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 his hometown of 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 country 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

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.

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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

Amok image: via Pixabay 

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

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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 in Zanzibar.

The tables 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