A Recipe for Indigestion

Phillip Kim
Feb 6th, 2014

Forget Delhi-belly. Try Last Gastro in Paris as Phillip Kim eats his way around the world.

 

 

As a seasoned foodie tourist, I know all too well the consequences of over-indulging. During my twenty years in Asia, I’ve had my share of Delhi-belly, being “shanghaied” by the off hairy crab, or waylaid by pad thai stir-fried in rancid oil down a Bangkok alley. I am wary of e-coli in Hong Kong and local strains of probiotic bacteria in Korean kimchee that can take days to assimilate.

But this was Paris, for God’s sake. Surely I should have been fine. However, the consequences proved otherwise. I would come to pass the small hours staring at white porcelain basins and bath tiles, rather than the warm side of my hotel pillow. My guts would feel like pastry dough – twisted and kneaded.

What had I been thinking?

  

The descent into gastric hell started at a hole-in-the-wall, but one that was touted to be among the best oyster eateries in Paris. High praise indeed. My wife and I accepted being crammed onto two high stools facing a narrow plank for a table and a wall painted with a cartoonish mural of a seashore. Piped in over ceiling-mounted speakers was the sound of waves crashing and sea gulls cawing. At the table directly behind us, a cluster of Japanese tourists jabbered and slurped their way through plates of raw shellfish. We weren’t here for the atmosphere. We had come for the famed Fine de Claire Oléron oysters, freshly trucked down from the Brittany coast.

We ended up eating two dozen of them, as well as a pair of scallops recommended by the proprietor. We passed on the sea urchin, which we deemed too evocative of sashimi. Other than bread, there was nothing else on the menu. No salads, soups, casseroles, or veggie side dishes. No matter - the shellfish on their own were delicious, although it helped to have a steady flow of champagne and Chablis to wash down the brine and grit.

We further uplifted our epicurean game over the next day and a half. Lunch was a Michelin-starred seafood degustation menu. We ate by the window, with an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower. Set against a mottled winter sky, the structure provided the perfect punctuation mark – an emphatic exclamation point – to the meal. The menu had advertised six courses. We got eight, including four desserts and a gratis serving of brie cheese with shaved black truffle.

Dinner that night was another Michelin-starred affair. Still reeling from our lunch indulgence, we vowed to go light. We failed. There were tempura-battered frogs’ legs. Fillet of pigeon. John Dory, rolled and served in a creamy white sauce. We left without ordering dessert – not because we wanted to, but because our bellies had become the stage for a revolt. The maître d’ looked bewildered, almost personally affronted, as we collected our coats and staggered out the door.

The coup de grâce to our digestive systems took place the next morning. We had been told to try “the best hot chocolate ever” at a café overlooking the Jardin des Tuileries, next to the Louvre. Against our better judgment, we decided to give it a go, convincing ourselves that we would regret missing out on something special. The taste was indeed incredible, but it was essentially molten serotonin and sugar in a cup, with a consistency more like mercury than milk.

As we should have expected, our intestines soon erupted in a full intercultural riot, shouting invectives in a toss of Asian tongues. ‘What’s with all the richness? Was that a kitchen back there or a dairy?’ ‘Did you really have to eat the deconstructed apple pie, birthday cake and the cheese plate?’ ‘Sure, open shellfish in Hong Kong is unsafe, but so is gulping a bucket of North Atlantic seawater.’

Regaining our bearings took two days and subsisting on bread and water. As we slumped back to London, we reflected on our munchfest misadventure. Clearly, our palates, like the Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now, had long gone Asian-local.  We had come to love the assertive flavors - garlic, chillies, ginger, fresh and fermented soybeans, fish sauce, cilantro, coconut, cumin, turmeric. We love vegetables that are leafy, piquant, and full of snap. And we love the transparency of Asian food. The fish retain their eyeballs, cheeks and lips, so people can see what died in order to provide them with a meal. Similarly, poultry is served with heads attached and bones intact. Even turtle meat comes stuck to its shell. We agree with the notion of dessert as an afterthought, unless it is served in the form of pure, naturally orgiastic fruit.                 

Asia is a fast changing chase-thy-neighbor’s-success place, its population more hungry for time than food. Other than at celebratory banquets or Sunday family gatherings, meals are generally a quick affair, meant to provide fuel that allows business to get on with doing business. Woks are for flash-frying, Styrofoam is for instant noodles or lunch boxes of cleavered meat, rice is for shoveling into mouths in flashes of chopsticks and spoons.

Paris is the anti-Asia. The city undoubtedly has enough museums to fill a calendar year. It is filled with timelessly gorgeous art, language and music. However, because Paris’ past flows so effortlessly into the present, it is the future that seems uncertain and insecure. And Paris’ food is the perfect two-way mirror for both faces of the city. The cuisine reflects the richness of the city’s storied history. It also carries an almost debilitating weight, one that can anchor rather than lift.

Immediately after Paris, I made my way to Manila for business. The contrast could not have been starker. Imperial European architecture gave way to the unsettled co-mingling of glass skyscrapers and shantytowns. The oscillating whine of Parisian police vans was replaced by the hoarse grumbling of cramped jeepneys.

I fought through jet-lag and heavily accented English during my morning schedule. Then came lunch. It was a catered buffet of Filipino specialties. Pork adobo with garlic. Stewed oxtail with peanut and fish sauce. Shrimp with ginger and spices in coconut cream. And of course, large mounds of fragrant Jasmine rice. The dishes were not familiar to me. This was yet another foreign country. But the flavors, smells, and invitation to shovel rice into my mouth were comforting. There were no buttery croissants or blackcurrant-filled petit fours. If I had closed my eyes and listened to the quiet hum of my stomach, I would have known that I was close to home.


Phillip Kim's own blog is here: Asia One Percent

Blogger

Phillip Kim
Korea
Last blog date: Oct 3rd, 2014

Comments

Please login to comment.

Most Popular

Rezvan Vatankhah
Mar 31st, 2014
Fan Dai
Dec 13th, 2013
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
Jul 15th, 2014
Fan Dai
Feb 4th, 2014