Sunday 20 December 2015

Meri Kurisumasu! Celebrating Christmas in Japan ...

We recently had the delightful Maho stay with us -  a 17yr old from Japan through our daughter's school exchange program - and we thought we'd introduce her to the rituals and routines of an English Christmas.

So picture our surprise to discover that, although barely 1% of Japan's population is Christian, Maho was all clued up on Christmas. Oh yes, she decorated trees, put up fairy lights, ate chicken and loved Christmas cake. Christmas was big in Japan.

Hang on. Ate chicken?

Christmas Dinner, KFC Style
After a bit of research, it appears that the Japanese throw themselves into the festivity as eagerly as any Westerner - but it's the differences that are fascinating.

Shorn of any real religious meaning (apparently, among the younger generations, there's a little confusion as to whose birthday it is - Jesus? Santa?) - Christmas in Japan is undiluted commercialism. 

Mix in a little bit of Valentine's and its becomes the 'how much can you spend on your girlfriend?' festival, and woe betide any man who doesn't spend enough.

Like any good festival, Christmas in Japan also comes with 'special foods', and it appears that, yet again, the American fast food corporations have pulled a fast one. We're all aware how the classic Santa - white beard, red and white clothes, weight issues - is an invention of Coca-cola; well in Japan, it was an opportunity for KFC to get into the Christmas re-appropriation act.

Okay, I kinda see it. The logo is also red and white. Colonel Saunders has a white beard. Chicken is a bit like turkey (a rarity in Japan anyway). KFC definitely saw it, and didn't hesitate to run with it either, with a long series of campaigns telling the Japanese that the rest of world ate KFC on Christmas day - and so should they. Order your Christmas buckets here!

Christmas Cake!
And of course, there's also Christmas cake. More even than KFC, this is the one to cause cultural cross-confusion, especially between travellers to and from the West.

 The US has no tradition of Christmas cake, and are mystified when told that it's an essential part of Christmas by the Japanese.

The English think they understand - but our traditional heavy iced fruit cake is completely alien in the East. A Japanese Christmas cake is a light and fluffy creation of sponge, cream and strawberries.

All I can think of is that the red and white evokes Christmas.

We're sticking with our routines this year - no KFC bucket, no sponge cakes (but probably just as many expensive gifts from Santa-san). But we wish Maho - and everyone else - a Meri Kurisumasu!


Saturday 24 October 2015

Tacos vs Burgers and other Austin Adventures

Mmm. Tacos.
I caught a headline recently that the taco is about to overtake the burgers as America's favourite fast food.

Can this be true?

Austin seemed the perfect place to investigate. After all, Texas is the home of all-American beef - and also shares a 1,241 mile border with Mexico, spiritual home of the taco.

Burgers and tacos sit cheek by jowl in the trendy food areas of Soco, South 1st and South Lamar - and given we had a month ahead of us in our off-Soco house, we thought we'd investigate further (the things we do for you!).

Now, tacos haven't really hit the UK yet. There are nearly 6,000 branches of the ubiquitous Taco Bell in the US, yet just 4 here. You'd be hard pushed to find one at all outside of the trendy Hoxton/Shoreditch triangle. If I were a betting man, I'd say these could be the next big thing.

Mmm. More Tacos.
In Austin, they're already big news, and none bigger than Torchy's - a rags to riches, trailer to mini-chain story that spans just 10 years. As I speak, they should soon be opening their latest store right on Soco. They seemed the perfect place to taste test the taco, and oh boy, if all tacos were like this they deserve to win.

Between us we had a 'Republican' (jalapeno sausage), a shrimp, a fajita and the most awesome green chili queso. It was everything you'd hope for from Mexican food - bright, zingy flavours, just the right amounts of heat, crunch and chewiness. Flavour explosions and all those other food review cliches.

By comparison, we went to the bright star of Soco burgers and marveled at the seven mile queue for Hopdoddy's. There's always a queue, regardless of the hour - even in the 100F heat of Austin's summer.

In the UK we'd call this a gourmet burger, with all the toppings you might expect - feta cheese, smoked cheddar, field mushrooms, brie, truffle aioli, fritos, sprouts - combined with beef, bison, turkey or tuna - to make fourteen(ish) different burgers such as 'Greek', 'Buffalo Bill' and 'El Diablo'.

Indifferent picture of an indifferent burger.
If you've been to Byrons, GBK or one of the other countless up-market UK burger chains, you'd know what to expect - but this concept is still quite new in the US, which I guess explains the popularity.

Well, of course, I had to be awkward and order a 'Classic' (a simple bacon cheese) - and here's the problem. It wasn't very good. If I'd queued for an afternoon in the heat I would have been seriously upset.

Maybe if I'd slathered it in goats cheese and six different varieties of hand-picked lettuce, I might not have noticed. But simplified down - by their standards - it exposed that under it all was simply an indifferent burger. And I don't think that's just me being picky - Serious Eats weren't impressed either. And I'm sorry, I think they purposefully over complicate their ordering system to ensure there's always an epic queue.

So at this stage, the taco's definitely winning - but it's never that simple. Next stop, Wahoo's Fish Tacos, also on Soco. Where it was surprisingly difficult to actually find the eponymous taco on their menu - snuck down at the bottom, and made with the same degree of indifference. It was basic, bland and unimpressive.

Wholly Cow!
Then it was time for the burger to redeem itself. Wholly Cow on South Lamar was quite simply one of the best burgers I've ever had in the US. This part convenience store, part burger joint was doing simple, tasty, meaty burgers. No goats cheese and arugula nonsense here - just good burgers, clean and simple. And no queue round the block either!

So what's my conclusion? There's no doubt that Tacos are on the ascendancy - but there's always going to be room a simple, delicious, classic burger. I also give an honourable mention to Caminos on 6th - the location and the 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives' hype had made me a little nervous, but the burgers were up there in the top five. And also to Guero's on Soco. It's not the best Mexican in Austin, but they do a tacos el pastor that's to die for.

Austin, thank you for a great month! See ya'll again soon.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

I Love Lucy's

Well, we definitely didn't drive to dinner last night - although I never cease to be surprised how draining even a 15 minute walk can be in Austin's summer heat.

If you're an Austinite, you'll probably already know that Lucy's is the fried chicken spin off of local upscale eatery Oliva. If you're a tourist like me, you simply spotted it on the way to buy milk at the local HEB and thought it looked good. Either way, it's definitely worth the walk from central SoCo, no matter how warm the evening.

Lucy's seem to like frying stuff. Livers, gizzards, tomatoes, oysters - even meatloaf - all get popped in the deep fat fryer. This isn't a bad thing. Nor are the deep fried devilled eggs we had for a starter. Sorry, appetizer.

At long last we're getting the hang of eating out in America. Back home, we're used to eating out being the main activity of our evening - yet here, we've found ourselves walking out of even upmarket restaurants less than an hour after we entered them thinking "err, what now?".

[Devilled Eggs - Deep Fried]
If you haven't eaten in the US, the speed at which restaurants operate at can come as a surprise.

The nightmare scenario for a waiter is that there might be a moment in the evening when there is no food on the table.

This must be avoided at all costs, as if their tips get reduced by a dollar for every minute of food free table.

Entrees (main courses) always arrive as the last mouthfuls of starter are swallowed (if not earlier). Desert orders are taken halfway through the mains to ensure they arrive the very second the knife and fork are put down.

[All The Good Stuff]
We've tried explaining to waiters we're in no rush. We've even learned that the term for how us awkward Europeans do things is called 'eating coursed out'. But it doesn't work. Waiters hover saying "do you want your mains now?" every fifteen seconds. Food arrives, goes back, comes out again. You can sense a feeling of rising panic.

So at Lucy's we kept things calm by simply not telling them what we wanted.

[Pink but Powerful]
First we had a watermelon margarita (yum, far too easy to drink in quantity) while we read the menu. Slowly.

Then we ordered the devilled eggs, but wouldn't be drawn on whether we wanted anything else. (The eggs, by the way, are delicious).

For mains - when we did, eventually, order them - we went all-American. A basket of chicken pieces, corn bread, bowls of mac cheese and sweet potato. The waitress suggested putting honey (in little sauce sachets) on the chicken, and there's no doubt I'll be trying that at home.

A great meal, and we will absolutely be back. I need my meatloaf and gizzards.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Our top 5 US eating out experiences

Well, it's nearly time for our annual American adventure, so it seemed like a good time to look back at some of our top USA family food experiences. These aren't restaurant reviews - I'll leave that to the professionals - but our favourite examples of how fun, and downright foreign, food can be in the States. So, in no particular order ...

Kentucky Fried Chicken, somewhere in Massachusetts

[Chicken Livers? Pot pie?]
It was our first trip to America. It was dark and it was late. We were hungry. We were still shaking after the experience that was Boston's rush hour. We needed comfort food, and we spied a family favourite - KFC. A Zinger and chips would make everything good again.

As soon as we walked in, we knew something was wrong. This wasn't the KFC we knew from England. We expected to ask for fries, not chips, but this went deeper. Wedges? Mash? Green beans? "Comes with 2 sides and a biscuit". A biscuit? What in the name of God is going on here? Why are they giving me scones with my chicken?

I don't remember what we ate, but I know we ate in silence and got straight back on the road. Mash? Wedges? SCONES? 

Riscky's Barbeque, Fort Worth Stockyards

Look, I know it's for the tourists, but this place has a warm spot in the hearts of our family. It's the first meal we have each year after arriving in Fort Worth after our long transatlantic flight, and we look forward to this headlong plunge into Americana - stuffed animals nailed to walls, neon lights, witty signs promising to shoot trespassers - full-on BBQ themed chic.

And then there's the food - before the Hoxton American restaurant invasion, I'd never seen a beef rib before, let alone been offered as many as I could eat! And what exotic sides - home style fries, polish pickles and texas toast (I had to Google this - apparently it's double width bread that's too wide to fit in a toaster. Instead it tends to come fried. Go figure).

It's full-on comfort food - combine that with ultra-friendly waiting staff, and a huge Lone star beer, and we definitely feel welcomed to America.

House of Prime Rib, San Francisco

[Just like this in the UK, really]
Now, I've never actually eaten here, but my wife has, and it's definitely an experience. On the web-site it says "Old-school, English-style restaurant serving acclaimed prime rib & martinis since the 1940s" - and it's the English-style that tickles us. Trust me, San Francisco, there's nothing like this in England. 

Waiters in white linen and three foot tall chef hats push around giant domed trolleys containing huge rib roasts. Would you like it 'English-style' or the Henry VIII style? Would you like creamed spinach with that? Or would you like a half hour demonstration on how they convert a lettuce into an 'appetising' tossed salad? But there's yorkshire pudding, so it must be English.

If you come to England, don't go to a Beafeater. After this you'll be seriously disappointed.

(Thanks to John Pastor for the image)

Home Slice, Austin

I've waxed lyrical about this place before, and I will again. It's not just that they're the best pizzas in world (ah, hyperbole), it's the whole package.

Mexican chefs twirling pizza dough above their heads. Dark, cool decor and a hip crowd being served by gorgeous tattooed waiters. 'In Crust we Trust'. And trust me, I'll be eating there in a just a couple weeks.

The Old Country Store, Lorman, MS

Now, I can't claim to be an expert on fried chicken (although I've had fun cooking it), but many claim this place does the best damn fried chicken in the whole of Mississippi. Whether you agree or not, you can't fault it in terms of experience - and that's all down to the owner, Arthur Davies ('Mr D').

Mr D loves his customers (he spoke to every one of us), and he loves his chicken. In fact, he loves it so much, he just can't help but sing about it, in a delightful gospel baritone. Over to you, Mr D!

Sunday 10 May 2015

The Fried Chicken and Cornbread Diet

Probably the biggest problem with my annual foodie tours of the US is my ever expanding waistline - last year's tour of Texas BBQ and New Orleans added another stone (14lbs) to a body that hadn't quite recovered from the previous year's tour of the South.
[Fried chicken, cooling]

I've always been a bit of a half hearted dieter - I love cooking, eating out and being cooked for - so the diet will always start properly tomorrow. However, I might just have found a diet that works for me - and it involves fried chicken!

Well, okay, not directly - let me explain. It's a fasting diet - the '5:2'. For five days I can eat pretty much what I want (which I'm really good at) and for two I have to eat very little indeed.

Now, this might sounds like agony - and it is - but it's more than made up for by the five days of freedom. So how do I get through those two days? Well, I fantasise about food of course! Hardcore fantasise.

Last week, I got a bee in my bonnet that I would break my fast with the best chili ever made. For all of my fast day I researched, and boy there's so many options. Beans or no beans? Minced or chopped beef? Rice or bread? (For me, the answers were beans, mince, bread - sorry Texas!)

[Chicken, frying]
I dusted off encyclopedic tomes on American cookery and I read every single blog, online recipe and forum I could find. It took an entire day to source and cook the ingredients (three different types of dried chili, and I never found the Mexican oregano - on my shopping list for Texas this year).

And I produced the best damn chili I have ever eaten. It was so good, I'd cleaned the bowl before I had remembered to photograph it! If you'd like to replicate it, it was loosely based on this article and recipe from The Guardian.

This week, I wanted fried chicken and cornbread with an almost hallucinatory passion. Again, I devoured every article and opinion I could find. I decided on a shallow fried, skillet pan method. I didn't brine, but went for an 8 hour soak in buttermilk instead. I kept my seasoning simple - just salt, pepper and smoked paprika - but I did stumble across Colonel Saunders secret recipe on my travels.

The Guardian's well researched recipe agreed with my plans - so I followed their instructions and did a test batch for my daughter's dinner, which looked seriously delicious. 

[Seriously good cornbread]
As for cornbread, again the Guardian and I agreed on approach - a simple, toasted cornmeal soaked overnight in buttermilk. But I also wanted to try and replicate something I talked about in a very early post - Lockhart's cornbread. The Telegraph suggested pouring over butter and honey, and I don't need asking twice.

So ... did I produce the best ever fried chicken and cornbread? Well, nearly. When I cooked the full batch of chicken later in the evening, it was harder to control the temperature and I nearly lost the crispy coating on some of the chicken. The cornbread was great - but you know, it would have liked more butter and honey. So one fast day soon, I know I'll be fantasising about how I'm going to make that meal again, even better.

Sunday 12 April 2015

The Great Southwest Canyon Road Trip - Cedar City to the Grand Canyon

[Oh dear, it's April and I still haven't finished my tales of last year's road trip. Apologies if this post is a little rushed, but I can't really tell you about this year's plans until last year is done and dusted. To remind you, a 'clerical error' (I booked the wrong hotel) meant we didn't end up staying in Bryce, as planned, but in Cedar City instead ...]

[Out of the clouds on Hwy 14]
It's telling that I don't have a single photo of Cedar City (the place we never planned to visit). It's a charming enough Mormon town, neat and tidy.

I can recommend the craft beers and pizza at the Centro Pizzeria without hesitation. But it never inspired me to take a picture.

We drove out of town on Hwy 14, along another scenic route that's only open half the year.

As it wound up back onto the plateau, to record breaking altitudes, my passengers were strangely quiet - was it perhaps they're now used to narrow winding roads with sheer drops on one side, and almost zero visibility as we climbed into the clouds? Or perhaps sheer terror had rendered them numb?

The highway takes you through high plateaus and ancient lava flows to join US-89, and then on to Kanab - once known as the most remote town in the USA, until US-89 reached it. Now it's a collection of little cafes and camping shops, and quite charming.

[Navajo Bridges]
From Kanab, there's two routes - US-89 and US-89a, and the windier roads and the promise of the Navajo Bridge made 89a the obvious choice. This is beautiful but desolate country, with the Vermillion cliffs towering over us on the left for miles and miles. Imagine the surface of Mars, but with the occasional glint of metal in the distance from the roofs of the Indian trailers. The poverty of the Indians in these inhospitable places is shocking - but I'll save my thoughts on that for another post.

We got to see another side of the Indians at the Cameron Trading Post, a popular stop just outside the east entrance to the Grand Canyon's South Rim. This place is a slightly tacky emporium for all things Indian - dream catchers, Navajo rugs - but after seeing their living conditions out in the desert, it's hard to begrudge their desire to make a quick buck from the tourists.

How we didn't crash on the approach to the Canyon, I do not know, as it's hard to drive safely while always looking out the right for glimpses of the world's largest hole in the ground. And when the clouds cleared and we had a chance to stop, woah, what a vast hole it is.

The next three days were spent taking photos that failed to capture the awe and majesty of the Canyon - but that didn't stop us, and thousands of selfie-stick waving tourists, from trying.

[A Very Big Hole]
The Grand Canyon South Rim is not a place to escape the masses, but the village has a strange charm.

This is where American mass tourism was born - with the Bright Angel Lodge and El Tovar Hotel complexes catering for the USA's first major tourist attraction in the early 20th century. The newly completed railroad brought thousands of tourists from the east and west coasts to gawp at the Canyon, much like we did.

Catering at the Bright Angel Lodge was enthusiastic, robust and a bit amateur - school dinners with a smile. The waiters were particularly sweet - each was a foreign student, with their name and country of origin on their badge. Alas, poor Svetlana from Sweden had no idea how idea how to open a bottle of wine and Rudy from Romania forgot our order, but you couldn't help but forgive them.

From the Canyon, we drove down to Flagstaff, for a little bit of Route 66. I've travelled the Mother Road before, and was hoping that Flagstaff would be as lovely as I remembered it - and of course it was. There's two historic hotels in the centre - last time I stayed in the Weatherford, and this time we stayed in the Monte Vista. I would recommend either!

After Flagstaff, we wound down the windows, pumped up the American rock classics, and powered down Route 66 towards Seligman. Well, we did for a bit, until I was told to turn off the 'old man music'. Seligman is the home of Route 66 kitsch, and always worth a stop for '66 t-shirts, coasters, bottle openers, badges and all the other paraphernalia you need for your friends back home.

[I can't have one, apparently]
I got a double fix of Route 66 in Kingman, as the town was the host to this year's Route 66 festival (I was lucky enough to catch it in Galena, Kansas, the year before).

This gave me a chance to coo over some shiny American classic cars, before the final haul across the desert back to Las Vegas - including the obligatory stop for a vertigo inducing view of the Hoover Dam.

So that was it, Road Trip 2015 had come to end. I gave back the keys to the trusty Mazda CX-5 - we'd done 1,163 miles together - 2,410 if we include my Texas trip.

Time to start planning 2015 - oh, who am I kidding, it's already booked. I'll tell more later.

Friday 6 March 2015

Krispy Kremes in the Waffle Maker and other Doughnut Musings

[Worth the messy waffle maker!]
Last night I put a Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut in my waffle maker. Why? Because the Internet told me to.

Now, obviously I don't do everything the Internet tells me. That could get messy. But this I would wholeheartedly recommend - the end result is sticky, chewy and quite delicious. Many thanks to OhBiteIt for the tip!

(Oh, and it did get messy - don't use your much loved, American import, can't be cleaned with water Waring Pro for this, whatever you do. The waffle iron fills with sugar that's almost impossible to get out and burns horribly. Many thanks to my lovely wife, Angie, for eventually getting it clean).

[My photo isn't as pretty]
Cambridge has been invaded by US sweet-and-fast food recently - first Cinnabon at Lion's Yard, the Dunkin' Donuts at the Grafton, and now Krispy Kreme at the Grand Arcade.

Personally, I find all of these just too sweet - I'm more of a fan of American savouries - and all push you to buy in ridiculous quantities.

For our waffle experiment, we needed just six doughnuts - but we left with twelve. Why? Because twelve is just 45p more expensive than six. So we now have six in the freezer waiting for me to come up with an easy clean solution to the sticky waffle problem.

However, like bacon and pancakes, that cloying sweetness leads to another very American idea - combining them with something intensely savoury.

I first encountered this at District Donuts Sliders Brew in New Orleans. We had their 'fancy' doughnuts - if memory serves me correctly, I had apple and cinnamon and my wife had salted caramel - but what everyone else seemed to be eating was their 'Croquenuts'.

[Mmm. Doughnuts]
These were griddled doughnuts filled with ham, cheese and bechamel sauce - obviously inspired by the French croque monsieur, but served in a way that could only be dreamt up by Americans. They look delicious - and dangerously messy. All I could see was cheese and sauce dripping out of the ring doughnut's hole ...

I've since discovered that this savoury doughnut wasn't a one off. My friends on Facebook didn't share my enthusiasm for this - the 'The Bacon Mac & Cheese Donut' by Philly based PYT. I thought it looked awesome.

So this was my prediction - Doughtnuts will be the next Cupcake. The next food trend to cross the Atlantic will be the artisan Doughnut, that we'd see Doughnut pop-ups in Hoxton within the year, and I was right - here's Dum Dum Doughtnuts on Bethnal Green Road.

So come on Cambridge, let's join in. Let's not let the Americans take over. Cambridge needs a proper, local-run doughnut shop, selling both sweet and savoury. And will I volunteer to do the taste testing.

Sunday 18 January 2015

Bread & Meat, Cambridge - A Review. And a Very Good Sandwich.

[Mmmm. Meat]
My original title for this post was going to be 'the best sandwich in Cambridge' - but not only would that set off a hyperbole alarm, I worry I'm not qualified to make that judgement.

I haven't tried the delicious looking focaccia at nearby Aromi, or the ciabatta at Urban Shed (currently rated no2. place to eat on Tripadvisor!) or the pizza-oven baked breads of Charlie's on Burleigh Street.

But I will say one thing for sure - this was a seriously, no joking, not messing, hyperbole free really really good sandwich.

Bread & Meat sits in the trendy Peas Hill food quarter, along with independents like Aromi and Smokeworks (and chains like Cau, Jamie's and Zizzis). Sitting there, I was again reminded of the Eriana Taverna (where Smokeworks now resides) - a Cambridge institution with a menu the length of the Old Testament. Now the fashion is towards much smaller, or even single item menus. Flatiron and Burger & Lobster in London leap to mind, or even Steak & Honour closer to home, with its almost zen like simplicity (cheese - or no cheese?).

[People at Tables]
So Bread & Meat is not a classic sandwich bar of old, with tubs of gloopy fillings in a refrigerator cabinet, ready for ladling into your choice of white, brown or baguette. At its most basic, it's simply a choice between pork or beef. Porchetta or topside. There's a veggie option, a daily special, wedges or slaw for sides, but that's it.

Now I love restaurants with short menus, because that should mean they've had to a chance to practice, to get it right, to tinker and tune and get their dish close to perfection. Bread and Meat did not let me down.

I went for the roast pork - in my mind a sandwich well overdue a re-invention. The novelty of the hog roast at the village fete has long passed - soft white bap, flavourless meat, teeth endangering rock hard crackling, salty grey stuffing and ladles of baby-food like apple sauce. Well let me assure you, if that was the nadir of pork baps, Bread & Meat was its apex.

[Bicycle in Cambridge Cliche]
Here we had freshly baked ciabatta that actually tasted of olive oil. Pork that tasted of pig, a lovely mixture of meat and unctuous fat. Light as air crackling, of the sort I wish I could produce reliably at home. And no baby-food sweetness - instead a vinegary salsa verde to cut through the fat.

This was an extremely good sandwich - but is it really the top dog (or pig)?

There's a sense we're having a bit of a local sandwich revolution at the moment - and obviously, as a service to you, dear reader, I feel I should try them all so I can feel truly qualified to judge the very best sandwich in Cambridge. Watch this space!