Food Baffles

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January 15th 2017
Published: January 15th 2017
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There’s something I need to get off my chest.

It’s about food. Sure, I love food in India, and sometimes I think I’ve become addicted to specific foods—idli—mmm, those steamed white pillows of fermented rice and urud dahl batter, spongy and friendly. Morning and night—with coconut, peanut, tomato, or mint chutney. Oh so yummy. I love I love it. And dosa, fried crispy and rolled up, parotha, vegetable bryani, uttapam, pongal, lemon rice, curd rice, mint rice—I can eat mounds of rice in India.

Yes, I love the food, the spices, the textures, the way it feels hot and squishy in my hand as I scoop it into my mouth.

But what I need to unload are my feelings about eating the food in India. At times, eating here baffles me.

“Have you eaten?” That’s a popular question after “Where are you from?” Then, if you say you’ve eaten, it’s “What did you eat?” Not so baffling, but then it gets more interesting.

First off, it seems that most Indians are on an eating schedule. And if they don’t meet their established schedule, it seems to disrupt their day. I’ve met people who have laid out their daily schedule—tea at 7:00 am; breakfast—usually three idli, no more—at 8:30 am; lunch at 1:00 pm; tiffin—coffee and a snack like vada or samosa at 4:00 pm; then supper at 8:30 pm. Deviation from a set schedule is avoided.

People have asked me about my schedule, to which I reply, “I usually eat when I’m hungry.” Frequently they appear puzzled. “And sometimes, when I don’t feel hungry, I don’t eat at all, or I’ll just have a snack.” That raises even more puzzled looks.

I observed someone watch the clock for that magic time of 8:30 am when he could take breakfast. His wife pointed out the time, but that day, he would deviate and delay a few minutes because I was visiting with them.

When someone watched me drink tea very late in the morning I got a lecture. “Normally, we take tea first thing after we get up in the morning.”

“I’m glad that works for you,” I said.

Another time I ordered tea after a lunch, and my dining companion said, “We don’t usually order tea after lunch.”

“I do,” I replied, and since he was familiar with foreigner ways,
A Very special Rainbow Guest House Pongal mealA Very special Rainbow Guest House Pongal mealA Very special Rainbow Guest House Pongal meal

Several types of vada, light and dark pongal, fruit--so delicious
he was okay with it.

One must drink tea or coffee while hot. The night I went carousing—wandering the neighborhood during festival and getting invited inside people’s homes—I was served either tea or coffee. People seemed very disturbed if I did not drink while it was still hot in the little metal cup.

“Drink your coffee,” they would say.

“Yes, I will,” I replied.

“But it won’t be hot.”

“Yes, it’s alright.”

One woman picked up the cup and held it in front of my face while I kept talking. She appeared so anxious because I was not drinking it quickly enough. I knew she was doing it, she knew she was doing it, and she knew I knew she was holding that cup in front of my face, expecting me to drink the coffee when she wanted me to drink the coffee.

Mostly people drink water just after eating, rarely before or during. When eating in people's homes, many times the host has told me, rather firmly, to "drink water” after the meal as she pours a cup for me.

Then there’s the way people eat. My impression while traveling through Tamil Nadu is that most eating in restaurants is done quickly and efficiently, with little social interaction. Perhaps they are aware of others waiting to get a seat to eat also. At times eating seems more like a duty, to be undertaken in a prescribed manner.

If having rice, for instance, they use the right hand to mix it thoroughly with the sambar. I’ve watched mothers mix the white rice with the curd or other sauce, squeezing it with their whole hand, then they push balls of the mixture into their children’s mouths.

I don’t always mix—I leave white clumps of rice unsauced here and there, and in some places heavy with sauce. I got a comment on that, too—someone “admired” how I ate when I mixed everything well, but I received no compliments, just urging to mix it up, when I left clumps of white kernels.

And there’s a specific order of eating things. At a buffet, I took a little of a sweet dish along with the usual idli. When the waiter came by, he saw that I had not eaten the sweet before eating the idli. He pointed wildly at the sweet, and tried to find the words to tell me I must eat that first. He appeared so agonized, I quickly scooped the sweet into my mouth and then proceeded with idli.

At lunch, when eating a meal of rice with a variety of side dishes, the order is roughly the following:

Sprinkle water on your banana leaf and rub to “wash”, shake off excess water.

Watch as guys come by, plopping rice and scoops of vegetables and a pinch of salt on the leaf.

Wait for the sambar guy, and watch him dip sauce onto the rice. Mix well.

If served sweet pongal, eat that first, because that’s traditional.

Grab pinches of vegetables as you eat the sambar dressed rice. Also mix in a little pickle if you received that.

More food comes as you eat, and unless you hold out your hand to say enough, you’ll get more scoops.

Rasam, a kind of peppery soup, comes next on more white rice.Then comes curd or buttermilk with more rice. This is where the salt comes in. I ate in someone’s home, and she kept telling me to add salt to my curd and I didn’t and she kept telling me to add it.

Oh, the appalum, the thin crispy disc-shaped thing. Now I’ve forgotten, but I think you’re supposed to crumble it into small pieces and mix with the curd rice. Oh my, who am I going to disturb next because I don’t know if the appalum belongs with the curd or the rasam?

If you’re smart and a light eater like me, you learn to section your mound of white rice from the beginning, saving for the later servings of rasam and curd. Otherwise you end up eating three cups of rice. Or more.

Sometimes they give a small cup of soupy sweet payasam. I’ve seen people scoop the soup out with their fingers and eat, or drink it out of the cup. That’s last.

When you’ve had enough, fold the leaf. Careful—you must turn so the folded edge is farthest away from you, otherwise, you will appear to reject the meal to the server. Very bad form.

Then there’s the digestive, breath freshening seeds you get, either in a bowl at the table or at the checkout counter. Sugar coated fennel seeds and other mixtures are offered.

Eating food in a specific order is not so unusual, but when I asked, why does the curd or buttermilk come at the end? and why does rasam follow the sambar and vegetables? No one could answer me. I know there’s some kind of explanation.

I can’t get idli and dosai at lunch. How come? Restaurants just don’t do it. Perhaps it has to do with needing to ferment the batter for so many hours before cooking? And fruit is rarely offered with a meal—maybe a small banana at the end, but rarely is there the luscious mango or papaya or pineapple or guava with the meal. And many people dislike oranges.

The other thing that I can't let go is who eats when in the home. A family rarely sits down all together to eat. The cook serves her husband and other men, her children--and after they're satisfied, she eats, usually on her own. When I had a special feast with a bunch of westerners in a family home, we all sat down while women busily served us. There was a leaf of food with no one sitting, and the mother of the household and preparer of much of the food sat down there, after some cajoling from her guests. She sat, and we all cheered and clapped, realizing that her joining us was highly unusual. Maybe she did it to make us all feel more comfortable. I'm glad we shared that meal with the feast creator and cook.

I’m baffled at times.

But then there was the tea incident. I met a young woman from London, who ordered a tea from a tea stall one evening before we returned to the homestay. She received it in a paper cup instead of the usual glass that most people use. I try not to think about how they wash or don’t wash those glasses between users. Anyway, she said that since she had a “take away” cup, she would take it away. So we started walking along the noisy street, she sipping from her take away cup now and then amidst pattering on and on about her experiences in India.

As we neared our destination, a well dressed man stopped us. “Excuse me. Please drink your tea. The street is busy. It can cause accidents. I am a professor. Thank you.” Then he walked on.

My companion dutifully drank her tea on the side of the road as motor scooters buzzed by.

I thought about this. I've seen people walking down the streets brushing their teeth, but rarely if ever sipping their drinks, as in a western country. But I’m not convinced this is the habit in order to prevent accidents. It’s just the way it’s done. Men and women gather around the tea stalls, and drink their tea (quickly) together, talking about their day or work or their family. My companion and I would have had a much more relaxed conversation had we stopped for a few minutes at the tea stall to trade stories and drink tea.

So I’m really not so baffled after all. About that one, anyway.

Additional photos below
Photos: 20, Displayed: 20


15th January 2017

a unique food experience
One of the blessings of travel to a foreign country is sharing the food they eat and the way they eat it. Fond memories for me. Thank you for sharing yours with me and reminding me
15th January 2017

Food Blessings
Food brings people together, whether it be families, communities, or people from different cultures. I too am thankful I can participate in the unique food and eating experience here. Thanks for your comment, Ann.
17th January 2017

Thanks for outlining some of the dos and don'ts. I no doubt will do something extremely awkward when I visit India this year.. As a leftie, I have a hard enough time remembering not to eat with my left hand!
17th January 2017

Foreigners are always forgiven, it seems. Just have a great time! Thanks for your comment.
13th March 2022

How can you explain the concept of food baffles?
14th March 2022

food baffles
Hi, I think your comment is rhetorical, so I won't try to respond in any way. But if there is a question you want me to answer, perhaps you can give a little more detail in your question so I understand better and can respond. Thanks for commenting!

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