On Writing and Food in Penang

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WHEN I WAS perhaps 4 or 5, I entered a competition on Saturday morning television to win a Lego pirate ship. It was the sort of competition where you had to put your address on a postcard and send it in, and then the next week they would, live on TV, draw the winning postcard out of a huge, stuffed postal sack. Gordon the Gopher may have been involved. Despite the evidence from the postal sack that the odds were stacked against me, I was convinced that I was going to win. When I was younger, I’d entered another competition and won a video about dolphins, so it stood to reason that I’d win this one too.

I got up early, as I did every Saturday, to watch the draw. I didn’t win. So I went upstairs to climb onto my parents’ bed, wake them up, and tell them that I hadn’t won. What I remember most about that event is my own sense of bewilderment at my parent’s lack of surprise (“oh dear, maybe next time”). In that bewilderment was the germ of an idea that the world might not be set up for me to win at everything.

Whenever I enter a competition now, I still think about that Lego pirate ship and my parents’ lack of surprise. Yes, I know, this is in danger of getting a little twee – so I’ll get to the point.

I recently entered the Daily Telegraph’s Just Back From… weekly travel writing competition. I did not win. They have a very large postal sack, and a very high quality of entrants. But it didn’t stop me checking my emails incessantly – the 21st century equivalent of getting up to watch the draw. As with the Lego pirate ship, though, there are still lessons to be learned, plans about how it could be better written – I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out for you. This isn’t Oprah. Anyway, this was my entry.

“Murdered at Panghore by a gang of Chinese Robbers,” reads the headstone of Christopher Henry Lloyd, who met his unfortunate demise in 1876. Strewn about me are the tumbledown graves of two centuries of sailors, merchants, and civil servants, all buried in George Town’s protestant graveyard. Here the usual tragedy of cemeteries is made up by a global crowd of those who were just passing through (“James Winlock, Midshipman, US Navy, Died At Sea, 1876 Aged 21”) and those who tied their livelihoods to the tropical island of Penang (“To the memory of Anne, widow of George Herne, late of Trelawny, Jamaica, who departed this life at Caledonia Estate”).

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Long term readers of this blog will remember my delight in visiting old graveyards. Everybody needs a hobby.

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“Do you have a flag? No? Well then you can’t have this island. It’s mine. I claimed it. With my flag.”

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Life in holey death.

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I didn’t see the gravestones of any elderly sailors.

The indelible pen of British colonialism marks George Town, but leaving the graveyard and heading for the Chinese Clan Jetties, it is the multiculturalism of the town that seems empire’s most enduring legacy. At the entrance to the Lee Jetty, I watch a woman in improbably high heels set light to a paper money pile, sending the offering to her ancestors. Walking on, I peer curiously into the neatly arrayed houses, incense burning outside some, barnacles clinging to the silted stilts of all. Water laps, the sun shines and it is calm here; the only thing troubling me being the sweet, strangely tantalising rotting chicken smell of durian fruit coming from one of the houses. My stomach growls, and I realise that I’m the best thing to be in Penang: hungry.

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The problem with adding pictures to something solely intended for print is that it exposes your artistic embellishments. Those highheels aren’t “improbably” high at all. And, now I come to think about it, “improbably high heels” is a terrible cliche. Damn.

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I’ve seen Speed 2. I know how this ends.

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I really miss crab sandwiches.

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 A short walk from the jetties and I’m in Little India, my lunchtime destination. I feel out of place eating with a fork and spoon, so I join other diners in getting messy with my hands by dipping rice balls into ten different curries, arrayed in tiny bowls on a banana leaf, meat free and deliciously spiced. Iced tea sweetened with condensed milk provides a mercifully cooling counterpoint to the whole meal, and afterwards I sit back, watching tri-shaws cycle past, listening to the frantic sitar music of the sarong shop opposite, and wandering how on earth I will ever move again.

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There’s no such thing as a small portion of rice in Malaysia.

Eventually I do, and spend the afternoon bouncing between Churches, Mosques and Confucian Temples. Not nearly soon enough, it’s dinner-time and I’m seated at a hawker stall. I dine on Assam Laksa and grilled stingray, the Laksa a sour, tangy and fishy noodle soup famous in Malayan cuisine, the stingray doused in a spicy, sweet rub and popular, judging by the queue, with most of George Town.

Trav18-12“One. More. Drink.” orders the old Chinese lady serving me, wrapping me on my knuckles with a set of chopsticks to emphasise her point, and baring her single tooth in what I hope is a grin. I give it some thought. “Well, I suppose I could have another carrot juice, and perhaps some of those satay skewers…” Things have moved on in George Town since the days of Chinese robbers – today the only person lightening my wallet is myself, as I stand up to see what else I can possibly eat.

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(The winning entry, in case you’re interested, can be found here).

This post was written in Solo, Java, Indonesia, and uploaded in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. The competition entry was written in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, in the downstairs cafe of our wonderful hotel – Lang Hoose.

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Siem Reap & Phnom Penh: Or, Why I Love Morning Glory

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SOME FACTS ABOUT Cambodia:

– 53% of the population are aged 24 or under; 32% 14 or under;

– Average life expectancy is 63 years;

– Average daily income is $6.50/day, placing Cambodia at 129th in the world;

– Cambodians are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Children wave excitedly from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Children wave from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh. We didn’t meet a kid who wasn’t excited to see us.

FIVE DAYS: THAT’S all. It didn’t seem enough time to spend in Cambodia, but we’re on a tour with Toucan Travel for our first month of travelling, whizzing through SE Asia. Despite only being there for five days, Cambodia has stayed with us. We entered overland from Thailand, spending three hours in a weird no-man’s land between the countries filled with run-down casinos and fake Christmas snowmen, incongruous in the baking heat. Our first stop was Siem Reap, from where we launched our trip to Angkor Wat. The centre is backpacker-fantastic, with the neon lights and booming music of the bar-lined Pub Street. But wander beyond and you’re quickly lost in dark streets with glowing shop fronts, mopeds galore and not a western face in sight.

“Is it right, right, left from the hotel?” asked BK-C.
“Definitely,” I replied. “Or right, left, right.”
“We’ll work it out.”

45 minutes later we were hopelessly lost. It was nighttime, and there are no street lights in Siem Reap. As with everywhere we’ve been in SE Asia so far, the pavement is a place for parking, not for walking. The only people who walk are the poor or foreigners. Curious faces peered out of shopfronts us as we stepped around mopeds and cars, avoiding potholes at the side of the road. Whole families buzzed by on mopeds, babies balanced on the handle bars. There was the occasional smell of drains, the frequent smell of street food. I refused to pay a dollar to get a tuc tuc back to somewhere that we knew. We pressed on. “If we go left here I think that should rejoin the main street.” We didn’t. Words were said. We walked some more. More words were said. We got a tuc tuc.

Thank goodness we did, because it turned out that some idiot had been leading us in completely the wrong direction.

Not once in this unplanned sojourn did we feel threatened. As with everywhere else in SE Asia, tuc tuc drivers are ubiquitous, all offering their services. A polite “no, thank you” and a smile, though, and they’ll smile back and leave you alone. No one’s pushy, everyone has a ready smile.

Later, riding on quad bikes at dusk through dusty tracks, we saw some of the smaller villages around Siem Reap. People worked the fields, children played outside stilted shacks, cows wallowed in mud. Clinging on to the back of the quad bike, BK-C waved at kids as we passed and they waved back. We watched the sun set over the rice paddies, and felt immensely lucky to be there.

The sun sets over a rice paddy  outside Siem Reap.

The sun sets over a rice paddy outside Siem Reap.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they're riding their mopeds - or in Vietnam, where there's a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they’re riding their mopeds – or in Vietnam, where there’s a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

WHERE WE CAN, we try to avoid restaurants and instead eat where the locals eat. A line of mopeds outside a street food stall is always a good sign. It was at such a roadside stall, sitting in a tiny plastic chair, that my love affair with morning glory began. Morning Glory with Beef turned out to be a tasty dish of spicy, tamarind-tangy beef with a delicious shredded, green bean-esque vegetable – Morning Glory – chewy and crunchy at the same time. Yes, I ordered it purely on the strength of the name, but I never looked back.

Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it,. If I had 3G I'd be uploading it to instagram. I just don't know what's happened to me.

Sour Beef Soup With Morning Glory. Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it. If I had 3G I’d be uploading it to instagram. I just don’t know what’s happened to me.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they'd zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they'd get it to go as well. If not, they'd wander on. We soaked it all up.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they’d zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they’d get it to go as well. If not, they’d wander on. Through all of this, the staff of the restaurant stared entranced at the tv, occasionally with hands over their mouths, all caught up in the drama of a Cambodian soap. The food may change the world over, but the people don’t.

I didn't have the guts to try these.

There were large dishes of fried insects in quite a few places in Cambodia, especially in rest stops at the side of the road. I never saw anyone eating them. I wasn’t about to be the first.

CAMBODIA’S YOUNG POPULATION, the youngest in SE Asia, is largely a result of the Khmer Regime. Half of the population are post-regime baby boomers and remember nothing of the genocide between 1975 and 1979 when 1.7 – 2.5 million Cambodians were killed out of a population of approximately 8 million. Pol Pot is what people outside of SE Asia are most likely to remember Cambodia for, and it seemed wrong to go to the country without engaging in some atrocity tourism ourselves. It’s that awkward-morbid thing where you want to visit and feel that you should do, but almost feel bad for wanting to go. So we went, and it was horrific, and sobering, and utterly terrifying. The killing fields were very peaceful, with silent white bones placed in piles. I thought if that happened to me, I’d like there to be such a place for people to visit.

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Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists.

Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists. I’m not sure that I could do that if I were him.

WE DROVE BACK to Phnom Penh, leaving the Killing Fields behind. The cool air conditioning of the van was a relief after the sticky heat of outdoors. I’d like to say that we travelled in silence, each wrapped in some deep thoughts about the inhumanity of killing – but that would be a lie. As soon as we were in the van, the serenity of the place behind us, we were raucous and joking.  What’s both chilling and hopeful is that those things happened – all those Cambodians were killed (with an 800,000 people error margin in the death toll. Think about that: 800,000 may or may not have died, and we’ll never know) and yet life just goes on, eventually mass graves becoming a tourist attraction with an organised shuttle bus from the city, and vendors selling Coca-Cola.

We were bound for the market in Phnom Penh, a place bustling with people and life. There we jostled and haggled, browsed and bought – and over a big bowl of Morning Glory, I met a man called Sovann, who worked for an NGO, and who told me that the future of Cambodia was in its communities, which his organisation was helping to build.

He lamented the recent protests in Phnom Penh, over wages, where – a couple of days before we arrived – three protestors had been shot and killed when police fired into the crowd. We’d seen camps of police, their riot geared racked up in neat piles on the floor, outside of the Palace in the centre of the city. It had all seemed quiet, the most significant action being when we saw an officer helping an old lady to cross the road. Two days after we left, however, there were more protests, and more deaths.

In the market, though, like after the Killing Fields, people were living life. We joked with stall holders and haggled good naturedly over snacks. Five days hadn’t been enough to even scrape the surface of Cambodia, but it was enough to convince me of the essential good naturedness of Cambodian culture, to convince me that whatever problems the country had in the past or faced now, it’s people were on the up – and, of course, enough time for me to enjoy plenty of Morning Glory.

We vowed to return to see more of Cambodia, and departed for Vietnam.

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NEXT TIME: You suffer too many ‘ironic’ references to Vietnam War movies, whilst I eat some delicious Southern Vietnamese food.

San Francisco Grape & Grain: Or, How You Can Never Be Late For Beer In SF

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

THIS IS A picture from the day of my wedding*:

Obviously, it's from when I was getting ready

Clearly, this is pre-ceremony. But it’s true that I’d been perusing the Northern California Craft Beer Guide on the morning of my wedding. Anticipation of the honeymoon? Of course not! I was focused solely on getting married. This was an attempt to relieve some pre-wedding nerves. But, yes, now you mention it, I was excited about the beer in NorCal. Obviously this was COMPLETELY UNRELATED to me reading it on my wedding day (that’s not actually me reading it in the picture by the way – I’m the one crouching down into the background and, yes, thank you those are fabulous socks, I KNOW).

*courtesy of our wonderful wedding photographers Christian & Erica, of Christian Ward Photography.  Getting married? Go with these guys. Their photos are art.

CA3-1I think that I probably owe a public thanks and apology to Kyle, our server at Starbelly, the first stop on our Beer-Tasting-Trip-That-My-Wife-Mistakenly-Believed-Was-Our-Honeymoon. I won’t lie, I had a bit of a man-crush on Kyle: he was funny and he knew about beer. And he kept bringing me different ones to try. I may also have used the phrase “please could you bring me something more challenging?” Yes, I am that pretentious. And, yes, I do hate myself. Anyway, Kyle gave us free beer because it was our honeymoon (it’s sad that my wife doesn’t like beer, but sacrifices have to be made in marriage, I understand). “If I could do your road trip, I would,” Kyle said to us as we left Starbelly. “You can,” I joked, “we’ll just fit you in our suitcase, it’ll be fine!” The beaming smile that he shot me in return as he ushered us out was definitely one of mutual appreciation, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to verify this fact as he locked the door behind us. Weird. What A Nice Man, I thought, as we walked away, me stumbling slightly.

Anyway, the highlight of any trip to SF for the beer enthusiast, both my guide book and my far geekier beer friends told me, was a visit to the Anchor Brewery. You can only pre-book and the tours get filled up months in advance. So naturally I was excited that we’d managed to secure a space on the tour for when we were there. That morning we were vintiqueing (yeah, I used that word) on Haight Street, which is the hippy, vintage, grimey-but-proud-of-it part of SF. Frankly it’s hard to tell the difference between the hippy (crusty?) folks who live there and the homeless people who, well, probably also live there, but not in a studio apartment.

Haight Street is less about the drinking. I was queueing up in a record store to buy some vinyl and the guy in front of me, who had purchased two Star Wars VHS, was chatting to the cashier. "Yeah," he told him, "I'm just gonna go home, get high and watch these." Frankly, I pitied him. Can you remember what VHS was like? In his stoned state how would he select the cast commentary? Some things should just stay superseded and not go retro.

Haight Street is less about the drinking. I was queueing up in a record store to buy some vinyl and the guy in front of me, who had purchased two Star Wars VHS, was chatting to the cashier. “Yeah,” he told him, “I’m just gonna go home, get high and watch these.” Frankly, I pitied him. Can you remember what VHS was like? How would he select the cast commentary? Some things just shouldn’t go retro.

We lost track of time. Or, rather, one of us lost track of time in a dress shop whilst the other fretted over the time. We finished on Haight Street, we rushed to get the 24 bus to Anchor Brewery, passed the rolling fog at the tops of houses (because that’s what happens in SF), passed the congregation of homeless outside the park (because that’s what happens in SF), passed the cars parked at right angles to the kerb (you get the picture), onto the bus, onto another bus…. and we arrived on time! Celebration! Checked in at the desk. Discovered that I got the time wrong! We were an hour late. Devastation! Deep inside me I felt something break. Only thing that held back the tears was It Would Not Be Cool To Cry At Anchor Brewery. “Don’t worry, though,” the guy on the front desk told us, “the tour hasn’t got to the bar, yet, so you can join them for the tasting.” I regained my composure. Manned up. “I think I can do it,” I announced. “To the bar!”

I took what solace I could.

I took what solace I could.

But then magic happened. My wife spoke to one of the brewers, explained the situation and convinced him to take us on a tour of the brewery when he finished his shift. And that is why I married this woman. Or, alternatively, our impromptu brewery tour has something to do with the fact that Anchor Brewing workers can drink on shift, for free, and hang out in their own bar afterwards. They’re just perpetually happy people. Or perhaps it’s just because SF people are some of  the friendliest city people I’ve met. Either way, thank you Ramon, for showing us around the place and sharing some delicious drinks with us in the bar. The lesson? Whether it’s about the people or the drinks, you can never be late for beer in SF.

Ramon dips his hand in the... wort? pre-beer? Who knows. Beer Science.

Ramon dips his hand in the… wort? pre-beer? Who knows. Beer Science.

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Hops. Cascade hops, in fact. They give beer American beers that distinctive bitter-fruity-hoppy taste.

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Me rubbing hops through my hands, as encouraged by Ramon. “The only thing is that they’re really oily and you can’t get the smell off with soap,” he told me as he watched me rub them all over my palms. My hands smelt of beer for the rest of the day, as did everything that I touched. It was like a more rubbish version of the Greek King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold. My touch turned everything slightly beery, except that you couldn’t drink it. This curse probably figures somewhere in Dante’s Inferno.

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If you ever go to the Anchor Brewery, remember this: there is a cabinet at the back of the tasting room where you can buy Anchor memorabilia. I know this, because I was told about it after I had visited by a sympathetic Canadian who had been there the day before. There’s probably a silver lining to this story, but somehow I can’t really bring myself to write it.

NEXT TIME: I go drinking in the morning.

San Francisco by Plate, Fork & Chopstick: Or, How Stuffing My Face Showed Me San Francisco – Part 2

Welcome to San Francisco - Proceed With Caution

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

I’LL JUST come right out with it: in San Francisco we spent $558.22 on one meal for the two of us. It is the most expensive meal that I have ever eaten. And it goes without saying – but shouldn’t be left unsaid – that being able to enjoy such a meal is a privilege; if it weren’t a wedding gift we would never have enjoyed it. But it was and we did. So: with the expensive-eater guilt statement out of the way, let me tell you what that kind of nosh $558 buys you.

Eleven courses. I mean, that’s pretty good don’t you think? If you’re spending a lot on food then you want to be able to measure how exceptional it is in some way, and number of courses is a great metric. I lost count of which one we were on. It’s a cliché, but actually how many times in your life can you actually use that phrase and mean it? Excepting the times when you’re so drunk you can’t count your own fingers, obviously.

It was our second night and we were at the restaurant Coi (pronounced not like the fish but like the French “quoi” because, apparently, San Franciscans cannot spell). There’s plenty that you can read on the internet about the place and the chef behind it (Daniel Patterson), so I won’t repeat any of that here (but here’s a great summary from a food writer that I really rate). To give you a picture, though, Coi is a small, exclusive restaurant of perhaps twenty tables. There is no menu outside for you to browse if you happen to be passing. Your napkin is replaced with a new one if you get up to use the restroom half-way through the meal. There are decorative pebbles in the bathroom sink, so washing your hands is like participating in some kind of Japanese rock garden ritual. It’s that kind of a place.

And here's the menu from the night we were there. Our server presented it to us right at the end of the meal, after watching me desperately try to scribble down all the ingredients after each course.

And here’s the menu from the night we were there. We had the tasting menu, so we also got a glug of each wine paired with the appropriate dish. Unfortunately we got a bit excited on the first serving, so I have no idea how the sake tastes with the Geoduck (whatever that is). I can also testify that the herbs served with the strawberries at the end were, indeed, tiny.

But Coi’s not sniffy. No question was too dumb for our Jude Law-lookalike waiter. Which is good, because I asked him some dumb questions. Like, is this tiny piece of bread you’re serving me now another course? “No, sir,” said Jude Law, “the bread is not a course.” Or, what’s in this little jar? “That’s butter, sir.” Thanks Jude.

The food, he told us, would be “aroma and flavour forward,” with “no heavy and cloying French-like sauces.” When I didn’t recognise one of the ingredients, he would painstakingly describe what  it was and where it came from. He had the patience of a man serving people prepared to pay for one meal what many earn in a week.

Never before have I been so excited by turnips as at a farmers market in San Francisco.

In Northern California, ingredient is king. Everything is fresh and it all looks like it came out of some food-porn magazine. Never before have I been so excited by turnips as at a farmers’ market in San Francisco.

In Northern California, they love food so much that they spread it over their bodies. Don't try this with turnips at a farmers market.

In Northern California, they love food so much that they spread it over their bodies. Don’t try this with turnips at a farmers market.

I have to say, I found the laid back, unpretentious-but-discerning approach to food in Coi, and NorCal more widely, refreshing. If I were in Paris and I asked which item of cutlery I should use, then I’d certainly feel like the ignorant English tourist that I am. But here it was a fair question. “Daniel [the chef] thinks about the whole eating experience, down to how you’ll eat it,” our server explained. “I remember that we once had a chicken wing on the menu and it was in this broth, and Daniel didn’t want people just to pick the wing up and eat it with their fork, he wanted them to taste the broth as well. So we served it with just a spoon. That confused a few people.” It would confuse me too.

The whole meal, from start to finish, was like a culinary narrative of place, time and taste. It was the ultimate dining experience. It was, in my opinion, money well spent. I’ll even forgive Jude for forgetting to bring me the ketchup.

I WOULDN’T want you to think that San Francisco is all bank-breaking eateries. As with so many North American cities these days, there’s a big food truck movement. And, yes, to those unfamiliar with the concept – a food truck is just a glorified burger van. But what burgers…

It's street food, so it's ok to let the sauce dribble down your chin when you bite into the deliciousness. Note: this is not ok in Coi.

It’s street food, so it’s ok to let the sauce dribble down your chin when you bite into the deliciousness. Note: this is not ok in Coi.

And San Francisco, it turns out, is next to the sea, so there’s a lot of fish. Who knew? San Franciscans used to eat a lot of seafood, but then they realised that they could make a lot of money just selling it all to the tourists instead. All of the seafood restaurants being sensibly clustered around the piers, this development also had the happy effect of ensuring that all the tourists just went to the piers, where they were corralled into a single place called Pier 39, attracted by flashing lights, overpriced tat and, inexplicably, an Irish giftshop. Here idiotic Englishmen could have their photos taken with crabs (the crustacean, you understand), leaving the rest of the city happily free from blundering Brits, so prone to walking out into the road in front of a car whilst looking the wrong way. In fact this last phenomenon became so much of a problem that the city began issuing crash helmets to all those from countries where they drove on the left.

Life in the San Franciscan piers.

Life in the San Franciscan piers.

Those tourists just go crazy for the San Franciscan seafood at the piers. This one is dangerous because she hasn't been issued with her crash helmet yet.

Those tourists just go crazy for the San Franciscan seafood at the piers. This one is dangerous because she hasn’t been issued with her crash helmet yet.

Sometimes the tourists inadvisedly wander out of the Piers. But it’s ok, because the San Franciscans have developed a special tram just for the tourists called the F Line, which picks them up and dumps them back at Pier 39. Regardless of whether they want to go there or not. Then they eat some more crab and forget about what they saw in the rest of the city. It’s a bit like the Hunger Games, but in reverse. True story.

AND THAT’S how stuffing my face in San Francisco showed me the city. From high end to low end, from burgers to crabs – it was all delicious. And I even left the pier. Don’t tell anyone though.

NEXT TIME: I’m Drinkin’ in SF.

San Francisco by Plate, Fork & Chopstick: Or, How Stuffing My Face Showed Me San Francisco

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City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

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Yes we did have themed literary luggage tags, because we are that pretentious. And yes, that ring on my finger is made of meteorite and, yes, it is awesome because IT WAS ONCE FLYING THROUGH SPACE! No, this has nothing to do with California. Read on.

And God bless Virgin Atlantic, too, for giving us bubbly (read: cava) in a champagne saucer on the flight over because it was our honeymoon. No it wasn't the hoped for upgrade, but after four glasses of cava at 30,000ft you could be sitting in the baggage hold and you wouldn't notice.

And God bless Virgin Atlantic, too, for giving us bubbly (read: cava) in a champagne saucer on the flight over because it was our honeymoon. No it wasn’t the hoped for upgrade, but after four glasses of cava at 30,000ft you could be sitting in the baggage hold and you wouldn’t notice.

 
 
 

GETTING MARRIED is the most wonderful experience – it’s like being king for a day: you walk into the room and people burst into applause. That really should happen more often.

Then suddenly it’s all over, everyone departs and the next day you find yourself in a petrol station on the M6, wondering why people aren’t clapping. So thank goodness we went to California – all I needed to do was open my mouth, speak in a British accent and people automatically assumed that I was related to Prince William. God bless America.

 
 
 
 
 
 

You might have heard of the first place on our trip…

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In Infinite City, her atlas of San Francisco, Rebecca Solnit says that

“A city is a particular kind of place, perhaps best described as many worlds in one place; it compounds many versions without quite reconciling them, though some cross over to multiple worlds – in Chinatown or queer space, in a drug underworld or a university community, in a church’s sphere or a hospital’s intersections. An atlas is a collection of versions of a place, a compendium of perspectives, a snatching out of the infinite ether of potential versions a few that will be made concrete and visible.”

This post and those that follow will examine some of the versions of San Francisco that I experienced, my snatches out of the infinite. And what better way to get to know a city, than through its food?

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Don’t tell me that this sight doesn’t get your heart racing a little faster.

THERE IS a strange sense of dislocation when you first arrive somewhere new, faraway, but somewhere you’ve read about before. It’s the sense that all of this is at the same time both new and familiar to you. It’s the realisation that despite this being a first for you, it’s going on everyday even without you being here to experience it and it’s desperately familiar to all the people who are already here. It’s the comprehension that, no, you’re not trapped in your own version of The Truman Show after all, and that you really are an insignificant part of the universe.

The familiarity of the famous - a dog walker takes a stroll.

The familiarity of the famous – a dog walker takes a stroll.

Stepping out of our rented apartment onto a San Franciscan street I felt this now. The hills and sideways-parked cars I had seen on films before; the plants seemed strange and exotic, yet expectedly so. My tired brain struggled to take in all these new-old sights and the accompanying feeling of existential weirdness.

So we did what any sane person does when faced with a profound feeling of their place in the world. We went for sushi.

It was the best sushi I have ever had.

The place was Amasia Hide’s Sushi Bar in the Castro district. As with all sushi places, the menu was overwhelmingly large. We stared at it blankly before choosing a couple of the set dishes. Our waiter quickly took our order – it was 5pm on a Monday and there was only one other person in the place – and then the sushi chef behind the counter started slicing and rolling, or whatever it is that sushi chefs do. Then deliciousness happened.

Within two hours of San Francisco I was eating food completely new to me. I couldn’t tell you what any of the appetisers were – mainly because I didn’t recognise them, but also, let us not forget, the Virgin Atlantic Cava was still somewhere in my bloodstream. In a moment of lucidity I asked our server what we were eating and even managed to write this down. It was hijiki seaweed. It looks a little like a black version of samphire, an edible plant found in UK coastal areas and beloved of the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall. It has a malty, sweet-savoury taste, like fruit cake, and I liked it very much. Even the pickled ginger in this place was outstanding – soft yet crunchy, sweet yet tangy. And all this before I even got to any fish! The sushi itself: super fresh octopus, tuna and eel, wonderfully salty-sweet roe that popped on the roof of my mouth and sensational spicing.

Sadly I had to share it all. Something about being married apparently.

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Actually this little plate of deliciousness is from the airport whilst we were waiting for our flight home. Despite the aviation setting, it was still frickin’ awesome. The message? Eat sushi in San Fran.

NEXT TIME…. I eat the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten, enjoy some meals on wheels and generally make myself bitter about not being in San Francisco anymore.

Old & New in Berlin (Travels in 2012, Part 3 of 4)

Object 3: An Antique Writing Set

Object 3: An Antique Writing Set. Obviously.

WHY WOULDN’T you buy a 1936 solid marble writing set when abroad and bring it home?  You’d think that I’d have learnt, after carrying a 2kg piece of carved slate from Belize all the way around Mexico and Guatemala only to find at the airport that it had broken in two. Before confiscating the slate the cheerful airport official helpfully pointed out that the razor-sharp edge created by the break could be used to cut someone’s throat. Frankly I was glad just not to be carrying it anymore. I’m pretty sure that she recognised my tears as an expression of relief, rather than frustration. Anyway, I thought, as I lugged the writing set back to the hotel, they’re surely not as hot on rules in Germany as in Guatemala…

It’s remarkable and somewhat shameful that at 28 years of age and living in the UK I had never visited Germany, the most populous country in the EU and the economic giant of Europe. When I first heard one of my former housemates talking about the amazing time that they had it Berlin, I remember being surprised because in my mind Berlin was some kind of depressed, concrete hell, with everything in sepia – basically Soviet-era East Germany.

Which just goes to show how wrong you can be about a city. I blame too many Le Carre novels.

Which just goes to show how wrong you can be about a city. I blame too many Le Carre novels.

Anyway, Berlin is now in my top 5 cities in the world. Here are some reasons why:

Hands down, Berlin has the the best green men the world over. I am obviously not the only person to think this, as there are shops all over the city devoted to the luminous fellow where you can buy extortionately priced "ampellman" merchandise. No wonder the German economy is surging whilst the UK economy is sputtering; in London there are shops full of Will & Kate merchandise. I know which I'd rather take home.

Hands down, Berlin has the the best green men the world over. I am obviously not the only person to think this, as there are shops all over the city devoted to the luminous fellow where you can buy extortionately priced “ampellman” merchandise. No wonder the German economy is surging whilst the UK economy is sputtering; in London there are shops full of Will & Kate merchandise. I know which I’d rather take home.

There's history and stuff! And it's not all about World War 2 or the Cold War! A lot of the history is covered in (what I understand to be) world class museums. Unfortunately we didn't visit any of them because we were there in July, it was wall to wall sunshine, and the museums are a) all inside and b) not beer gardens. See picture below.

There’s history and stuff! And it’s not all about World War 2 or the Cold War! A lot of the history is covered in (what I understand to be) world class museums. Unfortunately we didn’t visit any of them because we were there in July, it was wall to wall sunshine, and the museums are a) all inside and b) not beer gardens. See picture below.

The Germans do beer gardens really well. I mean, world class. This biergarten was in the big park in the centre of the city, next to a lake and was filled with people of all ages - including families. It had a great sense of community, a great sense of people coming together and drinking beer, and not a single act of violence or anti-social behaviour. In other words, everything that drinking in the UK is not.

The Germans do beer gardens really well. I mean, world class. This biergarten was in the big park in the centre of the city, next to a lake and filled with people of all ages – including families. It had a great sense of community, a great sense of people coming together and drinking beer, and not a single act of violence or anti-social behaviour. In other words, everything that drinking in the UK is not.

There's a massive park in the middle of the the city, called Tiergarten. Winding trails, tall trees, cyclists, walkers, families and naked old men. Yes, the last was a shock. On hot summer days people sunbathe nude in the park. My advice: be careful with the telephoto lens. People can get the wrong idea.

There’s a massive park in the middle of the the city, called Tiergarten. Winding trails, tall trees, cyclists, walkers, families and naked old men. Yes, the last was a shock. On hot summer days people sunbathe nude in the park. My advice: be careful with the telephoto lens. People can get the wrong idea.

In Berlin, people are really serious about their breakfast. They often go out for their first meal of the day, and they do it well. Lazy coffees, delicious bagels and an abundance all things things delicious. I don't speak German, so I spent the first two days wondering what this Frühstück was that everywhere was advertising and where I could get some of it to eat. Obviously, I am an idiot.

In Berlin, people are really serious about their breakfast. They often go out for their first meal of the day, and they do it well. Lazy coffees, delicious bagels and an abundance all things things delicious. I don’t speak German, so I spent the first two days wondering what this Frühstück was on menus and where I could try some of it. Obviously, I am an idiot.

For lots of reasons – and not just the Fawlty Towers one – Berlin is a city acutely aware of its own history, and does a lot to remember the past. But it feels like a city full of futures (mind you, coming from Britain any city that has public transport that runs on time feels vaguely futuristic. UK public transport is less futuristic, more optimistic). It’s hip, it’s international and it has something for everybody. While we were there we did history at the Berlin Wall, trendy bars in Prenzlauer Berg and top end dining in Kurfürstendamm. And compared to any other European capital I’ve been to it’s cheap.

I promise that I’m not on commission from the Berlin Tourist Board.

I always say that nothing brings history alive quite like a man with a flag who's painted his face and clothes silver. Without that, it's just  a bunch of dates, you know?

I always say that nothing brings history alive quite like a man with a flag who’s painted his face and clothes silver. Without that, it’s just a bunch of dates, you know?

It was really remarkable how they made that model car float on top of the fountain. The building on the right is where Angela Merkel works, apparently. She didn't invite us in for Frühstück.

It was really remarkable how they made that model car float on top of the fountain. The building on the right is where Angela Merkel works, apparently. She didn’t invite us in for Frühstück.

Yes, I did buy a piece of concrete purporting to be a piece of the wall. I got certificate and everything. Fortunately, I managed to make my money back by flogging this brick to a credulous British tourist.

Yes, I did buy a piece of concrete purporting to be a piece of the wall. I got a certificate and everything. Fortunately, I managed to make my money back by flogging this brick to a credulous British tourist.

The Wall is covered in art. Like all good art, it's truth that gives it power.

The Wall is covered in art. Like all good art, it’s truth that gives it power.

The standard of graffiti is a little bit higher than I'm used to in London. Obviously I tagged this after taking the photo.

The standard of graffiti is a little bit higher than I’m used to in London. Obviously I tagged this after taking the photo.

Sort of how I imagined Berlin to be before I heard others raving about it.

Sort of how I imagined Berlin to be before I heard others raving about it.

We saw The Future on the streets of Berlin: bar codes on pavements.

We saw The Future on the streets of Berlin: bar codes on pavements.

THERE’S SOMETHING that I need to get out of the way: stereotypes. It’s never good to rely on national stereotypes at the best of times, but visiting Berlin I realised that growing up in Britain had filled my mind with cultural stereotypes of Germans.

None of the popular British stereotypes of Germans were borne out in Berlin: humourless? Blown right out of the water by our joking with staff on the hotel reception and just about everyone else to whom we spoke. Sticklers for rules? Maybe, but I certainly wasn’t the only one eating eating on the metro (I only found out later that it wasn’t allowed!). Efficient? Er, yes, actually this one was true, but I was very happy for all my trains to arrive on time. Can’t queue? Actually, this is a stereotype that the British have about every other nation in the world. AND IT’S TRUE! Three times in queues in Berlin I got hustled by the people behind me: they weren’t being rude, they just quite clearly wanted to be standing where I was. At one point at our hotel’s breakfast buffet I nearly turned around and said something to the woman behind me in the queue for the Muesli. Unbelievable.

Sometimes, stereotypes tell us just as much about ourselves, as those we are stereotyping.

I also found that an unexpected stereotype of mine was challenged in Berlin: kebabs. During my pre-reading for the trip I was shocked to see that a full page photo in the Lonely Planet City Guide to Berlin was devoted to a picture of a man carving a doner kebab. Like this:

Something about kebabs

In Britain kebabs are what you have at the end of the night, when you’re too drunk to care that you’re eating horsemeat and goodness knows what else. They are not something that the gourmets go for. In Germany, Berlin especially, they are something that you go out and enjoy on a lunchtime when sober. This difference is a phenomenon of the large immigrant Turkish population in Berlin and the rest of Germany, dating back to the 1960s. Turkish immigrants brought their own cuisine with them and doner kebabs became a speciality. I’m not entirely sure why there’s such a qualitative difference in cultural and cuisine terms between the kebabs in Germany and the rest of Europe, but I could speculate that because there’s such a large, distinctive Turkish population in Germany with which kebabs are associated, they came to be an important cultural marker and hence quality was of greater importance. Plus, there are simply more Turkish people eating them and hence driving up expectations. If you go to Green Lanes in north London, where there is a large Turkish community, you’ll also find kebab shops open in the middle of the day and doing a roaring trade.

The photo above is not mine – I stole it from a now defunct blog called “Berlin Study Abroad” which can be found here. I came across it whilst searching for an image of a kebab. The first line of the post that I took the image from reads: “Recently I have found a heavenly food called a Doner Kebab.” If I wrote that in Britain it would be ironic. In Berlin it’s genuine. When I was there, I had the best kebab and falafel that I’ve ever had, world over. Now that’s a stereotype that I didn’t expect to have challenged in Berlin.

ALL IN all, Berlin has a wealth of things to commend it. So is surprising that I wanted to bring a little bit it back with me?

We'd learnt from the Belizean slate: this time, the heavy memento of a place went in the main luggage, not the hand luggage.

We’d learnt from the Belizean slate: this time, the heavy memento of a place went in the main luggage, not the hand luggage. It now sits next to my computer, gathering dust, its inscription in German indecipherable to me beyond the date. But every time I look at it I’m reminded of why it makes me happy to write about the places that I’ve been.

Ausgang