If You Know Where to Look 2 – Ethnic food

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If there is one thing London can provide, it is a panoply of asian and oriental food. New York even more so. Buenos Aires, not at all so some would have you believe. Can this really be true? Of course this may be largely irrelevant to the beef munching tourist. And there are other ways to take a break from the caveman diet. Good Italian (my favourite is Marcelo), Spanish (Tancat), Pizza (Siamo Nel Forno), Armenian (Sarkis) Syrian/ Lebanese (Club Sirio – and the building is spectacular) or more problematically Fish (Damblee or Crizia, both have oyster bars). Further, there are all sorts of traditional “Bodegons” serving the local dishes, such as suckling pig, lentils, puchero or locro. So no, as a tourist here for a few weeks, you won’t have time to get bored.

But what do you do if you live here and have only spent 2 weeks outside the country in the last 4 years (trust me Chile and Uruguay don’t count when we are talking food variety – Peru of course does, but I haven’t made it there yet)? And if you were bought up by  a family with Indian roots (albeit rather colonialist ones) and ate papadums from the age of 6 months sitting on the counter of the local curry restaurant? It is certain that at some point you are going to seriously miss the lack of spice.

Well, first option is Peruvian or Nikkei, the Peruvian Japanese crossbreed. And for that you get yourself down to Osaka or Sipan where you will eat international quality food. What you won’t get is much picante though. For that you have to go to one of the barrio restaurants around Almagro and explain that you are not Argentine and therefore will not die if they put chilli in the ceviche (while we used to go to Mochica, it appears Elvis – the prior owner – has left the house! The last visit was disappointing , you are just going to have to do your own hit and miss research).

You can also go for Korean. However this involves persuading a taxi driver to take you down to Korea town in Bajo Flores, a rather dangerous part of the city (actually we drove and found that the streets were being patrolled by an admirable amount of policeman, so after dinner we still had a vehicle to drive back in – of course this may say something about the quality of La Doctora’s car). There is no doubt this is the real Korean deal. 200 Koreans can’t be wrong! We were the only non-Korean faces in the incredibly crowded place which drew some attention. But once you played with a few babies and chatted with the locals on the heavily armoured smoking terrace, they turn out to be a friendly bunch. And for a very reasonable fixed price they will bring you as much of any dish as you fancy, be it the cheaper meats or soups or the more expensive oysters and prawns. The only drawbacks are that you have to cook it yourself on your tabletop BBQ, and swear on your European passport that you are not Argentine – so please bring the bloody chilli sauce.

But as a Brit, Peru and Korea never really crossed my gastronomic sightline. What I miss is a Ruby (for those who don’t speak the Queen’s cockney rhyming slang, Ruby Murray was a jazz singer and her surname nearly rhymes with Curry, which is why a Londoner goes for a Ruby). There is only one place, Tandoor, which is genuinely good. Luckily it’s round the corner from The 5th Floor but I still feel we have an inadequate curry supply in Capital. What to do?

Asian is the same. Green Bamboo nearly gets it right but while the cocktails are great the food is adapted to the Argentine palate, as in dulled down. Cocina Sunae (a puerta cerrada), seems to have taken the other tack, starting small and educating it’s customers about the food. Much better and the only place we go regularly to eat east asian food.

But things are changing here. Argentines are beginning to crave more than meat, salt and smoke. My bet is in the next ten years gastronomy is going to take off. Their wines are evolving fast, their food tastes are sure to catch up. My plan is to be involved in the next developments and try and de-risk the start-up of some cutting edge new restaurants, be they bacon and sausage sandwich joints, noodle bars, or full on Vietnamese cuisine. Damn, the Mexican food here is so awful that my Mexican Architect can’t recommend anything. And where can you buy decent chocolate? We need to deal with these things as well!

So obviously I was a venture capitalist during the internet era. I “incubated” a load of companies (in partnership with multinationals like Sun Microsystens and Fujitsu), that provided fantastic services that people didn’t know they needed. The incubation part of the plan was brilliant. The failure was that no one actually needed most of the stuff we incubated. My shame is that my voice integrated software for surfing the net, is now forming the base of a lot of the voice responsive interfaces when you ring your bank. And the f@&King thing still doesn’t even recognise my voice!

But here I have a genuine reason to incubate businesses. While I only have to produce breakfast for 14 people, my kitchen is prepared for 50. Why? Because there are a lot of people out there that know how to cook something different, but don’t have the facilities or the experience to do it. The incubation process was meant to be about taking someone with a great concept, facilitating the delivery and adding any business skills they didn’t have. I think I can do that!

So I put it out on the internet. “Who wants to collaborate? Who wants to take advantage of my facilities? Who wants to make participate in a culinary adventure? I got various replies. A guy from Vietnam, a woman from Pakistan, a German lady who is fascinated by traditional South American cuisine and refines chocolate to 90% purity (another of the apparently undiscoverables here) and who as you might have guessed, is now working with us at The 5th Floor. A friend who does Vegetarian, Vegan and Raw food thinks she might like to do something (and while I’m prejudiced against that stuff, her food is strangely pretty delicious).

Of course, the hardest part of being a Venture Capitalist was the endless hours spent listening politely to enthusiastic entrepreneurs with hopeless business plans containing endless zeros after the £ sign. But here we are talking about food. The worst that I will have to do is spend endless hours eating and if the food is bad I can simply up my wine consumption speed, to ensure that the presentation is at least tolerable.

So I am proud to announce that we have just completed our second round of due diligence / eating a lot, with Thomas the chap from Vietnam, and the investment committee (we will still have to invest time, facilities and marketing skills) has approved moving on to the next stage in the incubation process…namely organising some trial dinners. “Thomas at The 5th Floor”, will shortly be bringing authentic Vietnamese and Thai food to the heart of Alto Palermo!

As always I travel with my lawyer “por las dudas”, as they say here. And La Doctora is establishing a healthy sideline skill in ipad food photography. Unfortunately, at the first tasting her enthusiasm for a bit of spice (while she is Argy, she lived 7 years in Peru where they do know their chilies) somewhat got the better of her and she wolfed down the salmon in coconut curry soup and the chicken satays, before remembering we were serious professionals who needed photographic evidence of our travails. All was not lost though, we salvaged a few shots and this time she behaved like the consummate professional, snapping hastily away before consuming the evidence. So a few shots of dishes that may appear at “Thomas at the 5th Floor”.

A fresh mango prawn salad, sharp, sweet and citric with the saltiness of fish sauce:

imageSeared, marinated beef (calm down my little Argy friends, that’s my portion. We can cook yours until it will be impossible to know there is blood inside a cow), served with sticky rice and a darkly soya/sesame oil/spring onion and spice dipping sauce and a cold lemon grass tea to accompany:

imageFresh summer rolls with peanut dipping sauce:

imageNote fresh pickled chilli and homemade sriracha sauce in the middle:

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Vietnamese spring rolls that you wrap in lettuce with mint and coriander then dip:

imageA delightful chicken broth with wontons and 5 spice pork:

imageA dessert of steamed plantains, tapioca and roasted peanuts:

imageSo by all accounts, another hard day suffered by la Doctora and myself in order to bring a little more diversity to the lives of my Buenos Aires friends and my future guests. And while the latter may not imagine coming to Baires to eat Vietnamese food, by day three they may feel a sudden urge for a meat or pasta free experience. And of course they will get the chance to meet and mingle with all the great people that I know who live here, rather than just speaking to a waiter in a restaurant. So everyone’s a winner, especially me and La Doctora who will have prime asian food, fresh out of our kitchen with little effort other than hosting a great party, once a week!!

Works for me.

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Tiger’s Milk

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When my father behaved badly, which was not infrequent and invariably booze fuelled, my mother would undertake a subtle but cruel revenge the next morning. All in the interest of his health you understand? If my youthful memory serves me right he would be presented (obviously feeling a little worse for wear), with a strange witches brew of live (read fizzily fermenting) yogurt, mixed with all kinds of other well-being inducing but totally unpalatable ingredients, with a couple of gloopy raw eggs stirred in at the last minute. “Tiger’s Milk” she called it. Maybe there was tabasco, maybe not. That could have been the Bullshot. A consomme and egg yolk concoction which was as close as he came to eating solids before midday.

So imagine my consternation when stumbling puffy-eyed around the bedroom, squinting through the window at the bright blue sky and the first shimmers of midday heat, wondering how I was going to get through the cultural agenda that I had enthusiastically planned the previous day, before getting intimate with a Mr Maker and his Mark via a succession of Old Fashioneds and the girlfriend suddenly says;

“I think you need some leche de tigre.”

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I’ve never thought of her as sadistic, not even passive-agressive but images of my father’s sad face as he swigged his penance flooded back.

“Was I really that badly behaved last night?” I mutter.

“No you were fine, unusually charming for you, but it will set you up for the day. Why don’t we drive down to Abasto and visit Mochica?”

There is not much I like about Abasto apart from the fine Art Deco building that was converted into its central shopping center. From the outside only you understand? And the idea that a restaurant had institutionalised morning-after punishment, failed to fill me with joy. But much gets lost in translation and the girlfriend has spent 7 years living in Peru. Perhaps my panic was premature.

“So describe this tiger’s milk.”

“Its a creamy mixture of the juices that ceviche is cured in. You’ll like it. We’ll ask for it spicy…and they do a great pisco sour.”

So all of a sudden this is sounding an enticing option. Presumably if you get the milk you get the ceviche it came from. And other than the fraudulent Chilean variety which only makes me sad, I haven’t drunk a decent pisco for a year, sour or otherwise.

“And the owner’s called Elvis,” she tells me. Sold! I love restaurant owners with ridiculous names.

So we wander down there around 3.00 pm and find ourselves in a vaguely smart (if this were the 70’s), airy restaurant packed full of Peruvian families tucking into mountains of food. They have extreme fighting on a couple of TV screens. My head still hurts a bit and I wonder whether it would be acceptable to try a couple of the moves on some of the noisier kids who are running around unchecked (normally I would find this sweet and tell the girlfriend glowingly how the UK is so child unfriendly and how wonderful it is that families can socialise together).

The girlfriend turns out to be well-known. Ordering is not complicated. The big house-special mixed ceviche, extra leche de tigre, Peruvian spice levels, after all we are not Argentine’s who will cry like young girls at the first hint of chilli. All the same, as I dip my bread into an innocuous looking dish of green chilli sauce, the waiter hurls himself towards us with cardiac resuscitation equipment. Maybe I’m beginning to look like an Argentine. I regale him with stories of mutton phal down Brick Lane. It calms him.

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So the ceviche? My father would have probably actually enjoyed it, even though it contained solids. A great selection of fresh (this is a high throughput restaurant, it doesn’t hang about in the fridge) white fish, prawns, squid, mussels and clams, though strangely also those weird-coloured artificial crab stick. Fresh citric flavours, undertones of coriander and smooth green-tasting spice. And a big cup of leche de tigre whose creaminess toned down the acid assault on my delicate stomach lining. Plus a proper pisco, single distilled and matured in those strange looking clay vessels.

Taste buds zing, vitamins flow into the system, spice inspires a gentle sweat, pisco smooths out the remnants of abuse.

Truly the breakfast of kings!

If I was a proper food journalist I’d be able to tell you about the history, the menu, the other dishes. I can tell you about the price though. About 200 pesos all done, including the artificial looking, but apparently completely natural drink made from purple corn, that Veronica drank. While we shared a starter between two, believe me it was enough (believe me? How old fashioned. These days we have photos). I did stroll round the tables though. Frituras of fish, copious enough for four. Chicken and rice, kind of Peruvian paella style. Sadly not a Guinea Pig in sight.

So yes, there are the fine tiraditos at Osaka, and vibrant ceviches at Sipan, but if you want a man’s breakfast, a meaty portion not a minimalist art work, something that will chase your hangover to the next week? And while for an expat it isn’t that expensive, for its Sunday regulars its probably a treat and they know what their cuisine is all about, so you have to accept that the flavours are the real deal. Veronica confirms as much.

Sorry my pictures aren’t great but hope they say enough.