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

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

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