Category Archives: Portuguese

Glutton Abroad: I dream of African barbecue

Nyama choma with all the fixings, at Governors’ Private Camp

Do you remember the song “Africa” by Toto? If you are of a certain age, of course you do. Picture this: it’s 1907, and we’re listening to Toto at my apartment in Haverford (please don’t ask why). I get into a deeply heated argument with Brian Minier over the lyric “Kilimanjaro rises like a leopress above the Serengeti”. Note the spelling? It’s obviously a female leopard (although the lyric is ridiculous, obviously. In what way would a mountain “rise”? Do female leopards “rise”?) He insists the band is referring to a female leper. Really, Brian? Really?

So when I see Kilimanjaro, looking a bit like melting vanilla sundae, out the window of my ridiculously tiny Cessna (the safari version of the shuttle bus), that lyric gets stuck in my head, and I get indignant all over again.  I mean, who would differentiate between male and female lepers anyway? But, as usual, I digress. Because, while most people go on safari and want to see blah blah leopards blah blah rare rhinos blah blah lions nom-nomming on something, I am on the hunt for something else. I want to be the one nom-nomming on something. I am looking for nyama choma.

“Nyama choma” is basically a cooking term referring to grilled meat — frequently goat, but also beef, pork, mutton, what have you. As is the case with grilled meat of any persuasion, nyama choma is delicious — as seen by the numerous stalls selling it roadside. But for some reason, people don’t seem to believe you want to eat African food. Typical menu offerings at these lodges are “fresh-out-of-the-bush” concoctions like beef carpaccio, roasted pumpkin soup, and grilled fish with Hollandaise sauce. Nice stuff, but some people want to experience new countries through their stomachs, too.

The folks at Singita Sasakwa (www.singita.com), where I first stay, are kind enough to indulge a few requests. One, suggested by my friend James, is “masala fries” — a perfect colonial fusion of Anglo-Indian influences. They are like junk food, they are so good: crispy fries, meaty within, coated with a tangy, salty spice coating of masala and dusted with a bit of parsley. There is no reason why this shouldn’t be in every vending machine in every corner of the globe. I have to figure out how to make these at home.

Masala fries at Singita Sasakwa

They also indulge us with an “African tasting menu” that includes some things I’ve never seen: ugali, maize cooked into a solid mass that resembles glue, meant to serve as the backdrop for everything else; mchicha, a Tanzanian curry of spinach and peanuts; mishkaki, skewered, impossibly tender beef; maharage ya nazi, kidney beans stewed with coconut cream; “coconut rice”, cooked a la risotto, but with coconut milk instead of broth; and a sort of kachumbari that they appear to call chachandu, a tomato-chili relish served alongside grilled tilapia. Of course, it blows everyone away. Why is there not more of this?

At Governors’ Private Camp in Kenya (www.governorscamp.com), we get more English-y stuff the first night — chicken fillet in mushroom gravy and an impossibly tall tower of fluffy mashed potatoes that I cannot help but eat all of — but Patrick and Frank, our stewards, are more than happy and even a little tickled to accommodate a request for nyama choma. The next day they outdo themselves, grilling up strips of beef slathered in a parsley-and-onion speckled kachumbari.

Kachumbari, or tomato-and-chili relish

They also serve up heaping spoonfuls of sukuma wiki, a Kenyan staple dish that literally means “to push the week” and comprises braised, shredded greens studded with bits of tomato, cooked until it falls apart and finished with a bit of cream. Although I’ve had some indifferent versions of this dish, the one here is made with lots of love, “the traditional way”, Patrick tells us.

Traditional sukuma wiki

The next few days are a blur: githeri, a stew of kidney beans and corn, sweet and filling; matoke, made from stewed plaintains in a sweetened tomato-and-onion sauce; mandazi, crispy, giving dough “dumplings”, slightly sweetened, reminiscent of the Thai patongko. Our camp manager Colin tells us that South Africans eat a version of mandazi that is stuffed with mince, another smart Anglo-African fusion dish. If I ever go to South Africa, I am trying that immediately.

But I miss home. I rediscover chilies. Although they are a bit bigger and not as spicy as the prik ki nu (bird’s eye chilies) back home, I remember that it was the Portuguese who were supposed to have brought chilies to Thailand, and that these suckers were probably the ones they brought. So in a way, I have a bit of home at every meal, sprinkled on my fried eggs or tucked into my curries. Enough to tide me over until I get back.

Breakfast

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Filed under beef, food, Kenya, Portuguese, Thailand

Brazilian Days, Vol. 2

Ever feel like you’ve been through some sort of time warp, doomed to a Bill Murray-like existence living the same day over and over again? That is what this interminable trip is starting to feel like, despite the loveliness of the setting and friendliness of the people.

There is plenty of both in Gramado, a Southern Brazilian town famous for its German and Italian communities, Swiss-style buildings and ludicrous number of fondue restaurants for a town of 30,000, a minute fraction of whom are actually Swiss. We are here for Marcelo and Renata’s wedding, joining 298 others in a heavy-duty bash (in case this is news to you, Brazilians like to party) incorporating an all-you-can-drink caipirinha bar, 40 bottles of whisky, 40 bottles of vodka and a whopping 220 bottles of champagne. Win and I, old farts that we are, battle valiantly to stay up past midnight. We make it to 12:30am, failing to outlast Marcelo’s 10-month-old cousin and 80-year-old grandmother, who is still out on the dance floor when we skulk out of the ballroom, pretending to make a call.

When it comes to food, however, we do our part, gorging on bottle after bottle of the local Merlot and sparkling wine and a uniquely Brazilian version of fondue bourguignone that doesn’t actually involve any fondue — a hot plate is coated with salt to keep the beef from sticking, and it is accompanied by a dizzying array of dips ranging from the usual (rose and tartar sauces, garlic-parsley butter and curry mayonnaise) to the, uh, unusual (wasabi, caramelized onion, candied pineapple, strawberry jam). Alas, the 9:30-10:00pm dinnertimes render me a gassy menace to society, snarling my digestive system and making me a deadly weapon in enclosed spaces like cars (sorry, Marcelo’s brother).

So despite the absolute loveliness of Marcelo’s and Renata’s families and promises to visit each other’s respective cities, it is with a certain sense of relief that we are left to our own devices in Sao Paulo, where no one is stuck with me but my husband and I can eat dinner at 7pm like any other tourist. Called the “locomotive of Brazil”, Sao Paulo is nearly everything Rio is not — fast-moving and unwieldy in a way that recalls Bangkok, but way more efficient; where two kisses is a common salutation in Rio (and three in Gramado), in Sao Paulo you get away with only one (time is money, after all). Sao Paulo is also way bigger than Rio: at last count, its population totaled 40 million.

It’s not much of a surprise, then, that Sao Paulo is also home to the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan. After what feels like months of going without Asian food, I insist on trying both ends of the spectrum of Japanese food in the city: slick and high-end vs. “authentic” everyday.

Kinoshita's crispy salmon

At Kinoshita (Rua Jacques Felix, 405, (11)3849-6940) you will get plenty of slick (minimalist, expensive decor, smooth service) and a whole lotta high-end (65 reals for a glass of Hungarian Tokaji). Food — with the exception of a nifty gazpacho with shrimp roe and sea urchin, some nice seared fish eggs with a dollop of wasabi and salmon drenched in ponzu and topped with tempura dribbles and ebiko — stands at the intersection of Mundane Avenue and High-Concept Hotel Dining Street. In other words, it’s the culinary equivalent of an Aman Resort: pretty and well-designed but somehow similar to somewhere else. Of course there is a foie gras course, cubes of it pan-fried and set atop cushions of Kobe that are only seared, so that the marbled fat in the meat isn’t activated. Why bother then?

More satisfying (and easier to do) was the ramen at Lamen Kazu (Rua Thomaz Gonzaga, (11)3277-4286), in the “Japan town” known as Liberdade. The menu is simply a succession of ramen variations: miso, salt, shoyu, with the usual varieties of toppings. All the same, I enjoyed my “Hokkaido” (corn, seaweed, pork, spring onion and a pat of butter) despite getting hangry (hungry+angry) and scaring the waitress and our neighbors at the table next to us.

"Hokkaido" ramen

In the end, we find we’ve explored only the tip of the iceberg that is Brazil. There is still the gorgeous green expanse across the north, and the awe-inspiring forest known as the Amazon. And imagine the food that remains uneaten! It would take weeks and weeks to do the country justice. We’ve only just started.

All the same, I feel like I’ve been on the road for a long time. The memories seem minted long ago: dining on a tableful of oysters at Kaufhaus des Westerns (KaDeWe) and rifling through stacks of scarves and evil-eye jewelry at the Turkish market in Berlin; stumbling through icy streets in Denmark and Finland on a bellyful of schnapps; discovering delicious cream-filled semla buns in Stockholm.

Semla at Vete-Katten in Stockholm

I love exploring the world through my stomach, and I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to actually do it for a month. But home beckons, finally. What’s for dinner?

Peppers at the Turkish market in Berlin

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Filed under beef, Brazilian, fish, food, Japanese, noodles, pork, Portuguese, restaurant, seafood

Brazilian Days, Vol. 1

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio


(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

Tuesday, Day 1

9:00: It’s taken us a full day, two kilos of oversalted shellfish, and a trough of caipirinhas, but we have finally recovered from the 36-hour trip from Stockholm to Rio (via Berlin, Zurich and Sao Paulo). We are in Rio de Janeiro (‘River of January’), a glittering city of around 6 million which funnily enough does not have a river but a gigantic bay and many beaches. At breakfast, we watch impossibly toned and tanned beautiful people do yoga and practice a form of soccer-volleyball, all apparently without any hint of irony whatsoever. Afterwards, we meet our guide, Leonardo, who promptly learns that we will go anywhere and do anything, as long as we are fed well for our trouble. He pledges to take us to Porcao, one of Rio’s best-known churrascaria rodizios (barbecue houses), as soon as he can.

13:00: Thanks to a crowd of especially exuberant Koreans and a traveling samba band (“Now is the time for the samba,” says Leonardo, who cannot stand the samba) the tram trip up to Christ was amusing, but we are now in a post-giggle funk after being confronted with a snarl of traffic that just might rival the best Bangkok has to offer. Although Leonardo claims it is a bit early to stuff our faces, we are famished, and head to the nearest Porcao (Av Infante Dom Henrique, (021) 3461-9020) we can find. At Porcao (which, as @SpecialKRB points out, is pronounced “poor cow”), we find cuts of every part of the animal awaiting us including the rubbery hump (called cupim), plus a generously-proportioned buffet of “sushi”, salads and hot stews that we ignore until we are almost full. Luckily, I am wearing a maternity dress chosen especially for the occasion.
Confronting a skewer of fried chicken hearts
(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

After stuffing ourselves to near-bursting, we promise to never, ever eat ever ever again.

The man of our dreams with @SpecialKRB

Wednesday, Day 2

9:00: We break our promise at breakfast the next day, when I once again inhale an entire plate of cold cuts and cheese with plenty of bread, as I am told is the breakfast of choice for true cariocas (natives of Rio, which loosely translated in the local language actually means “house of the foreigner” or “house of the white man”. Go figure). This is especially interesting since it is very hard to find starches like this for lunch or dinner unless you actively ask for it. Is this the “Rio diet”? Only enough carbs to keep you regular and then not touching them after noon? Eating manioc like a maniac at ridiculous times of the day, like 3pm and 11pm? Will I lose a bunch of weight and write a diet book and become a famous weight-loss guru like Rocco DiSpirito? Only time will tell.

13:01: After spending the morning buffing the floors at the Palacio Rio Negro in Petropolis, the Brazilian royal family’s summer residence, we are officially starving. (“Would you DIIIIEEE if we have lunch later?” asks Leonardo. Yes, Leonardo. Yes, I think we would die.)

Nevertheless, we manage to hold off until 3pm, when Leonardo takes us to Urca, a neighborhood known for being exclusive and inhabited by members of the military. Here, we get our first taste of some delicious Brazilian snacks: bolinhos, coated in crumbs and deep-fried; pastels, wrapped in pastry like pierogies; and empadas, fillings set atop pastry (“open”) or enclosed completely (“closed”). These are all washed down with a glass of light draft beer (chopp) and can be found at any boteca or botequim.

Another dream man, with a tray of empadas

18:00: After another long day, we finally make our way to Academia da Cachaca (26 Rua Conde de Bernadotte Leblon, (021) 2529-2680), where a treasure trove of cachacas (sugarcane liquor) sourced from all points of Brazil awaits. We select several “doses” of this liquor, the names of which will remain locked in an alcohol-induced haze forever, and they all taste of either cloves, allspice, cinnamon, or caramel. We also order acaraje — a sort of kibbee-like deep-fried “football” of beans, accompanied by a fish stew and a “relish” of coriander, spring onion and dried shrimp — and a sun-dried beef escondidinho, which @SpecialKRB describes as a “shepherd’s pie filled with corned beef hash”.

Escondidinho


But our waiter draws the line when we try to get a feijoada completa (bean stew with all the fixings), simply refusing to let us order it. Leonardo agrees (“I am afraid you will DIIIIEEEE. You will simply drop dead”) and seems to think a waiter telling us we have ordered too much is an unusual occurrence. Everyone seems to think that, despite the late hour, we will eat dinner after this (“This is lunch,” says Leonardo with a straight face).

22:00: This is the thing. I love Rio in many ways: its laid-back, freewheeling optimism, its sunny weather, its easy-going and friendly people. But so much of it is the complete opposite of the doddering oldie I am today. Despite exhortations from every Brazilian we know to explore Rio’s vaunted nightlife — (“Don’t go there until 3am. You will find NOBODY,” Leonardo advises as we pass one famous nightspot. “This club is after-hours. You can go there at 6am.” He says later of another. “Come on,” he finally tells us when confronted with our ashamed, vaguely defiant faces. “Don’t be different”) — we cannot find the strength to stay awake. Leonardo is talking to the squarest, most boring people in the world.

Thursday, Day 3

13:00: Leonardo-less today, we finally make it to Casa da Feijoada (Rua Prudente de Moraes 10, (021) 2523-4994) where we get our black bean stew accompanied by braised pig tails, ears and trotters, rice, deep-fried pork rinds, fried collard greens, fried manioc, farofa (roasted cassava flour) and orange slices to cut the fattiness. We get both passionfruit and lime batidas (cachaca with fruit juice and ice) and a bottle of wine. This renders us comatose for the rest of the day. Finally sated, we stumble outside into the bright sunlight, spot vultures circling overhead and consider the beach for the rest of the day. I have not lost weight on this diet by any stretch of the imagination.

Pork rinds

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Caught in the culture wars

 

Thai food: a focal point of the culture wars

 

I vowed never to talk about this again, but Sunday’s “Bangkok Post” opinion piece about the state of Thai cuisine drove me, once again, to the keyboard (I don’t have many interests, and nothing else to talk about). Like a Katherine Heigl movie, it starts out reasonably enough, and then somehow turns crazypants somewhere in the middle.

The basic premise is, modern Thai food has atrophied as a result of the culinary shortcuts commercial cooks take today, resulting in processed dreck that bears little resemblance to the dishes they are supposed to be (while this is very true, it sounds a little to me like running into a McDonald’s and complaining, “Why do they only use cheap ingredients? Why is everything so poorly made? Where is the care and thought put into my hamburger?”)

The media also deserve blame for the commodification of Thai food, concerning themselves only with “tasting this or that dish” and on “atmosphere and decor rather than offering any real knowledge concerning the food” (Because NO ONE cares about that stuff! Silly journos. Tell me once again about how the Indians and/or Portuguese inspired coconut milk-based curries).

Because of these shortcuts, Thais DESERVE to lose their mastery of their own cuisine. Because we’re so stupid! Now David Thompson has blown into town and his place is packed and that sucks, because our lives suck and so his should too! But we’ve done this to ourselves, because we bear witness to culinary crimes like this:

“…pizza with a dry version of gaeng kiew waan luk chin pla or with dry tom yum goong. These combinations are a slap in the face to both the Thai and Italian cooking traditions.”

First of all, what’s with all the slaps in the face? Is there no other way for writers here to convey getting insulted? No tug on the ear, perhaps, or maybe a kick in the pants? Get a new rhetorical device!

Secondly, well, I am no fan of crap-topped pizza either. That said, I’m sure someone probably thought tossing spaghetti with pla kem (salted fish) and dried chilies was once a daft idea, too. Now you wouldn’t bat an eye seeing this dish on a menu. And how did Thais take to the first bowl of khao soy, a “fusion” creation of egg noodles and coconut milk said to be invented by cooks in Chiang Mai from a dish originated by the Chin Haw Chinese-Muslim minority group?

 

Khao soy at Khao Soy Islam

 

(photo by @SpecialKRB)

I was lucky enough to get the chance to help work on the first English-language cookbook by Thai TV chef McDang (“The Principles of Thai Cookery”, in case you’re interested — it’s very good! Not that I’m biased or anything …) In it, Chef McDang discusses quite clearly how all the different parts of a Thai meal fit together (a minimum of five elements: a clear soup, a curry, a fried dish, a stir-fried dish, and a kreuang jim, or chili dip with vegetables), why Thais use forks and spoons (in order to kluk, or mix the different elements of the meal together to your liking), and how all the ingredients in a Thai dish are supposed to interact. That’s why traditional Thais get all crazy about substitutions like onions for shallots, or adding spring onions instead of coriander leaves.

That said, Thai cuisine is also the beneficiary of a number of foreign influences that have seeped in from interaction with the rest of the world over the course of Thailand’s history. In the Sukhothai period (1238-1438), we were scarfing down fish, fruit and wild boar on rice flavored with peppercorns, cilantro roots and palm sugar. And then, in the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767) the Portuguese came along, and gave us this:

 

"Golden threads" and "golden drops": traditional Thai sweets that are also Portuguese

 

They also introduced us to eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and sugarcane; co-introduced us to savory uses for coconut milk; and showed us a crazy new way to flavor our food with these things called “chilies”. They also found a way to form a curry custard by mixing fish and egg and steaming it; the result was called hor mok:

 

Steamed seafood curry at Aor Thor Kor

 

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

And then there were the Chinese. What to say about the Chinese? Without them, Thai food would not be “Thai food”. From them we got: shrimp paste, fish sauce, the use of duck meat in cooking, pans, stir-frying, and frying. Another innovation: an interesting alternative to rice in the form of long, thin strands of rice flour (and sometimes egg-based flour), which can be served in soup, blanched, fried, or even in desserts. They are popular in Thai street food, so keep your eyes peeled for this rare, strange delicacy:

 

Bamee at Sukhumvit Soi 38

 

So sometimes fusion isn’t so bad after…..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzOh, sorry, you’re still here?

Thailand is at a point in its history where its future — like that of the rest of the world — is uncertain. Maybe people are unsure of where they stand and so long to return to a time when things seemed more secure. Food serves as a convenient stage on which to act out this current identity crisis. But that doesn’t mean we should shut out foreign influences, or, for that matter, a foreigner who is doing the exactly same thing as us.

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, celebrity chefs, Chinese, curries, food, food stalls, Japanese, noodles, Portuguese, restaurant, rice, Thai-Chinese, Thailand, TV chefs