Sinking my Teeth into South India Part 2

South Indian Thali


Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones I hurry down the busy, windy, unorganized street, dodging cars and scooters, jumping over dogs and cow patties one eye on the road and the other on the restaurant I am headed towards. The street is as usual chaos for the eyes, the ears and the nose. My ears are constantly bombarded with the never-ending blaring of horns and bells, emitted by the continuous stream of vehicles. Add to that the shouting of street vendors, crying of children and booming of Kollywood (yes that IS the Tamil version of Bollywood) music and already my mind is rearing.

Then come the sites: the road is patchy with no sidewalk and dust, dirt and bits of garbage everywhere. The 1-4 story houses on either side of the rode seem to be out of an Alice in Wonderland movie: They are haphazardly placed on top of each other and made out of all imaginable material-bricks, wood, bamboo, and palm leaves… some of them are painted bright blue or green or purple. Indians are very superstitious people and have a strong, romantic and sometimes weird belief in astrology. I mean, they are in many ways the founders of both astronomy and astrology and while Germans where still running half-naked through the trees throwing stones at the Romans and picking lice out of each other’s hair, Indians were building impressively accurate sun dials and predicting lunar eclipses for the next 2000 years. Our foundation of knowledge in astronomy comes essentially from India so it is perhaps not that unusual that they have a strong reverence for it.  Anyway-so depending on the time and location of your birth you are assigned a color and if you have enough money you will paint your house this color. It is quite a sight, especially in the countryside where amidst the endless green rows of paddy you see this blindingly bright neon orange house next to an equally luminescent sapphire blue house.

These houses and streets only provide a backdrop to the main spectacle: people. Everywhere I look there are people. And it’s not the homogenous crowds of Granville Street or the Hauptstrasse-for there too there are a lot of people-it is this amazing theatre of shoe-menders and fruit vendors, gypsies and flower-sellers, ox-cart drivers and school children and street sweepers and coconut sellers. So many things to look at that when I finally duck into the restaurant I am headed to I breathe a sigh of relief, savoring the cool darkness and thankful for the thin door that magically transforms the madness outside into white noise.

You could not quite say that it is an assault on my taste buds, nor does delicious do justice to the wondrous mixture of tastes and sensations that lunch is here. Lunch is THE most important meal and while breakfast and dinner are quite simple, lunch can consist of up to 30 different dishes. I am not even kidding. When I went to the village last time I had on my Banana leaf the following: White rice, Lemon rice, 7 different types of vegetable (carrot, potato, yam, plantain, cabbage, bitter gourd, snake gourd) 2 different types of sambar, rasam, curd, raita, mango pickle, mint chutney, coconut chutney, red chilli paste, salt, a small sweet banana, and this sweet wheat sugary desert. I as a rule always order a South Indian Thali in restaurants here (both because that is what they make best and it has the highest turn-over rate: Fresh food=No Food Poisoning).

South Indian Thali
Typical South Indian Thali shown here on a Banana Leaf

A “Thali” is not, per-say, a standardized meal. Thali means “plate” or “dish” and it is somewhat comparable to a Spanish menu del dia. So you get some kind of vegetables, rice, sambar, rasam, curd and chutneys but they differ from day to day, restaurant to restaurant. In fact, similar to Zebra stripes and fingerprints, no two Thalis are ever exactly the same.

The explosion and mixture of tastes in my mouth is something that cannot be described but must be experienced. It is sweet and coconutty, tangy and peppery, spicy and potatoey. In addition to the fiery expression of scrumptiousness in my mouth there are also the different textures that are felt twofold, both in the mouth and through the hands. Easting “Indian style” with the hands is something I always promote when eating Indian Food. Indian food is made to be eaten with the hand, rolled up into little balls and pushed delicately into the mouth. Eating begins with the hands and is quite a sensual, full-body experience. Something I love here is that when talking to Indians about food it is never just or even primarily about the taste, it is a reflection of the taste and texture, how it makes them feel, how well it is digested, the energy or essence it has….

Whenever possible I will have a Lassi with my lunch-Now, I know you all think you know what a Lassi is but let me tell you: until you have had a Lassi made from thin, tangy, Indian curd with real rosewater and sugar from sugar canes you will perpetually miss out on the bliss that is felt from drinking that refreshing, creamy goodness.  I recently found a place by my house that serves pistachio-date-nut lassis and I am eternally addicted. I would even go as far to say that I like them more (gasp!) than Avocado milkshakes which, when made properly from ripe, sun kissed avocados and condensed milk are indescribably delicious.

While contently sitting in front of my immense heap of food I can’t help musing on the similarities between Food and Life here. While I could produce a plethora of cheesy similes I will say this:

Lunch really is in many ways a quite accurate reflection of South Indian life. It is full to the brim with different colors and tastes, centered on rice and although it initially is completely overwhelming actually leaves you pleasantly satisfied.

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