Thursday, 15 April 2010

Acquired taste (Eπίκτητη γεύση)

This post forms part of the series of our culinary adventures from our recent trip to Paris and London.

Pretend you are nine years old, and have been raised almost exclusively on a culturally inclined cuisine defined by home-cooked meals: what does it feel like when you enter a cultural anomaly and are told: "Eat this 'cos that's all there is to eat"?

Sometimes I completely forget I'm hungry. Like today, when we went from one adventure to another. We started off by taking a train that went under the sea, and when we came back up on the ground...
gare du nord eurostar st pancras eurostar
From the Gare du Nord to St Pancras: no baggage claim or shuttle services to the city centre

... we ended up being in another country, with a different language and weather in just over two hours. When the day is so full of so many new sights and sounds, and so many buttons to press...

flight control deck science museum imax science museum
Science Museum flight control simulation; IMAX theater

... when it's all over, I just want to sit down somewhere - anywhere - and rest. If I don't find a chair, I'll just sit down any old place, and I won't notice if it's dirty or cold, which is why my parents have just got annoyed with me.

"We're on the street!" my father began to shout, which would have sounded silly to a passerby because it was pretty obvious where we were.

"Well, there's no chair anywhere!" I replied. "Let's go somewhere where they have some!" I was almost crying now. We'd been walking around for a while and I was feeling very tired. That's when it suddenly hit me: the last time I had eaten something was long ago enough for me to be feeling very, very hungry right now. And ditto for the toilet, where at least there would be a place to sit.

"I have to go." I looked at my mother hopefully. This one usually works.

"We'll be getting there soon," she answered.


"You'll see." When she says that, it's because she can't point to the place where we're heading, and I know we'll be walking for even longer. "And it will have a toilet," she added, for reassurance. We had just come out of the underground. I preferred it down there, even though the walls always made me feel like I was in the biggest bathroom in the world, with all those plain block-colour tiles. If you touch them, they feel as cold as the tiles covering the walls of a restroom.

tube exit sign
This exit sign reminds me of a bathroom mirror.

Even if you don't manage to get a seat when you get on the train and you end up standing for the whole journey, at least you can be guaranteed of finding a seat once you get off the train, because all the people waiting at the platform will have jumped into the carriage you just left and no one will be there, so you have the whole place to yourself.

paris metro
It does not get any more comfortable than this - a furniture store advertising their wares in a Paris metro station; we waited for the second train just so that we could all rest our tired feet here. When you're on holiday, you're in no hurry.
paris metro

We were walking along a street with many shops, none of which seemed to be open. Mum was taking photographs every now and then, but I couldn't see anything special. All the buildings were similar, and they looked kind of old. They didn't have a lot of colours, just a lot of brown. And we just kept on walking along these dull-looking roads, as if we didn't have a home to go to. It was getting dark, and I really didn't feel like walking any more. It was time to be somewhere nice and warm.

muslim centre whitechapel road islamic bank whitechapel
Having been raised in an enclave of a minority culture among a dominant white class, I felt at home in Whitechapel. The locals are also more likely to be family-oriented, hence, in our case, we fitted in quite nicely ...

"When are we going to sit down?" I whined. Mum and Dad were smiling and laughing and talking with Uncle, while they looked around at the old brown buildings. They weren't paying me and my sister much attention. We may as well have been wearing invisibility cloaks. There were plenty of restaurants and places selling food on the street, but with Mum and Dad, it always has to be a specific one, not just any old place. As we passed the food places one-by-one, I could smell what was coming from behind their doors, but I could not quite place the food. I couldn't tell you if it was meat or vegetables or spaghetti or rice. These smells were new to me.

*** *** ***

We finally went into one of the buildings, where it was lovely and warm. Now the aroma of the food began to hit my nose with quite a smack. I was dreaming of makaronada. I ate makaronada every day in Paris, and it was really good. From what I know, all restaurants serve makaronada. I hoped the one served here was going to be as good as the one I had in Paris.

We walked upstairs and a man showed us to a table in the corner. He passed us some menu cards, then he went away. Mum told me that since we were going to be in England now, I would be able to read and understand everything on the menu card, unlike in Paris, where I didn't understand anything because it was in French, and only Mum knew French, so she ordered everyone's meals there. But when I looked at the menu card, the only words I could understand was the word 'Drinks'. It's not that I couldn't read what was printed on the card: the first two words were papadom and samosa, but I couldn't imagine what they were. Everything looked Chinese to me**. As I looked around the restaurant, I began to notice that some other things were also not quite right, because I couldn't hear anyone speaking in English, either, not even the waiters.

"Where does it say 'makaronada', Mum?" Mum gave me one of those looks which I understood Linkimmediately - I knew that no matter what she tried to do for me, I would be disappointed.

"They don't do makaronada here," she explained apologetically, "but they have lots of meat dishes, and plenty of pilafi***." She spoke in that way of hers that she has when she tries to get me interested in eating something I don't know, or something that isn't white.

"I just want the pilafi, Mum, you know that. And don't forget to ask for some yoghurt," I reminded her. We once had pilafi in Athens, but the people who made it said that they didn't eat yoghurt with their pilafi, and since they didn't have any yoghurt in their fridge, I had to go without; I can't remember if I ate it on that night, but Mum says I did, so I suppose I must have been very hungry. Just as I'd mentioned the yoghurt, a chubby man came to the table carrying a bottle of water and two small dishes filled with coloured food. He placed them on the table and left us again without saying a word.

raita and green salad lahore kebab house
Raita and salad

"Finally!" My sister made a grab for the lettuce in one of the dishes. She eats everything I don't eat, and she sometimes likes the kind of food I like. But unlike her, I never forget to use the cutlery provided. She's smaller than me, so I suppose she's worried she'll be the last to eat anything, so she makes a grab for the food before she goes for the cutlery.

"Why didn't they bring any bread with that?" she asked. "How are we going to eat the tzatziki?" That didn't stop her; she picked up her knife, dipped into the bowl and licked off the yoghurt.

Well, at least they have yoghurt, I thought. I asked Mum if she could tell the waiters to bring some plain white yoghurt because this tzatziki looked spotty. She told me it wasn't on the menu, and we can't ask for food that isn't written on the menu card.

"But don't they need yoghurt to make tzatziki?" I complained.

Mum looked at me squarely. I knew this look of hers, too: it means "Gosh, you're SO clever" and it usually means that she can't fool me. She tried to comfort me in my confusion. "Everyone makes their yoghurt in different ways, dear, and this one's practically the same thing as what we eat at home."

I was not that easily convinced. "It's got black spots in it. Can I ask them to bring some of this without the spots?" I was beginning to panic over the lack of white food on the table so far.

"Mmmm, the tzatziki's nice," my sister said, dipping a lettuce leaf into the bowl, and licking her fingers after she ate it. "It's different to real tzatziki, but it's still nice."

I was tempted to try it (the tzatziki, not the lettuce - I don't do greens, thank you), but I decided to wait till the pilafi came. But even if I did want to try it, I don't use my fingers like my sister does, and there were only knives and forks on the table. My sister was right: where's the bread?

Quite a while had passed, and no more food had come to the table. "When's the pilafi coming?" I asked Mum.

"I'll order it when the waiter comes," she replied.

"We still haven't ordered?! When's he going to come, then?"

Mum sighed. "He'll come when he's ready. He's very busy. Look at all these people coming in now."

The restaurant was filling up very quickly. A whole lot of people had come in together and they sat in the middle of the room, where there was a long line of connected tables. They all looked like they all came from one big family. There were old men and women, younger men and women, and lots of children. But they too didn't look as though they spoke English; some of the woman wore colourful clothes, they all wore lots of rings and bracelets and necklaces, and they didn't have white skin.

I had an idea. "I can tell the waiter we're ready to order, Mum." I knew who the waiters were. They were all dressed in black trousers and black shirts. Too much black, I think. I preferred the waiters in Paris, with their red waistcoats and white aprons.

"You can't do that!" Mum scolded me. I couldn't understand why I couldn't. We had come here to eat, and in my case at least, I wasn't doing that. I was bored and tired. That's also another moment when I remember to go to the toilet. It gives me something to do. My sister decided to join me.

"Do both of you need to piss at the same time?" No one understood her using the Pee-word, because they weren't Greek. "Can't you wait until we've ordered?"

"Why haven't we done that already?!" Normally, she lets us go to the toilet on our own, but this time, she made us wait, and told us something about being visitors in a foreign country, and how we shouldn't do things like that on our own. I can't understand that one, since all toilets are there for the same job. But maybe it's a good idea, because we're not in our country and somebody else might be in the restroom and say something to us, and we wouldn't understand them (especially here where they weren't speaking English), so we waited. Eventually, a waiter finally came to the table, and Mum and Uncle began ordering the meals. I wondered how long it would take to bring the food after all that waiting, because now I knew for sure that I was definitely feeling hungry, and not so much feeling like a pee after all.

mango lassi lahore kebab house
Mango lassi

The first thing that came to the table was a large jug containing an orange drink. Milkshake, Mum called it. She knows I only drink chocolate milkshake, so I can't understand why she didn't order it in the first place, and I didn't appreciate the joke she was playing on me, especially when I'm feeling very hungry, like now. Everyone looked to be enjoying that orange-coloured milkshake, while all I had to drink was water.

"Are you sure I'm going to like the food, Mum?" I was beginning to have my doubts after the spotty tzatziki, the salad greens (the only greens I do are in spanakopita) and the orange-coloured milkshake.

"Son," my father turned to talk to me, "you are sometimes indefatigable, you know that?"

"No, I don't, because I don't know what 'indefatigable' means." I don't like it when people call me names, especially names I don't understand.

chicken kebab and lamb kofta lahore kebab house
Spicy chicken and kofta kebabs

Eventually the waiter returned, carrying two plates with some things on them, the likes of which I had never seen before.

"Here's something you'll like: chicken souvlaki! And sausage!" Mum placed an orange-coloured cube on my plate and called it 'chicken'. I don't know why she was lying to me; everyone knows that chicken is white, not orange, and souvlaki has a stick in the middle, which neither of these two 'souvlaki' had.

"Well, look at your sister," she said, turning to look at her. "She's eating it, and she seems to like it." Just as Mum had said that, the peace that was already crumbling at our table was suddenly extinguished completely by my sister's shrieks.

"Water, water, water, water, WATER, WATER, NOW!" I knew it; nothing would be safe in this place. While Dad tried to calm her down with some of the milkshake - the water had run out, because she ended up drinking it all and her mouth was still on fire - Mum tried to convince me that it was only the sausage (with the hole in the middle) and not the orange chicken that had caused my sister's eruption, because the orange chicken was only mildly spiced, which basically amounts to saying that it contains only one bottle of pepper and not two, in my opinion. When the drinks ran out, all my sister could do was use her hand as a fan in front of her mouth. Her hand was rapidly flapping up and down in front of her face, to no avail; she was still feeling the sting from the burning.

"I'm not having any of it!" I cried. "And sausages don't have holes down their middle, either!" I hate it when I can't recognise any food on the table; it was pretty obvious that this food was not the food my mother was pretending it was. "The pilafi had better be white!" I threatened.

hot food lahore kebab house
All of the dishes pictured here - lamb chops, potatoes, meat stew and meatballs - were very hot and spicy, totally child-unfriendly; if you don't like your tongue burning while you eat, then you would have found most of it unpalatable, save the naan bread and steamed rice.

Slowly, more food began to arrive at our table, but nothing was familiar to me. I didn't try any of it, just to be on the safe side, especially since I could hear the word 'hot' floating around in the conversation just a tad too often for my liking. It's not fair, I thought. Food, food, everywhere, and not a bite to eat. Do you know what it's like to watch everyone eating and enjoying their meal, while you yourself can't find any pleasure in any of it?

At least Mum wasn't lying about the pilafi - it was just how I liked my food: white. And it tasted OK without the yoghurt. The bread wasn't too bad, either.

Jamie Oliver can rant and rave as much as he wants; if kids don't like it, then they won't eat it, no matter how healthy or tasty it is made out to be.

*** *** ***
I felt dreadfully guilty that my children weren't able to enjoy the meal at the Lahore Kebab House, a Pakistani restaurant in London, so I tried to make up for it afterwards by buying them dessert in a nearby cafe, which turned out to be owned by Bangladeshis****. This place had a kinky feel to it: For a start, it had some private cubicles on one side of the room especially reserved for mothers, women and families, which could be sectioned off from the view of the other customers. Then there was the matter about closing time, which we thought was rather early (10pm) - the staff kept reminding us (the paying customers) that they were closing 'in five minutes'...

bangladeshi dessert cafe whitechapel
Note the well-groomed ladies at the counter, wearing traditional sari-style clothing: appearance is very important in minority cultures; they may look different from the majority, but they're more concerned about the opinions of the minority looking at them.

South Asian food is not really so different from Greek food. The Pakistani meal looks Greek in appearance (especially if the crockery was different). We eat a lot of barbecued meats and red stews; the main difference between them is that they contain a different blend of herbs and spices, and Greek food is generally not hot and spicy. As for the sweets, I was able to pick out the desserts that resembled Greek-style funnel cakes and halva. 'Indo-European' has a wider significance than language groups; it can be used to refer to the cuisine of this historic family.

bangladeshi dessert cafe whitechapel bangladeshi dessert cafe whitechapel
Thankfully, none of the desserts were hot (the box contains a variety of halva and funnel cakes), and the children also found something familiar to them in their favorite colours.

All's well that ends well, but next time I have the opportunity to go to a place like this one, I'll make sure the kids have had a meal they enjoy beforehand. It's very hard to convince children that their tongues aren't really on fire, especially when you know your own mouth feels like Mt Vesuvius before it erupted...

*Via Karen Resta
**Understandably, the Greeks don't say "it's all Greek to me".
***Plain white rice, the kind served in Asian restaurants to accompany other dishes.
****As a novice, I couldn't really tell the difference between the Indees/Parkeys/Dessies, although it pays to know this kind of information when walking around in Londonstani in order to avoid mistakenly calling everything "Indian".

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