The World On A Plate

   

Drinking coconut beer at the Boy’s Club in Aitutaki

April11

The Cook Islands have a big drinking culture, but with most of the populace living out in the sticks they also have a unique take on the local pub.

The deal is that one skilled person devotes themselves to brewing up a liquor based on fermented coconut milk. This is them distributed in weekly or monthly sessions from a big wooden barrel to a close-knit group of local men – including, of course, the brewer himself. Depending on which part of the island you live on and your level of personal gourmanderie you can pick and choose your ‘pub’ on the basis of the skill of the coconut fermenter and/or the conviviality of the regulars. The one which I visited was a jolly mix of singers and musicians, one of which had ingeniously made a bass from a tea crate and string.

Me getting merry on palm wine - I'd just come back from cave swimming

You sit, chat and play music as a wooden cup is passed around. It keeps coming and you down it in one, so it’s a sharp learning curve for those without a stomach for alcohol. The brew itself isn’t bad – sweetish and a bit like mild tasting sherry. But after several cups my memories are a bit blurred. I do remember, however that we all had to stand up and introduce ourselves as newcomers – like an AA meeting in reverse. Brilliantly, however, despite the drinky drinky nature, the clubs also operate in the grey areas of law enforcement, as social transgressions such as wife-beating are met with a lifetime ban. Although with most clubs out in the jungle wilderness and every member participating, I would hazard a guess that drink driving doesn’t feature on the exclusion policy.

You have to ask the locals where the clubs are gathered, as they don’t exactly advertise for guests, but most can be found on the island of Aiktutaki.

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Koti Roll – India, Kolkata

March30

I feel a bit guilty admitting this is probably the best thing I had to eat in India – and that’s from a big selection of good food. The reason for the guilt is that I saw the way animals were kept in India, and it really should have been enough to keep me vegetarian for the duration.

Quite aside from the man selling chickens in Darjeeling who sat upending bird in a jug of water until their legs stopped moving, the way meat is displayed should also be a warning sign.

Often left unrefrigerated on open stalls and covered in flies, if anything is going to upset your stomach in India, this would be it.

But something about the koti roll stall smelled so delicious every time I passed it that I eventually gave in, and am very glad I did. The koti roll is a bit like a shawarma in principle – grilled meat wrapped in bread.

But the India version uses a paratha rather than a pitta bread. Parathas are freshly made to order by spreading a round of dough on a hot griddle, smearing it with ghee, folding, it turning it, and repeating the process. The result is the flakiest butter bread and hot from the grill is beyond delicious. Spread with a spiced raita yogurt, and filled with hot chicken it takes on a new dimension all together.

And yes I did get moderately ill (I think) from eating it. But for the record, it was worth it.

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India – Thali

March14

I defy anyone to go to India and not get totally addicted to thalis. The thing that always really blows me away is that they’re one of those dishes which is meat-free but it would never occur to you to notice as there’s so much flavour going on.

Thalis are traditionally the choice of sad bachelors who don’t have wives to make them the lunch-time tiffin tin filled with delicacies made with love. Tiffin-wallahs ferry the containers from homes to offices every day and it’s great to watch them racing through Mumbai with them loaded on their heads.

Anyway, standard procedure for thali is this. You go in to some grubby-looking hole in the wall place filled to bursting with young men scarfing down as much food as possible. Almost as soon as you sit down the thali tray arrives – five or so different curries, pickles and yoghurt choices arranged in little pots around a great mound of rice. Chapatti is also a staple, and if you’re in a slightly upmarket place you might also get a naan bread.

Delve in with your fingers, and as soon as you run out of any of the little pots it is instantly refilled by a waiter. The rice and bread is finite but everything else is all you can eat so fill fill fill.

Something about all those different flavours prompts you to eat more than you ever thought possible, and as the price is rarely more than $4 it’s probably the best value all-you-can-eat in the world.

You find thalis literally everywhere in India, but my best one was on the same street as Leopalds in Mumbai, heading west.

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Eating Jellied Pig’s Trotters in Latvia

February24

Pigs Trotters

And so continue my offally big adventures through Russia and Eastern Europe.  I’m not deliberately seeking out the innards and random animal bits, but they seem to come flinging my way in this part of the world like a kind of grisly nemesis.

Because pig’s trotters are now a trendy pub favourite I didn’t really think they would be that unusual in flavour, but it turns out I was only partly right. In this part of the world it’s all about the jellied pig’s trotters, and to be honest the fact that I couldn’t differentiate between jelly and fatty foot meat I found quite disturbing. I can’t odds the taste – mostly of vinegar – but I don’t really understand why the feet are prized above different cuts.

If you’re not about the trotters then Latvia is also a great place to sample delicious super-cheap dumplings by the bowlful. In several restaurants in the capital you can join a line in a self service restaurant, choose what you like (or guess, in my case, if you don’t speak the language) and they’ll weigh the end result for you to eat on the premises. I never spent more than about £2 ($1.7) on a big plateful.

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Kolkatta (Calcutta) – Street-food – Masala Dosa

February16

 

Masala dosas are one of the many Indian foods that you wonder why you don’t see more outside the country. They’re essentially a mammoth potato flour pancake, straight from the hot plate and folded in two, but still managing to take up the space of three plates.

In the middle you get a generous splat of curried potatoes, and most places then pour over a spiced gravy. They’re served in the Indian tradition of using communal tin plates which get a cursory wipe with a dirty cloth before being refilled for the next customer.

From my point of view this is probably what makes a lot of people not used to Indian street-food ill, as they’re washed in untreated water. Not to mention being passed back and forth between various hands and mouths without any detergent.

For this reason a masala dosa is a great choice as the big pancake keeps the wetter food from contact with the plate.

More importantly they are enormously delicious, super cheap and almost impossible to make at home unless you’re prepared to put in the years of practice of a professional dosa flipper.

For around $1 it’s a great big filling meal which you’re not going to find widely made in any other country.

This stall was down at atmospheric little backstreet in Calcutta which is not technically south, but you see dosas all over the country.

Street Stall, Hartford Lane, nr New Market (South side), Kolkata (Calcutta)

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Eating Fried Monkey Brains in Moscow

February10
Monkey Brains in Moscow

Image Courtesy of www.Pastor.us

Remember that scene in Indiana Jones where they’re eating gooey brains straight from the monkey’s little skulls? I always thought that scene was a bit xenophobic to be honest – look at the mad cruel foreigners and their disgusting culinary tastes, and finally it seems I may have been proved right.

The proof of the pudding, as it were, being that brains (at least in my recent experience) are not gooey or slimy in the slightest, and are in fact crunchy like chips on the outside with a soft creamy centre. To be fair they were calves’ brains and for all I know monkey brains do ooze stringy goo when cleaved straight from the open head of the unfortunate animal.

The brains were also fried rather than steamed, which gives me the rare opportunity to put on my knowledgeable nutrition hat and say that the average brain is 60% fat so it would make sense that this would be a good way to cook it. (This is also, incidentally why Omega 3s oils are so good for the brain).

Very hard to make an accurate taste analysis, but chips would be the nearest thing for the delicious crunchy exterior with an added unctuous loveliness. They were really nice.

I ate them in a Ukrainian themed restaurant in Moscow with live barn animals in the centre, but that’s another story (www.shinok.ru if anyone wants to track it down.

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Native Canadian Breakfast Bread

February6

Proof that the best breakfasts are of the unpronounceable kind this is a bit like a bread mixed with a pancake mixed with a brioche. Or something. And I know it begins with an ‘s’. The most important thing is that:

a)      It is super-tasty.

b)      You serve it with maple syrup.

Canadian Breakfast Bread

Which are both key cornerstones of any Canadian recipe. We had this after a dawn ‘pipe ceremony’ – the kind of thing you see in old-style country and westerns where the white people are welcomed in to smoke a peace pipe with the chief.

It starts with a long blessing of the tobacco and liberal dispensation of sage smoke, which is a cleansing thing, and the pipe then theoretically achieves the internal job of what the external herbs have done to the air around you.

I love anything even vaguely spiritual and with a toasty fire, my own pair of moccasins and the promise of food at the end of it this was about the best religious experience I’d ever had (Christians are notoriously stingy with the wafers and I’ve noticed other faiths seem to have a certain meanness where food and heating are concerned but maybe I’m missing something important about God).

Me, Dominique and Mary in a fug of sage smoke

The native bread was the best thing ever on a cold morning, but it went so well with the maple syrup that you can see why diabetes is a problem amongst the natives. Brilliantly, however, lovely native medicine man Dominic (pictured) who hosted the ceremony had managed to cure himself of the disorder which just goes to show where mind over maple syrup can get you…
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Moose Casserole

January26

I ate this moose just before sleeping in a tepee at -20C so you could say I was doing my very best to go native.

Moose Casserole

It’s a lesser known fact that Canada also had a native population whose peaceful customs were displaced by roving packs of mad evil missionaries, and spending time with one of the tribes-people was really interesting.

My favourite story was that tribes used to adopt orphaned baby animals and let them sleep in their tepees for a few months during winter. One year they adopted a moose which after a happy six months refused to leave and they had to build a special tepee for it. It then got a taste for bread and took to swimming out and overturning incoming canoes if it could smell they were carrying loaves. So people rowing in had to shout ‘we’ve got bread in the canoe – call off your moose!” before attempting to land.

Which brings me neatly to eating the stuff. Not my favourite experience I have to admit. The meat was great – like a mixture of goat and beef. But the recipe was a kind of casserole and various organs were thrown in which toughened up during the cooking process and made most of it really gristly. I properly filled my plate fearing the cold night ahead of me and then had to grind through a huge fibrous pile of meat. Luckily dessert was cherry pie with ice cream.

Oh and the tepee proved to be really snug and warm – honest. There was a fire which you had to keep loading up but it was warmer than any of the houses I’d been in.

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