From Plate to Globe: Savoring the World’s Cuisine
Simon Majumdar’s passion for food has made him famous, but it’s not all about the food for him. It’s about the people and noticing the small stuff.
As an author of two food-travel memoirs, the co-creator of a hugely successful food blog, and a popular judge on The Food Network’s Iron Chef America, Majumdar’s life has taken on a glamorous sheen of late. Eight years ago, this half-Bengali Brit left a 20-year career in publishing to pursue an eccentric fantasy to “Go everywhere, eat everything.” Since then, he’s been to over 71 countries, made friends all over the world and earned a name for himself as the food critic who writes like a dream and eats like a pig.
“All of these things are kind of happenstance, and you’ve got to be good at what you do,” Majumdar says of his second-career successes. But he attributes most of these fortuitous occurrences to his genuine interest in other people and the excitement he exudes over the little things they take for granted in their own cuisine.
“The way I look at it is that I’m traveling around the world for food—and to meet people,” Majumdar says. “People like talking to me, particularly when we start talking about food.” And, because he is “well brought-up,” he says, “I always stop to have a proper conversation.”
The sad irony behind Majumdar’s twin loves of food and people is that he doesn’t get invited out to dinner much anymore. His wife tells him their friends worry that he will be critical of the meals they prepare. It’s true that he relishes exotic cuisine and an impressive presentation that gets the taste buds in gear. He insists, though, that he is always grateful when someone takes the time to cook for him.
He may be an intimidating Iron Chef America judge, but he’s not a food snob.
At home, Majumdar works in a simple galley kitchen and does most of his cooking with a solid 10-inch pan that he uses “for just about everything.” He relies on three good knives, a Dutch oven, and an excellent pair of poultry shears.
His refrigerator and pantry are stocked with the essential ingredients of the Bengali food he grew up on—onions, garlic, chilies, a range of hot sauces, limes, lemons, carrots—and some good chicken stock to infuse flavors. There’s a lot of white wine on standby in the Majumdar kitchen, and he always, always has milk. “Because I’m English,” he explains, “and if I don’t have two to three cups of tea a day, I’m likely to commit bloody murder on someone.”
He loves leftovers, Kansas City barbeque, the sweetness of corn and the fascinating varieties of the potato. He finds a “magical” pleasure in the unassuming task of chopping tomato and onion and putting it into an alchemic process. Butchering and grinding a big joint of meat is a sort of metaphysical undertaking for him: “There’s almost a kind of primal thing about it, but after you’ve finished, you feel so much more connected to everything you’re doing.”
Majumdar laments that big farming, particularly in the US, has alienated us from the means of our food. Massive agricultural corporations con us into thinking that good food should be cheap, served in huge amounts and loaded with salt and sugar. “We’ve forgotten how to feast,” he says. “We’ve learned how to gorge.”
As a result, Majumdar says, we forget that everything on our plate is there for a reason. The gastronomical layers that created delicious hodge-podge cuisines in places like New Orleans tell stories of immigration, slavery and conquest. Today’s street food, now made fashionable by social media and Instagram, originated in the chuckwagons that headed westward after the Civil War and evolved into the “roach coaches” that feed industrial park and construction site workers.
Majumdar eats it all up, every historical and savory bite. To him, food is always a celebration, never a chore. But it’s also part of his special charm that he keeps things real. He cautions celebrity chefs who get caught up in their fame: “Never forget you’re just making someone’s dinner. It’s transitory. It’s going to disappear in 20 minutes.”