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
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.