would have added some cilantro and hot sauce, it wasn’t bad. We stayed with her and talked for hours, until the sun started going down and we had to walk back to our own village.
My love of food was one of the reasons I was so damn excited to visit India. Sure, I was looking forward to meeting the future in-laws and seeing where my fiancé came from, but I kept thinking about the taste-adventure I was about to have. And after spending three weeks in Mumbai, I was not disappointed!
The first thing I can say about Indians – or, I guess I can only talk about my fiancé’s family in particular – is that I’m not sure how they’re not all morbidly obese. We ate around the clock while I was there! We’d wake up late, have chai – maybe with some cookies or something to dunk in the tea. Then would come breakfast, which was never anything sweet, unlike American breakfasts. Then lunch would be a few hours later, around 1pm. By 4, it was chai-time again, but this time with a lot of snacks served with it. Indians love their chai, and it’s not like it’s as easy to prepare as just turning on a coffee-maker. You’ve got to boil the tea, add the spices, boil the milk, and know just how much of everything to add. It seemed like every time I turned around, someone was offering me chai, usually served in small glasses, just enough for a pick-me-up. Men gathered around chai stands on the street and caught up on the day’s gossip.
By 7, you may snack again, because supper isn’t for another few hours. Indians eat supper late. Really late, judging by my American inner-clock. Even if you decide to go out for dinner, you may not leave the house until 9pm. Here’s one story to make my point:
One day, my fiancé told me that we were going to go to the beach for supper. There was this one spot that was similar to a boardwalk back home, minus the games and rides. His family loved getting a little something from all of the different food stands, and hearing them talk about everything (through translations, of course – I can’t exactly put “Gujrati” down on my resume just yet), got my mouth watering. That evening arrived, and by 9pm, his parents heated up some left-overs, and since I had eaten some street food a little earlier, I assumed we were all fed and watered for the night. I thought the beach plans had been postponed. At 10:30, everyone started getting dressed and putting on their shoes. Again, thanks to the language barrier, I spent about 95% of every day in India having zero clue what was being said or going on. I asked where we were going, and my fiancé answered, “To the beach!” and there was some serious Jeez, I’ve told you about ten times today, so what’s the confusion? in his voice.
We hopped in the car, made a quick detour to pick up the ten-year-old nephew, and then made the hour long drive to the beach. At almost midnight, we arrived for supper. Or second supper. Whatever it was, I’m not complaining. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning, with all of the food stalls, bright lights, smells, and sounds spread out before me as if they had just descended from some great heavenly kitchen. I was almost paralyzed by indecision over what to try first. Actually, that’s a lie – I knew what I wanted (mainly because it was one of only two things that I actually knew): Pav Bhaji (pronounced “pow bah-jee”).
Pav Bhaji is a favorite fast-food dish for folks in Mumbai. The ‘bhaji’ mixture is prepared slightly differently, depending on who’s making it, but it generally goes something like this: Vegetables are cooked down on a large griddle – first come mashed potatoes, followed by tomatoes, onions, peppers, cauliflower, peas, carrots. These are all sautéed and cooked down with generous portions of butter or oil. You mash up the vegetables, and then cook them down further, throwing in handfuls of spices. (In most Indian stores in America, you can find a “Pav Bhaji” spice mixture.) Then, once the bhaji vegetable mixture has reached the right consistency and taste, the cook will halve a pav (what we’d call a dinner roll) and toast it in butter on the griddle. The pav bhaji is then served up on a plate with a lemon wedge, diced red onions, some cilantro, and yet another dollop of butter. Then, you just use the pav to sop up the bhaji, and DAYUM it’s good!
Pav Bhaji actually has a really interesting history (but don’t worry, I’m not about to go all official historian on y’all and whip out my footnotes or anything). The dish originated in Mumbai (then called Bombay) in the mid-1800s. Laborers in Bombay didn’t have a long enough lunch break to have a full Indian meal with rice, rotis (Indian version of tortillas), and curries. Plus, such a heavy meal wouldn’t settle so nicely when you had to return to work, especially in a Mumbai summer. So, lunch vendors replaced rice with the pav rolls, and combined the ingredients of other dishes to make the bhaji mixture. It was quick and cheap to serve and eat. Now, it’s caught on all over India.
After I stuffed my face with pav bhaji, we moved on to other stalls, trying all kinds of taste combinations. Someone even had a pet monkey that walked around, snacking on food, too. We stayed for about an hour, and when we pulled out of the parking lot around 1am, people were still showing up – and not just youngsters; I’m talking about whole families – mom, dad, the kids, and grandma showing up at one in the morning for something to eat.
Each Indian meal is an ordeal – that’s because every dish requires a dozen ingredients and a lot of time and attention to prepare. My fiancé once told me that American meals are so primitive. After getting my feathers a little ruffled (I would never call my Mama’s, Nanny’s, or Grandma’s cooking primitive!), I now see what he meant, even if I would have chosen some different words. In America (and I think in “the West” in general), our meals consist of one main item (usually a piece of meat), served with a couple of vegetable sides. (In my fiancé’s words: How hard is it to grill a piece of meat and boil some vegetables?)
In India, this “entre + sides” equation doesn’t exist outside American restaurants. Instead, a meal consists of rotis (or another kind of bread, like naan, that’ll be used as the utensil), and at least two different curries or dry dishes (I’m using ‘curries’ as a generic term for the many, many different stew-ish dishes in Indian cooking, for which there are specific names and categories that I haven’t been begun to comprehend, yet). Once you’ve had your fill of eating with the bread, you’re served rice to mix with the remainder of the curries. And each of those curries or dishes are something that would be considered a main dish at a meal back home. So, in that sense, the amount of time and ingredients that go into an Indian meal (resulting in MANY more different tastes) are more complex than in a Western meal.
Even when you go to a restaurant to eat, the manner of ordering and eating is different. There aren’t “whole” meals on the menu (X dish served with Y and Z). Instead, there are individual dishes, which are too large to be eaten by one person. So, as a group, you decide what you all would like to eat, and then you order a couple of appetizers, two or three ‘curries’/dishes, and breads. Then everyone shares everything.
I mentioned earlier that I have a stomach of steel. I should add here that Mumbai humbled me in this regard. Actually, it broke me down and forced me, begging for mercy, to admit that I couldn’t just run all over the globe devouring everything in my path without also experiencing some less-than-pleasant repercussions.
On my fifth day in Mumbai, which also happened to be Christmas day, I got sick. That night, I got a fever, body aches, and by the next day, it was impossible for me to be more than 30-seconds away from a bathroom. After a day, the aches and fever were gone, but I was still chained to the toilet (We dared to go to the movies to see The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smog, and about halfway through – just when the dwarves were about to find away into the mountain – I realized that I needed to embark on an epic journey of my own at that very moment, and not a second later).
That night, the family took me to their doctor, and after telling the doc my symptoms, he laughed and told me I had caught the Welcome to India Disease. “But, I’ve been eating the food for five days and didn’t get sick,” I protested, not wanting to be forbidden to eat anything. “Who knows what it was that made you sick – maybe it was one thing, or a combination of things, or maybe your body was just already weakened from dealing with the pollution and the oily, rich Indian food finally caught up with you. Just take these meds and take it easy for a couple of days.” He gave me some medicine, some electrolyte packets to get some nutrients back in me (I felt like a shriveled up California Raisin by that point), and within a day, I was back on deck, ready for more.
After that, the family was happy for me to try new dishes, but they were definitely protective over me, scrutinizing what I ate. They wanted me to fully enjoy the rest of my stay!
The food was one of the things that I enjoyed most about my three weeks in Mumbai, but it was more than just pleasure for the senses. It was also one way I that was able to enter into the family. One of the things that I heard most from the family and friends was that they were surprised that I ate everything that they did. More than surprised, I think they were impressed that I could handle the spice and the flavors, and that I never turned anything down. It was one way for them to offer comfort, joy, and fellowship, and by accepting and enjoying their meal, it was one way for me to let them know that I loved and accepted them and their culture. Making sure my plate was never empty was a form of taking care of me – as soon as my last roti-full of daal, curry, or rice had left my plate, someone was already spooning out the next round.
Before I left America and came to Germany for research, my fiancé made 5 or 6 index cards with Hindi phrases that I could learn – How are you? I’m fine, thanks for asking – basic stuff like that. Two of those cards had to do with food: Bo-hawt atcha-hey = “This tastes really good!” And Moo-jhay or-dough = I’d like some more.” Those were the phrases I used the most, apart from Moo-jhay zyada Hindi nuhee atee (I don’t know anymore Hindi.)
One thing that impressed me about the food I ate in Mumbai was its freshness. While I was there, I never ate anything out of a can, jar, or package. Every morning, the mom would go to the farmer’s market to buy all the vegetables she’d need for the day. Normally, the family (like most in India) is essentially vegetarian, only occasionally eating chicken, goat, or fish. And, when she does cook meat, the mom will go to a butcher, the fish market, or even to the “chicken stall” to pick out the chicken she wants, only to come back and pick up the meat later once the butcher has prepared it just for her. Milk is delivered to them daily, and the mom even takes her own grain to the mill across the street to be ground into flour. So despite the amount of carbs and oil used in the Indian food, maybe this freshness – and lack of artificial preservatives – helps keep one’s weight in check. Despite eating like a glutton for three weeks, I actually lost a few pounds over the course of my trip (but, then again, I think my case of “welcome to India disease” probably had something to do with that!)
So, my food adventure in India included fiery-spice, sweets, street-food, home-cooked meals, and even Pizza Hut. During the often-chaotic and wonderful wedding events, I learned to eat standing up, balancing the huge plate on one hand, while using my other to do everything else. I learned how to use my thumb and forefinger to tear off the perfectly sized and shaped piece of roti to eat my curries (and felt especially proud once I even learned to use the roti to spoon up some daal [lentil stew]). Despite my legs falling asleep, I grew to love eating on the floor with the whole family.
The final sign that told me that our families were cut from the same cloth came on the day we were getting ready to leave Mumbai – my fiancé back to the US, and me back to Germany. His mom had been planning for days exactly what type of and how much food she was going to send back with us. She came back from the store one day with bags full of Indian snacks, and I thought that was generous enough. But the night before, I had eaten a homemade peanut brittle and loved it, so she decided to make an almond-pistachio-coconut brittle that was out of this world. As if that wasn’t enough, a friend came over to help her make two different types of homemade sweets, and on the last day, she made a batch of fenugreek rotis for each of us. And then as we started packing, shoving stuff in each centimeter of open space, she looked a little worried.
And then she asked: “Is this going to be enough for y’all?”
Bless her big, sweet heart.
For my overall impressions of my three weeks in Mumbai, see my earlier post “Welcome to India.” Check back soon for my posts on Mumbai traffic, and my experiences at an Indian wedding!