Archive | August, 2010


28 Aug

I first heard about mangosteen in an JAL in-flight gift catalog, where of course they list luxury fruits for insane prices that you could purchase as presents for your boss/boss’s boss/parents. (This was in the ’80s, when the Japanese were still living high on the bubble.) There was a selection of tropical fruits, including mangosteen, described as “the queen of tropical fruits.”

Like many tropical fruits, it doesn’t look particularly edible from the outside. I’m not sure who first said, “Hey, let’s crack open this hard rock-like thing and eat whatever’s inside” (probably monkeys), but I’m sure they’re glad they did.

The edible part is the white, fleshy interior. The reddish-brown rind is disgustingly tannic and probably toxic. Tom wouldn’t touch mangosteen for a long time because he made the mistake of trying to eat the whole fruit and was repelled by the rind. The texture is kind of like a fleshier lychee or rambutan, usually with a small nut in the middle of the lobe. The flavor is delectably tangy and sweet, with a lovely tropical floral aroma. If durian is the Lady Gaga of the tropical fruit world, an acquired taste that’s inexplicably popular, then mangosteen is the Princess Di: elegant and easy to love.

And where can you get this delectable fruit? Well, all over SE Asia, obviously, but apparently there are growers in Hawai’i (not that I ever saw any there when I was growing up) and Puerto Rico, and imported mangosteen from Thailand. I have no idea if the frozen specimen is as tasty as the fresh, but if you come across one, I encourage you to give it a try.


Salt (the seasoning, not the movie)

27 Aug

I went to get salt the other day. How many different kinds of salt can there be at a supermarket? More than you can shake a salt shaker at, all labeled confusingly in a muddle of bahasa, Chinese, and Malinglish. So I got what seemed to be the closest thing to the sea salt I get in the US: rock salt, with no anti-caking agents or other additives.

Turns out it’s that pink Himalayan rock salt they sell at gourmet markets in teeny bottles for $20. This bag was 4 RM (ringgit), or $1.20. The imported UK-brand salt, on the other hand, was at least twice that.

Location, location, location.

The Original Free-Range Chicken: Kampung Ayam

26 Aug

Today’s new thing is an ingredient rather than a dish: kampung ayam, or chicken kampung, or “jungle fowl,” refers to the borderline-feral chickens running around the countryside (and sometimes in the KL suburbs). If you’re squeamish about bird carcasses, either whole or chopped up, you may want to avoid this one.

Kampung ayam, packaged for sale

Note how much smaller it is compared to your average US chicken. Especially the breasts. This chicken would probably feed a family of four Asians, or the two of us.

Since I (correctly) guessed that this chicken would be a little tougher, I decided to give it a nice stewing in a coconut curry sauce. This required chopping up the chicken. Luckily, I had packed my giant cleaver, which I haven’t had much occasion to use.

Chicken chopped up for cooking

The cleaver made short work of the wee chicken. They package the neck (though not the head — it’s a modern supermarket, after all), so I made some stock with that and the carcass. Since I forgot to put a lid on the pan, it ended up being extremely thick stock.

As for the curry, even after an hour of simmering, the chicken was still not what you call falling off the bone. Not stringy, just very…muscle-y. In general, the chicken in Malaysia (conventional breeds included) is very clean-tasting, without being what the Japanese call “nama-kusai,” literally “raw stench,” or “animaliness.” Even the (teensy) breasts cooked without drying out.

Where can you find the elusive jungle fowl in the States? Hawai’i has a pretty big population, especially on Kaua’i, where they’re one of the primary fauna. I don’t think Kaua’ians eat them, though. They’re missing out…

Spicy Sambal Pizza

26 Aug

Does pizza count as a New Thing? One of the things I like to do in foreign countries is to check out the pizza menu. It’s always fun to see the mash-up of local food tastes and American cuisine. Consider the notorious combinations Japanese pizza places have come up with.

Malaysians love pizza, too, with Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and the misleadingly named Canadian Pizza (the owners are Singaporean) all boasting multiple franchises. The offerings aren’t quite as outré as in Japan, but there are some distinctly Malaysian menu options, like the spicy sambal sauce (think of Thai chili sauce spread on your pizza), and the presence of things like chicken sausage and beef bacon in place of your usual porcine options. We ordered an extra-large Spicay Sambal Pizza from Domino’s.

Because it’s Asia, “extra-large” tops out at 15 inches, which I think is roughly the same size as a personal pan pizza in the US. Toppings were: secret spicy sambal sauce (not all that spicy, actually), chicken, red bell pepper, green onion, and crispy anchovies. Perfect with an ice-cold can of Tiger. I don’t think we’re ordering the creamy tuna with pineapple any time soon, though.

SOK Goes to Phuket

25 Aug

Fried whole fish with fried basil leaves

First, it’s pronounced “Poo-ket,” okay? So save your jokes for the Phi Phi Islands.

Anyway, Tom and I decided to celebrate our first real weekend together with a getaway to the beautiful island of Phuket in Thailand, which has recovered almost fully from the 2004 tsunami. The only obvious reminders are the tsunami evacuations signs that dot the landscape.

Phuket is a resort area, so the food, while very good, was about as adventurous as resort food gets, meaning no fried crickets. But lots of seafood, which makes sense for an island. There are a number of restaurants where you can pick your entree from a display of fresh fish to be prepared in the manner of your choice.

Fruits of the Andaman Sea

The snapper we picked out was so fresh that it was still alive. We also got some squid, stir-fried Thai-style (pad prik). By the way, if you request something spicy in Thailand, you’re going to be playing “is that green thing a chile or bean?” with your food most of the night, so be warned.

Our seafood dinner

Phuket also touts its lobster, which doesn’t have claws like a Maine lobster, so it’s really just the tail that’s edible.

The lobsters before...

...And after

A trip to Thailand (or any Asian country) wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the street vendor. Or rather, visits to several vendors. (We got some grilled corn after having beer at an Irish bar. It was just like a night in Wrigleyville. Except they don’t call them elotes here.) More impressive was the banana pancake guy, here seen in action:

(By the way, that yellow thing in front is a cone of “butter.”) And the final product:

It’s like a crepe filled with slices of banana and drizzled with condensed milk. Maybe you’ll see them in Wrigleyville next.

Ironically, dinner on the day we came back from Thailand was…Thai food. I guess we were trying to extend the vacation.

Char Kway Teow and Pork Mee

19 Aug

Both char kway teow and pork mee are noodle dishes that are practically the national dishes of Malaysia, especially char kway teow. (Sorry, pork mee: you’re too non-halal for most Malaysian establishments.) Go into any restaurant in KL and you’re likely to find char kway teow — even places advertised as Western or Indian.

The flavor is similar to pad see ew, but uses thinner rice noodles like pad thai, and includes bean sprouts and seafood instead of egg and broccoli. It tasted particularly rich, I think thanks to the little crunchy shallots that show up everywhere in Malaysian food. The chilis in the side dish were extremely hot.

Pork mee is more like ramen (and I mean proper ramen, not the stuff that you get can get 10 packages for a dollar for), with a rich, savory pork broth. (Yes, in addition to such culinary contributions as bacon, ham, and ribs, the pig also makes a darn tasty soup. Truly, a magical animal.) The noodles are more like spaghetti than what I’m familiar with as ramen noodles, but it’s probably closer to the Chinese source. The garnishes include minced pork, greens, and fish balls.

We had our lunch in a little “Chinese” cafe, the kind that are all over KL, serving up kopi and kaya toast and char kway teows and other Malaysian classics from a menu that’s usually written on a dry-erase board. It’s a welcome antidote to the uber-trendy restaurants in my neighborhood (even though they serve char kway teow and mee, too).

Durian, The Cheese of Fruits

19 Aug
Durian halves

Durian being packaged for consumption.

Durian is probably the world’s most notorious tropical fruit, and the only food substance banned from public spaces solely for its aroma. You’ve probably heard about durian from that Bizarre Foods show or Anthony Bourdain or Fear Factor. Right now it’s durian season, so it’s everywhere in KL.

And yes, it’s really that smelly.

It’s so smelly that when the doors of a supermarket open, you can tell if they’re selling durian, even though everything’s on ice and the durian itself is packaged in plastic and the husks immediately whisked away. It’s so smelly that we put our saran-wrapped package of durian in two plastic bags, and then in a crisper by itself, and it still stunk up the entire fridge.

So what does it smell like? Nothing you’ve smelled before. And it’s a scent with a particular unctuousness that coats your entire nasal cavity, overwhelming all of your scent receptors. But since I can’t embed scent files into this blog (yet), let me try to give you an idea. Imagine that plastic bag of onions and garlic that someone forgot about in the kitchen cabinet, only to be discovered by you on a hot summer’s afternoon. Then douse it in gasoline. Add a weird burning sensation in the back of your throat, and I think that about covers it. Durian on the street often has a top note of rotting meat, but thankfully refrigeration tames that particular dimension.

Now, I had always believed that it was the durian rind that was so stinky, and the fruit inside was, well, normal-fruit-smelling. Nope. Durian flesh is almost as bad as whole durian. But people loooove this stuff, so it must have some redeeming value, right? And the only way to find out…

The part of the durian you eat.

As with so many of these cult foods, there are rules. 1) No drinking (causes bloating). 2) Eat with mangosteen to counteract “heatiness.” 3) Don’t eat it on a date, because you’ll be burping up durian the whole night. I didn’t get as much of the heating, but Tom (the reason I’m in Malaysia in the first place) says it makes him burn up.

Much like the aroma, the flavor of durian is practically indescribable. On the first piece, the smell is almost overwhelming, as well as the cognitive dissonance of eating a sweet fruit that has the mouthfeel of custard and the smell of…well, durian. Then you have the second piece, and you start enjoying it; your scent receptors have given up, and more of a burnt-sugar flavor and a pleasant bitterness come through. Then, just as quickly, you’re done: I got through the third but I couldn’t take any more after that. It’s the least fruit-like fruit I’ve ever eaten.

Tom described it as a fruit that tastes like meat, but I think a better analogy is cheese — the super-stinky soft ones, like the Epoisses de Bourgogne, which, like durian, is banned on public transportation. You know, the ones that are half-melted even when you buy them, and smell like a teenage boy’s running shoes left in a hot gym locker for a month. Both cheese and durian are creamy, um, aromatic, and have intensely devoted connoisseurs. I’m planning to take full advantage of this durian season.