There was a time not too long ago (some 5 years back) when I used to boast about my evolved taste buds, called myself (rather proclaimed) a connoisseur. And I had my reasons. For starters, I knew most of Delhi’s food joints than an average Delhi-wallah. I could differentiate between an Awadhi and Wazwan cuisine and also appreciate the subtlety of these cuisines, which friends would rather write them off. I knew where I could get Parsi food then, without there being a single Parsi restaurant in the city (I went to the Parsi guest house to get my fix). I went alone to food festivals in hotels and those dingy corners of the city too, in my quest to sample the unknown flavors, the flavors that had crossed the threshold of delicious to reach another zenith. I would wake up at 5am on Sundays to go for a food walk in Old Delhi that finished well past lunch. I knew my Burmese Yellow Curry better than a Thai food lover whose colors were limited to green & red. On any given chance, I would help my friends identify what they are eating at a Chinese restaurant, telling them about what makes Szechaun different from Cantonese. Be it regional or international cuisines, my taste buds had sampled quite a heap. And I didn’t miss a chance to write about it on Zomato or my blog page, or simply share the food pictures on Facebook. My cooking also evolved, as I would try to get authentic recipes from chefs whom I had befriended over the years.
It’s funny how taste buds and perspectives change when you shift to another city or country. When I came to Dubai, I was that snooty guy from Delhi who knew his food very well, had that air of pride that he had sampled the whole of Delhi. I was that guy who could go on and on when the topic of food was discussed. In fact I would introduce myself as a foodie first, an adman later.
So when I came to Dubai, I carried along the excess baggage of vanity of knowing too much about food and insatiable hunger to sample new food. In that strive, I started visiting new restaurants and diners on every given chance. Deliriously I started ticking off my to-do-list of a raft of restaurants people referred to me with great enthusiasm & hunger. Sadly, however I tried, none adjusted to my taste buds. My continued disappointment seemed snootiness to my friends. Because I would loathe everything, and with equal zest I would boast about the food of Delhi. I was deemed irreverent.
The one thing that made me remorse was barbecue stuff. Eventually, I gave up on barbecue items totally here feeling too disappointed. Because back home, the barbecue items are like an everyday ritual. Eat tikkas and kebabs in the evening with friends, then come home and have dinner with family. Everywhere the barbecue stuff would be juicy, soft, spicy and oozing with flavors. Here, I found them to be hard, reeking of meat’s smell and dry.
I remember going to a fish place, a kind of small diner in Sharjah, which my roomies were fond of. Though I was excited to go there, the food was a disappointment, and I wrote that place off as well. And they eventually gave up on me. That was the end of them taking me out. We would cook at home and relish far better food than I would get at restaurants. That was the time I took to cooking in a serious manner, seeking new recipes online, purchasing a slew of cookbooks, cutting recipes off magazines, trying to cook new dishes and broadening my repertoire. Breakfasts used to be elaborate, dinners continental and weekends experimental.
Now it’s been over 5 years in Dubai. Apart from my conditioning in cooking, I think my taste buds have adjusted to the city’s subtle spices now. I have come to understand & appreciate the nuances of other cuisines in a better way. Dubai is a melting pot of cultures and people from over 200 nationalities. Hence everything & anything is available here which one could possibly think of. My first few visits to hypermarkets were eye-opening, as I hadn’t seen such a diverse variety of veggies, products and ingredients. The imported veggies that I haven’t seen ever made me curious, and I started googling their cuisines to gauge what good these veggies would do and how do I cook them. Forget about international food, I didn’t even know so many types of spices existed in India, when I saw jars upon jars of spices at Al Adil, decorating their walls. My exposure and knowledge of food seemed nebulous. Like Jaiwatri (Mace) & Jaiphal (Nutmeg) were new to me, which I tried using in certain Maharashtrian dishes. Eating lunch with colleagues also introduced me to the Frontier cuisine, and the usage of Shah Zeera (Black Cumin) and Kalonji (Onion Seeds).
Over a period of time I got to know about numerous unique cooking techniques, sampled countless cuisines at their authentic best, partook in a lot of cooking classes and met many celebrity chefs… I no longer call myself a connoisseur. It’s a term for extremely talented people who really have an incredibly good knowledge of food. Even though I have evolved and know much more than ever, I am happy to call myself just a food lover. Yes, that arrogance is dropped. I am humbled by food!
Few weeks back, after a long thought and to check if I’ve adjusted my taste buds, I asked my former roomies to take me to that same fish place in that godforsaken lane in Sharjah. I realized I haven’t met them in years, it was also a reunion of sorts. They chided me if I’d again write that place off, and I said, “Well, I never used to like Mandi (Arabic Biryani), but now I do. So you never know if I might like this fish as well.”
And my intuition came true. I liked the fish this time around. It was a big deal for me. My taste buds had come a full circle. And my friends heaved a sigh, after all these years, they wouldn’t have to go through my long lectures on food and snootiness.
Now my only worry is, will I like the food back home or find it too spicy?
By the way, that Fish restaurant is called Samra Mama Machi in Al Nabba, Sharjah, near clock tower.