What I Ate Abroad in Northern India

Shelly Le

I am forever in search of the perfect, steaming and sweet cup of Indian tea –– sweet, sticky and altogether not healthy for my sugar levels.

Photo by Catie Bergman

A mixture of green cardamom pods, peppercorns, fennel seeds and ginger are added to milk and water and brought to a rolling boil. Once boiled, black tea leaves are steeped in the spice-milk mixture for two minutes, and the tea is strained into individual glasses. Finishing touches include multiple spoonfuls of sugar.

I spent a semester abroad in northern India last fall, and I still crave the taste of Indian milk tea. But in the one year since I’ve left India and have grappled with trying to preserve four months of transformative memories, I can’t seem to recall what a “perfect” cup of Indian tea tastes like to me. My greatest wish right now would be to leave behind my responsibilities, board a plane to India and stuff myself full with Indian foods. Parathas, pani puris, barfis, masala dosas and veg momos all haunt my food dreams on a daily basis.

Ironically, while I was abroad, I found myself constantly missing the taste of the comfort foods I had grown up with –– my mother’s eggrolls, dark chocolate, salads and strangely (and maybe awfully enough) french fries. I remember three months into my semester, when I was traveling to the city of Gangtok in the Indian state of Sikkim for a month-long research study, my research partner Danielle and I stumbled upon Baker’s Café, a western-style bakery, on our first night in the city. We were in awe at the sight of cinnamon apple strudels and almond cookies. We made a pact on that first night to try every single type of pastry and cookie offered at the café during our month-long stay.

Looking back on my food choices in India, I regret that I didn’t choose to eat more foods that one would consider to be more traditionally Indian. I feel like I gave into my emotional need for the familiar, and now that I want Indian food, there isn’t a single Indian restaurant in Walla Walla to satisfy my cravings. Plus, my attempts to make chana masala are subpar compared to what can be found in India.

Photo by Catie Bergman

For me, the pleasure of food comes largely from the emotions attached to particular dishes. Yes, taste is a big component of whether something can be judged as good or not, but even some of the worst made dishes can be delicious to someone based on that person’s connection to that food. My desire to eat Indian food stems from my longing to reconnect with my semester abroad.

Veggie momos remind me of walking around the city of Darjeeling in what felt like below freezing temperatures while wearing a thin raincoat. A warm bag of veggie momos taken right off the steamer was a delicious contrast to the chill. On the other hand, parathas remind me of my first bout of diarrhea in the village of Sumik. I had eaten too many potato parathas in one sitting and subsequently had a long and painful following night. While my memories of Indian food aren’t all happy, it’s telling of what real-life experiences are –– life isn’t always great, but I can generally look back fondly on particular moments in time and connect the ways I’ve changed as a result of these moments.

I haven’t had Indian food in quite some time, but I think it’s time to reconnect with my spicy, fragrant and forever-evolving memories.

Photo by Catie Bergman