I was supposed to go to the US for a second time for work, and disappointingly so, the project got shelved. After a few months, I got a phone call telling me that the project is pushing through, but in India.
A hundred things ran in my mind when I heard it – is it safe for me, can they tolerate a lesbian cross-dresser, how long will I stay there, can I eat their food?
I flew with Thai Airways that allowed 30kg of checked in baggage and apart from clothes and 2 pairs of shoes, I brought with me Filipino staples in packets and cans – tuna, luncheon meat, pancit canton, peanut butter, my favorite coffee, and because I was going to have my birthday there – SPAM.
I arrived in the evening of Holi – March 12. My newly-met coworkers picked me at the airport and my actions were so soft because I didn’t want my sexuality to be a topic. The following day, Monday, was still Holi so I stayed indoors and adjusted to the somewhat cold weather (which only lasted a few days since summer has begun).
Unlike my US trip where I stayed in a hotel right across our client’s office, I stayed at the company’s staff house where everyone from the company who are based in Mumbai, Bangalore or Manila, who had businesses in Gurugram (very near New Delhi) stay. We had a trusty Indian care taker who did the market and cooked Indian food. I never wanted to try their food. I was content on eating eggs and the food I brought from Manila. Until one day, out of courtesy, I tasted their Paratha – it’s like bread stuffed with (in this version, at least) potatoes and some spices. Some also stuff their paratha with cauliflower. If you’re familiar with Chapati (roti) – which at the time I wasn’t and so I didn’t know the difference – paratha is thicker because it’s multiple layers of whole wheat dough and ghee. That opened up my palate to Indian food.
Everyday he would serve me up with sunny side up eggs, their version of fried rice that he asked me to pair with curd. I was beyond surprised when the saltiness of the rice and the sourness of the curd melted in my mouth like nothing I have tasted before. My taste was plain – plain rice, fried chicken, eggs, sinigang. This, this was a pleasant surprise.
Curd, by the way, is similar to yogurt as a finished product but their process and ingredients vary. I also observed that they prepare their curd at home and rarely buy it ready-made at supermarkets. On weekends, I’d go and get my own supplies at the nearest supermarket and delight myself at how much my money can buy. And it’s 100 INR to 77 PHP at the time.
So, now I go to the office. As a coffee lover, that was almost the first thing I looked for. I got one- black and familiar, from Costa Coffee. I thought, okay I can have this coffee, and my preferred 3-in-1 which I hauled from Manila. During the break time my new friends would bring me outside the office to have some chai (tea) and they recommended I drink it straight from the small pot, hence calling it “chota (small) chai”.
Before I give you my opinion of the chai, I just want to clarify that I have had some authentic tea from China (which we got from Beijing), Japan, Thailand, and my mother’s organic Cinnamon tea. When I sipped from the clay pot though, it quickly became my favorite tea of all time. It’s got ginger, milk, some spices. But it’s not the ingredients, I’m told. It’s the hours of preparing it that gives it its taste, and the clay pot enhances that aroma and flavor. Wow!
Everyday my little culinary adventure would expand to Dal (or Dahl – soup prepared from split pulses: lentils, peas and beans), chicken momos (steamed or fried – just like siomai but with so much flavor), vegetarian sandwich and burger (I wish I can switch to that lifestyle soon), their spicy but delicious KFC chicken, and their fresh, ridiculously inexpensive fruits (pomegranate, kiwi, strawberry). And you know what they say about cultural food – it’s best tasted on the streets.
Even on fasting days, I can still get their version of french toast at the cafeteria – it’s bread, egsg, onions, spices.
My friend also taught me how to eat gol gappa (panipuri) which is a hollow, thin, deep-fried bread called puri, which you fill with flavored water (some spicy, some new versions are alcoholic), and then some potatoes, onions, chickpeas and other spices. You also have to put everything in your mouth at once, don’t bite.
One weekend, we ate a restaurant in Delhi and I first had a taste of their proper starters and mains. The first week I had home-made and pantry-sold food. But this time, it was a proper restaurant. I was too full after the starters were served. Indian tacos was surprisingly good – I’ve always liked onion but never imagined that amount of onions in one bite. The vegetarian roasted mushroom was also a treat, I wouldn’t feel deprived of meat when eating it. Kebabs are also usually part of the starters – mutton, chicken, fish, shrimp. Indians also love to eat paneer, it’s made of fresh cheese but to me tastes like tofu.
I forgot to mention that even if there are also a lot of non-vegetarians in India, they don’t usually eat pork and in this part of the country, the cow is holy so nobody dared mention beef in restaurants. So for 45 days, I was wonderfully stuck with chicken and sea food, and that spam for my birthday.
And then the main course came. Biryani is a very popular Indian food made of long grain rice (Basmati) flavored with spices (the level of spice can be adjusted to taste) and is usually layered with chicken, mutton (lamb) and fish. Chicken Tikka Masala – that orange chicken that I often mistook as Tandoori Chicken – both are flavorful and I can eat at any day. Then there’s the age-old Tandoori chicken. It’s marinated and roasted in a cyclical clay oven called Tandoor. If you’ve watched the movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey, you would see how a tandoor looks like. I may have tried more food, just didn’t know what they were. All I know is it gives the thrill, sweat, and cerebral electric waves telling me this is probably the best cuisine I would ever have in my life. Well, I will wait till I get to France but for now, Indian food holds the crown.
Oh and I haven’t even talked about the sweets. So going to India I expected to lose weight because I assumed I won’t like their food. But of course the contrary happened. In India, sweets aren’t just for desserts. Any festival has it, even marriage proposals have sweets. My boss’ boss would sometimes carry boxes of my favorite kalakand from Delhi to Manila, which my friends ask him to bring.
Kalakand is made of milk and paneer and some toppings of choice, notably cardamom. Gulab jamun is another Indian sweet I liked, but when I brought it home, I had mixed reactions from family and friends. Gulab actually means rose and it makes sense now because the munchkin donut-looking thing swims in rose flavored sugar syrup. Mary took a small portion because she said just by looking at it, it tastes really sweet, and that’s why it’s not for everyone.
My favorite ice cream is Kulfi, first tasted at a sorbet outside our office, then in one of the restaurants in Kingdom of Dreams, at a restaurant where we brought our clients from the US, and even at the New Delhi airport as I spent my last rupees. It is a dense milky ice cream that come in different flavors and usually have chopped nuts on top, such as pistachio. Unfortunately, I haven’t found one yet here in the Philippines.
If there’s one thing I wanted to vomit right after I tasted it, it would be paan, and no, I didn’t get a chance to take a photo. It’s believed to help in digestion after a heavy meal, but no, thanks. Lol. It felt like chewing scented candles and rightfully so, because it’s made of betel leaf and areca nut.
Looking at the photos, I can almost taste the food again. But I won’t settle in reminiscing. One day, Mary and I will just head on out to India and discover more Indian food. Right now her favorite is Japanese cuisine. Let’s see about that.