Familiar food makes us feel at home. So I feel that getting acquainted with new culture through palette is a sure shot way of forming a new home. Once we understand the ‘new’ palette and start relating to it, it automatically opens our mind to the new geographical location. Initially we have to start by matching the new cuisine to tastes that already exist in us as a result of our upbringing. But that forms the first step in including other tastes that form familiar memories in us.
I had a tussle with France initially as I was used to a spicy palette. I was born in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh widely known for its spicy coastal seafood cuisine; while I was brought up in Hyderabad, famous for its Nawabi cuisine especially Biryani. I am a hard-core meat eater, although I appreciate vegetarian food as well. Even today when I visit Hyderabad, I cannot leave without eating Biryani at least every day, during my visit! This caused a hurdle in building a relationship with my new ‘home’ – Paris.
About six years ago, I decided to move to France for professional reasons. I did not know anything about French cuisine when I landed there. During my initial days I heard a lot about the French baguette which was really hard and I could not understand how that deserved any praise. Back home, ‘good’ bread was soft. To top that, nothing in the cuisine suited my spicy tastes, even meat that I devoured, was tasteless here. I had started cooking at home often just to eat palatable food, but that was unsustainable. So I finally asked myself an important question, “How do I get myself to like this food?” This question revealed more about me eventually than of the French cuisine.
I realized that the French like the taste of meat as is and not camouflaged in several spices, unlike Indian cuisine. So I started tasting their vegetarian dishes. I was more open to the vegetarian dishes being bland because back in India I was used to a range from bland to spicy when it pertained to veggie food. Our dal made with a variety of lentils is one such preparation; its character changes with the hand that makes it.
This knowledge of a range of spiciness in veggie food, opened a new face of France to me! I started liking Ratatouille, a french farmer vegetarian dish. Then, stuffed Galettes, which is a dosa-like preparation made with buckwheat. I then started visiting local food joints as I traveled around France to understand its tastes, which then gave me a glimpse of its culture. The nuances of this cuisine then started paving its way into my palette, although even today vegetarian food here is more inviting to me.
This habit of understanding culture through local food joints has now become a part of my palette. For instance, when I traveled to Belgium, its cuisine revealed to me Belgium has two main cultures, represented broadly by its languages: Flemish, a closer cousin of Dutch and French. Bruges is in the French part, which has culture more or less similar to the French and so is their cuisine. Ghent is in the Flemish part and its cuisine varies from Bruges. I was happy to enjoy a non-vegetarian dish here, the “Flemish Carbonade”, one of the most famous Belgian dishes made by cooking meat with specific Belgian beers.
The next I tried was British cuisine; I should say I dared to try because I had heard that they boil everything to make it tasteless! But Lake district that inspired William Wordsworth to pen down “The Daffodils”, made me question that assumption. On one of the tours, we were taken to a local farmhouse in Borrowdale, which bred sheep and lamb. It had a fantastic tea-room, which served a very local lamb stew along with tea and bread. I enjoyed but I imagined having the stew with Kerala aapams! I still feel that’s a better combination with stew than bread – again this I am used to in India.
I am trying to form new ‘homes’ as I grapple with new cuisines and terribly miss Indian food sometimes! Even after six years I am still at the stage where I am relating new tastes with ‘known’ tastes. We obviously approach anything new with several pre-conceived notions, food is definitely not an exception to that even if you are a foodie like me. I am still trying to find a common ground with meat preparations here, while I have been almost relegated to a vegetarian by France!