Growing up in a newly liberalized India, I consumed a steady diet of Hollywood movies and TV shows. I knew that summer camp was a big part of American life, so while I had never tasted a marshmallow, I knew that the best way to eat one was to toast it over a campfire first. Summer camp in India, though, didn’t have marshmallows.
When I went to camp as a teenager in the fiercely beautiful Himalayas, I found that India had its own delicious camping food rituals.
Chai: Not your Starbucks “Chai Latte.” This was giant pots of strong, milky tea that were brewed fresh each morning and evening on make-shift gas burners. We drank multiple tin mugfuls, dipping crisp cookies and warming our hands.
A breakfast mashup: Each morning, over plates of toast, spicy scrambled eggs, baked beans, peanut butter, local jam, honey, and bananas, we exchanged gossip and notes on purpling bruises and bug bites. The “toast” was always charred but limp—perfect for folding and dunking in your chai. Chai was the dunking liquid of choice.
Spicy, curried lunches and dinners: Food at base camp was cooked in giant “kitchen” tents over the same gas burners where chai was made in the morning. Stewed vegetables, lentils, and sometimes chicken, with piles of freshly made flatbreads and heaps of rice. These meals were satisfying and soul-warming in a way that meals can only be after hours of hiking or rafting.
River-chilled watermelons: There were no fridges at camp, but at that altitude, there was a freezing cold river. Each day, we spent quite a lot of time in this water: falling overboard by design or accident, body surfing the lighter rapids, sticking a giant watermelon in a jute bag and tethering it to a rock in a calm part of the river to chill for a few hours. Genius.
Squash: Not the vegetable—this was a drink similar to a cordial made from fruit concentrates and water. The flavors rotated at camp, but the most common ones were orange, mango and pineapple. Large dispensers of it would wait for us at base camp as we returned from our morning hikes. We drank our weight in it each day.
Condensed milk: Mixed into crushed wafer cookies with instant coffee. Exactly as cloyingly sweet as it sounds and about ten times more delicious.
Fast forward several years and a handful of camping trips in America, I can confirm that marshmallows are best eaten toasted over a campfire. But I would happily trade all the s’mores in the world for a cup of that campsite chai.