Friday, February 24, 2012

Madeira food and dining

adeira is not exactly your gastronomic destination. What you mostly get here is what guidebooks politely call "hearty fare": simply cooked peasant grub.

Fried chicken or fish with a side of potatoes and veg - centuries of British involvement with the island's economy seem to have taken its toll!

For an island plopped whack in the middle of an ocean, Madeira lets down in the seafood department: there is fish and seafood galore in the markets but in the restaurants they end up cooked in the blandest and most forgettable way, oily and overdone.

The fiery looking bunches of dried chillis I saw in the markets never seemed to find their way in any food that I tried. Could they just be used to ward off evil spirits in houses?

Funchal's Mercado dos Lavradores may be named Workers' Market but it is mostly busloads of German cruise ship tourists that are unloaded into it with astounding frequency. Heaps of most exotic fruit make you wonder why it was the lowly apple that Eve had to be seduced with in Paradise.

Bacalao, the salted cod, as seamen's staple is probably what ensured Portuguese colonial expansion, but hello, refrigeration has been with us for over a century! I have heard so many times that it can be cooked in 365 ways but in each dish it tasted like bits of PVC soaked in stock from Knorr's fish cubes.

The local specialty, espada (scabbard) filet with fried banana is of highly dubious culinary value: very good fish prepared in the most unimaginative way.

On the other hand, lapas grelhadas are a treat. Cooked very much like your escargots à la bourguignonne, grilled with garlic-parsley butter, they come together perfect with a sprinkle of lime juice and a sip of nicely chilled Portuguese white.

Madeira's finest seafood restaurant, Doca de Cavacas is definitely head above shoulders of other comparable establishments on the island, but then again, it's not such a hard feat. A platter of rather oily grilled fish, squid and prawns comes with the sides of boiled potatoes and vegetables. Meh.

What is superlative in Madeira is bread and pastry. The local round bolo de caco is good enough to eat plain. With some garlic butter it makes for a scrumptious meal!

Madeiran pastry is cheap, abundant and universally perfect, nothing to do with the utterly dull and boring British Madeira cake.

Some varieties, particular those involving coconut flakes, apparently have been brought back by emigrant Madeirans workers returning from Venezuela, hence names like bolo Venezuelano.

Pastéis de nata, egg custard cakes that seem to have a universal currency from Macao and Dili to Lusaka and Manaus, are invariably delectable with a shot of punchy fragrant espresso.

Bolo de mel, another Madeiran specialty, is a treacle sponge bun with nuts, delish dunked in port.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sri Lanka cuisine: food and dining in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is hardly on the map of gourmet destinations. Local food tend to oscillate between tongue-numbingly hot curries on top of rather dull local rice and bland versions of what Sri Lankans think Western food must be.

he abundance of tropical flora somehow is yet to translate into anything along Thailand's exuberance of herbal flavours. Nor have the tropical seas surrounding the island blessed its tables with any seafood fare worth writing home about.

There are exceptions, however. The best Sri Lankan food we have tried was in Ella, commonly - and rightfully - peddled as the capital of mountain-style curries. Unlike in the rest of the island, you can actually taste the difference between different dollops of spiced stew and their appetising flavours betray a rather enlightened use of aromatic herbs on top of the spice mix. Overall, the concept is very similar to Thai gaeng pa.