Friday, May 30, 2008

North Korean Dining

In late 2006 I received a strange call from a friend asking if we wanted to be on television. More specifically, did we want to do a television spot for a recently opened North Korean restaurant in Bangkok? Sure why not.

A friend of a friend of a friend (I think I got that right) was working for a Japanese Television station. That network had tried to do a story about the restaurant but was refused, probably on the grounds of being Japanese. Much like the south, North Korea has never really forgiven Japan for their past colonialist actions. Anyhow, they needed a couple of spies. We were it. We were given a few thousand baht and a video camera and off we went.

I was actually kind of nervous as we approached the place. If they didn't want Japanese people in their establishment, would they be very happy letting a few camera toting Americans in?

The strangeness began when we arrived. Stepping into the restaurant felt like stepping into another country. Pretty, high bred North Korean girls met us at the door and showed us a seat. They didn't speak any English, so we made do with our minimal Korean.

We were given menus which were in Korean which luckily we could read. There were a lot of familiar Korean items that we'd eaten literally hundreds of times. We asked our waitress about one or two unfamiliar items and made our choices.

Some very decent banchan arrived and the filming began.

I was especially intrigued to watch the dynamics between the wait staff and their handler. You see, the workers in this restaurant were all from North Korea. North Koreans have a tendency to defect once outside their home country, so they had a rather serious looking handler who was watching their every move. She wore the ubiquitous Kim Il Sung pin. Ki Il Sung is the "Great Leader" of North Korea of course. He's the head of state even though he's been dead since 1994. His son kim jong Il is merely the "Dear Leader."

A large plate of Kimchi arrived. We actually had to pay for this which is unusual, but at least it was rather monstrous.

Next our giant Mandoo arrived. Yikes!

Next, the very North Korean Pyongyang on-ban arrived.

It was a tasty rice soup, topped with chicken, mushrooms, and radish. The broth had a light and healthy flavor.

The food was really only of marginal interest to us. The real point of interest was the wait staff who were multi talented performers.

First up, the lovely ladies entertained us with acrobatics. I was a bit too transfixed to capture it adequately. Next they dressed in traditional clothes, or hanbok, and sang traditional songs.

So far so good.

Next, after a quick costume change, the lovely ladies entertained us with more singing and dancing.

I kept wondering if an evil robotic Walt Disney was hiding behind the curtain.

Next were were treated to another musical performance with our ladies playing a variety of instruments.

After this little performance I expected them to reassemble their assault rifles while blindfolded. It's really not that large of a stretch of the imagination.

After a couple hours of eating, singing, and dancing, we left with one of the most bizarre dining experiences of our lives.

For a look at the whole set, go here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Beautiful Fruit

fruit mosaic
Sifting through a growing mountain of photos I paused at all the tropical fruit that I am no longer eating. Worry not. I am currently enjoying the delicious stone fruits and berries of the state of California.

New posts may be light as I sort out my living situation, but snippets from the archive may appear. See you soon.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thoughts on the Future

A few months ago at a party somewhere on Sukhumvit road in Bangkok, a forty something Australian woman told me that the west has no culture or at least nothing interesting culturally. We've been down this road before so let's just agree that there's a lot to disagree with. Of course she could be right, I have never been to Australia, maybe it's a cultureless pit of despair. My Australian readers can educate me on this. In addition, she no longer liked Thailand as it's "too commercial" or something like that. She was heading off to Laos to suck it dry before her cultureless fellow citizens could get their greedy fangs into it.

The invective aside, it was around this time that I began to ponder my future food blogging once residing in my home country of America. Was my new acquaintance correct? Is there nothing culturally interesting and valuable left in the west? Must we head to some vaunted "exotic" locale to sample culture?

One of the more interesting and exciting things to me is the opportunity to explore the idea of America, and with that, American food. But this just begs the question of just what the hell America is? In a country where to be American, you need not fit a certain ethnic/cultural profile, the possibilities are nearly endless.

At one of the amazing ruins in Ayutthaya some months ago, E showed the lady at the ticket booth her Thailand Taxpayer Card which would often get us into national parks and other sights for the Thai price. E jokingly referred to us as "Thai people." Big mistake. The woman was angry and gave us a look that said, you are not nor will you ever be Thai people. She was right. A similar thing happened at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Upon showing my taxpayer card, the guard played his trump card: a national identity card. I'll never have one of those nor do I want or need one. To see this incredible display of opulence in Bangkok (for a second time), I grudgingly paid the eight bucks.

On my flight from Bangkok over to Japan I was listening to a woman across the aisle speak Thai to our stewardess about what forms she might need to fill out upon arrival. I saw her pull out her passport and low and behold, she was an American citizen. The fact that I had actually forgotten that this is totally normal really surprised me. Maybe it seems insultingly obvious, but you can be both Ethnically Thai and an American citizen. Does it go the other way? Who is and who can be a Thai citizen? Upon my arrival at customs in Portland, Oregon, I was surrounded by American citizens speaking Russian, Spanish, Korean, and English. Everyone looked different and spoke different languages, but dammit they were Americans and it was actually kind of exciting.

America has veered to the right the last number of years, with outsiders increasingly looked at with suspicion and walls even being built to keep our southern neighbors out. Regardless of this, we are, and continue to be, a nation of immigrants, making it difficult to pin down a definition of who or what is genuinely American. When I was younger, much like my Australian acquaintance, I might have confused an evolving multi-cultural society for a cultureless one because it was just too hard to pin down and define. It may seem like a cliche to talk about America being a melting pot (tossed salad?), but now that I'm back home, it has never made better sense.

In closing, my blogging continues, but have no idea where it's going, and that sounds fine to me. I hope you agree.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Eugene Oregon Farmers Market

After having lived and travelled many places the last number of years, I had gotten pretty jaded about markets. Not that I've tired of them as they are great places to hang out, wander, and or even shop! Rather, being surrounded by produce became a given that I took for granted. I feared what would happen once I returned to a land I've referred to as the land of poor snacks and fat people. Well, let me tell you, the snacks aren't a dime a dozen, the population is still gorging itself to death while a lot of others starve, and the market scene is less than ideal. I was holding out hope that the farmers markets would provide some relief.

I found a good market in my hometown on a Saturday morning. It's not the size or scope of the place, but the beauty of the plants and produce available that made it all worth it. After a couple years of buying relatively limp produce at my street market in Bangkok, I was really in for a surprise.

There were lovely radishes

a couple of varieties of beets

lovely mixed salad greens

perfect baby carrots

fresh fiddle heads


and something new called Ranpur Limes

This rangpur was unfamiliar and the lady who sold them to me said that they aren't really limes as you know them, and she's right. A rangpur is really a hybrid between a mandarin orange and a lemon. But seeing as they were three for a buck it didn't seem too steep to try this new fruit that was grown locally in an unheated greenhouse.

Make no mistake: this is not yet food for the masses. The clientele at this market is mostly middle class folks who have the money to purchase such superior produce. After being reminded of the alternatives in the local supermarkets though, I will happily buy what I can from these farmers markets.

That night we used the beets we bought in a salad, and others to color our bua loy.

We also used taro and frozen pandan leaves.
bua loy
Without access to fresh coconut and or fresh coconut milk, the bua loy was only okay. For more about bua loy, go here.

As for the rangpurs, they accompanied a shot of tequila. The rangpur couldn't really match the flavor of Mexican limes, but it gave a decently sour flavor. The bottle speaks for itself.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Familiar Flavors

I had intended to ruminate on the future but decided instead to give you an ever so quick look at something I've been greedily eating as of late: "Mexican" food. Or more accurately, Tex-Mex, Mexican American food, or what have you. I mention this because this is not the food of Mexico. That is an entirely different animal. A mongrel of sorts. Regardless, I am crazy about this kind of food and outside of North America, good luck finding it. And no, Sunrise Tacos in Bangkok doesn't count!

The ubiquitous Virgen de Guadalupe greeted me as I awaited my burrito at Las Brasa taqueria in Eugene, Oregon . I am a lifelong religious skeptic (to put it lightly) but it was nice to see the ole virgin once again. After about two years of state sponsored Buddhism complete with lord knows how many Buddha images, this was a refreshing sight.

As I awaited my burrito I overheard:

Man: Can I get an all meat burrito? I don't want all them rice and beans. If it's good I won't visit any other Spanish restaurant. I'll be a loyal customer.

He was rather obese and of course his pants were falling down. I think he was drunk.

It was the size of a baby seal. The good thing is that you need not club it to death to enjoy. Bring a friend along and you both get enough to keep you going long enough until the next binge is upon you.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

One Last Look

My last day living in Bangkok was a day where full stomachs and or indigestion would not stand in the way. The day started out like any other with a trip to the morning market. We bought patong ko, soy milk, and coffee from our favorite coffee vendor. I wanted to tell her we'd be gone but decided against it.

Lunch was a really excellent plate of stir fry at a nearby stand where I got to eat my favorite: pat krapao pla-meuk. After visiting this stand over and over again they finally got it right. They didn't see my face and assume I wanted it not spicy. After ages of having to plead to have my food served spicy I had all but given up. Luckily, they made me a rich and spicy krapao that was one of the best I had had in some time.

After lunch it was an unfamiliar and much taken for granted fruit vendor who served up very good pineapple and ok papaya. A walk on silom road yielded thod mun pla, miang kham, and a much enjoyed durian and sticky rice.

A trip to the market near home produced a kilo of rambutan and two kilos of mangosteens.

Dinner was a wander through Chinatown complete with a bag of iced black coffee, a meal at one of my favorite noodle stands, and a bowl of bua loy naam king.

All of this was too much and not enough really. I'd had it with Bangkok yet never really had my fill. They city and country is and will be indifferent to my presence and that's okay.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cooking and Eating in Saraburi Part 2

The following morning over coffee I made the mistake of jokingly suggesting we order food from a stall that purportedly served a very good laab moo. After the suggestion was quickly shot down as silly, a quick conversation took place and the next thing we knew, a spread of food was placed before us. Time for breakfast meats!

A very safe yet very tasty laab moo was placed in the middle of the table. After about a bite, it was suggested we order yet another. So it goes. Gotta love that mint!

There was also phak pla and a not pictured tom saep (sour soup)

If there is a lesson in all this, it is don't joke about food when you are with Thai people because it will likely be served to you.

After breakfast we needed to buy the ingredients necessary for two desserts: bua loy and tubtim grop.

For coloring the bua loy we bought taro

and pumpkin

For the tubtim grop we needed to buy water chestnuts.

We also needed fresh coconut for both of the desserts.

Once again, I succumbed to the durian devil and spent the day only semi conscious. I think it would be best to turn the keyboard over to someone who was really there to describe this dessert making session. Here's E to tell us all about it:

The first dessert we attempted was tubtim grop which translates literally as "crispy rubies." Some sources say this dessert is an imitation of pomegranate seeds. Although the water chestnuts make bigger, crunchier rubies than pomegranate seeds would, the connection is clearly in the brilliant color and transparent coating. For some reason we decided to use artificial coloring to achieve the characteristic redness, although apparently there is some natural fruity source which would have worked just as well. I have to admit, that I had no idea how to make this dessert and my friend F had never made it either, so we had to experiment quite a bit before getting a satisfactory product.

First, the cooked water chestnuts had to be chopped into reasonably small chunks and submerged in pink water. They were dyed instantly.

When the rubies were red enough, we transferred them into a bowl of tapioca starch, tossing them until they were coated. On our first attempt the starch was stuck together in little granules which cooked into globs of jelly, so we had to start over and sift the starch until it had a powdery consistency.

The next step involved boiling the coated water chestnuts. This part required some careful technique. The water had to be boiling consistently, so the starch would solidify quickly and adhere to the water chestnut, but not too vigorously lest the jelly be dislodged. Needless to say it required a few attempts before we had successful rubies. Once they were cooked we submerged them in cold water until we were ready to eat.

Notice the brass wok in the above picture. Apparently brass is used for cooking desserts because it is less likely to burn the sugar. In any case, it is an attractive example of traditional Thai cookware.

Normally tubtim grop is served with jasmine or jackfruit infused syrup and coconut milk, but we didn't have time to make the syrup, so I improvised by using honey, coconut cream and the usual ice. It was refreshing despite the shortcuts.

When the tubtim grop was finished, it was on to bua loy (floating lotus). My friend and cooking instructor, F, was equally inexperienced when it came to making this dessert, but we were determined to do it from scratch, rather than taking shortcuts like we did with the first dessert.

The first step involved making color from natural sources to mix with the dough. We decided to do three colors. Green from pandan, purple/grey from taro and orange from pumpkin. We bought steamed taro and pumpkin from the market and simply mashed them up to mix with the dough. The pandan, picked fresh from outside the house, had to be chopped and pounded in a mortar and pestle with a little bit of water to extract the brilliant green juice We then squeezed the color into a bowl for use in the dessert.

Next, we prepared the coconut milk. I have to say, milking coconut was probably my favorite part of this culinary weekend. We did it twice, once for curry and once for the desserts. For curry you can use the whole coconut, including the brown outer layer, but for dessert it must be white coconut only, which is sweeter and moister. The first squeeze of the coconut, which requires very little water, or none, depending on the moistness of the coconut, is known as hua kati (literally: coconut milk head), or coconut cream and the subsequent two or three squeezes which require the addition of water and plenty of massaging are known as hang kati (coconut milk tail) and is probably what you get when you buy lowfat coconut milk.

The above basket, is a strainer used especially for making coconut milk.

The bua loy dough was a simple mixture of sticky rice flour, tapioca starch, sugar, salt, coconut milk and the color/flavor additive. After mixing the three batches individually, we rolled the dough into a zillion little balls.

As with the tubtim grop these balls had to be boiled until they floated (hence the name) and then skimmed out and submerged in cold water until ready to eat. Another method involves boiling them directly in the coconut milk, but that only works if you are planning to eat it right away, otherwise the balls continue to cook and absorb liquid and you end up with a gummy mess (or so I am told).

Aren't they cute?

The last step in this labor intensive process was cooking and flavoring the coconut milk. We used only the hang kati and sweetened it with palm sugar. We also added a pinch of salt and the remaining pandan juice which gave it a fantastic flavor and pale green tinge.

When everything was finally ready, we scooped the coconut milk over the confetti-like dumplings and tucked in.