Clichéd tourist activity alert

Chuck ingredients in wok - stir - eat. Simples.

It feels a bit redundant posting about Thai food, since it’s not exactly one of the world’s lesser-known cuisines and a Thai cooking course is pretty much de rigeur for anyone who spends more than a couple of days in the country. Despite the alarming quantity of ingredients required by most recipes, the actual process of cooking a lot of Thai dishes is pretty straightforward, consisting as it does of the following steps: 1) throw ingredients in wok; 2) stir vigorously; 3)  profit eat, which is an effort within the grasp of even the most reluctant cooks. I rather suspect that there is slightly more to it than that for things beyond the great trifecta of farang fuel that is green curry, tom yam kung, and pad thai. Not that I’m objecting; all three are delicious, and after three months living kitchen-free it was fantastic to be able to cook again.

Thailand

Pink, sweaty and eating coconut ice cream: me for the next three months.

I don’t remember a huge amount about Bangkok from my brief visit here seven (seven! This is terrifying to contemplate, my gap year feels like it was over yesterday) years ago – just the air so thick that you almost had to swim through it, and the smell of fried noodles, exhaust fumes and rain.

None of that has changed: the mugginess is still unbearable and the shortest walk leaves you dripping with sweat, the pollution is if anything worse, and the street food remains astonishingly good (I am unsure how I missed spicy papaya and peanut salad last time round, but am I ever making up for it this time). I am still busy working out how a person actually exists in this kind of climate, and will update as and when I find out.

Coffee beans and cooking lessons

Making injera: SO much harder than it looks.

I used to think I was quite keen on the outdoors, but my time in and around Ebinat has reminded me that  what I actually like about it is the attractively picturesque backdrop it provides to various activities. When it gets to actual stuff that goes on there, I am completely at sea and find myself  reduced to asking questions like “So what do cows actually eat?” and “Is that crop maize?” when it’s actually potatoes . So I spent several days picking my way around villages enquiring of women how empowered they were feeling (and occasionally ruining some poor lady’s batch of injera as I attempt to learn how to pour it correctly – not easy) and quickly felt a little awkward about this, it being the planting season and most people, women or otherwise, having slightly better things to be doing. Instead, I went to go an hassle some government officials, who also probably have better things to be doing, but at least I feel that being interviewed by randomers is slightly more their job than it is the local farmers’.

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Ethiopian food: our heroine vs. injera

When I told people I was going to Ethiopia, a common response was “Ethiopian food is so great, you’ll love it!”. So Ethiopian food is clearly pretty familiar to many people, but I didn’t know the first thing about it before I came here and was frankly unprepared, when I sat down to dinner on my first day and ordered something rather at random off the menu, to find my meal arriving wrapped up in what appeared to be a grey dishcloth. More alarming was the fact that there was no cutlery – in fact, said dish cloth (which turned out on closer inspection to be a kind of spongy grey pancake) appeared to be the cutlery. Eyeing the other diners cautiously, I broke off a piece and tasted it – I was expecting plenty of things, but insanely sour was not one of them, and why the hell would you make a sour pancake in the first palce (still not entirely sure about that)?  Thus was my first experience of injera, which seems to be the basic component of all Ethiopian meals.

Haing gained a little more experience over the past couple of weeks, below is my highly unscientific explanation of Ethiopian food as I have encountered it so far, based on a rather classy meal I accidentally ordered yesterday:

A tasty, delicious and annotated Ethiopian meal

An annoted Ethiopian meal! Image courtesy of MS Paint and the speed of my office internet, which allowed plenty of time for artistic endeavour in between clicking “refresh” on my college email account.

Things to note: the total lack of vegetables fairly sure the green stuff doesn’t count), the emphasis on spices.Technique: unroll injera, chuck everything else on top of it. Rip off small piece of injera, use to convey food to mouth. Repeat, without making too much of a mess (this is much more difficult than it sounds).

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Central Asian food #1 – main dishes

Uzbek ladies know how to party! Correct technique for a bridal welcome party: dump the boys in a skanky dark room to drink vodka and be manly, then assemble in a huge room with delicious food and even more vodka. Eat food, drink vodka. Repeat. The two ladies sitting at the far end of the table (cloth) are the brides.

Big butts are the order of the day.

I have been extremely remiss so far in devoting little or no commentary to the wonders of Central Asian cuisine. Possibly that’s because “wonders” is a bit of a strong word. The food here is often delicious but, as I may have mentioned once or twice before, the base elements of the local food constitute mutton and, well, mutton fat. Sheep are prized for the size of their booty (the specimen on the right sports a particularly fine example) and fatty meat is much more expensive to buy than lean. The results can politely be described as “hearty”, and you quickly become closely acquainted with the very special sensation of congealed mutton fat coating the roof of your mouth. And while home-cooked food is almost inevitably great, restaurants haven’t really got the hang of variety, so you can easily find yourself carefully rotating the same four or five meals over and over again in order to avoid eating plov for two straight meals in a row and thus losing the ability to move for the next forty eight hours.

Delicious, as long as it doesn't contain mutton fat (not guaranteed).

Flavouring is bizarrely hit-or-miss. The most commonly-used herb is dill, in what seems to me to be unecessarily large quantities; garlic makes an occasional appearance and while there might be a hot and spicy sauce on the table if you are lucky, the food in general errs on the side of blandness. Everything is served with bread, round, cooked in a clay oven and spectacularly moreish when fresh, less so when stale or made with mutton fat (no, seriously. In everything.). Vegetables are rather an afterthought although salads can get quite creative (too often drowned in mayonnaise though); fruit on the other hand is so good in season that I don’t think I’ll be able to bear going back to stuff we get at home.

To summarise: artery-clogging is actively encouraged, and vegetarians need not apply (I’ve met one or two dedicated souls attempting to cross Central Asia without eating any meat – they were to a woman rather wild-eyed). Below is a selection of the Central Asian (well, mainly Uzbek, but there’s not a whole lot of difference) greatest hits. Breathe deeply, wash everything down with plenty of green tea and think about how well your stomach is being lined for the forthcoming vodka toasts.

Plov:
Where better to start than with the king Central Asian cuisine, that exquisite mixture of rice, mutton fat, carrot, muttonfat and a tiny bit of mutton, plov. This almost approaches a religion in Uzbekistan particularly, where among other things it is invoked as an aphrodisiac (personally, I can’t imagine how you could possibly be up for anything after a plate of plov, but then again, I’m not Uzbek, and the birthrate here is undeniably high). A good home-made plov is delicious, studded with entire bulbs of garlic and heaps of mutton and carrots; unfortunately the restaurant variety can often end up swimming in half an inch or more of oil. I am going to unpatriotically admit that I prefer the Afghan variety, which isn’t cooked in oil.

Laghman:
This is my favourite of the local standards: thick Chinese-style handmade noodles, served either in a soup or dry with on top. At its best, laghman is spicy and garlicky and full of aubergine and peppers and tomatoes and limited mutton fat. At its lukewarm, flavourless worst it is still approximately 47% less likely to leave you prodding the roof of your mouth with your tongue and wondering if drinking nail polish remover would dissolve the fat coating than every other dish listed here.

Manty:
These are huge meat dumplings, usually steamed but sometimes fried. Often delicious but very easy to overdose on, especially when an enthusiastic hostess is urging you on, so much so that I can barely look them in the eye any more. The pumpkin versions (autumn only) are spectacular, only somewhat less so once you are aware that they, too, have been enlivened with handfuls of mutton fat.

Shashlik:
Nothing can be quite as good, or quite as bad, as meat on a stick. From Iran to Kazahstan, the street corners of an evening are alive with miniature barbecues with an attendant vigrously fanning the smoke, and the smell of roasting meat is everwhere. Usually alternating cubes of mutton and (you guessed it) mutton fat; I personally prefer the whole lot minced up together which is a) tastier and b) you can pretend that what you are eating isn’t 50% fat.Served with lots of raw onion and (naturally) bread.

Shorpa:
Meat and potato soup, often with bonus lumps of fat floating in it. I tend to associate it with dismal roadside cafes during long-distance bus journeys where it is often the onlything served and can thus take it or leave it. Usually rather tasteless, but can be absolutely superb when homemade. I think that this particular one wasn’t half bad, actually.

Halim:
A sort of meat porridge. Um. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds (although admittedly this isn’t hard)?. It’s more unexpected than anything else.

 

 

Still to come (when I assemble the photos): drinks, snacks, desserts (such as there are. Likely to be a love letter to the fruit here). In the meantime I am off to take full advantage of the fact that I’m in a capital city and shamelessly stuff my face with pizza which may be of questionable authenticity, but is 100% guaranteed not to contain any mutton fat at all. Score.