Category Archives: food

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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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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Khao Chae: A Cool Summer Treat

Each summer, when temperatures soar and the weather turns humid, many Thais look forward to cooling off with khao chae, a traditional rice dish served in iced jasmine-scented water. (In Thai, “khao” means rice, and “chae” means to immersed in water.)

Despite its association as a royal delicacy, khao chae actually boasts of Mon provenance. The Mon people of Thailand’s Central Plains first cooked khao chae to mark the onset of their lunar New Year; this Mon treat was then adopted into the royal Thai court to become a palatial favorite (King Rama V was known to be extremely fond of this dish). Since then, khao chae has grown to become a beloved specialty of Thailand.

Preparing khao chae is highly time-consuming and arduous, but luckily, eating it is not. Simply enjoy this cool dish with an assortment of (mostly sweet) condiments: luuk kapi, deep-fried shrimp paste balls; hom daeng yut sai, shallots stuffed with minced fish; neau waan, thin shreds of caramelized beef; phat hua chai po, stir-fried Chinese radish; and phrik yuak sot sai, green peppers stuffed with minced pork.

Although khao chae is more readily available during the Songkran period, several restaurants in Bangkok serve this specialty year-round. Good places to try khao chae are Patara Bangkok and Benjarong at Dusit Thani Bangkok, or for someplace more rustic, head to Koh Kret, an ethnic Mon enclave along the Chao Phraya River north of Bangkok.

Accustomed to the strong, piquant flavors of Thai cuisine, I found khao chae rather bland and strange—rice in chilled water? I wondered—on my first try. It is definitely an acquired taste—just like durians, fermented fish sauce—but a classic that provides an insight into Thai culture and cuisine.

Go on, try it.

This article was first published on April 18, 2011 on Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia Blog.

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Sweet Treats at After You

On Friday, my colleagues N and J asked me to join them for cakes at After You Dessert Cafe. It was a scrumptious offer best savoured with fellow girls—my husband often turns up his nose at desserts and things saccharine—so I readily accepted their invite. We headed to the outlet at Siam Paragon, and it was already packed with high school and university students on a late Friday afternoon. We had to wait around 10 minutes before getting a table, so I’d imagine that queues would get much longer once the office crowd knock off for the weekend.

We finally decided on a Tiramisu dessert as well as the signature Shibuya Honey Toast (THB165), which is a thick piece of toast that comes loaded with two scoops of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream (strawberries are optional). Drizzle some honey on top of the toast to make it an ultimate sinful treat. A word of caution though: the toast’s probably too big and sweet to eat by oneself, so it’s best to share it together with dessert-loving company. Overall, the desserts are yummy and once they arrive on the table, I think most people will have to exercise some self-restraint to not tuck in the desserts ravenously and say ‘after you’ to friends.

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A good salted egg

“Salted eggs are my favourite souvenirs from Surat Thani! I always bring back a couple of boxes to give to friends as gifts,” declared M, my Thai friend.

I was one of the lucky friends who received a box of Surat Thani salted duck eggs from M. And boy, was I delighted when I received the eggs. Salted eggs from Surat Thani’s Chaiya district are famed in Thailand for their distinctly red yolks and having the right balance of saltiness. The ducks in this coastal province are fed on a diet of rice and seafood (what good life!). During the production process, local farmers coat the eggs with a black clay mixture made from a unique blend of salt, water, husk and soil harvested from termite mounds—apparently, this method isn’t just unique to Chaiya nor Thailand only; Filipinos are also known to deploy this method.

I first heard about Chaiya salted eggs when I watched the Taiwanese food program, “Mei Shi Da San Tong” (《美食大三通》), hosted by Zeng Guo Cheng. In one episode about Thai cuisine, Zeng headed to Surat Thani to find out more about these famous eggs, unveiling the production process and sampling a wide array of salted egg dishes along the way. Since then, I’ve been wanting to do a similar salted egg hunt in Surat Thani, and this may come into fruition when my family and I go on a planned vacation to Thailand’s south sometime later this year.

Anyway, back to the salted eggs back in my kitchen. Printed on the box  is also information that specifies the date until which the eggs can be fried, after which they are recommended to be boiled only. It’s probably not new knowledge to many others but I just learned that salted duck eggs, just like chicken eggs, can be fried too. And I also learned that it’s easy to make your own salted eggs at home: just store the eggs in a brine solution for approximately 30 days and voila, you’ll get your own salty creations.

As we were still within the frying validity, we did a quick fry of the salted eggs to create sunny-side-ups. After cooking, the yolks still retained their globular shapes, and were fresh and chewy to the taste. Just seeing it on top of my rice made me happy!

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Sompong Teochew Porridge

Wanting to skip an unsatisfying meal in Bangkok’s run-of-the-mill malls, P and I walked along Chalerm Prakiet Ratchakan Road after our visit to Suan Luang Ror 9 (Rama IX Park) to see which roadside restaurant would catch our fancy. We traipsed for a good 20 minutes before we stumbled upon Sompong, a shophouse-restaurant that sells Teochew porridge. P initially hesitated because Chinese porridge is like “bland food for the sick” to his strong flavours-inclined palate. I, however, was craving for Teochew muay. And of course, P gave in and into Sompong we went.

At the food display counter, we were excited by the many different types of fish available. It took us several minutes before we decided on plaa krapong neung si ew, or sea bass steamed in soy sauce, as well as braised pork intestines with tau pok (fried beancurd) and asparagus with mushrooms to accompany our porridge meal. I wanted to try chap chye (braised mixed vegetables) but decided against it as three dishes should be enough to fill our two bellies. P and I overeat very often so we’re currently trying to exercise restraint during our meals.

Though the sea bass wasn’t the best nor freshest we’ve tasted in Thailand, but it was quite delicious and worth the price (180B). We finished every morsel—me gobbling up the meaty bits while P scoured the cheeks and eyeballs—leaving behind a plate of cleaned fish skeleton. When I was younger, I didn’t like fish for I think it was very cumbersome to pick the meat from between the bones. But I’m very happy that, under the influence of P, I’m taking a liking to—and with a growing appreciation of—fish dishes. After all, I want to be a real food lover with a discerning and easy-going palate. 😉

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Kuay Tiao Cap Kang | Coolie Noodles

Kuay Tiao Cap Kang | ก๋วยเตี๋ยวจับกัง

It was down a dingy lane in Yaowarat that we stumbled upon Kuay Tiaow Cap Kang. Intrigued by the long queue that snaked around the stall, we decided to try the noodles. Well, it must be good if there are so many locals queuing for it, we thought to ourselves. YC and I ordered the dry version while Tang requested for the soupy version. In just a few moments, three bowls of noodles were plonked onto our table. It was an unassuming, oil-smeared bowl but it was truly yummy. The noodles were chewy (or QQ in Chinese), the meat was tender and the vegetables were fresh and slightly crunchy to the bite!

After taking a few bites, I finally took a closer look at the stall name. The noodles is called ก๋วยเตี๋ยวจับกัง (Kuay Tiaow Cap Kang). For those familiar with Hokkien (I presume it’s the same in Teochew), ‘Cap Kang’ means 杂工, or ‘an assortment of works’. After checking with mr;p, he revealed that ‘Cap Kang’ commonly refers to the Chinese coolies in Thai. I haven’t really done much research into the background and origin of this dish, but I could safely surmise that it was probably an culinary invention by Chinese labourers in the old Siamese days.

A man, full of attitude, stood cutting the meat with one leg up perched on a stool.

This stall still adheres to traditional means, i.e. charcoal to cook the food.

A woman separated the piping hot strands into bowls.

The noodles are priced at 25B for a tamadaa (normal) serving and 35B for a phiiset (special, upsized) serving. Very attractively priced!

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