Why Food Matters

My journey to Cambodia began last November. I had just finished a gruelling week at Sydney’s Quay and found myself sat with restaurateur John Fink enjoying a long lunch that extended well into the evening. I should’ve been writing. John should’ve been working. But I had just reached half way and was in the mood to celebrate. Reflecting on the jobs completed and jobs to come, John’s eyes lit up at the mention of Cambodia. If I wanted to witness something truly remarkable, he told me, I should visit Jaan Bai in Cambodia’s Battamabang: a social enterprise restaurant he consulted for along with Asia’s best chef David Thompson. So 14 weeks later, I found myself on a 16-hour bus ride from Vietnam with nothing but a bag of deep fried insects for company.

Throughout my trip, I have worked in and encountered many social enterprises. But this week was entirely different. This was my first experience of a kitchen charity in a third world country suffering problems of mass poverty. Jaan Bai, (Khmer for rice bowl) operated by the Cambodian Children’s Trust, regards this issue as the focal point for the restaurant. They believe that only through training, education, and employment can the people of Cambodian hope to break away from this cycle of poverty.

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The working day began with a trip to the morning market to buy produce for the day’s service. Having hitherto only worked in restaurants that had produce delivered, the experience of shopping added a certain romantic charm to the culinary creative process. Trailing Jaan Bai’s Head Chef Mohm, I received a full intro into Cambodian produce with ample time for feasting on market snacks such as sticky rice cakes stuffed with jack fruit and wrapped in banana leaves and evil little fish sticks packed with sinister amounts of chilli.

Opening the Jaan Bai menu you may wonder why a restaurant championing Cambodian people and local produce isn’t serving exclusively Cambodian food. But this is a training kitchen and teaching staff a load of dishes they already know sort of defeats the object of the Jaan Bai project. This is why you will find an eclectic mix of pan-Asian dishes that require a diverse range of culinary techniques. Education, education, education. The staff were so geared up towards training that in the space of three days I had prepared, cooked, plated and served every dish on the menu. Where else could I do that?

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You will find odes to old Cambodian flavours, such as khmer yellow curry or chaa kdam kampot pepper crab, using bright green and aromatic kampot pepper; contemporary Asian classics such as the slow cooked 5 spice pork belly bao with Cambodian slaw; and re-appropriation of Western techniques to Eastern flavours, such as mushroom tortellini masquerading as a Cambodian dumpling.

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Kampot Pepper Prawns – the crab dish adapted for the sharing menu.

Outside the kitchen walls, staff took part in morning coffee master classes to make flat whites that wouldn’t look out of place in one of Melbourne’s hip cafes. There were also lessons in craft cocktails to master tipples that are far from the weak sugary concoctions you find in most of Cambodia. And said cocktails certainly make for great conversation starters to learn a few ‘local’ lessons – on one fateful evening, odd-job man Buffalo informed me you can cure malaria by drinking rusty water and if you need a tattoo the best homemade ink is created from 50% battery acid and 50% breast milk (I couldn’t make that stuff up if I tried)!

Of course a training kitchen produces many additional challenges. Staff members have little to no experience when they first start and there are language problems and cultural differences. Mistakes are made. Yet despite this the chefs are forever patient, calm and deal with matters with grace and decorum that I’ve hereto not encountered in a kitchen. You won’t find many Ramsay temperaments in this kitchen.

In light of the above this week really was not a story of food but a story of people. Of Buffalo who knocked a window into the restaurant wall when all others expected such a feat would bring the building crashing down. Of Tom & Sam giving every waking moment of their lives to work and train the staff and yet still find the energy to sink a ‘few’ beers with me after work. Of the waiting staff who rushed between shifts to English lessons to become better servers. And of Mohm, who overcame unimaginable hardships in life to lead Jaan Bai as head chef and inspire generations to come.

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If Jaan Bai were in London, New York or Paris, it would be a resounding success. But the fact they achieved such a high standard in Battamabang is all the more remarkable. You may expect their slickness to be a result of years of perfecting a winning formula, however they have only been open just under a year. But it is amazing to witness what can be achieved when people come together in search of triumph over adversity. For the people of Jaan Bai, food represents the key to a brighter future.

 

Falling in Love

I am an awful traveller. And by that I mean specifically the geographical re-location part. So it was no surprise that my last night in China was spent being driven by a Shanghai bar owner at 3 am for some much-needed fried sustenance in a last ditched attempt to make me ‘fit to fly’ (not that he cared much earlier that evening when forcing ‘Chairman Mao’ cocktails down my throat). On this occasion I made my flight. Just. But the heavy session and lack of sleep left me more than a little worse for wear on my arrival to Ho Chi Minh.

Stumbling around the city’s backpacker district trying to find my hostel, an old woman stopped me in my path and looked deep into my eyes. She could feel my pain. With a beaming smile she ushered me towards her tiny street stand and before I knew it a steaming bowl of Pho arrived.  She demonstrated how to complete the dish with a squeeze of lime, a dab of chili and a hand full of aromatic herbs and bean sprouts. Who was this guardian angel with her magic tonic? With every spoon my mood lifted and by the end of the bowl I felt revitalised. All around me the city was waking up, market stalls lay out their fresh produce and gradually the roads crescendo with the sound of bikes whizzing by. I was already in love. How could I only spend a week in this amazing country?

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Having had a brief nap and ironed my chef whites (I would be working in an open kitchen after all), I hopped on a moped taxi to May restaurant to start my week cooking traditional Southern Vietnamese cuisine in a stunning former French colonial house nestled in a backstreet off the Saigon river. Vietnamese with French sensibilities? Perhaps fitting given Ho Chi Minh himself, among many other things, was a chef for the godfather of haute cuisine, Auguste Escoffier.  

I began familiarising myself with Vietnamese ingredients by assisting with the mis en place and shadowing the chef on the ‘cold station’. Based on the dishes that flew out of here, Vietnam’s reputation for some of the freshest and healthiest food around is truly justified: lotus sprout salad with pork and prawn; banana flower salad and chicken, and of course the classic green papaya salad. Each plate was a mound of revitalising goodness, coated in homemade chili sauce with crisp garlic and peanuts for added texture.

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With the language barrier the May staff preferred a hands on approach to helping me understand their cuisine and it wasn’t long until I was entrusted with the task of running the spring roll station for dinner service. A difficult task when the orders fly in thick and fast and you’re not up to the pace. But aside from the various ‘fresh’ spring rolls that dominate Vietnamese food in the west, it was the more unusual Bo La Lot, that really caught my eye – a spiced beef mince, wrapped in betel leaf (a peppery and bitter leaf) and beef intestines and grilled to perfection (the intestines render down like fat on the grill to give a glaze around the betel leaves).

My education continued over the comings days with a lesson in Tofu making.  May restaurant makes an egg based tofu which gives it a light texture perfect for crisping up in the deep fat fryer with some shredded lemongrass. Next came clay-pot cooking with Thịt kho trứng, a slow cooked caramelised pork and egg stew traditionally enjoyed in the South normally around the New Year. And finally wok work with dishes such as stir fried garlic morning glory. And before you ask…yes, I experienced yet another Asian kitchen in hysterics over my wok skills (just when I was starting to think I was picking things up nicely).

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By far the most illuminating experience was my time spent with the house saucier to improve my understanding of how Vietnamese cooking is based on five key tastes: spice, sour, bitter, sweet, and salty. There is no better way to learn this than observing spoon in hand tasting sauces at every stage. Not salty enough? Add a dash of fish sauce. Too sweet? Add a splash of tamarind. It was like circuit training for the tongue. I was given a taste test with each spoon full and gestured to point to what I thought would complete the dish, or if I was happy with the flavour balance to give it the thumbs up.

Before I arrived in Vietnam I had read about May restaurant boasting a unique family atmosphere. The reviews weren’t wrong and the kindness and hospitality of the chefs made this one of my most pleasant kitchen experiences to date. They really did everything to make me feel part of the team which goes someway to explain how I found myself in Saigon’s outer suburbs at 1am, changing into a football kit for a late night game of 5 a side against a competing restaurant. Their star English signing lasted all of 15 minutes before being subbed off after successfully being out classed, out run and out muscled by a 14-year-old (look, he was really strong for 14, ok)!

Although May restaurant offered traditional Vietnamese cuisine, there were some compromises for Western tastes and in particular the use of quality cuts of meats, less bones and nothing too risky. With that in mind the chefs wanted to treat me to a farewell meal on my last evening. I soon found myself perched by the river on a plastic stool as dish after dish appeared on our table; Beef gelatine with pepper and chives, giant snails poached in lemongrass, fish stomach with pickled cabbage, crisp chili chicken feet. This was foodie heaven. We only paused from eating to scream MOT, HAI, BA, YO (3,2,1, down) before sinking a glass of tiger to quench our MSG induced thirsts. Stomach full, I slumped into a taxi bike in the midnight heat back to my hostel. In a few hours the 4am bus would take me to Cambodia in a similar state to when I arrived in this extraordinary country. Goodnight Vietnam. I promise to return some day.

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Huge thanks to the Gran Tourismo duo Lara and Terence for hooking me up with this opportunity.

Street Food – Xi’an

What the hell was I doing in Xi’an? It was so cold, dirty, and polluted. I received the most ominous of welcomings when a mother opened up her baby’s diaper trap-door only for me to go walking straight in to a flying baby turd. Worse still, Spring Festival continued and the city remained for the large part empty. The Terracotta Warriors, which I suspected were only billed as the ‘8th wonder of the world’ because you can’t help but ‘wonder’ why anyone bothers to visit this expensive tourist trap, left me feeling low to say the least. But as my stomach rumbled I remembered exactly why I was here…Suddenly a smile returned to my face. It was time for some hard-core street food action.

Arriving in the city’s Muslim Quarter I was instantly greeted by an assault on the senses: spices and freshly grilled meats filled the air, bright flashing lights advertised local delicacies and as the stall holders shouted out, hundreds of locals pushed past to get their hands on a tasty evening supper. This was food heaven.

It wasn’t long before I got stuck in. Yang rou chuan: a chilli and cumin spiced lamb kebab cooked pink on burning coals. Majiang liang pi: cold wheat noodles doused in sesame paste and chilli oil. And shi zi bing: a deep-fried persimmon cake that scorched my mouth with its sticky centre. I was feeling full and yet the eating continued. Yangrou Paomo: unleavened bread soaked in a mutton stew with roasted garlic. Kao anchun dan: spiced quails eggs on a stick. And who can forget Rou jia mo a Chinese take on a hamburger with slow stewed beef – the easiest dish to pronounce as you just need to shout Roger Moore! Just don’t go asking for your gravy shaken not stirred!

I returned for breakfast, lunch and dinner over the next two days, ordering the unknown and bartering for ‘local prices’. Here’s a selection of images taken with my grease soaked camera. Click the smaller ones to launch the gallery.

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Beijing Duck

Here begins a story of pure food. There will be no tales of missed flights, no failings to master kitchen techniques and no recollections of embarrassing incidents from childhood. No, I’ve not given up any feeble attempts to assimilate myself as a young Bourdain (or a less eloquent Jay Rayner for that matter), but in this instance any silly stories would detract from the majesty of the one dish at the heart of job 38.

Having anticipated a crowded and chaotic city, I was shocked to discover that Beijing felt more like a ghost town. I had arrived in Spring Festival and millions of the capital’s migrant work force had returned to their home towns. This goes someway to explaining Beijing’s vast range in regional Chinese cuisine with up to 8 million people moving to the city each bringing with them ingredients and recipes from back home. But I had three more weeks to explore outside the capital. I was in Beijing for two reasons: to hike to the Great Wall; and to learn the intricacies of the city’s most famous dish – Peking Duck.

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Peking duck, or Beijing duck as it is now known, was first conceived in the Ming Dynasty, c. 1416 and later became a popular item on the imperial court menus. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the dish was codified in the format as we know it today; roast duck served with pancakes, sweet bean sauce, cucumber and spring onions. So popular was this combination that Peking duck went global and in many different guises such as that healthy looking wrap from Pret (which inevitably leaves you still hungry and snacking on banana bread) or, if you’re really unlucky, as a pizza topping conceived by a high street chain trying to differentiate themselves as nothing short of food fuckwits. But now in the dish’s hometown I was in search of the real deal, the traditional recipe that started it all. So it was a great pleasure to spend time at Horizon restaurant in the Kerry Hotel to cook one of the most authentic offerings in town.

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With a dish of such simplicity only the finest duck will suffice. Sourced locally from Beijing Golden Star Farm the ducks are raised using ‘gavage’ methods and are left to roam free for 45 days before force-fed for their final 15-20 days. This gives the ducks a high level of rich yellow fat surrounding the body. The ‘foie gras’ debate is best saved for another time (especially as I hope to visit a foie farm towards the end of my trip) but I have no shame in admitting that when the ducks arrived at Horizon I found myself stroking their skin whispering how much I was going to enjoy roasting them.

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Ducks delivered, next came the roasting perfected by chefs over 600 years. On arrival the ducks are air blasted to separate the fat from the skin and then dipped momentarily in boiling water which tightens the skin and starts the fat rendering process. The ducks are then left to dry for up to two days. They are then roasted at 250ºC for 70 minutes in a traditional wood oven fired with Jujube wood from the He Bei Province – the perfect wood to lend a slight smoke to the meat without overpowering the delicacies of flavour. It’s a nerve-wracking experience, hooking a duck in the fire and I miraculously avoided any disasters on this occasion.

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The roast duck however only occupies one course of a banquet meal and so I also spent time in others sections such as soup, dim sum and claypot cooking – a style traditional to the Quang Dong province. Away from the restaurant open kitchen and into the depths of the hotel’s back areas there was a noticeable difference in atmosphere to my restaurant work to date. There lacked the camaraderie between chefs, that buzz in the air, and the excitement before service. I find it hard to explain the reasons why. Perhaps I was treated more like a guest than a member of the team. But maybe it was the mentality of a hotel restaurant. (Throughout my travels several chefs have bemoaned their time in hotel kitchens; the added rules and regulations, the difficult customer expectations, and the lack of autonomy that prohibits a truly creative environment. With more hotel and restaurant jobs planned in coming weeks I’ll likely discover more but I’d be interested if anyone reading this has any comments to add to the matter.)

By the end of my weeks at Horizon I had built up quite the appetite and I’d be damned if I left the kitchen without a generous helping of that duck. The duck arrived to my table dark amber in colour, rich and aromatic in smell. The server gracefully carved the duck like an artist, portioning out exactly 80 pieces of meat to savour. I delicately tapped my fork on the duck’s skin to see it crack much like a crème brûlée. Rendered fat oozed out from the skin, while underneath a thin slither of silky fat protected the juicy meat below. This was unlike any duck I had tasted before. It was so close to perfection it was a challenge to use any for a pancake. When I finally did the sweet and pungent bean sauce and crunch of the garnish justified why this was a combination hundreds of years in the making. Sure the Great Wall was impressive but if you really want a taste of history, look no further than that wooden over in Horizon restaurant. You’d been quackers not to.*

*I resisted the urge as long as I could and I can assure you that no ducks were harmed in the making of this pun. Feel free to share any more below.

Hopping Mad

It was a cold and cloudy Beijing morning and I was explaining to the hostel staff why I was looking nervous about my next food job. Another week, another kitchen, this week should not have differed from my experiences so far. Except it did. This kitchen encompassed everything people had warned me against: language problems, dangerous conditions, inexperience… But now, with 36 weeks completed, I was ready to live on the edge, I am in China after all.  However, little did I know that by the end of the week I would have committed murder, taken local narcotics and had a run in with a political figurehead. Not what I had anticipated for job 37…

Although China has eight great regional culinary traditions, to me growing up Chinese food meant one thing – sweet and sour. It was both my most guilty pleasure and greatest culinary weakness. Sit me at one of the finest Chinese restaurants in the UK and tempt me with many delicious dishes but the S&S junkie in me will always want a quick fix to feed my addiction. In a last ditched bid for rehabilitation, I made a stand. My time in China would be dedicated to exploring as much food outside of Cantonese style as possible. I was therefore delighted to land a week at Karaiya Spice House, a Beijing restaurant specializing in regional Hunan cuisine.

If you ever step inside a Hunan kitchen and you will immediately notice the cuisine’s main ingredient – chili pepper. Within moments of arriving at work I was coughing, spluttering and weeping from the intense aromas of spice. If you ever cook Hunan food don’t touch anywhere on your body. Hours after the end of the shift I could still feel the sting of chili in my eye from when I rubbed it mid service.

Chili at Kariya Spice HouseIn addition to chili, Hunan food uses a lot of other big flavours such as garlic, shallots, smoked meats, rich sauces and plenty of oil. Owner Alan Wong, told me traditionally this was to cover the flavour of poor quality ingredients, but looking over Karaiya’s selection of fresh fish, meat marbled with fat and tender veg clearly this was not the case here.

On my second morning at the restaurant, I experienced a rather unique example of Karaiya’s fresh produce when I was given a moving bag, a meat clever and some scissors. Inside was an army of bull frogs. I was given my instructions. Hack off the head, snip down the chest, scrub away the innards, peel off the skin and chop into bite sized pieces. My first attempt did not go well. After my first beheading the bull frog took one last to hop towards me miraculously springing up the sleeve of my chef whites. I can assure you nothing endears you more to new colleagues than jumping into their arms like Scooby Do because you were frightened by a daily kitchen task.

 

A few hours later I enjoyed my revenge as I tucked into a portion of bullfrog with towel gourd. Karaiya serve a lot of stir fried frog, but steaming truly preserves the soft flaky texture of meat in all its glory. And the eating didn’t stop there. In a kitchen where no one speaks English the only way of communicating is by sight and taste. Every minute or so a chef would portion off a spoon of their dish to try. Lotus leaf broiled duck soup, chilled cucumber tossed with fern root jelly, fried eggplant in chili sauce and whole mandarin fish decorated with a thick layer of fresh chili simmering in special Camellia oil collected from Hunan trees.

 

When it came to cooking I was grossly under qualified for this job and arrogant enough to have believed I would be able to pick up Eastern cooking methods in such a short space of time. The woks were heavy, the utensils large and the heat intense which made stir frying difficult to master. I had to flip the pan with my left, control the heat with my knees and try not injury anyone with a ladle of hot oil in my right. It was seriously dangerous. When service is in full flow it looks like the wok chefs are performing a finely choreographed dance troupe… albeit one with a useless Foodish Boy at the back moving out of time and back to front.

 

If mastering the wok didn’t prove difficult enough, one fateful evening after a few chillied gizzards, the staff handed me a pack of dark brown dried pods. I was instructed to chew on a pod for as long as possible. It was foul. A thick, smoky, bitter liquid began to form in my saliva – by far one of the most unpleasant things I’ve eaten during my world trip. But the staff insisted I chewed it longer. I later discovered why. A few minutes into dinner service I started to feel pretty high. Though the staff found it very amusing I can assure you there is nothing funny about trying to wok fry on that stuff!

By the end of the week despite the huge language barrier I started to feel part of the team. It’s very bizarre forming relationships with people without speaking to one another. I can’t profess to have had a rough deal, but in speaking no Chinese I at least had an experience authentic to the culinary world in which many kitchens are propped up by a hard working immigrant work force that face similar challenges. By the last night the chefs and I had grown close. As I had been calling them by their ‘English’ names all week, I asked them as a parting gift to christen me with a Chinese name. The chef wrote down on a ticket several Chinese characters and we bid one another farewell. Feeling triumphant over my first Chinese kitchen experience I returned to my hostel to tell the staff about my final night. Handing over my new name, there were immediate giggles. “This is the Chinese spelling for… David Cameron.” Perhaps my attempts to embrace Chinese culture failed after all? Quick, someone fetch me some sweet and sour.

The Chefs Pose for A Photo with the British Prime Minister.

A huge thanks to Kristen from the excellent blog Lum Dim Sum for making this job possible. Kristen runs a kick-ass food tour as part of Bespoke Beijing. The tour will have you sampling the city’s tastiest snacks and visiting one of its biggest open air markets – an exciting romp through a part of Beijing most tourists never see. For more info please see Bespoke Beijing.

The Lord Snooty

When I was child a shameful incident occurred. Having long looked forward to our trip to Italy planned for the summer, Mother announced that they had a change of heart and we would instead holiday in England. Tantrum does not even begin to cover my response. I kicked, screamed and shouted. I thought my parents must have been joking. They weren’t joking. I didn’t want to sit on a sodding pier eating fish and chips in the rain, I wanted to perch myself on an Amalfi Coast veranda working my way through the multitude courses of an Italian lunch. I cried for a week.

I would like to say that this was out of character but ever since I was young I had these occasional snobbish tendencies, especially when it came to food. My parents often wondered how an ordinary Yorkshire lad could behave in such a way. Perhaps if I had been born a decade later some of my behaviour could have been excused by branding me a ‘foodie’. But this was the early 90s and with ‘foodie’ culture yet to go mainstream my parents reached their own conclusion. I had ‘Lord Snooty’ syndrome – a condition inspired by the Beano’s character of an ordinary boy who happened to be an Earl. So when I announced my ambitions to cook around the world, my parents wondered how the Lord Snooty would survive 12 months backpacking on a shoe string budget? With jobs like in week 36, I’ll tell you how.

Trying to secure a food job in China proved difficult. With just two weeks to my arrival I worried I would fail to find a single job. Then I stumbled across Bespoke Beijing, a company that creates bespoke Beijing experiences crafted by a team of industry experts. If they could accommodate the needs of Katy Perry and Dennis Rodman surely they had the wizardry to help with my Foodish endeavours? Luckily, founder Sarah waved her magic wand and in no time found me a placement at the 5 star luxury Kerry Hotel in Beijing’s CBD. The next thing I knew I was in the back of a blacked out beamer being chauffeur driven to start work in one the hotels main dining areas – the Kerry’s Kitchen.

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My week in Kerry’s Kitchen was like no other experience to date due to the sheer size of their operation. The kitchen not only prepped food for the main restaurant, but also for the two other onsite dining options, Kerry’s Pantry and Centro Bar, as well as for room service, private dining and functions. There were so many more links in the chain compared to a regular restaurant. My first day shadowing head Chef Him was manic to say the least. We ran from butchery department to pastry kitchen, up floors, down corridors and from restaurant to bar to ballroom. A very complicated, and tiring, kitchen dynamic and even more remarkable given the high quality of food on offer.

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Kerry’s Kitchen food, like many top hotel restaurants, caters for a range of tastes. With over 100 different pan-Asian dishes I had the opportunity to partake in a huge amount of cooking: a meat masterclass, learning how to boil deliciously fatty chickens, butcher them and use the broth to make accompanying soup and rice dishes; a dim sum session, delicately folding soup dumplings ready for steaming at lunch service; and a wok session teaching me to master the high heat, heavy pans and timings without looking like a lost child on his first day at school.

 

Perhaps the most challenging of all was the hand-pulled noodle masterclass, which a crowd of chefs kindly gathered to observe. The noodle master showed me how to knead and shape the dough. That bit was easy. But then came the pulling process. My onlookers were already starting to giggle in anticipation. The master picked up the dough, stretched it out and folded it in half around his other hand. With every repetition the strands doubled in number and halved in thickness until he had beautifully slim noodles. Then it was my turn…I don’t even know how to being to explain my incompetency. There were odd sized noodles, half-broken noodles, strands stuck together and huge lumps of dough in between. My finished attempt looked more like the work of Jackson Pollock than that of a noodle master.

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After so many masterclasses the chefs informed me that I was going to have to do some work. My role? To run the grill section in the open kitchen and cook to order some Yang Rou Chuan - a cumin lamb kebab typically found in China’s Muslim quarters in areas such as Xi’an. Little did I know this was another stitch-up for their amusement. I soon began to notice what was happening. I am British – I have high standards of queuing etiquette. My customers were Chinese and didn’t seem to know what a queue is. As the restaurant became busier the grill section began to resemble nothing short of a royal rumble. Several times I had to ward off a bloke the size of a sumo wrestler as he tried to grab the kebab on order for an elderly couple. It was all frightfully stressful.

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My week at Kerry had one condition. If I was going to work at the Kerry, I needed to enjoy the full Kerry experience. And who was I to say no? After 9 months of sleeping on floors, in crowded dorms and tents I found myself in a deluxe room, with city views, a gigantic marbel en-suite, a king-sized bed and a chaise longue for foodish musings. And it didn’t stop there. If I wished, I could have even used their luxury health club and spa. Instead I opted for a much worthier pastime…complementary cocktail consumption. On my last night I sank one last ‘Old Fashioned’ in the hotel’s Centro bar, and thought of how I had grown rather accustomed to my Kerry lifestyle. Someone better call my next hostel and warn them…Lord Snooty is on his way.

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Early Times

Bourbon for breakfast. Not how I start most working days, but then again it is not every day that you join a forester to hunt wild boar in rural Japan. Sure it doesn’t matter if the wild boar later out-smart you to live another day. They probably enjoyed a hearty breakfast of flora and fauna as opposed to a whiskey-cino. But look at it this way – if the whiskey wasn’t intended for pre-hunting consumption then why on earth would they call it ‘Early Times?’

Bourbon for Breakfast

With the exception of our Kentucky hunting aid, during my time in central mountainous Japan I rarely saw anything other than local produce. Of course it is easy to claim that this is how things should be; local produce boosts your eco-credentials, keeps things seasonal and helps support your community. But that sort of endorsement would be rich coming from a man who throws a tantrum when Waitrose don’t have any Sicilian blood oranges for his winter granita recipe (grapefruit it is then). Nevertheless, with such a plethora of producers on offer, I wanted to take this rare time away from big cities to work with some countryside producers.

Before you accuse me of cheating, don’t worry, I’m not going to equate a morning drinking session and a mosey around the woods with a ‘food job’, especially as we didn’t do any boar-hunting as such. But the experience still offered great insights into why hunting is important for the local environment. Forester Miyake Daisuke explained to me that his biggest problem is foreign pine. Planted for quick-growing fire wood, the pine soon dominated the forest landscape, destroying many indigenous plant and animal species as a result.

Despite Daisuke’s best attempts to restore natural order, those pesky boars gobbled the seeds, nuts, roots and tubers of every plant they could find. As well as developing a reputation as gluttons, these boars are also serial shaggers and can triple their population in the space of a year. In the absence of natural predators their population booms and they turn to urban areas to seek food and wreak havoc. Thankfully though, this problem has a rather delicious solution. A solution which consists in slowly roasting a leg of boar meat over a fire in a stock of miso, soy and sake. Never has being green tasted so good. 

After my leisurely day hunting it was time for some real work at the Inaka Jiman miso factory. Miso forms an integral part of Japanese cuisine, not just in soup as we commonly find it in the UK, but also as seasoning. During my three weeks in Japan I cannot recall a single meal in which miso didn’t play a part.

The production process is simple. Soy beans are boiled, minced, and left to cool. Salt is added along with koji - a fungus incubated on both rice and barley that causes fermentation to take place over the coming months. During this time the koji breaks down carbs, fat and proteins in the soy beans and converts them into digestible sugar, fatty acids and amino acids which give miso its umami, flavor-enhancing properties. This sort of chemical reaction is slowly starting to fascinate many chefs world wide and has led to a number of experiments in fermentation, such as the work done by Noma’s Nordic Food Lab. Watch this space…!

 

One step in the production process involves rolling bean paste into balls and hurtling it through the air into a bucket. The women of the factory produce miso every week and yet when it come to the miso tossing, the factory is reduced to a state of childish giggles.  If you’re ever in need of cheering up, head to a miso factory. I promise you’ll leave with a giant smile on your face.

Foodish Boy Makes Miso-10

Before I left the countryside, I had one last foodish encounter which couldn’t have occurred on a more appropriate day. Back home a dear friend was celebrating his 27th birthday. The birthday boy? None other than a certain Mr Snackingham, a nickname derived from his ability to hoard packs of discount ham in his work drawer and at home for inter-meal snacking. So how better for me to celebrate than with a visit to the local Japanese ham factory. Had my swine-slurping, gammon-gobbling, ham hound mate accompanied me,  I would never have made my plane to China – we would have been too busy creating a sequel to La Grande Bouffe (minus perhaps the French hookers perhaps).

 

All of these adventures in the countryside were thanks to Charlotte Payne, who served as guide, translator, and enthusiastic entomophagist. In between the my foodish endeavours Charlotte served me many delights such as giant hornet infused shochu, and wasp lava rice sticks, which gave me the opportunity to sample local produce I would otherwise have missed. Farewell Japan…Next Stop China.