Year of Grace, Day 223. My second worst* meal in Spain: Chinese and Japanese food in L’Ametlla de Mar

Had I been a campesino, and had, as my first assay into Asian food, the Chinese and Japanese dishes in L’Ametlla de Mar’s Restaurant Asiàtic, I might have concluded that Chinese and Japanese food are fine in their own way, and quite likely good enough for Chinese and Japanese people, but they would never, ever be a match for Catalan food. Nor, would they do for discriminating Catalan gourmets. It would be a great pity indeed, if the curiosity of caleros (as the inhabitants of L’Ametlla de Mar call themselves) about Chinese and Japanese cuisine stopped there because of their one experience of dining at L’Ametlla de Mar’s one and only Asian restaurant.

Fortunately, not only have I enjoyed excellent Chinese and Japanese food in their home countries, but can assert that they rival the best of Catalan cooking. And thus I consider myself in a position to judge the poor excuses for Chinese and Japanese dishes that we had today for lunch. Much dismayed at the substandard offerings, I can only say with regret: never again! Nunca mas!

Now I don’t consider myself a food snob. As long as what is served in front of me is made of honest and good quality ingredients, cooked without any pretensions, and served with welcoming grace and charm, I am well and truly grateful. My food does not have to be presented with foamy froth (shudder!) and my plate squirted with streaks of sauce for me to rate it as excellent. As a matter of fact, I find these abhorrent.

But when the menu says tempura de mariscos, and it comes out looking anything but tempura, then I have to conclude that the cook has never in his whole life eaten tempura at all. This is what the tempura de mariscos looked like. There were only 2 prawns; the rest were vegetables.

"Tempura" de mariscos

“Tempura” de mariscos

The cook looked Chinese, but I didn’t bother asking any questions. I just was too disheartened to make any kind of conversation, let alone any friendly overture. He had not smiled once in all the time we were there.

I would not normally say anything, if all I could say was something negative. However I believe that I have a duty to defend, if not uphold, the integrity of Asian food — not only Chinese food which I venture is the cook and owner’s native food, but also Japanese food — against this travesty of two of the world’s most exquisite cuisines.

The most tactful way of describing the tempura at Restaurant Asiàtic was that it was a rather amateurish attempt at fish fingers. And I don’t mean to cast aspersions at fish fingers, because made honestly from quality ingredients, they can be very good indeed. The prawns had been flavoured with five-spice powder, wrapped in wonton pastry and fried till crisp. The five-spice flavour was the only saving grace of that “tempura.” It could not be further from tempura than English fish and chips. As a matter of fact, English fish and chips when made well would have actually been a closer kin to tempura than those wonton-wrapped prawns. The vegetables (meager onion slices and soggy string beans), as well as the salmon fingers in the previous “salmon tempura,” had been so thoroughly coated in stodgy brown batter that one could not tell what they were.

Salmon "tempura"

Salmon “tempura” with sriracha

There was no dashi-based sauce with grated ginger and daikon to dip them in either. The sauce that was served with the salmon “tempura,” was a Thai sriracha sauce (!?!) As I said, the “tempura” appeared to be a far from convincing distant relation of camaron rebosado. (In Manila’s Chinatown, camaron rebosado are prawns dipped in a pale-yellow batter and fried to a crisp, accompanied by a sweet-sour-slightly chilli-peppery sauce. They are invariably excellent.)

All food is meant to be restorative. Someone once said that cooking is the subtlest of all arts, one that induces the most personal satisfaction. But the food at Asiàtic was far from being that. I am relieved that my birthday celebration had not been at this Asian restaurant. (My favourite resto in L’Ametlla is on holiday till the end of November, so we’re waiting till then.)  I would have been so much more sorely disappointed had it been.

Lest it be said that I don’t have a kind word to say about this meal or this restaurant, two things come to mind. I must say their choice of house white wine was all right. It was dry but fruity and went very well with the starters and the “lacquered” duck (yes, that was far from lacquered as well. Sigh). The other is that the sushi rice that accompanied their norimaki of salmon and tuna was not too sweet, in contrast to the cloyingly sweet rice in the nigiri sushi. I wonder why it is that sushi rice outside of Japan is invariably too sweet.

sashimi

A bit more effort at slicing and presentation would have been nice: there was enough time, as we were two of only 4 customers at the resto.

I have to question moreover the raison d’etre of this restaurant in L’Ametlla de Mar that puts Asian cuisine in an unfavourable light. Barcelona and its authentic Asian restaurants are not that far away and, much closer to L’Ametlla, Tarragona and Tortosa as well have their share of places where genuine Asian food can be had. In this day of global travel and the internet and the availability of information about international cuisine, it is foolhardy to foist this farcical “tempura” and “sashimi” and definitely unlacquered duck on what this restaurant’s owner assumes to be an unsuspecting and ignorant public. This presumption on this restaurant owner’s part is all the more surprising given the high quality of food in this part of Catalunya.

Why not serve only Chinese food? There is nothing wrong with Chinese food. None at all! It does not have to be haute cuisine Cantonese or anything that aspired to Imperial Court cuisine. Let it be the cuisine of whichever region the owner comes from. Why bother serving fake Japanese food or fake Vietnamese food (yes, they had that on the menu as well)? I would rather have simple, honest, unpretentious, but well-made home cooking any day, from any region or any little village of China. (But please forgo the “lacquered” description for the duck — what’s wrong with simply writing “roast duck”?) Even better if the cook smiled and looked as if he was enjoying himself, and was happy to share with others the delicious food of his home town or his own family. There is no gesture of international goodwill more endearing than that liberally sprinkled with simple, honest food served in a pleasant manner.

Perhaps if his wife (she was there in the back of the restaurant serving lunch to their two children just come home from school) had been doing the cooking and serving, just perhaps maybe… it may have been just a bit more palatable. Or pleasanter.

There was, additionally, a separate menu card featuring Chinese tapas, in other words, dim sum. Before the meal, we had considered sampling them. After that parody of a Chinese and Japanese meal? I don’t think so. I don’t believe we would even consider going there ever again. I repeat, nunca mas! I have to question why someone would open a restaurant, who, from beginning to end, had not a smile nor any vestige of welcome or bonhommie to show on his face. Why indeed?

 

*The worst was in Ronda.

Year of Grace, Day 222. Olives and panellets

The other day we went to visit an olive grove. The sky was overcast and it looked as if it would rain, but its pewter grey was a perfect foil for the silver green of olive leaves and the butterscotch and caramel of the stone walls that enclosed the four separate plots. I could imagine how it would all look in late winter or early spring, that is, mid- to late February, when the rains would have roused the dormant seeds of field poppies and other wildflowers and geophytes such as wild orchids and species tulips and dwarf irises.

Olive grove, Ametlla de Mar

An olive grove in late winter, early spring with ground cover of leguminous vetch. Photo from Mediterranean Garden Society

An olive grove in late winter, early spring with ground cover of leguminous vetch. Photo from Mediterranean Garden Society

There were 100 olive trees in all and among them, scattered here and there, were a few trees of fig and almond and apricot. Just in front of the house on its southern exposure, shading the patio, was a loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) full of buds, promising orange luscious fruit in summer, one of my favourites, and only available in Bonn from the Turkish food shops. (I first tasted these in Japan where they are known as biwa, their shape reminiscent of that of an ancient lute. Incidentally, among the 1600-odd endemic species growing in the forests surrounding the mountain village of Imugan, in the province of Nueva Vizcaya, northern Philippines, Eriobotrya japonica is listed, though I was unable to see it during my 6 months there.) Behind the house was a hedge of sweet-smelling bay, flush with buds, a lemon, and lining the base of the fencing that surrounded the white-washed, red-tiled two-storey casa de campo (farmhouse) were long rows of blue-green iris leaves. Woven into the fencing itself were honeysuckle vines. They would be giving off their heady scent at night for sure when in bloom.

It was all getting to be too much work, said the owners, now in their late 70s. In a good year, they pressed about 1000 liters of oil, about 10 liters per tree. Organically produced – ‘ecologico’ – Jordi, the husband, 78, said proudly, which is why the ground beneath had a patchy cover of low, rough grass. Another grove we had passed earlier had a sign conspicuously proclaiming in red, ‘Caution: Herbicida.’

There are olive growers who prefer the soil beneath to be completely free of weeds and other plants, as they compete for water, resulting in a lower yield of flowers and fruit. Tilling or plowing the spaces between the olive trees to permanently eliminate the roots of weeds destroys the delicate systems of microbiota that nurture the soil’s productivity, so some growers turn to herbicides instead. This means that the nearby farms of growers, like Jordi, despite their ecologically sound production system, would most likely not qualify for organic certification. Aside from which, and perhaps most ominously, all that herbicide trickles down eventually into the groundwater (despite all the prior assurances of the herbicide manufacturers to the contrary), and thence into the drinking water, as the farms around all rely on shared wells drilled into aquifers for their water supply. Keeping a groundcover beneath also protects the soil from erosion by rain and wind, as well as serving as a mulch during the broiling heat of the summer months, slowing down evapotranspiration and decreasing the need for water. And, if the groundcover is leguminous, so much the better, as it can also fix nitrogen to feed the trees. As you can tell, since that visit, I’ve been looking into alternative ways of olive cultivation.

In the summer, Montse (short for Montserrat), Jordi’s wife, 74, said, the flower beds surrounding the patio are at their peak of bloom – geraniums and asters, lavenders and santolinas, sedums, and up along one pillar, a clambering hoya. (This vine calls to mind one in an aunt’s house in the Philippines, its white and pink stars looking almost artificial in their wax-like perfection). There were herbs conveniently to hand for the barbecue – sage and rosemary, and the bay leaves of course just a few steps away. “This níspero (loquat) now… oh, it gives the sweetest fruits.  And this albaricóque (apricot) too, we didn’t plant it, it just seeded itself. The pajaritos (birds) must have brought it.” She fought back tears as she showed me around and pointed out more of her plants – lirios (irises) and azucenas (species gladiolas). “I’m sorry,” she said, “Thirty years, we’ve been here thirty years.” I understand, I said, I know how it feels to leave a much-loved garden behind.

Inside the house, a huge wood burner blazed fiercely with the prunings from the olive trees. “The trees have to be regularly pruned, otherwise you get too much leaf growth and not enough fruit. The sun has to penetrate the centre, as shaded olives will not bear fruit at all. And you need to keep the trees short, for easier harvesting,” Jordi said. “And how do you manage the harvest?” I asked. “There are Moroccans who do it for us,” he said.

“That burner is great – warms up the entire house. We often roast meat in there as well,” Montse added. “And also vegetables for escalivada – peppers, aubergines. Dressed with olive oil and vinegar. And if you like, some ajito (ajo = garlic).” Montse used the diminutive suffix ‘-ito’ quite often. “You probably aren’t familiar with escalivada, our Catalan way of roasting vegetables, are you? How would you say it in Spanish? …Asado.” As a matter of fact, we are, we assure her, having encountered it during the research for the world food book.

Montse wouldn’t hear of us leaving without tasting her home-made panellets, accompanied by chilled sweet Moscatel, to which we toasted each other, “Salud!” As we rose to leave, Montse pressed two roasted sweet potatoes into my hands. “Just take off the foil and warm these moniatos in the micro-onda.” She pronounced them “muniatos.” I told her they were known as camotes in the Philippines, and boniatos in the Americas.

Panellets, marzipan balls, traditional for All Saints Day

Panellets, marzipan balls, traditional for All Saints Day

Panellets are marzipan balls studded with pine nuts, and they are scrumptious.  Montse’s panellets were made from the almonds they’d harvested from their trees.  Later, we learned  from our neighbourhood baker that these almond-based delicacies are traditional for All Saints Day. The original recipe from the Ametlla de Mar municipal website (see below) uses eggs and sweet potatoes, but Montse herself uses no eggs, she said, only a mashed regular potato (she said patata), still warm, for binding.  I’m including the original Catalan and Spanish for those, like me, who might find the linguistic commonalities and divergences to be of some interest.

I have translated the recipe into English rather freely, simplifying and clarifying the instructions. I shall be experimenting with a much smaller batch (about 250 g of almonds) when I am much better. Despite the lovely sunny days, I have, much to my chagrin, succumbed to a rather annoying cold.

La Recepta de Tots Sants: Panellets (Catalan)
1 kg d’ametlles
¾ kg de sucre
½ moniato bullit
5 ous
Ratlladura de llimona a gust

Es mòlt l’ametlla i desprès es barreja amb sucre; aixafem el moniato que abans haurem bullit i deixat refredar. Afegim 3 rovells d’ou i 2 ous sencers (rovell, clara). Ho anem treballant amb les mans fins obtenir una pasta ben compacta i, a continuació, fem boles no gaire grans. Les anem decorant amb ametlles, pinyons, cireres, etc. Ho col·loquem tot en una plàtera i ho posem al forn fins que estigui cuit. Per a què els panellets siguin més vistosos es poden pintar amb una mica de clara d’ou.

La Receta de Todos los Santos: Panellets (Bollos)
1 kg de almendras
¾ kg de azúcar
½ boniato hervido
5 huevos
Ralladura de limón a gusto
Se molido la almendra y después se mezcla con azúcar; aplastamos el boniato que antes habremos hervido y dejado enfriar. Añadimos 3 yemas de huevo y 2 huevos enteros (yema, clara). Lo vamos trabajando con las manos hasta obtener una pasta bien compacta y, a continuación, hacemos bolas no muy grandes. Las vamos decorando con almendras, piñones, cerezas, etc. Lo colocamos todo en una fuente y lo ponemos en el horno hasta que esté cocido. Para que los bollos sean más llamativos se pueden pintar con un poco de clara de huevo.

Marzipan Balls for All Saints Day
1 kg powdered blanched almonds
¾ kg sugar
½ boiled sweet potato, mashed and cooled
3 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
Grated lemon zest to taste
Slivered blanched almonds, pine nuts, halved candied cherries for décor
2 egg whites (slightly beaten, for brushing)

Mix the almonds, sugar, sweet potato, egg yolks, eggs, and lemon zest.
Work the mixture well with your hands or in a blender or food processor into a homogeneous paste.
Form into not too large balls (about golf-ball size).
Decorate the surface with slivered almonds, pine nuts, or cherries (one half cherry to each ball).
Space evenly on a baking tray lined with parchment paper (or butter and flour the baking tray) and bake in a preheated moderate oven (325°F or 160°C) for about 15 – 20 minutes, or until firm. They do not need to brown.
A little egg white can be brushed on their surfaces before baking to give them just a hint of colour.