I proudly looked at my handiwork of cutting the avocado into two perfect halves and lifting the seed out with the whack of the knife. No big deal for most but for a woman to whom avocado was a stranger for the first thirty years of her life it my friend, is an accomplishment par excellence. Drum roll!!
Leaving home adapting to new places, people, culture, traditions and FOOD has been a constant in our lives. Growing up in a small town in India we thought we were adventurous with food as we ate culinary delights from all over our vast country where the simple potato, beans, peas, carrots are cooked differently in every corner of the country. The north makes drinks with carrots, mix it with peas, beans, potatoes for curry or even dessert in the form of carrot pudding. A part of south uses it in lentils while another part uses it with coconut milk to make stew. The people in east believe in eating fish with everything, carrot, peas, meat, rice or dessert while the west spices up everything with a tinge of sweet. In the 1970s and 1980s many Indian restaurants proudly offered ‘continental food’ in their menu and if you dig deeper there is nothing called continental food really. Precisely, there is nothing continental in food. It may constitute a variety of food served under one roof, pasta, noodles, fried chicken or even a sandwich which by the way was a big deal when we were kids. Of course we also ate Chinese- the Indian Chinese which would make a Chinese dive off a cliff in indignation and shock.
The first time we lived overseas was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I thought we were mighty adventurous to try the Queen of Fruits Durian. Durian looks like jackfruit but it wins hands down to be the stinkiest thing ever to be eaten, grown, seen or avoided. Kuala Lumpur introduced us to roti canai (a kind of Indian bread served with gravy), nasi goreng (fried rice popular in South East Asia), Mi Goreng (fried noodles), Ice kachang (shaved ice with beans and anything under the sun). Every thing was a discovery! I would read about a certain dish expecting it to be sweet and it would turn out to be a savory. At work I was surprised to find people gorging on boiled eggs, fried eggs, chicken and rice garnished with shallots and dried fish for breakfast. That was their go to food, comfort food comparable to the baked potato in the United States. In Zambia we were introduced to the meali meal basically maize flour and the locals used it for a variety to cuisine. When I expressed my wish to cook chicken and also teach it to our Zambian help he nodded wisely and said of course maaadaaam! Hearing a cacophony in the kitchen I rushed down to see two huge, really gigantic, well fed chicken fluttering in his hands while he delightedly looked on to me showing off his prize products ready for cooking! I didn’t have the heart to cook those two thereafter and they made a happy cosy home in our backyard often chasing the help’s kids or getting chased by them. I felt both the kids and the chickens were having a good time and that is the only time I came close to seeing chicken smiling.
In Japan our home was near a blowfish restaurant and I would hear about the expertise needed to cook that deadly fish, as in if gourmet food could kill this one was it! We became adept at using chopsticks and eating sushi and sashimi while introducing our Japanese friends to tandoori chicken, paneer tikka from North India and dosa, idli, uttapam from the South. Surprisingly, they loved my tea and I fell in love with theirs though I am told that both are acquired tastes. In Australia, the son’s class had an international cuisine day and with lot of expat children in the class we saw cuisine from everywhere, Sudan to Singapore. A local family proudly presented vegemite and toast as they felt that was true Aussie cuisine. The Indians had turned up with the whole nine yards and I got the impression that most were overwhelmed by the variety presented between the mere four Indian families. We do love our food and we are not shy about it, are we now?
Fresh off the boat America hit us, shocked, amused and overwhelmed us with its gigantic serving sizes in food and drinks. Small, medium, large are known all over the world but grande, venti and trenta? Hello, who wants to dive into a coffee and drown? I believe trenta is a whole thirty fluid ounce and people do drink it! Then there is this Italian restaurant near our home which gives one free pasta/ spaghetti or whatever you order to take home for every pasta you eat in. Buy one and get one free taken to another level surely and the soft drinks just keep flowing. There is no end to refills until explicitly requested to stop and I feel the poor wine does get a step motherly treatment, no refills unless explicitly requested.
I baked sweet potatoes today and smiled to myself reminiscing of the time we ate baked/boiled potatoes in India. They were cut into pieces, liberally mixed with chopped raw red onions, green chillies, cilantro, lemon juice, red chilli powder, crushed black pepper mixed with garbanzo beans and with a nice little whack of the hand mixed well in a little pouch made with leaves. The Aussies baked their potatoes by throwing spices, mixing flavors, splashing herbs to present quite an exotic yet simple dish of baked potato while the Japanese took it to another extreme with wasabi, miso, scallions and thousand other ingredients all of course very finely chopped, intricately decorated, delicately presented so much so that I hated to spoil the effect by digging into it. Then we came to America and discovered the version here- the baked potato was wrapped in a aluminum foil and was just that- a potato wrapped in foil and baked! A small container of sour cream sat neglected in the corner of the plate and trust me, the family and I burst out laughing. There is so much fun and joy to be found in our differences.
Why all this talk about food when the world is on a perpetual diet? Just to remind us that food is not just something to get rid of hunger. The scope of food is beyond that. It binds people just as it unites them. It is a discovery- of people, culture, regions, countries, geography, history, chemistry and even physics. The Italian cuisine in Italy tastes vastly different from the one cooked elsewhere and it is not just the tomatoes. Closer home the Italian cuisine in California is grossly different from the one in New York as is the Indian, Japanese or any other cuisine. The reactions of food- the chemistry, the ways and means of cooking – the physics are all intriguing. If my mum were alive today she would be tickled pink to find me switching on my gas stove without a gas lighter or a matchbox but with a simple turn of the knob that worked as ignition.
Food- Yes, there is a lot to it, far more than it will ever get credit for. What have your experiences with different cuisine been? Do you feel that it forms a connection? Does it make you stare at your plate in awe or gasp with wonder or at times proceed with caution or maybe eat at own risk…..