Spicy Asian – Authentic Szechuan in Ithaca

Wherever I go, for work or for personal travel, I like to hit a good restaurant during my trip.  If that restaurant can be a Silk Road restaurant, all the better.  I had the chance this past weekend to find a little gem of a Chinese restaurant in downtown Ithaca, New York.  Spicy Asian restaurant is a small place on Elmira Road, that delivers a knockout of a great dinner.

The restaurant has two menus.  the first is packed with Chinese-American standards like General Tso’s Chicken and Orange Chicken as well as Egg Rolls and Wonton Soup.  The second menu, and the reason I chose to dine there, is a menu filled with authentic Szechuan specialities featuring sour cabbage, tripe, frog, pig trotters, and fish prepared in a myriad of different ways.

Meal at Spicy Asian in Ithaca, NY
Meal at Spicy Asian in Ithaca, NY

I started with a couple of appetizers I just couldn’t resist: peanuts in black vinegar and a tea egg. The peanuts were boiled to perfection and mixed with black vinegar, Asian cucumbers and spring onions, and the tea egg was fragrant with star anise and cinnamon with a gentle flavor of strong black tea.

For the main course, I chose the Sliced Fish with Sour Cabbage. The fish was tender but firm, and easy to eat with chopsticks, in a savory and lightly sour brown sauce. The cabbage was sliced into long ribbons that provided a strongly sour accent to the mild white fish.

I sipped green tea throughout the meal and afterwards got to chat with the owner’s mother and beautiful young daughter. I wish I had more time to spend with them and their little gem of a restaurant, and I have only one regret – that I wasn’t dining with a group of people to sample more of their wonderful food.

If you are in Ithaca and looking for some really good Szechuan specialities, Spicy Asian is highly recommended.

(Words and photo by Laura Kelley.)

An Evening in Tashkent

If you ever find yourself hungry in Tashkent and want a wonderful sit-down dining experience, go to The Caravan.  The food is classic Uzbek: Lagman, Norin, Beshbarmak, and Manti, and it is very good.  But the dining experience at Caravan goes beyond the food, the restaurant is a work of art, and its beauty enhances the enjoyment of the food. The garden is draped with grape arbors and colorful ikat fabrics as well as beautiful handicrafts.

The Caravan
The Caravan

Traditional Uzbek music plays softly and water gently flows and turns an old-fashioned water wheel. Broad, shallow threshing baskets adorn the roughly plastered walls, and chili peppers are everywhere to warn off the evil eye. Kitchen utensils of heavy cast iron – pans, spatulas and ladles are also add to the authentic look and feel of the place. In addition to western table-and-chair eating arrangements, there are traditional Uzbek platforms with low tables on them around which people curl up, sip tea and enjoy the light Spring breeze.

Caravan Restaurant, Traditional Uzbek Table
The Caravan, Traditional Uzbek Table

In case you missed it the first time, go back to the first picture and take a look at the antique Suzani that hangs on the back wall. I love how the embroidered circles in the cloth work with the baskets hung on the wall, and I love the personal touch that it brings to the table. It was once part of a girl’s dowry and her temperament and patience was judged by how finely and consistently she perfected her stiches. Every stich tells a story.

Chili Peppers and Water Wheel
Chili Peppers and Water Wheel

Our meal started with a pot of green tea with lemon. I got re-acquainted with the Uzbek tea ritual in which the host pours the tea into his or her own cup and back into the pot three times – this mixes the tea with the water and makes it more flavorful. Then the host drinks a few sips from his own cup to show that the tea isn’t poison. Then he offers tea to his guests in a pecking order based on age with the oldest or most senior person first. Another wonderful tea ritual is that if bubbles form in the middle of the cup when poured, you quickly touch them with your fingers and then touch your head and pocket. This symbolizes money and that money will come to you.

Basket Decoration, Detail
Basket Decoration, Detail

With the tea we had a plain lepyoshka with a few sesame seeds on top. It was very puffy and airy which means that yeast was used in the baking. Lepyoshka with yeast is a variation that has become very popular as an alternative to the more traditional, dense, unleavened constructions. With the lepyoshka we had katik yogurt with lots of cream on the top of the glass.

I had the lagman. Simple, I know, but I do love it, and this bowl was by far the best I have ever had. The bowl was filled with different types of noodles, greens, meat and bathed in a light but flavorful broth. There were wheat-based noodles, rice noodles and an egg-based angel-hair noodle that had different textures and flavors. Onions, spring onions and slices of garlic made up the vegetable base, along with red and green bell peppers and bits of tomato. There were also minced greens, with cilantro and dill leading the way for added flavor. The bits of mutton provided its usual earthy flavor blast but was wonderfully tender. What really made the dish stunning was the broth. A lamb or mutton-base with a distinct tomato overtone formed the soup-base. Above that were subtle but definite flavors of star anise and cinnamon. I shared a bit with one of my dining companions and she agreed that it was fabulous.

The Best Lagman Ever
The Best Lagman Ever

The lagman was served with a carafe of diluted pomegranate vinegar flavored with dill, daikon radish and a red pepper. Condiments were a minced combination of green chili peppers, scallions, red chili peppers, onions, tomato and garlic with a light, dilute white vinegar on them, and some chili peppers pounded with lots of sumac. Simply heavenly!

Also on the table were pumpkin manti with a mild garlic yogurt cream dressing, lamb dolma with a gentle yogurt and dill dressing and chuchvara – a wonderful dumpling swimming in a flavorful broth. The selection of drinks on the table included tea, fresh-squeezed orange juice and the ubiquitous carbonated cola. All in all it was a great meal to begin a wonderful adventure. Tomorrow, I go in search of norin. Stay tuned!

(All Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

The Flavors of Uzbekistan

Bкусный Oбедающий Uzbek!

[mp3-jplayer tracks=”ozbekvalsi.mp3″]

Uzbekistan is a place to dream about: a far-away land of palaces, emperors, mosques and some of the world’s most beautiful stark and stunning scenery. A sigh, a sip of tea, and no matter where you are, you imagine yourself perusing the exotic goods in crowded market, or on a caravan heading east towards the Fergana, with its dangers, mysteries and potential treasures.

Interior in Samarkand

You could go to Uzbekistan and have adventures, true, but an easier way to get there is by feasting on good Uzbek food. A few weeks ago I discovered a restaurant just outside of Baltimore that offers the ability to imagine Uzbekistan while sampling some of the many great dishes the cuisine has to offer.

As soon as we entered Choyhona’s unassuming storefront I knew this was going to be a good place to try Uzbek food. There were two tables of men talking loudly, eating kebabs and drinking out of BYO-bottles of vodka and a table of women gathered to celebrate a baby shower, drinking tea and enjoying Uzbek naan and salads.

Colorful Uzbek needlework adorned the light-colored walls which were decorated with areas of mud and straw around which wooden beams were set to give the restaurant the feel of a traditional country dwelling. Yes, Choyhona felt like the real deal, and it had a roomful of Russian and former-Soviet émigrés who all looked like regulars to prove it. Even before I took my seat, I realized that the people here came for the food, for the camaraderie, and for the authentic ambience of a Central Asian cafe.

The menu is in both Russian and English and has a nice selection of Uzbek and Central Asian food. Most of the traditional dishes are found under salads and soups – several meat and vegetable salads dressed with mayonnaise, or several with the sour yogurt called suzma. There are also a few salads based on fried vegetables (eggplants) and on grated or shredded vegetables, such as the Markovcha salad of matchsticked carrots.

Shurpa

My husband and I started with a lagman and a shurpa, two of the great Central Asian soups, and they were both delicious, if a bit on the mild side. I smelled the dill from the shurpa before the bowl even hit the table. Its translucent broth harboring bits of meat and vegetable with a bit of fat glistening on the surface was a wonderful way to warm up on a cold day. The not-quite even edge of the lagman noodles told us that they were indeed homemade and they were both flavorful and cooked to perfection.

While waiting for the soups we had a glass of ayran – lightly drained yogurt and soda water – to get in the Western and Central Asian groove. The one we had that day was plain, but it can also be flavored with black pepper or mint. The kids, stayed far away from the ayran and the soups and contented themselves by sucking down sodas as they waited for their food.

Next up were a plate of pumpkin manti – stuffed steamed dumplings – served with a lightly spicy and sour tomato-based sauce. The pumpkin was seasoned with a combination of cumin, coriander and a bit of dill along with salt and black pepper, and was absolutely delicious – especially with a dollop of sauce. FYI, for those with children, this dish was also kid tested and approved.

The center of the meal was a plate of kebabs that provided a nice sampling of the menu. We tried chicken, lamb, beef lulya, and the delicatessen kebab. We enjoyed these with a plate of marinated vegetables and a lightly-spiced yogurt dressing as well as more of the manti sauce. The chicken and lamb were good, but the most fabulous was by far the kebab made from strongly spiced minced beef – the lulya kebab.

Uzbek Manti

I can’t review Choyhona without discussing the very classy way they slipped lamb testicles onto the menu – they are the “delicatessen” kebabs. I’ve never really been a fan of eating genitals for dinner. I don’t like the smooth, dense texture, and I don’t really care for the strong flavor – which I call “crotchy”. That said, these little kebabs were the best testicles I’ve ever had. Still, I’d rather have a second lulya kebab than a delicatessen kebab, so there will be plenty around for those of you who like them.

My son had the lamb chop kebab with fries had he absolutely loved it!! I tasted it and the lamb was quite good – well cooked, but still soft and delicious. My daughter had the chicken tabaka the flattened and spiced fowl dish eaten from Western through Central Asia which she liked a lot. Our kids usually travel with us and eat a lot of unusual food when we are on the road. However, when they return home, their dietary habits tend to take a turn for the pedestrian. So, it’s great to find an ethnic restaurant here in the States that the kids like.

We ended the meal with a nice pot of green tea and some good conversation, before leisurely trundling back out into the cold. If you are in the area – run don’t walk to Choyhona. But don’t eat and run. Rather come to spend part of an afternoon or evening, enjoy the food and flavors, and “travel” to Uzbekistan. If you can get out to Uzbekistan or some of the world’s far places – do.

Something that we in the west all too easily forget is that there are still lots of wild places in the world and there are many adventures to be had. That’s why I love traveling. I like to get outside of my comfort zone to, for example, wait for a bus which may or may not ever show up. Sure, I love the fantastic sites – I’m not too jaded or ironic to admit that I was blown away by the still-sapphire, celestial ceilings of Hatshepsut’s Tomb – but I also simply like to appreciate the rhythm of life that is different from the one I am accustomed to. Appreciating a sunset or finding beauty in a cardgame brought on by boredom provides a moment to hold in memory and provides a welcome return in the swirl of a more complex life.

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Interior in Samarkand by Javarman@Dreamstime.com. Ozbek Valsi performed by Mashriq and borrowed from Uzbek Classical Music.)

Choyhona Silk Road Bistro on Urbanspoon

A Taste of Burma in Downtown DC

Burmese Stupa

Morning mist rises above the stupa like diaphanous tendrils from the forest floor as the sun warms the earth.  Birds of all shapes and sizes clatter in the treetops proclaiming their territory, and in the village, dogs bark the dawn like town criers.  Until recently, those of us in the US and Europe had to travel half a world away to get Burmese food.  But now, Burmese restaurants are popping up all over, often replacing closed Chinese or Vietnamese eateries.  Washington DC and its suburbs in Virginia and Maryland now have at least three Burmese restaurants that I know of, so I thought it high time I started sampling them.

[mp3-jplayer tracks=”zayratu.mp3″]

I have wanted to try DC’s Burma restaurant for a few years now, but for one reason or another, never managed to get there when they were open.  It sits right in the heart of Chinatown on 740 6th St NW (off of H street),  on the second floor above a Thai eatery.  When a colleague suggested we go out to lunch recently to discuss an upcoming project, I jumped at the chance to try the restaurant that had so long beckoned me.

Green Tea-leaf Salad

We’ve been having what can only be described as monsoon rains here in the DC area, and on the day we dined at Burma my colleague and I both got drenched on our way to lunch.  The decor and atmosphere of Burma are plain and unassuming with a few paintings and crafts to decorate the walls, and on the day we went, there was no climate control.  We were wet, and the restaurant was hot – so it was quite like dining in Southeast Asia that day.  But, authenticity is a good thing, so we didn’t mind.

We sipped Burmese sweet iced teas while perusing the menu which cooled us down a bit, and started with the pickled green tea leaf salad  which was simply delicious.  It was astringent from the the flavor of the tea leaves and just a bit sour from the pickling, but had peanuts, sesame oil, ground shrimp and fish sauce to round out the edges and bring it back down to earth.  As prepared that day it was a great deal less fishy than salads I’ve had in Asia, but it was still quite good. It was the sort of dish you just want to keep picking at – this desire, of course, helped along by the glutamates in the fish sauce.

Tamarind Fish

Our main courses were Tamarind Fish and Mango Pork.  The Tamarind Fish was another winning dish with the lightly spicy and sour tamarind and onion-based brown sauce teasing the full flavor out of the fish – in this case salmon.  The dish was much less hot and sour than I remember, and I found the choice of salmon a bit puzzling – a big, fat, hunk of meaty catfish would have been more authentic, but nevertheless it was good.

The Mango Pork was mild and delicious.  The mango was more sweet than sour and lacked the bite that pickled mango often has, but the pork was slowly cooked to perfection and was juicy and buttery.  The tamarind and lemon added to the rich brown sauce of the dish, but were not overly sour or otherwise obtrusive.  A gentle alternative for those not liking too much spice or heat in their food.

Mango Pork

We alas only sampled these few dishes, but were generally pleased with the results.  In a metropolitan area simply glutted with Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Malay restaurants, the growing presence of Burmese and other Asian cuisines is welcome.  Burma DC offers good, simple, homestyle food that we enjoyed (especially the tea-leaf salad).  If I have a criticism, its to be found in what feel like muted flavors – less heat, less spice, less sour than the authentic Burmese food I remember.  Still, I hope to return to sample a few more dishes.  There are a few, such as pickled mustard leaf and sour bamboo shoot (each with choice of meat) that I’d like to try as well as a whole array of noodle dishes, a couple of kebabs and of course the great fish-soup, mohinga.  So, yeah, I’ll be back.  (Words by Laura Kelley.  Photo of the Burmese Stupa © | Dreamstime.com.  Other images borrowed from Google images).

Burma on Urbanspoon

Burma Restaurant on Restaurantica