March 2009 Archives

 

From Fukuoka, we headed into the mountains, and spring turned back to a chilly drizzle. In Takayama, the sun, breaking through the clouds, left the blacks and whites of the Meiji-era buildings sharp and gleaming, their contrast heightened by their clean, rainy dampness. From the homey temple rooms where we slept on heated futons on the tatami floor, to the thick thatching of the historic farmers' houses in the folk village, and even to the eerie, gilded Sukyo Mahikari Main World Shrine that looms, out of scale, over the outskirts of town, Takayama is a showcase of architectural clues to lifestyles past and present.

Takayama is also a showcase of regional delicacies. In Japan, every town has its specialties, and the more tourists there are, the more specialities there will be to sample on the walk from the hotel or tour bus to the sights. In Takayama, the specialities were all about the grill: grilled mochi dumplings, grilled rice crackers, grilled miso, and grilled Hida beef (from locally raised cows, second only to Kobe beef in fame). Mitarashi dango, above, are glutinous rice balls, grilled and coated with a thick soy-based sauce. While you can find them all over Japan, especially now during hanami season, Takayama boasted an especially large number of streetside windows offering the sweet and toasty treats. The grilling gives the smooth, chewy rice a nice nutty flavor, and browns and firms the coating of sauce.

These grilled rice crackers, similar to mitarashi dango in taste but not texture, reminded me of ones we had in Vietnam, although they are somewhat thicker, and are dipped in a thick, sweet, soy sauce while grilling. The cracker came apart in great crumbling mouthfuls, the exterior held together by the shiny layer of sauce, while the interior flakes apart with a crunch.

Grilled miso on a magnolia leaf is another local dish, usually involving mushrooms, green onions and other vegetables mixed with sweet, rich miso paste and cooked over a brazier at the table. Its warmth and heartiness make it perfect for a drizzly day.

The famous Hida beef we ate grilled and also raw, and while we chose cheaper cuts, it was all delectably marbled. The firm flesh of the cheek provided such a contrast to the tender, meltingly juicy ribs, in taste and texture, that I really wish we could have tried a wider range of cuts. The cheek was beefier and nuttier in flavor, while the ribs were sweeter and developed nice crisp corners on the grill.

Nozawa Onsen is a ski and hot spring resort where we stopped for some late-season snowboarding. While a couple of our fellow boarders found themselves bouncing over cabbages and mud puddles at the bottom of the slopes, the upper half was still blanketed in a thick layer of snow, and the gentle March sun made for very comfortable conditions. The Japanese alps sport a thick, picturesque forest, and are dotted with the otherworldly serow, making it one of the most beautiful places I've seen for winter sports. You can tell we had a good time by the fact that this is the only photo I took, and it hardly does even the less beautiful parts of Nozawa justice. Unfortunately, this means I failed to document what might have been the best post-snowboarding meal ever, a group dinner organized by our hostel at a local restaurant, and featuring sukiyaki with sides of tempura, sushi, beer and sake. Gochisosama!

 

Our first stop in Japan was Fukuoka, a pleasant city that felt very bright and clean in the early-spring warmth. Fukuoka may sound more familiar to some if I mention that what is today Fukuoka was once two cities: Fukuoka and Hakata. It was an appropriate place for us to begin our tastings of Japanese food, as the fame of hakata ramen has spread even to the US.

We ate at two ramen headliners, starting with Ippudo Ramen, a longtime Fukuoka chain that recently opened a branch in New York. While I haven't eaten at the NYC branch yet, I am now extra-curious to try it, because this ramen was easily the best I've ever had, with an incredible intense pork flavor and barely al dente noodles. Yet the next day we indulged in a second ramen feast that easily matched the first, at Ichiran Ramen. While Ippudo has a regular menu, at Ichiran you first buy your soup ticket from a vending machine outside, and then fill out a form indicating your preferences, starting with the strenth of the broth and the tenderness of the noodles, and going right down to the amount of garlic and green onion. You eat your ramen in a tiny cubicle at the bar, each of which is outfitted with a water tap, a button to call the waiter, and a little curtain out from under which your order emerges.

Less famous but equally delicious was the motsunabe, or beef intestine stew, that we sampled at a restaurant near our hostel. The little tubular sections of intestine were tender and fatty on the inside, and chewy and flavorful without, a little like extremely tasty rubber bands. Cooked at the table in hotpot style, the motsu and mixed vegetables gave the light broth a glistening beefy goodness, and for the second time that day we polished the bottoms of our bowls. Greg declaired it a "happy broth day to us," and we walked back to our hostel in a warm-bellied haze.

We also took a side trip to Dazaifu, a small city outside of Fukuoka that is home to several lovely shrines and a nice museum. Greg and I perhaps enjoyed it most for the pleasant everyday atmosphere between the train station and the sightseeing quarter. We walked through quiet residential neighborhoods and small commercial districts, crossing the paths with teenagers in their kendo gear and afternoon dog walkers, and down alleys lined with little market stalls and impromptu craft galleries and thrift stores.

The specialty food of Dazaifu, umegae mochi, is inescapable, with the blocks leading up to the shrine boasting probably a dozen little windows feeding out a steady stream of these little plum-themed rice cakes. Filled with red bean paste, the cakes are cooked in metal molds, some of which are mechanized and some of which are filled and turned by hand. The result, at least for these mechanically-turned ones that we tried, is crisp, gooey, and sweet. They were served with a hot plum drink, salty and tart, that provided a strong contrast with the thick and earthily sweet bean paste. The pinks, reds and whites of the treat brought the colors of the spring blossoms that were beginning to appear across Dazaifu, down into the hand.

 

We chose to visit Jeonju because it is home to some of the few remaining traditional-style Korean inns (certainly some the very few that accept online reservations.) The traditional inns are part of Jeonju's folk village, a historical district of the otherwise modern city, where some genuinely old buildings have been joined by new construction in the traditional hanok style, and museums and craft workshops showcase the arts of the area.

The main feature of the inn we selected, more notable than its traditional construction, futon beds, heated floors, humorous name, or charming appearance, was the remarkable breakfast. Served in bell-like metal bowls, and eaten with matching chopsticks (in Korea, metal chopsticks are the norm), the musical ringing of the dishes was like a symphony of banchan, as dish after dish appeared: tofu kimchi stew, fried fish, seaweed soup, rice, tea, and of course, many kimchis. If I understood the signage, which was illustrated with smiling napa cabbages, the kimchis were made in the inns' numerous kimchi jars, and you could buy it by the kilo to take home.

For other meals in Jeonju, we continued to enjoy the ease and bounty of hanjeongsik meals, but we also savored a much simpler meal of perfectly-steamed dumplings, full of pork, cabbage, and warming black pepper. They were very reviving after a morning of drizzly sightseeing.

From Jeonju we went to Busan, in order to catch the ferry to Japan. I understand that you can get incredible fresh raw seafood in Busan, but unfortunately, most of our day was taken up by dealing with an unexpected change in the ferry schedule, so we didn't manage to be in the right place at the right time for the seafood - sorry, Busan, next time! What we did manage to try were these adorable little pastries, made of glutinous barley, and flavored with things like cinnamon, chestnut, and green tea. Some of them looked better than they tasted, but not by much.

 

From Denpassar, we took a red eye flight to Seoul. (You know that you've been traveling a long time when a red eye seems like a good night's sleep.) Going straight from Bali to Seoul was a refreshing shock. Every sensation seemed calculatedly opposite those of Bali: the chill in the air, the crisply dressed subway-riders, the stark, geometrical beauty of palace eaves rising against branching pines, and the clear awking of magpies.

The change in cuisine is appropriately dramatic. To warm the belly against the brisk wind, Korean cuisine prepares an arsenal: spicy kimchi stews and rich bone broths, the comforting caramelized corners of grilled red meat, steaming hot dumplings and pillowy rice cooked with beans and grains, and, of course, a veritable pantheon of pickles.

There was not a single meal in Korea served without at least one kind of kimchi, and I think the average (I wish I had counted) hovered around seven. It is to celebrate that delightful fact that Greg and I made the trek to the Kimchi Field Museum, a small but informative place that is oddly located in the basement of a gigantic underground mall.

The huge jars in the photo are where kimchi is made, and every Korean household traditionally had an outdoor terrace for these containers. The containers could also be buried, covered with hay, or water-cooled to keep them at the right temperature for the fermenting pickles. The museum illustrates the history and process of making kimchi, as well as the huge variety of kimchis - a kiosk in the museum provided recipes for 70 different kinds, from elaborate "blossoms" fashioned out of cut radishes wrapped with cabbage leaves, to knotted green onions pickled with fermented fish. We later were able to identify a number of these varieties at restaurants.

Usually kimchi comes as part of the banchan, which are the side dishes that come with almost every meal (and a huge part of what makes Korean food so awesome.) Apparently the government has tried (and failed) to curtail the deployment of banchan because it encourages food waste. But I don't see why - in the five days we were in Korea, we left only a few mouthfuls of uneaten banchan in our wake.

Related to banchan is the hanjeongsik, or Korean banquet. Many restaurants serve this fixed-price, many-coursed meal, and it is very handy for foreigners, because you get a little bit of everything and you only need to learn a few syllables of Korean to read it on the menu. The hanjeongsik that we tried ranged from homestyle cooking and presentation to elaborately plated amuse-bouches, and included dishes like fried whole fish, tofu kimchi soup, rice porridge, and meats in hot stone pots, as well as huge numbers of banchan.

Only slightly less easy for the foreigner is Korean barbecue. The general procedure is to cook the meat on the grill at your table, cut it into bitesized pieces, and wrap it, and any accompaniments of your choice, in lettuce (or shiso leaf, or glutinous rice sheet, or whatever is provided), then pop it in your mouth, and then wash it down with soju. We sampled beef and pork ribs, as well as both raw and lightly smoked pork belly, and every slice was succulent, marbled and indulgent.

While we ate a lot of hanjeongsik and barbecue in Seoul, we also had occasion for some between-meal snacks. The most common street food were these boiled fishcake skewers. There were literally six restaurants serving them on the block next to our hostel, and after walking down the block a couple times the aromatic steam and glimmering bowls of dipping sauce became impossible to resist. You can get several kinds of fish cake served this way, as well as glutinous rice sticks. Glutinous rice sticks are also sold toasted on little grills, and have a crisp, smoky exterior and a delightfully chewy interior.

In between visiting two of Seoul's beautiful palaces, we were lured by an incredible heavenly smell, to a stall selling these little cakes. Made in molds, similar to stuffed pancakes we've seen in China and Singapore, these little cakes had a fluffy, moist crumb, a crisp crust, and a filling of bean paste with perfectly tempered sweetness - the treat as a whole was reminiscent of a truly excellent churro, with red bean paste in the role of a surprise guest star. Another dessert, although with slightly less balanced flavors, were these packets of sweetened almond paste wrapped in sugar floss. While they had a delightful, delicate texture that disintegrated into chewiness, they were incredibly sweet, and we found ourselves incapable of seconds.

 
  
 

Bali is lush. The rustling waves of emerald rice fields are crested with frothing fronds of palm, and the stones of the temples are hidden by thick green moss. Everywhere are brilliant blue bumbling flies the size of your thumb, darners of glittering vermilion, and butterflies in velvety black and neon green: even the air is full of fluttering, darting life.

In Bali we stayed in Ubud, which is inland, surrounded by hills and rice fields. It's an artsy, newagey town: you can spend the afternoons drinking wheatgrass while perusing a photocopied version of The Omnivore's Dilemma, attend a cultural performance every night, and leave loaded down with every kind of art, from canvases to batik.

Like elsewhere in Indonesia, the most common take-out dish is nasi campur, or rice with side dishes. On a bemo across the island, we ate rice with spicy pulled chicken, coconutty green beans, and crunchy tempeh. It was simple and wholesome, portable in its paper to-go cup, and went perfectly with sweet Indonesian tea, which you can buy bottled as Teh Botol, conveniently setting up all sorts of lolcats jokes.

Dutch colonists took the simple everyday Indonesian meal and transformed it into an feast for wealthy landlords and official occasions: rijstaffel, or rice table. This dish expands on the traditional rice-centered meal by drawing on foods from all over Indonesia, as well as Dutch favorites. The resulting feast can consist of 40 or more dishes. We tried a small version of this feast in a restaurant, but aside from the number of dishes, it did not equal some of the plainer nasi campur dishes we had. In fact, with the exception of my cooking class, as a rule, the less we paid for a dish, the better it was.

Ubud's specialty is babi guling, or roast suckling pig, and everyone seems to agree that the place to get it is Ibu Oka, a popular warung in the heart of town. A careful selection of juicy meat, crisp skin, and blood sausage is laid on a bed of rice, with a scoop of seasoned vegetables and smothered with a just barely spicy sambal. The pork is tender to the point of melting, the skin crisp, and the sausage rich, making a perfect island feast.

Ubud was also the site of what is most likely my last cooking class for a few weeks, since we head into Korea and Japan next, where prices are sure to rise. This class was particularly interesting to me, as Indonesian cuisine is probably the farthest from my repertoire - of all the cuisines of the countries we're visiting, Cambodian and Indonesian are the only ones I haven't eaten regularly or experimented with at home.

Indonesian, similar to Thai and Cambodian foods, makes extensive use of chili-based paste that can include ginger, galangal, lesser galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallots and a variety of spices. The defining features of the Indonesian paste (or at least the Balinese version) are the addition of candlenut (a bland, oily nut, rather like a macadamia) and fermented shrimp paste, usually roasted. These, and a heavier dose of turmeric, give many Indonesian dishes a toasty, nutty flavor.

Another defining feature of Indonesian cuisine is the sambal, or chili sauce, which comes in infinite variations. It can be cooked or fresh, and can incorporate a wide variety of ingredients. The cooking class covered the general use of spice paste and sambals for making curries, grilling meat and fish, and garnishing, as well as the making of sate, but my favorite dish was a simple seasoned mixed vegetable of the sort we've had it many warungs, called urap. To make it, steamed vegetables are tossed with a mixture of shredded fresh coconut, crisp fried shallots, palm sugar, and chilies. This dish is definitely coming home with me!

 

Perhaps it is fitting that as we travel through Java, visiting the ancient Hindu Prambanan and Buddhist Borobudur, I am reading The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen's account of a trek though the remote Nepalese mountains, and his spiritual experiences there. While balmy Indonesia is not the frozen Himalayas, a healthy zen attitude is a valuable asset for any traveler.

In The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen meets the Lama of the Crystal Monastery, who, because of a terrible case of arthritis, is unlikely to ever leave the remote mountain valley of the monastery. When asked if he is happy there, given that it is unlikely he will ever leave, he exclaims "Of course I am happy here! It's wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!" Matthiessen is struggling with his own desire to sight the elusive snow leopard, even as the other, unexpected, beauties of the Himalayas unfold before him, but after this exchange he concludes: "Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn't that wonderful?"

My posts here notwithstanding, our travels through Asia are not all about food, and it often has to take a backseat to other concerns. Research, especially, is disappointingly limited - often to a few scavenged minutes on the internet and garbled conversations with locals. Truly local restaurants and food areas are usually far away from sightseeing destinations, and can be exhausting to navigate without a shared language. In Jakarta and Yogyakarta, I had to marshal my disappointment at not even having time to seek out the few local specialties that our guidebook mentions. But accepting the moment, and your experience of it, (and letting go of that frenzied metropolitan foodie search that infuses Singapore) makes for a much more fulfilling travel experience.

In gray and busy Jakarta, where we were for only a few waking hours, we were limited to a single meal of chicken and mutton sate with cubes of glutenous rice. It was fine and filling, but awkwardly eaten at a streetside open air table as fat raindrops began to fall. And there was airport food, which I'd rather not discuss, no matter how zen I am feeling.

Jakarta was a stopover on the way to Yogyakarta, which in turn was a base for visits to the mighty ruins of Prambanan and Borobudur, although also an interesting city in its own right. The older areas of Yogyakarta, or Jogja, as it is sometimes more phonetically spelled, are riddled with little alleys called gangs. At first, walking down them made me feel uncomfortable, as these alleys blur the lines between my own categories of public and private life, and peering down the little paths that are practically living rooms, particularly as an obvious tourist, felt distinctly rude. But since there are shops and internet cafes tucked in along them, I ventured on, and was soon the friendly air of the gangs put me at ease.

Stepping out of a bookshop at the sound of a high whistle, I encountered a boisterous and friendly group of locals, who, seeing my curiosity, introduce me to the source of the sound, a small bicycle-mounted cart equipped with an ingenious steam chamber. With a whistle on one side and a series of holes plugged with pegs on the other, the hot steam can be forced out the whistle to announce the cart, or released out the holes to cook the wares. Cooked rice is tamped into bamboo cylinders, then followed by a bit of palm sugar, and topped up with more rice. The bamboo tube is placed over one of the steam vents until the tube of rice is hot and congealed and the sugar melted, then the filling is pushed out onto a waiting leaf and sprinkled with shredded coconut. The resulting confection is simple, but warm, and sweet, but not so sweet to overwhelm the pale flavors of the rice. I enjoyed them so much I forgot to take a photo of the finished product, and spent the rest of our time in Jogja listening for the distinctive whistle, which I never heard again.

Likewise, the next day on the bus to Bali, even as I mourned the lost chance to try Jogja gudeg or nasi brongkos, we pulled into a dining hall and received vouchers for the buffet there. The curry was so ordinary looking, I left my camera in its bag, but as I began to eat, I saw that it was unlike any curry I'd experienced. The curry, rich and yellow with ginger and turmeric, concealed discs of tempeh, whole chicken wings, and chicken giblets from liver to gizzard. An inexpensive cafeteria meal to be sure, but the combination of flavors was unexpected and intensely satisfying. Liver and turmeric blended their earthy flavors with the bright umami tempeh and juicy chicken, while ginger and curry danced across them all. Paired with rice, mild pickles, cabbage soup almost certainly enriched with MSG, and hot, sweet ginger tea, the meal fortified us for the long road ahead. As the bus pulled out of the parking lot to start the second leg of the 20-hour journey, rain started to lash out of the flashing Indonesian sky, and I thought "No, I have not tasted the gudeg! Isn't it wonderful?"

 

Singapore is a city of vibrant jungle greens, crisp colonial pastels, and gleaming silvery consumerism. It is the cleanest, most diverse, most expensive, and most international-feeling place we've been on this trip. It's also the only major city I've ever been to that didn't smell occasionally of garbage, and I found myself thinking "can we send someone from the New York sanitation dept over here to figure this magic out?"

Singapore reminded me exactly of New York in its food culture, however, because Singapore is a place where the best laksa, roti, or chili crab can be found in a little shop just across from a remote subway stop, or at stall 41 in a suburban hawker center, or at a cart that parks on a specific corner in Little India on alternate Tuesdays. There are always rumors to chase down and discoveries to be made, and the best of anything is always just around the corner. That means it is a fantastic foodie city to live in, but a culinary tour in a day and a half is just not possible, even if you could shell out a fortune for cabs and didn't mind missing the fantastic museums. (One of the fantastic museums, by the way, is the National Museum of Singapore, with its Food Gallery, which has to be one of the highlights of the entire trip for me.) The tourist office includes large culinary sections in all its materials and walking tours, and Makansutra prints guides and pamphlets of street vendors, but even with all the information, devotion, and money in the world, it would take months to explore the food scene in Singapore, and I am sure one could spend years and never tire of it. In fact, I think there are more food bloggers in Singapore than pretty much anywhere else. (Sorry I don't have a good round-up, if anyone can suggest one, please do!)

And it is no wonder, because Singapore has been a center of cultural, and therefore culinary, interchange for hundreds of years. As early as the 15th century, Chinese immigrants to the area were creating the foundations of Peranakan culture, a blend of Chinese traditions and Malay influences. Since the founding of the British trading port there in 1824, this interchange has been accelerated and broadened by the powerful draw of commerce, bringing together Malay, Chinese, Indian, Arab, Indonesian and Western influences. The result is a catalog of dishes so long you could spend an afternoon just browsing the Wikipedia listing.

Nevertheless, we made our best try at sampling it, and managed to taste a few Singapore favorites:

At the Maxwell Food Center, which was mostly closed when we visited, we tried some rather fair versions of Laksa, a sour noodle soup of Peranakan descent, and Kway Teow, flat rice noodles in a sweet soy-based sauce with cockles and Chinese sausage.

At the Makansutra food court, charmingly called Gluttons Bay, we sampled Nasi Lemak, a comfort-food dish of coconut rice served with a variety of toppings and accompaniments - this version had fried and stewed chicken, dried anchovies, roasted nuts,egg, sambal and vegetables. Here we also had mee goreng, which simply means fried noodles, and roti prata kaya. Kaya is a coconut-egg jam, and roti prata is a fried pancake of Indian heritage - imagine a thick, tender crepe swaddling a buttery coconut custard.

Half-lost in one of Singapore's many malls, we practically tripped over Din Tai Fung, world-famous dumpling house - I try to find the time to make it out to their Arcadia branch every time I'm in CA, but I haven't yet managed it, so we had to stop in. The soup dumplings were a very solid performance, with an expertly-gauged skin thickness, but simply not the best I've had - they lacked a certain umph. I think I like a more tender skin, even it is prone to breaking, and a thicker, richer broth.

We also tried a couple Singaporean beverages. No, I'm not talking about the Singapore Sling (although Greg did have one of the cough-syrupy concoctions), but teh tarik and teh halia. Tarik means pulled, and the teh, or tea, is poured from one container to another to create a frothy head on the hot, sweet, milky beverage. In teh halia, the tea is strongly flavored with ginger as well as milk and sugar. Another favorite was a green apple and aloe smoothie. Fresh fruit juices are available everywhere in Southeast Asia, but this has been my favorite by far - absolutely refreshing. Sometimes you can get chunks of whole aloe in your beverage, which I actually prefer because of the crisp, clean aloe texture, but this was in the blender before I could say so, and after tasting it, I couldn't complain, because the aloe added such a nice body to the drink.

 

For us, Ko Phi Phi was a little vacation from the more cultural tourism we've generally been practicing. With no historical landmarks or museums, just pure natural beauty, we were happy to give ourselves over to a different kind of sightseeing on Ko Phi Phi. Over the course of our three days there, we took in views of the island from under the crystal blue water, above the jagged limestone cliffs, and, of course, from the hammock of our beach-facing bungalow.

Ko Phi Phi's restaurants have two natural advantages when it comes to pleasing the taste buds. The first is the bounty of fresh seafood that is pulled in from the ocean each day, which can be found on every menu, from the smallest market stall to the giant beachfront resort restaurants, with their longboat-shaped bars full of glistening fish and prawns on ice. The second is the increased appetites of the islands visitors, who are variously: exhausted from the island's recreational activities (which include scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking and rock climbing); refreshed by the fresh heat and ocean breezes; or wrung out with hangovers and sunburns - all conditions that can enhance the perceived deliciousness of almost anything.

In between our alternating bouts of intense activity and pleasant lassitude, we slurped down bowls of seafood curry, plates of rice, dishes of fried squid, and not a few fried bananas. Nothing that exotic crossed our paths, but the curries were rich with lustrous coconut milk, the fish tender and flaky, and the squid was some of the best I've ever had, with just the right degree of elastic resistance to the teeth and a sweet, fresh taste.

After Ko Phi Phi, we spent a night in Phuket Town on our way out of Thailand. We saw exactly one square block of the town, and that mostly closed in the late Sunday evening, but we managed to squeeze in a few tasty finds: more excellent seafood, some fried rice dough, and a variety of classic Thai agar desserts. The desserts are my favorite, because of the interplay and variety of textures. The purple one, for example, is thick and slightly grainy, and it slides cleanly against the teeth. The clear agar is both firmer and more ephemeral, as it breaks and fractures under the bite and then dissolves.

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