Each time I come back home from a work tour abroad - usually following the Indian cricket team - talk at home with the wife invariably revolves around the new animals I have found to eat. Beijing, my one big non-cricket tour, was by far the most productive, carnivorously speaking, but every place I've been to has thrown up interesting options. Most of the time, I have found my way around alone after friends and colleagues took their leave with stricken expressions and a "you go, boss, we'll hit the Indian restaurant".
I don't mean to judge anyone. Not at all. I steer clear of Indian restaurants abroad because food, to me, is an integral part of experiencing a different culture, place and people. But I understand that others may want to pack parathas in their suitcases or make a beeline for the nearest Taj restaurant (there's one in almost every city in the world - seriously). People travel for different reasons, after all. I particularly feel for my vegetarian colleagues, who have it cruelly bad sometimes - like the chap who survived on rotis and curd and chocolates for 45 days in Pakistan.
That's that for the media contingent. I have often wondered how the cricket contingent is handling its gustatory situation. Five-star hotels will usually rustle up what the players want. Despite that, I have known vegetarian Indian cricketers to struggle, and the blandness of the preparations drive even non-vegetarians to the nearest KFC or McDonald's outlet. Encounters with 'cheeseburgers', of course, are legend.
It cuts both ways. At least one somewhat rotund spin hero from Australia struggled with his diet of canned baked beans in India, and the Delhi Belly has been known to strike down visiting cricketers quicker than Kapil Dev's outswingers.
It was nice, therefore, to spend some time the other evening listening to Sachin Tendulkar talk about his interest in food. The man has, after all, travelled more than anyone else in the game, player or journalist, over the last 23 years. He was launching Boria Majumdar's book Cooking on the Run, a sort of survival guide for when you're away from the family in an alien environment. The discussion turned to, and then centred around, Tendulkar's obsession with food. We were told that he has cooked for his team-mates, as well as for wife Anjali. And though he, like so many Indians, can't see beyond the table his mother set, I am happy to report that he has experimented with food a bit more than most others.
In case you're curious, Tendulkar has a penchant for Japanese food, and sushi and sashimi top his list of must-haves. Apparently, he has tried to inculcate an enthusiasm for experimenting with food in his team-mates too, succeeding somewhat with Zaheer Khan and Yuvraj Singh, but failing miserably with Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh.
Harbhajan and Raina, like so many other Indian sportspersons - like Tendulkar, for that matter - come from solidly middle-class households. This means a fairly straight-laced upbringing in terms of food, usually tinged with a bit of religious rule-throwing. So they might be open to Chinese or Thai food - familiar enough, after a fashion - but raw fish or possum puffs (try them if you are in Brisbane) might be stretching it.
Indeed, it says a lot about Tendulkar, who could easily have sat back in his hotel room and ordered exactly what he wanted every day, that he has the wanderlust in terms of food. Barbecues in a Zimbabwean jungle - check. Snails while out on a holiday - check, except that both Anjali and he mouthed "horrible" when asked how they tasted.
All this talk put reminded me of the time I was supposed to meet a former Indian cricketer for dinner in Australia. I offered to take him out to a place that served crocodile meat. I thought I was suggesting a treat. But my offer sealed it; we had sandwiches at the hotel's coffee shop that night. And in Beijing, when I caught up with a shooter the morning after my snake-and-scorpion dinner in Wang Fu Jing (the downtown street food paradise) and proceeded to give him a detailed description of the night out, he went from silent disgust to just very silent.
Ah well, food, like music or books, is a matter of subjective appreciation. But I wish this were not the case. India's tour of Pakistan in 2006 was to me as much about the food as it was about cricket. If our cricketers tried the tak-a-tak at Food Street in Lahore, they'd know it was worth a couple of extra rounds of the field to make up. Tendulkar, clearly, has the right stance on the matter - I just wish he hadn't stopped at snails. But then, he's gone way ahead of baked beans, hasn't he?