Friday, December 11, 2009

Niagara Falls: Elements on the Falls Restaurant

For those of you who don't know, I moved out of Los Angeles in June. You can read my farewell Los Angeles entry I posted back shortly after leaving. I took a month long trip through Southeast Asia, which I just recently finished chronicling. Now I am based on New York City, but I went on a quick trip up to Canada before settling down. The above picture is from my visit to Niagara Falls, where I ate at the Elements on the Falls restaurant.


The restaurant is on the Canada side of Niagara Falls. My family and I drove up through New York to get to the U.S. side. I did in fact go on the Maid of the Mist boat tour that Jim and Pam took on the wedding episode of the office. After getting out of the water, I had lunch with a wonder view overlooking the horseshoe falls.

Elements was the nicer of the dining options at Niagara Falls next to the water. The town itself is a tourist trap, but it's still a thrill to see the waterfall. Food was mediocre, but the view made a pleasant lunch. Also, the large viewing windows allowed some great lighting for the food.

Spinach, artichoke, asiago dip with garlic rosemary flatbread - CAD$12.95

Pasta primavera - CAD$16.25

NY sirloin steak, button mushrooms, fries - CAD$19.95

Even if the food lacked much substance, the presentation was nice. You pay for the view, the falls and the food, and that's worth the money.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Turkey Leftover Congee Recipe

Wait! Before you throw out that turkey carcass from the Thanksgiving massacre, there's something delicious and detoxifying that you can use. Annually, my mom would take the leftover bones from the roasted turkey and make a Chinese style congee for the morning after Thanksgiving. It's clean, healthy, and best of all, it doesn't weigh you down like the dinner from the night before.


Since this was the first Thanksgiving I spent away from my family, I had to deal with the turkey leftovers myself. I called my mom, and got a cryptic and rather sparse answer for making turkey congee. That said, I will try to elucidate it as much as possible, but the truth is, there are so many varying factors that need to be considered. Plus the recipe is hard to mess up, and easy to tweak to your preferences.

It all starts with Thanksgiving dinner. In my family, there are always turkey leftovers. Carve out most of the turkey meat leaving the bones and whatever meat is stuck and not worth pulling off. You can either freeze the entire turkey and make the stock in the near future, but our family always makes the congee for the morning after. Put the turkey bones into the biggest pot you can find. This year, the turkey actually protruded out of the pot, but it's no big deal. If you can, fill the pot up with water to the level of the turkey. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 1-3 hours depending on the size of your bird body.

I simmered my turkey stock uncovered out of necessity, but I don't think you need a lid anyway. Eventually, the connective tissue broke down and I was able to break up the bones enough for the entire body to go into the stock. I don't give a specific cooking time because it really comes down to taste. You know you're ready when the turkey umami permeates the stock. Don't salt the stock yet though.

Put a few cups of rice into another pot. I used two cups this year which made 2-3 servings. Ladle the stock into the rice pot and bring to a simmer. Making congee is much easier than making rice; when in doubt, just add more water. Just keep in mind what the ultimate consistency should be like, and just cook the rice until it reaches that certain al dente. Chinese congee can range in the degree of viscosity. Just add more stock as the rice soaks up the liquid. I also picked through the bones for bits of meat with a big pair of chopsticks. At this point, everything was falling off the bones. The turkey was finished, completely unrecognizable.

As the rice finishes, you can decide to add more stock if you'd like. But this is the point where you add salt to taste. Spoon the congee into bowl and serve your grateful family. Usually we garnish we some white pepper and eat it simply. After all, this is a detox from Thanksgiving dinner. But this year, my congee was a little Japanese inspired and we garnished with an umeboshi pickled plum, shichimi seven spices and nori sheets of seaweed. Sesame is also an option, but congee is a blank canvas. Add whatever you'd like.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Destination Thailand #3: The Best Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai with Permpoon Nabnian

I'll wrap up my series on Southeast Asia with my experience at The Best Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai with "the man" Permpoon Nabnian. When I first read the pamphlet promoting the cooking school, I was hooked right away. The colorful fonts and the self-aggrandizing were too delicious to pass up. Permpoon (Perm for short) had over 20 years of experience with family restaurants, teaching Thai cooking, and a culinary degree. He definitely knows what he's doing, and he'll teach you everything he can along with a litany of jokes so bad they'll still make you chuckle. Not everyone will be fortunate enough to experience something like this,but there’s a list of online colleges offering cooking programs that can teach you to cook well.


Perm carving a simple flower out of a mango peel

Perm handles everything personally, including picking you up from your hostel in the back of his pick-up. During class, he would sometimes taking calls on his cell phone fielding questions about the school. The class started with a local market tour in which he explained some basic Thai ingredients and also gave some useful produce advice. His opinion on eggs--buy the smaller ones because they come from younger hens.

Perm demonstrating green curry in bulk

Different types of rice available

After learning everything you ever wanted to know about holy basil, we all loaded back onto his pick-up (which is actually more comfortable than it sounds) and drove across town to his home. He converted the backyard into a large open-air cooking school with about a dozen individual work stations. This was a hands-on class experience.

Each person had their own high-powered burner, chopping block, apron, and other utensils

The class proceeded through a series of courses. As a group, we prepared several communal dishes, including spring rolls, mango with coconut sticky rice, tom yam soup and young papaya salad.

Little balls of rice mixed with coconut cream, balancing on my knife

Eating the rice balls with the papaya salad helped temper the heat from the chilies

We then each individually chose one of three dishes to make for each course. For the stir-fry course, I made chicken with cashew nuts. For the curry course, I went with massaman curry, a curry with a plethora of ingredients but primarily flavored with coconut milk and tamarind. Although we didn't make curry paste from scratch, the list of the several dozen ingredients for each type of curry paste was mind-boggling. Lastly, my noodles course was drunken noodles as my friends had each picked pad thai and pad see ew already. According to Perm, "pad" just means fried, making "pad thai" fried Thai people...again, another one of his bad jokes.

Drunken noodles with Thai eggplant

After assembling our feast, we gathered in the front yard where Perm's nephew had set the table and presented a collection of Thai fruits (most of them can be found on my entry of Southeast Asian fruit).

To see me fail by dropping my chicken outside of the wok, check out the accompanying video.

Here's the recipe for Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango (kha neow mamuang). It can be served as a snack, but best as a dessert.

Ingredients (serves 8)
3 ripe mangoes (try to get the small yellow ones, not the big green ones)
5 cups sticky rice, soaked in water at least 4 hours
1 cup coconut cream (if you only have coconut milk, let it sit until it separates and skim off the top)
3/4 cup white sugar
2 tsp salt
2 tbls sesame seeds
10 pandamus leaves or 1 tbls vanilla extract

1/2 cup coconut milk
2 pandamus leaves or 1/4 tsp vanilla extract(optional)
2 tbls sugar
1/2 tsp salt

1. Place the pandamus leaves in a steamer and sticky rice and steam until rice is cooked.
2. Mix the coconut cream, sugar, and salt together and simmer on low heat for 5 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, remove the rice from the steamer and cool it on a tray for one minute.
4. Add the rice to the coconut cream mixture, combine thoroughly, and remove from heat. Leave to rest for 10 minutes minimum, but preferably 2 hours.
5. Combine the sauce ingredients together and boil for 2 minutes or until the sugar is dissolved.
6. When ready to serve, divide the rice into 8 portions.
7. Peel and slice the mango and arrange on the rice.
8. Sprinkle sesame seeds and serve

If you're interested in superstar Permpoon's class, you can contact him at or by his phone number 089-7552632.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Destination Thailand #2: Aroon Rai in Chiang Mai

Eastern Gate to the Old City of Chiang Mai

My favorite Thai food I had in Thailand was a popular restaurant outside the imposing old city gates of Chiang Mai. Following the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, my co-adventurers and I ventured from our lodging to the highly recommended Aroon Rai restaurant.


My buddies scoping out the place

Besides Quán Ăn Ngon in Saigon, Aroon Rai was my second favorite restaurant meal of the entire trip to Southeast Asia. Billed as the "best curry in town," the restaurant probably gets its fair share of foreign press. In fact, it sells packets of its secret curry mix for visitors to bring the flavors of Northern Thailand back home. Upon arrival, first thing I noticed was abundance of foreigners in the open air location. It looked like the restaurant had been vastly expanded, as the dining room opened into another building. Generally, I am a bit skeptical of local restaurants that have too many non-native faces, but so much of Thailand is tourist-centric, I'd gotten over my foreign-phobia.

Actually, this was the first time we ventured outside the old city gates during our time in Chiang Mai, not withstanding our jungle excursion. The central portion of the city is guarded by high walls and a moat that had since been converted into fountains and lagoons. Our hostel, T.K. Hostel, was located within the old city. I'll pause to give a shout-out for the air-conditioning discount we received and hospitality by the friendly Australian-educated caretaker, T. In fourteenth century, Chiang Mai was actually the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, separate from the Siamese Thai of the South. The culture, and hence the food, remained relatively distinct for many years.

Some of the regional specialties include the above-pictured pork curry and Chiang Mai sausage. Looking at some recipes for Chiang Mai sausage, I can't see what makes them distinct. The ingredients are typical of Thai cuisine in general: galangal, lemon grass, chilies, coriander, fish sauce. They had a tough outer crust, but gave way to flavorful fillings. The accompaniment of coconut cream in the pork curry made the sauce lip-smacking and luxuriant to the tongue.

Speaking of coconut, the rice commonly used in Northern Thailand is short grain sticky rice. Often it is flavored with coconut milk. Aroon Rai served rice individually in little steamers, but I suspect that one steamer held less than one bowl. Additionally, since my friends were in an adventurous mood, we ordered deep-fried frog. As always, frog was somewhat of a letdown since there was hardly any meat on those bones and the flavor is as indistinct as chicken. In fact, on Chinese menus, frog is called "field chicken."

Each dish was cheap enough ($1-2) that you can easily pig out on everything on the menu. The portions were small enough that you could order a sufficient variety. Writing this entry now makes me regret not bringing home one of those curry packets.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Destination Thailand #1: Street Food in Thailand

Griddle of pad thai in Chiang Mai

Previously, I had written about the banh mi on the streets in Vietnam, but the crown of street food in Southeast Asia would have to be in Thailand. Some of the delicacies, and not so delicacies, were outstanding and easily better than any hot dog or halal cart you'd find in New York.


As you can imagine, pad thai is relatively prevalent throughout Thailand. While I'm not entirely sure how authentic it is, the country's reliance on the tourism industry means that there's likely to be a pad thai around every corner. This plate, from the above cart, was from the Chiang Mai Sunday Night Street Bazaar. A small town, if you're in Chiang Mai on Sunday night, you'll surely stumble upon it. The cart actually served two types of noodles. This is the thick type commonly seen in America, but they also offered thin noodles, which reminded me more of Korean jap jae.

A local student group sold homemade mochi with fillings of apple, blueberry, and strawberry jelly. Though admittedly I don't know if mochi is prevalent in Thai cuisine, they were delightful.

Often for a quick meal at home, I'd fry an egg with oyster sauce. With runny yolk on top of a bowl of rice, this is simple and satisfying. In Chiang Mai, I found miniature fried quail eggs. Packed with flavor and easy to pop into your mouth, these make a fast snack.

Satays and skewers are common in both Thailand and Vietnam. The flavors of the Thai skewer closely match the ones found in the appetizer section of local American restaurants. Often I found the satay with chunks of pineapple and a sweet sauce.

The smoothie lady from my "Fruits in Southeast Asia" post was also at the Chiang Mai street fair. But any of those dishes could be equally paired with a refreshing chrysanthemum tea served in a bamboo cup.

Upon arrival in Bangkok, we hit one of the temples for a mediation class led by a transsexual Buddhist nun. Though I don't think I got anywhere closer to enlightenment, I was certainly hungry after sitting on the floor with my eyes closed for a few hours. We walked near the river and found omelet rice with red pepper flakes and fried noodles that weren't pad thai. These noodles lacked the sweetness and tartness of tamarind, and reminded me more of yakisoba than anything Thai I've had.

Though technically not "street" food, I spent my one day on the Pattaya beach with fried rice and pad thai served under umbrellas on plastic furniture. Though the food was good, beware for the hidden "beach sitting fee" tagged onto the bill.

Of course don't assume that street food must be served on a street. I'd consider boat food off a neighboring boat grill in the floating market of Damnoen Saduak. Various dispensers of cooked and uncooked treats cruise by available to be flagged and patronized.

These glutinous rice balls filled with peanuts and served on a banana leaf came from the next passing boat. An old woman with a propane powered stove steamed these dumplings on the stern of her boat.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Destination Vietnam #6: Bia Hơi

As inescapable as hot, humid weather is in Vietnam, bad beer is just as unavoidable. As I previously mentioned in my dog meat entry, there is still not a universal custom to serve cold beer. So the already bland and tasteless beer is often made worse by serving warmer than room temperature. Just avoid all the Vietnamese beers: 333, Bia Hanoi, Bia Saigon, Halida, they're all fairly terrible. Vietnam is really not a beer country. But they do have a hidden ace up their sleeve, the local fresh beer--Bia Hơi.


So what is this bia hơi? It is a fresh draft beer brewed daily. I'm not a brewmaster, so I don't know what effect this may have on the beer, but the taste is extremely light. You can easily drink this like water. By itself, there would be little appeal, but bia hơi has the power to bring together loud Vietnamese men. Sitting in one of the bia hơi halls with a couple of dishes and some pitchers of beer gives you an unparalleled cultural experience.

Word of warning: bia hơi is not regulated at all. Though you'll be able to find it everywhere in Hanoi, I'd stick to the places that are well-populated to be safe. You never know what kind of antifreeze they pour into the beer.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Destination Vietnam #5: The Dog Meat Entry (Thịt Chó)

Just follow the signs or ask the taxi drivers. Where do you go when you want to find dog in Vietnam? Search out the words thịt chó, Vietnamese for dog meat. However, there is a superstition that eating dog in the first half of the lunar month is considered unlucky. So on those days, the restaurants might all be abandoned, or even closed. My friends certainly had their moral reservations, but I was more concerned about the sanitation of the meat than the origin. In fact, I was right. Either we faced cosmic punishment for eating man's best friend, or the dog restaurant was the dirtiest place we ate at the entire trip.


Having not grown up with any type of cuddly family pet, I didn't have any reservations about dog dining. If you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, you'd have a sense of the argument that eating meat in general makes you a "specist." Essentially, indulging in carnal pleasure makes you guilty of discriminating against certain species as "food." Despite my contentment with this label, I won't discriminate against dogs as another source of food. In fact, I feel better about eating dog than any one of the myriad of endangered species commonly degustated at high-end restaurants now. Eating an unsustainable species and further removing them from existence, or eating an animal that some cultures tend to raise as pets? What's the real moral dilemma? Judge me all you want, but I'm giving you the chance to eat vicariously through me if you can't stomach the animal.

Since I didn't go to Vietnam planning to eat dog, I hadn't done any prior research. I took a chance, jumped into a taxi and asked for thịt chó. I'm sure that the driver took me to his kickback restaurant for a slice of the receipt, but I had no other reference to go off. We ended up on the side of the highway at Anh Tú Béo, a lofted restaurant with dining seating on the top floor above the kitchen. We sat on mats on the ground around a low table and proceeded to order some lukewarm Vietnamese beer. As bad as Vietnamese beer is already, they don't serve it cold. Besides taking the drink order, the server proceeded to start bringing out side dishes. They probably figured that we would only come all the way out there just for one thing.

From the bill we received at the end of the meal, I can try to piece out the dishes we received. On the table are a few bottles of Bia Hà Nội, the better of the Vietnamese beers. The first things we received were a plate of cucumbers (dưa chuột) and a basket of lemongrass, lime and basil. We started suspiciously nibbling on a big sesame cracker (bánh đa), my friends worried that somehow the Vietnamese and baked a puppy into the cracker.

Thịt hấp - steamed dog meat

First to arrive were the dog cold cuts, similar to the cold cut appetizers I've had at Cantonese restaurants. Since this was the simplest dish, it would be most appropriate to explicate the taste of dog meat here. If you're looking for something mysterious or mystical, you'll be disappointed. Dog tastes like a cross between beef and pork. That's all. It didn't taste like game, exoticism, nor tears. It is exactly you'd imagine a boring meat to be. The dish also had slices of liver. And dog liver tastes just as offensive to me as pork or beef liver.

Dồi nướng - dog sausage

Tasted like overcooked sausage. Tough, overcooked sausage. Whatever the casing was made out of (I suspect dog intestine), it harden in the grilling process. Biting into it was actually somewhat crunchy. Tastewise, there was much more going on in the sausage than in the steamed dog. Seasonings were added, and other dog parts I'd rather not know about (likely dog blood and fat).

Chả nướng - grilled dog

The final dish we had was the most mysterious. Since we actually were heading to the Snake Village for a meal of snake (which failed to materialize), we cut the dog degustation after this plate. I can't tell how many more were going to come, but this was too much meat, dog or not. I want to say this was a dish of dog belly, with thick fatty pieces of skin on the small bits of meat. But I can't tell you much beyond that. I can't even identify the crumbled yellow stuff on top of the meat. As inscrutable as it was, this was my favorite of the three dishes.

Even in Vietnam, dog is a novelty. You should have no fears of accidentally ordering a dog dish by pointing at a menu. It just isn't that common, though dog restaurants occur more in the North than South. From what I could tell, all the dog I saw was only served in special dog restaurants. So unless you're intentionally searching it out, you won't find it easily. Each of the plates we had were 40K đong, about $2.20 at the time of my trip.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Destination Vietnam #4: Fruit in Southeast Asia

A fruit seller in Thailand

For all the agrotechnology we have in this country, it's amazing to think we can't produce fruit as delicious as in tropical areas. Of course, barring considerations of growing conditions and transportation, American fruit is mediocre at best. Especially after my move from California to New York, I realized I lucky I was to have the plentiful produce of sunny Cali. But still, California's got nothing on Southeast Asia in terms of fruit.


In Hanoi's old district, the streets are still known by the commodity that they sell. All the metal workers gather together and make a tin street. A little further is the leather street. Got an itch for stone Buddha statues? There's a street for that too. For the more food inclined, I'd suggest searching for the fruit "smoothie" street.

As you can see, they are not exactly smoothies. It's just a collection of fresh tropical fruit with crushed ice and condensed milk. I'm not sure what it is with Asians and condensed milk, but we love the stuff. Milk teas, mango pudding, toast, we'll eat it over anything. In this case, the milk just adds to the well-documented Vietnamese sweet tooth.

As far as eating fresh fruit on the street with questionablely produced ice, I'll again say that I ate without getting sick. And given the cheapness and abundance of tropical fruit, you'll really miss out if you neglect the street.

For the actual fruit, there is papaya, watermelon, dragonfruit (probably the coolest named and looking fruit, though incredible bland), mango, rambutan, longan and tapioca. Though you could certainly go to town on the fruit plain, the milk and ice made a pleasant dessert to cut through the sweltering heat of Vietnam.

The following are photos of fruit I encountered throughout the trip.

Rambutan, the most alien looking fruit. Tastes extremely similar to lychee.

Smoothie lady on street in Chiang Mai. Select the cup with the fruit, she blends it with ice and hands you a straw. Delicious.

My friends' first encounter with durian. Amused Vietnamese in background not pictured.

Most set meals finished with a dessert of fresh fruit like this pineapple and watermelon.

This was one fruit I had not encountered before the trip. I was determined to buy and try one of these mangosteen.

Mangosteen tastes like lychee too, though it has a certain tartness similar to cranberries. Be careful, it stains.

Miniature watermelon. Who knew?

Custard apples were more custard than apple. They have a soft, fragrant flesh like durian without any offensive odor.

Fruit seller in floating market in Thailand. From left to right: longan, starfruit, pomelo, custard apples, and a fruit I could never identify that looked like small hair yams.

Dragonfruit. I'd compare it to kiwi, but more like kiwi's plainer cousin that nobody asks out. Don't get me wrong, it's an awesome looking fruit, but doesn't taste like much. Wandering Chopsticks grew dragonfruit.