Table for two Metroplus

Connecting on and off the field

IN LOVE WITH INDIA Neil Hawgood at Oudh restaurant in New Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel Photo: R. V. Moorthy

IN LOVE WITH INDIA Neil Hawgood at Oudh restaurant in New Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel Photo: R. V. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: R_V_Moorthy

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As the Indian women’s hockey team gears up for the Olympics, coach Neil Hawgood tells us what he brings to the table

Neil Hawgood is certain his wife and daughter were Indians in past life, and are almost there this time as well. The chief coach of the Indian women’s hockey team may be an Australian but when it comes to food, he admits he is kind of an outcast in his own family.

“My wife loves India, she loves Indian food, she cooks Indian food a lot. When I go home, the first thing she makes for me is Indian dishes. She can have anything here, my daughter Amelia can pick up anything here and they just don’t seem to have any problem. Me, I was in hospital the first month I was here with a bad stomach and lost 10 kg,” he declares as we settle down for a lunch fit for the Nawabs.

We are at the Oudh restaurant at Hotel Ashok and, in keeping with the royal antecedents of its namesake, the place boasts of a style of cuisine that embellishes royalty and a passion for culinary excellence. It is all decidedly Indian and Hawgood is game for it, no holds barred.

The restaurant manager Mukesh Rana suggests we start with the Mulligatawny soup and it gets a thumbs up from Hawgood. “The soup is brilliant, I could travel this country just having different kinds of soup,” he declares before sharing his experiences. This is Hawgood’s second tenure with the team –– he served out his two year tenure in December 2014, took a break and worked with the Malaysian men’s hockey team for a while before rejoining here late in 2015.

“Trish (his wife) was really annoyed when I left because she hadn’t finished visiting everything in India! She was like, ‘you need to go back’, and she was the happiest when I rejoined the team. She is hoping I stay here till at least the winter so that she can look around the country,” he shrugged, sipping his soup as if to say, such is life.

The Oudh-e-khas, flavoured with cumin seed, mint and lemon juice, is there as a permanent accompaniment throughout the lunch and for a teetotaller like Hawgood, it is as good an Indian drink as they come. “The flavours you get in food here is like a story –– something kicks in first then something else and so on. Like people who have wine talk about how they get different tastes,” he tries to explain.

Hawgood is unlike most other foreign coaches that dot the Indian sporting spectrum. He loves reading the history of the country, he is aware of the caste system and the idea of untouchables even though he is completely against it –– “untouchables in Australia are the ones who have lots of money, they are so rich you can’t touch them”, he explains, still trying to come around to the dramatically contrasting meaning here –– and he is flexible enough to work around the peculiarities in the Indian system with a wry humour.

Like the idea of a strict vegetarian international hockey player despite being aware of the need for a nutrient rich diet. “Someone like Monika (in the Indian team), she is so close to actually being anaemic! She wouldn’t touch chicken or eggs or anything, so basically it is the same limited diet every single day. She has a good stamina and a natural threshold higher than many others but she is one of those athletes who will hit a plateau and won’t push past it despite having potential because of the diet. But I understand we can’t do anything about it other than look for about alternative sources to at least keep her at that threshold,” he says.

The starters arrive and Hawgood loves the minced mutton and spicy galawat kabab and the saffron flavoured cottage cheese rolls. “My tastes have actually changed, I really like Indian food now but I haven’t yet reached the spice levels in this country and I don’t think I ever will,” he says.

As the coach of a team that has players stretching from Manipur to Haryana and Jharkhand to Karnataka, Hawgood has travelled quite a bit and can reel off unending stories. He is a master story teller and he admits it helps make the girls both comfortable and open enough to talk to him. Like when he and his wife went to Amritsar with Kirandeep Kaur and then visited her house, spending “two amazing, beautiful hours” with people who knew no English and hadn’t seen a “white woman” in person.

Preferring to pick his food from the buffet –– “I like to look at what I am having before getting it on my plate” –– Hawgood settles for boneless mutton Oudhi qorma, naan and murg biryani and says all this on the plate at the same time would give his family a shock. “They already are in shock. I was one of those people who would have a piece of meat and nothing else. My plate is a system where I sit down go about finishing one thing at a time. But it is not like I am picky about what I eat. I explore restaurants, I don’t have a favourite cuisine –– I eat everything but I have to be happy with it,” he says. He doesn’t cook, though, leaving it to his wife or trainer Matthew Tredrea’s girlfriend Christie during camps.

Coming back to the team, Hawgood has been working on ways to make them more worldly wise on foreign exposure tours. “We were in Holland at a grocery shop and the girls were divided into groups of three, asked to pick a trolley and fill it with snack food for their rooms. When they came back, Matthew picked out all that was bad for diet and sent them back to pick up stuff again. Such exercises help them understand what to eat and what not.

“You live more than half your life overseas travelling, you need to be flexible. Take the Olympics. They prepare 18000 meals thrice a day with every possible cuisine represented. I try to tell them, go check out the Brazilian food, try the French, the Italian, the Asian stuff away from home. But it is difficult to break habits,” he explains.

From there to now, when the girls can actually keep up with most of the teams throughout a match, the Indian women’s hockey team has come a long way. And Hawgood admits it has been a two-way street, learning about the country and its people and cultures and falling in love with all of them.

“The Manipur girls are the best in experimenting with food. The girls from Orissa, how do I say it? They’ve got more fat on the bones and all that is turned into muscles. There are so many different ethnic influences within the society only in India. Karnataka is very different from Manipur, Orissa is completely different altogether. It is only the girls from Haryana who fit the typical Indian mould, you question how a country like this can be typecast into one frame,” he wonders. The one thing he has understood though is his family’s love for India.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 2:03:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Connecting-on-and-off-the-field/article14549241.ece

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