“Food Tastes Better When You Eat It With Your Hands”

This is part 7 of the story of my trip to India in 2014. You can check out the story index for the whole trip, or go here to start from the beginning.

Day 4 in India

Today is the last day of Mónica’s Fall Break. I’ve only been able to share her vacation with her since I arrived late Wednesday night, but in the three days since, we’ve managed to fit in plenty of fun adventures and new experiences. Today will be a lot more relaxed. The only thing on the agenda is to meet up with her friend Fer for lunch, and then maybe spend some time walking around the city.

It’s raining intermittently through the morning as we get up to do yoga and have a light breakfast with yet more exotic fruits. Fer picks us up after noon with her boyfriend Uday. Fer is one of the other Spanish teachers at the school where Mónica works, and Uday is a Chennai local who works at an Indian art gallery. We haven’t decided on any particular restaurant beforehand, so Uday suggests a place called Sigree. It’s just a few kilometers away in Adyar, and he says it’s the place he usually likes to go when he eats out. Sounds great.

Indian Buffet

Sigree is a nice looking restaurant on a very busy street. It’s quite busy inside as well and we have to wait about 20 minutes for a table (not one of Mónica’s favorite pastimes). The decor is more upscale than anyplace I’ve been in India so far, with dark wood columns and furnishings, warm lighting, and a beautiful polished wood floor. We are given menus when we sit down, but instead of trying to decipher them, we all immediately decide that we’ll have the lunch buffet.

The buffet selections are laid out on a long counter next to our booth. Everything smells delicious, but before we get to that portion of the meal, we are treated to round after round of kebab samplers. Similar to the Brazilian Steak House restaurants I’ve been to in the US, waiters are flying out of the kitchen with plates of steaming hot hunks of meat, paneer, or pineapples, all covered in different dry spice rubs. There’s chicken and mutton and fish and prawns. Each spicy in its own way, some pack a lot of heat, while others are almost minty or sweet. It’s mouthwatering, and we have trouble keeping up with the neverending stream of rich flavors. Pretty soon, we’ve already eaten an entire dinner’s worth of food just in kebabs and we haven’t even touched the buffet table yet.

Mónica and Fer declare defeat, too stuffed to worry about the buffet options, but Uday and I get up to refill our plates. As is common in Chennai, the buffet is split into two sections – for vegetarians and non-vegetarians. I get some of everything on the non-veg side. There’s black pepper chicken in a thick curry sauce, some shrimp in an almost Thai-style coconut milk based curry, another cinnamon-scented curry with chunks of slow-roasted lamb shanks still on the bone, some more chicken in masala spices, and some lamb biryani. I round everything out with some naan and some ginger-y daal from the veg side.

With the kebab starters, I was following Uday’s lead and eating everything with my hands instead of utensils, as is the custom in India. With a plate full of curry, this becomes a lot more interesting, but since the waiters have taken away the table’s utensils with the first round of dirty dishes, I’m obliged to give it a go. It’s not too bad as long as you don’t mind making a huge mess and looking a little like a wild animal. Fer asks if it’s considered unclean to eat with your left hand. I say that I think that’s a Muslim custom and Uday adds, “Yeah. Right hand, left hand, both hands . . . we [Indians] don’t care”. He also also gives the same line I’ve heard from every other Indian friend of mine who eats with their hands. According to all of them, “Food tastes better when you eat it with your hands.”

The curries are as delicious as the kebabs, and by the end of my plate, I’m feeling completely stuffed. Mónica has some kind of crushed ice fruit cocktail drink that she shares with me. Since most restaurants in the city don’t serve alcohol, they call these non-alcoholic drinks Mocktails. This one is sour and sweet and tastes like it has a whole tablespoon of cayenne pepper in it. It’s not until later that I remember that you’re not supposed to get ice in your drink in developing countries where the water is unsafe. Oh well. By this time, I’ve already been using the tap water to brush my teeth, too. I haven’t gotten sick so far.

Even though I’m totally stuffed and have even been helping Mónica finish off her starters from earlier, I really want a little more of that black pepper chicken. So I get up for seconds. Or is it thirds at this point? Whatever. I go back for more. Unfortunately the black pepper chicken is empty, so I get a few other things. They’re still delicious. Even so, I almost can’t even finish my plate. The girls are already making fun of me for eating so much. Then more of the black pepper chicken curry is brought out and I have no choice but to return yet again. When I sit back down, everybody else is eating desserts. Desserts!? I didn’t even notice that part of the buffet. I was too blinded by curry.

I savor every last bite of my curry while the rest of the table finishes their meal. The ice cream they were just enjoying did look pretty good. Of course, being the ice cream connoisseur that I am, I can’t simply trust my eyes. I’m going to have to find out for myself. Back to the buffet I go. I hear giggling behind me. I can’t stop to wonder what other people are thinking of me, though. I’m about to taste my first ice cream in Asia. This is important.

The ice cream is available in vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. I stick to the vanilla and accessorize it with some gulab jamun (fried milk curd dough balls in a sweet syrup) and what looks like some kind of caramelized pastry. This turns out to be another kind of fried dough in a different sweet syrup. The ice cream is better than expected. Not close to the best I’ve had, but it does taste like real cream and sugar without any corn syrup or gummy stabilizers, so it’s quite respectable.

By the time we’re ready to go, I’m so full I can hardly see straight. Fer and Uday treat us by taking care of the bill. Converting currencies in my head, it looks like it’s about $9 US per person. I think about how easy it is to live like a king here on what would be a very modest amount of money in the US.

Alton, Mónica, and Ferr after the buffet lunch at Sigree
Me, Mónica, and the Delightful Fer

The valet brings Uday’s car around. We’ve all had a great time socializing and getting to know each other, but I think Fer has other plans to get to in the afternoon, so they ask where we’d like to be dropped off. Mónica mentions the nearest beach to where we are. From there we’ll be able to enjoy a nice digestive walk home.

Elliot’s Beach

Compared to the first beach in Chennai I went to (Marina Beach), this one is much less crowded and a little less covered in trash. I think some people are playing cricket out on the sand. We walk off our gluttony for a bit and then wander into a very modern coffee shop on the promenade when it starts to rain again. Mónica asks me to order a coffee for her while she runs to the bathroom. I look at the menu board on the wall behind the counter. It’s all in English, but the word “coffee” does not appear anywhere. I see lattes and cappuccinos and all sorts of things that, not being a coffee drinker, I have no education or experience in. The lady behind the counter, despite everything in the shop being in English, doesn’t seem to speak English herself. I try to describe that I just want a small cup of coffee, black. This is apparently interpreted to mean an espresso, but I don’t know what the difference is, so as far as I can tell, they just handed me the smallest cup of coffee I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s like a porcelain shot glass.

We sit just out of the rain on a balcony overlooking the beach. Even though it’s not what she wanted, Mónica laughs at the coffee confusion and sips her espresso. I’m obviously going to need more training before being allowed to order in a coffee shop again. Sitting here with Mónica on the edge of India in a big chaotic dirty city, even though it’s raining, I can’t help but feel like it’s a beautiful day. Whether that’s the magic of being in love or the magic of being full of curry, I can’t say. Either way, I am a happy man.

Me at Elliot's Beach in Chennai, India

Water Vendor and sleeping stray dog at Elliot's Beach in Chennai, India
Woman selling water, sharing space with a sleeping stray dog.
Elliot's Beach Fish Market, Chennai, India
The Elliot’s Beach Fish Market

Elliot's Beach, Chennai, India

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