Step No. 1 to eating and enjoying meals in a foreign country: Acceptance.
Upon coming to India, I was immediately forced to accept an entirely different diet and the customs that accompanied it. Between eating styles, table manners and new foods, dining suddenly required patience and awareness. Of course, after succeeding with the first step, I arrived at the second: Moderation.
In my experience, the style of eating has depended on the family. At times, I have eaten using familiar utensils, plates and napkins, while at other times, I have eaten on thaali’s (traditional Gujarati plates), using my right hand for silverware, and on tables that have never known the like of napkins. The variety of dining, like all things in India, constantly jumps from extreme to extreme with unparalleled ease.
I remember having feared the renowned spiciness of Indian cuisine before having gone. Luckily, I have had but one notable experience with masalé, spices. It came on a platter, disguised in such cool vegetables as cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes. Looking identical to a string bean — for the half second I actually devoted to looking at it — I eagerly shoved it in my mouth. All I can say, now, is that it could only have been a chili, and one with the strength to make the sun cower.
Like most spicy things, this chili took a little while to set in, yet it was not long before I realized my terrible mistake. My eyes were blinded with the water that had rushed to them, and my mouth was aflame with furious heat, soothed momentarily by the water I drained all too quickly from my glass. I must not have made such a show of it because the waiter continued to ask me if I would have some more of this or that. “Pani, kripiya.” Water, please.
I was absolutely paralyzed in agony. Eventually, my entire face came to feel as if it could have warmed a piece of metal intended for the blacksmith’s hammer and anvil if only it was placed nearby. When I finished my drinking glass arm curls, my body felt like it was shrinking in upon itself, my stomach like it was as small as a thimble.
For some time afterwards, the muscles in my face were vibrating, shivering and silently ululating a cry for mercy. The whole ordeal lasted about five minutes, and then I was back together again, jiggety-jig. All that from one accursed vegetable no bigger than my index finger. Thankfully, besides that memorable incident, my experience with food has been very good, and nothing that I have eaten since has been “too” spicy.
Among all of my host families, the meals have varied little. Roti —a simple circular and flattened piece of cooked bread — is eaten together with sabji, any form of cooked and spiced vegetables. Lastly, before entirely filling one’s stomach on roti and sabji, rice and daal are eaten. Daal is simply a lentil broth flavored with spices and finely minced vegetables. Unlike our favored butter and salt, in India, rice is eaten with daal poured over it, creating a colorful hassle to eat with one hand.
When the food has been exhausted, usually following the fifth plea to stop, it is common to either drink a glass of buttermilk or eat a handful of mukhwas, a mixture of fennel, sugar and anise seeds. Mukhwas is a necessary mouth freshener and, like the buttermilk, is said to help with digestion. Besides dinner, which is usually eaten between 8 and 9 p.m., the other meal timings are the same.
You may have noticed the absence of meat from my descriptions. Throughout my exchange, I have eaten meat just once, and eggs only occasionally. The meat I ate — lamb shish kebab from an excellent restaurant —was not at all agreeable to my stomach, as I painfully found out at some small hour of the following morning. Following the Hindu culture of India, all of my families are strictly vegetarian.
So much of a culture is embodied in the food that is eaten. In India, it is the physical representation of traditions that have existed for centuries, and it has now become such “a heaping portion” of my life. It is tantalizing and tasty, repulsive and rank. It is everything in between, unavoidable, and, above all, it is food.
Sam Aldridge is a Rotary Exchange student from Milford. To read more from him, visit thebarodasagas.