A dash of surprise and a pinch of longing make for unforgettable meals.
Great meals forge a connection to their place and time
Foods have a connection to place but not an obvious one. To explain, I must make the distinction between good food and memorable meals. Good food is best found where it originates. You expect to have spicy samosas in India, terrific borscht in Russia, rich raclette in Switzerland and fresh sushi in Japan. What makes a meal memorable is an element of surprise combined with a longing for a particular food. Surprise and longing produce memory.
The best Lebanese meal I had was in Prague; the best pasta I ate was in Zermatt, Switzerland; the best avocado juice I tasted was in Singapore; and the best flatbreads I ate were the gozleme in Turkey. What made them memorable was that I didn't expect to find them there.
Take the gozleme, a Turkish flatbread with a variety of fillings - spinach, feta, potatoes, onions, mushrooms - that peasant women cook on a griddle. I didn't even know gozleme existed till I drove from Istanbul to Cappadocia. My guide, Abdul, suggested a roadside diner for lunch. He knew I was a vegetarian and said it served terrific gozleme. After days during which I ate mostly cold feta, cucumbers and cabbage, the hot sizzling gozleme with warm spinach and feta brought tears to my eyes. I still remember the dusty diner and Abdul's grin as I bit off a large piece of hot, sizzling, cheese-dripping gozleme.
In Prague, my husband and I were out walking one winter evening. After four days in eastern Europe - Warsaw, Auschwitz, Budapest and then Prague - we longed for familiar food and warmth. When we saw a restaurant serving Lebanese food, we ducked in, knowing we would find vegetarian mezze. The owner, a rotund bearded man wearing a chef's cap and a chequered apron, welcomed us as if we were family. When we said we were vegetarian, he sent a slew of tiny plates to us. There was warm pitta and tangy dips - hummus, baba ganoush, tzatziki, falafel, marinated carrots, feta, tahini paste. We ate and talked, and later sang and danced.
I lived in Singapore for two years and frequented the hawker markets. Near Newton Circus was a tiny stall serving chilled avocado juice. It was the best thing to drink on a hot summer's day. I would pack some in a plastic bag and bring it back home.
Whenever my husband went to London on work, I would try to go along. During one trip several years ago, I set out to discover the best afternoon tea in London. We were staying at the Dorchester, which served a perfectly acceptable afternoon tea. Friends recommended the Ritz for its pomp and circumstance, not to mention the serenading harpist. Fortnum & Mason was a must, mostly to buy its jams and clotted cream to carry back home. Purists said Brown's served the best afternoon tea. I still remember the formal demeanour of its waiters as they led me into a small inner room with green wallpapered walls and heavy curtains. I didn't enjoy the hushed tea service but I do remember the magnificent detail of the environs.
We went with our daughters to Zermatt one winter for ski lessons. We stayed at a charming wooden chalet. One evening, we took our tired, cranky girls for dinner. The steward heard two words: vegetarian and pasta. He brought us a mound of spaghetti surrounded by four bowls, each with a sauce - pesto, marinara, cheese and aglio olio. The four of us dived in without saying a word.
They say great meals soothe the soul. The four-sauce pasta that a kindly Swiss waiter brought to us surely did.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India