Fierce Foodie: Unexpected and Yummy
a blogumn by Roya Hamadani
Arkansas has never been on my list of places to visit. There’s this X-Files episode about cannibalistic chickens…Anyway, a good friend of mine is based in Fayetteville for her job, and so I decided to make the trek down South.
I didn’t have great hopes for the cuisine. I pretty much thought I’d be eating barbecue and biscuits, but I was so wrong. In three days I had authentic Thai, Filipino and Vietnamese food. You might ask, what’s the big deal? We have the same stuff in the city. But I would argue that big city high rents and fierce competition actually prevent new immigrants from getting a foothold in the restaurant business. In smaller communities, they can get away with plastic utensils and little in the way of frills in order to concentrate solely on the food.
Because my mother is Filipino, I must wax poetic on my favorite of the three places I visited – the Mabuhay. An Oriental store that serves a buffet on the weekends, the restaurant side has a few folding tables and a huge flat screen TV that plays Fox News nonstop. But what the place lacks in ambiance it more than makes up for in cuisine: rich garlicky adobo, sweet spicy barbecue beef, shrimp tamarind soup, coconut curry chicken, fresh pineapple and thick sweet cassava cake, chocolate sticky rice, these are but a few of the dishes concocted by the Filipina co-owner. And even halo halo, a shaved ice dessert with candied hearts of palm, red and mung beans, carrot and young coconut. It’s kind of a strange but wonderful way to get your veggies.
To me this place represents what’s unique and great about our melting pot country, and makes me want to take a culinary road trip of the U.S. to find every little unexpected gem from far away.
In honor of the Mabuhay, here’s a recipe for Pansit, a Filipino noodle dish with more than a thousand variations:
Add meat: you can use anything! I think pork, chicken, Chinese sausage, shrimp work best. Chinese sausage can be found at most Oriental food stores and is great to use in combination with leftover chicken pulled from a rotisserie. Vegetarians can use extra firm tofu and/or shitake mushrooms. Oriental stores carry dried mushrooms which when soaked in water overnight not only provide intensely flavorful mushrooms but also equally flavorful liquid for adding to the pansit. Use enough meat or meat substitute for 4 or 5 people.
With meat add 2 tbsp soy sauce and enough water to cover. Simmer ten minutes and do not let it go dry. Add more water if needed. Taste, and add more soy sauce if diluted.
Once cooked remove from pot and set aside. Add 1 tbsp canola oil to the juices and add your vegetables. You can choose any of the following in combination: bok choy cut into strips, carrot cut into matchsticks, celery or green beans or zucchini cut finely and elongated on the diagonal, napa cabbage or fresh coriander shredded fine. Basically any leafy green works. The key is cutting it fine, no big chunks.
Cook the vegetables until just tender. In a separate pot, boil water, then take a packet of rice noodles (also known as rice sticks) and dip them into the boiling water. Quickly remove and set aside. This will soften the noodles without rendering them into mush. You can also use egg noodles, the Chinese or Filipino variety. Even leftover spaghetti works in a pinch.
Add the meat back to the vegetables, and then add the noodles. Stir and taste. Add soy sauce as needed. Serve with lemon.
The great thing about this dish is that it makes use of any leftovers you might have, and it’s even better the next day. In the summer I like to eat it cold.