Stay Hungry, Stay Footloose

Proust had his madeleine. For crime writer and seasoned traveller ZAC O’YEAH, memories of journeys past are triggered by recollections of flavours, from Egyptian pulao to lamb chops in Athens.

Published on:May 1, 2016 12:00 am

I have a terrible memory. I can’t remember whether I was born forgetful or if I degenerated over the years. Even worse is the fact that my travel memories are being automatically deleted.

After 25 years of travel writing, everything I’ve done merges into one humungous memory of airports, taxis, bars and hotel rooms. Sometimes I’ve browsed through copies of the magazines I’ve written for to figure out where I went. Did I really stay in the Maldives in a room that cost Rs 1,50,000 per night? I suppose I must have, because I vaguely remember I drank so much complimentary champagne at the resort that during the night I mistook my shoe for the toilet commode. I recall that because as a rule I don’t make that mistake…often.

When it comes to trips on which I didn’t outrage my own modesty, it is harder to recollect. Or that’s the way it used to be — until I discovered that I could remember something I’d eaten almost everywhere I’ve gone. And once I remember the food, then I can see the restaurant, and then the street outside and how I walked down it to see some sight or the other.

It all started when I was trying to think of the revolution in Egypt. After five years, most of it is a bit of a haze. But I do know that my most satisfactory meal was in Luxor. The gourmet experience wasn’t one of the guidebook recommendations but a simple dish served in a tiny canteen near the railway station. Akher Sa’a was run by a veiled woman and her jolly husband: she cooked, he served. What caught my attention were the fish pots stewing slowly on the grill. The fish dish came with a plate of Egyptian pulao, flat breads, salads and a delicious Arabic mush. When I asked for a recipe, the lady said it’s nothing special, just a mix with “Egyptian masala”. Her choice of words reminded me that the Indian spice route passed through there in ancient times, when merchants sailed up the Red Sea, crossed the desert on the old Roman road to Luxor, and shipped spices up the Nile to Mediterranean ports. The spices probably infiltrated Egyptian cuisine to such a degree that masala is part of their vocabulary. Starting from that recollection, I was able to paint a mental image of Luxor on the Nile, the tombs of the pharaohs, the magnificent ruins, and the dry desert air.

A pizzeria in Verona (L), the Acropolis (top right), a cafe in Athens’s Plaka quarters. A pizzeria in Verona (L), the Acropolis (top right), a cafe in Athens’s Plaka quarters.

Challenging myself a bit, next, I conjure up images from Chengdu in China. It’s billed as a Unesco City of Gastronomy, because it happens to be the capital of Szechwan, famous for what we call “schezwan cuisine” in India. Meaning hot gravies from Chinese joints, sometimes even sold off pushcarts – I’ve seen pushcart-wallahs fry schezwan pickle Maggi noodle masala dosas! You won’t get that in Chengdu, but you will get the famous hot pot which is enormously spicy with the distinctively mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns mixed into the oily broth. I recall the meal I shared with some locals, consisting of a bubbling pot of broth into which one dips meats and vegetables (using chopsticks) until the morsels are soaked through with the spices and thoroughly cooked. It’s a bit messy, but the thick potato noodles were fabulous, as were the filament-like mushrooms. Thinking back to that fun evening, I remember spending the day before, walking from one Buddhist monastery to the next and taking breaks in the tea rooms — yes, the monasteries have tea rooms — to drink cup after cup of Chengdu’s famous local tea.

The recollections open the gates of my memory and all kinds of food and travel-related memories flood back. A clear image of one of the last warm summer evenings in Verona 10 years ago, at a nondescript pizzeria in an alley with an unclear name, eating a pizza to die for. My hotel didn’t have an elevator so I had just lugged four suitcases up six floors. No wonder I was hungry. Verona has cafes on the riverside, an amphitheatre and many churches. And, of course, the balcony where Juliet is supposed to have stood when Romeo wooed her.

In neighbouring Greece, what comes to mind is the mountain of grilled lamb chops, subtly flavoured with rosemary, served at a tavern I visited about 20 years ago. The very popular To Steki Tou Ilia (Eptahalkou 5 in Athens) was recommended to me by a local lady. I remember sitting under huge wine barrels of resinated wine, retsina, suspended from the ceiling. The wine was served by the pitcher and the chops by the kilo. This tavern is a short walk from the touristy Plaka, but sufficiently distant so that no tourists (but me) could be seen there. I remember the nightly walks back to my accommodation, beneath the towering Acropolis, and the weeks I spent on archaeological sites of which there are so many that one has to go back again — and when I did after 10 years, I found that To Steki Tou Ilia was still where I had left it.

The more I think of all that I’ve eaten, the more my memories travel. I relive trips I thought I had forgotten — the weird sea bug lobsters on the Australian Gold Coast where I cruised in 2010; the sauerkraut in East Berlin during the Cold War; the Toad-in-the-Hole at the Philharmonic, in Liverpool’s Hope Street where the Beatles used to drink; the simple but delicious litti chokha in Bihar that cost Rs 3 a plate at the Sonepur mela, where I rented an elephant for the day; the chewy innards of a goat served at a local bar in Zimbabwe during the civil war in 2000, and the friendliness of the locals who, despite my being warned about it, didn’t rob me even once.

And why should I not mention the vada-sambar I had for breakfast at Kamat Hotel, near the Majestic bus stand, the first time I set foot in Bengaluru in 1992? I now realise that its memory haunted me and made me return to India again and again until I eventually settled here.

It is all coming back to me — because it seems that food has guided my steps wherever I’ve gone in the world.