Talk

Eat without prejudice

| Updated on: Jan 12, 2018

istock.com/KreangchaiRungfamai | Photo Credit: Kreangchai Rungfamai

Respect what others are eating, even if you can’t bring yourself to share in the feast

We saw out the end of 2017 in Krabi, in Thailand, on the Andaman Sea. One of our go-to meals was a tourist-friendly spot across the road that was run by a Finnish man and staffed by friendly locals. Beyond the usual offerings was a page devoted to “local” food. Krabi is in the deep south of Thailand, close to Malaysia, with a big Muslim population. Hence, no pork on this page, and preparations that were the “most similar to Indian food in all of Thailand”.

It seemed an odd analogy. Till we looked around and saw how many Indians were in the same room, on the same beach, sleeping at the same hotel. Why wouldn’t a savvy restaurateur market to his increasingly desi clientèle, by tickling their fancy for “local” food while still giving them what they were familiar with?

Down the street a bit, was an actual Indian restaurant. My butter chicken-craving son actually dragged us inside for lunch one day. The tea was delicious; the food, not so much. The waiters were more interesting. They were definitely subcontinental, but with a difference I couldn’t explain till I asked. It turns out they were of Bihari extraction, but their families had been resident in Myanmar for more than 100 years.

They spoke Hindi to each other, of a sort. They called me “paaji”. They were doing a steady trade in tikka masala to homesick Brits. What I remember is the dal they gave us, with a ghee tadka that stayed with me for days. I wondered afterwards what those Burmese Biharis in Krabi ate at home.

Even for seasoned travellers, the desire to eat “authentically” is often balanced by the need for familiarity. I know this from our early days in Beijing. The first time my son and I saw a stick of lamb chuan’r , we set to with glad cries of “kabab!”.

The search for familiarity can be faintly ridiculous as well. A local vendor of Indian goodies in Beijing advertises Ching’s Secret sauces and Maggi instant noodles. Clearly China isn’t doing Chinese food right.

This seeking out of the familiar finds its mirror in our compulsive search for edible oddities. The weird insect on a stick, the mystery meat, the vegetable you don’t recognise or want but photograph anyway to show to your disgusted friends back home. I’ve taken photos of crispy scorpions and bamboo worms in Yunnan — apparently they’re good with beer — without having the stomach to try them.

A popular night market in downtown Beijing still stocks its share of culinary cringes, though increasingly it’s becoming the target of both local and long-term expat ire. All it does is stoke old prejudices, goes one line of reasoning. Why offer it to the tourists to gawp at and then post online?

It’s a plausible argument, but irrelevant really. More pertinent for me is the question of what makes something cringeworthy. Who gets to decide?

Put another way, if somebody is eating what he’s been brought up to regard as food and not as a pet, a bug, something to squash flat; if he’s doing it in the comfort and security of his own home, neighbourhood, country: what earthly business is it of anyone else’s?

Our dietary choices are just that. They’re choices. One man’s curdled milk is another’s paneer. Yet we are unwilling to audit without judgement.

At one end of the spectrum, we go looking for cheap laughs, as when your uncle reminds everyone at the table that dogs went missing in the colony when the Korean neighbours moved in. More insidious — but still connected — is people being told what to eat, or more specifically, what they shouldn’t. This is absurd, and in the Indian context, life-threatening.

All this starts with judging what other people eat. No, food reviewers and bloggers — if they’re worth following — don’t indulge in that. They have an opinion about what’s placed in front of them.

Consider my two restaurants in Krabi. In one we found a multicultural mix of food and service and accents, tending to the sorts of varied families that pass through tourist-y spots. In the other was a cumin-flavoured reminder that this world of ours has been quite “globalised” for a while now.

The first could have omitted an entire animal from its menu in deference to local sensitivity, but chose instead to highlight its local credentials in a special section of its menu. The other serves up “Indian” food that visitors are familiar with, but has little or no connection with the servers and restaurateurs themselves.

Is one better than the other? I know which one I enjoyed more and would recommend to friends. But it’s also a fact that they both served a purpose, and my family, in their different ways, enjoyed both experiences equally.

My son and I don’t like Maggi. But for a transplanted, perhaps vegetarian family that has grown up thinking of them as a weekend treat — why not? If instant noodles makes that family feel warmer when it’s cold outside in Beijing, then it has served its purpose.

Food is just another thing to marvel at as we navigate our worlds. Even if you can’t eat it, it still has a story to tell.

Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing

Published on January 12, 2018
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