by Mihar Dias
A student's experience of cross cultural relationship over food preferences in Ghent.
|A COLD WINTER'S DAY IN GHENT
Abdul Rahim Said (C) July 2013.
The distinctive but undefinable yet unforgettable smell of frying salt fish wafting in the air takes me back to a cold winter's day in Ghent.
I lived near the University in this beautiful Flemish city, known for its floral trade, within walking distance of the awe inspiring St. Bavo's Cathedral.
The tiny kitchen of our student apartment was abuzz with enthusiastic cooks unskilled in culinary arts, frantically pitting our efforts together for a Christmas potluck, ala-Asian. The aromatic smells of sautéed curry spices, lemongrass from steaming 'tom yam' soup, strong garlic presence in 'kimchee' and fragrant coconut rice, made for a heady concoction.
Joren the nosy next door guy staggered in following his curious nose and was assailed by unfamiliar smells, muttering , "Wat is dit?" as he sniffed and coughed on the sharp throat tickling smell of fried chilies only to sneak back into his apartment without a word.
Asian music streamed melodiously in the background. Everyone was in a festive mood and as the stella artois found a spot, someone cracked the generic light bulb joke, only this time it was the Flemish rather than the Irish who was the victim.
Then someone burst into a melancholic "Rasa Sayang" sing along followed by a rendition of naughty ditties and a long loud trail of raucous laughter.
Joren returned sheepishly bearing blue cheese and crackers on a worn out board, offering his snack to everyone but was politely turned down by the uninitiated Asians, yet unaccustomed to the taste of old socks.
I was busy frying dried anchovies for the spicy coconut rice. Amid the cacophony I thought I heard a faint knock on the door when it suddenly imploded. In the doorway stood two firemen, dressed in hazmat outfits, armed with fumigation equipment, ready to spring into action.
We stopped and stared at the intruders while the delicious smell of cooking seemed to be sucked out into the hallway by the sharp draught of air that rushed in through our broken door. Soon other doors opened and curious heads popped out to see what the commotion was about.
The firemen were acting on incessant complaints about the stench coming from our apartment described as that of a dead animal.
I invited them in to sample our culinary creations. They declined, opting instead for a cold beer. After much persuasion they tried the spicy coconut rice. No sooner had they tasted it, the firemen screamed, "Oh, la, la. Hot, hot!" and gulped down the beer, their faces turning redder than a cooked lobster.
Onlookers from the hallway followed suit and sampled our culinary delights with mixed reactions, repeatedly asking "Wat is dit?" The few that attempted did so cautiously taking a long time to chew before swallowing. We watched anxiously, fearing they would throw up on our carpet. I could hear comments like "Smells bad but tastes good!" among the new converts while others simply dismissed the dishes as completely unpalatable.
Ah Beng who was passively watching the scene in silence, suddenly jumped into action. "Hello friends, these Flemish are going to love my salt fish! Just wait!" He offered his plate of bean sprouts with dried salt fish to everyone, proudly telling them it was a secret recipe, handed down from father to son.
One of the fireman took a bite of the salt fish, dropped the fork and turned with a look of disbelief on his face, "Wat is dit?"
"Dried, salt fish, Sir!" Ah Beng replied.
He smelled it again and shouted, "Dat is 't!"
"Guys, what did I tell, you. He loves it" said Ah Beng, clapping.
Before we could figure out what the fireman meant, he excitedly ordered, "Open the windows, please! ... My God! This is bad. It gets into the air-ducting system and gives out smell like dead animals!"
I heard Joren whispering in Flemish, "What awful stuff, worst than my blue cheese".
They ignored him, picked up their equipment, wrinkled their noses, wished us, "Merry Christmas!" and rushed out of the apartment, slamming the broken door behind them followed by most of the neighbors, leaving behind a handful who seemed to have acquired an Asian taste.
We were left to enjoy our potluck on that eventful afternoon with Ah Beng persistently repeating, "The Flemish just loves my dried salt fish!"