| Indulging in the street food fare at the Maidan can transport you to a state of bliss, feels Nondon. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
Situation, environs and pleasant recollections play an important part. Speaking for myself, no matter how fancy the food, I never enjoy eating at large gatherings making inane conversation between mouthfuls, most likely standing up with the plate in one hand and a weapon in the other, too much food piled up together because you don't want to keep getting into a queue, as is the case at wedding receptions and the like.
You've got this jumbo prawn on your plate, you can't get enough purchase on it with just a fork in one hand and you plate a tad unstable in the other, so you pick at the convenient bits and leave nearly half unfinished (forget the pleasures of eating the head) and you have also made a few trite remarks about the weather in between. What a tragic waste of good food which should be eaten sitting down, with no time constraints, course by course, with devotion and concentration.
Setting and occasion are vital. Most people will hark back to family feasts on holidays, with all right smells emanating from grandma's or mom's kitchen. Some of my most mouth-watering memories are of eating outdoors.
As a young lad, I remember, we had a bonfire one night out in someone's garden and we baked these big, old potatoes with thick skins, in their jackets. They came out with jackets crisp and blackened in places; we split them open and had them with generous amounts of butter. There were also barbecued sausages (the spicy ones) and a homemade salad with a mayonnaise base.
Another time was out on a fishing safari with my great uncle near Lake Victoria in Uganda, eating fresh Nile Perch slightly pan-fried in olive oil over a wood fire in the crystal clear air of absolutely virgin surroundings. Nile Perch is the world's largest fresh water fish and can grow up to two metres in length and can weigh up to 200 kg. It is a sublime and versatile item which can be cooked in many ways to suit many styles of cuisine; very similar is our Calcutta freshwater bekti which of course grows nowhere near as large and is a less fatty fish.
Another fishing trip, this time with an uncle, up in Assam on the banks of the Bohreli river near the Arunachal Pradesh border, but the meal to remember was not fish, but pork. They know their pork up in the Northeast and they do magical things with it. Again, there was a bonfire out in the open and it was cold. Not a young lad any more, our glasses were well supplied.
Our host's major domo appeared with three or four sections of green bamboo, closed at one end and open at the other, each about two feet long. Into these hollow cylinders he put a healthy amount of lean pork which had been marinated for about 20 hours in just ginger, chillies and salt. The open ends were plugged with stoppers fashioned from banana leaves and the cylinders of bamboo were placed close to the blazing wood at the base of the fire. The major domo kept turning the bamboo sections at regular intervals and when he figured that the meat was cooked, he prized the banana-leaf plugs loose with a stick and they shot out, followed by a gush of steam and a heavenly aroma. The meat was whitish ' not a drop of oil or grain of turmeric had been used. It was delicious, fiery both to touch and taste, and it vanished before we could say 'Cheers!'
The combined cost of these delights would be so negligible that one would be tempted to say that the best things in life are free ' well, almost.
Closer to home, a stroll around the Maidan indulging in phuchkas, aloo kabli, jhaal muri and other temptations can transport you to a level of bliss for just a few rupees. We carry in our memories a handful of quality experiences; most of them revolve around simple, homely fare ' a good monsoon khichuri, Sunday afternoon mangsho bhaat, an orgy of mangoes in the summertime'
Not to say that meals had in five-star luxury have never been satisfying. Far from it. Just to say that when it comes to the tastebuds, price has no part to play, for even if one has tasted bliss in such situations, it has been because of the chef's magic and not because of the figure on the bill.
Coming back to the book that echoed my thoughts. Written by a celebrated chef, he talks about a game he plays with friends called the Last Meal Game where someone has to decide what his dinner will be the night before his execution. 'When playing this game with chefs ' and we're talking good chefs here ' ', he writes , 'the answers are invariably simple ones'.
'Braised short ribs', said one friend
'A single slab of seared foie gras,' said another.
'Cold meat loaf sandwich,' said another, shuddering with pleasure. 'Don't tell anyone'