Chai ho! The pleasures and perils of dining in India
It's fair to say that one of my primary motivations for accepting a four month work assignment in Mumbai was the prospect of three square a day in a country with an impeccable culinary heritage.I dreamed of creamy gravies, tender and juicy tandoor-roasted flesh, and vegetarian delicacies. I fantasized about dishes I didn't even know, dreamed up delicacies that I was sure to discover with a little digging and a taste for adventure. I fancied returning to Canada with the same sort of fluency with regional Indian food that repeated trips to the boot have given me with the food of Italy. My main fears were of returning to Toronto bloated by butter chicken and chick peas, or of missing out on an unforgettable Indian treat.
I was aware of the likelihood of foodborne illness -- everyone knows the risks of eating in a developing country -- but I figured that with a little common sense and caution I could avoid a serious bout of food poisoning and instead enjoy a gluttonous sojourn on the sub-continent. Besides, I figured my constitution had been steeled by a lifetime of epicurean indulgence, both at home and abroad.
Ten days into my trip, heaving into the toilet and praying for the sweet release of death, I came to see things a little differently.
I'd been warned, of course. The advice seems best suited to someone buying a mogwai, not a glutton on the prowl: "Never drink the water" is the most common refrain along with "Never eat the street food," but I was also fed a few other nuggets like, "And don't ever, under any circumstances, eat the chutney."
So I ate the chutney.
And, just like that poor mogwai fed after midnight, horrible things happened to me.
I was roused from my slumber at 5 in the morning by burps. Delicious, chicken bharta flavoured burps, to be honest, but burps nonetheless. During my phone call with my wife Rachel a couple of hours later, I began to feel slight discomfort. By the time I was showering fifteen minutes later, I was doubled over in pain.
I told my colleague, the disgustingly healthy Charles, to go to the office without me. The evening before, after I spooned a few drops of green chutney onto my papadum, Charles reiterated his strict personal no chutney policy then arched his eyebrows in the universal gesture for, "hey, it's your funeral." My current state justified his caution.
And so I spent one of the most miserable days of my life holed up in my hotel room, curtains drawn to shield my eyes from the stabbing pain of bright light. A doctor paid me a house call and diagnosed the obvious, food poisoning, then prescribed me a small dispensary's worth of antibiotics, anti-nauseants, and rehydration salts.
My new work colleagues in Mumbai started making prescriptions of their own, however. Every culture touts the restorative quality of certain foods, and India's no different. While Canadians sip flat ginger ale and chicken soup, and Italians mangiare in bianco (literally, "to eat in white"), Indians champion coconut water and curd rice.
Within hours of falling ill, a hotel employee was in my room with three coconuts sent to me by a concerned co-worker. He cut a hole in one of them and poured its water into a glass. I took a few tentative sips. Coconut water looks murky and tastes like slightly sweet, stale water, but, as champions of the coconut are eager to point out, coconut water is nature's Gatorade; it's loaded with electrolytes and is less acidic and contains less sugar than common sports drinks. Coconut water has reportedly even been used as an intravenous hydration fluid. If only Mother Nature had the common sense to market her creation in Glacier Freeze and Tropical Intenso flavours, she could make a fortune.
I didn't develop much of a taste for coconut water, but two days of chicken broth later I was ready for solid food. The spice and heat of many Indian dishes don't lend themselves to the kind of baby steps my digestive system and I were ready to take, so I started slow, with the dish my co-workers recommended.
Curd rice is a south-Indian specialty, a sort of sub-continental risotto. At its most basic, it's just the room temperature leftover rice on a dinner plate or, more authentically, on a banana leaf, mixed with a few spoonfuls of unsweetened yogurt. Millions of Indians finish their meal with a heap of curd rice to calm stomachs and mouths inflamed by spice.
When you're fragile like I was, curd rice isn't the end of a great meal, it's the appetizer, entree, and dessert. After sampling more than my fair share of examples, I can say that not all curd rices are created equal.
Copper Chimney, a Mumbai dining institution, serves my favourite curd rice. They mix toasted black mustard seeds, fresh raw cucumber and peppers, and chopped cilantro into creamy, cool curd rice, elevating a bland staple into a refreshing conclusion to a meal. They even garnish it with a dried chili. Oh, the irony!
I've now fully recovered from that bout of food poisoning, and I'm hoping that my subsequent encounters with curd rice are of a more traditional nature, as the conclusion to a spice-laden south-Indian meal. In the meantime, I'm sampling every last Indian specialty I can find -- and hoping to blog about it a little more consistently. I'm even trying to be a little more cautious about my food choices.
But I'm still eating the chutney.