Friday, April 8, 2011

Food For Thought

I've got a new image blog for sharing photos I've taken past and present. Most of them link up to a cool Google map so you can wrap your head around where these magical things happen. Check it out!


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ode To Soup

It's not just me. Everyone loves soup. I've never met someone who emphatically or otherwise expressed a dislike for soup. For me soup is more than just hot and soulful comfort food, reminiscent of home. It's all that plus more. Soup was the first thing I ever cooked. The first dish I ever made. And more than being a fondly recalled distant memory, soup serves as the basis for everything I love about cooking. While I couldn't have put it into words at the time, I was fascinated by the idea that one could start with water and create a flavorful liquid. And, as I was preparing chicken soup for matzoh balls at the time, the fact that we - mom and I - were dipping a chicken in our pot just like a tea bag into a mug made perfect sense to me. I was instantly entranced with the idea of extracting flavor from meat and vegetables. Even as I kid, I had a visceral objection to using a bouillon cube or other concentrated flavor boosting aides. Cheating! And so it began there, an ongoing experiment to make a better soup, a more flavorful soup, a more comforting soup by exploiting everything the natural ingredients hold within them. Every project I take on and every dish I cook is a new version of that first soup. And so that's why soup is so special to me. Oh, and it's just plain delicious…

My travels took me to some places where soup reigns supreme. These far off manifestations of our favorite steamy elixir are not unknown here in America. In fact, the pho of vietnam and ramen, udon and soba dishes of Japan are so accessible here that they are on the verge of being ingrained in our own melting pot culinary tradition. The fusion has begun. Going back to the source didn't necessarily bring any new revelations, but oh what I treat! I loved seeing how a dish that we have tightly confined images and definitions of in America can be wildly varied on its home turf. Think of the hamburger, a (sort of) iconic American food. On native land, there are endless variations of it. It's just what we eat and everyone is allowed to do it how they do it. I found the same to be true of pho, ramen dishes and especially miso soup at their respective sources. It made discussions of "authenticity" seem ridiculous to me. Some foods cannot fit a mold that is rigorously defined by a panel of experts, and soup of all things cannot be shackled. After all, what is more down home than soup? What is more open to the interpretation of every family feeding mother and every DIY epicurean? Nothing, that's what.

One thing I know for sure is that enthusiasm for soup is human nature. It's not a trend or particular taste. It's not pop culture. Soup has always been here and soup is here to stay! All food starts as water and all food can end as soup. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. In South East Asia, where you'll find the ever popular Vietnamese pho among other regional riffs on the subject, people live on steaming soup in a stupidly hot climate. While I was visiting Hue, Vietnam I braved the heat to eat what are two of the most memorable meals of my travels. One afternoon I wandered down a side street to find a little tent where an old lady was stirring a massive cauldron of beefy rice soup. I was sweating so profusely over my food, I thought the bowl would never be empty. I chased the soup with with the juice of a basketball sized coconut while a sassy Vietnamese lady jokingly fanned me with a palm branch and her clique sat cackling at the silly looking American. Nothing but soup could outweigh the embarrassment of being reduced to a cultural punchline. The following night I walked with a two other travelers to find a place recommended to have the best Hue style rice noodles. We got a little twisted around with a less than accurate map, but ended up finding the little roadside setup that was packed with people sitting at kiddie sized tables. There was only one soup to order, so I flashed three fingers and waited for our three bowls to arrive. The tables all were set with baskets of boiled quail eggs and pork sausage steamed in banana leaves to adorn your soup with, as well as the ubiquitous chili sauces. To our right, three ladies sat hand cutting the rice noodles from handful of dough rapid fire, directly into giant bubbling pots. The noodles were paired with a simple fish broth, none too fancy but all made from the heart. Both of these soups atypical to what we commonly know of as Vietnamese, but just part or life where they come from. Just a local's twist.

It was in Japan, however where I witnessed a passion for soup that even made ME blush a little bit. I had been there a little over a week and already eaten myriad styles of ramen and udon. I was on an overnight bus from Tokyo to Nagoya. As we all tucked into our luxurious reclining seats, complete with electrical outlets, reading lights and complimentary slippers; I notices the salaryman sitting caddy corner to me was reading a magazine…a girly magazine. America is a little prude when it comes to boobies in printed media. I caught myself staring in amazement. What? Am I not human!? At least it was tastefully done. He flipped one page, and then another. On the third turn, I saw a page cover not with nude women, but bowls of soup. There was ramen and there was soba. Dressed up with fish cakes and char siu pork, side by side with undressed women. It was magnificent, and a little titillating. But hold all of your jokes regarding "food porn!" I can't stand that term. Pornography is something consumed with no feeling. It's overly processed empty calories, laden with preservatives. Soup is beautiful. It touches us with nostalgia and warms the heart. Soup is for everyone. It's the anti-hipster. We all have some form of it personal to our history, and through soup we relate to one another, one bowl at a time.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Still Here

My most recent travels are over but the epic adventure continues. It always does, doesn't it. Sure, some moments are more exciting than others, but it's all a big trip, right? As stated below, I've settled in New York City; Brooklyn to be exact. Looking for some meaningful employment and trying not to squander the free time I have, while I have it. This blog started as a work thing and then became a travel/work thing. Like me, it's not done. I'm still here and while I figure out what sorts of fun things I can do with my life that will provide fodder for interesting blog posts, here's a little tid bit I pulled from the rabbit hole of my memory.

Some people are great spontaneous storytellers. They can literally captivate an audience by regaling it with the mundane details of their days. I used to the think that these folks had more interesting lives than yours truly, but that's not necessarily so. They just have a way of relating the minutiae that can really move a listener. I've always wanted to have that ability, but alas, when I am asked over and over again to "tell some great stories," of my travels it always puts me on the spot. What stories? Nothing really happened to me. I went a bunch of places, read some books, looked up at a great many tall buildings and ate way too much delicious food. What I can't produce on the spot however, comes back to me a little bit at a time with the memory of each meal or morsel. My stories are a subtext of all the great food and tall buildings I looked up at. They lace together the larger memories into one cohesive experience to tell people about. So while I may not be much around the water cooler or campfire, it turns out I do have some stories to tell. Here's one…

Spain is a glutton's paradise. Eating and drinking is woven so tightly into the social fabric, it's candyland to an outsider with an adventurous palate. Except, instead of gumdrops and lollypops you have ham and vermouth. Salted pig parts and barrel aged libations are essentially dripping from the walls and falling from the sky. The culture encourages sampling and little here and a little there, all before you actually sit down for a meal. After nearly a month in Spain I had made this a job, fully tricked out with a mission statement and itinerary for each day.

On this particular day in Grananda, I had gotten up disgustingly early for the second morning in a row to see La Alhambra, the previous being a failure because I arrived too late to get one of the limited tickets sold each day. After spending more than half the day touring this more than magnificent historical sight I headed back into the old city to revisit two great tapas bars I had discovered the day before. The first was an old school operation, complete with aged, unkempt men in white shirts and black vests. I watched one guy loose his marbles because the beer keg blew in the middle of service and he just couldn't deal with the stress. This was right before he raised his hand in a feigned smacking motion to the back of a younger, cockier waiter who was carrying way too many plates, and made a classic, "why I ought!" face. It was a priceless moment that only I witnessed. In Granada you get a complimentary tapa with each drink that you order which is fabulous, but can fill you up quick. I had come for the sesos - fried brains - and was not to be deterred. You're cringing, I can tell. Honestly though, brains have a really creamy texture, sort of like oysters. I'm convinced that an unsuspecting diner could scarf down crisply fried gray matter happily until told what it actually is.

Anyway, I digress. I finished up and moved on to the other bar I had enjoyed the day before. It was a little more modern and a little less smoky. The day was young and I still had free tapas on the brain (get it?). While the day before this particular dive had been empty, it was hopping on this visit. The bartender, a cheerful and quirky young gal remembered me from the day before. She came to get my order as I squeezed between groups of people just beginning their afternoon siesta. It's a little awkward drinking by oneself in a crowded bar, but I seemed to have it down by this point. It was a little too loud and bustling to concentrate on a book, but I always had my smartphone's internet connection to keep me company if conversation failed. For a moment, though I watched the bartender who had made a nice impression on me the day before just by being friendly. She was working this crowd like a pro, with a deft yet graceful hand. Perky, cute and just a little strange, she had a pet name for each regular customer and you never had to tell her what you were drinking more than once. Oddly, she also looked exactly like someone I worked with way back when. Also a bartender, these two gals looked similar and acted the same. Same skills and talents. It was like I was watching the same former colleague, once removed, miles and years away from the last time we worked together, in a different language. Strange. It got me thinking maybe people exist in duplicate or triplicate even, all over the world. Different bodies, but here to serve the same purpose, play the same role. It's some weird, new-agey shit, I know, but interesting to think about. A man sitting next to me at the bar kept tapping me on the arm and pointing at her, the pixieish bartender, with a slightly drunk smile, as if to say, "ain't she great?" I nodded and smiled as I always do when people babble to me in a foreign language. My own cosmic pontifications aside, I was not about to get into an esoteric conversation with this guy on the subject. I was reading about post season baseball with my phone, and in an effort to relate, he pulled out his cell and showed me a picture of himself with a woman - very pretty - who could have been a wife or a daughter. I hope the latter, because she looked much younger than him. He kept at it in Spanish and I kept nodding, which probably encouraged him to open up even more. At one point, he pointed at the picture and put his hand over his heart. Now this I understood as the international sign for, "my love." Still unsure if the special lady in the picture was spouse or child, I figured it didn't matter because this show of affection would be endearing for either. This guy is ok! Next he pointed to our friend, the bartender and indicated that she too, belonged to his heart. I can see that. She was really that sort of service professional. Even I was beginning to care about her a little. I mean, she remembered my name and brought me free food. He continued chatting me up and I continued nodding. Then I noticed that he was crying. Not sobbing, but tears were welling up as he spoke. Instead of being awkward, it was surreal. I was having trouble believing that this was all really taking place in this universe. I don't know why, but it made me want to think of all the things and the people that are important to me. Not in a way that made me gloomy, but rather appreciating what I have and the ability to choose my own direction. I can't speculate on what he was so emotional about, but considering he was talking about love while drinking and eating great food there is equal chance that they were tears of joy, of pain or just plain allergies. I'll never forget this moment. I came for the food and it was wonderful but I left thinking about how lucky I am. So you see I do have some stories to tell. They create an important context in which I can enjoy and remember epic dining experiences. Eventually the soul sitting next to me at the bar perked up and the tears stopped. Our spritely, playful bar maiden, who was calling me "chipi" or "chiki" or whatever in a high pitched whine bid me fond farewell and implored me to call my mother...