While other people collect pottery or autographed bats, I collect people’s food phobias. Maybe this is because there are quite a few things that I’ve refused to put in my mouth. Over the years it’s become a perverse fascination of mine to see what other people hate to eat. Perhaps this started when, as a kid, I developed a deep disgust for ghee — not a good aberration in a child with a Gujarati Vaishnav background. Well into adulthood I would recoil at any sight of ghee, whether it was being put in diyas for puja, spread on thin Gujju rotis or some mother/aunt-type culinary sergeant was attempting to sully my precious aamras with a drizzle of this melted hell-produce. My mom was unmoved and caustically pointed out the sheer idiocy of my attempting a ghee-mukt diet: “You love magas (a typical Gujarati sweet) and it is full of ghee!” Or: “You love your Punjabi food and a lot of it is made with ghee!” (A really sore point for her was not that I liked Punjabi vegetarian grub but that I ranked it on par with Gujju food.) My point was, as long as I couldn’t see it, it was fine, but the visuals were intolerable, setting off a chain of retching in my throat.
I was a weird kid. I hated ghee, rice and baingan, but I loved karela and the umami of vaal ni daal. Of my two sons, the older one decided at the advanced age of three to keep his father’s perversity but not for the same food. For the longest time I couldn’t put any tomato-based product in front of him, namely, anything in which you could discern the offending red fruit. Would he eat pizza? Ye-es. Not as enthusiastically as other kids but he would eat it. Pasta sauce with tomato elements? Yes, as long as it was paste. Tomato salad? No way. Ketchup? No, we’d have violence if there was any on the table.
Then there is a friend of mine, S, a Gujju and a food lover from the same background as mine, for whom the kryptonite effect comes from just seeing coriander. Again, this is extreme cultural treason from a Gujju, but there it is. Forget about actual cilantro, we friends can torture him simply by posting photos of the green stuff on his Facebook page. “How can a Gujju not love kothmir?” people ask him. S just smiles and says: “But I love fish like a Bengali!” At one point, S explained to me with the aid of a scientific website how the leaf actually sets off a semi-allergic reaction in him. Again, if he can’t see it or smell it, he’s fine. So no chopped coriander on his dhoklas, but if I use it as part of a paste in a daal he’ll eat it happily.
Speaking of cultural traitors, people who know I’m ‘into’ food often ask me about the fact that I won’t eat anything that has had any activity in water. People who don’t know me well often ask: “What kind of a Bengali doesn’t love fish?” My answer is simple: I’m not a Bengali. I may have sloughed off my strict vegetarian upbringing, I may revel in eating all sorts of meat (yes, that kind and also that other kind), but this Pesciphobia is perhaps a remaining trace of my core childhood. Next question: “How can you be a foodie and not explore seafood?” A shifty Lefty once said: “I’m not a Marxist but I’m a student of Marx.” My reply goes: “I’m not a foodie but a spectator of foodie-ism.” Which, of course, brings me to my Bong foodie friend who also doesn’t much like fish. This friend, N, has even made a long documentary about Bengalis and fish, and he will lecture you knowledgeably about all the thousand varieties of fish available in the delta and how Bengalis of different persuasion (Ghoti or Bangal) like to cook them, but he will rarely touch the slippery suspects himself.
The thing I’ve noticed about these phobias is that they shift. Today, Son No. 1 is a reasonably good cook and he even uses tomatoes sometimes, though you can still get him to comply to demands by waving a bottle of ketchup. N is gradually beginning to include fish in his cooking repertoire, even though he himself barely eats it. Another friend, who used to find European cheese difficult to comprehend, is now, under direct pressure from a romantic and emotional direction, starting to discuss the joys of chèvre, brie, pecorino and manchego. The other day, I found myself at a new restaurant trying and really liking some beautifully cooked crustaceans, lobsterish white pulp, glittering black eggs and all. Well before that, I discovered the joys of proper, naked ghee, the nice one my local milk-wala makes, the beautifully fragrant variety you get from Mysore, and even the superb organic one produced at a farm in Suffolk that costs £10 for a small jar. As N has demonstrated to me, decent ghee is central to a first course in Bong food, mixed with plain, hot rice plus some crisp, bitter element such as karela, thus creating a détente between what I’ve always loved and till recently hated. Does this mean I foresee S soon relishing a crown of coriander on a ceviche? No, that may take some time, but S has promised that the day a certain other pair of Gujaratis are forced to loosen their grip on power, he will eat something with a garnish of kothmir.