Eating up Vietnam #1: Saigon

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There was a phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse with open sides and wobbly tables on the pavement outside. I sat at one and ordered phở tái, which the menu translated as “beef soup noodle with half-done beef,” and a Bia Saigon and watched the street vendors pushing carts and carrying yokes and the xe-om* riders hustling for business and a guy slowly pedalling around the block and shaking a rattle which sounded like a maraca. It puzzled me what he was trying to sell and I stopped him, later, and asked. “Lady massage,” he said, “you want?”

The beer came first, then a big plate of herbs, another of bean sprouts and a third with sliced chillies and quartered limes; then a tray of condiments: hoi sin and chilli sauces in squeezy bottles, dark soy sauce in a jug and thick chilli paste in a ramekin. Then came the phở: a great steaming bowl of broth extracted from beef bones, ox tail, flank steak, charred onions and ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, poured over flat rice noodles and strips of rare beef, and garnished with sliced spring onions.

I ate phở often as I travelled through Vietnam, elsewhere in Saigon, in Hoi An – where I learned how to make it – and finally in Hanoi; but it is different and better in the South and best at the phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse.

On every other street in Saigon, in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker area, to the north around the museums and to the east in amongst the modern corporate blocks, there are vendors selling bánh from carts. They are sandwiches, in essence, French in inspiration, Vietnamese in execution. Take a classic baguette, but made with rice flour and lighter than normal, slather it with mayonnaise and hot chilli sauce, then stuff it with shredded, pickled carrot and daikon, sliced cucumber, coriander leaf and some combination of pâte, roasted belly pork, fromage de tête and Vietnamese sausage. I had bánh again and again in Saigon and never got bored of it because each vendor does it differently.

If not bánh for lunch, then spring rolls. That can mean one of two things in Vietnam, and neither is much like the stodgy, finger-sized snacks served in Anglo-Chinese restaurants. There are gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls, with shredded carrot and cucumber, chopped mint, onion flakes and cooked prawns rolled in a moistened rice paper and served as it comes; and there are chả giò, or fried spring rolls, with minced pork, shitake mushrooms, diced carrot and cellophane noodles wrapped in a moistened rice paper and deep-fried to a texture like filo pastry. Both are served with a dipping sauce with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chilli and garlic.

Noodles soups, rice papers, an abundance of herbs, sharp flavours used judiciously. The menu changes as you travel through Vietnam but the same themes recur: always the same freshness, always the same lightness.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Motorcycle taxi

Image: By Hiển Chu (flickr user “chuhien”) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eating at Yatai in Fukuoka

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There are few sights in Fukuoka, although there is a handful of heritage buildings, a pleasant park and the remains of a castle, as well as the endless scope for immature sniggering at a name which begins with ‘fuck you’. But there are well over a hundred yatai.

At nightfall, outside the big stores on the main shopping streets, vendors drag trailers up onto the pavement and convert them, Transformer-style, into pop-up restaurants. Yatai, they call them.

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From the outside, they look like workmen’s huts, or makeshift shelters for the homeless, with walls and a roof made of rough wooden sheets and opaque plastic windows. Some are open at one side, some have a curtain made of fabric or plastic, while a few have a proper door.

It is hard not to feel as if you are intruding when you push the curtain aside and take your place at one of the half dozen or so stools round the counter. You will almost certainly be the only foreigner. The other customers will probably be suited salarymen stopping off after work for a snack and a few glasses of shōchū. The chef is unlikely to speak any English; if you are lucky, there might be some English on the menu, and if very lucky it might make sense. A lot of the time, though, you are reliant on pointing, miming, taking pot luck or asking for something which you know they will have.

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There is more or less bound to be ramen, and Fukuoka has its own take on this iconic dish. The thick, unctuous broth is made with pork bones and caramelised onion and ginger, and cooked at a boil instead of a simmer, and served with thin noodles, red ginger, green onions and little puddles of black garlic oil. There will be yakitori, meatballs, gyoza dumplings and mentaiko, another speciality of the city: spiced and lightly-seared cod roe.

The first time I ate at a yatai, I sat with a group of salarymen, ties askew and several shōchūs into a bibulous evening, and one of them spoke excellent English – he modestly denied it – and guided me through the Japanese-only menu with suggestions on what to order. The next time, though, I was on my own but for a hit-and-miss app which could sometimes decipher Japanese script and, if it could not, just made something up. I hoped that the “fishermen with morning mist” was good and went well with the “toolshed drunk in water”. The weave of my t-shirt meant “eight,” the app told me in passing.

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The yatai stay open into the early hours but I dare say they are much like a British kebab shop later on when people tumble out of bars and decide they have to eat. They are packed up, then, and magicked away in that brief hiatus between the latest drinkers shuffling off home and the earliest commuters marching in to work.

Once the sun comes up, there is no sign that the yatai had ever been there.

© Richard Senior 2015

Tsukiji: An Improbable Tourist Attraction

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Big sheds, grim concrete, rusting steel, walkways painted in industrial blue. Bustling vendors in oilskins and wellington boots; porters scudding around on motorised carts. Polystyrene confetti, puddles of melted ice. Stacked crates. Reefer trucks. Everything, in short, you would expect of a municipal fish market, right down to the smell.

But it is not just any municipal fish market: it is Tsukiji Fish Market, by common consent one of Tokyo’s Must See sights. The guidebooks explain, as if with a trumpet fanfare, that it is the World’s Largest Wholesale Fish Market. What next, you might wonder: Asia’s Deepest Sewage Tunnel?  Japan’s Oldest Scrapyard?

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The Lonely Planet Fundamentalists are there at five in the morning, half an hour before the trains start to run, clutching guidebooks flagged up with Post-it notes as they queue in the hope of joining one of the two groups of sixty let in to watch the tuna auction.

The frozen fish are laid out on pallets. Sceptical restaurateurs peer at the eyes, lift the gills, shine their torches into cavities. The auctioneers jump up on boxes, ring handbells, doff their caps and shout and bounce excitedly, like contestants in some incomprehensible game show.  Bidders raise hands casually as if acknowledging a friend, and porters hook the sold tuna and drag them away, then return for the pallets, and hose down the floor as another auction starts across the room.

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After nine, when the market is quieter, tourists are allowed into the wholesale areas and march fully armed with SLR’s and telephoto lenses across the flooded cobbles, down the aisles between the stalls barricaded with teeming fish tanks and Styrofoam boxes, and stop to watch the fishmongers butchering tuna on trestle tables with knives like swords, and fire off a few shots of chopping boards dripping with blood and hoses left running and boxes stuffed with silvery bass and orangey snapper and brilliant white squid and octopus tentacles as thick as your arm and coiled eels in buckets of water. The stallholders struggle past them and ignore the staccato clicking of camera shutters and the tourists kneeling to get selfies with severed tuna heads. Mercifully there is no room for star jumps.

It is an improbable tourist attraction, but compelling.

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By eleven, the vendors start to pack up and close their stalls and the tourists put their cameras away and join the queues outside the sushi restaurants, where they stand for an hour or two or three and some get bored and peel off to browse the stalls selling knives and pans and bags of dried fish, and the door occasionally slides open and the tourists look briefly hopeful until it slides shut again. There is room inside, at a squeeze, for around a dozen at the bar and tables. The sushi chefs work centre stage, slicing, moulding, plating up; another, stage right, stirs a vat of rice with a paddle.

How fresh is the fish?” someone behind me in the queue asked a regular. “Well, it was swimming an hour ago,” came the reply.

© Richard Senior 2015  

24 Hours in Paris

I arrived in Paris in the afternoon off the TGV from Bern.

I had seen the sights on previous trips and wandered, now, as I might in London with no itinerary and no real aim, just enjoying the amble through the daily life of one of the world’s great cities. I walked down Rue Volney, hung a left into Rue des Capucines, then a right and down through Place Vendome to the Jardin des Tuileries and along the right bank to the Tower.

I crossed there and backtracked along the left bank and went to the Musée d’Orsay, where I stayed until they turned people out. I love the old Beaux-Arts station building, and the Manets, the Monets, the Van Goghs, the Cézannes, and Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette and Caillebotte’s Raboteurs de Parquet, which I had prints of on my wall as a student.

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I stopped for dinner at a bistro busy with a garrulous after-work crowd. There were old cycle racing posters and desilvered mirrors on the walls, and hams and saucisson hanging over the counter, and a short menu of bistro staples. I ordered one of those salads the French do so well, with a nice mix of leaves and walnuts tossed in a vinaigrette, topped with slivers of hard, sharp cheese and greedy slices of Bayonne ham, and followed that with crispy, gelatinous pieds de cochon swilled down with a carafe of red.

I had arranged to have lunch the next day with a local girl whom I knew when she lived in London, but she cried off and I had the day to myself. I was out early and walked by a different route down to the river and crossed Pont Neuf over the prow of Ile de la Cité into the old bohemian quarter to look for the places which Hemingway wrote about in A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.

When I had done with Hemingway, I walked back up to Place de la Concorde where I had seen the Gallardo Spyder the day before with “Drive it for 89€” on the side. I guessed there would be more to it than that, but no. Show them your licence, pay them the money and sign to confirm that you have not been drinking or smoking, and it is yours for the next twenty minutes.

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I prodded the starter button and blipped the throttle and the V10 roared, and the guy directed me on a route through town which took in the big sights but avoided the worst of the traffic. Alongside the river, top down, the engine snarling behind me, then – as invited – into a tunnel and burying the accelerator in the carpet. The Gallardo streaked forward, the howling V10 reverberated off the walls of the tunnel and a motorbike in the right-hand lane was sucked back instantly into the distant past. Out into daylight, then through another tunnel, foot down again, then up to the Place de l’Étoile and down the Champs-Élysées, back to where I started.

I had just enough time, then, for a quick lunch at a bistro on the way to my hotel. It was an old, wood-panelled place with black and white photos of a bygone Paris on the walls. The husband and wife team who ran it seemed to know most of the customers well. She stayed at their tables to chat after taking their orders; he interposed now and then from the bar across the room.

Rillettes, a bavette of beef with shallot sauce and fries, a glass of red, a bottle of water and an espresso for the price of a pizza and Coke in London. I love the democratic food culture in France. Focussed women in designer suits sat a table away from bantering men in paint-spattered overalls – unthinkable in the class-bound, proudly unequal UK.

I grabbed my bags and took a bus to the Gare du Nord for the Eurostar home. The neighbourhood was no smarter than it had been when I was last there, ten years before, and I had arrived late at night and had to walk round drunks sprawled across the pavements, but it felt marginally safer in daylight.

© Richard Senior 2015

Beyond Fish and Chips: Eating in Britain

It was enough to make me choke on my cucumber sandwiches. I almost dropped my umbrella, spilled my Earl Grey and lost my place in the queue.

Most of the Thirteen Awesome Things You Totally Have to Do in England were perfectly sensible, if a tad predictable. But what made me as irate as a retired colonel dashing off a letter to The Telegraph was the section on English [sic] food.

Fish and chips were bound to be there. They always are. There is a culinary cliché for every country, and that one is ours. Fair enough. But the exhortation to eat at a carvery? No! Definitely not. Please, please, please don’t eat at a carvery. That is British food circa 1975, when people drove Morris Marinas and Roger Moore played James Bond.

All you had to do, back then, if you wanted to eat well was to go down to your local high street and book a holiday in France. Things have moved on.

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There is a lot more to modern British food than platefuls of fat, overdone meat and soggy, under-seasoned vegetables. That is still easy enough to find, if it is really what you want. But try, instead, a poached Scottish trout with English asparagus, Jersey Royal potatoes and a smear of hollandaise. Or a pot roast pheasant with cider and bacon. Or just a plate of Colchester natives, or a dressed Cornish crab.

Go to the St John in Clerkenwell, where the chef, Fergus Henderson, is famous for dishes like roasted bone marrow with parsley salad. Anthony Bourdain wants that for his last meal. Go to Corrigan’s Mayfair for the farmhouse terrine and pickled courgette, the small boat haddock with peas and cockle and lemon dressing, and Elwy Valley lamb with glazed sweetbreads. Go to one of Anthony Demetre’s Central London restaurants. If it is winter, and it is on the menu, order smoked eel, Cheltenham beetroot and horseradish.

London has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other European city, except Paris. It had the first Indian and the first Thai restaurants with Michelin stars anywhere in the world. It is not just London, either. The village of Bray in Berkshire, with a population of around 8,000, has two restaurants with three Michelin stars; and there are 70 starred restaurants scattered about the English provinces, 16 in Scotland and 5 in Wales.

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Nor is it just fine-dining. There is a whole lot in between a Toby Carvery and the three-Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road. In the wintertime in the countryside, you can pull up close to a crackling fire in a fourteenth century inn with a twenty-first century menu and eat nicely-cooked meat and hearty root vegetables delicately flavoured with thyme. On long summer evenings in old city pubs, you can sit on the mismatched furniture and order pan-fried fish and steamed samphire off the menu chalked up on the board. There are venerable seafood restaurants with wood panelled walls and bright modern cafes attached to museums and gourmet burgers and noodle shops and tapas bars and curry houses; there are stalls at famous markets grilling scallops, shucking oysters and stuffing slices of rare rib of beef into baguettes with rocket and horseradish.

There are, in short, any number of reasons why no one should ever have to eat at a carvery.

© Richard Senior 2015

Eating Sushi in London and Kanazawa

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I was part way through a run of long nights at the office. It was hours since the pinstriped crowd had made its way to the Tube, with its furled umbrellas and gym kits and Little Brown Bags. The City was silent then, without the murmur of innumerable phone conversations and the clatter of brogues and stilettos.  The pub on the corner had filled up with after-work drinkers, who got louder with every beer, then thinned out as they drifted off home. It was closed by the time I got out. Lights had been left on for show in the Gherkin; the Lloyd’s Building was uplit in blue. But the streets of the Square Mile were deserted then. Even the cleaners had been and gone. A gust of wind blew grit in my eye, and sent a dropped newspaper scuttling down the street.

It would have been too late for dinner by the time I got home, so I stopped at the sushi bar a little before it closed. The staff were cleaning up and winding down. Only a few plates were left on the conveyor. I watched them do their rounds, and daydreamed about sushi in Japan.

Three years on and I had given up being a lawyer and I was in Kanazawa in a sushi restaurant a few steps from the Omicho market, which bustles each morning with seafood vendors whose stalls are crowded with rows of spider crabs, piles of scallops, and ruby-fleshed tuna, silvery mackerel and bloated puffer fish. Some of the things on the menu were familiar enough. The sushi bar I used to call in after work had prawn nigiri and salmon roe norimaki. But not flounder fin, gizzard shad or horse mackerel; nor salted plum with cucumber makizushi.

The chef reached in the cabinet for a slab of tuna and sliced off a strip with an easy flick of the wrist. He wet his hand under the tap and, in the same movement, reached behind him into a barrel of rice and scooped up a handful which he had moulded into shape by the time he had brought it up to his board. He dipped his finger into a pot of wasabi and smeared it over the rice then glued on the strip of tuna, plated up and handed it over the counter to the customer. Then he was onto the next order, rolling raw sea urchin and vinegared rice into a square of seaweed; then lightly searing a flounder fin with a woof of flame from a blowtorch. He worked at speed but never noticeably hurried; his movements were fluid, almost balletic, each seemingly casual cut precise.

The sushi there was as different from the sushi I had eaten at home as freshly-made pesto is different from the stuff in jars. I ordered three pieces, then another three, and another three after that.

It seemed a lifetime ago that I was eating sushi because I would be home too late to make dinner.

© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 7*

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Dr Livingstone thought that Victoria Falls sounded better than the local name, Mosi–oa-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders”. It did to him. The government is threatening to change the name back, which has got people worked up in support and against, but is hardly among the more urgent things which need to done in Zimbabwe. As with Myanmar, Ho Chi Minh City, and Uluru, the old name will stick whatever the government says.

The word “awesome” has become as devalued now as the old Zimbabwe dollar; but, when you first see the falls and it pops into your head, it belongs there. A mile of water, hurtling out of control, tumbles over the edge and disintegrates into abstracts: thick gouache white swirling over slime green, tumbling, tumbling, tumbling a hundred metres into the gorge below, hissing and rumbling, roaring and thundering like some massive industrial process; the spray rebounds, a gathering storm, higher – way higher – than the top of the falls, until a perfect rainbow chops it in two and it comes down again as an unseasonal shower and soaks the path and the sightseers who stand there and gawp.

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Victoria Falls is a tourist town, but it was never anything else. Almost as soon as Livingstone had reported back, the curious came to see the falls and curio traders came to sell the curious curios. A village grew up and then a town. The railway came west from Bulawayo, and Cecil Rhodes commissioned a bridge across the Zambezi into modern-day Zambia. What started as temporary quarters for railway workers ended up as the grandly Edwardian Victoria Falls Hotel with its hushed five star luxury, its private path to the falls, and its zebra skin drapes and kudu heads and sepia photos of locally famous white men.

Hawkers follow tourists down the street, waving wooden animals and bundles of worthless billion dollar notes. Agents compete to take them on day trips across the border, or send them bungee jumping, zip-lining and white-water rafting. The shops sell curios and postcards, souvenir t-shirts and safari suits with as many pockets as anyone could want. (The locals shop at markets out of town.) There is pizza and car hire, tapas and bureaux de change; there is French fine dining and Chinese takeaway. And there is Boma.

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A whole goat, on the bone, was splayed across a vertical frame in a fire pit and slowly cooked for hours so that the meat smoked while it grilled and the fat rendered down and fuelled the fire and the aroma filled the room. Marinated warthog steaks, eland meatballs and boerewors sausages were grilled to order in front of you. There were mounds of the polenta-like sadza, which I had read about in Doris Lessing, and found was the same thing as ugali in Kenya; and salads and soups and dried mopane worms – actually caterpillars – which you pick at and crunch like a bag of crisps.

I would miss Zimbabwe, but it was time, now, to move on: time to explore Botswana.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Part originally posted as ‘Smoke that Thunders’ on 11 September 2014

Belgium: Quirky, Understated…But Not Boring

 

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Poor Belgium. If I got a Euro every time I heard it written off as boring, I could stay there for a week on the proceeds. It is an off-the-shelf comment, the default thing to say: like “you must be very proud” to the father of the bride.

The capital comes in for particular abuse. Here is Bill Bryson:

“Brussels is a seriously ugly place, full of wet litter, boulevards like freeways and muddy building sites. It is a city of grey offices and faceless office workers, the briefcase capital of Europe. It has fewer parks than any city I can think of, and almost no features to commend it…. The best thing that can be said for Brussels is that it is only three hours from Paris.”

But he was being unfair. Every city has litter and traffic and building sites, boring offices and boring office workers  – even Des Moines, I should imagine – and I can certainly think of cities with fewer parks than the 51 which Brussels claims. Most – it is true – are not bang in the centre and a traveller “doing Europe” at a clip might pass through without knowing about them. But just a few steps from the Gare Centrale is what Lonely Planet reckons “one of the world’s most beautiful squares”. The Grand Place is surrounded by tall brooding guild houses, flecked with gold leaf, and a spectacularly gothic town hall. Every other August, the square is carpeted in flowers, a riot of red and yellow, purple and pink.

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Perhaps I was just lucky to be there on a hot summer’s weekend, when the litter was dry and none of the building sites was muddy, and the offices looked brighter and the office workers were out of their suits and dressed as themselves, relaxed and having fun. I remember sitting in the sun with a Trappist beer on a lively street crammed with galleries and bars and laughing hipsters; and walking out past the mirror glass behemoth of the European Commission to the Parc du Cinquantenaire with its triumphal arch and eruptions of tulips and young couples sprawling on the grass; and taking a bus to the house and workshop of Victor Horta, the Art Nouveau pioneer.

Then there is Bruges. “It’s a shithole,” said Colin Farrell’s character in the movie In Bruges. But no one agrees with him. Condé Nast Traveller voted it one of the best cities in Europe, and even Bryson – as if guilty about the kicking he had administered to Brussels – was extravagantly nice about it. “So beautiful,” he said, “so deeply, endlessly gorgeous…Everything about it is perfect”. It is a dreamy city of canals, humpback bridges, step gables and windmills, which escaped the twin horrors of the twentieth century: aerial bombardment and town planning.

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Those who must find fault say there are too many tourists. They should go to Ghent instead, then, which has much of the same magic without the crowds. Both are best explored in aimless urban rambles, walking along the edge of canals, and over bridges and ducking down alleys into a maze of back roads.

Belgium might not be the first to come to mind when you recall Saki’s comment about nations which “make more history than they can consume locally”.  Yet look at the place names: Waterloo, Flanders, Ypres, Mons, the Ardennes. Ancient Ieper (Ypres) was devastated in World War I, but its medieval buildings were carefully rebuilt. At eight every night, the traffic stops around the Menin Gate and the fire brigade plays the Last Post.

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But for all the historical resonance, and all the poignancy of its war memorials, Belgium is in shirtsleeves where other countries wear black tie. Other capitals have statues of kings and generals, prime ministers and arms manufacturers: Brussels has a sculpture of a little boy having a wee. Ghent has a giant toilet roll. In the nation of Hergé, the comic book is a major art form with a long and distinguished history. One of Horta’s buildings in Brussels is now the Comics Art Museum.

Antwerp is known for Rubens, fashion and nightlife, and takes each about equally seriously. It is as good a place as any to start working your way through Belgium’s thousand or more characterful beers, some dark and gutsy, some as delicate and complex as fine wines. They are used instead of wine in the moules à la marinière iconically served with frites and mayonnaise; also in coq à la bière and stoverij, a take on boeuf bourguignon. But there is more to Belgian cooking than reimagined French dishes: Ghent’s waterzooi, for instance, with chicken in a creamy broth, and Antwerp’s paling in ‘t groen: eel stewed in a herb and shallot sauce.

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I sometimes wonder whether the people who call Belgian boring have even been.

© Richard Senior 2015

“Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli”: Eating in Sicily

In the early evening, the day boats return and the fishermen howl through the town in beaten-up Piaggo Apes, and park, and sell their fish straight out of the back. The bills of the swordfish jut out onto the pavement and you have to walk around them; the tuna barely fit in the little pick-ups.

They use meaty fish in place of beef along the coast of Sicily. Swordfish sliced thinly and dressed with a squeeze of lemon and a glug of oil, and a sprinkle of thyme flowers and pink peppercorns in a take on the classic carpaccio. A chunk of tuna studded with rosemary and slivers of garlic and roasted in the oven like a joint. Tuna and swordfish diced and fashioned into meatballs and served with pasta in tomato sauce.

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When I think back to Sicily, I always seem to be eating. Bucatini con le sarde in the afternoon sun in Cefalù’s Piazza del Duomo in front of the splendid Norman cathedral: a pasta sauce made with sardines freshly plucked from the sea, and wild fennel picked in the hills, and sultanas, pine nuts and saffron, which – like the ruins of the Saracen castle which top the escarpment behind the cathedral – remind that Sicily was ruled by the Arabs for over a century. Palermo, after all, is much closer to Tunis than Rome.

Sarde a beccafico at a lovely restaurant down an alley in the hilltop town of Taormina: more sardines, deboned, stuffed with breadcrumbs mixed with pine nuts, currants, orange zest and parsley, then rolled and cooked in the oven.

Lunch at a trattoria among the venerable churches and half-derelict shops of Palermo, a few steps from the glorious Teatro Massimo which features so prominently in the last scenes of Godfather III. Spaghetti alla norma, showcasing the violet-skinned Sicilian aubergines, sliced, fried, drained and tossed with tomato pulp, torn basil leaves and salted ricotta.

I was too busy to stop for lunch on the day that I went to the outlying island of Lipari and charged around in the midday heat, up and down the streets, squeezing past café awnings and palm trees, and rusting old Vespas and football posters and stores hung with bunches of dried pepperoncini; so I grabbed an arancine to eat on the go. It is Sicily’s best-known street snack with ragù sauce encased in a ball of saffron-tinged rice, crumbed and deep-fried until golden. The risotti of Northern Italy, a Sicilian will tell you, are just arancini gone wrong.

After a broiling day exploring the Greek temples of Agrigento in the south of the island, I found a place to eat overlooking the sea and ordered dentice in sale: a whole sea bream buried under rock salt and baked in the oven so the salt sets hard and the fish stays moist as it cooks; then the salt is broken off and the skin removed and the fillets carefully lifted from the bone and dressed with salmoriglio, the lightest of sauces made with lemon, herbs, garlic and oil.

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The three seas around the island teem with fish; the soil is packed with minerals. The ingredients are big enough to look after themselves and Sicilian cooks serve them simply to bring out their best. Octopus tossed with potatoes and celery and doused with new season’s olive oil; orange segments, black olives and fennel in a classic winter salad; fresh anchovies marinated in citrus juice and sprinkled with finely chopped parsley.

In the springtime, when the last of the artichokes coincide with the first of the peas, the spring onions and broad beans, they are all cooked together and dressed with mint in a popular dish called frittella. It can be an antipasto, a side or a pasta sauce, as you wish. In summer, the pasta comes with straw-thin wild asparagus or delicate courgette flowers. In autumn, boring brassicas are cheered up with anchovy, garlic and chilli. In winter, there is the caponata which was made and bottled in the summer with aubergine, celery, tomatoes and capers infused with an agrodolce sauce of sugar and wine vinegar.

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Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” said the roly-poly Mafioso, Peter Clemenza, in the first Godfather movie. Moorish by origin, moreish by nature, it is hard to stick at one of these little tubes of happiness with sweetened ricotta and candied fruit folded into crispy pastry. By the time you are on your third cannolo, you will understand how Clemenza got that size.

© Richard Senior 2015

More than Just Fried Spiders: Eating in Cambodia

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Deep-fried tarantulas were an adventure too far for me, so I ordered prahok instead. The waiter tried to warn me off.

It is a popular ingredient in Khmer cooking, but the pungent, sewagey smell often revolts barangs (Westerners). Fresh fish is crushed, dried in the sun, salted and left to ferment in a jar for weeks, months and anything up to three years. It is added to all sorts of dishes as a thickener or condiment, and eaten on its own as a dip for raw vegetables in the style of anchoïade in the South of France. The taste is fine, as long as you stay upwind of it and take shallow breaths.

But there is more to Cambodian food than stinky fish and spiders. Meals are put together as they are in neighbouring Thailand with rice at the heart of them and a balance of textures and flavours: soups, salads, curries and pickles; something fried, something grilled, something sour, something bitter. But – prahok notwithstanding – Khmer food tends to be subtler than Thai with herbs more prominent and chilli restrained.

Take papaya salad. It is broadly the same dish whether you order it in Phnom Penh and call it bok lahong or order it in Bangkok and call it som tam; but in Cambodia the chillis are sliced and served on the side so you can add as many or as few as you like, or none at all if you please: in Thailand they are bashed up with the salad and it as hot as the cook decides.

The Thais have their own take on amok trey, which the guidebooks call the national dish of Cambodia; but theirs, ho mok pla, is spicier. In the Khmer version, flaked catfish is mixed with coconut milk and a delicate curry of turmeric, lemongrass, galangal and shallots, and steamed and served in a banana leaf, then garnished with a sliver of red chilli.

There is crossover, too, with the neighbours to the east. Street food vendors in Phnom Penh sell a crusty baguette stuffed with slices of pork, slabs of pâté, coriander and pickled vegetables. They call it num pang but it is a rebadged version of the well-known Vietnamese bánh mì. Then again, every noodle shop in Saigon sells hủ tiếu Nam Vang, or Phnom Penh noodle soup. It is called kuy teav in Khmer and half of Phnom Penh slurps down a bowl of it for breakfast each morning.

Lok lak, the best-known Khmer dish after amok, is much the same thing as the Vietnamese bò lúc lắ (shaking beef). Strips of marinated beef are quickly stir-fried and served with sliced salad vegetables, lettuce and a dipping sauce. The idea is to parcel up a mouthful of beef and vegetables in a lettuce leaf and dunk it in the sauce.

I had it at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Phnom Penh, a lovely colonial villa on the riverfront. The shutters were open and the bamboo blinds rolled right up and the fans on the roof lazily revolved and the breeze from the Tonle Sap River wafted through the windows and cut the stifling air. Illuminated boats glided past as I sat and sipped an Angkor beer and ate the lok lak and unseen scooters snarled somewhere below.

© Richard Senior 2015