Visiting India: I’m here to Eat Play Shop

betty ming liu Travel 10 Comments

CHENNAI, INDIA — For the next three weeks, my daughter and I will be traveling around southern Indian with New York friends who have gone “back home” to visit with family. As you can imagine, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to see this country through the eyes of people who really love it. And so far, it’s been so exciting!

A neighborhood temple in Chennai

On Wednesday, we took a flight out of Newark International. Door-to-door — between the 16-hour flight to Mumbai, a four-hour layover plus delays and endless security checks — it took us 26 hours to reach our destination in Chennai. Now that we’re here, I’m feeling very comfy in the three-bedroom, marble-floored apartment of our friends’ favorite auntie.

I can’t even begin to explain how marvelously different it is to stay in her home rather in a hotel room. Yesterday, our friends took us shopping in the local market, where my daughter and I snapped up $1 silver earrings and $3 cotton-print skirts. I’ll also be going back for more of those bath-sized, cotton towels that are like giant dish cloths. They’re thin, quick drying and absorbent — no more fluffy Turkish towels for me!

The auntie spends a lot of time in the kitchen creating the most delicious dishes. As her new sous chef, I am fascinated by everything…her spice grinder, the two-burner table-top gas stove, all her stainless steel pots and plates. This morning for breakfast, we made dosas — fluffy, rice-based crepes, accompanied by a rich, potato stew. By the time I go home, I hope to have the hang of utensil-free eating, using just the fingers of my right hand. Forget about forks and chopsticks!

The view from our balcony in Chennai

Everywhere I turn here, I am hit by colliding worlds.

The auntie and her husband are successful business folks who have air conditioners in every bedroom.

A servant comes in the morning and evening to wash the dishes and hang out our laundry.

From their terrace, I can see and hear the mad, horn-honking Chennai traffic. Beyond the apartment building’s front door, barefoot construction workers — some of whom are just boys — haul concrete debris. There are also stray dogs, trash piles, choking auto fumes and women in the most colorful, sparkling saris.

So much to taste and feel and take in.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Comments 10

  1. love the way you’re looking at India — just taking it in without judging it.

    Spent a winter there thirty years ago as a video artist, traveling all over it. Something about it connected, & I’ve always wanted to go back.So glad you’ve made this great chance for yourself.

    You might want to look a little into Ayurved, their great approach to medicine.


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    i am fascinated by ayurvedic medicine! not sure if i’ll have a chance to try it.

    btw, it’s turning out to be much too difficult to blog about this trip. my internet access is very limited because there are too many people in the family wanting to get online and wifi is pretty much nonexistent where we are.

    so i’ve decided to use the comments on this post to give updates….

    the auntie and uncle wanted me to cook for them because she’s never had chinese food before and he’s hardly had any. same deal with the extended family. this morning, i walked with one of our friends to the local market and i swear, being in india makes me feel like i’ve landed on the set of a james bond movie.

    there i was, trying not to get hit by the crazy drivers and bicyclists on the narrow dirt streets. chennai might be a big city that’s hq for auto manufacturing plants and the I.T. back office computer operations for major corporations. but there are still little neighborhoods filled with too many barefoot kids, stray dogs and swarms of careening auto-rickshaws (like smart car-type taxis except more flimsy).

    walking in the nabe really moved me because there is so much poverty here. how do people make a living? what can they hope for? anyway, inside of one of the squat single-story buildings with peeling paint was a fantastic fresh produce market. i was surprised and delighted to see that indians and chinese eat some of the same veggies. i bought beautiful fresh loofah, water spinach, daikon radish, cilantro, kohlrabi, ginger and more.

    even though i had no soy sauce or other condiments to work with, my dinner was a hit. i cooked it in sunflower oil, with some sesame oil for finishing. my seasonings were chopped shallots, ginger, scallions and salt.

    i made baby purple eggplants with chopped tomatoes; stir-fried daikon radish, carrots and loofah; water spinach stir-fried with garlic; and a salad of slivered kohlrabi and cucumbers with cilantro and lemon juice. in addition to plain rice, my fried rice was done with just scallions, shallots and salt. i had brought over some whole foods cashews, which i stir-fried with cauliflower. for a fun drink, i had dried aduki beans from new york, which we cooked with ginger and then finished with condensed milk — made for a very nice drink.

    two of the aunties helped me. we bonded in the kitchen the way guys bond over watching sports. up until now, i’d been awkwardly helping them and now they helped me. it was my turn to giggle affectionately when they fumbled through my requests to dice and chop in ways that were unfamiliar to them. we were in that kitchen for two hours, working on two burners, to crank out a nice meal for a dozen people.

    we ate in shifts because the table only seats six. for the first time in my life, i cooked a meal where the men ate separately and ahead of the women. weird! i hung around the stove, trying not to act like an anxious chef. but of course, i was happy that they liked the meal.

    i’m starting to feel that indian and chinese cooking share the same issues as french versus italian cuisine. the indians and french are all about a million ingredients and saucing everything until you can’t tell what you’re eating anymore (even though much of it tastes great). chinese and italians like seeing what the food looks like, with an interest in the ingredient’s signature texture and form.

    gotta get off the computer now. we’re pulling out of chennai and heading for the villages to visit the family. most of the relatives are there. we’ll be gone for 15 days. will comment again here when i can!


  3. Betty! I’m so excited to read your posts about your vacation in India– enjoy your time in Chennai, and I will look forward to more updates!

  4. Keep the photos coming! Sounds like a great adventure. One of these years I’m going to do the big tour of the Indian pharmaceutical companies…

  5. Keep an eye out for *female* construction workers. I met a few further south, in Kerala. Blew my mind. Enjoy your travels! <3

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    ooh, so nice to hear from you all! makes me feel less far away.

    btw, i just couldn’t sleep last night. my system just won’t switch over to indian time. so you know what i did? watched back episodes of “glee.” i bought the first season for $50 and put it on the money pit otherwise known as my ipad. love the show!

  7. Glad to know you had a wonderful time in India. Luckily, you and I were fortunate to stay with friends during our FIRST visit for this country. I visited my former colleague in India when I was on vacation in Asia, that was 2008. I don’t think I could do that without his help. I was able to see another side of India besides its poverty. One of his college classmates was a good cook and she made a wonderful and yummy Indian dinner at her home for my farewell. She is also a food writer in New Delhi. I have never been Chennai and would love to know more about it.

    Well, you got a better deal than me in term of shopping. Enjoy!

  8. What a wonderful experience! You are at one of my top ten dream destinations! It is nice to be able to read about it on your blog. The chance to actually see how the people live and not just get the Hotel experience is something I would love. Have a wonderful time and I hope to see more pictures and read more stories soon.

  9. Wow! I’m only now catching up on your adventures, Betty. Sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as trite as that sounds. Love the cooking exchanges (and insights!).

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