The Culture of Water

A post on water. Why is that?  No; this is not about the benefits of water. They have been proven beyond doubt. And not because i have run out of recipes to share; I do have interesting half written drafts waiting to see the light of the day. But because in a recent AHA! moment i remembered a few experiences which all connected to how water is perceived in different cultures.

I grew up in a middle class family in India. So apart from milk the only drink ever offered was water. Thirst was meant to be quenched with water. Period. I did grow up in a generation where boxed juices and sodas existed but they were a treat to be had only on special occasions. Growing up in India meant being exposed to spicy food from an early age. I would chug down glasses of water to cool down the heat. That's the only way we learn to adapt and enjoy our spicy food. My earliest recollection is mom cautiously telling at us not to drink too much water during meals so that our bellies would have more food than water in them.

Culturally too when guests visit, they are first offered a glass of water before any snacks and tea are served. It would be a big taboo if this step is skipped. Its understandably a custom in a hot country like India. In every restaurant too, glasses of cool water are served even before taking orders. I grew up on this water culture without a second thought. But my trip to Malaysia was a wake up call.

My very first restaurant meal, left me bewildered and enlightened. The local servers there usually ask " Makan Minum" which in short is what would you like to eat and drink. Makan=food; minum=drink. Even though i didn't know the local Malay dialect, i  managed to order my food by showing them the pictures on the menu card. I noticed they didn't serve me any water. My biggest challenge was there was no picture of it.  I tried to show what i thought was a universal gesture for drink- pointing my thumb near my mouth as i curled rest of my fingers into a fist. The poor server understood i needed a drink but which one? Few trip back and forth to the kitchen had him offering me juice, sodas, ices tea/ coffee, even Milo. Finally another gentlemen at a neighboring table helped me out and told him to get water. With an exasperated look on his face, he did get me a glass of water. It was not until many experiences later that i truly understood his expressions. It dawned on me the people in Malaysia usually want some drink with their meal. They rarely order water. A bigger surprise came with the check. He had charged me 20 cents for the water. Water has always been served free to me. This wasn't bottled water just free tap water but it did come with a price tag.

Few years down the line, we moved to North America and welcomed our first child. And just like the way i was raised, i introduced her to water as a thirst quencher. I always read and heard advises from fellow moms and pediatricians about the ill effects of children drinking too much fruit juice and i always wondered what was the big deal about it. My daughter drank fruit juice once a while when we are traveling or like an occasional snack. I didn't understand the full implications until at the age of 3, my daughter was invited to a birthday party. At a point she got thirsty and asked for a drink. The hostess very graciously offered her variety of packaged juice to choose from. My daughter denied. She again offered her sodas. My daughter denied again. The hostess couldn't understand what else to offer her. Lastly my 3 yr old said "I just want water" Shocked the hostess scampered off to find some bottled water. A grandmother watching the whole drama congratulated me for inculcating a good habit of introducing water has a thirst quencher. I was puzzled and shocked. Finally the hype over water dawned on me. Children raised in North America are usually offered fruit juice or milk as a drink with their meals. So the thought of drinking water has a thirst quencher doesn't organically grow on them.

It may also come as a big surprise that US-Canada are probably the only countries where the most cleanest drinking water flows directly through the kitchen faucets and yet they have a obsession for bottled water. I accept that I too own a water filter as my Indian roots cannot fathom drinking out of a faucet. And also living in a condo doesn't guarantee the water tanks are maintained properly. Bottle water is only reserved for trips.

Plenty of health experts through different media sources keep harping about the benefits of drinking water and yet most people don't enjoy it. They encourage them to flavor their waters with fruits or lime/lemon slices just to get them to drink some water. I guess free things in life are never truly appreciated.

I may not understand their aversion to water but to me the taste of pure drinking water is ethereal and the only thirst quencher i will ever need.


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