I am in Geneva because of work – day after day, the meetings remain lengthy and tedious; sometimes it feels like the participants are pedantically and often petulantly discussing obscure ways of preparing honey-baked ham or some other matter of similar significance, instead of trying to come up with concrete ways to address major labour issues – but given the food I’ve eaten, I could well be in Geneva on one of those culinary escapades. I don’t quite keep track of the days via the meals I have anymore, but there have nevertheless been memorable meals.
Twice last week my colleagues and I girded ourselves for gambas à gogo i.e. prawn buffet. The star of the show: steamed prawns stir-fried in garlic butter, served on large shallow trays in their juices and bits of garlic, as many prawns as you can peel and eat. Yours truly is a classic spoiled peasant princeling – back in Singapore my dear mum and brother would peel my prawns for me; I don’t even like to have to pull the tail off prawns that have been otherwise de-shelled – but after an awkward start I was proficient enough to chow down the succulent, garlic-infused pink commas one after another. And “chow down” are appropriate words – the way we Singaporeans tuck into good prawns is vastly different from the dignified pace the Swiss shell and bite and chew their prawns and daintily mop up the juices with bread. We are messier, and we eat more, much more. I think I peeled more prawns at those two sittings than I ever have – admittedly, this would not be that inconceivable or impressive an achievement – and I just wished that I had photographic proof of those decimated trays and heaps of shells to show my folks. My colleague thinks that every time we come to Geneva for the prawn buffet we severely deplete the local prawn supply and cause a serious price hike, and if you see one of those photos, you may agree.
Oh right, I said we did this twice last week! The first time, on Monday, we had the gambas à gogo at le Furet. The first few trays of prawns were good, but there wasn’t much gravy to mop up with the shoestring fries (also free flow). The second time, Thursday I believe, we went to Le Corail Rose, which I thought had more consistently succulent prawns, more and yummier garlic gravy (which carried the taste of prawn in spades, while le Furet’s was merely salty) and chunkier fries (also free flow). And, in anticipation of the massacre, Le Corail Rose provides lobster-bibs, decorated with a drawn-on bow, so you look neat and formal while you rip into the doomed crustaceans.*
I like prawns done any number of ways, and I like mushrooms in its many forms and regardless of how it is prepared too. We were in Annecy, a French town about 75 minutes via bus from Geneva, at a charming restaurant and served by a very capable (and very busy) waitress whose command of English was limited. We ordered a lunch set that came with mushroom soup, and when she repeated our order she said something very like “cappuccino”. She got it wrong, we thought, but when we pointed to the text for mushroom soup on the menu to clarify, she nodded curtly, said something very like “cappuccino” again, briskly collected our menus and left. She came back after a while bearing six cappuccino cups – those glasses that are held up with a metal “ear” so that you don’t burn yourself if the contents are too hot – of vaguely cappuccino-coloured stuff, topped with vaguely cappuccino-like foam. A colleague sniffed it and said it smelled savoury.
I know now, after doing a bit of Googling, a bit more about mushroom soup done cappuccino-style. But at the time, I was new to this unfamiliar way of doing soup. We were given soup spoons, so I dug past the foam and tried a spoonful, and found that the soup was delicious, thick with mushrooms. There was a small stick of dough fritter, very light, almost crumbly, studded with toasted sesame seeds on its top side, and that was the next thing I dunked into the mushroom cappuccino, about two inches of it, which I then bit off. That bite of fritter – sesame seeds, deep-fried flour, the crispness of the fritter, suffused with mushroom soup – tasted like a little piece of the best pie in the world. Then the soup cooled enough to be drunk like cappuccino, and that capped a very satisfying first course to what turned out to be an otherwise ordinary meal.
Geneva’s not an interesting place in the usual way towns or cities are interesting. There is a fairly long shopping-dedicated street, and restaurants galore of course, especially if you know where to look, but it’s not an interesting and dynamic place in the fashion of a Shanghai, say, or a San Francisco even. But it is interesting in other ways. For example: The Swiss have extremely well-behaved dogs. They bring these dogs – I’ve seen boxers, pugs, huskies/marlamutes, chihuahuas (one was shivering like mad in the icy wind), various types of spaniels, pekingese, dachshunds – to the shopping centre and up the bus and tie these dogs to something near the supermarket entrance when they go inside for groceries, and I’ve never ever seen one misbehave in the slightest. Another example: Sirens are an enigmatic staple of the Geneva night. I have seen maybe one car accident – my memory is hazy on this regard – in my whole time in Geneva, but I hear many sirens every single night. (They are common in the daytime too.) Do that many fires break out? (Haven’t seen any telltale smoke.) Do that many people get injured on the nearby ski slopes? (Mmm… possible. Near those ski resorts, you see many people in casts.) Do that many cats need to be rescued? (I have seen maybe one cat all this while – it’s uncanny, the contrast with the number of dogs I’ve seen.)
P/S. I brought way too many clothes to Geneva, but one of these pieces of apparel was a sweater – I was going to say it was ill-fitting, but because of my sideways expansion it’s become almost well-tailored – given to me by a pal just before I went to San Diego for an exchange programme while I was in university. (That’s… *counting*… 8 (!) years ago now.) I’d forgotten about it, I think; I am well-insulated and rarely wear sweaters in Singapore, so I hadn’t worn it in a while. It felt oddly comforting to wear it.
*Incidentally, you know there’s this dish called “drunken prawns”, yes? The better-known version of the dish is essentially prawns – fresh as fresh can be – steamed with a strong dash of liquor; I’ve seen whiskey used for this, and shaoxing jiu. I’ve also seen the not-so-well-known version of “drunken prawns”. This was at one of those seafood places at East Coast Parkway, where these prawns – once again fresh as fresh can be, indeed still leaping and flopping all over one another – were shaken in a transparent lidded pot with some wine (whiskey I believe) and soy sauce – until they were drunk – and then peeled and eaten while they were still shuddering in one’s fingers. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself, folks, and I’ve since seen it more than once – my dear dad and bro are both big fans. (Another account of someone savouring this dish can be found in this article by an author who had to research Chinese food for his books, about halfway down the page.)