Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Somewhat-Great Trek.

OK, I'm not even done writing about New Mexico, but it's already time to move on. So file plates of enchiladas with grilled fish on the Mekong and streetfood in Phuket, among the many topics I've wanted to write about, but haven't had time to squeeze in. I promise I'll get to it all once I'm settled... hopefully.

We're departing from Albuquerque today on what will be the longest period of transit I've ever under taken. We're flying first to Chicago, staying three nights with a friend, flying to Frankfurt, waiting out a ten hour layover at the airport, then flying to Johannesburg. From there, we'll enjoy some time visiting around Gauteng, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga, before finally moving down to the Cape, where we will finally-- finally!-- settle down.

Of course, once we do get there, that's only the start once again.

Thanks for bearing with me during what will likely be a period of very infrequent postings! I'll try to see if I can squeeze in a post from Chicago. Hope everyone is doing well.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An American Abroad.

In early November, Bordeaux and I passed through Penang on a visa-run from Thailand. While shopping for breakfast in a neighborhood market, we were chatted up a friendly pastry seller. 'Where are you from?', he asked. The US, I answered. 'Oh!', he responded with more excitement than I was used to, and he raised a thumbs up. 'Obama!' It was the first time in my adult life that someone had mentioned my president, and I hadn't felt a pang of guilt and embarrassment.

The experience of being an American abroad is unusual. On one hand, it would be assumed that by living outside the country, I was renouncing my home country in some way. Yet once I've left its borders, my American-ness becomes pronounced, something I'm forced to wear. I'm introduced as being from America, silently feeling accountable for its misdeeds and mistakes. Upon telling a kid in Syria that I was an American, he responded by imitating the sound of a bomber jet. If I wanted to avoid being 'the American', I would remain in America.

But really, I don't want to avoid being American. I love my country. It's only in the past eight years that I've been made to feel as though I was somehow inherently anti-American: for being on the political left, for not wearing a flag-pin, for not supporting the war, for supporting immigration rights, for not being a Christian, for being a gay man who would like the right to be able to get married in my own country.

So I'm thrilled to start today with a new president, a new administration, and hope for a change that will course through the entire country. I hope we will no longer be a people ruled by fear and hatred, but motivated instead by fairness and equality. And no, I won't be staying in the US to enjoy the new administraion-- but I'll be very proud to be the American abroad.

Photographs taken from the NY Times. And be sure to check out Pret a Voyager's on-the-ground photos of the event; you can really feel the excitement of the day.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

eatingCulture/tastes: Donuts.

Opinions in eating.

Are donuts the new cupcake?

The above is a picture of a lemon-pistachio donut I made over the weekend, trying to follow a recipe from San Francisco based Dynamo Donuts in the Dec/Jan issue of Readymade Magazine (the recipe isn't online). It is, unfortunately, the only donut pretty enough to photograph, as the project was a bit of a flop-- they didn't rise correctly, I had the wrong size of circle-cutter, I burnt a few of them in the oil. Oof. They still tasted good, for the most part-- although a little too lemony for me.

The rise of the donut might be the result of a few trends colliding-- the wane of the cupcake, the recession calling for a treat with less frills, and 'breakfast' being the restaurant trend of the year (according to Bon Appetit, anyway). I certainly like the American-ness of the treat, though I have to admit, most donuts aren't very good-- way too sugary, no flavor. But the same is true of most cupcakes, unless they're well made. I imagine a well made donut with creative flavors could actually be pretty good. Can anyone recommend a good donut place?

On the subject of breakfast, be sure to check out my boyfriend's blog this week, as he attempts a new breakfast for every day of the week. I just completed Day 1, a stack of buttermilk pancakes with berry syrup. Yum.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Julia versus Anthony.

Does good food-writing have a gender?

One of my goals for 2009 is to develop my skills at writing about food; toward that end, I've been trying to read more food writing by a diverse selection of writers, chefs, and restaurant reviewers. And in early days of this process, I seem to have struck on something: I don't like male food writing.

To explain what is probably an unfair generalization, let me compare two very different works: My Life in France by Julia Child, and A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain.

I completed My Life in France last week, and though the book was almost entirely set in France (a country that doesn't particularly interest me much), and while the stories are all about French food (which I'm not crazy about), I enjoyed the book. I started A Cook's Tour two days ago, and though the book is set in many countries around the world (several of which really interest me), and it covers both Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine (both of which I strongly enjoy), I'm having trouble pushing myself to get past the third chapter. The difference, I think, is in their attitudes toward food.

In My Life in France, Julia describes how she developed a deep love and passion for the culture and cuisine of Franceover a decade living in Paris and Marseille. Food plays a prominent role in every chapter, as her husband introduces her to the flavors of France, as she comes to know Paris through its bistros and food artisans, and as she cooks staggering meals in her awkward kitchen. She is always eating, but it's not just about the food; it is a means of connecting to others, and of experiencing the world.

In A Cook's Tour, Anthony sets out around the world in search of 'the perfect meal.' I'd been curious to read it for a long time, but it didn't take me long to lose any interest. When, in the introduction, he attempts to evoke the experience of good food by comparing it to 'Your first taste of champagne on a woman's lips' and 'a few beads of caviar, licked off a nipple', I went beyond getting the heebie-jeebies to just being put off the book entirely. I don't think it's just this hetero-normative moment that turned me off though-- it's his writing style, his voice that annoys me. In the first chapter, he witnesses a pig being slaughtered for his consumption; it's a 'challenge' for him, but one he gets past. Things get much worse in the third chapter, in which he arrives in Vietnam. He stumbles around a Saigon market, alternating gorging himself on local foods, and casting an oggling glance at some local schoolgirls. Aside from just kind of thinking of him as kind of a creep (I picked the above photo selectively), I don't like the way he establishes his relationship with food. Food seems either an object of lust to be conquered, or a challenge that he is determined to master. Really, I'm sure he has a very healthy appreciation of food, and he's likely an incredible cook (this isn't something personal about Anthony Bourdain-- if I was going to get personal, I'd suggest the photos of him in the book make him a perfect candidate for this website)-- but I find his style of writing about food fairly repulsive.

What I came down to feeling was this: Julia's relationship with food is one of appreciation; Anthony's relationship with food comes across as one of domination.

Ok, now here's where my comparison might become a generalization. This seems to be a difference in male and female voices in food writing. With the exception of a few male-authored food and travel blogs that I enjoy (and hey, I don't think I'm so bad), I almost exclusively read blogs written by women. I got really sick of a few food blogs written by men where every entry seemed to be 'I have found the BEST version of this dish in the world'-- always seeming like there was something to prove, like eating was always some sort of challenge. With definite exceptions, the food blogs by women that I enjoy are much more about the experience of food-- evoking the setting, the flavors, and the people who make the meal important. Writing about eating is less about challenging others, and more about sharing with others.

As examples, here's an incredible piece about marshmallows by Molly Wizenberg for Bon Apetit-- it gives background on the treat, poetically describes the sensation of eating, while simultaneously evoking the human side of cooking-- and this articles on sup cua by Robyn of Eating Asia -- it not only makes you feel like you can practically taste the fresh cilantro garnishing the soup, but it gives a lucid picture of the setting in which it was enjoyed.

Anyway, I'm not done reading A Cook's Tour-- maybe I'll be turned around by the last chapter. In the meantime, do you have any favorite food writers? Any male writers to restore faith in my gender?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sugar cane.

Even though we've left Asia, we thankfully haven't left the food behind. Just after we got back to the US, we attended a Thai cooking demonstration at an Asian grocery store in Albuquerque. We've had good luck with local Vietnamese restaurants (though not Thai), and we've been experimenting in the kitchen, on meals like kaeng massman, green mango salad with crispy catfish, and canh chua. We even started the year by making a New Year's Eve feast of Cambodian catfish sandwiches, banana flower salad, and grilled beef salad rolls (the vodka fizzes Bordeaux mixed to drink and the glazed bananas and cinnamon ice cream my sister served for dessert weren't strictly Asian, but paired nicely). The past year and a half were spent mainly trying new dishes and experimenting with unfamiliar flavors; this next year will hopefully be about making some of those flavors our own.

On the side, we've been pursuing some other food interests. I've been doing a lot more food-reading, and have been studying a diverse selection of cookbooks (including the Time Life volume on Southeast Asia, from which the above photograph was lifted). I've been enjoying breakfast, from simple bowls of muesli and fresh berries to decadent almond french toast. We've also been experimenting in baking: last weekend was a two-layer cinnamon and chile cake, this weekend will be homemade donuts.

What are you enjoying eating lately?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Milton's on Central.

The film industry coming to Albuquerque has had strange effects on the city. Parking lots tented up and streets blocked off for shoots. Celebrity sightings in coffeeshops. And offbeat locales suddenly becoming movie sets. Like Milton's Family Restaurant. I had passed the diner often while cruising pass on Central; almost tempted in as I glanced up at its retro '50s signage, but put off by its dim interior and greasy windows. Apparently I wasn't the only one drawn to it, though-- it's interior, unchanged for decades, has made it the perfect set for period films. So with a little motivation from Hollywood, I finally made it in.

We arrived after 7, the cold air already dark with the early sunset of winter. The film industry hasn't drawn any crowds-- the parking lot out back was empty, the diner's interior somehow even emptier. Nor has it left the place with any added gloss-- the mood inside was sombre, with a vague odor that makes you decide to keep it safe when it comes time to order. We passed the college students finishing their meal, the wiry men sipping coffee, and grabbed a discreet booth in the back.

The menu pages stuck-- together, to the table, to our fingers-- so we ordered quickly. A cheeseburger for me-- safe, right?-- with green chili. Bordeaux ordered a milkshake, but the waitress's face gathered up in look of worry. 'You know, before you order, it's just me working the counter tonight, so I can make it for you, but it's gonna be awhile. I just don't want you getting your hopes up, then having to wait, is all.' He ordered a glass of water instead, and she nodded gratefully. She brought our drinks, chilling in the type of goldenrod glasses that probably haven't been made since the early '80s, then disappeared.

We weren't in a hurry-- I don't know why we would have come here if we had-- so we settled in, to observe our setting. It was easy to see how it would be a great movie set, with its flagstone walls, and brown-and-orange vinyl booths. A set of black and white photos of the store's founders hung above the coffee machine, the glass in the picture frames grimy with half a century's accrued grease. The only thing that seemed to have changed in the space were the cheap foil decorations that criss-crossed from window to wall. A passer-by with a loaded camper's backpack drew our attention outside; across the road, a yoga class was just beginning. The yogi and his disciples would disappear over the course of our meal, obscure behind the veil of fogged-up windows.

Our plates arrived at the table, heavy with mounds of food. The burger was actually delicious, really. Well charred meat, strips of smoky green chili, and crisp rings of white onion. But the visit wasn't really about the food, was it?

Meal finished, we took the paper check to the register, where we found no one waiting for us. We looked out through double glass doors, where we saw our waitress-- her sweater gathered tight around her, puffs of smoke alternating with gasps of cold air escaping from her mouth. She came back in, rubbing her arms as she slipped behind the register, and greeting us with a faint smile. We handed over some bills and coins, and slipped a tip in next to the register.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A brief confession.

Before I conclude my coverage of Puerto Vallarta, I really should clear one thing up. I may have given the impression that all of my dining was done at sidewalk stands, or informal lunch counters. But that's not exactly the case. Now, it isn't completely untrue, either...

Our first lunch was, after all, picked up from a stand right on a cobblestone lane. We followed the smell of roasting carne asada, and bought a bag of tacos to take home. The grilled meat was so delicious that it needed little else added to it in the corn tortillas-- though a little onion and cilantro added a nice bite.

And there was the grilled fish on the beach, one of our best meals. We followed a rule learned in Thailand, to see where the local tourists go to eat, rather than the foriegn. We squeezed around a small table, and enjoyed grilled marlin, dusted with coarse salt and flavored with a squeeze from a slice of lime.

And of course the empanada, which we picked up on the way home, when we were too full from lunch, but still couldn't pass up. The flaky pastry exterior was frosted with sugar, and the milky custard inside was still warm when we divided it up at home.

But the best food we had-- by far, absolutely the best-- was at Villa Rosa, the house we rented for our visit. Though the place had funky kitsch decor, and a pool with a great view of the city, its best asset was Carlos, the chef. He managed to make every dish perfectly, from the lime tang of his guacamole, to shrimp simmered in coconut milk, to perfect flan, to french toast laced with orange zest and coated in cinnamon. But somehow, me writing about late breakfasts in my pajamas doesn't exactly fit with this blog...

Friday, January 09, 2009

Mexico Colors: Blue, white, and just a little yellow.

I was in Mexico on vacation, so thankfully it didn't take much work to figure out what the colors of Puerto Vallarta were. They were, after all, the featured colors on the Jalisco state license plate. Beyond that, the colors blue and white, frequently paired with a splash of yellow, flowed throughout the city. The hues gleamed in glossy painted tiles, shone on colonial balconies, and brightened up neighborhood liqour stores. And, more obviously, they were the colors of the city's star attraction, the beach, where they appeared in the blue waves, white sand, and glints of yellow sun.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Big chili.

Puerto Vallarta is a touristy town-- there's not much way around that fact. But it is, importantly, a town. This isn't a flock of resorts clustered on the beach just for the service of American tourists-- it's a real community with a history and a life of its own. This has its benefits. Instead of being at the mercy of resort buffets or toned-down taco bars, we were able to sample the flavors of the city. There were informal lunch counters, open-air asada grills, and sidewalk empanada sellers all tempting us. And when I saw this taco stand, it's wooden counters crowded with lunch-time diners, I knew I had to try it.

We arrived just at the right time, and squeezed up to the crowded counter as some satisfied customers left. Glancing over the hand written menu dangling above the stewed meats, we placed our order. While waiting for our food, we eyed the clutter of condiments that decorated the counter. As we lifted the ladel out of a plastic bin filled with a deep black-red salsa, the chef caught my eye. 'Careful,' she urged me gently in spanish, 'take just a little. It's spicy.' Oh, that's ok! I assured here-- I love spicy food. She shrugged a polite smile, and reached under the counter, producing a two-inch roasted jalapeno that she rested on my plate with a devious wink. The joke was more visual than anything else, of course-- the biggest chillies aren't generally the spiciest. But to play along, I thanked her and bit in. The skin of the chili was blackened slightly, soft and crinkled as crepe. It left a deep smokey flavor on my tongue with the first bite, which slowly gave way to a green spicy bite. Not too hot, but delicious-- it was a first course that left me with high expectations.

Thankfully, the food itself was just as flavorful. My flimsy paper plate arrived in front of me crowded with food, two corn tortillas browned on the grill and piled with chopped meat, onions, beans, and cilantro. I bit into the taco de birria first, the tender stewed mutton immediately bleeding a savory flavor of roasted peppers. Next I tried the tripas, which I had been curious to try since I landed in Mexico. Upon ordering it, our chef had spread it onto the grill, where it popped and sizzled for a few minutes before she scooped it into the palm of the tortilla. It gave the meat a slightly crunchy exterior that suprised me, and a rich griddled flavor that surprised me even more. I was lucky to have ordered it when I did-- as we sat there munching contentedly, several hopeful diners stopped by to order the tripas, and were informed that I had gotten the last order. Yup, just in time.

Friday, January 02, 2009

And to CPT in 2009.

And with our time in Asia behind us, it's time to look on... to Cape Town, South Africa in 2009. I hope you'll follow me there.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Asia 2008.

I hope everyone had an incredible holiday-- around here, there were heaps of sweets baked, much time spent with my family, and numerous incredible meals enjoyed (both out and in). It's been fantastic and overwhelming, and only now is my mind starting to clear from all of it. And, it being New Year's Eve, the perfect time to look back over the past year as I start to plan the next.

Even though we squeezed in LA, northern New Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta in the last month, 2008 was really about one place-- Asia. We spent one half resident in Bangkok, one half living as itinerants, and en route visited some incredible places. Below are a few of the many locales we inhabited this past year that most deeply impressed me.

8. Trang Province, Thailand, October to November
It's hard for me not to look back at Trang with mixed feelings. The work I was doing was stressful, we had to spend an average of 4 to 5 hours a day on boats and buses getting around, we got trapped in several monsoonal showers (including once on a longtail boat-- not recommended) and I spent most of my time there feeling exhausted. But looking back at it from a comfortable distance (and in a drier locale), I'm able to appreciate what a spectacular chain of islands it is, and how lucky I am to have gotten to spend a week travelling among them. My favorites were was Ko Sukorn, with its pastoral rice fields and villages; Ko Libong, which had a subdued desert island appeal; and Ko Lao Liang, the isolated rock where we slept in tents, kayaked and snorkeled, and enjoyed fantastic seafood meals.

7. Mekong Delta, Vietnam, October
The year 2007 was centered around the Mekong, as Bordeaux and I traveled by slowboat, bus, and ferry along the route from Northern Thailand through Laos and Cambodia to Vietnam. We were missing one major part, however: the delta. So when work pointed us toward Phu Quoc island in southern Vietnam, I made sure we'd be getting to see the delta as well. The best night of our trip was in Ben Tre, where we sampled delicious Elephant Fish spring rolls, enjoyed a lazy afternoon drinking drip coffee, and cruised under palm-arches in a tiny canal. The glimpse I got of the rest of the area-- pastel colored houses, knotted waterways, and decadent Cao Dai temples, had me promising I'd return.

6. Kep, Cambodia, April
It came down to a choice between Kep and Sihanoukville, and I think we chose wisely. It wasn't the waves that drew us to this seaside Cambodian town, it was a meal-- pepper crab. Thankfully, the dish-- freshly caught crab covered in an oily curry powder sauce, exploding with the bite of green Kampot peppercorns-- justified the trip from Phnom Penh. The incredible atmosphere didn't hurt either-- we slept outdoors in a four-poster bed, that looked down from its balcony perch over lush tropical forest, ruined modernist villas, and the distant sea.

5. Central Vietnam, September
The cities of Hue, Danang, and Hoi An are often used to break up the long trip between Hanoi and Saigon, but the region is a deserving destination in its own right. It's certainly one of the best places to see traditional Vietnamese architecture-- like the ornate ruins of Hue's citadel, and the lanes of traders' houses in Hoi An. And while we didn't have too much luck with the regional cuisine, despite it being so widely touted, we did stumble across a few incredible dishes-- like grilled pork and starfruit wrapped in rice paper, avocado shakes, and crispy banh khoai pancakes.

4. Khao Sok, Thailand, May
I don't know if there are many places in the world that can compete with Khao Sok-- a tangled jungle inhabited by tapirs, sunbears, and tigers, stretched along a spine of limestone karsts. The highlight of our visit was a night on the emerald green Cheow Lan reservoir, a flooded forest where we slept on a floating bamboo hut. We were taken on guided boat trips to see otters and hornbills, but the real highlight was spending hours kayaking under the shade of the forest, as gibbons and langurs looked down at us with curiosity.

3. Penang, Malaysia, October
Penang was more necessity than vacation-- we had to do a visa run-- but it was without question one of my favorite places we visited in Asia. The city of Georgetown is gorgeous, the people were friendly, and the multicultural cuisine -- Indian banana leaf curries, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Nonya desserts-- was spectacular. Our visit came toward the end of our time in Asia, when we were starting to feel worn out, but in Penang I felt (temporarly) revived, with my curiosity renewed. Next time we return to Asia, Malaysia is at the top of my list for places to visit.

2. Hanoi, Vietnam, March
Bangkok will always have a place in my heart, but it's got serious competition from Hanoi. The city's sense of style is bipolar, with European avenues, Chinese temples, and Socialist monuments all battling it out, but it gives the city a unique energy and feel. We enjoyed some of the best coffee we'd had in all of Asia, and sampled some of the best street food-- like greasy binh my trung heaped with fresh cilantro. If I were to move back to Asia-- I'm sorry BKK-- it would likely be to Hanoi.

1. Taiwan, June to August
Was Taiwan my favorite place in Asia? Well, no-- but it was definitely the most surprising. I went there for work, for Bordeaux, and I went with low expectations-- which were quickly blown away. Taiwan has a gorgeous natural landscape of dramatic rocky shores, towering peaks (including the highest in East Asia), and verdant bamboo forests. It also has some of the most fascinating urban spaces I've visited in Asia, from the glamorous monuments of Taipei, to the intellectual museums and teashops of Taichung, to the hip nightmarkets of Kaoshuing. The food was incredible, and nearly every day involved sampling a new treat, like fiery gongbau chicken, peppery scallion pancakes, and creamy coffin bread. Really, I don't know why more people don't visit Taiwan-- but I'm sure I will again in the future.