ORKHON VALLEY, MONGOLIA
The best things – and meals – in life really are worth the wait. That morning, there in our nomadic encampment in a quiet nook of the western Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley, I’d observed and helped our nomadic hosts corral and milk their horses, then turn the milk into aaruul (dried cheese curd) and airag (fermented mare’s milk) to eat and drink with our feast that night.
My travel companions and I had also helped make traditional buuz dumplings and distil vodka from the family’s yak’s milk. Now, for the grand finale, we watch two men slit the throat of a glossy goat. Their rough hands slide under the animal’s skin to prise it away from the flesh, which they carve into rough chunks for the khorkhog, a goat meat and vegetable stew braised on the outdoor stove. The bits they don’t use are slung up to dry inside the ger (Mongolian yurt), ensuring no piece goes to waste.
When it’s finally time to feast, I quickly discover this is not the most delicious meal of my life. The cheese is overly tangy, the goat meat is a little tough, and the airag? Let’s not. But sitting in the open-sided dining tent in the middle of this bucolic valley, after spending the day observing a way of life that has remained unchanged for centuries, is absolutely unforgettable.
Coming from our world of instant gratification, it has been immeasurably refreshing to see people waiting for what they want, and living in such harmony with their environment.
Frui’s 14-day Mongolian photography holiday, including a two-night stay with a nomadic family, costs $5900. Dates for 2016 are July 15-28 and July 28-Aug 10. See frui.com.au
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TOP CHEFS BEST MEALS (by Nina Karnikowski)
1 PETER KURUVITA
VATULELE ISLAND, FIJI
My wife Karen and I worked on a Fijian island called Vatulele for two years. One day we went to a beach called Long Beach for a barbecue with a local family. I asked them what I needed to bring: ‘just some chilies and limes, everything else we will catch.’
We built a fire, then went diving to harvest nama [sea grapes] and lumi [seagrass]. One of the boys climbed a coconut tree and we scraped the coconut with seashells, squeezed the milk and mixed the lumi with it; the gelatin in the lumi set the coconut milk to make a cake.
Then we dived for giant sea urchins, the mother cracked the spines off then rolled them in the coals. When they were opened the roe was still soft but had this wonderful smoky taste – we dipped them into a sauce we made from crystal-clear sea water which I crushed the chilies and lime into.
The boys caught reef fish that were thrown whole into the fire until they went totally black; the scales acted as foil, so inside was perfectly steamed white flesh. A little bit of nama and sea grass cakes with the chili salt water on top, and it was the tastiest meal ever. See vatulele.com
2 DAN HONG
SIN HUAT EATING HO– USE, SINGAPORE
Four years ago at Sin Huat Eating House. It’s one of Singapore’s most expensive restaurants – not because of the setting because it’s in Geylang, a bit of a dingy area, there are plastic chairs and tables and you’re sitting outside – but because you’re eating the very best seafood in Singapore.
There was no menu, which meant we didn’t know how much anything was until the end, it was all about what was best on the day. The chef and his wife are the only two people who work there; he’s like the soup Nazi from Seinfeld, he’ll take your order and cook your food whenever he wants.
We ordered then waited about half an hour, drinking Tiger beers outside in the heat, until the first course of steamed gong gong [sea snails] came with an amazing garlic, chilli, shallot and soy sauce.
Another 40 minutes went by, for part of which he was just sitting down watching TV, before we got the live scallops with black bean sauce, then delicious steamed frog and huge steamed prawns with loads of garlic and soy.
Finally the main course of crab bee hoon, his signature dish that’s now done everywhere in Singapore. It’s huge mud crab that he gets from Sri Lanka stir fried to perfection with rice vermicelli and a secret broth.
We didn’t mind waiting 40 minutes between each course in the hot Singapore humidity because the food was so amazing. And as a chef I really respected that he was the only one taking orders and cooking for the whole restaurant.
3 BELLA JAKUBIAK
POD MIEDZA RESTAURANT, BUKOWINA TATRZANSKA, POLAND
It was 2013, in a small Polish alpine town called Bukowina Tatrzanska. You’ve never seen more beautiful views, an incredible sea of green, peppered with beautiful traditional wooden chalets. Lunch is in the sun, on the deck of one of these chalets at Pod Miedza which, just like all the amazing restaurants in this region, serves local goralskie [highlander] cuisine made with local produce.
I order scypek z zurawina, a local sheep’s milk cheese similar to halloumi, grilled to perfection and served with local cranberry jam. Next is a slow-cooked stew made with alpine wild venison and potato, cooked and served in a small campfire cauldron. Add to that a bickering old Polish aunt and uncle, a few pints of spiced mulled beer and a sense of post-winter awakening, and there you have it.
My best meal ever.
4 SCOTT PICKETT
LE SUQUET RESTAURANT, LAGUIOLE, FRANCE
During a big trip to Europe 18 months ago I ate at Le Suquet by Michel Bras in Laguiole, a three-star Michelin restaurant on a mountain top in the south of France.
Michel Bras is an idol of mine since he was the first one to really, in the modern day sense, forage in the early 80s. I flew into Montpellier, hired a car (an 80s convertible, I wanted to do it properly!) and drove three hours up these little windy roads into the alps to the restaurant.
The front of the restaurant is a 180-degree glass wall looking out over the beautiful arid nothingness, you’re perched on the top of a mountain and you can really feel a sense of place that’s reflected in the food. The first course (of 16 courses) I’ll never forget, a house-baked loaf of bread that they’d piped my name on to.
A few courses later we had the signature dish, Le Gargouillou, a plate of veggies that Bras forages and buys every morning from the markets. There must have been 30 different vegetables – they were crispy, crunchy, salty and sour all at once, and it looked like a piece of art. It was a three thousand dollar dinner, but it was the best of my life.
5 MATT MORAN
Saltbush farm, Port Augusta. South Australia
I could tell you about dining at the most incredible three stars around the world – the Fat Duck and El Bulli and all the rarest ones – but sometimes it’s the spur of the moment experiences you really remember. Like when Anthony Puharich from Victor Churchill [an upmarket Sydney butcher] and I decided to cook a hangi on a saltbush farm in Port Augusta while we were shooting a pilot.
It was about 45 degrees and we’d had two flat tyres while driving that day so we were running really late. But we dug a big hole, I put the dorper lamb shoulder that I’d brined and seasoned earlier into a hessian sack, then lit a fire and cooked it in the ground with hot rocks and charcoal for about five hours.
The lambs were eating saltbush around that area, so the meat had this incredible salty flavour to it and was just falling off the bone, it was to die for. We had to fight the flies for it and ate it just standing around a bench with bread rolls, a big slab of butter and a bucket full of chutney we’d made the day before, but it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever eaten. See southaustralia.com