There were a few occasions I found myself walking to the toilet a pace or two faster than normal, a ball of paper napkins stuffed into my pockets from a restaurant, just in case.
I was in India for a month recently and, minus a few close calls, found myself without the purge of Delhi Belly—an ailment that apparently hits most of the country's Western visitors at some point.
Most of the fellow travellers I met in India had been ill, in some way, at some point. One girl from the US managed to throw up in a Jaipur tuk-tuk. In Delhi itself, a German guy on the bunk above me said one evening that he was "really sick, I don't think I should leave the hostel." This is disconcerting to hear when you're lying directly beneath someone. My friend Jacques thought he was in the clear without suffering anything untoward during his two-week stay, only to find that, once in the comfort of his airplane seat, his adventure was not over.
Aside from a few dicey experiences probably more in line with local whiskey than chicken korma, Delhi Belly left me alone—no Imodium needed. There are ways to combat Exploding Pants Syndrome, though, without relying on a constant dip into your rucksack pharmacy. Jon Rogers, a professor at the University of Dundee who spends a lot of time in Delhi, says his method is "to eat food that is cooked in front of you," and to go out with local people and eat with them. "The food's wonderful, delicious and exciting," he says, but as a vegetarian, he avoids meat and fish as a matter of course.
It's not just tourists who get ill, of course. We just label it Delhi Belly and are far more likely to feel wrath in our guts because we either don't test our stomachs enough, or don't look after them enough in the first place—unlike the Indians. Many Indians practice Ayurveda, the ancient Hindu principles in which food—substance—plays an integral role alongside things like yoga and meditation. Emphasis is placed on moderation and utilising the wonders that are cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon. To Indians, these spices aren't just flavour-givers. They're genuinely medicinal.
There are some foods that have an even greater scope to counteract the supposedly inevitable, too. Whether following Ayurveda or not, India is awash with natural remedies. One, called asafoetida, has been largely forgotten in Western diets, and it took a train journey to Agra for me to better discover it.
Sitting in a communal carriage, I found myself with a family from Punjab on the four-hour trip. They had brought food and insisted on sharing it with me. Things began, oddly, with toffee birthday cake, but later the tiffin boxes were opened. As well as a fragrant biryani and chewy chapattis, there was a staggeringly good Bombay potatoes-style dish.
"These will be good for your gut," said the server of the dishes, a lady in her 50s who told me her name was "Pinky" (maybe she'd seen my copy of White Tiger) and who, for those few rickety hours on the train, treated me like her own son. "You must have more, Josh." Not a problem.
The potato dish's ingredients, readily unveiled by Pinky, were as expected to begin with—some chili, mustard seeds, turmeric, plenty of salt. But there was a more unusual flavour, too, something potent and vaguely onion-like that lingered on the tongue. Pinky divulged that the potatoes had "a small but powerful" pinch of asafoetida. "We use it to keep our digestion good and friendly," she said. I liked the idea of digestion being a friend, rather than a mechanical necessity.
Asafoetida has a colourful history, but is far less talked about and much less accessible here than other spices. I'd never even heard of it. Used as a digestive aid, asafoetida is commonly found in dishes like daal and lentil curries. Pinky swore by its use, and not just because her parents were from the central region of Maharashtra, of the "merchant caste," and so used it in place of onion and garlic, but because it was a central part to "a healthy body."
As with pretty much every meal in India, yoghurt—called "curd" by many Indians—somehow made its way onto this one. Nearly always set and always with a sharp richness that can only come from a product made from animal milk that's incredibly fresh, curd is a mainstay of the country and could potentially be, with its probiotic properties, a friend to your gut.
Sharing a Southern Indian takeaway me a couple of weeks later, a hostel worker called Narottam Sikhwal pretty much gave me a curd sermon. "Curd is so good for us," he said. "I have it with every meal. Sometimes on top of daal or mixed into other curries. It cools you down. It's vital. I know it is good for my stomach." Whether it was used to balance heat, or sweetened with sugar and mixed with fruit pulp to make a lassi, I pretty much left India with a fetish for yoghurt. It's not too much of a stretch to say it's one of the country's great unifiers—everyone eats it everywhere, with almost every dish.
Another dish that is apparently a foil for digestive upset is rasam, a sour, tamarind-based Southern Indian soup. There are too many varieties of the soup to list and I've no idea which I had, but there were tomatoes, lentils, tamarind, and loads of chili. It was intense and, according to my new friend Sikhal, more than just a soup. "It's healing," he told me. "It will prevent gut trouble. I always have it if I feel unwell. If it's purely liquid it means it's a good rasam. It's almost like a juice."
The heat of the rasam felt as if it was percolating through me. Like asafoetida, it brought with it a distinctive flavour and felt about as far away from my own culinary comfort blanket—a plain omelette—as possible. And it was stupidly tasty. These preventative measures go down easily.
India is a country many Westerners go to for spiritual satisfaction, to "find themselves." But for many of us, the discovery of our literal inner selves can happen on, or crouched by, a toilet. But instead of fearing Indian food when travelling the country, or eating something out of politeness, perhaps the best thing to do is ask—Indians jump at any chance to talk about their food and how good it is for the body. I'm convinced that inquiring about the medicinal peculiarities of any country's food is as much a part of a smooth expedition as anti-bacterial wipes and gin. Still, it'd be unwise to be without gin.