Playing Rat Roulette With Street Meat in Laos

This story was published on The Huffington Post today. Here it is on Boys Eats World, complete with photos.

I have always been an adventurous eater. From skewered bull penis in Beijing to beating snake heart in Hanoi to ant larvae tacos in Mexico City, I am a curious omnivore who is willing to try anything once. It took a village in the rural mountains of Laos, however, to truly test my gastronomic fortitude.

During my three weeks traversing the country, street meat stalls became a comforting constant in my ever-changing surroundings. There is no better way to slip into the leisurely Lao pace of life than by noshing on succulent pork ribs, marinated chicken thighs, and unidentifiable meaty bits while crouched on plastic stools with the locals. I felt a sense of camraderie with my neighbors who smiled approvingly when I mopped the juices from around my mouth with sticky rice, before eating it too. In these inclusive roadside eateries, language barriers are trumped by a universal appreciation of grilled meats and no one questions whether it is too early for your first Beerlao of the day. It was here, among the street meaters, where I belonged.
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That feeling of solidarity with my tribe was shaken to its core one foggy morning on my routine breakfast pilgrimage to the stalls clustered in Nong Khiaw’s center. Approaching the squatted grill master with a smile, I stopped dead in my tracks. A knotted pink tail was swinging between her legs as she vigorously removed the rat’s coat in swift, deliberate strokes of the blade. Drops of blood pooled at her feet as she expertly sliced up the rodent and tossed it onto the grill alongside the other meats. My stomach lurched and a feeling of acute nausea spread through my entire body as I made the connection between these carriers of disease and my daily dining ritual. My mind reeling, I beelined for the neighboring produce stand and began to chain-eat oranges instead. My unshakeable relationship with street meat had just become complicated.

The near certainty of having unwittingly eaten rat disturbed me deeply; its hidden presence within the humble cuisine I had come to love was an assault on my psyche. Had I found my culinary kryptonite in the filthy dwellers of subway systems and dark alleys the world over?
As I pondered my conundrum, the valuable lessons and genuine relationships formed through my Laotian street encounters came flooding back.
When I first arrived in the unfamiliar southern city of Pakse, weak and disoriented after a nine-turned-fourteen hour bus ride from Bangkok, I found nourishment in streetside lemongrass and ginger-infused pork sausages and a kindred spirit in the amiable local hand-stuffing each one with pride.
During a three-day motorbike trip through the elevated Bolaven Plateau — a region ripe with Arabica coffee, picturesque waterfalls, and streetside grill huts galore — I cured my hunger on the road with crisped pork belly and tender balls of mystery meat. In one smoky den a gracious griller taught me proper sticky rice etiquette by urging me to rip off a hunk of the dense starch from a communal basket and wrap it around my meat before dunking it in a slew of fermented pastes and chili-spiked vinegars. Days later, hovering over a heaping plate of road snacks, I was invited to join a table of students at an underground karaoke club where being publicly serenaded was made tolerable, and then hilarious, by hosts who never let my cup run dry.

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img_2449As the sun sank lazily behind Nong Khiaw’s dramatic karst cliffs that evening, my initial disgust was replaced with the realization that street meat — rat likely included — had been at the heart of my most meaningful memories in Laos, prompting me to question my bias against the rodent itself.

If I’d been aware of the possibility that its flesh was simmering within my sausages, would I have enjoyed them with such unadulterated joy? Would I have made the same connections with locals who found amusement in my undiscerning enthusiasm to try everything on offer? Perhaps most importantly, could I really fathom giving up street meat in a country where it had become an all-encompassing lifestyle?

The following week, after enjoying the final sunrise of my trip in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, I strolled through the morning market where ingredients were sold for the day’s cooking. I wandered past stalls of live frogs bound together at the feet, slithering snakes in bowls, and baskets piled high with dried scorpions. It wasn’t long before I spotted the rats. They had been butterflied, leaving their charred innards exposed, and I picked one up to examine the creature that had triggered my internal dilemma. Its tiny bones and sparse pockets of meat did little for my appetite, but it no longer revolted me, either. Strangely enough, I felt a kind of gratitude to the rodents that had taught me that my desire for authentic feasting experiences was far stronger than my fear of vermin.img_1143

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Burmese Curries & Monastery ‘Monk’eys: What’s Hpaan-ing in Hpa-an, Myanmar

Weaving through throngs of oncoming traffic and a cacophony of horns – my mouth tingling from the perfectly balanced spicy noodle soup I just finished slurping – I dare to unwrap my grasp around Nick’s torso only long enough to wave back to the beaming children greeting us from their homes on the river’s edge.  Our motorbike jolts forward as we finally break free from the bustling center of Hpa-an, where the chaos melts away into lush, idyllic countryside punctured with dramatic limestone cliffs that stretch to the sky in all directions.  I have dreamed of visiting Myanmar ever since its doors opened to tourism in 2012, and the capital of the Kayin state proves to be the ideal introduction to a country that has long captured my imagination.

Myanmar – or Burma, depending on who you ask – is a country that begs to be explored.  After decades of isolation from the outside world, much of the country is now accessible to anybody with a tourist visa and a sense of adventure.  With several years of tourism under their belt, it may no longer be the virgin land void of foreigners, ATMs and WiFi connections that it once was (although these luxuries are never a guarantee). It is, however, a fascinating destination with a complicated history, a myriad of over one hundred ethnic minorities and cultures, and a varied cuisine that weaves flavors and techniques from neighboring countries into a culinary identity all its own.  In a land whose majestic temple-strewn landscape is nothing short of spectacular, it is the locals’ infectiously warm spirit that leaves the greatest impression.  Being invited for a beer or passed a plate of spicy ginger salad by your neighbor at a street stall – simply because it is delicious and you really must try it – is normal.  They are, of course, correct – and will nod with approval as you order one of your own.

As an explorer of Myanmar, the more you put into understanding and experiencing what makes it unique – and delicious – the deeper your connection will be.  For those looking to delve into its culinary landscape, sampling an array of richly spiced Burmese curries is an admirable way to start.  Accompanied by the pack of fellow nomads that I met at the bus station, I arrive at the Burmese curry house San Ma Tau ravenous – peeking inside each simmering pot and lingering in the medley of warm and sharply pungent aromas, before concluding that we would like to try them all.  As we hydrate with ice-cold Myanmar lager, the small bowls of curries bathing in their own oily juices begin to hit the table in waves until nothing can be seen but pickled quail eggs, tender braised duck and roasted chicken that glows a neon shade of turmeric.  The never ending – and often unidentified – condiments that accompany most meals range from fermented tea leaves (a national favorite) to umami rich bean pastes to cilantro spiked ground chilis, turning each feast into a ‘choose your own flavor’ adventure.  The crunchy local eggplant and fresh herbs at the table’s center act as a palate cleanser amidst the waves of spice.

It goes without saying that a true culinary exploration of Myanmar requires hitting the streets.  Those willing to forego the formalities of restaurant service are rewarded by markets teeming with vendors that sling local delicacies like spicy shan noodles, deep fried samosas and sticky sweet pastries all day long. In the dusty street markets of Hpa-an, we indulged in the light-as-air chickpea crepes drizzled in sweet chili sauce for breakfast, while noodle-stuffed egg rolls and sweet corn fritters deep-fried in a roadside wok and dunked in a tangy ginger-cilantro sauce killed our afternoon munchies.  The wok master exuded a disposition so jolly it was easy to pass an hour crouched at her table snacking, laughing and playing with the groups of giggling children who came to join in on the fun.

Once properly fueled, we took to the countryside and explored the ancient Buddhist cave temples for which the region is known.  Dating back to the seventh century, exploring the spectacular time capsules decorated with giant Buddhas, chattering bats and dripping stalactites, induces a Planet Earth meets Alice in Wonderland sensation, while the monks and praying locals remind you of the caves’ inherent holiness.  Cruising to the aptly name “Bat Cave” at the town’s edge for sunset grants the opportunity to see hundreds of thousands of bats flock from a small hole in the cliff’s side to begin their nocturnal feasting.

Having heard rumor of a (half) mile-high monastery, we made the grueling two hour vertical pilgrimage up the side of Mount Zwegabin to feast and sleep atop the highest limestone cliff in the region.  The less than luxurious accommodations (read: mat on floor) was more than made up for by the epic panoramic sunset that made us question whether this was all a dream after all.  Our jellied legs that propelled us to the top, however, acted as an earthly reminder that we had earned the right to sleep amongst the monks and clouds.  The modest yet delightful vegetarian feast served soon after sundown lulled us to sleep (along with the aid of Myanmar’s prize ‘High Class’ whiskey) – while the 4 am prayer call woke us back up in time to watch the ascending sun paint the sky with fiery watercolors.

My renewed sense of peace was cut short by the grabby monastery monkeys, who snatched and annihilated my bag of peanuts as I pondered my place in the universe.  An anger arose within me but was quickly washed away by a Buddha quote that came to mind:

In the end, only three things matter:
how much you loved,
how gently you lived,
and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

Perhaps these peanuts just weren’t meant to be; and besides, if Myanmar has taught me anything, it’s that unexpected adventures – and snacks – are just a mere cliff, cave or mountain’s climb away.

2015: A Delicious Year, Revisited

A new year, a fresh palate; 365 days ripe with unlimited potential for future feasts.  When reflecting upon 2015 I can’t help but think about the tasty times; having moved to Mexico one year ago, there has been no shortage of spicy street eats, beach ceviches and endless interpretations of the beloved michelada this calendar year. There’s been a lot more than that, too.  From my first culinary foray into the Big Easy, to Michelin starred lunches in NYC, to inquisitive explorations of the booming restaurant scenes in Mexico’s largest metropolises, 2015 has been nothing short of ricissimo; here’s a list of some of my more intriguing bites (and sips) of the year.  2016, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

      1.  Smoked Crab Tostada, Quintonil, Mexico City

There are few places more exciting to be an eater today than in Mexico City; a dizzying megalopolis whose vibrant culture is woven with culinary delights of all kinds.  I was lucky enough to enjoy my first meal in Mexico City two years back at Enrique Olvera’s Pujol.  This September it was all about Quintonil, Polanco’s newest contemporary Mexican eatery led by Jorge Vallejo, a young and passionate Olvera-trained chef who who has been attracting international buzz for his own concept, and fast.  Not only did the restaurant join the ranks on this year’s San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants list, but it also sits as the #6  best restaurant in Latin America.  Having looked forward to this meal for months, my friend Zach and I excitedly booked the last table available at 10:00 pm; primetime for feasting in Mexico.

Settling into our cozy corner banquette, the server explained how the restaurant sought to honor and express the traditional plants and flavors of Mexico in modern interpretations; they even have their own urban orchard where they grow and source many of their ingredients.  Quintonil is itself an indigenous relative of the amaranth leaf, and a favorite of the chef’s.  Ordering one, then another, of the signature cocktails of muddled quintonil, lime and mezcal with a crushed grasshopper and chili-rimmed glass, we sprung for the tasting menu and settled into our intimate, minimalist surroundings, letting the ten course journey commence.

The meal was thought-provoking and well-curated: inspired by a unique and specific vision to bring to the forefront locally-sourced ingredients and flavors that have long played a role in the country’s culinary history, but remain unknown to many (think pillowy soft ants eggs snuggling with pan roasted chanterelles).  Each course acted as a chapter in a very intriguing and deeply felt story.  Delicious, surprising, and at times even challenging; Zach had previous unfavorable experiences with cuitlacoche or “corn smut”, a pungent fungus that grows on corn, but when prepared as an earthy broth served with local squash blossom and seaweed, the flavors were complementary instead of overwhelming. 

Each dish was in itself a work of art, looking like a very still shot of nature in some magical, lush land where I imagine fairies must feast well.  The unifying botanical theme of nature resonated though the entire experience from the leafy menus, to the green cocktails, to the organic plating, to the lush back wall of the dining room.  Perhaps my favorite dish of the evening was the smoked crab tostada: a succulent and meaty mountain of crabmeat smoked then dressed in lime and crowned by a thin tostada adorned beautifully with shaved watermelon radish, pickled onions and dollops of impeccably spiced habanero mayonnaise.  Together they created a natural harmony of bright acidity, smoked brininess, textural ‘crunch’ and just the right amount of heat.  When in Mexico City the story of Quintonil is one worth eating for yourself, and of course, sharing with your friends.

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      2. Le Pig Mac, Cochon Butcher, New Orleans

There’s a lot of deliciousness to be had in NOLA, as I discovered last March during my five day Mexican visa run turned food and cocktail bender in Sin City.  One of the more vital lessons learned is that a visit to the 2-in-1 butcher shop/packed sandwich joint Cochon Butcher is non-negotiable.  Less negotiable still is ordering the mouth-watering Le Pig Mac once there; a burger that still has me yearning a year later.  Drawn to the higher-quality rendition of my favorite fast food item (sorry, not sorry), which like its namesake it is comprised of two pattys, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, onions, on a sesame seed bun, I dug in without reserve.  The first bite, however, reminded me just how unlike its namesake it really was; succulent, tender and addictively flavorful, almost everything in the burger was made in house and expertly assembled, having me fantasizing about my second Mac long before I finished my first.  With a dash of their signature sweet potato habanero hot sauce on every bite, Le Pig Mac made it unfair for all other burgers I would eat this year.

(side note: this hot sauce was so good that it induced extreme withdrawal, forcing me to have it overnighted to Maine one month later so a visiting friend could fly it down to Mexico, a country with no shortage of its own spicy salsas)

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      3. Torta Ahogada, Torta Toño, Guadalajara

When going anywhere new for the first time, I like to research its culinary specialities so I know what I can’t leave without eating.  When asking around what I must eat while in Mexico’s second largest city, I heard back a resounding: tortas ahogadas.  Literally meaning “drowned sandwich”, one can choose from a variety of proteins which are packed into a crunchy baguette and then drenched in various sauces ranging from sweet to very spicy.  Nick and I visited Tortas Toño, recommended as the best in town by local torta-vores, ordered both chicken and pork, and proceeded to make complete gringos out of ourselves.

Approaching the “DIY” torta bar, we were faced with 5 different tubs of various sauces.  Watching the guy next to us quite literally drown his sandwich in one of the more mild options, with just a splash of the spicy stuff, Nick aggressively decided to drown his own in the pure picante.  A year’s worth of gaping stares from locals as we loaded most everything we ate with the hottest sauces we could get our hands on, had taught us that we generally liked comida “que pica” more than most natives.

As Nick unsuspectingly ladled on his molten lava, heads began to turn and by his fifth everyone in the entire room was staring.  The concerned counter lady rushed over and offered to replace it with a fresh sandwich before we had even dug in.  Figuring she was just taking us for mild-palated Americans, we each took a big bite to prove this wasn’t our first rodeo…and immediately regretted it.  By far one of the most scorching bites we had ever encountered, pride alone forced us to continue chewing.  We nobly forced it down before conceding that, yes, perhaps it was a bit hot and, why yes, we would graciously accept a new one, which this time came with a personal tutorial on the do’s (and do nots) of drowning your sandwiches in Guadalajara.  The result, topped with pickled onions and absolutely swimming in chile de arbol infused goodness, marked a milestone in our evolving etiquette on feasting in Latin America.

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      4. Shaved Razor Clam, Le Bernardin, New York

Entering into Eric Ripert’s 3 Michelin-starred seafood kingdom, you are transported to the middle of the hungry ocean.  Renovated in 2011 by architectural powerhouse Bentel & Bentel, the massive portrait of the sea that dominates the back wall of the restaurant acts as a focal point from which the dining room outwardly flows.  The movement of water as a conceptual theme is felt everywhere, even the walls give the impression you yourself are ebbing through an elegant sea of haute cuisine.

After six months living abroad in Mexico and sustaining myself in large part on street tacos (see #6), it seemed only appropriate to enter the US again with a splash.  Opting for the three course tasting menu (with a handful of supplemental appetizers for the table), the bounty of the sea began to land on our table in waves.  Every aspect of the meal was technically flawless and refined almost to a fault; I secretly longed for a hard pan sear on my fluke and a little camaraderie in my service, which while efficient was also bone-chillingly cold. 

The razor clams, however, warmed me back up.  Shaved, layered delicately, bathing in a subtle lime dressing, and topped with clusters of wasabi tobiko and lively micro-greens; the dish was bright, clean, perfectly balanced, and had just enough Asian influence to make my taste buds giddy.  When reflecting on the most expensive lunch I have ever indulged in, it is that razor clam I will not soon forget.

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  5. Lobster Tartine, The Honey Paw, Portland, ME

Being a Mainer, it’s hard not to brag about the superiority of my home state’s favorite crustacean.  Whether it be in a roll, a composed dish, or preferably straight out of the ocean and into a pot of boiling seawater on a roaring beach fire, there’s simply nothing better than a Maine lobster in summertime (or wintertime, or…okay anytime).  And don’t just take it from me, the ex-president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, once poetically recounted to me that time he and Gabriel Gárcia Márquez enjoyed their first lobster bake together on an island off the coast of Maine, agreeing there was nothing quite like it in the world. 

Taking a three week escape from Mexico’s Pacific coast last August to soak in the sun and shellfish on the rocky coast of Maine, I had some red claw milestones that will be hard to outdo.  At a beachside family gathering of fifty, we cooked (and annihilated) an impressive 300 lobbys, giving birth to a new hashtag; #crushtaceans. 

A mere week later Nick and I gathered on that same beach with a group of fellow lobby lovers and had a more traditional lobster bake.  Digging a three foot hole in the sand, a fire was started, covered in large rocks and then smothered in seaweed on which our red beauties were lovingly laid (along with several pounds of mussels) – they were then smothered yet again with another layer of ‘weed, allowing the sea’s bounty to steam organically underground.  Fifteen minutes later we uncovered our feast and dug in contentedly, rinsing our buttery lobster meat down with crisp summer ales.  As the sun set, the tide came in and slowly extinguished our natural oven.  No cleanup required, we watched as the coals sizzled and the cracked shells were dragged out to sea once again, from whence they came.

When I wasn’t baking and boiling them myself, I enjoyed some sensational lobster dishes in Portland’s booming restaurant scene.  One highlight was the lobster tartine from The Honey Paw, an Asian-centric “non-denominational noodle bar”, and brother to the wildly popular Eventide Oyster Co. and its upscale, innovative big brother, Hugo’s.   A thin piece of toast smothered in lobster and scallop mousse, deep fried, and decorated artfully with lobster, shaved radish, cilantro emulsion, crunchy hijiki seaweed and fried shallot, the tartine is both a stunner and a refreshingly new take on what can be done with Vacationland’s underwater mascot.    

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#crushtaceans
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Maine: the way lobster should be
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lobster tartine @ the honey paw

 

6. Tacos Tropicales, iLatina, Guadalajara

Tacos; in every way the perfect food.  In my 27 years on this Earth, I have yet to meet a taco I didn’t like.  One reason for this may be that not only is it unnecessary to use utensils while eating them, it’s downright ludicrous.  This year I had the pleasure of hand-feeding myself hundreds of authentic tacos on the streets of Mexico and can honestly say that not only am I not tired of them, but my mouth still literally salivates when I hear the word.  There is nothing quite hits the spot like an order of tacos “al pastor” in Mexico City at 4 am, cut straight from adobada spice-rubbed pork rotisserie, roasting on a spit in its own juices for hours.  If you ask nicely enough, the guy manning the spit may even give you a tutorial before you take a go at it yourself, giving you a new appreciation for tacos as an art form.  

The most creative taco of the year goes to the funky “ser y ser visto” hotspot iLatina in Guadalajara whose tacos tropicales substitute tortillas for crispy disks of jicama and load them with plump fried shrimp, grilled pineapple salsa and chipotle aioli, served with tajin-crusted lime wedges (an addictively tangy powder available in corner tienditas everywhere).  Come for the tacos, stay for the inventive mezcal cocktails, and let the decidedly dean crowd of Guadalajarans lead you forth into the noche.

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tacos tropicales @ iLatina
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mexico city, 4 am
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tacos are the gateway drug to new friendships

 

7. Turtle Bolognese, La Petite Grocery, New Orleans

A 20 minute cab ride from the French District landed us at La Petite Grocery, an upscale French neighborhood bistro with Southern twang, on a Thursday night. Sans reservation, we managed to squeeze into the very last table available and settled on two dishes; this being just the first stop on a city-wide restaurant hop.  Our server was less than impressed with this decision (and made no attempt to hide it), and after our blasé first course of fried green tomatoes with lump blue crab, we were ready to move along.  The turtle bolognese, however, was worth the wait.  

Wide strips of handmade pasta swimming in a rich, steaming bolognese sauce loaded with succulent ground turtle.  Perched on top was a soft-boiled egg, fried to perfection, which when cut in half oozed its yellow nectar, soaking everything in its yolky goodness.  I would find myself reflecting on that first bite of pasta all year, not because it was the only turtle I would have in 2015, but because it was the only bite that would bring involuntary tears to my eyes, making me choke up every so slightly with emotion; it was that good.

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8.  Jakarta, Tempo Dulu, Portland, ME

Everyone loves a good cocktail.  If you’re lucky, however, once in a rare while you may find yourself sipping a cocktail that takes you off guard, surprising you with complexity without feeling forced, and brimming with a unique and intriguing vision that makes your introduction feel as though you are meeting an old friend and an exotic, sexy stranger at the same time.  I had one such elusive introduction this summer while sampling the better half of the innovative cocktail program at Tempo Dulu, Portland’s new Southeast Asian fine dining establishment in the recently renovated and painfully classy Danforth Inn; his name was Jakarta.

Watching head cocktail curator Trevin Hutchins prepare the libation using a slate and a small kindling pile of Chinese five-spice logs which he torched to a crisp, covering the smoking chips with an absinthe-misted glass, letting its coated interior absorb the rich, oriental musk.  Meanwhile he prepared a reinterpretation of the classic Manhattan, using Knob Creek Rye, Averna Amaro, Carpano Antica Vermouth, and local Coastal Root Bitters, serving the finished product in a beautiful beaker.  Tipping back the smoke filled glass, he introduced one to the other, letting smoke and rye frolic playfully, mingling and dancing before your palate, engaging all of your senses.  The first sip proves that the cocktail’s preparation was much more than a show, and that in the right hands, cocktails have the power to transport you to another time and place.  After one sip Nick immediately declared it to be his favorite cocktail of all time; thanks for that Trevin, you rock.  

If you’re feeling splurgey, don’t miss out on the tasting menus in Tempo Dulu’s elegant dining room, including an Indonesian Rijsttafel or “rice table”, where you can sample an elaborate array of artfully prepared small plates.

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trevin hutchins in action
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