"No, no, no...this is not how tur dal is made", my aunt said. "You have not put any jaggery or curry leaves and kokam...how can you make tur dal without kokam? "Kokam?" the chef said. "We never put in dal."
"Nonsense! Dal cannot not have kokam!"
The chef succumbed.
"Smart move", I thought.
In his years at this resort in Thekkady in Kerala he had obviously encountered many a stubborn Gujarati palate and knew better than to mess with one.
A discussion of this nature between the chef of a hotel and my mother or one of my aunts was not uncommon. Over our several trips together, I had witnessed their many attempts to revolutionise hotel kitchens throughout India. Unsuccessfully, I hope, for the travellers who followed us.
It is probably this complete lack of conviction in the food dished up at hotels that a snack bag became our faithful companion on all trips, long and short. Stuffed with homemade savouries and sweets of all kinds, this bag would be the first to be accounted for when luggage was tallied at airports or stations. During car journeys, it could never be lumped in the boot with the rest of the luggage, it would be placed on the car seat, at hand's reach should hunger pangs call. And on airplanes, the snack bag would descend from the overhead cabins to vie with the airline food. This snack bag anchored us to our homes as we explored faraway lands and restricted us in experiencing a place to the fullest. So while we saw all the sights to see and did all the things to do, we rarely ate all the things to eat.
On a recent trip to Dubai with two girlfriends, the car driver was surprised to hear me speak in Gujarati with my other friend.
"You'll are Gujarati?"
"Why do you say that?"
"You'll are the first Gujaratis who have not eaten at all in my car. Otherwise, as soon as they sit in the car they start opening various packets and passing them around. At the end of it my car looks like a ransacked farsan shop."
As I grew older I weaned myself off the snack bag and slowly rebelled against its very presence on our holidays. Of course, on family holidays the bag won! But on my solo trips, it got left behind and testing the local flavours became an important part of my travels. Not all such tests have been palatable though.
On a cold, blustery evening in Kaunus in Lithuania I walked into a cafÃ© in search for a steaming mug of hot chocolate to thaw my insides. I located 'chocolate' on the menu and pointed it out to the waitress. Five minutes later, she placed in front of me, a cup that looked like it had come from a little girl's tea set. Inside the cup was some thick dark chocolate-coloured goop. My order had been disfigured in translation.
Most large hotels chains, today, are focussed on pampering their guests' palates rather than tantalizing them. The fare is homogenous across the board and has little relevance to the place the hotel stands in. The best places to sample the local cuisine are the places which cater to the locals. On an all women's trip to Cannanore in Kerala, our hostess took us to an eatery popular with the autowallahs and drivers. As a vegetarian, I could not do complete justice to the meal in front of me but the others dug in with such gusto that left the drivers open-mouthed. Platters of seafood were polished off to the last crumb and bowls of curry drained off to the last drop.
Being vegetarian can at times pose a problem while travelling abroad especially when the language is foreign. And since, vegetarian food is a relatively new concept in many parts of the world, it can be quite a task to explain what exactly vegetarian does not include. But the various online resources have negated this problem to a large extent. For instance, I not only have a list of vegetarian restaurants in every city that I am visiting in Spain, I also know which of those fall in the vicinity of my hotel. I have also seen sample menus of some of the restaurants.
I guess I am not completely free of the snack bag yet, it has just been replaced by a virtual one.