In his early 20s, my father found himself living in a splendidly restored chateau in the south of France. He didn’t mean to go there: he’d been on his way to quite a different place when the Indo-China war broke out and through a series of happy accidents, he ended up in France instead. Ever an optimist, he put his plans aside and played the hand that fate had dealt him.
And as far as that went, he was pretty much in luck. The countryside was beautiful, the Riviera was only a short distance away, and he was able to visit his best friend and assorted cousins in England every other week. India was still experiencing a severe cash crunch in the wake of the war and the restrictions on foreign exchange was something awful (amount my dad was allowed to take out of the country, no questions asked: $15. Fifteen dollars?!), but the UN gave him a stipend that he managed to eke out with the generous help of his best friend. It doesn’t sound like my idea of financial fun but he seems to have managed.
He loved the language, the country, its cities, the clothes, the people… the only thing he couldn’t handle was the food.
Dad hadn’t lived at home since he was eighteen, and to a south Indian boy of his time Aligarh, where he went to study for his Master’s, was just as much of a foreign country as France. But neither Aligarh nor Delhi had prepared him for the French and their idea of what constituted ‘food’.
On one of their first days at the chateau, Dad sat down to eat lunch with a North Indian gentleman who was staying there for the same reason he was: to acquaint themselves with French culture before they went on to their respective universities/jobs. Said person was apparently a vegetarian of the occasional-eggs-and-fish variety. He decided to go with the fish fillets being served that day.
“This doesn’t taste like fish,” my father, a fish aficionado, said doubtfully.
“It must be French fish,” said the other man, chewing happily. “It has a different taste than your Madrasi fish.”
Dad likes to know things and is the least hesitant man I know when it comes to buttonholing people. He promptly waved over one of the servers and quizzed her in his broken French. The policy at the chateau was that the more conversation you had, the sooner and better you learned the language, so every single person who worked there took every opportunity to teach the guests a little something. When asked what they had just finished eating, the lady smiled widely.
“Ah, la langue de boeuf,” she said. “That’s what you just ate. It is very good, yes?”
My father said, yes it was. And this was no lie – the food at the chateau, he says, would have done credit to any five star restaurant. “But what kind of fish is it?”
She looked puzzled. “Fish?”
Dad wondered if he’d gotten the word for fish wrong. “Er, fish?” he tried again.
She laughed and shook her head before launching into a flurry of explanations. Dad and his friend put their forks down and stared at her uncomprehendingly.
“La langue de boeuf,” she said again, slowly and distinctly. “La langue,” she touched her tongue, “de boeuf,” she made bull’s horns above her head.
Dad’s friend promptly ran for the bathroom.
Certain things, I would suppose, are just gross to eat. For example Anthony Bourdain, a man who I suppose has put more weird things in his mouth than anybody else in the world, says a warthog’s rectum tastes pretty much as it sounds: horrible! That’s something coming from a guy who once sucked a seal’s raw eyeball.
But as a somewhat unimaginative eater myself, I have to admit that a great deal of what I don’t eat depends on my perception of it. After the years he spent in Europe and Delhi, my dad has psyched himself to the point where he can’t eat red meat. He doesn’t mind it being cooked in the house (my mother very conveniently minds on his behalf. Heh.) but he won’t touch it himself. Similarly, my mother will eat fish (on certain days only) but no meat and is very particular about the kind of fish she will eat. She will cook all of it, but she won’t have the ones she classifies as ‘bottom feeders’.
Of course, this ‘bottom feeder’ thing stems from my grandmother who was extremely OCD about hygiene and, like other people who suffer from mental disorders, expressed it in strange and illogical ways. For example, she didn’t have any trouble eating shellfish, the epitome of bottom feeders, including shrimp, crab and mussels. But fish that lived on the river or ocean floor? Oh no. So my mother and her sisters do the same because, as one of my cousins wryly put it, “crabs shower on Tuesdays”.
But then how many of us are consistent about what we eat? Take for instance, those people termed egg-eating-vegetarians. Why is it okay to eat the fetus of an animal? (Brings to mind something George Carlin, R.I.P. said about the pro-life movement, “In humans it’s murder, in chickens it’s an omelet!”)
Imagination plays such a big part in all of this. Take for example this TamBrahm head of a large state owned company who sat next to my father as they traveled to Caracas, Venezuela, as part of a business delegation. When the airhostess asked them what they would like to eat for breakfast, Dad opted for an omelet while his co-passenger, philosophically adjusting to world travel, opted for two eggs sunny side up. When the eggs arrived, they were accompanied by small pots of a mysterious red sauce.
“Jam?” the two of them wondered.
“Oh no,” said the lady brightly. “It’s a Venezuelan delicacy the airline arranged especially in honor of the Indian delegation.”
Said delicacy? Chutney of large red ants that are only found in the Amazonian jungle. Dad and his new friend, united in horror, waved the thing away. But while Dad calmly finished eating his omelet, the man next to him couldn’t swallow a bite. He kept imagining what must be going on in the little kitchenette.
“What if they use the same pan to make both?” he wondered, looking at his perfect eggs with revulsion.
Dad – who’d been offered a drink infused with scorpions in South Africa, gargantuan lizards in China, walked past butcher shops in Paris where they displayed horse heads in the window, unknowingly munched on crispy pig skin in Puerto Rico, watched chefs nonchalantly behead and skin live snakes in Hong Kong, ignored deep fried spiders in Bangkok, politely refused camel in Tunisia, and (most horrifyingly of all) eaten bits of mashed banana cunningly hidden in kheer by my devious mother (more than thirty five years ago, one week after their marriage, before she knew he didn’t eat fruits but he’s still keeping score) – calmly ate his omelet.
And that’s the trick isn’t it? Don’t ask, don’t imagine. If somebody had introduced calamari to me as “deep fried bits of squid”, I doubt I would have touched it. You know what they say about sausage – nothing will put you off the stuff faster than finding out how it’s made? I think that’s applicable to pretty much everything. Ever seen shellfish get cleaned? My mother thinks I’m being a huge drama queen and tells me I have no right to eat things that I refuse to learn to clean and cook, and I mostly agree with her but wow, it’s a hard line to toe.
The only time I get ticked off about any of this though, is when people go places and come back whining that there was nothing to eat. If you have dietary restrictions, especially cultural restrictions, then it’s not the fault of your host country that you were unable to eat most of the things they do. If you’re going to travel, then it’s a good idea to accept that each culture has adapted to its environment and eats accordingly. Carry your own food or eat what you can find with good grace.