Jan 21, 2012

Food in transit

We Nepalis seem to have peculiar food habits that create interesting food situations. A recent trip that I took to the Grand Canyon exposed me to these situations that would have gone unnoticed in everyday life. For example, in the first train that we took, our little group happily munched on homemade roti and tarkari. We enjoyed a veritable picnic, while the rest of the passengers eyed our food suspiciously. They themselves were munching on readymade snacks like chips, cheese balls and the like. One girl with a jar of cheese balls was particularly noticeable. “Look, that girl even has cheese balls on her suitcase” my friend pointed out excitedly. I looked, and true enough; the girl’s brown suitcase had a pattern of large orange bobbles. That worried me. Was there a rule about having luggage that matched with your food? In that case, we would have to have humongous grey circles on our suitcases. But I looked around and saw a guy eating a sandwich. He didn’t have large white squares on his suitcase. I heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe the previous girl just loved orange bobbles in any form.

Like any self respecting Nepali on a journey, we had packed some Wai Wai with us.  Too bad the hotels didn’t provide microwaves to cook it. Not to be outdone, we surreptitiously filled a little hotel bucket with hot tap water and soaked Wai Wai in it. The little buckets are ordinarily used to get ice for drinks much stronger than Wai Wai soup, and I bet the housekeepers were surprised at the remnants of Wai Wai in those buckets the next day. 

Soon after, we grew tired of eating Wai Wai for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and decided to try something new. We went to our hotel’s ultra expensive buffet and were really impressed with the variety of dishes; though we didn’t know what most of them were. We ladled sour cream on our plates thinking it was curd. 

After we had stuffed a cone full of some white substance that looked like ice cream, we found that that it was not cold. We later found out that it was whipped cream, but by then, it was too late to go back and have an ice cream. 

The next day we were going to the Grand Canyon, and our guide assured us that we were having a buffet again. We were happy, as this time we were prepared to recognise the foods. But alas, we never got the chance to display our newfound skills. The “buffet” turned out to be a tray with an orange and three items unceremoniously handed out to each person. One of the dishes was plain rice and the next was boiled vegetables. The last dish was a meat stew, the only item with a choice: chicken or beef. It reminded me more of a prison canteen than buffet. I asked the Chinese lady at the counter for the vegetarian option.  “Oh, Bejtabools” she said in a thick accent, and then proceeded to ladle some more steamed vegetables, aka dish number two, on my plate. With nothing but plain rice and unsalted vegetables on my plate, I turned to dear Wai Wai instead and had rice with it. The only reason we didn’t sue this misleading “buffet” was because we were busy looking at the Grand Canyon view, and I guess this is the only reason the rest of the customers don’t sue either. 

As the area grew more remote, the food became more expensive. Everywhere we went, we judged the expensiveness of the place by the price of its croissants. At one place we longingly eyed a huge and inviting croissant. “It’s just three dollars” I gulped. “At three dollars, we get an entire box of croissants in our village,” my friend snapped. But it was a good thing we bought the croissant anyway, because at the next place the single croissant cost us 4 dollars.

But the weirdest culinary experience of all was yet to come. With no other eatery open, we followed our Chinese tour guide into a Chinese eatery and sat in the only vacant table in a remote corner. There were no menus in sight, and when we asked a waiter for a menu, he became very agitated and went away gesticulating wildly. I guess nobody had ever asked him for something as preposterous as a menu—it was a restaurant after all. I walked up to ask another waiter for the menu, who began explaining about the lack of a menu in broken English and Chinese. Soon his boss came and yelled him away, not paying me the slightest bit of attention. Whoever said customer is queen?

Later, a Chinese girl came and sat beside us, and finally we were able to ask how to order food in this weird place. She told us that the waitress would come by with different types of food and if we liked anything, we could take a plate and pay later. Soon, we saw a lady coming out with a tray, but before she reached our table several people had walked up to her and grabbed the food. After a long time, she finally delivered some food to us. The pastry with yellow filling looked cute, but the yellow filling turned out to be sweet egg yolk which was slightly slimy and smelled like raw eggs. We immediately regretted our choice and got up to leave.  Later, after much research we found that this was a Dimsum restaurant, which serves tea and various steamed and fried snacks. The dishes we had were traditional Cantonese, and the way of serving them was traditional too. But I could not find out if it was traditional to grab food from trays before it reached the tables. Anyway, it was a new cultural experience that we would not forget for long.

Published in the Kathmandu Post http://www.ekantipur.com/the-kathmandu-post/2012/01/21/free-the-words/food-in-transit/230680.html

Jan 8, 2012

Tour on a Broomstick (I Wish!)

Harry Potter has long been the standard to compare anything strange and magical for me, and my recent tour of Western America was no different. As we walked into the Venetian hotel, all the tourists collectively drew their breath: the man made sky was quite a sight. We were standing in a courtyard, and there were houses (actually hotel rooms that looked like ordinary houses) all around us. The dome of the building was high above the ground. It was colored a light blue and clouds seemed to be floating in it. Even the moon shone in a remote corner. It immediately reminded me of Hogwarts where the ceiling is enchanted to look exactly like the sky outside. Well, the sky at the Venetian hotel was not enchanted to look like the natural sky, I assume it stays sunny and bright, come hell or high water. However, the effect was pretty much magical.
the inside view of hotel venetian. the sky is man made

The next stop was hotel Bellagio, where fountains danced to the sound of music.  As water suddenly rose up from an otherwise calm pool, I was reminded of Harry’s Aguamenti charm, which can generate water out of the ground. As jets of water slowly swayed to the music, I was reminded of Minerva McGonagall, who is exceedingly adept in transfiguration, and often animates chess pieces and suits of armor to walk around and do her bidding.

The next day we were taken to see a chocolate factory. All the varieties of chocolates, some dark, some milk, some with nuts in them, some with caramel in them. Some nicely wrapped in packets, some displayed in sweet baskets. I could not help but think of Honeydukes, the sweetshop in Hogsmeade, which is full of such delicacies as Bertie Bott’s every flavor beans, Liquorice Wands and Chocolate Frogs.

Sometimes when the guide took us to Chinese stores, we would see weird things like pickled frog legs and pig intestines, and then I would again think of Honeydukes. These outlandish dishes reminded me of blood flavored lollypops at Honeydukes, which Harry thinks are marketed for vampires. The dishes in the Chinese shops were no less exotic to me, though I assume these are eaten by normal human beings.

Visiting the prison of Alcatraz reminded me of the prison of Azkaban (notice how they even sound eerily similar). Both Alcatraz and Azkaban are located in small islands the middle of a chilly ocean, and are famed for being home to the most notorious prisoners. Azkaban is the only prison mentioned in Harry Potter, and home to celebrated death eaters like Bellatrix Lestrage, Ronan Dolohov and many others. Alcatraz was home to celebrity criminals like Al Capone and many others. Alcatraz officials claim that no prisoner has successfully escaped this prison, which was also claimed of Azkaban (until Sirius did it, yessss!).
alcatraz island

The gift shop of Alcatraz prison was also very reminiscent of Harry Potter.  One thing I noticed in America is that gift shops at every tourist destination are the same. I almost have their entire inventory by heart now: a rack with key-rings and nail cutters, a rack with ear rings and necklaces and bracelets, several racks full of t-shirts that have the picture or name of the tourist attraction, and several racks with souvenirs, like cups, plates, little statues and magnetic disks to stick to your fridge. Also, there’s going to be a stall with personalized knickknacks, like a key ring or something, with a name already engraved on it. The most common and popular American first names, like Sarah and Ashley and Robert, can be found already engraved on these items. But the gift shop of Alcatraz prison was quite different. This shop contained shirts that looked like prison outfits, and the souvenirs included statues of prisoners trying to escape from the bars and glorified lists of famous escapes. I felt like I had stepped into Borgin and Burkes, Draco Malfoy’s favorite dark arts shop in Diagon Alley.

At Los Angeles, we were shown the famous Hollywood walk of fame. Enshrined in the pavement of an ordinary looking street were bronze stars with the names of Hollywood celebrities. Like Tom’s teashop in London that is the entrance to Diagon alley, the street looked so ordinary that I would not give it a second glance if the guide had not informed me.

At Las Vegas, though, I felt like I had moved the brick and gone through into Diagon alley, when I saw two cute guys dancing with each other in a concert. I didn’t have to guess if they were gay, they both had similar t shirts on, with “I think he is gay” emblazoned on the front in hot pink. Each t-shirt had an arrow that pointed to the other guy.  One even did a filmy pirouette holding the other’s hand. Seeing this level of openness was almost like getting a glimpse of a magical world that you never believed existed.

I realize that I am making a roundabout comparison by comparing everything to Harry Potter, when Harry Potter came later than most of the things mentioned here. I should be identifying familiar ideas in Harry Potter instead. I guess this is a tribute to Rowling’s extraordinary powers of imagination that for me, these books that have become the standard for comparing anything out of the ordinary. For a generation that has grown up with Harry Potter, I guess it might always be so.
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