Saturday, September 21, 2013
With Happy Cow listing 68 vegan/vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai (compared to a mere 25 in Melbourne), do you need any more reasons to Northern Thailand?
Chiang Mai is home to over 300 Buddhist temples, hundreds of eateries and a haven for travellers in Asia who don't want shrimp paste in their curry. As we spent 9 days in Chiang Mai, it was a relief that vegan choices beyond the standard curries and Pad Thai abound. Every meal ranged from good to spectacular, including breakfast in our hotel (which, let’s face it, in the best of places can get a bit samey after a few days). The kitchen was always happy to make a vegan hot breakfast to order for the Significant Eater, usually rice or noodle based, supplementing the dazzling array of tropical fruit, salad, sticky rice in banana leaves and amazing juices and iced teas. Vegetarian choices also included eggs cooked to order (my favourite being a Thai omelette with fresh herbs and chilli), pancakes and savoury rice porridge.
We ate most of our meals in the Old City but two of my three top vegan picks are beyond the moat. Keep in mind getting around is easy. For a mere 20 baht (less than a dollar) you can jump in a shared ‘taxi’ (converted ute/pick up truck) or 50 baht for a tuk tuk. For a day trip we found a mid-priced car and driver for 1500 baht (about $50).
Chiang Mai does casual dinning well. Want breakfast, coffee, a beer, late lunch or a three course dinner? These two laid back gems mightn’t look like anything special but warranted return visits. Both offered free wifi, good vegan choices and a relaxed atmosphere.
1. Peppermint cafe 1/1 Soi 5 Rachadamnoen Rd
The menu is a blend of Thai and Western food, including a fusion of both. If you want your salad ‘Thai style’ with extra spice, you will get a fiery hit. One of their specialties is pizza and they didn’t flinch at whipping up a vegan one (the SE said it was the best vegan pizza he’d ever eaten).
2. Nature’sWay Moon Muang Soi 4
The signs proudly state they don't use MSG. Food is fresh and sometimes organically grown. The vegetarian tom yum soup and noodles were free of fishy additives. I loved their big noodles with tofu and vegetables. Friendly staff, who remember your face and welcome you back.
Note: my affection for these cafes was probably heightened by cuddles from neighbourhood cats that stopped by for a smooch.
Sadly we only sampled a handful of the dozens of vegetarian restaurants but these three stood out for the diversity and sheer yumminess of the food.
1. Pun Pun
Wander through the grounds of Suan Dok temple and look for the ‘monk chat’ sign. Pun Pun, an al fresco café, lies beyond.
Pun Pun is run by a sustainable living community and showcases their own organic vegetables. The menu is large and varied. My soup, with nori and a beetroot sauce, was certainly not traditional Thai and defied culinary pigeonholing. Even the spring rolls offered a novel filling. This is a great daytime café (they have a new restaurant further out at the base of the hills that stays open til 8pm), perfect for when you get bored of the usual suspects and want to explore new flavours. Check the website for opening hours (the first time I looked at the site it said ‘closed Wednesday’, the next time it didn’t mention it). Avoid if it’s raining, as there’s very little cover in a downpour.
2. Bodhi Zen 18/5 Ratchvithi Road, Sriphim, Chiang Mai (not far from Thapae Gate)
Did you hear about the Vietnamese monk who opened a vegetarian restaurant in Northern Thailand? Offering ‘world cuisine’, this is another excellent choice for when you want to eat something a little different. The rice balls and cabbage rolls were both spectacular. While the meal was amazing, it was a chaotic and slightly uncomfortable dinning experience (for many, many reasons). But the food is worth it. Really.
3. Radiance Restaurant (at The Spa Resort) 165 Moo 4 Tumbon Huaysai, Chiang Mai
About 40 minutes from the Old City in the grounds of a health resort, Radiance is an upmarket restaurant on the rural fringe of Chiang Mai. The verdant setting is calm and indeed ‘radiant’. I pity those who pay a lot of money to stay here and choose the detox package. While the menu lists a wide range of delicious juices for those fasting, even reading the description of the dishes must drive them wild. Though not strictly a vego restaurant (they offer some fish and chicken) they also have extensive raw food options (the lasagne was a work of art and the raw chocolate dessert is worth a trip to Thailand in itself). Despite not being a fan of mock meat, the 'duck' curry was one of the most emotionally satisfying meals of my holiday. It also serves booze, something many of vego eateries avoid. This place earns the accolade of gourmet, though expensive by local standards is still significantly cheaper than at home. Worth a detour.
Coffee: While Chiang Mai professes to having a ‘coffee culture’, including its home grown answer to Starb*cks, the espressos I sampled were very ordinary. With one notable exception. Akha Ama's beans are organic and sustainably grown in Northern Thailand. They’re serious about their product, have a good rig and train their baristas. I’m not kidding when I say this is possibly the best espresso I’ve ever drunk. They do a mean iced green tea, like no other (possibly with powdered green tea?)
I frequently visited their new café at La Fattoria, Rachadamnoen Rd (past the police station, near Wat Phrasingh).
Markets: There are a plethora of wet markets selling fresh produce, if you want to pick up a kilo mangosteens for less than a dollar. My favourite was San Pakoy, just across the river, perfect for an early morning walk. (Non-vegans might want to try breakfast from the many carts near the market or outside the night bazaar, for some real but undeniably meaty street food).
The Sunday Walking market along Rachadamnoen Rd offers a number of vegan goodies including noodles, barbecued corn and stuffed betel leaves. Don’t forget to take a break between grazing and stop for a foot massage.
Cooking: There are a truck-load of cooking schools in Chiang Mai but I'd heard grumbles that some use vegan-unfriendly curry pastes. We spent a delightful day in the country at Thai Farm Cooking School, on a small organic farm, where we cooked everything from scratched. As you cook your own dishes, there's no problems being in a mixed omni/veg*n class. We had a fun day, visited a local market, cooked a soup, curry, stir fry, noodles and sticky rice...and patted some nice cats.
Maps. The Nancy Chandler map is a Chiang Mai institution, now in it’s 19th edition. It plots a pleasing amount of V’s for vegetarian, along with non-food things to do in town. Don’t forget to check online for updates (unlike us, who didn’t and went on a thwarted hunt for the cat sanctuary and wooden foot bridge). You can pick up your map from any of the bookstores in Chiang Mai selling English language books.
Want more tips? Check out my entry on Chiang Mai in my travel blog.
Monday, August 05, 2013
Nettle, sorrel and mushroom soup
As a milestone birthday looms I’ve been reflecting on my life. Quite distinct from nostalgia, it’s more akin to curating a body of work, acknowledging the themes and reappraising lessons.
This process of review is even invading my cooking. There’s been no new discoveries, just old recipes revisited and reworked. Why toss out a recipe for being old school when it can be upcycled with a twist of ingredients?
For example I’ve crossed muffins with carnival cookies to make a vegan chocolate and cherry mini-muffin scented with mixed spice. This weekend saw a hybrid version of rice balls and soy bombs, flecked with seaweed. (I’ll blog the recipes later if you want them).
The nettle soup has evolved over the last few winters. A smaller crop this yet sent me searching for something in the garden to pad it out and sorrel fit the bill so perfectly, I don’t know why I never tried it before. If you’ve got neither, substitute another green like broccoli for a more than passable soup and add a squeeze of lemon before serving to recreate the citrus zing.
Nettle, sorrel and mushroom soup
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large potato, peeled and diced
1 (gloved) handful, nettles
1 handful, sorrel
150 grams mushrooms, sliced
1 litre good quality vegetable stock
Prep the vegetables. If using greens from the garden wash well and inspect for snails (they seem to love my sorrel). In a large, heavy based saucepan heat the olive oil and sauté the onions until translucent. Toss in the garlic and stir for a minute or two, then add the potatoes. Next add the mushrooms and let them sweat a little. Lastly throw in the nettles and sorrel, allowing the greens to wilt before covering with vegetable stock. Top up with water if necessary.
Turn the heat down so the soup can gently simmer for about 20 minutes. Remember to stir every now and then and check there is enough water. When the potatoes are soft, blend with a stick blender. I like a little texture in the soup, rather than homogeneously smooth. Return to the pot to reheat and season as desired with salt and pepper.
Thursday, July 04, 2013
New York - Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg
After two days of torrential rain in New York (hello tropical storm Andrea), we farewelled the octogenarian traveller. Miraculously the clouds parted as he headed for Newark airport and we jumped a taxi downtown to our new digs in West Village. It was a relief to leave the tourist tat of Times Square behind.
Dropping our bags at our Airbnb apartment and slipping into walking shoes, it was time to activate the virgin subway card and hit Brooklyn.
It wasn’t so much a shopping trip but a street food pilgrimage.
After a quick look at the Fort Greene greenmarket we hoofed it to the Saturday Flea. Though a better than average vintage and craft market, the best thing about it was the grazing.
First off, some vegan ‘noodles’. In need of something raw and nutritious this amply hit the spot.
Once the nutritional halo had been polished it was time for sugary refreshments. Couldn’t go past the rhubarb and Thai basil soda. The savoury hit after the initial fruitiness on the palate was inspiring.
Scouting for vegan goodies was derailed by the discovery of mahi-mahi taco (sans crème), fresh soft tortilla, grilled tuna and an inspiring green apple salsa. The green apple salsa got me googling for recipes.
With the afternoon getting on we jumped the subway to Bedford Ave and lucked upon the coolest place in New York, closed to traffic for the day. Hipsters chilling out on astroturf, a swathe of great shops and even a vegan ice cream truck – who could ask for more?
After a wander and partaking of the food truck’s delights, the day was getting on. Smorgasurg awaited and the biggest surprise wasn’t just the awesome array of vegan foods on offer, amongst the usual piggy parts, but the amazing view of Manhattan just across the East River.
It almost broke my foodie heart to not be hungry but somehow forced down a tart cherry cola (not as exciting as the rhubarb) and sampled the blackberry chocolate vegan ice cream. We thought the Van Leeuewen was good but the Alchemy Creamery nudged them out of first place.
The Saturday Smorgasburg has a laid back vibe, wonderful views and food worth fasting a day for, to work up a worthy appetite.
After a gazillion photos of the Manhattan skyline, we had a quick rummage at the artist and flea market on 7th Street. (Tip: probably the closest toilet to Smorgasburg), then back to the wonders of Williamsburg Walks and delights on Bedford Ave. With its stylish boutiques, browse-worthy bookshops, cafes and yet another vegan restaurant, Williamsburg on a sunny Saturday put the glitz of 42nd Street to shame.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, San Francisco
An unexpected bonus of a travelling north in winter is catching a second taste of summer. Just as the fruit and veg at home starts getting dreary, along comes another hit of sun blushed abundance.
Late spring in San Francisco dished up all-you-can-eat cherries, asparagus and artichokes. We also gorged on fresh dates and beautiful beetroots. The Rainier cherries in particular were a burst of sunshine in each mouthful. At $7 a pound for organic, they were also way cheaper than at home during our short cherry season.
I only made it to the smaller midweek market at the FerryPlaza, the Saturday one is much larger but was suitably wowed by the variety and quality of the produce.
Blue Bottle Coffee (they also have a permanent stall inside) sufficiently caffeinated me to Melbourne levels. Toby had given me a heads up to look out for them in the US and their cafes are liberally sprinkled throughout San Francisco and New York.
There were liberal opportunities to taste the market goodies; I just wished I’d left room for the hot tamales. Once we’d had our fill outside, there were the wonders of the ferry building itself to explore. You can read omni blogs about the infamous Cowgirl Creamery and the shop specialising in ‘tasty salted pig parts’ but it was Far West Fungi that had me drooling. Their array of wild and cultivated mushrooms had me crying out for a kitchen but I almost howled at having to forgo experimenting with fiddlehead ferns.
I got over my woe with cleansing ale at MarketBar, one of a number on upmarket restaurants in the building, then jumped on the Sausalito ferry (it is a commuter terminal after all) to escape the madness of downtown San Francisco. Like all great cities, a little distance never hurts to help you enjoy it, just a little bit more.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Greens: simplicity in San Francisco
Five days in San Francisco without an agenda is an interesting prospect. Well that’s not true. We had one. My sister’s only request was a meal at the stalwart vegetarian restaurant Greens.
We embarked on the journey to lunch on a beautiful spring day. From the heart of Union Square, awash with panhandlers and the cheerful ding of the cable cars, we instead took ‘streetcar’ to Fisherman’s Wharf. Sure the cable cars are fun but not if you have to wait an hour to hop aboard. The old trams from around the world (including Melbourne) run down Market Street from the wharf to the Castro. Each car is different and equally as character filled. Each trip an adventure in itself.
Once we headed beyond the Embarcadero, directions to Fort Mason were sketchy. While the map, on paper at least, showed a clear route down Bay Street, on the ground it was illusive. Instead the footpath lured us over the hill to the marina, through the small National Park. The ascent was bolstered by spectacular views of the bay and the Marina on the other side welcomed us. The sprawling Green Meadows Park felt a million miles away from the homeless in the city centre. But it still took us a considerable amount of time to find the restaurant once we’d made it to the suburb on the other side.
With literally five minutes to spare before the end of lunch service we finally arrived at Greens, relieved to be welcomed to a table at 2.30pm. The stress evaporated as we sat in the light-filled converted warehouse, watching yachts bob outside in front of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The view is complemented by a spacious interior fit out in mostly reclaimed timber, high ceilings and large artworks.
My only hesitation about Greens had been the menu belying its 70s vego roots. To be honest, perusing the website, none of the few dairy-free offerings seemed that inspiring but I shouldn’t have been concerned. By mid-afternoon and the hike, anything would have tasted good! The food at Greens though simple was the freshest I tasted on my holiday.
My sister’s Spring Sampler sounded a little dull but the plate was ample, the just picked veggies popping with taste.
So too my Mesquite Grilled Brochettes – vegetable and tofu skewers smothered in a tasty green chimichurri sauce, served with a spicy slaw and red/brown rice. The organic baby potatoes and chunks of pale corn were most flavoursome that I’ve ever eaten.
Even the octogenarian omnivore enjoyed his cheesy pizza.
The ambience at Greens enhanced the experienced. While only a couple of diners remained so late in the service (an elderly pair celebrating an anniversary and a middle aged guy the spitting image of all the ‘barefoot millionaires’ I’d met in Oregon on my previous visit) the staff didn’t hurry any of us, as if understanding the importance of atmosphere on digestion.
I’ve mentioned before that Australia doesn’t do high-endveg*n dining well. Without fuss, Greens is beautiful yet relaxed, with a million dollar view, laid back but efficient staff and every sense catered for. It ticks all the boxes with style and good taste.
Much to our surprise, the octogenarian who’d struggled over the hill on the inbound journey wanted to amble back through the sculptures of Green Meadow Park and take in the views of Alcatraz, Fisherman’s wharf and the bridge once more. Without the pressure of time and unknown geography and relaxed from a satisfying lunch washed down with an organic beer, we could relax into the beauty of the small National Park.
Greens is worth an excursion, so close to the hackneyed San Francisco tourist sights but a million miles away from the urban tension. Choose it for the sheer simple flavours of the produce, inspiring natural design of the restaurant and the iconic views. But most of all Greens is a spa for the senses, proving simplicity of flavour wins over culinary trickery every time.