Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Law Of Inverse Expectations

Bailey's Law - "The less money you spend on an Indian meal, the higher the quality and the greater the portion"

This law, recently postulated, and still subject to proof by the established peer review journals (Saveur, Gourmet, etc), has never been more vividly illustrated than in the last few days. As we have not yet secured proper accommodation, we have been eating out in restaurants. A lot. Being a white guy, as my Serbian friend Aleks says, is "a two bladed edge". On the one hand, we are in an economic position that is the envy of 95% of the population of the world. That gives a bit of comfort, although frankly, it can be more than a little embarrassing at times. On the other hand, it also means that when asking for restaurant advice from a local, they usually assume that you want all white bread and McNuggets, smothered in the provocative Velveeta sauce that is normally associated with the culture that you come from. A local wants to make you feel comfortable, and that usually means helping you find your own version of "soul food".

As a result, we have been steered in some less than ideal directions for dining, the pinnacle of which came a couple of nights ago. When I asked the lovely chap at the desk where I could find some "real, authentic Keralan seafood", he whipped out his map and directed me to the restaurant of another hotel. Excitedly, we headed off into the night. Our little entourage is getting quite adept at avoiding death by motorized vehicle. We snaked our way through the labyrinthine alleyways and emerged on a bustling main street, the crossing of which is not for the faint of heart. Arriving at the hotel, we were directed upstairs to the restaurant by the desk man with the by now de riguer head wiggle. Upon entry, the spider sense was definitely tingling. Hmmmmm...... potted plants. Napkins... And horror of horrors. Is that CUTLERY?!?! Despite my gut reaction to flee, we were soon seated, and I was somewhat relieved to find that they actually served beer, which is a real rarity here. Opening the menu, we cruised past the fish and chips, chicken, and pasta sections, eventually arriving at a tattered "Keralan specialties" page.

So we ordered. Spicy crab fry. Keralan prawns. Eggplant Bharta. Bhindi(okra) Masala. Rice, and 4 naan bread. "Hmmmmm... maybe this won't be so bad", I thought as I tucked into my second beer. This brief moment of optimism was shattered however when the food arrived. Gluey and bland, the Eggplant was devoid of both inspiration and flavour. The version I make at home completely kicked its ass. The okra fared a little better, but the Masala sauce would have seen a better application affixing the wallpaper to the wall. The crab was most likely from a can, and tasted like.... soap. And the prawns were, to put it mildly, off. Really off. To the point where I advised everyone not to eat them. Unfortunately, the portion was so small, that everyone had eaten one by that point, and only two remained. The naan were quite good, actually. My mood went really sour I'm ashamed to say. I sulked. I called the waiter over and pointed to the prawns. "I'm afraid that the prawns are not fresh, and I'm sending them back. Please take them off the bill". Taking a page out of the Fawlty Towers playbook, he dutifully took the dish containing a mountain of glutinous sauce and two incredibly dangerous prawns back to the kitchen. Several minutes later, he returned with the same dish and placed it back on the table. He even stirred it once or twice. "But sir", he said. "You have already eaten most of them". Once again the inscrutable head wiggle. He then walked off.

At the end of the meal, the waiter delivers the bill, and as I expected, the prawns were on there. It was now time to become that most loathsome of creatures, the irate Western Tourist. I called over the head waiter, and as politely and firmly as I could, I said "There is a problem with the bill. The prawns were bad, and I refuse to pay for something that is going to poison my family". He looked a little stunned, but gamely walked off. A lengthy discussion ensued in the kitchen, and nearly ten minutes later, he reappeared and informed me that it had been taken off. I can only hope that the tipping point of the conversation was having the cook rescue a prawn from the gloopy canister of sauce and sample it himself. It was only 170 rupees (about 4 bucks), but damn. First napkins, uniformed waiters, and then cutlery, but should a man have to smile and eat poison shellfish? The bill was still 1000 rupees. I harrumphed off into the night, cursing my lack of judgement and wondering if I was destined to be worshipping at the porcelain altar for the bulk of the night.

And now the flip side of Bailey's law.

We took the ferry to Fort Cochin, which is about a 20 minute ride from the boat jetty that is a couple of minutes walk from the hotel. It's a pretty little place with a sleepier feel to it. Its the home of one of the original Jewish settlement in India. There's a big spice market and a flourishing fishing center. We walked all the way Dutch Palace and then to the synagogue. On the way back, we were hungry, so we ducked into a little hole in the wall restaurant. Now this is the kind of place that would make most people I know turn and run, for fear of intestinal invasion. It was a real South Indian working man's lunch spot, and the decor was, well.... not. Dirty floor, peeling paint, old pictures of saints on the wall. We ordered three veg. thalis, or rice meals, to share between the 5 of us. Now the thali comes on a stainless steel tray, and consists of a mound of rice, a couple of vegetable curries, a chili pickle, sambar (lentil gravy), rassam (or pepper water), and yoghurt. The beauty of it is that it is bottomless. When your curries are gone, a dhoti-clad gentleman of indeterminate age comes around and plops more on your plate. This game goes on until you are full. It was actually the best thali I've had so far. Real honest food with soul. We were stuffed and happy. So three thalis, a 2 liter bottle of water, and two masala teas totaled 130 Rupees. Ten times better than the previous meal, and almost 1/10 the price!

We have found evidence of this law in other places in Mexico and Hawaii. The best food was in the street stall serving grilled pork. Sure, the aroma of the sewer blew through when the wind was just right, but the food was the real deal. Our experience has been that you stand a far greater chance of food poisoning in the big hotels that cater to Westerners than you do if you eat where the locals eat.

It's all about inverting your expectations.


jcree said...

Isn't that funny! I just had chicken mcnuggets with melted velvita TODAY.

Sally said...

My favourite dosas and chai were ones we'd get for breakfast in this grotty little place whose walls were the texture of a well-cured and unsoaped iron skillet. It's Indian food afterall; even if it WAS bad it's probably been cooked enough to kill all the bugs.