22 May 2009

What am I eating?

Heading out into Jhabhua district, a part of India most Delhi-ites would not venture to, I expected lots of adventure, especially from a culinary point of view. Sensibly armed with a first aid kit, bottled pani (water) and a stash of gluten free snacks I travelled on an expectant stomach.

Catching the late train from Delhi after supper at home, I awoke to my fellow passengers eating breakfast picnics of homemade roti, pickles and cold dal. Kindly the couple opposite offered to share some with me, but having Coeliac Disease I had to decline – many times. Somehow I missed the breakfast served on the train, probably because I was anxious about missing my stop and watched out the window for the extra hour we were delayed. I never miss breakfast – but I was desperate not to miss my station and end up in Bombay!

The first meal of the day came in the form of a homemade curry after the meeting at the hospital – and it was good. Don’t know what it was, but it was goooood, and not just because I was starving hungry! After washing up our own thali (flat stainless steel plate) in the yard we headed off to the countryside for visits to Nutrition centres and tribal villages.

But, before we even left the town of Jhabhua, the team suggested a smoothie at their favourite roadside stall to send us on our way fully refreshed. Satisfying my mango addiction, I ordered a mango smoothie – mango blended with crushed ice – served in a glass handled tankard. We sat in the shade as the others gossiped with the locals and I gently perspired in the 45degree (in the shade) heat.

Armed with more bottled water, and the team fully refreshed, we set off onto the dusty roads, bouncing in the jeep with all the windows down. No air conditioning here... just natural ventilation. About half way through the trip in a remote but lively town, we stopped for more refreshments (on account of how much we were sweating – more than I thought was ever possible!) and of course some snacks.

Something I have learnt living in India so far is that Indians love to eat. They are all foodies – in the sense like me, they love to eat and are constantly thinking about what to eat next - I was in good company. So heading to the special vendor selling fried bread snacks – not gluten free – these were kept on the dashboard until we reached the other side of town. Apparently, they could not be eaten without the complimentary besan (chickpea flour) coated chillies, which were gluten free!

Tucking into the crunchy, fiery whole green chillies, my lips continued to tingle for most of the journey. But it was all in aid of building my tolerance of chilli. I am getting rather hardcore now.

After driving to remote villages as the sun was setting, and one more stop for a glutinous snack refill, Cait and I were dropped off at the hotel. Supper consisted of many common Indian dishes in rather unfamiliar forms – it was an unremarkable but functional meal after an totally incredible day.

The next morning for breakfast I ordered masala chai (spiced tea made with rich whole milk from the Holy Cow) and an omelette which strangely came wrapped around 2 slices of toast. Doh! A non gluten free omelette? That is a first! So, filling up on full fat masala chai instead, we head off this time into the countryside for a Tribal Wedding. A local employee of Real Medicine Foundation in Jhabhua was to be married and the team and I had been invited to celebrate.

With plenty of dancing, ceremonies and drinking (a local spirit made from flowers) the eating came at the end of the celebrations in the form of a goat curry with rice. As we watched the meal be prepared in a rather “rustic” way, I contemplated refusing this offer on grounds of hygiene. But when the big event came, we were right in the middle of the sitting queue that formed around us, and were absorbed into the crowd and given waxy plates to fold into cones.

Western girls eating tribal food gave the villagers a great photo opportunity (taking pictures with their very snazzy mobile phones). Cait and I tucked in not wanting to appear rude to the chefs and more importantly not to waste precious food in an area rife with malnutrition. But it was good. Really good! Big pieces of fire roasted goat and sticky rice we could eat with our fingers. Risking the hygiene levels and rustic kitchen approach was really worth it - and no sign of Delhi Belly thankfully.

But the food adventures didn’t stop there. Returning to Delhi we had time to kill at Meghnegarh Station, and filled it with another mango smoothie. Once on the platform, just in case we were too late for dinner we snacked on some pounded yellow rice laced with pomegranate seeds, lentils, fresh coriander and spices. No idea what it was called, but it was good. Gluten free snacks abound in this country.

On the train we secured the last of the supper trays – a paltry thin vegetable and lentil soup – but enough to last me till breakfast of an omelette and masala chai – without the bread this time.
So, the lessons that all this unknown food taught me is how rich India is in gluten free food and when you eat like a local you eat really well, even if you don’t know what it is.


H.Peter said...

Congrats on your adventurous side....brave, very brave.

We dropped India from my company's line up a couple of years ago, but I am starting to miss the chaos in my business dealings over there.

Not to mention the adventures in food. Delhi belly and all.

Simply...Gluten-free said...

What a beautiful post! I feel I have traveled with you. Is there any chance you can enter something in an event I am hosting for June? I would love to have you included. Check it out http://simplygluten-free.blogspot.com/2009/05/go-ahead-honey-its-gluten-free-june.html

Rahul said...

Good that you are discovering India in the best way possible. I am quite amused by the way you have described the shade rather the the heat which does drain even us. Did you get some figs too...