Thursday, July 23, 2015

A few non-eating activities in Chiang Mai

We did some actual site seeing when we got into Chiang Mai. The old city is stuffed with temples and we spend the better part of our first day hoping to dozens of them.

My favorite experience was the temple that after I used their bathroom handed me a very well made Thai/English brochure outlining the virtues of their bathroom. It included statistics about water usage and awards for cleanliness.

 We also took a day to drive an hour into the country side to visit an artist project space called "the land." It is headed up by Rirkrit Taravanija and is a free and open space for anyone who wants to do experimental projects in architecture, agriculture, and art.

Here I am in one of the pavilions. Everyone is welcome and can stay for as long as they want. So long as they bring their own tent and are willing to help out the full time farmer who tends the grounds. We stayed for about an hour...
 We finished up that same afternoon at the cafe of some new friends Sinn and Ann. We all share mutual friends back in Atlanta and they were kind enough to put us together knowing we would be passing through. It was a really great afternoon of conversation about life in Chiang Mai.

We also squeezed in a visit to an enigmatic artist project called the 31st Century Museum. This collection of shipping containers arranged in the shape of a "31" houses a collection of curios including ceramic skulls and a friendly dog named Cherry.


We know nothing about Thailand

We have been in Chiang Mai for two days. We have had meals at street vendors, tin roof restaurants, and 7 Elevens. It has all been amazing, but all we can do is point. We know none of the food names. We can only guess at their ingredients. We did a bit or research before we arrived on various food blogs but are unable to match what we found there to what we find in the street. In short we are having to confront the fact that we know absolutely nothing about northern Thai cuisine. We are only being led by our eyes and stomachs. This had led to fantastic meals but the growing fear that we could never repeat this and that we have so much to learn. Here are a selection of images of highlights from the past few days described as best we can.

These sweets are filled with carmalized coconut and surrounded by a glue rice gluten. As good as any nonya cake we had in Malaysia but they come in much cuter packs of three.

Green mangos sliced and served with a sweet and sour shrimp sauce. The sauce is thick with dried shrimps and Thai chilis.

Pork rib soup. The broth was an intense citrisy broth, very likely lemon grass but stronger than I've ever tasted lemongrass before.

They called it Snake Head Fish on the menu. And it really looks like a snake head. It was grilled to perfection. I wish I knew what it really was so I could order it again.

A pork neck salad. Big hunks of pork neck and jowl mixed in a spicy vinagrette and served with more fresh herbs than you shake your fist at.

Unripe mangos mixed with shallot and dried fish. This we spiced up with a heavy dose of pickled chilies.

Quail egg wontons. They are really creamy. My hunch is that this dish is also available in Burma and that crab rangoon is a poor American imitation of this regional food.

Stewed pork served with pickled cabbage and chili sauce. This was perhaps of the simplest food we had in terms of flavors, but its hard to turn down a plate of fatty pork with vinegar. All good food cultures have figured this out.

This is still one of the more baffling things I ordered. In a mortar this woman mixed three kinds of stale bread, peanuts, peppers, dried fish, and raw cabbage. She then worked it all into a mushy ball. It was actually quite mild and pleasant. Sorta like a Thai panzanella.

This was deep fried leaves identified as "ivys." They were accompanied by a sauce of minced pork, dried fish, chilies and huge hunks of shallots.

Blood sausage sliced and deep fried. This was served with a kind of spicy ketchup.

We will have more to report soon but no promise that we will be any savvier about knowing what we are putting in our faces.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Malaysia in no particular order

So we went through all of Malaysia without stopping to post anything. This means it's all getting squished into one big post. Here's a few pics of Lilly and I in our natural habitats. Kuala Lumpur street market and Penang mountain temple respectively.

Our trip was very much guided by the foods we wanted to try. We were very proud that we ate almost all of our meals out of doors and on the street. We had some of the best seafood of our lives and were introduced to so many new foods...but so much happened and so much is still happening that I'm unable (or rather unwilling) to organize them properly. So here they are as they uploaded...

This is the kitchen at Baba Charlie's in Melaka. This sweet shop makes "square cakes" in the tradition of the Chinese immigrants who settled this region in the 18th century. This place was one of the food highlights of our trip. Everything they made was delicious. 

 Nuf said.

 Through out Asia we have found Turkish ice cream vendors. We found yet another in Kuala Lumpur. Lilly of course got durian flavor. 
 Nasi Kandar is style of food typical to Penang. You get a plate of rice and top it with what ever you want from the case. Then they add sauces from everything to make a soupy meaty mess which is addicting. 
 Yes, the name says it all. This is a curry of fish heads. Although the flavors could be strong we found this very mild but pleasant. 

Here is one of my Nasi Kandar meals. This plate has fried chicken, curried fish roe and liver all covered in a lentil sauce. What?!? YES !

The impact of Chinese cuisine on Malaysian cooking cannot be understated. One ubiquitous and delicious soup coming from earlier Chinese immigrants is Bak Kut Teh. It is a pork rib soup served in a clay pot. Real comfort food. 
 Satay is deceptively simple. But when it is good it is really good. This meal in Kuala Lumpur was REALLY good. On this plate are small stuffed crabs, lamb, red cooked pork that is then grilled among many other delicious things. 
 At the Hindu temples in the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur we did a lot of monkey watching. 
At the same cave temple we tried "Fish Muruku." We were hoping for something really unusual and strongly fishy. Nope. They are kinda like Ritz crackers. 
 More satay. Yes the fish is perfectly grilled. 

 Decisions decisions...
 Went for the prawn. These critters can be the size of your forearm in Malaysia. 
 Comparing my forearm.

 We spent the last week of Ramadan in Malaysia. The country is majority Muslim and many people fast during the day. It was great to be out to break fast with everyone else. You can see the diners above anxiously checking their cell phones to see when sun down has officially happened. When it did happen we all enjoyed black pepper crab. Perhaps the best preparation of crab we have ever had.

 This shot taken at a market in Melaka shows the palm leave boxes that people weave for the end of Ramadan. Theses were everywhere. As ubiquitous as christmas lights.
 Lilly taking in a mosque in their provided coverings. 
 Did I mention that there is an large and culinarily influential Indian population. These are from an outstanding Tandori stand in Melaka.

 A very common lunch is "Chicken Rice" but don't let the simple name throw you. These chicken is slow cooked in sub-boiling chicken stock over night and then served with glutenous rice balls. They should call it "elaborate orb plate."

 One of the square cakes form Baba Charlie's. The blue comes from a local flower.

LASKA! This is a distinctly Malaysian bowl and can be found almost anywhere. It takes influences from China, Thailand, Indonesia, India and everywhere in between and puts it in one dish. It can be prepared in many ways. This particular version has a strong vinegary broth made of both prawn and chicken then flavored with tamarind and blood orange. 

A really amazing visit. We are now in Thailand and will have many more pics to share. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Here we go again: Another trip to Asia

In the Asian Civilization Museum of Singapore there is a statue of a Thai arhat (one who has attained enlightenment) named Prah Sangkahchai. As the story goes he was so physically beautiful that women and angels would never leave him alone. In order to avoid this unwelcome attention and focus on his meditation he purposefully gorged himself until he became fat and unattractive. We too are foreigners in Singapore and feel ourselves overstuffed. Although we have not reached a higher state of being we have been eating a lot.

We are embarking on a food-centric trip through the Malay peninsula and began our trip in Singapore.

Breakfast was a local favorite easily found throughout the city "Kaya Toast." White bread is spread thickly with butter and a coconut jelly and served with milky coffee. I loved it but Lilly opted for a more savory breakfast and got fish and rice steamed in a banana leaf. Both were available at the Killiney Kopitiam cafe.

We walked the city all day taking in several museums and the futuristic sky line stopping only for sweet corn ice cream.

We could walk no longer by the time we got to China Town. Singapore has for centuries been a place to find work for Chinese immigrants. Many waves of Chinese workers from different regions have settled here and we settled for a Sechuan style lunch. The main attraction was hot and numbing frog in ginger broth (sadly no picture was taken).

In the evening we met up with one of Lilly's ol' UChicago buddy Louis who is now a curator at the Singapore Art Museum. He took us around his exhibition and filled us in on the current scene in Singapore. In the last ten years the government has made deliberate investments in the arts. The SAM has enjoyed more money for exhibitions and acquisitions making it the definitive collection for contemporary South East Asian Art in the world.  If you want to know what artists from Burma to Vietnam and Brunei have been up in the last 25 years this is the place to be.

But our tour was not over. We headed over to Singapore's red light district Geylang. In addition to having very orderly looking brothels it also has an abundance of street food. We opted for chili crab and Malaysian beef noodles.

We were joined by a gallerist from Sundaram Tagore and a Filipino artist in town for a residency Gary Pastrana. The whole group feasted and feasted, and just when we were ready to throw in the towel and say we were too full to continue Louis reminded us that it is durian season.

Singaporeans love durian like no other nation. They import dozens of varieties and in July set up roadside stalls. What makes durians so distinctive from one another is the rot they develop. They are let drop from orchard trees and left to ferment in the sun. It is only by mid-summer that they have developed their desired funky flavors. Some varieties are quite rare and a single durian can run upwards of 50 USD.  Our hosts treated us to the top shelf shit. My preferred one was called "Cat Mountain" and had a deep smoky flavor. While it is a fruit the flavors are so alien to any other fruit on the planet. Deep, savory, gooey and complex. It was a real treat to eat this with a big group of enthusiastic diners. The stall had a real party atmosphere as everyone was ending their night with bellies full of this bizarre fruit.

Next stop is Malaysia where we hear the food is even more flavorful. We say bring it on.