Nothing says foreign country like new cuisine and India is completely new.
Right out of the starting gate, I wanted to eat authentically.
Chef Koti was the best. He took me from dish to dish with the most animated explanations. Before I could sit, he stood with my daily meals and an excited expression awaiting my approval.
I can't say enough about him.
I quickly realized that aside from a few minor variations, day to day Indian food was pretty much the same simplicity for breakfast, lunch, and dinner ... and I mean, the meals are one and the same. I had to admire the ingenuity of using on hand ingredients, but it does make one crave a giant Cobb salad by weeks end :)
There's no better way to immerse in culture than to learning to cook something indigenous. And boy, do we love that Naan bread. That's where Sandiya and Sundari became some of our favorite people ever.
Inquiring what we should do and see around Chennai from locals and hotel staff usually ended with the same suggestions ... there's the beach (but remember: don't swim) ... and a fantastic mall ... cuz of course "westerners" love the mall, right?? .. Not really our target.
These ladies run an ingenious business called "StoryTrails" and can be found here. They were a fine print on some attractions list somewhere. I told them they were the best thing happening in India and should expand and be on everyone's list. They offered all kinds of experiences beyond the typical guided tours.
Maybe it's just that we are such a nosy family that we dug into the details of their lives until we felt they were a part of our family ... but, Sandiya ... we hope that boy asks you to marry him soon because we think you are a catch ;)
We had already tried perusing the markets by ourselves and had been instantly targeted and swarmed. Sandiya and her friends are all set up to give an experience within a safe environment and she was expertly equipped to help us kindly maneuver through the crush of "American awe".
You'll see, I fell in love with the fruit and vegetable stands. The variations are amazing. The artistry in stacking and serving are beautiful.
Christian gained awesome negotiating skills ... Newel there in the back kept Sandiya laughing with his dead pan humor and commentary. (She was such a good sport .. as was he to indulge in my interest).
This marketeer was so cute to offer me his coconut leaf fan. We did not speak the same language but I indicated he needed it more than I, as I was moving and he was sitting still in the heat.
So much character to be found.
This gentleman serving hot poori on the streets, waved animatedly for a picture. Such a determined pose, though! Takes his business very seriously, I see.
This one sells disposable plates from banana leaves. He's pretty expert with that scalpel.
His buddies next door teased him about being famous in America one day because of my pictures, according to Sandiya's interpreting.
But I'd say, their ingenuity at testing the circuit on this fan through this light bulb in their open market repair shop, makes them famous too.
Newel loved their can of nuts and bolts. A man's world is universal.
The flower stalls are pure beauty to me.
The women learn this flower chaining skill from childhood. You can see them hanging there in the background.
Boopa, our driver, said his wife could make one within minutes. Celia and I had to learn.
I wish I had a picture of our hotel staff friends, Leakshme and Deepika, teaching us how to tie flowers in the hotel lounge late one night after they got off work. I'm still not very good, but Celia is nearly expert ;)
Sandiya taught us about edible flowers.
Gotta include this guy ... who was a street performer ... who didn't really have a performance other than trying to visually distract us while trying to lift our change. I'll admit .. I was visually distracted ;)
Then a rickshaw ride of death to Sundari's kitchen.
Way too much to see along the way and no camera fast enough to catch it all.
Along the street ride, I saw a shop keeper sitting on his stoop, beating a boy on the bare soles of his feet with a stick. The shop keeper looked like he was trying so hard to remain stern. The boy was laughing and squirming to get away. Sandiya said the boy was being punished for theiving. I said it looked typical of my children's reactions to inflicted punishments ;)
Wish I could have been fast enough to capture that but I'll have to be content with the memory.
We made a quick stop at a local sweet shop.
In Sundari's kitchen, she taught us to make roti, poori, and parata, along with rice and masala.
And that so good, fresh coconut chutney, which is an Indian staple.
I fell in love with the simplicity of her coconut scraper. When Christian was little, he had a fascination with coconuts. I bought him one and he spent an entire Saturday hacking that thing open.
Sundari taught us how to open it properly, singe off the hair over a stove flame, and use this scraper to remove the meat.
Yes, we really ate with our hands in India, and off those disposable banana leaf plates, too. There's actually some technique to it, as Boopa taught us along the way.
About halfway through our cooking lesson, I realized that these ingredients were basic food storage and I was super hyped to go right home and teach a bunch of women all that they can do with a little whole wheat flour and water over a cook stove flame.
I took gazillions of notes. Sundari said she'd never had anyone take notes before. How could anyone possible remember everything to take home and try?? After I've had some practice, I'll share.
It was so hard to say goodbye to these two beautiful ladies.
You bet, I ran right out and bought myself (and Christian ;) a coconut scraper at a local cook shop.
Boopa laughed at this huge pot which actually came up to my waist. He tried to convince me to take it home for my family since seven children just seemed so unimaginable.
There were tons of open air markets selling food variations. We didn't dare subject our delicate "western" systems, but they sure were colorful.
We asked Boopa to join us for restaurant dinners to help interpret and also for good company. On our first outing together, we ordered a bit of everything to try and at the conclusion of the meal, he asked if he could wrap up our left overs for a friend.
He taught us some pretty powerful lessons.
Here's a look at one of those open food markets:
This was a very small market in a village, but still, I loved the care given to the stacking of the fruit and if I'd thought I could get closer without being absolutely swamped, I would have loved a close up of how intricately cut those fruits were for serving.
Coconuts everywhere. Boopa said special and sometimes, rare treat for children.
We had to pull over for a try.
I'm pretty sure Newel's straw was that one right there on the dirt at that guy's feet, but some things have to be over looked ;)
A very special thank you to all of those who made each of our culinary experiences so culturally colorful. And if you are ever in Chennai, India .. check out Sandiya and Sundari of StoryTrails.