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This weekend, the 2009 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery will be held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford and I cannot be there.  Instead, many of my friends will be there and I will hear all about it when they return.  This year’s topic is on “Food & Language” and although I had an idea for an abstract, I was much too busy to do the research.  Besides, after reading this year’s paper topics, I don’t think I would’ve had anything near as intellectual to add.  I cannot believe that a whole year has gone by without me even reporting on what happened last year so although late, it’s better than nothing.

Because it was my second time at the symposium last year, I felt “at home” and less nervous about mingling with people and reading my paper (although I was put in the big lecture theatre which is always very intimidating).  The faces were familiar and surprisingly, people remembered me as well.  I was thrilled to hear that I’d be reading my paper with Elizabeth Andoh, the author of “Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen” – winner of the 2006 James Beard Cookbook award and that our moderator this time was Fuschia Dunlop, Chinese Scholar and author of “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper” and “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook” to name a few.  In 2006, I read my paper with Fuschia on the same panel so I was happy to be with someone I was familiar with so it kept my nerves down.

When the symposium schedule is put together every year, similar subjects are often lumped into one session and it was natural that both me and Elizabeth were paired together since we were talking about Japanese subjects.  Elizabeth read a paper on Modoki, vegetarian temple food that is artistically formed to resemble something completely different from what it is made of.  A very fascinating topic that was made better by Elizabeth showing great photos of such beautiful cuisine.  I thought that we worked well as a team and we bounced ideas off each other and presented the tasting of various forms of daikon together.  It was a great pleasure to be on the same panel as Elizabeth…I hope to visit her in Japan one day.

My paper was about daikon – the humble yet very important radish…but not about ordinary daikon but focused in particular about a radish that grew through asphalt in a small town in Japan and was made into a national celebrity and anthropomorphised into a symbol of hope.  The extraordinary twist to the story is that the radish was vandalized one night and caused a great uproar among the townspeople – so much so that the vandals returned the radish to its original growing place due to guilt.  This radish, although in a poorly state, was revived and has since gone on to produce four generations and will be sold as seeds.  I also went on to discuss the importance of daikon in Japanese cuisine.  It was by far no way near as intellectual as many others but my aim was to bring some lighthearted quirkiness with relevance to the topic.

What was exciting was that a film crew from BBC4 were there the whole weekend filming various people reading their topics for a new documentary on food writer/historian Alan Davidson – the founder of the symposium.  Right before we started our session, the camera guy came up to me and said how thrilled he was to hear my paper and that he was looking forward to it…that made me nervous.  Anyway, all went well and I was sent an email saying that they’d like to use footage of me in the documentary and then I signed my life away…but I still haven’t heard when this documentary will be airing…more on that when I hear about it. 

St.Katherine's College Grounds

St. Catherine's College Grounds

Us posing with my daikon dolls and books

Me and Elizabeth posing with my daikon dolls and books

 

Elizabeth, me, Fuschia (l to rt)

Fuschia, me and Elizabeth (l to rt)

If you are really interested in food from an academic angle, you should try to make your way to Oxford one year.  The symposium is attended by the “who’s who” in the industry with many there who have written numerous books.  My favourite regular is Claudia Roden, who is so sweet and her book on Jewish cuisines is one of my all-time favourites.  In 2006, Jeffrey Steingarten attended and so many people were dying to talk to him…I wasn’t one of them but he was keen to talk to my friend who didn’t even know who he was!  The symposium is a great place to network with like-minded people and not feel bad about making any elite comments about food…lol.  The food was great last year and it looks like it will be fabulous this year as well.  Looks like Raymond Blanc’s (who’s there every year) restaurant Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons will be providing the last dinner and it’ll be called, “The Language of French Gastronomy:  From the Raw to the Cooked.”  I’m jealous.

 

Raymond Blanc in the middle as moderator

Raymond Blanc in the middle as moderator

 

 

 

 

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I haven’t even upgraded my iPod to an iTouch (I have an old iPod Mini) nor have I purchased a new laptop in many years. I have only just upgraded my mobile phone that includes a good camera, MP3 and internet capability but I can barely keep up with technology.

Twitter is, of course, the new micro-blogging site where you can tell the world every minute detail of your thoughts and doings at any given time.  I signed up for an account the other day but I’m still wondering how to incorporate it into my life.  So far, the only way that Twitter seems useful to me is if you use it on the go with your mobile phone but it’s definitely not made for stay-at-home mothers. Twitter’s usefulness in the food industry is a different story especially when restaurants update their menus and their whereabouts to all their following fans.  This is especially useful if a restaurant’s location changes nightly such as a taco truck in Los Angeles.

NPR (National Public Radio) in the U.S. did an article on Kogi, the Korean-Mexican mobile restaurant (aka Taco Truck) in L.A. In the article Tweeting Food Truck Draws L.A.’s Hungry Crowds, writer Ben Bergman talks about how Kogi’s success is owed largely from their fans following Twitter to track where Kogi will be parked on a particular night and what specials there are each evening.  Apparently, there are over 8,000 people following Kogi on Twitter and since joining Twitter over a week ago, I also became a Kogi follower even though I live nowhere NEAR L.A. and am not planning a trip there anytime soon.  I am following Kogi just in case I get to go to L.A. within the year and use my cool phone to track them down one evening.  I have to say that the combination of Mexican and Korean – two of my most favourite foods (apart from Japanese) makes me want to hop on the next plane to try their tacos.

Looks like old-fashioned food reviews in newspapers are not going to be the only influence on a food business anymore – seems like technology has caught up with networking sights such as Facebook and Twitter and to keep up with the trends and to attract future crowds, we have to keep our minds open and sharpened to the latest marketing tool.  But I have to admit, even though I’m not exactly old,  it is truly exhausting keeping up.

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Before I left for Bangkok, I was like a mad woman checking out as many blogs and travel advice websites I could for the best places to eat.  As you can imagine, it started to be a huge task and with only three days there, I had to really pick and choose what experiences were on the top of the foodie list.  While searching through blogs, I stumbled upon this short post for the Sukhothai Hotel’s chocolate buffet offered on the weekend and I decided that I had to try it.  My only regret is that we decided to have the buffet on the same day that we were going to have the big show and buffet that night at the Mandarin Oriental (more on that later) so it was hard to totally gorge at both places!

We caught a cab to the Sukhothai Hotel and it was so nice to see a beautiful, low-rise hotel in the middle of all those buildings.  The style of the hotel is similar in so many ways to the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki (5 star/5 diamond) in its minimalist elegance, Asian influence and tropical surrounds.  As soon as you walk into the tea salon, you sort of feel like you walked into an elegant library where people are speaking in hushed tones and relaxing in big, comfy upholstered chairs.

Sukhothai

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Immediately, you are greeted, your tea order is taken (or coffee if you like) and then a curiously cold, golden drink is served in a glass.  This is the lemongrass drink that I read in that blog!  I was so excited because it was described as refreshing but I was so sorely disappointed because for me, I found it much too sweet.  Oh well, to each is own.  The one thing that our servers did not explain to us was that there were two sections of the buffet.  We were sat in the chocolate buffet but across the hall, there was another savoury buffet displayed as well.  For people not used to buffets, they probably wouldn’t have ventured out across the hall to see what was on the other side.

Lemongrass Drink

Lemongrass Drink

Because we didn’t have lunch, we started with the savouries first.  I went straight for the sushi and little dim sums while my husband went for the mini sandwich rolls and cheese.  The fresh tropical fruit served at this buffet were fabulous.  The quality of everything is very high and everything looked impeccable.

After the savouries came the serious stuff – CHOCOLATE!!  I was so overwhelmed with the choices that I didn’t know what to start with first.  There were chocolate crème brulées, white or dark chocolate mousses, tri-colour cakes, white chocolate mousse cake with passionfruit topping, dark chocolate truffles and much more.  I tried nearly everything there and I was really impressed with it all.  My favourites were the lighter textured desserts like the mousses but the truffles were divine as well.  There were also a few homemade ice creams:  on that day, the flavours were white chocolate/coconut, wasabi chocolate and I think strawberry (sorry, memory is vague).

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The savoury buffet

Tropical fruit with the savoury buffet

Tropical fruit with the savoury buffet

Chocolate buffet

Chocolate buffet

We both left the pièce-de-resistance to the end – the chocolate cart to make your own custom chocolate drink!  On that day, there were 14 separate bowls of different types of chocolate.  Each bowl had a label describing either the flavour or sometimes the origin of the chocolate and the percentage of cocoa.  Displayed were everything from white chocolate, milk, orange flavoured, Gianduja (hazelnut, think Nutella), African, Central American, you name it!  An attendant would put as much chocolate as you wanted into a pot simmering over a heat source and stir it together and serve it to you in a demi cup.  The result?  An absolutely sublime and dense chocolate drink that you custom made!

Hot chocolate trolley

Hot chocolate trolley

Attendant mixing the hot chocolate

Attendant mixing the hot chocolate

Before we finished, I saw the chef walk out to check on the display.  He started speaking to one of the guests who seemed like his friend and I knew it, he was French – I recognized that the desserts displayed were definitely made by someone who was trained in the French technique.  After gorging ourselves for two hours, we stumbled back to our hotel room realizing that we had another big meal in a few hours – oh the dilemmas of holidays.  🙂

Sukhothai Hotel offers the Chocolate Buffet on Friday, Saturday and Sundays from 2 to 6pm.  The price for two people was approximately 1860 Baht.  It is best to book the buffet if there is a lot going on that weekend as the tea salon is not that big.

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A Vast Array of Fried Bugs in Bangkok

A vast array of fried bugs in Bangkok

Roaches at least 3 inches long and fried small birds

Roaches at least 3 inches long and fried small birds

Sorry for the lack of posts – traveled a total of over 7 wks (mostly to visit friends and family) and can’t seem to quite recover yet.  It doesn’t help that I just started a new full-time job so I’m exhausted as hell.  Do you know how hard it is to go through thousands of photos to chose a few to post on a blog?  Anyway, enough about me…

Whenever Andrew Zimmerman or Anthony Bourdain go on their tours of Asia, you always see them eating some type of insect so I was really hoping to find some form of cooked insect in Thailand.  I was lucky to find this woman, who had a stand on one edge of the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok and I was quite excited that the variety was so immense! From what I can make out, there are silkworm cocoons, grasshoppers, crickets, and some beetle larvae in the first photo.  In the second photo, in the foreground, are the most gigantic cockroaches I’ve ever seen and behind them, looks like some type of small bird (think it’s a chicken that’s not quite mature yet)!!  At first I thought that those fried birds were fried bats…all of the items were deep-fried to a golden crisp and nicely garnished with green stuff (pretty sure it’s green onions).

I have had fried beetle larvae (the white ones that look like caterpillars) before, piping hot actually, and even watched crawling ones get plonked into hot oil and ate them soon after!  Where the heck was this?  Well, this was the last class in the entomology course I took at UC Davis.  What did they taste like?  French fries.

I was just not that adventurous and the heat (being about 38C and 80%+ humidity) definitely did not help.  I just know that even though those huge cockroaches are deep fried, they will probably be a bit…squishy inside – yuck.  I don’t mind handling them but eating them…that’s another story.

(Hey Jin, you would’ve been screaming so loudly!! haha)

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Traditional stalls set up near a KFC & McDonald's

I am not a wimp but my gut isn’t what it used to be.  I went to Bangkok with EVERY intention on actually eating food off street stalls because they are often very tasty and authentic.  Some of my best memories of eating throughout Mexico were the dodgy-looking tacos, ice creams and grilled corns from street stalls.  The main reason why I didn’t eat at many of the stalls in Bangkok is because of the absolutely scary and appauling food-safety conditions.  Let me remind you that it was very hot, (over 35C and over 90% humidity) and it was rainy season and so often, I’d walk by street stalls with bowls of meat sitting out in the hot sun for god knows how long!!  Or, if it looked decently clean, I’d see the bucket of stagnant water that they were washing their crockery and cutlery in (not to mention they reuse wooden chopsticks) and realized that they didn’t refresh the washing water very often.  Yuck!  Also, because it was the very beginning of my around-the-world trip, I honestly didn’t want severe gastro problems so early on (especially since my next flight was 13 hrs to London).

I made a rule for myself that I would only eat something at a street stall if it wasn’t on washed crockery and only if it was piping hot when I purchased it.  So, grilled & marinated chicken skewers qualified under that category and they were awesome!  So juicy and tasty and it cost about $0.20 each and they were piping hot off the grill.  One of the things that I couldn’t resist buying were cold drinks and fresh juices from the street vendors, especially during those scorching days.  We bought thin popsicles, frozen in the most interesting manner (see picture) to refresh ourselves and the Thai iced tea flavor popsicles were fantastic!  We also ate a lot of sweets off street stalls – among them, grilled sticky rice and banana wrapped in banana leaf and fried peanut crackers.

Popsicle freezer...ingenious

Popsicle freezer...ingenious especially since it was so hot out!

Some of the tastiest and juiciest chicken skewers I've ever had...just make sure it's fully cooked because Thailand has had avian flu

Some of the tastiest and juiciest chicken skewers!

At the Chatuchak weekend market, a noodle stall almost called me to sit down because it looked really good.  In the middle of each table, there were large mounds of shredded cabbage and other vegetables piled in bowls and wondered what it was for.  I soon saw that the raw veggies (as much as you like it seemed) were to be added into your hot soup (kind of like Pho).  Problem was, they offered NO tongs so that diners were licking their forks and then diving into the veggies and double-dipping!  New bowls of veggies weren’t provided to the next customer – they were simply refreshed with more veg.

Mounds of veggies on table...

One of the scariest things I saw being sold by the side of the street was sushi.  It looked entirely homemade, in a large tupperware container and sold with ZERO refrigeration.  People were still buying them from the vendor and that really amazed me.  The average Thai person must have very different flora in their gut to be able to withstand all the gastrointestinal onslaught from foodborne diseases!

No refrigeration, homemade, scary sushi

No refrigeration, homemade, scary sushi

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