Spanish Chronicles: Jamón Jamón


No, it’s not just the 1992 film with sizzling Spanish couple Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. It’s thin slices of delicateness tucked neatly within the embrace of a golden, crispy loaf of bread, fanned out across a plate on every other table in tapas bars, wrapped with a bow in your most prized Christmas baskets.

In Spain, it is not just ham, it is a way of life.

Legs in "Panty Hose" - Museo del Jamón
Legs in “Panty Hose” – Museo del Jamón

Legs here, legs there, legs everywhere!

Never had I seen so many legs – hanging on the wall, above the bar, from the ceiling – some naked, some clothed colorfully, others fashioned in “panty hoses” – all pigs’ legs. Anthony Bourdain has after all  once described jamón as being “pornographically delicious“.

Even the name jamón – pronounced like a whispering roar from your throat : “harrrr-mon“, sounds sexy!

If you are ever in Madrid, and are up for a visual as well as a literal feast of the “sexy legs“, make a quick visit to Museo del Jamón. Now Prado, Bosco and Goya can wait, for this is a museum of ham, for crying out loud! – also a chain resto where a lot of the older locals gather to grab a drink and a “bocadillo de jamón” (bread with jamón)  for no more than 2 to 3 euros.

This “museum” features a eat-in section, a bar and also a deli shop, where butchers are ready to cut fresh slices of jamón for you. Lunch hour – 2pm to 4pm – the bar is packed, bustling waves of chits chats and loud crunches of bread and jamón being devoured, vibrate along the walls of ‘legs’. 

(There are plenty more local and small tapas bars with great jamón, at times, free with a drink. Do discover more at Tapas Talk)

Museo del Jamón - in central Madrid
Museo del Jamón – in central Madrid

Jamón: Gourmand or Gourmet? 

The dried, cured legs of ham may be generally renowned worldwide as Spanish ham, but there are a range of different types of Jamón, categorized mainly by the type of pig and also how long the legs are cured for. The two most popular are:

– Jamón Serrano: the every-day GOURMAND cheaper ham, made from Landrace white pig breeds and cured for shorter amounts of time (with the shortest still around 9 months)

– Jamón Ibérico de Bellota: the famous GOURMET expensive ham, made from Iberian black leg (pata negra) pigs.

Why are these black pigs so special, you ask?

+   Well, for starters, each pig is reserved 2 acres of land (London renters, be envious!) for ample free-ranging.
+ They are raised only in unique old-growth oak forest areas of Western Spain
+ They have a special diet of bellotas (acorns), herbs, wild mushrooms and grasses
+ Each pig’s leg is cured for a minimum 2 years before going onto the market

These factors make this type of ham rare and the most expensive in the world, with a 7-kg leg retailing for as much as 1,800 GBP (!!!)

A countryside butchers’

Akin to the differences between a smartly-dressed, chic urbaner and a simple chap from the countryside, the “legs” in the village of Candelario bear a stark simplicity and barrenness in comparison with its well-clothed, Museo del Jamón counterpart.

A step inside this building, and the whiff of cured ham, slams itself up your nostrils and you find yourself in a daze, before making out the hundreds of legs hung one row on top another. The building itself is uniquely designed to feature few, strategically-placed windows to ensure the best curing conditions.

But it is here, where black pigs are brought in and cured for years at a time, the oldest leg possibly in its 16th or 17th year. The taste of a 2-year leg, in all of its chewiness and savoriness, contrasts its bare and greasy appearance.

Bare and Simple - Candellario Jamón de Bellota
Bare and Simple – Candelario Jamón de Bellota

A short ride from Bejar (more than 130 miles NW of Madrid) – where my host family is from, Juan Garcia Gomez butchery might not be from the most famous of jamón regions in Spain, but it certainly was the closest I got to tasting gourmet jamón  – a pack of 12 slices cost 12 Euros (and that’s only the 2-year cured ones)

But I must say, at this very shop, I discovered that I loved Lomo (another type of cured ham) with its subtle blend of chewiness and fat much more than I do Jamón, which I found to be quite intense and gamey on the palate. But of course, it is for each to taste and each to judge…a “tiny” fan of beer, I think I haven’t done the ham justice, in not accompanying it with a pint or two.

Porky Pride

21 million. That’s the number of kilos of Jamón the Spanish consumed in 2009. If my two-week journey proved anything, it was that this dried, cured ham was everywhere, a culinary giant in whom many Spaniards take great pride. 

There was even a national television campaign promoting different qualities and price ranges of jamón in Spain – with the motto: “There is a ham for everyone

 Jamón slicing (here’s a slicer in my late blog on Borough Marketis a profession in many parts of the world and a very well-paid one to boot.

This is not to say that all Spaniards are madly in love with it. Take Elisa – my  Madrileña friend for instance, she hates jamón with a passion.
Enjoy some more pics of Museo del Jamón and the butchers in Candelario!

Butchers in Candellario
Butchers in Candellario
Lomo - Love this more than Jamón!
Lomo – Love this more than Jamón!
Inside Juan Garcia Gomez Butcher's
Inside Juan Garcia Gomez Butcher’s


The deli shop in Museo del Jamón
The deli shop in Museo del Jamón

CULINARY SNIPPETS: Sâm Bổ Lượng Dessert Cart- Saigon

My mind turns to the refreshing delights of my days in Saigon…and how I thirst for just a sip of that goodiness right now.

Now, you may have heard of or be like me, have many times over, in your life, turned into an utter fool for “Chè”, not the tea, but the dessert. It could be anything from well-cooked green beans soaked in sugar to a blend of syrup-drowned fruits, nuts and jelly,served either hot or iced. The topic of this much loved dessert would take countless days to cover, since it could be practically any number of combinations of sugar-related dishes in Vietnam.

Sam Bo Luong – this combination does not include all the available ingredients
The Sam Bo Luong Cart on Nguyen Thai Binh Str, Dist1

In Saigon, however, amidst the culinary adventure on which I and my palate fully and ever so often engage and yet fail to fully report on, I discover a genre of ‘chè’  known as ‘sâm bổ lượng”  – Pardon my Vietnamese, linguists out there, but my rough understanding after enjoying this once or twice, is that it’s a ginseng drink that is absolutely scrumptious and healthy, and it gives you a boost on metabolism.

No, it’s not “Redbull” in disguise. From my conversation with the vendor who happens to be of Chinese ancestry, this type of dessert is a Chinese treat brought to the southern metropolis by communities moving southward to settle. Beyond simply cooking different types of fruits and jelly, and letting it candy up and soak in sugar syrup in the case of many types of typical Vietnamese “Chè”, this ginseng refreshment uses ingredients that would be more known to Vietnamese people in a mixture of Chinese traditional medicine such as: ginseng, dried seaweed, ginko nuts pearl  barley, dried dates, dried longans…etc (Below is a sample of some ingredients) .

This makes it all sound so healthy…and my so far-done research of this drink is way too scattered to affirm this…yet my palate and I will attest, the ginseng flavored syrupy broth, coupled with the subtle differences in texture and taste of the ingredients involved, makes this drink definitely a worthwhile delight to try out. I find that it doesn’t have the ‘heaviness’ or ‘overwhelming sugary’ feel of some other types of Chè that includes further extraction of the fruits and beans into the broth. In contrast, it’s light, only slightly sweet, savory in texture, and refreshing in taste. It’d become nothing short of a culinary enigma if I attempt to describe any more.

Some ingredients (*Courtesy of Food For Four)

But, if you ever head over to district 1 in HCMC, a block or two away from Ben Thanh Market, down to Nguyen Thai Binh street during late night….it’s completely deserted, with the exception of this cart. It’s a very eye-catching cart indeed…plastered with what I see as stained-glass paintings (I could be completely off)…

These carts, the owner, in his 50s and a 3rd generation Chinese expat, says are typical for vending desserts and other goodies back in the heyday of the “Cho Lon” – Chinese-populated era of Saigon. His cart dates back to the 1930s, I believe and his family has been in the business since he can barely remember. After the passing of his wife, my friend shares, he had been fully dedicated to perfecting the trade, all from the comforts of this cute little cart, amidst the bustling chaos that is Saigon life.

He’s a journalism story in the making and I have plans to learn more about this man and his cart, of which I’ll share, and yet I digress, as this post is about FOOD…Anyhoo, it’s roughly around 175 Nguyen Thai Binh I think, a cart with aluminum cylinders of brewed delights ready to be mixed in with a range of different ginseng and sugar syrup. I’ve only had the drink several times, not nearly quite enough,  but what I can definitely notice is the clarity and lightness of the broth here compared to the place I tried in District 5 – Chinatown. How I would fly to Saigon just for a glass right now…!!!

PS: updates will be given to fill apparently huge gaps in the knowledge that I have about this delight. From what I know, Sam Bo Luong is but one…as this cart alone features many other types of ‘che” known through names that I fail to register in my head…ones that even include full eggs boiled in sugar (sounds weird yet enticing). For now, just take it from me that Sam Bo Luong is amazingly the best summer refreshment I’ve enjoyed so far, and you should go try it! Enjoy!

[Munch Spot] Snails for Lunch? – Ốc Đào Sài Gòn

So we all might have heard of the typical stereotypes of the French eating their grimy frog legs and more frequently are escargots (snails), and the mention of those “slimey molluscs” on any dinner menu immediately triggers a ‘yuck’ or two from a good number of my American friends. But mind you, they’re part of the street food specialties in Vietnam.

Aside from a tiny bias here that it is perhaps one of my favorite pastime munchies that I’m literally almost always up for at any particular given time, snails here are diverse in the myriad of breeds living across Vietnam and they become much more than just, as infamously accused, “rubbery pieces of blandness” through the plenty of ways in which you can marinate/cook/grill/stir-fry/a la carte/’younameit’ them.

Anyhow, just when my palate thought it was quite, very much, satisfied with the ‘Quán Cay’ (Spicy Resto) alongside the Giang Vo lake _renowned as the snails foodie row here in Hanoi, I find myself completely stupefied at the abundance of scrumptious snail possibilities in Saigon. There are perks in having to go on business trips down to the southern metropolis every so often, you start to discover the greener, well another color completely of the culinary grass. The collection of southern snails are for a great part, very different from those you could find here in Hanoi. My newfound snail haven in HCMC is ‘Ốc Đào’.

Well tucked away in a typically-Vietnamese-winding alley of Nguyễn Trãi Street, the resto’s headquarters, all under 2 umbrellas, consist of baskets full of different types of shell-fish, 1 or 2 cooks stir-frying on-spot, and a host of finger-pointing employees as to where you should sit. Behind the umbrellas, are two small rooms but the main eating area is across the alley, into a tent-covered yard with around 30 to 40 small plastic tables, and those tiny street food chairs that anyone above 1.8 metres tall who sits on them will immediately find his knees kissing his nose.

The thing that sets Ốc Đào (not sure if Đào (peach) is the name of the owner) apart is the fact that it is an exclusively lunch-spot. This is very odd considering most Vietnamese people look to snails as a night treat. Nevertheless, as I had mentioned my ‘timeless’ love for these shell delights, this fact, for me and I’m guessing also for the amount of people flocking into the place over lunchtime, the fact didn’t matter. The matter at hands were the SNAILS! They are around 25 different types of shellfish on the menu (shrimps and crabs included)…some of the stuff I have never even heard of, everything ranging from tiny-looking snails ironically named ‘ốc ngựa’ (horse snails) to oddities like ‘sò lông’ (hairy clams) . There are  some 13 different ways of cooking almost any particular snails, most scrumptious of which include, grilled with shallots and peanuts, stir-fried with tamarind, or  deep-fried in butter and garlic. From 25,000 VND to 100,000 VND per full plates, depending on the luxuriousness of the snails,  it’s definitely quite a budget yet sure-to-please street delight.

Ốc Mỡ Stirfried with Tamarind, Shallots and Fatty chips

In the middle of the seemingly commencing unbearable summer heat of Saigon, hiding below a tent, watching conical-hat covered employees hoisting tray-full of a multitude of shells on their shoulders, huddled to your knees amidst about 100 others,
sipping ice-cold sugarcane juice, twisting delectably marinated snails out of their shells, dipping them anxiously into crazily spicy fish sauce, and then easing those  lovelies into your palate , one by one …. it’s an experience beyond any preconceptions you might have about eating snails! Enjoy photos taken on my second visit to the resto!

Sò Lông Grilled with buttered shallots and peanuts
Sò Dương Grilled with Garlic and Peanuts

[UK] Borough Market – London’s Attack on the Tastebuds

Freshly Made Bread and the Wheels of Cheese

A smokey whiff of cajun weaves its way through the crowd of people in front and, instinctively and quite unconsciously, despite your view being blocked, you follow it. Soon enough, you hear the hiss – a hiss that only fresh meat sizzling on a grill could make, and you start to take your first gulp, images of the most delectable, honey-hued cajun chicken like a mirage in your mind. Your pace quickens , your appetite heightens, your eyes widen as there before you, stands a man, never mind who he is, your attention races to his hand, as he offers you a free try of that which has enticed at least 3 of your 5 senses for the past 5 minutes. A tiny yet succulent and rewarding cube of cajun roasted chicken to start you off in what is possibly the gastronomical heaven of London’s Borough Market!

Considered London’s best of food markets, Borough is within walking distance of London Bridge station, tucked nicely next to the Southwark Cathedral, bordering the Thames River. The market spans over a number of sections,  walking through which would take you under these brick-laid railway arches. A few steps from the market and you would be on the river bank, within minutes from Tate Modern, looking over to the panoramic view of London that includes the Millenium Bridge and St.Paul’s Museum.

You could possibly tell, I fell in love with this market at first sight, sound and taste! Yet, the initial, satisfying welcome  would do little to prepare me for the journey deeper inside, as colors and aromas begin to tingle every sense, to the point that my knees start shaking in confusion and excitement of not knowing where to head first. There are over 100 different stalls here, offering everything from a range of UK’s most loved delicacies like freshly baked, golden brown pork pies, Lancashire hotpot or cottage pies to landmark dishes from across Europe and the globe, Turkish delights, Thai green curry, Portuguese custards, Spanish paella, or French raclettes, just to name a few. For the shallow-pocket students, one stroll around the market and your tummy will have been initially satisfied with the range of samples the shops hand out…try not to make the 2nd or 3rd stroll without reaching for your wallet though, as you may get “it’s the ‘eat- and- never- buy’ pack of poor students again”-stares from the stallholders (spoken shamefully… from experience *_*)

The readily-prepared delights of the market might seem easily the best part of it, yet you’ve only scraped the tip of this culinary iceberg. What makes this market stand out is the fact that most of the stallholders are themselves, the people who produce, grow and rear the products they’re selling. Borough, in essence, is the perfect cross between your favorite weekend farmers’ market and an exciting food festival. Freshness and craft are key and shine through as you walk through the lush green of the vegetable area, the aromatic crisp-brown of the bread section or as you sample 20 different types of freshly made jams.And my favorite, the cheese section! – everything from intense bits of roquefort, to wheels of artisan cheese, the diameter of …well yes, a car’s wheel, actually.

The butchers’ corner might be a bit startling for those accustomed to seeing meat only in its fillet supermarket-packaged form, with full pig’s heads, dead hares and fowls hanging about. Freshness, alright :D. I remember just standing in mesmerization of a stallholder meticulously carving for jamon serrano from a pig’s full limb  perched upon a steel-constructed hostler,  as I came to appreciate the care and craft these producers put into their food.  Here is a space where food becomes more than just a commodity, food becomes art, food becomes beautiful and food becomes celebrated.

Digging a bit further, and I’ve come to find that the roots of this market dates back to 1014, when being right off a river source, the London Bridge became a hub of produce trading. A market was found around the 13th century, and after Parliament cleared it out in the late 18th century, producers and growers in the surrounding Southwark area revived it into what it is today – the only fully independent market of London. It’s a true community effort in the making – with stallholders still contributing today to local food-related events and any of the surplus from the market going to the food bank of the London Borough of Southwark. A market, you could say, but beyond that is culture, history and the coming together of an entire community – absolutely fascinating and for everyone out there, foodie at heart or not, a destination not to be missed when visiting London!

Source: Borough Market’s Main Website

(Check for opening times on this site as well! )

Enjoy my “Snap It!”s around Borough!

A map of Borough Market
Panoramic view from Borough Market’s side of the River
Olive Salads and Spanish Paella
Yummy delights from the Borough Market!
Portuguese sweets!
A smoke-free market, and a snap of the veggie section!
Butcher’s – Fresh, Indeed!
Poor Hares and Fowls – Jamon Serrano shop

[Munch Spot] A taste of Morocco in Hanoi – Le Marrakech

Had Moroccan food for the first time today. Now I’ve heard of this resto quite a while ago, I’m thinking it’s the only Moroccan munch spot in Hanoi but do correct me should my laziness to google any further completely fail me. The place used to be on Au Co street, which also  on the account of another facet of my couch-potato arse, I have never mustered up the energy to motorbike to. Anyhoo, I was strolling along the winding road around West Lake earlier today, starting from the To Ngoc Van end and just as I was about to pass Dream House school, I saw Le Marrakech. It apparently has just moved to the spot, the paint still looks crisp. It’s a cozy 2-story building, plum-painted, with the occasional picture or two of men sitting on camels. I was excited, nevertheless, because after 7 hours at the office on my supposedly free Saturday, I was starving and ready to chow down anything that they put down in front of me. The menu is quite simple, offering a range of salads, soups, different types of couscous, tagines (stew) and kebab. I have had couscous before back in my days with my Nantes host family, of course it was the boxed-instant-couscous type but I’ve always really enjoyed it plain or simply with raisins. I was about to go for couscous with chicken, raisins, almond, honey and cinnamon , but the waitress warned me of how sweet the dish would be, and so I backed out and opted for the Royal something (the name escapes me) couscous dish with chicken, beef, assorted veggies and chickpeas. I haven’t had chickpeas since Blanchard Campus Center salad days back in senior year. I was a little hesitant about the tagines because the waitress described it as being a stew of really well-done meat, which I choose to avoid in most instance. So my second dish would end up being lamb kebab as I was a little curious to see how the Moroccan version would be different from the Greek version of lamb kebab on bread.

Royal Couscous Dish

I must say, apart from being ultra-hungry and devouring everything they brought to the table,  I found that the food was genuinely really well-made the dishes. I have no prior tasting of any other types of Moroccan food so I can’t judge for sure whether it lives up to the standard of being authentic or not, but the dishes came out and they were just beautifully marinated. The 1st dish resembled a little volcano of beef, chicken, zucchini, white radish, carrots on a bed of couscous and chickpeas, amazing with the  tomato broth sauce (also with bits of chickpeas) and voraciously-tongue-burning chili sauce. I’m not a big fan of well-cook meat and veggies, but together with the couscous and sauce, it’s definitely a mouth-watering duo. I could eat plainly the latter two, and I’d be set.

Lamb Kebab

The second dish is our kebab, with 3 kebabs of very well-marinated lamb chops. I’m not sure what herbs the cook had tossed in there, but the aroma gets to you the minute you walk into the resto. If you’re going to try this though, do chow down as soon as the plates come out. I was busy with the couscous so, my 2nd and 3rd pieces of lamb out were a bit rough around the edges…but the taste is like nothing I’ve ever tried. It might be thyme that they were using, or maybe perhaps some local spices, but you get a whiff of this and you’re just hooked. The kebab was served with chopped tomatoes and onions, topped off with what I believe is a type of hummus, parsley -tossed mayo and potato cubes and also Moroccan bread: the super crispy and a bit salty ‘khobz’.

By the time I had finished those two dishes, I was flustered with all the food and abandoned any pre-meal fantasies of trying out the abundant dessert menu they had. Definitely worth a trip back to discover and hopefully talk a little bit more to the manager, who seems like a very considerate guy and the prices are also very kind to the pockets with entrees ranging around 130 to 160,000 VND on average. Enjoy the snapshots, which are in the latest tribute to beginner lomo-ing. Love!

[Travel] Sprint into May – Vũng Tàu & Sài Gòn

May began gloriously with me getting my cell phone swindled at the Ha Long Carnival…tis the joy of being a reporter, squeezing your way through 5,000 bodies, and expecting to come out somehow intact. I’ve lost all the contacts I’ve had in 2 years, the disappointment of which, I have thankfully come to terms with.

By the 5th of May, I was well away from Hanoi, from the depressing cold-war atmosphere that was slowly seeping its eeriness into me, and back to the sun-shine-filled, free-to-be-who-you-are city of Saigon. On the 6th, Miranda, a friend of mine back from Moho, also an 09’er, arrived from Hong Kong, where she’s now based. She is the first Moho (aside from the Vietnamese gals, of course), I have seen since graduation almost 2 years ago. It definitely brings up a lot of nostalgia, and reminds me of how much I miss the “shadley” girl hub. Anyhooo, Miranda’s 4 days in Vietnam began and I believe, resonated with FOOD. With the help of Y, our local guide, we made our way scrumptiously through Chinese-influenced night goodies like duck’s tongue (weird but tasty) through the more traditional Vietnam-is-known-for-food like banh xeo, or pho, to infamous-to-foreigners dishes such as the vast diversity of snails, ending it with what Miranda thought she would never eat again in her life: a premature duck’s egg marinated with basil and fish sauce. This is of course well under-told, because seriously, on the 2nd day, we had a record 8 meals throughout the day, basically eating anything that was edible and interesting-looking to the eyes.

On the 8th, we grabbed a couple of Vietnamese sandwiches, banh mi <3, and 2 coconuts filled with jelly for lunch, took a boat, 1.5 hours to Vung Tau, a coastal city nearby, rented ourselves right off the port some motorbikes and basically was either eating, sleeping or riding the motorbike for the next 24 hours after that. Vung Tau is gorgeous when you make your spiraling way up the mountain to the lighthouse , locals hike up there on a daily basis, but with the heat, having the wind in your hair on the motorbike, as the sea just gleams right off the side of the cliffs, is an adventurously satisfying experience. Food, of course, can not be left untouched here…we had the famous banh khot, little circles of dough fried golden in molds topped with shrimp, scallion, beansprouts, sprinkled with minced dried shrimp…according to preference, can be rolled with fresh herbs into a roll and then dipped tactfully into fish sauce …tastes absolutely heavenly. Do try if you’re ever in Vung Tau. After that first dinner, we got on our bike again, rode 5 minutes next door to a seafood joint, literally had half a kilo of grilled snails, a plateful of shallots/butter stir-fried mussels, 3 tamarind-marinated crabs, and a thoi-loi fish hotpot ( thoiloi is a fish quite widespread in appearance in the region). You could imagine after all of that food, sun and moving, we would have gone home and snoozed it off…but no, a craving for durians was up in the air…and so we scoured the city for 2 durians, settled down right on the streets bordering the coast, and devoured them like they were the last 2 of their kind in the world. Absolutely an amazing sleep after that!

The 9th was a sore-butt day with intense motor-bike riding, we rode for about 35km under the sun, towards Long Son, a town still in Ba Ria Vung Tau province. Here, after having amazing banh canh – cylindrical noodles with pig’s feet all in gorgeously sweet pork broth and then spotting a Vietnamese music ‘star’ of the sort, Le Cat Trong Ly, right across from us, we would visit a fishing community, the Big House, known for being the biggest wooden house structure in Vietnam – originally set up manually by a fisherman back in the beginning of the 20th century. Here we saw Le Cat Trong Ly too…and then at lunch, when we went to this restaurant on stilts, in the middle of a river with oyster farms spread sporadically all over, we once again met with the music ‘star’. We secretly convinced ourselves that she was following us or at least, whoever set up her itinerary was ‘cool’ like us. It’s the second time I’ve been to the resto, absolutely love it for the quiet, set-apart ambiance, water flowing right under you, a wooden boat that takes you out there, and then a wooden-framed collection of seafood still alive and fresh in water as your menu. The best part, besides the food of course, is the hammocks hung randomly across the wooden structure on stilts, giving us an awesome reason to nap after 5 types of snails, grilled fish and then another hotpot….I’m getting full just retelling all of this

We got back to Saigon the same afternoon, absolutely covered in dirt, after all of that motorbike traveling, but anxious to get out in the southern hub as Miranda would be leaving in less than 12 hours. All the details of the food will def. become exhaustive, but it was such a memorable trip and has reminded me that I need to get into culinary blogging, share with you guys and gals all of the possibilities that you could offer to your palate. Miranda went back to Hong Kong at 5 am on the 10th, and we’re hoping to catch up with each other soon again in the near future, with another trip, either in Vietnam or elsewhere in the region 😀 Can’t wait :). Enjoy some of the pics! Food pics will come later, unfortunately *_*