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Germany – Currywurst

Football:

It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly the German football team is performing prior to a World Cup, during a World Cup itself they have a phenomenal record of doing well. The German game is a very technical one, relying more on efficiency and clearly defined roles rather than the sexiness and unpredictability of Brasilian football. At times it can be a little on the dour side to watch, but more often than not when it is in full swing there is no better team to watch in terms of fast, precise and powerful football. Over the years there have been some amazing players that have worn the West German/ German shirt; Franz Beckenbauer the ultimate leader with the air of elegance; Gerd Müller one of the greatest goal scorers of all time; Karl Heinz-Rummenigge another potent striker with amazing athletic abilities (one of my favourite players of all time); Jürgen Klinsmann yet another prolific scorer who was prone to a touch of the old acrobatics; Lothar Matthäus the dynamic box-to-box midfielder who is the most capped player of all time for Germany; and for the modern touch Mesut Özil, Lukas Podolski and Germany’s most prolific scorer Miroslav Klose. In fact I believe that Klose is joint top with Ronaldo as the leading World Cup scorer of all time.

Germany now faces Brasil in the semi-final after a mixed bag of results, ranging from the 4-0 drubbing of Portugal to the skin-of-their-teeth nail biter against Algeria, an opponent they were expected to brush aside. I think if Germany sticks to its efficient and technical football the midfield can control the game. Brasil will be without the injured Neymar and for that I would put Germany as slight favourites on paper. However, Brasil will have the incredible crowd with it as it did against Colombia and sometimes that can, to coin a phrase, act as a twelfth man.

 

Dish:

I am sure you would agree that it would be sacrilege to talk about German cuisine and not mention the sausage.

On June 30, 2013 Google released one of its now famous doodles on its home screen in Germany. It was to celebrate the 100th birthday of Herta Heuwer, the recognised inventor of a German night-time delicacy, currywurst. There are always stories and counter-stories about by whom and how food was first created. I am going for the one about Heuwer, the enterprising housewife in post-war Germany in 1949 who one day, or night, managed to procure some Indian (English) curry powder, Ketchup and Worcestershire sauce from a group of British soldiers in return for some alcoholic beverages. Mixing these rare ingredients, as they were at the time, in a ratio that apparently she took to the grave with her, she produced a sauce that was then slathered all over some chopped grilled sausage. In an instant it became a hit at her modest stall in the outskirts of a ruinous Berlin. The concoction was loved by the local builders and labourers during the restoration of the city, so much so that Huewer was to open up a small restaurant as a result. This was the birth of currywurst.

Today it has morphed in to many different versions, some heavy with the original curry powder, others with the fiery heat of chilli and even those with influences from Thailand. I am sure you will really like the one I have cooked for the World Cup dish for Germany; the tomato sauce is more of a pasta type with some heat and plenty of curry powder. It is then dolloped on a really good pork sausage (chopped up of course) and served with homemade chips. Wash it down with a crisp German beer and Guten Appetit!

 

Serves: 4   |   Preparation: 15 minutes   |   Cooking Time: 40 minutes

 

Ingredients:

8 Juniper berries |
8 Black peppercorns |
1 Brown onion | Peeled and sliced.
1 Red onion | Peeled and sliced.
2 tbsp. Grapeseed oil |
1 tsp. Hot paprika |
2 tbsp. Curry powder |
2x400g tins Chopped tomatoes |
85g White sugar |
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce |
80ml Red wine vinegar |
Seasoning Sea salt and black pepper |

8 Good quality pork sausages |

 

How to: tie the juniper berries and black peppercorns in a small muslin pouch. Heat the grapeseed oil in a large deep frying pan and add the sliced brown and red onion and the juniper and black pepper pouch. Put the heat on low-medium and sweat the onion until is soft and translucent. Add the paprika and curry powder, stir and cook for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, sugar, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and seasoning and bring to the boil whilst stirring. Turn the heat to low and cook for 25 minutes until the sauce has thickened. Remove the juniper and pepper pouch and pour the sauce in to a food processor. Blend until smooth and then push the sauce through a fine sieve to remove any pulp, skin and seeds. Set the sauce aside.

Grill the pork sausages so they are cooked through and nicely browned. Cut in to 2cm pieces. Warm the curry tomato sauce before serving and pour it over the hot sausage pieces. Serve with chips or a hearty roll. If you are doing it German style then stagger around the house after a stein or two of fine beer and eat the currywurst from a small box with a toothpick.

Vietnamese Red Cabbage Salad

Introduction:

I recall being sat in the middle of steamy kitchen in a small town in Thailand; the two women speaking melodically in their native tongue. There was giggling, laughter and the percussion like sound of the wooden pestle pounding against the hardwood mortar. It was 7 in the morning and breakfast was being prepared.

I was here on a stopover prior to an adventure in the sub-continent, but it was here, in this kitchen, with these two ladies that my adventure began. I sat mesmerised at the high energy these ladies exerted whilst pounding the ingredients, especially in the humid heat. And yet they made it look easy, whilst smiling and maintaining a high octane conversation. Momentarily they would look up at me, look at each other, and then giggle before continuing the grind, as it were.

The next part is what I distinctly remember; moreover as it was something I had never seen before. One of the ladies showed me a large fruit item – which a few days after I learnt to be green papaya – and then began to fervently lacerate it with a large old looking chopping knife, more akin to a bone cleaver. Then she delicately shaved it and away peeled hundreds of finely formed ribbons. I noted this down in my mind’s journal, and years later I recall it as I am preparing a Vietnamese salad in the confines of a Melbourne kitchen; although this time with a carrot.

Given its close proximity to Vietnam there are many similarities in the flavour profile of the food from Thailand; the enchanting mix of the sweet, salt and sourness underpinned with garlic and chilli. And a great Vietnamese salad is very much about shredding and tearing, much like that which occurred those years ago in the steamy Thai kitchen.

Green papaya can be difficult to find and so I have substituted it for red cabbage which with carrot makes a visually stunning salad. I am very fortunate to be living very close to ‘Little Vietnam’ here in Melbourne so have great access to most of the herbs that I found and tasted when in Thailand and Vietnam. This salad has been carefully developed on and off over a few months, mainly to get a great balance of flavour; but there is everything right in you trying to find your perfect blend of herbs and flavours, using this as a base.

 

Serves: 2 to 4   |   Preparation: 30 minutes   |   Cooking: at least 30 minutes resting

 

Ingredients:

150g Red cabbage | finely shredded, known as chiffonade.
24 leaves Asian (Thai) basil |
24 leaves Vietnamese mint |
24 leaves Mint |
24 small sprigs Coriander | a small sprig is about 3 leaves.
24 leaves Perilla |
1 Carrot | peeled and shredded/ finely julienned.
1 serving Nuoc Cham | click here for recipe.

 

 

How To:

Prepare the nuoc cham at least half an hour before serving the salad in order for the ingredients to become intimately acquainted.

Place the Asian basil, Vietnamese mint, mint, coriander and perilla leaves in a bowl of iced water for about 5 minutes, to freshen and crisp. Remove the leaves from the water and roughly tear in to a large bowl. Add the shredded red cabbage and carrot. Mix with your hands.

A minute before serving add the nuoc cham to the salad and thoroughly, but carefully, mix with your hands so the herbs, cabbage and carrot are coated in the dressing. Leave the salad to marinade for one minute and then serve.

I find plating this salad using a hand has two benefits: firstly, most of excess liquid is drained and therefore there are no large ‘puddles’ on the plate; and secondly, it is easier to shape the salad on the plate.

 

Notes:

  • This is an incredibly versatile salad and goes particularly well with a medium rib-eye steak fillet, an extremely good quality pork sausage or even pan-fried snapper.

Chilli Caramel

Introduction:

As a prelude to a dish that I will post in the next few days I have recently shared recipes for nước chấm and Chinese master stock. The final of these basics is a salty chilli caramel which throws the taste buds into frenzy; saltiness from fish and soy sauces, intense caramel sweetness from refined sugar, and a spicy prod from a heat stick named chilli. Add to this the sticky texture and it makes a great saucy coating, for pork in particular.

The key element of getting the consistency and taste of this sauce spot on is the caramelisation of the sugar. Sugar is an incredible substance especially when it is heated. It transforms from a sweet odourless compound into something that is richly aromatic containing acidic and bitter notes. The bitterness develops more as the temperature of the sugar increases, to a point where it becomes acrid, burnt and inedible. It’s important therefore to catch the caramel at the precise point required.

Traditionally there are two ways to produce a caramel: the wet method which involves mixing sugar with water and then heating, and the dry method where the sugar is heated on its own. There a couple of advantages when using the wet method: firstly, as it takes longer to caramelise there tends to be a greater development of flavour, and secondly the presence of water means that you can cook the caramel on a higher heat (than for dry) from the onset without the risk of burning the sugar. The dry method requires more attention but it is a quicker method to caramelise sugar.

This recipe uses the wet method. For it we require a straw coloured caramel, the colour of which will start to appear at about 165 deg C (330 deg F). The precision of temperature is not vital here, unlike when doing sugar-work at lower temperatures. I therefore just use my old mince pies (eyes) to tell when it is done.

A word of note to folks that are inexperienced using heated sugar –  just go careful as the temperatures are far hotter than boiled water, and caramelised sugar will create a nasty burn or two if it comes in contact with your skin (I still have the scars). I read recently that Heston Blumenthal suggests that you visualise your cooking and techniques before performing them. In this way you can have everything ready in preparation. For example when the caramel hits the straw colour ensure that you have your other ingredients at hand, as it is amazing how quickly caramel can burn if you turn your back.

The fun really happens when you add the liquid (fish and soy sauces) to the caramel as it creates a boiling effervescence that rises sharply in the pan. For this reason when creating this sauce it is necessary to use a large enough pan so that the effervescence does not over-flow.

The addition of chilli, star anise, coriander seed and cinnamon give a great South-east Asian character to this sauce of which I am sure you will think is just irresistibility.

 

Serves: 4  as part of a meal   |   Preparation: 15 minutes   |   Cooking: 20-25 minutes

 

Ingredients:

160g White refined sugar |
160ml Cold water |
1 Bird’s eye chilli | Sliced.
3 pods Star anise |
⅓ stick Cinnamon |
1 tsp. Coriander seed |
70ml Fish sauce | Use real fish sauce i.e. not a synthetic one that contains ‘flavouring’.
60ml Light soy sauce | With light soy and fish sauce just the right balance of saltiness to sweetness can be achieved.

 

 

How To:

Add the sugar and water to a pan and put over a medium to high heat. Allow the sugar to dissolve without stirring. If any crystals of sugar develop around the pan then wash them with a pastry brush dipped in water. This will dissolve them. If these crystals are not dissolved they can cause the mixture to crystallise rendering the caramel gritty and unusable.

When the mixture starts to caramelise and has turned a straw colour add the sliced chilli, star anise, and coriander seeds. Next add the fish sauce and soy sauce. The liquid will boil and rise up the pan so go careful. Now start stirring, and reduce the heat to low.

Stir continuously for 5 minutes, during which any solid caramel will dissolve back into the sauce. The caramel sauce will also develop a deeper, richer flavour. Take the caramel off the heat and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. Now strain the caramel through a fine sieve and put aside until required.

To use the caramel later just warm it gently until it liquefies.

Indian Bus Ride – Agra to Jaipur

This is a true story and one of many from my travels in India over a decade ago. There is a loose food connection.

The word nightmare by definition is a stressful, anxious or other emotionally painful dream during sleep. Change the night for day and the dream for reality and the definition would have been apt for my first real test as a traveller in India.

I was in Agra, a city 4½ hours by bus south of Delhi and more famously known as the home of the wondrous Taj Mahal and the magnificent Red Fort.

 

Red Fort at Agra

Red Fort at Agra

 

I had spent the last two days there, sightseeing amongst the infinite number of tourists that there seemed to be. Agra, apart from the obvious, had little to offer other than dark, dank hotels, poison laced food (as was reported in the Lonely planet – more perception than fact) and a real knack for squeezing that ever dwindling rupee from one’s back pocket. Based on this, I was ready to head for brighter horizons.

“So, if I arrive at this place tomorrow morning I will catch the bus to Jaipur?”

“Oh yes sir!” was the agent’s reply.

“And how long does the bus take to reach Jaipur?”

“Only five hours sir” was the confident yet decidedly unconvincing reply.

The agent also doubled up as a gem retailer, and I was therefore unsure of where his area of expertise lay – in bus timetables or precious stones? The bus, I was told, departed from the other end of town on Fatehpur Sikri Road. Having only ever spent two days of my whole life in Agra I was in no position to argue the toss. So, with this in mind and an indecipherable ticket in hand I headed back to my hotel in order to pack for the next day’s exciting journey. To Rajahstan, to Jaipur, to the Indian desert…to a calamitous day!

The day had started well; I was up at seven, had taken a cold yet refreshing shower (not by choice), and put on my other set of clean clothes. They were clean in so much that the fume particles from Calcutta’s environmentally friendly oil and diesel works (also known as transport) had left their mark on my Woodland pants and the ‘genuine’ 60 rupee Calvin Hilfiger T-shirt I had bought there. The morning was cool and crisp as I consumed a hearty breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and coffee on the outside porch of the ‘hotel’ I was staying in. My aim was to be at the bus stop by 8.30am. So, at eight o’clock I decided to head out towards the main road to catch an auto-rickshaw. My approximation was that an auto would take about twenty minutes to reach the bus stop. Now, my experience of India to this point was of a continuous flux of auto-rickshaws with drivers desperately vying for your business. Bearing this in mind, then why, when I really needed one, when I would have paid double the reasonable rate for one were there absolutely none in sight – Sod’s Law? I was beginning to think that when, like a shining light from the abyss of darkness I saw one on the road’s horizon and it was coming my way. Five minutes later it was still heading my way, and as the silhouette became more focused a black mop of greased curly hair came into view, then a David Soul type patterned brown shirt, jeans that were more hole than denim and then…a bicycle – No! Not a bicycle rickshaw!

Immediately I knew that this would probably mean a forty-minute hike to the bus stop. By now it was ten past eight and I was beginning to feel decidedly uneasy about the whole situation. I was in a dilemma as to whether to take the cycle rickshaw or chance it that an auto would come by. Given the immense velocity at which the cyclist had reached me from the horizon, waiting for an auto was starting to look the favourite.

“Lubbly jubbly mista, where you go?”

“Ermm, yes, umm to Fatehpur Sikri Road”

“Ohh to catch bus! Ohh lubbly jubbly – I take you mista, 30 rupees”

“How long will it take?” I said, expecting the answer to depict his cycle as one that could travel supersonic.

“15 minutes, lubbly jubbly” was the reply. I was right.

“15 rupees if you put your foot on it”

“Lubbly jubbly, 20 rupees”.

 

Attribution: Marcin Białek - Cycle Rickshaw in India

Attribution: Marcin Białek – Cycle Rickshaw in India

 

The price was eventually settled at fifteen rupees with the condition that we made it before nine o’clock – a.m. that was. As you probably would be aware at this point I was none too confident of catching the bus to Jaipur. In response to this I had started to make alternative plans in my mind for such an eventuality when something hit me. I was immediately distracted from the panic laden thoughts as to whether we would make our destination in time, and hence the possibility of spending another night in Agra. What hit me was how on this Earth did the Indian cyclist, from the midst of nowhere, know the term ‘lubbly jubbly’? For those unaware, there was a BBC comedy series that ran for fifteen years or so based upon two cockney ‘independent traders’ i.e. no box, no receipt. Del Boy the main character would say “lovely jubbly” in a fit of exhilaration if a deal had been successful, or similarly if he was faced with a large English fry-up.

“What is your good country sir?”

“England” I hesitantly replied.

“Ohh, England lubbly jubbly – are you married dear sir?”

“No”

“Ohh no wife, big life, lubbly jubbly – you like cricket?”

“Yes, do you?”

“Ohh cricket lubbly jubbly, Tendulkar lubbly jubbly, Dravid lubbly jubbly…”

I interjected.

“Excuse me, why do you keep saying lovely jubbly?”

“Ohh England lubbly jubbly, Only Fool and Horse lubbly jubbly”

We arrived at 8.50am, lubbly jubbly.

I entered the travel agent’s small office. Inside was an old rickety wooden chair and matching desk, another dubious looking chair adorned in flaked red paint, a heavy grinding fan obviously from the colonial days, and a few randomly scattered papers. It was 8.50am and by the process of elimination and the ingenuity of maths I had calculated a ten-minute wait until the bus arrived. Maybe other travellers would turn up soon I thought.

“Can I help you dear sir?” said the agent from behind his desk. He was a slight man dressed in a faded blue striped cotton shirt and longhi. I showed him my ticket.

“Yes, I’m here to catch the nine o’clock bus to Jaipur – shall I wait here?”

“Ohh dear sir, I’m telling you that the bus leaves at 8-30 but I can get you on another for eleven”.

Now, in situations like this it is very easy to lose ones self-control, especially when you have followed to the letter of the law another person’s instructions and you have consequently been tricked or misinformed. However, in this situation the wrong man would have been accused and whatsmore I was quickly learning that chaos was the Indian way. Start to worry if things look as if they are going right because somewhere something is wrong. I showed the agent my ticket and with a sideways nod and expressionless smile he asked me to take a seat – the red flaky one – and he disappeared outside.

It was now five past nine and apparent that no bus was going to turn up. The sun was beginning to rise in the sky and the day was turning hot and sticky. A cockroach scurried from beneath my chair and diminished into a crevice of the cracked plaster wall. As I sat in daydream I was called in a frantic manner.

“Dear sir, dear sir please come with me!”

He had hailed an auto-rickshaw and advised me that a bus to Jaipur was leaving at ten thirty from another part of town. Hesitantly, I followed him wondering at the back of my mind: where am I going? How much extra am I going to be stung for? And will I ever leave Agra? I only had four months left on my visa! We arrived at yet another agent, but this time there were a number of people seemingly waiting for a bus. A positive sign I thought. A burly man, in stark contrast to the agent I was with, approached us and there followed some Hindi dialogue. The agent showed him my ticket and I was then directed to sit on a concrete ledge and wait for the ten thirty bus to Jaipur. OK, an hour to wait and finally I would head for Jaipur. I could handle that I thought. I asked the agent how much the driver of the auto wanted. Inside I was kicking myself because in my confusion I had forgotten rule number one – always barter and set the price before travelling. I was expecting to be squeezed dry, but surprisingly the agent side nodded, gave a warming smile and then left in the auto. Always be prepared to be surprised.

By now I was in some discomfort from the heat. With me I had my backpack and a smaller rucksack. I did not want to lose my place on the concrete ledge neither did I want to leave my possessions unattended. However, I was at the point of forfeiting one of the two so that I could go and purchase a cold glass bottle of Coke or Sprite. My throat was like a rasp. And then, suddenly, amidst a deluge of black diesel fumes a bus emerged. I looked at my watch and to my surprise it was only ten o’clock. The bus was early! I eagerly picked up my belongings and pushed my way to the luggage hold at the side of the bus. The eagerness was firstly in expectation of leaving Agra, and secondly to avoid the dreaded back seat. Unlike the school days I remember where it was ‘cool’ to be the first to the back seat on a school trip, India turns you full circle so much so that the back seat must be avoided at all costs. This time, unfortunately, there was not even to be a back seat.

“No sir, no sir, no Jaipur, sit down!” screamed the burly Indian as he ran from within the agents office.

The queue of vociferous Indians immediately muted and they all turned and watched me desolately and embarrassingly walk back to the concrete ledge before they all boarded the bus.  So, the bus was not going to Jaipur, and was therefore certainly not early. As I reclaimed my place on the concrete ledge very disheartened I realised that I was alone. All those that had been waiting had gone. A dark cloud of panic once again enveloped me. Maybe there was no bus to Jaipur; maybe there was no Jaipur. How would I contact my family to let them know that I was to be stuck in Agra indefinitely? For months, years, forever. Help!

“Good morning I am Sajid what is your dear name sir?”

Sat next to me was a young Indian man, no more than 18 years of age. He had a dark complexion, a wave of thick black hair and was dressed in leather sandals, faded jeans and a loose cotton shirt.

“Hi, yes, umm I’m Nick”. There was a slight pause “Are you here to catch the bus?” I continued.

He gave a side nod and smiled. I was not yet expert enough to understand whether this meant ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It was an infuriating part of the Indian culture, but that was more down to my lack of education then a problem of India’s.

“Yes, my family and I are to travel to Jaipur on the bus that is next”.

Internally my panic transformed into relief and then adulation. It was as if I had been imprisoned and against all the odds had made parole for good behaviour. Eventually Agra was to be just a distant memory.

“Me too!” I replied. The beaming smile on my face must have been apparent to all.

“My family are buying Coca-Cola, would you like a Coca-Cola?”

The adulation was complete. Not only was Jaipur becoming a reality but that deep throated yearning for a cold Coke was to end. Sajid handed to me a cold bottle of Coke and as I took a ten-rupee note from my pocket he gave a side nod and a huge smile. This time I knew that he was indicating ‘no’.

I was introduced to Sajid’s family and was to learn that their dark complexions were native to the Southern regions of India and in particular Kerala. Sajid was the elder of three siblings, the other two being brother and sister. Sajid’s father had brought the family, including aunts and uncles, on a tour of Delhi, Agra, Rajahstan and Gujarat before finally heading back to Kerala. These were the first people I had ever met from the south of India and it amazed me as to how different they were in their looks, mannerisms and attitude to life. Having survived the intense chaos of Northern India’s Delhi and Calcutta, here I was witnessing the calming presence of a family that would have made even the most laid back of people look as if they were on the pulse. My travelling itinerary would now include Kerala.

The bus arrived. It was 11-30 and an hour late. I hadn’t noticed.

The interior of the bus was shabby. What would have once been a white imitation leather trim was now greyish in appearance. The front half of the bus was full, mainly of smartly presented Indian travellers. The men were in black or brown scuffed leather shoes or thongs, wearing matching pants and the now famous cotton shirts. The women on the other hand were adorned in an array of brightly coloured saris accompanied by eye catching gold and silver accessories. The jewellery that they wore was painted with a kaleidoscope of intricately cut gemstones. The ambience on the bus was jovial, made more so as the festival of light, Diwali, had reached a crescendo the previous night. Sajid led me to the rear of the bus. It was the second to last seat, the seat that I did not want to endure for a five-hour journey. Reluctantly I took my place by the window, not wanting to rescind the kindness that had already been shown to me. Fortunately the window could be opened and, therefore, I would be able to dry the sweat on my brow with the ensuing breeze once the journey was underway. At eleven forty five the bus departed and we were on our way to Jaipur!

Agra itself has in recent years had to re-invent itself, especially when all power was lost to Delhi. It has funnelled a proportion of the income from tourists into a smoggy industrial development. Covering an area of approximately 25 square kilometres it is much smaller in size than say Delhi or Calcutta. However, when I was told that it was only “five hours sir” to Jaipur I was beginning to wonder whether the two hours it took to get out of this harsh and tightly knit city was included or not. Even the softly spoken words of Sajid could not distract me from the frustration of still being in Agra. The acrid diesel fumes and sweltering heat was beginning to take its toll on my now fragile body. My only comfort was a bottle of tepid water and the fact that the bus was not full to the rafters. At least there were no goats or chickens on there, yet. I continued to converse with Sajid. He was curious to know in an excited way how many rupees equivalent I was earning in England before I left to travel. This was something I felt uncomfortable in sharing. Firstly, it was all relative. And secondly, it would have been far greater than any of these poor people could have earned in India. I did work it out in the quiet of my mind and estimated that after tax I would have earned 1.4million rupees in a year. Sajid told me that he earned 350 rupees per month. Even though I was prepared for an answer like that it still hit me hard. However, in the same instance it seemed wholly irrelevant. Why? Because although I was struggling with the current situation of the bus journey I had started to feel free inside. My travels through India and Nepal had somehow tossed aside the daily concerns of money and possessions and I was now aware that living each day to the full was paramount.

I could sense that we were now reaching the outskirts of Agra and ready to make some serious inroads into the highway to Jaipur. Again, the bus stopped, surely for the last time in Agra? Before this stop there were two empty seats on the opposite side of the aisle to Sajid and me, and the whole length of the back seat. Sajid’s family was located in the midst of the bus. A young couple hopped aboard, dressed in similar attire to the majority of the travellers on the bus. Obviously from a mid-caste, if such a phrase exists. Following the couple were a family that looked as if they were from the lower echelons of Indian society. The couple seated themselves, as expected, in the two empty seats and the family to the back. Sajid was still chatting away, but my attention had now focused on the family on the back seat.

There were four men, one of which looked to be a grandfather or older uncle, accompanied by two women in tatty looking saris and also two children. One of the children was approximately six years old, a boy. He wore a long white tunic and thongs but what really struck me though were the thick black charcoal highlights around his eyes. During Diwali prayers are said to the image Devi, the mother goddess. From the images that I had previously seen it was apparent that the boy had been celebrating Devi’s fanatic popularity as part of the previous night’s celebration. It is said that Devi adopts two forms; Durga her benevolent form and Kali, the one to be dreaded. I was overcome with uneasiness as to how sinister this probably innocent little boy looked. I could see why Indian people succumb to such fear and awe regarding these powerful images. In contrast the younger child, who I assumed to be the boys little sister, was a very cute looking little Indian girl.

 

Ok, not quite as bad as this!

Attribution: Biswarup Ganguly – Ok, not quite as bad as this!

 

I could feel that the bus was gathering speed and this meant one thing; we were eventually heading for Jaipur. At last the breeze began to fill the bus, the tepid water was beginning to taste sweet, and the industrial Indian architecture was being replaced with greenery and wooden shacks. India, again, was a wonderful place to travel in. I reclined my seat slightly, closed my eyes and started to dream of horizons new. I took in a deep breath of air. And then, like a bullet in the chest it hit me. My nostrils started to flare and contort. A pang of nausea overcame me. The rancid and putrid odours shook the depth of my being. The nightmares that I had previously had about the back seat and Indian buses had suddenly emerged as reality – somebody was throwing up. And it was Devi’s little follower!

I turned to Sajid and already he was covering his nose and mouth with a shabby looking handkerchief. I turned backwards to peer through the gap between the back of our seats. I could see the little boy retching into his father’s handkerchief. He had already been de-robed down to a pair of white underpants. My whole body began to convulse so I quickly faced forwards and then, with the risk of being hit by oncoming traffic, I stuck my head out of the window. A minute’s respite. Or so I thought. As I looked backward one of the women had her head out of the window and was regurgitating breakfast. I pulled my head back in and noticed that at the opposite end of the back seat the other woman was throwing up…and then the little girl was. It was almost orchestrated. I covered my face with the front neck rim of my T-shirt as my nose hunted for the scent of the deodorant that I was wearing. Although this by now was unpleasant in its own right it seemed as refreshing as fields of lavender in comparison. Through all this commotion the four men on the back seat remained calm, chatty and were still smiling, almost oblivious to what was happening. The extent of their worries was a mop here and a wipe there. In contrast, I thought that I was going to die. Once more I turned to Sajid. He had removed his handkerchief and was laid back in his seat, eyes closed, gently sleeping. I had no escape.

Ten minutes or so later, the vomiting stopped and those fetid odours began to dissipate. I convinced myself to relax. Slowly, I began to return to the contented soul that I had been. Twenty minutes later the retching once again started and this was promptly followed by the sweet smelling hedonics. This time it was just the little boy and the same sequence of events would happen until the bus stopped four and a half hours after leaving the agent’s office in Agra. Completely exhausted by the day so far I asked the driver as we alighted from the bus how far we had to go before reaching Jaipur. In broken English he replied. In broken English he broke my heart “We half way sir!”

I was in the middle of nowhere bar a few shacks and wandering cows, and of course people. There are people wherever you go in India. The short of it was I had to continue with the journey. The bus had stopped outside what would be India’s equivalent of a roadside café. It consisted of a large suspended tarpaulin under which were a series of flimsy looking wooden tables supporting metal trays of food, metal utensils and jugs of water. Behind each table stood two or three servers each dressed in the hygienic and customary uniform of vest, shorts and thongs. Sajid and his family had seated themselves at a long table with attached benches. I was invited to join them. Sajid’s father welcomed me with an open gesture, and even though not hungry I thought that out of courtesy I would join them. As a traveller in India you have to be very careful as to where and what you eat. As a consequence I had avoided any outside eateries in favour of classier looking restaurants. In Calcutta I had seen what a sick backpacker looked like and believe me it was not a pretty sight. Couple this with my already fragile stomach and disposition I was in no mood to be eating. Imagine then, to my horror, when put before me was a metal plate piled high with rice, dhal (lentil soup), watery curry, pickles and greasy roti bread. What made it worse was that the whole family had stopped talking, had turned towards me and was staring at me with expectant smiles. It felt as if the whole world had stopped. I had visions of a king waiting for the taster to give the approval that the food was worthy of consumption. In reality this was genuine Indian kindness and friendship. I had to brace myself and take a mouthful. If I were to die from parasitic ridden food then at least it would have been in respect to those that had shown me endearing kindness. I clenched the muscles in my stomach. With my right hand I scooped a ball of cold rice, dipped it into the dhal and curry and moved it towards my mouth. Their eyes were now even more transfixed. I could feel my throat congealing. I opened my mouth and with a push of the thumb the rice mixture left my fingertips and landed on my tongue. I chewed and then swallowed. With a nervous smile I waited for the food to be thrown back on to the table. Instead, my body craved for more. In fact, I even thought that it tasted good. I repeated the process and realised that this food was great. My energy levels started to increase and my stomach was saying thank you, thank you, thank you. I hadn’t even noticed that Sajid’s family’s eyes were no longer on me. They had side nodded in approval and continued on with their meal. Even the retching that was still emanating from the bus could not dissuade me from finishing my meal. Another one of those surprises. Afterwards I pulled a few rupees from my pocket and Sajid’s father looked at me and said “No! We are your friends!”

The bus eventually arrived in Jaipur at 7-30pm, eight hours after departing from Agra. The three and a half hours after the meal stop seemed to fly past. The poor little boy did not stop retching for the whole journey and in the end I was feeling sympathetic rather than thinking of my own needs. India does that to you. At one point during the journey I listened to my personal CD player, which eventually ended up being listened to by the sick boy’s father. As he listened he seemed mesmerised by the dance music and wore a smile that would have extended from Mumbai to Chennai. At the journey’s end I said farewell to Sajid and his family. I felt as if I had known them for many years and felt quite emotional as we went our separate ways. They will probably never know the comfort that they brought to me that day. Sajid’s final words were:

“Hopefully we see you in Kerala my friend”

“Lubbly jubbly” I replied.

Vietnam – The best Pho in Hanoi is…

…a very difficult one to call. Before I give the final answer, a subjective one of course, it’s important to define what actually makes a good pho (in case you haven’t read my other Vietnam posts, pho is the general name for the thick rice noodles served in broth). Here is my take on it:

1)      For me the whole dish hinges on the broth. And I found that a Hanoi pho has a distinct broth which is sweet (not by sugar) and homely, and does not contain additives like chilli sauce, vinegar or garlic. I hear that connoisseurs of pho like to lightly stir their noodles in the broth and then take a mouthful of the sweet broth. Straight away you know if it is good or not.

2)      The next thing is the quality of the meat. We came across two main types of pho: pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken).

Pho Bo: here brisket is usually used, which is from the front underside of the cow. I came across three variants of pho bo. The first was pho bo chin, which uses a beef that has been boiled, hung up to dry and is then sliced. The second was pho bo tai, where the fat and tendons are removed from the beef. The beef is cut into small pieces, put in a ladle and the ladle is half submerged in the vat of broth. The meat is pulled out when semi-cooked.  The third variant I saw was pho tai nam. This one is similar to pho bo tai except that cooked meat is served with raw meat. In all instances the beef is placed on the noodles in a serving dish and then broth is poured over.

 

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

 

Pho Ga: I only saw one variant of pho ga. In Hanoi only the chicken breast is served in this noodle soup, so to get a good mark, mentally in my head anyway, the breast had to be nice and tender and full of flavour.

 

Pho Ga - Chicken Noodle Soup

Pho Ga – Chicken Noodle Soup

 

3)      The noodles are another important part. They should be nice and slippery with no ‘sliminess’. To be honest all the noodles I tried in Hanoi were near damn perfect.

4)      Additions. This is really about what was served with the pho. Usually the pho is served with spring onions and garlic chives. Also, an additional bowl would be served containing anything from the following; perilla leaves, Asian mint, coriander, Vietnamese mint, crisp lettuce, miniature limes and fiery chilli. I can’t remember any pho being served with bean shoots although when I eat pho in Little Vietnam in Melbourne there are always bean shoots. I actually think the pho is better without them.

I worked out that we have eaten pho at nearly every type of establishment, and have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Apart from one which was average (it was an international chain of Pho restaurants), all of them have been unique and ‘insanely great’ (stole that one from Mr Jobs, RIP).

We had the honour of eating pho ga on Christmas night with the owners of the apartment and all the other tenants. This was a wonderful experience with in an international group of people socialising, laughing and telling stories whilst lapping up beautiful noodle soup, spring rolls, sticky rice and punchy and herbaceous salads.

We had memorable pho bo and pho ga on the edge of the mountains in Sapa – it was cold there, so the hot noodle broth for breakfast instilled a warmth that would carry you through to lunch.

We have eaten pho at little places we have discovered in Hanoi; usually tiny holes in a wall kitted out with miniature plastic stools and tables, and serving the most incredible pho.

But the winner of the best pho, and the place that completes number 10 in the top ten of must eat street food experiences, goes to a place that is renowned for its pho in Hanoi, and the one that I saved till last to eat in. Located in the middle of the Old Quarters this pho joint is mentioned in a couple of publications that we have in Vietnam with us; Luke Nguyen’s book ‘Songs of Sapa’ and Lonely Planet Vietnam.

I awoke at 6.30 in the morning and took the 25 minute walk from our apartment to Pho Gia Truyen, the name of the pho stall. I was greeted by a queue of locals that were being served by a Vietnamese lady with an intimidating looking meat knife. She was delicately cutting slices from the big piece of brisket.

 

Number 10 -  Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

Number 10 – Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

 

As my turn arrived to be served she barely lifted her head, but I could see her eyeballs stretching to look at me. She gave me the look of ‘are you going to order or what?’

Nervously, I said “pho bo, cam on”. She raised her head, gave a little smile and pointed to the menu. There were three things all of which I had never heard of so I plumped for pho tai nam (see above). I sat down at a small table where my knees covered my ears. Everyone let out a big gesticulation of laughter and they pointed to a bigger table. Smiling, I moved and was then served the most sweet, beefy and heart-warming broth that I had eaten in Hanoi.

 

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

 

The meat was incredibly tender, the noodles were unctuous and the herbs, although few, harmonised with the whole dish. My best pho in Hanoi.

Vietnam – An Interlude

In about 30 minutes time we are heading out to the train station in Hanoi to take an overnight train to the hill town of Sapa. Luke Nguyen, a well know Vietnamese-Australian chef, wrote a book called ‘Songs from Sapa’ where he travels through Vietnam, picking up local recipes and food experiences around Vietnam. He starts his journey in Sapa, and has an amazing culinary experience here – which is what we are hoping to do. So there’ll be a big update on here once we return to Hanoi. In the meantime I have to share with you that my daughter and I took a long and tiring walk through Hanoi city in search of a glimpse of the Red River.

 

The Red River Running Alongside Hanoi

The Red River Running Alongside Hanoi

 

Having reached it, we can say it was an experience if not the second coming, as it were. A young Vietnamese man ventured out into the overgrowth by the river to cut down what looked like pampas grass. This was a romantic gesture to his girlfriend who was waiting patiently. However, when he returned and saw my five year old daughter he decided to share his hard-worked for prize, much to the amusement of his girlfriend. On the way back to the middle of the city we found four women sat by the road making banana fritters. Sometimes you just walk by and smile, which we did. But fortunately I decided to go back and purchase one.

All I can say is that it was absolutely delightful. Sometimes we must just step out, see and try new things or else fantastic experiences can pass us by. Now for Sapa.

Vietnam – 10 Must Eat Street Food Experiences

As I walk around Hanoi there is always somebody cooking or eating; breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper and more often than not in between. Within every 10 or 15 metres there is some degree of socialising around food; whether co-workers, friends, family or strangers, food induces a camaraderie I have not seen in Australia or England.

 

Ladies Cooking Bun Cha on a Hanoi Street Corner

Ladies Cooking Bun Cha on a Hanoi Street Corner

 

Even on a satisfyingly full belly I walk through a balloon of smoke that has wafted in to my path and the appetite-inducing aroma that I now know as bún chả – char-grilled pork patties – draws me closer. It’s just one of the incredible street food experiences in Hanoi.

Finding specific street food stalls can be quite tricky though as, in particular the Old Quarter, Hanoi is a rabbit warren of roads, little alleyways and hidden away eateries that sometimes look so basic that you can walk straight past them without knowing. Having 4 weeks here gives us plenty of time to discover. However, having walked up and down the same stretch of road trying to find a particular stall I have gone back to our old friend the Lonely Planet, in which there is listed the top 10 street food experiences, each one a different take on the Hanoi food experience. What I will do is list the places as we try them out, and try to convey how brilliant and tasty they were through the vehicle of this blog – which to be honest is going to be a near impossible task. Of course, our time here is also about discovery, so interspersed in the 10 will probably be 10s more places that have, like sirens, drawn us to their charm.

 

Number 1 - Xoi Yen

Number 1 – Xoi Yen

 

The first of the listed ten we tried was in the Old Quarter called Xoi Yen. The four of us weaved and wended our way up some tight spiral steps to the second floor, in which we were plonked down in a busy open room looking out over the street, on chairs that were barely big enough for our five year old daughter. We spent 5 minutes trying to decipher the menu in Vietnamese, and when a chirpy waitress came to serve, we attempted with our best charades to try and convey what we wanted, using our neighbours’ meals as reference and the very little Vietnamese we knew. It was after 5 minutes the waitress politely smiled, and then gave us a menu in English. The speciality here is sticky rice (glutinous rice as it is also known as) which is topped with maize that has a mashed potato like consistency.

 

Chinese Sausage on Sticky Rice

Chinese Sausage on Sticky Rice

 

On top of this we had finely sliced sweet Chinese sausage and a real Hanoi classic, thinly sliced chả lụa – a pork terrine that is incredibly smooth and I think slightly salted with fish sauce. We left with enormous smiles on our faces – it really felt like we had participated and consumed a real part of Northern Vietnam.

The second one we tried was today, a stone throw away from an incredibly Gothic looking and almost intimidating cathedral, St Jospeh’s.

 

St Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi

St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi

 

Around the corner, nestled under a banyan tree was Banh Goi, an eatery very typical of Hanoi. The speciality here was deep-fried food and we had two varieties; a fried sweet cake, bánh rán ngọt, and sea crab spring rolls, nem cua bể.

 

Number 2 - Banh Goi

Number 2 – Banh Goi

 

The sweet cakes were a real treat, probably Hanoi’s equivalent to doughnuts, but containing a sweet paste and rolled in sesame seeds. After some research, which is quite amusing when the researcher is using one language and the source of the research is using another, I found that the paste is made from chickpea, possibly mung bean, coconut and sugar. I could be wrong though.

The sea crab spring rolls were the best spring rolls we have had in Hanoi, and we have had a few believe me. The delicate crispiness of the rice paper skin with the unctuous crab, vermicelli and vegetable filling, all deep fried to add calories and flavour, was the food highlight of the day.

 

 

Can’t wait to do the next eight. Final Eight can now be seen here.