The Great Indian Salad & Other Food Stories from India
I am still waiting for a slug to show up in my salad.
Yes, I swear! A friend swiped me through her phone pictures, of a slug she found nested between the lettuce leaves of her burger-- the smooth-skinned intruder innocently looking here and there with its antennas all charged up. Etched in my memory, I have been on the lookout for slugs in salads, but never found one so far.
The salads in India, might be an angry lot. People here don’t call them 'SAA-LID'. They are called ‘S-LAAAD’ and an Indian salad is nothing you are prepared for. It is merely a collection of rough cut onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers, with more onions than the others. If you consume it like you would an american 'SAA-LID', you will ensure your mouth is awake with the freshness of strong onion and its associated fragrance. The traditional Indian ‘S-LAAAD’, is supposed to be an accompaniment to curries, daals and rotis and must be eaten as a flavour enhancer, rather than a meal in itself, or so I’ve learnt.
I attribute my 1 stone weight gain in India, to the easy availability of good food and redefinition of salads. My Indiana-Jones-eque quest to find the great american 'SAA-LID in India, pulled me through an experience of not-belonging iceberg lettuces, expensive salads so small it could squeeze into my palm and Indian broccoli that just didn’t taste like the rubber broccoli that I used to eat in ‘merica. I soon gave up eating salads, till I found 1 store in Delhi that supplied a huge three bean salad and I’ve stuck to that.
India is experienced through its masala chai. Chai Point is very popular in Bangalore… the store has cropped up in nooks and corners, and If I wasn't visiting in person, I’d use Swiggy app to get chai and snacks delivered to wherever I was, (though that was exactly one time, at my quiz club meeting). I soon got bored of Chai Point -- the chai tasted like a wannabe. It didn’t feel like authentic street chai. When I did go to the authentic street chai wala, I made the rookie mistake of asking for no-sugar chai. The server gave me a “no chini are-you-serious?” look and so did the money handler next to him. Quietly, he handed over my chini-less chai and I confidently took a few sips to realise my mistake immediately. Authentic roadside kadak chai is too strong and is in-consumable without sugar. This is not your english dip-chai for the delicate faint hearted. I quietly put the glass aside and slipped out. Never refuse sugar in roadside authentic chai, I learnt.
My deal breaker in restaurants has been Fresh Lime Soda. No part of the world offers this great multipurpose refreshing drink. During my hurried 2 week visits to India from ‘merica, I was crazy about Lime Soda. I was also crazy about chai, and would often order Food, Chai and Lime Soda at the same time. Most waiters thought I was nuts --“Chai aur Lime Soda ek saath?”, they’d ask--the combination a sure shot stomach killer. But I sacrificed my stomach for these award-worthy drinks. Now that the hurry is gone (I no longer have to eat everything I want in 2 weeks), I order ample lime soda with every meal, often 2 refills, as my chai cravings have probably been satiated that morning.
Just like Lime Soda is a regular at my table, I have slowly narrowed my restaurant orders to 1 daal makhani, 1 kadhai paneer, 1 garlic naan + 1 roti. This combination has become my cookie cutter meal and now I am so boring, that I always order the same combination and any other suggestion is rationalized back to “daal is healthy”. The unhealthy garlic naan + healthy roti combination is the Indian equivalent of the foreign ‘unhealthy burger you wash down with a diet coke’.
In India, all budget sizes are welcome. In Bangalore, I was one road and one foot-bridge away from a stand-up middle-class udipi restaurant that served thick, fresh and authentic masala dosas, for ₹55 and filter coffee for ₹15. I would be done with a heavy yum breakfast for just ₹70. Down the street and left, is a street full of fancy restaurants. A nicely done san-francisco-styled sandwich place that I visited twice (where my roommate returned her chicken because it was undercooked, and they waived the ₹600 charge). There is “Little Italy” with so many pizza options, that the bore in me comes out and I end up eating the same “Indian spicy paneer” option. I still haven’t found the Chipotle style burrito bowl and (generous servings of) avocado, but that Chipotle craving come once a moon, and i've survived.
Expensive doesn’t guarantee good food. The few 5 star hotel restaurants I went to, that costed about ₹1800 per head, didn’t have foods that blew my mind or made opening the top of my wallet any easier. Rather, I felt out of place-- glancing here and there at the rich people who comfortably wore shorts to the 5 star, while I had to dig out my gucci sunglasses and ferragamo purse, just so that I could activate my own mental license to walk through those doors.
My lunch at office, is provided by an enthusiastic dubba-walla. The predictability of the dubba-wala overshadows his uninspiring food quality. One day when dubba uncle called to say "tomorrow no lunch ", I mistook that for “tomorrow onwards no lunch” and I was secretly happy. The 45 minutes netflix-choose-a-movie time waste applies to choosing a restaurant too and that has prevented me from switching off the dubba completely (and plus I feel bad for the dubba uncle).
Indian lunches are about sharing -- ‘Here, try the bhindi’ allows you to poke your fork into someones plate, or ‘Gulab jamuns for everyone!’ would be a bowl that anyone can dig into. The try before you buy model, is very common-- ‘Canteen vada pav is good today, want a bite?’ has helped me taste before I commit to getting it into my plate. When our plastic spoon supply goes low, teammates sacrifice themselves-- ‘I’ll eat rice with my hands, you can eat with the spoon today’. I’ve read that communities that share, are happier-- in other words the Andaz Apna Apna ‘Do dost ek pyale mein chai peeyenge, isse dosti badhta hai.’ is actually true, and we didn’t need a phd in a white coated to tell us that.
You know, I never felt bad saying “No” to ‘tofurkey’ or ‘veg panini’--but tell me-- would you refuse a dosa, or chole or paneer? Nope. Not even thinkable. So I’m struggling with my weight. Struggle is not a right word-- I think i’ve let go. I’m consuming all the food that India can offer, along with the love that hides within the folds of that chutney smeared dosa, or my mom’s fruit custard.