What Brian Eats In…

What Brian Ate In…Myanmar / Burma

Myanmar is a place that got left behind in SE Asia’s tourism boom, primarily due to political and domestic strife. As a result, it’s now a gem waiting to be discovered giving the tourist a chance to see what the rest of the region was like decades ago. From valleys full of ancient temple ruins to mountains dotted with hill tribes living off the land they tend by hand, Myanmar is full of culture, beauty and adventure. Despite it’s Thai, Indian, and Chinese influences, the food doesn’t rate highly compared to it’s neighbors but there is always food to enjoy in my opinion.

1. Shan Khauk Swe, Shan Noodles

Shan is a mountainous province in Myanmar filled with local hill tribes who live off the land without any modern conveniences. This popular noodle dish is found and enjoyed all over the country. I tried this dish a few times, but this plate was served in a small shop on the outskirts of Kalaw. It was right next to the police station and a number of the officers were enjoying their breakfast and tea at the same time.

2. Laphet, Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

This iconic salad’s flavor comes from pickled tea leafs, which may sound terrible but actually has a pleasant and creamy pesto-like flavor. This salad was served with fresh tomato, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and more. I found this dish all over Myanmar, especially in the Bagan region.

3. Tomato Salad

This tomato salad was made by our own personal cook during our 3 day hike through the Shan Mountains between Kalaw and Inle Lake. It was fresh, simple, and delicious!

4. Burmese Tea

Burmese tea seems to be more about the sweet and creamy evaporated milk more than the tea itself. Even after it’s stirred, you can still get a healthy spoon full of goodness from the bottom of your glass! The interesting part is that it is usually served with a plate (or more) of local snacks that you can decide to eat or not. You only pay for what you eat and leave the rest.

5. Hand-Made Chapati Bread

Everyone around me knows my love for any bread-like food available. This incredible chapati bread started with an old woman in the mountains making and grinding the dough by hand, and then flattening and cooking it over a hot fire. Served with a variety of Nepal-style dishes and curries, it was an excellent lunch to fuel our hike.

6. Mango Lassi

I was happy for the Thai and Indian influences as in my mind this combined two of my favorite drinks…The Thai Mango Shake and the Yogurt Lassi. This subtly sweet and rich yogurt can be drank with a straw and serves as a beverage and a snack!

What Brian Ate In…Chongqing, China

Chongqing is one of only 5 city/states in China (think Washington DC) and has a population of 30 million people. This buzzing metropolis is the site where the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers join and the starting place for the famous Three Rivers Gorge tour. Mountains tower over the skyscrapers to provide great views from either vantage point. The best part is that within an hour you are in the countryside exploring the trails, caves, waterfalls and ancient villages of the many mountain ranges that surround the city in every direction. But enough of all that, let’s talk about food…

1. Kou Rou, BBQ Meat

This city, like a lot of places in China, is filled with street-side stalls offering everything from bacon to beef lung ready to be thrown over the fire (literally). We were hungry from walking around in the rain so I chose a handful of delicious looking items and 15 mins later they arrived on the sidewalk table covered in a spicy chili sauce and ready to devour. The best part is that these stalls are open late into the night.

2. Huo Guo, Hotpot

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about Hotpot, but Chongqing is famous for this spicy soup that you use to cook your raw meat and vegetables on your table. Now that this is becoming more of a staple for me, I’m beginning to realize how important the ingredients are. You’ll notice the fresh slices of beef rolled nicely on the plate that you can cook to your likeness. You’ll also notice the bowl of sauce I made by choosing from over 30 seasonings, oils and pastes which evolves throughout the meal by being dipped in to. Remembering all this makes me forget about the numb tongue and never-ending sweat that rolled off my forehead while enjoying it.

3. Guan Guan Fan, Claypot Rice

Think fried rice, but instead of being fried in a wok it’s baked in a clay pot over fire. Then it’s topped with your choice of spicy meat. The best part is the bit of rice that gets charred to the clay on the inside of the bowl.

4. Dim Sum and Dumplings

One day while exploring the city, we stumbled upon an entire food center specializing in every kind of dumpling or piece of dim sum you could imagine. We saw armies wrapping xiao long bao, aunties steaming baskets of bao, and uncles soaking duck tongues or potato slices in hot spicy oil. I could post dozens of pics of this place alone! But perhaps the most interesting were these colorful dumplings, each filled with their own ingredients…I think I had about 2 dozen of them.

5. Ma Hua, Local Crackers

I saw loads of this popular snack while visiting the old-town. They are basically flavored dough twisted and fried until crunchy. The interesting thing is that they come in a variety of flavors. Without knowing that, I picked up a few handfuls of them and threw them in a bag. Later when I wanted a snack I popped one in my mouth and I was pleasantly surprised at its chocolate flavor. The next minute I tried one that started numbing my tongue and reminding me of spicy hotpot.

What Brian Ate in…Phuket, Thailand

Phuket is the place that most people go when they plan a beach trip to Thailand. Like many places in SE Asia, it’s an odd clash of Western tourism with local flare, which makes for an eclectic mix of people and things to see & do. With a bit of effort, you can still always find the food that defines an area. Here were some of my favorites:

1. Fresh Coconuts

These coconuts were so awesome that they deserved two photos! While doing a full-day bike tour of nearby Koh Yao Noi island, we came across a farm where a woman offered us freshly chosen coconuts. They were literally chopped from the tree within the hour. After drinking the milk inside, she chopped them in half so we could scoop out the pulp with a spoon she carved by hand from the shell.

2. Thai Chilli Sauce & Seasonings

You are probably thinking this is an odd food highlight, but this is what you’ll find on every table when eating Thai food. Do you see that jar on the left? The black sauce with the red and green chunks floating in it? That’s fish sauce with chopped Thai chili peppers. You can add it to anything and it transforms an amazing dish even better. It adds a little salt, a lot of heat and makes even plain rice dance in your mouth. Use liberally and often.

3. Tom Yam Soup

This dish will sound familiar to almost everyone and it’s definitely an acquired taste. It was only until I visited Thailand that I gained an appreciation for this sour and spicy soup. This particular version, which was home made in a beachside guesthouse, was the best I’ve had. The base itself was flavorful and surprisingly satisfying while the ingredients, including fresh seafood, added even more depth. It was the first time I found my arm helping myself to more and more.

4. Fresh Grilled Fish with Sweet Thai Chili

This one is simple. You walk by a small streetside restaurant with fresh seafood piled on ice. You choose the items that you would like and the way that you would like it prepared. Then you sit down and wait for something like this to appear. I actually followed these steps a few times, but the one above was possibly my favorite. A fresh fish, grilled to perfection and topped with fresh herbs and Thai sweet chili sauce. It doesn’t get much better than that.

What Brian Ate In…LeShan, China

When most people visit LeShan, they are most likely there to see the giant 3000 year old buddah carved into a cliff face standing over 200 feet tall. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really impressive and definitely worth the trip. But of course, for me a place is always defined by it’s food. So here were my favorite eats in this small Chinese city.

1. Kao Ya, Roast Duck

This is the most famous food in LeShan and it’s certainly not hard to find. You see it everywhere, piled on street carts or hanging on hooks under light bulbs. No matter where you get it, it’s sure to be delicious. It’s sweet and crispy skin protects the juices in the meat which makes for a flavorful, moist and crispy bite all at the same time.

2. Yang Mei, Chinese-Style Cherry

This fruit is probably most similar to a typical cherry, hence the title I gave it. However, in China it’s just called Yang Mei and it’s a very moist and tasty fruit. If your lucky it’s sweet, and if you aren’t then it can be slightly sour. Despite what it looks like, you just pop the whole thing in your mouth and then spit out the pit.

3. Bao Zi, Bread-like Dumpling

I freakin love Bao Zi. It’s one of my favorite foods in China and I get it everywhere I go; this will not be the last time you see me write about it. Bao Zi is a dumpling, but it’s not made from your typical noodle-like casing. Instead, it’s a flour-based dough that is filled with goodness and then steamed. You can get them filled with any assortment of ingredients: savory, salty, sweet, meat, vegetables, eggs, you name it. Therefore, you need to order a lot of them.

4. Ji Xin, Chicken Hearts

In China, they use the entire animal. When walking down the street you’ll find food carts and shops full of all kinds of animal parts that you’ve never seen before…well, at least if you’re a foreigner. It’s not a bad thing, it just means that there is no waste and the internal organs and items can actually be quite good for you. I decided to grab something a bit more manageable than coagulated blood or a charred lung. I went for a skewer of chicken hearts. They were actually quite good and tasted, not surprisingly, like chicken!

5. Pastries

Just before my trip to LeShan, I visited the most famous Chinese pastry shop in the city of Chengdu. They probably have about 50 different sweets to choose from, with choices that include sweet custard, fried dough, or sweet green or red beans. To be honest, the assortment is far more comprehensive than your typical Western bakery and the flavors are far more diverse. The item pictured is layers of flaky pastry, sweet cream, dough, and raisins. Complex yet simply delicious.

What Brian Ate In…Hawaii

I recently took a trip to Hawaii, including a few days on the island of Kauai. The island itself is a fascinating and beautiful place. I feel like Kauai is the place to go in Hawaii when you want a genuinely local feel. Arriving from SE Asia, I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually in America. I found that the food represents the people that live there, a mix of locals and transplants from all over the world. Here were some of my most memorable meals:

1. Huevos Rancheros, The Garden at Common Ground

I strategically sat next to a worldly woman on the plane assuming she could give me some tips about the island. Sure enough, this was one of many pieces of advice she gave. My first stop for food was at this small farm outside Kilauea. All ingredients are produced either on their farm or another local farm. This amazing breakfast included organic eggs, beans, daily grain, kale, corn & flour tortillas, pico de gallo, and kalua pork. If you’re ever in Kauai, check them out: The Garden at Common Ground.

2. Fish Tacos, Roadside Cart, Kapaa

What better way to fight jet lag in the late afternoon than with a few fresh fish tacos, served out of a food truck on the side of the road? That wasn’t really meant to be a question because there isn’t a better way. The fish was clearly fresh, and their cool yet spicy sauce on the top made these incredible. Boom.

3.Hawaiian Shaved Ice, Ono Ono Shaved Ice, Kapaa

So the second best way to fight off jetlag is with some traditional shaved ice. This is a treat we often enjoy in the US, but apparently it’s roots began in Hawaii. I was shocked to find about 101 different flavors to choose from, so I chose some standards and some obscure: Mango, Lime, Peanut Butter, and Creamsicle.

4. Spam Maki, L&L Hawaiian Barbeque

Ok, this one wasn’t necessarily my favorite, but I had never actually had spam before and thought this was a good opportunity. Basically, this is spam sushi. A giant slab of spam covered in some kind of weird bbq sauce thrown on top of a chunk of rice and wrapped in seaweed paper. Did I eat the whole thing? Yes. Do I kinda regret it? Not at all.

5. A Diner Burger, Rainbow’s Drive Inn

So I kinda cheated, I actually had this burger in Honolulu, Oahu. The truth is that I had quite a few burgers when I was in Hawaii and I just liked this photo the best. Plus, Rainbows Drive Inn is an iconic landmark in Honolulu. When asking locals where to get a burger, every one of them immediately named Rainbows. Not much more I can say about this classic piece of amazingness.

What Brian Ate In… Chengdu, China

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, a province known for it’s spicy food and strong flavors. But it’s not just spicy food that caught my attention; a number of unique delicacies were on display through the streets and alleyways of this city that has some unique charm if you take the time to find it. Here are some of the most memorable dishes I ate while I was there.

1. Huo Guo, hotpot

Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first. Hotpot consists of a large boiling pot of soup (generally very spicy) served with an array of raw meats and vegetables. You then proceed to cook the raw ingredients in the boiling soup and dip it in a sauce that you have concocted with some provided ingredients. It sounds simple, but a good hotpot has a very intense flavor, which after an hour or two will make a guy like me sweat and have a burning mouth. One thing I noticed is that the spice in Sichuan doesn’t only give a traditional burn, but the hua jiang (flower pepper) also has a numbing effect on your tongue. Locals believe that since Chengdu is a humid place, they need spicy hotpot to sweat and get the humidity out of the body. It also provides a way for family and friends to enjoy a bustling and exciting meal together.

I tried a few hotpots when visiting Chengdu, but the best was by far a place in the University district called Ba Shu Da Zhai Men. You can see from the pic that they don’t go easy on peppers so make sure you order plenty of cold coconut milk to calm the mouth.

2. Rabbit Head

Yep, that’s a rabbit head. Stew that puppy in some spicy sauce for a while, split it half, and eat whatever meat is left. The cheek meat is fairly normal and actually quite nice. However, scooping out the brain with your finger and then eating it feels a bit more barbaric. The best part is that you get a great anatomy lesson in how a jaw works if you’re not too embarrassed to play with your food when after you are finished.

3. Pig Brain

Staying on track with some more weird eats, pig brain is also a common dish here. There isn’t really much to say about it; it’s a brain in a bowl served with spicy sauce and some fresh seasonings. It didn’t actually taste bad at all, but the fact that it looks like a brain and it’s texture is, well, brain-like make it a little difficult to swallow.

4. Mao Cai with Fen, Mini Hotpot with Rice Noodles

Mao Cai is what I call a small noodle dish, but if I said that to a local I would get yelled out while they then try to explain that Fen isn’t noodles at all but can’t explain why in a way that convinces me to understand. Fen are basically rice noodles, and they are delicious and also luckily found in many local dishes. Mao Cai is a dish that takes a number of chosen ingredients and cooked together with a spicy sauce over fen. Essentially it’s a mini version of hotpot with more convenience and all the punch.

5. Street Snacks

The best part about traveling is exploring a city by the food that you find on the street. Chengdu is certainly no exception. I can’t even tell you everything I tried, so the point here is to just go and try everything you can!

What Brian Ate In… Xi’an, China

A lot of things surprised me about Xian’s cuisine, which never failed to disappoint throughout my week in China’s Shaanxi Province. I think I went the first few days without having any rice at all! Xian people love their noodles and doughs, and this was very apparent as I tried as much food as possible. The other amazing thing is that great food is cheap. If you ever make a trip to Xi’an, make sure you try some of my favorites:

1. Rou Jia Mo, meat sandwich

For those of you that know me well, you shouldn’t be surprised that one of my favorites was the Chinese equivalent of a hamburger. In fact, you could argue that the American hamburger is the equivalent of Rou Jia Mo considering the fact that it dates back to many years BC. The meat, which I think is usually pork, is stewed for hours in many spices and then shredded. If you find a good one, it will be served in a freshly toasted slice of flatbread and literally melts in your mouth. I had at least one of these a day.

2. Kou Rou, BBQ

Xi’an is filled with just about anything you can imagine roasting on a stick. Meat, animals parts, vegetables, tofu, you can find it all. One evening I was led by some friends down a random alley in the middle of the Muslim Quarter, in fact I don’t think I could find it again if I tried. The ally ended with a small restaurant with a few tables and women walking around with handfuls of things on sticks. We told them how much we wanted and kept the sticks on the table, then at the end we were charged for each stick.

3. Mian Mian Mian, noodles, noodles, noodles

It’s simple, I love noodles. And since noodles are such a staple in Xi’an, there is no shortage of different noodle dishes. From cold noodle dishes sold on the street, to hand pulled noodles by an old auntie, to noodles that are literally many meters long, you can get just about anything. My favorite was a busy place introduced to me by some locals. The noodles came in a big bowl along with many small side dishes that you added to the large bowl also filled with spicy soup. You could even order extra side dishes to refill!

4. Bing Feng, Ice Peak Soda

Bing Feng, directly translated as Ice Peak, is an orange soda made and bottled in Xi’an. In fact, I haven’t seen it anywhere else in my China travels. Think orange Fanta, but really cool because it’s made locally.

5. Yang Rou Pao Mo, Lamb Stew with Breadcrumbs

This is a truly traditional meal that many people told me I must try. Several places in the Muslim Quarter serve it well, so I walked in to a random stall and ordered a bowl. I was first served with a bowl filled with bread, so I slowly started pulling it apart into small pieces (I was also told it was very important to get them as small as you can). I assumed they would bring me the stew when it was ready, but in reality they were waiting for me to finish crumbing the bread! So about 30 minutes later when my perfectionist tendencies were content, they finally served me the lamb stew. I topped it with my finely crumbed bread and dug in.