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Hoi Thod

Hoi Thod

a crispy fried omelette filled with seafood

Rice is Nice

I was down in Nakhon Si Thammarat earlier this week, wandering around one of the country’s holiest wats, Wat Mahathat, when my facebook alert chimed in my pocket. I stepped outside of the temple and discreetly looked at the message. My friend Baimohn asked what I was up to in two days. I wrote back, saying I was in the South of Thailand just traveling around. I asked “why? what do you have in mind”. He proceeded to type back a message that he and some friends were going up to a rice farm, and would I be interested in joining?

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I booked my plane flight home for the next morning on the taxi ride back to my guesthouse. Getting to learn about rice harvesting directly from the source trumped any desire to hunt for the best rice dish in southern Thailand. Eating khao yam nam budu (a specialty rice dish originating in the south, with a fermented fish sauce and a heavy hand of herbs) would have to wait til next time!

I met Baimohn in the wee hours of Saturday morning, along with his three friends, Nhoi, On and Ton, and we drove up to Chonburi, making pit stops for food, coffee and bathrooms along the way. We arrived a bit late to the group that had already gathered, but we were right on time for rice massaging. We walked into a room of people shuffling their feet atop large mounds of rice. I slipped off my sandals and joined the dance.

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We then watched as the farmers went through the process of toasting the young green rice (harvested a month earlier than your typical rice), smashing it in a giant mortar and pestle device (to remove the hull), pick out the unwanted shells, and then puff the rice in a hot walk, with no oil. The addition of freshly grated coconut and brown sugar made for a tasty treat.

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Then, one of the farmers went and grabbed an old coconut that had sprouted a shoot (much like an old garlic or onion) and whacked it open with a cleaver. He showed us something I had never seen before. Inside the coconut was a puffy, fluffy white growth called jow maprow. You pull the whole ball out and shred off pieces of the meat, like nature’s cotton candy. Nhoi was telling me that when she was a kid, most people would discard them and just use the coconut meat, but for her, they were instant sweet treats. I loved the texture of the coconut cloud, but I especially loved the fact the I learned something new.  I’ve drank probably thousand of coconuts in Thailand, yet had no idea that mature coconuts had the ability to have coconut babies, if you will.

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Around noon, we saw some of the ladies sit down in the kitchen and fires being stoked in charcoal burners. We were given the task of collecting herbs for the nam prik, or fish relishes that were being prepared. We went around the garden and collected sour leaves, ferns, hibiscus flowers, bitter leaves, butterfly pea flowers, and anything else that was edible and scrumptious. Nhoi and Baihmon worked on the platter and created something not only tasty, but beautiful.

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While they were working on the nam prik, I was helping with the curry.

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We made a feast, each contributing where we could, and me scribbling away notes on everything.

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We stood around the table, filling our bowls with warm rice and topping it with all the freshly prepared dishes. I’m not the biggest rice fan in the world (perhaps this sounds like on oxymoron considering Asian food is my passion), but this rice was different. I put a small amount in my bowl and expected to just push it around as I focused on the relishes, curries, stir fried veggies and fresh herbs from the garden. I took a small mouthful of rice, just to reassure myself that there couldn’t be much difference with this rice and all the other rices I’ve ever eaten. But as I chewed, I realized this rice was not like any other rice I’ve ever had. The grains were slightly chewy and they tasted nutty, slightly sweet and fresh. I moved the rice around over my tongue, incredulous that I’d truly never tasted a yummy rice before in my life. This wasn’t just a jasmine rice, or Uncle Ben’s brown rice. There was a distinct aroma, a lightness and a flavor that prompted me to actually have a second bowl! It wasn’t just a vessel for the curry; I wanted to enjoy the rice just as it was.

After we had scraped the last bits of each dish into our bowls, and thus into our tummies, we didn’t take a moment to breathe. We were marched straight out into the rice fields and each one of us was handed a scythe. We were given a quick demo on how to take down the stalks in big handfuls with one smooth move of the scythe. We slipped off our sandals and gingerly slipped into the mud. It was uneven footing and I kept having these flashing images of me making a wrong move and landing face first in the mud, potentially on my scythe! So I worked carefully at first, making sure to cut the rice just so. But as I got into a rhythm, it was actually really fun. We all moved deeper into the rice field, some working quicker than others. It felt a bit like a race, as some of us cleared our portion of the rice faster than others.

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We cleared the majority of a field in about half an hour and then went on to whack the grains against what looked like a giant washboard. We grabbed big bunches of rice and thwacked away, until most of the grains were at the bottom of a barrel.

We were all a bit exhausted at this point, so it was excellent timing when a vendor cycled past selling chilled drinks. He stopped and made sweet iced Thai teas, sour lemon drinks and milky green iced teas. We walked back to the main area where we had lunched and sat and sipped and talked about our day. We were all excited about what we had learned, and we all could say we felt confident with a scythe. I may just add that to my resume!

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We thanked the farmers for educating and entertaining us, then hopped in the car.

And away we drove, to the second half of the day where we explored a small village and a fish market. My second wind kicked in and off we went, buying new items to bring home and experiment with, and sampling the freshest seafood.

These are my kind of friends– a day revolving around playing with food, eating food, and exploring new food markets. I struck it rich with my friends in Thailand…it’s as sweet as rice pudding.

Totto.ly Tasty

I am a major fan of soup with noodles in it.  Fujian hand pulled noodles with pork bones, Sichuan beef tendon and noodles, toothsome soba (all 3 noodle varieties will do!), and of course the always satisfying bowl of Japanese ramen with roast pork slices.

Every time a new ramen place emerges, I usually have my ear to the ground, listening for an opening date, and my eye on the prize.  A bowl of ramen to me is like a banana split sundae to most normal human beings.  I just adore ramen: the rich broth thickened by the starchy noodles, a nori sheet perched atop the noodles acting as a mighty sail as the bowl is navigated to the table, and the plethora of accompaniments such as fish cake, egg, and sprouts that all provide little nibbles of various textures and flavors.  It’s a bowl of create-your-own-fun; a steaming bowl of facial worthy aromatics just for you.

Last night I made my way to Totto Ramen with my friend Kenta, who is obviously more in the know than I am, considering I hadn’t yet heard of this new soup spot!  We headed uptown and put in our names on an already growing wait list.  Thank goodness there’s a lovely stoop next door that the neighbors didn’t really seem to mind us abusing for the short half hour wait.

After a few names called, a few arigatos exchanged, we walked into the restaurant and instantly every sense was engaged.  The show going on behind the counter provides eye entertainment, with two bandana’d young Japanese guys whipping up bowl after bowl of ramen (other food will be offered soon, promises the menu), the irasshaimase! shouted to welcome you to the restaurant definitely exercises the eardrum, and then the heady smell of the broth has your mouth watering before you’ve even sat at the table.

The menu is small, offering only 5 ramen options (2 of which are organic and vegetarian friendly) and a few drinks.  Because of the limited choices, it made the deciding process that much easier….and ensures the food arrives only minutes after ordering.  I ordered the spicy option, while Kenta had the chicken ramen.  The price of a bowl of ramen at first glance is cheap compared with that of ramen rockstar Ippudo; but at Totto, there is a $1 charge for any extra toppings (no soft egg, no fish cake, no bean sprouts are included for your eating pleasure).  The bowl of ramen could become quite an extravagant expense if you chose to include all those extras that you’ve come to know and love, and are *freely given to you at other ramen joints.

*freely meaning already included in the price

But the first bite of ramen will make you forget the accoutrements.  The broth is spicy and rich, silky and fatty.  The noodles are served al dente.  Upon first bite, I immediately thought of my chef at Del Posto and how he would approve of the perfect noodle cookery.  The slick of chili oil laden over the noodles coats every bite, like a pauper wearing a fur coat.  The noodles are elevated from a poor man’s food to something loftier:  a prince could easily lose himself in these noodles and slurp his way into a tell-all tabloid, pictures of slurps and burps included.

But then I tasted Kenta’s ramen, and was a little less impressed.  Everything that had just raced through my mind, noting the lack of toppings but the impressive noodles, the richness and  gloss of the broth, the sweet and salty slices of roasted pork… was all thrown into question when I tasted his bowl of soup.  The noodles were more cooked than mine were (but maybe not everyone wants to eat Japanese noodles like an Italian…mama mia!, what can I say?), and the broth definitely was lacking without the chili oil factor  lubricating the whole kit and caboodle.  My emotions were in swing,  between loving my ramen and wistfully imagining a bowl of Ippudo’s miso ramen in front of Kenta (not for me to eat of course!…i was selflessly thinking of him..).  I concluded with the thought that the ramen is delicious and worth another venture, as long as it’s the spicy ramen!

Totto is worth the trip uptown.  Even if it’s to just sit at the bar and enjoy the sake and soup while watching the harmony of the cookers behind the counter.  And I’m eager to go back once more food is added to the menu. Pork toro and yuzu over rice?  I’ll wait in line for that!

And because there’s no dessert on the menu, it’s a fine excuse to pop around the corner and finish out the Japanese meal with a little treat from Kyotofu.  A fun Japanese filled evening you shall have.

Itadakimasu!

Totto Ramen

366 west 52nd st

The Tastiest Sandwhich of Your Life Resides in Puebla

I was sitting around with my new roommate yesterday, running through the whole ‘getting to know you’ details.  I was reminiscing about my recent trip to Mexico and Central America.  I”m sure that most of my recollections of towns and cities included more information about the meals rather than the museums, the refried frijoles rather than Frieda Cahlo’s Casa Azul, and only touching on the friendly and hospitable people I met along the way whilst dwelling on the delectable deep fried nopales.  When I recount stories, food usually pops to the forefront of the memory.  When my new roommate asked me my most memorable meal, it didn’t take long for my mind to conjure up the image of the perfect sandwhich I ate in Puebla.

Each region of Mexico is known for a specialty, whether that be a dish, a sauce, a perfect ingredient….and I made it my job to explore as many of those specialties as possible.  Puebla is known for its cemitas, an overstuffed sandwich created on a fresh sesame roll, packed with:  oaxaca queso, milanese pork (served hot right out of the frier!), a whole avocado smeared on both sides of the roll, rehydrated chipotles, popalo (a soapy, in-your-face herb) and lovingly drizzled with olive oil and salt to deliver a perfectly balanced bite.  Creamy and chewy, crispy and spicy…all ingredients combining to create a mouthful of awesomeness.  I know no other way to describe it.

My friend Sam and I had gone down to Mexico with the intention of exploring each town via the food stuffs.  We gobbled tacos in Mexico (deciding that our favorite was the tripa dorado, or crispy tripe), tried all seven moles in Oaxaca, dipped many a churro in rich hot chocolate in the renowned churrerias, sniffed down the corniest tamales, drank fresh juices pressed to order, munched on new and alarmingly delicious fruits, exposed my tongue to the tamarindo twist…and through it all, the most incredible bite would be the one, half way through the cemita, where the warm pork having slightly melted the queso Oaxaca meets the fresh herbs and chilies…the middle of the sandwhich where all the flavors come together in a serious symphony of savory elements.  Do I even need to say that we ate there every day that we spent in Puebla?  And we may or may not have even taken one with us on the bus when it was time to leave this heavenly pork and carbohydrate duo de resistance!

I write this in hopes to encourage you to seek out this sandwich.  I am one of those ladies who doesn’t often crave two slices of bread, meat and cheese…but this is different.  This is pretty much life changing.  I now crave sandwiches (specifically Peubla’s finest) and damn the fact that it’s so far!  But I do hold a candle of hope that I will be able to find this recreation somewhere in the depths of Corona Queens, or on a trip back home to California.  I will seek it out; find this mouth pleaser here in America. Somewhere.  Someday.  Or I guess I’ll just have to recreate it myself..!!

So if you’re on your way to Mexico, go to Puebla and search out the main market that’s down the street from the main bus station.  Any person you ask on the street (unless they’re family of one of the other cemita vendors!) will point you in the direction of El As del Oro.  There are many imitators, with names such as As del Oro, El As de Oro, and so on.  But ask for the best.  Ask anyone.  And they will point you to a counter that is packed with patrons, all hunched over a tiny monster of a sandwich (which is easily shared by two people! really ) that is eliciting moans and sighs, burps and smiles, a hushed sense of reverie and a jubilant commotion of clinking cokes, as each person celebrates this sandwich in his or her own way.

El As Del Oro, main mercado in Puebla.

La Cancha: Not So Secret Now, You Fortress of Tasty Goodness

Antigua is a charming town. Charming in the sense that everyone uses that word to describe it. Colonial, quaint and charming. But the food scene leaves much to be desired.

Antigua is one of the main destinations for travelers visiting Guatemala. The restaurants are aimed at the older, comfort-concerned age group. It´s a tidy city, with limited options for street food. The main square in front of the church has a few stalls selling tasty tostadas, enchiladas…and hot dogs, for the intrepid eater. A mango on a stick can be the sweet end to a light snack.

But an authentic meal is hard to find. All around town, fancy restaurants serving fancy fare charge fancy prices. Italian cuisine seems to dominate, while French food seems to be another favorite contender among the purple haired tourist groups.

It was daunting finding a place where only locals ate. Good thing we were tipped off by a bartender in Lake Atitlan. He mentioned the name of a restaurant, tucked away behind a tienda, right off the main square where one of the best meals in Antigua could be had.

Irena and I popped in for lunch, anticipating a grand meal to ready us for the afternoon volcano hike. But the kitchen prep was just beginning. We watched the ladies in the back (ranging in age from teenager to shuffling grandmother) chopping green beans, peeling chayote and blending the sauce for the evening special: pollo en pipian. We thoroughly enjoyed our light lunch of guacamole, tamales and beans, but decided the real meal would be had that evening.

After a strenuous and dangerous climb up an active volcano (I scraped my hand on lava rock!), Irena and I were ready to inhale a hearty dinner. We got lost while trying to find our way back to the town center so we ended up detouring for a small pre-dinner tostada appetizer.

By the time we made it back to the restaurant, we were primed and ready for the chicken that had been stewing all day long. As we entered the shop and started to make our way behind the counter, some locals looked at us wide-eyed and asked us how we knew there was a restaurant in the back?? We just looked at them and said that we´d been coming there for ages… (no matter that our first time was that morning).

We plopped our rain soaked bodies down in a few chairs and waited on an order of pipian. We ordered one order, assuming that one plate would be enough for the two of us to share. But the old woman, either not hearing us, or thinking us fools for wanting to share such a luscious dish, brought us each our own bowl. Piping hot stewed chicken (specify dark meat of course), smothered in a brown sauce rich in flavor. Not a whole lot of nuance here. Garlic, chili, onion, pepper, tomato. Boom! It´s in your face, all ingredients wanting to make their appearance known first. Yet it all works in harmony, and each bite, paired with a fluffy potato, makes its way down easily. Real easy. My plate was wiped clean within minutes. I´ll chalk that up partly to the hike, but mostly to the tastiness of the dish.

If and when you go to Antigua, search out La Cancha. Walk behind the counter as if you know what you´re doing. Real professional like. And sit down and order the special of the day. If you´re lucky, you´ll have one of the tastiest pipians in the area. And then on the way out, take a dessert from the glass case brimming with sweet confections. The plantain stuffed with frijoles is sure to satisfy (or on second thought, make that an afternoon snack. It weighs like a brick in the stomach, but it´s definitely worth trying).

Buen provecho!

A Taste of Spain in the Hills of Oaxaca

A fortunate chain of events led to two awesome days up in the hills of San Mateo del Rio Honda.  Let me start at the very beginning.  A very good place to start.

Sam and I were staying at a hippy inhabited hostel in Oaxaca city last week, consuming many mole negros, sampling the locally produced mezcal, and biking out to little suburbs of the city.  As I was struggling to get my bike up the stairs at the hostel, a really tall hippy named Flow, and his girlfriend Opal, hauled me up the last few steps.  We got to talking and  hit it off, ate some cookies, then harmonized in a group om and traded contact info. 

We ended up taking a pit stop in the mountains before heading to the beaches of Oaxaca.  Who knew one state could be so diverse?  We stopped off  in San Jose del Pacifico, known for its mushrooms, hiking and temescals.  We got sucked in for a few days at Casa de Catarina, a cozy guesthouse overlooking some spectacularly cloudy views.  We ate hippy gruel and sang songs late into the evening.  One night Sam and I even took over cooking duties and creatively used the few ingredients we had to feed 24 mouths.  An Aztec temescal (adobe hot house) finished up the experience in an exhausting/invigorating kind of way.

We packed our bags and hugged the many new be-dreaded friends we made over the past few days.  We stuck out our thumbs and caught a truck to another town a few kilometers away.  We were going to try and find Flow and Opal and see their little haven they’ve created in the mountains of San Mateo.  We ended up having to walk half the distance to their town because no cars were coming down the dirt roads.  After about 6 or 7 kilometers we finally hailed a ride into the tiny center of town.  And within a few steps from the car, we heard a whistle.  Opal was sitting on a bench, journaling.  She was surprised and, I think, happy to see us.  Turns out that their ‘home’ is a barn and their wasn’t really any room for us to crash.  I started to get nervous that maybe we had come to this town too unprepared.  But Opal hopped up and walked us over to their landlord, Tia Maria.  Tia Maria tried to charge us too many pesos for too little accomodation, so Opal led us up and up a hill to her friend Emilio’s.

Back in San Jose, the Italian running the guesthouse had told Sam and me about Emilio (because he realized how food obsessed we were and how much we would appreciate this Spaniard man’s pork product!).  Half way up the hill, puffing and weezing from the altitude, we realized we were headed to the same Emilio we had heard of.  We both got excited about the prospect of perhaps learning a bit about his work.  Timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  We walked through the front door and heard screaming and wailing.  Emilio was dragging an orange haired pig down the hill.  We had to dart out of the way to miss the angry pig’s attempted attack.  Emilio looked at Sam and threw him a rope and commanded him to pull it taught until the pig was dangling from mid-air.  ”Bienvenido a mi casa.”

Emilio’s beautiful wife, Naialy, scuttered out of the house with a pot and spoon in her hand and took her position next to the pig.  My eyes went wide.  I couldn’t believe I was about to see my first ever live butchering.  The knife went in, the blood came out and Naialy stirred and stirred to keep the blood from coagulating.  She would soon be making morcilla, or blood sausage.  I helped untie the pig and then basically was elbow deep in the operation for the next few hours.

After cutting the pig into pieces for salchicha (it was too small to make jamon), Naialy passed over the loin and asked Sam and me to cook it.  We feasted that night, cooking cabbage with a bit of the pork lard, baby red russet potatoes with a bit of crisped pork, and a fireplace roasted, garlic marinated loin.  Oh, and a few pork cracklings slipped into my mouth along the way. 

The pork was honestly the best I’ve ever had.  Maybe it was because I felt so connected to the whole experience.  I’m not really sure.  But the meat was so incredibly flavorful and tender.  I can’t remember ever having eaten meat so freshly butchered.  Emilio opened up a robust bottle of red wine, ripped apart some crusty bread and toasted to good food and new friends.  What an unexpected day.

The next day, after a 20 km hike for some mole negro, we came back exhausted to their house.  But Naialy was making the morcilla, so we beelined for the kitchen and helped her turn out some links of the ruby red sausage.

We reluctantly left the next day, not wanting to overstay their generous welcome.  But first, Emilio insisted on walking us around his garden and explaining why his pigs are special to Mexico.  They are the same pigs that produce the famed pate negra from Spain.  He is so proud of his work (as he should be) that he showed us how he took care of them and explained the whole process of raising them.  He also grows artichokes and asparagus in his garden.  It’s a European wonderland in a tiny Mexican mountain town.  He led us back to the kitchen, us with our backpacks on and trying to squeeze through the door, and sliced us a few of his cured items to sample.  We ended up buying one of his head sausages and a pack of  pancetta.  One of the best souveniers I’ve ever bought.

 

We arrived at the beach a few hours later, after hitching a ride with a lovely Aussie couple.  Sitting in the cabana, listening to the waves, we made little sandwhiches of creamy avocado, juicy plum tomatoes and alternating pork products.  What a lovely way to get to see Mexico.  By way of cities, towns, hills and beaches.  With hippy travelers and open hearted locals… and a few bites of pork make it all go down smoothly.

The Smith

Somehow I managed to trudge through the snow to the East Village today to meet a friend for brunch.  I am not a fan of New York winters and I would much rather spend my day off looking at the snow through my bedroom window, bundled up in the warmth of my electric blanket.  But food tends to have a draw on me.  I pulled on some long underwear, slipped on a puffy jacket and topped off the whole Michelin Man inspired look with a knit beanie.  I felt semi prepared but mostly hungry.

I stepped outside and walked briskly to the subway, all the while imagining Eggs Benedict, bacon and coffee as my much deserved rewards for braving the elements.  The Smith is a very hip breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner spot that is always packed.  In the summer, the glass doors open out onto the streets letting passerby’s catch a whiff of not only the food, but of the cool melodies that give this restaurant its trendy, hipster approved vibe.  In the winter, it rewards with cozy warmth.

After having peeled off my many layers and settled into the banquet, my eyes scrolled over the menu and landed on the Ranchero Scramble.  Last week at home, my mom took me and the sibs out for breakfast.  I ended up ordering the huevos ranchero (with poached eggs) and received a lovely plate of re-fried black beans, chunky pico de gallo, salsa verde, cilantro and a couple of corn tortillas.  It was almost soupy with the amount of salsa ladled onto the perfectly cooked, runny eggs…and I loved it.  There was so much flavor and freshness packed into the dish.  I was still living on the dream of this last breakfast and made the mistake of switching my original idea of Benedict for Ranchero.  It’s like when you used to take SAT’s in school and you would switch back and forth, back and forth betweeen bubble A and bubble C.  You would later find out that your first bubble marked was the correct one.  “Always go with your intuition” or your ‘gut’ feeling I guess.

I chose bubble C and ended up receiving two dried tortillas on a small splotch of pureed black beans.  The scramble was a bit overcooked (though admittedly I do like my scrambleds on the very soft spectrum of doneness) and the avocado looked as if it had been left to sadly sit without its pit partner for quite some time.  Kyle, always knowing what to order, picked a version of benedict I’ve never heard of: Potato Waffle Benedict.  In my head, screeching wheel sounds due to abrupt stops were echoing in my head.  Whaaaat???  Potato waffles?  I’ve had potato ladkas, thin dosa “crepes” filled with potatoes, potato blintzes, potato tortillas…but waffles were a whole new breakfast item unfamiliar to me.  I’m also very familiar with Benedicts in general; I would even venture to call my self a connoisseur:  California Benedicts, Smoked Salmon Benedicts, Eggs Florentine..I’ve eaten many a variation too.  But this take on the oh-so-often ordered breakfast item was now throwing me for a loop.

I had a hard time imagining that I could like this version of poached eggs on carbohydrate more than the traditional english muffin and Canadian bacon version.  But it stood up to the challenge like a real spud.  The waffles were fluffy  and savory, big on potato flavor, and were perfect sponges for the parsley sauce and yokes begging not to be left behind.  Not one drip.

The Bloody Marys were good (whoa on the horseradish) but the side of potatoes were limp.  However, fizzy water is complimentary.  I’ve never eaten at a restaurant with free fizzy water, and that  made me love The Smith a bit more.  On average, the brunch seemed average.  In a good, standard, go-to kinda way.  Brunch is really about the gathering of friends after a big night out though, isn’t it?  So I’ll say that The Smith played its role well.  I had good conversation, eggs, Bloody Marys and the occasional stolen bit of waffle, all while enjoying the music and the eye candy this restaurant provides.

The Smith.  Not only a name for an awesome English  band, but now a restaurant recognized for a good brunch and some killer waffles in the East Village.  Rock on.

The Smith

55 3 Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 420-9800