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.

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!

My First Digital Food Photo

Next month will mark 18 years since my first digital food photo. Whew. Oddly enough, I didn’t have any interest in food photography until I studied abroad in Asia; in other words, I have many digital photos from before August 2004, but they were mostly just blurry images of airports, or my hands covering the lens.

Well then, what was my first food photo? A slice of pizza? Gum? A picture of me face-down next to a bottle of tequila?

Nope.

In August 2004, my dad and I were visiting Singapore (and subsequently Bangkok) for the first time. During one of our frequent dips into a shopping center for much-coveted air conditioning, we decided to check out a random restaurant. Neither of us knew what they were serving, which made it that much more enticing curious.

Turns out, it was Thai hot pot, called suki (สุกี้) in Thai.

thai hot pot suki
Thai Suki (Hot Pot), Singapore

Having scarcely eaten Thai food, let alone any sort of hot pot, getting served a big ol’ plate of je ne sais quoi was a good primer for Thailand. To this day, I haven’t figured out what was boiling in that pot, but I can tell you that I haven’t had it since.


Do you remember/have your first digital food photo?

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:

 

Let’s Get Muddy: A Mexican Food Idiom

I spent several months in Mexico living with a Mexican woman who not only showed me around her country, but also taught me some albures. Albures are mischievous idioms which I believe help make Mexican Spanish so fun and alluring to speak.

For starters, use of the doble sentido, or double entendre, is very popular in casual speech. If you’re with a group of Mexican friends, be prepared to get playfully embarrassed by someone. Chatting in Mexico to me seems authentic … you just have to know the double meanings  of some of the words to delight in the good-natured ribbing.

Take this one as an example:

atascate que hay lodo mexican idiom

I saw this sign at El Sinaloense restaurant in Mazatlán, one of a number of popular beach resort cities along the Pacific. “Atáscate (ahora) que hay lodo” roughly translates as “get yourself stuck (now) since there’s mud.”

And again, the sign was at a restaurant.

That was your one hint.

OK, here comes the explanation:

Pretend your a swine, curly tail and all. An inauspicious kismet awaits you, but that’s temporarily on hold due to the torrential rains. Your once dry pig pen is now a muddy paradise.

You’re lapping up the mud so much that you get stuck in it.

All of that mud.

guacamole fish tortillas Mazatlán Mexico
Guacamole and Fish, El Sinaloense Restaurant, Mazatlán, Mexico

Human analogy: you’re one person, but you’ve ordered as if you were three. Look at all of that food in front of you.

The food is the mud, the guacamole is the paradise, and you’re a glutton for punishment.

Just don’t say the phrase in polite society ….

Bon Appétit!

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?

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:

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!)

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