Before I began travelling in earnest, my knowledge of food only went as far as deciphering a fast-food restaurant menu board. For the pre-enlightened me, the perfect meal meant a cheeseburger, medium-sized finger chips drenched in ketchup and a large Coke — which (to my mind) could be had for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and that was that. If I wanted some variation, I’d order a pizza.
It was only when I came to India in the early 1990s that I started to see food as an integral part of culture. India was the perfect schooling for somebody who had been “food illiterate” all his life. The first notion I was disabused of was that Indian meals consisted of only rice and curry, which was how the cuisine was widely regarded in my native Sweden.
What seems obvious to me now, and perhaps clichéd to many of you reading this, had felt like a mind-altering revelation — rocking the culinary perspectives of the 20-something me. The hallmark of burgers and pizzas is their reliable sameness, but here in India, something I had eaten in one city was not necessarily available in the next, barely a few kilometres down the road. I started to appreciate local specialities: the Mysore masala dosa, the vada pao of Mumbai and Gujarati dhokla . I still rave about my first encounter with litti chokha in Bihar, butter chicken of Punjab, fermented fish in the North-East, Chettinad-style shark puttu , and the smashed masala crabs of Mangaluru. Even the southern staple of sambar, which accompanied dosas, turned out to be different depending on whether I ordered it in Chennai — where it’s more like a dal and vegetable stew — or in Udupi, on the west coast, where it is sweeter and spicier.
Since those early days of epicurean awakening, I’ve travelled widely and matured as a foodie, though I’m still more of a gourmand than a gourmet — more a hog than nibbler. I’ve eaten my share of exotic dishes that expanded my understanding of what is edible — munched on chewy alligator sausages in New Orleans, stuffed myself with as much kangaroo as I could stomach in Australia, digested stewed intestines in Zimbabwe and, most recently, in China, experienced the delights of insect snacks. I became, rather unexpectedly, fond of deep-fried silkworms the way they are cooked in Shanghai.
In fact, an autumn spent in China taught me how its local cuisine is very different from Chinese food elsewhere in the world. Chop suey, for example, which appears to be the quintessential Chinese dish, was actually invented in America some hundred years ago, and proved virtually impossible to get in China itself, except at touristy canteens. Furthermore, Chinese cuisine is as complex as the cuisines of India — and travelling around that great country with an open mind and a big appetite is the way to go about it, sampling the delicate dumplings and dimsum of the Cantonese, the tongue-blistering hotpot of Szechuan, and, of course, the sublime Peking duck of Beijing. None of this was available at the ubiquitous Chinese joints in Sweden when I was growing up, though I learnt recently that Chinese restaurants in Europe apparently have a secret menu with real Chinese dishes, only served to discerning ethnically Chinese customers.
Over these journeys, food to me sometimes becomes more important than sightseeing. The last time I visited Athens, I didn’t bother to climb up the Acropolis, but instead spent my days eating hearty rosemary-marinated lamb chops by the kilo, washed down with retsina by the litre too, while watching the Parthenon from a safe distance, away from the milling crowds of tourists. What I’ve basically learnt is that the local foods of any place can be a key to understanding the subtler aspects of its culture, to imbibe its finer flavours, so to speak. Like the saying goes: You are what you eat. So by eating what the local people eat, I feel closer to being like them.
In general, each country is often associated with one type of food — the US is junkfood heaven, Sweden has its smorgasbord, the British eat fish and chips, Germans appear to live on pickled cabbage, Italians on pasta, Russians on vodka, and so on. I too initially thought Indian food was nothing but curry and that the Chinese ate only noodles. But, with time, my travel philosophy has evolved to this: Poke around a little, and every country will turn out to have a richer food culture than one might expect.
So, in my way of thinking, travel helps us understand how there’s more to every kitchen than meets the eye (or palate), and that is the key to becoming a genuinely global citizen.
Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;
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