Food is a two-edged sword for the traveller, bringing euphoria and vengeance, delight and desperation in equal measure. Not only does it have a profound effect on group morale (like an army, a film crew marches on its stomach), but it is also an essential part of communication. The offer of refreshment to a guest is an almost universal phenomenon and the sharing of it makes a connection which overcomes language barriers. This can be a mixed blessing. Had the language barrier been lower, I might never have gulped down a gourd of fermented palm wine in an Indian village in Peru, only to learn that it had been fermented by the saliva from the old ladies of the village. If I’d known the Arabic for “No, thanks, I’m full,” when offered a suspiciously heady piece of camel liver in Algeria, I might have avoided 24 hours of quite spectacular eruptions. Meals can make good television, as the participants are relaxed and more likely to open up, though there are exceptions
to the rule. In traditional Muslim communities, meals with foreigners tend to be eaten swiftly and purposefully, and not lingered over. The women do the cooking but do not join their men at the table. Nor is there any alcohol to lower the inhibitions. I enjoy my food so much that I get quite depressed if there is no sense of celebration involved in the dispatching of it. It reminds me of those arid power lunches in Manhattan where diners vie with each other to see who can eat and drink the least. Eating and working is not always easy. On Japan’s Sado island, my hungry crew had to end a long day by filming a feast prepared for me by the proprietress of a ryokan, a small traditional inn. Cameras turned and microphones were trained on me as I put away a succession of pure delights: seafood with garlic; bream, tuna and squid sashimi; vegetables in bean curd; abalone steak in soy sauce; fried sea bream with limes; teriyaki of tuna stomach; and rice pickles in bean paste. For my tired crew’s sake, I tried to pretend it was all pretty average, but I’m not that good an actor. Another time it was my turn to suffer. I was in a Dogon village in south-eastern Mali, sitting with the menfolk around a communal bowl of millet porridge, stained vivid green with baobab leaf sauce, at the bottom of which nestled a chicken, aubergine and onion stew. This doesn’t sound like hardship except that the outside temperature – and we were outside – was 55C. I was required to eat with the fingers of one hand, squeezing the millet into a ball and dipping it into the stew. It was like picking up hot coals and my yelps of discomfort caused much mirth among the Dogon, for whom the ability to eat hot food is a sign of sexual prowess. One advantage of the cuisine in sub-Saharan Africa is that you can be pretty sure your food is fresh, as it’s been running about the yard an hour earlier. One night, we came upon a dimly lit restaurant with wooden booths around a clay courtyard. It all seemed delightfully atmospheric, with the sounds of goats and chickens rising into the night air. A wooden signboard hung above the door, creaking gently in the breeze. We ordered fresh goat. Moments later there was a flurry of hysterical bleatings, followed by a thud and silence. The sound of fresh goat. And the crash of romantic illusions. The opposite of the plain and simple meals of Africa were the banquets of China. The Chinese adore their food and believe there is nothing that moves that can’t be devoured. I learned this in a Guangzhou restaurant where snake was the house speciality.