Catch Up

I realize I’ve been fairly slack on blogging over the past couple of months. No excuses are ever sufficient, but it is largely because I have spent a lot of time with friends recently, and it is difficult to set aside enough time write, particularly when I’ve been doing a lot of off the cuff travel planning. As of last Friday, I finished up about five weeks in SE Asia. Believe it or not, I do things other than eat while I travel. SE Asia didn’t blow me away food wise (other than my eating exploits in Hoi An, which I documented sufficiently a couple of weeks ago), but what I found most rewarding about my time there was reeducating myself about the Cambodian civil war (if you can call annihilating a huge quantity of your own people who aren’t really fighting back a civil war) and the Vietnam war. Anyway, just wanted to write a quick catch up post.

Melbourne foodie posts on the way…

A Return to the West, Almost

I am nearing the end of my second day in Hong Kong and tomorrow morning head to Australia for a couple of weeks. Hong Kong is half East, half West and thanks to Anthea and Sam, I’ve been able to try some delicious dumplings and upscale Chinese food (more on these in another post if I have the time). However, no matter how good those meals were, none compare to breakfast — a reminder of the West and what is in store for me over the next two weeks (expect a lot of Melbourne food blogging; food there is some of the best in the world). Rye toast, cottage cheese, tomato, spring onions, etc….and a double macchiato. Oh, breakfast, how I’ve missed you.

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If you’re in HK and need a Western breakfast fix, check out Classified Cafe. There are a few of them around.

‘Nam No. 3: Three Recipes To Try At Home (yes, you!)

A couple of days ago, John and I attended a Vietnamese cooking class. We purposely chose some simple recipes that would be easy to make at home. Any of these would be a quick, easy dinner. Cook away —

Fresh Spring Roll

Meat of your choice (prawn, port, chicken, beef, etc.)
5 pieces thin, hard rice paper
1 cucumber grated in long strips
1/2 carrot grated in long strips
2 tablespoons of fresh mint
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon of onion flakes
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
Spring onions for garnish

Mix cucumber, carrot, salt, sugar, and vinegar, then place in a cloth (cotton, such as a tea towel) and squeeze well to drain all excess juice. Soften rice paper in cold water for one second and place on plate. Add small bunch of the cucumber/carrot mixture at one end of the rice paper, roll over, then fold in the sides. Add two pieces of the spring onion so they look like a tail, then roll once again. Add meat, then finish rolling. Repeat for as many spring rolls as you want.

Dipping sauce: 1 crushed fresh chili, 2 cloves crushed garlic, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1/2 tablespoon of lemon or lime juice, 1 tablespoon of fish sauce. Combine ingredients and mix well.

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Chili and lemon grass with prawn, chicken, or fish (serves four)

400 grams of prawns, peeled (or other meat of your choice)
2 stems lemongrass, thinly sliced
1 stem of lemongrass lightly crushed for flavor visual appeal
2 cloves crushed garlic
2 teaspoons vegetable stock powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon chili paste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons water

To make the sauce, blend lemongrass and garlic in food processor. Place in bowl and add oyster sauce and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and mix (tip: if you fry this mixture for five minutes you can keep it in the refrigerator for up to three weeks). Marinate the meat of your choice in the vegetable stock, sugar, sesame oil, and chunky lemongrass for a minimum of 30 minutes, but overnight is even better. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to medium heat. Add the marinated meat and cook for one minute. Then add lemongrass paste, chili paste, and water, and cook for two more minutes. Serve with steamed rice.

Sorry, my photos of this didn’t turn out, but you don’t need them.

Aubergine (Eggplant) in Clay Pot (serves four)

200 grams Aubergine (eggplant), peeled
1/2 liter of vegetable oil (for deep frying; you can use a wok)
1/2 liter of boiling water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon pepper
50 grams spring onion, finely chopped

Cut aubergine into 3 inch sticks (about 1-2 cm in width — see pictures) and fry in hot oil until lightly browned. Drain oil. Place aubergine back into frying pan and add boiling water. Boil for ten seconds. Drain water (this makes the aubergine less oily and bitter). Marinate the aubergine in a clay pot with paprika, spring onion, pepper, sugar, and soy sauce for a minimum of thirty minutes. Cook in clay pot on stove for five minutes, stirring once when it starts to bubble. Serve with rice. Teacher’s orders — if you don’t have a clay pot, get one.

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‘Nam No. 2: Miss Ly’s Hoi An Specialties

Thanks to a tip, I discovered the best food I’ve had in Asia and enjoyed the best meals I have had since Italy and the steak dinner in Chamonix. Miss Ly Cafeteria 22 in Hoi An has been in business for almost two decades and serves unbelievable Vietnamese and local Hoi An cuisine. All of the dishes are made with fresh, organic, and local ingredients and are msg-free (a rarity in this part of the world). We visited the restaurant four (or five?) times in as many days. Admittedly, on each visit we reordered our favorites, but also managed to add in a few extra dishes. We probably won some sort of overeating award. Here is the honor roll:

Fried wontons (hoanh thanh chien): sautéed pork, prawns, tomato, and onion with sauce and served on a flat wonton. This one stole our hearts.

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White rose (banh bao): steamed prawns in rice dumplings with garlic, fried onion, and chili.

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Cao lau (mi cao lai): Hoi An specialty of thick noodles, sliced roast pork, herbs, fresh greens, and croutons.

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Grilled pork spring rolls (thit nuong): in rice paper with fresh herbs and peanuts. Another game changer.

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Grilled fish (ca nuong): steak wrapped in a banana leave with herbs and chili.

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Green papaya salad (goi du du): with onions, vegetables, herbs, and rice crackers. Of all the green-whatever salads I’ve had in south east Asia, this one is in a league of its own.

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Sweet and sour prawn soup with noodles.

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Stir fried morning glory (rao muong xao toi): with garlic and chili.

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Stir fried beef (bo xau trung): marinated beef with onion, tomato, and boiled egg.

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Sweet and sour squid (muc chua ngot): with vegetables.

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Fried rice: with squid, shrimp, onion, carrot, bean, garlic, and egg.

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Are you salivating yet? I am and I’m still full. If you come to Hoi An, you must visit Miss Ly. Here is how you can find her:

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‘Nam No. 1: Hanoi Street Grub

During an over night boat trip on Ha Long Bay, I was fortunate enough to meet Sofie and Donal who, unlike me, work on a legit food blog and write cook books in Ireland. Check out the website www.donalskehan.com/ (just click on the link) — it is great. As serious foodies, Donal and Sofie had arranged a tour of Hanoi street food with a local blogger, and they were very kind to invite me to join them the night we returned to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay. During the tour, we also ran into Mark Lowerson, the author/blogger who writes “stickyrice”, one of the first and most well known food blogs.

It is hard to describe some of the things I tried and I am going to include some links (click on anything in blue to link to reviews of the food made by the same street vendors we visited) and photos. We ate so much so that I can only write about a small sampling of dishes. If you want to know more, feel free to write a comment and ask.

Che. This is a completely bizarre Vietnamese dessert made with coconut cream, tapioca, and various jellies and fruits. My western palate didn’t really warm to this combination but the Vietnamese love it.

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Stir fried beef with deep fried rice noodles. The beef and veggies were very good but the noodles were a bit too greasy/rich for me.

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Banh Cuon. This was my favorite street food. It is a steamed rice pancake with minced pork. So light and delicious.

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Soup with tofu, crab paste, and pig ear. Enough said — I was not a huge fan.

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Fish cakes. We had a few different types of fish cakes. They were ok but generally too rubbery for me.

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The food tour was really fun, but we ate so many different types of food that my stomach wasn’t particularly pleased with me the next day. None of it made me sick; it was just a very crazy combination of things (there was a lot more that I didn’t write about, including more gelatinous sweets with coconut milk). I highly recommend you do this if you come to Hanoi. If you are interested, I can give you the contact information for our guide. It isn’t cheap, but it is worth doing as you would never be able to cover such a range of street food on your own in Hanoi and find clean, safe places to enjoy it.

The Luang Prabang Salad, Enough Said

The Luang Prabang Salad is probably my favorite dish in Laos. The dressing is sweet with a little bit of kick (not the spicy kind). The rest is just fresh, simple, and crunchy. This is a recipe I found online. Definitely worth a try!

3 Large Hard Boiled Eggs (do not over cook)
1 Clove Garlic – roasted
1/2 – 1 1/2 Tsp Sea Salt (aka “A Lao pinch of salt”)
1 Tb Canola Oil
2 Tb Water
2-3 Tb Lemon Juice
1 Tb Palm Sugar
1/2 Tsp Sugar
Fish Sauce to taste

2 Cups Romain Lettuce Hearts Chopped
1 Handful tender Pea Shoots, or even better, tender watercress (Lacey’s note — definitely use watercress)
2 Scallions – Green parts only, sliced thin
3 Tb cilantro chopped fine
3 Tb mint chopped fine (optional)
Cherry Tomatoes
Cucumber

1 – Slice eggs in half lengthwise, remove yolks, and slice whites thinly.
2 – Place eggs yolks, garlic, palm sugar, and salt in a mortar and pound into a paste.
3 – Add oil, lemon juice, water, and fish sauce (if desired) and combine. Taste, and adjust flavors, and thin out with additional water if desired.
4 – Combine pea shoots, cilantro, and scallions.
5 – Place Romain lettuce in a layer in the middle of serving plate; mound pea shoot mixture on top of lettuce. Arrange cucumber slices and tomato on plate.
6 – Pour dressing over salad before serving.

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Laos Transportation; Plane, Train, or Automobile: An Analysis

Well, as far as I know, there is no train so that’s out. Anyway, we’ve traveled through Laos on both airplane and bus (and tuk-tuk) and I wanted to share our experiences so you can decide the best way to travel if you ever visit.

Airplane

We caught Laos Airlines (f/k/a Laos Aviation) from Siem Reap (Cambodia) to Luang Prabang, Laos (greatest city name ever). This was the most bizarre air travel experience I have ever had. We arrived at the airport too early. After asking if we were on the Luang Prabang flight before being let into the airport (presumably that was the only flight?), we were checked in and given a sticker saying “TRANSIT” that we were to wear as a badge. Although our itinerary mentioned no stop, my suspicion was that we would make one on the way. We passed through security and I was shocked to find that the airport had free wifi, an impressive selection of duty free, and a nice coffee shop. Remember, this was Cambodia after all, and not a big city. We sat down with our coffees and internet devices and settled in for the 1.5 hour wait for our flight. When we had just gotten comfortable, an airport staff member came to us and asked if we were on ten Luang Prabang flight. When we said yes, she asked us to board — an hour early. Needless to say, we were confused. As we passed the boarding gate, we asked what was happening and were told that “this flight always leaves early.” I also asked about the transport stickers and was told that we had to stop in Pakse to pick up some more passengers.

I must admit that I was a bit nervous in advance of the flight because I knew we would be flying on a turboprop and Laos Airlines had a spotty safety record (which supposedly has been rectified with the purchase of all new aircraft). Anyhow it was clear that the plane was brand new. It was also clear that we had practically chartered our own aircraft, as there were 11 people total on board while the plane had at least 80 seats. I guess that’s why the tickets were $260.

We really did take off 40 minutes early, we stopped in Pakse and picked up five or so more people, then continued to our destination, arriving about an hour early. The plane was immaculate, empty, and without any foul airplane odors. We also were served a meal of little rolls made of sweet bread and bacon and dessert on each leg which were respectively one and one and half hours each. Sure, it was expensive, but the whole experience was pleasant and surreal.

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Bus

For some reason we hadn’t considered flying from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Instead we just signed up for seats on the VIP bus (I have no idea how it qualified for that title), knowing that the ride would be long (we thought maybe 9 hours), but that we would be able to enjoy beautiful scenery along the way. We were told that the roads weren’t so comfortable because they hadn’t been fixed following the rainy season, but I failed to contemplate the treacherous narrow, windy, and uneven “roads” that weave throughout the mountains. The bus also left something to be desired. For the first five or six hours of the drive we drove sometimes as slow as 10 kilometers in an hour on the edge of cliffs. I was close to vomiting on a couple of occasions (and a number of locals actually did). Sadly, once we exited the mountains the speed did not increase much and we blew a tire. In the end it took us 12 hours to travel 386 kilometers (240 miles). We arrived hungry, mentally exhausted, and filthy, but happy to be alive. Oh, and I almost forgot — before left, we found out that a flight to Vientiane only cost about 85 dollars. Slight oversight.

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You be the judge, but I think I am officially retiring from long haul bus journeys.

Anchor What?

So here again comes another post that is not about food. But given the significance of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom — for their religious, historical, and cultural importance, all of which has led to world heritage site status and a spot on the list of the seven wonders of the world — I feel it necessary to share some photos. My dad also shared an interesting link with me — check it out here.

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Rediscovering Tofu and Leafy Greens

Tonight, thanks to Alex’s careful review of ‘delicious’ magazine, we ventured to a vegetarian restaurant in Siem Reap (the launching point for Angkor Wat) called Chamkar. Dinner at Chamkar was the best meal I have had in Cambodia. We tried the signature dish ‘rediscovering tofu’ (I actually needed to rediscover it because I have lost interest in bean curd of late), which was tofu stuffed with fried pumpkin, curry paste, and toasted peanuts and served with an onion and green pepper chutney. It was very tasty.

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However, I preferred the other dishes we tried, which were all fresh and leafy — a nice change from the endless curries and stir fries that tend to overwhelm the menus here. We had a vegetarian version of the Cambodian green mango salad, without fish sauce, but with toasted peanuts and fresh herbs.

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Fresh spring rolls made with green mango, carrot, cucumber, lettuce, and herbs, served with a sweet coconut, peanut and chili sauce.

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And finally, probably my favorite, a rice noodle salad made of wide rice noodles tossed with herbs, tomato, cucumber and lettuce in a sesame sauce.

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Stay tuned for some pictures of Angkor Wat coming soon.

Khmer Alaskan King Crab Curry

Cambodian, or Khmer, cuisine is, in many ways, similar to the food of Thailand (although it is generally not as spicy) and Vietnam (with whom it share a French colonial history). There is also a hint of Indian and Chinese influence throughout. I would say that I haven’t been overwhelmed by the food here — it is good, but I don’t think it is as exciting, spicy, or flavorful as Thai and Vietnamese food (the latter of which I can’t wait to put away in a week and a half). I’ve had trouble finding a meal to blog about, because while most things are good, I haven’t found them to great (or solidly horrible, which, of course, would also be worth a post).

When I was in France a couple of weeks ago, one of the group’s none-skiing past times was sampling different flavors of potato chips. Our favorite was definitely the “cheeseburger.” It tasted exactly like McDonalds pickles and ketchup. I have now found a chip that blows the cheeseburger out of the water. What this is doing in Cambodia, I have no idea.

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Here are a couple of other snaps…

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