Indonesian Street Food: Protein-Packed Ketoprak

Ketoprak, one of my favorite street foods, may not be as common a sight at the kaki lima (street carts) dotting Jakarta as satay, or nasgor (nasi goreng = fried rice). But given the scale of the city, it’s out there, waiting for you by a clogged canal, randomly neon-lit bridge, or a group of mischievous cats.

Ketoprak — not to be confused with the Javanese theater style of the same name — is a vegetarian dish amply covered in protein; fellow omnivores might want to add some satay to really raise the bar. It consists of peanut sauce, aka bumbu kacang, fried tofu, lontong (banana leaf-packed rice cakes), bihun (rice vermicelli), taoge (bean sprouts), garlic, palm sugar, fried onions/shallots, and if you’re lucky, an egg or two. Slosh all of that fun stuff around, dip in some krupuk, or shrimp crackers, and you’ve got some filling Indonesian cheap eats.

And if you’re like, naively asking for pedas banget — extra spicy — you’ll be glad cucumber slices accompany the meal on the side.


Have you ever tried ketoprak? What are your favorite Indonesian street foods?

Jakarta’s Durian Street (Indonesia)

Many a time I’ve tried to like durians, but it just doesn’t happen … then again, it’s not as if there’s a rule saying I should.

Nevertheless, I’ve had it fresh, in a shake, in a cake, as lempuk, with all resulting in failure. And it’s not even the awful odor that does me in — I’ve generally eaten it in places that smell a lot worse.

With that displeasing transition in tow, I present to you, JakartaIndonesia. Jakarta is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been, but like many other cities, it takes some patience to get to the good eats. They are expanding their metro system and other forms of public transit, which is good, but it also makes the metropolis’ infamous traffic that much worse.

In short, getting to Jalan Raya Mangga Besar, or what I have deemed to be durian street (at least at nighttime), is vexing. Located in the northern part of the city relatively close to the old Dutch fort Fatahillah, and Jakarta’s Chinatown — near where a lot of the metro construction is happening — Jalan Raya Mangga Besar is busy during the day, but really buzzes at night with lots and lots of street food

It’s also where you can find stall after stall of durian, the spiky fruit native to Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia, among other countries in Southeast Asia.

As it had been a few years since my last taste of something better suited for college mischief than human consumption, I took a walk along “durian street” for a small, small nibble:

Chili Time at Bangkok’s “Flavorful” Restaurant

thai food flavorful restaurant bangkokSpicy Seafood and Chicken with Cashews, Bangkok ‘Flavorful’ Restaurant, Thailand

How do you choose where to eat in Bangkok, a place where it sometimes feels as if there are more food sellers than anything else? To wit, shopping centers have multiple levels with restaurants, and sometimes across from those restaurants there’s a warren of food vendors with snacks. Streets are teeming with a range of stir-fry, stews, cut fruit, and grilled mysteries, and supermarkets are as diversely stocked as the city’s nightclubs and tuk-tuks.

With so many choices in the Thai capital, I finally gave up on rolling the dice, and searched recommendations for eating out.

A long walk down Sukhumvit, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Bangkok, took me to Flavorful restaurant, in the On Nut neighborhood.

Nondescript and standard issue the façade may be, Flavorful looks like the average casual Bangkok restaurant. But it’s never the superficialities that determine where I eat, it’s the food!

Sabanba, A Hyperlocal Japanese Take on Korean Bibimbap

I’ve long been a fan of mackerel and bibimbap, so to discover a marriage of the two in an ostensibly random Japanese city was a delicious coincidence.

Availing of the the Hokuriku Area Pass, a 4-day Japan Railways train ticket that covered many hotspots in Ishikawa, Toyama, and Fukui prefectures, I took a day trip from Kanazawa to Obama, a port city in Fukui.

Historically, this region was called Wakasa (若狭), which held a prime location on Wakasa Bay. For hundreds of years, it supplied Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital of Japan, with abundant seafood.  Together with Awaji province (present-day Hyogo prefecture) and Shima province (today’s Mie prefecture), Wakasa was one of Kyoto’s miketsukuni, basically the food pantry.

In particular, mackerel, or saba (鯖) in Japanese,  was very popular at the time, so much so that the route from Obama to Kyoto came to be known as the “mackerel highway,” or saba kaido (鯖街道).

mackerel manhole cover obama japan
Mackerel Sewer Cover! Obama, Fukui, Japan

With such a prominent local delicacy — actually, due to overfishing, Japan has been importing mackerel for decades — I found out that one of Obama’s most famous dishes was called 鯖ンバ, or sabanba.

OK, so it’s not such a well-known meal — never mind that the one restaurant serving it, Yamato-an, is best known for tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlets — and let’s not forget that the dish is a fusion of Japanese food and Korean food. (link in Japanese) The manager at the time was fond of bibimbap, the Korean comfort food of mixed rice, vegetables, and an egg, so the epiphany came to add mackerel to it.

sabanba mackerel bibimbap obama japan
Sabanba (鯖ンバ), Yamatoan Restaurant, Obama, Fukui, Japan

In Japan, sabanba falls under the category of  B級グルメ, or B-grade gourmet. That is, it’s a dish with inexpensive ingredients and mass appeal. Regardless of that appellation, sabanba is still a fun, tasty, and variegated meal that spotlights one locally historic ingredient.

Tasting the Real Thing at Daio Wasabi Farm in Hotaka, Japan

wasabi statue hotaka japan
Wasabi Statue, Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場), Hotaka, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

The first recorded instance of wasabi in Japan dates back to the year 981, during the Heian period of Japanese history. Someone wading through the Japanese Alps had thought its leaves looked like those of the mallow plant (in Japanese, 葵/あおい/aoi), consequently wasabi was first written as 山葵, or “mountain mallow.”

Then, during the Muromachi period (roughly 1392-1573), pairing wasabi with sashimi became a thing. Typing that out, I feel somewhat stupid, but in my defense, A) it’s written on the sign below, and 2) I reckon it’s one of the most famous duos in any cuisine today.

wasabi history Japan
The earliest known record of wasabi was from 981!

I know, you’re not here to become an ethnobotanist. You want peak wasabi, right?~~~

As my friend and I were traveling between Kanazawa and Matsumoto (although we went by rail via Itoigawa), I was searching for points of interest along the way. Since neither of us had ever visited a wasabi farm, the Daio Wasabi Farm (English reference page) in HotakaNagano prefecture stood out among the list of recommendations. At around 30 minutes walk from JR Hotaka station, it was a pleasant — and sometimes delicious — diversion from the norm.

Daio wasabi farm map
Daio Wasabi Farm Map

The Daio Wasabi Farm (official Japanese site), which opened in 1915, is purportedly the largest of its kind in Japan. Interestingly, within Japan Nagano prefecture competes with Shizuoka prefecture, also known for its green tea production, for the title of largest producer of wasabi. (link in Japanese)

Maybe naively, I was expecting to be detained by the smell of the fresh wasabi plants, and to see farmers using goggles and masks when handling Japan’s most famous rhizome.

Whoops, wrong on both counts.

wasabi plantation Japan
Water means life for wasabi

wasabi growing conditions
Key to Growing Wasabi: 7 Days Shade, 3 Days Sun

Wasabi plants aren’t huge fans of direct sunlight, so that’s why dark breathable cloth is used to cover them much of the time (in the two photos above, you can see the cloth rolled up).

After walking around the beautifully kept farm, dipping my toes in the frigid spring water, and sampling some gimmicky snacks and drinks flavored with wasabi, my friend and I continued on to the castle city of Matsumoto, just under 30 minutes away by train from Hotaka.

You might be asking, “did you even try fresh wasabi?” But of course. We even bought a steel grater (おろし金/oroshigane) for it (traditionally, wasabi graters were made of sharkskin). Immediately thereafter, we thought, what a pointless idea … on what/at which point would we even grate the darn thing?

Then, I figured, let’s just take it to a random restaurant and see what happens:

Kitamon soba restaurant Matsumoto
Kitamon (北門) Soba Restaurant, Matsumoto, Japan

A simple explanation to the kind waitress at Kitamon soba restaurant in Matsumoto let us sample the true flavor and texture of nama wasabi, or fresh wasabi. Basically, it’s NOTHING like the neon green stuff you’ve been eating.

Go on, give Daio Wasabi Farm a shot.


Do you like wasabi? How about the fresh version?

Find the Gimmick: A Taste of Three Unusual Japanese Beers

Generally speaking, I’m not a beer drinker. But I am easily duped by gimmicky foods and drinks to try. A recent stay in Japan, one of my top three culinary countries (thus far), reminded me of the emphasis on seasonality of ingredients in Japanese cuisine, as well as how carried away some places get when they’re famous for a particular edible.

Yes, getting carried away is a popular theme throughout the country, so there’s no better place to start than one of my coolest day trips in recent memory, the Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場), located in HotakaNagano prefecture. I will do more of a detailed post on this place at a later time, but for now, take everything that you believe to be the true flavor of wasabi, and hurl it out the window.

And if someone offers you wasabeer, ehem, wasabi beer, staunchly reject it.

Japanese wasabi beer
Wasabi Beer (わさびビール), Daio Wasabi Farm, Hotaka, Japan

Ah, so we’ve already located the gimmick … right? Time will tell.

Yes, wasabi beer was one of a number of unusual offerings at the farm, tinted green, and flecked with grated wasabi. It had a little bite, but it didn’t help that the flavor of the beer itself was not so pleasant. Still, you go in with an open mind, and you leave for the first time with a simultaneous hangover and nasal decongestant.

Following that brush with Japan’s most famous rhizome, it was time to move on to more stable beer choices. Continuing with the theme of trying regional food, a three-night stay at the Tateshina Shinyu Onsen in Chino, Nagano prefecture both reintroduced me to the joys of sampling nihonshu (日本酒), or what we call in the west as sake, and introduced me to rhubarb beer.

Rhubarb, I hardly know ye. Outside of a pie, I may have only tried your sour root once. However, your flavor lends itself quite well to fill a stein.

Japanese rhubarb beer
Rhubarb Beer (ルバーブビール), Tateshina Shinyu Onsen, Chino, Japan

Yatsugatake Rhubarb House produced this particular brand, using rhubarb grown at the foot of the Southern Yatsugatake mountain range (link in Japanese). Uncommonly known as the “lemon of the field,” rhubarb, being quite tart, is most commonly use  in sauces, dressings, and jams. Though, since beer often has a sour note, I’d say rhubarb was a pretty good flavor profile for this unexpected pairing.

Moving along to the last of the three unusual beers, let’s hoof it to Kanazawa, the largest city in Ishikawa prefecture, on the Sea of Japan. Now, this ingredient is much more widely known, grown, eaten, and imbibed around the world, but usually it’s a glass of wine.

That’s right, I’m talking about grape beer.

In a quest to try the elusive — and expensive — Ruby Roman grape, I visited the Budou no Mori vineyard and restaurant in the Morimoto neighborhood of Kanazawa. Even though I failed in my search that time, I still had a delicious buffet of autumnal specialties, a grape parfait, and yes, even grape beer.

Japanese grape beer
Grape Beer (ぶどうビール), Budou no Mori, Kanazawa, Japan

The description on the menu above reads that the grape beer is the pride of Budou no Mori (which means “grape forest”), and is a harmony of the sweetness and slight bitterness of grapes. I’d have to say that description was spot-on, and formed a tie with the rhubarb beer as my favorite of the three (not that wasabi beer ever had much of a chance). Come to think of it, it might as well have been a dessert beer, so I wonder which types of grapes were used.


Would you try any/all of these three beers?

The Land of Rice and Sake: A Small Feast from Joetsu, Niigata, Japan

It’s true. Of all the potential prefectures (roughly states/provinces) in Japan to be considered the “land of rice and sake,” Niigata often leads the pack. Of course, it helps that sake, the quintessential Japanese liquor enjoyed warm or chilled, is made from rice … indeed, according to one source, Niigata prefecture regularly vies with Hokkaido for the top spot in rice-paddy yield, and total area dedicated to rice-paddy cultivation.

Thus, with all of this hubbub about being one of the culinary centers of Japan, not just for rice and sake but for seafood, hot sauce(called Kanzuri; link in Japanese) and even B kyuu gurume, I decided to take a day trip from Kanazawa to Joetsu city Joetsu (上越市).

Hopping on the Hakutaka shinkansen, or bullet train, in Kanazawa, I made it to Joetsu about 50 minutes later. After walking a couple of miles to Takada Castle to check out its lily ponds, and a stop at a secondhand shop to rummage through bygone electronics, my hunger pangs led me to a restaurant called Gunchan. (Note: I generally don’t care about restaurant reviews, because I’m the only one with my taste buds. This particular branch gets a low rating online, so I guess my delicious meal was an off day?)

Niigata cuisine Joetsu Japan
Gunchan Restaurant, Jouetsu, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

CRAB MISO soup, seasonal fish sashimi and tempura, and a brisk glass of regional sake were just some of the highlights. Suffice it to say, I’d go back.

Bear Meat, in Japan?

One of my favorite aspects of eating in Japan is the department store.

Hold up, what?

Whereas department stores may be terribly dull in most of the western hemisphere, places like El Corte Inglés in Spain, and KaDeWe in Berlin, and many, many choices in East and Southeast Asia’s biggest cities do more than just delight the average clothes shopper.

Japan is where my first memorable introduction to department store food halls occurred, at the Daiwa Korinbo in Kanazawa. While living there for the summer of 2000, I’d get corn bread — that is, buttery bread stuffed with corn kernels — at a place called Don Q., and an apple almost everyday, always in the basement section.

Years later, I realized that Japanese department stores sometimes had food festivals in their upper floor event halls; some focused on a specific prefecture (let’s say it’s like a state or province), whereas others covered the entire country.

Last week, at a Hokkaido Food Festival — Hokkaido being Japan’s northernmost prefecture, known for its dairy, miso ramen, salmon, and melon, among many other edibles — I found an exotic (for me, anyhow) treat to sample:

Brown bear, known in Japanese as 羆 (ひぐま/higuma). Although brown bears were historically hunted by the indigenous Ainu culture, they also have greatly influenced Ainu life for generations, with both having shared the often frigid and remote terrain of Hokkaido. (link in Japanese)

n.b. bear meat can also be found in Aomori prefecture, the one atop Honshu island most famous for apples, but Hokkaido is where its consumption is just a bit more common. (link in Japanese)

Want to know how it tasted? Check out my YouTube video!

Avocado Coffee (Da Nang, Vietnam)

It amuses me that one of the things I was most looking forward to having again in Vietnam was the coffee. I rarely drink the stuff outside of when trying to overcome jet lag, yet still have good memories of quotidian cups of cà phê (coffee, in Vietnamese) from having visited Hanoi and Ha Long Bay a few years ago.

Thus, in the world’s second-largest producer of coffee — after Brazil — it was difficult to narrow-down the first café to visit in Da Nang (or Danang), in central Vietnam. Indeed, coffee culture is very strong in this part of Southeast Asia, with numerous cafes trying to outcompete each other with comfortable chairs, small gardens, koi ponds, and plenty of outdoor seating.

In spite of the fierce competition, I went with a place called H Coffee, not far from the beach and boardwalk hugging the East Vietnam Sea.

How did I choose it? Simple … avocado coffee.

As some of you might know, I’m a big fan of avocados. Frequent travels to Mexico in the past few years might have help my case. However, I’ve never seen avocado and coffee combined in Mexico.

Owing to the French introduction of trái bơ (avocado, in Vietnamese) to Vietnam in 1940, fellow aguacate fanatics can rejoice in this recent addition to the Vietnamese drinks scene:

avocado coffee espresso vietnam
Avocado Coffee, H Coffee, Da Nang, Vietnam

Hold up, that doesn’t look like avocado coffee. I see avocado ice cream (with condensed milk inside), and an espresso. It’s more like an avocado affogato; try to say that three times fast.
For those unfamiliar with an affogato, you take the espresso and slowly pour it over the ice cream. Done! In!

Was it delicious? Of course. Should I have ordered again the next day? If it weren’t for the flooded streets, I would have!


Might you be interested in an avocado coffee mash-up?

Shipping Containers, Something Sticky, and Pizza?: Five Bangkok Eats

I’ve been in Bangkok, Thailand for about three weeks, writing and eating, eating and writing, and occasionally going for a dip in one of the rainy season puddles along Sukhumvit.

We’ve already learned that I’m a big fan of one particular Thai dessert; perhaps you would want to see a few more of the meals that I feel deserve a follow-up visit.

Lao Garden

pork larb catfish salad
Lao Garden, Bangkok, Thailand – Pork Laab (Larb), Minced Catfish Salad

Somewhat obscured by a small shopping center and situated in a gated community between Phra Kanong and On Nut BTS stations, Lao Garden  is easy to accidentally skip by.

After the waitress turned the fan on as a nice temporary respite from the humidity, I ordered a minced dried catfish salad, and a pork and friends laab. The catfish salad wasn’t anything like I had expected (I was hoping for chunks of fish with chilies liberally sloshed around), but the pork laab was on point; note: if you’re not a fan of offal (hence, pork and friends), you may want to ask the kitchen to lay off.

Portions for both were a bit small, but the quality was there in the pork laab, that’s for sure.

Flavorful

mixed seafood cashew chicken
Flavorful, Bangkok, Thailand – Mixed Seafood and Chicken with Cashews

With a tacky name like Flavorful, I’m not sure why I tried this place. Close to the On Nut BTS, it just looks like your standard issue casual Bangkok Thai place.

Ever in the mood for spicy, I always pepper (awful pun) the order with “phet phet,” or “very spicy.” This time, I got mixed seafood, and chicken with cashews. It was spicy but not to the point that it overwhelmed anything, and there were no weird or mysteriously chewy bits anywhere.

Ruepoh

mixed seafood salad rock lobster stir-fry
Ruepoh, Bangkok, Thailand – Mixed Seafood Salad, Spicy Rock Lobster Stir-Fry

(Sorry in advance for the photo for this place, I forgot to take a photo until after a couple of bites.)

Ooh, as a major seafood fan, this place was choice. Ruepoh, or Ruepoh Seafood, nowhere near the center of Bangkok, is close to Central Bang Na shopping center. Central Bang Na is a big bus hub, but it’s not near any other transportation. From Sukhumvit, you can take the 48 bus, and then walk to the restaurant. n.b. They’re now in a shipping container, but I understand that they’re moving to a larger location next year.

If credit cards were accepted here, I’d be in trouble. Nearly everything on the menu sounded good — crab this, lobster that, river prawn whatever — almost all joyfully accompanied by chilies, Thai herbs, and garlic.

I had the mixed seafood salad, and rock lobster stir-fry. They may have diluted the mixed seafood salad with fish balls, but I thoroughly enjoyed the just right shrimp, calamari, and fish. And the rock lobster? Bring on a thimble of melted butter, and then we’re really in business.

Peppina

eggplant mint thai sausage pizza
Peppina, Bangkok, Thailand – Chiang Mai (Eggplant Funghetto, Mint, Sai Oua Sausage

Peppina is a small local pizzeria chain, though I only tried the Sukhumvit 33 outlet.

In fairness to readers of this brief review, I’m a bit picky about pizza, having grown up (and outward?) eating it … on the other hand, it’s also about appreciating where one is at the moment. Southeast Asia is not the first place you’d think of when someone quizzed you on world’s best places for a pizza, is it? Last I checked, Thai mozzarella hasn’t quite caught on.

Nevertheless, I ordered the Chiang Mai pie: (from their online menu) “Chiang Mai: Mozzarella fior di latte, San Marzano tomatoes, sai oua sausage, eggplant funghetto & mint.” A lemongrass and kaffir lime pork sausage on a slice? Sure, whatever. And you know what, it worked. The sauce was a bit sweet, and the flavor of the fior di latte wasn’t entirely there, but holistically it worked. The strong lemongrass flavor of the sai oua sausage was quite good, especially when enjoyed in the same bite as the glutinous crust and dried red chili flakes.

I actually returned with a friend for another pie; that time, it had scamorza, pancetta, and black mint as the primary flavor profiles, with mozzarella (but no tomato sauce) to boot. Quite good, but I must try a burrata pie next time!

Chef Ple

mango sticky rice
Chef Ple Sukhumvit 18, Bangkok, Thailand – Mango Sticky Rice

Hmm, something sticky was quite a suggestive post title for a Bangkok write-up; now you know why I went with it.

Another blink and you’ll miss it-type of place, even though it should have been obvious the first time I walked by, given the numerous mangos out front, sirens of the Thai dessert world. Stay on the southern side of Sukhumvit by Soi 18, and you’re golden.

One of those quintessential Thai sweets, khao niao mamuang, or mango sticky rice, is a must every time I’m in Thailand (the joke is on all of us non-Thai speakers, since it’s a tonal language. Have fun trying to pronounce it at a restaurant … I’ve failed many times). You’ve got the mango, so you pretend there’s some health benefit, but then the coconut milk and sticky rice remind you that you shouldn’t be eating it daily. Throw on some dried mung beans, and you’ve got a fun sweet, slightly salty, yet thoroughly Thai meal.


Have you tried any of the above five places in Bangkok? Or, maybe you’ve got a personal recommendation for your fellow readers?

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