All of us take cues from our families on how to be or, in many instances, how not to be. When it came to food, I took from mine an open-minded appetite since much of mi familia was found wanting on that front. Anything new or foreign was viewed with wariness, at best, and derision, at worst. So I determined to try my damndest, like Seinfeld’s George Costanza, to do the opposite.
In my pre-teens, there was a moment when this contrast came into focus. It was the 1990s; a simpler time when the average Indian palate was tentatively opening up to global influences. The occasion was a relative’s wedding reception with one of those multi-cuisine buffet spreads—mostly Indian and Indianised Chinese.
Sometime during the proceedings, a dear uncle of mine (I might have to reconsider that “dear” after this revelation) marched to the buffet line and surveyed his options. A native of Kerala, he had lived in the state all his life and was authoritative, opinionated and possessed of a provincial mind-set, especially in matters of eating.
At a counter that said Chinese chilly chicken, he stopped. I watched as he served himself a portion and stuck a forkful into his mouth. His head began to shake slowly and his eyes grew wider. Just like a music video playing in reverse, the fork went back in and out came the sampling.
“What the hell is that?” he barked at the server standing behind the counter. The poor man smiled meekly and blurted, “It’s Chinese, sir.” “Well, no wonder it’s terrible,” my uncle shot back. With that sweeping generalisation, he had condemned this alien cuisine as unworthy of his respect.
Needless to say, my uncle never did travel to China or, if I am assuming right, even felt compelled to visit a country whose food had produced such a violent reaction in him in the first place.
I dredge this history up because at some point in their sojourns, foodies might confront a conundrum: would they travel to a place with a cuisine they don’t care for? A good friend is not the biggest admirer of Kashmiri food or typical Rajasthani fare. Dal baati churma? “Overrated,” she says. Ditto the legendary Kashmiri kahwa. But neither fact will dissuade her from going back to these places, in a heartbeat.
I recall another friend, who had a short-lived romance with a dreamy Scot and the dreamier landscape of his country, during whic, she had to fake enthusiasm for Scotland’s famously disagreeable national dish—the haggis (a savoury pudding made of meat, onions, spices and oatmeal and cooked in a sheep’s stomach). Bland Scottish food, however, dimmed in comparison to the beauty of ancient castles and her knight in shining armour.
It is significant where your first brush with a new cuisine occurs. In India, anything international is often diluted by fanciful contemporary trends or gauche local touches. And that early impression may leave some indisposed to a particular kind of food. Or worse, if you never try the real thing, you may forever live in blissful oblivion of what you are missing out.
A few years ago, an acquaintance at whose home I had enjoyed many an Italian meal, travelled to Naples. Upon her return, I found that her white sauce-drenched penne, slathered in cheese, had changed. Her sauce was now a blanched tomato reduction, with only a hint of herbs, and plain olive oil. Over lunch, she then declared what a novice she had been all along, saying, “Things are done so simply in Italy. Indian continental places are the worst.”
The proliferation of international cuisine restaurants has understandably fuelled a horde of poor parodies, which are not the greatest gateway into authenticity. A recent trip to Pattaya altered another pal’s view of the Tom Yum Soup that was served back home. “I haven’t ordered it at all since I returned from the trip,” she told me.
Some of you, who are quite content with the native Tom Yum, may judge people like her to be purists but that is a natural side-effect of travelling extensively. The traveller’s heart hankers after genuine experiences. Cuisines will disappoint and delight in equal measure. It’s wandering into the unknown that is the real thrill.
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.