I can safely say I’ve been a foodie my whole life. I’ve also been an avid traveler since I moved to Paris after college to teach English at a culinary school. Eating is basically my favorite way of experiencing other cultures — so throughout my twenties, I delighted in munching my way across France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy.
Preparing for my first trip to India, though, I realized how thoroughly unprepared I was to experience the country through her cuisine. I knew it would involve many unfamiliar ingredients, novel spices, and unusual combinations. It helped that my fiancé is Indian — and it also helped that he is a great cook. He gently introduced me to food beyond the standard fare of tikka masalas and the samosas that one typically finds in Indian restaurants tailored to American tastes.
A few weeks before we left, he confiscated my utensils and made me practice eating rice using only my hands — like many Indians do at home. I learned to press food between my thumb and fingers and lift it in a scooping motion in the general direction of my mouth. By the time we had to leave for India, I had sort of gotten the hang of it. At first I found the whole process cumbersome and messy. Weren’t forks invented to circumvent all this? But then I started to realize how pleasurable it was not just to taste and smell food, but to feel it. My fiancé, a neuroscientist, told me that this is called multisensory integration.
Arriving in India, our first stop was my fiancé’s family home in Mumbai. There we were treated to a parade of home-cooked Maharashtrian specialties. There were potato patties smothered in lentil stew, topped with sweet and spicy chutneys. There were stuffed baby eggplants floating in curry sauce. There was flatbread filled with fenugreek leaves. I learned that the food of my fiancé’s childhood is a mixture of cooking styles inherited from his father’s family, his mother’s family, and the neighbors in their building with whom they swapped recipes. This is how many Indian families develop a unique blend of techniques and traditions that are specific to their household.
One evening I watched my fiancé’s mother deftly flipping the handmade rotis she had just rolled out over the open flame of the gas burner, a process which cooked them to the perfect texture of soft-yet-crispy. I glanced out the window of the apartment’s kitchen window. Across the courtyard, I saw a vertical row of kitchen windows, all filled with women and families busily preparing dinner. Each one stacked atop the other, cooking their own unique take on Indian dishes.
After Mumbai, our next stop was Vrindavan, the birthplace of the deity Krishna, and city of divine love. We stayed at an ashram that had its own fruit, vegetable, and herb garden as well as a cow sanctuary. The ashram nourished the souls and stomachs of people young and old who came to study there from around the world. In the cool mornings, we rose early to crowd around the wood-fired stove while we drank ginger tea and feasted on bananas or papayas from the garden. Once we were fully awake and warm, we headed off to hear the guru’s lectures. After class, the ashram served a full Indian meal for lunch: a dal (lentil stew), a subzi (a vegetable preparation), roti, and rice – plus some sweet for dessert. The particular lentil, vegetable, and sweet rotated daily, but the formula remained the same. Here my finger-fork skills finally came in handy. Tear the roti using forefinger and thumb. Grab a piece of vegetable between the roti piece. Dunk in lentil stew. Eat and repeat.
The food we ate at the ashram was healthful in a way I had not known possible. It was simple yet flavorful. In the United States, so often our cuisine forces us to choose between tasty and healthy: French fries or steamed kale? Donuts or steel-cut oatmeal? The hearty food at the ashram opened my eyes to what a needless dualism this is. Indian cuisine, I learned, was developed precisely to delight the tastebuds and to promote wellness. Scientists have shown that Indian food is objectively delicious precisely because it uses such contrasting and diverse flavor components. Many of those uniquely Indian flavor components – like turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, and garlic – have been shown as having anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic properties. The low-fat, high-fiber nature of most meals makes Indian food one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. And for someone like me and my fiancé, who are passionate about making ethical consumption choices, eating a plant-based diet is easy in India – the country with the highest percentage of vegetarians in the world.
The last leg of our trip was a visit to Varanasi, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. No trip to India is complete without an overnight train ride, so this is how we journeyed to Varanasi. Twelve hours into our ride, the sun had risen and we had eaten through the snacks of nuts and chivda we had brought. My fiancé ventured out onto the platform during a stop to buy whatever was on offer from the vendors there for breakfast. I stared out the window, terrified that the train would take off without him and I’d be left stranded and hungry in this foreign land. But before the train pulled away, he returned triumphantly – in his hands, a few pieces of greasy bread wrapped in newspaper, a bowl of spicy stew, and two little cups of chai. It was the best breakfast I’d ever had.
From street food to ashram-prepared meals to homemade delicacies, my time in India was, in a way, no different from my time in any other country where I’ve traveled. It was full of new experiences that expanded my culinary repertoire and taught me the joy of that particular country’s cuisine. But my time in India was also unlike any other. It taught me how to eat with all five of my senses. It taught me how traditional recipes are passed down in families all while being continually updated, blended, and remixed. It taught me how food can be salutary for the body, mind, and soul. It taught me how even the simplest poori bhaji, wrapped in a humble newspaper, can bring unimaginable delight to a hungry American adventuring her way across the Indian countryside.
You can follow Lauren and her fiancé’s Amol’s adventures on their blog The Life of Two Minds, where they write about love, science, and spirituality.