Burmese Tea Leaf Salad With William Lue

Hello folks! Long time no post.  By my count it’s been about six months since my last entry and this time I really don’t have a good excuse for the long gap.  Ok, we did have a second kid back in April.  Does that count as a huge time suck? I’d say it does.   Allow me to make this a parenting blog for a minute. One kid: totally manageable – actually really fun especially as she gets older, more independent and comes into her own eccentric and goofy personality and allows each of the parents some much needed “me” time or even “us” time (date night, ya’ll!).  Two kids: forget it.  And an infant? Forget it even more – which you will with all the sleep you’re not getting. Gone are the days of two on one, tag-team parenting.  Now it’s one-on-one all the time and it’s not even fair. The three year old now has mad trantrum skills and the baby, well she’s a freakin’ baby whose cries can shatter the strongest of wills.  They. Are. Kicking. Our. Ass.  So long story short, I blame the kids for the lapse in deliciousting posts.  Well, it’s not all bad. After all, the new one can be pretty sweet:

We call her Momo because she’s such a little dumpling. Ok, ending parent blog now.

Back in August, our good friends from NYC, Donna and Anthony came to visit us in Oakland with their two kids.  A little back story on D & A:  they’re the ones I hold responsible – I mean to whom I’m forever grateful – for introducing me to Shef, my wife in life and food.  I’ll try to be brief. I met Donna a long time ago through a mutual friend in California.  Later, at the wedding of that mutual friend, I met Anthony, Donna’s date. This was a ten years ago. I was just about to move to NYC so I was glad to befriend Donna and Ant who proved to be welcoming and warm when I did land in NYC a month or two later.  Fast forward eight or nine months.  Summer in NYC.  I found myself happily single.  D & A (who at the time lived in Manhattan) invited me to this Hawaiian picnic in Central Park.  A friend of theirs had invited them  Now, Donna is somebody who always has a plan. And this occasion was no exception. She had also invited her good friend, Shefali, also single and ready to enjoy the summer, if you catch my drift.  And all credit to Donna and her machinations, this is where it all started.  Okay, if I was going to be 100% honest this was the second time we’d met. The first time we crossed paths was about six months prior, and let’s just say I wasn’t in the right head space to notice her charms – her charms at that point consisted of a lot of snot because she had head cold if I recall.  So for the sake of a good story, let’s count that Hawaiian picnic in Central Park as the starting point.  I was waiting for D & A at the entrance near Columbus circle when I spied this really cute -nay,  hot young woman walk by and enter the park.  Donna and Ant arrived a short time later and I walked into the park with them. As we approached the picnic, the woman whom I’d noticed earlier approached them and gave them each a hug. Stoked! “Do you remember Shefali?” asked Donna.  “Um, yeah…”  Though honestly, I had not recognized her from six months before, (like I said I was a little oblivious at the time and she was really snotty, so that first impression was obviously not so meaningful).  On this occasion, I was checked in and checking her out. Needless to say, I was bowled over by her beauty and sparkling personality.  But equally if not more importantly, I was impressed with her ability to eat. She was all about attacking the mountain of food that people had brought, going back for second helpings, thirds, fourths, etc.  I was like “who is this girl?” So, I got her number, followed up and the end, as they say, is history.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a photo of that fateful meeting:

Meeting and eating. This is where I met my future wife. I knew girl who liked spam musubi was the one for me.

Meeting and eating. Me holding up the spam musubi. Anthony in the middle and Shef looking funny.

Alright back to the original reason for this post.  Donna and Ant were visiting us here in Oakland (already been two years since we moved from BK!) with their two kids. Yup, we’re all grown up now – kind of. We needed to eat dinner. I’d been hearing great things about this Burmese grocery store (?) near our house that also served really authentic Burmese food.  What?! I did a little internet research, because I’m resourceful like that.  I found out the place was actually a fully functional Burmese restaurant called Grocery Cafe because it occupied an old corner grocery store on a residential street in Oakland’s working class Highland neighborhood.  That’s the cool thing about Oakland. Smack dab in in the middle of these unassuming and unpolished residential neighborhoods you can find these gems like Champa Gardens or Vientien Cafe. It had been well reviewed by locals and the local weekly. Good enough for us.  We called and ordered about five dishes which comprised most of the small menu. Ant and I headed over to pick up the food. Sure enough, it was an old corner store with a make-shift kitchen separated from the front of the house by one of those refrigerated display cases that might have contained old macaroni salad and deli meats back in the day. Now it housed stacks of containers of homemade spicy Burmese pickles. The front of the house was a mish mash of second hand tables (like dining room tables you’d find at Goodwill)  and most of the seats were old church pews.  This was my kind of place. As we waited for the food we struck up a conversation with Mr. William Lue, the owner proprietor and some time chef of the Grocery Cafe. It turns out he’s been in the Burmese restaurant game for a good 30 plus years and has had a hand in running or cooking for many of the more well known and well heeled Burmese spots in the SF Bay Area.  Currently, he’s running a few Burmese spots in the East and North Bay, but the Grocery Cafe is his baby. Soft spoken, but with a deep resonant voice, Mr. Lue was not shy about describing his ambitions for the restaurant.   But it was when he started talking about the different dishes he wanted to  serve, that his language became evocative and poetic.   After over thirty years in the restaurant business, his passion for and excitement about the possibilities of Burmese food – the different ingredients, the regional specialties, the traditional preparations – and introducing it to the masses are palpable. I thought it would be great to video him making one of those dishes.   A couple weeks later, I managed to carve out some time in his busy schedule to film him for about an hour before he opened for business.  In the interest of time, I had him prepare the ever popular Burmese tea leaf salad.  I don’t know if it’s something the lay person could necessarily throw together, unless said lay person has their own vat of seasoned and fermented green tea leaves. But it’s a great example of how simple ingredients can combine to produce really complex flavors and textures.  As prepared by Mr. Lue, it’s delicious – as was all the other food we ate with D&A.  Please enjoy.

 

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Pupusas at Los Cocos

Pupusas and caldo de pollo.

Pupusas and caldo de pollo.

Pupusa.  Just say it. “Pupusa”.   I don’t know if onomatopoeia would quite qualify in this instance, but doesn’t the word “pupusa” just sound like something bursting with savory goodness?  Indeed these Salvadorean treats rank up there with some of my favorite foods for a number of reasons.  Basically they’re fat tortillas (corn usually) stuffed with any number of ingredients (beans, cheese, pork or chicken, a even flowers –loroco) and fried on a griddle so the outside becomes nicely browned and crisp while the inside corn meal and fillings remain soft and moist, like a tamale.  The best part is when a bit of the cheesy insides ooze out onto the hot the griddle and add another layer of delicious crispy crust to the pupusa. They’re then served with a tomato-y hot sauce and a nice vinegary cabbage and carrot slaw, the acid of the sauce and salad perfectly complementing the rich savoriness of the pupusas.  They are supremely satisfying both to the palate and the stomach.  They will fill you up.

My first taste of pupusas was not in El Salvador but in Guatemala, when I was a young lad many many years ago doing the young lad backpacker thing down in Central America.  I was studying Spanish in Quetzaltenango  and one day I was searching for a late afternoon snack in the parque central .  I sampled a pupusa (not even that fresh of the griddle) from one of the food venders who’d set up shop. Mind blown.  And then when I crossed over into El Salvador and encountered more and different varieties of pupusas, what was left of my mind was blown further.  Living in SF – still as a young lad – I was ecstatic to find that I could find fresh and delicious pupusas at such favorites as Panchitas and El Zocolo.

But eight years living in NYC, meant a long hiatus from great pupusas.  Sure, I could occasionally get some good ones at the Red Hook Ball fields (at least before they became over run by hipster foodies), but there were few Salvadorean restaurants that I was aware of where I could indulge to my heart’s content.  Then a few months ago, we moved back to the Bay Area and I’ve been reunited with delectible pupusas once again.   We live in Oakland, just a stone’s throw away (or a nice bike ride) from Los Cocos, one of the sole Salvadorean restaurant in the Fruitvale district, a neighborhood where Mexican taquerias predominate (not a bad thing, just stating a fact).  I first ate at Los Cocos years ago with my friend Matt and when we feasted on pupusas and incredibly flavorful caldo de pollo (chicken soup). So, it was a real joy to bring Shef and K to this spot a couple months ago when we were newly arrived to Oakland. It was just as I had remembered it – decorated with Salvadorean tchotchkes, the air inside hazy with cooking grease.  In other words, perfect. K got her first taste of pupusas and it’s fair to say, she loved them.

Eating at Los Cocos (with Matt again) a few weeks later, I asked Rosa the cook and owner of the restaurant if I could make a short vid of her cooking pupusas process.  She said, “sure!” So, this is the result.  Please enjoy and go find pupusas near to you because this vid will make you hungry.

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Memorable Meals in India: Part 3 – Rajasthan

After the rainy coast and mellow vibe of Goa, Shefali and I made our way to one of the more picturesque and well touristed states of India: Rajasthan. Rajasthan translates to the Land of Kings (or kingdoms) so, every couple days we went to another city (formerly it’s own kingdom) and checked out the old forts and palaces that these Rajput kings built over hundreds of years.  I will remember this part of our trip as Rajasthani Fort Tour 2011 (RFT 2011).  (Please view scores and scores of fort and palace photos.)
Our first stop was the capital city Jaipur which was decidedly less mellow than Goa.  Known as The Pink City, Jaipur could also be known as That Crazy City Where People Hustle You All The Time (especially if you’re a tourist).  Don’t get me wrong. I would have hustled me too if I could have seen how clueless and touristy I looked half the time. Once you pass the city walls and enter the Old City,  Jaipur is a feast for the eyes, the ears and the nose: women in bright colored saris buy produce of all sorts, cows amble by sharing the road with cars, rickshaws, scooters, bikes and people and vendors sell everything you can imagine from mountains of chilis to sewing machines and salvaged and “refurbished” umbrellas.  Though a bit jarring, especially coming after mellow Goa, Jaipur was in retrospect a good entry point into Rajasthan because it’s where we fully embraced our tourist status and took to site seeing like it was a full time job visiting all the major attractions (Juntar Muntar, Amber Palace, Jaigarh Fort, Nahargah Fort, etc) in just two days.   From Jaipur, we took a train (an interesting experience in and of itself ) to the desert city of Jaisalmer where we toured the old city fort and went on one of those touristy camel tours which actually ended up being super fun.  Then we trained it to the  Blue City of Jodhpur which turned out to be my favorite city in Rajasthan because most of the forts and monuments were within easy walking distance – thus no haggling with a rickshaw driver – and I enjoyed navigating the narrow alley ways of the old city.  Our final stop on the Rajasthani tour was the picturesque lakeside city of Udaipur, most well known among Westerners – and touted by all the hotels and guest houses in town – because much of the action of one of the best James Bond movies starring Roger Moore was shot there.  I’m of course speaking of  “Octopussy“.

It’s fair to say that by the end of RFT 2011 tour I had pretty serious case of fort fatigue.  I mean they were amazing places to behold, but after the umpteenth viewing of the various Rajputs’ dedazzled private chambers or ornate public meeting hall, I just couldn’t find it in myself too get excited. But fortunately, we had ample food to fuel us on our site seeing adventures.  I can’t necessarily put my finger on what Rajasthani food is and how it differs so much from other Indian cuisines.  We ate a lot of thali dinners with their combindation of dhal, rice, chapati or naan and veggies. Sometimes we’d seek out nonveg places to get our fix of chicken tikka or lamb saag (spinach).  While it didn’t blow me away, there were some stand out meals.  I especially enjoyed the all you can eat thali dinners at a very local restaurant called Chandan Shree,  in Jaisalmer and which became our go to spot in the desert town. I also enjoyed the spicy lamb and chicken at Kashmiri Spice Dhaba, a dive joint in Jodhpur where I stuffed my face sweating into my food while Shefali got more and more heated (pissed off) by the unwanted oggling of a drunken customer seated behind me.  Also, the snack foods (samosas, aloo tikki and other deep fried treats) were really good.  Please enjoy the following photos of some of the more memorable meals.

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Memorable Meals in India: Part 2 – Goa

After Bombay, Shefali and I spent a few days days visiting her cousin who teaches at a school at an ashram about an hour’s drive outside Coimbature, Tamil Nadu.  Spending time in an environment dedicated to the spiritual teachings of a single guru was “enlightening”, to say the least, but the communal eating part of the ashram, while enjoyable – like one enjoys school cafeterias – left me wanting.  Specifically, I was wanting to eat meat.  Fortunately, our next stop was Goa where we hoped to chill on the beach and eat delicious food.  We were fifty percent successful in our plan.  You see, while we knew traveling in India during the monsoon season would make for some rainy and wet weather, we did not quite anticipate how much the seasonal storms would affect the normally crystalline waters and tranquil beaches for which this Indian state is known. The ocean was rough and choppy, with dangerous riptides.   So while there was a pseudo-romantic walk or two on the beach ( view more Goa pictures), there was no beach lounging or swimming.  We had to drown our sorrows, by snacking a lot.  We ate plenty of regular Indian fare or course.  For example, we found the best kathi roll of the entire whole trip in Candolim at the only restaurant we could find open (it was surprising how many businesses were closed during the monsoon season). But as a former Portuguese colony, Goa has a rich culinary traditional blending the bold flavors and wine and vinegar marinades of Portuguese cooking with the spice of Indian cuisine.  So we made a point to seek out Goan dishes and order them if we could.  We didn’t always strike gold but that could have been due more to where we were eating (again, it was tough to find open places during the low season), but there were definitely some stand out fantastic dishes.  Unfortunately I didn’t document them so well, but they were (in no particular order of preference: pork vindaloo, chicken cafreal, pork balchao.  The high point was eating at Viva Panjim in Goa’s capital city of Paniji. It’s run by this wonderful woman named Linda D’Souza who retired from teaching in Bombay to open up her restaurant in her family home and based many of the dishes on family recipes.  She was super cool. Please enjoy the photos below for more visual stimulation. Be sure to click on the thumbnails for full sized photos and more in depth descriptions.

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NYC Eats (with a smaller group of people) – Fu Run

This is the final installment of the NYC Eats (with Matt and other friends).  I wanted to get this out sooner, but I got a little waylaid by the recently acquired full time j-o-b.  So although this meal was eaten almost two weeks ago, its flavors  have been seared into my cerebellum and I remember it like it was yesterday… okay maybe like a week ago.  What I do remember is that with the exception of one dish (which was merely mediocre) the food was uniformly fresh, intense, full of strong, primary flavors and a whole lot of lamb.  We went to a Dong Bei restaurant in Queens called Fu Run. Using a year-old NY Times writeup about the proliferation of Dong Bei Restaurants in Flushing as a guide, we suggested for  Matt’s last NYC dinner one of the the recommended restaurants: Northeast Taste Chinese Food (don’t know if that was a direct translation or what).  Running late as usual – my fault, as usual – Shefali and I speed-walked from the Flushing subway stop the nine blocks to NTCF where Matt, Alex, Waine had been waiting for about half an hour.  Unfortunately, despite it’s super creative name,  in the year since the article was published, Northeast Taste had changed ownership and was now a Peking duck restaurant. While, we all love a good Peking duck, were really had our minds and stomachs set on food from former Manchuria so we stopped by another of the four recommended restaurant from the Time’s article, a nearby place called Hong Yi Shun.  Yet again – I was starting to sense a pattern here – HYS  had transitioned into a different restaurant and while the menu looked appetizing, it didn’t offer quite the dishes we were looking for.  The urgency of the situation was rising as I sensed the growing pissed off-ed-ness of everyone including myself  due to our lateness and the continued emptiness of our stomachs.  We decided to put our faith in the article one last time and headed to a third recommended restaurant, Fu Run which was all the way back where we’d all come from, a block from the subway.   After a wrong turn had us panicking that this restaurant was also no longer in existance (what had we done in our previous lives to deserve this karma?),  we finally righted ourselves and spotted the large awning and bright windows of the promised land, aka Fu Run.  After another nearly interminable wait, during which I kind of lost it – I get emotional when I’m hungry – we were finally seated. And then we ordered.  And then we ate.  Praise Buddha, did we eat.  Take a look for yourself.

[not pictured above: the two varieties of lamb dumplings]

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