By the time Divya Anand was a teenager, she’d already seen the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the ruins of Pompeii, been to Hong Kong Disneyland and marvelled at the Terracotta Warriors at Xian. When the family was based in Doha, her father, an avid traveller used to plan their trips to India in such a way that they stopped over at a different place enroute every time.
Anand is the author of Dare Eat That: A Guide to Bizarre Foods from Around the World, a book that explores her and her husband, Vivek’s journey to eat every species on earth, at least once!
“With parents who were brave enough to take a two-year-old to Athens (with a porta potty in tow!), it’s no wonder that I developed a love for travel. Back then, we travelled everywhere with a rice cooker and our first stop in any place would be the convenience store to buy a carton of yogurt so we could have our staple, thayir saadam (curd rice). Not much has changed from then to now when it comes to how I travel, except of course, the addition of wet markets, food streets and bizarre food!”
The author recalls how her husband was experimenting with food even before they met. As a bit of a science nerd, he began cataloguing the species he ate in the form of a food chart that was classified into phylum, class, order, and species and so on. This chart became a talking point amongst all their friends – “and they soon began asking us to show them the latest additions to the chart whenever we met. I realized there was something interesting in this concept and wrote a blog post about one of our food trips to Bangkok. That was the first time I experimented with writing about it, and when I saw the interest the post generated, I wrote the first draft of the manuscript.”
We travelled everywhere with a rice cooker and our first stop in any place would be the convenience store to buy a carton of yogurt so we could have our staple, thayir saadam – Divya Anand
We live in a time where a lot of people are turning to vegetarianism and veganism in the quest of sustainable living. So where a does a book, where a couple treats food as this one great adventure, fit in?
Anand explains that there’s a lot of rich history behind why different cultures eat what they do – and she’d like readers to take away the stories and the reasons why a certain dish is important to a certain culture.
Having travelled from Vietnam to Cambodia, the UK to Australia, she explains, “Local dishes are also very sustainable ways of eating while travelling as the journey from the farm to table is short. In fact, one of the ‘rules’ we talk about in the book is that the tastiest food is found closest to the source. Vegetarianism and veganism are ways to be more sustainable, and similarly, a non-vegetarian can make a more sustainable food choice by choosing to eat insects instead of meat.”
Over the years, the couple has learned to merge two very distinct travel styles. Vivek goes with the flow, and thinks nothing of spending hours trying to find a restaurant that serves locusts, or wandering around in an attempt to find a fishing village. She, on the other hand, needs to plan everything in advance.
Anand says, “As we’ve travelled together, I’ve learned to enjoy the aimless wandering and get super excited at our serendipitous discoveries. Vivek says that he wouldn’t have even travelled outside the country if it weren’t for me, and that’s how his food list grew so much. Our travels together have taught us patience with each other’s’ travel styles and personalities, and also given us great stories to laugh about when we’re spending a lazy weekend at home in Bangalore.”
A product manager by profession, in 2017 the author had won the Juggernaut Times LitFest Contest for her short story ‘That Girl Is Trouble’. She never imagined herself writing non-fiction but as her husband’s chart grew to include a mind-boggling variety of bizarre foods, she knew that this needed to be a book and that’s she wrote it.
As we’ve travelled together, I’ve learned to enjoy the aimless wandering and get super excited at our serendipitous discoveries – Divya Anand
“It was quite challenging for me to write because I wanted to bring out the essence of our experiences – the sights, the smells, the colours such that the reader felt like they were there with us. I also wanted to ensure that the reader could taste the food by bringing in as many parallels as we could. There are things we’ve eaten which have been described by the likes of bhujiya, grapes and even kurkure!,” she adds.
The author recalls Puffer fish as the most bizarre thing her husband had tried during their travels –
“It was one of those things that he almost didn’t eat until he ate it, because puffer fish is poisonous. Specialized chefs with years of training can prepare puffer fish such that it’s safe to eat. We were visiting a reputed Japanese restaurant in Singapore in Vivek’s quest to taste puffer fish, but even then we were apprehensive about it. We’d reserved a table on the last day of our trip so he could decide at the very last minute if he wanted to attempt this or not. Even when we got to the restaurant he paced outside on the road for about ten minutes before he summoned up the courage to go in. Every bite he took of the puffer fish was not just about the taste, but also about the adrenaline rush that came with it!”
The author reiterates that there’s a lot of rich history behind food and why a certain dish is important to a culture. For instance, frogs first became a staple in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s regime. The locals were restricted to diet of borbor (porridge), however, frogs were a source of protein.
“The locals began catching and roasting them during the monsoons when they were in abundance as sustenance. There are many more such stories that we’ve come across on our trips. In order to learn more about the local dishes and their history, we’ve tried everything from sign language to translate apps. Recently, we went to a restaurant in Tokyo that’s run by a hunter. He did not know any English, but we were able to talk to him about his hunting trips and his life using a translation app. He even showed us a Manga comic that’s based off him!”
The author reiterates that there’s a lot of rich history behind food and why a certain dish is important to a culture
Anand is already working on her next project which would be a picture book for children. And since it’s a different genre, she feels like she’s writing her first book all over again.
“I love children’s books and am known for always gifting one to my nieces, nephews and friends’ kids. I can’t wait to share this one with them and hear what they think!”
Photo Credit: Vivek Singh