Thursday, April 12, 2007

Memorable Meals – Prt 1: India

At a dinner party recently, the topic of conversation shifted to memories of fine dining experiences. Guests recounted exquisitely prepared meals, five star restaurants, top chefs, vintage wines and the like. While I listened to these experiences, I began thinking of my own memories of memorable meals and found that not a single one involved great restaurants. In many cases I’d be hard pressed to remember the name of whoever hosted or prepared these culinary impressions, but that didn’t really matter. For me, the memories of good food and drink remain centered on the social aspect involved, not the ingredients, per se. And Lord knows I’ve tried to replicate some of these repasts by carefully gathering the elements and meticulously preparing the meal, only to have it end in mediocrity. It just isn’t the same; the experience of great meal is an immediate thing that can never quite be duplicated, and probably should remain so. Too much of anything isn’t supposed to be good for us, so these fleeting moments should be remembered, not replicated. With that in mind, I’ll be recounting some of my more memorable meals from my various travels around the globe, for as George Bernard Shaw once said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”


On the dirty shores of the northwestern Indian state of Gujurat can be found the largest shipbreaking site on the planet: Alang. It’s a grimy, dirty expanse of industrial hell where ocean-going vessels come to be cut apart by thousands of migrant workers so that the steel and other artifacts can be recycled. I was visiting Alang to do research on the life cycle of a ship and had been invited to wander through one shipbreaking yard by its genial owner. As the sun began to set behind Alang, the man invited my translator and me to join him for dinner in the ramshackle building he worked from at the far end of his yard.

To decline the invitation would have been considered impolite, but I was a little nervous about things: this was my first trip to India and I’d heard numerous tales of people getting sick while eating local food. And one look around the shipbreaking yard did little to help, as the place was covered in a perpetual haze from the welding torches cutting through steel and the air was thick with metal particles and God knows what else. Making our way to the owner’s hut, we wandered past workers heading for the nearby hovels they called home, men and boys who were caked in grime but still managed to smile my way as they finished up for the day. The clang of a steel plate echoed somewhere close and the wind coming in off the bay carried with it the stench of human excrement and smell of burning steel.

At the back of the shipbreaking yard, we were led to a backdoor into the hut, which revealed a small kitchen and a couple of men cooking on a large stove. The room was small, with a dirt floor. We continued inside, past the shy chefs, and into the dining room, which was fashioned completely from bits and pieces of some long-gone ship. By the looks of things, it had once been the mess hall on a Yugoslavian freighter, with a long table in the middle and several lounge chairs nestled by the mock-wood paneling. The owner had even kept the photos from the mess hall bulkheads, fading black and white images of Rijeka and Pula, two important shipbuilding ports in what is now Croatia. I did note that there was no framed photo of Tito hanging, though I’m sure one had hung somewhere in prominence on the ocean-going vessel.

Unsure of what was to happen next, my translator and I sat ourselves at the table and waited. Within a few moments, one of the cooks entered bearing the first of the meal. Pradip, my trusted translator, quickly explained that we were being served a traditional Gujarati meal, which meant a vegetarian dinner served without utensils. As the stainless steel trays were placed on the table, I quickly wiped my hands on my pants and, following Pradip’s lead, began to delve in into the thali meal.

What happened next remains fixed in my memory: A delicious mouthful of great subtlety. I’d already sampled Gujarati food while staying in nearby Ahmedabad, but it had been prepared for foreigners and was bland. The region is not noted for rich or spicy foods, as some other areas of India are, but some people in Toronto had told me it could be fantastic. But until this moment I had not experienced it.

Potatoes, green beans, rotis, yogurt, dal, papd, chutneys – the meal kept growing, and I kept eating. Like savouring a fine wine, this was a meal in which you had to pay attention to the small things, the flavours and aromas that gently came at you. Unlike richer, cream-based meals, this dinner did not fill you up quickly; it was lighter and graceful.

By the time we’d eaten our fill the owner arrived for tea, served in the Indian style. He invited the cooks to join us for glasses of spicy chai, giving me the chance to thank them for the meal. So in the midst of a ramshackle dining room pieced together from a dead ship, stuck in a grungy scrap yard, two men whom I would never meet again smiled meekly as I stammered my gratitude for the best meal I had ever had in India.

As the chefs left, I asked the shipbreaking yard owner where they learned their craft, and where they lived. He took a sip of chai and told me, “They learned from their mothers. They are Gujaratis. And they live here – in Alang. They are also shipbreakers.”