Saturday, November 18, 2017

Seki Restaurant - Baku, Azerbaijan

Our first evening in Baku our guide, Salchin, took us to Seki Restaurant. I'd told him before-hand we wanted to avoid tourist traps and have authentic Azeri food. Salchin picked us up at our hotel and drove us across town through incredible traffic. At one particular spot we had to go through an intersection with four lanes of traffic going cross ways to us. Salchin just nosed his vehicle in, cutting off other cars, and made his way across in just a minute or two. I've never seen anything like it. Traffic was a virtual standstill and he got us across. We were dumbfounded as we watched it unfold. 

I'm not sure that Seki was not a tourist spot, but the food was great. The restaurant was housed in a three story building with a huge atrium in the middle. We were on the ground floor and there were patrons on the other two floors above us. A local band was playing near us, with unusual instruments, and they kept us entertained most of the meal. One of the men with an accordion appeared drunk and went off on solo tangents that were incredible. 
The band is against the wall to the left. The second floor is visible toward the top. 
By far the highlight of the meal was piti, an Azeri soup that includes the tail of a fat-tailed sheep. 
Fat-tailed sheep are about 25% of the world's sheep population. Most are found in Central Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa. There are two types. The majority have broad fat-tails where the fat accumulates in baggy deposits in the hind part of the sheep, on both sides of the tail and on the first 3 to 5 vertebrae of the tail. Long-tailed sheep have the fat accumulate on the tail and it can get so long that it drags on the ground. 
Fat-tailed sheep. Note the bulbous, fatty rear ends. From Wikipedia.
Piti is eaten in two steps. First, Azeri flatbread is crumpled up, mixed with spices and added to a thick lamb broth. Second, a fat-tailed sheep tail, both fat and meat, is mixed with the lamb broth and vegetables (in our case, peas, chestnuts and saffron), mixed with more crumpled Azeri flatbread, then mixed together with a pestle to break down the fat and meat. Then it is eaten. In my case, for the first step, he had them give me some lamb broth with some lamb fat and it was quite good. 
Lamb broth with sheep fat (blurry).
The second step was an interesting concoction that was fairly dry, and well mixed together. It was almost like very light turkey stuffing on Thanksgiving. I would rather of had the meat and fat in the broth without the bread and vegetables, but it was interesting and okay. 
Mixture of lamb meat, fat, flat bread, vegetables and broth, mashed together with a pestle. 
We had some other very good food. We had eggplant rolls filled with a mixture that I think may have included walnuts, garlic and herbs, like this recipe. Fantastic flavor, mouth feel and I believe completely vegetarian. 
Eggplant rolls with walnut filling.
We got what looked and tasted a lot like Mexican salsa and had a great taste with a pretty good kick. I'm not sure what all of the ingredients were, but it had hot chiles, tomatoes, onions, perhaps some eggplant. Also extremely good. It went real well with the Azeri flatbread.
Tomato salad, like a Mexican salsa.
We got two types of cheese. One tasted a lot like Boursin, kind of smooth with lots of flavor. It was great on bread. The other was very bland, almost like tasteless sour cream. It was left mostly alone by our group of five. 
Two types of cheese. 
We had some kabobs, or skewers, brought to the table with a heating element and a fire to keep them warm. One was lamb, another was chicken and another was veggies, including tomatoes and peppers. Excellent.
Skewers of lamb, chicken and veggies.
We had a plate with two types of rice. One had some saffron in it. They were okay.
We got some baklava. It was very different from any baklava I've head before. It had little crunchies all throughout it, like little merangue balls, but a little harder and kind of irritating. Way too much of a weird crunch for my taste. It also had lots and lots of sweet sauce on it. It wasn't pure honey. I think I liked it better than anyone else at our table, other than Salchin, but a little bit was plenty.
Salchin introduced John and Susan to Azeri style tea. You squeeze in lemon, then put a chunk of colored sugar cube in your mouth, then drink the tea. John said it was way too sweet, he didn't like it. 
Teapot, lemon and colored sugar cubes.
Virtually everything we had was excellent, except the baklava, and it was interesting. I highly recommend Seki.  
Plate of food, including piti to bottom right.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Tajik Non Bread

When we pulled into the train station in Khujand, Tajikistan we were met by a band with men in long black robes and gold trim playing very long horns and other odd musical instruments. But even more striking were three young girls dressed in colorful garb, each carrying a pyramid of stacked bread. 

Judy posed with one of the girls for a picture and I was then offered one of the loaves of bread from the top of the pyramid. It was round with a rounded, bulbous and serrated rim and a depression in the middle swimming in honey. Most everyone else evaded the girls and their bread and I had a hard time finding any takers of pieces of bread that I tore off the loaf. The bread was rather stiff, not something I would seek out, and the honey helped. But there was so much honey that it was dribbling all over the place. I ended up finding a trash can to deposit most of it and had to use several wet wipes to get the honey off my hands. 

The first stop of our tour of Khujand was a Museum of Archaeology. After I got bored of the tour which took way too long, I went outside and wandered around. As I passed a restaurant I noticed a cart with bicycle-type wheels carrying about 20 round loaves of bread like what we'd seen the girls carrying earlier that morning. Then a man came out, pulled six of the rounded loaves from the cart and took them inside. 

Later that morning we visited the Payshandba Bazaar, the largest bazaar in Tajikistan. There again we found more of the rounded loaves of bread resting on the two-wheeled carts. The prevalence of the bread was striking. 
Tajikistan is known for its yogurt non or naan bread. It is a blend of basic wheat, all purpose flour and yogurt. This link gives a recipe, then shows the intricate process of women creating designs in the rounded loaves, then pasting the dough against the inside of a large kiln to cook them. 

I didn't really like any of the bread we had in Central Asia until we got to Azerbaijan. There it got more moist and flavorful. But it was fun to see and try it. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Hung's Delicacies - Hong Kong

While on a layover at the Hong Kong Airport we spotted a sign that caught our attention: "The World's Best Airport Restaurant...CNN - 2013 & 2014." It also stated: "Michelin One Star Restaurant in 5 consecutive Years Since 2010." Further, "Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) Awards 2012 Best Airport Food & Beverage Reflecting 'Sense of Place'". When you're in an airport and looking for food, how can you pass that up?

We looked at the menu and it looked like they had some fun dishes to try. The restaurant itself is not large, or fancy, but pretty nice for an airport setting. 

Note that prices are in Hong Kong Dollars which are worth a little less than $.13.

The owner, Wai Hung Lai, also known as Ah-Hung, began as a cook at age 17. He apprenticed at Yung Kee, one of Hong Kong's iconic restaurants, later was head chef at Maxim's in Beijing and later was Maxim Group's head chef in Hong Kong. Over the years he developed expertise in marinade-braised dishes and roasted meats and then opened his own restaurant. 

Several of the dishes we looked at were identified as "Lou Seoi." Lou Seoi is a special marinade used in Chiu Chow dishes from the Guangdong Province of China. So, for example, unlike the traditional Cantonese crispy-skinned roasted goose, Hung's "Lou Seoi" goose is braised with a combination of herbs and soy sauce which gives it a golden-glazed appearance and the meat stays tender. Judy ordered it and it was pretty good.
Goose is a dark meat and it remained pretty moist. 
I ordered a combination plate of goose's kidney in Chef Hung's Lou Seoi, pork belly in Chef Hung's Lou Seoi and layered pig's intestine in aspic. 
The kidney, at the front, was not helped much, if at all, by the Lou Seoi. It was rigid, very chewy and did not have much taste. Very unforgettable, or memorable in a bad way.
I love pork belly, center, but this pork belly was cold and pork belly is too fatty to be eaten cold. This was a real downer for me as I usually love pork belly. 
The layered pig intestines in aspic was the saving grace. Aspic is a savory jelly made with meat stock, set in a mold, and used to contain pieces of meat. This site gives a "how to" on layering pig intestines. It is multiple layers of intestines stuffed together, which you can see in the picture. By layering the intestines you get a "bouncier and chewier texture." I'm assuming that the layers were lined with the savory jelly and when braised gave it additional flavor. 
This close-up gives a better view of the layering. 
The layered intestines were the best part of the meal, even better than the goose. They were juicy, very savory, and had great mouth feel. 

I'm kind of wondering how I got here from there. By that I mean, I grew up in a family that did not eat offal. I remember being traumatized when I was forced to eat liver on a family vacation to Italy when I was in 9th grade (I ordered it by pointing my finger to an item in a non-English menu and my father I insisted I ate what I ordered). Later that same day, in Italy, I was traumatized again when I had a tripe dish (again, unknowingly) at the recommendation of my cousin. 

I realize more and more than our appetites are influenced hugely by our culture and that cultural mores prevent us from enjoying some very wonderful foods. Eating foods from different cultures is one of my favorite aspects of travel. In that regard, the visit to Hung's was a success. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Chinese Tea Leaf Eggs

Chinese tea eggs or tea leaf eggs are boiled until they are hard. The egg is then removed from the water and the shell is cracked all around. After about ten minutes the eggs are put into a liquid to simmer for about 20 minutes. The liquid commonly includes five-spice powder, cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, cloves, Szechuan peppercorns, soy sauce and black tea leaves. Even recipes that do not call for tea leaves are called tea eggs. During the simmering, the liquid seeps inside the egg shell and marinates the egg. 

The eggs and liquid are then put into a glass or ceramic container and steeped (drenched or saturated) in a refrigerator for several hours. When the egg is peeled it should have regions of light and dark brown and mid-brown tones along cracks in the shell. The yolk will have a thin, gray layer, and then a regular yellow inside. 
We were at our hotel in Turpan and they had eggs in a pan that were all cracked and broken and I was horrified when I saw them. I thought, "why in the world would anyone eat one of those?" 
A pan full of horrible looking cracked eggs.
It looked like the server had dropped the pan on the way into the buffet.
Then I saw someone in our tour group try one. It looked awful, but he liked it. So I immediately went for one, opened it up, and loved it. The egg was infused with the salty flavor and was wonderful. 

Later that day as we took a bus from Turpan to Urumqi, we stopped for everyone to take a bathroom break. One of the shops at the stop had a stainless steel bowl out in front with eggs in a black liquid with lots of spice and sitting on a heat source. I made the connection between these eggs and the ones we had earlier that morning. 
Very fun. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Hami Melon

Outside Turpan, part of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of far northwestern China, I tried a wonderful new melon known as Hami melon. We were visiting the ruins of Jiaohe City which was an important Silk Road site until it was destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. 
Ruin in Jiaohe City.
Extensive ruins in Jiaohe City. 
While there I noticed a stand selling melons. 
The Hami melon, identified by a couple on our tour who used to live in China, looked different than any kind of melon I'd tried previously, so I ordered one and had it cut into long thin strips, then sideways into chunks, and shared it with members of our group. 

Hami melon gets it name from Hami, China, in the Xinjiang Region. It is yellowish to green, looks a lot like a cantaloupe, but is oblong. It has orange flesh that looks like cantaloupe, but is crisper, more like watermelon, and is sweeter than watermelon or cantaloupe. 

We had it at other venues on our trip, such as a buffet later that evening, and I would love to have it at home. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Camel Hump and Hoof - Dunhuang

I'd read before-hand that Dunhuang was known for donkey meat and for camel meat, including quick-frying hump and camel hoof. So I contacted one of our guides, Orlando, and asked if she could find a restaurant that served donkey and camel and arrange for a taxi to take us there.

That evening when the rest of our tour group was sitting down for a buffet meal in the hotel, Orlando took us, including Terry and Geneil, on a short walk of about a block and a half to what Orlando translated as the "Happiness and Lucky Restaurant."
Happiness and Lucky Restaurant.
We were shown to a separate room with a big round table and Orlando walked us through the Chinese-only menu. The proprietor and workers spoke no English. 
I ordered two donkey dishes, including yellow noodles with donkey, that Dunhuang is known for, and a large camel dish including quick-frying hump, camel hoof and regular camel meat. Terry and Geneil ordered some more pedestrian food items that I didn't pay as much attention to - I think it included some vegetarian noodles and a chicken dish. 

I previously blogged on the donkey dishes. The slowly cooked donkey meat, in green and red hot peppers, was incredible: sweet, fatty and hot. Perhaps the best dish of the whole trip.
Donkey meat.
The yellow noodles with donkey was tame. The noodles were dull (I'm not a pasta person) and there wasn't much donkey in it. 
Yellow noodles with donkey meat.
Dunhuang has a very large camel population - we heard the number of 10,000. Earlier that day we'd ridden Bactrian camels in the Singing Sand Dunes and I saw a store-front advertising camel meat near there. 
Two-hump Bactrian camels in the Singing Sand Dunes.
Store-front selling camel meat near the Singing Sand Dunes. 
Quick-frying camel hump is a dish where camel hump is cut into pieces or shred and then quick-fried. The pieces of camel are like little round fat fries, slightly crunchy, very fatty and juicy and very good. It had sauteed carrot, red and green pepper and onion in with it. This was also an amazing dish. A little crunch followed by melting, savory bliss. 
Camel hump.
Camel hoof is cleaned and soaked in water until soft, then flavored with seasoning and apparently steamed with chicken for 7 or 8 hours until the bones can be easily removed. The hoof is then cut into pieces, seasoned and braised in a bamboo steamer for 2 or 3 hours. Camel hoof is actually tendon. I only ate one or two pieces of camel hoof. It was very cartilaginous, parts of it virtually impossible to chew and eat. I'm not sure what people see in it - maybe we just got a bad batch. 
Camel hoof.
The camel meat was slowly cooked and good, but did not stand out. It was quite lean. 
Slowly cooked camel meat.
I'd read that camel hump was quite expensive and this ended up being a very pricey meal, especially when you consider it was in China and prices are much less there than in the U.S. Terry and Geneil split the cost with us which was very generous, because my delicacies were by far the largest portion of the bill. They were also good sports in trying everything. In fact, I think Terry may have gone back for seconds on the camel hump. 
I love the presentation of this camel meat. The plate is rimmed by cucumber slices and strategically placed red carnations and red currants. 
This was a highlight meal for me, one I'll remember. Two adventurous foods, some of it extremely good, in an unusual setting which came about in an unusual way.