I think the funniest thing happened just a few weeks after my arrival. I was coming back from a day-long workshop and was very tired and hungry. I did not have anything ready at home and hadn’t had the time to go grocery shopping either. So I thought of buying some potatoes on my way home. What’s better than a potato-dinner when one is ravenously hungry, I thought! It was already quite dark and I found one vendor selling potatoes. I wanted to rush home very quickly so I bought half a kg and quickly walked towards my house.
When I reached my house and was ready to cook them… there was a suprise! The stuff that I had just bought only looked like potatoes (at least in the dark) but were instead some kind of fruits that I had never seen before… and you can imagine my major disappointment! I mean, looking forward to an all-potato meal and then not getting it can be extremely frustrating. However, being a fruit and vegetable lover, I thought I might give it a go anyways, and not like I had much choice at that point! To my bedazzlement, those ‘fruits’ were very woody and weird, and only after an internet search I realized I had, in fact, just bought wood apples! To open them, I had to use a pestle, only to discover a sticky, fibrous pulp, speckled with hundreds of edible seeds. I didn’t even like the taste, they seemed quite acidic. Only later, while talking to my tenant and laughing about my experience I found out that they are usually served with jaggery or made into jams, drinks or chutneys!
Needless to say, I went to bed hungry that night, dreaming of potatoes!
The second incident was more of a ‘pani puri’ crisis! I had heard about this unique Indian street-food favorite from my friends and was eager to try it out at Juhu beach, as was recommended. I decided to finally eat them one afternoon after I spent a few hours lazing around at Juhu beach. Since I was soaked in sand, I thought it’s best if I took a parcel instead of having it at the beach itself.
Now that I eat pani-puri very often, I realize what a silly thing that was to do – parceling pani-puri. First off, I had no clue how to eat a pani-puri at all (it was my first time, remember?), hence the packet with green water, some boiled peas and the puris that looked like beignets totally puzzled me. After ‘struggling’ with my imagination for a while, I ended up eating it like ‘chapatis’ – taking each puri and drenching it in green water and trying to scoop the peas onto it!
I liked it, since it tasted like a salad but didn’t quite get what the fuss was about, because all my friends seemed to swear by the dish! Only later did I find out the best (and only) way to enjoy pani-puris is to fill each puri like a water balloon that goes straight into the mouth!
This made me realize that something as intrinsic as pani-puris to the Indian palate can be so confusing for someone who hasn’t had them before. I find such peculiarities very fascinating and that’s why food plays an important role when I am travelling and discovering a new place.
Once, I was enjoying a shared thali of Indian food with my colleagues during a business lunch and ate a mouthful of pickles; thinking they were a regular curry. In my attempt to be polite at the table, I had to use all my energy (and cool) to not spit them out; they were extremely salty and spicy! I pretended that I was just fine, with everybody looking at me expecting my reaction!
I risked losing my face once when tasting butter milk, thinking that I was about to have something similar to lassi, sweet but enhanced with Indian spices! It was so sour for me (and even now I find it challenging to drink) that I really didn’t know how to hide my disappointment and swallowed it without blinking!
It was also a great Indian food discovery for me when I finally learned the difference between Jain food and vegetarian food. Before that I could not have imagined any aversion to vegetables of any kind due to religious beliefs. To my understanding, you either ate meat / animal derivate or you didn’t. So it was nothing short of a fascinating discovery that Jain food meant no potatoes, garlic, onions, or any roots for that matter. There’s so much to learn and experiment when it comes to food!
I also didn’t know about the extensive use of jaggery in Indian cuisine nor had I ever heard of its existence before I got to India. Would you believe it that I have a sweet tooth and yet jaggery is too sweet for my palate? In fact, since moving to India, I don’t crave for desserts as much. However, Dudhi Halwa was an excellent find for me. I had never imagined that something as dull as bottle gourd could be made into such a nice dessert!
Thank you, Mumbai, for teaching me so much about Indian food and I know there is still a lot more to learn and discover!
About Nadia Vitari
Passionate traveler and backpacker, Nadia comes from the Lake of Como area in Italy (yes, where George Clooney lives!). She moved to Mumbai to work for an NGO. Being Italian and having lived, worked and studied in different countries, she is passionate about food and other cultures, especially anything Japanese! She also loves reading, football and rock music.