“You have to taste a culture to understand it.”- Deborah Cater
It’s true that before coming to India in 2014, my knowledge of “Indian” food was basically limited to chicken tikka masala, something not very common in actual India. But, since then, I have been invited into countless Indian households across India, served hundreds of rotis, plates of rice and daal, and have been persuaded to eat more gulab jamuns than I care to admit. Food in India is not merely sustenance, but is an integral part of celebrating festivals, at times is the center of political debates, and most importantly is a cultural way of demonstrating immense hospitality and foster deep conversations. Throughout my time in India, “khana khao” or “oota bekka” (meaning eat this! in Hindi and Kannada) and the overt willingness of people to feed you—often to the point of saturation—has become a defining theme.
Some of my elementary knowledge about food in India came from Anthony Bourdain, from
Parts Unknown, a popular American TV show. It just so happened that the season premiere showcasing Punjab coincided with my move there. While this episode introduced me to many different types of food I would soon be encountering such as dal makhani, garlic naan, and butter chicken, the most striking part was the mass quantity of food produced each day at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. Langar, a tenet of Sikhism (a prominent religion in North India) is a meal served at Gurdwaras (Sikh Temples) around the world. An integral part of the religion, it’s the idea that people can come eat for free at their common canteen irrespective of their faith or background. But, the Golden Temple is special- as each day roughly 50,000 people are served and the number can reach 100,000 on holidays! There’s no timetable, volunteers generally show up and often food is donated. Thanks to a friend living in Amritsar, I was able to tour the kitchen and even make rotis with some aunties. This was one of my first exposures to the cultural significance of food and hospitality in India.
Upon moving to South India, I was introduced to the importance of South Indian breakfast, which is not always prevalent in the north. In fact, the first question I’m usually asked is “tindi ayaatu?”- meaning “Have you had your breakfast?” Dosa and idly are my common
options, usually at Sandini’s, a hotel near work (not to be confused with hotels where one sleeps). Hotels is an Indianism which has in my imagination led to countless jetlagged tourists wandering into streetside restaurants and leaving disappointed while expecting accommodation. These morning jaunts are typically accompanied by Deepa, my co-fellow, or our interns where we catch up on recent events. Our breakfast is followed by the unmistakable filter coffee, a hallmark of south India served by the cheerful Margaret auntie at our office. Or, if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll revert to my staple north Indian drink of chai, preferably with more ginger and less sugar to provide a tangy kick.
Chai and coffee are particularly prominent drinks and a refusal may lead to a broken relationship, particularly with prospective employers, community leaders and coworkers. Thus, the intake of said drinks can reach 5–6 cups per day and is an integral part of most working spheres across the country.
The typical workday lunch, often shared with my coworkers, is a 60 rupee thali. Thali, a smattering of small doses of curries and curd, served with a large portion of kerala red rice- acclaimed by my many Malayali coworkers as very healthy. Served on a banana leaf, eating thali at Thalessary is an experience in itself. As it is a small five table restaurant, once seated, perhaps you’ll get to sit next to your friends, otherwise you’ll squeeze in wherever there is space. This close proximity with strangers is something I have grown accustomed to. Once you fold the banana leaf, you are expected to jump up and give up your seat to someone who’s waiting.
At special events including festivals and weddings, food serves as an integral part of bonding and fellowship. To some, Pulao and Raita may be a simple rice dish paired with a liquefied yogurt, but to me it symbolizes our students’ graduation. Prepared in a massive bowl that could hold multiple small children, it’s plopped on our plates following the distribution of graduation certificates each quarter following our three-month training. This dish is generally gobbled up utilizing one’s hands, an integral skill engrained in South India, one that I embarrassingly have yet to master. On particularly special occasions, we’ll even eat non-veg, usually chicken, much to the dismay of my vegetarian coworkers, countered by the immense excitement of my non-vegetarian ones. Juice, particularly Maaza Mango, can be found at our meetings and capacity building trainings served alongside samosas, the immensely sugary and deep fried combo considered a treat after bouts of long discussions. Birthdays and farewells in the office tend to be everyone’s favorite—as accompanying them is Amma’s cake, a rich blend of gooey chocolate. Often, these special occasions begin with the cake cutting and move on to the cake being fed to the birthday person by their friends, family, or coworkers.
To outsiders, food in India is often just called curry. But, those who are fortunate enough to experience India, can begin to understand the deeper cultural significance and immense amount of variety in spice and ingredients. However, one thing remains true throughout this country- hospitality and sacrifice. After all, there’s a saying in Sanskrit- “atithi devo bhava”- our guests- we treat them as we would God.