Mar 17, 2020
This story begins in Hong Kong, where I had a dish that I pretty much haven’t stopped thinking about since my visit last September. I was joining a colleague, deputy editor Jeninne Lee-St. John, at VEA, the Michelin-one-starred restaurant that combines French technique with traditional Chinese ingredients. We were probably four or five beautiful courses in when chef Vicky Cheng, who has since won Best Chef of 2020 by South China Morning Post, sauntered over to our perch at his counter to serve one of his signature dishes. It was a sea cucumber, cooked to a crisp, and he stressed that we needed to eat it quickly to retain its texture.
I’ll admit, the cultural significance of consuming this Chinese delicacy was a bit lost on me since this was the first time the ugly little creature entered my culinary radar. But chef Vicky explained what a coveted delicacy the collagen-rich sea cucumber is, that its slimy texture is often off-putting to foreigners and even younger Chinese diners, and thus why his version won’t taste anything like what you’d get in any of the fancy round-table restaurants around the city.
Here, the sea cucumber is roasted and served in a bath of Shanghai hairy-crab fat and infused with 20-year-old Xiaoshing wine. It’s jaw-droppingly tasty, layered with different textures and richness from the crab sauce. Elegant, enticing and innovative—these are all words I would have never imagined I’d be using to describe a sea cucumber, but this dish is delicious.
It got me thinking: what dishes do my colleagues—foodies who rival me in eating out at interesting restaurants—find themselves thinking about when hunched over their desk lunches or, these days, while cooped up in quarantine? Here’s what they had to say:
In my opinion, the best restaurant to open in Bangkok this year is JAEW Jim Thompson. Chef Andrew Martin is pedigreed from such conscientious-cuisine stars as Bo.lan and 80/20… you can see where I’m going with this: he’s all about being locavore and plant-forward and honoring tradition and old knowledge. Canadian-born Andrew is an encyclopedia of Thai regional cuisine, and his menu at Jaew doesn’t recreate recipes so much as meld memories. It’s an eating adventure of authentic flavors from different parts of the country combined in ways that are wholly new. And the prime example of this is his Nua Dip Lhong Krung—but you can just order “beef tartare.”
The heart of the dish is beef smoked with lemongrass and coconut—”It reminds me, most notably, about driving through Issan and eating tartare at a roadside restaurant where they had quickly torched the animal and it had a particularly delightful smoky flavor,” Andrew said, as he did the reveal, taking the lid off a little porcelain pot. It’s mixed with jaew bong, a relish common in Isaan made with dried fermented beans, herbs, peanuts and fried shallots. Dotting the plate in a little archipelago of green islands and red sea are three sauces (nam jim) made, respectively, of Isaan/Laotian riverweed, seasonal wild fruit such as rosella, and betel leaf with chili.
You take a tempura-ed betel leaf and swab it in the sauces, and top it with the beef and relish. It’s crispy, spicy, smoky, funky and a tad bit sweet. Everyone I know who’s had it has copped to craving it long after. The germ of the dish originated while Andrew was engulfed in the smells of street food in a little alley in Chiang Mai and solidified while he was snacking on grilled meats looking at street art in Bangkok. “When it all comes together it is like a moment of peace and clarity,” he said. “It’s my personality on a plate”—and as such, it’s a great way to launch into your dinner Jaew. But I’d equally enjoy it as a snack on the couch with Netflix. And take-away is the new dining-out, right?
Bek Van Vliet Owen
The best ‘dish’ I’ve had recently was actually a 10-course meal from Lurra in Kyoto, run by an intimidatingly cool posse of tatted-up young guys lead by chef Jacob Kear. The key members of the team worked together at Auckland’s three-Hatted Clooney, and when it shut, decided to open a restaurant together in a Kyoto machiya (a traditional shophouse). The tasting menu, which changes seasonally, features Kyoto-foraged and sourced ingredients (they literally go into the mountains and hand-pick leaves/herbs), as well as house-made pickles and preserves, served with natural and craft sakes and hard-to-find wines. Every course stood out in its own way, but the two most memorable were the wild boar with black mole and the second-dessert, a ‘donut’ full of butterbur ice cream.
When I was road-tripping across Southern Thailand last year, I stopped at a friend’s mom’s restaurant in Langsuan, Chumphon. Southern Thailand is known for its curries, and at this shophouse, Chao Liao, owner and chef Mae Tim makes more than 40 varieties fresh every morning. When we arrived for breakfast the place was heaving with locals, and Mae Tim served us a selection of some of her most popular dishes; among a King Mackerel gaeng som, spicy beef curry and a bitter melon and pork-bone soup was something I had never seen or heard of before: stingray floss. Much like pork floss, the strands of dried meat were sticky and caramelized — most likely in a palm sugar mix. The flavor of the meat wasn’t fishy at all, but buttery and sweet, so sweet it could have almost been dessert. It was the perfect accompaniment to the table of fiery curries and sour soups the south is known for. Sadly, though, I have never seen it since.
Still dreaming about these vegan cauliflower tacos at Maria Bonita, a humble cafe-slash-boutique hotel lining the beach in Ahangama on Sri Lanka’s south coast. They delivered a smoky, tangy, spicy hit with every bite, and were just what I needed after running around town with a camera in hand (more on that in one of the upcoming issues of T+L Asia).
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One of the places most memorable in Seoul’s vibrant Shinchon, where I studied abroad in college, was a restaurant called Sosin Isso that’s famous for galbi-jjimb, or braised Korean short ribs. In the original version of galbi-jjimb you can expect the ribs to be marinated in soy sauce, but at Sosin Isso, they take on a fusion twist with the addition of cream. You wouldn’t expect soy sauce and cream to make a good couple, but they do amazing things together in this dish. The creaminess adds a softness to the galbi-jjimb and helps reduce the heat from the Korean spices. The combination of spice, salt and cream almost reminds me of a Korean version of carbonara sauce. Plus, the ribs are extremely tender. Between bites, reach for the sweet and crunchy pickled radish that are served as sides to cut through the heaviness of the cream.
Even better, the experience doesn’t end when you finish the ribs! Order a serving of bokkeum-bap (fried rice) to mix into the galbi-jjimb pot to absorb all the leftover sauce. Mix it all up, flatten the rice, and top it off with cheese to melt into the crispy rice at the bottom of the pot. Koreans like to call the fried rice at the end of the meal the dessert. If you come with your friends, you’ll be fighting over who gets the last bit of the crunchy pieces stuck to the pot!