What’s hot.

The chair in which I spend most of my… let’s call it “work time” (mainly because
“staring-at-the-ceiling-wondering-who’d-win-in-a-death-match-between-Silvio-Berlusconi-and-a-sentient-banana time” isn’t quite as concise, even if it has the benefit of being more accurate) is made of wicker.

It’s a fairly odd thing to have as one’s office chair, I know this. Especially because the design of this ‘chair’, makes it look like someone once saw a crumpled picture of one back in their early childhood and then decided to make a chair from that memory, out of not very bendy bits of twig – 65 years later when they were beginning to struggle with early-onset dementia.

It makes alarming noises when you sit down or get up from it – and I have it on good authority from really skinny, small people that the experience of sitting in it is mostly an exercise in controlling the anxiety created by feeling like the thing you’re on is less a chair and, more simply, a device designed to drop you on your ass at a random moment of its choosing. Now, I weigh pretty much double your average small skinny person, and so you can imagine how having to be on this thing for about six hours a day is an experience utterly devoid of tranquility, dignity or comfort. As I write this, there is an inexplicably rusty nail that’s sort of prized loose from the wood in which it’s meant to be buried, doing its best to rid me of one (or possibly both) of my testicles, and the four legs are of such dissimilar lengths that it means that you constantly feel like you’re at one of those restaurant tables that needs a crumbled up bit of paper jammed under it to keep it from spilling your vodka tonic all the time.

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I like this chair though, which is why I haven’t replaced it. I keep it around to remind me that life isn’t always meant to be easy, pleasant or enjoyable – my version of Catholic Guilt or supporting the Lions or West Ham I guess. It makes it easier to deal with things like cars breaking down, or cats vomiting on my brand-new Adidas – because from an emotional point of view, the chair has already prepped me. I am sufficiently soaked in an expectation that somehow things are not meant to go smoothly, that life has very few unpleasant surprises left that I can’t shrug off – if the chair hasn’t irreparably ruined my posture by then. I’d imagine that it’s quite similar to the day-to-day experience of being Russian.

This is a fairly long and unnecessary way of saying that somehow chaos creeps into all of our lives – and not necessarily in ways that we’d like. And we all need our little ways of dealing with it, either practically or in less productive but more fun ways, like drinking two bottles of Pinot Grigio and deciding that this meeting is ‘pants optional’.

Which is how I was able to cope with arriving at House and Leisure’s wonderful, pretty and refreshing Trends Evening up on the beach rooftop above Juta street in Braamfontein, after having spent the previous 5 hours in un-air-conditioned meetings held in small, hot rooms with lots of people in them, and as a result had sweated just about the body-weight of a sea-elephant into my denim shirt and stupid black pants (I know, in summer – I’m a moron) over the course of an afternoon. I was honestly no better off than a character from the Walking Dead or a Michael Bay movie (where the primary performance directive to any of the actors always just seems to be to sweat a lot). I suppose we can all agree, that these are not ideal conditions under which to arrive at a dinner hosted by a magazine dictated to identifying and highlighting all things cutting-edge, fashionable and generally awesome, where there are likely to be people who write on the Internet for a living and swarms of other people taking photographs.

And of course I was late by about 2 hours.

On a sliding scale of Grand Entrances, I was less Louis XIV entering the court of the Sun King flanked by trumpeters and simpering, cleavagy maidens, and more the Homeless Guy who’d accidentally stumbled into the party while trying to find a place to have a quiet pee. It is a testament to the excellent and sophisticated people at H&L that, under these circumstances, I was welcomed to their party without so much as a bat of an eyelid. Upon which I proceeded to eat about seven chicken kebabs in a row, just to settle the nerves, which is when they probably started to silently question their judgement.

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The key to being around people when you were sweating heavily on train about 20 minutes before-hand, is to find that sweet-spot of positioning oneself juuust far enough away from them that they can’t tell you were just in the equivalent of a 40-degree Mumbai marketplace, but then not so far away that they think you’re being bizarrely disinterested in their recent charitable trip to Kenya. It also helps if you’ve got an anecdote about almost being gored to death by a semi-professional racing ostrich to distract people from the giant damp-patches under your arms. The problem is, that at a well-populated party, your ‘sweet-spot’ for one person, is always going to compromise you in terms of all of the other people around you trying to get to the bar or discussing artisanal boerie rolls or whatnot. It essentially means that you’ve got to keep on the move, the cocktail party equivalent of an agitated molecule in a beaker being used to demonstrate Brownian Motion for a high school science class. This is why a lot of people think I have enviable amounts of energy and dynamism, when in reality I’m just trying to stay backlit and downwind.

Luckily the party ended before I could declare it ‘pants-free’.

Thanks to House and Leisure for inviting me back after last year’s debacle where I dropped pudding into a glass of hand-crafted tequila.

Also, I really do promise to write about food next time. Or at the very least have a picture of some food, even if the blog is about Armenian sock design.

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I think I’m turning Japanese.

I’ve said this before, but this blog occasionally does take detours down paths that aren’t necessarily food-related. It’s about Japan, and is by no means comprehensive or indeed even come close to scratching the surface.

Springtime in Tokyo

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For two heady, mystical weeks in the beginning of April, Japan is taken over by a national obsession that sweeps across their tiny island like a 1st-year drama student crawling across a stage in an effort to embody the plight of the working classes through abstract dance. The reason is Sakura – the arrival of the cherry blossoms, and the entire nation goes nuts when it happens.

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Well… lets say more nuts, because nowhere else in the world will the sight of a girl dressed entirely as a Tim Burton-esque gothic-pink Little Bo Peep, clambering into a portaloo in six-inch heels, happen with the everyday nonchalance of a bowl of cornflakes. So the base-level of nutsness really does need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Harajuku when the blossoms are showing.

It’s usually a warning sign when the first question people who know about this sort of thing ask you when you say you’re going to Tokyo for a couple of days is, “By yourself?” And then swallow a concerned silence for a couple of moments when you casually say, “Yes”.

I get that now. They have a point.

I’m actually a vastly stupid traveller. I have this overwhelming and stubborn belief that planning is for anal retentives, and that at the end of the day you should just arrive and work it out all from there. This can of course lead to incredible and spontaneous adventures that may or may not involve having wild holiday sex with someone in a field, but it can also mean that you wind up in a back-alley with a missing kidney and no shoes. So far I still have both my kidneys, so I’m sticking with it for the moment.

I wish I could say that I had timed it specially so that I could go and see the famous cherry blossoms of the Japanese Spring. I wish I could say that this was an emotional pilgrimage of some kind, long-planned and expertly carried out. The reality is that I’d always wanted to go to Japan, and decided that Tokyo was as good a stopover as any on my way to a wedding in Brisbane (it’s not, it’s ludicrous – but by the time I figured that out it was too late and I mostly just had to go with it). Which is how, after 20 hours of flying, and a day’s stopover in Singapore (an efficient, slick city – but one built entirely for people who are going somewhere else), I tumbled out into Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station, and immediately felt like I was getting unexpectedly fucked in the brain by a neon lemon. Because there is very little, other than actually being there, which can prepare you for the experience.

If you can, arrive during the day. Just do it. Don’t let this city of people and neon signs and pace and overwhelming amounts of everything gate-crash your senses all in one go – or you might just go mad. It needs to be doled out, bit by bit. And so, (slightly contradictorily) at least during the day there’s a semblance of normality which you can latch onto like a drowning person, which is helpful in the almost impossible process of getting adjusted.

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Also, all the cliches are true, but they’re wonderful for being so. There will be a slightly pudgy dude in the train watching some sort of pornographic gameshow on his computer that honestly features a singing all-schoolgirl troupe on a set that’s either designed expressly to give you a headache or hypnotize you into thinking you’re a monkey. You will be stared at like you’re an alien-banana by the impossibly cute four-year old girl with the massive eyes and solemn expression while taking your first train ride. You will bow to the person who sells you your Starbucks coffee (because that’s all you can handle right now after traveling across a bajillion time-zones for what feels like a week), and she’ll bow right back. You will suddenly realise that all Japanese women are pigeon-toed, but they dress incredibly and enviably well. Someone will dance ballet in the middle of a shop. The logic of who wears, that now-cliched image of, a surgical mask is incomprehensible. In a group of friends, sometimes it’ll just be one, sometimes all of them but one. You’ll see a couple walking down the street holding hands, she’ll be wearing one and he won’t, or vice versa. A dude who’s temporarily lowered his to have a cigarette somehow makes sense, and probably the most difficult thing to wrap one’s head around is that there’s no social stigma attached to it. It’s like wearing a hat, or a nice scarf – just a thing that some people do and that’s that.

And yes, Japanese TV is as crazy as you think it is. For realsies.

It did strike me more than once that it might have something to do with islands and the Darwinian assertion that on an island, things get a lot weirder than they normally would (I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote…), but I was too busy trying to wrangle my meager Japanese into a sentence that’d get me a plate of fragrant pork and noodles from a tiny basement restaurant and not a fried cricket on a stick, to work it into any form of coherent, logical thought.

Which brings me back to cherry blossoms, and the day I found out what it really means to celebrate the change of a season.

When you’ve got such a potent and singular natural expression of the change that happens as our little round rock jaunts it’s way around the sun, I guess it’s only natural that you do something about it; that you attach significance to the way in which it happens and when. Well, the Japanese have no problems with that.

I’d gone to Harajuku to see the Fruits girls and boys all dressed up and on parade, and after a day wandering down the back alleys looking at crotchless batman lingerie and posters for J-pop groups, I came out onto a main street and accidentally got myself caught into a crushing sardine-like herd of humanity – all going in a direction that was completely opposite to the one I wanted. I’ve never quite been caught up in such single-minded group of people, and even though the walkway I wanted was literally a meter away from me, it might as well have been the mythical fairy-bridge to Neverland for all I was going to get to it. So I let go and just went in the direction that everyone else was going, which is how I became part of the biggest, most mind-boggling mass-picnic I’ve ever seen. It was Harajuku Park, the sun was out, and there were more people gathered there than I’ve ever experienced before in one place: not at a giant stadium rock-concert, not at mass protest in London, not in Sandton during the opening day of the Exclusive Books sale.

Harajuku Park in early April on a Sunday is a heaving, saturated mass of glorious insanity. It’s like the whole of Tokyo under the age of 45 decided that what they were going to do that day was stage the biggest Occupy movement ever, but instead of waving dumb placards or droning “we are the 99%” from a wigwam; in their thousands and thousands, they all just got out into the sunshine, pulled up a (very specific blue, tarpaulin-like) blanket to eat, drink, play hopscotch (which when you’ve been drinking sake all day is way more fun than you’d imagine), throw frisbees and generally just have the best time ever under the largest concentration of cherry trees in the city, which is the point.

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Every now and again on those nature documentaries, you’ll see footage of a vast and seemingly endless sea of fresh-minted butterflies, preparing for some impossible migration, all clinging, crowded and crammed onto every available surface for (literally) kilometers, densely whorled into clusters of bright winged life, slowly flapping their wings in ripples of adoration of the circumstances that brought them there. Now picture that, but with people, and a hip hop dance painter. Then you’ll have something close, but wholly inadequate, to describe what it’s like to be in Harajuku on a Sunday when the cherry blossoms are out.

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With more…intensity.

One of the reasons I’d fostered a desire to be in Japan in general and Tokyo in particular, was because of a movie. It’s not the best reason in the world to want to go somewhere, but also not the worst (piracy, dealing in blood diamonds or buying cheap perfume are all worse…), and I’ve been particularly obsessed with Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation for years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it, and how it’s accounted for an uncomfortably vast amount of things that I do in my life and had been a major factor in being in this city in the first place.

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So, naturally – there was no chance I was going to miss an opportunity to visit the Park Hyatt Tokyo where it was filmed and go and sit in that bar where Bill Murray fell in love while trying to escape the slow, banality of his life. Apart from offering one of the best views of the city (get there for sunset, you’ll cry), it inexplicably makes the heart swell with an almost inescapable sense of perspective (what Douglas Adams described as one of the most dangerous weapons in existence) and it’ll give you the ability to play out whatever rock/movie-star fantasy you’ve always secretly nurtured in grand style. Just try and not do the maths of what it just cost you to order three glasses of the Francis Ford Coppola signature shiraz, because in all likelihood if the view and sunset didn’t do it, you’ll definitely cry over that.

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In the movie, Scarlett Johansson’s character is constantly finding unexpected and sometimes unsettling eddies of quiet and contemplation away from the general batshit insanity that is everyday Tokyo – and within two seconds you’ll realize that the film-makers did their research properly, because that’s exactly what it’s like. Buried in the heart of every bustling financial district will be a flowered and gentle shrine. Stumbling across a traditional Japanese wedding, all solemnity and grace, right before you’re browsing through Japanese manga-porn in a basement is just how it goes. There will be a sweet-faced kid with a ‘free hugs’ sign right next to a guy who pulls up to the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world in a Formula 1 car.

Because, you know… that stuff just happens.

Walk away from the light.

Anyone who falls into the habit of labeling an entire nation with a single characteristic swoop (Italians are lazy, the French are rude), needs to get their ass hauled to Japan almost immediately. There is absolutely no possible or meaningful way that you can do that there, because just as soon as you settle on something that you think defines everything you see, you pop around a corner into a situation that seems put there purely to give the finger to what you’ve just thought.

While in Shibuya, a throbbing Mecca to all the lit-up excess of Tokyo, and woefully failing to find a bar I’d read about and was keen to have a drink in, I blundered quite by accident into a tiny, winding street, flanked by rows of full-blossomed cherry trees, lit by the neon of various noodle bars and late-night hairdressing salons. It was everything that two blocks away was not: quiet, contained and just magical its unexpectedness.

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The locals were feeling it too. A bunch of Japanese kids had gone into the local tempura joint, bought enough prawn and vegetable, plus a six-pack of beer – enough to make an evening of it – and were just sitting on a staircase as a gentle snow of blossoms and petals sifted down on the hurrying salarymen, who themselves couldn’t help but stop and take pictures on their cellphones.

It seemed to be the perfect embodiment of a city where all the things you expect are literally just the start.

Let’s Go Bowling

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Who knows why men do anything?

In my head, it’s a serious question that at least deserves a whole-hearted attempt to tackle it appropriately seriously. Or at the very least a half-hearted attempt to make it look like that’s what’s happening.

If a brief scan of this morning’s newspapers is to provide any insight into the answer, here is a roster of potentials.

Men are:

Undersexed, oversexed, unfairly maintaining unprecedented power in the workplace, unfairly experiencing decreasing power in the workplace, too many carbs, too much protein, too little protein, too many pictures in magazines of cars/women/expensive watches they can’t have, veganism, porn, prevailing economic conditions, advertising for men’s conditioning and beauty products makes us all feel like goblins, too few new beauty and conditions products to meet our goblin needs, we suck at knock-out cricket, Tom Cruise, not enough of us are Ryan Gosling, we now spend more time thinking about social media than sex.

I’ve probably left out a few. I’m sorry – I was temporarily distracted by a YouTube clip of a sleepwalking kitten that sneezed on a ghost panda.

So, let’s just say that it was for all of those reasons that I decided to make an entire three-course lunch based around food-that-you-can-serve-in-bowls. It felt important, like something that might help the kids or stop people from cutting off Rhino’s noses.

Although in truth, a lot of it has to do with the fact that all my plates were dirty and I reeeeeally couldn’t be bothered to do much washing up. Also, speaking of newspapers – there was also a very particular soup recipe that I’d come across in one of them that I was intrigued to try, and so decided to make the rest of the meal similarly ‘bowl oriented’ (Chilli con Carne and an amazing cake made by the brilliant Leanne Rencken – @inderbelly on Twitter). Just so that the soup wouldn’t feel different from all the other parts of lunch and maybe wouldn’t be invited to play on the swings or something.

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This thing with the newspapers isn’t a coincidence, incidentally (balls, I feel a tangent coming on). It’s a ridiculous prejudice to have, but I’ve long viewed recipes skimmed from newspapers or magazines to be suspect; somehow second-class recipe citizens, not quite good enough to be in a stupidly-expensive hardcover book featuring the author on the cover making a face with the punchable grin of someone about to pass out from the effort of desperately having to suck in their stomach for the length of a four-hour photo shoot.
But that’s dumb – and I know that now – because the ’second class soup’ was an unadulterated winner, which is when I started to think a little harder about this anti-newspaper recipe thing I’ve cultivated and began to realise how completely hypocritical it was. Considering that one of my most treasured possessions is a scrap-book of recipes from my mom, almost all of which were clipped from newspapers and magazines or handwritten on the back of oil-splattered pieces of paper. I also found, the more that I’ve thought about this, that I liked the transience of a newspaper recipe; if you don’t actively hold onto it, cut it out, photocopy it, scan it or, lets face it, just take a picture of it with your iPhone, then it’s not coming back. You become something like a curator, adding to your own private gallery of collected recipes – creating an assembly that’s unique to only you.

Holy crap. I started this with a diatribe about the opaqueness of men’s decision-making hierarchy and ended with recipe curation via a wobbly speech about soup.

It must be October.

Sweet corn and yellow pepper soup (for 8)

adapted from a recipe that appeared in The Financial Times

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Ingredients

1 onion
2 sticks celery
30g butter
4 yellow peppers (de-seeded and thinly sliced)
3 mielies (corn on the cob for the non-saffas)
Fresh thyme
A bay leaf
1 tsp rice
1l of chicken stock
2 ripe tomatoes
60g goat’s cheese
12 leaves of fresh mint
Olive oil.

What to do

Finely Chop up the onion and the celery and whack it into a large pot with the butter, and get it on the stove over a medium heat so that they can stew gently. Once they’ve gone soft and transparent add the peppers, shove them in and leave to calmly bubble away for ten to fifteen minutes.

Cut all the corn off the cob, then add to the pot with the thyme and bay leaf, and get it all nice and mixed in. Then add the chicken stock and half a liter of water, bring to the boil and let it simmer away and boil down for 45 minutes. Once that’s done, liquidise the soup until, rich, thick and yellow.

Slice the tomatoes into quarters and remove all the interior seeds and pulp, then cut into small cubes. Finely chop the mint and crumble the goat’s cheese.

Serve the soup hot, with the tomato, cheese and mint sprinkled on top.

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Your Hands Smell Like Fish

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I'm in a weird 'fuck you' kind of mood. Not belligerent as such – more just… acerbically contrarian.

This can only mean it's definitely time to write a blog post.

So, I'm not good at summer. No good at it at all. I hate open shoes, shorts, "summer advertising", the insane pressure to be at a fucking picnic every five goddam minutes, I hate that I live hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest salt water, and I hate the fact that I'm not nearly in as good a shape as I'd like – something that summer as an event (because that's what it seems to be these days rather than, you know…a change in the weather or something) is clearly, specifically and cruelly designed to expose in me.

The cozy cocoon of winter (where for three glorious months men get to dress like men rather than confused schoolboys) basically ebbs away, leaving behind awful rock-pools of people who smell like coconut and have decided that warmer weather is a good reason to cover themselves with some sort of lotion that has glitter in it.

Apart from being generally grumpy about having feet that don’t look good in sandals (seriously, I look like some sort of Slavic rapist), I guess the real source of all this summermosity (see what I did? Oxford English dictionary you’re welcome) is that I suck at summer-appropriate cooking. However I’d like to think of myself as being more Italian in my cooking influences: lighter, less fussy, fewer – better quality ingredients (which is perfect for the hot season) – there’s an evil French beast lurking deep within me that I just can’t get rid of.

No, that’s not a dildo joke.

I can’t help it, I like sauces. I like thick, comforting food. I like the inexplicable magic that happens in a pot when when you let slow heat work its way through for hours and hours. I like things that are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside – and all of that is straight down the line Winter Cooking. Which always makes the retreat of cold nights and sharp mornings, in the face of baking afternoons and warm nights, a real struggle for me. Suddenly my kitchen ideas all seem out of step, inappropriate or just plain at odds with the season’s temperatures and dress-code. What makes it worse is that I live on the top floor of a block of flats, where the balcony was long ago converted into an office. I can’t braai (South African for barbecue), which means that other great summer cooking tradition – doing it outdoors, is also somewhat closed off to me.

But, this isn’t going to only be a moan about weather. Because firstly – I’m as stubborn as fuck. And secondly I don’t like not being good at something; it really bothers me, in a sort of deep-down way that can only be equated with the soulful grip of Ryan Gosling’s natural musk.

Which is why, with the determination of a nasty-ass honey badger – I bullied some friends of mine into firing up the grill on the first warm night that was on offer and doing my best to force some sort of ‘summer-appropriate’ cooking on anyone I could get my hands on.

Because this will not stand. I need to get better at this, and the only way to do it, is to do it.

Summer Salmon

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You can tell I’m desperate to be summery in that it’s almost the most obvious complete cliche to barbecue fish, but things become cliches because they work – and this is no exception.

The trick? Try be more Italian (see paragraph 5). Try not to get farmed salmon, and if you are make sure it’s Scottish. Get the fishmonger to cut you thick steaks vertically so that the flesh is held together by the spine, rather than the fillet one typically buys in the supermarket.

Mix the ingredients fresh, make sure the grill is hot, and eat with a simple salad on a warm summer’s night. Or whenever the fuck you feel like it really…

Ingredients (for 4)

4 thick-cut salmon steaks
The juice of a large lemon, and then an extra lemon cut into quarters
a healthy tsp of minced chilli, or 1 dried red chilli, finely chopped up
a healthy tsp of minced garlic, or 2 fat cloves, finely chopped up
1 tbsp of finely-chopped rosemary
1 healthy tsp of dried mint
A good glug of olive oil
(this one is weird, but it’s inclusion is so, so good) 1 tbsp of the pickle vinegar from a jar of pickled onions.
Salt and pepper.

What to do

Mix all the marinade ingredients and whisk by hand until lightly emulsified. Coat the salmon with the marinade, using a brush until it’s all used up and the salmon is glossy and juicy. Then season generously with salt and pepper. Leave it to sit in those juices for about 20 minutes while the fire gets hot. Rub the grill with olive or vegetable oil, so that the fish doesn’t stick, and get it got over the fire.

Slap that fish on there for about 6-7 minutes on each side so that it’s nicely charred, but still pink on the inside, then get it onto a plate with the lemon wedges. Twist a couple more licks of salt and pepper over the fish and then serve with an extra squeeze from the lemons.

I want to say a quick thank you to HOUSE AND LEISURE for including me on their list of exciting young South Africans and moose-whisperers – they continue to be generous and awesome, and if you’re here because of them, welcome. I hope you stick around. Don’t be afraid to lick something.

Weights and Measures

Sometimes stuff just gets lost in translation. You know, like when you order the thing which you think is vegetables, but you get jellied horse nose instead.

It’s simply the wrong kind of unexpected, and usually it puts one in the kind of bad mood that’s reserved for politicians who’ve recently been bust sticking their wieners into illegal immigrants.

At a birthday lunch for one of my closest friends, the birthday boy (it’s such an awful description, but I’m drunk and it’s the best I can do right now) started to tell the story of how the recipe that he’d found for Osso Bucco and was keen to try, called for a gremolata (basically a herby, citrusy paste) at the last stage, and his inclusion of it as written basically turned the whole thing into an orange meat-soup because the amount of orange the recipe called for was that overwhelming. It was horrible, and he was crushed. Plus his wife laughed at him about it, and that’s not fun for anyone,

It’s a feeling that I’m awfully familiar with, because I’ve done it – I almost killed a girlfriend with a potato-salad that called for a Richard Nixon-insanity level of garlic. And it’s annoying because no-one involved thinks that they’ve done anything wrong, but clearly nothing’s worked out for anyone and now we’re just left with orange-gravy and hungry people. So, this isn’t just a spewed list of bad recipes (although don’t even bother with any of the Moro books, because not a single one of those fucking things has ever worked for me), but just a couple of things I’ve noticed over the years and now just accept as rules of thumb when it comes to cooking from recipes that aren’t from around here.

Because lets face it, things up north are decidedly different; they use stoopid electrical plugs, they call it “the lav”, they think Mars Bars are better than Bar Ones. Clearly not everything they say can be trusted.

Garlic

Whenever a European recipe defines a certain amount of garlic, usually halve it. If it’s Jamie Oliver, cut it by two-thirds. I’m not being a garlic fascist here, because I love the crap out of the stuff – it’s just that maybe our garlic is stronger, or the bulbs bigger or something, because there’s no way humanly possible that the writers of certain recipes intended for the flavours to be that dominant. The amount of garlic that they generally proscribe would put someone in intensive care with face burns.

Potatoes

Triple the cooking time proscribed for potatoes, especially when they mention boiling. Maybe our potatoes are harder, but there’s sure as hell no potato that I know of that gets boiled in 20 minutes.

Citrus

Cut it by a third, sometimes a half. Again, it’s an issue of strength or intensity, but seemingly our lemons and oranges cut through flavours a lot harder than normal. Of course not all lemons are created equal, but in these instances, I’d go softly-softly, tasting after each addition until you’ve reached a level that you’re comfortable with.

Lamb

Especially in the South African context. The flavour is definitely more intense, the meat in need of a little more care and slower attention, especially Karoo lamb, than its clearly pussy northern cousin. If the trick with lamb is ‘low and slow’, then our lamb needs to be even lower and and even slower. Like a special-needs child. Otherwise what you’ll get is a gamey, stringy lump that tastes of regret. Do it right however and you’ll get that favour that is genuinely and rightly world-renowned.

Saffron

Another less-is-more approach – but this I have no explanation for, considering we all most likely import our saffron from similar places. Even Rick Stein – whose measurements are generally really really good, can be a little heavy-handed with it sometimes. Instead of cutting by a specific percentage, I generally just tend towards being slightly more conservative with my measurements.

Fresh herbs

The one thing that tends to go in the opposite direction I think are our fresh herbs, especially thyme. I don’t think ours have nearly the intensity of flavour that you get in the Northern hemisphere, and so I usually tend to double the amounts when the recipes call for fresh herbs – especially thyme, marjoram, sage and organum. Basil isn’t so dire, and parsley and coriander are around about par. Of course dried herbs are dried herbs and a lot more consistent, and so that should stay pretty much as set out from whatever recipe you happen to be using.

Tomatoes

The same thing goes for our tomatoes, which are insipid and morose compared to their northern siblings. If possible I like to try and slice them up or chop them, then very lightly salt them before use, just to give them a bit of the kick that seems to have been leached out of them by being in a country with too much sun and too little respect.

There are probably *loads* more of these sort of things, but I’m too lazy to think of them now or they just haven’t occurred to me yet. So, if there are any more that you’ve experienced, put them in the comments section.

In the meantime, here are some pictures from the lunch where the whole idea for this story staggered into my head in the first place. The restaurant is Il Tartufo in Johannesburg, and is sincerely one of the best Italian places I’ve been to in a long time. It’s as expensive as fuck, and don’t even bother with the wine-list because the mark-ups are at least 300% – but the food is just wonderful.

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No questions asked.

Okay, I know this is actually a blog about food – but occasionally I do lift my head up from the eternal slop-trough of my own life and focus my pigesque face on something that’s not covered in a cream sauce. And because this is my corner of the internet where I get to park whatever random, ill-informed nonsense gets trotted out as a result of those experiences – I’m taking a slight detour from the food stuff for just one morning.

I hope you’ll indulge me. God knows you’ve been doing it for three years, you should be used to it by now.

Anticipation is delicious. Even more than things that are deep-fried.

South Africans seem to have a knack for turning seemingly innocuous and mostly innocent things into deadly weapons. Penises, paintbrushes, car-tires, plastic bags, fashion-sense, and 15-seater vehicles manufactured by Toyota; ultimately it appears that our most exportable and marketable talent is instantly being able to figure out a way to kill someone with a Hello Kitty lipstick.

Need to turn a Get Well Soon card into something that could kill a full Bolivian diplomatic delegation, assigned to investigate the particular sense of loss felt when you realize that there will be no more episodes of Quantum Leap? Find a South African. Want to permanently silence a Thai airhostess with Travel Scrabble? Dial +27WHATEVER.

Well, it saddens me to add another thing that, in our hands, get’s hopelessly twisted, abused and made to stand in the corner blubbing about how crap it is and ultimately fashioned into a dishearteningly lethal hitting-thing in our rough and unsubtle hands: and that’s a Q&A after a standup comedy show featuring international famous guy – Eddie Izzard.

Before I carry on any further – I just want to say clearly and distinctly: South Africans are olympically bad at expressing themselves in public, and should not be allowed to say anything to anyone in an open forum.

Ever.

And just in case you were gearing up to call me an Imperialist Colonialist fuck-face, I’m inescapably South African, I tar myself with the same brush. I have the green book and everything.

We will, without fail, when presented with the opportunity to sum up a zeitgeist, to articulate that thing that we’re all feeling but just need someone else to say for us – load up both barrels and then barge off to go foot hunting.

So, Eddie Izzard – wildly famous, funny and mega-accomplished stand-up comedian comes to South Africa to attempt a pretty intense form of personal exploration loosely aligned with Nelson Mandela’s 27 years as a political prisoner. Specifically, he planned to run 27 marathons in 27 days in a sort of symbolic tribute to Madiba’s years spent incarcerated by the Apartheid regime, something Mr Izzard felt he should have done more to actively try and stop at the time (other than not buying oranges with the word “Cape” on the box – which was actually the source of one of his funniest bits of the night), hence all the running.

It’s sort of gimmicky, sort of mind-blowingly awesome – and also, it didn’t really work. Eddie had to bail after four marathons, because you know…this shit is hard. But all credit to the guy, he stood up and said so, refused to back out, will attempt it again, and just for good measure decided to throw in an impromptu show for the people of Johannesburg. And because he’s interested in people, humanity and all the things that happens when you put the former in a room to discuss the latter, decided that the second half of the show should be a Q&A to discuss the general question of how “We, as a country, feel we’re doing.”

Wow. Big fucking mistake.

Not because we’re a politically-charged cross-section with a crackling and electrified sense of the nuance of our own social landscape – so much so that it threatens to boil over and become a forceful and informed debate leading to insight and understanding of our current condition.

No.

Because we’re all dumb shits, and when there’s a microphone in our faces, we can’t decide if we’d prefer to be; sycophantic, self-promoting, ignorant, in love with our own voices, whiny – or just go for broke and shoot for all of them in a cosmic big bang of awfulness that, if a mad scientist decided to harness, could possibly lead to the invention of something worse than strawberry-flavoured condensed-milk in a tube.

Seriously. It (obvs) started with Jacob Zuma’s cock, as represented by that stupidly mediocre painting, and just spiraled from there. And after about 30 minutes or so of people complaining about…

  • Government and why it doesn’t care about white people,
  • Why they weren’t more famous as a comedian,
  • Eddie Izzard not performing the “Star Wars Canteen” because some fat guy had demanded it from the back,
  • Another stab at why no one was acknowledging how good they were as a standup comedian…

…the most insightful things that were said about our own situation were coming from the foreigner sitting on the stage who was only there because he wanted to know how we felt. All while Kagiso Lediga did his best impression of a moderator desperately trying not to be too embarrassed on our behalf.

Politicians often talk about “taking the temperature of the room” – in which case our room was the embarrassing uncle who gets drunk at Christmas and then very loudly tells the story of how you “accidentally” fingered a dog when you were four.

We were offered this golden opportunity, dare I suggest, a once-in-a-lifetime moment to make an impression, to set ourselves forth as people who grasped the issues that we face and had feelings and insight into how to overcome them, and instead of seizing it and sucking the juice out of the occasion, we kind of stuck our finger up our own collective nose, wandered off into a corner to pee on ourselves and then whined about how everything smelled funny.

Did I mention that this was all being filmed for a documentary? Oh, the horror.

We are better than this, I just wish that we’d behave in a way that let other people know from time to time.

Balls.

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The passing of a great restaurant, or even one that one was just mediocre, but had a couple of good things on the menu, is honestly like a death to me.

This is of course because my best friend is a biscuit, and so ‘places that feed me’ is just about all I’ve got to cling to these days.

From a food perspective there are few worse sensations than pitching up at your favourite place, expecting to be tucking into that thing that you order every time with the usual greedy, piggy-face, to not only find that the restaurant isn’t there any more, but that now it’s a shop that sells toilets.

It feels like getting mugged, and then having the mugger kick you in the shins because they’re also communists and you confess to not having read Das Kapital – and I’d know. I’ve been mugged a lot. And even though I claim I’ve read Das Kapital, I haven’t really.

My very, very first experience of this kind of thing was with a place in Grahamstown, which is where I grew up, that my mom used to take me to called Davenports. In reality it was probably a stuffy old-school type tea-room filled exclusively with old ladies who thought that putting a flower arrangement on their head constituted ‘being a progressive about hats’, but in my mind it was The Best Restaurant In The World (aged 4) because it was the first time I was allowed to have an Appletiser. Which was a big deal in those days.

It promptly closed down and became a Spur, which is still there. The ladies who wear hats are not.

Also in Grahamstown was a Bavarian grill-house which was called Tiny’s, because no doubt it was run by a jolly and usually quite sweaty, fat man called George Gruber (which is totally the best fat man’s name ever) and back in the 80s, no one had yet gotten tired of that joke of naming something its opposite. Of course, you can’t be called George Gruber and not be a jolly, big guy who runs a steak-house with his dumpy wife – it goes against nature.
Gruber’s favourite thing in the world was to flambé a steak at your table as an excuse to hold forth on the wonders of Austria for as long as it took to burn your face off with flaming Kirsch, but it was a proper ‘grown-up place’ and the rare occasion when my parents decided on a night out at Tiny’s, it was always a ridiculous highlight to go there. It was also the first time I was introduced to the idea of monkeygland sauce, which let me tell you, provided an endless source of debate for an 8 year-old and his dumb mates; mostly revolving around exactly how many monkey-glands went into making enough sauce for a burger, and did Vervet monkey-gland taste different from, say Baboon or Bonobo?

Sadly Gruber died and the restaurant closed, and for years no-one could make anything else work in the space. At one point someone tried a rip-off KFC-style chicken joint called Southern Fried Chicken, which closed almost immediately after the first person actually tried something off the menu. Today however it’s the legendary and institutional Rat and Parrot, which is the pub equivalent of getting kicked in the face by a pack of talking dingoes in party dresses. Again, I would know.

I’ve long suspected that the Burger Quality Debate Index is the primary indicator of a high standard of living. This must be the case, because apparently it’s the only thing anyone in Cape Town, that dear fishing village by the sea, has any time for – since they’re always super-quick to laconically declare how awesome both they, and their standard of living, are. It seems that the energy of every single person in that city is bent towards a permanent, in-depth, absurdly passionate debate about Who Makes The Best Burger, where if you dare to suggest it’s Royale (as opposed to Hudsons or Clarkes) then you clearly have the taste of a dust mote or a goat-rapist, or you’re from Johannesburg, in which case they pat your head you’re a retarded child who, shame, can’t be expected to know any better.
The reason they’re all wrong, and are about to be robbed of seemingly the only point to their lives, is that the best burger in the world used to be made a lanky vulture-like woman who was the owner/proprietor of a ridiculously-named fast-food joint called Bambi’s. And yes, there was totally a giant picture of Bambi painted in the window – which if you think about it, raises some very odd thoughts about exactly what was in those burgers. Years after she’d retired from fast-food, I actually went and tracked her down at her house, determined to get her to fix me up one last burger, which – incredibly, she did. Because it was that good. Enormous and dinner plate-like in its roundness, the Bambi Burger was a secret-sauced, pickled-up burgerous marvel in a soft white bun – and to this day I’ve never had one to match it.

This ‘passing of a favourite’ thing also happened more poignantly with the first restaurant I ever developed a meaningful relationship with after moving to Johannesburg. It was an Italian place called Lucci’s in Westdene – owned and run by, of course, old Mr Lucci (no such naming cleverness for the Italians – a spade is a spade, and a restaurant run by a Mr Lucci, is called Lucci’s).

Lucci was a clever fucker, because he knew a good thing when he saw it, and he saw quite a lot of his own fine Italian daughters (not in that way fuckos). And as a result, most of the time you were waited on by one or several of those fine and exotic women. That meant that as a teenager I spent a lot of time trying to hide unfortunate boners with a napkin while trying to eat mushroom Risotto.
It was one of those places where you instantly knew that it was run by a real Italian, because instead of stupid faux-Tuscan brickwork and stock art of grinning fat men holding loaves of bread, the walls were covered with the only things truly close to an Italian’s heart – pictures of Ducatis and Ferraris. Of which Lucci had many. There was also a picture of him posing with Pavarotti, and if a guy has fed Big Luciano, then it’s totally okay for him to feed me. It was the first time I’d encountered pesto made properly, and a man who point-blank refused to serve decaffeinated anything in his restaurant and who also probably felt more distraught about Saltimbocca being poorly-made than he did about baby seals being clubbed to death by Japanese people.

It’s an estate-agency now.

The thing about this dirge-like list of places that I used to eat at which don’t exist any more, is that it happened again recently. It’s funny – I’ve written about Lapa Fo on this blog before, and paradoxically enough, it was to complain about their rather cynical pricing of a particular bottle of wine. But it was like one of those relationships where although someone did something shitty to you, you can’t stop seeing them because the sex is just too good to ever sanely give up, and so you just keep on going back and back. Which was the case here, and oddly enough it wasn’t even for the thing they were famous for; because for a place whose speciality was (incredible) pizza, my favourite thing on their menu was the meatballs.

I know right? Fucking meatballs?

Well, I loved the shit out of them, and it was rare that I’d ever go there and order anything but. Well, now it’s gone and I’ll never have those balls in my face again. And so, in an attempt to not let this piece of warmth and nostalgia die completely, I went home the other night and tried to recapture the essence of my favourite thing of theirs. And so, here is my commemorative Lapa Fo meatball recipe, in a sad and probably meaningless tribute to a thing I liked.

There is a greater point to all of this – and that is (duh), don’t take these places for granted. Because one day they won’t be there, and you’ll never have that particular thing, in that particular way, ever again (Yes, it’s a metaphor for life. Get over it). There’s something magical about the alchemy that goes into the creation of a signature menu at a favourite restaurant – and that special combination of ingredients, suppliers, techniques, chefs and kitchen atmosphere will never come together again. Don’t just assume that it’ll be there forever – because it won’t, and then you’ll be one of those people that starts conversations with “Remember that whatever that so-and-so used to do at blah blah blah, back in the day? I wish I could have it one last time, we never went there enough.” And then you’ll get sad, and then maybe go home and be cruel to your children and/or plants. And that’s how M Night Shyamalan movies happen.

My Meatballs

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Ingredients

A generous glug of olive oil
2 tins of whole, peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 tsp brown sugar
1 splash of sherry vinegar

For the meatballs

500g of minced beef
40g of breadcrumbs, some extra for dusting
A goodly handful of grated Parmesan
175 ml milk
2 teaspoons of minced garlic
A handful of finely-chopped parsley
1 tsp dried organum
1 tsp of coriander seeds, crushed into a fine powder
2 large eggs
A generous pinch of Chilli flakes

What to do

Combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl, and gently mix them all together until loosely combined. Season well with salt and pepper, then coat your hands with olive oil and gently pack into smallish balls, not pressing them together too tightly. Dust each one with some breadcrumbs.

Rub a roasting tray with olive oil, and get the oven grill onto about 200 degrees Celsius. Pack the meatballs onto the tray, giving each one a bit of breathing space, and brown them on both sides in the oven – it should take about 20 minutes or so.

Then get either a casserole or a cast-iron pot and add the olive oil, tinned tomatoes, bay leaves, sugar and vinegar, then season generously with salt and pepper. Gently break up the tomatoes a bit with a wooden spoon. Toss in the meatballs, pop on the lid and put it back in the oven for another half an hour.

Serve with pasta or as part of a meal with salad and crusty bread.

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Cheers Lapa Fo, you will be missed.