La Chaya Maya

31 Jan

La Chaya Maya can’t be found in our Lonely Planet guidebook, but plenty of travellers have discovered this secret little gem. It serves traditional Yucatan food, and therein lies its charm. A couple of ladies dressed in traditional garb sit near the diners pressing and cooking tortillas. The room is decorated with various artefacts from the Yucatan region, including beautiful lampshades, bags and curtains made from sisal. Sisal, sometimes referred to as ‘green gold’, is a fibre made from the henequen plant.

On to the food. A lot of superlatives spring to mind, and the fact that we have now eaten there three nights in a row speaks for itself. Fourth and fifth journeys are planned.

One night we ordered cochinita – pork marinated in sour orange juice and baked in a banana leaf. It’s no exaggeration to say it was the most tender pork I’ve ever eaten in my life. On previous nights we’d eaten a slow-cooked chicken (pollo pibil) in banana leaf, delicious poc chuc – thinly sliced marinated pork and empanadas de cazon (tender shark) . The accompanying soup, Caldo de Pavo, was simple but incredibly moorish and consisted of strips of turkey, turkey broth, pickled onion, cucumber, tomato and chaya – a delicious spinach-like plant. A quick google search reveals that chaya leaves are toxic, containing a glucoside that can release toxic cyanide, and they must be cooked to inactivate the toxic components. Overall the soup reminded me of Aunty Mary’s hearty home made chicken soup. In fact, every dish reminded me of Aunty Mary’s cooking – simple but made with lots of love, and you come away feeling good … right down to the soul.

The accompaniments to the mains, as well as the little dips brought out before the meal, are also a highlight. The pepita de papadzul is a thick paste of grinded pepita seeds. As you look around the restaurant you can see every table asking the waiter for the recipe to this and drooling for more. The roasted tomato salsa was unlike any other tomato dish I’ve tried and we are still trying to hunt down the recipe.

I could go on, but you get the idea. I haven’t even mentioned the delicious bread and butter pudding – once again very simple but far better than most I’ve tried. The place is packed to the rafters at all hours of the day and everyone who walks by stops to take a picture of the handicrafts inside. For a real Yucatan experience and sensational food, you can’t go past this one. Shame we don’t get Mexican food like this back home!!

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Un Secreto

25 Jan

Our eight days in San Agustinillo were relaxing, peaceful, and one of the highlights of our Mexican trip. The only downside was that as we travelled there in the off season, many of the restaurants were closed, so we only had the choice of three or four places. But Un Secreto was so good that I’m positive it would have been in our top eateries there anyway, even in the middle of peak tourist season. On the main street at night, and on the sand by day, Un Secreto is run by the effervescent and chatty Julien, who learnt his recipes from watching his mum cook good, simple French food back home in France. He’s brought the recipes to sleepy little San Agustinillo, including (my personal favourite) spaghetti with fish in a creamy tomato sauce, fish cooked in foil with cream and basil, skewers of prawns and fish and delicious calamari (Dan’s favourite).

The restaurant’s décor is sparse – there’s a few wooden tables covered with various tablecloths, flowers, and a great mix of music with a lot of Norah Jones playing. It’s dimly lit and Julien serves the tables casually in thongs, shorts and t-shirt. His two cooks in the kitchen, he tells us, have mastered his mother’s recipes so well that they make the food better than he can now make it! Despite being simple, homely food, it’s lovingly prepared, and oh so delicious. The pasta sauce, although I’m sure is terrible for me, is so rich and flavoursome we keep dipping bread in it until the plate doesn’t even need to be washed, it’s that clean.

The calamari was tender and lightly battered, the croquettes of shrimp and fish tasty and juicy. Dan heard another table eating the bruschetta – I say “heard” because he remarked on how fabulously crunchy the bread seemed, and when we ordered it it was deliciously crunchy with heaps of garlic and fresh tomatoes and basil. Perfect simple beach food with a twist.

El Califa

6 Dec

It was unfortunate that we discovered our favourite place to eat in Mexico City on our last day there. Walking through leafy Condesa one afternoon and acting on a tip from our Mexican friends Mario, Heike and Dan, we went to El Califa – a slightly more upmarket tacqueria than what we’d been eating at. We took a quick glance at the tables and diners around and quickly asked for a table.

What was our first experience with tacos al pastor (tortillas filled with pork cooked on a spit) was truly memorable, and one we’ve yet to create elsewhere at other restaurants. The meat spins on a spit similar to one at souvlaki places, but with a whole pineapple also wedged onto the top, and the carver expertly and deftly carves off a chunk to go on the top of the meat. Eaten alone or with cheese, these little morsels were heaven in two bites. In fact, Dan went as far as to say it was the best meal he had eaten in Mexico.

Along with the pastor tacos, the cecina tacos (thin slices of beef in a tortilla) were excellent  – moist and succulent, salty and flavoursome with only a bit of chilli and pico de gallo needed on top of them.

I’m a particular fan of Mexican cheese, and we tried the crater de pechuga (crunchy tostada filled with melted Oaxacan cheese and chicken) which I devoured. Oaxacan cheese is also sometimes referred to as string cheese, as it peels off like string. It’s a fabulous melting cheese and is used often in quesadillas.

Of course, our meal wouldn’t have gone down so well without a “michelada” – our favourite Mexican beer, Victoria, poured into a glass with salt around the rim, with ice, lime juice, Maggi, worcestershire and chilli sauces. Yes, it sounds strange, but the taste is unusually “refresco” and one we’ll bring back to Australia with us.

We ordered seconds of all the tacos we loved, and washed down the meal with an incredible hazelnut smoothie. We could have easily made return trips to this place, but we had places to be the following day…

Yangshuo Cooking School

15 Nov

I’d taken a cooking course in Beijing, and wanted to do one in Yangshuo when we spent a few days there in September. The Yangshuo Cooking School came recommended, and I booked in with a friend to go one lazy afternoon. Our partners called out to us to bring them back some food, and we paid them lip service, secretly knowing there would be none left over to bring home!

A quick trip to the market to buy some ingredients where we saw some different fruits and vegetables than what’s normally available in Beijing. But we specially requested not to go into the dog meat section. As dog lovers, it’s not something we really wanted to see, then have to cook an hour later.

Our lovely teacher/chef Jennifer ran us through the basics of wok cooking…”if it’s not smoking, there’s no cooking”. We dutifully turned our hotplates on, up, down, off, up, off, down, as she instructed. Our first dish was steamed chicken, which we chopped up with Chinese dates, ginseng and goji berries, steamed in a basket.

Next up was egg-wrapped dumplings – delicious pork mince with mint, which was fried inside a little egg omelette. They were divine. Linda and I agreed they were both our favourite. An eggplant stir fry was also delicious, and one we agreed we’d try at home. Stir fry vegetables with pork and greens were nice and tasty, and gave us some new techniques when using the woks at home.

Unfortunately, we got back to our hotel with no take away boxes for the boys, but I have since made Dan the eggplant and egg-wrapped dumplings, to a rave review!

Zhang Mama

10 Nov

Our friend Ellie admitted she had an illness. “Mention-itis” she called it. Apparently she’d been telling anyone and everyone about this great hole-in-the-wall Sichuan restaurant near her house in Yonghegong. Now Ellie is a great cook, but luckily for us, she also loves hunting out new places around Beijing for great food. And also luckily for us, she took us to this new favourite place of hers, Zhang Mama.

Although tiny, the place already has a loyal following of fans who will happily line up in Fensiting Hutong to eat at this uber-spicy joint. We got there early, as Ellie had predicted it would fill up quickly on a Saturday night, and still waited for around 20 minutes. When we were finally seated, we were offered big bottles of 4rmb Yanjing beer served in wooden cups…quite medieval I thought. The décor was nothing fancy, and the floor was already littered with cigarette butts, used napkins, and dare I say it, spit globules. But, not to be put off, we sat down and Ellie ordered for us.

A palate cleanser/cooler came first – delicious garlicy broccoli. In hindsight we should not have wolfed this dish down so quickly, and had we known the spice that was to come next, we would have saved more of it. Next up was shangxin liangfen, thick jelly-like noodles that were smothered in chilli and hard to get from the bowl to our plates, and huigourou pork with pepper and cabbage in a drypot.

Dan dan mian noodles didn’t look like much, with yellow noodles and a bit of topping, but once mixed through the flavours were great. Chicken in chilli was a little like gong bao ji ding, but hotter and no peanuts.

Every new dish that came we remarked on how delicious it was, and how much hotter it seemed than the previous. We knew we’d probably be feeling this meal in the morning! But we were happy Ellie came down with “mention-itis”, as we’d never have got to go there with her, and enjoy the authentic Sichuanese spice and flavour. Oh, and the price…it was so cheap we couldn’t believe it!

Hatsune

5 Nov

I got off to a bad start with Hatsune, probably because we went there immediately after the Wallabies lost to Ireland in the Rugby World Cup. I watched the match at an Irish pub and had a little leprechaun in my ear the whole match rubbing it in.

It may also have had to do with the fact that you can never get into the restaurant without a booking, or the fact that it doesn’t have its own toilet. To me, when you’re paying good money, a restaurant should either have a toilet on the premises or its own private toilets nearby. Anyway, that’s probably just me though. It also didn’t help that our waitress wasn’t overly courteous.

Fortunately our experience with the food was more pleasing. The Moto-roll-ah California rolls with avocado, snow crab, roe and deep fried AND sashimi tuna, generously portioned and well presented, were on a par with any sushi I’ve had. We mopped up the remaining roe and mayonnaise on the plate with the last roll.

The sashimi included salmon, kingfish, red tuna, sea bream (I think) and another fish which the waitress told us was white tuna. We were rather interested after the meal to look this white tuna up on the internet, and were quite disturbed to find out that it has been banned in Japan because it can cause all sorts of nasty surprises, including nausea, diarrhea and leakage from the derrière. Luckily we didn’t experience any of these symptoms. Anyway, it was nice to eat sashimi again after a few months. Back home we generally eat sashimi at least once a fortnight, but not since Japan had we eaten it.

The pork shabu shabu – with lotus root, radish, fried garlic and fresh greens – on reflection one month after, was a nice dish but not overly memorable. I do remember the nutty sauce poured over the salad at the table and the different textures and tastes as we ate it.

Atmosphere-wise, Hatsune was an enjoyable night out and the fish hanging from the roof (not real) looked cool, and the comfyness of the chairs was a plus. With the moody lighting you could almost forget you are at the top of one of Beijing’s busy shopping centres.

I’d heard so much about Hatsune from others who’d eaten there, and I’d recommend eating there for Californian-style Japanese. It wasn’t overly cheap although we did feel that the food was clean and well-presented, which is so important when eating raw fish, particularly in Beijing.

Although a very different experience, for value, taste and authenticity, I’d just as soon suggest Sake Manzo for Japanese in Beijing. If you’re lucky you might see our friends and fellow food lovers Ningyi and Amanda dining there who can run you through the intricacies of the menu!

Aimo Town

24 Sep

For one of our favourite, most reliable and great places to take visitors, it certainly has taken us a long time to blog about Aimo Town.

We don’t even have the excuse that we’ve been going back sampling all their food, because we haven’t – we stick to almost the same tried and true dishes every time.

It’s because this cheap Yunnan restaurant does these things so well that we can’t bring ourselves to desert the mashed potato, mint salad, tempura beans, thick noodles with egg and chicken or grilled fish.

Yunnan is at the bottom of China, on the borders of Laos, Vietnam, Burma and Tibet, so takes food influences and tastes from those countries. There’s spicy chili, fresh mint and fish sauce through many dishes, and preserved ham in the delicious rice. It takes a lot of self control for me not to duck in there every lunchtime…I work next door to it!

Set inside a funky and arty hutong complex, Aimo Town has a cosy ambience. Yunnan handmade paper lamps and textiles adorn the walls, and there’s often really good folk singers and instrumentalists playing live in the main dining room.

The fish come on skewers, wrapped in banana leaf and barbecued with herbs and spices stuffed inside. The mint salad has punch, with fish sauce, chili, garlic and other flavours we’ve tried to distinguish but haven’t yet.

Fried beans are really something special, and are so moreish. They come with what seems like nori (dried seaweed) and an incredibly tasty green vegetable mixed through. Virtually every table has a potato dish on it – either the dome of mash (who doesn’t love mash!?), or the shredded and fried pancake, like a rosti.

We love it because it’s so different to other regional cooking and eating in China – visitors love the flavours and how it’s almost “unexpected” when you think of Chinese food. There’s no sign of sweet and sour pork, beef with black bean or special fried rice on this menu.

But, Aimo Town needs to improve on one thing…the Yunnan flavours call for a lovely cold beer, and while most of the time they leave their Dali beer in the fridge, on a few occasions we’ve visited when they haven’t turned the fridge on!