Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand was a bit of a blessing after Laos. Not that we never had some good food in Laos, it's just most of the time the food was quite bland. After Laos we ate well. Even in some no name places that had their pre-cooked food on display in big metal containers and sold it by the dish with rice at lukewarm temperatures. My favourite way in these hot climes. 
I'm pretty sure the few days we were in Chiang Rai we only ate in one restaurant and that was at Cabbages and Condoms, named so as condoms are cheap as cabbages. It was started by one man, who single handed managed to lower the birth rate in Thailand through his condom company. He also has opened up several restaurants around Thailand. The interior has hundreds of the adverts they used to promote condom use in Thailand. It's a different way to decorate a restaurant. The food was pretty good also. 
The other times we ate, was at the large food night market. A large collection of stalls selling every Thai dish yo could think of. The best thing we had there was a beautifully grilled fish that was smeared in a spicy sauce. It was delish. We also had some cockles grilled that we also had in Vietnam. The market was mainly full of Thai's enjoying some good, cheap food with their families. Everything was being washed down with Thai beer or Thai whisky. There was even musical accompaniment. Some good, some not so good groups played for us, but the atmosphere was excellent. No surprising we never really wanted to eat anywhere else. 
We encountered Chiang Mai on a Sunday, which was lucky for us as the Sunday Night Market was just getting set up as we ventured out from our hotel. For a street market it was a magnificent sight. It had to stretch at least for a mile, plus loads of small streets venturing off in either direction were filled with people selling handicrafts. Of course if you have a market this big, those shoppers will soon become hungry shoppers. The sheer quantity of stalls selling everything from Phad Thai to Grilled Chicken to Curry Noodle Soups was most impressive. For the most part everything we tried was pretty darn good, and we tried a lot.
A local legend in Chiang Mai is Aroon Rai. It's own advertising states it has the best curries in Chiang Mai. Quite a bold statement. If I hadn't been recommended this place, then I would never have found it. Whilst we were inside we saw scores of people just simply walk past, looking in at it's large uninspiring open dining room full of plastic tables and chairs. The place really does not look anything special, but what a treat they were missing. The menu is quite brief although there are a few more items in Thai than in English. Wonder what they are. But basically, it's curry heaven. We ordered a Chiang Mai Curry and a Green Curry, Sticky Rice  and some Spring Rolls as a starter. Just to wet our appetites before the show began. 
The curries were both unxcious and well spiced. The Chiang Mai was thick and nicely sour, the Green Curry was full of spice and coconut. Both delicious and yummy, and with sticky rice to mop up those juices. It was fantastic, and as it was mostly frequented by Thai's and a few Farang it was pretty cheap. We were hoping that after that experience that the rest of Thailand was going to be heaven. But as always when you build something up, it always lets you down.
The following day we visited the Night Market. Compared with the Sunday Market, this was a big let down. It was like being in any touristy street in Bangkok, and this is one of Chiang Mai's major attractions. We found Food Street, as they call it. A large collection of restaurants mostly selling seafood. This looked like it promised us some glorious food. All it gave us was disappointment. We found a busy restaurant full of locals. Which is always a good sign. So after looking through the picture menu, we chose a plate of clams in a chilli sauce and the Special of the Day which was a grilled fish (Can not remember which type of fish it was). The clams were nice, but the chilli sauce was thick and gloopy and lacked any flavour at all, especially chilli. The fish was cooked really well but also lacked flavour. It was kinda bland. Which could have either been the fish or the way it was cooked. Seasoning, we found was something chefs forgot about in Thailand. Maybe this is the way they think we like their food, that we can not handle the spices or heat of the chilli's. Or maybe with the vast quantity of people visiting Chiang Mai they days, anyone who says they can cook is hired, in the mad rush to get the tourist dollar. Chiang Mai is or has become a victim of its own success. For the most part we enjoyed it but felt let down. Some of the best places we ate at, were really nothing special to look at, very simply decorated, and mostly plastic chairs and tables. There is good food in Chiang Mai, it just takes a little of exploring and with Aroon Rai, never judge a book by it's cover.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Street Food Part 3 - Luang Prabang Night Market

Street food in Laos is not that good. Mainly it consists of noodle soups, baguettes, grilled chicken or fish. This really does not happen in every town. Mainly just in the larger towns and cities. If you can call any place in Laos a city. 
In Luang Prabang there is a nightly market, mainly for the tourists. They block off a whole road in front of the old Royal Palace. Stalls are set up filled with locally made handicrafts. You have to walk a good 10 or 15 minutes through this before you get to the food. But at least you will have worked up an appetite. 
My memories from my first trip to Laos, 10 years ago are filled with my daily fix of baguette filled with paté in Vientiane from a small Vietnamese shop. The bread was fresh and as good as you would find in Paris, Laos pate, not the same you find in France but a good substitute, this was sliced and placed inside along with some other forms of luncheon meat. Sometimes they used to give me a piece of cheese, sometimes not. Some salad leaves, some thinly sliced cabbage and a good splattering of chilli sauce. Cut in half and wrapped in newspaper tied with an elastic band. They were delicious. 
Thankfully you can still get them in Laos, but in Luang Prabang they are slightly different now. Gone is the paté. In is sliced grilled chicken, all the other stars are there, especially the chilli sauce. Fantastic. Also had my fix of caffeine at the same time, as the stalls were next to eachother. Lina opted for an oreo biscuit milkshake. Very very rich. Breakfast was sorted that way everyday. 
But as I said it was at night that it all came to life. Most people simply walked passed the alley not even knowing anything was there. Only if you looked and looked again would you notice further down the alley a small collection of stalls selling everything from bar-b-q'd chicken, pork, fish, sticky rice, deserts, stews, Lao salads and even a vegetarian stall. (Which had the worst food there, over cooked soggy veg .. YUCK)
The times we ate there, we always had some grilled fish, plucked straight from the Mekong, gutted, cleaned, smeared in a spice mixture, strapped between two wooden sticks and plonked over some hot coals. The skin was crispy and the flesh still moist. No idea what fish it was, but it had few bones, thankfully, as those little buggers have caused a few near death experiences between me and Lina. We are also getting very good now at eating fish with chopstix. 
We also had a nice juicy piece of crispy skinned pork along with a lovely spicy sausage. Both went down well with some sticky rice and a local chilli paste and a cold bottle or two of Lao beer. We were tempted to have a whole chicken and the pigs head nearly made it onto our plates also, but there are only so many times a day I can eat without exploding.
But this just gives me an excuse to return, as if I really needed one.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Sticky Rice

Sticky rice for me is Laos. Whenever I see it or read it on a menu, I am always transported back to Laos. Kao Neaw was the first and really the only Laos word I know. The first time I went to Laos, I must of had it at least twice a day for a month. This time I limited myself to just once a day. Sometimes. 
It's actually quite a complicated and time consuming rice to cook. First it has to be soaked over night. The the next day it is washed several times to remove any grit or unwanted bits. It is then steamed in a conical type bamboo pot over boiling water for at least an hour. After this it is turned out onto a clean surface and kneaded with a wooden paddle. This, I was told results in the rice balls that will stick to eachother but not to your fingers. Ingenious. It is stored in a bamboo basket until ready to eat. This keeps it sticky but dry, not wet and gummy. 
In restaurants we get it in a small bamboo basket with a lid. You take a small amount and roll it into a ball with your right hand. You then dip into the sauce on your plate or break off a piece of meat or fish and eat then together. It really is heaven. In fact I am sure I have never had normal white rice in Laos. There is no need. The Laotians are quite superstitious, as when you have finished eating the rice, you have to put the lid back on. This ensures a good harvest for the following year. 
It is really quite funny to watch people who have never eaten sticky rice before try and eat it with chopstix or a fork. The Laos who work in restaurants must keep their whole house awake at night telling the stories of the Farang eating sticky rice with chopstix. Badly as well. I saw it so many times and it is really funny. 
Without sticky rice Laos would fall apart. I have seen everyone from young to old munching on it at varies times of the day. Everyone seems to have a small bag of it, either with some dip or meat or just  on its own. But everyone is eating it. In bus stations you get women selling bamboo tubes full of dyed sticky rice with coconut. It's a great sweet. Really delsih...... 
Plus it is what they make Lao Lao from. The sometimes good, sometimes bad rice whisky. Which I have seen people drink at all times of the day. 
In Luang Prabang I saw hundreds of little rice cakes drying on bamboo slats outside houses. Strangely I never actually saw how these were eaten. 
It's going to be weird to start eating normal white rice again. At least in Northern Thailand I can still get my fix. 

Friday, 18 July 2008


We ate at Tamarind twice, but, the competition in Luang Prabang for traditional Laos food is not that good, well apart from a small street near the night market, where quite a few stalls set up at night to tempt you with grilled fish, chicken and Laap salad. More on that later. 
It's located down a quiet street opposite a Wat, which in the late afternoon you can hear the monks chanting their prayers. The restaurant is only open from 11am till 6pm everyday, but the week we were there they were closing much earlier as the owners were away. Which was disappointing as I wanted to attend the cooking class there, as I had heard it was very good and very hands on. 
What they serve is not really full meals but more of a Laos Brunch. More than a snack but less than a meal. The menu tells the story of all the players in the restaurant, and gives a run down on traditional Laos food. Plus highlights some local charities and exhibitions by local artists. It's quite a read.
As it wasn't going to be our main meal of the day, but more of a light lunch. We opted for two sharing plates, so we could get a wider taste of Laos food. Both came with sticky rice, which seems to be eaten by all Laotians anytime of the day, and is my favourite form of rice. 
The first one was more of a dipping plate. It consisted of a tomato and chilli dip, coriander dip, an aubergine dip (which really reminded me of baba ganoush), a fish and chilli dip and a sheet of dried river weed, which was coated in sesame seeds. It ate better than it sounds. 
The second plate had more substantial foods like local Luang Prabang sausage and dried buffalo meat, some rolled cabbage with a sauce inside, some lightly cooked greens and some shredded chicken and beansprouts. 
Both plates were presented very well and were excellent eating. The dips were spicy enough and went well with the sausage. The buffalo meat was divine. I could of eaten that all day. The greens I could of left but were pretty good. The drinks were heaven also. Lemongrass and ginger juice. Very refreshing. 
All in all we spent two pleasant afternoons in Tamarind. 
If you get the chance and do the cooking course, send me an email and let me know how it is. Gutted that i missed it. Next time. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2008


We were quite lucky to see a lot of paddy fields in different stages of production as we headed north from Saigon to Sapa. Rice, in Asia forms an important part of the diet of millions of people. It provides one fifth of all calories consumed in the world today. In some cultures, "Hello", literally translates as "Have you eaten rice yet?". 

Rice is best suited to regions with low labour costs and high rainfall, as it is very labour intensive, and requires vast amounts of water to cultivate it. So really its bad for the environment. Vietnam proudly boasts that it is the 2nd largest exporter of rice in the world today, currently making up for 16% of all exports, after Thailand. 

Nearly all the rice grown in Vietnam is grown in paddy fields. The first paddy fields are believed to date from around 3000 BC in China or Korea.  Some dispute over this, mainly between the Chinese and Koreans. I'm sure noone else really cares that much. 

In Vietnam, it seems that every small space of land is given over to rice production. They really do make the most of their land.

After the harvest, the fields are ploughed or left as stubble over the winter. When it is time for planting, the fields are flooded. This is where the water buffalo comes into its own. Yes, the same animal that produces that milky oozy delicious cheese, they also plough rice fields. Did you know that the buffalos in Italy, were originally imported from India. 

The fields are ploughed and them fertilised and then they are smoothed over, flooded again, this forms a deep layer of soft mud. The rice plants are grown from seedlings in a central factory, and they are transported to the fields in bundles. This is where the back breaking works begin. Each plant is planted by hand. In more industrialised countries this is all done by machine, but in Vietnam, from what we saw, it was all by hand. Poor souls.

The field is flooded again to germinate the rice, this is helped during the summer months when the sun beats down on the plants and the humidity envelopes everything around them, and every agrochemical known to science is sprayed over them. This is the worrying part.

I read an article recently in Hanoi, and actually saw it in practice, in Cat Cat outside of Sapa. Farmers are now using ducks to keep pests at bay, as the little beasts eat them, not many weeds grow in rice fields but what does the ducks eat. Not sure what percentage of rice plants is eaten by the ducks, but maybe is less than what the pests get. Plus this way there is no chemical spraying. In Thailand you can get Som Tam with salted crabs collected from the paddy fields. 

When the rice is ready to harvest, more back breaking work is involved. By this time the fields have been drained and are quite dry. The rice plants are cut and stacked in large bundles, then they are thrashed to loosen the hulls. It is then placed on a mat or a sheet and tossed into the air to get rid of any loose bits. Then the process is repeated for another year. 

In Northern Vietnam, they use the fields twice, but in the South I hear they have up to 3 rice harvests a year. How they manage this without damaging the soil I am not sure, I imagine that a lot of chemicals are used. 

We had rice in various forms in Vietnam. Mainly as steamed rice. But also in rice pancakes, fresh and dried, rice paper, rice sweets, pop-rice (same as popcorn but with rice, like rice krispes but not), and we can not forget rice wine. It is a very versatile crop. My favourite rice is Sticky Rice, which is mainly seen in Laos. But more on that one another blog. 

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Street food Part 2 - Bun Cha

Some of the best street food in the world comes from Vietnam, and the best street food in Vietnam comes from Hanoi. The streets are awash with small stalls selling everything from Pho to ....... ...... Everything comes to life early morning and ends long after dark. Some really good food starts to appears late morning, just in time for the lunchtime rush, and around sunset for dinner. 

We were wandering around old Hanoi around lunchtime, when I began to smell the aroma of bar-b-q'd meat. As we neared the corner the smell was becoming incredible. The closer we got, the more my mouth was salivating. What we came across was a small shop with some low tables and chairs out front. There were a couple of girls grilling the meat over some charcoal burners. What we had encountered was Bun Cha or bar-b-q'd pork and noodles. A popular Hanoi lunchtime favourite. 

We had to wait for a little bit as the place was packed. A very good omen. We finally managed to find two seats and a table under a tree. We were really not sure on what we were going to get, so we just ordered for 2. What came were 2 plates of fresh rice noodles, 2 bowls of bar-b-q'd pork in a fish sauce stock, and a dish of salad leaves. Everyone around seemed to have their preferred way of eating them. Some people were mixing noodles and salad leaves into the fish sauce and pork, others were just mixing the noodles and eating the leaves separate. I enjoyed dipping the noodles into the sauce and then eating them straight away. The pork was succulent and had a lovely chargrilled taste to it. The fish sauce stock, was just the right side of fishyness. Any more and it would had overpowered the pork. 

It was such a delight to eat. The noodles were as fresh as could be. The pork was chargrilling before our very eyes. The salad leaves were fresh and had a great taste to them. I am getting to love mint more and more as a salad leaf. This simple dish just typifies how fresh ingredients used very simply are worth their weight in gold. This is what I am trying to do with my cooking. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But in Vietnam, the times it works, they are incredible. I hope that I can reproduce Bun Cha in my own kitchen one day, as good as we had in Hanoi. And what made it even better was that it only cost us 20,000 Dong each, about £1.50p for us both. Could life get any better. 

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Ca Phe

My addiction to caffeine came on rather late in life. It all started in Israel on Kibbutz Ein Carmel. Having a cup of coffee and a chat with Marit made working on the animal farm all the more better. I miss those days, sitting outside in the sun, surrounded by chickens, geese, sheep etc. talking about everything and nothing. My caffeine habit continued over the years, as I started to buy low quality beans from various outlets. Finally when we moved to London, I started buying higher quality products at the Algerian Coffee Store. Now I was on the hard stuff. 

My kinda coffee mornings continued all the way till I quit work in late January, as I would go with someone to buy a coffee at Cafe Nero. Coffee for me is more of a sociable activity than a solitary one. In this way it resembles drinking Mate, that fabulous Argentinean beverage, which is supposed to be drunk with other people. 
On this trip I found the Japanese are not really coffee drinkers. We found one or two good places to buy, but not that many. I managed to get my fix most days in Hong Kong at the Pacific Coffee House. Thailand and Cambodia were a bit of a washout, as I refuse unless sheer desperation sets in, do I go into a Starbucks. 
When we arrived in Saigon, I knew I was in heaven. I had dabbled with Vietnamese coffee before, back in London. Nothing major, just 250g here or there ..... That burnt buttery taste and the thick dark elixir was divine. So I was so happy to be in its spiritual home. So after finding our hotel, dumping the bags, I literally ran out the door for a little pick me up. What I encountered excited me. I was given a cup and a metal drip filter on top of it. This filter looks like a top hat, the lid rests on top and is used as a saucer for the filter once the coffee has dripped through. If you are in urgent need of your fix, this process can really mess with you, as it is excruciatingly slow. But believe me the end result is fantastic. 
What surprised me, was the inclusion of sweet condensed milk, this I haven't encountered since I was a child, as my mum used to use it a lot, but it went out of fashion in the late seventies or early Eighties. At first I have to say I really didn't like the sweet taste, but after the following few sips, it started to grow on me and by the end of the cup I was hooked. What I had is known as Ca Phe Sua Nong (Hot milk coffee) in Vietnam. This became my regular fix. I find Vietnamese coffee without the condensed milk much to bitter. It's almost like overdosing on the stuff.
Generally by late morning or early afternoon, when the temperature would get too much for me, I would have to have a Ca Phe Sua Da (Iced Milk Coffee). Heaven. Same preparation as before, but you either get a glass of ice as well for you to either add to the coffee after it was done or vice versa. I preferred to add coffee to ice, as the glass was always cold and it cooled the coffee quicker. Sometimes you would get it all mixed together for you, which just takes all the anticipation away for you. It's the fun, letting the coffee drip down very slowly into the cup. 
What really annoys me is that some places automatically think that we only drink Nescafe. Really annoying these stereotypes. I mean how many people actually enjoy drinking instant coffee, once they've tasted fresh coffee. 
For me one of my over riding memories of Vietnam will always be its coffee. I am well and truly hooked. Lifetime addiction. Now how am I going to get Vietnamese coffee in Colombia. 

Thankyou Marit, May your Soul forever fly free ....