If there is one thing which I never mentally readied myself for while preparing to move to the UK, it was how much I would miss Indian food. The good, and simultaneously the bad, thing about Indian food is that it is so rich with spices and flavour that Western food tastes—let me put this kindly—bland, in comparison.
I remember my first ever experience of dining in my college hall, as I was waiting in the queue excitedly to eat what I thought would be a special ‘welcome meal’ during freshers’ week. I am amazed at myself now for thinking this, but for some reason, my idea of a buttery was that it would serve different cuisines during meals to cater to the university’s sizeable international student population. It was to my utter consternation that I discovered that the college buttery served chiefly (rather, only) British food, and I remember frantically scanning the many items on display for something which resembled some semblance of "food" as an Indian understands it. Fries and salad are not conceivably food for someone accustomed to eating rice, Indian breads and curry twice a day!
Thankfully, a solution was at hand and I started having meals at a South Indian restaurant close to college. This went on for a week before the manager of said restaurant explained to me in "polite terms" that the "restaurant policy" was for customers to order a meal totalling a minimum of £10. I was quite taken aback and naturally, offended, vowing never to eat at that particular restaurant again. In retrospect, I feel sorry for the chap as he was just trying to save his ailing restaurant.
Necessity is the mother of invention (or in my case, cooking). I decided that I was done with patronizing restaurant managers and indifferent college butteries and resolved to start fending for myself. It did not take me long to realise that there are two kinds of people in the world — those who love being in a kitchen and those who don’t. I fall into the latter category. It took me time, effort and willpower to cook my own meals, especially since I attempted to feed myself three hearty meals in a day. While I struggled to balance the frenzy of my course with the demands of my stomach, a series of happy accidents took place, and I knew that the way I looked at food would never be the same again…
It all began with the mid-Autumn festival, a harvest festival celebrated by the Chinese, when my Chinese flatmates invited me to try a dessert made of white wine and rice. I found the experience of tasting a different cuisine unique, and that day I felt a little more educated both in terms of the Chinese cuisine and culture.
In another instance, my college boat club decided to do dinner as a chance for the novice crews to meet the more seasoned rowers. I was delighted that the venue was an Indian restaurant and immediately confirmed my availability to attend. The venue was later shifted to a Greek restaurant. While I was initially disappointed, I thought to myself, "I have had Indian food all my life, this is an opportunity for me to try out something different". I was so excited at the prospect of experiencing Greece through its food, that I asked a Greek friend for recommendations on what I should try at the restaurant. Looking back, that was my ‘Eureka moment’ (no pun intended) — I realised living in a country which didn’t serve my native food was an important life experience.
My biggest lesson from my culinary experiences in Cambridge is that experimenting in life, including trying different foods, is extremely important to one’s personal growth. Cambridge offers a smorgasbord of different culinary experiences and food is synonymous with culture — through the very many cuisines that different students bring to Cambridge, you can actually experience a dash of different cultural contexts. I have also found the experience of trying a traditional dish from another country a great way to bond with the people of that country, as people are so nostalgic about their traditional cuisine. As well as this, I feel closer and to my friends in Cambridge who take the time out to cook for me.
For me, being exposed to different cuisines outside of my traditional cuisine was a blessing in disguise and an experience which I would not have had if Indian food were easily available in Cambridge. I would urge all the international students who are homesick to plan a potluck with their flatmates and do their own version of a mini international food festival.
It could turn out to be even better than if you were having your traditional cuisine!