Monday, March 30, 2009

Japanese-Style Pork and Vegetable Rolls (Butaniku no Yasaimaki)


Last Saturday, after a frustrating and ultimately fruitless four-hour search for tuk trey, tuk prahoc, and kroeung that involved driving around half of Oahu and even calling a Cambodian restaurant, I was left with no energy to cook dinner, too many random ingredients I didn't have the imagination to deal with, and little appetite. Luckily, my wife had been out shoe shopping for much of the day and came home in a good mood. (Shoe shopping often has this effect on her.) She was also hungry. Seeing that I'd turned into a crabby blob in her absence and wasn't about to budge from the couch, she took it upon herself to dig through our refrigerator to see what she could whip up.


For the record, let me state that I almost never get in bad moods. I'm one of those types who's always happy and optimistic (but not annoyingly so). On this day, however, I slipped over to the dark side. But once I heard the sounds of energetic chopping and popping, sizzling grease, I instantly perked up and got off my butt to see what was cooking in the kitchen. At a glance, my bad mood disappeared, and when I also saw that our fridge still had two bottles of Kirin Beer left I rejoiced at the sudden turn of events.

The following recipe is really very easy. Even I, unschooled in any sort of serious Japanese cooking, could whip this up without incident. This is similar to the tonkatsu dishes one normally comes across in Japanese restaurants, but it's technically not tonkatsu at all. Also, while the addition of veggies are healthy, this dish is definitely worth serving with a green salad or some sliced tomatoes.

Ingredients
1 medium green pepper, sliced thinly
16-20 green beans, halved
1 carrot, slivered into 2-in. pieces
1 lb. lean, thin-cut pork
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup Japanese panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
Vegetable oil for deep frying

Preparation
1. Cut the vegetables as described above (and pictured below). 


2. Collect a small portion of vegetables and wrap with one strip of pork at a slight angle to cover them.
3. Sprinkle the rolls with flour, then dip them in a bowl of beaten eggs that has a dash of salt and pepper mixed in, and then coat with panko.


4. Place pork and veggie rolls in hot oil, up to four at a time (or as your pan or wok or frier allows).


5. When browned (after 5-7 mins; you'll know when they're done by the smell of cooked pork wafting into your face) remove from oil and drain on paper towel or newspaper.
6. Serve hot with Bull-Dog tonkatsu sauce and a dollop of Dijon spicy mustard for dipping.


Oh, and if you happen to have an extra lime on hand, feel free to give it a squeeze over your hot butaniku no yasaimaki.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Make Way for Trung Nguyen

Lately, as I consider my career direction and the options I currently have, I can’t help thinking how satisfying it would be to open and operate my own café. In fact, I got pretty close to doing this back in 2005 when I flew from Saigon to Osaka, Japan, and convinced the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) to support my plan to open a “writer’s café” in Kyoto. I had a 50-page business plan and was looking forward to running the café out of a traditional wooden townhouse called a machiya.

Wouldn't it be nice to have your morning coffee in a place like this?

Ah, but it wasn’t meant to be. At least not in 2005. Maybe it was good that I didn’t go forward with it, seeing how the global economic situation has migrated south and will probably remain there for at least a couple more years. In Hawaii it doesn’t make sense to consider opening a writer’s café since commercial rents are through the roof and hardly anyone here seems to have a serious enough interest in writing to support this particular concept. (Or maybe they do have the interest but must work so much to afford living here that they’d never patronize it.)

All this leads me toward the subject of coffee.

I’m not a huge coffee drinker, though that’s less a matter of choice than it is of constitution. I love the stuff, but can’t handle more than two cups of it a day, and usually make do with a single, steaming mug of it in the morning. Like many people I know, my coffee habit began in college. Back then I always drank it with milk and sugar, but when I moved to Vietnam I immediately got hooked on it with plenty of white sugary sludge mixed in – sweetened condensed milk, in other words.

In the last few years, however, I’ve learned to drink it black. Now that I have it this way, I'm convinced that this is how coffee is meant to be enjoyed -- with nothing to interfere with the full-bodied flavor of roasted ground beans. I don’t drink any of the specialty items that Starbucks has come up with, as they’re so dressed up that they resemble desserts in paper cups more than anything else. And for the $5 I have to pony up for one of them I could just as easily buy an entire three-week supply of what I consider to be the best coffee available to me in Hawaii: Trung Nguyen (pronounced choong win).

(What about Kona coffee? For me, it’s too acidic and short on flavor, and I can’t justify paying so much for it. Unless I want a 10% Kona blend, which I don't -- ever -- the real thing costs between five and seven times what I pay for Vietnamese coffee.)

If you haven’t tried Trung Nguyen coffee, you really should make a point to if it's available where you live. In Honolulu, the only place I've found it is in Chinatown, but since there are so many Vietnamese groceries and foodstuffs there it's easily found. Trung Nguyen is strong stuff, somewhere between regular black coffee and straight espresso, which is why it goes so beautifully with sweetened condensed milk (and yes, I do make exceptions and drink this sometimes!). Rather than having to settle for the unsatisfying combination of sugary milk and weak coffee, you get complementary flavors that you just can’t get with anything else.

In Vietnam, Trung Nguyen's drinks menu is extensive; their list of coffees not only has translations of the kinds of beans that are used but also a thorough description of how they're expressed on the palate. Trung Nguyen is also famous for ca phe chon, or “civet coffee.” It's said that some coffee plantations actually feed civets coffee beans and then collect the partially digested remains from the animals' excrement and use them for this specialized blend, though Trung Nguyen's website explains that this is a former practice, not a current one. In any case, ca phe chon is robust, deeply bitter, and, yes, also quite clean. It goes best with sweetened condensed milk, becoming almost chocolaty when the two are combined, and is the most expensive item in the Trung Nguyen coffee line. Although I just finished my last ca phe chon from a recent trip to Vietnam, I’m not at all unhappy to return to the more quotidian “Gourmet Blend.”

$5 will buy you 500 g (1.1 lbs) of Vietnamese coffee

It’s worth noting that Trung Nguyen has cleared room for itself in the crowded café landscapes of Japan, Singapore, Cambodia, and Thailand, and I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before we see it in LA and NYC…and doing extremely well in those places. In Vietnam, Trung Nguyen is seemingly everywhere, running the gamut from provincial holes-in-the-wall to seriously upscale and hip coffeehouses. Other competitors like Highlands Café, though consistently upscale themselves, just don’t compare (although Highlands does serve beer, which earns it an upward tick on my review scale).

Trung Nguyen Cafe on Tran Hung Dao Street in District One, Saigon

Highlands Cafe in District Seven, Saigon

For directions on how to make Vietnamese coffee with a Vietnamese slow-drip filter, visit this comprehensive blog entry at Wandering Chopsticks:

http://wanderingchopsticks.blogspot.com/2007/03/ca-phe-sua-da-ca-phe-sua-nong.html

A regular coffee maker should work just as well as a one-cup filter, though you'll want to experiment at first with how much coffee you use. My only word of advice is to forego Café Du Monde’s “French Roast with Chicory” blend, which the above link recommends, and which virtually every Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S. uses, and opt instead for Trung Nguyen. I think you'll find that there’s a world of difference between the two.

Ca phe sua da at a Trung Nguyen Cafe in Saigon

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Awards"

The last few weeks have been a little more distracting to me than usual, largely because I'm considering a job in Taiwan that could start as soon as late May. Ah, life is seldom simple. Complicated, yes, but also fairly interesting when looked at in retrospection. In any event, before I forget, I want to take a moment here to thank three bloggers for the awards they passed on to me last week.

I received the “Friends Award” simultaneously from Selba at http://selbyfood.blogspot.com and Sophie at http://sophiesfoodiefiles.blogspot.com. If you haven’t visited their websites yet -- both are two of my favorites on the food blogosphere -- please make sure to do so. Selba and Sophie are wonderful at what they do, and they’re more than equal to the “friend” appellation of this award. Thank you!


I also received an award from Kristy at http://thewickednoodle.com, which is a new and brilliant website featuring all kinds of recipes, videos, tips, deals, and other goodies. I should start by saying that I’ve never been embraced into any sort of sisterhood in my life, which makes this award all the more interesting for me. Yes, I’ve been honored with the gratifying, if unlikely, “Sisterhood Award.” Thank you, Kristy!


I appreciate both awards very much, as well as the support and positive feedback I’ve been lucky enough to get over the last few months, all of which motivates me in my desire to create something interesting and unique with my website.

Sapuche

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

In Hawaii, Innovation Makes an Old Food More Ono

Poke anyone?

Most of my mainland friends have never heard of poke, and when I tell them what it is, they give me bewildered looks. “It sounds Japanese,” they say. When I respond that it’s Hawaiian, they look at me askance and ask if I’m sure it’s not Japanese. “I’m sure,” I reply, knowing there’s little chance of introducing them to this signature Hawaiian dish unless they hop on a plane and fly here.

How is that sushi has made inroads into nearly every corner of the country, available in such unlikely places as rural Midwestern convenience stores, whereas poke, from a state that welcomes nearly eight million annual visitors, largely remains unknown? Poke marries with other ingredients in more varying, interesting, and successful ways than raw fish by itself ever could.

Poke, described by some as a “fish salad,” is popularly conceptualized as cubed fish mixed with Hawaiian salt, chili pepper, and limu (a crunchy, edible Hawaiian seaweed). Its origins can also be traced back centuries, and represents an important ingredient to native Hawaiian identity. In the words of Justin Tanioka, General Manager of Tanioka’s Seafood & Catering, “Poke is a continuation of the past, a continuation of a Hawaiian food tradition.” Many visitors to Hawaii compare it with sashimi (“raw fish” in Japanese), but I find the comparison off target. Poke, which can also be seared, cooked, or even made from meat and vegetables, is a completely different eating experience from sashimi.

An ingredients list for poke sometimes reads to me, a relative newcomer to Hawaii, like a field guide to the Islands. Here’s a quick rundown of some common Hawaiian words you may encounter when shopping for poke: ahi (yellowfin tuna), aku (skip jack tuna), a’u (marlin), ‘inamona (roasted, pulverized kukui nuts mixed with sea salt), limu kohu (a red, spicy seaweed), limu manauea (a red-green seaweed with a mild taste), ‘opihi (limpets), and pa’akai (sea salt used in traditional food preparation and for flavoring).

One of poke’s biggest enthusiasts is world-renowned chef Sam Choy. Choy has been instrumental in popularizing Island cuisine, and even hosts the Sam Choy Poke Contest, which attracts scores of entrants, hundreds of attendees, and publicity from all over the world. Despite his and others’ efforts, however, poke remains little known outside Hawaii.

Poke selection at Tamashiro Market

Oahu’s best-known poke seller is Tamashiro Market, which has become a local institution since moving into its current salmon-colored building (and hanging a giant, plastic red crab twenty feet above its entrance) in 1962. Located in Kalihi, a working-class, immigrant neighborhood once famed for its many fishponds, Tamashiro Market specializes in fresh fish. A counter inside offers more than thirty kinds of poke, while its owner, Guy Tamashiro, creates new ones all the time. One of his latest creations, the Ahi Seaweed Supreme, is a laboriously constructed bricolage of dehydrated limu, deep-fried wonton strips, nori (dried Japanese seaweed), and a sauce made from twenty different ingredients.

One of my all-time favorites here is Surf Clam Poke. For me, the slightly sweet sauce and three distinct crunches, from the sliced Maui onions, green and bell peppers, and firm, lightly cooked meat of the clams, make the dish. Their most surprising poke is a Tahitian-inspired dish called Oka Poke: Pacific blue marlin marinated in coconut milk, with chopped tomato, onions, and crunchy cucumber wafers.

Oka Poke

When I crave smoked, dried, or cured flavors, I head to Tanioka’s in Waipahu and jostle with multiethnic throngs of grannies and high school kids to place my order. My three favorite poke here are Pipikaula Poke (russety strips of Hawaiian salt-cured beef), Smoked Salmon Poke (fishy, oniony, and delicately smoky) and Dried Ahi Poke (luxuriously dark niblets of yellowfin tuna). These briny morsels are washed down perfectly with a tall cold one, or, as my mood sometimes dictates, chilled sake.

Pipikaula Poke

Just down the road from Tanioka’s, Poke Stop offers what could fairly be called Oahu’s most innovative poke. Owned and operated by Elmer Guzman, former executive chef at Sam Choy’s and author of The Shoreline Chef, Poke Stop expands on traditional poke recipes by applying gourmet concepts to it.

Poke selection at Tanioka's Seafood & Catering

“Poke must have certain elements,” Guzman explains. “The most basic version uses salt, kukui nuts, and ogo (limu manauea). That was all the ancients had available for their poke. Nowadays you can use anything – as long as it makes sense.” Guzman’s Blackened Ahi, Tofu, Ginger Scallion Shrimp, and Kapakahi were the most memorable poke dishes of a recent Poke Stop feast. The Kapakahi Poke won me over, though, with its sweet, marbly hunks of ahi and creamy, faintly bitter limpets.

Kapakahi Poke

There’s a richness to poke that lingers after eating. This comes from the fat of the fish as well as the marinade, which is typically made from sesame oil. When combined with Hawaiian sea salt, the mix can render poke quite savory. The other day, my wife and I tried ten kinds of poke at Tamashiro Market. With steamed rice and some okra that we boiled at home, our poke dinner was satisfyingly filling and cost less than eighteen dollars. What’s more, we had enough leftover for lunch the next day.

“Everything has to be consistent,” Justin Tanioka said when I asked if there’s a secret to making good poke. “Obviously, the quality and freshness of your ingredients is key. Different fish also have different flavors, and even the same kind of fish doesn’t always taste the same. So you have to be aware of what you’re using and how your ingredients can complement it.”

For a nutritious, filling snack, poke is a low-fat, high-protein option. Ahi and aku, the most popular fish used in poke, are great sources of Vitamin B12, Iron, Magnesium, Niacin, and Selenium, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A four-ounce serving of either tuna variety measures in at less than 200 calories. While poke tends to be salty, salt is what draws much of the flavor onto the fish.

Ginger Scallion Poke

Poke remains inexpensive despite its popularity and the innovations that have changed how people think of it. One reason for this is that poke traditionally uses “economy” cuts of fish, minus the sinew. Back when he was a boy, Guzman most often ate poke made from akule (big-eye scad) – “poor man’s poke,” he says, “that my father made at home.” Now, by filleting it, dicing it up with shoyu, sesame oil, and chili flakes, he’s made akule a big-seller. Guzman admits that his modern take on poke didn’t work at first. “But once people understood what I was doing,” he says, “using higher-end ingredients and innovating on old ideas, they really went for it.”

Eating poke is like nibbling on the ocean itself. That's another difference between poke and sashimi: poke brings the taste of the ocean more intensely onto your plate. And the taste, as Justin Tanioka explained, is hardly uniform. The contrasts between, say, ahi onion poke, blackened ahi poke, and dried ahi poke will make you think that you’re eating completely different fish.

“For me,” Guy Tamashiro says, “one of life’s great joys is eating. I don’t ever want to lose my sense of taste. I’ve been eating poke since I was a kid and don’t want to give it up now. I just couldn’t live like that.”

When I ask why people who have never had poke should give it a try, he sighs as if he knows about my food-challenged friends. “Any food is worth trying at least once,” he says. “And you should do it for yourself because, who knows, you may discover a favorite dish. New textures, new tastes, new combinations of different ingredients. You should never be afraid to try something new. That’s what life’s all about.”

And that’s what I discover all the time in Hawaii. With such a magnificent blend of cultures, one’s food choices here are more varied than just about anywhere else in the world. Newcomers to Hawaii should not view poke as a dangerous leap into the unknown. For those who arrive with an interest in Island culture, it offers an easy and exciting entrée into what feeds it.

Where to get poke in Oahu:

Tamashiro Market: You’ll find over thirty kinds of poke here along with everything you need to make your own. Excellent quality and very affordable. 802 N. King Street. (808) 841-8047.

Poke Stop: Like the name says, a great place to stop for some of Hawaii’s best poke. A little off the beaten track, but well within reach if you find yourself at Pearl Harbor or bargain-shopping at the Waikele Outlet Mall. 94-050 Farrington Highway, Waipahu Town Center. (808) 676-8100. (www.elmerguzman.com)

Tanioka’s Seafood & Catering: Anyone in Hawaii will assure you that quantity does not take precedence over freshness and quality here. While a bit far from Honolulu, it’s just up the road from Poke Stop. 94-903 Farrington Highway, Waipahu. (808) 671-3779. (www.taniokas.com)

House Without a Key (Halekalani Hotel): Although expensive, you can get a scrumptious Island Style Ahi Poke “Martini” ($18) served on a bed of shiso (perilla) leaves and garnished with lumi, sesame seeds, chopped green onions, and radish sprouts wrapped in pickled ginger. The oceanside seating makes for a perfect place to savor your poke as the sun sets and live Hawaiian music takes the stage beneath an ancient Kiawe tree. 2199 Kalia Road, Waikiki. (808) 923-2311. (www.halekulani.com)

Island Style Ahi Poke "Martini" with taro chips

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Novel Excerpt (Lotusland)

Chapter 1

Nathan peered over the third-floor balcony of the house, mystified by what he was seeing. No more than fifty feet from the railing, not far beyond the West Lake shore, peasants – dressed in the long-sleeved shirts and pants one sees farmers wearing on the outskirts of Hanoi – treaded water while holding what looked like butterfly nets.

Late March had in fact brought out butterflies: clouds of them, orange and yellow, fluttering around the weedy border of the lake and blown like confetti by the breeze. None, however, appeared the least bit threatened by these ten (he’d counted them) peasants.

Above the black surface of water, the peasants’ conical hats bobbed up and down. They treaded in formation, fanning out from one in front like migrating birds in a flooded sky. For some reason the sight intensified his unease.

As he watched, voices inside the house grew loud enough to overhear.

“They’re your children, too. Tell them yourself.”

“I can’t.”

“You could if you tried.”

“I do try. Now tell them what I said.”

“No,” came the shrill reply.

Wary of drawing attention to himself, Nathan twisted his neck to look inside.

Anthony and Huong were arguing from across opposite sides of the large, high-ceilinged sunroom, separated by a new set of white furniture. His old friend from Saigon was pointing at their two children, Anh and Hao, who were grabbing Huong’s legs and sniffling. At four and three, the children’s features were a shade between those of their mother and father. Their dark blonde hair and hazel eyes made them look more Western than Vietnamese, but they were too young to suspect they were anything but the latter. As far as Nathan could tell, they didn’t know more than fifty or sixty words in English. They had English names, too, but never responded to them, no matter how often Anthony encouraged them to. Huong pried their hands from her legs and sent them away with the nanny, who hovered in the doorway, quietly observing.

Shortly after arriving at their house last night Nathan learned that Anh and Hao had no set bedtime. They had free rein, it seemed, but could enter the balcony only with Anthony’s permission. Five minutes ago, shouting Nathan’s name excitedly, they’d charged outside without first asking if it was okay, and at a stern word from Anthony they’d crashed into each other and fallen.

Nathan turned back to the lake, trying to push away pangs of envy. Seeing Huong again had brought back old feelings he thought he’d gotten over; and seeing Anthony so careless with the life he’d built with her made him resentful.

Anthony returned with a bottle of Benedictine. He poured an inch into his coffee and stirred it. “French monks came up with this drink five centuries ago,” he said. “Life must have been much simpler back then, don’t you think?”

“I don’t think life’s ever been simple.”

Anthony slid the bottle across the table. “Help yourself.”

“No, thanks. I prefer to start my day sober.”

Anthony leaned back and pushed his hands through his hair. He appeared about to say something but instead turned to the lake. Whitecaps scratched the dark, billowing surface, and the peasants struggled against the new, small waves coming at them. Their conical hats moved quickly up and down.

Nathan fixed his attention on the changes that had etched themselves in Anthony’s person. Physically speaking, the last few years hadn’t been kind. Middle age had crept up, silvering his blond hair at the temples, adding several inches to his waist, and wrinkling his forehead and the corners of his eyes. Over six feet tall, he still carried himself well; not gracefully, but with enough natural authority that few would dare to cross or contradict him.

A profound tiredness seemed to lurk behind his eyes, and the shadowy rings beneath them accentuated this. In the half-day they’d spent together Nathan thought he could count on one hand the number of times Anthony had smiled or laughed.

A door slammed inside the house, and was followed by more crying.

“If we had a dog,” Anthony remarked dryly, “it would rank higher in this family than me.”

“It wasn’t your fault they fell. I’m sure they blame me more than you. After all, I’m the stranger here, not you.”

Anthony added a half-inch of Benedictine to his cup. “They think you’re great because you speak Vietnamese. That puts you above me in their eyes.”

It was true they seemed mesmerized by Nathan’s ability to speak Vietnamese. According to Anthony, they’d never met a foreigner fluent in Vietnamese before.

“Yeah, but you’re their father.”

“If they knew English, maybe it’d be different. My complete lack of Vietnamese only gives Huong more authority over them.”

Anthony tried to steer them back to the conversation they were having before the incident with his children, but Nathan wouldn’t let him. “When are you going to learn Vietnamese?” he asked.

Anthony closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Why waste my energy? It’s only a matter of time before my kids pick up English. In three or four years I won’t need to.”

Nathan stared blankly at him. “That’s a long time from now.”

“Of course, how can anyone predict language development at their ages?” Anthony raised his cup to his lips, then lowered it to add: “Who’s even to say how smart they are? I have to take Huong’s word for it because I can’t understand a thing that comes out of their mouths.”

Nathan didn’t know what to make of this. In Saigon there were plenty of bilingual children, and not just in bicultural families. The Vietnamese placed a primacy on language learning, which made them perhaps the most successful polyglots in Southeast Asia.

“Why don’t you teach them?”

“Huong wouldn’t like it.”

Notwithstanding the notion of fairness, Nathan supposed there was no point asking why Huong didn’t take on the responsibility. It was hard to tell if Anthony wanted someone to open up to about this or if he simply found the whole subject distasteful. Nathan was going to ask why he didn’t hire a teacher when Anthony’s cell phone rang and he stepped inside to take the call.

Anthony wasn’t the only foreigner he knew who couldn’t communicate with his children. At least Huong’s English was good, though it didn’t seem like they spoke much anymore. When Nathan thought about it he could recall several foreigners who’d married Vietnamese women with whom all they shared linguistically were a handful of words.

Nathan was grateful for his language ability, though he didn’t know how it had happened. He’d taken his progress for granted until one morning he woke up and remembered he was dreaming in Vietnamese.

He tried not to use his Vietnamese around Anthony, who bristled at the sound of it – the rising and falling, the glottal stops, the broken tones – not unless the situation demanded it. In Anthony’s own words, the Vietnamese language was like cold rice. “No amount of money,” he liked to say, “could persuade me to eat a stale, hard grain of it.” More recently he started calling it an acquired aversion.

From the side of the house came a sound like ripping cardboard. Huong’s father stood in a window, leaning over a blooming flowerbox: twisting his thin face he hawked and spat, then watched his sputum plummet like a sparrow’s egg into the garden.

To Anthony’s dismay Huong’s parents had moved into their house several weeks ago. Huong had pushed hard for him to accept this arrangement, explaining that it was her duty to support them now that they were old. He’d acquiesced when she went half a month without speaking to him.

When Anthony came back he asked Nathan how they’d gotten on the topic of his family. “Weren’t we talking about something more interesting?”

“I think you’d just offered me a job.”

“Right, and you were about to tell me that the salary exceeded your wildest dreams.”

Anthony’s phone rang again but the call only lasted a few seconds. “That was my driver,” he said, glancing at his watch. “No rush, but we’d better get going.”

“I can take a taxi if it’s a problem dropping me off.”

But he knew Anthony wouldn’t have it any other way. He wanted Nathan to see what his offer of employment amounted to materially. In other people this might have bothered Nathan, but in Anthony, a friend for seven years, it simply came with the package. Anthony was a businessman, and for him money meant success. It was, perhaps, the biggest difference between them.

“What are you talking about? I’ve got a Land Rover and personal driver. Hien goes wherever I say. If I told him to drive me to China he’d get me there in time for dinner. Back in the States I could never live like this.” When Nathan said nothing Anthony softened his tone. “Think hard about my offer. I’d love to have you up here.”

The offer was excellent, and the change long-desired, yet there was something about it that didn’t feel right.

“I’ll think about it. Just give me a few weeks to sort things out.”

“Let’s say the end of the month.”

“That’s only a week from now.”

Anthony clasped Nathan’s shoulder and looked at him in disbelief. “Nate, I’m surprised you even need a day. This is a great chance for you. The best chance you’ve ever had in Vietnam.”

Nathan glanced across the lake where a ballooning mass of rain clouds seemed slowly to be descending. He wondered what made him feel apprehensive about an offer he knew he should jump at.

“Let me ask you something.” The earnestness in Anthony’s tone reclaimed Nathan’s attention. “How long do you plan on being here? Are you still thinking of making a life for yourself here, or entertaining thoughts of cutting out?”

“I don’t know. I’m not stuck here like you are.”

“Thanks a lot. That’s a flattering way to put it.”

Nathan didn’t apologize. Anthony had admitted to being stuck only yesterday, though it was true, perhaps, that it was for good rather than bad.

“I’d say I’ve become one hell of a success here, if I do say so myself. But you’re right. I am stuck. Sometimes, on one of my good days, I think things have turned out pretty good in a place where nothing’s ever all that good.”

Before following Anthony downstairs, Nathan looked once more toward the lake. The peasants were in a slightly different formation. Counting them he saw that now there were only nine. His eyes combed the shore, the road skirting it, and then farther out on the lake, but the tenth peasant was nowhere to be found.

As he shouldered his bags at the front door he called goodbye to Anthony’s family. The house seemed utterly empty, however, and no one answered.

“Just remember,” Anthony said as they pulled away from his house, “I’ve got other people in mind for this job if you balk. They’ll snatch it up in an instant.”

“I’m not balking. It just feels more real since we’ve discussed it. And it’s a little overwhelming since I don’t have experience in real estate.”

“When I started, neither did I. But you’ve lived in Vietnam a long time, and that kind of experience is hard to find. Besides, Huong thinks you’re the best candidate. And since the agency’s registered in her name I have to give her a say once in a while.”

“Huong’s crazy if she thinks I’m the best candidate.”

“She also thinks you’d be a good influence on me.”

“Then she’s definitely crazy.”

“If she’s crazy, then so am I. I’m not offering you a job just because she wants me to.”

“Then why are you, exactly?”

“I’ve got my reasons.” When he saw the strange look Nathan gave him he added, “I’ve got big plans for you. For you and me both.”

Nathan looked away. “Huong’s changed a lot since I last saw her.”

“She looks better than she did in Saigon, doesn’t she? She’s not the same person she was back then – not as vivacious or open-minded, not as hungry to please. As soon as we got married and came here she decided she wanted to take charge of me. I used to think her sudden change defied explanation. But I don’t anymore. She was like that the whole time but never showed it. Even with you she kept that part of herself hidden.”

An awkward moment passed in which Nathan tried, but failed, to keep from thinking of his past with Huong. They’d dated each other for six months, shortly after Nathan first arrived in Saigon. Anthony had spotted her on a beach in Vung Tau, but she’d immediately taken to Nathan when the two of them approached. Nathan had stopped seeing her when his mother got sick and he flew home, the first of three long trips, to visit her in the hospital. When he returned for good to Saigon he was surprised to find that Huong had picked up with Anthony. “I told her about my plan to open a real estate company,” Anthony had said, “and the next thing I knew she was all over me. If you’d been here I would’ve asked for your okay. But I didn’t think you were coming back. Anyway, you told me she wasn’t what you were looking for.” Huong was the last serious relationship Nathan had had, although since then several women, both local and foreign, had filled up a lonely month or season.

Anthony asked Nathan if the job offer wasn’t generous enough.

“It’s plenty generous. I just need a little time.”

“I hate to remind you,” Anthony started, and Nathan knew what was coming; he’d been waiting for it since Anthony began recruiting him a few weeks ago, once he knew Nathan was traveling to Hanoi. “But there’s the little matter of the money you owe me. It’s been almost six years already.”

There was a drawn-out silence, long enough for Nathan to recall the five thousand dollars; the final trip back to Ohio; the solitude he’d needed on returning to Saigon, which, like everything else, didn’t come free.

“I haven’t forgotten.”

“Of course you haven’t.”

“It’s still not an easy decision.”

Anthony frowned and looked out the window. “I love my work, Nate. I love making good money. But it’s hard to meet good people here. You know how the expats are all either on vacation without knowing it or are just wandering through life. They’ve got no stakes in the relationships they make.”

Something made Nathan think of Anthony’s refusal to learn Vietnamese, but Anthony didn’t give him time to develop the thought.

“I’d really like to have you in Hanoi. I don’t need a partner in crime to be happy, but…” To Nathan’s bewilderment Anthony took a moment to compose himself. “Call me selfish, but things would be better with you around. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”

Nathan nodded. It was like that for him, too. Still, it wasn’t as easy as Anthony made it sound. Anthony had a particular talent of being persuasive. In others this kind of persuasiveness might verge on bullying – he knew because he’d seen it so many times among people desperate to get something, from more attention at a seedy bar to slow-showing loyalty from friends – but in Anthony it showed his commitment to him and to their friendship.

As the road turned from the lake, Nathan asked Anthony’s driver what the peasants on the water were doing. When he heard the answer, it made perfect sense, and he was surprised he hadn’t figured it out on his own.

“Catching snails. The market for them this time of year is good.”

“I didn’t see anyone out there,” Anthony said.

“With the weather warming up, they’re there every morning, sir.”

“How much do you think they make?”

Hien suggested a figure approximating a dollar per pound.

But the answer didn’t make sense to Nathan. The effort seemed so much greater than the reward.

As they approached Ba Dinh Square, Anthony took another call – the fourth, at least, since seven o’clock. Six years had gone by since he and Anthony lived in the same place, and again Nathan was taken aback by how he handled himself now. Nathan never could have predicted the changes he saw in his old friend. Nor could he have predicted his success as the head of a real estate company. Not so long ago they’d been teachers struggling to get by.

And yet Nathan wasn’t surprised that Anthony had succeeded in business. He was clever without having had a conventional education, and was better read than anyone Nathan knew in Vietnam. He was able to incorporate the most useful aspects of what he’d learned into how he lived, and on several occasions Nathan felt nothing short of enlightened after talking to him.

Nathan had always found him fascinating to listen to, so astute was he capable of being, and also entertaining. Extemporaneous by nature, it was nothing for him to gather together a group and string them along for half an hour. But that was the old Anthony. Though still brilliant in flashes, this Anthony was more subdued. He was part melancholy, part resigned, and part plain angry at the world around him. It was an Anthony he’d never known. And the newness of this man made Nathan shy, as if he were trying to determine how much he could be trusted.

Nathan looked out his window at Ba Dinh Square. Here, he recalled, near the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule.

Anthony elbowed Nathan lightly and pointed to the towering monolith of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. A long line of people was waiting to see Ho’s body, embalmed beneath a glass case. Guards in white uniforms stood before the marble building, rifles at their sides, staring straight ahead.

Spread in front of the mausoleum were plots of grass where elderly people performed tai chi, parents played badminton with their children, and vendors sold kites painted like dragons and fish. The open space here and around West Lake was as much of a contrast to Saigon as the cool spring weather he’d enjoyed the last three days. Even the traffic here flowed in currents less swift, less dangerous, less overwhelming than in Saigon. This, he told himself, already feeling the press of overcrowded, over-concretized Saigon, might just be worth changing his life for.

The feeling he’d take away from Hanoi was that this was a manageable city. Maybe the kind of place where he could finally settle down into a dream he had of being happy. What he wanted here was what he might want if he were in America: to be in a place that stimulated him, to do something worthwhile with his life, and to know nothing of regret. The biggest difference was that in America happiness was too tied together with being rich. It was the sort of lie no one liked to admit, for if admitted it would lay open the meaninglessness of people’s lives. In Vietnam, where so many were poor, the equation was different, and happiness jumped out at him in the most unexpected circumstances.

This wasn’t to say that he was as happy as he wanted, or that he was convinced his theory about America was even right. But he knew he couldn’t dress up in the financial rewards of a successful business the way that Anthony was trying to do. Money fit Anthony better. If money were a suit, Nathan would wear it unwillingly, loosening his tie and pulling his shirt from his pants at the first opportunity.

Absorbed in thought, he didn’t hear Anthony speak.

“You with me?” He waved a hand before Nathan’s face. “I asked what that writing job in Saigon pays you.”

“It depends. Usually around one hundred dollars.”

“What are you getting for the article you came here to write?”

“One-fifty.” Nathan had spent the last two days visiting Friendship Village, a care facility and training center for Agent Orange victims. “For a thousand words that’s decent money.”

“They’re taking advantage of you.”

“Money’s not why I do it. Anyway, if they like what I write they’ll want more.”

“You’re worth more than that,” Anthony said, scowling.

They turned on Nguyen Thai Hoc, squeezing into traffic. In many respects Hanoi looked just like Saigon: before dirty, pushed-together buildings, each with a business stamped on its awning, the narrow streets seethed with vehicles. Wherever they passed there was the rubble and dust of construction.

A few minutes later Hien pulled up to the train station, forcing food vendors and cyclo drivers to hasten out of the way. Nathan dragged his suitcase to a spot of unclaimed asphalt.

A crowd of onlookers quickly gathered. Foreigners evoked strong curiosity in Vietnam, and in Hanoi people had the same tendency to stare as the Saigonese, though the latter were more muted about it, more polite. Turning, Nathan found Anthony waiting to shake his hand.

“What’s this?” Bills were folded in Anthony’s palm.

“I can’t let you sit on that train for a day and a half in the cheap seats. At least upgrade to a less crowded room.”

“Thanks. But I don’t–”

“Forget it. Just have a good trip. Take the job and I’ll make sure you always travel first class. Not like your employer now, who obviously thinks you’re Vietnamese.”

Nathan looked into the chaotic intersection of Le Duan and Tran Hung Dao. Nearby, a row of stores sold helmets and other soldierly accouterments, the kind of thing one rarely saw in Saigon. “Coming here would be a big change for me. I’ve wanted to shake things up for a long time…”

“You have to decide what you’re willing to risk. You have to separate the psychology of it from the reality of it.”

Not wanting to hear Anthony expound on the subjects of psychology and reality, Nathan feigned bewilderment. “I’ll try to untangle that statement on the train.”

“What’s to untangle?” A flash of Anthony’s old intensity lit his eyes. “Risk is nothing if you believe in opportunity.” When Nathan hesitated, Anthony went on. “In Hanoi, with a fresh start, things will be different. You’ll have a life you can settle into.”

Someone in the crowd imitated Anthony’s speech, causing titters all around. Anthony had never been good at ignoring this sort of attention, and Nathan saw annoyance creep into his expression.

“What’s keeping you there, anyway? Fear of change?”

“I’m not afraid of that.”

“Then what?”

Nathan paused. With startling suddenness it occurred to him that there’d be no way out if he didn’t soon change his life. After seven years he hadn’t pushed himself in a noticeably forward direction. Rather, he’d pushed himself in no obvious direction at all – and, until now, without a clear sense of time having passed. The fact was that while he’d enjoyed himself in Saigon for more than half a decade, he hadn’t particularly accomplished anything.

For months he’d been looking for ways to better his life. But it was more complicated than he’d imagined. It wasn’t anything material he needed to jettison, but something else, something that oppressed him from within – the notion that his life had indeed hit a dead end.

Anthony’s description of the job echoed in his ears. Finding homes for foreigners sounded simple. His responsibilities would be to help give a public face to the company and to manage the other employees. The Vietnamese staff, and the subagents he had to go through, would take care of the grunt work. Nathan just had to make sure they got it all done.

A surge of conviction washed over him, followed by the clarity that to keep his life as it was would only lead him deeper into unhappiness.

“Just as long as you understand I’m not a businessman, and know that I’d rather write than devote my life to real estate like you’ve done, maybe I can give it a try.”

Anthony’s eyebrows hooked together in a kind of quizzical anger. Not quite smiling, he said: “You’d never get a job anywhere else with a statement like that. But since I trust you more than anyone, I’ll forget you said it. Still, I think you were right in wanting more time to think things over.”

But what would two weeks, or even three or four, do for him? Having too much time to reflect would leave him floundering.

“No. This is what I need and want.”

Anthony stared at him thoughtfully. When he spoke, his tone was admonishing. “I don’t want you saying yes now and then telling me no the day you’re supposed to come up. But if it’s yes, absolutely yes, I’ll tell the other people I’ve been considering for the job. I need you to be certain.”

“I am certain.” The words felt funny leaving his mouth, as if someone else had spoken them.

“Then I’m glad. Really glad.” His face contracted, appearing at odds with what he’d just said.

“When do you need me to start?”

“It’s up to you. The sooner the better, though.” Thinking about it he concluded: “Let’s say a month from now. Six weeks if you absolutely need the time. Just keep me informed of your progress so I can prepare accordingly.”

“I will.”

Anthony smiled unhappily. “I can’t wait to have you up here. Like I said, I’ve got big plans for us.”

Nathan hesitated. “I guess it goes without saying that I owe you.”

“Let’s not talk about that now. You better get moving.”

After shaking hands again, Nathan hurried into the station to upgrade his ticket.

When he got to his compartment he saw that, aside from having four beds rather than six, the room was hardly an upgrade at all. Wondering if he’d have the room for himself for at least part of the journey, he sat on a lower bunk and looked out the window. The drizzle had become a light shower.

The train platform was empty except for a few attendants in plastic raincoats, separated from each other by puddles that jumped and quivered beneath the rain. The vending booths against the wall of the station hadn’t a single passenger before them. Vendors were already pulling tarps over their tables and carts of goods.

Above Hanoi Station were layers of gray clouds and vertical lines of rain coming down. He hoped the shower would continue as long as possible. It had been almost three months since he’d seen rain.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Curry Soup with Spinach


Here’s a long post. Half of it is useful, I hope, as it describes a recipe I particularly like. The other half however, deals with a more random subject: an “Honor Scrap” meme that was recently given to me.

Okay, first to the recipes.

Curry Soup with Wilted Spinach

I don’t like the “wilted” in the name of the recipe, and don't understand why it's called a curry when no curry is called for, but that’s the way it was published in my old and beautifully food-encrusted Sunset Complete Vegetarian Cookbook. This is without a doubt my favorite vegetable soup. The flavors are extraordinary, with the broth coming close to the sweet-sour varieties one comes across in SE Asia, and it's really light and refreshing. And yet, with the inclusion of boiled spinach it can easily serve as a meal, particularly if you have some good, thick bread, and perhaps some balsamic vinegar and olive oil, to pair with it. The recipe also mentions that cooked brown rice goes well in the soup if you’re looking to make it heartier. Finally, this soup is just flat-out healthy. I try to make this twice a week if possible, just to have on hand. A small bowl makes a great mid-afternoon snack, and it goes well as a side dish for most dinners, too.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
1 medium-size tomato, chopped
1/2 teaspoon each cumin, ground coriander, and ground turmeric
Generous pinch of cayenne pepper
2 14 oz cans vegetable broth (or 1 qt homemade)
1 pound spinach (stems removed)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Half a bunch of cilantro
Chopped roasted peanuts, cashew nuts, or pistachio nuts (optional)

Directions
1. Melt butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, and ginger. Cook, stirring often, until onion is lightly browned (5-7 minutes).

2. Stir in tomato, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tomato is soft (about 8 minutes). Blend in vegetable broth.

3. Bring to a boil over high heat and continue to boil until reduced to 3 cups. (I don’t wait that long.) Meanwhile, rinse spinach and, with moisture still clinging to its leaves, place in a medium- to large-sized pan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until leaves are wilted (4-5 minutes). Transfer spinach to a colander and press down on it to extract as much liquid as possible.

4. Spoon spinach into soup bowls. Stir lemon juice and cilantro into hot broth. Ladle broth into bowls. Garnish with peanuts. Delicious both hot or cold.




It looks like I was honored with an “Honest Scrap” meme. I don’t really know what it is, but I understand that I’m supposed to: 1) choose a minimum of seven blogs that I find brilliant in content or design, 2) list the blogs’ names and links and notify the recipients that they’ve been given this “award,” 3) list at least ten “honest things” about myself.

To be perfectly honest, I usually don’t go in for these kinds of things as they feel a little like chain letters, but I do feel honored that Anna at Chef Wanabe, a blog that I’ve admired and visited regularly for some time, thought highly enough about my own blog to bestow this on me. So here goes.

First, my list of seven blogs:

1. http://selbyfood.blogspot.com/
2. http://bangsar-babe.blogspot.com/
3. http://sweetcharitypie.blogspot.com/
4. http://www.sugarlens.com/
5. http://www.sippitysup.com/
6. http://www.agirlhastoeat.com/
7. http://tanglednoodle.blogspot.com/

For any of these seven, I hope I haven’t passed this on to you for the umpteenth time, or that you’re opposed to memes. If I have, or if you are, no worries; even if you pass on it, know that I enjoy your blogs enough to want to introduce them to the wider public and honor them in this small way!

Okay, now for the ten things that I decided to reveal about myself (coming up with these is harder than it sounds):

1. As a kid, I ate virtually nothing but hamburgers, Steak-Ums, and grilled cheese sandwiches. I’m not sure how I survived, but I never eat those things now.

2. Starting in college, I became vegetarian for eight or nine years. I was forced to take a break for five months while studying in Japan and living with a host-family, and then gave it up after my second long stint in Vietnam.

3. My vegetarianism started after reading only 70 pages of Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation.” I still have the book on my shelf, but I haven’t finished it because I’m afraid of turning vegetarian for another decade of my life if I do.

4. During my first meal with my Japanese host-family, I was fed the worst meal a vegetarian could possibly eat: beef served nearly raw. I managed to get through the meal by hiding mouthfuls of the very chewy meat in my napkin and flushing it down the toilet mid- and post-meal.

5. Back in high school, I was voted “sexiest legs” during my senior year. There’s no doubt in my mind that if a new vote could be called I wouldn’t even rank.

6. As a kid, I used to have contests with myself to see how many grapes I could fit inside my mouth without choking or my mom finding out or having them all spill out like a slit bag of marbles. I think I managed 40-something.

7. Now that I wrote that, I really want to see how many grapes I can fit into my adult-sized mouth.

8. The first time I ever “drove” a car was at the age of 14. My dad threw me the keys from the garage to pull it forward from beneath my driveway basketball hoop. Not realizing that the car would actually move forward after pulling the automatic handle into “D,” I panicked and proceeded to press my foot on the accelerator rather than the brake and hung a right into a stone wall just a few feet before running over my dad.

9. The second time I ever drove a car was at the age of 15. I persuaded my older brother to write a sick note for me so I could skip school in the afternoon, and then convinced him to let me drive home. Unfortunately, when forced to wait at the only stoplight between school and home I found myself facing my mother and grandmother from across the intersection. She followed us home, called my dad, and my brother and I were grounded for something like half a year. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 17. Then I promptly got the only two speeding tickets I’ve ever gotten in my life.

10. I’ve gotten into the habit of talking to my pet molly fish. I haven’t given it a name, but it gets excited like a dog when I look at it through the glass and call it “Little Buddy.”

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

San Diego Tastes Good

This post feels a little disappointing to me, in part because I'm putting it up belatedly. Oh well. I get forgetful sometimes. And I haven't had time recently to develop anything new or worth sharing. Hopefully I'll get back to my old ways soon...


San Diego, anyone?

*

I’m wrapping up nearly a week’s worth of rainy wedding celebrations – for my brother, not me – in San Diego. (Yes, it rained at times like a water main in the sky had been ripped open.) As with any wedding, or any family get-together that spans several days, there was a lot of eating. More eating, I must say, than was necessary. Far more, in fact; the depth of our gluttony was nowhere close to normal eating, and in retrospect it's a little embarrassing. Now I have to use an extra hole on my belt, or maybe two holes, to keep my pants fitting nicely, and a diet to bring in the New Year is definitely worth considering at this point. I feel disgusting, and yet strangely happy at having eaten so well.

We’ve been staying in Coronado, where the two families gathered for the abovementioned wedding. It’s a picturesque area with views of Glorietta Bay, the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge, Cuyamaca Peak, and mountains beyond the water that I was told are in Mexico. Coronado also offers easy access to Central, North, and Silver Strand Beaches, not to mention lots of quaint shops and restaurants along Orange Avenue.

It warrants mentioning that almost everywhere we ate, the service we received was exceptional. Whoever trains wait staff in San Diego’s higher-end restaurants is doing a very fine job and I hope they never leave, unless it’s to come to Honolulu and train the wait staff there.

One of the nicest discoveries, at least for me, was Bino’s Crepes & European Coffee, which was happily only a two-minute walk from our hotel. In my opinion, Bino’s has about the best concept going for a small café that aims to do it all. As the café’s name indicates, their menu is full of crepes, both savory and sweet, and an assortment of coffees. But they don’t limit themselves to these two items. They also serve cheese plates, wine, sandwiches, and gelato, which means that you’ve got every drink, snack, and meal of the day covered here. I came to Bino’s for breakfast (coffee and an omelet with lox and spinach folded into a crepe), lunch (a roast beef sandwich one day, a chicken and spinach and cheese crepe another day), and I regret missing out on their cheese and wine in the evening.

Spinach, chicken, and cheese crepe

Smoked salmon, spinach, and egg crepe

As for gelato…well, it was too cold for that during our visit. (Isn’t San Diego supposed to be warm? And sunny?) Maybe if we come back during the summer I’ll go for gelato. Or rather: I’ll definitely go for gelato if we come back during the summer. Bino’s also has a few tables set up under the tree-shaded sidewalk, making the place all the more charming. It must be said that their effort to replicate a French café is laudable. (It doesn’t work, but thanks for trying.)

We also ate at Primavera Ristorante, which now ranks as one of my favorite Italian restaurants anywhere. The food was pretty good, though a few in our party weren’t all that impressed with their meals, but the service was outstanding and the atmosphere was decidedly Italian. I haven’t watched "The Sopranos," so I don’t know if the place would have suited the likes of a good, solid Italian family, but it felt like being in Italy, where (at least on TV) different generations in a family lovingly pat and cup one another’s cheeks, smack the back of each other’s heads to express affection, and encourage excessive eating by thrusting food in each other’s faces and then lightly browbeating them to try a bite before finding an opening between their lips and cramming it into their mouths.

I ordered the Fettuccini Adriatico, which was fettuccini with scallops and shrimp in a garlic and tomato sauce, and an insalate primavera.

Fettuccini Adriatico at Primavera

I had absolutely no complaints with my meal, though if it were myself in the kitchen I might have dressed it with a bit more herbs and tomato (then again, that might factor out the taste of the pasta). I finished it off with an eye-catching dessert of blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries – without the recommended vanilla bean gelato.

What twisted notion kept me from ordering this with vanilla bean gelato? Was I trying to be healthy? Is better health worth the abnegation? Looking back on it, I think not. I was a fool!

I know, I know…In retrospect I absolutely should have gone with the sweet stuff, but because I had wolfed down something sweet earlier in the day, and was full already thanks to a heavenly bread basket that got refilled at least once, I decided to take the “healthier route.” The berries were good. But the gelato, I’m convinced, would have made it divine.

Another interesting restaurant we went to was Café Sevilla, in downtown San Diego.

Cafe Sevilla

I like the idea of tapas; I just don’t often have a chance to eat Spanish food in Hawaii. So I thought this would be a treat, and I was looking forward to it once I found out we had a reservation there. Traffic was bad getting downtown, and with my brother’s wife being the conscientious person that she is, she called the restaurant to let them know that we’d be a few minutes late. They told us that they reserved the right to give away our table if we showed up 15 minutes late, and when we appeared only five minutes late we discovered we had a 30-minute wait ahead of us. What are you going to do? In a situation like that, they hold all the cards. They can give your reservation away, but while you can take your business elsewhere, they won’t miss it because there’s always someone there to take your place.

Griping aside, I found the interior lovely – a dim reddish tint hung over the dining area, and the place was buzzing with conversation. In addition to the excellent people-watching opportunities at Sevilla, there were even more interesting opportunities to food watch. Some serious tapas eating was going on all around us. Inspired by the sounds of people eating, and the smells of whatever I could espy on their plates, I ordered three “signature” tapas, which was about one tapas too many: steamed black mussels in a saffron-infused broth of lobster and seafood cream; cheese fundido (baked manchego and goat cheese) with buttons of chorizo sausage; and filet mignon chilindron with mushrooms in a hearty paprika sauce that nothing in this world could ever possibly sink in.

Steamed black mussels in a saffron-infused lobster and seafood cream broth

The mussels were by far my favorite, perhaps because they were the lightest of the three tapas I ordered. The cream-based broth was richer, but it was like air compared to the other two tapas. After finishing the mussels, which came first, I faced the Sisyphean task of putting away two incredibly rich dishes.

Filet mignon chilindron with mushrooms in paprika sauce

I gave away a good portion of both the filet mignon chilindron and the cheese fundido, and while I managed to empty the former into my gullet the latter just wouldn't pass. I gave it to my brother, who is a vegetarian, and he ate around the chorizo until he, too, couldn’t do any more damage to it. In the end, there were lumps of cheese half-submerged in red grease that bubbled up from some secret grease trap in the bottom of the pan. It was a humbling, not an ugly sight.

Cheese Fundido (baked manchego & goat cheese with chorizo sausage)

This was one of the heaviest meals of my life, and I felt thoroughly disgusted with myself for having eaten as much as I did. Oh, and I also put away some rather fatty lamb kebab brushed with mint and honey, a spoonful of excellent couscous that looked at a glance like hominy, another spoonful of refreshingly light and tangy ceviche, and something tasty made from potatoes that my brother kept pushing on me. Again, the service was excellent. The biggest problems were twofold: 1) they cranked up Mexican music midway through our meal, pissing off my dad to no end, as he, as well as the rest of us, had been quite happy having no music to interfere with our conversation, and 2) I failed to eat more than the most negligible of vegetables during my meal, which is entirely my own fault. I feel like I’m still paying for it this morning, about twelve hours after we left Café Sevilla.

Another place we went to that’s worth mentioning is 1500 Ocean, a sleek, sparkling restaurant on the ocean-side of the Coronado Hotel that specializes in what it calls “Southland coastal cuisine.”

We ordered off a three-course set menu, and I chose a starter of celery bisque with small cubes of Canadian bacon, a main course of roasted Shelton Farms free-range chicken, and a dessert of crème brulee with fresh berries. (My wife ordered chocolate cake with homemade caramel ice cream on a bed of diced toffee. Since she preferred my crème brulee, we switched desserts after a few nibbles. Neither one of us shed tears over our loss. They were both that good.)

This is a terrible photo of a pretty excellent chicken dish

Creme brulee at Ocean 1500

We were also given a pre-starter “whim of the chef” that consisted of a piece of smoked salmon served on a baked potato chip. Yes, a baked potato chip. It wasn't the kind of thing that augured particularly well, but the courses that followed were quite good. Really, though, the beautiful setting, exceptionally attentive service, and the thoroughly enjoyable company of our thirteen-person party were what made our evening here.

The next time I’m in Coronado, I’ll definitely consider having a drink at their “fireside” Sunset Bar, which looks upon the beach, ocean, and Chocolate Mountains. It’s a beautiful setting for a drink, and the restaurant itself offers a memorable dining experience, too.

Last night marked the final meal of my San Diego sojourn. We headed to Peohe's, a Polynesian-style restaurant that’s part of the Chart House chain, and a reminder of all the fresh seafood that awaits me in Oahu (in addition to an island-wide blackout) when I return home tomorrow morning.

The menu at Peohe's isn’t exactly an exercise in page turning, though they do have a second menu that exclusively offers sushi and sashimi. Wanting something light, I was tempted by that second menu, but then I spotted the “seafood salad” on the main menu. Listening to the wretched cries of my bloated, overfed body, I decided to go the salad route. I also opted for a small bowl of Thai coconut ginger soup with mushrooms, chicken, and cilantro, which was excellent, although my mom complained that it was a little too salty and I thought the coconut milk too rich (a bad omen for what was about to come).

Thai ginger coconut soup

When the seafood salad arrived, I actually felt my stomach recoil. Not because it was in any way unappetizing – in fact, it was one of the most beautiful salads I’ve ever encountered – but because it was so dauntingly huge. Not only was my salad plate, which was big enough for two medium-sized people to sit on, heaped with what looked like someone’s well-tended garden, but a good portion of marine life was stacked there, too: poached scallops, lobster (disappointing), shrimp, crab (more than made up for the lobster), and smoked salmon wrapped around light goat cheese, with cubes of bacon in the middle and thickly constituted Thousand Island dressing on the side. I couldn’t even get halfway through it. For $18, the salad was a great deal.

Peohe's seafood salad was a huge amount of food

And despite protests from three in our party of five, my brother and his wife insisted that we also get Peohe’s signature dessert: chocolate lava cake. After our meal, as we sat silently in our chairs wondering how we could possibly fit more into our disgustingly distended stomachs, the waiter placed the cake upon our table with appropriate gravitas. Looking at it, wanting to love it, it seemed to me like we'd just been brought the final, most prized pilferage from an indefensible village of patissiers.

Gotta order this baby thirty minutes before destroying your month's calorie count

The heated up chocolate center – the lava – was pure warm sweetness, and the chocolate sauce, crushed Heath bar, and melted vanilla ice cream that covered the plate at the end was a kind of sticky sweet soup that we’d have fought each other for the privilege to clean off with our tongues had we been at home rather than in such a nice, respectable restaurant.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

The Road Kill Chef

Today I came across a documentary that has been uploaded to Youtube in six nine-minute segments. I’m still processing what I watched and how I felt about it, but in general I was impressed.

The documentary is about a young man in England named Fergus Drenna who has been foraging for food for 15 years. He’s a self-labeled vegetarian, but he makes allowances for meat if he comes across it freshly killed along the road. In other words, he eats road kill. He considers it wasted life, basically, if an animal unfortunate enough to have been killed by a car or truck is left to rot. And in the case of badgers, if he deems them unfresh, he drags them into the woods from which they came so that its fellow badgers may bury and mourn it (according to Fergus, badgers are known to do this).

The documentary follows him around a small town in the countryside called Sandwich as he shares his foraging knowledge with local people and then tries to recruit them for a big meal he wants to throw for whoever is interested. For the meal, he collects watercress from the local river, mushrooms (including the giant puffball and horn of plenty), blackberries, wild plums, wild spinach, wild flowers, stinging nettles, and local seaweed from the town’s rocky beaches. Rabbits and pheasants feature as the road kill meat; he would have prepared badger, too, but a health inspector advised against it, and Fergus decided he wouldn’t take the chance with his guests.

Fergus is a natural in front of the camera, and if he were on the Travel Channel I expect that he’d do just as well as Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain in attracting a huge audience. He’s personable, quick-witted, enthusiastic, and articulate. His articulateness is important, too, because his philosophies about food and nature are very convincing. (Don't worry, Mom, I'm not going to eat road kill.)

I have to admit that I was riveted by the documentary. I would love to have the knowledge that would allow me not just to find food in nature, but also to prepare it properly for consumption. In both cases, I haven’t the foggiest idea of where to start. Wild foods, as many note in the documentary, have a much stronger flavor than what is available in stores and markets. They’re also probably much more nutritious, and the fact that they haven’t been processed or transported thousands of miles is obviously a big plus, too.

Road kill, on the other hand, I’m too queasy for. If you have a well-trained nose and are comfortable handling dead animals lying in ditches – and if you’re willing to bend down in front of passing cars to sniff a dead animal – I guess that’s an advantage. So is the belief that an animal died simply because it was struck by a vehicle; he never talks about the possibility of disease factoring into an animal’s demise.

In the United States, the legal ramifications of a “road kill feast” gone terribly wrong are obvious, but perhaps the law is different in the U.K. (or people simply aren’t as litigious). Then again, maybe it’s such a “new idea” that the law hasn’t quite caught up to it yet.

If you’re interested in the documentary, have a look below.



I’ll warn you that there are a few moments that might make the more sensitive viewer turn away, but those moments are rare and, in my opinion, not particularly disturbing – PG13 stuff, in other words.

Also, in 1968 John McPhee wrote a fascinating piece for The New Yorker about Euell Gibbons, a well-known forager and wild edible plants author. Aptly named “A Forager,” it can be found here (registration required):

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1968/04/06/1968_04_06_045_TNY_CARDS_000291011

The article also appears in Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink.

If anyone reading this has done any serious foraging, I'd be interested to hear about your experiences...and advice!

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