“How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” – Julia Child
There isn’t anything that tells you more about a nation’s cultural heritage and diversity than its food, if you ask me. And it is not just about food, but about eating itself! As I used to say, when Americans eat, it is just functional (to stuff and wash it down), when we Indians eat, it is celebratory (har din tyohaar) and when Europeans eat, it is just one more excuse to have more wine!
For a tambram who has to travel frequently, food has been both intimidating and an intriguing subject at the same time. It is also important for me to standardise a particular type of cuisine or menu in every place that I visit to make me comfortable without losing out on the knowledge on some of the delicacies there. Not that I would relish those, but at least it helps to know and have a discussion around that as food unlike politics, sports or even movies has a quicker acceptability across the cross section of any society and makes an easy topic to discuss.
Barring Korea, Spain and Brazil, I relish local food in most of the countries that I have visited and have also standardised a few recipe to my taste whenever I have to go there often. If you are particular about Indian food/taste and find it difficult to find an Indian joint, the next best thing would be to look for a Thai restaurant. Fried rice (especially egg fried rice if you are an eggitarian) with chilly sauce or red chilly pickle along with thai coconut water would do wonders. More daring ones can try their red and green curries as well. If not, then look for a Lebanese joint and try some pita bread and hummus with the light green chilly soaked in vinegar.
Mexican food is another thing that comes close to our taste with different kinds of salsas specially the fried chilly ones. Just normal bread dipped in the green chilly salsa which has crushed onions, coriander leaves and lemon is yummy if you are a pure vegetarian. I learnt to add vegetables and some sautéed spring onions to my kanji (rice porridge) from Vietnam. The easiest sauce or pickle to make is also what I picked up from Vietnam. Just squeeze a slice of lemon on to a mixture of salt and crushed black pepper and that makes any boiled stuff taste delicious when rolled over it. Or as done in Arad in Romania, crush a green chilly and add a few lemon drops and salt to taste. Spread it with the cheese on bread to go with a hot soup with sour cream. Yumm!
One of the most exotic dishes I tried was on the Nile river in Cairo when they caught a big fish from Nile, baked it after coating it with a paste of bread crumbs and salt that looked like white cement. After some time they came with white rock of a fish, a chisel and hammer and broke open the hard white casing of salt and bread crumbs along with the fish scales, to get flakes of baked fish. Just with a dash of lemon, those flakes were eaten. It was called “Satu Sare” fish. And the weirdest thing I put in my mouth was a squid in Seoul without realising it was half-alive! I thought it moved inside my mouth.
Sometimes it could be very depressing if one cannot get what one would like to eat so it is better to carry your own stuff if you fall in that category when travelling abroad and don’t like to explore or experiment with food. Even a few packets of Maggi would do good in such situations as I once felt so in Rhenen in Netherlands where I had to stay for a week and there was simply no other way than to eat what they offered. I was so depressed that I asked my Dutch colleagues a question – “Do you know what is the difference between a Dutch breakfast and lunch?” As they looked at me quizzically, I answered with a solemn face – “Just four hours!” and took a bite off the same frikkin sandwich with a different slice of cheese for lunch!