Maha rashtra means Great Land and is the region around Mumbai, for me one of the most fascinating cities in the world. I came here for a day in 2005 and have always wanted to come back. Harshada Wagner, meditation teacher from New York, was offering a pilgrimage retreat to some of the most sacred cities and villages of Maharashtra a wonderful way for me to start my months in India before heading up north to study yoga philosophy.
Our little group of ten women and two men traveled from Mumbai to Nashik and then on to a peaceful farm for three days of intense meditation practice. We then drove to Alandi, the home of Saint and poet Jnaneshwar before coming back to the old Southern part of Mumbai.
Traveling with Harshada and his Indian friends meant we were immersed in local traditions: we wore Indian clothes, kept our voices and cameras very low and eat South Indian specialities all week. It was a liberating experience, really traveling “under the radar”. We were treated with love and respect, which is not always the case for women in India.
The food was divine. Maharashtrians don’t eat sweet breakfast, they have nourishing high-protein grain dishes like masala doses, giant crêpes made of fermented lentil-rice dough and filled with spicy potatoes, or steamed buns dipped into spicy tomato soup called sambhar idli. In Nashik we had Upma, steamed cream of wheat but my favorite was the yellow poha we had in Alandi, fluffy rice flakes cooked with onions and small potato pieces spiced with mustard seeds, garlic and turmeric and served in little metal trays with fried pepperonis.
For safety reasons, we often ate fried snacks or doses on the road but in the evening we feasted on local thalis, trays with different curries, breads and rice. Dal, lentil soup is always one of them and some serve khichdi, Indian’s comfort food, light but satisfying, mung beans and/or rice simmered for a long time with peppercorns and cloves. We once had a Gujarati lunch where we tried specialities such as little fried hollow balls called puris that we filled ourselves with potatoes, mung bean sprouts and spicy water before popping them into our mouth. In the restaurant of a farm in sacred Alandi we had the best bread ever, fresh from the pan and made of coarse buckwheat flour. I still have to understand the different flours and cooking techniques of all these fluffy breads, I would so love to spend some time watching and learning from Indian women! We almost always ate with our hands in the traditional way, only using our right hand and the bread to scoop up the curries.
To avoid stomach upsets which are very easy to get in India (especially in rural India during monsoon!), we followed some simple rules. It was sometimes tough on the soul but it worked:
Wash your hands! You can’t do this often enough, it is proven to be the best way to avoid germs and illnesses. Use wet wipes or simply the washbasin in every Indian eatery, just make sure you use soap and do it thoroughly!
No raw foods! The travelers rule says: “cook it, peel it or leave it” and that is the absolute priority. After a few days we started eating fruit we could peel but only after checking the knife and plates were clean and dry. Papayas were in season and we had bananas, (peeled) apples and sometimes oranges. I ate my first chicos and custard apples. Chicos are like a cross between a date and a kiwi and custard apples are creamy and sweet when you break them open.
No chutneys and sauces! These are more often than not made with water and lie around for days collecting bacteria and fly eggs. So reign in your mint and hot chili sauce habits, your tummy will love you for it. The same goes for the raw onions and tomatoes and the pickles that are served with every meal.
Only eat fresh! Make sure they are preparing your dishes freshly for you. Often fried pakoras and samosas and sweets are prepared in advance and left uncooled for hours.
No mouth-freshener! The delicious aniseed sweets and fennel seeds that come in little bowls after every meal have often been taken directly with dirty hands and fingers. Every market and larger petrol station has a stand selling them, just get your own and take them with you.
Don’t over-eat! Take it easy the first few days and on long flights or trips, that way you reduce the possibility of something of a dubious quality knocking you out.
Enjoy your food! Try new things, copy what other people are eating and how. If a food stand has a long queue, it is probably selling good quality food. Great snacks and sweets stalls are often mentioned in guide books like Lonely Planet, try them out!
I am now off to North India to study yoga, I am curious to see (and taste!) how different the food will be from the South.