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EATING IN INDIA

The conference hall is ice cold. Outside it’s sticky and warm, a bit dusty. It smells at once of lots of good things and not so good things. Inside it smells like air conditioning.

The rows are filled at this huge International Conference on Ayurveda in Nadiad, Gujarat, on a hot hot September day – a day when the monsoon will not come. Here I get to talk about our European experience with Ayurveda, our trouble in making Ayurveda comprehensible, our patients and how they live. Indian students are curious about us. We’re being tirelessly added on Facebook and can’t keep the business cards in our sweaty hands for long. We’re just nervous.

First a second breakfast is being served – wait, it’s the third actually. Breakfast no. 1 at 6:30 AM (jet lag!) consisted of warm milk and a black sticky spread, chyavanprash, made in the hospital and supposedly a bringer of health and rejuvenation. At least getting up so early would be healthy! We weren’t opening the door, but the boys with the milk and sweet paste on spoons persisted.

The second breakfast was at my professor’s house. His friendly wife made chickpeas, loads of hot sauce and fresh flatbread with milk tea and pickles, a bit of fruit. No, I’m full. Thanks, but really, no. Very kind of you, but that’s too much. Yeah, tastes amazing. Fine, okay, a little bit more, then that’ll do.

The third breakfast was in front of the conference hall. No escape here either: milk tea, cookies, lentils and flatbread. Thankfully, there’s still a little time before lunch!

It’s 10 AM. The first lecture is starting. It’s heating up outside. My stomach is full. My inner attention draws me from the lecturers to my digestion. And more appetite is on the rise! The icy air has drastically reduced our body temperature, rekindling our appetite.

Thank god. Our ears are freezing, our fingers numb. A wave of heat blows back into the room. Outside the lunch buffet is being set up. A mini-tour can’t hurt: red curry, yellow curry, lentils, chickpeas, desserts made of stretchy white dough, cauliflower curry, flatbread. It smells warm, spicy, tart, aromatic, peppery, sweet, cinnamon, bitter, like fresh bread and rose water. And much more. We only get cookies for now. Too bad.

We freeze in the next lecture. Terms in Sanskrit are read aloud at lightning speed, flickering across the screen in a Power Point in similar breakneck fashion.

Lunch break. We feel aged by the cold. All of our limbs ache. And yet outside the temperature has peaked and is retained beneath large tarps. The buffet is all ready. Maybe it’s not that hot, but the open flames of the gas stoves, hot plates and deep fryers are emanating ripples of heat.

We keep our plates small. A spoonful of each dish and two plates would be enough. Because the paneer and the vegetable dish are so exceptionally delicious you have to take more than that. Three plates are too much. That looks gluttonous. We sit down wherever we can squeeze in. The table is covered in overflowing plates – there are clearly more plates than people.

We’re not the only ones.

The break is too short to smell all of these spices, to let the textures melt in your mouth, to taste the oil on your lips, to feel the sweetness. Luckily my clothes are flattering. The hall is significantly emptier after our break. Or you can no longer see everybody because the food has so pleasantly drained the blood from our heads. Slipping slowly, deeper into… dozing off… until the air conditioning blasts us and the struggle against the cold resumes.

Evening is approaching. A gala dinner has been planned in a luxury hotel. My assistant and I completely missed the beginning. The starting time had been moved up and back several times, and we were in the city stuffing ourselves with cookies and Indian milk tea at various cashmere and silk retailers.

There’s nobody at the hotel except us. The magic of Indian scheduling. We have the buffet to ourselves and are greeted with Smurf blue soda. Thickened milk with saffron, flatbread, a dozen curry dishes, lentils and chickpeas follow, and then everyone comes back and invites us to take more.

My lecture on the following day uses case studies. Most patients in the studies skip meals or replace them with smoothies. There are lots of questions, solely about the food.

Why do people skip meals? Why? Do people over in Europe earn so little? How can you skip a meal when there’s enough to eat? How can you start your day without a spicy aromatic breakfast? Let the middle of the day go by without having spoiled yourself with a wondrous lunch? How can you eat a slice of bread alone in the kitchen at night? Instead of celebrating the end of the day.

How do you explain that? I couldn’t.

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