Tag Archives: food

Es Oyen: An Indonesian Treat


Overall, I was not incredibly enthused about the food in East Java.  The tempeh with sauce on heaps of white rice was good the first time I had it…and the second…but after that I started to wish for something different and feel pretty unhealthy after snacking on deep fried krupak with every meal.  And this was only for a week–I seriously sympathize with my friend Elle, who has been living on Indonesian food for a year.  It’s tasty, but I’m happy for the wide variety of Lao food.

Though I was happy to return to Vientiane and exchange the Indonesian diet of nasi (white rice), for khao niao (sticky rice), I did have a brief love affair with one Indonesian dessert…ES.

Es can be a variety of sweet ice desserts served in a bowl or a bag, but my all time favorite was es oyen.

The ingredients:
-tapioca
-jello
-coconut
-melon
-avocado
-sugar syrup
-coconut milk
-ice
-sweetened condensed milk

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Ahan Lao…Saep Lai!

As my one year anniversary of life in Laos quickly approaches (this week!), I’ve been trying to take some small moments (and with final reports due and an upcoming trip to prepare, the moments are indeed small) to reflect on the things that I’ve grown to appreciate and love in the past year.  Very high on the list, of course, is food.  Food is always an important aspect of anywhere I visit, and luckily Laos has not disappointed in the culinary department.  While Lao cuisine doesn’t traditionally include some of my favorite ingredients (read: cheese, bread), there are a whole new array of spices and flavors now in my palate.  (And luckily there are some excellent Western restaurants in town to indulge my taste for cheese when I really need some).

Some of my favorite “go-to” Lao foods… (Some of these are not exclusively Lao, but also found in Thailand.  However, it’s in the Lao context that I’ve come to know and love them.)

Morning Glory (paak bung)

The spinach of Southeast Asia–a water weed (which I’ve recently learned is illegal to import, possess, or sell in the USA) that I like best fried with garlic, chilis, and fish sauce, as pictured.

Broken Rice (nem khao)

Fried rice, rolled into a ball and deep fried.  The ball is broken apart and then tossed with herbs, peanuts, and pig skin (the spagetti-like pieces).  Pick some up with your vegetable of choice and then dip into a slightly spicy peanut sauce. (Pictured here with spring rolls).

Chicken with Cashews

Fried chicken pieces mixed with onions, chilis, cashews, and a delicious sweet and sour sauce.  (After numerous taste tests, I’ve determined Lao Garden restaurant to have one of the best places of gai pad med mak muang in town, pictured above).

Chicken Laap (laap gai) with Sticky Rice (khao niaow)
Laap, or meat salad, is one of the most common Lao foods, and certainly my favorite.  I prefer the gai (chicken) variety, although it also comes with bpaa (fish), muu (pork), ngua (beef), or kouai (buffalo).  Diced meat with onions, chilis, mint, and other herbs, served with sticky rice.  Saep lai! It’s the only Lao food I’ve attempted to cook, with some success.

Chili peppers (mak phet)

Well, chilis might not really be one of my favorite foods yet, but they’re so ubiquitous that I’ve learned to love them in greater quantity than before.  However, I still ask for food bo phet (not spicy) whenever I order it.  This guarantees that it will just barely be on the tolerable side of uncomfortably spicy.

Beerlao

…And how could I leave out Beerlao, staple of Lao cuisine?  Though some might say it’s not a food, you use the verb “to eat,” kin, for beer consumption as well as eating food, which seems to reflect its centrality in celebrations, and most meals for some.  The most palatable, and enjoyable, of the regional beers, in my opinion.  Nyok!

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Giving Thanks

The holidays have probably been underway for weeks already in the States (Christmas music has probably been on since Halloween), but this past weekend finally started feeling like the holiday season here in Vientiane.  On Saturday, I got a little taste of America at the annual WIG (Women’s International Group) Bazaar.  This carnival was held all Saturday afternoon, with arts and crafts for sale, a raffle, games for kids, and lots of food, including stalls run by many of the local embassies.  Naturally, the American Embassy had the best baked goods, so I went back several times for cookies and cupcakes, after sampling some of the all-American chili.

Around the Thanksgiving table.

On Sunday the feasting continued with a big Thanksgiving dinner at our house.  Fourteen people gathered around our dining room table–mostly American but also Swedish and Australian–to celebrate one of my favorite American holidays.  Despite hurried day-of cooking and inevitable worries about having enough food, the table was absolutely overflowing, and the leftovers are still in the fridge.  Our feast included: turkey (special ordered from a local ex-pat grocer), stuffing (32 hand-shredded cups of bread), cranberry sauce (with pineapple), mashed potatoes (made by yours truly), gravy, green bean casserole, brussels sprouts, gratin, carrots, 2 types of salad, sweet potato latkes (with applesauce), and Brie biscuits. 

And for dessert: pumpkin pie, chocolate cake, shortbread cookies, and a Swedish pancake dessert.  In proper Thanksgiving style, everyone was completely stuffed by the end, so it was a definite success.  Between the food coma, the Christmas lights strung around our window, and the good friends gathered around the table, I really felt as though I was at home for the holidays.

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Napoli

Napoli

We were all a bit sad to get on the train and leave behind the good times in Bologna, but I was still excited to see Naples, a city I hadn’t yet visited before this trip.  As soon as we got off the train, it was obvious that we had moved south.  After snowy Bologna, the temperatures in the 50s felt like a heat wave, and the famed grit and disorder of the city were immediately evident as we pushed through street vendors to get to taxis, which then had to circle around the periphery of the city to take us to our hotel, because of a rally going on downtown.  Naples was certainly dirty (I have never seen so much dog poop on sidewalks), and wild (nor have I been in so many reckless taxi rides), but still struck me with a particular beauty, especially when we opened our hotel windows to see a gorgeous view over the colorful city out to the water and Vesuvius in the distance.

antique splendor, Villa Pignatelli

We dined for the first time in Naples in a tiny, single room restaurant, where I had pasta alla siciliana, with eggplant, tomato sauce, and provolone cheese.  Lunch was followed by a visit to the Università degli Studi Suor Orsola, where our visit was being honored with a special seminar on food culture in Italy, at which a number of local professors spoke, and our own was invited to give an impromptu talk about our class.  That night, we had our first taste of Neapolitan pizza, which has a thicker crust (more like American pizza) than other typical Italian pizza.  Afterward, we headed to yet another beautiful theater, Teatro Mercadante, but this time for an Italian rendition of Macbeth, which had been very interestingly modernized.

Castello dell'Ovo

Castello dell'Ovo

Our last day was packed, as we tried to do and see as much as possible in Naples.  In the morning, we had a guided visit of the food still life exhibition at Villa Pignatelli, a museum that also has beautiful gardens and old interior decor.  During the afternoon, I walked with a few of my classmates along the shore, as we enjoyed the sun and the first truly blue skies of the trip, and passed fisherman, dog walkers, and lovers along the beach.  We ended up at the Castello dell’Ovo, a small ancient castle that juts out into the water, and offered impressive views of the city and the sea.  In the afternoon, we visited the Garofalo pasta factory, where the owner explained their methods as well as their innovative marketing and the philosophy behind their brand.  The visit culminated with a walk through the factory itself, where we saw, tasted, and smelled, pasta in its many stages of production, from cutting, to sorting, to packaging.

spaghetti

spaghetti waiting to be cut

For our final meal, we dined at the Città del Gusto, a center for cooking, learning, and eating for local students, where we had pizza, shrimp with potato and broccoli rabe, ricotta-stuffed pasta, fish with vegetables, and a chocolate cake, like a miniature Vesuvius with a molten chocolate core.  Now I’m back at Princeton, about to be a second semester senior, and for the first time in awhile I don’t have any more travel on the horizon (if long and treacherous trips to the library to work on my thesis don’t count).  Instead, I’ll be trying to enjoy all that I love about this place as much as possible before graduation.  This trip to Italy will definitely be among my most memorable Princeton experiences.  To see more of the story in photos, visit my Shutterfly site.

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Bologna

On Monday, we caught the train to Bologna, to spend two days in the city made famous by lunch meat.  We checked into a cozy hotel right in the city center, off Piazza Maggiore, the main square, and home to the suggestive Neptune fountain, and famously unfinished San Petronio Basilica.  As soon as we arrived, we left for a walking “gastronomic tour” of the city, where we learned about Bologna’s traditional cuisine, which is heavy on meats and fat.

prosciutto, salame, mortadella, formaggio

meat-filled lunch

One of the highlights of the tour was a visit to the Atti shop, which makes traditional bread, pastries, and pastas.  The owner explained the history of the family-run shop and the different types of products they make, letting us taste uncooked tortellini, meat bread, and cakes, which were all delicious, and made me wish that I had brought a bigger suitcase for a collection of food.  The last stop on the tour was a butcher shop, where we dined on a lunch of various sliced meats and cheeses.

That night we went to the home of one of our professor’s friends, whose family makes Fabbri liqueurs.  We tasted the cherry amarena, mixed with prosecco, and toasted our first night in Bologna, while snacking on some light antipasti: miniature pizzas and spinach rolls.  The house itself was also an attraction, with fascinating art and decoration all around.  The next morning, we had yet another city tour, but this one focusing on the history and attractions of the city, such as the San Petronio Basilica, the San Stefano church, municipal building, and university, which is usually considered the oldest university in the world, and has an ornate interior decorated with hundreds of crests of its past students.

old students crests

crests at the university

Though I had visited Bologna once before, I truly fell in love with the city on this trip, and not only because it was where we had the most fun (we met up with one of our classmates studying abroad there, and one of our favorite Italian professors on sabbatical).  It seemed like the perfect mix of historical and picturesque and modern, and was both traditional and filled with the vibrant young atmosphere of a university town.  Although it may not boast as many guidebook attractions as other Italian cities, Bologna seemed like a good place to go an spend a long period of time, without the swarms of tourists, but still with plenty to see and do.

San Petronio

San Petronio

On our last night in the city, as the snow that had begun falling earlier that day began to come down harder than ever, we trekked in a bus to a remote agriturismo to have a rustic meal.  We watched a pasta-making demonstration before sitting down for a long, though not particularly good, meal.  But our disappointment in the dining experience went to show how our group had truly become a piccola famiglia by that point.  What could have been a truly terrible dinner was filled with laughter and hilarity, proving that the company, and not the food, is often the most important part of the meal.

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C’era una volta

On Sunday, we drove out of Milan toward the northern lake country, for one of my favorite days of the trip, the “medieval dinner.”  Our bus barely made it up the steep gravel roads and dropped us off in front of the gates of a large stone house, where we were warmly welcomed by Elena, the owner, who immediately ushered us inside.  As we warmed ourselves in the spacious living room, adorned with interesting artwork, she recounted us the story of the house and her family’s relationship with it.

medieval house

outside i Vallicelli

Known as i Vallicelli, the house has records dating back to the early 1500s, which describe all of its past residents and their professions, although there are structural indications that the building existed since the 1000s.  Elena had moved into the house with her husband when she was younger, and the historic building and the surrounding natural beauty inspired her.  The property was almost a miniature natural preserve, with various wildlife and fruit trees, and when her children were born, she began making homemade jams.  This hobby has since expanded, and our tour of the house next led to the modern kitchens and storerooms, where the incredibly delicious preserves are now concocted and packaged.

also raspberry jam on the side, yum.

orange tart, the final dessert

After our introduction to the charming property was complete, we began the real business of the day–a feast.  The marathon meal (which would last about 4 hours in total), began with light appetizers: breads, regional cheeses and salami, tomato and olive pastes, and some of the homemade preserves.  Each course had been paired with a specific wine selected by a sommelier, and we clinked glasses for our first brindisi with a sparkling rosé.  Moving to the table, we began the first course, two types of quiche, one onion, and the other ricotta and spinach, accompanied by Pinot Bianco. We switched to red wine for the main course: beef, marinated in wine and spices for a week, and polenta, which had been cooking in an iron pot over the open fire since we had arrived.

polenta

polenta on the fire

By the time the vegetables arrived, we were all wondering if we would physically be able to survive the massive meal, but the cheesy cauliflower was too good to pass up.  Finally we were served a dessert wine, and made it to the final course, but there were two different desserts to finish: spiced wine-soaked pears, and an orange tart. Despite the fact that we finished off the meal with espresso, everyone was asleep about 5 minutes after we settled onto the bus…exhausted by the portions, and dreaming of polenta.

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Syracuse

Ortigia

walking along the water in Ortigia

Syracuse was my favorite city we visited on the trip.  It seemed to have just the right combination of charm, beauty, culture, and grittiness, and the nice hotel we stayed in didn’t hurt either.  Hotel Gutkowski was right on the water in Ortigia, a neighborhood of Sicily that is actually it’s own little island, connected by bridges to the rest of the city.  The rooms were clean and crisp, designed as if to feel like a neat beachside cottage (and impression helped by the shores of the Mediterranean just outside our window).  Ortigia, small and very walkable, is the oldest part of the city featuring many historic sites, such as the Castel Maniace, the Duomo, and the ruins of a temple to Apollo.  We spent the morning of the first day walking around Ortigia to see these sights, and then took a break in the market district for lunch.  The markets were chaotic, but were just what I would have imagined a Sicilian street market to be: dirty, loud, filled with strange scents of pungent cheese and seafood, and home to all sorts of things that one wouldn’t find a tame American farmer’s market.  Right next to a stand selling prickly pear fruit was a bucket of little squid and next to those a massive swordfish head, and so on.

swordfish heads :-(

swordfish at the Syracuse market

My birthday, the first one I’ve celebrated abroad, was on the first day in Syracuse, and we celebrated that night by doing the same thing that we did during all our free evenings: eat and drink.

pizza yumyyumyyumyuum

just part of my amazing birthday feast

Some of the guys on the trip had been lucky enough to be assigned to a palatial apartment-style room in the hotel, which had it’s own living room, so we had a little apiritivo party there before heading out to another incredible Italian dinner. I split a pizza diavole con olive (pizza with mozzarella, tomato, spicy pepperoni, garlic, and olives) and pasta alla norma (pasta with eggplant, tomatoes, basil, and cheese).  And a free lemon sorbetto for dessert!

The next day, we visited the Neapolis, home to many of Syracuse’s ancient sites, including two amphitheaters, a quarry, monastic rock dwellings, and a giant altar.  In the old quarry area is a cave called “The Ear of Dionysus,” which looks a lot like an ear opening carved in the rock, and has astounding acoustics.  We all walked through the “canal” to the very back, where one of the grad students with an astounding voice sang while our eyes adjusted to the darkness.  Once outside the ear (we decided it was time to go after someone got pooped on by one of the caves winged residents), we collected fallen limes from the many trees in the area on our walk to the exit, where a stand was selling freshly squeezed juice.  The next stop in Syracuse were the Catacombs of San Giovanni, an underground labyrinth of early Christian tombs (now without bodies) that our hilariously bad at English tour guide gave us a whirlwind tour of before shooing us away so she could get off work for the day.  On our way out of Syracuse we visited the Castello Euriale, ruins of an inland defensive structure, whose best feature was the stunning vista of the city, the sea, and the countryside.

view of Syracuse

looking out toward Syracuse

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