Sometimes the greatest culinary surprises are buried deep in our literature. Thus, for example in the 1991 travel adventure Motoring with Mohammed by Eric Hansen, a fine essayist and writer of whimsical travel a la Eric Newby and Redmond O' Hanlon,we find the author shipwrecked off the coast of Yemen. Rescued by the Yemeni military on Groundhog Day 1978, he and his group of sailing compadres are brought to the capital, Sa'na,an ancient city with fine mud-brick tower houses that dot the skyline and convey along with the many delicate minarets the aura of Scheherezade. There in the country reputed to be once the home of the legendary Queen of Sheba, he stays with an American Peace Corps worker, who recommends to him at his specific request an authentic Yemeni restaurant not frequented by tourists.(How many times have we naively made the same request ?)
We next find him waiting in line to enter an underground eatery with no name displayed, being borne up by the surging crowd in the air and pressed down the "foot-worn" stone steps to enter an inferno of hot earthen ovens--There he is forced to climb over the tables one after another to reach an open chair and winds up being wedged between two quite heavily armed men.They proceed to instruct him in the fine art of attracting the waiter's attention by hitting him with moistened spitballs made from their napkins. (I would love to do this in French Laundry or Taillevent in Paris(and who could object, surely not the French poodles perched under the tables)-it alone would be worth the cost of the meal although in the Oyster Bar in New York it might take a very long toss, with the significant air resistance entering into the calculus )
He then strikes the waiter in the shoulders with some precisely thrown overheads, and orders Salah, a highly spiced potato, garlic, and mutton stew, covered in a frothy sauce called bulba made from whipped fenugreek paste and served in an earthenware pot so hot it leaves scar marks on the table.
And of course it is delicious.Eating with his fingers and energized by the chilis, the author pays the bill and leaves the restaurant in an opium-like daze.
Now that is the kind of dining experience even those of us who have taken far-flung journeys dream about!It's the perfect wave -that once in a lifetime experience of dangerous and delicious dining,from which, even within the constraints of that dreaded word "tourism" you emerge presumably alive with your adrenalin and gastric juices in free flow.
For me, this evoked memories of a trip 30 years ago to the famous Moti Mahal restaurant in Old Delhi, where you trace your steps down narrow alleyways to a step down raffish joint with what was considered by many India's best tandoor cooking. The butter chicken there still melts on my tongue, and it was predictable many years later when the chef was cajoled to go to London to open a well-financed "branch" in Covent Garden that the inevitable comparisons would be made-
I sampled the cuisine in this upscale dining establishment on a recent trip to London
It was quite tasty, subtle, well prepared but lacked the touch of brilliance of the original-
What is it about underground restaurants- are they close to the axis of the world- do they draw sustenance from the roots of the tree of life so that when they cook their pungent specialities one remembers them for a lifetime.