Note: Indian food is part of a travel blog that I wrote during an extended business trip to India. I spent two months in New Delhi as my employer implemented a new business unit in two of its call centers. In addition to my professional work, I took time to study Hindi, an effort that fostered greater co-operation and trust among my Indian business associates. It also helped me better understand the culture. We believe that language opens a gateway to understanding culture. These pages focus on my observations and experiences in India. While I was there, I practiced Walkabout Language Learning. See the list of "More India Stories" on this page to explore how culture and language intertwine.
My daily routine has changed here in India. My company closed the guest house a few weeks ago. Sethi-ji, Deepen, Sudhir, and the rest of the staff were let go, and I moved into the Taj Palace, a five star hotel in New Delhi. It is fancy! Stodgy. People who come from old money stay here. The guests seem somber.
There is a huge staff, and you'd think with that many people, I'd have more opportunities to practice my Hindi dialogs. It first, I thought it would be a great place to practice Walkabout Language Learning, but it was much easier with Sethi-ji because we worked together day after day. The staff here changes from morning to evening and day to day, I can't build a relationship with any one person, so it is hard to progress in my language efforts.
It's impersonal here, and I don't feel at home the way that I did at the guest house. No one asks me about the silly love song that I learned or teases me about who I might be falling in love with, who I'm singing about. I don't have a driver any longer. That might be a good thing, Sudhir was hot, but he was dishonest. A hundred dollars was swiped from a locked cabinet in my bedroom. I ask Sudhir if he took. He won't give me a straight answer, but he comes home high that night. Later, I see his guilt written in his face when I confront the whole staff. At the Taj, I just take a cab to work.
At the hotel, I can have all the Indian food I want. I can have my favorites every day if I want: dahl -- Indian lentils with yoghurt and roti or chapatis or naan, any of my favorite Indian breads. There is a wide variety Indian food at the Taj restaurants, but the quality is industrial. The food at the Taj has lost the depth of flavors that I experienced at the guest house. Sethi cooked my meals fresh every day. He used fresh fruits and veggies and ground his own spices. Before I came to India, I didn't like Indian food, but now, I can't get enough of it. Fruits and veggies are sold at the market, but only when they are in season, so the flavors are full and rich, not like the produce available year round in most American grocery stores: It looks attractive, but has no flavor.
Indians pride themselves on their Indian food. They grind the spices immediately before adding them to the food. It is a matter of pride among Indian house wives as to who uses the freshest spices. Their husbands lament--with a note of pride in their voices--about what a mess it makes to grind those spices fresh. The golden yellows and oranges stain countertops and cookware.
The one thing that makes the Taj awesome are the drapes. I get home around one or two in the morning, and I'd like to sleep much longer than the sun. The Taj has drapes that block out all of the light. No sliver of light penetrates around the edges, a spoiler that the sun has risen.
The Taj is big, it is fancy, but it doesn't feel like home. One of the other managers has moved to a newer hotel. He says it is better, so I try it. It is a hip, trendy place that caters to a younger crowd than the Taj. I like it here. But the Indian food makes me sick the first time I eat at the restaurant. That happened after my first meal at the Taj too. You'd think these five star restaurants would be more hygienic than that.
"Hygienic." It's a word that I've learned from my Indian co-workers. Most restaurants in India apparently follow loose guidelines about safe food handling practices. Certain ones are considered more hygienic -- that is, they cater to the (weak?) tourists tummies. My co-workers warn me not to eat at unhygienic places. There is a tarp café outside of the call center. A short jog down the packed dirt trail in front of the call center brings you to a large tarp. In one corner of the tarp, the owners cook over propane stoves. The call center employees eat meals or snacks down there at the plastic tables and chairs. I don't see a sink or anywhere to wash dishes, just a pump spigot with cold water fifteen feet away from the back of the tarp. It is surrounded by mud and puddles. My Indian co-workers warn me not to eat there because it isn't hygienic. The call center provides one hot meal per employee, per shift each day, but still this outdoor café does brisk business.
The Indian training manager felt strongly that I needed to experience Indian sweets. So, one evening, he took me to a little sweet shop. For him it was a great treat to share the best sweets and treats that India has to offer. I was overwhelmed with the choices. Which ones would I like best, I wondered. There was no way that I could try them all in one visit. Turns out, I didn't like any that I tried. Some of them have gold tinfoil-like stuff on them that you are supposed to eat! They say it is real gold, but eating gold can’t be very good for you. Maybe that is what is meant by "rich" food. After the specialty confections, we wandered over to an street restaurant for jelabis.
I watched in amazement as a man hovered over a black kettle of boiling oil. In his hand, he held a distended bag of batter with a frosting tip on the end. Artfully, he squeezed the batter into the oil to form circular designs. They are the Indian equivalent of doughnuts. They were good!
After stuffing my face with jelabis. I rode a rickshaw. It was fun. See the guy in the picture? He looks pretty skinny, huh? When we were ready to go, he took his place in the driver's seat and we lurched forward into a quick pace. I was amazed at the strength in his legs! We got up to speed quickly, and he powered that vehicle forward with a surprising level of urgency. I was struck by the force of his pedaling strokes.
The Tour de France was held the month before I came to India, so it is fresh in my mind. Lance Armstrong won this year; it is his fourth title in that race. We cheered him on--he's our American hero. While I'm riding in the back of the rickshaw, I picture Lance paired up against this sinewy Indian rickshaw driver. Lance rode for fame, this guy rides for his life. I think it would be a tough match.
Post script note: One thing is for sure, I bet this rickshaw driver wouldn't get all seven of his Tour de France metals stripped from him for doping. Whoops, so much for our American hero!
--Posted by Leslie, Thursday, September 25