Year of Grace, Day 230. Hummus – badge of a tolerant society or just a passing fad?

While eating my pan-Mediterranean breakfast of hummus from the local Mercadona (a supermarket chain), harissa from a Moroccan food shop, Catalonian escalivada — a salad of charcoal-grilled aubergines and sweet red peppers — and locally baked bread, with a lacing of local green olive oil from this year’s first pressing, I pondered on the ubiquitousness of hummus in lands where it is far from an original staple.

Bottom left — escalivada, a Catalonian dish of charcoal-grilled aubergines and sweet peppers; top right — harissa, a Moroccan hot chili and lemon condiment; middle right — hummus, flecked with wild thyme flowers and leaves.

Hummus, as everyone knows, is a very simple paste of boiled and mashed chickpeas, sesame paste or tahini/tahina, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic (and other condiments to personal taste), usually eaten as a dip for pita or other unleavened or leavened bread. All of these ingredients are common throughout the Mediterranean and widely eaten by poor and rich alike from Lebanon and Syria to Israel and Palestine and less so in Egypt.

So what is it doing in a supermarket in a small fishing village in Southern Catalonia? Where there are not just one but two varieties available – a plain one and a paprika-flavoured one (we prefer the plain).  And moreover, what was it doing in chain supermarkets (Tesco and Sainsbury, and the upmarket Marks and Spencer) in the small town of Leamington Spa in the heartland of England (where one could have a bewildering diversity of varieties)? One could argue that L’Ametlla de Mar has become multicultural, though this is not borne by the current faces I see as I walk around this village of 6000 souls (in the summer the population does triple however). The permanent foreign contingent is largely Western European – Germans, French, English – with a sprinkling of Asians (me and the staff at the Chinese stores and restaurant) and a few North Africans (but then again hummus is not a North African staple). So who are the beneficiaries of this light-meal staple and dip more commonly seen throughout the Levant and supermarkets in England?

I contemplated this as I happily dipped my locally baked circlet of bread into the hummus, sprinkled with the new flowers and minuscule leaves of aromatic wild thyme, that I had picked from a sun-drenched hillside facing the sea in El Perello just two days ago. And I compared hummus’s fate as a global food with that of sushi.

Who could have foreseen that sushi, which used to provoke (and still does) shudders among non-eaters, would become a permanent staple of sandwich, salad, and light-meal food chilling cabinets throughout Bonn, Germany? (Or in England and elsewhere all over the world too?) And yet it has – within the space of 11 years, since I first came to live in Bonn.  It has certainly captured the hearts (and stomachs) of many a Bonn Feinschmecker. It does cause me a great deal of dismay, however, to see it being thoroughly impregnated, or more to the point, drowned, in soy sauce before being conveyed to conspicuously appreciative mouths. (Can one still detect the subtlety of fresh fish thus?)

If sushi has made tremendous inroads into the Bonn gastronomic scene, hummus has not. Or at least as far as I had seen from three months back when I left Bonn in October 2015. And Bonn bills itself as an international city. Bonn lost its status as the capital when it was moved back to Berlin after the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, and consequently its international diplomatic community.  Years later a marketing agency thought up a campaign to shore up the city’s sagging international character. And the resulting slogan? “Bonn – Stadt, Ville, City.” I cannot help but point out the obvious: it is a markedly restricted view of “international.”

It does come as a huge surprise to me that despite the predominant Turkish and other Mediterranean (Spanish, Greek, Syrian) residents of Bonn, swelled by international students of Bonn University and the staff of numerous UN agencies that have relocated there, hummus is not a regular offering in any Bonn supermarket. Not even in Turkish or other ethnic food shops. And yet, here it is, very much a staple in this humble Catalonian fishing village whose population cannot compare to Bonn’s hundred thousands. And there to be found as well, in Middle English towns such as Leamington Spa, Kenilworth, Warwick, and Stratford, with populations no greater than Bonn’s, albeit similarly endowed with an international citizenry through the universities of Warwick, Coventry, and Birmingham.

Could hummus then possibly become like sushi in the near future, with the influx of refugees from Syria into Bonn? Can exotic foods like sushi and hummus, as they become culinary staples to be found in the smallest of supermarkets far from their native lands, become indicators of multinational tolerance, badges of multicultural harmony in a global society? Would someone who readily takes to foreign and exotic food heartily take an outlander for a neighbour? Accept him or her a friend? Consider and respect him or her as a fellow human being?

Or are sushi and hummus just passing food fads, made popular to the wider world outside of their homelands, by celebrities and/or gourmets, as has happened with sushi? Are marketers, always on the lookout for trends, simply following the latest ones by welcoming sushi and hummus into their ready-to-eat food chiller cabinets?

What do you think? Would you say that hummus in the local supermarket is a gauge of social tolerance? There are other ethnic foods that have gone global – hamburger, pizza, spaghetti. Have they contributed at all to our acceptance of the stranger in our midst? A bit heavy to consider first thing in the morning, perhaps, but you see what happens when you have hummus (unexpectedly found in a local supermarket) in a tiny Catalonian fishing village for breakfast.

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 122. On Tortosa: pondering places and sushi

The sun is out today, but overnight there’s been a hard frost. Winter seems determined to hang on by its chilly claws, a sharp reminder that there are still a good two months to go before the Ice Saints (Eisheiligen) declare in mid-May that its frosty breaths are, officially at least, no longer welcome.

I’m reading a fascinatingly engaging book on Jewish history by Simon Schama, and in it he mentions a scribe, Menahem ibn Saruq, eloquent assistant of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the trusted right-hand man of the Caliph of Al-Andalus, Abdalrahman III. Menahem was born and raised in Tortosa. Now Tortosa is the provincial capital of Tarragona, on the lower Ebro River, and over the past two weeks most of our wanderings have been in the towns along the Ebro. It is this kind of serendipity in what I am reading about and experiencing that enthralls me – the links that bind the immediate to the ancient. And Menahem and the “minister” Hasdai and the Caliph lived in the 11th century!

Menahem penned the letter that the minister Hasdai sent to Joseph, king of the Jewish kingdom of Khazar in Western Asia (a vast one –extending from the lower Volga to the Caucasus mountains). It was among the documents in the Cairo Geniza collection, now stored in Cambridge. It described Spain as:

“[a] land rich, abounding in rivers, springs and aqueducts, a land of corn and oil and wine, of fruits and all manner of delicacies, pleasure gardens and orchards, fruitful trees of every kind including the leaves of the tree on which the silkworm feeds of which we have great abundance.” (Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, page 264).

Had I not been there, Tortosa would have remained a mere name. Just as Trier and Cologne and Bonn, also mentioned in Schama’s book, would have been, had I not been resident here and experienced being in those places. But having once been in a place and lived in it, or even spent just a few hours in it, one comes to place (pun intended) a town in one’s mind map. Not simply in the geographical and morphological sense, but the psychological as well. I had written earlier about the spirits of place, and I do feel that places – whether houses or villages or cities – possess not only a structural form, but an emotional content as well.

It’s a pity that we did not have time to explore Tortosa. We might have made the effort, if it weren’t for the quasi-sushi that we had in the Restaurant in Tortosa Park. We had expected quality sushi. There’s the Mediterranean and the wonderfully fresh catch of all manner of marine ingredients, right? And there’s the Ebro Delta, where rice flourishes with overflowing abundance. (And I digress here a bit, but the agronomist in me suspects that rice, much like coconuts, might relish a bit of salt intake from brackish water or the rainclouds that form over the sea). Put these local treasures of seafood and rice together, and of course the local specialty has got to be none other than paella. But hang on – what other food combines, so exquisitely, that inimitable pairing of seafood and rice? But of course, what else but the globally and gastronomically fashionable sushi. Naturally our Tortosan gourmet restaurant offered sushi as the day’s special. And we — naïvely assuming that with such abundant and good-quality local ingredients, no chef worth his or her salt could bungle such a simple dish — took the bait.

Big mistake! For a start, the rice was too decidedly al dente, as so often happens with paella. And it was unflavoured. I could go on about the underwhelming quality of the ingredients – why use fake crab when fresh is so easily available, and most likely cheaper than kamaboko masquerading as crab? Oh, and they also offered a set meal of “tempura” squid. (Our neighbours had it.) It turned out to be none other than calamares fritos. The dish was not even remotely presented like tempura: the sliced tubes of squid were just piled on a plate, indistinguishable from the less-pretentiously named calamares fritos at less-pretentious eateries. A gratis bottle of cava accompanied the sushi and tempura sets for two. On a positive note, on taste alone, I would imagine that the “tempura” squid might just be a tad more palatable.

Sorry to be such a sushi and tempura snob, but it’s a crime to foist such blatantly inauthentic food on Tortosans. On top of it all, the waiter was obviously not having a good day – he was surly and rude, and scowled throughout. Evidently, being around food and customers who enjoy food is not his niche.

Lesson learned: the exquisite meals we had enjoyed all along the coast of the southern Catalunya had been in simple eateries. The Tortosa Park restaurant was aspiring to be – trying too hard to be — in the gourmet category, with the waiter dressed head to toe in modish black and the artful cobalt blue glassware and matching (plastic) water containers. Those who appreciate food – good, honest, well-prepared food – are not fooled by faddish frippery. This is one Tortosan restaurant I would never contemplate going back to again.

Seriously, sushi is more – oh, so much more — than just raw fish and rice. Let me sweeten this with a gracious end note: the mandarin and orange curd served with the almond-citrus pie was lovely. (Yes, this area is justly famed for its citrus.)

The size of the sushi topping is the first knuckle of my thumb.

The size of the sushi topping is the first knuckle of my thumb.

Mandarin and orange curd with almond pie

Mandarin and orange curd with almond pie

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.