A World Turned Upside Down

The devil's vegetable

Sometimes, long held opinions are so severely shaken by circumstances that the certainties crumble and you have to reassess large parts of what you thought made up the essence of you. Absolutes that have kept you warm for decades, truths we hold to be self evident, that sort of thing. It can happen in regard to faith, to politics, and – I am shocked to report – celery.

I have known one thing about food for as long as I can remember: celery is wrong. The taste, texture and smell of celery – oh, yes, you can smell the noxious odour of raw celery from up to ten metres – all turned my stomach when I was younger. And while in my more rounded, less zealous maturity, I have been able to eat the stuff cooked in stews, and even recognise its value when cooked down in the melting pot of stock, the raw article still leaves me retching.  Even the righteous tomato can be tainted by its trace and rendered inedible.

But on my recent trip to South East Asia, I had a revelation.  Specifically in Laos, where the food is amazing and quite unlike anything I had tasted before. Sure, Vietnamese food uses a lot of fresh herbs; of course Thai food is rich in lemongrass and chilli. But Lao food seems to have perfected these two strands and combined them seamlessly into something sublime. Often exquisitely, excruciatingly spicy, but sublime none the less. If you get the chance to try a laap (a cooked salad, usually involving chopped meat, but working just as well with tofu and/or straw mushrooms ), I urge you to do so.

But halfway through my culinary rapture one day, I realised that there was something incongruous, yet familiar, nestling amongst the other flavours on my plate. I couldn’t quite place it, but knew that, snuggled up next to the coriander, whatever it was worked. I ran through every taste I knew to try to identify it as I chomped through the rest of the plate. Then, with slow horror, I realised it was celery. Not the woody, sinewy, horrible stalky bit, of course, just the leafy tops. But it was unmistakably celery.

For a moment, I retreated into certainties, knowing that the dish tasted horrible despite the evidence of my mouth. My head was adamant that the presence of the devil’s vegetable meant that I couldn’t enjoy what I was eating, even as I enjoyed what I was eating. But I had to face the truth: celery isn’t always awful. In fact, combined with coriander, and underpinned by chilli, it could actually be quite nice. Very nice.

Inspired by this new insight, I resolved to buy some celery on my first visit to Newington Greens after returning to London. I had in mind maybe some tofu, fried with chilli and lemongrass, and finished with some chopped coriander and celery leaves. But my lovely local green grocer only stocked the stalky stuff – the tops had been chopped and, presumably, discarded. Precisely the opposite of what I had planned.

I tried three other shops, all with the same result. I know that in the past I’ve seen celery for sale with the tops intact, but North London let me down on this occasion. And I’ve now given up looking – I found it increasingly uncomfortable spending time hunting down a vegetable I know I hate.  And I’ve started to doubt that the dish in Laos was really that nice, that it was all about context (like ouzo), or that I dreamt the whole thing.

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