Category Archives: markets

Glutton Abroad: Tokyo Drift

Hanging in Tsukiji

I love Tokyo. Unlike Madame Bangkok — always striving to keep up with the Lees, obsessed with what the “neighbors” might think — Tokyo is unself-consciously, unabashedly itself: scruffy in patches, unafraid to be a little seedy, but always surprising in the best kinds of ways. It has its glam side, its traditional “Nihonjin” side, its gaijin side. But you have to look actively for all of it. And at the center of all this, the spirit of the city somehow remains the same, never-changing. Of course, the flip side to this is that Tokyo can also be crushingly lonely. Alienation is also very “Tokyo”.

Well, you may not know it, considering the inexplicable fondness harbored by the Japanese for KFC, but Tokyo is a food town. The great friendships I have made here started out of food or drink. A tranche of sweet white fish simmered in soy sauce at a cooking class; a mentaiko/mayonnaise dip with snow peas before that week’s showing of Paris Hilton in “The Simple Life”; a brimming shotglass of something quick ‘n vile at Geronimo’s — these are all ageless reminders of a specific person.

As is the incredible bounty at Tsukiji fish market. Also known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, this is the biggest wholesale seafood market in the world, handling more than 2,000 metric tons of seafood a day (according to Wikipedia). The market has been doing this daily since 1935; it, like much of the rest of Tokyo, remains constant.

Mollusks on display at the market

Aside from the seafood for sale, there is a cluster of sushiya on the far end of the market that we would visit on a regular basis for a quick breakfast before heading off to work. Turning right at the kooban (police box) into what looks like the parking lot for a football stadium, walking about 200 m and turning left into an alley leads you to “aisles” 5 and 6, where the most famous sushiya in the market are located — most with the kanji for “dai” (big) in some part of their names. The most famous of these is “Daiwa” — where the hostess conscientiously ensures you are lined up properly before heading inside — but there are others, all with their own unwieldy, intimidating queues. Inside, you might get something like this:

Unidon at Tsukiji

Also in season is shirako, a collection of creamy, mild coils that someone had once told me was fish sperm. Later, a group of Japanese people would tell me that this was not true; someone was pulling my leg. And then after that, I would look up shirako in the Japanese-English dictionary and discover that shirako is “milt; fish semen”, usually taken from the cod, anglerfish, or fugu (pufferfish). So there you have it. Shirako is not fish sperm. It is, as one kind Japanese waitress explained, “man eggs”.

Shirako for sale at Tsukiji

Somehow, that did not turn me off of this seasonal delicacy. Another popular way to have it is simmered gently in a nabe, a sort of catch-all term for anything that is served in a hotpot, like shabu shabu or sukiyaki. Or this, served as part of an incredible eight-course “washoku” menu at tempura specialist Uofuji in Ochanomizu (+813-3251-5327).

Helmed by a husband-wife team (the husband cooks, the wife is hostess), this is one of many husband-wife restaurants serving “washoku” (traditional Japanese cuisine) across the country. But the search for this unassuming restaurant is worth it: the tempura is light and fluffy and the menu changes daily, depending on what the husband has found in Tsukiji. On that particular day, there was sea cucumber in a pool of ponzu, freshly made shiokara (fermented squid innards), a single gigantic miso-glazed oyster. And while service is a little bit slow, the waitresses sure are free-handed with the sake samples and “tastings”. Leaving the restaurant that evening remains a blur; I believe Kiguchi-san had to escort us to the taxi herself, God bless her.

But it’s hard to pry me away from the sushiya for long, especially one where a meal can be an elaborate string of yummy fish-based mini-dishes. Sushiya no Yoshikan in Gakugeidaigaku (+813-3793-6261) is well-known for their otsumami (appetizers), which they continue serving you until you indicate to them you are ready for the sushi. We managed five: shirako, grilled this time with a salt crust; tuna “shabu” in a sweet miso sauce; poached sea eel in a pickled plum sauce; an oyster in a sabayon; and best of all, a freshly-grilled scallop in a “sandwich” of nori seaweed.

What I took away from all this, however, was the ever-present fact that I am getting old. I couldn’t keep up with my friends at the sushi counter — too soon afterwards, I was signalling for the soup (apparently osuimono, or clear broth soup, is what traditionalists say goes with sushi best, although everyone prefers miso nowadays). What can I say? Some things do change.

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Filed under Asia, fish, food, Japan, Japanese, markets, restaurant, rice, seafood

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

I’m Toast

Toast: it's what's for dessert at Suan Luang market

Toast. What’s not to like? Or, more accurately: what’s not to dislike? I think that’s what ends up becoming the main rap against toast. A spineless blob of a person is a milquetoast. And something that’s effectively done, used up, ruined — it’s toast. As in, “you’re toast”. “They’re toast”. “This writing career that never started, it’s toast.” Not that I’m talking about myself, mind you. I’m doing swimmingly, thank you very much. My services are very much in demand. Now please excuse me as I edit these Tops Supermarket Recipe Cards (TM). Deadlines, I haz ’em!

*  *  *

I’m done. You didn’t even notice I was gone, did you? That’s how amazing I am. Why the Wall Street Journal isn’t bashing down my door is beyond me. I can only imagine they are busy setting up the next sap who can be publicly pilloried for more page views on their website. I don’t see what the big deal is. I, too, was raised the stereotypically Asian way (no Bs allowed, no friends, no boyfriends) and look how great I turned out!

What was I talking about? There is no way to link “Tiger Mothers” to toast, is there? See what I did? I linked them anyway! I’m a genius. Or I am still drunk from last night. One of the two. I blame @pmetz and his delicious wine. You gotta watch out for those Luxembourgers.

But as I said, toast gets a bad rap. Toast can be good, clean fun. And although you look at a big piece of freshly grilled toast, slathered with salted butter and doused in the siren call of granulated sugar, and say “I can do that at home”, you don’t, do you? You sit down there on that stool at Suan Luang Market, at that stall with the cow face on it (because milk and toast are inextricably linked in the minds of Thai people), and stuff your face with that sweet, sweet oblivion. And you cry a little bit and churn over past regrets and wonder what Padma Lakshmi is doing, right at that very moment, and if she’s thinking of you, too.

Toast cubes and coconut cream dipping sauces

(Photos by @SpecialKRB)

Yes, toast wrecks your diet. It’s evil that way. It’s that undermining saboteur who poses as your friend, casually mentioning the very worst moments of your life in a crowded room, among polite company, making you want to shrivel up and die. But it’s SO SO good. And the best place to plunge into that sweet oblivion, for me, is on Dinso Road, part of that beautiful loop in Banglamphu that is my favoritest place in Bangkok. It’s called Mont Nom Sod (Fresh Milk Mont) and it doesn’t just offer toast with butter and sugar for 13 baht, but also toast with condensed milk, toast with orange jam, toast with coconut custard (two colors, orange and green), toast with chocolate, toast with creamy corn soup, toast with peanut butter, toast with creamy taro (Mondays only) and toast with creamy pumpkin (full moon days only), all for 20 baht.

 

Toast and drink at Mont Nom Sod

Mont Nom Sod

160/2-3 Dinso Road

02-224-1147

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, dessert, food, food stalls, markets, restaurant, Thailand

Dishes to Try Up North

Pak ki hood, blanched and served alongside nam prik

Believe it or not, I am not going to write about kanom jeen nam ngiew or the Steelers today. I know, I know. I know this makes you sad. But I must branch out. Show all my brilliant colors. Spread my wings.

So instead, I will ramble on semi-incoherently about my childhood in the era of Rama VI, back when rickshaws ruled the North and people foraged in the jungle for food. My fascinating reminiscences include memories of being abandoned at the post office as my nanny chatted up her then-boyfriend, and being menaced by a homicidal goose tethered to a pole in the middle of her front yard. Did you know geese are thoroughly unpleasant creatures? Now you do.

I also remember my Aunt Priew, who lived right next door to my grandmother’s house — easily accessible from our yard once you managed to jump over a tiny hill of ferocious red ants. Somehow, I never really made the jump and was bitten every time I tried. Yet day after day would find me once again testing the anthill because my Aunt Priew is a tremendous cook, possibly the best cook of Northern Thai food in the kingdom.  Roasted lin fa (sky tongue) beans, julienned and stir-fried with glass noodles or paired with a fatty raw larb; a touch of magorg, or water olive, added to a fiery nam prik num (roasted green chili dip) — my aunt is full of these little touches with the local produce that set her dishes apart from the rest. Now if I could just convince her to open a restaurant …

These are some of the Northern Thai dishes that are worth the long trek up to the tip of the country. They go just as well with khao suay (jasmine rice) as they do with khao niew (sticky rice). Try them for a real taste of Northern Thai food:

(Note: Please forgive the photos. They are a little … blurry. No, it wasn’t the wine.)

Gaeng om, Northern-style

Gaeng om, sort of


Unlike the light, prickly Isaan gaeng om, the Northern Thai version is — like much of the rest of Northern food — richer, meatier and fattier. The curry paste is that for a typical gaeng muang (Northern curry), with a couple of additions. There is lemongrass, galangal, dry chili, shrimp paste and garlic, plus pla sarak (kind of like pla salid, but bigger) and bakwan, which, if not Sichuan peppercorn, is something very similar, with the same tongue-numbing effects.

The tongue-numbing peppercorn bakwan

This paste is then fried in oil and augmented by fresh chilies, pork innards, bruised lemongrass and red shallot bulbs, and kaffir lime leaves and stewed, and then garnished with dill and coriander. It has a lingering meat taste that is very Northern.

Gaeng gadang

Pork “jelly” with pork rinds


Some dishes seem like they were engineered by mistake. Puff pastry is one; this is another. It’s basically a gaeng muang focused on kaki (fatty pork leg) and/or moo sam chan (three-layer pork), left out in the cold. It’s a distinctly “cold season” dish because traditionally it was left out overnight to congeal; today, it is chilled in the refrigerator and served in slices like a terrine. Very unusual and very porky.

Saa pak

Northern Thai “salad”, or saa pak

This is hands-down my favorite dish up North, but something that, aside from a few vendors in the Chiang Rai wet market, is very difficult to obtain. The reason could possibly be the 10+ types of local leaves (pak puen muang) required for a real saa pak (“spicy leaves”).

Greenery includes thinly sliced brinjals, young mango leaves, water olive leaves, pak pu ya (“grandfather-grandmother leaves,” a kind of edible blossom), plus sliced shallots and chopped fresh tomato. It is then tossed, like a chopped or Caesar salad, with flaked fish meat which has been grilled or boiled (with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf to lose the fishiness), plus nam prik num (roasted green chili dip) and sliced water olive.

This is a dish I am going to try to recreate at home with plain old lettuce, onions, tomato and avocado. I think it could give me a little taste of home, even in the middle of Bangkok.

 

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Filed under Asia, Chiang Rai, curries, food, food stalls, markets, Northern Thailand, Thailand

Things to be Thankful For

Yes, I know. “You’re late, beeyotch”, you say. I am indeed a day late, but last night, sitting among friends and a table groaning under the weight of delicious food, I found myself, for once, momentarily forgetting to complain about my sad-Jen-Aniston-dust-bunny-in-a-girdle existence. Instead, I found myself feeling thankful. And I don’t want to let go of that feeling just yet.

So here, in no particular order, are Things to Be Thankful For:

Pumpkin danish from La Creation de Gute in Hong Kong

Pastries. Need I say more? This is the entire reason people still get up for me on the Skytrain (cuz pregnant ladies be needin assistance!)

Geoduck sashimi in Shenzhen

Travels. Going anywhere new gives you (and by you I mean me) the golden opportunity to 1). meet great people, 2). try things you’ve never tried before, like this geoduck sashimi in China, and 3.) blather on about it endlessly in blog posts that make no point. How lucky is that?

Rambutan in Chantaburi

Thai fruit. It’s the best in the world. Really! The range and variety of fruits in this country are dazzling. And they are all delicious, in their own different ways and in their own various seasons.

Thalad Gow in Chinatown

Outdoor markets. Is there a more fascinating place to explore? From France and Hungary to Vietnam and Japan, outdoor markets are my favorite place to go to find out about a place. Someday, I may even work up enough courage to try out this pickled crab stand in front of the Old Market in Chinatown.

Tamarind chili dip with purple long beans in Sukhothai

Chili dips. They are my favorite part of a Thai meal. And they are so criminally underused, especially in Thai restaurants abroad! Tamarind, shrimp paste, crab eggs, lohn (coconut milk-based dips) — krueang jim are the dish that packs in a significant amount of protein and a wide variety of veggies, making it (and a bowl of rice) a complete, nutritionally balanced meal for millions of Thais, every day.

Chicken wings in kajorn blossom broth at Guaythiew Pik Gai Sainampung

How could I go this long without mentioning street food? Thailand, obviously, has some of the best in the world. People may be up in arms about farangs taking to their own mortars and pestles in restaurant kitchens, but Thai food’s real heart comes from the street.

Family. In a fit of earnestness (which will die at the end of this sentence), I am actually posting a real family picture and not a shot of the Kardashians. Of course, I am not in it.

Other things for which to be thankful: great wines (I would include a picture, but let’s face it, when I start being thankful for wine is the exact moment when I start being incapable of taking a picture); good friends; air-conditioning; the Steelers (haterz gonna hate!); people who are bored enough to occasionally read this blog (thanks, really); and the fact that my infant son is so readily diverted by a tissue.

Oh, and this:

Nam ngiew

I’m off to Chiang Rai next week for even more. Enjoy the start of your holiday season!

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chantaburi, chicken, Chinatown, dessert, food, food stalls, Hong Kong, markets, noodles, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand

Markets: the Original

Where I grew up, there where a place where the cool kids used to hang out called “the O”. It stood for “the Original”, although to be frank I have no idea how many versions of this Pittsburgh hot dog shop had to exist in order to necessitate singling yourself out as the “original” one. It’s not like Pittsburgh is awash in hot dogs — although I do remember fondly the O’s “disco fries” (our version of the Canadian “poutine”, which does not seem like a very evocative name for these cheese-slathered, bacon-topped deep-fried potato slivers. Heaven on a plate!)

What’s that? I’m supposed to be talking about something you might be interested in? Oh yes, that’s right. This:

Thai "pla tu" on sale at Nang Lerng market

It’s Nang Lerng market, located in the Banglamphu area on Nakhon Sawan road. This is supposed to be the very first wet market to ever sprout up in central Bangkok. What I do know for sure is that, like all of Thailand’s wet markets, it’ a load of fun to visit and the go-to place for some pretty hard-to-find old-style delicacies, such as the glutinous pork-filled rice balls, eaten with lettuce leaves, fresh coriander and chilies — a sweetly piquant mass of satisfying goo in the mouth.

Or old-style haw mok (steamed seafood mousse in banana cups), a Portuguese-influenced concoction combining local ingredients with European technique:

Steamed seafood mousse topped with coconut cream and shredded kaffir lime leaves

Then there are the delicacies that you actually do want to eat, like coconut ice cream trad-style, in a little plastic cup and festooned with roasted peanuts.

Fresh coconut ice cream

But if you do make it over there, do not miss Roongroj, the duck noodle shop at 141,143 Nang Lerng market. A popular with politicians who send their drivers over at noon for some lunchtime takeaway, Roongroj deserves its reputation as a shop with an extensive menu, efficient service and generous portions of sweet, toothsome duck.

Egg noodles with duck

The choice is extensive: stewed duck, braised duck, duck in pullo (Chinese five-spice and cinnamon broth) are all there, plus stewed chicken, barbecued pork and some very  nice giew (Chinese dumplings). Yes, if the duck or noodles haven’t tipped you off already — this food is Chinese. But then again, what noodle stand in Thailand ultimately isn’t?

Three different orders at Roongroj duck noodles

It’s open every day, and from late morning to well into the evening, so it’s hard to miss out on getting yourself a bowl. Do yourself a favor and trek over into the old part of town; basking in the atmosphere of the “original” wet market is worth it.

(Photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, Chinese, duck, food, food stalls, markets, noodles, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

Markets: the Best of the Best

Nam prik at Aor Thor Kor

There is no “wet market” in Bangkok that comes close to “Aor Thor Kor” in terms of variety, quality, and cleanliness. This is probably why we brave the 40+-degree heat and washrag humidity to vie for the very best gaengs (curries) and pads (stir-fries) with scores of other helmet-haired matriarchs and their bag-laden drivers.

And it’s not just a place for stuffing your face and emptying your pockets. Markets are always the places I head for first when I travel. There is no better place to find out about a country than through its markets; no truer mirror to the aspirations of a people than their stomachs. Here at Aor Thor Kor (the Thai abbreviation for the market’s full name, the “Marketing Organization for Farmers Market”, or MOF), those hopes and aspirations come neatly wrapped in banana leaves, enclosed in pudgy plastic bags, garnished with a handful of deep-fried basil. 

But even in this nirvana of ready-made curries and coconutty sweets, there is a hierarchy — the creme de la creme. In this bewildering matrix of fried food and sifted spices, where to go? Below, the best of the best:

Just a fraction of Mae Malee's offerings

1. There is no gaeng (curry/soup) vendor better than Mae Malee Gaeng. In Bangkok, period. From the tried-and-true old favorites (green chicken and beef massaman curries) to regional specialties (gaeng thrai pla, or spicy Southern fish entrail stew, and the bitter, piquant stir-fried sator) to hard-to-find gems (like the veggie-heavy gaeng liang, meant for breast-feeding mothers) — Mae Malee has it all, a one-stop shop to covering every inch of your dinner table.

Mae Malee's steamed seafood curry

2. But it would be boring to live by Mae Malee alone. Sudjai Gai Yang is known across the country for is succulent grilled chicken — be it factory-raised or gai baan, referred to in English with the euphemism “traditional”, but better described as “free range” (of course, some Thais also refer to them as “scrawny”). There is no country that loves its poultry more.

Butterflied grilled chicken at Sudjai Gai Yang

 3. In a sea of nam prik (pounded pepper dip) vendors, Nawanporn nam prik gapi stands out (and a proper Thai doesn’t throw a dinner without some sort of nam prik). The namesake offering (shrimp paste pepper dip) is earthy, fresh, full of the deep bass note of flavor that leaves some in rhapsodies and others with a grimace. Funny how shrimp paste has become synonymous with Thai food; it was brought to Thailand centuries ago by the Chinese.

Grilled river fish, a perfect accompaniment to shrimp paste dip

4. Mae Prapaisri sells the best mango sticky rice in the market. Sure, it’s a well-loved treat known to anyone who has ever had a mouthful of pad thai, but there are circles within circles, differing degrees of excellence in an already excellent dish.  Here, the mango is always ripe and succulent, the rice glossy and firm, the coconut milk rich and robust.

A different dessert known as khao lam -- sticky rice stuffed in bamboo

5. For the very best of “old-style” Thai eating, look no further than the end of a Thai meal, where the food becomes its richest and sweetest. And the richest, sweetest dessert vendor of all is Gao Pi Nong, purveyor of all that is drenched in coconut milk, fashioned into eggy golden threads, stuffed with coconut custard, or boiled in rice flour.

Gao Pi Nong's black sticky rice with taro in coconut milk

And that’s it. Check out Aor Thor Kor and sample these wares for yourselves. Or find your own favorites. You won’t be disappointed. (Open 6-20.00 daily. MRT: Kampaeng Phet, BTS: Mo Chit).

More Aor Thor Kor fare

(Photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, chicken, curries, dessert, food, food stalls, markets