April 02, 2015

India: a feast for the eyes


Before my trip, whenever someone asked me what I was most excited about I said "the food!
Indian food is my favorite (tied only with Mexican, sushi, and pizza of course); I can order from a menu with ease and I know all the best lunch buffets within a fifty mile radius. I read food blogs and watched every travel documentary I could, prepping my appetite and tastebuds for the time of their lives; I seriously couldn't wait to get my hands on the street food. In fact, the very first Hindi word I mastered was chaat : snacks. 


All of our meals were beautifully prepared and presented, homemade with local ingredients, and all were vegan- an exciting first in my traveling years. But in reality, eating in India was one of my biggest struggles. Flying for any extended amount of time typically throws off my body clock a bit so I've learned from experience to stay hydrated, eat as much fiber and fresh fruit as possible, and to not overdo it at every meal, but after only a few days, I could feel the unpleasant effects settling in. Spicy, starchy Indian food three times a day was no match for my increasingly sensitive system, and half- way through the trip, my body had had enough.

Sadly, the only street food I sampled was a samosa at the market in Nawalgarh that I watched the vendors fry fresh in a barrel of oil and prepare "chaat style", smothered with an overwhelming blend of sauces and seasonings. After a few bites, and warnings from my more cautious fellow travelers, the combination of flavors, smells, and sweat forming on my lip and forehead from the 90-degree sun won out against my appetite for adventure. On the fifth day I consumed only fruit and tea. By the second week, I would have paid $25 for a garden salad with ranch dressing. 


Even during our two wonderful cooking classes, hosted by men and women who welcomed us into their homes and shared generations of secrets and skills, I found that I was focused more the faces and hands of the chefs, the layouts of their kitchens and the tools they used, and less on the ingredients. I studied the labels on the jars, cans, and packages lined up on shelves; chickpea flour, dried mango powder, coriander, fennel, turmeric, chili, garlic. I found myself often staring out of the windows, taking in the surrounding sights, and thinking of the view from my own kitchen. I rolled a ball of dough into a flattened circle and placed it in a bubbling pan of oil, and tasted pinches of spices that were placed in my palm, but I experienced most of the afternoon, as was common during the entire trip, through the lens of my camera. Here I was in the motherland of saag paneer, pakora, basmati rice, malai kofta, dal, masala dosas, and kulfi and I couldn't take more than a few bites.


It wasn't exactly the exotic culinary fete I had hoped for, but by turning my attention away from what was on my plate I was able to focus on the more meaningful details: thirteen strangers gathered around banquet tables in extravagant dining rooms and in cozy restaurant booths; watching friends experience foreign flavors and whisper "what is this?" to their neighbors; the patterns and textures of the printed tablecloths, forged silverware, hand painted dishes, carved furniture, copper cups; the curious glances from fellow diners; the voices and hands that offered baskets of bread and steaming pots of rice; the cacophony of clanging dishes coming from the kitchens. 


 Sure, I brought back some spices and a stainless steel box to store them in, and I can probably throw together a decent curry, but I will never truly be able recreate any of the meals or memories that I had while I was there. 


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