The latest addition to my growing collection of books on food is one by Vir Sanghvi. I don't particularly like his brand of TV presentation. Its too conceited for my liking. Reminds me of a maths teacher I had in school. Never let his students get the upper hand.
"Now Mr. Vadukut what is the square root of 14641..?"
"121 sir..." (With as much flourish and panache as ash shorts and white shirt dirt-caked from recess football will allow...)
"Ahh... very good... and the cube root of 234665772883...?" (Thus obliterating every remnant of grin from my face...)
Nope I dont like Mr. Sanghvi on TV. But the printed word is a whole different ball game. The man is a genius when it comes to describing food. He conjures up images of food so lifelike, at one point I burped after a rather vivid mimeo on tandoori chicken. Mr. Sanghvi is so good he makes food I have never seen, heard or pronounced before taste marvelous. Like Foie Gras or Carpaccio. Personally I never knew such skill existed outside Penthouse Letters.
As anyone who has seen me in person will testify, I am not one to back from the sizeable meal. I relish a good spread and have had a few gastronomic adventures of my own. Though unlike Mr. Sanghvi, they are not particularly good ones to talk about. Like the time my uncle took to me to this aloo wada place in Mumbai. Somewhere near Santa Cruz we went to this totally local aloo wada shop. A place that made nothing but aloo wadas all day long. A big sweaty well-fed man (I abhor use of the f-word) squated in front of a gas fired stove lording over a humongous cast iron wok-type thing, not unlike the thing in which they shot Titanic. The vessel had 1.2 million litres of oil in which thousands of aloo wadas bobbed up and down in crispening synchronicity.
He knew my uncle well and nodded in recognition. My uncle nodded back, letting loose a flurry of salivary emanations. We were soon on our way home in his Omni van with a bag full of aloo wadas sitting pretty on the seat between us. Conversation was muted during that drive. The all-encompassing aroma of tenderly cooked potato enrobed in crispy luminescent yellow dough, everything covered in a sheen of aorta-clogging, heart-stopping, medical-insurance demanding cooking oil.
As soon as my grandmother doled out the wadas I devoured them at the rate of knots, as Ravi Shastri would say. Pick out a wada, rip it in two, carefully making sure there was an even distribution of dough and filling, smother in green chutney and pop into mouth. After more wadas than I can describe without nausea even today I retired to bed. I slept soundly till roughly around 3 in the morning. Then the burping started.
At lunch time the next day I was still burping so much my folks took me to a doctor. While initially I enjoyed the satisfaction of a good burp every few minutes, too much of anything is indeed bad for you. It drove me nuts. I couldn't speak a whole sentence without letting one rip. Soon I was seeing images of being featured on Ripley's and becoming an item in school. My belly, which was no chiseled marble block, as it is today, back then, swelled up so much my dad was afraid he'd have excess baggage trouble on the flight back to Abu Dhabi.
Thankfully the doc prescribed two chemists' worth of Gelusil and I was deflated and happy in no time. To this day I can not look at a plate of aloo wadas without evoking tremors of gastric effervescence within. Now would something like that ever get published? Even if I was rich and famous? I dont think so.
In fact my adventures with things culinary have been many. And many of those have been inane. If you have ever been to an upmarket restaurant with waiters who can't read the menu you know what I mean. And Trichy was full of them. My advice is to try something simple first and see if it registers. For example, see if you can get, say, a pineapple gateaux ordered with minimal sign language. If then you get served gulab jamuns, it’s adios to all hopes of having the fancy french and thai stuff.
Then there's plane food. Ugh. I like air travel. For all its idiocies, hassles, uncomfortable waiting chairs, bad food and under-whelming in-flight service, I like whizzing around once in a while. And being an NRI makes you a veteran of jet travel by the time your four years old. Indeed, by the time I was 10 I could convince the customs guy that the thing in the box was a large ash tray that looked like a VCR and not a VCR itself.
"Yes sir, it is an ash tray... that’s where the ash goes in sir... no sir...it does not play anything sir... we smoke a lot at home sir... entire packs at a time... yes even the children sir... oh look a 50 dirham note stuck to the side sir... yes you can sir... thank you sir... that way sir??... happy vacations to you too sir..."
Those were merry days before liberalisation and all. Now noone wants Brut deo, Nido milk powder, Cherry umbrellas, National Panasonic tape players, and Sharp torches. When your Ambassador car reached home they would unload the bags and boxes first, rush them indoors and devour them. Depending on who got what, the visitor from the gulf would get the room upstairs with fan and bed and nonstop power supply, or got dumped in the corner room with the only egg-laying chicken. Being an NRI was a lot tougher than you could imagine.
Air travel also brings out the worst in people. People are at their anti-social disestablishment worst when they have an air ticket in their hands. Take a perfectly well mannered, well brought up, educated, polite type person (or any random mallu in other words) and give him an air ticket and, boom, before you know it you have this fidgety, finicky, queue breaking, nitpicking, rule breaking animal. Raise your hands all of you who wait for the plane to come to a complete halt before standing up and taking your bags out. (Not as much a single little finger in sight...) or what about a quick "aye" from everyone who has never carried more than one piece of cabin baggage... And what about all those who have stolen a quick ogle at the stewardesses... (Just one arm per person will do thank you...)
Indeed I say the true test of a man is when he has to fly. Observe him and you will know what lies deep uder the polite and gentle facade. Of course there are some things which are just meant to infuriate you in a plane. If your well-built like I am, you should be well aware of the agonies of economy class travel. Tell me, whoever designs, these things, why is there one armrest between two people. Whats with that? On a long flight all it does is evoke this weird arm moving, jostling ritual fight for a few inches of plastic armrest. People refuse to go to the loo for hours on end to protect their hard earned limb space. (Of course here we need to thank nature we don’t get all cat or dog-like when it comes to designating personal space.)
But the food. Good lord the food they serve in airplanes. I could write a whole post on that. So I will. Adios and a thousand apologies again.