Tuesday, May 15, 2012

From Delhi Belly to Hot Tibetan Beer

It's already been over one month since we stepped foot on Indian soil. The more time you let pass between the actual occurrence of events and the moment you write about it, the dimmer and less intense the memories, thus the more impassioned the writing. I'll do my best. In this blog post I'll talk about some of the food we ate in India and Nepal. Not so much about India, because almost everything we ate was quite the same as the typical Indian fare we get in the U.S. Indian cuisine has a lot of variety and diversity, but the dishes that are most known internationally are those coming from the north (Punjab area), such as meats and dishes baked in tandoori ovens, vegetables cooked in masala curries, as well as the famous southern dosas. We haven't spent enough time in India to experience all the different types of cuisines, such as the more tropical dishes in Kerala or the more "meaty" curries from the north. We also have had some bad experiences with food, but I'm sure had we been in different circumstances we would've enjoyed Indian food better than we did. After India, we spent two weeks in Nepal, where the food is safer to eat, and where we felt like enjoying life again after the grim food experiences of India.

Tongba - hot millet beer specific to Tibetan tribes in the Himalayas.
Part One: The Trials and Tribulations of a Western Stomach in India
This blog post is at its 2nd draft, after the first one has been nuked by a browser crash. I feel like the first draft was more savory, and I'm trying hard to reconstruct its vibe. Before we arrived in India, we've been warned multiple time by fellow travelers about all the health problems we might have from eating Indian food, what to avoid, what and where not to eat, what medicine we should have with us. We've been told not to touch meat in India at all, under any circumstances, to brush our teeth only with bottled water, and to make sure that the caps of bottled water are sealed at time of purchase. Apparently, people (especially at hotels) refill used plastic bottles with unsafe water and re-sell them to unsuspecting tourists. Drinking regular water in India can lead to severe diarrhea and even dysentery. We became really paranoid in checking the caps of every bottle of water we purchased.

Samosas for sale on the street in Old Delhi.
I can say I have a pretty sturdy stomach, I can eat almost anything, including very spicy food, and I love trying out new things, including street food. We ate street food in all the countries we've been to, and never got sick. In India, we carefully avoided street food and ate mostly at the hotels where we stayed. Yet, despite all the precautions, I got very sick two times within the two weeks spent there, both times violently puking my heart out like never before in my life. Kudos to Ciproflaxin, the amazing traveler's upset stomach antibiotic, that saved both Jenny and I at times of excruciating cramps and nausea. I thought I had a strong stomach, but India really put me down on my knees.

I believe the reason why eating in India is notorious for getting people sick is the unsanitary condition in which food is prepared, stored or presented. The streets are always packed with people, animals and motorized traffic. The air is loaded with smoke and dust. There are flies everywhere. Food is served on the side of the road, uncovered and unrefrigerated. A bus drives by leaving a trail of exhaust smoke that settles on the food. A rickshaw goes by that stirs up a cloud of dust. A cow goes by that leaves a big moist dung right in front of the food stand. And then the ever present flies, who probably sit first on the warm cow dung, then on the food, then on people's faces, then back to the cow dung. Either Indians have acquired a remarkable immunity to diseases caused by dirt, or they shit their pants as much as we tourists do, but don't complain about it.

Above: jalebi, a dessert made by deep-frying flour in a circular (coil-like) shape and then dipping in sugar syrup. I wanted to try it, but our driver kept telling me it will make me "berry, berry sick" and that he won't stop the car on the side of the road, should there be a bathroom emergency.

We ate samosas on the street and they were delicious. I particularly loved the environmentally-friendly, bio-degradable bowl made of dried banana leaves. For those reading this post who don't know what a samosa is, it's a savory pastry made of dough filled with a spicy mix of potatoes and peas, then deep-fried. It's probably my most-favorite Indian treat and I wish you could find it on the streets of San Francisco as a snack, as easily as you can get it in New Delhi.

Above: thali is a plate consisting of various pulsas (lentil curries), alu (potato curry) and chapatti (a type of flat bread, baked on top of a hot plate and seemingly more popular in India than naan. I ate this at a street vendor in Old Delhi and fortunately I did not get sick. It turned out to be quite delicious. Whether you get sick or not from food in India is like playing Russian Roulette. This food on the street caused no harm, while later, food eaten at a nice hotel restaurant destroyed us.

Naan, rice and some vegetable curries at our hotel in Mandawa.

Our snack reserve for dire times. When in doubt, eat some snacks instead of shady food.

Above: the food that made me violently ill. A couple of hours after eating this innocent looking rice biryani (fried rice with vegetables) and paneer masala (cottage cheese cubes cooked in masala curry sauce), I ran to the hotel room bathroom and projectile-vomited 5 times in a row. God knows what they put in this food.

India is mostly a vegetarian country. In Rajasthan, the majority of the population is Muslim, so they don't eat pork. The rest of the population is Hindu, and they don't eat beef. The only meet you can find is either chicken or mutton, but meat eating overall is not very popular in this region of the country. We involuntarily became vegetarians for the 2 weeks spent in India, and surprisingly I didn't miss meat at all. The cuisine is rich and diversified enough to feel satisfied just with breads, rice and vegetables. I realized I could easily live without meat, at least for a while... (Now that I'm in Romania, the smell of grilled sausages coming from my mom's kitchen is so insanely good that I'm glad I'm not a vegetarian.)

Above: menu at a McDonalds in India. I've never been happier in my life at the sight of a McDonalds logo on the side of the road. I, who NEVER EVER eat at McDonalds in the US, who despise and loathe the bad quality of their products, was actually happy at the sight of a store that sells food cooked in sanitary conditions. It was like a haven of safety for us, where we could stuff our hungry bellies with something we knew for sure was not going to make us sick yet again.

Above: at the Pink Floyd Cafe in Pushkar (the blue city). We loved the way this place was designed. We loved the music, the ambiance and the food as well. The cafe had a rooftop patio overlooking the city - a gorgeous view especially at sunset.

At Pink Floyd Cafe I ordered momos, a Tibetan dish consisting of pot-stickers filled with spicy finely chopped vegetables and served with a spicy tomato salsa. The pot-stickers are very much like Chinese ones, and can be served either boiled, steamed or fried.

Above: at our hotel restaurant in Agra, the food was surprisingly good. I'll talk a little bit about the hotel itself: much like other hotels we stayed at, the windows of this hotel were barricaded with metal bars, opaque glass and thick curtains. Even in daylight you couldn't tell if it was night or day outside. You couldn't see anything through the window, you couldn't open the window. Most of the times, the windows would face towards a wall, an empty and dirty lot or just the noisy and dusty street. The hotel owners thought it was a good idea to isolate its customers as much as possible from the chaos of the outside world by adding all these window-closing layers to the golden prison called hotel. The image above was shot during day time, in the bar area of the hotel, where they added fluorescent neon lights and a disco ball to enhance the "night club mood."

Alcohol is also a big No in India. While officially not condoned in most places (especially the "holy" city of Varanasi), restaurants sell it "under the table." They never have it listed on menus, but if you ask them, they'll have beer for sale. When they bring it to your table, they have to hide the bottle in a bag and you have to keep it somewhere not too conspicuous. The drivers we had also kept asking us if we want them to procure whiskey for us from their secret sources (since alcohol is not sold at grocery stores). I wonder if they thought all Western girls are alcoholics... we politely declined.

Above: a dessert made of rice pudding, raisins and cashews, along with a mango lassi. 

Above: the making of curd on the street. Curd is a type of yogurt that Indians eat on a daily basis. The curd acts as a counter-balance to the spicy food, helping to cool off the palate.

Curd sold on the street.

I have no idea what those things are, but if any of our readers know, please do tell us in a comment at the end of this post.

Part Two: Recovering From "Delhi Belly" in Nepal
We arrived in Nepal via overland border crossing at Saunali. We were stoked to leave India, so we took a few photos in front of the "Welcome to Nepal" border sign, in which we are jumping with joy and cheering. Soon after, we checked into our hotel in Lumbini (the town where Buddha was born about 500 years BC) and we celebrated properly with our first bottle of Everest beer. Well, Anne did (see image below), as I was still recovering from my second episode of stomach sickness from Varanasi, and decided to stay away from beer for a while. Ironically, we came to notice that many restaurants in Nepal had a "recover from India belly" item on the menu, featuring mild rice puddings and muesli with bananas.

Gorkha beer - reminiscent of the fearless Nepali Gurkha soldiers.
Drinking tongba - the traditional Tibetan beer made of hot fermented millet.
Tongba is called "beer" but it tastes more like hot sake. It's served as a large mug filled with fermented millet (grain that grows in cold weather at high altitude), over which you pour hot water from a kettle filled with water. The straw is flat and narrow at one end, so millet grains don't go inside when you sip through it. The hot liquid tastes less alcoholic than it is, but after a while you start feeling a strong buzz. The taste really reminded me of the hot sake you get in some Japanese restaurants. Tongba is a Tibetan drink, just perfect to warm you up on those cold Himalayan days.

A soothing lemonade with mint at Olive Cafe in Pokhara. We loved that restaurant sooooo much, that we went there every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything was cooked to such an extent of perfection that I literally licked the plate at the end of every meal. I remember once the waiter took the salad plate away from me, and I desperately stared at the last drops of delicious dressing left on it. We also visited their sister restaurant in Pokhara and the New Orleans Cafe in Kathmandu, both under the same ownership. Last time I talked to Anne, she was planning on writing a letter to the owner of the restaurant, to congratulate him on what a delight his restaurants have been for us.

The Middle Eastern plate at Olive Cafe: baba ganoush, hummus, feta cheese, fresh hot pita bread and salad. It's what Jenny religiously ordered every day.

New Orleans style fish cooked with spices and vegetables and served with pita bread.

Tomato soup and a fresh salad. After India, we were crazed to eat as many fresh raw veggies as we could.

Above: Nepal's most ubiquitous dish: dal bhat, which I absolutely loved and ordered as much as I could. This in fact was my last dish in Nepal before leaving the country. God bless you, dal bhat!! I shall look for you all over San Francisco. By the way, does anyone reading this know if there are any restaurants in SF where you can find dal bhat? Dal bhat literally means lentils and rice, but the dish is actually much more than that. As the image above shows, it's a sample of 4 or 5 different things served on a metal tray with partitions. Dal is a yellow soup made of lentils and spices. Bhat is boiled white rice. It is served with a vegetable curry (tarkari), which is usually potatoes, cabbage, carrot and cauliflower. You also get small servings of very spicy chutney or tomato salsa and some pickes (achaar.) In some restaurants, this is served with papadum (a crispy flat bread, also typical in Indian cuisine.)

Dinner at New Orleans Cafe in Kathmandu. If only the margaritas were stronger, this would be the perfect dining place.

Spices on the streets of Kathmandu.

We concluded our last night in Kathmandu with a pitcher of margarita. It was our last night in Asia, our last day of traveling together with Jenny and, more or less, the end of our 6 month trip, the exotic part at least. After Nepal, we went for a quick sting in London, then Zurich for Anne and Romania for both of us. From here, we are flying back home, to our beloved California, and much dreaded San Francisco foggy summer. What a trip this has been!

Monica, May 15, 2012