C is for Chapatti
I am all in favour of eating local style when I am traveling. Some of my fondest memories of life on the road lead me back to feasts shared with many a generous host. There was that mysterious meat served with love in a remote village in Laos, (my non Veg lover politely declined the offering, but I was compelled by politeness and diplomacy to mix it in with my sticky rice and declare it delicious), there was the dish of rubbari rich with cream and coconut in a humble (soon to be displaced by the Narmada damn scheme) farmhouse deep in the dust laden heartland of Madhya Pradesh, haldi ki subzi cooked over a fire in the desert and sweet prasad offered all over this nation of foodies, fresh from the blessing of the gods.
For a vegetarian, food is often the less appealing side of travel. Vegetarian options are listed in the Boring side of the menu, there is usually little to get the tastebuds leaping with delight and curiousity. Worse, it’s often more expensive than dishes that include meat! At least that was my experience in Cambodia recently. No doubt meat is cheap there, as it is the staple of most meals. I would trawl the street markets looking for vegetarian street food. Fish? No. Chicken? No. Pork? not at all. Ok then take some eggs. Actually i dont do eggs either. Settle for fried rice or noodles and vegetables. Eat one day and have diarrohea for two. Even then I didn’t manage to loose any weight, possibly because I supplemented my diet with almond croissants and lemon tarts. One day lying in a hammock on a tropical island, where the seafood was so fresh that it literally leapt into the boats that plyed the ocean, I fantasised about the smell of chapatti on the pan. Falling deeper into the trance of a Travelers Food Fantasy, my tastebuds reminded me of crisp paratha, the sour tang of raita and the nutty aroma of ghee on a warm pan. While my stomach rumbled and roared like a coal train heading to port, I counted the days until my return to India.
I remembered the early days of travel in India when chai latte hadn’t even been invented, when I ate in Thail joints because restaurants for tourists where were you got the worst food. (I mean who comes to India to order lasagne? Lots apparantly!) The motto for safe eating back in those days of the dianasour was to eat what the locals knew and loved best. The strategy behind that was that a fast turnover of popular food kept your order fresh and on the side of hygenic safety. I remembered one day in Dharamsala when my stomach, overwhelmed by the energy of Indian food, cried out for something simple. I gave instructions to the waiter to bring me a tomato sandwhich. In the face of his confusion, I described how to make it. Two slices of plain white bread, butter, some sliced tomatoes. He went away and came back with the cook. Again I described the construction of a tomato sandwhich. When it eventually arrived on the table, I experienced the kind of rush that comfort food brings to the soul and the body.
These days there is a deeper sense of satisfaction that comes from soul food, now I make my own chapatti and even if they are never as round and as puffy as I would like them to be (I learned to make chapatti from th sadhus who prefer thick farm style chapatti and had no time for poofy light fluffy puffs of bread) and even if they look more like pacmen than perfect discs, in the making of them I am transported across time to the houses and hearths where I have shared and cooked chapatti all over India. I remember the way my Guru ji, the wild and naked Chandon Giri Naga Baba would work in tandem with me as we cooked the one meal of the day that the sadhu allowed themselves. I remember walking home with freshly milled chuki attar and floating on the aroma of it, cooking chapatti on the sadhu’s holy fire, the dhuni with a rolling pin in one hand and a stick in the other to chase the maurading monkeys away with, I remember eating thick farm style chapatti at sunset on a farm in Rajasthan and sharing tiffins on trains where the chapatti were folded like lotuses. All these memories get worked into the dough of my chapatti and the taste is as sweet as the memories.