14 January 2013

Habits I’ve picked up in India

After living for a long time in a place, you tend to consciously or unconsciously pick up new habits. I’ve realized that after six years in India, I’ve picked up a few very Indian ways of doing things.

Some of them have to do with food and eating. Eating with the hands is one. This is not a habit I’ve picked up entirely, but I do prefer to eat certain foods with my hands: anything which is eaten with roti or other types of bread, for example. Eating with my hands was not something which came easily to me, especially when eating rice. I only really got used to this when I spent two weeks in a yoga ashram in Kerala and all the meals were served on metal plates with no cutlery. It’s not as difficult as it looks, it just takes some practice, kind of like eating with chopsticks. (By the way, I love eating with chopsticks!) So when it comes to rice, I prefer to eat with cutlery.

Which brings me to another cultural difference: the use of cutlery. Of course high-end restaurants in India will always have cutlery set out, but simple eateries will offer a spoon (sometimes you have to ask for one), or a fork and spoon, but never a knife. This is logical since prepared Indian food does not need any cutting, but when you’re used to eating with a fork AND knife, you really miss the knife – since part of its job is to move food onto the fork, and not only cut. I noticed that when not eating with their hands, many Indians prefer to eat with a spoon rather than a fork. Which reminds me of a meal I had with a group of friends in Brussels, one of whom was Indian. When he asked the waiter for a spoon to eat his meal, he got a strange look. Of course, unless soup is served, there will be no spoon provided. Otherwise, spoons are for small children who haven’t mastered using a fork and knife yet! But I have to admit that I now have to resist the urge to eat certain foods with a spoon…

"How come you can eat spicy food?" is a question I get a lot. Spicy food is something the taste buds adapt to quickly, so I don’t have a problem with this. But waiters still lead me to the 'non-spicy' dishes at buffets: “Have this Madam,” they say, "it’s bland."

Something I used to find odd in India is that sweet and salty foods are often served together. For example, if you’re invited for tea, you’ll probably be served a slice of cake along with potato chips. I found this strange at first, but I’m used to this now – but I have to eat the salty thing first!

Talking about salty things… another cultural difference when it comes to food is breakfast. A typical ‘Western’ breakfast is toast and jam, or cereal… ‘sweet’ things. In India, ‘salty’ and even spicy foods are eaten for breakfast. This is another habit I’ve picked up! Sometimes I crave South Indian food in the morning. This is something my husband still cannot stomach: at hotel buffets he heads to the toast and croissants, while I gravitate to the idli, vada and dosa counter. Which I eat with spicy chutneys of course!

Another food habit I’ve adopted is eating certain foods with ketchup. Samosas, sandwiches and fried noodles are usually served with this condiment, which I first found bizarre... But now I can’t eat fried noodles without it!

The rest of my ‘Indian’ habits have to do with clothing, footwear and grooming…

I’ve always loved wearing Indian clothes because they’re so comfortable and elegant. But I’ve started wearing colours like hot pink and orange – colours I would never dream of wearing at home! There, the usual wardrobe colour palette is quite toned down: white, black, brown, navy blue, maroon, olive green; anything ‘bright’ is sure to get a strange look or even a comment. But in India everything goes, the more colourful, the better!

A habit I’ve picked up (which my mother would not like) is being barefoot. When I was a kid, my mother would have a fit if I walked around barefoot indoors, even in summer. It was the sure-fire way to catch cold! It’s so nice to wear sandals all year round and not have to wear socks. As a result, it’s very uncomfortable for me to wear shoes, my sensitive feet are no longer used to this!

Because I spend so much time barefoot, my feet take quite the beating so pedicures have become a necessity. Which brings me to another very Indian ‘ritual’: the beauty parlour. I’ve already written about how beauty parlours are part of any self-respecting Indian woman’s routine. Pedicures, waxing and threading have become necessary little luxuries.

Coming to bathing, I’ve also adopted the Indian bucket bath. Of course bucket baths and ‘wet bathrooms’ are only convenient in hot countries. I like the Indian way of filling a bucket with hot water and using a small jug to pour water over the body. I’ve realised this is also an economical way to bathe and that you don’t need to use a lot of water to take a bath: less than a bucket!

Because of the hot weather my hair can get frizzy and unmanageable easily so I’ve also picked up another very Indian habit: oiling my hair! I discovered ‘non-sticky’ hair oil which doesn’t make hair look greasy, but just shiny and ‘tame’. This is a lot like hair serum, but cheaper and just as effective. I’ve also got into the habit of putting liberal amounts of coconut oil in my hair and leaving it in for an hour before washing it. The results are amazing!

So that’s my (somehow lengthy) summary of some of the Indian habits, rituals and practices I’ve picked up over the past six years!


Shubha said...

Interesting,as usual:)
Reminds me of when I ordered pasta for breakfast in Lucerne once.They looked at me like I was crazy.But I could not eat bread,jam,cereal(sweet stuff)after the 2nd day.
You may also find this strange that at home,we give our kids spoons only when they have a cut on their finger.We moms are like"eat with your hands!!NO!you will not get a spoon!"
And you are right about the bright colored clothes.After living in USA for 11 years,I just craved bright clothes.And I am enjoying wearing bright sarees and multi colored patialas:)
Thanks for the fun post Isabel:)

Isabel said...

Thanks for your comment Shubha! There are so many cultural differences when it comes to food. Another Indian friend also complained of the 'sweet' breakfasts in Europe!

Paro said...

Very nice post! Enjoyed reading it.

Donna said...

Oh this is so true! After almost 7 years in India, I did most of the same things. There is something a little decadent about eating with your hands! You had me laughing about the ketchup. I used to be horrified when my Indian mother-in-law would smother my continental cooking with ketchup. And ketchup on pizza?!! But yes, I did start to use it on odd food too. I never got into the Indian clothes but relate to wearing sandals all the time. My feet cry if they now have to go into a pair of closed shoes or worse - heels! Threading is a little barbaric for me and oy, my poor hair was colored green in India. Never got to oiling. Bucket bath?! Oh how funny. Wasn't so bad IF there was hot water but I don't know how I survived the cold water bucket baths. Thanks for the memories!

Thea said...

Well, at least the typical US breakfast is usually less sweet than the European one, but of course it is seldom spicy.
My husband also used to ask for spoons, since forks and knifes are generally not much in use in India, but with the years he started using forks way more often.
And yes, you can wear colorful clothes in summer, the rest of the year it is a bit different since you would surely stand out :) I would even add, that not just the colors are making you stand out, but also the jewelery, amount of and the color of yellow gold, embroidery on clothing and other bling/bling. Nice post :)

Isabel said...

Thank you Paro!

Donna, I forgot about the ketchup with pizza! What would Italians think of that?

You're right Thea, there's also a 'bling' factor!

Anonymous said...

:) I like how things I had never though about show up here....lol! for instance the sweet with salty things for tea!:)

but if you ate the sweet thing after the salty thing..and drank your sweet tea after eating the sweet..then how can your tea taste sweet?


KC said...

And I've taken to wearing a scarf/dupatta with my jeans and Tshirt!

harini said...

I don't really remember eating a savoury breakfast when I lived in India...I usually had cocoa or toast and jam, actually! And then I got into cereal. It was only when I was visiting my North Indian friend here, in the States (I've been in the States for a good chunk of my life now) and we had paratha in the morning that I realised that savoury breakfasts were an Indian thing :) But they are delicious and oh so welcome on cold mornings!

I actually miss bucket baths. Definitely very economical and the hot water is fantastic...when you can get it, as another commenter posted.

This was a fun post :)

Roxane said...

Great advices. I've traveled to India a few times and picked up a number of habits while I was there.

I begin with the word "spicey". Our Western mouths are (in general) used to a certain litany of "spices", many/most of which have nothing to do with heat. India for me is more about savory-spice, not hot, per se, merely flavors our Western mouths aren't used to.

Lots of others here : http://culturaloddities.com/10-indian-habits-will-fail-break/