Thursday 21 May 2015

Abandon all hope ye who enter here

Don’t go hungry.

I thought that after last year, this, at least, would have been obvious. Looking back, I had no reason to try again. It was hell; how Armageddon would look if it started in the Westergasfabriek. Smoke, chaos and writhing bodies surrounded by debris. It could only be worse this time, I thought. I could write about how bad it all was, I thought. I went —

— hungry —

— the state in which you’d think would be appropriate, freshly arrived at a food festival, ready to try all the things you ordinarily wouldn’t because they’re not ordinarily available to you; and here they all are, cheap, interesting and tasty. There you’d go, weaving in and out of all the nicely spaced trucks, couple euros here, a bite there. Just like in winter time when you wonder where all the couples who run the oliebollen (a type of Dutch doughnut) stalls go the rest of the year, you’d wonder where all these people – the people that run the food trucks – go. Maybe they’re the ones that run the Christmas markets. You’d wonder because you only ever see them at festivals, and each time in different combinations. And you just wished one of them would have the peace of soul to open up in bricks and mortar, maybe in noord somewhere, somewhere offbeat. It would just be a small place, somewhere they could keep experimenting with interesting dishes. Because they’d always be cooking different stuff, they’d always be attracting different people. The mix would mean our restaurant friends wouldn’t miss the road too much, they’d have the variety they crave right at home. In a way though, you’d understand if they chose a truck over their own place: it means less infrastructure, more freedom to try what you like, to tweak and change. You only have to buy as much stock as you can fit in your truck so you can try different things until you get it right. And you’ve only got the counter standing in front of you and your customer so, with their feedback, you’d get it right pretty soon. And if you don’t, you can change. No stock, see?

Still hungry.

I’d been at De Rollende Keukens Food Festival (Rolling Kitchens) for about half an hour without a crumb having passed my lips. Not for lack of trying though. I’d find myself waiting in one line for 15 minutes, see I’d moved nowhere, and moved off to the next. Like with Sat Nav: you have to commit. You trust the lady in your TomTom telling you what to do blindly or you turn her off. If you try to do a bit of what she says and a bit of what you think is right, you’re lost. In this case, no commitment = no food.


And still no food. But a loophole. I’d found a truck at which, if you managed to get a coin, you could walk straight up to the counter. In the general confusion people were lining up to the left and right, but there were only a few people right up front in the middle. I dived. Swallowed. I wolfed the thing down right there, amongst the electricity cables, gas canisters and discarded napkins. I was on my own, back up against a tent and I thought how sad: that this was my food festival experience.

Then the food kicked in.

Actually, after last year, I was semi-determined not to go. Or at least, if I went, to go on a Sunday once everyone and their 5 uncles had already been the last 4 days of the week. This is because, De Rollende Keukens, I’m afraid, is exactly the opposite to what you’d like a food festival to be about. It is not anything like what I described above. It is crowded to the point you cannot tell if you’re standing in a line or just stuck, the food is expensive, not experimental (unless you count 6 different types of burgers as ‘experimental’), the trucks familiar (like always-all-at-every-festival-in-Amsterdam-familiar) and about ¾ of the trucks have restaurants. Year round. In Amsterdam, not even a mile away. Which are open during the festival…

But I did and I’ve already told you why. And it was hell. And I didn’t go on a Sunday but on a Thursday, a public holiday, at dinnertime. And of course everyone was drunk and in the way and the lines were literally an hour long for some places. And of course I was on my own so that even if I could find the end of a line to stand at, I had no one to do alternate beer runs with. But once the food started working, and I was no longer hot around my collar for not having eaten, I was ok. I could bear it. I continued and ate some really good stuff. 

And I wrote it down.

First stop: the vegetarian Vleesch noch fisch

I’ve eaten at these guys three times before and each time it’s been the same. Exactly the same. Exactly as excellent as before. They serve gyros in a pita and you could swear it’s real meat. It’s not. The pitas are excellent: big flatbreads, fried, still soft inside and which, each time I eat one, I swear I’ll ask for the recipe. So is the tzatziki: I could eat it with a spoon. My only comment would be they’re a bit heavy on the oregano; but then again, I understand that the magic non-meat thing is pulled off so well because the non-meat stuff has been marinated in herbs we think belong on meat. Maybe a bit expensive at 7 euro but then again, if they’re doing good things for our sad environment, understandable. This is one truck (that doesn’t already have a restaurant) that I’m happy will open up in brick and mortar.

Next stop: Worst

To balance the vegetarian thing. Also excellent. I chose the pied de cochon, which came on thick sourdough bread atop sauerkraut that tasted like it’s been cooking all its life (a good thing), and almost my weight in pork scratchings. Can’t be faulted. A week later and I went to the restaurant and ordered the pied de cochon again.

Balancing out the meat with fish: Vergeten vispaleis

As much a truck as the others but I assume the ‘palace’ part refers to Scheveningen, a town with a name so Dutch that it was used as a shibboleth during the war to identify German spies. Also the town where the first herring catch of the year is celebrated.

The ‘forgotten’ is a play on ‘forgotten vegetables’ – these guys serve up fish that are caught in the net but otherwise thrown out. Last year I recall they were serving Schar (a ‘dab’ in English?), typically something the fishermen would keep for themselves, hang to dry, suck and chew on all day. No longer so forgotten I guess, as this year the star of the show was the Zwarte Poon (a Gurnard fish in English, apparently), smoked on birch wood – and not wood pellets, either. This was very fresh fish as I could see from their eyes looking almost still alive and their red gills. Served with a beet salsa and in a fatty skin that was satisfying to suck on. You could spend at least an hour on this fish - prying out the flesh from between all its bones – if there wasn’t more to try, and if I didn’t feel so antisocial standing in line sucking a dead fish…

Headed South for sate kambing

Sate kambing is an Indonesian dish made from young, buck goat, marinated in kecap manis (think soy sauce but thick and sweet) for what tasted like the proper amount of time, and flamed. Came with steamed rice, sambal (hot sauce) and emping (an Indonesian chip/cracker made of deep-fried ground nut), and topped with peanut shavings, chopped spring onion and chilli pepper. Very distinct tastes that kept the Indonesian people coming back, probably amazed that here they were eating something from childhood amongst all the carnage. The people running this truck use meat that is otherwise destroyed for the lack of demand in goat meat despite a demand in goat’s milk. Goats gotta go somewhere.

Sailing through the Caribbean: Jamaican chicken

The pièce de résistance if only for the amount of time spent in line. Total: 1 hour. There were rumours goin’ ‘round about this place; people were talking. But that’s not the only reason there was a line. It was obvious the people behind the counter weren’t doing it for the money. There was no rush. We were at a wedding. We were at a cook-out. It was a birthday. We were relaxed. We were eating excellently roasted chicken - the prime pieces you’d save for yourself – and trying to avoid the too-sweet, generic BBQ sauce on our plates.

On my way home I passed…

…the truck of Rainarai and stopped, trying to figure out what was going on. Here we had a wonderful Bedouin tent with men chopping peppers with…sabres… and a black-as-night DJ… sat atop a desert-cruising Defender spinning 80s hits…. What had caught my attention though, were the people looping back from the line, plates in hands. Plates full of… chopped peppers and other raw, apparently sabre-chopped vegetables. This closed a circle for me. Earlier in the evening (at Worst, precisely), as I’d looked up from my own food, I saw a guy eating an artichoke. Just an artichoke. Steamed, with nothing on it.  I watched this guy for a bit wondering who the hell it was that came to a food festival to eat an artichoke. PLAIN. I still don’t know but I know what truck he got it from.

Cool thing about our desert DJ truck is that they call themselves halal, organic and ‘Algerian nomads’. True desert dwellers.

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