February 2009 Archives

 

We were lucky enough to visit Chiang Mai on a Sunday, and unaware of the market that fills the old city's streets on that evening, we were surprised to find it sprouting beneath our feet as we went out for a late afternoon walk. Streets closed and slowly filled with squat tables spread with goods, while rows of massage chairs and musicians appeared at every corner. Next came the people, a steady stream until, by the time it was dark, it was too crowded to move any faster than a shuffle. As a result, I hardly can say what Chiang Mai looked like aside from the back of other people's heads, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

And with a market comes food. Every temple courtyard, and Chiang Mai has many temples, was lined with stalls selling noodles, curries and other dishes, and scattered on the streets were vendors with candy, ice cream, snacks, and even fried insects. A wide variety of insects in fact, from little worms and grubs to gigantic grasshoppers. Well, you can guess, I am sure... I had to try them.

The little bamboo worms were crisp nothings, flossy and ephemeral and tasting mainly of the salt they were seasoned with. The variety of little crickets and grasshoppers consisted entirely of crunch, and their taste varied from nutty to mushroomy, with some of the larger grasshoppers even tasting like fresh grass. Little grubs were on the mushy side, but surprisingly not in a gross way - sort of like soft, savory jelly beans. This big guy was the blandest of the bunch, mildly nutty, and a little too much chewing, actually - the crispness of insects isn't like that of a cracker or chip, because they never soften: they just keep breaking under your teeth until you chew them into bits too small to crunch. This sensation is enjoyable on a small scale, but once you have your entire mouth full of bug, it's a lot of work to get it all down to a swallowable consistency!

Bugs weren't the only thing on offer, though. We also enjoyed gummy candy in mild flavors of sesame, coconut, tamarind, strawberry and coffee, soda popsicles made in a giant vat of ice, little fruit-shape candies of bland paste coated in colored gell, unidentified deep fried bits, thai-tea-flavored ice cream, sticky rice with taro, and crisp tuille cookies.

From Chiang Mai we took a bus up into the hills to Pai, along a road winding and woozy enough to make me grateful for every time our driver veered into the opposite lane to straighten a curve. Backpackers are lured to Pai by the promise of trekking through the wilds to hill tribe villages, but they stay there because of the long, lazy afternoons in hammocks and the longer nights around bonfires at outdoor bars.

Naturally Pai has its share of cooking courses, along with classes in Thai massage and astral projection. Greg decided to join me this time, and we picked a class called Let's Wok with Tee. Tee turned out to be a very chill and approachable fellow, and the day was a lot more like hanging out and cooking with your friends than a class - although we both learned plenty! We each got to pick three dishes to make, but we talked about, and got recipes for, a lot more than that, so I feel like I really have a solid foundation in Thai curries and stir-fries now, even though it seemed like we spent most of our time chatting. In fact, we had so much fun with Tee and his dog, Ginger, that we made a circuit of all those laid-back bonfire bars together after finishing our delicious six-course dinner. The next morning we did eventually make it out to do some sightseeing, but we had to follow Tee's favorite piece of advice: "Easy! Easy! Take a break!"

Two of my favorite Thai dishes were everywhere in both Chiang Mai and Pai. One is an old favorite: khao soi, a rich and slightly sweet chicken curry over noodles, usually with crisp fried noodles and other toppings. (In the first version below, the chef had run out of the fried noodles to put on top.) Another is a new favorite: sour sausage. This is a pork sausage that is very literally sour, varying from a hint of acid to a full on puckers-worth. We saw it mostly in salads, with green and white onions, chilis, sometimes with eggs or peanuts, sometimes hot, sometimes cold. The sausage is soured by fermentation, but more than that I do not know... hopefully I can track down a recipe when I get home.

 

We've seen street food vendors in every town and city on this trip, but Bangkok feels like the very beating heart of street cooking. Seemingly every third block, in every kind of neighborhood, from the upscale mall blocks to the grotty tourist run, is lined with carts, and stands are constantly blooming and vanishing throughout the day as waves of commuters and shoppers flow and ebb. Underneath the gleaming wats, outside the gates of the extravagant palace, at the doors to the metro and outside the boxing arenas, the smell of spice, oil and grilled meat wafts. In other ways, for all the beautiful temples, bustling markets, and cultural activities, or perhaps because of them, Bangkok felt like Big City, Anywhere, The World - but in this, at least for me, it seems its own.

Every kind of meal can be found on wheels. Most popular seem to be fried and grilled snacks on skewers, including meatballs, sausages, meats, spring rolls, and grilled rice patties. Then there are the fruit and drink vendors, with fresh and sliced fruits, smoothies, teas and shakes. There are entire meals to be had from carts I could fit in my backpack. Sometimes there is a stool to prop yourself on while you eat, but often their noodles, soups and curries are dispensed in plastic bags that look unerringly like bags of goldfish bought at a fair. There are a myriad of other choices: crepes, black jelly in syrup, ice cream, eggs, toasted nuts, and the list goes on into infinity.

There are so many options, you need a field guide to sort them all out. Luckily, one exists: Thai Hawker Food not only describes a large percentage of the carts and the foods you can get at them, it also includes drawings of the dishes and the names in Thai script, so you can resort to pointing at it if other methods of communication are not so smooth. I wish I had a book like this for every country we were visiting! Thanks to my friend Naomi, who once lived in Thailand, for giving me the heads-up on this, and lots of other Thai travel and eating tips.

Some of the highlights of our grazing the many street carts of Bangkok were boiled quail eggs tucked into wonton wrappers and fried; green fruits, sour enough to make my eyelids twitch, served with packets of sugar, chili, salt and sometimes tiny dried shrimp; and little rice-skinned dumplings filled with nut paste made on a little steamer right before you, then sprinkled with dried garlic. We had some lovely noodles and curries as well, and buckets of Thai iced tea, but nothing in that vein that we haven't seen perfectly done in American Thai restaurants as well.

Bangkok is so saturated with street-food culture that even some of the mall food courts are designed with a series of stations, each counter making one sort of dish, exactly as you would find it on the sidewalk outside. The mall court has the advantage of English signage and plenty of seating, and the food in the one we visited far surpassed my expectations, so I would definitely recommend it to anyone intimidated by street food, or as a warm-up for the real thing. We had a soup that struck me as an Asian menudo: the broth thick with gelatin, rich with five-spice, and stocked with liver, tripe and onion, as well as fried noodles topped with pork and veggies in a thick gravy and a green papaya salad.

 

The temple complexes outside Siem Reap, including legendary Angkor Wat itself, are peppered with souvinir stands and persistent children selling bracelets, cold drinks, t-shirts, scarves, and books. If your explorations of the breathtaking temples, with their intricate bas-reliefs, and the seemingly endless maze of moats, galleries and courtyards, leave you hungry, (and if you are brave enough, and good enough at saying no, to walk past the hawkers' stalls) you can find little restaurants in amongst them, most offering an identical menu of fried rice, noodle soup, and curry. Similar stands, minus the cloud of hawkers, are found in the tourist area of town - the short plastic chairs and tiny tables, packed tightly under tarps and lit with strung-up light bulbs, are a cozy place to slurp down some stir-fried noodles, and they're just down the block from the fancier bars and restaurants offering the same menu for prices five times as high.

The highlight of these little restaurants' identical menus may well be amok, or Khmer fish curry, a distinctive dish of steamed fish in coconut curry served with rice. The amok is flavored with a spice paste called kroeung, unique to Cambodia, that can include lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, and wide variety of other spices and herbs, depending on the dish - my details are hazy on this: can anyone recommend a good Cambodian cookbook? The amok was good in every place we ate it, with its rich coconut, tender fish, and bright lemony overtones overshadowing the relatively pedestrian fried rices and noodles we ordered alongside.

Another local specialty that can be found near the temples is palm sugar, which is made on open-air stoves along some of the roadways. The big steaming black bowl and bamboo tubes of palm sap are easily recognizable from the seat of a tuk-tuk (a sort of motorcycle-rickshaw - the most common tourist conveyance here). The sap is squeezed from the flowers of the palm (the sugar, or Palmyra, palm in this case, I believe, although it can also be made from sago or coconut palm sap), and then cooked down until it is ready to be stirred and then placed in little palm-leaf forms, or another container, to harden. Above, in clockwise order, are the male and female palm flowers (which are normally squeezed for their sap without being removed from the tree, so that they may bear fruit), the watery palm sap, the cooked sugar being stirred, and the awaiting leaf forms. The resulting disks have a texture similar to maple sugar candy, and taste like toasted brown sugar with a hint of leafy tartness. We also got to try a spoonful of the hot syrup, which hardened, without the stirring, into a clear amber, becoming carmelly and chewy as it cooled.

 

Following the well-tread steps of the tourist trail, we headed to Hoi An, a town that seems to hold as many foreign visitors as lanterns... and it has a lot of lanterns. It's not hard to see why the crowds flock to Hoi An, though, and only part of it is its reputation for inexpensive overnight tailoring. In the evenings when the tailor shops close and the constant brum brum brums of the motorbikes die down, the old town is lit with lanterns, and the yellow walls, wood panels, and green palms glow with charm from every corner. Hoi An is also close to the beautiful and sadly damaged ruins of My Son, which we visited, and the beach, which we unfortunately did not.

Hoi An is famed for a few local dishes, including cao lầu (above), shrimp dumplings called white roses, and mì quảng noodles. Cao lầu isn't cao lầu unless it is made with water from the local well, but I wouldn't mind adapting this dish of rice noodles, veggies, meat and fried rice croutons for my kitchen, well-water or not. We sampled each of these dishes multiple times, and enjoyed them every time, but especially at Truc Vien restaurant, where we also had some awesome fried wontons. Who knew that stir-fried veggie topping was what was missing from fried wontons?! We had several dishes in Hoi An that followed the same principle of something crisp topped with something flavorful, generally with toasted rice sheets studded with sesame providing the crisp, and either a stir-fry or a dressed salad providing the flavor.

Speaking of salads, we've had some good ones in Vietnam, including several that have demystified the banana flower for me. The banana flower salad that I attempted back in May is looking a little bit like a joke compared to ones I've now eaten and made, although the recipe is still technically correct, I suppose. Check out these examples:

The key is shredding, rather than just chopping, the banana flower, and marinating, well before use, it in a vinegar-based dressing to cut the sap and enhance the crispness of the shredded flower. In the markets, the flower is often sold pre-shredded and marinated.

I also took a cooking class in Hoi An, at the well-known Red Bridge Cooking School. The deluxe course included a trip to a local farming village that is incentivized by the government to continue traditional and organic farming methods, where we saw a huge variety of herbs and vegetables growing, and a stop at a small market to pick up a few ingredients. While we've seen a lot of markets at this point, I still learn something new each time I enter one, especially if it's with a teacher. This time I picked up a couple new kinds of produce, and this dessert: sweetened lentil paste. It tastes exactly like it sounds, but somehow much better than you would expect. Maybe I have acquired a taste for bean-based desserts.

The class itself covered making rice noodles, phở, the salad above on the right, and several other dishes, all in an open-air cooking pavilion that would put most of the resorts I've seen to shame (ok, I'm not a resort-frequenter, but still!) Our teacher was charming and helpful, too. I can't help but join the throngs that already recommend this school.

From Hoi An, we moved on to Saigon. Saigon reminded me a little of LA, low-slung and unabashed, with its moments of beauty made all the more wonderful by being hard-fought from the pavement, heat and bustle. Saigon was good place to wrap up our experience with Vietnamese cuisine, and we were able to try a few things we had missed up to that point (although it would take years to truly sample all the deliciousness that the country has to offer.)

One of the things we finally got around to trying in Saigon was the Vietnamese sweet soup, chè. Chè can be made with almost infinite variations, and the one above has, if I remember correctly, mung bean, peanut, flour noodles and coconut milk. While this is one of the Vietnamese dishes that is perhaps farthest from the American palate, which doesn't usually favor dessert soups, doesn't prize exotic textures, and rarely admires the bean as a sweet, I think it is more accessible than it sounds. The rich coconut milk and smooth but firm bean bits are really very satisfying. If you like bubble tea, this is the next step. Also on the sweet side of things, Greg pointed out that the sodas in Vietnam are the best we've had anywhere. The coke seems gingerier, the Lipton is lime-flavored (don't be convinced by the word "lemon" on the can - around here that means lime) and not overly sweet, and the Mirinda Sarsi is sarsaparilla on steroids.

What about the phở? As I mentioned, I had been noticing some variations in the pho as we traveled, and while four cities is hardly enough to define a trend, I am pretty sure that I can at least say that most of the phở I've had in the US comes from southern Vietnam (not surprising, I suppose!) Until we got to Saigon, I only saw phở with "regular" cuts of beef, like tenderloin. Most pho restaurants I've seen in the US offer đặc biệt, or "special" phở, which features cuts like tendon, brisket and tripe, and this version was readily available in Saigon. Another difference was with the toppings, which seemed to grow more varied as we moved south, with some exceptions. Toppings we saw included Thai and regular basil, Vietnamese mint, sawtooth coriander, mint, raw onion, green onion, chilies, pickled shallots, garlic and chilies, and fried shallots. The final variation was the broth, which was simply different at every restaurant, with no clear regional trends. Nevertheless, the broth is the heart of the phở. The perfect phở for me includes a gigantic pile of herbs, raw onion, soft beef tendon and tripe, and a dollop of hot sauce, but all these accessories are nothing without a rich, deep beef broth for their bright flavors and chewy textures to play against. Some of the best broths were at Truc Vien and Red Bridge - both were rich and beefy, without being overly salty,with the latter incorporating a variety of spices.

 

Sapa is a town high in the mountains in the northwest of Vietnam, just over the border from China. It is very popular with tourists, since, like Yuanyang, it is surrounded by beautiful terraced fields studded with traditional ethnic minority villages, but unlike Yuanyang, it is also full of hotels, shops, cafes, and English- and French-speaking guides.

Which means, unfortunately, a lot of mediocre Western and westernized Vietnamese food. Oh, not everything we ate here was disappointing, of course, but most of the restaurants along the main drag were less than impressive. One of the best things we ate was actually a snack some bored restaurant-workers were making for themselves - since we were the only patrons, they shared it with us as well - a fried patty of glutinous rice with a bit of taro (I think?) in the center. Sounds simple, but the chewy-crisp circles were irresistible.

We also took a tour through some local farms and villages, where we saw rice, peanuts, taro, potatoes, and indigo growing, and shared a cup of tea and some snacks with a local family. Our host brought a parade of treats - sweet crispy rice cakes made with fried rice and sugar-cane syrup, steamed glutinous rice buns stuffed with egg and pork, and leafy-tasting Vietnamese tea - out of the kitchen, where over the fireplace, a pig that had been slaughtered for the lunar new year was curing.

From Sapa we moved on to Hanoi. Arriving early in the morning, we refreshed ourselves with some Vietnamese coffee - the finely-ground and packed coffee is brewed in individual drip contraptions that sit over your glass, and with the addition of condensed milk and ice is more like a dessert than a drink. After some sightseeing, we made a pilgrimage to a phở (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) restaurant recommended by our guidebook. I've started to notice a lot of variations in the phởs we've had, but maybe that speculation is best saved for another entry.

Unfortunately, on our first day in Hanoi, I came down with a pretty bad sore throat. The second and last day in Hanoi was spent mostly in the hotel room, watching the Discovery Channel and napping. Greg ventured out a little, but mainly to buy food. In the evening, on the way to our overnight train, we stopped at the well-known Chả Cá Lã Vọng, a restaurant that serves only one dish: chả cá, or grilled fish. A pan full of cooked and seasoned fish is brought to your table on a brazier, along with dishes of fresh vegetables for you to add to the pan, and herbs, peanuts, noodles and chili sauce for you to combine with the fish in your bowl. Bright with turmeric, and glistening with oil, the delicious fish chunks are really brought to life by the accompaniment of the bright herbal flavors - as is the case with so much of Vietnamese food.

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UPDATE: The mystery goo in the last entry has been identified. We went to a supermarket and it was right on the shelf: instant lotus-root starch, available in plain and rose flavors.

Greg and I spent most of our time over the past few days simply moving, feeding and resting ourselves: bus stations, ticket booths, misunderstandings, scams, and long, uncomfortable rides were the defining feature of Yunnan for us. This should not reflect poorly on Yunnan, as all of our hassles were of our own making. Simply by deciding to visit a less-touristed area, we sentenced ourselves to the hard labor of navigating unfamiliar systems and dealing with the consequences.

Traveling in an area where you don't speak the language is an exercise in trust, and the farther you get from the systematic workings of the city - metros with automated ticket stations, trains with timetables - the more true that becomes. You are at the mercy of your guidebook, any English-speakers that happen along, and whatever number the ticket-seller writes down. It is wonderful that almost all the time, people are patient and honest - they put up with your terrible attempts at communication with a smile and don't charge you extra for their bother. And it only takes one asshole to fill you with gratitude for those masses of goodhearted people, and truly appreciate each positive encounter.

This is not to say that transportation completely distracted us from traveling. We may not have done as much sightseeing as we could have, but we fully enjoyed getting to know both Kunming and Yuanyang. I've heard Kunming refered to as "the Seattle of China," and while we only spent one night there, the comparison seems apt. Almost everywhere we went in Kunming felt like a good place to relax with a cup of tea. And so we did. The local specialty is pu'er, a (usually) fermented broad leaf tea. I am far from a tea connoisseur, but I plunked down for a respectible cup from a nice tea shop, and found it to be pleasantly mild and earthy.

Kunming is known for "crossing-the-bridge" noodles, which we tried at a well-loved local chain called Brothers Jiang. The dish came in about 40 different plates and bowls: hot broth, meats, vegetables, egg, pickles, chili, tofu, noodles, and seasonings. I'm still not sure what everything was, but I dumped it all into my broth and it was delicious.

Chicken stews with herbs and hotpots are everywhere in Kunming, and the ones that we tried were solid but unsurprising. One regional dish with an unexpected twist is thin pieces of fried cheese, sprinkled with sugar. It wasn't bad - in fact, the cheese itself was excellent, with a strong cow's milk flavor - but I can't say I'll be trying to recreate it at home. We also tried a fried fermented tofu, which was good the same way a strong cheese is - very rich and stinky, too much so to eat an entire plate.

From Kunming we took an overnight bus to Yuanyang, a smaller city to the south. Yuanyang county is known for its beautiful rice terraces and its relatively large population of ethnic minority peoples. Unfortunately, a thick bank of fog moved in for most of our stay in Yuanyang, and we spent half our time trying to figure out how the buses to the Vietnamese border worked anyways.

Luckily, there is one thing that the language barrier has never stopped me from figuring out, and that is noodle soup and roadside stands. Pointing to order is easy when the food is being made in front of you, and there is no better way to express your thanks than to visibly enjoy the meal. Here's a stall where we had some exemplary noodle soup, full of herbs and bubbling hot:

 

Greg and I have spent the last few days in Guilin and Yangshuo, in Guangxi Province, areas popular with Chinese tourists and backpackers alike for their impressive limestone karst peaks and views of the Li River. Both towns are beset by roadside hawkers and souvenir shops, but Yuangshuo, despite its higher concentration of tourists (and therefore tourist-traps), is the more pleasant of the two. The center of town is a maze of shops and bars that make for enjoyable evening strolling amongst the jovial crowds, but escape to quiet rural roads and spectacular scenery is just a quick bike ride away. Guilin is much larger and its sights, while beautiful, run a little like theme parks, with large regimented tour groups and entry fees.

Culinarily, Guilin is known for rice noodles and for restaurants with their ingredients caged outside their entryways. According to Wikipedia, it is also the source of a famous local rice wine, or baijiu, a local chili sauce, and pickled tofu, although the rice wine is the only one of those we sampled- it's very sweet and fairly strong, and I liked it enough to buy some samples to take home. We tried the rice noodles with horsemeat for breakfast, after arriving in Guilin on the overnight train, and they were quite good as well, although the meat was (unsurprisingly) a little tough.

Both in Guilin and Yangshuo, river snails are found in many restaurants and markets. In Guilin, I resorted to drawing a little picture of a shell to order a dish of the snails, which taste and feel a little like clams. Later, after a cruise down the river took us to Yangshuo, we had them stuffed with pork and mint. At that same meal in Yangshuo, we had what might be my favorite dish so far: fried duck tongues. They were crisp on the outside and tender and fatty on the inside, and they were served with a little dish of curry flavoring for dipping.

Another new treat we found in Yangshuo was this goopy colorless jelly (I know, could I make it sound more appetizing?) that I could not identify completely- the only translation for its name that I could get was "porridge." But the light, floral flavor and the photos on the stands selling it (recognizable from afar by their large, steaming dragon-headed pots) lead me to think that it is related to lotuses. It is served with chopped nuts and raisins on top, which were fine, but I preferred the taste of the goop alone.

In Yangshuo I also took my first cooking class of the trip, at the Yangshuo Cooking School. The class began with a trip to the market, a huge series of warehouses with just about every fresh ingredient you could want, from live chickens and butchered dogs, to tofu and lettuce stalks. In the class we cooked five delicious dishes, including another local specialty, fish cooked in beer. Although the dishes were not complicated, I think the class certainly improved my wok skills. Plus we got to enjoy the fruits of our labors on a courtyard overlooking the Li River.

As always, more photos are up on Flickr.

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