One of the greatest things about traveling in India is the abundance of cheap, yet tasty food. Even the lowest priced dishes from the filthiest street carts rarely taste bad and for a few more rupees, you can get some pretty amazing meals.
Nevertheless, every western visitor will eventually crave some western food; and you can be sure that giving in to those cravings will almost certainly lead to disappointment. You will pay too much for portions that are too small and flavors that range from ‘slightly off’ to ‘what the hell am I eating?’ Sometimes you will get a plate of food so ridiculous, you end up writing a blog post about it. This particular plate was served up in one of the 7000 or so nearly identical restaurants fronting Palolem Beach in southern Goa.
On the day in question, I was craving a Greek salad. A number of places in Goa have them on their menus and a much smaller number serve versions that actually taste good. How do you know which places will satisfy and which will disappoint? Trial and error; but you can usually make a very educated guess using two indicators: cheese and price.
The restaurants that use real feta cheese generally do a good job with the other ingredients as well and, while their Greek salads probably shouldn’t be called “Greek”, they do taste pretty good. They also cost more than other Greek salads, in large part due to the real cheese.
Knowing that, I went from one place to another checking out menus to see if they offered a Greek salad and if they did, checking the price. After striking out a bunch of times, I eventually found a restaurant full of people sipping colorful drinks that had a higher priced salad on their menu. After confirming with several of the waiters that they used real feta in their salad, I ordered one, along with a papaya lassi and sat down to wait.
Ten minutes later my salad arrived and from this point forward, I’m going to have to put the word “salad” in quotes. What I saw on the table before me was a mixture of half raw onions and half semi-wilted lettuce topped with two tomato slices—one mostly green, the other mostly brown—and a handful of small, yellowish, rubbery plastic cubes that almost resembled cheese.
When I pointed out to the waiter that the plastic cubes were not quite what I’d had in mind when I asked for real feta cheese, he assured me I just wasn’t familiar with Indian feta. I explained that I was, in fact, quite familiar with the substance on my plate, as we use it all the time in the west, usually colored a pinkish-red and attached to the end of a pencil. We don’t usually see the yellow version though and we certainly don’t use it as a salad topping.
After a few more ridiculous lies, he reluctantly agreed to replace the cubes with actual cheese, which naturally had me wondering why they didn’t just give me cheese in the first place. I assumed they were trying to save some money, but quickly learned how wrong I was, when my “salad” reappeared. At first glance, the cubes had been replaced by crumbles of the same color. At second glance, it became apparent the cubes had simply been squashed one by one.
When I informed the waiter of my suspicion that he had used his filthy fingers to reduce each of my yellow cubes to a crumblier form, he naturally denied those charges vehemently. When I pointed out that I could see his dirty fingerprints on each of the squashed cubes, he suddenly forgot every single English word he had ever learned. Seriously—moments before, he had been conversing in near-fluent English and all of a sudden, he couldn’t understand a word I was saying. Hmmm.
At this point it was clear I had wasted twenty minutes of my life waiting for an inedible meal and I quickly made up my mind not to waste my money as well. I handed my newly non-English-speaking waiter the plate of “salad” and walked away.
In the most miraculous recovery of lost long-term memory ever witnessed, an entire language’s worth of vocabulary words suddenly returned. And they returned with a vengeance, as he fired off a stream of very colorful and creative curse words at my back. I’m pretty sure he may have actually taught me some new expressions, had I been listening, but I barely noticed him anymore, as my attention was already elsewhere—I had decided the second I stood up to seek out an old, reliable favorite to tackle my hunger and couldn’t really think of anything but the huge plate of tandoori chicken I would soon be devouring. Hold the salad.