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Back in the north

Written by Chaz on 10 July 2011

Ah, Sweden.

My trip so far has been the perfect counterpoint to our month in Asia: calm, quiet and relaxing. I have lots of great things to say about our trip, but those three adjectives do not come to mind immediately.

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IMG_2784The flight over the Atlantic seemed ridiculously short compared to our flights to and from Asia. I had watched part of a movie and slept a little bit, and hey, we were getting ready to land. After a confusing trip through the Paris airport, I found myself in a glass pavilion that closely resembled an airport terminal designed for Lilliputians. I grabbed a quick bite to eat — goat cream cheese, mountain sausage, and salad on a baguette — and made my way onto the flight to Stockholm. I slept for most of the flight, missed my chance to have coffee and thus arrived in Sweden a little out of sorts. But I quickly recovered when I was reminded of the real reason I studied abroad here.

ABBA, living legends

My contact family met me at the airport and whisked me through the Swedish countryside to their summer cottage in Lögla, nestled in Stockholm’s pride and joy, its skärgård, or archipelago. Hundreds of small islands protected the city for centuries, and today they make Stockholmers’ favorite vacation spot. Anna, my contact mother, said she doesn’t like to go abroad for vacation during the summer because Sweden is just so nice at this time of year. Their summer house is a perfect getaway: only an hour from the city, but it feels like a different world entirely.

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I jumped right back into Swedish traditions with a fika, or coffee break. Fika is coffee and a little snack — in this case, cheese and bread to make smörgåsar, Swedish open-faced sandwiches, and a delicious variant on the traditional kanelbullar, Swedish cinnamon rolls. The coffee made me a real human again, and the little snack made me a real Swede again.

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After a quick swim in the Baltic Sea (it’s not cold, it’s refreshing!), we had a great dinner of beef and vegetables straight from the grill, plus young Swedish potatoes and a fresh salad. Before I knew it, it was nine o’clock, but the light hadn’t diminished at all, thanks to Sweden’s northern location. As we sat in their yard, enjoying our food and conversation, I felt like I was in a place very near to paradise.

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We followed dinner with a homemade pie made of blueberries, freshly picked from right near their house, and crumbled oatmeal dough on top, followed by a healthy dollop of vanilla sauce. It was fantastic. Enough has been said about the importance of ingredients on this blog, but truly, they make or break a dish.

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After some more conversation, reading and relaxing, I finally headed up to bed after midnight, at which point it still wasn’t completely dark. During the summer, it never gets pitch black dark in Sweden. It gets to the darkest part of twilight around eleven, and then the darkest part of sunrise by two, and everything starts all over again.

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I slept like a baby thanks to the Isakssons’ terrific hospitality, dreaming of midnight sun and pickled herring.

An epicurean retrospective

Written by Emmy on 10 July 2011

I’ve been back in New York for over a week, and I have finally adjusted to the time difference and to the fact that everything I eat is not nose-running eyes-tearing mouth-numbing spicy. I’ve been catching up with all my family and friends and the first-ish question I am asked is, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” It’s a question I’m having a difficult time answering and when my grandmother saw me pause, she rephrased the question to something more in line with the bulk of my blog posts. “What was your favorite thing that you ate on the trip?”

Well, I still can’t entirely figure out how to answer that either. (I have often been accused of being indecisive.) But that question provides a much better launch point for my reflections of our voyage.

We ate a lot of food. I think that much is clear from the blog, not to mention the hundreds upon hundreds of photos. I think there were probably a few wagers going as to what size we would return as, and I am happy to say that our eating adventure did not take a lasting toll. (We did a lot of walking and Asian portions are small.) But all the food was intended for more than just gustatory pleasure. There is no better way to understand a culture than through the way people cook, shop for, obsess over and eat their food.

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Two years ago, I spent a semester living in Barcelona. While I was there, I was swept up in the romance of the three-hour lunch and the afternoon tapa. A couple weeks in, I had forsaken all cooking implements other than a frying pan and a bottle of olive oil. In Spain, food is inherently linked to family. The lengthy afternoon meal is meant to be enjoyed at home, and all business stops for it to happen. Coffee to-go is hard to find because you should linger over your morning cup and conversation. We don’t do “fast coffee,” I was once told by a native.

From these culinary traditions, it was possible to learn so much about the people and their values. Granted, I had four months to figure it out. But the way the Spaniards eat — and especially the Catalan people of Barcelona — speaks tremendous volumes about their temperament and lifestyle.

Though I did not have the luxury of four months of discovering Southeast Asian food, I think I got a pretty good taste (literally) in our four weeks there. Keeping this blog and focusing on food really kept us on task. At every meal, I felt compelled to analyze all aspects of my dish, whereas normally I might have just gobbled it up. Likewise, the blog kept us from straying too far away from the native cuisines. I can count on one hand the number of times we ate something non-local: chopped salads and tuna sandwiches in Hong Kong, Middle Eastern fare at Jerusalem Falafel in Chiang Mai, German-themed cuisine in Singapore and some Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies leftover from the plane.

Even without the blog we would have eaten quite a bit of Asian food, but there was a sense of imposed focus and a heightened eye for detail. (Often as we were typing away, we would comment out loud, “Who died and made me a food critic?”)

IMG_0936We really did not try to disguise the fact that we were tourists.

All of the cuisines we enjoyed shared ingredients and seasonings, but the results were so different. And it was not just the foods that struck me in each country, but also the ways in which they were served and enjoyed.

In Hong Kong, where evidence of British colonialism is still so clear, traditional Chinese restaurants where no English is spoken are found on the same blocks as settings for the imported tradition of high tea. Both are frequented, but I suspect overlap in clientele is limited. Dining out is a experience to be had by all on the little island. Property is expensive in Hong Kong, and so people rarely entertain in their homes, we learned. Instead, families and friends gather for rituals like the Sunday dim sum, where they fight for their food with the best of them.

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Just miles away in Macau, the evidence of another western colonizer is still strong. Though Hong Kong and Macau are both now technically part of China, they have maintained their individuality. For Hong Kong, a strong and highly developed economy sets it apart from its motherland. Macau has casinos and historic Catholic churches, but they also have a cuisine unlike anything else in Asia. Where else can you find Portuguese egg tarts and pulled piglet jerky side by side? Though there are very few Portuguese speakers left in Macau, those who speak only Cantonese still know what vinho verde is.

In Thailand, tradition reigns strong too, but here, it is the traditions cultivated internally. Thailand prides itself on having been the only nation in the region to never have been colonized. As a result, the food lacks the European influence that we saw elsewhere. Thai food gets its strength from its ingredients because the recipes that have developed over time are based solely upon ingredients that can be grown and raised in the country itself. As we reflected while there, this gives the cuisine a beautiful consistency and simplicity. The same dish that can be found in the most expensive restaurants in Bangkok can also be found on a street corner in a back alley market.

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Betel leaf wraps at Cabbages and Condoms, and the do-it-yourself version at a street market (for $1)

Overall, food in Thailand was my favorite of the cuisines we sampled on our trip. It’s not really a fair fight; Thai food came into the ring with a strong preexisting bias. Of the foods we ate on our trip, I had the most previous experience eating Thai food. The way in which the Thai people cook also aligns with my preferences. All Thai dishes work to achieve a balance between four things: spicy, sour, sweet and salty. The inherent inclination toward citrus, chili and nuts fits exactly with how I like my food. Plus, the Thai build many of their dishes around chicken, shrimp or tofu (or all three) as opposed to the mystery meats found in Chinese cuisine.

I haven’t had Thai food since being back in the states, and I’m almost nervous to. With all the emphasis we’ve put on ingredients, how can a papaya salad on Long Island even begin to compare to one built from the markets of Thailand?

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On our first day in Bangkok, as we walked and tried to navigate the traffic, we came upon a series of picnic tables obstructing about 80 percent of the sidewalk. Each of the tables had condiments, a bowl of chili peppers, a bowl of greens and other typical toppings. As we continued, we saw more of the same tables, crowded with locals who were being served from a makeshift kitchen in what appeared to be the breakdown lane of the major road we were walking next to. “Wait,” we turned to each other. “This is a restaurant?”

IMG_2271It became a running joke, as we weaved our way through crowded streets and sidewalks, to point out a satay stand and its seated customers and remark, “Look! A restaurant.” But they really were all restaurants, and that is how the locals live. In the U.S., we view eating out as a treat — it often involves formality and you wind up taking more time and spending more money than if you had just eaten at home. But when the pad thai is less than a dollar, is fresh and piping hot, and you can catch up with a few neighbors while you eat it, isn’t that better than trying to gather the ingredients yourself?

When I told friends and family back home that we were eating tons of street food, I think they pictured Manhattan’s hot dog carts. We think of street food as something to be inhaled on the go, probably filled with chemicals and God-knows-what-else, and likely to be kind of dirty. I’m not going to suggest that Bangkok’s street stalls are about to earn full points for atmosphere and cleanliness, but it wasn’t a grungy experience. We couldn’t round a corner without finding an impromptu cafe or two, and the system functioned pretty flawlessly. And while, yes, we may not have been the most cautious traveler-eaters (though I promise we only drank bottled water), we never had a problem. These Thai women, who each specialize in a particular dish or two, know exactly what they are doing.

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My allegiances are still to the Thai people and their delicious cooking, but I will be the first to admit that I had never given Vietnamese food a fair try before. I’ve only eaten Vietnamese a handful of times, and I’ve never really known what to order. I either copied the people I was with or ordered something that sounded vaguely familiar. The former strategy sometimes works; the latter was always a failure, because if I recognized a dish, that probably meant it came from Thai food and had made it onto the menu because restaurants in the states tend more toward Asian fusion than authenticity, and as a result, these dishes are usually the weakest.

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But I went into Vietnam eager to try and experiment. The many noodle and soup dishes we had were good, but after the spicy noodles of Thailand, I found the experience almost bland sometimes. (I just don’t get pho, I’m sorry.) But while in Vietnam I discovered a reason to love the local food: do-it-yourself rice paper wraps.

I often gravitate toward composed dishes, where the spices and the flavors are already mixed together. But on our first day in Hanoi, I ordered a lunch deconstructed and instantly found a new favorite. We’ve waxed poetic on and on about the importance of ingredients, but it is so true. Put fresh fish, pineapple, mint, chili sauce and peanuts together and — voila — delicious. There’s more to Vietnamese food than I gave it credit pho. (Haha.)

Singapore is a country I would never have thought to visit if I didn’t know someone who lives there, and we would never have experienced it in the way that we did were it not for the Chia family.

IMG_0887Throughout our trip, we relied heavily on the advice of guidebooks to tell us where to eat. We were meticulous and obsessive, combing through our library of trusty resources — Lonely Planet, the country specific editions and “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring”; Let’s Go, which previously helped me eat my way around Europe; Nancy Chandler while in Thailand; the New York Times’ 36 Hours feature and whatever other sources we happened to come across on days when our Internet was functioning particularly well. We had some truly stellar meals entirely thanks to the guidebooks. But we also had some mediocre meals at restaurants chosen solely because they had appeared in a guidebook. I don’t blame the guidebooks, because in countries where we could barely communicate, I don’t think we could have done a whole lot better on our own. But the difference between our dining experiences as tourists and our dining experiences traveling alongside a native were like night and day.

For the bulk of our trip, we alternated between street eating and fine dining. In the former category we found ourselves among locals, but in the latter, we were often in a room entirely composed of white people. With Vernie, we ate at establishments of all different kinds, but the consistent trend was that we were surrounded by Singaporeans. We ate in restaurants that did not appear in a single guidebook and that we could never have found on our own, even with the best of maps. I admittedly did not love every single item we tried, but the whole time we were traipsing around, I felt like we were doing Singapore right. I learned an extraordinary amount about the food and the customs, far more than in the other countries, because we heard it from the mouths of those who know it and ate it from their tables.

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The second-most informative experience, in terms of food and culture, was at cooking school. This brings me — finally — to the long-winded conclusion of my thoughts and the long-awaited answer to the question that started this all.

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What was my favorite moment of the trip? Cooking school.

It wasn’t until we attended cooking school that I really started to understand why exactly I liked the food in Thailand so much. There was something almost magical about visiting a market filled with Thai women doing their morning shopping, taking our ingredients back to a stove and learning to create a dish that every single one of those Thai women could have made. Being a part of the process, and not just on the receiving end at a restaurant, provided more of an inside lens into the food, how it developed and how it all came together.

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It’s one thing to order your food three-star spicy. It’s another thing entirely to see learn what that actually means, that if you add the red curry paste it will only get a little bit spicier, but that if you put a whole red birds-eye chili in the mix, the whole dish will come close to exploding. It made me appreciate it all more. When I started comparing my eighth papaya salad in Thailand to my third, I could begin to understand why one was straight-up fiery and one was spicy, disguised as sweet.

I do not mean to suggest I suddenly became a Thai cooking master. (I apologize to my roommates, who I think were hoping for mastery by now.) But what I’m trying to get at is that while eating is a terrific way to understand the role of food in a local culture, partaking in the culinary process from step one teaches you so much more. After all, my obsession with the Spanish diet really only blossomed once I got to work in my own Spanish kitchen.

My trip to Southeast Asia was only the tip of the food-discovery iceberg in that part of the world. So, I think we all know what that means. I now need to go on a cooking vacation.

The mystery, the wonder: Chicken rice

Written by Chaz on 5 July 2011

Since our arrival in Singapore — actually, since even before that — Vernie had been promoting this mythical Singaporean food item: chicken rice. Is it chicken? Is it rice? Neither? Both? What is it?

On our last evening in Singapore, we went with Vernie and her friend Ivan to one of their favorite chicken rice places to sample the dish. We had previously discussed chicken rice with Vernie and her dad. Check out the video.

At dinner, we were ready to evaluate the chicken rice on each of Tony’s criteria: the flavor of the rice, the tenderness of the chicken and the quality of the chili. We were each given our own plate of rice, which tasted delicious from moment one (check); the chicken was so moist it was falling out of its skin (check); and the chili sauce was delicious, especially with the garlic sauce that accompanied it (check).

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Vernie and Ivan also ordered us a spicy vegetable side dish and sweet and sour pork. I asked Vernie before the pork arrived how it compared to the same item in Chinese restaurants in America, and though she said it was pretty different, it seemed very similar to me. It had the same gooey sweet sauce and slightly radioactive orange tint to it.

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I thought it was very interesting that chicken rice (more generally known as Hainanese chicken rice) had become so ubiquitous in Singaporean culture. After all, delicious though it is, it’s just chicken and rice (and sauce) — significantly simpler than so many of the other dishes that are popular in Singapore, like chili crab and katong laksa. Perhaps it’s exactly this simplicity that makes it such a source of pride in Singapore. It’s about taking a few ingredients and combining them in just the right way.

A day of eating

Written by Chaz on 5 July 2011

We began Tuesday, our third day in Singapore, with one of my favorite foods we had on our trip: mee siam, a spicy noodle dish. Vernie explained that, unlike in the United States, any food can be eaten at any meal. Back home, I might have cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and a more prepared meal for dinner, but in Singapore, I could eat those in any order. Except they would probably all be something spicy.

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We bought the mee siam at a “coffee shop,” which in Singapore is nothing like a Starbucks. In fact, it’s more like what an American might call a food court (though, in Singapore, a food court is yet another thing). A coffee shop is made up of a bunch of different stalls, each selling one or two dishes, and only one stall sells drinks. The drinks stall is usually the most lucrative and is thus usually run by the owner of the whole place, who rents the rest of the stalls to other food sellers.

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Though plenty spicy, especially because of the chili we mixed in, the mee siam was also a little sweet, which I thought made it an especially palatable breakfast meal, among the various spicy noodle dishes we had. Though the name, which means Siamese noodle, suggests a connection to Thailand, it’s yet another of the only-in-Singapore dishes that are so plentiful.

After we gobbled up the mee siam, Vernie got us a dish of tau hway, a sweet soy dish that reminded me of the banana in coconut milk that we made in cooking school. Though simple in its sweetness, the texture of the soy made it almost like ice cream.

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Never ones to miss a market-going opportunity, we took a lap through the adjoining market and hawker center, another uniquely Singaporean term that refers to basically a large coffee shop (which is basically a food court).

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After breakfast, we lounged around Vernie’s apartment for a little bit to catch up on blogging and build up our hunger for lunch. Her friend Ivan joined us for lunch, and generously agreed to drive us since our lunch place wasn’t very convenient to public transportation. Yes, even in Singapore, such a place exists.

Our lunch dish, katong laksa, was another noodle dish, but it was totally different from the mee siam. It was much soupier, and like a Thai curry, it was based on coconut milk. Also more or less unique to Singapore, katong laksa comes from the Peranakan cuisine that results from a mixture of Chinese and Malay food. It’s found especially in the eastern part of the island where Vernie lives, from which it takes the Katong part of its name. Some even call it Singapore’s national dish.

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The laksa was much less spicy than the mee siam, and of the many noodle dishes we’ve tried, it was one of the most flavorful but least spicy. It came with an otak-otak, a fish cake wrapped in a banana leaf, that could be eaten with the laksa. We also had a plate of rojak, fried dough and fresh fruit in a sweet brown sauce. The rojak made a great side to a noodle soup.

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Our experience at the laksa place underscored the value of having a local guide for our food tour. The food was delicious, but there’s no way we ever would have found it on our own, and we probably wouldn’t have known what to order even if we had.

After lunch, we stopped by Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, a well-known bakery. I had told Vernie that I wanted to bring some kaya, the Singaporean coconut jam, back to the U.S., and she said Chin Mee Chin was the best place to get it — it’s where her family gets it. So I got two little plastic containers of freshly made kaya to pack into my suitcase.

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Ivan dropped us off at the MRT, and we headed downtown to visit two of Singapore’s distinct ethnic neighborhoods, Chinatown and Little India. We made loops through the heart of each, exploring the various trades and shops that have become particular to the two neighborhoods.

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Eating can be exhausting, so we headed back to Vernie’s for a swim and a nap before our dinner plans.

The best food of Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 2 July 2011

In Thailand, we had plenty of great meals on the street for next to free. But the best food we had was in the city’s finest restaurants. The food that came out of the best kitchens was more refined, more complex and just more delicious — which is not to say that it sacrificed tradition. Rather, it exemplified the best that tradition can create.

But in Hanoi, as we explored the culinary scene online and in our guidebooks, we quickly began to discover that the city’s most upscale restaurants, and even many midrange ones, served internationalized food, rather than just straight Vietnamese. So we had to fall back on our old ways, prowling the street scene. In Hanoi, there are lots of little street stalls serving fantastic traditional Vietnamese food. Each specializes in just one dish, like fish soup or crab spring rolls.

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We tried two of these, each serving a variant of bún, the Vietnamese noodle dish. The first specialized in bún chả, crispy pork strips over vermicelli with pork spring rolls. After we took our seats in the rather spartan little restaurant, we were given a large plate of vermicelli noodles, a plant of mint and other tasty greens, and a bowl of chili and garlic to customize the flavor.

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Each of us was then given a bowl of pork strips in the soup that gives the dish its distinctively Vietnamese flavor, and we shared a plate of the spring rolls. We each had little empty bowls, as well, in which we combined all the ingredients to create the fusion of textures that is bún.

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At the other stall we tried, we had bún bò nam bộ, the beef version of the dish which we had also had at KOTO. This dish was much less soupy than bun cha, flavored with more of a sauce.

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Both dishes were fantastic — and again, very different from Thai cuisine. Each of these dishes were much more composed of their component parts than most Thai dishes. In the case of the bún chả, we even literally assembled the parts ourselves, then carefully scooping some noodles, greens and meat into each bite. This made for a very different experience, one that I enjoyed immensely. In both restaurants, each of our entrees cost about $4, which was almost certainly the foreigner rate.

As if to validate the superiority of street food in Hanoi, Quan An Ngon, which serves a selection of common street foods in a slightly less street-like atmosphere, is one of the most highly rated restaurants in the city, despite being extremely affordable. Our meal there shared the same composed nature with our street meals, even requiring some instruction before we were permitted to chow down.

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We ordered chicken phở and fresh shrimp spring rolls. The phở arrived ready to eat, but the waiter decided I needed a tutorial on how to assemble the spring rolls from the plates of noodles, shrimp cakes, vegetables, sauce and rice paper wraps that lay before me.

The shrimp wraps were delicious, not least because the rice paper, which is so simple as to be nearly tasteless, really let the ingredients inside shine. The phở, which probably was state of the art, wasn’t really either of our taste (I know, I know).

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The meals I will remember most in Thailand were in fancy restaurants, while the meals I’ll remember from Vietnam were all simple street meals. I think that speaks to the difference between the two cuisines, too — one is about cooking and preparation, and one is about ingredients and composition. Both were an absolute treat to sample.

Vegging out

Written by Emmy on 23 June 2011

Our trips to the markets and street stalls of Southeast Asia have introduced us to some very interesting meat products, known and unknown. Mysteriously shaped pieces of what looks like meat appear in salads and noodle dishes. In Hong Kong, most items categorized as “vegetable” on restaurant menus actually included stir-fried pork or other extras.

Despite their seemingly carnivorous nature, the Thai people are incredibly respectful of vegetarianism. In the food markets, stalls bearing a yellow flag strictly observe vegetarian practices and in the month of October, many restaurants reportedly turn vegetarian for a few weeks and fly the yellow banner to prove it. The practice builds upon the abundance of noodles and fresh vegetables in the Thai marketplace, as well as the rich Buddhist tradition.

In Chiang Mai, we had lunch at two recommended vegetarian cafes. The first, Taste of Heaven, which we visited on Friday, also ran a vegetarian cooking school. Flyers around the restaurant advertised the health benefits of vegetarianism, as well as the ethical and religious reasons one might choose such a lifestyle.

We started with fresh spring rolls and samosas. The spring rolls had good textural contrast, with fresh tofu to balance the cabbage and carrots. The curried vegetables inside the samosas tasted of the spices usually found in Indian food, but the dipping sauce of rice vinegar, carrots and onions gave the samosas a distinctly Thai flavor.

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We also sampled the Taste of Heaven salad, which was filled with crunchy vegetables, nuts, crispy pieces of tofu and other assorted goodies, topped with a tangy spicy dressing. It was delicious.

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We also tried two different curries, a yellow and a red. Each was spicy and filled with tofu and the many vegetables we had learned about in cooking school.

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On Sunday, we checked out another of Chiang Mai’s vegetarian restaurants. AUM Restaurant feels a bit more like a hippie enclave, with a secondhand bookstore attached. (For some reason, Chiang Mai has more secondhand English bookstores than any city I have ever been in.) Despite its location on one of CM’s busiest roads, AUM definitely has a peaceful vibe.You must remove your shoes in order to enter the main part of the bookshop.

We ordered the khao soi, Chiang Mai’s signature dish, which we had already come to love. Here it was still served with veggie condiments, spicy sauce and crispy noodles, but with tofu and extra veggies in lieu of the usual braised chicken. The resulting dish had just as much flavor and kick as the chicken-filled version.

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We also had a papaya salad. Like the others we have ordered throughout Thailand, this one was mind-numblingly spicy. It took us each two bottles of water and a couple bites of plain lettuce to erase the tingling sensation on our tongues. We also ordered the fresh spring rolls, which had a distinctly different flavor than the ones we ate at Taste from Heaven. In AUM’s rendition, the crunchy carrots and cabbage were complemented by sweet beets and topped by a variety of seeds. Using beets rather than tofu created more of a flavor explosion, completing making up for the lack of meat or seafood.

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I have often thought that were it not for the social inconveniences of places like restaurants that I could easily become a vegetarian. Who would have thought that it would be easier to do that in Thailand?

The cuisine of the north

Written by Chaz on 23 June 2011

During our time in Chiang Mai, we explored all of the city’s major tourist sights. This meant we saw quite a few temples, known as wats. After our time in Bangkok, Thai temples started to get a little bit repetitive. I can sum up what we saw with a few pictures:

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Multiply that a few times and add in the hot sun, and that was basically our wat-going experience in Chiang Mai. Very beautiful and historic, but basically an interlude between meals, which were obviously the main attraction of our time in Thailand.

We had two delicious northern dinners in Chiang Mai, as well as two amazing vegetarian meals that Emmy will write about soon. There weren’t very many upscale restaurants in Chiang Mai, which, on the whole, was much more parochial than Bangkok despite a very visible presence of Western tourists and expats. But Adit, of interview fame, had recommended that we check out Ginger Kafe for its unique Eat Me–esque take on northern Thai food. It turned out to be a great meal, and we ended up going twice after a restaurant that we tried to go to another night turned out to have closed.

We started with an appetizer platter that featured our favorite betel-leaf snack and some kind of deep-fried leaf. We also had a phenomenal papaya salad with soft-shell crab. It was super spicy, but really tasty and flavorful.

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We moved on to two northern dishes for our entrees. Khao soi is a curry with cooked noodles in a spicy broth made from coconut milk, usually served with chicken and topped with fried egg noodles. Originally Burmese, it’s served widely in northern Thailand, especially as street food. We also had a dry red curry, much less soupy that a traditional red curry.

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I really enjoyed khao soi. It was one of the few dishes in Thailand that’s customarily eaten with chopsticks, so it made a nice change as well as a good transition to our time in Vietnam. Most other curries that I’ve had aren’t served on noodles, and the crunch of the egg noodles gave the dish a very different texture than many others. Though the curry came with rice, it hardly needed it. The meat was full of flavor on its own, and the sauce was thick enough that it didn’t need another solid to act as a vehicle.

Ginger Kafe was also a really fun place to have dinner. When we walked in, we were asked whether we were there to eat or to shop in their boutique, then asked whether we wanted to sit at a table or on a sofa. We were boring and opted for a table, but it still made a neat atmosphere.

Our other distinctively northern experience was at Huen Phen, a restaurant in central Chiang Mai that serves khao soi on the street at lunch and a full northern menu in an ornately decorated house at dinner. We had a whole hodgepodge of items, thanks to the restaurant’s relatively low prices: a vegetable and crab dip, served with vegetables for dipping; a spicy northern salad, with crispy egg noodles and unidentified meats; chicken in green beans, eggplant and a spicy northern sauce; and a northern curry, which is much soupier than a traditional one.

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The spicy northern salad was fantastic, walking a fine line as it was both refreshing and green while also having a nice kick to it. The rest of the dishes, though, let me down a little bit, making me long for more traditional Thai cuisine. The chicken dish was fairly bland compared to a normal stir-fry, and the curry was more watery than hearty.

All in all, I guess it’s not surprising that I preferred straight-up Thai food to its northern cousin, which shares a lot with its Burmese and Laotian neighbors. Thai food reflects a proud, uncolonized heritage that’s made obvious in its strong tastes and fresh, local ingredients. Northern cuisine, though still quite good, just wasn’t the same.

Getting schooled

Written by Emmy on 22 June 2011

Our adventures in Asia have mostly revolved around food and in particular, eating it. On Thursday, we had an opportunity to turn the tables and get behind the stove.

Our visit to Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School was planned even before our flights and hotels were booked. After many successful cooking experiments in Providence, Chaz and I were very eager to learn the secrets of Thai cooking. (As previously mentioned, we once tried to make pad thai and it was a disaster. Video footage will not be released in order to preserve our dignity.)

So on Thursday morning, we were met at our hotel by the cooking school van. We picked up the rest of the group at their hotels and guesthouses and assembled at the school’s main office to meet our instructor for the day. She introduced herself as Big Mama. (Later in the day, when explaining a particular vegetable’s attributes, she explained, “It’s short and fat. Like me!”) We also met our fellow students: a girl from England who also just graduated college, a young couple from California, four women from the Netherlands and a Danish man.

IMG_1772Our day began with a trip to a local market and we were each given pieces of the shopping list, with the items and quantities written in both English and Thai. My assignments were simple: 5 limes and 8 potatoes. Chaz’s were a tad more complicated: 3 kilos of palm sugar and 20 tiger prawns.

When we arrived at the market, Big Mama toured the group around before sending us out on our own. Most of the markets we’ve visited on our trip have been absolutely insane, with merchants hawking their produce and stinky fish everywhere. The calmer market we visited with Big Mama was clearly intended more for locals than for tourists, and was packed with regulars. Big Mama took us to several stands and explained all of the ingredients we would need to find. While some items (like those I had to collect) are identical to those we use at home, others are completely foreign. For example, we had to find pea eggplant and apple eggplant. The former looks like peas and the latter like nothing I’ve ever seen. Neither tastes like the eggplant I know and love (and for the record, pea eggplant does not taste like peas either).

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Chaz got a lesson in plucking prawns from a basket and examining them for quality, as well as instructions in buying palm sugar. Palm sugar, which we came to discover is in almost all Thai dishes, is made with coconut and has a molasses-like texture to it.

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IMG_1785Armed with a trunk full of groceries, the van brought us to the cooking school’s campus, about 30 minutes outside Chiang Mai. The buildings are open and airy, and surrounded by beautiful gardens. When we arrived, a class of children was working on their rice dumplings. We were brought into a classroom for our first instruction. Big Mama had laid out the curriculum before we arrived and assuming that the market shopping would make us hungry, we would make one dish, eat it and then continue with the program. Our first item was pad see ew. One of my favorite noodle dishes, pad see ew is usually made with thick rice noodles, which Big Mama showed us how to buy and then coat with the oyster sauce that, along with soy sauce, gives pad see ew its salty flavor. Big Mama’s tossing of the noodles with Chinese kale, egg and meat seemed so effortless.

We were skeptical that ours could be as good, but it turns out that with a watchful eye and the right ingredients, pad see ew is hard to mess up too badly. We also gained our first introduction to the condiments that we had seen all over Thailand. On almost every restaurant table, we had seen a bowl of liquid with peppers in it. Big Mama taught us that this is rice vinegar, diluted with water, and filled with chilis. The mixture adds a sour, spicy flavor to whatever it is sprinkled on. In the case of pad see ew, the simple sauce adds a nice contrast to the sweet noodles.

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After devouring our noodles, we moved onto the next dish: steamed fish inside a banana leaf. Cooked in curry alongside the pea eggplant and several other new vegetables, the fish smelled so spicy it made my eyes tear while cooking it. After being violently tossed around in a wok, the fish was poured into banana leaves and folded into a little package. Again, Big Mama’s actions appeared effortless. My leaf origami required a bit more assistance. Once folded, our fish packages were left to boil and cook through.

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IMG_1848Our next dish was yellow curry, one of the spicier varieties.

The Thai Cookery School was founded by Sompon Nabnian, who achieved his fame in a Chiang Mai restaurant and several stints on Thailand’s version of Food Network. Normally, you need to be enrolled in the more expensive master class to receive his teachings, but for whatever reason, he stepped in for Big Mama for a couple of our dishes. He easily whipped up the yellow curry and had us each try it. It was incredible: spicy, but full of flavor, and not too thin (the issue I often take with curries). Following his demonstration, we headed back to our own working stations.

We used no measuring cups in the creation of our own curries, thus leading to quite a bit of variation. Though Chaz’s version was silky and orange, and mine was much chunkier and a deeper red color, both were very spicy. Along with the curry, we learned to make a dipping sauce of rice vinegar, chilies, peanuts and peppers. The spicy citrus complemented the curry beautifully. The diverse flavors made the two items seem less fiery when eaten together.

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The final dish that made up our very large lunch was chicken stir fried with cashew nuts. In the U.S., this dish is often served in a brown sauce, but the version in Thailand is much lighter, filled with green vegetables to add crunch and flavor. Thrown into the wok for barely any time at all, the trick to giving the quick dish flavor is cooking the cashews separately ahead of time.

With a plate of rice to soak up all the flavors and spices, we enjoyed our massive and delicious lunch — made even more exciting because we had cooked everything.

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Though stuffed, we powered through the afternoon snack and dessert. We prepared the dessert first, so that it would have time to chill. The dish — bananas in coconut milk — was silky and sweet, and complemented by the flavor and scent of the pandanus leaf. We don’t have this plant in the states, but apparently, vanilla extract can be used as an easy substitute. Because of preexisting biases against both banana and coconut, this was not my favorite of the dishes, but I could still appreciate its artful simplicity.

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The afternoon snack was not the most popular among the group at large, but I happened to really like it. A northern salad of shrimp, lemongrass and other leaves, it was incredibly spicy. The dressing was made, among other things, of chili jam — a strange substance that tasted like Thai barbecue sauce — and little chili peppers. We were warned not to touch anywhere near our eyes after handling the tiny peppers because severe pain could result. My rendition of the salad (left) was nowhere near as beautiful as Big Mama’s (right) but I still thought it was delicious. Insanely spicy. But delicious.

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Extremely full and with recipe books in hand, we waved goodbye and boarded the van back to downtown Chiang Mai. Cooking school was definitely one of my favorite experiences of the trip — as I could have predicted — and I couldn’t have been happier with Big Mama and the whole staff at Thai Cookery School. Next challenge: trying to replicate the recipes in my own kitchen. Yikes.

Interview at Bangkok’s Eat Me

Written by Chaz on 19 June 2011

After our delicious meal at Eat Me, we had the pleasure of talking to Adit Vansoh, our host for the evening, about the vision behind Eat Me, the story of its menu and ingredients, and the future of the Bangkok restaurant scene. Check out the video:

Thanks again to Adit for so graciously talking to us!

From Australia to Bangkok: Eat Me

Written by Emmy on 19 June 2011

In the story of “Alice in Wonderland,” the title character finds herself wandering around the woods, where she encounters several bottles and pills with directives like “Drink me.” This playful and somewhat provocative trope is the inspiration for Bangkok’s highly acclaimed Eat Me, a restaurant influenced by the Australian owner’s native cuisine, as well as those from around the world and around the Thai markets.

The spectacular setting — an outdoor patio, flanked with tall grasses that helped you to forget the bustling traffic just outside — enhanced what was already a delightful epicurean experience.

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Encouraged by an enticing menu and a friendly staff, we over-ordered a bit in our attempt to explore the fullness of the offerings. We started with a rocket salad with pears, parmesan and a truffle dressing. Though simple in preparation, the salad played on the freshness and distinct taste of each ingredient. The scallop ceviche with grapefruit and avocado was at once sweet, citrusy and almost spicy. Dubbed nachos by the menu, the mountain bread with gruyere and diced tomatoes resembled more of a fancy bruschetta.

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We followed the appetizer parade with two entrees that could not have been more different: spicy lemongrass chicken with mango and penne and clams in betel pesto. When the former was placed on the table, Chaz proclaimed that it looked like pieces of Ratty grilled chicken. But upon further inspection, the local spices used in preparing the dish had soaked into every bite, creating a sensational flavor that paired beautifully with the thinly sliced mango. The penne took advantage of the versatile and rich betel leaf to create a more vibrant pesto than basil lends itself to. Betel, the subject of much fascination here at the checkpoint, is used in everything from sauces to lettuce wraps. Lettuce wraps in Asian restaurants in the U.S. are almost always composed of iceberg or romaine, and the leaves do nothing but serve as a vehicle for the food. Betel, on the other hand, enriches the flavors of whatever is inside.

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We finished off our meal with an interesting conversation with Adit, a native Thai who has worked at the restaurant for over a decade. In a soon-to-be posted interview, he provided us with insight into the culinary design of Eat Me and the future of the Bangkok dining scene. Update: The interview is live!

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