But the spicy flavorful explained another stereotype of mine, which is that Indian folk have a very distinct smell. They still do, as do peoples all over the world. As a quick side note, this is the sequence of smells that would waft past my nose daily: smoke, incense, sandalwood, lilies, smoke, dog poop, human poop, smoke, musky cologne, chai tea, and eau de urinal biscuit. Then there was one other smell: human sweat. WOAH.
Human sweat in India is a totally different brand of stink than it is in the States. And you know what? I stunk here. Completely. One day after running I pulled off my workout clothes (which I had worn about twice before to manage the laundry orders) and holy hell. All this spicy flavorful food does a number on your sweat glands and therefore your outward odors. So, people of India, my apologies to you for thinking you just didn’t wash up well enough. The truth is, ain’t no amount of soap that can overcome sweating out spices.
If I haven’t fully grossed you out yet then let’s move on to eating, a common topic on the blog. The last thing that I had in mind with Indian preconceptions was that eating with your left hand was taboo. To do so would be uncouth. I’m sure you’ve all heard of this before and have your own suspicions as to why one shant do it. But that’s not why I’m bringing this up.
What finally struck me, after many lunches with the group, is that it’s not about selecting a hand for holding a utensil but rather you literally eat with your hand(s) and use bread, or roti, as the utensil. Therefore, regardless of the hand you favor, you better be sure that hand is clean because you eat everything that it touches. A true sign of immersing yourself in the culture comes when you demonstrate that you can snag a piece of saucy chicken or cooked vegetables using a pinch of bread and three fingers. My big day came when a few of us went to lunch at a Parsi restaurant called Café Brittania.
I tend to go into great detail about the setting of my stories but this time around I’ll let the pictures convey the general vibe.
This restaurant is one of the oldest in Mumbai, is in a business district of the city, is open for no more than 4 hours a day, has a mad lunch rush, and is owned by a 93 year old gent who insists that he takes all the tables’ orders. He’s not afraid to tell you to rethink your selection, either. Upon learning I was from the US he kindly told me that the next time I saw Hillary Clinton I was to tell her he was her biggest fan. Sure thing, dude. Next time Hill and I are grabbing coffee I’ll pass the message along!
Anyway, Purvashri and Chinmay ordered our food and now was my moment to shine. Understand first the standard supporting actors at Indian meals: little lemons/limes for acidity to cut through the spices and some small red onions – raw – that taste delicious with all the gravies (read: sauces).
Most meals require roti as an accompaniment and Americans are probably most familiar with the pita-like variety, naan. This meal had a thinner roti that is more akin to a flour tortilla. The proper way to get a bite sized piece is to use three fingers: pinch and pull with your middle finger and thumb while using your index finger to push the remaining bread away and down from your hand to tear. Should you have to use your ring finger you’ll expose yourself as an amateur, or at least that’s what Chinmay tells me.
Once you’ve got your piece it’s time to scoop and eat. And now, ladies and gentlemen, the left-handed roti grab:
After completing your meal you then rinse that hand in the finger bowl with warm water and lemon. It kind of feels like getting a manicure!
Let me tell you, this whole event was like watching baby’s first steps for Purvashri and Chinmay. They were so thrilled to see me successfully feed myself sans fork it was almost embarrassing! Perhaps the delight was due more to the fact that watching me eat in this manner revealed that the lefties outnumbered the righties at the lunch table that day. And that is always something to celebrate. With sweets, of course.