After a serious stomach virus in Tamil Nadu, with a visit to the hospital in Chennai, Ellinore injured her arm in a wrestling game with her brother and sported a cast on her arm as we traveled through Rajasthan and, earlier this week, we pinned down her lingering gut problems with a diagnosis of Entamoeba hystolytica. So we are learning the ins and outs of intestinal protozoa-how they are transmitted by fecal-oral contact, by food or water contaminated with cysts, how the cysts then transform into motile trophozoites in the intestines. And we dutifully master the protocols to massacre these lumen-dwelling protozoa.
A case of amoebic dysentery in the family creates a rather urgent incentive to do a systematic review of the ways one ingests food and water. While the ice cream on the beach in Pondicherry was simply a bad idea, it is less clear where else to exercise vigilance. Every day, when we get up, we boil a few liters of water. We do the same in the evening, filling plastic bottles to cool in the small blue kelvinator fridge. And though we wash dishes with water from the tap, we will most likely discontinue washing fruit (always followed by a rinse with boiled or bottled water) with tap water. We are careful, too, when eating out. We avoid ice. We ask to make sure that our sweet lassis are not mixed with water. And we contribute to environmental degradation by ordering plastic bottles of mineral water. But I’m afraid that too much thinking about food and hygiene is simply not our cup of tea.
We love eating here. To be honest, I’ve never been happier eating in my life. We are vegetarian again, for the most part, localvores subsisting on a mostly Maharashtran diet-with a supplement of items from home, like peanut butter, pasta, and crisp red apples grown in Eastern Washington. Most every day we walk to the local street vendors where we fill our canvas bags with fruit. A kg of fresh figs, a twenty-rupee bunch of bananas, as well as oranges, melons, guava, pomegranate, and strawberries. Mangoes have begun to appear, too, as we head into the summer months of April and May, though we are awaiting the fabled sweet mangoes of mid-summer. (We have been told the alphonsos and keshars arrive in a few weeks.) We fill a bag with vegetables as well-tomatoes and cucumbers, long red carrots, peas, sweet red onions, potatoes, cauliflower, a bunch of coriander, and garlic.
It’s fruit and muesli for breakfast. Though on weekends, I retreat to New England fare: pancakes with a pretty sad sugar mixture that stands in for maple syrup. We drink buffalo milk, from the little dairy up the road, which we boil before drinking; we make our own curd; and we do all of our cooking with ghee. For lunch, fruit and sandwiches, peanut butter on bread (15-20 rupees a loaf). Sliced bananas. And maybe a little mango jam. Occasionally we grill cheese sandwiches, or eat leftovers from the evening meal, rice and a little dhal with salt, ghee, and a pinch of sugar. Our staple is rice-about all that Ellinore, the picky eater, will consume. We have a weekly pasta dinner or even order out for pizza. And Ellinore has become the resident expert at eating her food with her right hand.
I can’t get enough Indian spices, whether cardamom, tumeric, coriander, cumin, or the blend of spices in dishes with the label masala or curry. In fact I am having a difficult time imagining a plate of food without chilies, raw sliced red onion, or mango pickle. When we eat out it is mostly dosa and sambar, most often at the Pune landmark on Fergusson College Road, Vaishali; though Ellinore and Nathaniel’s restaurant staple is fried rice, puri, and butter nan. We also have a favorite thali restaurant nearby where we enjoy big silver plates with little bowls that are filled with the spicy and sweet and savory riches of Indian food. When we were in the South, in Tamil Nadu, it was idlis, sambar, and vadas (small fried doughnut-like) for breakfast, flaky paratha, wrapped in banana leaves for lunch, and rice and coconut fish for dinner. On the street, here in Pune, its bhelpuri, or Sev Batata Dahi Puri (SBDP), an amazing Maharashtrian dish of puffed rice, potato, onion, peanuts, tamarind and coriander, chili, and lime. Finally, for the daily hot drink and habitual caffeine intake I’ve replaced coffee with chai, laced with milk and more sugar than I care to say. The kids love the sound of the vendors calling rhythmically, chai, chai, and I love drinking it. Fresh lime soda is a staple, too, a drink that requires slowly adding sugar to the frothing lime and soda mixture in a clear glass.
And so in India, it seems, the intense pleasures of food will never be far from the risk of stomachs and bowels rolling with displeasure at the many things one ingests that are not listed on the menu. Our beloved nine year old girl taking in all that is India (literally) has resulted in a sick little creature, and the “I love my India” campaign has been replaced by an “I hate India” refrain. But the dark mood did not stop Ellinore from devouring a freshly sliced melon this morning.
A few weeks ago I read Chitrita Banjeri’s Eating India: Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine. Not an especially good book on food, but a worthwhile reflection by a Bengali food writer based in New England. Banjeri’s somewhat obvious conclusion–that there is really no Indian food, but rather food that reflects regional Indian identities, always in flux–is in the end a helpful reminder. More promising is a blog I stumbled across the other day, http://thecookscottage.typepad.com. The writer offers geuine insight into the culture of food here (as well as fabulous recipies). You can read a batch of posts pertaining to food and eating in Pune at http://thecookscottage.typepad.com/curry/poona_aka_pune/index.html.