“Eat what you’re given.” Along with “say thank you for having me”, it’s on the first page of the verbal instruction manual given to children before venturing to a friend’s house. My mother drilled it into me. I’ve said the same thing to my sons, who possess a discerning finickiness that would put Michelin inspectors to shame (“I like meat when it’s crispy and brown,” my elder son said not long ago, “but this is the wrong kind of brown”).
The diktat remains crucial, and it’s not that hard to follow, especially where I work. South-East Asia is without question the most delicious beat in journalism (its only real rival would be my previous one, covering the American South). My region comprises a mind-bogglingly diverse range of peoples, languages, ethnicities and, yes, cuisines. In most of them, food and the rituals of dining are central to working life. In London or Washington, where I previously worked, lunch was usually a sandwich or salad grabbed from wherever was closest and scarfed down at my desk. Even in workaholic Singapore, this is simply not done: you actually leave the office and eat elsewhere, even if it’s just for 30 minutes.
People relax around a table; you can connect in a way you can’t in the stiffer confines of an office. You can assess your dining partners, and they can assess you. There have been only a couple of occasions when I came close to failing the dining test. One was in Banyuwangi, a remote but beautiful regency in East Java, where I had gone to report on Indonesian fisheries. A coterie of local officials took me to lunch. There were about a dozen of us – police and customs inspectors in uniform, political and press aides from the local bupati’s office, a couple of fishermen – seated around a table. We were outside, on plastic chairs. The Bali Strait, with its black-sand beaches, was behind the restaurant; across a quiet two-lane road were verdant rice fields, and beyond them gently forested mountains.
The table was set with beautifully grilled fish, baskets of steamed rice, bowls of water-spinach sautéed with chilies – and no utensils, just serving spoons for the food. My hosts offered me a fork and spoon but I declined; I wanted to fit in, and didn’t want to appear effete. At the end of the meal, the customs inspectors’ suits were just as neatly pressed, and the political aides’ hijabs just as perfectly placed, as they were before the meal. I, on the other hand, looked like an infant after a particularly unpleasant struggle over strained broccoli. My shirt was sauce-stained, my trousers spotted with bits of fish and greens. I fished a grain of rice out from behind my ear at the hotel later that night.
Though I lost one of my favourite shirts, I was happy with my decision to spurn cutlery that evening. First, because it forced me to learn to eat with my hands, which I can now do reasonably well (the hardest part isn’t the mechanics – three fingers of the right hand used as pincers – it’s overcoming the internalised parental chastisement). And second, because it showed my dining companions I could laugh at myself, which broke the natural tension that we foreign journalists tend to bring with us. The conversation flowed easily; I like to think that they told me much more than they would have had I distanced myself from them by using a fork and spoon.
Another dining test came in a floating village in central Cambodia, on the Tonle Sap river, where I was interviewing a woman who ran a small shop from her boat. As we talked, she leaned over and rinsed an unripe guava in the river – the same river where villagers swim, fish, wash their clothes and attend to their bodily needs. She then sliced it, doused it in a sauce of sugar, chopped chilies, lime and fermented fish paste that had been sitting in the sun all day long, mixed it in a bowl (also river-rinsed) with her hands and handed it to me. Bacteriological alarm bells were going off in my head, but when someone who just told you she makes the equivalent of $11 in a good month cuts into her profit to show generosity to a guest, the guest cannot refuse. As it happened, not only was I not ill (chilies and lime, I learned later, are both potent anti-bacterials) but the combination of the tannic guava with sweet, salt and heat was utterly delicious.
This is not to say I eat everything. I’ve never quite been able to bring myself to try insects. Payit kyaw – the deep-fried fat black crickets sold out of buckets on the street in Yangon – repulse me, as do the chili-fried tarantulas and noodles with red ants sold in Cambodia. I’m not proud of this psychological block: insects are cheap, protein-rich and far less resource-intensive than more traditional animal proteins. I firmly believe that people should eat more bugs; I equally firmly believe that I should not be among those people.
I have just one other implacable food phobia: eggs. Usually this isn’t a problem; I can always either slide the eggs to the side of my plate or order something else. But last spring I found myself in a modest little lodge – less a hotel then a room in a family’s house that they rent to travellers – in Cizhong, on the Yunnan-Tibet border. To that point the trip had been delicious: Tibetan breads and weak butter tea in roadside stalls, yak jerky on long, tooth-shattering drives on mountain roads, hallucinogenically strong homemade wine in eggshell cups.
My translator and I were eating breakfast in the family’s kitchen: a cosy, low-ceilinged, dirt-floored room in the basement, with a wood-fired, pot-bellied stove and no running water. The landlord’s wife made us steaming bowls of noodle soup with slivers of home-cured pork, preserved vegetable and a scattering of chopped scallions. But just before she brought the food to the table, she stirred into each bowl not one or two, but six eggs. When she set our food down on the table it had turned from noodle soup into a quivering, gelatinous mass of noodles suspended in poached egg filaments. I blanched. I prodded the soup and nearly retched. And then I did the only decent thing: I slid the bowl over to my translator when the cook’s back was turned.