I like food blogs. I like writing one and I certainly love reading other people’s food blogs. One of my favorite is “Bitten“, written by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. He’s kind of a no-nonsense cook, doesn’t worry about incredibly fancy preparation but instead focuses on health and flavor.
Here are three recipes I found in his blog recently and prepared at home. Click on pictures for a larger version.
The first was for a Curried Cauliflower Flatbread. Quite easy to make, this unleavened bread cooks in a skillet (perfect chance to test out that recently restored and reseasoned cast iron skillet!) and makes a very tasty appetizer. It does look a little plain when finished – some roasted peppers, hummus, a sauce or something would perk up the color – but it is tasty!
The second dish was an unusual pairing of lentils and rhubarb in an Indian Spiced Lentil and Rhubarb Stew. Yes, rhubarb in a savory dish. Sadly, I may have overcooked this as the lentils were a mushy mess. My bad as I was on a conference call while finishing it. And I think using chicken stock instead of water would have made the flavor more robust. Interesting concept, but I’m not sold on it yet.
Finally, for dessert I made a Chocolate Semolina Pudding from a recipe in Bittman’s new book, “Food Matters”. Ostensibly somewhere between a pudding and a cake, my version turned out kind of dry, maybe because the whole milk yogurt here in Thailand has a different consistency from that in the US. The texture was good, though: semolina flour gives it a little “toothier” consistency. Will have to play around with this and see what I can make of it.
You know, I like a good scare story as much as the next guy, but the headlines in the news today are unconscionable:
“US deaths likely from swine flu” “CDC predicts US fatalities” “Swine flu claims first US victim”
People: turn off your cable TV, please. Each year, an average of 36,000 Americans die from influenza. For more than a dozen weeks in the winter of 2007-8 the rate of influenza infection was at epidemic proportions. And yet we don’t see these banner headlines each Autumn.
Let’s get a sense of perspective here. Yes, the CDC is being cautious. That’s their job. Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the CDC, pointed out in an interview on the Today show that he does not believe the flu has become more dangerous and that even with the seasonal flu, there are some people who are more susceptible to it. But that note of caution, reason and common sense got drowned out by the drumbeats of sensationalism.
Some days when I have a few minutes, I browse the Xanga Blogrings to which I’m subscribed. These groups, which are meant to allow people with similar interests to more easily connect and find each others’ blogs, include things like “Bloggers Born Between 1965 and 1979”, “Foreign Films Buffs” and “I’m Addicted to NPR”.
What I don’t understand – what absolutely baffles me – is why some people who have subscribed to these blogrings would have Friends Lock enabled. This prevents someone who isn’t already their “friend” from seeing their site.
What’s the purpose of subscribing to the Blogring if you aren’t interested in connecting with other people with similar interests?
I don’t get it…
Tawn and I had lunch at S&P Restaurant Sunday. I enjoyed the traditional hot season treat, khao chae. This is a dish of rice served in jasmine-scented iced water along with a plate of seasonal treats: shredded dried pork, shrimp paste balls, a poblano chili stuffed with a pork mixture and wrapped in thin slices of scrambled egg, and other nice things. This “palace cuisine” is only served during the hottest months of the year and is a real treat.
Friday evening I tagged along with Tawn as he met some of his university classmates for dinner. This group all studied abroad and are very “worldly” in terms of being willing to try new things and broaden their tastes in music, food, art, and the like.
That said, we returned to our Thai roots for dinner, choosing a restaurant at Central World Plaza called Kum Poon, which features upscale Issan cuisine.
Issan is the northeastern region of Thailand, adjacent to Laos and Cambodia. Poorer than the rest of the country, Issan is viewed by other Thais much in the same way that the southern United States is viewed by other Americans.
While people from Issan are sometimes stereotyped as being lazy or backwards, the truth is that many aspects of Thai culture, including food and music, trace their roots to this region. Not all, of course, but many.
The restaurant is very pleasant with subdued lighting, two large artificial trees, and bamboo poles lining the walls. The effect of the spot lights filtering through the leaves is one of eating outdoors in the moonlight. Service is reasonably attentive and very friendly.
Issan cooking is often classified into a few main categories:
The first category has two types of salad, tam and yum. Tam means “to pound” and the salad is made by putting the ingredients in a large mortar and pounding them with a wooden pestle. Most common is the som tam, a salad of shredded green papaya that is pounded with other ingredients Yum means “to mix”, so the ingredients are just mixed in a large bowl. Certain seasonings regularly appear in these salads: lime juice, fish sauce, tiny dried shrimps, palm sugar, chilies, and sometimes tamarind paste.
The second category is laab (sometimes written “larb”), a dish made of cooked ground meat (often pork) that has shallots, ground toasted rice, lime juice and fish sauce.
The third category is yang – grilled meats. These are often served with sticky rice, khao nieaw, a highly glutinous form of rice that can seem a little undercooked to someone who has never tried it before.
Okay, now that you’ve had your introduction to Issan food, let’s take a look at the many dishes we enjoyed. My new “gorilla” tripod came in handy.
For starters, Issan food comes with plenty of fresh greens as condiments. You eat these both for the textural contrast with the dishes, as well as for the cooling aspect against the sometimes fierce chilies. Cabbage, green beans and basil are standards along with some other greens you may not have ever tried.
Laab Gai Yang – Mixed two categories of Issan cuisine, this laab dish is made with gai yang – grilled chicken – resulting in two great tastes in a single dish. Notice the little specs: this is the ground, toasted rice. Adding a nutty flavor and a little crunch, uncooked rice is toasted in a pan and then ground before being added to the dish.
Gai Yang Khao Nieaw Tod – Grilled chicken served with deep-fried sticky rice balls. I’m not certain that deep-fried sticky rice is traditional or not – I think it may be a bit of an improvisation on the chef’s part – but these are so tasty. The chicken is moist and smoky.
Som Tam Kai Kem – A typical tam (pounded salad) made with shredded green papaya (tastes tart like a Granny Smith apple but not so sweet), tomatoes, and salty boiled eggs. The eggs are interesting because they are soaked in a brine for about a month before being boiled. Some dried shrimp are added for texture.
Laab Plaa Duke – This laab style dish, usually made with ground pork, is instead made from grilled, shredded catfish. It has lots of shallots and mint in it and, as you can see from the chilies, has a bit of heat, too.
Laab Hed – For you almost vegetarians, this laab is made with a variety of mushroom types and lots of shallots. The only thing keeping it from being vegetarian is the fish sauce, which adds the saltiness to almost every dish.
Tam Mamuang – Instead of being made with green papaya, this version of tam is made with green mango, which has a slightly more astringent flavor and a crisper crunch. Fresh shrimp are added along with the dried shrimp for more of a “sea” flavor.
Yum Woon Sen with Sai Grawk Issan – Yum style salad with cellophane noodles, mushrooms and sai grawk issan – Issan style pork sausage.
Kor Moo Yang – Grilled pork neck, thinly sliced and served with a spicy dipping sauce. This can be a tough cut but when cooked properly, the connective tissue melts away, making the meat even more flavorful.
Tam Sua – This tam is mixed with a type of mildly fermented rice noodles called kanom jiin. When eaten cold by themselves, you can taste a slight tanginess to the noodles.
As you can see, we ate quite a bit of food for just five of us. Even at a “upscale” restaurant like this one, the prices were still very reasonable. We walked out having only spent about US$10 per person.
Left to right: Ko, Fluck, Pat and Tawn in front of the restaurant.
For dessert, we stopped by iBerry for some ice cream and brownies. Hardly authentically Thai but tasty nonetheless!
Here is an advertisement from Banco Provincia in Argentina that features a prejudiced old man and a transgendered woman. The bank’s tag line: “Your life changes when there is a bank disposed to change.” Initially, I was doubtful, but concluded that there may not even be an ounce of cynical manipulation. Watch the ad and see what you think.
One interesting note: the man uses the female formal form addressing her.
Somewhere along the way of moving to Thailand, my trusty cast iron skillet turned rusty. That is a shame, because I really like cooking with it. However, I adapted to not having it in my repertoire of pots and pans. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking that there’s no point in letting it return to the elements. With my induction stove, I really should be using quality pans like this one.
This weekend, after reading up about cast iron restoration methods on the internet, I set aside some time Saturday morning to rescue my pan from oxidation oblivion.
The process proved surprisingly simple. Had I known how simple it was, I wouldn’t have waited so long.
I started with the metal scouring pad and scoured the surface of the pan to remove most of the rust particles. This only took a few minutes and would have been even easier if I had also used some sandpaper.
After wiping the particles into the trash, I heated the pan for a few minutes with two tablespoons of vegetable oil. I then added enough coarse salt to make a paste, scouring with the metal pad to remove more of the rust and to scour down to a smooth surface.
Next step was to wipe the pan with paper towels until the towels no longer stained brown. This took a lot of paper towels, but eventually they came out clean. I did one last wipe with a damp paper towel to make sure no salt residue was in the pan, then popped it into the oven for just a few minutes.
Below: Tawn captures the look of extreme concentration on my face while I scour.
After a few minutes drying in the oven, I added another tablespoon of oil and, using paper towels, spread it in a thin, even film all over the surface and sides of the pan.
I then returned the pan to the oven (at about 300 F) upside down and let it bake for an hour, until the oil “set” on the pan. From here on out, it is no soapy water to clean this pan. Wipe it out with paper towels, use a little salt if scouring is needed, and then apply another thin film of oil. Over time, it will become a strongly seasoned pan that should be nearly as nonstick as anything at the store.
Most Sunday mornings I go out for a ride. There are exceptions – especially during rainy season – but I really enjoy the opportunity to explore other areas of the city and, when possible, leave the concrete jungle altogether in search of the real one.
Sometimes I’m joined by someone else. Markus and I used to ride regularly. Then his travel schedule for work got busy. Then he and Tam packed up and moved to Germany. Since then, Stuart and I have ridden several times. Sadly he and Piyawat are packing up for Phuket. My biking partners keep leaving! Maybe I’m pushing them too hard?
In any case, one thing that strikes me when I get outside the main part of the city is how much wildlife there is. Not just the mangy soi dogs that nip at my heels (I’m thinking I should buy some pepper spray) and not just the cows, water buffalo, horses and pigs I see in some of the small family farms. I’m talking real wildlife, especially birds. This could be an Audobon Member’s paradise.
Above, some males have a little squabble.
It is pretty difficult, even with a 10x optical zoom, to get very close. The birds notice when I stop at the road sdie and shyly move away.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, there is a 4-km stretch of road out near the airport that is popular with cyclists. It was built as part of a very ambitious plan to connect the eastern suburbs with the city. It is three lanes in each direction with wide shoulders. The problem is, it just peters out and never actually goes anywhere.
So the road is closed to all except local traffic and since it is an agricultural area still, there isn’t much of that. This makes it the perfect place to ride.
Well, last Sunday I did some exploring to the north and west of the road, riding through some neighborhoods, running into several dead ends, until I managed to come across another section of the road that I didn’t know existed.
In the distance, this stretch of the road connects to a frontage road along the Outer Ring Expressway. The cars you see are doing driver training, using the closed road to practice driving.
The funny thing about this stretch is, unlike the stretch to the east that successfully bridges two khlongs (canals), we can see where the funds ran out on this one:
The road rises up an embankment and then stops short, with not much in the way of barriers! If you continued directly ahead about 1 km, you would connect with the stretch of road that I regularly ride.
Here’s a map showing the two segments. It was taken before construction on the westernmost segment was complete. Oops – I guess it still isn’t complete, huh?
On the way back today, I explored a new route and discovered that Thanon On Nut (On Nut Road), which connects to Sukhumvit at the end of the Skytrain line, actually goes all the way out to the new airport. Some 16 kms!
Riding back along this road, I spotted another bird:
What an interesting contrast of modernity and tradition, huh?
We returned to the Big Mango to discover not only the aftermath of political mayhem, but also (maybe related?) the height of hot season. To the point of the “riots” and “chaos” that was widely reported, I want to assure you that things were not nearly as anarchic as they were represented in the media. Give a cameraman a burning bus and they’ll tell you the whole world is coming to an end.
That said, there continues to be political instability, but nothing that should prevent you from coming for a visit!
Hot season is the real issue here. The Royal Thai Meteorological Department announced that April 27th should be the hottest day of our year, since that is when the sun is directly overhead Thailand. However, because of a high pressure system moving in and some expected rain, they thought that the 24th would actually be the hottest day.
Sure enough, it topped out at 37 C / 99 F with about 45% humidity. Relatively dry, actually. What kills us is that it doesn’t cool down at all during the night (28 C / 82 F) and that it lasts so long. This past year, Bangkok had 115 days with temperatures over 35 C.
Let me be clear: I’m not complaining. I’m just using this to set up an entry about summer foods!
When the weather is warm the best thing is to do as little cooking as possible, at least cooking that heats the kitchen. Salads and fruit dishes are great choices. A few days after our return we had a nice lunch on our porch, ceiling fan whirring away and the warm breeze pushing the palm fronds back and forth.
On the menu, a large chef’s salad with cumin chicken breasts, ham, cheese, eggs and all sorts of veggies, served with a wonderful buttermilk dressing. A side dish of old-fashioned potato salad and a plate of fresh buttermilk biscuits rounded things out, washing it down with a few glasses of a dry rose from France.
The Thais say that nature gives us the right fruits at the right times. During hot season, we’re dying for very sweet, very watery fruits, so that is when we get the plumpest lychees, the juiciest watermelons, and the tastiest mangoes. I know that Zakiah misses the mangoes of her childhood India and I’m trying to eat as many as I can on her behalf.
The favorite way to eat mangoes is the dish, Sticky Rice and Mango. This very glutinous rice is soaked overnight then steamed in a bamboo basket that looks like a large ice cream cone. It is then seasoned with some coconut milk and served with a drizzle of salty coconut cream, a sprinkling of toasted mung bean seeds, and a freshly cut mango.
Wanting to shake things up a little, a did a play on this traditional dish by making a cardamom and coconut milk rice pudding based on a recipe from the NY Times. You make a creme by scalding regular milk and coconut milk and letting cardamom pods and lime jest rest in it for several hours. Then it is reheated with sugar and cooked rice (I used sushi rice for the texture) until it forms a pudding. Add a little freshly-grated nutmeg and some vanilla and then cool.
Served with fresh mango and a squeeze of lime, it is the perfect sweet treat to end a summer’s evening!
I told you we were done with Tokyo and, yet, we’re not. After checking in at the airport, Tawn and I took the train back one stop to the town of Narita. Longer-term readers may recall that we did this during an 8-hour layover in Tokyo in March 2007. For those of you who haven’t been reading that long, here’s a brief account:
Narita is the town where Tokyo’s main international airport is located. It is an hour by train northeast of the city, has a very old and beautiful temple, and is known for its unagi – grilled eel.
Taking the local train from the airport back to Narita, I remembered to take a picture of the daily news headlines posted in the train car. You don’t need to be able to read Japanese to tell that sex sells!
Narita isn’t a very large town, maybe 100,000 people, and its agricultural roots are still visible, although much of the town now supports the nearby airport industries, including the many hotels where overseas aircrew spend their one- or two-night layovers.
The walk from either of the train stations to the temple is only about ten minutes, following a cute street lined with little shops selling all sorts of trinkets and souvenirs. Just in the last two years, we’ve noticed a lot of change on this street, though, with several older buildings and mom-and-pop shops demolished in favor of newer, more generic stores, restaurants and bars.
Right across from the tourist information office is a small grilled eel restaurant. The kitchen faces the street and you can look in and watch the chefs grill the skewers of fresh eel.
You order and pay at the front counter, receiving little paper tickets. Then take a seat at a table (or in the traditional seating area on tatami mats, at the back of the restaurant). A few minutes later, tender, sweet and crispy unagi comes your way!
I’ve said it before and will say it again: if you have about six hours between flights at Tokyo Narita Airport, it is worth your effort to go through immigration and take the train into Narita Town.
After our return to the airport, Tawn did a little browsing in the shops and I went up to the observation deck. Japanese airports still have observation decks that are open to the public, which I think is a great thing. (Being an aviation enthusiast and all…)
A Japan Airlines 747 touches down on the main runway, the same one that the FedEx MD-11 crashed on a few weeks ago. I wasn’t able to spot any signs of that accident. In the foreground is a Korean Airlines 777.
With Delta Airlines’ recent acquisition of Northwest Airlines, they have been quick to repaint the Northwest fleet, at least the planes flying internationally. Now you are able to see something that didn’t exist just a few months ago: a Delta 747 and A330.
Beautiful new area in Terminal 1. While Narita doesn’t have all the amenities of Singapore Changi Airport, it is a more beautiful airport.
Since we had cashed in a few remaining miles to fly business class, we stopped by the All Nippon Airways lounge. If you are flying Star Alliance through Tokyo, don’t bother with the United Airlines lounge – go straight to ANA’s as it is much nicer.
With shower facilities and a good selection of food and beverage – not to mention an excellent view of the airfield – the ANA lounge was a nice place to relax before boarding the flight home.
Our friend Masakazu, whom we had joined for shabu-shabu and sukiyaki a few nights earlier, had emailed several of his friends who were working the flight back to Bangkok. The upside of this was that we received very friendly and attentive service on the way back home, including a complimentary bottle of wine to slip into our bag just before arrival!
After a full week in Tokyo, we work up at 3:00 am Thursday to check one last thing off our list: a visit to the Tsukiji Market, also known as the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market. Pronounced “tskii-jii”, this is the largest fish market in the world, doing some US$28 million of business each day.
The guidebooks all say that that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has placed restrictions on what tourists can access at the market, after crowds caused concerns about sanitation and got in the way of the market workers. That, combined with my perception that a wholesale fish market isn’t a place I want to be wandering around on my own, aimlessly, prompted me to search out guided tour options.
Several reviews on the web sang the praises of Naoto Nakamura, a former market middleman who now gives tours three mornings a week. While pricey at 7500 yen per person (about US$75), he limits his groups to no more than six and adjusts his tours each time based on the conditions of each day.
This, I was certain, would be a good way to learn about the market from someone with first-hand experience.
My certainty was well-founded as the tour turned out to be every bit as insightful and informative as I could have hoped for. Nakamura-san’s English was excellent and his sense of humor very dry. We met our other two tour members, a pair of women (one who was half-Thai) visiting from the US.
The underlying subtext for the morning was a cat-and-mouse game. Outsiders (non-employees) are not allowed in many areas of the market, especially on the auction floors around the seafood. White-booted Tokyo Municipal Government inspectors were about and the captain of the market, Nakamura-san’s nemesis, kept appearing around corners and down hallways, so we would climb stairs, duck out side doors and do everything we could to avoid a confrontation.
We started our tour in the fresh fish area, observing an auction and taking a look at the huge variety (more than 400 types!) of seafood for sale at Tsukiji. The fish arrives between about 6pm and midnight and is arranged by the vendors for inspection. By 3 am the middlemen start poking around, looking at the seafood and evaluating it. These days a lot of the sales are pre-negotiated, so auctions play a smaller role.
We then went to the fresh tuna warehouse, where these 70 kg (150 lbs) fish lay in neat rows, being inspected by middlemen, notches in the side allowing a clear view of the quality – and fattiness – of their flesh.
This is the key area that visitors are no longer allowed. So this picture was actually taken crouching down looking under a rolling door that was open about two feet high. The things I’ll do to get my shot.
We attended the auctions for fresh fish, live fish and sea urchins, marching away through the busy market, dodging electric carts that would silently creep up on you.
It was obvious that the market workers don’t really enjoy having tourists in their way, so it took a lot of concentration to keep out of trouble. I was amazed when, later in the morning, I saw tourists on their own, dragging children as young as about five around. Dangerous and inconsiderate of the people working here.
The frozen tuna auction is by far the most interesting, at least visually. These frosted fish look surreal, lined up with frozen mist rising around them like smoke. We had just a few minutes at the rolling door before it was closed on us, so we headed to the live fish auction.
Nakamura-san was able to get us up close for the live fish auction, above. This moves very fast as there are two auctions going on at the same time. Nearby, we saw workers pulling live fish from tanks based on the auction results, bashing them on the head with a knife, slitting their tail so the blood would drain out, then ramming a steel rod through their mouth and down their spinal nerve, killing them. Not quite so gruesome as it sounds, but definitely gives you an appreciation for the food you eat.
At the live tuna auction, the market’s captain caught up with us and gave Nakamura-san a lecture. Afterwards, he said, “At least he’s calling me ‘Nakamura-san’ now instead of the nasty names he used to use.”
The auctions run from about 4:30-5:30, one after another. Even before the last fish is sold, middlemen start carrying their purchases off to their stalls, where they prepare the fish for sale. This is the last step in the transformation from whole fish to retail-ready cuts.
Recognize this fish? It is whale meat. The two rows on the right are from smaller whales but the back row is from whatever large-size whales Greenpeace tries to intervene in the hunt of.
Nakamura-san provided some perspective on why the Japanese are resistant to international pressure to end whaling. After World War II, the whaling industry we re-established in Japan to help with severe food shortages. For many baby boomers, whale meat was one of their main sources of protein during their childhood years. To this day, it has strong resonance with the population even if its consumption has sharply declined.
Watching the middlemen do their work was fascinating. Knife skills are a beautiful art and this balding man in the picture below really was an artist. Using a knife longer than a samurai’s sword, it took four men to carefully quarter a large fresh tuna.
The middlemen who bought frozen tuna had an easier time of it, using band saws to cut through the flesh.
By 5:45 or so, many tourists had shown up, most guiding themselves and trying to edge in on our tour for free. While they did get a peek at the tuna auction, I can’t imagine that they walked away with much of an understanding of the whole market. For that reason, I’m glad we did the tour.
By shortly after 6:00, Nakamura-san had shown us all we needed to see. He pointed out a few good sushi restaurants, took our money and thanked us. Since we were already there and we knew the sushi would be fresh, Tawn and I queued up to eat the best sushi we’ve ever had.
There are two restaurants in alley 6 of the “auxiliary market” (where the vendors that serve the needs of the market workers are located), both of which get quite a queue out their front doors. These are are the two most highly recommended sushi bars.
Here’s what we ate. Sorry that I can’t identify what everything was.
Something very fatty (toro?) and squid
Ebi (Shrimp) and Maguro (Blue Fin tuna)
Uni – sea urchin with scrambled egg
Tuna and Ikura (Salmon Roe) Nigiri (seaweed-wrapped sushi); and I think Grilled Saba (Mackerel) and Hamachi (Yellow Tail tuna). But I’m not certain.
Total cost for the set including rice, soup and tea: 3500 yen, about US$35. Pricey, but really good. This is one of the few times I was willing to really splurge.
Again, I can’t say enough good things about the tour. If you’re going to Tokyo and are interested in the tour of the market, you can find Nakamura-san’s website here.
Here’s a video of our trip to the market:
After “breakfast” we returned to the hotel for a few more hours of sleep, then packed our bags and headed to Narita Airport for the flight home. And with that, eight days in Japan came to an end.