Sugarcane juice is sweetest at the throat

At first you taste a field of lush wet grass, then sweetness creeps in and lingers. It is neither rich nor plain. It is not colorful or sparkling. It has no charm in a 16-oz styrofoam cup. You will never be its addict. It relieves thirst better than coke, and contains nothing but natural hymn. It is the girl-next-door drink. Where I’m from, nuoc mia carts usually park in front of school gates. They have a bucket of yard-long sugarcane stalks, some ready-to-go nylon bags filled with the yellow tinged juice, tied with a rubber band and equipped with a straw, a glass box to store the inch cuts of decorticated sugarcane – cheap, all-natural energy snack for school kids. The sugarcane ladies, usually in cone hats with their faces charred by sunlight and sidewalk heat, can reel sugarcane stalks through the grinding wheels so fast and so rhythmically, like a skilled tailor drawing cloth through a sewing machine. I used to marvel those ladies and their cool sweet drink, from a distance, as my mother doesn’t believe in street food. I may recall one or two instances of drinking sugarcane juice over the years, […]

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Sesame fluff – Chinese snack mi lao

I press my thumbs down, the little egg shape dutifully collapses, but remains in tact, except for a few sesame seeds. I have deformed a perfect fluff ball out of curiosity. As resilient to breaking as it is, it can’t ever re-inflate like our economy. A bit of guilt creeps in. These little fluff balls come from a lengthy process, as indicated by their name (“佬” – lao). Sticky rice flour is mixed with some other rice flour to make the initial dough and let fermented. My guess is fermentation plays a central role in forming the porous structure, when the dough ball gets deep fried. As malt sugar and lard covers their vulnerably hot surface, ’em balls are quickly rolled and tossed in roasted sesame seeds. And there, you get a fresh batch of mi lao, sesame (sticky rice) fluff. (*) Originally, the sesame fluffs were meant to be a part of the Lunar New Year offerings in China, but who wouldn’t welcome a snack like this year round, so different spin-offs roll out of street stalls in Taiwan, like peanut-lao, almond-lao, rice-lao. Tiny bits of dried laver (nori) creatively dimple the […]

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Mixing flavors at Istanbul Grill

When I was three or four, my mom once asked me what relationship was the most important in life. I said friendship. She wasn’t happy. She wanted to hear that the mother-and-child love was the most important, to which I explained that mother and child should treat each other like friends, with respect and trust and so on, thereby making the relationship a friendship. For all these years, my mom has been my best friend, but I’ve had other amazing friendships too. Some last, some don’t. Some fade, some strengthen. Some are built over the world wide web, some are formed through sleepless nights struggling over assignments. You know what the best thing about non-family friends is? You get to choose them. You get to hang out with people who are different from you, but mix so well with you, like salt and lemon. Or how about this, like yogurt and meat? Iskender kebab – lamb and beef on fried pide bread with yogurt What are you smoking, Mai, yogurt and meat? Yep. Yogurt and thin slices of döner (beef and lamb), blanketing a bed of dice butter-roasted pide bread (the Turkish […]

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North Berkeley Gourmet Marathon

I’d never thought I would walk an over-two-mile round trip just for food. But Carolyn Jung at Food Gal convinced me that A Taste of North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto just sounded too good to ignore, and with a mere $25 ticket it was well worth the ankle exercise. Granted the weather turned its cold back on us, we couldn’t drag our feet to all 27 locations, nor were we enticed by the smell of wine, we felt good at the end of the day knowing that our tummy was full, a beggar’s tummy was appeased (with a cup of Greek soup from Soop, a lime-chipotle drumstick from Poulet, and a square of brownie from Andronico’s), and we found a new favorite. The marathon started off creamily with Bistro Liaison‘s Quenelle souffle – salmon and scallop mousse in a lustrious shrimp sauce. Captivating from the very first bite. Oh, guess what? It’s not on the menu. Taste of Himalayas – Most Generous Tasting “Sample” ever. We were allowed full freedom to load our plate with whatever our eyes desired. Continue reading North Berkeley Gourmet Marathon

Saigon Express – catching up with the sandwich

Another day, another banh mi. And another. And another. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted thịt nguội (Vietnamese cold cut, also called “ham”), chả lụa, or pâté, and I didn’t want to settle for the special ($3.20) which has all three, because that means there is less of each. Like a good girl I got all three ($2.75 each), then mixed and matched. Cha lua is nothing beyond expectation, smooth and pure, sliced as thin as chicken skin. To its left is the firm rosy thit nguoi, made from cured pork and fat strips, similar to pork belly. To its right is pork liver pate banh mi. The brown spread looks like nutella with pepper, feels grainy and silky on the tongue, and tastes magnificent. In one bite of oozing goodness, you can find something nutty, something sweet, a bit fatty and rich, a lot of salt, no sign of bitterness, all tempered by the mildly sour pickled carrots. Pork liver pate is my favorite. Continue reading Saigon Express – catching up with the sandwich

Phở Hòa – Is it just another noodle joint?

It looks like one of those noodle houses on the roadside with plastic chairs, formica tables, laminated menu, and plain white neon lights. Actually, it is one, but with green cushion chairs. The atmosphere is so casual, the slurping scenes so familiar I could almost hear motorbike engines and vendors’ calls around Saigon. Everywhere I look, Berkeley brings back memories of Binh Thanh and Tan Binh Districts with its frameless mix of dashing modernity and forlorn architecture, damp narrow alleys separating discordantly colorful buildings, shoe mending stores tucked between pricey diners, Vespas, bicycles, cars, trucks, men in suit and men in rag, the only thing missing is a xich-lo. Like it or not, this world doesn’t stay outside noodle houses like Pho Hoa, you can eat while feeling life scurry on the pavement. The diners casually bring the commonest of life into their chatter. The kitchen brings the commonest of noodle soup onto the table. But only they added a twist to it. Of course eighty percent of the menu is laminated with things every pho joint would have: pho. Pho of all varieties, Steak, Brisket, Chicken, Tendon, Flank, Tripe, Meatball. Then […]

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T.P. Banh Bao

Mini steam buns, as big as a clementine, stuffed with interesting fillings, sold like hotcakes at a mini store inside the Bellaire Hong Kong Mall. Well, they are essentially hot cakes after all. TP Banh Bao have many kinds of banh bao, but most were sold out by midday when we got there. We were lucky enough to get 3 different kinds: seafood (đồ biển), taro and pork (khoai môn thịt), and original, i.e. pork and chinese sausage (thập cẩm). However, we couldn’t tell which was which. They put them in the same box, no marking, the bun skin and the innards looked the same for all three kinds. They also tasted the same. Good, but indistinguishable. On the door is an exciting advertisement of their specials: deep fried banh bao and deboned chicken wings, but few seem to come here for those. I’d imagine even fewer would come here for bun bo Hue, mi Quang, chao long (offal porridge) and chao ca (fish porridge). It’d be just as funny if McDonald serves spaghetti. Continue reading T.P. Banh Bao

The aesthetic Gather

Downtown Berkeley are these two-faced blocks between Shattuck Avenue and Fulton Street. Facing Shattuck, they are adorned with picturesque lamp posts, shops and pubs, neon signs casting shadows of hustling pedestrians and huddling homeless men. Facing Fulton, they quietly gaze at the lush green west end of campus through glass windows of modern apartments. The quiescence called for some gathering, and Gather burgeoned. It gleams with efficiency and environmental awareness. All ingredients are bought from local farmers. Seats are made with used suede and leather belts, candle covers are rolled up wine menus, diners and waiters respect the intimate spacing between tables, and food was served within a few minutes of placing an order, but not without intricacy. Starting with the vegan charcuterie: Continue reading The aesthetic Gather

13 recipes with cha lua

For those with not much more than a skillet and a spatula in a kitchenette (hello, grad students!), it’s best just to buy a loaf from your nearest Vietnamese sandwich shop or Asian market. Now what? Here’s a list of 13 dishes with cha lua to churn out at your castle (in no particular order), requiring no special cooking hoopla or obscure ingredients (unless silk sausage is considered an obscure ingredient). […]

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Cafe Grillades – Crepe a bite after a long flight

The San Francisco airport is a great excuse to eat out on the other side of the bay. Catching a morning flight? Breakfast at Milbrae Pancake House. Picking up parents and wanting to show them around at mid day? Lunch at La Boheme in Burlingame. Arriving in a lazy afternoon after four hours confined in the airplane’s seat with a neck cramp and in the mood for something nice, light but hearty? A crepe at Cafe Grillades of San Bruno sounds just right. It’s one of those homey places where you can nibble a panini while reading the chronicles, sit by the window and gaze at a quiet parking lot, or meet someone for a casual interview. It has the boureks and the Algerian couscous if you want to impress old friends with an interesting order, but it also serves classic ham and cheese on toast all day. It will satisfy both the burger hunger and the vegan healtheist. It has the West European facade, the Mediterranean sum up, the North Saharan novelty, the San Franciscan appeal. In plain view, Cafe Grillades has a pretty good Continue reading Cafe Grillades – Crepe a bite after a long flight