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An insight into the food that people long for when far away from home.

 

5Sometimes in order to do this job, I have to go out of my house and eat food and drink alcohol. It’s tough, I know. Not everyone is trained for this (excepting, and mostly, those of Scottish descent). It’s an occupational hardship, I realise, but I can do it..

    'And so, on just such a professional occasion, I’m in a restaurant, and I’ve been chatting (networking, as it’s now called) with the German guy next to me. We’ve been talking about love and the meaning of life and things-weleft- behind when, suddenly, Gunter (who has been sipping schnapps substantially and looking increasing more wistful and nostalgic) leaps to his feet and yells out ‘KNÖDEL!’ Which in English means … ‘knoedel’ and in German, well, it doesn’t mean much either. Because it’s Austrian, and it means – shouted with passion like this – ‘I love potato dumplings!’

      This kind of extreme and sudden outburst is generally only ever associated with one of three things. As in: ‘My ex-wife/husband! I’ll rip her/him apart when we meet again!’ Or: ‘Oh My God – I miss lutefisk so much!’ Or (and this is the other major one ) anything at all to do with football.

      I just knew you were going to ask about the lutefisk, although I wish you hadn’t. Therefore I am obliged to explain that it’s a Norwegian thing and I don’t really want to talk about it. Not many people do, not even Norwegians. So, maybe, more about this later. (If you’re unlucky.)

       The north coast of Samui is becoming increasingly more popular when it comes to actually settling down and living here. I’ve even heard a rumour that David Beckham is now trying to buy the whole coastline, although Posh wants to go a bit higher up for a better view. But however famous you are, and wherever you end up staying on Samui is, in this context, unimportant. You can surround yourself with razor wire and CCTV security, but the real enemy lies within. Take my neighbour, for example, an utterly normal man and a retired teacher, who recently was struck by a kind of, what can I say, a kind of ‘knödel’ moment. He returned home to discover that his house had been burgled.

      He gets back home to find the sliding doors off their rails, everything all messed up, drawers pulled out and so on. His wife runs to her jewellery box with wails of lament. He, on the other hand, heads straight for the fridge. She quietens down as she discovers that there’s nothing missing. But it’s he that’s now howling, and he’s yelling just two words again and again, uttered with horrified disbelief, “MY BRANSTON!” Because all that the burglars seem to have taken is his one-litre jar of Branston Pickle.

      Somewhere back in the 70’s there was a hairy rock group howling about ‘what do you miss!’ But that had nothing of the passion and the temper of choruses of – ‘We miss our food!’ It’s just so tempting to say that the Italians miss their pasta, but they do. And the Swiss ache, not for cuckoo-clocks or Toblerone, but for something called fondor. They slap it over everything they eat. Do Americans away from home yearn for burgers? Surely not! You can get them everywhere. I’ve just had an American friend mail me from up north in Chiang Mai and tell me about his longings for “… a real-deal meatball parm sandwich with fresh mozzarella on semolina bread.” So, sorry about the simplistic ‘burger’ thing.

      You can completely ignore Chocolate Hob Nobs, haggis, wallabies, knödel, biltong, Bendick’s Bittermints, rösti, Vegemite, ’furters, wursts or airrag (Mongolian fermented mare’s milk). In all my searchings and researchings, by far the most evocative and dramatic food-that-is-missed-with-passion just has to be the Norwegian lutefisk – it looks like you’re going to be unlucky, after all.

 

      It’s a simple thing and it’s made mostly of cod; the biggest one that can be found. But it’s not just the eating of it; there’s an entire ritual that goes with it, too, and it all centres on aquavit; a Scandinavian vodka made from potatoes. The idea is that you drink a lot of this stuff to begin with. The sure-fire test is that you spread caviar (well, anything, really!) onto lettuce, and then also smear some tomato ketchup onto a bar of chocolate, and carry on with the aquavit. When you get to the point that you can’t tell the difference between the lettuce and the chocolate, you’re ready to eat the lutefisk. Ask any person from Norway and they’ll tell you all this is essential. (A lutefisk recipe from the internet: ‘Put the fish in a tub and add caustic soda. Leave for two weeks. When the fish is completely luted, it will be so swollen that you should easily be able to poke a finger through it. Note: do not make lutefisk in the warm season.’) 

 

      It’s eaten with mashed potato and a bacon soup which traditionally should consist of 60% fat. The lutefisk is already a grey jelly and you stir the ‘fish’, the mashed potato and the fatty soup all in together. Ideally, and if you are a purist, the resulting goo should be a uniform grey colour.

 

     I was intending to also say something about the passion of football, but somehow the point now eludes me. I have a feeling that the Norwegians have something to offer that the rest of us don’t fully appreciate. They are a stoical people, and the food they miss sets an example to us all. It certainly puts pastrami-on-rye or potato dumplings in the shade.

 

      So the next time I’m out doing research in a restaurant, with all the haute cuisine and obliging chefs and waiters, I’ll have something to talk about. It could be politics or even religion. Football seems a safe bet. I’ll even get into potato crisps versus chips. But not fish, and definitely not cod. Certainly the word ‘lutefisk’ will be absent from my vocabulary. But, then, I’m not Norwegian . . .

 

 

 

Rob De Wet


 


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