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

La Paz: Effigies, Offerings and Rebar

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The road from Peru meanders through a poetic landscape, along Lake Titicaca, up and over the mountains, past rivers and plains and glorious eruptions of wildflower. Then all at once you are in honking traffic in the apocalyptic satellite town of El Alto.

A smothering dust covers everything. Every building remains unfinished, and will forever, with rebar sprouting from the floors of notional upper storeys. Aymara ladies buy fruit through the bars on the doors of the shops. Legs protrude from old cars up on jacks on the pavement. Life-sized effigies hang from the lampposts with notices pinned to their chests reading, “This is what we do to thieves”. They do, as well. The 30 lynchings in the first 10 months of 2011 represented “a notable decrease,” according to an upbeat UN.

La Paz is picturesque in spite of itself. The first view from El Alto is a sea of ochre buildings embraced by high peaks, and there is a paradoxical beauty in what seems to be nothing but tower blocks. There is, as you see when you roll into town, more heritage than appears from above. The steep streets of sunken cobbles are lined with colonial buildings, crumbling, faded, covered with graffiti and torn fly-posters, but nonetheless photogenic.

There are numberless markets, but they can’t contain the Aymara vendors who spill out down the pavements and into the road. Stocky ladies in bowler hats kneel on sheets laid anywhere they find a space, selling fruit and veg, meat and fish, clothes and shoes, stolen electronics, herbs and potions, figurines and amulets, and llama foetuses to offer to Pachamama.

Oh, thanks for that,” I imagine her saying, in the tone you use when your cat lays a mouse at your feet.

(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