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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Growing Some Balls to Learn How to Cook Brain

You know when you really want to do something but don’t have the balls to do it? And then you do it and it’s like, why didn’t I do that earlier??

Last night I went to one of my favorite street vendors in my neighborhood, Khun Yu, and ordered a new dish I hadn’t tasted before: gaeng hoy. The dish was murky green and full of apple eggplants and tiny snails; it had a good amount of heat to it. I slurped the shells of their tiny innards and contemplated life over this bowl of awesome soup, then ran back downstairs. I’ve been buying food from Khun Yu for years and I’ve never had the balls to ask her if I could cook with her.

I walked back to her cart and told her that I had just finished her soup and that it was “pet ta arroy!” (spicy but delicious). She laughed and asked if I could eat the snails. “Naanon!” Of course I can! I think she gets a kick out of the things I buy from her. I then proceeded, in very slow Thai, to ask if I could cook with her one day. She laughed some more and told me to meet her at 9 in the morning. I was so surprised it was that easy! She didn’t even flinch at the prospect of me being in her home. Why hadn’t I done this sooner?

So this morning I literally woke up with a smile on my face, before my eyes were even open. This is the first of I hope many cooking lessons with my local vendors. However, down at the market I was a bit confused on where she told me to meet her. After waiting 10 minutes in one spot, I asked another lady in the market if they knew where she lived. At first the older woman waved me away, assuming she couldn’t understand me, but I persisted and, once she realized she could kind of understand me, took me by the hand to Khun Yu’s house.

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I walked up and she was already sitting on the floor prepping. She waved me in and welcomed me. I sat down, chit-chatted and began helping with all the vegetables that needed picking and trimming. I was surprised at how easily the conversation came. I always get so nervous before spending a day with Thais because I think, what if we run out of things to say? What if they don’t understand any of the words that come out of my mouth? But somehow, through my poor language skills and a lot of hand gestures and pictionary motions, along with a few dictionary peeks, we managed to spend the whole day together.

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It turns out that her husband, Khun Leuay, is from Chiang Mai, and he’s the one that does all of the cooking. After finishing the prep by early afternoon, he took me into the kitchen and showed me how to make a few of the dishes he does every day. The one I was really after though is an eggplant dip that is out of this world. My sister Julia and I used to eat it every day when she visited last, and I pop around to buy it at least a few times a week. It’s creamy and rich, spicy and full of fresh herbs. It’s definitely a dish I want in my repetoir. Khun Leuay walked me through the steps, turning to me every so often to exclaim, “See! Easy!!”

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I was having so much fun that I decided to play hookey from school. Don’t tell anyone! I was in the moment and preferred this home-style education to a formal classroom one, so I called in sick and proceeded to fill banana leaves with pig brain.

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Around 1pm, we took a break and Khun Yu finally boasted her own cooking skills. She’s from Isaan, one of my favorite regions to eat from. It’s the land of a million som tams (green papaya salads). The food is spicy, like the kind of spicy that makes your lips look like you’ve just had injections. Your eyes will mostly likely tear up and you’ll probably have a moustachio of perspiration by the end of an Isaan meal. It’s really quite exhilarating! If you  know me quite well, you know that I’m slightly obsessed with green papaya salads. I’ve been on a quest to discover as many as I can and have done a pretty decent job in these past few weeks. But her papaya salad was one of those that knocks your socks of it’s so good. She brought out the plaraa (fermented fish sauce) that to some smells stinky, and to others it smells like a dream. It’s kinda like durian–you either love it or you find it disgusting. Her plaraa came from her village up north and she held it to her chest with adoration. I knew this was going to be good.

She asked if I could eat spicy and I shook my head yes. She threw in a half handful of chilies, garlic and shredded papaya into the mortar and pounded lightly with her pestle. She ladled in 2 large spoonfuls of the plaraa and then proceeded to add 3 kind of eggplants, katin (a stinky bean), dried shrimp, and peanuts. It was definitely a north-eastern style som tam, yet it had the additions of dried shrimp and peanuts, which is more central Thai. No matter, the combination was extraordinary.

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Khun May, the Vietnamese woman helping with the prep, grilled up some pork and made laab. We added some rose-colored kanom-jeen (fermented rice noodles) to the som tam platter, paired it with some crunchy green veggies, and brought out some lemongrass steamed mussels with some seafood dipping sauce. We sat on the floor and got to work. It was an awesome spread that I felt so lucky to be a part of.

We finished up the prep after lunch and then I just hung out with their 9 year old daughter Flame and practiced some English with her. The cheow kuey guy came around and we ordered some sweet grass jelly over ice. It cooled our burning tongues and satisfied my sweet tooth.

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It was one of those days when you just feel so thrilled to be part of someone else’s life…

Tiger Thai Tattoo

I already have two Thai-style tattoos and have been wanting a third for several years. I’ve held off because I wanted one from a monk, but I was hesitant to just go to anyone. In Thailand tattoos, or sak yan, received from monks have mystical powers, magic of sorts, and protect the bearer of the ink.

I told myself that this time in Thailand I would find an ajaan (a teacher) to do the tattoo, rather than at a tattoo shop, like I did the last two. At the end of the tattoo process, the ajaan blesses the tattoo, and the receiver becomes invulnerable to weapons and is protected in times of danger.

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Golf, who is one of my friends here in Thailand, was heading home back to Burma for a month, so he asked what I wanted to do on his last day. I casually mentioned that I had been thinking of getting a tattoo. Last year, we had talked about tattoos so he took me to his ajaan so I could see his work. I almost got one with his ajaan, but at the last minute I decided I wasn’t ready. So this time, Golf was very enthusiastic about the prospect of me finding an ajaan and suggested we make a day of it.

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Though Golf has lived in Bangkok for 3 years, he has never been on the river. We took the Chao Praya express up to Nonthaburi and he was definitely the happiest kid on the boat. Once there, it took us a while to figure out where the watt was, but we eventually made it there around noon. I was nervous that we had arrived too late and that there would be a line of devotees waiting to be tattooed. Ajaan Somchat looked up when I walked in, and though he was tattooing someone else, he directed me towards the collection of sak yan.

I flipped through the pages, assuming I had several hours to wait until it was my turn, when 5 minutes later, ajaan beckoned that it was my turn! I showed him 5 different designs that I really liked, though my heart really wanted a tiger. I didn’t want to choose though because the ajaan is supposed to pick a tattoo that suites you. And I had read that many ajaans don’t like to tattoo the tiger because it is such a powerful symbol. Some ajaans limit the amount of tigers they do to one per year.

Ajaan Somchat looked at the five designs, and without hesitation, pointed to the tiger and said that it suited me best. I smiled perhaps the biggest smile ever. His assistant went away to make a copy of the tiger and came back with a much, much larger version of it. Ajaan transferred the image to my back. I was nervous at the size, but then, I had come for his art and not my opinion. He asked if I liked it, and then I asked him if he thought it was right for me. He shook his head yes and then said “This is going to hurt. A lot. Are you sure you want it?” I said yes, and the tapping began.

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I have four other tattoos, ranging from tiny to not so tiny, so I thought I knew what to expect pain-wise. I was incorrect. The hand-tapped tattoo is much more painful!! Also, perhaps since I’ve never been tattooed over my spine, I didn’t realize how uncomfortable that could be! My muscles twitched uncontrollably for the first few minutes until I could finally relax into the rhythm. It never became comfortable, but I was thankful Golf was there to at least distract.

Ajaan was fast and Golf told me the tattoo only took an hour and a half, though I swear it was closer to 3 hours!!! Towards the end, I could hardly wait for it to be over. Then Ajaan said he would like to give me another tattoo! Could he? As much as I wanted to say yes, I said that I would have to come back for that. I was barely able to breathe without audibly exhaling and I figured a second tattoo might just bring about whimpers!

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He tattooed the eyes of the tiger last and then rubbed oil all over the tattoo and blew Pali and Sanskrit whisperings over my back. He tapped gold leaf onto the heart of the tiger and then had me turn around for a blessing. He loudly muttered and splashed me repeatedly with water. I probably wore a bucket’s worth of water by the end of it all.

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I was a little shaky by the end; I think a combination of not having eaten breakfast, sweating in a very hot un-airconditioned room for 1 1/2 (or 3) hours, enduring a good amount of pain, and then receiving the blessing, culminated in a happy exhaustion.

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I paid my respects to Buddha, bowing three times before skooching backwards away from ajaan. Golf and I walked out of the temple and smiled over the little adventure we had. I think I’m going to try to go back before I leave and see what tattoo ajaan had in store for me…

My Favorite Lunch Spot in the Whole Wide World

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I’m learning to read and write Thai, and let me tell you, it’s quite the challenge. I’m mainly inspired to learn because I really really really want to be able to talk with people (obvious). Specifically about food. Many of the street vendors here I’ve been visiting for years and we have a very smiley relationship and we can make small talk, but when it comes to bigger issues, like ‘how are the kids?’, ‘how is the king’s health?’or ‘where’s your son who usually helps me?’, or ‘what is the marinade for that chicken?’, I have to mime; which usually results in blank stares or uncomprehending nods. I want to dig deeper to understand the culture better.

I went out to dinner with four Thai friends the other night and at the end of the evening, after much laughing and lively ‘conversation’ had over a wonderful meal, I went home frustrated that I only understood about 20% of what was actually said! As much fun as we all had together, I’m dying to be able to fully participate.

This afternoon I finally made it around to one of my favorite vendors in the whole wide world, Khun Sopa. She runs a small food shop off of Soi Phi Phat in my neighborhood. I watched my clock closely today to make sure I arrived right when they opened, because once the lunch rush hits, her place is packed to the tin walls. The wait can easily be an hour for her salads and her chicken is often reserved in advanced. So at 11 am, with a growling tummy, I arrived at her stand. She immediately recognized me and smiled and asked how long I was staying. And then asked if I wanted the usual ‘som tham thai pet pet na ka?’ Spicy papaya salad? It warms my heart to be a regular!

I sat down and watched her deftly pound my salad, while her husband picked out a perfectly cooked chicken thigh. Let’s be honest; chicken is the best. It’s hard to top a roast chicken, any day. It’s a go-to item for me when I have people over for dinner. But this chicken, slowly grilled over just-glowing embers is special. I like to think of it as angel chicken because there’s really no room for improvement. Because the chicken is cooked slowly, the skin renders out until a commercial-worthy deep golden brown is achieved. Paper thin and crispy chicken skin is like fresh whipped cream on a sundae. It’s so delicious that you almost forget about all the goodness to be had underneath! But you don’t…and you relish every tidibit until the chiken bones are bare (or the bowl is licked clean). Eating a perfect chicken deserves a moment of silence at the end of the meal.

I sat down to my table and pulled out a spoon and fork. I felt like a 5 year old waiting to be served lunch by mom and dad. They delivered each dish to my table, along with the requisite dipping sauces, and I slipped into my irreverent lunch time ritual: crispy chicken, outrageously moist and flavorful, paired with a fire-inducing papaya salad. For a total of $4 (with bottled water), lunch/life couldn’t be any more perfect.

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Chicken Soup Extreme

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Chicken Soup Extreme

I love this dish and it’s a soup that will definitely go on a future menu. It’s full of chicken bits, including shredded white meat, bits of bone with crunchy cartilage, blood cake and braised feet. It may sound a bit extreme, but it’s probably the kind of soup a chicken would hope to end up in. It’s rich and texturally exciting, and bean sprouts, cabbage and morning glory round out the crunch factor. Top it with chilies, basil and peanuts and you’ve got a soup that will knock. your. socks. off.

Thrift Stores, Korean Tacos and Car Dancing

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My sibs and I love to find quirky pieces in thrift stores, so we explore Hermosa Beach and stumble upon Lopalopa. A DJ spins tunes as you shop the excellent collection of old T’s and worn denim. My sister Julia and I finally made our way to Kogi and sampled the famous Korean tacos. And truth be told, they are totally deserving of all the hype. And then we dance and drive.