Less is more
I am sitting on a wooden surface, a table and a chair at the same time. The cook, who was involved into a street-fight just one day before, is now smiling at me with his left teeth. „Theek hai khaana?“ Is the food fine? „Hamesha accha hai. Aap burrha khaana paka nahin sakte.“ Always. You cannot cook bad food. And I mean it. The man turns around and works at his makeshift clay-stove. The only electric device you will find here is the fan, which blows into the coal. My restaurant is made out of a few wooden-sticks, which hardly hold a piece of tarp, a little shed, where the cooked food and ingredients are stored, the stove and the small table that I am sitting on. The cook’s wife throws half of a raw onion on my plate. I bite into it with relish and finish my plate.
This all is adding up to my daily food-adventure. Usually, I do not know, where I should eat. Should I go to the tea-stall at the street or this improvised pavilion for breakfast? At the tea-stall there is a lot to talk, but the people in the pavilion always seem so happy when I come. And what about lunch? Should I go to the restaurant in this small garage with the friendly owner, who puts banana flowers into his food or to the other side of the street, where I will find the best Daal? Usually the man with the friendly smile will be my choice.
Where in India can I Eat?
Everywhere. And I highly recommend trying the small, shabby restaurants as well, as soon as one got a bit used to Indian food. Because here, one will find the true gems. Just because the walls are worn out and the roof might be made of corrugated iron, does not mean that the food is unhygienic. They also cook their food and every normal Indian eats there as well. And me, too.
From the outside my favourite place for lunch does not look too inviting. The improvised roof covers the area in front of the house, which has the atmosphere of an old workshop. But then there is also the friendly man, who welcomes me with a warm smile.
We got to know each other, by now. I do not even need to make an order, because he knows what I want. Sitting down on the wooden bench, I wait and observe the street-life. Motorbikes rattle, huge blue busses blow their horns and people are shouting and laughing in the daily lunchbreak-chaos. Behind me, there are to workers sitting at the table and discussing something. Even though they sit less than half a meter away from each other, they shout. One of them takes a huge sip directly out of the water-can. Indians can drink from any jar, without their lips touching it. I cannot even remember seeing an Indian, whose lips touch even a bottle-neck while drinking.
I look around. The left bits of paint on the walls are rubbed off by the many people, who squeezed into this little room along the years. I always ask myself if the people just don’t care if it looks shabby or if they cannot afford to paint it. Maybe it simply isn’t worthwhile, because after a few weeks, it will look the same again.
I wash my hands with the water, which comes out of the hose in the wall and continuously runs into the small sewage that you will find on every street here. Then I am served my food. It looks delicious. After thanking the man, I ask myself if my family would ever enter or even eat in this restaurant.
Probably not. Not even if they would be starving. It simply is too shabby. I can understand that, but still I want to question it. Do we really expect that the food is as worn-out as the place? It isn’t. It surely is better that any fast-food restaurant’s food. So, why are we scared? When we go out, we want it to be good. I feel good. The food is healthy, not too oily (a really rare thing, here in India) and most of all: It tastes good. I just take it in a not so appealing place. But as we also eat in garages at our neighbour’s garden party, we should not be too irritated. So maybe it is again about status. Not directly and conscious, but subtle. I have the money, to eat in a better standard, so why should I be satisfied with this shed? I do it, because it is a new experience (or was, when I first came). But it still is an experience, every day. Because of the taste and the atmosphere. I also had to get used to it and I am happy that I did.
It is so nice when the owners of these small places are so warm-hearted and talkative, especially with strangers. And people just eat, like they eat. With hands. I haven’t held any fork or spoon for a while and I enjoy it. That’s what the basins or water cans are made for. Or the hose in the wall. Everything here is a little more casual. Just like the German “Pommesbude” around the corner.
Don’t you get sick?
In tourist-places, you will find a lot of restaurants with an adapted menu. But even here, foreigners will often get an upset tummy. It is because of the general difference between our ways to prepare food. The place does not matter so much, be it a fancy hotel or a street stall. Everything is more oily and spicy or otherwise not Indian. So there is just one thing to do: Get through it! The cultural experience is worth it. Our tummies are able to adjust after a while and after the first sickness, it will be easier for us. If you stay longer than a week.
Most importantly: If you once got sick, do not give up. For most people this is the process of hardening. After that there will be less to none problems. But whoever just eats food from home, did not understand India: Food is everything. Really everything. I could not imagine something worse than being invited to someone’s home and to reject food. To serve a meal for your guest means a lot to the Indian people.
What Can I Eat?
The only question, I have to ask myself is: Roti or rice? That means, which food do I use to transport my meal into my mouth? In most small restaurants, you will just find one to three different dishes, anyway. Maybe you think: If I will find only one dish, why should I go to that place? Well, Indian food is always good and I also do not know everything by name. Firstly, because the names vary from region to region and secondly, I sometimes do not recognize the differences. It makes my decision easier, if i do not have too many options, especiall between things, I do not know. If I am unsure, I can just look into the pots, the kitchen is open. „Sabzi hai?“ Do you have vegetables? „Han ji, sir, beto.“ Yes Sir, sit down. It’s that easy. What will be, will be. I can never be sure how any food is going to taste. In India, many things taste the same way: mixed vegetables, boiled very long in strong spices. No selection, no stress.
Vegetarians will know this anyways. In Germany, I am often asked by my grandma: “When we go out, what can you eat then?” One or two things will be there in most cases. And I love it. I do not have to look up and down the menu and will not regret my decision afterwards. Choice can be exhausting. In India you have to decide between “veg” and “non-veg”. In my case it is predecided. So here is my tipp: Just do it and see what happens. Business as usual. One thing is for sure: It will taste good.
Ah, and by the way. My meals’ prices vary from 20-30 cent each.