The inevitability of India’s food barriers, an orthodoxy born of centuries, is visible when you travel. Whether outside a network of caves filled with stalagmites in Meghalaya or inside Bengaluru’s lush, gleaming Terminal 2, travellers eat what they are used to.
Outside the Meghalaya caves, there are stalls with Bengali food, Assamese food—given the preponderance of tourists from both states—Khasi food and “Indian” food. The Bengali and Assamese stalls have reasonable patronage, the “Indian” stall, offering paneer and aloo parathas, is the most popular, and the Khasi stall is empty. Jadoh, that wondrous marriage of pork and red rice, is obviously too radical for the mainstream Indian tourist.
The reason I always eat local is because that is what my parents did when travelling, which was entirely within India. An honest government servant, which is what my father was, could not afford to leave the country (when they retired and went abroad, they revelled in going local—Greek restaurants in Florida , Thai in Bangkok). When he was in service and deployed in interior Manipur, my father cheerfully ate grasshopper and rat. Most of our holidays were spent on 48-hour cross-country journeys on trains that crawled from one corner of India to the other.
The Tamil Nadu Express, the Jammu Tawi Express—these were familiar names. Unlike most families who brought packed food from home, we ate what came in from the stations en route. Those were the days before IRCTC, silver-foil catering. Lunch and dinner depended on what part of the country the train was rolling through: fiery chicken curry from Katpadi, in Tamil Nadu, spare, southern biryani wrapped in leaf and paper from Warangal (then part of Andhra Pradesh, now in Telangana).
In time, I realised Indian travellers were far from unique in being unable to adapt to local cultures and cuisines. The Chinese and Americans are as bad as the thepla-toting Gujarati tourist, the poha-chivda stowing Maharashtrians, and the many other stereotypes that amuse us.
The orthodoxies and ignorance of the races are clear in Goa, that entrepot of tourists both domestic and international. In the tourist trap of Candolim, you will find Raju’s Happy Shed, an apparent favourite of Western tourists, offering everything from scrambled eggs to steak and kidney pie. Around the corner, of course, you can get onion-free Jain “pure veg” food.
One recent weekend, I was part of a pool volleyball game in a south Goa resort where determined ignorance and culinary wariness were on full display. Among the players was a Kazhakh father and his two teen sons and two fellow travellers from Bengaluru. One of the Kannadigas—for reasons unknown—kept up a steady stream of volleyball instructions to myself and the Kazakhs in shaky Hindi, and the burly Kazakh father responded in broken English and Russian. Somehow, we understood one other.
When the family was climbing out of the pool, one of my fellow Kannadigas asked where they were from. Kazakhstan, replied one of the teens. What is that? asked the man.
Baffled, the boy replied, “A country.”
“In Asia, near Russia.”
I can’t say if the Kazakhs were more enlightened about the world but their approach to travel and food was evident: They never ventured outside the resort—except to the beach—and never tried local food, sticking to grilled tomatoes, fried chicken and bread. The culinary divide at tourist hotels is stark: Most Indians line up for dosas, aloo puri or poha, the Westerners for chicken sausages, bacon, cereal and bread.
Given this culinary conservatism of the world at large, I am most impressed by the spouse’s approach to travel and food. She always tries the local food, even in countries and places where it isn’t friendly to vegetarians. She refuses to go to Indian or pure-veg restaurants, finds the one thing she can eat and stays on what she calls “a liquid diet”.
In Amritsar, there was no problem—she sought out the best chhola and kulcha. In Nagaland, she was dismayed to find no vegetarian entries at all in many menus but soon discovered “side dishes”, usually a local green and red rice. In Meghalaya, she found a dal made from the jamyrdoh plant. In Italy, she ate artichokes. On Lake Titicaca in Peru, she ate boiled rice and raw, shaved carrot. What did you eat in Peru and Brazil? I asked. “I can only remember the pisco sour and Cuscena beer and in Brazil, caipirinha,” she said.
Eating local does more than expand your culinary experience and introduce you to exciting new tastes, it puts you in touch with local culture and characters. On a visit to south Goa, a couple who ran a little liquor store (with their toddlers romping among the bottles) sent us to an unlikely named restaurant—Pentagon. It was a little gem, nestled among glistening rice paddies spotted with buffalo. The patrons were almost entirely local, a band played on Sunday, and the hot toddy offered by the jovial manager fixed my lingering throat infection. So, too, at the better-known Martin’s, packed on a Monday afternoon, mostly with Konkani-speaking families ordering roast tongue, chilli beef and mackerel rechado.
In rural Tamil Nadu, I once stopped at a little shack suggested by my taxi driver. I was sceptical because it appeared to fall below my flexible standards. It was dingy, lit by sunlight streaming in through a torn thatch roof, and there were four rickety tables with newspaper for tissue. But the Chettinad mutton curry and rice was soft and fragrant, confirmation—not that I needed it—that culinary barriers are only as inevitable as you make them.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.