Pretty Ugly Things

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

Why Fusion Sucks

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

End of Summer Peking Duck

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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.

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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

Sticky Rice, Pork Belly, Lotus

zong zi

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

Eating in Shanghai

Bok Choy

It has been a crazy week.

Now that my tour of Shanghai, Nanjing, and Yangzhou is over, I can take a moment to reflect back on what I’ve seen, felt, and… eaten. Naturally.

My first afternoon in China was spent in Shanghai with my mother’s cousins. They took us to a fancy-schmancy Schezwan (read: not for the faint of heart) restaurant for lunch.

The food was weird, even for me, and I count chicken feet as regular brunch fare. It was a satisfying meal, but let me say I paid for it dearly later that night. I’ll leave it at that.   Continue reading

Two More for the Smorgasbord

Gravlox

I met crisp bread this weekend.

It is a Nordic cross between cracker and bread (think matzah) made of rye flour. The Scandinavian poor have been eating it for centuries. The hearty crackers travel well and keep for months. This fact hints at crisp bread’s gastronomic charms. It is, in every way–appearance, texture, taste–a little like cardboard. The earliest form of crisp bread was probably carried into battle by the Vikings. That dates this food at at least 1000 years old. Continue reading

Curry Yellow Pea Soup

ingredients

I’m one quarter Swedish, but it might be more accurate to say that I’m three-quarters not-Swedish.

Though one set of great-grandparents came directly from the motherland knowing only the language and culture of Sweden, most of what I know about Sweden comes not from family history but – like all good things – from Ikea.

When “The Spinning Plate” decided to do a short series of posts on Scandinavian cuisine, my thoughts first drifted towards lutfisk and ostkaka, two foods that have remained in my family’s lexicon if not in our cookbooks. But both lye soaked fish and milk curd cake seemed too… daunting. So instead, I settled on another Scandinavian standard: ärtsoppa (i.e. pea soup).

Continue reading