A Memory of Taste Part 4

As I have experienced a little depression over the last 6 months or so I have neglected that which makes me happy, partly due to a lack of inspiration (I attribute this to feelings of depression) mostly due to a lack of will power to write. Recently some of you found the blog and commented and this made me want to get back to writing because the cathartic nature of this blog helps in many ways cleanse my mind of the craziness of the everyday world. So thinking about my experiences of the last 6 months (or so) I have settled on writing about a gem I found in Portland, Oregon thanks to my brother.

Now many different diets encourage some crazy carb counting or avoidance of meat (crazy I know, but why judge when you can eat great food…even vegan food) or the total reliance on juice. Now I have never really dieted…I have cut back on things and tried new meals, I always keep myself open to new food experiences whether or not there is weirdness involved. For this kind of omnivorous diet, Portland is a great town. From food trucks to dive restaurants to upscale eats every type of food is represented here. It is one of these small places in the north Portland neighborhood of Kenton.

Kenton is deceptively enticing, you see the normal trappings of Portland…the Max, a Fred Myers, and other Portlandy sights…my favorite being a sign waver who was dancing his heart out. He was truly captivating as I waited at the red light to move again. But once you get to the “historic” portion of Kenton that changes, a lumberjack statue welcomes you to the area and you are partially transported to a small town. There are many shops lining this road, some pretty damn good restaurants, but my focus is on the Cultured Caveman.

My brother introduced me to this place, he knows I like to explore different foods and so he takes delight in introducing me to places around Portland. However, the Cultured Caveman has some of my current favorite foods. This first trip though introduced me to my favorite…bacon wrapped dates. I had no idea what I was in for when I ordered…after all this is a paleo restaurant, I have known some paleo eaters, but a restaurant? How do you set up the meal without free bread or bottomless fries? It is possible, and to do that you must begin with an offering of something so scrumptious that no one can deny its deliciousness…except non meat eaters of course. Back to the food. The dates were, in a word, amazing. Inside the dates are an almond and the entire thing is sheltered in a covering of bacon…now I am a bacon guy and this dish was amazing. Salty…sweet without a big sugar taste…and the almond at the center added a nougat taste, the entire experience eating this made me want more…my mouth was salivating and my brain cried out to eat them all, so I did. I followed the appetizer with a shepherd’s pie which included sweet potatoes and satisfied me. Now the Cultured Caveman is not your normal sit and be served restaurant, but the experience of it is distinctly Portland. There are many things on the menu from squash based pastas to Vietnamese inspired dishes, and not all are equal, but bacon wrapped dates and shepherd’s pie are worth the trip.

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So let’s recap; the best Chinese food is in the Middle East, Napoli pizza took my breath away, and street food is good everywhere (unless some bastard under cooks a meatball and you end up in the hospital after a horrible few days). I’ve covered Italian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cuisine. But there is more…

I am one who adheres to the belief that food aids in the definition of culture. I believe that our very identities are wrapped up in food, everywhere. My earliest encounter with this was in the Costa Rica during a trip my Junior Year in high school. Of all the memories I gathered in that trip, the red beans and _______________ (add your accompanying dish here) was something which defines that trip for me. Even when I have not eaten the dish in 20 years. It is something that I can visualize and when I do the overpowering memory of taste takes me to that trip with fondness which outstrips my memory of any high school event ever.

Where am I going with this? Well, last post I wrote about street food and I am about to again. Most of us eat bread. And when we think of good bread we think of loaves or artisan breads which we’ve found that accompany a meal particularly well, sometimes we dwell upon the breads from a bakery which have been developed and perfected over a millennia of experimentation and crafting. I personally hold a great affinity for French Bakeries because, well what food person doesn’t really? Baguettes and other delicious creations come from there and go with everything from pasta to mixtures of oil and vinegar. But one of my favorite breads ever came from a place where I expected pasta to reign supreme.

In the city of La Spezia, Italy I found a bread which just thinking about makes my mouth salivate to the point of having to stop writing and drink something. I had roamed about the streets for the better part of a day with a friend. We didn’t find the layout to be anything near what Naples offered, but it was charming and we found interesting things here and there. But when we stopped in a small shop for a snack I discovered what I call Italian flatbread.

This bread was similar to that which use for panini’s, it looked like a flat Ciabatta with holes in it for some reason. When I tasted my purchase the buttery smoothness overwhelmed my taste buds and good sense. Over the duration of my visit there every meal involved that bread. I sought it out for snacks, and today I remember it fondly. I have tasted other delightful breads, but the memory of that one always brings a smile to my face. It makes me look into small shops to see what is there, that experience is what drove me to try things like Shwarma and other street culinary delights. That bread would be worth the difficulties of immigration…come to think of it, if anyone knows of a job in Italy I can get I’d head there in a heart beat!

A Memory of Taste part 3

Most of us can name our favorite restaurant or even our favorite food/dish. When I think about this I have to classify mine by region or cuisine as I have so many favorites, half my reason for wanting to travel is to eat different foods from exotic places. But often times my favorite foods from places comes down to street food.

Now, while my home state’s biggest city, Portland, Oregon, has a great street food industry and tradition. The absolute best street food I ever had was in Bahrain in Shwarma Ally. And I know many of you are thinking “Really? Bahrain?…Wait, where is that?” So this will not only be a trip down memory lane, but it will have a short geography lesson too, Yay!

So as I have said before, in 2002-03 I was in Bahrain which is a small island off the coast of Saudi Arabia just north of Qatar. The island is nicer than it has any right to be, there is a lot of sun and hot, but it makes up for that with some pretty nice beaches and a thriving, cosmopolitan population (at the time). The food there was wonderful as I could experience Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Ethiopian, and many other styles of food. But the crown jewel in my opinion was a local street food vendor area known by many as Shwarma Ally.

Now those of you who have had gyro’s are saying “I know what shwarma is, and its not all that special.” To those people I say you are more wrong than you could ever know. The street itself was among shops which hawk all kinds of different wares, the most fun were the rug shops, which as soon as you walked in you had tea and a best friend trying to sell you a rug at what they would assure you was a price which would impoverish their family. But on the street there were food vendors, some were in carts while others had more permanent facilities.

This particular shop, if I recall correctly, was a large cart which had four upright spits turning different meats slowly next to a heating element. We approached the shop and I asked the man what the different meats were, and he replied; “I have lamb, beef, pork, and meat.” The statement was said so matter of factually that I did not react right away. After I had processed what he said I started a little bit and asked, “What is meat?” He looked at me with an expression which bridged incredulity at the question, offence due to me not knowing the answer, and pity because I had obviously never eaten true meat before. With this look he answered my question, “Meat, is meat my friend.” I chose that one and ate it. It was one of the most wonderful things I have ever eaten, and it has not been topped in the fourteen years since.

Now I could close there, leaving you to believe that all street food is excellent. But that is simply not true. Sometimes you run into something from a food cart that leaves you crouched over or on a toilet bowl for longer than you care to admit or remember. There are trips to the hospital, embarrassing catching of fluids for the doctor to run tests on, and lying half out of your mind on a couch clearly meant for you to only sit on it while other patients pass by whispering and staring at you. So when it comes to street food, eat at your own risk. But often enough you will be surprised by something that titillates your taste buds enough that you find yourself writing about it a decade and a half later.

A Memory of Taste Part 2

In my first post I wrote about the succulence of Napolie pizza. And while that was excellent, my next post is one of my favorite dining experiences. From November 2002 to June of 2003 I was stationed in Bahrain. While there I lived in the town surrounding the base. My friends and I would often venture out into previously unexplored (by us) portions of the town to find restaurants and bars.

On one of these occasions a buddy and I happened upon a building adorned in Arabic and Chinese writing. There were cars parked out front and a valet was taking keys and ushering people inside. Now, upon seeing this we could have decided to high tail it elsewhere, but our curiosity got the better of us. Not knowing if we would be turned away, we parked the car a short ways up the street and walked to the front door. As we approached the doorman opened the door and ushered us inside the building.

Once inside we realized this was a restaurant. It was set up like a Sheri’s or Ihop, a waiting room in the foyer with padded benches and the dining room was filled with booths and tables. As we looked into the dining area we saw families, Bahraini and foreign alike, but no American or European looking faces looked back at us.

The┬áhost sat us at a table in the center of the room, our water was brought, and a menu was set in front of us. As I opened the menu I was greeted with nothing but Arabic and what looked to me like Mandarin writing…no English was seen. I looked at my companion, he looked at me, “What the fuck?” We both shrugged and continued to look at the menue until our waiter approached us.

He greeted us, and asked us if we wanted anything to drink, and then saw our puzzled expressions. “Can you read the menu?” Once we told him no, he chuckled. “I can bring you food…if you’d like, trust me.” We decided to take his word for it, gave him the menus, and sat back to wait.

Once our food came, at first I was slightly disappointed. It was a small plate of veggies, and by small plate it was the size of a small salad plate. A little dubiously we began to eat…and the food was good. The first plate was finished quickly, and as soon as we were done a new plate was put in front of us. I almost didn’t notice the plate was taken away, but when the new plate of food was put in front of us we tucked in and continued to eat.

Now, I’d like to say that after the second plate of food we were done, because we could have been. No, instead I have to tell you that we had another plate set in front of us. Now, not being one to complain about good food, I started on that plate albeit much slower. This continued through the fourth, fifth, and sixth plates of food. I normally didn’t fill like this except on Thanksgiving but I kept on, mostly because the food was delicious but also by some sort of sense of misguided honor that this was a challenge to the Americans in this decidedly local restaurant.

As we finished the sixth different dish we saw a seventh approach, it was set in front of it and I looked at it, a man defeated by food. By stomach was so full that I wanted to lean back, loosen the belt and ease the snap of my jeans open to allow my belly room to escape. Our waiter appeared, “How are we doing? Is the food satisfactory? Do you need more?” This was the last plate! We were on the home stretch! My ┬ámind made itself up, I would finish this meal, my taste buds had overridden my capacity to stop as soon as I knew an end was near. We informed that waiter that all was good and asked for the check. “No dessert?” I wanted to strangle him, but we politely declined and he walked away.

As we finished the meal I knew that this had been something special. When he returned with the check we asked the waiter about the restaurant. He informed us that the king of Bahrain had invited a 5 star chef from Hong Kong to come and start this restaurant. We had just eaten small portions of all the popular dishes from the menu. I was impressed, and as I rolled out the door I wondered if I’d ever eat Chinese food this good again.

Now I have lived and worked in China on several different occasions. In the North, South and Central portions of the country, and I have never eaten like I did that day in Bahrain. It was amazing in my memory. And the surprising nature of it most likely remains lodged in my brain for all time, but the accidental finding of the restaurant is one of my favorite experiences while traveling.

A Memory of Taste

Why do you travel? This is a question I get a lot. Whether it is designed to dig into my thought processes, or to fill the awkwardness some people feel during silences during social situations, it comes when people learn I have traveled and intend to continue to travel as I am able. For most we travel for different reasons, for me the reason is simple. Food. Experiencing places through food is a way to know people, don’t believe me? When you were growing up which friend’s house did you like the best? The one that had either good food or the best snacks (or the easily accessible booze…). I had a lot of friends who were fun to spend time with, but my favorite places were where the family would feed me good food. And if I was fed bad food, well…I didn’t spend to much time there.

So I travel to eat, and this has led me to partake in some interesting dishes. From street food to 5 star restaurants I have eaten a lot of different foods (man I am talking about eating a lot right now). My favorites are so different from each other that I demand that I keep looking to find new taste experiences, that way I can experience not only a country but one of the most important facets of its culture around a dinner table.

In Europe, my favorite foods thus far have come from Italy. I have ranged from England to Spain and down into Croatia…but Italy has captivated my taste buds thus far. The first of two places is in Naples, I don’t remember its name…hell it might not even exist anymore as I was there in 2000. All I remember is we walked up the dock, past the citadel and into the small streets of the city. Somewhere back in there we happened upon a restaurant that boasted a brick oven to bake its wares. The clientele ranged from families to obvious couples on dates, menu was simple and we ordered in no time at all. I ordered what I remember to be the diablo pizza and I sat back to wait.

In no time at all the pizza slid in front of me, round slices of pepperoni surrounded by melted mozzarella cheese with pepper flakes cooked into the cheese, sauce, and crust. If you have not experienced Napoli Pizza, then shame on you. It is not like American pizza, each one is intended for an individual, or to share between two. There is not small, medium, or large. They were all one size, and that was enough for me. As I dug into the round dish I noticed the explosion of different flavors; fresh mozzarella, fresh pepperoni, fresh dough, and enough spices to cause me to immediately break out into a sweat.

As I took each bite my mind screamed “ITS TO HOT YOU DUMMY!” But my mouth over rode this with the thought of how delicious this was. My father has said the same about ghost pepper tacos, ghost pepper sauce on his burritos, and other ghost pepper dishes…I still refuse the ghost pepper sauce. Anything that might haunt Mario and the Princess doesn’t deserve to be eaten. This pizza on the other hand made me forget where I was, who I was, and what my purpose was for the short time it was on my plate. It was delicious…a true thing of beauty. To all the people I know who have traveled through Naples, most have experienced the same or a similar restaurant. To those who travel to Naples, search it out, after the Citadel it is one of the small streets on the right hand side…If I could remember the details I would live at the restaurant.

Next time…the Middle East!