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?

Mexican Tequesquite, aka Slack Lime

Last week, I took a trip to Roosevelt Ave. on the eastern frontier of Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City.  The mission expressly revolved around eating food from Mexico.  Continue walking east on Roosevelt Ave. towards Corona, and finding a taco will be as easy as finding a plastic surgeon in Seoul.

I walked into a Mexican supermarket called Bravo and strolled right up to the wall of spices, herbs and who-knows-what.  Sometimes, I-know-what, with a fair amount of culinary travel experience in Mexico under my belt; but even if I didn’t know Spanish, some foodstuffs like albahaca (basil), perejil seco (dried parsley) and tomillo (thyme) might still be familiar.

But then we have this one …

tequesquite slack lime mexican product
Los Compadres-brand Tequesquite (or Slack Lime) Mexican Cooking Product

Known as such.  What am I supposed to make of that? Did someone royally screw up spelling mesquite?  At first glance, it looks like clay, or stale psyllium husks.

Tequesquite, what are you? Similar to salt but composed of various minerals, it originates from the depths of various lakes in what is now Distrito Federal (Mexico City) and the state of MichoacánTrivia time: Name two more Mexican states (if you say Texas, I’d like to see your globe).  The word stems from the Náhuatl language, whereas tetl means rock and quixquitl signifies gushing or sprouting.  During the dry seasons, the beds of salt lakes such as Texcoco would be exposed, thus giving rise to the practical uses of tequesquite.

Aztecs and their descendants predominantly used tequesquite to leaven corn dough, but it was also used to soften corn kernels, as well as preserve the green color of nopales, or cacti.  On your next trip to Mexico, when you order a tamale or a corunda, its triangular cousin from the state of Michoacán, you might have tequesquite to thank.

From the Wayback Machine re: mexconnect.com

Oh, and as for assigning it an English name, there’s a possibility that builder’s or slack lime are contenders.  Slightly off-putting for use on supermarket shelves, but I can hear an avant-garde Home Depot calling its name.


Have you ever made tamales or corundas?  Are you able to find tequesquite?

A Very Brief Introduction to Food in Chinatown

Some of my favorite neighborhoods in any city are the Chinatowns.  Since childhood, not only have I been curious about the Chinese characters, but also the grocery stores, wet markets, and traditional Chinese medicine dispensaries.

Even though I’ve spent a significant time in China and Hong Kong, I still get a kick out of how easily one can find certain products a short train ride away.  So, here’s your crash course on some staples – and specialties – that might be at a Chinatown near you.

Chinese dates
A Pile of Chinese Dates, Changsha, China

Jujubes/Red Dates (红枣/hóng​zǎo)- I can’t get enough of them…the dried version, that is.  In fact, I rarely saw the fresh kind, but the dried is a nice snack, not so much if you forget that there’s a pit inside.  In China, jujubes can also be found in soups, milk and yoghurt, the latter two styles being frequent cravings of mine.  They often hail from the northwestern region of Xinjiang.   Slightly smoky, somewhat sweet and nothing like the Deglet Noors and Medjools commonly seen in the US.

supermarket jellyfish
Jellyfish for Sale, Supermarket, China

Jellyfish (海蜇/hǎi​zhé)- This is the edible variety; in other words, steer clear of the 水母 (shuǐ​mǔ)!

I’ve only eaten jellyfish a couple of times, with the first being somewhere in Manhattan in the late 90s.  It was colored orange, and you could slurp the tentacles much more skillfully than spaghetti.  Unusual texture to be sure…salty lanyard, maybe?

salted eggs
Chinese Salted Eggs, China

Salted Duck Eggs (咸蛋/xiándàn)- Looks like I was taken to one of those scam-riddled gem shops, doesn’t it?  Probably not.  Even worse, it’s a bunch of preserved duck eggs packed in moist, salted charcoal.  Because that’s a thing now.  If this hasn’t already whetted your appetite, you’ll find that the egg has become gelatinous and holds a firm, bright yolk, perfect for representing the moon.  In mooncakes.  Nasty, but only when when a salted duck egg rears its unwelcome self in the middle of one filled with taro or coconut.

Which reminds me, I’ve eaten a slew of possibly unusual foods, but a durian mooncake stuffed with a salted duck egg sounds like the edible equivalent of eating sashimi on the banks of the Ganges.

supermarket kelp
Two Types of Kelp, Chinese Supermarket

Kelp/Brown Algae (海藻/hǎi​zǎo)- more and more, I’m seeing this in health food stores, and it’s likely due to kelp’s high iodine content.  In other words, it’s possibly beneficial to your thyroid.  In other words, good for metabolism, hair and skin.  Which is to say, in ten years, this will probably be disproved, but most importantly, kelp wouldn’t know that.

turtle shells market
Turtles and Turtle Shells for Sale, Yueyang, China

Turtles (龟/guī)- A symbol of longevity, but that’s history.  Just like the turtles that used to be in those shells.  So it could then be a picture of a 鳖 (biē), a soft-shelled turtle.

Turtle shells were used historically in China to predict the future; the carapace (shell) would be heated, with the resultant cracks being interpreted by fortune tellers.  Furthermore, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM/中药/zhōngyào ), the shells are used to “tonify” the kidneys and liver.

lotus pods seeds
Lotus Seeds, Chinese Street Food, Wuhan, China

Lotus seeds (莲子/lián​zǐ)- it’s a bonus photo, because I only found these on the street.  Seasonal yet plentiful, lackluster yet crunchy and generally not worth the small effort needed to be enjoyed.  Cheap though, and could tide you over until your next kelp turtle sandwich.  All you have to do is visit a city park and start picking away at the lotus pods.


See anything you like?

My Top Tastes of Twenty-Twenty One (Sorry, 2021)

We’re nearing end of the Ugo Boncompagni calendar, which means I will be sharing my favorite meals of the 2021.  Though 2020 understandably didn’t get much love in terms of culinary travel, 2021 flipped that pandemic fear around a full 180°.

Without further ado, let’s go eating around the world – fine, two continents – and discover the best of 2021.

Sopa de Lima, Jugo de Chaya, Sikil P’aak, Ix Cat Ik, Tradicional Cocina Maya-Valladolid, Mexico

Ix Cat Ik, Valladolid, Mexico

You might be thinking, he’s talking about the soup.  He loved the soup.

Actually, whereas the sopa de lima – Yucatan lime soup, and jugo de chaya – a Yucatan variety of spinach – were good, the star of the show was the sikil p’aak, a pumpkin seed and habanero salsa.  Both the pumpkin seeds – pepitas – and habaneros were roasted, and mixed with fresh tomatoes and chives from the restaurant’s garden.

I had a lot of salsa this year, but this one might be the winner.  Fortunately, tens of other salsas are all tied for second.

Aguachile, Tlaquebagre, Tlaquepaque, Mexico

Tlaquebagre, in Tlaquepaque, Mexico

From the city of Guadalajara, I took the metro to its satellite city of Tlaquepaque, hoping to see its famous upside-down umbrellas.  Nope, sorry, not this time.

However, the day trip wasn’t a complete loss, as I had stumbled across a real hole-in-the-wall by the name of Tlaquebagre.

Seafood was the name of the game, and I was craving shrimp.  I ordered an aguachile – “chili water” – a Mexican dish in which shrimp is prepared with lime juice and serrano or chiltepin chilies, and served immediately.  Add in avocadoes and red onions, and you’ve got yourself a delectable puddle of briny heat.

Seafood Picnic, Mc-Fisher, La Paz, Mexico

Mc-Fisher in La Paz, Mexico

Eating seafood on the beach in Mexico.  Yep.  And I’d do that all day long…eat seafood, that is.

Mc-Fisher, unusual name notwithstanding, was something else–  Stingray soup, octopus with melted cheese tacos, marlin tacos, a taco with all three of those ocean dwellers, SHRIMP and beans.  My only complaint was that the tortillas were meh, but I was pretty sure that the rest of the country could make up for that.

If you want good seafood, you want Mc-Fisher.

Smoked Salmon and Sweet Potato Tots, Calumet Fisheries, Chicago, USA

Over the summer, I had a long layover in Chicago.  Having already tried the adopted Chicagoland favorites –  deep dish pizza, hot dogs without ketchup, and my pick, giardiniera – I looked up hyperlocal spots.

Enter, Calumet Fisheries.

All the way in South Chicago, Calumet Fisheries opened in 1948, and became known for smoking fish on oak logs, in a smokehouse adjacent to their shop.

An order of sweet potato tots complimented the deliciously smoky, melt-in-your-mouth hunk of salmon that I ended up eating as if it were an apple.  It needed no extra flavoring, and would be most welcome as a Christmas gift sent directly to my plate.

Eggplant Tostada and Mixed Seafood Tostada, Contramar, Mexico City, Mexico

Contramar, Mexico City, Mexico

Don’t get me wrong, that mixed seafood tostada on the right was a treat.  It’s Contramar, after all, one of the more well-known seafood restaurants in Mexico City.

But I must say that their eggplant tostada – tostada de berenjena – was my vegetable dish of the year.  Or, berry dish?
It was buttery, yet you could still discern the mild sweetness of the eggplant.  Specifically, I ordered it since I seldom notice eggplant on menus in Mexico.  If Contramar, or any other Mexican eatery would do a grilled eggplant/meat combo, that would likely be on my list for 2022.

Eggplant, Shrimp and Ricotta Pizza, Broadway Pizza, White Plains, New York, United States

Broadway Pizza, North White Plains, United States

Shrimp on a pizza, what in tarnation???

(On closer inspection, there’s no meat on this list.  That has to change.)

The cashier said they don’t “normally allow shrimp as an add-on,” so I reminded me that they worked on tips.  A fistful of dollars later, and I had my slice of the year– breaded eggplant, shrimp, and ricotta cheese.

Next time, I will see if they could put all of that stuff in a calzone.

Flaky Buttery Excellence?, Blé sucré, Paris, France

Blé sucré, Paris, France

It’s my first time in Paris in 23 years, what am I going to eat?

Cheese, butter, and pastries, obvi.

Hey Paris, where’s “the best” pain au chocolat?  Hard to say, but Blé sucré is one recommendation.

So, I take my walk to the 12th arrondissement – district – and queue up for my first ever Parisian pain au chocolat.

Sold out.

However, as I stared at the empty space where that would have been, a baker whips out a tray of something even more tantalizing (in the photo, on the left).  I don’t know the name of it – perhaps you could help out – but it was a flaky, buttery, frangipane-filled viennoiserie.

Was there a more decadent dessert eaten in 2021?  Perhaps.  Was that decadent dessert more delicious?  It’s not on this list, now is it?


What were your top meals of 2021?

Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン)

Located on Shikoku, the smallest of the four primary islands of Japan, Tokushima is a small seaside city best known for a 400-year old dance called the Awa Odori, an historic indigo trade, a citrus fruit known as sudachi, and Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン).

Tokushima ramen may not be one of the better known bowls of noodles throughout Japan, having only been popularized at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in 1999.  It’s saltier and sweeter than the average Japanese ramen, generally has thin and soft noodles, and unbeknownst to me at the time, comes in three different types of broth.

Tokushima Ramen at 麺王

The most common broth is brown, using tonkotsu (豚骨), or pork bone broth, and a darker soy sauce.  Fried pork, spring onions, and a raw egg (already mixed-in in my photo) round out the Tokushima style.

Other types of Tokushima ramen might be yellow, due to chicken or vegetable broth and a lighter soy sauce, or whitish, using tonkotsu and a lighter soy sauce.   Also, rice is a common accompaniment to Tokushima ramen, as if there weren’t enough carbs on the table.

Oaxaca’s Crunchy Tlayuda (Mexico)

After meeting some affable Mexican folks in my travels – including through becoming an impromptu translator in China – I started traveling more throughout their country, increasing my awareness of regional Mexican cuisines. I will cover more of these food discoveries stories in later posts, but for now, we’re going to take a look at the tlayuda, the Oaxacan specialty affectionately known as the “Mexican pizza.”  Hmm.

In Oaxaca, the word tlayuda generally refers to a fried or toasted giant corn tortilla.   They were first consumed in pre-Hispanic times — that is, before Hernán Cortés started marauding civilizations in the 1500s; in the native Nahuatl language, tlayuda is derived from tlao-li, or husked corn, and uda, or abundance.

Tlayuda are eaten either with granulated sugar, or with any number of savory ingredients…

Time for the good stuff! 

Savory tlayuda are first, smothered in a mix of refried beans and pork lard, the latter called asiento.  Then…whatever!  For the one above, I ordered it with ground chorizo, squash blossoms, quesillo (Oaxaca cheese; roughly similar to mozzarella), radishes, avocados, tomatoes, and a couple of flora unique to the region.

On the left, the green pod is called guaje.  Although the pod is inedible, the seeds have an eclectic flavor profile, something of a grassy pumpkin seed.  More importantly, the guaje, being plentiful in the region during the time of Cortés, lent present-day Oaxaca its name.  Since the Spanish couldn’t pronounce Huāxyacac, the Nahuatl word for the plant, they abridged it to become Oaxaca.  So much easierright???

And on the right, pipicha, or chepiche.  Does it bear a striking resemblance to tarragon?  Yes…but the flavor is more like a citrus cilantro, with a hint of minty licorice.  Used by Aztecs and other ancient tribes to treat the liver, pipicha also are high in antioxidants, and can be used to cleanse the palate after a meal.  I felt that the flavor was quite strong, so I would recommend using it sparingly.


What would you put on your ideal tlayuda?

Khachapuri Adjaruli (Georgia’s Bread Boats)

I briefly visited the country of Georgia twice, in 2008 and 2018.  For my first visit, I was a bit wet-behind-the-ears, unsure of what I was doing there, and more importantly, what to eat.

After a random meal at a wine cellar in Tbilisi, its capital, I was floored by the deliciousness not only of the food, but also the wine.  And even after piling on the kebabs, the pomegranate seeds, the walnut sauces, and the spontaneous lessons in viniculture by the waitstaff, I wanted to know more about Georgian food.  So, I sampled baklava, cherry juice, quince jam, and khinkali (dumpling)…all excellent.

Yet, it took me the return trip to New York to find out about the mother-ship of savory bread, that being khachapuri.

Khachapuri, Adjari-style

Khachapuri (in Georgian, ხაჭაპური) is the catch-all for cheese-filled leavened bread, whereas “khach” = curd, and “puri” = breadDifferent regions in Georgia have their own methods to prepare khachapuri, but today’s post will focus squarely on the version from Adjara, along its southwestern border with Turkey.

Khachapuri Adjaruli with Eggplant in Walnut Sauce and Cornelian Cherry Nectar

Khachapuri Adjaruli, quite simply, is a carbohydrate AND fat paradise.  What does that mean?  Inside of the bread canoe, you will find butter, eggs, and briny Sulguni cheese.  Nothing leafy and green – i.e. healthy – to get in the way, just pure corporeal malevolence.

Brooklyn’s Toné Café, where I first tried Khachapuri Adjaruli (notice the slices of butter in the foreground)

How do you eat it?  Mix up the butter, eggs, and cheese to create a “soup,” then start tearing off the bread bit by bit, dunking it into your the heady mix.  After you’re done, you may not want to eat for the rest of the year – make sure you’re trying it on December 31st to cheat – but oh is it ever worth it.

On my second visit to Tbilisi, I literally took a cab from the airport to Cafe Khachapuri, not because I read that it was good, but because just look at that name.

Ethiopian Breakfast: Chechebsa (Kita Firfir)

Addis Ababa - Chechebsa

Chechebsa, or kita firfir, (in Amharic, ቂጣ ፍርፍር ጨጨብሳ)  is a breakfast food hailing from Ethiopia.

Chechebsa’s primary ingredient is teff, a grain nearly the size of a poppy seed, which comes from present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Teff is used to make injera, the sour spongy bread ubiquitous in Ethiopian restaurants throughout the world.

In this dish, teff is used to prepare kita, a bread similar to chapati, which also happens to contain the Ethiopian spice blend berbere, as well as niter kibbe, or clarified butter (ghee); ghee just refers to butter in which all of the water has been strained.  Then, it’s all fried, chopped up, and placed in bowl, ready to fill up any unsuspecting ferenji (foreigner).

Although some versions can be made with vegetables, the chechebsa I ordered was served with honey.  Without a sweetener, it was very dry, and somehow even heavier.

Desserts: Calabaza en Tacha (Mexico)

For all of those Mexicophiles out there, you probably already know that the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival is approaching at the end of October.  In fact, it’s a days-long celebration, with lots of dancing, music, and face-painters, all in honor of the dead that return for a brief period to be with their relatives.

However, it was the Spanish conquistadors that shifted the festivities to coincide with Halloween (aka All Saints Day, a day of Catholic remembrance of the deceased).

Originally, the Aztecs celebrated their “great feast of the dead” (called Xocotlhuetzi) in present-day July/August, offering to their deities seasonal native crops such as beans, corn, and pumpkin.  The pumpkin -more commonly known as Cushaw squash and specifically Cucurbita argyrosperma (from Latin, “silver-seeded gourd”), was at that time prepared with honey in a fire pit.

When the Spanish Queen Isabel of Castile (Castilla) tried the pumpkin for the first time, it became a hit, even adopting one of her titles as its name– calabaza de castilla.

Isabel…that name sounds familiar.  In short, she was the queen of Spain when Columbus set sail for the western Atlantic.  Along with Spanish marauders, Columbus took sugar cane to the Caribbean, which eventually made it to Mexico in the early 1500s. Now that we’ve got our two main ingredients, let’s explore the dessert du jour, calabaza en tacha.

Calabaza de Tacha

Whereas calabaza refers to pumpkin, the tacha is a bit more confusing.  Formally, tacha means blemish, or tack (as in thumbtack).  To get more esoteric, a tacha is another name for a pot that is used to boil certain foods.

Water and cinnamon (cinnamon is actually from Sri Lanka) are first boiled in the pot, then a heaving mass of piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar) gets added. Thereafter, the only must is the pumpkin, and typically its seeds.  The version I tried, at the Mercado de San Juan in Mexico City, was a real treat, counting sweet potato (camote) and guava (guayaba) as bonuses.  Cloves are often added near the end of the preparation.

Calabaza de tacha is a delicious blend of autumnal, international, and tropical flavors with a touch of local history that helps keep Mexico among my top spots for culinary travels.

Vuelva a la Vida (Mexico)

Ciudad del Carmen, in the Mexican state of Campeche, is not a star in Mexico’s tourism constellation.  It’s a petrol-oriented city on the Gulf of Mexico, hot year-round, and lacking in terms of attractions– its most-visited point of interest is Puente El Zacatal (The Zacatal/Pasture Bridge), the longest in the country.  Coincidentally, I had driven over this bridge in 2018, but didn’t stop to check out the city.

But, then you must remember, Ciudad del Carmen is still in Mexico, so the food’s probably good.  Considering that Campeche is the center of the shrimp industry on Mexico’s gulf coast, as long as you stick with seafood, you’re in good hands.

Shrimp Traffic Circle, Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico

Eager to try the local version of one of my favorite crustaceans, I randomly stopped for a bite at a restaurant called Coctelería Cajun, located right by El Zacatal Bridge.

Now, if you’re a fan of ceviche, you will find that the Mexican variety is quite different from the Peruvian.  In Mexico, ceviche and cóctel go hand-in-hand, offering up a mix of fish and seafood submerged in Clamato/tomato juice/ketchup and served in a glass or bowl.  Although I’m partial to the Peruvian exemplar, I’ve got a weakness for mariscos (seafood), so I had to try something.

That something became Vuelva a la Vida.

Meaning “return to life,” it is a popular hangover cure throughout Mexico.  Throw in a whole range of things from beyond the shore…think shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, and then on top of that, add in red onion and cilantro, and if you’re like me, some wildly spicy salsa.  Don’t fret, for the sweetness of the tomatoes in the liquid base will help soothe some of the spiciness.

Though I really don’t ever want ketchup unless it’s beside a french fry, I couldn’t resist the assortment of marine life swimming in the glass.

Next time, I will see if they can add crab to the motley crew.

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