On feet: Biting into local flavours

Incredible Edibles

On feet: Biting into local flavours

Our Singaporean guide had led us to what, according to him, was a Chinese Herbal Restaurant. We have realised that much of the joy of travel lies in tasting local foods. And the anticipation of savouring herbal foods from China’s fabulous range of cuisines really whetted our travel writers’ appetites.

The first shade of a shadow of doubt came when we stepped into the restaurant. Behind a long counter stood a beaming man in a white coat, looking every inch a pharmacist. To add to this daunting impression there were rows upon rows of little drawers rising behind him and on the counter in front of him were little plates holding portions of what looked like a witch doctor’s pharmacopoeia. There were shriveled things, and curled things, and tiny dried things like peppercorns but smaller and definitely not of vegetable origin, and things that looked as if they had been freeze-dried in mid-wriggle, and things that had a striking resemblance to tiny scorpions carefully desiccated.

Our guide said, urgently, “There’s a table free. Quick! Lets grab it! This is a very popular restaurant!” So we hurried away from our analytical scrutiny and sat down.

“Is this a herbal restaurant?” we asked. “Ah, yes: herbal. That is Chinese herbal. Meaning traditional wellness food. Not exactly herbal-herbal. Are you vegetarian? No? Good. You are not wearing hats. So. For protection against the sun I shall order a special dish. Excellent!”

He spoke rapidly in Mandarin or was it Cantonese to the waiter. In a jiffy two plates of fried bread with black somethings appeared before us. We asked no questions, then. We crunched our way through the dish. It was savoury with a slightly sharp after-taste.
That evening, when we had digested our therapeutic meal, we questioned our guide.
“Oh!” he said blithely. “They were specially farm-bred, hand-reared, stir-fried, baby scorpions!” We did feel a little dizzy, but it wasn’t because of walking hatless in the Singaporean sun.  

Tapas-bar hopping

Our Spanish experience was as interesting though much less alarming. Our friend-philosopher-and-guide, hereinafter generically referred to as FPG, was a pretty American woman who had settled in Madrid. She was to take us on a tapas-bar hopping evening. A tapas is a short-eat/small-eat/canapé, call it what you will, that was the result of a royal decree made by a wise old Spanish king. In order to protect his subjects from the after-effects of drinking on an empty stomach, he had ordered that drinks would never be served without accompanying snacks. And so the tapas mystique grew as the gregarious Spanish flocked to bars, and the tavern owners began to specialise in creating their own varieties of tapas.

The first bar, however, was a little off-putting. It was a pork-butcher’s shop. Legs of ham hung from hooks above an immaculate counter. Every leg had a black trotter dangling from it: The colour is very important. Customers walked in, walked out with their orders. We settled ourselves at a small table in the next room. Soon glasses of red wine and slices of delectable ham appeared. FPG said, “This is the best Spanish ham from black pigs fed on acorns.” We have Himalayan oak back home and they have acorns. We also have black pigs but they’re free ranging and everyone prefers the white farm pigs. Are we spurning our natural resources? 

We left the butcher-bar Jamon 10 and walked down the crowded, pedestrians-only, festive road. The Spanish are an expressive, garrulous people who love socialising and chatting in an almost-Bengali manner.

They were socialising and chatting in Gonzales. This was a restaurant where everyone seemed to be making his or her point without listening to what anyone else was saying. Perhaps the platters of Spanish cheese tapas fuelled their endless energy.

Spain has a vast range of superb cheeses: goats’, cows’ and sheep’s cheeses and all the variations in between. An American at a far table boomed, “This is hi-octane stuff. Do you think it fuelled Speedy Gonzales? Haw! Haw! Haw!” The Spanish were too busy with their own observations to react. We moved on.

Cheesy things

If the noise level had been high in Gonzales, it was deafening in La Venencia. It was a long room with a long bar running down one side and customers stacked four-deep in front of it. The racks behind glittered with carefully undisturbed bottles of Jerez Sherry. Whenever a customer placed an order, the bar-tenders scribbled it on chalk on the counter, wiped out their scribbles when the orders had been paid for. How they knew who had placed what order remains a mystery to us. Here the tapas was tuna and sheep’s cheese both of which accompanied the sherry perfectly.

When we left, our FPG enquired if we wanted dinner? Dinner? Ham, cheese, tuna, more cheese and many glasses of wine: that had been dinner. Don’t be surprised if you see tapas bars springing up all over India, soon: We have both the wines and the snacks to make them boom. And who wants boring sit-down dinners, anyway?

The good folk of China haven’t discovered tapas as yet but they, too, have a few surprises up their culinary sleeves. We’ll be very very brief on this one.

The most beautiful river-cruise we have ever had has been down the Li Valley in China’s Guangxi Province. This is in karst country where the limestone terrain has been eroded by water into fantastically beautiful shapes. Everywhere our camera pointed it captured a delicate Chinese painting. In fact, the cover of our latest travel book, Looking Beyond, is a picture taken in the Li Valley. We were so enchanted with the sun-deck’s unfolding view that we were reluctant to go down to the glassed-in restaurant. But it was getting cold on top.

We had settled ourselves at a table when our FPG approached. “Would you care for a drink?” he offered. We were a little thirsty. “What have you got,” we asked.
He summoned a waiter carrying a large glass bottle and some glasses. “This is…” and he said something that we couldn’t understand. The waiter came closer. We peered carefully. The bottle was full of liquid but there was something long and sinuous floating inside. “What is it?” we asked warily. After the herbal experience our digestions were sensitive!

“It is very fortifying,” FPG assured us. “It is made by specialists who have learnt the art from their ancestors. Snake wine. That is a snake inside. It is, of course, dead…” No, we have not, as yet, drunk real, authentic, matured-in-the-bottle, single-serpent, Snake juice!

There is absolutely no chance of getting snake juice in Switzerland. If they do have snakes, which we doubt, they wouldn’t want to pop them into their superb wines! But they do have other unusual ways of creating their delicacies.

We were walking down the sunlit promenade of Lugarno where we heard a strange sound: Zrug!-zrug!-zrug! It seemed to be emerging from a restaurant. We stepped into the Osteria Nostrana. The bar extended halfway down one side of the restaurant ending in an enormous, wood-fired oven. A chef was cradling a copper pot in his arm and stirring its contents vigorously. With every turn of his spoon the mixture of eggs, white wine, Vermouth and sugar went zrug!-zrug-zrug! creating the melt-in-your-mouth Zabaioni.
And all the while his colleague, the pizza chef, spun pizza cases in the air like roomali rotis and, out of the oven, pulled Calzone, pizzas shaped like enormous samosas, and Crudalola, like the pizzas we know. If you’re on a diet don’t make the mistake of going to Lugarno. And the irresistible Osteria Nostrana.

Sometimes, however, temptation gets the better of discretion. But we must admit that, gastronomically, one of us is easily tempted, the other is discreet.

In Frankfurt, one year, the indiscreet one was tempted to join the long tables of workmen quaffing new cider in a town square. Succumbing easily, the indiscreet partner sat along with the burly hard-hatted customers and ordered what they were eating. It was a helping of pinkish mince, in a ring of onions, topped by a rather runny friend egg. The pink mince was called a steak. And there was bread and a large tankard of new cider. Steaks are favoured fare, even rare steaks. But when the knife and fork intruded into this steak, its true nature was revealed. It was not just rare, it was raw. Uncooked. Gory from the butchery.

In the normal course this would have called for a hasty retreat. But this was not the normal course. Munching hard-hats sat around, relishing their steaks. The izzat of India was at stake on this steak. So, with many mouthfuls of beer and bread and onion, the meal was swallowed. The moral of this story: If you don’t have a cast-iron stomach, don’t try incredible edibles. Not unless you’re a travel writer, of course.

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