Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thai "Penicillin"


Yaksha demon protector, guarding a gold leaf-covered stupa from bad spirits at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)

Over the weekend I was attacked by the crud, and had mucus flowing from my body by the gallon, during almost non-stop sneezing spells, with slight chills, scratchy throat, and an annoyingly persistent cough. I work at the University, so I’m constantly surrounded by 49,000 students, who are well-known vectors for infectious diseases. I’m convinced that one of their sickly ilk touched a doorknob I later touched, or coughed upwind of me at some point. At any rate, I felt none-too-swift and spent too much of my precious weekend time under the covers. The whole time I was in my snotty cocoon, all I could think about was an aromatic, steaming bowl of tom yum gai from Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine. S-P10 on the menu is hot and sour (and spicy) chicken soup; it’s the Thai culinary equivalent to Jewish penicillin.

Tom yum gai, with brown jasmine rice, at Sap's (and sensibly served!)

How to NOT serve Tom Yum - Thais don't typically eat scalding-hot food, the heat overcooks the ingredients, and I don't want to smell Sterno with my food

Tom yum (or it can also be said tom yam) is a clear, spicy, and sour soup that is served in Thailand and Laos (and Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well). We used to cook huge batches of it at the Café, and sold out every time we made it. The name of the soup comes from an amalgam of two Tai words, tom, which refers to boiling a liquid, and yum or yam, which refers to a Lao and Isaan spicy, sour salad. Assemble the two words and you get a hot and sour soup, aromatic from the addition of fragrant herbs, which include cilantro, Thai or holy basil, Thai lime leaf, lemongrass, and galangal. The citrusy sour comes from lime juice, the salty umami bomb is delivered with the Thai fish sauce, and the heat comes from dried Thai red chiles. Shallot adds that sweet oniony flavor, and the mushroom slices are a soft, chewy texture to balance the denser chicken meat. It all swims in a broth of rich chicken stock; a perfect foil for the common cold and guaranteed to open up blocked sinuses and soothe a sore throat. You can get it with shrimp, or mixed seafood, or even with tofu, but I was jonesing for the chicken version. It comes with rice, and lately I’ve been hooked on Sap’s brown jasmine rice. It has a nutty aromatic flavor that is far superior to the white, polished version (and it's much healthier).

Fried tofu

I started the meal with an order of fried tofu (S-A11), which comes with a honey-sweetened and chile-laced sauce that’s balanced with some lime. It’s sweet and sour, spicy, herb-infused, and texturized with minced roasted peanut. The sauce is a perfect match with the golden brown, fried pillows of bean curd. Tofu was invented in China around 164 BC, supposedly by Lord Liu An (179–122 BC), although culinary historians are starting to believe it was developed much earlier. It first spread into Korea and then into Japan in the 8th Century, and then into Southeast Asia in the 10th Century, after being introduced by fishermen and boat traders from Fujian province. The accepted theory is that the popularity of tofu migrated along with the spread of vegetarian Buddhism, since the two go so well together.

Whoever took it to Thailand deserves a gold star, because the Thais really know how to make that oppressively bland (but healthy) ingredient delicious. I’ve been hooked on this dish since the 70s when I used to order it at a second story Thai restaurant called Chopsticks, which used to be on Airport Boulevard at Pampa Drive, just east of Guadalupe. It was owned by a retired Air Force guy and his Thai wife, and although they were forced to also have Chinese dishes on the menu, it was all about the Thai food. Unless I’m mistaken, it was Austin’s first Thai restaurant.

Satay vendor, Dutch Indies, back in the day (from Google Images)

Satay gai vendor's daughter, seafood noodle restaurant, Ban Phe, SE Thailand

Satay so good we ordered another round.....

Also joining my meal was an order of satay moo (S-A7), an especially fantastic version of the Malay-influenced Southern Thai dish of spice and coconut milk-marinated pork skewers served with a curried peanut sauce, ajat (pickled cucumber and shallot), and toast points. Moo in Thai indicates pork, but you can get it made with tofu, beef, chicken, or shrimp. In Thailand, satay vendors are found on the street or in food courts, but they are also situated next to many open air restaurants. The satay vendor works in collusion with a restaurant, while operating next to the outdoor seating area, using their own grill. The waiter handles the transaction seamlessly, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think the satay came from the restaurant’s own kitchen. My guess is that the vendor pays the restaurant a generous tax to operate there, since it effectively reduces the food that the restaurant could potentially sell.

Satay at Yaeng Diew (Single Rubber Tree Restaurant), on the Pasak River, near Bang Pa-In, Central Thailand

Grilled fresh water prawns at Yaeng Diew, the dish they made them famous all over Thailand....note limpid pools of molten head fat

Satay is a dish of confusing origin, with some experts claiming it originated in Java and Indonesia, as an adaptation of the Indian kebab brought to Indonesia by the seafaring Muslim traders (the kebab having come to India from the Spice Route trade with Muslim traders from Southwest Asia and the Middle East). The name satay is said to have come from Indonesian sate and the Malaysian saté or satai. Others think the name had Tamil origins, since the dish didn’t really become popular in the Dutch East Indies until after the arrival of Muslim Tamil Indian and Arab immigrants in the early 1800s. The meats preferred by Indonesians and Malaysians are the same mutton and beef which the Arabs prefer. Another, less-popular theory has the dish being introduced by Chinese traders, who preferred the use of pork and chicken.

Pork satay at Sap's....excellent

As the theory goes, the dish migrated through the Malay Archipelago, and by the mid-1800s had crossed the Strait of Malacca into Malaysia, Singapore, and Southern Thailand. As it entered each new culinary region, the spices used in the marinade and the sauce morphed slightly, while the meats used were based on availability and religious preference. Eventually it ended up in Bangkok, with Sap learning how to cook it, which eventually led me to order it and savor every tiny morsel.

A proper set of tableware, at Sap's

Allow me a rant on the side about something that’s really starting to piss me off. As I sipped my water and unrolled my tableware, it occurred to me how practical the Thais are when they dine, preferring that superior universal eating tool, the spoon. Oddly, they like to use one of the most inefficient tools for eating noodles, but the Chinese introduced both pasta and chopsticks to Thailand, so I forgive the Thais this minor error.  An alarming restaurant trend over the last few years has been the elimination of the spoon from the restaurant set-up, providing instead, the fork and the knife. Now, every time I eat at a restaurant that is not a Thai restaurant, I have to ask for a spoon. This trend makes no sense whatsoever. I cannot eat gravy with a fork or a knife. I can eat peas or beans or mashed potatoes with a fork, but it’s so much more efficient and tidy  to eat them with a spoon. I can’t remember the last time I used a knife to eat anything. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if I NEED a knife to eat my meal, unless it is a steak or a sausage, the restaurant probably cooked it wrong, or they purchased tough, low quality product.

It’s not that I recommend a big influx of sick people to all of a sudden rush to Sap’s for a bowl of spicy soup, but I can tell you that when I pushed away from that table, I felt 100% better. And although I was probably already on the mend by then anyway, after that bowl of wonderful, delicious tom yum gai, my cold was gone in a day. Thai penicillin indeed.

Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine
4514 Westgate Blvd, 512/899-8525
5800 Burnet Rd, 512/419-7244

Mick Vann ©

Friday, November 14, 2014

Paella Fest 2014....LOTS of Paella

......just one of the spinning pigs

This past Saturday, November 8th, I was fortunate enough to secure a coveted position as one of the six judges at the 12th Annual Paella Lovers United 2014 Paella Cookoff, which was held on a ranch out Webberville Road. About 600 devotees in attendance were just as delighted as I was. The cooks manning the flat, shallow paella pans take their paella cooking very seriously, and a bite of any batch will immediately indicate that they know what they’re doing. I was flabbergasted at the number of teams of Spanish provenance that entered, as I had no idea that Austin was that prolific in its population of Spaniard ex-pats.

The List

The site where it was held is a ranch owned by Will and Rebecca Ponder, who were off celebrating Will's parents' 74th wedding anniversary. Their son Miles is an owner of White Hat Rum, which is an Austin-based craft-distilled rum, and one of the event sponsors. Miles gave Emmett Fox, one of the head judges, a couple of bottles of a special oak barrel-aged release, which was excellent sipping stock; kudos Miles, and thanks to Emmett for sharing.

We da Bomba, the Caribbean jerk-inspired "Keep Paella Weird" entry

The event is set up in a big corral with 13 cooking stations, and a central oak fire for the teams to pull coals from to heat their paella pans. The 24 competing teams turn in their entries sequentially, between 2pm and 7:30. As soon as the team presents their paella, and describes it to the judges and the judges extract a sample, it is offered to the throngs for tasting. The crowd is also feasting on roast pig, fresh oysters, tapas, and big, massive batches of paella prepared by the hosts. Booths offer beer, cider, sangria, and wine, and there’s a music stage pumping out flamenco and Spanish music, both live and DJ. It’s all Spain-centric, and all there in support of the paella.

La Santa Inquisición's squid ink paella, with polka dot team introduction and adorable tykes. The Grand Champion.

Paelleros Místicos, with their "Weird" category entry of "Forbidden" black rice, porcini, and pork (note the ring of unctuous pork belly circling the central cabeza)

The judging criteria is based on many factors, including team spirit. Some of the groups were as rabidly excited as a section of the bleachers at a Real or Barça soccer match, with choreographed cheers, banners, smiling children offering bribes, boom boxes with paella presentation soundtracks, etc. The more important criteria include appearance and presentation, ingredient integration, taste profile, texture and doneness of the rice and of the proteins, and presence of the critically important soccarat, that deliciously crusty layer of caramelized rice that forms on the bottom of the pan. Cook it just right and it’s orgasmic; cook it a tiny bit too long, and you’ve turned the whole batch bitter (and angered the rice gods in the process). Cook it less than required and you end up with a mushy mess devoid of crustiness. Timing is paramount, and all of the components must be in balance. A proper paella is alchemy involving the fire, the pan, the rice, the stock (to be considered as a separate criteria next year), the secondary ingredients (aromatics, vegetables, and proteins), and how all of that is manhandled and magically manipulated into the finished dish.

The entry from El Plat del Día, with juicy rabbit

We sampled paellas that were so authentic, they could just as easily have been cooking over a fire in Valencia, they were that authentic (these were entered in the most popular category, “Traditional”). There were batches cooked with all manner of seafood, as well as chicken and rabbit, pork and chorizo, lamb, and even one vegetarian version. Artichokes, fava beans, peas, green beans (not the flat Romano-style ones, unfortunately), porcini and maitake mushrooms, olives, peppers, and all kinds of other foods found their way into the pans. La Santa Inquisisión’s squid ink version was brilliantly composed, with rich flavor that complimented the moist seafood, and a seductive, crusty soccarat hugging the bottom. There were entries in the “Keep Paella Weird” category that rivaled the flavor of the traditional paellas. Jerk paella or a porky batch made with black “forbidden” rice sounds weird, I know, but you really should have tasted it.

Pepa (R), helping present the entry from Los Alarcanes de Alicante

To be completely honest, after tasting 24 different batches of paella (some spectacularly good, and none that could be considered inedible), I was starting to get a little burned out on paella by the end of the evening. It 
wouldn’t have been my meal of choice for the next week or so, but finding that much creative Iberian culinary talent perched over a bunch of smoky fires out in the floodplains of deep east Austin is a thing of beauty. It is definitely an event that you should be adding to your food event calendar for next year, and hopefully I’ll be judging again.

Langoustines chasing lobster, a traditional entry from team Berberechos and the last paella judged

Winners – Traditional
1. La Santa Inquisición (Overall Champion)
2. El Plat del Día (Second Place overall)
3. Cocina Gringa

Winners – Keep Paella Weird
1. We da Bomba (Third Place overall)
2.  Paelleros Místicos
3. Madrid in Austin – Students Beat Teachers!

Mick Vann ©


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Random October Eats IV

Late Lunch at the “Manshack” Texican

Early in the month Art and I were meeting about a new restaurant consulting gig, and we hadn’t been to The Texican in quite a while, and it’s not that far down the road from his house, and we were both feeling a bit puckish, so off we went. The Texican has been there for years, and they call themselves El Paso-style Mexican food, since that’s where the owners originated.They have long been a source for quasi-New Mexican food in town. Don’t get me wrong; you won’t think that you’ve been transported to the Owl Café or Horseman’s Haven, but it serves a need.

Normally when I go I get the Chile Colorado, which is tender, succulent pork chunks braised in a a dried red chile sauce akin to a New Mexico “Red”. It’s a steady, strong, reliable dish. Before I got hooked on that dish, I was a sucker for the stacked Santa Fe enchiladas, which come with the same deep red sauce as the Chile Colorado. Art’s a big fan of their Green Chile enchiladas, a rather recent addition, which is chicken enchiladas draped with a New Mexico-style green chile sauce. It’s not Hatch, but close enough for a Central Texan who doesn’t want to embark on a 12-hour drive for a food jones.

When we got there, they had green chile signs all over the place, saying it was green chile season, and ask about their green chile specials, and what-not. So I did, and slowly a vision developed in my mind. A vision of the Santa Fe stacked enchiladas (known as montadas in Norteño enchilada parlance), “Christmas-style”, meaning half red chile sauce, half green chile sauce, topped with a runny fried egg. Sure, it’s Manchaca, but we can play New Mexico if we want.

Manchaca Springs Stage Depot way back when

Manchaca is a wide spot in the road way down south, where the end of Manchaca Road tees into FM 1626, but it started out a long time ago as a clear-running spring that all of the Native Americans, settlers, and travelers knew about and depended on as they traversed the nearby Old San Antonio Trail and the Chisholm Trail. Several theories claim provenance of the name Manchaca. One theory says that it comes from the Choctaw word imashaka, which means “behind it”, or “to the rear”. Some think it was named after one of two spots in Louisiana with similar names: Manchac Pass and Bayou Manchac. But most folks think it was named after Tejano army officer José Antonio Menchaca, and when that Hispanic name gets Anglicized by redneck South Austinites, it morphs into “MAN-shack”; they even dropped the final “a”. There is a local school on the corner that calls itself Menchaca Elementary, but those kids say "MAN-shack"; spelling be damned.

Manchaca Train Depot

Early maps referred to the springs in the early 1840’s as both Manshack Springs and Manjack Springs, so the name was apparently being mispronounced for some time. An 1849 land agent map called it Manchac Springs. The area got its first post office in 1851, located at Manchac House. The area benefited from the opening of the International-Great Northern Railroad in 1880 (and a new post office opened up named Manchaca, although pronounced “man-shack”) and by 1884 the little town of 75 residents had become a shipping point for cotton, grain, lumber, and fence posts. By the 1890’s a Methodist church, a hotel, and a school had all opened. In the ensuing years the little town slowly grew, and then almost died in the 1970’s, where there were only 36 residents, but since that low point, growth has been non-stop, and they still haven’t learned how to pronounce the name of the town the correct way.

Maya Queso, salsa, and totopos....and my spoon!

Lately The Texican has gotten a little better; baby steps, like the chips getting thinner and the sauce spicier. Service has always been good, except when a hostess tries to seat two single men talking business next to a table of screaming babies, or lead Art, who is disabled, to the faraway corner of the back dining room. Little glitches, but the food is dependable and tasty. We usually start out with a large bowl of Chile con Queso Maya ($7.99), which is a rich, cheesy queso generously embellished with avocado and beef picadillo. It comes about the same time that they are bringing out the second container of salsa, which is spicy, garlicky, and excellent. I receive my spoon that I eat my meal with when the queso arrives, because The Texican is yet another in a long list of restaurants that have stopped bringing spoons to the table. The Maya was good, the salsa extra zippy, and the thin totopos abundant and crispy.

Santa Fe Enchiladas, Christmas-style (sort of), and 1 runny fried egg

I ordered my Santa Fe enchiladas ($11.99) filled with beef and cheese, with onions added, one runny fried egg on top, and requested “Xmas–style” which the server assured me could be done: half red chile sauce, and half green chile sauce. Everything was perfect except for one glaring problem. The green sauce turned out to be a bizarre mixture of green chile and tomatillo sauce. It was still good, but all thoughts of Santa Claus vanished immediately. Was that how the kitchen meant it to be? Did the server say “green sauce” and then go, “oh shit, he wanted green CHILE sauce”, and the cook said “No way I’m re-firing this ticket because of your mistake”. ”I’ll ladle some green chile over the verde, and maybe he won’t notice”. Or maybe the server said, “Wow, that dumbass didn’t even know the difference. Cool.”  All kinds of things could have happened. Regardless, I didn’t send it back, I cleaned my plate, and I will return.

Mick Vann ©

The Texican
11940 Manchaca Rd