Travel brings understanding and respect, except at the breakfast buffet. It’s here that you learn why people of different nations have despised and reviled each other through the centuries.
People eat some outlandish things early in the morning. I say this respectfully, as a woman who can happily eat a full curry dinner in the morning. I consider the fact that we aren’t all breakfasting on dosa, India’s fermented rice pancake, with spiced lentils and potato, to be one of the great mysteries of life. A lesser eater might baulk at nasi lemak, the Malaysian breakfast of coconut rice, fried anchovies, peanuts and other oddments, but I’ve been known to go back for seconds. My father, who came from Birmingham, UK, ate runny fried eggs accompanied by black pudding (for the blissfully uninitiated, that’s a sausage made of blood, with spices and biggish chunks of fat). Still, one has one’s limits.
On a visit to Japan, I was excited to experience the traditional Nipponese breakfast at a guesthouse. My expectations were high: miso soup, rice and various side dishes, such as fish, an omelette and pickles. Instead, my host couple proudly produced their take on a traditional English breakfast: an egg fried to a quite remarkably solid state and some pink processed, meaty stuff somewhat akin to bacon, both of which had been made at least a day previously and refrigerated overnight to ensure freshness. Breakfast arrived fridge-cold on an icy plate, covered in Glad Wrap. With the hosts eagerly looking on, I had no choice but to work my way through it, nodding appreciatively.
On a recent visit to the Thai island of Koh Sumai, I was impressed by the game attempt the hotel made to cover all breakfast bases – Thai, Japanese, English, German and Martian, perhaps. The buffet contained many interesting items including, in the English section, mashed potato and even cauliflower cheese. I worry that the Japanese and Martians might think this is classic English breakfast fare and make that finger-down-the-throat gagging gesture behind our backs. For all I know, the Thais felt similar embarrassment about the fried pork with tomato sauce which was presented among the Asian breakfast delicacies.
I like a traditional start to the breakfast buffet: delicious, precisely carved fresh fruit. Then I take a fresh plate for the next course – Thai vegetable noodles and chilli sauce, say. And another one if I go on to bacon and eggs, or waffles and syrup.
In certain cultures, it seems the done thing is to pile all desired breakfast items onto one plate. Perhaps because there’s no real sense of how cauliflower cheese fits in with banana pancakes (answer: not at all).
Thus I saw a woman ladle strawberry yoghurt onto her toast. On another guest’s plate, a fried egg nestled up to a piece of watermelon, shoulder to shoulder with the baked beans. On another, the hideous sight of scrambled egg on top of a pain du chocolat, with a scoop of Greek salad alongside.
But let me not judge and rather keep in mind the extraordinary ability of travel to open the mind and encourage tolerance and understanding. You know, live and let live, the rich tapestry of life, and all that. Sometimes, there’s nothing to be done but just spoon your Nutella into your congee and mind your own business.