A tourist sitting at the next table turned to ask me this, peering into my plate. I was seated inside a restaurant in a refurbished Spanish colonial mansion, in Manila.
Despite my nervous disposition around all creatures with scales, my 5-course dinner was either amphibious, reptilian or came without a spine. For someone who does not venture far from Italian, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine, the Philippines was a heart-thumping plunge into the unknown.
For me, stepping out of my gastronomic comfort zone also meant uncovering some profound truths.
For example, I learnt that the smellier the fruit (Durian), the more delicious it is. Later, at a local market, I found psychedelic purple eggs sitting alongside spotted quail eggs while being offered yet another type of egg to sample- a portion of Balut. Well, let’s just say I’m glad I ate most of it before asking what it was made of, or I would never know what a semi-developed duck embryo tastes like.
Next, I travelled to Pampanga, the food capital of the Philippines, where I realized the Filipinos like their frogs stuffed (Batute Tugak), and their mole crickets crunchy (Camaru), but even that’s interchangeable.
Just when I thought I had conquered my queasiness, a pot of steaming dinuguan (pork blood soup) arrived on the table. It may have been a regular lunch, but I’d like to call it an exercise in appreciating acquired tastes and controlling natural reflex – builds character, I believe.
On my next stop in Malolos, a dusty historic town, I met a charming veteran who invited me to his 250-year-old mansion’s kitchen, to sample some of his closely-guarded heirloom recipes. Halfway through a densely flavored, delicious fish preparation, the veteran disclosed that his house had hosted the Filipino national hero, José Rizal for a meal at that very dining table, before he was arrested for his revolution against Spanish colonial rule. Intrigued, I wondered if we had enjoyed the same meal, only a few centuries apart.
Back in Manila, now fully confident about ingesting and digesting an exhaustive variety of forest creatures, flora and fauna, I stopped over at a swanky restaurant and ordered what was now my favorite.
“Neither”, I answered the lady who was wondering what was on my table. “It’s not a slug or a beetle. It’s Camaru with hand-rolled cheese,” I said.”Gotta love your mole crickets!” C-R-U-N-C-H
We Indians are suckers for free stuff. Free coffee, free water, heck, even free advice is heartily welcomed.
Name almost anything free and the average Indian will grab it, regardless of its use to him. To us, free is priceless… but while that is a fact, it’s not always applicable.
I’ve had the good fortune of being able to observe some peculiar denizens of the Great Indian Middle Class. On one particular trip, I had time on my hands, a granny to watch over and approximately 27 co-passengers on a ‘package tour’ trip to tolerate.
So, on a guided city tour of Singapore, we were herded into a gemstone factory outlet, with the promise of grade A gemstones with ISO certification. The commission-hungry tour guides left no stone unturned (excuse the terrible pun) to induce the bus-full of Indian tourists to buy jewelry from this gemstone factory.
The local tour guides had no idea who they were dealing with.
We charged towards the jewelry counters much to the delight of the tour guides but that changed rapidly.
We came, we saw, we inquired about the price of everything – I mean everything- including the salesperson’s watch and the ceiling fan. And ofcourse, we conquered… the complimentary beverage counter!
Out of the multi-ethnic congregation at the location, I was not proud to see our motley Indian crew attacking the free beverage section with a ferocity that could put the Spartan army to shame. My compatriots were seen climbing on top of each other, pushing, tugging and elbow-ing each other out of the way to emerge victorious from the crowd.
By the end of the tussle, each of my co-passengers from the tour bus from hell was seen holding one cold coffee, two cups of hot tea and one green tea. Each.
It didn’t matter if no human being of sound disposition could attempt to ingest all of these beverages at one given point of time. It didn’t matter of their bodies reacted unpleasantly to the cocktail of hot beverages in the enclosed tour bus.
All that mattered that the drinks were free.
On the same trip on another day, I was witness to what I now call Mutiny of the Singapore Flyer.
It so happened that our little tour group was made to pay 30 SD for a ride on the Singapore flyer-a major tourist attraction. Now, the disgruntled lot, who were just made to part with their precious green papers hopped on the ride, hoping it was going to be worth their sweat and blood and the horrid exchange rate they got their dollars at.
“Hey, we thought everything was included in the tour price!” some of us retorted.
Thankfully, they found the ride worth it. They were a happy bunch returning to the bus after the ride when all of a sudden there was an outcry in the back. News spread like wildfire inside the coach and soon, there was a cacophony of Gujrati, Chinglish, Hinglish and English, each trying to either fuel the uproar or drown it. I couldn’t tell, and I suspect neither could they. Chaos and pandemonium reigned.
I thought someone was lost or killed, perhaps. But no, the uproar was over a free scoop of ice cream that allegedly came with every ticket…which the entire group was deprived of.
Apparently one family from the group had sneaked off the previous day, to take a ride on the now infamous Singapore Flyer. Everyone got a complementary scoop with the ticket but not this particular tour group.
The family loudly declared that they had infact begotten the free scoop of ice cream along with their tickets yesterday. It was chocolate and mint flavored and oh so precious.
“How dare they! This is daylight robbery!” exclaimed one gentleman, after he heard this story.
“They’re frauds!” cried another.
“These tour guides have collected all the complimentary ice cream vouchers and are probably selling it somewhere!” shouted one lady.
“Scam! This should be in the papers. I know a reporter in the Times of India!” declared another.
The bus was livid with rage. Afterall, free ice cream scoop denied was justice denied. There were wild accusations and threats and demands for a refund of the tour tariff.
Only after a profuse apology from the tour guides, international calls to the Indian head office of the tour agency, a clarification from the ice cream promotion guy and an elaborate explanation from the Singapore Flyer management did they finally seem settle down. Moral of the story? You never fuck with an Indian’s free ice cream scoop.
Given the fact that India gave birth to the significance and importance of ‘zero’ it’s only fitting that we Indians realize its true value best.
If it’s free, we must have it- don’t worry, we’ll somehow find use for it. We love free stuff and we’ll fight for our rights until our very last breath. Please feel free to sneer at us, too. As someone very wise pointed out, “We are like this only!”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always declined an offer for tea.
But when you say, “No thanks, I don’t like chai,” to a fellow South Asian, reactions range from quiet amusement to mild disbelief to utter bewilderment.
An addition to this collection of expressions came from two Sri Lankan butlers, who watched in sheer horror, as I popped three sugar cubes into my black tea.
Having reluctantly accepted a last-minute invitation to stay at a boutique property in the northern province of Haputale (Sri Lanka), I found myself in a beautifully refurbished tea planter’s bungalow, surrounded by 20 acres of tea gardens. I had been cajoled into a two-night stay at the teas estate, as part of a travel writing assignment – without any company, internet or a choice – but an awful lot of tea.
On my first afternoon there, I decided to join the bungalow’s staff for a stroll in the beautifully manicured gardens. The only problem was that everyone had assumed that I’m some kind of a seasoned connoisseur, putting me at high risk of running into a cup of tea at every corner. I had nowhere to hide. The aroma of spiced tea filled my senses no matter where I went and I had a distinct feeling that I was being stalked by a plate of scones.
It was only when I finally settled down on the couch, did I notice two liveried butlers who were actually following me around with trays in hand. So I was right.
“What will you have, madam?” One of them asked.
“We have the finest variety of tea, handpicked from our gardens and processed here, at the factory on our estate. We’re so happy you could make it here to sample some of our fare,” he added.
“Did you know, Sir Lipton was the first to export tea from one of these estates in Haputale?” the other one chimed in.
“That’s how Ceylon tea first found its place in the world. Well anyway, do let us know, what will you have?”
“Ummm, green tea, maybe?” I gulped.
Did I mention, I had never ordered tea for myself? Why would you ever order something you don’t like?
“Sure, we have lots of herbal teas. We have cinnamon, chamomile, ginseng… there are more than 50 types. We recommend cinnamon.”
And that’s when I traumatized them by nonchalantly popping sugar cubes into my teacup.
However, I wasn’t the only one scandalizing people there.
Later that same evening, I was invited to a small gathering in the property’s plush ‘cigar bar’. The message read 8:00pm sharp, so I dressed accordingly.
Only when the doors to the Cigar Bar swung open, did I realize I was wildly overdressed for the ocassion. Well, It was an eclectic, handpicked party of the elderly, with the average age of the gathering being approximately 70 years.
“Oh no matter, I’ll just grab a quick drink and leave,” I thought.
“What shall I pour for you?”, a very suave, seventy-something in a checkered bowtie was on the opposite side of the room, asking me this.
“Aw, thank you so much, sir.” I said. “That’s so kind of you…I’ll have a small shot of vodka with cranberry juice, please.”
He looked up very slowly. It felt like there was a sudden hush in the room and everyone turned to me in slow motion.
‘Dear God, he meant tea, didn’t he?’ I realized.
I just had tea an hour ago. Also, who drinks tea at this time?!
“The British,” the suave man said, as if he read my mind.
“The British drink their high tea around the dinner table. Also, it’s a good habit to drink your tea before dinner, rather than after. Better still, take two drops of honey and a dash of lime in your tea for digestion. I promise you your stomach will be squeaky clean and bowels will have the perfect consistency the next morning.”
Everyone nodded solemnly.
I must’ve looked rather miserable stirring my tea with the tiniest of spoons because he worked his way around the room again, saying, “You know, I was quite the ladies’ man, back in the day. I used to woo the girls in my college abroad by using some Sinhalese phrases… like ‘ Honda Hitha’ which means ‘you have a good heart’. It always made the girls go awwww.”
He grinned showing off his near toothless smile.
“You think it’ll still work?” he asked, pointing to a sweet, grey-haired cherubic lady sitting across the room. I thought she looked a lot like Julie Andrews.
I giggled nervously and asked him to give it a shot.
And what a shot it was. An hour later, as I was engaged in conversation about Sri Lankan politics, family recipes of pol symbol and the latest advancements in dentures, my new friend chimed in with a beaming Julie Andrews by his side.
“I’ve invited her over for a date… I’m going to make my special edition lamprais for her. What do you think I should wear for the dinner? he leaned in.
A tuxedo or a Speedo?” he asked in a stage whisper.
I felt my cheeks burn a little, as he laughed uproariously before clinking tea cups with the rest of the gang.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” I realized I said that out loud, while rolling my eyes.
“I’m actually having a cup of smoked Ceylon Pekoe,” he replied. “It was our regular during my days in the military, when my late wife used to pack little boxes filled with my favorite tea leaves. My fellows and I used to brew it over firewood every night at our campsite. Ah, how the aroma takes me back.”
For the first time, I saw the man behind all that garrulous behavior. It lasted for about 45 seconds.
“You know you should spend time with people far outside of your age group, sometimes. It teaches you things that you’d never learn otherwise.” He smiled and I nodded.
“Like geriatric flirting,” he chuckled. “Where else will you learn that?” Another clink of the tea cup to wind up the night.
From cooky characters to drinking about a hundred cups of tea, my sojourn at the tea estate was nothing short of a revelation. I still don’t like the beverage but I’ll say I’ve cultivated a sort of respect for tea.
A lot can happen over coffee, they say, but I think tea drinkers see far more happening.
Well, the idea of writing my first children’s book germinated one evening, as I was feeling particularly low.
In times like these, I always think of my grandmother, whom I was very fond of, while growing up. I think of resting my head on her warm lap and drifting off to sleep with her rhythmic patting on my back and her rather hoarse but soothing voice, telling me one of her many stories (some of which I suspect she made up on the go).
The smell of her well-oiled, shiny long hair permeated in the air – a mixture of gooseberry and coconut oil- which for me, is still the most comforting aroma in the world.
I’d often badger her to tell me my favorite story – the one with ‘Phool kumari’, a beautiful princess who lived high up in the Himalayas, amongst goats and cows, birds and trees.
The story remained the same throughout the years, but her animated, spirited story-telling made all the difference, each time.
That gloomy evening, it was her sweet memory that had me so overwhelmed with emotion that I found myself remembering each and every word of that story.
By the time the story was over in my mind, I was sobbing, not out of sadness, but just a sort of catharsis. I felt light, happy and full of enthusiasm.
I got off my bed in a tearing rush, I penned down my grandmother’s story for my own daughter, Mira. I hoped that someday, when she’s in need of a hug, she will be able to draw the same kind of comfort and warmth from my grandmother’s story.
That gave birth to the idea that I could tell this story not just for my own daughter but for other children as well. I could illustrate it and make a book out of it!
And so my first book was concieved.
The first draft was written in about 20 minutes on my laptop, at the edge of my bed. But of course, it wasn’t until two months and 6 other drafts later, a refurbished, polished and embellished adaptation of ‘The Happy -Maker’ was finally ready.
My grandmother was my happy-maker and hence this book is dedicated to her. Today, she’s no more but her memories live on through her stories, making her part of my everyday life.
With this book, I hope she’ll be part of many more.