Saturday, July 30, 2011

Eating the Street and The Street Bites Back

I have a rule for eating overseas in developing countries: at some point I will get sick and I when it happens, I won’t think too hard about what food was responsible. If I have been eating well then whether it was dirty water or old eggs that did me in, it just doesn’t matter- when the stomach cramps are gone all I'll remember is that the food was delicious.

It was with that in mind I ate every plate in front of me on a recent afternoon spent with KF Seetoh, the leading expert on Singaporean food. And with the help of that mantra (and some pills) I toughed out the next twenty-four hours of intestinal cramping, aching limbs, and pounding headache. Less than one day after that I was back out on the streets of Indonesia, sitting crossed legged on a plastic mat at a local joint eating a bowl of spicy mie goreng.

One could not have a more expert guide to eating in Singapore than Seetoh. Seetoh and his wife Patricia, supporters of the charity John founded, Room to Read, were equally eager to have lunch with us during our 36 hour stopover in Singapore. Hidden up seven stories in a concrete building we found Red Star, the oldest dim sum restaurant in town, and one of only a few still doing cart service. Over a pot of tea, Seetoh and Patricia filled our table with steamed shrimp dumplings, crisp spring rolls, fried balls of taro with tasty meat and vegetable centers, and some of the best Peking duck I’ve had.

When Seetoh suggested dessert at Old Airport Road hawker center, I could not say no even though my stomach was already beyond capacity. He and Patricia introduced me to Singporean coffee laced with sugar and sweetened condensed milk. An old dessert of sweetened soy bean curd had recently been updated so that the soy milk congealed in a perfect pane cotta texture of silken jellied sweet tofu. The signature salad of the hawker center, rojak, a beautiful mess of cucumber, bean sprouts, and fried dough squares comes smothered in a sweet and tangy sauce heavy on tamarind and covered in crushed peanuts. Picking up pieces with toothpicks I could understand why writer Calvin Trillin could not stop eating this when Seetoh introduced him to it several years. It was a “delicious chaos” of flavors, color, and texture. A bag of battered and fried vegetables and fruit ranging from bananas to red bean paste fairly put me over the edge. However, if it weren’t for the flight we had to catch that afternoon I would have been more than happy to eat myself to death hanging out with Seetoh and Patricia all day, swapping stories and food.

The day that followed, starting with the flight to Jakarta, was one giant aching cramp in my middle. But that is what drugs are for. Rest was difficult with the thumping of the base in the nightclub rattling the walls from five floors below our room at the Swiss-Belhotel. But it passed. And with the passing of illness, the hunger for street food immediately returned.

Luckily some of the main foods of Java- meat long simmered in clear broths- is the sort of food on which I would be happy to be nurse back to health in any country. Soto ayam, a broth of garlic, chicken broth, and glass noodles is the Chicken Noodle Soup of Indonesia. Sop buntut is a heavily spiced clear broth cooked with oxtail, a nourishing balm when eaten rice after several missed meals.

Indonesian food helped return me to health and it was Indonesian food with which I would prove back in the game. A little over one day after my lowest of low points, John and I sat cross-legged in a fluorescent lit room under the shadow of Borobudur, a 8th century Buddhist temple, devouring plates of rice noodles sautéed with chili and garlic, chicken and cabbage- mie goreng- the noodle version of the classic Indonesian fried rice dish, nasi goreng. We ordered lamb in a rich and spicy sauce with several bowls of rice to easy the capsaicin pain and speared chunks of grilled spiced lamb sate with our forks before going in for more mie goreng noodles. The chilies stung our eyes and caused a fit of coughing when they hit the hot pan- we were going back for seconds.

In Yogyakarta the following night our quest for street food continued, this time more out of the realization there were not many food options outside of our hotel that not involve a charcoal fire and raw animal parts hanging from the rack of a street cart. We picked our location with calculation: the cart should look busy indicating the locals eat there and ensuring sufficient turnover of inventory that our chances of food poisoning would likely be diminished. That the meat be fully cooked was a necessity.

Our cart of choice offered birds- chicken and duck- deep fried, ordered by part. The man at the fryer translated the menu to us miming the upper half of his body for chicken breast and pointing to his leg for duck thigh. We ordered a few of each with rice. At our request the owner sent a man out to bring us back two large, warm Bintang beers with mugs of ice (we pushed those aside). The sambal that filled blue mugs on the table was sweet, smoky and spicy. We tore off hunks of fried chicken breast and confit like duck leg burning our finger a bit while we dipped in the sambal and pinched a bit of rice.

Our few days in Indonesia and Singapore were brief but the food seared my mind like the spice of the sambal and burn of mie goreng. I ate the street and the street bit back. It may have won a battle, but as long as there are still hawker stalls to explore and fluorescent lit stalls on the streets of South East Asia I will keep eating, and the war will be mine.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Sixth Food Group of Travel

I have a confession. Pringles, is my overseas secret lover. Yes, it is true. Home in the States I spurn the brightly colored cylinders of potato snack chips refusing to so much as recognize their existence on my way down the store aisle to other, healthier foods. But as soon as the wheels touch down in a developing nation I greedily wrap my hands around this strange and familiar processed food, popping off the lid, peeling back the seal, and digging my hand down for a taste of something deliciously familiar.

Confession Number Two: my overseas lust for junk food is not limited to Pringles. On a hot and dusty road in Africa a green glass bottled Sprite quenches my thirst like no bottle of water can. And a package of wafer cookies with cream in the middle might be the finest dessert I have for weeks. American cheese, well lets just say in desperate times- such as after an overnight bus on treacherous roads in Vietnam- a fried egg with bread and a piece of processed cheese can taste downright luxurious.

This lust for Pringles and its junk food cohorts is often driven by hunger- a late night in a cheap guesthouse with a growling belly or a stop for a pee at a remote gas station and often the only food recognizable and surely safe is this familiar canister in Sour Cream and Onion. But it is more than desperation- at some points I actually seek out these foods because they are a taste of familiar in strange lands and I like them.

As of today, four weeks into an Asia and Africa summer tour, here is a short list of foods I never ever eat at home that here I have eagerly and happily taken down:




American Cheese

Happy Mix (a dry and overly salted Zambian version of Chex Mix)

Fried potatoes, in every form

I am a fickle lover. Come September and the end of the summer world tour I will say goodbye to Pringles and all his questionably nutritious friends. Don’t call, don’t write, I’ll say. But if those brightly colored packages bursting with salt and sugar could wink I think they would, knowing that I’ll be back. I can only stay away from the call of travel, and Pringles, for so long.

Friday, July 22, 2011

To Create Trust, First Eat the Fire

“Do you live in Sri Lanka?” A Sri Lanka woman standing in behind me at the breakfast buffet waiting for hoppers, a fermented bowl shaped pancake, asked me this question incredulously, watching me spoon a heaping pile of spicy chili sambal on my plate.

This was not the first time I had been asked that question in the previous five days. John and I had landed back at the historic Galle Face Hotel in Colombo having finished a Southern loop of Sri Lanka. In a few days our eyes had taken in miles of pure white beaches, benevolent giant Buddhas, smiling school children on bikes, fisherman pulling in catch on colorful boats, creased and toothless Tamil woman trudging uphill with several kilos of harvested tea leaves strapped to their heads in nylon bags.

Along this route we had instructed our capable driver to only pull over his white Toyota Corolla to eat if the establishment looked like the sort of joint a Sri Lankan would eat at for lunch. We wanted it to be safe- no dirty water boiled potatoes- but we also could not bear even one buffet lunch surrounded by fat European tourists heaping up piles of bland curries and poorly imitated continental food thinking they were eating authentically.

Our driver was successful in this venture, first introducing us to one of the nicer local establishments in the fishing town of Weligama and later taking a chance on an empty Sri Lankan-owned guesthouse in Dickwalla that he thought looked promising. At these places we did not so much as glance another Westerner and hardly a Sri Lankan but the curries came out hot, fresh, and spicy.

Curry rice, the national dish of Sri Lanka, is much more than the name would suggest. Whether we chose chicken, fish, beef, shrimp or any combination thereof, a bowl of fish curry would arrive in a spice laced coconut sauce distinct from the chicken curry and with it bowl upon bowl of fresh vegetable curries from green beans to pumpkin to cucumber along with dal, rice, crispy papadums, and the ubiquitous grated coconut mixed with sambal.

We tested the limits our tolerance for spice with “deviled fish”- cubes of a local tuna served in a dry sauté which, as the name suggested, was fiery enough as to invoke the inferno of some imagined hell. The sweat that beaded on our forehead was welcome, having a cooling effect in the muggy afternoon heat.

At a religious festival in the hillside town of Katharagama we paused to admire the smiling woman working a street stand at night, turning out fresh hoppers with the expert turn of spatula and rotation of rounded pan on gas flame that hinted she had been at this for years. When we ordered two for the road, each with a cracked egg- scrambled in the center while the yeasty pancake finished setting- and seasoned with salt, pepper, and a dollop of sambal, her smile lit up her steamy booth with a radiance that threatened to outshine the surrounding lights of the nighttime festival.

For the next five days we looked for hoppers at roadside stands and in the breakfast buffet line at nicer hotels. None made them as well as our smiling friend in Katharagama.

The question as to whether we lived in Sri Lanka was always coupled with astonishment that John and I like our food as the locals do, which most often means spicy. This could be some misunderstanding from the locals that pale skin means a bland palate. But I fear this comes from experience.

Later on that week in the central-north region of Sri Lanka, the Ancient Cities area, we were with a group for a few days at a conference where John was to deliver a speech. The group was a lively and entertaining bunch, some two dozen or so men and women who were either Asian or Western people who had adopted Asia as their home. Yet come group dinners, there was something a little off in the spread. The food looked like a fancier version of the curries we had been eating for days at roadside stalls, but not a single chili appeared anywhere throughout the meal. No sambal, no spicy chutney, no hot spice period.

I can’t say the food was bad, but it is hard to think one is dining authentically in a country that thrives on spice when all chilies have been removed for the sake of our wimpy non-Sri Lankan palates. I cannot blame this on the chef- my guess is that from experience or instruction, he had his reasons for keeping the chilies as far away from the table as possible.

It is no wonder the woman in the line behind me asked if I lived in Sri Lanka. Sambal and spice are the currency of their cuisine. To eat with Sri Lankans as they do opens the door to a shared passion, with that comes trust and friendship.

My once hot hopper with sambal cooled to room temperature as I chatted with my new friend Romaine in line at the hopper station. While the chef worked on her egg hopper she asked me questions about New York City and I asked her about family and life in Sri Lanka. Desperate to dig into my new favorite breakfast food, I excused myself from Romaine, but not before she had slipped me her number and the offer to spend the afternoon together in Colombo. Spicy sambal had made me a new friend.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Curry and Superstition

“Where did you meet your wife?” John asked Zacky, our driver for a trip through the South of Sri Lanka. He took a long draw on the straw poking its head out of his glass bottled Sprite and a sparkle came to his slightly crooked eyes.

“We met over the phone”, he said. Zacky had been trying to reach a friend whose phone was not working. The friend had given him the number of a neighbor to call when Zacky needed to reach him. The neighbor was Zacky’s future wife.

The three of us sat at a table in a single story guesthouse and restaurant, the Bay Inn Weligama. A relic of colonial days, the fan drifted lazily in circles as we sunk our teeth into bowls of curry and our hearts into Zacky’s story.

After a nine month “love affair” Zacky decided that she was the one and went to introduce his future wife to the family. In Sri Lanka we have been told, much in matters of the heart are dictated by the stars. At birth, an astrological chart is drawn up for a child. When that child decides to marry the charts of the lovers are presented to paid astrologers in the community who compare the signs and make a judgment as to whether or not it would be a favorable marriage.

We spooned up a dish of macaroni and cashews stewed with Sri Lankan cinnamon, cracked our teeth against chip-like poppadum, and heaped rice onto the plate in anticipation of curry.

In order for Zacky and his future wife to be considered compatible, 17 out of 21 signs in his chart and his wife’s must be a match. The results came back and only 13 lined up. According to the charts, some divination of star alignment, theirs was not a marriage that would be good.

The curries came out. Deviled chicken, dry and coated in smoky, spicy chilies and melting onions filled one silver bowl. Potatoes in a mild, yellow coconut milk curry soothed the burn from the meat. Balls of shredded fish and spice fried and served room temperature filled our mouths while the heat dissipated. Zacky continued.

As a result of the bad astrological reading, Zacky’s parents, whom he still lived with, would not give their consent to this marriage. If he proceeded to marry the girl he loved, they would cut him out of their lives forever and he would be on the street immediately.

Around that time, there had been a spate of suicides, Zacky told us, by girls in Sri Lanka who had been spurned by their lovers after wedding promises were made thanks to the unfavorable readings of astrological signs. Zacky decided that he could not live with himself if he caused the suicide of another. He could not let down this woman he loved after promising himself to her. He would defy his parents and astrology if that meant following his heart.

Rapt, we almost didn’t notice the arrival of our final dish, a tuna like fish cubed and simmered in a curry sauce so spicy that it took several spoonfuls of rice, mouthfuls of dal, and a generous portion of shredded coconut for the flavors to all meld together in a pleasing array of spices, heat, legumes, and meat.

So Zacky left his childhood home saying goodbye to his parents, sister and brother. A sympathetic cousin lent him money to buy a small plot of land riddled with snakes and leeches. They removed the offensive creatures and Zacky built his new family a house, mixing the concrete to form bricks that he laid down with his own two hands.

Joining Zacky in a cooling Sprite, the pain of chilies began to subside. He had been married for 14 years. His wife is a good and capable woman. They are raising three children between the ages of 7 and 13 who are all well-behaved and good students. Zacky has not spoken to his family since the day he left to marry his wife.

We pushed back our chairs and stood to leave. My belly was filled with delicious food, my soul brimmed in admiration for this man of courage and conviction, and I was relieved- for me the stars are no more than a beautiful and wondrous addition to the night sky.

*The name of the driver has been changed to protect his privacy.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Tyranny of Too Much Choice

We all think we want choice when out to eat, but do we really? Perhaps we want choice in types of restaurants but when it comes to an individual restaurant the optimal number of menu options is questionable. It would be fairly foolish, for example, to think a restaurant known for Italian food would also be expert in sushi. And yet more and more restaurants are doing just that, offering multitudes of food types in lieu of expertise leaving us diners behind in a wake of mediocrity.

For most Americans going out to eat at a nice restaurant is a luxury. Every once in a while we afford ourselves a night out and entrust our dinner to a talented chef or restaurateur who will to guide us through a unique menu of his or her creation filled with seasonal ingredients paired in interesting ways.

Instead at an increasing number of “nice” restaurants we the patrons are asked to do what we used to pay chefs for: the composition of a proper plate.

Perhaps it is the influx of steakhouse concepts that is to blame. There are meats to choose: rib-eyes, filets, New York strips, 64 oz. T-bones. Then the degree of cooking- you can get anywhere from “burnt to a crisp” to “still mooing”. Add a sauce- Bernaise, peppercorn, hollandaise, or maybe you would prefer straight melted butter to add excess to excess. Don’t forget about sides, those are for you to decide too. Perhaps some jumbo asparagus in December, or spinach stewed to death in cream? And got to have potatoes! They come mashed, fried, roasted, baked, in Yukon, Idaho, and even marble sized red ones if you are feeling fancy.

If the guest is made to choose everything, why are we even going out to eat?

At a recent dinner in the exclusive restaurant of a fancy private residential building Manhattan, the sort of place where Wall Street barons and rock stars live side-by-side, I had such a meal of too much choice. My food picky boyfriend was at first excited at the selection noting that his salmon could be prepared using one of several different cooking methods and served with one of 4 or 5 sauces, everything but the cooking itself was within his control. Pastas similarly were available in a supermarket selection worth of shapes with a list of sauces so long it almost required its own menu. What my boyfriend saw as choice, I saw as a bad omen.

I am sorry to say, truly I am, that I was right and he was wrong. His salmon came dry and tasteless not redeemed by a boat of pesto on the side. Hoping for a kitchen miracle I ordered the one pasta that did not give me choice- linguine with shrimp scampi- hoping that this meant it was a chef special. The shrimp were cooked to the point of rubber and the pasta, with a thin slick of butter and white wine, would have lost a taste test against Olive Garden. The only thing “special” about this pasta was that it ranked first for Most Expensive Worst Pasta I have ever ordered.

This is sad trend where choice trumps taste is not so new to be a revelation however I fear it is getting worse. The salad offered at JRDN, possibly the only true fine dining in Pacific Beach, California, only comes in a choose-your-own-adventure format. A actual checklist complete with pencil is brought to the table with the standard menu giving the guest a selection of lettuce, toppings, and dressing. The result may good, if the chooser is lucky, and if it’s not, it can always be blamed on the guest for being a bad salad composer- a chef cop-out if I’ve ever seen one. I have eaten there on several occasions and could never shake the feeling of wonder that I was paying good money for something I could do just as easily at the take out salad bar down the street, and for a lot less money.

For those looking for unlimited options, they can cook for themselves or head to the Cheesecake Factory. For the rest of us putting good money behind quality dining experiences a chef should give us what we are paying for- his or her creativity in composition, a high quality of ingredients, and culinary expertise. If chefs would just stop trying to please everyone, do what they do well and do it right, the good paying restaurant patrons of the world will come, perhaps for more than just the special occasions.