Indian Journey Part VIII: Culture Shock – Food

July 3, 2010 in Food, India, Travel by pacejmiller

I usually don’t mind a bit of Indian food every now and then when I’m in Australia.  I like naan and I like the flavoursome curries.  I do enjoy it, but because the real good stuff is so heavy, I usually don’t feel like it again for a couple of months after a hearty Indian meal.

In Hyderabad and especially at the wedding, however, eating became a bit of a challenge for several reasons.

First of all, my buddy’s family is all vegetarian, so naturally the catered food at the wedding venue is all vegetarian.  I have nothing against vegetables, but I’m not a big fan of some of stuff like lentils and peas, of which they had plenty of.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Southern Indian food is lighter and more watery than what I am used to, so it wasn’t like the strong flavours would cover my dislike of the texture of the food.

Secondly, I like to sample food I haven’t tried before, but usually only on my own terms.  If I don’t like the look of it, I won’t try it.  But when you are at a foreign wedding and everyone is telling you to eat, and get seriously offended looks if you decline, you don’t have much of a choice.  That sort of mentality can have a negative impact when you actually taste the food, regardless of how good it may be.

At lunch on the first day, we were ushered up to the food hall, where several waiters greeted us with traditional head wobbles.  There were long rows of tables, and in front of each seat was a giant banana leaf.  After we sat down, the waiters began piling different types of traditional Indian food on the leaf — rice, papadums, curries and strange condiments, most of which I didn’t recognise.  Then all the waiters stood there (and the other diners in the hall turned to us), staring at us, waiting for us to dig in.  That’s the third factor why eating was a challenge.  It was brutal.

The fourth and fifth factors are related.  As foreigners, we were each given a spoon, but everyone around us ate with their hands.  Of course, we all knew this was the Indian tradition, but what I forgot was that because they mixed all the stuff on the leaf with their hands, the food could not be hot.  Personally, I like my food hot, not cold or lukewarm.  And I don’t want to offend here because it’s strictly a cultural difference, but watching others massage the rice and curries and condiments with their hands (unwashed) did not exactly whet my appetite.  As a result, even though some of the stuff was actually pretty decent, I just couldn’t bring myself to finish everything on the leaf.  That said, I think I did the best amongst the four foreigners in attendance.

The biggest killer was on the second night at the Sangreet/Mehendi.  My goodness.  My marrying buddy (who once ordered a McDonald’s cheeseburger without meat) must have been trying to get back at me for all the years of trying to convince him to eat meat (he once asked me: “if everyone in the world ate shit, would you eat it?”  I have to admit it was a good argument).

Anyway, out on the balcony of the wedding venue there were a few waiters serving drinks and this Indian “delicacy”.  My buddy told me it was “sensational,” and called it an “explosion of flavours.”  I’m wary of most explosions, but it wasn’t like I had much of a choice.

The waiter started with an innocent-looking, hollow pastry ball with the top missing.  Okay, so far so good.  Next, he dipped his bare hands into this silver tub and took out a blob of greenish paste and stuffed it into the pastry ball with his fingers.  Not so good.  Then, he cupped his hand and scooped up a handful of black liquid and poured it onto the ball.  And finally to top it off, he took the entire ball in his hand and dunked it into a bucket of murky grey water.  I’m not making any of this up.

I can only imagine the horror on my face when the finished product was placed on a little silver foil dish for my tasting.  I held the ball by my fingertips, the lukewarm liquid mixture dripping down the side of my hands.  At this point, my fellow foreigner colleague walked up and was offered another one of these little “explosions”.  Not having seen the making of the product, he promptly popped it into his mouth and I saw him gag for a moment before he forced it down his throat.  But now that he’s done it, there’s no way I can refuse, not while the thing is still in my hand.

Luckily, as I moved the thing closer to my lips, half of the pastry ball broke off, along with much of the paste and murky mixture.  It was then I gathered the courage to stuff the thing into my mouth and swallow it whole.  To be honest it could have tasted fantastic, but my mind was made up long before I ate it.  I can’t even tell you what it tasted like.

My colleague did however tell me that he also had an “explosion” in his stomach that night.

It did get better though.  Lunch on the last day after the ceremony was a buffet, so we could choose what appealed to us.  It was still lukewarm but at least we knew what we were having.

And when we were in Delhi, we had a couple of very very nice Indian meals at the restaurants in hotels.  I’ll have to leave this for another post!