Friday, April 10, 2009

To Have and Have Not

I have been hearing stories from friends of mine living in Korea and China about the deprivations they suffer when living away from "home." I too am keenly aware of this after living in Cuba for more than a decade but I can happily report that we can get almost everything we need here in little El Salvador.

I chose the title of this blog as a tip of the hat to Hemingway's’s book about a charter captain who has to illegally transport Chinese workers from Cuba to Key West. Interesting echoes of my former life where I fished on charter boats that illegally came down from FLA to Marina Hemingway in Havana. I was also asked to join a business helping Chinese illegals to sneak into Canada on fake papers for $25K a person (I said no to this). Also, the book was turned into a movie with the screenplay being worked on by an out of print and out of money William Faulkner - who counts Ricardo Alarcon (one of Cuba’s top politicians) as a big fan.

My Canadian friend in China wrote "I mention potato chips because the anticipation of buying Ripples in China only sets you up for such a big disappointment when you take your first bite. Same goes for their chocolate bars (the ones without the melamine), hamburgers (excluding McDonald's), steaks, pasta, Korean, Thai etc. We do eat our share of Sushi. Salmon seems to be abundant in these parts so it's usually quite fresh- although there is fake squid here. An of course, they haven't even come close to copying a good jelly filled donut!" Ah, the life of the expat has a dark side!

My Canadian and American friends in Korea miss good Mexican food, wines, beer, and pizza that doesn’t have corn and mayonnaise on it.

As for El Salvador, we are pretty well set up. I ate most of a bag of Lay chips yesterday (from Mexico and they figured out that the chips are supposed to be crunchy, salty and light coloured - not cooked brown and bitter). We can get burgers at McD’s, a local place called Biggest with their Big Spam burger (not "the" Spam but just using the name), and Bennigans. Steaks, ah USDA choice sirloin, striploin, and ribeyes are available at Pricesmart. Pasta, several good Italian places like Enoteca (extensive wine list, fresh made pasta, and the lovely hostess/owner Lizette), Tres Fretelli, etc.

Fatima and MJ enjoying the appetizers at Pabelion Coreano

Korean food ... we have two pretty good places! Sushi in Central America is a sad joke but I have discovered that Korean (at least in Panama and El Salvador) is excellent - restaurants owned by Koreans, food cooked by Koreans, for a largely Korean clientele. We go for sam gyup sal (fatty pork belly cooked on a table grill eaten in lettuce wraps with a spicy salad), bulgogi (seasoned thinly cut sirloin cooked on the table and eaten with big chunks of raw garlic, slices of "Johnny Cash" jalapeno rings, and a chilli paste in a lettuce wrap), usually a chigae soup of some kind, we get at least 7 side dishes with at least 3 kimchees, and several bottles of Soju.

Thai and Vietnamese are represented by two decent restaurants - one owned by my friend Minh who came here via Viet Nam, Philippines, SoCal. He is very good and his south east Asian fusion is pretty creative and tasty.

Otherwise, we have pretty much all we need. Good crusty french baguettes (made by a french guy), Guinness draft in cans and export special in bottles. A surprisingly good Chilean table wine for $3.50 a bottle. Tofu, sushi rice, and kimchee at the Asian stores. Haven’t found good pastrami or hotdogs but I don’t need many per year and can get my fill in Toronto when I visit in the summer.

Our crack design team, Eric and Eric

What are our big "have nots"? Getting back to the pastrami and other smoked meats, a friend got it into his head to build a bbq smoker for another friend and I got roped into helping out with the design. So after numerous internet searches, we came up with a design we liked.
Then off to the friend’s large textile plant (where they magically turn tiny little plastic pellets into long threads made up of 72 different filaments) where he has a large scrap yard and a welder with some time on his hands.

The guys who actually did the work

We gave them some photos and plans culled from the Internet and some basic ideas of what we needed - a big 50 gallon oil drum, very well cleaned out, with a quarter cut out and hinged with a handle, sitting on a base with a pipe chimney and a smoke box attached at the bottom left with as big a transfer hole as possible.

Returning a few days later, we were very pleased to see that our ideas and their enormous skills had resulted in a kick ass smoker. They arc welded most of it, ground down the pointy welds, cut everything precisely. We asked them to make a few modifications and they had it ready in a few hours. So it turned out that two lawyers and an accountant were not, in fact, completely useless at doing something productive!

Rush back to my friend’s house, stop by the Pricesmart for sausages and ribs, a quick dry rub thrown together from whatever was in the house, start the smoker and wait. Wow, a lot of smoke but not too much heat. My friend had worried that the little Proctor Silex burner in the side smoke box wouldn’t be able to transfer enough heat and he was 100% correct. So we decided to build a charcoal fire on top of the burner and that helped enough to get the temperature up. Plus newspaper insulation on the smoke box, duct tape, and a hair dryer billows, 20 beers and 4 hours later ... pork ambrosia.

I made a bbq sauce with pureed onion, serranos and garlic, ketchup, balsamic vinegar and everything else from the spice cupboard ... delicious.

The next day, the boys were at it again but they have had time to think about the set up. So they dropped the electric element into the 50 gallon drum to raise the temperature, had an ash grill welded for the smoke box, plugged it in and started the fire and it leveled off at a perfect 225 degrees.

Crack open the beers, more ribs (brined this time with a fantastic mustard and habanero sauce), sausages, chops and a deboned leg. By this point, we had easily passed the point of too much of a good thing so have decided to take the week off but we will be back with brined and rubbed brisket (will try to make Montreal smoked meat) and we can buy pork shoulders cheap at Pricesmart (with a minimum order of 40 lbs, come on over!).