Yesterday all of the women brought in a dish or two for us to eat.
Because they didn’t want the food to get cold or the roti to get hard, they insisted that we eat right away, before the workshop began. We couldn’t say no.
In small metal, cylinder containers were mysterious, colorful foods. It smelled so good. The amalgamation of different spices, such as coriander, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon joined forces with the floral and citrus notes of the freshly cut soap in the corner of the small workshop room. And speaking of freshly cut soap, the women got to use a beautifully handcrafted soap cutter, created and donated by the one and only Bud Hafner. Thank you, Bud. We are so grateful!
Out of one metal container came a forest green-colored mush. Saag. Love me some saag. Though I’m not sure of all the ingredients, I’m almost positive that this certain dish was made with majority spinach and mustard greens.
Another small metal can was opened. Bright, yellow gravy with mysterious chunks. Curry w/ dumplings. I think most all of the yellow curries I’ve had at home from Indian and Thai restaurants are made with coconut milk. This however was made with cow’s milk. Freshly harvested cow’s milk, so it had quite the tangy, sour aftertaste. It was a nice contrast to the earthy saag.
In smaller metal containers were freshly picked chilies, fried chilies and pickled mangos. To round out the mid-morning meal was freshly harvested buttermilk, floating w/ black cumin, [very] spicy chili powder, and tiny dumplings. Thick, super sour buttermilk with floaties. Admittedly not appetizing, but when in India…
The meal commenced. Though I love to eat, I am always skeptical about what my stomach will be able to take. Earlier this year in Tibet, I became what felt like near-death ill from the food. [Way too much yak]. While in Uganda, we witnessed some of the every day occurrences and routines in the butcher market in a small village called Iganga…the cutting and handling of intestines and organ meats with dirty cleavers and even dirtier hands. Again, I felt as though I could die from wretch, but eat you must.
But after beginning the meal, all of the concerns of the tummy went away.
When here in India, sometimes we have eating utensils and sometimes we don’t. Today we did not. Roti is the fork and spoon. The best way to describe every day roti here is a wheat tortilla. But these were not wheat, they were maize roti. Maize roti takes much more time to prepare than wheat, as one has to grind down the corn into a meal in order to properly flatten and heat. Kranti, the second eldest in the group, got up at 3 am to begin preparing the saag and maize roti. Likewise, Ama, the eldest, woke at 3am as well to prepare the curry.
I tear off a piece of warm roti, pick up what I can of the goopy saag and carefully teeter it towards my mouth before it drips and falls all over me. So good. Earthy, bitter and spicy. But alas! I wasn’t doing it right! One of women quickly comes to my rescue. I am to now eat the roti and saag, and then quickly while still chewing, take a bite of fried chili. There is a method and combination to each dish. Likewise, when eating the curry with dumplings, I am to quickly follow it with a bite of pickled mango, and then finish it with a sip of spicy buttermilk. And, to my surprise, the order of things worked beautifully with my palate.
They all watched me eat with great intensity, murmuring to each other in Hindi. Some would laugh and chuckle a bit at my process. Some call music the universal language, but in India, it is food. Everything revolves around eating a meal with one another. It is a special time. And there is something very, very special about eating fresh food, with no preservatives, additives or fillers of any kind, with your hands. It grounds you. It fills me up, and not just my tummy.
I finished my plate of food rather quickly, which in some ways was a grave mistake. All of the women took turns piling more food on my plate. I have a hard time saying no. One, because I am enjoying it so much, but two, many, like Madam Kranti and Ama, worked so hard far beyond already working hard. It is an honor and privilege for them to come to the workshops, but it also means that they have to work twice as hard when they get back home. Some walk very long distances to get here. I feel such a somber sense of gratitude. I wish I could cook a meal for them. Maybe some day I will get the chance to.