Category Archives: fish

Working for it: Sapporo

Smart people avoid generalizations, but I’ll just go ahead and wade on in there. Japan is a country of serious foodies. And it’s not just about the massive clusters of fine restaurants — Japanese, French, Czech, what have you — that lurk, barnacle-like, in every other basement or third floor in every big city in the country. It’s the Japanese commitment to all levels of food: the telltale chairs that stand outside popular eateries that don’t take reservations; the astronomically priced produce, swaddled like newborn babies in the supermarket; the long queues snaking through the department store basement, stacked with gourmets awaiting the next great fresh cream cake.

Sure, there is the strange-smelling beef bowl at Yoshinoya, cheap conveyor belt sushi and the bizarre affection for KFC for the holidays — but for every one of those things, there is the dazzling aging-beef display at the Tokyo Mitsukoshi, four different kinds of obscure Kentucky bourbons on sale, and mammoth albino strawberries the size of a child’s fist. Food in Japan is like Manolo Blahniks to a Carrie Bradshaw: aspirational. As with all aspirations, you have to work for it. This stuff doesn’t come cheap. And if it does, it doesn’t come easy.

Hokkaido in February for me is a whole different brand of Working For It. I don’t take to chilly temperatures; here, it’s -12 degrees Celsius in the daytime. The sky periodically drizzles snow — so much snow, in fact, that the sides of the roads loom skyscraper-like above the pedestrians, threatening avalanche at any moment.  Food, any kind of food, requires trekking out in that weather in your most unattractive snow boots, a balaclava shoved over your head to keep your nose from falling off your face.

But in Sapporo, there is plenty to make up for it. Big vats of nabe — DIY stews bristling with the freshest seafood or gently cooked slices of meat, studded with cubes of tofu and enoki mushrooms and crackly greens that somehow end up soft and sweet. One of the easiest kinds of nabe to obtain here is one featuring kani — snow, hairy or king crab, which hails from the region and is a genuine treat.

Crab and co., ready for the nabe pot

Restaurants specializing in crab — marked by a giant crab above the entrance — are scattered all over Japan, but the one we found in Sapporo, chosen solely on its proximity to the train station, was luckily also delicious: Kani Honke, which claims to be the first in Japan to focus solely on the mightily yummy crustacean. The many course menus are pretty epic: crab served as sashimi, in sushi, atop grated mountain yam, in stew, simply steamed, and finally, butter-roasted and grilled atop a hot stone. Best of all, the leftover broth from the nabe is eventually added to rice and reduced until a thick, sweet congee is formed — the best possible way to end a delicious crab menu.

Kani Honke's crab congee

Crab is not the only thing Hokkaido is famous for. Sapporo is also the lucky, lucky home to not one, not two, but THREE “ramen alleys” — small walking streets lined by all manner of ramen shops, which offer, in Sapporo at least, the ultimate street (or alley-side) food: quick, warming, filling and relatively cheap. You can get your very interesting ramen history here, but if you are like me and think clicking is far too onerous a task, I will attempt to summarize: ramen is delicious. Just kidding. Adapted from a Chinese noodle dish in the early 20th century, Japanese ramen has since branched out into basically three main types — the tonkotsu, or pork bone-based cloudy broth of Kyushu, the clear soy sauce-based broth populated with thick noodles, and the miso-based broth of Sapporo. We visited the original “Ramen Yokocho” (Ramen Alley) and found it charming, with just about any type of ramen on offer.

Inside Ramen Alley

Of course, we were there for the miso ramen, and so opted for a shop featuring a relatively basic menu of miso, soy sauce, salt, tonkotsu, spicy, extra pork or butter (with a miso base) ramen. You can probably guess which one I went for:

A bowl of butter ramen

It turns out I’ve found a new love. Few things are better than that extra-creamy Hokkaido butter. I will be searching for it in all the Japanese supermarkets I can think of in Bangkok.

 

 

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Filed under Asia, fish, food, food stalls, Japan, Japanese, noodles, restaurant, rice porridge

Chiang Mai Diary

Aunt Tui's roses in bloom

When I decided to start research for a second book, this one for, basically, all of Thailand ex-Bangkok, I knew it would be a big undertaking. Nosing out Bangkok’s street food stalls took a year; this one … could take more. More months of 5 lunches and 3 dinners a day, more weeks registering a steadily rising number on the scale, more nights of clutching at my belly as I struggle to digest (I know, I know. Pity me! Pity me!).

Well, screw that. I’ll tell you now: I want this done by year-end. I’m no spring chicken, and I am no longer pregnant, so I can no longer hide all the extra poundage behind the “but I’m pregnant excuse!”. Maybe I don’t have that much time left before my digestive system finally rebels once and for all and explodes. Long story short: I will have to eat more, now.  What better place to start than Chiang Mai?

It’s obvious where out-of-towners eat when they come to the “capital of the North”: the usual suspects, Lamduan Faham (either branch), Samoerjai, Huen Phen. What they eat: khao soy, roasted young chili dip (nam prik num), deep-fried pork (moo tod). I decided I would do all I can to avoid that for the time being. You already know these places, right? There must be some culinary gems that all yinz guys have overlooked!

Apparently, “hidden culinary gems” means this:

Chicken rice at Khao Mun Gai Hailum

And this:

Chicken rice at Gied Ocha

Yes, I had a whole lot of khao mun gai. Inexplicably. Because, I think you all know this, chicken rice is not in any way a Northern Thai thing. It’s a “way north…er…east of Thailand” thing (my geography isn’t too good). In my defense, it’s a little different here in Chiang Mai: the rice is fluffier and less fatty, and, well, the chicken appears to be too. Two stand-outs were Khao Mun Gai Hailum (to the right near the entrance of Rotfai Road, 053-242-833) and Gied Ocha (41-43 Intawororos Road, 053-328-262-3); the former a bare-bones haven for chicken rice purists who are picky about both their rice and their chicken, the latter a sunny, welcoming favorite where the owner — a former lottery winner, yes really — still patrols the dining room, barking out incomprehensible orders to a beleaguered and obviously very clever Hainanese chicken rice-making station in front.

On the same road as Gied Ocha stands a fish noodle-and-rice porridge stand called Sa-Ard (33-35 Intawororos Road, 053-327-261) that, as full as I was, turned out to be among the most delicious fish noodle places I’ve been to (I am not a fish noodle fan). The broth, perfectly clear and a bright, fresh slick of seafood; an assorted array of fish meatballs of various shapes and degrees of deliciousness; a bowl heavy with lettuce and deep-fried garlic. What I’m talking about, when I came to and remembered to take a photo:

When I was done with my fish meatball gow low

Other good things: Isaan sausages, both stuffed with rice and with woon sen, or glass vermicelli; deep-fried bananas, encased in a lattice of batter and coconut flakes; som tum muang, or “Northern-style” grated green papaya salad, flavored with tamarind juice instead of lime (is that really what makes it Northern?); and thu-ka-ko, rounds of taro tossed in flour and deep-fried, a street snack you actually honest-to-God can’t get anywhere else, apparently.

But where’s the Northern Thai food? What am I, made of stone? Of course I had some. First, at a Disneyland-style “Northern Thai” restaurant where the food swung through some very un-Northernlike extremes of flavor to accommodate the Bangkokians who want their Northern food to be as highly spiced as Isaan; then, at a restaurant my dad directed me too, promising that the food would be just like what I would get from my Aunt Priew (this is very high praise).

Huen Jai Yong (near Sankumpang intersection, 086-671-8710, 086-730-2673) might be hard to get to, and it’s definitely a restaurant, not a street food stall, but it’s worth it to call and ask for those directions (I am useless at directions. Can you tell?) This is Northern food: flavorful yet a little mellow, yummy but not pandering  (too sweet, too spicy). Don’t miss out on the saa pak, a “salad” of minced vegetables that recalls salty and tart without overly favoring either, or the thum makuea, mashed Thai eggplant bearing a mellowness that defies its fierce appearance.

Mashed Thai eggplant at Huen Jai Yong

But as good as Aunt Priew? Sorry. No.

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Filed under Asia, Chiang Mai, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand

What it means to be underrated

This is the last post of 2011 for me, and because of that, I want it to be special. Many people are predictably rolling out the “Best of…Worst of…” lists to punctuate the end of this strange, strange year, but I want to devote my last post to something more special, more near and dear to my food-loving heart. And that is Jet Li.

I love Jet Li. I love him even though other people gawk and aah and ooh over the usuals, all somehow resembling that boy in high school who was so so useless but still managed to breeze through life intact and popular — you know these boys, they are infuriating. Empty vessel of man-meat Brad Pitt, or repository of broken dreams George Clooney, or — snore — Ryan Gosling — how did he happen again? — you get the picture. They are basically iterations on the same boy. They will always have a “Hi, how are you?” as they whiz past you in the hall, not bothering to listen to your reply. That guy. That one.

Jet Li is not that guy. He is little and quick and quiet. He does silly martial arts movies with strange co-stars, a la Jackie Chan, but he has the acting chops to do serious stuff, too. He is not what anyone would call “conventionally handsome”, or “handsome”, or even “quite good-looking”. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t even care if he is the bad guy. Unlike, again, Jackie Chan, he isn’t that desperate to be liked. This is what separates him from the other actors of his genre, like, uh, Jackie Chan … and, er … … … … … … ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Jet Li is underrated. Like hua pla restaurants (see what I did there? What a seamless transition!), which are grungy and dingy and not “charming”, “glitzy” or “stylish” in the least. They have the ambiance of an underground storage space, and clientele who are well past retirement age. And the dishes they offer — well, what do you expect from a genre of restaurant named for a “fish head”?

The namesake dish, bubbling in a "maw fai" (fire pot)

Yet these hua pla restaurants resolutely cling to life on the Bangkok dining scene, scattered here and there in the unfashionable sections of town. A subset of the Chinese-Thai restaurant, hua pla places also feature stir-fried seafood dishes, fried rice and noodles besides the namesake dish, a fresh fish (usually giant pomfret, or thao theuy) in either pickled plum or taro broth (pickled plum is better), bubbling contentedly in a metal pot set over a small flame.

Fried e-mee noodles at Hua Pla Maw Fai Nai Kwan

Of all the hua pla restaurants in town, the one I find most accessible is just beyond the Sam Yan subway stop, across the street from Chamchuri Square. Called “Hua Pla Maw Fai Nai Kwan”, this unassuming eatery is hidden in a soi behind the parking lot to the left of Wat Hualumpong on Rama IV Road. It boasts maybe six tables, creaky old Lazy Susans, and a kitchen in back that may have seen  World War II. It is also the perfect place for a quiet, no-fuss lunch on a relaxing Sunday with the day stretching ahead of you like an empty highway. And what could be better than that?

Stir-fried crab with peppers at Nai Kwan

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, fish, food, noodles, restaurant, seafood, Thai-Chinese, Thailand