Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (4)

Dish to die for: Belon oysters

We returned to where we had started our food journey: Black Salt Fish Market and Restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard – in whose parking lot the Palisades Farmer’s Market had been that morning. If you time it right, you can return from your hike on the Billy Goat Trail in time for happy hour at Black Salt and partake of $1 oysters and discounted drinks.

The happy hour oysters that day were Rappahanocks, but there was a selection of nine other – more pricey -- bivalves to be tempted by. I succumbed, of course. What particularly drew my attention were the oysters from Maine. It seemed reasonable to suppose that the icy waters that produce those fabulous Maine lobsters could also nurture other crustaceans of worth. But since I had never associated Maine with oysters, I also ordered a few representatives from West Coast – my favorite up to that point – just to be on the safe side. In all, my half dozen oysters consisted of two kinds of West Coast oysters (two of each) and two Belon oysters from Maine.

You will notice that I do not remember the names of the oysters from the west coast, or even which west coast state they were from. Much as I enjoy oysters, I can never seem to retain the names of the varieties that I like. Servers like to identify your selections for you, going clockwise or counterclockwise around the arrangement on your plate. But by the time they get from one side to the other, I have already forgotten what I have been told. You would think that once I have eaten the selection and found which I like, I would be able to remember at least those, but still I fail each time.

Belon oysters were different. Absolutely different. The name Belon has become imprinted on my brain. See, it is now a couple of weeks later, and I still know not only what they are called, but how to spell their name, and that they are named after a river in France from which they were introduced to Maine in the 1950s. According to Rowan Jacobson, only 5,000 Belon a year are pulled for sale in Maine, making them one of the rarest oysters in the world.

They are wild, these oysters, “as powerful as any on the planet, redolent of fish and zinc and umami – not for the faint of heart”. I have quoted Jacobson here because I cannot offer a better description of these delicacies. Except that they did not make my heart faint, but rather pound harder, with the excitement of a new discovery. I quickly ordered more of these gems (no way two would suffice), foregoing any thought of another course. As Amanda Hesser has put it, these oysters are "the main event".Bravo to Black Salt for procuring these rareties at the beginning of oyster season. 

Speaking of oyster season, thanks to a post by John Hook, my understanding of why the R months are oyster months has deepened. The R months are the winter months, when water temperatures drop low enough to end the spawning activities of oysters. As Hook puts it, at that point, "oysters have completely taken their tiny molluscan minds off sex and become fascinated with getting all larded up” – it is the post-coital planktonic matter that they vacuum up from the tides that give them their oysteriness. The point is also made by another authority on the seasonality of oysters, Robb Walsh’s Sex, Death and Oysters.

But for those of us in it just for the taste, all we need to know is that April – the last R month – is the pinnacle of oyster flavor. So between now and then, I will be heading back to Black Salt and hoping for more Belon.

Note for those following this blog: apologies for the belated posting -- I started this piece before my long trip, and was unable to complete it until now. The correct sequencing should have been directly after Billy Goat Food Trail (3)

BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 26, 2010

Leaving India

In  my mind I had left India. The last day of driving around Mumbai, past squalid shacks that stretched on for miles (much more extensive than anything I have seen in South Africa), capped off with the vision of the 27-story Ambani tower, had given me enough to digest. At one billion dollars, the "mansion in the sky" is reportedly the most expensive private residence in the world. At night, it is illuminated to accentuate its jutting verandas and shaded recesses, their differently shaped and sized living spaces designed so that no two floors replicate one another.

Photo credit: Forbes.com

By the time I got to the airport, I was ready to leave this land of opposites. After passing through security, I marched directly to the Mugg and Bean and ordered a good old cheese and tomato sandwich on multigrain bread. Enough with the Indian food! As I munched, I was transported to a different place, a place which, if not necessarily happier, had more familiar contradictions and firmer ground from which to navigate them. I breathed a little easier reading the new John Irving novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," where the action was unfolding in New Hampshire and the cook at the logging camp was cooking Italian. "The Lost Flamingos of Bombay", purchased earlier in the day, would have to wait.

On board the 1:45am Delta flight to Amsterdam, the meal service was a brief one. I peeked under the aluminum cover of the tray. Staring back at me were: a baby dosa (about the size of a spring roll, snugly fitting vertically into the tray), a miniature mound of upma, and between them, a small dish of sambar, for dipping the dosa. "We're still here!" the South Indian breakfast trio seemed to say.

I blinked at them, not quite sure how to react. The upma seemed a bit darker than the one I had eaten in Pune. Was it in fact upma? In spite of everything, I began to reengage. "Excuse me," I queried the Indian woman sitting next to me, "what is this?" "It's masala upma", she replied.  "It's made from wheat. You can also have a plain upma, but this one is seasoned with garam masala. And this sambar, it's for dipping the dosa. A classic South Indian breakfast."

As I explained in my last post, I had become acquainted with two of these three. Learning to enjoy dosa and upma for breakfast had brought me some steps closer to understanding how life is lived in India. So far, the sambar has seemed too much to take in. But gradually, I am growing to embrace the whole Indian enchilada, with all its contradictions.

Dosa with sambar

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tasting Notes: India

Much as I love Indian food -- especially Indian food in India -- I have usually opted for the Western style breakfasts when travelling there. The exception has been in southern India -- in states like Karnateka and Tamil Nadu -- where hotels offer freshly made dosa. In those states, if you look towards the back of the breakfast room, you will invariably find a dosa station, with a chef preparing the wafer thin, crispy foot-long pancakes on a griddle and wrapping them around spicy potatoes and onions. But now I was further north in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra.

Who knows why, then, that the Indian breakfast at the Deccan Royaale Hotel suddenly seemed appealing. I found myself drawn to "upma", cream of wheat thickened to a stiffness, and seasoned with mustard seeds, green chilis, ginger, onions and kari leaves. Suddenly it seemed perfectly natural to be eating these flavors for breakfast -- and I loved how a new vista had opened. I am looking forward to exploring my way through more early morning choices!

Turns out upma is a south Indian dish too, though popular now throughout India. I am keen to try it in the south though. If the Deccan's dosa was anything to go by, the upma was probably nothing like how it tastes closer to its home. For one thing, the dosas were not freshly made, and for another, their regal size had been cut down to bite-sized mushy pieces. ("Cut dosa", they were labelled.) But once you have had a freshly made dosa, nothing else will do. My colleague Bharath, himself from the south, felt sure that the kitchen could come up with a fresh dosa, and he was right. But while he was eventually served something that looked closer to the real thing, the taste missed the mark. To the south then, next time. I will try to wangle an invitation from him to Chennai!

Update: On June 15, 2011, Floyd Cardoz won the Top Chef Masters contest with a dish of mushroom upma. Click to here to see the announcement in the Times of India. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tasting Notes: Thailand

Opening ceremonies at the 14th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Bangkok were an extravaganza to behold. Orchestras playing music from the four regions of Thailand sat cross-legged in the courtyard of the Queen Sirikit convention center. Regional dance and craft-making were similarly on display, with special presentations involving drums, dragons, and fireworks punctuating the evening. To say that the food on offer was abundant would not come close to conveying the spread, laid out buffet style in the entire restaurant area indoors, and snaking around the festivities outdoors...

In the midst of all this hub-hub, I came across a new (to me) taste: soothing and refreshing lemongrass juice.

It must have been sweetened because its tangy taste was tempered, yielding a sweet muskiness that also evoked jasmine. It turns out that lemongrass juice is easy to make. The method involves bruising and then boiling the stalks to extract the juice, much as you would do to make a tea. (Unlike, say, the different method than is used for making wheatgrass juice, where the grass itself is passed through a specialized juicing device.) This makes sense, as cooking with lemongrass also involves extracting the essence from the stalk: the green grassy parts of the plant are actually tough and bitter, and not very suitable for cooking or drinking. Those, like me, who have learned about cooking with lemongrass through trial and disasterous error, will know what I mean. :)

In any case, I found this recipe for lemongrass juice. If the lemongrass in my kitchen planter is still alive by the time I get home, I will be trying it out. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tasting Notes: Uganda

I'm travelling for work and the pace is hectic. No time to craft any detailed posts, so here are some tasting notes of new foods of note:

In Uganda I discovered matoke, a staple made from steamed and mashed green bananas (the type of banana is also called matoke), served in its leaf with peanut sauce. Yum! I ate it with almost every meal.

And to drink: a deadly spirit: waraj, made by distilling fermented banana.

Here is a picture of the matoke banana being sold at market in Kampala (top), and being steamed in its leaves (below):

Photo credit: Moongateclimber

Photo credit: Cynthia Gherie