Category Archives: beef

What’s Cooking: Larb Dib

When I order steak tartare at French restaurants, I am invariably told by a worried waiter that the dish I have just asked for is raw. Do I want to rethink my order a little bit?

Raw is, in fact, what I’m looking for. There is that feeling of being an animal, of tearing into something in its “natural” state, untouched by flame, uncivilized. I don’t think I’m the only one. Thanks to the rise of the Japanese sushi bar, tartare of some form — beef, tuna or salmon — is a fixture of pretty much any Western restaurant across the globe: studded with avocado, dusted with pink peppercorns, or, if you are particularly unlucky, bulked up with ketchup.

Since tartare is pretty much ubiquitous, other types of restaurants have had less trouble serving raw meat to diners previously considered “too skittish” for such savage fare. Nadimo’s features a “raw kibbee” dish that is made up of minced lamb cut with bulgur wheat and accompanied by a garlicky puree. It’s unusual and surprisingly delicious, an example of how good raw meat can be.

Raw kibbee at Nadimo's

Thai food boasts its own raw dishes — in this case, larb dib nuea, or “raw minced beef salad”. Its nature changes depending on the region; in Isaan, it’s tart and fresh, leavened with ground rice grains and lots of pak chee farang, the sawtooth-edged leaf reminiscent of soap. In the North, it’s something brusque and brawny, with lots of dried chili, a hint of pork blood and a shrimp paste-based sauce. The Northern Thai one is the version I’m trying today.

Larb Dip (for 4 people)

– 400 grams good-quality raw beef, hand-chopped (I chose a Thai-French tenderloin from Villa Sukhumvit 33)
– 100 grams thin beef tripe, sliced and boiled

– 8 Tablespoons fried garlic
– 1/2 stem lemongrass, sliced and fried
– 4 Tablespoons thinly sliced shallots
– 4 Tablespoons shredded coriander
– 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
– 1/2 cup pork blood (optional)
– 1 teaspoon pork bile (optional)

For larb muang paste
– 25 pieces grilled dried chilies
– 10 cloves grilled garlic
– 15 cloves grilled shallots
– 1 piece grilled galangal
– 1 Tablespoon shrimp paste, wrapped in foil and grilled
– 1/2 stem lemongrass, finely sliced
– 1 Tablespoon roasted makwaen, or a northern Thai peppercorn (I could not find it on short notice, so I substituted Sichuan peppercorns, roasted and ground)

Directions:
1. After having grilled most larb paste ingredients on an oven on full whack, pound into a paste with mortar and pestle alongside lemongrass and roasted makwaen or other substitute.

2. Mix beef and tripe with larb paste mix. If using pork blood and bile, add now.

3. This is optional, but you can cook your larb dib bleu by adding vegetable oil and giving the meat a few stirs with a wooden spoon. Otherwise, you can leave the lovely deep ruby color by leaving it completely raw.

4. Season with salt and fish sauce to your taste. Top with sliced shallots, fried garlic, fried sliced lemongrass and shredded coriander. I also topped mine with lots of mint, even though it’s more Isaan and less muang (Northern), simply because it’s one of the few things we have managed to grow in our garden! Look at these beauties (I know it just looks like regular mint to you):

My finished larb looked like this:

My raw beef larb

5. Serve accompanied by sturdy lettuce leaves, cucumber slices, blanched green beans, boiled pumpkin and any other fresh vegetable you may fancy or have lurking somewhere in your refrigerator. Don’t forget the sticky rice.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, beef, cooking, food, Northern Thailand, recipe, Thailand

Why Food

The unseasonably wet weather and ensuing traffic snarls have put me into a meditative mood. So indulge me for a moment as I blather on like your 84-year-old great-aunt, the one who doesn’t see people very often and puts SWAT-team-level preparation into “going out”.

Because that is how I feel nowadays. My Thai has never been the greatest — conversations frequently turn into an unwieldy catalogue of what has NOT been said, a litany of all that has NOT been communicated. I am literally two-dimensional; beyond initial remarks on the weather, what to eat and where to go, I am cashed out of words, making do by playing the role of the dim-witted auntie, a role I am getting unnervingly good at.

This is leeching into my English language communication, which is fast becoming a halting negotiation of what to express and what to leave out. Interaction is Thailand is an unspoken deal: say the expected things at the right time and you will have passed. Saying something different means you have not kept up your part of the bargain. This is something that has taken me years to learn, but is somehow understood by Thais who have grown up here — just like everyone knows you don’t eat durian with alcohol, or without mangosteen, or that you don’t transport it on the Skytrain because then people will look at you like you just took a baby, a kitten and a puppy and forced them to listen to the Black Eyed Peas’s latest album. All Thais somehow know these things.

So food is a wonderful oasis for me. When you are cramming your piehole with stuff, you don’t have to talk. When your table is groaning under the weight of tasty food, people around you are happy. When you venture to talk about this dish or that, people are invariably willing to discuss it — food is a fine, happy place, where everyone loves you, as long as your plate is still full.

It’s logical, then, that I would love Restaurants of Bangkok, which offers a nifty monthly program they call “Running Dinners”. Every course — appetizer, main, dessert — is offered at a different restaurant in the same area. Despite the logistical difficulties of herding up to 20 increasingly inebriated people to different places every hour or so, it’s surprisingly well-run, and a great way to feature restaurants that are new or easily overlooked. (In the interests of full disclosure: next month’s dinner includes dessert at Maduzi Hotel, which belongs to my husband’s family.)

Blurry photo of dessert course at Philippe, taken after fourth glass of wine

But I’m an equal-opportunity gobbler (uh, duh). I obviously like to go the opposite end of the spectrum too. Sometimes you need to work a little for your food fix, just sayin (don’t you hate it when people write “just sayin?” Like, didn’t you already just say it? I see it more and more frequently, and it is almost always preceded by something semi-obnoxious — “BLAH BLAH STUPID STUPID MOUTHFART MOUTHFART. JUST SAYIN.” Blech. Okay, rant over.)

So the beef noodles on Sukhumvit Soi 16, across from the Korean restaurant, are also a wonderful refuge for the socially impaired. Beloved by office workers and motorcycle taxi drivers alike, it is the “we are the world” food stall of that particular road, where people can set aside their various color allegiances or complete and total political apathy (I’m lookin at me, Bangkok Glutton) and jostle each other for bowls of delicious beef water instead.

Options are rice vermicelli (sen mee) or thick noodles (sen yai), or no noodles at all (gow low). Open 7am-1pm, closed on Sundays. Call 087-564-9469.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, beef, dessert, food, food stalls, French food, noodles, restaurant, Thailand

Brazilian Days, Vol. 2

Ever feel like you’ve been through some sort of time warp, doomed to a Bill Murray-like existence living the same day over and over again? That is what this interminable trip is starting to feel like, despite the loveliness of the setting and friendliness of the people.

There is plenty of both in Gramado, a Southern Brazilian town famous for its German and Italian communities, Swiss-style buildings and ludicrous number of fondue restaurants for a town of 30,000, a minute fraction of whom are actually Swiss. We are here for Marcelo and Renata’s wedding, joining 298 others in a heavy-duty bash (in case this is news to you, Brazilians like to party) incorporating an all-you-can-drink caipirinha bar, 40 bottles of whisky, 40 bottles of vodka and a whopping 220 bottles of champagne. Win and I, old farts that we are, battle valiantly to stay up past midnight. We make it to 12:30am, failing to outlast Marcelo’s 10-month-old cousin and 80-year-old grandmother, who is still out on the dance floor when we skulk out of the ballroom, pretending to make a call.

When it comes to food, however, we do our part, gorging on bottle after bottle of the local Merlot and sparkling wine and a uniquely Brazilian version of fondue bourguignone that doesn’t actually involve any fondue — a hot plate is coated with salt to keep the beef from sticking, and it is accompanied by a dizzying array of dips ranging from the usual (rose and tartar sauces, garlic-parsley butter and curry mayonnaise) to the, uh, unusual (wasabi, caramelized onion, candied pineapple, strawberry jam). Alas, the 9:30-10:00pm dinnertimes render me a gassy menace to society, snarling my digestive system and making me a deadly weapon in enclosed spaces like cars (sorry, Marcelo’s brother).

So despite the absolute loveliness of Marcelo’s and Renata’s families and promises to visit each other’s respective cities, it is with a certain sense of relief that we are left to our own devices in Sao Paulo, where no one is stuck with me but my husband and I can eat dinner at 7pm like any other tourist. Called the “locomotive of Brazil”, Sao Paulo is nearly everything Rio is not — fast-moving and unwieldy in a way that recalls Bangkok, but way more efficient; where two kisses is a common salutation in Rio (and three in Gramado), in Sao Paulo you get away with only one (time is money, after all). Sao Paulo is also way bigger than Rio: at last count, its population totaled 40 million.

It’s not much of a surprise, then, that Sao Paulo is also home to the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan. After what feels like months of going without Asian food, I insist on trying both ends of the spectrum of Japanese food in the city: slick and high-end vs. “authentic” everyday.

Kinoshita's crispy salmon

At Kinoshita (Rua Jacques Felix, 405, (11)3849-6940) you will get plenty of slick (minimalist, expensive decor, smooth service) and a whole lotta high-end (65 reals for a glass of Hungarian Tokaji). Food — with the exception of a nifty gazpacho with shrimp roe and sea urchin, some nice seared fish eggs with a dollop of wasabi and salmon drenched in ponzu and topped with tempura dribbles and ebiko — stands at the intersection of Mundane Avenue and High-Concept Hotel Dining Street. In other words, it’s the culinary equivalent of an Aman Resort: pretty and well-designed but somehow similar to somewhere else. Of course there is a foie gras course, cubes of it pan-fried and set atop cushions of Kobe that are only seared, so that the marbled fat in the meat isn’t activated. Why bother then?

More satisfying (and easier to do) was the ramen at Lamen Kazu (Rua Thomaz Gonzaga, (11)3277-4286), in the “Japan town” known as Liberdade. The menu is simply a succession of ramen variations: miso, salt, shoyu, with the usual varieties of toppings. All the same, I enjoyed my “Hokkaido” (corn, seaweed, pork, spring onion and a pat of butter) despite getting hangry (hungry+angry) and scaring the waitress and our neighbors at the table next to us.

"Hokkaido" ramen

In the end, we find we’ve explored only the tip of the iceberg that is Brazil. There is still the gorgeous green expanse across the north, and the awe-inspiring forest known as the Amazon. And imagine the food that remains uneaten! It would take weeks and weeks to do the country justice. We’ve only just started.

All the same, I feel like I’ve been on the road for a long time. The memories seem minted long ago: dining on a tableful of oysters at Kaufhaus des Westerns (KaDeWe) and rifling through stacks of scarves and evil-eye jewelry at the Turkish market in Berlin; stumbling through icy streets in Denmark and Finland on a bellyful of schnapps; discovering delicious cream-filled semla buns in Stockholm.

Semla at Vete-Katten in Stockholm

I love exploring the world through my stomach, and I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to actually do it for a month. But home beckons, finally. What’s for dinner?

Peppers at the Turkish market in Berlin

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Filed under beef, Brazilian, fish, food, Japanese, noodles, pork, Portuguese, restaurant, seafood

Brazilian Days, Vol. 1

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio


(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

Tuesday, Day 1

9:00: It’s taken us a full day, two kilos of oversalted shellfish, and a trough of caipirinhas, but we have finally recovered from the 36-hour trip from Stockholm to Rio (via Berlin, Zurich and Sao Paulo). We are in Rio de Janeiro (‘River of January’), a glittering city of around 6 million which funnily enough does not have a river but a gigantic bay and many beaches. At breakfast, we watch impossibly toned and tanned beautiful people do yoga and practice a form of soccer-volleyball, all apparently without any hint of irony whatsoever. Afterwards, we meet our guide, Leonardo, who promptly learns that we will go anywhere and do anything, as long as we are fed well for our trouble. He pledges to take us to Porcao, one of Rio’s best-known churrascaria rodizios (barbecue houses), as soon as he can.

13:00: Thanks to a crowd of especially exuberant Koreans and a traveling samba band (“Now is the time for the samba,” says Leonardo, who cannot stand the samba) the tram trip up to Christ was amusing, but we are now in a post-giggle funk after being confronted with a snarl of traffic that just might rival the best Bangkok has to offer. Although Leonardo claims it is a bit early to stuff our faces, we are famished, and head to the nearest Porcao (Av Infante Dom Henrique, (021) 3461-9020) we can find. At Porcao (which, as @SpecialKRB points out, is pronounced “poor cow”), we find cuts of every part of the animal awaiting us including the rubbery hump (called cupim), plus a generously-proportioned buffet of “sushi”, salads and hot stews that we ignore until we are almost full. Luckily, I am wearing a maternity dress chosen especially for the occasion.
Confronting a skewer of fried chicken hearts
(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

After stuffing ourselves to near-bursting, we promise to never, ever eat ever ever again.

The man of our dreams with @SpecialKRB

Wednesday, Day 2

9:00: We break our promise at breakfast the next day, when I once again inhale an entire plate of cold cuts and cheese with plenty of bread, as I am told is the breakfast of choice for true cariocas (natives of Rio, which loosely translated in the local language actually means “house of the foreigner” or “house of the white man”. Go figure). This is especially interesting since it is very hard to find starches like this for lunch or dinner unless you actively ask for it. Is this the “Rio diet”? Only enough carbs to keep you regular and then not touching them after noon? Eating manioc like a maniac at ridiculous times of the day, like 3pm and 11pm? Will I lose a bunch of weight and write a diet book and become a famous weight-loss guru like Rocco DiSpirito? Only time will tell.

13:01: After spending the morning buffing the floors at the Palacio Rio Negro in Petropolis, the Brazilian royal family’s summer residence, we are officially starving. (“Would you DIIIIEEE if we have lunch later?” asks Leonardo. Yes, Leonardo. Yes, I think we would die.)

Nevertheless, we manage to hold off until 3pm, when Leonardo takes us to Urca, a neighborhood known for being exclusive and inhabited by members of the military. Here, we get our first taste of some delicious Brazilian snacks: bolinhos, coated in crumbs and deep-fried; pastels, wrapped in pastry like pierogies; and empadas, fillings set atop pastry (“open”) or enclosed completely (“closed”). These are all washed down with a glass of light draft beer (chopp) and can be found at any boteca or botequim.

Another dream man, with a tray of empadas

18:00: After another long day, we finally make our way to Academia da Cachaca (26 Rua Conde de Bernadotte Leblon, (021) 2529-2680), where a treasure trove of cachacas (sugarcane liquor) sourced from all points of Brazil awaits. We select several “doses” of this liquor, the names of which will remain locked in an alcohol-induced haze forever, and they all taste of either cloves, allspice, cinnamon, or caramel. We also order acaraje — a sort of kibbee-like deep-fried “football” of beans, accompanied by a fish stew and a “relish” of coriander, spring onion and dried shrimp — and a sun-dried beef escondidinho, which @SpecialKRB describes as a “shepherd’s pie filled with corned beef hash”.

Escondidinho


But our waiter draws the line when we try to get a feijoada completa (bean stew with all the fixings), simply refusing to let us order it. Leonardo agrees (“I am afraid you will DIIIIEEEE. You will simply drop dead”) and seems to think a waiter telling us we have ordered too much is an unusual occurrence. Everyone seems to think that, despite the late hour, we will eat dinner after this (“This is lunch,” says Leonardo with a straight face).

22:00: This is the thing. I love Rio in many ways: its laid-back, freewheeling optimism, its sunny weather, its easy-going and friendly people. But so much of it is the complete opposite of the doddering oldie I am today. Despite exhortations from every Brazilian we know to explore Rio’s vaunted nightlife — (“Don’t go there until 3am. You will find NOBODY,” Leonardo advises as we pass one famous nightspot. “This club is after-hours. You can go there at 6am.” He says later of another. “Come on,” he finally tells us when confronted with our ashamed, vaguely defiant faces. “Don’t be different”) — we cannot find the strength to stay awake. Leonardo is talking to the squarest, most boring people in the world.

Thursday, Day 3

13:00: Leonardo-less today, we finally make it to Casa da Feijoada (Rua Prudente de Moraes 10, (021) 2523-4994) where we get our black bean stew accompanied by braised pig tails, ears and trotters, rice, deep-fried pork rinds, fried collard greens, fried manioc, farofa (roasted cassava flour) and orange slices to cut the fattiness. We get both passionfruit and lime batidas (cachaca with fruit juice and ice) and a bottle of wine. This renders us comatose for the rest of the day. Finally sated, we stumble outside into the bright sunlight, spot vultures circling overhead and consider the beach for the rest of the day. I have not lost weight on this diet by any stretch of the imagination.

Pork rinds

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Filed under beef, Brazilian, food, pork, Portuguese, restaurant, rice

Glutton Abroad: Falling in Nagano

Apples, a Nagano specialty

Japan gets a lot of snow. Every year, we are re-surprised by the amount of snow awaiting us at Shigakogen, where we regularly go in a feeble attempt to look semi-athletic once a year (uh, in my case at least). Some people ski for the exhilaration of breezing down a mountain face, the sharp chill hitting their cheeks as they successfully navigate this or that mogul. I ski as payment for the reward that will come after:

Shigakogen, like the rest of the Nagano region, forms part of Japan’s “snow zone”, which makes up fully half of the country, according to the Japanese tourism board. Tons of snow are dumped on the country every year when the cold winds blowing across the choppy Sea of Japan meet the towering mountains that form a big part of the “spine” running through Japan’s islands. Hence, the knee-deep white bounty that transforms me into the flailing autobot that everyone must navigate around in the mornings. Chilly winter wind can be good for the complexion. Direct contact with a fluffy mound of snow, not so much. Perhaps with this in mind, the Japanese brew amazake during the colder months; the hot mix of rice and sugar is very warming — and exceptionally filling.

Amazake in the making

But when Nagano isn’t busy getting dumped on, it’s actually busy producing yummy things to eat with the fertile soil it hides underneath all that snow in the winter. Like Thailand’s Central plains, Nagano’s valley produces a veritable shopping cart of produce: apples, blueberries, mustard greens, mushrooms, mountain yams, buckwheat — all are readily harvested by Nagano-ites in greener times. That is probably why certain buckwheat products are considered specialties of Nagano — soba manjyu, a sort of steamed dumpling formed from buckwheat dough and stuffed with various fillings like meat or pickled greens, and of course soba, the hearty buckwheat noodle served either hot in a broth or cold with a dipping sauce, accompanied with a pitcher of the soba cooking water to drink afterwards so that none of the nutrients go to waste.

My favorite place to go, anywhere in the world, is the supermarket. It’s the best place I know of to figure out a place’s culture — or, at least, the way it views food. Are the shelves brimming with fat-free cakes and ready-made scrambled eggs and bacon, like in the States? Is there a gigantic, fresh-looking produce section, like in France? In Japan, there’s this: gargantuan, monstrous fruits and vegetables looking a little like something out of “Land of the Lost”; entire sections reserved for various types of dried fish; and unusual variations on commonplace things, like eggs.

Eggs for sale at Nagano's Tokyu Food Show

Almost everything is seasonal: mushrooms in the fall, shirako and uni in the winter, berries in the summer. But some things have become year-round staples: strawberries as big as a toddler’s fist and super-sweet “fruit tomatoes”, like tomato candy. These we had on our first meal there, sprinkled with a little Okinawa salt.

The Japanese are gifted in the art of naming — somehow, the English-language names they give are strange yet evocative, and always memorable. That’s how you get something like “Tokyu Food Show”, the best name I’ve seen yet for a supermarket; that’s also how you get “Ichigo no Musume”, or “strawberry daughter”, the name for a mochi (rice dough) dumpling stuffed with whipped cream instead of the usual red bean paste and anchored with a giant strawberry in the middle. I would show a picture, but I am not good enough to capture things in flight … in this case, the dumplings that were flying into other people’s mouths when my back was turned. Did I get a bite of these magical dumplings this year? No sirree, I did not.

I did not miss out on the apple beef, however. A certain breed of fatty cattle similar to Kobe, the Nagano cows are fed on the region’s special apples, which are supposed to impart a certain sweet flavor to the beef. I’m not sure if that is really the case, but the beef is extremely delicious — not too fatty to turn into a grease-fest, but tender enough to melt in the mouth. Our favorite place to try it: Sukitei (600 m SW of city center Nagano, +81 26-234-1123), as much of an annual pilgrimage as the snowy, ankle-twisting doom offered by Okushiga Kogen. Aside from steaks festooned with the local mushrooms, there is sweet sukiyaki, warm and healthy shabu shabu, and a handful of delicious beef-based appetizers like salt-crusted beef cubes grilled on a skewer, gently poached beef slices served cold in a pickled plum sauce, and various types of beef “sashimi”. Here, the fattiest, decorated with edible blossoms (the yellow one is NOT GOOD) and accompanied by grated wasabi, garlic and ginger:

Sukitei's fatty beef sashimi

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Filed under Asia, beef, dessert, food, Japan, markets, noodles, restaurant, rice

Glutton Abroad: Two Faces, One Stomach

When I lived in Tokyo, there was a period of time when, inspired by Annie Hall, I spent every weekend in Omotesando dressed like Diane Keaton. Even then, no one ever came up to me, not even once, and tried to punch me in the face. That tells you how polite people can be.

I mention this because the one thing I was struck by during my time in the northwest U.S. was how polite and nice everyone was. EVERYONE wanted to know if I was having a good day, had advice on what to get and where to get it, or just wanted to shoot the breeze about the weather. At times, unnerved, I would try to play along, but people can sense masked awkwardness and instinctively move away (because, let’s face it, am I Rachel Ray? No. No, I am not).

Nice, laid-back people, Dungeness crabs, and Kurt Cobain — good things have traditionally come out of the Pacific Northwest. At the same time, this area is also well known for being a haven for scary psychos of the first order. As well as the home of sparkly vampires. So there’s also that to think about. This duality also shows up in the region’s food scene. There is bad and there is good (usually when cooks aren’t trying so hard). And then there is the I Don’t Really Know What To Think Yet. This category is the most infuriating of all.

SEATTLE

Beautiful berries at Pike Place Market

 

You know, people talk about how weird Seattle is, how people walk around in plaid all day long and don’t take showers and eat only tofu. Well, there is a little bit of that, but the Emerald City is also a surprisingly food-oriented kind of city (I totally loathe the term “foodie”. Not because of any ridiculous, stupid backlash, but because it’s often used to divide people “in the know” from “everyone else” and suggests that people who like food also need to spend lots of money on good food. As a person who loves street food, I obviously don’t subscribe to that). So Seattle is “foodie” (gag), but in a very laid-back, natural and unpretentious way.

The embodiment of that would be emmer&rye (1825 Queen Anne Ave., (206) 282-0680), where local, seasonal produce meets up with gently twee surroundings and the chef’s great touch with vegetables and makes you feel like you’re in a Wes Anderson movie. But The Royal Tenenbaums, not Fantastic Mr. Fox. Favorites: a cauliflower and kale salad, steamed clams with strips of bacon in their cooking liquid, a perfectly grilled strip of beef alongside rings of squash.

Steamer clams appetizer at emmer&rye

There was also the nearly impossible-to-find Walrus &  the Carpenter (4743 Ballard Ave., (206) 395-9227), named after the creepy rhyme in Alice & Wonderland (what oyster lover wants to imagine walking, talking, baby-like oysters? Terrible). Aside from the terrific seasonal mollusks (half off before 5pm), there are truly great non-oyster sides (which change from week to week) like grilled lamb’s tongue, steak tartare and the best deep-fried brussels sprouts this side of anywhere. An even cheaper oyster alternative is Jack’s Fish Spot at Pike Place Market, which serves great quilcene oysters ($1 a shell), plus a no-frills menu of chowder and crab cocktail.

Oysters at Jack's Fish Spot

Rancho Bravo Taqueria (at 45th St and 2nd Ave) is not technically a restaurant, but a food truck — too bad the cat’s out of the bag on this one, locals. Great burritos (get either “Rancho” with sour cream or “Bravo” without) stuffed with either the typical fillings or tripe or beef tongue (recommended) make the wait for your plate a lengthy one at lunchtime. Dick’s Drive-In (three throughout Seattle) is a lot quicker, but the menu’s more limited too; the “Deluxe” is a double-beef patty cheeseburger with all the traditional fixings. If you’re a breakfast person, you have your choice between the super Eggs Benedicts or corned beef hash at Glo’s (1621 East Olive Way, (206) 324-2577) or the pancakes or “migas” (it’s a sort of breakfast tortilla, not the Spanish dish “migas”) at Portage Bay Cafe (4130 Roosevelt Way, (206) 783-1547). Finally, there is a great non-meat alternative serving good, tasty food: Araya’s Place (the only kind of Thai I’ll eat in Seattle, since vegan Thai is impossible to find in Bangkok). Recommended: the tofu “larb” (1121 45th St., (206) 524-4332).

Araya's tofu larb

PORTLAND

What to say about Portland? I don’t know myself. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time here. Maybe I was disgruntled about the hugely long line outside of Voodoo Doughnuts. Maybe I just didn’t get it. But my time here was spotty. First, there were the towering pastrami or corned beef sandwiches and flavorful chopped liver at Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen (1038 Stark St., (503) 222-DELI). But then there was the overhyped, confused, and sometimes just plain too-salty fare at Castagna.

Kenny & Zuke's matzo ball soup

Did I have too many expectations of The Oregonian’s 2010 “Restaurant of the Year”? Of one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs of 2010”? Maybe so. But while the matsutaka with shaved, pickled marrow and roasted elk loin were delicious, the pine curd and roasted chanterelles with boullion and tea-poached cardoons with smoked sturgeon powder were overly salted, conceptual messes. And I still don’t know what to think about the “pickles of today’s harvest” with cured scallops, which taste sort of like new car smell.

OREGON COAST

Ever have that feeling where you mentally slap yourself over and over again until you can’t feel anything anymore because you have gotten yourself into a stupid situation? No? It’s just me? Well, okay. Maybe it is just me. In any case, I must have done that about 1,000 times over the last five days, spent on this or that golf course, menacing deer and humans with various stray golf balls. The situation was mitigated somewhat by after-golf lunch, which became my highlight of the day. The best: Bandon Fish Market ( 249 1st St., Bandon, OR, (541) 347-4282), where the mascot may be a dead fish (unnerving) but the fish and chips are fresh and tasty — possibly the best I’ve had in a long while. Halibut is more flavorful and firmer than the traditional cod.

Cod fish & chips at Bandon Fish Market

The Pacific Northwest. What more to say about the Pacific Northwest? Shall I say I saw lots of people I really liked and had lots of fun despite the horrible, truly awful weather? Shall I say I enjoyed every meal, no matter where, because no matter what, the service was good and people still tried hard? Or shall I say I learned to stop blathering on because it solves nothing, and I believe in quality over quantity (obviously I’m lying)? This I’ll say: I have yet to be punched in the face. There’s still a chance, dear reader! Catch me if you can.

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Filed under beef, fish, food, Pacific Northwest, restaurant, seafood, United States

Glutton Abroad: Full of crab in HK

I never miss hairy crab season in Hong Kong. For the past six or seven years, when the “cold” weather comes around, I have faithfully trekked to this sun-soaked little spot in South China. The thing is, I sometimes end up having to do some strange things in order to get to that hairy crab (without having to endure a corresponding dent in my bank account, that is. Ahem).

Which brings me to this packed supermarket in Wan Chai, staring at a row of beer bottles, and debating whether to choose the popular Tsingtao or the vastly less expensive Pabst Blue Ribbon (half the price of the Chinese beer, to be exact). Not a beer drinker myself, I am tempted to spring for the PBR and let the chips fall where they may. I then remember that I will soon be sailing in the middle of a very large body of water, and that some people on board will want to throw me into it.

We are buying supplies for a boat race from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, a boat race that ends up not being a boat race (at least on the first day), halted by authorities of something for some reason or other in the hours before it is due to start. My heart silently lifts, thinking I will be spared a five-hour boat ride to the mainland, only to plummet minutes later when it is decided: we will “go at around the same time other people go, to the same destination”, my husband acting in some important sailing capacity and me as weight.

I could bitch and moan for pages about the rest of that trip; how I endured moments of terror each time our boat tipped through another white-lipped swell, and how later, when I got sick, I didn’t care what happened to us.  But I’ll leave it at this. I’m still alive. And I had plenty of hairy crab to console me.

Holy crab!

Hairy crab, also known as “freshwater crab”, are called that for the seaweed-like “hair” around their claws, and come from eastern Asia. They are prized for their sweet, tightly bound meat and, at around the end of each year, the dabs of glutinous rice-like eggs underneath their carapaces, which are too yummy to be adequately described. The best and biggest, I am told, are said to come from a certain lake near Shanghai, where the “slime” at the bottom is apparently ample, giving each crab a proper workout. Although hairy crabs are sourced from all over the place, only a handful of HK restaurants have a certificate allowing them to purchase crab from this one lake. The following place is one of those restaurants.

Hang Zhou (1/F, Chinachem Johnston Plaza, Johnston Rd.)

Before I start, I’d like to talk about an invaluable tool to anyone who wants to ensure they get a good meal in Hong Kong (aside from very accommodating and generous friends, which we also had): www.openrice.com. This site recently started up an “English” version, enabling tourists to get the nitty-gritty from the locals.

However, I put “English” in quotation marks, because a lot of the time what is said is a little too local. For example: “I ate (insert Chinese character here), which was so so good! Make sure you (insert Chinese character here)” — turning a lot of reviews into a sort of madlib in which you can feel free to insert whatever your heart desires at the moment. I find this strangely mirrors a lot of interaction in HK nowadays, where people seem to speak a lot less English than they used to (“why don’t anyone speak amerikin, goddamit?!”), making verbal interaction a sort of mental madlib where there is only one right answer.

Ordering in Hang Zhou — and everywhere else we went, for that matter — went a little like this: “I would like honey ham.” “Huh? Somethingsomethingsomething ham somethingsomething pork?” Then you would be forced to repeat “honey ham” over and over again like an idiot until someone said “Ah! Honey ham!” In a way, it was a little like ordering in Thailand for me, but in English instead of Thai.

So, here, we did finally get that honey ham: slivers of ham paired with crackling skin, shoved into a steamed white bun and dipped in the ham’s honey-like sauce. There was a succulent baked fish with halved cherry tomatoes for eyes; a virtuous mound of braised spinach; shell-on shrimp in a shallow pool of tea; and row upon row of hairy crab. There was also what we were told was a “beggar’s chicken”: an entire bird wrapped in lotus leaf and baked — easily our favorite discovery here.

The "special baked chicken"

Him Kee Hotpot (1 & 2/F, Workingfield Commercial Building, 408-412 Jaffe Rd)

Woman need not live by hairy crab alone. This friendly and, uh, aromatic hotpot place allowed us to order a host of ridiculous things and two different broths (one, mild with corn and carrots; the other, thick with the tongue-numbing, thick-shelled Sichuan peppercorns). We ate many things, most of which we did not finish: a mountain of tofu, platters of mushroom caps, baby bok choy, slivers of beef, and goose intestines — delightfully springy and creamy, all at once. My favorites were the pre-hotpot offerings of snails, slathered in chilies and deep-fried garlic. But — sob! — the plates of bacon were left half-eaten.

An immobile feast

A new thing for me: chicken testicles. They ended up being surprisingly big, if I may say so myself (a little bigger than the pad of my thumb). Blanched in the broth, their tense, elastic texture gave way to a creamy burst of liquid when bitten into (and this will be the first and last time you read a sentence like that on this blog).

Dude, where's my balls?

Spring Deer (42, Mody Rd., 1st Fl., Tsimshatsui Kowloon)

I had been looking forward to going to a Peking-style hotpot restaurant ever since reading about it on @e-ting’s blog. How bitterly disappointed I was, then, to discover that it was FULL on the only day I was free to go. Thinking I would then end up wandering around the Elements mall, the lovely concierge at the W pressed this card into my hand and said, “This is very traditional. I will make a reservation.”

Needless to say, I lurved it. And not really for the food. Spring Deer is mainly serviced by a staff of white-coated old men, reminding me of the very old restaurants in Rome where the average age of the server is around 55. Unobtrusive, swift, and discreet (no guffaws of incredulity at the amount of food we order, the server simply tries to run away when he thinks we’ve had enough), the service here is among the best we’ve ever had in HK, and that’s including Caprice et al.

The signature dish, of course, is the “world famous Peking duck”, a dish we’re told requires two staff cooks who make 100 ducks a day. It’s different from the kind we get in Bangkok: rounds of smoky flesh are still attacked to the crispy skin and wrapped in thicker, floury pancakes with slivers of cucumber and leek and an inky plum sauce.

Spring Deer's Peking duck

Aside from a multitude of other dishes that I’ve clean forgotten (unable to gauge when a lot is too much, we usually stop ordering when the waiter tells us “I think that’s enough”), we ordered deep-fried mutton, not as nice as the duck. Chewy like a sort of makeshift jerky, it’s paired with a vinegary sauce that is meant to cut through the fattiness but doesn’t quite manage it.

Deep-fried mutton

Yung Kee (32-40 Wellington St.)

Everyone knows Yung Kee. But I’d never eaten here before. I am ashamed to say I can’t tell you how many times I passed by this restaurant on my way to some dodgy place in Lan Kwai Fong. So when our friend suggests going here, there is nothing to do but agree.

This restaurant is, obviously, an HK institution — the equivalent of what La Tour d’Argent used to mean to Paris. We’re told it seats thousands of people per meal, and that the higher the floor, the better the food. Of course, the dish we are all supposed to order is the roast goose. So we do, and we do again (no one here stops us, or even blinks an eye). We order deep-fried spare ribs, goose webs in abalone sauce, sauteed scallops in XO sauce, deep-fried beancurd, eggplant with mushrooms, braised duck in orange peel and platter upon platter of garlicky greens. We order until we can’t bear to look at our plates again, and after that, we order mango pudding. We order a lot.

Goose, goose, deep-fried beancurd

Kam Fung Cafe (41 Spring Garden Lane)

Our last meal before boarding the plane involves sweet, soft hot buns split and stuffed with heart attack-inducing slabs of salted butter, surprisingly savory eggy tarts that break apart when you bite into them, and cup upon cup of milky tea. We’re at Kam Fung Cafe, sharing tables with strangers who are surprisingly friendly, and watching locals consume bowls of what appears to be an HK-style version of Western food: soupy macaroni or egg noodles, topped with a runny fried egg or slivers of cooked ham. The ultimate in comfort food, after days of fatty fowl and chicken balls, trekking from Shenzhen to HK and back again, enduring seasickness and a rugby game where I am accidentally doused with beer by an irate NZ fan aiming at a gloating Aussie (in all fairness, he was pretty annoying). I am tempted, but still too full.

Breakfast

Next up, I will embarrass myself not once, not twice, but FIVE times on various golf courses throughout the Pacific Northwest, all for the privilege of dining at Portland’s Castagna and Seattle’s Lark. Because someday, eventually, I will be hungry again.

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Filed under Asia, beef, chicken, Chinese, dessert, duck, food, Hong Kong, pork, restaurant, seafood