Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Manti, Nan and Plov

Manti, Nan and Plov are the three principle characters in a deranged saturday morning kid's TV show. Manti, the lead character, is an undefinable creature of vaguely Bonobo origin. His naive sense of childlike wonder often gets the trio into mild scrapes involving magic umbrellas and other such devious plot devices. Manti's foil is Nan, a bossy female penguin who tries to keep the threesome on the straight and narrow but invariably gets drawn into the adventure. Her unrequited love for Manti doesn't go unnoticed by adult viewers, whose bored imagination occasionally leads them to feel slight unease at the prospect of a chimp-penguin union. Plov is a ponderous lump of a bear, who on the surface appears to be a total clunking doofus, but deep down he is the beating moral heart of the show.

This is what happens when I drink too much Vimto. I could go on for pages and pages, but let's face it, I'm not going to get into the Times Online's list of the World's Top 50 Best Food Blogs by rambling on about about chimps. No, in order to achieve that I shall have to adopt a self-effacing tone, punctuated by professional quality photography taken in my Martha Stewart kitchen in North America/Western Europe. Like some sort of commercial webshite, complete with books to sell and sponsored links to click. They'll be haunted by the ghost of Bill Hicks.

Manti, Nan and Plov.
I was warned not to expect too much from the food of Central Asia, particularly in the winter, so went with expectations lowered. In retrospect though, just because food doesn't come in the colours of the Italian flag, or with a whizz and a bang and a sizzle, doesn't mean to say it's any less interesting. Kyrgyz people I met were proud of their food, eager to share it, and in touch with the way it is produced. That is all it takes for me to admire it.

It seems Manti are popular across Central Asia and the Turkic regions (I spotted a variation of them being prepared in Istanbul recently). In Kyrgyzstan they resemble large dumplings, filled with meat, potatoes, the all important lump of fat, and if you're lucky, some bits of pumpkin. These parcels are steamed or boiled and served with more fat - butter - melted on top with a little fringe of dill. At one place I was offered a vinegary chilli-sauce accompaniment quite unlike any other I've tried on my travels, which added a little poke to the bland meatiness.

Accompanying Manti, and many other Kyrgyz dishes, are Nan breads. A cousin of the Naan breads found in India, and popular in Indian restaurants in the UK, nan is a soft disc of flat bread, usually made with white flour. In Kyrgyzstan they sometimes add a little smooth yoghurt to give the bread a little density. I looked forward to nan at mealtimes, usually tearing up a warm loaf roughly the size of a 7" record to dip into whatever juices I found leaking from my Manti.

Sadly my photographs of both manti and nan didn't turn out in the gloom of the Batken evenings. I did manage to capture a plate of Plov though:

Plov is the Turkic cousin of what most people recognise as pilau, or pilaf (I'm happy to be corrected on this though, my sources are a bit mixed). A simple rice dish cooked in a stock. Pretty much every culture has something similar (risotto, paella, nasi goreng - even jollof rice in West Africa) to plov, which is regarded as something of a national dish. Generally made with Kyrgyz long grain rice, with various vegetables and fruits thrown in according to season. The dish in the photograph contained mutton and what was described to me as 'yellow carrot' - a new one on me. According to my translator, the best version of this dish is made in Osh. She is from Osh by the way.

Of course Kyrgyz cuisine stretches further than manti, nan, and plov. How about dried apricots as bright as jewels, or rice pudding with baked pumpkins for breakfast? I'll be lifting my expecations when I return in the summer.

Friday, February 20, 2009


The morning has passed by in a blur of cold meetings and chilly handshakes. The translator's voice a monotonous soundtrack to our huddled gatherings in freezing offices, hands in fingerless gloves wrapped around steaming bowls of sugarless black tea. At least it's easier to stay awake when when every sentence forms clouds of steam.

I'm starving. We're all starving, and we have another meeting in five minutes. This time it's a forester with a weather beaten face and a twinkle in his eye. We invite him to take tea and samsi with us, and his whole face lights up.

With a carrier bag full of hot, dense samsi procured from the roadside we head back to our makeshift headquarters in the hope of finding warmth.

Samsi are essentially a Central Asian cousin of the humble pasty. They are a favourite street snack in Kyrgyzstan and come with a variety of fillings - mutton, beef, cheese. The Samsi here in Batken are less refined than their urban equivalents. Expect tough old mutton and, most famously, a thumb sized nugget of fat in the middle "because the men like it that way".

I keep my scarf on to eat, but the grease leaking from the Samsi necessitates sleeves being rolled up. Hot fat shoots out with every bite, making it's way quickly down my wrist before finally congealing in the cold close to my elbow.

The forester speaks up, the translator translates:

"Do you like our samsi?"

I look at the oily puddle on my plate, and think of the hard ball of greasy mutton fat making it's way to my stomach.

"Yes" I say, and help myself to another.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tales from Kyrgyzstan

The Road to Osh

My back is aching as we drive the seven uncomfortable hours from Batken to Osh. The rust bucket flight out of Batken has been cancelled due to the dirty fog lurking too low across the runway. Now the only way back to Bishkek is to set off on a seven hour race skirting the southern side of the Ferghana valley and hope that flying conditions at Osh are favourable to the launching of aging riveted tubes of metal into the clouds.

Maybe it's a beautiful drive through the mountains. One day I may find out. This February Tuesday it seems bleak and unforgiving, walls of snow covered rock briefly intruding out of the steel grey fog. Tough looking men on horseback appear and disappear like shadows.

"Who is this?" my colleague asks, indicating the earphones she is sharing with me.

"Salif Keita. He's from Mali".

"It's great".

I nod and smile my agreement. My baladeur skips to a song called 'Madan', and our heads bob loosely to the beat as the car makes its descent down another broken mountain pass.

"It's a bit incongruous" she says quizzically, indicating the grey miasma of fog outside the car window.

"That's what I hoped".


5 Gerzen str, Bishkek
Tel: 29 33 01 / 68 02 70

There is no need to spend time and money on murder mystery weekends, or going abseiling. The secret to good professional team building is simple: a large plate of sausages and copious amounts of beer.

Bishkek's Steinbrau brasserie welcomes us with a bright and warming atmosphere. Coats off and hands rubbed we take in the Bavarian beer hall styling and the magnificent copper kettle brewery that forms the centrepiece of the barroom. Apparently a couple German fellas decided to set up shop here years ago, and revolutionised beer in Bishkek. It's certainly the place to be judging by the weekday crowds tucking into mugs a Steinbrau and huge plates of meat.

Several German style beers are brewed on the premises, and I opt for a light Helles style beer that reminds me a little of Lowenbrau. To be honest, I'm pretty ignorant of beers outside of the British Isles, so I'll be glad to return to Steinbrau in the summer time. I imagine a couple of afternoons spent sampling the beers in the garden outside will be educational.

They also make their own wurst, or 'firm German sausages' as they are described on the menu. Everyone loves a firm German sausage, and each of our team selects a different wurst,before haggling over who gets to swap with who. I try simple pork wurst, and do a swap for one of my neighbour's kabanosy. Both are classic sausages, tight in their skins and bursting with flavoursome fat, served up with sauerkraut, smooth mashed potato, and punchy, grown up mustard.

If sausages aren't enough, give the kitchen a couple of days notice and they will prepare you a whole suckling pig (or 'sucking pig' according to the menu).

A whole suckling pig! You know I'll be back.


The Cowboy Club

N says the Cowboy Club is the place to go after a good sausage feast. He says he doesn't like the modern style places in Bishkek as they are too clinical and pretentious. I suspect he has other motivations too, when we arrive to find that female guests outnumber males at least 8 to 1.

"What's with all the girls?" I ask N.

"I think they come to meet rich guys. The sons of politicians, wealthy Russians, that kind of thing".

They did seem to be enjoying themselves though, dancing and giggling enthusiastically in little groups. It all seemed quite innocent, more like wannabe WAGs on a night out than the pouting, jaded bar-girl culture I'm more accustomed to in the tropics.

It takes a few more Russian beers before I can be coaxed onto the dancefloor. The sexagenarian bleached-blonde DJ is spinning a mix of eighties western pop, new to the young ears of Bishkek, and bad Euro dance. She cues up "La Bamba". I'm not a sailor, or a captain, but at least this has some sort of groove I can shake self consciously to.

And then a pause, a stilted electronic stutter, and a familiar wave of five female voices:

"O lakka lamma le......."

My colleague points at the ceiling and mouths the words "Salif Keita?" with a grin. I nod, and loosen my limbs into the disco-remixed groove.

The dancing girls look confused. It's a bit incongruous.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


Back in Dakar, the tree in our backyard is bulging with oranges. Not the sort of oranges you'd want to eat, all pithy and thich, but the sort of oranges you might make into orange juice, if you could be bothered. Say you had Friday afternoon off work. And a four metre wooden curtain rail just lying around.

The technique is simple; stand on the roof of the flat and thwack away at the oranges with the wooden pole. Half an hour and 100 or so oranges later and you have this:

They're a bit grubby perhaps, but will do for juice. A few are even good enough for marmalade.

Much squeezing later, et voila: My first glass of juice made from Point E oranges.

Very satisfying. I can't wait for mango season.

There might be a brief hiatus in posting as I'm off on a short job to an unusual place where I'm not quite sure there will be much in the way of internet access. Will do my best to get one or two posts out. More to come from Dakar, plus three (!) new countries.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Chinese Chain Reaction

That last post started a chain reaction in my head, leading to this post, which I hope celebrates some great Chinese food. It also clears up the last of my notes from Hong Kong.

(Yes, I keep notes)

Yi Jiang Nan, 33-35 Staunton Street, Central, Hong Kong.
The first and only time I've had the pleasure of drinking cold beer out of a chilled bowl was at Yi Jiang Nan. It didn't make me drink any slower mind you, such a receptacle has not yet been invented. Despite this, I also managed to find room to try a few delicious brews from the extensive tea menu.

The punters here were a mix of foreigners and small groups of Hong Kong Chinese, while the decor stretched to pleasant 'scenes of rural China', with no over the top jade monstrosities. All was calm, but I'm not sure if the atmosphere was spoiled or improved by the Irish "traveller" on the adjacent table loudly trying to impress a group of American "travellers" with his 15 words of Mandarin. I didn't realise quite how many ways there are to wordlessly communicate the words "this bloke is a tosser" without resorting to the internationally recognised hand signal.

For an upmarket Szechuan place, it's not a million miles away from what gets served up in the better places in UK, albeit less sweet, with more heat, and more of an emphasis on the danglier bits of the animal. The food here is surprisingly light, and a large bowl of minced chicken wrapped in lettuce disappears quickly. The real speciality though is the crispy roast mutton with garlic sauce,.As masculine as a plate of food can possibly be, this revels in the oft-ignored robustness of mutton and pairs it with dedicated finger sucking garlickery. That is how to distract me from my beer.

Yi jiang Nan made me want to explore more Szechuan cooking, not so easy in a world of "internationalised" Chinese restaurants. Recommendations welcome.

Dims Sums at Eighteen Brook Cantonese Cuisine, 8/F, Convention Plaza , 1 Harbour Road , Wan Chai , Hong Kong
Certain people may tell you that the best dim sum are served in grotty little street cafes with dead animals hanging in the window and the smell of drains outside. Only by sitting among the ordinary folk with their bad haircuts and cheap plimsoles will you get the real authentic dim sum deal, in between slurps of tepid green tea and bouts of diarrheal anxiety.

All a load of complete lopsided bollocks of course. Street markets and backstreet cafes have their place, but where dim sum are concerned, I prefer air-conditioning and glass fish tanks over greasy windows and the scent of sweaty arses anyday.

Eighteen Brook Cantonese Cuisine in Wan Chai fits the bill alright. On the 43568th floor of some sort of swanky office building/ghastly exhibition centre, you'll find glacial A/C, Bond-villain style fish tankery and robot-ninja waitering staff. Orders are taken via some sort of bingo card system and smoothly delivered to the kitchen. The atmosphere is that of zen-like calm and precision despite the 100+ diners, which can only mean that the kitchen is like some sort of shouty, sweltering temple of doom.

Green tea comes piping hot and poured to electron microscope precision by the robot waiters. Dim sums come as delicate as dandelions, none too sticky or too greasy. Roast pork puffs are as light as clouds with a core of hot, sweet, unctuous pork. Fresh shrimp dumplings practically leap across the table to do battle with baby scallops rolled in rice sheets. Even pan-fried turnip cake is better than it sounds.

Ho's Bakery, 44 Faulkner Street, Manchester
The taste of those roast pork puffs takes me back to one of my favourite lunchtime stops in Manchester - Ho's Bakery on Faulkner Street. Ho's has a little upstairs restaurant that does a cheap and filling lunch. But the real magic is in the downstairs bakery, which churns out the best sweet and savoury pastries in Manchester.

The roast pork crisp pastries are the the most fun you can have for less than a quid. It gives me a warm glow to reminisce about how lucky I was to be able to shop in Chinatown (try the Wing Fat supermarket) once a week, and pick up something small from Ho's bakery on the way home.

The best time to go is just before seven o'clock on a winter morning, before the city has really woken up. Bleak skies, damp streets and the occasional rattle of a tram leave you feeling as though you've stepped into an Anton Corbijn photoshoot. Dodging the delivery vans and streetsweepers you can duck into the bright, scented warmth of Ho's bakery and treat yourself to a soft, golden honey bun fresh from the oven.

Monday, February 02, 2009

'Ta-daaaah' in a sort of Sino-Dutch way

I don't know, you write a couple of blog-posts about eating out Netherlands style and the next thing you know you're invited to a Dutch dinner in Dakar. Based on a sample size of two, I can now infer that Dutch men know how to cook. My friend's potato and garlic soup was that perfect combination of velvet-smooth soup with al dente nuggets of garlic. Lekker.

New Peking / Niuw Peking, Ede.

I thought I'd managed to block out the memory of eating at the New Peking restaurant in Ede, but I'm going to have to get it out of my system here on jifflings instead. Being a somewhat conservative town, Ede shuts down at about 8pm and everyone goes home for a spot of self flagellation, or to watch the telly. whatever. Anyhow, the New Peking looked inviting; we could order a set-banquet from the Dutch-language-only menu and be assured of eating something recognisable, and it was a 25 minute walk through the snow to the next restaurant. We had cold feet. It was a no brainer.

It started reasonably well. The chicken soup came with crystal clear broth and shredded pieces of proper poultry. Spring rolls and other deep-fried things were springy, and you know, deep fried. Nothing worth getting the trumpets out for, but solid, neighbourhood chinese restaurant cooking all the same. Our feet had started to thaw by this point as well. Things were looking good.

Rather too soon after clearing away the detritus of our starters, the owner arrived pushing a trolley and proudly presented us with a platter of main course dishes. when I say proudly, I mean she made a noise as if to say 'Ta-daaaah' in a sort of Sino-Dutch way. Raising an eyebrow each, we peered at our wagonwheel sized tray of mixed dishes and made that peculiar gurning noise that British people do in restaurants when they are trying to convey enthusiasm and satisfaction, when really they are thinking "What the fooking hell is that supposed to be?".

Some chicken, in sweet and sour sauce. Some vegetables, also in sweet and sour sauce. Onions and some shredded bits of cow ringpiece (in blackbean sauce, phew). Deep fried balls of... stuff, bobbing miserably in a polluted lake of sweet and sour sauce with half a tin of watery cocktail fruits emptied nonchalantly over the top, and finally a herb omelette in, er, sweet and sour sauce.

We actually ate some of it. To be honest, I couldn't wait to try the omelette. I knew already that it would be a total disgrace, but I thought it would make Mrs Jiffler laugh. The sweet and sour sauce wasn't even a passable attempt (and since it seemed to be the house speciality, one might expect something half decent), but appeared to be made from equal portions of tinned tomato soup and white vinegar. Seriously.

At least we could laugh about it, and pick at a few bits of meat and rice. We didn't bother with dessert though. The cold weather outside seemed more appealing.