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Hunting for Asian Food in Lowell and Quincy

Last weekend was something of an Asian extravaganza for one member of team Chefstro and his wife. On Saturday they attended the Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival, and on Sunday, the Quincy August Moon Festival. Though he’s neither a top chef nor even a food critic, the Funky Fresh Vegan is enthusiastic about food and culture. In his second dispatch, he offers his decidedly food-centric perspective on these two events.

I. Lowell, MA

My wife and I headed north toward Lowell late Saturday morning with the hope that we’d discover at the SE Asian Water Festival some of the dishes we’ve missed since our last trip to Thailand a few years ago. One of my wife’s friends, who sometimes makes trips to this kind of event to set up a table and sell food, had tipped us off. We’d never heard of it before, so we were curious.

crowds along the riverfront

As soon as we exited the highway (3N), we encountered festival traffic. It took us a good half hour to get to the site of the festival, right along the banks of the Merrimack River, and another twenty minutes to park the car. When we had crossed the crazily busy street and entered the press of festival-goers, I was immediately reminded of my time in Asia: the crowds, the food smells, the lilting vocal melodies of Asian country pop. Westerners were few and far between.

Several vendors were selling cheap karaoke DVDs, which one soon forgets about when living in the post-industrial West. My wife was more interested in some of the plants for sale, like kaffir lime and grapow, both important components of Thai cuisine that can be hard to find in the States.

I kept an ear out for Thai – the only Asian language I understand well – but didn’t hear any. My wife heard quite a bit of Cambodian, which she recognizes but doesn’t understand. The tents set up by the Buddhist temples looking to raise money and awareness were run by Cambodians and Laotians. Only on our way back to the car, after a couple of hours wandering up and down the stretch of vendors and displays, did we hear a few people speaking Thai.

I point this out because almost all of the food stalls were selling variations on Thai food: Pad Thai, Thai-style fried rice, and Som Tam. This predominance of Thai cuisine, despite the relative absence of Thai-speaking people, surprised me. What it means, I guess, is that Thai food has as much cachet among Asians as it does among Westerners.

There was a good variety of authentic Asian street food on offer: spring rolls, sausages, grilled chicken and fishballs on skewers, pickled mangoes, deep-fried bananas, and lam yai. Known as longan in the West, lam yai is popular in Thailand but rare and expensive in North America.

pickled mangoes

My wife and I were especially happy to discover a vendor selling Khao Lam, one of our favorite street foods, to a jostling crowd of customers. It was all I could do to elbow my way into position for a couple of pictures. Judging by the “enthusiasm” of the hungry shoppers, we knew the food had to be delicious. No high-quality food stand stays quiet for long in an Asian market. As I boxed people out and snapped a few shots, my wife edged in and secured us a portion.

To make Khao Lam, you soak sticky rice and black beans in coconut milk with a little bit of sugar. Once the rice has absorbed these flavors, you pack the mixture into joints of bamboo – each about a foot and a half long – which you then place over hot coals. The rice inside gets steamed, while the thick bamboo walls keep it from getting scorched. When you buy Khao Lam on the street, the vendor cracks the bamboo open with a machete so that you can get to the warm, sweet goodness inside. Part of the fun, at least for me, is eating it right from this handy bamboo container.

Our Khao Lam was exactly as I remember it from Thailand: sticky, slightly purple from the black beans, and sweet but not too sweet. It was also one of the only vegan options I was inclined to eat. It was too hot to even consider fried food or a heavy curry.

Among the non-vegan choices, my wife opted for Som Tam, which she used to eat just about every day back in Thailand. Determined to get the most authentic taste of home possible, she sussed out every vendor before choosing one who said she could make “Tam Lao,” a Laotian variety popular in the Northeast of Thailand where my wife grew up.

shredding papaya for som tam

The key ingredients of Som Tam are shredded green papaya, chunks of tomato, Thai chili peppers, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, toasted peanuts, and sometimes pickled crab or tiny dried shrimp. To make it “Tam Lao,” you leave out the peanuts and add Pla Ra – a sauce made by mixing raw fish with salt and rice fiber and fermenting it in a jar for up to a year or more. The result is a grey-brown slurry I find unappetizing on several levels, but many relish it.

som tam

Vendors selling Som Tam on the street make each batch to order, and every Thai person has their own preferred balance of salty, spicy, sweet, and sour. Because vendors generally use just one mortar and pestle to make every portion, this isn’t a good option for vegetarians or vegans. It’s totally possible to make a delicious vegan Som Tam for yourself at home, though. Obviously, I didn’t share my wife’s Tam Lao, but she said it was pretty good (a high compliment coming from a real Som Tam enthusiast).

There were  boat races and cultural performances going on this whole time, but let’s face it, we were pretty lasered-in on the edible components of this festival. The final item we tried was sugar cane juice. I had heard of this before but never tasted it. The fact that several vendors were producing it fresh for every customer intrigued my wife and I, so we split a cup.

extracting sugar cane juice

Production involved feeding long (6-8 feet!) stalks of sugar cane into machines which crushed the heck out of them to extract the sweet, pale yellowish-brown juice. The crushed stalks came out the front of these machines and slid into giant piles that reminded me of hurricane wreckage. The juice itself was a bit too sweet for my taste, especially on such a hot day, but it was cool, wet, and novel.

longboat racers

We took a seat on the low stone wall at the river’s edge and sipped our sugar cane as a couple of the long, slender boats raced by. But after getting our fill of authentic Asian eats, we’d had enough of the heat and the crowds, so we headed home.

II. Quincy, MA

The following day was the Quincy August Moon Festival, put on every summer by Quincy Asian Resources, Inc. The AMF is a traditional Chinese harvest celebration. Because of its origins and the large population of Chinese Americans in and around Quincy, the tenor of this festival was more mono-cultural than that of the one in Lowell.

tents lining Hancock Street

The AMF stretched along the main drag of Hancock Street, which runs through Quincy Center. With two stages, amusement-park rides, food trucks, pony rides, martial arts demonstrations, and a civic engagement tent, this festival had a greater variety of attractions than the Lowell SEA WF. My favorite display was a mural, painted by Asian students from the two area high schools, depicting the lanterns that Chinese people traditionally light on this holiday.

mural depicting traditional lanterns

While there was a lot to see and do here, including prominent community members getting wet in the dunk tank, the food available at the AMF was disappointing. One of the food trucks came from Nestle; I have no bone to pick with the company, but it doesn’t scream “authentic Asian.” Another food truck had two miniature grills and – when we passed by, anyway – a single portion of skewered meat being cooked.

Beyond the trucks, there were a few vendors selling Asian food from tents and stalls, none of it particularly appetizing. We saw more Pad Thai noodles, but like the ones we saw in Lowell, they looked pale and under-seasoned. The fried rice looked okay, but the grilled chicken was clumsily skewered and burnt in places. I expected better options at an expressly Asian-themed festival. The oddest thing about this lack of high-quality food is that Quincy actually has a number of excellent Asian restaurants, like Little Duck and the Punjab Cafe. Maybe next year they’ll set up their own stalls. Based on what we saw, they would easily outdo the competition.

Although we left the AMF without sampling any of the food, we are grateful to live in an area with so many interesting cultural experiences to enjoy. It was a fluke that the Lowell and Quincy festivals happened over the same weekend, but we’re not complaining. And we’ll be on the lookout for future opportunities to expand our culinary horizons. If you have suggestions, please leave a comment.

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