Do you know what time is?
In Thailand this question was put to me often. Now, before you go accusing the Thai of philosophical heavy-handedness, know that the askers of this question always, always meant to ask for the time–what time is it?–but their muddled English sometimes achieved a kind of unintended profundity, if you were looking for it.
Skin-on fatty pork simmered with ginger, soy sauce and rock sugar until the skin is supple and shiny and the meat falls apart. Before my grandmother died, we had this all the time. Now, less. Chinese women of her generation believed that eating a small hunk of pork fat each day was the secret to a long life. Chinese women of my mother’s generation believe in eating as little meat as possible, and fill in the gaps with French pastries. Go figure. Guess which view I have more sympathy for.
Reader, I fear I’ve grown rusty in this business of writing you.
Twenty days. Yikes. To break such a silence begs a certain gravity of prose, doesn’t it, but I find myself in an easier mood this evening. I could tell you what I’ve been doing, that I’ve been going through old pictures. That I started raising fragrant herbs and lusty pink orchids and this vague, green indoor palm that I’m not so sure about. Or that I’ve been painting and lifting, drilling and dusting, watering and washing, been spending entire days on my hands and knees these three silent weeks.
Too tired to cook. Too humid. Too hot.
I’m sorry. It’s been a week–I have been surviving mostly on Frosted Flakes and take out. Went out for a Subway sandwich last night. I brought it home and ate it in my dark bedroom, right now the only livable space in my apartment. I left Chicago in good weather and came back a few days ago to find my place sweltering hot and smelling like ripe, days-old garbage. The air is thick in this city: heavy, wet. When I went to bed it was still too hot and too humid and I dreamt of the dry summer heat of Los Angeles, and of central air.
But last night, patting bits of oxidized lettuce off the floor with a mustardy napkin, I decided I’d had enough of the mopey shit. And like Hemingway after his oysters, I began to feel happy and to make plans.
Writing for the blog there’s this wall I hit, again and again, the roadblock to ever making a true record of my cooking.
It’s the problem of food photography. Bad pictures ruin good blogs. It’s just true. Because bad pictures, especially bad pictures of food, are an immediate sensual assault on the level of, well—forgive me—hardcore porn. Aggressively scatalogical, just plain nasty porn. (I’d argue here that the production and consumption of nasty XXX porn comes from the same impulse that produces and consumes nasty food porn, but I’m aware of my audience.)
This fact has pained me. It’s not that I can’t be bothered about pictures. I can. I am. It’s just that the foods I like best are, for the most part, pretty ugly. Brownish, yellowish curries. Black vinegar noodle soup. Stuff coated in fermented shrimp sauce. It’s all delicious, really, but no one needs to see that stuff. That stuff is private. Continue reading
Posted in All Posts, International Food, Sides, Soups & Stews, Vegetarian
Tagged canon, chickpeas, curry, digital SLR, Indian food, porn, ugly food
I have some complicated, maybe irrational feelings about fusion cooking.
My first response is not to trust it. The worst restaurants in Evanston are these doglike, pandering places that label themselves Pan-Asian or Pan-World, that will give their customers practically anything they want however they want it. One place, opened recently, serves chicken drenched in sauces from all over the globe, kind of: Thai peanut, Italian Alfredo, Japanese teriyaki. Customers can choose one, or choose all. The philosophy is have it your way. The result is that nobody leaves happy.
With these trendy new places the word fusion is code for “We’re willing to make it if you’re willing to buy it.” And more often than not, “Please think we’re cool.” Naturally this is bad for the form. And despite the worldly, progressive sheen of the word, I think it masks a certain kind of fear. It’s the fear of serving food that’s simple, food that rejects gimmick, fear of saying to the precious customer, “our food is good enough the way it is.” Continue reading
I feel like there’s a lot of mystery surrounding the preparation of Peking duck.
At most good Chinese restaurants you have to order it at least a day ahead if there’s any hope of getting it on your table. This has to do with the fact that there is a very narrow bridge of time in which the duck can be enjoyed as intended–that is, with supremely crispy skin and liquid fat.
So Chinese restaurants aren’t trying to annoy you when they ask exactly what time you will be enjoying your duck, they’re trying to protect your eating experience, which I think is great. No self-respecting Chinese cook would ever leave Peking duck just sitting around. In fact my mother had this spasm of annoyance with me when I interrupted her process to take these pictures. So if the photographs are not up to their usual standard, blame the perfectionism of an exquisite cook. Continue reading
Posted in All Posts, International Food, Meat, Seafood, Sides, Soups & Stews
Tagged Chinese BBQ, Chinese food, cucumbers, fish stew, inferiority complex, peking duck, whole shrimp
My favorite food as a kid wasn’t mac and cheese, or pizza, or the Happy Meal.
It had nothing to do with brownies or chocolate cake. It didn’t involve spaghetti. Instead, it was a dish that a quarter of the world is probably very familiar with, just not this corner of the world. That dish is zong zi, these happy little packages. And so prettily wrapped.
The closest thing I could say to describe it is that it’s like a Chinese tamale, but different. For one, the starch component is sticky marinated rice, not masa, and it’s wrapped in lotus leaves, not corn husks.
When my father sampled one from our latest batch, he let out a gutteral, unselfconscious moan I associate with only the best food. “Two thousand years of culture,” he said, “and you get this.” Continue reading