Given the number of requests I receive to name the best meal I have ever eaten (for the record that is at least five times a week) you might think that I would have fashioned a well-honed response. But, you’d be dead wrong.
By the end of 2012, God willing, I will have eaten in nearly 70 countries and all but one of the United States of America. In that time I will have consumed hundreds, perhaps thousands of meals. Not all of them were great, or even good by any means, but so many were memorable for different reasons, that to single out one of them as the very best is a close to impossible task.
Fine dining meals
If I was pressed to answer on a day when I am craving a fine dining experience, I might cite a high end Kaiseki experience in Kyoto, Japan or a life changing meal at the long since closed L’Espinasse restaurant in New York City. If I had family on my mind, I might speak fondly of Bengali meals prepared by my mother or unfeasibly large plates of Yorkshire fish and chips eaten from the laps of the Majumdar clan as we congregated around the television every Saturday evening to watch The Generation Game.
If I was thinking about unexpectedly great meals, I might offer up the one I shared with a group of strangers on an eight hour train journey from Marrakech to Fez in Morocco, where my paltry picnic of warm Diet Coke and half a pack of Pringles was supplemented by an offer from my travelling companions to share their meal of roast chicken, fried fish, flat breads, cheese and dried fruits.
If I was thinking of encounters that changed the way I thought about an entire cuisine, I might suggest a meal eaten in the Philippines, prepared for me by artist and gourmand Claude Tayag. Twelve superb courses of distinct flavours and textures that shattered my ill-formed and ignorant opinion that Filipino food was little more than pork, deep frying and the deep frying of pork.
And, if I am recalling times when travel exhaustion meant that only the most comforting foods would hit the spot, I might show you a picture of Pertii and The Princessa, an elderly couple in rural Finland who prepared a belly threatening feast that consisted entirely of dishes made from animals hunted on their land and produce plucked from their garden. One course at this meal consisted of a bowl of small potatoes, so sweet and so utterly delicious that they have earned a permanent place in my top ten tastes of all time.
My ultimate meal
However, more recently I have been pondering on all the extraordinary hospitality I have experienced from the dozens of people I have met on my journeys around the globe, and particularly to that shown to me by a young man I met in Dakar, Senegal. I had been introduced to Bath by a mutual acquaintance and spent five enjoyable days with him as he showed me around the capital city, making sure to introduce me to the signature dishes of Senegalese cuisine such as Yassa Chicken and Mafe stew.
On our last day together, he invited me to share a meal with his family at their home in Rufisque, a small city about one hour drive from Dakar. As we arrived, we were greeted by his elderly father and his two sisters, who had spent most of the morning pounding spices to prepare our meal. The result of their labour was a large communal plate of Thiebou Djenne, a classic Senegalese dish that combined local fish with rice, vegetables and scotch bonnet peppers.
As we ate, Bath’s sisters pushed prime pieces of juicy fish flesh and the largest of vegetables to my side of the plate to make sure that their guest would have the very best meal they could provide. As we ate, Bath instructed me in the fine art of squashing peppers with the back of a spoon so that the oils leaked out to flavour the dish without exposing you to the inevitable consequences of eating the pepper itself while his father nodded in approval as I made sure to scrape every last bit of meat from the bones of the fish.
Simple and delicious
It was a simple yet incredibly delicious meal and one that I have tried to recreate with little success since my return from Africa. I am convinced that this is not only because of the culinary skills of my hosts, but also because of the circumstances in which it was eaten and the cynicism-melting generosity with which it was served.
Few meals before or since have made me smile quite so much as this plate of fish and rice eaten with a new friend and his family. So, for today at least, Thiebou Djenne in Rufisque, Senegal is the best meal I have ever eaten.
Of course, if you ask me again tomorrow…