I’d like to buy the world a Coke…

Vegas Coke bottle
…because seriously, most of you are drinking total garbage. I spent half an hour today subjecting my digestive system to a foaming, fructose-laden onslaught of bubbles, colourants and aromatic aldehydes, all in the name of helping you, dear reader, avoid some of the worst the world has to offer in sodas and mixers. I am now nearing diabetic coma and peeing for all I am worth.

Those of you who have driven down the Las Vegas Strip before can’t have failed to notice the hundred-foot Coca Cola bottle nestling (for Vegas) unobtrusively next to the squatting green mega-casino that is MGM Grand. The giant bottle houses a discount show tickets booth and Everything Coca Cola. This is a place (optimistically referred to as a ‘museum’) mostly devoted to Coca Cola merchandise – if it is your dearest wish to be clothed from head to foot in Coke-branded nylon and festooned with Coke pins and magnets, Everything Coca Cola will be right up your alley. Up on the first floor, there’s a bar where you can order the obvious in something called a Collectible Heritage Bottle and sip it through a straw while watching Japanese tourists take photos of one another in the arms of a fibreglass polar bear. The bar also offers one of America’s strangest tasting menus – a selection of 16 ‘International Flavors’. These are drinks produced by the Coca Cola company and sold in places far away. The sort of places where you should be very, very careful when ordering something wet to go with your meal.

We started with Lilt, from the UK. I’m familiar with this stuff; my Grandma used to keep a fridge-full of it, and it’s sweet, but not bad – an orange-tinged soda which tastes approximately of grapefruit and pineapple. Kin Cider from Ireland was also inoffensive. It’s essentially what we Brits call lemonade; a clear, fizzy, lemon-flavoured drink; Kinley Lemon from Israel was another lemonade, this time slightly cloudy and sharpy citric. South African Stoney Ginger Beer was also cloudy, with a pleasantly gingery kick – very different from Krest Gingerale from Israel, which was a lavatorial colour, packed no heat and ached with blandness. Mezzo Mix is German, and appears to be a mildly spiced sort of cross between a cola and a lemonade. I’d actually consider buying this to cook a ham in; it was less sweet than Coke and had a really good balance of spices. And Fanta Blackcurrant from Hong Kong is really very good indeed; it’s flat, and not too sweet, like a very dilute glass of Ribena (a British blackcurrant cordial which most of us toted around in flasks at school).

Things started to go wrong with the eldritch green Fanta Melon, also from Israel. I don’t know what the Israelis are doing to their melons, but they should stop immediately. VegitaBeta from Japan was flat, orange, and tasted of ghastly mystery. China’s Smart Apple was a glass of apple-smelling nuclear waste; Smart Watermelon was bright orange and very similar to something I had washed my hands with at Circus Circus the day before while reminiscing about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Unprompted, I do not think I would have applied the word ‘smart’ to either drink, but clearly Coca Cola’s marketing people know better.

Passionfruit from Argentina was lurid but actually pretty tasty, and reflected its name (amazing, this, given how little some of the other drinks resembled their suggested ingredients). Mexico’s Lift Apple was the colour of nicely oxidised apple juice, and was delightfully unassuming when compared to the Smart Apple, which I can still taste somewhere deep in my digestive tract. Central America started to get seriously weird with Costa Rica’s Fanta Kolita. I was under the impression (thanks to a bleary night with Wikipedia trying to work out what on earth Hotel California is about) that a colita was the flowering head of a cannabis plant, but the orange stuff in the glass appeared to be much less exotic – a Latin version of Scotland’s truly awful Irn Bru, which is advertised in the UK, with good reason, as being made out of girders. Simba Guarana from Paraguay was also downright alarming: a heavy sarsparilla fizz the colour of weak tea.

All this pales into an insignificant froth when compared to the quinine-laced horror which, according to the Coca Cola-clad barstaff, Italians drink voluntarily. I would be unsurprised if they’re using this stuff in Guantanamo Bay to force confessions. Beverly looks totally innocuous. It’s clear and fizzy, like an alluring glass of Perrier water. It tastes of death. Sugary, but chemotherapy-bitter death, a bit like chewing on the icing-frosted pith of a pomelo from hell. I checked with the staff that our drink had not been swapped out for poison by a humourist in the kitchen. They shook their heads sagely and said that sophisticated Romans drink Beverly as a delicious aperitif, presumably to set themselves up for an evening’s pizza, romance and street-fighting.

Today I discovered that the world has still not learned to sing in perfect harmony. Some of us like our drinks overpoweringly sweet. Others like them flat. Others still like violent fizz and medicinal flavours. But the Italians – they’re dangerous. Stay away from them and their death-drinks, because if they’re habitually drinking something as revolting as Beverly they are either crazed or plotting something brilliant and totally, totally evil.

Sticky chicken pieces in coke

One of the recipes on this blog that gets more hits than almost all the others is the ham in Coca Cola recipe I posted a couple of years ago. (Do try it if you haven’t yet – it really is good.) This means that my ears pricked right up last week when talking to a couple of Chinese friends, who were discussing a Chinese student recipe involving chicken wings, a wok and some coke; a delicious but extremely easy recipe, apparently impossible to mess up through student drunkenness.

I had a play with some bits of chicken (thighs rather than wings here, because that was what was in the fridge), soya sauce, ginger, garlic and coke when I got home, and I’m really pleased with the results. If you enjoy Malaysian cooking, with its propensity for sweetness in savoury dishes, you’ll love this; the sweetness is balanced by the dark spices from the coke, the zing of the chilli and some lovely aromatic ginger.

Make sure you buy full-fat coke, not the diet stuff. Diet cola will not work here – the sauce won’t thicken as it caramelises, and you won’t achieve any sweetness from it because the aspartame will degrade and taste revolting.

To serve two, you’ll need:

4 chicken thighs (or other chicken joints with the bone in and the skin still attached)
Coca Cola to cover
4 cloves garlic
1 piece of ginger, the size of your thumb
1 red chilli
4 tablespoons light soya sauce
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil

Pat the chicken dry with kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Leave to one side while you slice the garlic finely and cut the peeled ginger and the chilli into matchsticks.

Heat a little vegetable oil in a wok or a large pan over a high flame, and fry the chicken pieces until the skin is beginning to brown. Add the ginger, chilli and garlic, then stir fry for a minute. Pour over the cola so the chicken is covered, and add the soya sauce and the vinegar.

Put a lid partially over your wok or pan, making sure that you leave a gap at one side for plenty of steam to escape. Turn the heat down to a medium setting when the cola begins to simmer, and leave, turning the chicken occasionally, for about half an hour (depending on your pan), until the coke has reduced by more than two thirds and the liquid in the pan is syrupy. Serve immediately with rice, a little chilli sauce and a sharply dressed salad.

Ham in Coke

Several years ago, I stumbled on a Usenet post waxing lyrical about the savoury potential of Coca Cola when combined with pork. That same Coca Cola that your teachers spent years warning you about in the very darkest terms; at my school they used a can to dissolve a volunteer’s recently shed milk tooth away to nothing, and demonstrated its unholy ability to clean pennies with rotten-incisored glee.

I have a caffeine-addicted husband and a yen to flout the outdated authority of my Home Economics teacher. I have spent several years perfecting a ham in cola recipe, and am more than mildly irritated to find that these days, Nigella Lawson is publishing a version of ham in Coke in every book she writes. No matter. Mine’s better. Ham needs something sweet and spicy to counter its savoury saltiness – it happens that cola is the perfect foil. I can’t think of another way I’d prefer to cook ham now – this may sound a perverse thing to do to a nice chunk of pork, but trust me; it’s fabulous.

You’ll need:

1kg smoked gammon
1-2 large bottles cola (more or less depending on the size of your pan)
1 red onion
1 bulb garlic
1 stick cinnamon
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
2 dried chilis
20 cloves (give or take a few)
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chili
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground mustard
4 tablespoons maple syrup

Place the gammon in a close-fitting, thick-bottomed pan (important, this thick bottom; you need to avoid singing the bottom of your ham) with the onion, halved, the bulb of garlic, cut in halves, the cinnamon stick, coriander seeds and whole chilis. Pour over Coke to cover (I’m afraid it has to be the full-fat version; Diet Coke won’t caramelise properly) and put on a medium heat until it reaches a simmer. Lower the heat enough to keep a gentle simmer, and put the lid on for 2 1/2 hours.

After your kitchen timer has gone, preheat the oven to 200c and lift the whole ham carefully from the liquid (Hang onto that liquid if you want to make Boston baked beans). Leave the ham to cool enough to handle. With a sharp knife, remove the rind, without removing the fat.

You’ll be left with a joint of meat with a glistening covering of fat. Use your sharp knife to score the top in diamonds, and stick a clove in each corner of each diamond. Make a paste from the ground cinnamon, ground chipotles, mustard powder and maple syrup, and brush it all over the ham, concentrating on the fatty surface. The sweet mixture will caramelise onto the crisping fat; this is pretty much 90% bad for you, but, unfortunately, it tastes approximately 100% good. I really should talk a friendly social statistician somewhere into working out just how bad for you things have to be to start tasting good; I’m sure there’s an interesting graph in that somewhere.

Put the whole ham in the oven, uncovered, for twenty minutes, remove and check that the fatty surface has formed a crust. (If you prefer more crust, put the ham under a high grill for two minutes.)

If you have made a large ham, you can make several good meals from it. Eat it like this, freshly cooked, with some sautéed potatoes; eat it in Pasta alla Medici; use it to flavour Boston baked beans.

If you’re having people round for dinner and feel like cheating, feel free not to mention the cola. And if you enjoyed this as much as I do, you’ll probably want to check out the sticky chicken pieces in coke too.