Saturday, May 9, 2009

Eating Well in India



I'm back - just returned from a work trip to Pune, India. I'm still completely exhausted with jet lag but wanted to update before my memory fades. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this trip. I've heard from my co-workers and other friends who've been there about the infamous heat, traffic, water induced sickness, and culture shock upon seeing some of the poorer areas, so I was prepared to be overwhelmed.

I will admit that I was too busy to get out and see much, so I won't pretend to be an expert on life in Pune. But what I did see I found completely alive and invigorating, especially in comparison to my scenic, but almost sleepy, home in Boulder.

Like many cities, Pune seems like a big jumbled up mess of contrasts. The outskirts are comprised of a giant, very modern, hi-tech park which houses a large percentage of India's IT sector, military bases, mixed in with small, rural villages that have been absorbed into the growing city. I saw a few different areas in the center of the city - one part still had that village feeling but there were high-rise apartment buildings right smack in the middle of it, and pigs, yes pigs, walking down the street. Another downtown sector located near a number of universities seemed cosmopolitan and modern, more similar to a South American city than to it's own outskirts.

Wait, wait, wait ... is this a travel blog or a food blog? That's right, it's food. So what about the food? In my next post, I'll talk about my favorite specific dishes ... before that I'd like to discuss a few interesting things I noticed about eating customs.

This may be a reflection of the fact that I mostly ate out, but I noticed that meals consist of small portions of three or four different dishes rather than one large entree. For instance, at one meal, about eight of us ordered four different dishes. The waiter served each of us a bit of each, occasionally refilling empty portions. I found this nice for two reasons. First, it was more social for everybody to taste and discuss the food together. Second, it was a nice way of eating just the right amount. In American restaurants, I usually find the portions to be just a little too big, so I overeat because I do not like to leave uneaten food on my plate.

I will mention one definite downside - people don't seem to eat much dessert, and what they do eat seems almost healthy, like rice pudding. No chocolate, no cake, no pastries. Geez, the only reason I eat out is so that I can get through dinner to try some new exotic dessert that I don't know how to make at home. In fact, people there tend to avoid many vices common to the American diet, specifically meat, alcohol, and obviously dessert. Perhaps I can understand the avoidance of meat, I struggle with this question myself. Avoiding alcohol I understand less. But dessert? This is a serious cultural shortcoming... life without the occasional well-made pain au chocolate is like life without, umm, life. Although I have noticed that people tend to be a little thinner there. Hmmm....

Finally, my traveling companion and I were treated with incredible generosity, especially with respect to meals. We were invited out for wonderful dinners, including one where we sampled local wine from India's budding wine industry, invited to one family's home for a delicious homemade dinner, and one gentleman even changed important family plans to include us and everyone from the office in these plans. Again, perhaps this was just my specific experience and not an actual cultural difference, but I do have a feeling that Americans are not quite as sociable as some other nationalities. If I compare how we were hosted by our co-workers in India to how we host them when they come to visit, we homebody Americans may suffer in the comparison.

Ok, so you might be getting the feeling that I liked it there. I did. Despite the traffic, which is quite entertaining to the visitor, probably not so entertaining to the daily commuter. It wasn't that hot while I was there. I managed to avoid the water (lips pressed tightly shut in the shower), so I didn't get sick. And I didn't venture far, so wouldn't say I saw a wide cross section of people. Given all of these caveats, I definitely enjoyed the trip.

Check in a few days to see some pictures and descriptions of interesting dishes I tried...

1 Responses (Leave a Comment):

Pallavee Panchal said...

Hi, sorry, I just read your blog, and love it! I must say though that I'm really sad you didn't get to try some of the amazing desserts India has to offer. My family is originally from India, and I am always overwhelmed by the amount and quality of the desserts they offer. Here is a wiki page of the desserts listed out, and hopefully you can try these out closer to home! I will give you this, there is definitely less chocolate than in Western cuisines, but more milk/dairy based desserts.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Indian_sweets_and_desserts