One of my biggest reservations about traveling to India was the food. I’m not a fan of spicy dishes, so I thought all of the curries and dahls that awaited me on the subcontinent would surely mock me with their pungent aromas and sinus-clearing spices. But as it turns out, there were just as many mild options as hot ones, and the food was good.
A typical meal in Kerala, the southwestern-most state where I spent most of my time, comes complete with anywhere from three to eight different dishes to try. This already works in your favor because if you don’t like one thing, or you find it too spicy, simply move on to one of the six other dishes scattered around your table.
On our first night in Kannur, a coastal city in the northern part of Kerala, the dinner were we served started with a huge amount of Keralan rice piled high in the center of the plate. Grains of Keralan rice are not as long as Jasmine rice, but they’re much fatter and seem a bit starchier. Around the pile of rice, as if crafting a delicious, edible clock, our plates received smaller piles of okra, eggplant, potato, and chickpea concoctions. Keralan cuisine uses a lot of mustard seeds, pepper, and cardamom, so these veggie dishes were always just as colorful as they were flavorful.
On a separate plate placed in the middle for two of us to share were four pieces of grilled barracuda—smothered in flavors spicy enough to keep me an arm’s length from it. To help sop up the deliciousness on our plates were breads like chapati or papadum, and sometimes both.
Seconds (and thirds and fourths) were delivered unceasingly until we threw up our hands and said, “No more!” Dessert was a sweet cream and coconut mixture wrapped up in a rice flour “pancake” of sorts, served warm inside a folded-over banana leaf.
Breakfast and lunch often offered a sweet lassi, a yogurt-based drink flavored with pineapple or mango, and every meal was followed by hot coffee, black tea, or masala chai. At beachside cafes in Goa, I drank cup after cup of honey lemon ginger water, which is exactly what it sounds like—hot water flavored with fresh ginger and lemon, and sweetened with honey.
Most of the time, the meals we ate were prepared with fresh ingredients usually grown or raised no more than a kilometer or two from where we ate the meal. In Fort Cochin, an old Portuguese port town in southern Kerala, you can stroll along Beach Drive at the north end of the peninsula and survey the fishermen’s catches from the day. If you’d like, you can buy a fish (or shrimp or lobster) that looks good to you, and the fisherman will send it over to a local restaurant for them to cook for your dinner. I’m not sure it gets any fresher or more personalized than that.
As tourists, foreigners, and (let’s face it) white people, we were usually provided with cutlery at meals, but when we had occasion to have a meal in a train station or a local restaurant off the beaten path, we quickly learned the customs associated with eating with your hands.
Most restaurants have a sink in the back where you can wash your hands with water from a bucket before your meal. Indians eat only with the right hand. The different breads like chapati and puri, though they are delicious in their own right, seem strategically made to serve as little shovels to help gather the food and get it from plate to mouth.
There were lots of customs to learn about food in India. The 8-hour, 300-mile train ride we took from Goa to Kannur proved to be very educational in this respect, in fact.
After bracing ourselves for the journey with tiny, shot-sized cups of chai procured from a vendor wandering his way through the train station, we boarded our sleeper class car at about 8:25 a.m., an hour after the train was scheduled to depart.
Knowing we were in for a long ride, we’d bought packages of cookies and snacks to sustain us, and we scarfed down a couple of samosas right before boarding, even though they were far too spicy to qualify as “breakfast,” in my opinion.
But in spite of our attempt to come prepared, we found ourselves hungering for something that wasn’t in the shape of a cracker about four hours into the journey.
As we reached midday, Indian families traveling together began to pull out tupperware containers of rice and dhals they’d brought from home. We glanced longingly at their bounty.
As if in answer to our need, we pulled into the station at Mangalore, and after a few minutes, Indians (who clearly knew the deal) were coming back onto the train clutching heavy aluminum dishes with cardboard lids containing hot biriyani or thali. After more than five hours on the train with little more than vanilla-flavored cookies and cough drops to snack on, it smelled good. (Who knew you could get so hungry just sitting on a hot, crowded train, staring out the window? Perhaps sweating burns more calories than I previously thought.)
Peering out the windows, we realized “independent” vendors were populating the train platforms in larger stations, selling this take-away to hungry passengers out of cardboard boxes. As hunger overcame me, I ventured off the train armed with 200 rupees, looking to make one of those to-go containers mine.
The train had been in the station in Mangalore for about six minutes already, and once I disembarked, I walked along the platform, passing vendor after vendor standing next to his empty cardboard box, counting his money. As the realization that I might not get anything to eat after all washed over me, I started moving quicker, dashing from cardboard box to cardboard box, but each was empty.
On the way back to my train car, I saw a vendor who had clearly either just replenished his stock, or just arrived on the platform. He was surrounded by a very tightly packed crowd of Indian men waving money and shouting. I quickly realized that the process of buying a to-go meal from one of these vendors was a frenetic and occasionally vicious endeavor. I got close enough to see the vendor bent down on one knee at the center of the mob, slipping rupee notes into his shirt pocket with one hand and lifting to-go containers out of his cardboard box with the other, only to have them snatched away in seconds. I was pretty sure bidding wars were being waged. I peered over shoulders and through bent arms, but I saw I was too late, too hesitating, and probably too foreign to be successful. The box was almost empty.
I turned around and trudged back to my train car, climbing back inside with my two 100-rupee notes clutched in my sad, hungry hand. I reached Zach, who looked up at me expectantly, but when his expression turned to confusion and then realization as he saw my empty hands, he put his arm around me as I slumped down next to him and said, “It’s okay, I have gingersnaps.”
After learning our lesson from that first train ride, we tried to come better prepared for a four-hour bus ride we took up into the mountains of Wayanad a few days later.
We bought take-away chicken biriyani at the terminal and confidently boarded the bus clutching the plastic bag, sure we wouldn’t go hungry this time. The bus had bars on the otherwise open windows and kept taking on passengers like a sinking boat takes on water. We sat at the very back, on the bench seat, and eventually, so many people had squeezed themselves down onto the bench that Zach was sitting with his shoulders sideways—the only way he could fit—and I was plastered up against the window, feeling the bruising on my right arm spread and deepen every time we bumped over a pothole or took a hard left turn.
We jostled and bounced along like this for about two hours, up into the mountains of Wayanad around hairpin turns, and eventually, we got hungry. We both eyed the plastic bag that was now jammed between my leg and my backpack at my feet.
As we pulled it out into our laps, we realized one important detail we’d forgotten: a fork. Neither of us would entertain the idea of eating with our hands after two hours spent steadying ourselves in the bus, grabbing at anything that was nailed down, and occasionally our fellow passengers.
We had nothing to eat this biriyani with. Absolutely nothing.
After I shot down Zach’s idea of using his credit card as a shovel (gross!), I remembered I still had the half-full package of gingersnaps he’d offered me on the train a few days before. Feeling confident that I had solved our problem, we each grasped a nice, flat (clean) gingersnap in our hand and bent down to the biriyani.
Mere seconds passed before we realized we had another problem: The bumps and jives of the bus were so frequent and so unpredictable it was virtually impossible to get the gingersnap into the packed-down rice and up successfully to our mouths without sending rice flying everywhere — except into our growling stomachs, of course.
It would’ve been funny… if we weren’t so hungry.
After a few attempts that left rice in my lap, on the floor of the bus, and probably even on our neighboring travelers, we looked at each other, laughed not a little maniacally, and gave up.
We spent the rest of our journey on that bus thinking back longingly to those beautifully sculpted meals at our home stay on the rocky cliffs of the Arabian Sea in Kannur.
We ate well in India, but we also learned a few things the hard way.
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