When food is the result of a brilliant and obsessive personal vision, it can take on mystical, magical aspects, the late great Anthony Bourdain wrote in typically engaging prose.
“For what is a humble shoulder or shank or strip of gut if not leaden and unlovely, and what is daube of beef Provençale or osso buco—when every bit of flour and texture has been coaxed gently by skilled hands—but pure gold?” Well, all right.
“And it’s not just magic for the person eating. It can be magic for the chef as well, seeing that tough, veiny, uncooked hunk of meat and bone going into the oven, swimming in purplish and not very distinguished red table wine, then seeing it, smelling it, tasting it only a few hours later, the sauce reduced, a hearty, thick, mellowed, and wonderful witches’ brew—transformed.”
It’s hard to quibble with Bourdain’s deeply theatrical and somehow compelling vision of food in A Cook’s Tour, his worldwide search for the perfect meal. He travelled to eat, watch food being cooked, and elevated his quest to an irreverent, swaggering journey; one critic called him a gonzo gastronome.
Much as I appreciate and am entertained by Bourdain, my approach to eating and travelling is somewhat different. I believe the best food is to be found in local communities, made by local cooks who are not likely to regard their daily chores as magic.
I have been fortunate to have travelled extensively, to every continent (except Antarctica) and the far reaches of this country in my work as a journalist and my enthusiastic quest to sample the diversity and variety of food that people eat. Food, to me, represents the human imagination and condition.
I have no taboos and few qualms about eating anything that has once lived. All right, I might feel a little queasy about monkey brains and goat’s eyes but I reckon I would eventually get to them as well. After all, I grew up eating sweet bread—the soft, creamy thymus and pancreas glands of goats—brain, dried shark and mackerel. I have eaten snake (a bit like chicken but more rubbery—snakeskin wafers were my favourite) in Vietnam; raw fish in Peru; mopane worms in South Africa; fresh kidney or tossed spleen with dosa in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.
There was no real magic in any of these foods. They were simply what people ate, matter-of-fact, taken to restaurants in some cases, but born from tradition and necessity and, in most cases, still cooked in the communities where they were born.
Indeed, if you were to ask me what my best meals have been, ever, I would cite two, both cooked using local and familiar ingredients, with minimum fuss or the realisation that the food was extraordinary.
The first was served by an indigenous community called the Uru on an island deep within Peru’s Lake Titicaca, which is a misnomer because it is an inland sea—it took us four hours to get to the island of Taquile in 2008. There, on a bluff, under an azure sky on a sunny but crisp day, on a creaky wooden table, they served freshly grilled trout with no spices and a side of boiled rice, grated carrot and a condiment based on a chilli called the aji. It was wonderful, made especially so by the view of the snow-clad Andes on the far shore in Bolivia.
The vegetarian wife, however, found it a little less memorable: The Uru spoke in the ancient Inca tongue of Quechua, so their limited and my rudimentary Spanish was the mode of communication. After understanding her restrictions, they brought her a plate of grated carrot and rice.
The second meal came along in 2018, in a nameless little roadside place called the Meiduh Thangkiew Dukan Ja and Sha, outside Umsning town in Meghalaya. A smiling, robust woman, the owner and main chef, offered food that her family ate. There was local red rice, pork, beef meatballs and smoked beef—and at least three vegetables—all for ₹120. Now, that meal had magic, it had verve, panache, whatever you call it.
For places I haven’t travelled to, events and eras I haven’t experienced, there are always books to read. I am partial to lived histories told through the prism of what people eat and how they carry those memories when they migrate or are forced to.
One of the most engrossing such memoirs in my library, its pages interspersed with recipes, is The Settler’s Cookbook by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who chronicles her family and her personal history from India to Uganda—from where they were expelled by the vicious dictator Idi Amin—to the UK.
On 25 January 1971, when Amin took power in a coup, she writes how a girl named Susana in her hostel was very happy. “You couldn’t miss her, a noisy young woman with enormous breasts she steadied in tight, bright scarves,” wrote Alibhai-Brown. “She was already in Amin’s circle of concubines and expected to become mother of the nation when he married her.” Susana was worried about a rival, a princess, but she believed in the power of a stew she made for him. Alibhai-Brown got the recipe from Susana, handwritten in pencil. It’s there on page 241: “Idi Amin’s Favourite Exeter Stew”.
I have another book, simply called Our Syria, written to keep alive the memories and meals of a once beautiful land now torn apart by war. As the authors Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi write, as their greatest buildings are razed, people flee their homeland and disappear into new countries, a part of their heritage is still alive and well, “and will continue no matter what drives families from their homes”. That, of course, is food.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11
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