“Can I have fries with that?”: The India Edition

As my friends and family are well aware, I’m obsessed with French fries. Fries are a staple in my everyday diet (sincerest apologies to my arteries), and initially, I was quite concerned that my fry consumption would plummet drastically upon my arrival in India. Turns out I was very, very wrong. Busra and I discovered a local fast-food restaurant called “Meat and Eat” within a five-minute walk from our hostel. It just so happens that “Meat” and “Eating” are two of my favorite things, so we decided to wander inside. We were met with all sorts of chicken sandwiches, milkshakes, and most importantly, French fries. While the portions are absurdly small compared to those in the United States (God bless the McDonald’s large size), the fries were still as delightful and greasy as I remembered them. My only critique (and this goes for all establishments I’ve visited in India) is that they need to get some Heinz ketchup. The thin, spicy ketchup here will suffice, but Pittsburgh, PA really knows how to make some good ketchup. I’m sorry to admit that my adventures with “American” food continued, with a long walk in the mud/rain to a Dominos (all hail the cheese burst pizza), a trip in the mid-afternoon sun to Puppy’s Bakery, and another small trek to an Italian bistro. Purchasing a jar of peanut butter was also one of the greatest investments we have made. Vivek, Busra, and I were the classic American tourists making peanut butter and banana sandwiches (using a toothbrush as a knife) at the bottom of a beautiful hill in Thiruparankundram. You can take me out of America, but you can’t separate me from the food.

It’s not that I have any problem with Indian foods-I really enjoy my daily lunch of dahi, chapatti, and white rice. If you know anything about Indian food, however, you’ll realize these are quite possibly the blandest, least interesting foods that India has to offer. I’ve become quite squeamish about spiced/rich foods, even a mild sambar, ever since my encounters with it (and the consequences) during the first few weeks. A terrifying story involves my consumption of some South Indian “non-veg delicacies”. During a trip to a rural eye camp, the staff was generously provided with a free lunch. I entered the sketchy restaurant (was it even a restaurant? I will never know), washed my banana leaf with a little water, and began eating with my right hand like a pro. The staff asked if I wanted utensils about 5 times, which leads me to suspect that I didn’t look as ~cultured~ as I thought. Anyways, I noticed a suspicious black, cold, lumpy pile at the top of my leaf. If there’s one thing I learned about India, it’s that people will continue dumping massive heaps of rice and sambar on your leaf until you physically remove it from their reach. Therefore, I assumed that this was simply another part of the course that I didn’t notice, so I cautiously inspected it. Lakshmi, the coolest MLOP/mom ever, told me it was a delicious specialty. She prepared a bite for me, and as I brought it to my mouth, she informed me that it was lamb’s blood. There was no going back now, but the terror was definitely evident in my eyes. In retrospect, I probably would have hated it marginally less if I didn’t know what it was. Either way, I ate it and continued with the other options of ambiguous foods on my leaf. For some reason the words “coagulated blood” just don’t sound that appetizing. As soon as Lakshmi realized I wasn’t feeling the greatest on the bus ride home, she handed me some herbs that allegedly would make my stomach feel better/were good for digestion. I figured nothing I consumed at this point could possibly make the situation worse, so I ate them. Again, this really was not the brightest idea, as they had the exact opposite effect, and it felt like somebody lit my esophagus on fire.

Later that week, I was in a meeting with my supervisors. They were speaking in Tamil about something, and then laughed and called me a good sport. In my experience, this usually means something bad has happened to you, and I was pretty sure to what they were referring… until Hepsiba congratulated me on trying lamb’s blood and sheep intestines. Ah. So that’s what the squishy brown stuff was. I usually just assumed everything that resembled meat was chicken and ate it, but apparently this logic is flawed. It seems that the other “ambiguous foods” I consumed included some suspicious meat options that are pretty common to rural areas.

I was temporarily traumatized from the experience, but I’m alive and well (for the most part) so it couldn’t have been that awful. I’m committing myself to trying more options again and being adventurous with my food choices. This will definitely be pursued in our upcoming trips, like this weekend’s trip to Thekkady! Despite a few exceptions, the food here really is delicious, and the people that you meet are more than happy to share it with you. I’m convinced that the term “Southern hospitality” actually refers to South India. While I was at the rural eye camp, the neuro-ophthalmologist I was shadowing gave me three different juice boxes/orange sodas. Someone who works in our office area provided samosas last night. The sisters at the free hospital offer me juices and puri every time I’m there. The people I’ve met at Aravind love to share food, and people that love to share food are my favorite type of people. In particular, the one Indian tradition that I absolutely love is the daily chai break. I’ve gathered a variety of “mother-figures” here, and they all insist upon chai time everyday. I have no complaints about this. In the education department where I work, I have the great privilege of spending time with Ms. Hepsiba and two recent college graduates that are programmers. Hepsiba has become displeased with my relatively meager diet, and has thrown herself into a campaign to make me “gundu.” For those of you out there who don’t speak Tamil, that means fat. She feeds me pomegranate seeds, carrots, bananas, peanuts, chakli, puri, and anything else that she happens to find. Her personal favorite is the rice flour cookie, which she coats in sugar and feeds to me insisting, “it’ll make your hips bigger.” Today, we went to the hospital cafeteria. Hepsiba asked me if I wanted anything to eat, and I said no. When we took our seats, the worker delivered a large quantity of dosa, sambar, and chutney. Hepsiba told me to share it with her, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Her ultimate goal is to make me so gundu that I “cannot get on the plane to go home,” and given how tiny the prop plane is from Madurai to Chennai, it is definitely a possibility.

This temporarily concludes my reflections on my experiences with food in India. I’ve already used the McDonald’s “store locator” feature, and the closest one I can find is multiple hours away. If you’re near a McDonald’s, please get a large order of fries for me (and don’t forget the Heinz ketchup).

The location where the peanut butter sandwiches were made aka Thiruparankundram

The location where the peanut butter sandwiches were made aka Thiruparankundram

Busra and I managed to find the most luxurious auto rickshaw in Madurai-complete with a sound system and neon lighting

Busra and I managed to find the sassiest auto rickshaw in Madurai-complete with a sound system and neon lighting

The lovely view from the top of our hike...almost 700 steps and millions of complaints later

The lovely view from the top of our hike…almost 700 steps and millions of complaints later

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About oliviamhess

I interned at Aravind Eye Hospital-Madurai as a CASI Student Programs Intern in 2015, and I am returning to Aravind in Pondicherry to conduct research using CASI Summer Travel Funds, the Association of Alumnae Rosemary D. Mazzatenta Scholars Award, and the Gelfman International Summer Fund.