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Monthly Archives: March 2013

1.

Fewer things are as unpredictable as life. Fewer things are as miraculous, unique and precious. Its beginnings, though often calculated and planned, are nevertheless spontaneous, a result of a rather tenuous competition, or race, ending in a spark that in time changes the lives of others forever. Its endings, though often not calculated or planned, are often dictated by terms within the controls of a system, a system promulgated and regulated by those that were equally “created” by that miraculous spark we call conception. Life begins as a spark – arguably out of one’s control – and yet, oddly, life may end when a third party decides to snub that spark, at a time and in a manner as that third party deems appropriate.

The recently renewed discussion revolving around drone killings shines more light upon life and the right to take it. Lawyers make a living taking sides on arguments, and dubious words and phrases are friends in concocting more dubious explanations justifying the circumstances in which lives may be ended. As any lawyer would know, “legal reasoning” is often another name for “rubber stamp”; it is a sophisticated (maybe not) mean to a desired end, amorphous and easily sculptable. Simply put, it is bullshit – expensive, gift-wrapped bullshit. By no means am I taking sides. There is no easy answer to drone use, and one should stay away from either extreme, as there are always two sides to the equation.

2.

Winter in the Nevada desert is dry. Appropriately so. As the decadent shades of the summer months are dry, so are the winter winds and chills. The cold slaps the outer layers, but fails to penetrate further, bouncing away to some other vulnerable target. Winter on a tiny peninsula, which, by definition, is surrounded on three sides by ocean, penetrates. Frozen air particles drift aimlessly, forming sheets and clouds of ice, and there, the cold wraps around you, clinging to your layers, to your face, to your ears. Humidity is the problem. Sweat and dehydration in the summer, and bone-chilling cold in the winter.

But alas, the enrapturing humid cold is perhaps why Koreans are mad for spicy things and things boiling in hot stews. Russians and their vodkas will also get the job done, but on this particular day, wool scarves wrapped around our faces, we stumbled in for a fire-breathing treat. Space heaters are strategically placed around the tables, but the small dining area is only degrees warmer than the howling winds outside. Taking our order, the lady assures us the heaters will warm up the place in a short bit. A large order of “agujjim” (monk fish casserole) and a order of “gaejang” (raw crab in soy sauce). The friendly lady was right, as coats started coming off and the room, already permeated with the aroma of bean sprouts and fresh fish, started to heat up.

I sat across from a man I have never met before. He looked tired, shoulders slightly stooped, either due to the cold or some weight of life bearing down. And yet his eyes possessed a twinkle, an excitement I only possess when I am awaiting for a plate of food I have been yearning for almost a full year. His twinkle was beyond that.

As recent as forty years ago, the monk fish was thrown away as inedible trash in Korea. Understandably so, given its ugly countenance and rather lackluster amount of fillet. Then fishermen in the Masan area of South Kyungsang province, after hours of battling the waves for the day’s catch, took these beasts to local establishments and asked the cooks to conjure up a creation to enjoy with shots of soju. According to gastronomic legend, for the original Masan-style monk fish casserole, the fish was dried in the wind for twenty to thirty days before cooking, but now that the dish has become a national favorite, simply gutted versions of the fish are used as well. The lightly boiled chunks of fish (fillet, skin and cartilage) are smothered in red pepper flakes, loads of garlic and green onions, alongside bean sprouts, water dropwart and sea squirts.

monkfish

The casserole still steaming, I pour soy sauce over a mound of fresh wasabi. As I have uttered before in this post about monk fish at the restaurant Adour, the true beauty of this creature is not in its fillet, but in its skin and cartilage. Pepper flakes and garlic penetrating the flesh, even the fillet on this cold day is moist and delicate. The wasabi is a surprising match. Chilli spicy and wasabi spicy is different, and the counter play between the two dance on my tongue as I dig into a bowl of steaming white rice. As all of this is unraveling, my eyes are locked on a piece of fish with a generous amount of skin attached. As true gourmets know how to enjoy fish head, if you know monk fish, you know skin and cartilage. The pepper, garlic, wasabi-laden beauties go in the mouth, and chopsticks fly out once more to haul in some of that glistening bean sprout.

Food is a great ice breaker. Even for a table of six and first encounters, a belly full of spicy fish ought to warm the conversation. As our stomachs fill, our small talk about the food, of the weather, and of local politics also blooms, paving the way to something deeper and greater. Not unlike a well-timed shot of vodka, pepper-drenched sprouts and fish simmers a soothing campfire in one’s innards, slowly crawling up and out into one’s mind, illuminating flash-frozen thoughts of past and present. As our bodies thaw, so do our neurons, captivating glimpses of a reminiscent slideshow we call life.

3.

I am against the death penalty.

Arguments for and against this institution are plentiful. The power of the state to decide on the fate of a human life is not to be taken lightly, and there are decades of advocacy on both sides. I am against the death penalty not for those reasons, but because of the man with whom I shared a plate of monk fish casserole. Sweat streaming down the side of my face, and washing down the spiciness with tea, I was in the midst of a meal with the adopted uncle I never had; more accurately, the uncle of stories and yet not reality.

One mistake – one violent, ill-reasoned mistake – landed him on death row for armed robbery and murder. He grew up in an orphanage in Busan; his birth and life before the orphanage is unknown, lost. Maybe it was never lost, because it was never found or realized to begin with. Roaming the streets in Busan with other orphans, my then-delinquent uncle had no reason or purpose to life, listless and restless. Some say the opposite of “love” is not “hate.” Rather, antonym to love is “disinterest.” The potential of disinterest to harbor and nurture hatred is deeper than hate itself. In actuality, this type of hatred may be irrelevant to the common hate, as it is ideally closer to “fear”; a fear of abandonment, a fear for survival, a fear for the cold. The ultimacy of the crime itself – the mens rea, the actus reus – is no doubt the responsibility of the individual. On the contrary, the question revolves around this question: is the act a consequence of the individual himself? Cause is difficult to define, as social justice itself may have no definitive definition to lend support for teenaged orphans convicted of armed robberies. A product of the streets, my teenager uncle, convicted and sentenced to death, arrived at a prison in Daegu, which greeted him with cold bars and a jumpsuit. He was seventeen.

Abandonment hardens the softest of hearts. Prison cells do nothing in reverse, instead pouring superglue over the wounds of hatred and shame. My grandmother, even with years of experience in prison ministry, chiseled away painstakingly slowly to reach out to my uncle. The hardship of reconstructing trust in humankind is no different for death row inmates; the issue of one deserving trust is often so one-sided and disproportionate. Cursed out, neglected, and shut out at first, my grandmother confesses that all he needed was a spoonful of “motherly love” to initiate the thawing process. “Everyone has some good inside them,” she says, “and it is up to us, those of us that appear to be slightly advantaged in the amount of love we’ve received, to caress that good and bring it to the forefront.”

How easy it is to judge upon standards conjured by the select few. How simple it is to draw lines, not in sand but in permanent, black ink. How reasonable it seems to impart indifference to others that fall outside bubbled boundaries. And yet how difficult it is to look over one’s shoulder, to take a second look, to turn around, to walk back, and to reach out one’s hand. How difficult it is.

Fear and emptiness cause hatred. Ironically, the same fear and emptiness causes hatred not only in death row inmates, but also in model citizens under the law. There exists a significant void in our emotional capacity to love. Those closest to us, be it family, lovers and friends, are easiest to love. The socially acceptable, seemingly good folks causing no harm to others, are lovable, but not like our immediate circle. The void has crept in, yet not permanently, for these folks are easily admitted into the circle – a few drinks after work may do. Those that have no connection to us (not even on LinkedIn) are beyond the void. Because “we don’t care.” A simple phrase with devastating impact. Why fill my void with these “others”? Worse, why fill my void with death-deserving convicts. When one does not care, and finds no reason to care, one strikes the gavel, personally condemning others to death. So easy to do so. Because that inmate has no face. And death has no face.

But death has a face.

4.

The most straight forward way to enjoy crab is steaming it with Old Bay seasoning. The best way to enjoy crab, however, is not cooking it at all. Instead, fresh blue crab seeping in a soy sauce mixture for days and weeks creates a succulent delicacy known as “gaejang.” Crab flesh is jelly-like in its raw form, and its natural sweetness is beset preserved this way. Anything that has been seeped in soy sauce is salty, but this kind of salty is counterbalanced with the sweetness of the crab meat and the slight bitter-butteriness of the the crab “brains,” that is, the yellow and green oozy goodness on the shell. The result is melt-in-your-mouth raw crab meat, spoonfuls of gorgeous innards and roe, and a sauce that shall not go to waste, to the last drop.

gaejang

The kind lady prepares a house specialty with the gaejang. Forcefully yet delicately, she squeezes out the crab meat into a gigantic bowl of steamed rice. In a few swift motions, she then tosses in spoonfuls of the crab-indulged soy sauce, handfuls of crushed dried seaweed and dashes of sesame oil. Mix. This “gaejang rice” is beyond human description. The entire experience of inhaling it was as creamy as butter, but there was not an ounce of butter, and it was better than butter. Infinitely. Blasphemous, but true. The soy sauce has absorbed all the flavors of the crab, and in the process, has breathed in the ocean breeze as well. It tastes of the ocean.

Guacamole prepared at the table could be a dining experience, but it is no longer unique and sought after. What makes this rice dish so memorable was how it was made. Slow food (as the crab itself took weeks to complete) as the lady painstakingly removed all the raw crab meat, chatting with us, laughing, adding sesame oil here and there, sprinkling nori. I felt as if I was dining at a home on the shores of Busan.

Death has a face if you choose to give it a face. In spectacular form, food gave me a face for the death penalty; I could no longer speak of it in the abstract, in theorems. Not because he was ultimately executed, but because he was not, because he lived. Hearing his testimony over a meal brought death from the abstract into a name, a face, a wife, a new home, a job – a life. Before him, death row inmates have never been paroled in Korea. While several inmates with life sentences were granted parole, death row inmates evaporated one by one with no hope. But miracles do happen, and after years of transformative interactions and conversations (and probably an intricate pulling of political strings), my uncle was granted amnesty and entered a new world leaving decades of cell-life behind.

It struck me to realize that life illuminates death. One could see how death illuminates life, encouraging one to live to the utmost worthy cause. As a butterfly struggles free from its cocoon, and into a new life of beautiful flights among trees and flowers, a life that should have ended on the end of a noose or in a chair blooms retroactively, the cocoon acting as incubator for something greater and worthier. The narrative I was listening to, from this uncle out of nowhere, would not have been the same from a third-person point of view. If his death sentence had ripened and was carried out as intended, the death would be the only thing illuminated, his life not even worthy of a few lines in a local paper. Yet he lives. And it is his life, the words that came out of his mouth, that struck me as to value the moment of death, that sacred moment when a beautiful life calls it an end.

Whether one believes in creation or evolution, or things in between, life “begins” beyond one’s reach. If your sperm refuses to swim towards the egg, you have no life. We are here because we are here. Capital punishment, for admittedly valid reasons, “ends” life with third-person control. We are here because we are here, but you will no longer be here because we decided against your interest – sums up the issue. Even in death row inmates, the miraculous potential of life still exists. This is one confession you cannot make until death has a face in one’s life. And this face is given not because someone died, but because he lived.

5.

Our plate of monk fish casserole begins to show its bare bottom; I scoop the remaining bits of sprouts and red sauce into my mouth. The gaejang rice, sadly, is long gone, and I reach over and grab a final crab leg hanging out in a pool of that magic soy sauce. Another bowl of rice would have been great (as a vehicle for this amazing crab-infused soy sauce) but what measure of reason left in me politely declined. Such useless politeness, if you ask me now.

The death penalty arbitrarily takes away “potential.” Within parameters constructed by imperfect human beings, we define “worth.” We then measure a life against those parameters and deconstruct it, asking whether the crime in question is “deserving” of death, and whether the person in question is “worthy” of life. My uncle and I shared one of the most memorable meals of my life, both in terms of gastronomic substance and conversation. The culmination of my grandmother’s stories, her news clippings and my imagination was a warm, laughter-filled meal, with an uncle that may have never been. Capital punishment takes away that potential; a full life with a paying job, a new wife and just-blooming memories all cut short and denied with a few poundings of the gavel and some bullshit order by a judge.

How funny it is that one speaks of death over food.

But how fitting it is to realize that food, the very fuel that sustains life, is the perfect medium to reminisce upon the most basic rights to humankind – the right to life.

War so often leads to occupation. In turn, occupation leads to struggles, clashes, and mass accumulation of scars – physical, mental and emotional. Wars started for the best of causes, the worst of causes, or no cause at all, tumble down an unfortunate yet ever so foreseeable path of destruction, for “cause” is purely subjective; good and evil zooming in and out, the mind blooming its tendency to focus only upon a definition that suits itself.

Battle scars are entrenched in the war-torn soil itself, forever rooted in dimensions not easily visible to the naked eye. Armed conflicts begin and end with military presence stamping its mark, one pin at a time on a map. Call it strategic, call it necessity, call it defense, call it offense, call it offensive-defense. Conclusively, those pins on the map meant barbed wire walls, sirens, and barracks. To “keep the peace.”

But even military occupation and colonial over-takings are capable of producing cultural irony. Where those pins marked the barbed wires on some general’s map, occupation has birthed gastronomic artifacts, in controlled chaos-like environments where the seemingly bad and ugly have, miraculously, created enjoyable and even delightful edibles. Take Korea for instance. After thirty-six years of Japanese control, and at the end of the Second World War, the peninsula finally re-gained its independence, but the pure meaning of the word did not last long. In a heated political struggle to gain control in the Far East, the Soviets and the U.S. growled for influence over the newly liberated land. An invisible line was drawn across the thirty-eighth parallel, and the two world powers each occupied the north and south. After a deadly three-year war and the ensuing “time out,” U.S. military forces stayed put in the south to ensure peace and stability.

War and poverty often accompany each other, and Korea shriveled in hunger for years. On a lucky day, one would get one’s hands on leftover rations from a nearby American military base – canned beans, Spam, ground beef, and everything in between. So the lucky lad throws all of this in a pot with some kimchi, instant ramen noodles if available, and other condiments depending on the extent of one’s luck. Voila, the birth of “boo dae jji gae,” or literally, “military base stew.” In the fifties, it was a symbol of hunger and the bitter aftermath of civil warfare; frantic scrambles for whatever and everything one could find from the many U.S. military posts were common. Now, ironically, it is beloved by people of all ages and backgrounds, purely for its taste. Survival instincts have become delicate luxuries of our taste buds.

French influence on Vietnam is tastily personified in the impeccable “bánh mì” sandwich. The occupation there came not from war, but dates back to the era of French colonialism. The term “bánh mì” actually does not depict a particular sandwich. Rather, it means “bread,” particularly referring to the French baguette. As Vietnamese immigrants settled abroad, Vietnamese bakeries also sprang up, serving this “bread” with various meat and fish fillings.

A few square blocks in Falls Church, VA, is home to a slew of Vietnamese pho shops and bakeries, serving some of the most authentic Vietnamese cuisine outside of Vietnam. My obsession with pho (or anything meaty in hot broth) has been well-documented on this blog in the past, as you can see here. What better portrays the Vietnamese communities’ resilience and creative genius are the ways in which they adopted an utmost French ingredient (the baguette) and completely transformed it into a series of sandwiches more worthy than any rusted account of French colonial glory. Like the Koreans transforming canned beans and Spam into a national dish, the Vietnamese took the baguette (arguably a symbol of arrogance, dominance and deprivation of justice – all through colonialism) and embraced it, reconfiguring it to meet their palettes.

Local flavors integrated with foreign flavors. An interlude of Vietnamese and French influences have culminated into these distinct creations right in our backyard. A cold and gloomy Saturday is forever-enlightened by a meaty bowl of pho, an assortment of bánh mì sandwiches (you buy five and the sixth is free!) and a perfectly brewed cup of coffee.

 

The keys to a great bánh mì sandwich are twofold: good bread and mayonnaise. Located at the heart of Falls Church, Bánh Mì DC bakes their own bread, fresh every morning. The outside is just crusty enough (delivering that “crunch” with every bite), and the inside is perfectly soft and fluffy. Combined with a generous layer of mayo, the bread just by itself is rich and buttery, seemingly dissipating in your mouth. What goes inside the bread completely changes the character of the sandwich. Until recently, I was a dire believer that head cheese was the single best filling for a bánh mì. I was wrong. Head cheese is still a dominant contender, but a new world of flavors has opened for me with the sardine bánh mì. Plucked from cans, the fishy sardines go well with the pickled carrots and daikon radish, cilantro and cucumber. If you like “saba nigiri,” then you will definitely enjoy this; it’s a similar oiliness and aftertaste. Sardines plus cilantro makes you say “good.” Add  few slices of spicy jalapeño to the mix, and you would say “perfect.” The mayo’s oiliness is still distinct from that of the sardines; both are ravished with oils, but somehow the two in conjunction retain their distinct flavors, enhancing the other exponentially.

For those that are even remotely familiar with Vietnamese food, Vietnamese coffee – dense, compact and two words, condensed milk! – is addictive, to say the least. They know their coffee. So, to nobody’s surprise, bánh mì goes well with black coffee. Lose the condensed milk (just this once), and choose freshly roasted beans with a balanced flavor, maybe with floral notes. Dark cocoa notes would work too. “Culinary coffee” is something I have been preaching recently, where different beans with different notes “match” well with food – like wine pairing. A full-bodied, balanced cup of black coffee is a great compliment to the baguette, the mayo, the fishy-oily sardines, the cilantro, and just about everything else in that sandwich.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATopics like war and colonialism do not always conceive discussions of culture and cuisine. Understandingly so, pondering upon the reasons and causes of war and occupancy usually conjures more war and more occupancy, leading to more pain and grief. In an imperfect world where internal gains of greed permeate all aspects of decision-making (for both individual and state), there will always be war, and the relatively weak will be occupied by the relatively strong.

However, food has philosophy. Food is philosophy. Even if unintended (and in many cases, perfectly intended), war and colonialism leave permanent cultural imprints. At times, these imprints are mechanisms used to wipe out what remains of the indigenous culture, to be replaced by what the victor deems “superior.” At the center of such indigenous culture lies food, as people of all colors have, for generations, spoken through their food. Heritage has been passed down through food, stories have been interlocked with food, and pride has been instilled in every morsel made and consumed. Food philosophy has faced confrontation. Certainly not limited to Korea and Vietnam, food continued to be made through times of war, famine and occupation. But unlike other aspects of culture, food philosophy as so often bloomed in these times. Instead of crumbling or evaporating to be forever replaced by foreign influences, food philosophy adapted, re-molded itself to entirely new genres of gastronomical galore.

Pondering these things may be the last thing one does when strolling through Falls Church to get a bowl of pho and a bánh mì to-go. But food without a story is not genuine, and food without philosophy is barren. Careful observance of food may lead to grander pictures of the flow of vast cultures. Even the least suspecting bánh mì carries an essence of Vietnamese culture.

Every bite tells a tale. Every bite, therefore, is worth listening to.

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