Thursday, 13 October 2011

Food For Thought

WELL I MIGHT have been lauging then, as my friend Kneehead reeled from the Guatemalan café, quite literally sick to the stomach at the smell of maize tortillas laid unexpectedly on our table. I chuckled at the sight of him at the roadside, leaning against a lamp-post, pale-faced and sucking in air. But I'm certainly not laughing now. Nine months in and the sight of chicken, rice and beans on a menu makes me want to burst into tears. Or rice, beans and chicken; beans, chicken and rice. Whatever. It's an understatement on the scale of "Pol Pot was a bit mean" to say that the food in the Americas is limited. If the scale of the continent, from Tijuana to Ushuaia, fires your imagination... it's a safe bet that the food won't. And I can't think of a reasonable excuse for this crime against the tastebud?

I was sat alone in a Managua bus station at 4am when my lowest moment occurred. Having arrived late the previous afternoon, I'd wandered around an earthquake-decimated neighbourhood in search of something vaguely edible. The rotating spits of burnt flesh resembling something between human and horse weren't really grabbing me, and I ended up in a Chinese which was about as Chinese as me. Needs must. Having braved the Thriller extras who wander the Nicaraguan capital's streets at this unearthly hour, I made the terminal, dumped my bag and attempted conversation with the haggard sourpuss manning the deserted eaterie. And so I found myself cradling a styrofoam cup, the liquid within rainbow-shiny with grease, watching plastic noodles gradually softening and pitying the lonely, dessicated shrimp enjoying its final swim. From an idyllic ocean life to a ignominious end amongst an Englishman's noodle soup in the confines of a Nicaraguan bus terminal: the indignity of it.

Making my way to my seat, I jealously eyed the coffee an old gentleman was carrying onboard: the crema atop rich and brown. But, having wide experience of the amonia-scented toilets on latino buses, I wasn't taking any chances. Coffee could wait. I don't even drink water on these ardous journeys for fear of contracting dysentry from the filth-strewn interior of a Ticabus shitter. And as I mused on the importance of a contented stomach on the road, the bastard in front of me reclined his seat to within 6" of my face, almost spilling the watery broth Oliver Twist would have turned down into my lap. The obligatory seat-kicker/ headrest-grabber behind me also started up. Ah well, only another 14 hours of this to endure.

Food is very important to general happiness and wellbeing . An army marches on its stomach. You simply don't appreciate just how much good grub means to you until you're on the road. But it's the bland sameness of the food in the Americas which baffles me. The staples are rice, beans, tortillas and chicken; avocadoes if you're lucky. I can't believe the Spaniards spent so much time in this region, left behind their architecture, language and religion yet forgot the tapas? Shame on the conquistadors. I've eaten very well in Barcelona, and it's a crying shame that I can't get the same food or even wine here (have you tried Mexican wine? No...and there's a good reason you didn't know they even produce it).

It comes to something when I can name the places I've had a decent meal in almost 18 months of travelling this region: a trout lunch in San Gil, Colombia; chicken tacos in a Cozumel backstreet; falafel(!) in Bogota, Colombia; cevíche in Panamá City; avocado and scrambled eggs for breakfast in El Tunco, El Salvador; crepes (yes...crepes) in Antigua de Guatemala; pizza ( in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil; pizza in México City; pizza in Quito, Ecuador. You get the picture. Like Kneehead, everyone has a breaking point; I've reached mine now. No more tortillas, please...they stink.

So why the lack of options? México is slightly better than the rest, with a more varied menu. But on the whole you would struggle to discern the cuisine of one country from another out here, and I find this a touch depressing. Europe is a far smaller continent, but look at the differences in cuisine: coq au vin in France; paella in Spain; lasagne in Italy; bacalhau in Portugal; moussaka in Greece and chips in England. They're all different. Give me $3 and I'll find you delicious pho noodle soup in Hanoi, pad Thai in Bangkok, gado gado on the streets of Jakarta. Mouthwatering food, created with imagination. Asian cuisine is unbeatable.

I've had some grim food, the worst being in Nicaragua. I've stared, incredulous, at the piles of fatty, dismembered cattle behind glass beneath a dim light bulb, wondering how people put up with this? Chicken meals have been spat out to the dogs on the street: bones and skin constituting no decent meal I've ever heard of. And why is everything fried in month-old engine oil here? Is heart disease fashionable, or something?

The jury is out on México...everyone telling me that the food is much better here. But most of those people were in Guatemala, after México, and heading South, from whence I'd come. The poor bastards...

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