Last Supper

Hotpot at the Ice Palace Restaurant in Harbin, China

Inspired by this post on Couchfish, I began trawling through my photos for some memorable meals of my own. I chanced upon this photo taken at the beginning of a meal in Harbin and realized that this unassuming pile of meat, noodles and vegetables was one of the most memorable meals I’d ever had — but not for the reasons you might think.

What this photo fails to convey is the depth of rage and dismay I’d felt at the time I took it, when greeted with a restaurant meant to mimic the experience of sitting in sub-zero temperatures outside … after having just come in from outside. I remember the interminable hour or two spent walking around the Ice Festival in Harbin, which, yes, is beautiful and yes, very unusual for Bangkok-based me, but also, after 15 minutes, damn cold. You see, temperatures in Harbin at night hover around -30 to -40 degrees, the kind of cold that makes it hard to walk down the street at night in search for a nightcap (which explains why the only places offering nightcaps are Russian discos with exorbitant cover charges, but I digress). It’s the kind of cold that freezes the tears on your eyelashes. The kind of cold that makes you dream of the moment when you are able to peel away your layers, sit down over a beer and luxuriate in the new warmth of your dining room.

So why the $&*(% would anyone want to emerge from the outdoors to sit an in interior modeled after the outdoors? Apparently, many people want to do this. The Ice Palace Restaurant in the Shangri-La is very popular, boasting -18 degree Celsius interiors that make a fine film of ice appear on your meat and vegetables every few minutes — just like in the outdoors, I’m sure, when diners used to congregate on sidewalks to scrounge up some warmth for themselves via boiling vats of water. A meal at this restaurant is a recreation of this life-affirming bonding experience, but alas it was not an experience I could do justice to. I lasted 15 minutes, coming to the realization that, when it came to far northern China, I was a mere poseur with the local cuisine.

I took better advantage of some other meals, probably because heating was involved. In Sharon, Pennsylvania, I took a pilgrimage to the restaurant considered the mecca for hot wing lovers not able to make it to Buffalo, New York. I remember feeling proud having made it through this entire platter of hot wings, even after they made me sign a silly waiver:

Atomic wings at Quaker Steak & Lube

In transit and in a hurry, I remember eagerly seizing the first opportunity I had to eat my first real-honest-to-God Chicago dog …

… at O’Hare Airport.

And then there was that beautiful meal all the way on the other side of the world, in Cuenca, Ecuador, at Tiesto’s, home of the sizzling hot plate platter. It was the perfect goodbye right before we were due to go home:

The pass at Tiesto’s

I also remember dozens and dozens of meals at this sushi bar, where chef Ryu always made sure to feed us the choicest fish he’d found that day. It was the first place I’d ever enjoyed shirako grilled on a slab of pink salt, or had a shot of hot sake spiked with the guts of a sea urchin, considered to be energizing in the cold weather. Chef Ryu had gone to high school with Terry, our family friend, and meals there made me feel like the luckiest person in the world.

Chef Ryu at his sushi bar in Tokyo

But we can’t forget Bangkok, where I think the first meal I would seek out when I’m able is the kai kata (egg in a pan) at Kopi Hya Tai Kee:

As for my most memorable meal as of this moment, well, I guess it would have to be one of the last ones I’ve had in a restaurant since this latest COVID wave took hold. At Rub Lom (Breezy Point) in Prachuab Khiri Khan (7/2 Pin Anusorn Rd., +6632-601-677), we enjoyed a veritable feast, ordering a platter of crabs, bitter melon with egg, stir-fried curried crabmeat, catfish stir-fried in wild ginger, chilies and green peppercorns, and a nourishing gang liang studded with fresh shrimp and vegetables:

Gang liang
Stir-fried catfish
Crabs

It was eerily quiet except for us and one other table, but the beach was right across the street from us, and the good food after a long car ride left us almost giddy. When I look back on this meal, it is the giddiness that I remember, and not the wild haring around trying to get everyone from point A to point B. I am hoping that, when I look back on this period a year from now, it will be only the great food that I remember and nothing else.

The sign at Prachuab Khiri Khan

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What’s Cooking: Duck larb

Roast duck larb with crispy duck skin, lime leaves and toasted rice kernels

I’m in what could be fairly characterized as a COVID lockdown/rainy season/away from home-induced rut, and when that happens all the ghosts of past regrets like to come up and haunt me when I least expect them. To drive those ghosts away, I have been doing a lot of yoga, reading mystery novels and even cooking — something I have had to force myself to do every day because I have been enveloped in a depression masking as a lazy stupor.

One of the dishes I’ve put my hand to is this duck larb, rustled up after a family friend sent what I can conservatively estimate as 10 Chinese-style roast ducks to our doorstep in Phuket. The meat was finely hand-chopped (good, mindless work that also helps with any latent aggression) and the skin lifted from the carcass and re-crisped in smoking hot oil along with dried chilies and a handful of torn magrood lime leaves. The meat was tossed in an Isaan-style larb dressing and mixed in with toasted, pulverized rice kernels and the crispy bits at the last minute. It was heaven with a big bamboo basket of sticky rice, the juicy leaves of fresh gem lettuce, and a handful of sawtooth coriander (when did we start calling it culantro?).

Behold, the recipe below. Of course, if you haven’t picked up an extra roast duck from your friendly local duck purveyor, you can still thaw out a couple of duck legs from the freezer, peel off the skin to crisp in hot oil later, and mince the nice tasty meat to your satisfaction.

Duck Larb (for 4-6 people)

  • 500 g Chinese-style roast duck, skin removed and meat finely chopped
  • 6 Tbsps water
  • 2 Tbsps fish sauce
  • 2 tsps salt
  • 2-3 Tbsps dried chili powder (or more, if you like it spicy)
  • 6 shallots, sliced thinly
  • 2-3 Tbsps toasted rice kernels, ground to a powder
  • 5-6 kaffir/magrood lime leaves, torn
  • Handful of dried chilies
  • Unscented cooking oil
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Fresh vegetables to go with your larb (cucumbers, mint leaves, coriander leaves, lettuce leaves)
  • Steamed or sticky rice
  1. First, make your toasted rice powder, which is probably the most complicated part of this recipe. In a flat nonstick pan, pour an even layer of white rice kernels (the better to control the heat) over medium-high heat. When the rice starts turning golden and the smell reaches your nostrils, turn the heat down to medium-low and shake the pan a bit. Continue shaking/tossing the kernels to get them as evenly golden-brown as possible. They should be the color of a salad bowl from Ikea. After about 6-9 minutes (this really depends on the heat of your stove and how good you are at tossing the kernels in the pan), you should be finished. Let the kernels rest for a few minutes. Then grind your kernels in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder or, if you’re really in a pinch, on a cutting board with the bottom of a clean pan.
  2. In a clean saucepan, heat over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles. Add your 6 Tbsps of water and add your duck immediately after. Shuffle it around in the pan; even if the meat sticks, the juices will eventually come out and help the bits on their journey to the land of the cooked. This should take about 3-5 minutes.
  3. In another pan, heat an inch of cooking oil over high heat. Crisp your torn lime leaves, working quickly and set to drain on a plate lined with a paper towel. Do the same with the dried chilies.
  4. Transfer duck and juices to a bowl and add shallots and rice powder.
  5. Add salt and fish sauce, tasting as you go.
  6. Add dried chili powder and taste to see if you want more.
  7. Add lime juice and taste.
  8. Mix in deep-fried lime leaves and dried chilies and serve immediately.

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Food delivery heroes

In light of all of the dispiriting news coming out of Bangkok recently, I wanted to write a more upbeat post about the people who make our day-to-day lives easier. Without a doubt, that means writing about the food delivery workers who help me live my life as a semi-professional couch potato. Thanks to them, I have enjoyed delicious noodles courtesy of JC Yen Ta Fo, scrumptious chocolate babka from Kad Kokoa, French-style baguette sandwiches from Vivin Grocery, Shake Shack-like burgers from Bun Meat and Cheese, meltingly soft filled doughnuts from Holy Donut Paczkarnia, vegan empanadas from Courageous Kitchen, and even Chicago-style pizza, thanks to Papa’s Chicago Pizza. I usually contact these purveyors directly through Facebook Messenger or Instagram. It’s a big food world out there, courtesy of the intrepid small business entrepreneurs and motorcycle delivery people who are able to make it happen.

An order of “hang” (dry), sen mee (rice vermicelli), “piset” (XL), from JC Yen Ta Fo

But if I were to single out one place (and I’m afraid this is exactly what I am doing right here) then it would have to be Little Market. Their Philly cheesesteak (with house-made cheese whiz!) is what has gotten me through online learning with my 11-year-old son — or rather, the promise of it, as in “If you do this homework on time, you will get a cheesesteak from Little Market.” No other entreaties (“You will have to repeat year 6”, “You will be an 18-year-old elementary school student”, “You will never be able to leave the house”) have ever had as much power or impact on him as the possibility of an entire melted-cheese-on-grilled-beef hoagie all to himself. So, thank you, Little Market, for almost singlehandedly getting my son into junior high school.

Little Market’s Philly cheesesteak

I know it’s hard to reach beyond your comfort zone, especially with vaccines still scarce on the ground and the city in semi-lockdown. When times become challenging, people often fall back onto tried-and-true comfort choices. If that means Mama noodles from the convenience store or Pizza Company or a simple fried egg on rice, you do you. But if you do get the urge to take your tastebuds on a flavor trip (all the better since it’s hard to go on trips ourselves), reach out to your fave food purveyors (UPDATE: unless they’re in a mall :-(). You can even sate your curiosity about something new by contacting the businesses above. Just by eating, you can help out our F&B industry (and in the process, the overall economy). What could be simpler than that?

And if you desire taking a more active role in helping the Bangkok restaurant scene, contact Food for Fighters, which is always searching for people who can contribute food, packaging, money and/or their own time and energy to feed people on the frontlines of the pandemic.

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