Food Friday: Favorites from Thailand and Laos

It’s been a while since we wrote up a Food Friday entry, so here we are.  Just like the headline says, here are some favorites from Thailand and Laos.  They’re mostly things that took us by surprise, hooking our tastebuds and leaving us with big smiles on our faces as we realized we’d found new foods we loved.  In no particular order, with the possible exception of number one:

1.  Mango Sticky Rice.  Amazing.  Actually, fresh, ripe Thai mangoes are so good, so delicious, so mouthwateringly scrumptious, that I’d probably rank a mango itself right up there, even without the sticky rice.  But anyway, sticky rice being a pretty unique thing, if you ever visit, you gotta try it.

2. Papaya Salad.  It’s hard to get this without little dried shrimp in it, which is kind of weird, I’ll go ahead and say.  However, it’s dang good–the papaya is shredded almost like cabbage, and dressed in a sweet-spicy sauce and a few other things.  Never had anything else like it.

3. Coconut Juice.  Actually, I didn’t think it was awesome, but the little Turtle sure did.  He LOVED it, to be sure.  We stopped at a roadside stand and I forked over some baht.  They chopped the top off a green coconut, jabbed a straw in it, and handed it over.  I gave the kid a sip, and the rest was soon his.  The next day he got his very own coconut, and made equally short work of it.

Spring Rolls.

Spring Rolls.  Deliciously un-deep fried.

4. Fruit Smoothies.  These suckers are delicious.  Granted, they’re sweetened with a hearty dose of sugar syrup, so they’re basically guaranteed to taste nice.  Available in all kinds of variations, they’re usually good.  A watermelon smoothie was a delightful way to cool down when walking along Ao Nang Beach one hot afternoon.

These dishes were all readily available in Thailand.  In Vientiane, we found similar stuff, of course, but the region does have a somewhat different flavor, and to be sure we sampled it, we visited a renowned restaurant called The Laotian Kitchen.  There “we played it safe,” as our friend and guide said, and didn’t try anything that would scorch our tastebuds.  Being really satisfied with what we ate, I’d say we made the right choice in that regard.  So what did we have, anyway?

5.  Tofu Laab.  Think stir-fry, but different.  Delicious over some of that sticky rice I mentioned earlier.

6. Spring rolls.  Not fried, and ever-so-fresh, leaving the belly feeling happy, not overloaded with grease.  Highly recommended.

Tofu Laab

Tofu Laab, a Laotian specialty.  You can get it with chicken, but that’s not our bag, baby.

There you have it.  Five favorites.  We had many different dishes which we really enjoyed, and one or two may well merit mention here (how about the many curries?  Those usually were good) that I’m forgetting, but if and when you visit Thailand and Laos, give these a try.  I guarantee you won’t be let down.

One last thought as I’m closing–be sure to order your food mild.  Even mildly spicy to Thai people is really spicy to you and me.  Twice I forgot to order that way, and both times I found it hard to come close to finishing my food.  The first time, I tried what looked like a tasty multi-mushroom soup.  It was so hot, however, that I couldn’t actually taste anything other than my mouth burning.  And in a moment, after trying valiantly to prove that I could master the stuff, I was sweating and my head was spinning.  The second time I fared only slightly better, managing to avoid dizziness.

That’s that.  Until the next time.

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Date Palms

Since moving to the UAE, I’ve been fascinated by the date palms which line the avenues. The date palm is one of the few plants which is more or less native to this area. Besides being an attractive tree, it has a long history in the Gulf area of providing beduin people with sustenance and shelter.  What’s more, the dates produced by the trees are a significant source of income for the area.  According to a Wikipedia article (found here), the UAE is the world’s fourth largest date producer, with 710,00 tons of the delectable fruit annually. I’ve always loved dates, which are a splendid snack or addition to smoothies (they’re pretty nutritious, too, you know), and it’s great to be able to choose from all kinds when I go to any grocery store here. I’ve never lived in an area where the things grew before, and accordingly they had a sort of mystery for me.  I wondered to myself, what do they look like when they grow? How dry are they before they’re picked? Being here I’m able to watch them in their various stages of growth, and I find it ever so interesting. There is much I have yet to learn about date palms and production, but I will share what I’ve discovered thus far.

There are male and female palms, and the females must be pollinated manually in order to ensure a crop.  To that end, vendors sell the male flowers in the souk during February and March.  Here’s a video (not mine) from YouTube of the process being performed on a very small tree.  Here’s a much longer video of how it’s done in the tall trees.

The traditional falaj watering system is basically a series of canals which are blocked and unblocked, based on which sectors should be watered.

The traditional falaj watering system is basically a series of canals which are blocked and unblocked, based on which sectors should be watered.  Here you can see stones used for that purpose keeping water from flowing into this area.

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A falaj running in the Al Ain Oasis.

IMG_1633My research indicates that there are also sharp spines that are necessarily removed from the tree’s branches in the spring, but I’ve never actually witnessed that, and to the casual observer, the leaves of the trees here all seem to be smooth.  Are there some varieties of date palm trees that don’t have the spines?  I don’t think so.  Have a look at one of the images below, and you’ll notice that there are places where the leaves appear to have been skimmed with a knife.  Besides, you probably noticed the vicious spikes protruding from the branches of the tall trees in the second video above.  That’s proof, right?  Despite never noticing spines being sliced off, I have seen men working in the trees, using a nifty rope chair contraption which I’d love to show you, but when I tried to get a photo I was too far away, and the subject of the picture was unclear.

One of our readers asked if date palms need much water (you’ll see his comment below, since I’m updating my existing post with more information).  When I responded to his question, I wasn’t sure.  Since then, I’ve done a little research and the answer is not really.  They need about 300 liters a day, or about 30 minutes of watering.  To prevent disease to the tree and infestation of pests like the red palm weevil, which is seriously bad news for date farmers, the water should be kept off the trunk and applied only around the base of the tree.  If you want more information about this, click here.

Below are snapshots of the Al Ain Oasis and clusters of dates in different points of maturity.

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Al Ain’s Old Souk

Al Ain is a city of texture. Some areas are quite polished and upscale. Other areas are anything but. There are buildings that are literally palatial, and others which make a bomb shelter look comfortable and inviting. On the outskirts of town you will find shanties housing those willing to subsist on the meagerest of wages.  Al Jimi Mall is the place to go if you feel like watching the locals cruise about in their Rolls Royces, tarted up Bentleys and Ranger Rovers, AMG Mercedes’, or the rather less common Ferraris or Lamborghinis.  By contrast, in the town center, not so far away, there are Pakistani workers, entirely carless, squatting on their haunches.

And in the very center, in a series of garage-like structures nigh to the bus station, there lies an amazing market known as the “Old Souk.” For years, the souk has functioned as a place that vendors can come to sell their wares free of any charge. Those who are selling come from a variety of locations, and sell all sorts of things. They have certain areas they usually set up in, and most of the shops, with some exceptions, look more or less permanent. There is a new souk established outside of town, behind the nicest of Al Ain’s malls, but an attempt to move things out there failed, and the sellers were soon back in their traditional place in the middle of the town center. Fridays are the best day to visit, for that is when things are busiest.  Much of the souk is indoors, or semi-indoors, but there is also quite a bit outdoors.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter courtesy of that funky smartphone app known as instagram.

One building houses the vegetable and meat market.  Seeking some good flat cabbage?  Or maybe a nice, succulent camel hump?  This is the place to get it.  Maybe you’d rather skip the camel and get some nice, fresh goat.  That’s readily available, as it’s a very common meat here, usually served with biryani (an Indian style rice dish).

As we approach, we encounter an Omani woman who is happy to show us her wares, which include a number of interesting items uniquely Middle Eastern.  She has come from Buraimi, just a short way off, almost every day for years. She is also pleased to allow us to take her picture, something that isn’t always to be counted on here. Jenia purchases a souvenir for herself, and one for her friend–the golden face covering that seems to be known as a “burqa” here.  The burqa is meant to accent the woman’s eyes, we are told.  Jenia decides to buy a second one to give to a friend of ours, and the woman, noticing that Jenia is with child (yes, we did this before the baby came), refuses payment (a mere 10 dirhams) for it, and insists on giving it as a gift.

Vendor

If you’re looking for fresh Emirati fish, this is the place to find it. The types that are most renowned are available here: hammour, Sultan Ibrahim. They’re all freshly caught from around the Emirates. The vendors are happy to show you their catches.  If you’re trying to find a good price, you can probably get it here–but you should know what the going rate is, and it helps if you read Arabic, because most of the signs and numbers aren’t in English.  The best way to get a deal is to bargain, which is expected.  I, of course, have no idea what a reasonable price is for any seafood, but I enjoy looking at the huge number of fish, big and small, and the sellers enjoy telling us what is what.  Jenia strolls about with her camera, snapping the images you see here.

In the image above, Amro, one of the main folks involved with Al Ain Weekends, a lovely group which organizes excursions for anyone interested in learning more about the area, shows off a fish.

Despite the stern expressions these two men wear in the photographs, they are happy to explain all about the fish they are selling and let us take their pictures.

Leaving the fish souk, we pass smiling faces, families, and virtually no other westerners other than the ones we came with.  There is Yemeni honey for sale, and one of the guys selling it gets me to try some.  It’s good, but I’m not about to pay the kind of money they’re asking for it, and I don’t feel like bargaining in the first place.  The wife and I are interested in seeing the people, smelling the odors that flavor the air, and simply being a part of the bustle of the souk, a place that seems mostly left out of the rush toward hyper-modernity that Al Ain has generally embraced.  Incidentally, you’ll notice the reduction in quality of most of the pictures after this–they’re the ones I snapped with my phone.  Jenia gets all the credit for being the better photographer of the two of us.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Soon, we are standing outside a shop that makes a traditional Omani sweet called halawa (spelling?).  This is basically made from sugar or corn syrup with added sugars.  It’s boiled for a long time in huge basins, being stirred the whole time.  If memory serves, the boiling/stirring must go on for at least two hours.  The sweet is rather delicious.  There are all kinds for sale, and there are buyers in and out while we are there who purchase big boxes full for parties or weddings.  We are lucky enough to be invited to the back room to watch it being made.

Boiling the halawa.

Boiling and stirring the sloppy goop that will become halawa.

Next, we stroll through the camel souk.  Here we see anything you might need for your camel.  If you’ve ever seen a camel wearing anything, it’s probably for sale right here.  There are blankets, muzzles, ropes, and much more.  I enjoy seeing some of the simple things for sale, like camel shampoo.  When I took the dog to the vet back in the States, I used to see horse shampoo for sale, but I’ve never seen this before.  Naturally, I whip out my trusty old iPhone and snap a photo.  Good instagram, right?

Gotta have that camel shampoo if you have a camel.

Gotta have that camel (and horse) shampoo if you have a camel (or horse).

Finally, we get to the tobacco area.  Here folks can purchase the very strong type of tobacco that is so popular and which a bunch of my students smoke in the bathrooms.  I forget the name of it, but it’s actually no longer legal to grow it in the Emirates, so this stuff we’re seeing is imported from Oman.  The guys here are also selling the slender little pipes that are used to smoke this stuff, and a number of accessories handy for this kind of addiction.  The men have the sort of faces that make great photos.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

In this post, I’m afraid I omit a lot of interesting details about the wide range of merchandise for sale in this bustling market.  There’s so much more than I can write sufficiently about.  I don’t remember what many things are called, and I forget the reasons some of the unusual items are for sale.  There’s pollen for date palms, palm fronds, harnesses of rope for climbing and trimming palm trees, saws for that purpose, dried goods, liquids of all sorts, and on and on and on.  If you’ve been to the souk, you can no doubt think of something striking that I neglect to mention here.

Food Friday: Arabian Cuisine

I should have taken photos.  But I didn’t.

Last night a teacher friend and I went to a student’s camel farm.  His family’s farm, really.  I’ll post about the whole experience shortly.  For now, let me just describe the meal.

At the end of the evening, we were treated to a true Emirati meal.  Everyone (all male, of course) gathered around a mat on the floor where there was a feast spread out before us: there was a huge platter that took two men to carry in, loaded with biryani spiced rice, and atop the bed of rice, there sat a freshly roasted goat or sheep, or some mystery animal.  Spread out around the edges of the mat were numerous plates with hummus, freshly prepared flat bread, roasted and fresh veggies, various other meats, and so forth.

All the kandora-clad folks settled down, not cross-legged (“Women only sit like that,” one of the boys told us, “Men sit like this.”), but with one leg tucked under and to the side, and the other knee up, foot flat on the ground.  My friend Pj and I were seated next to the elder man of the household, the grandfather, which must have been an honor.  We waited to sit down until after the old man did and he invited us to.  Everything was eaten with the hands.  Or rather, basically with the right hand.  That includes rice.  “You want yogurt on rice?”  We were asked.  “Sure.”  They poured plain yogurt on the rice, or rather, on portions of the rice.  Then the challenge: eat rice with no utensils.  I made a mess.  The yogurt helped the rice stick together, but I’m not well practiced at this whole thing, and I had to scoot closer to the mat.  The old man, whose name I was never told, cut some slices of meat and set it before me (on top of a ton of other stuff, of course).  I made a gesture of declining and thanks, but the signal seemed to go either ignored or not understood.  Everyone ate, other than the initial exchanges I mentioned, in complete silence.  The father of my student grabbed the skull from the butchered beast and ripped the jaw off from it, and removed the tongue.  That exposed the brain, and he placed the skull in front of me and gestured for me and Pj to try it.  “Good,” he said.  We both declined.  I feel positive I’d have declined even if I were not vegetarian.  Eventually I told them that I did not eat meat, and then there was a sort of look of relief on their faces, and the old man passed me a whole tomato, and presented me with half of a raw onion.  I laughed, and they seemed to be entirely okay with me not trying the mysterious meat after that.  Once, when I cracked open a can of 7-up, I noticed a young man across from me kind of murmur something to the guy at his side.  He was indicating my drink.  I noticed I was holding it in my left hand, and watching his face, I switched it to the other hand, and he grinned a little and gave me an approving look.

When folks were done, they just sort of disappeared from the, er, not table.  My students weren’t in the room, as I guess there wasn’t space at the…rug…for them.  After enough people had eaten their fill and migrated out, the father called, and in came a new batch, this time consisting entirely of youth.  Pj and I finished our food and headed out to the living room, but the first stop was to wash our hands.

At the sinks, we looked at each other and just grinned.  “That was incredibly awkward,” I said.  “I know,” he replied.  “And yet it was incredibly cool.”

The hummus was delicious.  The bread, fresh and good.  The veggies, both roasted and otherwise, tasty.  When I managed to get the rice into my mouth, it was good.  I left quite stuffed, and despite feeling more than a little out of my element, I think that I got to be a part of something I’d have never even witnessed, were it not for my students.

Food Friday

While my darling husband is living the life of leisure and counting fils, I’m working like a beaver (said with a lovely Maine accent, in imitation of Shon’s late Grandma) and spending money left and right. Well, not really. I am, indeed, working my online job 6 hours a day, which feels like a rather long time to spend staring at a laptop. Most of the $$, however, is going towards bills.

But this week I decided I needed a nice break, too, so here I am, writing from the beaches of the Gulf – of Mexico. The city (haha) of Cuthbert, fondly referred to by some as the armpit of Georgia, is conveniently located 3 hours away from Panama City Beach. This is close enough for a day trip, but this year has been really hectic, and we haven’t gone a single time.

Knowing that a) we are hoping to not have to live in South GA again and b) Shon doesn’t care if he never sees a beach again, I figured this might be
my last chance to see the white sands in the next two decades, and drove 3 hours this morning for a day of self-loving. Beach is extremely important to my kinesthetic self: I get giddy from feeling the sand under my feet and between my fingers, being surrounded by the water, smelling the air, and tasting the salty waves. It’s a religious experience, too, but I cannot explain why.

 

By now you are wondering what this has to do with food 🙂 well, a trip to PCB is not complete without a lunch at Raggae J’s. Both Mom and Dear Cousin Erika can testify to the deliciousness of their Mahi-Mahi sandwich with sweet potato fries, as well as the irresistibility of the Key Lime pie.

If you ever make it here, make sure to try some!

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Food Fridays: The Lebanese Flower and Assorted Culinary Delights

Ah, it’s Food Friday already!  Well, for those of you readers in the US, I guess it’s not Friday yet, but it will be by the time you read this, I venture.  Last night, I went with a group of fellow teachers (Christine, Nicole and her baby, and Andrea) to The Lebanese Flower, a restaurant on Khalidya Street.  Many folks in our hotel had been there already and were raving about it.  I found my options rather limited as a vegetarian, but the food was pretty good, if not great.  There was a large appetizer served that featured a lot of veggies (including a very spicy type of lettuce) with very soft, thin pita bread, hummus, and a Lebanese cream cheese (the name of which escapes me at the moment), and the company was fun to be around.  To read some more about it, check out Christine’s blog: Christine’s Big Adventure.  You’ll find the non-vegetarians seemed to like their food well enough.

After dinner, which finally wrapped up after we requested our bill (not “check,” mind you) at around 10:00pm, we walked across the parking lot to the Flower’s bakery, and Nicole, purchased some chocolates to share with the group.  These were good.

My meal, as photographed by Christine.

Then we went into the Beirut Roastery a few doors down.  There was quite a selection of various individually wrapped sliced-nougats which look a lot like Turkish delight.  Nicole and Andrea were intrigued by one which seemed to be rolled in rose petals.  I bought a handful of these creations, and, outdoors in the evening heat, gave the rose-petal ones to Andrea and Nicole.  “It tastes just like roses smell,” said Andrea, biting one in half and offering the other half to Nicole.  “How is it?” said Nicole.  Andrea, betraying no misgivings, said, “Just try it.”  Nicole bit into it and her nose immediately wrinkled.  “Oh,” Nicole exclaimed.  She put it in a nearby plant pot instead of her stomach.  I, being not the least bit interested in roses as a culinary item, tried one of the pistachio nougats.  Not too good, I assure you. I can only imagine how dried rose petals could enhance (sarcasm) the experience.   It’s fun to try new things, though!

The Lebanese Flower. A moment later a Maserati pulled up for some takeout.

Food Friday: A Speedy Dinner

This dinner is one of my all-time favorite things to make because a) it’s delicious; b) it takes 15 minutes from start to finish.

I give you Salmon with Spicy Mustard + Asparagus.

ImageYou will need:

  • Salmon fillets
  • Brown or spicy mustard (about half a Tbsp per fillet)
  • Brown sugar
  • Fresh asparagus

You will:

  • Preheat oven on broil setting, with the rack as high as possible.
  • Lightly grease a rimmed baking sheet.
  • Wash asparagus, break off the ends, arrange of half of the baking sheet.  Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  • Pat salmon dry with paper towels, place on the other half of the baking sheet, skin down.  Spread mustard on top of the fillets (be generous), and sprinkle brown sugar on top.
  • Bake for 3 minutes, remove from oven, toss the asparagus. Bake for 3 more minutes.
  • Enjoy!

P.S. Bonus tip: if you add a couple of marshmallows to your brown sugar container, they will prevent it from becoming rock-hard!

Food Friday

Okay, okay, I know it’s Saturday, but I started this post yesterday, and then Benadryl kicked in, and I fell asleep before finishing it.

So here it goes: I now pronounce Fridays food-related days! It means two things: a) once a week, you will have to endure me sharing recipes or b) once a week you will get to see photos of UAE food (that will have to wait until August, though).

I don’t have a recipe for today, but I will share a recipe-related story.

When I realized that I could not possibly take all of my cookbooks and recipe magazines to the UAE with me, I decided this was a great time to make an electronic copy of my collection.  Shon and I started typing up our most used and loved recipes, as well as some we wanted to try.  At the same time, I began searching for a website that would allow me to store my recipe library online.

After reading some reviews, I settled on bigoven.com, lured by a decent selection of free features and an iPod/iPhone app.  I registered, added recipes and uploaded a couple of photos (old, but better than nothing).

And several days later, I received an e-mail saying that my photo of the Fruit Pizza won their Photo of the Month contest (which I didn’t know existed), and that I will receive a $100 Amazon gift card and a year of free Pro membership.

Trust me, friends, it took me awhile to believe it wasn’t a scam.  I have never won anything in my life, let alone a hundred bucks for a very, very mediocre photo.  I am not a food photographer, I am not a photographer at all, really, but here I am, debating how to spend my unexpected wealth.

So here’s to luck, pleasant surprises, and good food!