Recently I’ve received a few emails and inquiries from readers and Googlers about many aspects of travel in Southeast Asia. Though I already have some content that addresses these questions (hence the traffic and emails), I thought I’d take some time to answer my most frequently asked questions in single posts. First up? THAI FOOD!
I suspect answering these questions will be a bit difficult, not because of the information required to offer sufficient answers, but because I miss the food in Thailand so much. The pad see ew (ผัดซีอิ๊ว) that I can get from food carts here in Austin just isn’t the same as at the organic foods place next door to my apartment in Chiang Mai…
Thai Food Questions – General
What’s the best way to eat stink beans?
The best way to eat stink beans is to fry them over high heat with garlic, douse them in salty Thai soy and fish sauces, and then top with scallions, culantro, and cilantro. Serve over used toilet paper in a dumpster to mask their aroma.
No, really. Don’t eat stink beans.
…unless you are a masochist who enjoys repelling loved ones with your breath.
What part of the lemongrass stalk is actually edible?
Technically, the entire lemongrass stalk is edible, though I doubt you’d want to do that to yourself unless you have some fibrous plant fetish. In Thai cooking, whole lemongrass stalks are cut up and added to soups and stir-fries, much in the way that whole peppercorns or bay leaves are used in Western culinary applications. Only the very tender, most interior pieces of the lemongrass stalk are enjoyable to chew and swallow. If you can pierce through the entire fiber with your fingernail, it’s good to chew.
Generally, you’ll want to eat around the pieces of lemongrass in your Thai food. You will want to apply the same technique with kaffir lime leaves, large pieces of galangal, big chiles (unless you’re into that), and clusters of green peppercorns. When I cook Thai food at home, I leave the pieces of lemongrass quite large, so that my American friends and family are less likely to try to ingest them.
What does durian *actually* taste like? Is it really as gross as everyone says it is?
Durian tastes like gas leak pudding perfumed with almonds and vanilla and aged in rotting onion and potato chutney for three months before serving. So yes, the experience of eating it is a horrible assault to your mouth that is just as bad or worse than what you would expect.
I think the thing that is so insulting about durian is that if you plug your nose and use your imagination, you can see how it might be good, what with its creamy, nutty notes. Then, just as you’re about to welcome it into your digestive track, it bludgeons your entire olfactory system with horrible, poisonous, sludge-like of material that tastes like compost marinated in propane. Then, to add insult to injury, it clings to your taste buds and slides down your throat so slowly.
How can I make Tom Kha Gai that tastes like it does in Thailand?
First, go to an Asian market and take the necessary time to prepare the ingredients for the recipe I posted here. Don’t take any short-cuts!
Also? Don’t use a paste or soup base mix. Do use good quality coconut milk, preferably Aroy-D brand, and not the type used in Caribbean foods. Do use bone-in, skin-on chicken if you want to make a tom kha with meat. Don’t let the coconut broth boil; keep it at a simmer. Do use only WHITE mushrooms. Do take the time to source real kaffir lime leaves. Don’t substitute ginger for galangal. Don’t over-cook your onions/shallots. Don’t add soy sauce. Do serve with fresh cilantro, lime wedges, and fish sauce.
Thai Food Questions – Allergies
How do I say “I’m allergic to _____ in Thai?”
If you have food allergies and are planning on traveling to southeast Asia, it will be best for you to buy allergy information cards before you arrive. The Thai language is quite tricky, especially when it comes to tones and accents, and your attempt to communicate your allergy verbally will probably not be understood by your server.
No, really. After nine months of intensive Thai language classes, I still can’t say “white rice” in a way that can be understood without a lot of context clues.
My friend Pete brought allergy translation cards from Select Wisely to Thailand that helped us navigate food safety for someone with severe shellfish and tree nut allergies. However, you will need to do your own research and take full responsibility for your own health on your travels. Bring your epi pens, find the nearest hospital, and research the foods you will meet along your selected itinerary in order to plan a diet strategy that will work for your body.
Where can I eat in Chiang Mai with food allergies?
Chiang Mai is a very cosmopolitan city with a strong international vibe. As such, it is probably one of the better places to sample traditional Thai food without fear of aggravating an allergic reaction. For those with severe allergies, it will be best to start your culinary adventures around Thapae Gate in the old part of the city. Here you will find a plethora of reasonably priced Thai restaurants that have met their fair share of foreigners with allergies. As a bonus, many places also offer some Western foods, just in case your spidey senses tell you to avoid an allegedly fish-free curry.
Though I didn’t frequent the restaurant as an expat, we had great luck at Just Khao Soi with friends and visitors from American with allergies and dietary restrictions. Located just north of the Anusarn Night Market and slightly west of the river, this tourist-aimed restaurant serves bowls of Chiang Mai’s most famous and beloved noodle dish on an artist’s palette–a heavy-handed metaphor for the food’s delicate dance of complex flavors. Cheesiness aside, Just Khao Soi only serves its signature dish with a completely vegetarian broth. This means the entire soup base consists of spices alone. From there, you can add flavors and proteins as you wish, making the dining experience incredibly friendly to eaters with allergies or other dietary restrictions.
Can I eat oyster sauce with a shellfish allergy?
No! Oysters are shellfish! Oyster sauce is a common ingredient in meat marinades, satay sauces, and stir-fry dishes, including–BUT NOT LIMITED TO–pad gaprao/ผัดกะเพรา and stir-fried morning glory/ผัดผักบุ้งไฟแดง. If a dish has a brownish sheen, assume it is not safe to eat if you have a shellfish allergy. Do not take a chance and assume a brown glaze comes from the addition of soy sauce to a dish. Often, stir-fries, marinades, and sauces contain both soy and oyster sauces.
I’m allergic to tom yam. Is there another way to eat those flavors?
I get this question a lot. The problem is tom yam soups (often translated as tom YUM) have several ingredients that could be a potential allergen, including shellfish, fish, chiles, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime.
Folks with shellfish allergies should always avoid tom yum soups while in Thailand, as the traditional recipe calls for shrimp broth even when the soup’s main protein is tofu or chicken. In addition, commercial tom yum pastes and soup mixes often include shrimp paste as an ingredient.
People with shellfish (or other) allergies can best experience the hot and sour tom yum flavor by making their own with galangal pieces, kaffir lime leaves, Thai chiles or nam prik pao, lime, and a lightly flavored, low-salt chicken or vegetable broth substituting for shrimp. Leela at She Simmers has a great recipe that can be easily adapted to your needs here.
If you really don’t want to make your own tom yam and you must eat the dish while visiting Thailand, go to a strictly vegetarian restaurant. Shellfish will not be served at all, and the servers will be more likely to understand your dietary restrictions. In fact, this is my best advice for all sufferers of allergies in Thailand.
Which Thai foods are most likely to contain nuts?
Off the top of my head? Pad Thai, American fried rice, satay dipping sauces, and stir-fries. The good news for folks with nut allergies is that Westernized Thai food over represents nuts as a staple of Thai cuisine. As such, restaurants geared towards tourists are most likely to prepare dishes with nuts due to the demand. Cashews turn up most frequently in Thai cooking, but they are still quite expensive and their presence will be noted in their price. Cashew and chicken stir-fries are common in this instance, as are peanuts in dipping sauces and condiments. You will also find them in desserts.
As a general rule of thumb, nuts are more common in southern Thai food or food influenced by Malaysia.
Thai Food Questions – Railay Beach, Krabi
When I had drinks at the Grotto in April 2012, a drink cost 250 baht, or around $8.50. The prices are always subject to change.
It’s important to note that generally the Grotto is only open to guests staying at the Rayavadee. I am lucky enough to have a friend who works for a boutique travel agency who pulled some strings for me to have the pleasure of ordering a cocktail on the resort’s property. While I was grateful for the opportunity to see a slice of five-star travel, I felt more comfortable at the fire-dancing, beach traveler, DJ bar on Railay East!
What’s the best restaurant in Railay?
While I already wrote all about my impressions of the food situation on Railay, I still get asked this question a lot.
The Thai food on Railay is uniformly bad; it’s watered down, marked up, and you can be sure the staff working on the peninsula wouldn’t cook the food for themselves. That being said, your best bet is to get typical Thai foods that rely on the consumer to season the dish to his or her own tastes. We’re talking pad see ew and pad Thai, primarily. You can find a whole row of restaurants on Railay East that will make both of these dishes to order and offer you a condiment caddy full of fish sauce, chiles, and sugar for your seasoning disposal.
For fine dining, you will want to try Kruaphranang at Rayavadee. Unlike the Grotto, the resort’s fine dining restaurant is open to the public almost every night. There, you will find decent food and great service in an ambient environment, which leads me to my next question…
How much does a meal cost at Kruaphranang Restaurant on Railay, Krabi?
You should expect to pay $30 minimum per person for a meal, more if you want to drink alcohol, eat an appetizer, or indulge in dessert. In my opinion, this restaurant is totally worth a splurge for one meal; don’t hold back, order it all, fork over some cash.
I receive a lot of traffic on this site from people looking for information on how to buy train tickets in Thailand online. As such, I feel the need to inform you that passengers can no longer purchase Thai train tickets on the internet. Instead, you must go to the train station in person to book a train ticket or work with a travel agency.
This is really bad news for independent travelers without mountains of time and flexibility who want to ride Thailand’s train system. As I have written in the past, buying train tickets at the station is riddled with inconveniences. In addition, travel agencies in Thailand may mark up prices significantly or goad you into purchasing tours or stays at guesthouses that you might not want. Andy and I avoided these agencies because we did not want to get ripped off, or worse, get into an argument about getting ripped off when we were really getting a good deal. A cool heart/jai yen/ใจเย็น is always an asset in Thailand.
Train travel is something I have written about extensively on this site, as it is a foreign joy for a Texan steeped in car culture. However, I have to hope that the reason for eliminating the online train ticket service is an attempt to cut the number of badly behaved tourists on the rail lines that clog the infrastructure while treating the train attendants like bartenders.
I mean, would you want these guys sleeping on the bunk next to you?
However, it’s more likely that the e-ticketing service couldn’t keep up with the orders. Or, perhaps the travel agencies struck a deal with the rail services. My guess is that it was a combination of both.
I’ll be watching to see when and if the e-ticket service for Thai trains gets back up and running. In the meantime, you can still buy train tickets for Malaysia online. This means you can still plan independent travel from Thailand to Singapore via train if you can arrange alternative transportation to Hat Yai.
Third-Party Travel Agencies Selling Thai Train Tickets Online:
- Thailand Train Ticket. I have used these guys before. They do mark up prices a bit, but it’s not exorbitant. However, you cannot buy these tickets same day or on Sundays! However, with a little bit of advance planning, you should be able to get your tickets here without much hassle.
- Asia Discovery. I have not used this vendor, but the online prices do not seem inflated. Perhaps there is a service fee later in the buying process? If someone purchases ticket through this site, please tell me about your experience!
Photo of Amsterdam, taken at the end of November!
My photos are all in one place. I have a strong internet connection. I’m unemployed. I have a home.
It’s the perfect time to start recording my travel memories.
However, I’m going to make these posts short and sweet, relying more on photo essays and thought snippets. I love writing essays, but essays need editing and flow and structure and concrete ideas and a larger point and and and…that’s a lot of work. It’s easier to sit in my new apartment, make an interesting cocktail, and read a book about cowboys and indians and not blog.
And now I’ll stop blogging about blogging because don’t you hate blogs where all the blogger does is blog about his or her blog?
Let’s talk about the picture up top. There isn’t a big story behind it really. I think Andy snapped it on our way back to the tram stop in Amsterdam, before we got into a fight in a grocery store, before I made mediocre pasta at our friend’s house while Andy had a business call. We had not yet trampled over yogurt on a grocery store floor or seen our friend’s band rehearse in a public music facility. We had yet argue, heatedly, with a bunch of Dutch folk about the meaning of nineties grunge and the genius or not-genius of Kurt Cobain or deal. Our shoes were in good repair, as they had never trampled through slushy European streets. I did not yet know what it meant to yearn for public space of our own in which we could practice, create, share–that unexpected jealously had not yet blossomed. We had never driven a car in Belgium or drank warm, flat beers in London. Andy had only dreamt of walking through Paris, a conspicuous American with a cup of Starbuck’s coffee in hand. He had never met the Mathers, residents of Crockernwell, tour guides of Devonshire. I had never been on a cruise.
It was after I learned the phrase “neuken in de keuken,” but before I deployed it distastefully on public transit*.
It was after a stroll through the heart of Amsterdam, with heady smells and funky scents dissolving into public air from crooks in alleyways and coffee shop windows. We already experienced a disappointing stroll through the red light district, where the window girls looked bored and played games on their iPhones under an unflattering crimson glow. It was after we walked quickly past storefronts in achingly beautiful buildings full of hawkers hawking goods and wares with clogs, tulip bulbs, pot seeds, and sweaters with marijuana leaves all over them.
After we boarded a train from a small, wine-producing Rhine town.
After Berlin, Munich, Zürich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, and Turkey.
Russian, Mongolia, China, Nepal…Thailand.
It was after a lot.
*If you’re going to Google that phrase, be prepared that your results will most definitely be not safe for work/children/parents/easily offended people.
I didn’t fall off the face of the planet, but thank you for asking! Instead, I’ve amassed a huge amount of pictures and stories and I was too busy experiencing it all to bother posting it right away. But, I’m back. So let’s start where we left off with a little post on Turkish drinks.
Turkish tea, or çay.
The most ubiquitous drink in all of Turkey has to be tea (çay), done in a unique Turkish way of course. Turkish tea’s amber coloring and strong taste contrasts deliciously with it’s serving ware: hour glass-shaped glasses nestled on top of dainty saucers, accessorized with a small spoon for stirring sugar–but not milk. Men drink glass after glass, all day long, in chess shops and shop stalls, adding sugar and sipping, sipping, sipping while they smoke and chat and shoo off cats. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar may be a tourist trap, but still, real life happens between the stalls, where the tea trays appear out of nowhere and vendors sit, chat, blow off steam, reel in customers.
I didn’t care too much for the tea’s taste, if I were to be honest (and I am, because this is my website), but I fell again and again for the ritual of ordering a small cup, stirring, sipping, and moving along. It’s a good opportunity to sit down and rest during a busy day of tourist life, much like it was in Myanmar (Burma).
Water, raki, and water with raki.
I wrote about this briefly here, but raki deserves its own place in the spotlight as the unofficial alcoholic beverage of Turkey. And I love that Turkey, an increasingly conservative Muslim country, has its own unofficial alcoholic beverage. Way to break stereotypes about drinks, Turkey!
Anise-flavored raki is served with water alongside mezze platters and meals in small, cylindrical glasses. First you pour in the clear liquor, next you top it with cold water, and then magic happens when the two clear liquids become cloudy and opaque as the dissolution of the liquor brings the anise seed oil particles out of balance. Originally made from grape residues leftover from wine-making, raki has become a respectable beverage of its own right, with a deliciously muddled etymological history and a competitive base of manufacturers. Though the drink is similar to Greek ouzo or Jordanian arak with its anise flavor and reaction to water, raki is stronger in taste while ouzo is sweeter.
Probably the most famous of the Turkish drinks, the national take on coffee is unique and wholly un-Western. Brewed with the finest of fine coffee grounds mixing directly with the water, Turkish coffee is distinct from espressos, ristrettos, and other strong, small cups of joe in its brewing and filtration processes. In Turkey, the coffee grounds get dumped right in the cup along with the liquid, resulting in a fuller body and a bunch of sludge at the bottom of your cup. Once you master when to stop drinking, the coffee sings with its sweet notes and thick richness.
The sludge has its own purpose, however. When a drinker has drunk all of his or her coffee, mystics turn the cup upside down on the saucer while chatting and smoking cigarettes. A few moments later, the cup is turned back over, and the grounds on the inside spell out the sipper’s fortune.
Turkey does produce wine, but I didn’t get a picture of the bottle I ordered because I was too busy eating cheese and staring at the Galata Tower. I did remember to snap a photo of the snacks that were served with a different, foreign bottle I drank with my friend Lara on a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus because LOOK AT HOW HEALTHY THEY ARE.
Sweet delicious apricots and almonds plucked from groves just an hour’s drive away are normal snacks in Turkey. Thais gorge themselves with grilled pork bits while Germans down pretzels and chicken thighs. American gobble fried cheese sticks, and Russians eat spoonfuls of mayo without batting an eye. Turks? They eat fruit and nuts. I could totally get used to that.
So I may or may not have just stuffed my face full of macarons in Paris, but I am still not done talking about Turkish food, and this is my website so you have to listen to me. Part of the allure about Turkish food is that aside from the döner kebab, it hasn’t made the international rounds so much as its Greek counterparts across the Aegean. I think that’s why Turkish breakfast was such a highlight of the week I spent in Istanbul; before arriving I didn’t even know Turkish breakfast was A Thing. I didn’t seek it out after doing hours of research online. I didn’t read about it on another website or in a guidebook. Turkish breakfast found me. With a little help from my friend Lara, of course.
Turkish Breakfast Spread of Olives, Ricotta (Lor) with Fresh Herbs, Clotted Cream and Honeycomb
I grew up eating big breakfasts, my father often rising early to make grits, cream of wheat, kippers, or more often than not a “Chinese noodle soup” that cleverly incorporated the previous night’s leftovers with noodles and homemade stock. While I appreciate a sweet breakfast (I may or may not have just eaten a pain au chocolate), I prefer the hearty and savory–something that could take you all the way to dinner, if need be.
Turkish breakfast provides the whole package, consisting of an assortment of dishes savory and sweet paired with bread and tea. Basic elements include assorted cheeses, olives, honey, eggs, tomatoes, and cucumbers which are joined in simple configurations or left standing alone for a mezze-like breakfast of nibbles.
Soft-Boiled Egg with “Soldiers”
The first two photos are from a lovely breakfast shared with friends along the Bosphorus on a crisp and sunny day. I ordered lor (Turkish ricotta) with herbs, soft-boiled eggs, olives, and clotted cream with honey comb. While I used to avoid egg yolks for taste and health reasons, the bright orange yolks in Turkey won me over. Allegedly, an orange yolk indicates a healthy egg laid by a healthy chicken. Health benefits or not, the eggs were rich and robust, which paired well with the delicate and fluffy cheese on pieces of sesame bread.
Turkish Breakfast Spread with Fresh Vegetable Salad, Scrambled Eggs with Peppers and Tomatoes, Honey and Clotted Cream
The other great thing about Turkish breakfast is that it’s normal to order a salad of fresh vegetables. Though I may neglect the simpler, healthier foods while traveling, I almost always crave them–even in the morning! Whether you order a cucumber and tomato salad on the side or veggie-packed scrambled eggs in a tomato broth, you’re probably going to be eating something more balanced than the carb and sugar bombs common in the rest of Europe and America. Ah, vitamins! Also, check out the color on those tomatoes. You won’t be served anything mealy, out of season, or otherwise disappointing in the vegetable department.
Clotted Cream with Honeycomb
Sweet toothed people do not have to fear a Turkish breakfast, however, because one of the best things on the menu is lovely clotted cream with real honeycomb. The flavor and intensity of Turkish honey was unlike what I’ve had elsewhere. Some honeys were dark and smokey, with a flavor of tobacco to meet the sweetness and others claimed a bourbon-like mellowness. Sure, a few I sampled had the floral notes I am used to, but they were much more concentrated in flavor. The honey doesn’t sweeten the cream in a Turkish breakfast, but the cream cuts the honey’s intensity. Though tea is more popular than coffee as a beverage of choice during the meal, I thought the slightly spiced and rather thick Turkish coffees paired really well with these strong honey varietals.
Though the quality of the various parts may vary across the world, I think I could pull off a decent Turkish breakfast in the states with homemade ricotta and fresh herbs, local olives, good eggs, and honey. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
I am so very behind in telling all of you where I am. Honestly, blogging has turned into a lower priority on this marathon of travel, with moments of wifi reserved for writing my column or researching hostels and activities to do around the world. Right now, I should be figuring out what to do on my last day of Amsterdam and planning my six-day trip touring breweries in Belgium.
In the past month I’ve traveled from Istanbul through Bulgaria and onto Bucharest, Romania where I ate cheap and delicious Italian food and drank red wine with Dracula-themed names on Halloween. From there, I stopped for a lovely 9 days in Budapest arriving on All Saint’s Day and leaving only when a Eurail pass prompted me onward to Vienna. After three nights in Vienna drinking coffees and eating apfelstrudel, I stopped for a night in Zurich with friends of Andy who served us raclette and gave us a tour of the city.
Then, an all too quick stop in Munich and 12 whole days in Berlin, that I’ll have to write about in full. This week, I popped down to Rüdesheim am Rhine, a quiet little Riesling-producing village to sit in saunas and try to appreciate white wine. Right now, I’m sitting on my friend Melle’s couch in Amsterdam (we met in Laos earlier this year), trying to muster the courage to go out and face the city again.
We’re almost done, now. Just Belgium, Paris, and London to go before hitting up the Queen Mary 2 and arriving in NYC. Whew.
Turkish food is basically the Mexican food of greater Europe. By this I mean it’s tasty, inexpensive, and just a touch exotic when your charmed life errs toward the boring side. It’s also a hard habit to quit. Though I’m now into the reaches of western Europe, I keep stopping for kebabs (a subject I’ll write about soon on Vagabundo), not ready to move back to potatoes and sausage of Central Europe after a brief hiatus from the loads in Russia. So in the spirit of the cheap street food dinner of Ottoman origins I’ve eaten in central Europe, I thought I’d write a bit about cheap eats and street food in Turkey.
Stuffed Grape Leaves, Tomato, and Cheese
In the states, I called grape leaves stuffed with rice “dolmas,” but if you ask for “dolmas” in Turkey you’ll get a blank stare. These are grape leaves, Turkish name unknown and irrelevant to English speakers ordering at Turkish restaurants. You can order a plate of grape leaves with a soft, white cheese as a part of a mezze spread, or you can do as I did and have them as an appetizer. Though versions of the stuffed grape leaf appear across the Balkans and into Greece and Russia, their origins are Ottoman, and thus Turkish. I took this fact as an excuse to gorge myself on a few plates, and even experimented with canned version on a train somewhere between Istanbul and Bucharest, Romania.
Mercimek Corbasi or Lentil Soup with Lemon and Fiery Oil
One thing I loved about Turkey was that I could always source a quick, warm bowl of nutritious lentil soup for not more than a couple bucks. Truth be told, legumes were probably the number one food I missed during the Thailand time. The Ottoman version of the soup that counts itself a member of many a culture’s cuisine is often light and brothy, served with a wedge of lemon and a dash of spiced olive oil. I imagine this would make a great breakfast soup.
Simit Sesame Bread
I would describe simit, the Turkish fast food breakfast bread, as a cross between a bagel and a German pretzel. They’re a ring-shaped bread with a dense, sesame-covered crust and chewy insides. Though they give your jaw quite a work out, the bakeries that make them smell divine and sometimes give free samples. Contrary to the photo above featuring simit sandwiches, people generally eat simit plain, maybe adding some cream cheese or jam to make a breakfast.
Chicken Döner Kebab Plate
Probably Turkey’s most famous culinary export, the döner kebab remains a delicious and cheap street food eat across Istanbul and the country. As you probably know, döner kebabs are gobs of meat stuck to a long, vertical spit that rotates to expose portions to a long vertical grill. Slices are shaved off the mass as they are done into thin, crispy bits that are eaten as part of platter or as a sandwich. They’re cheap, filling, and delicious. Tomorrow I’m publishing a lengthy article about döner kebabs on my column at Vagabundo Magazine, so I’ll hold off on the nitty-gritty here.
Güveçte Sucuklu Kuru Fasulye or Stewed Navy Beans with Tomato
I didn’t know Turkey was famous for its bean dishes until I got there, and then it seemed obvious. So many dishes feature beans soaked in tomato or served with parsley, olive oil, and garlic. After 9 months in Thailand, my bean deficit was raging and I ate whole bowls of beans meant to be shared among friends by myself. My favorite preparation of beans that I ate in Istanbul had to be these stewed navy beans (güveçte sucuklu kuru fasulye) that were clearly cooked from scratch and served for a dollar or so outside the main train station. I love hearty dishes like this that are so full of nutrition, fiber, and protein, yet do not require any meat whatsoever to attain great flavor. These are the dishes that can save the world.
Sometimes I use this space to publish unedited rambles about all of the food I’ve eaten in a specific country. Unfortunately, I’ve lost this habit. Sometimes, the food in a particular locale doesn’t inspire (see: Mongolia, Russia). Other times, I get lazy (see: China). Yet the bounty and diversity of Turkish food has inspired me to start over. So here we go…
So much of Istanbul’s character stems from it’s sea-straddling geography. With the Aegean Sea below, the Black Sea above and the Bosphorus running all through the middle, there are few places in the central city where you can’t catch a whiff of a clean sea breeze. Fisherman line the length of the Galata bridge, finishing at a pier with a fresh fish market. Everything smells like seafood, and all of it smells good.
Through my months in Northern Thailand, I grew a slight aversion to seafood, which was often frozen and formed into species-mashing patties that thawed into curry-ruining gelatinous orbs. The markets often smelled like seafood, but with that foul, “fishy” undertone that deters so many from the sea’s treats. Aside from a nice fried river fish, I rarely chose to eat seafood beyond the condiments and curry pastes whose fishy ingredients were so integral to Thai flavors you wouldn’t have identified them as seafood; they were a mere sliver of the multi-faceted whole. Within a few months, I’d completely forgotten my past as a pescetarian, always opting for vegetable dishes or poultry when possible. My somewhat unconscious seafood avoidance lingered through my travels in China, Mongolia, and almost through Russia, where I had a brief fling with what could be described as arctic sushi.
Then, I met my friend Lara for dinner in Istanbul. She took me past the fish market and to a little seaside restaurant where we ate seafood with bread and cheese and melon and the special anise-flavored Turkish liquor. Just like that I remembered the joy of fish and made it my mission to explore Turkish seafood culture.
Grilled Octopus Tentacle
You might think of mezze–one of Turkey’s dining styles–as a version of tapas or perhaps even dim sum. Diners sit together for hours choosing dish after dish, eating, drinking, smoking, and talking, then cycling through the whole process again. Sometimes you’ll have a main course after a few rounds of smaller plates, and these grilled octopus tentacles were our main on our last hurrah dinner after a week in Istanbul. I was expecting the arms of cephalopod to have a chewy texture similar to an overcooked calamari ring, but this sucker (get it? sucker? because of the suction cups?) was tender and buttery despite having spend enough time on the grill to develop a rich and smokey exterior.
Istanbul Stuffed Mussels
One of the (many) great things about having friends across the globe is having a personal travel guide when you visit a new place. On the first day in Istanbul, I noticed several streetfood vendors sat behind lemon-lined tables full of mussels and sold their wares to fishermen and passersby, chucking the glistening black shells into buckets that grew worryingly full by sunset. Having recovered from a recent bout of food poisoning, I figured these mussels wouldn’t be a great choice and moved on to other items. However, Lara remembered my interest and ordered them at a mezze restaurant in Karaköy with walls of bright turquoise tiles, white linens, and a spiral staircase. I ate them all. Though the preparations vary, generally a freshly steamed mussel sits beneath a dollop of a warmly-spiced pine nut, rice, and current mixture. The mussels pictured above were so fresh, their texture was like butter.
Lakerda: Salted Raw Fish on Red Onion with Fennel
Lara continued her culinary guidance by selecting a plate of pickled raw mackerel for the table after I mentioned our experience with frozen raw fishes in Russia. These nuggets of lakerda, not much larger than a piece of sashimi, were pleasantly surprising in their saltiness. I loved the texture of the raw fish with the crunch of the onion and the fennel flavor. The pairing of lakerda with cold, anise-flavored raki liquor reminded me of eating frozen white fish with vodka in Russia or sashimi with sake in Japan. Some concepts just work; I need to figure out a Texas edition of the raw fish and cold liquor combo!
Street Vendor Grilling Fish
Though I have a separate post in the works about Istanbul’s street food, I thought I’d include these tasty fish sandwiches in the seafood section. A daily fish market operates around rush hour near the Galata ferry pier that serves home cooks and restaurants alike. When I saw a vendor choose some whole fish from the market, then filet it with the vendor’s tools before carrying it to his grill station, I thought I NEED to eat those.
Turkish Grilled Fish Sandwich
The fish ended up in a sandwich, and I did eat one of those sandwiches. And it was delicious and satisfying in that way where humble ingredients combine to something greater than the sum of their parts. The sandwich consisted of a simple grilled white fish filet with a spicy rub in some white bread with grilled peppers and a fresh tomato, onion, and parsley garnish inside. It’s all topped with an extra sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon and wrapped in paper for you to enjoy right there. And, as a bonus, the whole thing cost only 5 Turkish Lira, or less than $3USD.
1. Crossing the Chinese-Mongolia border is A Process and we do it at night. The customs and immigration part is easy enough, but the train tracks change significantly, and each individual car must be lifted off the racks for a bogie change. We are given the option of staying in the train carriage for the process, being lifted by crane and everything, or going into the immigration facility. We choose the latter, as folks on the trains are FORBIDDEN (in all caps, too) from using the toilets during the transition. It’s better to browse the strange duty-free shop and have access to skid-marked squat potties.
2. I open the window shades of the train in the morning and lose my breath simply due to what the window frames. Stark plains and hills covered in a rusty-colored hay stretching in every direction. The ground reaches up and meets the sky directly, like a poorly drawn landscape illustration. Bright white gers and herds of animals punctuate the color blocked scenery occasionally.
3. We’re met at the train station by a driver named Bogie whose iPod shuffle broadcasts quite the selection. Shortly after a Beatles song ends, a fast-paced number featuring the famous Mongolian throat singing begins. The song is modern despite being saturated with traditional music while avoiding any of the drippiness of most world music numbers. It’s earnest, and it sets the tone for our few days in the country. Altan Urag is the name of the group, and you can listen to them here.
A theater in downtown Ulan Bator.
4. An outdated guidebook warns that Ulan Bator is dangerous, as do the signs on our hostel door that warn guests that nights are “not so safe.” I ask the manager what this means, and he tells us to come in early, drink beer in the common room. “Don’t worry about outside! Come in! It’s safe here!” We leave to see the city in daylight hours and run into a friend from Texas. Her co-worker tells us some horror stories about foreign men who marry Mongolian women receiving some ass-kickings. While in the depths of winter, no one who appears to have money is safe. You could very well get punched in the head and left to die in -40 C (or F, it’s the same) weather.
5. Here is what makes up traditional Mongolian food: mutton, beef, horse, cow milk, sheep milk, horse milk. In the city, exotic ingredients like potatoes, rice, and carrots play a supporting roles. But not very often. The land’s harsh climate supports animals better than plants, and eating their flesh, fat, and innards means survival to many of the nomadic people.
6. 50% of Mongolians live nomadically. The other 50% live in Ulan Bator.
7. Beautiful women live in Ulan Bator. They wear quality cashmere garments topped with dark, skirted coats. Tall boots cover everything from the knee down. Though Mongolia is one place where hiking boots and quick dry pants might seem practical, they are out of place in UB. The urbanites have wonderful style that still recalls a bit of their nomadic past in the subtle details.
This is what your average Mongolian storefront looks like.
8. Andy observed that Mongolian language sounds like Russian that hits static. It sounds something like this: drestroskistayaKKKKCCCKKKKKK.
9. The Gorki-Terelj National Park is just a little out-of-the-way from Ulan Bator, and it’s where horses, cows, yaks, and sheep run around like wild in front of gers occupied by families, but mostly tourists. Gers are these round buildings with a spine of timber and flesh of felt, all covered with some white wind and water-resistant material that’s tied on by ropes. A stove sits in the center of the ger and releases smoke from the fires you need at night into the atmosphere via a very skinny black pipe.
10. I named the horse I rode in the park Loid, short for Mongoloid. Monoglian horses are small, but sturdy creatures who convert grass to meat and muscle with efficiency. As I mounted the homemade saddle with a small u-shaped metal rod as a saddle horn, Loid was indifferent. He didn’t speak English, this Loid, preferring to move only when Stable Boy made whistling noises. Then, he suddenly started galloping into the distance and disobeying my reined command. Stable Boy rode out and tried to help me, but the Loid was spinning in circles and I couldn’t focus on the body language instructions the boy gave me. Eventually I jerked back the reins so hard, Loid reared up. When he came down, he ate some grass and joined the others.
11. Andy’s horse farted a lot.
12. Gers are quite cold.
A ger in Ulan Bator’s main square advertising insulation. A matching house was right behind it.
13. Mongolian food is an exercise in finding nutrition by whatever means possible, as the hot, hot summers and cold, cold winters set right out in the middle of the desert make growing food quite hard. Nearly everything comes back to the sheep and the cow, who have been bred to have wooly coats that help them withstand extreme winter climes. Though carrots and potatoes have made it into urban Mongolian food, the dietary staples fatty mutton, dairy, and rice. With all the dust in the desert and pollution in the city, Mongolia screamed, “Heart Disease!” It would be inevitable, I think, if you spent too much time in UB.
14. UB is stark. Soviet architecture and big glass buildings crowd the center area, while impoverished ger districts crowd into the city as the rural population is pushed and pulled out of the agricultural and nomadic way of life. While the young people and the rich people dress well and with money, the poor wear whatever they can and the old still sometimes choose the padded robes and boots. The contrast is set blindingly high.
15. We hitchhiked to the bus station and boarded the train to find two Italian tourists in our car. When it’s time for bed, the woman offers me earplugs as her husband settled in. I had my own, but they did nothing to stop the nonstop, loud snores that roared out of his body all night. The worst was when the train stopped and the snores were the only noise as loud and as stark as Mongolia itself.
Somewhere on the rail line between cold, but clear, sun-tinted Mongolia and Siberia we passed decorative gourd season in its entirety. Perhaps there was a day or two of golden-leafed days somewhere in Irkutsk, but those first days were spent in a soft white bed inside a hostel inside a soviet-era apartment building. Not because the two-night train ride had been exhausting, but because I came down with a case of something that involved lots of porcelain-hugging, and I needed to stay close to the toilet. When I emerged? Cold. Wind. Snow.
Something about a sudden change in seasons unsettles. Mongolia seems like a distant memory and China last week’s dream. I’m pretty sure Nepal didn’t happen at all. Perhaps I went to middle school in Thailand?
Train travel is supposed to slow things down to the speed of comprehension, but I still cannot keep up. The journaled fragments from the last few weeks seem like fiction. All I know is that today I’m in Listyvanka, Russia right near Lake Baikal, and that I’m very cold.
Yesterday morning we left our baggage locked up under a staircase in Irkutsk and walked through light flurries to the bus stop a few blocks away. Moments before stepping outside into the cold, I glanced outside the window and gasped, “it’s snowing!” as though I had forgotten all the years of wet, cold terror I spent in Massachusetts with salt-stained jeans and shoes filled enough ice water to please a distance cyclist in San Antonio. It all came back moments after stepping in a pile of curbside slush.
We found a dirty white van with a sign saying “Listvyanka” on the dash manned by a large, brutish man with only a thumb, a forefinger, and a pinky on his right hand. For 100 rubles a piece, we bought passage to the settlement bordering the famous Lake Baikal. About an hour and a half later, we started driving through the increasing snowfall, dropping off Russians with bags of groceries and picking up gangs of school children along the way in an operation like a long-distance songtheaw. I focused on whatever I could through the increasingly icy windshield, hoping some small degree of focus would keep the motion sickness at bay.
About an hour later, we were dropped off outside a small pier in heavy, windy snowfall with unfortunately scanty directions to our hotel (1 km away from the pier) and no maps in sight. So we picked a direction and walked, with icicles forming in our hair and around our shoelaces all the while.
Obviously, we chose the wrong direction, a point we realized when the road came to an end with a wall of barking dogs. So we turned around and got the first room we found in a hideously decorated, over-priced hotel situated above a terrible and also over-priced Chinese-Russian fusion restaurant. The room featured a red lace bedspread paired with sheer, off-red curtains that created an atmosphere not unlike my mind’s idea of a late soviet brothel. The room’s decor was finished with a soft-focus, lavender-tinted painting of a girl with a unicorn on the wall. Suddenly, I felt my sickness come back.
This morning we left our key in the door and tried our hand at finding the original hotel again, this time over sidewalks that had developed and opaque icy glaze on top–another side-effect of winter I had conveniently forgotten after my summer-chasing tenure in Austin and Thailand. Eventually, after some unintended ice-skating, some back-tracking, and a stop for coffees and pastries, we found our intended destination: a grouping of log cabins surrounding a central banya on a hill run by a man wearing camo pants who owns many, many axes. Do you need an axe? I could probably steal six or so with very little chance of anyone noticing.
We haven’t really left the cabin since. I mean, it looks really cold outside, and we’ve already had several multi-kilometer treks re-enacting the political exiles of yore. Plus, our cabin is barely heated as is–Andy is wearing two pairs of pants under the covers and I’m dreading the thought of tooth-brushing for the chill of the cold tiles under my feet. Aside from a borscht run, there’s no real point in enjoying the great Siberian out-of-doors in this climate. Under the stormy clouds, the lake’s renowned clear waters appear black, choppy, and…soul-sucking, like a secret race of dementor nerpas rule under the water’s surface.
In fact, this whole area seems ripped out of a dark fairy tale with the landscape’s drama casting a dusky moodiness on the burly men and the soft, yet semi-scowling women. It’s not too hard to imagine that the house fire of the early evening may have been caused by the surly baker’s nighttime hobby: baking small children into pies.
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