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...

6 comments:

Shannon said...

I've been patiently awaiting a post about the culinary delicacies of India- thanks for indulging me. I hope you are enjoying your last day(s?) in India. I'm enjoying NOT doing homework and plan to spend the evening making Santa face cookies. Should be a good time...

Phillip said...

we need an update from your return to Canada

Erin said...

You guys have the greatest diary I have ever read. I think you guys should try to post some articles to a travel magazine or newspaper. Is Steve an English or Journalism major by any chance?

Stephen and Abigail Rideout said...

Nope, I studied biology and geography. An aspiring journalist, perhaps? Or maybe not - journalists have to abide by too many rules. Thanks for the comments, and glad you enjoyed it! We're back home, but stay tuned, there is still more to tell, and of course, the pictures will be posted as well...

CresceNet said...

Gostei muito desse post e seu blog é muito interessante, vou passar por aqui sempre =) Depois dá uma passada lá no meu site, que é sobre o CresceNet, espero que goste. O endereço dele é http://www.provedorcrescenet.com . Um abraço.

Kate and Susan said...

Steve and Abby,
I don't know if you both check these comments anymore but thank you so much for your frank entrys! Gives both me and Susan an idea of what to expect through the eyes of friends and though we will be experiencing a different culture of India, it is still India none the less. Plane leaves in less than two weeks... its getting down to the wire!