all geared up

I’ve been wanting to test my new underwater camera setup for quite some time now, but it’s been taken over by other things  since I bought it last June. Meanwhile I have a dive trip to Dumaguete later this month and it would be a pity not to be able to use and have fun with it. Needless to say, I haven’t been outside of the city for the last couple of months and my feet are itching while my travel diva sulks in the corner giving me the cold shoulder.

I have to do something about this or risk being burned out from excessive work and compulsive shopping!

Then a flash of brilliance while watching Anthony Bourdain on TLC! If I cannot go to the places I want, why not travel right in the comfort of my home by experiencing what I love the most about a good getaways – FOOD, oh so glorious FOOD!

I raided the ice box and the pantry to give me a sense of direction. These are good starting points for any food trip. I figured it’s like a road map and a travel agent to consult and guide me on where to go. The ice box had pork chops, chicken breasts, tofu, basil leaves and a couple of packs of frozen roti bread, while the pantry had sweet potatoes, some canned tomatoes, red curry paste and linguini pasta. I am always partial to Mediterranean and Thai food and these are the featured destinations provided I can get the required herbs and spices – coriander, flat parsley, red chilies, kaffir lime leaves, and mint leaves.

I ducked into the nearest supermarket, luckily we were in the section of town where there’s a supermarket with a gourmet section. Some of these herbs and spices are not easy to find since they are not readily used in Filipino dishes. I got most of the ingredients I needed and proceeded to plan my food trip.

I decided to go to Thailand first, then somewhere in between, and then my final destination- Italy. To taste Thailand I will cook tofu with sweet potato curry; for something in between Asia and Italy, I’m going with herb encrusted chicken breasts with roti bread; then for Italy, I will cook pork chops in pomodoro sauce with pesto on a bed on linguini. Perfect!

I prepared the chicken breasts first – crushing and combining garlic, chili, nuts, lemon, extra virgin olive oil and kaffir lime leaves to a rough paste using a mortar and pestle – then rubbing this onto scored chicken breasts, leaving it for a while until I was ready to grill it, about half an hour to an hour. Crushing the herbs and spices together already gives that sense of excitement and adventure as I look for that perfectly balanced aroma.

Then I started on the tofu and sweet potato curry – peeled and sliced the potatoes into cubes, sliced the tofu into 1 inch cubes, fried the tofu in canola oil, stir fried the garlic, onions, coriander and red curry paste. I added the sweet potatoes to the pan, mixing it to make sure that the potatoes are well covered with the spices before adding about a cup of vegetable broth. Once the potatoes have softened I added the fried tofu, seasoned with salt, left it for a couple more minutes before plating and garnishing with coriander leaves. My first dish is a creamy vegetarian curry perfect as dipping sauce for the roti bread or served with freshly steamed rice.

a taste of Thailand

Meanwhile, as I was waiting for the potatoes to soften, I prepared my pesto sauce – picked the basil leaves off its stems, peeled a handful of garlic cloves, picked off chunks of Parmesan cheese. I whacked the garlic into the food processor, then the basil leaves, added about half a cup of extra virgin olive oil before putting in the Parmesan cheese. Adjusted the consistency with more olive oil and seasoning with salt, my pesto sauce is ready.

I then proceeded with grilling the chicken breasts as my first dish is just about ready to be plated. The herbs on the breasts gave off fantastic aroma of a destination I imagined to be a melting pot of cultures, where east meets west in perfect harmony. I was careful not to overcook the chicken for it will dry up and would taste like herb encrusted paper. Once the chicken were cooked I plated it and put rolled up roti breads in the center of the of the plate.

herb and nut encrusted chicken breasts and roti

Then for the final destination – filled up a deep pot with enough water for the pasta and set it to boil, fried the pork chops in olive oil till brown, crushed some garlic and sliced some onions, then fried these till they caramelized, mixed in the sliced parsley leaves and a bit of chili, and incorporated a can of whole peeled tomatoes. I added about a quarter of a cup of left-over pasta sauce, seasoned with salt and pepper and it’s ready! I plated this on a bed on linguine, cooked al-dente, and topped with a dollop of pesto sauce and lavishly sprinkled with Parmesan cheese..

pork chop in pomodoro and pesto on a bed of linguini

The whole cooking process took about an hour. As we sat down to eat, with a good bottle of wine, I was reminded of how my travels have enriched my culinary repertoire. I may not be able to go to these places now but I can bring them closer to home with a bit of imagination and readily available ingredients. I could see my travel diva with oil all over it’s mouth, nodding in approval, satiated.

a mouthful

Wanna share your favorite dishes from your travels and tell us how it brings you back or closer to these destinations?

Eating Bangkok Food

I just concluded a 5-day trip to Bangkok, back in Manila now and I’m missing the flavors of Thailand. Thai food is one of my all time favorites. The flavors just explode in your mouth with the right balance of spicy, sweet, salty, sour and bitter…oh and did I say spicy? These flavors dance in your mouth even if you just order one dish. Each dish has a unique taste though and you can taste which ingredient is being highlighted with every spoonful. Oddly enough though its not the main ingredient like meat, poultry or fish that makes the dish standout but its the collection and blending of the minor ingredients that do justice to the meal. The red curry paste and the kaffir lime leaves to fish cake, the galangal (Thai ginger), lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves to  Tom Yum Kung (sour soup with prawns), the coriander and the lime to Som Tam (papaya salad), and the basil leaves and mint leaves to the stir fries.

The best Thai food, however, are the ones sold on the streets. You have to know how to order though because they do not always have a menu with pictures, or with English translations and explanations, and to further add to the excitement, the vendors know very little English to communicate. Your index finger and your hands are trusty allies as you communicate in signs. Patience is certainly a virtue in some situations.

Here is a short food guide on 5 popular Thai foods to eat to get the best out of your Bangkok trip:

Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad)

Som Tam

Made from a mixture of green papaya, carrots, red chilies, lime juice, coriander, fish sauce and tomatoes, beaten and mixed together using mortar and pestle to obtain that spicy, sweet and sour goodness. It’s amazing that the flavor of this dish remains consistent even if you eat at a local restaurant or at a makeshift stall on a street corner. Best one I’ve had though is right under the BTS Skytrain station in On Nut and the lady cook enthusiastically showed me how it was made. Not every stall sells Som Tam though and one way of finding out is to look for the mortar and pestle made of stone; if they have one then you’re in for a treat! There are also several varieties of this dish – with salted eggs or cucumber and the equally popular Lao variety with fermented crablets. Best eaten with Tod Mun Pla (Thai fish cakes) and sticky rice or on its own, if you can bear its chili goodness.

Tom Yum Kung (Hot and Sour Soup with Prawns)

Tom Yum Kung

This is the uber popular hot and sour soup usually served with prawns. The soup is distinctly flavoured with galangal (a type of ginger), lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and, you guessed it, chili! The semi-clear broth greets your pallet with the tangy goodness then flicks your taste buds as you feel the kick of the chili gently tapered by the sweetness of the kaffir lime leaves and galangal. This soup is a great starter for any Thai meal as it gently cleanses and prepares your palate for the other flavors of the succeeding dishes.

Tod Mun Pla (Thai Fish Cake)

Yummm :)

My absolute favorite and too bad that I haven’t tasted anything close to it here in the Philippines, so I really went for it while in Bangkok. I love the rubbery texture and the balance of fish and red curry paste made even more pronounced by the cucumber generously soaked in sweet chili sauce dip. Every bite is a delight! Thai fish cakes are different from western style fish cakes since they are not battered. The shredded fish fillet is held together by the red curry paste which also gives it the rubbery texture. Best ones I’ve tasted was after our floating market adventure at Damnoen Saduak on our way to the elephant show in Samprahan Elephant Ground!

Tom Kha Gai (Chicken in Creamy Coconut Soup)

Tom Kha Gai

This is chicken soup Asian style, chunky slices of chicken fillet in creamy coconut milk interlaced with the exotic flavours of kaffir lime leaves, galangal, coriander and fresh chilies, of course. The smell of the coconut milk, herbs and spices alone will make anyone crave for more. Similar to its cousin, Tom Yum Kung, Tom Kha Gai greets your palate with the sweetness of the coconut milk then leaves it with the gentle but powerful kick of herbs and spices. This dish is moderately spiced. Best one I’ve tried is in a local restaurant near the port on the way to Damnoen Saduak as we traveled to Samprahan Elephant Ground.

Stir Fries

Stir Fries

Mainly tried these from street vendors near our hotel, Imm Fusion in Sukhumvit. The stall had various sea foods, frogs, snake heads and vegetables. We were fortunate that they had a menu in English with pictures so we only had to point at the ones we found interesting. What was interesting is the distinct flavor of the basil and mint leaves that each dish had but the cook still managed to create uniqueness and individuality to each stir fry. We had 3 stir fried dishes –  one with clams, one with beef and a vegetable called mimosa, and one with ground pork – and stuffed egg, which is basically an omelet, Thai style.

There is also the ultra popular Pad Thai, a noodle dish with peanuts and tamarind sauce, which is something to order if you are extremely unfamiliar with the dishes or there is no English menu available – a safe alternative and very lightly spiced.

Eating by the road side

Thai foods are normally very spicy, but this shouldn’t discourage anyone from trying them out. Just make sure that you have a hefty serving of raw vegetables – cabbages, string beans and cucumber – to munch on in between bites. Whatever you do, do not drink water! It may provide temporary relief but after a while water, especially when cold, tends to aggravate the burning sensation in the mouth. A yoghurt drink is a good diffuser and they are readily available practically everywhere.  Milk also does the trick but it has a tendency to make you feel full and that would spoil the fun.

Food is one of the reasons that keep me excited about traveling and Thailand is one of those places where people are very passionate about cooking and creating the perfect meal. It was a pity that I didn’t have time to go to a Thai cooking class, but I know that this will not be the last time that my palate will be immersed in the sweet, spicy, tangy and fabulous balance of flavors that is Thailand.