DJ Matt Thomas has sampled many street and secret foods in his 13 years of world touring. In our Spring 2014 issue he answered The Taster’s questions about life, and cuisine, on the road
THE TASTER: Do you get a lot of free lunches?
MATT: It’s usually only when you go abroad that you get taken out to dinner. And if you go somewhere really exotic then, unless you explain you’re interested in food, you’ll be taken somewhere pretty safe. They think you want pasta; you have to tell them you’ve done swimming in the shallows, now you want the good stuff. Until I twigged this, I spent a lot of time in hotel restaurants eating Estonian versions of Italian pasta dishes, or generic American steak & chips. Or else they take you somewhere fancy, somewhere they think is going to impress you. There’s a bit of a fashion among DJs at the moment to frequent a certain Japanese chain — but, whether you’re eating junk or fine dining, what’s the point of travelling 16 hours just to eat something homogeneous?
So how do you find the good stuff?
After a while I came up with the key phrase, ‘Please take me where you go yourself when you’ve finished work and can’t be bothered cooking.’ That’s the best way. Local food is often really wow and off the plate, but you have to make it clear you’re willing to take the risk.
Have your hosts ever tried to warn you off the local food?
I’ve encountered gentle resistance in Japan. In Indonesia, they do a lot of frogs’ legs but they were hesitant about telling me about them. Once, on a five-day trip to Jakarta, my guide played it safe by taking me to a restaurant where they fill your table with 40 dishes, a bit like tapas.
Anything you don’t touch, they take away after 10 minutes, to be replaced by yet more plates. I found eight or nine things I ate quite happily. Each day after that, as my guide saw me eating more and more exotic stuff, he got more confident. By the fifth day, he’d grown bold enough to take me to this appalling-looking place. He actually said, ‘I know it looks bad, but no-one’s ever gone to hospital.’ It had a wooden heated cabinet with a glass front that was opaque with what looked like decades-old sprays of grease. Peeping through the murk, you saw this vision of entrails and unidentifiable animal body parts. I have no idea what I ate. I asked my guide to bring me whatever was tasty, I couldn’t choose because it all looked so awful. I don’t know what he brought me, but it was quite nice.
What’s the most magnificent spread you’ve ever seen?
Ten years ago, I was taken around Tokyo by a promoter who’d trained as a classical Japanese chef. He was unbelievably picky about what he ate and, also, he knew every hidden door and room that tourists never see. He took us to a tiny little place with two tables seating 16 diners. In the kitchen was an old guy, I guess in his 60s, cooking everything on his own. Each dish was only two mouthfuls and every one was perfect. I had one single cube of the most unbelievable slow-cooked pork I’ve ever, ever eaten. The fat had turned into a gossamer millefeuille crispy nothing. It evaporated as you bit into it. That is my favourite mouthful of food in my lifetime, to date.
Have you noticed any shifts in culinary cultures, across the globe?
American food has definitely got worse, in the sense that access to good food has become harder. It’s still there, but it’s difficult to find. In the late 1990s, in JFK Airport, you could get stunning classic American deli sandwiches — pastrami with pickles, for example — from little boutique places. But now corporatisation has taken over, it’s all McDonald’s and chain sandwich bars. The bread is full of sugar, the meat is bright red but tastes of nothing. Those places that fought their corner on making stuff that tasted fantastic, they are no longer winning.
Are any countries improving?
East European countries are more palatable for Westerners than they were when I started out. It’s a two-way process — British supermarkets often have Polish sections now, so consumers are more familiar with the ingredients — but East Europeans have definitely started blending their regional dishes with Western standards of cuisine.
Lithuanian food can be quite challenging: Lithuanian cooks use a lot of fat, and they like quite bitter tastes. One of my worst experiences was when they threw us in the deep end, in a themed historical Lithuanian restaurant in 2004: all peasant stews and steamed puddings — the first time I tried it, it was just awful. But now I sort of get it. I even like zeppelinai, which is a starchy potato mash moulded around a mince filling, and the whole thing steeped in oil. It’s a seriously lardy dish.
Worst ever food experience:
Once, for my official Christmas dinner, on a plane to Bratislava, I had turkey-flavoured salami. Official.
In 2001, I played a club in Moscow that didn’t exist. It was a horrible club: all about privilege and exclusion, its only purpose was for people to display they were rich and connected enough to get in. The clever trick was it really didn’t exist. Every time it played, the organisors built the entire club, from scratch, in the courtyard of a ministry building. They put in floors, stairs, everything. The curtains were hung on the outside of the ministry windows. When you came back the day after the gig, it was all gone.
When I arrived with my crew, the ‘club’ was blacked out because they were still putting the lighting rig together. The club had arranged a dinner of squid ink pasta and mussels for us. So we were sitting in a blacked-out room, eating black pasta with black mussels. I’ve had seafood poisoning before so I was being very careful, locating the mussels by touch. But then, somehow, I put a round bubbly thing in my mouth and it exploded. Soft and rotten. I almost threw up on the spot. It had popped and sprayed all over the inside of my mouth, I was envisaging being hospitalised after being infected with this thing. And then
. . . thank God, I realised my mouth was full of the flavour of a cherry
What are the in-crowd quaffing these days?
Depends where you go! Corona is the big one in a lot of clubs now; also Jägermeister. The blingy drink is still Grey Goose vodka.
What’s your favourite country to eat in?
The level of food literacy, of expectations, in Australia is stunning. The Asian and Pacific cuisines there are unbelievable; Melbourne, in particular, has cafés and restaurants that are just staggering. The breadth of cuisines available in the suburbs is extraordinary; you get something similar in London but it’s more or less concentrated in the city centre. In Australia, it’s everywhere.
Have you ever been homesick for a specific food or dish?
Curry. I once spent six months in Australia. Their food annihalates ours in every way, except that they have not one decent curry house. It’s heartbreaking. They have curry houses, but whatever happened in the UK with Indian food just didn’t happen in Oz.
Do you have a favourite food to take on tour with you?
Snickers. Many countries now have nothing but awful American chocolate. And when you’re dying of a hangover, and the car has come to take you to the airport and there’s no time to eat, you need a Snickers.
Talking of Snickers (and seeing as this is The Taster’s chocolate issue), have you any further thoughts on chocolate?
Love it. Outside the UK it’s often awful. American chocolate is a tragedy. My fave is Freddo Frog. Cadbury’s. Freddo originally came from Australia (along with Caramello Koala — I’ve looked into this). I once saw a giant Freddo in an Australian petrol station and almost fainted — my dream chocolate, made five times bigger than normal — I reached out with trembling fingers but then a voice inside my head pointed out that, yes, but it’s Australian Freddo so it’ll taste of ashes. So I didn’t buy one. It would have hurt too much to taste the ashy giant Freddo and I couldn’t take that chance
Matt DJs, mixes and plays keyboards. Marvel at his work on kingunique.com
For Matt’s thoughts on speciality hamburgers in Kuala Lumpur, see our back issues section or get Back Issue 1. Continue reading for his thoughts on Indonesian noodles, from Issue 2:
During 13 years of world touring, DJ Matt Thomas has sampled many odd, street, and secret foods. Here, he considers the philosophy & flavours of exotic packet noodles. Foodies of a nervous disposition, look away now.
More than anywhere else on the globe, Jakarta — the capital city of Indonesia, with a population to rival that of London — truly seethes with humanity. To take a night-time drive through the backstreets is the nearest a car journey can come to clinging onto a raft. Your vehicle progresses at the whim of a great, slow, river of people; while shoals of motorbikes spill freely across roads & pavements.
There are more populous cities, but in none I have seen does life seem to be so much lived on the street. — All around, people talk, idle, shop in roadside kiosks, watch TV on tiny front porches, play cards on any available surface, shout into their ubiquitous Blackberrys, drink and eat. Oh yes, gentle reader, they most certainly eat. And if anything can claim to be the pin-up star of their cuisine, it is the noodle. Where British takeaway food has the chip-shop, Indonesia has the Mi Goreng fried noodle stall. This fixture of Jakartan streets offers freshly fried noodle dishes in a myriad varieties, featuring ingredients including (but not limited to) cabbage, pak choi, crispy fried spring onion, egg (poached, fried or scrambled), potato, cheese, chilli, sausage, shrimp, and the local favourite — corned beef.
In Britain, our experience of ‘real’ Asian cooking often comes via TV chefs. My experience suggests they may suffer from an ‘excess of authenticity’: an idealized world, in which only the most exotic ingredients jostle with each other in an artfully seasoned wok, possibly passed down since the Tang Dynasty, before being arrayed on a beautiful square plate on strict feng-shui principles.
By contrast, it was a happy shock to see Jakartians standing in the street, merrily heaping grated cheddar cheese onto noodles. For me, it was a sight to dissolve imaginary taboos. This reality, of dollops of ketchup & crispy fried eggs, is the little secret some of our more celebrated chefs endlessly deny us, an idea of Indonesian food no more grounded in reality than the emperor’s new clothes.
I spent five blissful days scoffing my way round Jakarta (and two nights DJ-ing, clad in — having seized the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — the club’s enormous cuddly foam potato mascot outfit). I noticed that, just as the British artisan triple-fried chip has its more prosaic counterpart in the humble oven chip, so the authentic fried noodle has its instant equivalent. Indonesia has the largest instant noodle company on the planet (Indofood), which makes around 10 billion packs a year.
Before I got in the car back to the airport, my host and food-guru, Andrew Zulcarnain, ventured out with me on a special shopping mission. We parked at a local market building, underwent the obligatory mirror-under-the-car bomb check (such checks had engendered much contemplation of my personal safety when I first arrived in Jakarta; but having failed to explode for five days, I became blasé about the process) and trotted merrily inside.
We weaved through lanes of market stalls to reach a supermarket at the back of the building, where Andrew ushered me into what appeared to be Noodle Mecca. Two entire aisles of instant noodles were stacked to the ceiling, as in an Ikea warehouse, as bright & gaudy as a Hello Kitty convention. Gently pushing through the throng, Andrew drew me along the packed aisle, spurning the colourful lure of lesser brands that might tempt the noodle novice, until he located his favoured flavours — the Mi Goreng shelves. I returned to the airport with a bag of Indonesian staples — a spicy Rendang sauce (for a delicious, dry, curry-like dish); a jar of Nasi Goreng paste; and several packets of flavoured noodles produced by SuperMi, Indomie, and Mi Sedaap.
So, what turns a bowl of otherwise ordinary instant ramen into the full glory of the Mi Goreng experience? The answer lies in the five sachets per packet — yes, five sachets, a cornucopia of condiment. (To think, that I was previously confident that Smith’s Salt’n’Shake crisps were the apogee of sachet-centric excitement.) While the noodles bubble away you have a couple of minutes to inspect these pockets of delight: Minyak Bumbu, a thick orange oil, the specific contents depending on the flavour of noodle; Kecap, a thick sweet Indonesian soy sauce; Cabe, a zingy powdered chilli; Bumbu Sauce, a seasoning powder which can be added to the noodle water to make noodle soup; and Bawang Goreng, tiny pieces of crunchy fried spring onion.
How & when you deploy the sachets is part of the fun/a matter of life or death, depending on which noodle blog you read. I favour the ‘drain-till-dry, then toss ’em all in’ approach. Connoisseurs might hold the spring onions back while mixing the other flavours through; they can then be deployed as a garnish with undiminished crunchiness.
The combinations are endless, even before you’ve decided on the flavour of Mi Goreng. The Indomie brand offers Beef Rendang, Satay, and Pedas (Hot & Spicy) flavours, all of which deliver more than a nod to the dishes they draw their names from (unlike many of their tamer European counterparts). Mi Sedaap offers Goreng Asli, notorious for its crunchy fried onions; and Sambal Goreng, which tickles the taste-buds with hot & limey spice. But my guide, Andrew, preferred SuperMi noodles above all others.
Mi Goreng is most often eaten as part of a large, simple meal. Many of these are prepared in little more time than the noodles themselves. Indomie Mi Goreng, telor & kornet (noodles, fried egg & corned beef) is a prime example. The noodles are boiled along with vegetables such as pak choi, drained & stir-fried with the sachet flavourings, white pepper & maybe a dash of ABC Kecap Manis, then served with corned beef (fried or plain), fried egg & fried shallots.
It was enough to make my mouth water, for the first time in my life, at the thought of corned beef.
I hope these insights into the world of exotic low-cuisine might provide some help for those ‘food-face-fill’ moments. When we’re too tired for culinary creation, why not — instead of throwing yet another pizza in the oven — eat the most tasty, enjoyable & zingy instant noodles money can buy. And the good news is, you don’t have to trek to Jakarta. Authentic, made-in-Indonesia Indomie noodles are already on sale in some Asian-speciality grocers, or from www.indomie.co.uk. Put back those lesser noodles & try these little beauties.