India:

Can curry reduce a grown man to tears?
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The Independent Travel

The much-anticipated food poisoning, when it finally came, was swift and remorseless. Even before lunch had had an opportunity to reach its destination, my stomach was suffering from severe cramps. I felt dizzy and nauseous as I made my way to the bathroom, locked the door behind me and, over the next couple of days, became uncomfortably intimate with the words Armitage Shanks. I shall spare you the details, because details this lurid have no place within the public domain. Suffice to say that the foreign bodies inside me found their exit at both ends, rapidly and repeatedly and revoltingly.

The much-anticipated food poisoning, when it finally came, was swift and remorseless. Even before lunch had had an opportunity to reach its destination, my stomach was suffering from severe cramps. I felt dizzy and nauseous as I made my way to the bathroom, locked the door behind me and, over the next couple of days, became uncomfortably intimate with the words Armitage Shanks. I shall spare you the details, because details this lurid have no place within the public domain. Suffice to say that the foreign bodies inside me found their exit at both ends, rapidly and repeatedly and revoltingly.

But let's pause a while, because all this happens later. Much later.

For those of an adventurous palate, India offers an endless array of culinary magic. Even someone with my own disgracefully timid taste buds can recognise that much. On top of the countless restaurants that line the pavements like Christmas lights, there are myriad food stalls selling all manner of street food. The selection of quick snacks range from bhel puris (stuffed wholewheat bread, tamarind sauce) to bhajis (deep-fried vegetable cakes) to freshly roasted chickpeas. Thirsty? Well, glorified wheelbarrows offer pineapple, mango and watermelon chunks, while mobile aluminium shacks sell lassi (a creamy milk drink with curd, and flavoured with either sugar or salt). The empty stomach is spoilt for choice.

Despite the pervading logic that suggested I holiday somewhere safe instead – Greece, say, or maybe Cornwall – I had always wanted to visit India, if not quite for its cuisine then certainly for its colour. I conveniently ignored the fact that I'm in possession of a weak stomach. For example, I indigest easily; the very word "spam" can prompt in me diarrhoea, to say nothing of the spicy food so favoured in this corner of the world. I am not fond of fish, and coconut – India's main alternative to the prevalence of chilli – makes me feel quite sick. In theory, then, I was about as suited to India as Russell Crowe is to romantic comedy. But I am also stubborn, and I refused to be put off.

According to the guide books, Delhi Belly – that rather cute generic term for any kind of upset stomach suffered while on holiday on the Indian subcontinent – was effectively a foregone conclusion, about as inevitable as the suntan you would go home with. Water should be avoided at all costs, it was recommended. Peeled fruit was a no-no, as was salad. Cooked meat could also be potentially dangerous, for reasons too many to list.

Our journey was to be a linear one along the southwest coast, and our mode of transport would be night train. Train travel in India is the best way to get a handle on this fascinating, sprawling country, and they also offer an endless procession of food. At every station, a veritable army of hawkers board, bearing their wares. Much on offer here is single-mindedly savoury, and everything comes fried. Bhajis prove popular, as does puffed rice, prepared by the vendor in front of you, wrapped up in a laurel leaf and sprinkled with a variety of herbs, spices and a dash of lime. On the longer journeys, I became convinced that my digestive system required fruit, and I once managed to procure some banana chips. Despite an unquestionable resemblance to the fruit of the same name, these were deep fried, tasted like plywood and rapidly coagulated in the stomach.

Breakfast was another eye-opener. The favoured dish seemed to be some kind of doughnut, deep fried in slick batter, and filled not with jam but mustard and chilli sauce. The assault on the senses this thing brought is difficult to describe without resorting to many-syllabled swear words, but it was an experience I shan't be repeating soon.

The majority of Indian restaurants serve Chinese food which, despite many suggestions to the contrary, were often thoroughly Indianised and, consequently, very hot. One such dish I experienced in southern Goa, was called butter murgh masala. This, my Nepalese waiter informed me, was like chicken and cashew nuts, only minus the cashew nuts but with, he said ambiguously, "something not spicy".

In actuality, butter murgh masala was really very spicy indeed. As I ate, I began to heat up from within rather rapidly. My face turned red; my mouth puckered up like an arsehole; I was close to tears. The following morning, while combing the hair that had sprung up on my tongue and praying that the blisters would eventually subside, I decided to stick to the relative safety of chicken fried noodles.

The one thing to categorically steer clear of in India is any restaurant that boasts a "Western" menu. These are invariably awful places pandering to tourists with an even more ignorant palate than my own. In Kerala, I plumped for something called chicken basket, while my girlfriend settled for beef crumb fry, served with a "choicerable" sauce she was given no choice over. The food was absolutely wretched. Mine was a chicken that had clearly committed suicide in a fug of anorexic depression, and my girlfriend's cow was clearly a very recent roadkill. She could practically taste the tyres.

The next day, in an attempt to make up for such a miserable experience, we had lunch at an authentic Indian canteen and ate rice, local style, with our fingers, which we would have enjoyed all the more had we actually washed our hands first.

Towards the end of our time in India, we began to feel fairly invincible. We now consumed peeled fruit and tap-washed salads with carefree abandon, and when it got very hot in the middle of the day, we even crunched on ice cubes. My girlfriend had become a firm fan of the country's incontrovertibly exotic cuisine, and while I never did fully acquire a taste for spice, I was particularly partial to tandoori-toasted naan bread, which was quite exquisite.

Earlier, I mentioned the food poisoning that finally befell me, which all along had seemed inevitable. But, against prediction, I somehow managed to survive two and a half weeks' worth of Indian cuisine only to be struck down when back within the apparent sanctity of my home town. En route from Heathrow, we stopped off at a self-consciously posh market to enjoy a posh hot dog (wild venison sausage submerged in olive oil and wrapped in a thick slice of ciabatta), and its effects were pretty much immediate. Cocooned within my own bathroom a quarter of an hour later, staring sadly at my reflection in the toilet water, the irony was not lost on me. I had proved admirably resistant to Delhi Belly only to succumb to the Bermondsey Squits. Oh, how I laughed. Inwardly.

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