In China this is a standard greeting. No matter how much we deny it, our lives are ruled by food. We die without food, we have dishes to die for, we are what we eat. Last supper, simple meal, plain food. Except that what is plain to some might be anathema to others.
You don’t ask for pork in Bagdad. But you might loose your appetite, as I did when wandering trough the bazaar in Iraq, trying to peer into the big, boiling cauldron. ‘Don’t look’…my companion warned, too late. A dozen of freshly thrown in sheep’s eyeballs were looking at me, before retreating into the soup’s underworld.
A photographer friend, who lives in Cambodia has done a series of photographs of skinned dogs cooked whole and prepared for a simple winter meal.
Is a deep fried spider a simple meal? Well, a snack actually, eaten like crisps which I first encountered in Chang Mai near Lagos and Burma border. There was a restaurant nearby with a green crocodile’s head as a logo. How cute, I thought. Only to discover that real crocodiles’ steaks were a specialty, or smaller lizards, if you preferred, ripped in front of your eyes and flung half alive on a barbeque. Is it any different, though, than killing a cow? Or is the difference in not seeing it done?
Which reminded me of The Experience Never to be Forgotten in a town of Guilin in China. We asked the taxi driver to take us to the best restaurant in town and invited him, too. The place looked like a cave. The narrow, dimly lit passage was lined up with a dozen giggling waitresses all dressed up in red hats with long sticks in their hands. The back room was full of cages. We were given a stick and prompted to point and poke. It finally dawned on me that it was the live dinner waiting behind the bars I was to choose. The creature looked not unlike a giant hedgehog, the size of a rabbit, the curious black eyes waiting. Dumbfounded I pointed the stick. ‘Ho, Ho, Ho…they chorused dragging the creature to the floor. ‘Ho, Ho, Ho…..’ My friend, an actress went pale and swayed. The taxi driver was already at the table, anticipating, nodding, smiling. The chef appeared with a knife. He reached inside a linen sack and pulled out a wriggling snake. The taxi driver was ecstatic. We were to have the best of the best, the live snake’s bile and blood mixed with spirit for starters. And a stewed cane rat. Apparently, eaten in France, too.
Is it really so much worse then raw, salted herring kept in barrels for months, eaten with cream and fried, ornamental pond fish, kept in a bathtub for days before… sounds familiar? Maybe the Chinese would be horrified?
Sometimes preparing a meal can have a funny side in a foreign country. A friend, young, French and freshly married, transplanted to London by her English husband decided to cook him a simple French meal, a truly authentic coq au vin.
Everybody in France knows what’s required for this meal, so off she went to a local butcher in Chiswick, and standing at the counter with a long queue behind, declared in her newly acquired English: ‘I am in need of a cock…’ Surprised by a deadly silence all around, she went on: ‘You know, for tonight…’ Before any chance for a better explanation, the stony faced butcher turned to his two young assistants standing on the other sides of him: ‘Any of you available for tonight?...”
P.S. I did have a sip of snake’s blood. It tasted of sin. But that’s another story…