My experiments with food
My husband and I have always enjoyed eating - especially eating out. We always prided ourselves about how we always found good, tasty and inexpensive food everywhere. Our friends consulted us and tried out restaurants. It was some sort of an epicurean circle of friends - where people tried out eating joints and told others about it. So, we were more than confident so to say when we were travelling abroad (First time for me).
During my entire flight journey my husband went on and on about how food is outside India and how one has to make a lot of compromises. He spoke about Pizzas and Burgers - something that was available only in select places four years ago and I had not tasted them and worse still I didn't even know how they looked like. With little anxiety coupled with confidence, I set my foot in the foreign soil of Stoke-on-Trent, a small town in England. What followed then was a series of events, which taught me more than a lesson or two. Nature has endowed us with such habits that we tend to appreciate certain things only when things get worse. Food for me before I travelled was something I ate, but after my travelling, I relish them. Food, I now believe is an important aspect for any tourist. The very many things I learnt over my travels have indeed proved fruitful. Just like how I check on accommodation, weather, sightseeing etc., I also check on food and restaurants. It is only when I travelled that I thanked the little mercies that the chain restaurants have endowed on us - especially for people like us -vegetarians.
Back in Stoke, we checked into a good hotel - Moat house and as I entered the room, I realised that I had not seen anything like that before. I was happy. I then, saw that an entire tea set was placed on the table with enough coffee, tea, sugar and milk (in small pouches). There was also an electric kettle. I first wondered if it can be used or was it for display. What I did not understand was from where I had to take the water to boil. While I wondered, Mr.Know-it-all, I mean, my husband filled the kettle with water from the washbasin tap and fixed the coffee for me. I was scandalized. Back home, I would have thrown tantrums, but, it was a foreign land and I had little knowledge and a hot coffee was really welcome in the cold winter of 1998! My ordeal started then and it goes on even now with my never-ending horror stories of eating.
That afternoon, we had lunch in the swanky restaurant of Moat house. An elderly lady showed us to a corner table. Once A-la-carte or menu card was in my hand, my heady experiences began. All along, I had heard many 'food stories' from hubby dear but I had taken them all with a pinch of salt. Sitting in the restaurant then, my only thoughts were - 'was it all true?' I ran through that huge list of fancy food names and as vegetarians I felt I could eat only desserts!! The elderly lady assured us that she would get us tomato soup and mixed vegetables in a papad! As my hunger and curiosity grew to great heights, for the first time I knew how important food is for any traveller.
We waited patiently for our food and it soon came to an end when the lady walked in with two large bowls of soup. The soup looked red with some decorative leaf. As I tasted the soup, I knew in an instant that my food ordeal had started. The soup was thick and it tasted more like tomato pulp. I took a few gulps full and decided not to take any more chances. Our food followed which was a large fried papad that had some cooked vegetables on top with some rice. I ate some with great difficulty. After such an experience, I chose to eat some chocolate fudge for dinner.
My food experiences did not stop there. From then, I developed the habit of eating burgers and pizzas. Although I didn't relish them, they were welcome when compared to my first day's experience. Also, I found many Indian restaurants that offered decent Indian food - read North Indian food. The Chana masalas and bhindi bhajis were OK but I could never get my thayir sadham (curd rice).
It was the time when we were visiting London on a weekend. Our friend suggested we try something new and he suggested going to China Town and eat Chinese food! I was excited as I have always like Chinese food. So, the very fact that I was going to eat Chinese food was very stimulating. We went to China Town, a small area that almost looks like a piece of land lifted from China. Amazing still was that this street is full of Chinese restaurants. On this street we walked where building after building were restaurants and more surprisingly, there were people in every restaurant. At first, I couldn't believe, but as we walked, I gave up. Outside every restaurant hung a menu list with price and we slowly started reading them.
Chinese food after all I thought would taste like Chinese food. So, even if my thoughts hindered I was confident of getting something edible and I so much longed for some good Chinese soup after a long day of sight seeing. We read through many menu lists but we could never find any vegetarian dish. We then decided that the menu list on display was not the complete list. So, we walked into one restaurant and smiled eagerly which could easily be translated to - "Please give us some good food!" We ran through the menu list and we realised we could ask for just rice and some bamboo shoots in some liquid. No soup was vegetarian nor was any dish vegetarian and there was no manchurian on that entire list. We could get some plain rice on request. That evening we learnt our lesson. We realised that Chinese food all over the world need not be same and Indian food all over the world need not exactly be Indian. After this incident we knew one thing well - to avoid Chinese restaurants abroad except in India because we were not going to get what we relished.
My food stories can go on forever but as a tourist, I now knew I had to make some compromises with food but what I didn't know was how much of compromise as I learnt that the hard way. One of our friends once told us that Mexican food is somewhat closest to Indian food. So, once we walked to a restaurant and our friend suggested we order vegetarian burritos. We also ordered potato skins for starters. Our potato skins arrived and it looked like potatoes baked well with some brownish pieces on top. We ate one and casually (for general knowledge sake) asked the waiter what the brown pieces were and he said that they were chicken pieces! I realised that I had just broken a religious law - more so my heart ached for the poor chicken. So, the next lesson I learnt - enquire well before ordering and never assume or use your "common sense" too much!
On another occasion, we asked for plain sandwiches and on eating them felt they had a funny taste. On enquiring, we were told that they were chicken sandwiches and some chicken based liquid was spread on the bread! Poor waitress had thought that chicken was vegetarian! So, from then, we explained in every place that we were vegetarians meaning - no meat, no chicken and no fish!
Wherever we went, food problems have tailed us. We could never bring ourselves to eat chicken but at the back of our minds we felt we should - at least that would solve a big problem. What really upsets us is to go to a place like Barcelona and when people rare to go to lavish sea food joints and dig into prawns, sea shells and octopus rings, we sit next to them and dig into juice / ice cream or find the nearest pizza/Mexican/Indian joint.
For most part of my stay in UK, I depended on McDonald's veggie burger. It was the most satisfying meal I could find (as most Indian joints did not open for lunch). Having eaten that for two months, I started hating to go to McD. But, how was I supposed to know that these kinds of restaurants would come in handy in the remotest corners of the world? I could never tell if chana masala in Indian restaurants round the globe would taste the same but the burgers of McD or the Pizzas of Pizza Hut have their unmistakable smell and taste. I initially used to despise them for the same taste they bear but having learnt the lessons the hard way, I now know the advantages of smelling and tasting alike everywhere. The golden arches of McD now was something we looked out for in every new city we visited because, if not anything, we could always go there for food!
Food for any traveller is essential. Knowing Thai food or Italian food doesn't help in a new country because I have realised that food is customised according to that particular country. For example, we had been to a Thai restaurant in France which had something called 'veg thampoora' which tasted more like our bajjis but we could never find veg thampoora in Bangkok! (Sometimes I wonder if the Chinese know about our very own manchurian!) Similarly, mixed veg in coconut sauce in France has absolutely no spice but in Bangkok the spice can make you hit the roof while here in India it is very moderate. So, the same food can be different in different places.
We therefore have to thank the Italians for the wonderful thing called Pizza. Also should thank our fellow countrymen (and also our neighbouring countrymen) for establishing Indian restaurants almost everywhere in the world. But I think they should come up with better names for the restaurants - something other than Bombay, Madras, Maharajah or Taj Mahal!
Well, as for my Moat house experience - I never went to that restaurant again but I still had to put up with the coffee/chai made from the water from washbasin! And as for us - my husband and I -we think we are some sorts of connoisseurs of food but we still end up making the usual mistake of going to a Spanish restaurant and ordering for omelets! Thank God for Omelets!