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Every time I’m in New York I have a bit of an Asian food tour. There are old favourites – dim sum, banh hoi, and roti canai joints that I go back to nostalgically – but I’m also always on the lookout for new trends in the world’s most exciting food town. This time, I went to one restaurant that was well planned and another that I heard about randomly from the most unlikely source. My friend N is not a foodie – I’m sure she likes good food just fine but it’s not really her thing and she’s picky about a lot of ingredients. Specifically, she won’t eat fish in any form so Southeast Asian cuisine is less than ideal for her. Nonetheless, it was N who tipped me off to Zabb Elee, an Isaan place in the East Village. She said it was ‘too Thai’ for her but that her friends were really into it. Thriled by the prospect of returning to the wonderful food of Northern Thailand, I popped in for lunch. Since I was on my own, I only got to try one dish and unsurprisingly I chose a somtam. What was surprising was that there is a whole somtam section on the menu, offering not just the usual westernized version but a whole slew of options, including hardcore options like whole pickled crab. I had somtam korat, with papaya, Thai eggplant, roasted peanuts and pla ra, or fermented fish. It was amazing – combining roasty nuts with just the right balance of sourness, a little sugar and lots of heat. The waitress did ask how spicy I wanted it and when I said Thai spicy, she actually seemed to believe me. The place has already generated quite a lot of discussion on Chowhound and other food-oriented blogs and, as far as I can tell, the adulation is well deserved. I only ate one dish but somtam is a good standard by which to judge a Thai restaurant and Zabb Elee was as good as the Chiang Mai back alley…
For dinner, we went in a more upscale direction. My host L arranged a meet up with C, a good friend of hers and old colleague of mine, and after a long day of touristing I was ready for some girl talk in a nice restaurant setting. They’d schemed up a booking at Talde, “Angry Dale” from Top Chef’s restaurant in Park Slope. I was always a fan of Dale – he never really seemed especially angry to me and certainly not the unpleasant bullying personality of certain Top Chef contestants, naming no names…His Filipino-inspired Asian-American food always looked really delicious on television; playful in the right way, creative without being contrived. I was excited to go there and C kept us entertained on the trip with stories about her dating adventures and a photo of her hot new boyfriend (not that kind of photo, people, get your minds out of the gutter!).
Talde is in a really pretty corner space, decorated simply with dark wood carvings and beams against white walls. We settled into a spacious and private wooden booth and got the evening going with Brooklyn Slings (gin, cherry liqueur, citrus bitters and pineapple juice). The appetisers were a mixed bag: pretzel dough pork dumplings were fine but not as pretzel-y as one might have hoped. They also came with a mustard dressing that made several appearances on other dishes and which I could have kind of done without. I get the concept of pretzels and mustard but it didn’t quite fly. Much more successful was the perilla leaf with toasted shrimp, coconut, peanuts and bacon tamarind caramel. I think this type of dish is where Talde soars: it seems like too many ingredients but the effect is perfectly orchestrated, utterly delicious and a sure sign that a flavour mixing genius is at work.
For mains, we also shared a bunch of dishes: barbecue pork ribs with watermelon and Thai basil, spicy roasted corn, and Korean fried chicken with kimchee flavoured yoghurt, grapes and mint. This latter was my favourite, the kimchee yoghurt more refined than standard kimchee but with much of the same piquancy, and the grapes an unexpected freshness in an otherwise quite substantial plate. All of the mains were good but they went right up to the edge of my salt tolerance. They weren’t over salted, but any more seasoning and they would have been.
When the waitress came to ask if we wanted dessert, we almost said no. She told us there was only one dessert available: halo halo. Now I’m not a huge fan of this classic Filipino dessert of shaved ice. I find the mix-ins of beans and corn to be not so dessert-y for my western palate and the sugary syrup conversely too sweet. I should have known better. Angry Dale was not about to make regular halo halo. No, this halo halo featured a lemongrass-kaffir lime-condensed milk syrup, wok-fried banana and pineapple, braised mango, tapioca pearls and, the kicker, Captain Crunch cereal. Now, I appreciate that this photograph makes it look a bit like canned sweetcorn and/or sick, but please trust me when I say that this was one of the best desserts EVER. As L pointed out, it’s kind of like we got high on LSD and decided to eat a bowl of breakfast cereal. It was funny, refined, indulgent and just really well-balanced all at once. It came in a giant mixing bowl with separate little rice bowls for serving and we cheerfully monstered our way through the whole thing. As we got up to leave, we saw Formerly Angry Dale chatting companionably with customers at other tables. Overall, Talde was perhaps not my favourite Asian food in New York but Dale is a brilliant food mixologist and I would come back for that halo halo in a heartbeat.
Zabb Elee, 75 Second Ave (between 4th and 5th) New York NY 10003
Talde, 369 Seventh Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215
If you listened to the more cautious advice on eating in Southeast Asia, you would eat only cooked food, only hot food, only food prepared in front of you, only food in proper restaurants, no raw vegetables or non-peeling fruit, and definitely nothing you find down an alley. Food safety is an important thing and I definitely don’t want to catch hepatitis or food poisoning while I’m on holiday, but the problem is that if you followed all of these rules, you would basically eat nothing interesting in Thailand or Vietnam. So, I am breaking these rules one by one and instead following the advice of food bloggers like Eating Asia who know a lot about street food and balance culinary adventure with food sense. I’m eating street food at busy stalls, where I can see from the local clientele that standards are high. I’m choosing stalls with a lot of product and hence a lot of turnover – nothing is sitting for too long when a vendor is popular. I’m trying to go at busy times – kanom jeen or jook at breakfast, somtam at lunch, grilled meats early in the evening market hours. You can tell when food looks forlorn, stale, or, in one horrifying case, covered in bees. Really, it wasn’t a major piece of deductive reasoning to decide that bee-covered fruit is not the healthy way to go.
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I’m not generally a fan of specialist kitchen equipment. Mostly, this is because I’ve spent my life cooking in tiny kitchens where finding a place to plug in both a coffee maker and a toaster is a stretch, never mind room for juice extractors, cherry stoners and the like. Urban cooking tends to focus your attention on basic kit: good knives, chopping boards and as many Le Creuset pots as can be stuffed in the cupboard without undermining the floor. I also tend to agree with Alton Brown’s rule of thumb that if a device can only be used for one thing – aka the unitasker – then it doesn’t deserve a place in your kitchen. (I should note the less well-known but equally valuable theory of my friend P, who applies this swiss-army knife rule to men.) People who don’t cook much tend to fetishise these uber-specialist devices whereas those of us who do are more likely to shrug our shoulders and attack the task with a knife or a rolling pin. But all that said, there are some objects that are so beautiful, so perfectly adapted to their culinary task, that they cannot be denied. These are not objects invented to fill the shelves of bougie culinary stores and provide unwanted Christmas gifts for foodies, but rather created to do a specific and important job in a particular food culture. These are objects that resonate, and recently, two of them appeared in my life.
The first is the device in the photograph above. Can you guess what it is? It’s a coconut scraper, a very simple thing made of metal and plastic, and it came to me from half-way across the world. Recently, I met up with inspirational food writer Naomi Duguid in London. You might know Naomi from her wonderful books on Asian food, cowritten with Jeffrey Alford, such as Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet and Mangoes and Curry Leaves. I’ve long been a fan of her writing, which combines delicious recipes with an infectious curiosity about cultures and foodways, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend some time with her on her trip to the UK. We poked around some East London markets, which didn’t turn out to have as much in the way of food as we’d hoped, but it was a beautiful day and the markets were full of flowers and books and interesting stuff. Naomi arrived with the coconut scraper, which she brought for me as a gift from her recent travels in Burma. How wonderful is that? It’s a humble tool but a remarkably effective one for scraping the meat out of fresh coconuts, and a really beautiful gift.
The second object is this gorgeous Thai somtam mortar and pestle. I had been reading about somtam – you know that I’m mildly obsessed with the stuff – and noted that Thai cooks use a special conical shaped mortar and pestle to create the distinctive pounded effect. I’ve also made it many a time in my standard European mortar and pestle and it is, to be honest, a bit of a faff. For one thing, my mortar and pestle isn’t nearly big enough, and for another you don’t really want to do the swirling around the bottom of the bowl hand movement when pounding somtam, so the mortar isn’t really the right shape. Then, one day we went grocery shopping in one of the Asian stores in town, and I noticed on a low shelf what looked exactly like the Thai conical mortar and pestles I’d been reading about. Holy synchronicity, Batman! They were wrapped up in newspaper and as I pulled one out and unwrapped it, I could see it was exactly that: a beautiful earthenware mortar with carved wooden pestle, carefully wrapped in Thai-language newsprint. Clearly, this lovely object had appeared in my life for a reason.
So one of these implements is definitely much more practically useful than the other. If I’m being honest, I still prefer to do my fresh coconut in the Cuisinart than by hand. The Burmese scraper does produce a fluffier result but it would take a long-ass time to scrape a whole coconut by hand. The somtam mortar and pestle, meanwhile, is just a joy to use, the shape perfect for pounding and the wooden pestle light enough not to destroy the delicate vegetables. All the same, they are both objects to treasure. I made a meal this week to celebrate both of them: Indonesian lamb shanks cooked with fresh coconut, coconut water, and coconut milk, and Thai green papaya, tomato and green bean somtam. We shared it with lovely visitors from Croatia D&I – it seemed apt to celebrate Naomi’s gift from abroad with new friends from yet another part of the world.
The lamb shanks I adapted from one of James Oseland’s recipes. It’s peppery rather than chili hot, and the three types of coconut offset the spiciness. It was a lovely long-cooked dish somewhat in the manner of a rendang, although saucier as you add in a bunch more coconut milk at the end.
The somtam was a quick papaya somtam, something fresh to counter the richness of the lamb shanks. A bit fusion mixing Indonesian and Thai, perhaps, but I tend to think somtam is never inappropriate as a vegetable dish. I dialed down the chilies because the lamb was quite peppery and because I wanted to showcase the light new Vietnamese fish sauce I bought in London.
I’m going to Chiang Mai in December, and one of the things I’m most looking forward to is the varieties of Northern somtam. My friends know that I’m an absolute sucker for green papaya salad, which I find it hard not to order in any Thai restaurant, but the mild papaya version we get in the west is just the tip of the Thai somtam iceberg. (I’m not sure how I feel about that metaphor but let’s go with the awesome vision of a somtam iceberg, shall we?) Eating Asia had a great piece a while back on the many types of somtam, where Robyn pointed out that somtam is more of a method of preparation – pounding ingredients into a dressing in a mortar and pestle – than it is a set of ingredients. As luck would have it, I had reason to call upon that knowledge when I was prepping my own somtam last night.