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Delhi: The Lament of the Hungry Expat (my essay from The Book Review India)

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This essay was originally published in The Book Review India

If you’ve read Delirious Delhi, then this essay is essentially an epilogue: a postscript about the expat’s post-India life, and what it’s like to have lived in India and miss it so very much.

Delhi: The Lament of the Hungry Ex-Expat

By Dave Prager

I spotted the Indians entering Denver’s Botanic Gardens about fifty feet ahead of us. It was their clothes that got me excited: both ladies in the family wore saris.

I nudged Jenny with excitiment. She sighed. “Dave, this is getting creepy.”

Creepy? Since when is it creepy to follow strange Indians around a park hoping to catch their eyes, start a conversation, win their trust, become friends, exchange numbers, and accept an invitation to dinner—all because I want to eat homemade Indian food again?

I mean, doesn’t every American who once lived in Delhi do that?

*  *  *

The year-and-a-half my wife Jenny and I lived in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Market neighborhood changed me forever. Not just because of the career boost from my promotion to the Gurgaon office. And not just because the book I wrote about Delhi is spinning through HarperCollins India’s printing facilities even as this essay goes to print. No, it’s mostly because now that I’m gone, my stomach forces my brain to view every Indian I see as a potential conduit to the food I miss so much.

I’m not trying to be creepy. I just miss the food.

Before we moved to Delhi, I had no appreciation for the dynamics of the cuisine. I was perfectly content with the cheapest Indian buffet serving the stalest garlic naan and the driest tandoori chicken. In those innocent times, every dish on every menu sounded equally exotic and exciting; I’d order whatever I didn’t recognize and, with full ignorance as to both the quality and the composition of what I was eating, enjoy every bite of it.

But in the years since we’ve left Delhi, not a single Indian restaurant has achieved even the standards of my office canteen’s watery dal. I’ve yet to taste a paneer as milky and smooth as that from Saket Select Citywalk Mall food court. And even Singapore’s top-rated Indian restaurants were just a distant echo of what was, to me, the gold standard of Indian food: the meals our maid Ganga would cook for us three times a week.

(Wikipedia tells us that Annupurna is the Hindu goddess of food; experience tells us that Ganga is her earthly manifestation.)

We’ve tried the trendiest Indian restaurant on Denver’s South Pearl Street, the Singapore branch of Saravana Bhavan, and a dhaba in the back of a suburban Indian grocery in Aurora, Colorado; I’ve departed them all with my belly full but my heart empty. I’ve even purchased the same MDH spice boxes that Ganga used to cook her heavenly meals for us, faithfully following the recipes printed on the back and failing each time to come anywhere close.

Which is why I stare so hungrily at every Indian that I see.

*   *   *

We’re in a restaurant in Estes Park, Colorado, a mountain town near one of America’s most spectacular national parks. A bagel is in my hands but my tongue is tasting creamy dal makhani, because all I can focus on are the unmistakable accents emanating from the couple at the table next to us. They’re discussing hiking routes and camping spots; I’m hearing menu plans and cooking instructions.

“Where are you from?” I ask, leaning towards their table, hoping the answer is “Nizamuddin East” so that our conversation flows easily to kebab stands and butter chicken.

The man looks up. “Seattle,” he tells me, curtly. He turns back to his map.

I return to my bagel. Now it just tastes like a bagel.

*  *  *

After leaving Delhi, Jenny and I spent a year in Singapore and then returned to the States to start a family. Success: our baby daughter Georgiana is sweet, adorable, and the perfect tool to aid my quest to ingratiate myself to Indians.

She first played her part at the San Francisco airport. Approaching the gate for our flight back to Denver, I spotted an Indian couple and their infant son. Bells clanged in my head: she was wearing a salwar. Which meant she was born and bred outside the US.

I innocuously steered George’s stroller toward them.

Jenny rolled her eyes and walked off to get coffee.

I sat a few seats down from them, removed George from her stroller, and engaged in a deliberately-conspicuous bout of tongue-waggling and noise-making. Sure enough, George’s irresistible smile drew their eyes; and that was the opening I needed.

“How old is your son?” I asked. I didn’t actually care how old he was; I just wanted to confirm their accents. And as they proudly boasted that Nikhil or Naveen or something was a year or eighteen months or seven or whatever, all that my brain registered were pronunciations that implied a childhood immersed in sambar.  With chicken biryani clouding my thoughts and phantom thalis teasing my nostrils, I exclaimed (loudly, to mask my stomach’s rumbling): “Oh! You’re from India! We lived there for eighteen months!”

And from there, the conversation progressed just as I’d hoped. They were from Chennai, but they knew Delhi, and together we grew pleasantly melancholy reminiscing about places and tastes that were, for both of us, equally dear and equally far. By the time Jenny joined us with her coffee, we were chatting about old days like old friends, contrasting our transitions to each other’s cultures, recalling the restaurants we missed the most, and jointly lamenting the fact that nobody knows how to cook an uttapam west of Chowpatti Beach.

*  *  *

My nostalgia for Delhi generally fixates on food, but it can go deeper. At three o’clock on a workday, for instance, I’ll look blearily up from my computer and fantasize about the chaiwallah outside my Gurgaon office, just seven thousand miles to my left. Had it been three o’clock in that office, Dipankar and Murali and I would have paid him a visit and enjoyed his five-rupee respite from our responsibilities.

(Although this moment of freedom, too, leads my mind back to food. Because here in America, as I stand by the coffee maker, the nearest snack is at a convenience store a mile away. How can my country be considered a world leader when we’re so lacking in sidewalk samosa vendors?)

At these times, when I’m missing the camaraderie as much as the cuisine, I turn to the Internet. I vicariously join my Delhi friends as they motorcycle to Leh or eat parathas in Old Delhi. I toast the country on Republic Day. I cheer cricket players on a first-name basis. And I join them in experiencing the changing capital city—like when my former coworker Nobin switched from the office cab to the Delhi Metro for his commute to Gurgaon. From his seat, he Tweeted praise at the shining municipal infrastructure that warmed me in my chair half a world away.

I’ve even grown nostalgic for Delhi’s traffic, of all things. Imagine getting misty-eyed for MG Road! But it’s happened: though there was nothing in Delhi I hated more than my commute to Gurgaon, the traffic in Denver is, in a way, worse. Because when I descend the on-ramp into four orderly lanes of vehicles in which nobody honks, nobody jostles for advantage, and nobody takes to the shoulders to jump the queue, I realize that Delhi’s traffic, for all its misery, also contained a kind of freedom: the skill of the driver could alter the course of the jam. A good driver could seize ephemeral opportunities revealed by shifting vehicles to shave seconds off the commute, or to cross the Ring Road before the light turned red.

But Denver’s traffic is egalitarian in its oppression. Once you’re on the highway, you’re committed to the collective fate. Delhi’s traffic allows for individual heroics; Denver’s traffic is entirely communal.

*  *  *

But I live in America now. I accept it: derivative restaurants, watery tea, non-negotiable traffic, and streets that are empty of samosas.

Which is why I can’t imagine that I’m the only American creeping around Indians to spark culinary connections. Because those of us who left our stomachs in Safdarjung know that expat Indians must be coping with the same emptiness—except that expat Indians possess the wisdom to transform frozen okra and boxed spices into a glorious bhindi masala. They can tease bhangan bharta out of the most stoic eggplant. Their kitchens are their link to Delhi, and we former residents—or, at least, this former resident—want in.

So far, though, I’ve had no luck. At the San Francisco airport, for instance, our connection to that Indian couple was severed when boarding began for the Denver flight: only we stood up. Our new friends were waiting for a flight to Arizona, which meant that no dinner party was imminent.

Nor could I make any headway at that restaurant in Estes Park, where I looked up from my bagel with one last desperate attempt: “No, where are you originally from? India? Because we spent eighteen months living there!” To which the woman smiled gently and said, with finality, “Your daughter is beautiful.” Her tone left no further room for discussion.

Nor could I make it work at the Denver Botanic Gardens, where I’d spotted that Indian foursome entering ahead of us. Our meandering paths had crossed theirs a half-dozen times, despite Jenny’s best efforts to steer us away from them. Finally, near the Lilac Garden, I spotted my opening: the patriarch of the family was posing his wife, daughter, and son-in-law for a photo. I quickly offered to snap the four of them together.

He declined. In accented English. To which I replied in my own terrible Hindi, “Aap guessa hai!?”

The four of them looked at me.

“Hindi bollna?” I asked.

“Are you speaking Hindi?” the father finally asked me.

“Yes!” I beamed. “We lived in Delhi for a year-and-a-half.”

“Oh. We don’t speak much Hindi.”

They turned back to their photo. I turned back to my wife. And that night for dinner, I sautéed some onions and tomatoes, emptied a can of chick peas into the pan, and dumped in a few tablespoons of MDH channa masala mix.

It was not like Ganga’s at all.

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an Indian grocery store in Aurora, Colorado

Though we believe that India’s flag should display the phrase, “Land Of The World’s Greatest Food”, there were still times in Delhi when Jenny and I needed the tastes of home. This inevitable expat longing obviously extends to NRIs as well, which is why, in any American city with a reasonable Indian population, there are a handful of Indian grocery stores.

And in those stores: roasted channa! Frozen chapatis! Dried garam masala! NRIs (and India-obsessed Americans) rejoice!

And because we were always surprised to see which American brands had made the global trek to our local Delhi markets (Lays, yes; Cheetos, sadly, no), we feel that those of you reading these words in India might enjoy seeing what a Stateside grocery looks like.

That’s what it looks like. A generic storefront in a generic strip mall in a generic American suburb.

(Some advice: if you ever find yourself in an American suburb, seek out the older strip malls. These are the ones without Old Navy and Applebees and Office Depots. Look for poorly-designed parking lots and bad line-of-sight to the road. That’s because these strip malls are too unattractive to the chain stores that are choking American suburbs like cancer until every city is identical to every other city; which means these strip malls are the only suburban locations cheap enough for mom-and-pop restaurants and independent retailers like India’s Harvest to survive. These strip malls are the only places you’ll find anything unique in the American suburbs.)

(Also, for those readers who accused this blog of being too critical of India, hopefully this shows that we’ve got plenty to snark about America as well.)

So, India’s Harvest. India’s Harvest! Though it’s less than a block away from Bombay Bazaar, another Indian grocery, it’s distinguished by boasting a tiny restaurant in the back. So when Jenny and I and Little Georgiana pulled up in our Prius (yes, we’re that much of a stereotype), the first thing we did was order a meal, hoping that finally, finally, we’d find some Indian food here as good as what we’d eaten there.

(Up until now, we’ve been 0-for-about-a-dozen Indian meals. My god, do we miss Sagar Ratna!)

The second thing we did was ask permission to shoot. I explained to the owner that my friends back in the Motherland would enjoy seeing what a US-based Indian grocery looked like. He didn’t seem to care either way.

And here it what it looks like: aisles and aisles catering to homesickness and nostalgia!

Packaged meals, snack foods, sacks of rice, bags of lentils, and, of course, spice boxes: everything you need to recreate the tastes of home, all the way down to pre-baked puris for homemade golgappas.

Then we stopped taking photos. Our food had arrived.

What you see here is the thali we ordered. It was good. But what you don’t see here is the uttapam that arrived at the table too tardy for this picture.

It was the single best uttapam we’d had since we left India.

And so, our craving for India momentarily satisfied, we cruised the aisles looking for other joys.

And there — Haldirams!

And baby eggplant! And green mangoes! And… oh, karela. Well, we’ll skip that one, thank you.

Our shopping spree ended with a few bags of snacks, some frozen lotus root, bhel puri mix, and a bag of pre-cooked paneer cubes.

Oh, and this joyful sight we beheld near the checkout counter.

We didn’t buy any spice boxes this time. We probably have too many as it is.

their New York struggle, part III: not-so-cheap labor

This is the third interview in our series about those who did the mirror opposite of Jenny and I: New Delhiites who picked up and moved to New York.

In the last two posts (which explored Indians’ first impressions and the idiosyncrasies of American greetings), we talked about what they’ve found.

In this post, we talk about what they left behind.

Labor is cheaper in India. There, you pay people to do things that Americans usually do themselves. We’ve spoken of this before: the fact that our offices had peons, that someone was paid to remove our household trash, and that men were cheaper than machines at the golf range.

(To say nothing of the glory of hiring Ganga to cook the world’s greatest food for us three days a week.)

(Lord how we miss her baingan bharta!)

So what happens when you leave a culture of cheap labor for a culture where help is too expensive to hire? We asked that of Tiya and Divya, the two Columbia University students we’ve been talking to in this series. “What are some daily chores that you find much harder in the US?” Here’s what Tiya said:

“Moving house seems a lot more difficult here than in India. I suppose it’s because labour is much cheaper in India.

“I definitely don’t find the time to cook everyday, though I try to every other day. In India, I wouldn’t even cook as much as I do here because there was always house help to take care of that, so my food habits and meal timings were much more regulated in India.

“Then there are the regular chores like cleaning and laundry that one has to do in the US, whereas back in India I always paid someone to take care of it. But I don’t find these tasks hard at all.

“In fact, when I’m back in India, just because of the way I’ve been conditioned, and because I know help is just a holler away, cleaning and laundry seem like much bigger tasks than they are here.”

We posed the same questions to Divya. Here’s what she said:

“{I’m challenged by} the fact that everything needs to be done by yourself. I am used to a chauffer in India and my Dad’s assistant, so doing simple chores like sorting out bills, paying pills, running errands was something I had barely ever done.

“There is a lot of manpower in India, so small things which I never even realized need being done, suddenly had to be put thought and focus into.”

As always, we want to hear from readers: Indians who moved here, and Americans who moved there. How did the price of labor change your life?

their New York struggle, part I: impressions on the ride from the airport

For three-and-a-half years, this site has viewed Delhi through New York eyes. It’s time for the opposite: New York as viewed by Delhiites.

Because for every planeload of Westerners desperately memorizing the Lonely Planet as they fly east, there’s an equal and opposite jet heading west. One such recent plane contained Tiya and Divya, two students at Teachers College at Columbia University, one of the city’s most prestigious institutions. And their experience mirrors ours: wide-eyed wanderers in a foreign culture, with camera in tow.

“Wall Street Area”, photo by Tiya

We have never met either girl. Tiya recently wrote in to join the mailing list for our upcoming book, mentioning in her note that she was living in New York. We responded by asking her for an analysis of our culture to contrast with our analysis of hers. Tiya drafted Divya to add her thoughts; and in the first part of our interview, we focus on first impressions.

Specifically, the drive home from the airport — the journey during which so many first impressions are formed, and so many minds are made up.

I initially arrived in Delhi a week before Jenny did, so our first impressions are not shared. (Her impression, as recalled over instant messenger a few moments ago: “Over-stimulated, overexposed. Dry, pungent, bumpy, crumbling, chaotic, thrilling!”) My first impression involves flashes of landscape snatched during my conversation with Mahua, my company’s HR representative, who picked me up at the airport and instantly became the only human being I knew in all of Asia.

This was before NH-8 was complete, so our route to my temporary home in GK II took us through Mahipalpur. Like Jenny, I recall flickers of imagery more than any one image: bright signboards with unfamiliar script; painted walls; flashes of bright saris; and a road that seemed far too narrow for all the cows and people and cars and bikes and rickshaws simultaneously traversing it.

Mahipalpur at sunset, off the main road. Photo by Flickr user SteelboneLex.

As the picture makes it clear, first impressions often don’t entirely reflect reality. For instance, Divya debarked the plane and drove directly to the relative tranquility of New Jersey. So her first impressions of the US were pastoral.

“I landed and went straight to New Jersey with my family, which seemed like a beautiful countryside somewhere in the Northern part of India. This was extremely amusing for my family, who was nervous about me feeling unsettled and alienated.”

I imagine Divya is referring to this aspect of New Jersey…


Photo by Flickr user carroll.mary.

… and not this aspect of New Jersey.


Photo by Flickr user jeremylogan2.

Tiya, on the other hand, drove from the airport directly to Manhattan, so her first impression was quite different. And what she told us reflects an immediate insight into our city that’s far deeper than our first thoughts of hers.

“My friend came to pick me up; and between all the chatter, I struggled to focus on what we were driving past. But I distinctly remember hundreds of little rows of houses that looked exactly the same. ‘Organized, yet lacking identity,’ is what I thought. Which is ironic, considering the culture is all about individualism.”

For some perspective, here is an example of the kind of housing Tiya probably saw on her way towards Manhattan:


Photo by Flickr user Rego-Forest Preservation Council

And here’s the building in GK II where I spent my first month.


Photo by me

Comparing those two pictures, Tiya is right: which architecture seems more at home in a culture that’s supposed to be renowned for its rugged individualism?

Tiya and Divya will share other observations in the next installment of this interview. (A preview: “The way people talk here. They ask how you’re doing without really caring about how you’re doing. And some are excessively polite and/or diplomatic, so many times I find it difficult to discern what the person’s real intention is.”)

But first, I’d like to open this up to Indian readers who landed in the US, or Americans who have visited India. What impression did  you receive from that first drive home from the airport? Please add your comments below.

If you like this post (and the reader contributions below) you’d like our upcoming book: a humorous travel memoir of expat life in New Delhi. Send us your email or follow us on Twitter so we can add you to our mailing list!