We like Indian food. Ha! Even as I type that I have to laugh to myself, because yes, we like Indian food, but of course in INDIA it’s just food, and it’s what’s available morning, noon, and night. With few other options. Because it is India. So, liking Indian food in the sense that you order it once a month is not the same as being here. Of course it isn’t!
“But the food,” the mothers say to me at the playground in the evening, “how is it for your family with the food?”
“Good,” I answer, “we like Indian food,” I say, “but we’re not accustomed to eating very spicy things at every meal.” They nod along. The constant onslaught of very spicy things can be overwhelming. To us at least.
One afternoon some very kind neighbors took us to their restaurant and ordered a selection of options for us. It was incredibly generous and thoughtful, but we were not in control of the spiciness. James was a champ, literally sweating through an amazingly spicy but very tasty chicken dish.
We have become masters at remembering the dishes at each restaurant that haven’t been too spicy. If they were consistently not spicy, this would be the perfect solution. Instead it’s always a bit of a gamble. We order a lot of Uber eats and switch out the Indian options for the Arabic menu on occasion because they are flavorful but not as hot. During our first week here we had Pizza Hut at the mall. It is a testament to our desperation to eat anything remotely like pizza that we ate every bite. And loved it.
A colleague from India warned us that we should be very cautious of eating any beef or pork here. Depending on the community it could be culturally offensive, which is reason enough, but it also might not be as safe as the meat we encounter in the US. We’ve seen bacon on the menu of a couple of hotels, but are always told it’s “currently unavailable.” I secretly wonder if it is ever available. If you order sausage, it will absolutely be chicken. The same goes for any “burger” you see.
At hotels we are treated to a mix of Indian and Continental options at the breakfast bar—idly and chapati, chutneys and curries, but also omelets, toast, and something like a croissant. Fresh juices are always available, but sometimes the flavor is unexpected. Thinking I was getting watermelon juice one day, I was sorely disappointed to realize I’d fixed myself a large glass of tomato juice. V-8 it was not. Actual tomato juice isn’t salty at all and is a little tough to chug. Especially if you were hoping for watermelon.
The traditional Kerala food is perhaps our favorite. I love it because there is a mix of options. Served on these large divided metal plates, you’re presented with a heaping helping of rice and then a mix of sides. Something green, something red, something yogurt based. A platter of additional dishes is brought over. I always go for the dal (lentil) one because it is mild (at least at our canteen—not true at all restaurants). What each dish is exactly, I am not sure, but they’re all beautifully prepared and delicious. I love to go to the campus canteen for this specialty. The first day, my friend Hassena helped me order a fish to go with my meal. I’ve ordered fish twice since on my own, and never gotten the same thing. Once it was a full pan-friend fish. Once it was a small dish of small fried fish. Another time it was a dish of spicy fish curry swimming with wee fish skeletons.
Leaving food on your plate is very rude here. I have tried to moderate the amount of rice I’m served with the Kerala meal, as it can be daunting if someone gives you a large amount (which they love to do). Servers walk around the restaurant with huge stainless steel bowls of rice to give you seconds. When at a restaurant we always ask to bring any of our leftovers home, horrified to imagine people will think we waste food.
Sidebar: that food is called “take away” not “to go.” Willy loves the differences in language and likes to point them out. It’s a lift, not an elevator. A flat, not an apartment. Maths not math. Specs not glasses.
There is so much food still to discover! Just today our dear neighbor Shambu brought by Payasam made by his grandmother. It’s a kind of porridge (with rice or vermicelli) with sweetened milk and cardamom, served hot after a meal.
Here is a selection of photos from some of the amazing food experiences we have had:
Visit to the tea shop for tea and vadas (a savory fried item).
Fruit and veg, only some of which we can identify! Those are gooseberries on the right top corner and jackfruit on the bottom right.
Fresh cane juice with lemon, mint, and ginger.
Fish available at the local shop.
Fried fish at the campus canteen, kerala meals, a different fish at the campus canteen, and another example of kerala meals.
Payasam made fresh by Shambu’s grandmother (which Willy tells me is amuma in Malayalam) served in this great little canister that you can place right on the stove to heat up.
Edited: I forgot the best part– Kerala meals are eaten without utensils. For the first few days we were here, we didn’t totally realize this, as we were in hotels and because we also eat so early (they eat lunch at 1 PM or later not noon, and dinner later than our 6 or 6:30). Initially, we didn’t comprehend how it would even work. We have many hand-held foods of course, but rice with curries? The cool thing is that they have everything set up to make it easy. First, in restaurants there are open rooms of sinks where everyone goes to wash their hands before they dine. It is as if there was a “bathroom” with no door, filled solely with sinks. It’s great– and as a mom I’m always thrilled to see hand washing made a part of a meal. It is customary to only eat with your right hand, for reasons I’m not going to delve into on a post about food.
How does it work? You may be thinking. For one thing, the rice served with the Kerala meal is a larger variety than we’re used to. It is not basmati, though basmati is served with other dishes. It looks almost like hominy. In the world of rice grains, it’s an easy to grab variety.
Yes, Katharine, but how?
Well, if you’re hungry– you figure it out. You pull your fingers together and create a little scoop, and scoop it up to your mouth. It’s not a free-for-all of food flying. It’s not particularly messy. Yes, your right hand has food on it, but you proceed through the meal and then visit the washroom again. The first time we tried this at a restaurant, we did not know what we were doing. We plowed through the napkins, which do not help the situation. It was a sticky, uncomfortable mess. After that we followed cues from our Kerala friends and did not introduce napkins into the equation.
Our friend Mani told us that people here don’t believe you have really tasted a meal unless you have eaten it with your hands. They consider it a part of the culinary sensory experience, as you would tastebuds, smell, and the texture you experience from food in your mouth.
He has a point. So try it the next time you have a rice dish– but please do wash your hands before and after.
More to come!