Wednesday 8 November 2017

Z is for Zimbabwe

Z is for Zimbabwe

Gahhhhhhhhhhhhh FINALLY I HAVE MADE IT!!!! Good God, I have been beyond lazy about writing this post, eh? Well, to cut myself some slack it’s not really been laziness that’s been stopping me from getting round to this final post: birthdays, family meet-ups and EXTREMELY important translations about t-shirts and shoes (please note the sarcasm there) have all played a part in keeping me from bringing this project to its proper conclusion. To those of you who are still with me (i.e. my parents), I apologise for the lateness and, as an apology, can offer you solace in the knowledge that the ordeal is over. Crack open the champers, folks, it’s party time!

Beautiful tommies

As was to be expected from the straggly end of the alphabet, Z’s offerings were meagre in terms of numbers: just two countries made it to the very end, clinging on by the skin of their teeth in the hope that maybe something magical might lay beyond the end of the alphabet. Well, all they’ve found is a stuffed Brit, rolling around on the floor with the top button undone on her jeans, surrounded by cutlery, rice and covered in peanut and tomato sauce. Should have trusted the majority in this case and hopped off the alphabet bus at S. BUT heed the advice of Slovakia, Switzerland, Sweden or Suriname they did not, and as such my choice for the finale was limited to Zambia or Zimbabwe.

But which to choose? Having not been to either country – or even to the African continent - at any point in my life, I had one teeny tiny shred of experience on which to base my choice: an unexpectedly long evening in Rotterdam. After spending a rather spectacular day in the city with a friend, I was left, alone and bereft, to fend for myself in the evening. As always, I decided that food would be a good way to while away the last couple of hours of the day, so I wandered over to an Indonesian restaurant and plonked myself down with my book at a table outside. Barely 10 minutes went by and I found myself in conversation with the two lads on the table next to me, one of whom was from – you guessed it – Zimbabwe. Well friends, I won’t bore you with all the details, but I can assure that for those couple of hours, we were the three of us the best of buddies, sharing lols as if we’d known each other for decades. And so, the meal that would finally bring this project to its conclusion was nothing more than the result of an evening of too many beers and the odd shot for good measure. This irresponsible behaviour will, of course, be left behind in my 20s, along with cycling home with no bike lights and wearing odd socks.
She ain't no beauty queen, but BOY was she tasty

So, what’s Zimbabwe got going on in the kitchen? Haven’t you been asking yourself that for YEARS?? I thought so. Well, Zimbabwe’s cuisine appears to be fairly typical of the more southern countries on the African continent, which means plenty of meat, beans and cornmeal. The latter is used in abundance to produce dishes such as bota – a thick cornmeal porridge-type malarkey flavoured with butter or peanut butter (hellooooo) – and sadza, which is basically the same as bota (don’t quote me on that!!) but with even more cornmeal to make it hard. Deeeeelicious. In defence of the somewhat bland-sounding sadza, it is often pepped up with chicken, curdled milk (ummm…) or boerewors. That, pals, is a type of sausage, which must contain at least 90% meat to be classified as a proper boerewors – take note, British sausage authorities. The word itself comes from the Afrikaans words for farmer (boer) and sausage (wors), and is a popular addition to any braai. I am sure I will offend almost the entire populations of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and the like by saying this, but a braai is sort of like a BBQ – or at least that would perhaps be its closest cousin over in this corner of the world. I have been assured by numerous pals in the know that a braai cannot even be discussed in the same category as a barbecue, and it is for that reason that I shall leave the topic alone, lest I infuriate true braai connoisseurs with my utter stupidity.

After a little research, I stumbled upon a recipe for peanut butter beef stew. By now, y’all know I’m not the biggest carnivore on the block, but given the fact that I’d be cooking this as my final meal of the project and indeed on my actual birthday, it felt apt to go for something a little bit special. Plus, I was due to celebrate with a gaggle of good friends who have endured weeks and weeks of sometimes bizarre recipes, so I felt I owed it to them. The recipe itself is by no means fancy; I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the simpler things I cooked, but the end result was an out-and-out success. The beef had been cooking in a lovely peanutty, tomato-y, onion-y sauce for what felt like about 5000 years, and as such was falling apart by the time it reached the table. The sauce tasted obscenely indulgent, but it was offset by piles of tasty spinach and brown rice, all of which were enjoyed with perhaps a little too much vim and vigour - we were all groaning in pain within about 2 minutes of nigh-on licking every damn plate clean. BUT regret it I do not. Nor do I regret the massive slice of key lime pie or homemade bounty bars that followed, plus the indecent amount of red wine. If you can’t trough such disgraceful volumes of food on your birthday, when the hell can you??

Birthday beef dinner
And that’s it. Done! 26 weeks (of cooking, at least. We won’t mention the writing), 26 letters, 26 countries and 26 meals. Not of all of them were a taste sensation (I’m looking at you, Latvia), but each and every one was an experience, many of which I was fortunate enough to share with other people. Whether or not you like to cook, there’s no doubt that food brings people together, and it’s the same all over the world. Not one country I researched was like ‘people in this culture love to lock themselves in their rooms alone and share their food with NO-ONE’; quite the opposite, food and eating is something that all people need to do, so why not do it together? So, if you’ve by some miracle or another managed to stay awake through this post, I urge you to go find a recipe right now (and, if necessary, a friend who is willing to cook said recipe), invite your pals over and chow down together. Talk about your day, get your hands messy, wipe your mucky faces with the sleeve of your jumper, for that is joy.

Thanks – and hats off – for joining me on this little adventure. My 2018 diary looks forward to being filled with invites to dinner!

Monday 16 October 2017

Y is for Yemen

Y is for Yemen

Once again, shame shame shame on me for taking an age to write this little entry. As I mentioned in the last post for X and W, I definitely cooked Y before my birthday rolled around – I did, honestly, you can check Instagram if you don’t believe me – but a veritable avalanche of work has prevented me from writing the corresponding blog entry. Now, here I sit on an unusually sunny October day (oi oi climate change, whatcha playin’ at??) and have decided to eschew my current translation in favour of telling y’all a bit about Yemen.

When you look at an alphabetical list of all the countries in the world, it certainly looks like folk just sort of ran out of steam towards the end: things get a little crazy around S, but from there onwards, only the true mavericks pushed on to the end of the alphabet when naming their countries. It’s for this reason that I was once again faced with a single option when it came to cooking Y: Yemen. For anyone who has ever watched ‘Friends’ (if you haven’t, I’m judging you), the name Yemen can never really be uttered without the addition of “Yemen Road, Yemen” or perhaps “When we get to Yemen, can I stay with you?”. My apologies if you have zero idea what that’s about, but it’s your own fault for not watching ‘Friends’! Anyway, for the scriptwriters of said TV show, it appears that Yemen was the perfect combination of being in people’s realm of consciousness, yet so utterly far-away and “foreign” that it lent the storyline (a character claiming he was moving to Yemen to avoid a deeply annoying girlfriend) an extra comedic boost than if the character were to just claim he was moving to, for example, Canada. Times have indeed changed since then, and sadly Yemen is now more likely to be discussed within the framework of hunger, political crisis and civil war. As I have maintained throughout the course of this project, it is not my intention to provide a deep and studied insight on the current situations – good or bad – of the countries I write about: I am in no position to do so, and I shall write this post under the same condition. Right here, it’s all about the grub.

Bish-bash-bosh, it's bisbas
So, where the blimmin’ heck is Yemen? To be honest, I didn’t know before doing a bit of research on the place, but now I can tell you - with all the authority of someone who has looked on Google Maps - that it is right down there at the end of the sticky-out bit of land known as the Arabian Peninsula, squashed under the heft of its big fancy neighbour, Saudi Arabia. While it may be officially a Middle Eastern country, it is quite a bit closer to a handful of countries on the Horn of Africa than many of the other places sitting pretty on the peninsula. Over the years, Yemen has forged closer historical and cultural ties with Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia, lending Yemeni cuisine a very distinct character when compared to the food served up in Oman, Saudi, Qatar and so forth. I have to say, this is something which brought me great personal joy: as much as I like typical Middle Eastern food, there is not a huge amount of variation between the individual nations. God knows I like a good plate of rice and grilled meat as much as the next person, but I relish the chance to try something new. And so, step forth, Yemen!

Just skimming over the very long and complicated history of Yemen, it’s clear to see that this country has seen its fair share of foreigners bowling in and trying to stake a claim to it. It’s been part of a trading state that comprises parts of modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Ottoman empire got in there for a while, and those power-hungry Brits made their presence known, too. Not only that, but various religious groups have jostled for domination for centuries, ultimately leading to the conclusion that administration of Yemen has never been easy. Although all these foreign guys and gals certainly had something of an influence on the food being chomped on in there, the cuisine in general is fairly homogenous: there is a slightly heavier Ottoman influence in the North, and a Mughlai Indian influence in the South, but all in all, the folk all across this not-as-little-as-I-thought land tend to dine on very similar things.

Base of ma saltah
As one would probably expect, the bulk of the protein in a Yemeni diet comes from chicken, goat and lamb. Beef is a pricey luxury and as such is not a regular feature on the menu there, as is indeed the case in many of the neighbouring countries. Fish, on the other fin, is a big hit, especially in coastal areas (I know, UNBELIEVABLE eh?). When it comes to getting a vitamin fix, the fruit and veggies on offer are not as wild as in, say, Thailand – no absolutely HEINOUSLY stinking durian to be found here, thank goodness – but who needs fancy and unrecognisable when you’ve an abundance of trusty potatoes, tomatoes and onions to hand? Well, them there lot down in Yemen certainly don’t. Of course, there are other fruits and vegetables doing the rounds, but those are ‘the big three’, so to say. However, these seemingly plain ingredients are not simply enjoyed as nature would have it - no no, they’re often dolled up in a whole host of herbs and spices before making their grand entrance at lunch time (the main meal of the day). One of the most beloved jazzy outfits for a humdrum bit o’ meat and veg – and, oddly, coffee - is a spice mix called hawaij, which includes aniseeds, fennel seeds, ginger and cardamom. If you’re feeling really crazy, you can even chuck in some cloves, caraway, coriander...I mean, basically anything, as long as it results in absolute taste party.

For my dish of choice for Y, I felt, as always, the lure of the bread section. Yemen has got it going ON in the bakery, friends, and the flatbread situation there had me reaching for the flour before I knew what had come over me. However, if there’s one dish that seems to be synonymous with Yemeni cuisine, it’s saltah, and so, with a heavy heart and a click on the ‘x’, I got rid of the page with all the beautiful breads (weeping all the while) and instead went on a little quest to make me some saltah.

The green blob of hulba
Some claim that the world itself is derived from the term salatah, which is like a jolly little medley of vegetables…otherwise known to you and I as – wait for it – a salad. That was an anti-climax, eh? The general belief is that the word made its way over to Yemen with the Turkish troops on one of their very many forays into Yemeni territory over the years, but to be honest, any allusions to the history of saltah are shrouded in vagueness and as such, to be taken with a very generous pinch of salt. One thing I can say for sure is: a salad it ain’t. First of all, it’s supposed to be cooked, and done so in a clay pot – tell me, when was the last time you popped a lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes in a clay pot and cooked it all for 45 minutes, and still called it a salad? Precisely. Secondly, it’s often based on a brown meat stew called maraq­ – again, not a typical salad ingredient, I think we can all agree. Thirdly, and crucially, the most vital component of saltah is a fenugreek froth known as hulba. If I ever go to a restaurant and order a salad (which I will NEVER do anyway – it’s a waste of an order), and it comes with a crown of froth, I’ll be sending it straight back to the kitchen, I can tell you. Anyway, I think you get my point: saltah may well have its origins in the humble salad, but it’s come a long way, baby.

And so, to the cooking. As I have often done throughout this project, I decided to make a vegetarian version of this Yemeni classic, with potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines - buying lamb here makes me too sad, paling as it does in comparison to British lamb (soz dudes, it’s true). The main bulk of the dish is definitely not fancy, featuring a fairly tame stew spiced up with some cumin and coriander. The real fun starts when you get to making the froth, hulba. This, hmmm, condiment, I guess you could say, is pretty simple IF you can get your hands on some fenugreek powder. Sadly, this key ingredient is apparently not priority number 1 for the discerning palates of Braunschweig, so I had to improvise a little and use dried fenugreek leaves to try and get at least the flavour a bit right. The other vital ingredient to hulba is a herb mix called bisbas­, made of chives, coriander and cumin seeds, green chilis and water. These components, all lovely in their own right, are smashed together to form a paste, which is then added to the fenugreek froth that normally would result from soaking the powder and then whipping it up. In my case, I got as much flavour as I could out of the fenugreek leaves, then just dumped everything in a blob of plain yoghurt – not totally traditional, but needs must. Surely a blob is the next best thing to a froth anyway, right? Right. With the stew all cooked and the green blob ready to go, there was nothing left but to chow down. Well, had it not been for the hulba, this stew would have been nice, of course, but the punch of chives and green chili, and the rather pathetic flailing of fenugreek, certainly lifted it beyond your bog-standard vegetable stew. I would be very intrigued to try it again with a proper frothy hulba, but until the folk of Braun Town tap into the secret joys of Yemeni cuisine, it may be tricky. Sadly, I think it’s going to be a pretty long wait!

Saltah, yehhh

Tuesday 26 September 2017

W is for Wales, X is for….Xi’an??

W is for Wales, X is for….Xi’an??

Holy smokes, it has taken me TOO LONG to get my arse around to writing this post. I would apologise, but frankly I think most folk are beyond caring, so I’ll just carry on regardless. As you may or may not be aware, at the time of writing (i.e. now), my birthday has come and gone in a flurry of steak, red wine and cake. It was an absolute corker, but I’ll spare you the details until the Z post.

So, W and X. Well, as you can imagine, pickings were as slim as could be for these two (hence the combination of the two in one post): X doesn’t even have a single, lousy country to its name and W…hmmm. According to the list I was using to make my selections, Wales – the only country that would potentially qualify for W – isn’t a country at all (BLASPHEMY). It doesn’t even make the list in brackets or anything! Having lived a stone’s throw from the bridge that connects Wales and England for a good chunk of my life to date, I’d strongly argue the case for viewing them as two very distinct countries. As if the labyrinthine Welsh language were not enough to support this statement (YOU try saying a word with about 12 L’s, 25 Y’s and a mere sprinkling of vowels!), I reckon the fact that you’d most likely get a good bop on the nose if you suggested otherwise to either nationality would make you think twice about defining them in any other way. And so it was that I took Wales as my W country, and I shall deal with its culinary gems first.

Not even half the cheese
So, the list of proper Welsh dishes is not exactly what you’d call excessive in length: given its proximity to the rest of the UK, there’s been a lot of culinary a-mixin’ and a-minglin’ over the years, lending it quite a similar general character to English cuisine. Light it ain’t, but then again, you need a good bit of meat on your bones if you’re yomping up and down in the Valleys all day, bellowing out Tom Jones (my apologies to all of Wales for the shameless stereotyping). What Wales does have in abundance, though, is sensational produce. It is rightly well-known for its lamb and beef (protected under European Union legislation…for now), and has a serious player in the cheese aisle in the form of Caerphilly. Over in the vegetable aisle, it’s all about the leek: way back when, Celtic law made a special provision for leeks (and cabbage) that attempted to protect them from any sneaky wandering cattle who might fancy a little snack-ette whilst doing the rounds. Whether it not that actually worked is rather superfluous, as leeks still became the national vegetable of this breezy little nation.

Welsh rarebit...or is it rabbit?
The week that I was due to make a Welsh dish, I was somewhat limited in terms of time. If I’m not mistaken, it was very shortly before my summer trip to the Netherlands and I was absolutely and completely disorganised. This resulted in my selection of a simple yet downright delicious Welsh rarebit. Had I sorted my shambolic self out sooner, I would have been very tempted to whip up a bara brith (literally ‘speckled bread’, a fruit loaf hailing from rural Wales) or a batch of Welsh cakes (or pice ar y maen to any Welshies out there), which are like little drop scones cooked on a griddle. Bara brith, by the way, is also a popular teatime treat in Argentina, of all places. This is all thanks to a little group of Welsh settlers who somehow found themselves over in Patagonia in the late-1800s, following an attempt by the Argentinian government to lure Europeans over to populate the country outside of Buenos Aires. In a glorious example of the gift that is multiculturalism, you may still bump into the odd Welsh speaker in the backwaters of Patagonia today!

Back to the rarebit. The name divulges next to no information about what is in store for the uninitiated, but allow me to assure you that it is good. The true spelling of the dish is actually – apparently – Welsh rabbit, but it seems that nowadays, the word rarebit is much more commonplace. I imagine it may have something to do with the frustration of café staff having to constantly explain that no, the chef hasn’t forgotten the meat…no no, there’s not actually any rabbit in th…well, I didn’t actually name the dish myself, so… Whichever way you want to spell it, this dish is essentially a spin on cheese on toast. The main difference is that the topping isn’t just a plain old bit of cheese, but rather a delightfully silky cheese sauce that remains all gooey and dreamy and oozy after a little sojourn under the grill. As with many simple dishes, plenty of people have their own way of making rarebit/rabbit: some add beer to the sauce, others use a béchamel base, some add a splash of Worcestershire sauce and other clever souls extol the addition of a fiery mustard. One thing is for sure: there’s no going wrong with it.

As I said, I was a little frazzled when I came to make my own rabbit. Fortunately, it is not a dish that requires enormous skill, patience or awareness – apart from when you stick it under the grill and have to watch the damn thing like a hawk, lest it burn to a crisp (which can happen in a matter of MILLISECONDS). The recipe I used was, for Welsh rabbit purists, perhaps a little on the wacky side: it involved not only Worcestershire sauce, but also mustard AND ale/stout. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much ale lying around my house, so I had to forego that addition, but I don’t think the end product suffered too badly. My sauce was based on a roux of butter, flour and milk, followed by an egg and an unholy amount of cheese – why stick to one product from the dairy aisle when you can use them all?! After all that dairy goodness had melted, leaving a gloopy yet strangely appetizing mass in the pan, it was poured all over a couple of slices of thick, crusty bread and (in my haste) unceremoniously shoved under the grill. What emerged from the oven was, of course, glorious. Few can deny the beauty of melted cheese on bread in some form or another, and I made sure to sit myself down and enjoy it fully, albeit burning off all my tastebuds in the process. Let that be a lesson to you.


Moving swiftly on to X, that tricksy little letter. Without any further research into other places starting with X, I decided that I would make something Chinese and, after a quick Google of large Chinese cities beginning with X that are known for a specific dish (one of the more specific Google searches in recent memory), I landed upon Xi’an. For anyone whose knowledge of Chinese geography is as dismal as mine, Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province, right in the middle of China and home to a mere 37 million people (the province, that is). China, honestly, what the heck?? I can’t really think about China too much because my brain just can’t cope. Just the sheer size, and all the numbers, the single time zone…gahhhh, staaaaahhhhhhhpppp!!!

Making me some noodles
Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China, fact fans, and the starting point of the Silk Road. It’s also the city that over 8 million people call home (again with the numbers, China!). But what of its food? It’s hard to pin down a dish/style of cooking that is absolutely unique to Xi’an, but if we broaden the search to include the whole of the Shaanxi province, it would seem that they are fans of savoury flavours (hint: think heavy on the garlic, soy sauce, salt and onion). Also, much to my delight, the folk in Shaanxi are generally more partial to a good bowl of noodles than a steaming plate of rice. The noodles tend to be a lot wider, thicker and longer than your bog-standard Beijing noodles, which I believe only serves to make them more lovable, as you get more bang for your buck. One particularly interesting point to note about the food in Shaanxi province is the prevalence of beef and mutton. There are many more Muslims in Shaanxi than a lot of other places in China and naturally, this is reflected in the food culture, to the point that one of the alleged favourite snacks is…yes, the KEBAB! Somewhere that eats a ton of noodles AND loves a kebab? Book me a ticket on the next 
flight out, I am THERE!

The week that I cooked X, I was staying in a blimmin’ lovely Airbnb in Delft, in the Netherlands, and as such did not have my usual battery of kitchen equipment and ingredients to hand. Long story short…actually, that was the whole story, so short story short, I had to cook something with basic ingredients and that required simple prep. As luck would have it, one of Shaanxi’s – and by association, Xi’an’s – most famous noodle dishes ticks all of those boxes. Ladies and gents, get ready for mega noodle cravings – it’s biangbiang mian!

Using a chopstick to split the noodles
Mian in this case means noodles, and the biangbiang bit –language nerds, listen up – is an onomatopoeia, referring to the sound made when the noodles slap against the board during their preparation. Hoooooraaahhhh – who doesn’t love a good ol’ onomatopoeia, especially food-related ones? What’s more, the Chinese symbol for biang is apparently considered the most complicated of all and, with all my knowledge of Chinese (which is precisely zero), I would have to concur. Seriously, look it up – it is headache-inducing. Anyways, the dish itself is quite simple: big, fat, juicy noodles coated in soy sauce, garlic, chili, vinegar and some spring onions. That, my dears, is it.
I have to say, of all the dishes I’ve made, making my own noodles was up there with the most satisfying. Given the somewhat robust nature of these particular mian, you can afford to be a little heavy-handed with them and finesse is not a requirement for the success of the dish. The process of making them requires, as with a lot of dough-based things, a bit of waiting around – dough truly is the most fussy of foodstuffs – but once you crack on with the actual shaping them, it’s a downright treat. As the name says, you gotta get physical with these noodles: rolling them out, pulling them, slapping them around and generally relieving all the stresses of life on them. And the best part is, that’s what makes ‘em so darn tasty! Once the noodles have been made, it’s simply a matter of mercilessly throwing them into a vat of boiling water and, once cooked, tossing them in the sauce. Voila!
Biangbiang beauties!

Biangbiang mian are not, by any stretch of the imagination, elegant to eat: I was slopping and sloshing soy sauce all over the shop, even managing to cover my ever-grubby glasses in the stuff. But is that not when food is at its most enjoyable? Yes, a fancy-pants restaurant might be nice sometimes, but give me a sloppy, messy plate of lovingly prepared whatever and I’m yours for life – especially if I can eat it with my hands!

Tuesday 15 August 2017

V is for Vietnam

V is for Vietnam

Hey everyone (i.e. hi parents). Ooooo-eeee, the end is nigh – just a few more weeks to get through and then you’re FREE! No more photos of dough in various guises clogging up whatever social media you use. No more wildly tangential ramblings about my overwhelming love of peanuts. No no, soon it will be no more. Rejoice!

So, here we are at the letter V. Unquestionably one of the easier decisions I’ve come across over the course of this challenge, given a) the exclusivity of the club (a mere 4 members) and b) the fact that I have only visited one of them. Actually, that is a lie: I have indeed visited the Vatican, but I was so mortified by the size of the queue snaking its way around the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica that I opted for an hour-long pilgrimage to a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint instead. FYI, this is an extremely good example of where my priorities lie when on holiday, should you ever have the bad luck of finding yourself stuck in a foreign country with me. Vanuatu and Venezuela didn’t even get a look in this week: for me, it was time to say xin chào to Vietnam.

Vietnamese food has rightly been lapping up plenty of attention on the food scene for a few years now but maaaan alive, NOTHING can prepare for the sheer joy of the food available in the country itself. Vietnam was the first country in South East Asia I’d ever visited and it was basically love at first bite (baaaaahahahaha). Hmm, in retrospect that may not be true. No, in fact that is another lie. The first night in all round good-time town Hanoi, my cuz/travel bud and I consulted our VERY well-known brand of guide book and ended up in a sadly sub-par little restaurant, dining on mediocre noodles and rice, and inevitably surrounded by other diners with said guidebook sticking out of their pockets. From that dismal moment on, we decided to eschew the book with a firm hand and trust our noses to lead us in the right direction. By the end of our month there, we had managed to convince ourselves that it was in fact normal to eat 6 meals a day, so flippin’ incredible was the food on offer. Needless to say, my body did not thank me for it the first few days into an epic bike ride in Cambodia a few days later!

Fundamental to Vietnamese cuisine – touted as one of the healthiest in the world – is the concept of the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Each of these five elements is represented by a certain, hmmm, ‘type’ of flavour, known as ngũ vị – sour, bitter, sweet, spicy and salty, respectively – which in turn correspond to a particular organ in the body. The term ngũ vị means ‘five spice’, which is so beautifully succinct and to the point that there is absolutely no need to go any further into the etymology of it. Hoorah! The Vietnamese are also big on the idea of food as being a multisensory experience in which every one of the five senses should be made to feel like they are the most important one and should be getting all the gold stars at school. Aside from the more obvious senses of taste, smell and sight, the sound is said to come from the crisp freshness of the ingredients, and touch from getting stuck in with your hands wherever possible. This philosophy towards food results in a lot of very happy diners, but believe me when I say that it is certainly more complex and interesting than the measly little description I’ve just given you. I won’t do it the injustice of trying to delve any deeper here, but hey, why not read up on it yourself? Live your life!

The range of sublime dishes and ingredients in Vietnam is vast, but speaking purely from my personal experience, there are definitely a few things which I feel make it stand out from the rest of its neighbours. First of all, the freshness of, well, everything goes above and beyond anything I’ve ever experienced: almost every meal or snack I ate there (every 45 minutes or so, HA!) was accompanied by fistfuls of fresh salad and the herbiest damn herbs you could think of, regardless of what was going on in the main dish. Even the humble but MINDBLOWING banh mi sandwiches you can pick up for about 30p on any street corner (from a vendor, not just off the pavement) are absolutely stuffed with herbs, pickled carrots and daikon, and lettuce. Jesus, I am drooling just thinking about it. Secondly, I particularly enjoyed the abundance of noodles in Vietnam. Of course, nothing says “Heyyyyy I’m a tourist and have no idea what I’m doing” better than ordering a steaming bowl of phở (noodle soup with beef or chicken) for your dinner. It’s all about noodle soup for brekkie, folks – ask Cambodia, they’ll agree. Like many other noodle dishes in that neighbourhood, phở features long, thin rice noodles, making it delightfully light and giving you the sense that you are eating something very wholesome indeed. That said, 3 bowls later and that feeling of springy lightness is generally replaced by a rice noodle food baby and a very full bladder (but NO REGRETS). Finally, I have to mention the coffee. As an avid coffee-avoider for more or less my entire life beforehand, Vietnam was the country that paved the way to coffee-drinking, and therefore something akin to adulthood, for me. It is sensational, truly. Served steaming hot in little metal filters, it is a bit of a waiting game watching it slowly drip, like blots of jet black ink onto paper, onto the indecently thick layer of condensed milk at the bottom of the cup. But when it’s done, holy cow, it is the BUSINESS. Vietnam is second only to Brazil in terms of coffee production and export, but if I were a Vietnamese coffee baron, I’d be keeping all that goodness for myself and start engineering cows that produce condensed milk straight from the udder.

Having invited over numerous guinea pigs to get involved with my Vietnamese venture, I decided that a few different dishes was the way to go. Also, it gave me a good excuse to cook way more than I usually would (*ahem* admit to), which is never a bad thing. So, I raided my bookshelf, looking for recipes that would have me weeping into my noodles and longing to jump on the next flight out. One thing I knew I wanted to make was bánh xèo, which are basically Vietnamese style crepes filled with pork, prawns and, of course, an entire herb garden. The name literally means ‘sizzling cake’, so with these babies, you’re getting a double dose of sound (re: the five senses situation, see above), from the crunchy sturrrrffff and the crepes themselves. They’re also a big hit with the ‘Bodians across the border, but as far as I know, the Vietnamese are the geniuses that came up with them. The batter is made using rice flour (among other things, naturally) and the addition of turmeric turns them – and inevitably everything else within a 2-metre radius - an alarming shade of yellow. What’s not to love?

The second recipe to catch my eye was a gloriously and characteristically simple dish of rice noodles and tofu. At the time of writing this post, I’m a 6-hour train ride away from the recipe book and I can’t remember for the life of me what the dish is called. If I Google it, all I get is many, MANY links to vegan and “clean eating” sites, which is definitely not where I got my recipe from, so I shall have to forego the name and just describe it instead: rice noodles and tofu – ta da! OK, the tofu was tossed in seasoned flour and fried so it was all yummy and crispy, but seriously, that was as complicated as it got. And once again, simplicity took home the gold medal, with this dish coming out on top with ma’ g-pigs. If you are one of those folks who is still a little sceptical about tofu, on the basis that it is a wobbly, bland block of beige nothingness, I implore you to give crispy tofu a try. Get yourself a decent dipping sauce or season the flour with ridiculous amounts of salt and pepper, and prepare yourself for a trip to your new happy place. You are welcome.

Finally, as I am getting close to the end of this challenge, I decided to treat myself by making one of my absolute favourite South East Asian desserts. Oddly enough, it doesn’t involve tapioca, which seems to be the go-to dessert ingredient over that side of the globe, but the pud still does have a pleasing gelatinous quality to it: Chè Trôi Nước. Actually, I’m not 100% sure that is the name of what I made, but again, my cookbook is not to hand, so I’m gonna have to trust Google on this one. This is a dish of little glutinous rice balls with a chunk of palm sugar tucked away inside, boiled and then served in a bath of warm, sweetened coconut milk and topped with toasted sesame. These little monsters are popular in Cambodia too, which is where I know them from, but dammit, they were in my Vietnamese cookbook, so I allowed myself to believe that they are indeed Vietnamese (apologies if Bodge did actually invent them!). Apparently, the name translates to something along the lines of ‘dessert wading in water’, which is so wonderful that I’d be tempted to make them even if I didn’t adore them with every fibre of my being. They are a little time-consuming to make, but for me, it was absolutely worth it. The jury was out from the guinea pigs, as some found the sweetness a little too hair-raising, but this time, I didn’t even care ‘cos it just meant I got to inhale a couple of more. Yay!

 Vietnam, your food is divine, and your reputation as one of the greatest cuisines is well and truly deserved. Well done you!

Friday 4 August 2017

U is for Uruguay

U is for Uruguay

Goededag, dames en heren! I’m writing to you from a little room in a very breezy Delft, in the Netherlands, where I’m putting my shamefully rusty Dutch through its paces in an intensive language course. So, I apologise if nothing in this post makes sense. At this moment in time, my brain is reminiscent of a melted ice cream, or indeed een gesmolten ijsje, as the folk here would say.

The dough and, well, my table
Blah blah blah, no-one cares about all that nonsense, I hear you cry. Alright, I’m back on track, on the food train, heading south west! The letter U was surprisingly plentiful in choice: I was expecting it to be a case of 3 or 4 countries, but once again, my utter lack of geographical knowledge led me astray. There were, in fact, 7 entire countries to choose from – and not bad ones at that. Having tackled Russia a few weeks ago, I ruled Ukraine out pretty sharpish, and the United Arab Emirates may as well have not been there at all, for all the enthusiasm I had for cooking food from the Gulf again. I was very tempted to have a total calorific blow-out and make any number of sinful dishes from the USA (chicken fried steak, mac ‘n cheese, a properly massive Devil’s food cake), or indeed to pay tribute to my homeland of the UK. Lord knows I can demolish a scone in about 3 seconds flat. But no, at the time of cooking, a very dear friend of mine was visiting and so, to thank her for schlepping all the way over to Germany to see yours truly, I left the choice down to her. And what was her country of choice? Well, none other than little old Uruguay!

Uruguay, where even are you? I mean, yes, we all know somewhere in South America, but where? There, in the middle somewhere? Oh. Oh no, not even close. To the left? No, not there either. Oh dear. Right down at the bottom of Brazil?! Who knew?!?! You kept that secret, you sneaky little country. And little it is, at least in comparison to its mammoth neighbour to the North (Brazil, obvs) and its sizeable pal to the West (Argentina). In fact, geographically-speaking (and we all know how GREAT my geoggers is by now) it’s the second smallest country in South America after Suriname, a former colony of my interim home here, the Netherlands. Although I apparently have zero idea where it actually is, I have to say, I harbour a secret admiration for Uruguay, primarily for its superlative national attitude towards renewable energy (almost 95% of the country’s energy is from renewables, dontcha know). But having just Googled the country, my obeisance for it has at least quadrupled in the last 10 seconds. Why? Well, here are just a few reasons for you to chew on: on a per-capita basis, it contributes more than any other country in the WORLD to UN peace-keeping missions. I KNOW!! It also ranks first in Latin America in terms of democracy, peace and lack of corruption. Are you packing your bags, too? Finally (at least for this bloglet), Uruguay is regarded as one of the most liberal and progressive nations on the planet, leading The Economist to crown it country of the year in 2013. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m already looking at apartments in Montevideo.

Before the fill-fest
When it came to investigating the tasty treats that this absolute beaut of a country serves up, I admit I had my preconceptions. Given its proximity to Argentina, land of meat, I was pretty sure this week would be a choice of steak, steak, or maybe even steak. Generally not something I would go for, as I’m not a massive carnivore, but for the sake of this project, I was willing to struggle through and get hold of a couple of big juicy slabs of meat. Hard life, eh? However, once I’d delved deep into the black hole of the internet, it transpired that Uruguayan cuisine is surprisingly diverse and indeed European, basically welcoming any and every other national cuisine with open arms. Goddamit, Uruguay, must you excel in EVERY area of life? It’s particularly heavy on Mediterranean flavours, with more than a few nods to Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian cuisine. This, for the most part, is down to immigration. Once again, it was the Spaniards (yeh, those guys again – seriously, was the rest of Europe just picking their nose for centuries or something?) who paved the way for Europeans who wanted to try out life halfway round the world, swiftly followed by a sizeable wave of Italian immigrants. As is the case in Argentina, Spanish and Italian immigrants formed the backbone of society in Uruguay, and their influence can still be felt in the architecture, language and traditions of both countries. You need only go as far as Montevideo (say with an Italian accent whilst gesticulating wildly to get the full effect) to get a clue as to how much of an influence the Italians had there.
My outstanding assistant, sans head

As a result of this melting-pot situation, I was faced with quite the dilemma when trying to figure out what to cook. Given the above-mentioned influx of Marios, Giuseppes and Marias, it’s hardly surprising that pizza is kind of a big deal in Uruguay. Of particular intrigue was fainá, which is a thin, round chickpea flour pizza-crêpe type job found all over the shop in Uruguayan pizza joints. However, my idea was swiftly poo-pooed by my guest, who understandably fancied something a little more interesting than a chickpea crêpe. The dessert section of the great menu of Uruguay was also brimming with possibility: not only are they fans of everyone’s favourite artery clogger, dulce de leche (sweet, sticky caramel-type sauce), but they also enjoy a good churro. If that ain’t enough to get you reaching for your phone, just in case you have a heart attack, Uruguayans also indulge in a wide range of so-called bizcochos, which is more or less what we know as Danish pastries. May I reiterate: Uruguay is the dream land.

Yes yes YES empanadas
However, my dear guest and I had already almost eaten ourselves into a sugar coma by the time it came to cook, and so we opted for a savoury dish: empanadas. I’m sure most people have heard of empanadas before – they’re a popular snackette all the way across Central and South America, as well as in the Southern states of the US, and indeed in Spain, the originators of the little blighters. But what exactly is it? Well, basically, it is the Spanish equivalent of a Cornish pasty: a semi-circular pie filled, in general, with some kind of meat, and fried. And all of that in a practical hand-sized portion, ready for you to inelegantly stuff into your chops without the inconvenience of using cutlery. The Uruguayan version does not differ hugely from its neighbours, although the use of a generous handful of fresh herbs seemed to be bucking the trend slightly. The version we produced also called for a bowl of chimichurri sauce on the side, made of a buttload of parsley and oregano, chilli and garlic. As baking goes, empanadas are definitely not hard to make at all. It was actually strangely therapeutic filling them and making them look all nice with forked edges. The end result was a hit, if I do say so myself, with the herbalicious chimchurri giving the whole shebang a nice whack ‘o fresh. I feel like I’ve said this a lot throughout this blog, but people, this time I mean it: Uruguay is IT. Montevideo, watch out, I’m coming for you!

Monday 24 July 2017

T is for Turkey

T is for Turkey

Guys and gals, this is really the home stretch now, eh? It’s like when you turn 27 and think ‘blimey, I’m legit in my late 20’s…I should probably start thinking about adulty type things now’. Except in this case, I’m reaching the late ‘bet (as not a single person has ever called it) and should probably start thinking about food a tiny bit less. Or not. Most likely not.

All. The. Butter
After the unbearably drawn out process of creating Spanish food last week, I decided to go for something I felt a bit more at home with, lest I produce yet another rock-solid death weapon masquerading as bread. The letter T certainly offered up a few interesting candidates, such as Thailand (yessssss to all dem noodlezzzzz) and Tunisia, which would have seen me once again reaching for almost every spice I own. Delectable as these and many other T cuisines undoubtedly are, living in Germany means that in actual fact, I only had one real option. Can you guess what it is yet? Consider for a moment German fast food: Currywurst, Bretzel, Bratwurst...what’s missing? Any fast food fan worth their unhealthy amount of salt knows that the best and only ‘snack’ (if you can call something that would feed a small family for 3 days a snack) worth having here is the döner, leading me to conclude that this week, Turkey was the one.

Turkish food – and for the most part, flippin’ good Turkish food – is ubiquitous in Germany. Turkish food here is kind of the equivalent to Indian food in the UK: no matter what hole in the ditch you find yourself in after following some questionable sat nav directions, you are almost guaranteed to find Turkish food there. It’s basically the law. And hey, I work at the courts sometimes, so obviously I know what I’m talking about! I remember vividly the pure elation that friends and I felt when, a couple of weeks into our year abroad, we realised that it is socially acceptable to eat a döner during the day. IMAGINE! Rather than resorting to it as a last option on the way home after a night out on the tiles (or sticky dancefloor) – then promptly regretting it the second you wake up – in Germany, land of dreams, you just saunter down to your local döner joint on your lunch break and not a single person would suspect you of having some kind of booze problem! I mean, co-workers might object when you come back to the office honking of garlic and fried meat, but they’re just being precious. Plus, they’re probably just jealous that they didn’t go with you, the fools.

Baklava station
But why is Turkish food so popular here? Well, the nub and gist of it is that, back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, West Germany was in need of a whole host of workers in the industrial sector to help rebuild the country after the Second World War, so it signed bilateral recruitment agreements which allowed it to take on so-called Gastarbeiter (guest workers) in industry to do jobs that required fewer qualifications. Italy, Greece and Spain were the first countries to sign, and Turkey followed in 1961. The whole history of Gastarbeiter is super interesting, but this little bloglet is not the place to delve into the topic. Important to know is that, over the years, the population of Turkish people working and living in Germany continued to grow, reaching 4 million in 2010 – a significantly larger number than any other non-German nationality. In fact, Berlin is home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey and accordingly, the common consensus is that the closer you live to Berlin, the better the döner. Heck, the döner is even said to have been invented in Berlin, by an enterprising Turkish immigrant. The day that fella passed away, Germany lost a piece of its cultural history, and it knew it: national papers and journals covered the story, highlighting just how much of an integral part of the national cuisine his invention had become.

Of course, the Turkish food available in Germany is not representative of all the grub that Turkey has to offer. Just looking at the sheer size of the country makes that pretty clear - it’s almost four times the size of the UK, man! A country that big, you’re going to be able to pack in a LOT of different dishes. Not only that, but it straddles two continents, bringing in flavours from all over the shop and throwing them all in a mixing bowl together to produce some pretty spectacular results. However, I felt a little overwhelmed by the task of giving a “brief insight” into Turkish cuisine in general (plus, I would just get hungry for ALL OF IT), so, when choosing a dish to cook, I decided to look a little more closely at the Turkish food I know and love from my time here in Deutschland.

Ready to roll
If I head out for Turkish food here, I generally try (and generally fail) to ration myself during the day ‘cos I know dinner in a Turkish restaurant means getting a LOT of bang for your buck. Döner aside, lamb is undoubtedly the star of the show, especially since Germans don’t seem to appreciate it in any other context (one of the few downsides to living here). In most joints, lamb lovers will have their pick of whatever form of the meat they want, from hunks of it hanging out in a dish of saç kavurma (chunks o’ lamb fried up with onions, pepper and peperoni), a saddle of it in the form of hünkar beğendi (grilled, on a bed of aubergine puree) or minced, skewered and grilled to produce köfte. Obviously, other meat does make an appearance, but to be honest, if it didn’t used to look like a cloud with legs, I ain’t interested. If you aren’t so keen on tucking into a monster portion of cute little lambs, you’re in luck – Turkish food is an absolute party for vegetarians, too. You barely even need to move past the starter page in a restaurant menu to sort yourself out with a bloody good feed, full of beauties such as sigara böreği (filo pastry “cigars” filled with white beyaz penir cheese and various herbs), cacık (yoghurt, garlic and cucumber) and patlıcan ezmesi (pureed aubergine with garlic and yoghurt). Even though my love of lamb can at times be overwhelming, I had the feeling that I’ve been neglecting my sweet tooth so far in this blog. And so, to make up for allllllll the weeks of savoury goodness, I thought I’d give my tastebuds the sweet equivalent in a single, teeth-rottingly sugary explosion. Friends, loosen your belts – it’s baklava time.

Daaaayyyummmm, lookin good
The origins of beautiful, heavenly baklava are unclear, but common consensus states that it was developed in the imperial kitchens of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, with the Sultan getting his minions to roll out metres and metres of the stuff every 15th of the month of Ramadan. Prior to this, it may well have developed from – sick bags at the ready, folks – Roman placenta cake (vommmmmmmmmmmm). Don’t worry, it wasn’t a cake made out of actual placenta, that was just a fun-time name for an ancient Roman dish of about a bajillion layers of dough, interspersed with a mixture of honey and cheese, then baked and covered in honey (almost as vomit-inducing as the idea of placenta cake, actually). Whatever the origins, baklava is a celebration of all that your dentist hates in life: sugary chopped nuts layered with buttery, crisp filo pastry and held together with either about a pint of honey or sugar syrup. There is an incredible variety of baklava to be had, featuring various nuts and ‘construction’ techniques, but for my own attempt I kept it simple, following a recipe in a fantastic book given to me by my big sis. After some initial scepticism about my capacity to create what I perceive to be the king of sweets, I was delighted to discover that simple baklava is precisely that: simple as you like! Sure, there are a lot of stages and it’s kind of time-consuming, but it is in no way complicated – a dangerous revelation. And my my my, was it worth the time and effort – Jesus, the SMELL in the flat was worth it alone! Hot, crisp and buttery out of the oven, I don’t know that I’ve ever produced any dessert that satisfying before. Whether my dentist would agree is another matter entirely.

Sunday 16 July 2017

S is for Spain

S is for Spain

Well, this was an overwhelming week in terms of choice. Truly, I was in something of a quandary when I looked up how many countries start with the letter S. There are 27 to choose from – the same number of EU Member States now (sob sob sob), to give you some idea of context. And boy, are there some GREAT places in this category: Sri Lanka was speaking to me in a big way after having read a recipe for so-called hoppers (Sri Lankan crepes, if you will); Switzerland of course has the healthiest of all the foods, cheese fondue; Sweden has all kinds of spicy buns (watch yourselves, those who are thinking the ‘bluer’ definition of buns – oo-er); Syrian cuisine is brimming with many of my absolute favourite foods, and Singaporean food is a melting pot of delights I’d quite happily dive face first into and lollop around in for…well, forever. While all these places had me drooling all over my keyboard, I felt that, having spent several years of my life studying the beautiful language of Spanish, I had no other choice but to dedicate this week to España. Vamos, chicos!!!

The beginnings of the pan
I have a kind of complicated relationship with Spanish. For some reason, although I know I am quite competent in it, it requires a gargantuan effort for me to actually reel off anything more than just ‘hola’. German has a delightful phrase to describe the notion of getting over your inhibitions, which, when literally translated, becomes ‘to overcome your inner pig-dog’ (den inneren Schweinehund überwinden, in case you were wondering). Friends, the Spanish language is my personal pig-dog: for all the best will in the world, I simply freeze up when it comes to speaking it. There is a large school of thought that considers it one of the easier languages to learn, which I’m sure is true in many ways; however, having accustomed myself early on to the rigidities of the German language, the slightly simpler grammar rules of Spanish leave me floundering in a sea of sangria. That said, I still enjoy a good bit of Latin pop and am thrilled when I can actually decode what Enrique Iglesias is singing about (hint: it is often sexy Latinas and dancing).

Having a right laugh with my pepper
The Spanish cuisine is famous the world over, and with good reason. Before you even get to looking at the human history that has influenced the country’s food, you have to do nothing more than caste an eye over the geography of the country to see that it certainly lends itself well to cultivating an eye-popping array of goodies. Not only is the climate pretty darn good for growing all kinds of treats (although global warming is making its unwelcome presence felt there, affecting growing patterns), but Spain has a full house when it comes to the physical side of things: coast, mountains, a whopping great big plateau. It even has some volcanic areas dotted around, providing some good fertile land for growing (not actual fact, just GSCE-geography-based speculation there). I’m almost certain that anyone who has visited a supermarket in another, less climatically favourable European country has come face to face with Spanish oranges, aubergines, tomatoes, artichokes and tomatoes at some point. Also, all that coast not only means plenty of space for British tourists to get burned to a crisp on day 1 of their holiday, but also an abundance of glorious seafood. As controversial as the European fishing industry is (a cursory peek into the first few Google hits is evidence enough to confirm that little statement), there is no doubt that Spain is a major player, making the most of all those little critters swimming around its waters and supplying the millions of locals and tourists with beautiful plates of paella de marisco, boquerones en vinagre (sardines in vinegar – divine) and percebes (gooseneck barnacles). The latter, by the way, is a prized delicacy which is unfathomably impractical to harvest, so you know people will be willing to pay big bucks for it (€ 100 per plate, anyone?). In fact, it is so highly prized that harvesters are genuinely risking their lives to get at the little buggers, hurling themselves into choppy waters that are littered with perilous rocky outcrops. I tell you what, though, they must taste sensational, ‘cos one look at a plate full of these ugly little alien barnacles would be enough to send me running for the hills. Seriously, look ‘em up – so gross.

Delicious but deadly: pan candeal
As we all know, the Spaniards have been pretty industrious over the last few centuries with regards to setting sail and putting their stamp on various parts of the world, so it is only natural that the fruits (literally) of that labour found their way into the food back home. Most notably, following the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas, kitchens back in España were suddenly full of new ingredients to play with, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and potatoes. Fiesta time! Of course, that does not constitute the only great foreign influence in Spanish cuisine, but quite frankly, there are not enough hours in the day (or readers with sufficient patience) to go into it in great detail. What I will say, though, is that anyone who has ever enjoyed a bucket of sangria while sunning themselves on the Costa del Sol can send their thanks in the direction of Rome and Greece – it was those chaps who introduced viticulture to Spain. So yeh, cheers for that guys!

Spanish cuisine, more so than other places I’ve come across, is a battlefield of regional cuisines. Sure, the food you get down in Provence in France is going to be different to what you’ll get up in a traditional Breton restaurant, for example, but it appears that the Spaniards really take their regional food seriously. Again, there simply isn’t enough time to get down to the nitty gritty of it all, but I reckon you could get into a nice ‘healthy’ debate with a few Spaniards about who has the best food: the Andalusians, with their zealous use of olive oil; the Basques with their otherworldly pintxos (Basque tapas), or the Asturians, serving up mega pots of bean stew and honking cheeses. Needless to say, I was slightly overwhelmed when it came to deciding what to cook. Maybe I should have headed to Saudi Arabia and made a trusty rice, meat and veg dish, after all.

Viva Espana!
I guess for a lot of people, the go-to Spanish food is paella: a properly generous pan of saffron rice, vegetables, chicken, seafood, chorizo – whatever takes your fancy, really. Me, I was still suffering from a bit of rice fatigue, so decided to delve into a cookbook of European peasant food (sounds like a laugh a minute, eh?) to see what it could offer me in the way of less obvious Spanish treats. While I may be a bit tired of rice, I will never bore of bread – the one true love of my life – and so it was that I found myself writing down the ingredients for pan candeal and migas del pastor. Pan candeal is described as Andalusian sourdough bread, the rounded edges of which are well-suited to being lugged around on the back of a donkey. Granted, I don’t make a habit of heading to work on a donkey these days, but nevertheless, I am a fan of the more rustic food in life – it is infinitely more forgiving if you have a slightly heavy hand in the kitchen or, in my case, have a tendency to get distracted by pigeons flirting in the tree outside the kitchen window (the saucy devils). I’ve never made sourdough before, but I did have some vague notion that it requires a few days to really get going, but my God, this bad boy took it to another level: I started it off on Friday and it was MONDAY NIGHT before I had my first crumb of the damn thing. According to the recipe I used, the longer-than-average time scale makes this bread basically a guaranteed success, light and fluffy like a little floofy cloud. Um, well, I am living proof that this is absolute codswallop. Although the mixture was all bubbly over the few days it was sunbathing in my flat, something mysterious happened when it came to the actual baking, producing something that could legitimately be considered a dangerous weapon in the hands of an angry Spanish housewife. The flavour, actually, was delightful – very intense and savoury – but the texture definitely left more than a little to be desired. Luckily for my jaw and teeth, I had other plans than the simple consumption of my pan candeal: migas del pastor.

Shepherd's crumbs!
So guys, migas means crumbs in Spanish, and a pastor is a shepherd: shepherd’s crumbs. That was what I chose for Spain. No paella, no patas bravas, no churros¸ no tortilla. No. Instead of choosing any one of these flavoursome feasts, I, in my infinite wisdom and love of the unusual, decided to make shepherd’s crumbs. *Sigh* The story behind this dish is that it was what shepherds whipped up with the meagre remains of their supplies after days of chasing sheep around the Andalusian countryside. Another, perhaps more fanciful notion, is that it came about during the days of Al-Andalus (back when the Moors were checking out what Spain and Portugal had to offer), the crumbs acting as a substitute for North African couscous. The Christians in the area got wise to the dish and then decided to throw in some manifestation of pork to differentiate it from the food of the Arabs and Jews. But really, no one seems totally sure of the origins of the dish. Oh well, onwards and upwards. If you decide to forego the waiting game of making your own pan, this is not a tricky dish to make: basically, fry up some onions, garlic and red peppers, then chuck in a bit of old bread. If you’re feeling extra fancy, top it all with a fried egg. That’s it. I have to say, despite the slightly inedible quality of the pure, unadulterated bread, it was marvellous fried up a few days later – the fact that it had been stewing in its own juices for the best part of the week meant it was so savoury that I barely needed to add any salt or anything to produce flavour. And of course, the egg was a happy addition, as eggs almost always are. All in all, I’d say the following: pan candeal is a bothersome lump that was not worth the effort, but the migas were pretty delish…just save yourself the fuss and buy the bread instead.