Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Finding ingredients in Bratislava to cook asian dishes

Okay, so you're living in Bratislava and you have a rabid obsession with asian food, especially Thai. Sadly, Bratislava's two Thai restaurants basically suck, and the nearest good Thai food (the amazing Sri Thai Imbiss) requires an hour-long train ride to Vienna. Restaurants featuring other asian cuisines are either in short supply or just not very good. What to do?

Fortunately, Tesco, one of the most prevalent big grocery store chains in Slovakia, has a fairly decent selection of asian food products, like different curries, coconut milk, fish sauce, jasmine rice, and more. In fact, we can make a good red or green curry chicken with stuff bought only at Tesco.

But they don't have everything. Let's say you want to make some wonderfully aromatic tom kha gai soup. Bratislava's Tesco will not have a few very crucial ingredients, like lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, and galanga root, and they are frequently out of cilantro. Or maybe you've got a hankering for some pad thai? Tesco is unlikely to have the right kind of rice noodles, and may not have bean sprouts or decent shrimp. But damn, does this mean you have to go all the way to Vienna (again) to get all these ingredients at Naschmarkt?

Thankfully, no. Bratislava actually has three (that we know of) independently owned shops that specialize in asian ingredients. While there is a small place called Naam that's walking distance from where we live, in the center of town, we typically make the trek out to an unrelentingly drab neighborhood in the Nové Mesto (on Bajkalská, near the 'three towers' apartment complex) to Seoul Plaza, a Korean-run market that specializes in those hard-to-find asian ingredients. Whether you're going Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, etc., Seoul Plaza has enough of a variety to cover all of the bases.

But there's something else that makes Seoul Plaza especially worth the trek: they have an amusingly random assortment of the kinds of junk food from America that expats yearn for, like Reece's Peanut Butter Cups, Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix (?!), cream soda and root beer, Skippy peanut butter, and most significantly, they have a small freezer with pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream!

Discovering the Ben & Jerry's was a huge deal. Good ice cream is soul-crushingly elusive in Bratislava, and almost all of the store-bought varieties are total crap. One of the most prevalent and popular brands here is Carte d'Or, which has a couple of passable flavors, but mostly tastes very strange and chemically, and has an excessively light texture, like too much air has been pumped into it. There have been times here when we desperately pined for a pint of Ben & Jerry's, so discovering this little freezer was like striking gold. It seems Seoul Plaza is deliberately tapping into the niche market of the city's expats, and not just serving the local Korean or asian community. (They also have a wide assortment of asian candy, like Pocky and lots of other stuff with crazy, loud packaging).

At any rate, Seoul Plaza also has a very wide variety of noodles and curries, bags of frozen prawns that seem to be of better quality than what you can find at Tesco, as well as important herbs, like cilantro. Naam is considerably smaller, but it does have a decent selection of the basics, although their galanga root and lemon grass are frozen. It would do in a pinch, but Seoul Plaza's selection of asian specialties is more expansive.

Terezia's pad thai.

Seoul Plaza also has one up on Naam because - and this is huge, so cue drum roll - it's open Saturday afternoons and Sundays! Yes, in a country were all independently-run shops close unapologetically around noon on Saturday and stay shuttered for the rest of the weekend until Monday, Seoul Plaza seems bent on offering the kind of shopping hours that expats like us are accustomed to. And this offers further proof that they're trying to cater to the larger expat community.

The third place, Namasté India Exotické Potraviny, is run by an Indian family and specializes in ingredients for, you guessed it, Indian cuisine, though they have stuff to make east asian dishes too. We have yet to buy anything there, but it seems like the place to go if you were to make some tikka masala or chick pea curry. They have a big selection of Indian curries, naan, chick peas, herbs, tea, and much more. But I should note that this shop is a bit difficult to find if you've never been there. It's located in the sprawling, commie-era Istropolis complex at Trnavské mýto, but it's in a separate indoor shopping center all the way in the back, on Škultétyho Street, just past the Lidl on the corner. You'll see some glass doors beneath a barrage of ugly signage. You enter there and walk immediately down the drab stairway to the basement, turn into a hallway that looks like something from a mental institution, and make your first right into the shop.

Bratislava, like all of Slovakia, can seem culturally and ethnically homogenous to a stifling degree, but there are pockets of asian communities that call this place home. The Vietnamese community emerged during communism when people from that country would come here to study under exchange programs. Some of them liked it here and stayed, and the number of Vietnamese expats has been increasing since. A growing Korean community emerged with the presence of major Korean companies in Slovakia, like Kia Motors and Samsung Electronics. Of course, these communities are significantly smaller than what you would see in a typical metropolitan area in California, but they are here, hence the need for shops like these.

At any rate, if you're sick to death of halušky, the mere sight of another plate of schnitzel will make you vomit, and the relative dearth of good asian restaurants in Bratislava has got you down, these shops should have what you need to make some of your favorite dishes yourself.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Three-year anniversary at Liviano

Sorry I've been a bit scarce lately, but this is just a brief post to note that Terezia and I celebrated our three-year anniversary at Liviano (again), our favorite chi-chi special occasion place in Bratislava, where we had yet another drool-enducing meal. Not only have we been married for three years, but in just a few months from now, on October 4, we will have been living in Slovakia for three years. It's a bit surreal to think that we've already been living here that long. That means we've spent more of our relationship so far - since we first started dating in late 2009 - in Slovakia than the US.

We weren't initially certain that we'd go to Liviano again, but seeing that they had their thoroughly stunning tagliatelle with porcini dish back on the menu (which I raved about last summer) sealed the deal.

For the starters, I had what was this one big raviolo filled with quark, awesomely runny egg, and spinach with summer truffle shavings on top, which was quite tasty, and Terezia had the tempura shrimp, a pretty yummy asian-inspired dish.

The raviolo with summer truffles.
The tempura shrimp.

Of course I devoured my rich, flavor-packed plate of porcini pasta, and Terezia ordered the braised pork cheeks with pea puree, which, despite needing a bit of salt, were sublimely tender and flavorful.

The potent porcini pasta.

We had this Bulgarian cabernet that was absolutely one of the best reds I've had in this country. For dessert we split a piece of carrot cake. Since we're both huge fans of good carrot cake, we thought we'd give it a shot. It was tasty, moist, and presented a bit unconventionally, in the shape of a big flat rectangle, with a generous dollop of whipped cream-cheese frosting on top and some berries sitting in a little puddle of some kind of raspberry jam next to it on the plate.

I still trip out on how Liviano is uncompromisingly situated deep in the bowels of Petržalka, far away from the tourist grind - or just about anything, really.

View of panelaks in Petrzalka from Liviano's window.
The lovely Technopol bus stop just outside Liviano.

Our only complaint was that it's been insanely hot and humid here this week, and they didn't seem to have the air conditioning on. We were a bit sticky when we left the place. (Slovaks have this intense and somewhat irrational fear of A/C - they are convinced that the cooler temperature will make you horribly ill, and they would rather suffer from heat stroke than cool down with A/C. For example: even though they have A/C in the office building where I work, they all complain about it being too cold and they either turn it way down or off, and some people on our floor even open the windows to let all the heat inside. Result: yours truly is an over-heated, disgusting, sweat-drenched mess at work on sweltering summer days. I've never been overly reliant on A/C myself - I rarely ever used it in my car back in California - but I definitely took for granted having it at work. There are valid environmental concerns about using A/C, and recirculated air can potentially circulate germs if the filters are not regularly maintained, but here the fear of A/C seems to be rooted more in a kind of superstition, much like the ever-prevalent and completely absurd and unfounded fear among many Europeans of cool, breezy drafts. Once when we were in an open-car train on a punishingly hot, humid summer evening, it was starting to cool off ever so slightly, so I opened the window to let the refreshing breeze into the un-air-conditioned, suffocatingly stuffy, sauna-like train. Within minutes, the conductor told me to shut the window because it was creating a draft which would apparently make the baby sitting a few seats over deathly ill. So you want us all to die of heat stroke because of your silly belief that this slightly cooler breeze is going to give the baby pneumonia? [And I fully realize that these are totally first world/white people problems, to quote both Louis C.K. and 'Weird' Al Yankovic, but they do offer an interesting sliver of insight into the culture here.])

At any rate, here's to another fun-filled year of marriage, and I'm excited to see where this year will take us.

Look at the happy couple - don't you just want to punch them in the face?