Day 171 and 172: Liverpool and Chester

I went to one of the most popular and well reviewed cafes in Liverpool and I ordered an English breakfast.

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It was shit and I was shattered. Then I remembered that I’ve never had a good English breakfast in my life. Usually the only vaguely positive about them is massiveness. There’s nothing preventing them from being good, they just haven’t been.

I thought about it all day. Why are they always shit? Why do I order them? How does it relate to English food?

I thought about the terrible reputation England has for food. Everywhere I go people keep telling me how shit it is. I can’t remember how many arguments I’ve had with people who’ve never been to England – they say ‘it’s bland and dry’ and I say ‘England is more than just fish and chips you ignoramus’. I talk about England’s long and relatively untold history of food, about all the interesting shit people ate pre industrialisation and I tell them about the huge influence of immigrant communities on the national cuisine.

But now I’m in England and looking back at what I’ve eaten I feel like a total hypocrite. I haven’t been able to find any restaurant serving traditional historic English food, none of the Anglicised-ethnic food has been any good and I’ve had several pies, stodgy breakfasts and fish and chips, most of which have been shite. Why do I keep keep doing that?

Maybe I’m trying too hard to find English food. England has a very long history of multiculturalism and defining its national cuisine is very complicated. Maybe I should look for the best food regardless of where it’s from. But that hasn’t been particularly easy either. Maybe, very simply, England doesn’t have a good food culture. Shit fish and chips, pies and stodgy breakfasts are a good example of that. Neither of those things are inherently poor quality, they’re just peps red and cooked poorly. It’s easy to conceive of a good serving of fish and chips – chunks of king fish battered with bits of fish fat, lemon zest and dill served with hand cut chips double fried in duck fat and sprinkled with cinnamon. But as far as I know that doesn’t exist, nor does anything like it. The shite kind, the flakey shark defrosted and deep fried, is the one that’s become the icon of English cuisine.

I had an epiphany a few weeks ago. I was in the google offices in Paris and I was drinking an espresso I’d made myself with the office grinder. It was amazing. I’m not trying to throw myself flowers, I’m no gun barista by any means but this was a damn good espresso. It was so good I suddenly realised all the coffees I’d been drinking for months had been awful. I went back to the grinder to check where the beans were from – Australia. They’d been grown and roasted by a boutique coffee producer in Queensland.

The only other time I’ve felt the same way about a coffee was a few days ago in Liverpool. Oh man it was fucking good. Deep, velvety, chocolately and all those other farty descriptors I feel awkward using. When the waitress came to clear my cup I told her what I thought.

“Thanks, where are you from anyway?” She asked.

“Australia? Did you recognise my accent?”

“Yeah the barista is Australian.”

Typical.

I had no idea how good Australia’s coffee was until I left. I’d never realised about how serious our coffee culture is. It’s not uncommon for cafes to measure every method of the coffee production with ruthless scientific precision – how thin the beans are ground, the time spent . It’s not just the top though, the average is incredibly. Italy and France are way behind, they’re average. Most of the ‘best’ coffees I had in Italy would be average at home. If you want good coffee go to Australia or New Zealand.

Liverpool fashion is hilarious and scary.

1. The other day I was sitting in pub happily watching Manchester United play badly when I was joined by three women in their late fifties or early sixties. They were the three most ornamented human beings I’ve ever seen. They’re fingers were covered in massive gaudy rings with fat jewels and golden frames, their ears were adorned with canopies of flashy dangly things and their clothes had more flashy bits and bobs than an airplane cockpit. All three had dyed straightened hair, a stratigraphy of fake tan and so much make up you’d need a chisel to remove it all.
2. Near where I was staying and in the city centre and anywhere really, all the guys wear matching tracksuits, have shaved heads, bum bags and sneakers. I don’t know about anywhere else but people in Australia who wear that like stabbing people.
3. There was a music festival on the weekend. Almost all the girls attending were wearing some combination of boob tubes, crop tops, short shorts, mini skirts, heels, platforms and singlets. My favourite outfit of which included platform white high heels with diamanté edges, a denim nappy shaped piece of cloth covering only her vagina with cowboy like tassels hanging down over her thighs, a loose fitting cropped singlet which exhibited stomach, side boob, under boob and nipple creases, a lacy white see through cape which came down over her arms and back, a floral headdress, an outback dessert-sand shade of fake tan and enough make up to make her age swing ten years in either way. It was 12C and raining that day.

Day 49: Battambang food

I had a proud moment today.
One of the most famous Thai chefs is this Australian guy, David Thompson*. He wrote this incredibly beautiful and encyclopaedic cook book on Thai Street Food. Dad and Shirl* have a copy at their place. I used to dreamily waft through it, imaging eating all the ingredients in one glutinous journey.

I found a copy in a Battambangian restaurant today and I excitedly ploughed through it. I wanted to find out how many of the things I had tried. At the beginning I would flip every new page and rabbit my head over to Alice.

“I’ve tried this!”

She’d nod and I would do exactly the same thing on the next page until I realised I was, despite my oogly* excitement, becoming frustratingly repetitive – I had tried pretty much everything.

Travel success! A pokey somewhere in the universe grinds out from a radical spin. BING BING BING. Three big gaudy gold motherfuckers. I have conquered you all You are now my poo.

If I was planny and clear-eyed enough to make goals for this trip – one of them would definitely have been to try everything in that book.

The other reaction I had to David Thompson’s bright army of poops-to-be was disappointment. I’ve been in Cambodia for six days now and I still have no idea what the street food tastes like. Daisy and her friends don’t eat it – none of the foreigners seem to. There are enough relatively cheap and delicious restaurants serving pizza, Northern Chinese noodles and dhaal for them to bother worrying about ingesting a tape worm, some ear wax or a congealed ball of rat hair. I’m not as concerned about those things myself but I spend all my meal time with Daisy so I haven’t really had the opportunity yet.

I set out yesterday afternoon in search of the local snack conglomerate. Cambodia hasn’t witnessed the same ferocious street food colonisation that Thailand has – Snacktowns are much rarer and quieter here. The closest thing Battambang has is Snackalley.

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Two to three restaurants and five or so stalls, each of them serving up only slight variations on their neighbours’ fare. Thick bean fish soups, glistening clear pork hock stock, snake bean and pork belly stir-fry shrivelled by a day’s inactivity, pepper stuffed eggs par-boiled and roasted, sun dried fish, pork, beef and chicken sweetened by sesame marinades and BBQ skewers of meat full of colour but sapped of moisture. Everything looks like it’s been carted through the Sahara desert on the back on the warm camel. The market here simply doesn’t have enough daily hustle to recycle it’s ingredients, so freshness and wetness are rare commodities.

After translating ten minutes of symbolic nods and knocks from a camel-back old woman with eyebrows dark and crisp like flattened leeches, I ordered her recommendation – a bowl of pork bones stewed with what I think was tapioca, cabbage and carrot, with a side of pork jerky and some spicy vinegar to dip it in. They were both delicious. Neither of them were unique or particularly distinct with any kind of noticeable Khmerness. I leave Cambodia in three days. I wonder if by the time I’ve left I’ll know whether Khmer food is simply not that interesting or whether I’ve been missing out on trying a whole lotta delicious interesting stuff.

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I have been drinking a lot of coffee. Through Malaysia and Thailand coffee consisted mostly of nescafe-instant smothered in a swamp of sweetened condensed milk and then bagged in ice. You can get the same here but cafes have real beans! Not the kind we’re used to in the West. The coffee beans here are grown at a low altitude and end up very strong and very bitter. What do they do to counteract this? Roast them in butter or pig fat. It’s fucking great. I’ve always had an awkward relationship with coffee language, citrusy, velvety, fruity, tastes like lemons, tastes like a lemon meringue pie tastes like a lemon meringue pie made with Tasmanian lemons, duck eggs and fucking activated almond meal and biodynamic sheep’s milk. Anyway, occasionally I have a moment that gives me renewed belief in the accuracy and necessity of those descriptors. The other day I had an iced long black so nutty and chocolatey I could scarcely believe it was pure coffee, no additives, syrups, squat, just delicious.

*His Bangkok restaurant Nahm was voted best in Asia and I heard he’s received honours from the Thai king.
*My step-mum – an amazing chef and even better woman.
*made up word. Someone can ogle something but you can do something oogly? Oogly – enthusiasm and intent characterised by poppy eyes.

Day 8: Chukai

I can’t go for a swim. There aren’t any beaches in Chukai. There is a massive river but its one of those raging ones so if you swim in it you end up in a different city several hours later. I had no intention of going on a river trip to Vietman without my bike or any significant swimming ability so, despite being on the coast for three days now, I still haven’t been in the ocean.

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It’s a pity because the only reasons I decided to stay in Chukai last night were so I could swim and get over this annoying chaff-related butt rash I’d developed from riding with a sweaty spaceship. I had to find something else to do today so I scoured the internet for Chukai’s attractions. All the interesting stuff like tropical beaches, turtle sanctuaries, kayaking and other pseudo adventures things are back in the direction I came from – apparently the only thing Chukai has to offer is coffee.

Coffee in Malaysia is generally served in three different ways. The most popular way, what you get if you just order ‘coffee’, is a long black poured over sweetened condensed milk (SCM). The other two varieties are the same but substituting sugar or fresh milk for SCM. From my experience, every restaurant serving coffee (the word cafe and restaurant are close to synonymous here) uses nescafe. As you can imagine it would be pretty easy to distinguish yourself by serving anything but nescafe, which is exactly what Hai Peng Coffee does.

Hai Peng is the place to go around here. It’s not only the most popular cafe in the city but also the state, for local tourists, it’s a destination in itself. Unfortunately it’s also shit. It’s notoriety comes from the fact they roast their own beans but it hardly matters because, like all the other cafes, the coffee has already been churned weeks ago so it can be made instantly. The difference in taste to the regular nescafe cup is marginal but the price is much higher. Most coffees here cost about 30cAus but Hai Peng was charging up to 10x that much.

Apparently they used to serve great Malaysian food as well but now that they’re famous they’ve moved up in the world, they now serve status rich but flavourless Western-Malay fusion. It’s mostly normal stuff like sandwiches and standard Malay meals but then they have weird shit like this:

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It’s all crap. They’re just supermarket bread-rolls, canned fruit and those industrially mass-produced satchel spreads. Pretty much everything is over $3, that’s not much for me but it’s massive over here. They all love it though, it was packed today and apparently most days they have lines to get in. There are even a bunch of blogs from upper-class Malaysians talking about how good it is. If Hai Peng opened in Sydney everyone would think it was shit. We’d probably love it anyway just because it would be so weird. Kind of like Ching Yip Coffee Lounge in Chinatown I guess (if you haven’t been I would recommend going, not for the food but because it’s like a portal to another country).

I remembered Peh telling me that only rich people eat in Western restaurants and it’s seen as a ‘special’ thing to do. I think it all says a lot about the fetishisation of Western culture here.

Anyway because Malaysians are so bad at telling me where things are I was deceived into thinking it was just around the corner when it was actually about a 30 minute walk. It was a good opportunity to hitchhike so I did. Easy as; met a lovely guy called Eddy with two cute kids. We chatted about Malaysian food, my trip and how it was going to be impossible for me to buy a new book. Only big cities have bookstores and apparently they’re very expensive.

I had a good laugh at myself this morning. When I went to the hotel reception to renew my room I asked if there were any other ones available. The lady, who looked like a retired roller derby champ, told me there was one room with no window, space, air con or any furniture besides for a bed. It was $5 cheaper than the room I had so I took it. Now I’m sweating like a Goth on a beach, thinking about how easily I spent $10 on my over-indulgent lunch yesterday.