"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Oysters, Sushi, and Bed Tea–The Nature of Food Obsessions

There are some foods which you like the first minute you taste them. I remember eating my very first oyster – a fine de claire from the Marennes-Oleron region of France. I  could smell the ocean and taste the ocean.  I was in the ocean, in the spume of salt spray on the shore in brackish estuaries.  I could taste a hint of fresh water, something lightly reedy but clear.  I had never tasted anything like it.  It was a complete taste experience combining complex flavors, texture, and scent.  It was like being by the sea on a winter day when the air is thick with the smell of salt and ocean.

From then on I could only think of oysters.  On stopovers in Paris, I dropped my bags at the airport Sheraton and took the fast train to the Gare du Nord and ate dozens of belons, fines de claires, and selections from Normandy and Brittany at the Brasserie Terminus Nord – a classic Victorian restaurant serving fruits de mer, oysters, filet of sole, and choucroute alsacienne.  On stopovers in London, I ate Scottish rocks and Donegal and Galway Bay from Ireland.  I tasted oysters from every bay and cove in the Puget Sound, opened and ate hundreds of Hog Island specials by the oyster beds of Tamales Bay.  I have eaten oysters from New Brunswick to Bluffton, made visits to the new oyster farms on the Chesapeake, and ate Apalachicola Bay oysters as they came off the boat.  My taste for and interest in oysters has never waned, and with each new variety, I only want more.  

A number of years ago I had to overnight at the Tokyo airport, and rather than go into the city, I stayed in Narita, a small town nearby. There is a large park there with Shinto and Buddhist shrines, and I spent a number of hours wandering through the formal gardens, walking by small ponds and large lakes, and visiting temples and shrines. 

On my way back through town to the bus, I passed a number of small restaurants which had pictures of their menu items in the window. I pointed to a few dishes that looked particularly interesting, and had my first pieces of sushi.  I couldn’t believe the experience.  The salmon and tuna were buttery and delicate.  The fish roe were high flavor, pungent, and salty.  The uni (sea urchin gonad) was cool, creamy, with tastes of forest, leather, and wood.  The cooked eel was strong and a perfect complement to the raw fish.

When I went back to my office at the World Bank in Washington, I would go to one of the first sushi restaurants to be opened on K Street.  It was frequented almost exclusively by Japanese, for in the early 80s few Americans had gotten a taste for sushi.  I became a regular and never had to order.  I sat at the counter and one by one pieces of sushi were put before me.  After five or six, the chef would serve me an intermezzo – an architectural piece of shaved radish and cucumber.  I stopped eating only because I thought I should, not because I had had enough.  Like oysters, there was never enough sushi.

One day at lunch at Makoto in Washington – another classic and traditional Japanese restaurant that catered to a Japanese clientele – and after what must have been dozens of pieces of sushi, the chef suggested that I had had enough. I had gone from sushi gourmet to American glutton.

I have only one other obsession – tea.  In my cupboard I have two or three varieties each of tea from Assam, Ceylon, Bangladesh, Darjeeling, Turkey, and China.  I am not sure how or why I choose my morning tea – served in bone china and silver – but my taste memory is vivid, and I think about each one well before I get up.

I had my first real cup of tea in India.  My mother used to feed me soft-boiled eggs, tea, and toast when I was sick; but the tea was Lipton and tasteless.  Indian tea on the other hand is strong, black, sweet, and mixed with buffalo milk.  When I tasted my first cup of desi country tea on a field trip to Nagpur, I immediately loved its creamy richness.  It was never too sweet for me, nor too strong.  I drank bed tea, morning tea, and evening tea.  I took tea with friends, was served endless cups of tea in government offices, and drank tea at roadside tea stalls out of clay cups.

I have drunk tea every day since that first cup of strong dust tea in Nagpur in 1968.  Although I have collected a wide variety of teas, they are all meant for a strong brew.  Some teas, especially the first flush Darjeeling, should only be steeped for a few minutes and brewed with just a few leaves.  The result is a floral, delicate infusion.  My taste, however, is for the forward, rich, and potent varieties.  I use three heaping teaspoons of loose tea, brewed for 5 minutes for two teacups of tea; a cup of whole milk and cream; and many teaspoons of sugar.  Drinking my morning cuppa is like being back in India, sitting on the verandah of a government dak bungalow or circuit house, listening to cowbells, early birds, and bullock carts.

There are other foods that have surprised me and are included in my repertoire.  After tasting Nile Perch - the succulent, rich, and uniquely flavorful fish from the Congo, Niger and Senegal Rivers, Lake Tanganyika, and the Nile itself – I looked for it on every trip to Africa.  I ordered it in small family restaurants in Chad, the international Lagon I and Lagon II in Dakar, a small Belgian restaurant overlooking Lake Tanganyika and close by the mountains between Burundi and Rwanda. I ate it as the plat principal of a five course civilized lunch on the deck of a restaurant built over the Niger, in Malian couscous prepared by the wife of a colleague in Mopti, and at beach hotels in the Gambia.

I don’t think of Nile Perch that often, especially since I have stopped travelling to Africa.  I was obsessed by it for years, but when place and circumstance changed, my compulsion disappeared.  Looking back on those days, I think that Nile Perch probably wasn’t that good – I certainly have had similar fish since – and it was the dining experience rather than the fish itself that made such an impression.  The Lagon II, for example, is a spectacular open air restaurant on a pier jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean in Dakar. Dining at night under the stars or by moonlight, hearing the waves of the ocean splashing on the pilings underneath the pier, and seeing the lights of the city behind was memorable.  Lunching at the Mande in Bamako in the Sahelien heat, drinking carafes of chilled Algerian rosé, and watching Malian fishermen net-fishing from small pirogues was part of a traditional Sunday noon in West Africa.

Oysters, sushi, and tea, however, are material memories.  Although all three are associated with place – Brittany, Narita, and Nagpur – they are persistent, dominant, and important features of my life. Something would be missing if they were gone, or if my biochemistry went out of whack and they were forbidding fruits.

My daughter, who is as obsessed with oysters as I am, often asks me why I don’t buy them and shuck them myself.  The answer is easy.  I love the anticipation of waiting for them to be served.  I like to watch the muchachos behind the bar at Hog Island Oysters shuck, loosen, and array without losing a drop of liquor.  I want to eat oysters chilled on a bed of ice with lots of lemon, look at each shell as I replace them on the tray.  I want to think about the varieties I will order in my second dozen and my third.

Sushi is no different.  Although sushi grade tuna and salmon are available everywhere, and the trick of making the rice is not hard, I want to watch the chef behind the counter.  The best chefs are artists, hand ballet dances, knife painters.

In a happy coincidence, India is a morning country; and in the very early morning my neighbors in Nizamuddin East in Delhi took their constitutionals in the gardens of Humayun’s Tomb nearby.  The walked briskly, chatted, and joked.  At 4:30 in the morning, they were awake, animated and happy.  The cook served me my bed tea on the barsati overlooking the south wall of the Tomb, and when I finished I walked through a crumbled opening to the gardens and the winding paths through them.

I still get up early – 4:30 is late for me these days – and bed tea is part of my ritual. I drink strong, milky, sweet, Assamese longleaf tea served in a bone china teapot, kept warm by a traditional English cozy, strained by a Victorian silver strainer, and poured in a matching teacup every morning.

I may yet develop another food obsession like oysters, sushi, and bed tea; but I doubt it.  I have spent many years travelling throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Eastern and Western Europe.  I have eaten just about everything, but there is no one dish that I return to with the same delight and anticipation as oysters or sushi.  I have old standbys – an herbed roast chicken, lamb shanks, gnocchi alla gorgonzola, boiled Gulf Shrimp, tagine, and sautéed calves liver with port – but I prepare them only occasionally.  They are not on my mind, before my eyes, and imagined on a platter before me like oysters or sushi.  Nor do I look forward to them like my simple, sweet, lovely bed tea.

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