Friday, August 8, 2008

everything's changed

Last time I posted was right after I returned to SF from SE Asia. Wow, where does the time go? Well, I helped a friend of mine open a Mexican restaurant in North Beach called Don Pisto's. To the left are some of the amazing pulpa tacos with onions and homemade tortillas. I just can't get enough octopus and squid these days, especially in taco-form. I have also been thoroughly enjoying the restaurant scene since making the leap to an omnivorous lifestyle.Of course I still love my veggies, and completely support anyone who wants to help the world by going veg. I just realized that I NEED meat. I'm not just saying that either. I struggled with this realization for about a year before finally caving in to my body. I dreamt about burgers. I would salivate at the words "steak" and "bacon". And it doesn't stop there. Suddenly, I will try anything, from virtually any animal. I think that travelling probably started me on this adventurous track--especially when you are in the middle of a lake in cambodia and all there is to eat is some stringy and meaty thing that has been hanging off of someone's front porch for the last week. Turns out that one was a water snake. I also think that my travels made me realize that vegetarianism can be viewed as extrememely elitist in poor countries. If I even tried to refuse whatever was fed to me on my trek through Laos, I caused extreme confusion and the people assumed that I was being rude and didn't appreciate their hospitality. Don't get me wrong, vegetarians can definitely survive travelling in crazy places, but I found it much more fun to simply try everything.

And I have brought this credo back with me. Since being back in SF, I have tried almost everything meat-related that I had: a)never tried before/heard of before or b)missed desperately from my childhood. Let me tell you, my palate has never been the same! From quail to sweetbreads to bison to antelope to frogs legs to escargot to the basics like bacon wrapped hot dogs and pulled pork sandwiches to crazy things like fois gras, bacon ice cream sandwiches, pig's ear ambrosia, a pig's head (including brains, tongue, cheeks...), goat fries, etc...

I know that it may seem that I'm going a bit overboard, but for someone who has just awoken from what seems like 13 years of being half-asleep in vegetarian pajamas, I think this splurge is well deserved. Plus, I think that all those years of vegetarianism give me some karmic leeway. Oh yeah, I suddenly have a sweet-tooth too. Like, I scour our cupboards for a lost cookie or peanut butter cup when I can't sleep at 2a.m. I NEVER liked chocolate before. What's happening to me? I think I am growing up and realizing that I can't spend my life only eating healthy things because it gets boring. It was fine before, when I turned a blind eye to the wonders of meat and chocolate, but now I know the truth, and I cannot pretend that I don't know how fantastic they are--and how necessary to my happiness.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Chow Down in Laos (the 's' is silent)

Here is the second installment of my vay-cay in Laos. (Disclaimer: this was also an article I wrote for VegNews Magazine, so it is pretty veg-heavy. In real life, however, I was inhaling meaty things at an alarming rate, including that awesome whole fish to the left.)

There are quite a few vegetarian cafes and restaurants popping up all over Laos, especially in the serene capital of Vientiane. Phounchup Vegetarian Restaurant, adjoined to the large marketplace in the downtown area of Vientiane, offered tantalizing tastes of Laos unique vegetarian cuisine. Word to the wise: savvy vegetarian travelers seeking an authentic Laos dining experience should avoid the numerous cafes lining the city’s main drag that attempt to lure Western tourists by blaring episodes of Friends or Family Guy.
Luang Nam Tha is a province northwest of Luang Prabang and offers much along the lines of eco-tourism and delicious vegetarian cuisine. The best eco-lodge in Luang Nam Tha is called The Boat Landing Guest House and costs around 200,000 kip per night (or around $21). From here you can book one of many enticing eco-excursions in the Nam Tha Protected Area, which in 2005 was named an ASEAN Heritage Park. This park boasts some of the most diverse and breathtaking wilderness areas in Laos. Many species of conservational concern are currently being protected in the Nam Tha Protected Area, including rare species of pangolin and guar, soft-shelled turtles and the crimson-breasted woodpecker. Plus, one of the best veg restaurants in all of Laos, The Coffee House, can be found here. A combination of Lao and Thai vegetarian cuisines, it is affordable, delicious, and run by the sweetest Thai woman in the world.
During the rare times that I wasn’t eating, I spent my days purposely getting lost in and outside of the cities. In Luang Prabang, I stopped into Green Discovery, an eco-tourism company that offers guided trekking, kayaking, cycling and bird-watching excursions, as well as a cruelty-free elephant safari through the jungle. As it was my first time in Laos, I was unaware of how time consuming travel there can be—there is no rail system and the roads are small and windy—so I had to settle on a two-day trek instead of a five-day. It ended up being a blessing, however, because my travel companion and I ended up getting a very handsome and stoic personal guide who let us choose exactly how to spend our two incredible days. By the way, the myth about Asian men is a myth indeed. For a mere $60 each we experienced the following in no particular order: we rode on elephants formerly used as beasts of burden, swam in bone-chilling waterfalls, hiked through rice paddies, climbed a mountain in order to visit a tiny Khmu hill tribe village, slid down the mountain in the rain, kayaked for hours along the Nam Khan River, negotiated some medium-difficult rapids, and stayed overnight in a Hmong village where we sang traditional Lao songs and drank lao lao (rice wine) with the local teenagers. I’d say it was by far the best $60 I’ve ever spent, not to mention that I was able to request vegetarian food a day in advance, and so was pleasantly surprised with a wild eggplant puree, tomato/chili sambal, sautéed ferns, sticky rice, and other interesting local veggies for both lunch and dinner.
After returning to Luang Prabang, covered in mud and exhausted from our laborious trek, we stumbled upon what I would call the coup de grâce: a vegetarian street buffet that was literally 0.50 cents! Sufficed to say, I ate more than my fare share; seated on a plastic stool, I admired the sunset over the Mekong while a light drizzle cooled my tired skin. Bamboo and moss soup, black rice salad with cashews and tofu, fresh long-bean salad, spicy green mango salad, water lily stir-fry, vegetarian tam lao (with a mushroom sauce substituted for the fish sauce) and ground toasted sticky rice were just a few of the delicate morsels we feasted on in the streets that languid evening. Armed with a couple of lukewarm cans of Beer Lao, we decided to turn in for the night, bellies and hearts full of love for Laos.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


I said I'd eventually get to writing about Laos and Cambodia and Indonesia, and here it goes, just two months late. First I'll start with Laos--or at least start with starting with Laos:
Laos, officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is one of the smallest and least-visited countries in Southeast Asia. However, despite being about the same size as Utah, Laos boasts incredible ethnic and scenic diversity. From the lush jungles deep in southern Laos to the vast mountain ranges of the north; to the lazy Mekong river that snakes along the western Thai border to the sleepiest capital in the world, Vientiane; Laos is truly the Jewel of the Mekong. Rich in vegetation and largely Buddhist, Laos guarantees a plethora of wild and interesting vegetarian foodstuffs that will peak any adventurous omnivore’s curiosity.
Due to its rough history, Laos has, until recently, remained relatively untouched by tourism. This is a good thing, because where much of Thailand (especially the islands) is becoming increasingly built up and the beaches littered with buckets, beer-cans and baseball hats, Laos has maintained its wild and untouched feel due to a blossoming eco-tourism industry. Eco-lodges are popping up all over Laos as well as eco-tourism agencies that can help you decide on which excursion is right for you and your budget. I started my jaunt in Laos by flying into the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang directly from Chiang Mai, Thailand. This ancient town is set along the Mekong River and is surrounded by a breathtaking backdrop of lush green mountains and over 30 Buddhist temples. The night market of Luang Prabang is an eco-conscious-shop-a-holic’s dream. A cacophony of brightly colored, high-quality handmade products, the market allows for a symbiotic relationship where the local hilltribespeople can make a fine living by selling their gorgeous embroidery, organically hand-dyed fabrics and clothing, and bamboo paper to the wide-eyed and drooling tourists. Seriously, the gorgeous goods and mouthwatering (and dirt-cheap) vegetarian street food that can be found in the marketplaces all over Laos can be literally stupefying.
Night Market 
Being an ex-French colony, Luang Prabang is probably one of the only towns in Southeast Asia where you can nosh on a freshly baked baguette alongside a traditional Lao meal of tofu larp and sautéed morning glory with a side of moss straight out of the Mekong. I pretty much ate at the cheap vegetarian street buffet ($0.50) every night, which consisted of sitting on plastic stools eating heaping plates of steamed vegetables, sticky rice, and slurping hot noodle soup while the sun set over the Mekong and a faint drizzle cooled our tired skin. Larp is a Lao specialty, which is usually made with some sort of chopped meat, green onion, sesame seeds, lime and red chillies. However, it is becoming more common to see vegetarian renditions that are not to be missed, including tofu, wild eggplant, pumpkin, etc…Lao cuisine is quite similar to Thai, although it’s not as spicy and everything is served with very sticky rice. Its flavors are also a bit more tangy, as it calls for such pungent additions as chilies, lime juice, lemongrass and fresh coriander leaf. One thing to look out for is the common Lao practice of using a clear fish sauce made from anchovies called ‘naam bpaa’, as well as fermented shrimp paste, or ‘ka-pi’, which account for the cuisine’s salty element. One necessary Lao phrase for any vegan or vegetarian, therefore, is “Please don’t use” or ‘ka-lu-naa baw sai’ then add ‘naam npaa’ or ‘ka-pi’. Other common flavors in Lao cuisine include sour tamarind juice, coconut milk, ginger, sweet basil and ground peanuts. And like many of Laos’ Southeast Asian neighbors, it’s a great place to try a wide variety of tropical fruit both in smoothie-form or from a street vendor who will peel and chop the fruit for you. I became basically addicted to sour green mangoes, jackfruit, durian, guava, longan, and my personal favorite, the glamorous dragonfruit.