A Visit to Bangkok, Part Two: Peeking Into Chinatown

Red Lanterns festively displayed by a street vendor in Bangkok's Chinatown

Red Lanterns festively displayed by a street vendor in Bangkok’s Chinatown

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There’s something familiar about Chinatown.

No matter what city you’re in, whether it’s New York City, San Francisco, Hong Kong, or Bangkok, the images you’d conjure up for Chinatown are roughly similar.

Street view - Bangkok's Chinatown

Street view – Bangkok’s Chinatown

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Street vendors hawking their wares, a variety of foods for sale – some of which look totally unfamiliar – and lots of small Chinese grocery stores selling packages of dried fish, along with Chinese tea shops and restaurants.

Colorful rolling carts displaying fruit in Bangkok's Chinatown

Colorful rolling carts displaying fruit in Bangkok’s Chinatown

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Bangkok’s Chinatown felt familiar in the way that I described, but there were unfamiliar sights too.

I WISH I could have gotten a photo of the strange machine I saw on many street corners used to roast chestnuts in what looked like circulating black gravel stones. I’ve never seen such a machine before.

But, to me, the way to see a place is by watching the people.

Woman washing pans in a food stall

Woman washing pans in a food stall

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More washing going on in the alley

More washing going on in the alley

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Walking along the crowded streets

Walking along the crowded streets

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And, of course, tasting the food. The vegetarian fare I sampled included Mapo Tofu, Chinese green leafy stuff with mushrooms, and something new to me: Iced chrysanthemum tea with lemon and honey. It was all delicious!

Dinner was delicious

Dinner was delicious

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If you’re wondering whether or not to take a stroll along the crowded streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown, stop and buy some fruit from a rolling cart and then ducking into one of the many restaurants or tea shops to eat a snack … the answer is yes, you should. But I would say that for Chinatown in any city around the world………

 

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The Mysterious Matter of the Missing Water Chestnut

In any grocery store in New Jersey or New York City you can find all kinds of ingredients. The abundance of food varieties is staggering, and we totally take it for granted. It’s inconceivable that you’d go into the grocery store and not be able to find Chinese, Indian and Mexican food ingredients waiting for you to pluck them off the shelf and put them in your cart.

In fact, I wrote about making my own vegan Chinese food on the blog back in February: https://cdeminski.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/unusual-ingredients-homemade-vegan-chinese-dinner/

But I’m not in Jersey City; I’m in Bonifacio Global City, a wealthy suburb of Metro Manila. And none of the grocery stores in all of BGC carry water chestnuts or bamboo shoots.

This is not a big deal if you have a lot of other vegetable choices, but vegetable choices here are more limited (in some ways) than what we have at home, but expanded in local Philippino green leafy veggies which (frankly) all look like variations on bok choy. Anyway…

A few days ago, a friend told me to check a high-end specialty food store called Santis. But that place emphasizes European imported goods, and European meats and cheeses. No Chinese ingredients.

I decided that this situation required me to be a bit radical. There’s a very good Chinese resto in my neighborhood called Sichuan. I stopped in.

The perplexed looking staff wondered why I wasn’t going to sit down for a meal, and I wasn’t putting in a take out order, but I wanted to speak to the manager. In the given tradition of over-staffing, about a dozen Filipina girls started whispering to each other about why I’d want to speak to the manager? Was someone in trouble?

Soon the “manager” came over, a young man in his late 20’s. I explained that I loved the food at Sichuan, and I had eaten there several times, but that sometimes I wanted to cook Chinese food at home, and I couldn’t find the ingredients I needed.

Before I could even ask, he said, “Would you like us to get these water chestnuts and bamboo shoots for you?”

“Yes,” I said, so happily surprised at his kind generosity.

“Do you need them right away?” he asked. Knowing how Filipinos can go very far out of their way for simple requests, I emphasized that I did NOT need them right away, and anytime they could get them would be fine.

“How often do you get deliveries?” I asked.

“Every day,” he said. And confirmed what I thought. If I had said I needed it “right away” I imagine he might have sent a courier for same day water chestnut delivery!

A few emails later, we confirmed prices and I was told my ingredients would be available the very next day for pick up. But, the manager added, the cans of bamboo shoots were “a bit” large, was that okay?

Oh sure, I wrote back. How big could they be, I thought?

It turns out, restaurant sized cans of Bamboo Shoots are pretty big

It turns out, restaurant sized cans of Bamboo Shoots are pretty big

Each one of the cans of water chestnuts in this photo is about 1.5 pounds, so, yes, the cans of bamboo shoots are huge.

And then, I opened one big can, and this is what I found inside:

The real deal - authentic Chinese bamboo shoots

The real deal – authentic Chinese bamboo shoots

I was thrilled! This is exactly what I had been buying in Jersey City, and so I knew how to process them. (For anyone not familiar with this ingredient, when you slice the bamboo shoot down the center, do it in the sink or over a bowl, they are filled with water inside. Then, once split in half, it’s easier to slice them up to prepare them for use in stir fry dishes.)

Incidentally, the restaurant manager told me where I could go and find these ingredients myself. “It’s very far from here,” he said. “Where’s that?” I asked.

Chinatown – in Manila.

I’ve heard of it, and I’ve been told it’s dangerous enough that it’s not a place for me to go by myself, so I have not ventured there – YET. I’m in the process of trying to convince some local friends to go with me, and when I do, I’m sure I’ll have more stories to tell!

I’ve Got a Golden Ticket

The local upscale Wholefoods-like grocery store, Rustens, was running a promotional. It was straight out of the ’70’s, but I like shopping games, so I got hooked. The offer was simple: every time you spent 500 pesos ($10 bucks) you got a sticker. Accumulate enough stickers, and get a serving dish of your choice.

Every time I’d go to Rustens I’d see all of the fancy bowls and platters arrayed on their display stand, and I’d drool a little. But I set my goals practically. My bowl required the least number of stickers: 55.

(For those doing the math, it required us to spend 27,500 pesos, or $550 USD to acquire this bowl “for free” ha ha ha.)

I quickly became a sticker addict. Week after week I needed my fix, and if I didn’t get it, I’d get itchy. Soon, I started hitting up my friend Carlos. “Hey man, are you going to Rustens to buy that Greek yogurt you like? It’s worth 2 stickers…can I have them?” Or to my other friend Suresh, who doesn’t always shop in Rustens, I’d slyly say, “Well, if you happen to buy something in Rustens, I’m collecting stickers for that bowl.”

Hey man, can you give me some stickers...?

Hey man, can you give me some stickers…?

But Rustens is clever. The promotional period ends July 5th. So if we were going to win the bowl, I needed to make sure we were pumping our grocery money into Rustens.

Towards the end I became desperate. “Carlos,” I’d plead, my eyes a little glassy, “I only need 10 more. We’re so close!” (I said “we” because I wanted the guys to think of the bowl as theirs too, but they saw right through my tactics!)

In the end, though, it was the guys who provided the last 10 stickers so I could reach the promised land.

Just ... one ... more ... !!!

Just … one … more … !!!

Tonight I went to the Customer Service desk and said to the clerk, with more than a little pride in my voice, “Today is a great day!” I was beaming from ear to ear like a maniac.

She smiled at me, in the way that knowing clerks, the world over, deal with crazy customers. She simply said, “Yes ma’am.”

I said, “I have something for you!” getting giddier by the moment. As I opened my purse and pulled out my sheet, the clerk couldn’t help herself, she giggled. Yes, I knew I had lost my mind, but I didn’t care. I was getting my beautiful, my precious……..

She went to the display and picked up a 1.7 liter gourmet mixing bowl and presented it to me. “Does this one look alright?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” I said, “it looks perfect!”

The golden bowl

Fish Flakes

Filipinos love fish. They put “patis” (fish sauce – pronounced Pah-Teese) on everything.

I’ve had to learn the Tagalog words for fish sauce (“patis”) and fermented fish sauce (“bagoong” – prounounced Bah-Go-Ong) because clever restaurants claim to serve vegetables but, as a vegan, I don’t believe it!

If you ask a server, does this have fish in it? They say NO. If you ask if it has “patis” or “bagoong” in it they say YES.

Recently, I picked up a package of Magic Flakes crackers at the grocery, briefly scanned the ingredients, and put it in my cart. When I got home and tasted them, they didn’t taste quite like crackers, so I looked again at the ingredient list while I munched.

In addition to normal crackery ingredients … flour, water, salt … the company that makes Magic Flakes uses fish oil in their crackers.

I have not seen this phenomenon in the United States. There is NO fish in our crackers! (Even “goldfish” crackers aren’t fish…!)

Funnier still, until I went back and looked at the photo I took of the Magic Flakes crackers, only then did I notice the package of Sky Flakes next to it proudly proclaiming it has Omega 3’s in it.

Fish food....

Fish food….

How is it that companies can use the cheapest ingredients to make their products (these packages of crackers are very cheap) and then put claims on them for health. I think that’s outrageous.

Grocery shopping is an interesting experience here in the Philippines. For many of the packages, the writing isn’t in English, or the product package refers to a type of food that is unfamiliar to me. (For example calling crackers “flakes.”)

Here’s the package for Ube cakes. It’s got that “luscious ube flavor” and is purple inside. Hmmm… what kind of food is purple and sweet? That was a mystery to me.

Now with that luscious ube flavor...

Now with that luscious ube flavor…

It turns out that a “ube” is a purple yam.

And on this blog, I found out that Ube flavored baked goods are extremely popular in the Philippines.

http://blog.junbelen.com/2010/05/25/purple-yam-why-filipinos-love-purple-sweet-treats/

So the next time I’m in the grocery store, I may just have to go native and try some Ube cakes… but there’s no way I’m going to eat fish flakes!

The Lemon Plum

 

Lemon plum

Lemon plum

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Just look at this beauty, caught in the prime moment of being juicy and ready to eat.

This is a “lemon plum.”

Yet another fruit I’d never eaten before, but found in one of my local green markets. I loved the shape and color of the fruit, and was told these plums have a lemony flavor. And so they do!

It seems hard for me to claim that I’m finding all this produce just because I’m (mostly) vegan, but it’s true. I like eating fruit, especially berries. Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries all find their way into my grocery basket. I don’t go out of my way to find new fruits to eat, but when I saw these beautiful plums I couldn’t resist.

Of course I’ve eaten plums before, but the plums I normally eat are a deep wine color, and their flesh is dark, dense and very sweet. The lemon plums have a lighter color flesh, and while they are sweet, the lemony flavor makes them taste more refreshing.

I suppose I’ve just written an ode to a plum, but why not?

Yes, I celebrate “one ingredient” foods, including this gorgeous, delicious lemon plum. It may have one ingredient, but the flavor is more complex than anything a processing food plant’s chemistry lab can compete with any day of the week.

Vegan Massage, or Taming Your Kale

If you are vegan, or in my case “mostly vegan,” at some point you will venture into the world of greens. There are many kinds of greens, from low calorie iceberg lettuce to the more flavorful, but delicate spring mix until we get to robust and substantial leafy kale.

 

I’ll admit I had never tried kale until I became vegan. Then again, there are many foods that my vegan journey has introduced into my kitchen, like chia seeds, quinoa, nutritional yeast and many other interesting ingredients that I have come to enjoy and which are nutritionally dense.

Kale is also nutritionally dense. One cup has 2 grams of protein (yes, greens have protein!) and kale is also a blockbuster delivery system for Vitamin A and C.

Raw kale nutrition panel

Raw kale nutrition panel

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And as great as kale is, if you want to eat it raw in a salad, you’ll find that you must do something to prepare the leaves because they are very firm and overly crunchy.

But, there’s a great way to tame your kale and make it softer and more “lettuce like” in your salad.

First, if you have whole kale leaves, go ahead and wash and dry. Then, remove the center stem portion which is rather woody. Chop the leaves into bite sized pieces.

Put the bite sized pieces into an over-sized bowl. Take some olive oil, you don’t need much! and drizzle it over the kale. For 2 cups of chopped kale, you probably need 1-2 teaspoons. Experiment with the amount of oil, trying to use the least amount possible. After you’ve drizzled the olive oil, sprinkle some salt on too. Use an amount of salt that you’d normally use for flavoring, but in this case the salt will also help break down the leaves.

Now… get your (washed and clean) hands into the bowl and massage the kale with your hands. I gently squeeze the leaves in my fingers, breaking them down with the moistening from the oil and salt, and circulate the leaves from top to bottom to rotate each leaf and make sure I’m compressing all of the salad.

You’ll be able to tell when you are finished when every single kale leaf is moistened with the olive oil, and the leaves feel soft to the touch.

At this point, add the remainder of your salad ingredients and mix with the kale.

Although olive oil and salt is it’s own kind of dressing, I usually add a very light drizzle (again, no more than another teaspoon) of a flavored dressing of my choice. I’m also a big fan of freshly ground black pepper for flavor.

You don’t need any additional dressing, and you could use other types of flavoring like a flavored vinegar or fresh lemon / lime juice if you feel like it.

Hopefully, this kale massage technique will help you enjoy this dark leafy green more often as a part of a high nutrition salad.

I like to add carrots, tomatoes, avocado, slivered almonds, olives and chia seeds to round out the meal!

Unusual ingredients – Homemade Vegan Chinese Dinner

As a resident of Jersey City, New Jersey I am so lucky to be living amidst immigrant populations from a variety of countries. In particular because the raw – VEGAN – ingredients available to me in the local stores are amazing.

There’s a special Asian grocery (for locals, it’s called 555 Asian Supermarket on Tonnele Avenue) where I can get unusual and delicious supplies for home made Chinese food.

Here’s a sample of what I bought recently:

Some Chinese vegetables, prior to being prepared

Some Chinese vegetables, prior to being prepared

In the photo above, we have beginning from the top left…

Bag of bean sprouts, rice wine vinegar, Chinese greens

Pea pods, bamboo tip, onions, zucchini

Lotus root, ginger root, garlic, single Chinese green, shitake mushrooms

And upon preparation for cooking, here’s how the veggies look:

The insides of the bamboo tip, lotus root, and ginger root

The insides of the bamboo tip, lotus root, and ginger root

As you can see in the center of the second photo, when I slice the bamboo open (far right) it has these cool looking spaces where the bamboo plant stores water. In the very center of this photo, you see the peeled and sliced lotus root, which also has a distinctive pattern that emerges with each slice.

What’s also wonderful about each of these vegetables is that they have their own texture. Lotus root is firm and crunchy, while the bamboo is soft and tender. Both are relatively flavorless, and take on the spices and flavors of other veggies that cook with them.

Ginger root, on the other hand, is quite spicy and makes a fantastic addition to Chinese veggies. The two chunks of ginger in the photo above are peeled, but not chopped up finely enough yet to add to the dish. I chop ginger much as I would chop garlic, into very fine pieces.

Once all of my veggies are washed and clean, peeled and chopped or sliced as needed … into the pot they go. The most time consuming part of cooking the Chinese veggie dinner is the preparation of the veggies. Lots of chopping.

But in the end…a little garlic flavored rice wine vinegar, some soy sauce, freshly ground black pepper and lots of veggies turns into…

Home made vegan Chinese dinner is served

Home made vegan Chinese dinner is served

Dinner is served!

Bad News for Vegan Aging

DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a doctor or a nutritionist. I am NOT recommending that anyone reading this post take any supplement without first consulting their own health care professional.

In the year plus that I’ve been mostly vegan, I’ve learned some things about nutrients that people who are consuming a vegan diet are missing. I found a new one which I’d like to share.

L-Carnosine

Please READ THIS ARTICLE on Carnosine, which details the many health benefits of this amino acid. (Some may refer to Carnosine as a dipeptide, meaning two amino acids joined together. In the case of Carnosine, it’s the combination of beta-alanine and L-histidine.)

Most notably, in my opinion, Carnosine helps reduce protein glycation – which is a fancy way of saying that as your body takes in sugars like fructose (from eating fruit, for example), those sugars create free radicals and damage your cells. This damage causes, among other things, cells to age.

Carnosine is naturally ingested by people who eat meat. However, Carnosine is available as a supplement too.

It is VERY ironic to me that vegans will “suffer” the ill effects of not ingesting Carnosine to help delay the aging process unless we use supplements. However, even eating a lot of red meat may not be sufficient amount of Carnosine to accumulate the benefits of this amino acid.

 

Previously, I’ve written about the use of Creatine and my personal experiences with that supplement too. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, you have very low levels of creatine in your body from not eating meat. If you are an athlete, you may want to consider supplementation. Please look for my other posts about this.

In keeping with this form of experimentation, I have ordered some Carnosine and once I get the supplement I will begin taking it.

No one seems to know the “correct dosage” for Carnosine, however the supplement producers are making 500 mg capsules as the daily dose, so my plan is to begin taking the 500 mg daily. I will plan to report back on the effects, so far as I am able to observe them (nothing like being my own lab rat!)

Some final thoughts…

Vegans are probably, by nature, already health conscious since we are careful about what we’re putting into our bodies. However, we still have to be mindful that by deleting entire food groups from our meal plans, we are missing different nutrients (B12, Carnosine and Creatine for example.)

If we choose to, we can take supplements to remain in better overall balance, while still avoiding the foods we don’t want to eat.

In my opinion, a great daily multi-vitamin is a wonderful place to start. If you are a (pre-menopausal) woman, and a vegan, get a multi that has B12, calcium, iron and zinc.

If you want to go beyond that, consider supplements that are right for you.

I’ve chosen to be mostly vegan. I consume eggs, and I also choose to take a fish oil based Omega 3 supplement daily – although I do not eat fish. (Yes, I know flax and chia seeds have Omega 3’s, but not anywhere near supplement levels.)

Now I will add a Carnosine supplement too.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to get straight answers about health and nutrition in this country, especially as it pertains to supplements. It’s always a good idea to do as much research as possible, or talking to your personal health care provider, until you feel comfortable with what you decide to take.

I’m wishing everyone great health!

 

Additional Reading on Carnosine

Wiki page for Carnosine

Life Extension Magazine on Carnosine

BodyBuilding.com (older article) on Carnosine

A Year of Being Mostly Vegan

I’ve been keeping a personal journal for many decades, and periodically I re-read entries. Today I re-read an entry from November 16th, 2013 which noted that I’d moved from eating vegetarian to eating vegan.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this (crazy) eating regimen for over a year now! BUT, right now I’m in the best shape I’ve been in, probably in my life.

In June this year I began going to the gym regularly. I started out going every day, now I have two rest days within the week, but I’m still lifting and doing cardio 5 days a week.

And while I haven’t lost much weight (today I am 7 pounds lighter than I was this time last year) I have lost inches and dress sizes. I’m down to about a size 6 – I’m really proud of that!

On the eating front, I am mostly vegan. I’ve continued allowing egg whites into my diet so I can ensure I’m getting enough protein, which is a constant battle. I use my brown rice protein shake to supplement, but I must be mindful of the foods I choose to get the daily requirement of protein.

This year has been a great learning experience. I’ve experimented more with my diet and now find myself in a place where I eat lots of veggies and fruits, along with legumes, nuts and seeds.

Have I been a perfect vegan? Heck no. I estimate I ate chicken about a half a dozen times this year (no, I won’t be eating turkey on Thanksgiving!) and I do allow myself some buttered toast or buttered bagel every now and again as a treat.

These changes ARE CHALLENGING, but I still believe they are worth it.

As the holidays approach, I already know my eating habits are not fun at parties. Many times there is absolutely nothing I can eat when I’m at a party, or I wind up defaulting into eating junky processed food like potato chips. I think I’m going to start bringing food to parties… maybe a bag of carrots and a container of hummus dip, so that I’ll be sure to at least have one thing I can eat that is healthy. But when it comes to sour cream and onion dip, cheese and cracker plates, pigs in a blanket, cream filled whatever, and meat, meat and more meat… I’ll be skipping all that, thanks. (Hmm, maybe I need more vegan friends, ha!)

So here I am, beginning year two of being vegan. No one is more amazed than me, I’m sure.

My immediate goals are to continue eating healthy, continue going to the gym, and yes, I’d still like to lose 10 pounds. Who knows, maybe I’ll wind up being a Size 4 someday. I’ve never been a size 4 in my life, but as I achieve new health milestones it’s possible my body will continue to be transformed.

The biggest obstacle to becoming vegan in the first place was psychological. Most people believe they cannot give up X, Y or Z foods. Or perhaps even when they try to eat healthier, they still are in a deprivation mindset, instead of embracing the opportunity for better health.

So, let me warn you now, if you eat healthier and do it consistently, the foods you love now will taste BAD to you in the future. Do you know why? Because the foods that are not healthy for you are usually fake, processed foods. Ersatz food. And once you give that up, if you go back and taste processed foods, you’ll know they’re disgusting.

I have my own example of this. I used to like banana chips. I eat fresh bananas regularly, but I also used to enjoy banana chips as a snack. But after a while, I noticed that when I ate the banana chips, I could taste the oil the chip was fried in rather than the chip itself, and it tasted gross to me. Eventually, I could taste that the chip was very slightly rancid from the oil.

If my palette wasn’t as finely tuned, I doubt my sense of smell and taste would have registered this a year ago. I would have eaten the food then and enjoyed it. But when you convert your body and taste buds into eating fresh food 99% of the time, these things become obvious.

Good luck to everyone out there working on changing your diet and improving your health. I’ve achieved some decent milestones in the past year, and I’m looking forward to another year of improved health.

 

Vegan Tip – Avocado boosts Beta Carotene absorption

Beta carotene rich salad ingredients and a roll with mashed avocado

Beta carotene rich salad ingredients and a roll with mashed avocado

Welcome to lunch at my house today. What’s on the menu? Blockbuster nutrients, and the means to absorb them. It’s 100% vegan.

First, we have a beta carotene rich salad. I start with a cucumber base, and on top are heirloom baby tomatoes in orange, red and yellow from the local farmer’s market. You’ll also find slices of purple carrot (also scored at the farmer’s market), along with a sprinkling of dried wild blueberries and almond slivers.

If the foods you are eating are natural, and colorful … reds, yellows, oranges… they are high in beta carotene. But guess what? Avocado is also high in beta carotene.

Along with my salad is an artisanal bread roll dressed with mashed avocado (although I could have just put diced avocado directly onto the salad.)

According to the World’s Healthiest Foods website:

Recent research has shown that absorption of two key carotenoid antioxidants—lycopene and beta-carotene—increases significantly when fresh avocado (or avocado oil) is added to an otherwise avocado-free salad. One cup of fresh avocado (150 grams) added to a salad of romaine lettuce, spinach, and carrots increased absorption of carotenoids from this salad between 200-400%.

 

So eat up! Not only does it taste good, it’s really good for you!