The first introduction to exotic spices was on the plane as we flew from Australia. The smells were pleasant so the flavours were good but a little too strong to test. The cheese was mild and the dry biscuits plain and crisp. Of the fruit the tropical watermelon was the sole low risk option.
In India we stayed at a guest house with staff who wondered at people who asked for food with no curry! We were given plain rice pancakes, rice, a vegetable mixture of potatoes, carrot, greens thickened with perhaps thin dahl, and flavoured with some green leaves. Unfortunately the leaves were more exotic than bay leaves so I decided they would be best avoided. I thought I would prefer to have an exquisite mild curry if I was going to be daring! The dahl had that very fresh flavour of a variety of dried legumes flavoured with onion and some capsicum. I was able to just put the capsicum aside as its flavour had not progressed into the overall mixture. I later discovered that the leaves included were called ‘curry leaves’ and that they were often used to flavour vegetable dishes.
After a few days here my friend remarked that I seem to notice and analyse all aspects of food, just as our husbands notices all the aspects of their psychiatry work. And it is true. I automatically notice the balance of staple food to protein and fruit and veges. We are in Nitte which is near Mangalore in Southern India. So it is tropical, still drenched and lush from the monsoon. Coconut is plentiful and is an important ingredient in all curries. That is fine but it means coconut oil is the oil of choice in cooking. Since ghee is used everywhere this area gets a double dose of saturated fats, and the heart disease that goes with it. Those near the sea also have fish so that is a help. Cashews are grown locally too so they are a delight. Of course curry spices vary from area to area. Since we are staying in a guest house we see the local foods. I have delighted in just smelling the local curries! Tradition is another aspect to food. It is interesting to think about how traditions develop.
Then there is the low chemical aspect – no curry or spice particularly. Flavour, or the organoleptic aspect is very important. The particular foods, or foods in combination, cooked a particular way, change the final flavour, and therefore affect the gourmet appreciation as well as the food chemical load, and therefore the tolerance in food sensitive people. The foods vary depending on whether the rice is soaked and then pounded before cooking, or partly crushed and then steamed as our patties today. It makes for many variations in taste and texture to better enjoy all the accompanying curried dishes and chutneys, which are often also served with fresh thin yoghurt [‘curd’], or coconut paste [of a yoghurt consistency].
Underneath flavour and texture is the food chemistry – whether the rice is soaked then pounded then cooked, or cooked then combined then mixed with other ingredients and deep fried. All of these aspects are part of cultural and traditional aspects of cooking and serving food.
The most wonderful food trial was the orange juice, suggested by my chief taster, my husband! It was made from the local Indian oranges. Unlike those in Australia which are orange coloured, the skins of these were ‘greeny orange’. Also, unlike Australian OJ, it had no tang, a mild soft flavour, and best of all it had no detectable pith flavour, or perhaps it did but it was an extremely mild non astringent one. In Australia I would not have more than one mouthful of OJ a year, but this fitted my idea of tolerance being related to the quality and mildness of flavour. This was a food to risk! Diet investigation has a lot in common with being a gourmet! I shall have to read more gourmet sections of food magazines to find words to describe flavours.
On the down side was the smell load. Perfumes in the airplane and airports and then in the guest house were potential headaches. We hid all the room deodouriser flower sachets from the bathroom in a tight plastic bag, and opened the windows, and opened windows and added the ceiling fan after the floors outside were mopped with a perfumed wash. On the up side of managing the Total Body Load was the lower stress [unlike during the travel preparation time!], time to rest and to meditate.
After travelling to Europe, and tropical Africa I thought I had tried most of the fruit the world had to offer. Not so! Today we tasted Mousumbi, or sweet lime: a small mostly green skinned citrus with a different taste. Another beautiful mild exotic flavour risk to take! I am trying to think of words to describe it, dissecting its many components. If one was blindfold and given the juice to drink it one could detect mild citrus and other tropical fruit, perhaps guava. Imagine a sweet creamy mousse with a hint of citrus and you are getting close.
One morning we were offered a sweet ball at breakfast. As usual I enquired about the ingredients and learned all the detail. It has about one part crushed [we would say coarsely ground] rice to four parts Dahl [cooked green lentils] plus coconut. [After further translation these were cashew nut], and some brown sugar. It is then dipped in a thin crushed rice and water mixture and deep fried. I was assured that no curry or spice were present. Here was something I could have! I took a bite and tasted and felt the impact of the raw spice. I asked what it was ‘maybe cinnamon?’, definitely not! I started to wonder if the small bite I had had accidentally come in contact with some spice on the kitchen bench and wished I had tried a bite from the other side, or from my husband’s ball. Later that day when I was cooking ‘Australian soup’ [lentils, potato, white turnip, onion, garlic, carrots, and the local green veges – called spinach but tasting more like baby beetroot leaves], I was offered the variety of spices used in cooking to smell. All were fresh and flavoursome. I was intrigued that none smelt much like the combined spice ‘Keens curry powder’ as available in Australia. Among the spices were cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. ‘That’s it!’ I exclaimed ‘That was in the breakfast ball!’ The next day our friend offered us a plain biscuit with a mild similar flavour. She remarked that sweet foods in India are often flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon or cloves. My mistake had been to guess cinnamon. Doing that probably was the equivalent of someone in Australia being corrected for asking if a food that contained apple was mango pulp!
I am still using flavour as an indicator of possible tolerance. Today I was served pineapple juice at breakfast. I had tried it before and found it barely ripe and too tart. Today my husband said it was sweeter so I tried it and it was mild and beautiful. It had that rough leaf pineapple flavour. With our combined limited language skills our patient waiter brought pen and paper. I drew rough and smooth-leafed pineapples and pointed to our drink and the rough leafed one. The waiter went away and with a smile returned with the rough-leafed top used for today’s juice. The juice was milder than the Australian one but if wine can vary with region and country so can other fruits.
In case you travel to India there are many low chemical diet foods here… rice, and many enjoyable forms of rice: rice pancakes [neer dosa – neer =very thin] , thick steamed rice ‘patties’ shaped like a somewhat flattened hardboiled egg, chapattis and plain white bread, white turnips, potatoes. There is a variety of lentils, chicken occasionally, eggs, mung beans, fish [only when in port city of Mangalore], milk in coffee, and as curd: a thin yoghurt, cheese occasionally. Fruit is available three times a day – beautiful red pawpaya, lady finger bananas, sweet rough leaf pineapple, avocado, a very very mild orange and mousambi – sweet lime [the even milder citrus], custard apple, coconut. Apples are available but I did not have them. Mangoes are not in season at present. Vegetables are mentioned above. Few packaged foods are available so managing MSG, flavour enhancers or other additives was not a problem. Importantly amines require much less attention as all food is cooked daily from scratch, and few meats [aged or otherwise] are used. Special plain food was cooked for us, and if the same food for the next day was held, it was for one day only. I am having no mango, or pear, but much more fruit overall. Do read the Hints on testing fruit on P 150 and information on Risk Rating in the Food Glossary section in Are You Food Sensitive?
Overall the issues are much the same as they would be with any travel into countries with a very different food supply. Plan ahead, obtaining information on what people usually eat and what you will want. Then when you arrive expect to be assertive about what you cannot eat, and show how you can be catered for with minimal effort to others. It is always your problem to do the thinking about decisions needed. After that it becomes fun to try the local food understanding that if you smell and taste foods carefully you will probably find enough foods at the same time as enjoying the aspects of the new foods you can manage. Joan Breakey.