Siem Reap: Cambodian Cuisine

I don’t profess to have a lot of knowledge about Cambodian cuisine, apart from the couple of times I ate on the streets not too far from the massive temples of Angkor Wat. The food there by and large was mediocre at best. The most popular street food there at the time was probably Mama-brand instant ramen imported from neighboring Thailand. Even if you order fried noodles, you’d probably get rehydrated Mama noodles, which are then stir-fried. Quality ingredients were simply hard to get, which in turn affects the overall quality of the dishes you get there.

Just south of Los Angeles proper, the city of Long Beach here hosts a large community of Khmer immigrants and by extension, a large number of Cambodian restaurants. A few of us went to one of the largest, Siem Reap restaurant, to check out the food.

The first problem we had was weeding out the Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese items from the menu. We drove 40 miles all the way down here specifically to eat Khmer food, not damned pad thai or banh xeo (which they have listed here as banh chiao).

After consulting with our friendly waitress we settled on four Khmer dishes: amok trey, sadaw salad, pahok ktiss, and a beef soup whose name escapes me right now.

Pahok ktis

After some time fixated on the Cambodian karaoke videos playing on their TV screens, the pahok ktiss came out of the kitchen. It kind of looked like a platter of crispy raw vegetables with dip you’d likely serve at a lame party. But instead of cauliflower this has Southeast Asian veggies like Thai eggplant, cabbage, long beans and carrots, and instead of blue cheese dip this came along with a small bowl containing a savory dip of ground pork, coconut milk, chili and spices, not too much unlike a thin curry. I think most of the Southeast Asian cultures have dishes similar to this, anywhere from Thai nahm prik to Indonesian lalap. If you could imagine dipping into a bowl of Thai curry with a cucumber slice or a wedge of cabbage, you’d get a rough idea od what this tasted like. Superb.

Cambodian water spinach soup

Our soup emerged next. This is a homey, rustic peasant soup, with water spinach (sometimes called ong choy or morning glory), beef and beef tripe. It has a hearty beefy flavor, with just a little sour touch from what I guess must be either lime juice or tamarind. This soup felt very authentic, as memories of a similar soup I had at a forgotten dingy street stall in Siem Reap flashed back in my mind. Indeed the bits of beef in this soup was similarly tough and chewy, though the tripe was nice and tender. This is nothing fancy, just good old comfort food.

sadaw salad

The sadaw salad was the most unfamiliar dish I had that night. I didn’t know what sadaw was when I ordered it, but whatever it is, it announced its presence in a huge way. The bitter herbal flavor easily cuts through that of the bean sprouts, cucumbers, and all the other stuff–I can’t remember all that was in the salad because all I could taste was the sadaw. I didn’t think it was bad–not exactly–but the flavors were so alien to me that I had to take some time to figure out whether I like it or not.

Amok trey

Amok must be Cambodia’s national dish. When I was in Siem Reap (the town, not the restaurant) last time just about every single eatery there proudly featured their amok. Amok is a kind of light curry made with young coconut. Here it’s attractively served in a coconut shell. Thai restaurants have a similar dish called ho mok. The main difference between is that the amok’s flavors are more nuanced and delicate, as to not to overwhelm the subtle flavors of the fish, while in the ho mok the red curry spices is predominant. I don’t know if it’s because the ingredients are fresher or what, but this amok is probably better than the ones I had in Cambodia. The fish is velvety tender, and the spices are very delicately balanced.

In the end if I had to rank the dishes, I would definitely put the amok trey on top, though the pahok ktiss is a very close second. The soup (ahhh, dunno the name of it) follows, with the sadaw salad (which I’ve decided that I like after all–but it’s definitely an acquired taste) last.

Siem Reap Asian Cuisine
1810 E Anaheim St
Long Beach, CA 90813
(562) 591-7414

Valentine Hearts

Beef Hearts with Baby Gailan

Valentine’s Day!

Quick, what’s the first image that pops to mind? Red hearts? Me too!

That’s why for my Valentine’s dinner I thought I should cook… well, a red heart. Beef heart, to be exact.

Why not? It is the organ most associated with love, is it not? Sure, some of you may argue that the penis should be more appropriate, but unfortunately my local Mexican supermarket doesn’t carry beef pizzles (though I might do more research on that for next year). They do however, sell beef hearts, very cheap.

I’ve eaten beef hearts in restaurants only twice, and both of those occurred in Peruvian restaurants. One in San Francisco whose name escapes me, and the other down here at Puro Sabor in Van Nuys, where they make a very good anticuchos de corazon. The first time I bit into one I expected the texture to be either tough or rubbery like some other organ meats, but surprisingly it was not too different than biting into a lean piece of steak.

When you stop to think about it, the heart is nothing more than a mass consisting of muscle tissue. What is a flank steak? Muscle. What is a tenderloin? Muscle. Ribeye? Yup, muscle. Yeah, some cuts have more connective tissue or marbled fat than others, but in essence you’re eating muscle tissue. The heart (and also tongue) being a densely-packed ball of muscle fibers is a lot closer in taste and texture to a filet mignon than it is to say, chopped liver.

So here I have a piece of lean meat. Lean cuts of meat can be tricky to cook–overcook it and it will be tough and dry as old shoe leather. As far as cooking technique I probably could have used a long, slow braise like in a stew to make sure the meat comes out nice and tender, but I didn’t have much time to prepare. So I kept it childishly simple. Keep the pieces thin, and sear it like a tri-tip or flank steak.

The hearts came from the supermarket already pre-sliced thin, and I just made sure that the pieces were of the same thickness (more or less). Dosed it with a bit of kosher salt and ground black pepper, squeeze some key lime juice, dust it with a bit of Spanish pimenton.

I let it marinate in the fridge for about half an hour, then took it out and pan-grilled it on my trusty cast-iron skillet until medium-rare.

As an accompaniment I sauteed some baby gailan (Chinese broccoli) with olive oil and garlic.

The result? It was delicious! I thought maybe I should have made a sauce or something, but it turned out not to be necessary. It’s a simple, rustic dish with simple ingredients.

Ton Chan: Ramen Reboot

When I got to the address, I was a little confused at first by the sign above the storefront that still said Ajiman Ramen. It was not until I sat down and got the bright red menu that had “Ton Chan” written on the front that I was sure I was at the right place. I never ate at the old Ajiman that used to occupy this space. Correction: I had not even been aware of it. I’ve eaten at Golden Deli two doors down, and at Tasty Noodle House two doors up, yet had scarcely noticed that there had even been a ramen shop in between the two. My guess is that I was not alone in this. Maybe it was one of the reasons the owners of Ajiman decided to close up their neglected and forlorn ramen shop and “reboot” itself into the brand-new Ton Chan tonkotsu ramen.

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Tonkotsu ramen with its deep, milky white pork broth, is all the rage here in LA. Not too long ago, there were two primary places to go for tonkotsu. Daikokuya in Little Tokyo, and Shinsengumi in the South Bay. Now in the short span of the seven years since I moved here, we also have Santouka, Mottainai, Jinya, among others. There’s even the roving Happy Cup ramen truck dispensing bowls of liquid goodness all over LA. How does Ton Chan stack up compared to the competition?

Like most other tonkotsu ramen shops I’ve been to, the broth here come in the usual flavor combinations. Shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), and miso (soybean paste). The shio ramen comes with thinner, more delicate noodles, while the shoyu and miso comes with chewier noodles. The staff seems friendly and accommodating enough that I suppose if you want to swap out one noodle for another they probably won’t make a huge deal of it. On top of the noodles, each bowl comes with pork chashu, simmered egg, scallions, and seaweed, among other things. You may also add two extra toppings for no additional charge. All in all, a pretty generous deal.

At Ton Chan you can also add some spicy heat in the form of chili paste, with six grades of spiciness to choose from. They have this thing where if you could finish a bowl at level six spiciness within six minutes, your ramen would be free, and your photo would be forever immortalized on their wall. I generally don’t like competitions involving food, but if they want to engage in these kind of gimmicks like Orochon, well that’s their business.

I’m only going to focus on the basic shio ramen as a baseline. Upon first sip the broth tasted very, very nice. Behind its strong initial burst of salty pork, there are other complex flavors from the garlic oil intermingling with the sharpness of the ginger and scallion toppings. Unfortunately, there’s a downside to having a broth as strong as this. After a while all the flavors and the saltiness seem to build up and accumulate way too much and too fast. My taste buds suffered from what I can only describe as flavor fatigue. After every few sips of the broth I had to take a few sips of water to give my taste buds a momentary respite.

The thinner noodles that came with the shio ramen was smooth and silky good, but I would have preferred if they had been more chewy. Admittedly that’s a personal bias of mine; I like my pasta al dente and my vegetables crunchy. Next time I might try and ask to swap out my default noodles with something more robust.

On to the pork. The pork chashu is well, inconsistent. On my first visit it was a perfectly braised cut of pork belly. It had a really nice meaty texture that was not too tough and chewy. On a subsequent visit though, the pork was overcooked and soft, nearly disintegrating between my chopsticks. Beside the texture problems, I think the chashu could use a little bit more seasoning, to make it stand out against the broth. As it stands right now it just disappears against the background of the overpowering broth.

My favorite item in the bowl is the egg. Most if not all the ramen places here in LA will give you a hard-boiled egg. Here at Ton Chan the egg is slowly cooked as to firm up the egg whites, but keep the yolk from overcooking into a hard chalky ball. The whites had this nice chewiness that is not at all rubbery, while the yolks at the center of these were soft, velvety, almost jelly-like in texture. It’s a very nice touch, one an egg-fiend such as I will appreciate.

So. What’s to like? The egg, definitely. The noodles, they were fine. Yes, I do like the broth somewhat. It’s got a lot of flavor, but like a lot of things that are assertive or in-your-face, it may come off as overbearing and may grow tiresome too quickly. My biggest disappointment is the chashu. The soft texture is almost inexcusable, and even the mildest of Ton Chan’s three broths is too overwhelming for the meek chashu. Chashu in my opinion should be an accent to the broth. Their bowl of ramen would benefit from a slightly toned-down broth that allows the other toppings to assert their flavors, and the pork chashu needs bigger, bolder flavors so that it could stand well on its own.

Despite the few quibbles I have with it, I want to reiterate that this is not a bad bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Not by a long shot. I would say that in fact it is a very good bowl of ramen. However the ramen scene is Los Angeles is very competitive, and any participant in the ramen wars have got to be on top of their game to attract and keep new customers. This place may have a few things to tweak and adjust, but I’m sure that once they perfect their balancing act, Ton Chan will be slugging it out with the best of them.

Ton Chan
821 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 282-3478
Twitter: @tonchanramen

Link: Homemade Mochi with Persimmon

I really like mochi. But I don’t like anko, the red bean paste filling that’s usually in the center of most daifuku mochi confections. It stemmed from an overdose of sorts on one trip to Japan, wanting to try all their different cakes and sweets, and finding out too late that pretty much everything had red bean inside.

Anyway.

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I stumbled upon this blog post from Globetrotter Diaries put up a beautifully-photographed tutorial on how to make daifuku mochi at home, with your basic mochiko flour, water, and your ordinary microwave oven. What’s truly inspired is their idea of using fresh persimmons along with the anko.

Though, I think when I try to make this myself, I’ll dispense with the dreaded anko.

Link: Globetrotter Diaries

Recipe: Durian Souffle

I have heard some say that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who love durian, and those who hate durian.

Wrong.

I say that there are those who love durian, and then there are those who do not yet love durian.

Yeah, for a lot of people their relationship with durian won’t be that of love at first sight. They won’t get past the initial appearance, that it doesn’t even look like a fruit, what with it being covered in a tough leathery shell, bristling with sharp intimidating spikes. It looks less like something you want to eat, and more like the business end of a medieval weapon that’s somehow come loose off its handle.

Two varieties of Durian
Image by Flickr user goosmurf

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The exterior however scary, is not as daunting as the other barrier to durian’s mainstream acceptance. The durian’s–umm, aromatic allure. I’m not going to repeat other people’s imaginative descriptions of the aroma, but it has famously defeated even veteran food adventurers like Bizarre Foods’ host Andrew Zimmern.

Those who have tried durian for the first time, either out of curiosity, or the more likely on a dare, have described the experience as eating rotten mushy onions, having ice cream while sitting on the toilet, and other colorful similes that’s best left for you to Google yourself.

They’ll proudly proclaim that “Yes! I have tried durian and have confirmed that it is as terrible as I thought it to be, and I will never eat it again!”

I once thought the same way about uni, or sea urchin. The first time I ate uni sushi I found the taste revolting, but I had lots of friends who profess their love for it that I was willing to try it again on occasion, to see what all the fuss is about. Four years later, someone served me uni freshly scooped from the shell. Something in me clicked, I finally and became converted into a proud uni lover.

I’m similarly convinced that if people were to give durian a second, third, even more chances they will come around to loving the fruit, just as I had come to love uni.

Sadly, having only just met the durian and dismissed it immediately, they will probably never be lovers of the fruit. More is the pity for them.

But you, having read this far, are not one of them.

You and I are among the enlightened minority who, upon getting the first whiff of durian we head towards the source, not away from it. The aroma evokes in our minds the pale yellow, soft, smooth custardy texture of the inner pulp, with the indescribable, delectable sweet flavor which I can only describe as vaguely reminiscent of vanilla pudding.

I always enjoy my durian fresh out of the shell, but I have at one time tried to cook with it. The last time I traveled to Thailand I tried to take advantage of the availability and affordability of fresh durian, to make a soufflé-like dessert. I say soufflé-like, because the apartment I stayed at did not have an oven. Instead I tried a method where I steamed the custard mix. The results were less-than-successful.

This time, back in my own kitchen, I’m trying again. Fresh durian is still prohibitively expensive, so I’m using the frozen durian that’s available in just about any Asian supermarket.

I adapted Christopher Kimball’s The Dessert Bible (my go-to book for dessert recipes) chocolate souffle recipe to work with durian. I figure that the viscosity and weight of melted chocolate was a close enough match that of a durian purée. As for the purée itself, I diluted the durian pulp itself because I’m afraid that pure unadulterated durian would still be too heavy, therefore hinder the souffle’s rise.

The end result was a success! It was light, airy, with just enough durian flavor to satisfy the durian lover in me, while not overpowering (hopefully) to offend the novice taster.

Perhaps next time I would try adding some durian extract or something, if I wanted to really amp up the flavor.

Durian Souffle

Ingredients:

    4 nodes durian
    1/2 cup milk
    2 Tbsp melted butter
    1/4 tsp cream of tartar powder
    2 tsp sugar
    3 egg yolks
    4 egg whites
    Additional butter and sugar for ramekins

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 F
  2. Smear cold butter over the inside of the ramekins, making sure that all of the surface is covered. This is the most important step. The batter will stick to any uncovered patch of the ramekin and you won’t get a good rise.
  3. Pour some sugar into the buttered ramekins, tilting and turning them until all the bottom and especially the sides are covered. Again, super-important that this step is done right. Place the ramekins in the refrigerator until needed, to keep the butter from melting.
  4. Scrape the durian flesh away from the seeds. Combine with the milk and melted butter into a blender, and blend until smooth.
  5. Into a large mixing bowl add the egg yolks and 1 tsp of the sugar. Whisk until smooth.
  6. Add the blended durian mixture into the egg yolks, beat until smooth. Set aside.
  7. Into another mixing bowl add the egg whites along with the remaining 1 tsp sugar, whisk until frothy. Add the cream of tartar powder, then continue to whisk until you get stiff peaks. In this step you are adding air bubbles into the egg whites which will expand in the oven and provide the lift for your soufflé.
  8. Scoop out 1/3 of the beaten egg whites and add it into the durian mixture. Mix thoroughly.
  9. Take half of the remaining egg whites and add into the now-lightened durian mixture, using a gentle folding motion to preserve the volume of air bubbles as much as possible. Repeat with the remainder of the egg whites.
  10. Take the ramekins out of the fridge and pour in the batter to about 3/4 full. Do not overfill. Wipe any drips away from the lip, as these will stick and interfere with the soufflé rising.
  11. Place the ramekins into the oven, and bake until the top is risen and golden brown, about 15-20 minutes depending on your oven.

Hot soufflé waits for no one. Dig in and enjoy!

Recipe: Javanese Hot Ginger Drink

Sometimes our fair city of Angels gets hit with a cold front, cold enough to make most of us unpack our long trousers out of storage. I can hear condescending snickers from a few of you Minnesotans, but lay off man. California’s turned me into a wimp. I don’t do well in the cold.

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What gives me comfort on these chilly nights is a variant of a drink I used to have growing up in Java. It’s called sekoteng, basically a sweet ginger “tea” with additions like peanuts, mung bean, tapioca pearls and cubed bread. I’m not a huge fan of the solid floating stuff, so I used to just skip those and drink only the beverage.

This is my version of the drink, without all the additions.

1 1/2 oz peeled sliced ginger
4 whole cloves
4 cups water
3 tsp sugar
2 Tbsp palm sugar or dark brown sugar

Combine everything into a saucepan and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to low, let sit for 20 minutes.

That’s it! Light a few logs in the fireplace and enjoy your cup of hot ginger drink!

PS: Don’t worry if you happen to spill some rum into your drink. I’m sure it’ll still taste fine. :)
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Mobile Food: Big Mista’s BBQ

There must be a reason why a guy like me living in LA’s westside would make a 40 minute trip east to Atwater Village farmers market, when the Santa Monica farmers market is much closer with a larger selection. I will tout Santa Monica farmers market for having the freshest produce around, but there is one thing that Atwater Village has, with a gravitational pull strong enough to dislodge me from my regular orbit, the force that is Big Mista’s BBQ stand.

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This barbecue joint has been in the back of my mind ever since Jonathan Gold first brought them to my attention a while ago via KCRW’s Good Food radio broadcast, but not until recently have I been able to make the effort to check it out.

If these ribs aren’t perfect, then I don’t know what perfection is. They’ve got a pleasant toothsome quality to them, a nice, springy chewiness but not too tough and at the same time moist enough to pull away from the bones given a little effort.

Poured on top of all that, is Big Mista’s own barbecue sauce. I don’t know what all goes into this concoction, but this spicy, smoky sauce packs a good amount of big, bold flavors, tartness and just a touch of sweetness, almost like lime or pineapple flavor. I noticed more than a few other people went there just to buy tubs of the stuff to take home.

Everything else I got along with the ribs were also good. Beans were good, collard greens were good.

I want to say something like “well, the ribs are good but…” Well I can’t think of anything really bad to say. The ribs are just good. Period.

Maybe there is one thing they can do better: find a location closer to where I live.

Twitter: @bigmistasbbq
Web: bigmista.com

It’s not the food, it’s the engines

Turns out that maybe airline food is not as nasty as you may think they are. From this BBC story on the findings of the journal Food Quality and Preference, the noise from such things as jet engines affect your enjoyment of food.

In noisier settings, foods were rated less salty or sweet than they were in the absence of background noise, but were rated to be more crunchy.

“The evidence points to this effect being down to where your attention lies – if the background noise is loud it might draw your attention to that, away from the food,” Dr Woods said.

All that said, that is still not an excuse for the tough chicken breast on overcooked fettucine that I ate on some past flights. Though some airlines are way better than others. I still look forward to flying on All Nippon Airways when I vacation abroad, partly because their Japanese-oriented menu is pretty decent.

Photo by Mr. Mystery

Soban: Korean comfort food

We only found out about this place because of a tip from Yelp, otherwise we’d never have discovered it. Soban is the kind of Korean restaurant in Koreatown that doesn’t even bother to put up a Romanized sign outside to attract non-Korean customers like me. Still, each time I drive by the place the inside always seems to be packed around dinnertime, with people outside patiently waiting to be seated, so clearly their business isn’t suffering because of it.

Case in point, we arrived early before the main dinner rush, and all the tables were already taken. The waitress offered us a couple of vacant counter seats which we gladly took. Next, to my pleasant surprise the waitress gave us English menus! I had expected there to be none, and I would have had to figure out what to order by pointing at what people at the other tables were eating.

Their menu selection isn’t terribly extensive, focusing narrowly instead on homestyle food. I ordered the spicy kalbi jjim (braised short ribs) and the eun dae goo jorim (codfish stew), which I heard were the most popular items.

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The waitress brought out the banchan side dishes while we waited for our entrées. This is a most magnificent spread, I tell you. I’ve eaten at a LOT of restaurants in Koreatown, and Soban has the best banchan by a long shot, both in terms of quality and the number of dishes.

The shortribs came out first. It’s a simple dish braised in a sweet soy-ginger sauce, served in a clay pot with just several fried egg ribbons as a garnish, like an afterthought. The meat was really soft and tender, like it was cooked and stopped at the right time, just before it starts to disintegrate. I really enjoyed this dish, and wished that it had more braising liquid left over for my rice to soak up.

As good as the beef was, the codfish was even better. With chunks of tofu and daikon, it’s Korean comfort food at its best. Cod is a fatty fish, like seabass or monkfish, which makes it great for slow braises like this. The spicy, slightly sweet braising liquid contributes to the overall tender, melt-in-your-mouth goodness. I can see myself curling up to this dish on a cold evening.

This is the kind of dish that would pair well with a bottle of soju, except that no alcohol is tolerated in this restaurant. I don’t know if it’s because of a lack a liquor license or perhaps, judging by the stack of bibles at the far end of the counter, the owner frowns on such behavior. Pity.

Now I’m thinking, what I should have done is order to go, take it home to enjoy with my own soju, and the latest episode of Glee.

Pig gets new lipstick

I heard a story on NPR today, on how the Corn Refiners Association want to change the name of High Fructose Corn Syrup to Corn Sugar because of the bad rap HFCS is getting, blamed for being one of the causes of the obesity epidemic.

Whatever it is–Corn Sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup or even just regular sugar, it’s best for everyone if you ate less of it.

Keep on Munching