We’ve had good news and bad news about eating in India. After a full month of consuming almost exclusively Indian food, I can count the number of bad meals on one hand. By “bad,” I mean less than delicious. The good news is we haven’t once been afflicted with traveler’s diarrhea. The bad news is we’re getting fatter.Among middle-aged Indians, the full-figured look is a common one. Now we better understand why.
To anyone on a low-carb diet (a regime I’ve at least partly adopted over the past two years), India is hell. Everywhere we’ve traveled, the meat choices have been limited to chicken and mutton, plus fish in some areas. (We’ve seen pigs out and about, but we’ve been told that the caste formerly known as untouchable is the only group that eats them. And Hindus consider cows to be sacred, so beef never shows up on the menu.) Most often, meat hasn’t been an option at all. Vegetables cooked in butter, with Indian spices and often chunks of cheese thrown in, are invariably tasty. And who can resist eating them without the delicious rice and/or fantastic breads — naans and chapatis and pappadams and other variations? Not me.A typical lunch: cashews in a cream sauce, peas and cheese in a mild spicy red sauce and yummy garlic/butter naan.
We’ve been surprised to learn that the purest form of vegetarianism here requires eschewing certain items grown underground, such as onions and garlic, partly because believers worry about insects that might be killed during the cultivation of such plants. I still don’t understand why eggs are on the taboo list for the pure-veg eateries, but they are. The new, upscale hotel where we’re currently staying, for example, refuses to serve any form of eggs because of some ethical issue. That limits breakfast almost exclusively to cereal and porridge, pan-fried flat breads, deep-fried savory rice balls, potatoes in multiple forms, beans, toast, and doughnuts. Dr. Atkins would not approve.On the breakfast buffet this morning: deep-fried herb-flavored rice patties. We both thought they were yummy.
Prohibitions against drinking alcohol also dot the landscape. The entire state of Bihar (where we made our Buddhistic pilgrimage) banned all liquor about 18 months ago — not just in restaurants or liquor stores but also imported in one’s suitcase from some neighboring non-dry state. People warned us not to try sneaking any in, lest we risk serious jail time. Once in Bihar, this seemed pretty ludicrous. We didn’t spot a single booze-sniffing police dog. But by then it was too late for cocktails.
In Uttar Pradesh, where Varanasi is located, we saw liquor stores, but they were located well outside the Old City. Even the fancy palace where we stayed for two nights served no alcohol, not even beer. We’re still puzzled by this, as folks have told us that nowhere in India’s holy books is drinking forbidden (unlike in Islam). We were startled when in another restaurant overlooking the Ganges, the waiter asked us if we wanted a beer. Of course we did! We found it amusing that we had to pay for our large can of Heineken in cash. They took a credit card for the rest of the our meal.
The beer, when available, is undistinguished. It’s doubtless contributing to our suspected weight gain. But I prefer getting a little fatter to losing weight on the diarrhea diet. To avoid intestinal turmoil, we’ve avoided street food, tempting though it often is.Note that the cook is squirting the batter into the boiling oil. Then you dip the results into sugar syrup and get what’s known as jalebis.Although we didn’t eat them from the street vendor, the ones we sampled in our hotel were surprisingly likable.
We’ve broken a few rules; couldn’t resist some uncooked (though always peeled) fruits and vegetables. And we’ve faithfully consumed our Pepto-Bismol tablets (two each per person) after every meal.
We’re hoping the good gut health will continue. The food choices may change somewhat soon, however. We have only six more nights in Rajasthan, and then we’ll head south.