betsy's bites

here now

Well, hello again.  It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?  As they say, I’m here now. 

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind 6 months or so since I stopped blogging.  During that time I debated whether to start posting here again – how much effort I wanted to put into this site, how much of my life I wanted to share, whether I’d rather spend my time on other priorities.  That choice made itself – life got in the way.  I moved to Seattle, started culinary school, got a boyfriend, made new friends.  And now here I am near the end of my second quarter of school, wondering where the time went. 

On this rainy Memorial Day (Seattle why do you always have to be so….Seattle) I finally feel like I am in a place where I want to start sharing again.  I think you’ll see more writing and musings, and less pretty styled pictures and carefully crafted recipes.  It’s what I have time for and what I feel the urge to create.  I hope you’ll forgive me for my long absence and stay with me as I explore this new space.

xo,

b

vietnamese food

As you can tell from my post on Saigon, I really enjoyed the food in Vietnam.  And with my accelerated schedule, I had to fit in extra meals to try all of the local specialties.  While this may seem like an enviable task, my waistline was not so happy about it.  But what’s a couple extra pounds when you’re in one of the best countries in the world for eating?

I’ll begin my post with a caveat that I ate mostly street food in Vietnam, not restaurant food.  So I didn’t try the many excellent fish preparations or dishes like caramel pork.  But I tried much of what the locals eat on a day to day basis, which I consider a better barometer of a country’s food culture.  

What I especially enjoyed about eating in Vietnam was the wonderful balance present in every dish.  It wasn’t like India, where a curry would make you feel heavy, or Indonesia, where a plate of noodles was slick with oil.  In Vietnam most dishes were provided with ample amounts of fresh herbs, lettuce, and/or bean sprouts on the side for you to add to your soup or meal as you wished.  They provided a herbaceous lightness and crispness to the dish that it sometimes needed.  A ban xeo pancake would simply be a greasy, if delicious, omelette without the herbs and lettuce leaves to wrap it in.  The herbs completed the dish and balanced the spices and fat. 

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bo kho, with herbs to balance the meat and spices

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bun cha

Another favorite part of eating in Vietnam were the local specialties you could only find in certain regions or cities, like bun bo hue in Hue and cau lau in Hoi An.  These are also dishes that are harder to find in the U.S., whereas you can find pho and banh mi all over the place, complete with bastardized “fusion” variations. 

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cau lau, with noodles supposedly made with special hoi an well water

I also learned to love the Vietnamese (Southeast Asian, for that matter) custom of eating soup for breakfast.  Starting off your day with a spicy bowl of meat and noodles with an icey ca phe sua da on the side, preferably squatting with the locals on miniature stools – there’s nothing better. 

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father and son tucking in pho for breakfast

You’ve already seen most of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, so I’ll tell you about the Vietnamese cooking class I took at Hanoi Cooking Centre.  We began with a tour of the nearby wet market, which had the usual meat and produce but also had a section where vendors skinned and cleaned frogs, eels, and other animals for you on the spot.  It’s called a wet market since they have hoses and drains for washing away the blood.  They’re not for the squeamish. 

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a selection of goodies:  quails, quail hearts and intestines, chicken testicles, and silkworms

The market also had a good selection of the herbs that the Vietnamese use in their dishes. 

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Back in the kitchen we got to work.  My class was on Vietnamese street food, so we were taught how to make pho, green papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, and shrimp cakes.  Our teacher demonstrated each dish and then we each had a go at making it.  And of course afterwards was the best part of every cooking class – eating your dishes!

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me in action

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small bowls of pho

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our teacher expertly manning two burners at once

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green papaya salad, made with a special peeler

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rolling spring rolls

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fancy fancy

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frying the shrimp cakes

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finished shrimp cakes

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bruleeing the bananas for dessert (I’m pretty sure street food vendors don’t have blow torches, but oh well)

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our feast

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an extra delicacy – an egg with a chicken embryo.  I’d seen these all over southeast asia and was finally brave enough to try one!

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it was a bit revolting – I think that’s the beak there on the left

Pho Bo – Beef Noodle Soup

recipe from Hanoi Cooking Centre

serves 6

Ingredients:

Broth:

2kg beef bones

2 yellow onions, peeled and cut in half

1 knob of ginger, cut into chunks

1 pig’s trotter, ask your butcher to saw in half

500g beef brisket

1 star anise

4cm cassia bark or 1 cinnamon stick

1 tsp salt

To Serve:

600g pho noodles (rice noodles)

200g beef fillet, thinly sliced

1 TB fish sauce

4 shallots, finely sliced

4 spring onions, half finely sliced and half cut into rings

1/2 cup cilantro leaves

1/2 cup basil leaves (preferably Thai basil)

1 lime, cut in half or into wedges

1 long red chili, sliced

fish sauce to taste

Place beef bones on a baking tray in oven, preheated to 400 degrees.  Roast for 20 minutes.  Turn meat over and roast for a further 20 minutes.

Using tongs, hold the onion and ginger over a gas burner (or use a grill) to char on all sides.

Remove bones from oven and place in a large pot.  Add the pig trotter.  Cover with cold water and slowly bring to a simmering point, removing scum as it comes to the surface.  Add onion, ginger, brisket, star anise, and cassia bark.  Simmer gently for 30 minutes.  Remove brisket and set aside.  Take care not to boil the stock as it will result in a cloudy broth.  Continue to simmer stock for a further four hours.  Strain stock and discard bones, vegetables, and spices. 

To Serve:

Marinate the beef fillet in the fish sauce and set aside.  Slice the brisket.  Ensure the broth is at a simmering point. 

Cook noodles according to box, drain thoroughly and divide ev
enly into six bowls.  Place brisket, sliced fillet, shallots, spring onions, and herbs on top of the noodles.  Ladle hot broth into the bowls.  Generously add lime juice, chili, herbs and fish sauce according to taste.

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It’s a labor-intensive recipe, but well worth it if you don’t have a local pho joint.  Pho is a classic Vietnamese dish and who knows, pretty soon you might be eating it for breakfast!

xo,

b

lao and cambodian food

Like many people, I wasn’t familiar with Lao or Cambodian food before I visited Southeast Asia.  The two cuisines aren’t as well known as their Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam.  Both Lao and Cambodian food are similar in some ways to their neighboring countries.  They have curries similar to Thailand, but not as spicy.  From Vietnam and the colonial influence they have baguettes and dark, rich coffee.  However they are distinct cuisines, with their own proud histories and unique elements. 

Lao Food

The staple food of Laos is sticky rice, which Laotians eat with every meal.  You ball up some sticky rice in your hand and then use it to scoop the main dishes into your mouth.  On my trek we had sticky rice coming out of our eyeballs – sticky rice with stir-fried vegetables, sticky rice with scrambled eggs, fried rice. 

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preparing sticky rice

I learned about the building blocks of Lao cooking by taking a cooking class at Tamarind in Luang Prabang.  We started with a market tour, where our teacher pointed out commonly-used ingredients – fresh bamboo, banana flower, Lao basil, chili, cilantro, fish sauce, galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass, Lao mint, pak hom baen (saw tooth coriander), shrimp paste, snake beans, Lao eggplant, and cloud ear mushrooms. 

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variety of herbs and eggplant

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the purple thing is banana flower

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woman preparing fresh bamboo

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congealed pig’s blood

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whole chickens

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local fruit (from left to right: dragon fruit, green mango, longon, apple, rambutan)

Many Lao dishes are made from pastes of herbs, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, shallots, garlic, and fish sauce.  These pastes are made in large mortar and pestles.  Once the paste is combined with meat or fish the food is either grilled over a charcoal-fired clay brazier or steamed in a banana leaf. 

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ingredients set out at the tamarind cooking school

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making a paste in a mortar and pestle

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fish steamed in a banana leaf

Mok Pa:  Fish Steamed in Banana Leaves

recipe from Tamarind Cooking School

serves 2

Note:  you may need to visit your local Asian supermarket to find some of these ingredients.  Banana leaves can sometimes be found in the freezer section.

Ingredients:

3 TB sticky rice powder, uncooked

5 Asian shallots

1 clove garlic

1 chili (to taste)

2 inches inner lemongrass stalk, finely chopped

1/2 tsp salt, to taste

3 kaffir lime leaves (bruised with a pestle to release flavors)

3 TB chopped dill

2 TB chopped Lao basil (can substitute Thai basil)

2 small spring onions/scallions, chopped

2 TB water

1 TB fish sauce

4 banana leaf rectangles approx 21 x 25 cm

In a mortar and pestle, place sticky rice powder, shallots, garlic, chili, lemongrass, and salt.  Pound to a paste.  Add lime leaves, dill, basil, and spring onions.  Pound further to incorporate.  Add water and fish sauce.  Stir in fish pieces. 

Run each banana leaf over a flame but do not allow to burn.  They should soften and become a little shiny.  Take two banana leaf rectangles and place one across the other.  Place half the fish mixture without any liquid residue at the center of the leaf.  Fold each side up and secure the leaves together with a toothpick, creating a pyramid shape.  Just before finally sealing the package, spoon in a little of the liquid residue. 

Steam gently for 15 minutes over a high heat or until cooked.  When the banana leaves turn a khaki shade, they are cooked. 

Serve with sticky rice and steamed vegetables.

Cambodian Food

Cambodian cuisine is influenced by neighboring Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and even China.  It’s also reliant on the abundant freshwater fish from the Tonle Sap Lake and rice of course.  I took Cambodian cooking classes in both Siem Reap and Battambang and learned about traditional ingredients and dishes.

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ingredients for banana leaf salad

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banana leaf sliced

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salad, finished

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eating my creations in siem reap

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market in battambang

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snake fish from tonle sap lake

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nary of nary’s kitchen starting our class

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ingredients to make paste for fish amok

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pounding paste

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fish amok in banana leaf bowl, ready for the steamer

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making fried spring rolls

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frying spring rolls

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marinating beef for beef lok lak

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finished beef lok lak

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fish amok and spring rolls

Fish Amok

recipe from Nary’s Kitchen Cooking School

serves 1

Ingredients:

100g white fish fillet

3-4 cloves garlic

1/2 tsp sugar

pinch of salt

1-2 kaffir lime leaves

1 tsp prahok (Cambodian fish paste) (can substitute shrimp paste)

150-200mL coconut milk

1/2 tsp chicken bouillon

1 square cm cube fresh turmeric root (can substitute turmeric powder)

1 square cm fresh galangal

1 square cm fresh finger root/Chinese ginger

1-2 red sun-dried paprika (can substitute paprika powder)

1-2 fresh nhor leaves (can substitute spinach or kale)

1-2 stalks fresh lemongrass, take the white part about 10cm long from bottom

banana leaves to make a package bowl (can use ceramic bowl)

1/2 tsp cornstarch

Thinly slice fresh lemongrass.  Slice galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime leaf, and finger root.  Pound together in a mortar and pestle until well combined.  Soak then clean sun-dried paprika then mince until it is a fine paste.  Mix into the paste along with garlic and prahok/shrimp paste and keep pounding until it is a fine paste, for about 10 minutes.

Thinly slice the filleted fish and put in a bowl.  Add chicken bouillon, sugar, salt, and then stir with a spoon.  Add the paste from the mortar, along with enough coconut milk to make a thick mixture.  Reserve 40mL of the coconut milk to make coconut cream.

Fold two stacked banana leaves to make a bowl.  Package it with toothpicks at the four corners, or use a ceramic bowl. 

Make coconut cream by simmering 40mL coconut milk and then add cornstarch.  Stir and cook with low heat until thick. 

Tear up nhor leaves and put in the bottom of the banana bowl.  Spoon all the fish into the bowl then cook in a steam cooker.  Steam for 20 minutes then sprinkle 2-3 TB coconut cream over the fish amok along with a few slices of red paprika and thinly sliced kaffir lime leaf on top for garnish.  

Other Favorite Lao and Cambodian Foods

As per my usual custom, I ate a lot of street food in Laos and Cambodia.  Here are some of my favorites:

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barbequed whole fish at the luang prabang night market – perfectly cooked and infused with lemongrass.  you could always find a variety of barbequed meats for a quick protein-rich snack or meal.

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lao khao soi soup in luang prabang.  just like neighboring vietnam, soup for breakfast is popular in laos

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lao coffee – a delicious brew of strong coffee and condensed milk.  I was addicted!

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baguette sandwich in angkor wat, cambodia.  kind of banh mi-like, with pork, cucumber, shredded green papaya, and chili sauce.

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cambodian iced coffee, with strong coffee and condensed milk.  this stuff is seriously crack.

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fresh fruit can be found everywhere.  this is unripe mango, which is crunchy like apples

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<p align=delicious fried goodies – these are doughnut-like with a sticky sesame glaze

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unbelievably tasty beef stew for breakfast in kampot, cambodia

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fresh spring rolls at the central market in phnom penh

These photos make me miss Southeast Asia!  I enjoyed the food of Laos and Cambodia –not as much as Thailand or Vietnam, but it was still pretty tasty.

xo,

b

an introduction to burmese food

I had no idea what to expect of Burmese food.  Unlike many Asian cuisines, you don’t usually find Burmese restaurants in your local strip mall or ethnic food enclave.  The only context I had was the restaurant Burma Superstar in San Francisco, which I love.  I fondly recall their tea leaf salad, samosa soup, vegetable curry, and “rainbow” salad.  I didn’t find any rainbow salad in Myanmar (I think that’s a Burma Superstar creation) but I did find slightly similar but pumped up flavors. 

Salads

One of my favorite aspects of Burmese food were their salads – completely unique from anything I’d tasted before.  The eponymous Burmese salad is tea leaf salad, made with dried tea leaves, peanuts, soybeans, sometimes tomato or cabbage, and an oily tamarind-based dressing.  Tea leaves have a sharp, bitter flavor that is tempered with the oily sauce.  

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tea leaf salad in inle lake

My favorite salad was tomato salad – tomato chunks tossed in a peanutty dressing.  It was fresh yet substantial from the nuts, cut with sharp flavors from onion or shallot.  Thankfully it’s a common fixture of restaurant menus.  I also enjoyed pennywort salad, a sharp and slightly bitter tasting green that I’d never heard of before.  It was also tempered by an oily dressing and nuts.  Ginger salad, prepared similarly to tea leaf salad except with shredded fresh ginger, was also tasty.

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tomato salad

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pennywort salad

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ginger salad at a tea shop in mandalay

Tofu

The Shan region of Myanmar is known for their yellow, semi-firm tofu.  Common iterations of Shan tofu were Shan tofu salad, with sliced tofu, cabbage, shredded carrots, cilantro, and an almost tahini-flavored dressing; Shan tofu soup, with liquid tofu, noodles, peanuts and bean sprouts; and fried tofu dipped in a chili sauce.

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shan tofu salad from a roadside stall in bagan

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shan tofu soup – unusual and delicious

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fried tofu in kalaw’s market

Burmese Curry

Burmese curry meals are a common dish that can be found everywhere.  They’re an acquired taste that isn’t very palatable to Westerners.  The pieces of meat are swimming in an extremely oily curry, so oily that you lift the protein out of the sauce and leave the curry sauce behind.  To me most of the point of a curry is the spicy, intricately flavored sauce, so the Burmese-style curry seemed like a waste to me.  It’s served with rice of course and a variety of accompaniments, usually some variation of fermented fish (fish paste, small dried fishes, fish salad).  The smell of it turned my stomach and I left them on the side.  It also came with a brothy soup.  Unfortunately my favorite part of the Burmese curry meal was the plate of raw vegetables, minus the fishy dipping sauce.

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the whole kitten-caboodle

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fish curry

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check out all that oil

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all the fishy accoutrements

Street Food

Street food was far and away the best part of Burmese cuisine.  I loved roaming the streets, snacking on whatever struck my fancy.  Every type of food could be found at streetside stalls – mohinga (the Burmese national dish – noodle soup in a fishy broth), noodles, fried food galore, cakes and sweets, even Indian-inspired food like samosas and paratha bread.  The best place for street food was Yangon, where there was a noodle stand on every corner and during the afternoon the streets would turn into markets selling all types of food and goods.

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stand selling samosa soup – something you could only find in yangon for some reason

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samosa soup with sliced samosas, broth, cabbage, tomato, onion, chickpeas, chili and cumin

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fried food galore – savory donuts, samosas, fried onions, fried greens, fried lentil patties

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banana cake and a tapioca cake, sliced from big round pans

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streetside curry with fresh chapatis – our favorite meal in mandalay

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girl rolling out chapati dough

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fried quail eggs

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pan used to make fried quail eggs and fried dough

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people squatting on tiny stools at a streetside noodle stand

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this one I didn’t try – skewers of pig offal and an intestine broth

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crickets?  no thank you

Drinks

To my great dismay, real coffee could only be found in upscale hotels in the big cities.  Otherwise you were stuck with “3 in 1” coffee packets – instant coffee, milk powder and sugar (mostly sugar).  I would suck down two or three each morning in a failed attempt to get a small amount of caffeine in my system.  Strangely they did grow on me – that sugary, coffee-flavored drink became a regular mid-morning break or mid-afternoon pick-me-up.

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my last 3 in 1 at the yangon airport

Unfortunately I only discovered Burmese tea during my last few days.  It’s a strong black tea mixed with condensed milk that tastes slightly like Indian chai.  It would have been a good alternative source of caffeine.

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arty photo of me drinking burmese tea

Last and most certainly not least was Myanmar beer – our constant late afternoon and evening companion.  Many a hot and sweaty day of sightseeing was capped off with a cold bottle of Myanmar beer. 

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Burmese food was a mixed bag.  I loved the salads and street food, but the main lunch or dinner fare (curry) was almost revolting.  And often restaurants would only list boring Westernized dishes on their English language menus – fried noodles, noodle soup, fried meat and vegetables.  Unfortunately these bland meals were a necessary fall back when nothing else was available.  I wasn’t in Myanmar long enough to know the Burmese names of more local dishes to order instead.  But the sheer variety of delicious and greasy street food more than made up for that. 

The Myanmar tourism industry isn’t quite developed enough to have cooking classes on offer in popular tourist spots, but I would have loved to learn the basics of Burmese cuisine and make it for friends and family back home.  Instead, I’ll fondly remember a fascinating melting pot of a national cuisine – a beguiling mix of Asian, Indian, and uniquely Burmese influences.

xo,

b

south indian food

One of the highlights of a visit to India is their delicious, diverse and mouthwateringly spicy food.  For an ethnic food addict, eating Indian food for almost every meal is a thrill.  It’s also extremely vegetarian friendly.  Here’s a brief overview of South Indian food:

Breakfast:

There are two usual South Indian breakfasts:  masala dosas and idly.  I instantly fell in love with masala dosas.  They consist of a large, papery rice flour crepe that’s folded around a spicy mixture of potatoes, onion, mustard seeds, and turmeric.  They come with bowls of spicy lentil-vegetable sambar and cooling coconut chutney – you tear off a piece of dosa and dip it in the sambar or chutney.  Idlies are spongy, round, white fermented rice cakes that you dip in sambar and chutney.  They’re a more mild alternative if you’re tired of the heaviness of the dosa.  A masala dosa and a cup of sweet, strong chai or coffee makes for a fortifying, spicy start to the day.

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rolled up masala dosa (they’re also folded into a triangle) with sambar and chutney

Snacks

India is king of the snacks.  Street stalls selling chai, samosas, vada (fried savory lentil doughnut), fried banana, and jars of sweets are a constant presence.  If you don’t want to sit down for breakfast, you can also start your day with a chai and vada.  They also make for a good quick lunch when you’re on a long bus journey. 

Mysore specializes in snacks, or chaat.  One of the most well-known was masala puri – small fried cups filled with saucy chickpeas or yogurt, masala spices, lime, shredded carrots and onion, and cilantro.  You pop one into your mouth and let the flavors explode on your tongue. 

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a plate of masala puri at a restaurant, although they’re normally served as street food

Drinks

Chai (tea) is everywhere.  Even the smallest town is bound to have at least four chai stands.  The quality is surprisingly consistent – no tea bags here.  The chaiwallas always have a pot of hot milk on a burner, and when they get an order for a chai they pour a cupful of milk and some water into another pot.  They add some loose tea and a couple spoonfuls of sugar – Indian tea is super sweet – and steep it for a few minutes.  Then they pour it in long streams from the pot to the cup and back again to cool it.  Finally you’re presented with a small cup of steaming, sweet, fragrant chai – all for about 6 rupees, or 10 cents. 

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my only complaint is that the cups are too small!

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You can order regular chai, masala chai (chai with masala spices – what us Westerners usually think of as chai), ginger chai, cardamom chai, etc.  Indians drink chai all day long and often congregate around the chai stands, talking and sipping. 

Coffee is also quite good in the south.  It is made the same way as chai, with the same generous helping of sugar so it’s sweet and milky.  As a coffee with milk and sugar girl I loved it and typically ordered coffee more often than chai.  However as I traveled north I found that coffee was usually made with Nescafe instead of ground beans, so I switched my daily beverage to chai. 

Drink stands also proliferated – lemon soda (squeezed lemon juice and club soda) doctored with sugar or salt, fruit juices of all kinds, and sugarcane juice.  It’s best to chose your juice stand wisely as it’s hard to know whether they are using purified water

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lemon-mint soda

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vendor squeezing sugarcane juice (it’s not as sweet as it sounds)

Beer and alcohol haven’t been readily available in most of the places I’ve traveled.  Usually it’s because of high taxes and stringent licensing laws and sometimes it’s for religious reasons.  Most restaurants don’t serve it but a few tourist places have some beers hidden in a cooler for those who ask for it.  As a result I can count on one hand the number of beers I’ve had during these two months in India.  I haven’t really missed it, except for those times when a cold Kingfisher would have been a perfect companion to some spicy Indian curries.  The lack of alcohol has also been nice as it makes it so the traveler’s social scene doesn’t revolve around getting drunk. 

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a rare mug of beer in Mysore

Lunch

Lunch is usually thalis, which are usually served on a large aluminum plate or a banana leaf.  Rice is deposited in the center and surrounded by different vegetable curries, yogurt, chutney, fried poppadum, and sometimes a sweet (usually tapioca or rice pudding).  They’re all you can eat, so if you want a refill just flag a down a bucket-carrying waiter.  Some thalis are better than others – sometimes there are just two watery curries without much vegetables, just an excuse to flavor the rice.  Others have a good variety.  I loved thalis for the diversity of tastes but often found them to be a bit of a carb-heavy gut bomb in the midday heat.  There were times when I would have preferred a salad, if salads were anywhere to be found in India. 

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Dinner

You could get a masala dosa for dinner, and sometimes a thali (although they’re mostly served at lunch).  More often dinner was a North Indian curry served with rice or chapati (flat unleavened wheat bread).  Most of these dishes should be familiar to a Western palate – palak paneer, aloo gobi, chana masala, dal mahkni, pea masala, vegetable korma, chicken tikka masala.  All were usually delicious, albeit a bit greasy, and it was fun to eat various curries with a group so you could try different ones.  I made it a general rule to eat vegetarian in India, as I didn’t trust where the meat came from or how it was refrigerated.  As you can see I had more than enough choices.

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blurry picture of two curries

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three curries with naan bread and parotha (delicious flaky flat bread)

Dessert

Dessert isn’t commonly served in restaurants (although it is offered on the menu), but there are sweet stands all over town if you need to get your fix.  Indians love their sweets, but they’re often too sweet for Western tastes.  Some examples are barfi (fudge-like milk based sweet), ladoos (sweet deep fried balls), jalebis (sickly sweet fried batter coils), and mysore pak (basically just ghee and sugar).  I tried a bunch when I first got to India but soon tired of them.

Western Food

Western food was easily found in traveler enclaves like Varkala or Hampi.  It was usually mediocre but a nice break from Indian food for three meals a day.  Toast and actual cups of coffee (rather than the thimble-sized Indian cups) were especially welcome, as were fresh fruit and salads.  These traveler-focused Western restaurants often confounded me, though – they boasted book-like menus of every dish under the sun.  Thai, Italian, Tibetan, pizza, salads, sandwiches, Chinese, Israeli – everything you could think of.  I had no idea how they kept the ingredients on hand for every dish (I know that sometimes they didn’t because they didn’t have several dishes I asked for).  The menus also had amusing misspellings – Maxican inchilad anyone? 

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Western breakfast in Kovalam

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surprisingly tasty nachos

I can’t wait to try North Indian food next!

xo,

b

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