‘Would you date a guy with a really camp voice?’ I ask as we pass a tall, smartly dressed young man speaking to his friends with certain flair. ‘Ummmmm, would I date myself, you mean?’ he answers with a sly sideways glance, ‘why yes, yes I would.’ I try to protest that he doesn’t sound that effeminate but I’m cut off. ‘Sometimes on the phone people think I’m a woman, you know. Like, they’ll ask my name and when I tell them they say, “oh, that’s an interesting name for a woman”’. I howl with laughter on the fourth floor of Westfield, tripping over my penny loafers with glee.
When I lie in bed at night, I wonder who reads my stories. Outside my circle of friends, who text and email and call to heap too-generous praise, I wonder who reads until the end. I wonder how the stories make them feel. Maybe hungry, maybe happy, maybe a little bit sad; I hope they feel something. I wonder about my grammar, unchecked by subs, if it is (was?! were?!) correct. I wonder if they’d tell a friend or come back next week to read again.
In the back seat, I lean my head back and lightly close my eyes. ‘Faith’s asleep,’ I hear my brother tell my mum. I pretend that I don’t hear him and continue ‘sleeping’. He tosses out an insult to test me; my eyelids flutter but I keep up the ruse. I like being in the car with my family, listening as they chatter and argue in front of me. My mum squints at and questions the GPS on her dash-mounted smart phone while my brother obstinately tells her to go a different way. For as long as I can remember he has sat in the front passenger seat, to avoid getting car sick, while I sit in the back, in my own quiet world, watching as the streets change and the cars flash by.
India is everything and nothing you expect. Just as it’s crowded, vast, hot, sultry, stinky, dirty, exhausting, ramshackle, delicious, spicy, frustrating, bright and colourful, it is liberating, magical, moving, and heartbreakingly beautiful. And no matter how prepared you think you are, or how much you’ve sweated at hot yoga, India will always deliver the unexpected.
I didn’t expect to love the place so quickly, to feel comfortable and at ease and be planning my return visit less than half way through my first. Nor did I expect to see a predatory mama monkey jump out of a tree to steal a lady’s ice cream – but I’m so thankful that I did.
And as magnificent a city as it is, I didn’t really expect Asia’s 36th best restaurant to be found in Mumbai, or, if it were there that it would be serving Japanese food. Least of all did I expect to find Vince Vaughn working the room, slinging sashimi platters and pouring sake.
At the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, by the harbour in Mumbai, Wasabi by Morimoto is a culinary anomaly. Sure, many of the world’s best restaurants occupy real estate in hotels, and plenty of luxury joints offer ‘international’ cuisine for travellers looking to find comfort in the familiar. But amongst the street vendors shilling 20-cent variations on spicy fried potato and battered peasant veg (and with over 4,000 miles between Mumbai and Tokyo) specialising in raw fish and fresh wasabi takes pluck.
On our one night staying in the glorious, decadent, old-world Palace wing of the hotel, we extend the indulgence to dinner. Through Mumbai’s first licensed drinking hole, The Harbour Bar, we ride up to Wasabi in the glass lift. The doors open to reveal a modern space, all warm wood and contemporary light fittings, in direct contrast to the marble, crystal chandeliers and silk carpets of our sleeping quarters.
As we take our seats in the almost empty room, Vince Vaughn materialises by our table. Now, there are two things I didn’t know about Vince Vaughn before I visited Mumbai: one) he is Indian, and two) he has a deep appreciation for Japanese food.
I stare madly as he offers to help us order; I wonder where Indian Owen Wilson is hiding as he stops by to deliver our white fish carpaccio with hot oil and yuzu soy sauce (1575 INR). The flounder is sheer, growing slowly opaque as the hot sesame oil cooks through. It is light, soft and creamy, with no signs of freezer burn or jet lag.
I stifle a giggle as Indian Vince Vaughn makes sure we’re enjoying the fish; he smiles his goofy, googly-eyed smile, his curly quiff bouncing as he nods. Our shrimp tempura sushi roll (660 INR) tastes clean and fresh, the meat sweet and fleshy. Indian Vince Vaughn is ‘grateful for the pleasure to serve’ us, and tells us so repeatedly. He’s less ruddy in person, but has the same sweaty-cheese sheen as in the movies. With the arrival of our pork kakuni (1950 INR) I wonder if he served Oprah, or Obama when they visited the palace; maybe they’re old friends from Chicago? The pig shows every hour of the 18 it clocks during cooking – it’s meltingly soft, subtly fatty and served with another yuzu/soy combo sauce and superfine mashed potato. I stare at Indian Vince’s handsome face and note his forehead looks bigger on screen; he again let’s us know what a ‘pleasure it has been to bring us pleasure’. Such a smooth talker, I can see what Jennifer Aniston saw in him.
We settle the bill and Indian Vince Vaughn walks us to the lift, bubbling over with the pleasure he has taken serving us. He’s still talking when the glass doors close on his humbly bowing form, and chattering soundlessly as he disappears from our sight. I never expected to eat excellent Japanese food in Mumbai, or spend $200 on any meal in India, and I certainly never expected that I would pleasure Vince Vaughn. Namaste.
In the earliest hours, the baritone drone of Radio National would lead me to my mum’s dark room, lit only by the neon red display of her clock radio. ‘Mum? Are you awake?’ I’d yell-whisper at her exhausted sleeping form. ‘Mum? I can’t sleep,’ I’d persist. ‘Go back to your bed, lie down and try.’ she’d murmur patiently, digging deeper under the covers. ‘I already did that.’ No reply, no movement. ‘Ok mum,’ in my loudest whisper, ’I’ll try again. Goodnight.’ I’d creep back to my room, hitting every creaking floorboard along the way, lie down and instantly fall fast asleep.
“Everybody needs a place to rest; everybody wants to have a home. Don’t make no difference what nobody says, ain’t nobody like to be alone. Everybody got a hungry heart.“ We may not have all been born to run, but The Boss eloquently expresses our appetite for love and belonging, with a rousing sing-along chorus. It’s the knots in your stomach, the jolt that wakes you in the night, the sob trapped in your chest. Cud for poets, musicians and writers to chew, and the guts of Maslow’s hierarchy; as unfathomable as existence and inherent as eating.
Ah Christmas. Easily summed up in a burst of ‘F’ words: Family. Friends. Festive! Fun. Food. Full. Flatulence. Fights. Fatigue. But mostly, if you’re lucky, food. Every year, as the 20s of December approach, my food memory thrills.
I discovered envy early. Santa had some kind of over-worked, over-tired single parent mix up with the lists and on Christmas morning my brother received the new bike I’d requested, while I unwrapped the Crocodile Mile waterslide he’d asked for. I scrunched up my face, stamped on the spot and flung my arms like noodles before moping around the backyard, muttering about injustice. Eight year old me watched my brother ride circles around the Hills Hoist with a belly full of envy, before making do by gleefully hurling myself down the slippery plastic runway into the jaws of the croc.
“WE WERE IN LOVE! We were so in love I was terrified. He was my best friend; it was this, like, soul mate connection. I can’t explain it.” The tipsy girl mines her emotion memory and details the inexplicable to three rapt friends and everyone else within yelling distance. “Are you gonna go to the earlier acting class? Cause if you go to the earlier class I’ll go to $5 yoga.” With the slumped posture of the dejected, two thespians discuss the motivation for their busy day ahead, in the chipper tones of the blindly optimistic.
My parents met in Greece in the early 70s, two longhaired travellers escaping the static hum of middle class Canada and the hot grind of working class Australia. Both free spirits, one was the resolute black sheep, the other a dimpled and adored daughter. Greece was the start of a journey that took them round and round the world together, then to a quiet corner of New South Wales where they fed their two babies Greek yogurt with honey. The story of my parents’ first meeting is entwined with my mum’s memories of the cool white, drizzled with sticky amber; it’s a fable that binds food, love and romance.