Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

Glutton Onboard: Raw deals in Manta

Grilled clams in peanut sauce on the beach

During my three days in Manta, I counted a total of four (!) monuments to the tuna fish, and I am sure that there are even more. This is because Manta, home to the biggest fishing fleet in the world, is said to be the global center for yellowfin tuna, with an estimated 180 processing plants for the fish in this city alone.

One would think that this meant we would be dining on a literal avalanche of the stuff, maybe cooked a la plancha or seared and set atop a mountain of greens a la Nicoise-style. Maybe it would even be served like Japanese tataki, lightly cooked on the outside and cut in thick slices. Of course it would be cubed raw and plonked into a ceviche. But Ecuadorians don’t take to their famous fish that way. If they eat it, they eat it from cans. Instead, they prize other fish for their own tables — milder, white-fleshed, less of the feel of the “office” about them, I suppose.

It’s not just fish — and by extension, shrimp, squid and seasonal crab — that Manta restaurants specialize in, of course. There are tons and tons of plantains: fried into chips, but also smashed, baked or boiled. One of my favorite discoveries was the bolon de verde, named so for its ball shape, made of boiled and mashed green plantain and later baked or fried.

Eaten for breakfast, they are accompanied by a sauce: sometimes peanut, but in our case, a tart little tomato salsa that transformed this plate from stodgy to light and flavorful with just a couple of dabs:

As fresh and juicy as the tomatoes here are, you are far more likely to encounter peanuts; there are 40 varieties in the Manabi province, where Manta is located, alone. This extends to Ecuador’s most famous dish, ceviche, in which the seafood is cooked by curing in a mix of lemon/lemon and salt; the “Jipijapa” style combines peanut paste with avocado, a pairing that is considered the pinnacle of deliciousness.

Given the opportunity to mix my own ceviche, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try peanuts with avocado myself. Cubed fresh local “oyape” fish (and I know I am not spelling that right) was mixed with a combination of lemon juice and salt, then accompanied by decent helpings of squid, octopus and shrimp. They were then added to a bowl already layered with peanut paste, mixed with avocado, onion, slivered green mango and minced cilantro, and topped, if you wanted, with either plantain or sweet potato chips, or julienned, deep-fried white carrot. That was it. That was my ceviche. And it was delicious: the peanuts grounding the acidity of everything else with a little fattiness, actually perfect with seafood.

Besides peanut, there were also possible bases made of mango puree or tomato paste; naturally, I was greedy and asked for a second helping with tomato this time, studded with fresh little cherry tomatoes. They did not, however, let me garnish my ceviche with the powdered roasted peanuts, which was a bridge too far, even for them. That was meant for dessert.

Tomato-based ceviche with cherry tomatoes, no roasted peanut powder

As you may have guessed, the process is always the same — curing the seafood, mixing with the base, adding the accompaniments — and presumably any seafood and tart vegetable or fruit would work. I imagine even yellowfin tuna would be a good addition, if I could have ever found it.

Dessert was a corn custard, accompanied by a strawberry sauce and a single blueberry, another addition I was not allowed to make to my ceviche. It managed to be extremely corny yet extremely sweet, all at the same time.

Out in the wild, beyond the confines of the ship or tour operators, we set out to try Manta’s delicacies on our own. The city is as chock-a-block with cevicherias as it is with free-roaming iguanas, and they all bear signs much like this one:

But one of our guides, David, said that the best cevicherias in the city would not be found via an English-language Google search. Indeed, the one he favored, Costa Rica, was a chore even for him to find on the Internet. I was determined to try it. So when the tour bus dropped us off at the port, we did the 20-minute walk past the fish market, to a seemingly obscure part of town where the restaurant could be found at the top of a very steep flight of stairs.

Unlike the types of ceviche I had learned to make the day before, this ceviche is, I guess, “Costa Rica”-style, meaning the seafood is served in a pool of lime juice and salt. At this cevicheria, there are only three choices: fish, shrimp, or a mix of the two, all served with plantain chips and, if you dared, a splash of the hot chili sauce.

A mix of shrimp and fish ceviche
The crunch element, important to every ceviche

These chilies are not like the Thai kind, sneaky with a slow burn; they announce themselves immediately, forcing me to add a cowardly little dab to my bowl instead of the liberal sprinklings of my husband and father-in-law. Even now, two days later, I am amazed that they are not yet sick.

Now, it’s clear that ceviche is a big deal in a seafood-focused town like Manta. But it’s not the only game in town. The next day, we headed to the main beach (Playa Murcielago), where a strip of seafood spots lines the main walkway, Pattaya-style (Malencon Esenico). Figuring out where to eat was just a game of chance. We chose Alcatraz, the restaurant closest to the beach. When we sat at our table, we were greeted with a plate of fried bananas, accompanied by that self-same roasted peanut powder:

Here, we learned that swordfish is a big deal: grilled, breaded, served with peanut sauce, served with garlic sauce. Also a big deal, in-season crab, so we chose a plate of crab claws doused in garlic butter. Grilled clams, which arrived in a peanut sauce that was not satay-like at all, but light and acidic, refreshing even. Rice with grilled chicken and lentil soup for my seafood-phobic son. And a huge half-portion of grilled mixed seafood, a melange of fresh shrimp, squid, swordfish, white fish, clams (dressed simply in lime juice and diced red onion) and another Costa Rica-style ceviche, crowned with a single grilled prawn. Everything came with rice and mashed fried plantains, alongside dressed piles of lettuce, sliced cucumber, and fresh tomato.

After a few days spent on the ship, mourning my friends and family and my daily routine (and my pillows), it was nice to have a day out with just a few of us, no particular demands to meet, no special requests to accede to (besides my son’s, who always has something when it comes to food). Toddling back to the pier, I felt fortified, if only for the few hours it will take for us to get to Guyaquil.

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Glutton Onboard: Colombian Fruit Basket

A fruit vendor near the Navy Museum in Cartagena

Cartagena is Colombia’s fifth-biggest city, but is its biggest tourist draw. Like Thailand, it has probably seen its fair share of hardships during COVID, if our reception was anything to go by. “Welcome to Cartagena,” shouted one man in the street at our ambling, unwieldy procession as we blocked traffic on a narrow street. “We love you!” Earlier in the day, as we left our enormous tour bus (one of 4 that would leave our ship alone that morning), a police officer bowed to my daughter in what I assume was a well-intentioned gesture of welcome. Tourism is a big deal in Cartagena, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cartagena de Indias, aka the Old Town.

We had only 5 hours to spare in Cartagena, and 4 of it was spent on our tour, so I did not get the chance to sample what I was told was a typical Colombian meal: fried fish, rice, a salad, with a side of fried plantains. I did not even have a chance to snag an arepas rellenas (corn pancake stuffed with meat) or pandebono (cheese bread) from a vendor’s cart. And there were a lot of vendor’s carts. If sheer numbers of vendors were any indicator of how popular a particular item is, then hats would win, hands down. You will never go hatless in Cartagena, if what you are looking for is a hat.

From our port — where we were docked next to a Caribbean Princess ship and where I could imagine the geriatric inhabitants of both cruise lines could clash, West Side Story-style — we fought traffic into town and disembarked at the Naval Museum, where our guide attempted to lead us through a series of exhibits, all confusing because our group was vying with a host of other tour groups with guides attempting to do the same thing. What I gathered was that the English did a lot of bad stuff to Cartagena during the Tudor reigns in the name of Messing Up Spain’s Business. I also found out many pirates and corsairs (what I assume is a high-class pirate) trawled the waters in wait for Spanish ships laden with riches from the New World. The museum helpfully provided an image of one:

Which came first, this or Captain Jack?

We then went for a walk through the charming Old Town, where, just like Bangkok, fueng fah grew in profusion from residential balconies, motorcycle taxis weaved through traffic, and humidity hovered like the spirits left behind as the neighborhood sprouted pricey boutiques and even a Starbucks. Among the beautiful houses boasting carved wooden balconies, however, is a cursed dwelling that housed the Palace of the Inquisition for 200 years. Here, enemies of the Catholic Church were interrogated, during which all either perished or confessed, and were then put to death in a variety of ways. Interrogators came up with several ingenious ways of torment, including a heavy collar that resembles Hellraiser’s face with a hole in it, as well as a contraption named the “Breast Ripper”, reserved for women accused of adultery or of having an abortion. Once a person ultimately confessed to something like witchcraft or being a Protestant or any other heinous crime, they were put to death, usually either by guillotine or by hanging from a scaffold, much like the one built for Mike Pence on January 6. In the 200 years of the operation of the Palace, only 5 people were burned at the stake.

It was heavy stuff, and later in the courtyard as I waited, I saw a profusion of mangos rotting on the ground. There was a tree nearby, where the sweet yellow fruit grew freely. No one ate them except for the ants, I assume because the ground is cursed. But it did get me thinking about fruit, and after leaving that place and encountering a fruit vendor outside, I immediately bought a big bag of it.

Just like in Thailand, you are supposed to haggle when you deal with a vendor. Even though I live there, I am not a good haggler. When the vendor said “10 dollars” for 3 big purple fruit, two pitaya and a yellow globe they called a “dragonfruit”, I balked. A woman munching on mangos next to the cart said that the price wasn’t really that bad. I ended up paying it, only realizing after I crossed the street that the woman also worked there. So there you go.

This was part of my haul:

The “dragonfruit”, I learned later, was more of a passionfruit-like fruit, but with bigger seeds and much, much sweeter. Like, no tartness at all. Later, I learned that this fruit is actually called granadilla.

The pitaya ended up being the dragonfruit, but not like any dragonfruit I’d ever had. When my friend Dwight raved about the dragonfruit in Colombia, I sneered at the thought that dragonfruit could ever be that flavorful. I mean, it’s basically chunky water in Thailand. But the pitaya here is incredibly sweet and juicy, changing everything I ever thought I knew about the fruit.

The last fruit, which resembles a large mangosteen, is actually incredibly sweet inside. While Colombia does have mangosteen (referred to as “mangostino”, according to my friend Joel), I did not see any on offer today. I saw guavas, coconuts and passionfruit galore, but the fruit that seemed most predominant were these big purple globes like big tomatoes. I later learned they are “magelia Colombie”, and they are VERY sweet inside, like Thai santol or zalacca, but EVEN SWEETER.

Needless to say, these fruit are more delicate than they look and leaked juice all over my bag, but — as I eye a veritable mountain of the stuff on the desk by my bed — I’m thinking that it will probably be worth it.

Next stop: Manta, Ecuador.

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Glutton Onboard: Embarking in Miami

Zarzuela de Mariscos (Assorted Seafood) at Versailles Restaurant in Miami

This 6-month cruise ship diary is meant to be a a sort of personal diary, so I’m not sure what the website that takes my posts piecemeal and changes a couple of words to make it look like their own writing will make of it. In any case, today is the day. The day we get on our cruise ship. We spent last night at the Intercontinental, where passengers were given $150 a room to spend at either the buffet dinner they had prepared for us, or on any other property of the hotel’s. Naturally, we spent it at the bar. This morning, we convened in a windowless ballroom for breakfast, and these are my first impressions of my fellow passengers: average age, 75; not so friendly; and no other people of color.

I did not get to see Ocean Drive, or South Beach, or Pitbull, or anything else that Miami is famous for. My afternoon was spent looking for a pair of white walking shoes for my mother-in-law (she chose Skechers, in case you were wondering). But I did get my greatest Miami wish fulfilled, which was to have a meal at Versailles Restaurant, which calls itself “the most famous Cuban restaurant in the world”. If the Jay Fai-like line to get a table was any indication, this claim may very well be true.

I have never had Cuban food, and have only had Cubanos in Bangkok. This is embarrassing to admit, but there it is. So I felt like my first time should be at a place that is indisputably famous; of course, Versailles fit the bill. Sadly, founder Felipe Valls Sr. recently passed away in November, but the food (I’m assuming?!) has not suffered as a result, and the crowds thronging the front of the restaurant were not solely made up of tourists like us. The wait, amazingly, was not that long, even for a group of 9. It helps that the restaurant is pretty enormous.

I had read a list of the things that one must order at this restaurant (I was NOT going to come all this way just to order a sandwich). But our waiter helpfully filled us in on what else we should order, and it really saved us. Cuban food may have a few similarities with Spanish food and South American food, but really the rich flavors, slight tang and satisfying heft make up a flavor combo that is all their own.

Versailles seafood paella with roasted red peppers and parsley

Main dishes were accompanied with plates of both white and purple rice, which was mixed liberally in with black beans, and sides of boiled cassava, which my nephew Weka said “tasted like French fries all mashed together” but which I appreciated for their plainness and simplicity — a good foil for all the other stuff going on. We got vaca frita, aka “fried cow”, shredded flank steak with fried onions and a spritz of lime, which had a deeply satisfying beef jerky-like flavor. The lechon asado, the most popular dish there, is marinated pork slow-cooked for up to 7 hours and then shredded, with some crispy pork skin on top (which disappeared as soon as the plate was set down).

There was a recommended fried red snapper topped with a tomato sauce and shrimp, and a hearty paella, and a mixed seafood platter that arrived with a lobster tail, which my sister-in-law promptly claimed for her husband (I allowed this because this was the first meal together but all y’all know this will not happen again). In case you are curious: my favorite was the braised oxtail with that purple rice with black beans — obviously I did not take a photo because WTF do you expect while I’m stuffing my face, I’m no gymnast. Also the mixed croquetas, OMG.

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