Rediscovering Discovery


*NM the font sizes- blogger struggles. Words still accurate, though.
Walking through the streets of Georgetown on Penang island at 10AM I was already pouring perspiration, having to constantly wipe my eyebrows to keep the salty, smoggy sweat from running into my eyes. I was on a mission to Ah Leng char kway teow- reputedly* (*see- internet) one of the better spots on in town for the local famous pork fat wok-fried noodles. As I pushed through the heat and my appetite grew I began daydreaming of my soon-to-be lunch. That unmistakable combination of burnt rice noodles and caramelized sugar from the screaming hot wok, the moment when a spoonful of sambal hits the carbon steel and sends its eye-watering exhaust airborne, slips of sweet chinese sausage and fresh plump prawns resting atop the mound of steaming, lard-slicked glory. These visions became more and more intense the closer I made it to Ah Leng..until I spotted it- closed. I had been walking for close to an hour, and now was faced with only a shuttered metal sliding door. I spoke to a lady out front who told me he was on 'rest' until Saturday. Not closed up for the day, not sold out--but vacation. Good for him.

But back to me- I was still sweaty and still hungry. Now without a destination. I fretted for a moment then thought to myself- 


Why am I relying on other people's pallate to tell me what to eat? Mine works damn fine and its rarely steered me wrong. I've eaten enough and seen enough and read enough about food to know pretty well how something is going to be just by looking at the situation- whether it's the level of care the vendor puts into the preparation or the makeup of the patrons eating inside. Screw it, from now on my senses will lead the way- not some internet 'must eat' blog that only raises expectations to unrealistic levels. Random, back door discoveries season your meals with more flavor than any top top list could manage.


As I continued onward I stopped in at a nearby cafe serving up 'asam laksa' which I had spotted on the walk over. I ordered a small bowl and a white coffee, wiped my brow yet again and took a seat on a red plastic chair.





Asam laksa is another prime example of the greatness of Penang cuisine. A tamarind and shrimp paste savory/sour broth is topped with sliced cucumber, pineapple, fresh herbs, shaved ginger flowers and shredded mackerel. I sipped the warm, piquant broth and all was right again. The mild heat from the chilis tingled my throat as the umami notes from the fish and tamarind caused my mouth to salivate. I chewed on the soft slippery noodles with wilted mint and shallots as the ceiling fan kept my sweat momentarily at bay and realized once again that there are discoveries just about everywhere to make in this world. Why not be the one to make those discoveries instead of following a trail someone else has blazed. Searching for that pre-packaged dining experience won't ever compare to the unknown.



So stay on the lookout, stay hungry and above all- Stay Global.

Districo Federal



Eating abroad is naturally more stimulating because of the undeniable appeal of the unknown. Yelp-researched domestic eating cannot contend. Back home you may try a new flavor of ice cream one day or get pizza with a new topping the next- but for the most part you have a healthy idea of what you're about to experience. In foreign countries it's a new ballgame each and every time you wander up to a new street vendor. It's this which keeps me curious. Order up.





The catch is once you've experienced really, really excellent fresh food you become aware of that level. And if that level is incredible high like ramen in Japan or Mi Quang in Viet Nam then you're just not going to be satisfied eating said meal anywhere else. It can be a very good plate of pad siew or an expertly charred slab of naan- but the very best of the best is something that can't be shaken easily from your memory. I'm still haunted by the Cam Ranh Banh Mi- and that was almost 5 years ago. I can now add tortillas to the list of foods I no longer view the same. This recent 5 day jaunt to Mexico has me re-evaluating the humble corn patty and it's ability to inspire awe. Sure I've had fresh tortillas many times before- and I'm blessed to live in an area full of Mexican eating options but...just tasting how they do it south of the border changed me. I'm born again. In the form of maíz.



The average Mexican eats around 170 pounds of tortillas a year. And when you're feeding 123 million every day they have to be done right. There's no other option. And they are. Boy, they fu*king are. Before I wax on about the beauties of griddled tortillas or deep fried quesadillas or bean-stuffed tlacoyos let's talk about the building block of one of the world's most dynamic and diverse cuisines.



 Masa.



The cement. The foundation. Like rice in Japan or Tomatoes in Italy you simply can't produce quality comestibles without the proper base. Please stop it with the store-bought tortillas or even dried maseca. Just stop. Real food deserves more respect than that. A Mexican eating an industrial, preservative laden tortilla is like an American eating a frozen hamburger or farmed fish from Thailand. Wait...we do that. Damnit. Well in other countries they actually like to eat fresh food that is made from..food (that is until McDonalds arrives). It's quite the fascinating concept.


Masa is traditionally made from corn kernals soaked in calcium hydroxide. This diluted solution is highly alkaline (opposite of acidic) and breaks down the structure of the corn, making it maleable. After the corn has been soaked and rinsed thoroughly it's ground into a dough (masa) and off it goes to feed the country. Stuffed with meats, steamed inside banana leaves or flattened and puffed up on a screaming hot comal. 


Let's see what they do with it.



Tacos Campechanos. A Districo Federal street-side favorite. Essentially combination tacos- above we have suadero (a braised beef cut from the underside of the cow similar to brisket) and longaniza (pork and beef sausage with a touch of heat) nestled in between tortillas. 


Mexico city wakes up late. Food stands and restaurants generally didn't open until 10, and Mexicans eat their lunch in the afternoon. It's kind of odd. In Asia you generally have different foods for different times of the day- but Mexico City has tacos around the clock. 


A taquero with his bubbling vat of pork and beef. Chicken breast and tofu didn't quite make the cut.


So first off some distinct differences between eating tacos in the states vs. eating tacos in Mexico City. In D.F. the tortillas are not only fresher, but thinner and smaller. This makes a 5 tacos sampler snack just that..a snack. The tortillas are delicate, light and provide just the right amount of starch to cradle the ounce or so of meat tucked inside. These aren't massive meat mountains like many stateside tacos. 

This isn't to say Mexicans don't eat large portions. They haven't become the most obese nation on earth from copious cabbage salad consumption. If we weren't walking 12-15 miles a day during our trip the never-ending onslaught of cheesy, deep-fried, stoner-approved delights would have taken a toll. I can see how the locals acquire that shape. And no, we ain't talking hourglass.

Taqueros either rock the vat (as seen above) or comal de bola (round pan with a raised, bulbous interior for griddling tortillas) for cooking meat. The outside of the comal de bola becomes a meat juice moat where sausage and intestine drippings coexist harmoniously. Many of these stands have their own specialty. For the most part, Tacos de Carnitas taco stands sell carnitas exclusively. The same goes for Tacos de Birria, or Barbacoa or Al Pastor. The master focuses on his meat and does it well. You reap the benefits for a handful of pesos. Everybody wins.



Tacos De Canasta. The tortillas are first lightly fried in a chorizo-infused oil, filled with pork, potatoes or beans and left to steam inside of a towel-lined basket. Soft, gooey and greasy. It has that microwaved pizza chewy texture- and that is absolutely a compliment. Blue collar, pocket change eating at it's finest.


Barbacoa Taco. Slow-cooked lamb (or goat) atop a griddled blue corn tortilla. Tough to imagine three better bites than this.



Pambazo. Check this one out: They dip the bread in chili sauce before griddling it, then stuff it with potatoes, chorizo, lettuce and queso fresco. The bread is light and slighly crisp from the frying- with a touch of char. Note the piggy bank tip jar in the background- nearly every vendor in the city has one. Tip your waitress! We couldn't finish the mammoth bottle of cokeFortunately.




Quesadilla De Flor de Calabaza (squash blossom).



Mexico City doesn't have the night markets of Taiwan or the sheer density of street food served from 7AM thru midnight like Ho Chi Minh City, so if you'd like to put together an impromptu food crawl your best bet is to comb the streets surrounding markets. We decided upon this quesadilla stand outside of the Mercado de la Merced- although there were easily 50 different edible options to choose from. Packed stall + melted cheese + plastic tub of masa.


Tostada de Pulpo. Sometimes you just need a little bit of octopus to wash down all that pork.




video
Better yet, how about a Michelada.


Most D.F. rendition of this beer cocktail were simply lime juice and salt added to your cerveza. This michelada at Mercado De La Merced was full of piss and vinegar- in the form of chili powder and hot sauce.



Stay Picante.

GLOBAL LAP 2014 (MEET MOROCCO)


After the layover in Dubai I was off to take my first steps in the continent of Africa. Long overdue.


Let me introduce you to the Kingdom of Morocco. Alright, so maybe it's Africa 101 to the hardcore globetrotters but for me this North African country of 33 million was the proper entryway into this massive continent of intrigue and unknown. Once I earn my passing grade I'll have no problem signing up for the upper division Sub-Saharan curriculum. So Morocco; a little dusty, a little gruff, a whole lotta new. Lets get dirty.


Wake up. A hot cup of joe with plenty of rectangular sucrose cubes and a warm slice of pan griddled semolina cake known as harcha. Dense, filling and best eaten warm with a drizzle of local honey. When cold these cakes are more effective as paper weights than breakfast items. Get yours while the gettings good.



Snail Soup. Virility is overrated. This bowl was vile.


What I found both surprising and discouraging about dining in Morocco was the lack of an 'eating-out' culture. In Asia you're clearly spoiled for choices, and anyone who has stepped foot in that part of the world knows noodles and grilled meat and steamed surprises beckon on every corner. Even in the poorer areas there are cheap roadside stalls set up to feed the working class. In Morocco I found myself asking 'WHERE IS EVERYONE EATING? AND WHAT?' All the cities and towns were full of cafes serving Whiskey Morocaine (ultra-sweet mint tea- booze free) and coffee- but I didn't see anyone EATING anything. Just 100% dudes 100% of the time 100% kickin it with some cigarettes and a coffee. Paul Thomas Anderson would approve. It wasn't until after several conversations with locals that I found out most everyone cooks and eats their meals at home. Hows about an invite? Alright, until then I'll have to settle for food you actually have to pay for. Shit.

You can divide eating out in Morocco into three general categories-

     *Formal Restaurants are a relatively new phenomenon brought about by tourism and recent wealth. These places are geared towards tourists and almost all have the same regurgitated menu of tagines, cous cous and salad marocaineThe food ranges from passable to downright embarrassing. Steer clear. But you know this.

     *Local Food Stalls which usually specialize in a couple dishes. Maybe it's a lamb carcass hanging by hooks, ready for the grill [see below] or perhaps a place that sells one or two varieties of simmering tagines. Humble shacks with merguez sausage sandwiches and the like are also found throughout the country. The prices are more reasonable at these local eateries- but I've found the quality still varied widely. You're not guaranteed a good meal but the ambiance is exponentially more raw than you'd find in any restaurant. BYO pepto.

     *Street Food- Morocco is no Asia when it comes to strictly street food eating options. No, No, No. Perhaps some donuts, fresh squeezed juice or charmoula stuffed sardines- but don't expect much in the way of push-cart dining.


I can't think of a country in which I had more difficulty finding good grub. Bold words, but frustrating it most definitely was. I came to realize that for all the romance and exoticism people equate with Moroccan cuisine, the reality was quite different. A stockpile of aromatic spices and incredible olive oils doesn't add up to a delicious meal if you can't put those ingredients together properly. But who am I to focus on the subpar in life? Let's highlight what kind of incredible you can wrap your lips around in Morocco.



One of the best dishes from the trip. Folks, they call this the berber omelet. Fry some diced tomatoes in buttery olive oil and crack a couple eggs in the pan. Top with olives, cilantro, chilis, preserved lemon and a heavy handful of cumin. Fragrant and spicy with fantastic fruity notes from the olive oil. Mop up all that goodness with a baguette, and don't you dare forget those crusty bits.



Some of the most memorable dining experiences are those that come completely unexpected. On a ride from Chefchaouen to Marrakech the bus stopped at a road-side grill serving one thing- lamb. Lamb is fantastic. I've always said it's beef to the power of 2. The problem is most places fuck it up. Either too tough or too dry or too pungent. A real shame. Give lamb the respect it deserves. Back to the story. Most pit-stop eateries on bus routes are mediocre and uninspiring- shoveling out average food to the masses. I wasn't planning on snacking here until I hopped off the bus and peeped the scene. Was I back in the cuts of Hanoi? Nah, but I'm liking what I'm seeing.


C'mon, at the very least this has to be good. Better than most of the watery, insipid tagines I was becoming used to. Let's order some and see what happens. I walked over to a man who seemed to be the master of the entire operation [blood stained shirt and handfuls of cash] and ordered a couple hundred grams of the good stuff. Behind him stood an enormous meat grinder overloaded with shallots, cilantro and chunks of meat. Ground fresh. Always a good sign. I paid for my lamb and brought it over to the Moroccan pit master for a proper kiss over hardwood. The rest is history.


I got hooked on this stellar dish of roast chicken during my time in the charming coastal town of Mohammedia. Little birds are rubbed with turmeric, ginger and garlic then spit roasted. The drippings are mixed with onions, herbs and olives then spooned right on top. I appreciate any establishment that properly utilizes rendered animal fat. Moroccan roast chicken shops are no exception. Be sure to ask for a side of fries with the spicy mustard-mayo dip. Brings that tingle straight to the nasal.



Lunch Time. Bread is served with almost every meal, so get used to it. The bean dish up top is Lubia, white beans stewed in a cumin-laced tomato sauce. Giddyup.



 The f*cking French. They're never wrong, and have superior everything, but they're responsible for the birth of Bánh Mì in Vietnam so I give em a pass.  These are 'Beignets' in Mohammedia. Chewy, eggy and quite stupendous. These fried rings became my go-to breakfast choice during the latter portion of my trip. 




Stay Global.

GLOBAL LAP 2014 (Changes)


It couldn't have been more of a cultural slap in the face flying from Japan into Abu Dhabi to spend a day in Dubai. Gone were the giggling girls with pony tails and knee high socks, reading their cartoons on the subway. Turbans replace 'Chicago Bulls' caps and the 'arigatougozaimas' hymn [so commonplace in Japan I'd nominate it for national anthem status] was also long gone. In Japan respect is everything. It's one of the many incredible aspects of the country to observe from an outside perspective. I was continually amazed at what lengths strangers would go to assist you without ever asking a thing in return.

I read somewhere that Dubai is separated into two classes, the have-nots and the have yachts. Agreed. Gucci clad young money boys peel around town in their Aston martons or range rovers, guzzling the same oil that has provided them with their seemingly limitless wealth. It seems a bit unfair to generalize given I was only in Dubai for less than 24 hours, but I got feeling that if you didn't have anything in this city, you're nobody. Throughout the day I witnessed multiple acts of inconsideration that would make most onlookers uncomfortable, but in Dubai the pecking order has been established- and accepted.

At the top sit the Arabs and UAE locals, flush with cash and material wealth to flaunt. While someone had to have worked to acquire all this money, I'd be surprised if the younger generation lifts more than a finger on their busiest of days. The Filipinos are there to wash their dishes and do the laundry (there are 450,000 Filipino workers in Dubai- over 20 percent of the population) and the Indians build their mansions and sweep the leaves off their driveways. Social pecking order isn't something exclusive to the Middle East, but I was extra sensitive to the change coming from Japan. After walking around the dubai mall (one of the main tourist attractions of the city) and witnessing all the wrongs that these consumption dens represent- corporations without individuality and a reliance on the importance of an external image- I had seen enough.

I remembered reading about an Indian bazaar on the north side of the city near the Dubai creek so I hopped on the metro with hopes of inspiration. The fact that I was surrounded by pungent bodily odors instead of Georgio Armani's latest fragrance was an encouraging sign. I followed this car full of south Asians to what I eyeballed as the closest stop to the Bazaar. When I walked out of the station and saw hundreds of men and women sitting cross-legged on the grass engaging in real conversations, I immediately felt at ease. I could actually breath again. When I looked across the street and saw a Bollywood theatre with all the latest hits, I knew I had made the right choice. Time to wander.

Groups of 20 something year old men with their uniquely Indian plaid button-up shirts strolled through the streets, arm in arm or sometimes hand in hand. There's something so approachable and genuine about the demeanor of a native Indian fellow. Those sparkling, inquisitive eyes. Always curious yet rarely aggressive. I strolled around the block in search of an iPhone charger. It took about 45 seconds to find a small electronic shop pedaling new and used wares manufactured solely in the republic of China- obviously for a fraction of what they were charging in the aforementioned Dubai mall. I agreed to the first price the man offered for the charger- something unheard of in India or Southeast Asia. I was feeling good. Outside I grabbed a piping hot cup of 30 cent Chai. Aromatic and delicious. I was off to find this dosa restaurant the shop owner had recommended.


The streets were lined with sweet shops displaying various fried and syrup-doused treats, kitschy clothing stores and their $6 trousers, pint-sized barber shops where lightning-speed scissors turned out the latest hairstyle of the subcontinent and of course the ubiquitous neon flashing lights advertising any and everything to the casual passerby. Almost like the real India, minus the roaming cows snacking on piles of fermenting trash. After a few loops around the neighborhood I made it to the restaurant to eat the dish I had been craving. The cafeteria style eatery smelled sublime upon entering, and nary a fork or knife was to be found at any of the tables. Score. I ordered my dosa. The waiter wagged his head. A few minutes later my lentil crepe arrived with a trio of sweet and savory chutneys. The dosa was on par with many of the South Asian renditions I sampled during my trip to India. If downtown is the skin then my subway ride took me to the heart of Dubai, where blue collar workers spent their well-deserved time off from building this billionaire city to live, laugh, and breathe.



Stay Global.

GLOBAL LAP 2014 (The Grain)


After settling back into the groove of American life and having time to reflect I can undoubtedly say that my time in Japan was the most unique and memorable part of my round the world journey. I can still remember individual spoonfuls of shio ramen broth, the miso and sake braised mackerel on Tanegashima island or the way that expertly sliced aji dissolved in my mouth during one of the finest dining experiences of my life in Tokyo.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, the pursuit of perfection makes for incredible cuisine. Their pride and dedication to excelling in their field is and should be an inspiration for both chefs and avid home cooks (such as myself). Don't ever let yourself settle for good. Always continue to improve and build upon what you know. All the great chefs of the world are constantly thinking how to make their food BETTER. It's a constant, tiring and endless process- but the results speak for themselves. Of the 33 countries I've had the pleasure to visit- Japan takes top honors in care put into the craft. This isn't to say everything I ate was great- but it was never due to lack of effort. The gastronomic culture of Japan will resonate with me as I continue to develop my cooking skills.

Here are a handful of dishes that represent all that is satisfying about eating in the country of Japan.


I had landed the previous night so this was my first solo meal in Japan. A common breakfast in Tokyo for business types are 'standing soba noodles'- little shops specializing in slippery buckwheat strands swimming in a soy-seasoned dashi broth. Quick, cheap, warming and wholesome.

It was a frigid February morning so I was grateful the shop was only 200 meters or so from Abram's apartment. I stepped inside the shop and was immediately greeted by the soba chef and an older lady washing bowls and utensils. Knowing absolutely zero Japanese I gave the lady that curious yet helpless look and she scooted over to assist me with that intimidating big button machine. 'Tempura Soba' I announced.

Hai.


I inserted a bill and she clicked the appropriate button for me.


Arigatougozaimas.


As with Ramen shops I handed the ticket to the chef.


Hai.


I stood there in silence surrounded by salary men slurping their soba. As I watched the chef deftly boil soba noodles, fry vegetable tempura and crack raw eggs into steaming broth I knew this was exactly where I wanted to be. Yeah, I'm gonna like it here.






Kyushu is famous for it's Kurobuta pig. Damn I love pork. Clearly it would be of the utmost importance to eat all things porcine in this southern province. One of those being Tonkatsu- a simple panko-crusted fried pork cutlet served with shredded cabbage. On this instance I was actually looking for a hotel for the evening when I randomly eyed this restaurant. It looked inviting from the outside and the interior was even cozier. The menu wasn't going to do me any good so I ordered some 'tonkatsu' and prayed to the gods I don't believe in. 10 minutes later arrived this gorgeous set equipped with all the Japanese fixins- white rice, miso soup, shaved cabbage, grated daikon in soy and a runny egg. The pork was crisp, seasoned well, and incredibly juicy- with a rich, clean flavor unlike that of American swine. The crunchy cabbage cuts the richness of the tonkatsu- and you get unlimited refills of this shaved green brassica. For free. The rice and miso soup were flawless. Naturally.





'I've got a shop you're gonna love.' Abram tells me one morning. 'They do tempura. Only tempura.'

Saddle up.

We hop aboard a couple subways and make the 45 minute journey across the city, arriving at our destination after a few lefts and rights through some smaller side streets. Though my stomach was empty, my mind was full of visions of crispy-fried delights. The inside of the restaurant was mostly taken up by a large U-shaped bar surrounding an elderly couple and what I can only assume was their son. The husband was frying tempura in a hot-tub sized wok while the wife was busy pouring bowls of miso soup and scraping portions of rice out of the bamboo steamer. For 650 Yen you get a decent portion of mixed seafood and vegetable tempura, miso soup and rice. An excellent value. The tempura was light, with a crunchy coating that wasn't too think. Some of the best I've had. Interestingly enough it was the rice from the meal that is still etched in my memory. For the casual observer it looks like a bowl of white rice- similar to the millions (billions) of bowls taken in every day around the world. Japanese rice is mostly short-grain, meaning it's 'stickier' than Indian Basmati or Thai Jasmine long-grain varietals. Not mushy, sticky. This makes it a pleasure to eat with your chopsticks, as you can easily grab yourself a chunk even if your stick game is less than satisfactory.

In Vietnam rice was always around. You might be able to skip out on rice for a meal or two but there was no avoiding this grain. The steamed rice served at street side lunch stalls was fine- but by no means memorable. The savory coconut juice braised pork belly and crispy fried mackerel were what brought your back. In Japan it's different. Rice is a meal.

This rice at this tempura shop was unreal. It was toothsome. It had chew. There was fragrance. Each individual grain was its own, yet they hugged and clung to each other like eskimos huddling together for warm in the arctic.

This rice is incredible!

I know, right? It's Japan.

Rice, please accept my sincere apologies. I never knew your potential. Now that I do I'll never take you for granted. Respect the grain.



Stay Tireless.

~LinkWithin

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