Sunday, November 7, 2010

Where Will I Be Next?

This is it! My final hostel stay. The last breakfast of stale bread and instant coffee. No more scrambles to find lodging while carrying my much too heavy bag of stuff. An end to endless freedom - of obligations and destination.

I´ve spent the last five days in Barcelona following a month long tour of Spain. Keeping to my longtime policy of not designating favorites it will suffice to say that Spain has been a highlight of my travels in all respects. I managed a fairly broad sampling of locations while here and even made it to Portugal for a spell. I also spent some time up in the mountains, away from the gr of cities. I did not improve upon my meager Spanish language skills, which was a goal I had set. I guess being a tourist doesn´t force you to rely on the native tongue enough to absorb more of it, and five weeks is certainly not enough time. I was able to experience culinary immersion, though. I attacked the native cuisine of Spain with vim and vigor reminiscent of my time spent in Chaing Mai. I drank vermouth and Basque cider for breakfast simply to get the complimentary tapas, while bouncing from barrio to barrio in the bustle of Spanish night for just one more beer and one last morsel to remember my time here by.

As I lamented in the past, even after all I´ve seen I can barely feel as though I have scratched the surface of what Spain has to offer, what the world has to offer. Options abound when there are endless eateries as well as market stalls to choose from. I was forced to parse out my time in each location by when I would walk the streets in search of sustenance and when I would ransack the markets to enjoy cooking from the local offerings. Do I try something new, or go back for more of an established show stopper? These are the dilemmas I face daily. And a week from now when I fly from London back to the United States and begin the life of responsibility anew, I´ll be faced with the same sort of dilemmas. I´m faced with myriad decisions of where to live, who to live with, where to work and what trajectory I want to set myself on. Where do I want to go from here? It´s how I´ve lived my life for the past eight months, in essence. Each day deciding where the next place to visit will be. Sometimes planning, often times not. There are so many options. Too many options. A world of options, if you will.

Life changing...is a phrase people toss around when I discuss my decision to put things on hold and travel for the better part of a year. Life affirming is more appropriate, I would say. For instance, I have affirmed that never will I be adept at figuring out here I am on a map or finding my way to any location. (Thanks Dad!) I get lost on foot and in cars. I get lost even with a compass and a map to help me. I get lost in museums. I´ve affirmed that I have no particular allegiance or passion for one type of culinary style. The discovery of something new and the revisiting of something old is what moves me, no matter what it is or where it´s from. I love it all, relish it all. I´ve also affirmed that there is no easy answer to the question, ¨where am I going next?¨ First hand experience is the only way for me to work things out. Jump on that next train or walk down the next alley, and see what happens.

I suppose that is why I have chosen, for the moment at least, to take up lodging in New York City in the near future. Well, there so many reasons, to be honest. But, it occurred to me that I´ve never found one place I like more than all others. No place whether lived in or visited that I want to call home for the rest of my life. Having seen so many different places over the prior eight months I have affirmed that there is no such city, town, village or hamlet....for me at least. I figured then, New York has variety, opportunity and intrigue on a scale that most other cities don´t. Options. It seems to me the ideal place for people who can´t decide. Don´t want to decide.

So the short answer to where I will be next, is NYC...back on the East Coast, grinding it out with everyone else. I´m not fond of short answers though, but I´ll spare you the minutiae and leave it at that...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

23 Points Of Interest

I've learned a thing or two about a thing or two these past months on the move. Some of the lessons are not so new, but certainly illustrated in a different context than I recognized previously. Rather, instead of lessons let us refer to these as points of interest that apply to my life traveling extensively -on a budget- but are inextricably related to my life as a professional "food cooker" (title coined in the broken English of a jovial German bloke I met). These tid-bits and truisms are no more than silly observations I've made, most of them no doubt in a moment of utter folly on my part, but they join none the less to many aspects of life because, as I've always believed there are connections to be seen in the meaningless jumble so long as you take the sage advice of that visionary Bill Hicks, and squeegee your third eye (paraphrased and used to fit my own analogy - Thanks Bill!). So, I've compiled a list of twenty-three petite epiphanies experienced while traveling that relate directly to being a professional food cooker and maybe not so direct to other things. Why 23? No reason that I can think of....

Always do your conversions ahead of time. Weights, volumes, distance and especially currency.

Getting lost can lead to the most worthwhile discoveries, but it is important to recognize when you are about to cross into the realm of being hopelessly lost, and turn back.

This is not all fun and games (and getting lost)! Managing costs is central to continuing the show. Master it.

As a tourist you can flit from attraction to attraction in a city or really explore it, get to know it and "take it's pulse" so to speak. If you don't dig in, then you haven't really been there.

Have a tasting spoon with you at all times...

Make sure you keep your eye on the big picture. Why am I here? What do I want to walk away with? But don't focus so intently on it you loose sight of the small, unexpected details as they pass by.

Screwups are unavoidable. Don't repeat them.

Always have a quality, comfortable pair of shoes.

The simplest route to your next destination is usually the best.

Pork is simply the undisputed champion of meat worldwide...hands down!

Maps...recipes...kinda the same thing. Everyone has their own approach and it can be a polarizing topic. All I can say is, make sure you've got one handy, just in case.

Technology makes life easier and can enhance your experience. Use it, but don't be consumed by it.

There is always time for a coffee break.

Frustrating situations are inevitable. How you deal with them makes all the difference.

You get what you pay for.

Fresh food markets are fascinating and not to be missed. Fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables are central to understanding where you are and how people there live, eat and love.

Don't take anything - especially yourself - too seriously.

Only bring what you can carry. Don't bring what you can't afford to loose.

Getting angry and yelling at people who don't speak your language is an exercise in futility.

Seeing grandeur day after day may get monotonous once in a while, but that doesn't make it any less magical.

More fancy and expensive gear doesn't make you better at what you do.

There is a reason why some things and places are "touristy." Don't forswear that which has been proven through time and trial just for the sake of being different. It will be your loss.

Planning is overrated. The perils of not planning are understated.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nduja!

My trusty Timbuk2 messenger bag reeks of the sweetness that only salted flesh and fat can devise. For weeks now I've been picnicing with various cured meats and cheeses from myriad European markets, but here and now in Italy the sheer meaty madness has reached it's zenith. Yesterday it was lardo that I paired with a succulent walnut sauce meant for pasta, but equally fulfilling as a dip for fat wrapped Tuscan bread. Today though, is a treat the likes of which you don't stumble on every day. Most great Italian cured meats are widely available in the U.S. either as imported products or domestic representations. I've made plenty of them in my capacity as both a chef and hobbyist. Like any import though, some of the true gems don't readily make it out of the homelad. Today I have ripening in my bag as I trudge the streets of Firenze the Calabrian specialty: Nduja (in-doo-ya). Similar to salami only in that it's made from ground pork, heavily spiced and salted, and stuffed into intestinal casing to be smoked and aged; nduja is soft and spreadable. Native to Calabria it has a characteristic firey pepper flavor. Don't let it's bladderesque appearence fool you...this is an epic treat for someone as geeky as myself.

Heretoforth, I had only indulged in nduja (say that five times fast!) once. As far as I know there is only one place in the United States producing this product and I can now attest having had it in the homeland that their's is an exemplary recreation, true to form and flavor in every way. Boccalone of the Ferry Building in San Francisco brought nduja to my attention when Chris Cosetino and Co. started producing it not too long ago. I was lucky enough to sneak a taste when I passed through SF and was impressed to say the least. Stumbling upon it in Florence - not technically where it is produced - was a welcomed accident. I picniced in one of many Florentine piazzas with some bread:


And, being salty and spicy in an extreme way the nduja begged for something sweet. Luckily I had an grotesquely large apple obtained from the same Mercato Centrale where I procured the fatty spread.


The previous night I had the pleasure of dining with some friends at a lovely modern Italian restaurant where we were treated to fresh riccioli tossed with warmed nduja. As a sauce for pasta, it is peerless.

Why the play by play you might ask? Normally this blog is babbles rather than bullet lists...

I feel compelled to share. What may simply seem like lunch is actually one of those rare travel experiences that set a benchmark for all others. For some folks it's ancient basilicas or bungee jumping. For me it happens to be edible culture. Nduja is a DOP product, which essentialy means it's name and character are protected by the Italian government (my definition, not nearly detailed enough, I know!) I can scarf salami and pack away prosciutto until I bleed grease, but that is more or less something I can do anywhere. Access to a native food I rarely see, a cultural culinary icon so to speak, of a small region or town tucked away in the hills - that is a memory to frame my whole experience with. I've spoken before of context and how important it is to the enjoyment of great food. I think the contextual implications of finding such a product while here in Italy - so fresh, so close to the source - speak for themselves.

I visited Florence once before, many years ago. With all the locales I've been to recently, it occured to me as I rolled into Santa Maria Novella train station that this is the first place I am revisiting. Over ten years in between has rendered me a completely different person, able to appreciate being here in different ways. It's a rare treat to be able to visit someplace so far from home not once, but twice or maybe even more. New discoveries, experiences and meat based products lie in wait each time you arrive. The context in which you enjoy and appreciate a city or place changes and evolves as you do. In the professional kitchen, we trudge through the same service day in and day out. Prep the same food, fire the same orders and wash the same dishes. Yet it's different each time, isn't it? That is what I have always loved about working in restaurants. The layer of monotony is only skin deep. Under the surface are new perspectives, contexts and situations each and every day. Years and years down the road, life in the kitchen can still keep you guessing and you can trudge through it knowing that tomorrow will most likely bring some sort of new surprise.

I wasn't sure I would make it to Italy. When I arrived here I had visions of going to all the places I missed last time around. As circumstances would have it, I will mainly haunt the two cities I have already spent time in once before long ago - Florence and Rome - before I leave. The disappointment I feel for not having more time and money to explore is almost fully offset by the excitement of all the new layers I will discover this second time around.

Many people figure they can put off travel until the golden years. A grave mistake. Do it now. Do it often. And then do it again...


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Art vs Craft...or both?

I was immediately drawn to this picture at the Victor Vasarley museum in Pécs, Hungary. My interest became all the more pronounced when I saw that it was from 1939. Way ahead of it's time, is what occurred to me.

Whenever people reference cooking as an art form in conversation, I have always responded that I consider it more of a craft, for myself at least. My meaning is that I treat cooking professionally as a skill that must first be honed before you can embellish with creativity. While I enjoy the imaginative side of cooking, I have always recognized that in my employment situations, keeping quality and adaptability at the root of the cuisine is the most intuitive way to operate. Well, sometimes I skew the line a bit. Furthermore, the non cooking responsibilities of a chef which can be daunting at times would seem to fall more into the craftsman way of looking at this question.

There are chefs though who are undoubtedly artists. Their efforts have pushed food forward throughout time just like masters of all other art forms. Food as art is subject to all the familiar critiques and whims. It can be celebrated or rejected. Bland or bold. Dated or ahead of it's time. Curiously, since food is a fleeting medium being created and destroyed almost instantly, the ability to catalog, study and celebrate it as we do most other genres in galleries and museums is radically different.

I'm curious what others think about this...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Challenge Yourself To Fail

I always figured without putting much thought into it that an endless array of cured meats and cheeses would be something like paradise for me. Salted and smoked, curdled and aged, preserved for future sustenance while also creating a whole new universe of flavorful possibilities. The Dolac Market in Zagreb, Croatia has a selection of dried out animal parts large enough to make any butcher blush, with an equally impressive abundance of dairy. Primarily an outpost for fresh fruit and vegetables, the juxtaposition of fresh and preserved is not lost on me. For as long as humans have grown fresh food and raised livestock there has been a need to eat now while saving some for later, two halves of the same circle that meet in the market place. With all of it at my fingertips here in Zagreb, my paradise becomes a purgatory of indecision. Where to start, how to end, and what possibly to leave out don't seem like questions I will readily be able to answer. Fortunately I'm purchasing for two...meals that is. The selection widens. I grab some plums so ripe they taste like skin covered jam. Some bread to act as a vehicle for my meaty debauchery. Then I book another night at the hostel. I'll need an extra day to go back for the cheeses...

I've been taking advantage of the markets lately, especially as I move further into Europe. There have been markets like this throughout most of my travels, but for a while I was happily stuck on the quest of sampling each and every delicacy that could be prepared for me. To be honest, I was happy not doing any cooking for the time being. Seasons change, though and my urge to grab everything I see and run to a kitchen is back. I think it all started with the fresh shell beans I saw in Mostar, Bosnia. Actually, I had seen shell beans for sale a few times before that, but in Mostar I was staying in a quiet little hostel with a kitchen at my disposal. It's a touristy little town with not much but overpriced restaurants, so I was already in the frame of mind to save some money when I stumbled upon an assorted sack of peeled fresh beans for a pittance. Not more than two dollars for something that would have cost me much much more at an American farmer's market. It has occurred to me with intrigue and a little sadness that while fresh, local organics in America are at their height of popularity, they are inescabaply still a novelty. What I mean to say is that we still treat it as special, and as a result pay a premium for what is minimally processed food and should actually cost less, because no fertilizers or expensive pesticides go into it. I'm not suggesting any sort of trickery from the farmer who sells us these unadultered foods. Rather I am hypothesiying that we as consumers have created an economy in which mass produced foods which don't taste as good and carry chemical components uneccesary to our survival (while depositing them in the earth as well), are cheaper because we purchase them with such voracity, upending the scales of economy for those who do things the old fashioned way. They need to charge more not because the product cost extra to produce, but because they simply don't have enough customers to compete. An image has been created largely by our own doing, that organic foods are somehow premium and should cost accordinly, rather than just normal with a normal price, being consumed normally by everyone all the time. Here in Croatia and other places I've visited recently most food is purchased at daily greenmarkets, the type we only have once or twice a week in America but they have every day, year round. The prices are rock bottom too, in line with the income of average people. One can literally eat like a king, without having to fork over a king's ransom.

The access to outstanding raw ingredients has proven irressistable, so I have been making the effort to shop at these greenmarkets and cook. When there is no access to a kitchen I work with whatever I can raw. There is certainly no end to the possibilities with all I have to choose from and the unparalleled quality. Grabbing those shell beans along with some other odds and ends caused me to think back to the days when I had first moved to Portland. I started cooking seriously for the first time in my life and wanted to expand my repetoire. Work helped, but I needed to stretch out into territory that for me, was yet to be discovered. I got into the habbit of swinging by an Asian grocery about once a week and buying something I had never cooked with before. A gristly cut of meat or offal, a strange vegetable or some sort of starch I may have seen mentioned in an article somewhere. These day off excursions usually followed similar paths that ended in complete and utter dissapointment. I never stopped to do the research or consult a recipe. I would simply jump in head first, blindly feeling my way towards ruining a days worth of work. But how ruined am I for it? How much time was wasted? None at all, it turns out. Sure, I learned a million and one ways not to do things, but more importantly than that I aquired little by little a knowledge of how food works. How this and that react to heat. How well things do and don't go together. How much is too much or too little. Slowly each blunder revealed it's silver lining and gave way to mini triumphs. It turns out all that time I thought was just messing around actually took me some place new. I was thinking about all that when I threw my beautiful shell beans into an aluminum pot with water and some other vegetables and turned on the heat. The kitchen I was in had no oil to saute with, no spices or herbs to use, no dairy fridge or stash of bacon ends and fat back. In fact, if one of the other guests in the hostel had not been a smoker, I would not even have been able to light the stove. I was left alone with nothing but honest, local, organic ingredients which cost me next to nothing. I fed eveyone hanging around that night and tried to explain that the ingredients had done most of the work. It was the instinct aquired through hundreds of experiments destined for the bottom of a trash bag that had guided what order I threw it all into the pot and how long I let is simmer for. I think to cook professionally one needs to have that feeling of a hundred failures under the belt. How can you understand the degrees of success if you have never seen the other side of the coin. It's important to get out of your comfort zone if you ever expect to move forward in life. In a way, that is what each of my little kitchen experiments was about. Progressing from line cook to chef was a major leap out of my comfort zone, and leaving that job and the city I lived in to travel indeffinitely with barely any plans was yet another jump into the uncomfortable. In every instance I've been able to adapt and progress through making a series of awfully stupid and silly mistakes. Mistakes I learn from and that make me more confident. Each place I visit brings a new greenmarket with local ingredients to toss in a pot and remind myself again how I got here and how I can get to the next place I'm going.


Monday, August 23, 2010

How much is too much grilled meat?

I had arrived in Nis (pronounced: nish), Serbia after a long day of bumpy bus rides from Bitola in the south of Macedonia. I did the obligatory exploring of my surroundings before tucking into the task of finding dinner. Searching out the first meal in a new place can be exciting while at the same time a little tense. The initial sampling of local fare sets the tone for my visit. It is the all important first impression, the one that can never be had again. Much like the opening track on an album or the first lines of any great novel I need to be grabbed by what I eat first, leaving me both figuratively and literally hungry for more. Could this be the best of meals or the worst of meals? While it may seem like I set the bar high, the truth is that I have a delicate ritual for finding sustenance, borne out of the mortal fear that one of my feedings will be anything less than spectacular. Perhaps more a habitual indecision in the guise of academic selection than a ritual, I find myself looking, rejecting and repeating until I feel a sound decision can be made on what to consume. It happens multiple times daily, but the first in a new place always takes on an air or importance the others lack. I've heard people say that there exist two types of people. Those who eat to live and those who live to eat. Dismissing for a moment how obtuse one would be to believe humanity can fit neatly into two groups, I'd have to say that on this one I fall dead center into the "live to eaters." Swish! Nothing but net!

On this evening in Nis, I encountered a promising situation not far from the hostel I was calling home for the next couple of nights. Out of principle I never shoot for the first meat I see, but never rule out doubling back for the kill. Nis is a university city and I found myself on the edge of a sprawling outdoor athletic complex slash idyllic urban park. It stands to reason that more treasures would be available around each corner, what with thousands of college age coeds about. What I had seen, made note of and passed by was a row of roadside stands grilling all sorts animal parts that would seem to fit well into sandwiches. Each stand identical as though they were squeezed like Play Dough through a mold and then chopped into sole proprietorships, they boasted a grill set in a bay window so you could watch the action, and then a separate window with refrigerated display case of various vegetables and dressing that incidentally also seemed fit to be stuffed into a sandwich. While my search for more options is under the pretense of academic investigation, there is an underlying fear that I might miss something good. That's what it comes down to. I want it all. I have this recurring nightmare where I'm telling a group of people who know my love of all things edible that I visited this city or that and one smug fellow says, "Did you try the such and such? You shan't have missed it!" He slaps me on the back with a sigh and haughtily says, "Well, there's always next time." I can't bare the thought of missing out on something great. After an exhaustive search of the area accessible by foot, I made my way back to the original source of intrigue.

As of late, conquering each and every secret that a city has to offer has become a tad more nuanced. Grilled meat and bread is a beloved theme throughout Turkey and the Balkans. The differences are subtle from place to place, and if you blink one might just pass you by. Turkey is all about the doner. Lamb or chicken piled high and wide on a skewer, held vertically and slowly roasted while rotating. It's an image I'm sure most have seen. Meat is sliced off thin and wrapped in pita. In Anatalya, I stumbled on wood fired doner kebap, which was every bit as smoky and delicious as it sounds. Unique to Turkey and my favorite by far is kokorech. Made by wrapping lamb intestines around more lamb intestines, and spit roasting the whole wonderful mess. They slice some of the lamb tummy roulade, chop it up and make a sandwich. Never have I filled my stomach with so much stomach. In Greece, the gyro is ubiquitous. It's doner kebap made with pork and if done right has some french fries stuffed in the mix. If you take it to go instead of sitting down it's half the price, plus you can walk to a park or church yard and be alone with it. Macedonia had an eclectic mix of grilled items. I sampled among other things, thinly sliced calf's liver drowned in olive oil and chopped herbs and pork loin stuffed with cheese and then wrapped in prosciutto. And bread, always bread. It seems the further north I go the the thicker the pita gets. In Macedonia it's like throw pillows. Always super fresh and crusty like only a brick oven could make it. Nis marked my first stop in Serbia, and the regional variation I stumbled on first is pljeskavica, or Balkan Burgers.

While myriad meats are on display in the grilling windows, the thin and wide burger patties are the what people pine for. Since I can't read the menu, ordering is altogether and exasperating and yet exciting experience that involves a plethora of pointing, gestures and quietly spoken English, more to remind myself what hand motions I should be making. I had inhaled a chicken thigh monstrosity of a sandwich before I understood that the pljeskavica is the main event. I had also noted that down the way was a grill spot that had a long line while the others served one or none at all. Here in lies a difficult decision. Do I waste one of tomorrow's meals - or opportunity for mind altering edible discovery, as I like to call it - by coming back to the popular spot, or do I man up and have a second dinner right now. I went back and forth on the issue, but I think you can all guess which direction I ultimately went in.

Later that night, unable to move or even breathe properly, I pondered the impossibility of having it all, of trying everything there is to be tried. As much as I loathe to admit, one cannot do everything, go everywhere and turn over every stone. There are choices to be made and inevitably if you are tuned into the proper frequencies, eyes wide open, then one will lead to the next. Attempting to go in every direction will tear you apart, in a sense. So will trying to eat every heaping pile of grilled meat in the Balkans. It is nice to look back and remember how each job in the restaurant industry I've had has led to the next. Realization of new skills and interests or even a chance meeting can open up doors to new experiences in a world where people tend to stay moving from post to post. Right now, not completely sure in what capacity I'd like to reenter the work force, I am trying to keep focus on figuring out what conditions will truly satisfy me, rather than considering everything in my path. The past, while opening up doors to the future should also send you on you way with the knowledge to succeed wherever you end up. In that sense all our jobs in this industry are connected, from executive dishwasher on up to executive chef. As I approach whatever may be next in my career I will definitely pick and choose with a discerning eye, but search with the same vigor and intensity that I devote to that integral first meal in each new place I visit.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

From Soba To Sultans

It's hot again... It was hot in Japan too, but something about that was different. Maybe it's because for the moment I seem to have returned to the backpacker trail where hostels are over stuffed and under ventilated. I find myself longing for the immaculate guesthouses of Osaka and Kyoto where the staff is polite and helpful and everyone's shoes are left at the door. Walking the streets here also reminds me of time spent in South East Asia, except here it's smarmy men instead petite women shouting after me in hopes that I'll buy a carpet. Unless that rug will fly me home, I've got no room in my bag. The sales pitch doesn't hold the same charm as the T-shirt and iced tea sales-ladies of Cambodia offered. These guys resort to all forms of trickery to get you inside their store and show a persistence that would cause even the hawkers of Hanoi to blush a little. I'm in Istanbul, where east and west truly meet. This ancient city literally has and Asian and European side, divided by a narrow strip of water called the Bosphorus. Around each and every corner you'll find yourself tripping over remains of the various empires that have dominated this cultural crossroads over the centuries. In spite of the annoying carpet dealers whose persistence is matched only by the humidity, I find Istanbul to be nothing short of amazing, and a perfect bridge from Asia to Europe for my travels.

The similarities to Asia that I'm finding here in Turkey thus far are numerous, as are the differences. It's incredible to note the various paths that different cultures take as the evolve and devolve over time. While the manifestations of development can be wildly different, sometimes it becomes clear that we're all just playing out different versions of the same basic tune. I became interested in picking out some of the common themes while visiting the Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, and of course food is something I zeroed in on right away. I've been living on street food while I travel for many different reasons. It's cheap, to say the least and keeps me on budget. I also find it to be a much better connection to the culture of where I am visiting than eating over priced food that has been gussied up for benefit of western palates. Street food has become a comfort to me while I move from place to place, because while the dishes may change the experience stays the same. Every country has it's own version of the grubby street vendor where everyone is welcome. Just a push cart and a few stools to sit on. These guys (or gals) don't discriminate. They want your business and rarely if ever will you find the equivalent of the snooty server or pretentious chef. Most often there is only one or two items to choose from which are being prepared right in front of you. This lowers the language barrier enough to use some simple words and gestures to get an order across. Street food is simple and honest. Most importantly I've come to realize is that it represents the popular flavors of where it's at, and for the sake of culinary exploration that is what I am most concerned with. Indeed, most of the dishes that represent cultures abroad and certainly in America have their origins on the street or as "fast foods." I think these ideas travel well specifically for the reason they become popular at home to begin with. They are simple, satisfying and reference that culture's most predominant flavors and cooking techniques. I realize that by sticking to the streets, I'm missing out on all sorts of culinary delights from place to place, but in the end I fell as though I'll understand the food from where I've been a little better for it.

Checking out the home grown versions of grub that has become popular in America over the years has gotten me to thinking about the idea of authenticity. Ten years ago when I began cooking professionally, it was somewhat popular to mix ideas and influences, creating new flavors and techniques. More recently there has been a push by many chefs and food enthusiasts alike to hone in on more authentic versions of traditional cuisine. I happen to admire the quest for authenticity, but like all great motivations it has been taken much too literally by some and interpreted with such a narrow scope as to actually deny the reality of how food and flavors develop. During my last few years cooking and eating in Portland before I decided to do a little traveling I witnessed endless discussions (and some arguments) of who made a more authentic version of whatever. I was no doubt involved in many as well. Quality, it seems nowadays is judged not by how something taste or if it is satisfying, but rather if the dish in questions was prepared exactly the way it is supposed to be based on the rules set by someone (anyone) who claims to be an authority on that particular dish or style. How are these rules set and why do those of us who may not be an authority on he subject follow them blindly? Why should we miss out on possibly great interpretations of regional cuisine because it doesn't fit some arbitrary set of rules?

I may have thought differently about this before traveling, knowing only what I did from reading or passed on by word of mouth from other folks who had traveled abroad and experienced food and cooking technique in its native element. But, as I devote myself to experiencing each culture's culinary exports in native element I can say that there are no unbreakable rules when recreating food. I don't mean to say you can serve an apple but call it an orange, however there does exist a certain amount of latitude to interpret something without being demonized by the so called experts. I can say this with certainty since I have actually eaten numerous different versions of the same types of food in every country I have visited. In Vietnam every bowl of Pho I ordered was prepared differently, yet still called Pho. In Istanbul where I am right now, the different permutations of Kebap are endless. Japan offered the best possible example of this idea. I've heard more than one Japanese food-o-phile in the U.S. explain what exactly miso soup - a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine - is and how it SHOULD be made, yet in the various Japanese homes I stayed miso soup was prepared so many different ways with a variety of ingredients. I challenge any self proclaimed Japanese food expert to say that miso soup made by a Japanese person, in a Japanese home....IN JAPAN, is not authentic. Doesn't it fit the very definition of authenticity, to be created within it's own cultural element? If I were to remake one of the many miso variations I ate, would it not still be authentic? Many who are passionate about authenticity are not relating it to an idea that applies broadly to a particular dish, but rather to one specific version they had. That's setting a pretty high standard.

Hopefully my opinion on the matter doesn't come off as some sort of rant. We all enjoy food differently and I certainly don't want to kill the buzz of those among us who wish to search out authenticity at it's root. I don't see it as a search with any conclusion, though. Every dish evolves over time and even the native folks try new things and offer up wild variations. Who's to say that any famous food we hold dear hasn't changed over time and that the version being called "authentic" isn't just another stop along the way. Furthermore, if we all agreed to stop messing with stuff and just do it the way we're supposed to, wouldn't the result be uniform and boring? I'll admit that creativity unchecked can sometimes be ridiculous, but it does serve to keep what we eat fresh and exciting. Even though the word makes me cringe a little, I'll still take fusion over fascism any meal of the day and twice for lunch on Sunday.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Perfect Tomato

When I was living in Portland and really starting to cook seriously for the first time, it was inevitable that each summer some pretentious chef or silly Farmer`s Market junkie would pontificate over the wonders of tomato perfection. Ripe, round, fragrant, and myriad other adjectives evoking an image of fruit so magical one could hardly imagine the pedestal upon which it sits, much less the object itself. I have no doubt that similar observations are being made right now as tomatoes roll into season. While I easily become exhausted by tomato worship - don`t misunderstand, I like tomatoes, but not in, you know, that way - it speaks to a larger purpose of the value that eating and cooking in season has. What I never could figure out is what exactly makes the tomato, or anything else for that matter, perfect? For the past two weeks I have been staying with an organic tomato farmer in southern Japan. Shikoku is a gorgeous island with perfect summer farming weather. Alternating hot and wet with plenty of sunshine and a cool breeze or two. The farm is opposite Ikumi Beach in Kochi Prefecture, a popular surfing spot. I`ve made a regular practice of jumping in the ocean for a little while after the evening picking is done.

We live and breathe tomatoes here. They are included in every meal, all work centers around them, and I even took part in a blind tomato tasting that surveyed product from other organic farms as well as some supermarket ringers thrown in the mix. There is undoubtedly an effort here to achieve the perfect tomato that had so many folks back in Portland moon-eyed. I can`t help but wonder though, is it possible to quantify ultimate perfection? The same question has had me stumped over cooking in restaurants. Obviously there is a clear difference between good food and bad food. We can all generally agree on the broad strokes of how to classify quality eating, but when it gets down to what is great and what is better there are far too many shades of grey. That is why restaurant reviews rarely influence me. They are no more than one person`s opinion, for whatever that is worth. Furthermore, they usually judge based only on the tangible - flavors, textures, execution, atmosphere, and image. What about the context?

I`m becoming acutely more aware of how important context is in why we enjoy food. Time, place and situation have pungency and flavor greater than any spice, herb or even the fanciest salt. For instance, The food prepared for me by my hosts as I labor from farm to farm in Japan is magical. After a long day of work, to be cooked for by someone showing gratitude for the help I gave them is far more satisfying than any restaurant meal. There are no expensive boutique ingredients, immersion baths or award winning egos. Just appreciation for the digging I did that day. Think about the last time you went camping and built a fire to roast that tiny fish you caught. Was it seasoned and cooked with the same precision it would be at twenty five dollars a plate? Probably not, but did it taste better? How about old fashioned home cooking by none other than mom, or grandma? Even the most prestigious chefs reference these memories as a source of inspiration and often as their ultimate favorite food to eat. After being caught up for so long trying to achieve new accolades and levels of perfection in cooking, I can`t help but wonder about these things now that I`m on the outside looking in for a moment. I`ve heard people say many wonderful things about impeccably prepared and creative food from restaurants, but the most emphatic reactions to food I`ve witnessed are always outside the game and reserved for the home cooks who do it with more love than salt.

So what is perfection, then? Can a restaurant nail a dish so thoroughly it trumps every special meal you`ve ever had? Is there absolutely nothing like a vine ripened heirloom tomato because of flavor and texture, or because you grew it yourself and enjoyed it with friends and a bottle of rose while grilling in the backyard? How can this idea fit into professional cooking? I droned on constantly to my cooks and servers about the pursuit of perfection in everything we did. I`m sure they can confirm that it was central to my kitchen ethos, and that I surely did drone....endlessly. I`m thinking now however that achieving perfection was a somewhat misguided goal. If you get there, what next? Perfection is elusive because there are factors involved that simply can`t be replicated. These are organic moments that arise just as spontaneously as they disappear. They are unique to each person`s image of the perfect meal. It is the search for perfection that makes great cooking. Actually finding it is not important.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Back Where It All Began

It`s been so long. I picked up this here blog like a long forgotten volume on a hidden shelf and took a deep breath, exhaling with purpose to remove layers of dust from the cover. I`ve been busy washing dishes again, back where my internet musings began. I spent the last two weeks on an organic farm of sorts in Gujo Hachiman. A cozy mountain town in Gifu Prefecture, Gujo - as I will refer to it here to forth - is deeply green, tangled with rivers and streams, awash in Japanese history and blanketed with edible mountain plants. My desire to serve some sort of purpose while I travel Japan landed me there. Helping on organic farms is a means to an end. I get room and board in exchange for some toil in the fields. Not a bad arrangement. I guess if you`re lazy and need to be entertained all the time this setup would not be your cup or matcha, but I found the work to be enlightening and part of the adventure. As the arrangement in Gujo had me living with a family, the chores I was charged with often included helping cook and of course the one area of expertise where I`m a viking: washing the dishes...

Gujo brought some new experiences that resonated with things I am familiar with. I dug up and shaped some earth into rows that will soon host edible plants. Hard farm work is a first for me and I felt it in my aching bones and blistered hands, but a long day on my feet is nothing new. The tasks brought a familiar sense of ownership and determination that I know well from endless hours in the kitchen. I`ve always identified with the work that farmers whom I purchase from do each and every day. We may lead very different lives, but have similar routines and motivations. Neither chefs nor farmers count hours. They work until the job is done, and if they are determined to do it right then it takes that much longer. It`s not for the sake of impressing a boss or making a bonus. It`s just the way we do. Or should be doing. It shows in the results and people who care will notice. While helping on farms began as a means to an end, I always hoped in the back of my mind that it would provide some insight into how farmers live and work. After all, we play into the same cycle of growing and shaping food. While the specifics may differ, our purpose and motivation is similar.

This theme has been playing out in my head and reached a booming crescendo today while I was ambling through the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. One of the more outstanding museums I have had the pleasure of visiting, I spent over four hours browsing the exhibits that had little to no English signage. Towards the end I was merely breezing through, my brain too glazed over to consult the paltry, photocopied guide that was provided in my only understandable language. It didn`t matter, though. The exhibits themselves spoke volumes of how distinct cultures, in every respect show clear similarities in how they live and evolve. My chef/farmer connection began to make more sense in the context that the museum offered, especially where food cultivation and preparation was examined. I marvel continuously at how the tools used to farm and cook cross cultural boundaries, and how in the modern world we may update the appearance and price tag, but the basic function remains the same. I certainly don`t mean to downplay technological advancement, but I have always maintained that there is a fine line between use of a good thing and abuse of the same. Examined as a whole in the Museum of Ethnology, one begins to see where cultural evolution fractures and the abuse of something positive damages the world we live in. Apply this idea to food as you see fit. I think the implications in farming and cooking are obvious to those who care.

But I digress. The farm work in Japan - of which there is more to come - and the mind boggling examples of cross cultural similarities at the museum touched me quite a bit. While I wandered among exhibits, I was also engaged in a conversation with an old friend via smart phone instant messages (Viva technology!). Both traveling at the moment in different parts of the world, we discussed the merits of pursuing our own creative endeavors. On the one hand it`s more fulfilling, but on the other it`s risky and consumes you. By sacrificing freedom and working for other people, you have the chance to live a more balanced life, or at least that`s the idea, right? Looking back on my experience as a chef, I`ve been hoping to find more balance in the future. The dedication and ownership that forms the cultural link between chefs and farmers continues to resonate with me though, and it`s getting harder to understand applying and maintaining those ideals while working for other people`s monetary gain. A work until the job is done and done well mentality begs for the person sporting it to answer to no one else.

A journey need not have only one end and a question can certainly have more than one correct answer. There`s always an expectation however, that you`ll start in one place and end up somewhere new. It`s funny then, that some journeys can end up right back where it all began. For me at the moment, it`s hovered over a sink, scrubbing dishes, on the farm this time.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Where in the world are my pants!?!

Now that I have your attention I must confess that I did not misplace my pants in a hazy moment of debauchery in Bangkok, or anything like that. So sorry to disappoint. I left Thailand not long ago for a brief stop in Hong Kong where I ate plenty of roast goose, and even bet on some horse racing in the rain. Now I`m in Tokyo where I have for the last four days been stuffing my face with strange and fantastic foods. And looking for my pants, of course.

Two months in the grittiness of South East Asia will do a number on the clothing you bring along. Not to mention that I did a horrible job packing. First I had too much and sent some home. Then I had to buy stuff I didn`t have. Now I`m trying to make do with clothing that isn`t quite right for where I`m at. So, everywhere I go I`m constantly searching for a great pair of pants. They have to be durable, versatile, stylish and cheap. Not only is my current attire grubby, but the people of Tokyo are so gosh darned cool that I`m beginning to feel a little self conscious about my wardrobe. Rush to visit here if you haven`t already. It`s enchanting.

There`s always talk of Japan being a strange and quirky place for Americans. Let me clarify, at least from my perspective. Culturally, I find Japan to be more like American than the other parts of Asia I`ve visited. Day to day life in a city like Tokyo is the same as New York or any other similar metropolis. I think the curiosity comes into play because there are fewer people who will converse in English and similarly much less English signage than, say in Thailand. That makes travel here mysterious, exciting and sometimes strange. Baring pictures or plastic models of the food I`m ordering, I just point to the menu and anticipate what wonderful thing will be put in front of me. Earlier today I stood on line for fifteen minutes, not knowing what was at the end. I only knew it was going to be great because people were lining up for it. I`ve been eating mainly what would be considered fast food in Tokyo. Cheap and quick, but unlike the burgers and fried offerings we associate with the genre in America, convenience eating choices in Japan are vast and often light. In a country that is thought of as expensive, I`ve managed not to spend too much of my Yen on food. The only real issue is searching for that perfect meal, because restaurants are literally everywhere in Tokyo.

Searching has become a theme for me lately. Searching for food, searching for an organic farm or two in Japan to spend some time working with, and searching for my pants of course. I`m also searching for some direction to take when I decide that my time traveling needs to end. The food is easy. I`m not sure I`ll ever find my pants! Searching for direction in such a fantastic and unfamiliar place will prove to be interesting, though. I`m looking forward to the next two months and what insights I may find.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Finally Oriented (pun still inteded)

I've been wandering South East Asia for two months now and find myself full circle, back in Bangkok where I started. You may recall from the blog post I wrote upon arriving here that this utterly chaotic behemoth of a city irked me a bit, as did the idea of wandering with no real schedule or purpose. I'm not going to claim having any epiphanies or finding any new religion (orgnized or othewise), but I can say with confidence that I've settled in nicely. Bangkok doesn't seem half as intimidating as the last time I was here, even with violent political discourse taking place on the other side of town. It's a noticeable shift in my demeanor and without drifting into cliched reflections of what I hoped to accomplish by traveling the world, let me just say simply that I find it a positive shift. South East Asia is a unique place, and there is no excuse for not allowing it to make a profound cultural impression on you. While excentric quirks and heartwarming moments are too numerous to list or even remember entirely, I thought I would reflect on a few things that stood out to me while spendign the last two months here.

The driving situation, especially in cities is unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. Forget lacadazical sunday drivers in Portland or the oblivious speedsters in Boston. In Asia rules are no more than a suggestion, and apparently one that most people never recieved. I consider myself adept at crossing city streets, but this was something alltogether different. Usually, one can rely on a break in traffic, however brief, to dart accross. No suck luck. Traffic lights and crossing signals are rare, and drivers paying attention to them when present even more so. Eventually, it all comes down to a leap of faith. You just need to walk and hope that the motorbikes will dodge YOU. Speaking of which, motorbikes is a phenomenon I'm still trying to grasp. Sure there are a lot, but that spectacle gets old quickly. I'm still amazed at how many people and objects can balance on one. I saw the standard two person ride all the time. Three was not a stretch either. Four and five people at a time got me to turn my head. Not just adults of legal(?) driving age though. I saw babies (yes, more than one) balanced on laps and handle bars. I also saw dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, a monkey once, and various food sales operations. Often, it was a combination of two or more of these things. My conclusion is that people in South East Asia are not only fearless, but also have impeccable balance. Oh yeah...and everyone is always honking. It's not so much an agitated response to someone else's driving, but a warning that the honking party is coming, and probably can't see anything because he or she has two passengers, market purchases between the legs, a knapsack under the chin and a baby sitting on the shoulders.

In such an overtly commercial society, you might expect a competitive nature among the various people all selling the same thing up and down each street. Not the case. There is essentially one standard sales pitch with a few minor variations. The basic idea is that all foriegn visitors have a burning desire to be purchasing something at every moment, but that they need to be reminded of this over and over again and steered towards the product. The assumption must be that these ravenous bric-a-brac consuming tourists need to be jarred out of their shopping induced stupor and called back home to feed on products that are identical everywhere you look. The same theory applies to taxi, motorbike and tuk tuk drivers. In Thailand, these folks are cool and calm. They've started to recognize the benefits of laying back and letting people browse a bit. In Vietnam, there's no time for niceties. I'm still haunted by the shrill voices of a thousand Vietnamese women yelling, "YOU! SIR! YOU COME HERE! BUY FROM ME! NOW!" I cringe and say no thank you. And then, "SIR, SIR, SIR, YOU......" as I walk away. It continues like this until you are safely back in your hotel room. The Cambodian twist to this sales pitch wins out, though. Everywhere I went in Cambodia, women hawking food and clothing at bus stops or tourist attractions would sidle up and make me feel like the most important person in the world. It always starts with, "Hello, I remeber you," which is utterly outrageous since I've never been to Cambodia, yet I found myslef believing it for a split second a few times. They always ask where you are from, which is a pretty standard question to get in Asia, but these little temptresses would often throw in a little, "United States! Capital Washington D.C.!" Yes very nice, and obvious. Do you know the capital of Connecticut, though. I thought not. One gal hanging on me at Angkor Wat knew the capital of Oregon. I think I bought an iced tea from her. It was way overpriced. I even heard more than once, "You buy from me, or I cry." All the attention had me thinking about sticking around a bit longer. The extreme heat and dustiness was enough to get me back on track, though.

Most people have really cheesey pop music as their ringtone, even grown men. Since the ringers are always on loud, apparently there is no shame in liking Usher, and letting everyone know it.

I love soup, and must admit that it was huge motivation for traveling in Asia. I can't figure out for the life of me how people here eat soup in such oppressive heat. One would think there would be a little more salad, or anything chilled for that matter. Nope! I had to give up on soup after a while, as I found myself feeling like one of the noodles I was trying to eat, cooking in my own persperation.

Fruit is fast food here. No jokes about this one. It's awesome and I'll miss it dreadfully. Tropical fruits are some of the best in the world, and you can't swing a tailless cat in Sout East Asia without hitting a fruit stand!

Black coffee is sweet. What's up with that. I'm a daily coffee drinker, and while I can go without if need be, it's a small creature comfort that soothes the longings for home every now and again. It misses the mark when the coffee, while still black, is sweet. It was me throwing the sideways glance when they passed me the sugar bowl. You mean this is not sweet enough for some people?

Asia has the best sunsets. Maybe it's because I'm closer to the equator or maybe it's just the air pollution. All I know is that I've got enough sunset photos for a coffee table book...to flip through while drinking really really sweet coffee.

There's always something shadowy going on. Don't take this to mean I am being judgemental. People in South East Asia are exceptionally genuine and kind. There always seemed to be something going on that I couldn't quite figure out, like busdrivers picking up passengers and cargo along the route and collecting cash. I guess it adds to the mystery.

Finally...and my favorite...A restaurant can be anywhere. Any cook's dream is to have your own platform to create. You spend years slaving away so others can take the credit, and no matter how prestigious the job or knowledgeable the chef you work for is, most cooks I know would trade it all in for an opportunity to be judged on their own product. In America, you need the planets to align properly before the finances, permits and luck all fall into place. This can take a lifetime or never happen at all. In South East Asia, it doesn't take much more effort than wheeling your cart onto the street and setting up some small plastic tables and chairs. A small budget with healthy ambition can take you far. I've spent more than ten years working in various restaurants in various cities, following one job and opportunity to the next. Traveling is no different, with each location and experience segueing into another. What resonates for me the most being here now is that opportunity is everywhere. One need only to be aware when it presents itself. That is why I'm seeing the world and definitely why I cook for a living.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Economy Rice

Dripping with sweat is a theme explored from many different points of view in Malaysia. There's taking a short walk outside around noon time sweating which engulfs the forehead and neck mainly. If you have a backpack on your shirt is ruined for the day. There's also sitting by the pool sweating, where the intensity of the sun beating down on a perfectly still body will leave a fine layer of perspiration on your arms and legs. Jumping in the pool only helps momentarily before the cycle begins a new. One of the worst is sweating while you eat. Hot, spicy food renders the entire body damp instantly. At this very moment, even after a torrential downpour of epic proportions one would expect to cool things down a bit, I'm dripping with sweat while punching out this blog post.

It was something all together different when I found myself in the Kuala Lumpur airport a few days ago clutching my left cargo pocket repeatedly feeling for something not there. There was a split second where the world around me went quiet and the coolness I had been experiencing up to that moment abruptly turned to nervous tension and swollen rivulets of perspiration running down my face in every direction. In the place were I always keep a pouch containing traveler's cheques, cash, credit cards and my passport, was nothing. Sounds awful, I know. But let's back track for a moment and talk about what all happened before I found myself in this precarious situation and why spending a few extra days in Malaysia turned out not to be an out and out loss.

I hopped over to Malaysia from Vietnam and headed straight for the beach resort town of Batu Ferrenghi on the island of Penang. Penang is the birthplace of Hawker Stalls - a staple of street-eating on the Malaysian peninsula - and is generally recognized as having the best food around. On top of that the eats are cheap in a way you might not be able to imagine, and I had secured a complimentary place to stay. I was invited by my friends Jack & Meghan Yoss to join them in their rented condo, and for the first time since I began traveling I did not much of anything for an entire week. Only after sleeping late and lounging by the pool for a while would we make an effort to get up and search out dinner. Let me try and sum up what eating in Malaysia is like for the adventurous: If there is one place on earth that can truly please everyone, then it must be Malaysia. A veritable crossroads of gustatory culture, Malaysia had my head spinning seven ways from Sunday. Normally indecisive when it comes to dinner choices, I effectively gave up and just tried everything I could fit into a sitting. I'm still trying to process it all, but here's an idea of what sorts of food were laid out before me. Malaysia boasts many different influences to it's cuisine, so naturally each will be represented individually here and there. Indian and Chinese foods are dominant, but the trade route history of the area weaves in many other ethnic variations such as Thai and Portuguese. Where they all meet is at the economy rice tables. At first I skipped over these buffets while I was basking in the glory of fresh fish grilled in banana leaves, kway teow noodles, and of course, fried chicken - a highlight of Penang - only on Saturdays. When choosing became too difficult though, I made a plate of rice with a few selections of uniquely Malay preparations a part of my daily routine. This continued in Kuala Lumpur where the missing passport incident extended my stay. There are always an endless array of curries to choose from with beef, chicken and lamb varieties. Lamb stomach curry was a high point for me. Always a number vegetable dishes to balance out the plate as well. Whole hard boiled eggs also feature prominently in a way I had not seen before. Whether it was chicken, quail or both - the eggs were served in a masala sauce and cooked perfectly throughout. It was like egg salas, without chopping up the eggs. Another feature of the economy stalls, especially in Kuala Lumpur, is roti. The dough is stretched incredibly thin in a reverse pizza toss of sorts. It's more like they are slapping it against the table. Then it's brushed with ghee, folded over on itself a few times and cooked on a blazing hot griddle. Served with a little bowl of sauce from one of the many curries, a roti became my morning meal in KL, along with a cup of sweet coffee. A heaping plate of local food at a local price, while immersed in local chatter epitomizes what travel is all about for me.

So that is how it's been each and every day for me here, trying to decide what to try next and seeing how many different salads and curries I can fit on top of a pile of rice. I was initially disappointed that I would have to stay a whole weekend before having a chance to get into the embassy and replace my passport, but in the end it provided me an opportunity to relax in a magnificent and impressive city. I settled into a little routine and it felt nice to have a moment of life not devoted to sight seeing or moving on to the next location. The State Department came through for me and hooked up a new passport. I secured a new plane ticket and tomorrow I'll press on. It's interesting to note however, that the last thee days in Malaysia that were imposed on my by a pickpocket while riding the mono-rail, were in some ways the best I spent here. I even found myself thinking that Kuala Lumpur would be a really nice city to live and work in. It's modern and exciting with captivating architecture and efficient mass transit. Culture is everywhere and the food, of course, is great. If only it weren't so unbearably hot all of the time. I can only drip with sweat for so long before I begin to miss the cooler seasons.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Where's the beef?!?

It will shock everyone reading this, I'm sure, to learn that that my initial motivation for visiting Vietnam was to eat soup. A close second priority was eating baguette sandwiches. Vietnam is a country rich with history and culture, some of which is poignantly entwined with that of the U.S. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people have emigrated to various communities in the United States and brought a delicious culinary tradition along with them. In cities I have been happy to call home, most recently Portland, little Vietnamese noodle and/or sandwich shops are prolific. I spent a great deal of my free time over the past two years occupying corner tables of these spots with a book and a steaming bowl of noodle soup accented with various cuts of beef, or perhaps a pig knuckle or two. Naturally, I figured that if the native cuisine could be so enjoyable in America it would be more so on it's home turf. I also assumed it would be everywhere. Back home of course I had to trek over to the Vietnamese area of town to get my fix. In Vietnam I would have the geographical advantage of always being in the Vietnamese area of town. Score! Right...?

Not exactly. It was a persistent and annoying theme of my two weeks in Vietnam to be searching far and wide for something interesting to eat. I'm always willing to tough out hunger until I find the perfect meal, but it started to get ridiculous after a while. In Thailand food is everywhere! There is no end to the variety of new and interesting things to eat. Vietnam started out decidedly less exciting. I would set out to find a meal and instead of spending my time narrowing down the vast selection, I would have to walk further and further just to find a roadside stand serving up anything at all. By the time something came up I would generally give it a try, not wanting to risk walking even further down the maze of alley ways searching for food that might not be there. The crushing part of this picture is that the version of Pho Bo, the Vietnamese dish most widely represented in America, I would find never lived up to what I am accustomed to. Recreations of Pho Bo - beef noodle soup - in America are usually adorned with a variety of beef cuts including but not limited to flank, eye of round, fatty brisket and my personal favorite: tripe. All of this in a rich meaty broth, served with a side plate of bean sprouts and various herbs to garnish with. In the homeland, the best I received was often watery with stringy shavings of unidentifiable beef trimmings, no garnishes and nary a morsel of tripe. I had a few classic, "where's the beef?" moments. My expectations smashed, I would move on to the next, hoping it would be better. Perhaps I built things up too much in my head before arriving. My initial image of Vietnamese food in Vietnam may look depressing, but what kind of blog post would this be if I weren't able to put some sort of positive spin on the situation. Am I not the same person who can look back fondly on two years of capping twelve hour work days by washing dishes late into the night? There's got to be a silver lining, even if you have to work with the scouring pad a little to find it.

The longing left by a few disappointing food finds created unique opportunity for me to be dazzled by some unexpected discoveries. Thailand was monumental, but too easy. Vietnam proved to be more difficult but ultimately more rewarding at the same time. The first milestone was in Sapa, a mountain resort town way in the north. It was my first real stop in the country after four rugged days of bus travel (see previous post). Sapa had way too many "western themed" restaurants and even what was touted as local cuisine seemed over priced and underwhelming. That is until I found the food market. I love walking through Asian versions of what we would call a Farmer's Market in America. Endless rows of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meats. The meats especially are something to behold. Far from the pristine and packaged versions we are used to, Asian markets usually have entire carcasses on display and overflowing bins of offal. It's a truly unabashed and unashamed display of carnivorous glory and what I love about it most is that it's totally normal. There is no cultural stigma involved with enjoying meat and accepting what it is and where it comes from. No one is afraid or finicky about eating what nature has provided. Nothing gets wasted and the eating experience is richer and more fulfilling as a result. In the market's equivalent of a food court, there were numerous vendors preparing a version of chicken soup that seemed custom fit to me, specifically. Egg laying hens, which are also used for meat in Asia, always have a few eggs still in production when slaughtered. It amounts to nothing more than a yolk without white or shell, that is extracted along with all the other innards. The soup I had came garnished with a few of these yolks lightly boiled along with the noodles, deeply flavored broth, shredded meat and fresh herbs. Truly unforgettable!

In Hue, an ancient capital city that was horribly bombed during the Vietnam war I walked with a few other people for a while through staggering heat and humidity to track down a noodle stall that was marked on a tourist map we had been given. Not sure what to expect, we found a roadside stall that didn't look like much, but was the only thing there. We opted in, and while waiting for the soup to arrive I noticed the bowl of quail eggs on the table along with the usual suspects of chilis and fish sauce. There was also something wrapped in a banana leaf. Next, I realized what all the hype was over. Three old ladies were crouching around a pot of boiling broth cutting rice noodles by hand from a fresh made dough. This amounted to the best Vietnamese soup I've had to date, hands down. Fresh, toothsome rice noodles in a light fish broth, garnished with quail eggs I peeled myself at the table and a fine ground pork pate, which is the gift that was hiding inside the banana leaves. There are so many different attitudes and mentalities that go into preparing food for others, but as I've noted before there are elements of pride and passion that can't be acted out. They're either real or not there at all. Watching those ladies chip away noodles - which they do night after night for the masses of local folks who were lining up as I sipped steaming soup in 90 degree heat - I knew I was witnessing undeniable pride in action. It's a common ingredient in great food no matter what or where you are in the world.

There were others as well. Also in Hue, I stumbled upon a stand serving slow simmered beef and rice soup. I had some along with the water from an enormous coconut while losing half my weight in perspiration. How the locals eat hot soup in that heat regularly is beyond me. The gaggle of ladies sitting nearby mistook my sweating for inability to handle the spiciness, and ran over to fan me off, laughing incessantly the whole time. It's difficult to fathom how stupid I looked sweating out that soup quicker than I could eat it while hoisting a basketball sized coconut to my lips every so often. No matter how hard I try not to look like a tourist, there are moments like this one where I fail miserably. In Hoi An, I finally found the baguette sandwiches I covet so much. I went back daily and carried one to my favorite sugar cane juice vendor right along the river and would sit there for a while, escaping the heat and excessive commercialism. All of this was prelude to Ho Chi Minh City - aka Saigon - where I sadly stayed for only one day. As it turns out, Saigon is the answer to the title question. It's all there! The soup, the sandwiches and much more are lining the streets of HCMC, with endless variety and opportunity to eat. I indulged in as much as I could with limited time. I ate fresh steamed snails with black pepper and lime, and enjoyed embryonic duck eggs and Tiger Beer while talking to a man who moved from Saigon to Texas after the war, but was back visiting family. He left because the country wasn't safe for members of the South Vietnamese Army back then. Things are different now, though. America and Vietnam established diplomatic relations in 1995, and although there is still justified animosity concerning the atrocities commited, people I met embrace Americans with open arms. I was approached by numerous people both young and old over two weeks there who wanted to practice their English and learn about America. They all hope to travel there some day, and hope for more Americans to visit their country. I was surprised at first, because other travelers had given me mixed reviews of how they had ben received in Vietnam. Getting a visa to visit was considerably more difficult than entering other countries in the region. All the drama leading up to my actual arrival set the stage for an awkward stay, but it stands to reason that sometimes an arduous journey offers a more satisfying reward. The hidden culinary gems I found far exceeded my expectations even if the day to day dining did not. In the same respect, people I met and spoke with more than made up for the visa application frustrations and bumpy bus rides. I departed Vietnam already plotting the route for my next visit, whenever that may be.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bad Luck Buses

I was beginning to wonder if I would make it to a suitable computer for updating this here blog before I lost track of what to write about. I've finally made it to my hostel in Hanoi which thankfully has computers free to use. They are lined up against a wall about a half an inch thick, with a jack-hammer operating continuously on the other side. Delightful at 7:00 AM after an all night bus ride while I wait for my reserved bed to become available. No time like the present to bang out this post, the banging mere inches away from me acting as a constant inspiration to transcribe my fondest travel memories via keyboard.

It's been a long week of exploration and travel exclusively by bus, which is often the cheapest option. Aside from comforting the budget, traveling by bus offers spectacular views, the opportunity to meet new people, mingle with the locals and an overall experience that flying or even the train if it's available cannot always provide. As the saying goes though, you get what you pay for. This cliche can be interpreted in a few different manners, and all of them are now crystal clear to me.

It's hazy at this point what my exact line of reasoning was when I decided to forgo seeing Phonsavan and Vientiane in central Laos in exchange for moving north instead and crossing the border into Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. It had something to do with efficiency I think. Look at a map and you'll see that starting Vietnam there would allow me to move southward exclusively, no retracing my steps. There was also something about getting off the normally traversed path in Laos and having an adventure. I did the research and knew full well that it would take four days to reach Sapa, but I don't think I really understood at the time what that meant. Live and learn...right? I hoped on a local bus in Luang Prabang headed for Oudomaxai and got my first taste of what was in store over the next few days.

Let me provide a little background information. Most of the buses I took on this voyage were actually "mini-buses" but we managed to cram in the same amount of people that would fit on a typical school bus. This means that little stools are put in the aisle for people to sit on and when you - a westerner - think the bus is a full as could possibly be, there is actually room for about four more people, give or take a baby or chicken. Also, Laos people like to spit. Not in the bus or on each other. No, nothing like that at all. Just on the ground all of the time. I'm not sure what the rationale is behind this, but just about everyone does it regardless of age or gender. It seems the further north I traveled the more frequent the spitting and more vehement the pre-spit throat clearing became. Don't ask...I just thought this was a phenomenon worth mentioning. The buses have scheduled start and end points but that is hardly the full picture. Leaving or arriving on time is not guaranteed or even usual. The bus will also make many impromptu stops to pick up people who flag it down, grab cargo and bags of raw meat from villages and deposit them in others, and take smoking/spitting breaks. There is always someone in addition to the driver who I like to call the facilitator. He/she checks tickets, directs people where to sit and generally takes care of business. Despite my inability to understand anything the facilitators were saying, they were always a big help.

The ride from Luang Prabang to Oudomaxai was long, hot and uneventful. It took about six hours and we were packed in kind of tight. I remember thinking to myself that this was not so bad. If the full four days was going to be like this, then no problem! Things got interesting, though. After a good night's sleep in the finest hotel Oudomaxai has to offer I boarded an early bus to Mung Khua. That's the town where you catch the "border-run" bus into Vietnam. It was comical how many people we crammed in this bus. I always wondered what the secret to clown cars is. How do they fit all those big shoes and red noses in one vehicle. Low and behold, there's no trick to it. You just suck it in and slam the door. This trip was only three hours. Fast! With a whole day to relax in Mung Khua, I explored a bit and met some other adventurous travelers who were making the border run. I was still thinking how easy it was all going down until the following morning.

The bus from Mung Khua to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam leaves at 5:30 AM, and you need to catch a ferry across a small river first. I had discussed with some other people I met in town that it would be better safe than sorry to arrive at the river early so as to not miss the bus. I was stunned to find at around 4:30 AM that I was trapped inside my hotel. Getting out the front door was not so tough. I just had to unlock it, and chuckled to myself while doing so how funny it would have been to miss the bus on account of being locked in the hotel. The pad locked front gate laughed last, though. It took me about ten minutes of frantic pacing to accept that the only way out was scaling the wall. I found some boxes to climb on and made my getaway. My rush down to the water front was all for naught. I arrived along with about ten other people to find no ferry present. We waited, unsure if wading across the river was going to be necessary. There was a glimmer of hope around 5:15 AM when we heard the distant sounds of throat clearing and spitting on the opposite bank. Who was this person in the shadows? Was it the ferry operator? A few moments later a boat lit up and met us for the short trip across. The bus was waiting and the journey began. The two previous bus rides were merely a warm up for this one. The road from Mung Khua to Tay Trang at the Laos border is not paved at all. It's in a constant state of construction with little to no progress being made. It seems as though there are a bunch of steam shovels and trucks just pushing dirt around. We never traveled at more than 20 mph and often stopped and waited for up to an hour while dirt was moved from one pile to another. It took an hour or so to check our visas at the border and then on to Dien Bien Phu. A total of 100 km took about ten hours. Lovely! I shared a hotel room with some people I met on the bus and we all went out for some well deserved beers and dinner. We had made it to Vietnam, finally. There was one more leg to my journey, however. The fourth day was spent much like the third on a bus to Sapa, a beautiful mountain resort town in North Vietnam. The road there from Dien Bien Phu is also merely under construction and the ride that day took thirteen hours. We left at 6:00 AM and arrived in Sapa after dark.

In the end I got the adventure I was looking for at a cost of four days of uncomfortable travel. I met some interesting people and indeed mingled with the locals in some small towns that not too many tourists wander through. As I spoke with other travelers about where they had been and what they had been doing, I started to worry a little if I was using my time wisely. I met people doing interesting treks in the mountains, riding motorbikes from Hanoi to Saigon, and spending months at a time in single countries. Me...I'm simply exploring a bit and eating as much local food as I can. Seems to pale in comparison sometimes. My worries were put to rest, though thinking about this: When I was in Oudomaxai that night I was looking for dinner. The food in Laos had not really been blowing me away, especially after experiencing all that Chiang Mai had to offer. There's lots and lots of grilled meat in street stalls, most of it leathery and tough. That's just how they do it there, I guess. With all restaurants in town closed that night, I tucked in for some more chewy meat at the bus station which seemed to be the only spot near my hotel with some action that night. I pointed at the chicken, and the lovely lady nodded in approval. I sat down and watched as she put together a simple bowl of soup. I caught something that made me smile from ear to ear. She was dropping in a few herbs and seasoning the broth before delivering it to my table and she gave the soup a little taste, then adjusted it properly. You can't fake pride like that, especially if you're unaware that someone is watching. Young cooks may wonder why chefs demand every dish to be tasted before serving, even though they are repeated hundreds of times a night. If you really care about the product you are putting out, then you shouldn't have to ask why. It just means that you care. I had dinner that night made by someone who cares. It was a beyond simple bowl of chicken soup, no frills, made with a stringy stewing hen. The broth was clear, flavorful and perfect. Moments like that make me realize that simply being here is an experience, no matter how I choose to spend my time. No amount of bad luck bus rides can overshadow life enriching moments from experiencing diverse cultures and places or just having a perfect bowl of soup, made by someone who cares.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chiang Mai: Gluttony Redefined

I don't even know where to begin explaining how I have taken to Chiang Mai. It's a far cry from the chaos and soupy humidity of Bangkok. I was settling in nicely to lazy travel mode while on my way here, but arrival in this ancient Thai capital to the north hastened the transition. I've really had a chance to assume the role of wanderer, while mingling with the gaggle of European backpackers staying in the same hostel who I affectionately refer to as the "youngins'." It's all well and good for hiking through the outskirts of Chiang Mai looking for elusive temples and sampling the night life, but for experiencing the local cuisine I've had to strike out on my own a bit. No worries though. I came for many reasons but let's be serious here; eating is a top priority and I can't have anyone holding me back. I never set out to make this a blog specifically about food, but I need to take a moment to recount a few dining experiences of the past week that have left my jaw dropped. I've eaten myself to the edge of sickness (the good kind, right?) a few times over and need to get this down in the public record before the details drift off into my next food coma.

I cannot for the life of me think of a better introduction to eating in Chiang Mai than the one I was privileged to have. Portland Thai food impresario Andy Ricker just so happened to be in the area when I arrived and was nice enough to let me tag along on that evening's trip out to drink and snack a little. His knowledge and passion for Thailand, the food and the people are peerless. I knew full well when he uttered, "there's a place I went last night I want you guys to try..." that I would not be disappointed. After a few cold Beer Lao and some sour pork ribs in the Old City, we headed towards the evening's focus. A small, outdoor set up on the side of the road not far from the city was where we ended up and Andy ordered for us in Thai. The business is a family affair with everyone chipping in. A small footnote here: hospitality in Thailand is a degree higher than I am used to seeing in the west, and I practice hospitality for a living. There is a sincerity to each beer poured and dish served that makes the whole thing seem so much more genuine. The speciality of our chosen drinking spot for the night is a slow cooked beef almost jerky like beef, probably skirt or flank, that is beaten with a club before serving to shred and tenderize. It's served with sticky rice, fresh herbs and vegetables, chili sauce, and a dried chili/galangal/shallot/garlic mix. We also had a plate of fatty roasted pork and sour pork and egg that had been steamed in a banana leaf to snack on. This was my first time really experiencing and understanding how and why the sticky is supposed to be used and why utensils are not really necessary when you have it. It's difficult as a tourist to get off the beaten path and really live like people do locally. We all say we want to do it, but how often does it really pan out. This experience not only hit the nail on the head, but was great motivation to seek out more just like it. Score!

A couple of days later, still buzzing from the roadside beers and beef, the director of the hostel I'm staying in said that it was all you can eat Thai BBQ night. I was skeptical to say the least. All you can eat BBQ is not really a term that inspires me while back home, but I decided to opt in. A bunch of other people were going and the price seemed right. Good choice! This is a local spectacle not to be missed. Endless piles of meats, seafood, vegetables and noodles are available to grab and bring back to your table where you will cook it over a blazing hot charcoal fire on a little aluminum grill that has a moat of broth around the bottom to simmer things in. If you're thinking that this sounds a lot like Korean BBQ joints found in suburban strip malls you're not wrong. The difference is the choice of ingredients. I had to take multiple stabs at the buffet line just to sample all the different offal available. I barely scratched the surface of fish and meat cake varieties. By the end of my meal the throngs of neighborhood folks eating and live music was getting hazy. I stumbled out, the term gluttony redefined.

An impromptu lunch yet a few days later became yet another milestone on this visit to Chiang Mai, and definitely what will be one of the most memorable experiences of this entire journey. The hostel director/owner Noom, invited me to join him for lunch. I had already made my love of eating known to him and also my willingness to try new things. There was a whole spread that the hostel staff was digging into. It consisted of the following: Sour pork with onions and chilis, a soup of beef offal simmered overnight, Northern Thai sausage, roasted pork, tuna with chili paste, cooked ground beef with herbs and chili, and my favorite dish; a tartare of sorts. One of raw ground pork, and the other of raw ground beef with an intense bitterness derived from boiling the bile gland of a cow and straining off the liquid. Not for the faint of heart, but balling up sticky rice was all that could slow me down from devouring as much of this as possible.

Earlier today, I had the chance to wander one of Chiang Mai's local food markets, presumably where most of the afore mentioned meal came from. It's a cross between a farmer's market and a food court. Fresh produce, fish, meat and prepared foods are all available in endless varieties. Slightly different than an American version of these entities, most people at the market were buying food to bring home. I actually felt a little funny eating things I had purchased straight away, even if they were prepared right in front of me. I was certainly the only one doing so. I did have the chance to sit down in a little restaurant adjacent to the market and sample food that I am told usually sells out quick! In America we pine for things to be produced locally, fresh, sustainably, by artisans and the like. Yet, we still shop at supermarkets. What I've witnessed here in Chiang Mai is people actually living the ideals we espouse. It's part of every day life and it's not inconvenient to anyone at all. You buy what you need for that day, and the next day you go back for more. I watched someone who is probably cooking catfish for dinner right now buy a live fish, which was killed, cleaned and gutted right in front of me. That's a type of fresh that even the Slowest of Foodies in America rarely experiences. I'm not going to go so far as saying that I could see myself living here. Isn't that what we all think to ourselves when on vacation in a wonderful place? I could however, transition easily into buying and eating food like this. No problems....


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Getting Oriented in Bangkok...pun intended!

There are all different sorts of people in the world, many of whom have no problem existing in the midst of chaos. For the rest of us, it takes some getting used to. I flew for two days, across the U.S., over the ocean to Taiwan and finally into the heart of South East Asia, Bangkok. Not my first time in this sprawling city, but almost ten years removed from the previous visit, I didn't readily remember how emphatically chaotic Thailand's capital is. I say emphatically because more than just a circumstance of its population, weather, commercialism, etc., the collective attitude in Bangkok is certainly on purpose and a point of pride. Exceptionally friendly, fast paced and always, always going. Whatever it is, it never stops.

Culture shock is not the term for what I felt my first few days in Bangkok. I had no plans of sticking around, but there was some visa business to sort out before getting out of the city and so I was effectively stuck for a few days. The size and pace were intimidating in themselves, but I'm no stranger to navigating big cities. My real problem at the moment was utterly unexpected. What am I supposed to do with my time? Sounds like a stupid question. Those of you who have longingly listened to me describe this extended getaway are giving this blog post a collective sideways glance at the moment, I'm sure of it. Read through my earliest post on this site, though. All I've known for the last few years has been endless prep lists and inventory sheets. When you exist solely to bang out task after task for a long period of time, the extreme shift to no obligations can be fun, exciting, relaxing and also supremely frightening. There's an undercurrent of guilt when you feel as though time is being wasted lounging around in a hostel common room, and I'm not talking about the lacy, lilting guilt that white folks feel after watching Avatar in 3D. I'm referring to a persistent buzz that is supposed to be alerting you that SOMETHING important is not getting done. For me...not so easy to turn off. Bangkok is full of things to fill your time with, but most of it involves shopping or touring temples. Shopping is out; I'm on a tight budget and certainly do not want to carry anything extra (remind me to tell you some time about clothing I promptly identified as unnecessary and mailed back to the U.S.). The temples are captivating, but one can only see so many, especially in the midst of intense heat and humidity. I imagine no one will be surprised to read that I found solace in the food.

I've eaten street food almost exclusively since arriving in Thailand. It's cheap, exciting, outstandingly delicious and everywhere. It's difficult to describe why street food is different in Asia than in America. The best I can come up with - to avoid getting all geeky on the subject - is that food carts in America are a dining genre unto themselves. When I was in Portland we spoke often of the food cart "culture," and I would take my out of town guests to the late night carts on Hawthorne merely for the experience. In Asia street food is much more. It's part of the social fabric. Tiny stands line the streets at all hours of the day and night. Most specialize in one or two things. There may or may not be a few tiny (kiddie sized) plastic tables and stools nearby to rest on while eating. Fresh fruits and juices have almost completely edged candy and processed foods out of the dessert market. There is no pomp and circumstance. They are often family affairs - on more than one occasion a young daughter taking my order while her mother prepared the meal, other children taking on tasks in the background. The neighboring vendors exuded respect and good will towards one another, not competition. I don't mean to romanticize the subject, but there is something about what street vendors have to offer here in Asia that will keep me out of a proper restaurant for most likely my whole stay in the region.

By the time I had my travel visa for Vietnam dialed-in and was on my way out of Bangkok on a slow train, I had been able to calm my nerves and drown out the buzzing almost fully. I've got many months ahead of me to see things, do stuff and move around. Free time and even a healthy dose of laziness is all good once in a while and I certainly don't want to regret missing out on what might be my last opportunity to just do nothing for a bit. Better in an exotic locale, right? As I wrote earlier, food always helps me reference a time and place in the past and how I was feeling then. The street food of Bangkok will forever and always be tied to helping me let go of that persistent drive to be working on something and learning to relax a little. Stumbling on Lumphini Park - an oasis in the middle of Bangkok - helped quite a bit too. And that's just the first few days...