My big fat world tour: Simon Majumdar's culinary odyssey
Simon Majumdar left his job with a plan to 'go everywhere and eat everything'. One year, 31 countries and countless exotic meals later, he describes his journey
Thursday 07 January 2010
There's no doubt that 2004, the year I turned 40, was a big year for me. It was also the year my mother died and was the start of a slow psychological decline. By early 2007, I was on the point of a breakdown. I hated my job and didn't know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I had always loved food, so I made a list of all the things I wanted to do. Top of it were the words "go everywhere and eat everything". So I did.
I'd been working in book publishing for 20 years. I knew I wanted out, but didn't yet know how. Some years earlier I'd been on a self-improvement course by Tony Robbins, the slightly frightening American self-help guru, and he'd suggested it's useful to write down all of your objectives. I came up with a list of goals – and set about achieving them one by one. First, I went to get my teeth straightened. Then, I got a bespoke suit made to measure. The next goal was to get out there and explore the world – and somehow indulge my passionate love of food at the same time.
I was already running one of the most successful food blogs in the country – doshermanos.co.uk – which I had set up with my brother back in 2006. To give you some clue of how highly my family regards food, my brother's nickname when we were growing up was "The Great Salami". Anyway, through the blog we had begun to receive a lot offers to stay with various people across the world and share their meals. Even now, dozens of people contact me with invitations every month.
I realised that I didn't want to die before having tried some of the world's great dishes – a taco in Mexico City or a lechon suckling pig in the Philippines. It seemed like it was about time for me to take people up on their offers of hospitality. So I went into work the next day and handed in my notice. With the help of the internet I began to put together the schedule for my journey, handed over £2,000 for the first set of flights, and before I knew it there was no turning back.
A year after the end of the trip, it's hard not to look back at the highlights and be in awe. If you think Billingsgate fish market is impressive, you ain't seen nothing – the Tsukiji fish market in Japan is one of the most remarkable places I have ever visited. It has been around for 350 years, and to go there and see the fish being auctioned off is nothing less than overwhelming. Huge tuna are brought in daily by small shuttle ships that go from massive trawler to trawler. The array of fish is beyond staggering: abalone and eel sit alongside enormous tuna that are auctioned for thousands of dollars. At 5am, I ate a bowl of rice topped off with unagi (freshwater eel) at Ciro's, a long-established restaurant in the heart of the market: it may not be not to everybody's taste, as the oiliness of the skin and the fatty nature of the flesh are unusual, but in context it made a perfect breakfast.
In Kansas City, Missouri, I witnessed the American Royal, probably the nation's biggest barbecue competition, where 400,000lb of meat is cooked and consumed in the space of two days. More than 500 teams compete. The American notion of barbecue is quite different from ours. It involves huge chunks of meat being smoked over different kinds of wood for hours on end, in smokers the size of a small European car. Slabs of pork or beef ribs are marinated with 'rubs' concocted from secret recipes, and cooked until the flesh begins to fall off the bone. 'Pulled pork' comes with a fabulous char created by adding brown sugar to the rub; brisket had fat that melted on the mouth like savoury candyfloss; and the ribs, my God, had just enough bite to make the hunt for meat worthwhile. It was a crazy experience, but the sense of community was exceptional.
In Mozambique, I just had to sample the huge and succulent prawns for which the country is famous. On a coastal road close to the capital, Maputo, I visited Costa do Sol, a remnant of Portuguese colonial rule, but still considered one of the best fish restaurants. The main course was 24 of those astounding shellfish, simply grilled and doused in butter. I can still recall ripping the shells from one of the beautifully sweet shrimps, not caring that the butter was dribbling down my chin on to my shirt.
Along the way, I picked up many new friends. In Senegal I became close to a man of similar age called Sakhary Sy, who had been recommended to me as a guide. He was determined to fill my time in his beloved country with good local food and wanted to introduce me to a Senegalese staple: yassa, a dish of chicken marinated in a potent mix of chillies, oil, lime juice and garlic before being roasted and served in a sauce soured with palm vinegar and olives.
The restaurant he chose in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, was packed with locals. The dish, although simply prepared, had layer upon layer of flavour, from the sharp bite of the vinegar to the heat of the chillies. The accompanying local Gazelle beer, which Sakhary insisted we drink, was a perfect match.
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about my trip was when I came across a country whose cooking was a complete surprise for me. Finland, for example, has almost as bad a reputation as Britain for its food. I went to stay with the Rydman family, in the northernmost part of the country. I have to say the cooking I experienced was incredible. At one memorable meal, with an elderly couple known as Pertii and The Princessa, all of the food that covered a lunchtime table had been caught or grown on their land. It was an astonishing experience and a dish of small, sweet potatoes plucked from their garden were the best I have ever tasted in my life. The real lesson of my travels was just how spoiled I'd become with my old life in London. I soon began to realise how hedonistic my lifestyle had become, as I would complain bitterly about not being able to get x, y or z from Waitrose, for example.
As I hit the road, I soon began to notice how open and generous people were, and time and again I was invited to share the meals of people who were excited to show me their passion for food. It all speaks wonders for the generosity of the world, and I've hopefully taken on a little more of that in my own spirit. I try to remember those special moments whenever I begin to moan about a badly prepared meal in a restaurant.
Although I was very lucky – seeing 31 countries in a year I had very few negative experiences – I like to think I made some of my own luck. The trip cost me my life savings (for the record, nearly £50,000), although some of that was replaced when I signed a deal to write a book about my experiences. And I like to think that the book deal happened because the publishers thought it was a great idea. Even if I hadn't had the opportunity to write a book, I would have made the journey. It was a life-changing opportunity and something I simply had to do.
There were some downsides, mainly physical; my doctor tells me I need to watch my blood pressure and cholesterol levels from now on. But, it was worth it, and the end result is that I went from being a food-writing hobbyist to full-time professional food writer. I began doing for a living what I had always dreamed of doing, and what I hope I'll end up doing for the rest of my life.
'Eat My Globe – One Year To Go Everywhere And Eat Everything' by Simon Majumdar (John Murray, £8.99).
The best anywhere: Majumdar's favourites
Vindaloo – Goa
The real deal, it was prepared for me by the owner of a small restaurant near Cavelossim in the south of the state. Deliciously spicy, but closer to the true origins of the dish – the name comes from the Portuguese words for "vinegar" and "garlic" ( alho). He was kind enough to give me the recipe, and it's still one of my favourite things to make.
Seafood Kare Kare – Philippines
Part of what was arguably the best meal of my life, made for me by Filipino gourmand Claude Tayyag. This rich stew contained meaty prawns whose heads I was instructed to tear off, allowing the juices to thicken the sauce. Wonderful.
Pani Ca Meusa – Sicily
The sort of dish which will divide people, this is a sandwich of beef lung and spleen meat simmered in lard, doused in lemon juice and sprinkled with salt before being served on a soft roll.
Pho – Vietnam
I had tried ersatz versions in London, but the real thing, sampled at breakfast time while crouching down at a street stall in Hanoi, was a world away from anything I had tried before. Pungent herbs, strips of chicken and noodles, all cooked in a nourishing stock.
The Philly Cheesesteak – Philadelphia
Memorable not just as my first experience of one of America's most famous and artery-clogging sandwiches, but also because of the experience of being driven across the city at 1am by two new acquaintances determined to show me what their city had to offer. This, if anything, sums up what the trip was about.
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