CNN’s man in Baghdad, Michael Ware is one of few western journalists to have reported from insurgent camps. An avid rugby fan, we met him in Paris where he was covering the World Cup. He selects the touristy Thai restaurant Asian for his last meal.
“Brisbane is my home but I live in Baghdad. For almost six years now I have only lived war. I leave Iraq twice a year and the first thing I do when I come out is go to a Thai restaurant; it’s my first meal anywhere I go. I just arrived in Paris to cover the Rugby World Cup and I’ve already had two Thai meals. I love it and miss the taste. I miss the currency of the flavours, the richness of the food, the sparkle. I’m not a gourmet – I’m a man of very simple tastes – but, to me, Asian flavours are part of being a contemporary Australian, so I’d have Thai food for my last meal.
Today I’m having Tom Yum Goong. I haven’t had a spring roll in months so I’m going to have some of those too. And then there’s the eternal decision – stir fry or curry? I think I’ll go with the prawns in curry sauce.
Before I left for Paris, I had just eaten in a restaurant in Iraq for the first time in two years. It was in the western Anbar province where the US Marines have a division. I went back to an important al-Qaeda village that Sunni insurgents had reclaimed from al-Qaeda only weeks before. They used to hang severed heads from butchers hooks on the main street.
Al-Qaeda had owned this particular restaurant for years and had closed it when they shut down the village and all communal life. Now that the tide has turned there and Iraqis have the upper hand again, reopening the restaurant was a big deal.
When I arrived in Iraq, after living in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for just over a year, it felt like a food revolution. For a while it seemed like the food had taste – we were eating kebabs, mutton, rice and chicken. Occasionally you’d see a salad and do cartwheels, particularly when you’re eating the same lunch and dinner every day. I’m back to the same weight I was when I was 17.
Forget Atkins. Forget the fad diets. You want to go to fat camp? Then get yourself to Iraq. The food is unattractive and poorly prepared so there’s no motivation to eat, and when you do it can have serious consequences! Sometimes you starve for days so you’re constantly hungry and you end up dreaming and fantasising about food all the time.
At my last meal, I’d just have two members of my family. I don’t like to talk about my personal life but the people I count as real friends wouldn’t even fill this table. My world is actually very small. I come from a traditional Australian working-class background which I’m immensely proud of. My upbringing has helped to shape the man that I’m slowly evolving into.
My favourite memory as a child was being with my father and stopping at these roadside food vendors – roaming meat-pie salesmen – who would sell food from the back of their trucks. They would park by certain main thoroughfares and roads in the neighbourhoods where we grew up and my father and I would stop for pie’n’peas. It’s an English thing – a saucy pie filled with ground beef. The pie man would slice the crust off the lid and peel it back to spread mashed peas across the top before resealing the lid.
To me as a child that was manna from heaven that came in a little white paper bag. Dad and I used to have a competition to see who could eat the thing without spilling it, because it was a very messy affair. I have very strong childhood memories of that.
The sad indictment on my current culinary life is that I will go into a US military embed just so I can get to the chow hall. I’m not kidding. I remember watching M*A*S*H when I was growing up, and you’d see the slop they dealt out to the soldiers in the army mess hall; but it’s certainly not like that now.
They have salad bars as long as football fields, sandwich bars, ice cream parlours, and burger and corn dog stands. Then there’s the main meal section, with fruit, veg and salad and an assortment of beverages that boggles the mind. I’ve been known to fake interest in military operations just to get to the food, and I think it’s well known within the multinational force command that if they want to entice me out for an interview or a sit-down with a general, they offer a lunch and we’ll do it in the chow hall. If they want to own me, they go via my stomach.”
A few minutes’ walk from the Champs-Élysées, next to Hermès in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, is Asian, an oriental fusion restaurant. Offering food from all over the Far East, Asian imports its ingredients, spices and teas directly from Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The design is dark opium-den chic – everything mirrored and lacquered. Asian attracts an international crowd who enjoy its lounge atmosphere.
Asian, 30 Avenue George V, Paris; + 33 1 56 89 11 00; asian.fr
Tom Yum Goong
Vegetable spring rolls
Thai prawn curry
Château Châtain Lejard
750ml chicken stock
250g prawns, peeled
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
5g galangal, sliced
3 tbsp fish sauce (Nam Pla)
2 lemongrass sticks, roughly chopped
2 spring onions, chopped
5 Thai green chillies, seeded
8 button mushrooms, thinly sliced
3 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp coriander, chopped
Bring the stock to the boil. Add the garlic, galangal, lemongrass, fish sauce, spring onions, mushrooms and chillies. Simmer for two minutes. Add the prawns and bring back to the boil. Cook for one minute. Add the lime juice. Serve in individual bowls. Garnish with coriander.