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:

 

A Real Oyster Cracker

Some call them water crackers, Philadelphia crackers, or Trenton crackers, but they’re most commonly called oyster crackers.

Although Westminster Bakers Co. claims to have invented them as early as 1828, officially that record is from an 1847 listing for the Adam Exton Cracker Bakery. No matter what the correct answer is, they’re ever-so-slightly modeled after oysters, and started off as a popular topping for oyster stews.

American oyster crackers
Westminster Baking Co. Oyster Crackers, Santa Barbara, California, United States

To me, oyster crackers have always been reminiscent of being slightly less salty versions of Saltines.

But what if I told you that there’s a “leveled up” version of these so-called oyster crackers that actually contain the aphrodisiacal mollusk?

For a sample of those, you might have to go — or these days, find an awfully generous local — to grab you these snacks. Why?

Because they’re in Japan.

A random stop in Kurashiki, a pleasant little canal town known for its centuries-old rice warehouses, helped lead me to bicchu kurashiki Setouchian (in Japanese, 備中倉敷 瀬戸内庵). This particular store specialized in local gastronomy, and I must say they had some delicious offerings that you may never have expected to see; for instance, I remember going back for sample after sample of their orange butter and (famous in the region) peach butter.

I did end up buying a jar of the peach butter, but what struck my attention for a bit of Japanese food fusion was the oyster senbei:

oyster senbei cracker kurashiki japan
Bicchu Kurashiki Setouchian (牡蠣薄焼き煎餅 – 倉敷市、備中倉敷 瀬戸内庵), Oyster Senbei/Cracker, Kurashiki, Japan

Senbei (煎餅・せんべい) are rice crackers, local snack staples throughout much of the country. Many are flavored with sesame seeds, seaweed, and/or soy sauce. This one, however, had oysters BAKED IN, ostensibly from the nearby Setouchi Inlet.

It was an umami feast, but after a few of those, I needed something sweet.

So that’s where the peach butter came into play ….

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!

Mar Azul Tomato (Spain)

If you were asked to name your absolute favorite food in the world, what do you think it would be? An ingredient? Something seasonal? Something you have only found overseas? A pastry?

For me, it’s the tomato. There are so many varieties and hybrids to keep me occupied — e.g. cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, pear tomatoes, kumatoes, and baconatoes (I wish) — not to mention they’re healthy, can be eaten as is or turned into sauces, and even work as a hand fruit.

Barcelona supermarket tomatoes
My Tomato Paradise, Ametller Origen Supermarket, Barcelona, Spain

A hand fruit? But tomatoes aren’t all sweet. For the savory ones, I might eat them plain, put some seasoned salt and pepper on them, maybe even a little olive oil. Occasionally though, I encounter a sweet one that rivals baklava, raspberry chocolate cake, or any processed dessert.

In this case, I’m talking about the tomate Mar azul (aka MarAzul).

mar azul tomato spain
Mar Azul Tomato, FROIZ Supermarket, Vigo, Spain

Created in the beautiful Mediterranean climate of southeastern Spain (link in Spanish), the Mar azul (in Spanish, blue sea) gets its particularly unusual purple-blue color due to the significant amount of anthocyaninsantioxidants that give some fruit/berries their red, blue, purple, or black color.

Due to the anthocyanins, this tomate is even higher in vitamin C and vitamin B6 (one that supports the immune and nervous system); it was also one of the most delicious foods I have ever eaten.

Indeed, the MarAzul is one of endless reasons I love visiting supermarkets no matter I go. And I can’t wait to go back to Spain to have myself a tomato buffet.

Chinese Desserts: Fried Mantou with Condensed Milk

When much of the world thinks of Chinese food, do bread, dairy and dessert often come to mind?  I’m not even referring to ingredients or dishes from hundreds or thousands of years ago, or Chinese restaurant kitchens adapted to local tastes.

My introduction to 馒头 (mán​tou), steamed wheat bread originally from northern China, is actually one of my fondest food memories.  In 2004 I visited Singapore with my dad, and a couple of natives invited us to try chili crab.  Not only was the crab delicious – but it was equally fun to sop up the chili sauce with fried mantou.

It’s easy to satisfy salty and umami cravings in China, but what if wanted to grab me somethin’ sweet?

From having lived all over Shenzhen, China – a city built by and on internal migration – I had come to get familiar with menus from regional Chinese cuisines.  However, based on those experiences, there seemed to be no better way to conclude a meal drowned in reused cooking oil and loaded with MSG than by getting served A) sliced tomatoes covered in granulated sugar, B) caramelized potatoes that will singe your mouth or C) durian anything.

Shenzhen, China- Fried Manotu with Condensed Milk

Or, occasionally, there was choice D) fried (金炸 jīnzhà) mantou with 炼奶 (liàn​nǎi), or sweetened condensed milk.


Have you tried this combo before?  If you’re really looking to overdo it, order it with can of root beer.

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?

Bom Apetite! A Bunch of Brazilian Bites

Since my first visit to Brazil in 2007, it occurred to me that I still didn’t know much about the culinary landscape in that massive country.  Sure, there’s the crowd-pleasing açaí, and the churrascaria that makes you walk at a 90-degree angle after indulging a bit too much, but what else is there?  A second visit to Brazil in 2016, via Manaus to visit Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro, helped me learn just a bit more about the vast Brazilian culinary landscape.

Manaus, Brazil - Cupuaçu Juice
How nice of them to place it in a measuring cup; is that how nutrition labels are done in Brazil?

As I mentioned above, my layover in Manaus – the largest city in the Amazon basin – was not only long, but also from 22:30 ’til about 05:00.  With those hours, and without having visited the city before, I decided to wander around the mostly deserted streets looking for snacks to check off the list.

Finally, I ended up at some casual late-night outdoor cafeteria with a welcome list of tropical fruit juices and shakes.  Though acerola was tempting, it’s rather easy to find added to drinks in Japanese convenience stores.  So, cupuaçusem/não açúcar (without/no sugar, as usual) was the easy choice.

It wasn’t a terribly memorable flavor though.  Somewhat creamy, slightly sweet and sour, but nothing too inspired.  What the heck, Amazon??  Even the Brazilian tap water had more going on.

Next.

Pão de Queijo Manaus Brazil
Pão de Queijo, Manaus Airport, Brazil

Pão de queijo, aka cheese bread, usually made from cassava flour and Minas cheese.

This is by no means an ad for the above chain; it wasn’t good.  However, it’s my only surviving photo of pão de queijo, taken at a time where sleep had been missing from my schedule for nearly 36 hours.

In short, they’re savory.  They’re addictive.  They’re unhealthy.  Demorou! (Heck, yeah!)

No wonder they made it onto the list.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Brigadeiro
Brigadeiros desserts in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

BrigadeirosSupposedly, they were created at a time when fresh milk and sugar were hard to come by, so someone decided to mix sweetened condensed milk, butter, and chocolate.  But then, what was in the chocolate?

In any event, these too, are difficult to stop eating.  If they were all mashed together into one giant pie, I wouldn’t have even tried them this time.  Damn their convenient take-away size.

Tapioca Vegetarian Sandwich Açai Shake
Tapioca Vegetarian Sandwich and Açai Shake, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A couple of friends had mentioned that I should check out a casual Rio chain called polis sucos to have a glass of açaí.

After trying it a few times during that trip, I really didn’t take to açaí. The flavor transported me more to the Pacific Northwest of the US – which is usually a good thing for food – than to anywhere tropical, though it was by no means as dull as the cupuaçu.  Also, the tapioca sandwich was grainy and probably has a cousin in sandpaper.

Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil - Churrascaria
Churrascaria (Brazilian All-You-Can-Eat), Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

Thankfully, the exchange rate between US dollars and Brazilian reais was still favorable.  Consequently, I had to try one of the all-you-can-eat barbecue places.  In addition to the numerous cuts/types of meat, they also had some Lebanese/Syrian and Japanese items, likely due A) to the influences on Brazil by immigrants from those countries, and B) to common places of origin of tourists.  The drink is cashew apple juice.


Do you think a comida foi na moral (the food was better than expected)? What would you try?

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:

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