Festivals

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Presenting (and eating) the Great GoogaMooga

Written by Emmy on 21 July 2012

When work is a little slow or I’m feeling a little restless, my distractions of choice include an array of local food blogs. On one such day, I noticed a preview for the Great GoogaMooga — a food festival planned for a weekend in May with all the top restaurants of the city. Intrigued, I marked my calendar for the day free tickets were slated to be released and on a workday in March, I barely secured my “purchase” only five minutes after the tickets went up for sale. In the course of just a few weeks, GoogaMooga had blown up in foodie news and was now suggested to be the event of the year.

So two months later, on a very sunny day in May, I headed back out to Nethermead Meadow in Prospect Park with my roommate Dana and our friend Karen for a day of planned gluttony.

We set rules: any food item had to be endorsed by at least two of us; all items were to be shared; and when in doubt, skew ethnic. The 75 or so food stands included a whole area with the best pizzas of New York and another with the best burgers, but we collectively agreed to bypass both sections in favor of spicy noodles and unpronounceable dishes.

(We also bypassed the area dubbed “Hamageddon,” a piece of the dark devoted entirely to pork cooked in every possible way, including on a giant spit within a massive metal barbecue.)

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The Great GoogaMooga was actually a two-day festival, but we only had tickets to the Sunday proceedings. Saturday had been reported by friends and media outlets to be a sort-of disaster with absurdly long lines and stands that ran out of food. We came prepared on Sunday morning with sunblock, water bottles and a picnic blanket, but were pleasantly surprised to find that food was in reach.

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Each stand was hosted by a famous or up-and-coming NYC restaurant purveying the item they are best known for. We dug right in. The first set of stalls featured ethnic delight after delight and not knowing where to start, we just started everywhere.

From the new Cambodian lunch spot, Nam Pang Sandwich Shop, we sampled pulled pork sandwiches with pickled vegetables and cilantro and a side of spicy grilled corn…

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From Baohaus, a hugely popular though grungy-looking spot near my apartment, crispy chicken baos, topped with some more cilantro…

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Switching from Southeast Asia to a very different side of the globe, a spinach and cheese pupusa loaded with hot sauce, slaw and jalapeños from a new Venezuelan hotspot…

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Circling back to Southeast Asia (really, my palate never seems to stray for long), we sampled a spicy Thai sausage, which kind of reminded me of items I sampled at the highly authentic Ayada in Elmhurst

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We came up for air and realized we had plowed through all the ethnic delights near us that we wanted to try. We had set rules about not eating “common” food items, but there is one comfort food I am on occasion willing to break a whole host of rules for: grilled cheese. Grilled cheese is one of those foods that has suddenly become trendy in New York, with a slew of random restaurants popping up that serve nothing but the gooey goodness. One in particular has been on my to do list for a while, a Lower East Spot called Little Muenster. They had a booth, and so we decided rules were made to be broken and ordered the Oaxaca grilled cheese, filled with spicy peppers and drizzled in cotija cheese and salsa.

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While on the grilled cheese line, we spotted a man wearing a shirt with the state of Wisconsin on it with a tattoo of Wisconsin on his arm. For most people, this would be nothing more than a little oddity, but for Dana — proud Wisconsin native — this was worth exploring. Even more bizarre was when we discovered the Wisconsinite was peddling — yep, you guessed it — Southeast Asian sandwiches.

Though his restaurant serves next to nothing from his native state, it’s located in what the owner hopes will soon be considered Lil’ Wisco — a short block in the West Village that also features Kettle of Fish, an unassuming bar that becomes home exclusively to Packers fans during football season.

Sensical or not, we enjoyed another crispy chicken and spicy vegetable sandwich, topped off with a bit of sriacha.

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The sandwich was delicious, and my eating about a third of it put me over the edge. Not a bad way to end a day of dining.

To market, to market

Written by Emmy on 24 June 2011

My favorite thing to do in a new city is just to walk around. Observing the people, hearing the language and taking in all the sights and smells is a perfect way to get a sense of the the culture, the city and the people living in it. Throughout our trip, we have done quite a bit of walking. We have the blisters — and one pair of broken shoes — to prove it. But seeing the streets has been amazing, especially since many of them are covered in streetside markets.

We market-hopped extensively in Bangkok, and I was excited to see how the frenzied Thai streets looked up north. Our first visit was to Chiang Mai’s Warorot Market. The narrow alleyways packed with everything from raw meat to t-shirts to spools of ribbon were not dissimilar from many of the anonymous street markets we saw in Bangkok. Street signs are not so popular in Thailand. It was not uncommon for us to have no idea where we were, and though Chiang Mai and Warorot were more manageable than Bangkok, we would probably never have made it out of the maze of shops and tuk-tuks were it not for our trusty map.

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In Chiang Mai, the guidebooks all rave about the Night Bazaar. Every night, starting at about 6 p.m., merchants of every kind set up stalls inside a few freestanding buildings, as well as throughout the surrounding streets and alleyways. Hawking jewelry, scarves, housewares, food and every other possible item you could think of, they beckon to all passersby. Our hotel in Chiang Mai was just blocks from the Night Bazaar, and I had sort of assumed when we picked it that we would wind up walking through the market to go everywhere. As it turns out, the market was filled with more tourist junk than real items, and it was disorganized mayhem, not quite the organized chaos of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market.

Nancy Chandler’s rendition of Chiang Mai’s night bazaar

On Sundays, everything is different. One of Chiang Mai’s most motorcycle-and-tuk-tuk-congested streets is shut down to traffic and from 4 p.m. until midnight, merchants line the sidewalks. The Sunday Walking Market, as it is known, is frequented by as many locals as tourists. Many of the stalls are staffed by representatives of retail stores, peddling their merchandise in a more visible arena. The stalls also seemed to have a more thematic organization, with jewelry in one place, pillows and posters down a particular side street, and Buddha statues down another. And of course, there’s a food court or two.

The market stretches for countless blocks and for several hours. After a little while, Chaz left to get a massage and I continued perusing the market stalls. This marked one of the first times on our trip we separated. In Bangkok, the logistics of relocating each other seemed too daunting. Even in smaller Chiang Mai, we had a very precise meeting place and contingency plan. That left me with over an hour to take in all that the colorful Walking Market had to offer.

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Walking through the market by myself, I observed an insane number of jewels and scarves. Like I learned in Hong Kong at the jade market, few items are what their sellers profess them to be. The jade is usually just green plastic and Thai silk is rarely more than shiny cotton. The mantra of “what you see is what you get” is an appropriate mindset for the marketplace. Though I picked up a shirt (discounted because I am “pretty lady”) and a Hello Kitty item or two, the focus of my market-going was less on shopping and more on seeing.

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The market was filled with performers, including an official stage with little Thai girls dressed in outfits remarkably similar to those I wore in my four-year-old tap-dancing performances. What was somewhat disturbing though were the young children playing musical instruments among the shops. These kids were working for tips, and it was hard to discern whether they had been put up to it by their parents and whether they would ever see the money. With all the fun and festivity of Thailand, it was at moments easy to forget the realities of the developing nation we were in, but these kids were a definite reminder.

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The other markets we visited in Chiang Mai were less official. Among them was the Eastern Fruits Festival, a series of temporary tents housing dragonfruit, durian and the other exotic specialties of the region. Because it was smack in the middle of the city, we cut through the festival to walk elsewhere during the daytime, when sellers were just setting up their produce, and at night, when traditional Thai dancers came out to shake their stuff.

One morning, as we paused in front of a pad thai saleswoman so I could discretely take her picture (it never gets old), a group of schoolgirls stopped us. Having been warned so many times about marketplace scams — and narrowly avoiding a couple of them — we had a pretty heightened level of skepticism about any natives who approached us, but the girls seemed totally innocent and authentic. Armed with a tape recorder and a list of questions, they told us that they were students of English and they wanted to know where we were from and what we thought of Chiang Mai, among other things. The whole encounter reminded me of an almost identical interview I participated in for English students in Barcelona. (Both times I told the natives I thought their food was delicious.) At the end of our Thai interview, the girls asked to take a picture with us and we agreed — as long as we could have our own copy too.

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Our final notable street encounter took place on the walk back to our hotel on our final night in Chiang Mai. A quiet nondescript street by day, the road linking our hotel to “downtown” Chiang Mai took a darker turn at night. Go-go bars lined the entire walk, and each seemed to be identical to the next: staffed by young Thai girls and frequented by older Western men. The whole thing was a little unsettling. But in the midst of the mayhem was a cute little stall that we passed most nights, advertising cheap, homemade wine by the glass. To his credit, Chaz suggested we stop there one of the first nights, but it wasn’t until the last night, when we were walking back to the hotel and noticed a young Western couple sipping their wine, that I finally agreed to stop.

The pair of Canadians was vacationing in Thailand before beginning the school year as teachers in Bangladesh. The girl, Kat, had taught for a year in Chiang Mai previously and used to visit the wine stall regularly. Run by a Thai couple, the stand offers strawberry, ginseng, lychee and longan wine, all of which are on the sweet side. We sampled three of the four flavors — the longan was my favorite — but Kat warned that the wines tend to vary from bottle to bottle.

The proprietors took our photo and took down our names, a tradition repeated with all of the stall’s customers. So once again, we decided it would be only appropriate to take away keepsake photos of our own.

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We also took away a keepsake bottle, but because of our concerns about continuing to travel with it, it had to be consumed.

A day at the races

Written by Emmy on 9 June 2011

The annual Dragon Boat Festival in Hong Kong combines legendary myth with competitive sport, and of course, with a side of traditional food. The holiday fell on Monday, meaning there was no school or work, and thus total mayhem on the beaches of the southern part of the island. From eight in the morning until sundown, the shores were packed with locals and tourists, racing boats and spectating.

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The festival honors Qu Yuan, who drowned himself over 2,000 years ago to demonstrate his objections to the corrupt government. According to the myth, as people tried to save Qu Yuan, they beat drums in order to scare the fish away from him.

Dragon boat racesFrom this passed-down legend, the people of Hong Kong created a holiday centered around the sea and the drums. The race is made up of teams of up to 20 in long dragon boats, who row to the beat of the coxswain’s drum. Hundreds of teams crowd the beach, each with themed costumes and a cheering squad. Many of the teams were sponsored by large companies, including several American names we recognized. Each team had a tent for its racers and spectators, complete with a full buffet of Asian snacks and sandwiches. The boats do not belong to any particular team; following each race, the dragon boat was passed from one team to another.

We watched the races from Stanley, the southernmost part of Hong Kong island. The beach was packed and the road was blocked with buses and car traffic all the way up the shore. What is generally a short bus ride from Repulse Bay took longer than usual because of the heavy crowds. Once we made it to the beach, we were surrounded by locals, tourists and expats, who had all gathered to watch the races. Bruce cheered on some of the kids from the school where he works, who were rowing in one of the younger competitions.

Like all good legends and holidays, the Dragon Boat Festival also has a food element to it. When Qu Yuan was floating in the river, the people threw cooked rice into the water to further protect his body from the fish. Somehow over time, through evolution of the legend and a desire for a more exciting holiday food, the item de jour became a cooked rice dumpling. Wrapped in a lotus leaf, the rice is bundled around items ranging from red bean to pork fat. The dumpling is boiled for six hours in order to let the flavors seep together. After this whole process, it is unwrapped and ceremoniously eaten.

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We did not eat our dumplings at the race, but partook in a lotus-seed filled one back at Bruce and Wendy’s apartment. The rice was so thoroughly cooked that it had lost all flavor, taking on an almost glassy taste. I was glad to find a sweet fruit, rather than a scary animal part, inside, but I can’t say I’ll be seeking out lotus seed again any time too soon. Still, it was fun to eat… it was like unwrapping a food present!

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