Posts tagged travelTop1
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

 
 
 
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

 
 
 
 
 
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...

 
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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.

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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

 
 
 
 
 
 
About Thaification and Whiskyfication

Exploring | Luang Pragang, Laos

 
 
 
 

+++Exploring

Luang Prabang | Laos

 

The small, charming Buddhist temple city of Luang Prabang is located in the mountainous north of Laos. I'm about thirty steps from my guesthouse, which is on the banks of the Nam Khan, a tributary that flows into the Mekong River a few hundred metres further on.

It’s quiet, almost unusually quiet and peaceful in comparison to other Asian cities. I draw in my sketchbook. The landscape on the opposite bank shimmers in the still bluish morning light. A group of Buddhist monks and novices cross the river in small boats. Some of the ones who go past me, especially the younger ones, stop for a second and look at me silently over their shoulder. 

 
 

I get hungry and want to eat something… local cuisine, of course. I arrived last night and I want to immerse myself in the cuisine of Laos. There are many small restaurants along the banks of the river and so I choose one with a beautiful terrace. The restaurant is almost empty and there don't appear to be any menus. Further ahead, on the table diagonally opposite to me, a couple sit quietly, waiting for their meal to arrive. I told the waiter that I wanted to eat the same as them. After a while, the dishes arrived, including a Som Tam salad and Laarb. Aren't these classic Thai dishes from the Isan region? I think to myself "Hmmm… this is Thai food, isn’t it?” I ask the waiter, somewhat disappointed. "Noooo, this is original Lao food!" he responds, placing an emphasis on "original" and sporting a broad grin.

Som Tam, the famous spicy papaya salad is actually, as I later learn, not from Thailand but from Laos and the locals call it Tam Mak Hoong. Also Laarb, the salad with its marinated meats and various herbs is one of Laos national dishes.

So how is it that these Laos dishes can be found on menus throughout the world posing as classic dishes from Thailand?  

 
Papaya Salad: Tam Mak Hoong

Papaya Salad: Tam Mak Hoong

Lao National dish Laarb

Lao National dish Laarb

 

Of the approximately 25 million people born in Lao, only about 6 million live in Laos, with the rest living abroad, mainly in Thailand.

Sun Dried Sticky Rice on bamboo panel at Luang Prabang

Sun Dried Sticky Rice on bamboo panel at Luang Prabang

 
 

Of the approximately 25 million people born in Lao, only about 6 million live in Laos, with the rest living abroad, mainly in Thailand. Many of them live in the northeast of the country in the Isan region or have migrated from there to Bangkok. Over the course of the forced and aggressive Thaification policy employed by Thailand to ensure expats from Laos were assimilated in the country, the culture and language were repressed and even became taboo. Quite a few people from Laos/Isan was so ashamed of their heritage and language that they began to feel inferior. As a consequence, those involved in gastronomy preferred to identify themselves for branding and marketing purposes with Thailand rather than Laos. When it comes to Thailand, everyone has a basic image of the country, moulded and shaped by the tourism industry, films and culture. But how many people are able to make a connection with Laos? In all honesty, the Isan-inspired Thai restaurant around the corner is probably a Lao Restaurant.

 
 
 
 

A day later, I'm sitting in a boat travelling up the Mekong to Pak Ou Caves. Along the way, the driver of the boat asks me whether I want to visit a whisky village. In the whisky village, they make a whisky distilled from sticky rice. The question is, of course, whether whisky aficionados would define this as whisky – I politely refuse.

The taste is reminiscent of a cheap and strong rice wine, but it seems to work.

 

 
Landscape with Aubergines

Landscape with Aubergines

 
 
 
 
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The Isan-inspired Thai restaurant around your corner is probably a Lao Restaurant.

 
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That evening, wandering through the night market at Luang Prabang, a number of shelves on stalls are full of whisky-filled bottles, just waiting to be whisked away by tourists. Sometimes they're also filled with snakes and scorpions.

The sellers call out, “whisky, whisky” instead of using their own language of “Lao Lao”, meaning “alcohol” (the first ‘Lao’), “from Laos” (the second ‘Lao’). Although they are written the same, the “Laos” are pronounced differently. It’s actually a bit of a shame, because “Lao Lao” just sounds catchier and that little bit more authentic and cute on its own than having a “Scotch”. But maybe, just like their cuisine, it simply needs a good dose of self-confidence and some time to establish itself as Lao Lao.

 

© Text and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist