A Taco from A-Z: Alphabet City’s Zaragoza

I went to Zaragoza’s this afternoon to pick up a few Mexican ingredients. My friend Sam took me to this little deli in Alphabet City several years ago, and I haven’t been back since. I’m making tacos for dinner tonight and figured it could be fun to revisit this tiny bodega and see if it lived up to my memories. So I made my way to the East Village to load my bag with dried chilis, corn tortillas and Mexican spices.

IMG_20141001_131639267 While I was searching for my ingredients, a man came in and placed an order. I turned to watch Martinez, the store owner, quickly put together four giant burritos behind the tiny space of the front counter. He layered seasoned rice, pinto beans, spicy pork, crema and lettuce, then adeptly folded the burrito in the same small styrofoam container he plated it in. He smothered the burrito in salsas, a patriotic nod to his mother country.

IMG_20141001_132451111I hadn’t intended on eating anything while there, but his braised goat and spicy pork tacos were too tempting to pass up. I ordered a plate and sat in the back of the bodega for a quick snack.

IMG_20141001_133335488_HDRYou don’t go to Zaragoza’s for service or ambiance, but it’s charming and special in it’s own “hidden gem” kind of way. And Martinez’ smile doesn’t hurt.

Zaragoza’s, between 13th and 14th Street on Avenue A

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Raan Jay Fai, Do or Die

This evening I went back to Raan Jay Fai for maybe my sixth time. I came here for the first time about five years ago…and that was the beginning of my love story for Jay Fai. Jay means ‘sister’ in Thai-Chinese and Fai means mole, as in a beauty mark (not the subterranean mammal). Sister Mole does indeed have a very prominent mole on her face and I love that she’s embraced it as the namesake of her restaurant.

But mole story aside, this woman is one incredibly tough and talented cookie. She’s 68 years old and wields a wok more skillfully than anyone I’ve ever watched cook. It could have to do with the fact that she’s been cooking here for 50+ years. I am in complete awe when I think of how many pad kee maos or tom yum koongs she has cooked. When you watch Jay cook, it’s like watching a perfectly orchestrated symphony. She practically dances around her small outdoors kitchen, adding oil to the blazing hot wok, putting together her basket of seafood for each ordered dish, blanching seafood, coordinating with the servers, and doing this all while standing over two fires that whip and blaze flames that would otherwise summon firefighters in the States.

As a cook myself, I look to her like an aspiring film student would look to Steven Spielberg, or a young singer would look to Madonna. Jay’s the ultimate- she’s got talent and longevity, and she makes things that you put in your mouth and result in joy! What’s better than that?

We sat at a table just off to her side and watched her cook every single dish for every customer with precision and accuracy. She let’s the noodles scorch just enough, catching the wok, so they’re smoky but not burnt. She adds each bit of seafood so that the shrimp, squid and scallops are each cooked to the proper done-ness.  And she adds the basil leaves in at the last moments so that they only slightly wilt but don’t disappear with the heat of the wok. After 50+ years, she’s got it dialed in.

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The first dish we ordered is also my most favorite dish, pad kee mao. Though she made the portion large enough for three, I would have happily eaten this dish all by myself. It’s honestly nothing shy of wonderful.IMG_0534

We also ordered her tom yum koong, which is very different than most versions I’ve had. The broth is clear and boldly seasoned, veering on the side of salty, but not. It’s finished with a strong twist of lime. It’s a punch-to-the-jaw kind of soup.

We tried a dish that she’s also known for called congee hang, or dry congee. I was a bit stupefied by the idea because congee is rice that is cooked in either water or broth until it’s porridge-like, even soup-y…so I wasn’t sure how this was going to work. But basically it’s like a congee that has been cooked down until it’s incredibly thick, almost paste-like. It comes with Maggi to season at the table, and with the addition of a few orange chilies in vinegar, it perks up. It’s a nice dish, but I don’t think I’d order it again.

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Another stellar dish she does is seafood fried in a black pepper sauce. Let me just say that you’d be a silly, silly person for coming to Raan Jay Fai and not ordering this.IMG_20140901_204342407IMG_0543

It was Nhoi’s and Danny’s first time eating here and it was fun to watch their faces as they watched Jay Fai cook. They both are cooks as well, so I thoroughly enjoyed watching them watch her with the same adoration. You can’t help but watch her with reverence, if not worship!IMG_0551

So the next time you’re in Bangkok, head over to Mahachai Rd. and look for this bare bones shop. Next door there is a wildly popular phad thai place that’s also wildly overrated. Skip the temptation to see what all the crowds are gathering for and instead sit in the calm atmosphere of a woman who is about to cook you one of the best meals of your trip. I guess you technically won’t die if you don’t try her food, but I would say that you kinda missed the point of living… ;)IMG_0578  10660413_878092675552276_185476796_n  

Taste the Day, and Then Keep on Tasting!

This is what a Sunday looks like when you’re an avid eater in Bangkok. Parental supervision advised. Do not try this at home.

As Giada de Laurentiis would say, “I eat a little of everything and not a lot of anything.” Perhaps she thinks she sounds wise, but perhaps she’s never eaten Thai food. You can’t just nibble Thai food. The flavors are too big and bold to just let them sit there sadly on the plate like limp pizza. Thai food demands you to take notice and eat it. The fire is too hot and if you stop eating, you’ll have trouble breathing (sometimes). So the only option is to keep eating.

And keep eating is what we did all day yesterday.

We started off our lunch with some of our favorites: som tam with red mussels, pla ra (fermented fish) relish with steamed veggies, and sai ua, an herb-ed packed sausage.

IMG_20140831_155256IMG_0476This fine young man took care of all things grilled.IMG_0486Som tam pa, or jungle papaya salad. IMG_0482

Jackfruit relish.IMG_0481Mushroom relish with steamed and fresh vegetables.IMG_0480Raw beef laap.IMG_0478The name of the Northern style restaurant.IMG_0487And then we went to Chinatown’s Yaowarant road.

10511669_877534065608137_3917513520456470656_o IMG_0509 IMG_0498Nhoi wanted to take me for kuay jap, and honestly, I wasn’t that excited. I didn’t want to be rude, and I trust her taste judgement, so I went along with the suggestion. I had been taken once before for this soup and thought it only mildly interesting. But Nhoi stated it was one of her favorites, so I imagined there had to be some value to it.

We sat down at a table that was only feet away from the busy traffic and ordered a couple of bowls. I dipped my spoon in to the clear broth and upon first sip, knew this was worth eating. Kuay jap is a porky filled soup filled with intestines, liver, tongue and kidney and topped off with lots of white pepper. It was so fantastic that instead of sharing, like we had planned, we each had our own bowl!IMG_0502The other vendor right next to our table was selling gelatinous fish maw soup, so we had one of those too.IMG_0500 IMG_0503After many brothy, savory things, we moved on to dessert. We had khanom buang, both the sweet and savory versions. The batter is smoked with an incense candle, which makes the crispy taco-like shell headily fragrant. It was the perfect note to end on.IMG_0515Except we didn’t end there! We tracked down a well known stall that makes the simple yet wildly popular dessert of toasted white bread with coconut custard. This young man, pictured below, slathers white bread with margarine. It’s then toasted until it’s crunchy on the outside yet doughy soft on the inside. It’s then slathered in your choice of topping. This dessert is warm, crunchy, soft, and when you squeeze it, it oozes your choice of sweet eggy custard. What’s not to like?IMG_0523 Our favorite was the chili jam custard.IMG_20140831_204127902A day on the town with Nhoi and Tapooh may result in a some tighter fitting pants, but the zings and zips that happen in your mouth along the way make up for it!

Duck, Duck, Duck….Duck!

 

The other night, my friends Nhoi and Korn took me to Asiatique (http://www.thaiasiatique.com). Situated right on the water, the location couldn’t be more perfect. But the shopping mall cum tourist trap is kitchy and sweetly syrup-y. We took a walk around the stalls, looked at trinkets and thought about eating something, but in the end, decided it best not to eat at the restaurants with Disney World prices.

Instead we chose a little restaurant that’s been around for over 30 years, a restaurant that’s truly authentic and not just created to look authentic!IMG_20140818_210556575_HDR

We sat outside on rickety metal chairs at a wobbly metal table and let Nhoi do the ordering. She has been several times before and claims that the duck is stellar. If it comes out of Nhoi’s mouth, I believe it. We have a very similar obsession with food: learning about ingredients, understanding the culture from where it comes, and our taste buds appreciate the same dynamics of spicy, sour and bitter. What an excellent friend to have!

So Nhoi got to ordering and soon our table was covered in all different parts of duck. We ordered sliced breast and thigh that sat in a pool of lightly seasoned five spice broth. Not too overpowering or cloying sweet. I realized upon first bite that this truly is a gem of a restaurant. The duck was juicy and tender, and when dipped in the chili garlic sauce, the flavors were elevated to what some might consider pure duck magic.

IMG_20140818_194147391_HDRWe ate duck blood, duck gizzard and duck intestine. Though it might sounds a bit on the wild side for a Westerner, all you have to do is close your eyes and trust. The gizzards were both snappy and creamy while the intestine was clean and crunchy. The blood was mild and bouncy, not overly cooked or stiff. Everything was cooked separately and with care.

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They gave us a bowl of duck soup and winter melon to sip between bites. The broth is intensely flavored and the melon a touch sweet. It’s light yet robust and I’d buy the bullion cubes if they sold them!

IMG_20140818_194159155_HDR  By far far far, my favorite dish was the braised duck feet (you can do duck breast or duck legs too!) with egg noodles. If there ever was a comfort dish in Thailand, this would be it. The noodles are baked in a pot with the five spice broth from the ducks. The chicken feet are braised and so tender that to look at them causes them to fall apart. We mixed up the dish, stirring up the vast quantities of roasted coriander root and garlic on the bottom of the pot. The noodles are cooked so there’s still a bit of bite to them (an Italian grandmother would deem passable) and dressed with just enough sauce to thoroughly coat but not douse the dish (an Italian grandmother would blush at the judicious use of sauce). The duck feet are gelatinous and savory and worth the effort of working the meat off the bones. The dish is truly spectacular, and as I’m writing this, I’m craving another night out in duck town. If this picture doesn’t do justice, let my words convince you, “You must eat this dish if you come to Bangkok!” IMG_20140818_195146614_HDR

At the end of the evening, I went up to the owners and introduced myself. I had to gush about how wonderful their food was. They were of course very gentle and kind and happy I enjoyed their food. Now to figure out how to convince them it’s a good idea to let me in their kitchen and learn the recipe with them….

To be continued!

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Phuket Town: The Charming Side of Phuket

The first time I ever came to Thailand, one of my destinations was Phuket. Everyone talks about gorgeous, tropical, exotic Phuket. I arrived with a girlfriend, took a whirl around Patong and left immediately the next day. Full of girly bars, American pop music and expats, it wasn’t the locale of my dreams. But after years of talking to friends in Bangkok, I’ve repeatedly been told that Phuket Town is a charming haven with spectacular food. So I’m here for the next two days to eat as much as my body will allow.

Today was an excellent start.

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After checking in to my guesthouse, I went to reception and got down to business. I told her that I was here to eat really delicious food and could she recommend something. I had a primal fear that she would send me to a relative, or a friend of a relative, or some combination of a relatively friendly relative who would benefit from my lack of food direction. I should have feared not. The woman was as giddy as a group of kindergartners after a cupcake party. She began to tell me all of her favorite places in the neighborhood and each of their specialties, smiling from ear to ear that I wanted to know the local dishes. She market the spots on a map and repeated the directions several times to ensure that I made my way.

I chose the khanom jeen shop in the market as my first stop. The owners at first ignored me when I arrived but I waited patiently for them to acknowledge me. They didn’t though, so I asked for a plate of noodles. They waved me away and said the food was too spicy. I answered back that “kin dai ka“, “I can eat”, and then the whole situation changed. The owner eyed me with a mix of suspicion and curiosity, but handed me a plate of noodles anyway. I picked four different kinds of curries to try and their eyes went wide. They seemed astonished that a westerner would want to eat something so spicy.

As I sat down to eat, I felt all eyes on me. So I took a big spoonful of the Southern style fish curry and said “arroy!” The tension released in the air and everyone shook their heads and smiled. The woman across the table from me struck up conversation and we talked about how “if food isn’t spicy, it isn’t delicious.” Everyone around the table nodded in agreement, including myself.

I’ve come to learn that the easiest way to meet people when traveling by yourself is to sit down at a local restaurant and eat what the locals eat. They immediately take an interest in you because you’ve taken an interest in their culture. Food is the easiest topic to talk about because everyone is eating it! My Thai language skills are pretty average, but I can have a lengthy conversation about food, ingredients, spices, cooking techniques…because I’ve found that I can connect to Thais through food. Actually this works with any culture, but I just happen to be obsessed with this one.

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By the end of the meal, the woman across the table from me was trying to feed me ripe mangoes and the owner asked that I come back tomorrow and try more curries. “Of course!” was my answer.

IMG_20140820_163421791_HDRThe rest of the day I spent walking around the town and just enjoying being in a new place. Phuket Town is a lovely alternative to Patong, if you’re into charming, delicious, friendly towns.  In Patong, you’ll come away with experiences…probably just not the same as these!

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We All Like it Hot: Southern Style Thai Food

On our drive home from Chaiyapum this morning, we all had rumbles in our tummies and only one thing on our minds: Southern Thai curries and fried chicken.

As we were driving North on Saturday, Ba had mentioned that there was a fantastic restaurant we should stop at for lunch. He sometimes travels out of the city for work meetings and his driver claims to know all the local eating spots. As a shady friend once told me, “always eat where the taxi drivers, policemen and hookers eat.” His driver loosely fit the bill.

We all got excited for the food that was soon to be scorching our mouths just as Ba realized we had whizzed right by the highway exit. Miles passed before a U-turn presented itself, and not wanting to back track, we all resigned to eat something else for lunch.

But today we had the opportunity to redeem ourselves.

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Ba, the leader of the pack, beckoned us down the street, over the highway, and into a sparse but typical looking restaurant.IMG_20140818_100400133_HDRIMG_20140818_100911575_HDRWe immediately went for the pots of curries, lifting the lids and poking around the creamy depths. We found treasures of clams in a murky slurry, a broth-y curry yielding bobbing braised pork and beans sprouts, and a pungent stew spiked with fish (and innards) and spices. “Kaw tuk yang na ka!” Everything please! We ordered some turmeric-marinated fried chicken that was both crunchy and juicy and perfectly seasoned. We also ordered kua kling, or spicy dry-stir-fried pork in curry paste…which is best complimented with a plate of sweet sticky pork belly. So we ordered that too.

IMG_20140818_100509819_HDRIMG_20140818_100649050_HDRWe sat round the table and shared every bite, every bit, and cooled everything off along the way with some crisp green veggies.

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The moral of the story is: listen to your shady friend’s advice! Or my shady friend, for that matter. Or get to know Ba and his driver…

A shared meal with good friends and new friends, plus a few tears (curry-induced), makes for a memorable meal. Try it sometime if you happen to be here….!

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Thai Desserts: So Fun to Make, Even More Fun to Eat

Thai desserts have become my main heart throb, my raison d’être…after my lovely boyfriend of course! Every time I come to Bangkok now, I make a beeline straight to the back of Nahm’s kitchen. My good friends Pi Pat and Pi Ta welcome me back with squeals and semi-hugs (Thai’s don’t hug) and they ask me what I would like to learn this time.

I spend most of my time in the pastry section watching, taking notes and getting my hands messy. Thai’s use their hands to mix batter and to scrunch the herbacious notes from pandan leaves into eggs. Where we would use a whisk or a mixer, they use their hands. It’s such a wonderful feeling to cook and touch the food you are working with–to be wrist deep in what you’re producing. To take the whisk or spoon out of the picture allows you to connect with what you are making.

I remember eating in India and learning to use my right hand as you would a fork or spoon. To forsake silverware is to eat like you’ve never eaten before.  You taste your food simply and it’s so satisfying to eat (like a classy toddler).

Cooking is the same.

Thais also believe that when making a dessert, or a curry for that matter, it is necessary to stir the pot in one direction. I remember a few times back when I was put in charge of making a sticky, clingy, gooey dessert on the stove top, and I was attacking the bubbling pot with wild stirring movements. I was scraping and churning and reversing and attacking the blob with all my strength. Pi Pat came over and gently took my paddle away and instructed that I stir in one direction, and one direction only. Over the years I’ve come to read in many recipe books, and have been told by many Thais, that yes, you must stir in only one direction.  Whether there’s any merit to it, I’m not sure. But I’ll follow along because so far Thai food has never let me down.

Yesterday I went into the kitchen to learn how to make khanom waan doc jork, or crispy flower pastries. Pi Hua, the tiniest and most gentle woman in the kitchen, whispered and giggled instructions to me in half English, half Thai.

Ingredients

3 1/2 cups    rice flour

1/2 cup         tapioca flour

1/2 T             salt

1 cup            sugar

1 cup            coconut cream

2                   egg yolks (chicken)

1 cup            lime water (made from limestone paste)

4 T each       black and white sesame seeds, toasted

Directions

Place a shallow pan of oil (rice bran or unflavored oil), at least 2 inches high, over high heat and add the flower molds to the pot. Let the oil heat while you are making the batter.

Put the first four ingredients in a bowl and mix with your hand. Slowly add the coconut cream and stir. Begin to kneed the dough. Add the two egg yolks and continue to kneed.

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Once the flour has pretty much formed a dough, add a small amount of lime water to form a springy dough. Kneed for a few minutes. Add the rest of the lime water and stir until a thin batter is formed. It will be thinner than pancake batter but thicker than crêpe batter.

Add some of the batter to a small bowl that holds roughly a cups worth of the mixture. Add about a half tablespoon of the sesame seeds to the batter and stir. Have a separate plate lined with several paper towels, used for blotting. Have two long skewers or chopsticks at hand for pulling the pastries out of the oil.

Have a sheet tray lined with paper towels ready. You will need tiny inverted bowls to drape the flowers over if you want them to open up and ‘blossom’. If you don’t happen to have miniature bowls, we played around with cutting veggies into convex shapes, wrapping them in foil, and using them in the same manner. This works too!

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Once the oil is very hot and shimmering, remove one of the molds from the oil, blot quickly and dunk immediately in the batter, coming just up to the top of the mold, but not submerging. Shake off the excess batter and then return the mold to the oil, holding it just under the surface and not touching the bottom of the pan. After about 10 seconds of frying, jiggle and shake the mold while still in the oil (carefully) to loosen the batter. Shake it free!

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Let the mold heat up again and in the meantime use a second mold to repeat the process.

Once the flower is light golden brown, flip it over with your skewer. Allow the top side to turn golden as well. It takes about 2-3 minutes total in the oil. Once the flower is golden, flip back over and skewer through the middle. Lift from the oil, shaking off the excess, and carefully drape the pastry over the inverted bowl, pressing down on the sides to open up the flower.

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Repeat the process, using more batter and more sesame seeds as needed.

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These flowers are shatteringly crispy, lightly sweet and nutty. They pair perfectly with a creamy Thai dessert, or in my head, I’d enjoy it with my morning coffee.

Enjoy!

In Brooklyn, a Jaunt Through the Caucases

Yesterday my friend Irena and I took the Q train to the Church stop in Brooklyn. We walked past many a bodega and a few grocery stores, and very little else. But we weren’t here for lotto tickets or discounted ground beef. We were on a way to Banya.

We met our friend Vera in front of Banya and readied ourselves for what could perhaps lay behind this Russian bath house door. We walked inside and waited to be helped. The woman sitting in the dark dining room glanced up at us and returned to her paperwork. We waited another minute and wondered if she’d come and help. She didn’t. So we rang the bell atop the counter, and then she put her work down and came to help us.

Lesson 1: Follow the rules of the bath house. When the sign says “Ring for help”…you best be ringing for help.

Vera and Irena had bought Amazon coupons to this particular bath house, as did I. But I bought from Groupon. Another owner came over and practically yelled at me. “When you buy Groupon, you must read details!! Coupon only good during week. Not weekend!!” Flecks of spit flew as he reprimanded me for not reading the fine print. But he ended up giving me the discounted rate anyway.

Lesson 2: Read the fine print.

We spent the next few hours in the bath house jumping from hot dry sauna to cold pool, to hot wet sauna to jacuzzi, back to cold pool. Russian music played in the background while Russian music videos were playing up over head. This bath house shared a serious dose of Russian culture, whether you wanted it or not.

We didn’t partake in the fare, but they had traditional kvos– a dark lager-like drink, yeasty and non-alcoholic, meant to refresh after all the sweating that’s being done.

After watching everyone munch and drink, we took our tomato-red bodies upstairs and changed. We were ready for food too.

We did a bit of research and found a restaurant nearby called Old Baku. We headed off through parts of Brooklyn previously unexplored, enjoying a headily sunny day, still crisp with a winter’s chill that’s having a hard time letting go.

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We arrived at the restaurant, thoroughly hungry. The rating on the door was a blatant C, but the reviews were so good, we decided to give it a go.

We were led past booths that had heavy brown velvet drapes, ready to be drawn for a private dining experience. Instead, we headed out back, through a courtyard, into a room that felt like an old neighborhood joint straight out of Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan).

Groups of tables of men (no women were in this restaurant) were drinking bottles of vodka, smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon. The music was folksy and the smell of charred vegetables permeated the air. We were immediately in love with the atmosphere. It was like we had stepped out of Brooklyn and into a slice of Azerbaijani life.

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We ordered too many things: grilled eggplant and tomato salad, cold tongue with mustard and horseradish, pickled trout with potatoes, and crusty bread, fresh off the grill. A plate of different cold salads was compliments of the house.

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We then ordered lamb fries, or lamb testicles. Our waiter seemed shocked and delighted by our choice and instead offered the dish of lamb fries, liver, charred fat, and roasted potatoes. My eyes grew big and I said yes.

A platter of sizzling meat bits, sitting over warmly glowing coals, was placed at our table.

Truthfully, the dish was delicious. But the best part of the dish were the lamb fries, and I wished we had just gotten a plate of them instead. Creamy and delicate, you would never guess lamb testicles could taste so good! But they do, because Old Baku knows how to cook them well.

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We then ordered more, and our waiter seemed distressed. How could three girl eat so much? But we insisted we wanted more, and he reluctantly took our order.

We ordered ground lamb shish kebab (lula), and cubes of marinated beef shish kebab. Our grilled meets were delivered with fries, rice, and an herb-y tomato dipping sauce. We were so full, but the grilled meats were the most flavorful bits on the table. We ate it all, licking our fingers of the rich marinade and swiping a few fries through the sauce.

Throughout the meal, several of the men came over to bring us fresh pots of tea, bowls of candies, crisp watermelon and strawberries, and platters of grapes. We were all loving the warmth and hospitality that was being shown, and Vera mentioned that in the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), hospitality is first and foremost. The servers were trying to show us a wonderful time, and kept insisting we come back for the live music on the weekends. And after many pots of tea, and lots of fresh fruit, we were easily convinced this is a restaurant worth returning to.

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Our meal concluded with little bowls of sweetly stewed fruits. White cherries from Baku and little red fruits that resembled large goji berries, but with pits. Utterly cloying, yet delicious (even better had we had a bowl of yogurt to eat them with).

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Lesson 3 (final lesson): Do as we did and eat at Old Baku.

We left the restaurant feeling as if we had spent a day traveling. The Russian baths and Azerbaijani food reconfirmed why New York is so wonderful. Our day in Brooklyn gave us the chance to experience old Baku hospitality, cuisine and music. I’m still warm inside, and it’s not from the hot dry sauna.

Brooklyn Bath House:

http://brooklynbanya.com/

The restaurant Old Baku:

http://www.yelp.com/biz/old-baku-new-york

Rice is Nice

Originally posted on Not Fine Dining:

I was down in Nakhon Si Thammarat earlier this week, wandering around one of the country’s holiest wats, Wat Mahathat, when my facebook alert chimed in my pocket. I stepped outside of the temple and discreetly looked at the message. My friend Baimohn asked what I was up to in two days. I wrote back, saying I was in the South of Thailand just traveling around. I asked “why? what do you have in mind”. He proceeded to type back a message that he and some friends were going up to a rice farm, and would I be interested in joining?

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I booked my plane flight home for the next morning on the taxi ride back to my guesthouse. Getting to learn about rice harvesting directly from the source trumped any desire to hunt for the best rice dish in southern Thailand. Eating khao yam nam budu (a specialty rice…

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