Food. It was pretty much inevitable. I mean, I already have a bad stomach on the best of days. I’m lactose intolerant, very sensitive to greasy foods, and usually cook meals for myself. In hindsight, the real mistake was that I started getting cocky. Before coming to India it seemed that everyone I knew had either been to India, known someone who’d traveled to India or watched the No Reservations episode where Anthony Bourdain goes to India and felt themselves an expert on the gastrointestinal perils of Indian cuisine. “My brother lost 30lbs in one week!”, one friend told me. Seeing as how I gained the freshman 15 over my intern year, this prospect didn’t seem too terrible, certainly better than trying to run off all those extra pounds! But still I took all the necessary precautions. I went to travel clinic to stock up on cipro in addition to my malaria pills. I bought boxes of Pepto-Bismol, imodium and took all my favorite homeopathic remedies to boot (ginger tea is a life saver!). And then, the moment of truth.
The first few meals in India, I savored the delicious new flavors, trying to portion control unsuccessfully, and then waited anxiously for the next few hours, pepto-bismol on my person 24/7. And nothing. Time and again I ate strange new (delicious) things fully expecting the worst, and my stomach turned out to be a rock star! I still followed common sense advice, no fresh fruits or veggies, only bottled water, but other than that I was ready to try anything. We became so excited with the delight of new foods that we even scoffed at the spice level, thinking ourselves ready to eat like the natives. Up the spice level!, we told Dr. Yadavalli. Sambar, dosa, uttapam, curries, we ate it all with increasing fervor. We were so enthralled with the new cuisine that we even ate at the same restaurant, Chutney’s, THREE TIMES in TWO DAYS. The food was unlike any other cuisine I had had before, even different from Indian food I was accustomed to in the US (Thursday noon conference lunch has NOTHING on this!). I was giddy with the power of an invincible stomach, I was so cocky I even considering eating roadside haleem.
And then, as was inevitable, India put me in my place. I’m actually not sure which meal was the culprit. Hospital cafeteria food, even in the US, could put someone in the ICU. Eating lunch in the cafeteria of an NGO-run hospital was definitely not the smartest. Eating about a pound of crazy spicy, crazy greasy Chinese food for dinner was certainly not the way to follow it up. Either way, by bedtime I was living the nightmare, creating my own personal horror story to wield in a foreboding manner at the next adventurous soul daring to brave Indian cuisine. I spent all of the next day in bed subsisting on plain white rice and pepto while my colleagues continued eating our delicious homecooked meals, washing it down with a cool, refreshing Kingfisher beer. (Also, I finished season 2 of Homeland which blew my mind, let’s discuss that some more. What is Carrie thinking? And Saul is just the man, right? And allow me to blow your mind for just one second. Did you know that actor-Mandy Patinkin- is Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride?! Tell me you’ve seen the Princess Bride.)
(Feeding my love for new, exotic-flavored snack foods)
I’ve been on the mend ever since, slowly working my way back to baseline. In the meantime, several others in the party also seem to be paying the price for our hubris. We have respectfully asked that the spice level be returned to “novice”. The dinner table is now a war zone, spicy egg curry vs pepto, tums and Imodium. I still love the food. I am already developing a longing for the food which I know will be felt acutely and often back in the States. I can already see my friends rolling their eyes as I expound the virtues of true Southern Indian cuisine while making snide remarks about American Indian cuisine and its inability to recognize a good curry even if it hit you in the face. But I learned a valuable lesson, a lesson in humility, and it’s certainly one I will remember for a long time, or at least until the next time I’m really hungry and someone puts something yummy in front of me.
And to close, a haiku inspired by the food in India:
Sambar, poori, dosa, chai
Veg, now in 6 sites