Sunday, December 22, 2013

No Expectations III: Churrasca Tipica

I'm on my way to Eighth Street Soondae, on foot, about a 4 mile traverse along the west edge of downtown.  Not a quarter of the way there, not even all the way out of my own neighborhood, my foot starts killing me.  Every time I bring it down on the pavement my ankle whines.  Not screams, just whines.  On a normal street, this may have been tolerable, but here on Alvarado Street, northwest of downtown, where all the concrete-laying appears to have taken place right before a massive earthquake or three, this is a serious, abruptly-walk-ending issue.

Limping into a strip mall for shelter from the clattering cars, I see a carnival of colors in front of me.  Initially, I assume it's a party supply store, but, getting closer, I see that the reds and greens and yellow and blues are framing images of food: Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Mexican, and... Mediterranean?  Hmm.

Coco's International Food.

It is empty but for the proprietress and the cook, who remains behind a divider, and many of the things on the menu are entirely new to me.  Pupusas, sure, huevos divorciados, of course, tamales, of course... but then there's also the garnachas, and the pepian de pollo, and the churrasca tipica.  The most I can say about any of that is that there's chicken in the second one and third one is barbecued... maybe... probably.

I mess up a hundred times while ordering the churrasca tipica (the maybe probably barbecued one).  I order it because it's kind of expensive, so it must be a big platter of something. This no-expectations thing is hard for me.  I'm super Type A.  Finding a restaurant I don't have preconceived notions about is tough enough.  I spend so much time on Yelp and Chowhound and local food blogs and scouring the LA Times that almost every place I see has some rogue phrase from somewhere branded into my mind already.

And even if one falls into my lap like this one did - practically beams down from the sky like a vision - I have trouble ordering totally blind.  What if it's - gasp - steak?

Guess what?  This is - gasp - steak!  (At least partially!)  She asks me how I want my beef cooked and I'm halfway through asking her to substitute another kind of meat before I bite my tongue and answer the question: "Medium's fine," I say, which is another leap of faith, because usually ("usually") I get it bloody and rare, practically alive.

But she asks me how I want it cooked as follows: "You want it well-done?" - nodding encouragingly - which makes me think she knows something I don't about the meat.  I'm sure she knows everything I don't about the meat, actually, since my grasp of what will be on my plate still consists only of knowledge that it will probably be from a cow.

My agua jamaica comes out first, and I can say, since I do have experience with jamaica drinks, that this one is without a doubt the cinnamoniest, floweriest joy I've ever sucked through a straw.

The platter, when it comes, is not as sprawling and intimidating as I'd pictured it.  It's cute; each food item is compact, perfect, and arranged artfully separated from its neighbors.  This is a flourish I attribute sometimes to the Japanese and sometimes to five-year-olds who don't like their food items touching.

The plantains (or bananas: a consequence of my not knowing what's on my plate is my not reporting to you precisely what's on my plate) are an absolute crispy cloud of flavor, melting almost like a good macaron on the tongue, but with a satisfying oily bite.  The chorizo, though it looks kind of like fruit cake, is a crunchy play on textures, almost like that Lao sausage with the crispy rice.

That triangle of white in the upper corner that looks like those pre-cut Brie wedges at the grocery deli?  Fresh, crumbly, moist, salty cheese.

And the steak, that wild card, that meat I never, never order on purpose because it's either bloody or bust, and even then I can only ever manage a few bites of it?


Even though it is medium-well, it's pounded thin like chicken-fried steak, and rubbed thoroughly with a savory dry spice blend.  While it isn't spicy in the fiery sense, I am provided with a bottle of homemade-looking sauce whose dominant flavor profile is pork fat.

As for the tomatoes, they quickly become the second tomatoes I've ever happily finished!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold day, hot udon: Marugame Monzo

There is a stark divide among the patrons at Marugame Monzo.

Half of them are fighting their instincts.  Their instincts tell them to be restless.  They tell them to feel irritated at the long wait, the shoulder-to-shoulder closeness, the space for exactly two people to wait inside and no more, this coupled with the freezing (for L.A.) temperatures and threat of rain.  Even once they're seated, the overwhelming smell of dashi, butter, and seaweed coupling with their own empty plates, their instincts tell them to be urgently, impatiently hungry.

Their bodies want to fidget, their fingers to seek their phones, their voices to rise, but their brains won't let them, because their brains are firmly directing their eyes to stare at the Udon-Making-Man.

The Udon-Making-Man is a wonder.  He is perpetually on display - behind a large glass pane at the bar - and perpetually moving.  He isn't a blur, for he moves at a steady, careful pace, but his limbs never stop rolling, patting, flour-sprinkling, stretching, chopping, and rinsing.  Not once does his hand derail to wipe his brow (a kerchief takes care of that) or do his eyes leave his station (despite the pairs of eyes all directed at him).  He displays no evidence of being unsettled by the attention.

The disc of dough grows, it stretches, it's floured.  It's floured A LOT.  "Floury," murmurs my mom from her spot at our hard-won table.  I detect a hint of judgment in her voice that may just be me, projecting my own.  It looks like the noodles are going to taste like a used rolling pin.  90% flour, 10% dough.

They do not.

For the other half of the patrons, those who have received their half-bowl, half-platters of noodles, have a different air entirely.

Their bodies and brains are in harmony: both dedicated wholly to eating udon.  They're wearing constant grins, grins visible even through rapid chopstickfuls of noodles and the motion of conversation.

Mirroring the Udon-Making-Man's, the customers' hands don't stop moving until the job is done.  The job, in this case, is to get every last snake of udon into their mouths.  Every last spoonful of roe-speckled, lightly spicy butter, every last textured tiny tongue of urchin, every last strip of pork fat or duck breast or green onion.

As for me, I look like everyone else - robotically yet wonderingly raising chopsticks to my mouth - but I'm also marveling at the slow build of the spice in the mentai (cod roe) and how well the tiny eggs stick to the noodles, as though the noodles had microscopic gaps made just for them.  I'm wondering how the squid came to be so butterfly-edged and tender, almost like a whitefish, and how the cook coaxed all the rubber band texture out.  I'm staring at my sauce, thinking how even though it looks like melted butter, I still somehow want to eat it with a spoon.

And perhaps most strongly of all, I'm enjoying the udon like I've never really enjoyed it before.  Secretly, I've historically dismissed udon as unnecessarily beefed-up pasta: the steroid-injected gym rat of the noodle world.  This particular udon, though, retains none of the excess flour I watched poured onto the wooden rolling-mat.  It has three textures: the outer bite, the slight give afterwards, and the final chew, which feels like the most satisfying sort of sourdough.

My appetite is hardly ever as big as my tastebuds want it to be, but here I am left with a tiny, penny-sized pool of butter-broth and nothing else.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Undoing past prejudices: Shawarma at Pita Bar & Grill

In college, I worked at an Israeli restaurant that shall, as far as this blog is concerned, remain nameless.

We served falafel, gyros, shawarma, hummus, babagannouj, marinated eggplant, and various vegetarian salads.  I used to mist the inside of my water bottle with a squirt from our rosewater cooler, for making rosewater lemonade, and snack on little sauce-cups full of tabbouleh when business was slow.

Despite the fact that this place was the only place I'd ever had shawarma, I took my experience here to mean that I did not like shawarma.  Apparently I also internalized that it was always made from a big hunk of dry chicken or turkey mixed with onions on a spit and decorated with absolutely nothing.

But the mind remembers only that it feels a certain way, not why it feels a certain way, and I never went out of my way to order shawarma again.  Sometimes I would look at it, slowly rotating, glistening with juices that ran down its bumpy sides into the pan underneath, and wonder for a split second.  But I'd remember the gristly, unchewable poultry I'd held in my mouth four, five, seven years ago, and I'd take a pass.

October, 2013:

"There's a place over on Fairfax that makes great shawarma," a friend said to me as we were inching down La Brea at a snail's place, making almost zero progress towards our usual destination: Japanese breakfast in Gardena.

"So?" I said.  I was grumpy.  It was Saturday and there was no reason for there to be so much goddamn traffic.  "I hate shawarma."

"Not this shawarma.  I promise."

Something inside me unlocked.  It was probably the traffic, my absolute unwillingness to sit for another instant behind every single sports car in West Hollywood.  "You want to go now?" I asked him.  "Let's go now."

He swung the car across a few lanes of ambling traffic and made the turn.

The whole district was virtually shuttered; a largely Orthodox neighborhood on a Saturday, wrought-iron gates were slammed down over darkened shop windows and the streets were full of dressed up, yarmulke-d families coming from temple.  Pita Bar & Grill, sandwiched between a closed something-or-other and a wall of chains, barely gave off any indication that it was open, but it was.

Effortfully not allowing myself to be distracted by the Moroccan mergueze sausage, I ordered a shawarma pita.  He didn't ask me what I wanted on it, and I didn't want him to.  I like it when places give you whatever they feel is tastiest.

In this case, the little wrap was more of a bursting salad than a sandwich, its hunks of lamb all but buried in a pile of mild sauerkraut, bright purple cabbage, and assorted salad-like accoutrements, and smothered in a light hummus.  Despite the wetness and sheer weight of the fillings, the pita remained warm and unmoved.

I wasn't even expecting to be able to taste the meat under everything pressing it down, but despite it all, the gamey lamb flavor came stampeding out of the gate, cinnamon clutching the reins.

There were green bottles, there were white bottles, there were red bottles, there were orange bottles.  Just in case all of the salad and all of the meat marinade wasn't enough, I could choose to slather my sandwich in garlic chili sauce, or preserved mango sauce, or tahini, or garlic paste, or cilantro jalapeño sauce.

I chose the cilantro jalapeño sauce, which hit me with some pleasing Peruvian memories, but otherwise couldn't possibly improve on the flavor.

Not one hint of gristle touched my teeth, not one tough tendon assaulted my jaw, and I even felt healthy afterwards, that kind of cheating-healthy where the sheer amount of vegetables piled on your oily grilled meat fools your stomach into thinking it's ingested a salad, rather than oily grilled meat.

Never again will I claim not to like shawarma.  In fact, this experience reminds me to never claim not to like anything: there's always an amazing preparation somewhere.  You just have to find it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

No Expectations II: Bún nước kèn at Hà Tiên Quán

"Oh, this dish?  Only you and the family eat it," I think the owner of Hà Tiên Quán is saying to me.  What does he mean?  Am I the first person ever to order it?  Impossible... but intriguing.

"It's a Cambodian dish, like a Cambodian fish stew," he says.  "Ground fish.  Coconut.  We serve it with green papaya.  You know, Hà Tiên is on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia.  I was born in Cambodia."

"Really?"  I've forgotten to wonder whether or not I'm really the first customer to eat his Cambodian fish stew.  Now I want to ask him what this strange ingredient in my Khmer cookbook is.  When asked, Google returns only passages of the text of the very same cookbook.  But he's already started on his family history.

From China to Cambodia to Vietnam to the U.S., this man has plucked languages and culinary traditions up from the ground wherever he's been.  His restaurant is a cacophony of tongues, changing in an instant depending on who's speaking or who's listening.  "I feel Chinese in my blood, but I like Vietnamese food," he says a little sheepishly laughing.

"Me too!" I say with feeling, trying to convey how abnormally much this is true.  I mean, not that I feel Chinese in my blood.  I feel Vietnamese in my blood sometimes.  Like all of it is my comfort food.  Like I grew up eating it, even though in reality I first had it when I was twenty-three.

The mystery Khmer dish, the bún nước kèn, comes out of the kitchen (perhaps for the first time) darkly steaming and wafting the scent of something akin to Thai fish cakes.  Alongside it is a boat-shaped plate of greenish-yellow papaya, jalapeños, cucumbers, and rau răm.  This in addition, of course, to the regular old giant plate of herbs that accompanies everything else - the basil, the mint, the fish-mint, the kitchen sink.

I can't relate it to any familiar dish, really, without seeming uncomplimentary, though this isn't at all my intent.  The texture is peculiar, like if you dissolved sausage in milk.  Lumpy oatmeal?  No no, ground beef in pasta sauce!  But strands of noodles come poking through and scatter the lumps, which, despite their soaked sausage visage, taste coconutty and vibrant.  The fish flavor is somehow both fresh and a little smoky, giving off the taste impression of jerky while maintaining moistness.  I dump all the veggies in and quickly lose track of what is a noodle, what is a papaya spear, and what is a bean sprout, leaving the surprise for my teeth to figure out.

It should probably go without saying how delicious it is, how much I savor it, returning to Asia behind my eyelids as I chew.

"Can you eat spicy food?" the owner says, returning to me just as I'm starting to lose focus.  "Cambodians do it like this: chew on a pepper between bites.  Spoon.  Bite on pepper.  Spoon.  Bite on pepper."  And he sets down a plate of little red bird peppers in front of me.

Monday, November 4, 2013

No Expectations I: Bún mắm at Hà Tiên Quán

Walking down the street in Saigon, you'll see signs for dishes virtually unknown in even the most concentrated Little Saigons in the U.S.

Bún mắm. Bò lá lốt. Bún nước lèo. Bánh khọt. Bột chiên.

Bún mắm in particular is everywhere. It's always listed at the very top of noodle restaurants' menus, breaking the bank compared to everything else at around 40000-50000 đồng ($2-$2.50).

I never tried it in Vietnam. It was too big a gamble! The translation of "bún mắm" is basically just "noodles with sauce" or, if you want to take an educated guess, "noodles with fish-paste-like sauce". I didn't know what that meant. Was I about to pay a whole $2.50 for a bowl of just sauce-drenched noodles?

It sounds completely ridiculous now, but you do get accustomed to foreign prices very quickly. You recalibrate your parameters of acceptability. I definitely sulked for a good few minutes once when my (equivalent of) $4 duck noodle soup in Bình Tân district turned out to be less than impressive because, gasp, the price point; gasp, the disappointment!

I didn't try bún mắm until I got back to Los Angeles, and I tried it at a wonderful place called Hà Tiên Quán in San Gabriel. In order to punish myself for being so stingy and unadventurous in Vietnam, I didn't even look at the English description. I ordered it blind. The only clue I got was from our waiter (and later, I discovered, the owner), talking to one of my companions about it while trying to convince her to get her hủ tiếu with deer instead of beef.

"Don't worry, deer soup you can eat no problem, even if you never had before, but the bún mắm, like she's getting, it takes... a little getting used to!" He turned to me. "You had it before, right?"

"Yep," I lied through my teeth. I didn't want him to make it any milder for my benefit, or tweak the ingredients to make them more American-friendly. I didn't really think he would do this, but I wanted there to be no chance. I wanted him to think I ate bún mắm all over the place, that I ate it in my sleep with my eyes closed.

He bought it.

I could smell it as it was being carried towards me, from behind my back way across the restaurant. It smelled like a sunny warehouse full of busily fermenting jars of anchovies. In a good way, if you can imagine it. Not rotten anchovies, not fish-market-at-closing-time, not even the nostril-assaulting funk of lutefisk - just anchovies fermented exactly the way they're supposed to be.

For the smell, the broth itself was surprisingly clear. It was the mound of ingredients that gave the bowl its colorful effect. A bright purple eggplant, thickly cut with a browned skin and oozing center, stuck out of the top like a birthday candle. Twists of soft fish floated airily past the rice noodles, while big old crispy pork belly slices - the kind that are higher than they are wide and let you see the whole cross section of flesh: crisp skin, the thin fat layer right beneath, then the tender meat closer to the bone - held court around the edges. Sprinkled over the top were skinny leek slices, giving the thing a festive air.

I took a picture, but it was after I'd already demolished most of it, so thanks, Alex P. of Yelp, for having better self-control than I!
Sometimes tastes are less concentrated than smells. Jackfruit, for example, can stink up a whole city block, but in your mouth it's just a vague suggestion of foot-sweat, rather than a mouthful of it. It mostly tastes like not-quite ripe mango mixed with pineapple. Another example is yak butter tea. It smells straight-up like freshly deposited vomit, but if you breathe out while bringing it to your lips, it morphs into an only slightly funky chai.

The bún mắm broth was not one of these types of foods. It tasted exactly like it smelled, a bloom of fish and ferment. I loved it. Each bite was an adventure. The front of my tongue explored the sour notes from the lime I squeezed in and the back explored the settled concentrate of the anchovies. Every dip I made with the spoon unearthed some vegetable or sea creature or another. I lived for the crunch of a surprise piece of pork skin or a some pork fat that was masquerading as a noodle.

Is this what bún mắm tastes like in Saigon? Was I turning my nose up at paying a mere $2.50 for this wonderment? Or is the chef at Hà Tiên Quán just extremely good at her job?

I'll never know. Well, not until the next time Vietnam beckons me back.  Could be next week.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Biography of an ingredient I: Uni (sea urchin)

What it tastes like: 

Proponents laud its flavor as akin to a briny, extra-rich egg yolk or a sweeter, less seawatery oyster, while its detractors argue it tastes more like metallic chlorine with the texture of Play-Doh. Needless to say, this is an extremely polarizing food.

What it looks like:

While the whole sea urchin, undisturbed, looks like a lethal black, red, or green Koosh-ball, what you’ll see on your plate are usually the gonads alone: yellow-orange tongues built out of microscopic eggs.

How it’s served: 

- Plain or lightly marinated, folded over on itself like thick cream, over rice wrapped in seaweed, at most sushi bars. I recommend Ikko (in Costa Mesa), whose sushi is otherwise uninspiring; perhaps they pour all their available love into their urchins, which come out miles ahead of any local competition. Ohshima (in Orange) or Nana San (in Newport Beach) are better all-around sushi bars, whose chefs serve their expertly marinated uni nigiri as an integral part of a whole stunning omakase experience.

- Mixed with cream, butter, various herbs, and often other types of fish roe, and tossed with pasta at various Japanese or Italian restaurants. I recommend Café Hiro (in Cypress), which manages to get every single strand thickly coated with rich orange seawatery goodness.

- Alive, with spikes twitching unsettlingly, creeping away from you at the glacial rate of an inch per minute, on paper plates at live seafood bars like Quality Seafood in Redondo Beach. Make sure that the spiky shell is cracked only after you select your specimen: the point of getting urchins this fresh is that their taste changes subtly after only a few minutes outside their shells.

- Forming the flowered centerpiece of stunningly beautiful chirashi bowls at Maruhide Uni Club in Torrance. This blooming, rich confluence of custard, sea vegetables, and rice must be tasted to be believed.

- Marinated in kombu-shoyu and served as an appetizer on Japan Airlines - but you have to upgrade to first class to get a taste!

Three reasons you should try it: 

1. Sea urchins eat kelp. Kelp forms a protective forest for delicate seafloor life and also slows beach erosion. Save the ocean; dine on urchin!

2. Sea urchin is a diet-cheater’s dream. It somehow has fewer calories than fish like salmon and mackerel while having essentially the same richness experience as heavy cream. It’s also full of omega-3 fatty acids. Butter not allowed? Urchin on toast!

3. If you’re going to eat a live sea creature, better that it isn’t sannakji! Sannakji, Korean-style live baby octopus chopped into pieces and served still wriggling, will grasp and hold fast to the inside of your throat in their tentacly death throes. They can quite literally choke a person to death doing this. Sea urchins, conversely, will just attempt to escape your plate slowly and directionlessly.

Parting thoughts

Who on earth discovered that eating orange slime out of an impenetrable spike forest was a delicacy??

Friday, October 25, 2013

2013 Asia trip: Top Ten

My summer trip entry ideas are now trickling in as opposed to pouring, and my memories are starting to fade.  From now on, this blog will probably focus mostly on my meals to come here in Los Angeles. While I'll still wax nostalgic about an Asian meal here or there as they come to me, I wanted to post a kind of summing-up entry into which all my favorites are stuffed.  And then ranked.

These are my top dishes.  I can still taste each and every one of them like they're sitting on my tongue right now.  Six of them made me cry right there in public in a strange country even though everyone was already staring at me because I'm blonde and have six inches on everyone. 

Clicking on a dish links to an individual entry when applicable.  I have done my best to drop a pin near the right location in Google Maps as I remember it so that you may drop everything, get on a plane, and fly out to these rare gems while you can!  I do this because addresses are often nonexistent or meaningless, and place names are invisible, in strange script, or irrelevant.  But please remember that this is Asia, things pop up and blink out of existence in the snap of a finger, and I cannot be responsible for anyone's wasted $1500 plane ticket in search of a 3 buck grilled fish (however much I support the principle of the search, and I do).

Top Ten Best Dishes:

1. Laotian grilled fish, Ruili, Yunnan, China - 25 kuai ($4) - map

2. Sushi Dai, Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan - 3900 yen ($39) - map

3. Com hen, District 1, HCMC, Vietnam - 48000d ($2.50) - map

4. Ốc bông me, chem chép mỡ hành , District 1, HCMC, Vietnam - 100000d ($5) - map

5. Ruili crabs, Ruili, Yunnan, China - 40 kuai ($5.50) - map

6. Bò lá lốt, Binh Tan District, HCMC, Vietnam - 91000d ($4.50) - map

7. 'Potato' chips, special mountain veg, stirfry eggplant, tofu with water spinach, Weishan, Yunnan, China - 24 kuai ($4) - map

8. Roast street fish with lotus and quail egg xiaokao, Ruili, Yunnan, China - 20 kuai ($3.25) - map

9. Pork rib ramen, Osaka, Japan - 700 yen ($7) - map

10. Shrimp tempura platter, Tanabe, Japan - 800 yen ($8) - map

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Snacking across Asia, part III: Vietnam and Cambodia

(... continued from Part II.)

Oftentimes in Vietnam, the lines were blurred on what was a meal and what was a snack.  Fully 90% of my meals took place planted on an ankle-high stool in a street somewhere, cost less than $2, and took only a few minutes out of my day while I slurped up the fist-size chunk of noodles or wrapped odds and ends in lettuce, basil, and mint leaves.  Were these meals or snacks?  Sometimes I ate five of them a day, but was that because of their diminutive size or my Vietnamese food gluttony?

Another peculiarity of Vietnam was that its best snacks were often technically drinks.  On every heat-drenched corner was a maze of stands selling rau má (pennywort juice), nước mía (sugarcane juice), nước ép (fruit juice) and sinh tố (fruit shakes).  The sinh tố was where things could get wild, making use of fruits as diverse as durian and jackfruit, mango, tomato, pineapple, squash, kumquat, soursop, avocado and sapodilla (a fruit I knew only as the Vietnamese 'sapoche' until this very second, when I looked up the English translation).

Keeping this in mind,

1. Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam: Sinh tố

Making sinh tố is far from an exact science, and the proportions vary slightly by stand, but the recipe for a Vietnamese smoothie is, roughly, as follows:

Scoop edible portion of fruit into blender
Grab can of condensed milk; glop a ton of it into the blender on top of the fruit
Grab sugar jug and make it snow on top of the fruit and milk
Add ice

Even though I watched this process at least 50 times over my four weeks in Vietnam, and fully expected every time that my smoothie should taste like sugar and milk, it magically never did.  It always tasted like someone liquefied and concentrated my favorite fruit and put it directly on my tongue.  Durian shakes were appropriately stinky and retained a nice bit of custardy texture, while the jackfruit versions thankfully cut out their hint of slime.  Avocado shakes made my American palate forget that avocados were meant for guacamole and savory dishes, not sweet ones (I told a smoothie-hawker once that Americans ate avocado only with salty things and she laughed so hard she knocked over a whole pineapple she was about to slice).  I don't like sapodilla much, so it was entirely appropriate for me to think that the shake version tasted like rotten avocados.

Sinh tố was, if not the centerpiece of many photos, at least in the background, fueling the photographer.

Sinh tố in the southeast of the city 
Sinh tố at Chợ Lớn market
Sitting behind a sinh tố stand in District 10
Sinh tố in Phnom Penh
Where the Phnom Penh sinh tố came from 
2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: "Bánh Mì"

Bánh mì (sandwich) shops are almost as omnipresent as sinh tố stands, but I was surprised to see them pop up from time to time in Phnom Penh.  The Cambodian version, name unknown (as Khmer script is all loops to me) was half the size, coated with fiery red sauce and a heavy, pudding-like paté that tasted almost fermented, and had crunchy pork skins scattered across the top instead of head cheese.

3. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: banana-filled rice

This five-cent snack came from a griddle full of its twins run by an old lady sitting across from the Chinese Embassy.  Unadulterated, nothing but a grill-blackened pad of rice surrounding a lava-hot, sticky flow of ripe banana.  I'm surprised the rest of the tropics haven't caught on!

4. Everywhere: Quail eggs

They come hardboiled; they come as balut.  They come wrapped up pretty in little quail-egg-sized bags, tied with a ribbon.  A ribbon!  Inside the ten-egg packet is an even smaller packet of chili-spiced salt that is stapled closed.  Their vendors cycle through the street and wend their way between tables at seafood, barbecue, and hotpot restaurants.  I'd stop them on the sidewalk on my way home, hand them the equivalent of 25 cents, and go home with a bag of eggs to painstakingly peel and eat sprawled out on my hotel bed.

5. Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam: Bánh chuối

Down the street from our last hotel was a tiny grocery which we never entered.  We never entered it because its bakery was outside, and it had perfect round spheres of blackened banana pastry all ready for us to order from the sidewalk. The proprietor would slice a big fat triangle of jiggling cake-pudding hybrid into a plastic bag at night, and it would warm to breakfast temperature in the hot room by morning.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Snacking across Asia, part II: China

(...continued from Part I.)

1. Fenghuang, Hunan: Candied ginger

Fenghuang is known for its ginger crafting.  That much is clear with a simple Google.  However, further information about what type of ginger is hard to come by.  Pickled?  Candied?  Sugared?

The shops along the obviously-tweaked-to-look-ancient-but-still-striking streets of Fenghuang sold white sticks that looked like bleached bark.  This might have been ginger.  We walked past a man in practically medical garb working a taffy machine like a jumprope, twirling it and lassoing the air gracefully.

This may have been ginger, too.  Who knows?

What I eventually bought was a baggie of crystallized ginger from shop tucked way off the main road, just because that was the image in my head of how ginger ought to be consumed.  It looked just like the kind you get at Trader Joe's: soft, chewy, and sugared - except that instead of big crystals of sugar, it was powdered sugar.  And also, there was the small matter of it tasting so fresh and dewy and spicy that I may have gathered a handful straight from a passing fluffy ginger cloud.

My fatal error was buying only one bag, thinking it would last me the rest of my trip (about 6 weeks at that point).  It lasted me three days: just long enough that I was on the train to Kunming by then, regretting my decision strongly.

Ruili had something similar, imported from Malaysia, and so did Vietnam, in gigantic plastic bulk containers at the market, but nothing ever quite reached the magic of Fenghuang's.

2. Weishan, Yunnan: Sweet cornbread with fig filling

The dominant sweet in Weishan, The Friendliest City in China, was a jiggly white Jello-like cake lump that inexplicably, when cut into, formed a jagged, baklava-like square, as though phyllo dough were hidden in the midst.

It tasted like paper and soy.  I wished it were interesting.  It was offered as a sample by a pair of friendly (of course) sisters under a cardboard awning.

The rarer sweet carts only came out in the morning, disappearing entirely by about 10am.  From one of these epheremal vendors came something wholly un-Chinese, so utterly random as to almost seem unreal.

This square of cornbread, stuffed with a sweet brown fig filling, would have seemed more at home somewhere in the Mediterranean.  We were soon to see figs in Dali, in the same province, but they were plump, green, and looked almost like apples.  This filling looked like it came straight from a Black Mission.

It was a welcome respite from the bracingly sweet red bean cakes that popped up in every Yunnan bakery we would pass for the next 3 weeks.  Too bad respites work better when they come after the routine, not before.

3. Ruili, Yunnan: Shandong squid skewers

Yeah, that's a lot of place names.

I specify that this squid skewers originate from Shandong because the man who grilled them never stopped talking about his hometown.  He insisted that his skewers were the best in Ruili because he grilled them the way he had learned to grill them all the way across the country - really all the way across, over 1850 miles away.

Here he is, grilling squid the Shandong way, arm-muffs and all:

I don't purport to be able to distinguish squid skewers by grilling style, but I do know that these were more than worth the wait in the tropical rain.  He had the squid divided up into legs and bodies.  I had chosen to try one leg skewer and one body skewer, but he insisted that I choose both legs, since they were 'better'.

He soaked his grill with oil, scraped it flat, placed the squid on, coated it with oil, pressed it hard with his metal press, then let all the juices that pressed out soak up the oil and spices left over from previous orders.  Then, he scooped up the now-fried juices and poured them back over the squid, pressing them out again and repeating the process four or five times, adding garlic and powdered spices towards the end.

Again, I regretted only ordering two after I had returned to the dryness and coziness of my hotel room, and was disinclined to venture out and get more.  We looked for him the next night, but as it goes in China, he'd moved on to a different corner and was never to be seen again.

4. Dali, Yunnan: Fried goat cheese

What we initially thought were tortillas on a stick were thinly-sliced sheets of goat cheese, stuck in the fire until they blistered and crisped!  (And they weren't on a stick, they were shoved ingeniously in the center of one split chopstick.)

That makes more sense than there being tortillas in China.  Duh.
Now, my thoughts on Dali cuisine are well-documented, but occasionally these tangy, pungent snacks would be well-made and when they were, they were otherworldly.  They'd crunch and then melt, leaving a bite on your tongue not unlike Swiss cheese, but with a brown sugar aftertaste.

Next time: Vietnam and Cambodia!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Snacking across Asia, part I: Japan

If I had my way, I'd only sit down for one full meal a day.  The rest of the time, I'd just wander around, trading coins for snacks whenever the mood or the vision struck me.  I might gobble a handful of fruit in the early morning, gnaw on some dried meat or skewers of some sort in the late afternoon, pop some herbs for a fun flavor game whenever, and let the displays and coaxings of street vendors decide the rest.

Southeast Asia was a snacker's paradise.  Most of the things on sticks that I picked up on a whim for less than 50 cents were tastier than any meal served to me on anything resembling a tablecloth - in the States or elsewhere.

Japan's snacks were harder to come by, usually ensconced in mall hell, and much more expensive, but its gems were among the most delicious.

1. Tokyo: Hotok

We stayed in the Little Korea of Tokyo: Shin-Okubo.  This meant that there were barbecue joints everywhere, which didn't faze me one way or another, but it also meant a preponderance of the Japanese take on Korean ho-tteok: rice 'pancakes' full of, well, in Korea it was almost always brown sugar and walnuts or pepitas, but in Japan it was whatever anyone felt like throwing in there.

Manning my favorite hotok stand was a trilingual, teenaged Korean national with his long hair always wrapped in a bandanna, trapped in Tokyo for some reason that remained undisclosed due either to language barriers or sensitivity.  He was jolly, correcting my noob mistake of trying to hand him money rather than feed it to the coin-taking machine on the right.  He had the ability to cook at least 5 pancakes at once, flipping them casually as he catered to the throngs of teenage girls flirting with him across the counter.

Over my three days there, I got a classic seeds'n'sugar version, a sweet potato version, and a ham and cheese.  Korean sovereignty won out here: the classic was still the best, filled to bursting with oozing brown crystals.

2. Osaka: Dried kumquats

With two new hostel friends, we were on our way to sample the takoyaki on an all-new side of town (this is how it went in Osaka: move hostels, immediately try local takoyaki).  A man stood proudly under a big awning with a staggering array of dried fruit spread out around him.  He held samples out to us in that confident, cool, kind of ambivalent way where you could tell it wasn't any skin off his back whether we tried some or not because he was just going to go on selling the best dried fruit in the city.

That kind of attitude persisted as I tried some blueberries, gasped in delight, filled my bags lightly with these, persimmons, cranberries, strawberries, and kumquats, let him weigh them, was told my exuberance would cost me $55, sadly dumped out all but but the kumquats and blueberries, was told this was still going to be $25, dumped out the blueberries, and left his stand somewhat in price shock, $8 poorer, but in possession of about 15 dried kumquats.

I was grumbly about the whole thing (and we had to hide from the dried fruit man on the way home) but I was soon to discover that I should have bought kilos of these kumquats at any price.  Though dried, they were still juicy, and their crispy sugared outsides collapsed inward when bitten like bittersweet creme brulée.

3. Osaka: Black sesame ice cream with green tea ice and mochi

This cute green tea bar was located on the seventh floor of a big, showy mall in Namba, and just heaving myself onto the escalator for each of these flights made my poor stomach turn.  I had just eaten an unbelievably rich bowl of pork rib ramen (the last dish described in this entry) and badly needed something refreshing.

$6 got us this goblet of black sesame ice cream, black, thick and gooey like a sphere of delicious tar, surrounded with icy sweet green tea foam.  The ice cream wasn't even a little sweet.  It was concentrated, smoothed out seed.  The mochi balls were superfluous; I ignored them.  Japanese music box version of songs from the Little Mermaid tinkled overhead.  We sang along, utterly inappropriately for Japan.

Next time: Chinese snacks!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ốc Đào: Worth the hype

As long as I'm reviewing Hồ Chí Minh city restaurants that have expanded their fame to international levels (see: Bánh Xèo 46A), I may as well stay on that path and divulge that the place I will miss the most isn't a hidden gem, or an unassuming street stall, or totally inaccessible to tourists or anything.  It's even another Bourdain-vetted place.*

Ốc Đào.

Its address is a uniquely Saigonesque maze, including not only the implication that the place is in an unnamed alley off the main street, but is tucked away on one of four branches of the alley (A, B, C, and D) that are completely unlabeled.  Passing by about fourteen nail salons, a bunch of domestic doorways with curious old people peering out of them, and some too-interested dogs, I thought for sure we were going the wrong way.  But we weren't.

My waiter, the nephew of the owner, said he waits on foreigners all the time.  He's the designated foreigner-waiter because of his good English.  As I sat down for the first time, the fluttering of menus and giggling surrounding me dispersed in the same direction - to go get this guy, Linh, an enthusiastic twenty-year-old who immediately squired me to the cooks' area to look at all the snails.  Big coiled oblong snails, tiny flat snails, corkscrew-shaped snails, leopard-spotted snails, striped snails.  Not to mention the splayed salty flesh of oysters, mussels, scallops, and clams.

After I'd made my choice, we sat down together and I tried to help him learn the English names for the dishes on his menu.  It was nearly impossible.  The Vietnamese have a different name for every species of edible snail, whereas we... well, we hardly have a mental concept for an edible snail in the first place.  I was able to translate 'mussels', 'scallops', and 'lemongrass' and that was about it.  (As a bonus, I eventually ordered all the things I translated!)


The first night, chosen right from a living lineup:

Ốc bông me: snails in tamarind sauce
These snails were rich, slickly orange and sweet-sour, punctuated occasionally with candle-waxy stubs of pork fat.  The snail flesh resisted pulling with toothpicks, and it was a joy the few times one came out in one perfect piece, curled inner coil and all, whole and ready for swishing in fish sauce, spearing with rau răm, and dragging through chili-lime paste.

Sò điệp mỡ hành: scallops with peanuts and green onions
As many scallops as I've eaten in my life, I never knew they came in such a picturesque shell.  When I saw their scalloped edges, a lightbulb burned suddenly in my brain.  That's why they're called scallops!

Smaller than I'm used to, and tougher, with a texture more like a firm white-fish than the silky smoothness of raw scallops or the striped firm flan texture of scallops on a barbecue, these were a wholly new scallop experience to me.


The second night: ordered confidently from the menu after some internet research and translating:

Chem chép mỡ hành: mussels with peanuts and green onions
Though these mussels had the same preparation as the scallops the first night, they had a much stronger flavor.  Apart from a ring of snapping rubber, the flesh was yielding and full of ocean.

Note the appearance of green mango spears in the upper left-hand corner: I finally caught on that the roving bands of snack-toting women had things to offer other than baguettes and packets of 10 quail fetuses.  (3 or 4 quail fetuses would have been fine; 10 is pushing it.)

     Ốc hương xào sả : leopard-spotted snails steamed with lemongrass
Usually snail flesh itself doesn't taste like much: it just serves as a vehicle for flavor.  This type of snail has a distinct taste: fishy, kind of froggy even, with a bouncy texture.  Since steaming with lemongrass is not a hit-you-over-the-head kind of preparation, the dish needed the natural flavor of the snails to come through.

Also, rambutan had appeared by now (upper right).  It was placed without comment next to me by a smiling older waitress.  Grateful, I dug into them with my hopelessly greasy fingers.  Like little sponges, the rambutan skin soaked up the oil, cleaning my hands better than any towel.


Expensive by Hồ Chí Minh City standards, each meal cost me the stunning sum of US$5.

Had I had another month there, I would have returned six or seven times.  Enough to sweep their menu.  Enough to extract snails from their shells blindfolded and armed only with one dull safety pin.


*I may generally shy away from famous places, but if I'm going to culinarily follow someone around Vietnam, it's Anthony Bourdain.  Anyone who has the kind of credentials he does, and the connections to eat with, and at, the sweethearts of the food world, and still calls Vietnam his favorite food place, choosing to move to Vietnam for a year... that person might just be my tastebud twin.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Too special for me: A mystery Yunnanese mountain vegetable

We trundled out of a city bus from Xiaguan to Weishan in the middle of what looked like nowhere.   With our suitcases rolling and clattering on the cobblestone streets, making a big racket, we promptly (and naively) wandered right into a construction site.

A woman, shoveling debris, put her hand out and yelled for us to stop.  We did, and right as we did, a wheelbarrow descended clunkily from the second floor of a building, hanging from the claw of a crane, coming to a crashing halt right where we'd have been standing if it hadn't been for her.

Weishan was the friendliest city I encountered in China.  Someone saving our lives was just the beginning.

The very first hotel we wandered into came complete with an effusive owner, who showed us his guest log to definitively prove he had given us the best deal of the week, narrated the local news channel's offerings in the evenings, got down on his hands and knees to try and fix our internet (despite being of the generation to which internet connectivity makes no sense), and whose wife offered to do all our laundry while we were at lunch.  (Contrast this to a more typical first hotel, whose front desk clerk brusquely informs us that they don't accept foreigners.)

Old ladies in juice shops were thrilled to see us and to share small talk over mango smoothies.  Nobody 'hello-ed' us like we were clowns in the circus, but rather waved as though we all shared a common humanity.

And, miracle of miracles, the waitress in the small country-style lunch place we went to was the helpful sort.  She didn't merely stand behind us, tapping her pen against her pad impatiently.  She hovered over Julian's shoulder, eagerly explaining what each dish was (in a country where dish names often bear no relation to their contents, this is invaluable).  She even dashed over to the cooler a few times to grab a sample of whatever it was she was talking about, so we could see it.  With her guidance, we ordered a stewed eggplant dish, tofu egg flower soup, cassava (not really cassava, but close) chips, and the omnipresent 'empty heart' stirfry.

She couldn't help herself, though:

"This dish is a mountain vegetable we grow here in this part of Yunnan.  I don't know if you would like it.  The flavor is maybe too... special for you."

Was this supposed to be a challenge?  (Or just a subtly well-played marketing ploy?)

I fear not its specialness - bring me the special mountain vegetable!!

Clockwise from top left: super strong Yunnanese tea, chips, soup, eggplant, pickles, empty heart, special mountain vegetable
This was one of those meals that was so complete, so filling from all directions, so obviously well-rounded, that I didn't notice it was vegetarian until hours later - until I looked at the picture, in fact.

The eggplant melted into its garlicky red sauce, its texture more like lentils than like vegetable stew.  (After we had finished, a fly dove into the liquid and slowly drowned as though it were sinking in quicksand.  It made no attempt to escape until the very last minute, when it was too late.  I was buoyed by the thought that it was probably experiencing the best taste sensation of its life, and so didn't think to save itself.)

The cassava-ish chips were clearly fried just that instant, and more hefty-tasting than potato.  They crunched briefly, then melted on our tongues.

And the 'maybe too special' mountain vegetables?  You know what that tasted like?

Pumpkin seeds.

Pumpkin seeds with the texture of a good oven-fried basil leaf, with a woody, gnawing sort of stem, but otherwise: 100% pumpkin seed flavor.  It was uncanny.  Why would a leaf growing in Yunnan taste exactly like pumpkin seeds?


Actually, this happened again later, in Ruili, when we ordered a dish of mysterious green leaves with okra.

The green leaves tasted exactly like ripe mango.  Julian dutifully asked the waiter if they were mango leaves, but the waiter said that they were not.  He did not, however, say what they were, and it's tickled at the back of my mind ever since.

Does anyone know what either of these leaves are?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pole-vaulting over Vietnam's culinary bar

Vietnam's culinary bar is already set astronomically high, but it still manages to give me a meal that pole-vaults over it every so often.

Or, as it happens, an entire day full of such meals.  Enter August 31, 2013.

I. Cơm hến

When a business gets popular in Vietnam, it often spawns a menagerie of copycats.  Hotels featured in the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide have twins popping up in the surrounding streets almost the instant the guides are published, hoping to draw patrons on name recognition.  In Quy Nhơn, a by no means touristy beach town between Đà Nẵng and Nha Trang, a hotel called Lan Anh had no less than 5 different 'locations' around town.  One even made sure to have a copycat Barbara's Backpackers next door, for maximum believability!

The reason I bring this up is that the restaurant I aimed for at lunch on August 31, a central Vietnamese specialty restaurant called Quán Nam Giao, was completely encircled by other Huế-style restaurants, touts-a-waving.  I disdained them, thinking it was another copycat phenomenon (this style of food isn't terribly common in HCMC) but apparently I was actually walking through HCMC's Little Huế.  Whoops!

I'd feel regretful about missing out on this great enclave but for the fact that I don't think any of them could have beaten what I had at Nam Giao.

Cơm hến is already one of my favorite dishes.  A well-delineated mix of baby clams, fresh taro stem and sour starfruit, various strong herbs, and crushed peanuts and sesame seeds over rice that looks a bit like Vietnamese chirashi might look.

 This doesn't mean it's easy to impress me merely by serving it to me.  I've had in its birthplace of Huế and I've had it at Quan Vy Da in Little Saigon, a restaurant that can do no wrong with any dish it tries.  It isn't easy to live up to either of these standards.

Nam Giao surpassed them.

I've never understood how certain flavor combinations were discovered.  Who first paired clams with mint, or taro with starfruit?  And then why would they have taken nuts, of all things, and crushed them on top?  Every ingredient is so different-tasting that you'd think your mouth wouldn't know what to do with the confluence, but this particular combination meshed so well and so smoothly that I wouldn't blink an eye if I were told it had just grown naturally on the Cơm Hến Tree.

II. Gỏi đu đủ

Nothing I've eaten out of a plastic bag in a park has ever been this good.

Those aren't noodles.  They're green papaya spears.  And those aren't leaves (well, not all of them - some of them are mint, I think), they're sweet beef jerky slices.  And that isn't mere orange oil, that is flaming-hot-pepper lava!  It'll soak the sesame crackers and turn them into fire-cakes.

Once I got used to maneuvering my chopsticks through the bag's narrow neck and getting bites with a little bit of everything, I was able to enjoy the sweet caramel char on the beef fighting with the papaya's sourness until it was all washed away in a wave of lingering spice.

(Thanks to Joe and Hai at for directing me here - I never would have found these ladies on my own.  They stand at an unmarked stall on a busy corner not IN the park, but across the street from it.  Rough Google location here.)

III. Bánh xèo

Just around the corner from the gỏi đu đủ goddesses lies a much-lauded bánh xèo restaurant: Bánh Xèo 46A.  I'm pretty sure Anthony Bourdain popularized it, and as leery as I am of places famous food dudes have popularized (they almost always go rapidly downhill afterwards), well, it's bánh xèo, so...

I really wish I had included something for scale, but let's just make clear that if I stepped on this pancake, only about 3/4 of it would bear the footprint.  (And I wear size 11 shoes.)

A crackly outer skin, like seared paper, narrowed to impossibly thin widths at times, making it impossible to believe it held so much meat and so many vegetables together.  They leave their shrimps' skins on, so it gets even more crunchy when you ensnare shrimp in your lettuce scoop.  That's fine, because the pillowy pork fat leaves your teeth something rich to sink into afterwards.

Lots of people tell me they find bánh xèo too greasy, and I always wonder if they're eating it wrapped in, and stuffed with, vegetables and herbs, like you're supposed to.  Most Vietnamese herb 'accompaniment' places are bigger than my head, and Vietnamese people will finish them, right down to the last leaf.  If a dish isn't completely veg-i-fied with each and every bite, you're not doing it right.

I now proudly note that not one green speck of lettuce, mint, fish-mint, or basil remained on that plate after I was done cracking bites off this giant's-foot-sized pancake.

And not more than ten drops of nước mắm remained in the sauce bowl, either.

As we were leaving, I saw the kitchen.  It was like a mass bánh xèo production assembly line run by one sweating woman.  Stacks and stacks of these pancakes were balanced on a few aluminum platters, ready to be run out to the rapidly filling restaurant, while she flipped and filled at least 6 more in the three frying pans that surrounded her.  While the menu technically has about 20 items, nobody really looks at it.  It's a safe assumption that everyone will order the bánh xèo.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Moc Bai - Bavet border curry

Would you expect to be fed well in a restaurant - a shack, really - that caters only to border-crossing buses and has no competition for miles (if at all, given the tourist-herding)?

Of course not.  You expect boiled spam, waterlogged noodles, fridge-burned rice, and soggy boiled vegetables.  Whatever the lowest standard for restaurants is in whatever country you're in, you expect that.  Plus exorbitant price-gouging.  And gruff service.  And touts, if you're in Asia.  Lots and lots of touts.

Essentially, if you're smart, you bring sufficient snacks to avoid the process entirely.

On the Mekong Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, I was not smart.  I had brought only a handful of mangosteens, which meant that I got to the border restaurant starving and with purplish-red stained hands that made me look like I had just murdered someone.

Expecting absolutely nothing in the way of edibility, I approached the carts and grudgingly ordered a red curry noodle dish.  Prices were carefully written in dollars ($0.75), dong (15000d), and riel (3000r).  The lady grabbed a clump of fresh vermicelli noodles with tongs, plunked them into an empty bowl, ladled out chicken and pumpkin from a big silver pot, and covered the whole thing in red sauce.  Then, to my delight (for the process up until then didn't necessarily bode excitingly) she opened a container of veggies and herbs and started sprinkling banana flowers, fried onions, fish-mint, cilantro, and basil all over the place.

Then, with a subtle flourish, she slid a spatula under the whole mess and flipped it like a big wet round noodly pancake!

Which is why no herbs are visible in this picture.
If I had ordered this in, say, a Thai place in the States, I would have raved about it and festooned it with lots of shiny Yelp stars.  Really!  It wasn't just the low expectations!

The pumpkin had the texture of a good Thanksgiving roast yam, but without the marshmallowy over-sweetness (obviously), while the chicken pieces split between my teeth to reveal miles of unsinewed white meat, a vanishingly rare experience in Asia, where they like their chicken, bony and full of cartilage.

The best part, though, was how heavy-handed the herbs turned out to be.  The fish-mint and the cilantro raced down the side of my tongue like Olympic sprinters, while the bitterness of the banana flowers sat comfortably in the back.

Somehow, the noodles managed to remain un-soggy despite being drenched in red curry, and I happily chopsticked the whole pile into my mouth well before the half hour deadline to get back on the bus!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lox and cream cheese saves Dali

The 'Old City' of Dali, Yunnan, China was tourist heaven and therefore (as far as I was concerned) food hell.

Throngs of Western and Chinese travelers pushed shoulder to shoulder down the narrow cobblestone streets.  Shoe-menders roamed the same streets pointing in mock horror at the travelers' feet.  Their faces were theatrically twisted into expressions like the tourists' shoes had murdered their parents by virtue of their shoddiness, and the only way to right the wrong was to stitch up the offending parts.

Tourists caused traffic jams watching street performers strum guitars, throat-sing, and do stand-up comedy.  They crouched at the sides of paths to finger the edges of fine silks and the soles of hand-stitched shoes.  They gathered in cafés to sip hippie-friendly vegan mushroom soup and, at best, eat strange fusion dishes like yak lasagna or or fried spiced goat cheese burgers.  At worst, they shrank away from any foreign influence whatsoever and had spaghetti with thin, watery marinara, or spammy ham and eggs on toast.

There were 'authentic' Chinese restaurants, but these, too, were catered to the tourist throngs.  With high hopes, I tried a few of the row of Bai restaurants that stood sandwiched in between puzzle shops, jewelry counters, and travel agencies.

The first one served me a 'Bai Special Grilled Fish' on a metal platter that was burning hot in the chest, freezing cold in the tail, and soggy in the skin, lying in a pool of oniony, peppery soy sauce.  Its head was bitter, and some meat was too tough to chew while the rest mushed off the bone all water-laden like turkey stuffing.  When we inquired after this travesty, the waitress snapped that this was how they made it.

The second one had snails bubbling away in a tank on the sidewalk, so I took the opportunity to order large and small snails in bean sauce.  They came out so bitter that my tongue physically ejected them from my mouth as my lips shrank away.  Upon a second try, I noted that the snails were gritty with sand and the overall impression the sauce left my mouth was: totally numb.  Not Sichuan peppercorn numb - Novocaine numb.  Dead numb.  This waitress, too, claimed that this was how it was meant to be made.

Street vendors sold me rubbery, room-temperature quail egg skewers and burned, asphalt-textured fried cheese.  A smiling guy at a table outside a bookstore sold homemade custard that flopped around on my tongue like a dying guppy and tasted like glue.  Mango juice was made from syrup instead of fruit.

Of course, this all occurred at prices a good 2-3 times higher than the rest of China.

I was fed up and I was hungry, so I threw my policy of only eating local when traveling right out the window.

I'd heard tell of a German bakery that made delectable European-style rolls, loaves, and bagels, and better yet: I'd heard it had the elusive lox-and-cream-cheese topping!

When I'm traveling in Asia, a bagel with lox and cream cheese is always at the top of my homesick cravings list.  I can't explain why.  It has something to do, certainly, with much of Asia's reticence about cheese, but at this particular time I was in Yunnan, home of fried goat cheese.  Also, China doesn't shy away from yogurt.  So I'm not sure why I craved this so intensely, but I did.

"It's going to cost 100 kuai," I joked with Julian, not actually entirely sure I was joking.

At the bakery, timid, limited-English-speaking staff watched us as we perused the menu.  Sure enough, "bagel with cream cheese spread and smoked salmon" was written at the very bottom, nearly edged out by splashy chocolate mousse cakes and resplendent blueberry pies, next to the high but not totally insane price of 48 kuai.

"Bagel... ah... méiyǒu..." a staff member stammered.  He was right to be nervous.  I was on the edge of leaping across the counter and shaking the bagels right out of him.

A crisis was averted by ordering the lox and cream cheese on potato walnut bread.  While we waited for it to come out, we chatted with a couple of Californians snacking on blue cheese and bratwursts about the weather.  It was surreal.

I failed to take a picture of my quarry, because the second it was in my hands, it was between my teeth.  Here is a picture of it, three-quarters-eaten, next to the vegetable bāozi Julian insisted on having instead.

It may not have been the best idea to bite into the sandwich without looking, because it is apparently German-expat-in-China tradition to line one side of bread with whole lime slices, peel, seeds and all.  The first taste was therefore a combination of heavenly sighs and utter confusion, my tongue savoring the creamy spread at the same time as my teeth were crunching lime seeds.

Once the limes were removed (and retained for palate-cleansing between bites), the sandwich, while not quite akin enough to, say, delicatessen bagel creations to be in the same family, was certainly familiar enough to be utterly comforting.

Soft, pillowy potato walnut bread, with its mild flavor punctuated by pockets of nuttiness,  was almost a better base for the smoky fish than bagels.  The traditionalist in me (note: not a large part) hates to say it, but it's true.  They even used red onions and capers, the latter so alien in China that I have no idea where they possibly could have sourced them.

This fist-sized sandwich alone saved Dali from being a purely resentful slot in my culinary memory.

I suppose that's worth the shame of admitting I succumbed to my American-food cravings and paid $6 for Western breakfast in China.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Frogs in Vietnam, frogs in Cambodia

I. Frogs in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City)

In District 1, just to the northwest of the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker district, a sign shouted, "CHÁO ẾCH SINGAPORE!" at me from across the street.

"Singaporean frog porridge?" I said to Julian with a question mark in my voice, like he would know,  Frog porridge didn't sound familiar.  I thought it was more probable that I was getting my diacriticals mixed up, like always.  

But I was pretty sure, at least, that the sign didn't say "hello frog" (chào ếch), so we went in and sat down.

Yep, frog porridge!  Or rather, frog hot pot with a bowl of porridge on the side.

Beyond the cliché "it tastes like chicken!" I never heard much of a description of frog meat before I ate it on this trip.  I had no idea what to expect.

Allow me to elaborate: it does taste like chicken.  It tastes like chicken that's been crossed with eel.  And it's slippery and tender and encircled with tiny veins that look like tiny rubber bands holding the meat on the bone.

This particular frog was chopped up and marinated in a thick, syrupy sweet soy sauce that dripped tendrils into the porridge like honey into Cream of Wheat when I mixed the bowls together.


II. Frogs in Cambodia (Phnom Penh)

The frogs in Vietnam were relatively unadorned, and retained enough of their original shape, texture and flavor that they were unmistakably frogs.  The Cambodian dish, on the contrary, was so heavily stir-fried and coated in all sorts of spices that the meat serving as a vehicle for all that spice was practically irrelevant.  Tiny bones flexed and crunched, but that was the only clue.

In a raucous outdoor restaurant that had only beer and Fanta as refreshment options, I ordered something called 'Hot fried with frog', knowing it could be absolutely anything.

Like most of the mystery Cambodian stir fries I had, it came out liberally coated in lemongrass, an assortment of green leaves and herbs, and wildly spicy red chili specks.  This was the better frog dish by far.  It had a bar wings sort of feel, a carefree application of flavor, made to meld with alcohol.  I came very close to wishing I was a drinker.

Instead, we managed to flag down a wandering vendor who was studiously ignoring the table of foreigners and got him to sell me a baggie of hardboiled quail eggs.  Dragged through the tamarind sauce Julian had on his boring vegetarian noodles, they were the perfect accompaniment.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Crabs in China, crabs in Cambodia

I. Crabs in China (Ruili, Yunnan)

Our first view of Ruili's night market came through waves of rain, crashing down from the sky like we were walking under the world's biggest waterfall.  The streets quickly flooded and became streams.  We crossed several in water up to mid-calf.

When we got to the market, it was ghostly.  Tarps rattled in the wind, covering deserted stalls.  The stalls were filled with coolers, which were empty and draped in cloth and cardboard.  Only a few places were open.  In one, one drenched diner sat, bedraggledly sipping a papaya smoothie.

We tried again a week later after a scorching day spent on the Burmese border, watching villagers traverse the tiny border river using unofficial makeshift bamboo bridges or merely wading with their pant legs rolled up.  I wanted to find crab to eat; we'd seen rows and rows of workers packing their little silvery blue bodies up into crates bound for the rest of Yunnan.

The night was clear and the market was hopping.  Vendors jostled for space at the edges of a massive inner dining area, their carts all identically piled with skewered meat, snails, crabs, crickets, worms, and baby bees.

View from inside the covered area, with a solid border of stalls
I wasn't that hungry, because, as I recall, I had had about 40 pork and green onion dumplings for lunch, but the night market vendors only sold their merchandise in one size: gigantic-Chinese-family-sharing-size, for 50 kuai (~$8.25).

Julian, of course, refused to eat any of the creatures on offer, so he was tasked with trying to convince the vendors to give me a smaller portion at a smaller price.  Some were mildly amused by the question (in a why-would-I-even-entertain-that sort of way), and some were offended by it (in a you-want-less-of-my-delicious-food?!?! kind of way).

One, though, didn't understand the question, or else didn't care.  "40 kuai," she said with a shrug and a take-it-or-leave it flip of her wok-stirring spatula.  As a normally utterly ineffective bargainer, I was shocked but pleased by this turn of events: an unintentional bargain!

Chopped crabs, passion fruit juice, mango shake
As the dish was set in front of me and I smelled the garlic and chilies wafting up into the air, all my hunger came rushing back somehow.  The dumplings, though still digesting, became a distant memory, as though I had eaten them in a dream.  It was a good thing I hadn't gotten a half-order.  I ate every last claw.

The crabs' sauce was so dark and thick it was tough to distinguish the basil leaves from the undercurrent of pounded chilies.  At first I tried to dig the meat out with chopsticks, but quickly came to realize it was a futile endeavor.  I pulled a rubber band from my pocket, tied my hair back, pushed wayward strands behind my ear, and dug into the bowl with both bare hands like the sauced-up and hot-oiled crab bodies and claws were nothing more than a bowl of jelly beans.

Before long, I couldn't pick up my drink without it slipping right out of my absolutely sauce-coated hands.  I dug my fingers under carapaces and wormed my way into tiny claw crevices.  I scraped claw adductors with my teeth and smeared my cheeks trying to get my tongue all the way into some of the spaces between organs.

The garlic had been stir-fried so thoroughly that it could be eaten in chunks right along with the crabmeat, which was good since they were indistinguishable in color.  The chilies' flavor had seeped into everything so thoroughly that eating them directly had no spicy effect beyond the effect of the rest of the dish, which was very hot.  At first, my tongue delightedly bounced from garlic to ocean to spicy to herby and back, but before long it started tingling and burning them all together.

On the way out, we told the crabs' cook that her work had been amazing.  She barely nodded as she kept stirring someone else's eventual dinner in her wok; she knew.


II. Crabs in Cambodia (Phnom Penh)

Khmer cuisine is one of those cuisines that hasn't been widely exported to the U.S.  Last year, I was persistent enough to ferret out a few places in Long Beach, but apart from those tastes, I had no idea what to expect when I found myself on a bus to Phnom Penh earlier this week.

Luckily, Cambodia and Vietnam share the custom of, at nightfall, dragging out hundreds of plastic chairs and tables along with countless tanks of fresh shellfish.  They do this in front of places that remained shuttered and gated all day.  A place that was fixing motorbikes at noon might be tossing sea snails with lemongrass at nine.  And language barriers can't stop me from recognizing those telltale shells.

There was one such place right down the street from our hostel.  It was called the Oyster House.  They had a simple one page menu largely consisting of English translations that left a lot to the imagination.  This wasn't unusual in Phnom Penh, a capital with a much higher general English level than Ho Chi Minh City - enough English to have translations, not enough English to have detailed translations.  One restaurant, for example, listed a particular soup as 'Khmer spice soup' and what came out was full of pumpkins, wintermelon, green beans, eggplant, and cucumbers.

My crab dish was an exception, though - it was called "Shake Sea Crab with Salt and Chili".

Which is exactly what it was.

It came out unadorned with any sort of silverware altogether, which confused me for a good minute.  My stomach was rumblings and I couldn't get any meat out!  Was I supposed to scrape the brain meat with my fingers and then stare at the legs wistfully?

No: I watched the locals.  They were cracking the legs with their teeth.

Despite knowing my dentist would wince if she saw me, and despite the fact that some of the legs were spiky, I did the same.  The crabs were small, about the same size as my palm.  Their open heads were full of potent pepper seeds and sea salt; the legs were grilled until they could almost be crunched like BBQ flavored potato chips.  To get the tiny wedges of meat out of their skinny limbs was like performing hand surgery, but ultimately worth it.  The seasoning was simple, but the crabs were effortlessly, lightly fresh, the kind of fresh you only get in the States by paying over $30 per head or by going out in a boat yourself.  Getting them for $1.50 was an experience I knew I shouldn't take for granted.

But they were tiny... so I couldn't help ordering some of the restaurant's namesake afterwards.

Grilled oysters!