EXQUISITE GASTRONOMY | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 23, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 23, 2017

Musings

EXQUISITE GASTRONOMY

Dealing with food issues occupied most of my adult life. This gave me exposure to some unforgettable gastronomic experiences. Here are three such episodes.

THE AROMATIC GRASSCUTTER SOUP

After a long field trip, hunger gripped the mission members who could barely wait to eat, yearning for whatever they could find. The Project Manager had arranged lunch near a visiting oil palm plantation site. A massive bowl of boiling soup arrived, with rice, fried plantain and yam served separately. Everyone started to dig into the soup first. When my turn came, I noticed that  the soup contained assorted meat, feet of piglets, cray fish and fresh palm nuts; it had a greenish texture that I was trying to figure out. Seeing my inquisitive looks, the Project Manager announced : “The greenish part is the very essence of this soup dish. It is the contents of the intestine of the grasscutter, (a cousin of the “cane rat” species which feeds only on grass), that gives the richness and unworldly aroma of the soup, and that's why it looks greenish. Have some, very delicious”.  "Wow, sounds exquisite," I said, and felt satisfied with the yummy fried plantain and rice and yam. Nobody paid much attention to the Project Manager's utterances and enjoyed the lunch. The grasscutter is the second largest rodent after porcupine, I should add. You can also have it smoked or grilled like kebab, though it consumes its own feces or poops. Grasscutter farming is a money making machine yielding some 30 percent of around $60 million a year in bushmeat business.                          

THE SIGNATURE DELICACY

This was at an official dinner in a prestigious restaurant where I happened to be the guest of honor. Amid exchanges of greetings and decorum, the evening began pleasantly with all kinds of drinks and appetizers. Soon nicely decorated food dishes started flowing from all directions. As we began to eat, the Chef came with a beautiful white oval ceramic dish with something maroonish and shiny in it, and placed it in front of me. From the corner of my eyes, I took an unassuming cursory glance at it without interrupting our conversation. The lady on my left was watching me very carefully throughout. As soon as I finished my remarks on how to foster regional youth talents, she softly uttered: “Esteemed Mister ......., there is no pork served here, we  know you don't eat that. This is our signature delicacy - fresh dog meat, you must try it.“ Having had dogs as pets all my life, I tried politely to dodge the offer by saying, “Please go ahead, there's so much food on the table, I am enjoying myself”. When she insisted again, a stern look from across the table with a slight tilt of the head quietened her and relieved my invisible stress! My anxiety was put to sleep with perhaps one too many bottoms-up of Chamisul Soju in a branded glass. Nevertheless, it was a lovely evening! Guess how many millions of this faithful friend of humans land up on the table each year -  25 million worldwide, according to 2014 estimates. The notorious Yulin festival is famous for canine meat. It's time for a compassionate movement to ban the endless slaughtering of man's best friend.

THE PASTOR'S  SPECIAL WHITE MEAT

At a missionary center, where I went to provide training on conscientization and group dynamics, it was time for dinner. Six of us were evenly seated across the neatly laid mahogany dining table. At the corner on a high mantel shelf, stood a wooden statue of Lord Buddha in a meditation posture. The stomach of the statue was finely carved inwards giving a convincing image of having achieved Nirvana. The Pastor first chanted some thankful prayers and then pointed to the statue and remarked: ”That's the role model; we must aspire to be like him.” Food was served immediately thereafter. In the middle of the table was placed a big shack of barbecued ribs (huge in size),  on my right was a golden crispy roasted chicken, on the right of Father Pastor was a squarish chunk of a white dish which looked to me like steamed fish. Other dishes included roasted potatoes, beans and carrot salad, freshly baked bread, cottage cheese and some juicy fruits. After-meal servings included a choice of herbal tea or spicy turkish like coffee and a bottle of locally made schnapps, all of which were nicely placed on a side trolley. My eyes were set on the ribs but the Father said: “For you is the chicken,” the pork ribs are for us. ”Upon gently enquiring about the white chunk near him, Sister Mary whispered into my ear,” That's Father's specialty, he found a big python in the forest today; he loves that white meat, he hunts one once a week. ”I happily settled with my chicken and the veggies. What a sumptuous meal it was - all the food were grown in the parish property including the poor python! Nobody in the surrounding communities suffered from food insecurity. While retiring for the evening, I prayed that Father Pastor does not pass on his predatory “white meat” habit to his merciful companions and devout followers. My own awareness lesson was that, with such regular feasting, Nirvana will surely remain miles away! My environmental knowledge hadn't matured by then, yet a silent thought flashed through as to who will halt the ecological imbalance that Father began by ignorantly ridding the forest of snakes and snails to his culinary delight!

Mohamed Saleheen retired recently from the World Food Programme. He represented it in different countries of the world & now lives in Rome.

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