Saturday, 26 February 2011
By Boeing: 6390 miles
By Boris Bike: 6.2 miles
I had been looking forward to only my second African foray. Algeria, on the Barbary coast, had been fascinating, but is a world away from the heart of the continent.
My perception of Cameroon has largely been formed by an image of their enigmatic footballer Roger Milla’s flamboyant corner flag dance routine at the 1990 World Cup. This seemed so fresh and exuberant compared to the firm shake of the hands that Bobby Charlton may have exchanged with a stern faced Alf Ramsay.
The unbridled, unbounded joy of the fans, blasting their trumpets and beating the incessant rhythm of song, left a lasting impression, so different from the image of the despairing, despotic Africa presented on the news. This image was developed at the recent world cup in South Africa, where a much maligned, misunderstood continent showcased its passion to the watching world.
So when I traipsed through the glum, grotty streets of a suburb on the fringes of the tube network I expected a heartfelt welcome. Unfortunately my visit was treated with suspicion and unease and I am unable to share the details of the restaurant or location and those who want to will find it much harder to discover the flavour of Cameroon.
Nestled between the ubiquitous string of kebab shops and fried chicken establishments that characterise the urban fringes, this community restaurant was dimly lit and dingy. The interior looked like a cross between a Leatherhead sub-office of a cable television provider and the plush waiting room of an eccentric dentist. The grey, flecked, asbestos riddled ceiling tiles, bare carpet and municipal tables were complemented by random bursts of colour courtesy of murals, asymmetric patches of paint and lurid serviettes. The lines of tables were broken by a lounge area , where the sullen owner and her friends sat in huge, sumptuous, grey leather sofas in urgent, vociferous chatter.
As with many of the restaurants on my journey it marketed less to the casual diner than the bride, the betrothed and their brethren. The menu catered for such large groups offering plates, platters and party discounts. The house speciality was a two foot long grilled Tilapia, a popular African fish, but I, as ever, sought out the national dish, a rich stew called Ndole. Unfortunately they didn’t offer that as it was too difficult to make (this is a common theme with national dishes, I encountered the same problem in Albania). So instead I opted for a similar staple, a thick, flavoursome stew in which fragments of goat vertebrae could sometimes be found.
This Egusi came with a mound of pounded yam, the continental variant of mashed potato, but with the gelatinous consistency of semolina. It was spicy and nourishing and reminiscent of the curried goat I had enjoyed on my first stop off in the Caribbean, unsurprising of course given the cultural ties between the regions.
The wine list wasn’t what I would call extensive. Even the greenest of sommeliers would have little trouble discerning the good and the grape. It contained three options: red, rose and white. I opted for an imported beer instead, which complemented the stew well. As a sampler I also ordered Suya, beef smothered in a spicy peanut sauce and skewered, a popular street food and extremely moorish. A dish very typical of the region, that I will look forward to tasting later in my journey, is Jollof Rice, a medley of tomato, pepper and chunks of fish or meat. I considered the ‘assorted meat’ soup but winced when told it contained tripe.
I have heard rumours that bush meat is considered a delicacy and can often be ordered ‘a la carte’, so to speak. But however hungry for new experiences and tastes I may be a Chimpanzee cutlet is never going to be a tantalising, let alone ethically acceptable, prospect.
Cameroon stands at the crossroads of the continent, a former French colony buttressed by the British protectorate of Nigeria. With a ready supply from river and sea fish dominates the diet of all but the richer classes. Shrimp paste is a common ingredient, even in meat based stews, and this is reflected in the name of the nation, which is derived from the Portuguese for ‘River of Shrimp’. Its cities are more cosmopolitan and the urban elites are increasingly getting a taste for burgers, Indian and Chinese.
As is the sad fate of many post colonial African nations progress and peace have been hampered by corruption and infighting. 41% of the population are under 15 and the life expectancy is a depressingly morbid 53. Life for most Cameroonians remains one of struggle and subsistence. The mixture of cultures, tribes, colonial influences and refugees from neighbouring countries has created a complex ethnic and linguistic tapestry.
This rich diversity of cultures, tribes and colonial influences is made more complex still by the mix of religious groups. Christianity and Islam are widely followed while ancient animist beliefs are still prevalent away from major cities. Witchcraft, although forbidden, is still practised and can incite sporadic mob violence when a witch is declared.
This ethno-religious melting pot can be an obstacle to commerce and cultural transaction but In urban centres a solution has been found in the form of a new dialect known as Camfranglais, a pragmatic pidgin of French, English and local slang. I can only assume that the unprounceable surname of the country’s icon, Samuel Eto’o, was its only etymological error to date.
I left Cameroon harried and in a hurry, unable to savour the tastes or get a feel for the country. I very much hope I can stay a while longer, and be welcomed later in my journey.
Friday, 18 February 2011
Location : Camden
By Boeing: 1032 miles
By Boris Bike: 1.9 miles
Cambodia is the Asian destination de rigour. Its troubled, insular recent past means its cultural tentacles stretch far less far than its more established, modernised neighbour, Thailand. It is a backlit backwater that promises timeless mystery and untainted treasures along the meandering course of the Mekong.
While Thai food has become almost as ubiquitous in London as Chinese, Cambodian restaurants remain an oddity, tucked away off the beaten track to be discovered only by the brave few who venture beyond established Asian cuisine. Lemongrass is just such an example. Although located amidst a cavalcade of cuisine in cosmopolitan Camden it is just set back from the bustle of the busy, popular streets that throng with the colourfully curious and the plain hungry. Though spartan and unassuming it lacks the frenetic energy and bustling bonhomie of a Chinatown canteen and yet has little comforts for the sartorial sophisticate or sloany supperer.
The charm of Cambodia lies in its rustic, ritualistic, parochial character. It seems like a country suspended in time, unfazed and unfettered by modern convenience and the western, materialistic template for progress.
French colonial rule has left its culinary markers. The odd, almost abstract, practice of dipping baguettes in curry must be a surreal image to behold. But when the French left Cambodia became first a pawn in the Vietnam war and then the anti-modernist, anti-western, anti-intellectual regime of the Khmer Rouge. Its simple, pastoral lifestyle may appear charming but was attained through suppression. But Cambodia is beginning to find its feet again thanks to the debt it owes to a far older, far grander era in its history. In the early middle ages the Angkhor civilisation was the most powerful in the region. To celebrate this might they built the largest capital the world had ever seen. It is thought that at its zenith Angkhor had almost a million inhabitants, making it the largest pre-industrial settlement on earth.
An enduring symbol of this golden age is the temple of Angkor Wat, the main tourist attraction in the country, the silhouette of which dominates the country's flag. As the Asian Machu Picchu, Angkhor has become a focal point of an increasingly well trodden tourist trail. Cambodian cuisine shares influences with its neighbours and aficionados of Thai will be warmly familiar with the coconut milk based soups and mounds of glutinous sticky rice. But there are also some surprises. Chilli is rarely used in Cambodian cooking with heat generally provided by black pepper.
After a slightly stodgy leek cake and a bowl of garlic smothered mushrooms i looked forward to a Lok Luk steak curry, that came with a promise of authenticity by the chef. Its peppery intensity was very enjoyable but somehow felt more European than Asian. If i closed my eyes i could have been in a French bistro but a million miles from a Bangkok diner. Although I must say i would have welcomed a Baguette to soak up the rich sauce.
Presumably attempting to serve the taste for Thai, Lemongrass offered few traditional Khmer dishes and instead served Thai derivatives and pan-asian staples. I was disappointed not to try Prahok, a salty, fish paste, that is used as the base for many of the nation’s dishes. It's tart, salty flavour is clearly not deemed a taste the west will be sold on. Instead blends of regional spices such as ginger, lemongrass, turmeric and galangal are used liberally both in soups and stir fries. But as the only diners on a Thursday evening it seemed that the policy of serving what are perceived as more popular dishes may have backfired.
Washing my peppery steak curry down with spine-shudderingly ripe palm juice I looked forward to a little more adventure for dessert. Perhaps to inject some drama into the experience i ordered flambéed banana fritters, caring more about their flammability than their flavour. The waitress enjoyed lighting the dish that glowed briefly and unspectacularly like a Calor Gas capsule on a dull, wet Welsh hillside. They were fun, in the way plunging an impossibly long spoon into a knickerbockerglory is fun.
In not offering an authentic experience they have merely joined the rank of countless Thai restaurants liberally scattered across London. They have gambled in forsaking their unique selling point to appeal to a reliable and loyal market. This was also reflected in a dispiriting absence of cultural paraphernalia. A montage of historic temples and ancient artefacts would have injected some soul into the surroundings.
In most restaurants on this journey the walls have been festooned with the intriguing and the alluring, from bulbous stringed instruments, to intricately woven battle-dress and even bejewelled scimitars. These artefacts stimulate the imagination and sow the seeds of a future visit to the country itself.
The next time I am in Camden i half expect to walk past a Thai restaurant, the location of which is strangely familiar.