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

Friday, April 15, 2011

Doing Good and Eating Well–Sand, Puris, and Other Odds and Sods

Indian food ran the gamut from blazing hot and swimming in oil to the balanced and fragrant vegetable curries at the Oberoi in Delhi.  One day at a restaurant in a small town in South India, home of the country’s hottest curries, I was hungry, and sick of days of eating plain rice, puris, and yoghurt, and washing all my vegetables and meat chunks in soda water.  I had in front of me a vegetable curry, soaking in that red sauce I knew to be fiery and inedible.

A mangy dog was snuffling around the tables of the restaurant – a nasty affair with stained, blue distempered walls, fly strips, and red betel spit on the floors.  It was bony; patches of red, mottled skin appeared where the fur had fallen out, and it had the twitchy movements of a cur which had had things thrown at it for as long as it was mangy.  I wondered what would happen if I gave this miserable wretch of an animal some of my curry.  Surely, starved as he was, he would eat it and beg for more.  Was there a limit to hot?  Was there a threshold beyond which no animal, human or otherwise could cross?

I tossed a puri well-slathered with curry sauce, bits of potato and peas clinging to it, and threw it towards the dog.  He came over, sniffed, and walked away, nibbling at a weeks-old chicken bone that had gotten stuck in a crack in the floor.  There was an animal threshold, but in all my time in India, I never found the human one.
Once on a trip to Zaire, I was out with African colleagues to eat in the quartier – good local food served buffet-style in great vats of bubbling and simmering sauce, greens, and rice.  One sauce had that same reddish color of the volcanic curries of South India.  “It’s not hot”, said Citoyen Mbongo.  “It’s……”.  He hesitated, searching for the French word for whatever was bobbing up and down in the red boil.  “I do not know how to say it in French”, he said, but it is delicious”. 

I went over to the vat to order, but as I looked more closely, it looked as if these floating bits were caterpillars  “Are these chenilles”, I asked.  “Ah, mais oui”, said Citoyen Mbongo.  “Caterpillars”, he confirmed.  “Very, very delicious…..”.  Here he paused.  “And not hot at all”.

I had eaten bush meat throughout Africa and learned never to ask what it was.  I preferred to think of it “selon l’arrivage”, as the French ex-colons, still hanging on as petty shopkeepers and restaurateurs would say when you asked what was on the menu.  Whatever comes from France would be the answer; but in the French case it was oysters, lobsters, araignees de mer, and mussels; not the rat meat, monkey brains, porcupine, and snake of the bush.  It was all good – both the French seafood and the bush meat; and those were the days before AIDS so the brains didn’t freak me out. 

Brains were the speciality at a little French restaurant run by nuns in Ouagadougo.  Foreigners would come out of the bush to eat there, put up with the orisons sung before the prix fixe courses, and happily eat the famous cervelle au beurre blanc.  This was a dish of calves’ brains lightly browned in butter, served with lemon.  Truly delicious.  About five years later it turned out that the nuns were not nuns at all, just thought that a religious tone would provide an even more convincing environment for a clientele used to bush meat and diarrhea. 

I loved Senegalese cooking, especially the “chebu jen”, rice cooked in a tomato-based fish stew.  Fabulous.  Also super was the couscous, often with fish or chicken.  It took me a while to get used to the communal style of eating.  A big serving bowl of rice or couscous with fish, chicken, vegetables and sauce on the top.  One dinner guest to one quadrant of the bowl, Madame breaking up the meat and vegetables with her hand and apportioning them out to each quadrant, young daughter fanning flies off the food, Monsieur supervising it all, and guests, keeping to their sector, scooping all in by hand.  

Eating with my hand always reminded me of a dinner in Delhi at the home of a colleague who had invited us for lunch.  We had not been in India very long, knew enough to eat only with the right hand, but not much more. The Indian way was to scarf the food, get up immediately your hands.  Talking was before dinner, sometimes after, never during.  Not knowing this, we lingered over lunch, chit-chatting about the coming monsoon, Indira Gandhi, and the coming elections.  Meanwhile the dhal and curry sauce were drying and caking on the hands of Mr. and Mrs. Gupta.  They held them up like shy students knowing the answer, but with all our chatter, the dhal eventually totally dried and developed little hairline cracks as Mr. and Mrs. Gupta involuntarily twitched their fingers. 

My favorite eating-with-hands story comes from Mauritania where the UN team of which I was a member was invited by some government notables to eat dinner with them.  Wealthy Moors often had a regular home in Nouakchott, but liked to go out in the desert and spend the weekend under a tent.  It was under such a tent that we were asked to dine.  It was a National Geographic moment – light wind flapping the tent, tethered camels bellowing outside, dunes rising up around the dune and the expanse of the Sahara beyond.  The meal was  “Brakna cuisine” – stringy goat meat over a sandy rice-and-sauce base.  Generally gritty and disgusting, but who could ignore the romance of the desert?

The meal was served in a large dish, similar to that I mentioned above, placed on a mat on the floor of the tent, which itself was on the sand of the desert.  The Moors sat on one side of the mat, and the UN delegation on the other.  There is a trick to eating Brakna cuisine, kind of twirl of your fingers as you pick up the rice and ball it in your palm before tossing it into your mouth; and most of us had gotten the hang of it.  Yet at this meal, all the foreigners after ten minutes or so had Brakna sauce dripping down our wrists up to our elbows.  “Like this”, said one of our hosts, deftly twirling his fingers into the rice mix, rolling it into a ball, and delicately placing it in his mouth.  No errant trickle, no watery arms.  We tried again, with the same result.  It was a frustrating meal.  No napkins, of course, sandy goat meat, and arms and pants dripping wet. 

It was only later that we realized the joke that had been played on us.  All the Moors ate upstream, where the rice was dry with just the right amount of sauce.  The gringos were downstream, left to struggle with Brakna bits in watery gravy.

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