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All Roads Lead to Good Food

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Have you ever heard of a little place called Kyrgyzstan?  While it is not as well known as its neighbor and home of Borat, Kazakhstan, or nuclear armed Pakistan, it a very interesting corner of the world with a lot of history.  The word “Kyrgyz” in Turkic languages means “We are forty” which is a reference to the forty clans the legendary Kyrgyz hero, Manas, united to fight against the Uighurs (A predominately Muslim group that resides in what is now western China).  The number forty also appears in their flag in the form of a sun with forty rays and a criss-crossed center to symbolize a yurt or traditional tent the Kyrgyz sleep in. kg It’s one of my favorite world flags, and recently I found that Kyrgyz food is right up my alley as well.  Janice and I had a double date with one of her best friends and her husband at a Kyrgyz restaurant in Chicago called Jibek Jolu.  Her friend and husband raved about it, so I was curious to see what exactly Kyrgyz food consisted of.

While I never had this particular type of cuisine, I had a faint idea of what to expect given the geographic location of the Central Asian nation and its history.  First, I expected there to be a lot of meat given that most nomadic peoples rely on high energy meals focusing primarily on protein and dairy.  Second, I found out that Jibek Jolu means “Silk Road” in Kyrgyz, so there were bound be plenty of dishes that combined the influences of Chinese, Indian, and Western cooking.  Finally, given that Kyrgyzstan was a former Soviet republic, there would be lots of Russian dishes, and Janice’s friend’s husband is Russian, so we had our cultural “in” if we needed anything.  When we walked up, it was funny to see all of the cabs parked out front due to the high number of Central Asian cabdrivers in Chicago. IMG_6056 We walked in, and the place was jammed for dinner.  IMG_6055We were quickly seated by the friendly staff, and I perused the menu options.  I wasn’t surprised with the amount of meat and root vegetables being offered, but all of that had the making for a great meal in my eyes.  The ingredients don’t have to be super fancy to make a superb meal; it’s all in the freshness of ingredients and execution.  The prices were also very reasonable compared to other Russian restaurants I have been to.  To start the meal, I wanted to try an appetizer, but a majority of them were Russian dishes.  So I went for the tandyr samsy ($4.00) which seemed more Kyrgyz since I had never seen it on a Russian menu.  Plus, it was cooked in an Indian tandoor oven which once again shows the multicultural nature of the cuisine. IMG_6045 When it came out, it reminded me of a ghost from Pac Man,

Four tandur samys

Four tandyr samys

and once I bit through the semi-crunchy crust, I was going “wakawakawakawaka” gobbling it up like the little yellow guy. IMG_6047 It was a great combination of freshly baked bread, plenty of ground beef, and some soft, stewed potatoes to give the dish a little more body.  Then there were the entrees, and each one was quite unique.  First, there was the lagman ($12) which after a bit of research turns out to be more familiar to me than I had previously thought.  Ramen noodles or just “ramen” are known the world over as a cheap snack for poor people and college students, but it turns out the word “lagman” is the Turkic word for “ramen”.  Once again, the interconnected nature of Kyrgyzstan was reflected in this lagman dish that utilized the same hand-pulled noodle techniques that originated in the 16th Century in China.  It was different than the Japanese ramen I tried in Tokyo, but it reflected the no-frills approach to cooking the Central Asian Republics take. IMG_6048 Of course, there was stewed pieces of tender beef, peppers, onions, green beans, and onions along with a beef based broth to bring the ramen bowl together.  I don’t normally say this, but I loved the noodles because they were super soft due to soaking in the aforementioned broth.  I enjoyed every slurping forkful.  We also got a small order of the meat oromo ($7.00), and they were still very substantial.  Looking at these traditional steamed pies, I could only think of the steamed dumplings in Chinese dim sum.  They had the same translucent skin as the little potstickers I’ve taken down many a time in Chinatown. IMG_6049 While the exteriors were Chinese inspired, the interiors were more Slavic in nature with beef, minced potatoes, onions, cabbage and carrots.  They were kind of hard to slice and share due to the fragile skin of the pies, but they were very hearty and all of the ingredients came together like a mini beef stew in a pie.  After we tried that, I got a taste of my girlfriend’s plov ($10.00).  This entree, more commonly known today as “pilaf” which originates from the Sankrit word “pulaka” meaning “a ball of rice”, has been around since the beginning of time.  Alexander the Great comments on being served the same meal while visiting Samarkand, one of the stops for future explorer Marco Polo on the Silk Road.  Alexander’s troops took the “pilav” recipe back to Macedonia, and it spread throughout Europe as “pilaf” from the Greek word “pilafi“.  IMG_6050I didn’t think this rice dish lived up to the other entrees we tried since it just consisted of a broth-infused rice sprinkled with beef, carrots, onions, and garlic.   While moderately flavorful, it seemed to be average in comparison to the other types of food we had tried.  Then there was my kuurdak ($12) which was as elemental as food can get just short of ripping a hunk off a cow.  Turns out this entree is one of the oldest and most traditional of Kyrgyz meals.  It literally was stewed beef, potatoes, and onions. IMG_6051 Simple as it sounds, the combination was amazing in my eyes and on my tastebuds.  I would take this Kyrgyz beef over an American steak and potato dinner any day.  I don’t know what they did to the beef, but it tasted like it was char-grilled and coated in a possible garlic/olive oil mixture.  Then, the potatoes were herbal tinged and extremely tender which combined perfectly with the beef.  The icing on the cake were the raw onions since I love onions in any way, shape, or form.  It was one of the ugliest dishes at the table, but it was a definite hit as the others were sneaking bites off my plate.  The final and most hardcore of the entrees was the beef shashlik ($11.50 for two).  Janice’s friend’s husband, Ivan, ordered it, and when it came out, I couldn’t believe the presentation.  There were two extremely long knives on the plate that had chunks of tandoor cooked beef on them along with a pile of rice and a salad just in case to protect you from a heart attack from ingesting that much red meat in one sitting.  This part of the meal was as delicious as it was fun and dangerous to eat.

In Russia, you cut knife!

In Russia, you cut knife!

The Indian tandoor oven really brought out the intense flavor of the beef, and surprisingly we didn’t cut off our tongues when ripping the beef off the blades as the girls stared on in disbelief.  IMG_6054Best double date ever.

So if you want to try a cuisine you’ve possibly never heard of for a great price with friendly service, make a pilgrimage to Jibek Jolu!
Jibek Jolu on Urbanspoon

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Burgerville: A Wonderful Place to Meat (Portland, Part 2)

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Yo! So this is part two of my Portland travel journal where I’m chronicling my food adventures throughout the City of Roses.  Day one started off with a delicious breakfast, and today I’ll be presenting my wonderful lunch at Burgerville, a regional burger chain that started in Washington state and moved further south to Oregon.  What sets this company apart is their unique organic menu choices, commitment to improving the local communities where their restaurants are located, and even allowing bikes in their drive-thru lanes.  Talk about being progressive!IMG_2567

However, when I walked in, it was actually furnished like many other burger chains like Steak and Shake with the throwback 1950s decor complete with the signature jukebox and shiny, colorful vinyl seats.IMG_2570  The menu seemed to focus mainly on a variety of burgers living up to their namesake, but they also had a wide selection of chicken sandwiches, salads, vegetarian options, and desserts.  Not only that, but they had seasonal items for sides and offered jars of their signature sauces to take home with you.  After looking through their menu, I decided to go off the beaten culinary path and try one of their vegetarian options:  the spicy Anasazi bean burger. The Anasazi part of the name comes from the Native American tribe that lived in the Four Corners area (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico), and the beans they once farmed are offered by this small scale bean hawker.  Frankly, I was merely won over by the fact that it had some sort of spicy element in the title.  Plus, I’m trying to watch what I eat, so I appreciated the option to purchase something that’s a bit more heart healthy.  Not only did I get the meatless option, but I got the seasonal side which was a basket of rosemary shoestring potatoes and a side of Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese dipping sauce, another local Oregonian product.  When it came out, I couldn’t believe that I could order a vegetarian burger in a mainly meat burger chain restaurant and have it look this appetizing. IMG_2568 I was especially blown away simply at how verdant and fresh the lettuce looked on the burger.  Upon the first bite, I was amazed at how savory the burger tasted.  Thankfully it didn’t taste like I was eating a big pile of beans but rather a pseudo-beef patty.  The pepper jack cheese gave the meal some extra zing, and the chipotle mayo kicked up another notch that would make Emeril blush.

BAAAAAMMMMM!

BAAAAAMMMMM!

As for the French fries, I didn’t care for the size of them since I prefer my fries to be a bit bigger like crinkle fries, steak fries, or waffle fries.  Then again, size may not matter rather the motion in the ocean.  Flavorwise, it was like the perfect storm.  They were fried to the apex of flavor along with a liberal coating of rosemary seasoning and garlic olive oil.  The seasoning was borderline too saline for my palate, but I was greatly satiated by the end of the meal.

If you’re ever in the Pacific Northwest, I highly recommend you try out a Burgerville location for their fresh, organic dishes and general variety of menu items.  Burgerville, it’s a community that believes in food for thought.
Burgerville on Urbanspoon

Everything’s Bigger in Itaewon

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Hello and welcome to another installment of Mastication Monologues!  Today’s review is going to be short and sweet since I have to actually ready for a big week of teaching.  Tomorrow a new co-teacher is starting with me, and I’m quite scared since she doesn’t have any teaching experience or experience with children.  Well, at least I had a great meal today with great memories I can savor when things are possibly going downhill in the classroom.

My friend Steph and I went to Seoul to see the Tim Burton art exhibit, and it was quite the experience.  There were sooooo many people, but overall it was a fun time.  Eventually all of that walking got us really hungry.  So Steph asked me what I wanted to eat.  I might have wanted to try a new galbi place, but I really had a craving for a legit burger.  Therefore, we headed to Itaewon to The Wolfhound which apparently has the best burger in Seoul.IMG_1369  Now that might not be saying much since there aren’t many legitimate burger restaurants outside of Itaewon, but I’m always down to try new places.  It was down a side alley, but upon walking in it was like any normal Irish pub themed restaurant/bar in the States.  There was no one in the place, so it was nice to get away from the insane crowds we had to battle just to see an original sketch from the Nightmare Before Christmas.  There were a lot of great options on the menu, but I decided to go for the Big Paddy burger (about 12 bucks) since I probably wouldn’t be coming back to the restaurant in a very long time or ever again.

It came out, and I was genuinely impressed.  I could see why it is considered the best burger in Seoul.

So Western it hurts

So Western it hurts

It had a legitimate slab of beef for a patty, cheese, bacon, garlic mayo, and a hefty helping of veggies.  Plus, it came with steak fries on the side.  In Korea, those are probably as rare as a Coelacanth.  Anyway,  I quickly got down to business since I hadn’t eaten since 8:30 in the morning.

Doing work

Doing work

Upon sinking my teeth into the gargantuan burger, I was pleasantly surprised by the beef since it was well seasoned with a definite peppery aftertaste.  The bun was light but did not buckle under the pressure of the burger’s contents.  I also really enjoyed the onions, tomatoes, and lettuce since all were really fresh and were not playing second fiddle to the beef.  The bacon was also pretty good since it was western style with some seasonings on it, and it was cooked to a semi-crispy state.  The staff also provided us with pretty standard condiments like ketchup, mustard, mayo, A1 steak sauce, and Tabasco sauce.  The steak fries didn’t disappoint either.  They were very fresh, not too salty, and had fluffy white interiors.  Overall, this was the best burger I’ve had so far in Korea and closest to the American standard in terms of taste, size, and just overall quality.  So if you want a break from kimchi and seaweed, head on over to The Wolfhound for a little piece of the West in the Far East.

Only for big appetites

Only for big appetites

It’s Easy Being Green

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Hello and welcome to part two of my Easter special on Mastication Monologues!  Today I am going to be talking about a classic Korean noodle shop that my friend introduced me to for Easter lunch.

Even though I’m far away from friends and family back home, I at least found a Catholic cathedral in Korea that I could go to to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  I was interested to see the Koreans’ take on mass since I have been to services in other foreign countries, and each nation has their own take on the Catholic rites.  I went to the Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on a beautiful Sunday, and the Church was pretty impressive in size and design (Gothic, specifically).  After mass, I didn’t have anything planned for this lazy Sunday since there strangely wasn’t anything Easter themed to do in a country that has tons of fervent Christians yet not even one type of Easter candy or colorful egg.  So my friend, Steph, met up with me for lunch since we both were starving.  We ended up at Myeongdong Gyoja which is a Korean noodle house that has been open for over forty years in Seoul.gyo

They are known for their kalguksu or hand cut noodles, and only have four to five dishes on their menu.  Most of them are noodle broth meals, but they do offer steamed dumplings as well.  Steph told me that their specialty was the meat broth option, but I saw the spicy noodle option (bi bim guksu).  Obviously, I gave into my weakness for all things spicy and decided to give it a try.  The service was very prompt in the extremely busy and semi-cramped restaurant.  You also share tables with other diners if it’s just two of you, so just a heads up for those of you looking for a place to have an intimate conversation or want a bit more privacy while dining.  It was 8,000 won upfront for the noodles along with some kimchi banchan, a bowl of beef broth, rice, and gum for the ubiquitous after-dinner breath in Korea.IMG_1353  All of it looked very fresh and elegantly presented especially the noodles that were unlike any noodles I have seen before in Korea. They were a deep forest green!  It didn’t really deter me much as I tucked into the verdant jumble of deliciousness.  The noodles were very supple and thin and were thickly coated in red pepper powder and gochujang chili sauce.  Plus, bi bim guksu is a cold noodle dish, so I was kind of caught off guard with the first bite.  It wasn’t too spicy for yours truly, but every bite contained an undercurrent of cucumber notes that came from the cucumber slices that were hiding underneath the green tangle and the freshly julienned cukes on the side.  By the time I reached the end of the bowl, I was filling up fast on the glorious noodles, but I had room for finishing off the kimchi.  I’m going to say it now, but this was the first bowl of kimchi that actually was somewhat spicy.  For some reason, the chili sauce they doused the cabbage in had a strange numbing-spiciness I could only liken to a Sichuan chili sauce I had at my friend David’s hot-pot dinner (See Drop It Like It’s Hot Pot).  There was also a lot of garlic powder in it, hence the gum.  I had two helpings of this fiery side-dish much to the surprise of one of the waitresses who went along scooping more into other diners’ bowls.  So if you like spice, definitely check out the kimchi at Myeongdong Gyoja.  As for the beef broth, it was very simple but intensely flavorful.  I’m sure it was quite high in sodium like a lot of broths, but it tasted like I was biting into a succulent steak roasted by God on this holy day.

Anyway, I give Meyongdong Gyoja the waygookin (foreigner) seal of approval if you want to try a piece of Korean traditional cuisine in a famous place or at least try some kimchi that lives up to its spicy reputation.

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