Fried Mantou with Condensed Milk (China)

When much of the world thinks of Chinese food, do bread, dairy and dessert often come to mind?  I’m not even referring to ingredients or dishes from hundreds or thousands of years ago, or Chinese restaurant kitchens adapted to local tastes.

My introduction to 馒头 (mán​tou), steamed wheat bread originally from northern China, is actually one of my fondest food memories.  In 2004 I visited Singapore with my dad, and a couple of natives invited us to try chili crab.  Not only was it delicious – but it was equally fun to sop up the chili sauce with fried mantou.

It’s easy to satisfy savory cravings in China, but what if wanted to grab me somethin’ sweet?

Due to various jobs and halcyon desires to rapidly fill up my passport, I’ve naturally spent more time getting familiar with Shenzhen menus more than any other in China.  Based on past experiences, what better way to conclude a meal drowned in cooking oil and loaded with MSG (but I’m not actually against it…) than by getting served A) sliced tomatoes covered in granulated sugar, B) caramelized potatoes that will singe your mouth or C) durian anything?

Shenzhen, China- Fried Manotu with Condensed Milk

Thank you kindly, but I’ll go with D) fried mantou with 炼奶 (liàn​nǎi), or sweetened condensed milk.

Have you tried this combo before?  If you’re really looking to overdo it, order it with can of Coke.

Full After One Bite: My Meal in Puerto Rico

Thanks to a combination of an inaugural JetBlue flight last year and a small amount of United award miles that wasn’t going to be added to anytime soon, in booking a brief trip to Caracas and Quito earlier this year I had to be creative with my routing.

Considering the demographics of New York City, I figured that there would be plenty of JetBlue flights to Puerto Rico.  Due to the lack of availability of United partner flights – yes, planning a trip the day of has its cons – and limited time, I scheduled a thirteen hour layover in San Juan.

It was too early to find any local eats in downtown San Juan, so after wandering around for a few hours I indulged in another hobby, checking out the public transit systems.  Being disappointed that San Juan’s fare card was similar to NYC’s, I nevertheless took advantage of the free bus-rail transfer to spontaneously visit a suburb called Bayamón.  The goal – to find a menu without any English – was much easier over there…

Bayamón, Puerto Rico - Pernil, Mofongo and Pique

What’s that healthy stuff doing on the plate? I wanted Puerto Rican food.

I stumbled into a dive bar that also happened to have a decent amount of Puerto Rican staples from which to choose.  Come to think of it, before this meal, I had never tried this cuisine.
So, let’s break down the picture.  The ochre (yellow-orange) monolith next to the lettuce is called mofongo.  That’s the inspiration for the title of this post.  I’ve had that before, but in a Dominican restaurant.  From that one meal, I was full for many, many hours.

Usually it’s just a few, few minutes.

Mofongo generally consists of fried mashed green plantains, garlic, broth, and pork cracklins’, aka chicharrones.   It was likely inspired by fufu, the cassava-based meal from West Africa.

Below the mofongo we have pernil.  Pernil is roasted pork shoulder with garlic.  If the meat comes right off of the bone, then it was a success.  Sure enough, the chef that day got it right.

Lastly, the condiment on the left is called pique.  It’s a sauce made with hot peppers (traditionally, ají caballero, but habaneros and others are alright substitutes), garlic, oregano, and vinegar.  The contents aren’t mixed, but I could still taste each of those four main ingredients.  By the time I left the bar, the bottle of pique was almost empty.  Clearly, I should be making my way to East Harlem to buy a vat of it.

By the way, Puerto Rico, my liver shares your appreciation for garlic, but she does not.

How does this meal sound to you?

Fuk…uoka, That was a Weird Night in Japan

The theme of this post is the Japanese phrase for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, 一期一会 (ichigo ichie).

Fukuoka, Japan - Toshiyori Sushi Dinner & Sunakku (1)
I first visited Fukuoka, Japan in the summer of 2009.  Although I’d never been too enthusiastic about soup as the focal point of a meal, Japan already had my number for years.  Thus, it was important that I try the creamy pork-based Hakata ramen – one of the local 名物 (meibutsu specialty products) – at one of the storied nighttime 屋台 (yatai food carts).

I was enjoying my dinner when an older Japanese man sitting to my right started asking me about where I was from, how the food is, how Fukuoka was, how cold did my soup get because he kept asking questions.  To answer your question, no, I didn’t like where this was going.  Actually, I now wonder what would’ve happened if I had requested a 替え玉 (kaedama second serving of noodles)…or if I didn’t respond in Japanese.

After a brief exchange, he invited me to eat sushi in Nakasu, a neighborhood he seemed to know well.

Fukuoka, Japan - Toshiyori Sushi Dinner & Sunakku (2)

Gin Sushi, Where We Ate in Nakasu (Hey look, a salt dish!)

Fukuoka, Japan - Toshiyori Sushi Dinner & Sunakku (3)
Surreal Moment #1: He kept hitting on the daughter of the woman at the adjacent table.  She didn’t seem too thrilled about my being a foreigner, but at least he ordered well.  Sushi, that is.

Only after that feast did things take a turn for the weird.

Surreal Moment #2: He wanted to go to a karaoke parlor.  We walked into a place that was astonishingly unfamiliar to him.  He asked the owner if they had a particular song.  The owner said no.  He then gave said owner around ¥7000 (~$74 at the time) and left.

Fukuoka, Japan - Toshiyori Sushi Dinner & Sunakku (4)
Surreal Moment #3: Until that day, I was under the impression that Snack (スナック sunakku) were off-limits to foreigners.  What’s a snack?  A dingy, cramped smoke-filled bar where you pay women to talk about how amazing you are.  If you are a regular, they’ll hold for you – with your name on it – your usual bottle of tipple.  My host was chatting up the mama-san while I was speaking Chinese with a woman from Dalian.  So much for the “no foreigners” idea…?  Wherever we ended up, it was definitely one of the above-listed スナック.  Then again, that was in 2009, so who knows what the name of the joint is now.

After that hour of unpredictability, he abruptly left me to go to see cabaret.  Whenever I tried to ask him his name to thank him, he responded with 運命 (unmei fate/destiny), as in, “don’t mention it.”

Good sir, this post is for you.




Lablabi: Tunisian Chickpea Stew

Monastir, Tunisia - Lablabli 1

I was inadvertently introduced to lablabi (لبلابي) while walking around Monastir, Tunisia.  Some local market workers were taking their lunch break to crowd a small kiosk in the middle of a pedestrian block.  Nearly twenty more people got in their orders before I was noticed, even though I was perched in front of the chefs all along.  Now that I know the name of the dish – and after confirming it at the New York Fancy Food Show last year – I greatly look forward to wildly mispronouncing lablabi.

Monastir, Tunisia - Lablabli 2

Common ingredients include chickpeas as the focus, garlic, cumin, olive oil, piquant harissa, and stale bread to sop it all up.  Olives and pickles are pleasant accompaniments, but keep lots of water nearby, for lablabi and said pickles make this meal a salt fest.  Kidneys, we’ll be in touch.

Have you heard of lablabi?  I’ve tried asking around Chowhound to see if NY restaurants have it, but as of now no so luck.

Weird Signs, Issue #1: Dental Sushi Cruise in New Jersey

Sometimes when I’d go to Mitsuwa Marketplace in EdgewaterNew Jersey, the largest Japanese supermarket in the New York City area, I’d walk a few more minutes north to the Trader Joe’s shopping center.  Indeed, when you think “I’m going to go grocery shopping,” commuting by bus/foot from Manhattan to New Jersey is the most logical way to do it…

In any event, Edgewater used to be good for a day trip.  In the early ’00s, my friend and I would take a bus from the one-and-only Port Authority, check out the Japanese food/bookstore and wait three hours for the bus back.  Mitsuwa used to have a dedicated shuttle, but that stopped late last year.

Zooming forward a few years to around 2007-2008 when Trader Joe’s opened nearby.  I like to think of that store as a place that sells what you want, but never what you need.  Anyway, in that same shopping plaza a certifiable member of the weird signs club could be found:

Edgewater, New Jersey (New York City area)- Dental Sushi Cruise Sign

Now, I don’t want to break anybody’s heart here, but the “dental” of dental sushi cruise is no longer present.  That said, let’s imagine medical tourism in international waters for a moment, and then try to figure out if Jiro has anything to do with it.


Making Faces in Japanese Places

Japan, when it comes to “weird,” you manage to outdo yourself on an daily basis.  In fact, your superiority in that category only meets its match with your prime export of “cute,” but today’s blog post will focus more on the former.

Okayama - Toshiyori Sushi Dinner  & Kokugo Dictionary(4)A book?!  Well, it’s a Japanese dictionary - the Sanseido Kokugo Jiten- revised every few years and noted for including the most contemporary words and phrases.  Someone in Okayama gave it to me as a gift.  It really came in handy for those long trans-Pacific flights…

A brief backgrounder– the Japanese language uses three styles of writing, two alphabetshiragana and katakana- and kanji, characters either borrowed from or influenced by China.  Hiragana and katakana are both derived from kanji.

When I finally decided to open the book (I should really quiz security staff at Japanese airports with it) , the first page I randomly turned to had already started to mock me:

Okayama - Toshiyori Sushi Dinner & Kokugo Dictionary(5)

馬鹿にするな! (baka ni suru na) Don’t make fun of me!

This image is known as へのへのもへじ, or henohenomoheji.  Schoolchildren throughout Japan use this as a mnemonic device when they are starting to learn hiragana.  It is one of many hiragana faces to aid in the study of that alphabet.

That’s the definition suitable for all audiences.

In fact, henohenomoheji also appears on scarecrows throughout rural Japan as well as on paper ghosts hung upside-down by kids in order to postpone rain for another day.  In other words, if you’re a young student on a farm, this is a Catch-22.

Is your language as bizarre as Japanese?

Everything’s Bigger in… East Asia?

If you’ve had the chance to flip through my previous posts, you may already know that East Asia has cornered the market on many of the world’s superlatives– among numerous other (read: weird) possibilities, escalators, advertising and flight delays all come to mind.  Texas, quit your slacking.

Airport Signs

Bangkok - BKK (Suvharnhabumi Airport Tollway)
This is the tollway leading to Suvarnhabumi Airport in Bangkok.  Last I checked, once you’ve made it to this stage of the road, the next exit is the airport.  So…what’s the point?


Jakarta, CGK- Detailed Banister

Singapore’s airport has gardens, a pool and a movie theatre, Hong Kong’s has a trail and Jakarta’s elaborately detailed banisters.  If anyone knows what story/legend this particular banister is based on, please let us know!

Bookstore Signs

Narita - Giant Bookstore Sign
Japan, a country known for efficiently cramming things – and people – into small spaces compensates for its lack of…land area with giant signs and advertisements.  Want to bowl?  Seek out huge bowling pins on roofs.  Need to buy a lighter in the shape of a gun, kidney beans and tweezers?  Look for unfinished roller coasters.  Can’t decide on which book you next want to read?  Don’t get any, and instead, take a picture of the exterior of the bookstore itself.  This one was taken in Narita, not far from the AEON mall.


Tokyo, Kameido - Giant Naan

Another vote for Japan: not only is the average naan that size, but they are generally quite good too.  Just don’t eat it on the street over there, for you might face the wrath of a lowered eyelid.

Care to add anything to the list?