Let’s get something straight right away: India is not a clean country. The pollution raises serious health issues, and the notorious overcrowding leads to all sorts of—shall we say—unclean habits.
Like bathing in the Ganges River. We realize the act has religious and cultural overtones, and we wouldn’t want to offend any religion or culture. But haven’t the locals any sense of self-preservation? The river carries the flotsam from millions of people upriver. You can see it float by. Yet the people who bathe in (and even ceremoniously drink from) the river don’t seem to care. Maybe they’re just used to it.
We weren’t, and the sight sent us backpedaling as fast as a conservative Supreme Court from Roe v. Wade. But this is a story about food, not hygiene—although the two sometimes collide with enough force to make a devout atheist tremble with the Fear of God (or Shiva, as the case may be).
We turned away from the ghat—steps leading into the holy river—and went in search of inexpensive accommodations. As it turned out, they were as easy to find as a street beggar. We unpacked in our small room but didn’t linger; we had a budget and a schedule to keep.
The ancient city of Varanasi boasts almost as many temples as Seattle has coffee shops, and despite the heavy influence of tourism, every one still oozed with authentic charm. Have you ever noticed how some religious places can withstand the degrading effects of prying tourists to maintain a kind of solemn dignity? It’s not just having the money for maintenance. Consider the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, which probably has more money than Paris Hilton and about as much dignity. Where else can you find a Hall of Fame for “Christian Capitalists?”
After a full day of sightseeing, we returned to the hotel, looking for an early dinner and a late wake-up call. From the doorway, the hotel’s restaurant seemed safe enough. Relatively clean. Crowded with locals and tourists alike.
We were seated at a table by the wall, where we began to relax. We ordered beers to wash down the day’s dust. Famished from our afternoon excursion, we needed an appetizer, and the enthusiastic waiter recommended something we could barely pronounce. He impressed us as a sincere fellow, so we took his advice.
When the dish arrived, it resembled a cross between pig knuckles and raccoon ribs. Dipping the finger food in the accompanying spicy sauce, we could hardly taste the meat, just the spices. It was delicious, and we dug in.
Suddenly, an argument erupted in the kitchen. Something large and heavy, not unlike one of the sacred cows, thudded against the other side of our wall. A glass of water spilled. While we dealt with the mess, unused to the constant cacophony that is India, a sudden murderous screech split the air. Two men—one with a bloody towel wrapped around a hand, the other wielding a very large knife—burst out through the kitchen door, zigzagged around the tables, and dashed out into the street, screaming the whole time.
After a moment’s pause, the other restaurant patrons returned to their conversations, as if the scene were just street theater repeated every half hour. We wanted to emulate them, to fit into this foreign culture even if just for a moment, but we couldn’t ignore how closely our food resembled the digits of a man’s hand.
There comes a point at which not knowing what you’re eating makes a foreign delicacy easier to digest. We had crossed the threshold. Now we knew (or imagined) more than we wanted to. Our appetites dashed out of the room after the two men and didn’t return for two full days.
Lessons Learned: Food definitely reflects an area’s culture. If you find yourself in a place where people bathe in polluted waters, you know you might be in trouble when it comes to food. Our advice? When you travel to Mother India, order the soup. Even if it has an unpronounceable name, there’s very little chance that you will ever discover—or recognize—what’s really in it.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 5
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 1/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Varanasi (Babatpur) Airport
Native Population: 1,400,000
Normal Attractions: Besides the temples and ghats, Varanasi is a Mecca for Indian wares like fabrics, jewelry, carpets, and woodcraft.
Final Point of Interest: Varanasi is a major stop for foreign tourists, with posh hotels and fancy restaurants. Most of the food there is actually quite good, but as this story illustrates, there are always exceptions.