Weight watchers' nightmare

in Warszawa, Poland
1344 words, 7 minutes to read

Two kilograms each, and none of it is muscle. That’s how much weight we gained during the two weeks of eating Indian food. There’s so much of it, and so diverse, we wanted to try everything. And it’s often so good, it’s hard to stop eating, even when we know we should.

All Indian food is spicy. Well, not exactly all of it, but in every meal there will usually be some dish that’s spicy. Restaurant menus will usually not mark the spicy dishes, so if your preference is for something milder, you better ask explicitly. Good thing all four of us do enjoy hot flavors and often times we actually had to assure the staff serving us that it was perfectly fine to make our food spicy—the way they’d make it for themselves.

I’m slightly disappointed with how few dishes I found truly spicy. Mostly the kadais and vindaloos. The rest might’ve caused some tickling on the tongue, but only slightly so. That could’ve been for any of the following reasons:

  • the restaurants prepared milder versions for us, assuming we white folks couldn’t take it,
  • the cuisine isn’t that spicy after all, or we’ve chosen the less spicy dishes,
  • the climate changed our taste, as it always does. When in a hot climate, one can always eat things that are spicier and sweeter.

In any case, if you don’t handle spicy food well, you’ll have a hard time in India. If you do like it, you’ll be fine, but don’t expect the heat to blow you away.

Spice market in Kochi

Spice market in Kochi

It’s cheap. By western standards obviously, and even by our still modest Polish standards. We could easily find decent restaurants that cost €15-20 to feed all four of us. We’ve also been to a few more upscale ones, some of them self-describing as “fine dining”, where the prices were around mid-range Warsaw levels. Perhaps the most expensive place we’ve been to, Bird on Tree in Coimbatore, cost us €30 for a dinner for three.

Granted, there’s no alcohol included. There’s very little alcohol consumed, or even available, overall. On April 1, India Supreme Court’s order came into force forbidding the sale of any alcohol within 500m from national highways, aimed at reducing the number of drunk drivers. I’m not sure how effective a measure this’ll be, but it did close down a lot of shops and bars, resulting in massive queues at those which remained open. In Kochi we saw a liquor store with some 200 people queuing. Another one in Coimbatore had perhaps 100 persons waiting.

Alcohol is offered in selected stores and restaurants, mostly catering to foreigners and well-off Indians. The bigger a city the wider the availability, unsurprisingly. In Bengaluru we even found an outpost of the craft beer movement—the Arbor Brewing Company brewpub making decent brews and serving very British pub food, enhanced with Indian inspirations.

Arbor Brewing Company brewpub in Bengaluru

Arbor Brewing Company brewpub in Bengaluru

Not that we were particularly looking for booze. We’ve all but ditched alcohol in the last few months, largely because we seem to be enjoying it much less than we used to. Plus, it hurts sleep quality.

Karnatakan breakfast

Karnatakan breakfast

The low cost of food, combined with the massive variety of flavors and colors, made it all too easy for us to overeat. Anyone who’s ever been to an Indian restaurant will know what to expect. Tens of dishes with unfamiliar names, curries—thick sauces with meat or vegetables—plus rice and several bread varieties: naans, parathas, chapatis, dosas, rotis and others.

We must’ve consumed some 15-20,000 calories above our needs, which wasn’t too hard with all the thick curries, breads and rice on offer. Hence the weight gains, though I’m sure we’ll get rid of them within a week or two. Triathlon season is starting soon and there’ll be ample opportunities for burning calories.

Each state has its own culinary specialties. Also the level of spicy-ness differs. Kerala was the least spicy state we visited, Karnataka the most.

We tried to taste as many different dishes as we could. Not easy because we couldn’t understand much of the menus, so we also couldn’t quite remember what we had before. Lunch offerings were often a great bet, because these commonly consist of a number of dishes, each in a small bowl, with bread and rice. Chicken bits were tricky, because they usually weren’t the soft breast or thigh fillets we were expecting, but whole pieces, with bones and cartilage. Not much meat on them and what little there was, was difficulty to extract.

Traditional coffee preparation

Traditional coffee preparation

Coffee is… special. We’re all big on coffee. I love to have cup of flat white in the morning, with thick milk foam and a bitter ending. Not available in India. “Espresso” was a foreign term in most places we visited, as were its varieties—latte, cappuccino and others. Most places just served “coffee” which meant a tiny cup with lots of milk (boiled, but not steamed) and heavily sweetened.

That local coffee became really interesting once we saw how it gets traditionally prepared, at our friend’s wedding. There’s a large pot with the milk boiling, a small jug on top of it with the coffee brew. These two get mixed together, then the barista (can I even call him that?) pours the mixture from one cup to another a few times to get the temperature right. Then it lands in tiny cups, ready for consumption.

And the fruits… oh, the fruits… These were absolutely excellent. We drank a ton of watermelon juice, ate countless mangos, bananas, and the occasional coconut. Bananas alone must’ve been available in some fifteen varieties, none of which resembled the standard “Chiquita” ones we have in Poland. From finger-sized yellow to red, fat blobs, to cooking plantains. All of them great. And the mangos really blossom in this climate. An Indian restaurant owner in Warsaw told me once that no other mangos can compare to the ones grown in India. I know what he meant.

Fried bananas

Fried bananas

I actually think we made most of our weight gains from sugar in all these fruits. Perhaps with the help of all the breads we ate.

Eating by hand is the norm. The right hand that is. There was always a spoon and fork available for us, but many (most?) of the locals would only use spoons to pour curries over rice, then squish it together with their hand, form small chunks and put those in their mouths. We even saw some people, mostly elderly, puring soup with a spoon into their cupped hand and then drinking from it.

If you’re worried about the hygienic aspect of this approach, every restaurant we’ve been to had a sizable washroom. Guests wash their hands before and after the meal. Soap is usually available, but not everywhere. For our own safety, we opted to use some anti-bacterial gel.

Water purity is often a concern for westerners. Not a big deal in India. Everywhere we went, we were served with a sealed bottle of water, often before we even asked. In some of the more environmentally-conscious places, water was poured from jugs or refillable glass bottles, and it was always safe to drink.

What we’re used to in Poland is that bottled water equals mineral waster—extracted from underground reservoirs, where it soaked through over time, purified and mineral-enriched in a natural process. In India, bottled water is simply “packaged drinking water”, meaning it was taken from some reasonably clean source, then UV-treated, ozonized, and sometimes minerals get added in the production process, then it’s called “with added minerals”.

Being back in Poland, we’re pretty happy to return to our mostly Mediterranean diet, with lots of raw vegetables, lean meats and some delicious dairy. We love what India has to offer—the rich taste, the vibrant colors, and the hearty spice—we just wouldn’t be able to live on its cuisine permanently. It’ll remain a tasty treat to have once in a while, and thankfully Warsaw is home these days to a growing number of very decent Indian restaurants.