Just like many of you, I’ve lived my life to date as a good keen carnivore but one quite divorced from the slaughter. I buy my meat from nice clean shops, where it’s trimmed to look as little like muscles, organs and limbs as possible. When was the last time you saw anything with a face in a butchers shop window (apart from the butcher presumably)?
Now as I’ve said many times before, I have no qualms about eating animals. What doesn’t sit well with me is that like some weekend dad, I only have to deal with the good stuff. All those pigs, sheep, cattle and birds that I devour so very enthusiastically don’t simply fall down dead in a state of bliss. At the end they’re stressed, frightened and rarely die with dignity. Somebody I will never meet kills them. I don’t have to look on, feel the weight of all this on my conscience. I can just hand over my money, go home and eat well. I don’t actually allow myself to be so wilfully blinkered, but if I wanted to I certainly could. It’s just too damn easy to be an amoral consumer these days.
Obviously I could get by without meat- millions do. I just don’t want to. But nor do I wish to go through life without moral accountability for this choice. I believe I am obliged as a recreational carnivore, to bloody mine own hands, if only on a modest scale. The thought of it makes me feel queasy, even a little teary. But if an animal is going to die for my pleasure- which is what it all boils down to really- I could at least kill it myself. My worst crime as a meat eater may well be my revulsion at the thought of killing.
So I’ve put a plan in motion. I’ve purchased a small egg incubator and I’m going to raise some birds for the table. I’ll start small, with Japanese quail, a species whose meat I enjoy very much. They’re easy to breed and grow to maturity quickly – around 5 weeks from hatchling to slaughter. I’ll raise batches of around 20 at a time, slaughter them myself and keep a stockpile in the freezer. They are not big birds, but in my experience one per serving is perfectly adequate. I will afford them the very best care and attention. They will want for nothing and will not endure pain or stress at the end.
And I know what you’re thinking though, there’s no comparison between killing cattle and tiny birds, and in terms of the actual mechanics, I agree. But ultimately, killing an animal is killing an animal. Besides, I don’t think my neighbours would be fully supportive of me raising cows, and you need a gun, or one of those compressed air bolt things, to kill them (the cattle, not my neighbours).You need to know what you’re doing too. Not much room for practise when it comes to killing stuff, by my reckoning- you either do it right (very quickly) or you don’t do it at all.
But I have room for small birds and I know how to kill them. In my first job, fresh out of school I was required to kill sick and badly injured chickens from time to time. While I hated doing so, I knew it was the right thing to do I quickly acquired the knack of a speedy, humane send-off.
This however is where my skill base peters out. I can physically do the deed, to a sick bird, when it’s clearly suffering, but when push comes to shove will I really be able to off a perfectly healthy one? I think so. I hope so.
Next up, if the quail work out and I can stomach the whole process, the incubator will be put to work on chicken eggs. There are plenty of outfits that will courier fertile eggs to your doorsteps, you know…
I think I got it from my mother, my soft spot for the underdog. She used to bring home every waif that crossed her path. There were down and out gurus, men who heard reedy voices from beyond, wayward teens, a woman who spoke in tongues and another who spoke to rocks. Mum never judged them, just listened, gave them a meal, a place to sleep and time to sort themselves out- which they very rarely did. As I grew older, any wide-eyed fascination with these often self proclaimed ‘eccentrics’ waned. They took up space, they dressed funny and they talked a lot of nonsense. Today I can count on a closed fist the number of unfortunates to whom I’ve offered refuge. But, like mum, I do ache for the world- I just can’t be having mewling strangers in my space.
So rather than offering refuge to lost souls, I find room in my pantry for the waif-like foodstuffs of the world. Food from, downtrodden places, from the ‘Axis of Evil’, from alleged hot beds of anti-American activity and from cruel and trigger-happy dictatorships. If Fox News says to fear them, I want to eat their food. I care not one fig for their politics and fisticuffs, but for the people we never see; the workaday Joes and Josies, for the food they eat, and whatever goods they send our way.
I seek out Iranian foodstuffs wherever possible,pashmak, pomegranate juice, fresh medjool dates, saffron and dried mulberries. Such wonderful things. I fear for this largely moderate and educated nation, with its vast and ancient cuisine. In fact, probably THE most ancient cuisine. But thanks to the dum-dum posturing of Iran’s piggy-eyed ,anorak loving president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -a puppet to an extremist minority- Iran is now firmly in the sights of the ‘World Police’, and we know how that story inevitably ends. But even if you don’t care for the plight of the Persian people, at least seek out some of their fine food exports while you still can. Before the factories fall and the trade embargoes clamp down.
I have a big liberal soft spot for Indonesia too. The sprawling archipelago nation has become the black sheep of South East Asia since the undeniably terrible Bali bombings. But we cannot hold the actions of a few crazed and craven types (religious extremes of all persuasions attract lunatics like moths to a floodlight) against an entire people, and certainly not their foods. The Indonesian people are educated, family-focused, peaceful and largely very poor. Their cuisine is epic, intelligent and incredibly nuanced. It employs spices and technique not seen anywhere else. While, it does have similarities to Malaysian cooking, it lacks most of the Chinese, Indian and European influence and as such is perhaps the most pristine and intact in the region. I love Indonesian food and will always support Indonesian restaurants- for both the food, and to express some sort of solidarity. Actual Indonesian produce is pretty hard to come by in New Zealand- mostly because of the fairly small migrant community here than anything else, but high quality belacan (shrimp paste) and the chunky and flavoursome local prawn crackers, (vastly superior to the multi coloured Chinese version) are not too hard to find. Kopiko coffee caramels are a relic of colonial Dutch rule and are probably the country’s best known edible export, and for good reason too- they’re delicious.
And just this week, I discovered (in the ever wonderfulTrade-Aid), to my delight, Palestinian couscous. Take that, Israeli couscous! I don’t for a moment think Palestine is blameless in THAT struggle, but the vast majority of its people certainly are. Blame their ancestors, Blame the League of Nations, blame Israel or whoever but there is no denying the average Palestinian has a harder lot than pretty much anyone else in the Arab world (ok except women, adulaters’ and gays). They don’t have oil to pay their bills or buy friends and their well connected neighbours hate them with a very ancient passion. For the ordinary Palestinian, I feel very sorry indeed. So of course I had to buy the couscous, and yes mostly because of bleeding heart liberalism. I know. But it turned out to be the best couscous I’ve ever eaten. Hand on bleeding heart. Each rough textured, hand-rolled grain remains distinct from the rest, and it has real flavour, one of flour, wheat and grainy goodness. A far cry indeed from the uniform factory made product seen in supermarkets. Proceeds go to a Palestinian women’s workers co-op too, which is just about more than my sense of soppy liberalism can handle…
A common theme I find with foodstuffs from all of these maligned and mistrusted places is that they’re usually really good. I’ve formed a theory about this too. They are not made to meet the exacting standards of western supermarket buyers or bland, homogenised tastes and they are largely made in heavily trade-sanctioned nations, which have little to no access to up to date food processing equipment and additives. In a funny sense, western politicking may well have helped preserve their cuisines and food traditions. Not sure how I really feel about this. Don’t these people have the same right to ruin their health, sully their food and abandon their traditions like all the rest of us???
You have to be careful though. Supporting goods from truly corrupt nations can be an empty and even detrimental gesture. Most of what you spend could end up in the pocket of some malignant self-decorated general. Burma (Never Myanmar!!!) springs to mind. The same would apply to North Korean goods too, if you could find any. Fortunately trade sanctions and the general lack of anything to eat their takes care of that. I’m sure Dear Leaders family had access to some pretty fine kimchi though.
But isn’t this all very tokenistic and shallow? Assuredly. It’s only food after all. But through the food of supposed villains, of terrorists and of so called rogue nations, we are confronted with the obvious truth. People are people. Some are good, some are bad, but most are just human. A little good, a little bad, plodding through another day and looking forward to dinner.
Don’t get me wrong, I love living in New Zealand. I love the lifestyle, the climate (well, maybe not always) and I love the quality of our local produce. But a few days in Sydney last week reminded me that, well we’re not quite as up with it in this latter regard as we might like to think.
I was over there largely on daddy-duties while my best beloved was checking in with her head office, and as such had a lot of time on my hands with no set plans. Somewhat flummoxed by the time difference, Olive resumed napping twice a day (which she stopped doing months ago). She prefers to sleep in her buggy when she’s with me, so we trawled the city streets and suburbs, via Sydney’s enviably fine rail network. I took in Asian supermarkets, regular supermarkets, specialist delis, fruit shops, and of course the unmissable David Jones food hall. Everywhere I went I found things unseen in Auckland. Lovely, delectable things, which with every mouthful I knew I would not taste again until the next trip. Things to delight and frustrate.
So here are five things food I adore, which are available across the ditch but not as of yet, in New Zealand
These small, pendulous citrus are Australian natives and are not thus far grown (commercially) anywhere else. But stay tuned. Nothing this good can be kept secret for long. The flesh of these fruit (which comes in a wide range of colours and flavours within the same species) is composed entirely of caviar-like juice capsules, each tightly gravid with sharp, flavoursome juice. Some taste limey, others more like sour blood orange, and still others like grapefruit. Used as a dressing/garnish for salads and with fried foods, the tiny spheres are quite transformative, bringing remarkable texture, flavour piquancy and fragrance. They are by far the most exciting ‘new’ food I’ve tried in a long, long time- even though they’ve existed in Australia for millions of years. Not only are these not available in New Zealand, they’re not even approved for entry. Boo!
Black Corinth Grapes (Currant Grapes)
I’ve written before about my love of currants, especially in old fashioned baked goods like rock cakes. And that was even before I’d tried the fresh, sun-ripened grapes they start off as. These tiny, seedless grapes are chin-drippingly juicy and honey-sweet with a gorgeous, musky mellow flavour. Olive and I engulfed great handfuls of them on the train ride home and went back (some 40 minutes away by train) the next day for more.
Although my research suggests currants were grown in New Zealand many decades back, they appear to have entirely vanished. It’s relatively straight forward for commercial grape growers to import grafting material, and due to the extreme (and entirely warranted) fashionability of fresh currants overseas, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw them growing here sooner or later. Not that we have much of table grape industry here – thank YOU very much California and Chile.
David Jones Food Hall
We have some fine food emporiums In New Zealand, make no mistake. But none can touch the grandeur and breadth of David Jones. Clearly modelled on the equivalent department at Harrods (you know, in London), it is only slightly less comprehensive and certainly carries some of the best looking and most exclusive foods you will ever see. Each piece of fruit appears to be hand selected (and probably was), the seafood quite impossibly fresh, and the ranges of meat and cheese nothing short of breathtaking. As much as anything this place speaks volumes of the wealth and dazzling ethnic diversity of Sydney. As it stands right now, such a place could not exist in New Zealand. There simply aren’t enough of us – privileged or otherwise – and our culinary points of reference are too narrow or retrograde.
Honey Gold Mangoes
I thought I had Aussie mangoes sussed. Yes I know, they grow some good ones – Kensington Pride: very nice; ditto the Kietts. Always better than anything from South or Central America but none to match those of South East Asia.
Then I tasted Honey Gold. This uniquely Australian cultivar was found as a chance seedling in a Queensland orchard about 15 years ago, and has since captured the taste buds of fruit lovers, growers and retailers alike. The fruit arrives off the tree like a natural mango smoothie. It lacks bothersome mango fibre, and presents a perfect balance of sweetness, acid and rich, spicy flavour all bound up in a near-liquid, somehow creamy flesh.
Honey Golds have, I think, spoiled me for all other mangoes. They’re widely available in Aus from late November into March, and the first to arrive each year are much fought over, fetching outlandish prices at auction. These are imported into New Zealand but only after they’ve been irradiated as per the biosecurity entry requirements for Australian mangoes. Irradiation, while a necessary evil, is still an evil none-the less. It alters texture and leaves fruit tasting cooked and somewhat muted. In my humble estimation, all irradiated fruit is a waste of time- and money
Yes, we can get this here too, but nothing like the scale seen in of Sydney. Thanks to a sizeable and long established Vietnamese community, restaurants of all sizes and price ranges can be found all over the city. An indication of this ubiquity is the cuisine’s standard inclusion amongst offerings of food halls in all the mainstream malls.
My favourite Vietnamese find was the very original Taste Baguette chain. This is a bit like a Vietnamese version of Subway, but needless to say much better. Serving little more than (very good) coffee and banh mi thit – probably Vietnam’s most beloved meal on the go and a perfect hybrid of Vietnamese flavours and French colonial influence. Super crunchy baguettes (thanks to addition of some rice flour) are filled with charcoal-grilled meats marinated in lemon grass, chilli, ginger, fish sauce and soy, topped with great fists-full of fresh coriander, spring onion, green papaya and lime juice. The result is extraordinary. Bar-none the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten and at a mere $7 for a 12-inch job, the best value lunch I found too.
There were other things too:
Korean dried persimmons, soft like fudge and dusty with their own natural sugars; street-side roti vendors to rival the best in Malaysia; tiny, sweet ‘paradise pears’; and startlingly cheap Italian cheese…
I’ll be back over there again in a month or two, and undoubtedly I’ll find more to delight and frustrate.
I suppose there is a bit of a ‘grass is always greener’ element to my experiences, or maybe just a outing of the green eyed monster, but it is a reminder that while we are lucky to live where do, and very well fed to boot, our tiny population, with its limited means and somewhat narrow tastes does come at a price.
BTW: Olive (18 months now somehow!) wanted you to know that her favourite things in Sydney were the trains and shouting at the fruit-bats in the botanical gardens. She maintains however that these were cats. With wings.
Like a lot children, back in the day I was an imp around fire. I just loved burning stuff, and along with a like-minded friend, even volunteered for bin duty at primary school as a means of gaining access the incinerator. Oh the fun we had, and the things we burned! It came to an abrupt and detention-laden end though, when said friend managed to ignite one of his shoes. This would have been fine if he hadn’t been wearing the shoe at the time and run screaming to a duty teacher in a cloud of acrid black smoke. I was informed by Mrs Crabbe (the comically named then Head Mistress) that I had ‘really cooked my goose’. Little did she know that I’d grow up to cook quite a few geese…
So I stopped burning stuff and found other ways to misbehave.
I think everyone has fire bug tendencies. How else do we explain the ubiquity of BBQ? Shortly after we bought our house, I wasted no time in purchasing a gas BBQ. It hadn’t been an option at the place we’d been renting, so by the time we moved in, I was hanging out to singe some meat. It was great too, at first. BBQs became a bi-weekly thing during that first summer. I grilled whole fish, butterflied chickens, indulged in all manner of skewered morsels and discovered the joys of flame grilled vegetables.
But as much as I revelled in all of this- the process and results, I found it somehow lacking, good but never great. It just wasn’t quite the BBQ flavour of my mind’s eye. So my interest waned. The rain cover came off less and less often and eventually, a couple of season’s back- it stopped coming off altogether.
I’d meant to do something about this- splash out on something bigger, better and crippling pricey, but life got in the way. I was made redundant from my day job and launched myself into the peaks and troughs of freelance writing. And then Olive (my daughter) arrived, bulldozing all other priorities into triviality as children are wont to do…
But then a couple of months back I happened upon a FaceBook posting from Barry Wah Lee (of Wah Lee, the great and ancient Chinese emporium in Auckland ) advertising ‘stick-food Hibachis’ (pictured in action above). A hibachi- as if you didn’t know- is a Japanese firebox, designed for tabletop charcoal grilling. Take note: charcoal. Not gas. The version in question is only really a hibachi in the loosest sense of the word as it isn’t suitable for indoor use and has been specifically designed for satay grilling. These long, narrow metal troughs are a common site on street corners all over South East Asia, and the eye-stinging, delicious smoke they produce is a fond memory of many a traveller.
So I shelled out a ridiculously modest $45 for the 60cmX15cm box, bought a bag of charcoal, marinated some free-range pork strips and promptly fell wildly in love again with flame, smoke and the breezy delights of outdoor cooking
It seems too obvious, but charcoal is the secret ingredient in the very best BBQ food. Charcoal produces richly flavoursome smoke and intense, consistent heat. Gas does neither.
As a fue,l charcoal is not as cheap as gas, but it is much safer to use. It cannot leak, explode or silently asphyxiate. To prime it for cooking you need only a splash of methylated spirit, a match and a spare 10 minutes for the flames to die down and the heat to build up. With a full load of charcoal the satay grill will burn furiously for up to 90 minutes, cooking more satay than any family could reasonably consume. I hear satay parties are all the rage in the States right now…
Oh and the flavour- If you’ve been raised or weaned onto gas in recent decades, the flavour of real charcoal-grilled food will knock you sideways. It’s as different to gas-grilled as margarine is to butter
If satay isn’t your thing (which is frankly, quite odd), one of those old fashioned tripod BBQs will do. You don’t even need to buy one, just take a cruise around your neighbourhood during the next inorganic collection. I guarantee you’ll find one, or several. Take comfort while furtively stuffing it into your boot, that it will yield far superior results to whatever hooded chrome behemoth has replaced it.
We’ve talked about it for years and have at last come to a family consensus: no gifts for grownups anymore. Nothing for me, nothing for her, nowt for Mum or Dad, nor in-laws, or friends. The wee ones won’t miss out, of course, but for the rest of us, nada. And might I say a resounding thank God for that! I don’t mean to sound doer and miserly, but enough with the cult of ‘stuff’.
What do any of us (you included) really Need? Compared to the vast majority of people who have ever lived, we here in lovely, far New Zealand, live it up like royalty. Even the most underprivileged families (of which there many) are infinitely better off than their counterparts in the developing world. Cold comfort, I know, but my point is that none of us here really knows what need is, or at least we should not need to know…
We know a lot about Want though. Not content with peace and plenty, we still Want the world. Few of us here need ever worry about where the next meal will come from, or if our children will survive the winter – so instead, we worry about which brand of kitchen mixer is best, who makes the best ciabatta and if it’s fair of Sky to charge extra for SoHo (probably not, but totally worth it BTW). We have all we actually need, now we just Want distractions. And with that line of vulgarity in mind, coupled with a hereditary loathing of shopping, my family is quite gleefully foregoing gifts, for all but the bairns from here on in.
However, it’s still Christmas, and as such we need to eat a lot of very fine things. Yes, perhaps this undermines our anti-consumerist stance, but you know what? I don’t care. Food matters a great deal in my family, and as a motley crew of mostly atheists, Christmas is all about family to us. We show our love through our cooking; it’s our common ground and our strongest thread. Food on the big day –as a social glue and gesture of affection – matters more to us than any official ‘reason for the season’.
It turns out too, that without the stress and financial burden of gift shopping, the whole menu design process is a genuine delight. We’ve agreed on a streamlined list of things we love, but haven’t (yet) lost our heads.
Although we’ve dispensed with turkeys and salmon this year in favour only ham, it is truly a princely piece. The huge, mahogany-toned free range half buttock is occupying a large portion of my fridge at present, taunting me with its potential. It shall be succulent, sweet, sticky and fine. I’m consumed by thoughts of so many gluey, singed chef’s perks…
There will be salads too, but only a brace this year (rather than our usual sprawling ensemble), one of roast vegetables slicked with homemade pesto and fresh mayonnaise, the other, Cos lettuce with a fiercely garlic-laden vinaigrette and oven-baked sour dough croutons. Dessert is to be but one vast tiramisu. Handmade, naturally, and sodden with marsala and real espresso. Just as it should be.
There will be wine, but not too much. Diurnal drunkenness just isn’t pretty, nor nocturnal either for that matter.
And then there are all those finishing touches: the sweet little morsels of tradition; mince pies (with no lack of suet and a great deal of brandy butter), stollen, panetonne, some single serve trifles. perhaps. Making these things puts me more in mind and spirit of Christmas than any amount of tree decorating. Really must get on to the tree though…
I’m sure someone will bring chocolates, cherries, fresh berries and cream. Someone always does. We’ll eat, laugh, talk, snooze, rouse and start again. It will be a languid affair and people will come and go as-and-when they please. No rules, no formality.
In the evening, when everyone has drifted off, we’ll wander down to the Village, and soak up the strange feeling of desolation that settles over shopping places during the holidays.
Altogether Bliss. A Christmas unsullied by things. Just great food, great company and a leisurely pace. I really can’t wait.
Happy Christmas to you all, however you choose to do it.
Feel free to drop by my Facebook page over the holidays to see what I’ve been up to on the food, gardening and writing front. Chances are, too much, quite a bit and not enough- in that order.
I’m not really a cakey sort of guy. Never have been. Well, there are exceptions: I like a plain sponge, ultra fresh, smelling of butter and duckling-yellow from so many free-range eggs; Black Forest cake too -made the traditional way with suet and buttermilk- has been known to rouse my interests. But really, there is only space for one cake in my heart. Only one that truly makes me swoon- the delectable, impossible and quite confounding, Angel Food cake.
Although some of the greatest travesties of the culinary world have emerged from the United States in recent decades (aerosol cheese anyone?), not so long ago the country was known for some very fine food traditions indeed. Many of the most revered cakes, cookies and sweet pastries of all time emerged during the golden age of American baking- that being the 1920s though to the late 50s. During this era the nation’s Dutch, German, Italian and Swedish communities delivered up some true miracles of kitchen chemistry, wonderful things, and excessive, outlandish, superlative things. But none, to my mind was ever greater than the Angel Food cake.
Despite my consuming love of the Angel Food, I had never, until very recently, attempted one myself – it was always the express domain of my mother, not a cake for the occasional baker like me. I’d look at her recipe from time to time, hoping greed would see me though, but inevitably I’d throw my hands in the air. Too fiddly, too many eggs, too much risk of failure. So on occasion, when the mood took me, I’d call mum and ask if she fancied making me an Angel Food.
But sooner or later we all have to confront our demons…or angels as it were. With my hens in full laying mode, and a growing surfeit of eggs, I decided to finally tackle the fluffy minx (i.e. the cake, not my mother). So I sat down and read the recipe over and over, until I understood not the just the method but the reasoning behind it.
I’m being presumptuous though. On this side of the world, and in this far-removed time, many people may have heard of Angel Food cake but, few have ever eaten one- let alone made one. Recipes are scarce in modern food books, and are probably too anachronistic to be considered even passé. So what is it exactly? Although it largely evades description, Angel Food cake is a blindingly white hybrid. Within its cryptic gene pool are hints of cake, bread, soufflé and pavlova. It looks feels and tastes like nothing else.
Yet the Angel is a cake of few parts, consisting of nothing more than egg whites, beaten with sugar and cream of tartar (a wine industry by-product, used here stop the cake darkening) until stiff, and then folded together with a small quantity of flour, corn flour, soda, salt and natural flavouring. Once understood, the method is really very straight forward. If you need some sort of comparison, it’s harder than a banana cake and quite a bit easier than a sponge. However, if you don’t have an electric beater or cake mixer it could be an extremely laborious undertaking.
My prototype cake came together very quickly and cooked perfectly, with a high, orangey-gold crust. It stood well proud of the tin, which meant a degree of compression when I duly followed the instructions to invert the cake while it cooled. Next time around mum gave me the gem of cleverness to invert the ring-tin over the neck of a wine bottle. Smart. But compression or no, the cake ate beautifully. It was, and has consistently remained on every attempt since, quite perfect, blissful, ethereal and fine.
Although wonderful under a layer of marshmallowy Italian meringue icing, or served with a red fruit coulis, I’ve come to best enjoy my Angel simple and unadorned.
So here it is. My version of my mother’s Angel Food cake, which she in turn adapted from some lurid and long since lost 1960s cookbook.
Make it. Eat all, and don’t feel obliged to share.
Angel Food Cake
1 cup of egg whites (about 6-8 eggs)
½ cup flour
2 Tbs Cornflour
1 cup sugar
½ tsp baking powder
1 scant tsp cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
1 tsp pure almond essence (optional but highly advisable)
Pre-heat oven to 200c
- Sift together the flours, baking powder and half of the sugar, stir with a a fork and sift again.
- Beat the egg whites with the salt, cream of tartar, essence and slowly add the remaining sugar. Beat until very stiff and fluffy.
- Gradually and gently fold the dry ingredient into the egg until roughly blended. Use a spatula to gently scrape the frothy batter into a medium sized ungreased ring tin.
- Bake around 25-30 minutes until well risen and golden. It’s ready when it resists a light prod from a brave finger.
- Remove from oven and invert of the neck of a wine bottle. This prevents the very delicate cake collapsing during cooing (no, it won’t fall out!).
- When fully cooled, gently easy out of the tin. Serve with a dusting of icing sugar and sharp, red fruit coulis.
Did I mention I was going to Samoa? Well anyway I went, a few weeks back. Actually I should really say WE went because Charlotte and Olive were there too. It was our very first ‘family holiday’ and a fine time was had by all. The flight was mercifully brief, the weather perfect all week and the resort lovely -if a little befuddled at times. I’d like to say we traversed the islands and did this and that, but in truth, we did very little. We played with our baby, we swam in the sea, we slept and we ate. It was relentless bliss.
But you don’t want need to hear about that. It’ll only make you jealous. This is, after all www.foodlovers.co.nz and despite all those days of beautiful nothing, I still found plenty of time to eat. Don’t I always?
I’ve never understood why Samoan food isn’t more widely appreciated in New Zealand, especially in Auckland where we have such a large Samoan community. I suspect there are two main reasons. Number one is pretty simple: bigotry (remember the dawn raids?); and number two: the absence of a genuine Samoan restaurant culture. Even in Apia, restaurants offering genuine local fare are pretty thin on the ground. Samoan cuisine is most firmly based in the home or village and is inseparably linked to family. When Samoans eat out they’d rather have Chinese, Indian etc, and fair enough too. I certainly don’t go to restaurants looking for my own home cooking.
Samoans enjoy a bit of meat and in the home, fish, pork and chicken rule supreme- with a substantial top-up in the form of impossibly fatty tinned corned beef and New Zealand lamb flaps .I had ample opportunities to eat a great deal of all of these, but at almost every meal I only had eyes for the fish. You see, the word ‘fish’ in Samoa almost always means (Yellow-finned) tuna. Ludicrously fresh, shamelessly sexy and most importantly line-caught tuna.
Over seven short l days, I ate more of this fish than I’d eaten in my life combined: tuna fish and chips, Samoan tuna curry, tuna baked in banana leaves, grilled tuna with palusami and breadfruit, tuna oka (cerviche)… The only pork I ended up eating was in the form of the shatteringly crisp crackling and meltingly tender flesh of an umu-baked piglet. It was predictably excellent too – smoky, rich and fall -apart tender, but it was still just pork. I can have that any day, but tuna is a rare treat (not to mention an ethical dilemma) at home, and never so outlandishly fresh. If there is one stand-out ingredient to try whilst in Samoa, it is surely the tuna. You won’t have to look far, in fact you’ll have a hard time avoiding it.
Coconut cream is an important source of fat and carbohydrates in the traditional Samoan diet. It is used widely in both sweet and savoury cooking, and represents an important export commodity. Not so long ago Samoa brand coconut cream was the only one readily available in New Zealand, and it remains among the best.
Taro, yams (a large, starchy root, unrelated to ‘New Zealand’ yams), cassava and breadfruit are the main starches, and like rice or pasta elsewhere, they make up the bulk of most meals. Taro leaves are a widely consumed green vegetable, but because of their high oxalic acid content, they require careful cooking. Poorly cooked or raw taro leaves (and tubers) can cause extreme irritation to the mouth and digestive tract. Fortunately all Samoan cooks are (literally) painfully aware of this quirk, so you are very unlikely to be afflicted with “taro tongue”.
Modern Samoan cuisine has been pushed and pulled by the various influences of Chinese, German and to lesser degree English settlement, but at its’ heart is still staunchly Samoan. Spices and seasoning are minimal, and ingredients few, but everything is brought together with a deft touch, allowing the outstanding island produce to shine. This is perfectly illustrated in the classic dish palusami, a simple mixture of lightly salted coconut cream, chopped onions and taro leaves, slowly baked until thick, buttery and curd-like. Whether mopped up with baked breadfruit, served with grilled fish or eaten on its own, palusami exemplifies the virtues of simplicity, and deserves a place on any list of great dishes of the world.
Samoan food is sometimes dismissed as overly fatty or heavy, but this is only true if you view certain dishes in isolation. Meals in Samoa are traditionally communal affairs, involving lots of people and lots of different dishes. Rich and heavy items are tempered with light and fresh flavours elsewhere, and everybody eats a bit of everything. When eaten communally as is intended, the Samoan cuisine is as balanced and varied as any other.
The best place on Upolu (the most populated island) to acquaint oneself with Samoan food and produce is the Apia markets. Here you will find the very best of the local fruit, including the much loved ‘hard apple’ (actually a relative of the mango), star fruit, guava, myriad bananas and plantains, enormous, pink-blushed tropical avocados and untold varieties of mango. Cocoa farmers sell fresh pods by the case-full, as well as local speciality Cocoa-Samoa. Resembling solid cylinders of chocolate, Cocoa Samoa is a pure, semi-refined cocoa. It can be grated and dissolved in hot water or milk, then sweetened with sugar to produce an ultra chocolaty, and wonderfully smoky drink. It might just be Samoa’s best-kept culinary secret, and sooner or later is bound to be the next big thing in food. Nearby hawker stalls sell jamen/German buns (coconut or jam filled doughnuts), Samoan pork buns-(a sublime take on the classic dim-sum), Sapasui (corned beef, soy sauce, ginger, onions and vermicelli) and many other tasty local favourites. Elsewhere the umu hawkers sell smoky baked breadfruit, taro, palusami and yams. Cleanliness is next to Godliness to Samoans, so your chances of suffering from food poisoning are extremely slim indeed.
Samoa is still routinely overlooked by many New Zealanders as a holiday destination, in favour of Fiji, Queensland or places further afield like Thailand. This is a real shame. We left saying it was our favourite holiday destination ever, and that feeling has only grown. We ate so very well, found the people warm and friendly and the beaches clean and lovely. What more does one need in a tropical island getaway?
Click here to some edible highlights from our Samoa trip over at my Facebook page…
If anybody asks, I call myself a writer these days. It’s what I do with most of my time, and I get paid for it. But I’m under no delusions: I write about food, gardening and ‘lifestyle’ issues. I’m hardly John Pilger reporting from Myanmar. I’m just a fluff peddler.
That’s not to say a measure of blood, sweat and tears doesn’t go into my work- writing of any kind is hell some days, but I never lose sight of the fact that the topics I cover, and the views therein, aren’t very important in the greater scheme of things . I actively encourage my readers to take everything I say with a great hurtling boulder of salt. Disagree with me, prove me wrong, tell me where to get off. After all, I’m just some guy. What do I know?
So I’m always a bit embarrassed by food writers who have fallen under the misapprehension that their opinions really count for anything. Take Gordon Ramsey (please). There is no question that he’s a great chef, but really, who behaves like that, for the camera or otherwise? Even Jamie O with his noble – if rather cringe-worthy- politicking has been getting well and truly above his station for some time now.
Whatever power food writing has, it should -I believe- be used for good. It should make readers happy, broaden their culinary horizons and, at its most contentious, challenge consumer ethics. I suppose Jamie gets a tick in that box, but the names he’s inflicted upon his children (Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Petal Blossom Rainbow and Buddy Bear) indicate that ego-madness has well and truly set in.
Even review writing is something of a grey area for me. I’ve only ever had a couple of stabs at it, and I hated it through and through. I was left with that slightly nauseous feeling of having gossiped about a friend. It’s not that I don’t approve of reviews – I think they serve an important role, at least in theory, and can make for some very entertaining reading. What worries me is the genre’s mostly destructive power. A bad review can fatally wound a restaurant with more certainly than a good one can be its making. I might not have much sympathy for bad restaurants, but I don’t want to facilitate foreclosure either. It’s distasteful.
And just like anyone, I have very individual tastes. I like flavours that plenty of people do not (see my many endorsements of durian and black pudding), and I abhor certain behaviours of the service industry that others might find endearing (i.e. if you’re waiting on my table, please don’t touch me in any way or sit down to ‘talk me through the menu’). Opinions are so subjective and context specific. For my musings to mean anything, you’d really need to know me pretty well.
That said, I don’t think the stereotype of the bitchy restaurant reviewer really exists in New Zealand – not in print anyway. There is no lack of AA Gill wannabes in online communities, but for the most part the more influential of our local reviewers are a balanced and well informed lot. Very few have a background in professional cooking, and I think this is a good thing. Chefs do not view the restaurant experience the way you or I might.
This is perhaps why the likes of Gordon Ramsey are so egregiously unsuited to fairly judge cooking competitions. He views everything with a chef’s technical perfectionism and Waterford crystal ego. Doesn’t help that he’s a right bastard either.
Gordon’s not without precedent though. Fanny Cradock, a sort of template for female impersonators everywhere (despite being an actual woman), who wrote excellent food columns and hosted cooking shows in Britain during the 60s and 70s, was famous for her tantrums and aggressive snobbery- off screen. But when she slowly poured scorn on the efforts of a contestant on a national TV cook-off, her career come to a shuddering halt. In those pre-Big Brother days the Brits were all about saving face and duplicitous manners. She’d be a sensation today. Click here to see the whole nasty performance.
Those of us who are paid to write about nice things like food, gardening and household linens need to remember that we’re bloody lucky. Very few people get to do what they love for a living. But the fact is, the world doesn’t actually need us. Let’s hope they don’t figure this out.
My personal mantra, which I draw upon whenever I find my tone becoming too serious or authoritative is this,: It’s only food (or gardening, or drapes). Get over yourself.
Full marks if you can identify the subject of the picture above.
I grew up in restaurants. I won’t you bore you with the details again, but suffice to say the industry holds no glamour for me.
Although it’s well known that more restaurants fail than flourish- by a very large margin- I still meet people who talk excitedly about their dreadful “next-chapter-of-my-life” dreams of opening up a ‘nice little’ cafe or restaurant. Oh I know we’re all supposed to ‘follow our dreams’, but the trouble is a lot of us have very dumb dreams. Dreams that are harmless enough in the David Lynch-esque reality of our resting brains, but very dangerous in the real world .
The reality is that many people who blunder into the food business are simply not equipped for the job. They confuse the pleasures of dining out with the realities of running a business, or their idea of the industry has been shaped by television. Take Friends for example, (the bad comedy we watched whether we admitted it or not) central character Monica was a chef in a popular restaurant, yet she was almost never at work. Instead she spent her days lolling about with her friends, spouting endless self indulgent twaddle. When real chefs hang out with their friends it’s usually at about 3am and their friends are usually other chefs. They still talk utter rot, but mostly because of the vast quantities of vodka they’ve thrown back since the whistle blew.
Almost without exception, opening a restaurant or café is a terrible idea. Anybody who thinks it will be ‘fun’ from the outset has already flunked the entrance exam. Certainly, if you have your wits about you, then you may experience something resembling fun, from time to time. But mostly you’ll just be tired. And poor.
Successful restaurants are not run by people out for a laugh, they’re run by shrewd business types (often with investors) who know how to make money against all odds, and understand the importance of offering a precisely targeted, streamlined and consistent product. They probably run their places like battleships and barely take a wage themselves because they know they’ll make their money when they sell. The goal for many a successful restaurateur is to build it up and sell it high- not hold on to it until they’re homeless. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but this is the most level-headed approach to what is an extremely tough industry.
But for most people, it’s just a complicated way of disposing of large sums of money and assets. Just as a successful restaurant can reap substantial rewards- eventually- an unsuccessful one can consume money, property and relationships like a hippo with portion-control issues.
So am I sympathetic towards people who’ve lost out large on some hare-brained cafe scheme? Frankly, no. One of my personal mottos in life is ‘Caveat Emptor’. Anyone who has ever eaten in a food establishment only needs to look around the dining room to get a feel for the costs and pressures. They are myriad, and they don’t stop, ever.
I wouldn’t do it. Not in a million years. I know my limits and they fall well short of what’s required to run a restaurant, café or even a cake stand. I am however very good at eating out and I have every intention of doing a great deal more of that. Play to your strengths, I say.
I must admit I’ve been a little dismissive of carrots in the past. I saw them as stock-pot vegetables first and foremost; essential building blocks in many great dishes to be sure, but not really worthy of closer inspection. That was before I grew some out-back and learnt the egregious error of my ways. Continue reading
As a small boy I felt oddly powerful eating rock cakes. I fancied them as a man’s sort of cake – big, rugged and rocky. This was a rare, and rather convoluted, expression of masculinity I suppose. Fact is, I’ve always been a bit of a big-girl’s blouse, and not at all predisposed to grand gestures of man-dom. Continue reading
Following on from last week’s cake-fuelled dawdle down memory lane…
I do like a Chelsea bun. Soft, sweet, spice- flecked bread studded with sticky raisins and crudely stuccoed with icing. As a small boy with an obscenely sweet tooth, these were the object of my deepest desire. Actually my mother tells me I was more interested in the icing than anything else and given half a chance would toss the scalped bread out the window. So at the very least I loved the idea of Chelsea buns. Continue reading