Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A glutton's tour of Warsaw

It's probably a testament to my disagreeable nature, but in the last few years I've become obsessed with Eastern European food. When I lived in Dublin and London I was only interested in Asian food, but after seven years in Cambodia, nothing seems more exotic to me than stuffed cabbage leaves, hearty meat soups, fermented dairy products, and potatoes, boiled, mashed, or fried.

So on a trip abroad late last year, I managed to wedge a weekend trip to Warsaw in. I'd never been to Poland before, and I was excited to explore an entirely new (to me) food scene. I attacked the trip with my typical obsessive research. I bought a Polish cookbook, found an adorable attic apartment in Warsaw, booked a food tour, made a list of restaurants to try, museums to visit, and places where I might find culinary souvenirs to bring back to Cambodia. Perhaps most fortuitously of all, I got in touch with Mervyn, a foodie friend of a friend who has been living in Warsaw for a few years and who seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the food scene there.

As soon as we arrived from the airport we dropped our bags and headed straight to Gessler Resturant U Kucharzy, a restaurant near our flat that Mervyn suggested, owned by Poland’s own celebrity chef, Magda Gessler. We had assumed it was a casual lunch spot, but when we walked in, dripping wet because we had forgotten to bring an umbrella, we were confronted with the site of white tablecloths, gleaming silver, and well-heeled Warsawians.

As it turns out, both Steven and are willing to endure no end of humiliation to get a good meal (case in point: learning Khmer), so despite our casual dress, we sat down and ordered a three-course meal. Gessler serves high-end traditional Polish fare—we started with herring in linseed oil with boiled potatoes and blinis with sour cream and wild salmon roe, followed by a rich broth with small dumplings and incredibly rich pierogi filled with duck confit and topped with fried onions, served by hand at the table, silver service-style. Finally, for dessert we had a raspberry pavlova.

That morning in London when I was rousing myself out of bed, I had worried that I had made a terrible mistake in booking a weekend jaunt to Poland. I was already visiting five countries in three weeks on this trip, and when I was waiting in the dark at 4 a.m. for a airport taxi I questioned my own sanity in squeezing in yet another country just for the sake of trying a new cuisine. But after just a few bites at Gessler, all doubts had vanished and I was convinced that any sleep I had lost that morning was well worth it.

The next three days were a dizzying ode to gluttony. That night we went to Zapiecek, a popular Polish restaurant that is cheesy in every sense of the word. The waitresses were dressed in traditional Polish garb, and the pierogi, which are advertised as being stuffed with feelings, were also filled with, and drenched in, cheese. I can't deny our meal was delicious, in a guilt-inducing, gut-busting sort of way.

As luck would have it, the place we were staying was next to Hala Mirowska, a local market housed in a beautiful old building. We saw what appeared to be a fresh food and produce food market, the cynosure of all foodies' city tours.

And Hala Mirowska delivered—the market was packed with gorgeous produce and fruits, wild mushrooms and forest fruits, fresh honey, smoked fish, and pickles, so many pickles. We went there every morning and selected several things and brought it back to our adorable little AirBnb attic apartment and pretended that we lived in Warsaw, an appealing thought as we gorged ourselves on these previously unexplored treats.

Our next order of business, was, of course, a food tour. We went on a tour with EatPolska, a company that operates in Warsaw, Krakow, and Gdansk. We had a very nice guide who was a student majoring in English studies. Like many young Polish women that I know, she spoke English, perfectly, quickly, and almost without pause, spending several hours telling us about Poland and Polish food.

We went to four restaurants, one of which, Kamanda Lwowska, appealed to our need to get as firmly stuck into traditional Polish fare as possible. Housed in a building that's more than 100 years old, the place had an ancient pub vibe. The menu featured dishes that were popular in the interwar period. We sampled pork lard with bread and gherkins, barszcz czerwony, a type of clear fermented beetroot borscht with sauerkraut dumplings that's traditionally served on Christmas Eve, and a hearty wild mushroom soup served with brown bread.

Our next stop was Solec 44, a modern Polish gastropub where the focus is nose-to-tail eating and fermentation. We tried an array of local cheeses and meats, and I marveled at the rows of murky-but-colorful jars filled with various fermenting fruits and vegetables. The weather was crisp and autumnal, the perfect temperature to ferment (at least so am I convinced—my fermentation projects in the tropics take days instead of weeks but never get the same depth of flavor). This is sort of where our tour took a slight hipster detour.

I suspect that the guides were desperate to prove that Polish food isn’t stodgy and boring and wanted to show us some cool young people pioneering farm-to-table eating. They succeeded, at our next stop, Bibenda, a slick little restaurant with edison lights and a Facebook page with Instagram-filtered photos. We ate a beautifully plated, colorful dish of sweet potato and duck with some sort of local berries, and but in all honestly, we were more interested in eating pierogi and sauerkraut.

Mervyn knew exactly what we were after, and took us to a ‘bar mlcezny,’ literally, ‘milk bar,’ a Polish cafeteria-style restaurant that are all over the country. Although this type of restaurant existed before communism, it was in the Soviet era that they truly blossomed, and their history is evident in the complete lack warmth and ambiance, and inexpensive, hearty, and somewhat bland fare. Acting more bourgeois than proletariat, we ordered far more than we actually needed, including pierogi, goulash, beetroot salad, blood sausage, a fermented beet drink and fruit kompot.

This was traditional Polish food, not tarted up, served for the masses, and I was impressed. Probably not the sort of thing I would have wanted to eat ten years ago when I was still in the heady thrall of anything Asian, but now the complete foreignness of it was intoxicating.

There was more, of course, but since I’ve already spent six months trying to finish this blog post and am quickly coming up on my next visit to Poland (yes, I liked it that much), I’ll stop here and hope to be better with my next installment.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Luang Prabang kao soy face off

For the last two days I've been eating Laotian kao soy in Luang Prabang, at the urging of Robyn from EatingAsia and Mark from Stickyrice. They each have their favorites, so I was sent, backpacker-cum-chef in tow, to decide which was better.

We had two kai soy Lao to try, the first, Mark's recommendation, was located across from Wat Vatsensoukharam. The second, the EatingAsia recommendation, was served by Mrs. Sum in the Luang Prabang morning market.

Wat Vatsensoukharam kao soy

When we found the place that Mark and Tu recommended, I was happy to see that the proprietor of the stall was a woman in her 50s or 60s. This filled me with confidence, based on my own prejudice that all old people are great at making soup. Lina found this particularly funny because the woman bore a very slight resemblance to Aung San Suu Kyi whom I had recently discovered I had a bit of a crush on. (Be aware, reader, this is not a crush based on actual physical sex appeal but more in the way that some guys once found Margaret Thatcher attractive. You know, woman of power and influence. Suu Kyi, however, looks as though she would probably make you a nice cup of tea and play you some Bach after sex, as opposed to Thatcher who would probably just rape your grandmother's pension and tax you heavily for using the sink to wash your cock in afterwards.)

“Do you think she's hot?” Lina asked me, smirking. I blushed and continued eating my kao soy. Kao soy is a rice noodle soup topped with a hearty bolognese-like pork sauce.The dish itself was incredibly tasty and seemed to be hidden out of view in a pot, much to the dismay of the other diners who all asked each other “What is that? It looks great!” as they tucked into their regular old chicken noodle soup. We continued to eat with the air of folks who are in the know as they looked on enviously.

The broth is always the deciding factor for me whenever eating noodle soups, and this broth was absolutely perfect. It was clear and tasted as though it had been made with great care and skill, such was the depth and subtlety of its flavour. The porky bolognese sauce added another level of complexity, and even though I was presented with a full table of condiments I did not think anything else was needed apart from a small teaspoon of chilies to satisfy my own taste for spice (as well as the metabolic benefits that they bring).   -Steven

I thought the Wat Vatsensoukharam kao soy was delicious. The broth was complex and the noodles were thin and perfectly cooked. However, there were a number of annoying factors. First, the entire table was filled with backpackers, foreigners and other tourists, making the place feel (rightly or wrongly) "less authentic." Second, the portions were not enormous, which meant I had to jealously guard my kao soy and listen to Steven's complaining until he had ordered a second bowl of soup. Luckily, he's convinced of the superiority of his own metabolism as compared to my own, (encouraged by chili consumption) so there was no harm in a bowl of pho on top of the kao soy.

Finally, the much touted bowl of fresh herbs and vegetables were nowhere to be seen, and instead the kao soy was served with a little bit of lettuce and herbs already in the bowl. This gave me the feeling that the proprietress, as much or as little as she may have vaguely resembled Aung San Suu Kyi, was resting on her laurels now that she had a steady tourist clientele. Overall, a great bowl of kao soy but I wasn't as fully convinced as Steven, perhaps because I don't have a bone for Aung San Suu Kyi. -Lina

Read Mark's review of Wat Vatsensoukharam kao soy

Mrs. Sum's kao soy

Having reported to the Twitterverse about how good the first kao soy was, Lina was then instructed by Robyn of EatingAsia to go to a different place for the same dish as it was far superior. The gauntlet was laid down, and this morning we headed to the Luang Prabang morning market.

This place was bigger and Mrs. Sum bore no resemblance whatsoever to Aung San Suu Kyi, which was a disappointment. However she still looked as though could make a nice cup of tea, and with any luck, a fantastic bowl of noodles.

The setting was certainly more pleasant even though it was in a covered area of the market. It was dark and the day before Lina said she was positive she could smell urine. The physical appearance of the place could have featured in a novel about life in a Russian slum in the 1800s but the slivers of sunlight streaming through the cracks and the hearty smell of broth bubbling away were enough to immediately dispel any illusion of alcoholism and deprivation in 19th century St. Petersburg.

The woman's smile was as hearty as her soup and there were enough local people eating there to lend credence to the quality of her fare. While the setting had buckets more character than the other place, the broth lacked the body of our previous bowl. Thankfully this void was filled with a wider range of condiments including pickled green papaya and shrimp paste. It was as though she gave you a plate of soup and you could finish it off too your own taste. Again not a bad thing. At this place we also received a nice plate of greens and another plate of raw veg with some delicious nutty dipping sauce.

I'd say there was very little to choose between the two but the portion was significantly bigger and pickled green papaya was available at Mrs. Sum's, but at the first place, the soup was tastier and she went to the trouble of cutting up the greens with a pair of scissors (personally I always find this more convenient to eat.)

If I had to choose who to take with me on the ark to make me noodle soup I would probably choose the cook from the first place as I would hope that not only would she physically resemble Aung San Suu Kyi, but that she might also be able to entertain me by playing piano during her time off. - Steven

I'd visited Mrs. Sum for kao soy last year with Frances and Brock and it was really, really good. I was expecting the same this time, and I wasn't disappointed. The porky sauce was really good, better than the first place we tried, but Steven's analysis of the broth situation was correct--Mrs. Sum's was weak and just not as good as the Wat Vatsensoukharam bowl or as good as I remembered it being last time. However, her radiant smile counted for a lot, as did the plate of fresh vegetables and herbs, long beans, lettuce, mint, basil and more, as well as the sweet peanut dipping sauce she gave us to nibble on with the green beans. I was also a big fan of the lightly pickled green papaya (a new project for my tabletop pickle press?) I prefered the ambiance of the morning market, and perhaps because I'm not knee deep in Doestoyevsky I didn't find any resemblance to 19th century Russia, although I will admit that I had moaned about smelling urine next to to the backpacker buffet the night before. Thankfully, this was a few yards from Mrs. Sum's joint and there were no backpackers to be seen in the early morning.

Overall, I'd say that the kao soys were equally good, each with their unique strong points. However, for my final bowl before heading back to Phnom Penh I'd choose Mrs. Sum's based on the fact that she's a complete charmer, her pork sauce is porkier and the portions are bigger. -Lina

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Impatient pickles

Elizabeth Andoh's Washoku is one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. It introduced me to a cuisine that I didn't know existed (Japanese food that wasn't sushi or ramen) and to a completely new vocabulary. Within that cookbook, one recipe stood out: Impatient Pickles. Not because I loved the recipe--I didn't--but because of the name.

Was it me who was too impatient to wait five days for pickles? Or was it the vegetables themselves, absolutely gagging to be pickled? Maybe it was both.

Elizabeth Andoh was also the person who taught me about the tabletop pickle pot. In Washoku, she writes: " the mid-1960s, a clever screw-top device, the shokutaku tsukemono ki, or "tabletop pickle pot," come on the scene and became an instant best-seller with homemakers in cramped urban kitchens. The small plastic pot sits on the kitchen counter, where it transforms bits and pieces of shredded cabbage or other leftover vegetables into a spirited side dish in only a few hours."

I have a tabletop pickle press stored in my parents' garage after my last international move, but realized--while in Tokyo and standing in Tokyu Hands' kitchen department--that I couldn't live without one much longer. I ended up also buying an extra bag at Tokyu Hands, as is my custom, to bring back the giant piles of kitchen crap that I was certain I could not live without. Luckily, my decision regarding the pickle pot was the right one, because I've eaten nearly nothing but pickles of various types for the last month.

My favorites are very simple: smashed cucumber with garlic and salt, and daikon and carrots with vinegar, sugar and kombu. These delicious pickles make a great accompaniment to meals, or to have with a beer. I like to nibble on them all day, but that's because I'm part bovine.

If you're looking for a pickle press (and you should be) they carry a couple of different types on Amazon.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cooking Middle Eastern in Cambodia, Part 2

Finally, a follow up to my post Cooking Middle Eastern in Cambodia.

I spent a week earlier this month cooking from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. My overall rating is that it's a really wonderful cookbook and surprisingly, it's not too hard to get the necessary ingredients to cook Middle Eastern food in Cambodia. The time of great suffering is over, perhaps it's time to move to Laos.

Yogurtlu Basti: This Turkish dish, chicken with spiced yogurt, was fantastic. Very simple, delicately spiced with cardamom and ginger and easy to make. I'd make this again. This would probably impress people if I was willing to have people over for dinner (but I'm not).

Chicken with almonds and honey: This Moroccan dish, djaj bel loz, was my least favorite of all of the dishes I tried to make. I was really unclear what the texture was supposed to be like, or how finely ground the almonds should be. The recipe says "coarsely ground" and I think I, not being a stickler for details, left them coarsely chopped. The chicken was stewed and then baked and by the end was quite tough. I wouldn't bother with this one again, although I did like the exotic combination of cinnamon, honey, saffron, almonds and rose water (I made my own with dried rose petals). I didn't get a snap of this one.

Spicy shrimp: Another Moroccan dish, I let my cooking buddy be in charge of this dish. Because he's a chef, he refused to follow the recipe as I insisted, and instead, threw in what "felt right." I at least won the battle that he could only include ingredients from the original recipe, but he put in a tablespoon of chili instead of a pinch and the whole thing ended up nearly blowing my face off. It was still pretty good.

Moutabal: This typical eggplant dip was a way for me try and re-assess my feelings about tahini, after getting a chiding email from EatingAsia. Basically it's roasted eggplant mixed with tahini to make a dip. I used half the tahini recommended and did not find it offensive. I'll even admit to liking it. Hopefully that will satisfy Robyn. This recipe was easy to make and would be nice again if I had guests, which I won't.

Couscous salad: I never like tabbouleh so I don't know why I made it. I always get annoyed at the crap to couscous ratio. Knowing this, I should have altered the ratio, but like a good little recipe Nazi I didn't. So although this tabbouleh was probably better than any I had eaten before, I was still annoyed by the crap to couscous ratio. The chef thought it was great though.

Tamatem bel Bassal: This very simple tomato salad with onions was a real winner, although it requires decent tomatoes which are not easy to find in Cambodia (expats, try Veggy's on Street 240). I really liked it with the addition of the optional cumin. Nice and vinegary. Yum.

Ghorayebah: Made these butter cookies with hazelnuts because I'm a beast and always want dessert. Luckily, I ran out of butter and so made a quarter of a recipe. They were good but a bit dry, possibly because I shorted the butter. I ignored the suggestion of the chef in attendance who said I should chop the hazelnuts and mix them into the batter. In retrospect, I should have respected his chefness because they would have been better that way. Nice with a cup of tea, anyway.

Pita bread: my pita bread did not turn out perfect, but this may because of my limited experience with breads. My first batch was OK, but the second batch left me with a pile of rock hard frisbees.

And so my week of Middle Eastern cooking draws to a close. Next up, Vietnamese.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cooking Middle Eastern in Cambodia

I've just treated myself to a number of new cookbooks, which is always dangerous. Buying more than one cookbook at a time usually means that most are ignored in favor of the most exciting one. So this time, I decided to cook exclusively from each cookbook for a week. Turns out to be a genius plan, anyway, because each cuisine really requires a few staple ingredients, and once you already have them in the fridge, it's easier (and cheaper) to make more recipes, or find recipes that you already have the ingredients for at home. I'm a few days in to my first week of Middle Eastern food, and thought I would post some photos and commentary about The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden.

Of the cookbooks that have already arrived (Burma: Rivers of Flavor, Vietnamese Home Cooking, and The Country Cooking of Greece plus Japanese Farm Food is allegedly on its way), The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (TNBOMEF) is certainly the least inspiring in terms of looks. Clocking in at 513 pages, the book is almost entirely text, with three photography sections that have a few old-fashioned photos of the prepared dishes. David Hagerman this photographer is not. But since my initial grocery shop was done the same day I returned home after two weeks in Sri Lanka (more on that later), I was drawn to TNBOMEF as the least Asian of the bunch.  I don't know anything about Middle Eastern food. Nothing. Allegedly this book covers Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Syria and North Africa. I've been to Turkey a couple of times, but other than that, I'm a total newb, which is sort of exciting for someone as world-weary as myself.

So I went out and bought tahini, yogurt, parsley and mint. The rest is stuff I'd usually have around or can get easily, anyway. Cooking Middle Eastern food in Cambodia is not as easy as you might think, but maybe not as hard as it could be. In the last year or so we've gotten three types of plain yogurt now available in the country (and I even occasionally make it myself). Before that, everything came from Thailand and even the so-called plain stuff had a liberal dose of saccharin and was disgusting. The fact that I was able to find tahini (or tahina as Claudia Roden calls it) was also a shock, thank god for the WTO, eh?

My first recipe was the easiest one that I could find in the book, cucumber salad with mint. Exactly like it sounds, although I left out the orange-blossom water because unsurprisingly I both didn't know what it was and it's not available in Cambodia.

Feeling emboldened, I moved to my next recipe, salatet hummus, or chickpea salad. I substituted curly parsley for flat-leaf parsley because flat-leaf parsley isn't available in Cambodia. One time they had it at Lucky Supermarket in Phnom Penh priced at $7. No one bought it and it has never been seen again. Luckily for me I know a dude in Kandal province who is obsessed with organic farming and he's promised to grow me some flat-leaf parsley seedlings so I can grow it on my balcony, but they aren't big enough to transplant yet. I have sort of mixed feelings about chickpeas--I always want to like them more than I actually do--and while I really liked this recipe, I'm not gagging to make it again.

My next foray into Middle Eastern food was more intense. When I read the description of batoursh, which described it as "ground meat with eggplants and yogurt" it practically begged me to make it. I love yogurt, especially as part of a meal other than breakfast. I used ground beef instead of ground lamb, because the lamb here is imported from Australia, is really expensive and usually looks rotten. I haven't been able to find pine nuts anywhere, so substituted almonds instead. this had a nice effect, actually, of adding more crunch to the dish than it would have had with pine nuts, so it was a happy substitute.

I bought tahini, but wished I hadn't when I got home. First, I should have made it myself. Sesame seeds are dirt cheap here. Second, I don't like it. I haven't had tahini in quantity since college when I remember hating it but eating it to stay in the good graces of the lesbian cult that was trying to commandeer my life. I assumed that me not liking it was no real reflection on tahini itself, but more a dissatisfaction with my life at that time. Actually, turns out I don't really like the stuff. When I make this recipe again--and I will--I'll leave it out. Roden says it's optional anyway, so I guess I'm not the only one that feels ambivalent about it, which is a relief.

The finished Batoursh had a layer of mashed eggplant, a layer of yogurt and a layer of ground beef and nuts. It looked a bit like dog vomit. I added some chopped mint as a garnish and to make the dish slightly more exciting added a sprinkle of zahtar, a spice blend I got from Seasoned Pioneers. It was delicious. Would make again.

Tonight I toyed with the idea of going out for dinner and then decided to stick to my Middle Eastern cookery guns and made tomatoes stuffed with herbed rice. As per ush I had to make some substitutions due to my location in Cambodia and general laziness. Instead of short grain rice I used Cambodian pink rice, which worked really well.  I can't find allspice, so instead of that and the cinnamon, I used a ras-el-hanout blend of spices. It contains galangal, rosebuds, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, nigella, cayenne, allspice, lavender, cinnamon, cassia, coriander, mace, nutmeg and cloves. While I recognize that using this spice blend probably changed the face of this recipe, it did it in a good way because it turned out totally delicious, and for once I didn't even mind the sorry state of Cambodian tomatoes (and sorry it is indeed).

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ramen in the Southern Hemisphere

One of the things I forgot to take into consideration when booking my flight to Australia is the seasons. Crazily, Australia is located in the Southern Hemisphere and as such, has Christmas in summer.

In the dark recesses of my foggy, American memory I recall having heard this before, but my association between August and heat is so strong that I only realized I would be traveling in deep winter weeks after my flight was already booked. (Note that I say flight because I only booked a one-way ticket, at least initially.) 

Once I realized my mistake, I rushed out to buy a pair of jeans and a cardigan. I don't already own these things because I live in the tropical hot-damp ecosystem that is Cambodia. So a few weeks of worry plus a pair of jeans and a cardigan was the sum total of my preparation for winter in Australia. Because really, what more would one need? 

As it turns out, winter is a real season in Australia, despite what their tourist board might prefer you to think. It reminded me of my youth in California, which also has a deceptively cold winter, which most people seem to be in denial about. The vendors in Chinatown always did a brisk trade in tacky San Francisco sweatshirts, sold to shivering tourists who had shown up in t-shirts, expecting Hawaii. 

So on arrival in Australia, I borrowed a coat, stuck a hot water bottle down my shirt and headed out into the frigid night. By the time I got to Melbourne last week I had mentally adjusted to the idea of cold (it's been more than two years since I've felt it, after all) and am now starting to embrace it. 

The best part? It's ramen weather. To be fair, it's always ramen weather in the geography that is my brain, but I certainly enjoy it more when my teeth are chattering and I can't feel my toes. 

I was delighted to find good ramen, finally. We have a couple ramen places in Phnom Penh. One is just okay, and the other is excellent, but completely non-traditional ramen. So I haven't had a good bowl of traditional Japanese ramen in a while and was interested to see how the stuff stacked up in Melbourne.

I went with my old buddy Jenn, who I had met while I was backpacking in Japan on what was basically a month-long ramen binge (I later stayed with her in Vietnam on what was basically a month-long pho binge, but I digress.) This time around, though, Jenn was accompanied by a ravenous toddler, who was also eager to see what the ramen scene was like in Melbourne.

Like everything in Melbourne, the stuff was expensive, but not quite as expensive as I feared. $14 got a set menu with a giant bowl of ramen, 3 gyoza and green tea. I wavered between tonkotsu and miso ramen, and was swayed by Jenn's firm declaration of a preference for the fatty pork bone goodness of tonkotsu, so I ordered the same.

 The broth wasn't as rich as it could have been, but it was still delicious. I appreciated all of the extras in the soup: seaweed, marinated bamboo (menma), seasoned hard-boiled egg, fish cakes, scallions, red pickled ginger and what I think was pickled cabbage. Usually tonkotsu ramen doesn't have all of these toppings involved (some of these are usually used for miso or shoyu ramens instead) but I'm always a fan of more rather than less when it comes to ramen. The ramen noodles were fresh and springy, but could have been slightly more al dente for my liking.

The gyoza were perfect, especially with a little splash of chili oil, and I was pleased with myself for not having to share any of my dumplings with any offspring, like poor Jenn had to.

By the time we left at noon or so (we had an early start), the place was jammed with Australians who seemed just as enthusiastic about ramen as myself and Jenn.

My overall verdict? B+, factoring in non-Japan location. Would eat again.


350 Bourke Street, Melbourne

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

First impressions of Australia

I've long known that Australians were serious about food. Years ago, while consoling me about a terrible breakup I was enduring, my friend Holly made me ricotta hotcakes from Bill Granger's cookbook Bill's Open Kitchen. I promptly recovered from the failed relationship and went out and bought the cookbook. I'd pore over it, open-mouthed, entranced by the practically-Asian recipes and the exotic photos of Sydney Harbor.

This was my first introduction to the cuisine of Australia, which is known for its Asian-Western fusion made with fresh, locally-grown ingredients. I'll admit, I was impressed. Soon after, I decided that I was probably trans-racial (likely Asian trapped in a pale, white girl body) and began to shift the focus my cooking efforts to the East, forgetting about Australian cooking almost entirely. However, I will always fondly remember that cookbook for expanding my horizons to the Southern hemisphere.

In Cambodia, I have had my first contact with Australians en masse. They're lovely people, mostly. But one of my Australian friends spends an awful lot of time making comments that are meant to be interpreted as well-meaning and sincere, but are mainly just jibes about the ignorance and inferiority of Americans. This person also told me that Asian food in Australia is just better than it is in Asia because the ingredients are "better" and "fresher." Not just Asian food, really, but all food. I chafed at this, and it was the beginning of a serious nugget of resentment towards not only Australians but their food as well.

Now that I'm here in Australia, I've managed to keep my grudge against its people at a low simmer and I've fully embraced its food. There's no denying that I've been eating well here; my few days in Sydney left me full of flavors I can only dream about in Cambodia. On my first night we had tasty tapas made with succulent meats and Spanish cheeses and bottles and bottles of relatively cheap wine. Phnom Penh this was not. By the time the bill came, I was almost drunk enough to not notice that it was nearly the price of my monthly apartment rental.

The next night we went to a Japanese restaurant chain, Wagaya, with more than 200 seats and a half hour wait even with a reservation. That may sound horrifying -- and in some ways it was -- but they were serving the freshest sashimi I've had outside of Japan, at prices that were almost reasonable by Australian standards. Plus, they have a BYO policy, which is hard to argue with.

Even on our touristy ferry trip to Manly, I was greeted on shore with a delicious roast beef sandwich that puts stringy Cambodian beef to shame. I don't know if Australia considers itself to have a sandwich culture, but I had another great one today in Melbourne. And the beer! They've got great beer that even my unrefined beer-palate can sense.

Last night, though, I ate at a Thai-Lao restaurant, and while it was delicious, I was pleased to see that contrary to what my so-called Australian friend in Phnom Penh had assured me, it was neither better or fresher than what you'd find in Thailand or Laos.

But then today, as I was browsing at a bookstore in Melbourne I came across a couple of Bill Granger's cookbooks. As an adult, they aren't quite as entrancing as they were back then (apparently he's a big time celebrity chef in these parts) but I'm still tempted to buy one so I can go home and cook like an Australian.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Noodles, salads and Burma


It's the hip new thing to go to Burma/Myanmar these days. Luckily, I managed to go in November moments before the hordes descended, giving me the right to yawn and say, "Oh, Burma is so over," whenever anyone mentions wanting to visit the country.
In Rangoon/Yangon the big, touristy market is called Scott Market (by the British) and Bogyoke Aung San Market (by the Burmese). There, on the east side of the market near a Molly Fabric sign, was a girl selling noodles and salads.

We immediately noticed her because despite the touristy nature of the market, local women were lining up, chomping at the bit to taste her wares. She had a dozen ingredients, with which she could make seemingly endless variations of noodles and salads.

We started by pointing to what the woman next to us was having, and we gestured that we wanted one too. The perfectly balanced noodle salad, khauk swe thoke, made my knees weak with delight. It's made with wheat noodles, shredded cucumbers and cabbage, cilantro, garlic, chili, peanut oil, fish sauce and lime juice and has just the right combination of hot, sour, salty and sweet. 

By the time we finished hoovering the khauk swe thoke, we realized that the noodle seller, a girl in her early twenties, was not a one-trick pony. We stood there for a few minutes as middle-aged women in longyis crushed us, trying to get their orders in. It was clear from the giant bowl of ingredients the girl carried that once she ran out, she was done for the day.

So as quickly as we could, we ordered two more dishes, pointing wildly at what the women near us had, while they tittered under the breath, presumably at how uncouth we were. We had another noodle dish that I think was similar to nan gyi thoke, but with thinner rice noodles and chickpea flour. Our final meal (by this point the girl thought we were insane) was a cabbage salad served with crumbled, fried chickpea fritters and thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves. 

The girl was clearly a culinary genius, each dish was delicious, hearty enough to be a good afternoon snack, without the heaviness that many associate with Burmese cuisine. I vowed then and there to learn to make all of these dishes myself, and unsurprisingly, I haven't yet.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Larval dinner in Laos

One of the less pleasant aspects of getting older is being confronted with one's own inadequacies. As young people, we believe that we're invincible, that we can eat anything. As it turns out, we can eat anything, but we'll then spend months of our lives blogging about how sick we've been.

I've been meaning to post these photos (taken by my BFF, Frances) of my birthday dinner in Luang Prabang for more than a month. But then I realized that there'd be no way of posting these pictures without telling the whole gory story--I'm a stickler for honesty, after all. And then I reviewed my posts of the last few months and realized that all I ever write about  here is getting sick, which led me to the horrible realization that I don't have the stomach of steel that I like to pretend that I do.

Anyway, soon after arriving in Laos I got sick. Like, staying in bed for three days sick and being miserable the whole time and not being able to leave the cruddy hotel sick.  But then it was my birthday, and Frances had booked an amazing set dinner at Tamarind restaurant, with the menu that had been recommended by Robyn at EatingAsia. Another friend had just arrived that day and even though I wanted to crawl into a sewer pipe and die, I thought that I would go to dinner if for no other reason than to try and look tough and not let these wonderful ladies down.

So on unsteady legs, I toddled off to the restaurant, looking forward to the first solid food I had eaten in 48 hours. Until I realized that we had pre-ordered an entire meal--course after course--of insects. I'll admit that I was surprised. Robyn has claimed in the past to not be much of a fan of bugs. Maybe she just meant in her house and not on her plate, I don't know. I suppose I should have been tipped off that the menu was called the "adventure set."

But as most know, I'm not one to let a plate of terrifying food get in the way of my good time, so I knocked back a couple of glasses of lao-lao, the Laotian local rice wine, and started in on the ant larvae (which were surprisingly delicious).

By the time we moved on to the baby frogs eaten whole, the fermented fish, the honeybees and the snake soup, I was pretty pleased with myself. The only time my stomach turned was when I saw my friend Cissy tear the face off a 3 inch long black beetle and throw it into her gaping maw, but another few shots of lao-lao and even that was a distant, and not unpleasant memory. My satisfaction was so extreme, in fact, that when I was presented with a plate of giant, golden moth larvae, I jammed one in my mouth, ignoring the taste of rotten innards that had the look and consistency of scrambled eggs. The whole meal managed to disappear into a lao-lao haze that seemed to somehow steady my sickness-shaken legs.

That night I woke up at 3am, stumbled to the bathroom and puked the whole thing up, baby frogs and all. Nonetheless, a delicious and adventurous dinner, although perhaps one best eaten on a settled stomach.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Asia's ten greatest street food cities

So here's what I spent most of November and December working on. 9,000 words about 100 street foods in Penang, Taipei, Bangkok, Fukuoka, Hanoi, Singapore, Seoul, Xi'an, Manila and Phnom Penh.
Read more: Asia's 10 greatest street food cities |

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is it or isn't it? Ribs on Kien Svay

I know a group of guys who go on a journey to visit Restaurant 522, in Kien Svay, Kandal province every now and again. The rickety restaurant is built on stilts; it sits on, and threatens to fall in to, the Mekong river. The restaurant is reached by a ramshackle boat that's loaded up with a cooler full of various local beers to be consumed during the journey: Anchor, Angkor, Cambodia, Klang. It's a lovely thirty minute ride from Phnom Penh during which one watches the murky brown Tonle Sap give way to the dirty blue waters of the Mekong. After declining a few invitations, I finally decided to go. My reason for avoiding the place for so long? It's allegedly a brothel.

I've got no beef with sex workers, but after more than a year-and-a-half in Cambodia, I've realized that I don't want to be there when my male friends are sampling the merchandise. But they assured me that Restaurant 522 was no longer a brothel, or wasn't really a brothel, or was only sort-of a brothel, and that their mango salad was the best I was going to get in Cambodia.

And frankly, I was willing to put up with what could potentially be a very awkward afternoon for the sake of trying this amazing mango salad and what I was even more interested in: their ribs. Cambodian ribs are a wonderful thing, one of my favorite things to eat in the Kingdom of Wonder.

I've never prepared Cambodian ribs (or any other kind of ribs for that matter) so I can't tell you exactly how they do it. I've had different variations here that are made with honey, ginger, fish sauce, Kampot pepper and sometimes, black tea. My current favorite variation is served at 54 Langeach Sros (pictured above) and has a bit of a kick to it. Whenever I go I always order two plates at a time, because I know that no matter how many so-called flexitarians are at the table, they'll be gobbled down in a matter of moments. There's a deep-fried option, but I always go with the grilled ones (healthier, like). One of my favorite bai sach chrouk places also serves ribs--they may be cooked in a garbage can but taste like heaven.

Anyway, it was these promises of amazing ribs and mango salad and a terrible hangover that couldn't be endured on my own that goaded me into a trip to a brothel with ten men. I did receive assurances that the men were going solely for the ribs and mango salad and that I was certain to have a wonderful and completely non-sexy time. After spending more than a few evenings in local hostess bars, though, I've realized that men have only a dim idea of the sort of things that women find threatening, and that despite their assurances, it's usually not very fun. Despite this, and possibly because of my determination to have a good time, I managed to enjoy myself and my lunch.  

Was this place even still a brothel? I don't know. There were a number of bedrooms there, which was suspicious. The waitresses were flirtatious and did their best to completely ignore my existence, forcing me to serve my own drinks while my male companions were tended to like heroes returning from war.

But the ribs, which were slightly sweet, were delicious,the stir-fried lotus rootlet (said to increase virility) was outstanding and the mango salad was pretty freaking good, although maybe a bit too sour for my Westernized palate. Could a brothel really have excellent ribs? Was this really a brothel? Does it even matter?The jury's still out.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

On having, and not having, worms

I was at a party recently--the type I've only just started to be invited to--filled with long-term Cambodia expats. There are a few touchstones for expats, topics that we can discuss with each other that people in the real world would shudder at. Tropical diseases are one such topic, bowel movements, another.

So at this party when a friend of mine launched into a detailed conversation about her gastrointestinal complaints and self-diagnosis of dysentery, I only half-listened. Until she started talking about deworming tablets.

My ears perked up, deworming, you say? What for?

 Her immediate response was, "You mean you haven't taken them before?"

 Me: "No."

 Her: "Oh man, you're supposed to take them every six months..."

 Everyone listening agreed that having been in Cambodia for a year and a half, plus backpacking for a year before that eating street food all over Asia and South America, meant that I most definitely had worms and that they were probably huge by now.

 My first order of business was to check in with my other expat friends around Asia. As it turns out, they've all had worms. Really big ones, sometimes.

 Unhappily, I set off for the drugstore the next day and picked up a box of deworming pills--festooned with photos of all of the worm types it would kill on the outside--which I left on my desk as a reminder of what was probably infesting my gut. I got an extra box as a Secret Santa gift for a guy I had only met once, figuring that he probably needed them as badly as I did.

 For some reason, though, I didn't want to take the pills. Did I really need to kill these worms that weren't bothering me? What if they helped with weight loss? What if they were the closest I'd ever get to a real, long-term relationship?

 It was that final thought and my unending fear of commitment that eventually convinced me to take the pills and kill the worms, to much fanfare. It required me not to drink for 24 hours, which I spent soberly ruminating about the state of my intestines.

 Once one takes the pills, the worms die and evacuate. So I peered into the toilet, hoping to catch a glimpse of these foreign invaders--my punishment for a carefree life and street food gluttony.

 And you know what? No worms.

 Despite my gutter-eating ways, the eight bouts of food poisoning I've had in the last two years due to eating rancid food and the fact that I only wash my hands about once a week, the worms found me inhospitable. And I'm sort of proud of that.