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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Dad's Home-made Salt and Pepper Tiger Prawns

Enjoying cheap food in Manhattan doesn't always involve eating out. In New York's Chinatown, one can find good quality tiger shrimp or tiger prawns at the many Asian seafood markets. Tiger shrimps are given their moniker because of their distinctive gray and black stripes. Surprisingly, I have even seen some with brown, gray and black stripes. They are generally some of the largest variety shrimp and usually provide a nice crisp texture when cooked. They cost about $5 to $6 a pound.

The following video was filmed at the home of my retired dad, who worked for over twenty years at various Chinese restaurants in New York's Tri-State area. The dish is called "Salt and Pepper Tiger Shrimp." The base contains corn starch and white pepper. Notice the double-cooked pan frying method. Dad is an excellent cook and I will post videos and recipes as they are available. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sing Kee Seafood Restaurant


Sing Kee Seafood Restaurant located at 42 Bowery in Manhattan's Chinatown has been open for nearly a month by now (December 2011) and I finally had a chance to try it. Sing Kee is located in an area that had been home to a similarly named restaurant "Shing Kee" during the 1990's. That Shing Kee was known as a good option for traditional Cantonese family-style dining and this new iteration carries on the tradition. Sing Kee serves traditional Cantonese food. Ordering is by done "family-style", that is, order an entree that is placed at the center of the table that is meant to be shared.

I was able to sample nearly 10 dishes during my visit. Many of the dishes we ordered were banquet style so here are the highlights and my thoughts:

1) The jelly fish cold plate, a traditional dish at banquets was exceptional for a few reasons. The jelly fish strands were rather thick, udon-noodle-like. One of the meats that were served with the dish was surprisingly a tasty pastrami! What a cross-cultural surprise!

2) The crab meat fish maw soup was exceptional. Real crab meat was used and the chicken broth used to make the soup base was fragrant and it's aroma could be noticed even before drinking. There was a nice consistency to the soup.

3) Seafood Bird's Nest (a.k.a. Taro basket) was really the highlight of the meal. This is because you would be hard pressed to find a taro nest in a Chinese restaurant these days that makes it out of real taro root. Most restaurant nowadays used fried noodles as the basket even if it is advertised as a taro basket on the menu. Kudos to Sing Kee for doing the right thing. It was also a big plus that the basket was crammed with scallops, shrimp and squid.

4) Ginger and Scallion twin lobsters were okay. Great care was made not to make it too salty. As I could tell, each lobster was about 1 1/2 pounds.

5) The Salt and pepper seafood dish included deep fried scallops, shrimp, squid made salt and pepper style. A-ok in my book, but a little more breaded than other restaurants. Once again, great care was evident in limiting salt.

6) We ordered a relatively expensive $30 dish that is called "Nor Mai Gai". Nor Mai Gai in Chinese is usually known as a Cantonese dim sum where sticky rice is steamed inside a large leaf. In Sing Kee's version, it consists of a "chicken" splayed out on a large dish. On the outside is fried crispy chicken skin. On the inside, is sticky rice (a.k.a. "nor mai fan"). The "chicken" is cut into square chunks. So what you actually eat is sticky rice encased in crispy chicken skin. I've been told that this dish is a throwback dish from 1970's Chinatown. No Chinese restaurant to my knowledge makes this dish today, and now we have this dish revived, a treat for sticky rice fans!

7) Stewed beef in squash is an entree of stewed beef inside a squash bowl. The beef was really tasty with a hint of curry and stewed to an exceptionally soft texture. The squash itself tasted almost like sweet potato and blended well with the beef juices.

Overall, this first experience has proven to be first rate and immediately ranks in my top three for family-style Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. The service level was excellent and attentive. Let's hope that the Sing Kee tradition of quality continues!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

99 Cent Pizza in Manhattan

Since 2008, New York has seen an explosion of 99 cent pizza restaurants particularly around Manhattan.  This is surely due to the bad economy and in 2011, the trend continues as there is still strong demand for a cheap slice.  This leaves the question, are any of these places good?

I remember seeing my first 99 cent pizza joint in Manhattan, a place called 2 Bros. Pizza on 32 St. Mark's Place between 2nd and 3rd Avenue in 2008. Of course my first impression was that this place couldn't be any good. The pizzas were stacked on a tower of racks, unlike your conventional New York Pizzaria which lays out each type of pizza on a long counter. I ordered a slice and found that the quality was a bit better than school lunchroom pizza.  The crust was thick and a slice was about three-quarters the size of a conventional 16-inch pie slice. The cheese and sauce were passable. Both tasted as if it were the most basic cheeses and sauces you could buy.

Being the "Cheap Guy", I've tried many 99 cent pizzas throughout Manhattan and have found that each vary in quality. At some places, you will get a really good approximation of a true New York gas oven slice. At some places, the size of the slice is nearly the size of real slice. At some places, the sauce is excellent. At most places the mozarella is similar in taste and texture.

The point here is that no matter where you go for your 99 cent slice, you can get full for a buck or a little more. Most of these restaurants sell sodas for 75 cents and no more than a dollar. You can usually get an entire pie for $8! These restaurants usually do not provide seating and are small. They'll serve your slice on a paper plate, no tray. Finally, I noticed that most 99 cent pizzas are Middle Eastern run or Pakistani, different that the Central American and Mexican personnel you would see at traditional pizzarias.

So there, enjoy your slice, as New York bargains rarely get better than this!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Din Tai Fung in Bangkok

During my most recent trip to Bangkok, I finally tried Din Tai Fung, the famous Taiwanese chain of dumpling houses. Din Tai Fung operates in several countries and has most recently opened its first branch in Bangkok, Thailand at the Central World Mall.

When my wife and I arrived at the end of May 2011, arrived a bit early, at around 11:30 a.m. during a weekday. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, we encountered a bit of a crowd. There were at lest 10 parties ahead of us on the waiting list. The restaurant didn't open until 12, so we sat for a few minutes, waiting to be called. What I did notice was that the crowd was very international, with Chinese, Japanese and prosperous-looking Thai locals waiting to get in.

Now about the dumplings: Since I live in New York, I have blogged that the best soup dumplings in New York are Joe's Shanghai and Joe's Ginger, which are incidentally, owned by the same owners. Having come to try Din Tai Fung - they have one Michelin star in Hong Kong - I came with high expectations. Din Tai Fung didn't disappoint.

We had a very simple meal which consisted of one order of pork dumplings, one order of crab meat dumplings and one order of sesame noodles (I can't get the Chinese-American out of me!)  What I can say about the pork and the crab meat dumplings is that they are about 1/2 to 1/4 inch smaller than what we get in New York. My guess is that they are about 1 to 1 1/4 inches in diameter, which makes them truly bite sized. They are so small that the soup content makes for one sip. Having said that, the skins on both types of dumplings are truly sublime, thin, chewy and fresh. You know they are as, the exposed kitchen is right in front of the restaurant waiting area. I found that the meat is not that dense. The meat falls apart in your mouth but not loose either. It is definitely not the density of a meatball. The soup was clear and very flavorful!

As for the pork dumplings, I found that they are equal to Joe's in New York, however, as for the crab meat dumplings, I found that the yellow crab meat that is prevalent in New York, cannot be found in the fillings. Instead, there is a heavy taste of crab "tamale" or that oily crab mixture you would find inside a crab shell. This taste imparted a strong oily crab texture to the pork ball inside the crab meat dumpling. What was disappointing was that you couldn't really find any visible crab meat. Maybe that's the way they make it at Din Tai Fung.

As for pricing, the 10 pork dumplings are about USD$6 and the 10 crab meat dumplings are about USD$10.

With regard to the sesame noodles, this was not the type of peanut butter paste type of noodles you would get in the US. I ordered it out of curiosity and was pleased to see that it was actually a sweet hot chili soy sauce with sesame flavor on a bed of very fresh, high quality yellow noodles. Texture and flavor were the keys to this dish and I was very happy with the outcome!

In my final analysis, definitely try the pork dumpling as it is sublime and avoid the crab meat dumplings as they are overpriced and lack visible crab meat (unless you enjoy crab tamale).  I would come here again to try the other dishes on the menu! I can't wait to come back to Bangkok!

Waiting to get in! Bangkok, Central World Mall

The Menu

Sesame Noodles!

Ginger & Vinegar

Pork Dumplings

Crab Meat Dumplings

Inside the Crab Meat Dumpling

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dim Sum in Hong Kong

As someone who had grown up in New York City and frequenting Cantonese dim sum restaurants my entire life, travelling to Hong Kong for an extended period for the first time was a dream come true for me. It was as if I was going to the mecca of dim sum, if you will, the motherland of dim sum. Having stayed for about a week, I came away with strong and positive impressions on the dim sum landscape in New York City vis-a-vis Hong Kong.

The first thing that you will notice about Hong Kong dim sum restaurants is that most are located inside buildings that are shopping centers or office buildings. Almost none are on the ground floor.  I spent a great deal of time in Hong Kong, looking up at signs to see if I was missing anything interesting. Secondly, when you are seated at a dim sum restaurant, you will be given a paper menu listing all the dim sum and a pencil. You would check off or indicate the number of dishes of each dim sum you want. Most restaurants have an English version of the checklist menu, however, I noticed that the Chinese versions tend to be longer.  Also, I went to restaurants located in the TST area, which is a tourist area, so the availability of English language menus may be more predominant.  After handing over your paper menu, you are given an electronic ticket listing everything you ordered. As each dish comes out, the waiter checks off the item until you're done. 

The next thing I noticed about Hong Kong dim sum restaurants is that these establishments tend to be very well appointed.  I think because of the SARS scare back in 2003 had caused many restaurants to offer hand sanitizing gel, toilet cleanser, and anything that will improve the hygiene in the restaurants.  Restaurants also tend to feel much more clean and luxurious than New York dim sum restaurants.

However, this comes at a cost and the biggest surprise is that the prices for dim sum in Hong Kong is the same, if not higher than those in New York.  On the low end, you can find dim sum for $14HKD ($1.80 USD). However, I found most dim sum ranged from $18 to $35 HKD, $2.30 to $4.50, not exactly a cheap meal if you are looking for variety. In New York City, you can find places that sell dim sum at a $2 flat rate.

Now about the dim sum, I found what I suspected to be true, which was that dim sum in Hong Kong, is really, really good. I did not find a single bad dish. The best thing about enjoying dim sum in Hong Kong is the presentation. Most dim sum are well presented, with thin skins, perfectly brown frying, and fillings that are not overbearing and in reasonable amounts.  Without going into any specific dish, let's say that everything was good.  I did notice one innovation at a dim sum restaurant in Mongkok.  We went to one that served dim sum on traditional trolleys. The innovation was that in front of each cart was a small flat screen tv showing what was on the steaming trolley.  This served to prevent the trolley ladies from using up time to open up each steamer dish. A nice touch, but what actually helped more were the bilingual signs in front of the cart.

After experiencing dim sum in Hong Kong, I've come to the conclusion that we have a pretty good deal in New York.  Price-wise, it is better to have dim sum in New York.  Variety-wise, Hong Kong wins.  Quality-wise, Hong Kong wins, but not by a large margin. Whatever New York has, Hong Kong tends to do better, but not much more, which was the surprising part.

In another part of this post, I would like to talk a bit about specialization of dim sum.  In Hong Kong, since dim sum is so diverse, you will find stores that specialize in one type of dim sum. I found stores that sold only baked buns, egg tarts, congee and fried crullers, and chive dumplings.  There were so many more, and I learned that a common practice in Hong Kong is for workers to stop by these stalls in the morning and get a foam dish serving one dim sum item.  Popular ones seem to be har gow (shrimp dumplings) and siu mai (pork dumplings).  As you can see, dim sum is not only a brunch or lunch item but can be enjoyed throughout the day. That is something that is lacking in New York as breakfast items in Chinatown tend to gravitate towards baked goods.

In conclusion, I would like to add one beef that I had with these stalls and that is the prevalence of chewy, rubbery fish siu mai.  I had ordered these on two occasions, thinking that they were pork. Once they were served on a dish and the other time on a skewer.  Both times, I had a few and then threw the rest out. I don't know why people order these things, which real pork siu mai is available, but maybe someone can enlighten me on that.  I would love to hear everyone else's experience with Hong Kong dim sum or dim sum in general.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Home Cooking Option in the Countryside

In my weeks living in the Thai countryside, I've found that in order to survive, you make do with what is available.  Sit down restaurant meals are almost unheard of here, as I'm nearly 30 minutes from the nearest sizable town.  However, this doesn't mean that there are a lack of choices.  There are plenty of enterprising villagers who set up food carts selling what they make best. There is one caveat here and of course and that is as long as you like Thai food, you'll have plenty of choices. 

Since I happen to enjoy Thai food, it hasn't been a problem for me to quickly adapt to the tastes and smells of Thai food.  Having been brought up in an environment where American food, meshed well with Chinese food, I was already used to the most pungent types of condiments Chinese or Thai food had to offer.  One thing that I have learned is that many farmers have their roots in Issan, which is a region in the Northeastern part of Thailand. Many still enjoy putting anchovies or anchovy paste into their foods, whether the food is a meat or a vegetable dish.  Therefore, as I'm coming across dishes with this aroma, I can easily identify it as Issan.

In another aspect of food, enterprising villagers set up food carts or food stalls on the sides of roads and also in front of their homes.  Most food vendors are excellent here and since these vendors are serving food to their neighbors - this is a village after all - they wouldn't want to poison them.  Generally, I've found the hygiene to be acceptable at most places.  The kind of food you would find here is what you would find in Bangkok, only in a smaller subset. For example, grilled meatballs, hot dogs, chicken, pork are universally good and most are served with a sweet chili sauce glaze.  I've found carts that sell roti, which is basically a small ball of dough that that flattened out on a hot plate.  It could be made sweet or savory. Fillings could be egg, sweetened condensed milk or Nutella and an assortment of jams, just like your favorite creperie! One of my favorite foods here in the village are noodles. You will usually get a nice dark broth made with ox bones. Once I had a broth that was very dark and I suspect that it may have contained pig blood. In any case, the noodles offered here are thin white rice noodles, flat white noodles (see ew), clear mung bean noodles (woon sen) and thin yellow egg noodles.  All were good quality and very similar to the Chinese varieties you would find in New York. 

Finally, I might add that I did not find "pad thai" in the village, except in Bangkok street carts and in some restaurants.  I came across an interesting story that said that the origins of Pad Thai were Chinese and that sometime in the late 1940's there was a competition to create "genuine" Thai dishes during a spate of nationalism at the time.  Apparently, Chinese laborers ate and sold lot's of stir-fried noodles to the the local ethnic Chinese and Thais, so someone apparently, changed some of the ingredients, if I remember correctly, adding fish sauce, peanuts and sprouts to make it more "Thai".  I don't know the validity of this story, but maybe some of my readers can confirm this.

In addition to prepared food, I had also had the privilege to try all sorts of home cooking.  Let's say that the condiments that we buy here that are manufactured by huge conglomerates taste much different than the ones that are made locally.  For example, people here make their red curries, etc, by hand, grinding chilies, garlic and other ingredients using huge mortar and pestles.  They break it apart and sell it to others or keep in handy at home to make curries.  These curries, chili oils, etc, are kept for weeks without refrigeration.  They are very tasty as crushing food imparts a richer flavor. As for other condiments, they tend to used Thai versions of light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, cooking oil and chili sauces.

My favorite story is the day when my wife made a squid curry dish.  She had no idea that the curry she had purchased from a neighbor was extremely hot and liberally added the red curry paste to the frying pan. I took some bites and felt that it was hot, but nothing I couldn't manage.  I had three helpings that night.  At first I thought that burning lips weren't so bad, but later, I felt that my GI tract was completely on fire! I could barely get a wink of sleep that night, so I've learned my lesson. I am no Adam Richman from "Man vs. Food."

In another observation, I noticed that Thai food is actually very protein and starch heavy.  In the area of fruits and vegetables, fruit variety is definitely the winner, with so many choices ranging from mangos, to dragonfruit to mangosteen. I even had some fruit I've never had, like this plum that had a really thin skin.  I tried rambutan and durian. The durian wasn't as stinky as people say they are. Perhaps I got the newly genetically engineered variety?  Anyhow, it was surprisingly pleasant. As for vegetables, the closest I got to substantial vegetable eating was the kailan, which is a local broccoli.  Other veggie fillers are many different types of basil, morning glory and Thai eggplant, which is small and green in color.  When I get to Hong Kong, you can bet that I'll be ordering plates of choy sum!

Finally, for those of you who are bizarre food lovers, I was offered two grilled rats on a stick.  Since the rats are "field rats" they are supposedly okay to eat since they are vermin free. This is where I drew a line and didn't partake and surprisingly, none of the others around me seemed eager to try!  The interesting part of this is that it did smell really good as it was butterflied and marinate in soy.  I was tempted but didn't.  What a wimp!  In my second bizarre food episode, we had a thunderstorm which dumped a huge amount of rain on the village.  On the following day, all kinds of critters came out, including insects that feasted on rice, lizards, mini-iguana looking reptiles and various toads.  The villagers were having a field day. During nightfall, many went out in their motorcycles catching large toads and other animals that came out for water.  Many offered to sell us some for food. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to try any of these, but maybe in the future, I'll be brave enough to ask. 

In conclusion, many people here are enterprising and eat what is available to them. I almost forgot to mention that many people here make mango "fruit roll ups" dried in the sun and pick tamarind leafs right off of trees to season their food. This shows how close people are to their food - there are mango trees everywhere - and I am now learning that the fewer people there are between the source of your food and your mouth, the better tasting and presumably, healthier it is for you!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Songkran in the Village

Songkran began yesterday as with most days in the village, but the only difference was the loud music that rung through my bedroom windows in the morning. It seemed that the entire village decided to turn on their stereos at once and at nearly full blast. I noticed that everyone plays their own type of music ranging from sappy K-pop styles, to traditional Issan music to oldies and even English songs that I've never heard of.  Surprisingly, I think I am now able to tell all of the Thai types of music apart. In an aside, regarding Thai country music, I can draw a parallel to American country music.  When it's played, it is unmistakeably rural and those who like it are considered to be from the countryside and all of its supposedly negative connotations. (I saw a commercial to prove this). Good for the village to have their own music, in my humble opinion!

Before leaving the house, I put on my Songkran shirt, a pastelly-light red/peach flowered shirt traditionally worn for the occasion. In the US, this shirt would be called a Hawaiian Shirt. I had mentioned this to people in previous trips, but no one seems to know where's Hawaii. All everyone seems to know is that wearing one makes for a more festive mood. I settled into the store at around 8 a.m. and then all of a sudden I hear Buddhist chants in come through the village loudspeakers.  I couldn't identify whether it was in Thai or some other ancient language, but I could tell it was Buddhist due to its rhythm.  This went on for nearly 30 minutes with everyone going about their business for the day. 

As the day began, a small procession of families in pickup trucks trickled through the main road in front of the store. Most were on the way to the "big city" Kamphaeng Phet City, to participate in the water-splashing fun. Some were on their way to the local Budhhist temple. I, however, was busy filling water balloons, eager to use them later in the day on some of the kids down the road.  Each pickup that stopped by purchased items such as blocks of ice, used to cool the water that they would splash onto others, delivering a stunning sensation.  Some other items included packs of powdered yellow dye and small bottles of cologne that were mixed into the water. Bags of white powder (cassava flour) were bought to mix into a paste.  The paste is applied to someone's face and while applying it to a stranger's face, the person would say "Khor tort krap" which means "sorry" but in a good way.  My wife said it was a chance for boys to touch pretty girls' faces. Ah, they're all the same!

The family store sold all those supplies and business was brisk that day.  The only item wasn't sold was the water to fill the huge water urns loaded on the pickup truck.  I love drawing parallels, as I can remember that I begged my mom to give me a few dollars to buy packs for firecrackers for Chinese New Year and the Fourth of July.  Over here, kids ask their parents for a few baht to buy more powder, water pails or cologne,  really different but all in the effort to have more fun.

The blazing hot sun was high in the sky until until 4 p.m. That was when I changed, ventured out and decided to splash some people.  On Monday, which was the day before Songkran, some kids decided to start the splashfest early.  I brought some water balloons and launched them at the kids down the road.  They landed with a thud in front of them and all the kids noticed that it was probably launched by that big, fat guy down the road.  I sat down to sip some water but all of a sudden a group of six of the cutest kids, came upon me, pail in hand and some with waterguns, inundated me with water.  I was soaked from neck to toe and I was sure payback was sweet, especially since I surprised them with my long range weapon.

Two of the mothers of the kids came by on Songkran and asked me to join the fun at one of the water-splashing roadblocks set up in front of their house. I was first hesitant because my wife wasn't with me and I hardly spoke Thai.  I was convinced though by two girls who splashed me the day earlier. They grabbed my hand and we walked down the road, arriving at a newly formed pond.  The water was left running the entire day and a small pond formed.  People with jumping up and down in it, dancing, egged on by the loud country music blaring from huge speakers rigged in front of a tent.

When I arrived, I was greeted by pails of water and a hose aimed directly at me.  Now everything was wet and I was in total submission. I carried my water pistol sidearm, but that was nothing against pails of water being thrown in every direction.  Sensing my doom and otherness, the villagers were kind to me and offered me a huge glass of Hong Thong whiskey.  I declined with a nod and a smile and later, they offered me the one thing I could say in Thai which was water.  They pour me cup after cup of water and Pepsi, which kept me fueled for an hour. 

The kids were really fun and most knew my name because of my wife's 7 year old cousin. She joined us and just the day before, she had introduced me to all her friends.  An interesting thing that happened during all the fun was that the kids were teaching me a Songkran ritual.  I had heard in the past that the youth poured water on their elders hands during Songkran, and there is supposed to be a symbolic meaning to this.  The children filled my pail with water and asked me to pour water on their hands, all the while asking me to repeat after them, which I did. I had no idea what they asked me to say, only that after I poured water on their hands, they took whatever remained in their hands and poured it over their heads.  I thought it was very cute and hope I wasn't duped into saying something inappropriate.  Regardless, it was really cute!

The kids also made strong efforts to communicate with me.  Some of the kids knew rudimentary English, such as "What's your name?" or "Where are you from?"  These appeared to come from the older kids, maybe 9 or 10.  The younger ones, I played a game where I was doing  a repeat after me exercise, pointing out body parts. I also did a charade with animals.  All the children, about 8, got it and were playing along. It was quickly interrupted by an adult with a hose who didn't want the festivities to end with learning! I'm kidding of course!

The final notable activity was when I was asked to dance by the kids.  Apparently, a common type of dance here, which looks to me like a hip-hop, jazz fusion is done along with Thai country music.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to mimic their smooth movements, therefore, I decided to do what I knew which is "the robot" and faux Michael Jackson moves amusing most, but horrifying some. I think I earned a few sprays from the hose for doing it!  Was it a sign of approval? I hope so!

Early evening came and went. I returned to the store a sopping mess, leaving a trip of dripping water behind me.  I quickly changed and recounted my adventure with my wife.  She told me she was sad that she couldn't join me for all the fun, but I'm sure she was glad she was still dry and still looked like a civilized human being.  When it was all done, I had some of the best fun in my life. The village kids, their parents and extended families, knew I was a familiar face at the store, but never asked me to participate in anything.  This was their chance for to reach out.  Although I wished I knew more Thai, we still communicated, and I tried my best to use as many hand gestures that I learned through my years of teaching to get my points across.  I was able to do it and it was much fun when we connected. I hope I have more of these experiences before we leave!