For my money, memorable disagreements often centre on food. A friend who was about to settle abroad was feeling particularly wistful about a storied south Bombay restaurant, the kind of eatery that locals like to call “overrated” and guidebook-toting tourists faithfully make a beeline for. His favourite on the menu? The baklava—a dry fruit-laden traditional sweet that smacked of decadence in every bite.
The first time he requested for the dessert at the restaurant, its eccentric owner was not impressed. Sizing up his credentials, he asked, “Have you had baklava before?” “Yes.” “Where?” “In Turkey.” Suspicions confirmed, the gentleman chided him. “Arre baba, that is the Turkish baklava. This is the Iranian one…” What followed was a 10-minute tutorial on the precise ways in which they differed, part-comical and part-endearing.
Forget the grand battles for identity being waged around the world, food drives everyday culture wars. They are infinitely more interesting and the only injury caused is to one’s pride—we could all use some schooling on that front. Besides, unlike spikier tiffs, these usually end in smiles and a knowing wink.
Last year I was perusing dinner options at Le Goutillon, an unpretentious French bistro in the heart of Chantilly. After four days in the country, most of my companions were satisfied with their fill of meat and wine, and chose conservatively. However, I and another compatriot were feeling emboldened (perhaps, it was the glass of red) and scanned the chalkboard menu for more adventurous fare. “Bring us the steak!” we declared.
When our substantial cuts of beef arrived, it was soon revealed that we had held our appetite in unwarranted esteem. At the end of that meal, Goutillon’s server—a stern, no-nonsense woman—took an eyebrow-cocked look at our barely empty dishes and shook her head in disapproval. A local hotel manager later reminded us of our misplaced bravado. “Oh yeah, I heard about the Indians who didn’t finish their steak!” he giggled. France 2; India 0.
In this time’s food special though, India’s showing is strong. Bombay Canteen’s Chef Thomas Zacharias, a flagbearer for all things desi, picks his top 10 must-haves from across the country. A devout traveller, he dishes on where you can seek out the finest haleem and unforgettable curries. We explore subcultures in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai through three different food walks.
Writer Reema Islam pens a heartfelt ode to dolmades, the Grecian staple that is intertwined with her own history of growing up in Libya and Bangladesh. Antoine Lewis gathers a list of kitchen maestros, from Alex Atala to a reclusive monk in South Korea, each of whom are worth a pilgrimage. Ardent gourmands might also want to consider Dubrovnik, which in writer David Farley’s words, is Europe’s emerging food capital.
As you can tell by the examples above, we were guided by pure gluttony this time.
Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Editor in Chief at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.