Category Archives: food & drink

veg food update: battambang, cambodia ii

How about a food status update? Longtime browers of this series of web-pages will surely recall my praising of Battambang, Cambodia’s riverside cafe “Mey Mey One of a Kind Shop” in last year’s Battambang roundup. Said shop was singled out for praise due to its friendly proprieters, generous portions, decent taste, and, well… total lack of competition.

Cambodia is a place where food is generally subpar rice and a charred, gristly piece of meat, usually some smaller animal. All of the food seems to be inferior, from the mealy, puny, misshapen fruit for sale at highly-inflated prices in the produce market, to the already-melted ice cream bars and nonexistant dairy foods. There are two possible reasons I can discern:
1. Cambodia’s agricultural land is naturally cursed and produces nothing but withered and unpalatable crops, which are in turn sold for high costs due to the inherent paucity of said foodstuffs.
2. Like the India of yesteryear, good things are grown, but only for export.
In any case, Cambodian food sucks.

So, I was glad to see that Mey-Mey’s is still going strong. I was again served a large helping of spaghetti-esque noodles in a peppery sauce; the price actually went down from 6,000r ($1.50) last time to 5,000r ($1.25), though last time I was given two dipping sauces. The teenage girl who works there told me “Big plate! Old customer,” though I seemed to have the same-sized portions as everyone else. It was still quite decent (excellent by Cambodian standards) and “Creamy Coconut Shake (special to Battambang)” still excellent. I’ve tried the noodle dishes elsewhere in town and find them to be nothing more than edible, and the coconut shake a bit heavy on the crushed ice, but Mey Mey does it right.

Mey-Mey by Night

When last dining at Mey Mey’s, I took the set-up to be a mother-daughter operation. On this visit, further family members were visible, including an animated and highly flamboyant father figure who called out to prospective diners, and a surly son who stirred the wok with a deep-seated rage.

On arrival, I was the only diner. Eventually some French, who appeared doubtful about life in general, consented to eating there after coming back four times and re-examining the laminated menu. There also appeared a number of toothless, beer-bellied locals who zoomed up on motorcycles and engaged in good-natured banter. One of the locals had a black cowboy hat on, and another wore a French football jersey. Finally, a bald and lanky tourist took a seat, stipulating that he only wanted “BEER”, proclaiming thusly with perhaps more force than needed.

WHAT HAS CHANGED: Prices went down, whole family cooking now, no street-beggars, fewer mosquito bites.
BONUS: There are about a half-dozen stray cats of all different colors and markings (including black and calico) that scurry around the area.

I’m happy to report that the real vegetarian restaurant in Battambang, VEGGIE HOUSE (formerly BATTAMBANG VEGETARIAN HOUSE) is still going and better than ever– what’s more, they’re now open for lunch and dinner and serving excellent (if not hearty) food. The prices have gone up slightly on some items, and the shop has moved one door down (though I wouldn’t have known it if they hadn’t told me), but the big news is they are now open for lunch and dinner: previously, they closed at 11am and often ran out of food before that time. The breakfast menu has a few new types of soup (3,500r-4000r, i.e., $1, including “Long Life Noodle”– not sure what that is), and the lunch/dinner menu (11am to 7pm) includes banh mi-type sandwiches and some rice dishes. Dumplings (1,000r each: 25 cents), which on my last visit were lacklustre, I now found to be excellent, especially the ‘shalty’ ones, which are filled with TVP-like morsels. The dumplings are popular and they run out fast, but if you warn ’em in advance, they’ll make extra for you. The dumplings are also quite convenient for bus trips, as the bus stations are right across the street.

Veggie House for life

Thank goodness for the ethnic Chinese in SE Asia! (They also watch Chinese television in “Veggie House”; CCTV plays while you eat.) Enjoy the free tea, free water, kind and gentle service, and great prices while you can. Iced milk coffee (50 cents) too!

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making yogurt

If you are like me, you think yogurt is mighty tasty, and you want to eat a great deal of it. I’m not talking about Yoplait-gelatin concoctions, but just regular nice yogurt. Having a fair amount of free time at present, I decided to try my hand at making my own yogurt at home. I took some photos so you can see how it went down. I apologize, as the photos are not that exciting, but it is not all that dynamic of a process.

The whole thing was quite simple. I don’t know if I even did it right, in the manner of Turkic nomads, but I did it and it came out yogurty, so follow along and see what I did.

First I poured some milk in a pot and heat it up and stirred it until it began to bubble. I didn’t put that much milk because this was just an experiment.

Then I let it cool until it was pretty warm, but not hot. Then I added a spoonful of yogurt from the store- I think this acts as some sort of starter, or gets the proper cultures mixed up with the warm milk. I stirred this around.

Then the next step involves keeping the mixture warm for anywhere from four to twelve hours. This was the tough part, and maybe where I failed. Every recipe I found for making yogurt advises you to place the yogurt in a warm spot such as a “sunny windowsill” or “atop the radiator”. These directions were not made for residents of Seattle, I suppose, for it is mid-August and no sign of sun anywhere (60 degrees and overcast), let alone sunny windowsills. There is no spot in my house or immediate environs that is warm at any time, ever. So I had to improvise here. Some people said you could light the pilot light in your oven and warm it that way, but that involved unscrewing a lot of things, so I came up with my own idea: I placed the tub of yogurt in a large pot some German hippies left at my house about five years ago. In the big pot I put boiling water, which I changed about every hour or so. The yogurt tub kept bobbing around, so I set some potatoes on top of it. This was not in the recipe, but it worked.

I’m not sure this step went well, because the water cooled off quickly, and possibly the yogurt requires more heat, or more consistent heat.

I went to the post office and to the store to see Mr. Mallick and buy cumin seeds and garam masala.

After about six or seven hours, I put the yogurt tub in the refrigerator. It grew a little more solid, but was still semi-slimy.

RESULT: It tasted like yogurt, but a pretty mild yogurt. This may be since I didn’t leave it out long enough or exposed to enough heat. It was a little drippy- more like ayran or raita than thick, creamy yogurt. In fact, if I salted it, I think I’d have pretty nice ayran. The thickness may be because I used 1% milk, as that’s what was around. Next time I’ll use whole milk and see what happens. I’m also unsure if this method is any cheaper or tastier than store-bought yogurt.

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the world of rice, pt. 1

On returning to my house after some absence, I was surprised to discover a shiny silver packet in my cupboard. A number of items had appeared in my house, due to various comers-and-goers watching the place whilst I was away: a 1970s-era book-and-LP set about the U.S. Civil War, a pile of 8-track tapes, a jar of pineapple salsa, and a number of other inexplicable items. However, my greedy eyes immediately set upon this foil package as being of the most interest due to the foodstuff contained within: basmati rice!

The small shiny packet, pictured above, proclaimed itself to be ‘Shrilalmahal’ (all one word) ‘Excellent Quality’ basmati rice, and what was more, was labeled ‘SAMPLE (No Commercial Value)’. One the front, as you can see, ‘rice’ is written in a variety of languages- no Hindi, funnily enough, although the company is based in Delhi and has a plant in Haryana. In fact, the company has gone to the trouble of placing Arabic on the package- at a first casual glance, I assumed it to be Urdu, but when I examined the package closer, I saw it to be Arabic, in Kufic script no less (القصر الاحمر, i.e., al-Qasr al-aHmr, Lal Mahal [Red Fort] in Arabic)- not sure what the reasoning is behind this. (I was also proud of myself for being able to read Kufic, which is a bit decorative for my tastes).

A blurb on the back of the package stated that ‘ShriLal Mahal Basmati rice is the choice brand with all the leading chain and Restaurants in different part of the world’ (sic) and went on to tout that said rice was ‘Sugar free & Fat free’, like all the other rice in the world.

I had no idea where this rice could have come from, but while cleaning up the house I found a couple of back issues of Femina magazine, the popular Indian women’s monthly. I was interested in a few articles touted on the cover- ‘Why Bengalis Look So Happy at the Table’ and ‘Israel, for a Med holiday that packs a punch’ (I was hoping the title was a political statement, but I didn’t see occupation mentioned once in the feature). In any case, buried within the magazine, at page 216, I found a full-page advertisement for Shri Lal Mahal rice, and it occurred to me that the rice sample must have been a free gift that came with the magazine, as is common in India when pavement-sellers have not managed to steal the free gift out of the magazine before you buy it.

The ad, in typical Indian hyperbole, describes the rice as ‘suitable for all ages’ and continues:

Espesially [sic] grown paddy that is aged for 2 years… in a way to evidently make it the healthiest…

Evidently!

I visited the Shri Lal Mahal website and found a looping commercial (warning, just starts playing of its own accord) full of singing and dancing. There were also a lot of grammatically-questionable sentences. I also noted that in addition to rice, Shri Lal Mahal is in the business of washing powder (“Pleasant Fragrance”) and scrap metal (Ferrous Metal Scrap, Non Ferrous Metal Scrap, Lead Scrap – “the unblemished quality of our products has fetched us the accolades of our clients spread across the world,” they note).

I ended up using the rice yesterday to create a dish I call “Jaan-tar Mantar”. It has nothing to do with the similarly-named observatory in Delhi, but rather comes from the Hindi jaan (darling, my love) and the Turkish mantar (mushroom); thus, mushroom, my love. And a love affair it certainly was, albeit one that came to a close as I licked the last grain of 18.00mm Shri Lal Mahal rice from the plate and smacked my lips in a most atrocious manner for a while.

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kumpir street, izmir (a tribute to kumpir, pt. 2)

In part one of my acclaimed tribute to kumpir, the Turkish potato dish, I wrote

Tonight I tried the famous “kumpir” for the first time! This dish is said to be Albanian in origin, but you find it in Istanbul often enough. They give you a baked potato with butter and cheese melted in it, then your choice of about 15 toppings (olives, peas, mushrooms, corn, pickles, beet salad, russian salad, coleslaw, carrots, and a bunch of weird meat-items like sausages), then they pour ketchup and mayonnaise all over it. Revolting and pretty tasty. Costs $4-$5, and one of the very few foods in Turkey suitable for vegetarians.

That was back when I was a kumpir novice. Now I know a little bit more about kumpir, having done my research and some tasting as well. Today I don’t think it’s Albanian at all, though that’s what people told me. A little fact-finding shows a Croat word for potato being krumpir, which is likely where kumpir comes from, I’d say. (Krumpir comes from dialectal German Grumbeer, i.e., Grundbirne: ground-pear). So although it’s true that the potato was introduced to the Ottomans via the Balkans, it seems the Serbs and Croats were thus implicated, not the Albanians. For more information, I point you to a 72-page study in Turkish entitled  MR. KUMPIR DÜNYAYA AÇILDI! TÜRKÇEDE PATATES IÇIN KULLANILAN BIR ISIM: Mr. Kumpir Became Universal! A Name Used for Potato in Turkish (pdf), by Uwe Bläsing.

In Istanbul, we can find kumpir on Istiklal for 6TL or so. However, the famous kumpir alley is in Ortakoy, where you’ll find about two dozen kumpir shacks, each charging a whopping 10TL! Beyond my means.

However, in Izmir, I was excited to find a Kumpir Street where said potato dish could be enjoyed by bourgeois and proletariat alike. Yes, it cost a mere 4.50TL (like $3)! So I made a few trips to this street (1379 Sk., if you’d like to visit yourself).

There are about five or six kumpir shops there. Some offer other things like waffles (?) or chicken nuggets. Most offer kumpir with 7 toppings for 4.50TL. One offers 8 toppings for that price. One offers 7 toppings and a can of Coke for 4.50, but they put the ketchup and mayonnaise behind the counter. As an American, I cannot support attempts by foreign nationals to limit access to the ketchup supply during mealtimes. So I didn’t go to that one.

Fiyorino Kumpir & Fast Food (30A 1379 Sk.) gave a nice kumpir with green olives, pickles, beets, American salad (?), mushrooms, peas, etc. Highly delicious stuff. You get a plastic spoon to eat it with.

A few doors down is Cadde Cafe. The kumpir is essentially the same, though the ambiance is a little different: they have a TV mounted out front that was showing terrible Anglophone pop videos and giving me a headache. About halfway through my kumpir, it switched to a “rockumentary” on Metallica and they played Metallica “One” in full:

Darkness! Imprisoning me!

I did feel better after that.

They also have a little model made of a potato. It is affixed to the counter and named “Sencar”. The long-haired man running the place went to great pains to explain to me that the potato was “orijinal” and that the mouth, etc., had not been carved in any way. I took a photo of it and he said, bemusedly, “Everyone always takes a photo of that!” (I think my Turkish comprehension is improving, look what I understood!)

Three cheers for kumpir.

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Erik and Dong

The argument over what a Turkish ‘erik’ is continues unabated. I’ve been eating about a kilo a day of them, and I want the world to know. But I tell you, they are not plums! Look at the photo of my half-eaten kilo:

If someone said to you- “Would you like some plums?” and then brought you those, what would you think? You would probably say “Oh, very interesting plums” or “Wait, I thought you said we were having plums”. In other words, they’re nothing like what you and I know as plums. To make matters worse, I looked these up on Turkish Wikipedia under their name, ‘erik‘. It clearly shows a photo of normal plums! That just confuses matters even more!

I also bought a “Dong A” pen today. These Korean beasts we can never find in the U.S., but they have them in Turkey for 1.75TL. Pretty decent pen, and mine in the U.S. recently died.

Did you know, some people go places and buy gifts and souvenirs? Hahahhahah! Long live Dong and erik!

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A trip to the produce market in Edirne.

Friend Furkan (“Boss”) says, of my monetary dispensation:

You really like cheap of everything man, I am thinking about to hire ya as my personal grocery advisor.

Indeed, I enjoy few things more than saving a buck. Or a lira! In the south end of Edirne, in the mythical land of Trakya (i.e., western Turkey), you can find the Edirne produce market, or, as they call it, Edirne Bazaar Center. If you go to a bazaar seeking scents of tea, myrrh, bubbling samovars of mint tea, genies on carpets, and finely-worked mother-of-pearl, you’re going to be bummed, because it’s just a bunch of stalls with a tarp on top. That’s why I call it a produce market rather than a bazaar.

The best thing about this ‘bazaar’ is not the ambiance, sanitary conditions, or free toilets that are locked up with pay toilets installed next to them. No, the best things are the prices. First I saw parsley, four clumps for one lira! Friends, that’s four clumps for like sixty cents. These prices are unheard of elsewhere. In Istanbul you’re paying fifty kurus for one clump!

Let me continue. The erik-berries are selling for unheard-of low, low prices. If you don’t know what erik-berries are, you are not alone. They only have them in Turkey. Actually I have eaten them in Syria too, but they were sweeter. Many Turks insist these small green fruits are called ‘plums’ in English. However, I’ve spoken English my whole life and never called a small, hard, not-juicy, tart little berry a ‘plum’. A plum is purplish, soft, and drippy. An erik is an erik. Anyway, erik-berries were selling for 1 kilo for 1.50TL! Friends, that’s under $1 per kilo. In Istanbul, 1.50TL will get you a small paper bag with 5-6 eriks inside it if you’re lucky. Let’s hear it for Edirne produce market!

I ate an entire kilo of those devilish little berries. I offered some to the one-eyed man at reception in my hotel. He told me “Sag olan” and put his hand on his heart and motioned to his dentures. I offered one to the dude at tourist information. He told me “We have a saying in Turkey, eat too many eriks and your motor will break down” and he rubbed his belly.

Again, I ate the entire kilo of berries. I felt fine. I did burp a few times.

On the way to the market you’ll see a man who repairs and sells bikes. You’ll also see the abandoned Edirne electrical plant, soon to feature in the upcoming dinosaur/time-travel movie Zaman, by director A. Sencar.

The locals just made fun of me for going to the produce market, saying it was for headscarved housewives, not full-grown adult males.

Let’s see some of the cats of Edirne, and a sunset.

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a tribute to kerebiç

When it comes to Turkish desserts, there can be only one king: baklava. Baklavabaklavabaklava.

However, I was given a delightful new Turkish dessert yesterday, and, much like baklava, it features pistachios. Other than that, it’s not that similar. And let’s be honest- it’s no baklava. But it is a worthy addition to the Turkish dessert scene.

It is: kerebiç.

You have small little dougnut-things filled with crushed pistachios, and you dip these in a sort of whipped cream that’s not cream at all (I’m told) but the foamy secretion of a soapwort tree in Antakya. The dessert is native to Mersin, on Turkey’s southern coast, although people from Antep, further east, claim to have their own version, called gerebiç– there is some dispute over this, however. In English, it sounds like karabeech (Turkish e‘s sound like a‘s in many regions).

I’m also told that sometimes the köpük is not actually separate, but the little balls swim about in it. However, they quickly become soggy that way, so if, like me, you only eat a few every day, best to dip.

The kerebiç that I have been eating came from a shop in Mersin called Kerebiçci Oğuz.

Dear friend Furkan Bey shows himself enjoying one:

Read more in Turkish and see a few better photos than I could take here.

In any case, baklava is in no danger of losing its status as Pasha of Desserts, but kerebiç is a worthy addition to the Ottoman court.

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