Monday, July 27, 2009

Food Dilettante in Manchuria

I will be posting from Northeastern China for about 3 months, so bear with me Austinites. I shall post about food in Austin later in the Fall.

Northeastern 东北 cuisine is known to be heavy, salty, oily, flour based, and generally unrefined. My friend told me that someone here told her that that was the reason why the Manchurians invaded China and established the long Qing dynasty. They wanted better food. Ah, food can be such a motivator!

In my crazy jet lagged condition, I wandered into the street in front of my residence at 6:00 AM to find a bustling street market. I was on a quest to find breakfast that would not inflict bowel movement on my tired and not quite acclimated body.

Usually street vendors should not be a place to get a first meal in a foreign country, but this bing 饼,savory pancake, vendor looked like such a typical Northeastern spot that I just had to try it.

The pancake master used a very pliable dough, which he stretched into thin sheets and slathered in a special oil concoction before rolling the sheets into a pain aux raisins shape.
He then placed each shaped dough onto a griddle and fryed them.

The result was a crispy, flakey, satisfying breakfast, which would taste even better if I had some black vinegar and hot chili paste in which to dip each morsel. I dared not use the condiments at the vendor.

Korean Air Food

My journey to Shenyang, China was dotted with a stream of bad plane food. I had such high hopes for Korean Air after reading about their award winning Bibimbap, but being a luckless gal, the stewardess apologized that they just ran out of Bibimbap for my first Korean air meal. I was stuck with a bland pot roast with extremely stinky steamed carrots and brocolli.

Pot Roast

For the next meal on the 14 hour flight from Dallas to Incheon/Seoul, they offered a choice of pasta or chicken. I picked chicken and got utter crap. Why serve fried food when it has to be heated by steam? The batter on the chicken became flour mush on the chicken, which made the entire dish inedible. As odd as this combination is, the side of lox and potato salad was the only tolerable item pictured here.

Fried Chicken with a side of smoked salmon and potato salad

I told myself that I can treat myself to delicious Korean food at the Incheon airport, but of course, my departing terminal was at the farthest end of the airport. I passed by amazing Korean food vendors, none of which allowed to-go orders. I had to make do with a Chicken Bulgogi Burger from KFC. Woe is me.

KFC Chicken Bulgogi and Peach Iced Tea
On my short flight from Incheon to Shenyang, Korean Air decided to torture me with another meal of tasteless porridge and a scary looking shrimp salad. I took one bite of each and stopped. There was no way I could subject myself to this food anymore.

Beef and Dates Porridge with Shrimp Salad

I hope my return flights on KA will be better. Please just let me taste the Bibimbap!!!!!!

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Taste of Seoul: Dishes I Have Never Tried in the U.S.

You know how annoying it is to layover at an airport in a country/city you really want to visit and never visited before? I'm glad to say that I visited Seoul Summer 2007 and won't be kicking myself for only passing through to get to Shenyang, China next week. This will be my first time on Korean Air so naturally I looked up their in-flight service to see what kind of meals I should expect. I was uber happy to see that they serve beef or salmon bibimbap for economy class! Yippee!

Let's back track to Summer 2007. I did not eat any Korean dishes that I've had in the states. I regret that because I can't make a comparison. Perhaps Korean BBQ, bulgogi, galbi all taste better in Korea! I would've really missed out, then! On the other hand, I was able to explore dishes that I wouldn't have otherwise tasted elsewhere.

While exploring the Dongdaemun market, we stopped for a snack at a little mom's and pop's. We couldn't read the menu, and there were no picture aids. The ladies just pointed at what one of the customers was eating, and we nodded in agreement.

One of the ladies promptly went out the front of the restaurant to grind some cornmeal, while the other started coating various veggies and meats in a cornmeal batter.
This wasn't the yummiest dish, but it wasn't bad. We learned to perfect each bite of the fried pieces of leek pancakes, seafood pancakes, Korean sausages, and shrimp with a piece of kimchee. I think kimchee can make almost anything taste good. I've had Korean seafood pancakes before but not in an assortment like this.

Perhaps we should have tried this seafood pancake stall instead, which is more like what I've had in the U.S.

Kwang-Jang Market Seafood Pancake Stall

I made reservations at Korea House for a Korean royal court cuisine dinner. Mum got a glimpse of royal court cuisine from watching a popular Korean soap opera, Dae Jang Geum about a Joseon dynasty court cook turned physician.

Korea House

When we arrived at our table, it was already set with the first course of build-your-own chilled crepes and an array of banchan.
chilled build-your-own-crepe tray, snacks, and banchan

The crepes were refreshing and delicious. The filling choices included rice noodles, beef, a kind of pickled root vegetable, carrots, cucumbers, egg, and a kind of sauce.
Build-Your-Own Chilled Crepes
The courses came in what felt like an endless stream. However, the portions were tiny. We ordered 2 different court dinners for 3 people to share, but each dish was only portioned for 2 bites.
salmon sashimi and raw shellfish
I want to say that everything was delicious, but a lot of the dishes were not up to par with the price and the courtly cuisine they claim to serve. The chilled shrimp was limp and not very fresh, while the shrimp potato salad was dry and bland. I love Korean potato salad when it's served as a banchan in the Korean restaurants in the U.S., and I thought it's a dish that all Korean restaurants excel at. Apparently, I'm wrong in my stereotype.

Chilled Prawn with shellfish; Shrimp and Potato Salad

BBQ Beef; Mushrooms grilled on pine needles

Leek Pancake and Egg Pancake

Root Vegetable Salad; Chilled Pumpkin Soup

Oxtail Stew; Grilled Eel

Hot Pot Soup

Rice and Clear Soup to be combined to eat as porridge

Dessert-sticky rice cake, popped rice, and watermelon
I thought the Korean royal court dinner was definitely worth the overall experience but not worth repeating because of the price-quality disparity.

We went back to plebian food the day after the royal dinner, and it doesn't get more plebian than amusement park outdoor food stalls! The Korean Folk Village isn't exactly an amusement park, but it's an outdoors living museum. The food court was a bit confusing. You have to purchase meal tickets and give the food vendors the corresponding number of tickets for each food item. This was a hassle because you have to research what you want to get, stand in line to purchase tickets, then get back into the different lines at the different vendors to assemble your meal.

I bought chilled noodle soup, which came with kimchee and BBQ pork kabab. This made a simple and scrumptious lunch.

Korean Folk Village Chilled Noodle Soup, Pork Skewer, and Kimchee
I neglected to research restaurants in Seoul and so we blindly stumbled upon a mediocre hot pot restaurant one night. One look at their selection of banchan, and I knew this meal wasn't going to impress. We can get better banchan at restaurant in the U.S.! C'mon! Pickled Garlic?
The seafood hotpot was nothing special. It consisted of chunks of tofu, spinach, which by the way is a terrible combination because you can develop kidney stones from it, octopus, shrimp, and fish.
Seafood Hot Pot: the cooking stage and the cooked stage

We explored the Shinsegae department store food court for our last supper in Seoul, and we were pleasantly surprised by how delicious their baozi is! The Korean baozi tastes even better than the Chinese baozi I've had! Dad agrees, and he's from a mianshi (flour-based of Northern Chinese cuisine)-eating family.
Shinsegae Department Store Baozi

Hopefully I'll have time at the Incheon airport next Friday for a quick Korean meal before jumping on the plane again to China!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Malaga Tapas & Bar: Farewell Happy Hour

Sara, my fellow former art historian good friend, is now back in Austin for grad school to my delight, but I will be gone for the Fall semester so we planned to make the most of our reunion at Malaga.
The Malaga happy hour special consisting of a happy hour beverage and a happy hour tapas is $8. This is a pretty good deal considering how filling my order of meatballs was not to mention the delicious amuse bouche of fried quail in a creamy sauce with dusted with smoked paprika. Who knew happy hour can come with an amuse bouche!

Amuse Bouche of fried quail

My issue with the happy hour menu is that there are only a few tapas to choose from, and few of which really stood out. The more tantalizing items are in the normal dinner menu. After some struggle, I settled with the happy hour special by choosing the Albondigas en Tomate (meatballs in tomato sauce) and the watermelon martini instead of ordering from the dinner menu because I need to save money.

Again, I'll refrain from commenting on alcholic beverages as I still feel like it's torture gulping the stuff down. The watermelon martini was mild and sugary enough for me to reach the halfway point, which says alot.

Watermelon Martini
Now the meatballs, which I will happily opine, made me a bit queasy. As I bit down, the meat became mush in my mouth. There's a difference between tenderness and mushyness. Tender meatballs can still give a slight springboard bounce as your teeth puncture through the exterior and the meat's juices would blend with the ground meat as you chew with gentle ease. These meatballs felt like they were meant for people with dentures. No need for teeth, just use your tongue and mush it to the roof of your mouth. Blech. Mashed potatoes, yes; meat, no.
Albondigas en Salsa de Tomate-beef and pork meatballs in a cumin-coriander spiced tomato sauce with three month old Iberico cheese and chopped parsley
Fickle Foodie ordered the delicious gambas and the Tortilla Catalana, and Sara ordered the tasty pork. Malaga might've strategically placed the less impressive tapas in the happy hour specials and left the delectable ones for the regular menu. Tricky tricky.

Gambas al Ajillo-shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil with fried plantain chips; Pincho Moruno-pork marinated in olive oil infused with Moorish spices, cumin, red pepper, garlic, parsley and fresh lemon juice

Top to Bottom: Shrimp, Meatballs, and Pork

Tortilla Catalana-potatoes baked with onions, eggs, and piquillo peppers, and served with garlic aioli and Romesco Sauce with shredded Iberico cheese
A pretty cool plus about Malaga on Wednesday nights is the free Flamenco performance 8-10PM.

The Spirit of Flamenco in Malaga

Breakfast Near My Former Office

For my buddies still working at TCG Consulting, there are a couple of breakfast joints around the Westlake/Bee Caves area if you're ever in need of some yummy and unhealthy nourishment before heading to your desk and muddling through 8 hours. You know who you are, and I miss you already!

1) Rudy's BBQ breakfast tacos

I didn't take photos, but one taco will fill you up just fine. Ask the cashier to recommend some taco fillings combinations. Nothing beats Casa Maria's machacado breakfast taco though.

2) Lone Star Kolaches

I think this is the best kolache shop in Austin. The roll is not dry and hard to swallow like some places, and not greasy like the butter rolls that some places use to encase the fillings. Lone Star Kolaches is generous with their fillings that are whole and not minced into a texturally disturbing mess like those from some other establishments.
The Quartet-ham, turkey, bacon, and cheese ; Tuscany Chicken-chicken and mushrooms

3) Howdy Donuts

Fickle Foodie and I often lament about the absence of Shipely Donuts in Austin. We like the poofy airyness of their donuts. Ken's Donuts on Guadalupe close to campus isn't bad, Krispy Kreme is way to sweet, don't go near the supermarket donuts, Round Rock Donuts's donuts are huge and tasty, but Howdy Donut makes them the best so far.
A hard working Korean family runs this little shop, and it's nice to see the whole family working together. The children work the counters while the elders make the donuts right behind them. Mmmm. Fresh, handmade donuts...
The dough is light and poofy like Shipely's and is sweet enough to be a true donut, but just so. The free donut holes certainly help blow away the competition. The sausage croissant roll is particularly tasty.

Sausage Croissant Roll