Friday, October 8, 2010
I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did. Other reviewers noted that Simon Majumdar was a snobby elitist, which might indeed be true, but he was funny. Perhaps they thought so just because he was British!
Majumdar, bored with his day job, decided to travel around the world sampling various countries' cuisines. He found a notebook in which he had penned several goals, one of them being "GO EVERYWHERE EAT EVERYTHING." And so he did.
He began in his own home country (the United Kingdom), by sampling the best blood puddings and pork pies in the UK. And so began a theme--Majumdar loves meat, and he especially loves unusual cuts of meat--namely innards. Not really my cup of tea.
Next he was off to Ireland to visit cheese makers. Now that I can appreciate. American cheese pales in comparison to British or Irish cheese.
Then he went off to Australia. "Australians are exceptional self-publicists and have persuaded many that Australia is the best country in the world, even if the Aussies promulgating this myth are usually living elsewhere at the time and show little inclination to return. It is the same with their food." Generally, he was underwhelmed by the food he ate in Sydney and Melbourne, but found some diamonds in the rough.
Next, Asia, where he sampled chanko nabe (the food of sumo wrestlers), yakitori, gyoza, kaiten sushi, and kaiseki in Japan. He also had an unfortunate experience with cod sperm sushi.
Then Hong Kong and China...where he really stepped out of his comfort zone and ate dog and stir-fried rat. Even beyond the unfortunate food experiences, Majumdar found China to be challenging...as did I when I was traveling from Shanghai to Chengdu. The China chapters are not for the squeamish.
He also found Russia to be difficult, but was surprised by Finland.
Majumdar loves the US of A, specifically American barbecue. (Again, because of his serious love of meat.) He makes all sorts of friends in the U.S., who show him a wide variety of what the country has to offer in the way of food. Of course, given the wide variety of cuisines here, he barely skimmed the surface. No visit to the U.S. to taste our seafood and berries! I appreciated his observations of New Orleans and was amused by his disgust at root beer, because my British mother-in-law loves root beer! "I ran to the nearest waste bin and spat it out. Singularly the most vile drink I had ever tried and remember, I had drunk fermented horse milk."
He loved Mexico, as did we. It is very hard to get good Mexican food or ingredients in the UK, so he found it to be a real treat.
Argentina also was a positive experience, but not so Brazil.
In Germany, he met up with brother to sample lots of beer and meat. In Iceland, he tried a delicacy: rotten shark. Blech.
Onto Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Phillippines, where he, unsurprisingly, had several wonderful culinary adventures.
Next he went onto India, where his father was born. While appreciating the great gifts of Indian cuisine and culture, he also found it to be a difficult place to travel. "It is a country so profoundly irritating that I suggested to one Indian official that they replace the Ashoka Chakra on the flag of the Republic of India with an image of a single buttock, just to warn people how half-assed things can be." He seemed to spend the most time in India, appropriate given his cultural background and the depth of culture (and differences in cuisine across the country) there.
He had mixed experiences in Africa. It's interesting that he left Africa to the last part of his year, because it's clear that he was running out of steam and was feeling exhausted at the end after all that travel. Why not put it towards the beginning, when he had more energy?
He met up with his brother again in his favorite country, Spain, and ended with Spain and Turkey.
Majumdar seemed far more likable than I expected him to be, although in Chapter 17, he's downright mean as he laments his flight between New Orleans and Philadelphia, when he is sitting between two obese people. I'm not arguing that this could be unpleasant, but did he really have to be so mean about it?
As someone whose travel adventures are heightened by experiencing the food of a particular area, I enjoyed this book. The huge quantities of meat (specifically organ meat!) got to be a bit tiresome after awhile. Majumdar certainly lived out his goal to "eat everything."
Inevitably, given how huge the world is, he left out many countries and cities, and his adventures could have gone on and on. But still...it was a great way to experience the world. Majumdar's most memorable experiences were eating excellent food with kind people who had just befriended him, making the world a tiny bit smaller.
Reading this book gave me a deeper appreciation of the food I eat, specifically when it is cooked with extremely fresh ingredients. Majumdar kept a blog for much of his travels, and photos and travelogue can be found here. It seems to end in Thailand (probably when Majumdar started running out of steam), but gives far more detail than the book--and the photos are great!