the markets of Java and Bali

June 3rd, 2012 § 9

Some people like to visit museums when they travel – what we love most is to visit markets. Nothing compares to the unmediated experience of living culture that a market offers: it’s total sensory immersion. We consider ourselves to be pretty adventurous, but must admit that touring the markets on our recent trip to Southeast Asia felt at times like an extreme sport. You expect the overwhelming beauty of exotic fruits and flowers, and the thrill of un-tasted spice. You don’t expect how the heat and humidity magnify the ferment of centuries in your nostrils. Or the stupefying scope of things consumed as food.

offerings on the altar at the market in Ubud

We were lucky to happen upon a local merchant in Yogyakarta named Wandi, who elected himself guide and toured us through the market with fierce pride, insisting we smell and taste everything. ‘Not food,’ he said many times. ‘Medicine.’ And then because his English was limited, he would act out the symptoms of some disease, or the effect of the medicine in question. ‘Batman’ was one such medicine. He picked up a tiny dehydrated bat, and made squeaky sounds with his trachea. Bats are medicine for asthma, it seems. He had charades like this for almost anything we saw and pointed to.

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Din Tai Fung: made in Taiwan

May 23rd, 2012 § 6

Imagine wandering out into an unknown city, so hungry you’re willing to eat nearly anything at all, and fifteen minutes later being served some of the finest food you’ve ever tasted. This was our dumb luck at Din Tai Fung in Singapore a few weeks ago. Din Tai Fung is a Taiwanese chain of restaurants with several locations in Asia. In the thirty years since the founders started selling steamed pork buns in their Taipei flagship, Din Tai Fung has earned a Michelin star for two of its locations, and been named one of the world’s top ten restaurants by the New York Times.

making_dumplings

We had never heard of the place, and found it purely by chance – we were jet-lagged and starving and willing to sit down at the first place that looked half-decent. Din Tai Fung looked like a good bet because it was packed like a Tokyo subway car and there was a huge line-up – always a good sign. We were somehow whisked in instantly, and when we looked around at what people were eating, we realized we’d hit the jackpot.

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gone fishing

April 15th, 2012 § 2

Seven years ago, we travelled to Thailand for the first time, and were dazzled by the dichotomy of what we found there. The sacred, ancient temples stood watch over the commercial tourist trade, and the smoke of incense and of burning garbage was everywhere in the air. I ate a meal of green curry on that trip that was so fiery hot that my mouth became anaesthetized, but I finished every delicious bite.

Baked_Whole_Fish

Silver-skinned snook. Also called Robalo in Portuguese.

Fast forward to 2012, and we are now off to Singapore, Indonesia, and a little bit more of Thailand. We missed seeing the Andaman coast on our first trip as we arrived the day after the tsunami hit. Our trip this year promises to be a real culinary journey. We will be hitting the hawker food stalls in Singapore that serve up some of the best food in that part of the world. We may even take in a cooking class in Bali. » Read the rest of this entry «

steak au poivre

April 2nd, 2012 § 8

We finally went to Joe Beef last week. We’ve been hearing about it since it opened, but for us it was like the hot new tv show or blockbuster film that everyone is raving about: the raving is a big turnoff. But after reading the new Joe Beef cook book, which is basically an edible love letter to the city of Montréal, we were dying to go. We’re not particularly interested in the Joe Beef approach to cooking, but fascinated by how the book perfectly captures and communicates in plain English what’s often weakly described as our city’s joie de vivre, or uncertainly defined as a certain je ne sais quoi.

The_Dog's_Breakfast_Steak_au_Poivre

The experience of the restaurant delivered what the book so expertly decodes. It’s much more than the swagger of the menu or the poise of the wine list. I’d even say it doesn’t really matter what you eat there, because everything seems infused with the same sense of terroir, the same playful irony, and the same bacon. We enjoyed a complementary course of shaved ham (the whole ham, it seemed) and hot toast slathered with a gravy of foie gras. Just because we looked like a couple of hungry guys, I guess, or because the sommelier was touched by our enthusiasm for the wine she’d recommended. Maybe everyone was getting free ham that night. It wouldn’t be surprising. » Read the rest of this entry «

fennel – straddling the seasons

March 11th, 2012 § 2

Today was one of those days in Montréal where the sunny side of the street is lined with armies of pedestrians drunk on sunshine, while the shady side is completely deserted and cold. Some people have front gardens that are already dry and waiting for spring rain, but most display a mix of snow and garbage, layered over the past season. The air smells wonderful, and the earth like rot. You’re cold one minute and hot the next. You have absolutely nothing to wear. You have no idea what to eat.

Fennel_x_3

Enter fennel. It’s a perfect mid-season vegetable because you can a) always find good bulbs, b) feature it alone or in concert, and c) use it raw or cooked. One of our favourite ways to use this anise-flavoured bulb in the winter is to mix a whole head of butter-sweated fennel slices into mashed potatoes, along with a handful of toasted and cracked fennel seeds, and some roasted garlic. » Read the rest of this entry «

untameable Vieques

February 26th, 2012 § 6

Zagat just named Vieques one of the world’s top food destinations. Situated 10 miles southeast of the Puerto Rican mainland, Vieques is Puerto Rico’s little sister – a largely undeveloped place with no traffic lights, a complex and fascinating history, some of the Caribbean’s most spectacular beaches, and a food scene that would make Anthony Bourdain wet his pants. (See Big Papa’s roast pig with Creole spices below.)

Vieques_Island_PR

Screaming hot peppers at the market and wild chickens everywhere. Welcome to Vieques.

We’ve been guests of the island three times over the past 5 years, and were amazed during a recent visit to see how the local food scene is blossoming in response to the steady increase in tourism. (The W opened a hotel here two years ago, on coastal property next to what the locals call Gringo Beach.) There are only ten thousand people living here, and most of them are employed by the island itself, through a conservation project headed by the US Navy. » Read the rest of this entry «

asian-style noodle soup

February 2nd, 2012 § 4

Our new favourite thing: a one-bowl meal that’s crazy-good, dead easy, and guaranteed to get you glowing, no matter how cold it is outside. While probably not authentically anything in terms of style, it’s genuinely restorative, with a strong, distinct yang character that warms the heart of winter’s deep yin.

asian_noodle_soup

chicken-tamari-ginger-garlic broth - umami, or ooh mommy?

This soup is one of several brilliant permutations suggested by the Japanese Noodle Soup recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. We’ve done this with seared beef tenderloin, sliced into silky pink ribbons, and five-spice duck breast, which lends dark fragrance and depth to the broth. But we like this best as chicken noodle soup. It’s clean, but rich. Comforting, but sophisticated. With something this simple, it’s not just quality of ingredients that’s key – you also have to have a quality approach. » Read the rest of this entry «

lemon lime pickle

January 22nd, 2012 § 11

A food-minded friend and neighbour introduced us to home-made lime pickle a couple of years ago. We had a great time shopping for the ingredients at a local Indian specialty food store that stocks such rare treats as fresh kaffir lime and bitter gourd. And the recipe we used was a real winner: it took first prize in the Housewives/Amateurs section of the All-India Citrus Fruit Exhibition in 1957.

lemon_lime_pickle_1 » Read the rest of this entry «

springerle cookies: lasting impressions

January 15th, 2012 § 7

Just before Christmas, I stumbled across a Springerle cookie recipe, and was immediately drawn to this fascinating and intricate edible art. Using a mould or rolling pin, these edible confections have been made for hundreds of years and have a fascinating history. Historians have traced the origin of Springerle cookies back to an pagan German festival called Julfest, celebrated in midwinter. Part of the festival included sacrificing animals to the gods in the hope of a short winter and early spring. Those who could not afford to do so gave tokens in the forms of breads and cookies shaped like animals. The tradition survived over time and Springerle cookies are often seen at Christmas time.

springerle_cookies_1

Anise oil gives these cookies incredible flavour.

The variety of stories you can find depicted in Springerle moulds is truly fascinating. Dating back as far as the 14th century, you can see family histories, biblical scenes, stories from daily life as well as holidays like Christmas. By the 18th and 19th centuries, these cookies were used as birth and wedding announcements, to mark important holidays, to send messages of love, and even depicted news of the day and political satire. » Read the rest of this entry «

chicken liver mousse with Gaziantep pistachios

January 8th, 2012 § 7

We recently discovered a butcher who made our spirits bright over the holidays with such delectables as dindonneau (young turkey), and confit of goose drumsticks. A few weeks ago we noticed they had goose and pheasant livers in stock, which gave us the idea to try a mousse de foie de volaille. Of course when we went back to get them, all the exotic livers had been snatched up.

chicken_liver_pate

One thing we really should know by now is when you see something like wild game livers, you grab them, before someone else does. You don’t say – they’re not on the list, or, I didn’t plan to make paté tomorrow. You seize the opportunity. On the other hand, you have to exercise a certain discipline, or else you come home with things that are just going spoil. We’re constantly throwing out green chiles, for example, because they seem so rare to us, and look so cute in their little green grocer’s package. One will get used in scrambled eggs and the other 39 will turn into mush in the crisper, beside some slippery cilantro. » Read the rest of this entry «

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