Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eating Thai in Namibia and Other Surprising Food Finds

Ever play the Chinese restaurant game? John taught me that one. It’s a game we have been playing during our summer travels. The first person to spot a Chinese restaurant on arriving in a new town scores a point. The idea being, that no matter where we are in the world it seems every city, town, and village can lay claim to a Chinese restaurant. To win, we just have to be the person to spot it first.

Finding a good Italian restaurant in Lusaka is not that much different than having a Chinese restaurant sign pop up while driving through the rural cow covered Swiss countryside: both are familiar yet strangely out of place. Though chow mien in Switzerland may not be our thing, sometimes eating the local food can also mean being open to cooking styles half way around the world from wherever we happen to be at that moment.

I initially noted Cai Tai in Swakopmund, Namibia, a Thai restaurant, because the sign was written in English and Chinese. I did not score a point for the sighting as the restaurant turned out to be Thai, not Chinese, but our interest was piqued. This coastal, German town with its Bavarian hotels and brauhaus was not the place I expected to find a Thai restaurant. But after weeks of dinners dominated by large slabs of game meat, the idea of a nuanced Southeast Asian lunch was too attractive to pass up.

Cai Tai was not good African Thai cuisine, it was just good Thai. Inspired by the grey coastal weather, I ordered a soup starter to warm up. No generic tom yum here, instead a bowl of glass noodles mixed with pickled vegetables and bits of ground pork were steeped in a spicy aromatic broth. It was the sort of soup I would want my grandmother to make when I’m sick, if my grandmother were Thai. The mutton came highly recommended by the Bangkok born chef/owner. It was thinly sliced and seasoned heavily with whole cumin seeds and chilies, seared in a wok and tossed with green onions and sliced celery.

Finding unexpectedly good food is part of the pleasure of traveling out of my comfort zone. I could rationalize that my standards are lowered when out of the developing world but no, I am very sure that Portico restaurant in Lusaka, Zambia was excellent Italian food, period. The night in question, a large group of us were asked to choose from a set menu which included a couple of African style meat dishes, a few pastas, or any pizza we might want off the standard list. I went basic, pizza with red sauce, cheese and pepperoni. Basic was delicious.

Judging by the many empty plates, most of these belonging to well traveled folks with good taste, the others in the group were not disappointed by Portico’s version of Italian food either. The pizzas came out thin crust and with just the right amount of char around the edges. The ravioli and tagliatelle were homemade and the sauces were authentic. We may have been eating in Africa, but the food was pure Italian.

Even in Singapore I was treated to a surprise, this one a happy stumble upon a newish Spanish tapas bar in the hip neighborhood of Duxton Hill. Singapore is known to excel in the import of cuisines from around the world but Singaporean food expert Seetoh was the first to admit Spanish cuisine is one area where this famous food city has typically not fared as well.

Sabio immediately impressed with its long, room length bar plated in glass with full view of the cold tapas on offer- a good sign of authenticity even if the black and white chic of the walls and tables suggested more style than substance might be found there. Not every dish was a success- the special of skewered chicken and manchego was still raw in the middle upon cutting into a piece- but the rest succeeded to an extent that even if I didn’t exactly think we were in Barcelona, I could have closed my eyes and would have sworn we were at least somewhere in Western Europe, not Southeast Asia.

The gambas al ajillo came plump and juicy with the sort of wine and garlic sauce that begs more bread in order to wipe clean the dish. The chorizo was spicy and rich and the Iberico jamon tasted of the Spanish highlands. It was not perfect, but it was mostly very good. When I knew there would be no shortage of Asian food to eat during our visit, tapas were a breath of fresh, Espagna air.

After two months of playing Chinese Restaurant, I’m not sure who’s ahead. But if we hadn’t been playing that silly game, we might never have found Cai Tai and we might never have known the pleasure of eating authentic Thai cuisine in Africa. It is always good to eat local, but on occasion its not so bad if that locally prepared food comes under the influence of a country half way around the world.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Kabeljou, Oryx, Chicken- The Pride of Namibia

“The fish came fresh of the boats this morning.” “The meat is all from our family farm.” “This bag of chicken will feed our family of fourteen.” Two weeks in Namibia proved to me that in a country with so much potential, one of its biggest assets is the pride of its people.

August in Namibia is the high season, perhaps not the best time of year to be winging a road trip in Africa. John and I had fantasized about our 4-wheel drive rental car with rooftop pop-up tent. We naively thought we could call around dealers on our first day, playing them off each other to find the best deal. Instead we found that tour operators and European independent travelers armed with advance reservations beat us to every 4x4 in Windhoek.

We happened upon what was perhaps the last available rental car in all of Namibia, a gold Corolla. We slapped down a credit card and prayed she would survive the dirt roads of this vast, open country.

The pre-planning tourists followed us everywhere, falling out of tour buses in front of us at service stations, caravans of white pickup trucks pulling into the ticket window of park entrances minutes before we did. We were not to be deterred. What we had going for us that all these supposedly smart planners lacked was the element of spontaneity. And it was just that sense of adventure, of not always knowing what city we would sleep in on a given night, that led to some of our most memorable encounters with the local people, not to mention their food.

Kamanjab is not much more than a blip on a map of Namibia. Two groceries, one petrol station, and one car repair shop pretty much sums up the entire town. Most tourists, don’t stop in this town for much more than lunch at Oase Guesthouse on their way to the bigger attraction, Etosha National Park.

We came the opposite direction, away from Etosha. Not quite sure of our destination we were looking for a place to rest our head for the night. The first sight of the dusty town is not terribly welcoming. The plains had recently given way to picturesque rolling hills but if one was looking for nightlife, curio shops, and maybe a German Bakkerie, this was not the place.

However, on deciding to stay, Oase lived up to its promising name. The guesthouse, a former market and then government headquarters, had a foliage filled courtyard with walls painted a soothing shade of green and a few hammocks perfect for afternoon reading. Owners Eban and Marianne along with their charming manager, oversee the small guesthouse with the warmth of long lost relatives.

We liked it so much we stayed on for a second night. Only later did we find out that they had been booked the second night, but chose to turn away an afternoon reservation so we could stay with them a second day. How quickly we became like family.

Both nights we feasted on oryx, a type of antelope with a deep venison taste. As we raved about oryx T-bone on night one and oryx fillet on night two, Evan proudly explained that all the meat, including the oryx, came from their farm. This was a family operation down to the provenance of the menu items.

Leaving our dusty, desert oasis in Kamanjab, we headed southwest towards a campground in petroglyph filled Twyfelfontein, the first recognized Unesco World Heritage Site in Namibia. In the strangely Greek sounding town of Khorixas, we stopped at this one stop sign dusty desert outpost to stock up on groceries, gas, and give the old Corolla a wash.

The markets in rural Namibia did not have much. We were lucky to find a few local sweet potatoes, onions and garlic. The meat was all frozen. We went for the boneless skinless chicken breasts hoping they would defrost more quickly than the rest.

In line behind me a perky girl of fourteen chirped, “Hello! How are you?” Griselda asked where I came from. I told her New York and she gasped. “That’s very far away.” Yes, I said. We had not seen many people from the States during our trip thus far. Americans were still a bit of a novelty in these remote parts.

I told her she had a very beautiful country, that we were enjoying our holiday very much. “Yes, thank you. It is a beautiful country. We are poor, but proud.” I told her I could tell, that they were proud not poor. She giggled.

We talked about school- she is number two in her class and wants to be a doctor. We talked about her family- fourteen relatives from several different families all live together and she is the oldest child among them.

We were both buying chicken, I noted. John and I had picked up four chicken breasts we planned to eat over two nights, the most expensive selection by the pound in the meat section. She had a 5 lb. bag of chicken pieces on the bone, the cheap stuff, frozen solid in a family pack bag. She said they would cook it up in water and a bit of oil and eat it with corn meal porridge, they hoped to make it stretch for all 14 people.

Meanwhile the cashier protested as she was ringing us up. She ran to the freezer section and came back with a bag identical to the one Griselda held. She was trying to tell us we could buy more chicken for less money than we were spending on our boneless skinless breasts if we bought the frozen family pack. It was too hard to explain that we didn’t need that much food and that we would pay more money if it meant wasting less.

We thanked the cashier anyway. She finished ringing us up and we waved goodbye to Griselda. I hoped that her chicken dinner with porridge would feed that big family. And I prayed that smile and spirit would see her through this tough life and on to her dream of medical school.

In addition to vast desert landscapes, teaming wildlife, and dramatic mountains, Namibia is known for its cryptically named barren northern shores, The Skeleton Coast. With a name that implies death (so given for the many sailors who met their demise after ship wrecking on the bleak, deserted coast), one would not think it to be a habitat teaming with life, fish life.

Hentiesbaai, just south of the entrance to Skeleton Coast National Park, is not high on the tourist agenda unless the tourist in question is a fisherman. I’m not good with a rod nor does John have much interest but Hentiesbaai is where we found ourselves one unplanned evening, looking for a guesthouse to crash for the night.

What we found was a town not particularly friendly to tourists save for the Desert Rendezvous B&B and two restaurants the manager recommended. Fishy’s Corner, with its fishnet décor and quaint green awning, drew us in with a welcoming store front on an otherwise bleak street in an foggy, empty fishing town.

Kabeljou was the fish of choice that night. The large Afrikaner waitress in a purple and neon pink tracksuit informed us that it was just off the boat that morning. John tried to order his fried and mine sautéed. They both cam out fried but we were not disappointed. The white flesh was firm and sweet in the way only a truly fresh fish can be. It had been lightly floured and fried, served with a wedge of lemon and superfluous tartar sauce, the fish being so good on its own it did not need more than this simple presentation.

A place like this does not get many outside visitors. Perhaps we should not have been surprised then when the tracksuit waitress was put off by our questions about the fish. She immediately became defensive of her pronunciation (the Afrikaans accent was heavy), but relaxed a bit when we assured her we just wanted to know more about the fish because we liked it so much. She repeated the spelling and the fact the fish was fresh off the boat this morning. In a city that has little else to pride itself in besides their main industry, an outsider messing with the fish, even if it is a misunderstanding, is probably the ultimate insult.

Black or white, German, Afrikaans, or Damara descent, the people I met along our journey all struck me with a dignity and patriotism that rises above all contrived notions of origin and ownership. As far as I could see, from the badlands of Khorixas where Griselda lugged home frozen chicken to feed an oversized family to the barren seaside town of Hentiesbaai where our white Afrikaner waitress announced the fresh catch of the day, the people of Namibia are proud of their land… and the food that comes from it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

African Pizza

I was stumped. A thirteen-year-old girl was standing in front of me waiting for an answer to what to her was a very simple question. "What is your staple food?" she asked.

I was at Chinyunyu Basic School less than 100 kilometers east of the capital of Zambia. Forty girls milled about me and twenty other visitors, all there on behalf of Room to Read. These girls were recipients of scholarships and life skills training as part of Room to Read’s Girl’s Education Program, their families too poor to pay the small tuition needed to keep them in school were it not for the scholarship.

In hindsight the question was not so strange. We all eat food, no matter where we come from. When surrounded by a group of strangers with limited English in common, food would seem a good place to start to learn about each other.

What is my staple food? I eat oatmeal every morning when home in New York but I’d hardly consider oatmeal a staple food. Other than that no one food would stand out as an essential component of my everyday diet- sushi one day, ramen the next, salad with fish, green beans with chicken- I am a spoiled American who can and does eat anything I want pretty much whenever I want it.

Buying time, I threw the question back. What is your staple food? “Nshima!” Four girls shouted together.

Driving the dirt road to their school this answer was out every window of our bus. Nshima is a cornmeal-based porridge not unlike very bland polenta. It was mid July, harvest time in the region, the subsistence farmers who lived around the school were bringing in their corn supply and storing it in large reed silos next to their round huts made of packed earth and thatched roofs. With the harvest, corn was plentiful which meant nshima was on the table often and bellies were full.

Having had nshima a few times that week and not minding it at all, I still cringed to think this might be their only source of food- nshima by itself hardly made for a balanced diet. I was reassured by Room to Read’s country director that most families supplement nshima with chickens and goats raised on their plots as well as beans. Roadside stalls sold tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and hardy greens, all nutritious additions to the nshima diet.

“But what is your staple food?!” the girls demanded again. I guess pizza and pasta, I said. Americans eat a lot of pizza and pasta.

Blank, puzzled faces looked back at me. Then the girls looked at each other and burst out giggling. They had no idea what pizza or pasta is.

I asked them if they knew what pizza is. The spokesman for the group said no and shook her head. I tried to explain.

I told my young friend that pizza is like bread that is a big circle. Tomatoes are cooked into a sauce and spread over the round bread. Then cheese is cut and placed over the sauce. The whole thing goes on a very hot fire until the cheese melts and the round bread is cooked.

Nods of comprehension assured me that my description was not completely terrible. But the girls looked back at each other and raised their eyebrows, a fit of giggles started again, no doubt wondering why someone would eat round bread with smashed tomatoes and cheese as a staple food.