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Travel
April 21, 2020

The Spice of Life

Text by Supriya Thanawala

While backpacking solo in South East Asia, Supriya Thanawala zeroes in on the dish that caters to her personal preferences and budget, without compromising on her taste for adventure

I was on a rather long, self-inflicted road trip away from home when I landed in Penang early last year, and the one thing that I had been looking forward to was reactivating the nerves on my slightly sore tongue that was aching for some spice. Eating the moderately seasoned or bland salads and leafy greens in Thailand that were served cold and geared towards the typical European vegan tourist had become tiring. An Indian vegetarian (who occasionally enjoys eggs), I needed something that was hot, salty, fresh and fragrant, as well as filling — something that wouldn’t make my stomach churn with heaviness while I was on a consciously non-luxurious trip. This way, it was much easier roughing it out and bunking on beds in cheap, shared dormitories with strangers from all over the world as I caught 18-hour-long bus rides from one country to another, dragging my luggage and passport out of the carrier every time we had to cross a border at the customs during the wee hours in the middle of nowhere. It had felt exciting and adventurous, albeit with the added caution of not eating anything that would lead to bronchial congestion or an upset tummy, which I’m prone to during changes in weather.

Many travellers I know struggle with health risks and food preferences when they are on a trip. Dimita Mehta, who teaches Spanish at the University of Delhi (DU), developed anaemia during a year-long research fellowship in Spain during her PhD studies because the government hostel she was staying at refused to serve anything vegetarian. She found herself going hungry and unable to eat normally for days at a stretch, what with her work schedule and the apprehension of commuting alone through unfamiliar areas at night before she could get to affordable vegan joints. It took her system days to recover after she returned home. Manmohan Singh, who is pursuing a PhD programme in Italian literature while teaching at DU, resorted to carrying homemade spices with him every time he travelled to Italy for research, because the food he found around him was so bland he had to ‘Indianise’ the taste. And it’s not just Indians who have trouble with food when they are abroad; one of my co-hostellers, Rita, from Hungary, who I met in Malaysia, said she spent over seven weeks in North India on a yoga trip in Uttarakhand, when she faced the opposite problem as Singh. She was unable to eat anything for days, after the first insanely spicy dish she had been served, making her stomach turn upside down. Amadeus, who I met in a Delhi hostel while she was touring India, is native Irish and lives in Dublin but loves spicy food, telling me that she often had to convince people in India that despite her being a foreigner, she didn’t need dishes to be toned down. But even with her dietary adaptability, she, too, had to make sure to eventually strike the right balance between cooking, buying things from the supermarket and eating at restaurants — particularly in order to manage her expenses wisely while on longer research trips in other parts of the world.

Perhaps that’s the reason why Nishant Yadav, who runs backpacker hostel Nomad House in Dehradun, works so hard at curating the menu in his rooftop cafe for everyone; he offers local Garhwali dishes, salads, hot beverages, as well as typical North Indian dishes like parathas, at throwaway prices. It costs just 50-60 rupees for an entire breakfast meal, which also matches his affordable room rates at 500 rupees per night for a bunk bed and 1000 rupees per night for a private single or double room. But even with the hope of discovering great places like Yadav’s every once in a while, the way I did during a trip to Uttarakhand, it’s hardly surprising that many budget travellers with specific eating preferences would be wary of visiting a foreign country with a suitcase that has no food in it — the way I usually do. I detest managing leaky bottles filled with chutneys and pickles, and like having minimal luggage so that I can focus on other things. Many Indian travel agents now offer package tours with a chef onboard for this reason, particularly when they are taking large groups of tourists to locations like Turkey and Japan, where vegetarian food is not easily available. While I know I shouldn’t compromise my health when I am away from home, I also want to make sure I eat authentic local cuisine — something that is intrinsic to my purpose for travelling. I thus felt it would have been a lost opportunity if I returned from my month-long South East Asia backpacking tour without having tried the different varieties of Thai and Malaysian food.

Like with the Thai green curry I’ve always loved even back home in Mumbai, I would look wistfully at the several types of curries temptingly lined up at street stalls in Bangkok — but was never able to try any of them here locally because they wouldn’t be available without any chicken or meat pieces already dipped in them. And the vegetarian pad thai I tried at the Khao San night market of Bangkok, opposite my hostel, was well-made but felt like nothing more than an offshoot of regular Chinese fried noodles that I eat every now and then, and it didn’t satisfy my craving for new flavours of street curries twirled in lemon grass. Moreover, despite my wanderlust for food, I was never convinced about turning non-vegetarian as many people often advise you to do if you want to ‘survive’. That’s because I don’t think that the local food culture that I am in search of is something you can experience through only the chicken or fish or meat you find in a place. Culture, I have always believed, is actually found in the unique spices, in the masalas, and in the crops that are grown locally.

The art of getting what one wants lies in finding the right accommodations, I realised early on, whether it is for three nights or for three months, and research on this must start well in advance. My thrifty and tastefully designed dormitory hostel, Here Hostel, had the ironic decor of a dilapidated building and was tucked inside a little dusty lane behind the sprawling streets of Bangkok’s old commercial centre at Ratchadamnoen. It turned out to be unbelievably cosy — with spotless floors, super-clean shared showers, efficient air-conditioning and cool bunk beds with cotton mattresses and curtains that you could lock yourself behind when you felt like it, after a tiring day of sight-seeing in Bangkok’s dry and sharply sunny weather. The friendly and helpful staff at the hostel (who later told me how they are now planning to stock more vegetarian dishes, thanks to the increasing number of vegetarian travellers they host), served warm waffles and fruits for breakfast on the common terrace, along with some all-day sandwiches, munchies, fruit juices, alcohol and pad thai at their public pool-side cafe. So, satiated enough to survive, I trekked around Pattaya over a day trip, walking in and out of seaside restaurants to catch the buzz of the beach town filled with Indians and Bangladeshis; took a bus and strolled through Bangkok’s colourful floating markets where women served friendly grins with tiny banana fries and coconut tacos at riverside stalls; ate some of the sweet pineapple slices that were sold every few steps; and gazed out of the huge windows of the overnight WiFi-powered bus as it drove past the sleepy town of Hat Yai at the southern tip of Thailand en-route to Malaysia and into Singapore. Some of the Malaysian waiters at an Indian street restaurant next to my hostel on Singapore’s crowded Bugis street (which served a delicious dosa variation called masala thosai, laced with several sweet and sour chutneys) told me I’d be most likely to find the kind of food I liked once I was in Penang.

I had initially chosen a four-day halt at Penang (located on the Malaysian west coast) on my way back from Singapore to Thailand again before I flew home, for several reasons. One of them was its catchy name, which literally means ‘island’, but the other was my curiosity about Georgetown, its colourful capital city that had a colonial feel to it. Something about this combination reminded me of Mumbai; here was a seaside port-land with a vast green forest on its edges and a bustling business trade centre at its heart, which was in the process of decolonising itself into a global melting point by shedding its British roots. The old city of Georgetown is also quietly lined with heritage buildings like those around Flora Fountain, bordered by pristine beaches and the Penang National Park at its tail end — analogous to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park on Mumbai’s historic Salsette strip. And like Mumbai, Penang’s food culture is also an eclectic mix of the local as well as the global — given Malaysia’s strategic place on the map between cosmopolitan Singapore to its south and the more rural and traditional Thailand to its north, bringing out the best of both its neighbouring traditions. As I hopped onto a Grab taxi at the airport to reach my guest house, the talkative driver launched into an hour-long conversation about India and Malaysia — and even promised to show me every single restaurant that served local vegetarian cuisine.

But he soon disappeared into Penang’s wilderness, and I was left with only Google Maps. My hotel, that had a colonial heritage design, which I had chosen to stay in partly because of their food menu, also served a local Malaysian curry with bread for breakfast till late in the morning — but disappointingly, not without fish in it. Having to order the routine breakfast of toast with baked beans instead, I searched for other places around to eat, until I finally came across some affordable listings around the ‘Penang Street Art’ area some few blocks away, a version of Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda, with little art galleries, endearing graffiti and old Dutch architecture. A crowd was gathered at its entry point, around a two-artiste band playing an upbeat song on the guitar, and the atmosphere was festive. Behind the crowd was a restaurant that served cool sweet guava juice, and I gulped down an entire jar to quench my thirst in the heat. Rejuvenated, I took a little walk down the lane of Penang Street Art, until I reached its main square, and found several intersecting streets including Lebuh Armenian, Lebuh Carnarvon — and the Street of Harmony. It was somewhere here, between these diverse and converging faiths and traditions, where I found a cluster of vegetarian restaurants serving all sorts of flavourful soups, gravies and curries of the kind I had been searching for.

While the asam laksa was the most recommended local Malaysian dish, capturing several flavours in a spicy noodle soup — what really felt like a satisfying treat, leaving the strongest impression on my taste buds, was the Indonesian-oriented curry rendang that I had at the Nyonya Vegetarian Cafe, which was surprisingly also sweet and soothing. Served with a slice of toast, rendang is usually made from a paste of ginger, shallots (or onions), garlic cloves, tamarind, galangal, turmeric and lemon grass stirred in coconut milk — and appetising as well as digestive at the same time, it offers the satisfyingly spicy experience I had been yearning for since being on this trip. Having earlier been a lot fonder of the green curry than the red one, I now found the variations of the latter served in most Malaysian joints to be more nuanced and well-tempered than the ones that were lazily cooked in clumps of red chilli. Even in the cafes and restaurants of Kuala Lumpur’s grand malls and metro stations a few days later, it was much easier to find different red gravies, one of which I had as part of a Buddha Bowl, served with rice, tofu, some crisp nuts, salad, and corn taco strips. This authentic South Asian curry, rich in nutrients and herbs, like the rasas even in Mumbai’s spicy red pav bhaji, opens up your senses and relaxes them at the same time and goes with almost anything, from rice to chapati to pav (bread), and is generally considered to be a rather healthy meal. In the new urban and globalised pan-Asian culture that is emerging between Singapore and Malaysia in cosmopolitan coastal areas like Penang and Mumbai, such vegetarian curries are a culinary symbol of various human emotions — sweet, sour, salty, cool and fiery.

The toughest challenge for travellers today might thus well be in finding a suitable balance in taste for themselves, which can be facilitated only by the way something is prepared. While every culture has methods and ingredients that exemplify certain customs and traditions, a badly-tempered gravy, like any other badly-cooked dish with even the richest of ingredients, can be detrimental to the gastric system if it is not blended well or the proportions aren’t calibrated. Bringing in new ingredients from foreign cultures, and then serving them in a way that can be palatable to diverse people — with diverse immunity and digestive stamina levels, and diverse food habits — is where the art of mindful cooking lies. Like with the effect of a good tadka (or tempering) over an Indian dal or sabzi, the healthy satisfaction from any Asian curry can also be attained only when all the chosen elements in it have combined with each other well. After all, every successful curry is precisely filtered through one’s personal set of preferences; it is a unique choice. And, similarly, living the life that makes you happy might just be about finding that most accurate mix of ‘spices’….

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