Shortly before I went to India, the guitarist for a band I have enjoyed for years tweeted a joke I have repeated many times since: "I would like to open an Indian fast food chain and call it Naan-Profit." The joke struck a chord with me, as it combined two of my favorite things - Naan, and the idea of non-profits. Though, a not-for-profit fast food chain seems kind of silly...and Indian fast food even more so. I shall explain.
What I didn't realize though before actually traveling to India was that I had never had true Naan. Before leaving for my trip, I had had maybe two meals of Indian food in my life. When I went to Boston for the first time, my friends Anne and Jess took us to a wonderful Indian restaurant near Harvard, and I had Tandoori chicken with some rice and curry. Incredibly spicy, but delicious. And just last summer, shortly after finding out that I was going to India, my roommate and I were in Austin and had dinner at the Clay Pit, an Indian restaurant near the Capitol Building. I had a tandoori chicken salad, with cold tandoori chicken and delicious dressing. Some bread and chutney came with our meal and I was totally that this brittle, cracker like stuff that tasted like a salt-less saltine was Naan, a common Indian side that comes with practically every meal.
I grimaced. If this was Indian food, I was not looking forward to such meals. "I suppose I can eat rice. A lot of rice." I thought at the time.
Boy, was I wrong.
I heard plenty of warnings about the spiciness of Indian food before going over, and worried about whether or not I could handle it. I come from the very middle of the United States, a breadbasket kind of place. We don't do spicy. When I went to Buffalo Wild Wings on 40 cent wing Tuesdays in undergraduate, the most I could ever handle was around halfway down the spicy chart--Asian something. My family never cooks with many spices, and, growing up, I never had a meal that made my nose run because it was so spicy. When my parents moved me to Texas, we went to a Cajun restaurant, and my mother requested a Cajun steak...with no spices on it. That's how bland my family is.
Needless to say, I was scared that the only option I was going to have would be the quite spicy Indian food, and that I would either starve, or die from the heat.
Unfortunately, what should have been a good slow introduction to the Indian food was interrupted by illness on the first day there. Rather than eating Indian food on the plane, and getting a feel for the type of food it would involve, I was instead thrown into it when I was handed some chicken, some Naan and some rice after getting back to the hotel after my hospital stay. The chicken was already spicier than I would have liked, even though San-Schou (no idea how to spell his name) assured me that it wasn't bad. "This, not bad?" I thought. "Oh dear."
Rather than filling my somewhat nauseous stomach with a massive amount of spicy chicken, I instead reached for the pile of bread wrapped in foil, pulling off a chunk and eating it. The glutenous, lightly buttered bread was precisely what the doctor ordered for a poor feeling stomach.
Over the next week, I would learn the wonder of Naan. In a restaurant at the hotel in Rajahmundry, buttered Naan would be combined with delicious tomato soup that was, surprisingly, too sweet to eat on its own. In Nellore, the Naan cooled my tongue after some spicy chicken lollipops (seriously, that was the name of the food). And at home base in Vizag, either sweet Indian bread or Naan were available at nearly every meal. Naan became the go-to food for sopping up extra sauce on your plate, to create a wonderful wrap around chicken curry and rice, or to dip in Daal, another spicy, strangely textured Indian side.
Naan is the Indian version of toast, cleaning up extra food, but tasting good on its own. During my first meal back home in Waco, I found myself wishing that I had homecooked curry chicken and Naan. My average fare of spaghetti and tomato sauce seemed...bland. I had acclimated, and was now craving spice.
Fast forward to today. I have decided, in honor of my upcoming birthday (birthdays are a big deal to me), I am going to treat my friends to as close to genuine, homecooked Indian meal as I can get.
This weekend, I am doing a practice run.
There's an old saying that you don't truly understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes. I say, you don't truly get someone's culture until you've attempted to cook their food. So much of culture is surrounded and wrapped up in what we put in our bodies on a daily basis. If you ask an American what things are symbols of America, the answer will probably include Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, Steak, Hamburgers, French Fries, BBQ Pork or Ribs...and so on. There's a reason behind the saying, "As American as Apple Pie."
By the same stroke, you could probably say the same thing about India, at least in a very general sense: "It's as Indian as chicken curry on rice!" By embracing and attempting to cook and enjoy another culture's food, you are trying to respect traditions that culture has had for years, decades, even centuries.
Standing at the counter this evening pressing out little balls of dough into tiny circles, I realized that I probably wasn't patient enough waiting for the dough to rise the first time, and even before that, not patient enough in waiting for the yeast to...well, do what it does. Wanting to see the end result, I probably didn't let natural processes do their work. The bread looks...okay, but it certainly nothing I would want to feed to a native Indian, or to my guests, for that matter.
As cheesy as it may be, this seems like a pretty good assessment for my life in India. So much of India is unexpected, so much of it takes patience. We Americans are so used to getting things done, to efficiency, to the microwave meal that doesn't take three hours of preparation. If a problem arises with a product line, we expect a solution on our desk by 5PM that afternoon. If something is wrong in the Health Care system, we expected Congress to fix it NOW, regardless of how much we would also want to be sure that the law passed doesn't screw over our children and grandchildren. If we see people hurting, we want to act NOW to stop the hurt, not wait to see what the best course of action is, or even whether what we are doing is wrong (think of the missionaries now sitting an Haitian jail...they were quick to act, but didn't have the patience to think that what they were doing just might be a problem).
Embracing another culture takes patience.
Learning to love your neighbor, and your enemy, takes patience.
Helping others takes patience.
Making Naan takes patience and understanding of the proper technique.
I don't have it down yet, but I'm confident I can get there soon. And with that, I hope I can understand a little better what it takes to love someone else, even if it just by spending the time to bring them some comfort.
Photo credit: Fellow Indian traveler Marissa Lorusso, dear roommate and awesome person. :)
Posted by Dianna at 5:36 PM