People at work usually greet me with a “Good… (insert time of day)”, followed by a “Have you had… (insert most recent meal)”.
At first I thought they were concerned whether I found good food in Chennai, so I respond “Yes”, and let them know I’ve settled in. It then became repetitious and they started greeting each other similarly- perhaps it is a custom. (I’ve never responded “No”, but they would probably flip if I did!)
So bottom line: make sure you remember your last meal, and be prepared to have a conversation about it!
In the mornings, my co-workers/new friends Mridula, Mehreen, and Shruti gather to eat breakfast. They bring idly and sambar, and Mehreen sometimes has masala-flavored oats (which she despises). My breakfast usually consists of a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich, with a side of orange juice. They were very intrigued by such a meal (I have heard Indians only eat bread when they are sick), and the Nutella caught on to them (GO NUTRITION!)
In college, breakfast is usually a granola bar on the go, in a rush, or in my 8 AM Monday mornings. The people in Chennai are much more relaxed, and don’t stress out about time much (evident by the numerous times I have been the only one “on-time”). They make it a point to have a set time for eating breakfast, and it is usually an entire meal that fills you up until lunch.
So at UNC I have lunch around 12. Sometimes at 11 or 1 to avoid the rush. In Chennai, I’ve come to realize that 1 PM is the standard time for lunch. Probably because of their heavy breakfasts, the hunger doesn’t set in until then.
And at lunch, like at breakfast, we all gather to eat. At first, I thought my co-workers were offering me spoons of their home-madelunch, because I was new to the area and living off PB &Nutella + Cafeteria food for the time being. Usually they bring some kind of rice dish, from Sambar rice (lentil soup + rice), pulihora (lemon rice), to curd (yogurt).
Later I realized this food-sharing thing is more of a daily tradition, each of us sharing spoons of our lunches with each other before beginning to eat our own. And if you don’t try their food, they will probably feel sad. I absolutely LOVE trying new things (especially food), so this wasn’t a problem and it became my favorite part of the day.
Side Note on eating other people’s cooking: If you are eating a meal at someone’s house, and don’t finish your plate or refuse seconds (or thirds, and fourths), they will probably feel sad. And even though the food was delicious and you argue that you are full, they may still suggest you do not like their cooking. I’ve learned this from multiple experiences and have now begun to stop taking it personally.
And more on sharing food…
It started off with Dr.Anjana’s birthday. She is the Co-Managing Director of Dr. Mohan’s and Vice President of MDRF.
The office phone rang. Ring Ring. Ring Ring.
“Hello, TRD” (TRD stands for Translational Research Department)
“How many people are in this department?” Looks around “Thirteen, including the intern”.
“Oh cake? Wish her happy birthday from us”
Within an hour (around 10 AM), two boxes of individually packaged cakes arrived at our doorstep! It was pretty early for cake, but no one seemed to care much. It was, after all, Anjana mam’s birthday.
Side Note: I am amazed by the respect I see here for others, especially our senior staff members. Their time is never wasted and you can sense this respect in the way they communicate. It’s also feels odd for me to call my advisors “Dr. Last Name”, because everyone else calls them by “First Name Mam/Sir”. It’s a little difficult to get the hang of that too.
So anyways, we got similar calls another two times. They started joking that we have 3, 4, or even 5 interns (more goodies for us!) Once was for a birthday next door (the treat: an Indian sweet called Gulab Jamun). The second time wasn’t a birthday, but we each received five packs of Oats & Fiber Marie Biscuits. They were extras from an intervention program that distributed these biscuits to children in schools, as an alternative to cookies and other unhealthy sweets. Morgan and I became creative and made Nutella/PB sandwiches out of them- Super Delish!
And then, when Shruti’s brother did really well on his 12th class board exams (similar to our SAT or Final Exams) she bought a box of chocolate-apple pastries and distributed them to the team. These exams basically determine college acceptance- they don’t really look for well rounded-ness, and rely on being book-smart or having $$ (More on the education system here later…)
I could keep going on this…when I gave a mini-presentation to my team, after the first two weeks of my research, I was requested to bring some sort of “celebratory munchies” and resorted to Oreo-like cookies supposedly made of milk.
So to conclude here… after celebrating (with sweets) three times in the same week, I start to wonder whether this tradition of celebrating everything and anything (and then going back to our desks and sitting) is slowly but surely impacting India’s health as well.
And putting celebratory sweets together with the “Have you had your (most recent meal)” greeting, heavy breakfasts, plus the sharing lunch tradition puts into perspective how eating behaviors are really integrated into the culture of India. That’s some food for thought. (Literally)
Ok final side note on food: Mridula and I love experimenting with food. Given my love of nutella and her love of Haldiram’s (a salty snack), she suggested putting them together on a slice of bread. Here is the final product. Please this is a judgement-free zone.