As regular readers of this column may have surmised, I have spent the last few months on the run. I have travelled almost non-stop both within India and outside with consequences that are often quite disastrous for my digestion to say nothing of my palate. Bitter experience has taught me a few lessons. I have abandoned the idea that you can necessarily eat well on the road. I have recognised that it is almost impossible to eat decently on aeroplanes. And I have been shocked by how low food standards can go if you eat at the wrong places no matter where in the world you are.
I have now formulated my own survival kit for gastronomically sensitive travellers. If you’re the sort of person for whom food is merely fuel, then a succession of bad meals at out-of-town restaurants will not worry you unduly. But if like me you believe that a bad meal is an opportunity wasted forever, then some of these tips may be useful.
The most basic one relates to airline food. It is almost always bad, period. But given that few of us can carry packed picnics from Fauchon, Fortnum and Mason or Flury’s on to the aeroplane (and security would probably create hassles if we tried) we have no choice but to subsist on airline food. My basic rules are as follows.
If you are on a flight within India or one that originates in India, do not eat any kind of food other than Indian. We have very talented French chefs in our country but they clearly do not work in in-flight catering and are not responsible for the rubber chicken and leathery lamb served on board. Likewise, the most common flavouring used in flight kitchen Chinese cuisine is tomato ketchup.
The Indian food can often be quite reasonable. Most times I would take the vegetarian option if only the airlines learnt how to order vegetables. Instead, the vegetarian option tends to consist of paneer or some variation thereof and is, therefore, unacceptable to me. That said, the non-vegetarian Indian food can often be entirely edible.
There is a reason for this. When food is served at 35,000 feet, the altitude and dryness can wreak havoc on its texture. That’s why every piece of chicken is instantly transformed into Styrofoam and every lamb has the texture of the underside of your shoe. But food with a curry tends to fare better because the liquid protects the texture of the ingredients. A mutton curry will always taste better than a lamb chop and a chicken curry will retain its original form better than a chicken supreme.
Spicing also works in favour of Indian food. These days, Jet Airways experiments with street food on board. Frequently, the ragda pattice and the keema pao are the best things to emerge from the galley because the levels of spicing are high enough to tickle your palate, deadened as it is by the altitude and the dryness of the cabin.
I do not dispute that the best food in India is found in dhabas and at little hole-in-the-wall places. But sadly, few Indians entertain at such places. When you are taken out for dinner, it is usually to a restaurant with grander pretensions. Unfortunately, these pretensions do not extend to the kitchen where the cooking is frequently mediocre and sometimes inept. Remember that most restaurants that claim to serve Chinese food will produce some variation of Sino-Ludhianavi. If the menu is north Indian, then this will be an excuse for the chef to pour a litre of oil into the dekchi and to then fling masalas indiscriminately into it so that the dish that emerges is both oily and painfully spiced.
Faced with these alternatives, I nearly always refuse to go to a Chinese restaurant. If I do go to an Indian place, I try and stick to the vegetarian food. Order a crisp tandoori roti, a yellow dal (a black dal is an excuse for death-by-butter), a dry vegetable like aloo jeera and some plain rice and you are usually guaranteed an acceptable meal. Fall into the trap of eating biryani, butter chicken or shahi korma and you will spend the whole night paying for the meal.
When travelling abroad, these rules require some amendment. If you are in England, Europe or America, it is almost always a good idea to steer clear of Indian restaurants. Most of them serve disgusting food that we would not recognise as authentically Indian and the expensive ones (with a few honourable exceptions) serve even more disgusting food at prices that are truly revolting.
It is difficult to generalise about restaurants abroad but here are a few simple tips, anyway. If you are a non-vegetarian who is confounded by the menu or unsure of the quality of the food, stick to something simple like fish and chips. Of course, it may not be called that. But most restaurants will manage to fry some fish and provide some potatoes with it. If you have no religious restrictions, then a steak, cooked medium rare, is often the safest bet – especially in America, where the standards of steak cooking are uniformly high.
If you are in the Far East, then these rules may not apply. I find that if I am eating alone at a simple coffee shop or basic restaurant in East Asia, then the safest (and frequently the cheapest) option is fried rice.
In China and in most of Asia, fried rice is not the sort of thing they serve at Sino-Ludhianavi restaurants in India where you are expected to mix it with your Hakka noodles and your chicken Manchurian. It is a dish with a distinctive flavour of its own that is meant to be eaten by itself and not as a substitute for steamed rice. Try thinking of fried rice as China’s answer to biryani and you will get the idea.
The Chinese eat fried rice as a course by itself. Order a Chinese meal with fried rice and they will wait till you have finished all the other food before bringing the fried rice. At Chinese restaurants across Asia, you will get Hang Chow (the English spelling may vary) fried rice which is essentially a catch-all term for any kind of mixed fried rice. In my experience, this is frequently the safest thing to order. It is usually good, it is never heavy and it is rarely expensive.
In Thailand, their fried rice is significantly different from the Chinese version. But it is excellent and the Thais serve it all the time, from breakfast to a late night snack. I find that when I am in Thailand, I tend to subsist on fried rice because the quality never falters no matter where you eat it, whether it is at the Oriental Hotel or a roadside stall. In Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, some variant of Nasi Goreng is nearly always available. The exact composition of the dish may vary – you might get dried fish, chicken satay, fried egg, or something else with it. But it is a dish that rarely disappoints the Indian palate. Plus, it has the added advantage of being widely available.
Eating in hotels presents special problems of its own. For reasons that I cannot fully explain, I find that I always reach for the room service menu when I check into a hotel at night even if I have eaten on the plane. And often, when one has a quiet evening to oneself in the middle of a business trip, there is nothing more comforting than watching a movie on TV and consuming a room service meal.
Room service varies from hotel to hotel and country to country. But certain rules apply. In the Far East, order the local cuisine – a plate of fried rice or noodles perhaps. It is cheaper and much safer. Western food in Asian hotels can be shockingly expensive because the ingredients tend to be imported at great cost.
No matter where in the world you are, a sandwich is usually the best option. The most filling sandwich on offer is usually a Club sandwich and it is a good option though quality can vary. (The best sandwiches in India are at the Grand Hyatt in Bombay and the Gardenia in Bangalore.) Do not order a hamburger. Remember that the lower part of the bun will be soggy and ready to collapse by the time your order is delivered. In any case, you should always take into account room service delivery times. A medium cooked steak will be well done by the time it reaches your room because it will cook itself in the hot case. A crisp dosa will have turned limp by the time it is delivered. And so on.
And finally, remember that it is always best to be prepared. The minibar can be an expensive mistress. If you like a drink in the evening, carry a bottle with you or, if you are flying abroad, buy one at duty free. Remember that sudden hunger pangs may hit you at night when you are alone in a hotel room and you may end up ordering a room service meal that is much too large for your needs. So, carry something with you. I like the idea of a few bars of good dark chocolate but there are practical problems – the chocolate could melt and stain your clothes. A packet of nuts is always the more convenient option.
Wherever you travel, remember that there is a wide world of gastronomy out there for you to explore. But also remember, that in the two or three days you are in a strange city, you may have neither the opportunity nor the knowledge to hit the really good places. So, often you will end up at dodgy places. And that’s when these tips could be useful.