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.

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