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Big In Japan – A Day at the Sumo

The recent news that Yokozuna Hakuho, the record-breaking sumo wrestler, is finally planning to retire after a stellar career, prompted us to look back on a splendid day at the sumo in Tokyo, back in 2007 when Hakuho had just been promoted to the highest rank in the sport. Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan and is steeped in tradition. Indeed the origins of sumo are thousands of years old and it is thought to have originated in the Yayoi period in Japan (300 BCE-300 CE).

The rules are very simple: Two rikishi (wrestlers) face each other in a ring known as a dohyo, which is 4.55m in diameter. When mutual consent is given to begin, signified by each wrestler touching his fists to the floor, the bout commences. A rikishi loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet. The wrestlers wear just a mawashi (belt), which can be grasped and used to push, throw or lift their opponent out of the ring or onto the floor. Some rikishi don’t use the mawashi and tend to have a push and thrust approach to taking on their opponent.

There are very few techniques that are banned, but fist punches, poking the opponent in a vulnerable area or pulling the opponent’s top knot, which is part of the chonmage (the hairstyle), are all considered to be unacceptable and any rikishi that uses these moves will automatically lose the match. A gyoji (referee), wearing robes based on medieval imperial court attire, oversees proceedings, encouraging the rikishi to spar and deciding which has won the bout. Sometimes the outcome is extremely close so additional judges sit around each edge of the dohyo in order to assess which wrestler first exited the ring or touched the floor.

The first characteristic that most people notice about sumo wrestlers is their weight, which can be substantial. Sumo wrestlers put on weight because it is more difficult to force a heavy opponent from the ring. But they are extremely fit, flexible and agile. There are no weight categories in the sport so a 100kg wrestler could easily face an opponent twice his weight. This is also what makes sumo so exciting – weight isn’t necessarily an advantage as the smaller rikishi may be more nimble and can employ moves that outsmart their opponents.

The bout itself is often, but not always, short in duration, although there is no time limit. It is always preceded by a series of rituals that have origins both in Japan’s Shinto religion and ancient warfare. The rikishi throw salt into the ring to purify it. Other practices include wrestlers raising a leg and stamping on the ground to scare away enemies and also clapping their hands. Once ready, they take their mark and squat in a position known as shikari, facing their opponent, ready to thrust forward when the bout begins. It’s often an explosive start as two large men crash into each other and it’s hugely exciting.

Grand Sumo Basho, or tournaments, are held six times every year. Three are held in Toyko at the  Ryogoku Kokugikan (January, May, September) and then there is one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). (These schedules have changed a bit during the last couple of years due to Covid.) Each tournament lasts 15 days. The most popular days to attend are weekends and the final days of the basho as the excitement mounts to see who will win the Emperor’s cup. We were honoured to be invited to the sumo by a family friend. It made for the most splendid entertainment. The tournament schedule and ticketing information can be found at the Japan Sumo Association website.

The Ryogoku Kokugikan dohyo in Tokyo is located just a two minute walk from the JR Sobu Line Ryogoku Station West Exit (useful if you have a JR pass), or five minutes walk from the Toei Ryogoku Station A3 exit on the Toei Subway Oedo Line. The Ryogoku Kokugikan is easy to find and outside you will see the brightly coloured flags bearing the rikishi names lining the route to the entrance.

There are various tiers of ticket available and the most popular seats do sell out quickly. Ringside tamari seats are the most expensive. They are the closest you can get to the action and sometimes audience members can be a little too close if an energetic bout results in a wrestler falling on top of them!

Box seats are designed for either four or six people and you have to buy all the seats within the box. This suits a group of people viewing together. They have a tatami mat base and cushions. The boxes closest to the dohyo are more expensive and they become progressively cheaper the further back they are located. The box seats are very popular.

Arena seats are located on the upper floor in a standard tiered seating arrangement, further away from the action but they offer a good view at a much cheaper price. For the die-hard fan who cannot pre-order tickets, jiyu seki, (free-seating tickets), located right at the top of the building just below the rafters, can be purchased each day at the Kokugikan from 8am. These will go quickly though and if you want some, you may well need to start queuing very early in the morning.

The tickets are valid for the entire day and bouts start from around 8:30am. Sumo is divided into a number of divisions and the lowest ranked wrestlers will spar earliest in the morning. As the day progresses and the higher ranked rikishi start making an appearance the stadium will slowly fill up. By the time the Makunouchi (the highest division) commences the Kokugikan will be full and the atmosphere incredibly lively as the audience members support their favourite rikishi. You can buy banners, t-shirts and other souvenirs at the concession stands.

On arrival at the Kokugikan main entrance, if you have tickets, you will be guided to your seat. It is possible to pre-arrange a bento and drinks. (Alcohol is allowed.) The stadium even has its own kitchen in the basement. There, they make yakitori chicken, which is often eaten as part of the bento meal. There is a reason that chicken is on the menu – it is a bird that stands on two feet, something that the rikishi most definitely want to emulate. It’s also absolutely fine to bring your own food and drink if you wish.

Then it’s a case of sitting back and watching the action, whilst enjoying delicious food, a cup of green tea and, later on, a few beers as well.

You will often see the banners from sponsors of a particular rikishi parade around the dohyo before the bout. These organisations put up prize money for their sponsored wrestler. If he wins, he receives cash in an envelope offered by the gyoji but if he loses, his opponent wins the prize. The higher ranked and more popular the wrestler the greater the number of envelopes. If a lower ranked rikishi beats an ozeki (second highest rank) or Yokozuna, he wins a magnificent wadge of cash.

One of the wonderful things about the sumo is that you can wander around the arena between bouts and will often see rikishi in their yukata (light cotton kimono). More often than not, they are happy to pose for photos.

When it’s time for the Makunouchi bouts, the top tier rikishi will enter the dohyo wearing their keshō-mawashi, which are beautifully decorated ceremonial silk aprons, and form a circle. They perform a number of symbolic movements together before they leave and prepare for their bouts.

The Yokozuna, accompanied by two top division wrestler ‘assistants’ then enters the dohyo, wearing a tsuna (ceremonial rope, the word Yokozuna literally means ‘horizontal rope’) around his waist, to perform the ring entering ceremony. There are two types and the Yokozuna will choose which one he will perform soon after his promotion.

The highest ranked wrestlers fight the final bouts and the crowd become increasingly excited. When the very last bout has been fought, there is a closing bow-swirling ceremony – another ritual steeped with symbolic meaning.

And what better way to round off a wonderful day’s entertainment than going out for dinner at a local restaurant? Of course the only meal we could have was chanko nabe – sumo stew. This is the meal that sumo wrestlers eat at their stables in large quantities after their training sessions. (They go to sleep after eating chanko nabe and this helps them gain weight.) It’s filling and nutritious and, importantly, delicious. It’s a great sharing dish – a hot pot that sits in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves. It comprises meat and vegetables, sometimes with seafood and tofu, that simmers in a dashi broth (a recipe for dashi can be found here). Sometimes sake or mirin is added to the broth to add flavour. There is no specific recipe which means that loads of scrumptious variations are possible. Unsurprisingly, there are a cluster of chanko nabe restaurants in the Ryogoku area.

If you are visiting Tokyo at a time when there is no basho running, it is possible to watch sumo wrestlers training in their stables. There is no cost to this but you’ll have to get up early as they usually train between 7:30 and 10am. The Arashio beya stable has an English language guide to watching the morning practice: Watching Keiko: Morning Sumo Practice. You generally don’t get to enter the stable itself but can watch through a large window.

And if you can’t get to Japan at all it is possible to watch sumo basho on TV. Japan’s national broadcaster NHK World present the highlights from each day over the entire fortnight.  The first and final day’s events are also shown live.

If you are likely to be in Tokyo at the time of a basho we highly recommend trying to obtain tickets for the sumo. It really is the most lovely way to spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon watching this unique and fascinating sport.

RECIPE: Thai Green Curry

Thailand’s famous curries are amongst our all-time favourites. Kaeng khiao wan is a sweet green curry, kaeng phet is a hot red curry. It’s generally the chillies that determine the colour of the curry, although the milder yellow curry, kaeng kari, uses turmeric. Other popular curries include Massaman (which has Indian and Malay influences in its spicing), Panang (another Malay influence with peanuts as a key ingredient) and sour curry, kaeng som, (which has a more soupy consistency with lime and turmeric being important flavourings). Another, less well known, dish that uses both coconut milk and coconut cream is tom kah gai – chicken and galangal in a coconut milk soup.

Thai green curry is probably the dish we cook and eat most often at home. It’s easy to make and utterly delicious. Its translation means ‘curry green sweet’ – the green chillies comprise a significant part of the paste, which forms the base of the flavour, but this curry is slightly sweeter than other types of Thai curry. Some recipes call for a small amount of sugar to be added, others rely on the natural sweetness of the coconut milk. The flavour components revolve around green chillies, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime zest and coriander all blended together to form a thick, fragrant paste.

The curries are also remarkably easy to make. One thing that’s worth noting is that it is not at all shameful if you don’t make your curry paste. Even though you can get the ingredients and a blender and produce a paste that suits your particular taste, you will often see huge mounds of curry paste in Thai markets ready made for the locals to buy and use. This was an enormous pile of red paste in a market on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Many supermarkets stock good quality paste these days (as opposed to weaker versions aimed at western markets).

We’ve been using Mae Ploy for years as you can get it in industrial sized tubs which will give you several portions and it lasts for ages (store it in the fridge once opened). Although, to be fair, it doesn’t usually last very long in our household.

There are approximately three million recipes for Thai curry on the internet. Here’s ours:

INGREDIENTS

500g chicken thighs, chopped into pieces (thigh meat is definitely recommended over breast meat as it has so much more flavour). Beef and pork also work well with this curry.

Handful of julienned vegetables – e.g. bell peppers, chillies, bamboo shoots, baby aubergine (vegetarians can use these in greater quantities instead of the meat).

A good dollop of green curry paste to suit your preferred level of spicy heat.

1 can of coconut milk.

Splash of fish sauce (probably around a tablespoon).

Bunch of Thai basil (Thai basil is very different to Mediterranean basil), chopped.

A lime.

METHOD

Put a small amount of oil into a pan and add the curry paste. It’s really up to you how much paste to add – if you like more spice, then add more, if you prefer a milder curry, add less. Fry it off to a couple of minutes then add the coconut milk.

Add the raw chicken and bring to the boil.

Then turn the heat down and let the chicken simmer for around 15 minutes.

Add the vegetables and allow them to cook. Add the fish sauce and Thai basil. Allow to simmer for a few more minutes.

We often add a spritz of lime juice at the end (always at the end) to add some zing.

Serve with jasmine rice.

Scoff. Serves four.

Variations: One of the marvellous things about Thai cuisine is that it has a wonderful combination of sweet, sour, salt and hot flavours. Some Thai green curry recipes incorporate a couple of tablespoons of palm sugar (brown sugar can be substituted if palm sugar isn’t available) to the sauce. If you have a sweet tooth you can add it in as an option, although we don’t as we tend to prefer the sour flavours that the lime offers. This recipe is very flexible in terms of you being able to tailor it to your own palette: the coconut milk gives you sweetness (but you can add sugar if you want more), the curry paste gives heat, the fish sauce provides salt and the lime gives the sour flavours – perfect seasoning.

Noodle Nirvana at the Yokohama Raumen (Ramen) Museum

Here at Very Tasty World we have a passion for pasta and, as our regular ramen reviews emphasise, there is a joy in the variety of internationally available variants of noodle niceness that you can enjoy at home with just a kettle, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. Of course, ramen restaurants are also available, if you are lucky enough to be able to reach one, so you don’t even have to trouble yourself to turn on the kettle.

But what if you want more?: To learn more and to taste more? What if you want to understand the history of ramen, instant or traditional, and to try various examples with different flavours from around the country for which ramen is best known? There is only one place to go, a foodie theme park where you can learn the history and, importantly, taste many different types of ramen in all their broth infused glory. The Shinyokohama Raumen Museum (The English site is here  please be clear of the spelling with the additional ‘u’, which is correct in Japanese, otherwise you might have search engine issues) is that place, a multi-storey building dedicated to everything that is ramen. We naturally felt obliged to travel there and research our culinary favourites. We were not alone in this desire to get to know ramen because Brittany Murphy’s character Abby does exactly the same thing when she visits in the film The Ramen Girl.

The museum is located in Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, which is easily accessible from Tokyo. If you have a Japan Rail Pass you can use the shinkansen (bullet train) to arrive at Shin Yokohama, which is the closest station, but there are plenty of other train services available too. The ground floor is the museum’s main area of knowledge, displaying a range of information about the history of ramen from traditional to instant. The displays include chronological timelines and also show the progression of instant noodle technology. So you can observe the pots, the packets and even a noodle unravelling.  

But the proof of the pasta is in the eating. So you need to head downstairs in order to fulfil your craving. Pro tip – if you are planning to visit, make sure you do so on an empty stomach – don’t have too much for breakfast in the morning..

The eating area, Sunset Shopping Street, is a recreation of a town in 1958, the year that instant ramen was invented. The whole environment has a sundowner setting with cloudy dark blue sky and street lighting which all adds to the ambience.

There are a number of restaurants where you can sample regional ramen, from miso ramen to salty soy sauce and rich, creamy tonkotsu where the broth is made by boiling pork bones for hours. The only problem is deciding which shop (or shops) to choose from, even though you know its ramen you want, the choices are far more complex than the expected ‘what flavour broth or meat/fish/vegetable combo,’ but the bigger ‘what region?’ question because each venue represents a different region of Japan’s quintessential local concoctions. Regional variations are prevalent in lots of Japanese foods such as udon (thick noodles) and okonomiyaki, so each ramen shop offering different options and all declaring their own as the very best, presents something of a conundrum to the casual noodle-slurper. We did see a number of visitors share a bowl of ramen before moving onto the next shop in order to taste as many different variations as possible. However, since our visit, the museum is clear that all adult visitors to each shop should purchase a bowl of ramen. This seems absolutely reasonable as it’s not fair to the restaurant owner to have table space taken up with multiple visitors sitting around a single bowl of noodles. Still, it’s a very pleasant choice to have to make. And these days you can order different sized portions, so if your appetite is big enough you may be able to sample many different types of smaller bowls. The street also has a traditional sweet shop, just in case you are still hungry!

The northern island of Hokkaido is famous for its miso ramen

Oh, and there’s even a classic kaiju (monster) poster on one of the fake hoardings – what more could you want?

This really is an essential tourist trip for ravenous lovers of ramen. Great fun for foodies in terms of understanding history of the world’s most popular instant food and also getting to eat yummy ramen.

Breakfast of Champions – Breakfasts Around the World

….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling

Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?”

It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting. 

Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.

It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.

It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.

In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.

Gallo pinto is a typical breakfast in Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.

A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.

In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.

In Japan, breakfast often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.

These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)

And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.

We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.

RECIPE: Moo Larb

Moo Larb is the perfect dish for a hot summer’s day. It’s incredibly easy to make and really refreshing. It’s kind of a meat salad which hails from South East Asia; we first tried it in Lao but have also eaten it in Thailand, and quickly became hooked. Even better, all the ingredients are really easy to find in our home country. There’s a tiny bit of preparation needed prior to assembling the dish, so worth thinking about making it ahead of time. The following recipe will easily feed four as a starter or two hungry people.

INGREDIENTS

300g pork mince. Chicken mince also works really well and quorn mince provides a nice vegetarian alternative. Lamb isn’t recommended as it’s quite fatty and the fat tends to congeal a little which doesn’t provide a very nice texture.

1 large red onion (or 2 small)

Generous handful of fresh mint

Generous handful of fresh coriander

Freshly milled black pepper

2 limes

Generous splash of fish sauce (vegetarians can use veggie fish sauce or a combination of soy sauce and vinegar) – around half a tablespoon

Optional: chilli flakes, toasted rice, teaspoon of sugar, Thai basil leaves for garnish

METHOD

You need to allow enough time for the mince to cook and cool before assembling the dish. Its’ the perfect ‘make in advance’ dish.

Cook the mince. Pour a little oil into a pan and fry until the meat is cooked through. Allow it to cool.

Finely chop the onion, coriander and mint.

Add the fish sauce, lime juice and black pepper to taste. We really like coarsely ground black pepper so grind ours in a pestle and mortar. This is really where you can adapt the flavour to your personal taste.

Mix well. Serve with steamed rice and a salad garnish.

Vegetarian version using quorn mince

VARIATIONS

There are some variations. If you like heat, add chilli flakes (flakes are better than fresh chilli). This was one of the dishes we had in Lao that wasn’t searingly hot, the spice coming from the pepper rather than chilli, but it’s fine to add more heat if you like it. If you’d like to add some sweetness, sprinkle in a little sugar and mix in. There is also a variation where you can add roasted ground rice powder for an additional nutty complexity to the flavour and texture. It’s very simple: place a handful of uncooked Thai rice in a dry frying pan and roast the rice for 10 minutes or so, until the rice is brown. Then transfer to a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder and grind to a powder.

(You can actually toast more rice to make a greater quantity of this powder; it will keep for a couple of months in an airtight container.)

Messing About on the River: A House Boat in Kerala’s Backwaters

Kerala, the state in South-west India, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country and it’s easy to understand why. Blessed with gorgeous landscapes, beaches and hill stations, it also has a rich cultural heritage and an amazing food scene, and it is easy to understand why the locals have named it ‘God’s Own Country’.

The backwaters of Kerala are a network of channels, rivers and lagoons that are located just inland from and running parallel to the Arabian Sea. Some of the lakes are connected naturally by rivers or by canals that have been constructed for that purpose. The water is brackish – freshwater meets the salty brine of the sea – and this gives the backwaters a very particular ecosystem.

One of the most pleasurable ways to explore the area is on a houseboat, known locally as a kettuvallam. These enormous boats, some of which can be multi-storey, were originally used to transport rice and spices to the port of Cochin, the regional capital.

The boats have wooden hulls and a thatched roof. ‘Kettu’ means ‘tied’ and ‘vallam’ is a boat. These boats are constructed from long planks of wood tied with knots of coir and then coated in a resin derived from cashew nut kernels. No nails are used at any stage. Although they were originally designed to be cargo ships they have been adapted for tourism and converted to proper houseboats complete with a living area, kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms. The boats are available for hire for tourists to reside on, or they can be hired for a few hours at a time. It’s worth noting that boat hire isn’t cheap, especially compared with other prices in the region, but if you can afford it, it is definitely an experience worth undertaking.

Many houseboats are booked months in advance during the busy season and will follow a tour through the backwaters. If you aren’t visiting in the high season you might get lucky and find a boat that’s available to hire. We had been travelling down from Thekkady, arriving at Kumarakom at around 1pm. We managed to find a houseboat that was willing to take us on a four hour boat trip on the local lake and this price included lunch. The prices are for the hire of the boat and crew (normally a couple of people) so if you have a larger party the cost per person naturally reduces. You may find that if the boat is still available and hasn’t already found customers, it may be possible to negotiate a price.

The thing that is most striking about the houseboats is how spacious they are.

The living/dining area at the front has room for a dining table and plenty of seating space

The boat is steered from the front.

Then there is a long corridor from which there are large double bedrooms. Each bedroom has its own en-suite bathroom.

As with all areas in South India where food is served, there is a hand-washing area in the corridor.

Finally, the kitchen is located at the rear of the boat. Again, it is very spacious and has plenty of cooking facilities and storage space. Gas is provided by portable cannisters.

Lunch was already in the process of being prepared…

The journey took us from the boat’s mooring along the river and onto the wide Vembanad lake. The boats are motor driven but move at a slow pace which makes for a leisurely experience. It very much reflects the way of life in Kerala.

All along the shoreline it is possible to see fishing contraptions. They are formally known as shore operated lift nets, which doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as they look. These are used at night to catch prawns and other small fish. They are designed on a cantilever which ensures that the net descends into the sea when someone walks along the main beam. The catch is then raised by the use of ropes. Some have lights which are used to attract the fish.

Lunch was typically Keralan – a spicy fish curry with fish fry accompanied by vegetable side dishes and rice. We were asked how spicy we liked our food and we asked for it to be spiced as local people liked it. Like many dishes in Kerala we found that the spices were used for flavour rather than heat.  And, of course, it was utterly delicious.

Munnar tea and a banana fritter were served for dessert.

We were visiting at the end of the Monsoon season so some rain was probably inevitable. But even a downpour couldn’t dampen spirits.

A lazy afternoon cruising the beautiful backwaters, with the addition of a delicious lunch, was a most refined way of spending an afternoon.

Lunching in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR (Please Don’t Rush)

There’s a general assumption that the cuisines of many countries in South East Asia – Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam – are pretty much the same but that would be doing them a great disservice. While they may share many ingredients and seasonings, each cuisine is different and it is a joy to be able to discover the nuances of the foods from each country.

Lao, for example, being landlocked, relies on the river for its piscine bounties rather than the sea. Hence most of the fish served will be river fish. River weed, dried in in the sun and flavoured with seasonings, makes for a tasty snack.

Luang Prabang, Lao’s former capital, located in the north of the country, lies on the Mekong river at its confluence with the Nam Khan.

It’s a lovely, laid back town with plenty of temples and palaces to explore, which are largely within easy walking distance.

Wat Xieng Thong is the best known of the temples, located a short walk from the confluence. The main Wat has an intricate design and a beautiful tree of life mural.

The Royal Palace was built in 1904 when Lao was under French occupation. The monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975 and the building converted into a museum.

Crossing the Mekong and following a short hike up a hill you can reach the small temple of Wat Chomphet with its old stupa and Wat Long Khone. It’s more peaceful and less touristy on this side of the river.

It’s also possible to hire a longboat and drift downriver at sunset, cool glass of beer in hand, enjoying the colours of the evening.

Lao’s formal name is Lao PDR – People’s Democratic Republic. Informally, locals will let you know that PDR stands for Please Don’t Rush – a wise philosophy which also means that you shouldn’t worry if service at restaurants is slow. (Actually, we didn’t notice particularly slow service anywhere we went.) But it’s a good reminder to relax and enjoy your time in this friendly country.

Luang Prabang has a number of bars and restaurants which range from cheap eats to higher end offerings. Utopia is a short walk away from the town, set atop a cliff which overlooks the river. It’s a very laid-back place with a cool vibe and is located in a quirky garden setting.

There is a sorrowful side to the garden design though. Many of the flower pots are actually bomb shells from the time of the Vietnam War when, over the course of nine years, the US dropped roughly two million tonnes of bombs on Lao in a secret attempt to support the royal Lao government against the communists led by Pathet Lao, as well as impact the Ho Chi Minh trail. The country remains the most bombed per head of the population in history.  Worse still, a significant amount of the ordnance – about a third of the devices dropped – failed to detonate and, more than forty years later, there is still a huge problem with unexploded bombs that remain embedded in the ground, despite some international efforts to clear them.

Utopia is popular amongst backpackers for its chilled atmosphere during the day (it has activities such as yoga lessons available) and livens up a lot at night, and it offers local and western food.

One of the best restaurants in the city for Lao food is Tamarind, on the Kingkitsarath Rd, and they specialise in local cuisine. They offer tasting menus which give visitors the chance to try various specialities. It’s a fantastic introduction to local fare. It’s a popular restaurant so it’s worth booking ahead if you can, although we got lucky with a walk-in for lunch.

We started with Lao-Lao shots as an aperitif. Lao-Lao is rice whiskey. Its name isn’t a cute term of endearment – the two words have different tones in pronunciation and hence different meanings. The first Lao means “alcohol” and the second means “from Lao”. The whiskey has a mild flavour but is pretty potent at round 40-45% alcohol.

The starter was chunky bamboo and vegetable soup. A lot of Lao food can be searingly hot, with chilli often providing the heat, but this wasn’t; whilst still spicy, it had a piquancy in the seasoning that allowed the flavour of the vegetables and herbs to shine through.

Then came a platter of Lao specialities. These included dinky little sausages with a variety of relishes, which varied in the amount of spice they delivered, as well as kaipen – crispy sun-dried river weed coated with sesame seeds.

The next dish was fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken which felt like a bit of a contradiction. Usually you would expect lemongrass to flavour the meat but this was soft minced chicken, delicately spiced, placed into the bulbous part of the lemongrass stalk, then steamed and fried. The gentle scent of the lemongrass imparted a delicate citrus flavour. It was accompanied by herbed river fish steamed in a banana leaf along with local vegetables.

Finally, purple sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with tamarind sauce – which was sweet and slightly sour as well as delightfully sticky – rounded off a splendid meal.

Recipe: Miso Soup

Miso soup is a traditional Japanese broth made with miso (fermented soy bean paste), dashi (a simple but delicious stock) and a variety of other ingredients of your choice. It’s the perfect accompaniment to so many Japanese dishes.

,

2 sheets of  kelp seaweed (kombu)

1 packet of bonito flakes

500ml water 

1 tbs miso paste (home made or shop-bought)  

Optional:#

spring onions

silken tofu

wakame seaweed

enoki mushrooms

  • 500

It should be possible to buy kombu (kelp) and bonito flakes from Asian supermarkets. The dashi really adds to the deliciousness of the soup but if you can’t get hold of the ingredients, you can make a vegetable/fish stock and skip to the step where you add the miso paste.

Make the dashi: Put kombu and bonito flakes into a saucepan of water.

Bring to a simmer. Skim off any froth.

After 20 minutes, you should have a clear broth

Sieve the solids from the broth. Keep the solid ingredients. You can dry these out and use them again to make a secondary dashi.

Add the miso paste to the dashi in the saucepan. You can buy miso in most supermarkets but you can also make your own. Warm through gently.

This is the soup base. There are a number of ways to embellish the miso. Optional ingredients include such delights as negi (Japanese onions, they are a cross in size between a spring onion and a leek – UK spring onion will be perfect), silken tofu cut into very small cubes, wakame seaweed (a type of kelp that you can buy dehydrated from Asian supermarkets) or small mushrooms (enoki style – the teeny bunches of mushrooms are perfect, but finely chopped ordinary mushrooms will work well).

In this instance we had some spring onions to hand. So they were finely sliced and placed in a serving bowl.

Pour the miso broth on top. Enjoy while hot.

It is absolutely fine to drink the miso soup using a spoon or to drink directly from the bowl. In Japan, it’s also okay to slurp – this helps cool the hot liquid as you drink it. Make sure you stir it (you can use chopsticks to do this) before consuming so that the ingredients that settle at the bottom are agitated – the miso never dissolves completely into the broth – and produce an even flavour throughout the drinking.

Coconut Milk From Rabbits in Thailand

Coconut is one of the fundamental ingredients in Thai cookery. Coconut milk adds a luscious silkiness to curries and can also be used as a base ingredient in desserts; the flesh can be used in sweets and salads and the juice from a green coconut can be drunk straight from the pod for a really refreshing thirst-quencher. There is a difference between coconut cream and coconut milk.

At the Bai Pai Cookery School in Bangkok we learned how to extract coconut cream and coconut milk from an mature coconut, you know, the sort you get at coconut shies. This isn’t the same as the water you get from a green coconut (which is utterly delicious and wonderful to drink on a hot, humid day) but the liquid is extracted from the freshly grated flesh of an ordinary coconut.

After splitting the coconut in half (with a machete or something equally sharp and brutal) you need to use what’s known as a ‘rabbit’ to obtain the white flesh. The rabbit is a serrated grater often located on the end of a wooden bench (sometimes it’s even a cute rabbit shape!) which is used to shave the inside of the coconut to produce wisps of flesh.

There’s definitely a technique to using the rabbit. You sit on the bench and use a reciprocal back and forward motion to shave away the coconut flesh. You need to make sure that the brown, hard shell of the coconut protects your hands as you really don’t want your fingers to come into contact with the sharp grater. Also, blood does have a tendency to turn the pure white coconut cream a startling shade of pink and you really don’t want that.

Once you have a lovely pile of freshly grated coconut it gets put in a bowl and water is added. The shavings are mixed with the water, rubbing them together. Then they are sieved through muslin. A squeeze will release the coconut cream – this is the first press and it is rich, silky and smooth.

Adding a further amount of water with another mix and squeeze releases a more dilute liquid – this is the second press which produces the coconut milk.

Coconuts are quite easy to find in the UK, rabbits less so. Knives are not recommended for grating coconut, you really need an implement that will extract – and shred – the flesh safely from the inside of a hemisphere without shredding your hands. It’s probably safer to buy coconut milk in tins. If you want milk, shake the tin. If you want cream you may well find that – on opening – it has solidified and a rich, luscious blob will simply plop out of the tin.

Coconut milk is a fundamental ingredient in Thailand’s famous curries. Kaeng khiao wan is a sweet green curry, kaeng phet is a hot red curry. Both are easy to make (recipes another time). Another, less well known, dish that uses both coconut milk and coconut cream is tom kah gai – chicken and galangal in a coconut milk soup. Galangal is similar to ginger in that it is a rhizome – but they are quite different, notably in the textures and flavours. Ginger is lively, sweet and warming. Galangal is sharper with citrusy overtones. Whereas you can easily grate ginger and incorporate it into dishes, galangal is more woody. As a result it’s difficult to substitute one for the other. Where we live, ginger is easy to buy, but we have to search for galangal.

Tom kah gai is a subtle dish. Chicken pieces are cooked in a coconut milk soup that is infused with galangal, lemongrass and kafir lime leaves. Then coconut cream is added to provide a richness to the soup. Finally, as with many Thai dishes, sweet, sour, salt and heat flavourings in the form of sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and chilli are added – at the last moment,just before serving. This ensures that the flavourings are at their freshest; lime, particularly, can taste bitter if cooked for too long. The result is a wonderful, warming, creamy soup which has a touch of spice and zing.

High Steaks – Asados in Argentina

Central Argentina may not be at the very top on an itinerary when visiting the country, but it does offer some interesting places to visit. The cities are easy to fly to direct from Buenos Aires and, for lower budget travellers, the bus network is very good. Overnight buses, in particular, have a variety of services available, including a double decker first class option that offers a reclining bed, TV and food. It’s about a 5 hour journey from BA to Córdoba which is often used as a transit city when travelling from the coast to the mountains.

We were based in Córdoba, the second largest city in Argentina by population. It’s a pleasant city and it’s possible to undertake a number of day trips to interesting places from there – all an easy bus journey within an hour or two of the centre.

Alta Gracia is a small and pretty town in the Sierras Chicas. A former Jesuit residence has now been converted to the Museo Nacional Estancia Jesuitica Alta Gracia museum which has an interesting history of Jesuits in the area.

The Jesuits built El Tajamar, a lake which forms a focal point for the town. It’s worth hanging out by the clocktower at one end of the lake; it not only offers tourist information but is also a focal point for entertainment in the area – music and dance shows are regular events.

Che Guevara spent twelve years of his childhood in Alta Gracia until he moved to Buenos Aires in 1944 to study medicine and thereafter become one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries. His story is told in the fabulous film, The Motorcycle Diaries based on his book of the same name. The house he lived in has been converted into an interesting museum.

Villa General Belgrano, to the south-west of Cordoba, somewhat bizarrely, offers a little slice of Germany right in the middle of Argentina. It was established in 1930 and is a distinctly alpine town with traditional Bavarian architecture.

Food-wise, you can enjoy local versions of sausages, Spätzle and strudel amongst many traditional German delicacies, all of which can be washed down with a stein or two of beer. The town has an Oktoberfest event – an annual beer festival – held each October which, after Munich in Germany and Blumenau in Brazil, is considered to be one of the most important in the world.

When visiting any towns and cities in central Argentina one of biggest impressions that strikes you as you walk around the area, particularly the suburbs, is the aroma, which is predominantly that of meat cooking. It is a mouth-watering scent. Argentinians are well known for their love of meat, especially beef. Asado is the Argentine equivalent of a barbeque and is massively popular, particularly at weekends.

The word asado refers to both the cooking technique and the event. Most apartment buildings in the city have an asados area where residents can book space and enjoy family time cooking and eating good food together. The area will include a parilla (pronounced ‘parisha’ in Argentine Spanish as the ‘ll’ takes a ‘sh’ rather than a ‘y’ sound), a small kitchen area and benches to prepare and eat your food. You are responsible for clearing up afterwards and leaving the area clean and tidy for other residents to enjoy their asado at another time. We were delighted to be invited to a family asado in Cordoba.

There are two parts to the parilla – the v-shaped firebox and the grill. You need to make sure you have fuel. It’s quite common to scour the local area for wood/grasses to burn on the fire. First the fire needs to be started. Wood or charcoal are the most common fuels. Apparently it is not the done thing to use lighter fluid or briquettes – pine cones are sometimes used if the fire is not being very co-operative when starting up.

These flames burn too fiercely to cook the meat directly, so the firebox gets really hot then coals from the embers are transferred to the grill and spread around the cooking area. The meat is then placed on the grill above these coals. Traditionally the cook is the asador, invariably male, who takes on responsibility of watching over the feast.

Argentine meat is superb quality and very good value. Bife de chorizo (not to be confused with chorizo sausage) is a thick cut sirloin steak, which usually comes with a generous layer of fat – and remember, fat is flavour.

Meat is most definitely the main attraction of the meal. Everything else is secondary. The steak is served with just a hat-tip to carbs – usually bread -which is ideal to mop up the delicious juices – and some token salad so that the meal appears to have a semblance of nutritional balance. Sauces aren’t very common in Argentina either, although the heavenly piquant and gorgeously green chimichurri, which is usually comprised of chopped parsley and oregano, minced garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar, all blended together, would be a good accompaniment.

Wine, often a rich, fruity red Malbec, accompanies the food, but beers are also popular. The whole process of cooking, eating and socialising together makes for a very pleasant and relaxing way of spending the afternoon, which can then turn into a rather enjoyable evening as well.