Final Exam, Part Two

Upon meeting Rahul, I told him to take me around to see the best of what Old Delhi had to offer. Sweet or savory, whatever he thought was best. I put my full trust in him. He gave a sly smile and gestured for me to climb up into his rickshaw. (And no, that’s not a pickup line. Yet.)

Bike rickshaws are rickety but charming. A small hood covers your head but the rest of the vehicle is open, which makes it the best way to see a place like the streets of Old Delhi. Walking around can be arduous and confusing, and often the best views are from right in the middle of the road. Stepping up into my seat, I felt like Cinderella climbing into her carriage, excited and apprehensive and lucky.

Our first stop was Ashok Chats corner where, Rahul said, I had to sample two different snacks. I handed him my fifty rupees and did what I was told. First up was papri chaat, AKA the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I’m embarrassed by my efforts to describe this: the base consisted fluffy, cake-like (moist?) little rolls and crispy, crunchy fried discs. Topped with a tangy yogurt sauce, chickpeas, spicy chutneys and some sort of mango concoction. Soft and crunchy and sweet and spicy and tangy and light. I KNOW that description makes no sense and the picture included below isn’t doing much to help my case, but trust me. I’d buy another plane ticket to India just to taste this again.

MAGIC

Next up was Golgappe, tiny crispy hollow puffs filled with a tamarind and mango flavored liquid. It was totally different from anything I have ever eaten. But refreshing and delicious and light. Then across the street for dessert number one (fluffy white stuff? that’s what she said?), and back into the rickshaw. We arrived at an unassuming storefront — no sign, nothing flashy, just an old man sitting in front of a huge vat of kheer: delicious, thick Indian rice pudding (but more pudding-y than what we’re used to at home). It was a generations-old operation, and his son looked on from the background, learning the trade to one day take things over after his father finds his home in the great Kheer shop in the sky. Kheer Daddy served me up a bowl and Rahul and I sat in back, at an old, time-worn wooden table. The walls were a sweet Carolina blue that hadn’t been touched up in maybe a hundred years. Decor clearly wasn’t a priority here, and it shouldn’t be: the kheer was so delicious that it warranted a complete absence of distraction or competition from outside forces. I just sat and spooned it into my mouth, eyes closed. It was that good.

As we we wrapped up our afternoon — including deliciously fluffy mango-flavored kulfi ice cream down an alley so rickety we had to ditch the rickshaw and walk — I realized this was the perfect way to say goodbye to India. The food, of course, was amazing. The streets were loud, the traffic dense, the pollution hard on my lungs but easy on my eyes: with the setting sun it gave the streets the glow of a perfectly instagrammed photograph, nostalgic and ethereal and hazy.

Thankfully, the point at which we had to leave the rickshaw behind (streets were closed off due to the Imam’s visit) coincided with the point at which my stomach raised its white flag. I can eat – a lot – but I knew I was done for the day. So we got a bit of walking in, and Rahul pointed me back to the metro.

I walked slowly, both because all I could think about was changing into something with an elasticized waistband and because I didn’t want to say goodbye to the old city, didn’t want the day to end, didn’t know what it would be like to leave this insane and vibrant country after a two-month courtship: sometimes tumultuous, a bit love-hate, but passionate and caring nonetheless. I stumbled back into our hotel room, plopping onto my fluffy bead and rubbing my distended yet victorious stomach.

India was good for me. For so many reasons. The culture is so vibrant and at times overpowering, but I liked it. And the food — the food was amazing. After years of disordered eating and gradual recovery, I was able to wholeheartedly embrace my love of food. I realized that I just really like food. I like eating it and learning how it’s made and discovering new things and hearing stories about where they come from. I had fun trying new foods on the street, in restaurants, having a second helping if I wanted it, giggling through piles of chapatis and endless boxes of delicious Indian sweets (which I WILL learn to make someday). And the subsequent squeeze in my jeans just reminds me of all the beautiful things I’ve experienced and the way I’ve been able to savor my trip so far. Somehow, with a few more pounds on my frame, I feel lighter.

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