Discovery: The joy of the unexpected

Look, I don’t really believe there’s much out there left to be discovered. Even the most remote, mysterious bits of the Amazon have pre-contact tribes of people who call the areas home. There’s really no foods that someone hasn’t eaten (in a practical sense), or any great surprises left in the world that someone hasn’t already been startled by. Okay, fine, there might be, but these aren’t things that I’m even remotely likely to discover for myself. When I speak of discovery, I speak of the joy of simply trying something, going some place, or experiencing something new.

I’ve discovered a few things in the past year or so that have made my life much richer, more satisfying, and more likely to end in a shallow gravy of cholesterol and shame. Whatever. This post is about discovery, so I’m going to share some of my favorite discoveries with you right now.

The Primate’s list of discovery!

Macau - Portguese Chorizo

Chorizo cooked tableside. Hello.

1. Portuguese Food – Dude. I never expected that my favorite discovery of our trip to Hong Kong would be the Portuguese food we ate on Macau. Delicious, simple, vaguely familiar yet new at the same time. This was a great discovery.

Taking a dip betwixt two hongs.

Sea Kayaking in Thailand

2. Sea Kayaking – I don’t particularly like boats. I don’t particularly like boats without engines. Who knew that loading up some snacky-snacks in a Kayak and taking off from the beach could be so much fun? On our trip to Thailand, Carolyn and I made a day of sea kayaking. I didn’t even get seasick.

Lawson red chicken

These “RED” chicken nuggets are delicious and cheap. They’re surprisingly…real…and the cheese flavor isn’t bad either.

3. Japanese Convenience Store Food – You’ve never eaten a chicken nugget like the ones they fry up at Lawson convenience stores in Japan. The “red” flavor is mildly spicy, the “cheese” flavor tastes like a chicken breast wrapped around cheetos, breaded in crushed cheetos, and fried in a vat of cheese. If liking this kind of crap is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

4. Gyeran Bbang (Egg Bread) – Carolyn and I discovered this the last time we visited Seoul before leaving Korea. It’s like a sweet cornbread muffin with an egg up in it. It was delicious. There’s not a ton of Korean street foods I would say are must eats, but this one ranks right up there. *Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of good food on the street in Korea, but not a lot that compares to banana roti.

Thai style roti - the best damn banana pancake you've ever tasted

Thai style roti – the best damn banana pancake you’ve ever tasted

5. Banana Roti – Okay, speaking of street food. Banana roti. It’s kinda my ultimate street delicacy. Bananas fried in neon orange margarine or coconut butter or whatever it is wrapped up in a thin pastry and cooked until it’s crisp? Yes, please. This is the one discovery from Thailand that I can’t seem to get at home.

Vietnamese Coffee by mhaithaca, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  mhaithaca 

6. Vietnamese Coffee

Ironically, this life-changing discovery happened at a restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. Vietnamese coffee is simple. Coffee, sweetened, condensed milk, ice. It’s a flavor that your soul recognizes, that your mouth loves, and that your stomach welcomes. It’s probably also a caloric bomb that will help guide you towards that shallow gravy faster than you’d like.

So surprise, surprise. What started out as a post about travel has once again turned into a post about things I like to eat. What’s a primate going to do about that? The answer is polish off the Ben and Jerry’s Liz Lemon frozen Greek Yogurt I have in the freezer. (Attention Ben & Jerry, I’ll give you that plug for free. Please keep producing the Liz Lemon flavor. kthxbai.)

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

The surprising reason I haven’t tried durian

Long live the King

Durian: the most difficult to try the king of fruits

Durian is an interesting fruit. It’s a fruit that conjures up a few different images: the business end of a medieval mace perhaps, Andrew Zimmern vomiting on cable television, a beautiful muslim woman in Southern Thailand wielding a machete with surgeon-like skill at a fruit stand, and a million other scenarios those of us who like to watch television about food could pull from our brain vaults at a moment’s notice.

When it comes to durian, though, it’s not the images that matter. The one thing that everyone talks about is the smell. Anthony Bourdain describes it as the smell of a rotting dumpster, but claims the fruit is delicious. I’m pretty sure Andrew Zimmern, who will eat anything including uncooked testicles and other offal bits used the word “putrid” before vomiting up his serving of this majestic beast of a fruit. One of my Korean coworkers tells the students (in Korean) something that includes “hwa-jang-shil” which translates to “toilet” in English, so I can only imagine it’s not something nice.

I don’t find the smell all that terrible, and neither does Carolyn. I think the smell of durian could be described like this. You know your grandmother’s oldsmobile that she owned from 1980 until 1998? The one with the pleather seats that was always kept clean but smelled of granny’s car specifically because it was rarely used and the interior baked in the hot Texas sun all day every day? Now, if you can imagine what that car would smell like if you spilled about ten gallons of that canned Hawaiian Punch (yeah, the red one) in the car and let it sit in the hot Texas sun for a whole summer. You’d get a concentrated mix of granny’s car and Hawaiian punch delivered to your nostrils upon opening the door that could probably be smelled from space. Yes I realize that there are no smells in the vacuum of space. That’s what it smells like. From like a hundred yards away.

I wanted to try durian really bad when we visited Thailand this summer. I had a year’s worth of regret built up inside me for not trying it in Bali last year. I had a chance to buy it, but the gal at the fruit stand was expertly slicing a pineapple for too long and it was late and we just wanted to lay down in bed. I should have waited, because I had no idea how difficult it would be to try this fruit and that those difficulties would keep me once again from experiencing the stench of durian in my own gullet.

No durian for you!

The truth about why I haven’t tried durian

  1. Durian are really big. They have a hard shell. We did carry a knife for one night after we bought it to cut fruit, but we didn’t see any durian on that outing. Dammit. Why not take the durian back to your room with you? Well that’s point number two.
  2. You can’t take a durian into your hotel room to cut it with the knife you bought and kept in your room. Yeah, you left your fruit knife in the room because you don’t want to walk around with a shiv all night. Dumb mistake, n00b. No durian for you.
  3. Taking a durian into your hotel room, public transportation, or just about anywhere enclosed is a no-no. One of our guesthouses in Phuket made it clear that there would be a 2,000 baht adjustment made if durian was taken into the room. I guess that smell really sticks. Don’t leave that fruit knife in your room if you want to take on the king of fruits.
  4. There’s no trash cans, and I can’t stand to litter.
  5. If you try to order a sexy durian dessert, expect it to be sold out. I tried to order one the last night we were in Phuket, and I’ll be damned if there wasn’t any available.

So I’m a disappointment to adventurous food nerds everywhere. I missed my opportunity to try durian. Hopefully, one day soon, we’ll be back in Southeast Asia, I’ll have a damned machete or something in my back pocket, and the gal at the fruit stand won’t be spiral slicing a pineapple at a late hour at night when I’m ready for bed. C’est la vie, I guess.

Here’s a green curry recipe, because your house should smell like Thailand

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Thai curries are some of our most frequently repeated meals now. They’re super easy to make, taste wonderful, and make our whole apartment smell like Thailand. I sound like an over emotional late twenty something lady in search of her true love and passion that takes a year long trip to Italy, India, and Bali when I say this, but cooking Thai food and the accompanying aroma magically transports me back to a hot afternoon in Phuket. It’s fun for me to make a curry for more reasons than how freaking awesome it tastes.

Green curry is probably the most popular curry consumed by western tourists in Thailand. essentially, if you make a red curry, or a Penang curry without the peanuts, and swap out the paste from red to green you’ve made the switch. The process is the same. The flavor, however, is not. The green chilis in the green curry paste are substantially spicier than the red chilis. The higher spice level seems to really set off every individual flavor of the other ingredients in the curry, and the flavors of lemongrass, galangal, and shallots become bigger and louder. Green curry is a blast of flavor that is certain to please the palate.

The Primate’s “I can’t find all the right ingredients” green curry recipe

This isn’t exactly the green curry recipe that I learned and tasted in Thailand, but it’s easy and gets me back to Thailand, if even only in my mind.

Buy this stuff:
Green curry paste
Chicken breasts
Carrots
Bell pepper
Coconut milk
Rice

The process is identical to any other Thai curry.

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1. Heat up a wok or saucepan with canola oil. Fry your curry paste for a bit.

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2. Add your chicken and vegetables and cook it for a bit.

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3. Add your coconut milk, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until you’re ready to serve.

Oh yeah, I forgot that you should have started steaming your rice before all of this. Sorry dude.

*This green curry recipe was adapted from Pum’s Lazy Thai Cuisine to suit my available ingredients. Her recipe is far superior, and should you ever visit Thailand you would be remiss to not learn to cook from her.

Penang Curry: My ultimate comfort food

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Of all the places that I’ve been in my life, I think that Thailand was the most delicious. This was a big question in my head after we visited Japan a month and a half ago. Japanese cuisine is undoubtedly delicious and among the finest in all the world. Thai food, though, is a completely different animal. At home I always thought of Thai food as a super spicy and explosive cuisine but to my surprise my favorite dishes were the ones that featured the most subtle flavors.

One of these more subtle dishes is Penang Curry. Penang curry is, in my experience, a red curry with a subtle infusion of peanut flavor. It’s remarkable how a tiny bit of peanut flavor changes the profile of a dish that gets its main punch from red chiles. Luckily for me, it’s super easy to make at home. Here is my recipe for a super easy Penang curry. It’s a bit of a dude recipe, so feel free to add whatever you like to fancy it up. It’s not super necessary, but julienned red Thai chile and kaffir lime leaves would go along way towards taking this from single man slop to sexy and elegant date night cuisine.

The Primate’s Penang Curry

Buy this stuff:
Thai red chili paste (we can’t get the ingredients to make it here, and can only find one brand, so I don’t think the brand matters…just the color)
Coconut milk (1 can)
3-4 chicken breasts, thinly sliced.
Peanuts
Canola oil
Jasmine rice (any rice will do in a pinch)

If you live somewhere with a good Asian market buy this stuff too:
Fresh Thai chiles
A couple stalks of lemongrass
Kaffir lime leaves

The Process

Cooking curry is an easy process. You can use these steps for any if the Thai curries, just change out the paste and proteins.

Before you even start, steam your rice.

1. Coat the bottom if a skillet with canola oil
2. Add the curry paste (to taste). One can of coconut milk makes a butt-load of curry, I’m going to suggest starting with two tablespoons of paste. Or chef instructor at Pum’s Thai cooking school explained it like this..last art with a medium flavor, if you need more oomph just add more curry paste and well, WELCOME TO THAILAND!
3. Use a spatula to break up the paste as it sizzles. I like to continue breaking it up until the oil is a homogenous red color. Add the peanuts and let them cook for just a couple of minutes.
4. Add the chicken, break it up, and press it into the pan with your spatula. Cook it until there are no more translucent bits, but not so long as to give it a char or brown crust.
5. Pour the coconut milk into the pan and give it a few stirs, the milk should go from a white to a red color. Bring it to a boil and let it cook just a few more minutes.
6. Rice goes on plate. Curry goes in bowl.
7. If you want your friends, girlfriend, wife, date, or self to think that you are just too fancy, top the curry with matchsticks of red chile and julienned kaffir lime leaves. Crushed peanuts would be super nice too. Letting just a bit of chopped lemon grass stew with everything else in the coconut milk for a bit would elevate it all a notch as well.
8. Nom.
9. Reap the inevitable compliments.

Thai food isn’t all that complex to cook, from what I’ve learned, and that’s why it’s so damn good to eat. The Shakers (you know, one of those weird religious sects like the Amish and the Quakers) had a whole song that described Thai food.

‘Tis a gift to be simple,
‘Tis a gift to be free,
‘Tis a gift to come ’round,
Where we ought to be,
and when we find our selves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley if love and delight

For me, that valley of love and delight is Railay beach, Krabi province, Thailand; and the quickest way to get there is with a bowl of this simple Penang Curry.

Yes, I’m fully aware that Penang is in Malaysia, but you can sure as hell eat a lot of Penang Curry in southern Thailand…and you should.

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.

Thai style roti – delicious!

Before I get on with the important thing here (roti), I need to ask you a question. Have I told you yet about how ridiculously the word delicious is abused here in Korea? My coworker and I were recently talking about  whether or not something could be “more delicious” or not. Isn’t delicious a little bit like a superlative? Can something be more or less delicious than something else? I actually spent a few minutes in class today trying to get my advanced second grade class to understand that there are varying degrees of what makes food good (or not). Delicious was on the top, disgusting was on the bottom, and in the middle was “okay.” I didn’t deem them advanced enough to know how to use “meh” properly. Shit, I’m lecturing about word usage and throwing quotation marks out there like I’d want to throw benadryl to wild ass kids in waiting rooms and shopping malls. No, I would never do that. It’s a figure of speech. Jeez.

Thai roti with bananas

Thai style roti – the best damn banana pancake you’ve ever tasted

Anyway, I think I originally intended to write about Thai style roti today, not poor word usage in the English language by Korean middle school students. Thai style roti are also known as pancakes, and we couldn’t resist having them filled with bananas. I’ve mentioned them before in one of my posts about a trip to Thailand. Let’s make a deal, though. If you suffer through this excruciatingly detailed post about this wonderful delicacy you’re not going to find on your block (unless you live in Thailand), I’ll show you how to make a gringo version of these on your own that tastes sorta kinda like the real thing but doesn’t even involve you making your own dough. Deal? Deal.

Alright, so the roti starts with some sort of dough. All of the vendors I saw in Thailand had balls of dough ready to go, but I saw a guy on television make them by putting his oiled hand into a large glop of dough and “pooping” them out the space between his thumb and forefinger. They roll out the dough until it’s about the size of a silver dollar pancake, and then pick it up and whip it’s ass out onto the table three or four times, until it’s translucent. At this point it goes onto a hot griddle with a leetle beet of oil and the show really begins.

Every one of these roti vendors I saw would grab the banana, pop it open on one side, and use a battle axe cleaver to speed chop the banana into the dough. It’s pretty amazingly fast and makes me wonder just how many times these guys and gals have cut into the chicken-thigh like bit of muscle at the base of the thumb. Yowza! Once the bananas are safely in the center of the dough, they fold it over from each side until you have a square little envelope of dough holding a special parcel of banana burning away on the griddle. It gets flipped once or twice, and a pat of bright-ass-day-glo-orange “butter” goes onto the griddle. They flip it off (no, not like that, with a spatula) onto a paper plate and cleave it into 16 pieces before serving it to you covered in sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, or whipped cream or something. We decided that we preferred plain with no topping to any of the other options.

So what can you expect when you jab a spear through one of these things and delicately place it in your mouth? Let me tell you. The outside is crispy with just a tiny bit of chew like a really good pizza dough (but sweet, not savory). The bananas on the inside are gooey and melty. It’s pretty hot, so you do the hot-food-in-the-mouth-juggle a little bit but you’re completely impressed that this is a satisfying snack. I mean, it looks so simple. The artificial buttery flavor is light and wonderful, and all you want to do after you finish that 16th little morsel is buy another one. And another. And another. For a little more than $1 you get a hand-made a la minute treat that you’ll remember forever.

So, that’s a Thai style roti, and it’s a real piece of work. A piece of work you want to eat over and over again. It’s delicate yet pungent fruity flavor will haunt you all the back to your mundane daily existence and drive you insane. Unless you’re a little creative and can replicate it with some easy to find ingredients you should be able to find at a large grocery store in the U.S. Of course there’s no true way to get your fix, but I have a way to get close enough, for me at least. I hope you’ll join me sometime in the near future when I show you how to make Banana Faux-ti.