Year of Grace, Day 47. The Old Man and the Sea

Anyone who has read Hemingway’s book of the same title would be likely to agree with me that “The Old Man and the Sea” is a lovely name for a fish restaurant. Ideally set facing a marina, it was where we had an exquisite seafood lunch the other day. I have rarely had seafood prepared to such perfection in a restaurant (outside of Japan, that is). And this was by no means an haute cuisine establishment. The children did the ordering: grilled prawns, fried calamari, grilled dorade, steamed crabs. I was hesitant about the crabs – more than a few times I have had them overcooked to a dry stringyness, or if not then they are hardly the best representatives of crabhood. But I was overruled and I graciously acquiesced.

In no time at all a huge array of “little, little things” was laid on the table with a pitcher of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Little, little things are what my family calls the varied salads and preserves and dips that constitute a meze. They come in small bowls and are replenished on request – which reminds me that in Korea they have a similar tradition. Almost half a century ago in Kyongju, I was given fresh shucked oysters in one of these dishes. No sooner had I emptied the dish than another came. And I, being the greedy oyster eater that I am, swiftly scoffed that up and the next one as well. I must have had over a dozen oysters altogether. I was to ruefully repent having been so greedy. I remembered passing by the street behind the restaurant earlier that day, and saw a woman cleaning the oysters outside right on the street in, shall we say, not the most salubrious of conditions.

But back to meze — every eating place has its own particular combination of these amuse bouche. They are a constellation of the stars of Middle Eastern home cooking. Over the past week I have not had the same appetizer repeated in any of the places we’ve been. Or if the ingredients were the same, the taste definitely was not. My favourite of the month is finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and mint spiked with garlic in olive oil and lemon juice – tabouleh without the bulgur. I know that sounds so plain and unexciting. But absolute freshness is key. And that is perhaps the secret to all of these tiny salads. Put any kind of green herby leafy dish on the table and the Southeast Asian in me — or to be more precise, the Ilocano in me — will be unable to resist. A green leafy dish is to a Southeast Asian what a red flag is to a bull. No else was as interested as me in this emerald green delight.

At another unprepossessing place we called The Garage, being as it was annexed to a petrol station, we got to sample some unusual little, little things. Most extraordinary were pickled baby aubergines, slit in half, like huge red-purple grapes; perfectly ripe tomatoes, peeled (unusually!) so that their pink flesh showed off the tracery of their delicate veins as they glistened in their dressing of olive oil and lemon juice with parsley. One companion’s favourite were sweet carrot coins in lemon juice – so simple and plain, yet so more-ish in their crisp texture that complimented the soft and unctuous texture of the other salad dishes. And the natural sweetness and acidity of the dish was a refreshing contrast as well.  We praised that one so much we got the second helping in a larger bowl.

I had to remind myself not to fill up on these supporting stars to leave room for the main attractions. And when they came, they did not disappoint. The calamari were tender inside their light coat of pale batter, almost tempura-like though not as crisp. The prawns were grilled to perfection – they had retained their sweet moistness. The dorade had been split in half and brushed with olive oil before grilling, and it was also prepared with due care to leave its meaty white flesh tenderly succulent. And the crabs? They were exquisiteness itself – juicy and tender and oh so sweet. I’m glad the children insisted. I used the skewer that came with the grilled prawns to fish out (pardon the pun) every last bit of succulence. The only special seafood cutlery provided was a cracker – one’s own fingers are meant to suffice. Nothing but nothing can compare with a perfectly prepared fish and seafood feast. Tiny crisp-fried pastries drenched in honey and rosewater came with cardamom-scented coffee to end this splendid repast. The only thing I can cavil about is that the coffee came in tiny paper cups. Coffee needs a ceramic surface of just the right thickness for the lips and tongue to savour it properly. Paper just doesn’t do it justice. A walk around the marina and the old town and market to expend some of those calories was followed by “proper” dessert — artisanal passionfruit sorbet and an extraordinary caramelized olive ice cream.

A splendidly memorable day filled with a great many blessings — the utmost of which was having family together and being able to breathe in that seaweedy, salty scent of the sea.  It is a scent that reminds me of my grandmother’s beach and which always takes me back to childhood summers by the sea. For all of these I am deeply grateful. Oh, and for the praying mantis – strangely beige — that hitched a ride with us too.

 

Year of Grace, Day 8. Autumn is a turban squash

When the first turban squash makes its appearance in supermarkets, for me it is clearly autumn. This tough-shelled squash with its unusual, comical shape and often rough patches never fails to cheer me. Called Bischopsmütze (Bishop’s mitre), it belongs with pumpkins to the large group of “winter” squashes.  So called because they store well and keep over the winter, unlike the soft-skinned summer squashes such as zucchini. In addition to making me smile whenever I see them, they make me think of making soup: thick, substantial, warming soups. And squash soup makes me think of my Japanese ‘mother’, Hiroko, who made it with milk and nutmeg, and my daughter, who adores it, especially when made with caramelised onions and tomatoes, perked up with the heat of a red chilli, the way M makes it.

TURBAN SQUASH WHOLE G_9636

For me, there is no better complement to squash than prawns or shrimps. Yesterday being Monday, the fishmongers were closed, and I thought of trying to find dried shrimps or powdered shrimps in the Asian food shop in Old Town Bonn (Altstadt).

This part of Bonn has become truly multicultural. Just behind the new City Hall is a Moroccan food shop where I get harissa. Next door to it is a proper fishmonger where I buy wonderful whole squid intact with tentacles and ink sacs as well as gilt-head bream. I have never been a fan of hot peppery food or sauces, but I have become fond of this particular type of harissa: it is not too hot and it has a clean, clear flavour of red chillies, lemon juice, salt, and oil. Nothing else. There is also an African food shop that carries dried fish, plantains, and yams, next door to a zumba and capoeira studio. Just around the corner has to be one of the best artisanal ice cream makers in Bonn — Eislabor (‘Ice Cream Laboratory’). They make a small range of ice creams and sorbets, with no additions, just natural ingredients, sugar, and cream or water. No nuts or any other additions to mask the silky smoothness of their iced wares. The flavour of their fruit ice creams is pure delightful fruit! And their chocolate sorbet is so intense and creamy, it is hard to believe it is not made with cream. It is vastly superior to their chocolate ice cream.

At the other end of Altstadt, near Rosental, are a Turkish food shop and an Asian food shop. Over the six years I have lived in Bonn, I had only shopped at Jin Long near the entrance to the City Hall at Budapesterstrasse. I am thankful, really thankful to have found this other one as they have a more diverse  selection. Yesterday as I said I was looking for dried shrimps. I didn’t find those or perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right place, but I found frozen, delicate-looking, white prawns instead. I find gigantic prawns tough and prefer the medium-sized ones. I also discovered frozen jackfruit! And of all things – champuy! The hard, sour, salty ones. I haven’t had those in ages! I also found blachan or trasi, fermented fish paste in block form, which I then used to flavour the squash soup. Its aroma in the soup reminded me of the fermented anchovy sauce (bugguong in Ilocano, bagoong in Tagalog) that is de rigueur in Ilocano dishes and I was reminded of my mother’s pinakbet, a slowly braised Ilocano dish of aubergines, bitter melon, and other vegetables in anchovy sauce, ginger, and tomatoes, which is akin in consistency to Mallorcan tumbet or the homely French dish, ratatouille.

I am truly grateful to have found what I was in search of and to discover new food ingredients as well. The squash soup, graced with fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) found at the Turkish shop, made a lovely supper. I think I overdid it slightly with the prawns which I cooked a la plancha. I adore seafood and although I can eat a lot of it, last night’s pile of prawns was a tad piggish. 🙂  I am more than thankful that the squash soup did turn out well and went very well with prawns, as I had imagined. One other thing I am grateful for: I understood 100% what was being announced as a schedule change at the tram stop. That has never happened before.