Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Manhattan: lower east side, NY - Rice to Riches

Any number of comfort foods can be marketed, as evidenced by one college campus-based place that features nothing but cereals. We're not talking about gourmet concoctions (although you can order hot oatmeal or combine several cereals together); people are going in just for a bowl of Lucky Charms with milk. Can the convenience really be worth the money?

We found a similarly small market-niche place, although I could see the allure of flavored rice puddings much more easily than run-of-the-mill sugary dry cereals.

Rice to Riches starts with a base of long-grained rice and runs off in every sweet direction possible. The store is brightly lit and ultra-modern with flat-screen dynamic menu displays. Clean, minimalist lines and bright accents of red, green, and brown bowls provide a cheerful backdrop to a staggeringly impressive spread of puddings.

The prices are a little high, starting at $6 for a 'solo' portion, but the massive serving size (it would take me four to five sessions to finish a solo portion by myself) and the durable, appealing bowl/lid/spoon set (microwave safe, at that!!) justifies the price. These containers don't qualify as disposable; I could imagine building a coordinating Tupperware-like set after a few trips here.

The flavors and names are quirky, creative, and widely appealing, although I didn't notice many low-fat alternatives. The overwhelming number of choices is almost intimidating to a non-decisive person like me. Fortunately, the patient serving staff allows you to wander in front of the display case for a while, and many people got multiple mini-spoon tastings of different flavors. I'm talking about four to six tastings, not the usual one or two.

You can get your bowl filled with one or two flavors of rice pudding; I opted for a duo of Almond Schmalmond and Gingerbread Joyride. I adore almond-flavored desserts, which usually feature creamy milk overlaid with almond extract. This particular rice pudding had a strong almond presence, but the creaminess was akin to cheesecake, much to my surprise. A nice flavor stemming from marscarpone cheese, I'm guessing, but a bit rich. I nibbled quarter-spoonfuls at a time to avoid the pudding from sinking into my stomach like, well... cheesecake. Surprisingly, the gingerbread pudding was the lighter of the two. With its holiday-reminiscent cinnamon, clove, and spice flavor and tiny crumbs of gingerbread interspersed with the rice granules, it made my taste buds tingle, blissfully lost on a joyride of their own. Of the two foodies, I have more of a sweet tooth so eating most of the dessert fell to me, an extended undertaking that spanned four days.

I think the idea of a rice pudding place is a wonderful alternative to ice cream, and taken in small doses, this place is a treat to wander into.

However, I have to admit to enjoying rice in other sweet manifestations: soupy-thin, lightly spiced Indian puddings; mango with Thai coconut sticky rice and crispy split mung beans; and the simple homemade recipe of plump, slightly chewy rice mixed in warm milk sweetened with condensed milk. I'm pretty sure they're a little more forgiving in the calorie department as well. :)

Flushings, NY - Fat Baby Lamb

"Happy Family". "Fat Baby Lamb". These aren't poor translations of Chinese symbols on an Asian-themed westernized poster; these are two names by which a lamb-specializing hot pot restaurant chain goes by. It has locations on both coasts, in L.A., CA, and Flushings, NY, at very least.

After a day of flying and a dinner of finger food (chips and guacamole, some blandly uninspired fried calamari, decent breaded chicken fingers, buffalo wings, congealed-cheese quesadillas, and their version of cheese pizza) at a Singapore entrepreneurial networking social, this was my first "real" meal back in New York.

Luckily, we had a chauffeur, so we didn't have to take the bus from Manhattan to the Chinatown located in suburban Flushings; we only had to compete with hordes of poor Asian drivers screeching for the same parking spaces that we were. And I thought I was an aggressive driver. Not anymore.

Happily, it didn't take us long to find the restaurant with a little help from a Chinese-mumbling elderly lady who kept trying to push pink pamphlets in our faces. Once we had passed through the door with an adorable smiling lamb (probably blissfully unaware that its breathen had been slated for countless tummies, otherwise it wouldn't have been so cheerful-looking), we found ourselves in a well-lit area with light blue and fluffy white cloud-painted ceilings and little red lantern lamps hanging incongruously from the 'sky'. We had barely seated ourselves, when we found a partitioned hot pot full of soup pushed onto the heating element in the center of our table. I've been to a few hot pot places, but I have no idea what defines 'authentic'. This, however, was entirely different from setups I'd previously seen.

Apparently, there are three broths from which you can choose from: white, red, and herbal. The two most popular are the white and red, which is probably the reason why we got those without being asked if we had a preference. The white broth is soy milk-based, and had a glistening smattering of oil, as well as accents of sliced, narrow ginseng roots, dried longan, dried wolfberries, dried red dates, dried (brown) Saharan dates, entire garlic cloves, and green onion shoots. It was mildly redolent of herbal soups, but besides that, didn't have much flavor. The other side featured a clear, spicy broth with chili oil, entire dried red chilies, cumin, nutmeg (which I couldn't personally identify), sesame seeds, and garlic.

We were given two plates of base ingredients to dunk into our soup, for the total price (soup + two dishes) of $20. One plate was covered with Napa cabbage, spinach, a few corn on the cob segments, and sai fun (bean thread noodles), and the other plate was artfully stacked with playful curlicue rolls of paper-thin raw beef.

In addition, we also ordered triangles of pork blood (which came out partially cooked to allow the blood to be sliced and presented neatly, so it only needed to be dunked into the broth for a few seconds before being eaten), two plates of pea sprouts, fish balls, and some more sliced beef. Hot pot is really a light meal, partly because the ingredients aren't that high in fat/oil, and partly because you have to wait for the food to be cooked, so you can't wolf down large quantities of food in a short amount of time. Personally, my favorite part of the meal was liberally dousing my vegetables and noodles in a make-it-yourself sauce of Chinese 'barbeque' sauce (dried ground shrimp, chili oil, etc.), ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, and cilantro, graciously made by my eating companion and shared with the table. The red soup was a bit on the spicy side and lacked a deep flavor, while the white broth was completely placid on the taste buds. I found a happy medium in combining the two soups in equal amounts. Peppery-warmth calmed by subtle creaminess was just right for the winter weather.

We left with warmed and filled tummies, and finished off the afternoon with boba, warm tea, an iced lychee smoothie (sadly, icy, not creamy, as I hoped it would be), and an artery-clogging, tongue-licking treat of carefully shaved, gelatinous translucent tendon slices generously coated with salted chili oil and chopped green onions for $4 in a food court. Delicious~

Milpitas, CA - Banana Leaf

Just as there are those special homes in which you feel utterly warmed and charmed by, there exists a similar rare breed of restaurant that inspires similar feelings within me. These places include a cozy nook of a quality ice creamery (which no longer exists), a French patisserie no bigger than my living room and complete with a radiant fireplace, and a Vietnamese-French cafe run by a sparkly-eyed, chic, grandmotherly chef-owner who inspired me as a child to eventually create the impressive but simple pastry ├ęclair sculpture that is croque em bouche.

In that same vein of quality food and vivacious warmth is
Banana Leaf, a soothing goldenrod and dark wood-hued, bustling Malaysian (with a dash of Singaporean) restaurant in the heart of Milpitas, CA. If you catch it in a rare off-hour, it is an impeccably clean, calm oasis of silky smooth curries and flaky breads, with an open kitchen in which you can watch the making of roti prata. However, it is more likely to be a vigorously boiling melting-pot of culinary scents, assorted languages, and friendly energy. The manager, Oliver, is ebullient, energetic, and utterly charming. He also has an incredible memory for faces and details.

From the unending variety of bay area Asian dining, I am most eager to introduce friends, both local and out-of-town, to this place. It's unpretentious, well-seasoned and experienced at dealing with large numbers of customers, friendly, consistent, and delicious. And the food bears the closest resemblance to the laksa, nasi goreng, and Hainanese chicken rice that I remember from my trip to SE Asia a year ago.

I've been tasting my way through the menu items, but I have my favorites; if you'd like suggestions, I'd be more than happy to offer my own. Here are a few items I enjoyed one lazy weekend afternoon with my parents.

We started out with the tofu salad, a ring of lightly-fried tofu triangles hollowed out and piled with bean sprouts, lettuce, and cucumber, and topped off with a generous mound of mildly sweet and substantial-yet-refreshing seasoning of chunky peanut sauce. It was good, but I'd encourage trying the gado-gado, which has a slightly wider range of textures and flavors.

Next up was the quintessential breakfast item of Malaysia, nasi lemak, termed 'Banana Leaf rice' here. When I had it in Malaysia, the $.25 serving size was only a fraction of this, and adorably wrapped in a banana leaf pyramid. This is considerably more glorified, with the addition of tender curried meat, and enough food to make 4-5 of the breakfasts that I had. The coconut rice is beautifully tinged with light notes of coconut milk, the roasted peanuts are perfectly crisp, the anchovies in balachan (shrimp paste)/chili oil add a medium-spicy richness, and the egg and cucumber keep it all light and creamy. The presentation here is for looks only; when you eat the dish, everything gets mixed together on individual plates in fried-rice style to meld the flavors.

This was new to me, and instantly became one of my favorites. It's called 'Ying yong noodles', and it features my beloved chow fun (thick rice) noodles and deep-fried sai fun (rice noodles) bathed with a wonderfully soupy, luscious gravy with suspended egg 'cloud' threads, and studded with perfectly cooked seafood and chicken. There's enough to share with a fair number of people, even when one person (me) would be utterly happy to hog it all to him/herself. :o)

I had a love affair in Singapore. It was with one of their national dishes (another being the chili crab at Red House), Hainanese chicken rice. I posted the recipe once; it's a bit time-consuming, although the end result is a beautiful simplicity of flavors that tastes heavenly. Simply put, it is boiled (although I cringe to say boiled, when it's more of a series of blanchings and warm-water coddling than rough-and-tough boiling) chicken smoothed over with sesame oil, sitting in a soy-based sauce, and served with chicken-stock flavored rice and a chili (sometimes perked up with ginger) sauce. Singaporean natives told me that the rice went on the plate first, then the chili sauce, then the chicken and some crispy cucumbers, then topped with the cilantro and drizzled with the soy-sesame sauce. Wow. It's amazing. When done correctly, the chicken is soft, silky lusciousness. I've tried my fair share of bay area restaurant renderings, and Banana Leaf's comes the closest. The rice is a vibrant yellow, which differs from the ivory Singaporean version, but I think that's because it's given the Malaysian addition of turmeric powder. Not having had the dish in Malaysia, I'm not sure if that's how it's usually cooked there.

The last bit of crispy, creamy, hot, cold, sweet delectability to reach our tummies were deep-fried bananas cuddled with mango ice cream. I'm sure it's more fusion than authentic, ;) but it's a lovely way to end a meal that never fails to disappoint. Since last year, Southeast Asian food has won over my heart, and I highly recommend this place if a twenty hour (or so) plane ride isn't an option.

Terimakasi, Banana Leaf~ :)

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Home Cooking - Feeling Crabby?

It's crab season, and a particularly fruitful one, at that. Alas for the fishermen, the high amounts of clawed-crustaceans means a market glut that doesn't pay off for their efforts very well. But for us Dungeness crab lovers, it's a frenzied free-for-all, at prices as low as $2.27/lb. for live specimens.

I battled the weekend dim-sum nibblers and holiday-shopping families for my own dinner that would shuffle around in a lumpy paper and plastic bag package. I use my feminine charms to smile at the hispanic fishmongers, in hopes that they really will spend the extra time to find me a 'large one, please'. It works sometimes; one time I ended up with a monster of a crab over 3 and 1/4 pounds! This time however, I was matched up with an average-sized female (females have 'bibs' on their undersides) around 2.75 lbs. No worries, I can't eat an entire crab by myself in one sitting anyway.

I happily carted 'Celeste' home, and plopped her into my stainless steel sink, where she blew frothy bubbles and obligingly clamped onto a chopstick that I waved in her vicinity. I whole-heartedly subscribe to the philosophy of playing with your food. ;)

In my short span cooking years, I've limited myself to boiling my crabs, which is a lovely, loudly sucking, hands-in-face affair when you're by yourself. Sweet flesh that flakes off onto your tongue, accompanied with perfectly-sea-salt-enhanced crab juice (thus the sucking) is one of the best seasonal fall delights. However, you never know what you're missing out on, if you never try anything new, so this time around, I decided to expand my horizons, per se.

My mom has this old, unassuming-looking cookbook called 'Stella Chan's Secrets in the Art of Chinese Cooking'. A year or so ago, I snagged my own copy of it at a used book store, and it is FAR more valuable than the $2.75 that I spent on it. The recipes are remarkably simple, and yet they offer results that are far better than the more-complicated 40-ingredient fusion recipe with just as many steps.

A quick boil in water for about eight minutes, and then I carefully pried the underside 'bib' off, as well as the top shell, being quite careful not to spill any of the cholesterol-rich greenish fluids. Yes, Chinese eat everything, and I've been indoctrinated into that as well. I used my brand-spanking new cleaver to chop up the body into four segments after I had twisted each of the legs off and partly cracked them open (to let the seasonings seep in!) and then set it aside.

After heating a skillet, I poured in about two teaspoons of oil, and then stir-fried peeled ginger 'coin' slices in it until they were brownish. In went three-inch length green onions and cilantro for a few quick stirs, and then the crab followed suit. I then drizzled in a mixture of 3 tablespoons of wine, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 teaspoon of salt, and stir-fried the mixture for about three minutes. The time is important, to let the wine-goodness seep into the crabmeat. The original recipe was for two crabs, but I only had one, and I was being lazy about vegetables, so I added a generous pile of pea sprout leaves to the now-full frying pan. Lastly, I made a mixture of water (~ 1/3 cup), a tablespoon or so of soy sauce, and twice that amount of cornstarch. Poured that in, cooked it until the gravy nicely glazed the crab and vegetables, and mounded a tantalizingly-scented pile onto hot, steamed rice.

Oh, the bliss... It smelled, looked, and tasted just like the restaurant's. I couldn't have asked for a better first try!