Traveler

Friday Funk – Can you stomach this?

'The cow is of the bovine ilk; one end is moo, the other milk.'

Having spent the last week walking in the foothills of the Alps in Switzerland, I am compelled to agree with the American humorist-poet Ogden Nash. Like many of us in India, the Swiss worship their cows. Oh yes, they do. They love them, they celebrate them, venerate them. They feed them well and take good care of them. They graze them on fresh highland grass in summer and keep them warm in winter. They milk them. They decorate them. They make stuffed toys inspired by them. They race them. They parade them. They fight them. And they eat them.

The whole thing comes so naturally it's hard to find fault with. And yet, every time we sat down to a meal, my Swiss hosts were careful to inquire about my dietary preferences. Handed a menu, I always picked the dish that made sense to me. If camping near a lake, I'd opt for trout. Ham or bacon, being preserves, could be counted on and were always of the highest quality. In the highlands, meat was the best bet; it was sure to be fresh and locally produced.

"It's beef," they specified, with the precision so characteristic of the Swiss it's almost an ailment. "It comes from the cow."

"Yes, I'm aware of it," I smiled back like Socrates making an epitaphic wisecrack before draining his cup of hemlock. "Cheese and milk come from the cow, too, don't they?"

"Yes," they shrugged, apologetic for their xenophobia. "But you are Indian, so it is always better to ask."

It's hard to swallow, I understand. But less so than all those American sci-fi movies where fresh-off-the-saucer aliens speak perfect English. A cow-eating Indian is no more an anomaly than that.

As a traveller, I swear by the dictum 'When in Rome, eat as the Romans do.' It's not always so hard to practise. Foreign food can be strange, often repugnant, but it's unpalatable only if it is bad food or stale food to start with. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If your digestive juices can assimilate them, so can mine. So bring it on, I say.

Finding the stomach for foreign food is not always easy. In Imphal last December to interview Mary Kom, I was curious to know what the Manipuris ate. A tour of Ima Keithel, the famous Mothers' Market in Khwairamband Bazaar, told me only half the story. Besides fish and chicken, the Hindu Meitei people of Manipur ate eels, snails, water beetles and a host of strange and fascinating vegetables and hydrophytes. At the market, fussed over by beautiful, giggly Imas, we ate a sumptuous lunch of steamed rice, fish fried and curried, curd, dried freshwater shrimp chutney, pakoras and pickled bamboo shoots. The tribes, many of whom are Christian and animist, appeared to be more secretive about their cuisine. They served their guests delicious chicken curried with local flavour, but politely stubbed out our curiosity about their native cuisine. But I could not be so easily thrown off. A Manipuri friend of my wife's used to treat us to some terrific pork from her homeland. Now that I was here, my quest was for the real thing.

Emboldened by three days of friendly interaction, I asked Mary's personal assistant Jimmy to point me to some authentic Manipuri cuisine, the kind that his Kom clan ate.

"Why?" he shot back, "You don't like the food at your hotel?"

What was there not to like? It was uninspiring hotel food. I had not changed two flights and come this far from Bangalore to eat the obligatory Chicken Manchurian and Kadai Paneer.

"I want to eat the kind of food you eat, Jimmy," I insisted.

He grimaced. "You may not like it. We eat beef and pork," he said. "And, it's very spicy. You can't handle it."

"Try me," I dared him. "I'm a journalist and a travel writer. I can handle anything."

I have no idea how or why, but that broke the ice. His heart warmed, Jimmy led us through a maze of dusty back-alleys to a tiny, run-down shack. Rameshwar, our Meitei driver, excused himself hurriedly and disappeared into another lane. The restaurant was dark and cavernous. At the back, large hunks of pork and beef were drying on platters. It was not a place for the weak-bellied. As for me, I couldn't wait to eat.

A young Kom woman of heart-stopping beauty served us a heap of white, fat-grained, steamed rice with a runny curry of pork belly and a soupy side of boiled and spiced beef intestines. The latter, being organ meat, had a thick and cloying, but not unpleasant, taste. The pork was unquestionably delicious. Both were spiced with fiery umorok - ghost chilly or bhut jolokia - and left us with streaming noses. Of course, we were also served pickled cabbage but I'm afraid that's about all a vegetarian could have stomached.

Switching to vegetarian mode isn't so hard for me, as long as the option offered is not McAloo Tikkis. In my ancestral homeland of Kerala nothing, not even tender mutton stew or the spicy karimeen (Pearl Spot) steamed in plantain leaves, can tempt me away from the gustatory spectrum of the vegetarian celebratory feast, the sadhya. This all-veg ensemble, rounded off with at least two payasams, is fulsome and immensely satisfying. In Kutch, where I travelled in the company of vegetarians for 10 days, I didn't miss champing on meat at all. So varied and delicious was the vegetarian cuisine that when, at the end of the trip, my sole carnivorous companion and I ordered mutton curry at an upscale Bhuj hotel, it was a crushing disappointment.

Closer home, I recently visited a friend at his charming hillside home in Coonoor. My family had spent the last four days enjoying a varied taste of Coonoor, and the centrepiece of each meal had always been a non-vegetarian dish - chicken or mutton, mostly. My friend, an incontrovertible vegetarian, told us about the unique cuisine of the Badaga people of the Nilgiris that we had clearly not had the opportunity to enjoy -- an assortment of greens, beans and vegetables. Sipping tea in his garden, we watched a herd of gaur -- enormous wild cattle that most people know as Indian Bison -- forage on the slope. There were about 11 animals of various sizes and they wandered unmolested through the tea plantation, a awe-inspiring procession of shuddering flanks, kicking hooves and swishing tails. Admiring the rippling muscles of bull close to us, my friend commented, "Can there be a sexier poster-boy for vegetarianism?"

Perhaps not, and even the Swiss are wising up to that fact. The staunch vegetarian needn't go hungry in the Alps. A healthy, even gluten-free serving of vegetables with Rösti (grated potatoes, crisp-fried on the outside and buttery soft in the centre) and spinach can keep you going. And there's always a richness of salads, if you don't mind eating like a cow.

I don't mind at all, before I eat the cow.

And yet, the tastiest meal I enjoyed in Switzerland did not have a shred of meat or fish, not even eggs. Visiting my father's old friend Charles near Neuchâtel, I was invited to choose what I wanted to eat for dinner. Charles, an Indophile of vintage who is devoted to Ramana Maharishi of Tiruvannamalai, has been a vegetarian for decades. Once an engineer, he spends his retirement farming. He grows apples, peaches, pears, cherries, plums, kiwi, raspberries, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, grapes, chilli peppers... His kitchen garden is a veritable salad bowl, and it supplied fresh-picked tomatoes and lettuce for our evening meal. For dinner, his charming wife cooked me spaghetti with a vegetarian ragù sauce sprinkled with parmesan cheese. The food was so fresh and delicious that grateful tears sprang to my eyes. Only a Kerala sadhya could have done more.

Moo-ed to vegetarianism, you think? I suppose even Ogden Nash might be.

Bijoy Venugopal is Editor - Travel at Yahoo India. Read past episodes of his erratic weekly blog, Friday Funk, or follow him at your own risk on Twitter and Facebook