Exploring Maine

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Last week, I taught two days of cooking classes at Stonewall Kitchen Cooking School in York, Maine. The classes were a lot of fun, the staff was incredibly helpful, and I met a lot of cool people and signed lots of copies of The New Southern Table. Speaking with New Englanders about cooking with hot-weather deep Southern ingredients was interesting; folks were surprisingly familiar with okra and collards, though field peas were another story.

But before getting into the cooking classes and all the restaurants I visited in Portland, I thought I’d set the stage with a few shots of the Maine coast.


Trip to Vietnam

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When I’m cooking at home with Southern ingredients common in farmers markets throughout the South — like sweet potatoes, watermelon, corn, rice, okra, and more — I think about places like North Africa, Peru, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia, and the links between those places and the South.

With that connection in mind, here are a few shots from my trip to Southeast Asia earlier this year. The image above is of rice paper being made at a delta-side production facility I visited. Rice goes into just about everything in Vietnamese cuisine, and Charleston, of course, was once the world’s largest rice producer.

Click Read More, below, for more pictures from my trip to Vietnam and the Mekong Delta.


Ceviche at Chez Wong in Lima

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Peru was ceviche at Chez Wong, a kind of cult ceviche shop that exemplifies the fused cuisine of Lima. The influence of Chinese and Japanese cooking is strong there, and shows up in ceviche, a dish of Spanish origin with obvious similarities to sushi.

The restaurant, which is adjacent to Wong’s home in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood in Lima, is about as unadorned as it gets. Wong, with his chef’s outfit and shades on, prepares the ceviche in the back, and two servers run the food. There’s no menu, just a ceviche dish (most often flatfish — sole, flounder, or tonguefish), and a stir-fry after that.

On my visit, both dishes were unbelievable. The ceviche included flounder, squid, and red onion, and seemed first cured with salt in the Peruvian way, yielding a deeply flavorful, umami-laden taste. The stir-fry was fish with cantaloupe, greens, and wood-ear mushrooms. Can’t wait to get back there.


Peru’s Bounty

I’m thinking back today on my trip to Peru last week, and what made the food there so amazing. In part, it’s the diversity of Peru’s landscape and climate types. Lima is nestled against the West coast on the Pacific Ocean, so Lima itself is almost desert / Mediterranean-like, similar to San Diego. But the Andes quickly rise up inland to the East, meaning cheeses, potatoes, and meats are made, grown, raised, and cured in the cooler clime. Still further East, the mountains drop down to the Amazon basin, where tropical fruits and vegetables grow and freshwater fish swim. The variety is unbelievable, and that, along with the influence of native, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and European cooking, makes for a mind-blowing cuisine.


Sweet Potatoes in Vietnam

On my recent trip to Vietnam, I went to a floating market in the Mekong Delta, about two hours west of Ho Chi Minh City. We saw more sweet potatoes and watermelons than any other vegetable at the market. I didn’t expect sweet potatoes (and okra, watermelon, and squash) to be so common in Asia, but they were everywhere I went, making me feel at home in markets, restaurants, and on the streets, from Japan throughout Southeast Asia. In Ho Chi Minh city they were a common street food snack, usually served with hard-boiled quail eggs and a fiery dipping sauce. It was all good inspiration as these ingredients start coming into season here in the South.


Frying Chicken at Ben Thanh Market

In Ho Chi Minh City, one of the best markets I visited was Ben Thanh, right in the heart of the city. Here’s a shot from that market, taken about 10 am when a group of women was busy frying chicken for the impending lunch hour. The food counters at Ben Thanh were tightly packed together in the center of the market, beckoning customers, and selling everything from spring rolls, to pho, to fried chicken, to fresh juices. The shot illustrates one of the many commonalities between Southern cooking, and the cooking of tropical and temperate climates around the globe, like Vietnam.


Singapore’s Food Hawker Centres

The best part about a food-centric trip to Singapore is the mind-boggling volume and variety of food you can find there. There are dozens of hawker centres (here’s a list of over a hundred)  all over town that the government set up to organize and regulate street food vendors.

Each centre tends to have a particular strength or focus reflective of the different cuisines brought to Singapore by its relatively recent Chinese (about 75% of the population), Malay, Arab, and Indian immigrant groups.

Most of the centres are open all day long and into the night. The food is so inexpensive, the number of dishes you can try is limited only by your appetite.

Above left is the Maxwell Road food center near Chinatown. Vendors there sell everything from Singapore’s famous egg and oyster omelette (above right), fresh juices from every tropical fruit imaginable (below right), and snacks like delectable, salty steamed peanuts (below right).










Southern Fried Tokyo

Traveling through Asia while I write a cookbook on world cuisine-inspired Southern cooking, I’ve loved seeing how different countries and cuisines treat the same ingredients that we in the South, and even elsewhere in the United States, think of as quintessentially Southern.

Sweet potatoes, for example, are all over Japan and Southeast Asia. The above image is a restaurant I came aross in Asakura, one of Tokyo’s oldest districts. The place is apparently focused on doing one thing, frying sweet potatoes, which is usually a good sign. I didn’t make it there when I was in Tokyo last week, but plan to check it out on my way back through next week.


Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market

My first morning in Tokyo, I unintentionally woke up bright-eyed at about 3:30 am thanks to jet lag. I had heard that might happen, so had planned on grabbing a cab to the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, or Tsujiki Market for some sushi if it did. It’s the largest wholesale fish market in the world, handling hundreds of different kinds of seafood — about 8 billion dollars-worth a year.