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?

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?

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!

It’s Not a Bagel, it’s an Obwarzanek (Krakow, Poland)

At the end of the day, it’s all carbs, carbs, carbs.

But the question wasn’t about that. It’s about the relationship between a bagel and an obwarzanek, the most famous edible export of Krakow, Poland. Did one descend from the other?

It does seem like the obwarzanek, which stems from the Polish word obwarzać (=to parboil), was the first of the two circles of doughy goodness to have been recorded somewhere, as far back as the late 1300s. German immigrants are to said to have introduced to Poland the salty, twisty snack known as the pretzel, which then transubstantiated into a ring with a giant hole in the middle, today’s obwarzanek.

obwarzanek Krakow Poland
Obwarzanek Krakowski, Krakow, Poland

And yes, I wrote transubstantiate because religion — specifically, Catholicism — played a much bigger role in Polish society at the time. Indeed, when Queen Jadwiga, the first female ruler of the Kingdom of Poland, during Lent chose to eat obwarzanek over sweet pastries — both were considered luxury items at the time, with the former being composed mostly of wheat, and the latter of wheat and sugar — their consumption spread … among other aristocrats (Indeed, rye was the grain of choice until the price of wheat substantially lowered for working-class consumers).

But that’s just one story. Another recounts the tales of Polish soldiers gobbling up obwarzanki (the plural form) before a 1410 battle with German troops. That’s the patriotic spin on the rise in popularity of the ring of boiled dough.

No matter which anecdote intrigues your taste buds, it’s difficult to overlook the impact that Jewish peasants had on baked goods. To wit, for centuries, European Jews weren’t even allowed to bake anything (let alone sell baked goods), due to the fact that 1) they were considered enemies of the church, ergo 2) they couldn’t get involved with bread, since it was directly connected to the holy sacrament of the eucharist.

However, in the 1200s, the Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious decreed that Jews could finally handle bread; since many gentiles (non-Jews) assumed the bakeries were poisoning the finished products, Jews mainly stuck to boiling the dough. They sold rye obwarzanek — salt, sesame seed, and poppy seed — on the street until prohibited from doing so again by the Krakow bakers guild in 1496.

 

Polish Protected Geographical Indication Symbol
Polish Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) Symbol

Skipping ahead quite some time in the history of obwarzanek, we’ve made it to 2010. The obwarzanek krakowski (denoting that it’s originally from Krakow) was added to the European Union’s Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) list that year, meaning that something by that name could only be sold in Krakow and Wieliczka counties. The PGI symbol mandates a specific weight, production process, and shape for whichever food item falls under its aegis, although the ingredients don’t all have to come from Krakow/Wieliczka.

So, if you see something called obwarzanek being sold in another part of Poland, Chicago, or Giza, it’s a counterfeit! Step away from the fake, and visit Krakow for the real deal:

 

Delightful Seafood at Marajillo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

pulpo zarandeado / octopus nayarit-style mexico
Pulpo Zarandeado, Restaurante Marajillo, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

I’ve got to show a hint of appreciation to a lackluster Airbnb for having introduced me to one of the best octopus dishes I’ve ever tried.

Marajillo, a small, noisy restaurant and bar in the middle of nowhere touristy Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was mostly a bright spot during my brief stay in that tourism hub. Although I cannot recommend the comparatively bland and insipid ceviche Vallarta, the pulpo zarandeado, chicharrón de pescado (fried fish resembling pork rinds), and aguachile were excellent.

Although the verb zarandear generally refers to shaking and jostling something, in cooking, it refers to a style from the central western Mexican state of Nayarit. In this case, it means to split something — usually fish — from head to tail, and grilling it on a rack over hot coals. My dish at Marajillo was pulpo, or octopus, one of my favorites from the wide world of mariscos mexicanos, or Mexican seafood:

Tetetlán, an Architectural Gem of a Restaurant in Mexico City

Avocado Pizza Tetetlán Mexico City
Avocado Pizza at Tetetlán

Originally the location of horse stables for a client of Luis Barragán, Mexico’s most well-known modern architect, Tetetlán, a Mexico City restaurant specializing in local ingredients, is the result of an extensive remodeling effort by an art collector.

Although a bit snobbish, I was quite taken by the combination of the emphasis on local ingredients — for instance, some of the greens on the avocado pizza were grown at Xochimilco, an ancient irrigation system — as well as Tetetlán’s architecture.

Tetetlán main dining room Mexico City
Tetetlán Restaurant Main Dining Room, Mexico City, Mexico
Tetetlán small dining room Mexico City
Tetetlán Restaurant Secondary Dining Room, Mexico City, Mexico

If you’d like to experience it before you experience, watch my quick review of Tetetlán:

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