Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Damn Mess of Cheddar

What do you get when you mix French fries with fresh Cheddar curds and gravy? For most folks it sounds like a decadent mess to eat when you're drinking heavily or trying to recover from a night of heavy drinking. But for the Québécois and their fellow (as of now) Canadians, it's poutine, a delicious dish that fortifies Canadians during their harsh winters.

Prior to traveling to Ottawa, which I've done at least once a year for the past three years, I didn't know anything about poutine. I had heard, of course, of cheese fries and fries with gravy and even cheese fries with gravy (I was a member of a co-ed fraternity, after all, and never shied away from bars and bar food), but these dishes are something quite different from poutine. Those culinary travesties, made with processed orange cheese and commercial gravy, claim a place only at the bar and cannot, like poutine, secure the exalted status of a national dish. In Ottawa I've seen mothers and daughters solemnly eating poutine, not saying a word to each other and only taking a break from putting fork to mouth to take a sip of black coffee. This is a far cry from a drunken and loud bar meal.

I've become a bit obsessed with poutine and want to eat it every day when I'm in Ottawa. Part of my fascination has to do with my continual quest for local and regional foods, but another part--a greater part, perhaps--has to do with its undeniable deliciousness. When eating a grilled veggie sandwich at the Elgin Street Diner, how could I possibly turn down the chance to transform plain fries into a gloriously rich dish with gravy and milky cheese curds, made at a nearby cheese factory, for only two extra dollars? And I don't even have to worry about fooling myself that the gravy is vegetarian. At the Elgin Street Dinner the deeply flavored gravy is made from mushrooms. This is not the case with the gravy offered at other establishments, but I still might have to try it from a roadside poutine truck. After all, it's the local thing to do.

If you want to try some nonlocal poutine that's served on white plates in a trendy New York City setting, instead of in Styrofoam cups in cold Canada, visit The Inn LW 12, an Anglo-Canadian gastro-pub in the Meatpacking District (7 Ninth Ave., at Little W. 12th St.).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

No Country for Aged Cheese

I'm back! Not just to my blog, but also to the U.S. For most of January and the last few days of 2007, I was away in Thailand, visiting friends based in Bangkok and exploring the country's northern and northeastern provinces.

During my four weeks in Thailand, I was surprised by how interested I became in the history of Southeast Asia and in the well-maintained remains of its past. I spent a good deal of my vacation touring ruins, some of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

What didn't surprise me was the lack of cheese in Thailand, beyond the Italian ones my friends in Bangkok generously bought for me at the fancy food market at Siam Paragon. Southeast Asia is not the place for cheese. But it is the place for many other foods. Never before have I been to a country where there was so much food available, anywhere anytime. There were restaurants and food stalls everywhere: in markets, on main roads, on sidewalks, in parking lots, on the beach, in homes, in night bazaars, down side streets, just about everywhere! And there was an incredible variety of food. Usually, after a few days in a new country, I can figure out a country's or a region's typical dishes, especially the vegetarian ones, but in Thailand I just couldn't. The variety of food in Thailand is so great that it's impossible to sample it all. Just as soon as you buy something to eat from one food stall, something else tempts you. Full from whatever you've bought earlier, you decide to eat your new treat later, but when it comes time to eat it, you find yet something else to try. And I'm a vegetarian! If I ate meat, the extensive choice would have been even more overwhelming!

Pork is popular at markets and food stalls. You can sample easily identifiable pig noses, feet, and ears; pork balls, sausages, hot dogs, and even Hello Kitty, grilled on thin bamboo skewers; and a limp tangle of pig skin that I myself bought and ate, thinking that it was a dish of broken, cooked noodles. If you don't want pork, there's chicken: feet on skewers and in stews; slabs of raw poultry with shell-less yolks still attached; and grilled quarter chickens on thick wooden skewers, sold from wicker baskets on trains. If there's chicken, there are eggs: white, brown, pale blue, and shocking pink; scrambled and mixed into noodles or rice, prepared in portable, street-side woks; or hardboiled and then grilled on skewers, deep fried, or sliced to reveal their vibrant orange yolks. These can be served in a tart salad of onions marinated in lime juice, fresh chili peppers, fish sauce, and cilantro. For the daring, there a bowls of deep-fried bugs: crickets, grasshoppers, grubs, dragonflies, some of which are ground into curries.

And this isn't even the half of it. If, like most Bangkokians, you constantly think of what to eat next, then Thailand is the place for you. You'll be in like-minded company. Bring a spoon with you (Thais use chopsticks only for noodles) and know that there won't be any cheese.