Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Spongy veggies and foul fruits: Trying new foods at Spices

My mom is going home tonight. Phew! Wasn't sure I'd make it. She's been a little easier in the past couple days because she finally realized that I was tired of her sitting around my house the whole evening so I couldn't do my normal evening things. And we can finally start to clear out our fridge. At the moment, we have leftovers from at least six different meals waiting to be eaten; when one's mother takes one out to restaurants every night, the leftovers just pile up. Actually, I'm going out to dinner with her tonight right before she leaves, so tomorrow will be the day we start to feast on leftovers. Hopefully none have gone bad...

So I've eaten at a lot of restaurants since my mom got here four weeks ago, at least seven (off the top of my head) that I'd never been to before. There was Shokudo, where they serve modern Japanese food including mochi cheese gratin and sushi pizza (rice on seaweed/nori makes the "crust" and the toppings include crab and jalapeño). There was the Green Papaya restaurant on Keeaumoku, where we had some delicious tamarind shrimp (the shrimp were still in their shells which was annoying, but it was so darn tasty I didn't care). Still, in spite of so many other worthy candidates, the most surprisingly different restaurant I went to with my mom was Spices.

Spices is a restaurant that one of my friends from school had mentioned before, and I'd driven by it many times but never tried it. So when my mom said last night that she'd take the Housemate and me out for dinner as a final thank you for letting her use our car and asked where we'd like to go, I remembered Spices and looked up its menu on the website. The restaurant features southeast Asian cuisine including Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Laotian. There are plenty of Thai and Vietnamese places in town, but I'd never been anywhere that claimed Burmese or Laotian styles of cooking. I was intrigued, and the restaurant is actually quite close to my house, so we decided to try it. I am very glad we went, because aside from having some delicious dishes, I got to try a few foods that were completely new to me.

Even before we ordered, the meal started off well. The waiter gave us a tall clear glass bottle (like a wine bottle) of water with a large mint sprig floating inside. I've seen things like that before, but still it was pretty classy. And I like mint water. My favorite dish (not counting dessert) of the night was our appetizer, tod man, which was made of ground catfish formed into thick, round patties and deep fried, and seasoned with red curry and other yummy flavors. The texture was pleasantly crunchy and chewy, and the flavor was delicious. The other dish we ate as an appetizer was taro shoot salad. Taro root is a common food item here in Hawaii (McDonald's even sells taro pie, made with the purple root), but I'd never seen taro shoots listed on a menu. We had to order it to see what it was like. It was totally different from what I expected. You'll just have to have a look at it:

Taro shoot slice. It has holes like honeycomb or something! The green flake on it is a bit of mint leaf.

The thick shoots were sliced thin, so they were shaped a bit like an oval cut open at one end. Each slice was surprisingly porous. Munching on the taro shoot, it was both spongy and crisp at the same time. It was pretty fascinating. The taste was pleasant though very mild, no stronger than a bland lettuce, but there was a sauce to dip it in, and the holes in the taro shoot slices were very effective at holding the sauce. Unfortunately for me the sauce had a mustard flavor, which I don't care for, but my mom and Housemate enjoyed it a lot.

For our entrées, we had Laotian curry and lad na. The lad na was a good but not outstanding noodle dish; I didn't love it because I thought it was too salty. Personal taste there, I guess. But the Laotian curry was delicious. The most exciting thing about it was it had these little "pea eggplants" I'd never had before. They were slightly larger than a pea and reminded me of cherry tomatoes in that when I bit into them, they'd explode. Their skin was probably proportionally thicker than a cherry tomato, maybe just because they were smaller, so it was an even more dramatic explosion when the seeds came spurting out in my mouth. And their flavor was different and nice.

For dessert, the restaurant serves a rotating selection of maybe eight or ten very interesting flavors of homemade ice cream. We got a three-scoop sampler, so we tried Okinawan sweet potato (known for their purple color), pineapple basil, and durian. The Okinawan sweet potato was mild but tasty, though it had the slight graininess of sweet potatoes. The pineapple basil was absolutely delicious, I would order it again without a second thought. Not a combination that I would have thought of, but it was absolutely amazing. The durian... Well, it was very, very interesting. I'd never had durian before, though I've seen it in the store here in Hawaii, and I know of its reputation. Here's a picture of the bad boy, taken from the extensive Wikipedia page on durians, which you can check out if you're interested:

There are a number of varieties of durian, each with different flavors (I'm not sure how much the flavor varies), but I think they are all known for having a really bad odor. Some choice quotes off the Wikipedia page:
"British novelist Anthony Burgess writes that eating durian is 'like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.'... Richard Sterling says, 'Its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away.'... Other comparisons have been made with the civet, sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs."
The smell is so strong that it has been banned from many hotels and public transportation.

According to Wikipedia, this is from Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit. This looks like a joke, but the Housemate (who has lived in Indonesia) assures me that you really do see these signs in places where durians are popular.

Well, now that I have tasted it (and the Housemate assures me that the ice cream tasted just like durian, though with cream and sugar), I would have to agree with the "sewage" description. The ice cream, fortunately, was not fragrant from a distance. I had to hold it within an inch of my nose to smell it. But it smelled a lot like sewage. So why eat something that smells like sewage? Well, when you taste it, there is still a little of the bad odor flavor in the background, mainly as a temporary aftertaste, and it is not so strong that you think you're eating sewage. But mainly what you taste is a number of other flavors that I am at a loss to describe, other than that they are interesting, fruity, and pleasant. 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described durian thus: "A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes." I'm not sure I'd pick any of those out of my taste of durian, but this guy Wallace was a big fan. And there are many big fans of durians' unique, complex taste.

I don't think I'd order durian ice cream again. I found that ultimately whatever interesting and pleasant fruity tastes there were in the durian did not compensate for the unpleasantness. But I can conceive of acquiring the taste and understand why some people love it. I guess the durian is best compared to cilantro in that way, since the herb has both a pleasant herby taste as well as a flavor some compare to body odor; whether you like it or not depends on which you taste more strongly (I think there may even be a genetic trait which prevents people from tasting the nice flavor, so those people are usually not fans). Since I have still never tried the actual durian fruit, I would be willing to do that, so I have an idea of the texture as well. The fruit apparently smells much stronger, but at least now I know what to expect when I try it.

I had a really fun time at Spices. Even though I probably would not order the durian ice cream again, unless I was there with someone new who needed to be introduced to it, I enjoyed trying it. I can't imagine how boring it must be to be an unadventurous eater. So what if my burps tasted a bit like poop for the next hour or two? It didn't kill me, and it was an intriguing experience! I would definitely order the catfish patties, the Laotian curry, and the pineapple basil ice cream again. I'm dying to go back so I can try a Burmese dish and also their pandan ice cream (I'd never heard of pandan before, but apparently it's a long grassy leaf that tastes somewhat like vanilla). I'm definitely looking forward to a second night at Spices... especially because it will be mom free--just the Housemate and me.


Mamba Rose said...

Try Taro Ice Cream- it's to die for!

Eleni said...

Ooh, I've never tried taro ice cream before. Sounds good! I wonder where I can find some.

Sebastian said...

I vaguely recall being asked if I've ever tried durian, and I remember saying I had... but now... perhaps I haven't. Maybe it was some other crazy Asian fruit.

Now I REALLY want to try it though. And hey, I'm only a few months away from my epic south-east Asia tour...!

Eleni said...

Maybe you had a milder durian? Or something related?

You'll have to try it in Southeast Asia! I've seen them sold in Chinatown here, so maybe I'll pick one up, but I think they're hard to open and I wouldn't want it in the house. We'll see.

Mary said...

I always wanted to try spices! I can't remember if I ever did, but it sounds good. Durian? I know what you mean. They sell it here in Indonesia and it smells so bad. hehehe It is very interesting as you described too. hehehe How did you like Shokudo by the way? Very funny story about your mom! I bet the left overs are piling up. Will you have to eat all of it by yourself now? hehehe

Eleni said...

You should definitely try it if you haven't been there. It was pretty cool; I saw it on one of the Hawaii's Best Restaurants lists.

My family and I really liked Shokudo. My favorites were probably the mochi cheese gratin and the fresh tofu salad. We also had sushi pizza, chicken katsu, seared ahi, and spider rolls. You're right, it would be a great place to go with friends, especially because they're constantly bringing stuff out so you can just keep ordering until you're ready to go.