Category Archives: seafood

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

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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

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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.

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