Most of the best meals I can remember while growing up were eaten at my grandmother’s house. Sometimes it was because a couple of branches of the extended family were sitting around the table eating together and chatting, and sometimes it was just because of the love and care transmitted to us by the cook via the food. My grandma’s cooking — regulation meat and three veg and variations forthwith — will never feature on Masterchef, and it will never be showcased by Jamie Oliver (even ironically), but the experience of consuming those plates of food was something special, proving that the experience surrounding the eating is often more important than the eating itself.
I reckon that meals on the road are very similar. When trying to think of my best travel food experiences I always recall things like street food at makeshift roadside restaurants in India and dizi at local teahouses and basic breakfast in locals’ houses in Iran. The food is usually nothing extraordinary – just simple, honest and tasty – but it’s made spectacular by the company and circumstances surrounding the food.
Day two in Sri Lanka and I was looking forward to savouring the experience of some Sri Lankan food before it became more mundane after a week of three local meals per day. The first thing I did upon arriving by bus in Kandy from the coast was drop my bag at a guest house and head back towards the centre of the city. I tried to kid myself that I was walking around checking out the town and being touristy and stuff, but really I was on a single-minded mission to find somewhere to eat. Rather quickly I came across a “hotel” that was teeming with locals so I walked straight in, took a seat, and asked the lovely elderly waiter who spoke a bit of English what I should have.
“Kotthu, sir, and maybe some short,” he replied emphatically, referring to a chopped roti dish and “short eats” – a plate of various pastries and deep fried goodies from which you eat selectively. I agreed without hesitation, asking for a vegetable version of the kotthu and a cup of sweet, milky tea.
The tea arrived instantly and while I waited for my food I exchanged greetings with some of the friendly people who shared my communal table. Eating is serious business here and all attention at the table is focused on moving food from plate to mouth, but people always pause long enough to smile and ask, “From which country?” I was a curiosity in the restaurant but clearly welcomed rather than viewed suspiciously as you sometimes find yourself.
After watching and listening to a man at the front-of-house hotplate vigorously chop up my kotthu, the waiter ferried the steaming pile of yum over to my table along with a plate of shorts. For the whole time it took me to inhale my delicious meal, the smiling waiter never ventured too far from me, frequently appearing at my shoulder to ask if the food was okay. Similarly, my tablemates were keen to know that I liked the local fare and smiled broadly when I gushed about how much I was enjoying it.
While chewing each mouthful I wasn’t just tasting and smelling the food, feeling its texture and trying to isolate flavours, I was also taking in the surrounding environment – the organised chaos of clientele scrambling for tables, the waiters shouting orders at various cooking stations, the clear plastic tablecloths weighed down with cups of squared newspaper. My kotthu plate licked clean, and shorts plate lighter by a few items, I ordered another tea to wash it all down. Sitting back in my plastic chair, belly full and tingling with fire from the spice, I drank the tea while continuing to drink in the scene around me. A thoroughly awesome experience, I decided, and I wondered how much different it would’ve been if I was served up exactly the same food eating solo in the dining room of my own house back in Australia.
Three days later I was back in Kandy, transiting through the bus station around lunch time. Having skipped breakfast I was starving, and as soon as I got off my first bus I was drawn magnetically towards a tiny little stall emitting the most delicious smells. A man about my age greeted me with a huge smile, found a corner to put my backpack, and sat me at a single table that was already overloaded with four people. I exchanged greetings with the local men vacuuming their food and ordered rice and curry. Again, the waiter stayed close while I wolfed down the eye-wateringly delicious combo of daal, okra and pumpkin curries, keen to make sure I liked the food, while only metres away giant Tata and Ashok buses blared their horns and belched diesel fumes through the door of all the stall. When I was halfway through my plate, the waiter brought over a juicy chunk of chicken in gravy. “Free, sir. Enjoy please,” he insisted with another huge smile.
Another awesome meal that exceeded the sum of its ingredients.