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     Volume 7 Issue 46 | November 21, 2008 |

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Food for Thought

Travel Tales
Culinary Adventures and Cultural Contrasts

Farah Ghuznavi

I remember, a long time ago, my mother telling me that one of the things she loved about being on holiday was the sheer anonymity it afforded. For someone like her, who has always had a hectic work life, and seems to know just about everyone in town, I can imagine that the peace of being surrounded by people who neither know you nor want anything from you, would be pleasurable indeed! But even for those of us who maintain a less gruelling pace, travelling can provide a welcome break from everyday life: a chance to experience something different, to be an observer looking through a window into a different world. And of course, it also provides the opportunity to carry out ongoing research into where the world's best chocolate cake is to be found…

One of the nicest things about being on holiday is probably just having a moment to breathe. Even to smell the coffee, so to speak. In fact, I was doing just that on a recent trip, when I looked out of the bakery window to see a young girl (at most, six or seven years old) standing earnestly on the edge of the pavement in front of a zebra crossing. She was carrying a pink backpack approximately two thirds her own size, and looking very carefully in different directions as she pondered her options.

As the cars did what drivers are supposed to do (and rarely if ever do in Dhaka!), coming to a stop in front of the zebra crossing, she bravely set across. Being civilised, the drivers waited patiently. The little girl's nervousness was betrayed by the way that she picked up speed as she approached the other pavement, almost flying with the last few steps. But what was charming was her determination to appear fully confident. So despite the inclination to run, she limited herself to moving only at the maximum speed at which her dignity would allow her to go...!

Travel can provide interesting insights into how different societies address similar issues, and one easy way of assessing this is through noting the differences in the treatment of children in various areas of the globe (e.g. when they are trying to cross the road, as in my earlier example). And the differences between countries situated in the same neighbourhood can be as striking as those among countries which are continents apart.

I have often admired the patience of the Dutch and the Scandinavians in particular, when it comes to children behaving badly. This form of parental tolerance, by the way, should not be confused with simply spoiling children (something increasingly common among the better-off in our own society, now showing at an expensive fast food outlet near you). I saw a Swedish father dealing with his kicking, screaming six-year-old son in a busy market place, with a remarkable degree of patience. "Fredrik, you know we came here to get an ice cream. If you don't stop kicking daddy, we will have to go home. And then we can't have any ice cream. So please stop it" the father said (this, mind you, as he was holding his son in his arms, trying to avoid his flailing limbs - I'm pretty sure I would never have displayed that degree of calm if my child was throwing the mother of all tantrums in a public place!)

Alas, Fredrik was beyond appreciating the common sense behind his father's argument, and continued his screaming fit, now also demanding ice cream in the midst of his rage. "Okay, if you're going to be like this, we can't have ice cream," his father said in a sad but determined tone. And as I watched, fascinated, Fredrik's still-calm parent took his bitterly sobbing son homewards again… This approach probably combines the best of both worlds: the child was not harshly punished for his misbehaviour, but the deprivation of the ice cream would probably drive home the point that he couldn't get away with such tantrums either.

I couldn't help contrasting this with another such interaction I had observed some time ago, between a British mother and her young child, which still haunts me. It took place in a general store, where the three-year-old was whining because he wanted some toy. His mother, who was obviously already annoyed with him, lashed out verbally, "Shut up, you little monster! I wish I'd never had you - you've ruined my life!" One must not generalise too much on the basis of such examples (and that was certainly a somewhat extreme instance) but based on what I've seen to date, I think I prefer the Swedish approach…

One of the most exciting as well as challenging aspects of travel (depending on your inclination to allergies, cultural/religious constraints and personal preferences) is frequently related to food. Trying new food is an intrinsic part of experiencing different cultures. So a friend of mine who lives in fear of accidentally consuming pork during her travels, decided to claim to be a vegetarian on a recent work-related tour of China, where she would be attending a number of official banquets. As course after mouth-watering course of beef, chicken and fish passed her by, she clung grimly to her vegetarian identity, despite being teased mercilessly by her fellow travellers. In the end, she got her revenge (and then some!) when her companions discovered that on one occasion an unidentified meat had actually turned out to be snake! This is one of the reasons I prefer to focus my explorations into the unknown on chocolate cake myself…

While some may consider my approach unambitious, it's true that nothing beats the simple pleasures in life, no matter where you are or where you're from. Which I was again reminded of, after hearing about a Swedish friend's visit to see her 90-year-old aunt, who had been feeling nauseous and had completely lost her appetite. Everyone was very sad, because it meant that she couldn't eat the Chinese spring rolls that had been purchased for the visit. Some might have considered these a somewhat exotic choice of treat for such an elderly Scandinavian woman, but to everyone's amazement, the old lady suddenly got very excited at the prospect of spring rolls. She made an amazing recovery and ate several of them, her nausea a distant memory (which fortunately didn't recur after the feast)!

In fact, the increasing globalisation of our food habits provides ample proof of the democratisation of travel in the last few decades. Eating ethnic foods is no longer limited to immigrant communities! The famous cookbook writer, Madhur Jaffrey researched the history of the thousands of Indian indentured labourers sent by British colonial companies to work in sugarcane and rubber plantations as far away as South Africa. The result of this “imperial melting pot” ultimately led to these people, far away from home, preparing their own half-remembered versions of Indian food. Interestingly, while the rice and meat biryani dishes survived the long journey and ultimately became a part of the rich tapestry of South African cuisine, the typical steamed rice cakes (idlis) did not re-emerge once the odyssey of the South Indian labourers had been completed.

In the western world, Indian food -- like its Chinese equivalent -- has ended up being “adapted” into all kinds of strange permutations and combinations. Thus, chicken tikka masala, one of the best-loved Indian dishes in the UK (and for some time at the top of the British list of favourite foods), is actually a hybrid alien creation that remains completely unknown in India!

Greater knowledge of and exchange between cultures -- as exemplified by the way that cuisines have travelled far beyond national borders -- can only be a good thing. And though we still have some way to go before we can claim to have achieved the same exponential rate of transfer of knowledge on subjects other than culinary traditions, at least we can hope never again to have to hear the kind of insular anecdote recounted by the travel writer Jan Morris (referring to the 1970s): “Few residents of Manhattan really much care about what happens anywhere else… theirs is a cross-town outlook, focusing ever closer… upon the vortex of the place -- which is to say, themselves. 'Does dyslexia,' I heard an interviewer say in all seriousness on television one day, 'crop up in other parts of the country, or is it pertinent only in Manhattan?'”

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