Monday, March 29, 2010

In Johannesburg

We landed in Johannesburg this morning after a 16 hour marathon trip through Dubai with a total of half an hour shut-eye door to door. We're staying with a good friend here in the city until we head off tomorrow very early in the morning for a 6 hour drive to Kruger national park. We've been treated so far to fantastic South African hospitality with an unexpected family dinner this evening, sating us perfectly, ready for a good night's sleep. I guess internet access will be flakey at best until we get to Maputo some time later in the week. We've just been inundated with books and binoculars to see us through the wildlife in Kruger and I'm sure that this will add to coming blogposts, so, until then...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Great food in England to start the adventure

As a British expat living in Spain I'm frequently met with people claiming how terrible the food is in England. I'm not strongly patriotic in general but I do feel very passionately about this idea that all food in Britain is bland and badly cooked. I've been in England now for a couple of days with two foreign friends, on the way through to South Africa, where we will be heading this afternoon, and I've had the good fortune to be able to dispell some of the myths about the cuisine here.

One of the first things you notice as you come into London, especially from somewhere like Santiago is the amazingly rich cultural diversity. You are immediately met with an incredible variety of languages, and as we headed to East Dulwich we passed an endless stream of restaurants from all corners of the world, from Eritreian, to Armenian, from Jamaican to fine French dining. Incidentally, this isn't to point out anything about British food at this stage, but just the huge diversity on display and on offer in the Capital.

We headed out on Thursday night to a local Turkish restaurant and were greeted with plates of spicy olives and tahini laced humous which we gorged on even before the starters arrived. I have struggled to find really flavourful olives in Spain so far, though down in Andalucia they have come close. (I should note that I don't like to complain about Spain, there are many things going for it, but I do find that the lack of imagination in the cuisine in the North West is a huge pity given the incredible local produce - the sea food being outstanding. It might seem a strange paradox to many, but coming from Santiago to England I am suddenly aware of the richness of possibilities I have grown up with). Heading out afterwards for a beer in a local pub, my Polish/Norwegian friend had his initiation into the world of ales, being surprised by the complexity and depth of flavours on offer.

This was all very enjoyable, but the first real taste of the British culinary scene came the next day as we headed towards the Tate Modern via Borough market. I hadn't been to Borough market for a few years, but if you ever want to see what can be done with fine British ingredients and a true love of cooking then come to this place in the morning and gorge your senses. The place is a wonderful mix of incredibly passionate people, selling world class produce, from cheeses which would put many a Frenchman to shame, to incredible pies, filled with peppery wild boar and spiced pork, to locally produced beers and wines, incredible selections of fruit and vegetables, and a panoply of other tasty treats. We dug in for a little post-breakfast treat before heading to the Tate Modern where we took a few tentative steps into the darkness.

For lunch we headed to Chinatown and had some tasty Sichuan dishes before resting for a few hours in a heaving pub, filled with that end of the week feeling, and then moved on to Brick Lane for the true curry-house experience. It was really wonderful to meet up with old school friends, drink the evening away and dig into my first vindaloo in many a year and to be able to introduce friends from other countries to this experience, without it seeming over the top or too unruly , was really lovely.

The next day we moved on to another of East Dulwich's hidden treats where steak and guinness pie gave another perfect example of good, basic but very tasty food from the British Isles. In fact we needn't have gone to the restaurant as all along one of the side streets was a Saturday morning market, where pork was being spit-roasted, fudge was being sold and more local treats could be sampled for a small price. Walking around this sort of market makes me proud of British food and even more defensive of the fact that we really do have wonderful culinary traditions, even if the much maligned overcooked veg, and badly cooked meats can certainly be found all too frequently. The point is that amazing food is available in this country, but you have to keep an open mind and know what to go for and what to leave for the less discerning eater.

Last night we headed back to Oxford where my mother had produced the most classical of British meals, roast beef and yorkshire puddings. I was a little afraid of the cliche, but with such fine beef, crispy roast potatoes and herb-filled batter you couldn't go wrong. I was very happy that my guests, repleat and almost unable to move had had a great cross-section of Britain's finest.

So, from this, onto Johannesburg where we will land in about 24 hours, ready to start our new adventures.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Santiago-London-Johannesburg-Maputo and back again

Yesterday I felt, for the first time in a long time, the fibers of my body, without the flow of energy which usually accompanies such filaments. This week was an exhausting push to get a paper finished, which culminated in three days of virtually non-stop work, coding, writing, calculating, talking over syntax and interpretation, figures, angles and resolutions. A piece of Mathematica code I had written a few weeks ago was cut down by several hundred lines, a great satisfaction, simultaneously frustrating in the realisation that I had been complicating matters until then. But now I am drained. As the adrenalin left my body yesterday, a vacuum was left in its place, a scant few molecules of ATP keeping things ticking over.

Anyway, last night I slept a good 6 hours and I'm feeling refreshed this morning, back into the normal weekend routine as Santiago once more treats us to a downpour.

And now what? Now we have more to do for the next installment on this work but first I have a holiday coming up. Last year a couple of good friends I know from Santiago moved to Maputo in Mozambique where one of them has a job working as a governmental consultant. I promised that I would visit the Easter break here seemed the perfect time. So, on Thursday I head off with a couple of other friends, via London for a couple of days, through Dubai and into Johannesburg where we will pick up a car, drive through Kruger National Park and make our way into Mozambique. Until today I've barely had time to think about it, but right now I just can't wait! We will have less than two weeks in Africa but I'm thoroughly looking forward to the experience.

So, for now, lots to get ready and plenty of papers to print out to take along for the beaches of Mozambique! I'll do my best to blog from the trip and update with pictures wherever possible.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

In the mix

...and that makes it the longest blog absence in four years. For those who haven't been being worried by my facebook jargon-based ditties (it seems that a reasonable number of people think I've truly lost it), I've been attempting to condense my thoughts over the last couple of weeks into just a few lines of semi-nonesense poetry which end up as facebook updates.  Work has been busier than ever with a project which so far has taken many many late nights and several thousand lines of mathematica code to get going. We're getting some interesting results and hope to have something out in the next few weeks. This will be a slight change of direction for me, and one that I'm enjoying a lot. It's a real pleasure to be doing something analytic, rather than struggling with numerical instabilities for once!

On top of work I've been getting back into the swing of cooking for reasonable numbers of people, with a a hotpot meal on Tuesday and a Korean/Chinese combo on Thursday for a group of Shock-household initiates. I tried a new dish on Thursday which worked pretty well, though sadly no photos were taken.

I made a huge batch of kimchi a couple of weeks back, though that is now fast disappearing, and, as usual some of the paste was left over, after having liberally coated the cabbage. The paste doesn't take too long to make, consisting of rice flour, korean chilli flakes, fish sauce, garlic, onion, ginger and a little sugar and I've found that the combination of heat and umami compounds (of which fish sauce is high) add hugely to just about any dish you may want to add it to.

Combining the previously made kimchi paste with gochujiang (a fermented, sweet, extremely firey Korean chili paste with quite a different heat to the kimchi mix), salt, a touch of brown sugar and cumin I marinated a rack of spare ribs for an afternoon before cooking them at 150C for 3 hours and finally giving them a ten minute browning at the end. The results were pretty decent and I'll definitely be experimenting with this some more. The mix of cumin and spiciness is reminiscent of the Beijing take on Xinjiang cooking and the huge quantities of garlic are well worth the pain of peeling the cloves en masse for the kimchi paste. On top of this my mapo dofu is being to resemble the versions I tried in Sichuan, thanks mostly to the aquisition of a tub of fermented soy bean paste. Walking round for a couple of hours on Thursday afternoon I discovered that it's almost impossible to get tofu in Santiago and so will continue to make my own when I get hold of some more of the solidifying agent.

Anyway, for now I have a week's worth of Chinese vocab to catch up with and some Young Tableux to ponder....