I lost my sight when I was six months old, when blood vessels burst in the back of my eyes, tearing my retinas away. As a teenager I felt self-conscious about eating out with friends. I worried about asking for help to cut up food, or that people would stare at me. When I did go out, I was strategic about what I ordered. I usually stuck to burgers or soups because they were easy to manage. But one day something clicked. Food was meant to bring people together, not alienate them. I didn’t want to miss out any longer on socialising with friends, and I felt confident about living with my disability.
Now, my stomach dictates what I eat. Of course, some dishes are more difficult to manage than others. Fajitas are time consuming to assemble and rice paper rolls can be messy to wrap. But dishes such as pho, especially from my favourite Pho PHD in Marrickville, are fun and interactive.
Chopsticks are tough. On a trip through Tokyo I had fun communicating that I needed to swap the sticks for a fork. The chef dashed away. I could hear a flurry of activity. It was obvious the staff was trying to scramble for cutlery in the depths of the kitchen. The chef emerged, proudly handing over a Hello Kitty fork.
I love food that takes you on a textural journey. That seems to be a priority at Sydney’s Black Star Pastry. The bakery’s ornately layered watermelon cake has meringue-like sponge hugging a blanket of thick, rose-scented cream. There’s a piece of watermelon on the second tier. More sweet cream on top of the cake is speckled with pistachios. Strawberries lend bursts of freshness. You don’t have to see the cake to know what it looks like. It’s all in the feel and taste.
Similarly, eating Indian or Asian food is a tactile adventure. Knives and forks are replaced with bread and fingers. Slightly sticky dumpling pastry feels magical. Melbourne’s Flower Drum’s crescent-shaped pillows are silky on the outside and zesty on the inside. A highlight is the seafood soup dumpling. The saltiness of crab, prawns and scallop balances nicely against earthy mushrooms.
A venue gets additional points if it incorporates tactile features in its decor. A blind diner might not be able to see the exposed beams in a ceiling or heavily decorated brickwork, but that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate their surroundings. Descriptions from fellow diners are important here. An impressive overseas example is the extravagant mosaic feature wall at Vancouver’s West Restaurant. It’s a magical arrangement of intricately cut tiles. The jagged edges and shiny surface feel exquisite.
Staff members have become increasingly helpful. When they see me enter with my cane, they immediately search for the most-accessible table. Once seated, there’s usually that awkward pause when the server isn’t sure whether or not to give me a menu. I usually laugh and quickly make a blind joke to put them at ease. Staff often let me know when they are placing food in front of me, or that my wine glass is on my left-hand side. When out with my boyfriend, I often need assistance accessing the female bathrooms. Staff never gives the impression that this is a burden. It’s a good way to get to know the employees and a chance to ask questions about the restaurant’s history and style.
When it comes down to it, food is universal, and it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter where you are from or what disability you have. It’s just there to be enjoyed.