Friday, February 26, 2010

Thailand: Land of the Snack Attack

Thailand is a land of snackers.

Meals center around a plate of rice with a few bites of different meat, fish and vegetable dishes to support it (not the other way around--RICE is the focus here). Or noodle dishes, such as the beloved Pad Thai. Always with fresh fruit for dessert. This type of meal leaves room for treats, which is a good thing, because Thais love their treats! Snacking in Thailand is quite a different thing than it is in the West, though. While candy bars, potato chips and fast food--especially anything fried--tend to be staples on the snack menu in the States, Thailand has quite different tastes, most of which are vastly healthier than ours.

Fresh fruit is popular, and considering the wide variety of fruit that grows in this tropical locale--and the sheer volume of it--that's a good thing. I've never seen so much fresh fruit in my life!
  It's easy when you're strolling down the street to find a cup of fresh strawberries or chunks of pineapple to snack on.

But with all that fruit, a lot of it has to be preserved. So dried fruit is a common snack, too. [One of the most popular fruits either fresh or dried is durian, but that section of the blog got so big it had to split off on its own. Look for it this weekend.]
 These bananas are dehydrated and coated in honey--unbelievably sweet!

Coconut juice doesn't get any fresher than this!

Fresh fruit juices are often presented in plastic bags with a straw inserted--I suppose because this takes up less space in the trash. With millions regularly sipping juice this way, all those disposable cups would add up in a hurry.

Sweet, salty, spicy & buttery--this fresh corn was one of my favorite walking-around treats.
The fresh corn sold on the street reminded Cecilia of elote, one of those great street foods in her hometown of Mexico City. There the corn is served on the cob, coated in a thin layer of mayo and dipped in grated cotija cheese and chile powder. That's my favorite street food in Mexico City, so I was glad to find it here, too.
The Thai version of "street corn" contains butter, salt, sugar and chile powder. This guy keeps the corn warm in a cooker on top of a propane tank. When you order some, he ladles it into a bowl and seasons it especially for you, mixing it well so that every kernel has all the flavor it should.

Sausages and meats are also popular choices for walking-around food. A single Thai sausage carries the flavor of an entire meal!

 mmm, flossy pork (curiously, pork in Thai is "moo"). Not really what I'd call jerky, but it IS dried meat.

Occasionally you'll find more Western-styled snacks, but they're the exception rather than the rule. 
 These freshly baked little treats were made of potato. Reminded me a bit of Bugles, with the flavor of Pringles, but fresh. Very fresh--still warm from the oven.

Then there's toasted seaweed. It looks just like nori, which is rolled around sushi, but this is crunchy and easy to snack on, not chewy like nori. It has an aggressively healthy taste to it, almost off-puttingly so.

The only food I absolutely couldn't stand while I was in Thailand was a bag of hard candy with the curiously cheerful name of Let's Party! C'mon--how can you NOT try a candy with that name? I defy you! I picked it up in a 7-11 (yes, they have them there). They were individually-wrapped red candies. Cherry flavored? Strawberry? Raspberry, perhaps? or Red currant? They were none of the above. The best approximation of flavor I can provide is that they tasted like what I assume you'd get if you made cough drops out of lighter fluid. After about 20 seconds, the piece in my mouth--and the rest of the bag--went into the trash. An entire travel-sized bottle of Listerine couldn't put a dent in the aftertaste.

This is a pretty decent record, though. It would be unusual to say I've disliked only one thing I've eaten in any 10-day period here at home. So to travel for this length of time in Thailand and encounter only one food I didn't like is amazing.

So what's my favorite Thai snack? Fruit that's so fresh you'd swear it has added sugar is awfully good. So's the corn. And Thai sausages are one of my favorite foods, period.

There's still a particular fruit to of which I spoke earlier, one that will get its own blog entry in a day or two...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sweet Dreams of Thai Cuisine

It's 3:14 a.m., and here I sit, typing. This is no way to conquer jet lag. But right now my body thinks it's 6:14 the coming night, and it is, at least it is in Thailand. I was awake at this hour the night before, too. And the night before that.

Jet lag is a bitch.

My minister sympathizes but reminds me: "Epiphanies come in the early morning hours. I think that is why monastics get up at 3 a.m. to pray." I'm sure she's onto something, but at this moment there's nothing more profound going through my head than how much I'd like to find a 24-hour Thai restaurant and have a big bowl of tom kha gai, a super-charged soup made of chicken and coconut milk. It's flavored with the Holy Trinity of Thai cuisine: lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves. None of these items has an adequate substitute, and while there are plenty of Thai restaurants here in the Los Angeles area, unless the ingredients are really fresh, the soup pales in comparison to what you find in the land where it was created.
Bubbling and fragrant when it arrives at the table,
one pot of tom kha gai and the world is at the rights...
Ah, the glories of Thai cuisine--and the Thai spirit. A people who understand the value of a well turned out meal as a way to show warmth and hospitality are a fine people indeed. Note that I didn't say an expensive meal. Or fancy, although Thai presentation is some of the most glorious I've ever seen. Cooks think nothing of placing fresh orchids on about every dish they prepare!
These scallops were served on their shells, atop of tiny beds of rice noodles and smothered in a sauce that was rich and bold--and hot!
Thailand's food is amazing in its variety, flavor and freshness. I've certainly never had so much excellent seafood so well prepared, with such attention to the balance of the five flavors in every dish: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy (hot).
This poor guy doesn't stand a chance--
we'll lay waste to him as soon as I lower down the camera...
Food is typically served family style, and people casually serve each other's plates whether they're asked to or not. It's possible to sit at table and discuss nothing but the food, which is a welcome relief from world news and the heat, which is what necessitates all those spicy dishes. It's nature's quite efficient way of cooling us.
A fixture at every meal is a tray of assorted fruits, all cut up and ready for nibbling.
Dessert in Thailand is typically an array of the freshest fruit you can imagine. When fruit is this sweet and good--and plentiful--it makes me want to forsake lesser forms of dessert. It serves a dual function of finishing off the meal with a light sweetness while aiding digestion. Smart.

More on all of this later. I have hundreds of photos to paw through and a notebook filled with scrawlings about my experiences and impressions. And sleep to recover. I must toddle back to bed now, before Himself stirs and, realizing I'm not there, comes in to check on me. And we both talk about Thai food until the sun comes up.

In the coming days I'll recall more of what I want to share about the food on this trip. Please indulge me any unfocused ramblings that I'd like to put down to jet lag but know could well be my enthusiasm for the subject matter. I was already a cheerleader for Thai food, but having visited the source for this amazing cuisine, I'm nothing short of giddy on the topic now.

Good night, sweet dreams and if you eat before I do, bon appetit!

***The obligatory disclaimer: I went to Thailand as a guest of Thai Tourism Authority. That said, I'm not interested in urging you to stay at particular hotels or to dine at particular establishments or to seek out specific amusements. But rather to enjoy the cuisine, whether you dine in Thailand or in a Thai restaurant in your hometown. And to take a crack at making Thai dishes yourself. There's much to love about a cuisine so varied and flavorful.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Detour to the LA Street Food Festival

Carol's away in Thailand this week, so I'm guest blogging until she gets back. For those readers who don't know me, I'm husband Andy, the oft-mentioned "Himself."

This past weekend was the first annual LA Street Food Festival in downtown LA. Over 30 different food trucks gathered to serve up samplings of their tasty wares. No ordinary roach coaches, these trucks were gourmet operations, with offerings ranging from grilled cheese to foie-gras topped french fries.

Eager to try it all, I hopped on the Metro and hooked up with some friends from work for a day of mobile eating.

The Good News

This was an exciting event, no question about that. Rows of colorful trucks greeted us as we entered the gate, and mouth-watering aromas of wonderful things fried, baked and grilled hung in the air. People were happy --despite the late start of event, the growing heat and swelling crowd. As we waited in line for our treats, we chatted with total strangers about which truck we were going to hit next.

And the food? Fantastic. The highlight of the day were the pork sliders and pork buns from The Flying Pig Truck. We shared the plate, but we easily could have ordered one or two more.

I really couldn't decide which of these I liked better. But I think the pork belly steamed buns might edge out the sliders by a hair...

Our next major stop was the Buttermilk truck for a breakfast sampler.

The famous "Brick": Hash brown topped with a fried egg, chorizo gravy, and a biscuit top. Get your doctor's permission before eating one -- but so very tasty!

I'm a sucker for these Red Velvet & Chocolate Chip pancake bites!

 Homemade Doughnuts for dessert, of course!)

Snacking in Line:  gingery, garlicky chicken wings from Mama Koh's! I ate 'em all!

The Bad News

I'm not sure the organizers were prepared for the size of the crowd. We were fortunate to arrive early, and made it through the gates with only a relatively short wait. But the longer we were there, the larger the crowd got -- and the waits for the more popular trucks grew to well over an hour each. It helped that we took a "divide and conquer" approach, splitting our group to maximize each hour we spent waiting. But in the end, there were just too many trucks we couldn't get to. The lines for those trucks grew so long they almost seemed to merge into one giant Uberline that wrapped around the venue.

Unfortunately, that happened outside the gates as well -- where wait times just to get in exceeded two hours. Another friend who had planned to meet us gave up-- and seeing the updates of other friends on Twitter and Facebook, he wasn't the only one.

I don't want to end on a negative note, however. This was the first year for the fest, and these sorts of issues usually work themselves out. Kudos to getting the show off the ground, and to the crews of the trucks, who I'm sure worked their butts off to feed us. I'm hoping it returns next year, and judging from the popularity of the event, I'm betting it will.

In the meantime, I gotta start hunting those trucks down in their native habitats....

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Week #23 Chinese Hot Pot

Want to know how to put fondue to shame? Introduce Chinese hot pot!

Our friends, Grace and Bob, invited a group of us to their home to experience this fixture of Grace's childhood. As a Chinese-American, she says this was one of her favorite meals growing up, and she was eager to share the experience with the rest of us. Oh happy, lucky day!
We arrived to find four broths bubbling on the table in two divided pots: chicken, vegetable, shrimp and spicy fish. Plates scattered about the table contained raw beef, pork, scallops, salmon belly and shrimp, along with cubes of tofu, fish balls, shrimp balls and fish and tofu balls, several types of mushrooms and Chinese cabbage.
 In front of Himself is a plate of thinly sliced beef and pork. To his right is a platter of pot stickers and tofu.
Balls! The sculpted looking ones at the top are a combination of fish & tofu; the pink ones in the center are shrimp and the white ones at the bottom are fish.
 Enoki, boletus and shiitake mushrooms each have their own texture and add their distinctive flavors to the broth as well.

 With Chinese Hot Pot you select what you want to eat, drop it into the broth of your choice, pull it out when you think it's done and chow down. But after awhile you're not sure what you're fishing out of the broth or who dropped it in. That's just fine, though, because we all got plenty and it was all tasty. I did try to take care with the salmon belly, scallops and shrimp, to be sure they didn't overcook. I babysat them the best I could amidst the general confusion and fun that results from 10 people all simultaneously cooking and reaching and eating and talking around the table.

Oh, and yes, the oysters! I'm sorry I didn't shoot a close up of them (that's a hazard of having too much fun when you're trying to document something). Those were the biggest, most beautiful oysters I've ever seen in my life. When Grace walked in and set down the dishes of salmon belly and oysters, I knew we were truly amongst the rank of the elect.
  My bowl, with some pork, a fish and tofu ball, a scallop and a piece of tofu, along with a tangle of noodles fresh out of the broth. The bits of tomato and cilantro were already in the broth, as each is quite flavorful before the cooking begins.
 These are just a few of the dipping sauces and ingredients from which dipping sauces were made. All have different flavors and run the gamut of heat from tame to "I can't feel my lips!" But nothing disappointed.

The idea is that after eating all the meat, seafood and veggies, you throw noodles into the broth and have a bowl of soup and noodles to finish the meal. But here's the kicker, something Grace didn't tell us until we were too full to do anything about it: All the time we were tossing meat, and fish and veggies into the broth and cooking and eating, that broth was becoming so unbelievably rich and flavorful as to constitute some sort of drinkable ambrosia, barely legal for it to be in the possession of mere mortals. She says the best breakfast is a bowl of that super-rich broth with some noodles thrown in. It's certainly her kids' favorite.
So here we are, all happily making the family's breakfast without even knowing it. Was that the point, Grace? To invite over a group of people and feed them really well, just so you could get some exquisite broth out of the deal?! Okay, I guess that's a fair trade. But be advised, Girlfriend: If I ever see you at the store buying all this stuff, I'm showing up at your house the next morning, because I figure there's going to be a seriously good breakfast awaiting me!
Grace asked me to bring a Chinese dessert, laughing to herself because she knew full well that the Chinese don't eat dessert, not very often, anyway. But I had fun with it, recalling every Chinese buffet I'd ever seen. There's always fresh fruit, usually melon, and an almond gelatin, which my pal Mark claims is an abomination on account of the unnaturalness of gelatin that looks milky and tastes like almond. He objects to the mouth-feel, too. "I have texture issues," he once told me with a shudder. For authenticity, I even made it with agar agar, a seaweed-based gelatin that's popular amongst the vegan crowd. Everyone took a bite just to give it a try, or so as not to hurt my feelings, although I'd already assured them that my feelings wouldn't be hurt if they didn't eat it. A couple of people liked it okay. One person actually liked it well enough to carry some home with him for later. I probably won't make it again, but I'm glad to have tried it and to have had the experience of working with agar agar.

We feasted grandly, but after all that food we didn't feel stuffed or overindulged, because it was lean, healthy stuff. No reaching for the antacids afterward!

Himself and I are eager to do Chinese hot pot ourselves now. Grace said they stopped at 99 Ranch Market and bought all the meats, seafoods and assorted items pre-prepared and ready to drop into the pot. That means the prep was all done--all they had to do to get ready for a dinner party was to tidy up the house, set the table and make some broth.

To eat hot pot alone would be about as much fun as watching a DVD of Rocky Horror Picture Show at home all by yourself. This is social food. Make a lot of broth, buy extra ingredients and invite people over, or ask them to bring something to add in. I brought regrettable but fun dessert. Wes brought his portable bar and mixed cocktails that paired well with the meal. It was a great feast and a great evening. And certainly a memorable one.