My Good Friend, Rupesh
For a foreigner living in India, few things are more critical to your day-to-day life than your driver. Not only is it administratively difficult to drive yourself here – you must obtain an international driver’s license, take courses and pass an examination – even if you did get all the needed paperwork, what then? Streets are far more crowded and driving much more stressful than in the US; it takes practice to drive here. Then there’s the problem of not knowing where to go.
A driver is a practical necessity. The best ones not only take you to-and-fro but are almost like guides, with a fund of knowledge about local places from shops to attractions to government offices and more. Finally you spend a lot of time with your driver – on 1 hour drives to Hinjawadi or 4-hour drives to Mumbai, for example. I myself appreciate having someone to talk to on these trips, and that depends on both the driver’s facility with English and their temperament as well.
In the photo above on the right is my driver, Rupesh; on the left is Rupesh’ father who’s name – alas – escapes me. Rupesh came to drive for me through an agency, but soon he will be driving for me exclusively. Now one of the things we talk about on our drives is food. I’m afraid I may have given Rupesh the idea that all Americans are ravening carnivores that scour the countryside clean of edible animal life when I recited this list of meats we eat: Beef, Pork, Chicken, Turkey, Lamb, Goat, Bison, Pheasant, Elk, Rabbit, and Deer. (Game meats are very uncommon here; hunting in India is mostly illegal and farming game is not what you would call an agricultural priority here.)
Anyway, understanding my fondness for meat, and also assuming that – momentary bachelor that I am – I was not getting many home-cooked meals, Rupesh invited me to his parent’s place for a homestyle Indian lunch of mutton (ie, goat) curry, all cooked by his mom and his wife:
(Please don’t mind their somewhat grim expressions; I believe Indian women aren’t super-happy to have casual photos taken.)
The first thing I must tell folks about this wonderful lunch is – if you don’t know this – there is no place in the world with more heartfelt hospitality than India. You will be treated like a monarch, the amount of food will be immense, and everything your host has that is the best will be placed before you. Do not refuse the slightest thing! Chances are good everything has been brought there specially for you.
We had two types of curry: A boneless one with a rich gravy thickened – I think – with finely ground nuts, and a curry with bones, tiny chops and other pieces in a thinner gravy, with brighter, very cilantro-like flavor and tasty oil. Served with this is a salad of raw vegetables, tomato, cucumber, onion, beet – a necessity in any traditional Indian meal – steamed rice perfumed with cilantro, and a constant flow of blisteringly-hot fresh cooked chapatis and rotis.
Traditionally, Indians do not eat with utensils, just with fingers – the fingers of the right hand, specifically. You tear your roti, then use it to scoop up some food. I think I did Ok for an American – at least my shirt survived un-gravied. Something we chatted about was the amount of spice. Everywhere I have been here people ask, “Is spicy food ok, sir?” I always say yes, make it just like you would for yourself. No matter what you say what you get is never spicy enough, even at Rupesh’ place, where he sheepishly admitted they wanted to be safe and made it less spicy than normal. I extracted promises that next time they would make it the same flavor they normally have – we shall see.
Rice comes toward the end of the meal, where you use it to get the flavors of the gravy. Again, knowing my craving for meat I think the curry they made for me was probably 2-3 times more meat than usual. But for many households the gravy is the centerpiece of the dish. Since even Rupesh used a spoon to take his rice and gravy, I dispensed with my amateurish fingers-only method and likewise dug in.
After lunch proper was finished, we retired to the living room for tea and some home-made sweet snacks:
At the top is mukhwas, a mostly fennel-seed mix that you take in a small portion at end of a meal to aid digestion and freshen breath. On the right and on the left are two kinds of chiwda, one made with rice and another with corn. In the center is a plate of shankarpali – small, fried cubes of dough with a slight fruit-rosewater flavor – and some karanji – another fried snack with a filling of coconut sweetened with jaggery. These, BTW, are all traditional foods for Diwali, which was just starting last weekend. We only had small tastes of these, the ladies of the house insisted we shouldn’t eat these types of foods so soon after eating meat. The solution was an IMMENSE amount of these snacks was bundled up for me on the spot to take home, where, I pretty much lived off them for several days.
Not only was the food great, it was a pleasant break to be in a family setting. Sunday is the main family day in India and like many Indians, on that day Rupesh, his wife and children all gather with brothers, sisters and in-laws at the home of Dādā and Dādī (Grandfather and Grandmother).
This was truly a lunch to remember. I’m sure when Kim, Alex and Morgan are here we will visit again. Meanwhile I have to use my driving time with Rupesh to explain some of the facts of American cuisine (“Sir, these ‘turkeys’ you speak of – they are HOW many kilos?’) – and of course to continue learning from my good friend about my adopted home.