by Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
6th Stop: Bombay, India
Relieved to not be considered a total klutz (just a foreigner), I attempt my next hurdle: walking in the sari. I anticipate it to be awkward and constraining. But thankfully, the sari's well-designed pleats allow for normal western walking, instead of the itty-bitty geisha-sized steps of a Japanese kimono.
As the sun sets, Hema and I head out to join the festivities of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, one of the most popular of all Indian fetes. Held this year around November 7, 1999, (the date varies), it celebrates the return of Lord Rama to his home after his 14-year exile, symbolizing the triumph of good over darkness and evil.
Also known as Deepavali (meaning an array of lamps), the Hindu event also honors Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. "She is a most fastidious goddess who loves color and light," explains Hema. "People whitewash their homes and place oil lamps out to welcome her." I look around the streets as we walk. Every courtyard, porch, rooftop, and garden flickers with tiny flames from earthenware lamps. What's more, vibrant garlands of marigolds and mango leaves frame the doorways of the houses. "We use rangoli to decorate the entryways, as a welcome to family and guests," explains Hema, pointing at the intricate patterns of colored powder in front of each doorway. The whole scene is happy and breathtaking.
We're on our way to Hema's brother's home. "Vinod always prepares a lavish feast. He's a doctor, you know. Trained at Cambridge. He has many servants, so I always let him host the family dinner, " says Hema, with a wink. Still, as is the custom, she brings with her a box of sweet treats and snacks for the evening and next day.
On the way, we stop for chai at a tea stand. "This is the best one in the city," she explains. "Later on there will be a line as long as a train to get in." Already a dozen patrons congregate, greeting each other in a familiar way, like the regulars at a neighborhood Starbucks.
I see what Hema means about looking as beautiful as the other women at Diwali. Wearing new clothes is a festival tradition, and all the men and women are dressed to the nines. Diamond nose studs, bindi beauty marks, rings, bangles, and pure gold threads sparkle as brightly as the oil lamp flames, reflecting against richly dyed fabrics and henna'd hand tattoos in intricate mehndi designs.
In the spirit of the best alchemists, the chai-wallah, the tea maestro, prepares a special blend for Hema and me. From a red tin he scoops black, crinkly tea leaves into a hot pot filled with water and a hefty dose of milk. Then comes the stuff that turns tea into true chai: sugar crystals, spoonful after spoonful of them. The chai-wallah lights a bidi (a short cigarette hand-rolled in a tobacco leaf) and then waits until the tea has been properly infused. When the bidi is done, the tea is ready. He strains it and a young lad serves it to us with two cookie-like treats, their surfaces shining with edible silver leaf. I sip the tea and detect a welcome hint of cardamom and ginger in the infusion—not too much, just the perfect balance. "This is why he's the best chai-wallah in the city," coos Hema.
After our chai and a brisk walk through the neighborhood, we arrive at Vinod's at eight. As I had expected, Vinod is a masterful host: warm, witty and erudite. His wife, Bharti, is equally as charming and worldly, as are the other guests. After hours of lively conversation, we eventually sit down to eat around 11:00 PM ("Always eat before going to an Indian home for dinner," advised one guide book, "Indians eat notoriously late." Now I understand why we snacked at the chai-wallah's before coming.)
Despite the lateness of the hour, the meal is sumptuous! Along with more than 700 million other Indians, Hema and family are vegetarians, and this meal of exotically spiced dishes suffers not one bit from lack of meat. "We have taken the best dishes from all regions of India to make this meal a feast for all the gods," chirps Bharti, clearly proud of the dramatic menu we are about to experience.
Indians do not eat in courses. Instead, numerous small dishes are served all at once, on a thali - a tray or platter, about 15 inches in diameter, with a high lip. Tonight, the servants present each of us with ornate hand-tooled silver thalis, one per person. Around the perimeter of the tray sit several small bowls, each with a different food. Poori, roti, naan and other breads are piled in the center of each tray. The meal includes some 15 dishes: dals, biryani, pulao, curries, chutneys, raitas, pickles, ghee, and chaats. I am in heaven.
"Chaat," explains Bharti, "is the Indian counterpart to your salads—sort of." Her explanation is intentionally understated. In reality, a typical green salad is to a chaat what a stick figure drawing is to the Mona Lisa. Chaats are packed with fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, beans or lentils, and often chicken, meat or seafood, all seasoned with a tart, zippy, slightly sweet dressing made using chaat powder. The best chats reflect the Indians' love of the six Ayurvedic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and stringent. The chaat powder, or chaat masala, blends multiple seasonings, including cumin, coriander, black salt, ginger, and the tart and tangy mango powder (amchoor), which is made from sun-dried, unripe mangoes.
After dinner we adjourn to the upstairs terrace to view the celebration in the town below. Lamps flicker as far as the eye can see, and I even detect strings of electric Christmas lights, while fireworks explode loudly. As Hema and I prepare to leave, I notice a tray of surgical tools bedecked with marigolds. The Festival of Lights not only honors Lakshmi, but it also marks the end and beginning of fiscal years in some areas. As such, artisans pray that their tools will be blessed and bring good fortune in the coming year. "For Vinod, these tools are his professional equipment, but for others it may be their hammers, paintbrushes, chisels—or even their pots, pans and personal computers," laughs Hema, making a good-natured joke in my honor.
On the way home, we pass a perfect symbol of India's odd assimilation of cultures and times: an all-American MacDonald's, serving not beef hamburgers, but lamb burgers, respecting the Hindu belief in sacred cows. Women in saris and men in turbans and sandals munch on paper-wrapped burgers and fries, washing them down with (what else?) Coca Cola. Yes, I reflect: India is truly a crossroads of east and west, where the past and present seamlessly converge. But personally, no matter how universal the hamburger may be, I'd rather have a good chaat—and a cuppa chai—any day.
The Global Gourmet
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
This page created November 1999
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