In England, I had Parsi Surrey-boti, and a Mughlai banquet in Ottawa. Does it mean I’ve been gastronomically grounded, my peptic passport impounded, and that I’ll never again be a full-foreign-fare passenger?
I plead extenuating circumstances. In England, I ate Parsi because I was attending a Zoroastrian meeting. I also ate Panjabi — as in Namita — because I wanted to check out the makeover of her ‘Chutney Mary’. It’s more delectable, in satin-finished silverware, a silk-paneled party room, and a richly textured menu.
In their surreal 19th century Surrey house set in a timeless garden, Hilda and Rumi Sethna served the kind of murghi na curry-chaval that the Parsis will not die out for. I felt equally at home in Namita Panjabi’s restaurant because the chefs and stewards were those I’d known at the Bombay Taj.
Crossing the Atlantic, it was much the same. At ‘East India Company’, the coolest watering-hole of Ottawa’s political trendies, Chef Samir titillated my ego as much as my palate. He asked me to sign his copy of Dare to Dream, my biography of his former employer, M.S. Oberoi.
Still, despite the khazana of desi khana, I had to redeem my reputation as global foodie. What better place than Paris, where I’d hopped over from London? I am sorry to challenge its civilisational claims, but I encountered the worst food of this trip here.
At a swishy restaurant becoming the status of the board members of the World Editors Forum, the wine was as complex as the opinion, and the starter of rare stuffed truffles as delicate as Press freedom. But the rack of lamb ... It reminded me of my favourite one- liner: Television is called a medium because it’s never rare and seldom well-done. Everybody else sliced and savoured, but my portion refused to yield. I sheepishly grazed on the accompanying vegetables.
The next evening I was again out for a duck. Strolling over the bridges of the Seine, we chose a restaurant that looked as if it catered to both taste and style. I was feeling self-indulgent so I asked for the Specialite de Maison. The casserole arrived with a bubbling sauce, but the bird itself was frozen cold. We sent it back. It returned microwaved to death. Now we knew why a duck is called canard in French.
My friend Olaf, whose surname is Van Cleef but who works for Cartier, salvaged French honour with a superb bouillabaisse.
My Parisian experience was not the reason why I passed up the French part of Canada, the last halt of my three-country tour. I had the two Toronto trademarks. First, the ‘insanely popular’ Tim Horton’s coffee; the man himself crashed to death in his new Ferrari 30 years ago. Then, in the Victorian factory-turned-St Lawrence Market, Ronji Borooah, town planner, architect and Bong vivant abjured the culinary cornucopia of this multicultural sprawl, and insisted that I eat a peameal bacon sandwich. Thick slices of lean crammed into a pao-like Portuguese loaf, with a dusting of flour still on the pale-gold crust.
Under the corrugated roof of this 1803 building, Canada’s immigrant mix is spread out like a colourful patchwork quilt. Meatballs, moussaka, sheesh kababs and szechwan spare ribs. Also ostrich, elk, bison, venison and moose at the butcher’s; and at the fishmonger’s, Atlantic salmon, landed cod, giant crab legs and bacon-wrapped scallops.
Multiculture was again on the menu as I breakfasted with HSBC’s Hari Panday and Bruce Hutchinson from the Harbourfront Centre. It was served in the Epic Restaurant of my hotel, The Royal York. Royalty was indeed in residence, for Queen Elizabeth was on a visit to her dominion, and staying here with her three-floorsful entourage. Since she didn’t join us, we didn’t feel obliged to order the ‘Traditional English Breakfast’. Hari opted for pancakes saturated in maple syrup. When I teased him about being completely Canadised, he countered that these came closest to the malpuas of his UP Brahmin childhood in Varanasi.
I was torn between ‘Freshly made Waffles with Orange-infused Apple-Cinnamon Chutney’, and ‘Muskoka Maple-glazed Backbacon Eggs Benedict on a Brioche Crostini with Pineapple Hollandaise’. Or I could embark on the lobster, mascarpone, asparagus and spinach which constituted the ‘Epic Omelette’. It would be quite a gastronomic Odyssey, but it could also make me quite Iliad. So, instead, I virtuously ordered ‘Healthy Start — Epic parfait of homestyle granola, papaya and mixed-berry yogurt with a homemade banana bread’.
At Ottawa’s airport, I wandered into the gourmet shop. There were racks of Canadian, goldfoil-packed smoked salmon, stacks of berry jellies, and a forest of maple-syrup souvenirs. Then I spotted the jar of caribou pate. I was tempted by its exotic audacity, but wavered. The shop assistant told me matter-of-factly, "If you like moose, you’ll like caribou." I gnu I’d been accepted as a native.
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Alec Smart said, “It’s an ill Windies that didn’t blow us any good.”