Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Asian Specialties


The bakery at the 99 Ranch Market is my favorite place to shop. They always have something new for me to try and I never know quite what's inside of each bao (bun), bread, or pastry. My first grab was a Coffee Pinneapple Bun. I did a quick search and I believe my favorite pinneapple buns are called bor-lor-bao. It turns out that they're called Pineapple Buns because they look like the surface of the pinneapple. The interesting thing is that while the buns might have pinneapple in them, you rarely get one with a pinneapple filling, and even then it's a pinneapple custard that is only faintly reminiscent of pineapple. The sweetbread doesn't actually contain any pineapple. So I wasn't expecting anything except a tasty bun with my favorite egg wash glaze. My husband and I had been shopping for at least 2 hours already and were desperate to
get to our home, 40 minutes away to sample all of our unique Asian delights.

We figured a bun or two from the bakery would be perfect for the ride home without spoiling our appetites. He picked a milk cream bun which was simple and tasty and perfect for a man who loves his custard (Side note: when we first started dating he saw that I had some custard buns in my freezer from the local asian grocery and was thrilled that he found my first pet name. Fortunately he hasn't used it in public yet).

My choice of buns was the only bun left (our selection consisted of maybe a total of five lonesome buns sitting on the bakery shelf) with pinneapple in its name. As soon as I got in the car for our long trip home I tore open the celophane wrapper and got down to business. The first bite was familiar with the crumbly glaze and buttery bread rolling down my tongue. Then I realized I had read the package too quickly. There was a very bitter shock to my tastebuds as I took a second bite. It tasted nothing and yet everything like coffee. Bad coffee. I quickly looked at the wrapping and realized that the "coffee" part of the label really meant that there was coffee in the bun. I truly thought when I bought it that "coffee" was referring to what you should drink with the bun. Kind of like coffee cake. Who would ruin my wonderful pinneapple bun with a nasty coffee paste? Sigh.

At least I knew that we had five grocery bags full of surprises from the Asian market. The long beans would be devoured in three days (only because I have to show restraint now that I'm married and make them last more than ten minutes) as well as the noodles and red bean buns.


Our next adventure consisted of tasting the porcupine-like fruit called a "durian." It comes in a yellow net bag to keep you from stabbing yourself as the entire fruit is covered in short spikes. Its coloring is somewhat similar to a green cantalope and you could actually smell the sweetness wafting from the hard defensive outer layer much like a ripe melon.

When it comes to adventurous eating I generally like to leave that for restaurant dining as I know the chef is probably more familiar with these new ingredients than I am. However, I was feeling daring and the sharp spiky fruit was on sale. Plus, it was quite a coincidence that the night before we were up at 4am watching an Aussie talk all about the Durian on the food network. Interesting fact: it takes 7 years for the Durian tree to produce actual fruit. It will produce the outer spiky shell but there will be no fruit inside. Whenever I find such exotic fruits I fantasize about the person who first discovered it. I wonder who discovered the Durian? He must have been a persistent fellow because this fruit is very difficult to get into.

On the food network show (The Food Hunter) we saw several varieties of Durian and the Aussie seemed pleased to try them all. From what he describe it sounded like the Durian was similar to custard, again something I knew my husband would like. The fruit is soft and creamy inside of its tough exterior. We didn't wait long after dinner to open up this enticing fruit. I could almost guess what it would taste like just from the smell. Sweet and milky. I was correct about it being sweet and milky but it definitely has an extra flavor that I'm not sure I can describe. The texture is similar to that of a ripe mango, with thin threads holding together the soft gooey flesh. While I'm not a huge custard fan, I liked the Durian more than I expected. However, only moments after my husband and I had a few tastes, we both grimaced. Somehow we felt sick. Maybe the fruit was too ripe and was starting to go bad? We'll never know. At least not until we meet a Durian expert or until we've had enough Durian to know for ourselves. I think, in this case, I will
leave it up to the experts to tell me when a Durian is ready to eat.

The Durian originates in South Asia and is harvested not only to eat the fruit right out of its shell but also to make a paste that is sold on the grocery market shelves. The fruit can also be made into Durian cakes which are extremely popular in Malaysia. I found a recipe online and am tempted to make it before the Durian goes bad--but I'm afraid it may be too late.


You might have already realized from my "coffee pinneapple bun" debacle that I can be slightly ditzy. I attribute this to my ADD and passion for food. Sometimes that passion can be blinding and I jump past "reading" and start tasting before the food has even touched my lips. While I'm not as creative as I was as a child, with food, my imagination still runs wild.

Which leads me to my next anecdote from that day. The Preserved Egg Cake. Why it's called a cake, I'll never know. There really isn't anything cake-like about it. In the small plastic container you see three egg-shaped pastries staring at you. They look tasty. The cake is made out of a flaky pastry dough, similar to pie crust, and is brushed with an egg glaze and decorated with a pinch of sesame seeds. Similar and trustworthy. From the outside. The inside is another story.

Let me start with the reason why I bought these to begin with. We were in a hurry to leave
because we wanted to have mussels that night and couldn't wait to fill up a bag of live mussels and rush them home to their death (who wouldn't want to die in a bath of butter, olive oil, white wine, leeks, garlic and thyme?). There wasn't much of a selection in the bakery, as I mentioned earlier, and I was up to trying something new. While I was pretty sure I had never had a preserved egg cake before, I thought it sounded fine. WHAT WAS I THINKING? Apparently the word PRESERVED didn't register in my hungry hungry brain. NOTE: Never shop hungry.

We didn't have any dessert in the house so I decided an egg "cake" would be perfect after dinner. Remember, the word preserved has still not quite registered in my mind. I put the cake in the toaster oven since a lot of times bakery goods taste better heated up or a bit toasted. I was excited to eat my egg cake because I knew one thing for sure: one of the ingredients was lotus seed paste. I love lotus seed buns. I'm pretty sure that lotus seed paste is the main ingredient inside those chewy sesame balls that I crave whenever we go out for dim sum. You can also find the paste inside steamed bao. So of course I was going to love this cake. Am I setting this up too much?

I bite into the "cake" and taste the dry flaky pastry dough. Not too bad. The good stuff was yet to come. Biting into the cake further led me to the second layer of paste. This must be the lotus seed paste. But it doesn't taste like lotus seed. At least not how I remembered. As I'm eating the egg cake Matt, my husband, looks at me from the kitchen and says "do you realize that what you're eating is a PRESERVED egg cake." It was then that the word PRESERVED finally registered. "Ohhhhhhh gross," I said with resignation. This was not going to be an enjoyable desert.

Upon further examination I found what must have been the preserved egg. A peanut-sized center that looked somewhat like a hard black mini football. I wasn't about to eat it so I just picked at its gummy texture wondering what the hell I was thinking. How did I not realize what was inside this cake? Just a few moments ago I decided to dig the third egg cake out of the trash (don't worry it was still in its container). My loving husband had reluctantly consumed the second one after I begged him to try it and give me his opinion. While he pretty much hated it, he did finish at least half of it, including the preserved egg!

Anyway, I wanted to remind myself of the strange flavors of the egg cake so that I could properly share my experience with you. I decided not to heat it up since I was only going to take a quick bite. It was then that I realized why the lotus seed paste didn't taste quite right. When the egg cake is NOT heated you peel back the pastry dough to reveal the entire preserved egg; whites and all. So apparently the black gummy football was the preserved yolk and the rest of the white filling was the "white" part of the egg coated with lotus seed paste (for flavor?). The preserved egg pretty much tastes like an old and slightly sweet, probably from the lotus seed paste, hardboiled egg.

The preserved egg is actually a delicacy in the Phillipines. I learned this from my husband who was stationed in the Phillipines for a month or two. He heard from the marine corps doctors that the locals who they treated were so thankful for their medical help that they would give them gifts of preserved eggs, the local delicacy. The eggs are buried underground for some time before they are preserved. Most of the doctors were not brave enough to eat, let alone accept, the generous gift but a few gave it a try. This reminds me of a quote I recently read:

"Beware the term 'local delicacy.' It's usually code for something revolting.”
-Lillian Marsano

That concludes my experience with Asian specialties from the 99 Ranch Market in San Diego. I'll be back soon... without a preserved egg cake in my shopping cart.


Kirk said...

Hi Kady - 99 Ranch Market is fun isn't it. I prefer early weekend mornings where I can just stroll around....Ha, I just realized how strange that sounded! Welcome to Food Blogging and thanks for the link!

Rorie said...

Hi Kady - I'm another San Diego food bloger and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your post! One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon is exploring all of our local Asian and "ethnic" food markets!