Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bad Food For Thought.

Back in India, I remember how mom used to urge me to learn to cook. She had tried every possibly strategy under the sun. She had tried to coax me with love, and then with anger. She had tried with emotional blackmailing as well. And the moment she did this, I would use fight or flight. There was something about the idea of cooking that used to scare me. What if I got burnt? What if the food was overcooked? What if I added certain spices and died of food poisoning? I used to be the black sheep in the family since both mom and dad are great cooks. That’s pretty much the picture back at home.

And then, I came here. I came to the land of opportunities. I came to the land of abundance. I came to the land where every small sized thing you order is still jumbo size by your standards. I remember the food I used to order initially, everything of the minimum possible quantity, and I used to end up taking more than half the food back home. I remember the stores where I was overwhelmed with the size of prawns and shrimps and potato chips packets. G, despite her classes, used to often bring me home cooked food (yeah, I know, shame on me). I came to this place where everything you wanted was cut and canned and ready to use. All you had to do is while your time in some nearby store, undecided whether the red bell peppers are better or the green ones. Bell peppers by the way mean capsicums. Egg plant isn’t a non-vegetarian plant produce, it’s our very own brinjal. Egg plant? How could an egg be a plant? And when G pointed to the cold storage racks and asked me to get her a packet of okra, I thought that okra was a Tamil word. Well, it isn’t. Okra means lady fingers.

Life so far here has been an immense learning experience. Let me not digress but rather stick to my culinary exploits here. On one hand we have the storage stuff. On the other, we have what I call the “pourage” stuff. You pour, you drink. Back at home, I remember how mom would fret that milk would turn rancid in the summers. I remember how she would peel, cut, dice, pulp, and perform the other verbs I wouldn’t even know. Here, there is no concept of boiling milk. There is no concept of making fruit juice or yogurt. You buy, you pour, you drink. Sounds cool, no?

What more, everything under the sun is available in flavors. I took a good 10 minutes to figure out whether I should take the strawberry flavored yogurt or the pina colada. I wondered if the Concorde grape juice tasted better or the passion fruit. Bell peppers were green, red, or yellow-orange. Potatoes were white or red. And the ones I thought were onions were actually jumbo-sized garlic.

I thought I had finally entered the land of the pizzas and the pastries and sushi and smoked salmons. I was constantly putting my connoisseurship to test, trying out on the Thai and the American food joints. When the department invited us for lunch, I was delighted. Mom, I told you I could do without learning to cook.

I was in for a surprise. The department hosted a grand lunch. There were so many trays of food that if you had your food from the first tray and started to walk, you’d feel hungry by the time you reached the last tray. And here starts the saga of how I got to make a complete fool of myself.

The food here wasn’t dal, chawal, naan, and dhokla. This was American food. It started with trays of fresh vegetables, uncut, uncooked. God knows how hard I’ve tried to stimulate my bovine instincts and enjoy the lettuce and the cabbage sans the green chilly or the lemons.

And then I didn’t even know half the fruits and the vegetables. I saw broccoli for the first time, the miniature version of mountain forests. Vegetables were to be followed by an array of sandwiches. I had a hard time figuring out which were the beefed, porked, hammed, or turkeyed. Everything other than chicken made me want to throw up. And chicken doesn't mean the cooked chicken curry from back home. Chicken here is eaten bland and boiled.

Post sandwich were packets of potato chips. Lunch looked like snacks. This was to be followed by varieties of something I mistook as white creamed pastries. So I cut out a large chunk of it. I was soon to discover my stupidity at the thought of having mistaken white cheese for pastries. And the dried raisins I thought were black olives actually.

So that was it- green leafy salads, sandwiches, pizzas, cheese, chips, egg-dipped cookies, cut fruits, and cans of beer and Coke. Where was the main course? Where were the fried rice and the reshmi kebabs and the fish fries and the dal makhanis and the gulab jamuns?

Seems every possible gastronomic nightmare I had started to come true. I would be unable to chomp on the pizzas that smelt of beef. There was no concept of curries, chutneys, and aachars. Soon I started to avoid the departmental lunches and dinners. I would no longer be allured by any seminar that announced “free pizzas and light refreshments”. The only good things I’ve had here so far are the chocolate pastries.

2 weeks of all this and soon I was only having the starters and the desserts in a meal. There was yet another lunch I had to attend and all I had were fruits and cookies that reeked of raw eggs. I had the appetite of an ant. I remember the day when I’d cried in relief when G had cooked simple chawal, dal fry, and south Indian vegetarian curry for me. It tasted like Heaven.

And then there was this Thai place I went to and since I didn’t know what was what, I ended up starting the meal with desserts. Well, this is because they had placed the desserts at the beginning and even that tasted like the sweetened and chocolatty version of Isabgol for curing constipation. You just couldn’t miss the constipated look on my face the moment I took a spoonful.

Also, let me tell you that the coffee here is bad. B-A-D. It’s strong, it’s bitter, and you’d add dozens of sugar cubes, yet you’d have the same constipated look on your face the moment you had a sip. The only good food I’ve had is in a Chinese food joint, where the food was somewhat “similar” to what I am used to having. Having said that, Chinese food here is in no way close to the Indo-Chinese food in Calcutta. Even the roadside "Gulmohar Chineez Hotel" in Calcutta serves better food.

One week of the terrible food and my digestive system went into the hibernating mode. Ask me how it feels like going to sleep on an empty stomach to wake up in the middle of the night and crave for paani puris, chicken rolls and dosas. So much for stubbornness and not learning how to cook.

I hope that the Americans aren't offended about how I found eating a nightmare here. I am just an outsider, with very different food habits. I remember how every time, I threw a tantrum when mom cooked bitter gourd or pumpkin curry. What I'd do to have it right now. 



Anonymous said...

Oh... the transition to hostel life is always full of these things: now you'll know why people claim that they eat and enjoy everything! :)

But I guess you must have learnt to cook the Indian style very well by now: even I cooked delicious chicken yesterday!! :D

Anonymous said...

... time and places have changed for you ... this is a Customer driven economy ... u get every dimension (food, clothes, study whatever) covered with good resolution (raw seed to cooked food, no fats to high fats, cold to hot, no spice to extreme spices) ... u need to chose and stay in ur dimension range ...
there can't be a place without Indian joints ... stuff ur regrigerator for the week ... mexican, Chinese, Thai, Japanese are ur and ur pocket's best hopes to survive ...

i had to spend $5.5 on an omlette on my first lunch here because i was not able to identify anything else that was being cooked in cafeteria ... and i turned yellow when the cook asked me how do i want it prepared ... i managed the queue behind me and the cook and wish noone else faces this at office place ...
ofcourse i couldn't afford another omlette ...

ME ... !!!

'jo said...

i tried my level best to be a brat....but my parents were no less just made one statement and i was left with no option what-so-ever, either you make the chapatti's in the night or else i won't have my dinner. Ofcourse i had those pangs of hating my parents then. But now when i look back it goes a little easy on the heart.
Yeah staying out of home has made me love everything that comes in the edible category. Made me so much fond of the 3 rupiya vadapav and 2 rupiya chai in contrast to the exotic sizzlers.

tetracyclops said...

make a recipe book for all what u did correctly, something which tasted a bit proper. i might need it when i am there.

Full2 Faltu said...

I know this one. I definetly know this. Two years ago went thorugh the same problem. Only had pizzas and chicken burger. Could not take it any more so learnt good cooking not my timepass cooking. Now I have a choice. Otherwise Dutch cooking is beef and bland mashed patatoes or cheese or bread. Everything is cold.

Today at lunch - Malvani chicken with thick coconut gravy.


di said...

ashooo...take care baba ..unfortunately waisa hi coffee miltha hain office ke coffee machine mein bhi...and the

" 150-200 rupees ka pastry? Usme to saara chocolate cake aa jayega."..

sounded so much like me.. :)

Anonymous said...

You came here of your own choice, so learn to adapt to a new place and quit whining so much!

Inder said...

so very true...
i used to slosh down gallons of coffee and tea. now i run as fast as i can when i hear those words.
i started cooking after i came videsh. all on trial and error basis. now i think i am a decent cook. at least, my flatmates say so :D

Reshma said...

Maybe its just-Bad attitude for thought.
Anon2 echoes my sentiments. What did you expect?
Its unsightly to see people who do their best to leave India since the 'opportunities are so much better in the US' and once here, cant stop talking about 'apna desh'.
Bad example here but -you cant have your cake and eat it too.

Anonymous said...

hehe... u dont hafta go abroad to learn cookin or to appreciate mom's khaana... stay away from home for a couple of years n heat hotel food daily.....u will learn to do both

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether to call you naive or ignorant. You expected fried rice and kababs at lunch party in Seattle? You didn't, by any chance, think you were invited for a lunch party in Kalkatta, did you?

Welcome to US of A. Dorm life is a great way to learn about US of A. I started my life in this country the same way. :-)


ggop said...

I can relate to your post - you probably ate meals mostly at home in India.

But seriously - the coffee is bad in Seattle? But you live in the birthplace of Starbucks. You should get a short latte.

In India we drink what's known as lattes here, not drip coffee/espresso which is very much an acquired taste. Now there are some major chains like Baristas and Cafe Coffee Day.


nav said...

Dear Sunshine,

You have got a nice blog here. Didnt manage to read all of it, but I cannot stop myself from commenting on this post. I can truly understand what you are going through there. I was in your shoes, six years ago, when I landed in the land of opportunities, minus the fact that I managed to secure an off-campus accomodation with a couple of room-mates(Indian) who were wonderful cooks. If I had to go to the cafeteria, the only options that greeted me were, salad bar and french fries. The tight budget wouldnt let me try out anything else unwarranted. Well, As I read through your blog, I got the feeling that you do not have many Indian friends around you, so it is probably even more tough to start learning to cook from others. The best option is to look around the internet, there are loads of Indian food blogs which give great tutorials starting from elementary dishes to the speciality series. Before I flew to US, I knew only to make white rice, tea and coffee.. Now, I can make a variety of dishes and am still learning. Everything I learnt after leaving home, I owe to the 'necessity' factor.. I am sure if I were back in India I wouldnt have tried half the dishes I am doing now.. So I suggest you to start with some basic recipes and make it whether it turns out good or bad.. you will definitely get better. The most essential ingredient in making a sumptuous dish is the "craving" for it. Yes believe me, the best way to make a head start is by taking the ladle into your hands :) Hope my comment does not sound too much like a sales-pitch :D and sorry, for such a long one...