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A Mini Road Trip Movie with Topsi Venter

Exploring | Cape Winelands, South Africa 

 
 
 
 

Topsi Venter was the Grand Dame of South African cuisine. Topsi, whose real name was Pauline Venter, was a living legend among her chef colleagues. No matter who you asked, all roads in South African cuisine seem to lead to her.

 

I wasn't even aware of her when I met her for the first time in her restaurant. I had just visited Margot Janse in the award-winning Tasting Room in the Quartier Francais when she said that I just had to go to see Topsi since she only lived a few houses further down on the same street. Sometimes when you go through a door you have no idea that something important is about to happen. Awaiting me that afternoon was a high-speed journey into the past, the present and the future of South African cuisine.

A few days before, I found out that Topsi was an old woman who, due to an operation, could barely walk and talk... yet it turned out that this was only partly the truth. When I entered the house, Topsi was stood right in front of me on her crutches. Margot Janse had apparently just been on the phone to her and so she knew that I was on my way. "So, young man", she said "you’re interested in South African cuisine? Where are you from?" "Actually," I answered, "I’m half from Spain, half from Austria, and..." "Spain...?" She didn't let me finish my sentence " a famous Spanish chef spent a few weeks in South Africa. How was he called?... Oh yes, Ferran Adria, and I cooked something for him – he was quite nice and just as curious as any child. But follow me, let me show you something." She went limping into the kitchen. "Oh, my knee hurts! she said," I’ve just had an operation"

"...a famous Spanish chef spent a few weeks in South Africa. How was he called?... Oh yes, Ferran Adria, and I cooked something for him – he was quite nice and just as curious as any child...

We went briefly into the kitchen, greeted her daughter Danielle, who was just cooking a Bootie -a South African national dish with Malaysian origins - and then we went right on through into the next room. It was a library. The room was filled with shelves stacked high with cookbooks, cookbooks and even more cookbooks. As if she could read my mind, she knew that this was something quite extraordinary for me.  "This is my treasure trove!", said the trained architect and art historian, which is where her love for eating turned into a love for cooking.

She showed me the books, many of which were beautifully illustrated. I was fascinated and intrigued. She took yet another one from the shelf read it to me.  "This is by C. Louis Leipoldt, a South African poet... listen to this: and there is the art of cooking, which is one the greatest expressions of culture and civilisation, because it converts food from a mere necessity into a social delight and rejoicing in being alive, however cold the day and dark the night...." She took a long pause and looked at me and said: "What I thought now, is that we should go to Renata! Come on, get your things. I’ll fetch the car keys!" She limped quickly towards the desk. Somewhat shocked I thought, "Oh my, are we really taking the car? Seriously? If she can barely get around, how on earth can she drive?".

Approaching the desk with difficulty, she carefully opened a drawer and suddenly a parrot appeared, "Can I introduce you to Miss Oscar Wilde?" said Topsi "I think he's gay.

Approaching the desk with difficulty, she carefully opened a drawer and suddenly a parrot appeared, "Can I introduce you to Miss Oscar Wilde?" said Topsi "I think he's gay. Now where the hell are those car keys?" she cursed loudly.  We got in to an old, rusty brown Mercedes.  "You’ll have to keep hold of the door while we’re driving – it sometimes flies open", said Topsi. "Where are we going? And who is this Renata?" I asked.  "To the past and into the future!!!" Topsi replied. Renata Coetzee – as Topsi told me while driving at full throttle through the Winelands – was a food historian, also 80 years of age, who knew ten times as much about South African cuisine as any other person. Her area of research was the oldest cuisine in the world, the thousand-year-old cuisine of San and the Khoikhoin people. It had become her life mission. She had even documented the plants and herbs of this original cuisine - Fynbos vegetation. "Then we could drive down to see Shoeman", Topsi said. "Guys like him embody the culinary future of our country. He cooks with these completely unknown plants and herbs in the Fyndraai Restaurant. It will open up a completely new universe of tastes and smells. You'll see". "I hope so!" I think, as I regard the rickety door of the Mercedes with something approaching panic.

 
Topsi Venter in her old Mercedes Benz

Topsi Venter in her old Mercedes Benz

 

"Where are we going Topsi? And who is this Renata?" I asked.  "To the past and into the future!!!" Topsi replied. Renata Coetzee – as Topsi told me while driving at full throttle through the Winelands – was a food historian, also 80 years of age, who knew ten times as much about South African cuisine as any other person.

 
 
 
 
A present from the dessert for me: Kalahari Truffle (peeled), "the potato of the Koihsan".

A present from the dessert for me: Kalahari Truffle (peeled), "the potato of the Koihsan".

"...Guys like Shoeman embody the culinary future of our country. He cooks with these completely unknown plants and herbs..." 

Topsi Venter

Indigenous herbs: Koekemakranka, or Kroekemakrank or also known as Gethyllis was a plant used in one of the most ancient kitchens of the world: the one of the Khoisan people, who live in the south-west coastal strips of Africa (actual Southafrica and Namibia). The may once have comprised the majority of living humans on the planet, for much of the past 150,000 years. Today, The ripe fruit is sometimes used to impart its special aroma to brandy. More Illustrations  here

Indigenous herbs: Koekemakranka, or Kroekemakrank or also known as Gethyllis was a plant used in one of the most ancient kitchens of the world: the one of the Khoisan people, who live in the south-west coastal strips of Africa (actual Southafrica and Namibia). The may once have comprised the majority of living humans on the planet, for much of the past 150,000 years. Today, The ripe fruit is sometimes used to impart its special aroma to brandy. More Illustrations here

 
 
 
In memorian: Topsi Venter passed 2016 away at the age of 85. Thank you Topsi for this awesome day!

In memorian: Topsi Venter passed 2016 away at the age of 85. Thank you Topsi for this awesome day!

© Text, Artwork and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist

 
 
 
Cruz de Maiz con Pecado
eatnologist_Cruz+de+Maiz+con+Pecado_food_recipe_guatemala_chichicastenango_modern_pico_de_gallo_spread_preview3.jpg
 

Red Radish, corn and Tomato Tapa Salad with red chili pepper, peppermint and fried shredded pork skin (chicharrones)

Ingredients:
a. 3 cherry tomatoes sliced (different colours) and seeded.
b. 1/4 white onion diced
c. 3 red radish sliced
d. 1 red chili pepper  and seeded if you want a more mild taste
f. 1 tsp cup peppermint minced
g. 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
h. some shredded fried pork skins.

How to prepare:
Place all ingredients into a large bowl.
Mix and season with salt, to taste.
Add the chicharrones right before serving.

Garnish with some edible flowers.

 
 
 
 
FO 066
 
Aguaje

Food Object 066  Aguaje Fruit | Tropical Central & Northern South America.

A hand grenade? Not exactly, but this fruit is truly a vitamin bomb.

"Aguaje" grows in tropical Central and South America and contains from 21 to 38 times more vitamin A than carrot, from 25 to 31 times more vitamin E than avocado, and it has the same content of vitamin C as an orange. Plus: It helps to shape the female figure and increase breast size (however, this is not backed by scientific studies).

 
 
 
 
Oh! she has Spines

That Recipe on my Mind | Inspired, Croatia

eatnologist_©_recipe_sea_urchin_lemon_foam_comp.jpg
 

Raw Sea Urchins with Lemon Foam/Air Recipe

 

Makes 2 servings

 

Ingredients
a. 6 Sea urchins in shells
b. 1 cup Lemon juice
c. 1 cup Water
d. 3g Soy Lecithin

How to prepare:

Sea Urchins:
Sea urchins spines are venomous, so prompt and proper care is important.
Wear gloves while you trim off the spines to protect your hands from accidental stings.
1. Insert scissors in hole located on domed top of sea urchin.
2. Rotate around top of shell, cutting toward outer edge, exposing flesh.
3. Arrange sea urchins on plates

Lemon Foam / Air:  
1. Mix all 3 ingredients in a high container. 
2 Hold blender in the upper part of the liquid to bring the largest amount of air, so that a foam forms on the surface.
3. Collect the upper part with a large spoon. Arrange on sea urchins.

Maldivian Island Hopping

That Recipe on my Mind | Maldives

eatnologist_maldives_islan_hopping.png
 

Fihunu Mas (Maldivian grilled fish spice mix) on shredded coconut, herbs and algae.

Ingredients:

3 fish fillets with skin on: tuna, red snapper and sea bass gutted and descaled

1 red dried chilli, finely chopped

1/2 chopped onion2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon cumin powder

2 curry leaves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Salt to season.

Plating:

3 teaspoons shredded coconut

1 teaspoon algae (nori seaweed stripes)

1 teaspoon coriander

How to prepare:

Blend the spice mixture to a smooth thick paste. Make deep slashes along the sides of the descaled fish, and pack with the spice paste. Grill over hot coal (or a grill pan), on both sides until done.

Place the grilled fish on the shredded coconut and garnish with herbs and algae

 
 
 
 
 
The Happy Meal

Exploring | Rasdu Atoll, Maldives

©_eatnologist_maldives_food_travel_fish_recipe_seafood_paradise_maldivian_food26b.jpg
 

Paradise (definition):

- a very beautiful, pleasant, or peaceful place that seems to be perfect

- a place that is perfect for a particular activity or for a person who enjoys that activity

- a state of complete happiness

 

"...what about Maldivians who live here? Are they always happy? What do they dream about? What is their idea of paradise on earth?..." 

 

 
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The water is crystal clear. I see my footprints fading in the sand. I look around. The breeze is blowing through the palm trees. The air is warm and humid and there is a delicious smell of fresh, charcoal-grilled fish. I want to try every single Maldivian seafood dish. It´s all just too perfect here. Am I dreaming? 

But what about Maldivians who live here? Are they always happy? What do they dream about? What is their idea of paradise on earth? 

 
 
Faraha and Anha

Faraha and Anha

 
 

Faraha, Anha and Ahusan.

Later on I met Faraha and Anha on a neighbouring island where locals live. The two little girls were going to see their older cousin Ahusam play soccer and they invited me to follow them.

Ahusan was wearing an old Real Madrid T-shirt. He came to greet us and I took the chance to introduce myself.

Ahusan, may I ask you something? If you imagined yourself in a paradise, what would it look like and what would you like to eat there?

- Chicken McNuggets.

Sorry?

 
 

"...Ahusan, may I ask you something? If you imagined yourself in a paradise, what would it look like and what would you like to eat there?

- Chicken McNuggets.

Sorry!?..."

 

- Chicken McNuggets, says Ahusan again.

Are you serious? Is this your idea of Paradise?

- Yes. My idea of Paradise is to eat a box of Chicken McNuggets while watching a game between Real Madrid and another team at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. That would be my dream.

- Yeeeeees, Chicken Mc Nuggets! - yelled the two cousins.

But why??

- We saw these Chicken McNuggets yesterday on tv!

***k globalisation.

 
 

© Text, Artwork and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist

 
 
 
 
 
FO 028
 

Food Object 018 Percebes. 
The most expensive form of seafood in the world are called goose barnacles or Percebes.
The indigenous peoples of California used to eat the stem after cooking it in hot ashes. In Portugal and Spain they are a widely consumed delicacy known as "percebes". 
But why are they so expensive? First: They taste really delicious. Second: The harvest is dangerous or even mortal, as the “percebes” grow exactly where the ocean waves crash against the rocks in the so called Mortal Coast in Galicia, Spain (just look for "percebeiros" at youtube and and you also will understand why).
Plus, an other curiosity : Male barnacles have the largest penis proportional to its body size in the animal kingdom. It can reach up to 8 times the length of the barnacles’ body (see the flaccid penis in the picture highlighted in red).

 
 
 
FO 101
 

Food Object 1010 Kala namak (Urdu / Hindi) or bire noon (Nepalese; literally "black salt") is a type of rock salt, a salty and pungent-smelling condiment used in South Asia. It is also known as "Himalayan black salt", Sulemani namak, bit lobon, kala noon, or pada loon. It is found mostly in the Himalayas.  

Kala namak is used extensively in South Asian cuisines of Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan as a condiment or added to chaats, chutneys, salads, all kinds of fruits, raitas and many other savory Indian snacks. Chaat masala, an Indian spice blend, is dependent upon black salt for its characteristic sulfurous hard-boiled-egg aroma. Those who are not accustomed to black salt often describe the smell as similar to rotten eggs. Kala namak is appreciated by some vegans in dishes that mimic the taste of eggs. It is used, for example, to season tofu or avocado to mimic an egg salad

(source: wikipedia).

 
Juanita Banana Bling Bling

That Recipe on my Mind | Cuba, Havana inspired

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Banana Mousse with Herring Caviar Recipe

Ingredients:
2 bananas
2 spoons sparkling wine
2 tsp lemmon juice
2 tsp sour cream
salt
pepper
4 tsp herring caviar

How to prepare:
Place banana, sparkling wine, sour cream, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a blender
Process for 15 seconds at high speed until smooth. Set aside in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend and process once again before serving. 

Pour mixture into small bowl (I used a small empty tuna can) and top with a layer of caviar. 

Serve immediately

 
 
 
Food under the Rainbow

Exploring | South Africa

Downtown Johannesburg, Siverwright Avenue, underneath the motorway. At a braai (grill) station a woman serves Phutu Pap (maize and porridge), which is always served with chakalaka (a relish dish) as a side dish with braais.

Downtown Johannesburg, Siverwright Avenue, underneath the motorway. At a braai (grill) station a woman serves Phutu Pap (maize and porridge), which is always served with chakalaka (a relish dish) as a side dish with braais.

 

- Fieldnotes - 

The rainbow nation’s rainbow cuisine (south african cuisine): A melting pot of various races, cultures, backgrounds and cuisines.

Some quick notes... 

 
"I have curry in my veins", says Goolam Habib Madaris who runs a spice shop in the Victoria Street Market in Durban, South Africa. This Market is unique in South Africa. Barrels of Indian spices and incense infuse the air. A visit is essential for those who want to experience Durban's relaxed Afro-Oriental atmosphere. The city of Durban is home to the largest population of Indians descents outside Asia.

"I have curry in my veins", says Goolam Habib Madaris who runs a spice shop in the Victoria Street Market in Durban, South Africa. This Market is unique in South Africa. Barrels of Indian spices and incense infuse the air. A visit is essential for those who want to experience Durban's relaxed Afro-Oriental atmosphere. The city of Durban is home to the largest population of Indians descents outside Asia.

Downtown Johannesburg

Downtown Johannesburg

 
 

© Text, Artwork and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist

 
 
 
 
Exploring | Dishes & Stories
Sesame Jellyfish Salad | Shanghai > The Chinese Darth Vader

Sesame Jellyfish Salad | Shanghai > The Chinese Darth Vader

Tortilla con Chicharrones | Guatemala > Real Men are made of Corn

Tortilla con Chicharrones | Guatemala > Real Men are made of Corn

Moros y Cristianos | Cuba > The Mojito Theory

Moros y Cristianos | Cuba > The Mojito Theory

Lao-Beef-Jerky | Laos > About Thaification and Whiskyfication

Lao-Beef-Jerky | Laos > About Thaification and Whiskyfication

Green Chili Pickle | South Africa > Food under the Rainbow

Green Chili Pickle | South Africa > Food under the Rainbow

Burrata with rocket pesto | Italy > Notes from Napoli

Burrata with rocket pesto | Italy > Notes from Napoli

Tuna Tartare | Barcelona > Gaudi, Food and Religion

Tuna Tartare | Barcelona > Gaudi, Food and Religion

+++ Exploring | Featured

The Chinese Darth Vader
 

Jet lag

It's late at night in Shanghai and I cannot sleep. My hotel, not far from the colonial Grand Boulevard “The Bund", is only 100 metres from the "House of Jazz & Blues”, where according to the receptionist, they play good music every evening. I decided I wanted to find out for myself and so made my way there... 

 
 
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The Metropole Hotel at the Bund

The Metropole Hotel at the Bund

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Fearless watermelon vendor

Fearless watermelon vendor

 

...Red lanterns lined the neighbouring alleys where sellers manned their makeshift food stalls until late into the night...

 
eatnologist_sketchig_food_shanghai_DSC_8313.jpg
 
Entrace to a Club at The Bund

Entrace to a Club at The Bund

 
 

Red lanterns lined the neighbouring alleys where sellers manned their makeshift food stalls until late into the night. Upon opening the door to the jazz club, I felt that I'd stepped back in time to the Shanghai of the 1930s. A band was already playing. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a cocktail. A thick cloud of smoke drifted towards me; I heard a deep, dark voice and turned around. Next to me sat a Chinese man wearing a light-coloured suit, white leather shoes and an Al Capone style hat. He was puffing away on his pipe and conversing with the bartender. I must have looked pretty baffled for he looked at me and smiled briefly; lifting his wineglass, he said, “Cheers… where are you from”?

 

 
The House of Blues & Jazz Ba. At the left side: Mr Lin Dong Fu.

The House of Blues & Jazz Ba. At the left side: Mr Lin Dong Fu.

 

A handshake later and I discovered more about this man with his strange, yet impeccable look… he was the owner of the club. In addition to his impressive voice, Lin Dong Fu also has incredible charisma, the kind that you can’t quite put your finger on. In fact, this diverse dandy has countless hidden depths and facets and for this evening, Lin Dong Fu acted like a bridge between the West and the otherwise sometimes impenetrable Chinese culture. Quite simply, it was fascinating listening to him as he started explaining about his world, China and the Shanghai of his memories that no longer exists. Lin Dong Fu, however, loves Europe and in particular Hamburg. He often goes there to meet his old and good friend Undo Lindenberg – everyone on the streets had better watch out then if they decide to go out for the evening together. He explains, “I especially like to go to wicked bars with good music when I'm in Europe. We don't do that so well in Shanghai. Everything moves too quickly here. The Bohème, as it’s known in Europe, does not exist in the same way here. There is so much that we Chinese cannot understand of the Western world, and it's the same the other way round. Many Westerners just can't get to grips with our culture. Much of it is pure imitation. But then there are still some things that we can learn from, because new paths and interpretations can always open up and that is a good thing.” As has long been the case, a good starting point is really getting to know the traditional aspects so that you can then create something new from a foreign culture, like from art or cuisine.” “By the way”, he asks me, “are you interested in dining? Chinese food… I mean real Chinese food?” Then I told him my story. 

 
Lin Dong Fu

Lin Dong Fu

 

Lin Dong Fu is multi-talented and very well known throughout China. He makes music, paints pictures, owns a jazz club, is a TV presenter and actor, and also lends his Chinese voice to Darth Vader and Sean Connery in films.

 
 

The next day, a limousine sent by Lin Dong Fu was standing outside my hotel. His chauffeur opened the door and Lin Dong Fu got out of the car and came towards me. A passer-by recognised him, and bowing nervously, she handed him a card, requesting an autograph. Lin Dong Fu smiled kindly and wrote something on the card. All of a sudden, the woman seemed to be very excited and said goodbye to him, moving backwards all the time while bowing even more.

Shanghai_food_traditional_cuisine_Lin Dong Fu 10882.jpg

During the journey, Lin Dong Fu told me more about our destination, Restaurant Fu 1088 in the Shanghai French Concession. Fu 1088 is located in an extravagant villa with 17 private dining salons in the style of the 1920s, so private that even the staff wait outside the closed door. 

 
 
 

Fu 1088 is located in an extravagant villa with 17 private dining salons in the style of the 1920s

 
 
 

A good half an hour later we're sitting in a dining room. Lin Dong Fu looks critically at the menu and orders a number of dishes, while giving additional instructions to the staff. It's almost scary the way in which they obey, as if they were actually receiving orders from the real Darth Vader. "By the way, I'm a big fan of Star Wars," I confess, "but only of the first and second series". "I agree", Lin Dong Fu says thoughtfully. "Have I messed up? Oh no! It’s certainly nothing to do with the dubbing work that he has done. Shhhh...”, I tell myself, and feel like I'm turning a deep shade of red.

...By the way, I'm a big fan of Star Wars," I confess, "but only of the first and second series". "I agree", Lin Dong Fu says thoughtfully. "Have I messed up? Oh no!...

After a while, the door opens and several waiters enter. The dishes that we have ordered all arrive at the same time. Lin Dong Fu stands up. He crosses his arms behind his back. He bows forward as if he were a general in front of a model of a battlefield, and he carefully looks at the food on the round glass table. He asks the waiters several questions and without exception, the waiters all nod. He appears to be satisfied, and with a subtle wink, he lets them march back outside. The doors are closed and the feast can begin. We eat Hua Jiao Luo Bo Pi, which is a crispy radish, marinated in a Szechuan-pepper sauce, Chen Cu Hai Zeh Tou, a salad of pickled jellyfish, which have roughly the consistency of gummy bears, and Hong Sao Rou, which is cubes of pork belly cooked in several spices, soy sauce and rice wine – it has been cooked for so long that the meat has reached a jelly-like consistency. This dish was Mao Zedong's favourite dish and still there are yet more dishes, each as good as the first. Lao Shang Hai Xun Yu, a fish fried in nugget form, could well be the culinary and somewhat more lethal incarnation of the famous carrot and stick saying. This is because if you eat the fish carefully, then you will be rewarded with an incredibly delicate taste. And if you don't pay careful attention, the X-shaped bones can lodge themselves in your neck, putting you at risk of suffocation and death. 

 
 
Sesame Jellyfish Salad

Sesame Jellyfish Salad

 
Lao Shang hai xun y - Shanghai "smoked" fish and Hua Jiao Luo Bo Pi- a crispy radish, marinated in a Szechuan-pepper sauce.

Lao Shang hai xun y - Shanghai "smoked" fish and Hua Jiao Luo Bo Pi- a crispy radish, marinated in a Szechuan-pepper sauce.

 

"Do you know why chinese people eat with chopsticks?" asks Lin Dong Fu. "I know that there are apparently different theories," I reply, as I taste a mouthful of all of the dishes. He told me that "these theories are most certainly all rubbish. Look, I will show you my own theory". He lit a cigarette, took a puff, and then at the same time, picked something from his plate with the chopsticks. "Did you see that? Eating and smoking, both at once. Twice the pleasure and yet it still appears elegant.  Besides, it's practical isn't it?"

"Ok, but you can do that with a fork too" I say. "Yes, but not that elegant!" he replies.

We laugh, and I realise that at long last I have the opportunity for which I've been waiting since yesterday.  "Mr. Lin Dong Fu, could you please say something in your Darth Vader voice?" I mutter shyly.

 

...Mr. Lin Dong Fu, could you please say something in your Darth Vader voice?" I mutter shyly...

 

"What for?" Lin Dong Fu asks curiously. "Luke, the fork will be with you, and that’s the same in English and Chinese".  "Darth Vader never said that, it was Obi Wan Kenobi!" he replies. "Yes, I know, but it works just as well". “OK, great", he says. He does a little warm-up, and his deep voice echoes through the room. "LUKE; THE FORK WILL BE WITH YOU", I hear in English and then the same expression in Chinese, which sounds to me just like the sound of mewing with a smoke-filled, drunken hangover. I would like to laugh, but there’s no air. I clutch at my neck, frightened. “Very good youngster, very good! You don't need to give any kind of Star Wars performance here, though” he said.

© Lucasfilm

© Lucasfilm

It really did feel as if there was no air. "Don't joke!" he tells me in a severe tone. I shake my head desperately, willing him to understand that I'm really not the type of person who would pretend to be strangled by Darth Vader. “Oh my God, was that a fish bone?" asks Lin Dong Fu, pointing to the fish. Lin Dong Fu's eyes widen as I cannot give an answer. For a brief moment, time stands still but suddenly I can breathe again and everything seems to be fine. Either I just swallowed it, or it really was the stupid fishbones. "I think I’d best leave the fish", I remark, gulping in large quantities of air. We laugh.

 

© Text, Artwork and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist

 
 
 
 
 
 
Sex on the Beach

That Recipe on my Mind

 
 

Sex on the Beach Cocktail Recipe

Ingredients:
a. 25ml vodka
b. 25ml peach schnapps
c. 75ml cranberry juice
d. 75ml orange juice
e. Ice cubes

How to prepare:
Fill the chilled highball glass with ice cubes. Pour the vodka and the peach schnapps into a jug and stir well. 
Top up each glass with equal measures of cranberry and orange juice. Add a slice of lemon or a cherry to each glass and serve.

 
 
 
 
 
Mekong Red Kiss

That Recipe on my Mind | Lao inspired

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In rice vinegar and cinnamon basil* flavored sesam oil beetroot carpaccio. | That Recipe on my Mind | Lao inspired

(*) cinnamon basil, commonly known as Thai basil.

Dish preview / Recipe will follow

 

 

 
 
 
The Mojito Theory

+++Exploring

 
 
 

Havana | Cuba

The Mojito Theory. 

Where does the name Mojito come from?

I push through the local dance club. It’s full. It’s hot. It’s dark. To the right and left of me, before and behind me, there is a mass of sweat-soaked bodies in all possible shades of skin colour. They dance the Rumba, Son, and Cuban Reggaeton, also called Cubaton. Liquid flows out of every pore. The air is so thick you could cut it with a knife. I need to get out of here. I finally make it. My head is pounding as I leave. Why is everything so bright? It has got so late… Or is that early? Whatever. The street is empty. I feel dizzy. I wonder how many mojitos I've drunk in the last few hours in this dance club. Was it six? Seven? Eight or more? 

Swaying, I walk down the street to the Malecón, Havana's seaside promenade. Hopefully the breeze of the sea will do me a world of good and I want to see the sea before I finally go to sleep. It has been a long day. It all started at 10 o'clock this morning in a bar in the centre of Havana... with a Mojito. It might sound strange to you, but I am in Havana...

 
 

Swaying, I walk down the street to the Malecón, Havana's seaside promenade. Hopefully the breeze of the sea will do me a world of good and I want to see the sea before I finally go to sleep. It has been a long day. It all started at 10 o'clock this morning in a bar in the centre of Havana... with a Mojito.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Guillermo, the "Isleño"
“I couldn't really say where you can drink the best mojitos in Havana", says Guillermo, who like me, is from the Canary Islands and works since a couple of years as Hotel Manager in Miramar, a quarter of Havana. He had a few hours free for me today and so we're sat in the bar in the Calle Obispo. "In Havana, you can drink good mojitos pretty much everywhere. He reckons that in the Bodeguita del Medio the mojitos are famous because of Ernest Hemingway, but they taste the best where there is a good mood and atmosphere". There appears to be an excess of good mood in the ‘La Lluvia Dorada’ bar. The guests, a mix of tourists and locals, drink and dance to the live music. There is flirting and some groping, and it is not even lunchtime. On the orders of Guillermo, the bar keeper served me a mojito, while Guillermo himself quickly downed his morning coffee. I look at the man behind the bar slightly puzzled. "Don't worry! When you're dancing, you'll sweat the mojito right out", he adds with a wink.  "You're an ‘Isleño’ as well aren't you, like Guillermo?" asks the waiter, apparently having already recognised my dialect. 

 
 
 
 

The descendants of expatriate inhabitants of the Canary Islands – which belong to Spain – are lovingly called "Isleños" (literally, "those who came from the Islands”) in Cuba, which sounds a little strange given that Cuba itself is an island. In Cuba, the Isleños and their descendants form a large community. Canarian Spanish, which is known as the gentler form of Spanish dialects (and which very often uses the diminutive "-ito"), contains a number of Portuguese loanwords, including among other Mojo, originating from the Portuguese molho. In Portugal, molho is a specific sauce consisting of olive oil, salt, water, wine vinegar, garlic, paprika, chillies, and various spices such as cumin and coriander, all prepared with a mortar. Portuguese seafarers brought Molho sauce to the Canary Islands, which was modified in Spanish to Mojo. Since then, Mojo sauce has played a large role in Canarian gastronomy (Mojo Picón is with pepper, and Mojo Verde with coriander).

Mojo Canario (Canary Island Mojo) arrived in Cuba with the Canary expats and turned into Mojo Cubano (Cuban Mojo), which is prepared with garlic, onions, olive oil, oregano, salt and a mixture of the juice of limes and oranges.

In the Caribbean, these fruits are much more common than the wine vinegar used in the original recipe from the Canary Islands. The Mojo Cubano is a sauce or marinade that is served with Lechón asado (grilled pork), grilled chicken and many other meat dishes, and of course there are almost as many variations of Mojo Cubano as there are Cubans on the island: Mojo Criollo, Mojo Tomate, etc. are just a few of the famous varieties.

 
 

So where did the original name for mojito come from?

Some sources say that the name Mojito also has Canary roots, just like Mojo Cubano sauce. Canarian expats to Cuba worked in the sugar cane plantations where sugar cane was processed into rum. 

One theory goes that the word for the drink comes from "Mojadito" (something wet) and from there it became Mojito (Wikipedia: "...the name Mojito is simply a derivative of mojadito (Spanish for "a little wet") or simply the diminutive of mojado ("wet"). Due to the vast influence of immigration from the Canary Islands, the term probably came from the mojo creole marinades adapted in Cuba using citrus vs traditional Isleño types"). 

But "Mojadito" (something wet) makes little sense to me. More so, I think that "Mojito" derives from “Majadito" (with an "a" instead of an "o" after the M). "Hacer un Majado" or “Majadito" in the Spanish dialect of the Canary Islands means "something crushed”, and that's exactly what you do if you want to prepare a "Mojo" sauce in a mortar. When preparing a mojito, you lightly crush the mint leaves in the glass, most often using a spoon.

In this way, you can clearly see how the progression from “Majadito” to “Mojito” is made. 
Because people speak very quickly in the Canary Islands, they end up swallowing their letters and even whole syllables when speaking out loud — in Cuba they do that too — so that a word like “Majadito” quickly becomes shortened to “Majaito”, which then mutates to the much shorter version of “Mojito”. The name Mojito is thereby a diminutive form of something in a compressed form.

 
Mango Soup

Mango Soup

 

“Today I’ll drink and be patriotic" I say to Guillermo after explaining my mojito theory and already feeling the urge to get my dancing feet on the floor. The band was simply so good and carried everyone along with it. "Okay, so if you're interested in mojitos, then come to the hotel bar this evening where we are about to test the new cocktail menu, including the classic one and some other unusual variations on mojitos. You can also eat typical Cuban food in the restaurant as well". 

And so that was the story of how I ended up testing various mojitos and eating mango soup and grilled chicken with Mojo Cubano in Guillermo’s hotel restaurant, before then moving on in the early hours to a different bar where I drank six or seven,  mojitos. Or eight or more.

 

© Text, Artwork and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist