Tuesday, May 19, 2009

FOOD That Rotating Goodness


Amidst fun rides at the Palace Pier, choosing rock candy and shopping at the Lanes, JANET TAY discovers one of the staple foods of the United Kingdom in a town more famed for its pebbled beaches

Photographs by AZRUL HAMID

GRAHAM GREENE, in one of his most famous novels, Brighton Rock, set the story of Pinkie Brown, a violent, sociopathic teenage gangster, in the seaside town of Brighton. Describing the holidaymakers that “came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air,” Greene further exercised his literary prowess in his selection of the sights and sounds of the popular holiday destination: “the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour: a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.” What’s more thrilling is actually going to Brighton and realising that despite Greene’s artistic licence, the Brighton he wrote of really does exist in its contrasting images of grandiose hotels and quiet moments on a wooden bench overlooking the sea.

It isn’t hard to fall in love with Brighton and all its flaws. For those more used to golden sands, the pebbles may disappoint. If you drive to Brighton, be prepared to spend hours searching for parking spaces, and then spending a fortune on parking fees if you are fortunate enough to find a space. Winter in Brighton can be miserably cold and rainy, with winds that chill you to the bone and the rough sea that no one but the strongest of swimmers would dare brave. Yet there is still something irresistibly romantic about the wild waves that crash against the craggy rocks, the stormy sea that makes for a breathtaking view even in grey, sumptuous dining in varied restaurants at the quaint and classy Lanes, and the exciting nightlife in clubs and cafes strewn all over Brighton.

The fancy hotels and expensive restaurants are contrasted with the serenity of Hove’s suburbia, especially in the spring, where dandelions grow aplenty in parks, home gardens or even just by the roadside. Visit Hove Park, antique shops, the community pool at the King Alfred Centre—Hove has an idyllic charm that attracts those who want a break from the bustling, party town of Brighton.

It was in Brighton and Hove that I discovered doner kebab for the first time. A little introduction to the doner kebab from John Ayto’s An A to Z of Food & Drink: “A doner kebab is a Turkish specialty consisting of slices of marinated lamb or mutton which are packed in a cylindrical mass on a vertical spit and then grilled as they revolve. Slices are cut from the surface as it reaches the required degree of ‘oneness,’ and are typically eaten with pitta bread or rice. Turkish immigrants have brought it to many parts of Europe, and since the early 1970s the doner kebab house has become a familiar part of the British inner-city scene. The term means literally ‘turning roast meat,’ incidentally (doner derives from the verb donmek, ‘turn, rotate’).”

I suspect that my love for the doner kebab partly stemmed from discovering it as an alternative to the horrendously bad college food we, the hapless, unsuspecting students, had to eat. I remember reading Culture Shock! Britain: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette on my very first flight to the UK, and there was a substantial mention of how food might be relatively bad there. I had taken that warning with a pinch of salt, but when I tasted college food for the first time, I had to take more than a pinch of salt to be able to stomach the bland English way of boiling broccoli, Brussels sprouts and every other conceivable vegetable until they were unrecognisable, as well as the generic tomato sauce that seemed to go on all the dishes that were served. Of course, as time went by, I realised that there was plenty of good food to be found in the UK (outside the college canteen), and this was also thanks to the number of immigrants to the country, a result of which a plethora of cuisines can be found there today.

While you can still find passable shish kebab in the Klang Valley, I have yet to discover doner kebab that tastes remotely similar to the ones I have eaten in the UK. It’s funny to make this comparison as one may more likely mention shepherd’s pie, Cornish pasties, fish and chips and Yorkshire puddings when one thinks of English cuisine or their national food. The doner kebab clearly has its origins elsewhere.

The Daily Telegraph of the UK reported that the man who invented the doner kebab nearly 40 years ago, Mahmut Aygun, died from cancer in Berlin at the age of 87 in January 2009. He was born in Turkey and moved to Germany at 16. An article in the BBC News Magazine said that Aygun, like the Earl of Sandwich, realised that the kebab meat, although traditionally served with rice and salad on a plate, would be more convenient to eat on the go if it was stuffed into bread. It became extremely popular in Berlin, especially for post-clubbing drunken revellers who wanted an easy, portable supper. Perhaps, with Brighton’s vibrant club scene, it shouldn’t be surprising to find some excellent kebab shops there. Not a clubber myself, the doner kebab is nevertheless a delicious meal for lunch or dinner. It is especially enjoyable in winter, as you anticipate the first bite of the pitta envelope filled with hot, tasty spiced meat and its accompanying lettuce, tomatoes and onions while walking home or to your hotel with the little treasured meal wrapped in brown paper, warm in your hand.

I finally revisited Brighton after many years of having left it, bought a doner kebab at a random kebab shop—the one I had frequented after exams and in between classes no longer exists—and surprisingly found that although parts of Brighton had changed (the new addition of the Churchill Square Shopping Centre, for one), the joy of sampling the thin, succulent pieces of spiced roast lamb balanced with fresh, crisp salad in the town that now holds old and new memories for me, remained the same.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).

Reproduced from the May 2009 issue of bestfoodjunction.com magazine


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Janet! I enjoyed reading this article.

Sunday, May 17, 2009 6:33:00 AM  

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