I have never considered myself a foodie. Over the years of travel across Europe, I have gotten by with whatever I have come across, which being a vegetarian has at times been only bread and cheese. Food was not a priority and I spent the least amount of time searching for the specialities that a place had to offer. Now I wonder though if I was missing something in my travels.
When I look back now, I remember those travels more clearly in which I had tasted the local flavours, and eaten well. One that has remained etched in my memory is the trip to Rome. We were newly married and it was our first trip to Italy. We were in Rome for a week, and after spending long days on the streets we would eat at a local restaurant next to our hotel. However, no ordinary restaurant it was, for it was always crowded with locals and we had to wait to be seated. If we placed an order, and the waitress didn’t agree with our choice, she showed no restraint. “I don’t like it,”she told us bluntly on more than one occasion. Taking away our menus, she would order vegetarian fare of her choice. And her recommendations worked every time, so much so that we remember the food as much as the sights. Those were the days before Google Maps, and we had stumbled across this place without reading any reviews. Years later when we went back to Rome, we couldn’t locate the restaurant. But we still search for it every time we go to Rome.
In contrast, there isn’t much that I remember about Doha, which I visited a decade ago. Except for a little memory…I had gone there to meet a friend. I stayed with him and his wife made sure that I remained well fed with Indian food throughout. On my last evening though, my friend took me to the nearest souk. We sat inside a local restaurant while he ordered the food — an Arabic flatbread called manousha. It came with a dollop of hummus placed in the centre. I was non-committal, sensing which my friend gently nudged me to try it.The creamy layer of hummus, peppered with sesame seeds and drizzled in olive oil, scooped in soft bread melted in my mouth, exploding into rich earthy flavours. There I was, sitting in that small Arabic café, encountering tastes that I had never experienced before, and the memory of which has remained with me till date. Coming laced with these memories are the smells and the feverishness of that souk, ever fresh and still not sandpapered by the years and the countless other experiences that I have collected since then.
The pandemic has restricted us to mostly armchair travelling. Given the time at hand, I have now started recollecting my travels from the past decade. While doing so I realised that the sharpest memories on the road have been when food was integral to the experience. A further thought comes to mind — by putting labels on ourselves, foodie or non-foodie, we often restrict the experiences that we collect. For what’s learning the culture of a city without absorbing the noises from its neighbourhood, without walking its streets, and without tasting the food on offer.