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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Table for 3: Spain

Spain is an emotional country blessed with unfair weather and beautiful people. In its cities, it seems, cathedrals and cafes have come to a mutual understanding.

I've had the privilege of visiting on three separate occasions and can say with absolute certainty that I understand absolutely nothing of the complexities of this sun-kissed dream. What I do know is that is that these people know, perhaps better than anyone else, how to live life. How to eat, how to drink and how to enjoy good company under sultry star-light.

If I had a weekend in front of me, with a few bob and a few friends, this is one country in whose good hands I'd put myself in.



The Museum of Ham


Madrid was colder than I'd expected. There was a freak hail-storm the night we landed. I must have been about 10 years old so these streets upon streets of cafe dwelling Europeans came as a bit of a shock to me. In India you relax inside, in Spain you relax outside. You sit in quaint little squares under the shadow of a church and drink your coffee or beer. We were walking through the cities back-streets, searching for something authentic, homely and cheap - like most of us stingy desis tend to in Europe.


We walked past a restaurant and had to do a double-take because what we saw inside was astonishing. Hanging from the ceiling were literally hundreds of hams. Entire cured legs of red-orange meat hung tantalisingly; their earthy, salty aroma filled the restaurant with smells that made your stomach tug at your heart-strings like a child his parent's coat. We had to try this place. It was called el Museo del Jamon if I remember correctly and what we realised is that ham in Madrid is more than a dining experience, it is a spiritual experience. Around us, ham-connoisseurs far more educated than us were selecting their specific cut and tucking into each morsel like they were kissing their love for the last time. We ordered a few cuts and nibbled on them, exploring their sweetness, saltiness and character. Jamon should be nibbled.


I realised that eating in Spain is more about the journey than the destination. You need to soak in the dim light like you soak up the sauce from the suckling pig with your bread. We waited two hours for our Paella. My sister and I had lost interest in the restaurant and in fact the country, so strained was our patience! In the end though, the vast platter of still cooking rice and meat was by far the best Paella I can remember having. It is a dish that, sadly, has too many unworthy imposters all around Spain and the world. A real Paella takes time; like any woman worth caring about (or so I've heard) it will push you, tease you and even threaten to leave you but if you wait it will make you happy. Two hours is a long time, especially if you aren't of drinking age but luckily the 'exhibits' in the museum of ham kept us busy.




The Barceloneta


Literally the only thing I don't like about Barcelona is Sergio Busquets. It is probably as close to perfect a city for someone like me as one could hope to find on earth. Its people are the city. The shared sense of being Catalan is something you need to see around you to understand. It is a single entity. It loves football, food, the sea and the weekend. How long have I spent in Barcelona? 6 hours. You know how you see a girl across a room and it's enough? It was enough.


We were being shown around town by one of my dad's dear colleagues, Jordi (truly the coolest guy I've ever met), and after doing the whole touristy tour he took us to a park on a hill that overlooked the entire city. It was quiet but not empty. There no snapping cameras or gawking package-holidayers. Just the Catalans who liked looking at their home in the afternoon sunlight. Indeed, it was nearly 4 o'clock by the time we got to the Barceloneta. Jordi told us that in Barcelona, people have breakfast at noon, lunch from 4 to 6, you go for some beer and tapas at around 8 while watching the token English family have dinner in an empty restaurant, you watch the football from 9 till 11, eat dinner at midnight and go to the club at 4 in the morning. When do Spanish people go to work, I thought to myself? (*cough overvalued labour market cough*) Either ways, this life that Jordi described, soaked in olive oil and wine is something I think I could get used to!


The Barceloneta was right on the sea front and so the atmosphere was just wonderful. The sun was out, the sea breeze brought warmth and conversation and the food came in less than 45 minutes for a change! I remember vividly having squid ink rice with calamari and baby octopus. Squid ink rice? Yes. It was creamy, it was tasty and it gave the calamari an extra bit of gusto. The baby octopus was pickled and you could eat each one whole. What I remember most of that meal was what my dad had: the fisherman's basket. It was essentially a stew of fresh fish, squid and prawn (cooked whole- the Spanish, like us Indians, know that the flavour is in the shell). The fish was firm but fell off its grain with the slightest touch. The sea was all around us.




Morcilla


I like people-watching. At airports, in cafes or on the bus it is my pass time. Understanding their looks, their mannerisms and their style is something I really enjoy doing as I travel. I have never seen a more spectacularly good-looking bunch of people than I did in Andalucia. It was like being in a magazine. The men are not tall like those you see in northern Europe, but they take care of themselves and it shows. And everywhere you turn there is a beautiful girl with a Hazel eyes and autumn leaf skin and carefree hair that could only come from the Mediterranean.


I was in the south of Spain for a long-weekend along with two of my best friends and I suppose when you're with your mates every morsel tastes better, every beer tastes sweeter. On our first night, due to the arrival times of our flights, we missed the last bus to Granada (where one of my friends lived) from Malaga and so had to hang out in the sea-side city until 6am. I think the Spanish have cracked what it is to "hang out" - you need to have food, drink and atmosphere that is within reach and yet does not offend your peripheral vision. You should be able to have some to nibble on in one hand and a drink manageable to hold in your other, so that you can focus on the company sitting across the table.


I give you: tapas. What a great concept. Order 5 small plates of different little savouries and a few local beers, sit in the shade of a cathedral and watch the afternoon swim away off down the beach. Braised beef and potato wedges in garlic-tomato puree. Scallops sautéed with pancetta and mushrooms. Seafood cocktail. Crispy potato croquettes filled with chorizo and cheese. Deep fried calamari with lime and rock salt. One by one the little ceramic bowls came and everything moved in slow motion. We moved to a new bar near the city centre, tucked away in the folds of a cobble-stone street. The street-names were mosaics in medieval walls. With every beer, came a new plate of tapas. I remember most vividly a sort of blood-pudding called Morcilla. All these sophisticated Spaniards were unwinding after work around us and we sat in silence, spreading the delicious sweet sausage across freshly baked bread.



We laughed, we drank, we polished off the food and before we knew it, the evening was upon us. The mood had changed and that unmistakable 'buzz' that you get in a crowded square in Europe purrs into life. The carefree murmur of a young night. Everything in Andalucia is carefree. I find the Spanish don't take much interest in the rest of the world but when a simple evening among friends can be so special, why would you care what is happening elsewhere? I wouldn't.



Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Table for 3: Hong Kong






Hong Kong is like no place in earth. The skyscapers hit the hills and the hills hit the seas at angles that make you wonder how. 80% of Hong Kong is greenery and people ignore or forget this. It is no longer British but not quite Chinese: it is a seamless blend of old and new and it hits you all at once. At every turn a new experience, on every plate a new adventure. Schooling aside, I had a great time when I lived there and I want to share with you - in no particular order - my best experiences from the 'Fragrant Harbour'.




Pigeon Fried Rice





I met my dad for lunch on a weekday once. I didn't have school for some reason so I decided to walk down to Central and grab a bite to eat near his office. We lived very near the central business district and with Hong Kong's world class public transport, didn't need a car. Thus, my dad walked to work everyday, downhill, through Hong Kong's Botanical Gardens. I met him at the foot of his building which was called, The Centre.











He took me to a hole-in-the-wall, just under the Escalator (the remarkable public transport system set up the ease commuter traffic, which runs from the Peak right down to Central - incidentally, the world's largest outdoor escalator). Around us, thousands of other hungry office workers made their way to their favourite eateries, jostling for position under the skyscrapers, waiting to cross the roads. Giant plasma screens displayed the trailer for the new Harry Potter movie, that everyone - and I mean everyone- stopped to watch, before continuing on their way - phone in one hand, jacket in the other. It was like swimming in a giant school of fish. Who knew walking could be so much fun.









We came to a tiny, crowded place, sheltered from the mid-day sun by the Escalator itself. The single room restaurant was no bigger than the room I'm sat in right now. It could seat about six tables of 4, on worn out wooden stools. The steam from the adjacent kitchen spilled out into the dimly light dining area, filling the air around us with the most divine smells. The sounds were those of frying, steaming and boiling and they were the soundtrack to our meal. The conductor, front and centre, was an ancient Chinese lady who acted as waitress, usher and megaphone. Five minutes after every scream she threw at the kitchen, a steaming dish would come out, accompanied only by a plastic glass of water and disposable chopsticks.





I love food. I especially love trying exotic meats. Pigeon was a first for me, and so I examined the bowl flung in front for a moment. The meat itself was a grey-ish brown; not the most appetising. The rice was glistening in the oil and spices it had been cooked in. It had finely diced greens mixed in as well. Rice, greens and poultry was all this dish was in reality, and yet it was gone from my bowl before I knew what had happened. The rice was sticky enough to easily shovel into my mouth with chopsticks and the meat was tender enough to break under their pressure. My father and I didn't speak until the meal was over, until every last grain of flavourful rice was gone.





The food in Hong Kong is amongst my favourite anywhere in the world, because of how the Cantonese manage to keep it mild and yet pack each morsel with so many different subtle personalities. Unlike with Indian food, which I find too hot (I know, I know...) my taste-buds are treated to spice, not tortured by it. Those 10 minutes captured the essence of lunch-hour in Central Hong Kong: the steam, the smells, the crowds and the frenetic pace of the it all. It's a game of musical chairs - I don't know who moved faster, the people in the kitchen or the people outside.







Lamma Island





This is simply a 'must do', for all those who go to Hong Kong. Rent a Junk boat and go to Lamma Island. I have been there on a few separate occasions and each time was as good as the last. A trip to this beautiful hilly island is as much about the journey as the destination.









The Junk Boats that you can rent these days are a tourist inspired spin-off of the classical Chinese vessels of old. They are perfect for short day trips to the hundreds of surrounding islands or for simply enjoying a day out on the sea with a group of friends. I remember going with a large group of my parent's friends. There were about 6 others kids my age and we kept getting disapproving adults to relay us cold cans of soft drinks from the fridge below. The walk from the top deck was too much effort - and why waste even a second when you're relaxing on this:







The boat seemed to stroll across the water. It ambled over the mid-morning swells, amidst the chatter and laughter our group enjoyed. Once we left Victoria Harbour behind, the sea breeze was pleasant and moist and the waters were not as choppy as near the ferry terminal. We cruised for about an hour, as the kids run around on the main deck and the adults relaxed upstairs. There were short eats and cold drinks aplenty and the junk's manager was very friendly.






It took us about an hour to get to Lama Island. I recommend you do what we did: get off on the less touristy side of the island and work up an apetite by embarking on a little trek through the island's lush interiors. I remember walking for 40 minutes and not being bored by the nature - think back to how big an achievement that was when you were a kid. By the time we got to the pier on the other side of the island, we were glad we'd spent the better part of an hour clearing room in our bellies because what followed what a gastronomic extravaganza I will never forget. You can take your pick from any of the seafood places that line the coast of Lama but I urge you to go to Rainbow if ever you have the chance.






You can pick out your fish from the tanks that form the wall of the restaurant. Not one for the faint-hearted I suppose but then I don't know what the Cantonese phrase for 'man-up' is. Our large group sat down and were served the biggest bowl of prawns I have ever seen. There must have been 200 king prawns on that platter, each one fried in garlic and spring-onions and to a brown-red crisp on its outside. Prawn is very much a luxury food for me; whenever it is made at home we each get 10 pieces and savour each one but here I gorged on them. I swam in them. Other dishes included the ubiquitous fried rice and beef and broccolli served in oyster sauce. The one that really stood out for me were the giant scallops pan-seard and served back in-shell, topped with garlic vermicelli noodles. Scallops are such a tender, sweet meat and their juiciness was retained and then some. Simple, subtle, delicious. The Chinese are masters.






We snoozed on the junk-ride back to Hong Kong island, prawn-drunk.










Glass Trolleys: The Dim Sum Experience





Like a kid in a candy store, I gazed in awe at the trolley coming towards me. We were at Maxim's Palace in City Hall, right on Victoria Harbour to sample the real Hong Kong Dim Sum experience. If you manage to get a table there at lunch-time, you are in for a treat. It is where Hong Kong comes to salivate. It is one of these iconic places in a city that will cleave opinion among locals but I love it. The seating area looks rather like a Soviet ball-room and is slightly characterless in that sense but the views from the windows of the bustling harbour are great. In any case, you aren't there for the decor. You are there for those bamboo boxes of joy.





You can order a-la-carte but that is like going to Carnegie's in Manhattan and ordering a cheeseburger. What you should do is camp yourself strategically so that you are in the catchment area of as many waiters as possible. As they pass each table, you can stop them, peer through the glass into their heated trolleys and pick out whatever catches your fancy. I recall vividly choosing the deep-fried octopus tentacles while my mum choose some famous Shanghainese 'soup' dumplings which were filled with hot broth that explode out of the soft white dough as you bit down.






I pick this one because other than the food being excellent, it is somewhere where you can go to see people be happy. I don't think there are enough places like that in the world. People eat, laugh and be happy and I wish every city had a spot like that. There is a buzz in the air, the conversations are loud and the waiters are constantly weaving and winding through the tables like winds that bring good tidings. Stack your empty boxes as high as you can and see which of the skyscrapers outside you can build!






I hope that this has made you as hungry as it has made me.