Coconut Sashimi

CoconutSashimi

I never realized how similar coconut flesh and raw fish were texturally until I tried coconut sashimi for the first time. A friend first introduced me to this when we lived in Grenada (and she first learned about it from watching Korean dramas!), where coconuts are available and abundant year-round. We’d bring empty bottles to the market downtown with us and get them filled up with fresh coconut water. After the coconuts were emptied, we’d ask the coconut man to chop up the coconuts for us and take them home to scoop out the sweet, succulent flesh (or we’d eat them right there with makeshift spoons chopped off from the sides of the coconuts).

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The texture of the meat can vary depending on the age of the coconut. Younger coconuts will often have more juice and less meat. The meat it does have is more of a “jelly” that just barely clings to the shell. Slightly older coconuts will have a bit less juice, but firmer, thicker meat. These meatier coconuts are perfect for making coconut sashimi.

In the US, you can usually find fresh coconuts at any Asian market. They don’t normally have the outer skin anymore and usually resemble little cones that have been put through a giant pencil sharpener. It’s a little harder to tell how old exactly the coconuts are, but they will do just fine for making sashimi. I eat coconut sashimi exactly as I would eat regular sashimi — with a good quality soy sauce and wasabi. This might be a great vegan substitute for sashimi for any of your health-conscious friends or for satisfying a sushi craving for those who might be pregnant. I haven’t tried it other ways yet, but I’m excited to see how it might taste as nigiri or ceviche (maybe with some avocado!).

 

 

 

Preserved Salted Kumquats (咸金橘, quat muoi)

When I was growing up, my mom always had a jar of preserved kumquats on her windowsill, just waiting for someone with a sore throat to soothe. I don’t remember eating them that often back then, but when I left for college and then grad school, my mom would pour some out into a jar for me to bring along.

It was only when I got sick that I’d remember I had these stashed away somewhere in a forgotten corner of my fridge. Then I’d take out a couple, smash them in a glass, and add some hot water and honey. I swear this easy little home remedy soothes the sorest of throats better than any lozenges or tea or medicine.

Now, with the air quality what it is in Beijing, sore throats, coughs, and colds are very common for us. So I decided I’d attempt to make my own salted kumquats to have on hand. Thank goodness, because we are just emerging from a nearly 2-week stretch of dreadful air quality in what has been dubbed a “nuclear winter.” Thankfully, we have done better health-wise this winter than last, and a little sore throat has been manageable compared to the previous year, especially with some preserved kumquats around (not to mention plenty of Emergen-C, Sudafed, and salt rinses)!

There’s no real recipe for this. Just look for an air-tight jar, wash it well, and give the kumquats a good scrubbing too. Then, alternately layer kumquats with a decent-quality coarse salt (I used kosher salt) until you’ve used up all of the fruit or reached the top of your jar. Let the salted kumquats sit for at least a few months, but ideally a year or more. The longer the better. During the first few days and weeks, turn the jar upside down or give it a gentle shake to redistribute the salt now and then.

Note: Growing up, my family never paid any particular attention to proper canning or storage methods. I actually didn’t bother doing more than a regular cleaning here because we’ve always used our preserved kumquats on an ongoing basis over a duration of years, so we don’t actually vacuum seal the jar. My parents always just kept their jar of salted kumquats on the windowsill, even after opening, for year after year, though I’ve tended to keep mine in the fridge just in case. We’ve never had any problems with spoilage. I think that Mediterranean salt-packed capers are stored similarly. But if you feel more comfortable, feel free to follow proper canning methods and sterilize the jar if you like. Preserving recipes usually tell you to store jars in a dark, cool spot, and after opening, in the fridge. They also say to use canned goods within a year, or within 6 months after opening, but that piece of advice pretty much defeats the point of these preserved kumquats, which are supposed to be more effective as they age. (I found mention of some kumquats here that have stored for 8 years!) Usually, we would tend to use ours up before they’ve had time to get too, too old. But as always — use your own good judgment. :)

Below is what my salted kumquats look like after 5 weeks. I didn’t put any water into the jar, so all the liquid you see here has been released by the fruit itself. At this point the kumquats have started shriveling up and getting darker in color, but they are still hard to break apart with a spoon. You can start using them, but they are not as effective as having preserved for longer.

To use, put 2-3 kumquats and some of the released juices from the jar into a drinking glass. (You can give the kumquats a rinse if you don’t want your drink to be too salty, but the salt is actually supposed to help soothe your throat.) Muddle the kumquats with the end of a spoon or mash with a fork. Then add hot water and honey to taste. Stir it all up and drink!

For a cold version, try adding honey, carbonated water or club soda, and some ice cubes.

As a home remedy, this follows the same idea as hot tea with lemon and honey, or Coke with salt and lemon. Start preserving a jar of kumquats now so you can give it a try the next time your throat begins to feel scratchy! Or maybe you know an Asian family that may have some long-preserved shriveled ones on hand to share with you. :) When I told my mom I was giving mine a try after 5 weeks, she said I should just bring some of hers back when I see her later this month. :)

Oil Down: Grenada’s National Dish

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There’s nothing glamorous or refined about oil down; it’s a humble dish from a humble country. On this small Caribbean island, where hard-working locals have to deal with limited freshwater, seasonal rainfall, and natural disasters, and where the majority of its food is imported from the US and neighboring islands, Grenadians are proud to claim oil down as their own.

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The majority of the locals here are of African origin, the descendants of slaves brought over to work on European-owned plantations. Although Grenada became an independent country in 1974, it has retained an identity deeply rooted in European culture. Many street names, neighborhoods, and bays (Mont Tout, Carenage, Morne Rouge) have French influence, while the currency (Eastern Caribbean dollar) pays tribute to the queen of England, and British English is taught in schools. As a result, the local customs, language, food, religion, and architecture are a rich blend of each of these different influences, each lending a unique flavor to the culture of Grenada.

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Although many things in Grenada have been influenced by the Europeans over the years, oil down remains something purely Grenadian. No imported spices or seasonings, no choice cuts of meat here. This one-pot meal is made up of local veggies, “provisions” (the local term for starchy roots, tubers, and bananas that fill you up), salted meat, and aromatic seasoning —  all easily accessible, affordable ingredients in Grenada. All these components are combined in a large pot and cooked down in coconut milk over an open fire. In fact, the name of the dish comes from the coconut oils released from the coconut milk as it simmers and is absorbed by the other ingredients.

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Oil down is comfort food at its Caribbean best. And of course, like any comfort food, mom or grandma always makes the best version! I was fortunate to have gotten to know someone local to the island whom I could ask to teach me how to make this dish. During my time in Grenada, I frequented the public market in St. George’s often enough that I became friends with a lot of my favorite vendors there. In particular, I ordered so much handmade jewelry from Billy that we were soon on a first-name basis. I’d stand there and watch him make jewelry some days, we’d haggle good-naturedly over different pieces, and when my friends and I had heavy bags filled with mangoes and bananas from the market, we’d leave them with Billy as we finished our shopping in town. We even spent an afternoon with Billy and his friends trekking through the rainforest, as he showed us where he collects his seeds for jewelry-making. So, it didn’t take too much convincing when I asked Billy to show me how to make oil down.

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Our day began at the market where Billy and his friends showed us the ingredients we’d need for making this dish. After picking up all these items, we lugged everything (including a huge pot) to the beach to begin our cookout. When your meal needs time to simmer, the beach is the best place to wait!

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While this dish is relatively easy to make (throw everything in a pot and let it simmer!), it usually turns into an all-day event. Because it tastes best cooked over an open flame, families will often make oil down at the beach, at sporting events, at hashes (organized, weekly hikes around the island), or any place where you need to feed a large group of people. And if you know Grenadians, they love to lime (a Grenadian term for something like “chilling”). In fact, “oil down” actually refers to both the dish as well as the act or event of making it. An oil down typically involves families spending the whole day at the beach. Everybody pitches in to help, and as the food cooks, children will jump in the water, young boys will play soccer, moms will watch the babies, and the men will lounge around, liming. You can’t truly experience this dish without taking part in the making and sharing of it!

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I hope that by recording this recipe, I can pay tribute in some small way to Billy, to the friends I met on the island, and to the two years that my husband and I shared together so far away from home. Yes, Grenada is not in the media much (aside from the invasion by the US in the 80s), nor is it at the top of anybody’s must-see travel destinations (heck, I couldn’t even convince my sister to visit me while I was there!), but it has a simplicity and sincerity that I’ve grown to love and miss after I left just two months ago. The island’s only recently become more tourist-friendly, but many locals still don’t really know how to interact or deal with foreigners (they’ll often resort to either catcalling or brusqueness). But if you have a thick skin, an open mind, and are sure to mind your “morning,” “afternoon,” or “good nights,” you’ll find some of the friendliest, kindest people you’ll ever meet.

Oil down, in all its simple and unassuming nature, has really come to represent Grenada for me — something I can bring back home and remember the island by. At first glance, the dish doesn’t look like it has much to offer, and you may not quite know what to make of it. It’s not exactly a stew, nor a curry. And it’s lost a lot of its vibrant colors after simmering for so many hours. But if you’ll take the time to dig a little deeper, open up yourself, and give it a chance, you’ll find hidden beneath modest ingredients, the very heart and soul of a country and its people.

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Eating in Bangkok

Thailand has always seemed fascinating and yet a bit intimidating to me, because it feels at once familiar (with many similarities in climate and culinary offerings as Vietnam) and yet still so foreign. It’s one of those countries I’ve long been intrigued by, and it was one of the first places we visited after we moved to Asia. (We flew there after spending a few days with family in Hong Kong last year.)

Thailand is so much more diverse than I realized. Most of the Thai food common in the US is mainly characteristic of central Thailand, particularly Bangkok. But the regional foods in other parts of the country bear the flavors of Burma, Yunnan (the southern Chinese province), Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In addition, the Muslim community in Thailand also brings its own dishes. And I was surprised to find that there are a lot of Chinese people, and therefore a lot of recognizable Chinese food here. Thailand stood at a crossroad between Indian, Arab, and European traders from the west, and the rest of Asia to the east. And, impressively, it is the only country in SE Asia to have never been under European colonization.

During our five days in Bangkok, it was fun to experience both things completely new to me as well as things that, for one reason or another, seemed kind of familiar. Rather than breaking this up into various smaller posts and risk never getting around to finishing, I’m just going to do it all in one fell swoop. So please bear with me! (I will get to Chiang Mai in my next post.) Here we go…

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