I’m going to India.
Now, I’m known for saying things like that.
I’m traveling the perimeter of Ireland this year. I’m changing the face (pun not intended) of limestone karst conservation in Vietnam. I’m becoming a motorbike taxi driver in Thailand; a scorpion wrangler in Malaysia.
I really am going to India, though. In April. For professional reasons (to get a YTT certification) and personal reasons (to discover spirituality and the truth about the universe, thus allowing me to understand why Chipotle’s burritos have the strongest of magnetic pulls on most rational humans).
But I’m also going to India because there is something very magical about the culture. Particularly the cuisine.
It literally, figuratively, sets me on fire.
I like spicy food. I often find that when a dish is so spicy – so spicy I can’t keep my tongue in my mouth, but rather leave it wagging like a dog’s, hanging out of a car window, eager for air; so spicy I’m unable to find solace in any quantity of any beverage – it’s an almost euphoric experience. Even hallucinogenic.
Not saying that’s why I like spicy food.
But that can happen.
There’s something different about the spice in Indian food though. It’s not just spicy in the heat sense, but spicy in a more robust, intensely flavorful way. Know this: India produces more varieties of spice than anywhere else in the world. Cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, chilli pepper… Mingling, marinating, mating together.. All encased in an edible envelope of…alliteration.
What I mean to say is: these bold, exotic ingredients meld together and really sing and create babies, babies of curries and vindaloos and chutneys and kormas.
And it’s all completely, dramatically, unidentifiable.
I like Indian food because I never know what I’m eating.
I’m lucky when I eat Indian with people who know what to order. The decision-making is out of my hands. Pressure’s off and paneer — glorious paneers! — are on the table.
I’m lucky even when I eat Indian with people who don’t know what to order. Other novices. We order chicken tikka masala. (It’s still delicious, I don’t care if it came from Scotland.) But even with tikka masala’s in front of us, we novices only seem to hypothesize, articulate, and fall flat in our theories on what it is we’re actually eating.
Unlike any other cuisine I’ve ate in my life, I just can’t get a grasp on it.
Never identifiable, yet it’s always delicious. Maybe I’ll spot a chickpea or a lentil or a cauliflower or a piece of what’s presumably chicken. Maybe I’ll taste the sour creaminess of a yogurt base or the pungent liquidity of mustard seed oil. But roughly 67% of what’s in front of me, is unbeknownst to me. What’s in it? How is it made? Who cried tears of epicurean passion to create this singingly fragrant, green-speckled, creamy baby child curry marvel in front of me?
I’m not only perfectly fine with that. I love it; I live for these sorts of culinary mysteries.
Fortunately for some, and almost in a sort of reconciliatory way, you’re served naan, or chapatti, or rice or roti, or thosai, or some other carbohydrate that functions as a safety net, a foundational cornerstone to the meal, and to me, the real star of the show.
Without buttered garlic naan, you’re naked. Like an artist with paint but no brushes or canvas. You just kind of stare at the paint. You sit and salivate. You think about spooning it into your mouth with whatever utensil is accessible, but you refrain, remembering to appear to be socially acceptable.
Without these breads, the chutney and salad accoutrements that dot the edges of your banana leaf platter are left alone. Like too many kids in elementary school recesses without a buddy, left hanging out in parking lot corners and against walls all alone. Just looking for someone to reach out to them.
Connect with them.
That’s why eating Indian is great. You’re really connecting with what you eat. It’s visceral; hands on. Or rather, one hand on: your right. Spoons and forks are for the uncultured or the timid. The skill involved in tearing a piece of naan with just your index and ring fingers, then scooping a dollop of paneer with it. Bilzerian couldn’t compete.
Unfortunately, I left my camera in a bowling alley in Luang Prabang two weeks ago, and it hasn’t surfaced yet, so I have no photo documentation of the seven consecutive Indian dishes I’ve ate in the past 72 hours.
As I think about the experiences I’ve had with Indian food though, this is for the best – because that’s all Indian food is.
Impermanent. Alluring. Magical.
After time, the dramatic, digestible dance of an Indian dish you once tasted will only become a concept of your imagination. Nostalgia is no good at bringing back the smell of spices in a savoury Indian stew.
So alliteration aside, I’ve decided I need to make some moves. In a few short weeks, I’m going to India to contort my body into yogic postures. But more importantly, to uncover the secrets behind India’s gastronomic treasures.
It will be both mind-blowing, and, for better or for worse, body-blowing.
But I will bring the Imodium.