Tuesday, July 08, 2008

One of the Best Food Experiences I'm Really Sorry You'll Never Have

A view from the back porch...

There are a lot of holidays in Cambodia. I mean a lot a lot. During the King's birthday (the real king and not King Sihanouk. I know, confusing) last May, I went on vacation to Koh Kong, a lush and gorgeous part of Western Cambodia that borders Thailand. I went with my boisterous coworkers/little brothers Sopheap and Vichet to Baklan Village where Sopheap's extended family* lives. Baklan is a quaint little fishing village of stilt houses built on the water, stacked tightly against each other. Each night we would have to brave some ominously shaky planks and balance beam our way over to Sopheap's family's house. Even though the prospect of falling into the garbage water made swimming in crocodile infested waterfalls seem like child's play, the promise of what lay ahead was enough to steady my clumsy steps.

Flames of goodness.

Hotpot of the Khmer variety is particularly enticing in that is also has elements of barbecue in it, and this experience rivaled that of any previous I've had. It was lovingly tended to by Grams and Sopheap's aunt. There was n'er a moment when fresh Asian greens and even fresher squid, shrimp, and fatty pork was not boiling, mixing, simmering, or crispifying. To make this combination of delectableness even more heavenly was the homemade saucy dipping sauce that accompanied it. It was a creamy Cambodian concoction that involved subtle inflections of fermented tofu (my favorite). So good was this sauce that our friend Andrew threatened to drink it all if we were not fast enough.

Grams holding down the fort. Matriarchs are the coolest, no?

Just as we were almost finished stuffing ourselves far past the point of no return, Sopheap's fisherman uncle came home from a long hard day of work. He did not come home empty-handed and shared with us his spoils, which we decided to turn into a fine post-dinner treat.

We are staring at the fleshy crabs who are staring at the succulent prawns who are staring at over-stuffed us. The circle of life! This represents approximately one-tenth of the post-dinner treat.

Pheap and fam. :)

To (inadequately) express our gratitude, the next morning we kids made breakfast.

From the leftover crabmeat I made crab fried rice and Jesse played cultural ambassador by making French Toast. Jen, Andrew and Vichet were the hard-working sous chefs.

Both dishes were a hit with the neighbors, but Grams said she liked mine more. Tee hee.

I <3 Koh Kong 4eva!!!

*Sopheap's family is not actually related to him by blood. During the time of the Khmer Rouge, many people were separated from their families. Forced out of their homes and into the countryside while struggling for survival, strangers often banded together to support one another like family. From my understanding, Sopheap's mother lived with his "grandmother" during that time.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Cha Cha Ca

Probably one of the best things I have ingested on this trip so far has been the Cha Ca from the very famous CHA CA LA VONG restaurant (listen, it deserves the caps). As
the name suggests, and as with many restaurants in Vietnam, this fine centenarian of an eating establishment serves only one dish, and does so damn well. It's perfect for all those days of indecision. Pay no attention to all the naysayers and critics -- this dish of multi-layered fragrant goodness still haunts my mind, body and soul. I just can't seem to shake the blissful food memories from inside my tortured head.

I nearly couldn't find CHA CA LA VONG after getting lost wandering around the winding streets of the Old Quarter. Of course, my hunger-inspired determination of steel prevailed and I practically collapsed onto CHA CA street and into the restaurant out of the pure joy of discovery. I escorted myself up some rickety old staircases and plopped down on a solitary table.

Not long after I sat down, a waitress adorned my empty table with a sense of mechanical perfection. To accompany the dish with, she set down sides of fish sauce with lemon and pimento pepper, roasted peanuts, mint, cilantro dill, and spring onions and a big plate of bun, or vermicelli.

Next this magician of a waiter came over to my table and set down a steaming hot saucepan on coals and began to perform some crazy magic tricks.

Here he is sauteeing the catfish in hot oil with tumeric, scallions, and peanuts as I sit behind the camera with saliva dribbling down my chin.

The intense curry-yellow coloring of the fish comes from the tumeric seasoning.

While it's still tongue-burning hot, you mix the fish with the bun and accessories in a little soup bowl. You then allow this blissful combination of flavors, textures and colors warm your already overheated body. You enjoy every second of it until the entire dish (for two?) is gone. Ahh the sweet days of old.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Khmer Cuisine: Ja Ja, Oui Oui

Cambodia tends to get a bad rap for its food, and you’ll commonly hear a description of it that goes more or less “Cambodian food is similar to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, just not nearly as good.” I would hereby like to call bullshit on that annoying line of thinking.

Okay, I have found that heart-stoppingly delicious food is perhaps not as abundant as in the lands of it neighbors. Nor is the street food here quite as accessible or varied. But in the one and a half months that I have been living in this fine country, I have personally been able to have quite a few fervid love affairs with Khmer food. And if I have, well then kind sir, surely anyone else can as well.

To illustrate my point, below is one very normal, cheap, and wholly satisfying food adventure I had one day, all within working hours.

A few of my coworkers and I ventured out into one of CREDIT’s Phnom Penh sub-branches, situated close to the airport. We used this branch as a hub to interview clients that lived in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. As usual, it was a very hot and dusty day, and also exhausting. Perhaps noticing our state of heat exhaustion, one of the clients we interviewed lavished us with the fruits of her labor:

Outside of her house she sold these homemade vermicelli noodles served with a typical Khmer sauce and cucumbers and garnished with salt and chili. I eagerly slurped my bowl down, and the nourishing coolness helped restore my energy in the morning heat. I've always said there's no better way to start the day than with two breakfasts!

For lunch we went back to the branch and partook in the staff meal there. To my glee, this is what we ate:

Staff meal

Like in many other Asian cuisines, Khmer meals typically consist of a few different types of dishes composing of vegetables, seafood and meat, eaten together family style with rice. No offense to you Westerners, but I'm pretty sure we Asians have got you beat when it comes to the "how to optimally enjoy a meal" department.

The Khmers eat a lot of fish. This one was filleted and pan-fried to crispy perfection. Please note the very fitting love plate on which it was served.

This dish was basically Khmer baked beans, but slightly more pungent than British baked beans. Its strong flavors complemented the other lighter dishes wonderfully.

Garlic-sauteed sliced pumpkin with chicken. The pumpkin in Cambodia is out of this world, and to sautee it with garlic is a genius idea.

Typical fish soup dish with pumpkin, green leafy vegetables, mushroom, tofu skins, and winter melon.

After our afternoon interviews we headed back to headquarters, but not without busting a tire on one of our motos. As the roadside mechanics worked to congeal the tire, we stopped for a delightful afternoon snack to bide the time:

Roasted Eggs

They hollow the eggs (the way that Christians do for Easter), mix them with some kind of saucy saucy, refill the eggshells with the mixture and bbq them. We in turn dig out the resulting treat and eat it with a limey-chili-salt sauce. YUM!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Belated Awkuns

It’s been almost a month since the food genius arrived in Southeast Asia, and I have to apologize profusely for not having shared the culinary delights of this part of the world yet. But before I delve full-throttle into revealing the exciting new world of fermented fish, duck embryos and tarantulas, I have many belated food awkuns, xie xies, dankes, grazies, mercis, etc., to give.

First, allow me to recognize the that I probably wouldn’t be blogging at all had it not been for the kindness of my new favorite corporation: FUJIFILM . I bestow upon them abundant kisses for being not only the manufacturer of the best ever digital point and shoot for low light, but also for being so kind as to give me a brand new Finepix F30 after mine mysteriously disappeared. This model is now discontinued, and since other people have now also realized what a gem it is, the selling price for used ones on eBay far surpass the original price of a new one. Fuji's customer service team was nice enough to find a refurbished one for me and send it along with all the fixins. Almost all the pictures on this blog as well as all my flickr pictures , have been taken with the F30, and I really don’t know what kind of life I would be leading had I not been reunited with my digital love. Arigato Fuji; you've got one fat kid customer for life!

I was able to use the F30 to capture some highlights from a delicious goodbye meal at Merkato 55, a creative new African restaurant in the meatpacking district. This very nice treat was generously sponsored by Jim Kingston, father of my good friend Darin. Even though he was not physically able to partake, we made so many toasts in his honor that if you look closely enough you can see his spirit. Ondapandula unene from all of us Jim!!

Darin studiously reviews the menu in order to construct...the perfect meal.

Though the owner was born in Ethiopia, Merkato 55 serves cuisine from all over the vast continent of Africa. As our greedy hands converged upon a first course of apricot blatjang chutney, apple coconut dip, long bean sambal, tuna tartar, and shrimp fritters, I felt like we were playing a game of edible African Risk.

Fresh raw oysters are perhaps one of my favorite things in the world. Merkato serves them with harrissa mignonette and melon granite – original and refreshing, a would-be perfect treat for a hot day in Africa.

Pork belly is also right up there on my list of favorite things. The succulent meat brimming robustly with flavor, coupled with the radish and green mango accompaniment, made this dish my favorite of the night.

For recently vegetarian Steph, these chickpea dumplings served with spiced butter and marjoram did just the trick.

Steamed Snapper in banana leaf, fennel and barberries - a little dry for my taste, but still very good.

The winner in the desserts category was this simple and colorful citrus salad with tapioca. I'm pretty sure in-season blood oranges can make any dish luscious and divine.

Unfortunately, I did not use my pal the F30 to record the wonderful and delicious goodbye dinner that Ned and Susan Regan hosted right before I left – I wouldn't want to interrupt such a classy evening with my obsessive and constant shutter-bugging. Ned and Susan are two of the most incredible people I know and represent what I hope to be like "when I grow up.” I’m so fortunate to know them. Susan also happens to be an amazing cook and made us all very happy by bestowing her talents upon us. She is also my friend Rafi’s mother. Rafi is the head of the U.S. operations of interrupcion*, the organization with whom I had my first internship in college. It was an experience that I'll never forget and which which introduced me to the field of social entrepreneurship. Considering what I am in Cambodia for, this delightful evening with such special company was a very fitting send-off for me. Awkun Ned and Susan!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Hot Pot: The Art of War

In raiding and plundering be like fire, is immovability like a mountain.
Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt. [6:19]

Sun Tzu's pearls of wisdom from 6th century bc is still a point of reference for modern warfare. It is believed that he wrote The Art of War after laboriously and tediously analyzing the history of war in China. I, however, have a different theory. Being of Chinese nobility, Sun Tzu likely grew up in a very large family, with siblings as numerous as sheep. During the harsh winters, he and his siblings would eat hot pot to keep warm. As battles hard won and lost, it would be these strenuous meals that first taught young Sun Tzu the critical importance of positioning and strategy for ensuring one's survival.

Let us here, then, pay proper homage to the Art of Hot Pot (or, literally, Fire Pot), that most lovable and ubiquitous, trying yet supremely fulfilling, wintertime activity. As relentless food warriors, my friends and I fought the good fight twice in one week -- first to herald in the year of the rat, and then in celebration of our dear Meex's big two-five -- at glorious Grand Sichuan on Canal and Chrystie (no relation to Grand Sichuan in midtown).

At Grand Sichuan they prepare their hot pot in the Chongqing style, making the resultant experience even more closely resembling that of war. The Sichuan peppers and peppercorns flavor the boiling broth in which we cook the food to effect mouth(and mind)-numbingly spicy flavors, creating a full body experience that is at once stupid and euphoric. My body shakes, my skin sweats, and the color of my face emulates that of the Sichuan peppers. But I irrationally persevere.

The Battlefield (The Terrain and Laying Plans)

Here we have the stage of our battle. Grand Sichuan provides a split hot-pot, one side for the warriors, and the other for the not-so-warriors. Guess which side this is.

The Accoutrements
(Waging War and Attack by Stratagem)

This here is a sample of the thinly sliced beef that we dipped in our war stew. Other accoutrements included bamboo shoots, tofu, chinese vegetables, pork, scallops, rice cakes, fen si, fish balls, golden-tipped mushrooms, tripe, and much more. Although I have stated that there is no ownership in Chinese cuisine, the art (and fun) of this war is to manage to retrieve your selected accoutrements from the battlefield before other warriors cunningly "handle" them. Once retrieved, the warrior has the choice to bathe his spoils in several dipping sauces. As the daughter of Chinese parents raised in Taiwan, my sauce of choice is the "sa cha," mixed with a raw egg. Sesame, peanut, and pungent tofu were also favored by the other warriors.

The Opportunity
(Energy, Weak Points and Strong, and Maneuvering)

Unfortunately a warrior is not so free to stop and take commemorative snapshots in the midst of battle, and I could only sneak in a few photos towards the end while opposing warriors rested. Keep in mind that this was to the detriment of fully capitalizing on my own endurance, but I did it for you dear reader.

The Side Battles
(Variation in Tactics)

Besides hot pot, we also waged war and kicked the ass of some other great Sichuan dishes. This here is the pathetic remains of some oil-boiled-fish. I would also highly recommend the red oil wontons, dan dan noodles, double-boiled pork, mahpo tofu, gan bien string beans, sliced beef tenderloin, and so on and so on.

The Aftermath
(The Army on the March and Attack by Fire)

We are such bloodthirsty warriors that after the battle had been fought and won by all, we continued plundering. Here you see our greedy spoons sipping the blood (or broth) of the conquered.

In the end, with our our battle wounds on full display, faces freshly scarred by the mighty touch of hot oil fervently splashed by our thunderbolt moves, each warrior emerged victorious, and ready, as always, for many more battles to come.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Now that I am a quarter century old even according to the lunar calendar (actually I think I'm 26 says the moon), I am officially way too old to receive the little red envelopes stuffed with benjamins that I received from family members as a child. Gone are the blissful days of emptying my crisp new cash out in my bedroom and rolling around in it like Scrooge McPanda. As an adult, I have to look a little deeper and enjoy the new year in more profound ways, such as reflecting on the past year and thinking contemplatively of the next. For my friends and me, last year was all about "living life". And we did, maddeningly so. This year, just like like growing up, makes us think beyond: the year 4706 will be about MAKING DREAMS COME TRUE.

As part of this theme, I will be returning to the motherland. I will volunteer in microfinance in Cambodia through Kiva.org. The food genius will thereby be reporting live from a variety of "exotic" Southeast Asian locations. I will also be joining the entire Pei clan in Taiwan when we descend upon this country smaller than New Jersey to surprise Grandmama Pei for her 90th birthday (SHHH, don't spill the beans)!! While there I hope to record an oral history of my grandparents, who each have treasure troves of unbelievable WWII and revolution stories buried inside of them.

One other thing that I will embark on in 4706 is a book on the Chinese diaspora as seen through food. Even here in New York, this phenomenon presents itself in interesting ways. One of my favorite ways is Peruvian-Chinese at a restaurant called Flor de Mayo. I worked at this UWS establishment (at both the 83rd and 101st St. locations) one summer when I lived in Clinton Hill and also had around 4 other jobs. I did this primarily to learn Spanish and to eat their food, but the insanity factor should also not be discounted. But I digress. The point is, the combination of Chinese and Peruvian cuisine here makes for such a perfect outcome that you start understanding why mixed-race children are seemingly always the most beautiful out of all of us...

Ensalada de aguacate

I'm not a big fan of chicken unless it's Hainan Chicken or this here roasted chicken, which tastes more or less like the way I imagine chickens want to be tasted.

Chinese Broccoli (there are always, always greens at a Chinese meal. it's all about balance.)

Don't let the blurriness fool you. I was too euphoric from the flavors of my personal favorite of squid fried rice that I couldn't focus straight. Notice how it's black. That's squid ink. mmm mmmm!

Algunos platanos, maduros, y yucas.

Oh my god, I don't even know how to describe how good these pork chops are. Trust me. They are so good that you want to drink its juices.

Ribs a la onion. Notice all the garlic. The key to my heart.

Spaghetti pesto with shrimp. I'm confused, wouldn't this qualify as Italian? Very fusiony.

One of the best cafe con leches this side of the border...

And then you wash it all down with some delightfully non-Asian but Asian nonetheless sangria! My boss Dennis taught me how they make theirs so good. Maybe if you're lucky I'll show you.

And there you have it - that's Peruvian-Chinese folks. Ta-da!! Let the year 4706, and all it's dream-fulfilling powers, begin!

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Izzy's Cafe

I haven't been able to post regularly for the past few months because I have been going through application infierno. Business schools are "special" in that many of them feel the need to require an inhumane amount of essays, with topics that are unique to each school. The questions tend to veer on the bizarrely personal, and if I have to do anymore self-reflecting I think my head might implode. I do think it's interesting that the topic of food has managed to make its way into quite a few essays (I think maybe 6 out of 25? not bad). As such, I thought I'd share one bizarrely personal aspect of myself with you! See the intro to one essay below.

The summer when I was six years old, my house was filled with relatives visiting from Taiwan. Although barely able to read (or speak English for that matter), I already had a passion for cooking. I noticed that more than anything, save perhaps mah jong, my family loved to eat. Identifying this excess (or, rather, unlimited) demand and restricted daytime supply, I started my first venture into the wild world of commerce: "Izzy's Cafe," a daytime deli on wheels, complete with a full menu of breakfast sandwiches, juices, and my personal culinary feat: rice, bananas, and soy sauce. Izzy's Cafe also proved to be my first magnificent flop -- my grandfather was my only paying customer, and my techniques of extortion on my poor-credit non-paying customers (mainly my brother and cousin Bang Bang) proved fruitless. Apparently, "I'm telling" is not really an effective business ploy. This failure, however, set the stage for a lifetime of nonprofit food sharing to come...