Sunday, 11 December 2011

Eating my way round the world.

Looking back, most of the meals I had while I was travelling are a bit of a blur. They are all recorded in my diaries, but there is a limit to how exciting yet another menu and meal alone can be.

(I wasn't always alone - a couple of friends joined me for a while, and I met people along the way to eat with. But many evenings were spent alone.)

I am, now, undaunted by the whole restaurant-on-my-own thing. I always have my diary, and a book to read. Which means I can listen to conversations going on around me and writing them down or, if that is too boring, read my own book. But I scanned too many menus to be surprised any more. I ate fish fresh from the sea in Australia, curries in the backwaters of Kerala, nasi lemak in Malaysia - there was joy in discovering new cuisine but eating out on my own, every evening, became a challenge.

(Could I not cook for myself? Yes, in Australia and New Zealand, when I was in hostels or campsites. But once in Nepal and India I was in hotels, where cooking for myself was impossible.)

However, a few experiences stand out.

One day, in Nepal, Tika (my guide) suggested that his wife, Shobha, walk with us. She was a slight woman with gentle eyes, and endlessly curious about me. I must have passed some sort of test, because she invited me to eat with them that evening. I arrived to find her hunched over an open stove on her rooftop, frying pieces of fish, to go with the rice and spinach and dal. (To think I make a fuss about cooking when people come round - and I have a fridge, and cooker, and a dishwasher.)

We talked about our families, as women do. And suddenly she turned and asked, 'Are you lonely?' 

I was so taken aback I could only answer honestly. 'Sometimes I'm lonely, and sometimes I like having my own way all the time.'

'In that case,' she said, 'you will eat here every night you are in Pokhara.' And I did; she hunched over her little rooftop stove and I ate like a queen.

Shobha is one of the reasons I'm going back to Nepal next year.

Further south, when I stayed in a guesthouse just outside Cochin, in India, I was presented with my own cook. (No, I don't know quite how that happened.) I was given a menu, asked to choose - he would make me anything, he said. Until I suggested samosas.

'They take a ... very ... long time, madam,' he said, with a huge sigh. He stretched the word 'very' is if to illustrate how long.

We settled on pakoras.

And for supper? 'I hear the fish curries are good here?'

'There may be no fish in the market, madam.'

I soon learned my place in this food-dance. I suggested he find what was good in the market, and I would eat it. The result - the best food of my trip. He was truly talented. And - just once - he allowed me into his kitchen. Not to touch anything, but to smell it. So I stood by the stove and inhaled - ginger, and cinnamon, and coconut milk. Curry will never be the same again.

Who surprised you with wonderful food, at that moment when you needed it most?


  1. I can see why being in a restaurant alone wouldn't phase you in the slightest any more :-)

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  3. Shobha sounds lovely! So sweet to ask you to dinner each night. And your own cook, too. I like the way he said you could choose anything, and then persuaded you round to his choosing :D.

    As an aside, I've given you an award :). You may very well already have it, or not want it, but I thought I'd let you know it's over at my blog.

  4. Sarah - maybe I'll blog about eating alone in restaurants sometime - it does have its funny side, and most of us have to do it at some time.

    Coral - Shobha is, indeed, lovely. And my cook was fun, in a way. And thanks so much for the award. I shall celebrate with cake.

  5. What a wonderful post! Food is one of the joys of travelling - from evening tapas in sunshine by the sea in Spain (having had warming bean stew for lunch above the snowline in Sierra Nevada) to baked fish by lake Balaton; slow roast lamb at a wedding in Segovia to sampling at a salami museum in Szeged.

    Two meals I'll never forget, though: pizza in Tampere in Finland when it was -35C and although the hotel was 10 metres across the road from the pizzeria it was so cold the food was almost frozen solid when we got it to the room. And in Brno in the Czech Republic. My wife had had her bag stolen at a supermarket, and had spent 3 hours in a police station . It was 10 at night and we'd missed our flight and needed to head all the way back to Prague to get to teh embassy the next morning. And we were starving. The police interpreter insisted we come back to the flat she shared with her father (who was clad in dressing gown and parked in front of the TV but seemed unsurprised as though this kind of generosity was commonplace for her) where she fed us large quantities of toast and "cream of the meat" (pate) before summoning us a police escort to take us to the nearest petrol station then out onto the motorway back to Prague, laden with her favourite biscuits to keep us nourished on teh journey.

  6. Dan - What a Czech meal to remember. I wonder if they realised just what a difference they made to your evening. The kindness of strangers can be humbling. I hope someone would be just as kind in this country?

    Too easy to shrug our shoulders and feel we would all pass by on the other side? I'm not so sure - I think we look out for each other more than we realise. And it's interesting - we may not recall our own random acts of kindness, but - as a recipient - we always do.