Khana kya hai? (What is food?)
During our first three months in India, we travelled throughout north India (mostly the Himalayas) and have settled into the next six months of our lives in Udaipur. While meeting with religious leaders, social visionaries, and community members, we found our understanding of Indian culture and daily life here to have been shaped and enhanced most notably by food. From farming to dish washing, each step along the food journey gives us a brief window into Indian livelihoods, traditions, and current challenges. Our relationships with food -- not only what and how we eat but how we understand the people and practices involving food production -- have begun to shift. As we compare our experiences, we have each come away with distinct impressions surrounding Indian food, which we have explored throughout this update. Food provides insight into the climate, preferences, and organization of a society. It is also a prevalent connector, linking the farmer to the buyer, the buyer to the cook, and the cook to the consumer. Food impacts our daily lives in a myriad of ways which we are unable to capture in a mere 6,741 words. But perhaps this update can serve as a fragmented window into our shifting understanding and as an inspiration to further investigate food within a variety of contexts, from our high school lives, to Bridge Year, to our lives at Princeton. Please see the end of the update for a glossary defining Hindi words and phrases.
“Chai?” My little sister asks me the moment I come down the stairs. “Chai?” My service site mentor says as she sets the cup down in front of me, not even waiting for my reply. “Chai?” The chai-wallahs repeat as crowds of people move along the busy streets. “Chai? Chai? Chai?”
We get offered chai the moment we enter someone's home, or when we are listening to a speaker at one of the NGOs, or while we are sitting on a crowded sleeper train. During our third week, at the Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics, our host Mohammad stopped the lessons at precisely 11AM and again at 3PM, ensuring we got a chai break (he did not keep to nearly such a strict schedule for meals, lessons, or excursions). On long road trips, when we pull over for a bathroom break or just to stretch our legs, our instructor Neerav disappears immediately on a quest to find chai for the group. One day I decided to count the cups of chai, and was shocked to find I had consumed seven cups in a day. So much chai I almost don’t miss the two or three cups of coffee I drank every day at home.
No cup of chai is the same. One might be heavy on the ginger, another packed with cardamom. Some chai has more milk, others more water. Sometimes the sugar is on the side, other times the sweetness fills my mouth the moment I take a sip. We occasionally get offered non-milk chai, ranging from ginger-lemon-honey to a chai that tasted exactly like apple pie, complete with cinnamon and slivers of apple.
The way it is served varies almost as much as the chai itself. At one NGO, we were served chai in porcelain tea cups, at another in tiny dixie cups. I've drank chai out of steel cups, burning my fingers every time I tried to drink until I learned my lesson: wait for the tea to cool, or at least wrap my dupatta around the cup to protect from the heat. I’ve drank chai from glasses and from disposable clay pots made especially for the chai stalls lining the streets.
After more than a month in India, I finally learned how to make what I’d been drinking every day since I’d arrived. After a clumsy attempt to ask my homestay aunt to teach me to make chai, she led me into the kitchen, chuckling at my Hindi.
She measured out the milk in the cup I would be drinking out of, poured it into a pot on the stovetop, and added a splash of water. Then she pulled out the tea and added a spoonful to the mixture. Turning on the gas stove and expertly using tongs to lift the pot and swirl the contents around, she smiled at me. She pulled ginger and cardamom from the shelves and ground them to a pulp with a mortar and pestle. She tossed those too into the pot and swirled it around again. She permitted me to add the sugar myself, then took it from my hands with a shake of her head and added another heaping spoonful. Once all the ingredients had been added, she fiddled with the gas stove, turning the heat up and down at the moment the chai started to bubble and continuing to swirl the pot by lifting it with the tongs. Barely two minutes later, she pronounced the chai finished and poured it back into the cup. This process is so different from how I make tea at home—boiling water in an electric kettle and plopping a tea bag into a mug. This process is delicate and intricate, and as a result the chai served here is anything but uniform.
I’ve come to recognize chai as a symbol of compassion and welcoming. The first thing a person does upon welcoming you into their space is to ensure you feel comfortable, and this is often done in the form of a steaming cup of chai. In India, atithi devo bhava, or guest is god. Guests are treated with the utmost respect and kindness, and we have been guests here more times than I can count. Each cup of chai is a representation of the spirit of welcoming and community that has been omnipresent during our time here.
The physical warmth I feel every time I take a sip of chai is echoed in the warmth I feel from everyone around me. From my sister, to my service site mentor, to the chai-wallahs chanting “Chai? Chai? Chai?” as I walk down the busy streets.
Do you know where your food comes from?
By Max Widmann
Agriculture employs 59% of India’s population, and 82% of these workers are marginal farmers -- meaning they subsist on income from farms smaller than 2.5 acres. With millions of people dependent on the land for survival, it makes sense that there is greater awareness of where food comes from.
At the Sambhaavnaa Institute in Himachal Pradesh, facilitator Mohammad challenged my beliefs about food waste, consumption, and distribution of the world’s resources. Mohammad asked us to consider whether we really need things like industrially-farmed genetically-modified food. For all my life, I’ve been taught that the past century’s research has created more nutritious and resistant crops that alleviate famine and make it possible for billions of people to survive. Yet this view quickly subsided when Mohammad showed us that the US consumes more resources and produces more waste per person than any other nation. A child born in the US will have a greater lifetime environmental impact, on average, than 35 children born in India. The agricultural values that help to curb such overconsumption -- growing what you can, sourcing ingredients locally, and using what’s in season -- contradict what I thought I knew.
While assisting my host mother and sister with field work in Majkhali, Uttarakhand, I viewed the daily activities of rural people through the philosophical lenses I picked up during the previous weeks. My grass drying, gathering, and baling abilities were not up to my host mom’s standards, but I was more impressed with these women’s skills and knowledge than disappointed in my own. Farming local, hearty crops allows Majkhali’s inhabitants to rarely use outside resources and allows the land to remain fertile for future generations. Ajay, founder of the Foundation for the Contemplation of Nature, said that finger millet requires little water, does not deplete the soil, and provides a more complete set of proteins than heavily-processed, commercial crops. The westernization of Indian agriculture further impressed upon me the need to preserve village-level knowledge. Multinational corporations such as Monsanto have come into India under the guise of relieving hunger, but in reality, their ‘scientifically-superior’ seeds and predatory business practices have decreased biodiversity and degraded traditional practices.
After a month of living in the Himalayan foothills and practicing sustainable agriculture first-hand, I began to wonder how possible it is to fight against wasteful, destructive agricultural practices in daily life. While it’s easy to reduce my impact when being served food in a rural village, it’s tough to find fruits and vegetables that haven’t been shipped from far away into the deserts of Rajasthan. And at home, I must make the conscious (and often costly) choice to purchase non-GMO, organic, and local produce.
It’s shocking to think about how much food waste I’m complicit in creating back home and how little I know about the farmers, seeds, and knowledge that create my sustenance. From being served impossible-to-finish portion sizes at restaurants to rejecting fruits and vegetables with minor imperfections, I have quite a lot to work on upon returning home.
How has eating gluten-free allowed me to engage with culture?
By Sydney Eck
Before I came to India, finding safe food to eat on Bridge Year was one of my primary concerns. As a person living with celiac disease (an autosomal recessive genetic condition), my immune system cannot properly process the gluten protein found in wheat, barley and rye. I did not know what kind of “safe” food to expect in India, or if/how I could adapt my gluten-avoidance strategies for a community where I had limited language skills. Worse yet, if safe options were available, making or purchasing alternatives might inconvenience the cohort or my host family. Finally, I was concerned that being gluten-free could prevent me from connecting with my host family or integrating into local culture: imagine the white girl who only eats rice, seemingly turning up her nose at her homestay’s traditional meals because they are not “good enough” for her. Honestly, even as I was anxious about my health, I was terrified of how I would be perceived and how it might impact my day to day interactions.
But my anxieties quickly proved ill-founded, especially once we entered our weeklong homestays in the small Himalayn village of Majkhali where I lived with a wonderful old woman named Kaki Ji. Cut to Kaki Ji’s kitchen: draped in smoke from the chapati fire and steam from fresh chai, wrapped in the scents of ginger and turmeric, my hands fumble over gray-brown millet dough as I slowly roll a small, lopsided ball in the palm of my hand. I repeatedly attempt to slap it between my palms and loosely splayed fingers in a clumsy attempt to achieve the thin, perfectly round chapati that Kaki Ji so effortlessly makes. Gluten-free chapati, or bread of any kind, is tricky to make as gluten is the primary binding agent that holds the dough together. I’ve always found baking slightly frustrating due to this basic complication: things fall apart. But Kaki Ji’s deft hands never waiver as she gently kneads the dough, separates small sections, and claps perfect circles, keeping the dough from collapsing between her fingers. She gestures for me to watch as she once again demonstrates the correct technique. Danyavaad, Ji I tell her (thank you). She parrots me (Danyavaad, Ji), a jovial smile on her face as she gently teases. I have no way to communicate to Kaki Ji that my appreciation does not apply merely to her showing me how to properly shape dough between my hands. I want to tell her how grateful I am for the time she spent making a seperate chapati dough, for her careful wiping of all the utensils--a motherly furrow imprinted on her brow--for her concern and compassion as she asks me every day, gesturing to the food: Theek Hai? (is it ok?). Her attentive and patient kindness feels strange: a stark contrast to the annoyed waiters and frustrated parents of friends back in the States.
Remarkably, being gluten-free has become an avenue to connect with those around me and delve further into Indian food traditions, rather than separating me from them. Matriarchs in every home pull me gently into their kitchens to show me their methodology--a variation on their mother’s-mother’s-father’s sister’s methodology--for sifting, kneading, and frying flour made from regional grains like finger millet. Street vendors smile knowingly when asked how their wares are made (my constant gluten-avoidance inquiry), equipped with the dynamic wisdom of generations. Their recipes and personal stories allow me to better understand the evolution of food in India. Grains like finger millet become more scarce in favor of dominant crops like wheat, a shift that is also majorly impacting the health of communities as the vitamin rich millet crop is swapped for one with more objective caloric benefits.
Being gluten-free forces me to pay closer attention to my food. Back home, there is always a nutrition label with a neat, tidy ingredients’ list, complete with an allergen warning if the company is fully FDA compliant. Here, I am constantly thrust outside of my comfort zone and forced to stumble over broken Hinglish (Hindi-English) as I listen to, watch, and consume local tradition. Yet, somehow, the region beyond my comfort zone has become incredibly comfortable: a space where everything is made pyarse (with love), where my missteps in both speaking and doing are forgiven and forgotten in the joy of creating.
Further, I have found that the need to understand Indian food has also shifted my relationship with other elements of Indian life. Once a passive consumer, I am starting to understand and interact more with a variety of products, as well as the people who make them. A clay cup contains a human story, sculpted into the fine mud ripples. A scarf holds the dust of a village road tightly between the warp and weft. Each morsel of food is full of complex history and simple compassion. My own understanding of the complexities in traditional production is miniscule and fragmented at best, but the confidence I have gained from my explorations of food motivates me to continually investigate, question, and--most importantly--savor whenever I can.
How do I interpret my relationship with meat?
“Wait, where’s the meat?” I stared at the leatherbound white menu in my hands, searching for even the slightest sign of chicken as the group sat down for lunch at Millets of Mewar. It was only our third day in Udaipur, and Sarah and Neerav had told us that Millets, a stylish, three-story restaurant in the heart of the old city, was one of the best restaurants in town. But upon a quick perusal of their wide ranging menu, I began to have my doubts. There were all sorts of dishes, both Indian and international, but not a single one had any sort of animal protein. I looked at Sijbren and Max, who also appeared to be having a similar crisis in their heads, and we unanimously let out quiet groans of dissatisfaction. It had already been almost a week, and I had yet to eat any meat in India; I thought that a more formal restaurant like Millets might be my saving grace, but I was wrong. After a few complaints on my part and some strong responses from the group’s vegetarians, I finally placed my order for butter paneer and roti. At that time, I did not realize how such small and seemingly meaningless experiences set the foundation for a much deeper dialogue regarding meat and the role it played in our lives and those of others.
Following that first week, after some of the meat cravings had finally subsided or been satiated with the occasional chicken and mutton dish, our group discussions regarding meat shifted beyond the divisive “Meat Gang” vs. “Veg Squad” arguments that had initially taken place. Whereas our first conversations had been nothing but criticizing each other’s choices of food without any sort of substantive argument, the following days and weeks of group discussion saw us delivering significant scientific, political, and philosophical dictums as to why one diet could be more beneficial and sustainable than the other. Max presented his own take on evolutionary patterns that showed early humans had depended on animal products to survive, while Anna explained the vast carbon footprint of the meat industry and its ever growing role in climate change. Dani showed us the health and environmental benefits of a vegan diet and how it could be easily coupled with any lifestyle, and Sydney brought up practices of various indeginous groups targeted at respecting animals by utilizing every element (hide, bone, etc), not just the meat. Pia, Sijbren, Tejas, and I spent long nights at the Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics discussing the ethics of eating meat, debating over our personal religious beliefs regarding animals. What role are animals supposed to play in the lives of human beings? I would say that we as humans must be stewards of nature, a stewardship that is directly related to our own dependance on nature and necessity to use it for our own well being in a responsible fashion. But decreasing my meat consumption and learning about the impact that meat as both a lifestyle and industry has on nature has made me question some of these preexisting notions.
Despite our perspectives on meat’s impact on the world, it was not until the group finally arrived in Udaipur that we all slowly began to realize some of the implications that meat had for Indian society. Take for example Sydney’s homestay family, which, in spite of being non-vegetarian (non-veg for short), still cooked any and all meat products outside of the family kitchen. Even my own homestay, which I had been told was hardcore non-veg, opted for vegetarian meals more often than not. We wondered why, despite the fact that, according to the 2006 Hindu-CNN-IBN Survey, a whopping 71% of all Indians consider themselves non-veg, nearly all the restaurants we visited had a severe lack of non-veg options in comparison to the veg counterparts?
To answer a question even as simple as this, one must have at least some understanding of the nuances of Indian culture, namely those having to do with diet. Where I come from, the idea of eating eggs is seldom associated with a non-veg diet. But in India, finding eggs in certain restaurants became an unexpected challenge. And as I mentioned earlier, even non-veg families can have strict rules or limitations when eating meat. The choices people make regarding whether or not they eat meat or how they interact with meat become part of a greater personal identity that I had not been aware of until I finally settled down and observed the interactions taking place around me.
This was made most clear on a starry Tuesday night at Anna’s homestay, where I had been invited to dinner by her homestay sister-in-law and two homestay sisters. I sat on the roof of their home, talking with Daku and Benu about the differences between our carnivorous diets.
“Rabbit! How can you eat rabbits? That is so terrible!”
Ten-year-old Benu, who was proudly non-veg, exclaimed in shock as I gave her a rundown on some of my favorite meat dishes. Despite the fact that we both knew how to enjoy our meat, there were some clear contrasts between what we believed could be eaten.
“I would never eat rabbits, pigs, or sheep. Pigs are gross! And rabbits and sheep do not eat meat so they should not be eaten. Especially sheep because we can get clothes from them.”
That final sentence from Benu struck me. Here I was not ever really thinking how my food choices could have any impact on anyone other than myself. But this ten year old girl, whether she was aware of it or not, was making her decisions with full consideration of the links between ourselves and our ecosystem. This is something that I have observed from many people in India: a greater awareness of the impact organisms all have on each other. A small thing like choosing not to eat an animal like a sheep promotes the idea that animals are inherently necessary to our own lives, and that eating certain animals without much thought can actually hurt us and others in the long run.
I love meat. I have become more aware of the nuances surrounding meat and have learned a great deal about its harmful effects, but I am nowhere near stopping my consumption of it. I cannot go without it.
But now, I also get why certain people can. Why there are so many people who make it a life choice to leave meat behind and find pleasure in other, equally as enjoyable (or so they say) forms of food. I was so quick to poke fun at certain diets because I did not understand the importance that a diet can have on a person’s identity and belief system.
There is really no way to get around that fact, something I have found myself trying to do in certain occasions in hopes of justifying certain aspects of my diet. I know I will not change what I eat in the near future, but my hope is to keep gaining knowledge and further develop my thoughts on meat and food in general. I was recently watching a Netflix series while lying in bed late at night, and the title of a certain episode struck me: All is One, One is All. In these first three months I have learned the truth of this phrase. We are part of a large web of connections that includes ourselves and what we eat. Without learning more about these connections, we can never truly understand our impact and our responsibility to nature and others. This applies to all aspects of food, not just meat. But as a proud non-veg, I can say for sure that shifting our perspective in a manner similar to Hindu culture could be key towards developing a greater sense of respect and appreciation for our food.
How does water impact our interpersonal relationships?
By Pia DiCenzo
“No, no, no,” Kaki Ji, my Majkhali homestay mother, would exclaim as my inept hands fumbled with the water, the soap, and the metal plate. I would watch with intention as she, once again, demonstrated how to clean our dishes. The more times the plate was taken out of my hands to watch her skillfully manipulate the water, the more I began to consider the human relationship with water and with food. Growing food, food preparation, cleaning dishes, washing your hands—all ways that water, food, and humans interact. These interactions, while intuitively known, have been highlighted by my time spent in India so far. Through simple observation of the efficiency with which my homestay moms have handled water, practice emulating that same skill, and conversations (or hand motions and broken Hindi) had while washing the dishes, I have begun to contemplate the deeper significance that water and dishwashing has with people and with meal time.
The first time I watched my homestay mother in Majkhali wash our dinner plates, I stared in awe, similar to when I looked upon the Himalayas for the first time. Kaki Ji did not have running water, but she had the skill and experience of her hands. She would toss the water from one side of the plate to the other, catching it in her hands, turning it over, and hardly losing a drop to the stone courtyard. I now understood why she first refused when I stammered madad and pointed to the dirty plates—my attempt to offer help. I could not just wash the dishes, I first had to learn how. Kaki Ji attempted to teach me in five days a command of the water that I did not know even existed for 18 years. My Udaipur homestay mother, Charu Ji, also demonstrates a similar skillfulness with water. Mixing water into dough, cleaning pots and thalis, she uses her hands to guide the water in a way that appears instinctual for her, but is an art to me. It is almost as if there is an unspoken agreement of mutual respect between my homestay mothers and the water they use.
As I attempt to turn my plates and rub the water and soap in as fluid a motion as Kaki Ji, I also attempt to understand the greater significance of this relationship. Rather than water being a tool used to prepare meals and clean, it is a partner. A symbiotic relationship, where the water works with my homestay mothers in exchange for conservation, as my mothers display the utmost water efficient techniques. But where did this symbiosis begin? As I observe Kaki Ji collect and bring all the water she needs up the winding mountain path, I recognize that she understands where her water comes from, knows how it gets to her, and knows exactly how much she uses. Seemingly as a result, a deeper appreciation for the water she uses is fostered. Watching my homestay sister manipulate water in the same way, this appreciation appears to be passed down through generations, much like a family recipe.
My chances to build my appreciation for water and improve upon the efficiency of my dish-washing skills are never scarce, as dish-washing is just as much a part of the meal process as cooking roti. I have observed that water not only assists in growing, washing, and cooking food, but that it helps grow people, relationships, and connections as well. I did not recognize it at first, but my attempt to build a relationship with water through dish-washing has helped develop relationships with my homestay moms. Hovering over the sink until my homestay mother finally let me wash my own plate, we talk of education, gender roles, and her favorite sarees. I listen to her telling me to approach each day with zeal as she flips the water on and off. She tells me the story of Diwali as I scrub my lunch tiffin. Conversations do not end after leaving the dinner table. Often times that’s when they are just beginning.
Growing up, dish-washing was a chore. Many times the prospect of washing dishes was the reason why I chose not to make those chocolate chip cookies I’d been thinking about all day. Slowly I have been learning that in my homestay family, cleaning the pots, the plates, and the bowls is not always a chore, but an avenue to create bonds with one another, to learn, and to appreciate. Even though the washing is occasionally done in silence while I struggle to gain the respect of water, it is still time spent together, and that is valuable. Regardless, dinner is never done until the plates are put away.
What is the relationship between the cook, consumer, and khana?
By Tejas Gupta
I’m sorry to everyone in India, but you can’t find the best Indian food here in Hindustan. You’ll have to go all the way to New Jersey—no, not Edison—but to my mom’s kitchen. Ask anyone in India and they will tell you the same: the best Indian food is found in their Amma’s house. Sometimes my friends ask me how I’m not sick of eating the same kind of food for my entire life. How can I explain to them that potent relationship between Indian food and Indian people—one filled with love, connection, and burnt tongues?
Food is incorporated in all situations in India. From family, to poverty and class, to religion and God, to thousands-of-years of changing culture, food is omnipresent. The first question that any family member asks me when we talk on the phone is khana teek se mil ra hein? (Are you getting good food?) Concern is expressed through food. Healthiness is an eating contest—the more servings you pile on your thali, the healthier you are. In. the U.S., being fat is shamed but the word for fat in Hindi—“मोटा”—also means in good health. Before a puja, I offer food to the Gods so they will hear my prathanas.
Coming to Bridge Year India, the food was one of the biggest draws. But I was apprehensive—I knew nothing could compare to my mom’s meals. But through the various homes I ate in, I saw the same love and care that my mother expresses through her cooking. Sitting on my bed in Dharamshala, each piece of toast foisted on my by Amala, my Tibeten homestay (grand)mother, strengthened our connection despite our short week-long stay. Sitting on the stone floor in the rock-carved kitchen in Majkhali, I felt at home in a setting that could not be more different than the New Jersey suburbs; the warmth of dal that Mamta Deviji, my homestay mother there, continued to pile on my thali brought me back to the dal I ate through the cold Jersey winters.
I didn’t find that connection everywhere in India though. Trapezing across North India eating in roadside dhabas, cafés on mountain precipices, rooftop restaurants, and five-star hotels, I have discovered a sliding scale of connectedness—and unsurprisingly it’s inversely correlated with expense. The increase in cost further removes me from the cook, further removes emotion from food. When we ate at fancy restaurants, I could not taste the sweat of the cook standing over an open flame, just the excess amount of butter in the delicious dal makhani, and somehow, that left a bad taste in my mouth. I forgot to appreciate the food on my tongue, the physical connection to my culture and family.
This scale made me understand that food is not just another part of Indian culture to me but a manifestation, an embodiment, of my feelings toward my culture. Eating Indian food comforted me because every step of the process emphasized the millenium-long connection I shared with billions of those past, present, and future. The recipes passed down for generations represented the important oral tradition. The variety of dishes represented the fusion and accepting mindset of this land by welcoming and incorporating all cultures and beliefs. The vegetarian focus represented my faith and personal beliefs. The physical ingredients represented both the land and livestock. The techniques I saw from kitchen to kitchen represented the diversity and ingenuity of people to use what they had. One thali connected all these ideas. I learned of the ability to infuse both love, tradition, and spice in food, from its preparation to the last bite.
Before coming to India, I hadn’t been able to fully realize that ability because I had never really cooked Indian food. I had never tried to mix in hints of compassion in chole or add sprinkles of fiery emotion through garam masala. But our last night in Majkhali changed that, as we cooked a feast alongside our various homestay mothers. I attempted to infuse my gratitude through the puris I made and the aloos I peeled. Being able to serve my homestay family not only food but the appreciation for welcoming me into their home was like delivering them a long-awaited hug.
Eating that same food later in the night, I felt the best I had ever felt in this entire trip. Not just because the paneer, puri, aloo, and buttery smooth halwa was just like my mom’s Diwali feast, but because I was able to better grasp the effort put in to make others feel at home no matter where they are, the attempts to assuage worry and concern through a home-cooked meal, the desire to warm the heart and soul through spice. I was able to understand that relationship between folk and food.
What can food teach us about local cultures?
India's multiculturalism is evident in its fashions, music styles, religious practices, and especially its food.
Our first lunch in Delhi was a thali, served canteen style at a local eatery. Thali is a balanced meal popular throughout India, featuring unlimited (although food waste is strongly and rightfully discouraged) portions of the daal, subjee, and curry of the day, served with one's preference of chawal or roti. As I was recovering from a stomach bug, I was overly cautious about what I ate, taking tiny bites. My caution is transforming into rational choices as I grow in understanding of local food safety protocols.
In accordance with my growing confidence in my stomach's ability to handle Indian food, I became more adventurous in exploring local foods in the various regions we visited during orientation. In Dharamsala, we frequented Tibet Kitchen, a restaurant famous for its Momos, which are fried or steamed dumplings stuffed with veggies, meat, or a combination of the two. It was here that the lines of #VegTeam and #MeatGang were formed, as our group established a family style food culture that would carry into our future meals. Tibetan food, while often vegetarian, isn't always, and in addition to Momos, Sydney and I enjoyed glass noodles, Ginger Lemon Honey Tea, and Japanese food (sushi, miso soup, and an omelette, which in this context meant deliciously spiced rice encased in a fried egg), with our homestay mom. Dharamsala introduced us to the variety of foods available here in India. Our visit also introduced the idea that there may not be a quintessentially Indian diet. Many of the young people of Tibetan ancestry we met there had been born in Dharamsala, and therefore assumed elements of both Tibetan and regional north Indian food culture.
Majkhali was the first place where we had home-cooked seasonal Indian food, and we got to know local crops quite well. Karela (bitter gourd), tindora (a green gourd), and soybeans made some of their first appearances. Breakfast included Aloo Paratha and Chole Bhature, while lunch was often rice and beans, and dinner was the Subjee of the Day and chapati. The foods we had in Majkhali were some of the first words committed to my Hindi lexicon. These and other words have helped me establish connections as we settle into Udaipur.
Recently, a coworker at Jatan Sansthan (Jatan), the NGO I am volunteering with, asked me what I had for lunch.
“Temutter ka daal,” I answered back.
“Ooh, Hindi bolti he,” she answered back with a smile.
As we shared the food in our tiffins amongst ourselves and other Jatan coworkers, an ease washed over the conversation. My coworkers knew that I couldn’t understand everything they were saying, but in speaking even the smallest bit of Hindi, I was trying to communicate to them that I am committed to not only occupying their space, time, and resources, but to sharing and learning from them as much as I can.
In a previous visit to Hyderabad, I tried lots of South Indian foods. This trip gave me a slight leg up in identifying the South Indian foods we've tried so far, but with most dishes, I experienced them for the first time along with the group. The one exception is Biryani, which Hyderabad is famous for. Biryani is a rice and vegetable dish that can be made non-veg with the addition of eggs or meat.
In Jaipur, we attended a concert featuring the poetry of Kabir, a revered poet and saint. The concert was hosted by a local university, which had an adjoining canteen. As the canteen was a small food joint, options were limited, but Biryani was featured prominently on the menu.
"What's Egg Biryani?" Fernando asked quizzically.
"It's literally Biryani with boiled eggs in it," I said with a sarcastic smile.
"How do you know?"
"Um, Hyderabad.” I said jokingly, a continuation of a joke that my trip to Hyderabad made me a South Indian cuisine expert.
Unconvinced, Fernando took to Googling Egg Biryani for himself. When GoogleBaba produced the same result I did, I smirked, (a tad smugly I'll admit), and got back to my Dosa.
Here in Udaipur, we are experiencing local fruits for the first time. Sitaphal (custard apple) and amrud (guava), are new favorites. The bananas, if one is lucky, have a warming sweetness. Food is one of the most basic expressions of culture. Here in India, it is an expression of multiculturalism and family. In my Udaipur honestly family, our diet is seasonal, with bangun (eggplant) served if it’s available, and paalak (spinach) when colder weather comes. On one of my first days with my family, I helped my host mom prepare upma, a savory cornmeal dish quite similar to a Malian meal I prepare with my stepmom in New Jersey. Experiencing the variety of foods available here has been a reminder of the variety I have and have yet to experience. If one thing about food stays constant, it'll be that food is always changing, and that even in one country, there will always be more to try.
Dhanvantari is the Hindu god of Ayurvedic medicine. He is said to have risen from an ocean of milk, carrying the nectar of immortality in his four arms. Even in its origin, Ayurveda blurs the line between food, healing and religion.
Ayurveda has quietly encroached on our experience of India. To celebrate the festival of Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles in Hinduism, Neerav gave us a box of barfi to share. I was a little tentative. There seemed to be aluminium foil sticking to the top of the grainy little squares. But everyone was enjoying them, so I started in. They were delicate and delicious, rich with the flavour of fig. What I thought was aluminium foil, was actually a thin layer of silver. “Eating silver strengthens the body, while gold strengthens the mind,” Vishal Ji, our guide and friend of the program, explained to me later as we explored Udaipur. At the time, this was an unfamiliar concept and represented a distinct way of viewing food and its relationship with our body.
A month later, I sat for the first time with my host family, awkwardly alternating between my cup of chai and my water bottle. A deep concern was written on my homestay father’s face. “Don’t drink water and Chai together…it is bad for your stomach fire!” I put down my water bottle, a little exasperated. By this point, I sort of knew what he meant by “stomach fire.” It was part of this Ayurvedic view of the body. Ayurveda states that our bodies are inherently connected to the outside world, nature and the elements. Health exists when there is a balance between three fundamental bodily doshas - Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Kapha, related to blood-flow, is associated with water. Vata, related to the nervous system, is associated with air. Hence, Pitta, which is related to the digestive system and associated with fire, was this “stomach fire” that my homestay father was worried about. Ayurveda seeks the balance of these bodily elements but life choices related to exercise, relationships and diet can create imbalances, which cause sickness.
I see Ayurveda as a protoscience, a stepping stone towards our modern understanding of the body. For example, this “stomach fire” seems to be a representation of stomach acid and its role in digestion. Ayurveda is a symbolic, vivid way to conceptualize the internal mechanisms of the human body and to describe a path to balance. This ancient knowledge system still holds value in modern everyday life. That’s why I chose to work for Jagran Jan Vikas Samiti an NGO that supports Gunis, practitioners of Ayurvedic and herbal medicine in rural Rajasthan. In these rural villages, people often reach out to Gunis. Gunis can help alleviate everyday health issues through herbal medicine, traditional physiotherapy and Ayurvedic treatment.
It was a conversation I had with Fernando, another Bridge Year student, that got me thinking about Ayurveda and food. Coming back from a check-up at the hospital, we jokingly told each other after, “we’re on medicine so we can eat whatever we want.’ In this mindset, medicine is the be all and end all of health. Ayurveda on the other hand sees it as one’s own duty to maintain health through balanced daily choices. It recognizes that our habits will come to haunt us down the line. We need to think about what we eat and constantly question how it will affect our internal equilibrium. As I've become more conscious of my habits, as I see myself through the eyes of my homestay family, this self-observation has become part of a much larger internal paradigm shift for me. Throughout my experience in India so far, whether through Ayurveda, Vegetarianism, Meditation and Buddhist Philosophy, I’ve been pushed to become conscious of my own western-consumption mindset — I eat, buy, consume whatever feels right in the moment. This self-recognition, I believe, is the first step in a changing mindset.
We are not sure yet, but we are excited to find out! It’s sure to be delicious!
Glossary: Placed in alphabetical order
Baba/ GoogleBaba: A well-respected figure, most often an ascetic in Hindu and Sikh religious traditions. Google is often referred to as “Google Baba” for its seemingly unmatched wisdom.
Barfi: a dense milk-based sweet with many varieties.
Chai: Contrary to popular western belief, chai literally means tea, what we consider ‘chai’ in the west is called ‘masala chai’ in India, which means spice tea and is made with milk
Chai-Wallah: A chai vendor
Chole: An Indian chickpea dish
Dal Makhani: A lentil dish with lots of butter
Dosa: A light, savory pancake-like South Indian dish, made from chickpea flour and often served stuffed with vegetables. Dosa is a popular breakfast dish, but can also be eaten at any time of the day.
Dupatta: A lightweight scarf draped across the shoulders and chest, worn for modesty
Edison: A town in New Jersey half-an-hour from Tejas's house and Princeton that is a haven of Indians and Indian-food lovers in the Western hemisphere, also the largest and most diverse South Asian hub in the United States (see Oak Tree Road)
Garam Masala: A mixture of Indian spices
Halwa: A flour-based sugary sweet pudding-like food
"Hindi bolti he": "She speaks Hindi"
Karela: bitter gourd
Paneer: Cottage cheese
Puja: A Hindu prayer ritual
Puri: A puffy, deep-fried bread
Roti: thin circular bread slices that are served with lunch and dinner. Also known as chapati.
Thali: A metal plate on which Indian food is served, or the meal itself
Tindora: Green gourd
"Temutter ka daal": Daal with tomatoes