What a whirlwind year! 2010 has zipped past me like the Stig in a speeding Koenigsegg, with only the whispering ghosts of his lingering cologne as a souvenir to remind you that anything ever happened. Whilst we still have days to go till we launch into 2011, it’s not premature of me to call it the end as this will actually be my last post for 2010.
I’m now on holiday at Lord Howe Island with the Co-pilot, his family, Katie, DanW and DanW’s parents too till the end of the year. It’s a well-deserved break for all so there are minimal plans of blogging. Well, actually – this is an involuntary decision, as I only recently discovered that there was supposedly no mobile or internet reception on the island.
“Haha, oh, I’ll never forget your face when we told you there would be no mobile or internet reception”, chuckled DanW’s mother Anne.
You don’t need to recall Anne – that look is still on my face. Thankfully though, I’ve discovered that there are internet points even on this remote island, and although the connection is painfully slow, it’s better than nothing. Panic stations averted. Reacquainting myself with a payphone has been a novelty though. My calls to my poor bewildered parents sound like I’m trying to set new speed conversation records. I quickly list every activity I’ve done in a military fashion without letting them get a word in edge ways, then sign off with the perfunctory “love you” allowing only enough time for my parents to squeeze in a hesitant “er” before the line goes dead.
The lack of connection to the worries of the outside world is one of the appeals of Lord Howe Island – and its long been a familiar holiday destination for this group. The Co-pilot’s maternal grandmother used to holiday here in the fifties and DanW’s parents discovered the island after having traversed the world only to find everything they wanted on an island holiday right on their doorstep. Now the Co-pilot and DanW, who have been friends since high school, have the enviable position of calling it their traditional family holiday destination. It will be a first visit for Katie and me though. Over the years I’ve listened to the Co-pilot boast about how beautiful the island is; how unique the flora, how abundant and healthy the marine life; how brilliant and unrivalled the snorkelling, hiking, fishing and diving are. But, I’ve been denied from going thus far as I can’t swim and he has tried to use a holiday to Lord Howe Island as an incentive to get me to take adult swimming lessons. Ah, but how he underestimated my stubborness. Far from being inspired to swim, my response was to retreat further inland, far, far from the sea.
However, discovering snorkelling changed that perspective and the appeal of seeing underwater marine life has been a greater incentive than anything the Co-pilot can conjure. Friends told us the diving at Ball’s Pyramid on Lord Howe was amongst the best in the world. The lure of pretty fish and coral was just the bait for me and I signed up for diving. The catch is, you need to have some basic swimming skills as a diver – so, after 30 years of life as a pure terrestrial creature and 9 of those resisting any efforts from the Co-pilot to have me swim, I have signed up to adult swimming lessons. Now, 8 weeks of swimming and one open water scuba diving course later, I am a little more confident in the water and have been indulging in all that Lord Howe has to offer.
As it turns out, long hiking treks and long, lazy periods lying on the beach is very conducive to reminiscing about memorable holidays, exotic destinations and favourite meals. Thus, I thought it was befitting to reflect on the top 10 memorable food holidays I’ve had to date. Not the “best” – but the most memorable, for better or for worse. And because some of the holidays date back to a time BFB (Before Food Blog), food photos in isolation weren’t the norm and holiday shots were focused on people and food together, so there are going to be a few shots of my mug (my apologies).
Ready for the countdown?
10. The Co-pilot’s 6 hour degustation at Alinea, Chicago
Now, strictly speaking I haven’t been here myself (*grumble*) and it shouldn’t make it onto my list but when I was concocting this post and asking the Co-pilot for his thoughts on the subject, he immediately mentioned this experience. I pointed out that it doesn’t meet the criteria because I personally haven’t been there – but his response was: “But it is memorable because I went, and you didn’t and that’s funny.”
The Co-pilot and I have a very different definition of “funny“.
What I definitely don’t consider funny is getting a call from Chicago for a blow-by-blow recount of the amazing experience, the wondrous food and the impeccably matched wines from a boyfriend gushing like an infatuated school girl. Putting up the menu from the night on our fridge so it taunts me, is also very unfunny.
It wasn’t funny – but as you can probably tell – it was “memorable”. So yes, it makes it into my top 10. And *sniff* as I wasn’t there, I don’t have any photos of my own to post of the event, but the FineDiner dined with the Co-pilot that night and has posted photos from the event on her blog here. Me, bitter? No.
9. Salchipapas, Bolivia
Continuing on the same theme, I think my less than enthusiastic response to the Co-pilot when he rang from Chicago about his 3 Michelin star meal was something along the lines of:
“When you go on holidays, you get to go to 3 Michelin star restaurants; when we go together – you insist we go to some freaking desolate mountain in the middle of nowhere, where I can’t breathe, get pounding headaches and eat f*&%ing frankfurts!”
And I may or may not have hung up on him then.
The frankfurts I was referring to, were the ones that appear in the much-loved Bolivian dish: salchipapas – literally an amalgamation of the words “salchicha” (sausage) and “papa” (potatoes). Now in theory – those two items can be made into quite the culinary sensation – but no one gave that memo to the Bolivians. The basic form of salchipapas consists of watery boiled frankfurts, deep fried french fries and tomato sauce. And on our 3 day trip across the Uyuni salt plains in Bolivia, our tour guides insisted we had our lifetime rations of salchipapas – to the point where they started disguising the ingredients so just when you get lulled into a false sense of security that the salchipapas punishment might be over, you lift back the lid on a pie or beneath a layer of mash and – nope – just more salchipapas. Like some sort of callous joke intended to induce rabid madness or intensify my altitude sickness.
8. DanW’s rare roast beef, Hunter Valley
In the scheme of things, it wasn’t an exotic location, and it wasn’t meant to be a particularly exotic meal. But coming in at number 8, DanW’s rare roast beef sure was memorable. We’d gone away for the weekend with a group of friends to the Hunter Valley, and DanW volunteered to cook. He’d spotted a recipe for slow roasted rib of beef by Neil Perry on Poh’s Kitchen. He bought a very nice, very expensive, organic rib of beef to make this recipe and given it averaged out at $30pp for just the unadorned beef, we had high expectations too. Whilst the recipe had said the entire cooking time might take 4 hours in total, our cooking and resting time took much longer than expected, as the beef took forever to reach the temperatures stipulated in the recipe – a whole 3 hours longer to be exact, making our total cooking time closer to 7 hours. The emphasis was definitely on “slow”. I waited so long that I’d fallen asleep and was woken at midnight for dinner. The beef still wasn’t quite ready but no one had even one iota of patience to wait any longer.
As it turns out, despite the very long cooking time, it appeared far from ready and we sat down to a very rare, bordering on raw rib of beef. I was so hungry and so tired that I ignored the distinctive, raw meat texture, wolfed down my meal and went back to bed.
I’m not sure what was the actual offending factor – whether it was the raw beef, the late supper hour, or combinations thereof, but that night I had the most vivid hallucinations. Lying in bed, no matter how much I blinked, I couldn’t shake the visions of the heads of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Liberal Party opposition leader Tony Abbott – shaking their heads in unison at me. Oh, and their heads were in a bright green colander. I can’t even blame alcohol as I hadn’t drunk any – the finger was pointed squarely at the meaty meal that was still settling in my belly.
So for causing the first case I know of meat hallucinations – this experience thoroughly deserves its place in my most memorable food holiday list.
7. Typhoon shelter crab, Hong Kong
On our first trip together to Hong Kong in 2005, we serendipitously stumbled on a collection of restaurants all specialising in Typhoon Shelter Crab on Jaffe Street, Wanchai. Never one to turn down an opportunity to snack on crab we arbitrarily chose one of the restaurants and walked in. Inside the simple, oil stained decor wasn’t impressive, but the tables plastered in flimsy plastic disposable wrap were clues to the serious crab-loving, finger-licking promises of this establishment. The countless pictures of local Hong Kong and Japanese celebrities that had previously dined here was also testament to the popularity of this humble looking hole in the wall find. We ordered a few dishes, but the one that stood out is the signature dish, the Typhoon Shelter Crab – a plate of flash fried crab almost hidden in a mountain of coarsely chopped garlic, fried onion, spices and green spring onions. I cannot even begin to convey how tasty this was. The greedy noises of appreciation coming from us were borderline inappropriate – like an amateur remake of that famous scene from When Harry met Sally.
As luck would have it, the random place we’d chosen from the collection of crab restaurants was none other than Hee Kee, the self proclaimed “crab expert”, and conveniently they sell pre-made jars of garlicky, spicy crab oil goodness. This meal made such an impression on us that we now ensure we have a continuous supply of these jars now: if we’re ever in Hong Kong, even if only for a stop over, or if we have friends visiting Hong Kong – there is a mandatory non-negotiable side trip to Hee Kee to stock up on the crab oil. It is a poor substitute for the Typhoon Shelter Crab you get in house at Hee Kee’s but those jars work very nicely to keep our crab addiction at bay until the next time we’re back in Hong Kong’s fragrant harbour.
6. Enormous grass-fed steaks, Buenos Aires
Before we’d even stepped foot on Argentinean soil, our research had ensured we had high expectations of the wondrous beef delights that would be on offer. The Argentine affection for beef is legendary and figures suggest Argentines consume up to a phenomenal 70kg of beef per capita annually! Argentine cows are grass-fed and fattened, leading to a tasty and generally leaner beef product than grain fattened cows. The citizens of Buenos Aires (who refer to themselves as porteños) also prefer their steaks more well done and chewier, tastier cuts like skirt steak and rib eye over the more tender cuts favoured in the West.
With the Argentine preferences in mind we headed to La Cabrera, a popular parilla or steakhouse in Buenos Aires, and ordered the bife de chorizo (rib eye steak) to share.
The steak that was delivered to our table surpassed all our expectations. It was almost comical in size – a steak, nay – roast – more befitting a table of 10 rather than the 2 of us. The steak was just fantastic – and the vast variety of accompanying condiments adding to the experience and changing the flavour with every bite. The Co-pilot had carved us each two healthy, thick rounds of steak and there was well over half remaining going wanting. Despite my best efforts I had to admit defeat as I’d just had 2 large steaks in one meal and was suffering from the dreaded meat sweats.
It was a memorable steak experience that we reflect on fondly and often reminisce when we’re having steaks. Buenos Aires is the destination for meat lovers and deserves its place at number 6 on my list.
5. The world’s best pizza, Napoli
Merely driving in and around Napoli was a memorable experience in itself – one largely punctuated by sharp intakes of breath; gasping involuntarily at the close shaves that happened every other second; and peering at roads with an unattractive semi-grimace, semi-squint as though that somehow made the stark-raving mad Italian drivers on the road less menacing. Driving on Napoleonic roads is an experience designed to groom cautious, alert drivers – or at the very least: grow hairs on your chest. But it’s not the roads, but another experience in Napoli, which has formed a benchmark for excellence by which to compare all other experiences and secures a place on my list – it’s the pizza we had at Da Michele, Napoli.
This renowned pizza institution lies tucked away in a small unassuming alleyway – a blink and you’d miss it place save for the throngs of people, locals and tourists alike, milling around waiting for their number to be called and their precious turn to tuck into what’s unofficially, but widely acknowledged to be the world’s best pizza. It’s a title that comes delivered hand in hand with a healthy slap of contentious controversy, especially since the official Italian pizza association has decided and publicised the criteria for a pizza to meet proper Napoleonic certifications. Amongst other criterion, a Napoleonic pizza must be made with olive oil, buffalo mozzarella and cooked within a wood fired oven within 2 minutes, but Da Michele persists in using soybean oil and Fior di Latte – no-nos that disqualifies it for official Napoleonic certification.
So what makes this pizza deserve its title as the world’s best? There were only 2 choices of pizza on the menu – Marinara (tomato, cheese and garlic) and Margarita (tomato, cheese and basil). Each came with cold beer for a mere 10 Euro total. We ordered one of each and watched in fascination as our pizzas were expertly slapped together with deft, quick hands, thrown into the mouth of the roaring pizza furnace for a minute, rotated 180 degrees for 30 seconds and then brought to the roof of the furnace for a lightning fast 2 seconds of charring. Under 2 minutes and we had a pizza still bubbling and melting placed before us. Risking third degree burns we tore into by far the best pizza I’ve ever had and possibly will ever have. The dough was lightly crisp and crusty on top with a gooey, imperceptibly chewy stretchy texture beneath. The unfussed toppings were plain but incredibly tasty with rich tomato, cheese, garlic and basil flavours jostling with the incredible dough to compete for centre stage. We inhaled those pizzas with frightening speed and without breaking for air, immediately ordered seconds. Having made concerted efforts to make our own pizza and perfect the dough at home, these pizzas were so delicious and more impressively, the dough so incomprehensibly good and impossible for us to achieve we were swooning with adoration.
Do other pizzas we’ve tried even hold a candle to those we had at Da Michele? Ha! Not even close.
4. Termite soup, the hottest meal I have ever ingested, Bangkok
I should preface the following paragraphs by saying that I can actually handle my chilli and am not one of those nincompoops that complain about the chilli content in a stick of celery (yes, sadly, they exist).
The first time that the Co-pilot and I went to Thailand was back in 2004 and we visited Vientiane Kitchen in Bangkok, a quaint thatched restaurant specialising in Thai food from the spicy Isaan region. As is my custom now, amongst some more familiar and “safe” dishes like a chicken larb (minced chicken salad) and som tum (green papaya salad) I ordered something a little adventurous and challenging off the menu – ant egg soup. When asked how spicy we wanted our food, the Co-pilot, who can actually handle probably twice the degree of chilli that I can quickly replied “spicy”. I protested but he insisted that we’d be fine. Ah, famous last words.
The ant eggs turned out to be termites, disturbingly large ones at that, tumbled through a thin broth with leafy green vegetable and bamboo shoots. The termites were softer than expected and their flavour was pleasant enough, with a slightly acrid aftertaste, which I attributed to the formic acid in them. There were no chillies that I could see in the soup, but the soup definitely had a spicy backhand that just straddled my boundaries between pleasurable spicyness and tolerable pain. Little did I know that my soup was actually laden with camouflaged green chillies masquerading as chopped spring onions amongst the leafy greens and that their capsaicin potency was head blowingly extreme, slow building and long lasting. I was alerted to this 2 minutes after my first bite when the chilli pain jettisoned past my tolerance levels and kept rising and inflicting pain for another 5 minutes.
Fluid was streaming uncontrollably out of all my orifices and even pores that had never perspired before and my expression took on one of alarm and anxiety. I ignored all warnings that travellers should be avoiding salad ingredients washed in local water or drinks filled with suspect ice as everything and anything within arms reach was snatched and urgently crammed into the raging fire in my mouth. Nothing worked and I was left to ride out the waves of chilli pain as the Co-pilot, nearby diners and even the wait staff looked on in concern. Finally, it subsided and I was left in a thoroughly spent smouldering, sniffing heap at our table. The chilli was omnipresent and spiked all of our dishes. The only resolution was to clear all the dishes and order from scratch – this time with a strict no chilli added directive.
I was beyond saving though as the chilli pain converted to an insidious chilli migraine. Since that trip I have been meaning to go back to Vientiane Kitchen and revisit that meal – was it really that hot? Have my chilli tolerances improved since then? Perhaps it was a once off experience from a chilli-happy heavy-handed chef? We tried as recently as Easter earlier this year but the restaurant was closed at lunch and the opportunity to re-affirm this experience as the hottest meal I’ve ever had went begging… for now.
3. The best ceviche ever, Panama
Our introduction to ceviche was in Panama – the first leg of our Central American trip that would eventually lead us on to Costa Rica and Nicaragua as well. But it was in Panama that we first tried and fell in love with this delightfully refreshing, tangy appetiser. On our first day in Panama City, the Co-pilot and I went on a walking tour armed only with our guidebooks and a vague intention of finding the fish markets. Eventually our meanderings led us through shady neighbourhoods with shifty characters watching our foreign progression through their domain from the shadows with cold, assessing eyes. Friendly welcoming hugs and impromptu samba parades in streets was clearly not on the agenda. We felt uneasy and I became hypersensitive about the whereabouts of my handbag and wallet but resisted the urge to turn back and pressed on towards the fish markets just beyond these neighbourhoods. The Panama fish markets are a far cry from the bustling touristy upbeat fish markets we have in Sydney – these looked like forbidden fortresses designed by a tyrannical prison warden, not a lively marketplace for sea produce.
The stall owners watched us warily as we picked through the markets and found the collection of ceviche stalls and bought one, piled high in a little styrofoam cup. With the first bite though, all warnings and inhibitions flew out the door. The white fish and octopus pieces were so tender and delicately cured with lime juice, the chopped onion, capsicum, coriander and tomato so fresh and crunchy, it was delicious and inhaled so greedily that we had to turn back and purchase more. We found out later that on our wanderings we’d inadvertently walked through some sections of Avenue Balboa, the one street in Panama that all guidebooks warn tourists against. But the ceviche we found elsewhere in Panama City paled in comparison to the ceviche at Panama fish markets. It was so addictive and lingered on our minds so temptingly that we revisited the fish markets another two times before we left Panama City, though on those subsequent occasions we caught taxis direct to the fish markets (even to the gentle disapproval of taxi drivers), and I waited in the taxi outside as the Co-pilot dashed inside for our precious hit of ceviche since as much as it was ludicrously tasty, it was worth some calculated risk but not ultimately our lives.
Unfortunately, the ceviche we sampled on our travels across the rest of Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua didn’t quite compare to the ceviche at Panama’s fish markets. We’ve even tried making ceviche a number of times at home, which has resulted in tasty, satisfying ceviche but certainly not like that at the fish markets. The best ceviche makes its place at number 3 on my list and we’re resigned to having to head back to Panama fish markets one day to sample some more.
2. Foraging for oysters and mussels, Waiheke Island, NZ
Long before we visited the Co-pilot’s aunt Rosie and her partner Terry on Waiheke Island, New Zealand last year I’d heard the Co-pilot and his sisters talk fondly of collecting oysters and mussels from the beach. My imagination conjured a rickety old pier in need of a paint job with a picturesque quaint white cottage amidst wild flowers in the background. Clinging to the pylons and rocks would be precious little clusters of mussels and oysters waiting to be collected at low tide.
The reality we found was many magnitudes more impressive than my imagination could dare dream. The entire beach was covered in oysters – large, accessible ones in flat shells resembling Pacific oysters and smaller, brinier ones that hid protected in gnarled shells resembling Sydney rock oysters. Most importantly, the island is so isolated, the water so clean and the thoroughfare virtually non-existent that even these filter feeders could harbour no significant ills to my health.
Rosie and Terry made the mistake of allowing me to run wild on their private beach armed with a bucket and a chisel where more fresh, plump briny oysters made their way into my waiting mouth than the largely empty bucket. But there were more oysters than I could possibly eat, and the sight so familiar and accessible to Rosie and Terry that they didn’t mind me eating a dent into their wild supplies. Just as well – as on this beach I’d discovered my very own fantasy candy shop, I was the king predator of this little microcosm and there were no other competitors for my supply.
It was a very happy summer where I gorged myself silly on fresh oysters foraged straight from the beach, and mussels from the rocks, one I reminisce on very fondly and appreciate how very unique that both the environmental circumstances were and my special access privileges – making it number 2 on my list.
And drum roll… at number 1 is…
1. Xiao long xia, “little lobsters”, Shanghai
The xiao long xia we had in Shanghai! “Xiao long xia” literally translate to “little lobsters” and I have made my affection for crustaceans clear enough in previous posts. Hidden in the French Quarter of Shanghai are collections of little stores serving these xiao long xia – curiously, they weren’t featured in any guidebooks we had and it was only by pure serendipitous chance that we stumbled on them – but boy, am I glad that we did. These creatures are related to what we in Australia call “yabbies” and what Americans term “crawdads”. They have hard blue-grey shells that turn a brilliant, fiery crimson red on cooking and these restaurants in Shanghai have crates upon crates of these live critters stacked up outside all waving helplessly at passersby. There are so many of these creatures and haphazardly stacked crates that it is not uncommon to see a hapless escapee making a run for the safety of the sewers, dodging the busy foot traffic of Shanghai.
For a small and insignificant fee locals are handed a pair of thin disposable gloves and sat down to a tray of xiao long xia, plain boiled and served with a variety of sauces. We opted for the most delicious, moreish dipping sauce made with Shanghai Worcestershire sauce, Chiang Kiang vinegar, a dash of light soy sauce and a touch of chilli. The little lobsters are twisted gently to remove the tail meat from the head, the hard shells peeled off, the plump, juicy morsels of tail meat dipped into the dipping sauce and devoured. It’s not by any stretch a clean or dainty affair – the restaurant is bustling with diners swathed in ill-fitting disposable gloves, hastily tucked in serviette bibs and the clatter of noisy sucking, licking, crunching, cracking and chattering of happy diners, their mouths full of “lobster” meat.
So what makes it number one on our list of most memorable food holidays? It sounds dramatic, but it’s the one food experience that has time and time again been a serious inspiration for us uproot and leave Australia for a new life in Shanghai. Every time we see a cheap airfare to Shanghai we contemplate taking advantage of it, if just to fit in this one delectable meal again. Every time we see the photos of us happily eating these xiao long xia, we both say in unison, that we’d go back to Shanghai in a flash if just for more xiao long xia. I have tried to recreate this simple tasty experience using yabbies, but for whatever reason, the price of yabbies is more often than not ludicrously inhibitory and a few yabbies makes a poor substitute to the endless trays on offer in Shanghai. We have resolved to either head back to Shanghai when an appropriate airfare arises or find a friend with a farm and impregnate their dams with yabbies. The hungry obsessive mission this one meal has launched ensures its very secure place at number one on our most memorable food holiday list.
This post was one of the more pleasurable to write – evoking old tactile and sensory memories that on more than one occasion made me smile, my mouth water and my belly grumble in protest. Whilst many of these experiences listed are based on the perceptions from a once-off visitation and may differ to others’ experiences at the same venues, I recall them all very fondly – even the less than perfect experiences, as they have all made great holiday memories.
Have you been to these destinations or have had food experiences inspirational enough to make you want to move to the other side of the world?
And whilst you happily reminisce, I’ll take this opportunity to wish you all a very fantastic Christmas and may 2011 bring you many exotic, tasty and memorable travels!by