Hot and spicy Isan Thai food is brimming with fish sauce, bird chiles and fresh herbs–with none of the comforting coconut milk found in Southern Thai cuisine. Sour sausage with raw cabbage, peanuts and bird chiles may not sound like a typical Thai dish, but it is a favorite Isan bar snack.
There is not a lot of Isan food in Texas, but that is about to change. I’m predicting a tide of nam jim jaew (the Northeast’s piquant answer to Southern Thailand’s Sri Racha) will wash over Houston any day now. And to prepare for the rush, I visited Lan Larb Soho, an Isan restaurant in Manhattan. Northeastern Thai food has been gaining in popularity for several decades in Queens, but its arrival in Manhattan is something new, Eater’s Robert Sietsama told me.
Sietsama joined my wife and me at Lan Larb Soho, where he recommended the sensational duck larb. Ground duck meat is highly seasoned and fried so that the bits of skin become very crispy–then its tossed with fish sauce dressing with fresh mint and raw red onions. You can use the raw cabbage leaves served on the side to make bite-size rolls. We also sampled a wonderfully spicy seafood soup with a tamarind broth.
Sietsama introduced me to Chef Ratchanee Sumpatboon, the restaurant’s owner and the woman credited with bringing Isan food to New York. Sumpatboon, who once ran a restaurant in Northeast Thailand, worked at Chao Thai and opened Poodam in Queens, then consulted at Zabb Elee in the East Village after closing Poodam and before opening her highly-acclaimed restaurant, Larb Ubol in Hell’s Kitchen.
Known for stultifying heat, Khmer ruins and rowdy festivals, the hot mesa of Isan in northeast Thailand is named after “Pra Isuan”, the ancient Thai name for Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. Its the poorest of Thailand’s regions and the least fertile. Northeast Thailand borders Laos and Cambodia and its cuisine is influenced by its neighbors. The dried chile and galangal paste called jaew in Thailand and jeow bong in Laos is a favorite flavoring in Isan food and the base for its popular dipping sauces.
We also ordered som tum poo pla-ra at Lan Larb Soho. Som tum, the green papaya slaw seasoned with chiles and fish sauce, is an Isan dish–the variation known as “tum poo pla-ra” includes small fermented rice paddy crabs which are pounded (shell and all) and added to the salad. While I sucked on a cracked crab, I remembered the time I took my Houston Press editor, Catherine Matusow, to dinner at Vieng Thai on Long Point road in Houston and ordered the poo pla-ra papaya slaw. After nearly cracking her teeth on a couple of crab shells, Matusow shoved the dish across the table at me with no small measure of disdain. She still brings the incident up now and then when the conversation turns to nasty restaurant surprises.
There are no curries or coconut milk soups at Larb Ubol–it is pure Isan food. But at the two Lan Larb restaurants (one in Soho on Centre Street, the other on First Avenue), there are a few Southern Thai-style curries on the menu to satisfy the office workers who come in for lunch.
Expect a surge of Isan cooking in Texas, with some interesting new dishes turning up on the menus of cutting edge Asian restaurants. Do yourself a favor and give the hot and spicy versions of larb, som tum salad, and tamarind-based soups a try.
Reading a new cookbook often sends me running to the kitchen to try out an intriguing recipe. Aaron Franklin has no use for recipes and there aren’t any to be found in his new BBQ book. Instead, after reading Franklin’s Meat Smoking Manifesto I found myself running to the garage and rummaging through the tool chest looking for that carborundum wheel that fits on my electric drill.
Grinding down the rust that kept my barbecue smoker’s firebox lid from closing tightly suddenly seemed like the most important task in the universe.I spent hours with the grinding wheel, wire brushes, lubricants and oily rags getting my 25-year old steel smoker back into tiptop shape.
While most barbecue books (mine included), start with wood and charcoal, and meat and spices; Aaron Franklin’s book starts in the welding shop. Building a steel barbecue smoker from scratch is where barbecue begins for Franklin. And in his view, learning how to tune up your smoker and keep it in good repair may be more important than how you season your meats. (Especially since Franklin’s spices are pretty much limited to salt and pepper.)
Barbecue joint owners will be studying this book intently–Aaron Franklin may single-handedly raise the quality of barbecue in America. According to my family and friends, the quality of my briskets has risen dramatically since reading this book (and switching over to the same sort of USDA Prime grade briskets Franklin uses).
Some of the techniques for barbecue restaurant-sized smokers is difficult to follow at home. Franklin is a purist when it comes to “clean fires.” I can’t burn whole logs and still maintain low temperatures in my Texas offset smoker. And sometimes at home, hardwood charcoal is the right fuel for the job. But that’s a small quibble.
Franklin’s book is not filled with simple tips or easy fixes. There are no shortcuts. In the book, Franklin reveals his very complex method of trimming a brisket before smoking. I have attempted to follow his precise directions using the accompanying step-by-step photos several times, and I still can’t say I got it entirely right. I don’t think I have sliced a brisket as perfectly as Franklin demonstrates either–but I have something to shoot for.
And that’s the value of this book. Following a master like Aaron Franklin around and watching how he does it is bound to improve the way you barbecue at home. I recommend you buy a copy immediately.
2015 Foodways Texas Symposium
Tickets on sale:
Join us in San Antonio as we celebrate “The Texas Mexican Table.” Our discussion will cover Mexican food in Texas in its many forms with two full days (May 8-9) of speakers broaching myriad topics. We will learn about Mexican and Native American foodways in Texas that have been appropriated, changed, fused, and influenced while we explore the context and history of their ingredients and styles. Among many other topics, expect to learn a bit about the foods of pre-contact Native Americans, tacos, Cabeza de Vaca, Chili, Tex-Mex, food and Conjunto, tamales, and the influx of various regional Mexican cuisines into Texas over the last several decades. We will also hear an update about our newest oral history project on Texas Mexican foodways. We can’t wait!
As usual, we’ll eat well with seven meals included in your registration. Chefs, artisans, and restaurants from around the state will join in the celebration by preparing meals that connect back to our discussions. The weekend begins Thursday evening, May 7th, with a welcome dinner and introduction to the symposium. Over the course of the next two days, we will serve breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks between heavy doses of history and culture. The festivities will take place in and around San Antonio at places like The Pearl, La Villita, and Mission San Juan. The official roster of chefs, restaurants, speakers, and panelists will be released in the weeks leading up to the symposium. Here’s a teaser in the meantime:
Iliana de la Vega, Chef at El Naranjo, Austin
El Corazon, Dallas
Amy Evans, Oral Historian, Houston
Rachel Gonzalez, Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, University of Texas, Austin
Matt’s Famous El Rancho, Austin
José Ralat, The Taco Trail Blog and Cowboys & Indians Magazine, Dallas
Ellen Riojas-Clark, Division of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies, University of Texas, San Antonio
Alston Thoms, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station
For more information visit FoodwaysTexas.com
Sisters Maria and Sylvia Calderon cook side by side in their tiny eatery located on the banks of the Ramos river in Allende, Mexico under a towering tree. At their one-room, one-table restaurant, they only serve one dish–chile con carne–though sometimes they call it “carne con chile.”
It comes in a bowl with another bowl of beans on the side along with a plate of mashed avocado, a plate of queso fresco slices, and a plate of sliced onions soaked in lime juice seasoned with a little salt and oregano. We were served an extra dish–jalapeño chile relleno. The sisters start making flour tortillas as soon as you sit down.
The chili is made to order in small skillets that each fill one bowl–enough for two people. The meat is chopped round steak. It is browned in lard with a touch of garlic. Roasted roma tomatoes are pureed in the blender with some wild chile pequin and that mixture is added to the browned meat. It simmers long enough to cook the meat, but not long enough to make it very tender. This dish would be called carne guisada in South Texas, but if las comadres want to call it chile con carne, you best not argue.
While we ate, Maria took fresh tortillas, drizzled them with manteca, and squeezed them tight in her hand to form a sort of squashed-together tortilla log. It was amazingly tasty. “My mom made the same thing with hot flour tortillas spread with butter,” my dining companion, Monterrey cooking school principal Robert Navarro told me. “She would make a little animal head on one end–we called them burritos. I always thought that was where the name came from.”
The river flooded some years ago and washed the restaurant away. The sisters thought it was a good opportunity to rebuild a sturdier structure. The new building looks pretty stout. To make a reservation, visit their facebook page.
Eating lunch at Las Comadres and talking about cooking with the Calderon sisters reminded me why I used to spend so much time in Mexico. I realized that I have been away too long.
Opened in 1958 in a former theater at 1213 U Street, Ben’s is a Washington D.C. landmark and an icon of the golden age of chili parlors. Ben’s signature dish, the original chili half-smoke, is a quarter-pound link of the griddled sausage on a steamed bun, with mustard, onions and chili sauce. The chili half-smoke was one the best “chili dogs” I’ve ever had. The meaty coarse-ground beef and pork link reminded me of that Texas barbecue tradition, Elgin sausage.
Texans are somewhat dismissive of what passes for chili in other parts of the country. But my tour of American chili venues revealed that the chili con carne culture is better preserved in places like Washington D.C. that here in Texas.
Chili will always have a place at the center of the Tex-Mex tradition, but the truth is most Tex-Mex restaurants serve chili gravy on their enchiladas–many don’t even make chili anymore. As for restaurants dedicated to chili in Texas, The Texas Chili Parlor in Austin is about it. Meanwhile, D.C. has the Hard Times Chili chain (more about that one in another post) and Ben’s Chili Bowl–arguably the most famous chili restaurant in the country.
Goulash and chili have a lot in common. The Hungarian word gulyás means cowboy. The dish is named after the cowboys who prepared it while they herded cattle on the Great Hungarian Plain or Puszta in the 19th century. Paprika peppers were introduced to Hungary by the Ottoman Turks in the 1520s.
There are more than a dozen varieties of paprika in European supermarkets. In Germany, I cooked a fiery beef goulash with Hungarian hot “rosen” paprika, This goulash tasted nearly identical to New Mexican Red Chile with Beef. The main difference in technique is that goulash is thickened almost entirely by caramelized onions.
Here’s a recipe:
Spicy Hungarian Goulash
Sweet Hungarian paprika is widely available in the United States. It is also increasingly common to find Hungarian hot paprika. You can substitute 2 tablespoons sweet and 2 tablespoons hot paprika for the “half-sharf” in this recipe. (Sharf means sharp, or hot and spicy, in German.)
1 lb. beef stew meat
Cut the beef into half-inch dice removing any obvious ligament and season with salt and pepper. Peel and chop onions from end to end into half moon-shaped slices. Chop the tomatoes and red peppers, keeping each separate.
Heat half the fat or oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat and fry the onions stirring occasionally until soft and golden in color, 15 to 20 minutes. At the same time to a skillet over medium-high heat, add the other half of the fat and brown the meat in small batches. Reserve each batch of cooked beef on a plate.
When the onions are soft and golden, add the paprika, stirring well to combine. Add the meat, the chopped tomatoes and peppers and stir together. Deglaze the skillet in which the meat was cooked with a cup of water, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom and add the water and remaining fat to the onion mixture.
Simmer covered, checking often to make sure the stew doesn’t stick to the pan. Add water was as necessary. Continue simmering until the meat is ‘fall off the bone’ tender and the vegetables begin to dissolve into a thick sauce. Serve over noodles.
Goulash tastes better reheated the next day and also freezes well for up to two months.
Suet Dumplings for Goulash
Ask the butcher at the supermarket to save you some suet next time he cuts beef.
4 ounces self-raising flour, plus a little extra for dusting
Mix the flour and shredded suet in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and add enough cold water (6-8 tablespoonfuls) to make a smooth elastic dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and divide it into 12 dumplings. Gently drop them in the goulash, do not hold them under, just let them float. Put the lid back on the goulash and simmer for another 25 minutes or until the dumplings have risen. Put a couple of dumplngs in each bowl as you serve the goulash.