Category Archives: Food

Dal Bhat: Fuel of the Nepali People

Compared to many other Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand and India, Nepal doesn’t stand much of a chance to claim the most diverse cuisine in the region. For example, when attempting to pin down a “national dish” for Singapore, there are many possibilities. It could be chicken rice, or maybe it’s chili crab. Some might claim it’s rojak, and others may say it’s mee goreng. The debate could go on forever, but when aiming to isolate the “national dish” of Nepal, it’s easy. Without question the national dish of Nepal, the meal that is eaten hundreds of thousands of times per day all over the country is dal bhat.

I often wonder about the lack of major variety in Nepali cuisine and have concluded that since Nepal is such a poor country, the first priority for most (especially those outside the Kathmandu Valley in more rural areas) is to get enough food to eat, rather than to develop the flavors of the food to create a breadth of culinary options. This is not to say that dal bhat is not delicious. It is tasty, simple and substantial, which is what the majority of the population is looking for: enough food to fill up to fuel a day’s work, which is often tough manual labor. Dal bhat is to Nepali people what gasoline is to vehicles.

Dal bhat consists of various sized portions of different food groups. The meal centers around white rice (the “bhat”), which is often served in mountainous proportions. The second cornerstone part of the meal is the “dal” which is like a lentil soup, often served in a bowl and then poured on the rice to add flavor and moisture. Dal comes in several varieties, including yellow dal and black dal, both of which are often cooked in a pressure cooker with spices, garlic and sometimes ginger.

In addition to the dal and the bhat the meal, which is usually served on an enormous aluminum plate with small dividers to keep each portion separate, also comes with small heaps of vegetables (tarkari), sometimes meat (chicken, mutton or buffalo) and a dab of achar (pickle) for spice.

The small side of tarkari, or curried vegetables, adds extra flavor and spice to the meal. Usually the tarkari vegetables include cauliflower and potatoes, often with bits of carrots. Especially for an elaborate meal, the dal bhat will be served with a small mound of dark green saag, which is sauteed spinach. On one of the small sections of the metal plate is a helping of achar, or pickle, which is used as a condiment to add spice and flavor to the rest of the meal. Achar comes in all different varieties, but I find the most common achar is made with tomatoes, lapsi (a unique, sour Nepali fruit) and chillies. The achar ingredients are ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle.

Whenever I sit down to a dal bhat meal, the restaurant proprietor or home owner will usually give me a spoon to eat the meal, but Nepalis traditionally eat dal bhat with their right hand. I’ve tried using my hand to eat dal bhat as well, and it usually turns out disastrous as I have not mastered the fine art of mixing each of the parts of the meal into one mound, scooping it up and shoveling it into my mouth with my fingers. When I try, the rice usually ends up all over the place and other diners laugh at my inability to properly do a “finger scoop.” Watching Nepalis eat dal bhat with their hand (always the right hand, as the left is used for the toilet) is truly an amazing site. A hungry Nepali person can put down a massive plate of dal bhat in minutes, mixing eat bite with the perfect ratio of rice, dal, tarkari and achar. Additionally, the owner of the restaurant or tea stall selling dal bhat will often make rounds to each table with an enormous bowl full of rice to refill customers’ plates. A dal bhat meal really is an all-you-can-eat feast that acts as the fuel for the Nepali people.

Above: A traditional dal bhat meal.  Clockwise, starting from the green vegetable: 1) saag – sauteed spinach with garlic and ginger, 2) wild boar cooked with tomato, 3) tarkari – curried cauliflower, potato and carrot, 4) fried fish, 5) curried chicken, 6) achar.  There is black dal in the small bowl accompanying the plate.

Above: Another traditional dal bhat meal.  Take note of the MASSIVE portion of rice.  Second helpings are always available, too.  Photo by: gregw66

Above: More dal bhat, this time with a slice of raw onion for flavor.  Photo by: magical-world

Above: A close-up of tarkari, curried vegetables that always go along with the rice and dal.  Photo by: LilyinNepal

PHOTOS: Color and Texture at the Vietnamese Markets

It’s early morning at the market in Hoi An and women donning woven, conical hats bob up and down, organizing their baskets full of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. On the outskirts of the market are vegetable peddlers and inside, under the corrugated tin roof are noodle sellers, who are chopping cabbage and flouring rice noodles.

A walk through the markets of Vietnam reveals an astounding array of colors, textures and smells. Seeing the number of colorful vegetables and herbs at the market makes it easy to understand why Vietnamese food is so incredibly fresh and full of flavor. Pho vendors and banh mi stall owners are able to come to the markets every day and get the freshest ingredients, with dirt and roots still dripping off their ends. The variety of food, of all colors and textures, available at the Vietnamese markets seems to directly correlate to the diversity of Vietnamese cuisine.

Here are some photos that show the rich colors, textures and variety at the Vietnamese marketplaces.



















The Hypocritical Vegetarian on Butcher Shops in Kathmandu

In Kathmandu I have, sadly, become a semi-vegetarian and it’s because I’m a hypocrite. By “semi-vegetarian” I mean that when I’m out at a restaurant I’ll gladly order a meat dish, or when I’m at someone else’s home for dinner, I’ll happily rip through some juicy animal flesh. I really do love meat. But when I’m eating at home and cooking for myself, which is most of the time, meat is not on the menu.

The reason that I don’t cook meat at my own home is because the Kathmandu butcher shops are… intimidating. There are butcher shops everywhere. There is one down the street from my house and a few more within ten minutes walking. I literally pass dozens of butcher shops on my morning runs. But, no matter how many times I pass a Kathmandu butcher shop, I still cannot help but stare when I walk by.

The butcher shops are generally quite small, probably no more than 10 feet across, open air stalls. In front of the stall is a table that displays the shop’s product, which is most often chicken, pig, goat or buffalo (never cow, for cows are sacred animals here in Nepal). If the animal is large, like a pig or a goat, the sections are laid out in large chunks on the front table: the head on one side, the abdomen and front legs in the middle and the hind quarters on the other side. If it is a goat, the legs of the animal bend unnaturally, every which way. If it is a pig, the shop keepers often rub the whitish-pink skin with a spice that dyes the whole animal a shade of neon orange. Chickens are laid out in rows, sans head and feet, and are blow torched to singe off the tiny down feathers. The store proprietor often stands behind the meat-heavy table with a wand, made of a stick and a plastic bag, that he or she waves around the meat in a half-hearted effort to keep the flies at bay.

Whenever I walk by a butcher shop, I’m always struck by how, well, animal the meat is. The legs and hooves are still intact, the heads are sitting there, staring at me with open eyes, the hair and bristles are still visible on the skin. The “animalness” of the meat at the Kathmandu butcher shops puts me off because of how whole the meat pieces are. When I think about this, it is, of course, horribly hypocritical of me, because when I’m back in the supermarkets of the US, I make a beeline to the meat department and without any consideration pick out a plastic-wrapped package of chicken chunks or pork loins. In the US, the meat section of the store is so sanitized, so clean and sparkly, that it’s easy to forget that the little package of perfectly white, perfectly uniform, perfectly bone-free meat pieces actually came from an animal.

I think if most carnivorous people in the US saw the butcher shops in Kathmandu, they would likely feel the same way. There is blood, guts, hair and eyes. There are bones, tendons, organs and fat strips. Plastic wrapped, pre-sliced, pre-weighed meat packages do not exist here.

As a Westerner, it is easy to look upon the butcher shops here and think: “How dirty! What a bloody mess they are!” But, I think the fact that I am so put off by seeing large pieces of animal, with the heads intact, or that seeing a butcher slash away at a hanging goat carcass makes my stomach knot a bit is actually a reflection of the disconnect we Americans have with our meat. The distaste I feel at the open air butcher shops here is a negative reflection on my culture, not theirs.

Last summer I worked on two WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) farms in Thailand.  One farm in northern Thailand near Chiang Dao that I stayed at had a big business raising pigs. They had around 70 large pigs and would slaughter a few each week to sell at the market and eat themselves. I stood on, squeamishly, and watched the farmers slaughter a pig with a large, blunt machete. (Read the whole story here: “From Sty to Stew: Understanding Hyper-Local Food Systems”)

With gritted teeth, I observed as the farmers sliced open the pig’s belly, took out the organs and swiftly severed the head. I couldn’t help but think: “Gross!”

Shortly after the pig slaughter I was replaying the event in my head. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I’m an avid carnivore back at home. How can I think that an animal slaughter is ‘gross’?”

Seeing an animal slaughtered for food was completely new to me, but this made no sense because I’ve eaten animal meat my whole life. The farmers in Chiang Dao, Thailand, were actually shocked that I had never seen an animal killed before. For them, eating meat meant killing the animal themselves. For me, eating pig or goat or chicken in the US means going to the nice and neat meat aisle. I found that the farmers, who raise and slaughter, and then eat the pig themselves, had a much higher degree of respect for the animal and a much greater understanding of the food they ate. They ate almost every bit of the pig, including the blood and the organs: nothing went to waste. In the US, I’ve never seen an animal slaughter because this “dirty” work is done far, far away from my home, in a meat factory, probably in another state. I don’t know who kills the animals I eat, how the animals are killed or where my meat even came from in the first place. Is it imported from Mexico? Was it raised on a cow farm in Alabama? Was it raised on corn or grass? Was it injected with hormones and steroids? Who knows? This system makes no sense and when I consider it, is actually far more off-putting than seeing a locally grown, grass-fed animal slaughtered by the butcher, who also lives down the street from me.

So, as I walk by the butcher shops here in Kathmandu, and see the dead, glassy eyes of a recently slaughtered orange pig staring at me, I can’t help but stare back. The realness and the wholeness of the animals makes it difficult for me to order meat at the butcher shop to cook for myself, but I think this is not a negative reflection on Kathmandu butcher shops, it is a negative reflection on me and the food culture in my home country. It’s difficult for me to visit the butcher shops here because I am a product of a broken and disconnected food system in which people have no idea where their food comes from. As long as the food comes in a tidy little package, with no eyes, bones, tendons, or fat, I guess no one really cares.


Above: Recently slaughtered pigs in a row.
Above: The butcher slices and dices recently slaughtered pigs.  When I look at this my first instinct is to think: “Gross!” In fact, it’s not gross at all, I’m just used to a food system that raises, slaughters and packages animals behind closed doors.
Above: A recently slaughtered pig.  This pig was most likely raised locally, within the Kathmandu Valley.

Above: The butcher cuts up a pig into different pieces on one of the open air tables.

Above: An orange and bristly pig head at a butcher shop near Thamel, Kathmandu. Photo by: Rick McCharles

Above: Kathmandu residents line up to purchase meat at one of the local butcher shops. Photo by: John Pavelka

Snapshot Story: Breakfast on the Saigon Streets

The streets of Saigon have already come to life just after the sun makes its appearance over the ragged, urban cityscape. Motos zoom by with passengers on the back, cyclo drivers push and pull their bandy legs on their vehicle’s pedals and the coffee vendors expertly funnel the rich, black, liquid caffeine from a silver, dented pot to glass mugs with bottoms full of cloyingly sweet condensed milk.

From a corner adjacent to my hostel in Saigon’s backpacker district comes a mingling of smells that is impossible to resist. There is the salty smell of frying eggs, the juicy aroma of sizzling meats and an overpowering and romantic fragrance of just-baked, crunchy baguettes. The street stall is run by a sturdy Vietnamese woman who doesn’t smile, she just concentrates on cooking her eggs to perfection.

I order a bánh mì trung with the works for breakfast. The sandwich, which I think is one of the more perfect breakfast foods in Asia, is a version of the famous bánh mì made with an added omelette. The woman hands me a steaming mug of coffee that looks like tar and tastes like heaven before she sets about making my Saigon street breakfast. With two swift cracks she breaks the eggs into the pan, moving the skillet about with the hands of an expert. A serrated bread knife cuts through the crunchy outside of the baguette to reveal a soft and puffy inside: the perfect loaf of bread, a legacy left by the French. The surly woman slices off pieces of páte and stuffs them into the baguette’s fissure. With chopsticks, she adds fresh herbs and vegetables: green onions, a few sprigs of cilantro, cucumber and shredded carrot.

In just a few minutes the sandwich is finished. The woman, with the corners of her mouth turned down, wraps the stuffed baguette in a piece of yesterday’s newspaper and snaps it shut with a thin rubber band. She hands it over, I pay and then unwrap the sandwich, feeling like it’s Christmas on the hot and sticky morning streets of Saigon. At that moment, sitting on the street corner eating my bánh mì trung off an old piece of newspaper and already starting to sweat from the southern Vietnamese heat, I am absolutely certain that there is nowhere in the entire world I would rather be.

Bibimbap: Food of the Gods

Stone Pot Bibimbap (Photo by avlxyz-flickr)

Throughout my Asian travels I often find a food or drink in a certain country that I absolutely cannot get enough of. In Thailand I ate enough spicy green papaya salad and young coconuts to feed the US military for a month. In Singapore I drank so much kopi (coffee sweetened with condensed milk) that I often returned home so caffeinated that I could barely read a sentence. In Cambodia I ate so many mini grilled bananas on a stick that I most likely kept the SE Asian banana business afloat while visiting. And, of course, in Vietnam I sometimes begged my travel partners to eat pho with me three times a day.

And then came Korea. Before moving to Kathmandu I toured South Korea, from Seoul to Busan. I had eaten Korea food several times before, but it was when I visited the country that I truly began to understand the glory, the textures, the freshness and the flavors that is Korean food. Within 24 hours of my arrival I re-discovered bibimbap (perhaps one of the most popular foods in Korea) and that’s when my obsessive tendencies kicked in. Over the course of the next few weeks bibimbap became my go-to food. Korea is bursting with delicious and fresh food, so of course I tried countless other dishes, but bibimbap was always there to save me when I wanted a dish that was guaranteed to be scrumptious.

Me, documenting the delicious glory of bibimbap in Seoraksan National Park. (Photo by Jane Tucker)

The word “bibimbap” means “mixed rice” in Korea. The dish consists of a bed of white rice topped with a variety of vegetables, a fried egg, sometimes meat and always the ubiquitous spicy red hot sauce found everywhere in Korea. The dish is served in a large bowl with the toppings neatly placed in separate piles on top of the rice. After being served, the diner adds hot sauce to taste and mixes the bowl’s contents with a spoon until everything is uniformly incorporated.

An alternative to regular bibimbap is “dolsot bibimbap.” Dolsot bibimbap contains the same ingredients as the normal dish, it is simply served in a hot clay pot instead of a regular bowl. I was slightly more fond of dolsot bibimbap, mostly because of the novelty factor of the sizzling hot bowl that makes everything a bit crisper during the mixing process and keeps the whole thing warm for longer.

Popular bibimbap toppings include a fried egg (with the yolk still runny), shredded carrot, shitake mushroom, cooked spinach, sesame seeds, a drizzling of sesame oil, zucchini, kosari and other pickled vegetables. The hot pepper paste is sometimes served already on the rice, but usually there is a large squeeze bottle handy with extra. Each unique flavor blends perfectly with the others, creating a spicy, satisfying and healthy bowl of sustenance. As I found true almost everywhere in Korea, along with the main dish is served a smattering of small side dishes, which include kimchi (fermented cabbage), marinated tofu, seaweed, daikon radish and other pickled delights.

For those lucky enough to have a well-stocked kitchen and a Asian market nearby, here is a recipe and instructional video I found for bibimbap.

Some bibimbap pictures for your viewing pleasure.



Above: My Korean travel partner and best friend Jane spices up her bibimbap with extra hot sauce in Seoraksan National Park.

Above: One of the pleasures of eating Korean food are the numerous little side dishes served with the main course.

Above: This is dolsot bibimbap, which is basically the same as regular bibimbap, but is served in a hot clay pot.

Above: This bibimbap is served with a side of kimchi and broth. (Photo by: avlxyz)

Thai Street Food: Papaya Salad

A recent (and very unscientific) survey taken via Twitter by Epic Asia Travel asked subscribers: What is your favorite Thai street food?  A seemingly simple questions, but in actuality, this query is very, very difficult to answer.  Why?  Because there are so many kinds of street food in Thailand that you could probably eat a different dish everyday for the rest of your life and still never have tried everything.  There’s an abundance of street meats on a stick, fruits, hot and spicy soups, fried vegetables, glutinous sweets and tangy juice drinks.  One of the greatest pleasures about traveling in Thailand is the street food, which is why this questions is really not so easy to answer.

Despite the depth of possible answers to this query, the overwhelming answer to the best street food in Thailand was: Som Tam, also known as spicy green papaya salad.  Respondents to this question sure do know what they’re talking about because spicy green papaya salad is truly fresh and incredibly delicious.  Vendors usually charge anywhere between 20-40 Baht for a heaping pile of freshly shredded green papaya pounded with spices, palm sugar, chilis, lime juice, shrimp and a number of other zesty ingredients.

Som Tam can be eaten alone for a quick and healthy snack on the go, or it can accompany a larger meal.  Traditionally (especially in the Isan

A Thai street vendor crushes the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle to make Som Tam. (Photo Credit: Ans)

region), Som Tam is eaten with sticky rice, BBQ chicken and some spicy chili sauce.  When ordered from a street-side cart, the vendor whips it up fresh on the spot.  The green papaya is shredded and all the ingredients go into a large mortar.  With the pestle the vendor pounds the many flavors together until it forms one delicious mound of papaya salad.  After the dish is plated, the vendor usually sprinkles the Som Tam with a heavy dose of crushed peanuts to add extra flavor and texture.

All street vendors who sell Som Tam in Thailand have their own recipe and they all differ slightly from one another.  Despite their differences, most have several of the same key ingredients including: shredded green papaya, cut cherry tomatoes, fresh green beans, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, peanuts, dried

Some of the indredients for spicy papaya salad. (Photo Credit: WordRidden).

shrimp, whole chilis, shrimp paste and garlic.  Some papaya salad vendors add dried shrimp and some add whole crabs (shells and all) to add flavor and texture to the mix.

Check out this video below to see a Som Tam vendor in action:

Southeast Asia’s Best Coffee

Caffeine addicts will have no reason to fret while traveling in Southeast Asia.  Delicious, heavenly, earth-shatteringly good coffee is never more than a stone’s throw away.  Coffee in Southeast Asia, which is often sold by vendors on the street, is much different than what Westerners may be used to. Coffee sizes in the U.S. generally are between 12 ounces (smallest) to 20 ounces (largest). Even a 12 ounce coffee is gargantuous compared to coffee cups in Southeast Asia. Two of the best places for coffee in the region are Singapore and Vietnam.

Vietnamese Coffee

*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify which variety of coffee you want when ordering.

Coffee: “cà phê” (ca-fe)

Iced-Coffee: “cà phê s?a ?á” (ca-fe-sooa-da)

Coffee

Vietnamese Coffee Set (import.com)

History:

Vietnamese coffee is world famous for its rich, buttery flavor.  The country hasn’t been a coffee growing and exporting hub, for the French colonialists introduced the drink to Vietnam in the 19th century.  Now, Vietnam exports hundreds of thousands of tons of coffee every year and is the number two coffee exporting country in the world.

Where to find it:

Vietnamese coffee is almost as ubiquitous in the country as are steaming bowls of pho. Coffee vendors often line the streets and tiny cafes are tucked away in all corners of Vietnamese cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Keep your eyes peeled for people sitting on small plastic stools around vendor carts. For a more laid back coffee experience, try one of the street vendors. The coffee is guaranteed to be cheap and delicious. For a more restaurant-like experience, find a cafe. Cafes in Vietnam, which also serve a smattering of sweet pastries, have a very French vibe. If you were to close your eyes for a moment, it would be easy to image yourself sitting at a street-side cafe in Paris.

Vietnamese Coffee Filter (via importfood.com)

How It’s Made:

Vietnamese coffee is often served complete with a Vietnamese metal coffee filter on top of the cup (See image above). Beans are ground and placed in the cup-like apparatus with holes in the bottom. The metal filter is placed on top of the cup and water is poured in. The coffee slowly trickles down to the cup below. This is truly fresh coffee: watching it brew right before your eyes.

Sweet Milk:

Coffee with sweet milk

Coffee with sweet milk (via ehow.com)

Although you can get your coffee black, most Vietnamese prefer theirs with sweet milk mixed in. The sweet milk (also known as condensed milk) is a syrupy and creamy, and makes the coffee incredibly sweet. Sweet tooths will rejoice, but those who prefer their coffee black might be taken aback at the extreme sweetness of Vietnamese coffee.  The vendor will serve the cup with sweet milk already at the bottom, so when the coffee is done filtering you can simply stir it up and enjoy.

Singaporean Coffee

*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify whether you want black coffee or coffee with milk when ordering.

Singaporean coffee, similar to Vietnamese coffee, packs a big punch in a small package.  The coffee shop, also known as a “kopi tiam,” is about as ubiquitous in Singapore as shiny high rises and sparkling Mercedes taxis.  Kopi tiams can be found in the bottom floors of office buildings, in malls, in hawker centers, in MRT stations, on street corners and in bookstores.  In a word, you’re probably never more than a block away from coffee while in Singapore.

Unique Beans:

Although not all kopi tiams uphold this method, coffee beans in Singapore are traditionally roasted with butter to enhance the flavor and oily qualities that make the taste incredibly rich.  Once the beans are roasted, they are brewed in a metal pot to create a powerful, black elixir.  The price for a mug full of Singaporean coffee is very reasonable, depending on where the kopi tiam is located, a cup could cost anywhere from 25 cents to $1.50 (USD).

How To Order:

(from numbnymph.blogspot.com)

There are specific ways that coffee must be order to get the desired brew.  Singaporean coffee traditionally either comes black or with sweet, condensed milk.  It you want to  consume in the kopi tiam or hawker center, it will be served in a glass mug that will be collected when you leave.  The other option is to order the coffee “to-go” if you’d like to drink it on the run to school or to work.  Here is how to properly order your drink:

Black coffee (no sugar, no sweet milk):  “kopi-O” (ko-pee)

Black coffee with sugar and sweet milk: “kopi”

Coffee to-go (will be served in a plastic bag): “kopi-O take-away”