Richard C. Morais is the author of “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” which I reviewed yesterday and a reporter for Forbes magazine for 25 years. Please see the end of this post for a giveaway.
I learned the value of food as cultural commentary when I was Forbes’ European Bureau Chief, stationed in London. That job routinely parachuted me into remote cities in China, rural villages in Hungary, jungle outposts in Madagascar. The difficulty was, staggering jet-lagged off the plane, I had to quickly get up to speed to write a credible and accurate story on the country’s business or economic scene – even though I had never before set foot in the place. In other words, I had to learn how to convincingly and instantly fake it.
It was under this pressure to produce credible copy in far-flung corners of the globe that I developed my personal reporting technique: I always headed, first thing, to the local food markets and had a meal. When needing to quickly understand where a country is on the global scale of economic development, there is nothing like seeing and smelling and tasting the foodstuffs found at local markets, where the stalls are lorded over by colorful spice merchants, butchers, and fishmongers, and the very air of the market is filled with the farmers’ lively chatter and vicious gossip. It was like magic. You couldn’t help but absorb the country’s state-of-existence – right through your pores.
In the Ugandan capital of Kampala, for example, I went to Rufula, the city’s livestock market. Mesmerized, I followed brown-hide longhorns into the abattoir, where the walls were splattered with blood and the steers’ hacked-off hooves were stacked and sold as a culinary delicacy. An animal was felled before me, hoisted up on hooks and hauled along on chains. When the butcher’s ax fell into the steer’s chest cavity, blood splattered across my shirt. The sickly sweet smell of death hung in the air an stayed in my nostrils for the rest of the day.
From there I went to Nakasero, the vegetable market, where the teenage “coffee boys” guided the newly-arrived farmers, for a fee, to the merchants offering the highest prices for arabica and robusta beans. At the basket-filled spice market, a hallucinatory mix of bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla pods greeted me. Meanwhile, over in the 20 square blocks that made up the Owino Market, a kind of biblical-era department store, I watched fascinated as the locals got their hair cut and dyed in the open air. Under the flame trees, women sipping milky tea shelled beans and sold Nile Perch broth or a peanut sauce to go with a starchy-green banana mush called matoke.
It was through these markets that this hardscrabble African nation entered my soul, and the descriptions in the subsequent article made Forbes’ readers in New York or Seattle viscerally understand Uganda’s economic landscape, far more effectively than the dry recitation of per-capita GDP statistics every could.
My senses were aflame. That same trip, near the headwaters of the Nile River as it flowed from Lake Victoria, I had a lunchtime red-curry with the prominent Madhvani family. This was an entirely different sort of an experience. Here we dined on white tablecloths on the family’s homestead’s porch, overlooking their 25,000-acre sugar estate. Pointy-eared Scotties scampered through the garden; strutting peacocks shrieked and fanned their tales. In the far distance, the hills of Africa were airbrushed with a purple hue. The servants served us tea.
It is this tactile taste for ripe-smelling markets and savory meals that mysteriously came to my aid when I turned to fiction. Consciously or not, it helped my protagonist, Hassan Haji, find his way through the culturally diverse worlds of Bombay, London, Lumière and Paris.