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What my travels to India taught me about the power of food

mark lazenby/The Globe and Mail

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I wasn't always a guilty eater.

Growing up, I didn't feel bad about leaving some food on my plate. My mother didn't have a particularly strong method of vegetable-eating coercion; her tactics involved a subtle blend of worry for my health and disappointment over the waste of food. I could always shrug it off, scrape my asparagus into the trash, and go on with my day.

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So I grew up being able to turn down food when I wasn't hungry, or when it didn't look or taste appetizing. At friends' houses, I had no trouble saying no thanks.

But a couple of years ago, I received a Canadian International Development Agency internship that took me to Varanasi, India, an ancient holy city unlike any other place I'd ever been.

Preparing for this internship involved a course of intercultural training that cautioned me about the trials I was about to face – one of which was the barrage of food and drink I would be culturally obliged to consume.

I learned that declining an offer of food or beverage would be the utmost insult if I was a guest in someone's home.

The flight from Toronto to Varanasi was a classic foreshadowing of how my relationship with food in India was about to unfold. It seemed as though every time I closed my eyes, I awoke to find an encouraging flight attendant at my seat, offering hospitality in the traditional Indian way: a meal high in spice content and even higher in ghee.

How could I refuse this man's offering? I ate my way through six meals before Delhi, never once feeling a hunger pang in the interims.

The organization I worked for held a staff retreat shortly after my arrival. As we navigated the highway to Bodh Gaya, I was again offered a smorgasbord of Indian snacks. How could I insult my new colleagues by declining their hot and spicy take on Cheetos? My tastebuds and stomach lining would have to learn to adjust.

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A few unwashed grapes later, I realized my tastebuds' flexibility outmatched my stomach's. That night I lost my belief in a certain anti-vomiting medicine's effectiveness and my dinner.

My work in Varanasi included evaluating many of the schools in the area. I was often a guest in a principal's office, sipping sweet chai and, after much encouragement, eating the ubiquitous Parle-G cookies. Each principal took care to ensure I got a strong glucose boost before we began the evaluation.

Sometimes I tried to sidestep the hot sugar-tea because of the 45 C heat, but alas, the principals' avian attentiveness to my cup would always thwart me. I knocked back the chai like a college student on spring break, sweated it out and watched as, magically, the principals opened themselves and their schools up to me.

While not at work, I spent most of my time at the guesthouse where I was staying. The cook was also my house-brother, and I recognized after the first dinner that the highest form of praise I could give him was to finish what was on my plate.

"No good?" he asked, teasing me after I couldn't finish a helping of pasta that could have fed a family of four.

I felt guilty, shovelled another bite into my overstuffed mouth, and made a mental note to finish my next meal.

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The guesthouse's menu was typical of establishments catering to a Western tourist crowd: Indian, Italian and Israeli cuisine, with an overarching British influence. It had the lowest prices in the neighbourhood and comically slow service, undoubtedly due to the number of chefs: one.

But somehow, waiting two hours for my host/house-brother to cook up a thali (a meal with a number of different vegetables, rice, chapatis and dhal) elicited a gratitude in me that my mother could never extract when I was a child.

Perhaps I was in awe of the job he did with the resources he had: The square footage of his kitchen was sufficient for an apartment for two, not a restaurant that served 20; the air inside was hot and humid; mice frequented the counters hourly, hunting for leftover chapatis; vegetable peels lay on every surface, in every bowl, overflowing the sink.

He cooked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., making delicious meals in a kitchen where I couldn't have cooked – or stood – without drenching myself with sweat and screaming at the sight of an unexpected rodent.

I reacted to his admirable display of hard work instinctively: I overate. I suggested new dishes for him to make, which he did with the glee of a hipster discovering an obscure iPhone app. We bonded over his new love of baking.

I realized that though I could barely fit into my pants, my initial guilty eating had turned into a relationship-building exercise – an opportunity to display trust, openness and warmth to a new acquaintance.

Living in India taught me that food is the best way to make a human connection. We could only speak a beginner level of each other's languages, but through food my house-brother and I created a lasting friendship.

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