Eating like a Local in Trivandrum, India
As I sat in the Delhi airport on a painfully long layover, time seemed to crawl by. The minutes lazily ticked along my watch, as if the incredible heat weighing down on me had even slowed the clock.
My anticipation for the 3 month journey ahead only fueled my impatience, and this large stretch of time to think made me reflect on the enormity of the unknown: I had no idea what to expect. I booked my flight to India on a whim. My family was nervous that I was traveling alone in a country that was so different in so many ways.
My stomach did a somersault, nerves mixed with excitement, as I realized my fate: either good or bad, I was now completely in the hands of the universe.
In hindsight, I think this became my mantra of the trip. This is because so many times, I was so completely reliant on the compassion of new friends or complete strangers. These instances of human kindness first presented upon my arrival to India in the form of 3 incredibly kind and gentle souls: new friends who took me under their wings and hosted me during my stay in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum).
My host Umang had agreed to pick me up from the airport, but to my surprise and slight concern, he drove a motorcycle. With my cumbersome backpack strapped on tight, I tumultuously climbed up on the back of his bike and we sped off into the night. This was my first experience on the back of a motorcycle. We were intertwined in the hustle and bustle of urban Indian traffic, with horns blasting and vehicles of all shapes and sizes competing for space on the road. I ‘white-knuckled’ the sidebars along the seat in attempts to stay on the back and did my best to conceal how nervous I actually was.
My life is now in the hands of the universe.
Once I arrived at Umang’s house, his flatmates suggested we head out for a midnight snack. They were eager for me to try the one South Indian meal they swore I could not miss: masala dosa. We took off again on the bike, whizzing through the buzzing streets as darkness settled over the city. Bright lights illuminated the shops and stalls, as we wove in and out of traffic. We stopped at a small, family owned restaurant with striped table clothes and Indian music playing softly through a ceiling speaker. I watched as the owner brought out our food on silver trays and our drinks in matching cups.
My new friends expertly ripped pieces from the thin, warm, pancake-like dosa while capturing flavourful bits of potatoes from inside the wrap. They alternated between dipping into a savoury sambar sauce or spicy coconut chutney. Never having ate this meal before, let alone with my hands, I awkwardly tried to mimic them.
They were spot on: the dosa was incredible – light and fluffy, yet still filling; flavourful, yet not overpowering in spice to my mild taste buds. Satisfied with my brief introduction to Indian culinary culture, our next stop was to a food stall for an evening snack.
Feeling as though I must try everything to get the ‘full experience’, I accepted a small, deep-fried ball of dough coated in a clear vegetable gravy.
“Just pop the whole thing in your mouth”, Umang said as he confidently devoured his.
Why not?, I thought to myself.
“Sure I’ll try one”, I heard myself saying.
Mirroring Umang, I stuffed the entire thing in my mouth. Immediately there was an intense explosion of spice. Fire swept down my throat and coated my tongue as I tried not to cough and sputter. The heat crept up my neck and onto the crown of my head; I was starting to sweat as he handed me another.
“OMG, please not another one”, I was mentally begging.
I didn’t want to be rude. I pictured the vial of digestive aids buried in the bottom of my backpack.
“I’m going to regret this”, I thought to myself as I threw back the second one.
My insides were burning.
“No more”, I pleaded. “I’m so full”.
Umang could see through my meager attempts to thwart him. “Too spicy?”, he asked with a mischievous grin. “Don’t worry, this will help”.
“Oh no, what now?”, I wondered.
The food stall owner handed me a small plate with something wrapped in a green leaf. “It’s taken after a meal”, he said.
With my stomach still on fire, I was skeptical; I hoped for the best as I cautiously bit into the leaf-thatched mystery parcel– except it wouldn’t break in half. With all eyes on me, I had no choice but to less-then-gracefully stuff the entire treat into my mouth.
Thankfully, the flavour did calm down the spice – but now with a full mouth, I had difficulty chewing. Minty liquid from inside the leaf spilled out of the corners of my incapacitated lips. Like a rabid dog foaming at the mouth, my eyes darted around unsure of what to do. Determined not to spit it out, I swallowed the strange leafy dessert in one gulp as my new friends patted me on the back.
I later found out this was not quite a dessert: it was “Paan” – a concoction well known throughout Asia, mixed with either tobacco or in our case a breath freshening paste. The betel leaf that Paan is made from has been cited to have many health benefits, including digestion.
Miraculously, despite the spicy stress that I placed on my digestive system that night, I woke up the next morning feeling great and thanking my lucky stars for the Paan.
The moral of the story: Be open to the adventure of trying new things (or in this case food), for good stories will never come from your comfort zone.