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.
It’s also where you can find stall after stall of durian, the spiky fruit native to Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia, among other countries in Southeast Asia.
As it had been a few years since my last taste of something better suited for college mischief than human consumption, I took a walk along “durian street” for a small, small nibble:
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.
A long walk down Sukhumvit, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Bangkok, took me to Flavorful restaurant, in the On Nut neighborhood.
Nondescript and standard issue the façade may be, Flavorful looks like the average casual Bangkok restaurant. But it’s never the superficialities that determine where I eat, it’s the food!
It amuses me that one of the things I was most looking forward to having again in Vietnam was the coffee. I rarely drink the stuff outside of when trying to overcome jet lag, yet still have good memories of quotidian cups of cà phê (coffee, in Vietnamese) from having visited Hanoi and Ha Long Bay a few years ago.
Thus, in the world’s second-largest producer of coffee — after Brazil — it was difficult to narrow-down the first café to visit in Da Nang (or Danang), in central Vietnam. Indeed, coffee culture is very strong in this part of Southeast Asia, with numerous cafes trying to outcompete each other with comfortable chairs, small gardens, koi ponds, and plenty of outdoor seating.
How did I choose it? Simple … avocado coffee.
As some of you might know, I’m a big fan of avocados. Frequent travels to Mexico in the past few years might have help my case. However, I’ve never seen avocado and coffee combined in Mexico.
Owing to the French introduction of trái bơ (avocado, in Vietnamese) to Vietnam in 1940, fellow aguacate fanatics can rejoice in this recent addition to the Vietnamese drinks scene:
Hold up, that doesn’t look like avocado coffee. I see avocado ice cream (with condensed milk inside), and an espresso. It’s more like an avocado affogato; try to say that three times fast.
For those unfamiliar with an affogato, you take the espresso and slowly pour it over the ice cream. Done! In!
Was it delicious? Of course. Should I have ordered again the next day? If it weren’t for the flooded streets, I would have!
Might you be interested in an avocado coffee mash-up?
Some call them water crackers, Philadelphia crackers, or Trenton crackers, but they’re most commonly called oyster crackers.
Although Westminster Bakers Co. claims to have invented them as early as 1828, officially that record is from an 1847 listing for the Adam Exton Cracker Bakery. No matter what the correct answer is, they’re ever-so-slightly modeled after oysters, and started off as a popular topping for oyster stews.
To me, oyster crackers have always been reminiscent of being slightly less salty versions of Saltines.
But what if I told you that there’s a “leveled up” version of these so-called oyster crackers that actually contain the aphrodisiacal mollusk?
For a sample of those, you might have to go — or these days, find an awfully generous local — to grab you these snacks. Why?
Because they’re in Japan.
A random stop in Kurashiki, a pleasant little canal town known for its centuries-old rice warehouses, helped lead me to bicchu kurashiki Setouchian (in Japanese, 備中倉敷 瀬戸内庵). This particular store specialized in local gastronomy, and I must say they had some delicious offerings that you may never have expected to see; for instance, I remember going back for sample after sample of their orange butter and (famous in the region) peach butter.
I did end up buying a jar of the peach butter, but what struck my attention for a bit of Japanese food fusion was the oyster senbei:
Senbei (煎餅・せんべい) are rice crackers, local snack staples throughout much of the country. Many are flavored with sesame seeds, seaweed, and/or soy sauce. This one, however, had oysters BAKED IN, ostensibly from the nearby Setouchi Inlet.
It was an umami feast, but after a few of those, I needed something sweet.
So that’s where the peach butter came into play ….
I’ve got to show a hint of appreciation to a lackluster Airbnb for having introduced me to one of the best octopus dishes I’ve ever tried.
Marajillo, a small, noisy restaurant and bar in the middle of nowhere touristy Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was mostly a bright spot during my brief stay in that tourism hub. Although I cannot recommend the comparatively bland and insipid ceviche Vallarta, the pulpo zarandeado, chicharrón de pescado (fried fish resembling pork rinds), and aguachile were excellent.
Although the verb zarandear generally refers to shaking and jostling something, in cooking, it refers to a style from the central western Mexican state of Nayarit. In this case, it means to split something — usually fish — from head to tail, and grilling it on a rack over hot coals. My dish at Marajillo was pulpo, or octopus, one of my favorites from the wide world of mariscos mexicanos, or Mexican seafood:
Spicy fish, braised eggplant, pandan pancakes stuffed with sweetened coconut … if you’re looking for a primer in Javanese food with a hint of Balinese flavor, look no further than my video from Warung Kolega restaurant in Legian, Bali:
It’s not so easy to determine which place can call itself the true inventor of baklava, since it’s existence isn’t well-documented prior to the 19th century. It may come from present-day Iran, Turkey, Syria, Greece, or Armenia, although its popularity certainly spread throughout the Balkans and beyond because of the Ottoman Empire.
Years ago, the European Union (EU) did Turkish cuisine a solid by considering Turkey to be the creator of baklava, placing it on its list of items protected designation of origin, as well as protected geographical indication. However, one joy of eating is to appreciate food without getting caught up in a geopolitical kerfuffle.
Forming part of a hub of Turkish food in southern central Anatolia, if you want to eat like a local, the city of Gaziantep is known for two things– baklava, and pistachios. There’s also baklava’s cousin, katmer, but it’s not nearly as well-known overseas.
Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted my video of Karagöz Caddesi, or what I consider to be Gaziantep’s “baklava street,” but there are plenty of other sweets shops around to reel you in. However, I did prepare a brief baklava tour of the city; given the deliciousness of the country, more videos of Turkish gastronomy will undoubtedly follow!
For this particular lengthy city walk, I was in Istanbul, Turkey, making my way from the tourist hotspot of Taksim, all the way to the unofficial Uyghur capital of Zeytinburnu. As is typical with my city walks, I rarely have a desired route in mind, instead letting the five senses take me down a given street. This constitutional took around 2.5 hours, with a couple of stops in between for dessert, and spinach.
Named in honor of Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent’s conquest of Belgrade in 1521, the Belgrade Gate (in Turkish, Belgradkapı) forms part of Istanbul’s ancient city wall. I only chanced upon it at random, yet it proved to be a unique spot, even in a city full of impressive locales.
In fact, I discovered some farmers who happened to be tending to crops right beside it.
Locavore produce mixed with local history?
This right here is why I travel.
By the way, I’ve never tasted spinach more delicious than that.
My first trip to Turkey was in 2006; I went with my family to Istanbul, Kayseri, and Göreme, the epicenter of Cappadocia and its unusual fairy chimneys:
Now, even 16 years ago, I realized that Turkish food was excellent; the kebabs, baklava, dried fruit … just about everything was delicious. But those were already well-known foods before visiting Turkey. How about something new?
While on a tour of Cappadocia, we were invited to eat with a local Turkish family. Although I recall the entire meal being good, only the dessert is still memorable to this day. Why? Perhaps because it was the only dish that I was trying for the first time– the main ingredients were some sort of grain, mixed with copious amounts of butter, sugar, and pine nuts.
I didn’t know the name of the meal until a chance encounter last year in Skopje, North Macedonia:
I couldn’t believe it. After 16 years, I had finally rediscovered the very same dessert, and perhaps more importantly, found out its name– irmik helvası, in English, semolina halva.
Of course! Semolina, the milled wheat product also commonly used in pasta and couscous, was the grain. More embarrassingly, I’ve had nearly identical semolina-based desserts — similarly called halwah — in India.
But this version, found at a Turkish dessert chain called Helvacı Ali, was a dolled-up one, flavored with pistachios and topped with peanuts.
Last month, I popped by the same chain in Istanbul, for an even more ridiculous exemplar– pistachio and chocolate halva topped with tahini and crushed pistachios:
It’s customary to have semolina halva with black tea during the winter, and Turkish ice cream, called dondurma, during the summer.