Category Archives: vegetarianism

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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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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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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Jamaa el-fna.

I see in today’s paper that some jackass has blown himself up and killed a number of people in a café in Jamaa al-Fna, the main square in Marrakech, Morocco. I don’t know the café in question; I assume it’s a more expensive place than I’m likely to hang out in, but I know Jamaa al-Fana well enough.

Jamaa al-Fna is found in the medina, and I believe it to be the central square of the old city. The streets around are filled with mosques, shops, old palaces, hotels, restaurants, etc; the main medina streets are more shoe-sellers, olive oil vendors, produce stands, and filthy men trying to interest you in visiting a place where stinking animal skins from freshly-killed cows and such are scrubbed clean of remaining blood, muscles, flesh, etc., subjected to chemical treatment and laid around in the sun. Oh, sign me up, sounds great!

The square is pretty dead during the day. If you go there in the morning, you won’t see anything at all except a big empty square. You may find a few orange juice carts (I believe orange juice is four dirhams). There are also a few restaurants serving stale croissants, limp omelettes, and hot chocolate.

morning in Jmaa al-Fna

morning in Jamaa al-Fna

By the mid-morning or afternoon, you find a few people who sit in the sun or under an umbrella trying to sell things. Mostly they are selling amulets or magic powders made of animal parts. The square is still mostly deserted at this time as it’s fairly hot out.

man selling animal skins and magic powders, I think

You can go to one of the cafés at this time. Most all the cafés on the square are tourist cafés only; they are ghettoized and you’ll not find any Moroccans in them. Café Glacier is an exception, in my experience; you’ll find a few locals in there sitting under the fans. Mint tea is not cheap there, but like anywhere, you pay to sit on the main square. I don’t have my diary at hand or I’d give the price rundown.

On the street to the side of the square, one of the roads leading into the new town, you’ll find larger ‘department stores’ and a movie theatre that plays Bollywood films. There are some OK pastry shops on that street as well.

Bollywood theatre

department store on a side street

In the late afternoon, Jamaa el-Fna gets going a bit more. People start strolling around, kids sell things, locals come out strolling. At night is when the square is at its liveliest. A number of food carts come out, but the Moroccans don’t really eat anything but meat, so it’s of limited interest to me. You will find lamb’s head, roasted goat, old cows, baked pigeons, snails, and other such dishes, usually on a grill with stinky smoke blowing all over. For vegetarians, you’re screwed. Well, there is one place, Chez Chegrouni, in Jma al-Fna. Here, according to lore, is the only place in Morocco you can find vegetarian couscous. It’s bland as all hell. It’s like steamed couscous and potatoes with possibly a pat of butter or some olive oil added at some point- no spices and no flavour. You will have to seriously pour on the salt and pepper. So, you’ll not starve, but it’s not exactly tasty. You can get hard, crusty, burnt pizzas in town as well, when you get tired of bland couscous. Happy eating!

kids selling cookies in the square

I did meet a number of good-time French in Chez Chegrouni once; they talked to me for an hour or so and bought me about five pots of mint tea before asking what part of France I was from (!). More or less only French frequent this place, in any case. The place also serves yogurt.

In the evening, you will also find entertainment in the square: hashish dealers, people telling stories in Berber languages, people doing little magic tricks and picking pockets, beggar-women, snake charmers, and drum circles. Here is where many European hippies make their dreams come true, for in numerous places in the square you will find locals banging on animal-hide drums whilst young boys dance and twirl (no girls, as per Islam). European hippies quickly seize their chance and “sit in” on these drum circles, grinning widely as their natty blond dreadlocks slap and fly along to the frenzied drumming. Poles, Spaniards, etc., travel far and wide for this moment. It’s of mild interest.

night in Jamaa al-Fna

Overall, there’s quite a bit to see and do in and around Jmaa al-Fna. It’s too bad this jackass couldn’t be content with the sights, sounds, and smells, and had to go on a killing spree instead. Loser!

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Natraj, Chandni Chowk, Delhi.

In Chandni Chowk, or a bit down the street in Old Delhi, you’ll find “old & famous shop” Natraj (“we have no branch”). Since 1940, back in the heady days of the British raj, they’ve served two things there, dahi bhalla and something else related- may have been veg cutlets in dahi, or similar. There is a fellow who spends his day scooping dahi and whatnot into the bowls. It is sometimes a bit chaotic around there, with people thrusting wads of ten-rupee bills and no clear system for ordering and payment (it involves plastic tokens). However, the bhulla is excellent – perhaps a bit too sweet, but I don’t complain. It’s not cheap, though, at Rs 30.

Happy munchers at Natraj, 2011

I did get food poisoning once the day after eating there, but I’ve eaten a lot of questionable food in India, so I can’t blame Natraj. They also supposedly have a restaurant upstairs, but I’ve never been up there. One fellow on the internet says, of Natraj:

This piece of heaven on earth comes for all of Rs 15 but, believe me, there is no Dahi Bhalla anywhere in the country which can quite compete with this one. With serpentine queues all day, this little kiosk in Chandni

(Sic). Not sure why the anonymous author ends it like that, or what costs Rs 15 (the sign in Hindi clearly states Rs 30).

The Times of India states that the restaurant upstairs serves “iffy dosas” and sets it out thusly:

So, then, set out for Chandni Chowk. Park your car at Red Fort, take a rickshaw straight to Natraj, have your fill of Dahi Bhallas. Who says pleasure comes for a price?

(Even better idea to take the metro, which lets you off about two blocks away at Chandi Chowk metro stop, but I assume this is aimed at middle-classers). A commenter opines:

[I] just got off from Chandni Chowk metro station and entered the first lane to main market. I was 50 mtrs away from the all time fav. dahi bhalla shop and I was enticed by the lovely smell of desi ghee used cuisines here.
Another great delicacy here is lip smackin n very hottt ALOO Tikki. Even if you a re not a very big fan of street food still like to try it once in a while, this place is a must try destination (sic)

Someone has also filmed a shaky two-minute video that will show you the serving routine and some happy munchers. In any case, a recommended place in Chandni Chowk.

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veg reviews: phnom penh, cambodia.

Let us take a moment to praise the ethnic Chinese! Throughout SE Asia, they are the purveyors of true veg delights. For whatever reason, the ethnic Chinese in the U.S. and elsewhere waste our time with bizarre meat concoctions that are unknown to Asia (chop suey, General Tso’s Chicken, lardy fortune cookies, etc.), but the ethnic Chinese of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos, etc., provide us with vegetarian food which is both tasty and doesn’t pay tribute via chicken to any warlike leaders. So let’s review a nice ethnic Chinese place in Cambodia’s sleepy capital, Phnom Penh.

VEGETARIAN PLACE (699A Monivong Blvd, Pnomh Penh).  This place might have a name, but if so, it’s only in Cambodian- no, I take that back– there’s a name on the menu, but I don’t recall it; some people refer to it as “Miao Xiang Xi”, but I don’t think it says that on the menu and I don’t know the proper tones for that, etc. As far as I know, it’s the only veg restaurant in Pnomh Penh that’s not  near Riverside or in the middle of nowhere. In any case, staying with the Original Ryan B on street 330 put us a short walk from this place, so I had occasion to eat five meals there. Ryan ate two with me there before he decided he was being seen too often there. I don’t have those hang-ups and eat multiple times a day there.

Dinnermate Ryan B examines the menu

A view of the menu

The menu is a full color affair, with photos of each meal placed in a binder, and English, Cambodian, and Chinese captions. (Some photos also have a time stamp on them, often showing 2:39am or some such early morning hour). There are about fifty dishes- twenty types of noodle soup, momos, various fried vegetables, a few rice dishes, and so on. I tried four of the noodle soups and all were good. The momos (boiled or fried) are excellent. The Original Ryan B took an interest in “fried fungus”, and said it was excellent.

Ryan-B-approved fungus

You can also get a hot-pot here, and many locals seemed to be doing just that, so me and the Original Ryan B did so as well. It turned out to be poor value, as you get about two noodles, a lot of worthless leaves, and overall less food than you’d get if you ordered two soups separately for cheaper! I also spilled boiling water on myself.

Every dish is about 4,000r ($1); the hotpot is $2.50 and feeds one, though local families of six fed on it with no problem. But I want noodles, not scalding broth for dinner!

They also have a funny fruit drink here called “noni drink”, and we drank it a few times. Pretty good, but mostly ice (1500r = 40 cents). Good place, indifferent people. Next door there is another Chinese place with fish swimming around that you get to point to and eat. Ryan B thought it might be more to his style, but noted the prices at my place were “proper”.

TASTE BUDZ: A TASTE OF KERALA (St. 280). I shouldn’t single out the ethnic Chinese. The Indians also settle widely and often bring veg food with them. So, what have the Keralans got in store for us? Everyone talked up the dosas here. I am not a huge dosa fan, but I ordered a plain dosa ($1)- came with sambar and coconut chutney if I recall. It also took at least a half-hour to arrive, possibly more. There did appear to be some south Indians hanging out within; the servers are all locals, however. I believe they may also serve mutton. Overall, nothing to get excited about. Their hours are also erratic and they are closed whenever you might be hungry.

DOSA CORNER (round the corner from Taste Budz). I assume this is the rival South Indian restaurant. They also serve a lot of mutton so I assume it is a Muslim restaurant. I ordered an onion utthapam ($1.50)- it came with more chutneys than at the rival place. My companion Ryan B ordered a dosa with spinach I believe, and tore into it (see photo). They also had idlys and such things. You are served water in Kingfisher glasses and there are some framed religious posters with SW Indian writing on it (I can’t tell you what language, but a Dravidian language that’s not Tamil). Overall, decent.

Lunchmate Ryan B with a distinctly American take on dosa-eating

My onion utthappam meal

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veg food update: battambang, northwest cambodia.

Readers, I’m most sorry for the break in veg-restaurant-related postings; I’ve been in India for the past month and had little to no internet for most of that time. The good side is that now I have a bit of a backlog to entertain You the Reader with; the downside is it’s not Happening-As-You-Read-It Cutting-Edge-News-Flash type of material. I may have eaten the meal described WEEKS before you read about it! Who cares!
I don’t know what you’d be doing exactly in Battambang, but it is the second largest city in Cambodia (not saying all that much). It has nothing to see per se except for some colonial French architecture; that said, there are plenty of tourists. The locals are very nice here, in any case, and I’m told there are tourist attractions in the hills around town; I won’t talk about that, however, but about the edibles.
MERCY HOUSE VEGETARIAN FOOD (Corner of Street 3, NW of produce market). No sign is visible with the name, but on some tinted glass doors you can see ‘Welcome’ and some Cambodian and Chinese I assume says the same. Within they will give a menu with breakfast foods, rice dishes, noodle dishes, Western dishes, and three pages of various bubble teas, fruit shakes, and desserts. You are meant to write your order on a slip of paper on which is written: “Please write your order here. And hand it to us. We are happy to serve. Tks.”

I had “Fried noodle with curry”, which was 4,000 bhat ($1). It was like ramen on a plate- exactly like ramen on a plate- in a watery sauce and some fake meat and green fried vegetables. Took about five bites to finish it. Served with slippery rounded metal chopsticks. On the wall are fanciful Photoshopped posters of the various dessert items served, with captions in English, Chinese, and Cambodian. You also get a free pot of tea and a tiny glass to sip it from. Nice people, but the food was only decent.

BATTAMBANG VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT (across the street from Mercy House). I went here first but the woman there said “Close” and told me to come back in the morning- they are only open until 11am! Great food and they would win the best food in Battambang award except for those crazy hours. The menu has a few noodle soups, steamed buns, and coffee. Well, I had a noodle soup, a steamed bun, and coffee. The noodle soup was fantastic. The bun was essentially just filler, with paper stuck to the bottom of it, but I dipped it in some hot sauce and it was good. The coffee was excellent. I don’t recall the prices, but I would guess soup was 4,000r, dumpling was 1,000r, and coffee 2,000r = $1.75 total. This is a family-run place, so there were also a few little kids running around blowing bubbles while I ate. Nice people, and a great place if you are hungry for noodles between 6:30am-11:30am and happen to be a vegetarian in north Battambang.

Cooking noodles at B'bang Veg Restaurant

Kids blowing bubbles and such

the menu

the sign

BREAKFAST! Noodles, dumpling, coffee...

MEY MEY SHOP: ONE OF A KIND (Neak Baan Tenk night market, West Bank riverside). I don’t normally review non-veg places because they are profiting by killing animals, but in Cambodia you have to take what you can get, and pure veg places are few-to-none. This place is a stall where a woman shouts out “Hello” to any non-Cambodian she sees; while normally I’d not dine at such a place, the fact that the woman had an English-speaking daughter to whom I could make my veg requests clear was what led me to eat there. They have a laminated menu showing locals carousing at the stall, and a few tourists enjoying meals. I ordered “Fried Yellow Noodle” ($1.50), and told them I was going to take a photo of the sunset and come back to eat. When I came back, the daughter said “I think you no come back!” but I got my meal. I also got a coconut shake, which, according to the menu, is “Special to Battambang” ($1). The shake was excellent- very, very good. The noodles were like spaghetti noodles in a sauce with a lot of black pepper and a scrambled egg and some green fibrous vegetables. Sounds nasty, but it was pretty good- easily the best non-soup food I’ve ever had in Cambodia (not saying much). You also get free ice-cold water and the portions are giant, easily the largest I’ve ever seen in Cambodia (not saying much). The downside is the location: a lot of mosquitos and mother-and-baby beggars going table to table.

Coconut shake; women cooking my dinner in the background

dinner!

Near the end of my meal, I heard some vaguely rockabilly music coming from the other side of the river and decided to check it out. In neighboring Thailand, country music is HOT, and I’ve had the misfortune of seeing some of the live country acts, such as the Khorat Cowboys. So, I thought maybe Thailand’s gone country and Cambodia’s gone rockabilly and boogie-woogie rhythm & blues. Well, it turned out to be a bunch of middle-aged people doing aerobics under cover of darkness in the park, a popular pastime in Cambodia; the young instructor’s taste apparently ran to high-octane female-fronted Cambodian pseudo-rockabilly for one song- after that it went back to straight Cambodian dance pop. Ah well! For 500 riel, or 13 cents, you can join in the aerobics, but it started raining and I went home.

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