Tea and food

In Nepal, cheese dries like laundry on a line

27 May 2011
In Nepal, cheese dries like laundry on a line

I was in Nepal recently and accepted an invitation I had received on numerous occasions to enter a house, often a farm. And I have had many opportunities to admire these strange forms hanging above my head like laundry on a line. It is difficult to know which is more incongruous, the electric bulb or these sticks.

But what is this stuff the colour of fresh butter?

In fact, it is cheese, drying out until it becomes as hard as rock.  When it comes to cutting it, no less than a pair of pincers is required. Chewing it is no easier: even just a tiny piece left to soften for ten or twenty minutes in the mouth is still inedible. It requires enormous patience to actually chew it and extract its minimal flavours.

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In Kolkata, you throw your teacup after use

8 April 2011
In Kolkata, you throw your teacup after use

Back to Kolkata. In this city, as in many Indian cities, people drink tea everywhere, especially in the street. There are many tea shops, where you drink the chai standing, or perched on the end of the single wooden bench on the pavement outside. In the tea shops, tea is generally served in freshly fired clay cups, which are very porous. When you have finished drinking, you throw your cup to the ground, and it breaks. As the day goes on, a little heap of broken cups gradually forms.

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In Kyoto, a Japanese tea shop in a covered marked

5 April 2011
In Kyoto, a Japanese tea shop in a covered marked

This is what a Japanese tea shop looks like. Or rather, a tea shop in a covered market, like here at Nishiki Ichiba in Kyoto. In the foreground are chests full of Hojicha and, on the right, the apparatus with a chimney is actually a Bancha roaster. It is used to produce Hojicha. It gives off a wonderful woody, caramelised aroma which spreads to the nearby stalls.

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Raku : a technique used to make tea bowls

8 February 2011
Raku : a technique used to make tea bowls

Each tea accessory used during the Cha no Yu (the Japanese tea ceremony) is made using the methods of an ancient craft. Raku is a classic technique often used to make the “chawan”, the bowl used in the tea ceremony. This process involves firing at a very low temperature.

Here, in the Kyoto studio of Hattori Koji-San, I watched the master potter deftly work the clay and gradually shape the contours of a tea bowl.

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In each country, people prepare tea differently

4 February 2011
In each country, people prepare tea differently

In Japan, they have the Cha No Yu, or “way of tea”; in Russia they prepare their brew in the samovar. The British have their tea time, the Indians drink chai. And when the Chinese prepare fine teas, such as rare Wu Longs, or Pu Ers, they follow the rules of the Gong Fu Cha.

Gong Fu describes an activity that is carried out slowly, with great self control.

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In China, people boil water before drinking it

14 January 2011
In China, people boil water before drinking it

In many of the countries I travel in, the water is not safe to drink unless it is boiled first. So people always have water on the boil, day and night, at home, at work, in the shops, and even on the road, like here, al fresco.

Just after arriving in Sudianlisuzuxiang in Yunnan, while some of our party went off to pluck the birds and others cut fine sticks of bamboo on which to grill the meat, I lit the fire to make tea. On this high and peaceful plateau, once we had eaten our fill and drunk our Pu Er, we stretched out on the grass for a nap. Except for one, who took a stroll with his water pipe.

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Gong Fu Cha is the way to prepare tea in China

7 January 2011
Gong Fu Cha is the way to prepare tea in China

In the West, tea is often prepared in a teapot, usually containing between 50cl and 150cl of tea. In Asia, however, where tea is very popular, the use of a teapot of this size, or even of a teapot at all, is not as common as here. In China, for example, where there are probably the most number of tea drinkers on the planet, tea is traditionally drunk from a zhong (a small bowl with a lid) or from tiny cups filled from a tiny teapot. These utensils – some of which you can see in this photo – comprise what is called Gong Fu Cha.

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Pan-fried hornets with chilli and garlic

26 November 2010
Pan-fried hornets with chilli and garlic

Part of the experience of travelling is escaping from your usual routines. What a joy to be able to discover the habits and customs of our fellow men! Here is one such example…

While stopping off in Lisu (China) I was honoured to be invited to lunch at a little riverside restaurant, a short distance from the main road on which we were travelling. There, in the peaceful surroundings with only the gurgling of the stream and the enthusiastic trilling of a couple of mynah birds to distract me, I waited to see what my hosts had ordered.

For those who one day might travel to this part of our beautiful planet, I feel a bit guilty for spoiling the inevitable surprise and pleasure of discovering a dish so little known in our own country, despite its wealth of gastronomic curiosities. But given that hornets – for this was the local delicacy in question – are so common in the south of France, it seems a shame to deprive our friends in Provence of a recipe that is so easy to prepare and would not fail to impress their guests.  And as we approach the end-of-year festivities, which are always upon us sooner than expected, are we not looking for a more unusual festive dish to make a nice change from turkey or capon?

Here’s an extract from my tasting notes: “A particularly intense contrast between the head of the insect (one of which is at least 10 cm long) and its abdomen. The head, grilled to perfection, is crunchy in the mouth, while the creamy substance that escapes from its abdomen lines the palate, coating the tongue in a thick, generous matter that slowly develops lingering aromas…”

Accompaniment suggestion: I think a “Bourgeons de Yunnan” tea would suit perfectly with our dish.

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In Darjeeling, momos are one of my favourite recipes

5 October 2010
In Darjeeling, momos are one of my favourite recipes

When I’m in Darjeeling, momos are one of my favourite recipes. For those who aren’t familiar with Himalayan typical food, it’s a steamed pastry filled with vegetables (“veg momos”) or minced chicken (“chicken momos”). As you can see, momos actually look quite similar to the Chinese Dim Sum.

Even before arriving in Darjeeling, when I’m on my way, I stop at the Tourist Lodge in Kurseong to eat a full plate of them. In Darjeeling, two famous Tibetan restaurants you could mistakenly take for greasy spoons, the Dekeva’s and the Kunga, have it as their specialty. A delight. Here are two recipes if you are interested, proportions change of course whether you serve them as an entry or as a main dish:
Vegetarian momos (recettespourtous.com)
Meat momos (Elle à table)

It goes without saying that you’re free adapting these recipes according to your tastes, replacing one meat by another, choosing different vegetables, overdo it with ginger. And adding chili to the tomato sauce to rouse the momo and make you, just by itself, imagine you here in Darjeeling!

Which tea to drink with it, you’ll ask me. I suggest a salted butter tea, ideally yacht butter, that you’ll have previously let go rancid just like Tibetans do.

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In Barnsbeg like elsewhere, I take the time for tea

14 September 2010
In Barnsbeg like elsewhere, I take the time for tea

Once the tea is infused you have a wait a little bit of time before enjoying it. I grab this opportunity to smell the wet tea leaves and look around the tasting room flooded with northern light. While in the teacup the temperature goes from the infusion temperature (around 85 – 90 degrees for a black tea) to the tasting temperature (around 50 degrees), I take out my camera and turn around the teacups searching for the best possible angle. There’s no hurry here in Barnsbeg (India), life goes on slowly. I take a picture of the tasting set just for the pleasure of capturing a shimmer or a colour, a shadow or a line on the teacup’s surface. And my thoughts go on drifting, just like a travelling wave.

This is call taking time. The time for tea, simply.

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