Thursday, October 6, 2011

Downunder Food and Anchovies

Why have I not written about food yet? Back in San Diego I go around dissecting the menu and then the individual dishes. Here I am, 7900 miles away, in a different continent, different culture, and I do not talk about food.  And there is a reason for this.

So far I have been feeding my craving for Chinese food. Both Melbourne and Sydney have significant Chinese presence and therefore great and varied Chinese food. When there is good Chinese food, there are no other options.

But now, the anchor has been released and I am floating up the north eastern seaboard of Australia, away from the urban environment that I feel so comfortable in. And perchance I am exposed to the local cuisine. 

When I travel I make it a rule to eat one salad every day, and to try something weird every day.  The weird dishes have amounted to a tahini coconut rice ball from the marihuana capital of Australia; Nimbin. To today’s pie—Australians eat a lot of flaky pastry pies—this one was chicken and asparagus. I go in a shop, I ask the attendant, wow you have a lot of pies/items/choices what is the most unique and strangest item you have. This is likely to get me in trouble one of these days, but so far, so good. Hence the tahini ball, which I initially tired to break in half, but it resisted. I had to bite into the hard ball, like a dense rice crispy ball. A concoction of rice, desiccated coconut, tahini and something brown that I could not work out. I think it is Milo (like Ovaltine) Australians put it on ice cream here. Well that is what I hope was in it.

Which brings me to my salad. So a quick lesson on caesar salad. It was not developed by any of the Italian Caesar gods in between their acts of debauchery meddling with some lettuce and cream (oh the imagination wanders aimlessly.) Or by one of the many Caesars' grateful chefs preparing the dish of lettuce to compete against braised bull testicles and sheep brains. No.

It was developed by a restaurateur Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant, who was living in San Diego but also working in Tijuana where he avoided the restrictions of Prohibition in the 1920’s.  The dressing involved (involves to this day in some continents) raw eggs, and why it must be prepared fresh. The basic recipe is romaine lettuce and croutons dressed with parmesan cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, and black pepper.

So I ordered a chicken caesar salad in Byron Bay and the dressing is good, lettuce, crotons, and then there is a poached egg sitting atop of the bed of chicken. There is a great distrust for having lettuce overwhelm a dish. It seems like perhaps there is so much fluff on the dish and we must have more substance, more of everything but lettuce. In San Diego when I go to DZAikins I can order a salad that is 12 inches by 6 inches and that is not a family meal. So, in this salad at Byron Bay, there is maybe four roman lettuce leaves, an ample proportion of chicken breast meat, and a poached egg (perfectly done) sitting like a diamond atop of pedestal of protein.

So you would think that I would know what to expect next time. Forward two days and I am in a local pub in Harvey Bay. “Would you like anchovies?” With my salad? Only to recover quickly and say “Sure.” What have I ordered now. Again the dressing is good, a few lettuce leaves at the bottom, but two very prominent lettuce leaves sticking out of the bowl like rabbit ears waiting to be shot down. Tenderloin chicken in ample proportions, crotons, and quartered boiled egg, slivers of ham, and, true to the order, a few lines of anchovies. 

Before I go on  about the adherence to the true recipe, the addition of anchovies tasted really really good. Again I would prefer more lettuce. Vegetarians must get a bum deal here since to be a vegetarian you have to eat twice as much in volume to make up for the less dense matter. To survive and make up for all the protein and nutrient you need to consume twice the volume of a carnivore. Back to the anchovies. They tasted really good on the salad but why? This is where the bible of all bibles in cooking comes in…On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. Worchester sauce, one of the main ingredients of the caesar sauce,  is made from anchovies. So the idea of combining the dressing with its main ingredient is not that alien.
Every Caesar salad so far has been different, with something new added. The last one involved a cold fried egg, which we will not dwell on. But who would have thought of combining anchovies with salad. 

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