Go everywhere, eat everything
I first heard about this book at the Hay Festival in May 2009.
Jay Rayner, who is a kind of rock star god of food critics in England and was there to promote his own book on a similar theme, when asked in one of the sessions what he was reading, mentioned this title and said it was really good. Rather than making me feel “Oh I must get hold of a copy of Simon Majumdar’s book”, the thought that came to my mind instead was, “What a nice fellow that Jay Rayner is”. Jay Rayner is extremely talented but I couldn’t help also thinking that it’s this kind of sophisticated PR (some might call it his warm and generous personality) that contributes to his huge popularity. Anyway, that's how I recognized the book when Sunday Mid-day asked me to review it - and I couldn't help thinking, ha ha, the teeming billion people in India have never heard of Jay Rayner but are now going to read Simon Majumdar's book.
When I was half way through, I sent a message to my nephew Sachin, who's 10 and has the same sort of sense of humour as Simon Majumdar, that here's a book he might enjoy. I don't mean Simon has a childish sense of humour - it's Sachin who's a precocious writer. I'm not sure whether he's read it yet but I'm saving my copy for him on his next visit here in a few months. Here's the review I wrote for Sunday Mid-day. It appeared today, and though they censored "ass" to "a**", they were kind enough to carry the photo I sent them - that's Ekta reading the book and looking a bit as if she's newly arrived from Biafra and being force-fed with spinach juice and protein khakras for her own good ...
Simon Majumdar loves to eat. One fine day he threw up his job (that’s right: “threw up”) and pushed off, travelling around the world looking for and eating the best food he could find.
The book has forty one chapters, each set in a different place that Simon went to, sniffed out the best possible meals on offer, ate them till he was stuffed, and described them for us.
How did he fund the trip?
A few years before he wrote this book, Simon Majumdar had come across food-discussion sites and it had been like discovering Narnia at the back of his refrigerator. It was a wonderland filled with people like him who could spend all day making argumentative posts about important matters such as “best Sichuan hotpot in London” and “Lobsters tastier big or small?” This network now pulled in, inundating him with offers of hospitality and food advice.
Luckily, for five years he had been “putting by a decent sum away every month”. Yes, some of the writing is hurried and the editing is unforgivably careless with proofing howlers every four or five pages. But Simon is funny and I was cackling away like an ill-bred hyena more frequently than that.
Half Welsh and half Bengali, you might consider Simon ethnically rather exotic, but the book reveals a homogenously British temperament and self-deprecating sense of humour. More endearing even than his unabashed greed is his devotion to his parents and siblings which are manifest on nearly every page.
Some of the meals he tells of were fabulously orgasmic and others hilariously vomit-inducing, and Simon travelled through Finland and Iceland; Mexico and Argentina; Istanbul, Manila and Senegal – where, considering the size and duration of his meals, he surely released any number of loud and stinky dakars amidst the local populace.
In Melbourne he was bemused by the “almost pathological appeal to Australians of dim sum”.
In Kyoto, he ordered an unfamiliar dish and spat it out. Everyone laughed. He had nearly eaten cod sperm.
China was the most fun: at a railway station, the toilet was half-a-dozen holes in the ground straddled by Chinese men grimacing and groaning as they worked hard to extrude their daily bread in open view. Some of them had taken the opportunity to have supper at the same time and were eating bowls full of noodles. It was difficult to tell which end the slurping was coming from. Simon did not join them.
In Philadelphia, the Philly cheese steak was a soft Italian bread roll filled with sweet onions, wafer-thin strips of good beef and topped with cheese and so good that you have to queue for it at Geno’s even at 1 a.m.
One of the few benefits of being British is the accent, and Simon overwhelmed American customers he was serving at a “deli” in Ann Arbor with the entire range from the “cor-luv-a-duck faux Cockney of Jamie Oliver to the plummy tones of David Niven”.
The bits about India were towards the end and it was only my saintly self-restraint that had me plod patiently through every word till I got there, and read with approval that “Mumbai is truly one of the world’s great cities, and it doesn’t really care whether you approve or not. You get the feeling that, if you were to mess with Mumbai, Mumbai would just turn around and kick your ass.”
He described the food quite adequately, too.
I tried reading this book in one go, and got terrible indigestion. Read a bit at a time. If possible, carry it with you when you travel as a “gastro-tourist” to the places it tells of.