During My Last Visit to Japan, I Had Poisonous Fish

In the wide world of Japanese cuisine, Shimonoseki, Japan is particularly famous for something particularly controversial:

Shimonoseki - Sewer Cover fugu
Manhole Cover with Fugu Design in Shimonoseki, Japan

Blowfish.  Pufferfish.  Swellfish.  Delicacy.  Jimmy.  No matter what you call it, there are still…plenty of other words to call it.

River pig (河豚).   鰒/フグ, pronounced fuguふく fuku, which means “good fortune” and which serves as a pun on fugu, the official name for the venomous fish.

Hire me to remove the eyes, ovaries, and in particular the liver, and you won’t be around to read my next post.  Nor will I.  I’ll be in jail.  You really need to find the right chef at the right time.  Or, cower out and try the poison-free version.

Shimonoseki isn’t shy about its most famous resident.  I had never tried fugu before visiting that city, but a visit to one of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, called konbini, changed all of that:

Shimonoseki - convenience store fugu
Convenience store (konbini) fugu! — There really was a slight tingling sensation after taking a bite

Do Japanese convenience stores keep humans in mind? Fugu, bread stuffed with chocolate and margarine and pocket-sized cans of sake really make you wonder if we are their main source of revenue.  Then again, have you ever had the displeasure of breathing in at a 7-11 in the US?  Those stores must be one of the many layers of Buddhist hell.

For a short history lesson, immediately following the end of the Meiji Era (~1868-1912), Shimonoseki was the first city in the country to allow legal consumption of fugu. It’s not even the region where most fugu are caught; yet, due to its trend-setting stance on allowing people to eat blowfish, Shimonseki became the venomous fish’s main distribution port.

Anyway, let’s take a brief tour of Shimonoseki.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market exterior
Exterior Shot of Karato Market, Shimonoseki, Japan

Japan’s most famous fish/wholesale market is undoubtedly Tsukiji Ichiba (市場/いちば/ichiba = market), located in Tokyo.  However, for a much more relaxing yet equally delicious market visit, check out Karato Ichiba in Shimonoseki.

For which marine product are they most famous?

Take a wild guess.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market fugu sculpture
Is that a float? Imagine that during Mardi Gras

That’s English for fugu, and Japanese for fugu.

canned fugu supermarket
Canned Fugu and Whale Curry in a Shimonoseki Souvenir Shop

Someone went a little overboard here.  Fugu (Japanese-style) curry, boiled fugu in a can, raw fugu in a can, even whale curry tags along…who says Japan and China aren’t alike?


Would you try fugu?  What if it were a birthday gift?

Oreos: Omnipresent, Overzealous, (Un) Original?

These days, Nabisco’s diminutive Oreo might be a mainstay in supermarkets, convenience stores, and vending machines. However, these black-and-white sandwich cookies received great inspiration from the Hydrox, the original, introduced by Sunshine Biscuits in 1908, four years earlier than the Oreo.  Whether or not you prefer the darker chocolate of the Hydrox – or that it still tastes as good as it did back in 1908 (quite an exclamation) – there’s no denying that the origin of both cookie names is unusual.

Whereas Hydrox is a portmanteau of hydrogen and oxygen, the two elements composing water, it was also controversial in that the term “hydrox” was more commonly known as both being a company selling hydrogen peroxide (for bleaching and for disinfecting), and as another term for soda. Doesn’t sound like the most appealing name for food, hey?  Might as well name your firstborn “Student Loans.”

The history of “Oreo” is even more dubious, as it either refers to the Greek word for mountain (Όρος “oros”) – since the cookies originally were slightly mounded – or the French word for gold (or), because the first packages were golden.

Alas, we’re not here to cover the background, or the rivalry between the two brands.  Instead, we’re going to focus on Oreos – and their knock-offs – from all over the world.

The discoveries were mostly in North America and East Asia – no shock there – but there will be a nuanced example at the end.

The United States

Nothing too unique found in the US; yet, three of the brands don’t even hail from the country. Then again, there’s the token glutenfree “Oreo,” but I wouldn’t touch those with a 10-meter cattle prod.

To start off this post’s language lesson, “giro” in Spanish means “turn,” which reflects the most famous way Oreos have been eaten.  Also, although there is a word for sandwich (샌드위치 senduwichi) in Korean, the Lotte package abbreviates it to 샌드 “sendu.”  Japanese does this too; the verb “to make into a sandwich” is サンドする (sando suru), literally “to sandwich.”

Mexico

Considering the bright colors, I could stick this package on the back of my metaphorical bike, in lieu of a yellow reflector.  Found in Mexico City, this Oreo “trio” offered a combo of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, better known as the Neapolitan.

Cambodia

The Lotus Strawberry Mini Leo come from Thailand, but I saw them in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  C’mon Thailand, you can be much more creative with your flavors.

Taiwan (ROC)

Though the product doesn’t quite look like an Oreo, the name sure does. But are Orievo the biggest offenders?  Stay tuned.

Bought the Goriorio at an Indonesian store in Kaohsiung.  The cookies were so artificial tasting that the wrapper probably would’ve tasted better.

China

Mango and orange Oreos, made in China.  So, replace the mango and orange with Styrofoam and dish soap, and then you’d be correct.

Nah, I’ve been craving Hunanese food lately, so I’ll lay off of the reality for a bit.  They weren’t bad, but the grape and peach ones were another story.

Apologies for the inferior photo quality, but the most important aspect of the photo is clear enough.  “Ord.”  That’s a good one.  But might it be shorthand for the Chinese ghost city aka Ordos?  No.  No way.

Indonesia

These Indonesian “Dueto” look like pieces of chocolate instead of sandwich cookies.  Maybe marshmallow is in the middle?  Tidak (no), it’s not.  They were also extremely artificial tasting. But what’s that sneaking into the photo on the bottom?…

Ooh, now we’re talkin’.  Tried these coconut delight Oreos in Solo (Surakarta), and they were addictive.  Deliberately took the photo in front of the sign which translates as “ginger alley 3.”  Ginger-flavored Oreos?  Perhaps one day…

Japan

Soft Strawberry Oreos?  The darn things will fall apart in the milk all too quickly.  I’d bake ’em first.

Cream Clan by Happy Pocket.  What???

Egypt

Egypt decided to join the fray, and surprise, their “Borio” brand is the winner of the least original yet mostly likely to cause a chuckle award.


Which Oreo (or Oreoesque) cookies would you like to try first?

Is this the Best Japanese-Style Food Hall Outside of Japan?

As that stubborn country in the East Sea continues to only roll out a departure mat to its own citizens, those of us who are glad to liberate our wallets of yen continue to seek alternatives. Let’s take Southeast Asia as an example.

While in Singapore last month, I visited my two favorite places in the city: Singapore Botanic Gardens, and Takashimaya Ngee Ann City, on the busy Orchard Road shopping street.

Since my first visit to the city-state in 2004, I had been a fan of the Takashimaya department store. It had become my choice ersatz Japanese food hall — called デパ地下 (depachika) — when in town, with many of the seasonal and regional food festivals, bakeries, and liquor you’d expect to see in Japan.

For a very small, ehem, taste of the Takashimaya depachika, please have a look at my YouTube video:

Two Local Dishes in Antalya, Turkey

In order to attend the Dubai Expo 2020 right before it ended on March 31st, I was looking at creative routings from Amsterdam. Flying direct was expensive, so perhaps there was an intermediate point that would be both a new place to a visit, and a way to lessen the cost of the trip.

SunExpress, the joint Turkish-German airline transporting frozen Europeans to warmer resorts in Turkey, came through; they not only flew from Amsterdam to Antalya, one of the most popular tourist cities on the Mediterranean, but also had a convenient (albeit seasonal) flight to Dubai. Done deal!

Now that a short weekend stay was arranged, it was time to start searching for Antalya famous foods. I asked the flight attendants about what to eat, and they all mentioned two particular dishes, piyaz and kabak tatlısı. Antalya hotel staff concurred.

I’m a bit familiar by now with Turkish food, but I had no idea what either of those things were. Even better!

Let’s start with piyaz.

piyaz turkish meal antalya

Piyaz refers to a (white) beans salad, although it stems from a Persian word meaning onion. In Antalya, piyaz receives the red-carpet treatment, getting served with tahin (tahini/sesame paste), tomatoes, onions, garlic, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, vinegar, and olive oil. The tahini makes it very rich, and the vinegar adds an unusual flavor profile not commonly seen in Turkey, save for some pickle recipes.

Oddly, as much as I repeatedly praise Turkish cuisine, the vinegar threw me off. That said, it’s an excellent dish to scoop up with local bread, then topping it with köfte (minced meatballs/skewers).

On the other hand, there was the dessert.

pumpkin dessert antalya turkey
Kabak Tatlısı (Pumpkin Dessert) in Antalya, Turkey

Kabak tatlısı translates as pumpkin dessert, and wow did that hit the spot. Pieces of pumpkin are candied in sugar syrup, then are topped with tahini and crushed walnuts. Some recipes use kaymak, or water buffalo clotted cream. Given that pumpkin is the star, it’s a colder weather dessert; indeed, when you’re eating out in Turkey, you might want to ask the waitstaff about what’s in season.


Have you been to Antalya?

Supermarket Specialties, Part 1: Turkey’s Migros

Every time I’m traveling somewhere, I will visit a local supermarket. Part of the reason is to check out food souvenirs, then there’s also forgetting — or misplacing — a toiletry (without hyperbole, I have about 11 nail clippers), staff preparing food for you while you shop, and the best part, making a picnic out of a bunch of local eats.

I believe some countries do supermarkets miles better than others, having found that Belgium, Spain, Thailand, and Turkey steal the show for their variety, local foods, and overall quality of what’s available. Belgium has the sweets and butter, Spain tomatoes and cheeses, Thailand a mix of Thai and international eats, and for our first part in the supermarket series, Turkish supermarket chain Migros

If the Word Salad Sounds Too Healthy, Try Indonesia’s Gado Gado

Gado gado (gado means “mixture” in Indonesian) is a blend of peanut sauce with morning glory (aka water spinach), lontong (sticky rice), boiled potatoes, eggs, fried tofu, and bean sprouts, among other ingredients. And yes, it’s a carbohydrate dream or nightmare, depending on how you view them.

It’s a staple at Indonesian restaurants throughout the world, although according to the Wall Street Journal, was only invented in the 16th century in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), once Portuguese and Spanish traders brought over peanuts and chili peppers from South America.

Gado gado, a mixture of peanut sauce, vegetables and carbs, Bali, Indonesia

For a look at the traditional way to prepare this Indonesian food classic, check out my video below. I enjoyed this version of gado gado in Bali, and introduce a few other Indonesian specialties, too.

Selamat makan! (Bon Appétit!)

Javanese Buffet at Bali’s Warung Kolega Restaurant

Spicy fish, braised eggplant, pandan pancakes stuffed with sweetened coconut … if you’re looking for a primer in Javanese food with a hint of Balinese flavor, look no further than my video from Warung Kolega restaurant in Legian, Bali:

Exploring Turkish Antakyan (Antioch) Cuisine at Hatay Sultan Sofrası

In one of my favorite countries for eating, is Antakya the BEST region to eat?

In the southern tip of Turkey that juts into Syria lies Hatay province, well-known for its ancient Roman mosaics, playing host to the sole remaining Armenian village in the country, and the city of Antakya, formerly known as Antioch. For a bit of history, Antioch was founded in ~300 B.C. by Seleucus I Nicator, a comrade of Alexander the Great. Due to its geographic position by the Mediterranean, it was a major center of trade, at one point even rivaling Constantinople and Rome for its wealth and architectural  grandeur.

Consequently, merchants from all over the Middle East, Asia Minor, and the Mediterranean would trade in Antioch, often bringing ingredients from their homelands with them. Thus, dishes that you would see in today’s Antakya stand out amongst other regional Turkish foods, not simply because of its geography, but also due to its erstwhile bustling centers of commerce.

hatay sultan sofrasi restaurant antakya turkey
Enjoying a Variety of Antakyan (Antioch) Dishes at Hatay Sultan Sofrası, Antakya, Turkey

For example, you might notice more cumin, walnuts, and chickpeas on the menu in Antakya than elsewhere in the country. In fact, one of the principle dishes in that area is called aşur, a surprisingly chewy yet undeniably decadent mix of chickpeas, walnuts, cumin, onions, peppers, and bulgur wheat (used in tabbouleh and its Turkish cousin kısır). Indeed, considering its location in the Levant (comprising Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, as well as Hatay province), many dishes are more emblematic of that part of the world than of Turkey.

Henüz aç mı? (Hungry yet?) Check out my video below from the restaurant Hatay Sultan Sofrası, located in downtown Antakya.

Gaziantep, Turkey: City of Baklava and Pistachios

It’s not so easy to determine which place can call itself the true inventor of baklava, since it’s existence isn’t well-documented prior to the 19th century. It may come from present-day Iran, Turkey, Syria, Greece, or Armenia, although its popularity certainly spread throughout the Balkans and beyond because of the Ottoman Empire.

Years ago, the European Union (EU) did Turkish cuisine a solid by considering Turkey to be the creator of baklava, placing it on its list of items protected designation of origin, as well as protected geographical indication. However, one joy of eating is to appreciate food without getting caught up in a geopolitical kerfuffle.

Koçak Baklava Gaziantep Turkey
Sampler Platter of Baklava and a Turkish Coffee at Koçak Baklava, Gaziantep, Turkey

Forming part of a hub of Turkish food in southern central Anatolia, if you want to eat like a local, the city of Gaziantep is known for two things– baklava, and pistachios. There’s also baklava’s cousin, katmer, but it’s not nearly as well-known overseas.

Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted my video of Karagöz Caddesi, or what I consider to be Gaziantep’s “baklava street,” but there are plenty of other sweets shops around to reel you in. However, I did prepare a brief baklava tour of the city; given the deliciousness of the country, more videos of Turkish gastronomy will undoubtedly follow!

Keralan Food from Kappa Stories, a Ghost Kitchen Concept in Trivandrum, Kerala, India

Although they had already existed prior to the pandemic, ghost kitchens rose in popularity during COVID-19. Now, you may be asking, what is a ghost kitchen? In short, ghost kitchens are concepts where one kitchen might be shared among chefs preparing any number of cuisines, specifically for take-out or delivery … in other words, no on-site dining space.

The key fact about ghost kitchens that eluded this food blogger was that they lack a dining area. So, when I was in Trivandrum (also known as Thiruvananthapuram), Kerala, India, scoping out the internets for a nice place to try local Keralan foods, I took Uber to a place called Kappa Stories, part of the Chilli Pepper Kitchens ghost kitchen concept.

Lo and behold, no dining tables:

chilli pepper kitchens signage
Visiting the Ghost Kitchen of Chilli Pepper Kitchens, Trivandrum, Kerala, India

In the case Chilli Pepper Kitchens, they offer three different “food choices:” Pan-East Asian at Samurai Hanzo’s, Pan-Indian at Khao, and local Keralan food at Kappa Stories; kappa, meaning tapioca in the Keralan language of Malayalam, is a very popular ingredient in the cuisine.

I wanted South Indian food, and I wanted as local as possible. I’m talking about coconut, tapioca, fish curry, and dried fried beef?

Really?

Thanks to the generally peaceful melding of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism in Kerala, beef is a common addition to menus.

Fortunately, the COO of Chilli Pepper Kitchens, Mr. R. Swathi Krishnan, happened to be at the helm, assisting me translate “realllly spicy” to the chefs. When I told him that the Google Maps mentioned nothing about Kappa Stories being a ghost kitchen, he kindly drove me to Poojapura Roundabout so that I could eat seated at one of the park benches.

Keralan dinner Kappa Stories kitchen
A Delightful Mix of Flavors and Textures at Kappa Stories, Trivandrum, India

Want to dine with me? Check out my ad hoc review of Kappa Stories:

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