Day one in india we hit the pavement in search of all the streets had to offer. Daniel skipped down the sidewalk past cows and stray goats, men on bicycles sharpening knives and carts of coconuts waiting to be chopped open and outfitted with flimsy fluorescent straws used to get every last drop of that sweet water. Women in beautiful saris with children in tow walked gracefully past us, their bangles clinging together at every step. Pregnant dogs and fresh new puppies ran around like they owned the place. But we were after something else: food. Daniel has preached the gospel of Indian street food since I met him. Ive been hearing stories for years of grown, barefoot men in loose fitting, (and almost sheer) white button down shirts and brown slacks standing above round hot plates and twirling roti dough, sautéing potatoes or steaming idli. Just as China knows their fried rice and Japan knows their fish, India will throw down when it comes to treats on the street. And despite the cautionary warnings of food poisoning, poor hygiene and dirt, I was planning to truly take in India. And it started here.
This was actually quite exciting for me. After my mom’s dog Oliver (and, of course, Daniel), Indian food is my one true love. So with eyes wide open and a pocket full of Cipro, I touched down in the country ready to experience, quite literally, all it had to offer. On our first Mumbai morning, we made a beeline to the streets and immediately saw what we were looking for. On one corner sat a group of men in the middle of the cobblestone road, perched on plastic stools and accepting paratha’s and uttapam; a few feet away Muslim men were doling out pani puri. Each makeshift kitchen was outfitted with a long line of men on cellphones and in similar outfits eating off paper plates with their fingers (no utensils necessary). I followed as Daniel walked from one stall to the next pushing his way through the crowd to get to the center stage of the operation. He’d order a snack and we would watch the men perform their daily dance of cooking: they’d slap a dollop of dosa batter onto the hot black surface and methodically swirl and flatten it into a pancake shape; they’d bounce samosas and other fried delights from one wok to another without sparing a single drop of oil; they’d shape rotis with their hands before cooking and packaging them up in a piece of newspaper in one fail swoop. The routine was mesmerizing, and also overwhelming as we were trying our best to keep our footing from the hordes of men attempting to push their way in.
But Daniel stood his ground and I looked to him for guidance and protection in the new and unknown sea of hungry men. I felt protected and safe in this gastronomical adventure as he was looking out for me — he’d been to India 3 times before and had never once gotten sick. So it made me feel good to have him there — explaining what to eat and not eat, making sure I knew what was too spicy, and what Id be foolish to skip. Each time he bought another snack, he’d hand it to me to try. And as I ate each piece of potato, each beautifully uneven chapati, and walked through the steam and smoke of the stalls on the street, I was excited for what I was eating and especially for what was coming next.
After about a half hour of going from one outdoor stove to the another, I was caught by a sight at the end of the block. A scraggly man in an unkept beard and pools of sweat forming up and down his almost see-through shirt was motioning at me. He was standing above a card table outfitted with four pots of steaming food: dal, curry, rice and fried bread. He had peaked my interest. And so, as usual, I turned towards Daniel for the go ahead. He returned my curious gaze with encouragement: “you want to try it?” He said with a smile. “Go ahead!” So I walked over as the man slopped three spoonfuls of amazing looking indian mush on each of the 4 divots of a tin tray. Taking a cue from the other patrons I grabbed my plate and began assisting the food into my mouth using my hand as a spoon. Occasionally I’d look up and see Daniel who seemed to be beaming my way. “He’s proud of me”, I thought to myself as I tucked in that last piece of fry bread.
And he was. After I finished my last bite, Daniel walked over and put his arm around me. “I cant believe you actually ate that” he laughed, with true happiness in his eyes. “I wouldnt have“.
By the way, I DID get sick in india, but not off the street food. No, that day on the street, my judgement was well placed as I partook in the local fare. It was only two weeks later, when we ate at a well established, fancy tourist restaurant in Udaipur that I got to experience the other part of India that I had heard so much about. So what is the lesson we learned here? Eat what the locals eat.