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Saturday, 24 January 2009

Greek humour and Pad Thai Singlina (Γέλιο α λα Ελληνικά και σύγκλινα α λα Ταϋλάνδη)

I'm not too hot on TV cookery shows. They seem to be full of advice that isn't feasible, ingredients that aren't readily available, complicated recipes made to look simple, and overly slim cooks (for someone constantly involved with food). Their pantries are full of jars and bottles containing items you've never heard of, the meat they cook never looks like it came from an animal (but from saran-wrapped styrofoam dishes), and the cooks seem to have a strangely distant relationship with their object, their kitchen aprons too clean for the use intended.

The Greek equivalent of 'Ready, Steady, Cook' was quite enjoyable, but didn't last long. People at the time were probably not ready for such radical changes to their regularised cooking methods and ingredients. Some of the more entertaining food shows in Greece these days are those which report on regional cuisine cooked by locals with a hands-on approach to food. The presenters of such shows are rarely cooks themselves, acting more like facilitators (or 'glastres', flower pots as we call them in Greek, meaning not very well-informed female TV announcers).

An actor recently came on a 'morning coffee' program, and showed us how to cook a pear tart. His 'kitchen' was located in a restaurant. "That looks nice, Maria," said my husband. "We (the royal one) could try making one of those some day." Yes, we certainly could - it would be bigger, the crust would be thinner, and the fruit wouldn't look pureed; quite frankly, it looked like something made by someone who rarely spends time in the kitchen on a daily basis, has most of their cooking needs performed by restaurants and/or family members, and simply wants to impress his/her friends by cooking haute cuisine.

This is why I love Ilias Mamalakis' shows (and Jamie Oliver's for that matter). For a start, they both cook food suitable for all ages. Ilias knows food at the grass roots level. In his travels around the country in search of regional specialties, he targets real food made on a regular basis by the locals, using locally produced specialties. His shows are foodalogueamentaries: a mixture of armchair travel, documentation and hearty meals prepared for eating in social environments, a very important characteristic of Greek cuisine. He also takes trips abroad showcasing foreign cuisine, at the same time teaching us how to adopt it into our Mediterranean kitchen using local food items. He did this very well last weekend with a food trek across Thailand, interjected with plenty of Greek humour, which may sound slightly insulting to the uninitiated. It takes a little getting used to, but it is genuine, and there is no intention on the part of the entertainer to offend. Sometimes, it's just a case of stating the obvious, which is not always done in the politically correct world. But honesty is the best policy, and it doesn't hurt to laugh.

When Ilias arrived in Thailand, the locals probably thought he was Buddha reincarnated. A short, stout man with his big fat cuddly teddy bear looks, and a constant smile on his face, he epitomises contentment with the world around him. Ilias was infatuated with the exotic sights and sounds of Thailand, as any open-minded person would be upon entering a new environment:

of the tropical rain: "when it rains here, γίνεται ο χαλασμός του κόσμου" (it's like the end of the world).
of the local people: "if you want to hear them, ask them to talk to you as if they need to be heard through a tropical rainstorm" (that χαλασμός του κόσμου that he was talking about above).
of the elephants: "finally, someone who eats more than I do."
more on the Thai people: if you smile and speak softly, you'll be guaranteed a pleasant reception from them (ελπίζω να μην μας έβρυσε, he also added - "I hope he wasn't swearing at us").

Ilias explained some of the new flavours he was lucky to try in their authentic home environment while he was there, and gave us an idea of how we can substitute local items if we don't live near Evripidou Street in Athens, where most of these items are readily available (the largest variety of non-Greek food items in the country are located here):
dried hot radish - "use freshly grated Daikon radish which has a spicy flavour"
palm sugar - "use plain sugar, adding it little by little to suit your taste buds"
tamarind - "it tastes of sour lemon"
fish sauce - "σχέτη λύσσα" (so salty it will make you rabid); use salt or extra soya sauce
rice vinegar - use a mild Greek wine vinegar for a similar effect.

We all take delight in the sensation of trying something new, but if you live away from the main centres (Athens and Thessaloniki), these exotic ingredients will be hard to come by. My local supermarket stocks a good range of BLUE DRAGON products, but if you use only one mass-produced brand of Asian bottled/canned/packaged food, in this case you will end up making a meal that resembles a blue dragon rather than a real Asian meal. It's better to make an effort to find local products that you can substitute for the real tastes to re-create this meal in your own home, and this can be done. There are few cuisines in the world that do not have a range of herbs and spices that can be used to create a desired flavour.

So where's the humour? Here's how Ilias explained some other ingredients to his Greek viewers:
tofu - μια σχέτη αηδία (absolutely sickening): no matter how dairy-free or vegan or healthful tofu is, it is usually tasteless;
tomatos - as ripe as a stone - you're better off using Greek ones (he's probably right).
sesame oil - ha ha, very funny, olive oil can't be beat (of course, he's right);
dried shrimps - OK, they have so much shrimp available that they run out of storage space in their freezer;
chili - έχει βάλει αρκετό ώστε να εκτοξευθεί ένας πύραυλος - they use enough to fire a rocket into space.
Not funny to you? Lost in translation...

The 15 minutes dedicated to making pad thai was not enough to really understand the technique involved in making this dish. The internet features a short but very descriptive video of pad thai being made on a floating market (pretend you didn't see the cook rinse her cleaning rag in the river) but the best account is given by Chez Pim. She explains how ridiculous it is to give precise instructions on making a dish often made with whatever is on hand, and whose success depends on the taste buds of the eaters. She also notes some abominations in recipes available on the internet for pad thai that will guarantee failure - no doubt, we could all mention a few gems of this sort for other recipes...

It goes without saying that pad thai was on the menu during Ilias' trip. As my husband watched the Thai chefs deftly shaking their woks, his mouth watered at the range of items being constantly added to them, layer by layer. "Can you do that?" he asked me.

Men will be men. The last time I did that was when the children complained that this kind of makaronada was not to their liking. Not being very sympathetic to fussy eaters, I hate cooking more than one meal for lunch to suit different tastes. It isn't feasible. Good thing there was some leftover spag bog for them today.

pad thai singlina
My kitchen benchtop was fast running out of space as I laid out all the ingredients needed to create a Mediterranean version of pad thai. Packaged goods, left to right: mild Cretan wine vinegar, olive oil, sugar, hot thai chili sauce, soya sauce, rice noodles, sambal oelek. In the bowls: shredded cabbage, cauliflower florets, thinly sliced singlina, grated onion, garlic and ginger, lime (available here occassionally), lemon, egg, slivered bell pepper, peanuts. The unsightly large empty plastic canister on the right is simply my way of reminding Mr OC to fill it up with olive oil...

I won't be giving you my recipe for the pad thai I made; the photo says it all. I used Pim's advice (not her recipe), and if you want to successfully make some yourself, it's worth reading every single word. I had no suitable meat or seafood available as it is used in pad thai, but I was very fortunate to have on hand some traditional Cretan preserved pork (known locally as singlina, smoked pork with sage, thyme and Cretan oregano, ) and a bottle of sambal oelek, a fresh chili paste which I had bought on one of my past trips to Evripidou Street. Although I don't own a wok, the low pan I used with a heavy metal base was perfect for all the quick mixing required so that nothing stuck to the bottom of the pan.

apaki singlino cretan smoked preserved pork smoked preserved pork cretan singlina
Both packets contain smoked preserved pork made in Crete. Singlina (left) are made according to a Haniotiko tradition, while apaki (right) comes from Rethimno, the neighbouring province to Hania.
pad thai.

Fusion cuisine suits the globalised world we live in to a tee, so my creation - using traditional Mediterranean flavours and ingredients to produce an Asian-style dish - would make this an excellent example of MediterrAsian cooking, using the two healthiest cuisines in the world, according to the figures for longevity in the countries where these or similar cuisines (Crete and Japan) are commonly practiced.

Then again, pad thai singlina could simply be a case of salmon kleftiko...

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