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International Rule Breaking

Anti-Recipe Book

There are a number of reasons why I do not follow recipe books. One is the simple fun of cutting corners and breaking rules to see what turns up, but another flows from foreign travel. Once I had embarked on my second stint of being single, my interests began to extend way beyond my kitchen and even female company. It didn’t take me long to realise that I could now get to all sorts of curious places at half the cost. And provided I didn’t sit around a pool all day and a dance floor all night, I could get a real education.


I very much enjoy experiencing the way other people live and that includes what they eat and the way they cook it (if they cook it). Best of all, it dawned fairly early on that, when I appreciate other people for the way they are, without making a judgement that depends on my own personal norms, the concept of rule-breaking becomes largely meaningless. Rules that can seem almost sacrosanct in Britain might, in other parts of the world, get tossed aside by different rules or even disappear altogether. From a global perspective, rules can’t be broken because they don’t exist. And it’s no good saying: “Ah yes, but you couldn’t cook like that here.” We can and, sometimes, we do. The differences, both in diet and the methods of providing meals, are cultural, but everyone has the same basic needs. To be sure, there are minor variations. I’m told that many Africans have great difficulty digesting cheese, for example, but these differences are minute compared to the fact that we all need food to live. We choose, for local, traditional, religious and sometimes trivial reasons, to eat particular things in particular ways.


That is not to say that we should not stick to rules we like and reject customs we do not like. I haven’t yet got around to eating grubs and ants, whether or not they are cooked. Nor would I slice off the end of a snake and drink the blood from an overflowing cup, as is sometimes done in Indonesia. But choosing to break a few rules and do things my own way, or somebody else’s way, seems an innocent enough pastime to me.


On one foreign trip, I tried a meal consisting of a bed of rice supporting a meat burger. I have absolutely no idea which animal had offered up the mince that lay between the burger baps, but that isn’t the point of the story. The burger supported a lightly cooked banana cut lengthways, and a fried egg was neatly laid across the top of it. It would have been difficult offering that as pleasant evening meal in the depths of Surrey, but it was offered to me

in a restaurant in Peru and was, once I had dosed it liberally with mustard, very enjoyable.


I had quails eggs and chips in Southern Spain. It was in a little restaurant in a village at the end of a mountain road. I wouldn’t have driven all that way just for the meal but it was almost worth it to hear the restaurateur apologise. She’d run out of quails eggs. I only got four, so she halved the price of the meal.


London leads the way in the variety of international cuisines on offer and deserves its reputation as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In fact, Britain, generally, is more cosmopolitan in its tastes than most other western countries. But, once captured, imported recipes get westernised, ensuring that the original rules which governed their preparation are broken. It’s even claimed by some that Balti was invented in Birmingham! Rule-breaking is commonplace where cultures merge.


Most Chinese food available in Britain does not bear much relationship to its origins and pizzas would be almost unrecognisable, apart from the shape, to Italians living at the turn of the century under a Mediterranean sky. Once many of them had emigrated to the USA, they began to change the rules. Tomatoes, cheese and a few herbs were no longer enough. They produced a much thicker dough base and ladled on vegetables and meats that their grandfathers would have been horrified to contemplate. In the 1920s, Luigi might have been trying to persuade Guiseppe that ham on a pizza was a good idea. Now, it is a standard item. Shops sell incredible products like egg and bacon pizza. Restaurants can offer varieties like walnut and spinach. So why shouldn’t I use the same thought process in my kitchen to invent curries? That’s why I feel vindicated.


I love travelling because it challenges all the norms and standards that we tend to believe are based on edict. It starts with airline meals. I am one of a minority, I am given to understand, who actually enjoys them. It’s not that I wish to emulate the display of miniature packets of sugar, salt, pepper, biscuits and cheese on my own table, but I never cease to be impressed at the genius necessary to produce a reasonably proportioned, three-course meal on a picnic tray. It is matched only by the ingenuity required to eat it. By a process similar to a game of chess, the pieces are moved, one step at a time, to expose the bit required for immediate consumption. And it has to be planned to ensure that future moves are feasible and will not lead to the loss of a piece vital for the middle or endgame. 


Fish and chips is a great way to compare international cuisine. I have had quite exquisite meals in various countries under this general title, none of which, as far as I am aware, associate the meal with the same low-key, in-your-face, blokey image as the Brits. I met an American woman in Java who gave me a hard time over British fish and chips. She considered it quite beneath her sensibilities to eat, though how someone from the land that invented burgers and spray-on cheese managed that level of gall I’m not sure. It all depends, of course, on how it’s prepared. We went for a meal after our discussion, and I had fish with chips just to prove that the label means nothing and the content everything. The chips were nicely dry and the fish had been fried to perfection in light breadcrumbs. She said nothing and I didn’t push it, but I think she got the point. I have also had a wonderful Poisson et Pommes Frites in Senegal and a superb Red Snapper with fried potatoes and garnish in Jordan.


The same ideas are perfectly feasible here, even for amateurs. By lightly frying an unusual fish, serving with a few potatoes and vegetables and giving the meal a name worthy of the occasion, an event can be created out of something which, at other times, might be eaten courtesy of yesterday’s news with a can of lager.


Fish is a staple food in many cultures. I had another Snapper in Indonesia served with rice but cooked in chillies and ginger. Eating it with slow decorum ensured my head stayed in one piece, but it was a brilliant meal nonetheless. At the other extreme, was a nightmarish three days on a rice barge to Timbuktu. Jane had agreed to trek around West Africa with me for a few weeks. She had the patience and understanding for it. She needed enough for both of us. On this particular stretch of the journey, a small river fish, which appeared to live for the sole purpose of growing bones, was served up to us on a bed of rice, in a washing-up bowl, twice a day. There being no preparation facilities, the meal came laden with grit as a mandatory extra. We gave the meal away after the first day to the Malian merchants camped around us. As a convenient bonus, this generosity removed the need to find an alternative to the non-existent toilets.


One of the more curious national dishes I have ever come across is Injera with Wot, which is made and served everywhere and every day in Ethiopia. Injera is a grey, rubbery omelette made from teff, one of wheat’s cousins, and, as far as I could see, was eaten by almost the entire population, continuously, without variation. It is often eaten as an open omelette on which is placed the Wot, little mounds of sauces. Sometimes, it is laid on wicker, thus becoming, simultaneously, both plate and meal. Other times, it is curled up like a Swiss roll and dipped into the Wot. Naturally, there is never a sign of a knife and fork. I would not know how to make this meal at home, but I know one or two London restaurants which serve it and it is worth the experience.


Coffee is almost an essential requirement at the end of a meal. Most people, of course, prepare it either through a filter or a cafetiére, but there are other ways, if you have the patience and courage. While spending the night in a hut in Southern Ethiopia, I had the most delicious cup of coffee of my life. My host, Ditta, began with the green beans before they were roasted and then embarked on a ceremony which lasted a couple of hours before the final product was in my hands. He crushed the beans and laid them on a small charcoal burning stove until they were chocolate brown. Then, he placed them, with water, in a graceful, long-necked pot with a spout as proud as a swan and put the pot on the stove. During the next hour, he transfused the maturing coffee by transferring it from pot to cup and back again through long-armed manoeuvres which ensured that the coffee dropped through the air into the waiting vessel below, all undertaken with the consummate skill of the expert. For a novice like me, the coffee was heavily sweetened in the cup, but I could see that, with experience, the thick, heavy, aromatic liquid would need to be savoured as it was. Sugar was for wimps.


An experience at the other end of the spectrum was the coffee made at roadside cafés in West Africa. The word “café”, of course, is a little grand. Often, they were no more than roadside tables accompanied by a bench and a couple of broken plastic or garden chairs thrown out by, or otherwise borrowed from, those who had no further use for them. Entrepreneurship could have been invented in West Africa. When I travelled by rail, I saw the owners of these establishments setting up shop within minutes of the train shuddering to a stop by the rubbish dumps and detritus at the backs of the dust-laden towns. They serve omelettes with French bread as well, an excellent snack for anyone with the skill and the omelette pan. But it was the coffee I remember most clearly. It was made from hot water, condensed milk and an apologetic spoonful of coffee powder. I found it quite revolting but, from the views I have heard from other travellers, I might be in the minority.


My most memorable coffee shop was a permanent feature in St Louis, Senegal. It was a hole in the wall of a featureless road, covered by a tarpaulin that hid the place so neatly it would have been easy to walk past had my partner and I not been desperate for breakfast and bumped into a customer drawing the sheeting back as he stepped into the street.


The hole revealed a tiny room consisting of a table, boxes of eggs, cartons of condensed milk and coffee, a heater and two benches, one of which was home to the proprietor. As we entered, he was lying on it from the waist up, legs dragging uncomfortably on the floor, but immediately forced himself upright to ask us what we wanted. We both knew it was not the place to languish for the morning so we ordered two coffees and left it at that. These he made in the usual manner, handed them to us in exchange for a few coins, and lowered his body back down to the bench while we pretended to relax and enjoy the drinks. It was clear he had nowhere else to go. Lying down he was at home, upright he was at work and his feet did not even leave the ground. The world’s most efficient commuter.


In many countries, snacks from the side of the road can make up the most interesting of meals and many impecunious backpackers eat virtually nothing else. West African fried plantains are good and are often used as a meal with palaver sauce consisting of green leaves and chillies. Fried balls of spiced potato are delicious and variations of this theme can be found on the streets of both Africa and Asia under different names.


The Samosa is India’s roadside treat. I have to admit I have never made them. I buy ready-mades because they require an expertise that I will never possess. The best ever was acquired while on a little train chugging manfully up a mountainside to Ooty, one of the hill stations built by the British colonials to get out of the burning heat in the valleys. It had a “sit-up-and-beg”, toytown engine with wooden-box carriages and partitions that reached to shoulder height so that we could all stay friendly and share out the samosas. If we had worn costumes and flouncy hats, we would have been an ideal subject for children’s wallpaper.


A real advantage with roadside snacks is the reduced risk of bugs. If you watch your food cooking in hot oils and eat it immediately, the chances of catching something are considerably smaller than eating in hotels and ordering something that might have been smouldering at room temperature for hours. I know of people that have lived off roadside fare for weeks without any problems, although, of course, it does depend on being sensible as well. Drinking from unrefrigerated milk cartons or unsealed bottles of water or eating unpeeled fruit and vegetables or any meat product is not, in my book, a good idea. Washing things is just as bad an idea unless you know the water is clean. And that also goes for ice cubes in drinks.


During all my travels, I have had only one major problem. The minor ones lasted a day or so and might have been due, so medical advice suggests, to any one of a whole variety of causes other than bugs. The big problem was the result of sitting in a very fancy hotel in Delhi, talking to a friend, and ordering a toasted cheese sandwich. There was nothing wrong with eating a toasted cheese sandwich and it was chosen deliberately for that reason. But it came with an unrequested garnish of salad which I ate, unconsciously, while concentrating on what my friend was saying. Twelve hours later, almost to the minute, I was in terrible pain. Diarrhoea and vomiting followed shortly after, and the bug, campylobacter, was not defeated for six weeks. When I visited Kathmandu, large signs adorned restaurant windows with the message: “All salad on these premises has been washed in chlorinated water” or words to the same effect. I was made very aware of the problem there, a bit too late for me, and I could see how easy it had been to forget my surroundings in a four star hotel.


But my problems are of no moment compared to the trials many people in the world go through just to ensure they have sufficient to eat. There are times when travelling exposes the bitter reality behind the romantic veil

sometimes drawn over exotic places. Of course, some people at the lower end of the economic scale feed themselves abundantly through rich soils, plenty of rain, political stability and thriving markets. But then you might be told that these children, who look fine for 12, are actually about 18, and this man is dying, not because he is old, but because he lacks vitamin D. It makes me realise that cooking a balanced meal at home is not such a bad idea. Eating a lot, as many in the Western world do, is not quite the same thing.


Possibly the most poignant evening I have ever spent followed an invite to have supper with a family from the Padaung tribe in the hills of Thailand. They had travelled over the Burmese border to escape the civil war and publicise their plight. These people are famous for the gold and brass rings that are fitted round the necks of the women. Rings are added as the woman matures, extending the neck until the neck muscles are useless and removal of the rings would asphyxiate the wearer. They sat us on the porch of their hut, offered us pork knuckles and rice wine while they sung folk songs. As their thin haunting voices penetrated the forest blackness, I realised that they had no food to offer us. The knuckles were almost bare bone and would probably have formed part of a soup had we not turned up.


I would not seek to transport all the cultural traditions I have witnessed back to this country. While we might, if we choose, take on the Turkish habit of including aubergines and tomatoes in every meal, or manage to find a guinea fowl for roasting with rice, or pour a garlic and chilli sauce over a satay, or fry bananas in a vegetable sauce, I note that monkeys, horses, cats or dogs are not hanging from butchers’ hooks nor are they cut and wrapped in cellophane on supermarket shelves. And there’s a reason for that.

Michael R Chapman
~ master of none ~
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