Food Porn: An Easter Dinner of Pig's Ears And Fried Banana Flowers


It's not every day that you're at a dinner party and the following is uttered: "I grew up eating lungs … but I like the ears better than the lungs."

We're talking pig's lungs (and ears), of course. In this case, the ears come pan-fried, bearing a delicious lemongrass-peanut crust, beautifully sliced and plated with a vibrant green mache salad.

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No matter how pretty the plate, it's hard to get over the fact that you're eating pig's ears, however. Biting through the crunchy cartilage — a sensation that's akin to what I imagine gnawing on a rubber hose would feel like — is a challenge. But Chef Simpson is experimenting and we're all his Easter dinner guinea pigs so, really, there's no complaining allowed. (Well, you could complain but it might earn you a second helping of pig's ears.)

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The Cheryl Burger


Last night, I found myself at Cafe Asean in the West Village very openly staring at a woman eating a burger.

CIMG3766 It wasn’t just any burger — it was the Cheryl Burger, my very first culinary creation to appear on an actual restaurant menu. Who wouldn’t be all excited and weird and googly-eyed at the sight of someone you don’t know actually eating a dish you dreamed up? Palms sweaty, I approached the woman to explain that a) I wasn’t some creep trying to intrude on her dinner–well, I wasn’t a creep without a somewhat valid reason, anyway… b) I’d designed the burger and c) I wanted to know, “What do you think?”

Mouth full, Susan the diner (who just so happens to have a fashion connection — she’s the designer of Skin Lingerie) gave me two thumbs up. And all of a sudden, the months of experimenting with meatball and burger recipes, marinating and pan-frying and then marinating more and grilling — it all suddenly seemed worth it. I felt like the Sally Field of cooking. I was liked! Well … my burger was liked, anyway.

The quest for the Cheryl Burger began at my last Labor Day cookout — after a heady evening of countless sauvignon blancs and burgers that had been steeped for hours in a marinade of hoisin sauce and Asian sesame oil before being thrown on the grill, a sated chef Simpson, owner of Cafe Asean, pronounced, “I’ll tell you what — if you come up with an Asian-style burger that I like, I’ll put it on the menu.”

And the challenge was ON!

The big question of the next few months was: What Asian flavors would work well in a western burger?

Teriyaki sauce? Too pedestrian. Hello, if even Mcdonald’s has done it, it’s done, done and done. I like hoisin — the sweet soybean-based sauce greatly enhances the flavor of beef. But Simpson himself had already done a hoisin burger at Jefferson,
another West Village restaurant he’d owned a few years ago. (Another fashion connection: Jefferson figured prominently in a key “Sex and the Citymoment — it’s where Miranda held her wedding reception, when Samantha blurts
out to the girls that she has breast cancer.)

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A Malay Madeleine


Here’s something you don’t see every day on an American menu: Kueh Lapis, an eggy, Malay/Indonesian layer cake that’s so time-consuming to make that it’s hard to find in the U.S.

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Think of it as the red-velvet cake equivalent of Southeast Asia —
it’s a signature dessert and it’s a pity you don’t see it
more often in American restaurants and bakeries.

Tonight, the Hubbs and I lucked out at a
pre-theater dinner, however — the moment we saw kueh lapis on
the menu at Bali Nusa Indah in Midtown Manhattan, we knew we had to order it. (Note: Other items on the menu were a little disappointing — the nasi goreng
(fried rice), for example, was so bland it brought to mind the less-than-successful
first stabs at fried rice my class-mates made in high school home
economics classes way back when.)

The kueh lapis, however, was perfectly decent — even if it was dressed up for Americans with a scoop of ice-cream and a layer of palm sugar sauce (better known as gula melaka in Malaysia/Singapore).

In Asia, the cake is thinly sliced, sometimes toasted lightly, and eaten on its own. After all, when you consider how tedious the process is, why let other trimmings get in the way of the star of the show? The baking process involves
spreading a thin layer of batter — made with condensed milk, golden syrup and a medley of spices such as cloves, cinnamon and cardamom — in the pan, baking it for 10 minutes,
taking it out of the oven, spreading another layer of batter and …
you get the picture. 

That could explain why you don’t see kueh lapis in restaurants in the U.S. more often. But hey, considering the fact that some kueh lapis recipes call for 25 egg yolks, that may not be an entirely bad thing.



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My Year of Eating Ferociously


When I tell people that I’m kicking off a year of ferocious eating and cooking, the question inevitably arises: Well, what’s the most daring thing you’ve tried so far?

Even though I grew up in Southeast Asia — Singapore, to be specific — my extreme food forays have been rather limited. I’ve spent years avoiding offal, even at the best restaurants in New York. (I’ll always love my husband for the time at Per Se when he saved me from my accidental order of calf’s brains by leaning over and quietly suggesting, with a significant amount of urgency in his eyes, that I would *probably* prefer the other entree special.) 

CIMG3354And, to great eye-rolling by my dining companions, I tend to pick out
the chopped up pig’s tails that sometimes come with hearty prawn noodle soups in
Singapore.

Heck,
I’ve not even sampled chicken feet, the relatively common staple of
Chinese dimsums that my Mum slurps up with great gusto,
filling the table with soft sucking sounds as she deftly juggles the
knobby bones with her tongue so she’s extracting the most meat
possible from each bite. (Forget tying a knot with a cherry stem — this should be the test of how good a kisser you are.)

I do have one extreme food notch on my belt that draws groans and
greenish looks whenever I bring it up, however: Spleen sandwiches.

In the heart of Palermo on the Italian island of Sicily, there’s a little place, Antica Focacceria San Francesco, with a fascinating story of standing up to the mob.
It
also happens to serve a much-lauded version of the local specialty
of spleen sandwiches — sliced cow’s spleen boiled in a hearty
stew, scooped onto a butterflied bun and topped with a generous
sprinkling of grated cacciocavallo, a cheese that’s similar to provolone
that’s ubiquitous in Sicilian dishes.

CIMG2013
Never mind that before we went, I
wasn’t entirely sure what a spleen
actually did and my husband had to explain it to me. (Even though I’m
of Asian ethnicity, I was never any good at science. My ninth grade physics teacher would be more than happy to vouch for that, I’m sure.)

Before our trip to Sicily in July 2008,
I’d seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain‘s Travel Channel show, No Reservations,” where he visits Palermo and the mayor of the city takes him to Antica Focacceria San Francesco. I remember thinking, “If it’s good enough for Anthony …” and,
the next thing I know, I’m standing on the street with the Hubbs and a
bunch of friends, passing a spleen sandwich around the circle as we
take mincing bites followed by long, thoughtful pauses. 

We knew we’d hit food paydirt because we’d followed a crew of carabinieri (police) into the restaurant, where they’d headed straight for the spleen counter. For 2 Euros (about U.S.$4 at the time), a heaping spleen sandwich for lunch isn’t a bad deal in Palermo, I guess.

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“It’s
not … baaad,” my chef friend Simpson finally said, offering his usual
response to a dish he’s trying to be diplomatic about. He knows how
much I worship (Saint) Anthony Bourdain and how deep my love for all
things Italy is. (I still have a scarf for Inter Milan, the soccer team
I followed with great passion — for the sport as well as the gorgeous
players — as a teen, pinned up in my girlhood bedroom.)
Which is probably what prompted Simpson to add: “It’s actually quite
flavorful, you know.”

The truth is, my love for the entire Italian soccer squad — years past and present
— could not inspire me to ever eat another spleen sandwich. The earthy,
meaty stew is fantastic — all beef stews should taste that complex.
And the mildly sharp shredded cheese is a lovely touch. But the
mouthfeel of the spleen is what gets you — food should not feel dense, rubbery and somewhat impenetrable,
no matter how flavorful it is.

But maybe that’s just the old Cheryl talking — the one who’s partial to the lobster spring rolls and tubs of caviar that populate New York’s fashionable parties. While I grew up on simple, delicious dishes like curried chili crab and stir-fried beef noodles, I’m far more likely to pick steak frites over wok-fried dumplings for dinner these days.

In the year ahead, however, my plan is to travel, eat and learn at the woks of the many “aunties” in my life — from my actual aunts in Singapore to New York friends like Simpson, who continues to teach me the most basic things about Southeast Asian cooking with massive gobs of patience.

The task ahead isn’t easy. For starters, I will have to stop picking
out those pig’s tails. But if my bravery ever falters, I’ll just think
of Saint Anthony.



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