Tasting The Unknown
Image Credit: Sushi set gunkan, nigiri, and rolls / Unsplash

The occasion was a formal dinner, a traditional South Korean meal in Seoul. We were a bunch of business journalists on a FAM trip for an electronics major, who was soon opening shop in India. There were a couple of vegetarians in the group and the hosts were being very careful about what was being served, especially to media persons from India. 

I had quoted seafood and no beef as my food preference, and when the kimchi, pickled veggies, radish soup and grilled fish were served to me, the novelty of the yet-untried Korean cuisine was like a breath of fresh air, on my palate. I was a greenhorn business reporter then and even greener when it came to the world of food. Soon, I was asked if I would like to try a particular fish appetiser, which at that point of time appeared to me like cylindrical-shaped rolls in a green-coloured wrapper, which had bits of rice sticking out from the middle of the roll. 

Answering in the affirmative, and being served the same, I speared the appetiser with my fork and happily popped it into my mouth and… froze. The unmistakable gut-twisting taste of raw fish assailed all my senses at the same time. Almost gagging, I excused myself and rushed to the washroom and after having spit out the offensive food in the dustbin and freshened up, I could face the world again. Not without being, if not scarred for life, traumatised by the entire experience, made unpleasant because my Indian palate was unaccustomed to the taste of raw (or almost) fish. 

The year was 1996 and sushi was not really a thing in India, as it is now. It was at least a decade later when I was recounting this experience to a senior hospitality professional, when I was given a lesson in demystifying sushi eating. He explained the hows and whys of sushi eating that is the sushi is best eaten whole and with the hand, and one should pour just a little soya sauce over the fish and rice equally and only a tiny bit of wasabi should be placed right at the middle, and though the pickled ginger is meant for palate cleansing, it is perfectly okay to also top the sushi and pop the whole thing in and bingo, it has always worked for me, from that day onwards.

Today, I enjoy my nigiri and maki, but I must confess I prefer the California roll, and sushi having crunchy fillings, like deep fried prawn with cucumber and avocado, and not the raw sashimi kind of filling which I had encountered in Korea many moons ago. California roll, considered an entry-level sushi for beginners, because of the use of deep fried crab sticks or mock/imitation crab sticks, is quite popular on the party circuit in India for the same reason, I’m guessing. 

But at a deep, subconscious level, the dinner in Korea will always remain a “jolt to the senses” dining experience, though its aftermath was not at all unpleasant, once I got used to the idea of sushi. 

Not all first-time tasting or, in this particular case non-tasting, experiences end on a pleasant note, though. I remember my first Ramzan in Hyderabad and being witness to the haleem frenzy. Haleem was the food du jour, on every road and lane, and come dusk there would be queues of fasting (and non-fasting) Hyderabadis near the haleem eateries waiting for their daily fix, while it was still in season. A bowlful of hot porridge made of broken wheat, minced meat, ghee and spices would hold its spell over hungry humans for a whole month.

A restaurateur friend wanted me to try the special haleem they made and offered to send some. The haleem came in two boxes, one with the ‘special’ and the other with the ‘normal’ tag. Obviously, I reached out for the special tag box and opened it with great anticipation. There were smaller boxes of haleem condiments like the fried onion, cashews, mint leaves, and a couple of lemon wedges. 

The haleem box had piping hot haleem, of course, and came with an appetising aroma of ghee and spices. But what was inexplicable was the rather large slice of meat topping the haleem, especially when you are told that in haleem, you are just supposed to eat the meat, but not see it as it’s meant to be blended perfectly with the broken wheat. 

I flipped the box to see its contents and sure enough, the special part which appeared a bit of an anomaly, was the Zubaan or lamb’s tongue staring at me. Straight it went into trash, though I tried the other haleem, which was perfection personified. I shared the experience with my friend, who apologised for not having prepared me enough, to which I replied that I would have still not eaten it! 

I confess to being a bit of a fence-sitter when it comes to meat-eating. I cannot, for instance, partake of offal such as brains, intestines and other unmentionables of the goat or lamb, though I can always recommend to a friend a good place for bheja fry in town. Despite being initiated into fish eating early enough in life, I draw a line at eating fish head, considered quite a delicacy in Bengali and Odia cuisine.

Coming back to a pleasant memorable dining experience, involving a similar taste of the unknown, I would like to recount getting a Taste of Darkness, offered at the restaurant, called Dialogue in the Dark. Diners sit in pitch darkness and are served a three course or four course meal by unsighted staffers, who don’t let you on anything about the menu, except your choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian.  

Before sitting down to dine, you are also taken through a series of guessing the ingredients experiment, where you are made to identify pulses, spices etc in total darkness. This unique experiment gives you a rare insight into the world of darkness, and for once the tables are turned when you are inhabiting the world of the sightless who have an edge over you as they are used to the darkness, but you are not, so it’s their world against your wits, as you realise how much one takes the gift of sight for granted. 

If I recollect, the food at the restaurant was not exactly worth writing home about, but the dining experience surely remains a unique and distinct one. The feeling of spooning some cheesy hot pasta or herbed tomato soup without seeing it, was that of an elusive yet palpable emotion, indescribable in words, and an absolutely recommended epicurean experience. 

At the end of the day, food, like religion, is a very personal experience. As we go along in life, gathering new tasting experiences, we win some, we lose some. But as Swami Vivekanand wisely said, “Be Thankful for all food. It is Brahman. His universal energy is transmuted into our individual energy and helps us in all that we do.”

About Author: Swati Sucharita is a Hyderabad-based journalist, food blogger and independent content consultant. You may write in at swati.sucharita@htmedialabs.com