Entries Tagged as 'Abroad'

Samosa Salad

Monday, February 1, 2016

After a week in Burma, we arrived in Mae Sot, Thailand, the border town just east of Myawaddy on the Myanmar side. We crossed on foot by a bridge that arched over a lazy, murky river. Sweat crept down my back, and my shoulders ached from carrying my bag. A woman sat in the middle of the bridge with a baby at her breast, and her eyes were flat as she held out her hand. Below, boats of a former era were packed to capacity, carrying people from one side to the next.

Getting to Thailand was a relief. The paved roads were more predictable. The traffic moved at a familiar pace, unlike in Burma where speed limits seemed to be arbitrary and drivers tailed the cars ahead, laying down the horn in an arrhythmic blast until the car in front gave the universal sign that it was safe to pass. Left blinker meant safe. Right blinker, not safe. We wouldn’t have to be careful about drinking tap water in Thailand. Cultural considerations seemed more predictable in Thailand because of the exposure we’ve had to Thai culture in the Western world. Of Burma, I had known next to nothing.

But as we settled into MJ and Matt’s home in Mae Sot over the next couple of days, I felt a yearning. I longed for the unfamiliarity, the unpredictability of Burma. For the shades of terracotta that colored the country:  in the sand, in the Buddhas etched into the temple walls, in the dirt of the roads, and in the milky, sugary tea. So much of the trip was beyond our control, and that, if I think about it, is exactly when I feel like I’m truly traveling. Moments when the floor dropped out from under us, we were humbled by human kindness. Hospitality seems to be part of the genetic weave of the people in Burma. Again and again, we were invited into homes of strangers, taken by the hands and led to the table, no matter if the house had been swept.

The first day we were back in Mae Sot, MJ took us to her favorite restaurant called Borderline, with a menu of Burmese vegetarian recipes. We ordered a samosa salad, among other things. Diane, MJ’s mom, had her new purple scarf draped over her shoulders, and her dad Mark had ordered a strong ginger tea for his cold. I think I ordered lemongrass tea. Or maybe tamarind, I don’t know. What did MJ drink? Lime iced tea? The dishes came, we shared them all, and it was all very delicious. But I can only remember the samosa salad. It could have been the exhaustion of the weeks leading up to the trip, but after the first bite, I had to fight back the urge to cry. As if however affecting Burma had been, however short but consequential the previous week, it was all woven into that salad.


samosa salad

I don’t know the samosa salad’s origins, but I imagine them to be humble, as a way to use up leftover samosas like panzanella for leftover Italian bread. To me, it tastes like the perfect thing to offer when a friend pops by unannounced. It tastes like genetic hospitality.

Samosa Salad (adapted from Mo Mo and Bo Bo’s Kitchen, a cookbook by the owners of Borderline)

If you’re ambitious and feel so inclined, you could make the samosas from scratch. If you don’t insist, I recommend taking them out from a shop. If you decide to buy samosas already made, ask for some tamarind or sweet chili sauce, too. You’ll use it for the dressing.

And since Mo Mo and Bo Bo make vegetarian samosas, I made this salad with vegetarian samosas, but you can do whatever you want. Buy one samosa per person (or serving). The proportions here are written for 3 large samosas.

Cut up the samosas with kitchen shears. Mince one shallot or half a small red onion.
Shred half a cucumber and about one cup of pale green cabbage.
Add about two teaspoons of chickpea flour and one tablespoon of sweet chili  or tamarind sauce.
Mix gently by hand, and eat right away. It will get soggy very fast!

Saigon From Here

Sunday, May 11, 2014

It’s been awhile, too long, I would add. Hel-lo! And because I don’t know where to begin, I’ll start from here. At the moment, music is pumping from both sides of the innocent establishment from where I sit, slugging lemon juice that’s cold around the ice at the top and warm at the bottom of the glass. Apparently, but not intentionally, I’m on the biggest party street in the city. There’s a cart set up in front that advertises Pho Bo, with the words Traditional Beef Noodle Soup written below it, and a woman hawking dvds from a tower in front of that. From the cheers that just erupted from somewhere to the right, you’d think we were watching the World Cup. A man with wild hair and an eye full of milk keeps circling the block in his wheelchair and stopping in front of the same table set in front outside, staring at the closest person within sight and holding out his hand. People see him. They pretend they don’t. I wonder how long it’s been since he’s felt seen, or if he has the mind to sense the difference.

Saigon is a dizzying place. It is electric and cloaked in noise and dirt, and today marks three days longer than I thought I’d stay originally. But I like it here, especially outside of the city center in District 8, at my new friend Linh’s house, where you can get two banh mi for less than two dollars and your toes painted for fifty cents. Saigon is lively like Flushing, but with wider streets and fifty times the motorbike traffic. To cross the street, you walk steadily and directly into traffic–to hesitate is to disrupt the flow that at first glance, seems impossible. Yet somehow, it works, and every successful walk-across feels like a bigger triumph, as if you, an outsider, have melded with the flow of the city.

Linh organizes homestays through airbnb. She lives down a tight alley off the main road and just over a bridge, in a narrow, stark white five-story home that she shares with her parents, her brother, his wife, and their five-year-old daughter. She hosts guests all the time, both friends and strangers, like Juan Carlo from Italy. Juan Carlo was staying long-term in his own room, and his friend, also from Italy but living in Saigon, in his. A traveling couple from Slovakia took the last empty room, and Linh’s father slept next to the kitchen on the floor in front of the television. The family has five motorbikes, and at the end of the night they’re each steered into the house up a ramp and parked directly below the kitchen. A thief had helped himself to the brother’s rooster from the front terrace the night before. This, according to Juan Carlo, was a lucky thing, but the brother was in despair–the bird was scheduled for an upcoming neighborhood cockfight, and without it, there’d be no gambling, no potential victory, no fun. In other words, rooster or not, it was a full house.

When I got to Linh’s, she and Juan Carlo asked if I wanted to join them for drinks, somewhere, and I, without catching the full terms of agreement, said yes. Moments later, Linh was snaking her motorbike through freeway traffic, with me on the back wearing a dysfunctional helmet, feeling curiously at ease (at home, I would stress about this, but traveling brings out a more carefree and relaxed temperament of mine that I find much sexier than the worrywart, who, in a snap, can bring forth images of the worst-case scenario. It’s a total buzzkill). We got to The Deck, a fancy restaurant along the Saigon River, Linh looking radiant, Juan Carlo in a ratty t-shirt, and me in stale clothes worn for the third day in a row. It was happy hour. We ordered martinis. The river rolled past, carrying plants with it, and well-dressed dignitaries and young entrepreneurial ex-pats filled the candle-lit tables on all sides. Later that night, we had dinner local, at a noodle cart around the corner of Linh’s house. A lady next to us came over and plucked one of the limes from a plate of several, a gesture I’d soon learn was commonplace at restaurants. Everyone shares the accoutrement. We sat on short plastic chairs around a table inches from the ground, in the dark, sweat dripping from our chins, slurping piping hot bowls of noodles, sliced pork, sweet basil, and fried shallots, and two things occurred to me: Street food is the best food, and that as many bowls of pho as I’d had, I’d never tasted Vietnamese food before this. Not like this.

Vietnam has been a dream destination of mine for years. I’ve been drawn to the food since I first tried it in high school, but also to the desire to better understand the grievous past to which Vietnam and the U.S. are forever tied. When I was twelve, my dad took me to the Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. I was too young then to comprehend the atrocities of the war, or maybe too shy to ask questions, but the visit must have planted a seed. I waited to come here until I could spend more than one week; even two feels rushed. And so I first flew to Cambodia for a few days (which I will get around to writing about one day), and then from Siem Reap to Saigon with the intention of busing north along Vietnam’s coast. Tomorrow I’ll be in Na Trang, for a day at the beach sandwiched between two overnight bus rides, before making my way to Hoi An, Hue, Sapa, Halong Bay, and Hanoi. It’s a heavy schedule to pack into two weeks, but I’m going to try. I can’t wait to tell you about the food (especially the street food!!!) in another post devoted just to that. Until then, I’ll leave you with some photos of Can Tho, in the southern part of the country, and some from one of the floating markets in Mekong–fascinating place. Have an excellent Sunday, this Mother’s Day, and an even better week.




Sunday, March 30, 2014

To avoid the temptation of settling back at home first and allowing the sensations of Bali to slowly dull, I’m going to attempt to stay seated and get out a coherent recap of what the trip meant today, though it may result in just a list of highlights and musings of food. It’s going to take coffee, and lots of it, but let’s see how it goes, shall we?



The people of a new place usually leave me shaking my head, in a good way, and Bali was no exception. Maybe it’s the consistent sunshine, but even I’d get bored with that after a while. Bali was a completely different place twenty years ago, and especially before Eat Pray Love, so it’s been said, and the herds of tourists that flock to the island keep many weathered travelers away. Still, the warmth and hospitality of Bali locals don’t seem to be blunted by the millions of tourists who visit each year. And it’s still possible to break free of the main vein, with nary a drunken surfer or spiritual seeker in sight. All you need is a scooter to do it.



In Ubud, we loved watching Legong and Barong dance at Ubud Palace. Even more impressive than the dancers, though, were the musicians, all men, who played while sitting on the ground, some of them tapping the same beat over and over with a metal hammer for close to two hours. Some of them looked ready for a nap, and some looked entranced. This dancer stole the show:


We went to the Monkey Forest, a place about as far up on my list as a beachside techno trance club, but it turned out to be really fun. Horror stories abound of monkey thieves and monkey attacks, and I’ve read all of them. Once we were there, a park guard offered to feed one of them from my shoulder. Aaaand, I couldn’t resist.




Throughout Bali, offerings are made to the Gods twice a day. There is such artistic beauty in the construction of each offering, large or small, and it’s fascinating to watch a person as he or she places each offering in its respective home (inside and outside of houses and shops, on the ground, inside of cars, and tied to the front of cars and motorbikes). Curls of incense smoke snake through the air, and though that smell used to be attached to much younger days of hippie dabbling, I think it’s going to take me back to Ubud from now.


One of Bali’s most beloved and sought-after foods is Babi Guling. A pig is stuffed with lemongrass, galangal, dried salam leaves, shallots, and garlic, all spices used widely in Balinese cooking, then spit-roasted until its skin is well-tanned and crisp. The skin is cut away from the cooked carcass with shears and served in sheets atop a mound of tender, fat-laced pork meat, sliced blood sausage, fried intestines, rice, and usually lawar, the most delicious salad of chopped vegetables and herbs, coconut, and sometimes pigs blood or minced meat. If you search out a restaurant for authentic Babi Guling, you’re going to find Ibu Oka, a place made famous for tourists by Anthony Bourdain. But a better (and cheaper) Babi Guling is outside of Ubud in a village called Payangan, where vendors set up stalls to sell to locals from morning til night. Another great place for genuine Balinese street food is Gianyar Street Night Market, also out of Ubud but easily accessible by motorbike.


Not surprisingly, the most memorable foods were those we found by accident. Thick avocado juice swirled with palm sugar syrup. Sweet corn shucked, grilled over coals and swept with butter and chili sugar. Fresh lime juice in a bag tied to a straw with a rubber band. The best rujak of grapes, young papaya, pineapple, and apples mixed with peanuts, shrimp paste, and tamarind. Tender cubes of papaya in lemon basil-flecked yogurt. And my favorite, gado gado, a dish of boiled vegetables (most often potato, long beans, bean sprouts, carrot and cucumber), spicy peanut sauce and fried shallots.





Ubud Market is a good place to go for fresh local fruit, and best to visit in the early morning. Delta Dewang, a supermarket chain, is better for local spices and coffee. If you want to take home a Balinese mortar and pestle (called cobek and ulek-ulek), don’t do what I did and buy one at Ubud Market. They look nice, but they won’t last as long as those used in Balinese kitchens. Luckily, we ran into a friend we’d recently met just after I bought it, and he pointed us to a housewares shop for a real one at a third of the cost (about $3). This tool, besides fire, is the spine of Balinese cooking, and I can’t wait to put mine to work.


We spent a night in Payangan at a villa with no other guests, and when Rini, the cook, made our dinner, she let me help her. She showed me how to soften tamarind in water with her hands and fry peanuts and crush them while they crackle, still searing hot. When I burned our tempeh, she insisted we fry a fresh batch. The second batch came out perfectly, but we ate the first batch, too. We pressed tomatoes and garlic with chilies and palm sugar to make sambal, which we spooned over soft wedges of sweet eggplant. She salted and MSG’d every sauce, and you better believe that every sauce was delicious enough to lick clean from the bowl. The next morning for breakfast, she decorated a plate of gado gado with fish crackers outlined in neon pink and yellow, and fast-walked out of the kitchen to our table with the plate of forgotten sliced cucumber. When we left, I was a little sad to tell her goodbye.


After those few days in Bali, we headed to Gili Trawangan for the beach, a place where, besides bikes, boats, and feet, horse-drawn carts are the main mode of transport. For some reason, I have less than fifteen pictures from that part of the trip, and five of them are of fish curry (out of focus because of the Bintang, maybe?–Bintang being Indonesia’s most popular beer).

Gili Trawangan-Bali_17

We snorkeled to a steep drop-off one afternoon and managed to share a few seconds with two sea turtles before they swam away, perhaps offended by us and our oversized sea masks. We went scuba diving along a reef near the shore, and the current carried us along past vivid, animated fish and rippling sea plants, including a very temperamental fish (whose name I’ve forgotten) known for chasing divers straight to the surface, biting their fins and legs along the way. I always get nervous before diving, since I only go every few years, even when I know it’s going to be fine. Which, come to think of it, is the same with travel in general, no matter how much I do it. When it’s over, though, I am always very happy to have gone.

Gili Trawangan-Bali_2


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hye Rae and I met about two years ago. I’ve mentioned her a few times here, sometimes by the name she first introduced herself, which is Helen. (Adopting English names is common practice in Korea, especially for young kids these days who go to English kindergartens or after-school language academies. Why Helen? I once asked her. Helena Christensen, she replied). We started as co-teachers at an English kindergarten and became friends soon after that. But really, she’s like a sister. So many unexpected gifts have risen out of the choice to move to Korea on a whim. Hye Rae is one of them.

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When we started hanging out at her house regulary, she would send me home with a container of kimchi. I almost couldn’t eat it fast enough, and I worried that she’d run out if she kept giving me so much. Later I learned that she never, ever runs out of kimchi because her mother-in-law keeps her stocked. When she’d come to my apartment with our other co-teachers, she’d bring a bag of Korean pantry staples–sesame seeds, gochugaru, doenjang and sesame oil. I didn’t know how to cook any Korean dishes back then, but she sparked a curiosity by gifting me with what was needed to make most typical recipes. And soon, we started teaching each other how to cook.

Before last weekend, I hadn’t met any of Hye Rae’s family besides her husband and her son. She’s told me many stories about them, though, and because there’s always a few of her mother-in-law’s homemade or homegrown elements in whatever she cooks–gochujang, soy sauce, dried seaweed, rice–the stories naturally tumble forth. Her mother-in-law’s soysauce is dark and strong and, of course, made the traditional way with just soybeans, salt and water. Her gochujang is thick and sticky and a deep garnet hue, with a flavor that has ruined me for all store-bought brands. I don’t know if Omoni knew that her gochujang has gone into nearly every Korean dish I’ve ever cooked, and I don’t know if she cares. But as I sat at her tiny kitchen table for two last Sunday, I felt like I had to tell her anyway.

Hye Rae called her thirty minutes before we arrived to tell her we were coming, because otherwise, Hye Rae said, she’d insist we didn’t. Not that Omoni doesn’t want the company, she just doesn’t ever want anyone to go out of their way for her. She must have thrown together a pot of soup with oysters and radish so that we’d have something hot to eat, even though Hye Rae assured her we’d already had dinner.

We’d spent the day bouncing around Gwangju, and after a visit to her sister-in-law’s house, we took a bus to Nokdong at the southern tip of Korea, a small beach town that was once used to quarantine people with leprosy. We stopped at the fish market in the knick of time to select an octopus, a gift, as the last gates were shut and locked. The fish lady pinched our octopus by two tentacles, held it up for Hye Rae’s inspection, and shoved it into a black plastic bag. Omoni greeted us in a floral housecoat, purple pants, and checkered scarf, her cheeks ruddy. Oboji was watching the Olympics in the bedroom on their twin bed, also layered up to his ears. He gestured for me to sit at a warm spot on the floor, and we watched women’s curling while Hye Rae and Omoni caught up in the kitchen. Ten people lived in that two-bedroom home while their children were growing up. Oboji was a farmer, and Omoni’s job, among others, was to keep her family fed. I’d never seen a more spectacularly organized kitchen, or imagined a more selfless kind of life than that of these two. Omoni is over seventy years old, and she still refuses help making the year’s batch of kimchi or cooking elaborate meals for holidays when her house is once again full of people–her daughter and three sons who are grown up with families of their own. That night, we slept in the small second bedroom on the warm floor next to big sacks of rice that Oboji harvested, and though we set our alarm to wake up earlier than Omoni, she still beat us to the kitchen to make breakfast.

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Breakfast in Penang

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A brief list of breakfasts from George Town, Penang.

Confession: I’ve been hanging onto this post since last July,

Digging for originality,

Which is why it’s good I’m not a journalist,

But today is the day I set it free.

Happy February, y’all.

May the month be as sweet as it is short.



Coffee, Half-boiled Egg, and Toast with Kaya–standard morning fare at any Chinese coffee shop in Malaysiabreakfast-penang-georgetown-kopitiam



Rava Thosai–thin, crisp crepes served with coconut chutney, sambar, and fish curryrava thosai-breakfast-penang-georgetown


Wanton Mee–commonly sold at hawker stalls, can be ordered wet or dry (dry in the photo below) wonton mee-breakfast-penang-georgetown


Koay Teow Th’ng–noodles with pork, fish cake, and scallion–pronounced kway-tow-tung, or you could do like I did, which is to fumble with the name and point instead (one bangin’ bowl of noodles either way)


Roti Canai–buttery, soft flatbread with or without an egg fried in its center, and so good when cooked on the spotroti canai-penang-georgetown-breakfast

roti canai-Penang-Georgetown-breakfast


Nasi Lemak–coconut-soaked, sambal-seasoned rice wrapped with hard egg yolk in pandan leaf (goes best with iced lime juice)–the lovely woman in the photo below told me to order peanut and anchovy–she was rightnasi lemak-penang-breakfast-georgetown

nasi lemak-breakfast-penang-georgetown