India: Food

I don’t think we realize what a finely balanced relationship we have with food until we’re completely divorced from our typical culinary comforts. Any traveling I’ve done in the past (even the very modest amount of international travel I’ve done) has never caused a significant departure from the habits and cuisine that I am used to. While in Korea, I was able to sample heavily from the local food while still returning daily to my “safe space” foods on-post. Even when having to be careful to avoid certain foods or to eschew unbottled water, it was still less a functional change to my habits than a brief food adventure–quick to visit, quick to return.

Spending more than just a couple of days completely apart from my normal dining habits has been a really cool experience. You can tell, because aside from perpetual exhaustion, it’s the number one thing I’ve been plastering on my social media! It has been eye-opening though. I don’t normally put so much consideration into my meals, and that’s not an option here. That said, most of the consideration is because I’m enjoying something of a food adventure.

I don’t think I would have been as eager to dive into all of the various facets of the food and beverage experience that Nagpur has to offer were I able to comfortably return to “home base” in the form of a recognizable burger-and-fries sort of meal. Instead, I am confronted with the choice to either experiment with foods entirely foreign to me or to play it safe with local approximations of food that I’m used to. Often, the latter seems a dicier proposition than the former.

Breakfast for me at home typically consists of some sort of sausage and egg meal–breakfast quiche, fried eggs and sausage, egg-white omelete with sausage and cheese, etc. Here, I have a broad assortment of traditional (and somewhat less traditional) dishes from which I can choose each morning. The biggest difference in breakfast is the relative blandness of my usual breakfast compared to what I’m having here. Every single dish is spiced uniquely and aggressively, which doesn’t always mean that the food is spicy-hot; it does mean that it is reliably strongly flavored. Few things here are as bland as a fried egg at home.

For other meals, we have been splitting our time between the local interpretations of meals that we might find at home–masala pizza might be my new favorite pizza, which is going to be very disappointing when I get home and there is no such thing–and going out for more traditional local fare. In my typical ignorant way, I pretty much just classified “Indian food” as one monolithic thing. In my head I recognized that there was some difference between northern and southern versions of it, but I assumed there to be about the same amount of division as there is between a dinner in Alabama versus a meal in Connecticut. That is to say, I assumed we were talking about essentially the same things, but with a ton more butter.

Instead, the variances between the native foods of the different states is pronounced. While our hotel serves a mixed selection of foods, I’m told that it is mostly southern Indian in nature. At one lunch, we enjoyed Rajasthani cuisine–a selection of curries and bread-like products that was completely dissimilar to food that I would get at an Indian restaurant at home. It was here that I found the only way I’ve ever enjoyed cauliflower: mashed into a very spicy curry and picked up with a piece of hot chapati. I am warned that one of the regional foods of this area–Saoji–is far too hot to try; I suspect that unless I happen into some, I will probably take that advice. When people that eat spicy food regularly immediately say “bad idea,” I take it about 30% to heart!

As it stands, I can rest assured that most places around here that I eat will be able to give me naan, chapati, paneer, masala, daal, and about a thousand dishes that I can now pick out by sight but probably never name. Secure in that knowledge, I find it pretty easy to find something to eat here. I stay slightly wary of meat of unknown provenance (I mostly eat vegetarian unless I was referred to the place by those from the area), avoid the water, and do a poor job of avoiding dairy and the only gastrointestinal distress I’ve encountered was from the anti-malarial drugs.