1/27

Delayed start to the day, thanks to Jonas. The snow on the sidewalk has resided, but in its place another crunchiness, the salt, which is not as inviting. There are few places where I feel comfortable ordering the “coffee-of-the-day”, but Swing’s is one of them. Listened, from start to finish, the Bach Renovation album by Yoonseung Cho. Read that Mark Zuckerberg’s personal project this year is to write an AI program for his home. Some write code, some write literature, some write music; shame that one form is lucrative than others, when that form is artificial at best, while others are genuine. Zuck says AI is good at recognizing patterns but bad at common sense. Books and music are all bundles of common sense, art forms in which our common sense is jumbled, rearranged, and reestablished in a variety of ways.

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chirashi

There is no defined way to eat a bowl of chirashi. I guess there is no correct way, no one way to go about it. After all, it’s usually a shitshow of stuff on a bed of rice.

There is, however, a logical way to enjoy all that stuff. And it is not too dissimilar to how one would expect to partake in an omakase lineup.

Start with the cleaner cuts. I usually begin with the maguro tuna, moving on to the red snapper or halibut, depending on what’s provided. Now, the critical balance lies in one’s ability to balance fish consumption with that of the vinegared sushi rice and pickled/seasoned add-ons besides the fish.

The key to sushi is rice, and chirashi is no exception. Good sushi rice should be well-vinegared, never steaming, and the individual grains must still retain their distinctness, yet sticky and cohesive simultaneously. Seasoned mushrooms, tartare, and pickled radishes are a refreshing combination with the rice and the sashimi.

You move on to the richer cuts – salmon, yellowtail. The fragrant saba should follow; allow the sea to swim around a bit. Then anything else marinated, like unagi. Finally, end with the omelet.

Each bite is reminiscent of everything in the bowl. The rice, the sashimi, the raw, the cooked, the clean, the marinated. In the midst of seemingly random chaos, chirashi, in the end, comes out in total order, a culmination of attentive flavors that live alone and together.

For some, the temptation to mix up the contents is irresistible, as if the bowl in front hails from Chipotle. Just a couple swift moves with the chopsticks, left and right, swirling motions, up and down. Damned are those who kneel at such irresponsible thoughts. Respect the order within the chaos. A bite at a time. Layers.

There is no perfect day. In the final hours of this year, one could ask what it means to live the perfect day, or perfect year. There is no such thing. Some hours are good, others are better, some are forgettable. Chaotic. Dismantled, and unorganized.

What matters more, however, is how one comes out in the end. Time, and the experiences it bears, is hard to discern at the moment, but it’s the culmination of the wee hours that define chirashi, not the other way around.

There is no perfect day, and there is no one way to eat chirashi. But you chew enough to realize what it’s supposed to taste like.

Live, a bite at a time.

The smell is what draws one to the sprawling epicenter of people and things we call markets. The sounds, the noise, and sometimes a combination of the two, and yes, they too are separate things. The sites, or more accurately, the colors, and of course, the shades. Hues, contrasts, whatever happens to be coming through the fence, the blinds, and at the right moment, shadows. Bright here, mellow there, ambiguous here, starkly sharp there.

As gathering places go, what draws locals to markets also draws passersby. The people. And what spins around the people.

And how funny it is, that locals and passersby alike, how we all glance up the aisles, down the lines, pull up chairs, slurp, chat, negotiate, laugh. Mesmerize. And be mesmerized. Perhaps this is the sole place where you and I are not so different, not so distant. Proximity by physics, but also in mind, is so often taken for granted.

Flies the size of thumbnails, on or around potentially lukewarm poultry, the nagging reminders of pocket thieves, and even the gentleman pissed off at photography-with-no-purchase, it all becomes a welcome banner. In a town flooded with trekkers catching wind before heading off to grander ruins, the mercado perhaps is one place to truly live Cusco.

While travel is generally to experience something out of the norm, as far away from the everyday as possible, the irony is that the best travel often lures you towards the norm and everyday of someone else. Away from one and towards another, and yet, from the contrasts, the sense of familiarity is what strangely lasts in the passerby’s psyche.

The author and passerby Nikos Kazantzakis once said, “I surrender myself to everything. I love, I feel pain, I struggle. The world seems to me wider than the mind, my heart a dark and almighty mystery.”

The fray of the market calls fur such surrendering, almost forcefully widening one’s mind, and the smell, the sounds, the noise, the sites, the colors, and the shades, all sink into one’s heart to form an almighty mystery. For a brief moment, one travels to and from the label of passerby to just another being – loving, feeling, struggling. As a place for trading, the most significant trade turns out to be that of the mind and sentiment, where full immersion allows one to be something completely different and yet the same. The vaguely familiar.

Salad bowls are like vanishing unicorns. Mixing bowls do not exist. To argue or to search for one would be dumping everything from the mercado (goat testicles and all) into a blender and forcing the consequence down one’s throat. Instead, what really happens is more like a dream, or that stage between sleep and consciousness. Passersby become locals, but are still passing by, but are still there, fully there.

It makes no sense, but in the end, travel makes no sense. It does not have to. What remains is one’s self, no longer of the past, a completely new being, back from the dream, now fully awake.

Back from the mercado.

“Let me, though, when again I have all around me the chaos of cities, the tangled skein of commotion, the blare of the traffic, alone, let me, above the most dense confusion, remember this sky and the darkening rim of the valley where the flock appeared, echoing, on its way home.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Cusco begins and ends with its streets.

Meticulous stonework of the Incas is meshed with Spanish details. Each street and alley winds up and down smooth cobblestones, that which withstood centuries of mules and rubber.

The seemingly natural co-existance of the old and the new is, at the same time, unnatural. Miniature cars race through streets barely wide enough for them, tumbling here and there over flattened stones adjacent to stone walls hand-built by the Incas of centuries past. Women in traditional garb hurry down the street bashfully, while travelers from everywhere wander up the street to maybe nowhere.

Space is tight. Sidewalks are often layered terraces, resembling those that embrace the ancient city of Machu Picchu. Barely wide enough for two pedestrians, one must dart to and from the sidewalk to the cobblestone street, avoiding people and cars, and stray dogs. In some spots, the cobblestones are as unpredictable as the trails that encircle the great Salkantay Mountain, treacherous grounds lurking for weak ankles.

Space is tight and that is beautiful. It forces encounters. The new and the old, the local and the foreign, the there and here – we all meet in the street.

Above the buzzing streets, the deep blue of the clear Andean sky is a blank canvass for the clouds to dance upon. The mood, and the shadows, changes quickly. Clouds form, come, and go, often without much notice. Droplets of rain drizzle sporadically, only to vanish with the clouds, as if they are afraid of the scorching sun.

The color pallet of Cusco is as diverse as the landscape of the Andes. Upon the base of gray cobblestones and reddish brown roof tiles, splashes of red, yellow, blue, green quietly market their existence. Nothing overpowers. This is not unlike the famed Incan tapestry. Colors are celebrated, but not to the detriment of the balance of the whole, always in harmony with the base colors.

The streets of Cusco are works of art. They seem planned yet unplanned, designed yet organic. Then again, history is a designer. Time adds layers and angles not easily perceived my narrow human perception, trapped in the past and in the present. Time is an overlooked creative force. A stone or two in a day or two, a new structure or two in a year or two, a new neighborhood or two in a decade or two. History’s tragedies – the bloodbath of the Spanish invasion of the Incas – never truly heal. And yet its progeny still stands, and ironically exhumes beauty.

Everything changes, and nothing changes.

Colors and stones will add to Cusco. Cars change, streetlights change, people change. But as long as the cobblestones blanket the winding streets and the clouds hover to and fro, Cusco remains.

During the design process for Macintosh circuit boards, Steve Jobs said:

“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”

Years later in an interview about the Macintosh, he also said:

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

Jobs’ perfection for design was apparent not only for the computer itself, but also for the box that would contain it. Even though the box was going to be thrown in the trash after the consumer opened it, Jobs and the Mac team went through dozens of iterations to perfect the packaging.

Inside and out, designed mattered.

I never thought I’d think of that at a pizza joint.

Fewer things in life are as uneventful as pizza boxes. Most are square or are versions of rectangles. Color schemes and patterns are not inherent, only used to distinguish one box from that of a competitor. Even more so than a personal computer, a pizza box almost evaporates after it is opened, an afterthought that rarely ever rivals its contents. College dorm rooms do not judge pizzas by the boxes; it’s what’s inside that counts.

But people do judge books by their covers.

& Pizza’s new box design is not particularly breathtaking. In fact, I prefer the company’s previous version – clear, simple, spacious, yet bold. The shape of the box was oddly addictive, an elongated rectangle that looks as if it should house a keyboard, not a freshly baked gourmet pie. Not only that, they company created an advertising campaign of sorts using its name – “You & Pizza,” “Love & Pizza.”

The new design maintains the rectangular shape, but all else has changed. Retaining its black and white theme, black lines run through jaggedly. Angular yet not intrusive. The “&” symbol is centerfold, yet not as profound, being at the epicenter of the stripe orgy. The great disappointment, however, is the “Dupont South Now Open” advertisement. Where the company’s first box impressed with simplicity, shout outs to a new store are the ultimate blemish. No more clarity, simplicity.

But why am I writing about this box. Why am I daringly quoting Steve Jobs at the head of this piece.

Because someone gave a shit to design a pizza box. Someone decided to put thought into a pizza box, to spend time and resources. Someone cared. About the box.

My reality has not been distorted. For a pizza company, the content – a.k.a. the pizza – matters most, and & Pizza makes tasty pies. But what sets the company apart from a number of would-be competitors is its attention to detail. The willingness to consider the subtleties of the pizza-eating experience is under appreciated. The experience starts in the line, with the menu, with the counter tops, with the stools and chairs. From start to finish, you are eating a brand.

You eat the box as much as the pizza itself.

Design matters.

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