Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ben et Nate's Noodle Countdown - #4 & 5

[Ben sez]: We ate Asia. Yakult - The Freshmaker?Ok, not all of it, but we ate a lot of it, and somewhere in there we were hoping to find the best bowl of noodles. The jury is still out on whether or not we found the best bowl of noodles on Earth (or even in Asia) but we're going to count down the top five delightfully delicious bowls of noodles from our trip over the next few blogs.

Noodle #5 - Pork noodle soup on the banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos - We rolled into Vientiane after 24 hours on a bus (19 of which they had the air-conditioning turned off for) and settled into our hotel. On our second night in town we wandered past a restaurant advertising their Duck Noodle Soup.Pork Noodle Soup We tried this, then we went back for breakfast the next day and tried the Pork Noodle Soup. The woman here was slinging some deeply porky broth - a balance of pork flavor, soy, fish sauce, and hints of garlic and ginger. Throw in a condiment selection of limes, fish sauce, and chilies and you've got the makings for a deliciously meaty bowl of soup with your choice of fresh egg noodles or rice noodles. Somewhat of a middle ground between Chinese and Vietnamese soups.

Noodle #4 - Pad Thai outside BTS Station Saphan Kwai - We spent a lot of time in Thailand - somewhere around a month in total. Invariably we were going to eat a little bit of Pad Thai. We would have eaten a lot of Pad Thai but the portions in Thailand are so reasonable (that means "small" for all the Americans out there) that you don't end up eating massive quantities of anything.

We tried probably twenty different Pad Thai street stands in Thailand and only on our last night in Bangkok before going to Cambodia did we stumblePad Thai across a great man standing at a griddle dishing out large (Thai) portions of awesome Pad Thai for 25 baht (about 75 cents). This man embodies everything right about the street vendor system, he makes one dish - with optional shrimp for 10 baht more - and makes it really well. All of the Thai restaurants in the United States that are slinging huge plates of bland noodles should take some notes from this man, pare down their menus and learn how to do it right. He has his pre-mixed sauce in leftover Aquafina bottles which he pours over the noodles, tofu, and bean sprouts to create this quintessentially Thai dish.

I'm sure you're tired of hearing it, but it's all about balance, in the US Pad Thai always seems overly sweet, served with a wedge of lemon to make it even brighter. In Thailand they focus on a healthy amount of shrimp or fish sauce and tamarind paste to balance out that sweetness with some salty, sour, tangy goodness.

I haven't quite figured out why so much of the Pad Thai in Thailand is pink colored, but I heard that pink is in style this year, so I'm not concerned.

[Nate sez]:The Taste Test I think they mix the blood of virgins into the sauce, but that's just a rumor as to why it's so delicious.

This has been a succinct wrap-up of the first two of our top fives bowls of noodles in Asia. Nate's too busy "taking care of business" to blog right now but I'm sure he'll have some epic treatises about the top 3 bowls of noodles in the coming weeks to make up for it. Join us next week for the second installation of our continuing noodle countdown - Same Ben et Nate time, same Ben et Nate channel.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Murtabak to the Future: The Singaporean Delorean

You Will Obey ME![Nate sez]: Anthony Bourdain called Singapore "New York in 20 years". Being the Americentric fool that I am, I assumed that he meant that Singapore was doing a bang up job catching up to the most cosmopolitan, hip, and resourceful city in the world. Turns out, every other city in the world is 20 years behind Singapore...but who's really counting?

We came here to eat at a couple of restaurants that Tony raved about on A Cook's Tour; those being the Sin Huat Eating House and The Banana Leaf Apollo (awesome fish head curry). In fact, A Cook's Tour was basically the inspiration behind the whole "Ben et Nate eat the world" idea in the first place - having spent dozens of hours sitting in Ben's basement watching Tony eat in Vietnam, Thailand, Tokyo, and Singapore, we were sick of drooling buckets at the sight of the spicy, the fresh, the exotic, and the supposedly tooth enamel melting goodness. We decided we must eat it for ourselves.

Crab Bee Hoon

Crab Bee HoonThis was the crown jewel of Tony's trip to Singapore: Crab Bee Hoon at the Sin Huat Eating House. This place attracts a hungry and rich crowd every night for some of the best Chinese seafood on the planet. If we had a budget I would have ordered what Ben so lovingly refers to as "One":

"One what?" you ask.
"Oh, sorry - one of everything."

The crab was massive (the claw weighed almost a kilo). And insanely good. A deceptively simple sauce of boiled crab, ginger/soy, and what can only be described as love stock was all wokked to high hell with green onions, fried shallots, and bee hoon noodles (Bee Hoon noodles are thin, round, rice noodles, similar to the Vietnamese Bun noodles). Needless to say it was fucking awesome. We'd also waited for a bit more than two hours for this dish (Apparently you're supposed to call ahead). And I was really, really, really-really hungry.

Stir Fried GuilanWe ordered some stir fried Gailan for something vegetal to nibble on. I've never had better "brown" sauce in my life. It was the single greatest dish of Chinese vegetables I'd ever had - it was almost better than the crab. Almost. And the argument is still open since the veggies were 8 bucks, and the crab 80.


Around every corner, at every MRT station, in every part of Singapore, inside, outside, rooftop, or seaside there are food courts. The Singaporeans love to eat. You can't miss the fact because at all hours of the day there are food stalls running in food courts filled to the brim with people. The locals refer to these places as Hawker Stands. Singapore boasts being one of the great food destinations in the world; and with the eclectic mix of Chinese, Malay, and Indian citizens, there is certainly a very wide variety.

BBQ StingrayThere are far too many good dishes to describe - from silky tender Hainanese Chicken Rice to Satays, and Spicy curries to crispy duck, so we'll stick with the greats: Barbequed Stingray and Roti Prata.

Belinda turned us on to the stingray scene - our first night we went out to a new food court in downtown (CBD) Singapore. Take a large banana leaf, stick two pieces of stingray on it, a slightly smoky sauce of chillies, garlic, salt and I have no idea...and then grill it. Garnish with limes and sliced shallots. The stingray is so juicy and succulent, and the Sambal (the sauce that it's cooked with) so mysteriously rich yet light, salty, and inviting. It's quintessentially Singaporean, combining flavor elements and cooking methods from all of its residents and mashing it up together to make something completely original. This one's a keeper.

Prata.Our daily eating ritual almost inevitably involved Roti Prata or Murtabak. You may remember such Rotis as "Holy shit that's killing me softly" Thai Banana Roti. Welcome back. A magical dough is stretched paper thin by whipping it around holding onto one edge by a skilled Roti engineer. He then rolls this up (that's the roti part) and either grills it plain (roti prata) or adds sweet or savory ingredients into the middle before griddling it to crispy perfection. Our favorite was Mutton Murtabak: A Roti Prata filled with onions, lamb, cilantro, and egg. All the savory pratas/murtabaks come with an amazing mutton curry sauce to dip your bready deliciousness into. Order up a cup of creamy stretched milk tea and call it a day.

Ben et Crab Claw[Ben sez]: Don't worry, I contributed to the blog too. I spent all the time that Nate was writing this blog coming up with that horrendous title.

I don't apologize for it either... okay, maybe just a little.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Singa-pour me another. OR Putting the Lager back in Lagerquist.

Ben Flexercising[Ben sez]: In our travels through Asia we've sampled a lot of the local beer. All crappy golden lager, all the time. Sometimes bottles, sometimes cans, sometimes fresh from a big tank for fifty cents a liter. Sometimes if it's fresh enough, it's not even that bad.

But you know what's better than fresh beer? Fresh German Beer!

[Nate exclaimz:] BREWED BY GERMANS!!! OMFG!!!!

That's right, we've tracked down another rare delicacy, seemingly unavailable even in the United States. Wandering around the central shopping district of Singapore, we looked across a street as the clouds parted and a ray of sunlight shown down upon a Paulaner Bräuhaus. I think I even heard some angels singing.

Paulaner Brauhaus in SingaporeIt was even 2-for-1 happy hour. That's just wrong.

We sat down, ordered up a couple half liters and basked in the glory of fresh, German beer. I'm not sure what it is but there's something about this stuff that makes life multiple times better. Cheap Asian Golden Lager might get you intoxicated, but it doesn't make you feel this good.

[Nate sez]: I'll tell you what makes it feel so good - getting the hell out of beer purgatory, that's what. I've been in beer purgatory for 6 God-forsaken months. You want to know what's frustrating? - drinking beer in Japan. They have 10 new types of beer every single season - Extra Dry, Super Mild Hoppy, Black Raw, Fresh Raw Draft Dry, and my new personal favorite: Style Free. THEY'RE ALL THE SAME FUCKING BEER! And then you leave Japan for the rest of Asia, where there's less advertising and brands and labels and stuff, but they all serve the same thing: shitty mild golden lager. An Asian beer is as shitty by any other name.

Dunkel in SingaporeWe tried the light Munich first, a refreshing golden lager (a legitimate one, no shitty Asian knockoff here) with that perfect bready finish that we enjoy so much but is hard to balance properly. After our first half-liter we were feeling much better about life (along with an inflated sense of self-esteem) and figured, "Hey, it's happy hour, why not order another?"

Round 2 we went for the Dark Lager. This one lived up to all of our hopes and dreams as well. The fantasies of delicious beer which we had during those long, tropical nights staring at boxes full of Beer Lao, Tiger Beer, and all the other regional crap they pour in SE Asia which actually benefits from being served over ice.

This is a Custard Apple[Nate sez]: I'd describe the dark (or Dunkel if you will) as the perfect combination of vanilla, banana, and pumpernickel. It was carbonated so perfectly that the CO2 bubbles made the texture of the beer, in combination with the slightly heavier body, creamy. To put it lightly, it was so good, I almost tried to actually dive into my glass. So I could swim in it. Drinking this beer was like taking your big, first step back into the first world: the wonders of refrigeration and precision engineering allowing the local production of real German Beer.

Singapore is a really bizarre place. Spend a few solid months in mostly lawless, or flexibly (and sometimes downright gymnastic) lawed countries, and when you suddenly can't spit on the street, walk with or against the flow of traffic, or god forbid IMG_6275think too loudly without it being caught on camera, you'll feel really out of place. The quasi-totalitarian, 1984-esque panopticon that is Singapore caused us both major culture shock. I mean, the streets are fucking air conditioned in some parts of Singapore. It's too perfect - like Pleasantville, only in SE Asia with a dizzying array of food, shopping, and ethnicities all living way too harmoniously together. It's too peaceful. It's too clean. I'm labeling it the 0.5th world - Singapore is the future. At least it's a damn tasty one.

[Ben sez]: I prefer to think of it as the zeroth world; it's that far removed from my concept of the first world. We spent our first half-hour in Singapore actually laughing in shock at the clean, shiny, futuristic, efficient, lightly-perfumed, orderly, over-the-fucking-top reality of being slapped in the face with a big plate of Singapore after swimming in bowls of Southeast Asian noodles for the last three months
I know, I know. What the hell did we eat? (mmmgmhmg... curry puffs) Well, seeing as it's Saturday 3am Tokyo time, you'll just have to wait a few days until next Wednesday. When we actually can publish on time.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Clogged Singa-pores.

Dear everyone who is expecting a witty food-related blog post to be here,

20, 20, 24 hours to go!We're traveling.

In an amusing turn of events, the more first-world a country, the less available good internet cafes are. Seeing as we've been in Singapore for the last week (and everyone who lives here actually owns a computer) the closest internet cafe to our house is about a 45 minute walk and doesn't like to cooperate with blogger or flickr.

We have to catch our flight back to Tokyo soon so our actual blog post will be delayed by a day or two. Our sincerest apologies.


Dear Nate's Mom,
Don't worry about us, we are both doing fine. In fact, our flight back to Tokyo is on Thai Airways which means it will most likely be the most comfortable, enjoyable economy class flight we could possibly take.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

So Good I Chiang'd Mai Pants.

Ben Coyly Eating a Doughnut[Ben sez]: A few more 12-24 hour budget SE Asian travel bus rides, a few more stamps in our passports, and we are now back in Bangkok having visited the awesome cities of Vientiane, Laos and Chiang Mai, Thailand. These two cities are somewhat similar, both possessing a similar cuisine, and dealing in the most laid back attitude possible without life completely stopping. We took some cooking classes to fill out our schedule between long periods of doing absolutely nothing.

Vientiane - No Rushing A-Lao'd

[Nate sez]: This city is hot. And I don't mean like Jamie Oliver making pesto, I mean like getting shoved into a 105 degree oven as large as a city. To bake. Or dehydrate. Or mostly want to do close to absolutely nothing. So after a hard morning/afternoon/evening of chilling out in our A/C, we'd venture out to the local Ban Lao, which loosely translates as "Lao Restaurant". If you've had Thai curry, papaya salad, Thai stir-fries, and sticky rice, you've just about eaten everything mainstream offered in Laos. We hear that rat and iguana is also frequently on rural menus, but after seeing Anthony Bourdain's reaction to iguana, we decided it was not on our agenda.

LaabThe national dish of Laos is Laab. Or Larb. Or Lahb. Depends which menu you consult. However, this is quintessentially Lao: ground or shredded pork, beef, chicken, or fish dressed with searing chilies, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, roasted rice powder, and a bucket of mint. We learned how to make the fish version with a very nice French gentleman named Greg and this was truly a great dish.

Simple. Fresh. Tasty. Definitively Lao. The mint and chilies really balance each other out in a deliciously synergistic way. Serve it up with some sticky rice and papaya salad, and a Beer Lao over ice, and you've made it.

Touch Mai Sausage

Papaya SaladChiang Mai is absolutely my favorite city in Thailand. They took my favorite dish, Som Tam (Papaya Salad - I'll make it for all of you when I get back) and made it better. Instead of Papaya, they used shredded green mangoes. My mango salad lady put 8 chilies in, used about twice as much palm/coconut sugar, and created what became a two to three time a day habit for me. I'm adding her to the list of street food vendor ladies I intend to marry.

[Ben sez]: To keep me from feeling left out I found a couple of nice sausage stands in the markets selling succulent, slightly spicy, fresh-off-the-grill pork sausages flavored with kefir lime leaves and lemongrass. One of the best moments of my recent life involved sitting down in a park with a bag of this sausage, some sticky rice and a bottle tea. Sometimes it really is the simple pleasures that are the best.

[Nate sez]: There's been a noticeable pattern of almost all of our best meals being eaten outside in a park, plaza, or squatting against a wall on the street.

Roadside SausageMuch of the sausages that we've encountered throughout the region have been from the Chinese school: really fatty, really sweet, really not good at all. I'd been craving some tubular meat to put in my mouth, and until northern SE Asia, it was all deeply unsatisfying. The Chiang Mai sausage in particular was so crisp, meaty, and it's contents so well integrated. The herbs and spices perfectly accompanied the pork's sweetness, and sticky rice brings a fantastic texture combination as well as an effect of cooling some of the heat from the chilies.

[Nate sez]: God, Ben really likes sausage doesn't he?

The one real problem with this city is their love of sweets. Not so much a problem as a liability to my waistline. Every corner seemed to have a mango sticky rice stand, along with another one halfway down the block, and I suspect there may have been a lady with a portable setup tailing me through the streets just to taunt me. We even ended up at a buffet which included mango sticky rice in the "all you can eat." Needless to say, I went back for seconds.

Nate's "Sexy" faceNate and I also learned how to prepare sweet sticky rice in Chiang Mai. Recent news also suggests that Indian mangoes are making their way back to the American market. Word on the street is that they are (I don't know which of the thousand + varieties are getting imported) sweet, non-fibrous, custardy, and will make you appear to have just shot up heroin.

God Bless Mangoes.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Eating Anything With Four Legs Except the Table

Ben gets stabby on Teddy-Rice[Ben sez]: The plethora of animals which are available at restaurants throughout the region is staggering, and while the list of "Creatures Ben et Nate Have Consumed" doesn't quite live up to the standard of "eating anything with four legs except the table" it is, as you can imagine, not too short either.

Buckets of Prawns: I'm sure you're thinking Prawns? That's not very adventurous. but I figured I'd start on the boring end of the scale. The real shocker here is the volume of prawns which we have consumed (especially Nate), the quality, and the do-it-yourself attitude one must take to eating prawns in this region. We've had shrimp, whole-prawns (head on), and most excitingly whole, live prawns with a stick Steamed Prawnsshoved through them in an uncomfortable looking manner for our grilling delight. Far be it from us to freak out at live shellfish and a charcoal grill, in fact it usually leads to us slapping some still-moving prawns on the grill and taunting them at the table thusly:

Us: Oh no Mr. Shrimpy, what's going on? Is someone grilling you over a blazing hot fire? Look at your little antennae getting all crispy! (Mr. Shrimpy lets out a tiny shrimpy scream of agony and writhes in pain until cooked to sweet, tender, delicious perfection.)

[Nate sez]: Thailand has the finest cooking shrimp/prawns in the world. The smaller U30 to U20 varieties are always so tender, sweet, and with an almost fluffy texture. Did I mention that they're like, the healthiest thing around? And those big-ass 111 grams a piece (or U2) prawns, marinated in honey, fish sauce, and love will make you lose control of your bowels. And your bowls.

The other delight of giant prawns is having to pop their heads off, which releases a nice little orange ooze which makes a perfect accompaniment to their tasty flesh.

Viet Grille

Yatta! I'm Dimploma-ed
[Nate sez]: To our great fortune, we met a local food/bev freak at a Bia Hoi joint we frequented in Saigon. His name is Bang. I like this guy, no, I might actually love him. He showed us some of the finest food we've ever consumed for prices too low list. In particular, he took us to a goat restaurant where they serve three things: Goat charcoal grill with herbs, raw veg, and rice paper with God sauce, Goat brain and kidney soup, and some other goat concoction that was not communicated to us properly. If you are in Vietnam and see De Noung, you have found the goat grill. In fact Noung indicates the preparation described below.

We also stumbled across a massive joint where they serve most of Earth's edible creatures (and some that aren't) in this manner. They bring out a heavy stone bucket with holes in it, filled to the brim with searing hot charcoal. Next, they stick a metal grate on top, bring out some marinated meat, fresh herbs and veg, some dipping De Noung - Goat Grillsauce, and set you loose on one of the most deeply satisfying, delicious, and fun meals you'll ever have. It's usually less than 3 to 4 dollars for a plate of meat which goes a long way.

If you've ever done Korean BBQ - this is like that, only much better. Mostly because unlike South Korea, in Vietnam they let whitey get down and dirty figuring out how to grill his/her own meat. Here's a tragically brief overview of some of lucky critters to die for our cause:

Rabbit: You think Europe has the market cornered on rabbit and hare with that glorious, thick, wine soaked French country-style rabbit stew they make? Well, maybe. But Viet-marinated Bugs Bunny cooked over hot coals on your table has very few rivals.

Okra on GrillCrocodile: It was on the menu. We'd had a few drinks. It sucks okay? And it doesn't taste like chicken either.

[Ben sez]: It tastes more like white, chewy amphibious river pork. I had to check it off of my whitey list of things to eat while in SE Asia, okay?

Dog: Yes. We fell victim to the availability of Poochy in SE Asia - the curiosity was just too much. We were on our way to a seafood restaurant with some local friends during our last night in Saigon. We mentioned our curiosity and soon were heading for a street stand to pick up some dog to go.

[Nate sez]:
In A Bag! The most legit doggy bag I've ever seen in my life!

We got to the seafood joint and they were kind enough to plate up our barbecued dog Stir Fried Clamsand steamed dog sampler. The BBQ dog was really, really good. I'd eat it again. Steamed dog tasted like old, wet, angry Australian mutton. But what are you going to do? The seafood was incredible. And criminally cheap. Think less than 16 dollars for 5 people to fill to the brim on mussels, clams, grilled sea snails, oysters, shrimp, and lots of beer.

Though we could ceaselessly vamp about Vietnam (more specifically Saigon), you no doubt understand that it is most likely, the most important food destination in SE Asia. Then again, Chiang Mai rules.

...and we haven't been to Singapore yet.