We first locked eyes in northern Peru. I was a wanderer, a traveler, free to kick my feet on the dusty streets of the market. He was behind bars, desolate and longing for the freedom that I simply took for granted.
And then, just days later, I found myself roaming the majestic hilltop of Kuelap, home to the ancient Chachapoya, or ‘cloud-people’, who resisted the bloodthirsty Inca for centuries. There, at the foot of their crumbling circular dwellings, lay tiny tunnels where the Chachapoya kept his ancestors enslaved below their beds.
Then, at last, we embraced. A friend and I were famished from a hike to a secluded waterfall, and took shelter in plastic chairs on the dirt floor of a small restaurant. It was the grandmotherly owner/chef/waitress who tossed him onto our table. He landed gracefully.
He was more beautiful than I had expected, but also smaller and slimmer, more rat than cat. I gently caressed his back for a few moments — but he, knowing his fate and that of millennia of his ancestors in these mountains, swiftly tap-danced his way to the edge of the table. The señora threw a weathered hand over his loin and returned our friend to the kitchen.
That evening saw the end of our Peruvian affair. I’d like to think I was motivated more by history than hunger. After all, without the Eurasian staples of chicken, cow, and pig, what other domesticated sources of protein did the pre-Colombian Andes have? It fell to this petite creature (with the help of llamas and alpacas) to feed entire civilizations from modern-day Chile to Colombia. So who was I to reject savoring a piece of history, fried with a side of cheesy potatoes?
Maybe I should have. Bland and bony, it’s hard to picture him providing much pleasure or protein to the Incan legions who conquered the Andes and then defended them against the Spanish. I liked him better alive.
Postscript: We met again on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia. I, to my credit, was less cruel this time. I gambled 1,000 pesos that he would enter the purple box. He entered the red one.
Let’s face it: mushy brown food is just not appetizing. Likewise for anchovy-topped papaya, or burnt-looking noodles, or grilled animals whose heads and innards have been left intact for your gluttonous pleasure.
But trust me on this. Go to Malaysia. These things are gastronomically orgasmic.
If you need to, close your eyes. Try anything they slop onto your plate.
And if you need to, take a peek at the history of the place. A peninsula in Southeast Asia, with centuries of Indians and Chinese washing up on shore, and scores of meddling Europeans anchoring at its ports for a plundering, a barter, or a few wars over spices — I think tells you all. This place is a culinary Frankenstein.
What follows is a picture of every meal I had in Malaysia (a travel-nerd habit I’ve recently picked up):