Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Food, food, food.

Sitting on a wooden bench under a corrugated iron roof of a small wooden stall, in a line of similar stalls on the side of the street, a sparrow alights to my peripheral. It flies away to a, still bright, overcast Indian sky. It is replaced by the everyday hustle and bustle of people, rickshaws, taxis and dogs, rushing back and forth in the morning air. By 8 or 9 am every morning these streets have become a manic scene for all the senses, predominantly sound. I turn my gaze away from the street as my attention is called back by the shop owner handing me my omelette and my cup of chai. I turn over 15 rupees for my breakfast. Both pieces are delicious.

On of the dominant topics of precaution that arises when one is departing for India, at least in my experience, is the insistent caution surrounding what and where you eat. Warnings of avoiding western dishes, avoiding un-peelable fruit and vegetables, avoid meat altogether, and the never ever ever eat the street foods rang in my ears prior to departure like alarm bells. Anyone who knows me, knows I love food. I may be a bit unusual in what I deem to eat due to health choices, but I am never religious about my choices. I like food, and lots of it. As a result I have eaten pretty much everything I was told not to eat before I came, and it has been one of the most incredible experiences my pallet has ever undergone. Spices expertly applied, beautifully fried vegetables, tender cuts of gorgeous meat and an amazing array of options. True, sometimes the food one encounters on a day to day basis should be skipped over with haste, or can sometimes be just plain grueling (not even I particularly want to see my chicken killed and eviscerated in front of me.

The streets of Kolkata are readily stocked with any sort of fresh foods you could want. Stalls line the roads with fresh fruit and veg in abundance and even chicken and fish is only a small walk away. A kilo of onions costs the equivalent of about 20 cent but, unfortunately, without a good fridge they go bad in a few days. The stalls hold chillies, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, mangoes, bananas, peppers, apples and countless fruit and veg I still don't recognize the name of flavor of, eight weeks into the programs. Eggs are one of the more expensive items, at about 5 rupees, of about 3-4 cent each. I have yet to brave any of the street fish or prawns, but I intend to coming towards the end of the placement. And the chicken...let's say its impossible to find fresher.

Dinners out in Kolkata are equally comparatively cheap to home. A fine meal in a swanky restaurant may set you back about a tenner, but it's perfectly possible to get exquisite food for less than a fiver if you simply walk a little further down the road and are willing to dispense with the exceptionally fancy decor. I've eaten lamb in most conceivable manners, fried or grilled, stripped in sauces or on the bone and in a gravy. Chicken dishes can be from mild sweet and sours to chilli riddled dishes that have made my face go red. The veg dishes can be a little risky I've found, most of them have something called "paneer" in them, which seems to be something like cottage cheese...not up my street anyway. The noodles and rice dishes, which I try to stay away from, are equally fantastic and, for the first few weeks, buttered or garlic naan bread was staple at our tables. It goes without saying that me being me, have eaten gluttonous amounts of food and have even had to grin and my waiter responding to my order being "too much" for one person, a statement he coupled with massive dishes. I attacked both statement and evidence with zeal.

On the streets there is an array of food stalls that would miserably fail any sort of health and safety strictures at home, but produce some of the nicest food I have had over all. Chow mein seems to the running favorite with the children in my class but for me it is outclassed by the fried foods and the chicken and veg rolls. Bagies/bajies are a fairly commonplace equivalent of a chipper. Onion, potato and spice, eggplant, and pumpkin are available outside the door of one of my schools, deliciously fried in horrible unhealthy oil and comparatively healthy chickpea batter, all for two rupees a piece. I've eaten more than enough to leave me with a unsettled, greasy, stomach. Next on my list of favorites are the omelettes. Every lunch time between school a local shop serves up, after some chuckles at my attempts at communication with people who speak no English, an omelette and tea. The tea is spiced, differently in each place, and sweetened with sugar. It comes in small cups, but at this point myself and my teaching partner have established we want bigger cups when we order. The omelette is fried with salt and chillies, before this trip I would never have thought to combine chilly and egg but it is a delicious combination. On occasion, if we manage to brave the possible miscommunications, we have managed to order some delicious veg or potato currys. TAlso available were egg or soya currys, both of which I have avoided since my first sample. Finally, in the world of fast food, the rolls are running favorites. Sold from the same stalls that dish out different types of fried chicken and vegetables, the rolls are by far the best, but definitely not paleo. Dough rolled into a circle is fried to form a wrap and, depending on your order you can have veg, egg, chicken, or any combination of the three. The egg adds bulk to the roll as the two are fried together, and the soft texture of potato in the veg roll adds beautifully to the crunchy red onion, the chicken is fried in a spicey sauce. The whole thing is the covered in a chilli and mustard sauce, but these can vary depending on the stall in question. Chillies are an option always worth considering.

Overall, the flavors I have experienced since coming to India have consistently impressed me. While everything, even the jam, is spicey or sweet or both they are never overpowering flavors. Chillies adorn most meals, more noticeably the Chinese meals, but it is never at the expense of the richness of the tastes. The diversity of tastes in one meal alone is enough to make you wish you could order another meal, and it's safe to say my Bengali cookbook will get substantial use at home, if only the mangoes tesco sell could live up to those here! I hope it's not a running trend for Indian foods at home, because I know the Chinese dishes in Ireland are definitely not up to scratch after dining on them here.

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