The Joy of Padang Food – Singapore

nasi padang yay
Nasi Padang at Sabar Menanti.

“What the hell is Padang food?” you may ask yourself one day, if you happen to be looking for lunch in Singapore, Indonesia, or Malaysia. “Does this have something to do with Penang?”

Ah, you fool, it has jack-all to do with a charming city in Malaysia, but in fact describes a style of cuisine typical of the Minangkabau people of  Western Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. Typified by robust spices, long cooking times to ensure maximum flavor, and considerable quantities of coconut, it’s a style that many overseas associate with all Indonesian food. Padang food is available just about everywhere in Indonesia, and is exceedingly popular at lunch time.

The title “nasi padang” usually describes restaurants that function rather like point-and-shoot buffets: a wide array of items are presented behind a glass counter, and you point at what you want to flavor your rice, which is usually served in a whimsical cone shape. Prices are low, service is instant, and it’s a marvelous way to inexpensively sample a wide array of different Indonesian flavors. Some up-scale restaurants will bring all the dishes to your table right off the bat, and you only pay for what you actually touch.

Singapore, thank God, has a healthy assortment of Padang restaurants, and you’ll find most of them in the antique and pleasantly walkable Kompong Glam neighborhood, an easy stroll from multiple metro stops.Certainly Singapore’s most well-known Padang joints are clustered here, and working stiffs on their lunch breaks filter into the area in packs starting around 11:00 AM on any given day. Kompong Glam, with its candy-colored shop houses and beautiful old mosque, is well worth a visit in and of itself.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.
Selection at Sabar Menanti.


  • 778 Northbridge Road, Singapore
  • +65 6294 4805

I wanted to try a new padang place this visit to Singapore, and a quick perusal of the usual Internet food-related forums convinced me to give this one a go – based on its reputation for fresh food, and its remarkable 50-year longevity. No one, of course, had mentioned that it moved. I went to the old location on Kandahar Street, stared at it for a bit in bovine, hunger-induced confusion, and decided to wander around Kompong Glam’s profusion of fancy carpet and fabric shops for a while.

sabar menanti

Quite accidentally, I found myself at the new storefront, where a chipper, seeming member of the family that owns the place just about pounced at me when I paused outside the door. I had found the right spot, and everyone seemed very happy to see me. All of this struck me as particularly pertinent, considering that the restaurant name translates roughly into “Good things come to those who wait”. (They could stand to do a better job of communicating to their public that they’ve moved).

I’m terribly glad I stopped, because Sabar Menanti is serving just about the best padang food I’ve ever had – and it’s not even in Indonesia.  Chew mussels were cooked in a slightly sweet red chili sauce, while cucumber and carrots were sliced up and tossed in a rich, eggy yellow concoction.

I was particularly delighted by the three kinds of fresh sambal on offer: a chunky red chili paste, a smooth, vibrant classic red sambal, and an incendiary green variant. The entire plate was delightful to look at and entirely irresistible: I inhaled it within 10 minutes, and briefly considered seconds.

Anthony Bourdain, who gives me minor rage headaches, seems to agree: he’s got a signed plaque on the wall. I vaguely recall that episode of No Reservations but I believe I’ve blocked it out. Bourdain phobia aside, I highly suggest you give this place a whirl when you’re in the area.

minang storefront


  • 18 & 18A Kandahar Street, Singapore, 198884
  • +65 6294 4805


Rumah Makan Minang is one of the stalwart Nasi Padang joints in Kompong Glam and certainly seems to attract the longest, most devoted lines. I clearly remember first  stumbling upon this place during a gloamy evening in 2010 and thinking “I have got to eat here.” Everyone seems to feel the same way, considering that it’s been in operation since 1954 with little sign of lacking in popularity.

Which I did and do, seemingly whenever I return to the area. Minang specializes particularly in Indonesian tofu dishes and beef rendang, but this time around, I simply ordered from what was behind the window.

A man at the next table and his friend were digging into a gigantic concoction I had always wondered about but had never ordered, and I asked him, as I walked to my table, what it was.

“You must have some!” he demanded, placing some on my plate. He then pretended to take some of my chicken, and we all laughed at each other. It was in fact an excellent and monumental rendition of Tahu Telor, fried tofu mixed with eggs, topped with bean sprouts and carrot, and served with dark soy sauce.

Standouts included stir-fried greens with sambal belacan (shrimp paste), braised chicken in sweet soy sauce with a hint of chili, and flaky tofu with chili. Still, it wasn’t as good as Sabar Menanti: the flavors weren’t as fresh, and there wasn’t as much variety. Perhaps I’ll try ordering off the menu here next time, especially if the rendang isn’t up at the counter.

minang plate

Beyond these two stand-bys, there are sundry great padang options in Singapore, and it’s not to be missed if you’re in the city and want to try something different.

I maintain that the first person to realize that padang food is profoundly marketable to obnoxious Silicon Valley types will get obscenely rich – especially if they serve their food out of a graffiti-adorned food truck at music festivals.

Some Things I Approve Of in Chiang Mai – Sausage, Khao Soi, Night Markets

khao soi accompaniments

Khao Soi

Khao soi is my favorite noodle dish in Asia, and that’s really saying quite a lot, considering the dizzying biodiversity of noodle soups in this region of the world. Thought to be of Burmese origin, the dish has been modified in Northern Thailand, and is, I think, superior to the original.

The essential deal here is a combo of spicy and richly flavored coconut milk broth flavored with a pungent curry paste, tender chicken or pork, chewy yellow noodles, and a topping of crispy deep fried noodles, sometimes substituted with fried pork skins. With a bowl of khao soi, you’re also given pickled cabbage, raw shallot, lime juice, and usually additional chili paste, which can be applied to taste.

Yes please.
Yes please.

The final result, with plenty of lime juice and supplemental chili in my case, is among the more sublime lunch specialties in the world – a perfect mix of spicy, sweet, tangy, and crunchy. I’ve found myself managing to work in two bowls of the stuff a day in khao soi country, especially as every restaurant seems to make it in a slightly different way. Chicken is usually the more common variety on offer, especially as it’s considered a Muslim-influenced dish, but I’m partial to the pork version when I can get it. Sometimes, chunks of blood are also thrown into the broth as well, especially up near Chiang Rai. You are welcome to quietly pick them out.

Hunting good khao soi is a pleasant endeavor, but I can suggest a little cafe right off the city wall with excellent khao soi. I didn’t get the name, but you’ll see it on the left if you are headed towards Arak Road Lane 5 on the main Arak Road (on the side of the city walls), right after you pass Sinharat Road Lane 2.  Here’s a Google Maps link to the approximate location.

I came upon the place after unsuccessfully hunting another khao soi joint, and was glad I gave it a whirl: deliciously flavored, thick broth, and pork chunks as well as meatballs in the soup. I believe I *maybe* paid the equivalent of $3.

chiang mai art market

Saturday Night Market

Chiang Mai is home to a number of well-known universities, and with higher education, comes hipster kids with weird aesthetics and  a burning desire for pocket money. This means that while the Saturday Night Market on Wualai Road (near the Chiang Mai Gate) does contain the usual assortment of generic Thai crapola – wooden frogs, obscene key-chains, those horrid elephant pants – there’s also a pleasing variety of interesting stuff, produced by young, local artists.

I usually come away from here with a pleasant selection of eccentric, cheap things. This time, it was a tote bag with watercolor paintings of fish on it and the word “Mackerel,” as well as a large sticker of a tiger’s head with “FUCK COMIC SANS” written on it. It’s the vastest night market I’ve ever run across in Asia, bustling along until well after 10:30 PM, and walkable for what seems like almost a mile. Tentacles of night time commerce spread off into the side streets from the main event, prompting pleasant wandering out of the heat of the day.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.
Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

The Saturday Night Market also has a nice selection of food stalls, with authentic Thai specialties and not-so-authentic, as well as buskers and performances. The vibe of the event is perhaps its biggest selling point, with a particular, local energy that is quite fun to jump into as a visitor. Finally, there’s spectacular people-watching — well, if you like seeing backpackers clash with Thai hipsters, annoyed looking elderly food sellers, and befuddled looking middle-aged Aussies in singlets. And of course you like that, everyone with any taste likes that.

chiang mai sausages better
Died and found myself alighting in Pork Heaven.

 A Dizzying Array of Delicious Pork Products

chiang mai pork rinds
Thai pork rinds.

My family hails from the Southern United States, a part of the world with a deep, spiritual relationship with eating pigs. Northern Thailand shares this intense porcine affinity with Appalachia, and Chiang Mai’s food markets offer a delightful array of pork products, all at highly reasonable prices and with intense flavoring.

A particular standout is sai ua or Northern Thai sausage, produced with a combination of minced pork, curry paste, herbs, and Thai spices. The end result is a delightfully fresh and unexpected snack that is likely unlike anything you’ve tasted before, at least if you hail from the West. Sai ua is usually sold in long links, and is typically eaten plain, although some clever person needs to take this Thai hot dog concept to the slavering, food-truck besotted masses of Silicon Valley or Portland.

Yet another delightful Northern sausage product is fermented pork sausage (sai krok Isan), which is made with a combination of pork and rice – for you Louisiana people, it’s essentially Thai boudin with a tangy, funky additional kick from the fermentation process. It’s completely addictive and I find it very difficult to step away from stalls that sell it, usually packed into small balls that can easily be scooped up with a cabbage leaf and a fresh, incendiary green chili.

Also worth seeking out are meaty pork rinds, which are of course nothing more or less than deep-fried pork skin. Much of the world seems to find the idea of merrily consuming fried pig epidermis to be deeply disturbing, but both my noble Southern ancestors and the people of Northern Thailand consider them to be a marvelous delicacy, perfect with a beer or three. Not all pork rinds are created equal – some are fresher and meatier than others, while some feature a nice dusting of spicy chili – so it’s worth experimenting from Chiang Mai’s sundry meat-selling ladies. If I can, I like to toss them with some vinegar-based hot sauce, in the finest New Orleans style, but they’re quite delectable without.

Tamarind leaf salad.
Tamarind leaf salad.

Isaan Food

It’s tragic, but the Isaan food typical of Northern Thailand and adjoining regions of Laos is very little known outside of Southeast Asia. True: it’s spicy and often features ingredients that can charitably be described as eccentric, but I’m very partial to its freshness and unabashedly pungent nature. Pungent, rustic-style fish sauce, chili, pickles all sorts, fresh herbs, sticky rice, and smoky flavors are all typical of Isaan food, as well as “jungle” curries more reliant on herbs than they are on rich coconut milk and large quantities of meat.

If you’ve had and enjoyed tangy, eye-bleedingly spicy papaya salad (som tum) before, you’ve had a bit of exposure to Isaan food. In the Lao and Northern style, it’s made with more fish sauce and chili than the versions you’ll find in the South. It’s been written that Isaan food is so aggressively flavored in an effort to make residents of the traditionally poor region be content with padding their meals out primarily with sticky rice. It sounds legitimate enough, especially when one takes into account the fact that sticky rice has a habit of expanding in one’s stomach.

Pleasingly, Chiang Mai is a great, central place to sample good Isaan food in all its variety, and there’s tons of restaurants to choose from. Some places may bill themselves as Lanna or Northern Thai in lieu of Isaan, but there’s considerable overlap in style between them.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or "salsa) with tomato and eggplant.
Nam phrik (Thai dip or “salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Considering that most Isaan restaurants are fluorescent lit mom-and-pop affairs – which is fine, but sometimes you’re perversely interested in a hint of ambiance, or at least clean tables – I was particularly impressed with the contemporary design of Tong Tem Toh, a Northern Thai restaurant located close to Chiang Mai University.

Up the almost painfully hip 11 Nimman Haeminda Soi 13, it’s popular with young Thais, and has an extensive menu of dishes that are distinctly hard to find elsewhere – though in the evening, there’s plenty of charcoal grilled meats on offer for those in your group with cowardly palates. Always be sure to emphasize that you want your food spicy when dining as a Westerner in Isaan establishments,, as Thais, usually correctly, assume that foreigners can’t hang.

I’m fascinated by the array of nam phrik (Thai “dip” or “salsa”) specialties available in the North, which are a handy answer to Mexican-style salsa bars. Here, we enjoyed a bowl of nam phrik ong, which is best described as Thai bolognese: minced pork, tomato, and smoky chili, served with fresh vegetables for dipping and scooping. It was entirely addictive and I’m learning to make it. The menu also has nam phrik num, a green Thai “salsa” made with roasted green chiles that would fit in beautifully on any given enchilada.

issan bamboo shoots
Bamboo shoots in coconut milk with pork.

We also tried fresh, herbaceous tamarind leaf salad with a fish sauce dressing and a liberal topping of pork rinds, as well as bamboo shoots cooked pork and a little bit of coconut milk and chili (which could have been a little warmer). Joining these dishes was a tasty serving of egg, rice, and pork sausage (jeen som mok kai) with peanuts and fresh garlic on the side, as well as a tasty version of sai ua with lots of pungent flavor.

Best of all was the Northern style pork belly curry, with big chunks of tender, fatty pork in a complex, smoky-tasting sauce, with peanuts and tamarind juice and a bit of coconut milk. We offset everything with little balls of sticky rice from nice woven bamboo containers, and a hefty quantity of Chang beer.

Taiwan: Taipei Night Markets

cooking night market

Night markets are likely Taipei’s most iconic attraction, and probably the one most visible to those who have never visited the country before. Food Adventurers like Anthony Bourdain regularly traipse through them with a camera crew following behind, sampling this and that from different carts, beneath a canopy of red-and-yellow lights.

Not that I’m going to be contrary, regardless of my opinion on Xtreme Travel television shows. Taipei night markets are awesome, and the food is unmissable. They’re huge, walking food-courts, and if you do manage to find a place to sit and eat, they provide remarkably pleasing people-watching, with all of Taipei’s different subcultures on display.

All are united by one thing: the desire to eat something inexpensive, tasty, and preferably exceedingly fully-flavored. And they do mean full flavored: as a friend of mine observed to me yesterday, “I think Taipei is the stinkiest city in the world.” (In the good way).

Kids gambling for prizes.
Kids gambling for prizes.

We visited a few different night markets in Taipei but were particularly taken with the Ningxia street variant. It’s an easy stroll from the Shuanglian or Zhongshan MRT stops, and you’ll know it when you see it from the surrounding commotion on any given evening. Friday evening found the place packed face-to-back with strolling, hungry people, perusing the wares from stands that seemed to be intentionally packed uncomfortably close together.

Once you get over the closeness of the situation, you quickly realize that English signage has been provided for your convenience (well, probably), making it a bit easier to determine what you’re actually getting. Not that it’s too important: if it looks good, point at it, pay a rather nominal amount of money, and you’ll be eating it within five minutes.

taiwan oyster pancake

Taiwan has unusually fantastic oysters – tiny and briny, with a delicate texture. It’s considered essentially mandatory to order oyster omelette at the night markets here, which is made with egg, oysters, green onion, and some starch to give the whole affair a characteristically glutinous texture.

making oyster pancke

The starch is tossed into the skillet, the eggs come next, and then come the oysters. It’s all served with a slightly sweet, savory sauce that’s placed on top, and there’s chili sauce on the table. It’s a pleasantly filling and briny comfort food, the sort of thing I wish you could just order ordinarily for breakfast at American diners.

spicy chicken nuggets

They didn’t really look like much, but it turns out that the Taiwanese have, through some dark pact, become some of the finest chicken friers in the world. We were exceedingly impressed with this bag of dark meat chicken nuggets, coated with a pungent dusting of five spice powder, chili, some sugar, and who-knows-what-else. Also keep an eye out for fried Taiwanese chicken served with a distinctive vinegar sauce, an elegant combination of flavors.

sea urchins

Seafood is an immense draw at the nightmarkets, with great assortments of prawns, lobsters, sea urchins, and oysters large and small displayed on ice and ready for grilling or stir-frying.

grilling scallops

It’s beautiful, fresh seafood that would be the envy of any locavore snob with a fixed gear bicycle in San Francisco. (Taiwan, of course, has its own complement of people with ironic facial hair who ride fixies and have very strong opinions about food.)

squid stands alone

Both squid and chicken cutlets are flattened to remarkable dimensions and flash-fried here, providing one with a conveniently hand-held slab of protein custom built for walking around and looking at things. Sitting while eating is not considered particularly important in Taiwan.

stir frying

We also tried the “aboriginal style pork sausage,” which tasted pretty much like a standard Asian style sweet sausage but was quite tasty. Beyond that, we simply wandered around taking in the energy of the place, and enjoying the photographic potential one is accorded by a place with a whole lot of different kinds of lighting.

Night time in Taipei.
Night time in Taipei.

Taiwan: Longshan Temple and Shaved Ice

Longshan Temple roof.
Longshan Temple roof.

On Tuesday, I went to the Mengjia Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s largest and most long-standing places of worship. It’s been around since 1738, albeit in different incarnations, and was last extensively rebuilt in World War II following bombardment by Americans.

Lighting candles.
Lighting candles.

On a Tuesday morning, the place is choked with worshipers lighting incense and candles and making the rounds, flanked by nuns and monks in light grey robes, many of whom have prayer beads and other knick-knacks to sell. The ambiance is like that of a Chinese temple most any place, but it’s a nice little look into popular religion in Taiwanese.

Of particular appeal are the lush grounds, featuring a waterfall, plenty of Rubenesque koi fish, and this fantastic dragon fountain that spurts water.


The area around Longshan is a busy shopping district with a lot of Taiwanese Sports Lottery storefronts, appliance stores, and the usual glut of Family Mart and 7-11 emporiums. I wandered around for a while, growing increasingly hot, and ducked into a Taiwanese buffet for lunch. It’s less of a buffet and more of a point-and-eat: lots of appealing food is laid out in a row and you point at what you want.

A severe looking woman spoons your food onto a platter and also hands you a bowl of rice, and you’re welcome to select a pot of soup as well. Mix your own sauces, then eat. Cheap and delicious, especially the eggplant and the braised spinach with tiny white fish.

sun yat sen statue
I hopped back on the remarkably pleasant MRT and headed to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, which commemorates the other national political hero of the Taiwanese people. Dr Yat-sen had a remarkably adventurous life and attempted to carry out numerous revolutions before his ultimate success, a fact that the displays here are keen to remind you of. There’s signs in both Chinese and English, and it’s a pleasant way to learn about how Taiwanese democracy came to be — although I admit I’m not much closer to entirely grokking the fiendishly complex 20th century political history of China. It’s a start.

changing of the guard sun yat sen

Much the same as the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, there’s a constant guard here that changes on the hour, which is fun to watch for a while if you’re willing to brave the crowds that apparate within two minutes of the ceremony beginning. The rest of the hall, which encompasses four stories, includes adult classrooms, galleries with a somewhat random smattering of art and photography exhibits, and an air conditioned and very popular periodical room with lots of people taking naps. There’s also a cafe and a gift-shop, in which I purchased a t-shirt featuring a jade cabbage. This made me happy.

taiwanese shaved ice

In the evening, I decided to find a place to locate Taiwanese shaved ice, which is sliced off a big block in pretty much the exact same way as gyros meat. (The flavor is different, you’ll be happy to know).

It’s a specialty that has made its way to Silicon Valley in recent months, to the general acclaim of some of my friends, and I wanted to try the stuff in its native land. The Smoothie House came highly recommended, so I made my way to Yong Kang Street, which was full of wandering snackers at 9:00 PM. Mango is the big hit here but decent strawberries are rather harder to find in Southeast Asia, so I went with the strawberry sorbet option.

The menu.
The menu.

Verdict? A pleasingly light and rather immense dessert, with a curious but highly enjoyable “fluff” texture. Rather like eating frozen cotton candy, flavored nicely by the sorbet on top and the fresh strawberries. This is probably the ideal way to restore one’s electrolytes after a face-meltingly hot day of tourism in Taipei’s heat.

Mango Snowflake facade.
Mango Snowflake facade.




A Few Good Dishes: Asia 2013

Here’s an unscientific look at some of the finest — or most memorable — things I ate during a year or so of wandering around Southeast Asia.

Warung Sari Alam, Ende, Flores.

Indonesian food is delicious. As I learned soon enough during my time there, Indonesian food is also exceptionally repetitive. Once you’ve burned through the quotidian pleasures of nasi goreng, rendang, kang-kung, and satay, one quickly realizes that it is about what’s on offer in most places.

The selection tends to drop down to rendang, fried chicken, and squid in coconut milk in most places in Flores, a remote section of Indonesia that sees few tourists and doesn’t exactly have access to the monstrous infrastructure of the fast-food world. I did discover an excellent buffet-style warung in Ende, Flores, a town of stunning natural beauty not exactly renowned for its cuisine. It’s called the Warung Sari Alam and is located on Jalan Ahmad Yani on Flores. You order like at most warungs: go check out various cauldrons and containers of food, point at what you ike, and pay according to your selections — it’s not going to be very much whatever you do, so you have license to go nuts.

Ask them to add sambal and you’re golden. Do not panic upon realizing that nothing is refrigrated or even kept particularly warm. The particularly oily, spicy nature of Indonesian food tends to keep stuff from delving into food-poisoning land. The above image portrays a fairly typical, if unusually delicious warung plate, complete with stir-fried sambal shrimp, chili eggplant, kang-kung, rendang, coconut curry over rice, and a selection of excellent home-made sambals. Whoever transports this concept to the US and manages to make it hip will become fabulously wealthy. At least on the coasts.

Ristorante delle Mitre, Manila, Philippines

My favorite restaurant in Manila has a theme: bishops. No, really, it’s called the Ristorante delle Mitre and every item on the menu is a favorite of a Filipino senior priest, bishop, or archbishop. The religious theme extends to the kitchen: the staff are nuns, and many of the customers are members of the Catholic clergy in one role or another. The food is Filipino-Spanish and reminds me very much of the Cuban food I grew up with as a unicorn-like native Floridian— perhaps not surprising, as the food of Spanish colonies seems to evolve in rather similar ways.

I had an excellent creamy seafood chowder, followed by a dish of tender braised pork knuckle served over plantains in a rich brown gravy. Other favorite dishes include citrus adobo, sinigang, crispy pata and other stand-bys. Even the coffee is pretty good. The dining room reminds me of the quiet Cuban coffee shops I know from my Florida visits, all wooden accents and yellow walls, and features various jaunty bishop accessories — including sparkly hats, vestments, and many and sundry images of Jesus. Nip across the street to the San Agustin Church for the whole Catholic immersive experience.

Pad Thai Ari, Ari BTS stop (near), Bangkok, Thailand

I will admit to the world that I am not a huge consumer of carbs. I am not one of those loathsome paleo diet people, nor do I need to engage in a course of slimming: I simply find I feel better if I keep my carb intake relatively low. It’s not a militant rule — people with militant dietary rules are rarely invited back to parties — but I was nevertheless delighted to discover that a few special Bangok eateries will make their pad thai with stir-fried green papaya instead of rice noodles. Such is the case at Pad Thai Ari, a quiet little lunch spot near the Ari BTS stop.

I stay at the Chew House guesthouse right over here and always stop in at Pad Thai Ari when I’m in Bangkok, although I have a remarkable talent for walking the wrong way down the street to get to it. Open by 11, it caters to a crowd of Bangkok lunch-types, and the choices for pad thai, er, stuff, are manifold: rice noodles, ramen noodles, papaya, egg noodles, macaroni, you name it! You can order pad thai with small shrimp or big shrimp: I always go for the big shrimp, which are hulking, juicy beasts with delectably juicy heads. Always eat the heads. Wash it down with a hibiscus juice, thank me later.

Aung Mingalar Shan Noodle Restaurant, Yangon, Burma

I admit to knowing little about the Shan people of Burma and even less about their food. Other than that it is delicious. A contact of mine invited me to meet him at the Aung Mingalar Restaurant in Yangon and I was pleased to make the discovery, as long-time fan of the coconut milk and chicken Shan noodles that pop up throughout the streets of Burma.

To go with our soup Shan noodles, we ordered steamed dumplings: which came out with a surprising and incredibly aesthetically pleasing fried dough topping. There was something incredibly personally satisfying about stabbing through the crispy dough to get to the hot dumplings: an aural and textural experience that I was pleased to encounter. I wish more dumpling-shillers would do this. Get on it, people.

Chicken liver biryani, Yangon.

Biryani is one of Yangon’s most famous and most rewarding food-stuffs, an Indian dish brought to Burma and transposed through local sensibilities. Fast food joints haven’t really hit Burma (yet) and the biryani shop fills the gap: cheap, greasy, good, and quick. Rice and meat and grease are cooked in enormous pots set up outside the restaurant, and you’ll usually get a choice of at least chicken or mutton.

But to my mind, the holy grail is chicken liver biryani, one of the most obscene-tasting foodstuffs I’ve eaten in Southeast Asia. Greasy, gamy, chewy, and mildly dangerous, I always have to subject myself to the tender pleasures of chicken liver biryani when I find myself in Yangon. Extra points if the outlet you’ve found serves plain yogurt to counteract the funk.

Where to find it? Look around Yangon, look for silver pots, chaos, a lunch-time crowd and a particular turmeric whiff in the air. It is then evident.

Ankermi Happy Dive, Maumere, Flores

Good food is usually not a staple of scuba-diving resorts, and especially not in Flores, where the quality of local food is usually best described as “mostly edible.” The Ankermi Happy Dive in Maumere proved a happy exception: their little kitchen turns out enormous, delicious portions of Indonesian staples with fresh ingredients. I tend to come out of the water ravenously hungry post-diving (usually for fish, which is perverse), and you can imagine my delight at being presented with this lovely Indonesian fish curry as I slowly drip-dried.

Indonesian curry doesn’t have the complexity of the Indian varietal, but with the right blend of spices and a dash of coconut milk, it can delightfully gritty and earthy. The kitchen here threw in some squash and whole red chilis, which was an added touch — and dark meat chicken, since white meat chicken is best reserved for dogs and weight-conscious Californians.

Babi Guling Ibu Oka, Ubud, Bali

Ah, babi guling. Most Indonesians aren’t keen on pork, as the vast majority are Muslims, but Bali presents a delicious exception to the rule with their local speciality of crisp roasted baby pig. In Bali, pigs are roasted over spits, bathed with coconut milk and secret spices, and then served with spicy, slightly dry sambal, as well as a entirely delightful side of the crispy skin. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get some pork bone soup to go with. There’s a lot of places to eat babi guling, but the stand-by of the genre is definitely Babi Guling Ibu Oka, which has multiple locations in Ubud and tends to do a cracking business with tourists.

Tourists aside, it’s delicious babi guling, an outlet is located right next to the Ubud Royal Palace, and you can also order a sampler with Balinese-style sausage if the urge strikes. They’ll wrap it all up in a convenient cone for you if you’re a workman or just compelled to work somewhere, as can be done with seemingly all food in Indonesia.

Golden Star Restaurant, upper 50 Street, Yangon, Burma

I first went to the Golden Star with a friend in November, and wrote a glowing review of this appealing little side-street tea house owned by an exceptionally gregarious family. These are dry-style Shan noodles, a delightful breakfast concoction of chicken stewed in coconut milk, peanuts, and scallions, served with chicken broth that you can pour over at your discretion. Something about this elegant little breakfast speaks to my depths: something is comforting to the psyche about hot aromatic noodles first thing in the morning. Pair with one of the flaky pastries the Golden Star family churns out in their small leafy courtyard: the morning is established.

Consider the Southern Sandwich: Dairy Center, Mt Airy


Dairy Center – Mt Airy, North Carolina
407 W Lebanon St, Mt Airy, NC 27030

Consider the Southern sandwich.
Dairy Center is a North Carolina burgers-and-sandwiches joint that would be absolutely heaving with bored-looking foodies if it were located in a major metro area, the sort of folks who of a weekend find themselves seeking Americana, grease, and a rootsy addition to their food blog.

Located as Dairy Center actually is in small-town Mt Airy, it’s instead a circa-the-1950s part of the scenery — the sort of place where local high-school kids get after school jobs and stand behind the counter looking alternately nervous and perky, the walls are plastered in North Carolina errata, the owner/chef is gamely manning the fry-counter, and the decor has not perceptibly changed in at least 20 years (which is as far back as I remember it).


Dairy Center specializes in the ground steak sandwich, which has become one of those culinary specialties that Mt Airy people have flown in for their far-away weddings, or at least reminiscence about sadly past a certain hour in distant locales. This is really all you should be bothering with here, burger be damned.

What’s a ground steak sandwich? It’s a Great Depression-friendly combination of ground beef, flour, and milk, which creates a distinctly creamy and smooth filling — somewhat like a dairy-centric Sloppy Joe, with a much more pleasing texture.

They come dressed with chili, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise, as well as onions, and only a total degenerate would order one plain. It costs $2. Andy Griffith was rumored to have loved them, but it’s worth contemplating that Andy Griffith has been somehow associated with essentially every bush, shrub, and old lady in Mt Airy in one way or another.


The chili is the meaty, smooth-in-texture stuff that pops up often in the Smoky Mountains. It’s chock full of cumin, not particularly hot, and widely applicable in all manner of culinary contexts, including on the more famous porkchop sandwich found at Snappy Lunch on Mt Airy’s main drag.


There’s also North Carolina coleslaw, an exceptionally finely chopped and delicately dressed condiment to rival the world’s finest — not the mayonnaise choked and vile disaster that coleslaw so often becomes. It is superb on sandwiches, especially those involving smoked pork, and I am not sure how Yankees, the wretched creatures, stomach the alternative.

The fries on offer here are best described as the Wavy Kind: I find them a bit undercooked, but my uncle is very fond of them. They are what they are.

Dairy Center also makes small, eye-bleedingly-red hot dogs with the same chili on them, wrapped in paper and squished beyond recognition. They can be consumed in about 4 bites if you’re ambitious, and would probably be sublime if one is hung over.

Indeed, that nearly-translucent Paper You Wrap Fast Food, unprinted with slogans or cartoon art, is becoming something of a rarity in today’s America, unless it is used ironically.

There’s also ice cream: I remember eating the strawberry ice cream in the parking lot here over a couple of summers, out of a white Styrofoam cup. In the warmer months, the parking lot and picnic tables outside are a nice place to be, if you can stomach the humidity of a Mt Airy summer.

Here, you can be certain you are not eating anything flavored with irony. You are simply eating a good Southern sandwich in small-town North Carolina. This is more than enough.    dairycenter3

22 Square: distinctly un-Paula-Deen eats in Savannah

14 Barnard Street
Savannah, GA 31401

Facebook page—with a copy of the menu

Savannah’s culinary scene is inextricably linked with Paula Deen, the slightly wild-eyed Empress of Butterfat whose culinary stylings wage gleeful warfare against the forces of heart-healthy diets and tempeh. This means that tourists in Savannah almost invariably find themselves washing up at Deen’s flagship “The Lady and Son’s” restaurant, reveling in dishes that involve a pound and a half of sour cream–and that’s after plating.

But contrary to popular international opinion, Southern cuisine actually isn’t all about butter, cream, and eventual artery explosion. The history of the Southern table is rooted in fresh and local ingredients, and some young chefs—even here in Savannah—are exploring the possibilities of farm to table food, right in the dragon’s den of caloric, ever-so-slightly trashy delights.

That’s the philosophy driving 22 Square, a new farm to table restaurant in downtown Savannah, located in the new Anchaz hotel. Shed all your perceptions about hotel restaurants: this place is a real find.

The menu, put together by new chef Lauren Teague, focuses on local ingredients readily found around Savannah’s temperate climes. Dishes are listed by ingredient and not by course, meaning that pork belly, oysters, and local preserves (for example) all have 3 or 4 dishes listed underneath them, ranging from appetizers to entrees. It’s an unusual format that lends itself well to exploration and sharing, though you can go the conventional route if you must.

Teague is a Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park graduate and brings a stylish aplomb to her food: it’s Southern, all right, but not of the slapped-on-the-plate variety. Portion sizes are eminently reasonable, and the prices are perfectly manageable as well—a boon in a tourist town that’s experiencing no small amount of culinary inflation.


22 Square prides itself on working with local farmers, and that’s reflected in this deceptively simple vegetable plate ($7), incorporating produce from nearby Walker Farm. Served with a garlicky and good hummus dip, the plate comes with simple sliced seasonal vegetables (including some remarkable yellow carrots), pickled specialties (fantastic haricorts verts) and a couple of creamy, delicate deviled eggs. Making a crudites plate interesting is a helluva feat: Chef …. pulls it off.


A special appetizer, these twice-baked Bluffton, South Carolina oysters were served in a new potato, then topped off with breadcrumbs for a reasonable $10. There was a bit of detectable curry in there, and the whole affair reminded me of a very high-end sports bar snack. A bit starchy for my tastes—but an interesting combination. 22 Square rotates out oyster preparations daily.22squareporkCrispy Brooklet, Georgia pork belly with brussel sprouts, pumpkin ravioi, and pork jus ($17) was a surprisingly delicate dish, with an interesting broth that cried out for a spoon. I liked the earthy, extremely seasonal combination of brussel sprouts and freshly made, not-too-sweet pumpkin ravioli. When combined with the fatty pork (seasoned with just a little 5-spice powder), it was something like a very sophisticated look at breakfast flavors.


Hunter Cattle Company grass-fed beef oxtail with with sun-dried tomato polenta cake and buttered veal gloss ($13) was rich, meaty, and a bit messy—as an oxtail should be. A small enough portion to be comfortably shared, the meat was nice and tender, and the veal “gloss” had a pleasingly intense flavor. The polenta cake was a bit too intensively oily for my tastes—I might suggest an interesting mashed potato variant for me.


House made raspberry preserves with local cheeses and berries ($14). Included an excellent Irish-style sharp cheddar and crackerbread, as well as those delightful pickled carrots and haricorts verts. No, I didn’t write down the cheeses. I rarely remember to write down the cheeses. It is my curse. However, some of the Savannah cheesemakers are linked here.

Candied bacon at the bar at 22 Square—as one does.

Don’t miss the cocktail list. 22 Square’s Manhattan, constructed by Food and Beverage manager Garron Gore wins contests—largely due to Gore’s use of a totally surprising hickory-smoked maraschino cherry in the brew. We kept on delicately requesting more from the back, and we go em’. My dad is hoping to figure out how to do this himself, to use that distinctive, sweet-and-hickory flavor as a dip for BBQ ribs.

I thoroughly enjoyed my Manhattan, a slightly sweet, robust mixture that was something like a very adult, complex, swig of alcoholic Coca Cola. I also tried a cocktail with peach, mint, and bourbon, which was—remarkably enough—not particularly sweet, a real boon for someone curiously born sans sweet tooth. My mom enjoyed a pitch-perfect gin and tonic with house-made soda.

Vy Da Quan: Vietnamese Food, Best Consumed Out of Little Blue Chairs

vydaquanoutside  The best Vietnamese food is consumed on the street or near it, off tiny tables that appear designed to accommodate intractable five-year-olds not yet  allowed to eat with the grownups. There will be little blue plastic chairs to sit in—sometimes red, on rare occasions—and this is simply how it is done. The very tall must adapt to their new-found circumstances.

Saigon has a number of excellent little restaurants of this genre, which cater primarily to locals (and occasionally the Western significant others of locals). The menus are usually translated, often hilariously, into English, and there’s always the infallible technique of “point at something you find tasty and communicate in pantomime until it hits your table.”


A great example of this genre is Vy Da Quan, which spreads brashly out into the street in downtown Saigon, off Ly Tu Trong Street. There’s a thick and glossy menu, and a grill working overtime near the back, serving up pork ribs, frogs, chicken feet and whole fish, among other culinary delights. A more expensive (and also good) restaurant that caters more to a foreigner market next door has full size tables and chairs—you’ll know you’re in the right spot by the kiddie sized tables. Blend in.

Vy Da Quan is perhaps best known for its remarkable pork ribs, which are served in somewhat maddeningly small portions—perhaps best to order 2 or 3 at a go. They are marinated in some unholy fish sauce, chili, and sugar concoction and then are grilled over a hot flame, caramelizing the sugar and intensifying the flavor of chili and pork fat.

quan33beefsaladThey also a superb raw beef salad here (Bo Tai Chanh), a surprisingly refreshing concoction of uncooked beef marinated in lime juice, with onions and a whopping variety of herbs. A superb summer dish, this goes nicely with anything hot or too heavy. Variants on this dish exist across the region, and I’ve encountered it often in Cambodia.
Balancing out the not-so-subtle ribs was a dish of clams cooked in fresh pepper and lime sauce, which was really quite sublime—a subtle, slightly sweet and piquant interpretation of a classic Vietnamese favorite. This can either be under-or-overdone, but in this case, the sauce was eminently drinkable. You might want to order bread to go with, or at least put it on your rice. (More on that later).

quan33waterspinachMorning glory was excellent, cooked with oyster sauce and with an interesting topping of smashed, deep-fried garlic cloves with the “paper” still attached. This creates a little chew if you don’t feel like removing the paper, and seems to protect the cloves to some extent so they don’t get so hard as to be inedible. Most importantly, the water spinach was perfectly cooked, and wasn’t rendered a chewy and fibrous mess as sometimes occurs. (And who doesn’t like having an invasive species for dinner?)

quan33friedrice   Even the usually-lackluster (and omnipresent) fried rice gets an upgrade here—the usual combination stuff with fried rice, squid, carrot, peas, and chicken. A dining buddy happens to be deathly allergic to shrimp, so we passed on that.  The fried rice was pleasingly a bit crunchy, and we soon deduced that it appears to have either been scraped off the bottom of the pot, or left to sit for just a minute or two in the oil to create such a pleasing texture. Some Middle Eastern cultures place great value on the crunchy rice left at the bottom of the pot: we’re not sure if this was even intentional, but it was awfully good.


We were flagrantly stuffed, but then we purchased spring rolls off the street from a guy, because that’s what one does in Vietnam. These beauties contained Vietnamese sausage, noodles, and fresh vegetables, and were served with a pleasing dipping sauce. I actually managed to finish mine, but it took (somewhat literally) a bit of intestinal fortitude to pull it off. It is worth pointing out that once you have made eye-contact with the spring roll guy, you are going to be buying a spring roll. Don’t fight it. They cost like 50 cents.

quan33grillVy Da Quan isn’t technically allowed to spread out on the street as far as it does, but there’s always a bit of mission creep. You might be apologetically shifted if the fuzz do come sniffing around—but you’ll survive. That’s half the fun of eating like you’re Vietnamese: tiny chairs, tiny tables, adaptability—and some of the best, most value-priced cuisine in the world.

Dangerous Sandwiches Throughout History: my recent magnum opus


Possibly my favorite image of Mittens ever. With a sandwich. 

I am really, really proud of my recent story on Dangerous Sandwiches Throughout History for GlobalPost. I just thought I’d share. 

Maybe there’s a book in dangerous food somewhere.

Deadly sandwiches: remarkably dangerous lunchtimes throughout history

Sewing needles have been found in in-flight sandwiches on Delta and now, on Air Canada, causing some to cast an eye of suspicion towards our most dearly-beloved lunchtime dish. But what about other dangerous sammiches in human history? A non-exhaustive list follows.

I don’t care if this sandwich is dangerous. It is delicious.

1. Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s Dangerous Sandwich. (Addendum: you find the best things when you Google “Dangerous Sandwich.”

Ohio congressman (and 2008 Presidential hopeful) Kucinich’s very public ordeal began in 2008, when he bit into an unmarked-and-dangerous olive pit in a sandiwch served at a House of Representatives cafeteria in Washington DC – splitting his tooth into multiple pieces and causing him “excruciating” pain.

“This injury required nearly two years, three dental surgeries, and a substantial amount of money to rectify,” Kucinich told CBS, pointing out that he had to get both implants and a new bridge to fix the ensuing dental problems.

2. Exploding Chicken Sandwich of Doom 

Pity Frank Sutton: late one evening in 2005, the amusement park ride technician decided to stop for a McDonalds chicken sandwich, somewhere in the bowels of Southwestern Virginia.

But things got ugly when the Florida native bit into the sandwich, whereupon, according to court records of Sutton’s testimony, “the grease from the inside of the chicken sandwich spread out all over my bottom lip, my top lip, down onto my chin,” and immediately caused serious facial blistering.

Sutton promptly filed suit and demanded $2 million for his troubles, pointing out that he was forced to work less due to a painful, persistent lip condition induced by the burns. The “exploding chicken sandwich” case was eventually settled in September 2010 for an undisclosed sum – and set off a round of hearty debate over tort reform and frivolous lawsuits.

Read more at GlobalPost…

Mushroom Hunting in Iowa: Staring At Woods for Food

You probably don’t associate the much-derided state of Iowa with rarefied culinary delights. This is because most people don’t know about the Midwest’s highly developed and slightly voodoo-like mushroom hunting culture. It all starts in the spring, when the temperature begins to climb and the landscape explodes into verdant green, complete with the twin annoyances of pollen and oodles of bitey wolf spiders.

This is the time of year when morel mushrooms begin to sprout in the Midwest, and it’s also a time when the region’s more crunchy residents begin to get a hungry, fungi-inspired glimmer in their eye. Now is the time when you don Carhartt shirts (in many colors, all of them plaid), work pants, and a hat, and make your way into the woods – surprisingly thick in this part of Southern Iowa, where I’m staying at the moment – in hunt of fungi. Since mushrooms have a delightful habit of staying put, this is much cheaper and less likely to result in a gunshot wound than hunting for birds or deer. If you’ve never foraged for your own food before, it’s a peculiar kind of rush – I’d liken it to leafing through a “Where’s Waldo” book, except you’re tromping through the woods, and you find food instead of a cartoon man in a ridiculous striped outfit. There are many edible mushrooms in Iowa, but the morel is the crown jewel of the hunt for a lot of people. This is for a couple reasons.

For one, the morel is a picky bastard and exceptionally hard to grow in captivity. You either find them in the woods, or you buy them for something like $119 a pound at your local Whole Foods. Finding them in the woods yourself is a more pleasant experience by far. Further, morels are extremely easy to identify and distinctive in apperance, which greatly decreases the risk of accidentally picking a mushroom that will horribly kill you.

The morels you find in Iowa are yellow in color, rather large, of a spongy texture, and have a ridged, rather slender top. Morel hunters tend to jealously guard their secrets of the hunt, but there’s a few good places to look. They like the roots of elm trees. They like sun, but not too much, and moisture, but not too much.

They like to sprout by creek beds, and favor rich leaf-litter. Finding them requires you to adjust your eyes, something like those Magic Eye puzzles many of us gazed into in elementary school. It’s a good idea to squat down and survey the leafy undergrowth contemplatively. Mushroom hunting involves a lot of squatting down and surveying the landscape contemplatively.

So what do you do with them when you find them? There are many possibilities, although I’m only willing to entertain a couple, at the advice of the Midwestern mighty mushroom hunters I’ve met. If you’ve got plenty – and you probably won’t – you should saute them in plenty of butter. A very light dredging in seasoned flour doesn’t hurt. Eat them with some toast points sauteed in more butter. It’s delicious, and there’s the added pyschological satisfication of eating something you found in your woods, just like your mighty wooly-mammoth hunting ancestors.

You can also make morel salt out of them, which is a damn fine spice, and rather expensive if you’re unable to DYI. Thankfully, I can. My friend Dayton says that the trick is drying them under a fan. Lay the mushrooms out on a piece of newspaper, preferably over a grid of some time. Let them dry under the fan overnight. Don’t toss the newspaper – it’s rumored that if you bury the newspaper in a likely spot, you might have morels in your backyard (or the park, or wherever) in few years.

Once you’ve got your dried morels, grind them up – a spice grinder works or a mortar-and-pestle. Then, mix them up with some high quality sea salt. Keep it in a bag and sprinkle them on standard button, portobello, or any kind of store-bought mushrooms with a delightful hit of umami. More on the Great Midwestern Morel hunt later. It’s a rather interesting phenom, and not what you think of when you think Iowa.

For example, not everyone in Iowa lives in the middle of a field of undulating, slightly creepy corn.

I was shocked too.