Monthly Archives: October 2016

Foodie Holidays to Sicily – Enjoy a Regional Feast

10For many travellers, partaking of authentic regional food is part of the pleasure and adventure of travel. For hardcore foodies, however, the cuisine itself is enough reason for the journey. Of course, every destination in the world has its local culinary treats to offer, but for dedicated food epicureans, no other place offers as much culinary diversity, history, and sheer wealth of quality ingredients as holidays to Sicily.

While some may carelessly classify Sicilian cuisine under the umbrella of Italian food, true epicureans know that, like the island itself, the cuisine is the product of evolution. It retains the influences of past conquerors and citizens such as, among others, the Phoenicians, the Arabs, the Greeks, the Romans, the Germans, the Spanish, and the French. Add to these influences the fact that each family has their own ‘secret recipes’ handed down from one generation to the next and perfected through time, you can be sure that, during food focused holidays to Sicily, your meals are going the be the furthest thing from frozen supermarket lasagne as possible!

Locally grown fresh ingredients are also the key to the incredible cuisine you’ll feast on during holidays to Sicily. In addition to being known for premium olives and olive oil, the region is also renowned for its pistachios, almonds, grapes, tomatoes, and pears – not to mention incredible cheeses and wines. Below, we present a quick guide as to the best foods the region has to offer.

Pistachios

If you love pistachios then food focused holidays to Sicily are your chance to sample the best pistachios in the world. Here you’ll find the pistachio used in everything from gelato (the best in the world) to pasta. Try a scoop or two of pistachio gelato on a brioche or pasta with pistachio pesto. We can guarantee you’ve never had anything like it anywhere else in the world.

Sardines

Palermo, the region’s capital, is known for its seafood dishes, but its best-known and most iconic dish is the pasta con le sarde. Sardines, wild fennel, capers, and raisins are procured fresh from markets (such as Mercato della Vucciria), and cooked to create a sauce that tastes undeniably of the ocean. If you aren’t fond of sardines, we can guarantee that tasting this dish will change your mind! For other fish dishes, try sfincione tuna, tuna with ragù sauce, and hake cooked the Palermo way.

Cheese

Pecorino cheese is enjoyed the world over and will be easily accessible all over the island, but for a truly local and authentic culinary experience, cheese from Ragusa – such as ragusano, caciocavallo ibleo, canestrato, and tumazzo medicano – in a local pastieri pie with a piece of exquisite Modica chocolate or glass of local wine is the perfect end to any meal.

Almonds

Almonds, especially those grown and harvested in Avola, are another premium ingredient you’ll encounter again and again. Honey and almond mustazzola cookies, vucciddati, almond gelato, and the island’s famous torrone nougat make this a true paradise for those with a sweet tooth.

I Love Italian Regional Cuisine

Delicious risotto made with wild porcini mushrooms.

Basilicata is the instep of the Italian boot. This hilly and mountainous region is located in the southwest corner of Italy. Historically the region has been quite poor, which may explain at least partially its cuisine that knows how to make the best of local foods.

You might want to start with Acqua e Sale al Pomodoro con Cipolla Rossa (Soft Bruschetta with Tomato and Purple Onion) made from day-old bread, sliced tomatoes, sliced purple onions, basil, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Some people add cheese. One suggested white wine pairing is Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG from Tuscany. However, I don’t think that I’d use such a fine wine for this relatively plebian, even if tasty starter. Another suggestion is Soave DOC from Veneto but make sure to get a good one.

Another local appetizer is Ciaudedda (Vegetable Stew) often made with braised artichokes, accompanied by or stuffed with, fava beans, onions, potatoes, and salt pork. Accompany this dish with an Italian Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

Given the region’s coastlines on the Gulf of Taranto and the Tyrrhenian Sea, it should come as no surprise that Basilicata is proud of its Zuppa di Pesce (Fish Soup) based on local fish and seafood. The local version calls for plenty of powdered chili peppers. Recommended wine pairings include Italian Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, or Pinot Grigio.

You might like Baccala alla lucana (Dried Codfish Lucana Style) which includes olive oil and sweet peppers preserved in vinegar. Suggested wine pairings are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Italian of course.

If you’re in the mood for some spicy food, why not try Bucatini di Fuoco (Fiery-red Bucatini Pasta). When they say fiery-red they are not only referring to the color. This dish includes lots of dried red chili peppers as well as garlic, and olive oil. Bucatini are large, hollow spaghetti and if you haven’t tried them you should. Soave DOC is recommended with this pasta. Another good choice is a red Dolcetto-based wine from Piedmont that may or may not carry the DOC designation.

Food, wine, Italy. Doesn’t your mouth water? This series examines the food specialties of the twenty regions of Italy. Each article presents several traditional dishes and either red or white wines that bring out their best. These wines are available in North America and are often fairly inexpensive. We also suggest fine wine pairings when you want to celebrate without totally blowing your budget. Enjoy.

Is “Comfort Food” Another French Paradox?

8You have the sniffles and are suffering from a nasty cold; you had a really tough day at the office and are totally stressed; you have just experienced a romantic breakup and are suffering the pain of a broken heart. For many of us, the only source of comfort may be food.

Comfort food is the food we turn to for temporary relief from stress, illness and a need to feel warm and secure. The thought of it gives us a feeling of comfort and well being. Comfort food is food that makes you feel good. It is likely that as small children we latched on to a specific food or home cooking in a way similar to reaching for and holding on to a security blanket.

Comfort food is simply prepared and is most often served warm with a gravy thick texture. It is usually food with high carbohydrate content such as rice, beans or pasta. In Asian countries where rice is a mainstay food source, the comfort food is called juk. It is a mixture of rice and water cooked for many hours until it has a mush-like texture like a porridge. Juk is usually eaten with vegetables, pork, fish, shrimp or turkey mixed into it like a rice stew. In the U.S. every region has favorite foods but the universal comfort food in the U.S. is macaroni and cheese.

We know that the French are meticulous about the preparation and presentation of food. Therefore, it is no surprise that they would deny parenting any French dish that resembles a simple stew made of leftovers. Pierre Smets, chef/owner of Christophe Restaurant in Sausalito, CA, denies the existence of comfort food in France. He explains that “in France, there is regional food or traditional food but not comfort food like macaroni and cheese”.

In about 1400, English troops were about to overrun the small army defending a town in southern France. It was a cold and wet night and a major final battle was expected the next day. The citizens of the town banned together in one last effort to defeat the English. The local residents pooled all of their remaining food supplies of beans, ham, duck, lamb, onions, and sausage tomatoes. They combined all of these foods into large cooking pots and created a feast for their outnumbered soldiers. The “casserole” was both nourishing and inspirational. The troops were well fed and ready for the battle which ensued the next day. They defeated the British and drove them from the town of Carcasson, home of the cassoulet.

Ironically, Pierre Smets was born in Carcasson. And, during the rainy months in Sausalito, CA, Smets prepares a delicious cassoulet using a secret recipe given to him by his grandmaman. Of course, this is not a simple dish. The beans must soak for several days, the lamb and duck and sausages are the best quality. Pierre may call it traditional, but to me, if it looks like it, and tastes like it, and makes you feel good, it is comfort food.

Regional Thai Food

7This one is my version of “The Beetles greatest hits” as I actually fell in love with this dish a few weeks ago and I’ve been pestering to see it made ever since.

I am pretending that I am doing this for posterity – for you, the reader. In actual fact it is selfish. I just like it and want to know how to make it so I can show off in front of my Thai chef friends and colleagues;-)

I have to admit that there is something a bit disconcerting about shoving a creature into your mouth that looks very much like a giant cockroach. You wouldn’t imagine it from my writing, but I am actually just like you. If someone had suggested ten years ago that I would rock up to a street vendor, hand over 10 baht, and chug a massive crawly thing with wings and half a dozen crunchy legs semi tucked under its shiny carapace, the expletives would have flown from my lips like a plague of (un-fried) locusts heading across Egypt. Laugh? I would have shat.

It was actually a very late night, a few beers into the evening on my fourth trip to Thailand when I was persuaded to have a crack at the grasshoppers. I actually persuaded myself, no cattle prod needed. Surprisingly, I found them a little like crisps. Flavoursome, crunchy and great with a beer. Getting my head around it was the hardest part. I had broken some sort of barrier, and far from being proud or boastful I found myself quite introspective, looking into the reasons for my terror of trying these things previously. I am not as weird as you may think.

A friend, Simon, asked today if I was a bit put out by all this weird food. My response was that yes, I was. Things like Twinkies, Steak and kidney pies, French style crumbed lambs brains and Kazakh attempts at Pizza freak the hell out of me. Natto too, which is a sticky, slimy Japanese fermented rice thing which I once had the displeasure of putting in my mouth. I am not big into guts and offal, and I also recall my teenage days when I recoiled in horror at the thought of anyone eating raw fish. Those whale-killing Japanese bastards ate RAW BLOODY FISH! I couldn’t believe it. Young kiwi boys with long hair and AC-DC T-shirts couldn’t possibly ‘get it’ back then. There was just a healthy distrust of foreigners and the ‘weird crap’ they passed off as food.

Fast forward a few years and I have run two successful Japanese restaurants and have a great appreciation for the cuisine and people. I am SO glad I didn’t do the TAFE course back then that taught me how to make prosciutto, then rolled ham, then salami – and finally the popular cocktail sausages + polonies that we all know and love with their red food colouring and nasty gunk scraped off the board and made from the leftovers.

I would also dare you ALL to look closely into what goes into a chicken McNugget too, and then eat one – ever again. .

Like anything, it is a little about getting outside of the comfort zone and exploring our rationale for doing what we do, eating what we eat, and retaining the opinions and attitudes we grew up with. Some of us do, some of us don’t. I truly believe that travel does force us to re-explore our convictions and raison d’etre – even if some of those discoveries are things we would rather have left more comfortably in the closet. (Don’t worry – I won’t start talking about the whipped cream aerosol and the batman suit.)

But back to the Maeng Da – I was sitting in a bar in Bangkok on holiday many moons ago, tucking into fried grasshoppers and teasing a clothing vendor who was eating Maeng da – these big water beetles. She was a great sport – but she turned it back onto me and offered me one.

I screwed up my nose in disgust and she gestured “No” “Not eat like that” – then she showed me – opening the carapace and revealing the interior which looked like caviar. She offered it to me, and then tried some, showing me it was OK. THIS was what we ate – not the whole shebang.

I scraped it off and tried it – the flavour was intense but strangely pleasant. Not bug-like at all. It seemed to be strangely familiar – but at the same time so very foreign.

It had the pungency of a perfume or detergent – words can barely explain – but the freshness of lime or citrus with an indescribable top note.

That was long ago, and it popped up into my existence on this planet again a couple of weeks ago in an innocuous looking dip.

I was being watched as I dipped the ball of sticky rice into the greyish matter.

It looked like babaganoush – roasted eggplant dip, but I knew it wasn’t.

I thought it was a fish ‘nam prik’ and I wasn’t far off. It had “Maeng Da” inside and from my first mouthful I was hooked. It’s like the first time you taste a cocktail or a drink that has a spirit or liqueur that really appeals to you. You recognise the taste and it forms a memory – a longing and a flavour profile that lingers like a ghost in a dream. Is it real? What part of the dish IS it? You want to de-construct it and understand. I had to see the process and document it for your benefit (I told myself) but really it was for my own.

The fact that this was mashed into a dip didn’t hurt either. there was no plump shiny hexapod to contend with – only a creamy textured dish with an incredible taste.

We picked up the bugs from the market.

They are called Maeng Da, which means ‘pimp’. As in ‘sells hookers’. Just like the big felt-hatted Negroes with fashion-murdering flares and platform heels as featured in ‘Austin Powers’.

These are water beetles that skim the surface of ponds in the wet season – so ‘Dad’ was a bit freaked out at having to shell out 12 baht each to buy them for me – being expensive due to the lack of rain thus far into the season.

Never mind. I stumped up the 60 baht for 5 each and another 40 baht for a couple of wriggling catfish, and we drove home ready for the upcoming feast. I don’t tell the story anywhere near as well as my trusty camera, so let me scribble the recipe below and run through it with you. If you can get your head around this, it’s an awesome thing to try. The step-by-step photos can be found on my website if you are curious to see the visuals.

  • 2 each small catfish
  • Lemongrass
  • Salt
  • Water for poaching
  • Maaeng da water beetles – 3 each
  • Chillies – 3 each – toasted over a gas or wood fire flame
  • Garlic – 3-4 cloves
  • Salt – to taste
  • Roasted dry red chilli flakes – 1 dsp
  • Coriander – 2 dsp chopped fresh
  • Spring onion – 1-2 each

Method

  1. Put catfish in a pot with water, crushed lemongrass twisted into a knot, and some salt to taste
  2. Simmer until cooked through.
  3. Remove the fish – take the flesh off the bones and set aside.
  4. Strain and reserve the fish cooking liquid (lemongrass fish stock)
  5. Skewer the Maeng Da water beetles
  6. Hold over a gas flame and toast for a minute or two until cooked through and aromatic
  7. Add the garlic to a mortar and pestle and crush by pounding
  8. Add the flame roasted chillies and mpound also to combine with the garlic.
  9. Finely chop the whole Maeng Da beetles and pound to a soft paste until the shells are pureed
  10. Add the fish and pound to a paste
  11. Add the toasted chilli flakes, coriander and chopped spring onion.
  12. Stir in enough lemongrass fish poaching stock to bring it to a soft dipping consistency.
  13. Mix together to combine
  14. Serve and top with freshly chopped spring onion.
  15. Serve with fresh boiled vegetables. We used boiled baby loofah (gourd) and Thai ‘praya’ eggplants, boiled until soft.

Also served with sticky rice. This was an incredible and memorable dish. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have, and I have tried quite a few weird and wonderful dishes, many of which appear on my site along with ‘regular’ Thai recipes. I’d love your comments, feedback, questions, suggestions, abuse and expressions of horror. Please come and visit.

Do Chinese Restaurants Outside China Offer Authentic Food?

6Owing to its rich quality and low price, Chinese Cuisine has become so popular all over the world that just about every town claims to have its own ‘authentic’ Oriental bistro. The big cities, needless to say, are home to several such restaurants that compete with each other and lure visitors with their traditional Oriental interiors. They claim to offer ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ food and popular delicacies from China. But, do these eateries cropping up outside China really offer genuine traditional food?

Well, they do not offer ‘authentic’ regional food, but definitely a ‘good and healthy’ western version of the original cuisine. They offer a traditional cuisine that has been modified to an extent to please the taste of the local customers. For instance, the authentic Chinese cuisine differs significantly from its Western versions, which are again very different from the European and Indian versions. These versions are so different from the original cuisine that they are now considered as totally independent cuisines, such as the Canadian-China Cuisine, the American-China Cuisine, or the Indo-China Cuisine.

Most Oriental restaurants in the West offer an explicit ‘westernized’ food menu with some variations, which again depend on their location and status. For instance, the food restaurants situated in the downtown have a menu different from that of the ones located on the outskirts. Similarly, the food menu of an elite restaurant is totally different from that of a fast-food one. The dishes that are featured in most food menus include different types of Chow mien, like beef chow mien, shrimp chow mien, chicken chow mien, and roasted pork chow mien. Another western version of the Chow mien is ‘Lo Mien’, which is more or similar to the ‘original’ Chow mien.

Thus, food restaurants in the West or in any other country outside China offer good-quality food, which is not ‘genuinely Chinese’ but just a ‘genuinely tasty’ version of the traditional oriental food from China. Be it the original regional food or just a local version of it, the delicacies listed on the menus of these Oriental restaurants are not only cheap, but also very healthy and certainly not to be missed.