Editor’s Note: The following is guest post written by Katie. If you have read my posts about Bosnia and Croatia, you know Katie. She also traveled the world, more extensively than I did in 2010, and shares her story of eating (or not eating) in India. I love Katie. You will, too. Enjoy!
One of the main reasons I travel is to eat. Living in America means that if you want Indian food, you can have it. If you want Ethiopian food, you can have it. Persian, Indonesian, Afghani, and Peruvian- it’s all available. And more often than not, the food is made by natives. But, still.
Every food loving traveler is itching to try the “real deal.” Vietnamese Pho in Uptown Chicago, made by a Vietnamese person, is one thing, but the same dish on tiny plastic chair on a street corner in Saigon is the reason you keep renewing your passport.
I have always considered myself food adventurous. I will try anything- and I mean anything- once. I have eaten brains and tongue and kidney and shark and pigeon. I have blindly pointed to menu items when I couldn’t decipher the offerings. I have eaten things I still cannot identify. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in India and was too scared to eat anything. I felt like such a chicken- which, by the way, I have eaten the feet of.
Travel in India is overwhelming to every sense. The sights are indescribable. The smells are all consuming. The noise is unparalleled. The heat and humidity feel like a cumbersome jacket. But the taste, the food, is one reason you put up with all the other stuff.
It is just assumed that you will get sick in India. You just have to accept that fact and prepare for it before you go. In other words, pack some Pepto Bismol and hope for the best. I thought I had mentally prepared for the case of Delhi Belly I would certainly get but when I saw the bathrooms where I would be spending so much sick time, it weakened my resolve. Having the trots on the comfort of your own toilet is bad enough, imagine it on a squat toilet in a fly-and-roach-infested bathroom.
But, the high demands of Western travelers spared me. My hostel in Delhi provided free breakfast (cereal, toast, and tea) and dinner (rice and a Kingfisher beer). I decided I was going to eat these meals and nothing else. I was adjusting to so many other things in India that I would work on those first and then attempt the food. That’s what I told myself but the truth is I was just scared.
I came to terms with the fact that I would be eating peanut butter toast and vegetable rice for all my meals in the country home to my favorite dishes. No murgh saagwala? Fine by me if it meant no puking. No chicken tikka masala? I’ll eat it when I get home if it means I retain control of my bowels. The ravenous glutton in my heart was devastated, the sometimes realist in my brain was content.
On my second day in India I met some people in my hostel and we headed out for a day of sightseeing. We spent hours wandering the streets of Delhi and no one mentioned food or ate a thing. My stomach was growling and every street-side vendor made it sound like an angry lion. Luckily, Delhi is a noisy city and the sound of my rumbling tummy was drowned out. I had just survived my first tuk-tuk ride; no way I was taking on more than that.
That night, after a couple of Kingfishers and some free rice, the truth trickled out over our free meal. All six of us, on the first days of our trip, had not eaten a meal outside the safety of those hostel walls. One by one, I could feel the weight lift off our shoulders. Backpackers are supposed to be brave and full of reckless abandon. Admitting you’re nervous-about anything- is like admitting you aren’t cut out for real adventure.
Now we had each other. We were going to hold each other’s hands (figuratively) while we had our first real Indian meal and hold each other’s hair (literally) if any of us suffered repercussions.
An unlikely hero in this land of enchantment, Francisco is from Italy and a former musician and breakdancer, but now made a living as the owner of our hostel. Did he mention, he asked, that he also owned a dosa stand? He told us all about his amazing dosas and after he wiped my drool off his leg, agreed to take us the next evening. We were all still skeptical but Francisco assured us that he adhered to the highest standards when it came to cleanliness and promised we would all be fine.
After a day of sightseeing, and still no food, Francisco took us to Dosa King. It looked no different from any other stand on the busy, noisy, dirty street. It was about six feet by two feet and the walls were made of flimsy plywood. The kitchen consisted of one small grill, five large buckets of ingredients, and a three man staff.
I ordered a masala dosa and stood at one of the tables and waited for the Styrofoam plate of food I had anticipated, but feared, since landing in India. I was determined to eat like a local and in India that means cutlery-free and with your right hand. I grabbed at the end of the dosa, ripped off a chunk, scooped up some of the potato and onion mixture, and dipped into the sambar.
I let that bite sit on my tongue for a pause before I started chewing. I pictured myself standing in the hot, crowded, chaotic room where I got my Indian visa about three months earlier. A Bollywood film blared out of a tiny television with blown speakers in the corner. There seemed to be no rhyme to the reason and there were strange rules that were only occasionally enforced. I believe that office is designed to prepare you for India. But nothing could prepare me for this bite.
That first bite was maybe the greatest food moment of my life. Yes, the food was good but it was more than that. It wasn’t just about food, of course. I was three days into a trip that was to last 10 months and I had been living scared. It felt like a release. As silly as it sounds, I remember thinking, this is why I’m here. To eat Indian food in India. To be, to really be, in India. Because if you’re going to go places and not really be there, you might as well order takeout from home.
It was as safe as Francisco promised. And, here’s a spoiler alert, I did eventually get sick from the food in India. And I mean sick sick. Like hospital, antibiotics, rehydration sick. And guess what? I would still eat ever dosa, every curry, every masala, every naan, everything.
About Katie: Katie doesn’t just get explosive diarrhea in India. She also falls in ditches, teaches Vietnamese women about vibrators, and sits back while her friends get head butted by a cow. You can read all about it on her blog www.calamitykate.com where she promises she won’t speak in the third person.