Our eating trip….er, I mean sightseeing trip…ended in the other “Asia Lite” of Hong Kong. It was a short stay here, but we managed to cram in a few great meals. You can’t go to Hong Kong and miss out on dim sum:
B’s favorite dish of the entire trip: the best shu mai he’d ever had. Piping hot and direct from the kitchen’s steamers, these plump little dumplings are filled with minced pork and shrimp then tipped off with crab roe for a punch for saltiness.
And of course, we also had to compare the xiao long bao in Singi to the ones in HK. Yup, those soup dumplings never broke until they reached your mouth and then watch out for that delicious explosion. Maybe we should’ve ordered another steamer to make sure….
You can get a hundred kinds of dessert soups, hot or cold. Here, a cold sweet almond milk soup with mochi-like ice cream dumplings. Accompany your sweet with milk tea, a sweet condensed milk tea that was traditionally strained through silk stockings.
My first thought when boarding the plane leaving Vietnam: how soon can I get back here?
Vietnam is for eaters. Food is not mere sustenance here: food is art, food is culture, food is family, food is heritage, food is nature, food is “hello” and “welcome” and also “thank you.”
Vietnamese food is as different in the North from the South as it is from the city to the countryside, but in every street-food stall, artisan bistro and hotel cafeteria you will be spoiled with incredibly fresh and flavorful ingredients treated with respect. And luckily for me, it hits all my favorite tastes in one blow: sour, salty, spicy and sweet.
Everything is beautiful in Vietnam (and all drinks come with two twisty straws).
Unfortunately, I was ill for my first few days in Vietnam. I found that loading up on these gentle carbs for breakfast gave me back some pep in my step: rice porridge (congee) with shrimp, pho noodle soup without meat but with kaffir lime/chili sauce/fish sauce/basil and cilantro, and the fluffiest egg fried rice.
Every few hours, B and Adam would grab a ca phe sua da (an intense and brilliant Vietnamese iced coffee, with condensed milk) for the chill, the sugar, and the caffeine. At night, they’d take theirs hot.
And throughout the day, we’d load up on “healthy drinks”: fresh fruit blends and yogurt smoothies. I was always partial to the limeades. These also came with two straws, but they were never the twisty ones….
Our first night in Da Nang we didn’t even have Vietnamese food , but it was irrelevant because even the Italian fare was amazing when you have an ocean of fresh seafood nearby. Here, a quite delicious spaghetti frutti di mare.
Cha ca from Ha Noi: fish grilled in turmeric and served with a generous amount of dill.
Local specialties in central Vietnam: mee quang turmeric noodles with shrimp, home made braised tofu, and cao lau udon-like chewy noodles with pork. The tofu seems simple enough, but this was the best bean curd I’ve ever tasted: braised with soy and ginger for savory flavor, and crispy (not greasy) on the outside with a creamy molten-hot center that melts in your mouth. The secret to authentic cao lau is that the noodles have to be cooked in the water from a single ancient well from the town of Hoi An.
Next, our merry band of eaters traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to witness the majesty of Angkor Wat. Boy, is Cambodia hot. Really, really, really hot. I was shocked that I could eat anything but all that sightseeing does stimulate your appetite, especially if there were 2-3 fresh fruit juices and smoothies in between for icy cold sweet refreshment.
Our insane hotel breakfast: fresh fruit including dragon fruit and the sweetest pineapple ever, homemade yogurt that is thick and sweet, flaky sweet pastries like coconut cake, simple veggie soup, and made to order veggie omelet with soy sauced green beens. Yup, ready for a brutal day in the sun!
There was a ton of other things to try that we just didn’t have time for, so we stopped by the local market to bring even more new tastes home. Everything is labeled clearly with instructions and the wonderful Cambodian people are eager to help you.
Are you hungry? You should probably stop right now then. See, one thing I learned from traveling to Southeast Asia with two fun- and food-enablers is that delicious eating is everywhere. Cheap food is pouring out onto the sidewalks because the giant megaplex shopping fortresses can’t contain it all. Even in the unstoppable heat, the enticing aroma of sizzling garlic, or just-baked sweets, or the ripest, sweetest fruit possible stoke the fire of hunger and melt away any willpower.
First off, visiting my brother in Singapore (or as I call it, Asia Lite). This affluent island city-state is a beautiful stir-fry of many cultures and cuisines. If you’re not shopping in Singi, you’re probably eating.
The revelation that is cereal shrimp: the antidote to greasy deep-fried shrimp. These shrimp were plump, sweet and juicy and the breading stayed crispy and crunchy and dry with a just a hint of corn sweetness.
My favorite Singaporean breakfast/ snack/ all day eats is kaya toast: thick fluffy sweet white bread perfectly toasted or grilled and then slathered with pandan-flavored coconut curd. I got busted for taking this picture of making toast, lest I be stealing company secrets?
Sorry this is the best picture I got of our kaya toast because we devoured it in seconds. And then got a few more boxes to take home. Pandan is a grass that gives the coconut an aromatic vanilla-ish flavor. The key is to top this caramelly sweet coconut jam with a sliver of salted butter to melt all over it – think melted butter over maple syrup. Traditionally eaten with hot coffee and a bowl of runny eggs.
Another favorite: roti-curry. (I can eat this all day long). Hot, flaky roti paratha griddled in ghee is the perfect vehicle for delivering to your mouth the richest curry sauce. The secret combination of what tastes like 38 herbs and spices impart a deep complexity to the curry. Forget nachos, I’m bringing this to the next superbowl party.
The most incredible hot and sour soup to grace our palates. The softest of noodles and earthiest of broths rich with black mushrooms. And just look at all that black pepper on top! This will kill your cold for sure.
Lau Pa Sat hawker center in central Singapore is detailed with architectural flourishes. Just remember to bring a packet of napkins because there are no napkins there and also you can reserve your table by placing them on top while you go food foraging.
This gentleman has a a big ol’ flat top in his stand for making the Middle Eastern inspired murtabak. He stretches out roti dough into a giant rectangle and then fills it with eggs, tomato, mushrooms (and whatever else you want) and then the incredible envelope of goodness is cooked on the flat top for the perfect char.
Another favorite of mine, but I am a sucker for smoky rice noodles that are filled with crispy charred bits. Char kway teow is served up with shrimp and egg and bean sprouts and slathered in a sticky black soy sauce.
As my brother escorted us to the airport, we continued to gorge until the plane carried us away. B tried the famous Hainan chicken rice. Quite simply, chicken that is delicately poached in a gingery stock forming a crispy gel “skin”, with rice that’s cooked in the remaining stock. Seek this out if you are not a fan of the otherwise deliriously spicy and chili-filled treats in Singapore.
Throughout our stay in SE Asia I indulged in my favorite one-bowl meal: seafood noodle soup. This version is packed with prawns, chewy buckwheat noodles, and green onions in an umami-powered broth. Always get the condiments (fish sauce, soy sauce, chilis, and a fresh wedge of lime) for doctoring it up to your standards.
Sometimes you seek comfort in a meal with friends to get over a break-up, sometimes to seek refuge from stress, and sometimes to celebrate something wonderful. Or, as a recent get together proved, for all three. In such a setting, the only suitable meal to accompany copious glasses of wine and frenzied let’s-just-getaway-from-it-all planning is comfort food. Comfort food that is heart- and tummy-warming, a suitable base for self-medicating/rewarding with alcohol, and makes you feel indulgent and pampered. Our meal fit the bill on all accounts and even got us pumped for that getaway adventure.
This gratin made with creamy polenta and Gruyere, hides an earthy layer of wild mushrooms and spinach underneath. It’s a great accompaniment to fish or meat and would be great on a holiday table as well.
I paired it with my go-to recipe for ridiculously easy salmon that also looks and tastes impressive: Ted Allen’s pan-roasted salmon. It makes a gorgeous plate and is great on its own or over a bed of arugula (which I lightly dressed with red wine vinegar and olive oil, salt and pepper).
The pan sauce is simply tomatoes, shallots, cumin, red wine vinegar and olive oil – bright and fresh and colorful.
Don’t think I forgot about dessert. This soul-hugging pumpkin bread pudding is a scrumptious end to a comforting meal. I used Challah bread for its eggy sweetness, and made the recipe even easier by just using half-and-half for the dairy parts and 2 full teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice for the spices. For that extra squeeze of love, I topped it with a caramel whiskey sauce: just melt down brown sugar in butter and add a good splash of Jameson’s.
My fridge is usually empty (gasp!) – but the door shelves are always full. I got capers for something and used only a teaspoon, then found a great recipe for miso poached cod and have a big container of miso languishing, and hit up another specialty store for authentic Indian pickle and then forgot to use it in anything else…and so it goes. Recently, I procured a jar of zesty harissa paste full of acidic and subtly spicy red chile as well as a pricey bottle of aromatic tangy preserved lemon for a Moroccan night. I really, really (really?) enjoyed the flavors of these new-to-me condiments so I’d been looking for an excuse to use them again (and use them up) in a less conventional format.
B’s Adam (not to be confused with my Adam, of Polish pierogi and pie proclivities) was dropping by for a doctoral candidate study break so the guy could use a good meal and some comforting convo. I imagined harissa, much like a tomato relish or tapenade, would be a perfect contrast to some creamy, buttery, melty cheese and a grilled cheese is always welcome on a comfort food menu. I was going to do a bright, tangy preserved lemon soup for the grilled cheese, but decided that their zing would go rather well with a juicy salad to balance the richness of the gooey sandwich. To bring it back full circle, I used up both harissa and preserved lemon to make an elegant yet easy-peasy sauce for shrimp – served over yesterday’s leftover rice and you’ve got yourself a balanced meal for fueling your dissertation-addled brain. I muddled together a bunch of different recipes and found the right balance for my tastebuds somewhere in between them, and ended up leaving the fridge door shelf just a bit lighter.
Harissa and Pear Grilled Cheese (aka Best Grilled Cheese Ever)
(inspired by Thierry Rautureau’s Top Chef Masters recipe)
- cut 4 slices of good quality white bread or French bread, about 1/4 inch thick (I used the sublime Acme sweetdough loaf, which is crusty and bubbly, salty and sweet like a delicious French baguette)
- butter each slice on one side (softened butter works best)
- in a small bowl, mix together 2 ounces of fresh goat cheese (chèvre) with 2 teaspoons harissa
- spread the cheese mixture on the non-buttered side of the bread
- fry the slices of bread (buttered side down) on medium low, go low and slow for that perfectly melty crunch
- while frying, top each slice of bread with a thin slices of a good melting cheese (I used Spring Brook Farm Reading Raclette which is buttery smooth and made for melting. A similar cheese would be Gruyère or Jarlsberg)
- fry up the bread until crisp golden brown and the cheese is melty, then remove from pan
- add some thin slices of pear to 2 slices of bread (I used crisp Bosc, but a greener Bartlett would also add that snappy crunch)
- top the pear with another slice of gooey melted cheesy buttery crisp bread
- slice up and serve (I cut into quarters for an appetizer)
makes 2 sandwiches
Avocado and Tomato Salad with Preserved Lemon
- add to a bowl: 2 diced roma tomatoes, 1/2 rinsed minced preserved lemon rind, 1/2 thinly sliced red onion, fresh squeezed juice of 1 lemon, and 5-6 tablespoons good fruity olive oil (more or less based on how sharp you want your vinaigrette). mix it up.
- add salt and pepper to taste
- add 1 diced avocado and stir together gently
- serve with chopped fresh parsley and cilantro, a teaspoon of rinsed capers, and a good sprinkling of paprika
Harissa and Goat Cheese One-Pan Shrimp
(inspired by this recipe by Carr Valley Cheese Company)
- heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, add 2 minced cloves of garlic, 1/2 thinly sliced red onion, and/or 1 minced shallot
- when soft, add 1lb deveined, peeled shrimp
- when shrimp starts to become opaque add 2 diced roma tomatoes
- add 2 tablespoons harissa and 1 cup white wine, mix to incorporate and simmer until shrimp are cooked through and tomatoes start to soften
- add 2 ounces of fresh goat cheese (chèvre), mix well
- add 1/2 chopped preserved lemon rind (rinsed)
- add salt and pepper to taste
- just before serving add chopped fresh parsley and cilantro
- serve with rice or crusty bread
So if brownies are from chocolate and blondies are butterscotch, then what would you call a tender, cake-like pumpkin bar chock full of gooey chocolatey chunks? An orangie because of the color? Or a gingerie? Or a punkie? I admit that these are all terrible names, I mean really really atrocious – but they don’t convey the wonder of these delicious pumpkin bars. With a few standby ingredients you can whip these up with the same handful of minutes it would take to read the directions on that store-bought boxed brownie mix. I added a generous amount of spice (I love my pumpkin spicy!) and a dollop extra of pumpkin (I love my spice pumpkiny!) and the results were perfect for a wintery snack while watching movies or with tea or maybe for after-breakfast breakfast. These chocolatey pumpkin bars (or whatever they’re best called) are beautiful piled high on a plate for sharing, and do be generous with the ice cold milk.