Please don’t get me wrong, I am American and blessed to have been born in Los Angeles. I was lucky to be born and raised in beautiful southern California. But after living off and on for the past 18 years in Barcelona, Spain I do feel WAY more European and much less American. The lifestyle, the mentality, the self image issues…I am much more Euro than Cali now. It is a wonderful place to live for some and we’ve made innumerable and fabulous contributions to the world of technology and much more, including my favourite inventions like thick crust pizza, the moving assembly line, jeans, the airplane and Facebook.
But generally speaking, we Americans can be a bit ignorant. Sometimes American ‘innocence’ sadly includes important issues like a lack of understanding other cultures (like women wearing a burka, for example) or the local news headlines that pass off as real news instead of important world news. Then other times, the issues are silly things like only buying lettuce leaves that are pre-washed and sold in bags or driving the car to go everywhere in southern California, even around the block to quickly buy some milk instead of walking for 90 seconds. So starting to experience life outside of the states is often quite funny for people like me who start off VERY American.
When I first moved to Europe I was 22 and dumb as a doornail when it came to certain things. I moved to a tiny village in Spain right on the Mediterranean Sea called Sitges and used to complain all the time about having to walk 10 minutes to get from my flat to the beach, much to the amazement of everyone around me. In summer it was hot and people just looked at me like I was an idiot for suggesting that a car was more practical than walking when you consider the difficulty and time if would take to park, etc where I was living.
I remember buying chicken at the butcher shop for the first time in Spain. There the chicken is sold cleaned (no feathers) but it is a whole chicken in every other way and you can buy either ¼ of a chicken or the whole bird cut up however you choose. But I didn’t know I was supposed to specify that the butcher cut off the head and feet of the cleaned chicken nor that he would cut it up into pieces for me at first. I was sooo grossed out when I arrived home the first time after shopping and pulled out my chicken from the bag. Holy crap, it was staring at me and looked like something from a New Orleans voodoo scene from a film. I had to chop off the feet and decapitate the damn thing myself and it freaked me out so much that it took me ages to do it that first time.
But the funniest “innocent American” thing I remember from that first summer living in Europe was going on a first dinner date with the man who I later married. We ordered tapas, including freshly grilled prawns, and when the prawns arrived I said, “oh look, how sweet, they decorated the heads with little black eyes.” He just looked at me, then understood what I meant and laughed his ass off. They weren’t little decorations at all but actual eyes…but I had never seen a prawn’s head before ever in my life so I had no idea! It was really embarrassing! In the states, they remove the heads, even if they leave the little leggy shell bits on. I don’t know why, they just do.
And now I live in India.
All I can say is THANK GAWWWD for having first lived in Spain because here the extreme difference is beyond anything I ever experienced in Barcelona. Well, at times anyway. Sure, I still go out for Champagne and wonderful wine and can eat tender scallops, yummy sushi, filet mignon and the most exquisite Indian food on the planet. But when I decide to take to the streets of Bangalore and do my shopping road-side, I am sometimes completely ill-equipped to deal with the differences from what I grew up with in California and what is on offer here in Bangalore.
In the U.S., I never saw a fish head, nor obviously a prawn with its sweet little black eyeballs still intact. I never saw a whole lamb hanging by a hook or a chicken with its feathers, head and feet on. Everything there is cleaned and plucked and chopped and packaged in plastic wrap and styrofoam (from what I remember anyway…although it has been 10 years since I’ve even set foot on American soil). There is so much emphasis placed on quality and control and “grades” of meats, etc… something completely foreign to most of India. In the U.S. I think the quality standards are fantastic and It is great, actually. It keeps the people safe but it seems over-the-top to me a bit now. Simply put, it is different from most countries. For example, in Spain there are huge pork legs hanging for months and months from butcher shop ceilings to age properly. These are the most prized ham legs and the most expensive and soooo delicious. But from what I know, they are still banned in the U.S. It’s just different.
And then there’s India. Here I can find chicken pre-cut and in branded plastic packaging at many shops but it isn’t always as fresh as what I’d like and on more than one occasion I’ve found myself chucking out freshly purchased chicken in the bin. So I decided to embark on a bit of a culinary adventure for me. In my neighbourhood we have the option to buy totally fresh live chickens, which I recently started doing and am now hooked ‘cuz they are dee-lish.
Although I’m really curious about exactly how they kill the birds, I haven’t asked for the tour to watch it yet. At first, I stupidly assumed they were killed by a quick twist and snap to the neck but that’s not how it is really done. You see, I live in an area with a huge Muslim population so all the live chickens I buy here are slaughtered according to the halal traditions. This means they are actually given the axe by someone who has prayed recently to Allah before they slaughter my dinner. My chicken is killed with a sharp knife to prevent unnecessary pain and then bled (they are said to be given a quick death to prevent pain). And just before they are slaughtered they are given something to drink … which I may have understood incorrectly but I think that the liquid is blessed water if I’m not mistaken (please do correct me if I am wrong!). Anyway, the chicken is yummy and I’ve started baking it with coconut milk and cinnamon we bought in Morocco and it is now my new favourite chicken dish.
And since my daughter refuses to eat any meat other than fish or chicken, I’m now an expert on the local fish markets around us. The fish markets or counters in the bigger grocery shops here in Bangalore are basically the same as in Spain but with less of a selection (it’s been too long since I’ve been to the U.S. so I really can’t remember how things are there). Like Spain, they sell only whole fishes and once I pick one out the one I want they weigh it, gut it, scrape off scales, chop off heads and tails and filet it as I wish.
Well, next to my favourite live chicken shop on one of the main streets in Cox Town is also a fresh fish stall. They sell the same fish, prawns and seafood as the squeaky clean fish departments in the shops, but I have to admit that the stall looks dodgy as hell. It has flies swarming all around the fish, just like the mutton shop two stalls down and my little chicken shop next door. And to be completely frank, just like the fruit and veggie and grains shops next to them too. But the fish stall always has a queue and my driver Shiva told me time and again that the quality of the fish is better because they go through stock quicker and I would like it. So I gave in and tried it.
Seriously, there were more flies around than I’d seen hovering around a cow but they have one employee who seemed pretty on the ball and has some specialty homemade fly swatter and every few seconds he swats at the little fishes or clams and clears them away. In Frazer Town, there were two good places to buy fish, one had a guy who knew how to filet it like I wanted, the other guy I had to hand-hold the whole time. But this little shop was the best and they knew exactly how I wanted my fish…cut into two filet steaks and with the bones removed. Because of the flies and the rustic feel of the stall, I was a bit worried when I brought home and cooked our first fish from there but damn if it wasn’t better than the other shops! And on top of that, they told me that they also deliver! It’s now my new favourite fish joint!
My American mind tells me that I’m taking some sort of health risk but honestly I’m sure I’m more likely to die in India by crossing the street as Angela the Human Frogger or by being trampled by a bullock than from a fish or chicken or tomato that I buy on the side of the road. Before moving here last year I never visited the doctor for vaccinations, I don’t freak out like some people about eating fresh salads here because of the idea that the veggies aren’t cleaned properly, etc. And now I don’t even seem to give a hoot about the flies that chill out around my big yummy Catala fish before I buy it.
Next stop? Maybe the uncharted land of street food with names I can’t pronounce. I’ll need to get the guys on my team at work to take me out for that at lunchtime though because I don’t really see that fitting into a normal Saturday night for me here in Bangalore and I wouldn’t know what to order if I stepped out at night on my own to try something new!