I’ve always loved food. Much like the way a child talks about her favourite toy—eyes big as coat buttons, round face stretched into a smile, animated hands—is how I talk about food. Especially the food I’ve eaten on my travels. Besides adding to the survival skill set, I learnt to cook because I wanted to recreate the dishes I’d tasted when travelling. After my grandfather told me that Agra’s pethas had to be eaten, I made my father get off a train at Agra station to buy me a packet. I was 12. Since that day, the focal points of my trips are the street stalls and local markets. Food is important to me and my idea of travel.
However, that is just me; the kind of traveller who has a passionate liaison with food at every destination. When putting together a story about travel and food, I met and spoke to more kinds—the religious meat-eaters, the adventurous vegetarians who occasionally succumb to the lure of seafood, the indifferent ones who couldn’t care less about what was on offer as long as it appealed to their taste buds, the ones who looked for the familiar on every plate, and the ones who would go off designated routes if it meant that a plate of obscure local delicacies awaited them in the end.
From the cacophony of different travel tales told to me by family, friends and colleagues, the first one that pushes through is my conversation with my grandfather a couple of weeks ago.
“Do you remember when we found that Bengali restaurant in Haridwar? That was good. Barirkhabar (a homely meal)!”
We had that dinner in a restaurant eight years ago, but scenes from it still play in my mind like a film reel. I don’t remember the taste of the food but I recall the server who kept putting food on my aunt’s plate whenever my mother asked for a helping. (No, they are not twins and they don’t really look alike). I also remember my grandparents’ excited faces at having found home-like food, and I remember their satisfied, crinkly smiles as they led me out. Predictably, I grumbled about eating home food on vacation. Just like that, this incident became one of the stories we’d recount forever. It was the time when my grandparents found the comfort of home in a place far away from home.
Travel in the time of my grandparents wasn’t so much about local food. They would often long and scour for familiar tastes, often they lived with family and friends and meals were eaten at home, and sometimes—as I remember from a story I’d heard from a colleague—a large group would even take their own cooks along. And then there were always those tiffin boxes, packed with dry snacks.
My mother remembers that food was always taken from home when travelling by train or bus. She, however, didn’t do much of that herself. As a child, when travelling with my parents, I remember us packing food from our hotels, sometimes stopping at local dhabas. It was experimenting, but there was always a little taste of familiar comfort that lingered.
For many travellers, familiar food in a foreign land is like finding a piece of home. Sometimes a piece of home they miss. My mother’s beaming face after a meal in London’s Brick Lane is a memory I hold dear. She feasted on delicacies that her grandmother, who was originally from Bangladesh, used to cook for her. And it was across an ocean, in a different continent that Ma found her childhood again. In that moment, the long walk to find a recommended restaurant was worth it. Childhood memories and grandmothers are well-loved, yes, but I suspect nostalgia itself is sometimes enough to whet the appetite.
“They were playing the best kind of cheesy Bollywood music; the kind from the 1990s that we grew up listening to and it was some of the best Chettinad chicken I have ever tasted.”
My friend Shruti was recollecting her trip to Puerto Rico. After having lived away alone in the U.S. for seven months, to find a little café in San Juan, one with “Bombay” in its name, one that played “Tu cheez badi hai mast mast”, was a cause of celebration. Whether the chicken was actually that good, or if her gushing was influenced by Udit Narayan’s crooning, I don’t know. But the bottom line is, it was one meal that was about so much more than just the food. In this case, it was about nostalgia, yes, but it was also about Puerto Rico. It told her something about this little part of San Juan—the locals loved all things Indian ,especially the food.
Food can tell you novel things about a place. In Mumbai, the sighting of an Irani eatery is often a good pointer. An old Parsi colony must be nearby. Tangra in Kolkata tells you that Chinese settlers have lived in the city for years. The street stalls and market at Burma Bazar in Chennai paints a picture of Indo-Burmese history. And sometimes, you could end up finding many surprises like a little Korean restaurant in Varanasi’s Manikarnika Ghat, which serves, as Shruti squealed, “the most authentic Korean food ever,” and is popular with both, locals and tourists.
Some surprises, though, do not need a foreign influence. Even a simple meal can at times be an adventure.
“I ain’t having no hooves!”
I could almost visualise the food-loving Sampurna’s incredulous expression as her fiancé suggested she try the “trotter curry” in a Nepali restaurant in Kalimpong. Because of its proximity to the mountain nation, many parts of North Bengal have little eateries serving authentic Nepali food. It was in one such place that the famished couple sat down to devour a thali. Along with rice, Nepali kali dal, two kinds of local vegetables, they were also served pigs feet curry. Courtesy his English heritage and a love for obscure food, Sampurna’s fiancé was rather excited by the idea of biting into Nepali trotters, but my dear friend could only see a cloven hoof. A little bracing and some encouragement later, there were murmurs of approval. “The broth was the shizz! Well, the trotters are quite dense. You can’t chew them like you would chicken or mutton bones. But the meat on them was succulent and came right off the bone.”
During that one lunch, Sampurna learnt to love pig feet and discovered something new about Nepali cuisine. For another friend, discovery came dangling from low beams in a local hut on a snowy evening.
“Almost all the roads were closed because of the snow. The group decided to head to a local’s house for some local beer or chhang. The cosy hut had a fireplace, a cheerful lady huddled near it and some oddly shaped pieces of wood were hanging from the beams near the ceiling,” Malavi, my spirited classmate from school, told me her story of a trip to Pedong. The lady had then asked them if they wanted something to munch on, and chakhna—as many beer drinkers would say—is always welcome. The dry pieces of wood hanging from the ceiling were what the lady reached out to. She cut some up and fried it. Turned out it was cured yak meat.
Discoveries, however, are not always made on plates. I discovered I disliked the idea of familiar food on my travels while sitting in a Neelkamal chair in a Bengali restaurant in Haridwar. The thought was reinforced when in the sea-kissed Emirate of Ras Al Kahimah, I was offered butter chicken and rajma. I later compensated by taking a tour around the local market and buying dried lemon and spices (which now makes great Emirati mutton stew in my Mumbai kitchen).
The food on your plate is only part of the experience, yet it becomes a medium for exploration. To taste a new thing for the first time can be exhilarating. My colleague, Kareena, a vegetarian for as long as I have known her, discovered her love for chilli crab in Singapore. She even carries around a crab claw, the souvenir from a meal at a hawker centre where for the very first time she tasted the crustacean (and loved it). She drew a line, though, at crocodile meat in Cambodia.
Some explorations, however, do not end very well. And often the first foray into a new kind of cuisine can be like jumping into a dark hole—you don’t know where you will land.
“It was not chicken. It was not chicken like. It was… well, frog.”
Ishani, one of my best friends, is an adventurous eater. I couldn’t help but guffaw when I saw her pull a face and recall an experience from four years ago. She had, much to my vicarious delight, tasted frog legs at an upscale restaurant in Berlin. Armed with the expert knowledge provided by her friends and by the characters of Dexter’s Laboratory who insisted that it tastes “just like chicken,” an excited Ishani had ordered the French delicacy only to find that chicken was the last thing she could think of once she took a bite of her dinner. “I think it was partly also because I knew I was eating Mr. Frog. The thought still upsets me.” The amphibian was a rock she couldn’t jump over.
As daunting as food explorations can be, for some it is a sense of empowerment, of doing something that’s different from what you’ve known all your life. A mould that you break once you’re away from home.
“Growing up in a South Indian Brahmin family probably cancels out 90 per cent of the food you can have.”
I could hear the laugh in his voice as I read the email that chef, biker, and a friend from university, Siddharth had sent. His exploration of different kinds of food began with shawarmas in Oman when his family moved there. Every time he travelled, he looked for something new to stomach, and soon he realised that’s what he wanted to do all his life. An MBA, culinary training, and multiple travels later, he is still looking for his most adventurous plate of food. “I decided I need to travel the world in search of that one dish which will bring me to my knees. I went to almost all of Southeast Asia, to Turkey, China, Sri Lanka, Maldives, U.K., Jordan and Tokyo and tasted everything from insects to snakes, amphibians, crocodile, and simple meals, but I am yet to discover my dish. Maybe one day when I least expect it, I may find it right at home.” And maybe he will. After all, a part of travel is about coming back home. And what a story it will be if after travelling the world in search of your favourite food, your quest ends in your own backyard.
Every plate, every bowl, every little paper bag or kulhad of food consumed has a story of its own. Sometimes it’s in the ingredients, sometimes in your choice of food, sometimes in the place where you found it, and sometimes in the smells, sights, and sounds that accompanied the food. You can take the travel out of food, if you wish, but then it might be difficult to take the food out of travel. On your next travel, look a little more closely at that plate of food in front of you—there are many stories it has to tell.
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.