Saturday, March 24, 2007

Laos -- Luang Prabang, March 5 &6, 2006

From Vientiane we flew north to Luang Prabang. Surrounded by mountains and nestled between the Mekong and Khan rivers, it was the capital of Laos until the Communist take over of the country in 1975. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995, its colonial legacy, French influence, and Laotian tradition, have been woven into the fabric of a town that is a perfect reflection of the Lao culture. Luang Prabang is small, and just about everywhere worth checking out can be reached on foot.

"So pretty!" was our first reaction when driving into town from the airport. Seemingly frozen in time with its quiet beauty and tranquility, Luang Prabang is both relaxing and serene. The entire town is the epitome of "zen," no surprise since the town center is dominated by about 33 temples, home to nearly 1,000 monks and novices. They are so ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to go anywhere without the sighting the familiar saffron robed devotees of Lord Buddah strolling or sitting by the temples.

Mornings begin very early in Luang Prabang, where locals are awakened by the bells and gongs from the temples, and a procession of monks and novices circuits the town to collect rice for the daily meal. The first gongs sounded at 4AM waking the normally somnambulent Hiroko . When they resumed their call at 6AM from the Wat Xiengthong, Hiroko was already standing on Sakkarine Rd. to witness the endless stream of saffron.

Hiroko's return and Rick's hunger motivated the early morning trip to the morning market by our guest house. By sunrise merchants had lined Manthatoulat Rd along the Mekong River, their intricately designed hand-loomed textile cloths spread before them filled with vegetables, fruits, chili, fish, and meat. There were numerous stands offering cooked food too. Flies were everywhere, particularly attracted to the meat and fish however, this seemed to bother no one... the merchants simply make a practice of waving their hands to keep them from alighting on the food. We were very tempted to try some of the delicious looking sandwiches or grilled chicken, but we had another mission in mind for our breakfast....kao soi noodles!

So we set off in the intense morning sun from the town center to visit a famous kao soi noodle place. It was about 30 to 40 minutes walk from our guest house, and even before 8AM, it was quite hot. The road leading out of town, although relatively empty, was still quite dusty and once outside of central Luang Prabang, there were only a few small guest houses along the way. We finally arrived at what we hoped was our destination, a shop where the tables were filled with people slurping away their faces buried in bowls of spicy noodles. There was no sign (which we wouldn't have been able to read anyway but this sight confirmed for us what we knew without asking....that we had reached our destination!

We sat and ordered "kao soi," but weren't certain that our server understood us. But a few minutes later, we were thrilled to see her arrive with two bowls of kao soi noodles and a plate full of local basil and bean sprouts. We squeezed the juice from the accompanying limes, added a copious quantity of basil and bean sprouts, and immediately began to eat the noodles before they cooked too long in the broth. The Thai version of Kao Soi has coconut milk in it, but the Lao variety instead uses a sort of local spicy miso-like paste similar to that used in pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup. It was so addictively spicy that our faces remained buried in our bowls until nothing remained.

After breakfast, and visit to a nearby wat, we picked up the sandwich at the market for a picnic lunch at Kuangsi Falls. These gorgeous waterfalls are about 16 miles (a one hour drive) from Luang Prabang. We hired a driver who adroitly navigated the dirt road to the waterfall. It was extremely hot, and the van's air conditioner hadn't worked in years. And, as badly as we wanted to open the windows, the "dust storm" kicked up on the dirt road was so severe that we didn't dare open the windows for fear of asphyxiation.

Having survived the sweltering drive, our joyful foray into the wooded area near the falls brought us face to face with several young tigers which were kept in
a fenced-in area. We were told that this was a sanctuary for tigers which are still illegally hunted. Following the signs to the waterfall, we came upon a clearing where the silky water of the river flowed into a beautiful turquoise pool. Too inviting to resist, we took off our shoes and waded in. The water was cool and refreshing and a welcome relief after the ordeal of our "sweat box" van experience. We just sat on the rock and luxuriated in the tropical paradise-like surroundings as the cooling effect of the pool reinvigorated us. Refreshed, we picked up the trail again and followed the stream uphill where in another clearing we encountered the majestic waterfall directly in front of us. We found a bench nearby and unpacked our lunch. As we sat there in the spray of the falls eating our freshly made sandwich we drank in the surrounding scene which was as idyllic as anything in our previous experience .

After returning to town, we strolled the streets, then climbed Phusi mountain to view panorama of the surrounding countryside from its peak. It was a breathtakingly beautiful view in the dusky haze of twilight. Sunset was near, so we strolled down by the Mekong River to enjoy the spectrum of blazing color as the sun seemingly dipped into the river.

Laos, as experienced in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, was our favorite country of all that we visited on our month-long trip to Southeast Asia. Because of its rural economy and lack of industrialization, it was the country that seemed most untouched and unspoiled. We loved its tranquility, warm, friendly people and of course, the amazing food!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Laos--Vientiane, March 3 & 4, 2006

Last year, we traveled to Southeast Asia. Since we have fallen a bit behind in posting our trip, and before it disappears completely from our "rearview mirror," we wanted to post some pictures and report on some of the highlights that we failed to get to when we returned last Spring .

Among our most memorable experiences was the capital city of Laos, Vientiane. Laos is a socialist republic in Southeast Asia bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand. In its more recent history, it gained independence from France in 1949, but civil war continued until the Communist party took over the country in 1975. Private and foreign enterprise started in 1987, but the country is still among the poorest in Asia.

Located along the banks of the Mekong River, the old colonial city of Vientiane is the capital of Laos. With dusty streets and crumbling sidewalks, it feels as if it has been in a sort of suspended animation since the early '70's. Yet, it has a distinctive charm about it because of its rusticity and lack of urbanity. It can easily be covered by foot (or better by bicycle) in a day.

One of our first stops was Pha That Luang, the Great Stupa, the national symbol of Laos. The construction of the stupa is known to be started in 1566 on the site of former Khmer temple. A Thai invasion followed by a Chinese invasion in 19th century severely destroyed the temple until France took the control of Laos in 1893. With the help of France, in 1930 the temple was rebuilt.

We rented bicycles for a day for 20,000 Kip, approximately $2 ($1=10,600kip) to visit temples and shops. Since the climate was very hot and humid, we kept our sightseeing activities to a minimum during the midday hours and took the opportunity to rest at a cafe, eat, and drink some of the delicious freshly squeezed local fruit juice.

We found a wonderful sandwich shop, Nampou Coffee near our hotel. During breakfast hours, local people were eating a noodle dish like Vietnamese Pho, which we decided to give a try. We also found that in Laos people eat Vietnamese Banh Mi like sandwich as well. The sandwich was filled with pork, cucumber, and sauteed onion and carrots with mayo and was perfectly matched with Beer Lao. We tried three different sandwich shop, and concluded that Namphou Coffee's sandwich was the best.

For dinner, one evening we feasted at a small family run place, Vilayluc, which we found via a Japanese guidebook. It looked like someone's home turned into a restaurant. The proprietor was very friendly, and we ordered her recommendation of laap (like laab in Thai), spicy curry and a dish she called "waterfall beef" (also similar to aThai dish). Since their history is so intertwined it is no surprise that Lao food resembles Thai, though like Vietnamese food, not as spicy. Lao dishes are filled with herbs and fresh vegetables, and you eat them with sticky rice. Khao Niaw, as it is called , is eaten with your fingers, molded into a ball and used to mop up the juice of the dish. We still remember the dinner at Vilayluc as one of the best that we had in all of Southeast Asia.

Namphu Coffee
57 Pangkham Rd., near the corner of Samsenthai Rd.

behind Wat Ong Teu

Other Restaurants & Sandwich shops:

turn left on Samsenthai Rd. on the road to That Dam

344 Samsenthai Rod.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


"The Nabe pot is here!" These were the words we've been anxiously waiting to hear (or say) for two months since our return from Japan. Although we had purchased it at a shop in Denenchofu, Tokyo when we were there in late January, because of its weight and size, we asked Hiroko's parents to ship it to us via sea, the least expensive (and slowest) postal option.

Nabe is the quintessential winter Japanese dish, which is prepared in a hot pot at the table. It is sort of like a healthy fondue in that the cooking medium is not oil, cheese, or chocolate but a type of Japanese stock made from water, kelp, and/or dashi depending upon the type of nabe. Popular types of nabe include the familiar Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu, as well as lesser known (to U.S. eaters) dishes that are enjoyed in the various regions and families of Japan. The only rule for nabe is that you cook anything that you like in the pot at the table and that it be shared with your family and friends.

A nabe pot can be anything from ordinary to artistic. The "ordinary" variety can be easily found at Mitsuwa Marketplace in New Jersey or other Japanese grocery stores in New York area. We wanted something unique and special, so we waited until we were able to buy the beautiful black one that we had fallen in love with while looking through The Nabe Cookbook (purchased in Matsuyama on our winter '06 trip). Hiroko's always expert research located Doraku, the small family run pottery shop where it could be purchased.

"This is it!" we exclaimed after walking into the charming shop that was the first place we visited after our arrival in Tokyo. The Denenchofu area of Tokyo is an affluent neighborhood modeled after a similar section of London. Run by the Asami family, the shop was small and a little cluttered, and focused on artisan yakimono. Mrs. and Mr. Asami love yakimono and are quite proud of their shop's selection.

Mrs. Asami excitedly showed us the nabe that was the object of our visit. It is made by Shiro Yoshii in Kyoto, and is surprisingly light weight. She explained to us that this nabe was individually handmade and that it needs to be well cared for. She was ecstatic when we told her that we were from NYC and had learned about her shop and the nabe from the Nabe Cookbook. We happily purchased it, and told her how much we adored it. Our excitement made her even more excited so much so that we were thanking each other until we left the shop (in fact, they followed us out of the shop while continuing to thank us!).

Remembering our visit with the Asamis at their shop, we opened the long-awaited package from Japan. The nabe was wrapped meticulously and with lots and lots of padding. There was no damage to our nabe, no scratch or broken pieces, it is as beautiful as the first time we saw it. We were so excited to see our NABE finally sitting on our dining room table, and wasted no time in inviting friends over to put it to use immediately!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Junmai Ginjo Sake Tasting

Since we began keeping a record in 2004, we have drunk over 150 different sakes. But "drinking" and "tasting" are dramatically different activities. "Drinking" is done for pure enjoyment, usually (but not always) involves eating, and social interaction and/or camaraderie. "Tasting" is a more serious, scientific/analytical process requiring concentration to identify the characteristics of sake e.g. it's aromatics, flavor profile, etc. The first time we seriously "tasted" sake was during John Gauntner's Professional Sake Course in Tokyo earlier this year. The experience was eye opening for us, and we vowed to do more "tasting" when we returned home.

The limited selection offered by NYC wine shops defined the bounds of our comparison, but undaunted, we settled on three Junmai Ginjo sakes available in 300 ml bottles....Hakkaisan from Niigata, Tenryo Hidomare from Gifu, Meisousui from Miyagi. All three met the minimum (seimaibuai) qualification of having at least 40% of the outer shell of the rice used, milled (or polished) away and had similar levels of acidity. Each had been brewed using different rice strains and yeasts (for more details, click on the link at the end of this post).

The findings: (1) Hakkaisan had a rich woody and nutty flavor with hint of yogurt, which matched well with foods that have a salty and/or miso component as well as with a peppery green like argula. (2) Tenryu had a bright floral flavor with a hint of strawberry, which goes well with creamy flavors like mayonnaise or risotto, and tuna confit. Mustard flavors in food brought out the sweetness of the sake. (3) Meisousui had a very light and bright flavor. As the name suggests(Meisou means meditation), this sake was a very relaxed, quiet sake (in contrast to the boldness of the Tenryu), and it matched well with tomatoes and mayo flavors, but an even better pairing was braised daikon. The sake is very delicate that it maybe the best to drink it by itself or with a light dashi-flavored dish.

More detail on the tasting,
click here for the tasting note.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Our friend recently told us how much he enjoyed eating at Eleven Madison Park, one of Danny Meyer's famous restaurants. When we think of Eleven Madison, our first thought is the delicious gougeres that we were served in lieu of bread on our last visit (which sadly was some time ago).
Rick excitedly suggested trying to make them "ourselves" at home. Hiroko's reply was "WHO will make them?" Of course, we knew the answer... Rick went to buy the cheese and Hiroko whipped up the choux...

makes about 20
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1/2 cup or more freshly grated Gruyere, or sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup or more freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 425F.

Combine the water, butter, and salt in a saucepan; turn the heat to medium high and bring to a boil. Cook, stiring, until the butter melts. Lower the heat, and add the flour all at once and cook, stiring constantly, until the dough holds together in a ball, about 5 mintues.

Remove from the heat, and add the eggs one at a time, beating hard after each addition. Beat the mixture until the dough is glossy, about 3~4 minutes. (This is a little bit of work if you are mixing by hands.)

Using a melon scoop or a teaspoon, drop the mixture onto the baking sheet and bake until light brown, about 15 minutes.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Cha Ca Fish

Lately, we've been doing a lot of dining out so, deciding that we needed to go "light and lean" for a day or two, we visited Fish Tales, our favorite local fish store. There on display we spied some basa, or Vietnamese catfish. Sparking our sensory memory, we thought that a Vietnamese dish would be a perfect for our spice seeking palates! We then recalled how much we had loved the dill, tumeric, and fish sauce-perfumed dish, cha ca fish, prepared by diners at their tables at the eponymously named Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi last winter. With the key ingredient in our possession, our subsequent search led us to a recipe on the Washington Post website.

With Hiroko's skillful preparation, we found the result to be so thoroughly authentic that we were momentarily transported back to the dingy but festive, smoke-filled restaurant in Hanoi. Only the owners' faded family portraits on the walls and 16 oz. bottles of Ha Noi beer on our table were missing!

Cha Ca Fish with Dill

Dipping sauce

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce

3 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons water

Juice of 1 lime

For the fish

2 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon finely minced ginger

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 pound firm fish fillets cut into chunks

8 ounces thin dried rice noodles, softened in warm water and drained

2 cups coarsely chopped dill

5 scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths

3 cups shredded lettuce leaves

1 cup mint and cilantro leaves

For the dipping sauce: In a small bowl, mix the garlic, sugar and chili-garlic sauce to make a coarse paste. Add the fish sauce, water, and lime juice, stiring to dissolve the sugar. Set aside.

For the fish: In a bowl, combine the fish sauce, 1 tablespoon of oil, the ginger, turmeric, and salt, and mix well. Add the fish and toss to coat. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the remainig oil and heat, and add the dill to the pan to sizzles at once. Add the fish and cook on one side for about 2 minutes. Turn and cook 1 minutes. Add the remaining dill and the scallions and cook for another 1 mintues.

Divide the noodles among the serving bowls. Add the lettuce and mint and cilantro. Top each bowl with pieces of fish, and drizzle with the dipping sauce.