January 02, 2007

Hungry Asian Woman On The Road

Reposting stuff from the past. This one’s from 2007.

I’m a horrendously bad sightseer and tourist, that much is true. You have no idea how bad I am. I almost never manage to visit any of the attractions of the city — unless they’re glaringly obvious and utterly compelling, like, say, the Taj Mahal — other than that, I really should take a keener interest in museums and palaces and memorials. Somehow the idea of traipsing along with my nose in the Lonely Planet, paying a camera fee for each of my cameras and an inflated foreigner’s admission fee, visiting places where my pictures will inevitably turn out with the ubiquitous Korean or Japanese or American tourist with a sun hat and sunburnt skin in the corner, doesn’t cut it for me anymore. At home my idea of torture was to be taken to Sentosa or the bird park, so why should it be any different abroad?

Before I’m flayed alive, in my defence I have a convincing excuse: I know exactly why I travel. It’s not to have the best shopping deals in the developing world, neither is it to rough it out or live it up in the cheapest manner possible. All of those are byproducts of my greater task — to eat.

I love food with an extraordinary passion only an Asian can understand. You’d expect it to be so if my entire life revolves around it: have you eaten? is an acceptable, indeed the predominant method of greeting. It doesn’t matter if you’ve truly eaten. Just bloody say you have. After all, nobody ever says, “oh, terrible”, in response to “how’s it going?” As a family, in our personal capacities and in all of our social settings, the extent to which we’d go for a good meal is mind boggling to the uninitiated. Think of me — and my family — as an extreme version of Asians who love to eat; it’s not just the good meal we’re after these days, it’s the mind blowing meal that drives us further and further in search of it. All those stories you hear about crossing the Causeway to eat a specific dish for lunch, and flying around Asia to satisfy a craving for roast meats or herbal soups? They were probably talking about us! My English friends were shocked to hear about that. To their mind, it was as unfathomable for someone to be so obsessed with eating, as it was for that person to remain skinny, as it was for there to be more than one such person, or to even have a family full of such people. They couldn’t even fathom the idea of going to France for a good meal over a weekend. Now, if France was as close to me as it is to England — I’d be there to eat up a storm by now!

Backpacking brings out the best and worst of national stereotypes. We inevitably end up banding with the Australians or Dutch or British or Canadian backpackers we meet along the way, and fall into that “doing stuff together” routine. I’d participate intently, in all the most important initiations this temporary alliance brings — especially in that inescapable discussion always taking place five minutes after meeting each other, the one about our bowel activities (“So I got diarrhea in Benares! It was really bad, out flat you know, 7 days.” “You were lucky 7 days was all you got. When I was in Dharamsala..”). Yet when it comes to sightseeing, I’m out of the picture. Minor temple? Palace? Sorry man I’ll see you later — I’ll be at a restaurant. In fact I’ll be at five restaurants today for pre-lunch, lunch, post-lunch, and tea. And I’m not exaggerating. My itinerary is vastly different, yet you can’t call it inferior. It depends on what you’re after, I suppose. I’m after a good meal, or two, or three or four, as I am with every meal I eat back home.

Abroad, my sense of purpose becomes amplified; you could think of me as a younger, poorer, less famous, Asian version of Anthony Bourdain on a Cook’s Tour. My segment would be called A Hungry Asian Woman’s Tour (notice the clever and subtle turn away from “cook”). Aided by spectacular research and some insider information, nothing can faze me. I have had life-changing experiences eating at culinary institutions of each city, such as Bangalore’s Mavalli Tiffin Room. I have traversed the lengths and widths of Thailand and Laos in search of the somtam (papaya salad) fiery enough to put a fire on my tongue and to turn me purple. I’ve developed an unfortunate omnipotent immunity to spice, such that I barely feel a chilli buzz anymore, and that depresses me. Like an addict with eyes glazed over, I’m indignant to find my chilli high. All the food in India and Bangladesh was not spicy enough either. Time after time locals advised, challenged, and urged: what you are about to eat is deadly spicy. I eat. They watch for a reaction. There’s none, just disappointment on my part that if Indian food is not spicy these days, and that I’m blasé about a supposedly terrible tomyam or somtam which has driven my Thai and non-Thai companions to the point of almost pointing fire extinguishers into their mouths, maybe I’ll never find food spicy enough for me.

After a certain amount of travelling in a certain area, you can’t help but feel fatigued by a certain sort of attraction a region has an abundance of. In Southeast Asia, it was wat-fatigue. In Europe, it was cathedral-fatigue. In Darjeeling and other Nepalese/Tibetan areas, I was ghompa-ed over. In Rajasthan, it was forts. Straight off the bus in Jodhpur, when the rickshaw-wallahs tripped over themselves thinking they could rip us off on a round trip to the fort, I turned it down flat. “No fort. You go Sardar Bazaar. Drop me East Gate. I go Shree Mishrilal. Drink best lassi in the world, accha baba!” I stayed in Jodhpur for 3 days, and made 6 stops at the lassi shop. We drank perhaps 5 servings of Mishrilal’s lassi each day, and brought 2 more back to the hotel. Then walked out of the bazaar to Shahi Samosas, best in Rajasthan, 4 rupees (S$0.14) for one, and before they were consumed we’d hail another rickshaw-wallah. “High Court Road, Paraswanath Khulfi”, for the most amazing khulfi (ice cream) you can have for 20 rupees. We never made it to the fort, but we certainly ate a lot.

It’s not all gluttony, but a firm belief that if you want to know Asia — know what Asia eats. Best if dietary restrictions can be put aside temporarily, because to be vegetarian in Southeast Asia is pure torture. Eat everything once, and forget about your developed world idea of hygiene. Sit out by the streets, and bloody eat. See if you don’t have an epiphany. If I get diarrhea, I first think: was it from a good meal, or from a crap one? If it was good, I would probably excuse the cook for the murder of my loved one, and diarrhea’s just the unfortunate side effect so will you give me one more plate, please. So at soi Texas, Yaowarat (Bangkok), we found Lek Seafood in 1 minute, consulted the menu and decided on items for 4 people within 10 minutes, the food came in 3 minutes and we fell silent, deliberating upon the most fantastic crabs, mussels and prawns that S$6 per person can buy. The food was gone in 10 minutes, in the most silent meal ever, as each person had a quiet revelation about why we were there. In Luang Prabang we eschewed the mediocre restaurants on the main strip (where each item in every restaurant was at least US$5), tired of the renditions of Western food and mediocre versions of local food costing an arm and a leg. Stumbling into an alleyway for US$0.50 per person you can have a vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet plate in a corner shack; forging on, since vegetarian does not cut it for me, we settled on excellent feu ga (pho ga, chicken noodle soup). We doused it in fish sauce, decorated it with lime and small cut chillis, bought a whole fish and chicken from the shop next door, a big bottle of Beer Lao, and what an inspiring meal it made — sweating in a little noodle soup stall in a local market in 16 degree Luang Prabang.

Food Street (Bangalore), Lindsay Street (Kolkata), Ari (Bangkok), Petaling Jaya (Malaysia); the places I ate the best are the places I was happiest in. In a tiny shop in dusty Syedpur, Bangladesh, nobody spoke a word of English and I didn’t know what I was eating. But boy, the “cow”, “chicken”, “fish” (fascinating, the choice of vocabulary I learn when learning a new language) they fed me turned me into an instant convert in the school of Eating With Only Your Right Hand. In a family’s dining room in Mawmluh village, Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya (Northeast India), a family watched me engrossed in eating rice with fermented bean and beef and stewed pork, eating raw little chillis to go with my food (it’s a custom). Aoky’s mother thought I was so truly into Khasi culture and food that she believed I would have no problem chewing 2 betel nuts too. It was on that part that I faltered, though I’m sure if betel nuts tasted better, I’d be all over them too.

Now I’m hungry again.

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