Savour Vietnam through its food
Black Swan Journeys gears-up to take you through the land of compelling culture and beauty, with a vow to highlight more than just food.KNOW MORE
Written by Amruta Jejurikar
April 7, 2017
I must admit I was quite late to the Game of Thrones party…6 years too late. It’s a violent and brilliant drama that I was too afraid to watch for the past 6 years, because certain images tend to get seared onto my brain once I see them, and the fact that I can involuntarily reload the images to ruin a perfectly good night’s sleep, makes me weary of getting hooked on to scary TV shows and movies, as spectacular as they may be. In all honesty, I still vividly remember shockingly scary (to me) scenes from a horror movie I saw 13 years ago (also noteworthy: that was the last horror movie I saw).
I digress. Back to Game of Thrones: it is violent, bloody and shocking, but also brilliantly written and full of messed-up, intertwined storylines, unpredictable plot twists, and best of all, the script. When characters aren’t hissing at each other, they serve each other the most delicious, thought-provoking (or sometimes, thought-obliterating) lines that leave you thinking, guessing, confused, anxious and many other conflicting emotions. In one of the scenes from an older season, two of the characters are seen conversing after they have (per usual) done something questionable, brutal and unsettling, and in an effort to pacify Character 2, Character 1 says “I know you don’t want to believe it, but she is gone. Now, go drink until it feels like you did the right thing.”
No one has, or would, quite put it that way, but it is true: all over the world, and since the beginning of time (or alcohol), people have been consuming alcohol to alter the state of their mind and their perception of things. The reality or finality of things doesn’t change, but alcohol somehow helps in making things appear better than they are. That is likely the only commonality between ‘consuming alcohol’ across the world: the spirit (pun intended) behind it. Whether you enjoy yours with a cute umbrella and your toes in the sand in Hawaii, or out of a boot in a muggy tavern somewhere in Germany, the intention is the same – you want to feel better. And bitter always tastes better in good company! But depending on where you are in the world, the drink itself can be very different, and its combinations, endless.
There’s the socio-cultural associations with alcohol in any country, which may have nothing to do with the origin of the alcohol consumed. For instance, no weekend party in India is complete without a bottle of Old Monk Rum. No 20-something would leave Las Vegas without Tequila shots! Or the infamous “its just tea” Long Island Iced Tea trap that leaves you dazed for days after you’ve had it. How can we forget the Americans celebrating the German Beer Festival “Oktoberfest” in September, because apparently, they can’t wait? And Speaking of Americans being crazy, have you seen what an Irish Bar looks like on St. Patrick’s Day? If you don’t remember, maybe its because you had one too many Irish Car Bombs (a shot glass half-filled with Bailey’s Irish Cream and half-filled with Jameson Irish Whiskey is dropped in a pint-sized glass half-filled with the Irish Beer Guinness, and the patron, Irish or not, has to drink it before the beer curdles the cream; I would roll my eyes in judgment, but few years ago I baked those 3 components into a cake using Chocolate as the vehicle for delivery, so I am just as guilty)! The transplanted alcohols stand tall on their own and are doing just fine.
And then there’s the native aspect. It is obvious that the national, native “alcohol” or “alcoholic beverage” of any country is directly based on what grows in abundance in that country. If you find the word “national” too loaded, you can consider “most popular” in this context.
For instance, in Sri Lanka, they literally don’t know what to do with their coconuts. After having used it to cook almost everything from all their curries to sautés (sambols) to flatbreads to “aapams” (hoppers) to honey to cocktail utensils to cocktail garnishes to manufacturing ladles to spice garden decorations, they still have more to spare, and how!
It is only logical that Sri Lanka makes its own coconut-based distilled alcohol, and it is called “Arrack”. Now, Arrack is made in many South- and Southeast-Asian countries from coconut, sugarcane, red rice or even fruit, but Sri Lanka is the leading producer in the world for coconut-based Arrack, which is made by fermenting and distilling the sap of unopened flowers from a coconut palm. In over-simplified terms, this stage of the alcohol is the coconut toddy, and after this stage, the liquid is allowed to ferment and is then distilled. Arrack tastes like whiskey or rum and is usually consumed in Sri Lanka with colas or ginger beer.
Unfortunately due to some travel regulations and the way our itinerary was structured, we couldn’t buy Arrack when visiting Sri Lanka, and it wasn’t easy to track it down in the States! Aside from not getting enough of its coconut-y caramel-y taste while in Sri Lanka, there was another (only slightly ridiculous) reason to look for it: I had promised myself that I will design my own cocktail featuring Arrack!
Am I a mixologist? God, no. Here’s why: we visited Sri Lanka a few days after Mr. Donald Trump became President-Elect and I simply couldn’t believe, compute or understand it. I’ll spare you the rest of my rant, but when I found out that Arrack was the most popular alcoholic beverage in Sri Lanka, I decided (while consuming copious amounts of Arrack, of course) that I would come up with my own cocktail named “Arrack Obama”, as a tribute to [it hurts as I type] Former President Barack Obama. Another country, 10,000 miles and 1 apartment move later, I had made absolutely no progress on this, until my ever-so-helpful husband managed to find some at a liquor store in San Diego and had it shipped to our home in the Bay Area! Due to international labeling regulations, Sri Lankan Arrack cannot be sold as “Arrack” outside Sri Lanka, so it is conveniently labeled VSOA, short for “Very Special Old Arrack”. How clever.
It tasted just like the Arrack we tasted in Sri Lanka, so we were good to go – all I needed to do was learn how to design a cocktail! Easy enough, right? Turns out drinking cocktails is quite different from creating your own, and actually requires skills, so I had important “research and experimentation” to do. I read a few blogs, and other than a few basics (such as when to stir vs. shake, using giant ice cubes, etcetera), the lesson was simple: have a clear picture of what you want your cocktail to taste and look like, and work your way up using your senses. And don’t over-complicate things.
I wanted “Arrack Obama” to be smooth, strong and classy. Basically, all the things Mr. Obama’s successor is not. I’ve always found cream or half-and-half based drinks to be very elegant, so I decided to use that in the cocktail, and what better to sweeten it than Sri Lanka’s very own Treacle (Coconut or Palm honey)? For some depth and finish, I decided to incorporate finely grated good-quality bittersweet chocolate.
From there on, it was more about experimenting with the proportions of individual ingredients, choosing the correct vessel for serving the cocktail, garnishes, and so on, but in the end, we had ourselves an “Arrack Obama”!
And we are happy to report that it was just as I had visualized it. Now that I have access to Arrack, I may improve on this one after learning a few more tricks of the trade, and finally get around to planning that Sri Lankan feast we’ve been dreaming about since we got back.
If you’ve read my previous article on the subject, you would know how badly I want to go back to Goa. One of Goa’s many gifts to the world is the “Feni”, and just as you would expect, its not legally allowed to be sold outside of Goa. While its debatable if the Cashew Feni came first or the Coconut (Toddy) Feni, it is likely that the Coconut Feni (made from Coconut palms) was more prevalent in Goa before the Portuguese came along with their Cashews, that are still expensive and exotic in India. I found the Coconut Feni to be smoother than the original Cashew Feni, so we brought that back with us to recreate our Goa memories with food (did you try the Chorizo Pao yet?) and cocktails in the warmer days to come. The cocktail I experimented with is a riff on the classic “Goa de Susegado”, which is literally a command to “relax” in Konkani. It is a simple, mild drink with a bit of warmth from the cinnamon, and is also an excellent nod to the humble coconut. I imagine it would pair well with spicy Goan fare and gently lead you to a nap, which is why I’ve decided to name it “Goa de Snooze-a-gado”.
The ingredient list couldn’t be simpler: I switched the soda with sparkling water for a smoother finish (I’ve always found club soda to be a bit bumpy), and decided do a grated-coconut rim instead of a piece of coconut.
Blend all the ingredients together in a shaker with a couple ice cubes, and you are good to go; the drink is mild and extremely refreshing, and the warmth from the cinnamon is very much welcome, especially if you are just drying off the ocean and a cold breeze comes by!
Experimenting is fun, of course, just like you do with cooking. But some cocktails are pretty damn near perfect just the way they are. While you may not be able to transport yourself to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil every time you want a delicious “Caipirinha”, you can get pretty close if you learn to make one yourself with the right ingredients. You see where this is going, yes? If we were to follow The Great Coconut Trail, coconuts are big in Brazil too, served on every tiny shack on the Rio De Janeiro beaches, and some of the local vendors will even break the coconut open for you, India-style, so you can eat the thick coconut flesh.
The most popular distilled alcoholic beverage in Brazil is not coconut-based, but the sugarcane-based Cachaça. It may seem that everything I write about always ties back to the Portuguese because they brought sugar production (or as sugar is referred to in Portuguese, azúcar, which sounds like “sugar”) to Brazil.
Cachaça is made from the fermented sugarcane molasses and is fragrant with floral notes. The most popular drink in Brazil, and likely the most popular Brazilian drink in the world, is the Caipirinha, which is made with white Cachaça, limes, white sugar and crushed ice. While the ingredient list is simple, the flavor is anything but! Reasonably easy to make, a lot of the variation in taste arises from the juiciness of the limes, which is difficult to predict.
While the drink can be made using standard bar equipment such as a muddler and a cocktail shaker, in Brazil, it is made using a classic wooden muddler, which you’ll find on every shack and Caipirinha cart on the beach.
With an ingredient list so small and simple, it’s important the quality of each ingredient is up to the mark, especially limes. Small, hard limes have too little juice and can throw off the balance of the drink completely. There’s also a philosophical debate about whether granulated white sugar should be used, or crystallized white sugar, or brown sugar, but most experts deem super-fine white sugar to be the winner.
The steps are simple: muddle the cubed lime and sugar to releases the juices and aroma of the lime peel, add the cachaça and additional lime juice to the mix, and then plop the whole citrus mess into a tumbler half-filled with crushed ice and garnished with a lemon wedge!
Make this and go get your beach hair on!
Of course, people can’t leave a good thing alone, so came different variations of the classic Caipirinha. The most popular cocktail in Brazil after the Caipirinha is the Caipiroska, which switches the Cachaça for Vodka and involves muddled Strawberries (referred to as Morango in their native Portuguese). There are the Caipisake and Caipirila, which substitutes the Cachaça for Sake (fermented Rice wine from Japan) and Tequila (a distilled beverage made from the Blue Agave plant from Jalisco, Mexico) respectively. The Caipirissima is likely the closest to the Caipirinha in its taste profile, since it replaces the Cachaça with Rum. Not all Caipi’s drop the Cachaça for spirits from other countries – some invite the Cachaça and try to make it their own! For instance, the Caipimojito is a Mojito made with Cachaça instead of White Rum, and the Caipirita is a Margarita made with Cachaça instead of Tequila! My advice: “Caipi Diem” and go try them all!
In terms of the levels of pure fun and joy in the air, I would say Rio’s North American cousin would have to be the city of New Orleans in the state of Louisiana. Never behind in the race for proprietary drinks, New Orleans is a city that takes its drinks and drinking very seriously. The city has the soul of a jazz musician and a general relaxed, chill vibe, with art, good food, and music around every corner. It has a peculiar sense of humor as well, which I noted when my “Hurricane” (New Orleans’ signature cocktail made with rum, fruit juice, and grenadine) came with a cocktail umbrella that was up-turned. I thought it was incredibly clever since I saw it as a nod to the number of hurricanes the city has endured, but it just as easily could have been a goofy bartender! I prefer to stick with my version of it. The menus everywhere in New Orleans were filled with creative cocktails that paired beautifully with the fresh, local seafood.
To provide some proof of just how seriously they take their drinking in New Orleans (referred to as “NOLA” in the rest of the country, and as “Nawleans” by the locals), they have dedicated cookbooks for the afflicted!
Considering I did all the “research and experimentation” for this article just before writing it, I find myself needing the little red book tonight. In any case, I’ll surely need the little yellow book tomorrow!
Making classic cocktails and experimenting using the authentic ingredients is a fun way to recreate memories from any vacation you take. Gathering those ingredients and their special utensils make far better souvenirs than shot glasses or refrigerator magnets any day because they are souvenirs that keep on giving and help you create more. And in case you have a little too much fun ‘creating’, you know just which cookbook to order. Happy mixing!
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