As is the case with many facets of Japanese culture, soy sauce’s ancestors hailed from China. The earliest recorded history involving the family tree saw people fermenting meat, vegetables, and soybeans in salt and water or wine, so as to preserve them during the colder months. Then, during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Buddhist monks then experimented with fermenting soy beans and wheat, eventually creating a paste called jiang 奖.
But it was in the 12th century that a Zen Buddhist monk puttering about present-day Yuasa city, in Wakayama prefecture, realized that the leftover food waste from preparing miso could be extracted into a circus of liquid umami.
Last fall, I visited Yuasa to explore the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce.
Maybe it’s unusual to think that today’s post is about one of my favorite desserts in the world.
Sure, when I want something sweet, I mean really sweet, it will be from Türkiye. And if I want something pseudo-healthy, it will be an Indian mango lassi.
But when in Southeast Asia, I can’t get enough of those Frankenstein’s monster’s bowls of goop, slop, and ice.
Although I didn’t know the name for the dessert until doing a little reading about, I found out that the Thai name, รวมมิตร (ruam mit), means “get together + friends.” Makes sense, because you’ve got your fruit, tubers, roots, gelatin, syrup, beans, legumes, and weird colors you may never have expected to see in a dessert, all coming together for a saccharine dalliance. So, grab some friends, grab some ladles, order a family-style — I just made that up, but try to order something that contains a little of everything — and then walk it all off in the heat.
Niigata is arguably Japan’s home of rice and nihonshu, or as many of us like to call it, sake. You see, sake really refers to any liquor, whereas nihonshu more specific to rice wine.
Last month, I traveled to Niigata to check out the food scene for a long weekend. Unbeknownst to me, there was a particularly unique spot to indulge in the region’s most famous alcohol. It’s called Ponshukan, and it’s a place to try a variety of nihonshu from throughout Niigata prefecture.
Stinky tofu, that Taiwanesecheap eats classic purportedly created by accident in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), has no shame. A tofu merchant apparently left his bean curd in a vegetable brine for too long; what resulted in that barrel hundreds of years ago is what you smell today. Not literally, but it’s close.
I first tried it in Shenzhen, China about 17 years ago, and couldn’t deal; it was an acquired taste to be sure. But sometimes you gotta give a food another shot.
Of course, there are countless foods considered to be acquired tastes — with stinky tofu being one of them — but I tend to think that kæstur hákarl, the fermented Icelandic shark dish that smells of ammonia, has it beat. Although I haven’t tried kæstur hákarl, I also haven’t found any desire to sip whatever is under my sink.
Which is to say, stinky tofu isn’t that bad. The aroma is off-putting — if you’re out and about in Taiwan, it’s a night market staple, and a street food tradition. If you want to try it but just can’t do that first bite, add some pepper, chili sauce, or some other condiment of your choice. <<I haven’t found the same solution for a bite of durian.>>
In short, stinky tofu may not be durian, but they do share at least one thing in common.
Ketoprak, one of my favorite street foods, may not be as common a sight at the kaki lima (street carts) dotting Jakarta as satay, or nasgor (nasi goreng = fried rice). But given the scale of the city, it’s out there, waiting for you by a clogged canal, randomly neon-lit bridge, or a group of mischievous cats.
Ketoprak — not to be confused with the Javanese theater style of the same name — is a vegetarian dish amply covered in protein; fellow omnivores might want to add some satay to really raise the bar. It consists of peanut sauce, aka bumbu kacang, fried tofu, lontong (banana leaf-packed rice cakes), bihun (rice vermicelli), taoge (bean sprouts), garlic, palm sugar, fried onions/shallots, and if you’re lucky, an egg or two. Slosh all of that fun stuff around, dip in some krupuk, or shrimp crackers, and you’ve got some filling Indonesian cheap eats.
And if you’re like, naively asking for pedas banget — extra spicy — you’ll be glad cucumber slices accompany the meal on the side.
Have you ever tried ketoprak? What are your favorite Indonesian street foods?
Many a time I’ve tried to like durians, but it just doesn’t happen … then again, it’s not as if there’s a rule saying I should.
Nevertheless, I’ve had it fresh, in a shake, in a cake, as lempuk, with all resulting in failure. And it’s not even the awful odor that does me in — I’ve generally eaten it in places that smell a lot worse.
With that displeasing transition in tow, I present to you, Jakarta, Indonesia. Jakarta is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been, but like many other cities, it takes some patience to get to the good eats. They are expanding their metro system and other forms of public transit, which is good, but it also makes the metropolis’ infamous traffic that much worse.
In short, getting to Jalan Raya Mangga Besar, or what I have deemed to be durian street (at least at nighttime), is vexing. Located in the northern part of the city relatively close to the old Dutch fort Fatahillah, and Jakarta’s Chinatown — near where a lot of the metro construction is happening — Jalan Raya Mangga Besar is busy during the day, but really buzzes at night with lots and lots of street food.
Spicy Seafood and Chicken with Cashews, Bangkok ‘Flavorful’ Restaurant, Thailand
How do you choose where to eat in Bangkok, a place where it sometimes feels as if there are more food sellers than anything else? To wit, shopping centers have multiple levels with restaurants, and sometimes across from those restaurants there’s a warren of food vendors with snacks. Streets are teeming with a range of stir-fry, stews, cut fruit, and grilled mysteries, and supermarkets are as diversely stocked as the city’s nightclubs and tuk-tuks.
With so many choices in the Thai capital, I finally gave up on rolling the dice, and searched recommendations for eating out.