Thursday, March 29, 2007

Take A Fruit Stand

How do you work this thing?[Nate sez]: What's sweet, succulent, beautiful, a little prickly, and beloved by all? well...yours truly of course - But the more widely available, and much cheaper, Thai Fruit is a more apt answer to the above query. On practically every damn corner of Bangkok, on every island paradise, in every alley, nook, and cranny is a fruit stand selling whole or prepared fruit.

People take their produce very seriously here. Once you get used to this insane abundance of 30 cent servings of juicy, crunchy pineapple, bizarre but addictive sweet soaked green guava, watermelon, cantaloupe, green mango, asian pear, strawberries, mangosteen....

Let's rap shall we.

The all encompassing, ever popular, Mangosteen.

IMG_5533No other fruit carries such a large following these days in gourmet circles as the mangosteen, with it's hard, green stemmy top and eggplantian body, one cuts the top off to reveal the delicate white flesh segments inside. It has been touted as the single greatest fruit you'll ever eat.

Let me tell you something. We bought a bucket of these, tore into it like ravenous wolves, and when we emerged, we looked at each other - confused - because there was something seriously awry. It's called hype. Now maybe we didn't eat the shining example, perhaps we managed to dig out all of the wrong mangosteens (including the ones the Thai ladies picked out for us), but we've eaten them in central and south Thailand (and Cambodia), and it still tasted like a cross between sweet lime and cherry with a wonderful, soft, juicy texture that was (look, I'll admit) fantastic.

Queen of the fruits? No. Worth the god-knows-fucking what they're going to charge you at your local Chez le Trend d'Semaine for a well plated piece of fruit? Not this one guys.

The Daily Fix

The mangoes (as discussed previously) are the undisputed king of all fruits around here. May his reign be supreme. Nothing has beaten the face contorting deliciousness with which a Thai mango will annihilate you. There is also the much more prevalent IMG_5274(and cheaper) pineapple. They are so sweet, sooo juicy, sooo overflowing with pineapply love that no matter how mundane it may seem, it's just really fucking good everyday. Ben has issues without the stuff. I personally branch out into watermelons, asian pears, and green sugar soaked guavas.

[Ben sez]: Seriously, between the 10 baht pineapple (put it in my veins!) and the ripest mangoes you've ever seen I've though about hiring one of the fruit cart vendors to just follow me around and hack up pineapple all day long to supply my fix. When I get tired of that there are countless mango-ladies on the street to peel and cut up mangoes in all of their groan-inducing goodness. The combination of these two delicious yellow fruits is like having god shove a fistful of sunshine down your throat.

Rose Apples (pictured right) are also one of the more interesting (and consequently completely unavailable in the states) fruits. They are really crisp, actually bordering on styrofoam (like the ones discussed from Taiwan), and have a slightly grape-apple flavor that is really refreshing. In Thailand they're much juicier and sweeter than their Taiwanese counterparts, and this makes a regular appearance on my daily fruit consumption list.

What's that smell?

Durians - Jackfruit
[Ben sez]: We finally bit the bullet (and the fruit) and picked up these members of the spiky-fruit-of-doom family IMG_5263(a.k.a the Bombacaceae family). Jackfruit is actually good, a little bit of that Thai fruit funk, but also tangy and banana-y, not something requiring multiple daily indulgences , but not something to be avoided. Nate compares it to the flavor of JuicyFruit gum, I'm not sure if I agree, but I definitely see where he's coming from.

Durian, the stuff of legends, myths, epic poems, and more than one "No Durian Allowed" signs in hotels. On our last day in Bangkok it seemed like it was time to see if all the hype was right. According to various sources this is a stinky, custardy, caramelly fruit - I don't really agree. We got our massive lobe of Durian (in Ben's hands on right) in its plastic bag, and already there was a palpable funk that I couldn't quite place. Definitely soft and custard-like in texture, it barely required a knife to break apart before going into our apprehensive mouths. After some deep sensory evaluation, accessing the depths of our taste memories - it has hints of banana and pineapple, the ubiquitous Thai-fruit-funk taken to a whole new level, but primarily it tastes like steamed/sweated white onions. Maybe a little celery. Somehow this fruit has managed to be a perversion of unsalted mirepoix flavors.

Definitely not what I'm looking for in my fruit - and it tastes even worse when the Durian-flavored burps set in. I think Nate's solution for stinky tofu burps (swilling whiskey) might be required next time I eat durian.
[Nate sez]: And to put this into perspective everyone - we're being ridiculously concise. There are more fruits (RAMBUTANS!), more delicacies, more fascinating and mysterious fruit products that we could actually write a book about. So until we either have the luxury of a financier, or become independently flush, we'll stick with concise.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Furry Uri's Curry in a Hurry

Brrr...It's cold out here[Ben sez] Landing at Bangkok International Airport, the one thing filling my myopic agenda for the near future was the procurement of curry. Sadly, it took over 12 hours before I was able shovel my first spoonful of curry into my mouth - the unavoidable result of a flight landing at 11pm.

Curry, much like in India, translates to sauce. So saying I wanted curry might be a bit of a generalization, but after the subtlety and balance of Japanese food, the "you expect us to cook it for you?" barbarism of Korea, and the two weeks of "Closed for Chinese New Years!" of Taiwan, I was ready for a punch to the face of aromatics and flavor. Thai curry did not disappoint.

I will even (slightly shamefully) admit that even the curry on Thai Airlines flying from South Korea to Taiwan was enough to send me into cries of pleasure after the overly-pickled week that we spent in SoKo. Coconut milk and lemongrass have never tasted so good.

Food Court FoodThere are of course the normal classifications: Red, Green, Penang, Massamun, and Yellow. Of course at about 30 to 50 baht a plate, you'll find me on the shoveling end of way too many, somewhat indistinguishable, yet different curries - and identifying these properly becomes somewhat difficult.

[nate sez]: Sufficed to say, they all are heavily aromatic and delicious, some significantly more coconutty, some rocket hot, some sweet and lemongrassy, some with shrimp, some with pork, some with chicken. Bamboo shoots seem to accompany a red curry more often, and coconut shoots (which are Curries and Soups.crunchy delicious) go with a fishier yelllow/red fusion curry. The variations are as numerous as there are fat, white, balding lechers in Patpong. Every Mom running her hole in the wall restaurant has her own way of making each type of curry, and they vary, of course, regionally.

The single most important thing I learned from Joseph's curry-stained technicolor dream plate is that the Thais are overwhelmingly, and by far, some of the best cooks on the whole damn planet. The driving concept is balance. In 86/87 curries (yes, I counted) the hot/sour/salty/sweet balance was always working toward a equilibrium that we rarely come to expect but in the finest dining establishments. The only exception in my book is super-salty shrimp paste curry which outright sucks ass. It's soooooooo salty and rotten shrimpy. You have to taste it to believe it... ::shivers::

Get in my mouth!The best of the best highlights of curries: Bamboo shoot red curry at Suan Lum night market in Bangkok, The shredded pork lemongrass coconut curry at Suan Lum, the spicy curry soup at Wireless Road across from Lumphini Park (that was a serious good meal, we saw like eighteenhundred thai cats piled into this place every night we walked by - not a gringo in sight - and so we were on it like Sticky Rice on my face), and loads of plates of Shrimp sautéed in curry paste. What curry paste you ask? How the fuck should I know? I've unsuccessfully negotiated for an affordable Tuk-Tuk ride in Thai, I know how to say "just mangoes, no rice", but I am faaar away from actually getting some real information off of these sauce slingers about their amazing dishes.

I'm working on it I swear.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Holy Crepe, Batman it's dessert time!!

[Ben sez]: Having eaten countless curriesBen et Coco in the week we've been here, most of which cost less than $2 per plate, we decided that perhaps it was time to invest a dollar or two in dessert.

Banana Crepe: Walking down an unknown street somewhere in the old section of Bangkok near Chinatown after a long day of walking in 100°F heat with brutal sun beating down on us, we passed through a street market and my dessert-radar began signaling me with an emergency situation, there was a sweet treat nearby that required my investigation!

A few feet away we spotted a pastry-like device of unknown contents being flipped in a shallow-wok, pan frying to golden-brown-delicious perfection. Upon closer inspection (and salivation) we watched a few of these desserts being prepared and discovered that they were crepes filled with bananas and egg.

First the crepe-slinger (as she will henceforth be referred to) grabs a pieces of dough and slaps it out to paper-thinness and tosses it into the buttery wok. After a few seconds of puffed cooking, a mixture of a sliced banana and egg is poured into the middle. A few more seconds of cooking and the sides are folded Banana Crepeup to create a beautiful crepe package. The crepe is then flipped and butter and melted palm sugar are thrown under the flipped crepe, increasing exterior caramelization, and thereby flavor. After both sides are browned, the crepe is held vertically to drain most of the excess sugar-love, then moved to sheets of paper to absorb further grease.

Now here's the criminal part. While resting, the crepe-banana-package is heavily doused in sweetened condensed milk by the crepe-slinger's partner in dessert-crime. If that weren't enough the already awesome combination is then given a savage dusting in pure, white sugar. It's like a case of type two diabetes in a little 6"x8" crepe envelop.

[Nate sez]: a veritable glycemic sledgehammer if you will.

You better believe it was delicious, and it took all of our will power not to go back for a second.

Mango and Sticky Rice.Mango with Sticky Rice: We've all had this at one point or another at your local Thai wannabe restaurant. It's good. No, I take that back, it's really good. To put it lightly, when I tried this in Bangkok for the first time for 20 baht (that's 60 cents you currency converters you), I had the rare heroin-reaction.

My blood suddenly races through my body, my tounge swirling around in sweet, salty, sticky foodgasm, and I wasn't the same, I was changed. I really mean it. These mangoes are treacherously delicious with heavy sweetness, deep mango flavor, custardy texture you can scoop with a spoon, and the ubiquitous good Thai tropical fruit stank (a sulfuric substance also found in Durian and Jackfruit).

The sticky rice is sweet and fragrant. It has a glossy, pearly white coat with a perfect chew and mouthfeel. The sweetness is balanced by the jasmine-floral notes of the rice itself and a pinch of salt. I hope to be embalmed in this shit someday, maybe even a great idea for a new edible spa treatment in which you get fatter and sweeter. I mean, Thai food is trendy right?

To make matters worse, you get a small bag of lightly salted and sweetened coconut cream for a bit of that fatty, round coconut taste to tie it all together. There are a lot of food writers who exaggerate things out of proportion, we're sometimes guilty of that, but I can't stress how I'm not doing this glorious creation justice.

It's worth whatever a plane ticket costs to Bangkok to eat this...and some other stuff too, I guess.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Cha For Tea (Not redundant at all)

[Nate sez]: (as he tenuously holds a bottle Mogen David in a Taipei grocery store) One last note about Taiwan. This place was No Way Facenamed by the Portuguese as "Formosa" meaning beautiful island. This beautiful island is also home to some of (and arguably the) best bloody tea on the planet. The specialty is Oolong tea. Now we've all had Oolong tea at the local Danny Fu's Chinese Greasy Wok, with its largely unappealing flavor (unless cut with some sugar) and mostly appearing to be an incomplete black tea. BUT the real truth about Oolong is that it is partially oxidized instead of completely oxidized (as Black Tea is).

For all of you who knew me when I was starting a tea business (that didn't get off the ground), I could go on for days about this shit so I'll simply link you to an appropriate tea information area for anyone who cares. Wikipedia - A Primer on Tea & Wikipedia - Oolong Tea

NOW - There is a chain restaurant owned and operated by the massive tea company Ten Ren called Cha For Tea. I read about this place IMG_4587in a Taiwan train-stop tourism guide and thought it might be worth a shot, even though guide book recommendations are notoriously expensive (which it of course was). I spotted the joint while we were walking back to a train station after visiting the National Palace Museum. We were peckish and thirsty so we stopped in.

Little did we know, we were in for one of the best dining experiences to date. Cha For Tea (as it's completely obvious name would suggest) serves a lot of tea, but as a bonus, all of their cuisine is inspired by/made with their tea. It was shockingly delicious.

We started the meal with a pot of their highest quality High Mountain Oolong (which is a Taiwan specialty). It is a very lightly oxidized tea so it tastes and feels green, but has developed mature and floral notes - specifically that of rose, jasmine, and sometimes lychee-muscat flavors. These teas are unusually sweet in flavor without the addition of sugar (which would kill it).

Tempura Tea LeavesWe moved on to our apps which were Tempura Tea Leaves and Jasmine Tea Pork God-Knows-What sauce Tofu. The tea leaves were served with a ground green oolong salt that was absolutely insane and ingenious, and the tofu dish was divine. The tofu was warmed slightly and covered in a light, beautiful savory reduced shrimp and pork stock infused with jasmine tea. I'd never had anything quite like it.

The main dishes were noodles (c'mon, what else do we eat?). I ordered the "King's Noodle Soup" and Ben got the Tea oil Noodles with ground pork. My noodles were actually made with tea powder, so they were green and slightly bittersweet. The broth was underwhelming - that is until I dived into the ungodly-delicious braised pork spareribs next to my bowl. The sauce was similar to that of standard Chinese roasted pork, but they had cut the Cha Siu sauce with some King's Tea Oolong, which delicately rounded out the overbearing sweetness and raisiny tastes found in Cha Siu. I generously added the remaining sauce to my bowl of noodles (whether that was the "right" thing to do or not) and it tasted a whole lot better after that. Maybe even really damn good. But the pork spare rib was the best spare rib I've had to date, so that says something.

Rice flour noodles in Tea oilBen's dish was in another league all together. This green tea rice noodles were cooked off, then coated with tea oil. Then it was topped with a salty, meaty-dark pork sauce with a shredded seaweed garnish. The plate came with some steamed broccoli, baby corn, and tea infused prunes. This was the star of the show. The flavor was definitely a savory one by and large - but the tea oil brought a body and character we had never ever tasted before. Slightly bitter, very green, indirectly floral - this tea oil was magic. And the tea infused prunes were a brilliant match for this rare dish.

[Ben sez]
The presence of strong green tea flavor in this dish was amazing. Using tea oil to create a magical, savory tea flavor (as opposed to the sweet, floral notes of tea as a beverage) made for an out of this world plate of noodles. A perfect balance when mixed with the salty ground pork.

We kind of looked at each other in disbelief of what had just transpired. So if you're in Taiwan, and you're in Taipei, go to Cha For Tea. I'm the last person on this bloody planet that would encourage anyone to visit a chain establishment. However, there are noteably important exceptions.

And who doesn't like Taco Bell at 3 in the fucking morning after drinking too much anyway?

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Coming Soon to the State Fair: Chinese Cheese (Curds)

[Ben sez] One fateful evening prior to our departure from Taipei it was decided that we needed to re-enter the neon/florescent-lit world of the night market and indulge in some of the traditional Taiwanese street foods which we had missed (or avoided) on our first romp through the golden fields of consumption which are the Taiwanese Night Markets.

Stinky TofuStinky Tofu: "Stinky Tofu? That sounds appetizing.." you might say, we found ourselves walking through the markets on our first nights in Taiwan smelling something that is best described as somewhere between extra-potent fish sauce and smelly gym socks (sort of like the kind we get after the fifth day of walking 9 hours a day in the same pair of socks.. ahhh life as a backpacker, but I digress). After talking to some locals we were informed that this smell was Stinky Tofu, or Chinese Cheese as it is sometimes referred to in tourist oriented literature, and the stinkier it is the better. To say that we had eaten Taiwan we knew we had to eat it, so we pointed to a wok of these golden brown blocks of tofu, held up one finger and soon had a plate of stinky tofu, cabbage and onions on a table in front of us.

It was surprisingly unoffensive during the first bite, not something I'd miss if I didn't eat it again, but also not gag-worthy. The outside was a little crisp, yet oily, yielding to a somewhat crumbly interior like dried cottage cheese, and the flavor was of course slightly tofu and slightly gym sock.
([Nate sez] However, when you burp up this flavor over the next 4 hours, you kind of feel the need to kill something. It gets really nasty. The only cure was good old Japanese whisky. And it worked, damn it.)

Perhaps cheese is the best analogy for this substance. When I try to think of something from the US that would be disgusting to an unfamiliar Asian palette cheese comes to mind - oily, fatty, sometimes incredibly pungent - much like stinky tofu does not easily find a place in the hearts of foreigners, but has its passionate devotees among those who grew up with it.

Oyster Omelet a la ShilinOyster Pancake: The Taiwanese specialize in these omelet-like devices which are built on a foundation of griddled oysters, topped with a mixture of egg and an unknown potato/rice starch creating a "pancake" which is then topped with a sweet chili sauce. Despite the description the example of this which we tasted was relatively flavorless, tasting only faintly of low-grade oysters. The egg/starch portion of the omelet was gooey and relatively bland.

On the other hand the night markets also have a flat-bread pancake which can be ordered with egg and then covered in soy and chili sauces which makes for a delicious evening snack - though it was not mentioned in the "Night Market Delicacies" pamphlet we were given. Our lovely friend Morgan clued us into this scene.

Fried Chicken!Fried Chicken: While there's nothing shocking about fried chicken conceptually, the fried chicken available at Taiwanese Night Markets is undeniably out of this world. It's a simple chicken cutlet, pounded thin, breaded in a tasty batter, and then fried until crispy (and optionally run through a slicer at some stands). It might not be rocket science, but it's so good it will make you laugh, cry, and undoubtedly go back for seconds, thirds, or possibly ninths.

Milk and Coconut Jelly IceShaved Ice: Thin strips of frozen water in a cup, a good start for dessert. Well, it is when you then add a magical Taiwanese flavor concoction to it. Nate and I finished off our evening with two of these cold sugary treats, one in Yakult (Japanese sweet drinking yogurt flavor) and the other Milk with Coconut Jellies. I'm not sure if milk shaved ice is healthier than ice cream, but with the addition of coconut flavored jellies it certainly is more delicious than ice cream.