A thin man with buck-teeth who had evidently been watching me make my way around the market area asked “How can you put that much food in your body?”
I felt guilty for a moment. That first-world guilt when you really do know you’re privileged and you really do know that you’re abusing that privilege. But then, across the way, I saw another man sliding chunks of pork onto a stick. The guilt melted in my mouth and nearly ran down my chin.
I’ve got a thing for street food and a few times I’ve paid dearly for it.
The salad in Fez hit me harder than the street soup I bought in Moscow. I had to throw away a fine pair of pants from the Russian incident. And a pair of socks. Shoes too, truth be told. The Swede who watched over me in Fez probably saved my life. The fever phased in and out and I still have visions of him sitting there with his beret and harmonica. He had a chameleon on his hat. Seriously, a real chameleon.
Then there was Peru. Whatever it was I ate in Lima nailed me but the cabin crew mercifully allowed me to stay on the toilet for the landing in Miami. Over the next three weeks I lost 30 pounds. Then they found the worm – and it wasn’t a small worm. I’ve never been quite the same since.
So, all that aside. I’ve also experienced some fabulous tastes that I wouldn’t have otherwise. And what the hell? They are only intestines after all.
Earlier this year, on a January morning in Goa, I made a quick visit to watch pepper and vanilla grow at a farm close to town. I dropped back by my hotel, a place I’d felt fortunate to find, to change clothes.
Then, I packed only my iphone and a wad of small bills into my pockets and proceeded to eat my way through the India street food market on General Guedes Road in Panaji.
There were stalls covered with yellow and white marigold strips. Piled on the table were yards-long strings of orange marigolds. There were baskets overflowing with fish. The smell of the sea was pungent. The din of the market tremendous.
At one corner stall was a fellow serving mango lassi. He wore a tie and had clearly spent time combing his mustache. He said he was from somewhere in the north and he named a place I’d never heard of. When I shrugged, he shook his head as if he were ashamed of me.
After deftly peeling and dicing a mango, he pulled yogurt and milk from a blue and white cooler. He measured both into a large glass blender, sprinkled sugar on top and stuffed in a pinch of mint and poured in some ice. The blender went right to work and he handed over my drink. It was exactly like a smoothie but exceedingly sweet. The nerves in my jaw tingled.
A Punjabi man had paneer tikka to offer. The paneer are chunks of cheese. He’d smashed them onto a stick and marinated them with a mixture of hot chili, tomato and onion. Then he’d cooked it in a tandoor. It was smoking hot and burned my tongue just nicely. The cheese was soft and melted in quickly in my mouth. The whole thing dripped down and all over my shirt.
Peanuts, cashews, bananas, chana choor, chana cracker, breadfruit, jackfruit, star fruit, water melon, fresh coconut water, some salted fish where you eat the head too, pork jerky, navratan, an outlandishly hot chili that made half my hair fall out. And tomatoes. There were alot of tomatoes and quite a few things that were a total mystery….
After all of that I stepped over the nearest liquor store, bought a small Indian-made malt whiskey (as opposed to the rough molasses-based whiskey made in India that tastes more like rum) and downed it, figuring that would kill anything bad I’d just put in.
Smooth as silk.
Then I wandered down Heliodoro Salgado street to find the paanwala.
The paanwala is the guy who makes the paan, a cancer-causing tradition of chewing some mysterious brown powder, tobacco powder, fennel seeds, katha, lime paste, chutney, areca nut and all rolled into a betel leaf he pulled from a bucket of questionable water. The whole time he spoke to me in Konkani, as if I could understand everything he said.
I understood nothing.
It’s not quite clear where paan originated. Archaeological evidence points to the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia and suggest a tradition dating back at least four-thousand years.
At one point, Indian women chewed paan to redden their lips. In some areas it was thought to medicinal. In others an aphrodisiac. Buddhism brought paan to China, and out into the islands of the Malaysia, Sumatra and Bali.
The paanwala handed the rolled paan to me and I took a bite. It was good…kind of…it was so damn sweet my teeth nearly fell right out of my head. Then I started drooling thick red saliva all over myself. And I got a little buzz. And I drooled some more.
He must have been popular because a crowd of men gathered round and, for once, they weren’t watching….and laughing at … me.
This was an ancient tradition. Even Ibn Battuta mentioned it. If Ibn Battuta tried it then I had to too. I went ahead and stuffed the rest of it in my mouth.
“Normal. Normal,” said the next gentleman in line.
“Normal?” I asked pointing to the drool running down my chin.
“Normal.” So, I stood with the boys up against the building and we all drooled on ourselves.
After that a little digestion stroll under the giant acacias that shade Dayanand Bandodkar Marg was called for. Then I headed up towards the Gurudatta Apartments on MG Road where there was an Indian street food restaurant known as Chat Street. I’d heard Aloo Chaat, Aloo Tikki, Sev Puri, Khasta Khachori and Dahi Vada call my name.
“How can you put that much food in your body?” ask the waiter after I’d been there for an hour.
I shrugged. I felt guilty for a minute.
And then I didn’t. “May I please have some more Aloo Chaat?” I asked.