Sandwich shop goodies 12 – Chuối nếp nướng (grilled banana in sticky rice)

They all look the same. A myriad of things wrapped in wilted banana leaves sitting on the counter at a banh mi shop. Few patrons seem to notice the snacks as they occupy themselves with sandwich orders and the more meal-like rice or noodle to-gos, so much to the extent that the sellers too have little interest in selling their counter treats. Humbly, I point to these slender, charred and dry parcels piled in a box near the Pockys and inquire about their name. The hostess throws me half a glance infused with boredom, “Chuối nướng,” she moves her lips. So “grilled banana” they are. It takes an utterly simple form: a banana inside a sticky rice shell inside a banana leaf, charcoal grilled. Crispy, then chewy, then gooey sweet it goes as you sink your teeth through the bounteousness. It’s the factoriless meatless corn dog sans wooden stick of Southern Vietnam. Children would wait around old grandmas in the ‘hood to watch them grill the banana dogs and drool; adults would grab the banana dogs for breakfast, lunch, or late night snack when a wind chills […]

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Finger split banana

So I just learned this cool thing you can do with a banana finger and your finger. It works better with not-so-ripe bananas of course. Three way split all the times. Credit to Mudpie. Then I told my mom about it. She said “Duh. You just now know?” 😀 For comeback, I told her (again, credit to Mudpie for telling me) that banana is used as a unit in measuring radioactivity. Like all foods (and living things, including you), banana radiates. It just happens that banana contains the radioactive isotope Potassium-40 (19 protons and 21 neutrons, 1 neutron more than stable Potassium) which makes it radiate a little bit more than other things. Fortunately for us the half life of Potassium-40 is over a billion years, so the amount of radiation a banana produces is less than 1/365 times the increase in cancer risk caused by 40 tablespoons of peanut butter. Continue reading Finger split banana

Sul Lung Tang at Kunjib Restaurant

The black stone bowl brought out, fuming. The milky ivory broth pulses inside, playfully revealing strips of browned beef. Dig a little deeper, my chopsticks find supple strands of white, thin as spaghetti and slick as bubble tea. I submerge the metal spoon into the liquid, the cream parts and congeals. I take a sip. A few months ago a friend recommended Kunjib as a Korean restaurant unlike any I had been to, and indeed it is. The moment we walk in, the hostesses greet us with twittering an nyong ha sye yo and something that I can only guess to mean “table for two, right?”. I wish I had memorized the phrase list from Sura before coming here, but our waitress quickly realizes that we are different from their other customers and switches to near perfect English. Regardless, I’ll sign up for Korean 1 in the fall semester, I’ve already gotten the Hangul alphabet sorta down. 😉 Kunjib is a restaurant of few and focus: white plates, square bamboo chopsticks, tables set connected in straight rows, little decoration, a corner wall TV tuned to Korean channels, icy cold corn tea, […]

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Thanksgiving on Bus 18

Direction: Montclair. Shattuck & Durant. The man sits at the first row, holding a bouquet of lilies and chrysanthemums wrapped in brown paper, whose wrinkles almost blend in with his hand. He asks if anyone knows what time it is. I say “Twelve” a few times, he just gazes at me half blankly, half confused. The bus driver says “Twelve o’clock”. He nods, then mumbles something about hoping that “she will be there”. When the bus turns onto Martin Luther King Jr., he gets off, thanking the driver four or five times, looking lost. Direction: Montclair. Martin Luther King Jr. & 46th Street. A woman in her thirties waddles on, asking how much the fare is. Two dollars. She reaches in her grey windbreaker’s pocket for a handful of coins. Missing a quarter. She waddles to a seat, searches her purse, asks if anyone has change for a dollar. Silence. Silence. For 20 seconds. Finally another woman searches her purse and find some coins. Just enough time for the first woman to drop the last quarter into the slot, then she gets off. Her steps heavy, torpid, and somewhat lost. The bus is […]

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The story of Bún Xêu

Vietnamese “Are you giving Thanks?”, asks Der Miller. I should. It is my first independent Thanksgiving. There will be no turkey, not because they’re not that tender but because it’s cruel to take their lives on the day that everyone else celebrates. There will be no green bean casserole or sweet potato with marshmallow, not because I’m lazy but because I have no oven. There will be no cranberry sauce or stuffing, for no shining reason. I’ll just make the one thing that is both simple and not ramen: bún xêu. Over 2000 years ago lived a king in a foreign land, who ordered his royal kitchen staff to prepare a party to welcome his future son-in-law from another foreign land. Naturally the king wanted a feast with national specialties, which included a type of rice flour pastry with sweetened mung bean paste. The flour had to be made in the morning of the same day to avoid it turning sour, and one young kitchen helper, who probably liked to get up early as much as I do, was in charge of preparing the batter. Instead of mixing rice flour and water in a […]

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Do you like it when things change?

This past weekend I found out that my favorite sushi house has replaced their usual corn tea with green tea, and my favorite Korean restaurant has changed name. Berkel Berkel is now Cho Korean B.B.Q. The Berkel Berkel sign is still outside, the wooden door is still there, the paper lanterns are still there. But the old man is not. The familiar homey vibe is lost, drown in the blasting music and the attentive service of the hosts. I appreciate the smiles and the banchan and drinks brought to the table and the frequent check-ins for refills, but I miss getting my own kimchi and pouring my own tea from the kettle. I miss the old man behind the counter with his strong accent. The kimchi selection is still the same: baechu, cucumber, and kongjaban (콩자반). Mudpie got bulgogi ddukbaegi (불고기 뚝배기 beef stew clay pot) with green onion, mushroom, and potato noodle in sweet broth. I got ramyeon (ramen) with dumplings. Being a tad spicy, once again my choice was less savory than Mudpie’s choice. Objectively, the food is still good for its price, […]

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Down the Aisles 7: Lady apples and pudding cups

These plum-sized apples belong to one of the oldest cultivars first known to the Romans, but I only saw them for the first time at Lucky last weekend. Some have a rosy cheek on one side, some are burgundy all around the upper half, like a little rotund Red Riding Hood with greenish yellow gown. The cheerfully color-contrasted skin feels waxy smooth as I run them under the faucet. Memories of Thai apples (poodza) rush through my fingers, but Thai apples are whole green and oblong with a pointy bottom, the Ladies here are shaped like mochi dumplings slightly squished by two fingers at both ends. I pick one up close to my mouth, before the lips can get to its skin, the nose already catches a fresh swift of the dimple where its stem sprouts. It’s crisp, like a pile of crunchy leaf. Its sweetness and tartness are lady-like. Continue reading Down the Aisles 7: Lady apples and pudding cups

Can any fish make good clay pot fish?

No. The red snapper at Anh Hong Berkeley is thoroughly coated with caramelized sugar and fish sauce, but its flaky flesh stays dry like terracotta tiles. The seawater has rooted too deeply in each fiber to blend with the sweetness. Salmon would be even worse. Experience says bitter lá lốt can be tamed, but only fresh water fish, like catfish, can make a clay pot sing.

Sandwich shop goodies 11 – Steamed cassava

My mom is a skeptic about street snacks, most of the time because of the fingers handling them, but this thing passed. Like xoi, it should always be served hot right out of the steamer. Cool it down with a few blows of air and hurry it in the mouth; it may be wet and chewy, or it may be floury and nutty. But it’s distinctively cassava. Back home, khoai mì hấp (steamed cassava) is among the cheapest Saigon street scoffs, because khoai mì (cassava root) is cheap (2000VND/kg these days, about 5 cents/lb), and the making is beyond simple. You boil the roots, then keep it warm and moist in a steamer. Unlike banh bao vendors, you keep the lid open to let out burly rolls of steam and invitation. The cone hat ladies sometimes add pandan leaves in the water, those ivory chunks then smell as sweet as spring rains. A customer comes, you scoop him a few palmfuls into a nylon bag and forget not the coconut shavings and the classic salt-sugar-sesame mix. A true street scoffer would eat with his fingers, probably holding the thick center string (the root’s […]

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Jayakarta and my first Indonesian meals

Ketoprak at Jayakarta, Berkeley – warm rice noodle salad with bean sprout, cucumber, shrimp cracker and peanut sauce – $6.25 There is only one on the East Bay, and three in San Francisco. (I don’t count the Asian Fusion stuff and places with, like, one Indonesian noodle salad.) That is just way too few Indonesian restaurants in an area where Asian cookeries sprout like mushrooms after the rain. Historically, the Indonesians have settled here at least 10 years before the Vietnamese, and at about the same time as the Thai. After a few wholesome meals at Jayakarta, it is beyond me why Indonesian food has not gained much popularity in the States. Take the palm-sugar-smothered rotisserie chicken ayam kalasan. It loses to no other chicken but my mom’s. I’m hooked from the first bite. The sweetness is in eve.ry. single. strand. of meat, it’s tender, it’s firm, it can make me rob a school kid for $7.95 when the craving gone mad. Continue reading Jayakarta and my first Indonesian meals