Once bitten, never shy: A new book captures Zac O’Yeah’s trysts with Indian food - Hindustan Times
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Once bitten, never shy: A new book captures Zac O’Yeah’s quirkiest trysts with Indian food

ByNatasha Rego
Aug 05, 2023 08:47 PM IST

Goat’s eyes, barley sausages, snails from the north-east and a love affair with the bonda... see how the Swedish writer used food to make sense of his new home.

Through his travels, Zac O’Yeah, 56, has let his nose lead the way.

(Clockwise from above left) The House of MG Gujarati thali; mutton pallipalayam from Tamil Nadu, O’Yeah’s current favourite meal; and Gobi Manchurian, his least-favourite Indian food invention. (The House of MG; Zac O’Yeah; Adobe Stock) PREMIUM
(Clockwise from above left) The House of MG Gujarati thali; mutton pallipalayam from Tamil Nadu, O’Yeah’s current favourite meal; and Gobi Manchurian, his least-favourite Indian food invention. (The House of MG; Zac O’Yeah; Adobe Stock)

The Swedish writer has lived in Bengaluru, with his wife, the writer Anjum Hasan, for more than 20 years. In that time, he has travelled across India, and around the world, recording the quirkiest quirks of local cuisine, digging into culinary histories, tracing recipes and ingredients to their roots.

He has written numerous travelogues and novels, in Swedish and in English. His latest work is the culinary memoir Digesting India: A Travel Writer’s Sub-Continental Adventures with the Tummy (A Memoir À La Carte) (Speaking Tree; June 2023).

“I was looking for a common thread that would tie all my travels in India together,” says O’Yeah. Food does this rather neatly.

O’Yeah wrote Digesting India as a way of tying together his three decades of travelling around India.
O’Yeah wrote Digesting India as a way of tying together his three decades of travelling around India.

He first headed to Mangaluru, for instance, after mistaking pomfret (the fish) for pommes frites (French fries, in French) at a Mangalorean restaurant in Mumbai (this was right in the beginning, soon after he first arrived, he would like to stress).

“India was one big jigsaw puzzle when I landed here in the ’90s,” says O’Yeah. “Over the years I starting piecing it together through the food.” Here are notes on some of his most-engaging encounters.

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The strangest ingredient he’s eaten so far: Spiced goat’s eye, in Bengaluru

“As I stared at it,” he says, “it stared back at me.” It was delicious, he adds, as long as one didn’t think too much about what it was; “or make eye contact”. In the book, O’Yeah also makes special mention of a sausage made of barley stuffed into sheep’s intestines (below) and steamed, that he ate in Himachal Pradesh. “It seems to be party food here and I found it the perfect complement to a tumbler of local apple wine,” he writes.

(Zac O’Yeah)
(Zac O’Yeah)

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His current favourite meal: Mutton pallipalayam from Tamil Nadu

Specifically Kongu Nadu, in western Tamil Nadu, O’Yeah says. The meat is cooked without marination, preserving its meatiness. There are fewer spices used here than in regions such as Chettinad, and little to no oil. “The meat is allowed to cook in its own fat. It’s an ancient Indian dish that could give French nouvelle cuisine a run for its money.” It’s a hard cuisine to find, outside the homes where it is cooked. O’Yeah recommends Junior Kuppanna, a chain with a branch behind the railway station at Tiruppur.

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The dish that says “home”: The meat-and-potato stew, aloo ghosht

The canteens south of the Jama Masjid in Delhi are the best places to get this, says O’Yeah. “To me, it feels very homely because in Sweden we have a version called kalops, a slow-cooked meat gravy with potatoes, that I was served almost daily growing up.”

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The one he yearns to try: Snails, the north-eastern way

There are numerous traditional snail recipes in Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland. He hasn’t come upon any of the dishes yet, O’Yeah says. “I recently heard from a friend, the chef Prem Koshy, that there might be a restaurant on the outskirts of Bengaluru where they occasionally prepare snails in the north-eastern style. So that’s probably my next food adventure.”

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Least-favourite Indian invention: Gobi Manchurian

O’Yeah says he loves seedy bars, and this is often a safe, fast-moving option on the menu. He’s had a lot of it, but never quite enjoyed it. The dish is an extra-spicy vegetarian starter designed for the Indian customer looking for an unusual / Chinese / Chindian experience. “But ultimately, how much deep-fried red-painted MSG-flavoured cauliflower can one eat?”

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A dish he’d never eat again: A “Pakistani curry” in Hyderabad

He ordered it at a restaurant near the Charminar, he says. In his book, he describes it as a “vividly phlegm-green… mixture of salt, caramel colour, possibly nuclear waste, and microscopic pieces of something goatish.” Not one to waste food (he generally eats everything on his plate), “I decided to abort this meal. Curiosity kills not only cats but can seriously hurt the sentiments of food writers too.”

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The spiciest so far: The Bhutanese cheese-and-chilli dish, ema datshi

(Adobe Stock)
(Adobe Stock)

The book Digesting India ends with a detour to Bhutan, where the chilli is treated like just another vegetable, O’Yeah says with alarm. That country’s national dish, ema datshi, typically consists of about 250 gm of green chillies and cheese, melted down in some water. It is often available in and around Tibetan settlements in India. “I suffered a thousand deaths as it released its bombastic fury,” O’Yeah says.

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A surprise he’s never forgotten: The “spicy custards” of Gujarat

The writer most recently sampled this cuisine at the famous rooftop restaurant at The House of MG, a 1924 mansion that once belonged to textile baron Mangaldas Girdhardas and is now a heritage hotel. O’Yeah ordered what is pegged as the state’s most expensive thali. He writes of encountering farsan, dhoklas, kachoris, chaat, vegetables, numerous mithais, and homemade fig ice-cream. But the first time he had a thali at a restaurant, in Vadodara, some 30 years ago, “I got quite culture-shocked when I dipped my roti in the dal and it tasted like a spicy custard,” he says.

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The dish he’s obsessively hankered after: The bonda

His tryst with the bonda began with the RK Narayan novel The Guide (1958), where the protagonist fantasises about this deep-fried snack, while he is fasting. “I got addicted too,” O’Yeah says. Ever after, he was unable to walk past a bonda stall without having one. Until he gave it up cold turkey. He was becoming seriously concerned about its impact on his blood pressure and cholesterol levels, he says.

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