These past couple of weeks I have been suffering with severe food poisoning and am still not completely recovered. Being a foreigner sick in India is one of the worst possible experiences and is best avoided at all costs. Unless you naturally have a super strong immune system you will most likely suffer some form of sickness. Particularly since there is such poor hygiene with food preparation and perishable foods aren't stored correctly. Local's have been raised in this environment so have built up their immunity with time. However someone like myself will become exceptionally ill and it is difficult to then recover. Hence why I have spent the week before last in bed with every symptom imaginable. This was only exacerbated by not being able to stomach any local cuisines whilst sick. I was fortunate that I avoided dysentery and only suffered food poisoning which is bad enough, however you do not want to ever come down with dysentery.
Indians are great chefs when it comes to local cuisines such as curry, although if you have been to India you would know that they are overpowering. Typically curries have too much seasoning added usually in the form of chilli. This is to cater for the tastes of locals who have a poor sense in smell and taste. Growing up in an environment that is so overwhelming to all the senses it is expected that they would have a diminished sense of smell and taste. Flavour is actually perceived by our brains through our sense of taste and smell combined. So if one lacks in both these senses then your brain perceives food to be duller than what it actually is, requiring more seasoning to obtain the same perception of flavour. I have an exceptionally high sense of smell and taste making me sensitive to overpowering foods. At times Indian cuisine can be intolerable given the amount of seasoning that is added. Even western cuisines are made to the taste of locals.
Normally when one is sick they crave simple home cooked meals such as chicken noodle soup. Given you cannot easily buy western ingredients here you are not in a position to cook meals yourself at home. Therefore the closest food to a simple home cooked meal that I could find was pizza. Naturally the pizza wasn't made like the Italians would make it, with fresh and simple ingredients. Rather they cover the base with a cheese spread that comes from a jar, sprinkled with toppings like corn kernels, baby corn spears and gherkins. On the menu you can find flavour combinations such as mushrooms, gherkins, paneer (farm cheese) and pineapple which comes on a base covered in cheese spread then sprinkled with mozzarella cheese. Should you require additional flavour you are given a dried herb mix and dried chilli flakes to sprinkle over the top. Now this is actually a decent flavour combination in comparison to some other pizzas that I have seen advertised which came with fruit. There is no such thing as fresh herbs or pasta sauce used when making a pizza. As with India itself, dining can be overwhelming to the senses particularly if you are seeking western cuisine. With so many flavours competing against one another it can be sickening.
As you can imagine even franchises that are globally recognised have an Indian spin to them such as Subway or Dominoes. Typically one purchases a franchise for the comfort of knowing there is a standard operating system in place. For instance hygiene practises or freshness of food. These are null and void when it comes to franchises in India as they do not seem to operate by the same standards that a franchise in Australia would. Granted it is expected to be slightly different depending on the country, however you still expect a minimum standard from a brand as a consumer. So if I am eating at Subway in India I expect the same fresh quality that the brand stands for. Although when I dined at Subway whilst I was sick I was served a rock hard bread roll that felt like it had sat there for days. The salad was sparingly applied and it also was not fresh. I didn't order meat just in case they also lacked in good hygiene practises.
Unfortunately in India there are no laws in place to govern good hygiene practises and food preparation. Particularly when it comes to street food vendors, although they offer the most delicious cuisines. Even small restaurants or cafes that appear to be clean usually have limited hygiene and don't store perishable foods correctly. Eggs for instance are one of those foods that should be kept in the cool out of direct sunlight. However they are stored in direct sunlight in the heat of the day by the stall holder at the markets. So by the time they are purchased they are usually already not in the best condition for consumption. Like meats or dairy products, eggs are one of those foods that can make you sick.
This isn't the first time I have suffered severe food poisoning in India. My first stay in India I became ill and with time it only worsened so I had to return home. At the airport I ordered a cheese toastie thinking that I would be safe however became suddenly ill on the flight home. I was hit that violently with food poisoning I had to be wheeled off the plane in a wheel chair when we finally arrived in Australia. Since then I have been more cautious which has reduced how frequently I am sick. It is also difficult to fight off bacteria when you live in India as your diet is typically a lot different to your diet back home. In Australia it is easy to have a varied diet with all the five food groups and take a multivitamin or probiotic to maintain a healthy immune system. However, living in India you are limited to what you can consume and therefore your health suffers with time as a result. So it is best to try to be as healthy as you can and be somewhat cautious to avoid becoming violently ill. We all know prevention is better than cure. So here are my tips to avoid becoming sick when in India.
How To Avoid
1. Boil Water
The water in India is particularly dirty and full of foreign bacteria. Even bottled water is not always a safe option. Majority of bottled water is refilled by the retailer with water straight from the tap. Some manufacturers don't necessarily use clean water sources either like you would expect of Evian. They may claim to be from the most purest springs in India but if it is made in India it is most probable it is just tap water. Restaurants most definitely refill bottles with tap water or if they provide complimentary water for the table it is from the tap. So if you have time, boil your water the night before so that it is chilled and ready to pack with you in the morning. If dining out be sure to purchase a trusted brand of bottled water and check that the cap hasn't been tampered with. Furthermore don't add any ice to your drinks as it is also just frozen dirty tap water.
2. Avoid Dairy Foods & Meats
Unless I know the place I am eating at is reputable, I usually avoid foods that have a high risk of carrying bacteria. Such as dairy foods, eggs and meats. Many restaurants and street food vendors just don't store or cook foods properly which result in bacteria thriving in the food. For instance meats may have been butchered with little or no hygiene then by the time they are sold it is handled by another person with no hygiene. It may then be cooked and left out at room temperature without refrigeration. Or stored for way too long after its best before date. There are just too many risks with foods like this and it is best to avoid them or eat minimal amounts unless you are eating at a reputable restaurant.
3. Clean Your Utensils
I have a habit of doing this as I know that most dishes aren't washed in hot soapy water with a clean cloth. Most just use a dirty dish cloth under cold water and quickly give it a wipe down rather than a good scrub. Particularly forks where food can get stuck between the prongs. So if you carry antibacterial wipes you can give them a wipe down or just use your hands like the South Indians do. At least you can wash your hands and you know where they have been. When I attend wedding receptions I just use a napkin for a plate and eat small portions individually by hand rather than load up a dirty plate and use dirty cutlery.
4. Don't Over Indulge
When you want to still enjoy yourself and try the local cuisines then just go easy on how much you eat. Particularly when it comes to street food vendors who are not known for their hygiene but mostly for their delicious delectable deep fried foods and other tasty treats. I do this when I visit relatives or go out to restaurants and the worst it has gotten me is diarrhoea which is a lot nicer than food poisoning or dysentery. You may not even suffer any side effects at all if you are healthy.
Jalebi - Indian Deep Fried Sweet
5. Dine At Busy & Clean Restaurants
If you do choose to dine out at a restaurant then look for ones that appear to be popular with a steady stream of people. Busy restaurants with higher turnover will have fresher food and given the popularity it is safe to assume the food is also good. Most locals accept that dining out is going to lead to an upset stomach the day after therefore will also look for reputable restaurants to dine at. Also be sure to look for restaurants that appear clean and tidy, as that will give a good indication to what the kitchen is like. Although this isn't always the case so use your instincts!
6. Avoid Too Much Chilli
Chilli is great to get your metabolism working harder however it also acts as a mild laxative. So if you are already suffering an upset stomach you might want to take it easy on the chilli. This can be difficult when living abroad as Indians love their masala. It is applied to almost any cuisine even french fries and porridge! So be sure to ask for simple fries with no masala if you are avoiding chilli.
Chillis By The Bag Full
7. Use Antibacterial Gel Or Wipes
I always carry with me antibacterial gel when I travel in India as it is the best way to avoid becoming sick. Many public toilets will not provide you with soap to wash your hands with. Not to mention they are usually very dirty. Throughout the day you will most likely touch and spread thousands of germs that it is best to use an antibacterial gel or wipes to keep them at bay. Just think of all those people who have touched the rupee note you just handled. Or the toilet door you just locked in the public bathroom. Who knows what they have touched before that.
8. Wash Fruit & Vegetables
Eating fruit and vegetables is a great way to maintain your health and avoid sickness. Although you can still become sick if you do not wash your fruit and vegetables. Many are covered in pesticides or have been touched by several people without being washed. So to be safe wash them thoroughly before eating or cooking. Since becoming sick I stir fry plain vegetables for dinner and have felt so much better. Fruit in small portions also make a great snack when travelling. This way you don't over indulge in too many of the local cuisines throughout the day.
Fruit Stall Holder