My top 12 foods of 2012

Penang Curry with Duck

Spicy, but not too spicy.

Penang Curry – Thailand

 

The most amazing bowl of ramen ever.

Thick and hearty with amazingly tender meat.

Hakata Ramen – Japan

 

Carolyn's chicken with cashews

Spicy, sweet, and nutty.

Phad Kai Med Mamuang (Cashew Chicken) – Thailand

 

Chicken Rice - Southeast Asian Soul Food

Rich flavors with a bit of spicy, sweet, and sour.

Chicken Rice – Malaysia

 

Jolly, jovial, yakitori chef!

Umami.

Yakitori – Japan

 

Carolyn's phad Thai noodles.

Sweet and savory.

Phad Thai – Thailand

 

sushi

Fresh from the ocean.

Sushi – Japan

 

Assam Laksa, or AWESOME Laksa?

Dark, fishy, mysterious.

Assam Laksa – Malaysia

 

Doenjang Jjigae - Korean soybean paste stew

Doenjang Jjigae – Korean soybean paste stew

Doenjang Jjigae – Korea

 

Udon and Sukiyaki from a nondescript little Sukiya in Namba

Cheap and delicious.

Udon – Japan (left); Sukiyaki – Japan (right)

 

Massaman Curry

Hearty, filling, and easy on the stomach.

Massaman Curry – Thailand

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The world is delicious: Five countries, five favorite foods

We left the United States in February, 2011 and over the course of the almost two years we’ve been in Asia we’ve eaten a lot of things. It’s basically impossible to try and pick a favorite for each place we’ve been, but I’m going to try and do that right now to let you imagine what our taste buds have experienced over the past couple of years. A few of these are staple foods that the local people in each locale eat all the time because they’re damn cheap and tasty, and I think that’s always a good place to start when exploring a cuisine.

된장 찌개 Doenjang jigae - Hello Coo by avlxyz, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  avlxyz 

Korea: Doenjang Jjigae (soybean paste stew)

My pick for Korea is doenjang jjigae, a cheap, hearty stew of fermented soybean paste, tofu, cucumber, and probably kimchi. Why not the awesome super fun Korean Barbecue you might have imagined? Well, because when we go out for Korean barbecue the thing we enjoy the most is the doenjang jjigae they serve when our meat is halfway gone. It’s spicy, it has a deep flavor with a hint of acid, and it’s what I crave on those Korean winter nights. It’s delicious, spicy, and something you can only get in Korea, or maybe in a Korean restaurant at home (we’re sure as hell going to find a place to get it or figure out how to make it after we get home.)

nasi goreng

Nasi Goreng – my taste of Indonesia

Indonesia: Nasi Goreng

Indonesia screams nasi goreng to me. It’s simple, hearty, dirt cheap, and tastes great. Imagine if you will fried rice, sambal, and bok choi stir fried together, perhaps with prawns or an egg, and served with shrimp crackers. Using the shrimp cracker, you scoop up as much rice as the cracker can hold, and put the whole thing in your mouth. It’s a satisfying way to eat (you know, with your hands), and this is a dish I’ve only had in Indonesia. Just thinking about how it tasted right now I’m imagining the cool breeze blowing through the palm trees and the fields of rice making that beautiful “whooosh” sound as the blades slap together. Damn. Now I want some Nasi Goreng and a bintang beer.

My Penang curry with chicken

Thailand: Penang Curry

My choice for Thailand is kind of ironic, since it’s named for an island in Malaysia. Oops. Penang Curry is basically a Thai Red Curry with peanuts. You wouldn’t imagine that a few peanuts could change the flavor of a curry so much, I mean, there’s more strong flavors swimming around in a curry than you can count on one hand. Lemongrass, red chili, galangal, and Thai shallot aren’t weak flavors by any means, you wouldn’t think that peanuts would make a difference, but they really, really change the hell out of the profile of the dish. Thinking of a curry like this and the smell of the fresh slices of red chili on top sharply focusing your olfactory system on the mess of flavors you’re about to slop over some rice makes me want to lay down on a beach like you wouldn’t believe. I’d take any beach in Southern Thailand right now, thank you very much.

Assam Laksa

Malaysia: Assam Laksa

According to Anthony Bourdain’s wonderful television program, Laksa comes from Kuching, Malaysia, but I’ve only had it just outside the airport in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not really sure what was in it. I’m guessing there was beef, fish sauce, chilis, and I really have no clue what else. This is a dish that made me feel dirty, but in a good way, because my taste buds were horrified at first, then submitted to the dark magic in the hell broth that was dark as night. Before leaving the U.S. I would have simply been too afraid to try it. Boy am I happy we did. If we go to Malaysia this winter I’m going to eat the shit out of some Laksa.

The most amazing bowl of ramen ever.

The most amazing bowl of ramen ever.

Japan: Ramen

I bet you thought I’d pick sushi for Japan, didn’t you? Well, no. The most magical thing I ate in Japan wasn’t the beautiful, beautiful sushi we had in Osaka. It wasn’t the amazing yakitori we purchased from a street vendor in Kyoto. It wasn’t the fresh takoyaki pulled off of the grill on Dotonbori. It was a bowl of ramen we had across the street from the place we would later get takoyaki on Dotonbori. This was the most amazing soup of any kind I’ve ever had in or around my mouth. It was stunning. The depth of its savory, porky flavor was unreachable. I felt like my brain was being sucked into the bowl with every sip of broth. The noodles were fresh, and the whole thing was hearty. You could probably cut the broth with a knife, it was that thick. I’m afraid that barring a return to Dotonbori, I will never have a bowl of ramen so amazing again.

There you have it, five countries, and five foods. For me these will always be the flavors of their respective countries, some pungent, some mild, some perfectly balanced, some so far out of balance that they take you on a trip to a place you’ve never been before. Food is pretty magical like that.

Tasty Thailand: Part I – To Phuket!

Southern Thailand is stunningly beautiful, and filled with all sorts of great things to eat. While I had already planned for our trip to Thailand to be somewhat of a culinary adventure by scheduling in a cooking class, I had no idea that the cuisine of Thailand would take over the vacation in a big way. Don’t get me wrong, letting Thai cuisine take over your life for a couple of weeks is definitely not a bad thing, and I’m feeling somewhat blessed to have turned my innards over to the mercy of such a delicious beast.

My intention here is to first give you a basic overview of our trip to Thailand, and in the coming weeks to delve very deeply into the specific things that were awesome enough to merit their own posts. I hope you’ll enjoy the superficiality of this whirlwind multi-part recap of our great Thai adventure!

Carolyn demonstrates Korean Olympic Fever

Highting! (Koreans use an H instead of an F.)

After Carolyn and I wrapped up our last day of English summer camp at Daejin Elementary School we each had one day left to sit in our offices. We were sent home early, and at that point got our stuff together to leave later in the evening. Living in Daegu is a bit of a curse when it comes to traveling, as most flights leave out of Seoul/Incheon or Busan.  Our flight was scheduled for 9:00ish on Saturday morning, which meant either taking a train up to Seoul and booking a hotel, or taking a bus at 2:00am directly to the airport. We chose the latter option, which meant we could hang out at home on Friday night until it was time to catch the last Subway going to Dongdaegu Station. That we did, and as all of the DVD rooms were out of business, we hung out at a 24 hour Lotteria for a while. I guess there’s worse ways to kill time.

The overnight bus was a bit of a challenge for me and my penchant for motion sickness, but after a wild, wild ride we made it to the Incheon International Airport about 30 minutes before our check-in counter opened. After a quick brushing of teeth and a Jamba Juice we were all checked in! Our bank (Korea Exchange Bank) has a few currency exchange windows at the airport, so we exchanged our remaining Korean Won for Ringgit Malaysia in preparation for our layover in Kuala Lumpur, and made our way to the terminal. I was hot, sweaty, and gross at this point. We had a couple of hours to kill, and the Incheon International Airport has a great way to deal with this. FREE SHOWERS. Hello! I got a towel, picked a shower room, and enjoyed a nice, long, warm shower before our flight. This put me in one of the best traveling moods I’ve ever been in. It helped that we got to hang out on the very couch where I asked Carolyn to marry me a year ago, too. I asked her if she was sure she wanted to marry me. She said yes.

Somewhere over the South China Sea

A couple we know from life here in Daegu was on the bus with us, and they stumbled into us again about an hour before our flight to Kuala Lumpur. It’s always nice to have someone to talk to, and this was really the icing on the cake for our morning in the airport. We loaded up on the plane, surprised to find that we had a row of three seats to ourselves, and flew off to Kuala Lumpur. The roughest part of the whole trip was about 10 minutes of mild turbulence we felt over Taiwan, where a big typhoon had just blown through a day earlier. We landed in Kuala Lumpur hungry, and easily made it through immigration and customs.

Southeast Asia on the whole smells different than East Asia. It smells like the tropics. The foods smell more flavorful. They beckon you with their scents of chili, coconut, peanut, and soy, fish, and oyster sauces. We made our first stop at a Starbucks for coffee, then headed to two of the small restaurants right outside of the airport to check out the menus. I was pretty excited when I saw Assam Laksa on the menu at both restaurants. Carolyn was eyeing the chicken rice, and we had plenty of money. We saw that both restaurants were busy, so we went to the one with the most tables, ordered our food, and had a grubfest.

Assam Laksa, or AWESOME Laksa?

This was my first Laksa, and it took me for a ride. The dark mysterious broth tasted of smoke, chili, and had a kick of heat that followed like a tsunami of flavor that reached deep into your guts and massaged parts of you that you weren’t comfortable having massaged. It was one of those situations where you couldn’t be sure if you liked it or not, but the twinges of pleasure slowly grow and outweigh the caution you initially feel upon first taste. In the broth was a knot of mee noodles that provided heft and balanced the dark cauldron of flavor nicely.

Chicken Rice – Southeast Asian Soul Food

The chicken rice was a far different experience than I imagined. They roast the chicken until it is fully cooked, and then immerse it in an ice bath. The ice bath causes the fat to coagulate suddenly and separate the skin from the meat with a succulent layer of fat. The rice is cooked in chicken broth, and the whole thing is garnished with anchovies, sliced red pepper, and other condiments used to add salty, sweet, spicy, and sour flavors all over Southeast Asia. It was delicious, and simple. I can’t wait to go to  Singapore and try it, as it’s the national dish of the country.

Kata Beach at night

At first glance it seemed that “low season” was an understatement.

From Kuala Lumpur it was only about an hour and a half flight to Phuket. Once we arrived and cleared immigration (which was a bit slow in Phuket), we hailed a metered cab for our destination, Kata Beach and the Jinta Andaman Guesthouse. It was about an hour in the cab, so we didn’t feel bad paying 600 baht for the ride. It was after 10:00pm when we arrived, and we were tired and hungry. After checking in at the Jinta Andaman (which I highly recommend, by the way – more on this in a future post) we headed straight out in search of food. The little corner of Kata Beach we were located in was very quiet, and we went to one of the few restaurants that was open. We knew it was slow season, but damn. Things were slow!

The restaurant was owned by people of Indian heritage, and served Indian and Thai food. Obviously being our first night in Thailand, we ordered Thai. The fast-talking server also got us to order an Indian appetizer of what I can only describe as tiny Samosas. They were delicious, but apparently pretty expensive. For our main courses, Carolyn ordered Phad Thai (obligatory), and I ordered Massaman Curry. I don’t think either of us were blown away by our dishes, but we were both pretty happy with them. Phad Thai noodles are pretty self-explanatory, unless you live under a rock or something. Massaman Curry was something I had only read about before, though – so I’m not sure how often it actually appears on menus around the world.

Massaman Curry

Massaman Curry, a delicious first taste of Thailand

The Massaman Curry is a coconut milk curry with a very mild spice and peanuts. It was silky smooth and had a mild and very comforting flavor. It was like soul food that I didn’t even know would be comforting to my weary body. The server suggested ordering saffron rice to go with the curry, so I did (although now I realize he was just inflating our bill since things were slow). The flavors did work really well together, but I don’t think the meal was worth the 720 baht we paid for it. It was the most expensive meal of our entire trip, but what the hell, right? First night in a new country, gotta live it up!