Back in 2007 I spent a month in India for a “HIV/AIDS and public health challenges” volunteer experience. It was absolutely amazing. We were completely immersed in the culture, which scared the crap out of me at first. I flew alone – for the first time alone and the first time ever on a plane for more than 3 hours. It was a 26 hour non-stop flight. I arrived at the Delhi airport, surrounded by a language I had never heard before (Hindi). My ride was no where to be found and I had no idea how to figure out how to contact him/her. Thankfully a half hour later I found them. And they didn’t speak English. They were employees of the NGO that my non-profit was affiliated with. They weren’t dressed very nice, but were nice to me. I couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical about the situation. Before we left the airport I tried to call my parents and J to let them know I arrived safely. My phone disconnected me 3 times and they were, of course, worried something happened to me. Thankfully it stayed connected long enough to hear I was OK and that they should call J to tell him I was safe. I then went with the two Indian men I had just met to an old van. Yes, one of those creepy vans without side windows. They loaded my luggage up for me and I sat alone in the backseat without a seat belt (because they don’t use those in India). I was honestly so scared that I might not make it through the night, but I knew I had to trust that everything would be fine. The ride was an experience I will never forget. It was my first glimpse into the chaos of Delhi driving. When we were at stop lights, children and women begged at our car (just like you may have seen on Slumdog Millionaire). I had never seen anything like this. We finally drove down a dark ally, my heart racing, and arrived at my hostel. The hostel keeper didn’t speak English, of course, and my two other travel partners hadn’t arrived yet, of course. The women at the hostel were very nice and helped me get settled into the room we (the 3 girls) would share. I was so scared and had no idea what was going to happen next. After I fell asleep there was a loud pounding at the door – it was my travel partners (but my mind went to the worst possible scenario, of course).
After that moment the trip improved greatly. One of the girls spoke Hindi, which made all the difference. Our experience was amazing. We were immersed into India. Working and living in conditions similar to those of the lower-middle class of India (which would be poor in the US). We worked with homeless children, men dying of HIV/AIDS who were disowned from their families, young boys who were already addicted to drugs, amputees who lost limbs from drug use, women who had been abused, and so many more amazing people. This was an experience I will never forget. I went from being scared to death of a country to not wanting to leave. I still hope to go back someday and experience India all over again.
During our time there we ate a lot of traditional Indian food. We usually ate whatever was prepared for the people we were serving, so there was tons of dal with rice and nann. We often ate with our hands. The food was absolutely delicious. I ate the best mango I have ever had in my life – so ripe I could peel it with my hands. I fell in love with paneer and kheer (and probably put on a few pound because of it). Occasionally we’d venture out and eat at a local restaurant, which was always amazing. I only made the mistake of getting something too spicy once the entire month, was a pretty good success.
Since being home, I have tried to make Indian dishes occasionally. The cumin, chai, cinnamon, and masala spices bring back memories instantly. A friend of mine made us Chicken Tikka Masala when I stayed with her in Madison a few months ago. It was so easy and SO delicious. I made this for J a few weeks ago and he loved it too. I served it with the very Indian side dish of green beans, haha, but it needed a vegetable! If I were doing it again I would add raisins to give it a touch of sweetness.
Slow-Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala
(unfortunately I don’t know the source of this recipe)
- 1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes
- 1 medium onion
- 2 garlic cloves, diced
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 24-oz chicken breast or thighs (1.5 pounds)
- 1/2 English cucumber, halved and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro
- 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 cup basmati or long-grain rice
- 1/3 cup heavy cream (or plain non-fat yogurt if you want a non-fat option)
- In a 4 or 6qt slow cooker, combine the tomatoes, onion, garlic, tomato paste, and masala. Place the chicken on top, cover, and cook on low for 7-8 hours (or high for 3-4 hours).
- In a small bowl, toss the cucumber and cilantro with lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Prepare the rice before serving.
- Just before serving, stir the cream into the masala. Serve over rice with cucumber relish.