Happiest moment of the Dubai trip: when two vegetarian fellow travellers came within inches of ordering a veal dish (considering previous incidents such as the turbine/turban one, they had probably confused the word with “vegetable”, or thought it was shorthand). I made sure to watch their faces when the waiter explained what veal was, it felt nice. Then, clucking solicitously whenever they happened to catch my eye, I listened to their loud tirades about the “dirty eats” available outside India. Then I ordered a beef steak with pepper sauce.
Sorry if that sounds callous, and of course one doesn’t expect vegetarians (or orthodox Hindus) to try beef/veal just because they are in a foreign country – but by that point in the trip I was so fed up of these people (for other reasons too, not just their attitude towards food) that I sought malicious pleasure in anything that discomfited them. Some of the fussiness and boorishness on display was beyond belief. One keeps hearing horror stories about the insularity of travelling Indians, but this was the first time I was seeing it at such close quarters.
Personally I’m very experimental with food. When I became a feature journalist a few years ago, the restaurant revolution in Delhi was just beginning, we suddenly had access to authentic Lebanese and Italian and Thai and Chinese and continental food outside of 5-star hotels, my job provided a pretext to try new things, and I relished it. And when travelling abroad, as a matter of policy I try as many different dishes as possible – especially the stuff there’s little hope of getting in Delhi. (There was one notable aberration in Glasgow a couple of years ago when, after eight straight days of eating dry continental meals, I developed a near-frenzied craving for spicy daal/curry and hot naan and rushed to the town centre to find an Indian restaurant. Old habits diet hard.)
This doesn’t mean I expect everyone else to be adventurous in their eating habits. The fact is, most people (certainly most Indians) simply don’t like to step outside the comfort zone when it comes to food, and this is understandable to an extent, even if you don’t account for the many religious taboos. If, up to a certain age, you’ve been weaned on a particular cuisine/cooking style, it’s very difficult to break the mould. And if you aren’t professionally associated with food (as a consultant, say, or as a food writer) and if you haven’t travelled much, there’s little opportunity (or reason) to expand your culinary horizons.
But there are degrees and degrees of insularity, and when it reaches the point where you’ve completely closed your mind to any sort of new experience, and in the process made a spectacle of yourself and inconvenienced others…well, that’s problematic.
One example from this trip: just moments after announcing that he’s a hardcore non-vegetarian and extremely hungry, a chap pushed away a plate of pan-fried chicken breast because the dish was “too unfamiliar”. He dismissively ordered the waiters to take the plate away and then gave them (and our tourist guide) sidelong glares as if it were their fault. And we’re not talking oysters or scallops or octopuses or even shrimps or prawns. We’re talking pan-fried chicken breast, which is just about the least exotic non-Indian item you can find on a menu.
“Frankly speaking,” the chap then said, in the tone often employed by people who use that phrase (and “to be honest” and others such) as if they are about to bestow a hitherto undisclosed Indubitable Truth on the world, “nothing can compare with our Indian food. Even people who come to India for the first time from other countries forget about their own food after tasting our home-made cooking.” Our tour guide, to whom these words were being addressed, looked dubious but nodded politely and said he hoped to visit India soon. I wonder if he ever will now.
P.S.: “Our Indian food” was quite the sweeping generalisation coming from these people. Going by the rest of their conversations, they knew very little about the parts of India that are located outside north-west Delhi. (“Bihari people are known as very intayleegent, isn’t it?” one of them said, referring to a Mr Bose he was acquainted with.) And maybe, just maybe, I’m over-analysing and reading too much into eating habits, but I can’t help wondering about the connection between insularity of this sort and narrow-mindedness in other spheres. Fodder for future posts perhaps...
Update: should have mentioned this earlier. Dubai does of course have plenty of eating options for Indians who want to stick with comfort food - in fact there were a couple of highly regarded (and inexpensive) vegetarian Indian restaurants just a stone's throw from our hotel. But our junket-happy journos, for all their complaining, would never actually have gone to one of those places. It would have meant spending their own money (outside meals weren't included in our package) and that would have been a fate worse than starving to death.