Sniffing out cuisines

Lead Review

Sniffing out cuisines

There’s something weirdly pleasant about reading a first-person account of somebody eating horribly disgusting things, whether we’re talking greasy Fish and Chips, that British staple fodder for the wannabe heart-patient, or Chinese dog’s meat cooked in a wok with diced pig’s penis, or the Icelandic delicacy — rotten shark. Which, in case you wonder, is apparently just that: shark’s meat buried in the ground and allowed to decompose for three months till it is thoroughly rotten and smells like... well, thoroughly rotten fish.

How come this is so much fun? Maybe because it is Simon Majumdar who’s doing the eating, and I — the gleeful reader — am thousands of miles away from the offensive dishes that seem to originate from Hell’s Kitchen. Majumdar’s blog-to-book, with its breezy, chatty, never too serious and frequently too shallow writing style, takes us on a whirlwind tour through many of the world’s great cuisines, and some not so great, offering behind the scenes glimpses of whiskey distilleries as well as barbecue championships.

An interesting aspect of this food travelogue is the analysis of the foodie himself: Majumdar is the by-product of a happy marriage between a Bengali upper-class communist and an ultra-conservative Welshwoman, in which the fussy fish-fetishising food culture of Kolkata collides with the rather humbler Fish and Chips of the foggy isle of Britannia. “Food, I have realised, is not just what I eat: it is what I am and what I do,” philosophises Majumdar who one day, in the grip of a severe midlife crisis, walked away from his old life, chucking up a well-paying but meaningless job, to turn his hedonism into not only a book project, but the very purpose of his new life. He heads off around the world on a pilgrimage of sorts, in search of the weird, the wonderful and the tasty. “It is what took me from a comfort zone where my idea of hardship was finding only Chardonnay in a hotel mini-bar, on a trip that saw me endure nearly one hundred flights, the same number of different beds and the unspeakable horror of Chinese toilets.”

Setting the tone thus, with clichés, hyperbole and all, he books himself a thick wad of air tickets after having consulted food blogs from Australia to America. He travels via Japan, China and Mongolia, across Russia with the Trans-Siberian railway, goes hunting in Finland with an 80-year-old man who only knows two words of English, of which one is “vodka” and the other isn’t, and he visits various places in Africa, Southeast Asia and... pretty much eats around the globe, like the title suggests.

The end outcome isn’t exactly a gastronomic Bible because Simon Majumdar is too fond of junk food: in Chicago he stuffs himself with hotdogs, in Philadelphia he treats his cardiovascular system to one of the most dangerous high-calorific foods known to man, the Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich (and shows a slight lack of sophistication by not insisting on real Provolone cheese, but having the Cheez Whiz instead), and in India he of course indulges in Bade Miyan’s mutton rolls behind Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel.
The list of establishments that he patronises is made up of the usual suspects. For instance in Delhi he partakes of Butter Chicken at Karim’s near the Jama Masjid, and then goes for Tandoori Chicken and dal at Bukhara; in Mumbai he has the obligatory Mangalorean meal at Apoorva; and in Kolkata he of course goes for the tried and tested set lunch at Kewpie’s.

Not all that bad, but Majumdar’s blog/book doesn’t seem to bring us any new earth-shattering discoveries of places that the foodie trail previously has missed out on. The book might hence have done well to remain a blog, because a blog invites comments, feedback and discussions, which can ultimately throw up (pun not intended) many more interesting things to eat which the author has missed here. Also, a blog-reader would be more forgiving about typos.

Having voiced that minor complaint, I must point out that to be a foodie Majumdar is refreshingly lowbrow, relishing baked beans straight out of a can or retrieving tasty titbits from the garbage bin if he is feeling the urge, which is great in these days when readers have started getting dispirited by food-writing focused on meals that cost above Rs 5000 for a steak no bigger or thicker than a credit card. Even though his many epicurean meals are exquisitely described, they’re rarely filling enough for a kitchen sumo combatant of Majumdar’s calibre. So after those thin gourmet slices of beef cooked over a tea candle in Japan, he heads out of the hotel to track down local pub grub for a dinner encore, namely crispy grilled “glistening pork belly marinated and braised overnight in sake, soy, sugar and star anise.”

The book also contains very useful pointers to what not to order in a foreign restaurant, such as cod sperm sushi in Japan or cane rat in China — “All I can say is that it didn’t taste like chicken; it tasted exactly like I imagined a dried cane rat would taste. Let us never speak of it again.”

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