Sunday, December 31, 2006

A year of food blogging

I began this blog in January and the year is drawing to a close. What have I learned after 12 months of posting about food? A rough inventory of some 48 entries show: things I make for my daughter (simple cakes of yogurt or chocolate, pancakes); cooking for feasts (Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas); local spots (favorite eating places and farmers' markets); experiments with various produce and products (Meyer lemons, Swiss chard, Latini pasta); food as gateway to different cultures (Persian khoresh, Korean noodles, Peruvian ceviche); food and family (my mother's Le Crueset pot, tomato jam, tea eggs, my grandmother's tempura) memories of France (specialties in Brittany and Alsace) and finally, reflections on Japanese culture (bento, beans, wagashi and washoku).

All these things form a part of the "gastronomical me" but there is a missing element that is rather crucial: what I eat when I am alone. Sharing food is no doubt one of the meanings of life but for my last entry I would like to consider eating, egoistic though it may sound, as an act of self-love and affirmation.

Nobody expressed this better, at least in the Japanese language, than the writer Mori Mari. The daughter of Meiji novelist Mori Ogai, she spent a privileged childhood tasting exotic things that her father would bring back home, not only from his travels to Europe but from his forays into the Japanese imperial court. From early on she cultivated, through food, an intuitive sense of what constitutes "real luxury," and this remained the base during her later years when she began writing, divorced and living in relative poverty.

In a collection of essays titled Bimbo Savarin (penniless Savarin) she describes her life in a one-room apartment, the majority of which is spent in heroic efforts to procure, prepare and eat the things that keep her willful tongue happy. Her recipes don't necessarily make me salivate; for example, her favorite confectionery is a strange mixture of chocolate and sugar cubes -- two thirds painstakingly grated and one third laboriously chopped into bits. But I understand all too well the black moodiness that descends when she is unable to have exactly what her appetite demands. I find lovable the way she will cross town in pouring rain to find a fishmonger that will slice her sashimi just so, fighting chronic laziness and protesting legs (not made for walking, according to their master.) Alone at table, admiring the pearly white sole glistening with rainbow hues, she salutes herself for a mission accomplished, carefully dips a slice in shoyu and carries it to her mouth in a moment of sweet bliss.

What I want to learn from her is her special, childlike talent to, simply put, enjoy things. I find wonderful how eggs boiling in water or butter sizzling in a pan fills her with mirth and glee. The capacity for this kind of pure and innocent pleasure is the key to a true gourmand spirit and has nothing to do with the pursuit of eating fads and food connoisseurship that one sees so much of in food writing. "Taste" is a subjective and elusive thing, unquantifiable and absolutely individual depending on one's personal history, and prosaic factors too like the weather that day or stomach condition. It's impossible to objectively determine what is delicious and what is not; in the end it's just you and your tongue to decide and it's futile to let anyone tell you otherwise. So on that note, bon apetit and a very happy new year!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


In this season of holiday hospitality and communal feasting, I came across a line by Elizabeth David that struck me as refreshingly egoistic -- in Is There a Nutmeg in the House? she writes: "If I had my way -- and I shan't -- my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunch time, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of Champagne on a tray in the evening."

I found this quite lovely and tried to model our Christmas to it, at least in spirit. Away from my husband's family in France and the attending marathons of shopping, cooking and six hour meals, this year we were three and could do exactly as we pleased. In the morning we watched our daughter tear open presents while nibbling on spice cookies with hot cider. We spent the afternoon at the beach (this is southern California) and then came home to prepare a simple meal: I sliced honey glazed ham while my husband whipped up a divine puree de pommes de terre, so velvety smooth that its more suited to spooning out of bowls. For our daughter we made her favorite vegetable -- French green beans with shallots. We opened a bottle of Gewurztraminer from Alsace, a surprisingly nice pairing with the sweet ham. Dessert was a small plum pudding accompanied by hard sauce.

Puree de pommes de terre

2 pounds of baking potatoes, such as Idaho Russets
1 cup of whole milk, heated
16 tablespoons of unsalted butter, chilled
sea salt to taste

-Peel the potatoes and place in a large pot, cover with water and add salt, enough to taste.
-When the potatoes are soft, drain the water and begin stirring with an immersion blender, adding the chilled butter one tablespoon at a time. Add the hot milk in a thin stream and continue stirring until the texture becomes silken and satiny.

Friday, November 24, 2006


One thing that surprised me after marrying my husband was his attachment to Thanksgiving traditions, despite the fact that he left the US at a very young age and grew up in France. When we first moved to Strasbourg, we spent our first Thanksgiving driving around town in search of a restaurant that served turkey. Desperate, we even tried the American hotel chains, but no luck. We ended up eating duck in a Chinese restaurant I think -- a sad compromise for my husband. The following year I scoured books and magazines for recipes on relish and stuffing, and made a small bird for two.

The third year around we invited friends, including French, curious about "authentic American food." It was all about strategizing to find the key ingredients, procuring the whole turkey from across the border in Germany, keeping vigilant watch at the markets for erratic appearances of fresh sage and cranberries. The sweet pumpkin pie was a taste hurdle I'm sure, since most French are used to eating pumpkin in savoury dishes like soups and tarts.

Last year we moved to California. In the supermarkets I saw an abundance of things that had been impossible to find in France: mountains of yams, pure maple syrup, fresh pecan nuts and wild rice. My sister flew in from Boston to help me "deconstruct" a turkey (a process that involves de-boning the bird and reshaping it with stuffing). Since she was our only guest there was zero pressure and we could experiment with various dishes without worrying how they would turn out.

This year friends, family and strangers shared a table, passing around side dishes while my husband carved the 12-pound heritage turkey, finishing with three kinds of pies. It was a Thanksgiving feast in the traditional sense, but after two entire days of shopping, prepping, planning the logistics of seating and tableware, the moment I felt the most thankful was when it was all over. The day after, leftovers received a Mexican makeover -- the remains of the turkey was shredded and folded into corn tortillas and side dishes were brightened up with chiles and
cilantro. This was my real Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Asian banquet

Detail from Harvest 1 (2004) by Li Jin; courtesy of East West Bank

This month marks the opening of Banquet: A Feast for the Senses, a multi-media, contemporary art exhibition at the Pacific Asia Museum which is where I work. It's a happy instance of passion for eating and writing about it feeding directly into one's job. Read more about it here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Cinderella pumpkin

Last year when I made pumpkin pie for Halloween, I made the beginner's mistake of using flesh scooped out from our jack o'lantern and the result was disastrous -- a watery, fibery mess. This year I resolved to select the right variety but hardly got the chance -- as soon as we arrived at the supermarket my daughter spotted "Cinderella" pumpkins and, given her current enchantment (and desired Trick o'Treating costume), this is what we took home.

Deep orange red, flattened in shape and heavily sutured, the Rouge Vif d'Etampes do indeed resemble Cinderella's carriage pumpkin. And, as it turned out, it has thick moist flesh, almost custard-like in texture, and it made for delightful pie.

Cinderella Pumpkin Pie

-2 cups of pumpkin puree
-4 eggs
-1/2 cup cream
-1/2 whole milk
-1/2 cup maple syrup
-1/2 brown sugar
-1 tsp each of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix all ingredients and pour into prepared pie shell. Bake for 40 minutes and remove from oven. The still wobbly center should set during cooling.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Mame meditation

Japanese edamame, or young soy beans in their pods, have practically entered the English lexicon, but I doubt many have heard of sakana-mame, a type of heirloom edamame that is grown in the big rice producing region of Niigata. It's called sakana-mame because the delicate smells that waft from the beans while boiling is good enough to accompany one's cup of sake. Niigata people evidently have a special flair when to comes to naming beans -- another variety of edamame is called yunayo which means "don't tell," that is don't tell your otherwise industrious and frugal daughter-in-law, since everybody knows that you can't keep a woman away from beans.

In Ozu Yasujiro's classic Tokyo Story there is a comical scene where the shrill and tight-fisted hairdresser daughter is sitting at breakfast with her lazy and gourmand husband who comments on the tastiness of beans. His appreciative chopsticks go back and forth until finally she snatches the bowl away saying, "stop it! it's bad to eat so much!" then proceeds to rapidly pick at them herself.

Is it only Japan where bean-eating is considered essentially a female activity, like knitting or gossiping? I do think there is a something meditative about the act of eating beans, perhaps it is the repetition of small bites and gestures, that would encourage the kind of circular logic that supposedly characterize such women's talk.

I remember my grandmother, an expert bean-cooker, bringing out a bowl of black kuromame beans saying, "this batch is a success." I never found out exactly what her standards were but I think it had to do with the plump appearance of the beans and shiny black skins which had not shriveled during the braise. We would sit around the warm kotatsu, four generations of women (my grandmother, my mother, me, my baby daughter,) drinking green tea, nibbling the beans, chatting about everything and nothing.

Whenever I'm in Tokyo, I like to go to the Mamegen store in Azabu-Juban and stock up on bean treats. It's a veritable bean paradise; neatly packaged little bags of daizu (dried soy bean), soramame (Japanese broad bean) and endomame (green bean) beckon from all sides, colorfully and deliciously seasoned with miso, sesame, plum, wasabi flavors and more. (There are also peanuts and almonds, and flavors like coffee and yogurt.) But of-course the one that gives me that warm fuzzy feeling are the lightly sweetened kuromame black beans from Tanba. Nutritiously irreproachable, it's the ideal munchy for long autumn nights, conducive to pensive pastimes like moon-gazing.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Chiles en nogada

Sometimes you can fall in love with a food even before ever tasting it. Chiles en nogada was like this for me. I first became aware of the Mexican classic when I read about it in Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. Later, my heart gave a twist when I saw a photograph in Frida's Fiesta: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Khalo: a bold green poblano pepper reclining against bone white walnut sauce, adorned with ruby red pomegranate seeds. They were the colors of the Mexican flag, arranged across one of Frida's Puebla plates. The dish looked like it came straight out of one of her paintings.

After moving to California, I asked every person who might know where I could find the fabulous chiles en nogadas. I got only wet-blanket responses -- restaurants only served it during limited periods and when they did it was usually the one thing to avoid on the menu, oversweet and fussy. But this only fueled my desire and made me more determined in my pursuit.

I swore that, if need be, I would do it myself and vowed the minute I spotted pomegranates in the markets I would make them. By luck, or coincidence, or simply because nothing spells fall harvest like pomegranates and freshly gathered walnuts, Gourmet's September issue featured a recipe. But when I read it I balked. The process would probably take three days: one to braise pork shoulder and chop a multitude of ingredients including onion, garlic, tomatoe, peaches and apricots, raisins and pine nuts, green apple and ripe plantains for the picadillo filling, another to roast a dozen or so poblano chiles and stuff them, yet another to shell walnuts and painstakingly remove their papery skin, not to mention seeding the pomegranates. Swamped with matters of lesser importance, I sadly watched the weekends go by, without my chiles en nogada.

Then, I came across a certain Babita, a lovely little hole-in the wall restaurant stuck in the middle of largely Chinese neighborhood in San Gabriel. I had read a favorable review by LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold and had been calling the restaurant for some weeks to see if chiles en nogada had arrived. Each time the desponse-inducing answer was "not yet, maybe in a few days" --the chiles on the markets were not ripe enough, the pomegranates not red enough.

Last night my long-standing passion was consumated. Was there even a twinge of disappointment? Not in the least. The dish lived up to all my expectations and dreams: it was smooth, exuberant, oozing of porky goodness. I went home excited and happy, my first attraction intact. If only all our crushes could end like this.

Babita Mexicuisine
1823 San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(The tiny restaurant which seats about 30 is run by the charming Berrelleza family. Closed Mondays)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Aesthetics of the bento box

(I've posted about bento before, here and here. Recently I gave a short talk for a museum audience on "the aesthetics of the Japanese bento box." Some excerpts ...)

Roland Barthes once wrote on the bento: "The dinner tray seems a picture of the most delicate order: it is a frame containing against a dark background various objects (bowls, boxes, chopsticks, tiny piles of food) ... However, such an order, delicious when it appears, is destined to be undone, recomposed by the very rhythmn of eating ... the painting was actually a palette."

Indeed; shown above is an example of a squared and partitioned shokado bento box, said to have been inspired by the paint boxes of Shokado Shoji, a Zen monk and painter of the early 17th century. Since its invention the shokado has become the prototypical bento box and the most popular in and outside of Japan, including non-Japanese restaurants which have adopted the format in a twist on the idea of the prix fix menu, where multiple courses are served simultaneously in one elegant box.

Now what are the formal characteristics of the shokado? The first thing that leaps to the eye is segmentation. The lacquered box is divided into four separate compartments and although the bento includes a wide array of bounties from the ocean, mountains, fields and forests, there is no sense of clutter, disorder or congestion. Every element seems to be contained in its proper place and there is no blurring of boundaries.

Let's take a closer look. In the lower right compartment you have a mound of rice shaped to resemble a hill blooming with spring flowers; on the upper right an assortment of delicacies from land and sea; on lower left, tsukemono pickles garnished with paper-thin slices of carrot and radish in the form of cherry blossom petals, and a little ceramic bowl holding dipping sauce.

Numerous readings are possible. Designer Kenji Ekuan has theorized about the bento's relation to the spatial packaging of the city of Edo for which the shokado provides a map, and the four social classes (shi-min-ko-sho) instituted during that period. According to this view the four boxes would correspond to the living quarters of samurai (strongly tied to the clergy class, therefore represented by the shojin, vegetarian compartment), farmers (rice compartment), artisans (delicacies) and merchants (soysauce and preserves.)

The bento box and its partition walls might also be read as the kanji character for ta, signifying "rice paddy," where the agricultural drama of the four seasons are played out. It could even be, as Ekuan suggests, an arial view of the Japanese islands themselves, the bento box offering a scenic tour of Japan's different regions.

What strikes me most, though, is the utter lack of hierarchy in the shokado's organization. Unlike the Western formula of meat, vegetable & starch, there is no one element that seeks to dominate and reduce the rest as side dishes. There is no totalizing center, no single point perspective or depth. It is a flat, all-over composition, almost like a rolled picture scroll with multiple, traveling vantage points.

Post-banquet scenes are generally appalling but after a bento meal the lid is placed back on the box and resumes its initial pristine appearance. This is very much like a computer's "re-set" function and I think it is interesting that the shokado provided the first inspiration for IBM's ThinkPad design. Here we have a bento box providing a blueprint for digital organization, using bite-sized nuggets of information stored in non-hierarchical order. We are reminded that the flat, compact, portable format of the laptop is essentially that of a bento box...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Peruvian ceviche

Initiation to an unfamiliar culture often occurs via food. On recent visits to a farmers' market in South Pasadena to take photos for a Food Destinations write-up, a stand named The Happy Inka kept tugging at my eyes. Wanting to know more I looked up Wikipedia and was surprised to learn that hitherto little-known Peruvian cuisine has recently exploded on the world gastronomic scene. This seemed worth exploring. On the next visit I made a beeline for the stand to peruse the several dishes plated for display.

There were basically two dishes, the first being a choice of shrimp, pork, chicken or beef saltado, a type of stir-fry with tomatoes, onions and the distinctly Peruvian aji amarillo, or yellow chile, and splash of vinegar. Lomo saltado (beef tenderloin), usually eaten mixed with rice and fried potatoes, is a Peruvian classic. The second was chaufa, a type of fried rice with the same choice of meats, eggs and scallions, seasoned with soysauce in addition to the aji. I tried the shrimp chaufa and it was delicious.

Both saltado and chaufa reflect cooking techniques and products bought to Peru by Chinese immigrants. Peruvian cooking, I learned through further readup on Epicurious, is the ultimate fusion cuisine, a spicy hybrid of Andean food mixed with Spanish, African, Italian, Chinese and Japanese influences.

Indeed, at the bottom of the menu I spotted ceviche, Peru's flag dish and epitome of that blend: aquatic resources from Peru's Pacific coast, Inca hot peppers, onion and citrus from Spain, the Japanese approach to preparing fish. I asked for a pint of ceviche de pescado, which was fished out of an icebox. The opposing contrast of ice cold lime marinade and fiery hotness of chile shook me out of any lingering summer langour. The opaque morsels of cured white fish were but distant cousins to Japanese sliced raw fish; the flavors were much stronger and sharper than the original. None of the easy familiarity between shoyu and sashimi, like that of a longtime husband and wife; ceviche is fraught with tension of strangers in co-existence that does not allow complacency.

Preparation is elemental. Just combine the ingredients and watch the transformation.

Peruvian Ceviche (serves 6)

-2 pounds of lean, white fish such as sea bass or snapper
-juice of a dozen squeezed limes, approximately 1 cup
- tablespoon of aji amarillo paste, or several good shakes of Tabasco sauce
-1/2 purple onion, thinly sliced

Cut the fish into smallish cubes. Place in a bowl and cover with lime juice. Mix in salt, chile paste and onion slices. Wrap and refridgerate for at least 6 hours until the fish is "cooked" -- it should look white and nearly opaque. It is important to use the lime juice immediately after squeezing or there will not be enough acidic content for proper curing. In any case, it is best to use sashimi-grade fish.
(This recipe is but a blueprint. Experiment by substituting the limes with lemons and oranges, adding diced tomatoes or red pepper for color and crunch, garnishing with chopped cilantro or popcorn.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Farmers' market in South Pasadena

Last week's Food section in Los Angeles Times proclaimed, "Luscious, at last!" reporting the summer peak in California produce and the astonishing bounties witnesssed at farmers' markets: "piles of peaches and nectarines, mounds of melons, tomatoes of every color, eggplants, squashes, cucumbers and all kinds of berries." I had to go see this for myself. Off I went to the nearest one in my neighborhood -- the South Pasadena Farmers' Market.

My first impression was one of confusion and disappointment. Instead of the dizzying mosaic of vegetable and fruit vendors, butcher stands, cheese stands, honey and spice stalls of my old neighborhood market in France, here I encountered a T-shaped alley with the longer stretch lined with stands selling street food. Thinking how typically American that the "greenmarket" should have more fast foods then fresh produce, I directed myself towards the shorter stretch where a few farmer stands stood scattered here and there.

One did indeed see piles of peaches and tomatoes of all colors. But the fruit stands resembled a discount sale, with buyers pawing through the mountain of peaches, casting aside the bruised ones, grabbing and filling plastic bags in bulk. A contrast to France where you would patiently stand in line for your turn, then say what you wanted and for when, whereupon the vendor would touch, sniff the fruit in question before choosing what would be ready to eat that evening, or in three days, before deftly wrapping it up in brown paper.

I went over to the tomatoe guy. Taking a pocket knife he cut for me a slice of the monstrously large and orange-colored "mango" tomatoe which, contrary to its great looks, tasted flat. The LA Times article had waxed poetic about the "grandeur" of these heirloom tomatoes, their perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, their indescribably savoury quality. All this eluded me.

More and more I was beginning to feel about the market the way I feel about LA in general, how there is a lag between image and reality. I thought about a recent friend's visit, how we kept driving along the freeways, from one place to the next but no matter what I showed her -- shops and cafes in Beverly Hills, neighborhoods around Melrose Place, even the Hollywood sign -- there was always a sense of letdown, these places looming so much larger in popular imagination and myths. In response to our frusteration though, somebody told us that LA is less a place than a state of mind. California, I remembered Pico Iyer writing in The Global Soul, encourages transcendence precisely because its surfaces are hollow.

Griller at Robin's Woodside BBQ, laconic amidst the smoky fires.

Corn on the cob grilled in their husks, popular with children. My favorite condiment was lime & chile pepper.

Hispanic flavor: tamales wrapped in corn husks, churros dusted with cinnamon and sugar, as well as Peruvian and Salvadoran specialties such as pupusas (small cornmeal pancakes filled with cheese, beans, pork.)

I decided to change tack and take an inventory of street foods offered. I watched the people having picnics in the grassy areas and decided to join the fray, getting a corn grilled in its husk and a hotdog for my daughter. The sun was setting and the warm air was filled with laughter and a festival atmosphere. It dawned on me that this is what the market was about -- not so much a place to buy fresh provisions but more a celebration of summer, an idea of barbeques and corn on the cob and biting into a giant peach, never mind the juices running down, a simulacrum if you like, or a nostalgic representation rendered all the more poignant since the season was in its final throes, with back to school sales just around the corner.

The unreality of places with synthetic surfaces, acording to Iyer, can have advantages over those with seductive ones ( ie quality and artistry of French markets) and I suspect he may be right. In the end it's the invisible things that make us feel at home.

The Farmers' Market in South Pasadena is located on Mission Street and Meridian Avenue. Every Thursday from 4-8 pm, rain or shine.

"It's a California Thing"

Sunday, August 13, 2006

mango mania

I love mangoes. I love its shiny green red-tinged skin, its seductive kidney shape, its intoxicating odor and orange yellow melting flesh. The markets are bursting with ripe mangoes at the moment and the other day on a splurge I bought an entire crate of about a dozen of the Kent variety.

The first phase of mango mania consisted of eating them fresh: slicing off two sides along the flat oblong pit, cutting through the fruit lengthwise and crosswise then turning the skin outside in so that cubes pop out and form "hedgehogs." They make a great breakfast; I love the combination of its buttery sweetness and bitterness of coffee.

Then came the frozen phase, in the form of sorbet, smoothies (blended with milk and crushed ice) and lassi (with yogurt, a sprinkle of cardammon and ginger added) In the last phase, I had them sweet & savory: sprinkled with chile pepper and salt as the Mexicans do, or as salsa -- delicious piled over seared tuna:

Mango salsa (or sauce, or chutney, or whatever you choose to call it)

Cut into small cubes two ripe mangoes and gently toss with 1/2 white onion, 1/2 red pepper and a bunch of cilantro, chopped. Squeeze over juice of one lime. Season with salt and hot chile pepper. Chill 30 minutes before serving.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

taste test: pasta

People often ask me, so what do you cook at home? I fear they expect effusive descriptions of, say, a fusion of Japanese and French techniques applied to Southern Californian produce, but instead I usually end up mumbling something like "um, ...pasta?"

Which is actually quite true. The two people I cook for daily are both happiest when there is pasta on the table. Plus it is admirably suited to the kind of "all in one dish" meals that makes most sense after a busy day.

Although I am very bad at stocking and typically shop on a day-to-day basis, I do make sure there are always several boxes of dried pasta in the pantry. When buying them I am invariably faced with the dilemma: do I go for the ubiquitous Barilla brand or do I choose a pricier more "artisanal" make? Pasta is pasta; is one type really all that superior to another?

I decided to resolve this question once and for all. I rounded up three different kinds of dried spagetti: the aforementioned Barilla for 1.59$, the Latini mark purchased at an Italian grocer for 4.99$, and Benedetto Cavalieri from William Sonoma's selection at a whopping 7$. I cooked the spagetti according to the designated time for each in salted water and added olive oil before twirling it around a fork. Latini and Cavalieri seemed to have a slightly better taste and texture but not dramatically so. It was only when I swathed the spagetti in a sauce of San Marzano tomatoe and grated Parmigiano that the differences really came to the fore. Latini won hands down.

Probably it had something to do with the surface of Latini's pasta which looked rough and porous in comparison to the smooth and glazed appearance of the other two. When cooked the ridges became barely visible but I think it allowed each strand of pasta to hug the sauce which actually seemed to amplify the flavors, making them deeper and more vibrant.

Intrigued, I started experimenting with the Latini brand. According to their website ( Latini pasta is made from carefully selected varieties of quality Italy-grown wheat. It is slow dried at low temperatures so as to not eradicate molecular structures and preserve the durum's flavors and aromas. It therefore makes sense to use the absoption method in cooking the pasta so as not to lose any of it, or use the pasta water to finish the sauce. Or even, come to think of it, drinking it as a broth as one does with cooking water after eating soba, or is that going too far?

But more than the character of durum wheat, I find compelling this pasta's capacity to valorize the qualities of the sauce with its caressing attention and receptiveness. People are like that too I suppose; Latini is the one who knows how to give love.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Among friends

A few days ago I received in the post a thick envelope of cinnabar red decorated with stylized Chinese characters. Inside was an invitation to a wedding reception to be held in Alsace, hosted by "Mr & Mme Klinger of Druesenheim, France" and "Mr & Mme Bui of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam." My thoughts immediately flew back to last summer, to a garden party, and to Thanh and Christian announcing their engagement.

In retrospect I realize that in the course of five years spent in Strasbourg I cultivated five friendships, Thanh being one of them. Their backgrounds were as diverse as could be (five women of French, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, South-African origin, all whom ended up in Strasbourg for one reason or another) but they shared one thing in common and that was a passion for food -- buying it, preparing it, eating it, offering it, sharing it.

Xiaofei, who hailed from Beijing, was like Thanh -- in Strasbourg she met the man of her life and that person happened to be an Alsatian. Meals chez Eric and Xiaofei reflected that happy fusion: a stir fry of spicy chicken and walnuts served with a galette de pomme de terre on the side, or a plate of chacuterie followed by Chinese-style seafood fondue. At their wedding banquet I took note of the delightful pairing of foie gras and quetsch jam served on toasts of pain d'epice. An even more lasting impression was the surreal tableau of revelers setting up mah jong tables on the illuminated grounds of the chateau.

On Xiaofei's wedding night I met Cristina, of dual Spanish/American nationality, and her boyfriend Michael who worked as a magistrate at the Palais de Justice. They shared a bohemian apartment in the Petit France quarter and had a flair for collecting and connecting people. On her birthday Cristina hosted an evening of tapas and guitar music and got everyone merry on sangrillas. When Michael was posted to Guadeloupe she threw a going-away party with a Carribean theme: roasted chicken spiced with Old Bay-ish seasoning which we ate from plates on our knees piled with rice, avocado and banana slices. In the kitchen I watched her take blanched almonds and shake them in a bag with Tabasco sauce -- a fiery aperitif snack that I haven't stopped making since.

Anya too, from South Africa, had relocated for love. Troy, her husband, was an "engineer of democracy" and she worked tirelessly to help set up his non-profit organization in Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament. I suspect people attended meetings just as much for Anya's scones and muffins as for Troy's ideals. An avid baker she would make trips across the border to markets in Germany for nuts and grains she couldn't get on the French side. Afternoons with Anya meant Rooibos red tea and addictive grainy chocolate (apparently Cadbury bars from South Africa have a superior taste and texture to the UK product) and leaving with a beautiful loaf of home-baked bread. She also taught me about detoxing after culinary excess with a regimen of fruit and vegetable smoothies.

Sophie, a native of Cannes, had come to Strasbourg for her studies and stayed after getting a job at the Council of Europe. I first met her and her British partner Lee while visiting a maternity clinic. Both expectant mothers-to-be, we bonded instantly. Several months later we each gave birth, to a boy and girl respectively, born one day apart. Sunday afternoon gouters became a tradition; while we chatted about the newly discovered wonders of parenthood Lee would make tea in the way only Englishmen can and on cue Sophie would pull something out of the oven. One day I asked her how she had made the delicious fruit crumble -- she just smiled and remained vague. This was one of the many lessons I got about French women, the first being that they don't give away so easily the secrets of their charms. But then, perhaps it was the Anglo-Saxon infuence of her other half, on the next visit she recited to me the recipe. I think of her whenever I make her almond-based crumble, especially in this season when apricots are abundant.

Back to Thanh. We met during a summer language course and became friendly when she offered to show me the one Asian grocery in town (called Paris Store, for some reason) and to teach me how to make Vietnamese nems. I remember watching with fascination the way she cut open limes (asymetrically, to avoid the seeds falling out when squeezed) and the delicate movements of her fingers as she wrapped shrimp, egg and purple basil in wetted rice paper. At that time she was determined to perfect her French and find what she wanted to do in life. Then she met Christian. At the engagement party, hosted by her adopted French family, tables were laden with arrangements of fruit and flowers as well as a rich array of desserts. I panicked inwardly -- I have an inexplicable aversion to buffets of any kind and usually end up not sampling anything at all. As if reading my thoughts Thanh floated over in her summer dress, pointed to a glass cut bowl and said, "C'est moi qui l'ai fait." If I were to take only one thing, her tone implied, it would be the ginger icecream she had made herself that morning. As always she was right and the ice was divine. Although I probably won't be able to attend her wedding I plan to make a batch on that day.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Paco's tacos

The taco is to Angelenos what the slice of pizza is to Manhattanites; they inspire fanatical loyalty and everyone has a favorite joint.

I was recently initiated to one by Raymond and Lisa, a quintessential LA couple (he works for a digital film lab in Hollywood; she is a sculptress with a studio in Santa Monica) who like good food, frequently eat out and every weekend go to Paco's Tacos.

We had chosen the spot as a meeting point to take a mutual out-of-town friend to the airport and had to rush through a blur of deep fried chips and salty vinegared carrots, a basket of pillowy flour tortillas handmade on the premises. My hastily ordered taco de carnitas arrived as a thick, soft, white corn tortilla holding juicy shreds of roasted pork, but we were running out of time and I wistfully had to wrap it up. (It was still very tasty several hours later in the car.) We will surely be back at Paco's Tacos but in the meantime here is how to make your own:

Prepare the filling:

-skirt steak (often sold as carne asada in West coast supermarkets)
-2 teaspoons of ground cumin
-1 teaspoon of dried oregano
-1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper.

Dry rub the steak with spices and grill, about 3-4 minutes per side.

Warm the corn tortillas, fold in half and fill in the following order:

1) carne asada, cut into strips
2) a handful of something crunchy (shredded iceburg lettuce or cabbage)
3) a spoonful of something creamy (sour cream or guacamole)
4) finally, salsa fresca and maybe crumbled Mexican cheese

For the salsa fresca

2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 white onion, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon of lime juice
salt to taste

(method adapted from Mark Bittman)

Paco's Tacos Cantina
4141 S. Centinela Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90066
tel. 310-391-9616

Friday, July 14, 2006

French toast

Today is Bastille Day, or simply "14 juillet" in France, the way Independance Day is just "4th of July" in the U.S.

On the American holiday people seem to like to fire up the grill but in France, I can't recall any particular food associated with this day. Maybe it's not surprising since it marks an event in 1789 when most French were starving from famine.

Marie Antoinette's advice to the people was to "eat brioche." By all accounts it's doubtful she actually uttered these words but even so, it sounds like a good idea.

Here is what I would propose for a Bastille Day brunch -- "French toast" with tricolor topping of strawberries, blueberries and vanilla icecream. The best recipe for pain perdu I've come across is Alain Ducasse's version where slices of brioche loaf are crisply caramelized on the exterior, its sweetness offset by a mixture of seasonal fruit.

(Adapted from Alain Ducasse's Flavors of France)

2 large eggs
1/2 cup of sugar
1cup of milk
4 slices of brioche loaf
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar

1. Beat together eggs with sugar and stir in the milk.
2. Soak the brioche slices in the mixture for a couple of minutes then remove with a spatula and place on a platter.
3. Sprinkle over half of the powdered sugar.
4. Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat.
5. Add the brioche slices, sugared side down and cook until golden.
6. Sprinkle over the rest of the powdered sugar, turn and cook the other side.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

two summer pies

When we first moved to Pasadena around this time last year, we were blown away by the intensity of the dry heat. During the first few weeks of getting climatized we mostly stayed indoors, out of the scorching sun. I did a lot of reading then and that's when I first discovered the writings of MFK Fischer.

One lovely essay titled "A Thing Shared" recounted a drive from the hills back to LA with her father and sister, and stopping on the way for a picnic meal that terminates with a peach pie. Description of the pie -- still warm from the oven and the ride over the desert, bursting with ripe peaches picked on the ranch that noon, served with thick cream in a bluish Mexican jug that had lain in a cold stream all morning -- gripped me with force and I could not rest until I tasted also the succulent peach with fresh cream in flaky crust.

This year I tried my hand at summer pie using dark red American cherries:

To prepare the dough:

2 cups flour
2 sticks of unsalted butter*
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/3 cups of chilled water

1. Freeze the butter and cut into little cubes.
2. Sift the flour with sugar and salt and add the butter.
3. Pinch until the dough is crumbly. Add the water and mix using a fork, just until the dough comes together into a ball.
4. Divide into two, flatten into disks and chill for one hour.
*You can substitute one stick of butter for 1/2 cup of shortening. This might be difficult to find outside of the US but it makes for a flakier crust.

To make cherry pie:

1. Prepare about 5 cups of stemmed and pitted cherries.
2. Add 3 tablespoons of quick tapicoca, 1/2 cup of sugar (or less, depending on the sweetness of cherries) and let stand for 30 minutes to release the juices.
3. Pour the fruit into a pie dish lined with half the dough. With the other half make a lattice covering, to let the fruit syrup thicken while baking.
4. Bake at 400 degrees F for 45 minutes.
5. Delicious when hot served with cold vanilla icecream.

For peach pie:

1. Peel and cut white peaches, about 6 cups.
2. Add 3 tablespoons of quick tapioca, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 1/3 cup of sugar and let stand for 30 minutes.
3. Pour the mixture into a pie dish lined with half the dough. With the other half cover the fruit and cut a sporal pattern in the middle, to let the steam out.
4. Bake at 400 degrees F for one hour.
5. Serve with cream. This pie is best when chilled.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Toraya, old and new

One of the most fascinating aspects of wagashi, or traditional Japanese confectionary, is their potential to appeal to all five senses, of sight, smell, touch, taste and, perhaps surprisingly, sound.

On a recent visit to Toraya's tearoom in Kyoto, I came across the lyrically named Sawabe no Hotaru, shown above, seasonal to the summer months. Sawabe, meaning clumps of grass growing by a river, is the tangle of pale green chestnut cream, and the glow of hotaru fireflies, are expressed by the tiny cubes of jelly shimmering on top. Cutting through the delicate mound (the interior reveals white and red azuki bean paste) you can almost hear the rustle of cool river breeze passing through the leaves.

Similarly, Toraya's grand classic is a yokan (crushed azuki set in kanten seaweed gelatin) poetically titled Yoru no Ume, meaning "Night Plum." In addition to the visual reference (the sliced yokan surface evokes pale plum blossoms rising up against the dark sky) the name suggets the barely perceptible sound of petals falling to the ground in the dead of the night. Needless to say, to hear wagashi they must be eaten in silence.

Back in Tokyo, I visited Toraya Cafe, the wagashi-maker's forray into fusional "up-dated" confectionary. On the menu: a tasting plate of three different types of paste -- soybean/pistachio, red bean and white sesame -- to be spread on wafers made from azuki hull, a sesame meringue and kinako (toasted soybean powder) biscuit, accompanied by a glass of soymilk kanten jelly topped with azuki sauce. I strained my ears (difficult with the ambiance music) -- the sweets remained quite mute.

Toraya Cafe at Omotesando Hills (Tokyo) tel. 03-5785-0533
Toraya Tea Salon in Ichijo (Kyoto) tel. 075-441-3113

Monday, June 26, 2006


One of the questions in the "Proust questionnaire" (extended version) asks: What is your favorite journey?

I think for me it is the one that I make religiously each time I return to Japan -- the train ride from Tokyo to Nagano, where my sister and I as children spent long summers at the house of our maternal grandparents. It's a journey into the past and also a way to touch base, confirm my family roots.

During the two-hour shinkansen trip there is the ritual of eating one of the ekiben, bento sold at railway stations. There are several along this line but for me it's usually a toss-up between Daruma Bento (Takasaki station) and Toge no Kama-meshi (Yokokawa station.)

The former comes in bright red container shaped like a Daruma face, a nod to the fact that Takasaki is known for its fabrication of Daruma dolls. The empty containers are often saved as souvenirs and can be used as a piggy bank of sorts (there is a coin slit on the lid.)

Toge no Kama-meshi, shown above, comes in a rustic earthenware pot packed with tea-flavored rice. Arranged on top are bite-sized morsels of chicken, pickled ginger, braised burdock root and bamboo shoot, one quail egg, two shiitake mushrooms, three green peas, a sweetened chestnut and dried apricot. The contents speak of forest bounty yama no mono* and are in perfect synch with the scenery rushing by as one travels deeper and deeper into Japan's most mountainous region.

*as opposed to umi no mono (riches from the sea) that characterize bento sold along coastal lines.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Food Destinations: Strasbourg, France

Following up on last month's Food Destinations, I tried to come up with a similar list of places for Strasbourg that would offer the quintessential Alsatian experience.

First of all, if you are like me and obsessive about trying out every local specialty, there are three things you must eat when you go to Strasbourg. These are choucroute, baekoff and coq au Reisling. Here are the places to go:

Lohkas 25 rue du Bain-aux-Plantes 67000 Strasbourg, 03-88-32-05-26
Located in the heart of the Petite France quarter, Lohkas offers typical Alsatian cuisine in a setting that couldn't get any more picturesque. Order the celebrated choucroute garnie and you will get a heap of cooked fermented cabbage topped with several kinds of Alsatian sausages and various parts of salted pork, like slab of shoulder or gelatinous knuckle, served with pungent horseradish on the side. Excellent with local Alsatian beer.

Le Clou 3 rue du Chardon 67000 Strasbourg, 03-88-32-11-67
Located on a tiny pedestrian alley near the majestic pink-stoned cathedral, the cozy winstub distinguishes itself from others with its tasteful decor that mixes pretty Alsatian fabrics and blue-gray stoneware. The baekoff, served in individual ceramic terrines, is simply outstanding. Try also the escargots, another local specialty-- my daughter had her first here when she was three and now smacks her lips every time she comes across a snail.

Klein 26 Boulevard d'Anvers 67000 Strasbourg
For some reason it's hard to find coq au Reisling on the menu in restaurants except the most touristic ones. Provided you have access to a kitchen, you're better off making it yourself. The first thing to do is to procure a good coq and for this I recommend Klein, one of the finest boucherie/traiteurs in town. Choose one with lean black feet and ask for it to be cut into eight pieces. Also pick up a bottle of Reisling, a pat of butter, cream and fresh spaetzel (crinkly egg noodles) -- all available in the store. Next, head to the marche, two blocks away on Boulevard de la Marne, and buy a bunch of shallots, mushrooms, a lemon and some salad greens. You now have everything you need for an Alsatian feast.

Coq au Reisling (serves 4) adapted from Haeberlin: les Recettes de l'Auberge de l'Ile

-1 coq, about 2kg, cut into 8 pieces
-100g butter
-1 large onion, or several shallots, minced
-1 tablespoon of flour
-1/2 bottle of Reisling wine
-200g of champignons, cut in half
-250ml heavy cream
-1/2 lemon

1. In a deep casserole saute the pieces of meat in a bit of butter.
2. Sweat the minced onion or shallots in a bit of butter and add to the coq.
3. Sprinkle with flour, add the Reisling.
4. Cover and let simmer for 40 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, saute the mushrooms in a bit of butter.
5. Remove the pieces of meat from the casserole and cover with a foil to keep warm.
6. Reduce the liquid by half, then add the cream, mushrooms with its cooking liquid, lemon juice and any remaining butter.
7. Return the coq to the sauce and adjust seasoning.
*Serve with fresh spaetzels and a green salad.

Next, a short tram ride from centre ville takes you to the university quarter and our old apartment on rue Wimpheling. For five years I experienced the bliss of living a stone's throw away from an exceptional boulangerie and patisserie:

Jean-Claude Fritsch 13 rue Wimpheling 67000 Strasbourg
Downstairs from our apartment was a unpretentious Alsatian boulangerie where you could get warm kugelof (distinctly shaped raisin-studded brioche with a crown of almonds), fresh breh'zen (soft pretzel) and every weekday at noon, a tarte flambee (super thin crust toppped with onion, lardon and creme fraiche) fresh out of the oven. Madame Fritsch would exchange gossip with each client, switching easily between French and Alsatian, and she would reach into a jar for a petit beurre every time she saw my daughter.

Jean-Claude Zeigler 23 Avenue de la Foret Noire 67000 Strasbourg
Down the street on the corner was Zeigler's, a chic patisserie with an attractive tea salon. Creations were displayed in the window case and reflected the passing seasons. Beginning with January, as soon as the national galettne des rois fever died down, the carnival beignets made their appearance. In lieu of traditional apple beignets Zeigler's version had elegant fruit-fillings of fresh fig, apricot or rasberry. Easter meant lamb-shaped sponge cakes dusted with powdered sugar. The appearance of meringue-topped tarte a la rhubarbe heralded the arrival of spring. Summer months meant tarte aux quetsch and tarte aux mirabelles, purple and golden prunes typical of the region. Chestnut cream-based torche aux marrons signaled the end of vacations. Autumn months meant cakes of newly harvested walnuts, lemon and chocolate. Then it would be time for the famed Christmas bredele, an assortment of small butter or almond biscuits in heart and star shapes, spiced with cinnamon and anise.

Although it is Zeigler's calendar that we came to intimately know, most Strasbourgoise bakeries and pastry shops follow similar schedules. Be sure to sample whatever is in season when visiting. Bon apetit!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

yogurt cake

My daugher's best friend is another 4-year-old named Anna Sophia. Both girls are mixed (French-Japanese/ Korean-Mexican), both wear Dora-like bobs and are often mistaken for twins. They are inseparable at school, attend ballet class together on Saturday mornings and like to go for hot chocolate afterwards. They are constantly giving each other little gifts: paper butterflies on sticks, clothespin dolls, all imaginatively decorated.

Recently they baked together for the first time. They made a yogurt cake which seems ideal, as it involves only mixing and bakes quickly. It is delicious and healthy too, soft and moist, tasting of girly innocence.

Gateau au yaourt (adapted from Clothilde at Chocolate & Zuchini)

- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of yogurt
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F) and butter a round cake pan. Have children mix together all the ingredients in a big bowl, chanting "mix-it mix-it cho-co-lat." Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 30 minutes. Eat while fresh and warm out of the oven.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Swiss chard

All vegetables are beautiful but some more than others -- I'm thinking of the sexily curvaceous aubergine and its deep purple sheen, or the prettily ribbed fennel and its delicate fonds. Swiss chard too, is a particularly striking vegetable, with its giant chiffons of emerald green leaves shot through with ruby red veins and stalk.

Another characteristic of chard is that it's a "two-in-one" vegetable; its leaves and stalk offer different flavors and textures in addition to contrasting colors. Sometimes called "spinach beet," chard leaves have the mineral surface texture of spinach and its pleasantly bitter taste. Like spinach leaves they must be bought in daunting quantities as cooking dramatically reduces their bulk. Chard stalks on the other hand have the smell and sweet taste of beets. And like beet root they will stain your fingers red.

In the following method the two parts are cooked separately then combined. The red stem bits caramelized to sweetness perfectly complement the bitter leafy greens and together make a delicious side to pan-fried pork chops:

Wash the chard leaves and gently tear off the leafy parts. Blanch the greens in salted water (drain but do not squeeze). Chop the stalks and cook in vegetable oil over low heat until caramelized. Add the leafy parts and cook until the juices are absorbed.

Monday, May 29, 2006

pecan granola

One food epiphany I had recently, while reading the back of an oatmeal box, is how very easy it is to make your own granola. Homemade granola is simply a mix of oats, nuts and dried fruit, baked in the oven until crunchy. The fun lies in customization: you can add wheat flakes for a Swiss-style muesli, choose almonds , walnuts or macadamia, paired with, for example, chopped dates, dried cherries or lime zest, add seeds like sesame or sunflower, toss with brown sugar or honey. The possibilities are infinite.

It's also a great way to clean out your pantry (which I've been trying to do this week since I will be traveling all of next month.) Taking cue from a bag of pecans left unshelled since the fall, I decided to make maple granola with pecans, dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds. Sprinkle over a dallop of ceamy yogurt and enjoy it while crunchy or wait a little until it gets soft.

Maple granola with pecans, dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds

-butter 6 tablespoons
-maple syrup 1 cup
-rolled oats 3 cups
-pecans, shelled 1 cup
-raw pumpkin seeds 1 cup
-dried cranberries 1 cup
-salt 1 teaspoon

Melt in a small saucepan butter and maple syrup (try Grade B, which has a deeper flavor.) Combine in a large bowl the rolled oats, pecans,raw pumpkin seeds and salt. Pour over the butter syrup and toss to coat. Scatter the mix across a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cranberries and cool completely before storing in airtight container.

(Pecans have smooth and slippery shells and are impossible to crack without crushing the nutmeat to bits. Is there a technique I wonder?)

Monday, May 22, 2006

lemon loaves

The above work is by Spanish artist Francisco de Zubaran titled Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) and it's one of my favorite paintings at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Everytime I go there I first head straight to this painting; it's like greeting an old friend. I'm always drawn to art that features food but I think this painting sets itself apart from the usual themes of abundance with its air of gravity and spiritual austerity. In contrast to the artfully casual arrangements seen in most still-lifes, the three motifs -- the plate of lemons, basket of orange blossoms and fruit, a water-filled cup and a rose -- are laid across in a strictly horizontal line, as if they were votive offerings. Perhaps it's strange to feel uplifted by images of fruit and blossoms but to me, it's a devotional painting.

At the same time it's an incredibly sensual painting. Close-up the texture of the lemon and orange peel is irresistably inviting and will make you want to get out your zester. You can almost smell the fragant citrus oils rising and the delicate perfumes of the orange blossom and rose. After spending any amount of time in front of this painting, I get an urge go buy lemons.

How best to taste a lemon's fragrance? Lemon curd or lemonade jumps to mind, but I think the essence of a lemon lies in the zest, rather than in the juice. The following is a recipe for an aromatic pound cake, adapted from a recipe for the splendid vanilla bean loaves at Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here each vanilla bean is replaced by the zest of lemons:

Lemon loaves, adapted from Hi-Rise's recipe for vanilla bean loaves (published in Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte)

-3 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
-2 1/2 cups of lemon sugar (zest two lemons and stir into the sugar; let sit for a few days)
-zest of two lemons
-8 large eggs, at room temperature
-3 cups flour
-1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
-1/2 teaspoon of salt

(for the syrup)
-1 3/4 cups of sugar
-1 cup of water
-zest of two lemons

1. Generously butter two loaf pans (8 by 4 by 3 inches) and heat your oven to 325 degrees F.
2. Cream the butter with lemon sugar until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Add the lemon zest, then the eggs. Beat to mix.
3. Stir in the sifted flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix just until smooth.
4. Divide the batter between the two pans and bake for 30 minutes. Turn the pans around and bake for 30 minutes more.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the syrup: In a small pan dissolve the sugar in water over medium heat. Stir in the lemon zest, turn off the heat and let their fragrance disperse.
6. When the loaves are done cool for 10 minutes, then turn them out of their pans onto a parchment sheet. Brush them all over with the syrup. Repeat several times as they cool. This process contributes to the cake's wonderful graininess and pebbly texture.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mother's Day

Previously I wrote about ofukuro no aji, or mother's taste, but I think the single most potent form of maternal expression in Japanese culture must be the obento boxes that mothers prepare for their pre-school children.

Historically, bento originated as portable food for long journeys, usually rice and savoury tidbits wrapped in a bamboo leaf or carried in woven baskets. The main idea was a meal that could be eaten cold and would not perish on the road, thus contents were well-seasoned and thoroughly cooked. Partitioned and lidded decorative boxes (usually lacquered) came into use at the close of the politically tumultuous Momoyama period (1568-1600) and during the relatively stable Edo period (1600-1686) that followed, bento increasingly become associated with pleasure and entertainment. Popular variations included hanami-bento (for cherry-blossom viewing) and maku-no-uchi bento (literally, "between the scenes"; eaten between the acts at kabuki theater).

Today bento is ubiquitous in collective life in Japan, in school as well as at work. When I used to work for a Tokyo newspaper, every day after the first deadline delivery boys would race around the newsroom handing a bento to each employee. The contents varied: sometimes they would be a classical shake bento (a bit of broiled salmon, a piece of tamagoyaki egg, some pickled vegetables) sometimes a Western-style yoshoku bento (tonkatsu breaded pork cutlets, for example, always with side of shredded cabbage) or a Chinese-style chuka bento, which might feature shumai dumplings. Whatever the style there was always a square of white rice with a red umeboshi, salt-preserved plum in the center, patriotically resembling the Japanese flag.

These bentos were store-ordered but when it comes to school, that's another matter. A measure of good motherhood is your ability to rise at the crack of dawn each morning and put together a nutritious and attractive bento for your child. In assembling the contents, you must follow several rules. First is the rule of 4-3-2-1, which means that the bento box must be composed of four parts rice, three parts protein, two parts vegetable and one part fruit. The various elements must be arranged artfully in varying colors and shapes and carefully divided by partitions and foil. It must be neatly wrapped in cloth with accompanying pair of child-sized chopsticks.

Above all, you must make your child's bento as cute as possible. Hence carrot slices are cut into flower shapes while apple wedges are peeled to resemble bunnies. Miniature sausage links are slit before being fried so that legs curl up to look like an octopus. Rice toppings are often sprinkled on in the shape of a heart or animals, with the help of cookie cutters. To be sure, children love eye candy and these picture-perfect bento represent a labor of love, the desire to please your child. But I wonder if it is also not a misplaced form of competition among mothers who need to establish social pecking order through their children or driven by fears that your child will be ostracized by conformist peers.

I personally never experienced "cute" bento and never recall ever wanting one. After moving to the U.S. I quickly embraced the brown bag lunch combo of sandwich and apple. My mother did too, after a teacher gently hinted that the onigiri rice balls she initially packed were a bit strange (perhaps it was the black nori) and not quite appropriate for school.

Some decades later, I am in turn packing lunches for my daughter. A serreptitious peek into the lunch bags of her classmates reveal: quesadillas, kimichi sushi rolls, hummus and Arabic bread, heaped rather pell-mell into practical tupperwares. Not a peanut butter & jelly sandwich in sight (in any case all nuts are forbidden, for reasons of allergies.) The only common denominator is that they are "healthy"and otherwise reflect the diverse cultural origins of her class. For my part I sometimes find myself subconsciously following the rule of 4-3-2-1 as I fill my daughter's Hello Kitty bento box, even if it does not necessarily include rice...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Food Destinations: Pasadena, CA

"Food Destinations" is a blogging event proposed by I was just really very hungry's Maki Itoh that asks: If your favorite food blogger/ food lover came to town, where would you take him/her?

Pasadena, where I live, is known as a dining destination in a minor way. The restaurant rows in the Old Town run the whole gamut from trendy Thai to authentic Indian, French, Cuban and all manners of fusion, some of them quite good, but I tried to avoid Zagat-listed establishments as much as possible. Instead I tried to choose spots that offer the unique flavor of the place which is old Southern Californian, inflected by neighboring Latino and Asian communities, that decidedly sets itself apart from the LA scene.

Here is my list of top five places:

The Athanaeum (early-bird breakfast)
A good place to get an all-out all-American breakfast is the faculty club at the California Institute of Technology. Coffee is bottomless, orange juice is freshly squeezed. "Two eggs any style" is prepared with precision, replete with beautiful hash browns, choice of crispy bacon, ham or sausage. The stately dining room looks out to a Spanish-style patio surrounded by eucalyptus trees and may include a Nobel-laureate or two. No need to show ID; act like you came down from your Albert Einstein suite and ask to pay in cash. Breakfast served between 7-9 a.m. 551 S. Hill Ave. Pasadena, CA 91106 (626) 395-8200

Europane Bakery (mid-morning break)
See previous post on Sumi Chang's artisanal breads and pastries. A recent discovery is their fabulous bread pudding. It is a small, perfect disk that you can hold in your hands and bite into. Pure butter, sugar and brioche, no superfluous flavorings or toppings -- there's no need, it's that good. You can judge the quality of the butter used by its luscious caramelized edges and the moist perfection of its interior, not too soggy or too eggy as most bread puddings are. Added bonus: Just a few blocks up is Vroman's, my favorite bookstore, with an attractive and intelligent selection of cookbooks and food-writing. 950 E. Colorado Blvd. Pasadena, CA 91106 (626) 577-1828

Cafe Verde (terrace lunch)
See previous post about this shoe-in-the box neighborhood restaurant that offers up wonderful Californian/Mexican fusion. Something I did not mention is the grilled chicken linguini bathed in creamy chipotle sauce with roasted pasilla, corn and cilantro. It's a lovely dish. Eating here made me become aware of the magic of chiles, the subtle ways they work to give dishes not only heat and bite but also depth and character. Bring your own bottle if you like; there is no corkage fee. Lunch served until 3 p.m. 961 E. Green St. Pasadena, CA 91106 (626) 356-9811

Pacific Asia Museum (afternoon refreshment)
It might seem strange but the best gelataria in town is tucked away in a Chinese-style courtyard. Icecream was invented in China after all. Peruse the museum's small but distinctive collection of Asian art, then seat yourself by the koi-filled pond for a tasting of one of Leo's handmade creations. The Roma-native is blithely dismissive of American fear of fat; his speciality is an egg-rich variation called gelato all'uova, sublime. 46 N. Los Robles Ave. Pasadena, CA 91101 (626) 449-2742
Note: The picturesque courtyard is often used for location shoots for film and TV. When the camera crews are around the cafe is closed so be sure to call ahead.

Pie n' Burger (old-fashioned diner)
A Pasadena landmark and sole exception to my non-Zagat rule. The cheeseburger comes half-wrapped in wax paper, vertically built up with iceberg lettuce, pickle, onion, slice of orange cheese and housemade Thousand Island dressing. You might cringe, but it works. Even purists come to love it. The crusty waitress will warn you against the chicken pot pie ("too many flavorings") and steer you towards the chile made from scratch -- nice with greasy fries. Try also the root beer float or a slice of double-crusted pie with bright red cherry filling, a classic. 913 E. California Blvd. Pasadena, CA (626) 795-1123

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cambridge chowder

When it comes to clam chowder, I adhere to the milk-based New England school. I say this at the expense of antagonizing the Manhatten school (tomatoe-based), and not because I lived in Boston for three years. To be honest I like both, but I do feel that when you are using fresh clams the acidity of tomatoe will somewhat mask the clean, briny flavors.

The following recipe uses a chowder base adapted from Julia Child, who was alive and living in Cambridge at the time I was a student (I never saw her but often heard stories of sightings):

New England clam "chowdah"

1. Prepare the clams: scrub them under cold water and soak in salted water for at least half an hour so they will spit out the grit and sand. Drain, transfer to a pot and add 2 cups of water. Cover tightly and bring to a boil. They should open within 5 minutes. Discard those that do not. Remove the clams from their shells and chop them coarsely. Strain the pot contents through a sieve and set aside

2. Prepare the chowder base: Cook one chopped onion in 2 tablespoons of butter until soft but not brown. Add 2 waxy potatoes, diced into smallish cubes. Add 2 cups of water (or the reserved clam juice) and simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Add 2 cups of "half-and-half" or whole milk and cream combined, a bay leaf or two and sea salt to taste.

3. To finish: Add the chopped clams and bring to a simmer (do not boil). Ladle into warmed soup bowls and serve with "oyster" salt crackers.

* To make fish chowder: With the base, gently poach pieces of solid white fish such as halibut. In this case, you might add several slices of bacon cut into strips when cooking the onion and potatoes to strengthen the chowder base. Add blanched snowpeas for color and crunch.

Monday, May 01, 2006

asparagus in Alsace

Every 1st of May, my thoughts turn towards asparagus. It was my first taste of Strasbourg where we were to make a home for five years and also the month of May, the time I would choose to return to it.

I arrived solo, my husband's departure from Boston being held up, to spend the first few nights alone in our new apartment near the Orangerie. Not knowing a soul and speaking hardly a word of French, the first thing I did was to set out in search of something to eat. By chance I happened upon a sleepy epicerie, miraculously open on the national holiday. I bought a bagful of stray asparagus stalks, not knowing that white asparagus, unlike green, need to be peeled before being cooked. As a result the lower parts were too tough to eat and I ended up making a meal of soft mushy heads.

As subsequent May Days came and went I came to learn a thing or two about les asperges. That the pale asparagus, as thick as your thumb, are abundantly produced in the region of Alsace and make their first appearance in markets around May. That they should be peeled and trimmed and tied up with string into a bundle. That they should be cooked standing in a tall pot with their purple-tinged heads sticking out of the salted water, a pinch of sugar added. That steaming spears should be eaten with fingers, dipped in a sauce of Hollandaise or vinaigrette. Or served dozen to a person in the company of jambon cuit.

Before leaving Strasbourg I went to the poterie on a narrow street behind the majestic cathedral, a tiny hole-in-the wall place packed with ceramics produced in the village of Souffleheim. The potters are known for their hand-painted wares, in particular the oblong-shaped lidded terrines for making baeckoffe.* What caught my eye though was an asparagus dish, a two-part vessel with the top plate punctured with small holes.

Most such dishes intended solely for the purpose of serving asparagus tend to be porcelain mimicries of the vegetable's form and color. This plate was a simple oval shape in warm ochre with a lovely crackled surface under the translucent glaze. I purchased it as a souvenir of Strasbourg and to remind me of the ethereal quality of May, of that special lull, that langorous anticipation of beautiful days to come.

*To make the Alsatian specialty: Marinate in a bottle of local wine (Sylvaner is good; save your Reisling to make coq au Reisling and Gewurztraminer for the foie gras) chunks of pork, beef and lamb (about 500g each) with chopped leeks, onion and bay leaf. The next day slice potatoes (about 1.5kg) and layer the rounds with the marinade in a 6-person terrine. Mix flour with water to make a pasty braid and work it around the lid to hermetically seal the pot. Let it sit in a low temperature oven for about 6 hours. Instructions by Madame Mahler at Poterie d'Alsace, 3 rue des Freres, 67000 Strasbourg, (03) 88-32-23-21.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

tiger pancakes

In an echo of my own early pancake episode, one of my daughter's favorite books tells the story of a little boy in the jungles of Africa, who outwits hungry tigers by having them chase one another around and around a coconut tree. The striped yellow tigers go so fast that they end up melting, leaving a golden pool of butter. The boy's father scoops it up into a jug and carries it home to the mother, who uses it to make stacks of delicious pancakes. The book's closing image shows the little boy gleefully contemplating a buttery tower of one-hundred and sixty-nine pancakes which he proceeds to devour (he was very hungry).*

Impressed by his enormous apetite, my daughter has been asking for the same. The following is a recipe for a batter runny enough to allow necessarily ultra-thin pancakes, adapted from Alice Water's beautifully illustrated Fruit:

-buttermilk, 2 cups
-eggs, 2
-melted butter, 6 tablespoons
-flour 1 1/2 cups
-sugar, 1 tablespoon
-salt, 1 teaspoon
-baking soda, 2 teaspoons

*This is the story of Chibi Kuro Sambo (little black Sambo) which drew some controversy for its caricatural portrayal of the African family. It was recently re-published in Japan, this time with a slightly Indian cast; in the new edition the butter has been changed to "ghee."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Chinese tea eggs

When my sister met her now-husband, a Shanghai-native, my mother lamented to a friend the fact that both her daughters were marrying non-Japanese (not that ethnicity mattered, it was a problem of geographical distance.) Her friend consoled her by pointing out that at least, we had chosen spouses from two of the world's greatest culinary cultures.

This is open to debate of-course but I do recall reading somewhere that, if the variety of egg preparation is any index, no other cuisine has as many ways as China and France (more than 1,000?) Eggs have been on my mind since Easter evidently; I can think of three delicious egg things that my brother-in-law introduced me to.

The first are mooncakes he and my sister brought back after their late-August wedding. Eaten in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Moon festival, the sweet cakes with flaky golden crust have in the center a "surprise" -- a bright yellow egg yolk, representing the moon. The combination of the salt-preserved yolk with the sweet lotus root paste is delectable, especially when taken with jasmine pearl tea.

Another is fan tse tsao dan, a simple dish of eggs scrambled with tomatoe wedges. It's the kind of thing that a good Shanghai husband (much coveted for their non-macho attitudes as opposed to their Beijing counterparts) would whip up for lunch. Seasoned simply with salt, sugar and a pinch of chicken stock granules, it goes wonderfully well with rice.

The third is something I ate when the newlyweds first invited the family over for a meal at their home. These were eggs simmered in spiced tea and soaked overnight, shells cracked to let the flavors seep in and make a lovely marbled pattern of dark skeins. They looked and smelled and tasted incredibly sophisticated and exotic. I think it was at that moment I realized my baby sister, who from our childhoods had more or less traced the same culinary paths, was embarking on a different journey of her own.

Five-Spice Tea Eggs

eggs, a dozen or so
black Chinese tea leaves, 3-4 tablespoons
whole eight-star anise, 3-4
five-spice powder, 1 teaspoon*
thumb-sized piece of ginger
Chinese rice wine, 3 tablespoons
soysauce, 3 tablespoons
salt, 1 teaspoon

1. Make soft-boiled eggs and immerse in cold water (this makes for easier peeling later.)
2. Gently tap the eggs with the back of a spoon so that the shells are cracked all over.
3. In a pan cover the eggs with water, add the tea leaves, spices and seasonings. Simmer for an hour or two, adding water as needed. Soak overnight.

*wu xiang fen (five-spice powder): Chinese bouquet garni composed of eight-star anise, cassia or cinnamon bark, cloves, fennel seeds and Sichuan peppercorn. Use sparingly; it should smell more than taste.

Friday, April 21, 2006

oeuf a la coque

One of my favorite books as a child tells the story of two mice named Guri and Gura who one day, while hunting for chestnuts and wild mushrooms in a forest (they love to cook and eat), come upon a mysterious egg. It's too big to take home so they bring back a giant frying pan and bags of flour and sugar and some milk and butter and mix up a batter with the egg. Soon good smells are wafting through the forest drawing out all their animal friends who join Guri and Gura in an impromptu feast of the big, hot, yellow cake.

When I first started cooking, around the age of 10 or so, I mostly made "hotcakes," or Japanese-style pancakes. Unlike American pancakes which should be thin and crisped on the edges, the hotcake resembled Guri and Gura's creation. It was large and thick, and it was divided into wedges and eaten with honey, not maple syrup. Cracking the eggs was fun but I think it was their transformative properties, the way they turned the batter yellow and made it puff up in the pan, that I found so appealing.

I wonder now what I would do if I found, like Guri and Gura, the ultimate egg: large, brown, freckled, preferably organic, fresh from the farm. Elizabeth David would have cheerfully made an omelette and enjoyed it with a glass of wine. Julia Child might have eaten it hard-boiled, blissfully smothering each egg-half in mayonnaise. MFK Fischer would no doubt have made her beloved Aunt Gwen's fried egg sandwich.*

Here is my recipe for oeuf a la coque, which is the way I would eat the perfect egg:

Cover the egg in cold water and set over medium heat. Meanwhile ready a napkin, a sharp knife and a small spoon. Toast bread and cut into batonnets. Exactly 10 minutes later take the egg out of water and serve on a pretty ceramic egg stand. Immediately slice off the top with knife then add a pinch of salt to the egg yolk and eat by dipping in the bread sticks. Eat the egg white by scooping out with spoon. You should be left with a clean, empty eggshell.

*for recipe see "H is for Happy" in Fischer's An Alphabet for Gourmets.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Sunday

When my daughter was 6-months old we had her baptized at a beautiful old church in Brittany. Although I don't practice any religion and her father is what you call a lapsed Catholic, this was important to us because, burdened as she is already with three nationalities, we wanted to give her some cultural bearings for later on in life when she would certainly grapple with identity issues.

For now though, Easter is primarily about chocolate eggs and bunnies, or les cloches (bells). We hunted for eggs around the house and ate a traditional meal of gigot d'agneau. The recipe is adapted from Joel Robuchon's Simply French, which was my bible for many years (one of those books where you've tried every recipe and every single one works.)

Roast leg of lamb with parsley crust

-1 leg of lamb, bone-in, fat trimmed
-1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
-2 whole unpeeled heads of garlic, top sliced off
-2 slices of white bread, crusts removed
-flat-leaf parsley leaves

1. Rub the lamb with butter and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast with garlic (cut side down) at 425 degrees F, about 15 minutes for each pound. Turn occasionally. Remove from oven and season again. Cover in foil and let rest in warm oven for one hour.
2.Prepare the crust by processing bread and parsley to a fine grind. Add sea salt to taste.
3.To finish: carve the leg and arrange the slices in a baking dish. Cover with parsley crumbs and put under the broiler and watch carefully until the crust turns golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Serve with roasted potatoes tossed in pan's juices and sprinkled with paprika.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Korean spa noodles

Los Angeles has one of the largest concentrations of Koreans after Seoul, according to a friend, a Seoul-native, who agreed to take me to her favorite spa. I've always loved Japanese onsen but Korean-style baths was a first for me so I decided to do the whole package, including the famed "skin-flaking" massage.

Upon arrival we changed into robes and entered the women's bathing area. There were three pools: warm, cold and ice-cold. I did not see anyone placidly soaking in the water with a towel perched on top of their head, as one does in Japan. Instead people quickly dunked themselves after a spell in one of the searing hot saunas, steam or dry, to tonifying effect.

When it was time for a massage, a woman wearing black lace panties and a bra instructed me to lie down on a table. She splashed water all over me and then began vigorously scrub every inch of my skin. Then she began to knead me like dough, expertly pulling, punching, pummeling flesh. Suddenly she nudged under me a rolled up towel, hot as a steaming bun. Relief came in the form of half-frozen cucumber slices rapidly laid across my face.

Our skins glowing and smooth as peaches, we moved to the common area for men and women. There were three darkened rooms for resting: jade (extremely hot) ice (extremely cold) and clay. We chose clay and lay down on mats near a soft, slow fire. We slept for some time and then, drenched in sweat, came out to a wooden-floored area with low tables. By this time I was dreaming of a bowl of shaved ice. However, what my friend ordered for us was a giant plate of cold noodles heaped high with a mountain of bitter greens.

The muk noodles, made from acorn, resembled Japanese soba in appearance and presentation only much chewier in texture (though not as chewy as the buckwheat naeyn myun which actually require scissors to cut.) Soba is ephemeral; it breaks easily and should be slurped down with nonchalance. Truly good soba is best appreciated plain, without sauce, to get the delicate buckwheat fragrance. Muk noodles, on the other hand, held its own against the strong and spicy dressing, which seemd to blow away our hotness.

As we sat chewing away on noodles I reflected on Japanese and Korean food and bath, which seem so similar yet are so different. While it's always risky to make generalizations about national character, I can't help feeling there's a thread of vigour and tenacity running through Korean culture, and a propensity for contrasts and extremes, that is altogether quite lacking in Japanese.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Cuban "mojo" sauce

This weekend for breakfast we drove out to Porto's, a Cuban bakery in Glendale. It's a wildly popular place, with throngs of families crowding around the pastry counter and coffee bar. While waiting for our numbers to be called I asked two Latino ladies what I should get and was recommended a pastelito, flaky pastry with cream cheese and guava marmelade and the tender-crusted empanada rolls filled with pineapple or mango. They were delightful, washed down with shots of cortadito.

The "authentic" Cuban breakfast, however, consists of grilled Cuban bread lavished with butter and dunked in cafe con leche (boiling milk added to espresso to cut the bitterness, lots of sugar and a touch of salt for balance.) I will try this next time as well as sample a real Cuban sandwich such as pan con lechon, a garlicky roast pork sandwich served with thinly sliced plantain chips.

It's as if the cafecito got into my veins; I can't get Cuba out of my head. I have a renewed desire to take up Cuban-style salsa dancing and I want to find out all I can about Cuban-style cooking.

Unfortunately there are not many book titles on Cuban cuisine and I mainly culled websites of Cuban exile communities in Miami and New York. These tend to be sepia-colored with nostalgia for an old way of life in Havana that possibly no longer exists. The following is a recipe for mojo sauce, an excellent marinade for slow-cooked meats such as roasted pork shoulder. Serve with moros y cristianos, black beans and white rice, acccompanied by a salad of sliced avocado and red onion.

Mojo "soul" sauce

1/4 cup olive oil
3 heads of garlic, or 2 sliced onions, or both
3 naranja agrias, or sour oranges, juiced
(alternatively, use one sweet orange, two lemons and three limes)
chopped oregano
pinch of cumin
2 teaspoons of salt

Combine all ingredients in a mixer to make a thick paste and rub into meat. Let marinate over night before slow-cooking. The garlic and citrus infused meat should be melt-in-your-mouth soft.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

sweet tomatoe jam

It's probably typical for men of his generation but I've never in my life seen my father in the kitchen cooking. He is not in the least a gastronomical person; rich foods fatigue him. As long as there is rice and a little something to eat it with, he generally does not ask for more (the word gohan, equating "rice" with "meal," makes perfect sense here.) So when I tried to think of a particular food that I associate with my father, I almost drew a complete blank.

Sometime ago, however, I was in Antoine Westermann's gourmet food boutique in Strasbourg perusing rows of confitures by Christine Ferber when I saw something that triggered a memory. This was a jar of tomatoe jam.

It would have been after my family's return to Japan and around the time I was entering my rebellious phase. Sunday morning we would be sitting around the big Scandinavian table that dominated our tiny Tokyo apartment. Our standard breakfast would be dark roasted coffee, toasted slices of shokupan (Japanese-style pain de mie), fruit in season and, more often than not, a salad.*

Sometimes it would be a plate of sliced tomatoes. On those mornings my father would top his buttered toast with tomatoe rounds and spoon over some sugar. My sister and I would affect horror at the idea of putting sugar on a "vegetable" (we did not know better back then.) But occasionally my father managed to persuade us. "Just try it. It's good," he would say. The crispy toast would be soggy with the tomatoe's juices. It was buttery and succulent and I found it utterly delicious.

Nevertheless, I kept my distance to it. It seemed like another one of my father's idiosyncrasies, like continuing to wear jeans and long hair even after his peers in academia had switched to more professorial attire. I grudgingly acknowledged his originality yet was acutely embarrassed by it. I wished he would wear a suit and tie and eat his tomatoes with dressing.

Re-encountering the sweet tomatoes I felt that I had somehow come full circle. I am now able to admit I respect his palate, one that is uninfluenced by conventions or pretensions. I purchased the jar to take back to Japan, curious to see my father's response.

*Salad in the morning might seem peculiar but it's integral to the Japanese notion of "Western-style" breakfast. Possibly because the traditional breakfast of rice and miso broth includes pickled vegetables?