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?

Ruam Mit (รวมมิตร), The Diplomat of Thai Desserts

Maybe it’s unusual to think that today’s post is about one of my favorite desserts in the world.

Sure, when I want something sweet, I mean really sweet, it will be from Türkiye. And if I want something pseudo-healthy, it will be an Indian mango lassi.

But when in Southeast Asia, I can’t get enough of those Frankenstein’s monster’s bowls of goop, slop, and ice.

ruam mit Thai dessert food display
Cheng Sim Ei, Thai Desserts (Ruam Mit), Bangkok, Thailand

Although I didn’t know the name for the dessert until doing a little reading about, I found out that the Thai name, รวมมิตร (ruam mit), means “get together + friends.” Makes sense, because you’ve got your fruit, tubers, roots, gelatin, syrup, beans, legumes, and weird colors you may never have expected to see in a dessert, all coming together for a saccharine dalliance. So, grab some friends, grab some ladles, order a family-style — I just made that up, but try to order something that contains a little of everything — and then walk it all off in the heat.

ruam mit Thai dessert Bangkok
Cheng Sim Ei Menu, Thai Desserts (Ruam Mit), Bangkok, Thailand

Bonus: Cheng Sim Ei, by Bangkok’s City Hall, might spoil you with an English menu. For shame!

Baikal (Байкал), the Soviet Coca-Cola?

Baikal (known in Russian as Байкал “bai-kal”), was first created in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s’  partially as a response to Coca Cola’s rapidly expanding presence throughout the world.  Although Coca Cola wasn’t even being sold in the country at the time – even Pepsi beat them to the punch – Baikal’s producers wanted to instill pride in the nation. Thus, they adopted the name Baikal, showing deference to the storied Siberian lake, the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume.

How would I describe the flavor?  Different.  It had a hint of coniferous tree, processed sugar, and some unusual mix of herbs which I couldn’t quite place at the time.  Apparently, Baikal’s ingredients include black tea extract, lemon oil, cardamom oil, eucalyptus oil -what?  can we even consume this one? – and eleutherococcus senticosus, aka Siberian ginseng aka devil’s bush, known to be both an adaptogen and part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

You may not think of Russia these days as a soda powerhouse, and that’s possibly because you didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union, or in a Russian-speaking neighborhood.  They’ve got quite a loyal following for some drinks – if I can find the picture, I will also write about the neon green tarragon-flavored soda – and the flavors from decades ago sound equally tantalizing.


Does pine-flavored soda intrigue you?  Or, have you given up on sodas all together and go straight for the sugar packets?

It Will Never Expire: Understanding the Thai Calendar

Craving that pad thai or green curry again? Why? Thai food is so common these days, you can find Thai cuisine — or even ready-made meals–  all over the place.

But it’s good, too, right? It’s all subjective, of course … if you like it (as I certainly do), perhaps the mere mention of eating something from Thailand momentarily transports you to an exotic land, where mango sticky rice trucks are on every street corner, Thai iced tea flows out of apartment faucets, and butterfly pea’s coloring and binomial nomenclature never goes out of style.

And where food doesn’t expire.

Caffa Lemon Tea Understanding Thai Calendars
I think time will outlast the package itself

Wow, now there’s an expiration date I can get behind. Not only will it outlast me by a loooong shot, but also most living things, most dead things, and even a French transportation strike, but not term limits in the U.S. Congress. You can’t win ’em all.

Jokes aside, let’s dissect the date of expiry on the Caffa Coffeemaker package.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way for my fellow U.S. folk– January 29th. That’s how the majority of the world does it, day, month, year. OK, I feel very sheepish now (At least we’re making slow progress on the metric system).

Now, the fun part, the year.
Short answer? To calculate the “Western” aka Gregorian year, subtract 543 from the Thai year.
For example, to comprehend the year in the above photo–
2566 – 543 = 2023.
Darn, I thought that lemon tea would’ve had a bit more staying power!

Slightly longer answer? {insert current year here} + 543 dates back to the time when Thai Buddhists consider Buddha to have attained enlightenment, or nirvana.

Fast-forward quite a lot to 1888 or 1889, when King Chulalangkorn (King Rama V) introduced the Gregorian calendar to Siam (the former name of Thailand), but with Buddhist elements. So, from a lunar calendar to solar calendar lite. That is, one with lunar calendar elements.

At the time, New Year’s Day was on 1 April, then 13 April, but that all finally changed in 1941, when King Ananda Mahidol (King Rama VIII) made New Year’s Day 1 January, aligning Thailand’s calendar with the Gregorian.

However, as I eluded to before, there are still some lunar calendar elements in the modern Thai calendar (and no matter which you own, no food — ok, maybe Spam — will last that long). Wan phra, “monk day” in Thai, are roughly four days per month where Thai Buddhists would visit temples to provide food for monks. These days are based on the four principal quarter phases — new moon, 1st quarter, full moon, 3rd/last quarter — of the moon.

And before you ask, yes, I do know that this is a food blog.
So … go get a moon pie or something.


You may now know how to understand Thai calendars, but let’s none of us forget to inspect the expiry dates no matter where in the world we are!

Five Meals in Baku, Azerbaijan

In late 2016, I visited Baku, Azerbaijan (in Azeri, Bakı, Azərbaycan) after learning about the ease of getting a tourist visa if you were a passenger on Azerbaijan Airlines’ New York JFK-Baku GYD flight.  With more time, I would have explored the vast biodiversity of the country; however, this short trip was focused on Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, and a few of regional historical landmarks.

As such, today’s post will be centered on a few meals that I tried while in Baku.  With food heavily influenced by Turkish and Iranian cuisines – as well as Russian cuisine – I had high hopes for the Caspian Sea metropolis. Nuş Olsun (Bon Appétit)!

Having done no prior food and drink research about Baku, I decided to rely on the local knowledge of the Azerbaijan Airlines flight attendants; their suggestions were written below, on a less than flattering in-flight sickness bag.

quince Baku Azerbaijan
Quince

While paying homage to the FAs’ recommendations, the first thing that I ate in Baku was a quince.  Most commonly consumed as a fruit spread, quinces are quite popular in the Caucasus region.  I think quince jams and paste go great with manchego and melba toast, but take my word for it, a raw quince is astringent, awkwardly crunchy, and thus no bueno.

Local Meal Baku, Azerbaijan
Local Meal in Baku, Azerbaijan

After a day trip to a couple of cool places – I will get into them at a later time – my shady taxi driver dropped me off at this restaurant, ostensibly managed by his “friend.”  Nevertheless, it was a good intro to Azerbaijani food, replete with delicious pomegranate, pickled eggplant, local non-spicy giardiniera, somewhat bland bread (more on this in a moment), raw greens, ayran – a mix of yoghurt, water, and salt – and piti.  What, a piti?  Sorry.

Piti, a soup made with a base of chickpeas, lamb, and chestnuts, comes from the northwestern town of Sheki.  It is always served in an earthenware pot, and can even include quince, cherries, and other items, depending on the season.

About half way through eating the piti, a waiter came by to demonstrate that I was eating it wrong.  You are supposed to rip up the bread, place it in the bowl, and then pour the piti on it.  The pickles (and onions, which I had already eaten by this time) are a traditional accompaniment, as is the floral yet subtle sumac to sprinkle on top.  When eaten correctly, it all comes together so much better~

khash (Xaş) stew Azerbaijan
Xaş

Xaş (khash) … here’s where we get into the doldrums.  Originally a cheap meal for farmers, and found as far away as Mongolia and Greece, khash is a stew made of tendons in cow and/or sheep feet.  In Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, it’s generally eaten in the winter, and is amusingly eaten to overcome hangovers.

It was extremely oily, heavy without any pleasant flavor, and ultimately not something I’d want to eat again.

Lyulya Kebabs Baku Azerbaijan
Lyulya Kebabs, Baku, Azerbaijan

Now we’re talking!  Lyulya kebabs, made of minced lamb, onion and plenty of salt, served with more onion, delightfully chewy bread, and narsharab, an Azeri condiment made of sweet and sour pomegranates.  Pomegranates are known as the king of fruit in Azerbaijan, where more than 200 varieties of the vermilion fruit are grown.  Even some dishes are made with pomegranates and eggs…I’m curious about this one.

Just don’t throw that bread out.  It’s rude.

Şəkərbura tenbel paxlava Azerbaijan dessert
Şəkərbura and Tenbel Paxlava

What better way to finish off a brief tour of Azerbaijani food than with paxlava, also known as bakhlava?  The intricately designed paxlava on the top left is called şəkərbura (roughly, shekerbura), and is filled with walnuts and sugar.  On the bottom, tenbel paxlava, or lazy paxlava, made with ground walnuts, sugar, and a sweet syrup.  Although I’m a tea drinker nearly 100% of the time when compared to coffee, as this was a jet lag dish, I went for a cuppa.

If you want to read more about Azerbaijani cuisine, check out this article.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways (Mérida, México)

A few years ago, I took a road trip with some friends around southeastern Mexico, starting and ending in Orizaba, Veracruz, ultimately getting as far as Cancun.  As I may have mentioned before, Mexico – thus far – is one of my top three countries for eating…thus, I was not only looking forward to exploring more of the country with locals, but also to trying new and familiar foods along the way.

For instance, there’s chocolate.  I’ve wondered why Mexican chocolate doesn’t get much attention around the world, in spite of being the ancestral home of Theobroma cacao, the Latin name for the original cacao tree.  Of course, colonial empires and globalization have played a role in spreading the harvesting of cacao throughout many tropical countries, namely the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Fast forward to my road trip, and the city of Mérida, located in the state of Yucatan.  Although counting nearly one million inhabitants in its metro area, its downtown area has a cozy feel to it.  Mérida is hot year-round, has boulevards lined with mansions built almost entirely thanks to rope, and owing to Mayan tradition, unique foods found nowhere else in Mexico.

Plus, due to its recognition as being one of the safest cities in the country and with that, a sizable expat population, they’ve got some fine places eat and drink.  Places like Ki’XOCOLATL, a small chocolate shop adjacent to Santa Lucia Park.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways, Ki’XOCOLATL (from left to right, “brown sugar, cinnamon, achiote, allspice, and habanero;” honey is in the container on the central plate)

Though there are some debates as to the origins of the word chocolate, it no doubt stems from Nahuatl, a language spoken for centuries in rural parts of central Mexico; xocolia means “to make bitter,” and atl refers to “water.”

When it was first discovered nearly 4000 years ago by pre-Olmec cultures, it was consumed in its naturally bitter state, ground into a paste with water.  Subsequent civilizations started to add in what was organically found at the time in Mexican jungles and rain forests, namely honey, chilies, and vanilla.

After a long stroll through downtown Merida, I wanted to sit down and relax with some sweets.  Ki’XOCOLATL offered hot chocolate, two ways, I as I deem it.  The first method was the contemporary style, sweetened with sugar.  The latter, evoking how Olmecs and Mayans may have enjoyed it, started off by merely being the bitter cacao seed heated up with water.  The waiter served it alongside honey, brown sugar, achiote – a yellow-orange seed typically used to add color to foods, allspice, habanero, and cinnamon, although cinnamon hails from Sri Lanka.

Although the ancient hot chocolate took a bit of getting used to, I admit that the modern one was the best cup of it I have ever tried.


Where did you have your favorite cup of hot chocolate?  Whether it was in Mexico or somewhere else, let me know!

Tejuino (Mexico)

It may not be well-known outside of that region, but that’s the point; going all-in on new (for me) discoveries to share (with you) is one of the cornerstones of Finding Food Fluency.

Today’s spotlight may taste like a coarse tamarind shake — i.e. something sweet and sour — but there’s none of that legume floating anywhere near this Mexican drink.

Tejuino, a Prehispanic drink attributed to the Nahuas people of northwestern and central Mexico — roughly, Colima, Jalisco, Nayarit, and Sinaloa — comes from the Nahuatl word tecuín meaning “to beat/palpitate.” It is used for ceremonial purposes by the Yaqui of Sonora and the Tarahumara of Chihuahua as offerings to sacred deities; you may even see it consumed at a typical Mexican fiesta in Jalisco and Nayarit.

Tejuino Culiacán Mexico
Tejuino at a Street Stall, Culiacán, Mexico

I encountered tejuino for the first time in Culiacán, Sinaloa. Having no idea what it was, I further went down the rabbit hole by trying it at a street stall where everything was baking in the sun.

And yes, tejuino is an alcoholic beverage, though has a low alcohol content.

Although some of its ingredients may vary depending on who’s preparing it, tejuino counts as its staples corn masa — you know, the stuff used to make tortillas, piloncillo/panela — that is, unrefined cane sugar, water, and a small amount of lime juice. Boil it all, let it chill out for a bit, then cover it with something breathable. Fermentation will happen, and then you’re done!

What was a bit odd about this street stall was that after trying it as is, the vendor insisted on adding a little Squirt Soda to the tejuino. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of it either way, and in that heat I was that much worse off. Nevertheless, I’d try it again … at a restaurant, when not on a 10-mile trek!

The Largest Sushi Roll I’ve Ever Seen

How does eating sushi in Japan tickle your fancy? It may not be the original home of sushi, but Japan — and depending on where you live, South Korea — certainly popularized it.

I’m certainly a fan of sushi, be it found in a sushi buffet trough, or at a more rarefied establishment (upon further reflection, that first bit does not sound enticing).

Whenever I was in Japan, I would of course take advantage of food being all over cities, whether in a vending machine in an office building, being given out in department stores, or a neighborhood specialty shop.

And then, there were the supermarket discoveries:

huge sushi roll makizushi Yokohama Japan
Giant Sushi Roll (Makizushi), Yokohama, Japan

I found this massive otherworldly specimen at the Mark IS minatomirai shopping mall in Yokohama. In Japanese, it’s the 海鮮大名巻 (kaisen daimyou maki), or the “seafood daimyou (feudal lord) roll.” That’s quite a makizushi, or sushi roll … is it meant for one person (me), or for a small village?

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