“In India, food isn’t the fuel to get you through the day — it’s the reason for your day,” declares Seth Kugel, the Intrepid Traveler. After my recent sojourn in Rishikesh, India, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’m wondering, with a tear in my eye, whether I will ever again taste any USA-prepared Indian food as magical as that in India.
Four of us formed a medical team to volunteer nine days at Mother Miracle School, doing physical exams for the 400 gifted, very poor students ranging in age from 5 to 17. Our Indian eating adventure started there. Each child gets a glass of warm milk to begin the day, and at noon feasts on an all-you-can-eat hot lunch of dal (lentils), rice and vegetables. Teachers and volunteers get the same tasty repast. Did you know there are nine varieties of dal? A medical team from Cambridge University visiting the school determined that including a daily dose of dal coupled with the morning milk would give the children the proper vitamins for maximum growth.
We were fortunate to be at the school for the annual Children’s Day celebration, which included three-legged potato sack races, tugs of war and musical chairs. Shahla, the energetic founder-director of the school, pointed out that party food was added to the usual lunch: kheer (warm milk pudding), poori (puffy chapatis) and a giant cake in honor of Shahla’s birthday.
Shahla is searching for a way to afford the addition of an inexpensive but nutritious breakfast cookie or cake to accompany each child’s morning milk. Mother Miracle has its own bakery, which supplies baked goods to Rishikesh restaurants, and could easily produce the students’ breakfast treat.
Our living quarters in Rishikesh, a five-minute walk to Mother Miracle, was the Kailasa Guest House, which could be classified as a somewhat dingy youth hostel. But what do you want for $10 a night per person? Our included “breakfast” turned out to be hot chai and some white bread toast, not exactly the fortification we needed for a day of hard work examining patients.
When Shahla found out about our meager rations, she immediately sent Kailasa some loaves of Mother Miracle Bakery’s healthy, delicious whole grain bread. When she discovered that our water supply was questionable, our rooms were dirty, and our towels torn, never mind no working TV or hot water, she placed an indignant phone call to the manager, saying that if he didn’t spruce things up she would no longer recommend Kailasa as a suitable residence for her volunteers. The staff jumped to action, cleaning up a storm. We even got a fruit plate for breakfast the next morning.
Forget the puny Kailasa Guest House breakfasts. On to greener pastures. We had the pleasure of eating, guests of Shahla, at three awesome restaurants. Rishikesh is an all-vegetarian city. Vasundhara Palace Hotel is near the famous foot bridge, Ram Jhula, that spans the turquoise Ganges. It specializes in several scrumptious paneer (Indian cheese) dishes, lassi (a yogurt drink served in clay pots), and the best garlic naan ever.
The Madhuvan Ashram, with its breathtaking pastel spotlights dazzling the night, is the top choice of Rishikesh diners, its specialty being tandoori (mixed vegetables) and banana lassi.
One evening we drifted away from Indian nirvana and went to Tavola Con Te, a highly touted pizza place romantically located on a hillside patio sprinkled with twinkling lights. Bruschetta, pineapple lassi, crisp pizza infused with olive oil and decadent chocolate-topped tiramisu made for a perfect meal.
On our last night in India, when we flew to Delhi for our return trip to the USA, we were met by Jogi, our Indian friend and guide, who, before Rishikesh, had taken us on a whirlwind tour to the Taj Mahal and other landmarks. Jogi had a surprise for us. We arrived at his favorite restaurant, Naivadhyam, which means “Blest Food” or “Supplication.” Supplication, indeed! We were to invoke the gods and goddesses — how appropriate in India — for an ethereal meal. Jogi’s wife Reena and young sons Chandrash and Vedansh were there to meet us, with big smiles on their faces.
Jogi had ordered ahead for us. First came tamarind coconut soup with papaad, a crisp, paper-thin bread. Next, the main course, thali, arrived, a variety of little dishes served on a round metal tray: raita, rice, dal, kheer, paneer, pakora (deep-fried fritters), vegetable curry, and poori piled in the middle. It is said that thalis will take you straight to foodie heaven. Chach, buttermilk with coriander, finished the feast. Foodie heaven it was! Blest food, for sure.
We said a sad farewell to Jogi and his family, knowing that we would remember their beaming faces and the incredible food forever.
My last blast of flavor in India was my usual purchase in every country I visit. I guess you could call it a hobby: a bag of potato chips. For 10 rupees (14 cents) I was in the fore-mentioned foodie heaven with a sack of “Masala Munch.”