My very first taste of Indian food goes way back to my student days of backpacking in Europe when I was looking for a cheap meal in London. This was long before I had ever set foot in India. And it was love at first bite. I didn’t know back then that India would enter my life and turn it upside down forever but that came later. In those days, there were only a few Indian restaurants in New York City and most of them didn’t compare to London. Just as my newly acquired passion for distant travel was not shared by most of my friends, my enthusiasm for Indian food was understood even less. At first, I thought that if they just tried it, they would like it too. That never happened. Gradually I grew to accept that Indian food was too intrinsically exotic for most Americans.
Today with all the cooking shows on TV and their celebrity chefs, food blogs, the glamorization of the food industry and the influence of our many immigrants, Indian food is almost mainstream.
When I bring people to India on my very small tours, food is a very big part of the experience. One of my clients, Emily, is a sophisticated New Yorker in most respects,yet seemed to know nothing about Indian food and had even less desire to try it. I never push any one. There are many alternatives so she wasn’t going to go hungry. Nora, on the same tour, also from NYC was much more adventurous. She was unfamiliar with Indian food too, but was eager to try everything. She was a joy to watch. Nora hummed while she ate; she loved the food so much. Because I seriously love Indian food and have been going there for so many years, where we go to eat is not hit or miss. Whether it is a modest hole in the wall eatery, street stall or elegant, formal, crystal chandelier-ed restaurant, the choice is always well thought out and delicious.
For three days these two women sat across from each other at the table. Emily sedately ate her noodles while Nora slurped and hummed and licked her plate clean. Finally Emily asked me if I could suggest a dish for her to try. I recommended aloo gobi. After that she never had another plate of noodles again!
While in south India we didn’t have time for a long lunch because we were catching a train so I took every one to a very basic south Indian “udupi” style joint. It had long, bare wooden tables and the waiters came around and served you the chutney and samba r out of steel buckets and the dosas came on banana leaves. Neither Emily nor Nora had ever tasted a masala dosa before. And that was that. Emily was in love. For the rest of the tour, all she ever talked about were dosas and where could we get some, which in India is easy. The popularity of the dosa is probably on par with the popularity of pizza in the USA.
On Emily’s last day in India, she insisted that I take her to a bookstore so she could buy an Indian cookbook. She knew just what she wanted. The book had to contain a recipe for every dish that she had tasted. I also gave her the address for Saravanna Bhavan in NYC where she could have a delicious dosa when she got back.