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Am I Blue


When life gives you lemons, you’re supposed to make lemonade, which is kind of stupid if you ask me. If I’m feeling blue, I look at blue food. It’s kind of the same concept, right? Instead of dwelling on life’s little annoyances, I culled nasi kerabu’s greatest visual hits.

I’ve never seen nasi kerabu (Malaysian herbed rice) in person, but I’m in love with the idea of dyeing rice colors even though I’m not sure that I understand the logic behind it. I just don’t think blue rice would fly with the typical American consumer, which is one more reason why I have to give props to Malay Peninsula cuisine. These are not people who are afraid of rainbow hues–just look at the pans of agar-agar that masak-masak (yes, double words are another regional trademark) photographed at a Ramadan bazaar. The blue rice above, came from another such bazaar.  All we get at street fairs in NYC are grilled Italian sausages and mozzarepas.


Actually, I think a lot of modern cooks use food coloring rather than the traditional bunga telang/pea flower to achieve this look. (I know a lot of the intense purples in Filipino ube-based snacks aren’t naturally derived. Wow, this Pillsbury ube hotcake mix is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.) And not all nasi kerabu is even blue; most recipes I see don’t call for tinting at all.

When researching a trip to Malaysia in 2005, I relied a bit on Lonely Planet World Food Malaysia and Singapore (which I now know was photographed by the always on trend Chubby Hubby) and kept coming back to a photo of Kelantanese woman placing bean sprouts on top of a plate of blue rice. It reminded me of a childhood impulse to keep returning to engrossing illustrations in picture encyclopedias. Unfortunately, my ‘80s Childcraft set is in storage across country (or at least I hope it still is—it freaks me out to think that I still have at least ten boxes somewhere in Portland with records, books, kitchenware and possibly a few clothing items which are probably so ‘90s that I could now re-wear them and be in fashion. Er, I might’ve gotten rid of the Childcraft books now that I think about it) so I can’t look up the exact photo I’m thinking of.


I’m fairly certain it was the “Look and Learn” volume on science that contained an image of a tableau of food that was supposed to be unappetizing because the colors were all wrong. I think there was a green orange, black cookies, white butter, a pitcher of milk that wasn’t white, and a few more items. There had to have been something atypically blue but I can’t say for sure. I thought the food looked cool rather than disgusting. Childcraft is the reason I know about anything I know today and why my knowledge level is that of a nine year old.


I have a few recipes for nasi kerabu in cookbooks, though in print and on the internet there are many more for nasi ulam, which is kind of the same thing; they’re both herbed rice salads but nasi kerabu is the one that’s usually blue. So many of the dishes in my cookbooks that sound unusual and worth tackling are next to impossible because we just don’t have access to the same ingredients. For this dish you need bunga kantan, daun kesom, cekur leaves, kaduk leaves, turmeric leaves and more depending on the version. I have basil, mint and frozen pandan and kaffir lime leaves covered but that’s it.


When and if I get back to Malaysia (I had originally planned on Langkawi and elsewhere for vacation 2008, and am still trying to figure out how China became the destination instead, not that I’m complaining about going to China) I’ll have to seek this dish out.

More on nasi kerabu from Cyber Kuali

Photos from:
Cheat Eat

kleinmatt66 via Flickr
Felix KL via Flickr
hazlini5555 via Flickr

Sunday Night Special: Turkey with Mint and Hot Chiles & Makeua Oop

Sometimes Sunday night is a loose concept. I ended up making these two dishes on separate evenings, though they were originally intended as a single meal. Whenever I cook for myself, I eat less. That’s troublesome, though I know I’m not unique; what I’d always suspected–when a couple moves in together, the man gets healthier while the woman gains weight–was proven by science.

I turned to my trusty, banged up review copy of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet (it was one of the only perks I got from a short lived online culinary job I had in 2000. Now that I’m all library science I can’t finagle a web job to save my life) because I recalled the book containing a turkey recipe and I’ve been trying to find a use for three drumsticks in my freezer (still on the using up old food mission). I’d much rather experiment with a Laotian salad than mess with tetrazzini or some other abomination.

I’m not sure why I didn’t learn my lesson about trying to poach turkey legs after running into trouble during Thanksgiving. It doesn’t work. They don’t cook all the way using the bring to a boil, turn off the heat and leave with the lid on for an hour approach. And when you get exasperated, then turn the heat back on and simmer for a while, they firm up to near uselessness. I just imagined that the tough meat was approximating a wild Southeast Asian bird.

The recipes from this book tend to be tame with the heat, so don’t hesitate to use more chile. I used five chiles and had to resist the urge to add sugar (I don’t like tweaking recipes I’ve never made before). I thought I already had a batch or roasted rice powder in case I needed to make an impromptu larb, but it was nowhere to be found. Really, it’s no big deal to omit it.  You still get the gist.


Turkey with Mint and Hot Chiles

8 to 10 ounces cooked light and dark turkey meat, roughly cut into ½ inch chunks (about 2 cups packed)
2 tablespoons thinly sliced shallots, separated into rings
½ cup loosely packed coarsely torn coriander leaves
½ cup loosely packed coarsely chopped mint leaves
1 teaspoons minced bird chile, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce, or to taste
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon roasted rice powder, or more to taste

Combine the meat and shallots in a shallow bowl. Add the coriander and mint leaves and mix well.

In a small bowl, combine all the remaining ingredients except the rice powder and stir to mix well. Pour over the salad and toss to distribute the dressing thoroughly. Just before serving, sprinkle on the rice powder, if using.

Serves 4

If you Google “best eggplant dish ever” you’ll find caponata, baked eggplant with mushroom and tomato sauce, szechuan eggplant stir-fry and a few others. The Best Eggplant Dish Ever title is the authors’ not mine. I don’t like to use superlatives, so I hesitate to say best, but I definitely think it’s probably better than any of those listed above.

I could’ve sworn I made this before but I definitely would’ve remembered it now that I’ve tasted it. Mine was slightly bitter, probably because I used small Italian eggplants instead of Asian ones. And I kept wanting to add fish sauce, but stuck with the recommended salt. Perhaps I’m finally getting a handle on seasoning because I thought it definitely needed more than the one teaspoon.

Maybe there wasn’t quite enough moisture in my ingredients or the heat was initially too high but the bottom of the pan got charred with burnt sticky bits, even after periodically checking on the mass. Then it fixed itself like magic. It’s that kind of a dish. Everything seems chunky and disparate, yet eventually melds. 

I’d already finished off my bowl of creamy, spicy mash when James returned from out of town. I was waiting for it…yes, there it was, “it smells like shrimp paste up here” as he promptly turned the air conditioner on. I was trying to conserve energy, not necessarily attempting to recreate a sticky, pungent Malaysian night market in the apartment. Besides, it wasn’t shrimp paste; it was pounded dried shrimp, duh.


Makeua Oop a.k.a. The Best Eggplant Dish Ever

3 Thai dried red chiles, soaked in warm water for 15 minutes to soften
¼ cup finely chopped shallots
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping tablespoon dried shrimp
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium tomato, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup ground pork (optional)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric (optional)
1 1/2 pounds Asian eggplants, cut into ¼ inch slices
5 to 8 leaves mint or coriander, coarsely torn

Drain the chiles, reserving the water. Coarsely chop them, discarding the tough stems, and place in a mortar or blender together with the shallots, garlic, shrimp, and salt. Pound or process to a paste (if using the blender, you will probably need to add some of the chile soaking water). Add the tomato and pound or blend briefly, then transfer the spice pate to a bowl and set aside.

Place a 3 ½- to 4 ½-quart heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid over high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pot with oil. Add the pork, if using, and brown briefly, then add the spice paste and optional turmeric. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring, until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add the eggplant slices and stir briefly, cover tightly , and reduce the heat to low (do not ad water). Coo, checking every five minutes or so to ensure that nothing is sticking and to give the ingredients a brief stir, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the eggplant is very tender and shapeless.

Turn out into a shallow bowl and top with the mint or coriander. Serve warm or at room temperature

Serves 4

Recipes from Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Artisan, 2000

Olive Garden

The Never Ending Pasta Bow(e)l should really have an extra E because there were some never ending bathroom trips the following day (it was probably my jungle curry lunch, but I don’t want to say anything bad about Chao Thai). Who knew? Even more disturbing is that this was my fourth visit to the Chelsea Olive Garden and I don’t even like (Italian-American) pasta. But all you can eat for $8.95 demanded investigation.

They’re very sneaky with this promotion; despite being advertised on TV continuously, there’s no signage, menu inserts or little cardboard foldovers on any of the tables. It’s all very hush hush and I’m not assertive so I started getting a little nervous. Thankfully, a dining companion who tipped me off in the first place had no qualms about piping up for cheap pasta.

Phew, paying Manhattan chain restaurant prices for mushy alfredo would be harsh (I’m still steaming how once I inexplicably spent close to $50 on a cheeseburger and two margaritas at a Times Square T.G.I. Friday’s. It’s the price you pay for suburban simulacra). I had no idea how the whole thing worked, it’s much more customizable than I’d anticipated. I figured you’d get spaghetti and a couple sauce options, but there were approximately six choices for each.

I have to admit that my linguine with smoked mozzarella and breadcrumbs was satisfying in a creamy starchy way. And I would’ve been fine with the one bowl—pasta is one of the few foodstuffs that never spurs a desire for seconds—but it’s never ending so you have to play along.


Penne with five cheese marina came next, and amusingly, in a bowl half the size as the first. Would the third come in a teacup, we wondered aloud. “People don’t finish their second,” we were bluntly told. I wasn’t complaining because entrée number two had no flavor, like I imagine hospital food would taste. Under-salting is one of my many cooking crimes, I never touch a shaker in restaurants, but this blob was crying out for sodium. Maybe they do it on purpose to quell appetites. Like many a diner before me, I didn’t finish my second bowl.

The upside of such a bargain (don’t forget the salad and breadsticks) is that you’ll have plenty of money left over to get sloshed on inexpensive Shiraz. (9/20/07)

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New Joy

I’ve been known to torment friends with film. In college I was convinced that The Disorderly Orderly was pure genius (not to be confused with Disorderlies). Then I went through a Mrs. Doubtfire phase. Norbit even sucked me in earlier this year.

While watching perplexingly uneventful Old Joy on the (not so) big screen at Brooklyn Heights Cinema last November, I felt it wasn’t the right setting. Something was missing. The movie pushed James’s tolerance level more than any movie since Grizzly Man (which I didn’t find hard to watch). Er, because nothing happens, or rather nothing’s said, plenty happens in long real time shots, one might say. And many said just that; the film made countless 2006 top ten lists.

But it struck me recently that the ideal circumstances to view Old Joy would be with an Oregonian, someone you’ve been friends with for ages, and quite ideally while stoned. It would be the only way the movie would work. No one else could appreciate the overwhelming Northwestness of the dialogue and setting. Green and wet, moss on trees, oppressively gray sunless skies…slugs. Yes, slugs sum up all that is Oregon. I couldn’t believe my fortune when I was treated to a slug on a rock scene. The only thing missing was slow shots of mushrooms bulging from the earth.


I only have one friend in NYC that fit the criteria. Another would’ve sufficed, having spent some formative years in Portland, but she couldn’t attend. Jessica so rightly brought along a vegetarian burrito, as big as a baby’s torso, 85% beans and rice. I won’t touch those starchy hippy beasts, but it was completely appropriate.

I have no idea what their provenance is, and I’m fully aware that burritos as we know them aren’t terribly Mexican, but the burritos I love–compact, dense and meaty–come from neither Tex-Mex nor Mission-style storefronts in Portland. These reasonably sized cylinders contain no filler, no cheese, are a little greasy and stuffed with typical taco innards like carnitas or pastor. Basically refried beans and meat in a flour tortilla. I’ve not seen these in NYC.


Brooklyn burritos aren’t for me, so I easily identified ultimate snacks of my own. I went to pick up hummus to nam prik-ify, and was faced with a new Sabra variety: jalapeño. So pretty and green that I couldn’t leave it on the shelf. It’s sharper, tangier and herbier than the red chile mélange in former favorite Supremely Spicy. It looks like it would be milder, though it actually sticks with you.


I also picked up a half pound of Bleu d'Auvergne cheese, which I’m not sure qualifies as a soft blue (in my sense of the term). Despite its pliable nature, it’s really a creamy blue cheese, not a blue/triple cream hybrid.  At room temperature, the piquant cheese is spreadable not crumbly and almost fooled me into believing it was the style I was looking for. It certainly out-classed the Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon I was drinking with it.

“Sorrow is faded worn out joy,” we learned. And most importantly, that watching Old Joy is much better with snacks, depressants and an accomplice. It’s worth waiting over a month for the Netflix shipment in order to glean quiet life lessons 2,900 miles from home

Shorty’s BBQ & Fox’s Sherron Inn

Shortys_facade Are you as sick of hearing about Miami (and bbq) as I am? No worries, this is the last food-related recap of my Labor Day mini-trip. I can’t say when the NYC barbecue mania will die down, however. I’m behind the times anyway–I still haven’t been to Fette Sau, I can’t even think about Hill Country yet.

As I’m certain I’ve made clear before, I’m no barbecue know-it-all. Not even close. (I can’t even recall the logic that brought us to Shorty’s. For our last meal I said, “no Cuban” because I really wanted Asian, any country, but nothing seemed very promising from that continent.) Sure, I can determine if the meat is too fatty, dry or flavorless but I can’t speak to regional styles and adherence to authenticity. In fact, I have no idea what Florida-style barbecue is exactly.

Shortys_more_interiorShorty’s appeared to do a little of everything, ribs dominated the menu but they also served pulled pork, chicken and beef brisket. The ribs were dry-rubbed and two sauces were available along the wooden communal tables. One, in a shaker bottle more typically used for pizzeria chile flakes, was smoky. Another in a squeeze bottle was kind of spicy. It made sense to tinker with both.

Shortys_brisket_2Uncharacteristically, I went Texan and chose the brisket instead of anything made of pork and was thrilled by what my $8.95 got me. The portion was more substantial than the photo shows. You can’t even get mediocre (yet strangely likeable) bargain Dallas BBQ entrees for that price. It’s really about the meat. The crinkle cut fries were ok, garlic bread nothing special, well, the coleslaw was actually edible.

It felt negligent to visit Florida and never try key lime pie, so we shared a slice. Once again showing my lack of refined palate, I couldn’t tell you if the tart dessert was truly made with the tiny local variety or with ordinary limes. It seems that I’m not the only one who can’t differentiate (there’s something unnerving about the Food & Wine blog not allowing comments—not that I ever partake in online conversations).

Shortys_key_lime_pieAll meal long I was wondering what might be in the windowed metal heat lamp box at the front counter. Crispy Critters was emblazoned across its top. Something creepy and deep fried like rocky mountain oysters or perhaps frog legs? Nah, just little chocolate chip cookie nubs, as it turned out. Chocolate chips are not critters.

One of my favorite finds in Miami involved no food at all, just two gin and tonics up the highway from Shorty’s at Fox’s Sherron Inn. I love dark, burgundy vinyl booth, mid-century cocktail lounges. Real hold outs, not contrived Swingers era bars that were popular last decade, or total dumpy dives where old men dominate or faux modern speakeasies. Just an unassuming place where regular folks commingle with a younger crowd. Oldies play, not indie rock. And they serve food food like steak and chops.

Maybe it’s a west coast genre, it feels kind of Vegas or L.A. Portland still had a few left during my day. I can’t think of a single place that fits the profile in NYC. The only problem is that these joints should be filled with smoke and like many a state in the U.S., cigarettes are no longer allowed indoors in Florida. Lately, I try to keep my smoking to a minimum, maybe three cigarettes a week, if that, but a cocktail cries out for an unhealthy accompaniment.

Shorty’s BBQ * 9200 S. Dixie Hwy., Miami, FL
Fox's Sherron Inn * 6030 S. Dixie Hwy., Miami, FL 

Machismo, Page and Screen

It’s the first day of fall and I’m using air conditioning. Just thought I’d briefly share my 90% humidity sadness. On to oh-so-serious matters…

MachomanI think I was recently complaining about food writing. I say, I think, because I’m not sure that I was all that concerned with writing but more the voices that accompany so much of it. On the one hand, weirdly confident married men with children who do stuff that they think is brilliant, on the other hand, an often female bounty-of-the-earth worshippers, paying homage to home cooking and the wisdom gleaned from humble but all-knowing grandmothers.

Macho food writing? I hadn’t really even considered it as an irritant because I wasn’t aware that it was a rampant genre. But British food writer Paul Levy has been stirring the pot with his Slate article that takes issue with the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Bill Buford, to name two.

I don’t have a problem with “coarse” descriptions, and the author comes across as a bit of a persnickety relic, but I don’t completely disagree with the tiresomeness of needing to be extreme. I’ve always thought it was strange that Bourdain has developed such a cult-like following by being opinionated, balls out (hate that phrase as much as the visual image) and culinarily open-minded.

I don’t begrudge his success; what I’ve been curious about is why there is no female equivalent. Why aren’t there any women doing the foul mouthed gourmand shtick (because they have better sense, some might argue)?

Judging from TV, you have to be sexualized (Giada, Nigella), accessibly girl next door (Rachael), or frumpy and unintimidating (Paula, Ina). Ok, that’s Food Network, what do you expect? But as contrast, they just picked up that bumbling yet personable smartass from drinking with locals, Three Sheets and gave him another travel show. That’s what men get to do on TV.

Women travel too, of course. I had the misfortune of catching part of Samantha Brown: Passport to Latin America in Belize. I don’t even know who this blah, late-in-life-mom type woman is (I can’t find an official bio anywhere but her fan wiki claims her favorite book is Atlas Shrugged. Strange, I was just reading about Ayn Rand and her influence on modern businessmen) but she made a huge fuss over cow tongue in a soup that was presented to her. She wouldn’t even try one bite, which was an instant turn off.

Sorry, now I’m meandering towards TV and away from writing, different and more physical. However, it would seem that there’s wide open opportunity for even vaguely interesting female food TV personalities. Or does the public enjoy what’s currently on offer?

More reactions to Paul Levy’s Slate article (my original focus):
The Grinder
Word of Mouth

Latin American Bayside Café

After our welcome to Miami mishap in finding the Latin American Cafeteria, we never made it back out to that part of the city. I’m not even sure what that part is even called. We passed through Coral Gables, that’s all I know. Sad, but we ended up settling for an offshoot, which may or may not be related to the original, wedged in a kind of horrific South Street Seaport conglomerate of shops called Bayside Marketplace.

Once again, I was so sweaty that I didn’t feel like eating (I began wondering if residents were somehow genetically inured to humidity because no one ever seemed to care, and even dared to dine al fresco, while I was perpetually hot and bothered, literally and idiomatically, even in air conditioned restaurants like this one. I was relieved to see one waitress moist-faced and fanning herself).

But I wasn’t going to come all the way to Miami and go cubano-less. A medianoche, which our waitress actually called a “midnight,” was the sensible solution. Sure, it’s on sweeter bread but it’s more manageable in size. I’m not actually sure why it’s named as such, though I can envision it as a suitable midnight snack.


There was definitely no NYC salami aberration occurring (which I actually like). And the most interesting thing I experienced and have heard is the norm, is no inclusion of condiments. The mustard I always assumed was standard, was offered in a foil packet, totally do-it-yourself. And definitely no mayonnaise, which is fine by me. The roast pork is so moist and naturally flavorful that it could actually stand as it’s served. I did try a few shakes of Frank’s Xtra Hot that was passed our way. Of course, the ham, swiss and pickle are included.

In a perfect world I could’ve conducted some form of taste test but that kind of determined eating requires more than an extended weekend.

Latin American Bayside Café * 401 Biscayne Blvd. # S102, Miami, FL

Best Snack Ever


Nam prik + hummus = best treat ever. I don’t know if the painfully hot, shrimpy, just barely sweetened paste that recently singed my tongue mellowed with age or if I was just overly sensitive the first time I tasted it. But now it’s perfect. And spooned around a tub of the smoothest, tastiest (which I’m sure is directly attributable to fat content) pre-packaged hummus brand, Sabra, it creates a perfectly balanced dip.

I used to be satisfied with their fiery Supremely Spicy Hummus, but now there’s no going back. The minutely rosier blob in the center of my container is the barely touched chile mix that comes factory sealed. All the other mounds are my pungent addition. I want to eat this newfound snack every day. Last night I ate hard shell tacos for dinner (don’t laugh—they’re good maybe twice a year). Normally, that would be perfectly satisfying but I felt like I was missing something so I had to dig into the nam prik hummus for a makeshift dessert course.

What else can I put nam prik on? Yesterday, I was completely charmed by the idea of curry rice krispie treats. It’s not a giant leap to imagine chile paste mingling with puffed rice. There already is a Thai snack that drizzles caramel on something similar. But I can’t find a photo of that sweet anywhere and I swear I had one, myself.

$20.07 Worth of Queens County

Who knew there was a Queens Restaurant Week, right? Well, duh, but it seems like the two “cooler” boroughs (no, not Staten Island and the Bronx) get all the attention for their dining promotions. Admittedly, many of the Queens options have less name recognition. Eh, caché ? Overrated.

I mention’s round up of top picks for purely selfish reasons: my own recommendation for La Fusta.

By the way, I’d like to know what you get at White Castle for $20.07.

Chilly with a Side of Chiles

50s? Hell yeah. I’m feeling nearly human again. Unfortunately, summer doesn’t peter out that rapidly. It’ll be back into the mid-80s by the weekend.


In the meantime, I got excited about impending dark, cool places to ferment things like the Hunan salted chiles I’ve been meaning to make from The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook for months. It’s not like it’s hard. All you do is chop a pound, which seriously kills your wrist (I was taking a break for the photo–the pieces eventually became smaller) then ultimately toss them with a ¼ cup of salt and let sit for a few weeks. Mine are only a few days old so they still look pretty fresh. I had no concept of how much one pound of chopped chiles would yield so I bought a too big  canning jar. I don’t think the extra space should effect the process, though.


I’m just afraid they’ll rot instead of turning into a proper delicious condiment. My recent failed attempts at mayonnaise and ice cream making made me question my recipe following abilities. But chiles and salt? That’s hardly possible to mess up.

I see that Tigers and Strawberries made the same relish last month.