Friday, December 26, 2008

Don't Cry For Me Argentina, Part Three

The British High Commission in Ottawa couldn’t help. Can’t remember why now. A couple too many G&Ts and a bottle of Ridge Chardonnay with my mussels had left me with Monday morning fuzzy head. They suggested I call the British Consulate in Vancouver.

Gillian answered. “Just need to take a few details from you. Full name? Date of birth? We can issue emergency documents under exceptional circumstances. Let me call you back shortly.” 84 minutes later she called with the good news. They would be willing to grant me a passport. All I needed to do was get to the consulate the next day and I would be able to travel.

One small problem. The consulate is in Vancouver. That’s OK, I can fly there. Pause for realization. Not without a passport I can’t. And being a non-driving type, I don’t have any other form of picture ID that would allow me to board a plane. I don’t even have two forms of government issued ID without pictures that would allow me to travel.

I am about to type something that people who know me very well won’t be able to believe. I checked out the Greyhound bus schedule. The idea of Suzi on public transport is a little…unusual. In truth, I had managed to live in Calgary since August and had taken the bus for the very first time on Friday. The day I probably lost my passport. I don’t wish to sound sensationalist, but bad things happen when you take the bus. More on this later.

I've been told the flight from Calgary to Vancouver takes 54 minutes. The journey time by bus? 15 hours. There was just one seat left on the 6.30pm bus. Dear reader, I booked it. It would get me into Vancouver at 8.30am, allowing me to pick up my passport and then fly at 6pm from Vancouver to LA. Overnight in LA and then, on Christmas Eve, LA to Buenos Aires with a five and half hour gap in Washington to make the connecting flight.

Of course I had to try a little Plan B in the middle of it. I gathered together a dossier designed to convince an airline employee to allow me to fly. It contains my completed passport application, my work permit, my Australian Medicare card, my police report about the loss of my passport, an old expired passport that I found in a drawer (why I brought that with me to Canada and not my birth certificate, I’ll never know), photocopy of the photo page of my lost passport and a letter from my junior school headmaster saying I was morally upstanding. I was probably pushing it with the Medicare card but it was the only other government issued ID I could find. Man, I’m basically living off the grid.

Vancouver had 30cms of snow on Sunday 21st December. People kept talking about this like it was somehow significant. I just kept thinking “Erm, hello? This is Canada. We appear to be at the start of the next Ice Age so stop your whinging and warm my feet”. What this meant though, was that some flights got canceled. Now if the UK had 30cms of snow, the country would grind to a halt and we’d all kill and panic eat our neighbours. In Canada, a few flights got canceled and people talked even more about how lucky we were that it was a dry cold in Calgary. Not that wet cold snow they’re having in Vancouver. Oh no. Let’s pause for a second and count our blessings.

Of course the airport was like Picasso’s slightly over-wrought early attempts at Guernica and after an hour in line I was told that there were no seats left on flights to Vancouver. Not even if I told them that it was my birthday today.

When I said that bad things happen on buses, I was being serious. A man was recently stabbed to death, beheaded and parts of him eaten on a Greyhound bus from Edmonton to Manitoba. The killer was found with a ziplock bag of bits including an ear. You know, a little something for later. I would soon come to understand the significance of this detail.

That said, the Greyhound website made the whole thing sound like a real adventure. They show movies, make a big deal of the reclining seats and serve refreshments. I thought it might be quite romantic and was just wishing that I could journey through the day because I knew the scenery was going to be outstanding.

Then I arrived at the Greyhound station and the realization hit me. It was going to be a very long journey.

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Don't Cry for Me Argentina, Part Two.

Pedro in a snowdrift
Originally uploaded by Suzi Edwards
So what constitutes an emergency? This was a question I asked myself as I perused the Foreign and Commonwealth website. It transpires that you can get emergency travel documents, only not on the weekend and only in extreme circumstances. I’d already cancelled my flights, because if I hadn’t, I would have forfeited most of the cost. So I no longer had any travel plans. Would the fact that I didn’t want to leave my brother alone in Buenos Aires for Christmas be a good enough excuse?

To be truthful, I gave up on the trip. The universe was clearly telling me *something*. I am not the kind of person who misses flights. I’m not even the kind of person who loses their passport. I am clumsy, prone to hyperbole, and kinda accident prone. Funny things happen to me. Especially since I moved to Calgary. I’ve been punched in the face as I walked down the street, scalded my face with a blender full of roasted tomato soup, been threatened with arrest for jaywalking and caused the evacuation of my entire building by accidentally setting off the fire alarm while making out in the lobby. At midnight. On a Sunday.

But back to the universe. Something odd was going on and I was at the point where I figured I wasn’t meant to go to Buenos Aires and, in the words of a friend, “something wonderful would happen to me if I stayed home.” So I made a shopping list for Christmas alone in Calgary

1. Food. My fridge was empty save a hunk of parmesan, a slab of coke zero, salted fermented black beans and some sambal oelek. I’d ran everything down in preparation for the trip and was basically left with condiments.
2. Alcohol. Sometimes it’s a bit frightening to calculate how much alcohol you conservatively reckon you’ll need for a week. Perhaps I am a high functioning alcoholic afterall. As I do my recycling, I’ve become accustomed to telling myself that I’ve had lots of people over to socialise.
3. Christmas decorations. Pedro just wasn’t cutting it on the balcony and I was starting to wonder if the Werepenguin wasn’t the cause of all this oddness.
4. Movies. I’ve always wanted to see “Elf” and I figured this was as good a time as any. And wasn’t Mamma Mia just out on DVD?
5. Cyanide pill. You know, just in case.

I cried a lot on Sunday. Then I pulled myself together, made some moules marinieres and had far too much to drink.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Don't Cry For Me Argentina, Part One.

So I missed my flight to Buenos Aires.


My brain’s up my bum at the moment, hence the first missed flight. I was sure I was flying on Friday and in spite of checking the itinerary twelve hundred times, well, needless to say I was flying on Thursday. The penny only dropped when I was on the phone to United, having attempted to check in online for a flight I had missed. I was about to get a bit snippy with the customer services executive as she asked me “why are you in Calgary?” for the fifth time and was resisting the urge to respond “because I did something terrible in a former life and am forced to pay for my sins by living on the ice planet of Hoth for a while”, when I realized what day it was.

Luckily I was rebooked, for Sunday, which was great because it meant that I was able to do all of the stuff I hadn’t got round to doing to prepare for the trip. Like pack. Get my inoculations. Do some Christmas shopping. Buy some summer clothes, because all of mine are in Sydney.

Of course it’s impossible to buy summer clothes in Calgary in December. It has been -35 for over a week now, a hitherto unknown temperature for me (and judging by the way that life in Calgary has crawled to a halt, an unknown temperature for it too. I had worked on the assumption that Calgary would continue to function in the cold, what with it being like Narnia here for about six months of the year, but all of the cab companies have just switched their lines to engaged and it’s impossible to get anywhere). I made the mistake of saying that cold all feels the same once you’re past minus seven, but once you’ve attempted to walk the six blocks to the office in -35, you feel like a fool for saying that. Your nostrils stick together. The air is knocked from your lungs. If you don’t have a wee before leaving, it freezes in your bladder.

And if I hear one more person tell me “but it’s a dry cold”, I will stab them through the heart with an icicle.

So I hired a cab driver for the day and went off to do my shopping. It was while I was purchasing some swimwear (at Commitments Lingerie in Dalhousie. I highly recommend them) that I realized my passport wasn’t in my bag but my work permit was. At this point I wished my wee had frozen in my bladder, because this was a disaster.

Is this the right time to mention I decided to give up smoking last week? After twenty years on the evil weed, I had decided enough was enough and wanted to use the trip as a chance to break my habit. Do you have any idea how much you want a cigarette when you think you’ve lost your passport? I was like some two dollar crack-whore, jonesing for a smoke, clawing at the cab windows as we drove back downtown.

My brain was telling me I must have left it in the office, when I was photocopying it for my friends’ PR application. Or it must be on the side at home. It cannot have just been whisked away by the Universe.

Of course it had.

It took me one online prayer to St Antony, two knots in hankies, three spirit guide messengers and four hours kicking through snow drifts and retracing all of my steps from the last time I saw it to realise that my passport was gone.

My passport. My most treasured possession. The thing that means I can split this joint with a second’s notice and go where my heart desires. This was really bad news.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Baba Ka Dhaba, Calgary

Baba Ka Dhaba
Originally uploaded by Suzi Edwards
Plans had been afoot to eat at Baba Ka Dhaba for some time. Known as “the stand up” among my friends, I had been seduced with talk of totally delicious Indian food. It was reaching mythical status, and then everyone went into damage limitation mode, telling me to get drunk before I got there and to wear my oldest clothes.

A dhaba is a roadside restaurant throughout India and Pakistan. They are very popular with truck drivers, as they are often next to a petrol station. For British readers, this means you’re eating in the Indian equivalent of a “Happy Chef”, although pleasantly, the comparison stops there. The food served is often Punjabi, pretty spicy and with more of a homestyle feel that you’d get in a restaurant. If only the UK had roadside food as pungent and delicious as Baba Ka Dhaba. Perhaps I’d still be living there…

To continue the driving theme, Calgary’s Baba Ka Dhaba does look very similar to one of those illegal mini-cab offices you find in the east end of London. Not a lampshade in sight and it’s tiled, so you can either tell yourself it’s a bit like eating in a urinal, or that it’s really easy to hose down at the end of the night. To be honest though, this place probably hasn’t seen a good hosing down in a while.

The food, however, was glorious. Pillowy naan bread. Butter chicken in a sauce as silky as my underwear drawer. Chicken tikka, on the bone, all scrackly and charred from the oven. Pakora curry, a dish I had never heard of before, that was like eating the scrummiest dream you’ve ever had about your favourite person. Lamb chops and sheekh kebabs, be still my beating heart, that are better than Mirchi and rival those at Lahore Karahi in Tooting. We even got to go off-menu with goat hooves in a thin spicy gravy and some Nepalese fish, just flaking as you bite into the batter patina.

You’ll see my glamorous assistant Amit pointing out that the menu at Baba Ka Dhaba rotates through the week, so I can’t guarantee that what we had will be there when you go. In fact, I have an aloo naan winging its way to me as I type, as this is one of the Monday items.

Now, before you rush off there, remember that I don’t mind eating in a place that the interweb tells me has 16 health code violations. I cut some restaurants a lot of slack when it comes to things like this. Oddly enough, if I heard that a fine dining place was storing ice-cream on top of bones, then I’d be cautious. But this place is a hole in the wall and I’ve eaten pani puree on the streets of Bangalore, so I know I have a pretty cast iron stomach. What does make me weep though, is when people use the internet to complain that the chicken tikka wasn’t cooked properly and they got sick. Hello? If the chicken isn’t cooked properly, send it back, you cretin. Sometimes I find myself waiting for people to blossom from imbecile to idiot, and wondering why there isn’t some sort of test before people are allowed to post opinions on the web.

Baba Ka Dhaba is at 3504 17th Ave SE. You can call them on 403-207-5552.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mirchi, Calgary

Mirchi Kebabs
Originally uploaded by Suzi Edwards
So what’s the restaurant that has been recommended to me the most in Calgary? Mirchi.

So of course I had to go.

This place is right next to the Safeway, and is almost a reason to shop here. Of course nothing is going to tempt me to frequent a supermarket that only seems to sell rotting vegetables, so until Mirchi opens a branch next to the Farmer’s Market, I can’t combine shopping for food to cook and a quick snack after.

Mirchi is a simple, no frills Pakistani/Indian café which has been open since 2007. We went on a cold, snowy Sunday night, because I’d heard the kebabs were amazing. I wasn’t disappointed. A lot of the food is served cafeteria style and we began by ordering at the counter, able to choose what looked most delicious.

I was with two people who like okra. They wanted it. Given I am in an “eat anything” kind of mood, I figured that now was a good time to see if my hatred of okra was ill-placed. Sorry to report that there will no further mentions of this evil vegetable on this blog for the foreseeable future. My fellow greedy weasels said that it was delicious though.

More interesting to me were the shish kebabs, all tender and moist, wrapped in some very good (although not perfect) naan with a really fresh salad. The salad in a lot of Indian/Pakistani restaurants can be a bit perfunctory, but as you can see from the picture, this is really pretty good. Chicken karahi came on the bone, lots of chunky pieces in a creamy, spicy sauce. With a couple of masala chai, this was a really, really good, very inexpensive meal.

Some chops were ordered as desert, when we saw a plate being delivered to the next table. The waiter thought we were joking though, and they never arrived. Luckily some friends brought some over a couple of nights later, and these are truly exceptional chops. The only tiny criticism I could make is that they might have been marinaded for a little too long, so the meat is very melting, lacking a little of the char and bite to the tooth from the best kebabs in the world (at Lahore Karahi in Tooting) But it is an exceptional marinade, so I may be being overly-critical.

All in all, this was a fantabulous meal, and a place that I am going to be visiting an awful lot.

Mirchi is at 101,825 - 12th Ave SW. Call 403 245-3663.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Silver Dragon, Calgary

Silver Dragon, Calgary
Originally uploaded by Suzi Edwards
Which foods do you hate?

It’s one of my questions. Whenever I’m eating with new people, I love finding out what they don’t eat.

The first answer is generally the same. “Oh, I eat most things.”

But when you probe further, there’s always something.

Raisins. Peas. Butter. Red pasta sauce. Garlic. Lamb. Tongue. I’ve heard all of these in the past three weeks.

Me? I joke that I’ll eat anything as long as it's not endangered. And okra and bananas.

I’ve been trying really hard to eat anything that’s put in front of me. Guided by Jeffrey Steingarten, the former food editor of Vogue, who, when he took the commission, started a process of culinary self-modification to train himself to eat all of the things he had previously avoided. He wrote a book about it “The Man Who Ate Everything”, which you really ought to read if you haven’t.

I’m still working on the bananas and okra. Bananas, to me, taste like they are rotting. Okra provokes a visceral response, the kind that I am lead to believe many have to oysters. In the same way that I don’t understand how someone can’t eat peas, people are stunned when I tell them I don’t eat bananas. Blank stares of amazement. As one person said recently “You’ve eaten squirrel. How can you not eat a banana?”

Of course they are right. I think it’s essential to try new things, and attempt to re-educate your palate around things that you don’t think you like. I remember being told to have the turnip cake at Hakkasan in London, by a foodie friend that I really respected. When it was served, I assumed he was playing some sort of joke on me. What on earth is this flavourless, slithery, lumpy thing? I actually gagged. Given that Hakkasan serves some of the finest dim sum in London, I’d assumed that turnip cake was not for me.

So I had a bit of shock when I tried it again and discovered that I actually liked it. Maybe it was the passage of time. Maybe I’m a slitherier kinda gal these days. Maybe I learned that Chinese food is as much about texture as flavour and love it for that. Maybe Hakkasan’s turnip cake was having a bad day. Now it’s something I would always order.

A recent yum cha foray to Silver Dragon in Calgary gave me the chance to have some more turnip cake. I think some of the people round the table might have been having the same response as I first had…but this was a pretty good example of the dish. Best of all here were the egg tarts, warm and wobbly from the oven and we managed three serves. The har gao are well worthy of investigation too, and I was intrigued to notice that you get two prawns in them here, rather than the measly London one. Less interesting were the roasted meats, but a squeaky-fresh serve of gai lan (pictured) more than made up for that.

So tell me. Which foods do you hate?

Silver Dragon is at 106 3 Avenue SE Calgary (403) 264-5326. You will definitely need a reservation for weekend yum cha.

Hakksan is at 8 Hanway Place, London, W1T 1HD. They serve the best xiao long bao I have ever eaten and the place cannot fail to make you feel like a Bond Girl.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Mi Tierra Tu Taqueria, Calgary

Chiles Rellenos
Originally uploaded by Suzi Edwards
Did you know that 21.4million people visited Mexico in 2006?

Nope, me neither.

I’d never been able to work out why internet food boards were always full of people complaining about the lack of decent Mexican food in their ‘hood. Of course part of the problem is that most of what we’re served as Mexican food is lowest common denominator meat product, coated in cheese and served with a battery-acid margarita, but I did always wonder why so many people were so passionate about Mexican food.

Having spent time in Chicago and cooked the whole of the Rick Bayless back catalogue, I feel like I know what good Mexican food is. After one particularly bad Mexican experience (in London, natch) I attempted to complain, but the owner had no time for me because I replied in the negative when he asked if I had ever been to Mexico.

I’ve never been to Pakistan either, but I can spot a good tandoori lamb chop at 25 paces.

All of this is a long way of telling you that I have found some good Mexican food. In Calgary.

This is somewhat surprising. Of course I tweeted it. “Stop the presses. Sensational enchilada verde found in Calgary strip mall”. An American friend replied “I would have been less surprised if you told me you’d seen a unicorn.”

But it’s true.

The enchilada verde is sensational, with the green chile sauce having a proper spicy kick. Now, some of the other stuff we ordered wasn’t quite as good; the chiles rellenos (pictured) were a bit flabby and a lacked sparkle, all of the rice was a bit lack-lustre, but who doesn’t love refried beans?

OK, so it’s a long way to go for one great dish, but I am sure that a further exploration of this menu will show up some more superstars. Oh, and the décor is a bit fast-food joint, so don’t go expecting a fine dining experience.

Mi Tierra Tu Taqueria is at 10015 Oakfield Drive SW. Call 403 238-1749. They are closed on Mondays and open 12-8pm Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5pm on Sundays.

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