Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Hot, sour, salty and sweet

Bento box in Shinjuku park, Tokyo.
Thailand & Tokyo
back in 1999, in the days before digital cameras were readily available and people photographed everything they ate for their blog, my husband and I spent a wonderful honeymoon in Hong Kong and Bali. Fast forward 11 years to 2010, the digital age, and my husband and I decided to take a belated 10th anniversary vacation somewhere equally exotic. Tokyo and Thailand seemed to be a good choice. And being a modern girl with technology now at my fingertips, I photographed (nearly) everything I ate for my blog!

Probably the most popular Thai food, the curry, in this case red, full of huge prawns and sweet, sour flavours
The food of Thailand is exquisite, increasingly so in it's natural habitat, where it forms an effortless backdrop to the culture and just makes sense, as any national cuisine does in it's own land. 

But before we sampled the delights awaiting us, we visited Tokyo and the food there was no less exotic, interesting and delicious. First stop, due to the 4am morning rise due to jet lag, was Tsukiji fish market, a vast cavern of endless corridors brimming with fish of all kinds and sizes. 

We sampled some raw tuna caught fresh that morning and the taste was so strong it made my mouth tingle for hours. Only one thing comes to mind when searching for an adjective to describe the taste: blood. Although it sounds unappealing, that salty, briny, iron-y tang was the epitome of fresh and we knew at once we would never eat tuna like that again any where else but Japan.

I had heard my Japanese students often talk about the fact that, in Japan, you can buy alcohol from vending machines on the streets. I remember seeing just such a thing in Hong Kong and was determined to find one in Tokyo. It took a long time to hunt one down, but when we did it was like finding a lost treasure. What was particularly intriguing was the fact that it was on a very quiet road, away from any clubs or bars, obviously set up to provide those thirsts only beer can quench while walking through the streets. I was surprised to see an ID slot, whereby the machine would check your drinking age before dispensing the booze. My students had me believe this was available to anyone who wanted it, Japanese culture being so polite and respectful that no one would break the law deliberately. We didn't try it, thinking our ID probably wouldn't work, although it would have been fun to see what happens if you are underage, would a policeman jump out of the machine and arrest you?

Most Japanese restaurants have these plastic food displays outside. Assuming they are for people to see what they are likely to order, this one was in the airport. If the famous Izakayas had had such displays or even a window to see down into the bar, I may not have chickened out of going to one. I was determined to eat at one of these fun places, but nervously found that most of them were underground, which made it impossible to see how many people were down there or what kind of food they served. Neil was up for bravely risking it, but tales of certain places disliking foreigners and food of a dubious nature were ringing alarm bells in my head and we ended up going to a tapas bar - in Tokyo. The only reason I forgave myself was the fact that we lined up for an hour to eat a sushi breakfast that morning at 8am at the fish market. A small consolation.

And so to Thailand. Usually food is better in it's own country, but sometimes the opposite may be true. A lot of people say the sushi in Vancouver is as good as in Japan, so it's always interesting to compare, if you get the chance. The food in Thailand was better than anywhere else I have tasted it. The fruits and vegetables were fresher and crisper, more refreshing. The curries had a deeper flavour, the seafood sweeter and the beers drier and more welcome. Of course, the fact that we were on vacation, relaxed and happy always helps.
Red chicken curry garnished with shredded kaffir lime leaves, chilies and Thai basil
We also took a Thai cooking class while there which proved to be a very interesting experience. The food was incredible, not least because we made it ourselves, but also the amazing freshness of the ingredients. But what I remember most is the stifling, humid heat which bore down upon us as we poised, spatula in hand, in front of our individual cooking stations, feeling the perspiration drip down our backs. This was easily endured, however, as this was how we felt most of the time in Thailand's overwhelming humidity. Click here to see some photos and the food we made.

Galangal or Kha in Thai. So difficult to find here and so abundant there.

Lemongrass, galangal and tamarind are the ingredients I always associate most closely with Thai cooking and also, they are the ingredients which are sometimes the most difficult to find. I have since discovered, by way of the Internet, a predominantly Thai mini-market in Vancouver called Asia Market, which boasts the flying in of fresh ingredients every week from Bangkok. As a result of this, I was able to buy all the ingredients I required to replicate the cooking class menu exactly. Tom kai Ga soup, beef Penang curry and crispy deep fried prawn cakes. Friends were impressed, especially with the array of deeply savoury and exotic condiments I had acquired. Deep fried garlic, chilies in vinegar, nam prik prao.

I can remember almost every dish I ate while on vacation, as well as what Neil ordered and there are many to remember. Below, I have provided some information about each of the dishes and the many markets I dragged poor Neil to.

Deep fried whole fish is a speciality of Koh Samui. Most restaurants have the freshly caught offerings available for you to choose from. This was pomfret with chili garlic sauce (another day I tried it with lemon grass and ginger). The outside becomes crunchy and crisp while the flesh inside stays white, flaky and sweet.

Both sides full of flesh and all for me.

A case of giving back a little. These small fish from Turkey enjoyed their own meal by eating my dry skin. You may think this is disgusting, but the softness of my skin and energy in my legs was well worth any queasiness.

Neil's dinner in a beautiful but quiet restaurant. A particular Thai beef dish of ground beef with onions and spices served with rice served from a pineapple, subtly picking up essences of the sweet and sour flesh.

Fish for sale at a market. We also swam with these while snorkeling. They circled round our legs and feet, gently brushing past and stopping to nibble at our toes. 

Crabs. Very different from our Canadian counterparts.

I so desperately wanted to buy bags and bags of chilies, limes, peanuts, peppercorns and galangal to take home, but knew that lack of refrigeration would be an issue to freshness or possibly customs may have something to say. 

Whole fried fish, curries and soups available to buy at a local market for breakfast. We bought some rice, red curry and a fish to give to the monks in return for a blessing.

No, I didn't. I'm not very adventurous sometimes but I'm getting better.

 See above.

Sweets of fortune bought at the market for breakfast. A sweet pastry case filled with some kind of fondant. Not too sweet, they are usually offered to the monks as they are gold and therefore represent prosperity.

We were just leaving the little village we had been visiting when the streets came alive with street vendors selling their wares. Naturally we had to stop and try everything. The guy above wasn't quite ready to serve but his piles of noodles, chicken and salads looked mouthwatering. Everywhere, the smell of curry spices and sour, tangy limes were fragrant, hanging heavy in the air, mixed with smoke from the charcoal grills, grilling meats marinated in aromatic pastes. People were shouting and talking quickly and loudly, advertising their food for sale and the humidity still beat down upon us. An exciting afternoon.

Rice flour and coconut donuts. They were a little like rice pudding balls, a spoonful or two of creamy coconut milk being stirred into the batter before being dropped into a special baking dish to be fried until brown, crispy and bubbled on the outside. Like all Thai sweets, the sweetness was toned down, so that there was a nice interplay between sweet and savoury, which was really satisfying.

Coconut milk, banana and rice flour. The same type of batter as before with the addition of banana, stuffed into a palm leaf and grilled until black and charred. The outside flaked off, leaving this brown, caramelized pudding inside. Apparently these are a very popular snack.

At the Muslim market, we spotted these interesting looking 'fritters'. Basically, a whole prawn, Thai basil leaves, garlic, galangal and chili all stirred into a batter to be dropped by the spoonful into hot oil and fried until crisped and served with the ubiquitous sweet chili sauce. We ate everything, except the head, crunching our way through the hard exterior and getting sticky fingers from the sweet sauce which we used for dipping. The prawn was sweet, the basil herby, aniseed-y and fragrant, the chili added a little heat and the galangal and garlic provided earthy aromatics. Perfect. Some people think we're crazy to eat the street food, but surely that's where the real heart and soul of a nation's cuisine lives. 

In December, Neil and I are thinking about a longer trip, maybe two months, possibly around Asia again. I can hardly wait, if only for the food.

Shinjuku Park, Tokyo

Tokyo Tower

Bophut, Thailand

Thai boxing

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