Carrots, rice and the simple life
Islands are marked by culinary idiosyncracies which remind you of isolation and why your lunch doesn't really matter
Ella es vegetariana (she is vegetarian). This was the standard phrase I used to explain my wife’s culinary limitations during a month-long sweep of Costa Rica and Peru in 2008. Then began the delicate dance around the meaning of the word. We quickly learnt it wasn’t enough. Egg, pork and fish were considered vegetarian.
When we finally found ourselves preparing to have lunch in one of the most spectacular settings ever, we were at a loss for words—literally and figuratively. We were near the edge of a cliff, seated at a simple wooden table covered with a white sheet. The sky was a clear, cerulean blue. The waves of a high-altitude inland sea they call Lake Titicaca broke on the rocks below and in the distance we saw land, the snow-capped peaks of the Bolivian Andes.
We were 4km high but acclimatized after a stint even higher up in the Andes. Taquile island, an ancient outpost of the Incas, was a 4-hour boat ride into the vastness of Lake Titicaca from the town of Puno in Peru. But Spanish, as it rapidly became apparent, was second to Quechua, an Inca tongue. I could manage some Spanish, but it failed when lunch began.
Soup came first, bits of celery and carrot in quinoa—exotic elsewhere but an ancient staple in the lands of the Inca. The soup looked reasonable, until the wife realized there were also bits of meat floating around. I looked at the young Inca serving us and launched into the vegetariana routine. He looked at me uncomprehendingly. It dawned on me that although Taquile received its fair share of tourists—40 were allowed in at any point—it was remote enough to be off the beaten linguistic track. In Taquile, 5.5km long and 1.6km across, vegetariana was an alien word.
I took a deep breath and dug deep into my Spanish vocabulary. “Senor, no huevos, no carne, no pescado y no cerdo, por favor (no eggs, no meat, no fish and no pork please)." He stared at me, frowned and smiled slowly as a light bulb switched on. As the rest of the table settled down to a meal of fresh trout, white rice, shaved carrot and a condiment based on a chilli called aji, the wife’s lunch followed—white rice and shaved carrot.
Islands may have a special allure for the traveller, but they have limitations, created by their seclusion. Since the days of Charles Darwin, we have known of allopatry, or geographic separation, which can lead to genetic isolation. Seeds and birds that ride the wind across ocean waters tend to, in time, evolve into separate species because they often cannot return whence they came. The varied finches of the Galápagos islands that Darwin studied are, perhaps, the most well-known examples of speciation—the act of dividing into many species—because it was difficult and rare for them to fly over open water. When they did, there was no returning. As they made a new life, they diverged from their cousins substantially, developing biological idiosyncracies.
So it is with people and their food habits. The limitations of geography cause islanders to exhibit gastronomic idiosyncracies, a result of what’s available, what can be shipped in, and the consequent culinary culture that develops around those restrictions. And that is how my wife found herself eating rice and carrot for lunch.
Vegetarians often find islands hard to cope with because vegetables are usually few or limited to what’s grown. But me, I feel at home on islands anywhere in the world because there is one thing they always serve—the sea’s bounty, first-choice food for a man of the coast.
At another idiosyncratic but more spacious and prosperous island, Catalina, off the coast of California, we found that no vehicles powered by petrol or diesel were allowed. Instead, battery-powered golf buggies—many with extravagant bodies and accoutrements—skittered around Catalina, situated about 35km south-west of Los Angeles. Catalina is a first-world island, so it had everything from craft beer to a reasonable variety of vegetables, but the island-wide culinary highlight was, of course, fish.
The only island where fish was scarce was Pamban island, home to the pilgrim town of Rameswaram, where non-vegetarian food is banned. Reaching Rameswaram at India’s southern tip entails a wondrous journey, the train making its way carefully over a 2km bridge that fords the open sea. As you make your way across, you cannot but notice the wrecked bridge alongside, swept away—along with a train that was on it—a year before I was born. So, there we were—on a family trip sometime in the late 1970s—surrounded by the bountiful sea but unable to partake of its bounty. This was a shock to our meat-eating systems, but we quickly got over it when we travelled south to the ghost town of Dhanushkodi, wiped out by a cyclone in 1964, the same storm that swept away the train. There, amid the winds whipping in from the Gulf of Mannar, we gazed at the clear sky and calm, blue sea and tried to imagine how they darkened and raged the night Dhanushkodi was obliterated. When we returned to Rameswaram, sober and thoughtful, the sambhar, rice and vegetables suddenly appeared to be all that we needed.
Most of all, islands teach you to accept whatever you get to eat because, really, one way or the other, you’re just lucky to be here. We realized that on Taquile, when we stumbled across a battered road sign that pointed towards home. Nueva Delhi, it said, 16,341km—somewhere out there, on the other side of the world. The carrots did not matter.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
He tweets at @samar11