Before we left for our six-month honeymoon to India back in 2007, we received all sorts of unsolicited advice in New Jersey, where we had a Four Hour Layover Fiesta, with the biggest family naan I have ever seen. And at the end of it, Sona’s father, a pediatrician, asked me if I wanted some shots. I, of course, said yup and before I knew what was happening, instead of being poured tequila, he had a syringe out and proceeded to vaccinate me for everything he could think of, including dengue fever and malaria. Sona’s Mamaji (maternal uncle), a large man with a booming voice that scares the daylights out you when he sneezes, told us to make sure to only eat at Pizza Hut or KFC and drink sodas. “Limca, Fanta, Thumbs Up, is okay,” he told us. “But not the bunta vala drinks.” And of course, those are my favourite drinks, that are always refilled, carbonated, and pack a bubbly punch straight to the back of the throat.
The only advice I received from my family was from my brother-in-law, who told me the first purchase I should make in India is a knife for protection “in case there’s a situation.” Advice which is surreal, given the recent media coverage of the gangrape in Delhi, repeated again in Punjab. Fortunately we never encountered any such violence, although we did have some dodgy encounters on buses and trains. My family loves street food and it’s part of my association with the country. Of any place, really, whether we’re talking about China, Vietnam, or Texas.
My cousin, a lawyer in Queens, refuses to eat street food in India, and tried to talk Kavya out of wanting a hot dog in Manhattan. He promptly got on her shitlist when he said, “Find the dirtiest man you can find in New York, and I bet you he’ll have a hot dog cart.” Many people I know, including fellow brown folk, and the culinary unadventurous have this phobia against germs. Sometimes it’s a justifed phobia, but quite often it isn’t. And it’s undoubtedly true that you do run the risk of getting ill. But this is my version of hell: standing in the midst of mouthwatering streetfood and not being able to eat any of it. It should be in Dante’s Inferno as the tenth level of hell.
I’ve gotten sick here and there, but nothing all that major. I don’t think it’s because I have an iron stomach, although the few drops of local firewater I’ve consumed in my 20s may have inoculated me for life. When we were in Rajasthan, Sona contracted a parasite. From the train in Chandigarh or in Ahmedabad or who knows where. That was the only time she ever got dangerously ill. But it didn’t stop her from eating it up. We were just a bit more careful. She had to get antibiotics, which is available over the counter at any of the million pharmacies dotting the streets and alleyways. If I knew the Hindi for elephant tranquilizer, I probably could have gotten that too. On my earlier travels into India, I survived on eating the hotly contested Momos from Tibet to the dodgy border Sunauli crossing into India from Nepal. And never once got sick until I was in Pushkar, Rajasthan, and an Israeli girl convinced me to go to one of the fancy pants “western” buffets, where the meat and salad had probably been sitting for who knows how long. I had a lovely conversation about motorbikes and hummus though. Then it sucked.
When I was in Hanoi, Vietnam, during the summer, the most amazing food there were the salads. Lime. Coriander. Crunchy vegetables, and the most delicious sauce drizzled over it. All from people sitting on crates with a makeshift kitchen, and a meat cleaver hanging from their jackets or skirts. I’m an absolute carnivore, but Vietnemese salad I can happily eat even without the presence of a dead animal. I must have meat in my pho though, that’s pho sure. I’ll give you all a moment to compose yourselves after you re-read that hilarious alliteration.
We now live in Jersey City, a ten-minute train ride into downtown Manhattan, which has some great food from around the world, including sanitized versions of street food, such as Kathi Rolls from Calcutta, Afghani kebabs, and even cut up mangos drizzled with red chili powder, the way Sona and I ate in Mexico. Sona’s dad makes the most amazing gol-guppa pani and, when it’s raining, an in-house street food fiesta is inevitable. They live near Little India in New Jersey. But when they moved to the area in the 1970s, there was no Little India, so they had to make everything from scratch whenever they’d throw a party.
On some days, he will stroll on into the kitchen and decide he’s going to make pakoras from scratch. But as delicious as everything is, there’s just something about the experience of eating street food in the streets that just cannot be replicated. Whether it’s nighttime or daytime, there’s a vibrancy and energy in the air, loud noises, an explosion of activity, yelling, laughing, multitasking, and absolutely delicious food. As much love as I have for Gits, it just doesn’t do it, although Sona’s dad’s gol-guppa pani and her mom’s papri chaat comes pretty damn close. If they started eating paan and spitting on the floor as they handed it to us, that would probably help.
There are certain days we feel homesick and as travelers, it’s a peculiar feeling because our homesickness always revolves around food. But particularly, street food because that’s mostly what we ate. A lot of times, we don’t remember concrete details about a place, but get us on the topic of street food in the area, and images, aromas, and people’s faces and voices start emerging, like an interactive oil painting, immediately followed by itchy feet. Calcutta and Chennai, we found incredibly boring, because you really had to plan out what to do. It’s not like Varanasi or Beijing, where you can go out for a walk and see something interesting. But the food in Calcutta was absolutely phenomenal and unexpectedly spicy. And I mean really spicy.
When we were planning our trip to Greece, just before Sona found out she was pregnant and we had to scratch that awesome plan of taking a donkey up and down the steps of Santorini, we planned the entire trip around the food. I was surprised to be drawn to a salad (again!) that comprised of nothing more than cucumbers, tomatoes, and olive oil. My mouth still tingles when I think about the various lamb dishes that are available on street corners.
Some of our conversations are nostalgic, and it’s funny sometimes when Sona will say something like, “Remember that gorgeous palace we went to in Mysore,” and I’ll blink at her. Then she’ll say, “We ordered a huge masala dosa for 30 rupees across the street from it,” and I’ll instantly know what she’s talking about. Mysore: the crazy-ass palace that looks like the Mad Hatter lived there. The great coffee. The rickshaw driver with the epic mustache. How great it was to walk everywhere and the lackadaisical fortune teller we went to who didn’t think we were married and told Sona she’d get lucky and marry someone and have boys by the time she was 34.
Often, our conversations go like this:
“Let’s go back to (insert place name here),” I’ll say to Sona, based on nothing more than a vague recollection of what the street food there tasted like. Or what I think the street food in a new place will taste like. Before we travelled together, there was a time Sona would have rolled her eyes and said something stupid like, “You want to spend thousands of dollars just so you can eat a Vietnemese sandwich?” I would have had to shake my head vigorously and argue that Bánh mì is not a Vietnmese sandwich the same way a gulab jamun is not a sugary dough ball in syrup. It’s a gulab jamun.
Part of the reason we sometimes feel so nostalgic for certain foods is that there is a visceral experience deeply ingrained within the act of eating. We travelled to India before the days of iPhone, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. So the experience was intensified because of the lack of immediacy surrounding it. For me that experience was a lot more expansive and covers places like the Middle East, Africa, and many areas of South East Asia, where I lived and travelled before I met Sona. But they’re places I’d like to take her and Kavya. Now, we photograph our food so much that sometimes Kavya will wait to eat until the plate has been immortalized through a hashtag on Instagram – our version of saying Grace.
When I lived in Nigeria as a child, I remember meat pies because they were immediately followed by a swim in the pool. Yes, I swam on a full stomach and lived to tell the tale. Just after the call to prayer in Dubai we’d go to the bustling markets near the Gold Souk, in the cool desert air at night, eat thinly sliced, juicy and succulent shawerma that would drip everywhere. An Indian or Pakistani guy would sell roasted chickpeas in masala, served in Arabic newspaper to go, and my parents would recall fish and chips in England being served that way, or street food in India. The shawerma would drip all over everyone’s clothes. Okay, it was probably just me. I’d eat coriander dumplings and kebabs on skewers in China. India, though, is where all of my most delicious memories go haywire because there are just so many experiences associated with it. My cousin was pregnant when we went, and took us for gol guppas, where we ate a tubful. Then came back to her in-laws and we had to pretend not to have eaten, so had a full meal at home and waddled around till it was time for bed. And don’t get us started on the fresh juices and alu tikkis.
I’ve met plenty of people, including many Desis (the term for anyone from the Indian subcontinent, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc), who actively avoid eating street food when they go on family trips, citing things like hygiene or just being grossed out at the idea of some dude putting his hands into a bucket of gol-guppa pani before giving it to you one at a time. Sona has none of these qualms, but does feel “pressure” to eat fast since they hand the gol guppe to you one at a time at a breakneck speed.
It’s true that drinking unfiltered water in India is just asking for trouble, but to boycott all street food is a bit extreme and it makes me genuinely sad when I hear about people who have been to the same places I have (or want to go) stay away from the street food. I just don’t get it. What’s the point going to Amritsar if you’re not going to eat a kachori. In Guangzhou I remember going on an epic hunt through side streets to find a place that served snake or unidentified meat on skewers in Tibet. It took me four trips to Beijing before I finally went to the Forbidden City, and I never even went to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. As long as there’s some tasty food to be had, I’m sorted. If your idea of travel is to sit in a tour bus, looking out the windows watching people eat some scrumptious food on the streets, while you scamper back to the hotel for your super-sanitizied mean, I have no words for you. Just loud screeching noises.
Even though Kavya is very much into being a princess, she’s also into hot dogs, slices of 99 cent pizzas, and kebabs when we go out to the City. She insisted on eating with chopsticks when she could barely hold a spoon. So it will be interesting to see how adventurous we end up being with Kavya in tow when we finally go vagabonding again, especially in South East Asia. Embrace the dodgy stomach.
I leave you with a conversation I had with a Slovenian I briefly travelled with in Cambodia. We were starving and stumbled into this tiny, hole in the wall restaurant that had this large guy with his shirt off, and tonnes of people in a confined place.
“You heard of this place?” I said to him.
“How do you know it’s any good then?”
“Look at all the people. And it’s so noisy. It must be good.”