The Nightly Pilgrimage
You heard the hive of activity of the main street before you reached it – the bazaar was abuzz with people on a mission. By day, packed stalls selling everything from clothes to flowers to instruments were set up along pathways, trapping passers-by in their labyrinth of goods. In the evening, these stalls retreated and the sounds of food crackling and spice-filled aromas wafted through the air, revealing previously unseen pockets of food vendors. The hustle and bustle of groups and gatherings filled the night with a general vibe of good company.
India is known, in part, to be loud and crowded, but it still caught me off guard when I landed. I was quickly surrounded by a fantastic merge of colours, flavours and noises; the car horn was used very generously. I was based in Chennai on a summer university course with other students for six weeks. During our first few days, I found my TCK self naturally adjusting my daily habits to assimilate better into the local culture – navigating the city by auto rickshaw, learning the gymnastics of the local mosquitoes, peppering my clothing with kurtas and scarves adorned with local patterns and eating Indian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In the weeks leading up to my departure, a common question I got asked from friends was whether I would be brave enough to sample the street food. I was met with looks of horror and concern as I answered “Yes!” with no hesitation. How could anyone travel to a country known for its sublime food and not at least attempt to sample the street food? Little did they know of my inherited Indonesian iron stomach; lined and trained in various countries for opportunities like this. I thought it was quite simple: look for the steaming, hot, freshly cooked food and your stomach should be ok. That was my only prerequisite.
In our search for dinner, we noticed a cluster of locals always surrounding the same vendor each night (a good sign). Two men positioned themselves behind a rickety, transportable stand and hot plate. One crafted the freshly cooked roti while the other nursed two types of curries. We approached with curiosity and through a mash of hand gestures, one-word English and – what can only be described as animal noises –communicated enough to decipher that one was a vegetarian curry served with egg and the other was a meat curry.
Taking cues from the regulars, we ate standing between the vendor and street, balancing a plate of food in our left hand whilst eating with our right; an act familiar to me from Indonesia, yet rarely implemented since. That simple meal became an exquisite engagement of all the senses. We pieced apart the flaky, buttery roti, swirled it in the rich red and oranges of the curry to agitate the spicy aromas and scooped up some egg towards our lips, all the while surrounded by the gentle sounds of fresh batter sizzling on the hot plate. 'If only this form of eating was more accepted in Western countries', I often found myself wistfully musing.
As the weeks went by, we were greeted at the egg and roti stand with the same friendly smiles and waves of recognition. It was like walking into your local coffee shop where they know your usual order. The sense of community at this stand during the meal was heart-warming and dinner was followed by hand washing from the communal tap (the type you had to pump yourself) so there was always assistance from strangers. The more curious regulars started to strike up conversations, asking whether I had any Indian heritage, where was I really from and why were we in Chennai. Becoming friendly with the locals also meant being let in on an underground world of street food wonders which led us to what became our nightly pilgrimage: The “Chai Tea” Stand.
The label “Chai Tea” is used very loosely here – and although others told us it was said stand, there could’ve been a miscommunication between languages. It seemed to be warmed sweetened milk without the chai tea spices. Since it was the kind of tasty that warmed you to your core, we were still happy to repeat our visits. It was located on a corner a few blocks down from the egg and roti stand (on what appeared to be the ground floor of the vendor’s house), where he would stand guarding his large canisters of milk. There was a small outdoor standing area, lit only by the light behind the serving bench, where people would gather to drink the smooth liquid from shot-sized cardboard cups as if at an espresso stand in Italy. We would often be greeted by a stray cat (affectionately nicknamed “chai kitty”) who would pop out from the depths of the surrounding shadows to lick the remnants from our cups.
The third and final stop of our nightly pilgrimage was ‘The Hole in the Wall’. These corner stores were a wonder in themselves. Fronted by a shop, there was often a single unmarked door with muffled sounds of chatter beyond. The door revealed a hidden room filled with men, chatting, smoking and drinking their recently purchased cocktails and concoctions. A TV flickered in the corner – an offer of distraction, and from afar we would hear men leaving in the early hours of the morning. As a woman travelling independently, walking into this room once to look around was enough – I preferred to purchase my aperitif out front before heading back to our apartment. A little tipple after dinner assisted in resisting unhappy stomachs – at least we liked to think so.
Leaving India was a strange mixture of relief and sadness. I had grown accustomed to the vibrancy of such a bustling country but looked forward to returning to quieter times. I would often catch myself reflecting on my stay and appreciating how I felt, to an extent, local even if it were only for those few weeks. The culinary experiences I had are something unable to be replicated without returning. Chennai’sfood without the context is just food; the people and surroundings completed it.
A few years later I had the opportunity to go back to Chennai for another six-week period with my university and returned to the egg and roti stand with new people in tow. As we walked up to the stand, the faces of the same men lit up with the same recognition and friendly smiles. I let the memories of the first trip wash over me.
"One egg and roti please."
Once again, I felt local.