“What’s the best meal you’ve had?” One of the backpackers I met in Dali, China asked us as we sat on the step of an old Chinese temple nursing a bottle of mao tai (a strong Chinese liquor). Four backpackers from 4 corners of the world and distinctive travel experiences, we were sharing our experiences when this question was asked.
It took each of us a moment to search through our memories packed with all kinds of meal eaten in different countries. How do you find one that stands out from the rest? And what qualifies as “the best meal”?
Is it the one in a hostel in Ushuaia, Argentina, where 10 travelers who found themselves “stranded” there during Christmas decided to cook together and have a “family” meal? Or the tapas at a local bar in Madrid when Spain won their very first European Cup in 2008? How about the night market in Tainan, Taiwan where I ate from stall to stall and each one tickled my taste buds like never before? Or the first solid meal after trekking for 5 days in Torres del Paine in Chile?
It is so difficult to choose. Or is it?
Deep down I think I knew which one of the best meals is. It was in Cairo, Egypt in 2007. A good friend, Stephen and I were traveling there during Ramadhan (Muslim holy fasting month). It was difficult to find food in the daytime and out of courtesy we didn’t eat or drink in public. And we tried to eat as little as possible during the daytime so that we could appreciate the breaking of fast meal when we joined the locals for Iftar (the evening meal when the Muslims break their fast).
Ramadhan is a holy month where the Muslims besides practice fasting, they also have to put more effort in following the Islam’s teaching; and one of the teachings is giving charity. Restaurants in Cairo would set out long tables in the streets and anyone could just come, take a seat and food would be served for free.
One day, Stephen and I were late leaving the hostel. By the time we got to the street, all the seats were taken. We walked along the street, up and down a few times without success in finding a single vacant seat. Then suddenly we heard the call to prayer. That was it, we realised that it’s too late for us to take part in the Iftar.
Just at that moment when we had given up a hand shot up from nowhere and pulled us down. Still recovering from shock, we saw that it was a middle-aged lady who had pulled us to sit on the curb of the street with her and 3 other locals. There were 3 or 4 small dishes in the middle of the circle. Without exchanging a single word, they gave us plates and gestured for us to dig in. So we started to eat the food these kind-hearted locals had decided to share with us – foreign strangers.
We had no idea what those food were but we didn’t care. If they were kind enough to share, we at least should be polite enough to try. But there was nothing to worry about, the food was delicious; they were simple home-cooked dishes. We ate in silent; they watched us and we smiled stupidly and tried our best to tell them that the food was amazing.
I guessed the lady cooked the dishes at home and brought it there to break fast with the men, who must be her family. The men finished first, and went back to work. One of them had a tea shop and brought Stephen and I a cup of tea each. While we sipped our teas, the lady slowly cleared up the dishes. When we finished our tea and she had finished clearing up, we didn’t know what to do but decided to show them that we wanted to pay, if not for the meal, at least for the drinks. But they waved our intention away. We kept saying shukran (thank you in Arabic) to them but no word could truly express our gratitude; they had let us experience a very intimate and personal cultural experience.
Six years on and I still remember that meal. The taste of the food may not linger but the memory of the kindness of the people to a stranger still makes my eyes water, especially during this Ramadhan period. If recalling a meal I had that long ago still strikes a chord in my heart, it is definitely a strong contender for “the best meal I’ve ever had”.