There is no love sincerer than the love of food

George Bernard Shaw said that apparently. He also co-founded the London School of Economics. A fellow economist and food enthusiast? I appreciate that.

I think anyone who knows me knows how much I love food. And I think oftentimes the best way to immerse myself in a culture starts with food. I studied abroad in Italy last fall, and all of my money was spent on either food or transportation to get me to food. All I knew of Indian cuisine before arriving here was that there was curry and there was… more curry. Come to think of it, I had only ever been to one Indian restaurant my entire life before this trip, and it wasn’t even that impressive. But Indian food has been more than wonderful to me on this trip, even if my stomach hasn’t been. Here are just a few snapshots.

Butter chicken is a North Indian dish that is absolutely to die for. I think it was the first real Indian meal that we had during our time here. Not a single drop of the creamy, sweet, tangy, spicy sauce is wasted because there’s always a basket of parathas – round, flaky flatbreads – at hand. The first time we had it was at a restaurant in Delhi that our boss recommended.

Poori is a North Indian bread, deep-fried to golden, flaky perfection. It’s become very popular all over India apparently and with good reason. The canteen at work always served them on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so I always eagerly looked forward to those days when I could clog my arteries to my heart’s content. Heh. Poori is made from wheat flour and a bit of salt. I guess it’s true that the most delicious things are often the simplest.

I often had some kind of curry with my pooris. We’ve had everything from aloo (potato) to ladyfinger (okra) to gobi (cauliflower) curry at our canteen. In addition, they usually serve some sort of biryani (rice cooked with spices, veggies, and/or meat), sambar (a tamarind-and-lentil-based stew), and rasam (a tamarind and tomato based soup often mixed with plain rice for flavor).

People here only eat with their right hands – left hands were reserved for other dirty work – and we rarely saw utensils being used. The first time I fully used my hands for a meal was at a worker’s canteen in one of the factories. I was so surprised by how hot the food felt in my fingers; normally it’s fine enough that I can just start eating. I also was very aware of how much I hate getting my hands dirty, especially when stuff gets under my nails. But it was definitely a fun experience and by the end of the internship I was pretty comfortable eating with my hands.

I mentioned momos in my last blog post, but I just had to mention them again because they’re so good. And cheap. And good. I’m going to miss my momo guy. Saying goodbye tonight will be quite difficult. He’s even started giving me extra since I go there so often.

My favorite meal was in Mysore. We had taken the weekend to travel with some of the guys’ friends who were very nice to plan our trip and show us around. It was a very standard South Indian meal, with the usual rice, sambar, rasam served to us on a banana leaf, but I had also ordered a side of fried fish. It was the most delicious fried fish I’ve had in awhile, super fresh and flaky and perfectly seasoned with a dash of lemon. Ugh.

The tropical fruit scene here is pretty awesome. Cartfuls of ripe, orange mangos line the streets here, and we would almost always have one for breakfast every morning. Custard apples are very expensive and nearly impossible to find in Philly. You can imagine my excitement when I found a guy who sells them right outside of the factory unit. They’re soft to the touch when ripe and the skin just peels right off, leaving you with a sweet, creamy fruit. It’s a little frustrating to eat if you are an impatient person like me because there are a million seeds in each fruit, but it’s more than worth the effort. Why can’t we have fresh coconut stands in the states? If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, it would definitely be fruit.

My absolute favorite South Indian dish is the masala dosa. It’s half crepe, half pancake and 100% addictingly delicious. Super buttery, golden and crispy on the outside, piping hot and fluffy on the inside with a generous portion of spiced potatoes, this is probably the most popular breakfast item around. The dosa batter is a fermented mix of rice and lentils, soaked overnight and ground into a fine paste-like consistency. I actually really disliked dosas the first few times I had them, but the one we had in Mysore won me over for good. Dosas are typically eaten with chutney, rasam and sambar. So addicting. The best one I had was probably at MTR, a chain of restaurants here, and I was ecstatic to find out that they sold their dosa mix. I can’t wait to go home and try making them!

Living in a city meant we also didn’t have to give up other cuisines, so enchiladas, burgers, baos, pizza, amazing desserts, KFC, and even pho still made their way into my diet. I’m not ashamed. And even though we tried our hardest to add some variety to our diets, these dishes always ended up tasting a little bit of India with some extra spices added to them. One of the guys was not amused, but it was almost endearing in a way. When I was in Europe, I always tried to seek out the most authentic restaurants, the hole-in-the-wall-family-owned-secret-recipes-local-hangout spots. Trip Advisor was my best friend. After having been here though, I definitely have come to appreciate food simply for what it is rather than what I think it should be. Not even the dosas that I love so much follow the true form that they originally had when they were first invented — they were apparently thicker, less crispy and more pancake-like. Authenticity is such a tricky concept because things are always adapting and drawing inspiration from other places, and to be as open-minded as possible when you’re experiencing a new culture — all aspects of that culture — is a valuable lesson I won’t forget.

(I’ll update with photos later — internet is being quite stubborn here)

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About channguyen11