Breaking the Fast with Kolak (Indonesia)

For me, there’s no shortage of delectable desserts in Indonesia.  They might include local fruit such as the starfruit, papaya, and the “snake fruit” salak, a combo dinner-dessert- for example, peanut sauce (bumbu kacang) for sate, or traditional sweets like cucur (pronounced “chu-churr”) and bika ambon.

Today’s topic, kolak, might be my favorite Indonesian dessert yet:

It is one of many dishes most popular during the month of Ramadan.  Consequently, it’s considered a tajil, or a snack consumed at iftar, which is the point at which one breaks the fast.

Though I tried the above version in Bandung, there are various types of kolak through Indonesia.  For the base, you’ll need coconut milk.  Knowing that, each time I eat kolak I’ll have to find a belt with an extra notch in it.  Palm sugar or coconut sugar, and if available, a sweet-smelling but uniquely pleasant pandanus leaf are also typical ingredients.  The pandanus leaf, also known as screw pine, lends its flavor to numerous Southeast Asian desserts.

From here on, I’m pretty sure kolak is a dumping ground for all sorts of fruits.  The one that I tried had sweet potatoes, bananas, and cassava with palm sugar, as well as a mystery item, which I believe is called kolang-kaling, or sugar palm fruit.  In all, kolak has great texture, a sneaky way to get vitamins (which might make it kid-friendly), and can be served either hot or cold…except that if you choose the latter, and your only option is street food, you might want to harvest your own ice.


Have you ever tried kolak?  Think it should come to a street vendor near you?

Best Street Food Nominees: Seafood Vadai in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Clearly, I haven’t thought this through.

What do I mean?…”The winner of best street food.”  Yikes, that’s never going to happen.  There are myriad candidates for this category, and that’s a good thing.

But if I had to choose a nominee right now it would be one that comes to us all the way from Staten Island Colombo, Sri Lanka.  I think highly of the presence of pumpkin and beets in contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine, and have equally fond memories of strolling along Galle Face Green, a downtown Colombo park right in front of the historic Galle Face Hotel.  Though the park’s other selling points include a boardwalk along the Indian Ocean, as well as pick-up cricket matches, the highlight for me was the vadai:

Vadai come in many forms, but these particular snacks are flattened fried lentil flour patties.  Some enterprising character decided that these weren’t filling enough, so, in a master stroke, decided to top some with fresh crab and prawns.  Slather on lime juice, chili sauce, and mix with chopped onions for an even greater meal.


If you could only choose one “best street food,” which would it be?

Georgian Bread Boats, Also Known As Khachapuri Adjaruli

I briefly visited the country of Georgia twice, in 2008 and 2018.  For my first visit, I was a bit wet-behind-the-ears, unsure of what I was doing there, and more importantly, what to eat.

After a random meal at a wine cellar in Tbilisi, its capital, I was floored by the deliciousness not only of the food, but also the wine.  And even after piling on the kebabs, the pomegranate seeds, the walnut sauces, and the spontaneous lessons in viniculture by the waitstaff, I wanted to know more about Georgian food.  So, I sampled baklava, cherry juice, quince jam, and khinkali (dumpling)…all excellent.

Yet, it took me the return trip to New York to find out about the mother-ship of savory bread, that being khachapuri.

Khachapuri, Adjari-style

Khachapuri (in Georgian, ხაჭაპური) is the catch-all for cheese-filled leavened bread, whereas “khach” = curd, and “puri” = breadDifferent regions in Georgia have their own methods to prepare khachapuri, but today’s post will focus squarely on the version from Adjara, along its southwestern border with Turkey.

Khachapuri Adjaruli with Eggplant in Walnut Sauce and Cornelian Cherry Nectar

Khachapuri Adjaruli, quite simply, is a carbohydrate AND fat paradise.  What does that mean?  Inside of the bread canoe, you will find butter, eggs, and briny Sulguni cheese.  Nothing leafy and green – i.e. healthy – to get in the way, just pure corporeal malevolence.

Brooklyn’s Toné Café, where I first tried Khachapuri Adjaruli (notice the slices of butter in the foreground)

How do you eat it?  Mix up the butter, eggs, and cheese to create a “soup,” then start tearing off the bread bit by bit, dunking it into your the heady mix.  After you’re done, you may not want to eat for the rest of the year – make sure you’re trying it on December 31st to cheat – but oh is it ever worth it.

On my second visit to Tbilisi, I literally took a cab from the airport to Cafe Khachapuri, not because I read that it was good, but because just look at that name.


Have you ever taken on khachapuri adjaruli?  Did you, too succumb to its cheesy goodness?

Japanese Desserts: The College Potato (大学芋)

Around autumn-time in Japan is when the yaki imo (焼き芋), or roasted (sweet) potato, trucks start to ply the residential areas, as the drivers playing an eerie recording trying to either tempt or frighten human hunger pangs.  Sure, you’ve got the beautiful fall foliage, chestnut acolytes and a gradual decrease in purgatorial temperatures, but none of those things reminds me more that I’m in Tokyo than those mystifying lorries, err trucks.

Except that, I haven’t always had the great luck in finding them.  While living in Tokyo many years ago, my interminable walks normally took me through the commercial and/or high-rise districts, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ginza, and Shimbashi (for some reason; well they did have cheap eats), but I have an inkling that heading towards Nezu/Asakusa/Yanaka/even Akasaka would’ve been better ideas to pinpoint the truck’s location.

Then again, as much as I love sweet potatoes, they’re quite easy to find around the world.  Not quite as common?  Daigaku imo (大学芋), the college potato.

Daigaku imo became an instant staple food for me while studying in Tokyo, and their super sweet nature has stayed with me ever since.  In essence, they are fried sweet potatoes, coated with black sesame seeds and sugar syrup.

According to the Research Institute of Japanese Potatoes – really – the college potato most likely came about at the beginning of the Showa era (1926 – 1989), when Japan had been going through a difficult economic period.  This was made worse by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, which almost completely flattened Tokyo.  In order for college students to pay their dues, many started to sell what we now know as the daigaku imo.

The sweet – on – sweet daigaku imo reminds me of a couple of northern Chinese desserts;  one is diced sweet potatoes fried in caramel that you’d dip in water to cool off, and the other is bingtanghulu, or sugar-coated fruit skewers.   Has anyone found college potato outside of Japan?  I haven’t yet, but there is a small consolation that deserves mention–

Although it says satsuma imo (さつまいも) yam flavor, the description mentions that it has a hint of black sesame as well, not to mention, look at the photo!  They were quite alright, and much more lenient on the incisors, but the last time I saw them was in 2006…perhaps you, the reader, knows where to get them.


I’d like to try daigaku imo in cheesecake form…how about you?

Singapore’s Kaya Toast

Many fellow travelers have played up Singapore’s role as an eating paradise.  That said, my first time there, in August 2004, I didn’t have much choice in what – or where – I ate.  That said, I was instantly fond of two foods in the Lion City.  The first, fried mantou (steamed buns), chili crab and its delicious sauce at the East Coast dining promenade.  The second?  Kaya jam and toast.

Kaya jam counts as its main ingredients coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan,  a tropical leaf with a uniquely sweet flavor that has also been used to enhance the taste of ice cream, as well as on its own in cakes.  The color of kaya can be more green (as in the jar above) or more brown, depending on how much pandan is used.  I think the stuff is great, but undoubtedly sweet; after a pandan binge in Kuala Lumpur, I was incapacitated for a few minutes.  It’s common in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and I’ve found it in the states as well, in a few different Chinatowns.

Usually, it’s spread on grilled toast.  With butter.

What’s that…coconut and butter?  Well, just take a look:

The layer of butter is almost thicker than a slice of bread

Singapore makes it easy for you.  There’s no need to spare a moment to search the city-state for this artery-clogging delight.  As soon as you arrive at Changi Airport, make a beeline for a food court, where the fun awaits.  You say there are long queues at immigration, and you don’t have any Singapore dollars?  No worries, use your excess euros, drams, people’s money, or punts and make sure to get a “sandwich” for passport control too, it beats the unusually-flavored hard candies that they offer when you are allowed in.

Oh, and in case you think the kaya toast counters might dash your dreams and run out of butter:

Seems (US) state fair-worthy


If you have tried kaya jam before, how have you enjoyed it?  Virtual high-fives to all of those folks who eat it right out of the jar.

A Tale of Six Ceviche (in Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru)

Ceviche (seh-VEE-chay) – or, is it cebiche? – is one of Peru’s most famous culinary exports, though its origins are indeed a mystery.  It might have stemmed from the Incas, who discovered that chicha, or fermented maize, could help preserve seafood.  Perhaps it was the Spanish conquistadors from Andalusia, who introduced different citruses such as lime and orange to the region.  Or, did the Japanese, after their first wave of emigration to Peru in 1899, lend a hand in ceviche’s modern-day presentation?

No matter who created it, ceviche is one of my all-time favorite seafood dishes.  But, just like how pizza comes in many forms, the definition of ceviche is wide open to interpretation.

Though many countries in Latin America may make a claim to similar seaside fare, Peru’s is undoubtedly the most celebrated:

Whereas these days there are countless cevichería dotting Lima’s culinary scene, the classic way is to mix up diced fish, salt, chilies, red onion, and lime juice, with that last one added to cook the fish. Finally, place camote – sweet potato on one side, and corn on other.

And now the question you’ve all been wondering…what do you do with the spicy lime juice mixture after you’ve gulped down the ceviche?  In Peru, that delicious stuff is called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), and can be consumed as a shot; it’s often though of as a cure for resaca, or hangovers.

Now that we know about the standard ceviche, what could anyone possibly want to change with the recipe, especially with something called tiger’s milk?

On that note, let’s switch national capitals, from Lima, Peru to Quito, Ecuador.  Ecuador has some really tasty meals, too, but their typical ceviche tends to have a tomato sauce-base (sometimes ketchup) and shrimp, and is served with popcorn and/or plantain chips:

What these two bowls might lack in aesthetic value, they more than made up for it in flavor!  Still, ketchup in ceviche…I hope it was used sparingly.  But, this does help me transition to the next country on our ceviche trip through Latin America, Mexico…

Why am I skipping over places like Colombia, Cuba, and Chile?  Simple…I haven’t tried ceviche in them.  Also, I could save the “three Cs” for another post.  Gotta strategize!

Moving on to one of my top three food countries, I had a friend in the state of Veracruz who found great joy in showing off her country’s food.  Who am I to argue?  In the case of the first photo, we tried a marisquería (mariscos = seafood) called Mariscos El Bayo.  On the menu, besides freshly caught crab were shrimp ceviche tostadas (tostada = big toasted tortilla):

Whoa, whoa, now they’re taking the liquid aspect away, and instead placing a slice of avocado?  Mixed feelings, to be sure.  Why can’t we have the avocado in EVERY ceviche – even if they are native to Mexico – AND get some piquant leche de tigre action?

Huh?  Now, you’ve taken away the avocado, used a very sweet tomato sauce, but raised the bar with a whole glut of different seafood?  That’s right, at Coctelería Cajun, in Ciudad del Carmen in the state of Campeche, shrimp and octopus are the norm.  Can’t complain about that.  Plus, it had oysters, crab, squid, and snail; no wonder it was called Vuelva a la Vida, or “{it} brings you back to life!”

By this point, you might be thinking, the ceviche looks great and all, but I furl my brow at these inexpensive-looking wares and utensils.  Popcorn, harrumph!

Fine.  I’ve saved the boujee – but equally scrumptious – ceviche for the last.  Enter, Agua & Sal, a cebichería located in the upmarket Polanco district of Mexico City.  They have delectable Peruvian and Mexican offerings of ceviche, as well as separate fish and seafood dishes.  Although I did try Agua & Sal’s mainstay Peruvian ceviche, and an excellent plate of scallops, I will highlight their cebiche a la leña:

Taking ceviche to another level, the leña, or firewood, lended a smoky, earthy flavor to the shrimp and róbalo, or sea bass, and the red onions and chile rayado (dried, smoked chile) salsa provided the welcome heat.  Really, I would go back in a heartbeat to any of these six places, and Agua & Sal…is no exception.


I hope that you’ve learned a bit more about the varying styles of ceviche today, and maybe you could even share where you’ve had your best plate, no matter where in the world it was!

2021 Pandemic Travel, from Mexico to Mexico (with a Brief Border Crossing Guide)

During a stint in Chicago a few years ago, I found that Frontier Airlines offered some really good deals to/from Harlingen, Texas (airport code HRL), close to the Mexican border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros.   Then, from one of those cities, it’s a cheap flight to where ever else in Mexico.

Selling corn by Reynosa’s main bus station, Mexico

Yes, why not escape those sultry winters for which Illinois is so famous?

Now, some might say those Mexican border cities don’t have the greatest reputation for safety.  The same could be said about many US cities.  Those two sentences don’t cancel each other out, but I also don’t wander around sporting ostentatious jewelry, Mamiya cameras, or Señor Frog’s apparel.

Having already become familiar with crossing from Reynosa to Hidalgo/McAllen multiple times, and then once from Matamoros to Brownsville, I felt comfortable testing the Texas border again last month, after having been in Mexico for a few weeks.

Even more amusing?  My destination*: Mexico, Missouri.

Now, to address the elephant in the room, as of January 26th, 2021, all international flights landing in the US require passengers to show negative COVID-19 test results, with few exceptions.  However, land borders are exempt from this.  I booked my ticket to Mexico before this was announced, and only ever book one-ways.

After a pleasant and delicious part-business/part-leisure trip to Mexico, it came time to say “hasta la próxima,” or until next time.  First stop, Reynosa, via Mexico City.

The new Reynosa terminal had just opened a few days prior, and it was certainly a world of difference from the older claustrophobic structure.  I guess it comes down to business people visiting maquiladoras, or mostly tariff- and duty-free factories, often near the US border.   From leaving the plane to hopping in a 280 peso taxi (pre-paid; I asked for a receipt, but they didn’t “have” any) to the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge. it took all of 30 minutes.  Not bad.

Once you’re deposited at the pedestrian bridge, you will find a number of dentists and pharmacies, extant primarily for Texans scouting cheaper prices.  It’s a bit grimy, though, and food options weren’t plentiful.  Though, I did manage to score some tasty parting steak tacos:

Found on Calle Zaragoza, I think this order of six tacos cost less than 50 pesos!

I grant you that hygiene practices were a little suspect, but I will be damned if I wasn’t going to get one more Mexican meal before leaving to fast-foodsville.

Once you’re ready to cross to Texas, you can amble up the white gently-inclining wheelchair/luggage-accessible pedestrian bridge in the plaza.  Note: you will need to have a 5 peso coin (or I think 25 cents) to exit Mexico, although they do not have any exit formalities other than a turnstile.

Having done this trip a few times, I can’t estimate how long it would take to cross.  The average wait time for me was ~45 minutes, but you may want to take into consideration customs officers taking lunch breaks, weekends, holidays, etc.

Once on the Texas side – called Hidalgo – there’s…not much.  Duty free shops, comida corrida (fast food), shady taxis, and vans.  Luckily, Lyft operates in the area, and can whisk you away to the nearest large city, McAllen, and its convenient airport (airport code MFE):

Earlier, I said that my destination was Mexico, Missouri.  That’s partially true.  I was visiting family in the St. Louis-area, and wanted to drive around a bit, looking for really local bbq.  Noticing Mexico on the map, I made it so.

Going from this…

to this…

You might ask, why would you ever want to leave the southerly Mexico for this one?

Well, I have prepared a rejoinder, just for you: “I don’t know.”

I’d rather be in Reynosa

You see, there was talk of a giant tater tot stuffed with barbecue at one restaurant, and the fallback across the street sounded just as good.  Alas, due to a combination of the pandemic, and restaurants not updating their search engine details, no bbq for me.  And to throw salt in the wound, the best edible I could find in the area (i.e. that was open) was a sweet peanut corn flake snack from a chain store:

Taco, eat your heart out:(


The moral of the story? Crossing the Mexico-US land border = piece of cake, visiting Mexico, Missouri = better to go when it doesn’t look like the rapture just took place.

Manado’s Tinutuan (Indonesian Food)

Working in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, had been an incredible eye-opener to the (understatement of the year) diverse world of Indonesian food.  Specifically, I’m referring to makanan Manado, or food from the mostly Catholic city of Manado on the island of Sulawesi.

My office at the time was a three-minute walk to a Manadonese eatery, which first introduced me to the fiery, no holds-barred cuisine.  It is best known for its smoked cakalang, or skipjack tuna, spicy sambal, or chili pastes, and for cooking basically anything.

After a visit to what is likely one of the world’s more colorful wet markets in Tomohon, Indonesia, I was inconveniently feeling peckish.  I say that because, I went to the market specifically on an empty stomach, but left with an even emptier one.  None of the wet market stalls had anything ready-to-eat, so it was up to visiting neighboring street vendors for a bite.

After a few days of chowing down on a veritable Noah’s Ark, it was time for something…tame.  Enter, tinutuan/bubur Manado, or Manadonese porridge:

OK, so the word tame was used above in somewhat jocular manner.  You see, although tinutuan is a hot watery local rice porridge made with pumpkin, corn, water spinach, and other ingredients less likely to harry PETA worshipers, it is still typically served with a piquant sambal.  Tinutuan, like bubur in other parts of the country, is much more common as a breakfast dish; it’s fast, ingredients are cheap and plentiful, and no street vendor ever has to worry about washing dishes for the next customer.  Whoops, the cat’s out of the bag.

By the way, the Indonesian version of “there’s no use crying over spilled milk” is nasi sudah menjadi bubur.  Which is to say, “the rice has already become porridge.”

Bingtanghulu (冰糖葫芦), A Supersweet Chinese Treat

Bingtanghulu at Wangfujing Night Market, Beijing, China

China’s 冰糖葫芦 bīng​táng​hú​lu are what you offer to someone who has grown tired of having teeth.  I suppose you could say it’s China’s version of Coca-Cola.  Basically, a skewer of bingtanghulu is a blanket of sugar around pieces of fruit.

This street food is more popular in northern China in the winter months, though I have spotted it at touristy markets during the summer, too.  Since bingtanghulu is a snack in the mainland, pretty much any fruit (botanically or not) is at risk of becoming impaled on the bamboo stick.  Thus, cherry tomatoes, plums, melon, kumquat, bananas, strawberries, haw, smoked duck necks – most of those, anyhow – will do.  Here are an English recipe and a Chinese recipe for your indulgent pleasures.

Have you tried bingtanghulu?  Would you compare it to coating baklava with a layer of spun sugar?


Chinese Lesson
冰 bīng “ice”
糖 táng “sugar”
葫芦 húlu “calabash/bottle gourd”

Waiter, There’s Salt Outside Your Restaurant (Japan)

Years ago, before I went to teach English in Shenzhen, China, I happened upon a satirical video about the traditions of eating in a Japanese restaurant. What can one do, besides wax famished about those daily searches for good eats?

More importantly, what does Shenzhen have to do with this?…

Once settled in there, in order to spice up my daily Chinese meals, I went looking for Japanese food.  After stumbling upon a vertical “Japantown” in Luo Hu, the old commercial center of Shenzhen, I started to explore different floors of the building.  Seedy stuff – with discounts for Japanese businessmen – was located on the top floors, whereas just below those were restaurants.

Hungry, I alighted to find something that had been making me chuckle since watching the sushi video above:

Just what am I pointing to?

Salt.  Right outside of a Japanese restaurant.

The mound of salt is known in Japanese as 盛塩 (morishio).  Why was it there?  I asked the manager, and she didn’t know.  Though, one theory says that it was placed out front by the door sill in the event that your meal wasn’t salty enough.  Other possibilities include a nobleman being present in the restaurant, or that when you pass through the door you’ll be purified.  Another two mention that salt is placed there for good luck for the owner, or to keep evil spirits away from one’s abode (in Japanese).

Imagine at your own discretion, but please, the next time you reach for a bit of salt, think of your kidneys.

Morishio, “lucky salt,” outside of a Fukuoka Sushi Restaurant


Have you noticed this when you’ve gone out for Japanese food?  Have you taken advantage?