Cooking With Elf Gas

by Pam

Everyone said we would get sick of Indian food. Everyone was right.

For the first several months we were in love with butter chicken and naan bread, saag paneer, navratan korma, chicken 65 and dal . We happily ate vegetarian thalis served on banana leaves from steel buckets. I learned to cook biryani and chitranna (spicy lemon rice) and chapati. We learned to eat with our right hands, while keeping the left one on our laps. We approached meals with excitement, hoping each time, to discover a new favorite dish.

It took about six months for the thrill of Indian cuisine to expire, but expire it did. Phil lost his appetite first, and it happened overnight: One day we were happily eating chapati and aloo gobi, and the next day his whole body recoiled when he sat in front of a plate of chicken curry. I’ve since caught up with him; now we only eat Indian food when absolutely necessary.

There are very few restaurants in Bangalore that serve good western food. Actually, I’m lying: really there is only one, but it’s on the other side of the city, and very expensive.

Our only hope of not starving was to cook our meals myself.


All my life I’ve cooked like an Alzheimer’s patient: I start with the best of intentions, then wander out of the kitchen and forget what I’m doing. Then, ten minutes later when the pan on the stove starts crackling and the apartment fills with smoke, I act surprised, like this is the first time I’ve ever caught dinner on fire. But back home, even a careless cook can be a good cook.

San Francisco has an abundance of amazing grocery stores, offering every delicious, organic, vegan, grass fed version of anything you want. Our vegetables, fruits, eggs, and grains arrive every Saturday morning in a wooden basket from a biodynamic farm. In summer we get fresh corn and heirloom tomatoes, baby lettuce, snap peas and sweet carrots, served with fresh salmon that my brother pulled out of the ocean. In the fall and winter we eat roasted potatoes with turnips and rutabagas, we have mixed greens cooked in garlic and virgin olive oil with grass-fed organic beef, or roasted free-range chicken, or tri-tip drizzled with truffle oil served with caramelized leeks and roasted fingerling potatoes.

When I don’t feel like cooking we can go out for sushi, or tacos, or (beef!) burgers, at one of several dozen restaurants within walking distance. We can drop into a bakery at any time of day and pick up a fresh buttery croissant or a sticky warm cinnamon roll and a soy latte.

But here in Bangalore, due to the challenge of cooking food we can safely eat in a country that eats food we can no longer stand, I’ve been forced to actually seek out, read, and follow recipes. Which, in turn, has forced me for the first time ever to actually become interested in the process of cooking. I now spend hours browsing searching for recipes that fall within my strict perameters.


I have a two burner stove that’s a cross between a camp stove and a Wolfe range. The stove is powered with Elf gas. The Elf gas travels through a blue rubber tube, up three floors from the gas canister. When the canister is empty I go to the Elf store and exchange it for a full one. I still think it is funny. Elf gas.

I also have a small toaster oven. But the only baking pan I could find that fits inside the toaster oven is heart-shaped, so every lasagna, and cornbread, every macaroni and cheese casserole, every batch of lemon bars becomes a de facto Valentine. I like this almost as much as I like saying Elf gas.

Aside from the obstacles presented by cooking with Elf gas, a single heart-shaped pan, an Easy-Bake toaster oven, and the things we won’t eat, there are the things we can’t eat. We can’t eat any unpeeled fruit. Raw vegetables are out and salads are a death wish. The reason for this is as disgusting as it is simple: Elf gas! Kidding, kidding; the real reason is: Poop. Both the irrigation water and the drinking water are often contaminated with human waste. As well as the water being dangerous to ingest, the many hands that food passes through are also very likely contaminated.

Getting sick in India is just part of being in India. It isn’t just Westerners who get sick, either: every year, more than two million children die from preventable diseases, and most of these are from waterborne illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, or jaundice. The statistics are stunning, and make it hard to keep off the soapbox. More than 70% of the Indian population lack proper toilet facilities. Public toilets, when they exist, often don’t have running water, rarely have toilet paper, and rarely have soap to wash your hands. The farm irrigation water is contaminated from human waste runoff because the fields serve as de facto toilets. In Bangalore, a city of 6.5 million, the sewage treatment plants only treat sewage in limited areas of the city. Sewage that isn’t treated is simply pumped into the Thenpennaiar River, which flows to Krishnagiri Reservoir, which contains the city’s supply of drinking water. I’m not sure why India keeps choosing tradition and superstition over science, but it’s really pretty simple. People, don’t poop in your drinking water. This isn’t new information, and it isn’t being kept a secret.


The fruit and vegetable wallas push their carts through our neighborhood each morning, along with the man who sells long-handled dusters and aluminum water jugs, and another whose bike is towering with woven grass mats. Each vendor has a unique, bird-like cry that we’ve come to recognize. These cries, often overlapping one another, with the horns and whistles and the rattle of scooters starting, the insane dog yapping across the street, and the call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque, all together signal the beginning of another day in Bangalore.

There is no shortage of vegetables in India, but I have no idea what three-quarters of them are. Pale green serpents and foot-long blistered reptilian gourds lay in neat rows on the wooden carts, beside a pile of okra and ridged cucumber things. Small mountains of tiny purple eggplant, too bitter for words, fall over themselves. Giant round squash, in translucent white and orange, crowd into one corner of the cart, and are available by the hunk. There are things that look like prickly pears but aren’t, and deep brown orbs the size of elephant droppings that I refuse to believe are edible.

I’m sure there are dozens of ways to prepare these exotic vegetables, and they might even be delicious, but they would also be Indian. And I’d be more inclined to experiment with this exotic bounty, but getting my husband to eat vegetables of any sort is a careful dance. I’ve been known to resort to blending, trickery and lies, and stop just short of an airplane spoon. The only local vegetables familiar to us are: Roma tomatoes, red onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, green beans, cauliflower and small green chilies.

The fruit cart usually comes around right after the vegetable cart has left. I run back down three flights of stairs and buy fresh pineapple, watermelon, and papaya that are available year round. I buy oranges that are green and limes that are yellow. Starting in February, the mangoes arrive; a new variety hits the carts every couple of weeks until the summer monsoons come.


I buy what I can from the street vendors, but for the rest of our supplies I go to the grocery store. Nothing I could have read or done before coming to India could possibly have prepared me for an Indian grocery store. To me, they are a hub of cultural insanity, a place where logic and common sense collide and are both knocked unconscious. It’s a place where Phil and I both lose all our cultural sensitivity and end up behaving very, very badly.

Every store seems to be overstaffed to the point of confusion. Moving through an aisle, I slalom past a person sitting barefoot on the floor amid a mound of cellophane packages, dusting each one with a rag before carefully replacing it on the dusty shelf, while another employee stares at me with an armload of small cookie packages. Two more workers lean against the shelves talking, while another paints the bread shelf with toxic black paint, while the bread is still on it. And no matter where I am, a woman with a coco broom is trying to sweep under my feet.

I buy mostly from the shop around the corner, even though their workforce is made up primarily of children, and the place looks like a farm museum. The shelves are lined with packages of mystery grains and seeds and jars of red stuff, and plastic bags of cooking oil, and pouches of milk, plus boxes and boxes of spice mixtures with the word “masala” included on the label.

Then, when I want to buy milk I don’t have to boil before using, or real cheddar cheese, or a five-dollar can of imported refried beans, or actual salami, I go to the HyperMart. They also have fish, but you can smell it from the parking garage three floors below, so I’ve never even considered buying it. They sell beef, but that scares me too. When we’re feeling really flush, these trips to this magical place will include an eight dollar package of Philadelphia Cream Cheese. At least half of the time it’s gone bad by the time we buy it, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. Hope springs eternal in our pursuit of familiarity.

When I’m finally done with the shopping, I step into the checkout line. Then someone steps in front of me – then someone else, and someone else, and so on, until finally I hold onto the counter and wedge myself into any remaining space between the formica and the cashier. This is standard behavior in India.

Once I make it to the front of the line, I have to check my attitude. In the States, grocery store clerks are a shining example of efficiency. Their magic fingers fly across the keyboards like lightning, they ask if you’re having a nice day, and they listen when you say, “No, not really.” Here and now, my cashier behaves as if this is his first day on a job he wasn’t trained for. He seems confused about the cash register, the concept, and what it is he is actually supposed to be doing. He wanders away from the register midway through the transaction and doesn’t return until another one of his befuddled co-workers goes and finds him. After everything has been rung up, he walks to the other side of the store to swipe my credit card, finds a pen and hands it to me with the wrong receipt to sign. He then finds the correct receipt for me to sign, and rifles through a drawer to find another pen because the first one doesn’t work. Then, when the transaction is complete, and I am positively homicidal, I walk ten feet to the exit where I am stopped by a guard who insists on seeing my receipt. He counts my bags then stamps and punches a hole in the receipt before letting me out the door.

This scene, or one very much like it, plays out every single trip to the market, and by the end of these experiences I have lost all faith in India.


Once back at the flat, with my painfully sourced ingredients, I can now make pasta with marinara or Bolognese sauce. I cook green Thai curry and Vietnamese Pho. Fresh flour tortillas, salsa made with blanched and peeled tomatoes, red onions, coriander, green chilies and lime juice. Pinto beans I’ve been cooking all day, ground chicken with onions and garlic and non-Indian spices. Fresh watermelon juice and lemon bars. I cook Southern fried chicken and green beans sautéed in butter and garlic, and sweet cornbread. I make crepes and shaksuka, and banana bread.

By now I have surrendered to the reality that it takes at least an hour, and usually two, just to make a simple dinner. To occupy my brain while my hands are busy, I listen to episodes of This American Life, or old podcasts from my Pirate Cat Radio nights; I find myself laughing because even from the distance of 8,700 miles and a full year, Pixie and Maggie are still pretty damned funny. It was a phase of my life that started with research for a book, ended five years later with a massive hangover, and I can’t wait to get back on the air when we get back home.

For now, though, I have become the domesticated housewife that our mothers struggled not to be.


22 Responses to “Cooking With Elf Gas”

  1. Hmm.. sounds like Pam (definitely) & maybe even Phil is ready to board the midnight flight to SFO tonite :) Only 6 more weeks people..

  2. Phil says:

    Vishy, I know it sounds bad, but we are still loving every minute!

  3. Great read – really enjoying hearing from you and Phil about all your Indian adventures… not much longer and you’ll be back! Counting days yet?

  4. Kate says:

    I could hardly stop laughing during your description of the check out process, start to finish, at the GOOD grocery store : ) And okay, maybe you’re NOT enlightened (yeah, right), but man, Pam, the things you have graciously endured combined with the occasions to which you have risen (I constantly find my eyes widening in certainty that I could never do a good many of the things you have braved) counts for SOME award upon your return .. we may even have to have a ceremony ..

  5. Coby says:

    I love your blog. What an experience! I am completely impressed with the pair of you. Well, more so with Pam for getting down to business with the Keebler kitchen. Midnight grocery store wandering was fun with my (foreign) hubby for a few years, now he’s over it all and the British Store is nostalgic :) Looking forward to hearing Pam on the radio, if it is available in SD.

  6. Steve P says:

    Damn, you are funny. Just read this out loud to my wife and we were both laughing like idiots. Reminds me of Indonesia, how complicated even the most simple things can become.

  7. Ayla says:

    ‘Hope springs eternal in our pursuit of familiarity’ is a really great line.

  8. Sujoy says:

    Phil & Pam, only weeks to go now,& you haven’t gotten over the blues yet?
    Our first few years in US was a bit like this, especially to the spouse bound at home by visa restrictions or whatever. In Gurgaon (a suburb of Delhi) where I now live, my wife participates in “Gurgaon Connection” a flash-mob of expats & indian returnees. They extract free coffee do’s from good-star hotels & meetups all over town.
    If either or both of you sqeeze a quick trip to North India, do give me a holler & we’d be happy to host & take you around.
    I’ve been a regular at your blog since I & Phil commented on Vishy’s driver story & its been fun.


  9. cara says:

    Very funny piece. Strange that I know exactly how it feels to be sick of the food, but I also miss it so much now that I’m back.

    And glad to see the Indian English is settling in: 4th paragraph, 2nd sentence is an Indian sentence if there ever was one:)

  10. Phil & Pam,
    You don’t HAVE to love every minute. Heck, WE don’t love every minute and we are Indians who have returned to India. There are good days, great days and some bad days. The number of bad days are a small percentage that keep reducing with each passing month.

    I’ve been a big fan of Pam’s writing but I’ve gotta say this piece disappointed me. Missed the mark to just_plain_wrong on a couple of counts.

    The paragraph on getting sick in India read like an out of place cut-paste job without context. It’s fine to vent but the statement below is condescending and superficial:
    “People, don’t poop in your drinking water. This isn’t new information, and it isn’t being kept a secret.”
    The 200-400 million Indians in the expanded middle-class are NOT pooping in their drinking water. The less fortunate ones living on the fringes of urban India are defecating in the open (because the govt. isn’t providing them other options) which contributes to the contamination cycle. I’m not refuting the 2 million deaths stat or the fact that public toilets are woefully inadequate (and that’s being polite) but there’s a CONTEXT that you are clearly missing.
    The way Indians have solved the drinking water problem temporarily is the way how most other Indian infrastructure problems have been solved – not at the upstream/root-cause level but at the downstream. The drinking water (whether it’s Cauvery connection or water tanker) is filtered by the consumers and businesses. We’ve eaten at 100’s of restaurants (including many hole-in-the-walls) and the only thing we’ve checked is whether they have a water filter installed. In the past 18 months, we’ve never ordered Bisleri water and none of us (including our 2 kids <7 yrs) have had a stomach-related illness. Considering we spent 16 yrs in US before the move back, I reckon our immunity levels were not very different from yours.

    Regarding your cashier story, don't know if he was having a bad day, or you were having a bad day or the novelist in you wanted to take some creative liberties. I'm sure in the "World Championship of Grocery Clerks", the American & European clerks would soundly beat their Indian counterparts but your incident seems like an exception rather than a rule.

    Sorry if the above offends you. Your post certainly offended me on Feb 10… I waited a few days and since it still offends me, I had to post this.


  11. Phil says:

    Hey Vishy :)

    I’ll leave the editorial issues for you and Pam to discuss, but I would like to say:

    1) I do love every minute here in any case, because India is simply *never boring.* It’s the same reason I love San Francisco. In both places, there is a surprise around every corner, and in India that may be at every footstep. Good or bad day, it’s never a boring day!

    2) The grocery store incident I can vouch for, as I was there. I can further confirm that this kind of thing is typical for us here, not exceptional, and sometimes worse. To the point where we often think twice before going to the shop, assessing whether we have the appetite for the exchange. That said, the players on these stages are always as sweet as can be, never losing their own patience. It is only us who do that on occasion. Maybe things get goofy because we are so clearly visitors, and folks here really seem to like visitors; and maybe it’s because so many people mistake me for that WWF wrestler (even though I haven’t a muscle to my name), but our experience is consistent this way – and I do not doubt that yours is different :)

    Phil :)

  12. Reena says:

    Oh come on we are not as bad as that . We do have electric ovens and microwave ovens , 4 burner cookers that do not look like campstoves . Yes the majortiy of urban India does cook on LPG but then again we do have piped gas in some apartment complexes . We also have washing machines of different types and supermarkets where we get imported cheese and other food. We also have fresh vegetables that come in from the villages and not all of them thrive on poop. The municipal drinking water is filtered but most of urban India has Aquagard to ionize the water .
    What keeps you here I wonder ? And if you are in such a conflict with your immediate surroundings then you’re losing out a lot on life .

  13. Phil says:

    Reena, Reena!

    Relax, read those words again… Pam never said that in India there are only 2-burner gas stoves and no microwaves etc… she said that is what WE have in our current flat. Which we adore, along with our beautiful neighborhood, and have posted numerous times about both.

    But, FWIW, we live in what we are told is a middle class neighborhood in JP Nagar, not in some expat community. We used to live in a more upper class home in Panduranganagar. In both homes, were gas stoves only. 4 burners in the old one, 2 burners in this one. We have a microwave in both locations, but anyone who cooks knows that microwaves are not for real cooking – they are for warming the occasional food item. So we use the toaster oven. Which is a challenge, and more importantly, it is FUNNY.

    We live here, instead of Whitefield or some other expat enclave, because we came here to be in India, not in fake-America. We have traveled over more of India than many Indians ever see, have spent time in farming villages under the stars, in private homes (both way up and way down the chain) and in both 5-star hotels and 20-dollar a night rooms. In all our travels over the year, we have NEVER seen an electric oven. You may have one, and maybe the people around you have one too – but the irrefutable truth of our experience is that we have never seen one. We presume there is a logical reason for that, and Pam did not utter a critical word about it.

    What confounds me about the occasional protestation such as yours is this: India is a crazy quilt of a place… and it seems to me that even Indians spend a lifetime trying to get to know it. You more than anyone should know that you are seeing only *your* slice. And if you are among those who have electric ovens and are buying imported cheese on a regular basis, I would submit that yours is perhaps a narrower slice than ours.

    What keeps us here, aside from my own yearlong work mission, is the fact that we love the adventure. The people. The surprises. The differences. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Why do you think we would only be here if everything was perfect? Do you know any perfect place on this earth? I think that being here willingly, subjecting ourselves to all that India brings to us, not hiding behind expat/upper caste walls, means we are not losing out on anything at all – we are open to EVERYTHING.

    Now that’s life, baby :)

    Phil :)

  14. Reena says:

    Peace – what I dont like is Pam’s condescending tone which runs through the entire post .

    .And no I dont live in my particular narrow slice either .

    I wonder why you havent seen an electric oven – I’m sure youre jokling .

    “means we are not losing out on anything at all – we are open to EVERYTHING.” Im sure that’s not the tone of the post ! But heck anyway she needed to rant so she did .

  15. Hi Phil and Pam,
    I’m sorry you’re having such trouble with the food and veggies. Yes, in India you DO need to know certain veggies and exactly how to prepare them, to really enjoy them. Tossing them into a stirfry or a bake won’t help. I have read all the comments and I see Phil rush in to explain to each irate reader, which I can imagine is annoying. As a blogger myself, I often end up having to explain myself to each reader… but as Reena above said, the tone is rather condescending. Perhaps you didn’t mean it to be so, but its almost as though she’s saying there aren’t slow or confused grocery store clerks/people in the US where almost every product purchased comes with a disclaimer asking you not to put the baby into the washing maching with the outfit or telling you that the contents of a cup of coffee are hot (!!) :)

    That said, I am not a regular reader so I don’t know what Pam’s tone is like on other posts. I do hope you’ll enjoy the remainder of your stay and soon find more to smile over and less to frustrate you. Just as the Indians who have moved to the US are learning to make the most of the limitations there!


  16. Lavanya says:

    HA! I wondered often about the 120 employees every Spencer’s Daily / Nilgiri’s needs to keep the place running. I have an article sitting in my Drafts folder for a while this subject. I think there must be 5 employees for every shopper in these places. Why? Oh and the chap at the till? I think you should be blamed for his flummoxed behavior – you shld know by now that white skin confounds people!!!

    I love my country which is why I say it takes a bit of getting used to. One major thing one needs to deal with India is humour and as long as you have it, you can enjoy it.

    And Pam, yep that muddy elephant poop-like thing is edible! It is a root veg and can be peeled, diced and sauteed in oil to make a real crunchy and tasty side-dish.

  17. Kalibilli says:

    There, there. You’ll be home soon and things won’t seem so dire. Unless, of course, you decide to go travelling again, which doesn’t really seem like Pam’s thing.

  18. darkstarkchocolate says:

    ok! the country being the second most populous country, the number quoted is a very minimum percentage……but hey hey! this is MY country and I LOVE IT with ALL its flaws….flaws/problems/issues in your eyes…that is the way our lives – in my eyes…

    oh that elephant poopy like vegetable, is Yam…makes for a very delish side dish…

  19. Eveslungs says:

    Unfortunately I landed on this one post that absolutely kills Bangalore and then by default India . If its such a hell hole what are you doing here ? The post is full of such condescending remarks and I love the way Phil runs in to defend each comment .But as Kalibilli says maybe travelling isnt really Pam’s thing .

  20. Phil,
    Thanks for stopping by 1st floor and our brief chat on Pam’s post. I look forward to Pam’s responses. Meanwhile, I have more thoughts & questions…

    1. As I said earlier, I don’t care to refute the 2 million deaths stat nor the contamination of irrigation and drinking water. Since you have done some research on this subject, I’m mildly curious about the sources. Not a biggie really.
    2. I accused you of being “condescending” & “superficial” – it was not in the heat-of-the-moment. Enough commenters have +1’d the condescending bit so until you clarify the ‘tone’ of your post, nothing more for me to add.

    Why ‘superficial’? because almost your entire post is about reporting things & events at the top layer – albeit, in a really nice prosaic style. You haven’t bothered to ask/understand the Indian context. Why gas stove? and not electric? (Answer: gas is cheap in India; electricity is not cheap & is also unreliable)

    Nothing wrong with waxing eloquently about San Francisco — when you are say comparing life in Europe, Australia, Canada or NZ. Comparing food & water safety standards between India & US is well… “not fair” don’t you think?

    On a related note, I was pleasantly surprised & proud that India said an “indefinite no” to Bt Brinjal after a healthy public debate.

    3. “I step into the checkout line. Then someone steps in front of me – then someone else, and someone else, and so on, until finally I hold onto the counter and wedge myself into any remaining space between the formica and the cashier. This is standard behavior in India.

    This is again great prose – does it really happen to you everytime? Yes – many Indians try to jump the line *if* they can get away with it. A curt “Hello! there’s a queue here” is sufficient to deter most of them — and I’m no Arnold Sch. I’m having a hard time picturizing a submissive I’ll-let-myself-be-pushed-against-the-formica Pam but then again… I only met you once.

    4. Indian food (home-cooked vs. outside): I hope in the past 12+ months, you had a chance to eat home-cooked Indian food (cooked by regular Indian folk). Believe me – it tastes different from the restaurant fare but, most importantly, it’s not the rich greasy kind. Now if you guys stayed in Bangalore for the odd weekend (instead of gallivanting around on your Enfields to exotic new locations), we’d have you over for lunch or dinner :)

    ‘nuf said I think.


  21. Pam says:


    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and no, I’m not offended. I am however, sorry that I’ve offended you. As a writer, expressing what I see and feel, I expect to get some blowback and that what I have to say won’t always be appreciated. This blog of ours reflects our experience, filtered through the eyes of westerners, not what is politically correct, or polite. These posts are pieces of a whole, which is a work in progress, and certainly cannot reflect the whole story of India, or even my whole story. The bad will be balanced with the good, the humorous with the serious.

    Everyone else,

    The basic premise of this piece is simply that after more than a year of living in India, we have become tired of Indian food. Perfectly natural. I imagine Indians in America for extended periods have a hard time not eating their favorite foods. This doesn’t mean we don’t like Indian food, or India, or Indians – it just means that sometimes I just want some almond butter and honey on barley bread. I’m sure there are many great restaurants in Bangalore, but in my post, I was clearly referring only to those few that serve Western food.

    My difficulty, and hopefully the comedy, comes from my attempting to cook American food, in an Indian kitchen with Indian ingredients. I am not a journalist; I am a novelist, and memoirist, and humorist, responding in writing to my current environment. I assure you that I am not interested in writing a character assassination of India. There are many, many things to love about this country – the competence we see in people, the kindness, the skill, the amazing terrain and the abundance of wildlife. But these good things cannot hide the reality that there are challenges that the government is not yet successfully meeting: such as creating an infrastructure that truly cares for the people of this country – most of whom fall far outside of the middle and upper classes.

    Never have I said, or implied, that India should strive to be America or that I am judging India on American standards. I am simply reflecting what I see, and what I experience every day. Some of it is good, some of it is not, and some of it is funny.

    I invite you to learn more about me, my previous work and our travels by reading the rest of the posts on this blog, or checking out my books.

    Both of us are grateful for the experiences we’ve had in India and will cherish them always.

    Thanks for reading,


  22. Kate says:

    So I read all the comments (as I narcissistically came back to see if anyone responded personally to ME) and have felt inside, for the past 24 hours, what The Elf Gas entry brought to me, as a westerner. As with every single entry I have read of Pam’s .. the E.G. one included .. I experience an as-if-I-am-there learning of the fabric of whatever part of India she is describing. With this learning always comes an unwavering sense of deep and abiding appreciation and love for what she is experiencing .. as an individual and a life-partner. So obviously strong and pure is this vibe that it has transferred itself to me, and I feel, now, not only a strange (for someone who has yet to leave the western hemisphere) familiarity with Bangalore but a deep and personal affection for it as well. Because of Pam’s enduring honesty, openness and humor, I can actually see myself coming to India and visiting with great anticipation and excitement ..

    even with the poo : )