I’ve been accused of being a bit of a foody, and to be honest, I‘ve had a few pretentious culinary moments in my time. However, as I get older, I find myself drawn to simplicity. So if you are looking for some sophisticated examples of haute cuisine, you’ll not find them here.
My multicultural family has British, Israeli and Bulgarian representation, so you will notice these have strongly influenced my culinary habits.
So, with no further ado, I am hereby delighted to present my favourite dishes of all time, served up in descending order:
10. Vin Ordinaire and Baguette — Provence, France
I am a bit of an extremist when it comes to wine; It’s a down-and-dirty Vin Ordinaire, or a sophisticated Grand Crus for me, nothing in-between will do. “Moderation in all things” is a worthwhile slogan for much in life, but not for wine drinking and other bacchanalian pursuits.
I discovered the pleasures of the red stuff many decades ago when backpacking across France with a group of my teenage friends. We would stop at the village shops and stock up on supplies as we passed. After a couple of days, we discovered that the cheap wine actually cost less than the bottles of Coca-Cola we had been drinking up to then. So in the interests of frugality, we switched to wine as our liquid refreshment. And thus I discovered the first of the meals on this list while sitting on a stone wall, somewhere in Provence. A bottle of Vin Ordinaire, a chunk of crusty baguette, and a lump of pungent (and to this day, unidentified) cheese.
The lesson I learned that was if you have the best ingredients, you need nothing else, except maybe to be located in France.
9. Cashew Nuts— London, UK
Back in the 60s, our local newsagent had a nut dispenser selling peanuts and cashew nuts. As a penniless urchin, I was never in the correct socio-economic group to afford the cashew nuts, which to my developing pallet, were the best-tasting thing in the world.
But fear not, I had a cunning plan. I would become a car salesman, and so be rich, and would be able to afford cashew nuts every day!
Why a car salesman? you ask. Well, to my childish mind, because cars were so expensive, someone who sold them must be rich. Right?
I never did become a salesman, nor did I become rich, but I do manage to buy myself a few cashews now and then. And yes. The flavour is still AMAZING.
8. Schnitzel — Tel Aviv, Israel
Israeli cuisine is dominated by the Middle-Eastern Sephardi/Mizrachi/Arab traditions. The traditional Ashkenazi dishes, such as Gefilte Fish, Beigels and Chicken Soup, what in the English-speaking world we think of as Jewish food, have been sidelined in the Jewish state. There is one exception, the Ashkenazi Schnitzel which had gone mainstream. Based on the classic Austrian Viener Schnitzel, the Israeli version is made from chicken breast, avoiding the cruel practice of raising veal calves on an all-milk diet and restricting their movement (although the chickens are non-too pleased with this new arrangement).
For that melt-in-the-mouth experience, Schnizel must be eaten straight out of the frying pan.
7. Hummus — Abu Gosh, Israel
No food creates more passion than hummus. I cannot think of any such nutrient which so brings out the worst and best in people. The Arab village of Abu Gosh, the hummus capital of Israel (and some would say the world) is just off the Tel-Aviv — Jerusalem highway. Everyone has an opinion as to where you can get the best hummus in the world, and many have come to blows over the issue. Of course, the best is at the Lebanese Restuarant as you pull into Abu Gosh (and if you think anything else, you’re wrong).
Competition is fierce between the various Aub Gosh hummus restaurants as they vie for customers. On at least one occasion, a dispute led to a restauranteur burning down his competitor's establishment.
However, worse was to come. The hummus masters of Abu Gosh nearly caused an international incident when they produced a two-ton dish of hummus and applied to have it entered into the Guinness book of records. The Lebanese hummus cooks, long peeved at what they saw as their national dish being appropriated by the dreaded enemy to the south, retaliated by creating a four-ton portion. Some hotheads suggested that the Israeli airforce bomb the Lebanese hummus with a salvo of giant Felafel balls, but I’m pleased to say calmer heads prevailed, and the Lebanese hold the world record till this day.
And a last word of advice. Hummus must be scooped up with Pita. If you use a spoon to eat, it just doesn’t taste the same.
6. Curry — Leicester, UK
OK, the curry in India is probably better than in Leicester, but as I’ve never been there, I must limit my recommendation to the English town where over 30% of the population is from the Indian sub-continent. I have a sister living in Leicester, and so when visiting, a trip to an Indian restaurant is de rigueur. Although thousands of miles from its source, this is Indian food made for Indians.
One word of warning: unless you like it REALLY hot, order your dish mild (they have made that concession to their non-Indian clientele). When my daughter ordered a medium hot dish, it left her so traumatised she wouldn’t touch Indian for years, so the mind boggles as to what a hot dish would be like.
When the British conquered the world, they imposed their language, legal systems, and administrative practices on the local population. Fortunately, they never managed to impose their cuisine, and in fact, the Brits were usually seduced by the local flavours and in the case of curry, took it home to Blighty.
I think it superfluous to say why I have included curry on this list; it is simply one of the culinary wonders of the world.
5. Chushki (Red Peppers) — Samokov, Bulgaria
When my wife’s extended family moved to Israel after the second world war, like all immigrant groups they brought with them their culinary traditions. If you were to walk through Jaffa in the 50s, you would have seen balconies festooned with the red Chushki, drying in the sun, ready to be stored away for making the Lyutenitsa, a thick relish of peppers and tomatoes.
The sweet red peppers are hard to find now in Israel, and the tradition of drying Chushki in the sun has died along with the generation that practised it, but there is no such lack in Bulgaria. As you drive through the villages at the end of summer, the roadsides are lined with these hanging pieces of red heaven. I always buy a big bag from one of the villagers, and munch them au naturel; bliss!
4. Hotpot — China Town, Singapore
I fell in love with Singapore during my first ever visit last year. I never expected to feel that way, and I’m still not sure why I felt such a bond with the place, although one of the reasons must have been the food. The street food in China-Town is just oozing with simple goodness. The food is fresh, crisp and with gentle spices that enhance the natural flavours. There are many variants to the noodle soup but my favourite was the Hotpot (not to be confused with the British term for a slow casserole).
I would stand patiently in line at the stall, and when my turn came I would point to the vegetables, meat and fish ingredients for my bowl. After these were thrown into a wok I would wander round to the tables in the common food hall at the back, where the steaming dish, with its wonderland of aromas and flavours, was soon delivered to my table.
3. Full English Breakfast — Manchester, UK
The best English breakfast I ever ate was at the mental hospital in Prestwich, Manchester, UK (at the staff canteen, I hasten to add). I worked there as a nursing assistant during my school holidays, and there was nothing like a couple of hours on the early shift to build-up an appetite. The full English breakfast is just what it says, full: eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding (blood sausage), baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, marmalade and tea.
Back in my Manchester days, that cross-Atlantic import, the hash-brown, had not yet arrived on English breakfast plates, so I discreetly leave it off the list.
I’m pleased to say that the full, cholesterol-laden, calorie-replete English breakfast, long eschewed by the health conscious, is now making a comeback. New thinking suggests the high protein meal is actually a healthy way to start the day, keeping the diner satiated for many hours, and away from fattening carbohydrate-rich snacks.
2. Whitebait and Cold Lager — Plovdiv, Bulgaria
The Bulgarian town of Plovdiv is older than the city of my birth Jerusalem, with a history going back 5,000 years. Not that you’d notice it from the monotonous communist era buildings that make up the current city. You will have to go to the old city to get a feel for the ancient dwellings. Even so, the really ancient remains are restricted to some small archaeological sites, preserved between the medieval buildings that line the cobbled streets. The town was built on seven hills, although one was removed during the first part of the 20th century (I kid you not).
Deep fried Whitebait must be crispy and light. I’ve eaten it in Manchester England, and in a Vietnamese restaurant in Singapore, but the perfect rendition of this dish was in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, next to the rowing lake to the south of the city. It’s more of a kiosk than a restaurant. Sitting near the water, a big pile of the deep-fried fish, washed down with a frothy glass of local beer. Life doesn’t get much better than that.
1. Green Beans — Kilham, Yorkshire, UK
One of the tragedies of the industrial revolution is that our vegetables have lost their taste. Most of us are unaware of this fact. I was dragged out of my blissful ignorance when working on a farm in the village of Kilham, Yorkshire during my days as an agricultural student at Leeds University. We were sitting in the corner of the field, eating our “Luwance” — a Yorkshire term I’d not heard before nor since, referring to the lunch provided by the farmer for his workers. (I’ve since concluded that it must have been a distortion of “allowance”) . The farm manager brought us some beans grown in his own garden at the farm cottage. Lightly cooked with no additions beyond a pinch of salt, it was perfection. I have never tasted anything better.
Whenever I think of those beans, I cry for the days before modernization and industrialization stripped our produce of its flavour. We must be thankful that modern techniques and high yields have enabled us to feed an ever-growing population, but I hope there is a corner of an English garden where such such vegetables are still sprouting their version of gustatory heaven.