From the fiery coconut-based curries of Kerala in India’s south, to the yak-cheese dishes up north in Sikkim, James O’Sullivan might just have erased his childhood regret.

MY first exposure to Indian food was as a nine-year-old at my friend Ravi’s house, as his mother prepared extravagant dishes from the subcontinent with ease and flair. Sweating and close to tears, my naïve Australian palate wilted under the heat of the fiery delights, and it wasn’t long before a plain omelette with white toast magically appeared on my plate.

THIS, I’m afraid, is chief of my childhood regrets. Some people lament a first love, a faded football career or the loss of freedom, but for me it was those years denying Ravi’s mum’s kitchen that pinch the hardest. Thus, upon arriving here in India two and a half months ago, I have been furiously making up for lost time by indulging in the cavalcade of culinary delights on offer.

NOW, if I wasn’t already a vegetarian it would most certainly have been upon my arrival here that would have witnessed my conversion. This country is a vegetarian’s paradise, with an endless number of pure vegetarian restaurants far outweighing the service of meaty fare.

MENUS boasting over 400 different veggie items are commonplace, each with a unique and mouth-watering combination of ingredients at extremely modest prices. I have also happily cast aside those unnecessary eating utensils and now use my hand as a shovel, efficiently emptying plates of piping hot curry and rice.

ALL restaurants here contain a wash basin where people clean their hands both before and after a meal. As I stood there washing away the grit of the streets on one memorable occasion, I looked up to observe the house rules of the restaurant: “Do not comb. Do not spit. Do not sit for a long time. Kindly do not argue with the waiter – all complaints and regrets will be entertained at the counter.”

WITH that in mind, I sheepishly found myself a free table, flicked through the menu and searched for a waiter to politely order. I decided to ask for some bottled water to accompany my meal, as the delicate stomach of a westerner is unused to the various bacteria indigenous to Indian tap water.

SURPRISINGLY, the waiter that evening could not have been more than five or six years old, with his presence causing more than a few jaws to drop. Amazingly, though, he worked with the speed of five men, taking orders, cleaning tables and throwing leftover food scraps onto the street – even serving beer with stunning efficiency!

AMONG the many cultural differences between Finland and India is the attitude towards drinking. With religions here forbidding the consumption of alcohol, many restaurants choose to serve their beer in a covert tea pot, or wrapped in a serviette so as not to offend the tea totalling public.

TEA is the drink of choice for Indians and its milky, sweet brew is sold everywhere from trains to footpaths – even at the top of the isolated mountain you’ve been climbing for the past few hours. After enjoying a cup after my meal, I paid my bill and stood up to leave, noticing some useful information pasted on the door to my right: “Fire Exit – Don’t worry it rarely happens.”

NEVER say never, I suppose.

James O’Sullivan