There are a few lessons to be learned from this post: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, don’t speak too soon, don’t anger the gods, don’t jinx yourself. You get the picture. This is how my post started about a week and a half ago when I first drafted it…
For years I heard two things about India. 1) You both love it and hate it, and 2) Everyone gets sick: from the annoying and uncomfortable “Delhi belly” to doubled-over, antibiotic-requiring food poisoning. Oh, and there are also those pesky parasites. So in the two weeks leading up to my departure, I ate everything in sight figuring I’d drop weight through vomiting episodes. Hamburgers were at the top of the list since I knew it would be awhile before I got my hands on one. I probably ate more beef in those two weeks than in the prior six months. No worries, however, as those few extra pounds would surely be gone in no time.
I’m a little nervous writing this, and trust me when I say I’m simultaneously knocking on wood with great vigor, but in the 2+ months I’ve been here I have not gotten sick. I still feel like a ticking time bomb and that my number will be up any day now, but for now everything is moving smoothly- so to speak. The flip side to my anti-Pepto existence is… I’m gaining weight! One pair of pants has been sent to the suitcase under my bed; punishment for betraying me. I’m determined not to send any friends down there with him. So aside from not upchucking my meals, what is causing me to tip the scales? It’s certainly not from too many burgers (which I miss desperately).
Ok, let’s stop right here. Perhaps you can sense where this is going, so I’ll jump to the end before continuing with my culinary adventures. Clearly I didn’t knock on wood hard enough because literally the night after I drafted this post, I awoke to horrible heartburn. It was still lingering after a few days, so I made a trip to a local doctor at the urging of my co-workers. He confirmed my suspicion that it was acid reflux and wrote me a few prescriptions. He then proceeded to advise I should avoid spicy, fatty food for at least a week. Dude, don’t you know we’re in INDIA? Easier said than done. I also discovered that half of the BJS office took some sort of anti-acid medication daily. Perhaps this was my Indian initiation. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention my doctor visit was faster and easier than buying a train ticket or mailing a package. The office was walking distance from work, I filled out ZERO paperwork (health insurance in India is only used for hospitals-not private practitioners), waited only 30 minutes despite being squeezed in for an appointment and handed the doctor a 500 rupee note (less than $10) before shaking his hand and leaving. We then walked halfway back to the BJS office and stopped at the pharmacy to get my pills, which cost about $6. Roundtrip: one hour.
Record scratch again. Two days ago I awoke again in the middle of the night, but instead of heartburn, I started vomiting. India, dammit, you got me! I don’t know what I ate, but I finally succumbed to what I’d been so proud of avoiding. Thankfully the worst only lasted a day, followed by a day of rest and recuperation. The guys at my guesthouse were beyond wonderful, going out to get me flat rice (literally flat, dehydrated rice, reminiscent of potato buds), banana and re-hydration salts. They mixed the flat rice with a little water, salt and sugar, then mushed in a banana. It looked like baby food and was not so delicious. But that’s not the exciting Bengali food I have come to know and love. I now return to our previously scheduled program of delicious eats…
What makes Bengali food so good? Fat. I had no idea how much oil and butter and cream was used in Indian cooking! Oh yes, and then there’s the bread. I am not a big rice eater, but that is no problem in West Bengal where naan and roti (naan’s slimmer cousin) are available everywhere. With your meal you either take rice or bread. Unless I’m at someone’s home and they serve me rice, I almost always opt for bread. I’ve even ordered roti with Chinese food for lunch, resulting in a very disapproving look from my co-worker. Another choice that would turn heads is ordering a dry dish like tandoori chicken without a curry accompaniment. “But there’s no gravy!” my co-worker would exclaim. I tried to assure her that American’s could successfully eat a meal without “gravy” but she was still pretty horrified. Each day at work I order lunch from The Silver Chimney, a combo Indian/Chinese restaurant which is quite common. Aside from Chinese food, it’s difficult to find foreign food in Kolkata unless you’re in the small tourist area, which I am not. Even Italian food, which I thought was ubiquitous across the globe, can be tricky to find. It’s not impossible, but you have to seek it out.
The curry dishes are fantastic. Food here is categorized by veg and non-veg, meaning with meat or without. Menus are separated this way and even the food window at KFC is segregated into veg and non-veg sections. Oh yes, KFC has a number of chickenless options.
Most Bengalis eat meat, although the land animals are pretty much restricted to chicken and mutton. Fish and shellfish (usually prawns and crab) are also fair game. The Hindus don’t eat beef and the Muslims don’t eat pork, so it’s very hard to find either because both religions co-exist in West Bengal. Domino’s has a pepperoni pizza option (with a warning that it contains pork), but I haven’t seen any beef since I’ve been here. I know it exists, but again, you have to REALLY seek it out. I’m not a huge fish eater, so I usually alternate between chicken and veg dishes. Mutton can be hit or miss, so I don’t order it often. Sometimes it can be a little tough and gristly.
So what do I eat? Below are some of my favorite dishes:
You can start to see the problem. Weight is a funny thing in India, though. People don’t care, which I think is fantastic. In fact, many Indian women have a little extra cushion around the middle. Saris are the most forgiving (and beautiful!) of garments and I think they should be adopted by Western cultures. It’s one long piece of fabric that you wrap around your body, so it can easily grow and shrink with the woman. Other Indian dress, like the salwar kameez is also very modest. It consists of a pair of pants, either leggings or baggy cotton, with a long top that comes almost down to the knees. If you have a big lunch, no one can tell.
Even before my doctor visit, I attempted to eat lighter. Unfortunately I still don’t know what all the dishes are, so my attempt at healthy eating can go horribly, horribly wrong. Once I picked a veg curry that I thought would be harmless. It was white. The vegetables were literally swimming in a cream sauce. Oops. Another time I tried chicken satay, which they didn’t have available, so I chose chicken diablo from the same section on the menu. I ordered that with a “green salad” which consists of cucumber, carrot, onion and tomato. That’s gotta be safe, right? Turns out the chicken was deep fried. Double sigh. It sure was delicious, though. Nope, the pants mystery isn’t a difficult one to solve.
Post doctor, and post “episode”, my breakfast (and sometimes lunch) consisted of muri (puffed rice, similar to Rice Krispies), kola (banana) and misti doi (sweet yogurt). It’s actually quite tasty, which is a good thing because I’ve eaten a lot of it.
Perhaps the other lesson is that there are two versions of “Delhi belly”, and I’ve experienced both. One may have actually lessened the other as I’ve definitely shed a few lbs. these last few days. And I’ve officially been baptized as an Indian traveler. Maybe I should try those pants on again…