100 Days in India Project

Cow drinking from a water tap in the street and dribbling into a water container used to fill up jugs in a cafe.

8/ 100 Drinking with the Cows

Compared to Western standards food hygiene in India can be quite poor to say the least. I’m certainly not saying that our food is better here in Europe, because it really isn’t, it’s just that I think we have much stricter rules about food preparation than they do there. We ate almost every meal from either a little cafe or from one of the street food sellers who could rustle up incredible snacks with just one enormous pan, litres of oil and a dodgy gas burner with enough power to launch a spaceship. Our food safety theory was that we only ate things that were freshly cooked, and that were heated to the temperature of the sun. We also didn’t eat any meat, but that was easy in this country of predominantly Hindu vegetarians.

In many of the little cafes you would find a stainless steel metal water jug. Sometimes there was one per table but, more often, there would be just one communal one sat in a dark corner. We saw that Indian people are really happy to share water, and even share a cup. It’s not as unhygienic as it might sound because they have perfected the art of pouring water into your mouth without actually letting the cup touch your lips. I tried several times and, for whatever reason, couldn’t manage it. Try it, it’s harder than it sounds.

We tended to never drink any water that wasn’t out of a sealed bottle (also certainly not foolproof, as I’ll explain another day), or that hadn’t been sterilised by one of our handy water purification tablets. The tablets are great. You fill up some water bottles in the evening, well away from any livestock, pop in a tablet, and by the morning you’re good to go. One day we saw something that confirmed that our caution was justified.

Just outside our apartment in the Uttar Pradesh town of Varanasi we came across one of the many young cows helping itself to a drink of fresh water from a tap that was flowing into an old plastic container. It was quite amusing because the cow knew that it shouldn’t be doing it and would only sneak its head around the corner when nobody was there to see. Once the container was full to the brim with water, and copious amounts of cow dribble, we were amused to watch a waitress carry it into the cafe and over to the tables she was serving, filling up the stainless steel drinking water jugs. She even had a drink herself so she obviously wasn’t too worried about the double whammy of waterborne microbes combined with whatever was lurking inside the cow. Indians are clearly made of much stronger stuff than us.

Despite our relative caution, and reluctance to ingest cow spit, we both still got sick anyway, more than once – I think it is almost inevitable, especially if you like street food as much as we do. If you only ate in tourist hotels you’d be missing out on not only a huge swathe of truly amazing food, but also getting to meet the most wonderful people and hear their stories. Local folk were always more than happy to offer us one of their upturned buckets so that we could sit with them and eat a paratha while they quizzed us about the financial aspects of life at home (money seemed to always be a hot topic).

My advice for anyone visiting this wonderful country would be to take some precautions, but not to the point where you don’t sample the amazing food on offer. Just try not to drink with the cows. Oh, and Immodium is your friend – don’t forget to bring some.