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NO RESERVATIONS AROUND THE WORLD ON AN EMPTY STOMACH
By ANTHONY BOURDAIN
BLOOMSBURY Copyright © 2007 Anthony Bourdain
All right reserved.
Chapter One ASIA
Deep inside every great cook, no matter whether he's Italian, French, Brazilian, or American-anyone who knows what the good stuff is and what to do with it-lurks the heart and soul of a Chinese guy. There are no "good" and "bad" ingredients in China. There are the easy-usually expensive-ingredients. And then there's the real stuff-the stuff where it took maybe a few centuries of trial and error to figure out how to make it good or to discover what was good about it all along. Great French chefs know, for instance, that the fish's head is the best part. But they would seldom dare to serve it. In French restaurants in the U.S., they literally can't give it away. In China, cooks take it for granted that you will prefer the head. Who wouldn't? Chinese cooks and chefs are used to preparing food for customers who know what the fuck they're eating: what's good, where it's good, and when it's good. Next to them, we know nothing about food. We wallow in ignorance. Cave dwellers. Savages. Lucky for an occasional glimpse of light.
China alone would be a life's work, just noticing-not even, necessarily, understanding-the differences between regions, ethnicities, cuisines, and traditions. The episodes we filmed here and in Hong Kong represent the first delirious, glancing contact, a besotted, half-blind stumble up to the doors of a huge and ancient culture.
There are two types of visitors to India: There are those who quickly find themselves frustrated, irritated, frightened of the food and water, intimidated by the great masses of humanity, overwhelmed by the all-too-evident poverty, ground down by the heat and the crowds, perplexed by the behavior of Indians. "What do they mean by that head waggle? I asked a direct yes-or-no question, dammit! What does that side-to-side toggling motion mean? And what the hell are you smiling at?"
Others, like me, are charmed. The famous smile and head waggle means, I have gathered, "I'm figuring out whether you are friend or foe-if you are a good person. I am considering an answer. I come in peace." You have to redefine words like "beautiful," "magnificent," and "gorgeous" when you travel through India. The forts and palaces and temples of Rajasthan, for instance, are so outsized in their opulence and grace as to short out the descriptive powers of the human brain. Even photographs don't do them justice.
I love India. I just don't know whether I can handle India. Whether I can wrap my tiny brain around its past, its present, or its future. Stand still with three video cameras in Kolkata or Mumbai and first two, then three, then twenty, then fifty people gather around to stare good-naturedly. You soon have a traffic problem as people spill into the street. "What is your good name, sir?" people ask, perplexingly. Yet in the crowds-if you bother to look, really look-you see the future of the world. The two young men serving as your waiters at a thali meal in a dusty back street in Jaipur also study full time at university. They are completing their master's degrees in engineering. Their friends in America find MIT ridiculously easy. The rice farmer in the Sunderbans has a son in college too. To accept less than top marks would be the shame of the village. The heat and dust and smells of India either capture your heart-or repel you. But the colors-the saris, the spices, the fields and sky, rivers and lakes, the mountains and deserts-they stay with you forever.
I've discovered a common thread between some places I really like: I love rice-growing communities-and rice farmers. Whether in Vietnam, the Sunderbans of West Bengal, or Java, Indonesia, there's something that hooks me about the cultivation of rice. It's beautiful, of course, the rice paddy. And becomes even more so on further inspection, when you realize the various dike-and-dam systems necessary to move water where it's needed, to keep it in or out; the many sections, each with different colors, for the stages of the growing process. Rice farmers work harder than just about anyone in the world, bent at the hip all day in ankle-deep water or mud, yanking or planting tiny handfuls of shoots, or replanting them. They hardly have time to concern themselves with aesthetics or landscaping. Yet, there are few things more breathtakingly, punch-in-the-chest lovely than a vista of Javanese rice terraces, the way the long, sinewy paddies, bright bright green, curve and swoop in emanating concentric rings around the natural features of the landscape. This is it, you think. It doesn't get any prettier than this.
Rice-farming culture, though-the basic nature of rice farmers-is, I have found, even more beautiful. The hard logistics of irrigation-multiple farmers relying on one water source, the need to share labor during the harvest, the fundamental need to cooperate with others-seem to have made rice farmers, of all the world's callings, the most hospitable, no-bullshit, humble, and fun people on earth. The fiercest of guerrilla fighters during times of war, they are the most warm and welcoming in peace.
I have a half-assed theory about Japan: that there's a direct relationship between the fetishism of the Japanese male-the kooky, fanatical, even sinister mix of unbridled enthusiasm and apparent reticence-and the spirit of exacting artisanship that makes Japan's cuisine so damn good, its architecture and design and customs so refined. It's as if Japanese men, all too aware that deep inside they'd like to stomp Tokyo flat, breathe fire, and do truly terrible and disgusting things to women, have built themselves the most beautiful of prisons for their rampaging ids. Instead of indulging their fantasies, they focus on food, or landscaping, or the perfect cup of tea-or a single slab of raw o-toro tuna-letting themselves go only at baseball games and office parties.
That's one theory anyway. Our Osaka show, where we investigated-and indulged in-the peculiar tradition of kuidaore (the pursuit of happiness through overindulgence-literally, bankrupting oneself through food and drink) was a delightfully illuminating example. Once forbidden, as lowly members of the merchant class, to exhibit conspicuous displays of material wealth, Osakans channeled their acquisitive impulses into the proud consumption of tasty things to eat. And drink.
Has anyone ever been happier to be on the road with No Reservations than our office manager, Nari Kye? I don't think so. After months and months of being hectored every time I stepped into the damned office-"When are you going to go to Korea? When are you going to Korea?"-I finally decided to build an episode around our hyperactive, hyperenthusiastic, Korean American staff member. She proceeded to run the veteran eaters and travelers into the ground, outeating, outdrinking, and outpartying all of us, never losing her energy or her good cheer. Just when we were getting tired, she made it all fun again.
I've got some history in Malaysia-none of which I'll go into here. But suffice to say, I was in a very emotional, very shook-up place in my life when I arrived there again. I was, I realize now-and dimly understood even then-at some kind of crossroads in my life. I was going to either come out of it alive and maybe a little bit smarter-or sink back into ever darker territory.
When I see that episode now, the final scenes in particular, as I waited to be flown out of the jungle, I recognize a deep ambivalence about the future-about everything I had thought previously or believed to be true. I felt humbled, grateful, confused, and deeply wounded, all at the same time. The tattoo I had done in Kuala Lumpur, earlier in the show, I know now to have been an act of self-immolation. I felt as bad as I'd ever felt, and I wanted to remember it, commemorate it-to punish myself, so that hopefully I wouldn't make the same mistake again.
The Malaysia episode was titled "Into the Jungle"-and so it was, our first real trip into deep, deep bush. We traveled by boat up the river into Sarawak, on Borneo, chased former headhunters through overgrowth, up slippery inclines, down into vine-choked ravines, up and down and up and down-for miles. We waded over treacherous polished stones through jungle rivers, yanked leeches from our nether regions, drank deep of the local beverages.
And I killed a pig. There was no graceful way out.
When the chiefs hand you a spear and suggest that as honored guest, you must pay tribute to both dinner and your hosts, you do it. You have to. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Tracey, shooting the execution by the river's edge, was fine until she looked down and saw she was ankle-deep in blood. Me? I wanted to cry. I realized I'd lost something. Learned something terrible about the real cost of dinner.
I see something very different, I'm sure, than most viewers when I watch the Malaysia show. I'm pretty confident it's one of the best episodes we've ever done. But there's so much between the lines, invisible in plain sight-and of no interest to anybody but me-that I don't really have any perspective on it at all. I think it's good. I think it's beautiful.
I'll go back and visit my Iban friends one of these days. I promised the chiefs that I'd attend a harvest festival. Maybe get a happier tattoo this time.
What little boy hasn't dreamed of the South Seas? Of the approach to a mysterious island, tattooed natives, crumbling tiki heads in the jungle, the mist-draped peaks of mountains that drop suddenly into dark, verdant valleys or churning sea? Who hasn't seen that movie about Gauguin, or seen his paintings from Hiva Oa, and thought, I'd like to do that! Just throw it all away and run off to Tahiti, paint, go barefoot, and copulate for the rest of my years.
Well, it wasn't exactly like that. (As I found out, it wasn't like that even in Gauguin's time.) Papeete, on Tahiti's main island, was much like any other French vacation community-with all the good and bad that implies. But Hiva Oa and the remote "motus" of Rangiroa were everything I'd dreamed of. The end of the world, Polynesian style. A remote, South Seas paradise, on a narrow spit of coral on the far side of an atoll, accessible only by boat. No power, no TV, no luxuries. But nice bathrooms! Just a thatch-roofed hut on a lovely beach and no distractions. Nothing to do but swim, fish, lay around in a hammock, and dream ...
If you've always wanted to go to Asia, but find yourself intimidated by the difference in culture, manners, and customs, maybe Singapore, or Asia Lite, is a sensible first foray-a veritable primer for later forays into India, Malaysia, or China. It's famously safe, clean, small, and English-speaking. Getting around is ridiculously easy. And you can gobble up the best of Chinese, Indian, and Malay specialties all in one place-easily, accessibly, and cheaply. It's one of the most food-centric, food-obsessed, food-crazy cultures on earth. At any gathering with locals, someone will suggest what you should be eating, where you should get it, and how to eat it when you're there. And while enjoying, say, chili crab at one place, you are likely to find yourself in a good-natured argument about the next place you should go-to eat ba ku teh, or chicken rice, or fettucine carbonara. Singapore's vibrant culture of hawker stands, eating houses, food courts, and kopitiams (coffee shops) makes it, along with Hong Kong, one of the world's two premier food destinations.
Tashkent. The phone rings in my hotel room. It's two in the morning, and I've just checked in and promptly collapsed into bed, exhausted after a long flight. The voice on the other end is the concierge, speaking with a thick accent. "You want massage? You want girl?"
No, I explain, I would not like a massage-or a girl. I am sleeping, and would like very much to continue sleeping.
Forty-five minutes later, there's a knock on the door. A thick-necked bruiser with blonde hair, dead eyes, and pink lipstick is standing in the hall.
"You want massage?"
How do you say "hepatitis C" in Uzbek? I can't remember. I slam the door, stumble back to bed, and jam the pillow over my face.
Welcome to Uzbekistan.
"Can we take your photo? Photo?"
In Uzbekistan, that request is almost universally met with a vigorously waved hand, a brief look of annoyance-and fear. Particularly after they get a load of the posse of current and former secret policemen posing as our "drivers" and "guides." This becomes apparent at one of the ubiquitous security checkpoints, where the various employees of various security organs gather to play Whose Dick Is Bigger. A beefy security guy rousts us from the vehicle. Our guys offer a quiet word or two. They argue. Finally, the athletic-looking driver of our production van steps up, smiling. Everybody knows him. Somebody served with him in the Soviet Spetsnaz. Back slaps. Smiles. Waves. We're through ...
The statues of Stalin have been pulled down and replaced with statues of Tamerlane. But otherwise it's pretty much business as usual. The Maximum Leader's portrait is on the wall of every home and business. And unlike most autocrats in state portraiture, he doesn't even try to look like a nice guy. He looks like he's annoyed. Like he's been interrupted while observing a torture session-and he's unhappy about it.
As for the food: Care for some kebab? Plov? How about more kebab? Or some kebab?
Am I being dismissive of one of the original cradles of civilization? A onetime island of enlightenment, learning, art, and religion? A vital stop on the Silk Road, still beautiful with its mosques and arcades, its majestic, unforgiving steppes? The Soviets nearly ruined this place. Their ugly, soul-withering municipal buildings, the scars left by their propensity to lop off minarets, their management structure-even some of the same personnel-remain. It's an Islamic country where Islam is seen as a threat by the government. So everybody and everything is suspect. The appearance of a camera is never a good thing in Uzbekistan. Getting someone to sign a release-or any piece of paper, for that matter-is near impossible. It's probably a trick. Later, in a dark cell, I'll be confronted with that signature-attached to a confession. One of our secret police guides shows up one day with two black eyes. He says he walked into a door.
And yet, and yet ... you look at the graceful sweep of the ancient architecture, take in the intricacies of the tile work, the endlessly repeated design features, and can't help but be enthralled by the devotion it must have required to make these things. At Friday prayers at a neighborhood mosque, there's a gentler Islam than the one you see on television. The children, of course, are the same as everywhere. Old men drink tea and smoke in the fading afternoon light. The young bride and groom at an Uzbek wedding, the same nervous expressions as newlyweds anywhere. We are so different. We are the same.
Chapter Two AFRICA
At the airport in Accra, five spanking-new, jet-black SUVs with tinted windows were waiting on the tarmac to whip us past customs and immigration. In convoy, horns honking, we charged down the center of the road, traffic lurching onto the shoulders to get out of our way. We were accompanied at all times by a platoon of drivers, escorts, and sunglassed officials from the ministry of tourism, our whole trip organized and choreographed with military precision. An army helicopter ferried us over thick jungle and thatch-roofed villages; schoolchildren poured from one-room schoolhouses to watch our approach.
Ordinarily, it's everything we hate and try to avoid: working with government agencies and tourist boards, the whole dog-and-pony show of blundering into a rural village with scary officials from the capital who almost invariably intimidate the locals into rote performances or frightened, wooden silence. But not in Ghana. Somehow-thanks to some gracious functionaries in air-conditioned offices in a foreign land, on a continent we knew shamefully little about-the people we met were funny and wise and unafraid to speak their minds. There was nothing we were not allowed to see, no hidden agendas, no reminders to "be sure to show Americans our modern infrastructure" or "charming tribal customs."
Together with our official guides, we were jostled and bullied by market women, boisterously liquored up with distilled jungle brew, asked to explain (again and again), "What is your mission?" by tribal councils wanting to know-exactly and at great length-who were we, where we came from, and what the hell we were doing in their village. We were treated with affection, generosity, and respect everywhere-by people who'd seldom seen, barely recognized, and could care less about a central authority. And along the way, we saw where civilization as we know it and so much of the life we take for granted began. Rock and roll, blues, rap, reggae, calypso, jazz-their beginnings still recognizable in the traditional music of West Africa. The facial characteristics of so many Americans now poignantly explained. The food unexpectedly delicious-spicy, colorful stews, flavors and textural combinations and ingredients that later resonated powerfully when eating "traditional" Southern food. How many of the distinctive features of the white Southern diet-the most treasured culinary notes-are, in fact, black African in origin.
Like so many of the best destinations, Africa is maddening and befuddling to the widely held conceptions and best intentions of the good at heart. It's also devastatingly, humblingly beautiful.
Excerpted from NO RESERVATIONS by ANTHONY BOURDAIN Copyright © 2007 by Anthony Bourdain. Excerpted by permission.
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