The Everyman’s Bourdain – A Review of Eat My Globe by Simon Majumdar

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I love to eat, and I come from a family that loves to eat, as well. This has nothing to do with wealth, because my family is hardly wealthy – comfortably well-off, yes, but not wealthy. We simply enjoy good food, and are not above spending a little more than usual if it means the food will be excellent. Oftentimes, though, the best food is relatively inexpensive, and there is certainly a lot of “gourmet” food that is hardly worth the money spent on it. In fact, it tends to be an even greater disappointment for us when we spend a lot of money of a meal that isn’t really worth it.

This insistence on good food (preferably inexpensive good food) is not just some family quirk: it is culturally ingrained. Filipinos are like Hobbits in that we are constantly eating, and food is inevitably at the heart of many social gatherings and personal memories. Friendships and romantic relationships are formed and solidified over food; heartbreak and arguments are often helped along to their resolution by food. Every important landmark in one’s life – from birth to death – involves the preparation, consumption, and appreciation of food.

This also explain my fascination with television shows about people who travel around the world, eating their way through it and commenting on what they find. That is my dream job: I love to travel, and I love to eat – and despite what my father says to the contrary, I am far more adventurous now than I was when I was a child. I dream of one day having enough money to travel the world and taking my time at places I’ve always wanted to go – and eating my way through every stop I make. I’ve watched shows like No Reservations and would love nothing more than to live Anthony Bourdain’s life.

When I discovered Simon Majumdar’s Eat My Globe: One Year to Go Everywhere and Eat Everything, I was immediately interested. At first I assumed Majumdar was some kind of celebrity chef I had not heard about, trying to do his own version of Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, but then I read the back blurb and found out that Majumdar was really just an ordinary man who quit his job and set out to “eat the globe,” as the title of the book proclaims, in one year. This immediately piqued my interest: unlike Bourdain, Majumdar is what might be called an enthusiastic amateur. He is not a chef, but has been raised in a family similar to mine: a family with a great appreciation for food, and which likes to talk about food, as well.

In short, Majumdar had done what I always dreamed of doing: dropping everything for a year to travel and eat. And not only has he managed to do just that, but he has been generous enough to share his experience with the world in a book.

To be fair to Majumdar, though, he does not truly claim to have gone absolutely anywhere and eaten absolutely everything. In his introduction and first chapter he describes what he had to do before he went on his trip, and what sort of emotional turmoil he underwent in order to not only find it in himself to quit his job, but to find the fortitude to actually push through with it. One would think that any person would be right happy to drop a job and just traipse around the world, but actually making that idea into reality is not quite as easy as it seems. What is more important is actually getting out there and doing it – and that is a constant theme, repeated over and over again in many variations throughout the book.

Once he had begun, though, there really was no turning back, especially once he had left the United Kingdom. His choice of destinations is quite eclectic, not least because he takes the time to visit the Philippines – or at least Manila and Pampanga, which is a great deal more than some of the snootier travel writers and foodies ever do. While he does not really “go everywhere,” he does try to “eat everything” wherever he does manage to make it, and, more importanty, he is not shy about saying exactly what he thinks about the places he’s been and the food he has eaten.

Take, for instance, the chapters about his trip to China. Chinese food seems to be a bit of a hit-and-miss thing for him, with some really, ridiculously good meals alternating with some absolutely godawful ones, but he seems to have one, very solid, unshakeable stand regarding many of the Chinese tourists – and it’s hardly a very flattering take on them. I will not go into too much detail about what he says, but I do find his commentary on them to be painfully true. I have traveled out of the Philippines often enough, and even in Hong Kong and Singapore the tourists from mainland China aren’t exactly the best kind of people one wishes to encounter. Even the locals agree.

This bluntness is something that, I think, will likely offend a lot of readers. Majumdar makes no attempt to “cushion the blow” of his opinions, especially when he finds things disgusting, offensive, or plain out-and-out unlikeable. I have read a few reviews that have found this particular trait of Majumdar’s to be a deal-breaker, but I do not find it so. To be sure, he calls Manila “a rejected set from Blade Runner,” but I hardly find this offensive because it is true. It is also as dirty as he claims it is, and the way he speaks of the poverty in the city is absolutely true, as well.

But, unlike other writers, Majumdar has seen past the grime and the poverty to the heart of what Manila can be: a place to eat great food that is not quite like food in the rest of Southeast Asia, or the rest of the world, for that matter. As so many other foodies, Bourdain included, have discovered, the Philippines has great food, and a lot of people really don’t know what they’re missing out on. To be fair, Majumdar was fortunate to have an “in” to the foodie scene here: family who were only too happy to show him around. This is, in truth, the best way to get to know Manila and the food on offer here. Discovery of the cuisine on one’s own is possible, but the best places are either well-kept secrets known only to locals (the Chinese cuisine of Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, for instance), or are, in fact, homecooked meals prepared by someone’s family. To be sure, Filipino food is not as well-known as the cuisine of neighboring Southeast Asian countries like Thailand or Vietnam, but that is only because no one else besides Filipinos themselves have ever really cared about it – well, until recently, anyway.

The essays (for that is what the chapters are, technically) that Majumdar writes are not solely about food. The enjoyment of food is not just about what is being eaten, but is about the people one meets and the experiences one has along the way. In the introduction, he claims that his family tends to treat food like signposts to the events of their lives: no one really remembers a particular event until someone else brings up what they ate on that day. He proves this true throughout the book: he speaks of friends he’s made and the experiences he’s had, and how those are just as important as all the food he has gotten to try. Through food, he has made new friends and broadened his horizons – something that myself, and likely a great many Filipinos, will nod to sagely in agreement.

But what I find even more valuable about Eat My Globe is that it was written by an ordinary person: ordinary in the sense that Majumdar has no “serious” culinary training in the same way that Bourdain has culinary training. He is, as I mentioned earlier, an enthusiastic amateur, and he proves that, yes, without a degree from the CIA and a television network backing one up, it is entirely possible to live like Bourdain. It takes guts, it takes gumption, and it is a very, very difficult thing to do. But Majumdar proves it is entirely possible, and that, more importantly, the rewards are far greater taking the risk than not at all.

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