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 84. Sip your dreams by drops

There’s a Japanese drinking tradition called “bottle keep.” Yes, that’s right – a charming Japanese-English turn of phrase, pronounced “bottoru kiipu,” to denote a bottle of whiskey kept locked for you at a bar or nomiya (pub, drinking place) and you keep the key. It’s of course more cost-effective to purchase superior whiskey by the bottle than in separate servings. I came across a rather poetic label on one such bottle kept by a bar in Shunan City in Yamaguchi Prefecture — “A glassful of drops, each drop is tomorrow’s dream, sip your dreams by drops.”

The assorted sake no sakana (Japanese tapas or accompaniments to alcoholic drinks)  were exquisite. The  sashimi and sea bream head braised with tofu were unfailingly superb, each presented on a plate complementing and framing  the colours of the ingredients.

Aji tataki

Aji tataki

Simmered red bream wtih tofu

Braised red bream head and tofu

Bream on Hagi-kiln plate

Bream on Hagi (a nearby traditional pottery) plate.

One of the regulars turned up with a fish he’d just caught, and within minutes, the chef-owner had created a masterpiece, beautifully presented.

Created from one freshly caught fish

All this sashimi from just one fish.

After leaving the nomiya, we passed by an oden stall. Oh… nostalgic comfort food. I hadn’t had oden in decades. Oden is a very homely dish of diverse savouries, simmered in flavourful broth. You choose what you want from a wide selection —  stuffed seaweed rolls, meatballs, hardboiled eggs, fish loaf.  For some odd reason, oden never tastes as good when made at home — I find it best eaten outdoors from one of these stalls, preferable quite late at night. It was one of the delights impecunious students could indulge in, late on a cold winter night, especially after a long, relaxing soak in a public bath (sento).  Despite being full, I found I had room for some gingko nuts (heaven!) and a stuffed fried tofu (abura-age) parcel, both enlivened by an eye-wateringly sharp mustard.

Odenya

Odenya

Chicken meatballs, gingko nuts, stuffed fried tofu parcel — all eaten with sharp mustard.

It was the first time I’d ever gone out drinking with one of the children, now fully grown. And what a truly enjoyable and  memorable evening it was. Thank you very much, No. 2 son. And I made sure I didn’t embarrass him by getting giggly over a bit of sake. :-).

Year of Grace, Day 58. Encounters with uni

That’s  “oo-nee” – the Japanese for sea urchin; not “yoo-nee” – the British shortcut for university. It is, as I have mentioned frequently, my mother’s favourite. It amazes me how much of my mother’s taste in food and other things have affected me, all the more so as I approach the age my mother was as I remember her.

I adore sushi and sashimi now, but my first encounter with sushi — or rather a sushi counter — was confined to an artistic one. It was my first year in Japan and I lived in a dormitory with 37 other foreign students in Nakagawara, a little community just outside Tokyo. Occasionally the dorm’s dining room would close – for the cook’s and other kitchen staff’s holiday or for a thorough cleaning and inspection. And on these occasions, students had to fend for ourselves: either do their own cooking in the dorm kitchen – there was one on each floor – or try one of the small eateries not far from the school.

It wasn’t possible to cook immediately: I had yet to buy my own cooking equipment and investigate the offerings at the supermarket. And so off I went with my Filipino colleagues to check out two eateries on the main road. The colourful display of a chilling cabinet at the first place caught my eye – rows of slices in solid and stripey pink, white or cream edged with red, deep reds – all nicely framed by green. There was also a slab of bright yellow. I was so drawn to it, remembering a photo from one of my older sister’s cooking books of such beautifully arranged delights. Despite my reading addiction, cookbooks were not then part of my preferred repertoire. So it was with great surprise and even greater disappointment when one of my colleagues said, “Ugh, you don’t want to eat that! That’s raw fish!”

My encounters with fish and seafood up to then were the typical ones of Philippine cuisine. Or to be precise, a mix of Ilocano and Manila metropolitan cuisine – grilled over coals either wrapped in banana leaves or not; fried on their own as slices or if they were small, then whole; if they were large then they could also be stuffed, sewn shut, and then fried; steamed; or as one of the ingredients in the sour fish and vegetable soup called sinigang. I was used to seeing whole crabs and prawns in their shells that turned brilliantly red or pink when boiled or steamed. Squid – baby ones sautéed whole with their ink in the standard Filipino flavoring triumvirate of garlic, shallots, and tomatoes – were a childhood favourite. My gastronomic experience, such as it was in my late teens, certainly included oysters, taken out of their shells and marinated in sliced onions and vinegar or calamansi – I relished the oysters, but left the raw onions alone. Nearly ignorant of cooking then, I had not known that those oysters had not had the benefit of cooking before they were placed in their onion and acid bath.

What images did my young, culinarily untutored mind bring up at the words “raw fish?” A whole milkfish – the most common fish on any Filipino table — to be scaled and gutted, its gills blood-red, oozing slime and blood, and the smell – that unpleasant, fishy, slightly metallic smell termed malansa in Tagalog. That sordid image turned me off eating sushi and sashimi at that first encounter, even though my eyes had been so fascinated by the aesthetics of the display. I settled half-heartedly for the safe and slightly familiar — an omu-rais at the neighbouring place where my colleagues had already gone off to –- fried rice enclosed in an omelette topped with a squirt of ketchup.

It was uni – my mother’s favourite food – that turned the tide (pardon the pun). Encountered unexpectedly at a friend’s house, it changed altogether my image of raw fish. From then on, I took my sushi education in hand seriously. Alone, I would sit in front of the wooden counter and begin at one end of the display, going on until I had actually tasted everything. Not all on the same day of course, but intermittently, frequenting the same sushiya and having a few at a time, relishing those delicacies slowly, educating my palate with each piece as I cleansed my mouth each time with green tea and the ginger pickles. Chatting with the itamae who must’ve been delighted by my curiosity, I learned to eat as Edokko do as he suggested – to begin with kohada – but I also learned that I didn’t really like to end as Edokko do – with tamago, the sweetish egg omelet. I always ended my sushi forays with uni. Always and ever uni, my mother’s favourite. If funds were low, then I ended as I began, with kohada.

Uni can be so addicting that it can affect some people to behave in socially unacceptable ways. My mother had a pet project in her 90th year – building a community centre for her hometown, Santiago, Ilocos Sur. And when the building was finished, a party was held to mark the occasion. Knowing that uni, or to be accurate, maritangtang as they are called in Ilocano, were her favourite, a cousin had a huge bowl of them prepared. The bowl was given pride of place at the table. An old couple – respected elders of the town’s Methodist Church – sat themselves in front of the maritangtang. No one else, not even my mother, got to taste even one of those maritangtang.

I am grateful that my mother imparted by example her taste in food to me. Otherwise, had uni not been her favourite and had I not had uni in sushi, I might never have learned to love sushi and sashimi or, more significantly, embarked on one of my preoccupations – thinking about and writing about food and how we come to appreciate and develop a taste for the strange and the unfamiliar.

 

Copyright ©Jeanne R. Jacob. Text and photos, unless otherwise noted, are the author’s. Please notify me if you wish to copy or use any material on this blog.