Saturday, February 27, 2010

Guatemalan Topado Soup: Don't Try This At Home

So about a month ago, Han and I took a post-holidays "vacation from your vacation" cruise through the Western Caribbean. One of our favorite stops was at Santo Tomas de Castilla in Guatemala. There we took a boat trip down the Rio Dulce and stopped at the small town of Livingston.

Unknown to us at the time, Livingston is famous for two things: catering to tourists from cruise ships from all over the world, and a special seafood soup called topado.

Our tour guide took us through the town and stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants off the main road in town. Being a river town, there were all sorts of seafood dishes available plus some of the more common dishes you'd come to expect. We knew we at least wanted the conch ceviche, but when we asked our server to recommend their best dish she said we had to try the topado, as it was the local specialty of Livingston.

The soup features this red creamy base with giant pieces of crab and fried fish and pieces of plantain. It was very flavorful and the meats were delectable. I seriously couldn't get enough of it. Once we left the restaurant and continued to walk around the town, we noticed that a lot of the restaurants also had signs that said "Try our Topado!"

Anyways, when we got home, being the daring amateur cooks that we are, tried to find a recipe on the internet to replicate the topado soup. The closest thing we could find was on Recipezaar so we gave it a shot. Unfortunately, as you'll see later, we didn't have a whole lot of success.

-2 cups coconut milk
-1 onion
-1 red bell pepper
-2 lbs red snapper (we used tilapia)
-1 lb shrimp
-1 Tbsp corn oil
-1 Tsp oregano
-1/2 Tsp salt
-1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
-1 plantain
-1 medium tomato
-3 tsp freshly chopped cilantro
-2 cups water

Now, the directions get a little hazy here. I'll post what we did:

-Slice the onion and saute in the corn oil.
-Add the coconut milk and spices and simmer for about 5 minutes
-Add the fish and shrimp in whole and simmer for another 10 minutes or until cooked
-Slice the plantain and dice the tomato and add to the soup and simmer for another 5 minutes

Here was the resulting dish:

Now, it doesn't look TOO bad, but it did not look anything like the soup we had in Guatemala, and it sure as heck didn't taste anything like it either.

I can tell you first and foremost that adding the fish in whole was a mistake. The soup we had in Guatemala was fried first, which in hindsight was key. The recipe we used said to dice the fish into 2" cubes, which probably would have turned out better as well.

Also the soup we had in Guatemala, not only more flavorful, was also much more, um, redder. Not really sure what happened there but I'm guessing it had something to do with stewing the red peppers or tomatoes?

So now we are reaching out to all of you, our loyal readers. Where did we go wrong? What could we have done instead? Does anyone actually have a real topado recipe they can share with us?

We welcome all suggestions!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hot Boiled: The Ultimate Mardi Gras/Lunar New Year Spot

Welcome everyone to the Year of the Tiger! What a holiday week it's been. Valentine's day, Chinese/Lunar New Year, my birthday (ahem), and to top it all off Mardi Gras is this Tuesday!

If you happen to be looking for a place to celebrate both Mardi Gras and LNY, a restaurant that serves both Vietnamese food and cajun/gulf coast food, look no further than Hot Boiled.

Located on the corner of Mopac and Parmer Ln, the sign at Hot Boiled says it all: "crawfish and pho." The owners of Hot Boiled are Vietnam natives but come to us by way of New Orleans.

A quick look up and down the menu and you will find many favorites from both cajun and Vietnamese culinary cultures, everything from pho and bun to etouffee and poboys. We opted to go with the crawfish pho and crawfish fried rice. Both were very tasty. The fried rice was moist and light and had plenty of big and juicy crawfish tails. The pho had a very flavorful not-too-salty broth, even for pho. My only real complaint about it is that they were exactly just that: fried rice with crawfish and pho with crawfish. There wasn't a whole lot of cajun flavor in either dish, or any further "fusing" of the cultures.

And I understand that maybe that isn't fair. After all, they advertise "crawfish and pho" and that is exactly what we got. But I really would have like to see more dishes that took it a step further. (Later that night I had a dream I ate a BBQ alligator banh mi... I wonder if it's a sign?)

But in the end, it's hard to have complaints about a place where you can get a bowl of crawfish pho with a side of gumbo and spring roll. Combine that with courteous service and a great happy hour ($2 domestics, $2.50 imports) and it's kung hei fat choy every day of the year.