New Year’s East

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I had been bouncing around the Andaman Islands and landed up in Krabi.

A party crowd washed down to the coast for the long weekend, bought fireworks by the armful and let them off on the beach. Street food stalls appeared all the way down the road through Nopparat Thara. Chicken skewers and air-dried squid were piled up on trestle tables; gallons of chilli sauce, hundreds of quartered limes. Smoke from the grills drifted towards Ao Nang. A vendor made som tam in an earthenware mortar, bashing the garlic and chilli, the shredded papaya, the snake beans and tomatoes.

I expected a party on New Year’s Eve on the ponderous curve of peachy sand. But the only poster I saw was for a buffet and live band at a hotel in Ao Nang, and that was hardly worth staying up for.

But, with half a day left to run of the year, I spotted a flyer for Luna Bar (presumably the model for Moon Bar in Richard Arthur’s I of the Sun) which promised deep house and EDM, fireworks and whisky buckets. More fun than a live band and buffet, for sure.

Luna was ominously quiet at 10pm, when I wandered in and scooped up a bucket of the sort which I took to the beach as a child. It came with a quarter of Sang Som whisky, a bottle of Coke and an energy drink and I tipped them in and walked through to the beach, where the holiday crowd was still exploding ordnance. (The firework sellers did well that night.) The bar began to fill up as the year faded out and the crowd spilled onto the beach. They crammed together in raggedy rows, like rush hour commuters, holding up paper lanterns half their own size, lighting them and letting them go. The flickering lights stretched the length of the beach. There were forty, or fifty, or more in the air at a time. A few, swayed by gusts, caught fire and dropped to the water: the rest floated out over spectral karsts, way out into the Andaman Sea.

Then, at midnight, the music stopped and giant Roman candles sputtered into flame on posts along the waterfront. Explosions reverberated like howitzer shells and the glorious colours spilled across the sky. Lines of racing yellow tadpoles mutated into pin cushions of pink, blue and green, distorted, collapsed and came back to earth as a glittering, sparkling downpour.

All the stresses and disappointments I had run away from back home seemed a lifetime ago right then.

Happy New Year!

© Richard Senior 2014

A Perspective on Lima

Lima is a pretty city,” reckoned Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. “Lima is an atrocity,” insisted Matthew Parris in Inca Kola.

Parris’s impression is the one generally held, especially by those who have never been. Lima has a shocking reputation. It is ugly, they say; it is dangerous. There is nothing much to look at while you are being mugged at gunpoint. Parris noticed concrete and tin, dead dogs and cars without windscreens.

The city is smothered in fog for much of the year, which cannot help to endear it. “The white veil,” Melville called it in Moby Dick. But I was there in late January, when the sky was blue more often than not, and the sun was hot enough to redden my neck. The fogs came, all right; but ephemerally, like dry ice from a smoke machine.

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I think Lima must, in any case, have smartened itself up in the twenty-four years since Parris was there. I never saw a dead dog – although strays were everywhere – and saw only one car that was missing a windscreen. Most were in a lot better fettle than the minibuses, which roared along with blowing exhausts, great gashes down their sides and several important bits missing.

Hotel development in the Miraflores district has been about as unsympathetic as it could be (Guevara would have been spared that in 1952); but next door Barranco is full of character with its shabby-gentile colonial buildings in jaunty, contrasting colours like forest green and lilac, anorak blue and orange, and dogshit brown and dayglo pink. It would be a stretch, though, to call it pretty.

The Centro Historico is genuinely pretty with its plazas, its fountains, its grand public buildings and a cathedral to which Guevara devoted a long and exuberant paragraph. You might, for a moment, imagine yourself in an important city in Spain; but the illusion cannot last for long. A shanty town spreads round and up the surrounding mountains, painfully visible from all over town; and just a few blocks from the grandest plaza are workaday districts with litter in the doorways and broken chairs slung onto roofs.

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In short, it is not as irredeemably ugly as popularly believed, but it is hardly Cuzco either. The danger is apparently real, but even at night it feels a lot less edgy than somewhere like La Paz.

My guidebook – never knowingly underwhelmed – reckoned Lima “the gastronomic capital of the continent”. That sounds like windy exaggeration, but two of its restaurants are listed among the World’s 50 Best: equal with London, one fewer than Paris. It is the place to go to eat ceviche, Peru’s most famous dish: a buzzword, now, on fine-dining menus in the English-speaking world.

The chef squirts lime juice over sliced raw fish, and then flavours it with garlic, chilli, coriander and red onion and leaves it to marinate so that the acid in the juice “cooks” the fish. “Better than it sounds,” said Parris, who seems to have the classical Englishman’s approach to food and usually only mentioned it when it upset somebody’s stomach.

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The version I had at a smart restaurant overlooking the sea in Miraflores used chunks of sea bass, crab claws and scallops, and came with the Peruvian staples, sweet potato and corn. “Una experencia incomparable,” the menu declared with a good pinch of hyperbole, but it was very good.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Some Corner of a Foreign Field That Shall Be Forever…France

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There are bistros much like it on the back streets of every town in France. The tables and chairs will be simple and cheap, and may very well not match. On the wall will be photographs of long-dead people in old-style hats and long-closed shops on no-longer-fashionable streets, or motor racing posters from decades ago, or tarnished mirrors enamelled with Pernod adverts.

Portions are hearty, garlic abundant, and prices low. There are no foams and emulsions, no confits of this, nor saboyans of that: just simple, honest to goodness food. In Provence, there will be daube de boeuf, a meltingly tender ox cheek simmered for hours in red wine; in Languedoc cassoulet, a great sizzling bowl of duck leg, sausage and haricots blancs. Everywhere, there will be gratins and remoulades, steaks and charcuterie. Wine will be sold by the carafe. Customers will shout and guffaw. The patron will linger by tables, sharing jokes with regulars.

A couple run Le Café de Paris on their own. She does the cheffing, he is front of house. The menu du jour is chalked up on a blackboard outside. It was the same every jour, as far as I could tell. Terrine maison to start and steak de boeuf with sauce bordelaise, green salad and pommes frites. Everything was nicely done. The steak was cooked rare and rested, the bordelaise sauce well-flavoured, the frites fat and crispy, the salad sparingly dressed in a proper vinaigrette.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that it is not in France at all but on a side street in a little town in Laos.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Zanzibar Night Market

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When the sun goes down, trestle tables go up in Forodhani Gardens in the middle of Stone Town. They are filled with lobsters, gleaming white squid, fat octopus tentacles, kingfish, marlin and tuna. Dozens of vendors light charcoal grills and wheel in juice presses like old-fashioned mangles. The crowds swarm in and jostle each other and the vendors shout and orders are placed and fish is thrown onto the grill. The juice man works at pit stop speed, forcing sugar cane through the press, folding it, forcing it through again, then again, and again, until it has given up all of its juice. Then he mixes in lime and ginger.

Squid is deceptively hard to get right. So many restaurants cook it too long, or not long enough. But the grill man knew better than that. He sliced it up with a few quick strokes and tipped it onto a paper plate with a handful of salad and a good squirt of chilli and tomalley sauce. He owed me some change but talked me into settling for a coconut bread. I ate the squid and the bread as I looked round the rest of the stalls, then replaced them with kingfish and green pepper skewers.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

A Morning in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

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Scooters wail through the tangle of alleys, weaving round ladies in conical hats with yokes balanced over their shoulders and old pushbikes half-buried under baskets of fruit and slowly perambulating cyclos. The sound reverberates off the walls of the decaying colonial buildings with their sagging awnings and missing windows and roofs bodged up with corrugated iron.

Traders spill out of their shops and fill the pavements with mannequins, fridges, anvils and circular saws. Women sit cross-legged, shaving pigs’ trotters and scaling fish with cleavers; men kneel over sheets of stainless steel, hammering, grinding, welding, drilling, and fashion them into boxes and bins. Street food vendors arrange tight circles of miniature stools on any available corner. There is nowhere to walk but in the road with the scooters.

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One shop sells nothing but heaters. Next door sells nothing but fans. Three doors further on sells lightbulbs. Two doors beyond that sells adaptors and leads. You go to one side of the road when your scooter needs tyres, to the other when it needs a new seat. And if it needs a new mirror as well, then you nip across town to the French Quarter. There are two streets on which every shop sells metal boxes, one street reserved for flowers and one for bamboo poles. Padlocks and door handles have half a street each, as have cooking salt and caged birds. Shoes get a crossroads of their own, but trainers, flip-flops and football boots have to share with army surplus. Musical instruments are lumped together with antiques, on the hunch, perhaps, that people who play instruments are likely to collect antiques.

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Chả Cá Street is named for the single dish which the restaurants along it sell. The best known is Chả Cá La Vong, so well known that restaurants all over town have ripped off its name. It is a poky little place with a rickety staircase leading up to a room with the look and atmosphere of a rowdy works canteen. Though it is in all the guidebooks and on every food blog, most of the other customers are shirt and tie locals. There is no menu, because chả cá really is all they do. They don’t see the need – as a restaurant would at home – for novelty chả cás or alternatives for people who go to a chả cá restaurant but don’t really care for chả cá.

The waiters bring the chả cá in relays. First, a sizzling fondue pot filled with turmeric-stained fish. Then, as that hisses and crackles in the middle of your table, a bowl of rice noodles. Then a ramekin of dipping sauce, a plate of crushed peanuts and a handful of herbs, which the waiter dunks in with the fish to wilt, and leaves you to assemble it when the fish and the herbs are done.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Bruschetta: Ready before the Ready Meal

Why have ready meals when you can have bruschetta?

Dice a few tomatoes, chiffonade (slice into microfine strips) or chop a handful of basil leaves, throw both in a bowl with a glug of olive oil, a pinch of salt and a few twists of black pepper and gently toss. Then heat a grill or griddle pan, slice up a rustic loaf and grill/griddle the bread for a minute or so each side, rub one side with half a garlic clove and top with the tomato and basil.

At least as quick as microwaving some depressing “Mediterranean-style chicken” concoction from the supermarket.

Dressing Appropriately

There is no excuse not to make your own vinaigrette. A splash of wine vinegar, a pinch of salt, a twist of pepper, a dollop of mustard; whisk together. Three glugs of olive oil; whisk again to emulsify. A two minute job, and much better than the stuff you get in bottles with mysterious things floating in it.

Don’t drown the poor salad like they do in cheap restaurants: you only want enough to cling to the leaves and flavour them. About a tablespoon-full should be enough for a portion, depending on the leaves you use and how greedy the portion. Put the dressing in the bowl first, then add the salad and toss. Add a drop more if it needs it and toss again.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Salteñas in Sucre

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Freshly cooked pastry, sizzling beef, garlic, oregano, cayenne. The smells from a hole-in-the-wall salteñería wafted after me down the street, caught me up and marched me back.

“Uno salteña por favor.”

¿Pollo, cerdo, o carne de res?”

“Sí.

¿Que?”

“Err, carne.”

¿Carne de res?”

“Sí.

I knew about four words of Spanish, then, and didn’t really know what I was ordering (beef), but I sensed it would be good. Salteñas are pastries stuffed with meat and vegetables in a mildly spiced broth set with gelatine. When they are baked in the oven, the gelatine melts as the pastry crisps, so the filling stays moist and the casing stays dry.

The broth overwhelmed the serviette after the first few bites and started to trickle through my fingers, but the explosion of flavours made me too happy to care.

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It was the middle of the morning of a glorious day. The sun reflected off the uniform white of the colonial buildings. Only turrets and bell towers disrupted the line of terracotta roofs. Only mountains looked down on the cathedral. It was much as the Spaniards would have seen it when they took a last look as they left in the 1820’s; but the flags which now flutter from every tenth building are Bolivia’s red, yellow and green.

The government has sat in La Paz for more than a century, but Sucre is still the nominal capital, even if it nowadays feels as provincial as Bath. Old men sit on benches in the shade of the palm trees on Plaza 25 de Mayo. Younger men kneel and shine shoes. Drivers stop when the policewoman blows her whistle. No one seems to drop litter or tag walls. It even feels safe late at night.

It is nothing like La Paz.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

Escaping Patong

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I was tired of the babel of English, Russian, German and French, never Thai; of the fat farangs; of the burgers and Heineken; of the parasols laid out in uniform rows.  

So I walked away from the resort and over the hill, about as far as I could get in flip-flops, and stopped at a beach which was smaller and tattier than Ao Patong. It was dotted with stones and bits of dropped litter and things which had washed from the sea. There were no deck chairs or jet skis, and no hawkers came round with sunglasses, watches, ice cream or beer.  I was the only farang there.

I sat and I watched as the tide crept further up the beach and the sun began to fall and it drew a line across the sea and lit the wet sand at the margin. I watched the fishermen set off in their long-tail boats with old car engines spinning long propeller shafts dipped in the sea. The vendors up the hill were grilling fish and the smell drifted down towards me.

A pick-up arrived with a group of Thais in the back, students I think. They jumped out and scampered across the beach and jumped in the sea fully clothed. They were as happy as children, squealing and shouting in the waves, and splashing each other, until the driver beeped his horn and they scampered back and left.

The sun had slipped further by then, backlighting the clouds and silhouetting the fishing boats and the mountains behind them. I could see across to Ao Patong, where the deckchairs were still laid out in neat rows, and the jetskis still chased across the water, and a parasailer floated a few hundred feet above a powerboat tearing round the bay. It was too far away, though, for the English and Russian and German and French voices to reach me, too far away to pick out the hawkers selling sunglasses, watches, ice cream and beer.

I stayed until the last of the sun leaked from the sky and I could barely make out the mountains and boats in the distance. Then I made my way up to the street food stalls and bought fish and rice and a Singha beer and ate at a table with locals.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet: Eating in Bangkok

All along the street, there are pushcarts piled up with food; with fried chicken, grilled octopus, satays, spring rolls, meatballs, noodle soup, and pad thai, which the vendor will make to order in seconds. She throws diced chicken into a hot wok, adds beansprouts and rice noodles, an egg if you want one, then soy sauce and tamarind, tosses it together and tips it onto a paper plate. You add a handful of chopped peanuts, a few dried shrimps, a sprinkle of sugar, a glug of fish sauce, chilli flakes, chilli sauce and pickled chilli slices.

My guidebook grumbled that the pad thai from carts around Khao San Road is not authentic, and doubtless it is not, but it was at least as good as I would get in my local Thai restaurant, and I was not complaining for the price of a packet of crisps back home.

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The first few times I ate out in Thailand, I tried to order a starter, a main and a side; but it either all came at once or in whatever order it happened to be ready. Thai meals are not structured like that. Rice – a side dish to us, a change from potatoes – is the heart of the meal for Thais. Khao means rice, but it also means meal. Everything else, the soups, the salads, the curries, the grilled fish, is a garnish for the rice. The idea is to have a balance of flavours: Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet, the cornerstones of Thai cuisine (and perhaps also the members of a Nineties girl band).

The fish was laid out on ice at the door of the restaurant and the eyes were black, the gills bright red. I had fish every night for a week. Always on the bone, grilled or deep-fried whole, served with a dipping sauce of fish sauce, chilli, lime juice and sugar. Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet.

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There is a lot more to Thai curries than the soupy green and red clichés the whole world knows. Fiery jungle curry, for instance; and the subtler turmeric, lemongrass and coconut flavours of Massaman curry. Yellow curry paste is smeared over seafood before grilling; red curry paste is stir-fried with pork and green beans in pad prik moo.

I like chilli well enough, but it took me a while to build up the tolerance for incendiary dishes like som tam, made with shredded papaya and enough birdseye chillies to win a bet. I asked a Thai girl how many chillies she would use in a papaya salad. “Hmm, four, six,” she said, as if that were not many.

(c) Richard Senior 2014