keito potato

Juan Tong Fen — Rice Rolls in Debao, Guangxi Province
August 6, 2013, 8:25 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , ,

Karst mountains around Debao

This summer I spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces visiting my students’ homes.  It was a sort of learning tour for myself to learn about my students’ lives.   I spent a week in Debao county, Guangxi province, which is a remote mountainous region near the Vietnamese border.  The mountains are the same kind of vertical karst mountains that are so famous in Guilin, but tourists don’t visit Debao because the region is so remote.  The first roads in the area were built 20 years ago, and in some villages only 10 years ago.

Debao landscape

Debao county also isn’t on the tourist path because it doesn’t have any special lovely traditional architecture to lure tourists.  It’s a Zhuang minority area, but people don’t wear traditional clothes anymore.  Guidebooks dismissively say that the Zhuang have assimilated into the mainstream Han Chinese culture, but after spending a week there living with a family, I can say there are some special aspects to life there.  Some distinctions include the local language of Debao county, which has some similarities with Thai, and it’s the only place in China where the work animal is the pony!  The cuisine is also special, with a few Vietnamese influences.

Juan tong fen

One of the Vietnamese culinary influences is found in the rice rolls, called juan tong fen in Mandarin.  Juan is the verb for rolling things.  Tong is the noun for a rolled object, and fen is for rice flour.  These rice rolls are a common street breakfast in Debao.

juan tong fen stall

pouring rice batter

The stall we visited made the rice sheets fresh to order, which made the rice rolls warm, soft, and slightly thicker than the Vietnamese rolls I’ve had before.  They were slightly reminiscent of crepes.  The process starts with a bowl of batter for the sheets, which consists of rice flour dissolved in water.  She uses a ladle to spread a thin layer of batter on a piece of cloth that is stretched over a steamer.  Then it is covered with a lid to steam for about 20 seconds.


After the rice sheet has steamed, it is removed with wooden sticks.

fresh rice paper

There are a variety of fillings, and customers order a combination of 2-4 fillings.  Many of the fillings are preserved items, so the juan tong fen has a mild sour edge.  Some of the fillings were chopped green beans, preserved bamboo shoots, soy bean sprouts, sour pickled vegetables, and some meat, all chopped fine.

adding fillings

Then the juan tong fen is quickly rolled up.  Because the rice paper is fresh, it is thicker than store-bought rice paper, and it is soft and warm, quite comforting for a breakfast food.

rolling the juan tong fen

juan tong fen

Many people drizzle a little soy sauce on top.

drizzling soy sauce

This little boy was waiting patiently for his breakfast juantongfen.

waiting boy

Eating at Bangkok’s Chattuchak Weekend Market
July 2, 2013, 6:50 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , ,

I spent a month in Thailand during my holiday for the Chinese New Year.

When in Bangkok, I was determined to visit the Chattuchak Weekend Market, also called Jattujak, or “JJ.”  The market attracts about 200,000 visitors each weekend, and seems to the be the size of a small town.  Stalls sell everything from traditional handcrafts to hipster fashion labels to exotic pets.  I bought several blouses at a stall that sold used clothing from Japan.  Food stalls are strewn throughout the market, and there are also a few larger food areas.

Chattuchak weekend market

Thai iced tea

It was so incredibly hot that day, and I think I drank about 5 Thai iced teas.

Malaysian halal food stall

We had lunch at this Malaysian Halal food stall.

curry noodles

My friend had this bowl of Malaysian curry noodles for lunch, topped with crisp fried onions (and Thai iced tea).

pad thai at Bangkok's Jattujak (JJ) weekend market

I had pad thai (and Thai iced tea).

coconut ice cream

Fresh coconut ice cream, served in a coconut shell, and topped with peanuts.

eating fresh coconut ice cream

Here I am eating fresh coconut ice cream.

boat noodles

At this stall they were making huge vats of “boat noodles.”

Issan street food carts in Thailand
July 2, 2013, 5:41 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , , ,

I spent a month in Thailand during my holiday for the Chinese New Year.

I fell in love with Issan street food carts.  Issan is a northeast region of Thailand, bordering Cambodia.  The weather is super-hot, so the cuisine is based on salads and refreshing lime and chile flavor profiles.

green papaya salad

This is one the most famous Issan dishes, the green papaya salad.  It has a lime-chili salad dressing, and is garnished with peanuts.

Issan lunch cart

This Issan lunch cart on Koh Tao island made phenomenal food.  It’s where the locals in the neighborhood came to eat.

green papaya salad

This green papaya salad on Koh Tao had a good dose of shredded carrots.

Molly's green papaya salad

Molly’s green papaya salad was so delicious that she wanted to inhale it.

gaang aom

I read this e-book guide about eating vegetarian food in Thailand, and learned about gaang aom, a phenomenal Issan soup made from pumpkin, mushrooms, baby green eggplants, and leafy greens.  I absolutely fell in love with this refreshing, restorative soup, and ate it for several lunches in Thailand.

baby green eggplants

These are the baby green eggplants that are used for the gaang aom soup, as well as a myriad of other Thai dishes.

gaang aom

Another amazing bowl of gaang aom soup.

 in love with gaang aom

I was in love with gaang aom soup!  It’s served sticky rice, which you can dip into the soup.

mushroom soup

This mushroom soup is similar to the gaang aom soup, but has fewer greens.

fermented bamboo salad

Fermented bamboo salad, garnished with mint leaves.  It has a chili-lime dressing, and a tiny bit of ground toasted rice for texture.

fermented bamboo

Shredded bamboo in the vegetable market.

M + A

Enjoyed Issan lunches with friends Molly and Andrew.


M + A

Friends Molly and Andrew are tucking into mushroom soup and green papaya salad.

Issan lunch cart

Another Issan lunch cart.


Pad Thai across Thailand
July 2, 2013, 4:32 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , ,

I spent a month in Thailand during my holiday for the Chinese New Year.

Pad Thai is an cheap, delicious meal, and I happily ate it several times during my month-long trip.  Lime, garlic, peanuts, tofu… what’s not to love?  I downloaded an e-guide for eating vegetarian in Thailand, which had some helpful phrases for ordering food without fish sauce or dried shrimp, both of which are traditionally included in Pad Thai.  That little guide was helpful for me as a vegetarian.

Pad Thai

Here’s a version of pad thai in Chiang Mai, at a little cafe run by a grandma and grandpa, across the street from the YMCA.

pad thai at Bangkok's Jattujak (JJ) weekend market


Pad Thai and Thai iced tea at Chattuchak (or Jattujak) Market, Bangkok’s premiere weekend market, which attracts 200,000 visitors most weekends.

Pad Thai street cart

Here is a pad thai street cart in Bangkok.  The woman here is making my plate of pad thai.  She had 6 kinds of noodles you could choose from.

street pad thai

Gorgeous and cheap pad thai on the street.  I bought it from a cart, and ate it on a plastic stool on the sidewalk, holding it on my lap.

happy about pad thai

Here I’m happy to have a lovely plate of pad thai at the Cambodian border, after a long dusty train ride through the Issan region.

pad thai

Gorgeous pad thai on the Cambodian border, after a long train ride.

train ride

Channeling Jason Schwartzman on a 1910-era Thai train.

Chinese New Year dog

The puppy I met on Chinese New Year before eating a plate of pad thai.

wide-noodle pad thai

Enjoyed this plate late at night after walking the streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown for Chinese New Year.  We had been eating street food like durian, but I was hungry for something a little more substantial.  This pad thai street cart offered several kinds of noodles, including these extra-wide rice noodles.  They were fresh and soft — an amazing texture paired with with the pad thai flavors.

A Week of Eating in Chengdu
September 2, 2012, 7:11 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , ,

I just moved to Nanjing, China a week ago.  On my way here, I spent a week in Chengdu for a conference with Mennonite Partners in China.  I used to live in that area of China, so I am familiar with (and also smitten with) that spicy Sichuan cuisine.  Here are a few photos of the food I enjoyed in Chengdu!

I ate this spicy noodles for a breakfast during a few of my mornings there.  I wouldn’t want to eat this every morning, but it’s a fun breakfast for people who like spicy food.

While I ate the spicy noodles, a woman chopped chilies with a cleaver over at the next table.

Hot soymilk is common as a breakfast beverage all over China.  I picked this up most of my mornings in Chengdu.  It’s hot, nutritious, and restorative.  American soymilk has stabilizers so that it will look more like dairy milk.  This real soymilk is delicious, but I wouldn’t put it on cereal — it’s for drinking.

This stall had 2 blenders going at all times making the soymilk.

Peanuts were served as an appetizer.  Because it was Sichuan, they were covered in huajiao (numbing Sichuan peppercorns).  Love that combination.

Mapo doufu is one of the most famous Sichuan dishes, and was invented in Chengdu.  As a vegetarian, it’s a top-favorite.  I love the “mala” flavor, which is the Sichuan flavor profile for the combination of the of the numbing huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns) mingling with the heat of the chilies.  I think I ate it five times during my week in Chengdu, but only took photos of it four times.

Jiachang doufu is homestyle-tofu.  The tofu is sliced and then panfried.  It’s removed from the pan, while you make a quick sauce with garlic, ginger, chilies, spicy bean paste, and green onions.  Once the sauce is going on the stove, you slide the fried tofu slices into the sauce, and they simmer a few minutes to absorb the rich flavors.  I love this dish.

Ganbian siji dou, dry-fried green beans.  One of the most famous Sichuan dishes.  I’m glad I can find good versions of this here in Nanjing.

Chao tudou si is the common Chinese dish of stirfried slivered potatoes.  It’s a great side dish.  This version includes a smattering of green chilies.

This potato dish is ganbian tudou si, which means the slivered potatoes have been dry-fried, in the way that you’d made the classic dry-fried green beans.  Flavor-wise, a “gan-bian” or dry-fried dish usually includes a strong presence of garlic, ginger, and chilies.  In Sichuan, they “gan-bian” a number of vegetables, including potatoes, lotus root, and doufu gan (tofu leather).  Today I heard from some students that in Shanxi province, they make ganbian noodles!

Here’s an extra-spicy version of the dry-fried potatoes.

Ganbian tudou pian.  This dish is the same as the one above, except that the potatoes are sliced instead of slivered.

Ganbian ou is dry-fried lotus root, cooked in the same dry-fried style as the green beans and the potatoes.  Even though I’m happy I can find good ganbian green beans outside of Sichuan, the ganbian lotus root is really hard to find.

It’s more common across China to find plain stir-fried lotus root like this.  Plain lotus root is still good.  I love the crunch of it.

Kongxin cai, also called morning glory or water spinach.  The Chinese name literally means “hollow heart vegetable” because the stems are hollow.  This is one of the most common vegetable side dishes in China, usually stirfried with a heavy hit of garlic.  In Sichuan they often also throw in a few chilies.

Yuxiang qiezi is so-called “fish-fragrant eggplant.”  It doesn’t smell like fish, but rather it’s prepared in the same method that is often used for serving fish: spicy and slightly sweet.

Tiger skin peppers (hupi qingjiao) is another distinctive Sichuan dish.  Green chilies are seared in a dry wok until their skins start to loosen and peel back.  Then soy sauce and black vinegar are added to the wok, and the dark liquid collects in the loosened skin, giving the illusion of tiger stripes.  It’s cute and spicy.

Tangcu baicai is sweet and sour cabbage.  Sweet-and-sour in Southeast China means there will be an orange glaze.  In Sichuan, sweet-and-sour means a little sugar, vinegar, garlic, and ginger.  I like the Sichuan version of sweet-and-sour better…

A simple egg fried rice, “dan chao fan.”

Fanqie jidan tang, egg and tomato soup.  Scrambled eggs are often mixed with tomatoes as a dish, but I usually prefer eggs and tomatoes combined in a soup like this.  Think of an egg flower soup, but with a savory tomato soup base instead of a clear soup.  In China, soup is usually eating at the end of the meal.

While in Chengdu, I ate at the Lanzhou lamian place a few times.  Lanzhou is in Northwestern China, where the cuisine is different, and influenced by Central Asian cuisines.  One of the things they’re famous for is the noodles.  These ones were as wide as Italian  paparadelle, and were hand cut right after I ordered.  Here the noodles are combined with hot and sour cabbage for a vegetarian meal.

The next time I went to Lanzhou lamian, I ordered the same kind of wide noodles, but this time with hot and sour potatoes.  It was a starch bomb, but so tasty.

These noodles are hand cut, but you don’t roll out the dough and slice them.  Rather, you hold the ball of cold dough in your hand, and then sort of whittle strands of noodles off the the ball of dough, using a sharp little knife.  I know a few places in LA that make this kind of noodle.  The noodles end up being irregular and chewy.  “Like fettuccini on steroids” as the food critic Jonathan Gold once put it.  Here they’re sauteed with a tomato and bell pepper sauce, with some scrambled egg thrown in.  As I mentioned before, Northwestern Chinese cuisine has some interesting influences outside of China, and this dish with the simmered tomatoes and peppers seams quite Mediterranean.

I actually didn’t have regular lamian at this place, the thin pulled noodles.  Here one of the guys is pulling the noodles by stretching the dough, doubling it over, then stretching it and hitting it on the table.  This is the difficult cooking skill that I really want to learn while living in China.  Actually tonight as I watched Chinese TV, a game show came on in which the contestants took turns trying to pull noodles.

These mango smoothies were wonderful.  They were topped with white tapioca, sweetened condensed milk, and some fresh cubes of mango.

Here are the smoothie toppings, including fresh fruit, but also things like white fungus and red beans.

This is the maze of cafes outside the school gate, the area where I ate many of my meals that week in Chengdu.  Let’s go back!

June China Trip
July 12, 2010, 6:13 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , , ,

In June I spent 2 weeks in China. My grad school sends groups of professors and students to China 4x a year to build relationships with schools there. I was probably picked up for this particular trip because I previously lived in China for 2.5 years. I can’t express how grateful I was to re-visit the Middle Kingdom, and to explore current issues with professors and students there.

Of course it wasn’t a trip about food, but this is indeed a food website. Therefore this little travelogue is food-focused.

I couldn’t help but eat well in China. For those who have asked me over the years how I could have lived in China as a vegetarian, these photos are ample evidence of eating well. On this trip I missed Sichuan food (the spicy food of the region that used to be my home) but I thoroughly enjoyed the regional cooking of the places we visited: Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing, and Shanghai.

In Shanghai we discovered this dumpling restaurant that was bustling all day, but particularly busy for breakfast. I ended up eating a bowl of wonton soup there 3 out of 4 of my mornings in Shanghai. The wontons were freshly folded behind the counter, stuffed with scrambled eggs and leeks, then served in a light and tasty broth. The pickled greens on top provided the pungent counterpoint. I asked for the vinegar, and was presented with a white teapot filled with vinegar. The vinegar-teapot was passed from table to table to enrich the soup broth or create a dipping sauce.

Looking at this photo now, my stomach clenches with wistfulness. I would love to eat wonton soup for breakfast at home, but I don’t have a team of wonton-folding pals to make that happen in an efficient way.

Our table of 4 shared this plate of deep-fried wontons as a breakfast side dish. They had the same egg-leek filling as the others, but were crisp and chewy.

Enjoyed a freshly-grilled street crepe in Shanghai. It was so hot I could barely hold it.

After the crepe batter is spread thinly, it was topped with beaten egg, chives, and chili sauce. The hot dogs were not mine.

This is a similar version that I found in Nanjing. The Nanjing version is called a “jianbing“. Not only is it filled with scrambled eggs and chili sauce, but the jianbing is also stuffed with preserved vegetables and “youtiao,” a fried bread that’s reminiscent of a salty doughnut. This superb breakfast “wrap” is over the top.

This variety of mushroom is almost like a chantrelle, rich, complex, and earthy. Can’t believe we were served a huge platter of them.

A showcase of 4 varieties of mushrooms, garnished with an orchid. I wasn’t familiar with the thick sliced mushrooms in the foreground. In the back you can glimpse a dish of asparagus spears with ginko nuts and lily petals.

These wild mushrooms were sliced, then stirfried with chilies. Spicy and rich.

I’m most happy in China with simple dishes like garlicky greens. When this particular cook in Nanjing heard I was a vegetarian, she pulled out the stops, bringing every seasonal green to the table, presenting them to me while blushing. Here are her tasty diagonal slices of Chinese broccoli.

She even whipped up a batch of the best vegetarian baozi I’ve ever tasted. Soft, and ever-so-fresh. Filled with garlicky greens. I greedily ate 3 of them.

I had these garlicky chrysanthemum leaves elsewhere in Nanjing. Rich with that strong-green-leaf-flavor, as if you can taste the density of vitamins in the leaves. If you know of a place in LA that serves chrysanthemum leaves, let me know.

While I’m on the subject of garlicky greens, morning glory (kongxin cai) is one of my favorites. The Mandarin name is literally “hollow heart vegetable” because the stems are hollow. Other than that particular feature, it’s pretty similar to spinach. Kongxin cai is always fabulous stirfried with garlic, and a cold beer on the side.

Typical ganbian sijijou, dry-fried green beans. The beans are slowly cooked in minimal oil, so that their skin has time to wrinkle. Then they are tossed with garlic and ginger. If this was Sichuan, it would also include chilies and hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns). From time to time I’ve also had this tossed with preserved vegetables.

These green beans were brought to the table on a wok and portable flame. The green beans were sitting on a bed of sliced onions, which gradually perfumed the beans during our meal. Toward the end, the sliced onions were fully grilled, rich and delicious.

A dish of yuxiang xiezi, spicy and garlicky eggplants. The name initially puzzles foreigners because “fish-fragrant eggplant” sounds like it should smell like fish. The name really means that the eggplant is cooked in a similar method to that of fish — spicy and garlicky, with a hint of sweetness.

Here is a similar eggplant dish at a different restaurant, but with delicate lavender eggplants. Almost too pretty to eat.

A glazed pumpkin half. Delicate.

Daikon strips marinated in sesame.

Stir-fried fava beans with chives.

Had to order this classic a few times. Stir-fried potato slivers, chao tudou si. Most Americans wouldn’t think of the potato as a Chinese vegetable, but this dish is actually one of the most common vegetable side dishes. The potatoes are quickly stirfried, and usually arrive at the table slightly crisp. This version is flavored with slivers of green pepper. In Sichuan, stirfried potatoes are invariably made spicy with dried red chilies in the mix.

Cuipi (tsway-pee) doufu, or crispy-skin tofu. Soft tofu is breaded and deep-fried, then topped with a sweet and spicy sauce.

The menu said this was also cuipi doufu, but what showed up was a spongy tofu braised in garlic and green onions. Not what we expected, but was definitely tasty and satisfying.

Tiger-skin peppers (hupi qingjiao). Found this Sichuanese dish in Shanghai. The big peppers are cooked dry, without any oil. Eventually the skin loosens and peels back, creating wrinkles or stripes. Then when black vinegar and soy sauce are added, the black sauces gather in the wrinkled skin, creating the illusion of tiger stripes. Cute. And spicy.

Rice sticks. Savory and crispy. Not bad.

In Xi’an we had a North-West version of hotpot. Usually hotpot entails a communal cauldron simmering in the middle of the table, with raw ingredients to pop in and cook. This was the first time I had experienced individual hot pots for each person. Evidence of change in China, perhaps? At least it was easier for me to eat vegetarian with my own pot. Here is my dipping sauce. Mine was mostly sesame paste, chili sauce and hua jiao oil.

A platter of 5 varieties of raw mushrooms to add to the hotpot.

I was surprised that this was my only glimpse of someone “pulling noodles” on this trip — and it was a touristy experience. This boy was brought to our table to whip around a piece of dough until it stretched into a single long noodle. Then he slipped it into someone’s hotpot to cook. His yoyo-acrobatics were more for our benefit than the noodle’s. Aside from this spectacle, the typical way I’ve witnessed noodle pulling involved stretching, pulling, slapping dough on a table, and doubling-up the dough over and over to create a pile of noodles. I seriously regret not learning this skill as an apprentice when I lived in Sichuan. At the time, I took lessons in vegetable carving, but noodle pulling would have been more fun.

These flaky pastries were filled with delicate and complex durian custard. Can you believe this was my first taste of durian? I was smitten. Our host then told us that his dogs are crazy about durian. That’s quite a peculiar pet treat, and probably an expensive one.

Soon after, I tried a slice of real durian in the market. I’m a new convert.

For those of you interested in markets, here’s a basement vege market I stumbled across in Nanjing.

Squash blossoms at the market.

Dried chilies, star anise, chili sauce, and bottles of chili oil.

Fresh and tender bamboo shoots.

Extra-long asparagus in the market.

Wandering through Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter at night, I couldn’t help but try these quail egg skewers. A tiny quail egg was broken into each mold. The eggs cooked around the skewer and were rotated carefully until they puffed up. They were finally liberally doused with chili-cumin sauce. Delicious, and completely worth the chili sauce dribbling on my hand as I walked down the street.

By now you’re probably either exhausted from this long post, or you’ve already hit the road to find the closest noodle joint. I’ll just close with an empty wok.

Memorable meals in Lebanon and Syria
August 23, 2009, 10:06 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , ,

I spent most of my summer in Lebanon, in a program through my grad school. My mornings were spent volunteering at a center in Beirut for street kids, doing art with them and setting up an exhibit for their work. My afternoons were filled with Arabic language classes. I also spent my last two weeks (and my free weekends) traveling around Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Needless to say, I ate very well. I kept all of you friends in mind, and properly documented my memorable meals.
A typical breakfast for me in Beirut was manaeesh, a grilled flatbread topped with fresh cheese. This particular one was topped with feta and fresh thyme.
eggplant salad
This arugula salad was topped with a mound of sauteed eggplant. It lacked a conventional dressing because once tossed, the sticky eggplant would slick up against the arugula to create its own sweet and sour coating. The flavor reminded me of the rich and complex Sichuan dish “yuxiang qiezi”.
Hummous in Lebanon in always fantastic, but approaches the realm of the divine when topped with warm, toasted pinenuts.
After wandering the old souq of Tripoli for hours, we had a late lunch at this cafe that only served hummous. This one was garnished with chickpeas.
When in Syria, I had to visit Aleppo, the birthplace of muhammara. You might remember that my first recipe on keitopotato was for muhammara. I’m crazy about the pepper-walnut-pomegranate mash, and I got a few friends there addicted to it as well. This little batch of it in Aleppo was by far the best. It had the perfect balance of walnuts to peppers. Rich and luscious, yet spicy. I wanted to lick the plate clean. In Syria they know how to make it pretty, topped with crushed walnuts and a drizzle of more pomegranate molasses. I’m going to start serving it like this at home.
thyme salad
These two dishes were part of mezze at a rooftop cafe in Damascus. The thyme salad was for serious thyme-lovers. A mound of thyme mixed with feta, kalamata olives and minced onion in a lemony dressing. The labneh next to it is a stiff yogurt, that here was mixed with fresh mint, walnuts and garlic. A friend told me that the Lebanese have always eaten so much yogurt that the name of the country might possibly have been named after their favorite food. Labneh. Lebanon. The land of yogurt. What an adorable legend.
Look at this cute little log of haloum! This particular log of the squeaky cheese is coated and deep fried, ready to be sliced and eaten with fresh hot flatbread. There are so many ways to serve haloum, and you honestly can’t go wrong with any of them. I first fell in love with haloum at a backyard birthday party in London for a guy from Cyprus. The party was populated by Cypriot guys, who were having a good time at the grill. They grilled platters of super-fresh haloum, in hunks a full inch thick and 3 inches wide. They squeezed lemon over and brought it out on platters to us white-wine-sipping girls. Hot and chewy, but sizzlingly-crispy on the outside. I was smitten. Because of my crush, in Lebanon my fragile little heart wouldn’t let me pass up a haloum dish. And there were many.
stuffed eggplant
Eating this stuffed eggplant, I finally realized why people wax poetic about them. This little guy was stuffed with roasted peppers, kalamata olives and walnuts. Rich and spicy from the walnuts and peppers, with a solid floor of earthy, salty umami flavor from the olives.
In Syria we tried fatta, which is an unusual assembly of humble ingredients. It consists of crunchy, dried flatbread that is then soaked in tahini. It’s finally topped with chickpeas and drenched in olive oil and yogurt. This one had a sprinkling of pistachios as well.
The Syrian Lonely Planet disappointed me time and again with inaccurate descriptions. One time they actually got it right was when they recommended this little cafe in Aleppo that only serves ful. Ful is a warm fava bean stew, rich and zesty with fresh garlic and plenty of lemon juice. Since this cafe only serves ful, they know how to make it memorable. They add to the stew a thick stream of tahini sauce, and pour the famous Aleppan red pepper sauce over. The cafe was tiny and dingy, packed with men inhaling bowls of the hot bean stew. What a find.
potatoes with herbs
Mashed potatoes isn’t a common mezze dish here in the states, but I’ve got to tell you that it works. Instead of being mashed in butter and milk, imagine then smashed into olive oil and fresh thyme. The result is fragrant and soft, and easily lends itself for bread-dipping. I wouldn’t serve this by itself as an appetizer, but it’s a great complement to other mezze dishes.
fried potatoes
This was another fun potato mezze dish. They’re like cube-shaped french fries, but they’re tossed in garlic, parsley, red chiles, and lemon juice. This restaurant near the Place d’Etoile made the best ones I found. They were the crispiest and had the most assertive garlic-lemon flavor.
Le Chef
I ate at Le Chef at least 4 times. It’s a scruffy hole in the wall place tucked in between the posh restaurants and bars of Gemmayzeh. We kept coming back to Le Chef because they make affordable Lebanese comfort food. The daily assortment of vegetarian stews won me over. Things like Turkish eggplant with cinnamon or the broad beans stewed with tomatoes. This “Lebanese omelet” was fun. It’s flat (instead of folded like a French omelet) and the additions are incorporated into the egg mixture instead of being a filling. This one had minced onion and fresh herbs. Tasty. The owner of Le Chef is known for repeatedly calling out “welcome!!” to his guests and folks on the sidewalk. When I asked about the vegetarian daily specials, he cried out, “welcome vegetarian!!” He brought out this omelet as a mezze for the whole group, but made a point to me that the omelet was indeed vegetarian. Adorable. On my successive visits to the restaurant, he would see me in the doorframe and call out “welcome vegetarian!”
lentil soup
Each time I was at Le Chef, I had this lemony lentil soup as a starter. Only a dollar. You’ll notice the arak next to it. I was actually the only one in our group who enjoyed arak. But I couldn’t help it. I think licorice liqueurs are pretty fine.
eggplant on rice
I don’t normally seek out fussy things composed in a mold, but this eggplant dish just happened to show up at the table that way. What a complete delight. The thick slices of eggplant had been cooked so delicately that they completely fell apart in my mouth. Gushing to friends later, I gasped that the eggplant was so soft that it “felt like a down pillow in my mouth!” I never heard the end of it.
I had Arabic language classes every afternoon in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut, and naturally ended up perusing the cafes. Du Prague was one of my favorites. This spinach dish there isn’t profound in any way, but after eating salads day in and day out, I started to crave cooked greens. These were perfect, with garlic, lemon, and Spanish almonds. I had tried Spanish almonds a few times before the trip, but it seemed pointless to eat something shipped in from Spain when I could get great almonds from right here in California. But there is something special about that particular variety of almond. They are flatter and smoother than California almonds, and feel more comfortable on the tongue. Once again I was teased by my friends for being impressed with the “mouth-feel” of food.
Iraqi rice
Upon arriving in Damascus, tired and hot after a drive from Amman, we stumbled into this Iraqi restaurant near the convent we were staying at. We were told to simply order the number of rice platters we wanted, and they would bring out the rest of the food that goes with it. We got a table full of mezze dishes, bowls of soup, then the rice platters accompanied by 5 vegetable stews. Perfect comfort food. Stews and rice always get me. It reminded me of Iranian and Afgani food (which makes sense). We ended up eating there 3 times. We always finished our meals with Iraqi tea, a sweet cardamom tea carefully crafted by the man on the sidewalk who was commissioned by the restaurant.
The highlight of Tripoli was the baklava. This grand bakery is known as making the best in the world, and apparently ships boxes of their baklava to Lebanese expats everywhere. In my limited experience, they are by far the best I’ve ever had. The butter is browned, which provides a richer, toastier floor of flavor. The toasted nuts are packed in a thick layer. Simply exquisite with a cup of espresso or arabic coffee.
Spent a lovely afternoon at the Massaya winery in the Bekaa valley. After a fantastic lunch, we were brought a bowl of apricots and plums to finish off our bottle of reserve wine.
Here’s another spread of complimentary fruit. We had been waiting weeks for figs to come into season, and these were our first, served with perfect plums, miniature green apples and watermelon.
ice cream
Most ice creams in Lebanon broke my heart because they were infused in rose water. I find rose water insipid like a cheap perfume. This cafe in Baalbeck was one of the few we found that served rose-water-free ice creams. Refreshing.
pistachio ice cream
We heard the best ice cream place in Damascus was near the Umayyad mosque. They make soft homemade vanilla and chocolate. It’s so soft that the server just grabs it with his (gloved) hand and smooshes it in your glass dish. The next guy down the counter pounds bright green pistachios with a behemoth mortar and pestle (think of the girls pounding lemons at the hot-dog-on-a-stick). A handful of the pistachios are pressed onto all sides of the ice cream like emerald sequins. The best part of the ice cream experience was Amanda’s accidental charades with the waiter, but you’ll have to ask her about that.
tea with mint
My first week in Beirut, I was profoundly baffled to find my tea options limited to Lipton yellow label. It was the main concern I wrote home about. I had always assumed that tea was a big deal in the Middle East. I quickly learned that tea just wasn’t a big focus for the Lebanese compared to their other foods and drinks. Once I arrived in Syria, I found fantastic “tea with mint” on every menu. Not “mint tea” mind you, but strong, sweet, black tea with floating fresh mint leaves. It’s usually served in clear glasses which enhances the visual experience of watching the green leaves float lazily. I always loved getting it at places like this, served on a traditional round metal tray that sat on a tripod to create a table.
coffee beans
It’s easy to fall in love with Arabic coffee. It’s the cardamom. When I came home, I made a pot for my Grandpa Elvin, who is normally suspicious of non-american-style coffee. Even he became a quick convert.
juice stalls
One of the joys of a hot summer in the Middle East is finding a fresh juice stall in the afternoon. This row of stalls was a block from my hotel in Aleppo. My favorite was half orange, half strawberry.
frozen lemonade
This man in Damascus makes the best frozen lemonade. He pours fresh lemonade into the whirling ice cream maker. While it is spinning, he constantly drags splashes of the lemonade up the side with his spatula. In a few minutes, this process creates super-fine ice crystals that feel like velvet on the tongue. It’s chemistry magic.