“Never eat anything bigger than your head.” — B Kliban
I am not a foodie.
Nevertheless, I remember an interview with chef Grant Achatz on NPR’s Fresh Air I heard three years ago. He had had cancer (agonisingly for a chef, it was cancer of the tongue) though had thankfully recovered.
He described how dining at his restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago (awarded three Michelin stars and frequently voted “the best restaurant” in the US and even the world) takes several hours, thanks to the 23 courses. Achatz spoke of how certain smells enhance the taste of food, so he created a pillow that slowly releases the scent of lavender through pinholes, as the diner eats from the plate on top of it.
Eating such an elaborately orchestrated meal sounds like the height of luxury. Sadly, my severe allergies prevent me from ever going blind into a dining adventure. I do know, though, that if I have only an hour to live, it will be spent eating all the foods restricted for fear of an anaphylactic shock. I shall die with my face in a platter of steamed lobster, devilled crab and puffer fish.
I am not a foodie, but I can see how food has shifted for the middle classes from basic sustenance to a massive industry that permeates other industries on all levels.
Foodie films deserve their own category of sublime entertainment. Seeing dishes on screen ought to be flat and unexciting, but it remains a recurring, popular theme. From Big Night to Babette’s Feast to Eat Drink Man Woman, the ritual we all share of eating is scrutinised, elevated and celebrated.
I enjoy reading about food, especially by US Vogue magazine food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, who penned a book titled – appropriately for his extravagant appreciation of all things culinary – The Man Who Ate Everything.
No travel book is complete without a detailed offering of local cuisine. Food informs us of culture. The wide appeal of A Year in Provence or Extra Virgin lay in their lengthy descriptions of the preparation of humble ingredients, the regional conventions of dining, and the culinary-based festivities in Provence, France and Liguria, Italy respectively. To understand a culture, we must understand its food.
When we move away from our home countries, a lot of our habits may get adapted, but we continue to choose a menu familiar to our palate. We keep our ties and identity intact because we are what we eat. (Typical of my personal rootlessness, I follow a “when in Rome” approach to food – eating what’s local to wherever I am, rarely pining for what I can’t have.)
When we’re feeling expansive, we try a slice of another country’s cuisine. The availability of this reveals a society’s attitude towards immigration and integration (I’m guessing there aren’t any Peruvian restaurants in North Korea).
London, in this regard, has come a long way. When my parents lived there in the 1960s, the food was as stodgy, bland and buttoned up as the image of its people. Now it flies its cosmopolitan flag with pride. I heard on the BBC of two friends in London who decided to eat the cuisine from all parts of the world. They found that every country recognised by the United Nations was represented by an eatery in the city, barring one former Soviet state. (When they called up the Embassy to ask about a restaurant, they were invited to dine with the Ambassador at his residence, so they were still able to complete their list.)
When I was a teenager in Dhaka, our only option for a treat out was Chinese restaurants. They were inevitably darkly lit with red lanterns, the chinaware decorated in patterns of mauve and green, and the dishes we ordered always started with chicken corn soup and fried chicken wings.
Now I’m dazzled by the options around me: Japanese, Mexican, Korean, Thai, French, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Greek, Italian, south Indian, north Indian and many more. They are for the most part satisfactory.
I am dismayed, though, to see the proliferation in Dhaka of multinational fast food chains. Replacing freshly prepared, home-cooked meals (the labour intensiveness of which usually relies on domestic help), with speedy, processed, preservative-filled “food” outside is indicative of where our society is in this moment of rapid growth and change. I’m the last person to criticise social mobility, but I wish fast food wasn’t equated with modernity.
I’m not a foodie, but I notice the gender divide is narrowing. Men, in all levels of society, now participate in cooking far more than they used to, though women still prepare the bulk of family meals. It’s a badge of honour for the new man to boast about how he enjoys being in the kitchen. (However: when the woman cooks, everyone eats. When a man cooks, everyone gushes about how extraordinary the food is while they eat.)
When I was a student in Italy more than 20 years ago, a visiting American male friend of my flatmate saw us having Nutella (available only in Europe at that time) and remarked how it had been recommended to him. My flatmate and I immediately stopped, spoons mid-air, and grilled him:
Did a man or a woman recommend it? (It was a man.)
How did he tell you? Women, after all, often talk of food euphorically (“it’s divine!”) but how do men talk about food? Did he say, “Dude, gotta try Nutella”? Did he describe it? How, how? What adjectives did he use?
We never got our answer, but 20 years on, I witness how men now talk of food just as rapturously as women do. There is no embarrassment any more in describing it with lusty overtones or celestial references. If anything, their – our – language for it has even become, tediously, pretentious.
I am not a foodie by way of hobby or organised indulgence. Like those people I see at farmers’ markets gasping in ecstasy as they inhale the aroma of artichokes. Or in a bistro savouring each mouthful, gleefully identifying each spice and herb like a detective on a mission.
We are still in the era of “food porn”. Kitchen shelves are lined with recipe books by Delia, Nigella, Nigel, Jamie, Hugh et al. Hours are spent watching cooking shows on television. Yet, we are spending less time cooking than ever before. We like the idea of it, we watch other people do it, but don’t actually partake in it much ourselves.
I neither watch TV (I am perhaps the only person left who has never seen Masterchef) nor own cookbooks (though I have used Jamie Oliver’s recipes from the internet, and they are reliably simple and delightful).
Nor am I in any shape or form comfortable with cooking. For many people I know (and admire enormously), cooking is creative, relaxing, and meaningful, by providing nourishment to loved ones. I hold nothing more dearly than eating food made with love in someone’s home.
I am, alas, highly stressed in the kitchen myself. I cook only by following recipes, measuring out and lining up all the ingredients well in advance. The idea of “throwing something together” makes me break out in hives.
My anxiety rises even more when I am responsible for other people’s culinary pleasure, including choosing restaurants. When I lived in London, I would stress over having dinner parties for weeks beforehand. When I lived in Bombay, I discovered the joys of a corporate salary and hired caterers for my parties instead.
But I do like to eat. I eat with gusto. I relish the spreading warmth in my belly as it fills up. I will never be one of those people who “forget” to eat.
For my own amusement, I keep a mental list of favourite foods. Depending on what I’ve eaten recently, items get promoted or demoted with passion or fury.
For the longest time, my top three always included beef bone marrow, cooked not the French way in the oven and eaten with bread, but the Bangladeshi way cooked stovetop with the rest of the meat in a large pot, with enough cloves, cinnamon and cardamom to make the flavours pop. Marrow is best eaten piping hot and sucked straight out of the bone (a cousin onomatopoeically dubbed it “shooroot” decades ago, and shooroot it has remained).
Now a vegetarian, those marrow-sucking days are behind me. The reason it had earned a place in my former top three was because it was a rare treat. Rare not just because purchasing a big fat bone was no guarantee that the marrow was still in it, but also because it could leak out in the cooking stage. Its very precariousness raised its value.
Items on my current list also have elements of uncertainty, though for different reasons. My top three are:
This is the Bangladeshi name for the root vegetable that is called “arum” in English. The variety I’m referring to is white and called shola kochu.
When I was declared too anaemic for surgery some years ago, I was instructed to eat kochu and lots of it. Up until then, vegetables to me meant potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and spinach. I never had the local veggies my mother ate daily. For the sake of my poor blood, I finally gave in.
It. Was. A. Revelation. People eye me with disbelief when I say kochu is one of my favourite foods ever, thinking I’m making some obscure joke. But it’s absolutely delish. It also led the way to my present preference of eating all local vegetables. (To maximise the absorption and benefits of eating iron-rich food, it should be accompanied by vitamin C, so a squeeze of lemon or some sliced tomatoes help.)
The starch in kochu provides a similar comfort factor in taste and sweetness to potatoes, but its flavour is more nuanced and reaches a broader spectrum, satiating and delighting in equal measure.
The vegetable comes in two parts – the fleshy part (tubular) that grows below ground, and the leafy part above ground; each roughly the length of your forearm. Both parts are edible and cooked in the same manner, but never together, as the leaves wilt and release water, ruining the really exciting bit: the fleshy veggie.
Here’s how our cook makes kochu bhaji:
- Finely chop one medium kochu; wash, drain, dry, set aside.
- Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a wok, then add 2-3 medium onions, 3-4 garlic cloves and 8-10 green chillies, all finely chopped.
- Add the kochu, plus ½ teaspoon of cumin seeds, ¼ teaspoon turmeric, and salt.
- Cooking time takes less than half an hour, a moderate amount of stirring, sometimes with the lid on.
- The end result is soft but not mushy, and has a bit of bite. The secret to its delectable texture is in the kochu being finely chopped.
I know the cooked version looks like green dog food, but (a) I’m not a food stylist, and (b) it really does rather resemble green dog food. It’s still delish.
Kochu’s precariousness lies, as with all fresh produce, in its availability. It tastes best in the rainy season.
(2) Chilli oil.
My brother-in-law taught me this 10 years ago: take a handful of dried red chillies, dry fry them in a pan until they start to smoke. Turn off the flame. Grind them with a pestle and mortar. Put the bits, including seeds, in a small clean glass jar with lid. Fill to the top with a mild oil (such as grapeseed). Kept closed and refrigerated, it should last at least a month, though in my case it’s finished long before then.
Even a few drops from the first two weeks can be outrageously potent in its heat, but it mellows with time. For this reason, it’s sensible to have several on the go, in varying stages of mellowness, so there’s always one ready to be had. It’s not the heat I adore, but its flavour.
Chilli oil is not a food in itself, of course, though there isn’t a dish that can’t be enhanced by it. I have yet to visit Bhutan, but I understand its national dish, Ema Datsi, is made of cheese and multiple types of chillies, which sounds like heaven to me. I bet even that would benefit by a little dash of chilli oil.
The precariousness of chilli oil comes from getting it right at every stage of its preparation: selecting the chillies (Thai or Indian red chillies work fine, though scrumptious flavours can be had by mixing different kinds), the right oil (too strong can overpower the chilli), and the ratio of chilli to oil.
Imagine my elation when in Bombay I discovered the perfect chilli oil readymade and available for sale at a restaurant, Royal China. I got a tummy ache the first time I had it, eating too much in my enamoured state.
When a friend visited from Delhi, we selected what food to eat based on what would work best with the oil as accompaniment – hence a weekend was spent eating momos (Nepali steamed dumplings), soup and pizza (though it also works great with pasta, noodles and just about any snack worth having).
(1) Fuchka. Specifically: Bangladeshi fuchka.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, this snack is a bit epic to describe, because there is no equivalent of it outside of South Asia that I’ve found. It’s best understood by separating its three main components.
The first is the cooked portion. A local variant of chickpeas called kabli-motor is cooked with cumin, tamarind and black salt, then kept on low heat all day. This is mixed with grated boiled potatoes and garnished with onions, chopped coriander and fresh green chillies. It has the consistency of mushy peas or refried beans, though with its own unique taste that’s pungent and salty.
The second component is made up of eight fried dough shells, hollow and crispy, vaguely resembling UFOs but rounder; one will fit cosily in your palm. The shells provide the crunch factor.
The third component is the juice. A mixture of tamarind paste, chilli flakes, cumin, black salt, and lime juice is mixed with water. It’s sour, salty, sweet and hot.
Putting it together
The shells are cracked open a little on top, and a spoonful of the chickpea/potato spice mix is stuffed into each one.
These eight stuffed shells are then put on a melamine plate around an ancient plastic pot containing the tamarind juice. (The juice is not added earlier, to prevent the crispy shells turning soggy.) This is now handed over to you.
You add a spoonful of the tamarind juice to each of the shells before popping them in your mouth. Oh, the explosion of flavours!
Here’s the deal
It’s a roadside snack and, to do it justice, it really needs to be eaten at a roadside cart, not the sanitised version in a mall. The melamine plate and ancient plastic pot are part of the experience. I have tried fuchka all over India (also called pani-puri or golgapa) and even (shudder) London and Boston. The inadequacy of their versions made me weep.
My mother, who is germ phobic and washes everything we eat at home three times with scalding water, faints at the mere mention of my eating fuchka on the roadside. She never fails to point out that the rag hanging over the chap’s shoulder is used to wipe his hands, clean the plate and… probably everything else. (I prefer not to watch while the food is being prepared, but braved it for the sake of taking these photos. You’re welcome.)
Fuchka’s precariousness comes from the fact that diarrhoea and, okay, jaundice and possibly hepatitis too, are potential hazards, and so eating it is an indulgence best enjoyed occasionally. (The cooked mash and shells are generally safe to eat; any chance of illness comes from the water used for the tamarind juice. For the paranoid, the first two parts may be purchased from a cart, and then eaten with homemade tamarind water; but don’t complain when it doesn’t taste as glorious – the magic is in their mix.)
Because the anticipation is built up to a ferocious frenzy with mouths literally watering, if the symphony of flavours isn’t well balanced, then it can lead to disappointment. A real fuchka fan, therefore, will have his/her favourite fuchka-wala.
When my old favoured fuchka-wala retired, I went into mourning, sighing heavily every time I passed the spot where his cart used to stand. When I moved to Dhaka last year, a cousin took me to her favourite, and this discovery has helped me feel at home.
I may not be a foodie, but I do know what brings me comfort and joy.
“Spaghetti can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.” — Sophia Loren
The 3 November 2014 issue of the New Yorker magazine looks at our increasing obsessions and anxieties with food. My favourite piece, Against the Grain by Michael Specter, examines our current concern over gluten.
Like Paris? Like romance? Like food? Here’s a real-life love story of an American woman and the French man who seduced her meal by meal. And it includes the recipes. Read the fun and charming Lunch in Paris: A Delicious Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard.
Bombay has a famed intricate dabbawala system that collects hot lunchboxes from workers’ residences and delivers them to the office. Watch The Lunchbox to see what happens when one box goes astray. Directed by Ritesh Batra and starring Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, this is a warm and satisfying film.