Yummy Yam

What do you get when you put yam and gingko nuts together?



Or nee, a traditional Chinese-Teochew dessert!

I’ve always loved yam since I was a kid, from traditional Chinese food such as or nee (Teochew) and suan pan zi (Hakka) to fast-food items such as Burger King’s taro turnover. Inspired by a recent meal that consisted of or nee, I finally took the plunge to find out how this traditional Teochew delicacy is done. While the process wasn’t hard, it certainly was tedious and time-consuming, especially mashing the boiled yam pieces to a smooth and creamy consistency. And instead of adding lard to the purée, I opted for olive oil instead. While the latter wasn’t as fragrant, it certainly was healthier. Copious amounts of oil and sugar was used, so I guess this dessert is better indulged once in a while.

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“Vote No” Animal Placards

Do not release animals into the parliament

One of the “Vote No” animal placards by People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has been making its rounds around Bangkok for the past couple of weeks.

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Low-so Dining at Soi Thong Lor

To me, it’s really a pity if you cannot—or refuse—to eat street food in Bangkok. The quality and hygiene standards may be lacking at some stalls, but when you meet a good one, you are bombarded with a smorgasbord of flavors and textures. Take this hole-in-the-wall along Soi Thong Lor (around 100 meters from the soi entrance) that M, P and I visited today.

With just filmsy metal tables and rickety plastic stools lining a cracked pavement, an open kitchen that was enveloped in smoke half the time and lightbulbs hanging from cables strewn across trees, the owners managed to carve out a small-time business serving Isan-style specialties. There was a steady stream of patrons while we were there, which probably is a reflection of the popularity of this roadside stall.

We three famished gluttons ordered enough food to feed a small army: som tom puu (papaya salad with crab), som tam puu plaa raa (papaya salad with crab and fermented fish sauce), seua ronghai (crying tiger a.k.a. grilled beef), muu manaao (pork with lime sauce), khor muu yang (grilled pork shoulder), jim jum (Isan-style hot pot), yam ruam mit (mixed salad) and sai oon yang (grilled pork intestines), alongside sticky rice and chilled beer.

M suggested trying paeng nom muu (pork teats), but unfortunately the stall ran out of teats, so we opted for grilled pork intestines instead—which wasn’t on the menu but the owners gamely agreed to whip it up for us. We joked that unlike the hi-so and hipster set who flock to Thong Lor to see and be seen, we were instead holed up at this low-so eatery with sweat dripping down our foreheads. We ate and talked and ate some more; by the end of two hours, the chairs were groaning under our weight and our buttons threatening to pop.

The damage for all this good food and company on a Friday evening? 690 baht.

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Filed under Bangkok, Isaan, street food, Thailand

Pig-shaped bak kwa

Have you seen pig-shaped bak kwa before? Well, I only discovered barbequed pork in such adorable packaging at one Fragrance outlet in Chinatown during my recent trip back to Singapore. I’m not a bak kwa fan as sweet pork jerky doesn’t appeal to me; but thinking that it would make a tasty snack from Singapore, I bought two packets for my colleagues back in Bangkok. And boy, these little pigs were a hit with the food-loving folks in my office—all the piglets were gone by lunch.


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Food Notes from Saigon

Reading Peter Jon Lindberg’s “Vietnam: The Ultimate Food Tour” [T+L Southeast Asia, September 2010] made me crave for pho, banh xeo and banh mi. One line from his drool-inducing piece particularly stood out: “The best way to tackle Hanoi is to treat the city as one vast progressive buffet, moving from the spring-roll guy to the fermented-pork lady and onward into the night.” Although Jon Lindberg was describing Hanoi, I found that advice to be very apt too for Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City, during a recent visit with my food-loving family of five.

Having arrived in the city on an early morning flight, the only thing our famished tummies desired for after checking into our hotel was, of course, food. We turned into a narrow lane off Le Thanh Ton Street, where our hotel was located, and stumbled upon an unassuming hole-in-the-wall Bun Cha Ha Noi Nem Cua Bien. The entire brood couldn’t speak a word of Vietnamese, so hand gestures became the most effective means to indicate that we simply wanted what the other diners were having. “You want bun cha?” the amiable owner asked, pointing to the vermicelli served with grilled pork patties and sweetened fish sauce vinaigrette. We nodded, and a delightful first meal ensued.

Like any city in the tropics, the mid-day heat in Saigon was sweltering and energy-sapping. We took a break from our walk, found a roadside coffee stand and sat crouched around low tables and squat stools to enjoy ca phe da, or iced black coffee, just like the locals who could be seen lounging by street-side drinks stalls at all times of the day. Energized, we made our way to Ben Thanh Market, where we partook in another round of food and drink, with the thick, creamy avocado smoothie (sinh to bo) being my favorite. And then onward to Fanny, which proffered ice cream and sorbets made from exotic flavors (think sapodilla, durian, star anise and cinnamon).

Our visit to the bucolic Mekong Delta highlighted the abundance and diversity of fruits—rose apples; longans—grown in the south, also known as the country’s rice bowl, although there was nothing novel that most Southeast Asians had not seen or tried before. We toured a small coconut candy factory and observed ladies deftly knead and wrap the caramelized treats into packages for sale. At Cu Chi Tunnels, we had a ‘taste’ of war with steamed tapioca, a tuber that provided sustenance to the Viet Cong soldiers during the grinding war years.

Evenings were spent hunting for scrumptious food and crossing the traffic-ridden streets—the number of motorbikes seemed to increase sharply at nighttimes when locals took to the streets in droves. Quan An Ngon, the city’s top-rated Vietnamese restaurant according to Lonely Planet, New York Times and many other online reviews, was a great—and safe—dining choice with its diverse array of regional specialties. However, with the snaking queues and an originally intimate villa ambience somewhat marred by the crowds, I couldn’t help but wondered if many travelers had taken guidebooks and food bloggers’ recommendations too seriously (me included) and ended up at the same few dining spots. Whatever happened to that adventurous spirit of exploration?

Yet, my last dinner at the renowned crab joint Quan Thuy 94 altered my views again. In the comfort of the air-conditioned, windowless room on the second floor, where locals ate atop metal tabletops while a small TV blared sitcoms in one corner, we devoured the tangy glass noodles sautéed with generous chunks of crabmeat and roe; soft-shelled crabs deep-fried to a crunchy perfection and pink, succulent prawns cooked in tamarind sauce—alongside cold beer served with ice cubes. It was the most satisfying, lip-smacking meal we had in Saigon, and one that kept all five of us reminiscing about for the next few days. And if food blogs hadn’t been consulted, we wouldn’t had known this gem and this yummy meal wouldn’t had been a part of our travel memories, no?

This article was first published on May 20, 2011 on Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia Blog.

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Filed under coffee, food, street food, Vietnam

Something Fishy

Have you heard of the fish with two eyes on one side? Well, I just learned—okay, ignorant me—there’s indeed such a fish and it’s commonly known as a flatfish.

I discovered this piscine creature by chance. Mr. P and I were having dinner at The Aunty’s, our favourite neighbourhood haunt, one evening when I spotted a queer-looking fish on the display. Intrigued, I probed him about it.

“Oh, it’s plaa taa diao,” said Mr. P all-knowingly. In Thai, it means “one-eyed fish”, and although that’s a misnomer, the flatfish certainly looks like it has just one eye (refer to above photo) from certain angles.

With sharp, threatening teeth and tight, compact scales donning its flat, sole-like body, the flatfish looks primitive and reminds me of those deep sea species that never see the light of day. Its unusual, asymmetrical form, however, is a superb work of evolution and natural selection: As bottom-dwellers, with one side facing the seabed, the flatfish’s two eyes have evolved to be on the exposed side to maximise its chances of spotting prey or hiding from predators while lying camouflaged in the sand.

Despite its awkward-looking form, flatfish has a romantic association in Chinese. Since ancient times, Chinese poets have pay homage to the flatfish (比目鱼) with beautiful, expertly-crafted lines like “得成比目何辞死,愿作鸳鸯不羨仙,” which loosely translates as “death is inconsequential if we stay together like flatfish, and we rather be mandarin ducks than envy the gods”.

Now, isn’t it interesting that different languages and cultures interpret a fish in such myriad ways?

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Vietnamese drip coffee

During a recent visit to Saigon, I bought this filter set, together with Trung Nguyen coffee powder, as trip souvenirs. I look forward to more aromatic brews at home on weekends!

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