Monday, September 15, 2014

Buddhist Blessing on Burnet

Sap's on Burnet....yummmmmm

Yesterday I was honored to be invited to the Buddhist blessing at Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine, the newest location at Burnet Road and 2222. To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what to expect, and we had foolishly made plans to eat afterwards (we would later realize the folly of that decision). I’ve been to Thailand four times, so I have a working knowledge of Thai Buddhism and the rules about interacting with the monks. I even wore long pants! And it doesn’t take a genius to imagine how a restaurateur would want his new venture blessed by a priest from his religion, so I had a basic framework to operate within. When we got there Sap greeted us warmly and told us that if “it got too weird”, to feel free to step into the adjoining room. Now I was intrigued. How weird could it get?

The Chef and the Artiste

The kids at the temple in Northern Thailand

Our old pal Chef Emil Vogely and his better half, the effervescent Judy Jensen, were there also, and we all glommed together for the occasion. They will leave for Thailand in several weeks so that Judy can install the 9th of a series of 10 temple mural panels that she is reproducing for a small Buddhist temple in Northern Thailand; murals that were damaged in the earthquake several years back. The pictures I’ve seen of her work are remarkable; she does reverse paintings on glass. It’s god’s work.


The Blessing Ceremony

The monks blessing the meal they are fixing to dine on....note the two on the right are twins!

There was a pretty good-sized group of folks in attendance, and I knew my share of them. We all sat down and the monks got started with the chants; we of course did not know the Thai refrains that the majority of the crowd was call-and-responsing back at the monks, but we did know how to wai with palms joined, so we weren’t complete buffoons. The chanting was rhythmic, and I really got into the beat and cadence of it, zoning-out for a little while there. Maybe it was spiritual, maybe it was hunger? Who knows? About 45 minutes after it started, the monks rolled up the white rope that they were collectively holding, which started at the Buddha image, went to the ceremonial candle, through all of their hands, and into the golden urn. Monks eat first, so an incredible spread was arranged on the table before them, as they went around the restaurant with Holy water, sprinkling everything and everyone, blessing them as they went.

The food....leaf to right....table 1

The food ....left to right.....table 2

The food....left to right....table 3 (and table 4, I didn't get as shot of, but it had mass quantities of steamed jasmine rice, a 4-gallon pot of pud ped ga prao, and a huge salad)

The food.....table 5

The food....table 6

Once the monks returned and started eating, we got the high sign to attack the four tables loaded down with mind-freakingly delicious treats. The array was too large to detail, but know this much: every single dish that I tasted was soul-satisfyingly good. The only thing I passed on was the one dish with the little cubes of congealed pork blood. I don’t do filters, liver, or blood. But I loved the funky fermented bamboo shoot curry with chicken; definitely an acquired taste, but one that I acquired a long time back. There was also a fiery Southern curry that blew me away. It was all great, and really good to see an old friend’s newest venture get the okay from the higher spiritual powers, while getting to chat with a bunch of old friends. A very satisfying way to spend a Sunday morning: monks, friends, food, and a big blessing for all of it.

Mick Vann © 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Khao Soi, for the "Cold" Front: A Primer

In honor of the approaching “cold” front, and because I was ravenously hungry and needed to stop by my nearby bank, I went to Sap’s South a few days ago for a late lunch on the way home. Sap’s does an excellent version of Khao Soi, that magnificent Northern Thai red-curry noodle soup. And while I was there, I also got an order of Pad Ped Nor Mai with Pork, which is a stir fry of julienned bamboo shoot strips, garlic, fish sauce, stock, jalapeño, roasted Thai chile sauce, cilantro, and Thai holy basil (which accentuates the heat of chiles). I love this dish. It’s got the perfect combination of spicy and salty, with an underlying herbal sweetness, and an umami-laden porkiness to offset the funky crispness of the shoots. As good as it is, it’s even better when you eat it with steamed Thai brown rice, which is nuttier than Jasmine rice, and a bazillion times healthier, since the bran layer is intact.

Pad Ped Nor Mai (with PORK!)

Steamed Thai brown jasmine rice...loaded with antioxidants

Khao soi is one of those dishes that you fall in love with the first time you try it. The history is long and involved, but at the heart of it, khao soi is a dish that is uniquely Thai, born from several imports and morphed by Thai cooks to make it better. It started up in Northern Thailand, and spread nationwide (although the experts insist that any version not made in Chiang Mai is an inferior imposter).
The dish was introduced by ‘Cin-Haw' (Chin-Haw) Muslim traders from Yunnan. Han Chinese called the Cin-Haw ‘Hui' to distinguish them from non-Muslim Chinese; ‘Cin Haw' are the Thai words for ‘Chinese Hui'.

The Cin were originally descendants of Uzbek warriors who were brought by the Mongols into China to help with the conquest of Yunnan province. They were known as consummate traders, who for hundreds of years regularly plied their heavily-armed mule caravans over the trade routes from Southern China into Laos, Northern Thailand, and, eventually Burma. The Cin-Haw population in Northern Thailand and Burma further increased after the failed Panthay Rebellion - an uprising against the Yunanese Qing Dynasty, which caused refugees to flee Yunnan.

Several factors reinforce this Cin-Haw likelihood. There is a somewhat similar dish eaten in Burma, known there as ohn no khauk-hswe (khauk-hswe, which is phonetically pronounced similar to khao soi, and simply means ‘noodles' in Burmese). This may account for the adopted name of the dish in Thailand. The Burmese dish is similarly spiced, and uses coconut milk in the broth (an unusual trait for Burma), but is thickened with chickpea flour, a decidedly Indian cooking method.

Another vaguely similar version exists in Malaysia and extreme Southern Thailand, known as nonya laksa lemak , a coconut milk and seafood broth with egg noodles, served with prawns, a garnish of thinly sliced egg omelet, scallion, and ginger (lemak refers to the presence of coconut milk). The dish is thought to have been introduced in the South by Haw Sino-Muslim traders or refugees, who later interacted with the Nonya: ethnic Chinese who resettled and intermarried into Malaysia and Singapore culture.

Perhaps the best evidence of the origin of khao soi come from the statements of the founder of Chiang Mai's famous Lamduan Faham Khao Soi , which has been serving the dish on Faham Road for more than 60 years (Faham is known as “Khao Soi Road”). The founder, who is now in her advanced years, says that she was taught the recipe by some Haw Chinese Muslim immigrants who relocated during the war, first to the area near the town of Fang, and then to Chiang Mai, “It was the Haw Chinese that showed me how to make the distinctive yellow noodles, as well as the soup.” Lamduan altered that original recipe so that it would appeal more to the Thai palette, but the dish was eaten for many years before that, all over the North. It is important to note that the dish was originally cooked only with chicken or beef, never with pork, which also reinforces the Muslim origins. Today, some non-Muslim Thais offer the soup made with pork, but this is an anomaly which is not typical.

Khao soi is sold up north in noodle shops that specialize in the dish; traditionally they were open from morning to the early afternoon only. The shops are usually unassuming affairs, with modest signage. It's a word-of-mouth type of dish, and insider information is key to finding the best versions. One of the pleasures of khao soi is that no two noodle shops or vendors will serve exactly the same dish; every cook has their own subtle variation, and every khao soi aficionado has their favorite venue for dining on the luscious noodle soup. Arguments over who serves the best version can get heated, and everyone has a personal opinion.

A steaming bowl of majestic Khao Soi!

Often khao soi shops will also serve chicken, beef, or pork satay (pork only if they are non-Muslim), skewers of spice and coconut milk-marinated meats, grilled over coals, and served with toasted white bread, and a peanut curry sauce and a sweet-sour relish of shallot, cucumber, and chiles. In the rest of the country, specialty khao soi shops and vendors exist, but the popularity of the dish causes it to be included on many standard noodle restaurant menus.
When a bowl of khao soi is placed in front of you, your senses take over; it's a work of culinary art. Visually you'll see a subtle reddish-orange colored liquid, topped with golden-yellow fried noodles, garnished with pinkish-red shallots, light green pickled Chinese mustard, and deep red chile. It's fragrant with the aromas of combined Thai and Indian spices, coconut milk, chicken broth, citrusy lime, and smoky chile. The taste is ambrosial: rich, spicy, sweet, salty, and sour, all at once, and in perfect harmony.

My favorite version, like the one served at Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine (shown here), is made with a base of rich chicken stock, to which thick coconut milk is added. You can get it with either chicken meat or stewed beef meat, although these days, pork is also offered. The spices are a blend of a paste made from garlic, shallot, galangal, lemongrass, makroot zest and fruit pulp, with a small amount of shrimp paste and palm sugar. To this paste are added bay leaf, curry powder, cumin, coriander, black pepper, and turmeric.

Fresh dan mien Chinese egg noodles, lo mein-style, which are flat and about ¼-inch wide (a little more narrow than a fettuccine) are added to the liquid. These same noodles are also deep-fried until golden and crispy, and placed on the top to provide a textural accent. Before indulging, you must garnish the bowl with the accompanying sliced shallot or red onion, slices of sour and salty pickled mustard, a vigorous squeeze of tart lime, and a spoonful of the smoky chile sauce made from roasted red Thai chiles. Sap's version garnishes with fresh, crisp mung bean sprouts, and places the pickled Chinese mustard in the bottom of the bowl; an addition that we like.

A bowl of excellent khao soi is hard to beat, a synchronous blending of Thai, Indian, and Chinese flavors, in a rich and sensual broth, with complex layered flavor and interesting texture. It is truly perfection in a bowl, ideal for sultry or cool weather, and uniquely Thai in flavor profile. Pair it with an order of P-32 with pork, and a side of Thai brown rice, and you’re one with everything.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, September 5, 2014

Grover’s Paradise: A Sausage Odyssey

Grover, left, Chris "C-Boy", right

Sunday the 31st was a big day. My old chum Michael “Mickey” Corenblith was in town from a film site on the Eastern Seaboard to help celebrate his dad Louis Corenblith’s ninetieth birthday. Louis and Lois are like my second set of parents, so I’d never pass up the opportunity to drop by and BS with Mick, catch up on the happenings of the big time motion picture scene, congratulate Louis on his circle around the sun for another year, and give his beautiful bride Lois a big, sweaty hug. And as much as I’d have loved to stay well into the evening, there was smoked sausage waiting for me in deep, deep southwest Austin.


The Appetizer Swirl

Grover Swift is a bear of a man with a raucous laugh that registers on the Richter scale. He and his long-suffering wife Jill, own and operate Johnny G’s Butcher Block, the premier butcher shop in South Austin. They make some of my favorite sausages, as well as steaks, and all the rest, and I keep hoping that when he gets sick of venison this deer season, he’ll throw some love my way in the form of surplus deer links. The dude knows meat. Plus, he sells a damn-fine custom grind of hamburger meat that he named after me (“Mick’s Mix”). Grover and his crew keep a big chunk of South Austin’s carnivores fat and happy, as well as the customers of a whole bunch of restaurants around town. 

Jill, left, Princess Di, right

Several weeks back, when Diane “Princess Di” Winslow’s brother Jeffrey was in town from Little D, and partying at Rancho Winslow to celebrate his birthday, Jill and Grover had stumbled over from Rancho Groovo, immediately to the south; Ranchos Winslow and Groovo share a common back fence. The Swifts slurringly alluded to a future sausage fest that they wanted to host at Rancho Groovo, and the date was likely gonna be Labor Day, so half-assed commitments were made over a rousing game of drunken moonlight bocce ball, for not only the Swifts to host, but for all of us to attend.

Couscous and spinach salad

I pulled into the drive of Rancho Groovo and the festivities were barely underway. A few guests still hadn’t arrived, but most were there already, and the bar was definitely open. I can tell when Grover has downed a few brews, because his infectious laugh gets even louder and more frequent than it normally is. Havalah was there with not one, but two guyfriends, one of whom was a newbie, a classical guitar artiste I’m told. We all passed judgment and declared him suitable, not that she would care what we thought, one way or the other. They were all liquored-up on Rosé Champagne. Chris Winslow and Grover were knocking back the beer, Scott and Rose were doing fine with sodas and the occasional beer, Jill and Diane were sucking down Wolfberry Rum and 7’s. Di said that when she asked the clerk at Spanky’s Liquor Store in Rockport if the wolfberry rum that was on sale was any good, he replied that he couldn’t personally attest to it one way or the other, but that 1,000 sorority girls couldn’t possibly be wrong. So a new summer drink for the gals was created.

This shit is tasty!

 I had brought a bottle of something that the FedEx driver delivered to me out of the blue. It was a bottle of Jimador Tequila Lime Liqueur with Silver Tequila. I vaguely recall telling someone I’d be glad to taste it, but didn’t expect to get a bottle delivered to my door. Jill got out a pile of tequila glasses, and I cracked the bottle open, and we all decided that it was pretty damn good; so good that we kept pouring. Lime-forward, sweet and tart, with a thick texture that coated the throat with a nice tequila taste, and cradled the cranium with a nice tequila glow. I could see where having a bottle or two of this stuff around could lead to all kinds of trouble. Recommended. It went great with the Hatch green chile queso, and the three different salsas to slather on the white corn tostados and the jalapeño potato chips. 

Fresh mozzarella, basil, and cherry tomato salad

But I was there for some smoked sausage, and Grover came through, with big batches of his Bratwurst, his Andouille, and his Spicy Hot Gut-style, all slowly cooked over oak coals to smoke-kissed perfection. The aroma was driving everyone nuts while we waited for the German potato salad to heat up. Di had done a pot of Golden Triangle-style red beans and rice, following her dad Surly Earl’s recipe. Earl’s Beaumont buddies were all Coonass good ole boys, and they taught him that a proper pot of red beans needed a tiny soupçon of allspice to make it right with God. Di’s batch was loaded with hambone goodness and Andouille; a superlative batch that would have made Earl (and his Cajun buddies) proud. It may just have been Earl goofing around, but for some reason the camera gods were angered and 86'd my picture of the red beans. 

Ginger-lime slaw

She also made a crisp slaw that had a sweet-sour lime and ginger dressing that was big fave of the crowd. Mike and Teresa had brought a really nice couscous and spinach salad, and Jill made the potato salad, assembled all of the accoutrements (pickles, mustards, pickled chiles and onions, dips, etc.), and herded dogs around, put up with Grover, and all the rest. Rose helped ramrod the kitchen operation and made a delish mozzarella, basil, and tomato salad, and Scott asked when the food was going to be ready; dude was seriously peckish and his back was on the fritz. Rose also made some addictively-good egg-free chocolate cookies that just melted away in your mouth like cocoa clouds.

Andouille on top, hot gut below

Bratwurst world

The sausage was sublime: a nice snap to the all-natural casing, the texture of the meat was medium coarse to coarse, depending on the variety (as it should be), and the smokiness perfectly balanced with the flavor of the meat and the zippy spice profile. Excellent, excellent sausage. My favorite was the Andouille, followed by the Hot gut, which tied with the bratwurst schmeared with some hot mustard. All of the food was fantastic, the lime-tequila liqueur was great, and the crowd was a bunch of old pals that really enjoy hanging out together, with no pretensions whatsoever. It was our own little South Manchaca Grover’s paradise (with apologies to Doug Sahm).

My (first) plate

Mick Vann©