Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Indian Guide to Street Meat

India, it seems, eats all of its meals on the road. This I mean literally, as every path in India is catered to by street vendors, the roadsides chock a block with any and all type of food stand. The resourcefulness of people is amazing, and kitchens take on a whole new meaning here. Strap a basket to the front of your bike, a stove on a platform to the back, hang a propane tank off the handle bars and you've got a mobile chai stand! Men wander through the streets with a basket of food on their head, a collapsible tray stand in hand, and set up shop wherever hunger beckons. Women spread blankets on the ground (very clean blankets, spread over very clean ground, ahem) and a vegetable market sprouts overnight. For a street meat connoisseur like myself, India's roadside eateries present a not-so-little piece of Heaven.

I've decided to save India one snack at a time, and to date I've pumped more money into the food service economy than any gringo previously. It's my way of giving back. With so many tastes and smells and textures to sample, it's hard to pass up a new one, or a good one, or a particularly spectacular one, especially now, when I have so few days left to embed their flavours in my palette's memory. As a result, there have been days when I've been forced to trudge home humbled, my stomach simply unable to fit any more food into its solid-packed chamber. GASP! Full? Full, you say? Abby endorses my attempts wholeheartedly, and is quick to point out any stalls I've missed, or which I've subtly tried to pretend I hadn't noticed. "Not even ice cream?" she asks with a mixture of incredulity and contempt. You call yourself a man, her tone of voice demands. "Ice cream ALWAYS fits - it just slides into the cracks." Sorry, no cracks exist to fill. Full is full. It pains me to be full - turning down food goes against every fibre of my being - but sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do.

Take South Lake Tahoe, for instance. Halfway through the Pacific Crest Trail, we spent three days in this resort town that caters to the casinos just across the California-Nevada border. Their all-you-can-eat buffets are stupendous, and with 1000 miles of trail behind us our hungers were unstoppable. Or so I thought. Plate after plate went down the hatch, heaped high with all sorts of Food That Wasn't Hiking Food. I finally reached the point of bursting, and as I pushed my plates away in defeat and shuffled uncomfortably to the bathroom, I spied a dessert bar I had missed on my many laps around the restaurant.

- Pause for interlude, cue relaxing muzak, take five. -

Bulimia is real, and furthermore, it works; the blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream was delectable. I've learned my lesson, I swear: always save room for dessert. However, that was then, and this is now.

After 6 months on the continent, I'm a perfectly trained street-eating beast: fast, fit and able to spot a snack vendor at 200 yards, through a foggy, crowded Delhi afternoon, no less. The assortment of foods available is truly astonishing, and I've made it my mission to try them all.

Fresh fruit bursting with sweet nectars, crisp veggies overflowing in colour and abundance, "Chaiiiiiiiiiiii!" stands, lassi stands, soda stands, popcorn stands. Corn roasted fresh over red-hot coals, marinated chicken sizzling aromatically above a homemade portable brazier. Fried dough makes the world go 'round: puris, samosas, jalebis, gulab jamon - I never understood the true potential the combination of flour, water and boiling oil presented, but I've started to perceive the possibilities. Roasted nuts, roasted sweet potato, mix and match your own chat mix - all sprinkled liberally with the ubiquitous masala and splashed with some freshly squeezed lime. Lime is something I'm taking home with me; visitors to my kitchen beware: you will feel the wrath of lime!

Tonight, on our second-to-last night in India, we were treated to the grand finale of street meat eating: the Sikh festival honouring their tenth and final guru, or holy man. The Sikhs as a whole are a rather...portly group, and business success has led to no shortage of caloric intake. They have a very charitable culture, and serving food to those in need is an important part of their faith; at the Golden Temple, their holiest shrine, more than 20 000 visitors are fed daily. Clearly, the Sikhs know how to put on a feast. This afternoon the city was transformed, entire neighborhoods becoming festival grounds, with tents unfurling everywhere, and kitchens being conjured out of thin air. Pots big enough to cook a man bubbled over with all sorts of Punjabi favourites: creamy lentil stews, deep fried sandwiches, assorted curries and sickly sweet treats. A parade appeared, everywhere at once, and the serving of the food commenced. Every stall was thronged with people, but the gringos were always enthusiastically pushed into the crowd, and at every block we emerged happily from the mass of eating bodies with food in hand.

Part of my feeding frenzy has been out of necessity: our time in Nepal was spent either trekking or sick, and all my bulging muscles have mysteriously disappeared, along with that insulating layer of butter I've been storing under my skin for several years now. It's much colder when you're skinny. Hopefully, my focused efforts are beginning to pay off, and the man who returns home will be recognizable as the man who left.

The festival is over, and the free food has run dry. I'm full from dinner, but there's this guy on the way home from the internet cafe who sells skewers of mystery meat I've been dying to try. No time like the present, especially when the present is soon to be gone.

On a completely unrelated note, I've noticed that my stools have been a little loose of late. Hmm, must be something going around...

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Holy Cow

I just finished reading a book, Holy Cow, by Sarah McDonald, and her ability to describe India is uncanny. She makes no attempt to explain it, but decribes it bang on. It makes me feel better for going through the same issues, confrontations, and facing the same ethical, philisophical, and moral conundrums. No answers, but plenty of food for thought... Here are some excerpts:

"Jonathan drags me from their party, for as I ride the aftershocks, I begin to regurgitate my repressed memories of why I never wanted to come here again. It's a vomit of hatred and a rambling rage against the bullshit, the pushing, the shoving, the rip-offs, the cruelty, the crowds, the pollution, the weather, the begging, the performance of pity, the pissing, the shitting, the snotting, the spitting, the farting.
As I hear myslef rant I begin to hate myself for hating - for being so middle class and pampered and comfortable that I should now be so shell-shocked. I am shaken to my core; the ground, that stable and strong bed beneath me has moved and it's stirred something once rock-solid within. I put my head in my hands and cry."

"It's a bizarre scene - full of foreigners trying to figure India out. I'm beginning to think it's hopeless. India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true. It's rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It's all extremes. India defies understanding, and for once, for me, that's okay...India is in some ways like a hall of mirrors where I can see both sides of each contradiction sharply and there's no easy escape to understanding."

Matt and Emma sit staring out the window with their mouths agape, much as I did nearly two years ago in the taxi to Rishikesh. They're aghast at the putrid-smelling mokeys beside the road, the psychedelic movie posters, the scarecrows keeping crows off partially built buildings, the tough female road workers shovelling bitumen, the matted hair of the street shildren, and the towns with more temples than Chinese take-aways. They scream 'Fuck' and flinch every time the car swerves to avoid head-on collisions with trucks, cars and slow-moving tractors. They take photos of the chillies drying on the road and the people stacking hay. They attempt to plug their ears to the blast of the horns and endlessly politely repeat 'no thank you' to the people who push and invade their space every time we stop and get out of the car."

"When we open the creaking door and turn on the single light bulb, the floor moves as cockroaches scatter. It's then that I realize I've made a huge mistake. Rebecca and I are used to India, and are almost unshockable, but for Emma and Matt this is all too much, too soon. Matt is concerned about the filth, the lack of sanitation, the chance of disease...Emma is suffering from chemical poisoning, overheating, dehydration, and sensory overload - she also has a bad cold and is covered in a film of sticky black dirt...
'What the fuck are they doing? They're worshipping the Virgin Mary like she's another god. She's the bloody mother of Jesus. And why have they shaved their heads? There's nothing in the Bible about giving God your hair. Christ, this is just berserck, it's too bizarre.'
She begins to sob. I've hardly ever seen Emma get upset about anything."