It has been almost one year since I was in South India, and the memory that still elicits an intense visceral reaction is the food. Show me a picture of a dosai on Google and I can’t tear my eyes away. I hear the crunch in the back of my mind as I first eat the crispy edges of this cracker-thin, rice and lentil “pancake.” The middle is next to go — I tear the soft, chewier center into strips and wrap it around a helping of coconut chutney, shoveling the entire combination into my mouth with my hand. Now I really want an Indian thali meal, common to most restaurants: a banana leaf sprinkled with water lines the bottom of a round, stainless steel tray, and about six to eight small stainless steel cups filled with various edibles hug the sides. When I should be writing a literature review for class, I fantasize about the earliest time I can drive to Des Moines and get my hands on some instant dosai mix, or at least some paneer (cheese) for another dish.
Food definitely dominates my memories of my study abroad experience. My second evening in South India was absolute foodie heaven: palak paneer, chappati, aloo gobi, dal, sambar, roti, iddli, dosas, and chutney all passed from plate to mouth to the shock of my taste buds. Having arrived the day before, my sense of taste still reeled not only from the cholesterol-laden airplane food, but also from a general disconnect between my palate and brain. I bit into a potato chunk only to register a few seconds later the piece of hot green chili stuck to the side.
It wasn’t too long before I found out my spice tolerance was abysmally low. As the semester progressed, gentle teasing about my unsophisticated Indian palate, insignificant appetite (by Indian standards), and unrefined eating technique was not an uncommon activity in my host family’s household. “Is this too spicy for you?” my host amma (mother) would ask every night for a month even when barely a pinch of green chili was added. My paati (grandmother) chuckled whenever sambar juice dribbled down my chin as I tried to (unsuccessfully) scoop sopping rice with my right hand. Pause, rearrange fingers, demonstrate, now you try made up the substance of our initial gestured interactions. “You’re worse than a baby,” my amma teased on more than one occasion.
Eating food wasn’t all that enriched my experience — discussing the gastronomic effects of curd rice versus onion chutney added another dimension to the edible experience. That first week, I bonded with my program mates over our stomachs’ revolt against the new bacteria cultures. Bathroom activities took center stage in our daily conversations as we debated the various gastrointestinal effects of the rich, spicy cuisine. As the semester progressed, “bathroom humor” ceased to be a trademark of an immature mind and instead became a fact of daily life for us American students in India.
I’m proud to note that by semester’s end, my spice tolerance had increased to rival that of any self-respecting South Indian family. There was a lilt of surprise in my amma’s voice one day when she told me she no longer made my food separately from the family’s. “I didn’t think you could handle it, but now you can. You have become truly Indian,” she joked. It had only taken two months for the complete transformation.
Though my tolerance levels have probably plummeted to dismal levels in the year since I studied abroad, I still look forward to the occasional reconnection to South Indian cuisine and memories of my time in Madurai. Sometimes visceral memories are the strongest. The next time I am lucky enough to take a bite of chutney and dosai I’ll be certain India
Alisha Saville '09 is a Sociology major from Carbondale, Illinois.