Wednesday, September 30, 2009

asia recap part three: a moveable feast

I spent 34 days in Asia, which means thatI ate roughly 102 meals abroad (plus a variety of snacks and desserts, natch). I've already told you about my Thai Cooking Class and shared some sights from the markets of Southeast Asia, but what did I eat on a daily basis? In short, it was a culinary whirlwind. From coconut pancakes in Bangkok to Pho in Hanoi, it was a constant stream of flavors.My favorite meals were often the simplest--a pile of succulent mangosteens (my new obsession), freshly made young coconut yogurt, or Pad Thai from a stall at the night market. There were surprising flavors and textures--fish mixed with coconut and steamed in a banana leaf, sticky rice topped with egg custard, and lemongrass infused vodka granitas. We also suffered through our fair share of missteps--a glass noodle salad that contained more hard boiled egg yolks than it did glass noodles, too-hot peppers that left my lips burning long after I had finished eating, and, inexplicably, a meal where everything tasted faintly of ham.

To cap off our month of enthusiastic eating, we headed to a yoga and health spa on the island of Koh Samui, the coconut capital of Thailand (they export two million coconuts to Bangkok each month!) where we attended daily Bikram Yoga classes and feasted on tangy gazpacho, spicy papaya salads, and raw vegan banana cashew ice cream. I also drank my fair share of coconut water (understatement of the century). Overall, it was a roving feast through Southeast Asia, and I enjoyed (almost) every bite. Thanks for coming along for the ride! Now it's time to head back to the kitchen!

Monday, September 28, 2009

asia recap part two: to market to market

One of the most thrilling aspects of our trip were the vibrant markets of Southeast Asia. They were colorful, chaotic, inspiring, and at times even alarming. We encountered women balancing baskets stuffed with produce atop their heads, herds of teenage boys riding motor scooters, old toothless women hawking their wares, and medicine men with stacks of ancient cure-alls. There were piles of delicious looking exotic fruits, colorful orchids, heaps of chillies and stacks of banana leaves.

On the other end of the spectrum, we also saw blocks of congealed blood (used in soups), crispy insects, whole frogs, and, at one market, we even encountered a teenage boy sucking on the legs of a tarantula. I can't pretend to have tried all of these delicacies (or even been able to stand looking at them long enough to get a good photo) but whether delicious or disgusting, the sights, smells and sounds of Southeast Asia's markets were a culinary education in and of themselves, and an experience I will never forget.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

asia recap part one: chiang mai thai cookery school

After five weeks of traveling through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, I'm finally back in New York. I'll be back in the kitchen just as soon as I can get over my jet lag for long enough to blow the dust off of my pots and pans and drag myself the two blocks to Whole Foods for groceries. Until then, I'll be sharing some of the culinary highlights of my trip. I hope that you enjoy reading about them as much as I enjoyed eating them! Special thanks to Dan, Becca, Mom and Colleen for taking on my blogging duties while I was away! First up? A recap of my experience at a Thai cooking school!

One of the highlights of our trip was the day we spent at Sompon Nabnian's Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai Thailand. Sompon is a TV chef in Thailand, and he and his wife Elizabeth have been running their cooking school for more than fifteen years. The school offers five different programs, and we opted to take the course on Thai curries. Over the course of the day we made six dishes. Before we began prepping each dish, Sompon or a member of the school's staff took us into the classroom to demonstrate the techniques involved and to familiarize us with the ingredients we'd be using. Then we had the opportunity to cook each dish in the school's outdoor kitchen. The dishes were not difficult, but they used fresh, local ingredients that were bursting with flavor.

We spent the morning learning about the components of curries, and then we got to try our hand at making our own panang curry paste! First, we ground cardamon, coriander, cumin, peppers and chilies into a powder. Next, we added lemongrass, kefir lime peel, coriander root, shallots, garlic and shrimp paste. Finally, we pounded the paste for ten minutes. You heard me. Ten whole minutes of non-stop mortar and pestle action. It was definitely the best upper body workout I'd had in a long time. But the end result--a complex and delicious panang curry paste--was worth all of the effort. The curry paste was combined with coconut milk, palm sugar, fish sauce and more herbs and was served with pork or tofu. After we stuffed ourselves with the fruit of our labors Sompon announced that it was now time to make lunch.

Hold up--did he say lunch? I thought that plate of curry and rice I just ate was my lunch. Sompon just smiled, shook his head, and headed back in the classroom to teach us about our next dish--fried fish topped with a salsa of chili and basil. The fish was perfectly crisp, and the salsa a delicious mix of sweet and spicy. After we polished that off, I was practically bursting.

But I didn't have time to so much as sit down before it was time to get started on what Sompon called lunch number two (which is really lunch number three for those of you keeping track), Chiang Mai curry and sweet and sour vegetables. Northern Thai curries do not contain coconut milk and are less sweet than their southern counterparts, but are tasty nonetheless.

After lunch number three, it was time for dessert. And if you think dessert was a plate of tropical fruit or a light mousse, you clearly have not been paying attention. Oh no. Not only did we make a black rice pudding laced with coconut cream, but we also threw in a glass noodle salad for good measure. Sompon explained that the light and tangy salad was the perfect compliment to the rich and creamy rice pudding and that they were meant to be served together. (Being that I hate rice pudding, I didn't actually taste this, but I heard that it was wonderful.)

All in all, it was a wonderful introduction to Thai cooking and truly some of the best food we ate on the entire trip. More information about Sompon and his school can be found here.