GRUB! (Or: How to eat like a local)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Astute migrant readers from Go See Run Eat Drink will remember the “Steve’s Weird Food” project from my RTW trip (RTW is the cool-kids abbreviation for Around The World.  Don’t blame me for the fact that’s it’s not actually the correct acronym).  In short, the project evolved from an offhand challenge my friend Steve made as I was leaving to “eat something weird everywhere you go”.  It started out quite small and informal – I remember having the full Scottish breakfast in Edinburgh, which showed up with black pudding, and I thought, “Black pudding.  That counts as weird.”  But as the trip evolved so did the challenge, until it became a formal quest in each new country.  France? Steak Tartare.  Italy? Tripe.  Zambia? Worms.  Japan? Raw horse meat.  America? Chocolate covered bacon and deep-fried Twinkies (mercifully, two separate dishes).  It was a fun diversion and it was great material for the blog. (To review every post tagged as “Steve’s Weird Food” over at GSRED, click here.)

A favourite weird food – Eggs on a Stick! (Chaing Mai, Thailand).  They were eggs… on a STICK! I love that!

And now I live in London, UK, which has its own culinary reputation (Spam, Spam, eggs, chips and Spam, anyone?).  I had a lot of fun, and only brief episodes of indigestion, with Steve’s Weird Food, so I thought there might be some mileage in a London version – not necessary weird foods, but different, indigenous foods that others might find interesting.  So today Go Stay Work Play Live launches what is intended to be a recurring feature, tentatively called “GRUB!”.  And how could I start with anything other than… Marmite!

Marmite portrait
“Roses are red, Violets are blue, Marmite you’re brown, and I love you.”*

Called a “yeast extract”, there’s almost nothing about Marmite that’s actually appealing at first blush, including the fact that it’s called a “yeast extract”, which rather puts one in mind of a sample that might be taken in a doctor’s office, and definitely not something you’d spread on toast.  Wikipedia does a good description: “a sticky, dark brown paste with a distinctive, powerful flavour, which is extremely salty and savoury with umami qualities.”  Equally valid is my good friend Phonella’s description: “Tar in a jar”.  It looks and acts like nothing so much as thick, dark molasses, but the taste is unmatched. (Well, actually it’s supposed to be very much like Vegemite, its Antipodean cousin, but let’s not get into the whole messy Marmite vs. Vegemite debate here…)

Marmite was first produced in 1902, from the discarded yeast leftover from brewing Bass Ale (excellent beer tie-in!).  It was originally intended as a vegetarian substitute for beef-extract products like Bovril, which is a sort of beef stock / Oxo kind of thing, but became more popular in 1912 after the discovery of vitamins.  It turns out Marmite is packed with B vitamins and folic acid (not naturally occurring, but added in the manufacturing process).  And though it’s loaded in salt, the recommended serving size is small enough that it’s probably not a big deal for most people. It’s also fat free!  I even found an unattributed mention (on a New Zealand website) claiming that during World War 1 the British Army commandeered the entire Marmite supply for the war effort and air-dropped to British troops to stave off vitamin B deficiency. Ah, Marmite, is there nothing you can’t do?

Traditionally, Marmite is spread thinly on buttered bread or toast.  I like it on a toasted bagel, which has the advantage of being sturdy enough to stand up to Marmite’s tenacious stickiness much better than mere bread.  Add a slice of cheese on top of that and… yum!  I’ve also been adding it to my default/go-to/I-give-up meal, the toasted bagel with egg, tomato and cheese, and it’s been a stand-out there as well.  Yes, it’s true, I’m a total convert to the Dark Side, which is unusual.  It seems Marmite is normally one of those things you need to grow up with to love (like sardines, or Justin Bieber), so I’m a definite anomaly: an adult-onset Marmite fan. (To PW: Thanks for the intro to the Wonderful World of Marmite!)

Marmite Bagel 
“I don’t think I’ll ever write a poem as lovely as Marmite.” (This particular bagel went on to be topped with two fried eggs and served up for my Saturday breakfast.  Yum!)

“But what does it taste like?!” I hear you cry.  Well, it’s very strong, salty, and weirdly beefy, considering its vegetarian-ness.  There’s even a bit of iron taste in there too.  Basically, if beef Oxo cubes came in a concentrated syrup form, they would taste like Marmite. (And here I must pause to wipe off my keyboard, which has become a bit sticky because I’ve been dipping my finger directly into a jar of Marmite in order to give you the real, unvarnished truth.  We are nothing is not rigorous in our research here at GSWPL.)
Twiglets cropped
Finally, as an added bonus, I’ll take a moment to mention a Marmite-like spin-off product that’s also got a place in my cupboard – Twiglets! Twiglets are a sort of pretzel-like snack food flavoured with yeast extract. (Honestly, can someone not come up with a better name for that stuff?  Yeast extract?  Ugh.  If it were American it would be called something like Yummo Sauce or Freedom Flavouring.)  Twiglets are, not surprisngly, sort of twig shaped, and made out of whole grain flour (or wholemeal, as they say in these parts), and baked, not fried.  So as snack foods go they’re pretty healthy, and have the advantage that if you accidentally leave them out for general consumption, there’s a good chance no one else will touch them.  They are also good after a run, because of the saltiness.  And naturally they are excellent with beer.

And there you have it.  Marmite, Twiglets, and a dig at Justin Bieber.  What else could you ask for?

* These odes to Marmite are NOT of my creation – they must be some kind of ad campaign the company ran, because they appeared on several recent jars of Marmite that have passed through my cupboard, attributed to different Marmite lovers across the land.


Phonella said...

Great post! But poo on the Marmite -- I guess you have to be there to really appreciate it :)

Roberto Hamiltoni said...


I hope you are 'brewing' up a blog about beer in London....


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