Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Ice Shaving Guatemala

In a world where form and beauty and truth were prime, if origin counted as equal to product, all Slush Puppies would be made like this.

A young calm-faced Guatemalan mother stands in front of the cathedral, rotating a lump of clear ice the size of her head in her cast-iron ice shaving device. Curls flake off and snow into a cup, spoonfuls of honey and neon candied fruit (swarming with wasps) are applied and sink in as ink. The ice, clearly, was mined from a glacier far into the mountains and transported here by llama trains, wrapped in sealskin and insulated by the cleanest fleece, patrolled fiercely by the ice-miners’ dogs – all of them with one green eye and one blue, they say they can know the future – and exchanged for meat, for salt, and for religion.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Barrrrrbacoa, Palenque, Yucatan

The food with the most awesome name in the world is common around the Yucatan Peninsula. When ordering, expect not to be understood unless you say the word in the mindset of a boxing commentator announcing the HEAVY WEIGHT CHAMPIOOON OF THE WOOORLD! It must be pronounced in a way that you might just expect a 'ding ding' after you order. Otherwise they really don't understand you.

Barbacoa is a generic word, essentially meaning slow-cooked meat, traditionally steamed as a pit roast.

Monday, 10 September 2007

First lobster, spineless

After explaining to the chef of a nice and quiet little restaurant that we were, to put it mildly, incredibly tight fisted, she kindly offered us the cheapest thing she could whip up (off menu) - rice and beans with a fried egg. Nothing wrong with that, we thought.

Except there seemed to be a guy whose job it was to hang out and casually suggest expensive optional extras. We said no thanks to the 'traditional pre-rice-and-beans custom' of a mojito, thinking ourselves quite tough little travellers.

But we gave into his suggestion that since they had one lobster tail left, we could have it at half price. After all, how often do you get to eat lobster in Cuba? It was our last night.

I loved it. I think perhaps the main reason it is so revered is that as well as having that delicate shellfish taste the sheer volume of the meat makes it all the more satisfying- there is less figuring your way around all the unpleasant bits that come with invertebrate territory. So much pluckable sweet, soft, white muscle.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Fiat cafe, Cuba

We stopped for a dinner of cheap spaghetti at an unusually brightly lit, extremely glassy little restaurant, with an extremely faithful adherence to a colour scheme of royal blue and white.

Hang on.

Every inch of this place is branded by Fiat! There are blue racing stripes over the whitewashed walls, little logos on the tables and pictures of old cars framed undramatically on the walls.

Why would a car company own a cafe? Is this the equivalent of the Coca- Cola adverts in the rest of Latin America which are so conspicuously absent in Cuba?
Do they also sell cars here? Is this supposed to be cheese? What is going on?!

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Stinginess in Cuba, 1 peso eats

We are now in Cuba, where the political situation certainly impacts the food available in several noticeable ways:

1- The unofficial economy is not. I see no street vendors, no gloriously colourful markets, no hawking of strange foods. A reminder that tower blocks are not the only face of capitalism.
2- Even the official shops that are allowed really aren't brimming with choice. This is an island in a way which not many places are any more.
3- A lot of stuff is very expensive for tourists; not unrelated to the fact that there are fairly clearly delineated places for them to be, and a separate currency.

I want to make it clear that I am not being a sourpuss. There are real world reasons for this situation that override anyone's need for a nice bouncy sandwich. But overall, pretty much all the food we have had in restaurants has been like school dinners. So we have decided to take a fuel- centric attitude to food while we are here, to skip the (relatively) high prices and generally just revel in being stingy. Here are our discoveries:

Cheap option 1 - Actually, there are a couple of places on the seafront (no no, think oil slick and anti- erosion concrete) that will serve a pretty rubbish mozzarella pizza for a peso or two. It may not be amazing, but cheese and bread is never inedible. And they don't seem to mind you drinking your own bottled water.

Cheap option 2 - Petrol stations seem to have a standard range of microwavable goodies that are equally cheap at a couple of Pesos Convertibles, and they don't bat an eye at serving foreigners.

Cheap option 3 - MASSIVE bread. We got this from a shop that sold pop, newspapers etc. It looked very filling at 1 peso, but on closer inspection proved to be several hundreds of years old. It was mummified rather than rotten however, and would be be edible if you either have the use of a funnel to collect the cloud of crumbs that it becomes upon any attempt to pierce its carapace, or you are willing to mash it up with some water into a slimy but intact dough.

More stinginess tips coming!

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Isla mujeres

On our first night on Isla Mujeres we had a dark and breezy meal in a restaurant by the sea and the waiter brought us all the torches because we were the only people in the whole world. Sandy and very romantic.

I don’t even remember what we ate. Sigh.

Chichen Itza

The new 7th Wonder of the World is a big tourist- puller, and the first place I have seen 'nachos with cheese' for sale. It costs 35 pesos! Maybe that is why you never see it. Hmm... maybe not.

Our cheap eats were instead found down the road from the entrance; opposite two coach- friendly restaurants in a little shop. We got a can of refried beans and a couple of packs of crisps. Nice little lunch- and always a good backup plan for the backpacker flitting into expensive zones. Just remember to always take a spoon with you like I do, even though this one was so cheap it bends against the resistance of a mush with any viscosity at all.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Unidentified fruit #3

These little buggers look like baddies in a Gremlins movie, or miniature plesiosaur eggs. Despite their squishy appearance though, they are rock solid, and took some cutting.

The lady on the stall assured me that they were very edible, but to consume them I should chop up and boil thoroughly; the resulting watery juice was the really good stuff and the fleshy mush left over wouldn't be worth the chew.

She also told m
e that it was very good for the stomach, to get rid of any bad stuff in your gut, which after a second of consideration sounds pretty ominous even if she wasn't chuckling to her friends.

I followed instructions. It was about half an hour of boiling before anything really came out, and I did over an hour to make the most of them. Then let it cool in a glass.

SO SOUR! Six tablespoons of sugar later, still sour, but drinkable. I think this is mainly a medicinal- use plant.

Making tortillas, Bonsai Carlos

Some time ago in Papantla I bought my very own tortilla press from a market. Great idea I'm sure seeing as it is made from cast iron and we have 3 weeks of backpacking left to do. These are the liberties you can take when you pack light, i.e. carry lots.

So I have been pottering around with it in this hostel kitchen in Merida. We bought some (wheat) flour from the shop. This is a matter of some controversy- we like the wheat flour ones better, and they are quite common further west, but we are entering a more maize- loyal zone now (and 'loyal' really isn't too strong a word) so my choice elicited some grumbling from the man who helped me make them, Bonsai Carlos ("Sabes bonsai? Me encaaanta las bonsais. Tengo como setenta plantas en mi casa! Vengan!") who considers it an insidious import, or substandard at the least.

To use the press you must put your dough (flour and water) between two sheets of plastic, probably from an old bag, then squeeze it with the vice. He showed me the 'authentic Mayan' way of doing it too, which is to grip the dough in one hand between the flats of your fingers and your palm, fingers together, then use your other hand to squeeze your tortilla-holding hand. As you squash it, the idea is to rotate it and flatten it out.

I think tortillas originally must have been really quite small and thick- not like the pancakes things we often have today, and his choice of when to say it 'its ready' affirmed this. Even the ones me made in the press we couldn't get that thin- the elasticity of the wheat meant they actually refattened about 20% (can you have percentages of fatness?) as soon as you took the pressure off.

We fried our fat little tortillas dry, one by one and ate them with a can of refried beans and an ad hoc chile blanco salsa. A nice meal.

Free breakfast, mud, toast

Never ever even consider a 'free breakfast' to be a selling point in your choice between Latin American hostels. It is never more than 1 cup of bad coffee (does the job) and 2 pieces of tiny cold toast. If there is anything else in the toss up, go with that instead.

Incidentally, why are loaves (as in, proper loaves) of bread in the rest of the world so tiny? It seems to be a very British thing to have a big loaf of bread which you can make many decent sandwiches out of. Most countries have a choice between their native crusty or floppy, flat, tiny, thin or long bread (which are often lovely, but not very sandwich- apt) and an intensely processed homogenized loaf which is barely big enough to accommodate one circle of salami.