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Posts Tagged ‘food’

Mango Fever

For those who need to constantly justify, there’s a common refrain in Bombay: “Well, the weather in the summer is terrible. But the mangoes make it worth it.”

We’re now in the throes of the true ‘Indian summer.’ April and May bring on the heat until the June monsoons roll in.  Going outside is an exercise in moving quickly enough to get from one place to the next while moving slowly enough to not sweat through everything you’re wearing. There is no hiding the difficulties of this weather.

But the mangoes.

I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment that the mangoes are worth the heat (I’d certainly trade them just to feel cool again) – but they are something to behold. Imagine the ripest, juciest mango you’ve ever tasted in the Western world. Then stretch your imagination to think of what would happen if you multiplied the taste of that mango by a hundred. That’s Indian Alphonso mangoes.

Alphonso Mangoes at Crawford Market

You can’t live in India in May and not know about these mangoes. You start hearing about them everywhere in April: “I’m just waiting for the Alphonsos.” “I saw someone selling mangoes claiming they were Alphonsos, but everyone knows they’re not ripe yet.” “They’re just starting to come, really expensive, but they’re coming.”

Then suddenly, they are everywhere you turn – you start seeing the boxes at every fruit-stand on every corner; sellers start coming by your car as you’re parked at the stoplight; signs heralding their arrival at shops display their joy from windows; shops and restaurants start offering mango lassis, mango tarts and mango ice cream; there’s a constant stream of newspaper articles about the state of mango season (My favorite line from a Times of India article: “The king of fruits has made its maiden entry to the Belgaum fruit markets, but the prices are out of the reach of common man.” Or, more recently, “The king of summers, mango, has already arrived in the city and is spreading its sweet smell in the markets.” In the last 3 months the Times of India has produced 179 articles mentioning mangoes…)

Mango sellers

Mumbai has mango fever and it has it bad.

It’s perfectly understandable – I would venture to say its certainly one of the best fruits I’ve ever eaten. But the mania has just begun and I can only watch, amused, at the state of love people have for their mangoes. My only option? I guess I’m going to have to keep eating mangoes.

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Comfort Food

“Americans can’t adjust because there’s no such thing as an American. Variety is in the name.”

I sat back and thought about this as I looked at my Indian friend. We were having a delicious lunch that Nisha had cooked, and she had asked me whether I was sick of Indian food yet. I admitted that, while I wasn’t sick of it, I was certainly missing the variety I used to have in my diet.

It’s never felt like a strange concept to eat everything under the sun. Tonight we’ll have Thai. Tomorrow sushi. Salad for lunch. Risotto for dinner. This weekend we’ll grab a burritto. The quintessential American ‘restaurant’ tells us to “have it your way.” We don’t consider that almost everyone else in the world subsists on whatever type of food is native to their country.

And in India, unless you’re in the very very top bracket of people who can afford fancy expensive ‘alternative’ restaurants, most people eat Indian food pretty much every day of their life. They’ll get some fast food or pizza here and there, but the concept of variety is really mostly limited to whether you’ll have roti or rice.

It’s always strange whenever I get reminded that the American way of doing things isn’t necessarily normal across the world.  But maybe people don’t mind eating the same thing because it’s comfort food. And I think I have a better understanding of this after getting a little taste of my own comfort food here in Bombay.

Recently, I was able to have a food flashback. Or at least, a food recollection. Because one of my favorite restaurants has opened in Bombay.

I noticed it a few weeks ago – I was driving in South Mumbai and suddenly, like a flash or like a person you see unexpectedly in the wrong place, I noticed a sign with a very familiar symbol and name: Le Pain Quotidien. For those of you who have not had the pleasure to eat at one, it’s a Belgian chain that focuses on the art of bread and everything delicious that can go on it. And in New York I eat there as much as possible.

So the first minute I could grab Daniel to go, we drove into town and sat down at a table. It was bizarre – this just wasn’t India. It was like any other Pain Quotidien. Communal tables. Counter with bread behind it. Menu with tartines and mint lemonade. My comfort food. This wasn’t just in the ballpark of something I was used to, this was a place where I could have recognized the food anywhere.

I ordered a sundried tomato, mozerella, prosciuttio and olive tapenade tartine. It tasted like home. It was like being at an Embassy – I may physically have been in India, but I was in Belgian territory.

In that moment I could have agreed to eat this food every single day. I got it: people want what they know.  They don’t mind eating something every day if it’s embedded in their system.

I do suspect though, that once I’m in a place again where I have Le Pain Quotidien and all my other favorites, I’ll stop appreciating the idea of consistency. I’m still an American after all.

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“Can we possibly order three cups of chai, one order of onion pakoras and some firewood?”

That was certainly a phrase I didn’t know I would ever utter.

The road driving up to Munnar

Everything changed after we drove off the red dusty roads of Tamil Nadu and up into the lush mountains of Munnar in Kerala. As we drove, it seemed like the world we had just been in was slowly disappearing – the air started to clear; the language subtly changed from Tamil to Malayalam; the cows and dogs and goats that populated the streets started to look healthier; tropical plants were replaced with tea plantations and rugged trees; and of course, we lost all cell phone service.

The altitude, the dramatic scenery and the windy roads felt like a new world.  Munnar was like no place I’d seen in India – it is truly off the grid in every sense imaginable. In a weird way, the trees and mountains and lakes kind of reminded me of a bizarre version New Hampshire – except it wasn’t snowing in January and everyone was Indian. Except us, of course.

Our hotel

We arrived after a long drive up into the mountains, and then onto a rocky dirt road that we could only get up with the help of an ancient 4-wheel-drive Jeep. Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere- a few houses and farms spotted the area, but otherwise it was just the hotel. Breathing in the clean, crisp air it was hard to remember we were in the same country we’d just come from.

After a night’s rest and the inevitable ordering of firewood (yes, our cabin got quite cold at night!), K and I decided that the only activity for the day could be a hike. So we set off with a guide from the hotel, who instilled a bit of initial fear when he told us to watch out for leeches.

taking a picture half-way up

We climbed and of course I lagged behind – I always love a good reminder of how completely out of shape I am. I was a little bit embarrassed when I saw a chatty group of older women sauntering up the mountain as though it was nothing at all. We had stopped halfway up and I was watching them as they climbed. When they saw us, they giggled and took a moment to gawk at the funny white girls trying to climb up their mountain. One of them offered us a piece of fruit – it was yellow on the outside and looked like a passion-fruit. Our guide said it was okay to eat and I thanked the woman. I stood, catching my breath and eating a piece of delicious fruit- that certainly wasn’t a bad way to spend a day.

As we continued to climb we eventually saw the same group of women heading down – but this time, they weren’t quite as chatty. As they came towards us I noticed they were all carrying huge, long stacks of wood on their heads. Their arms balanced the wood while their bare feet balanced their bodies down the narrowly demarcated path. They were hardly breaking a sweat. I caught the eye of the woman who had given us the fruit, and nodded. She smiled back, completely unfazed by the poundage bearing down on her head.

A view of Munnar

Since moving to India I’ve been endlessly enjoying watching the ways in which people go about their days.  And as I continued to pathetically huff and wheeze my way up the mountain, I couldn’t help but hope that this would be what I’d remember when I’m back in New York and totally caught up in the day-to-day pressures and expectations of my life. It’s amazing how much it feels like none of that matters when you’re so far away from it.

View from the top

But these thoughts dissipated as soon as we reached the top because all I could think of was sky and mountains and clouds. It was really something to see.

I hate to invoke the old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this instance I don’t even think a thousand words could do justice to the breathtaking views. So I’ll end this post with some photos – and a true appreciation for the little slice of India called Munnar.

The mountain we climbed (in the background)

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I’ve always gotten a kick out of seeing young girls hanging out of a rickshaw on their way to school with Hannah Montana backpacks over their uniforms, or watching a family strolling down Carter Road with small pink spoons dipping into a Baskin Robbins cup. The Indian interactions with American products and companies are often jarring and comforting all at once. In a foreign setting it can make you start humming “one of these things is not like the other…”

But it’s often even more interesting how lower-end American brands can become upscale here. McDonalds and KFC are ubiquitous and are often seen as a sit-down restaurant (and yes, you can get a McCurry but no beef burgers here).
So when everyone started talking about the new California Pizza Kitchen coming to town, I wanted to take a seat and watch the action. Who could resist seeing what happened when an American pizza chain decided to plant itself into a city that has it’s own odd love affair with our cheese, bread and tomato concoction?  Watching cultures collide, and having at least a small understanding of both sides of the coin, is part of the fun of being an expat.

The crowd waiting to get a table

And the collision was massive – we went for a weekend lunch day and it was packed. Every table was full and by the time we left there was a line out the door. But the most jarring piece of the puzzle, was that this American chain had an oddly wealthy clientele. The pizzas were on average around 400 to 500 rupees (or a bit more than $8 – $10). That might not sound crazy, but considering most other sit-down pizza places sell for 100 to 200 rupees, it’s a bit steep.  So it shouldn’t have been surprising to see well dressed grandmothers in pearls doting over pizza-hungry grandchildren or teenagers toting their Louis Vuitton bags – but it was such a weird disconnect. We were in California Pizza Kitchen! This just wasn’t normal.

We got to talking with one of the ‘Franchise Management Specialists,” who basically spends his life overseeing the openings of California Pizza Kitchen’s across the world (who knew that was a job?). Due to India’s heavy import taxes, they’d had to find a way to make every element in the restaurant feel authentic while being purchased locally- except the oven. Apparently no CPK pizza could be complete without its specific oven.

The team on hand had come from their California headquarters to train the Indian servers. It apparently had been tough to instill their values: don’t bring appetizers and entrees all at once. Assume people aren’t sharing all their food. Service with a smile. Could Indians really emulate Californians?

It was all such an odd pairing – sure, you could get guacamole, but it was made with the less fleshy Indian avocados that don’t taste quite right. You could certainly order a classic pizza, but there was also an option for curry pizza (really?).
I was happy when my pizza came – for just a moment it was good to step out of ‘learning and exploring’ mode and just allow myself to enjoy the familar. It’s always nice to find small oases of home in a unfamiliar place. But I like my Indian things to be Indian. The cultural collision isn’t quite as interesting as the actual culture, although it seems like the Mumbaikers around me would disagree- they want that piece of California.

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Chaos. Vibrancy. Overstimulation. I’d missed that potent Mumbai blend. I wanted to be thrown right back into it.

So on our way home tonight I asked our driver if we could stop at Muhammed Ali Road. Most people only see it from above the flyover (or raised highway) on the way from South Bombay heading toward Mahalaxmi. It’s one of the Muslim areas of Mumbai and normally not particularly notable. But at night during Ramazan (the way Indian Muslims pronounce what we know as Ramadan) it comes alive.

A view of all the action on the road in the dark

Because Muslims fast all day during Ramazan, at night it’s time to celebrate. And Muhammed Ali Road is the center of Bombay’s Ramazan action. And tonight was the last night before Eid (the celebration of the end of Ramazan) so I knew we’d have to make it a priority today (jetlag be damned!).

Nisha, who is Muslim, had told us this would be a great place for us to go. She thought we would have a lot of fun. Our (Christian) driver was not so convinced.

“Ma’am, they are all gangsters here. They all get together to beat people. Look at the drivers in this area – no discipline. Why do you want to come here?”

“I don’t think it’s that bad in the main areas,” I said, trying to be tactful. I knew plenty of people who had ventured out perfectly safely to eat and celebrate. I had a sense that while there may have been some grain of truth to parts of what he said, it struck me as probably one of the many stereotypes fellow Bombayiites had about other castes and neighborhoods that they probably knew very little about.

People crowding into stalls

Besides, there was nothing but excitement and food and salesmanship surrounding us. Everywhere you looked, food was cooking on indoor and outdoor stoves, men sold bangles and kufis, stilettos and hijabs. Sellers negotiated animatedly with potential buyers. The scene goes on and on like that for miles. You can stay on the main road or venture down side streets where the food can range from typical rice dishes to the more adventurous (brains and tongues and any other animal part you can name). And if you’re driving in, don’t be in a rush. It’s wall to wall traffic as everyone tries to push their way through the crowd.

It’s hard to describe the feeling that was in the air but I guess as a Jewish person I could relate to it somewhat – after all day of fasting on Yom Kippur I’m usually giddy with excitement to eat. If I could multiply that by an entire month of fasting each day I can’t imagine how elated I would be every night just to eat and soak in the energy. It seemed sort of fitting that we were going to see Ramazan’s end right after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year. For us and everyone around us tomorrow is a new beginning.

It was a good welcome back.

One stall with one tiny light

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Drawing the Line

Today in Dharavi I got the giggles. And perhaps that seems strange on a day where the heavy monsoon forced me to wade through ankle-deep puddles consisting of rainwater, dirt, garbage and inevitably sewage. I felt as wet and as dirty as the huge rats that scurried through the small moats dug in the side of the narrow residential pathways.

But I couldn’t help but get the giggles.

The staircase up to the house

It started with a meeting and a ladder. A field worker brought me and my translator to the building where we would be attending a discussion on ration cards. When we arrived the field worker pointed up at a steep metal ladder. To get into the home of the woman hosting the discussion, we would have to climb a nearly vertical incline in the pouring rain. I said a little prayer and climbed up – this was, after all, the climb that every member of this family undertook multiple times every day.

Safely inside I washed my feet off and sat on the cold stone ground. My whole body was wet and a fan was humming right above my head – it was my first time since arriving in India that I’d actually been cold. I almost relished the feeling.

I looked around at the home. It was larger than some others I had been to, but more sparsely furnished. There were no beds or refrigerators or televisions. A teenage boy slept on a mat on the ground, oblivious to the meeting going on around him. Our host explained that he was her son. I blinked back at her, unsure of how to respond. This woman looked about 30 years old.

“He’s your son?” my translator asked in Hindi. The woman laughed.

“I know, we don’t look too far apart in age. But he is 18 and I am 33. I got married to my husband when I was 14.”

This sparked a discussion about everyone’s children – I found out that the 26-year-old field worker had an 11-year-old son. She passed around her mobile phone to show photos of her 11, 5 and 3 year old children. I guess at 25 I’m practically a spinster in Dharavi.

After this small-talk, the meeting began.  As with most of these meetings, the topic was not domestic violence (the non-profit’s stated purpose). Instead, today it was ration cards.

ration 'card', more like a book!

It’s hard to even delve into the statistics on ration cards in India without feeling a bit overwhelmed. In India, if you are ‘BPL’ (or Below the Poverty line) you qualify for a ration card.  The ration card entitles you to subsidized wheat, rice, dal, gas, oil and sugar.

But it’s shocking to hear what BPL actually is. While the exact number depends on the state you live in, to quality for BPL you have to earn less than 30,000 rupees annually for a family (approx $640). That works out to about $50 a month for an entire family to survive – and the average family in India is 5 or 6 people, which means each person is living on less than $10 a month.  330 million people qualify as BPL and theoretically receive ration cards. (Just FYI, these stats come from Indian government websites, which may or may not be totally accurate).

If you put this in perspective, our normal ‘Western’ heuristic of extreme poverty looks at individuals living on below $1 a day. However, about 45% of Indians fit into that category. If you expand the criteria to $2 a day 80% of India is included. By contrast, to qualify as BPL you would have to live on around 30 cents a day.

You would think that existing on 30 cents a day would be enough to go through, but apparently the Public Distribution System (which runs the ration cards scheme) is infected with corruption from the top down. And as such many (if not most) families have difficulties getting their rations.

The women we were speaking with faced all kinds of problems: The proprietor of one woman’s Fair Price Shop (where rations can be purchased) insisted that each purchase came with a 50 rupee (approx $1) surcharge. Another claimed he had run out of oil and had not supplied it for months. Another claimed that if the women complained he could take away their ration cards. And almost all received much less than their allotted rations for the month. It seemed to be widely known and accepted that the shopkeepers stole the remaining rations and sold them on the black market.

So the field worker began to explain to the women their rights – they could demand to see the price list, they could demand to write in the shop’s government-issued complaints booklet, their ration cards could not be taken away by anyone.  She said she was going to take them all to their Fair Price Shops to show them where all the items were located and to make sure the owners understood that they now knew their rights.

And so off we all went, down the treacherous staircase, and further into the streets. We were the most colorful and spirited mob of women you could find – 15 Indian women and one white woman in saris and kurtas, all soaked, still trying to avoid the rain – but with spirits bolstered by the newfound knowledge.

Some of the women in front of one shop

And it was on this trip that I got the giggles – because try to imagine a large group of women approaching one man who has systematically screwed them over time and again.  And then imagine his face once he realizes what’s happening.

I watched as the field worker stood in front of him and started explaining to the women what their rights were. She demanded to see his complaint book, she demanded to see his price list – and all he could do was watch and cooperate, looking angry and sheepish all at once.

“His face is damn priceless!” my translator whispered to me as we watched. She apparently also found the situation highly amusing.

And clearly this wasn’t going to solve the problems that existed on the state and national level – politicians and government workers are still going to steal rations and the money for rations. Our one day wouldn’t solve that.

But it was hard not to feel empowered by the scenario. These shopkeepers at the ground level had been put on notice. People who deserved to get food subsidies were closer to getting what they needed.  And all it took was a little bit of education – these women just needed to know that the shopkeepers couldn’t hurt them. They needed to know what they were entitled to.

How could I not feel good watching that? The problem wasn’t fixed, but these women had certainly taken a large step.

And so I just stood back, let the rain soak me through, and laughed while watching the tiny victory taking place in front of me.

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“Sahth, sarth and satr?” I asked. “Don’t those all sound very similar?”

“Oh yes,” Nisha replied. “Sometimes I can’t tell sahth and sarth apart. When people speak quickly you don’t know the difference.”

“But doesn’t that confuse people with numbers? You can’t make seven and sixty sound exactly the same. What if I asked how much something was and you said sixty but I thought seven – I might get really excited by how cheap it was!”

Nisha just laughed as she continued to sort mint leaves from their stalk. I was sitting on the counter and she on her stool – we were both drinking our usual cups of chai and she was (attempting) to teach me how to count.

We’d gotten into a good pattern with our learning. She would teach me a few Hindi words a day and I would practice reading with her. It was a good trade. We’d spent the previous part of the morning trying to go over why certain words in English needed an E on the end.

“It sounds like ‘bloo’.” I said.

“But why is there an E? Why isn’t it B L U?”

“I don’t know. It just isn’t”

“How would I know that that word doesn’t sound like bloo-ee?”

I thought about it for a moment. I really am a terrible reading teacher. I’ve gained a new-found respect for primary school educators– how can you possibly explain the English language when it doesn’t make logical sense?

I’d started with packaging. That was the easiest place to find simple words. On this particular day we were reading the label on a box of flour, and the company’s name was ‘Blue Bird’. Nisha knew all the letters from the beginning, so that had made the task easier. But now we just had to try and learn what each one sounded like in the context of a word.

I looked at ‘bird’. Nisha was sounding it out, “Buh…. Ih… rrrr… duh… Byrrduh…Beard…. Bird?”

“yes!” I said.

“yes?” She smiled at me and then looked at Phoebe. She cupped Phoebe’s face in her hands. “Phoebe, that says bird. You can’t tell because you’re a dog.”

We both laughed. Poor Phoebe was used to staring at us – she sat there hoping a morsel of food would come her way, but instead she had to watch as we repeated words over and over again.

But then it had been my turn. And just as quickly as I had been annoyed with how silly English writing was I soon turned on Hindi.

In English, our multiples of ten are simple. Twenty, thirty, fourty, fifty, sixty… It made sense. But in Hindi? Seven and sixty sounded practically the same, but six and sixty don’t even start with the same letter. Why was two ‘do’ and twenty ‘bees’? Why is eight ‘ought’ and eighty ‘asi’? My mind swam with numbers. I just tried reciting.

“Ek, do, teen, char, panch,” I said over and over, counting to five. Nisha chuckled at my pronunciation. Hindi words don’t have hard endings – so while I might say teen with an emphasis on the N, in Hindi it barely registers. At least my pronunciation gives any Hindi speaker listening a good laugh.

And slowly but surely, we’re both coming along. While I can’t pronounce the Hindi words and Nisha can’t understand why English isn’t logical (we had the most trouble with the word ‘onion’. Can anyone explain to me why it is spelled that way?) it’s the small progress that counts. And that’s all anyone can hope for. At least we both have each other to laugh a little bit along the way towards bettering ourselves one day at a time.

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