In Hindi, Masala translates loosely to mean any type of mixture. In most cases in India, it specifically refers to a mixture of spices. And since everything in India is pretty spicy, every dish is a masala dish. Masala omelette for breakfast. Masala pizza for lunch. Chicken tikka masala for dinner. Masala lemonade. Masala ice cream. The word masala is out of control in India and people just cannot get enough. By the end of the trip, we certainly had had enough.
Before we left for India, the thing I was most excited about by far was the food. Aside from the weddings, riding an elephant and seeing the Taj Mahal, eating Indian food for 19 days straight sounded, to me, fantastic. The main reason I don’t eat it more in New York is that I feel guilty because it is so heavy and not the most healthy option. But there, I would have no choice but to eat it and therefore could chow down guilt-free.
I’ve always loved Indian food. I grew up eating it every Friday night with my parents, as it is one of my dad’s favorites. So I’ve definitely had my share of spicy Indian food and felt confident that I would be able to handle the spice. On top of my love for Indian food, one of my claims to fame is having an iron stomach. So I really was confident that I’d have no problem with the food at all.
Nirmal warned me and Jon that we’d quickly tire of eating curries, vindalus and biryanis 3 meals a day. He told us stories about him and his brother ordering Dominos and Pizza Hut from their hotel room. Jon and I cringed at the thought of Pizza Hut and turned up our noses. I loudly proclaimed that I could eat Indian food forever and never be sick of it. Nirmal laughed right in our faces and just said, we’ll see about that.
Gujarat is a vegetarian state. For many meals, they eat a similar compilation of dishes. A typical plate (Thali) generally consists of a soup, rice, vegetables (Shaak) and rice. The soup is called Daal, which is a way to prepare certain legumes, usually lentils, peas or beans, and is mild in flavor. It’s eaten with roti, an unleavened flat bread that is cooked on a round flat surface. The vegetables are made into a big stew and are spicy. Typically, this meal is eaten only with your hands and no utensils. Initially I thought eating with my hands would be fun, but it was actually more difficult than I expected. I realized how trained I am to eat with a fork and knife, and it was hard to break that habit, even in a setting where it was okay to do so. Nirmal’s father however would dig right in and then watch as me and Jon struggled to forget our American manners and shove food in our mouths with our hands. We ate this traditional Gujarati Thali and variations on it for 10 days straight. Then things started to go downhill.
On day 11 of masala mania, Jon and I started to feel bad. We both had miserable stomach aches and were so over masala and Indian food in general. We needed some good American food. We needed pizza. And there was no where better to get pizza in India than that damn Pizza Hut. There we were, scarfing down the very pizza we’d shunned like it was the best thing we’d ever tasted. You can be sure that Nirmal did not forgo his opportunity to say I told you so.
Of all the meals and things we ate while we were there, a few items stood out in my mind as exceptionally delicious. The first was a meal we ate when we first arrived in Mumbai, at a club that Nirmal’s uncle was a member of. After working our way out of a traffic jam of epic proportions, we arrived at this club where Nirmal’s uncle ordered for the table. We had delicious naan bread, butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, saag paneer (a puree of leafy greens mixed with paneer, India’s favorite and seemingly only cheese), pickled mango, gobi masala (spicy cauliflower), biryani rice, and a few other stewed vegetable dishes. The meal was delicious and surprisingly light.
Another great food moment was when Nirmal’s father Prakash agreed to let us eat street food, and sought out a stand that he deemed ‘safe’. Looking back, I don’t think this stand was any safer than any other spot. Clearly these people cooking were not washing their hands properly and were cooking right out on the street, which was filthy. But at the time, I let myself believe Prakash so that I could eat the freshly fried samosa that smelled so delicious. It was stuffed with potatoes (masala potatoes), chickpeas and green peas. The dough was crispy and buttery and the vegetables inside were hot and spicy. Those warm samosas satisfied my craving for Indian street food.
The last thing I ate that was probably my favorite was at the first wedding we attended. It was garlic naan bread, straight out of the (portable) tandoori oven. The cooks would roll out the dough into an oval and then slap it to the inside wall of the tandoori oven. A minute later the bread would be cooked, and they would use long metal tongs to remove the hot bread and toss it into the basket on the buffet line. I stood next to that basked and stuffed five pieces of bread in my face while Jon and Nirmal watched in amazement (probably more horrified than amazed but I didn’t care. That bread was so, so good).
In addition to experiencing street food, we also visited some open air food markets. The first one we saw was in Baroda. It was an intense experience – it was crowded, dusty and chaotic. We entered the market, which was near the old city portion of Baroda, and walked through looking at people selling fruits and vegetables. People had their produce laid out on the ground on dirty sheets and pieces of cloth. Some more established people had little stands, tables or baskets for their food. But many sat on the ground with all of their vegetables.
We also went to a market in Mumbai that enormous called Crawford Market. People at Crawford were selling a crazy variety of products. There were spice stands, produce stands, and people selling shampoo and household products. We thought we’d seen it all until we went outside and cages filled with animals. It was like a pet store and a butcher combined – animals that are sold as pets like kittens and puppies were being sold next to animals sold as dinner, like chickens, turkeys and ducks. It was such a mish-mash bizarre of items it was hard to believe they were all being sold within 10 feet of each other. The best part was when we turned a corner and there were these huge turkeys next to a cage of little Dalmatian puppies. The open markets were just total free for alls.
By the end of the trip, we had eaten a lot of delicious Indian meals, and also a little bit of Pizza Hut. I was definitely ready to come back to hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and simply cooked green vegetables. I will definitely eat Indian food again one day. But for now, we are masala-ed out.
© 2011 Jonathan Meter and Jessica Hertle