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The Multi-legged Nature of Paella
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The Multi-legged Nature of Paella

In India, we divide our cuisine quite comfortably into two categories – vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The devout vegetarian in our country can rest assured that wherever he goes, leafy greens and other dishes devoid of meat will be easily available to him.


It comes as a rude jolt therefore, for a first-time traveller overseas, when he or she finds that no other country maintains such a clear demarcation. Combine this with the fact that the scope of non-vegetarian cuisine abroad encompasses a far larger variety than the average Indian carnivore is accustomed to, and you have a potentially lethal situation, rife with possibilities of culinary disaster.


On my first visit to Singapore, I was introduced to the wide range of cuisine that the Singaporeans enjoyed. The tiny island-country serves as a microcosm of South-East Asia, and is populated with Indians, Chinese, Malays, even Europeans and Australians who mingle with the locals and join in their enjoyment of good food and shopping. It is no wonder that restaurants and fast-food eateries catering to every type of palate throng the shopping malls.


On a humid, bustling Saturday evening in a mall on the east coast of Singapore, my mother and I were jostling our way through the crowds buying whatever caught our fancy. Within a few hours of traipsing around the mall, we had purchased an assortment of toys for my nieces, jewellery for all female members of my family, and for the men of the house – nothing, as per their demands.


Exhausted by our shopping, we made our way to an extremely popular seafood joint. A cursory glance at the menu sufficed to set us off on a debate about the relative merits of traditional fish ‘n chips versus peri peri prawns, and eventually we placed an order of our favourite dish – grilled salmon.


The waiter then asked us a question that would change our lives forever.


‘Would you like that with fries or paella?’


Now, I had tried paella before and quite liked it, but my mom was not too sure. She rooted for the fries, but I convinced her saying that fries was…well, fried, but paella would be a different kind of rice preparation for us to try out. So we placed our order, and spent the intervening minutes till our food arrived inhaling the exotic aromas that wafted to our nostrils from the other tables.


After several minutes that seemed like decades to our growling tummies, the waiter arrived with our dish. He placed the pan on the table, warned us that the plate was hot, and bade us enjoy our meal. We thanked him heartily and dived in. I performed the task of slicing the enormous portion of salmon into respectable bite-sized chunks and heaping it together with some paella onto our respective plates.


The salmon tasted exquisite, soft and delicious, just as I liked it. The paella pleased the palate too, more so considering how much it reminded us of our traditional pulao. After polishing off the contents of my plate with remarkable speed, I ventured to serve myself another helping.


That’s when I uncovered a rubbery object nestled beneath the yellow rice. A bit of hesitant probing with my fork revealed it to be an unidentifiable creature with a circular centre from which an array of tentacles sprang forth. Its unsavoury look worried me, and spelt doom for my mother’s appetite.


‘What is that thing?’ she asked, in the supersonic squeaky voice that she typically reserves for such panic-inducing situations.


I attempted to soothe her.


‘It is probably just an oddly shaped piece of garlic,’ I said. Her frown deepened. I beckoned the waiter.


‘What is this?’ I asked, poking at the thing tentatively with my fork.


‘Calamari,’ he said, displaying majestic unconcern for our apparent discomfort, ‘a kind of octopus.’


That settled it for my mom. We ordered the man to take the offending creature out of our sight. He graciously offered to de-octopus the paella. Of course, when he returned with the calamari-free dish, the salmon was consumed with great enthusiasm, but the paella remained untouched.


Now, we’re not staunch vegans or vegetarians or anything, but the limited scope of seafood we ate did not extend to include tentacle-sprouting creatures. Thence forward, our adventures in Spanish cuisine were restricted to items that, we knew for sure, did not contain an excessive number of limbs.


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