Sometimes, I think my life is nothing but one long pursuit of squid.
A memory from growing up in Cyprus:
All around me, and much higher than me, the hubbub of Greek chatter. It’s late in the evening and I’m tired, but they’re Greek and haven’t even had their evening meal yet, so they’re full of energy and it’s making me even more tired. I drink my Coke, enjoying the sturdy feel of the glass bottle lip against my mouth. (I make it bubble with my straw, and get told off). The restaurant lights are muffled in cigarette smoke, but the chatter is brighter by the second. Mugs clink, squeak in sweaty hands. My stomach gurgles so loud it scares me and I wonder if I’m dying.
Then, a plate of kalamari rings. And I live again.
It’s the first bite. I’ve had a lot of squid in Britain, and it’s always been a mixture of evocation and frustration – because that first bite, that first faintly rubbery, lemon-tangy squishy sinking-in of the teeth, is the only one that transports me back in time and away in space to an alternate world where fried squid rings are precisely as good as I now remember them to be.
That first bite flings me up the Royal Oak restaurant, perched in the branches of a colossal tree and accessed via a bole-wending staircase. That first bite puts a snorkel mouthpiece in my mouth and flipflop thongs between my toes. It puts me on our veranda, on our reclaimed aircraft seating turned into a bench, my feet drawn up under me, reading Lord Of The Rings for the first time and thinking how cool it would be to be a Black Rider.
Then…bite 2. That shimmeringly perfect world winks out. I’ve now got a mouthful of tasteless, pappy, insubstantial gunk – like raw tofu but without the charm. I want it to be chewier, I want it to fight me, dammit – but it breaks apart, turning to sea-tasting gruel. This isn’t what I ordered! Take it away – no, take me away. Take me somewhere that does real kalamari!
(Incidentally, when in Greece or Cyprus, don’t do this).
We all have trigger-dishes: specific foods that whisk us inward to a specific time and place so powerfully that it unfolds and swallows us whole. We sit there, motionless except for chewing, fork held in front of us like we’re hammering home a point in conversation, pupils dilated, until the spell is broken and we’re spat out into the present-day once more.
Mine’s fried squid. What’s yours?