Category Archives: seafood

Glutton Abroad: Bongiorno Lampedusa

Tuna skewers and white mullet dusted with pistachio, garnish of the gods

Tuna skewers and white mullet dusted with pistachio, garnish of the gods

I have known The Italian for 22 years. During our freshman year at Bryn Mawr, she lived at the end of my hall in Pembroke West. Even then, she was an effortlessly chic little blond tornado, a glamorous chain smoker with an Italian-accented Stevie Nicks croak, a high-heeled aficionado of Valentino and Missoni at a time when I was still wearing red plaid pinafores from Talbots picked out by my mother.

So when the time came for The Italian’s 40th birthday party, I was on board. A shame it was at a place that the Italian embassy workers in Bangkok claimed didn’t exist. “Lampedusa?” they said. “No, that is not in Italy.”

We checked our birthday invitations again. “But it is Italian,” we said. “It’s an island that belongs to Italy.” But only a phone call from an actual Italian person would persuade them. Even then, they were skeptical. No one had ever heard of this little island before, including me.

It turns out Lampedusa is the southernmost part of Italy, a pebble skipping off the toe of the boot, landing somewhere between Tunisia and Sicily. The island spans nearly 8 miles, and is home to about 4,500 people, who speak “Lampedusan” — a mish-mash of Italian, French and Arabic that is incomprehensible to the regular outsider. The dry, rocky soil means vegetables can be hard to come by, as is most meat (although a herd of goats did live nearby, roaming the hills around our rented cottage in an area charmingly known as “the Bay of Death”). The only thing this place abounded in: seafood, and plenty of it.

While Lampedusans may be considered a breed apart, their cooking is purely Italian — Sicilian, to be exact. The mussels and clams that proliferate in the azure waters around the island are melded with scampi, garlic and tomatoes in a sauce for pasta. Sometimes, bits of tuna or red snapper are mixed with spaghetti and crowned in pistachio dust in the way a Roman would scatter grated Parmesan. Mullet and tuna are simply grilled, or, if it’s a fancy place, once again dusted with pistachio (and then grilled). Bits of octopus and/or scampi are marinated and served as a ceviche; rings of calamari are lightly breaded and deep-fried.

A photo of marinara sauce on the boat, blurred by the tossing waves

A photo of seafood marinara sauce on the boat, blurred by the tossing waves

As for the sweets, fuhgeddaboudit (I’m sorry. This is the last time I do that, I promise). There is a ton of gelato, of course (I am told the best “tests” of a gelato’s quality are the pistachio and banana flavors). There is Sicilian-style granite, or finely shaved ice (coffee is, inexplicably, the most popular flavor, it would seem). There are ice cream cakes mixing coffee, pistachio and strawberry flavors. So there are all these things, but only one thing matters to me, and that is cannoli: tubes of fried dough that are filled with a ricotta-augmented cream. They are super-sweet and occasionally delectable treats while eaten at a place like Veniero’s in the East Village; in Italy, they are the greatest things to have happened to the world since Michelangelo and da Vinci.

Sicilian-style cannoli at Pizzeria Dell'Amicizia

Sicilian-style cannoli at Pizzeria Dell’Amicizia

But all this fabulousness has a price, of course. Over the week, I hit a bit of a seafood wall — there is just too damn much fish. TOO MUCH FISH! Fish, everywhere, forever and ever, purple mountains of it, and fruited plains too. You see, Lampedusans love their seafood, especially their sgombro — a bonito-like fish of which they are inordinately proud that is eaten in everything including sandwiches, paired with capers and onions. Let me tell you how much they love their seafood: there are SEVERAL types of fish-based baby food. Mull(et) over that for a while.

Fish baby food on the supermarket shelf

Fish baby food on the supermarket shelf

Meanwhile, if the water is a little rough, ships can’t cross over, and you are left with a few heads of wilting romaine lettuce, a couple of withered Sicilian cucumbers, and the disheartening sight of NOTHING at the meat counter:

Karen, in line for nothing

Karen, in line for nothing

At a low point, my husband and I stop at Gerry Fast Food, where we are told we can get a fix of some sweet, sweet, meat. What we get: boiled beef lung and tongue, spritzed with lemon juice and enclosed in a plain hamburger bun. We eat all of it. But we never want to go back to that ever again.






Filed under food, Italy, restaurant, seafood

What’s Cooking: Jay Fai Take 2


Jay Fai’s spicy lemongrass soup

(Note: spoilers for “Game of Thrones” viewers and A Storm of Swords readers, published in 2000)

(Note take 2: I already tried making this soup. What gives? Unhappy with the first version, I tried it again. I am happy to report that, like “A Song of Ice and Fire”, this soup gets better!)

There are rules to things. Although I’m all for culinary experimentation, and switching things up for almost everything, some rules are set in stone(heart), and the breaking of them renders you cursed in the eyes of gods and men. One such rule: the guest right. Once you have partaken of your host’s bread and salt, you are supposed to rest assured that your host won’t start taking his brand-new set of Wusthof knives to your internal organs.

Yes, the “Red Wedding” was tragic, the King in the North was killed through black treachery instead of on the battlefield, Robb is dreamy, yada yada yada. But what angered me most was the hosts’ callous violation of the guest right, this most important of all rules governing Westeros, more so than even kinslaying or having sex with your sister. THASS JUST PLAIN RUDE. What’s next? Forgetting to wipe your blade before moving on to your next hapless wedding guest-slash-victim? Allowing stray blood spatters to sully the mashed neeps and jellied calves’ brains? Starting the slaughter before anyone’s had even a bite of wedding cake? WHAT IS UP WITH THAT. One lesson learned: never, ever go to Argus Filch’s house for dinner.

Immutable rule no. 2: tom yum, the spicy lemongrass soup served at almost every Thai restaurant you know, is an infusion. That’s what makes it the most Thai of soups, unlike dishes like gaeng jued (clear broth soup), which is adopted from the Chinese and hence based on a broth. The base of tom yum is water. You add all your aromatics and seasonings to it after it comes to a boil.  

That’s probably part of the reason why it’s so easy to mess around with, and why modern-day cooks have started to play fast and loose with this poor soup, adding everything from nam prik pow (roasted chili paste) to milk and even sweetened condensed milk (I AM SHOCKED). The fact is, as great an invention as tom yum goong is, the contemporary tongue wants MORE. They want the drama, they want the spectacle, they want the gore. They want to be surprised. 

So it’s no wonder, then, that even “old-style” eateries like Chote Chitr are dressing their tom yums up to better fit in with the times. Here, Chote Chitr includes fat tiger prawns, yes, and a healthy dash of milk:


Chote Chitr’s tom yum goong

The result is sweeter and fattier than the bracing, astringent herbal brew you (I) might have expected. It’s not really tom yum. It’s something else. How to make a proper rendition of this dish, but make sure it has enough flavor?

Well, you could take a cue from Jay Fai’s (1,500 baht) version, which caters to modern tastes while staying true to the spirit of the soup. In Jay Fai’s case, the difference is most certainly roasted chili paste. Although it is not strictly traditional, it adds the heat and flavor to an infusion without murking up all the flavors. Another thing: scraping the shrimp heads into the water, and allowing the heads to “infuse” alongside the kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and galangal. This one hopes that — unlike breaking the guest right — these relatively newfangled additions will not curse you in the eyes of god and men.

Jay Fai’s tom yum goong (serves 4)

– 5 cups water

– 6 jumbo prawns with heads, deveined

– 6 large slices galangal

– 5-7 kaffir lime leaves (it’s a lot, but if you are cooking in the spirit of Jay Fai, you will want this soup to “go up to 11” — her personal motto.)

– 4 lemongrass bulbs (purple part), bruised

– 1 shallot, sliced

– 4-8 red chilies, bruised (this depends on your heat tolerance)

– 1 heaping tsp roasted chili paste

– 1 cup mushrooms (I used oyster, but straw or button mushrooms also fine)

– 1 cup young coconut shoots (if you can’t find these, you might want to use something else that is tender yet crunchy, like peeled white asparagus)

– 5 Tbs fish sauce

– juice of 2 limes

To make:

1. Bring water to a boil. Stir in roasted chili paste.

2. Add galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chilies. Allow to infuse for about 5 minutes, then bring to a simmer.

3. Add shrimp heads, first scraping their contents into the soup. Wait 5 minutes, then season with fish sauce. Add mushrooms and coconut shoots.

4. Wait half an hour, or until shoots are tender. Skim gunk off of surface and discard shrimp heads.

5. Turn off heat, then add cleaned shrimp, and stir to turn the shrimp “pink”.  Season with lime juice. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly.

6. Serve immediately, paired with rice and a Thai-style omelet, or in individual small bowls.


My improved tom yum


Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, seafood, Thailand

Strange combinations

O-tao in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

There are moments in everyone’s lives that are so strange, they might as well have been scripted. One of mine was a scant few years ago, during my second pregnancy. Well into my second trimester and approaching my third, I went to Macau with my husband, his family, and his family friends — getting one last plane trip in before airlines stopped letting me and my big belly on the plane.

Macau is an interesting place, full of an interesting history that seems to get shoved to the wayside somewhere in favor of the new thing in town: casinos. Lots of them. Like Las Vegas, it’s now a place built on dreams, full of places built to look like other places, and other places meant to spend lots of money. It was also something that, aside from the food, we were singularly unable to share in: never gamblers, we awkwardly gawked our way through the lobby every day, watching the strange dances of the dealers and the hopeful, window-shopping our way through this and everything else. And it was definitely not a place for 6-month-pregnant me: just a few weeks before getting relegated to a wheelchair because of my enormous weight, I could only walk a few minutes at a time before having to sit down and rest.

Not surprisingly, all that money changing hands tends to draw an interesting element, especially at night. There were an awful lot of beautiful girls milling around the shopping mall, looking like they were waiting for someone. Maybe they really were waiting, scanning the horizon for their friends, hatching plans to see a movie, getting ready to share some hot wings. I honestly don’t know. But when I sat down to rest my stretched pelvis for the umpteenth time on the long and arduous walk back to our hotel room, my husband sat next to me, and a girl sat next to him, and promptly laid her head on my husband’s shoulder.

Let me set this scene for you. Me, a gigantic bulbous mammoth with a huge protruding belly. My husband, next to me, sitting stock still. My husband’s parents and their friends, standing behind us. Girl, apparently very sleepy, with her head on my husband’s shoulder. No one says anything. Some female passersby look, cluck at this strange combination of people on a bench, and shake their heads: whether at me, a big ol’ fatso who cannot just stand up and ask someone/anyone what is going on; my husband, who cannot shrug his shoulder and walk away; or at the girl, who is very, very tired — I don’t know. What I do know is that it is appalling, but in the funniest possible way. If I ever, at that moment, harbored that question of Do I Look Fat in This? the answer was: oh, most definitely yes. Otherwise, why would that lady decide to sit there, cuddling with my husband? Was there a question of This Is Weird and What Should We Do? Well, certainly. This was a moment that required examining my own feelings: surprise, indecision, humiliation, check. Exhilaration? Yes, that too. What happens next? Call my bluff then, Life. Just do it. Maybe I am a gambler after all …

… (although not much of one, if your parents are just milling around, looking at bath salts close by. She eventually got up and walked away).

The point of this long and tedious story is, strange combinations excite similarly strange feelings. It might not make sense, but it somehow works. This is something the Hokkien Chinese in Phuket — a community largely responsible for Phuket’s street food scene today — have taken to heart. Want oysters slathered atop a mix of egg, flour and cubed taro and dressed in lashings of minced garlic, soy sauce, bean sprouts and pork rinds? Sure, why not? How about thick yellow noodles fried with pork, chicken, fish and crispy greens, topped with a raw egg yolk, raw slivered shallots and, again, pork rinds? Of course.

Hokkien fried noodles at Mee Ton Poe in Phuket

O-tao, the Hokkien-style oyster omelet dish, is best represented at Ji Piena stall that has been around for nearly 80 years in one location or another in downtown Phuket. Its current incarnation, over 40 years old, is at a nondescript stall along Soi Phoonphol 7, where the hardworking chef churns out plate upon plate of o-tao topped with oysters, shrimp and/or squid (there is also a vegetarian version), as well as a small roster of curries atop kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles).

Ji Pien in Phuket

For fried noodle lovers, there is also Mee Ton Poewhich enjoys two locations, but I always go to the one on Phuket Road. A vast range of fried noodle dishes awaits, many a variation of the mee pad Hokkien (Hokkien fried noodles) on nearly every menu in town, but the real treat here is, besides the amiable service, the curries the staff eat at lunch. I’m not kidding. They are homemade and delicious: fiery gaeng trai pla (Southern Thai fish entrail curry), or the milder and no-less-flavorful gaeng prik (chili curry).

And if you still haven’t had enough of strange combinations, Phuket has you covered on the dessert side of things too: o-aew, a shaved ice dessert laden with bananas, colored syrup, and a jelly made from soaking o-aew seeds in water and said to protect diners from getting ulcers. Where to get it? At the moment, it’s available at a place called — where else? — O-Aew, across from the entrance to Soi Sun Uthit.

O-aew in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)


Leave a comment

Filed under Asia, bamee, dessert, food, food stalls, noodles, Phuket, seafood, Southern Thailand, Thailand