Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Posh Nosh in Mumbai

I’ve never been more aware of being left-handed, than I am here. One time, when I was a Girl Guide, selling raffle tickets at the Old Folks’ Hotpot Supper, some old bat said to me, “Don’t they smack you for that, at school?” – but this was inspired by random geriatric malice, not centuries of religious tradition. Next to us, a woman sits, eating with the bunched fingers of her right hand, while her left hand droops inert in her lap. If I had to eat with my right hand, I think, what kind of a vaudeville performance what that be? I’d feel – what’s the word? – gauche.
The inscrutable waiter, in his extravagantly swagged culottes, sets before us a selection of dips with a basket of crisps and poppadums. I home in on what I think is a crisp, cunningly shaped like a chilli. By the time I discover it’s a for-real chilli, cunningly deep-fried to a crisp, it’s too late; my teeth have melted. Who’d do that to a visiting ingénue? I imagine they have a scoreboard, on the back of the kitchen door. High-fives all round, to the lads in skirts. Meanwhile, my taste-buds are quietly doing double-somersaults with a back flip, not remotely assuaged by the fourteen litres of water the waiter assiduously pours. I just know he’s laughing, behind his lack of scrut. Anyway, I don’t need water, I need yogurt. Since I don’t have the Hindi, or indeed, the breath, to make this need plain, I carry on attractively spluttering and barking, until there’s not one single person in the restaurant, who isn’t looking at me. It’s difficult to appear gracious, when your eyeballs are on fire, and your tongue won’t fit back into your own mouth. Stylish. It puts being left-handed into perspective, though.
You have to try rumali roti, not because it’s delicious, although it is. It means “handkerchief bread” and that’s exactly what it looks like, piled onto your side-plate like a crumpled napkin. How dainty is that? I do realise that I perhaps shouldn’t mention “dainty” in view of the foregoing, but still...
We eat off banana leaves. I try to look as if we eat off banana leaves every day at our house, but small whoops of joy keep percolating out of control. I remember when black pepper seemed the height of culinary savoir-faire, and wish my Mum could see me now. I recall that I’ve already shot myself in the foot, as far as any pretence to gastronomic sophistication is concerned, here at Le Sheraton, but in my own defence, I manage not to eat the banana leaf. I know that this is largely because it’s a foot across, and I’m armed only with chopsticks. I also accept that, were it a starter on a doily of banana leaf, and they gave me a knife, I’d have a go, probably.
When the lemon consommé arrives, I remember to rinse my fingertips in it, rather than eat it, so we end the evening on a positive note, after all. The waiter’s smiling, but I can’t work out if it’s bonhomie or sympathy, so I resolve not to come back here for a couple of decades, or until my next incarnation, whichever is the later.