Meat

THE PLAIN GENIUS OF MENCHI KATSU SANDO

IT HITS JUST THE RIGHT SPOT, ONE OF THE FEW LEFT IN OUR HYPER-STIMULATED MINDS THESE DAYS, WHERE IT STILL ACCEPTS OR EVEN CRAVES PURITY

As we know that there are plenty for the taking, but this is perhaps – as far as I know and hopefully true – Jason’s most obsessed of all perverse Japanese creations, the menchi katsu.

Menchi, meaning “minced”, and katsu, is anything “breaded and fried”.

It exists in many different forms and spirits, each and one of them equally bizarre to the conventional wisdoms of the west, but one in particular, the menchi katsu sando / fried ground pork patty sandwich, will send many scratching their heads inside a Japanese convenience store.  That is because its pure genius can only be realized upon one fateful encounter – one that reflects truly on its seemly simple but in fact, delicate preparations, and the childish yet complex satisfaction it plays on your tastebuds – which, unfortunately, can be a rare occurrence outside of Japan.  Actually, outside of Japan, this idea sounds more desperate than anything else.  Why do we want to fry a disk of ground pork – by the way, an almost comically massive disk of ground pork – then leave it with nothing else, and I mean absolutely nothing else, but just some tangy brown sauce in between two pieces of flimsy, flappy white breads?  You’ll question its painful simplicity, whether is from desperation, or, by choice.  Why not add something else to it?  Tomato?  Bacon?  Cheese?  Fried egg?  Jalapeno?  Two hotdogs and a jug of Bloody Mary with a mini umbrella?  Come on, anything, anything to satisfy this North American instinct to pile shit up.

But no.

I can’t explain it to you.  You’ll have to experience it.

But I can’t take you to Japan.  I can only bring the recipe home.

This recipe is my very controlled but slightly adapted, and perhaps,, in my opinion, enhanced version of the original.  And when I say that, I’m mostly referring to the katsu sauce.  Slight variations on this sauce are applied to a vast number of different dishes in Japan, like okonomiyaki and takoyaki to name a few.  But most of the recipe in English that I found online is, well, lacking, if not insulting.  Ketchup plus worchestire sauce, basically, with some soy sauce and sugar?  Please.  The sauce is much more complex and deserving of our respect than that, which requires several different angles of acidity and sweetness that adds up to be more than the sum of its parts.  There is a depth that, I feel, cannot be achieve with the conventional balance between vinegar and sugar, which is where “fruitiness” comes in aid.  Prunes.  Blended into the sauce, they built volume and flavours into the back-note, then pounded and added as a thin film in between the sandwich, they added textures and subtle sweetness.  This sauce plays brilliantly with the fatty richness – 35% fat if I failed to mention – of the menchi katsu, and brought both a voluptuous sort of moisture and adhesiveness to all parties.

You’ll realize why you don’t want to do anything else to it.  It hits juuust the right spot, one of the few left within our hyper-stimulated minds these days, where still accepts or even craves purity.

This is not just a slapped-on emergency sustenance.  There are thoughts and wisdoms, upon many generations, that evolved and stripped it down to its now, brilliant plainness.  If you are going to make it into a Big Mac, at least call it something else.

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Sichuan/Chongqing Little Slurp w meat sauce and chickpeas

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COULD THIS WORK?

THAT WOULD BE YOUR LAST THOUGHT, BEFORE THIS BOWL OF MAGIC POTION SUCKS YOU INTO AN UNSTOPPABLE WHIRLPOOL OF HAPPINESS.

Sorry I have been absent.

Boy, do I have a good reason.

Recently, I believe, we’ve all been experiencing a kind of peculiar surrealism in life.  I don’t know about you, but for multiples times during the span of my day, I found myself staring at the mundane occurrences of my perceived reality – the sound of cars brushing through the street… radios in the background… my farts – like Neo, wondering if this was all just an elaborate Matrix.  Am I going to be unplugged and wake up?  Or am I trapped here forever?  For one, Donald Trump is going to be the president of the United States.  And for two, which is completely unrelated and sinks even deeper on a much more personal level, my body and wellness has taken an unexpected turn to a place where my mind is scrambling to cope.

Actually, unexpected may sound understated.  Unfathomable, comes to mind.

I was diagnosed with a “condition” so to speak.  I want to share everything with you.  But the trouble is, I don’t know everything yet.  Something along the line of cicatricial alopecia, but let me urge you to think twice before Googling it, and the truth is, there are still a lot more to find out before arriving at a conclusion, so there’s nothing too informative I could tell you at this point.  It may come across as unnecessary and self-absorbed to talk about something without any provided informations, I get that, but I simply lack the talent to conduct business as usual, to roast a turkey, to make a pie, when my mind is in disarray.  In two weeks time, I hope, I will be able to tell you everything.  But before you frantically light up a cigarette, let’s just find comfort in the fact that it isn’t life-threatening, I hope, but let’s face it, not much more fantastic than that.

Meanwhile, on the other hand, something very fantastic.

This is a recipe that I have been developing for awhile.  In Chinese, it is called wan-za-mian, meaning peas mixed noodles.  It was one of my most missed and pondered upon, single food item that I’ve tasted in Beijing, even though it originates from Chongqing (a city next to Sichuan).  It may look alarmingly laborious, that a bowl of noodle consists of 3~4 components, but oh gosh, nothing is more worthy of your time.  The amount of liquid in proportion to noodles lurks in between two categories, too little to be called a “soup” but a bit more than just “sauce”, and therefore may I say, just perfect.  It comes waddling towards your table in seemingly distinctive parts: the noodles half-submerged in soup, the soft and mushy stewed peas (which I’ve substituted with chickpeas) on top, the dark brown minced pork sauce made with sweet and spicy chili bean paste, and everything, I mean everything, glossed and covered under a layer of flaming rouge chili oil.  Could this work?  That would your very last thought before this mixture, under your anxious chopsticks, churns and folds into a spicy, oily, savory and deeply complex bowl of magic potion that sucks you, and your thoughts, into an unstoppable whirlpool of happiness.

Believe me.  I felt like shit, and this thing still made me happy.  Imagine what it could do to you.

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CRACKLY PORCHETTA AND SWEET GORGONZOLA SANDWICH

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I want to tell you about my trip back in New York in extensive details, I really do.  But I’m jet-lagged… drowsy… sleepy but awake… awake but not really… and the only words I can pound out of my marshmallow of a brain right now, repeating itself in an almost undetectable frequency, are these:

I’m sorry, Di Palo’s.

If you also don’t know what Di Palo’s is, then maybe I’ll feel a little better about myself, but it’s the iconic Italian grocer standing on the same corner in Little Italy for more than 80 years which, for some unforgivable reasons, I had failed to visit in the entire seven years I lived in New York.  But this time around, a friend brought me to its doorstep and introduced me to its porchetta sandwich smeared with dolce gorgonzola…  Ridiculous, just ridiculous, as if the sheer volume of Italian salami’s and cheese it carried wasn’t enough to make me weep in regret, but I had to walk away with an audible sandwich?  Yes, audible, as in even with just one bite, I could hear the sound of the chips-like skin crack under the pressure between my teeth, and tasted its fatty, savory and sticky meats mingle and be with the gentle funk of sweet Italian blue cheese.  Right then and there, walking down the contagiously energetic sidewalks of New York in my joyous steps, I knew I had to recreate the recipe for you.

So here it is, as the ultimate redemption for never visited Di Palo’s in all my times living in New York, a seriously, seriously tasty sandwich.  Just checking out the photo with the knife sticking out and the photo after that, you know how good the skin cracks.  And if you think you see a nipple or two while browsing through the photos, yes they are.  Just bonus materials, you’re welcome.

I promise, hesitantly, that I will talk more about my time in New York, no matter how complicated the mixture of emotions were.  But right now, let’s just get the pork on.

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AS THE ULTIMATE REDEMPTION FOR NEVER VISITED DI PALO’S IN THE ENTIRE SEVEN YEARS I LIVED IN NEW YORK…

AND YES, THOSE ARE NIPPLES.

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FRANCE PART I, and Lyonnaise sausage w/ warm beans and sage butter

All the best things in life are clichés.

Paris, is a cliché.

I’ve fought consciously throughout my adult life not to fall for it, or at the very least, say it out loud, fearing I’ll sound like a girl wanting to model or a guy in a sports car.  It oozes unoriginality.  But in the end, excuse mine if you will, as we sat predictably at an open cafe at 6:30 am, watching this city in beige and pastel grey slowly waking up in a wash of golden summer lights, acutely aware of its both corny and extraordinary allure.  Paris, I succumbed, is Paris for a reason.

But I knew that four years ago, when I visited Paris for the time time.  This time, I wanted more.

I wanted more not from Paris, but from the country that it has instilled great bewilderment for inside my mind.  If that was Paris, then what is France?  An embarrassingly stupid question no doubt, for a pre-middle age woman to ask but frankly, I’m too old to pretend that I’m better.  If I were destined with death-by-sugar then fuck it, bring out the ice cream-truck, and I want her every single available flavors including the weird ones against my best judgement.  Not just to see her polished beauty but – almost out of both cynicism and total respect – I wanted to slowly cruise through her central veins, starting from Paris, then Burgundy, Lyon, Luberon, Marseille, then along her riviera that ends in Nice.  What would I find on a road trip in France?  Perhaps a side of her that looks no different than places just off of the New Jersey turnpike (and yes there are).  Or perhaps more beautiful cliches?  Those perfectly imperfect ancient villages and chateaus freckling along her cheeks.  Would I be able to have one?  To find it unmistakably amidst all, to go back to it again and again?  My favorite freckle of hers?

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SUMMER PHO BO ROLL

In the walk of a cook who fancies herself a genius, there is no pain more excruciating than to realize when someone else has out-genius her.  If you were one of “her” (not saying that I am)(I mean genius?  Who?  Me?), careful, because this is gonna hurt.

This guy, Tyler Kord, who wrote this book, A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches, is really pissing me off.

Okay, fine, go have a super successful and ever-expanding sandwich shop all over New York City as if that was a dream of mine or whaaaatever.  Dream-stealer….  And then sure, why not, go publish a refreshingly hilarious and strivingly honest cookbook that touches subjects beyond the otherwise self-absorbing stand-alone topic of foods, as if that was my personal 2014 2015 2016 resolution that is wilting faster than baby spinach in a hot skillet.  Face-rubber….  But I don’t care, see, don’t care!  But above all of his dream-stealing and face-rubbing behavior, which I have generously forgiven and let go, none has made me scream more in agony when I saw this recipe on page 168…

Pho mayo.

I’ll spare you the whole pretense of “I couldn’t imagine what it would taste like until I put a spoon in my mouth…blah blah blah blah blah”.  Truth was, the minute I read through the recipe, I knew it would work.  The combination of flavors and seasoning just made sense, guaranteeing, even just on paper, a creamy concoction that would embody all the magical essence of a bowl of pho.  Pho, in mayo form.  This realization sent my body into a self-strangling twist on my stone-cold kitchen floor, thinking, no, bleeding from the eternal question that haunts all mankind – Why, why wasn’t I the one who come up with this?

But I wasn’t.  So that’s that.  And by the way, this fabulous creation of what I call Summer Pho Bo Roll, is not in his book.  Yeah, I took his pho mayo… used it to generously coat a truck-load of thinly sliced beef short ribs, bean sprouts and finely chopped Thai basil, then stuffed them into a hoisin sauce -smeared potato roll, topped with chopped onions and a revengeful squeeze of Sriracha sauce.  It’s like eating a bowl of pho bo (by the way, the word “pho” on its own just means “rice noodle”.  Pho bo (bo means beef) is what you are actually referring to), but no cooking!  And it’s summer-friendly!

Dat’s right, Tyler, I stole your pho mayo.  Now you know what it’s like to be hurt.

I’M REALLY MORE LIKE ACHILLES IN THAT… I CAN MAKE MAYONNAISE BEND TO MY WILL USING ONLY MY MIND BECAUSE ACHILLES COULD DO THAT.  HOMER DOESN’T REALLY GET INTO IT THOUGH.

– TYLER KORD

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that spicy, sour Thai street noodle

 

Just came home from an extra long weekend-getaway from Bangkok, my second time visiting this feasting sanctuary and wow, it is even better than I remembered.  I’m not going to play expert and include a traveling guide with this post because when it comes to Bangkok, I’m not, yet.  But I will however, include some links (with or without photos) to some of the memorable moments we experienced on this trip.  It’s not a lot.  After all, it was a 2 1/2 day quickie.  Plus a noodle recipe that brings me back whenever I miss that city, which is to say, always.

JUST STICK WITH

THE DON AND THE HOLY FOURSOME

 

 

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PORK OFFAL SOUP WITH FLAT RICE NOODLE

TOM YUM SOUP WITH RICE VERMICELLI

SIAM PARAGON – shopping mall with an entire floor of food paradise

KITCHEN SUPPLY STORE WITH UNIQUE FINDS

THAT SPICY, SOUR THAI STREET NOODLE:

Before you say anything, you’re right, this isn’t authentically anything.  It isn’t a particular Thai dish, doesn’t even have a real title (the fact of the matter is, I didn’t have a clue what most of the dishes we ate were called), but what it is, is a recollected combination of flavours that brings me back to that plastic stool and folding table on a hustle-and-bustle street-corner in Bangkok, hitting the right notes.  The aromatic broth… the strings of supple and chewy rice vermicelli… the crunch somewhere in between… the zing, what’s that?… but wait there comes the heat, then savouriness, sweetness, one after the other, tangled but distinct at the same time, intriguing but too consuming to investigate.  That memory, to me at least, is not an absolution, but a chest of vibrant paints and crayons that splatters beautifully over a blank canvas, different every time but always a balance in perfection.

I went with a cheated version starting with store-bought chicken stock which I then built flavours on top.  But you can of course, applauded, start with pig bones, beef bones, or any combination of broth-builder that you prefer, keeping in mind that as long as you get a grip on the major aromatics and template of flavours, chances are, your noodle just can’t taste bad if not delicious.  Aromatics like lemongrass, galangal, pandang leaves, star anise, kaffir lime leaves… they are, together, a proven equation for a damn good reason.  But what the hell is the “template of flavours” you ask?  Which brings me to say…

Just stick with The Don and The Holy Foursome.

On every tables of every noodle-stalls in Bangkok, almost always and if not you’re entitled to get angry, are a fixed collection of condiments, the paints and crayons if you will, which ultimately determines the flavour profile of every individual bowl of noodles, different and deeply personal to every patron’s preferences.  I call them, The Don and The Holy Foursome:

The godfather himself, kiss his hand, is a bottle of fish sauce – SAVOURINESS.  Then, toasted and crushed chili flakes – HEAT.  Blended fresh chili in vinegar – ACIDITY.  Toasted and crushed peanuts and fried garlics – AROMAS and CRUNCH.  A jar of sugar – SWEETNESS.

Always.  Always.  Respect them, but be playful.  I always like mine with high pitch in heat and acidity, with a good dose on aromas and crunch, then subtle on sweetness, but I’ve also seen others dousing sugars over their noodles like it’s breakfast cereals.  And, of course, a dash of The Don is always an offer you can’t refuse.

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THAT SPICY, SOUR THAI STREET NOODLE

Serving Size: 6~8 depending

Ingredients

    TOASTED CHILI FLAKES:
  • 3 tbsp chili flakes
  • 1 tsp vegetable oil
  • BLENDED CHILI VINEGAR:
  • 5~6 (21 grams) mix of red and green Thai chili
  • 1/2 cup (110 grams) white rice vinegar (not Japanese sushi vinegar)
  • 1 tsp light brown sugar
  • FRIED GARLIC AND ROASTED PEANUTS:
  • 1 head garlic, peeled and finely minced
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup roasted peanuts
  • THE BROTH:
  • 7 cups (1750 grams/ml) chicken stock
  • 3 lemongrass, roughly chopped
  • 1" galangal, roughly chopped
  • 2 frozen pandang leaves, roughly cut
  • 2 " cinnamon stick
  • 4~5 kaffir lime leaves, torn
  • 1 large handful of cilantro stems
  • 1 star anise
  • 2 tbsp garlic oil
  • 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp light brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce
  • 8~10 Asian pork or beef meatballs
  • MINCED LEMONGRASS CHICKEN:
  • 2 (340 grams) skinless boneless chicken legs
  • 1 (30 grams) lemongrass, white parts only
  • 1 tsp chopped ginger
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2~3 kaffir lime leaves, torn
  • TO ASSEMBLE:
  • rice vermicelli, variety depends on your preference
  • Thai basils and bean sprouts
  • sugar and fish sauce to season
  • MSG

Instructions

  1. MAKE TOASTED CHILI FLAKES: Mix chili flakes and vegetable oil together in a skillet until it resembles wet sand. Set over medium heat, stirring constantly, until they turn darker in color and smells fragrant. Transfer immediately into a bowl to cool (it will burn quickly and become bitter).
  2. MAKE BLENDED CHILI VINEGAR: Over stove-flames or with a torch, char the skins of the chilis until completely blackened, then scrap away the black skins and seeds with a small knife and discard. Blend the chilis with vinegar and sugar in a blender until coarsely pureed. Set aside until needed.
  3. FRIED GARLIC AND TOASTED PEANUTS: Combine finely minced garlic and vegetable oil in a small pot over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the garlics start to turn light brown in color (this will take a few minute)(*don't let them turn dark brown or they'll be bitter*). Drain immediately through a fine sieve and let cool. Reserve the oil. Once the garlics are cooled, pound them together with roasted peanuts in a mortar until coarsely ground.
  4. MAKE THE BROTH: Blend a couple cups of chicken stock with lemongrass, galangal and pandang leaves until coarsely blended. Transfer into a large pot with the rest of the chicken stock, along with cinnamon stick, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro stems, star anise, reserved garlic oil, dark soy sauce, ground white pepper, light brown sugar and ground black pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 min, then add the fish sauce and meat balls, and cook for another 10 min.
  5. Meanwhile, make the minced lemongrass chicken: Cut the chicken into small pieces then set aside. In a food-processor, blend lemongrass and ginger until finely chopped. Add the chicken, fish sauce, ground white and black pepper, and pulse until the mixture is finely ground (like sausage consistency). Add 2 tbsp of the reserved garlic oil into a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the kaffir lime leaves and cook until fragrant, then add the chicken-mixture, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, and cook until slightly browned on all edges. Set aside until needed.
  6. TO ASSEMBLE: On the table, arrange a bottle of fish sauce, a small jar of light brown sugar, toasted chili flakes, blended chili vinegar, fried garlic/roasted peanuts, and a couple bunch of fresh Thai basils.
  7. Cook the rice vermicelli according to instructions and divide into bowls, with a small handful of bean sprouts and a good pinch of MSG (that's how it's done, ok? that's how it's done). Pour the broth into the bowl through a fine sieve, then add a couple of meatballs and a good large spoonful of minced lemongrass chicken into each bowls. Adjust your own season with the condiments then slurp.

Notes

This broth can be built on store-bought chicken stock, or from scratch with pork bones and water.

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HONG KONG’S CURRY FISH BALLS OVER RAMEN

Drifting over moving chaos, under the clouds of settling dusts, weeks… have passed.  It’s been almost a month since my last post, the longest it has ever been.

This posting gap was considerable in blogging years, unplanned nor welcomed, and in many ways in fact, nerve-wrecking.  But I wanted to do the first “official” post properly, to wait, to get all the shit that needs to be done in our apartment, one that we renovated ourselves 6 years ago before moving to Beijing, so I could include a proper introduction of our new life to your all in this post.  Kind of…  Friends, apartment.  Apartment, friends.  Now help yourself at the buffet.

But turned out, as it seems, that there is more work involved behind those House And Garden variety of apartment showoffs that I used to take completely granted for.  After 4 weeks of grinding constructions, big and small, to touch up those little imperfections that, really, bothered nobody but myself… the apartment, is still not there yet.  So I decided not to wait any longer.  This post may not include apartment therapy – maybe in another week – but worry not, it’s still got food.

Now, for the first “official” post marking a new beginning in Hong Kong, I thought it was only fitting that we start with something iconic to this city.

Every city needs a hero.  Best yet, an nourishing one, dependable, non-judgmental, and accessible to all under its shelter, big or small, rich or poor.  One that doesn’t care if you were hustling sober through the high traffics or stumbling drunk on the stone-cold pavement, always and forever, as the city promises, the rescue that is steaming just around the corner.  Dirty water hot dog in New York, jian-bing in Beijing.  Here, this thing called curry fish balls is the food-hero that bonds between Hong Kong’s identity and its people who hold it dearly.

The fish balls, pre-fried, are boiled in a large tank of neon-yellow water which gets replenished as more fish balls are removed from the water, and served with a spoonful of curry sauce and hot sauce to standing customers huddling around the booth.  This boil-and-sauce technique, I suspect, is catering more to a streamlined service with higher turn-overs than say, optimising flavours.  The fish balls, without actually being cooked in the curry, are slightly bland and therefore have to draw all their flavours from the topical sauces instead of being a single, together, perfect entity.  This makes sense for street vendors, of course, especially in this relentlessly expensive city where any means necessary to speed up services are justifiably, if not rudely, executed.  But if we were to recreate this dish at home – and I would argue that it’s in the best interest to honor its complexity – we shall do things a little differently.

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Your Next Perfect Porchetta Sandwich is from Chinatown

I guess I am currently in the middle of what one would call, a blogger limbo.

We have “officially” moved out of Beijing, so to speak.  But in the next 3 weeks when our apartment is under renovation, we are going to be staying in a hotel where the closest thing to a cooking vessel is the bathroom sink with hot tap water (hotel sous vide?).  How do I create something delicious when the mere act of making fruit smoothies posts challenges?  Then I realised, the answer lies just around every corner in this city.

Cantonese-style roast pork.  Something as abundant in Hong Kong as Starbucks are in New York.  This awesome thing, is everywhere.  Even if you didn’t live here, chances are you’ve seen it in your nearest Chinatown, a staple in Cantonese cuisines.

Typically served with rice, which I’ve always had my doubt on.  I mean, it is a great piece of roast pork, with salty yet juicy flesh and gloriously blistered skins.  But on its own, and paired with yellow mustard, in my opinion, it just isn’t the most flattering companion for steamed rice.   It is however, the most perfect yet most under-utilized sandwich candidate, practically an half-way porchetta sandwich.

Here’s what you do.  You chop up a whole box of these porky awesomeness, then you make a “dressing” out of minced scallions, ginger and red chilis, with pungent savouriness from fish sauce and a tang that cuts through the grease from red wine vinegar.  You let this “dressing” seep through the nooks and crannies of an unapologetic pile of the chopped roast pork, into the thirsty holes of a toasted crusty roll that catches it all.  Then you cap everything up with a few slices of provolone cheese, and you draw your finishing touch with a smear of yellow mustard.

Porky, crispy, drippy and zero-cooking involved.  What can I say?  Hotel meal.

YOU LET IT SEEP THROUGH THE NOOKS OF AN UNAPOLOGETIC PILE OF CHOPPED ROAST PORK, INTO THE THIRSTY HOLES OF A TOASTED CRUSTY ROLL.

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