Saturday, March 25, 2017

Travel endorsements

Merino wool T-shirts: The hype is justified. They're cosy in cold weather, yet also uncannily light and breathable in hot weather (meaning you're not picking them out of the small of your back when you sweat). Also, you don't need to wash them as often as cotton, and when you do, they dry quickly even in a hotel bathroom with no airflow. I got mine from Outlier because I admire Outlier's textile fetishism, but given the Brexit pound and the import duty, they ended up costing me a lot – next time I might try Icebreaker.

Beyerdynamic DTX-350m headphones: they're lightweight, they fold up small, they've got great sound, and they seal out a lot of external noise even when you're not playing anything through them. As useful for the night bus as for the long-haul flight. Admittedly, my first pair broke in less than a year, but Thomann gave me a full refund so I bought another pair because I liked them so much.

Jetlag fasting: as far as I'm concerned, jetlag is like scurvy: a preventable disease. Last month I flew from London to Chiang Mai, a time difference of seven hours, and experienced no tiredness. OK, I realise the method that works for me isn't necessarily going to work for everyone, but nevertheless I am such an evangelist for this I would willingly go door to door like a Jehovah's Witness. The essential thing is simply to drink water when you get hungry.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The best thing I ate in Xi'an was this bowl of noodles. I came to Xi'an because my favourite restaurant is Xi'an Famous Foods, the northern Chinese fast food chain with ten locations in New York. While I was subletting an apartment in East Williamsburg for a month in 2013, I ate at the Greenpoint XFF three or four times a week, which I regard as a roughly optimal frequency. Because I haven't been back to New York in a couple of years now, and I live a long way from Silk Road in Camberwell, XFF's closest equivalent in London, I have occasionally resorted to making hand-pulled cumin lamb noodles in my own kitchen, but that's a process so labour-intensive I can't do it very often. So I was wildly excited to visit Xi'an. I made sure to book a hotel room right next to the Muslim Quarter, and after dropping my bags off at the Ramada, I walked straight over, found a restaurant that looked promising, ordered noodles, and prepared for a revelatory experience comparable to the first time I ever ate Thai food in Thailand.

The noodles were... fine.

What I learned over the next four days is 1. the food at Xi'an Famous Foods in New York is better than most of the food in X'ian itself and 2. everyone tells you to eat in the Muslim Quarter but the best food in Xi'an is not in the Muslim Quarter. In fact, my favourite meal there was from a nameless shop recommended here. I know nobody wants to read another piece of food writing about simplicity and authenticity and letting the ingredients speak for themselves and feeling a real connection to somebody's heritage – but I'm afraid this was inescapably one of those.

When you order a bowl of oil splash noodles in this shop, the cook picks up a ball of dough and stretches your noodles by hand in front of you. After cooking them in a pot outside, he puts them in a bowl and adds a few toppings: I noticed chilli flakes, spring onion, sugar, salt and MSG, and the recipes I've found online reveal that garlic and soy sauce and black vinegar were most likely involved as well. To cook the sauce, he simply pours a spoonful of very hot oil over these toppings. No wok necessary.

Finally, while you're mixing the sauce into the noodles at your table, he brings over a soup bowl full of water from the pot, which is the same water he's been cooking noodles in all day, so it's essentially a kind of wheat broth. That's the whole meal, and it's satisfying beyond belief.

Now, I would never normally have gone into this shop, because it was cold and grubby and there was only one other customer. My first rule of eating in foreign countries is not "Head straight for restaurants that have a vaguely depressed quality." But all of my expertise disintegrated upon contact with China. Which is the only reason I was even willing to contemplate signing up for an organised street food tour after I arrived in Sichuan Province. I was glad I did, though, because the Chengdu Food Tour turned out to be a really good use of an evening, climaxing with the famous pig brain mapo tofu at Ming Ting.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The most confounding thing I ate in Kunming was this dish of stir-fried walnuts. (At least I think they were walnuts.)

I pride myself on my ability to find good, cheap, interesting food in foreign cities. (After all, what else makes life worth living? I fear I permanently alienated myself from several other writers on our British Council trip to Guadalajara in 2015 by the intensity of my reaction when I learned that they were planning to eat dinner in the hotel.) But here my usual strategies were all hopeless. The problems were as follows.

1. Because not many Western tourists come to Kunming, there is hardly any data about it on the Anglophone gastronomical internet, compared to cities like Saigon or Chiang Mai.

2. The sum total of my prior knowledge of Yunnan food was a dim recollection of a New York magazine review of two Yunnanese restaurant​ that opened in Manhattan a few years ago (I never ate at either of them and they have both since closed). In other countries, where I know the basics of the cuisine, I can just keep squawking the word 'laap' or 'pho' with different intonations until I'm served some kind of meal, but here I had no idea what the essential dishes were, let alone how to say their names.

3. The sole reason I came to Kunming was because the chef Andy Ricker said in an interview that Kunming has 'fantastic outdoor eating'. I can't contradict him, but although I did eat some good bowls of spicy wheat noodles on the street, I already had a lot of spicy wheat noodles on the docket for Xi'an and Chengdu. I realised that if I wanted to eat distinctively Yunnanese food, I was going to have to eat in restaurants, which was a dispiriting prospect for reasons I will lay out shortly.

My Airbnb host, Emily, was kind enough to take me out for a bowl of 'crossing-the-bridge noodles', the signature dish of Yunnanese cuisine. But of course there is a lot more to Yunnanese cuisine to that. In fact, the primary item of trivia I have learned is that it would be possible to assemble a Hawaiian pizza from Yunnanese ingredients. Most people don't think of Chinese food as including bread, cheese, tomatoes, pineapple or ham (as opposed to pork or bacon), but all of these things are eaten in Yunnan. I was determined to tick 'Chinese cheese' off my list, and by my last night in Kunming I still hadn't succeeded, so I went to Lao Fangzi, a restaurant that came universally recommended by what few sources I could find.

Why do I hate eating in restaurants on a trip like this? 1. Restaurants are a lot more expensive. 2. Eating alone at a rickety aluminium table in a crowded market, I find exhilarating; eating alone in a proper restaurant with waiters and a wine list (or baijiu list), I find rather melancholic. 3. At street stalls, I often just point to another table in the universal gesture of 'I'll have what they're having.' In restaurants, it's harder to make yourself understood like that. Do you mean 'I'll have every single dish those six people ordered'? Do you mean 'I'd like to sit with them, they look nice'? (The relevance here of Willard van Quine's theory of the inscrutability of reference is, I trust, obvious to any reader of this blog, so I will not bother to dwell on it.)

And 4. restaurant dishes in China are intended to be shared. So if I wanted to eat Yunnanese fried goat's cheese, I had no choice but to order a platter suitable for a wedding buffet. And if I wanted to eat Yunnanese chrysanthemum greens, I had no choice but to order a plate of leaves so big that it didn't resemble a salad so much as an agricultural surplus.

I was able to get that far because the menu, mercifully, had pictures. The only English text in the whole thing was a heading on one page that read 'Characteristic Local Flavors', and I decided to complete my dinner by ordering from that section, hoping to try something unique to the region. With the waitress at my shoulder, I pointed at a dish that looked as if it might be some kind of stir-fried chicken.

However, there were two more things I wanted that I couldn't find any pictures of: some steamed rice and a beer. 'Rice?' I said. (Why, before coming to China, did I not at the very least learn the Chinese word for rice? I cannot give you a satisfactory answer to that question.) The waitress flipped to the back of the menu and pointed at a listing that appeared, from the prices, to be three different sizes of something quite cheap. I nodded and pointed at the smallest size. Shortly afterwards, she returned with... a small bottle of Tuborg. Failing to order one thing I wanted, I had inadvertently succeeding in ordering the other thing. But I never did get any rice. And this mishap turned out to be harbinger of what was to come, because the rest of the food soon arrived. First the cheese, then the greens, and finally the stir-fried walnuts. Because that was apparently what I had ordered.

I tried them. They tasted roughly as you'd imagine. In other words, I'd inverted the usual cliché about the Englishman in an exotic land who tentatively orders who he hopes will be an innocuous dish and ends up with jackal tartare or something like that. Excited to try something fiercely Yunnanese, I'd been served the kind of food that you wouldn't otherwise find yourself eating unless one of your dinner party guests informed you at fifteen minutes' notice that his new girlfriend was vegan. A lot of people seem to think the greatest peril of dining in faraway places is that you'll be obliged to eat something weird, tainted, or morally unconscionable; on the contrary, the greatest peril of dining in faraway places is that you'll be obliged to eat something boring.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The best thing I ate in Saigon was this banh mi from Bánh Mì Bảy Hổ. I've eaten an average of (rough estimate) one banh mi a week for the last seven years of my life, as a loyal customer of the Banh Mi 11 stall in Broadway Market, then of Num Pang near Madison Square Park, then of Hanco's in Cobble Hill, and most recently of Viet Baguette in King's Cross (which is the best banh mi in central London). Within 90 minutes of my plane touching down in Saigon, I was eating, for the first time ever, a genuine Vietnamese banh mi, and I felt like the Christian villagers in Silence who, after years of praying together in a hut without so much as a Bible, finally have the sacraments administered to them by a real Jesuit priest. My main recommendation if you're ever here is to follow the advice of a blog called Vietnam Coracle, particularly this post.

Monday, March 06, 2017

The most expensive thing I ate in Penang, and indeed the most expensive thing I expect to eat on this entire trip, was this durian. Previously, I knew durian only as the fruit responsible for the rancid-sweet smell that pervades Chinese supermarkets in London. Many hotel lobbies in South East Asia have signs forbidding durian for the same reason. (I read about one of these signs and used it in Glow, thinking it was a humorous and evocative detail. I now realise that if you've spent any time in this part of the world it's as banal as 'No Smoking'.) Penang is famous for its durian farms, and in researching them I learned that a variety called the Musan King is regarded as the best of all durians – although Olexander Nechytaylo, the Ukrainian ambassador to Malaysia, recently declared, 'I don't like Musang King. My favourite is XO.' Scorning Nechytaylo and his hipster durian opinions, I decided to try the consensus pick.

I went to a shop on Dr Lim Chwee Leong Road called TNG Siang Hock Trading. There were no other customers, and the shelves were mostly empty, perhaps because it is not yet durian season. Two young assistants sat playing with their phones. However, a huge banner advertised the Musan King, and sure enough there was a display of about thirty of them at the front of the shop. One of the assistants came over and I asked him how much a Musan King was. “Fifty ringgit,” he said.

At that moment I couldn't summon the exchange rate to mind, but I knew that a bowl of noodles from a hawker stand was only four or five ringgit. Fifty was clearly an enormous sum for a piece of fruit. But how often, I thought, does one have the opportunity to try the very best of something? Never in my life, probably, will I taste the very best Iberico ham, or the very best white truffle, or the very best Japanese whisky. But this was the very best durian. Also, it had been an extremely cheap holiday up to this point. I agreed to the price.

He put the durian on the scale. At this point it dawned on me that the durian actually cost fifty ringgit per kilo. (And I wasn't being scammed – I've since confirmed that this is about the market rate when musan kings are scarce.) “A hundred and forty ringgit,” he said.

“Are there any smaller ones?” I asked. He put a different one on the scale. “A hundred and thirty-four ringgit,” he said. “OK!” I said, feeling that I'd shrewdly economised.

He hacked up the durian with a small cleaver and put it on a table for me. I sat down, pulled on a pair of the plastic gloves provided (to prevent the smell clinging to your hands), and began to eat. I should note that I'd already had a big lunch of beef rendang at a nasi padang stall. Fortunately, at 31°C with 80% humidity, it was just the kind of weather that stimulates a hearty appetite.

As advertised, the lobes of flesh inside had a remarkably smooth, melting texture, and a rich, custardy taste. However, they also had something of the durian's obnoxious bouquet. More than anything, I was reminded of the black sapote, the Mexican fruit with flesh uncannily like chocolate pudding. Black sapotes can be found in the markets of Oaxaca for as little as ten pesos (40p) per kilo, and as I ate this elite durian, I tried to work out how much it was costing me. I knew that I'd exchanged a Thai thousand-baht note at a money-changer for something in the range of 120 or 130 ringgit. I also knew it was forty-five baht to the pound, so that was... more than twenty pounds. This fruit – which, frankly, was not even as enjoyable as a ripe mango – was costing me more than twenty pounds. And I was already starting to feel pretty full.

However, I forced myself to continue eating until it at least looked superficially as if I'd got through it all. Then I counted out some notes and got up to give them to the assistant. “Take away?” he offered. Which I had not expected, but seemed reasonable, given that, at these prices, even the shreds of edible matter still clinging to the seeds were worth a little something. I shook my head. “Take away?” the assistant said again.

Why wouldn't he take no for an answer? I looked back at the durian, and realised for the first time that he'd only exposed part of the fruit with his cleaver. The other part was still intact. There was at least a tenner's worth of durian left inside. “You can give to friend,” suggested the assistant.

Why did I still refuse? Partly because, like many insecure males, once I've stated a decision in public it's almost impossible for me to bring myself to reverse it, even when I know reversing it would be in my best interests. But also I just didn't want the rest of the durian! I could imagine myself sitting there in my hotel room the next morning, gnawing grimly through the rest of this fruit for no reason other than that I'd inadvertently spent so much on it. During durian season in May and June, TNG Siang Hock Trading has an all-you-can-eat durian deal, and the thought of an endlessly replenishing supply struck me as a form of luxury torture, like being waterboarded with Napoleon brandy. I was so eager to avoid this that I felt considerable relief when I remembered the 'No Durians' sign in the lobby of my hotel, because it gave me an excuse not to take the durian back there. (But was I seriously suggesting I couldn't have smuggled it up in a plastic bag? Also, what kind of proto-fascist cur feels grateful that he's not allowed to do something because there's a regulation about it?)

But the assistant was now looking at me in disbelief. Subsequent research reveals that 134 ringgit is actually £24. (To put that figure in terms a layman would understand, it's almost 40% more than the projected RRP for the hardback edition of my forthcoming novel Madness Is Better Than Defeat.) And the minimum wage in Malaysia is 4.8 ringgit an hour. So a Malaysian working a menial job – such as these teenage assistants at the durian shop, perhaps – would have to work about 28 hours to afford this durian. And they would have to work for at least fourteen hours to afford the amount of durian I was simply going to leave behind as if it was kitchen waste. I knew that would be loathsome gesture, like some bow-tied colonialist languidly dousing his cheroot in the champagne he's decided he doesn't want any more. I tried to reassure myself that perhaps the assistant could take the leftover durian home to his family, but then it occurred to me that if there's one thing that the family of an assistant at a durian shop are definitely sick of, it's free durian. What would the maximally ethical course of action be, I wondered? Somehow sell the half-eaten durian on the streets of Penang and remit the proceeds to a mosquito-nets charity?

While I was in New York I went to two Michelin-starred restaurants with lengthy 'modernist' tasting menus – Momofuku Ko and Corton – and both times I found them less enjoyable than much cheaper meals. The amount of money I was paying for each fussy little mouthful was a calculation that weighed on me too heavily as I tried and failed to wring from it the quantity of pleasure that I felt I was owed. So what hope did I ever have of whole-heartedly appreciating this durian? Even before the economic awkwardness around the leftovers, the price was just too high.

But then, as I left, the assistant gave me 10 ringgit change back from the 140 ringgit I gave him. He'd only charged me 130 ringgit for the durian. I'd clawed back another 4 ringgit from the purchase! Enough to buy a plate of char kwey teow better than anything I ate at Corton. In fact, if I ate enough hawker food, it would be almost like I was amortising the cost of the durian across the savings I was making on my other meals. Which is what I spent the rest of my time in Penang attempting to do. But by day 4 my appetite buckled under the pressure, and I was only able to eat three meals yesterday instead of my normal six to seven. They included a serving of Kek Seng Café's famous home-made durian ice cream, which I can recommend, if you ever come to Penang, as a considerably cheaper way of finding out whether you like durian or not.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

This summer I'm hoping to get a dog, and once I do it will be harder for me to travel, so I decided I had better take the Trip of a Lifetime beforehand. This was supposed to slide neatly in between deadlines for my new novel, although that didn't quite work and I ended up having to submit the latest draft from a guesthouse in Mae Hong Son. I've just arrived in Penang after nine days in northern Thailand.

The best thing I ate in Thailand, out of 79 separate dishes, was nam prik ong at Sorn Chai in Chiang Mai. I heard about Sorn Chai from the EatingAsia blog, who evoke it better than I can. I was emotionally shaken by this nam prik ong.

The worst thing I ate in Thailand was nam phia at Laap Chiang Mai which is not in Chiang Mai but in Mae Hong Son. This is an algae-green condiment drawn from the rumen of a cow. It was the most unpleasant thing I've ever been served in a restaurant context, worse than the boiled silkworm pupae soup I once had at Han Shin Pocha in Queens, worse even than Fernet Branca. However, I would still recommend Laap Chiang Mai! You don't have to eat the nam phia, and it came as part of a pretty memorable meal: raw laap, nam phrik kha, and pork intestines straight from the barbecue (which was placed out in front of the shop, practically in the road, like an attractive hitchhiker trying to wave down drivers).

I don't have much else of value to offer, because the best places I ate fell into one of two categories: either 1. I heard about it from EatingAsia, Austin Bush, or Eating Thai Food, who are all much more knowledgeable than I am; or 2. I took a punt on a place and loved the food but had no way of finding out the name because I don't read or speak Thai.

Among the latter I would count many of the best som tams (papaya salads) I had, such as the one pictured below, from a place on Thanon Panglor Nikom in Mae Hong Son. I like my som tam like I like my Scotch – flabbergastingly pungent – and these did not disappoint. It was only in the cab to the airport at the end of my time in Thailand that I learned how to request that style – "som tam pu pla ra" – but I was generally able to accomplish the same thing by gesturing frantically at the jar of salted black crabs.