Sunday, February 25, 2007

Find this in your supermarket

Fasole cu carnati - Romania's staple

Following on from my previous post about the UK's national dish (the mighty CTM), I've been looking into other countries' favourite meals, those that reflect who they are and their attitudes to food and cuisine. Wikipedia has a list of some of these, slightly contentious in parts - Scotland's National dishes are apparently haggis and deep-fried Mars Bars (although I've written about that before too, so I'm just as guilty of stereotyping I guess). In fact, England's other national dishes include the English breakfast, Northern Ireland's is the Irish Fry (a 'heart attack on a plate'), and Wales has Welsh Rarebit - "It is made by grating cheese, blending it with beer or a little milk and butter, seasoning (particularly with mustard), and spreading the mixture onto hot toast; the whole is then grilled in the British fashion: that is, heated briskly from above". The sick man of Europe, eh?

But what about other nations? What if you're in the mood for a Venezuelan? Or are in Tescos and can't decide between the Bryndzové halušky or the Gado-Gado? We've all been in a foreign country and pointed hopefully at something on a menu, only to have the nearby diners suddenly hush as you inadvertantly order the 'curried pelican testicles à la mode'. Hopefully you might avoid such trouser-loosening incidents if you learn a couple of popular dishes for your destination, and stick to them. Some can be all-encompassing - like the Korean speciality Bibimbap, which I first had on a plane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Meaning 'mixed meal', it's a DIY stew involving some or all of white rice, chicken, beef, fried egg, chilli, prawns, cucumber, courgette, tofu, carrot, radish, fish, mushrooms, doraji (bellflower root), spinach, soybean sprouts, and gosari (bracken fern stems). Apparently sometimes a leaf of lettuce may be added - but you want to leave room for the ice cream afterwards.

Stews seem to be fairly popular in the national dish stakes. Brazilians have their Feijoada (black turtle beans with salted pork trimmings [ears, tail, feet], bacon, smoked pork ribs, at least two types of smoked sausage and jerked beef loin and tongue). A good one will be dark purplish-brown, apparently. Vietnam has Phở, which Wikipedia helpfully mention is 'pronounced /fə/ or /fʌ/ by English-speakers', although my Vietnamese source told me to pronounce it 'Phur', and I know better to argue with her, don't I Lan? Eastern Europe does a good line in stews, of course - like Goulash, Borscht, and so forth.

Scandinavian countries famously enjoy a slightly acquired taste in fish products. The Swedes have Lutefisk - air-dried Cod soaked in a mixture of water and lye (caustic soda) until it reaches a pH of 11-12, putting it dangerously close to household bleach (pH 12.5). Leave it too long, and the fish fats turn to soap - saippuakala in Finnish, or 'soapfish'. Before this stage is reached the Lutefisk is soaked for another five days to make it edible, although I've never actually tried it. However I'd happily sample it if the alternative was Hákarl - the Icelandic shark dish left to putrify in gravel pits for up to three months. Dryly referred to as an 'acquired taste', fresh Greenland Shark meat is said to make people vomit blood - but rotten, it tastes of strong cheese. Mmmmm.

Staying underwater, as it were, we find the famed Japanese delicacy Fugu. An unfortunately toxic species of pufferfish, I saw them swimming around in grimy tanks outside seafood restaurants in Tokyo, and for sale at the Tsukiji fishmarket. It has been banned on several occasions throughout Japanese history, and is apparently the only foodstuff the Emperor is not allowed to eat, for his own safety. Since 1958, only qualified chefs can prepare it. Wikipedia has a great quote on the rigorous testing procedure they undergo. "The fugu apprentice needs a two- or three-year apprenticeship before being allowed to take an official test. The test consists of a written test, a fish identification test, and a practical test of preparing fugu and then eating it. Only 30% of the applicants pass the test. This, of course, does not mean that 70% die from poisoning; rather, they made a small mistake in the long and complicated procedure of preparing the dish." Wiki also reveals the most prized part of the fish - "the more poisonous testicles of the fugu can also be eaten; they contain a milky liquid and taste slightly salty." Actually, I think I'll have the shark.

How to prepare Hákarl

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

One of these is me...

How to do it...

How not to do it...

No prizes for guessing...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Beautiful but deadly?

Bondi - stunning but treacherous

A while ago, to celebrate my 200th post, I wrote about some of the ways people find this blog, and the things they are really looking for. Postwise, I'm nearer 300 now, but the ways the people of the internetosphere stumble bemused onto these pages still fascinate me. As well as the previously mentioned Blogger tracking tool, I've also got a widget on my trusty, yellowing MacBook called Google Analytics - which gives me so much information about you lovely readers it's almost frightening. Graphs, pie charts, keywords, entry and exit points, it's got the lot. I can sit here in my cold Scottish castle and discover what computer you use, your co-ordinates, who you voted for on X-Factor, anything. Through this, I learned what my most popular post of all time is, and not only is it surprising, but just how popular it is is astonishing.

Just under 6% of all my readers look at this one page. They all, without exception, arrive there by typing the same four words into Google (the search engine drags in 36% of my total visitors). It was a post I wrote very early on, when I was just getting the hang of blogging - and my ramblings were noticeably shorter. In fact, as I sit here writing this, four out of the last fourteen people to read DUaB arrived here searching for that one subject - it's incredible. I have the wonders of Google to thank, of course, as if you type the four words (which I'm not revealing yet, as you may have noticed) into their search engine you get 15,500,000 results - the top hit being me. Blimey.

So why do I mention this now? I promise you it's not to blow my own trumpet - it all relates to this Guardian Article last week from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the National Coroner's Information System, which I read while eating my lunch one afternoon at work. As DUaB regulars will know (the 34 of you that have 200+ visits each, my 'Platinum Elite'), I started this thing when I moved to Australia to let people know I was still alive and hadn't been eaten by any of the thousands of killer animals, fish and plants us Brits think live down under. Essentially some statto type (and I know I've no grounds to criticise), has worked out how many unfortunate tourists have died in Oz over the last seven years - 2,433 of them. Almost one a day.

The majority of these tragic cases are natural causes, and have to be comparable with the number of people who fall ill and die on holiday anywhere else. Take out car crashes, and the number reduces even further. But Australia does have a dangerous reputation. This article in China's People's Daily newspaper warns would-be visitors of things to watch out for, under the title 'Deadly creatures lurk amid summer paradise', and goes on at length about snakes, spiders and crocodiles. Personally, I think the wildlife dangers are over-emphasised somewhat, and when the most dangerous native creature here can dish out a slight nibbling at worst, we tend to freak out at the merest glimpse of something scaly, or eight-legged. Or at least I do.

Apart from my close encounter with a very large spider, the only dangers I rountinely faced were from the local takeaway curry house on Victoria Street. But my frankly weedy swimming ability meant I deliberately didn't expose myself to one of the greatest risks of Sydney life - the beaches. I don't mean sharks (although there have been two attacks recently), but the currents. Australian beaches are iconic - and none more than Bondi. But it has a fearsome rip tide, and continually people get into trouble without realising the risks. Already in 2007, eight people have drowned in the city. 210 had to be rescued over the course of the last weekend in January, as temperatures soared into the 40's. Bondi sees a lot of rescues, as new arrivals visit what is arguably the world's most famous beach, and go into the water unaware of the danger.

But do foreigners really think down under is so dangerous, or is it just a much played-upon stereotype? Well, that brings me back to the most popular DUaB post, and those four most searched for words. They are 'Bad Things About Australia'. Be prepared...but don't be put off...

'Bad Things About Australia' DUaB post (1st December 2004)

Australia's fatal charms claim thousands of tourists [Guardian]
Australian Bureau of Statistics website

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Things I learned this week

Where's the duckpond?

Last Sunday was the Superbowl - the orgy of consumption and over-excess that signals the end of the American Football season. I stay up every year to watch it, and traditionally take the following day off work. Even when I was temping in Sydney I managed it, although temps weren't allowed time off - I mysteriously succumbed to a case of 'Superbowlitis' and couldn't come in on that Monday. Miraculously I had recovered by the Tuesday. These 24hr bugs, you know how it is. Anyhow, this Monday gone I was off work (legitimately) and spent most of it sat on the sofa in my lounging trousers in a hungover fug of lack of sleep, sore eyes, and several hundredweight of tortilla chips very, very slowly working their way through. Comforted by the warming feeling of the Macbook on my lap - and boy do they get warm - I fell back on the best way to spend a lazy hour(s) - trawling Wikipedia for facts. Here's what I found - I pass on these titbits, in the hope that you too will grow as a person from having discovered them. May your laps always be warm.

1. The Smallest Park in the World
[park (noun) - a large public green area in a town, used for recreation]. I'm not quite sure what kind of recreation you would be able to do in Mill Ends Park, Portland. Forget the frisbee. Leave the dog at home. At 0.3sq metres, you'd probably struggle to walk your pet woodlouse. Created in 1948 as a refuge for leprechauns to hold snail races (I kid you not), the park sits in the middle of a pedestrian crossing cunningly disguised as a flowering pot plant. But it was fully inaugurated in 1976, and at less than two feet across, makes for a fun (and brief) day out. Link

2. The Saint who didn't go quickly
Saint Teresa of Ávila is the patron saint of Spain, Croatia, headaches, and lacemakers. She founded the Discalced Brethren in November 1568 - 'discalced' being a fancy term for 'shoeless', apparently (one for crossword addicts there). She once had a rather painful-sounding vision - a seraph repeatedly driving a golden lance through her heart - after which she cried out what became her motto - "Lord Let Me Suffer Or Let Me Die" (I think every saint has to have a catchphrase). Someone up there obviously has a sense of humour, as she died at midnight on the 4th of October 1582 - the exact moment Spain switched to the Gregorian calendar. To fit this new system, the day after jumped directly to the 15th of October, the Lord therefore letting her die peacefully in her sleep over the course of 11 days that never existed. Link

3. The Ploughman's Lunch Deception
'A ploughman's lunch is a cold meal - featuring at a minimum, a thick piece of cheese, pickle, crusty bap or chunk of bread, and butter. It is often accompanied by a green salad; other common additions are half an apple, celery, pâté, sliced hard-boiled egg or beetroot.' Pâté? Keep all those EU subsidies rolling in! But the article continues...'In Britain ploughing is usually done during winter. At that time of year the ploughman’s wife or mother would have been unlikely to include salad in the ploughman’s lunch. Err, yeah. I guess. 'Green vegetables would be difficult to get in winter.' Hmmm. I smell a rat. 'A real ploughman's lunch would have more likely consisted of just cheese and pickle.' what's the deal? 'Lexicographer Edwin Radford in To Coin a Phrase (1974) attributes the current usage to Richard Trehane, chairman of the English Country Cheese Council.' The buggers! Working in cahoots with the English Crusty Bap Council, no doubt. Link

4. How many mice live on the Tube?
Half a million, give or take - covered in brake dust so they appear black. London Underground facts have their own Wiki entry, and there are some fascinating pearls amongst them. Five stations are named afer nearby pubs: Angel, Elephant & Castle, Manor House, Royal Oak and Swiss Cottage. The shortest distance between stations is 250m - Covent Garden to Leicester Square on the Picadilly Line (which your author has, for some reason, timed at 19 seconds). If you buy a single ticket for that journey you'll be paying the equivalent of £25 a mile. The recording of "MIND THE GAP" is spoken by a studio sound engineer, after the actor hired to read the line insisted on royalty payments and it had to be re-recorded after he had left. And if you think the Tube smells bad - on the 23rd March 2001 a specially created fragrance called 'Madelaine' was pumped into Picadilly Circus underground. It was discontinued after a single day as it made people feel sick. Link

5. 110 million editors can't be wrong
Well, they can - Wikipedia isn't an exact science. The site's most innovative selling point is also it's biggest source of controversy. Allowing anybody to edit articles leaves Wiki open to error, feuds, lies, and practical jokes. Ranging from my mate Craig's attempts to prevent people cluttering up his favourite listings with pointless waffle, to the man who was sacked from his job for creating a fake biography of his boss, linking him to the Kennedy assassination. The scandals must be good publicity - Wikipedia is currently the 12th most popular site on the internet. In case you were wondering what people actually use it for, the ten most commonly read pages out of the 1,626,814 articles it contains are: Wiki statistics (3.9m views per day), Wikipedia Main Page, Saddam Hussein, Sex, United States of America, Naruto, (a manga series) Wii, Gerald Ford, List of Sex Positions, WWII [as of Jan '07 - List in full]

Friday, February 02, 2007

Bottom 100 Mammals

'Scruffy overgrown shrew' in action...

"For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" Newton said once - although apparently he said something far more complex, but was probably babbling after getting brained by that apple. There are similar sayings and philosophies, like that credit card advert where someone does something clever so around the world another person has to be stupid to act as a counterbalance. Basically, it seems whenever anything good happens, there could well be a bad turn around the corner. Only a few months ago, I brought you the story* of the Cypriot Mouse, a brand new species of mammal discovered in Europe. It may have escaped your attention over the festive period, but recently we lost a species of mammal - albeit from slightly further afield.

The 2006 Yangtze Freshwater Dolphin Expedition travelled almost 4,000 miles in two weeks along the Chinese river, with monitors constantly scanning the yellowy water for one of the animals, known in Wuhan as Baiji. But they didn't find any. The co-leader, a Swiss scientist called August Fluger, said afterwards "We have to accept the fact that the Baiji is functionally extinct". Under the gaze of the world's cameras, a species vanished. River dolphins have slipped through the murky waters of eastern China for 20 million years, and have now become arguably the first large mammal species eradicated by human activity in the modern era (that we know of), especially when as recently as 1980 there were over 400 in the very same river. There are four other species of freshwater dolphins in the world, all critically endangered.

This brings me to a list. The Zoological Society for London (ZSL) have recently launched a new organisation called EDGE of existence, with a remit to '...conserve the world's most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species by implementing the research and conservation actions needed to secure their future'. By sending scientists to work with local experts and wildlife students in the countries where these species live, they can hopefully give these amazingly rare animals more of a chance. You, the public, can donate money to schemes to help the creatures and the students involved. Targeting individual types of fluffy things designed to appeal isn't new in conservation - but EDGE are doing things slightly differently, in that the things they are after might be fluffy, but most of them sure aren't cute.

The New Guinea Big-Eared Bat is one of them, and it may be too late for them as well. EDGE have released a list of the 100 most critically endangered mammals in the world, with the Baiji an unfortunate (and now possibly absent) number one. The NGBEB hasn't been seen since 1890, when an enthusiastic collector bagged 45 at once, and may have destroyed an entire species in one field trip. The top, or as it should probably be - bottom - 100 mammals left may be only 95 at the moment, the Vietnamese Leaf-Nosed Bat hasn't been seen for 60yrs, and is only known from a single individual. EDGE use an interesting system to work out which animals to concentrate on - those that are ecologically distinct or unique and are on the IUCN Red List, so putting more emphasis on unusual species.

Of course, the Giant Panda and Blue Whale are featured, but then also are such incredible oddities as the Handley's Slender Mouse Opossum, which is so rare there's no picture of it, and scientists don't know exactly where it lives, what it eats, or how it reproduces. Apparently it's quite slim, though. What about the Senkaku Mole? Confined to a single 4km island, they were only discovered in 1991, and are currently under threat from 300 goats trampling their burrows. The undoubted cutest of the lot, is the Long-Eared Jerboa, but there are other things with wierd and wonderful names, like the Hainan Gymnure, the Dinagat Moonrat, and the Hispaniolan Solenodon.

Predicatably because they sound strange, and look strange, most of them are incredibly strange. The solenodon (of which there are two in the top five) resembles 'a scruffy overgrown shrew' and produces toxic saliva that it injects through snake-like grooved fangs. The Sumatran Rabbit is so rare that locals don't have a name for it in their own language - which must present a problem to visiting well-meaning biologists. The Golden Bamboo Lemur exists solely on poisonous bamboo shoots, consuming 12 times the lethal dose of cyanide for most other mammals every day. The Volcano Rabbit rather unfortunately lives only on the slopes of lava-spewing mountains on the outskirts of the food-deprived population of Mexico City. I could go on. These things are incredible, and need your support. Who would want to live in a world without scruffy killer shrews and volcanic bunnies?

*Or I read it somewhere and quickly re-hashed it

EDGE of existence 100 List
Zoological Society for London
2006 Yangtze Freshwater Dolphin Expedition