The World On A Plate

   

India – Street-food – Idlys

February26

Idlys are a south Indian treat – steamed rice cakes which are soft and chewy and perfect dipped in a flavoursome curry. Traditionally they’re eaten for breakfast, and this is a good time to get them as they can sometimes sit around in the sun all day.

They’re another one of these foods which is so hard to make at home, but super cheap and delicious from a street stall with a spicy sauce thrown in for free (about three for $1).

Somewhere in the maze of backstreets which run west of the river. Varanasai.

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Poutine – The Canadian Kebab

January16

Imagine you’re really really really cold. You want to eat chips. Also cheese. If possible there should be some meat involved. And for this reason Canadians are beyond brilliant.

Canadian Poutine

Blessed with a climate that could freeze an eskimo’s snoo snoo they’ve invented poutine – a big mess of crunchy chips smothered in all that’s wrong in the modern diet.

It’s basically cheesy chips with gravy, but somehow so much more. The inspired choice of cheese is the rubbery white kind which squeaks across your teeth, and the gravy is only a shade meatier than a sauce of salt and cornstarch, carefully avoiding a pretention to flavour which could ruin an otherwise perfect bland medley of oily-salty-crunchy-good.

Better yet poutine comes in the kind of portions which you initially think you’re never going to finish, and end up wishing you’d gone large, particularly as it acts as a kind of internal radiator in cold weather.  As the equivalent of the Canadian kebab, you can buy it from fast-food style places, but it’s so popular (even Canadian McDonalds does a version) that there are gourmet versions and a place in Montreal even makes poutine with foie gras.

Personally I’m about ten plates of the stuff away from going experimental, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss it when I leave

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Eating Scorpions in Beijing

January3

(Image from www.Travelpod.com)

I should first mention, that eating scorpions wasn’t the main reason for my coming to Beijing. Personally, I’m all about the cool little noodle stands and jasmine tea. But the city being as it is, the best food stalls are necessarily interspersed with those selling all that crawls, wriggles and slithers, skewered on little satay sticks.

Scorpion is one of the most expensive – the complete opposite to my friend Dickie’s observation that ASDA’s party food prices must mean the stick costs more than the meat. And very tasty – honest. Not just ‘it’s not completely rancid so in order to sound cultured I’ll say it’s delicious’ tasty, but really nice. Like king prawn. If they weren’t so expensive I’d have eaten quite a few.

The method of retail is to point at your insect of choice, which is then squeaked out of its polystyrene housing and plunged unceremoniously into a vat of boiling oil. If you’re not quick they’re then also doused in whatever ancient chilli seasoning the vendor happens to keep in a tub nearby before being handed over.

It should be noted that there are many other deep-fried insects on sale and scorpion is more or less the only palatable one. Don’t make my mistake of having to abandon stick after stick of oily insect as the vendor looks on with sad eyes.

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You can find Scorpions in Donghuamen Night Market, Wangfujing Road (Behind the Chinese Cinema) Beijing

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Brain Curry, Jaipur, India

December13

I was quite into brains until I ate this. Previous good experiences of fried brains in Slavic countries had me looking forward to the curried version. But alas, the texture does not translate.

It wasn’t horrible – in fact the delicate spices of the curry more or less pervaded everything, so in many ways it doesn’t really matter what you curry because it all tastes the same.

But the texture, the texture. Not the worse thing ever, but just that wrong combination of soft and also unyielding. The kind of consistency that makes your brain go: what the hell is THAT?

Taste-wise, kind of fatty, but OK. I’ll be honest I didn’t finish it but bagged it up and gave it over to a pair of men on the street who on reflection might not have been actually homeless, and may also have been vegetarians.

You can get brain curry mostly in north India where they’re more carnivorous. This particular dish was enjoyed in one of the classier restaurants in Jaipur.

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Lotus Pods – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

October19

These are pretty tricky to find, on the basis that they don’t look like food, and unless you’re furnished with a picture you tend to assume when you see them on sale that they’re a floral decoration or similar.

Lotus pods are seasonal, but in the hotter months and just when the rainy season starts you can find them sold all along the roadside in major cities. Phnom Penh you can find them on the south end of Norodom Boulevard, which runs near the river north to south.

Second problem is knowing how to eat them. You have to dig out the acorn-like seeds from the flesh of the pod with your fingers and crunch on them. They are fresh tasting and nice, like somewhere between a nut and a vegetable.

Pods are alarmingly green, and when the seeds come free and start to rattle around these are the ones you shouldn’t eat as they dry your mouth out and taste quite bitter. Instead go for the green seeds still lodged firmly in the pod.

Lotus pods are found along major roadways in city when in season, and are also sometimes sold in posh local restaurants by roaming salespeople (read, small children). I bought these in a restaurant listed in Lonely Planet the other side of the river in local Cambodian eatery land.

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Candyfloss Meat on Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

August24

I’ve had this before in Hong Kong, and it’s not half as disgusting as it sounds. I’m not one hundred percent sure what they do to the meat, but I think it involves heating it to high temperatures, blitzing it to a fine consistency and then deep frying it.

The result is meat (pork in this case) which honestly does have the consistency of candyfloss. It’s crunchy and melty in that kind of sugar-strand way, and with the meat and the oil it even has a bit of sweetness.

It’s pictured here in a big plastic display cabinet ready for sale, but you can also get it from those rangy kind of grocer/medical shops you find in Hong Kong and other developed Asian countries.

The best way to have it is as part of a rice ball where it adds a really good salty crunch to the soft rice, and to be honest I can’t think of another way you could serve it where it would actually be good. On its own it would be a bit greasy and strange.

Jalan Alor aka ‘Streetfood Street’ Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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Ant Curry in Cambodia

June16

I’m sure I remember taking pictures of this, but now can’t find them anywhere… To be fair it just looks like normal curry, with ants in – mix of types though, few big ones and lots of little ones.

Eating ants isn’t unique to Cambodia – you get can them fried or even chocolate coated as a snack everywhere from Brazil to Africa. But what I particularly liked about this Cambodian dish was that they hadn’t just gone for the easy option of one type of ant – no. This meal was made with two (or possibly even three) varieties.

The dish itself was like a curry of beef with what appeared to be a generous sprinkling of large leaf-cutter ants – them of the large orange thoraxes, and crunchy deep-fried flavour. But on closer inspection the bulk of the dish comprised many thousands of teeny tiny ants which formed the mainstay of meaty texture.

Sadly I didn’t like this particular dish very much, but funnily enough I don’t think it was the ants. There was some other flavours (I think tamarind was heavily involved) which gave it a very strange sour kind of taste, although when I ate the ants separately they tasted quite good.

The happy end to the tale is that because I couldn’t finish it we had it packed up and gave it to some street kids near the river front. Having walked on a few metres we heard a gratifyingly joyous shout as they opened the package. So presumably ant curry is genuinely regarded as a delicacy in Cambodia. Or they hadn’t yet noticed the insects set amongst the beef…

You can find curried ants at a restaurant on Street 182, about three blocks west from the Royal Palace. The name is in Cambodian, but you can find it by the roasting pig on a spit outside, and grand colourful entrance of fairy lights leading to an interior of miniature bridges over little waterways. Menu is in English with pictures, curried ants around $3.

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Eating ‘Happy’ Cannabis Pizza, Siam Reap, Cambodia

May25

So it turns out that ‘happy’ is a euphemism in this part of the world referring to a food source which has been augmented (made ‘happy’) by cannabis. I can’t claim to have been unaware of the fact when I bought the pizza. In fact my friend Al confirmed that the pizza would indeed be of the ‘happy’ variety before the order was sent to the kitchen.

It's all in the secret sauce...

The laws on cannabis as slightly hazy in Cambodia. You’re allowed to grow it for your own personal consumption and you’re also allowed to supply it to members of your immediate family – “girlfriend also ok” confirmed my Cambodian tuk tuk driver in a conversation on the subject. But selling it elsewhere is not on. So is technically illegal to cover a pizza in The Herb and trade it for profit. But the police apparently turn a blind eye except for the occasional raids.

Pizza arrives seemingly covered in happy herbs. Me and Al have a tentative slice each. I scrape off the chunkier pieces of foliage. Call me a wuss, but you never know how strong hash is until a few hours later if you eat it. I was once stoned for three straight days after eating a hash brownie at a late night party. I was so bored by the third day.

I hadn’t been stoned for ages, and I’d forgotten that interim period of am I stoned? Aren’t I? Things seem difficult to remember. As my friend Rob pointed out, this probably means you are stoned.

Sadly things went downhill from here as I developed a cracking headache, so here my intrepid reporting ends. I was really keen on going out into the town and getting a fish foot massage whilst under the influence, but my pounding head though otherwise.

Me having my feet nibbled my fish for health reasons

And as it turned out, when we went the next day for fish foot massage it was not the kind of thing you’d want to do stoned. The fish have hoary little mouths and go to work on all of you feet – even the soft bits. Really very disconcerting and I’d have pitied the owner to have me, stoned, yanking my feet from the water and shrieking.

As a moral aside to this story, we packed up the remaining pizza to take back to where we were staying. Then flew back the Malaysia a day later to hear the pilot announce as we landed “to remind passengers that smuggling drugs in Malaysia carries a mandatory sentence of death”. Cue me in an angst of paranoia wondering if we’d accidentally packed the pizza with us…. Note to travellers everywhere. Don’t do drugs.

Happy Angkor Pizza can be found next to plenty of other cannabis pizza places on the main road heading northwest of the south bridge through the city

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Eating Sssssnake in Siam Reap, Cambodia

May5

I was hoping for some grubby backstreet stall, manned by mysterious one-eyed snake vendor. Possibly reminiscent of that scene from Gremlins when he buys the cute but deadly little mogwai. Alas it was not to be. ‘BARBECUE SNAKE’ said the sign, in big English letters, on the most European of bar-lined streets in the whole of Cambodia.

Barbecued Snake in Cambodia

Tastes a lot better than it looks

But that doesn’t mean it’s still not an experience – right? In fact the restaurant in question did a lot of unusual barbecued things, but snake was the most out there. It came all pink and naked looking in big chunks, alongside a hefty barbecue grill. You turn the grill on, wipe a bit of oil around and on goes the snake. After a mere few minutes its assumed a rather unappetising grey colour, but it smells good at least.

My friend Laura took one cautious bite and announced “that is delicious!at high volume. And it was. Like really tasty barbecued meat but with a texture all of its own – like tough squid but not in a bad way. It didn’t taste like chicken. Maybe more like pork, and I would definitely have it again. Although maybe in a context more fitting of my egotistical desire to seek out places not usually visited by foreigners though…

You can find the barbecued snake restaurant on Pub Street in Siam Reap – south side of the street.

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Indian Sweets

April14

Indian sweets are a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of thing. For a lot of people they’re a bit sugary and fatty. And most of them are made by boiling milk to a paste and adding sugar and cardamom so they can have slightly sour milk overtones.

 I was lucky to have the kind of parent who made the idea of Indian sweets incredibly exciting for me from a young age, so I think they have a kind of magic about them – all those bright colours and silver paper and crispy towers of orange jalebi.

 

My favourites are gulab jamun which is like a reverse doughnut. It’s a deep fried dough ball soaked in syrup so the oozy sweet stuff is on the outside. Also jalebi (or jelebi) which is crispy coils of batter deep fried and then soaked in a bright orange rose-flavoured syrup.

The rest of the barfi range is more like milky fudge with moderately different colours, and if you’re lucky, the odd bit of silver leaf.

 Kolkatta (Calcutta) is the place to go for sweets, although Delhi also has an amazing big sweet shop on Connaught place which will wrap them up beautifully. There is such a difference between the fresh and stale sweets that it’s really worth seeking out a shop which makes them daily. About a quarter pound of sweets costs about $1.

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