Friday, 23 April 2010

Thoughts on Tunisian cuisine, or, a review of Adam's Cafe, Shepherd's Bush..

Last week I had an intriguing though whilst watching a Michael Palin documentary on Tunisia; he proclaims that it's the only Islamic country in which there's no compulsory fasting during Ramadan. Seems to me, (admittedly after only one Tunisian culinary experience), that this decision probably has little to do with secularist tendencies and much more to do with the fact that their food is basically just really very tasty...

Anyhow, first things first, before we get too deep into this review I should declare a conflict of interest. The owner's daughter is a friend and I did eat here for free. In many ways this write-up could be seen as pay back (i did promise to review it; clearly advocacy from a blog with this kind of readership is a major table filler..) and it would be somewhat ungrateful to slate it. But luckily for you, unlike Geoff Hoon and other Labour Party cronies, this reviewer cannot be hired like a London taxicab. There shall be no aggrandisment.

So let's begin. For a starter i managed to order something akin to a Velociraptor's comb. Behaving like the stupidest Englishman in an ethnic (that word itself fittingly being the stupidest word for 'foreign') restuarant I asked for "the most Tunisian thing on the menu please?" and swiftly one of the stars of Jurrasic Park's baby brother showed up. The menu describes it as a "fan of fried filo pastry with egg and herbs" and it's shown in the picture below.

Known to everyone but Steven Spielberg as a 'Brik a l'oeuf' I've decided after subsequent rumination that this dish is a great concept. The runny, rich, warm egg complements the fried crispiness of the filo excellently. It amounts to a much more refined version of our eggs and fried bread breakfast.. Interestingly Adam's Cafe doubles up as a traditional Brit style "local caf" during the day, so perhaps this is where inspiration came from?

When main course came round my choices were slightly limited sadly, as they usually are. At the moment I'm still pursuing a mistaken semi-Vegetarian phase and so am trying to avoid meat unless the animal's been given a candlelight pigsty, it's own crockery set or similar. This lead to me missing out on all sorts of amazing sounding main courses like Gargoulette Tunisienne (a spicy lamb tagine) and a plethora of kebab choices.

Instead I tipped my hat to the Berbers and opted for a 'Tagine Berber Aux Lentilles'. It was a fantastic musky, legume-y, spinach stew served with a gigantic mound of cous-cous. The stew reeked of the desert and summoned up just the right kinds of images of sun's setting over Roman ruins and lutes and other such Maghreb-y things. As did the whole room infact - the walls are all kitted out with street maps and other Tunisian goodies so it really is a little slice of the Sahara. The meal finished up with freshly minted tea and earthy coffee in dinky cups.

The prices were even decent as well (especially considering the admire-ably genorous portions); I can't actually remember 'specifically as i went ages ago (and wasn't paying!), but I do remember thinking to myself 'wow, that's pretty reasonable'. All in all, highly recommended.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Comment Is Free: Food Miles – What a load of b*****ks! by Jim Crowder

Charlie and Rory's Food Blog has now thrown the floodgates open to our hordes of followers, letting them bring their ruminations on all matters food to the verbal table, (ba-dum-tshish). Here Jim Crowder offers a fresh and interesting new perspective on the media cliche of 'food miles'..

Way back in the dim and distant, I was employed as an environmental analyst in the energy industry. This meant I spent my time calculating the environmental impact of various projects and options for generating energy for the UK. During the 1979 general election, I had the dubious pleasure to meet the chairman of the Ecology Party, the predecessor to the Green Party. He had little comprehension of the idea of environmental impact assessments, and suggested that gut feeling was more important than rigorous analysis in these matters. Therefore he was in favour of expansion of coal power because he felt comfortable with it. When I raised the issue of pollution he wasn't impressed because as far as he was concerned we had been burning coal for a long time and there was plenty left!

The reason I bring this up is to illustrate that a narrow view of issues can often lead to startlingly wrong conclusions. A few years later, awareness of fossil fuel pollution grew (acid rain and CO2), and we started to plan our future. I see the same narrow mindedness in the idea of food miles. This is an idea that has developed out of localism (which requires a whole different article) and has no real relevance to any kind of environmental impact.

Let me put it this way. A 40 tonne lorry will burn a gallon of fuel every 8 miles or so, a 1 tonne van will burn a gallon every 30 miles or so. So, at the average farmers' market a stallholder might come 15 miles and sell say 100kg of produce, then they have used 10 gallons per tonne of food (not counting the tractor usage and fertiliser and everything else). A lorry delivering to your local Asda will be fully loaded and deliver say 30 tonnes on a 60 mile trip. This is 0.5 gallons per tonne, a significant difference.

Aha, I hear you say. What about getting the food to the depot to start with? Well, again it is managed in large quantities (I now work in the food industry so have first hand experience), this leads to similar efficiencies, so you've got to work very hard to use up that extra fuel. Anyhow, supermarkets make their profits out of economies of scale.

The final clincher is you, the customer. How far do you drive to your farmers' market in addition to your weekly trip to the supermarket? How much do you buy, and how fuel efficient is your car?

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Seychellian Chili Scone Recipe

Much like Icarus flying so close to the sun that his wax and feather wings melted right off, some things have to be taken to extremes. One of these things is vegetable cake.

Now I've tried Parsnip cake, I've tried Chocolate Sauerkraut cake and I've tried courgette cake. They were all nice, but something seemed lacking. It took me some time to realise what; but when i did it was a realisation of Newtonian proportions. I posed myself the question, which vegetable would you put in a dish to take it to it's utmost denouement? A chili pepper of course.

Just before Christmas I was round my mate Paul's house and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try our hands at rustling up some chili cakes - his mum's from Seychelles where apparently they bat no eyelid at the thought of putting chili in a cake.

After a quick google trawl for a recipe and a trip to the shops we were ready to go -

300 grams of dhall
3 chilies
A handful of chopped coriander
Half a teaspoon of cumin powder
A couple of spring onions (cut up)
A pinch of salt

  • You're supposed to wash the dhall overnight but we only had time for an hour (maybe this is where it all went wrong..).
  • Then you blend the dhall, add all the other ingredients, mould into balls and deep fry. (Sadly we had no real option to deep fry so we baked instead.)
2009-12-14 15.51.12
(please don't use laundry juice as an ingredient)

Unfortunately our Chili cakes ended up a bit wrong. In my head I'd pictured the Indian Ocean equivalent of the cheese scone. In reality i got a bland onion bhagee a like. Rubbish.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Colalife - 'I'd like to buy the world... some oral re-hydration salts?'

My main problem with global travel nowadays is that no one place is that different from another. You can buy a Big Mac in Phnom Penh, shop Ikea in Hong Kong and buy a Gillette razor in Malawi. You can buy Coca-Cola, the sworn enemy of all Student Unions, almost anywhere.

Fortunately, Simon, an aid worker who's spent years working in Zambia, a place where child mortality is sky high 'cause of lack of such simple products as anti-malarials or oral re-hydration salts, has a genius solution to connect these two problems. Harness the insanely prolific Coca-Cola's prolific distribution machine to deliver 'pods' of these medications to every far-flung places you can imagine. Read all about it at his blog.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

And talking of famously ill tempered British Prime Ministers and food...

Sources inform us Gordon Brown has recently switched from a four kit-kat a day habit to 9 bannanas!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Chinese Food Reconnaissance Part Three

To paraphrase Steve Martin, Litang is the kind of town where they spell trouble T-R-U-B-I-L, and if you try to correct that the overwhelmingly unnecessary numbers of Chinese military posted there probably kill you. Likely to be a brutal death too.

In the past the town has been the site of numerous armed resistances against Chinese rule; Litang being one of the most important Tibetan towns going, which explains the ridiculous-for-a-place-of-its-size military barracks on the outskirts. Even better, unlike in holy Lhasa, which is full of migrants, you're also pretty unlikely to meet any Han Chinese round these parts; everyone apart from army types seems to be old, wrinkled Tibetan women or cowboy alike men on motorbikes or kids with runny noses (all Tibetan kids seem to have runny noses). It's like stepping back three hundred years and into the wild west.

Surprisingly for all the repression and the altitude, Tibetan food is fantastic. Very few crops grow comfortably at this kind of height (Litang is 4,014 meters above sea level) so barley, yak and potatoes seem to be pretty much the main staples, and boy do the Tibetans like their yak. Yak yogurt, yak stew, yak dumplings, yak milk, yak butter tea (eurgh), yak fois gras and yak studded muesli are all probably regular features at the Tibetan dinner table.

Sadly I didn't eat that much food while i was on the Tibetan plateau but what i did have was great. They do a bloody good noodle soup with lots of vegetables and even more yak; much stodgier and more filling than the average Chinese fare. And apparently an ear stew (see picture below), though thankfully i didn't find any ear in mine.

Following Tibet we embarked on a perilous journey to the next province to the West; my main memories of this drive being bad Tibetan dance music (main lyrics, in accented English, "I'm tired of this bullshit"), very steep cliffs and sincerely sketchy driving. Got there in the end though.

Our first stop in Yunnan was Kunming, the regional capital and a lovely place. Compare it to most cities and it's the Chinese version of the garden of Eden. Tree lined streets, a quite nice (not baking hot) climate, easy enough to get around and not all the pushing and shoving common elsewhere - for China it's positively relaxed.

Weirdly for a country so famous for its tea, those Yunnaners (is that right? Yunnanese?) are big on coffee. In my hostel a guru-slash-English teacher (who was an all likelihood a German too, so already a difficult man to trust), informed me that the province's coffee would change my life. He didn't say this in a joke, ahaha, sort of way either, but in a very serious way, like a man reading the news or a politician making pledges. Once I'd hunted my cup down I was quite disappointed not to have had my life changed.

After my 'miracle' coffee we then journeyed on to Heijing, an ancient salt capital nestled down to the West of Kunming. As beginnings go this leg of the trip was absolutely stunning, cutting right through rural China and passing through paddy fields which are still obviously a big deal here. An area where it's still okay to wear a blue Mao cap and where maybe things haven't yet changed quite the way they have in China's big cities. It was nice. Once there we stayed at an old salt baron's house which was very swish. He'd got knocked off in the cultural revolution i think, for being a capitalist-salt-selling-pig-dog. Now his old pad is a guesthouse. Is that irony?

One of the main reasons we'd made it to Heijing was 'cause as well as being big on salt mining, they were big on salt cooking and sources had informed us that awesome salt cooked chicken was to be had here. We only had one meal here, and the chicken was salty but not quite amazing. Balls up. Probably went to the wrong place to eat it though.

Back in Kunming there was only one other meal i needed to try to fulfill this blog's reconnaissance mission. Crossing The Bridge Noodles is apparently Yunnan's most famous dish and so named for a scholar who worked in the middle of a lake. By the time his woman had managed to bring him his nightly noodle soup dinner it had gone cold; subsequently she had the bright idea to adding a layer of chicken fat to keep the heat in.

You can get the noodles at a chain place that seems to be everywhere in Kunming; I can't remember it's name but you can figure out the place cause each branch has two three foot plastic models of chefs looking like real goofs outside. They serve their noodles hot pot style with plates of stuff like peanuts or meat to slop in. It's definitely value for money with big old bowls of piping hot soup and unlike lots of food in China, it's fresh tasting too which is nice.

And this brings us to the end of my assignment uncovering the mysteries of Chinese cuisine. I've learnt much about this ancient, newly thriving culture - primarily the fact that we've been ripping them off for centuries, and on that subject i still haven't even touched on tea either. Robert Fortune on a similar mission to mine, but way back, traveled covertly to China to collect tea seeds and tea plants to be grown in British India. This was so we didn't have to rely on their exports and was purely in retaliation for the Chinese deciding to grow their own opium and stopping buying ours. In smashing their monopoly, we unwittingly set ourselves up to be the nation of tea lovers we are today.

Whatever. My main conclusion is that Chinese food is the best and most versatile kind of food ever invented. We stole everything from them; tea to tagliatelle. And now they're drinking mares milk wine and eating ears (apparently) and duck tongue. You read the future of Western food here first...

rory chineese menu

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Sunny Side Up? An insight into Maggie Thatcher's diet..

New papers recently uploaded on the internet reveal Margaret Thatcher, Tory leader extraordinaire, was on a serious egg bender prior to her '79 general election victory. Apparently she was knocking back 28 eggs a week, and on Thursdays was eating the yellow eyes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On days when she ate meat Thatcher allowed herself a chaser of whisky.

Interestingly, referring to herself in the third person in a famous speech, Thatcher claimed 'the lady's not for turning'. Crucially this very statement could be the perfect explanation for her famed icy temperament. Dubbed the Iron Lady, wouldn't you be slightly cheesed of if you'd been having your omelets burnt on one side and runny on the other for weeks on end?