Monday, April 29, 2013

Chanh muối-ing it around Little Saigon

(This is an edited and updated version of a similar article I wrote for Examiner last year.  Since then, I have probably drunk an amount of chanh muối roughly equivalent to the volume of a swimming pool, and my recommended list looks quite different.)

There’s a canned drink that’s prevalent in Asia but stocked sparingly here, probably because of its name: Pocari Sweat.  

Mmm, that totally sounds like something I want to drink.  Ions.  And sweat.

Perhaps only due to the power of suggestion, it does taste like sweat - or at least like seawater 7-up.  But people over there swear by it for keeping cool on meltingly swampy days.  After awhile, it even starts tasting, well... like sweat altered for consumption rather than sweat canned straight from an armpit.

If you don’t like canned soda, though - if, like me, you think most of it tastes like aluminum and chemicals (or if you've seen what an otherwise beautiful Indonesian lagoon can look like choked with Pocari Sweat cans) - you need something with similar properties, but fresh and handmade, with real ingredients, and less of a resemblance to bodily excretions. 

Enter the Vietnamese concoction chanh muối, which translates to salty lemon soda.  With only three ingredients - preserved lime or lemon, soda (or water), and sugar - it sounds deceptively simple, but after the first few tastes, quickly becomes ragingly addictive, especially alongside Vietnamese dishes brimming with fish sauce.  

Thanks, GardenBetty (and her recipe is the best one on the internet as far as I'm concerned!)

Of course, you may have to run past a few... not so palatable first impressions before you get to delicious, let alone addictive.  I've tried plying many people and have heard many gut reactions.  Seawater.  Beach towels.  Socks.  Dishwater (in all fairness, this particular restaurant had a crappy version).  

My own personal first impression was 'socks', but I quickly saw the light, and it is now my most-ordered drink.  It is also the first phrase I ever learned in Vietnamese so that just in case I found myself stranded and dehydrated in a Vietnamese café with no English translations or internet, I would still be able to sate my addiction!*

Overall, the effect of chanh muối is cooling for both heat and spice, crazy-delicious, and unlike any other drink on earth.  Once you become accustomed to it, and your friends ask, as they inevitably will, “What is that gross thing floating in your drink?!” you’ll get the pleasure of introducing them to this delightfully bizarre refreshment as well!


In Little Saigon (Westminster, CA), most restaurants worth their salt (get it?  Ha!) will have it on the menu, whether with soda added or water.  (With soda, it'll be called soda chanh muối; without, it'll either be called nước chanh muối or just plain old chanh muối.)  Everyone makes it differently, though - some use limes, some use lemons.  Some use lots of sugar; some barely touch it.  Some use near-fresh fruit; some appear to have pickled their fruit for years.  Some just toss the fruit in the bottom of the glass; some blend the whole thing, peel and all, so the flavor is much more pervasive.

We all have our preferences (mine is lime; less sugar; more preserved fruit; blended).  Here's how to find a chanh muối suited to your unique tastes.

If you prefer milder, subtle flavors, want to edge into the experience slowly, or are a supertaster and just want to give your overworked tastebuds a break, try the soda version at Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ 4.  They use lots of sparkling water and a very tiny, lightly preserved lemon that sits in the bottom of the glass like a rock.  Essentially, it just tastes like Sprite with a subtle kick.

If you have a sweet tooth, head to Thanh Restaurant, which must have to buy a new fifty-pound bag of sugar every day just to replenish the supply from a night's worth of chanh muối orders.  If that description makes you leery instead of hungry, congratulate yourself on not being pre-diabetic and try Cơm Tấm Thuận Kiều or Phở 54 - their outputs are probably more along the lines of a ten-pound bag of sugar.  Their fruit’s preserved flavor is stronger, but the sugar still coddles your tongue as it processes the strangeness.

Bò De Tinh Tâm Chay and Đạt Thành both manage to extract a more pickled taste from their whole limes, and don't overwhelm it or try to mask it with sweetness.  Both are unabashedly salty, and the fact that they use limes and not lemons gives it an even stronger citrus flavor.  The fruit stays whole, though, so it's still an infusion and not a blend; the brownish limes, floating near the bottom of your mug, look a little like brains in jars from creepy science labs in movies. This is probably the version you will like if you have a 'normal' palate: distinctive enough to be interesting; muted enough to be inoffensive.

On the flip side, Quán Vỹ D (perhaps my single favorite restaurant on Bolsa, so don't let this critique discourage you from visiting) goes balls-to-the-wall with their crazily preserved, blended version.  If they don't leave their lemons out in a jar in direct sunlight for a good five years, I'd be very surprised.  It's so pickled it's almost metallic, like the citrus equivalent of when I tried drinking out of the Claussen Kosher Dill jar as a child to see what would happen.  The strength is even too much for me, and I rarely make that claim.

If you want to experience all the packed flavor that three ingredients can possibly give (without going to the level of overboard that Quán Vỹ D does) there's only one option for you, and that's Phở Quang Trung's blended-pickled-lime, so-thick-it's-practically-a-smoothie wonder.  You suck up the whole fruit through that straw: seeds, pieces of peel, pith, arils, everything.  It is perfect.  You feel like you're living inside the lime jar that thing was pickled in.


*When I was actually in Vietnam, I didn't see this drink much.  Traveling from north to south, I was all the way in Quy Nhơn before I finally spotted it on the menu.  My excitement was short-lived, as what was set in front of me was this:

- two limes, cut in half
- two empty glasses
- a bowl of sugar
- a can of seltzer water
Do-it-yourself chanh muối sans fruit preservation?!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Dragonfruit: fraternal twins

There are two varieties of dragonfruit (well, three, but the two varieties of purple-skinned dragonfruit are the only ones I've encountered in the wild): white-fleshed and purple-fleshed.

There might only be a psychosomatic difference in flavor, but I'm saying it anyway:

I love purple-fleshed dragonfruit.

Dinner on the Nanning-Hà Nội overnight train
I love it so much I have absolutely no problem posting an unflattering picture of me with purple smeared on my nose after chomping into this dragonfruit like an animal instead of walking three train cars down to the dining car and getting a fork.

It tastes like a raspberry, a kiwi, and a passion fruit had a very flamboyant baby!

The white kind is boring.  Not bad - it's certainly got the edge on lots of fruit - but surprisingly mild.  You've got to be kidding me, fruit: you look like an exotic butterfly or a tropical leaf or, well, a dragon, on the outside and then I cut you open and you're all pasty and taste like a muted kiwi?  Unacceptable.

Dragonfruits like to play tricks.

(thanks, Ian Maguire)
I can ALMOST tell the difference from the outside, but not reliably enough.  You'll see me combing Asian fruit markets, holding dragonfruits up to the light, prodding them with my finger, examining their leaves, and peeking down their little dragonfruit navels.

Nanning, China: I am in the background, ready to pounce.
It's not bad enough that I am an abnormally tall white girl in Asia, of course; I also have to molest the poor vendors' wares.  When I come upon one of those stalls that slices one fruit open as an inviting display, I have to forcibly restrain myself from hugging its owner.  Luckily for the comfort zones of fruit vendors everywhere, it's not a great idea to slice open a display fruit in a hot, humid, buggy climate.


Where to find dragonfruit in Orange County:

Many places.  Dragonfruit is getting more mainstream in the States.  They have it at H-Marts, 99 Ranches, Siêu Thị Thuận Pháts, and other big Asian grocery chains around the area.  Occasionally I'll even see a few sad specimens in the 'tropical' section at Ralph's.

Where to find purple dragonfruit in Orange County:

Like for good rambutan, you may have to go to the smaller Vietnamese fruit markets (again, anything whose sign says 'trái cây').  I have gotten lucky exactly once, when a close inspection of the leaves yielded me a goldmine of purple goodness.

How to tell the difference:

This is NOT foolproof, but here are some hints:

The leaves on the purple-fleshed ones tend to be a little shorter and more curled.  The give in the rind is a little softer: the difference between white-fleshed ones and purple-fleshed ones is like the difference between a ripe Clementine and a ripe satsuma.  Finally, the white-fleshed ones tend to be more oval and elongated, while the purple-fleshed ones are squatter.

How to eat:

If you want to be all fancy, you can cut them in half, scoop the flesh out with a spoon, cut it into cubes, and pour the cubes into the skin, which now serves as a bowl.  Personally, I just eat it in the messiest, least polite way possible - it gets it into my mouth faster.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Finding the real Sichuan pepper

The Sichuan pepper was banned from entering the United States from 1968-2005.  Not because it numbs one's face just as surely as a few good shots of novocaine.  Not even because it's terrifyingly spicy (it isn't: the fire in Sichuanese cuisine comes from elsewhere).

No.  (Anticlimax alert.)  We were just worried it would infect citrus trees with canker.

The end result for me is that for my whole life in the States I thought I was already eating Sichuan peppers.  For example, I'd had twice-cooked fish absolutely slathered with dry peppers, such that it appeared as though the cook had accidentally knocked a shelf full of them into my take-out container.

Dude... be more careful about swinging things around in the kitchen.
(Thanks, Yelper Chris Y)
These were not Sichuan peppers, however.  I learned this only when I tasted the real thing for the first time in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

My boyfriend's ex-host-brother, who was showing us around, had been briefed on the reason I was traveling around China, and tested me out almost within the first half hour of meeting me.

"You say you want to try everything?"


"I can buy you pig stomach sandwich?"

"You try rabbit dry pot?"

Having passed the pig stomach and rabbit dry pot midterms, I went on to take the final: real Sichuan hotpot.

It was almost 100 degrees outside and heat shimmers rolled off the sidewalk in bursts.  We ambled, sweating and rolling ice cubes around in our mouths, over to what our host assured us was the best hotpot restaurant in town  Like any hotpot restaurant worth its capsaicin, they informed us the wait would be an hour, then retrieved us from the teahouse next door within 15 minutes.

I surveyed the scene.  Guys were hunched over their steaming pots, shirts rolled up in the back all the way to their necks, sweat pouring down their backs and pooling in the notches of their belts.  Some of them just gave up decorum entirely and removed their shirts altogether, creating a strange and surreal atmosphere where ladies in cute summer dresses primly perched in their seats next to shirtless, butt-crack-revealing men in what was really a pretty fancy-looking establishment, especially for China: wood-paneling, stone detail, fake plants and all.

Not the greatest picture, but you get the idea.
Our host ordered practically the entire kitchen to be brought and cooked in our double-sided pot (broth for my boyfriend the spice-o-phobic, full red hot fire for himself and me).

I wonder how many pepper species went extinct to feed us that night?

I was pretty much expecting my tastebuds to burn to death upon mere contact with anything that had been dunked, let alone cooked, in that fire pit.  I took a breath, filled my bowl, mashed an ungodly amount of garlic and cilantro to it, as I observed my host do, and took a bite.

For one brief seething second I felt the spice start to rise, bubble, swell, arm itself, and drive its tiny needles into my lips and tongue.  Then, as I braced myself, it slowly began to transform.

My whole mouth started to feel like someone was holding a lightly charged battery to it, or a buzzing massager.  My lips started to tingle.  I felt like I was at the dentist's office and the first shot of Novocaine was just starting to kick in.

I looked at my bowl.

Squid, lotus, intestine, shortrib, sweet potato.
I took another bite.

By then, I could feel hardly any burning at all.  I tasted flowers, and wood, and something almost medicinal.  I felt sweat start beading around my hairline.  I was drooling like it was spicy, sweating like it was spicy, and my nose was running like it was spicy, but the spice had been dulled.  Somehow, the pepper had managed to block the pain, but leave in the part of capsaicin that enhances other flavors.

An hour later, I was absolutely drenched, exhausted, full to brimming, and understood fully why one would want to eat a scorching dish served in a scorching climate in a room full of sweaty, loud people drinking beer.  I can't explain it, but I understood it.

(I should mention that the pepper's properties were not always as blissful in other dishes.  When infused too strongly into oil, for example, the effect became so pervasive that it was unsettling.  Eating what looked like an innocuous plate of something translated only as 'empty-heart-vegetable', my throat slowly became so thoroughly numb that I no longer retained control over my swallowing muscles at all and had to wait, dousing my senseless throat with water, for half an hour before I could eat again.)

Sneaky death-greens!

But when it gets truly hot now, when my skin starts prickling and sweat beads start forming on my forehead, half of me still craves a passion fruit smoothie (sinh tố chanh dây, if I properly credit the little Vietnamese stands that instilled that craving in me).

But the other half longs for a clamoring, bubbling, burning, numbing, buzzing, woodsy, flowery hotpot full of Sichuan peppers.


Where to find dishes made with Sichuan pepper in Orange County:

I have no idea.  If you find out, I'd love to hear about it.  Even exclusively Sichuan restaurants like Chong Qing Mei Wei in Irvine don't seem to use it in the same way (though I highly recommend eating there anyway).  Their Chongqing hotpot burns like lava without the relief of numbing.  

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Part II: Trứng cút lộn

Saigon, early September.

The Ben Thanh Market had just taught me that I.  Loved.  Snails!

My whole trip quickly turned into a snail quest.  I wanted to try every variety of snail that Saigon had to offer, and quickly, because I only had four days.

This quest is a story for another entry, but suffice it to say it led me to Quán Ốc Út Trang in District 1.  Blood cockles and clams and coconut snails, oh my!

Julian risked life and limb to get this photo: he's standing in on the center line of a busy Saigon street!  Ha ha, just kidding, Saigon streets don't have lane markers.  He is in the center, though.
On every table sat a bowl full of quail eggs.  This was not unusual: lots of Vietnamese restaurants offer bowls full of quail eggs.  Usually, they're hardboiled.  You snack on as many as you want during your meal, and pay for however many you eat.  You know, like the Cokes in hotel fridges, except the quail eggs cost about 5 cents instead of 8 dollars.

Here is just such a bowl of quail eggs next to a delicious helping of bánh canh cá in Huế .
(An aside: I initially thought the quail eggs were free, like chips and salsa in Mexican restaurants, and was subsequently chased down a Huế street by a money-pouch-waving lady.  I never made that mistake again.)

Anyway, Quán Ốc Út Trang's bowl of quail eggs aroused no suspicions.  As I euphorically cracked cockles, unwound large snails from their shells, and plied the smaller snails with safety pins, I absentmindedly peeled a quail egg and stuck it in my mouth.

Surprise!  Quail fetus!

Thanks, Viet Street Food.  The immediate nature of my quail fetus dining experience did not allow me to take my own photo.
Without all the heavy baggage accompanying my first taste of hột vịt lộn, I was able to dine on the egg in the manner that it deserved.  It was cool, salty, crunchy, gamey, and gave satisfyingly easy access for a diner previously concentrated on laboriously extracting shelled animals from their shells.

In this breezy, natural context, these trứng cút lộn were to my snails as French fries are to a hamburger, falafel balls are to shawarma, poi is to Kalua pork, or naan is to chicken tikka masala.

Not a nightmare; not something to grit your teeth, grin, and bear; not an extreme challenge to conquer.  

Just a refreshing, complementary snack.


Where to find various bird fetuses in Orange County:

I haven't seen the quail version, but there are a few places to get the duck version.

The place which provided me with my first taste of hột vịt lộn is:

Hột Vịt Lộn Long An 
8942 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683

I've also heard good things about:

C&C Express
9200 Bolsa Ave St 308
Westminster, CA 92683

While I haven't had them myself, one day, while I was waiting for my snails and sugarcane juice to be bagged up, I watched a guy come up and order one egg.  He was extremely specific about the level of development of the duck he wanted, and rather than blow him off, the lady behind the counter took a good two minutes thoughtfully weighing each egg in her hands before carefully selecting one to give him.

Sitting in his mall folding chair with a handful of rau răm and salt in one fist and his egg in the other, taking big old bites and grinning brightly, he looked like the king of the world.

In Los Angeles, there is a market in Echo Park that has almost an entire aisle dedicated to fertilized eggs, and I MAY have seen some quail eggs in there too.  I can't speak to their quality, but there must be some serious turnover if they have an entire AISLE of extremely time-sensitive eggs.  Its info is:

A Grocery Warehouse
1487 W. Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Big baby or small baby?

Even for those who take pride in being adventurous eaters, fertilized duck egg (balut in the Phillippines, hột vịt lộn in Vietnam) is almost always a dealbreaker. Sometimes even the sole dealbreaker. I know someone who will gnaw on pork knuckles, suck marrow out of goat bones, eat duck brains, and swallow entire cubes of beef blood, but who sheepishly balks every time we drive by the hột vịt lộn stand, saying ‘maybe some other time’. (OK, it’s my dad - and my chicken-heart snacking, durian-smoothie-drinking mom isn’t having any of it either.)

Balut regularly tops lists of the world’s most disgusting foods (even beating out maggot-ridden, intestine-destroying illegal Sardinian cheese in one case). It’s used more as a challenge than food: emerging when someone needs a gross-out video to post to YouTube.

If you look harder, however, there is a refreshing underbelly of unapologetic duck fetus lovers posting careful how-to’s, loving self-shot videos, and even elaborate recipes featuring the egg.

I have had hột vịt lộn once, and its slightly smaller and less graphic cousin, fertilized quail egg (trứng cút lộn) once as well.
(thanks, cyberoo)
I tell the story in two parts. Part 1 takes place in Westminster, CA in the spring of 2012.

1. Hột vịt lộn

The first time I tried hột vịt lộn, I was blissfully unaware of either warring internet egg faction, having done only enough Googling to give me the facts. All I knew was that I walked by a weird elaborate egg store whenever I visited my favorite cơm tấm restaurant.

(thanks, Yelper Nick H
It sold frozen yogurt and sugarcane juice, sure, but its centerpiece was eggs. Its exclusively Vietnamese clientele streamed in and out at all times of day carrying grocery bags full of strange, large, slightly dark-toned eggs, or small egg crates with steaming individual eggs covered in spice baggies and herbs.

(thanks, Yelper Cobra K.
Sometimes they wouldn’t even make it out of the parking lot: I’d see their legs sticking out of their open car doors as they devoured the eggs in the drivers seat, leaving the shells on the pavement.

Whatever they were having, whatever they couldn't wait until they got home to eat, I wanted it.

When I walked up to the egg counter and ordered one uncooked fertilized duck egg, I expected skepticism or reticence, but the man behind it only tilted his head a little.

“Egg with baby,” he said. It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Big baby or small baby?” he asked.

“Uh... small baby,” I told him, trying to sound like I knew what the hell was going on.

“Good,” he pronounced, and took my $2, handing me a whole egg crate with a lonely-looking egg perched in the corner.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to get you one?” I asked my boyfriend, Julian, when I got back outside. He had stayed firmly planted on the frozen yogurt side of the store throughout this whole transaction, and was now spooning it into his mouth without looking at the crate in my arms.

“No, I’ll try a bite of yours,” he said.*

At home, when the egg was cooked, peeled, and set in a bowl, one ‘bite’ was all he managed. “This is about as close as I ever get to throwing up,” he told me upon touching a microscopic speck of deep yellow yolk to his tongue, and withdrew from the kitchen.

For me, the duck fetus was not the problem. The Internet was the problem. I had vainly tried to find a website that would tell me how to cook the egg without also telling me how to feel about the egg, but this proved impossible. And it made me a little mad.

I'd never felt innately sick about an item of food before. I wasn't raised to believe that there was anything gross about the things that people ate.

Post broth-sipping 
I thought about this as I raised it to my mouth, beak first. What exactly is it that makes us recoil?

Do we think of it as a kind of even more innocent, even more tortured veal? (If so, where is the intuitive revulsion to foie gras? The rage, yes, but where is the nausea? And why does masago not move us?)

Do we wince at a face staring back at us? (Then why do whole fried fish and roast pigs clenching apples in their jaws leave us unaffected?)

Is it the cute container, the animal in an egg like a candy prize from a vending machine, that unsettles us?

My bite tasted like a crunchy, rich, earthy albumin-soaked liver, and it was delicious with my eyes closed. The warm, paté-tasting broth that spilled from the top when the shell membrane tore, the small and curved yellow yolk, like a normal hard-boiled egg yolk, but richer-tasting and rippled, like a brain, and the unmistakable and vein-striped baby duck body, fetally curled and faintly feathered, all mingled like stew in a bite-size vessel.

The unease, however, persisted. Would I have been able to enjoy it fully had cultural preconceptions not wormed their way into my brain and wrapped themselves around my gut?

I know the answer, and the answer is yes. I know this because the second time I had a fertilized bird egg in my mouth, it was a surprise.

Part 2: Trứng cút lộn : tomorrow.


*Julian is a vegetarian, so I was not expecting him to take a bite of anything that still had a face. However, he rationalized that anything still in an egg was not an animal. I still find it extremely ironic that the literally the only person I knew who was willing to try balut was a vegetarian.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Al bap

I visited Korea in the summer of 2012.  Despite Korea's lightning-pace development, the communication barrier was absolute, and nowhere was this more apparent than when I wanted something quick to eat.  

When I felt fresh and adventurous, ready to eat whatever came out of the kitchen, or when I felt flush, ready to jet off to some specialty restaurant chosen from the guidebook, I didn't care that I couldn't communicate.  But when I was nearing the end of a long day, exhausted and in need of sustenance (that wasn't convenience store ramyun) before collapsing into bed, I didn't have the energy to risk inadvertently ordering some twelve-plate four-course monstrosity.

I couldn't speak Korean or read the script (all I retain now is the flourished underline of the ‘n’ sound) and I recall many a stomach-rumbling night where I peered through doorways into rooms austerely decorated with inscrutable text.  Often, it was actually carved into wood like an art project.  This was both beautiful and utterly irrelevant to my interests.

Ah.. I see.  You serve food here.
Thanks, Joshua Lurie
I was occasionally thrown a bone in the form of hilarious, yet ultimately decipherable neon...

or something that at least let me know there’d be an interesting selection to choose from...

... but when this didn’t happen, I felt utterly lost.

I would scour the guidebook for the characters for the dish I sought, and try to remember it, but it faded like the details of abstract art.  A few days of this and I started writing the dish of the day on the back of my hand.  

Unfortunately, I still had to peer through doorways like a myopic looky-loo and squint at long lists of menu options, and Koreans were too friendly to stand aside for my confusion.  Up they would bound, cheerily pointing at their abstract menu art, and I would consider the implications of standing in the doorway comparing the back of my hand to the wall for ten minutes, then flee.

My unlikely savior turned out to be in the form of a fish roe rice bowl (al bap, 알밥).

My hero!
Nearly every casual restaurant had a version.  The characters were easy to spot.  It tasted amazing, and I always felt healthy and fully nourished afterwards.  They even laid off on the omnipresent red pepper paste (gochujang, 고추장) a tiny bit.  

It would briefly occur to me as I was eating my fourth al-bap of the week that a stone pot full of crackly rice, fish eggs, seaweed, hot-sauce drenched cabbage and radish, and egg was a strange comfort food for someone raised in the Midwest, but I honestly felt like this dish was stroking my forehead (though sweaty from gochujang), murmuring soothing words, and tucking me into bed.  It wiped the dancing Korean script from in front of my eyes.

And the taste!  Pure ocean over rice, but unmistakably Korean in how strongly the vegetables were pickled.  The individual tiny snaps of the eggs breaking, contained by the crackling seaweed strips and pot-blackened rice, gave my teeth reason to pay good attention, and set up a kind of hypnotic rhythm section in my jaw.

It formed a perfect beat for me to find a subway stop and stumble home.


Where to get al-bap in Orange County:

According to Yelp, a smattering of restaurants in Buena Park, and of course, Koreatown in LA.  However, I have so far been hesitant to ruin my amazing memories by trying it here.

Rambutan: the realization

The catalyst for my philosophy about food is a southeast Asian fruit that looks like an inflamed sea urchin and tastes like a hybrid between a grape and a coconut.

When you saw this, your first thought was to put it in your mouth, right?
This is rambutan: from the Indonesian rambut (hair).

I first saw rambutan piled in a barrel on an eastern Indonesian street in 2006.  A smiling, betel-nut chewing man watched over it casually from his spot leaning against the bank.  He was flanked by people selling stinkbomb-like durians*, fragrant stacks of jackfruit, and bunches of greyish longans and lychees, but I made a beeline for the rambutan as though guided by a string.

This is the Jayapura street market at night.  Rambutan man works by day and stands at far right.
It was still my first week in the country and I barely knew how to say numbers.  We communicated with hand signals.  Rp. 20,000 per kilo. 

I paid, took my baggie to the beach, and plopped down on the sand staring at these angry-looking, spiny red orbs, which stared inscrutably back at me. 

It helps that inside they look like eyeballs.
See, I had no one to teach me.  No one told me I had to peel them or that the seeds were poisonous** or that I had to scrape the surface of the seed with my teeth to get a corkscrew of perfect fruit, otherwise the flesh would just collapse in a sea of delicious juice.

But I figured it out, and, well...

Here I am realizing that if I hadn’t spun a globe randomly with my finger on it and if I hadn’t decided to actually follow my finger and if I hadn’t been able to somehow get a work visa for one of the most war-torn provinces in Indonesia and if I hadn’t come to work for this particular company and seen this particular rambutan-selling man, I may never have had this experience.

I thought, and still think: all I knew up until then was pears and apricots and apples and sometimes the odd mango. It was easy to think I knew what my favorite fruit was, but (I realized as I swallowed the rambutan flesh) there was no way I could have, and there will never be a way I can, until I’ve tried every fruit in the world.


Where to find rambutan in Orange County:

Since Orange County is home to Little Saigon, the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Hồ Chí Minh City, the most reliable places to find rambutan tend to be tiny Vietnamese fruit markets (anything with the words trái cây on the awning should do).  In Vietnamese, the word for rambutan is chôm chôm (pronounced chohm chohm).  The two I frequent (that also happen to be right next to each other) are:

Trái Cây Ngon
8920 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683

Thai Son
8922 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683

Occasionally, Albertsons, Wholesome Choice, or Whole Foods will carry them, but the price will be anywhere from doubled to sextupled what it should be.  Depending on the season, a Vietnamese fruit market will charge between $2.50 and $6 per pound, while I once witnessed Whole Foods charging $18.99!  Not only that, the ones in the traditional supermarkets tend to be brown and wilted.  Better brown and wilted rambutan than no rambutan - their thick skin makes them hardy and resistant to overripening - but if you have the choice, take advantage of the fresh, cheap ones.


*Spoiler: durians are delicious despite their odor.
**Whether the rambutan seed is or is not in fact poisonous is a matter of much online debate.  Suffice it to say that my Indonesian co-worker shrieked in terror when she saw me pop a whole one in my mouth a few days later.

What it means to me to eat everything.

This blog is about trying - and loving - food.  All types of food.  Food from all over the globe.  Food everyone already enjoys and food most have yet to try.  Food that’s endemic and food that’s nearly impossible to find.  Simple, unadorned edibles, like fruit or seeds, and labor-intensive, elaborate meals finished with flourishes.

Above all, this blog is founded on the notion that it is extremely unlikely that you have already tried your favorite food.

I hope to make your mouth water as you consider dishes you’ve never tasted.  If my writing fulfills its function, it’ll do the impossible: bloom phantom flavors from words.


Here is what this blog is decidedly not about: exotic food used for shock value.

It cheapens food that has real meaning to people, that has sustained them for centuries, that has its place in ritual and in tradition.  It cheapens it to treat trying it like you’re rolling down the hill in a barrel or entering a hot dog eating contest or bungee jumping naked.

This doesn’t mean I take eating unnecessarily seriously.  Sometimes food is funny, like when a really well-made xiao long bao explodes on your shirt when you take a bite, or when the strand of sauce-covered spaghetti you’re slurping just won’t end, or when you’re in a nice restaurant and there’s no way to get the marrow out of a lamb bone other than to dig it out with a doctored straw or upturn it over your face.

But I assume that everything – even things I have to try and forget my culinary norms to swallow – is delicious until proven otherwise, and I hope to convince you to try approaching eating the same way.