Of strange, alien dinners

TABLE MANNERS or eating etiquette are usually taken as a yardstick of cultural and economic progress. According to the dictionary, dinner is "the chief meal of the day or a formal meal honouring a person or events ".

Treating your guests courteously and seating them comfortably are equally or more important than food and beverages at any formal dinner. For obvious reasons, all these may vary from place to place and in different cultures.

However, the underlining factor is, creating a `feel good' ambience. From what one sees in dinners elsewhere in India and abroad, the food items served need not always be to everybody's satisfaction. But you never forget the warmth and care or lack of it, from the hosts With regard to the delicatessen served; you expect rice, bread, meat, fish and vegetables based on various recipes along with drinks and sweets at any common dinner. But then, it all depends on the culture you are talking about.

In China, you can often see `bird's nest soup' served on your dinner table.

The ingredient is real bird's nest built by thousands of swifts in remote caves and crevices using their saliva .If you are daring, you may also see the `palm of bear' or `brain of monkey' as also grasshoppers, water beetles, dog meat, snake blood and many such exotic and sometimes bizarre items-all prepared in real imperial style. While in Beijing, once I was invited to a "Peking Duck Dinner" where, as the name implied, almost all the dishes served were made of different organs of the legendary Peking duck Cooking dinner by the guests or diners themselves is a common practice in Japan, China, Korea and other East Asian countries. Separate gas connections, special stove and cooking vessels are placed on the dining table. Waitresses provide meat, fish, vegetables and other ingredients for cooking. Guests are free to add these items to the boiling broth in the centre of their table according to taste preferences. The world famous `sukiyaki' of Japan is usually cooked in this manner.

Unlike the collectively cooked sukiyaki dinner, there are several Japanese specialties that are not cooked at all but `arranged'. Very fresh or even live fish cut into small pieces and eaten raw with Soya sauce and Chinese radish is called `sushi'-an essential item in any Japanese dinner. Despite my conservative Indian food habits, sushi has never been a taboo for me in Japan. But it was years ago at a formal dinner in Nagasaki that I learned a lesson on respecting the eating habits of others: When I saw a partially cut raw fish served on my table moving its tail- as if to waive at the guests, I was amazed! I should have known that in Japan the freshness of fish served at dinners reaching the extent of it being alive, is a sign of excellence in hospitality! You are expected to eat it with the usual pair of chopsticks common in China and Japan. Often you see live but peeled shrimp too relished similarly. This is called `odori ebi' or dancing shrimp since it dances in the mouth while eating.

Menu for standard dinners in Japan usually includes one of the deadliest delicacies in the world. A kind of puffer fish, it is called `fugu' in Japanese. Fugu is a sea fish endowed with a poison similar to potassium cyanide in certain body parts. Much in demand for its heavenly taste, this rawfish delicacy is said to be worth eating even at the cost of your life! However, apart from feeling a tingling sensation on the tongue, my gourmet adventures with it did not lead to any heaven either in this world or in the other! Obviously, fatality from eating fugu is mainly due to its preparation by cooks, neither licensed nor trained in removing poisonous parts before serving as required by law.

A Minister in the former Somali Government prior to the nation's civil war hosted an official dinner in the beautiful capital city of Mogadishu. The venue was a jungle shed in the outskirts. There was no dining table or chairs; but an expensive carpet served the purpose. A huge gilded plate holding a large stuffed and baked sheep was placed in the centre of the carpet surrounded by the guests. Several bottles of cocoa cola and substantial quantities of watermelon pieces were the other items in the plate. Eating was an unforgettable experience in traditional Arab style, guests sharing the sheep and its contents of stuffed chicken, eggs and a vide range of other Arabian specialties. In the absence of knives, forks or chopsticks, everybody was using his bare hands and fingers to grab the delicacies.

Another Arab dinner albeit not as sumptuous, was hosted in Sana-the capital of North Yemen on a similar occasion. Here a special effect was provided by the so-called `khat'- a slightly intoxicating leaf usually eaten in bundles washed down with cocoa cola. Cultivated in the mountainous regions of Yemen, khat is something similar to Indian `pan parag'. khat is a banned item under the category of narcotics.

On introspection, one is struck by the sadly conspicuous lack of fraternity and compassion in god's own country, while these characteristics were evident in the sukiyaki dinners or baked sheep sharing, elsewhere in Asia or Africa. How we rush to partake of the feast at weddings, pushing and jostling, elbowing out others, in a bid to be in the first batch that has lunch!