Mongolian Bowls: The Healthier Way to Refuel

Meat, veg, carbs - all in one convenient, scrummy package

If, like me, you’re all plum-tuckered out from the stress that comes with preparing for the Holidays, chances are that you’ll be as hungry as a hunter and as surly as a bear.  Your energy is seriously depleted, you’re bone-tired, and the crowds have more or less frayed your nerves.

That said, I would suggest that you don’t grab a quick burger combo at the nearest fast-food joint.  You do not need all that extra fat and the miserly amount of food won’t go far when it comes to refueling your body.  Instead, you need a whopping vitamin boost to get you going.  This does not, of course, mean that you ought to consider a salad for lunch.  I never said anything about eating light here!

Instead, try a Mongolian bowl for lunch.  Whether you get it from the CaterPro Cafeteria over at the Citibank Tower or at any Mongolian Quick-stop stall at your local food court, it’s the best choice for setting your system to rights if you’re doing something stressful.  You get a good selection of vegetables, that’s for sure: julienned carrots and white radish, shredded cabbage and Savoy cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, and spring onions all add zing to your step and draw those stress-caused toxins out of your body.  A bit of beef or seafood adds much-needed iron and iodine to the mix.  You can have rice or noodles – perhaps both – for some well-deserved carbo-loading, too.

And it isn’t just healthy, it tastes wonderful, too.  🙂

On Inari-zushi

No, they're not dumplings

In food as in most things, appearances can be more than a little deceiving.

Case in point would be the dish shown above.  The look like fried dumplings – but really, that’s as far as the resemblance goes because these are actually sushi.  Inari-zushi, to be exact.

A look within

Unlike the more common nigiri-zushi (rice balls topped with raw seafood), makizushi (nori-wrapped rolls), and temaki (conical hand-rolls), Inari-zushi is never bundled or held together with nori.  Instead, it involves the stuffing of sweet vinegared rice into pouches made of deep-fried tofu.  After frying, the tofu is soaked in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (Japanese cooking wine), and a dab of sesame oil.

It is so named because the corners of the finished pouches look like fox ears – and foxes are sacred to the Japanese grain goddess Inari.  Traditionally, harvest offerings at the goddess’s shrines include bowls of plain rice, cups of warm sake, and these stuffed pouches to please her furry little pets.

Fukuya, best known for the best Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki in southern suburbia, offers a three-piece serve of Inari-zushi for P 101.00.  Unlike most variants of this dish, the vinegared rice isn’t plain but is given a toasty undertone by the addition of toasted black and white sesame seeds.  These plump pouches are quite heavy and are delectably sweet: not sweet enough to pass as dessert, but just enough to intrigue the tastebuds.

I recommend these with a kani salad or a dish of yasai itame (stir-fried mixed vegetables) for an excellent vegetarian lunch.

Recovery Food

Want kamias? Go out front and pick your own!

Weather in this part of the world has not, alas, been all that Christmasy despite the fact that we’re just a little over a week away from the Big Day.  It was beautifully overcast with chilly breezes last week, but it’s been hot and humid and drizzly for the past couple of days.  This drastic change of weather has led to people catching dreadful colds or the flu, so there’s been a lot of coughing, sneezing, and wheezing going on in these parts.

Lucky for me, we have a kamias (Averrhoa bilimbi or tree sorrel) tree out front at home.  These small, crunchy green fruits are deliciously sour (as opposed to being just tart) and are rich in Vitamin C and calcium.

You eat them raw, dipping them in a bit of rock salt to take the edge off the lip-puckering sourness.  In many home kitchens, kamias is also used to flavor pots of sinigang in lieu of either tamarinds or guavas. Some people blitz the fruit into smoothies with ice and a tablespoon or so of sugar, but I think that’s just plain prissy.  Better to enjoy these babies au naturel to get the full impact of the nutritional value.

Hot, spicy, and guaranteed to clear your sinuses.

If raw fruit – sweet or sour – isn’t enough to make you feel better, some searingly spicy Korean ramyeun or udong made from a shop-bought packet and embellished with meat dumplings (mandoo, also store-bought), an egg poached in the broth, and some sliced shiitake mushrooms is guaranteed to set your system to rights.

In the meantime, I’d better get my noontime dose of Hong Kong Pei Pa Koa (medicinal loquat, honey, and mint syrup) to stave off any further coughing!  :p

Abgusht: Wintry Comfort by Way of Persia

Abgusht

Personally, one of the best things about cold weather is that it brings out the true wealth of the home kitchen, the finest examples of comfort cooking.

In North America, you have such richly-flavored gems like Southern-style smothered chicken and beef stew with dumplings.  In England, there are stodgy suet or syrup puddings, hearty steak and kidney pies, and plump, succulent sausages served with mashed potatoes (or parsnips, for that matter).

Here in the Philippines, cold weather prompts cooks to whip up savory rice porridges (arroz caldo [rice porridge with chicken and ginger] for Filipino households, congee in all its permutations in Chinese-Filipino homes) or rich tomato-sauced stews such as beef (or goat) caldereta and pochero Madrileno (pork and chicken cooked with potatoes, cabbage, starchy saba bananas, and bits of chorizo in tomato sauce).

And then there’s this little gem from the kitchens of old Persia: abgusht.

For many non-Iranians such as myself, the term is relatively new and is one familiar perhaps only to those who have read Marsha Mehran’s Pomegranate Soup.  In the novel, abgusht is a delicately-flavored where lamb is cooked with chickpeas and root vegetables.  What would sound like an insipid, conventional combination is given a surprising zing by the addition of limuomani or preserved limes.

Despite its delicate flavor, however, abgusht is a dish that carries a serious caveat: it is quite rich, very filling, and bound to induce the need for a nap in even the hardiest of diners.  But given the cold weather and the relative lessening of office and house chores, a nap in the afternoon would be most welcome!  Small wonder that it is referred to as “the workman’s stew”, given how it is both filling and restorative.

In Mehran’s book, however, abgusht actually has an opposite effect: instead of putting the diner to sleep, the meal actually leads to an awakening – and what an awakening!  Fr. Fergal Mahoney, Ballinacroagh’s cheeky and humorous parish priest, gets an unusual wake-up call after a meal of abgushtlavash, fresh herbs, and tea.  The spices infusing the stew awaken the old priest’s talent for comedy and result in his writing a new play.

Oh, potato!

Persia Grill, given its proximity, is my natural go-to place for Iranian cuisine and they do a pretty good rendition of abgusht. Only, of course due to local sensibilities and tastes, beef is used rather than lamb.  The chick peas, white beans, and a single small potato are left whole and kept in the broth as opposed to being mashed and the broth strained clear.  The end result is a brown stew chock-full of filling ingredients in a thinnish broth.  What keeps it from being a conventional version of a dish like nilaga is the addition of finely chopped limuomani which gives the soup a bright, fresh, tangy flavor.

Traditionally, abgusht is served with lavash (flatbread) and sabzi (mixed fresh herbs).  But this version works just as well with hot white rice.

I can’t say that those eating Persia Grill’s abgusht will experience similar epiphanies to those of Fr. Mahoney.  But if one is looking for an unusual way to warm up as opposed to standard-issue cold-weather fare, this lemony stew is worth a try.

Pancakes, Sausage, and a Sense of Calm

Pancakes, butter, syrup, sausage...

Admittedly, I rarely ever have any time to eat breakfast at home.  Too often, I find myself rushing to beat the traffic that seems to grow heavier every single morning.  That said, I’ve ended up noshing on ersatz convenience store fare (though, admittedly, the specialty coffees at 7-11 are excellent) or, worse, junk food and soda too many times for me to count on both fingers and toes.

But, there are days when I get lucky and I end up enjoying a proper breakfast – and, oh, what a breakfast!

This is Pancake House‘s Classic Country Medley and it consists of two properly fluffy pancakes, a cloud of whipped butter on top, three small sausages, and one’s choice of coffee or fresh orange juice.

OMG, it's so fluffy! It's so FLUFFEEEH!

The cheapskates among us can have their fast-food joint hotcakes, but I’d rather stick to these golden, fluffy, not-so-sweet wheaten cakes that are just plain gorgeous when slathered with the salty-sweet butter and drizzled with just the barest touch of maple syrup.  The addition of jam or some other substance would be just gilding an already beautiful lily.  (Though, frankly, I am intrigued by that cream-cheese-loaded lemon pancake tower I saw on the menu…)

OJ for me!

Paired with a tall, frothy glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, one must eat this in a decidedly unhurried manner: to savor each sip, each bite before merging into the crowd of card-punching workers outside.