Have I mentioned that I am a fan of Anthony Bourdain, the peripatetic and omnivorous host of “Parts Unknown”? Did I tell you that he has my job? At least, he has the job I would love to have. When he quit cooking in Manhattan about 15 years ago he wrote a best-selling exposé, Kitchen Confidential, and then proposed doing a TV show. His pitch to the Food Network was, as he told The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe, in a profile in the magazine’s February 13-20 issue, the show would consist of Anthony traveling the world, eating a lot of stuff and “doing whatever the **** I wanted.” The show is now on CNN; the title perfectly describes not only where he goes but some of the things he puts in his mouth during his travels.
Tony (if I may call him that) and I have a few things in common, in addition to us both being devilishly handsome, charming, witty…I could go on, but let’s stick to food. He’s omnivorous, as I mentioned, certainly to a greater degree than I am. I mean, come on! Cobra heart, raw? Bear bile? One has to draw a line somewhere, especially when it comes to ingesting strange foods at great distances from competent medical care. Tony? He just eats it. You never see him puke on the show but I’ll bet he has, and I’ll bet he has quickstepped to the privy more than once, too. Another thing in common: we both love street food, keeping it simple and local, whether in Kabul or Kathmandu or Bangor. And neither of us have an aversion to adult beverages.
Binge-watching past episodes of “Parts Unknown” brings back happy memories. Some of the happiest involve fish, my favorite protein, starting with the tinker mackerel I caught on a handline while leaning over the rail of a little trawler in the harbor at Pigeon Cove, on Cape Ann. I was 10 or 11. The boat was tied up and a huge school of the little mackerel was circling the harbor. A couple of other wharf rats and I were hauling them aboard as fast as we could while one of the crew quickly cleaned them, fried them in the galley below and served them up to us on Wonder Bread. At the time I thought food couldn’t get better than that, and today I know I was very nearly right. A couple of years later I ate my first trout, rolled in corn meal and fried by the Old Man in bacon fat in a little camp on the Alder Stream, and experienced the same sort of epiphany.
In Lima, Peru many years ago I was introduced to ceviche in a fabulous restaurant called Las Trece Monedas. I have never stopped making ceviche but I have never made it as good as it was there.
In Vietnam, long after the war, I rode on the back of a motorbike driven by an American expat named Steve, his Vietnamese wife leading the way on her own bike, out a long, bumpy dirt road along the north shore of Nha Trang Bay. Ahead I saw a string of lights. We dismounted and walked a couple of planks out over the water to what was basically a platform on stilts with a rusty corrugated roof. The platform held a dozen tables and we got one on the outside rail, with the sea a dozen feet below. A washtub full of ice and bottles of Heineken was set down on the floor beside the table. Steve’s wife ordered. The waiter relayed the order to a skinny kid of about 12 who was wearing a bathing suit. The kid dove off the platform and swam to a series of floating crates, like our Maine lobster crates, plucked out what was to be our dinner, tucked it all in a sack and swam for shore, where it was grilled over an open fire. Soon, large platters of the freshest seafood possible, cooked in the simplest manner possible, were set before us — little lobster tails, squid, prawns. We ate incredible food, we drank cold beer, we gazed out at the lights of little squid boats bobbing on the moonlit bay. It was one of the two or three best dinners I have ever eaten.
Other memorable dishes in other memorable settings have followed — chili crab in Singapore, a whole salmon baked in salt in Colorado, sidewalk-grilled sardines in Lisbon, Portugal; tiny fried whitebait in London, whole fried sea bass in Bogotá, deep-fried something-or-others in Bangkok and Jakarta. The common elements: freshness and simplicity. Bon apetit. Now, Tony, where were we?