Squashing The Competition
THE REQUEST WAS, AT FACE VALUE, A SIMPLE ONE. My South African visitors wanted to eat great food. They did not want to see museums, art galleries, grand musical shows or even the sights of San Francisco, where I live. I should add that my friend Anne is one of South Africa’s better-known restaurant reviewers. Though she had written that she and her significant other had no agenda and that I could create one, I might have known that for her, “no agenda” would mean a food agenda.
My itinerary included spending two days in wine country, and then heading south along the California coast before returning to the city, stopping and eating at memorable places along the way. How could I fail? Hearing the itinerary, she said she wouldn’t mind seeing a few grapevines between meals. Although we need not worry about seeing Big Sur when we drove south. A nice lunch in some civilized little town on the way there, perhaps at a table outdoors, would be quite adequate.
I have lived in the Bay Area for eight years and eaten many remarkable meals. Disasters I can count on one hand. Most of them happened on this trip. The first was no fault of the restaurant’s. Anne had said she would like to eat ethnic--and something that she could not get back home. That excluded Portuguese and Chinese, Italian and French, Indian and, these days, Thai. As few South Africans think of Ethiopia in terms of cuisine, I took them for a sampler the first night.
For me, Ethiopian cuisine has been a delectable discovery. The fragrant mounds of lentils, the juicy little piles of spiced lean beef or chicken, the delicate greens, all arranged like a tempting culinary collage on top of a layer of injera, the soft, bubbly flatbread with its lemony taste that you use to pick up your food. And I love to eat with my hands. Anne was polite. She was also frank. She hated the sour flavor of the bread. She picked up a fork. She played with the lentils. Though I had a good meal, I knew that she was disappointed.
Living those few days with Anne, I learned she likes to eat out only at lunchtime. I also learned that one of my favorite California chefs would be cooking at his new restaurant at a wine estate near Carmel. We arrived for lunch and placed our orders. The steak tartare came out looking like a flat, anemic hamburger patty--with more capers than beef. A California health-conscious version? Why, we asked, would the chef fix it this way? Only then did we discover that the chef was in the kitchen during lunchtime solely to prepare dinner.
Desperate for one success, on their last day back in Northern California, I sought advice. Popular opinion sent us to San Francisco’s Mission District. Our quest was fresh Vietnamese at The Slanted Door. Alas, when we arrived, the road was closed. Squad cars formed a barricade and men in black with automatic rifles stood guard on the street and rooftops. It seems President Clinton had also heard about The Slanted Door. And he got there first.
That night, Anne did the cooking. I invited a group of American friends to share the food. In less than two hours, Anne had whipped up a spicy prawn stir-fry, an unforgettable Thai beef-knuckle stew--and, for starters, a sublime shrimp and butternut soup that was the best dish of the week. It was ironic that while I had harbored high expectations of being the culinary ambassador, it was my friend who delivered the killer meal.
Anne’s Spicy Butternut Squash and Shrimp Soup
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 serrano chile, seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon Thai green-curry paste
2 14-ounce cans of coconut milk
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
Large butternut squash, peeled and cubed
2 14-ounce cans chicken stock
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Saute onion, garlic and chile in oil until onion is translucent. Add curry paste and stir to blend. Add coconut milk and 3/4 pound of shrimp, simmering for two minutes. Mix in blender. Return to heat and add butternut squash and chicken stock. Cover and cook over medium heat until squash is soft, about 30 minutes. Mix in blender, reheat. Add remaining shrimp, cilantro and fish sauce and cook for one minute. Garnish, if desired, with cilantro sprigs.
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