Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Book of (Asian Food) Revelations

I just got back from one of the most exciting, delicious, and flat-out FUN vacations of my life, bar none.

The recipe: join a crack team of adventurous eaters assembled by girl & the fig owner Sondra Bernstein on a luxury Silversea Cruise through Hong Kong, four major coastal cities of Vietnam, and Singapore.  Bring your most fearless, hollow-legged and good-natured foodie friend, her male clone (brother), and spectacularly shameless/fearless/hilarious sister-in-law.  Tack on an extra day before and after the cruise to enjoy those ports, and -- why not? -- an extra 24 hour layover in Tokyo so you can see the Tsukiji Fish Market before it moves to its new location in 2014.  With only 24 hours in each city, surrender to the whirlwind of tastes, smells, sounds, colors, cultures, and sights and just do what you can with the time you have -- camera and antibiotics at the ready.  No fear, no pouting you don't have more time, and no thoughts of how swiftly the end of the vacation is approaching.  Just embrace the adventure and go for it.

It's taken me weeks to ponder and review everything we devoured with our eyes and mouths, and choose what to post as my highlights.  The visuals of this trip blew me away -- from the majestic elegance of the cruise ship, the impossibly beautiful sea/sky/cloud/light of Hong Kong at sunset, Tokyo's futuristic urbanity, and the eerie perfection of Singapore streets, to the incredible snapshots you face at every turn all over Vietnam (the most photogenic country I have ever seen).  But this post is going to be about the food revelations of the trip... those thrilling new experiences that open your mind to a new way of tasting, eating, and cooking.  

So here we go, in no particular order because I hate ranking favorites -- choices which are, by definition, all favorites.

1. Bun Bo Hue, Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon (Vietnam).

Bun bo Hue, before you add the extras. The herbs on top
include lots of Chinese coriander, which looks sort of like
dandelion greens but tastes far different. 

After mixing in the veg, chilies, etc., you really start to drool.
Despite my disclaimer above, this may be the dish of the trip. Unlike pure beef pho, the broth for this classic Vietnamese soup is made with beef, pork, and lemongrass, and you'll find both beef and a light-colored, smooth-textured pork mousse/sausage slice nestled in there with the noodles and herbs.  Add fresh lime juice, chili paste, fresh sliced chilies, and additional fresh herbs and veggies to taste as you eat it.  The vegetable add-ons may vary, but typically include shredded banana blossom, shredded raw morning glory, and bean sprouts.  

The rice noodles used for bun bo Hue are thicker than the vermicelli used in pho -- more like a classic spaghetti, so that they don't become mushy in the broth no matter how long it takes you to get through the bowl.  I did not need this extra insurance, but it's a good thing to know.  

We first encountered this dish on our life-altering, back-of-the-motorbike nighttime tour of Saigon's best local street food spots (YOU MUST DO THIS. Contact XO Tours).  Despite the parade of incredible edibles we stuffed ourselves with that night, I was starving for it the next morning, so we sought out a street-food specialist Saigon restaurant (Quan Ngon 138), located just across the street from the Reunification Palace. 

At Quan Ngon 138, you will find lots of pork and tasty
nuoc cham dipping sauce as well as the other condiments.
The second version I had (pictured to the left) included a piece of pork shoulder that still had the skin and fat layers intact -- a visual turnoff for most Americans, including myself, but an important lesson in why we must overcome such aversions.  That piece of pork was unspeakably delicious... fat, skin, and all.  It was also completely tender throughout, no rubber or mush in sight.  I cannot imagine the sad, colorless life I would have had if I hadn't broadened my mind with that piece of pork.

2.  Mystery Bao, Hong Kong (China).

I took this shot the day after, so the bun had
dried up a bit from its original succulence... but it shows
off the varied textures better than the fresh pics I had.
The morning we did dim sum, we really did dim sum.  Two girls, ten dishes, no holds barred.  Neither our prior breakfast of congee and pork buns, nor my partner-in-gluttony's even earlier breakfast at the hotel  held us back at Maxim's Palace City Hall (a fantastic recommendation from Hong Kong native Joe, who sat next to me on the plane ride there).  Among the many delicious items we devoured was this little steamed bun on the dessert cart.  Our favorite cart-driver (who seemed simultaneously impressed and amused with our voraciousness, and kept egging us on to greater glory) told us it was called something like "mai yung pau" -- but since she spoke next to no English, and we spoke zero Cantonese or Mandarin, it's hard to say for sure what this was.  It TASTED like a bun stuffed with sweet, crumbly peanut paste mixed with chunks of cooked unsweetened kabocha squash.  The balance of sweet and savory, gritty and smooth, toothsome and succulent won us over, big time.  Anyone know what the real name is? I'd love to find this little gem again.

3.  Tea-coffee (aka yin yeung, yuanyang, or yuangyang depending whom you ask), Hong Kong (China).

The breakfast we ate just before we hit Maxim's. This
photo is actually of pantyhose milk tea, but the
tea-coffee version looks almost identical -- just a touch
darker, as you would expect.
This staple breakfast drink mixes classic Hong Kong "pantyhose" milk tea (nai cha) with coffee.  The unlikely combination completely enchanted me with its depth of flavor, silky texture (from the milk tea), and just plain uniqueness... it isn't tea, it isn't coffee, it is a wholly different animal with its own set of charms.  According to a variety of sources I read, the name in Mandarin means "mandarin duck," and the drink symbolizes matrimonial harmony -- a nice image for a recipe that unites two such strong, often polarizing characters into something greater than the sum of its parts.

4. Lime Dipping Sauce, Ha Long Bay (Vietnam).

I am hard pressed to think of another dipping sauce as primal, delicious, and simple as this Vietnamese classic.  The first time I tried it at a beach restaurant on Ha Long Bay, I fell head over heels in love. I had vivid, sordid fantasies of the stuff for days afterwards.  I later confirmed (in the authoritative and stunningly beautiful Taste Vietnam: The Morning Glory Cookbook) that this miraculous ambrosia consists only of a soft sea salt, ground black pepper, and fresh lime (and, in this version, sliced fresh chilies as well).  You squeeze the lime's juice into the dry ingredients to make a slurry, then dip whatever you want into it.  I cannot stress enough how delicious this was. 

5.  Banh Mi Thit Xiu, Hoi An (Vietnam).

We found this spicy little beauty at The Market Cooking School & Restaurant, where we picked up countless tips and details about Vietnamese cooking (and scored our autographed copies of Taste Vietnam, which was authored by the owner).  Our market guide recommended this particular banh mi as the most popular among the Vietnamese workers who go there for lunch:  sliced pork pâté,  sliced roast pork belly, crunchy fresh and pickled veggies, aromatic Vietnamese herbs, and generous dollops of local Hoi An chili paste stuffed into a thin Vietnamese baguette spread with mayonnaise.  This is one of those sandwiches you know as you're eating it that you can never replicate at home.  Treasure the memory of its endless layers of flavor, for that is all you'll be taking home.  Alas.  Naturally, I'm still compelled to try to approximate this, so will keep you posted if the reverse engineering attempts are successful.

6. Chicken Yakitori, Tokyo (Japan).

What, chicken yakitori made the favorite list?! Yes, but this was no ordinary chicken, my friends.  This was THE most intense chicken flavor I've ever experienced, and it came just from skewered chicken thighs seasoned with salt and grilled -- I watched the family do this from about three feet away, and there were no tricks involved.  Incredible. Why can't we get chicken like this at home?? Even the most organic, free-range, well-educated chicken in California doesn't taste this good.  Thank you, Yakitori Tori-Cho, for this revelation.  (Good luck finding this place though, we stumbled upon it by chance after failing to find either of the two yakitori places recommended to us.  Mom and pop and son kinda place, and we were the only white people in sight. Fantastic.) 

7.  Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo (Japan).

Sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo was a bucket list item for me.  They say there is no fresher, more authentic sushi in the world.  We hit Daiwa Sushi in Building 6 on the recommendation of Naoto, a former colleague of mine from my Kinokuniya Publications Service days.  Never in my life have I eaten such uni, ika, toro, anago, and tuna belly.  Incomparable freshness.  The toro was probably my favorite, so I'm showcasing it here.  Well worth the one-hour wait, and the long long flight to get there.  CHECK.

The bucket list is looking a lot shorter after this trip, so I think I should add a few more things. Foremost among them: securing a source for excellent Bun Bo Hue in Napa.