South India in 6,000 Calories per Day

That’s what the online calculator says you need in order to propel 145 pounds of body and 45 pounds of gear 160 kilometers in nine hours.

Judging by my fooding schedule for the 2100 kilometer jaunt down the subcontinent, it sounds about right:

6:00AM Pre-breakfast of fruit and leftover flatbreads.

9:00AM Breakfast of some sort of street pancake/muffin dish.

11:00AM Quick snack, most likely a samosa or a rasgullah (cottage cheese dumplings soaked in sugar syrup).

1:30PM Massive lunch, usually a “veg meal” consisting of a heap of rice and unlimited refills of side curries.  Nap profusely.

3:00PM Resume riding

5:00PM Snack stop.  Possibly pakoras (deep fried veg in savory batter), possibly sweet bean balls, possibly one of many varieties of sugar infusion.

7:00PM Dinner of veg or chickpea curry with assorted roti (flatbreads) or paratha (bread stuffed with potato curry).

9:00PM Dessert of fruit and leftover sweets.

Plus stops for fresh fruit, fruit smoothies (don’t hold the sugar) , and coconuts at every opportunity.  Plus stops whenever random dudes want to buy me Chai and “biscuits” (cookies).

How can one slightly-smaller-than-average body possibly absorb so much foreign matter in one day?  How can it do so without a doubling of the girth?  Without instantly contracting diabetes?  Or simply exploding?  Or even so much as catching a much-deserved case of Delhi Belly?  I guess some things are just meant to be.  I will gladly accept the following as my fate:

Part 1: Meals

2015-03-10 to Sullurpet 004 (res)

In the north, it’s a “Thali.”  In the south, where people refuse to speak Hindi and ignore or mock me when I try, it’s a “Meal.”  Either way, it’s a foodie fauxbo’s dream.  Carb overload, assorted veg and beans, plenty of different flavors, and free refills of everything, for less than $1 when it’s cheap, and less than $3 when it’s primo.  This is a top-notch one from a restaurant with actual marble floors and air conditioning.   Among the numerous delicious thick and thin curries here, the coconut, okra, lentil, and  whole, unpeeled garlic dry fry dish way up top took the cake.

2015-02-27 to Belgan 002 (res)

“Gujarati style,” whatever that means.  The yellow roti there is made from some sort of lentil powder.  Paneer Dopyazza (creamy “capsicum” [bell pepper] sauce) on the right.  Free thanks to the good folks at Hotel Bhammar!  They also insisted, in a friendly fashion, that I take a shower and have a nap in one of their 4-star rooms.  Look ‘em up on trip advisor if you’re ever passing through…crap, where was that again?

2015-02-27 to Belgan 008 (res)

Second free Meal in a single day, this time thanks to all the uncles at the Dhaba I camped out at.  Lentils in gravy, chickpea dry fry, cauliflower, cottage cheese, loads of bread, and a “peck” (125ml bottle) of whiskey.

2015-03-01 to Parvathipuram 012 (res)

Not the best ever, but only cost $1.30 and included free refills of onion fritters.  Probably got 3,000 calories out of this plate alone.

2015-03-04 Visakhapatnam 011 (res)

Also $1.40 or so.  Gotta love that you get three whole pails of soup.

2015-03-04 Visakhapatnam 012 (res)

Rice and 14 sides!

2015-03-04 Visakhapatnam 014 (res)

Highlights include the beet dry fry (not pictured) and, as always, coconut chutney.

2015-03-07 to Pippara 004 (res)

Countryside Veg Meal – $0.75 and served on a three foot long banana leaf.

That slightly out-of-focus tubular vegetable in the top right is actually a chunk of the permaculture all-star Moringa oleifera, also known as “Drumstick.”  It’s a perennial tree, it’s drought-resistant, it drops foot-long pods full of asparagus-y flesh and edamame-y seeds, the leaves are packed with nutrients and good in green smoothies, it purifies water, and it can even be used to make soap and herbal medicines.

Part 2: Non-“Meal” Meals

2015-03-09 to Tettu 002 (res)

Standard northern/Punjabi/Mughlai/”Indian” cuisine, available at just about every truckers’ restaurant on the way down.

Chana Masala (chickpeas curry) with tawa roti (pan-cooked flatbreads).

2015-03-09 to Tettu 001 (res)

Genius Dhaba (roadside restaurant) rope n bamboo furniture: lay a plank across it and it’s a picnic table; remove the plank and it’s a bed.

2015-02-25 to Sundargarh 004 (res)

Matar Gobi (green peas and cauliflower).

2015-02-25 to Sundargarh 005 (res)

Chana Pakora (battered chickpeas deep-fried with onions and unpeeled garlic.)

2015-02-25 to Sundargarh 008 (res) 2015-02-25 to Sundargarh 013 (res)

The less-than-classy Whiskey, Water, and Beer cocktail, along with a self-described “playboy”  getting busy on some fried chicken and a bowl of some rice/water/yogurt concoction that Orissans often eat to wind down their meal.

2015-02-23 to Gumla 006 (res)

Aloo Paratha (flatbread stuffed with potato curry filling and pan-fried with lots of oil),

Laccha Paratha (flatbread pummelled with fists and slapped around until it gets kind of flaky like a croissant),

Saag Matar  (spinach and green pea curry).

2015-03-08 to Pothur 013 (res)

Real south Indian goodness: a Masala Dosa, that is, a  thin, crispy crepe made of slightly fermented rice and lentil batter, stuffed with potato curry, served with coconut chutney (coconut, curry leaves, mustard seeds, garlic) and tomato chutney (not sure, but it’s strong like tomato paste.)  $0.33 or so out in the countryside, including extra refills of chutney.

That’s a normal plate, 9 inches or so across…

2015-03-08 to Pothur 011 (res)

Aunitie making an Onion Dosa.

2015-03-01 to Parvathipuram 013 (res)

Another Dosa, this time a plain one, delivered to my hotel room by an errand boy of a friend’s uncle’s.  Both the dosa and the accompanying coconut chutney came wrapped up in 100% biodegradable banana leaf!

2015-03-11 to Chennai 002 (res)

Uttapam, made from the same batter as dosa but fried atop diced veggies rather than stuffed with them.   Served with tomato chutney, pickled mangos, sambar (thin veg n lentil soup), and a dollop of coconut chutney.

2015-03-11 to Chennai 001 (res)

Pongal, a nice breakfast option for when I’m tired of dosas, even if that’s never.  Reminds me of the Korean proverb used to describe a thing or situation that’s somewhat nebulous  “Well, it’s not rice, but it’s not porridge either.”  Rice and lentils, mustard seeds and curry leaves, and a helping of ghee (clarified butter) probably larger than I’d care to imagine.

2015-02-26 to Bargarh 003 (res)

Upma.  Not exactly the most photogenic food, but still tasty thanks to all those south India spices.  It’s kind of like sloppy couscous.

Part 3: Street Snacks

The distinction is a little dubious, since just about everything shown so far can be found in both restaurant and street versions, differing primarily in presentation and price.   There are also some facilities of “not rice, not porridge” status.  If it’s got wheels, it’s cleary a street stall.  But what if it’s a tent?  What if it’s a 3-walled hovel?  What if there’s no cooking done there?  What if the only cooking being done is tea off to one side and a bubbling vat of oil on the other?   What if you have to sit down at a table to eat, but there’s no menu?   Thankfully, now that I’ve achieved a high level of microorganism biodiversity in my gut, there’s no need to bother with such theorizing.  Fromsa restaurant, from a shack, from a stall, from a host…whatever it is, bring it on.

2015-03-01 to Parvathipuram 009 (res)

Mega-melange of just about all of the above: Upma upon dosa, plus various chutneys and sambars.  Less than $0.50.

You know it’s not restaurant food because of the layer of wax paper underneath.  The things people do to get out of washing dishes.

2015-02-26 to Bargarh 002 (res)

Upma and Idli on the street.

2015-02-24 to Birmitrapur 005 (res)

Idli, the staple breakfast of just about all of south India.  It’s dosa batter ladled into what look like large, circular muffin tins (see previous photo) and then steamed into tiny sour cakes.  Served (you guessed it) with coconut chutney and sambar.  This one came quartered for my gustatory convenience.  Three cheers for the ingenious leaf bowl.

2015-03-08 to Pothur 010 (res)

Savory rice donuts (a bit like hush puppies, for those of you who know food from the American south) with coconut and onion chutneys, packed this time in leaves and old newspapers.

2015-02-24 to Birmitrapur 002 (res)

A little mid-morning fatten-me-up from a typical bakery.  Greasy, syrup-infused donuts, shortbread-style dry cookies, and a bit of chai to wash it down.

2015-02-25 to Sundargarh 001 (res)

Three-walled tent hovel fare.  Those stacks of fried, deflated flatbreads are  puri,  which are meant to be eaten along with the potato and split lentil sabji sauce.  At the back is a kachiri, something like a biscuit but not quite so fluffy, and sometimes stuffed with….stuff.  Down in front are jalebi, some ungodly snack made by deep-frying

2015-02-28 to Ambodala 003 (res)

“Masroom Patty” and vegburger (sauteed cabbage, potatoes, cabbage, onions, and greens) from a sweet shop.  I love stuffing my camping pot with these sort of edibles in the late afternoon – it means I can cycle until just about dark and camp comfortably in whatever spot I choose without having to worry about dinner.

2015-03-13 Chennai 013 (res)

Not so sure about the advertising firm these guys chose to go with, but their juice was pretty great.  I went with a glass of nice, cool fig-n-sugar puree.

2015-03-08 to Pothur 018 (res)

For those who prefer their fruit : sugar ratio to be >1, there’s always the Ayurvedic green smoothie truck.  Actually, not always – sad to say, this is the only one I spotted.  Your choice of mint or holy basil.

Part 4: Home Cookin’

I’ll start with a few outliers:

2015-03-14 to Pondicherry 001 (res)

Mushroom soup and mushroom fried rice from an organic farm 50km north of Pondicherry.

2015-02-27 to Belgan 006 (res)

New fruit alert: these little guys come from the East Indian Ebony tree, better known for being nice and leafy just after the Tobacco harvest; that’s why its leaves are used nationwide to roll  the local “Beedi” cigarettes.  The fruits are tasty little morsels, but they’re one of those treats that you only get to eat on local farms and in tribal areas – I suppose they must be too tough to collect or too cheap to bother bringing to market.

2015-03-07 to Pippara 009 (res)

Uncle working on the Idli/Dosa batter for the following morning.

2015-03-07 to Pippara 010 (res)

Homemade Meal courtesy of Raju, the politician from Pippara who spotted me on the highway and invited me to stop by his place the following night.  When he asked me what I wanted for dinner, I told him that anything with local veg would be great.  The result: two carrot fries (one with coconut, one without), one okra, coconut, and garlic fry, one sour green mango curry, and one creamy lentil curry.  With chapatis and whiskey.  Plus rice and yogurt for desert.  Pro-tip: next time you’re frying vegetables, throw in some fresh grated coconut and fry that too.

2015-02-24 to Birmitrapur 011 (res)

Another meal courtesy of another uncle.  This one spotted me from his cell phone shop when I stopped to stock up on some street food for the night’s dinner.  He convinced me to spend the night at the local pilgrim’s hostel, shuttled me there, paid my bill in advance, took me out for street snacks, brought me back to his shop and fed me more eggplant while I talked with his nephews, then brought me to his home when his wife had finished making these four dishes for me.  Green been curry, split yellow lentil soup, paneer (cottage cheese) curry, and chickpea curry.  And homemade chapati, of course.  I sat on their rickety bed and ate seconds of everything with mom, dad, grandma, and the baby all watching me.

2015-03-05 Visakhapatnam 003 (res)

Idli. I ate so many of them that I can’t really remember which is which, so this photo might just be a stand-in.  At the very least, it reminds me of one plate of Idli that my friend Surya arranged for me by calling up one of his uncles in a town I was soon going to be passing through.  Uncle met me at the bus station and escorted me over to his knick-knack shop, where both Auntie’s idli and a crew of journalists lay in wait.  Atop the Idli was a special treat: peanut chutney.  Cooked with the ubiquitous mustard seed/curry leaf combo, blended to a consistency a bit less viscous than peanut butter.  When I freaked out and told them how great it was, they ran to the convenience shack next door and bought me a few bags of “ground nuts,” just to make sure I knew what was in it.

2015-03-02 to Visakhapatnam 005 (res)

In addition to feeding me breakfast and helping me out with the mini press conference, U and A provided me with  so many “parcels” that I could hardly fit them into my backpack.  Rice, chapatis, soups, curries, sweets, peanuts, and bagged yogurt, milk, and lassi – enough for that day’s picnic lunch and dinner.

2015-03-03 Visakhatpatnam 001 (res)

My main Mama for this leg of the trip, Surya’s mom in Visakhapatnam.  She was a little shy, but remarkably cool considering that she let her college-aged son bring back a random foreigner for a couple of days.  Things worked out great: I won her over by devouring everything she put in front of me, she won me over by continuing to put more in front of me.  My god, she does it all in a 5×5 (foot) kitchen with a two-burner gas range, no ventilation, and no running water.

Dishes get done outside with water carried down from the neighborhood tap two minutes up the street.

2015-03-03 Visakhatpatnam 023 (res)

Special yellow lentil Dosa with assorted curries.

2015-03-04 Visakhapatnam 018 (res)

Vada.  Care to guess what they’re made of?  Yep, IdliIdli/Dosa batter!  Deep fried, this time.  The ones on the right are also candied in a palm sugar syrup.

2015-03-02 to Visakhapatnam 006 (res)

We ate everything together sitting on the polished concrete floor of their 10×10 living room/dining room/ bed(less)room-for-four.  Well, not exactly together.  Perhaps in line with Indian “Guest is God” culture, the whole family insisted that I eat first.  Not that I merely take the first bite, but that I serve myself first from each of the various dishes, and eat with everyone else watching.  As awkward and as uncomfortable as it felt to have twelve eyes (mom and dad, grandma and grampa, bro and sis) on me, there was also a certain sweetness to having the cook’s full attention, watching closely to be sure that everything suited my tastes.  There’s also a somewhat paradoxical solidarity in having me eat separately, because when I have to choose what to put on my plate, I need to consider not only how much food I want, but how much food I want to have everyone else to have.  Take too little and it looks like I don’t appreciate the meal, take too much and I look selfish and inconsiderate.  What a delicate balance.

2015-03-02 to Visakhapatnam 007 (res)

And what the heck am I supposed to do when they offer, and then insist, that I take seconds?

Thanks to Surya and family, to Raju, to the phone shop uncle and Auntie in Birmitrapur, to Hotel Bhammars, to all the Dhaba dudes who comped my meals, to all the bike bros who stopped me for a glass of chai, and to everyone else who helped to keep me fooded and happy.


Permission to close with a poem?

“The Act of Sharing Food” by 허영만 (Yeong-man Heo)

[as translated from the Korean by yours truly]

The act of sharing food

is the finest way of showing one’s affection.

Not even the most expensive gift

is as precious as a homemade meal.

Because meals are made with time and devotion –

two things which do not have a price tag.

  Because food is not something that is consumed,

but something that is revived in our body.

Because it becomes blood, it becomes flesh,

and thus becomes me.

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4 Responses to South India in 6,000 Calories per Day

  1. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful images of local food down south coast … Lovely .. keep up the good food work

  2. Nikita goud says:

    Dude shut up x

  3. lea says:

    nice poem ~