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.

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under food, Italy, restaurant, seafood

What’s Cooking: Jay Fai Take 2

Image

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:

Image

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.

Image

My improved tom yum

6 Comments

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

Adventures in Thonburi

Hoy klang, or “blood cockles”, across the river

“Run,” he said. “If you want to leave, go now. Or you won’t be able to leave until closing time.”

For the last three hours, Christina and I had been sitting riverside, enjoying a beautiful sunset, and getting gently — but irretrievably — sloshed on a steady diet of designer cocktails with no food. Every move we made to leave was greeted with exhortations to “Stay! Enjoy!” by the bar’s disarmingly generous owner, cocktails turning into glasses of wine and then wine bottles as a silent young man smiled blankly next to her. It was like being held prisoner in a booze-filled tower by an especially charming sorceress. And the smiling sphinx at our table was our way out.

So we did what any person of honor would do in our situation. We ran. We ditched. We didn’t ask about money. We didn’t look back. Later, floating for what seemed like an eternity on the river, I thought of karma as the wine threatened to make a reappearance on the Chao Phraya, the boat bobbing its slow, aimless way to freedom. But we had more pressing things to think about. Like dinner.

Thonburi is often ignored, because it’s all the way over there, across the river, in the no man’s land also known as Collection of Big Places that are Hard to Get To. It’s the Queens of Bangkok. You have to really want to go. Tonight, Christina was giving me two good reasons to trek over from my safe place of cake shops and sushi bars.

Our shrimp, pre-baking, at Jay Piek

The first, called Jay Piek (Charoen Rat Road near Soi 1 at Wong Wien Yai, 086-613-0587) specializes in something of a rarity in Thai street food stalls — the Thai-Chinese dish known as goong ob woonsen, prawns wrapped in glass vermicelli and baked in a metal container, a method which ensures maximum juiciness and aroma. What sets the shrimp at Jay Piek apart is the seasoning: packed full of scallions and coriander roots, coriander seeds, shreds of pork fat, and a finishing dash of ground white pepper before it is sent over to your table.

The finished product, in half-light

There is also crab given similar treatment, grilled salt-encrusted seabass, baked mussels in herbs, and the Thai shellfish known as “blood cockles” because of the blood-like liquid they ooze when they are cooked. It’s a small menu, but a smart one, and Jay Piek — as its constantly-crowded tables attest — seems to do it the best.

But as awesome as Jay Piek is, we found something even better. I mean, people talk about things being a “revelation” a lot, and that’s when you know to turn off the computer and never go back, but I’m doing it now. Because this nameless ice cream place in the tent at Wong Wien Lek, fronted by satay and egg noodle vendors and flanked by a Chinese restaurant called Ah Gu, is my personal revelation, the best thing I’ve had in years.

Serving a type of old-style ice cream known as i thim kai dip (raw egg ice cream), this stall specializes in a dessert that has gone out of vogue for obvious reasons. The ice cream container must be very, very cold. The eggs must be very, very fresh, coddled right then and there. The vendor must be very, very sure that those yolks will be frozen.

“Raw egg ice cream”, pre-freezing

But when everything is right, the stars are aligned, and the vendor finally looks your way, the results are mind-blowingly delicious: vanilla-scented cream shot through with streaks of savory sunshine, an extra oomph and push to something that already has a whole lot of egg yolks. What’s one more, right? And when it’s dotted with look chid, or syrupy lotus seeds, and set in front of you after what seems like an eternity spent waiting for that yolk to freeze, it is hard not to consume the entire three or four scoops, all by yourself.

Streaks of sunshine

7 Comments

Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, seafood, Thai-Chinese, Thailand, Thonburi

Turning Japanese

Otaru street food: grilled oysters

My friend Karen, while in college, once sang this golden oldie by The Vapors while waiting in line at the college cafeteria. A person nearby (who was not Asian, btw) told her she was offended by the song. This one anecdote tells you a lot about Bryn Mawr College. But very little about Japan.

Since I too can look up things on Wikipedia, I discovered that “Turning Japanese” is actually a song about youthful alienation and becoming something you didn’t expect. Well, if that is the case, many of us are Japanese. And intrinsic to this image of being “Japanese” is the idea — not too far removed from reality in Tokyo, at least — of a life perpetually on the go, snatching sustenance, T. Rex-like, any way one can, greedily and quickly.

That’s the instinct that coaxed ramen from China into Japan. But it’s not the only Japanese “street food” out there. Unlike Thai street food, which is, quite literally, food enjoyed or at least purchased while on the street, a lot of Japanese street food hews closer to the Western idea: portable food that you can eat while walking (Thais hate to eat while moving. Don’t know why, but that’s the way it is).

A good snapshot of this type of Japanese street food can be had on the 200 meter-or-so walk up to Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. This walk melds the everything from the expected taiyaki (baked sea bream-shaped cakes stuffed with red bean paste) and senbei (freshly-made rice crackers, often wrapped in nori seaweed) to handfuls of surprising delights like lacquered, grilled chunks of sweet potato and aisumonaka, which are basically ice cream sandwiches. Yum!

Kibidango-mochi are grilled rice cakes dipped in a sweet sesame powder; as with everything that is served on the skewer, you are meant to eat it right there and return the skewer, which kind of ruins my whole point about this type of Japanese street food. Oh well! There is manju (steamed Chinese-style buns stuffed with savory fillings like minced pork) and agemanju (fried buns), in this case usually stuffed with something sweet and for that reason, infinitely more popular — the most popular stand boasts every type of filling from pumpkin to green tea to cherry.

Nothing, however, touches my favorite, the bizarrely-named wazatokowashi, deep-fried, light, fluffy dough cooked in front of your eyes and bearing an elusively salty flavor reminiscent of Cheetos. There is nothing better than Cheetos.

The best thing ever

Hokkaido has its own kind of street food. A good city to sample it is Otaru which, while seen as “too commercial” by my Japanese friends, is at least charming, tourist-friendly and has these mini-stands set up by smart seafood wholesalers catering to people who simply can’t wait until they get home for a taste of the Japanese ocean. The grills are inside, just past the doorway, fronted by tables where diners cluster like hobos over chopsticks and bottles of soy sauce.

For your street food consideration

Yes — not only is that hulking big sea snail thingie (sazae) available, but so are scallops grilled with miso, giant sea crab legs, clams and oysters, cooked in their own juices. It is good, and it is cheap. A shame that it is also freezing.

An unlikely street food that has almost completely obliterated its humble origins is a food that everyone knows and associates with fine dining: sushi. Believe it or not, it started out as a street food in Edo (basically ancient Tokyo), where fresh fish is in abundance and easy to obtain. Today, Edo-style sushi basically refers to nigiri, but not the big ol’ slabs of fish flesh that are so trendy in a lot of sushi bars abroad. What makes sushi such a great experience in Otaru is that it has taken a cue from Sapporo’s numerous ramen alleys and created its own “Sushiya Dori”, a street lined almost completely with sushi bars. Heaven on earth or what?

Otaru omakase (chef's choice) platter

One thing you might find at your sushi bar (but is definitely not a street food): shirako, which I’m told means “white children”. My friend Yukari first introduced it to me when I moved to Tokyo, but waited until I finished my bowl of creamy, cloudy glob drenched in ponzu to tell me what it was. Some other Japanese people (who work in tourism PR, go figure!) then tried to tell me it was not what it was, but guys, I know how to Google. It’s the sperm sacs of male cod. See, it’s hard to pull a fast one on me (if I have an Internet connection).

Luckily, it tastes much better than human sperm. Sorry, humans! Better luck next time.

Better than you think

6 Comments

Filed under Asia, fish, food, food stalls, Japan, Japanese, restaurant, seafood

Hustling, HK-style

A trio of cold appetizers at Da Ping Huo

Our mission, if we were to accept it, seemed simple enough: in 48 hours in Hong Kong, stuff our faces with as much interesting food as we could. Full of hope and empty of stomach, James and I boarded a plane at daybreak, me slightly the worse for wear after an anniversary dinner at a roadside Isaan stall. The places we were to try were all new, completely blank slates; the food, a staggeringly large amount. If there ever was a time for James to decide he couldn’t stand me and try to drown me in the nearest vat of leftover congee, that time would be now.

A hurried dash through the airport, a quick hop on the train and a confused cab ride later, we wandered along Ship Street with luggage in tow, stopping only once (or maybe twice) to ask for directions. Our destination: Bo Innovation, which, like pickled field crabs, or fermented anchovy, seems to inspire strong feelings in all but the un-foodiest of diners. Labelling itself as “X-treme Chinese cuisine”, BI is helmed by chef Alvin Leung Jr., who “does to Chinese food what Picasso did to art” — impressive indeed. It’s also the kind of outrageous claim that drives diners of a certain unpleasant temperament (me) to find nitpicky fault with everything to emerge from the kitchen.

Trompe de l'oeil "shrimp head" at Bo Innovation

There is no need to be nitpicky here: it is not hard to find fault with the food at Bo Innovation. It’s like Chef Alvin is a “Top Chef” contestant, it’s the Quickfire Challenge, and he whipped up a few dishes that “tell you something about who he is and where he comes from” in 2 hours’ time. A sliver of steak with soy-truffle sauce, predictably yummy save for the addition of “rolled” noodles which add nothing to the dish; “molecular” xiao long bao, or steamed soup dumpling, a spherified jelly that manages to mimic the real thing, but with much less flavor; the pretentiously-named “Dead Garden”, a green savory mousse topped with “soil” and dried enoki mushrooms (is it safe to say we should cool it with the neo-naturalist interpretations of Asian cuisine? They never work). Finally, a a chocolate dessert that James says resembles the Halloween chocolate you find at the back of your closet in April, stale and crumbly; the best thing I can say is that it was not served on a bed of dry ice.

This is the thing about “extreme cuisine”. Except in very rare cases, a lot of it begs the question: Why? Why’d you do it? Only a few chefs are able to answer that question. That’s not to say I hated it; actually, I had a very nice time complaining about stuff. I liked the handmade “lo mein”, part of a dish which mimicked (that again) the flavor and aroma of dried shrimp; the timings were excellent, with hardly any wait between courses; and, coming from a country where the vaunted service often means “smile and run away when someone asks you a question”, the service was smooth and efficient. Needless to say, it is an extremely well-run restaurant, and a fun way to pass the day, once, if you are willing to spend a whole lot of money while passing it.

A place I’d have no problem going to again is just as touristy, but more upfront about it. Da Ping Huo (L/G, Hilltop Plaza, 49 Hollywood Road) is a private kitchen that mixes some pretty tasty Sichuan cooking with an ambiance that veers between “homey” and “down-at-heel” and genuine hospitality from the husband-and-wife team. Despite being completely useless with my chopsticks and splashing my Golden Girls-in-Boca-Raton ensemble with glass noodles, I was charmed by a whole litany of things: the mouth-numbing ma bo tofu, the unctuous stewed “chili beef”, the, er, unusual wall paintings, which resemble what Han Solo and Princess Leia might have had made to commemorate their wedding, and of course, the chef’s opera singing at the end of the evening (what range!).

Da Ping Huo's chili beef

There are things we didn’t get. A soup of what appeared to be purely lettuce looked like “something out of the Moosewood cookbook,” said James. There was also a duo of steamed pork and taro that resembled something the Pennsylvania Amish might have served up on barn-raising days. But these are small quibbles, and so not that much fun to complain about. It was worth every minute it took to find the place, wandering the streets in high heels and praying to God I don’t fall on my face onto Lord-knows-what smeared onto the sidewalk.

Finally, there is The Chairman, for which we prepared by WORKING OUT IN THE FITNESS ROOM (don’t say we didn’t try our best). This was the only place we didn’t find Japanese executives, or tourists of any kind, really. Perhaps this is why they appeared extremely reluctant to let us through the door. After making a reservation for noon, a server came out to tell us that the restaurant was open at 12:15, blatantly disregarding the sign in front listing the opening time as “12:00”. After planting ourselves in the doorway and refusing to budge until they relented (hey, we were hungry), we were ushered in a few minutes later, and kindly shown a menu from which our server pointed out his recommendations. What he advised: a delicious passel of clams in chili jam, accented with Thai basil and red chili a la hoy pad cha; roasted lamb belly, thick and slightly smoky; deep-fried pork spareribs coated in a sauce James likened to “what you’d find in a pu pu platter”; a soup that “tastes like something you’d eat during a famine”, said James, who was not turning out to be a great fan of Chinese soups.  The waiter also relented and allowed us to order a cold Sichuan-style salad of julienned pig’s ear and tripe, paired with slivered Chinese pear, which ended up being underwhelming despite the textural diversity (moral of the story: listen to your waiter!)

Clams at the Chairman

I am ashamed to say this was the last big meal we could manage in HK. For dinner that night, after an uncomfortable few hours toddling through a mall and a dyspeptic spell in a movie theater, we settled down at the nearest place we could roll ourselves over to — an Irish pub — and consoled ourselves with salads.

Later that night, I was so hungry, I ate my complimentary fruit plate.

8 Comments

Filed under Asia, beef, Chinese, food, Hong Kong, restaurant, seafood

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

 

12 Comments

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