|(From top) A Bengali thali spread; biryani on offer; a display of Gujarati dishes
What people will or won’t eat and drink, and why or why not, is food for thought. Religious practice, upbringing, conditioning, economy, climate, geography, necessity, allergy, personal preference, intoxicating effect, fetish, myth and the seasonal bounty of nature, all play a part.
For example, in equatorial Africa ' and quite likely elsewhere as well ' at certain times of the year, grasshoppers appear in millions. Unlike locusts, they do no damage. They are attracted to light and swarm around every streetlight.
A smooth bottle green in colour (very rarely, brown), just after dusk is a good time to catch them. The local people call them sanene (we call then ganga pharing) and they gather them in large numbers, remove the legs and wings and dry them in the sun till crisp.
Sauteed with onions and tomatoes, they make a delicious snack, not very different from crisply fried shrimps.
Such food, almost literally, is manna from heaven, requires virtually no effort to procure and it would be quite foolish to give it the go-by.
oser home, I came across another example of easy pickings. Walking along the beach of Puri, on the wet, hard-packed part of the sand in the company of the lifeguard who was looking after us, I noticed that he was feeling for something with his feet, without really interrupting the rhythm of his gait.
Suddenly, he stopped, bent down, scuffed up a little sand and came up with a small creature in his hand, a crustacean that looked like the head of a jumbo prawn, with a small snout protruding at one end.
“What’s that'” I asked. “Sea elephant,” he said. “Very tasty.” I had never seen anything like it. During that walk, Baya (that was his name) picked up a dozen or more sea elephants.
That night I visited his village, which was not far from where we were putting up. Over a glass of toddy and some pakora-like snacks, I asked Baya what happened to the sea elephants.
“Cooked and ready,” he said. I asked for a taste of them, but he refused. Point blank. I could not believe this. Baya was a smiling, friendly guy, a gracious host, generous with his toddy, pakoras, devilled eggs and fried fish.
But when it came to the sea elephants, he stood firm. Nothing doing. I could not get an explanation out of him. He had none to offer. And I still have not figured it out.
Was he afraid that it would trigger off a violent allergy' Did he think that it was fare too humble to offer to a city slicker like me' I will never know. It remains a mystery, and a source of keen disappointment.
Mother brought us up to be unfussy about food. “Don’t you dare turn up your nose at anything,” she would say. “There are enough people who don’t even get to eat. And if you take it on your plate, finish it. Don’t waste or I’ll spank your backside!”
She and father were teachers and in their free time were into theatre. The principal of the school was J.D. Rawal. Our family physicians were Jayant Thakkar and C.D. Patel. The director of the theatre group was Peter Carpenter.
My father’s lecturer friend was Murray Carlin, his cricketing companion was Don Mann. Our neighbours were the Mukherjees and the Bhattacharyas and my number one buddies were Kuldip Singh and Hamid Nazir.
So if it was not aloo gobi and palak gosht with hot chapatis with ghee on them, it was dhokla and other farsan with puris and vegetable delights, and kadhi and srikhand.
If it was not chingri malai curry and mangsher jhol it was burgers and mash and roast lamb, or shami kebab and biryani. Festivals were great ' especially Diwali, Id and Christmas.
On a more sombre note, the true story of the plane crash high up in the Andes mountains in which some survived and some did not, and those who did had no contact with civilisation for days on end, and finally turned to the frozen flesh of their former co-passengers, makes one wonder at the power of necessity and the instinct to survive.
And what would one do in a similar situation'
By and large, the world is divided into vegetarians and non-vegetarians and people like myself enjoy the best of both worlds.
I like tagging along with the vegetarian members of my family when they get invited somewhere because I know that the hosts will cook up some special numbers that I would not normally get to eat.
And when I actually travel and live with friends who don’t eat meat or fish, I never feel as if I am going to get withdrawal symptoms.
The only time I feel envious of my vegetarian brethren is when I think of informing my hosts, on any given occasion, telling them, “By the way, I think I should tell you that I am non-vegetarian.”
I know that no one would be amused.