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Food in India

March 2, 2010

The whole food experience in India has been quite fascinating, and a reminder to me of how much food is part of a cultural experience. At the Gandhi Ashram, I saw how Gandhi proposed that people should only eat for sustenance, not for enjoyment or any other reason, but I’ve never been able to manage that. I suppose it would be easier if I could, but then my time here wouldn’t be so enjoyable.

For instance, I wouldn’t have bothered to try some of the special sweets yesterday that were prepared in honor of the Holi holiday, the Festival of Colors. One was a coconut ball that wasn’t as sweet as I thought it would be but was very good (I’m not sure what else it was made with), and another was a milk-based dish with rice and sugar. I didn’t have a lot of it, but it would have been a shame to be so strict as to not try a little. After all, who knows if I’ll ever be here again, and even if I am, the odds of it being around that holiday are extraordinarily slim.

That’s also why I’ve been enjoying trying various Indian cuisines. I didn’t realize until I came here just how different the foods were across regions/states. Here in Ahmedabad, which is in the Gujarat state, the food is unlike anything I’d get in the states because it’s not in Southern India. It seems that all Indian restaurants at home are based on south Indian cooking, which is rice-based. The foods here are more lentil and bread based, without much in the way of curries and no sign of vindaloo. Of course, even the south Indian food that I’ve tried here isn’t quite what I’d expect, but it still tastes good. Thankfully I can handle some spice, since what they consider spicy and what Mainers consider spicy are vastly different.

It’s also interesting that they tend to serve something sweet as part of the regular meal, not as something at the end, so you can eat it whenever you like. Kind of a nice idea. And this particular state is dry! It never occurred to me to that other countries would have dry states, and in fact this is the only one in India. Apparently you can get a special permit to consume alcohol in public places, but otherwise you have to remain in your home for that. It actually works very well for me, given that I don’t drink, and it makes the streets quite safe – well, as safe as they can be, considering Indian driving habits, and the prevalence of cows, dogs, goats, camels, donkeys, etc. wandering the streets.

I’ve also learned that some people have a tradition that women should only eat certain foods after giving birth, to make sure they produce good milk and to help lose weight. This includes not having any salt, which my friend Jois’s wife isn’t very excited about. She keeps reminding herself that it’s only for 3 months and it’s for the health of their son, but I’m guessing she’s getting pretty bored with it.

Jois himself is unusual because he eats eggs, whereas most vegetarians in India don’t, although they will eat cheese and drink milk. Many Indians are vegetarian in some way or other, since the Hindu beliefs promote treating life as sacred. Some eat fish, or like Jois have eggs, but others are even more extreme. Depending on what religious sect they belong to, they won’t eat anything that’s a root vegetable or plant. For at least some, the idea is that by pulling a plant from the ground, you’re hurting various bacteria and who knows what else as part of that process.

All these new things about food and their cultures, and still I have four days to go. I look forward to seeing what else I might discover and learn.

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