I’ve been reading a lot of Jeffrey Steingarten over the last few days. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s the food critic of Vogue magazine, famous for having written a widely-read pair of books on gourmet eating, The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must Have Been Something I Ate. Reading Steingarten reminded me of how jolly it is to know about food. As a kid I had a large Reader’s Digest book called How Is It Done? and had endless enjoyment from eating baked beans while reading about how baked beans are made (for my American/Australian/Canadian readers, baked beans (and it has to be Heinz) are Haricot beans stewed in a sweet tomato sauce, and are a staple British food. By “staple British food” I mean they’re French beans, cooked to a Channel Islands recipe, produced by a part-German company based in Pennsylvania). The discreet processes that go on behind our most common food items are an abiding passion of mine, and as I mentioned yesterday, I find robotic action very soothing, so there’s nothing more fascinating to me than watching how they make pasta, for example. If you have six minutes to spare I think you’ll be interested.
It’s astonishing how diverse the foodstuffs of mankind are. in Afghanistan, right now, they’re eating the eyes of a boiled sheep. Somebody in Thailand is eating fried crickets. I am sitting here eating legumes coated in chocolate and sugar. It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world. Here are a few foods I hold in high esteem.
In most bars I’ve been in I’ve ordered a shot of vodka in a glass and nearly always got the same response: a quizzical face like a dog that’s just been shown a card trick. You’re not going to believe this, but some people mix vodka with things. There are a lot of crazies and philistines in this world. To smother vodka in coke is to do a grave disservice to a unique spirit – unlike gin, whiskey, or tequila, vodka is not aged, flavored, or shaped chemically. It can be made out of anything that will ferment. Historically this was sugarbeet, corn, or potatoes, and for a long time vodka was the reserve of the poor. Nowadays the spirit is made of wheat or rye and this results in a cleaner taste. This is why vodka is favored around the world: it mixes with juice or coke easily due to a perceived lack of flavor. This is a bit like saying that there are two flavors of wine: red and white. Methods of production and distillation give unique, barely-perceptible scents and flavors. Take my advice: compare Smirnoff to Grey Goose, and Grey Goose to Stolichnaya and Russian Standard. You’ll find two results; one, you’ll be absurdly drunk and two; Smirnoff tastes like the inside of a tin can. Russian Standard tastes like glass. These are all products of the creative process.
Premium vodka needs to be kept in the freezer to lower its temperature, in order to avoid adding ice: unlike any other spirit, vodka doesn’t improve in flavor from added water. You’ll see an interesting effect from this, too: at low temperatures vodka assumes the syrupy consistency of low-grade motor oil or petroleum.
And, after tasting it, you can’t tell the difference between Smirnoff and Stolichnaya, your tastebuds are just charred stumps. At least you’ll still be drunk, and the hangover will be slight.
Sushi is more than just a food: it’s an art form. It’s edible design. It’s architecture. It’s the nicest food ever.
You all know what sushi is: it’s rice and seaweed, and it was (briefly, thank god) absurdly popular with slick city types who guffawed and brayed about their trips to Switzerland while they carried their punnets of takeaway sushi around. Then the housing market crashed and they’re all as unemployed as I am. Suck it, guys.
Sushi requires quite a level of skill to even attempt (as I can attest: there have been many dispirited piles of damp rice and soggy seaweed in my life) so, while purists will argue that good sushi is hard to find, in practice any sushi place (even Yo!Sushi with its neat little conveyor belts) will at least provide a half-decent meal. Sashimi is another matter entirely, because this involves raw fish, which is a far more difficult feat to pull off. This requires a master who works in a premise close to the sea, ensuring that the fish you eat isn’t any more than a few hours old. Avoid any sushi place that does lunch deals. By lunch-time the morning fish is already old. This is important only to people who don’t want to get botulism and die.
The finest fish for sashimi is the rare and elusive toro from the underbelly of the Bluefin Tuna, a meat more delicate and rare than the finest steak. It is also prohibitively expensive, costing several hundred dollars a pound. I have had it exactly zero times. Bluefin Tuna is graded “Red” on the Greenpeace list. Some sources suggest that Bluefin Tuna stocks have been reduced by 96%, but this isn’t confirmed. Most other sashimi ingredients are similarly expensive and restricted, making good sushi a rare and special treat. Sushi has a specific and unique ceremonial feel to it, much like a chinese tea ceremony, and that makes Sushi even more satisfying: both gastronomically and spiritually.
Six months or so ago I was at the BBC Good Food Show, where the most unique food producers get together to show off their wares. I was with a friend and we arrived early (around 9am), and already there were a variety of flavored vodkas, wines and whiskeys to taste. By 11am we were very drunk and hiding from Alan Titchmarsh, a British television celebrity (pictured) famous for being a creepy bastard.
In between getting endless refills from the whiskey people, stealing wristbands from the Fireball Whiskey stall (sorry guys) and wandering around giggling, I smelled a smell. A delicious, insistent smell. The smell of Veal. Veal burgers. Burgers that could be in my mouth and stomach in moments.
Veal is one of those touchy subjects because…well, fuck me, I have no idea. I think it’s because baby cows are cute or something. Being a monster and generally lacking in compassion, I don’t care if an animal is cute. Did you know that some species of slime moulds are going extinct? Will you see that on a poster? No, you’ll see a baby Harp Seal. Why? Because people are shallow bastards. I am not the monster here. My entire bone of contention with vegetarians, interestingly enough, is not that they’re cutting down on eating meat. I can see no objection to that. It’s because they’re self-righteous, sanctimonious arseholes motivated by a shallow “aww, wook at da widdle animal” mentality.
Anyway, the Veal burger I had was one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Maybe it was the booze, the lack of sleep or the noise, but I was overcome with a surge of emotion. A wave of gratitude. thank you, cows, for being delicious. And thank you, cooking, for developing delicious dishes from unusual beginnings. It seems that a lot of our food comes from the suffering of animals and that’s something we have to take head on. we have to admit to ourselves that our food requires that animals have to suffer and die. It’s a necessary step in our thinking: by coming to terms with it, we’ll then appreciate it more. I enjoyed my Veal burger. Did I feel guilty? No, because I made a conscious effort to enjoy it. And then I went on to eat a live octopus, a plate of Foie Gras, and I ended the day by stamping on the head of an endangered Panda. Because fuck Pandas.
Kopi Luwak is an example of one of those gimmicky foods that sort of works, like freeze-dried Astronaut Food or special-edition chocolate bars. You might not have heard about Kopi Luwak, so I’ll give it its proper name: coffee made from cat shit. That’s not the whole story, but there’s not much more to tell. Wild Civet cats eat the coffee fruit, the beans ferment in its stomach and are used to make a coffee favored in Sumatra. In the coffee industry Civet coffee is generally regarded as a joke or a novelty item, and it certainly seems that fraud is rife: fifty times more civet coffee is sold than is produced. This means that I don’t know if I’ve actually tried Kopi Luwak.
As somebody who adores coffee because it avoids the process of injecting caffeine directly into my eyeballs every morning, I was keen to try it and even more keen to brag about it. Some fell into my sister’s lap (not literally, that would be disgusting) and we tested it. I will say this: it tastes like cat shit. Or rather, what I imagine cat shit to taste like. And yet it was sort of…really nice. A lot of the acidity that goes with coffee had been removed (don’t ask me how) and it had a sort of smoky, velvety taste. As I have said, almost all Kopi Luwak on the market is unverified, so all I can say is that I drank one of the nicest mystery cups of coffee I’ve ever made. But as I said in my introduction, I get a kick from food production methods, so it was very fun to sip on coffee I was fairly sure had come out of a wild cat’s arse.