Glorious international foodstuffs 5: kimchi




Last year, while I was back visiting my hometown of Peebles in Scotland, I was invited to my nieces’ school to give a talk about life in North Korea.  Wow.  There’s a sentence that, back in my youth, I never thought I would find myself writing.


The reason why I got invited was because the school’s Primary 6 had been studying about North Korea and one niece mentioned to the teacher that her Uncle Ian had lived in the famously reclusive country from 2005 to 2007.  Actually, when I heard that the kids had already studied about it, I thought it might be more interesting for them if, rather than deliver a talk, I simply took part in a question and answer session.  And the very first question put to me was: “What was your favourite food when you were there?”


Without missing a beat, I said… “Kimchi!”


Kimchi is surely the most celebrated dish of the two Koreas, north and south.  It’s traditionally made of cabbage – fermented cabbage, whose flavour has been pumped up and bulked out by the addition of such culinary steroids as red chili pepper, coarse rock salt, garlic and, in some cases, gat, i.e. green Korean mustard.  The result is a wondrous foodstuff that subjects your taste-buds to the equivalent of a vigorous but exhilarating massage.  And by the way, pay no heed to foreign wimps who complain that kimchi is ‘too spicy’.


Also, certain fuds have been known to complain that kimchi is not only overly spicy, but also ‘smelly’.  As a result, Korean food-scientists have reportedly been trying to create an odour-free kimchi in order to appease these fuds.  I can only respond to this by paraphrasing Dr Samuel Johnson’s words about London and declaring that if you are tired of the smell of kimchi, you are tired of life itself.


Actually, it was just as well that I liked kimchi so much because during my two years in North Korea I acquired an awful lot of it.  At the university in Pyongyang where I worked, the female lecturers would sometimes disappear for a few days, summoned from their workplaces to help with the country’s latest kimchi-production drive.  When they came back, they’d invariably present me – dried red kimchi-stains visible under their fingernails – with plastic bags containing some of the results of their labours.  Thus, the fridge in my Pyongyang apartment was usually well-stocked with these gifts of kimchi.


Indeed, it became my standard late-Friday-night, just-back-from-the-pub snack-food.  After I’d drunk some Taedonggang beers in my local pub, I’d feel a great craving for a kimchi sandwich, and the contents of those bags were commonly devoured between thick slabs of well-buttered bread when I got home.  (Incidentally, it was not unknown for me to awake on Saturday mornings and find my clothes stained with blood-red kimchi juice and find puddles of more kimchi juice on my kitchen floor – so that for a nightmarish moment I’d wonder if, drunkenly the night before, I’d inadvertently murdered someone and then tried to dispose of the corpse by dismembering it in the kitchen.)


By the way, kimchi isn’t always red in colour.  White varieties of it are available too and, prior to the 18th century, none of it was red at all.  The 18th century was when a key ingredient in its making, red hot chili powder, was introduced to the Korean peninsula.  That red chili powder, incidentally, is a source of vitamins A and C and contributes to kimchi’s famous reputation for healthiness.  It’s claimed to be a preventer of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and the general aging process, and while I was living in North Korea. I even recall someone claiming that it acted against HIV and AIDS too.  Well, the HIV / AIDS thing is no doubt an exaggeration, but I’m sure that after eating those hefty, dripping kimchi sandwiches I never suffered from hangovers.  Maybe it was the amount of moisture in the stuff, leaching into my body and saving me from alcohol-induced dehydration.


Kimchi is diverse.  I’ve read that there are more than 200 different varieties of it, not just made from cabbage but from radishes and cucumber too.  But if I had to name a favourite kimchi, I would nominate the traditional red kimchi that features among the many side-dishes you get when you order a meal in the Han Gook Gwan restaurant on Colombo’s Havelock Road.  This is a resolutely old-school, no-frills Korean restaurant and is all the better for it.


Gone to parts unknown




As it did to many people, the news three days ago that the New York chef, author, journalist and TV personality Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life came as a shock to me.  Bourdain seemed, in his TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-2018), to exhibit an endless curiosity for the world and to relish exploring its varied cultures.  Ostensibly he roamed the continents to sample their food, but you got the impression that the culinary focus was really a means for Bourdain to meet as many different, interesting people and experience as many different, interesting places as possible.  So with this apparent zest for life he was the last person you’d expect to depart in this fashion.  Which, I guess, shows that you can never judge what’s going on in someone’s soul just by observing their surface.


Bourdain was for my money the best TV chef since the great Keith Floyd, though he went about his business in a more diplomatic and less kamikaze manner than Floyd did.  What made Bourdain special was that there was no snobbery in him.  During his travels, he enjoyed lowbrow as well as highbrow cuisine and treated the stuff that ordinary, local people liked eating with genuine respect and enthusiasm.


This was demonstrated, for instance, when he turned up in Scotland.  Whilst sneering at the Scottish diet is a way to get easy laughs in the wider world, Bourdain was happy to tuck into and savour Caledonian grub.  That was whether he was scoffing chips, cheese and curry sauce and washing it down with Irn Bru in Glasgow’s University Café (“I’m pretty sure God is against this”) or checking out the produce of the Mermaid Fish Bar on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk in the company of local crime writer Ian Rankin.  He had a soft spot for haggis too and once described it epically as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”


Bourdain had a way with words and since his passing I’ve seen quite a few of his memorable quotes posted on the Internet – such as his musings about travel: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”


But for me his finest words came in reaction to a visit to Cambodia and concerned a certain American ex-Secretary of State and National Security Advisor named Henry Kissinger: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.  You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking.  Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at the Hague next to Milosevic.  While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”


A heartfelt obituary for Bourdain penned by the food writer Tim Hayward can be read here in the Guardian.


Glorious international foodstuffs 4: hot butter cuttlefish




Hot butter cuttlefish is surely the King of Snacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city.  Most citizens regard it as the as the chewiest and spiciest thing on their local menus.  As Colombo is a coastal city, it’s appropriate that the dish is a seafood one.


It’s a wonderful concoction involving strips of cuttlefish (obviously) that have been coated in egg-white, cornflour, salt and turmeric powder and then deep-fried in oil; a sauce of chili powder, butter, garlic and sugar; and various accoutrements including sliced capsicum, chives, spring onions and chilis.


According to an investigation by Colombo’s prominent food / drink / events website, the best hot butter cuttlefish in the city is served up at the Barracuda Restaurant, a beachside venue in the Dehiwala district specialising in Chinese and Thai cuisine.  Mind you, this survey was conducted in 2014, and as times change and (importantly) chef s change too, Barracuda may not be top of the hot-butter-cuttlefish league today.  (I should say I’ve eaten and drunk in Barracuda many times but for some reason I’ve never sampled the dish there.)


I’m biased, but personally I’d suggest an unpretentious Colombo pub as the best place to procure hot butter cuttlefish – even though you usually eat it in a dim, enclosed environment full of the smell of beer, spirits and cigarettes and the sea seems very far away.  Indeed, this dish and beer are a marriage made in heaven.  Nothing tastes better when you’ve drunk a couple of pints and suffered an attack of the munchies.  I’m partial to what’s served in the public bar of the Atlantica Hotel on Galle Road.  Overall, though, I’d probably nominate the Randoli Sports Club on Kirula Road as Colombo’s very best purveyor of the dish.


One last thing.  In my view, the accoutrements – the onions and chilis – should be cooked for only the briefest of times, so that when they arrive on the plate with the deep-fried cuttlefish they’re almost raw and able to sting your tongue and moisten your eyes when you bite into them.  This gives an additional, delicious edge to the dish’s taste.  But it means that the greatest hot butter cuttlefish isn’t for people with wimpy taste-buds.


Glorious international foodstuffs 3: kitfo


(c) San Diego Reader


I’m not particularly carnivorous in my eating habits.  I like chicken and fish but I’m sure I could survive if I was never allowed to eat red meat again, though probably I’d be tormented by an occasional craving for a bacon sandwich.  Thus, when I was first in Ethiopia, and when I was first out in a restaurant with my new Ethiopian colleagues, and when I first had a dishful of the local delicacy known as kitfo placed in front of me, I seriously wondered how much – or how little – of the stuff I’d be able to force down me.


Yes, kitfo can be intimidating for people who aren’t big eaters of red meat because it’s a dish consisting almost entirely of minced ox-meat – which, more intimidatingly still, comes uncooked.


However, its rawness is offset by the aromatic tastes of the things added to it – a spicy seasoning called mitmita and a ghee-like butter called niter kibe.  In fact, these offset the stark raw tang of the meat deliciously, and the dish is made yet more flavoursome by the ayib, a sort of Ethiopian cottage cheese, and gomen, collard greens, that it’s commonly served with.   And this being Ethiopia, where knives and forks are in short supply, it’s customary to eat kitfo by hand.  You scoop it up with torn-off strips of injera, the local, sour, spongy flatbread.  So you also get the taste of injera vying for attention in your now-crowded palate.


Thanks to these flavourings and accoutrements, I had surprisingly little difficulty eating that first helping of kitfo and during the following two years I became quite addicted to it.  And I missed it when I returned home to Scotland where, needless to say, Ethiopian restaurants are pretty thin on the ground.


Actually, I suspect that if you ordered kitfo in an Ethiopian restaurant in Europe, what you’d get would be leb-leb, which is kitfo in a lightly-cooked form – the rawness of the original being deemed a little too much for wimpy Western sensibilities.  But I’m sure a true connoisseur of Ethiopian cuisine would demand kitfo in all its visceral, uncooked glory.


I thought kitfo was great but I admit to having difficulty with kurt, another raw-meat staple of the Ethiopian food world.  Kurt is chunks of flesh freshly cut from a carcass in a sega-bet, an establishment that’s part restaurant and part butcher’s shop.  And… Well, that’s all you need to know.




For me, the big difference between kitfo and kurt was that while the former meat-dish had any fat removed before being minced, the latter was served up with scraps of fat clinging to its outside and seams of fat lurking within it.  And it wasn’t the meat itself that dampened my enthusiasm for kurt, but those interminably-chewy, fatty bits I had to contend with.  (It didn’t help that my colleagues liked to entertain me with grisly tales of folk having tapeworms approximately half-a-mile long, which they’d presumably acquired whilst eating kurt in the sega-bet, extracted from their anuses.)


One condiment you get with kurt is a mustardy sauce called senafich and I’d slather the stuff with that to take my mind, or more precisely my taste buds, off its discomforting fat-content.


My local sega-bet was also the source of the cheapest tej in the neighbourhood.  Tej is a kind of smoky Ethiopian mead that I was extremely partial to.  So munching my way through half a freshly-slaughtered ox, fat and all, was the necessary evil I had to put up with in order to guzzle large quantities of Ethiopian honey-wine.


How did Ethiopians develop a fondness for eating raw meat in various permutations?  I’ve heard claims that at some point in history it grew out of a military necessity.  When Ethiopian fighters were on the move, they didn’t want to give their position away to the enemy and so they got into the habit of eating their meat raw.  This spared them having to light fires to cook on, which would produce tell-tale plumes of smoke.


Glorious international foodstuffs 2: ramen




Japan is a land of many pleasures.  It has cultural pleasures (ukiyo-e, rakugo, ikebana), literary pleasures (Edogawa Ranpo, Osamu Dazai, Haruki Murakami), alcoholic pleasures (sake, shochu, Sapporo Beer) and musical pleasures (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Shonen Knife and, obviously, the Mad Capsule Markets).  However, for pure, visceral, immediate-gratification pleasure, nothing can compare to the bowlful of joy you get when you venture into a certain type of Japanese eatery at lunchtime, after a morning of hard graft and when your stomach is yowling with hunger, and a steaming helping of ramen is set on the counter in front of you.


Ramen is hardly an elegant dish.  It’s rough-and-ready and thrown-together but none the worse for that.  In its basic form, it consists of a mess of noodles, a skoosh of broth, a few cuts of pork, a boiled egg, some spring onions and bean sprouts and a nice, green, papery square of nori (seaweed), all chucked into a big bowl.  And strictly speaking, it’s not a Japanese dish either.  The first ramen in Japan probably appeared in Chinese restaurants that served food from Shanghai and Canton in the 19th century.  Indeed, up until the middle of the 20th century, it was referred to as ‘shina soba’, i.e. Chinese soba.   And it didn’t achieve mass-popularity in Japan until the late fifties with the invention of instant noodles.  At that moment, ramen stopped being a special treat and became affordable daily fare for the average working Joe.


Despite being a relatively late cultural import to the country, ramen is now synonymous with Japanese cuisine and culture.  By 1985, it’d become iconic enough for a Japanese filmmaker to make a movie about it.  This was Juzo Itami’s comedy-classic Tampopo, which was marketed as a ‘ramen western’ – a joke on spaghetti westerns, although in Japan spaghetti westerns are called ‘macaroni westerns’.  To be honest, Tampopo is more about Japan’s overall relationship with food and its most memorable sequence doesn’t involve ramen all – we see a gangster and his moll have culinary simulated sex by popping a raw egg-white-and-yolk back and forth from, and in and out of, their mouths.  (I remember sticking the video for Tampopo into the VCR in my family’s living room one evening, expecting to watch an innocuous Japanese comedy; and feeling mortified when this scene appeared because my eighty-something Northern Irish granny was sitting knitting in the corner.  But thankfully, the eighty-something Northern Irish granny thought it was hilarious.)


©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho


Tampopo’s main plotline follows the old western formula wherein a gang of gunslingers ride to the rescue of a besieged town – only here, it’s a gang of ramen-lovers hurrying to the rescue of an ailing ramen-ya.  A ramen-ya is a fixture of Japan’s backstreets, a little restaurant that serves ramen, portions of rice, side-plates of gyoza dumplings, beer, liquor and not much else.  When I lived in Japan, which was for most of the 1990s, it seemed that everyone I knew had a favourite ramen-ya that they’d discovered somewhere in their local neighbourhoods.


As for me, I swore by a particular ramen-ya that was in the town of Takikawa, up on the northern island of Hokkaido, where I spent my first two years in Japan working as a classroom assistant.  This ramen-ya was called the Manten and was as typical as you could get: a long narrow chamber with a counter and row of stools on one side and, at its far end, a small tatami room where a few months after my arrival, I recall, a hard-living Glaswegian guy I’d encountered introduced me to the seductive but hazardous pastime of drinking shochu.  (Unlike sake, which is fermented, shochu is a distilled Japanese liquor.)


The Manten had a window looking out onto a little compound or back garden where, when it wasn’t under a half-dozen feet of snow – Hokkaido has a climate akin to Siberia’s – I’d see the place’s owner wielding a golf club and practising his swings.  But what anchors the Manten in my memory most of all was its ramen, which I found delicious.


The Manten didn’t just acquaint me with ramen.  It acquainted me with the Hokkaido versions of it.  There are various types of ramen, such as shoyu (soy-sauce) and shio (salt) ramen, but up in Hokkaido they like miso ramen.  As its name suggests, its broth is thick and liberally laced with miso and it’s perfect for insulating you against the raw Hokkaido winter.  (The island is also the home of another variation of the dish, the self-explanatory curry ramen.  Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the Japanese archipelago, the island of Kyushu has pioneered a further variation, tonkotsu ramen, which has a distinctively whitish broth.)


Probably that’s why nowadays I rage when I find myself in a Japanese restaurant back in Britain, with what purports to be ramen on its menu, and I get served something whose broth is vapidly thin and watery.  No, you useless wimps, the soup in the ramen has got to be thick.  That’s the Hokkaido way.


One other good thing about ramen, in Japan anyway, is its price.  I could never get over how cheap the stuff was, considering there was usually enough in one bowl to leave me feeling stoked up with fuel for the next three days.  In fact, a friend who visited Japan in 2015 told me it was still cheap – especially compared with those trendy Japanese-restaurant chains in the UK where you pay twice the cost for a pale imitation.  (Yes, Wagamama, I’m looking at you.)


Accordingly, when you enter a ramen-ya at lunchtime, you’ll be greeted by the sight of Japan’s smaller earners – dusty construction workers, say, and lower-hierarchy salarymen – sitting along the counter and tucking into their midday ramen fix.  Often, after I’d eaten a bowlful, I’d feel ready to slouch home, lie down and sleep it off.  But for those guys, of course, an afternoon nap isn’t an option.  In ever-industrious Japan, you return to the building site or the office and spend the afternoon working it off.


They say that an army marches on its stomach.  For the blue-collar and lower white-collar army that keeps Japan’s economy (still the third-largest economy in the world) marching, that stomach is surely full of ramen.


©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho


Glorious international foodstuffs 1: haggis




Food is something I’d like to write more about on this blog – especially since I’ve eaten a lot of unusual and occasionally mind-bogglingly strange varieties of food in different parts of the world.


And where better to start this new series of postings about glorious international foodstuffs than with Scotland’s national dish, haggis?  After all, today is January 25th, 2017: the 258th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard.  And tonight, the devouring of haggis will be one of the main activities (alongside the reciting of Scots-dialect poetry, the playing of bagpipes and the downing of industrial quantities of Scotch whisky) at Burns suppers held in honour of the great man the world over.


Haggis is a mash of oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices, stock, sheep’s lungs, sheep’s heart and sheep’s liver, traditionally (though not normally these days) boiled inside a sheep’s stomach.  The fact that the main ingredients of haggis are offal has earned it a lot of abuse over the centuries.  For example, someone called Lils Emslie once wrote a famous piece of doggerel that went: ‘One often yearns / For the Land of Burns / The only snag is / The haggis.’  More recently, in the 1990s, I remember the London-published Q magazine describing haggis inelegantly as ‘a bag of shite’.


Well, the ignorant may sneer.  But in my experience anyone adventurous enough to try haggis for the first time usually ends up enjoying it.  The Wikipedia entry on it describes its taste as being ‘nutty’ (as in ‘nut-like’, not ‘crazy’); but I can’t say I’ve ever thought of it like that.  ‘Spicy’ is the adjective I’d use – though spicy in a dark, subtle, slightly teasing way.


Culinary historians have argued about where haggis originated, although I’m sure it wasn’t in Scotland itself.  I’ve seen the invention of the dish attributed to northern England, to medieval Scandinavia and to ancient Rome and Greece.  Personally, I suspect the basic format of haggis dates back in history to soon after humans started hunting and killing their food.  Once you’d tracked down and slain a big animal like, say, a stag and removed the best cuts of meat, there’d still be a fair amount of flesh in the carcass that you couldn’t let go to waste – especially not when there was no guarantee when you’d be getting your next meal.  So you’d gather up the squelchy bits too – the heart, lungs, intestines – and find something to put them in.  And handily, there was another squelchy bit you could use as a container – the stomach.  Then you’d cook all this before the contents went off.  Hence, haggis.


And that’s one reason to cherish it.  Haggis, or the original concept of haggis, is the meat dish of the common man.  You can bet that by feudal times it was the aristocrat or wealthy landowner who was carting off the best meat from the big game animals he’d hunted down.  Whereas it was the serfs – who’d done all the hard work, looking after his horses and hounds, carrying his weapons, chasing the wild animals out into the open – who’d be stashing the left-behind offal into left-behind stomachs, boiling them and tucking into them afterwards.


© Daily Record


Appropriately, Robert Burns, of humble origins himself, appreciated a good haggis and wrote a poem in honour of the dish – Address to the Haggis, customarily the first poem to be recited at a Burns Supper, with the carrying in and cutting of haggis the first thing on the schedule.  It begins: “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face / Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!” Though it’s usually around the third verse that things get exciting and the reciter-cum-haggis-cutter starts waving a big blade in the air: “His knife sees rustic labour dight / An’ cut you up wi ready slight / Trenching your gushing entrails bright / Like onie ditch / And then, o what a glorious sight / Warm-reekin’, rich!


Not that haggis has remained unchanged since the time of Burns.  It’s evolved.  As culinary tastes and habits have developed, so has the way it’s been eaten.  It’s possible now to get haggis burgers, haggis pakora and haggis-topped pizza.  Vegetarian haggis – with the squelchy meaty bits replaced by nuts, lentils, beans and other vegetables – has been on sale for many years and it’s also been a long time since I munched my first-ever bag of haggis-flavoured crisps.  If someone hasn’t already invented haggis-flavoured ice cream, I’m sure they’re working on it.




And of course, the deep-fried haggis supper has long been a fixture of Scotland’s many fish-and-chip shops.  One admirer of haggis in its deep-fried form is New York chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who’s presented the TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-present).  In one episode where he visited Scotland, he identified it as his favourite Scottish dish and described it as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”


A tribute to haggis that’s almost worthy of Robert Burns in its eloquence.


Deep in the heart of Texas: the Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery



When I was a wee boy at Christmas-time, when the Christmas tree in our house had been fully decked out with tinsel, baubles and fairy-lights, I would look up at it and indulge in a fantasy.  I fantasised that I’d shrunk to the size of one of the tiny snowmen, fairies and Santa Clauses hanging from the ends of its branches and I was living in the centre of it in an equally miniature treehouse.  So that all around me were those shiny, shimmering, glittering Christmas-tree decorations, now fantastically big and a thousand times more spectacular.


Having lunch one day at the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery brought back memories of that childhood yuletide fantasy.   This famous eatery does business in El Mercado in the Texan city of San Antonio.  It celebrated its 75th anniversary in October this year and is as much a restaurant and bar as a café and bakery.  And it’s so elaborately decorated that its dining experience is like having a meal at the heart of a gigantic Christmas tree.


Covering the ceilings are dangling constellations of big multi-coloured stars and floating galaxies of glinting fairy lights.  The columns supporting those ceilings are wrapped in artificial greenery, which itself is so wrapped in coloured lights and tinselly decorations that it’s impossible to tell what the greenery is meant to be – pine, ivy, whatever.  Adding to the phantasmagorical effect of the café’s interior are golden orbs, glittery ribbons, baubles shaped like hot-air balloons, miniature piñata, little snowman and angel dolls, sparkly-winged butterflies and squares of shiny coloured foil.



At one end of the premises is a drinking establishment called the Mariachi Bar, about which I scribbled in my trusty notebook at the time: “…rather less glitzy and, dare I say it, less chintzy…  Its comparatively sparse decorations include a cello, mounted at a skewed angle on the wall, and a big wooden eagle raising its wings dramatically before the central mirror of the gantry.”  However, this photo I took of the bar-sign hardly suggests sparseness and a lack of glitz and chintz.



At the café’s opposite end is a room containing a remarkable mural that folds around two walls.  It depicts an array of Hispanic celebrities and political heavy hitters who’ve achieved prominence over the years, especially in the United States.  I have to ashamedly confess that I recognised very few of them – only a handful whose fame has crossed the Atlantic like guitarist Carlos Santana, director Robert Rodriguez, actor Edward James Olmos and the dog whisperer himself, Cesar Millan.


I’m told that the mural includes the San Antonio-born Henry Gonzalez, who served as a Democrat member of the US House of Representatives for nearly 40 years and who was in Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on that fateful November day in 1963; the civil rights activist and labour leader Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association; and the surrealist and folk artist Frida Kahlo, whose feminism-inflected work was once described by Andre Gide as being like a ‘ribbon around a bomb’.  The mural began life in the 1970s, has gradually expanded since then and today incorporates over a hundred people.



Meanwhile, another corner of the same room houses a shrine dedicated to Selina (Quintanilla-Perez), the Mexican-American ‘Queen of Tejano Music’ who was murdered in 1995 by a former friend and employee.  Since then her adulation by the Hispanic community has reached Elvis-like proportions; to the point where George W. Bush, when he was the Governor of Texas, was moved to designate her birthday ‘Selina Day’.  The shrine is topped by a big framed picture of her singing on stage, the picture sounded by a purplish mane of tinsel, fake flowers and artificial birds.  Smaller framed photos of her from various stages in her life crowd around the shrine’s base.  There’s also a figurine of the Virgin Mary, enveloped in a halo of light, standing guard over the shrine on one side; and a statue of a girlish-looking angel acting as a sentry on its other side.



When I was there, the entrance area was dominated by an additional shrine.  This was a Dia de los Muertos – Mexican Day of the Dead – shrine dedicated to deceased members of the family who’ve run the café for three-quarters of a century, most notably Pedro and Cruz Cortez, who in 1941 founded it as an early-morning breakfast place for market-workers.  Back then it contained all of three tables.


A green-robed angel stood at the shrine’s summit, with a somewhat H.R. Giger-esque arrangement of horn-like spikes forming a vague halo behind her.  There were also dolls, flowers, candles, papier-mâché skulls with cartoonishly-drawn features and the inevitable clutter of framed photos.  I visited the café shortly before Dia de los Meurtos, which takes place from October 31st from November 2nd, and I don’t know if this shrine was a temporary one erected especially for the holiday or if it’s a permanent feature there.



During my visit, I was so busy making notes about the décor that I forgot to record anything about the Mexican food I ate.  All I can say is that I don’t recall having any complaints about it.  Actually, if you’re likely to be in San Antonio in the future and fancy trying the place out, here’s a link to its menu:


By the way, the Mariachi Bar has a Happy Hour every weekday evening from five to seven o’clock.  However, if there’s a Christmas-loving wee kid inside you, any hour spent inside the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery is an enchantingly happy hour.



Insult our national food at your peril




In the news this past week has been a Scotsman called Michael Mcfeat, who works for a gold-mining firm in Kyrgyzstan and who faces deportation from that country because, it’s alleged, he posted an unflattering comment on his Facebook page about its national dish, a type of sausage called chuchuk.


What hurt the feelings of the Kyrgyzstanis – from his co-workers, who were so angry that they staged a brief strike at their goldmine, up to the Kyrgyzstani authorities, who supposedly considered imprisoning him for five years for ‘racial hatred’ before opting to deport him – was his likening of their beloved chuchuk to a horse’s penis.


I find it ironic that a Scotsman should be thrown out someone else’s country for bad-mouthing the food there.  After all, if Scotland ever becomes independent and adopts a policy of deporting and banning everybody who insults its food, then the Scottish Immigration Service and Scottish Homeland Security will be very busy indeed.


There’s been a long tradition of outsiders slagging off Scottish food.  The essay A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland, which was published in 1659 and may have been penned by English courtier and politician (and hater of Scottish King James VI) Sir Anthony Weldon, observes that the Scots “have a good store of fish, and good for those that eat it raw; but if it comes once into their hands it is worse (than) if it were three days old.”  Scottish butter and cheese are not to be sampled by any man “that loves his life.”  And fruit is not a fixture on Scottish menus because “for their Grandsire Adam’s sake, they never planted any.”


A century later, in his celebrated Dictionary of the English Language, crusty Englishman Dr Samuel Johnson gave this definition for that mainstay of Scottish porridge, the oat: “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”




Outsiders’ opinions of Scottish food and the Scottish diet generally have been no less harsh in the supposedly politically correct 21st century.  In 2010, Sidcup-born Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle wrote: “an estimated 57% of Scotland’s GDP is expended on beer, smack and those pies composed of boiled sheep’s gizzards with a hole in the top where you put the ketchup.”  A year later, Michael Hanlon, who comes from Bristol and is the Daily Mail’s science editor – the Daily Mail’s science editor?  Now that’s a contradiction in terms – wrote: “I was at university in Scotland in the mid-1980s and I remember the canteen food, dominated by deep-fried meat, overcooked vegetables and far, far too much salt.”


And notoriously snobbish food critic A. A. Gill – like Liddle, another member of the Sunday Times’ rogue’s gallery of obnoxious columnists – once described Scotland as “unquestionably the worst country in Europe to eat out in – or the worst country that didn’t once have a communist dictator.  The place is hoaching with some of the best raw ingredients in the world, yet finding a scallop on a menu is like trying to go dogging in Riyadh.  Scots die younger not just because of the cholesterol, but, in the end, because they can’t face another dinner.”  Gill, incidentally, was born in Edinburgh, which is maybe why he tried to show his Scottish street-credibility by using a Scots word like ‘hoaching’ (meaning ‘full’ or ‘infested’); but he’s lived in England from the age of one and displays all the attributes of a stereotypical snotty upper-class Englishman.


I suppose it doesn’t help that Scotland’s most famous culinary item is the haggis, a mash of oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices, stock, sheep’s lungs, sheep’s heart and sheep’s liver traditionally (though not usually these days) boiled inside a sheep’s stomach.  This has inspired a million jibes and sneers – like, for example, the famous piece of doggerel by someone called Lils Emslie: ‘One often yearns / For the Land of Burns / The only snag is / The haggis.’  Or as I remember the London-published Q magazine describing haggis less poetically in the 1990s, it’s ‘a bag of shite’.


Things got even worse some years ago when the world’s media discovered that certain chip-shops in Scotland were offering punters the experience of eating deep-fried Mars bars.  This didn’t go down well with the confectioner Mars, Inc. who warned that “deep-frying one of our products would go against our commitment to promoting healthy, active lifestyles.”  Definitely not a fan of Scotland’s deep-fried Mars bars is New Zealander Monica Galleti, one of the presenters of the TV show Masterchef: The Professionals and until last year the senior souschef at La Gavroche in London, who’s confessed: “I had a deep-fried Mars bar once and if I was giving it a score, it’d be a zero.  It wasn’t great.  The taste was awful.  In fact, everything about it was wrong so I definitely don’t want to be near another one.”


Well, for the record, let me say that personally I love Scottish food.  I love scoffing haggis, stovies, mince-and-tatties, neeps-and-tatties, cock-a-leekie soup, Scotch broth, Arbroath smokies, oatcakes and tattie scones.  And I fully believe porridge to be the Breakfast of Kings and Cullen skink to be the Soup of the Gods.  And even the less healthy stuff, the black puddings, white puddings, Lorne sausage, bridies, Scotch pies and Scotch eggs, is delicious if you eat it once in a while and if you buy it in a place that cooks it properly.  So as far as I’m concerned, anyone who claims that Scottish food is uneatable is a bigger horse’s penis than the most equinely phallic-looking chuchuk in Kyrgyzstan.


Thankfully, the value of Scottish food is recognised by at least one authority from foreign parts.  That wise and honourable person is the New York chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who’s presented the TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-present).  Bourdain is no food snob.  During his culinary travels, he treats the stuff that ordinary, local people like to eat with genuine respect and enthusiasm.


Here is a youtube clip of Bourdain sampling the joys of the Mermaid Fish Bar on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, in the company of Scottish crime writer Iain Rankin.


And in this clip he identifies deep-fried haggis as “his personal favourite”.  He also rhapsodises about Scottish fried haddock: “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”


For that comment alone, I think a future independent Scotland ought to make Bourdain an honorary Scottish citizen.  Come to think of it, an independent Scotland ought to make him its National Bard.


(c) The Herald


Food, glorious food — too glorious for the likes of you




We looked around the interior of the restaurant and my father uttered some depressing but predictable words: “Oh-oh.  This looks too good for the likes of us.”


This happened a few years back while my Dad and I were taking a holiday in Malta.  We’d spent the morning wandering around the island’s charming old former capital, Mdina.  Having taken in the place’s splendid Norman and Baroque architecture, and admired its medieval fortifications, and experienced its uncanny atmosphere – which made you feel like you’d stepped through a time-warp and arrived a half-dozen centuries back in the past – we were ready for lunch.  The restaurant we went into had dungeon-like stone walls, thick white candles burning inside glass globes, and hulking antiquated chairs and tables.  It also had a crew of immaculately-clad waiters and several groups of well-heeled customers who, seated stiffly around their tables, clearly knew the correct order with which to lift their cutlery.  It may have been our imaginations but both staff and clientele seemed to view our entry with suspicion.


I felt like saying to my Dad that the chic diners present were probably all investment bankers and hedge-fund managers: folk who’d made piles of imaginary money by moving numbers on a computer screen, representing sums of more imaginary money, from one virtual account of yet-more imaginary money, to another virtual account of yet-more-again imaginary money.  Whereas my Dad owned a sheep farm in the Scottish Borders that, though it was relatively small, at least had substance.  It had acres of ground.  It constituted physical wealth.  No doubt it was much more valuable than the pretend-wealth commanded by the creeps here.


As for myself – well, I wasn’t rich physically or imaginarily, but I was at least rich in experience.  I’d met a few great writers in my time, plus a couple of important diplomats, and politicians, and even the odd lord or two.  So socially, I could hold my own at a table alongside some of these pseuds, even if I wasn’t sure which bloody knife, fork or spoon to wield first.


Too good for the likes of us?  No way, José.


But confronted by those withering stares and intimidated by that posh ambience, we decided not to risk it.  We retreated from the restaurant.  Indeed, we retreated from Mdina.  We eventually ended up at St Julian’s, where we had a belated feed of fish and chips in some British-themed pub.  (I don’t remember its name, but it was probably called something like The Dog’s Bollocks.)


Yes, food is a paradox.  It’s a basic human need – at regular intervals, all human beings, whether billionaires or paupers, have to shovel it into their faces, chew it, masticate over it, swallow it, digest it, process it as bodily fuel and eventually crap it out of their rear ends.  But, as humans, we’ve managed over the millennia to refine and embellish the eating experience.  We’ve devised a vast array of dishes so that our food is served to us in a near-infinite variety of combinations and configurations.  We’ve devised a vast parallel inventory of drinks – juices, ales, wines, liquors – with which to wash those dishes down.  And we’ve come to understand that the more congenial the surroundings, and the more congenial the company, the better that food goes down too.


And yet, in the age of capitalism, we’ve turned food culture into something else – something elitist, exclusive and joyless.  Oh, and extremely costly.  Aided and abetted by our sycophantic snake-eating-its-own-tail media, we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that you can’t really say you’ve eaten unless you’ve done so in an airlessly-formal and cripplingly-expensive restaurant that’s made the top ten in some Mammon-worshipping glossy society magazine or on some achingly-hip where-to-be-seen website.


In fact, the top restaurants don’t seem like restaurants anymore.   They seem more like temples where the worshippers – the paying mugs – come to prostrate themselves whilst the temple-priests weave webs of intimidating ritual around them and then demand exorbitant donations to the temple-funds.  Temples that above their entrances bear the arcane and fearsome symbols of the gods, or as they’re called in the food-snob world, Michelin stars.  Temples whose high priests did their vocations in the mysterious and mystical schools of TV celebrity chef-dom: Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Antony Worrall Thompson, Marcus Wareing et al.  Guys of whom Keith Floyd (the only decent TV celebrity chef in history) once said, “I’d like to napalm the lot of them.”




Maybe I’m uncultured but by far and away the most rewarding dining experiences I’ve had weren’t in places like those.  No, I’ve actually had the time of my life devouring cheap, hale-and-hearty Nipponese grub in back-street izaka-yas, ramen-yas and yakitori-yas in Japan; or guzzling kitfo and tebs in the unassuming Ethiopian eateries of Addis Ababa (or more recently, along London’s Caledonian Road); or munching seafood in some ramshackle establishment on the shores of County Suffolk, or the Carthage / La Goulette stretch of the Tunisian coast, or the beach at Unawatuna in southern Sri Lanka; or indeed, just sitting on a pavement and stuffing my face with street-food in India, Thailand or Myanmar.


But I must be wrong.  I can’t have eaten properly.  Not according to the media hyperbole that surrounds the culinary scene in, say, London – where you can part with a small (or big) fortune in order to sample the grilled fillets of Scottish beef, Cumbrian rose veal and suckling pig available at Le Gavroche in Mayfair (a venue masterminded by ‘the highly adored Roux family’ according to; or the poached Scottish lobster tail and foie gras at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship joint in Chelsea; or the French haute cuisine at Alain Ducasse in the Dorchester Hotel in Piccadilly, which has a super-pricy Table Lumière where you can dine in front of thousands of dangling, glittering fibre-optics (designed, no doubt, to take your mind off the banality of your fellow-diners’ conversation).


But I have to say, because I have a sick mind, that my favourite-sounding posh restaurant in London is the Coq D’Argent in the Bank area, which was once owned by Terence Conran.  Not only is a popular spot for City-of-London high-fliers to eat, but it’s also a popular spot for them to kill themselves.  The last time I checked, no fewer than five people had thrown themselves off its seventh-floor terrace since 2007.  I’m not sure whether that was before or after they’d seen the bill.


A few weeks ago, the posh-restaurant scene in another great city, New York, was subjected to the forensic stare of British food critic Tanya Gold in an article appearing in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine.  Gold described how she went to four of the Big Apple’s most prestigious eateries and found them, well, wanting.


(c) The Times


Now I’m generally not a fan of British food critics.  Indeed, my idea of hell would probably be to spend eternity eating in an infernal branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken with A.A. Gill on one side of me and Michael Winner on the other.  (Come to think of it, Winner, who passed away in 2013, is probably there just now – barking abuse at the infernal KFC staff-members whilst waiting for me and A.A. Gill to turn up and occupy the two empty seats next to him.)  And at its worst, Gold’s writing is bitchy, show-offish and juvenile.  For example: “the food is so overtended and overdressed I am amazed it has not developed the ability to scream in your face, walk off by itself, and sulk in its room.”  Comparing food-items to spoilt adolescents?  That’s a bit… adolescent.


But when she hits the target, which is more often than not, Gold is wonderful.  She goes to Per Se at New York’s Columbus Circle and observes that the food “is not designed to be eaten…  It is designed to make your business rival claw his eyes out.”  The restaurant has “six kinds of table salt and two exquisite lumps of butter, one shaped like a miniature beehive and the other like a quenelle”, and her bill comes to $798.06 – half of which Gold confesses to vomiting up later in her hotel.  She visits Eleven Madison Park in the Metropolitan Life North Building and marvels at the pretentious vulgarity of what’s on the menu.  “One tiny dish of salmon, black rye and pickled cucumber is, we are told, ‘inspired by immigrants’.”  Among other things, there’s a turnip course, and “a golden, inflated pig’s bladder in a dish.”  That sets her back $640.02.


In Brooklyn, she goes to Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, where “the novelty is the relative poverty of other people and their odd ways: emerge from Chef’s Table and fall over a homeless person.”  Inside, she disrupts the sombre atmosphere by trying to negotiate her way around another diner’s legs, cutting herself on a mysterious piece of metal sticking from the wall and screaming in pain.  She pays $425.29 for the privilege.  Finally, she eats in Masa, next door to Per Se, which is “the most famous sushi bar in New York” but “looks like a shed, or a ghostly corner of Walmart… two tiny rooms with beige walls and pale floors, some foliage, some rocks, a dismal pool.”  She and her companion fork out $1706.26.


Gold’s article has not gone down well in the food-loving quarters of New York.  One writer on the site lambasted her for “5000 words of baseless complaint, poor personal behaviour blamed on others, and easily avoidable factual errors, all wrapped in words and phrases playing dress-up as jokes.  For writing this thoughtless to appear in a magazine of this profile is a tragedy.”


Elsewhere, a comment-poster pointed out that, back in Blighty, Gold once wrote an article calling on Oxford and Cambridge Universities to admit more students who’d been educated at state schools.  Well, if she said that, she must be a commie.   And as we know, commies hate America.  And the American way.  And the American dream – which is, if you work hard enough, one day you’ll be rewarded by having enough money to be able to go to a snotty restaurant that insults your intelligence with turnips and pig’s bladders and then fleeces you with a ginormous bill.


However, I believe that there’s one person at least in America who’d sympathise with Gold and might even applaud her demolition of New York’s finest eateries.  That person is the ultra-prolific writer Stephen King, who in 1995 penned a short story called Lunch at the Gotham Café.  The story, which eventually found its way into the 2002 collection Everything’s Eventual, thumbs its nose at posh restaurants – and in particular at one of the worst features of posh restaurants, the supposedly welcoming but intimidatingly officious maitre d’.




In King’s story, a man facing divorce agrees to have lunch with his soon-to-be ex-wife and her lawyer at the restaurant of the title.  Not only does the lunch go badly because the couple immediately start quarrelling, but also because in the middle of it the maitre d’ turns homicidally insane.  He hacks the lawyer to death with a chef’s knife and then pursues the hero and his wife / ex-wife through the restaurant and kitchen.  Why the maitre d’ so spectacularly flips his lid isn’t explained – though you get the impression that, working in a place like that, it’s not a surprise that he does.


Stephen King, incidentally, has said of himself: “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”  Good old Steve!  No literary snob, he.  And, I suspect, no food snob either.


(c) The Huffington Post


Cookery and coke-ery




Unlike the evil scumbag tabloids that make up the bulk of Britain’s press, Blood and Porridge doesn’t usually go in for celebrity tittle-tattle.  However, with everybody and their pet dog talking at the moment about the allegations of cocaine-use facing curvy and lustrous TV chef Nigella Lawson – allegations that’d originated in an email sent by her ex-husband, the millionaire advertising executive and art collector Charles Saatchi, who half-a-year ago in a London restaurant was photographed in the ungentlemanly pose of gripping his then-wife by the throat – I thought for once I would immerse myself in the tabloid / celebrity sewage and offer my thoughts on the affair.


Because during the past decade I’d mainly worked abroad, I hadn’t even heard of Nigella Lawson until recently.  I think the moment I discovered who she was came one evening when I tuned into Graham Norton’s TV chat show – I wanted to see him interview black-clad, weird-eyed American shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, a musician I’d once held in some regard, and Nigella happened to be one of Norton’s other guests.  Needless to say, that evening, I didn’t learn much about the genesis of Marilyn Manson’s breakthrough album Antichrist Superstar, or about his sometimes-difficult relationship with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, or about whether or not he would ever work with guitarist Twiggy Ramirez again.  Norton’s inane questions didn’t go anywhere near the topic of his music, and anyway, Marilyn Manson seemed more interested in clowning around with the buxom Nigella, who was sitting in an interviewee’s seat next to him.  Yes, even the self-proclaimed God of F**k (or as his mum calls him, ‘Brian’) had succumbed to the charms of the Domestic Goddess.




Meanwhile, I thought to myself: Nigella Lawson…  Hold on, that name sounds familiar…  Could she be…?  Surely not…  But yes…  She is!  Nigella, I realised, was the daughter of Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1980s.  Her dad had been one of those sentient blobs that I’d seen in newspaper and television pictures lurking in close proximity to Margaret Thatcher, rather like those gormless ogre-henchmen who’d huddled around Evil, played by David Warner, in The Time Bandits.  It made sense.  Only a former Tory minister called ‘Nigel’, desperate to have his memory live on through his children, would be horrid enough to give his daughter a name like ‘Nigella’.


Before I go on, I should say a few things in the lady’s defence.  Firstly, I like the fact that in a media landscape whose female population consists almost wholly of anorexic supermodel-style stick insects, she seems to have found success because of rather than despite her ripe, full figure.  Indeed, she positively seems to flaunt her curves over those saucepans and wooden stirring spoons.  Secondly, I like the fact that by the standards of most media starlets she’s getting on a bit – she’s 53 years old – but nobody seems to care.  And I appreciate the fact that by her early forties she’d been through an exceptionally rough period, losing her mother, brother and first husband (journalist and columnist John Diamond), yet she got on with things and built a huge new career for herself.


But now for the downside of Nigella.  Firstly, I doubt very much if her success hasn’t been at least in part due to who her father is – one of the key architects of Britain in its modern, post-1979, über-capitalist incarnation – and who her second husband is.  Yes, I know that her books How to Eat and How to be a Domestic Goddess were published before she married Charles Saatchi in 2003, but Saatchi obviously had a big influence on shaping Nigella’s money-spinning image as a household deity.  And of course, through his involvement in advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi, Charles Saatchi helped run the campaign for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, including Lawson Senior, which got them into power in 1979.  So the major figures in the Nigella Lawson story are all connected.  And unfortunately, in contemporary Britain, being connected is how you have to be if you want to succeed.


Secondly, there’s the materialistic element of the Nigella phenomenon.  She’s made her money peddling a concept of domesticity that needs money.  The majestic kitchen she inhabits, the pristine cooking utensils she handles, the sumptuous ingredients she works with – it’s about affluence, something that most modern Britons don’t have, or at least not in the quantities that they’d like to have.  It reflects the aspirational but unrealistic society that’s been fashioned by Conservative and New Labour governments over the past three decades.  (Incidentally, a survey by the financial firm Aviva a few days ago found that half of the British population are living beyond their means and a tenth are deliberately spending more money than they have for the sake of appearances.)


Of course, Nigella isn’t the only one guilty of this.  All the modern British TV chefs propagate a costly, and for most people unobtainable, dream of culinary bliss that symbolises the hollow materialism of modern Britain.  (The ingratiating, overly-chummy Jamie Oliver has always struck me as a version of Tony Blair in a chef’s apron.)  And those chefs are just one facet of a wider tendency towards this in British popular culture – see also the dreadful romantic-comedy films written by Richard Curtis or the Bridget Jones phenomenon – where the message is that ordinary decent people ought to be living in huge studio apartments in central London and spending their evenings quaffing wine with their cronies in expensive clubs and bistros.  If you aren’t doing this, you’re not worthy of existence.


Thirdly, there’s the gender thing.  Ladies, Nigella seems to tell her female followers, you are goddesses, but you have to be domestic goddesses – so get out in those luxury kitchens and rattle those luxury pots and pans.  Her success carries an undercurrent about a woman’s place that again seems to reflect the mentality of her father’s political party.  Like a lot of Tories, Margaret Thatcher would bang on about the 19th century’s social mores – her beloved ‘Victorian values’ – even though those mores would likely have kept her, as a woman, well out of public view.


So Project Nigella can be broken down to this simple equation: nepotism + materialism + gender stereotyping = success.


Mind you, that equation will now have to withstand the addition of another element, also emblematic of modern British society – the celebrity-crazed and scandal-hungry tabloid press, which will be subjecting her and her ex-husband to intense and no doubt prurient scrutiny.


At the end of the day, there seems to be a horrible, fundamental truth in this saga.  Behind the political establishment that spawned Nigella and her husband, behind the aspirational fantasies that they sold to the public, behind the domestic cosiness of Nigella’s image, there are huge quantities of strife, bitterness and vindictiveness; and if Saatchi’s allegations are true, there’s a mountain of cocaine as well.  An apt metaphor for life in Britain today.


In closing, I should say that I have nothing against TV chefs being out of their faces, on drugs, alcohol or anything else.  One admirable TV chef, at least, made a career from being out of his face as much as he made it from the excellence of his cooking.  Which gives me an excuse to show this youtube clip of Keith Floyd, attempting to cook an ostrich egg in a field full of ostriches.