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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Balance is harmony. To achieve said harmony, we strive towards balance. “Space” directly influences balance, and thus harmony. Consequently, places we correlate with “space” determines the sort of balance and harmony we yearn for. And need. While we easily connect balance with “time” – as life is often understood linearly, on a spectrum of beginning to end – balance is an exquisite theme in discussing food culture.

The Orients have long adhered to this sense of balance in their cuisine. The traditional form of bibimbap in Korea has varying colors of green, yellow, red and white. Spinach, sprouts, zucchini, beef, and burning red gochoojang. Ancient Koreans had “harmony” in mind, not only in preparing a single bibimbap dish, but also in organizing an entire meal (usually all at once at the table), an articulate interaction between the land and the sea, spicy, sweet, savory. Even the common burger (although I must say, no burger is “common,” and if one is consuming a burger that ought to be denoted as “common,” that should be a crime) is a masterful resemblance of balance. Each layer – the lettuce, tomato, onions, patty, cheese, bacon – is carefully orchestrated to achieve maximum texture and flavor on the first bite. Even when bacon grease is dripping down the sides of your hands, and your face is properly latched upon the burger, you cannot deny the sense of harmony imparted by this ingenious creation.

Previously, I have written that “coffee signifies a sense of place.” Coffee is rarely just about the beverage itself; we pay for the place in which we consume it, for the ambiance, the company, and the nostalgia associated with every cup. Coffee’s signification of “place” is mostly extrinsic, based on the outward surroundings of the experience. In particular, music determines the taste of coffee, the entire experience. Daft Punk will most certainly act as a different syrup than Ella Fitzgerald. Both magnificent, just varying. And yes, coffee is also intrinsic, as each sip miraculously transports us to sunny Corinth or rainy Seattle. While we drink tea in existential places, be it in a traditional garden in the heart of Kyoto, in the comfort of our sunny porch, or God forbid, at a Starbucks, the actual place takes second place to the inward reflection the tea requires. In other words, tea’s signification of place is “within.” If coffee signifies extrinsic energy, a heightened pace, a jolt of caffeine running through the veins, tingling one’s fingertips, tea signifies inner energy and fortitude. In a way, tea is the perfect compliment to coffee, a yin to its yang, harnessing similar experiences associated with place, yet exponentially different in terms of its trajectory. In versus out.

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Tea is about rhythm, about finding your pulse and feeling it slow down. It is comparable to diving into an eight-feet deep pool as a child, reaching the pale blue bottom, and just sitting there, staring out into the blurry shapes and figures dancing in the bent August light. Down there, everything is dream-like and eerily quiet, just the constant thud of your own heart beating. At a time when the world seems to be spinning at uncontrollable tempos, tea reminds you of the value of stopping. Revisiting the place of an inner self cannot be accomplished at Mach speeds; it must be done at the tempo of the blooming cherry blossoms of the spring, never hurried, at its own pace. Blossoms possess their own inner rhythm. Slow as they may seem, they remain steadfast to the pace of time, of nature, not under any sort of pressure to bloom early or late. Just at the right time. Not even to please early-coming tourists, by the flock. Walking beneath the cherry blossoms after the sun sets seems counter intuitive, as evidence by the hoards of eager tourists raiding the grounds with their cameras throughout the day under the sun. Contrary to this point-and-shoot mentality, cherry blossoms are not meant to be enjoyed in a stampede. As the ancient Japanese poets and monks did centuries ago, one is meant to stand before the blooming flowers, watch them intently, without touching, without forcing, as if the flowers have something to say. Sakura!

The same goes for brewing and enjoying tea. The tempo slows but never comes to a complete halt. Never pour boiling water directly over the tea leaves. To extract optimal flavor and aroma, the water temperature should be slightly below boiling point, like brewing coffee. Also like coffee, sipping burning hot tea has no flavor; it just tastes “hot.” One should enjoy tea after it cools a bit to depict all the complex layers of flavor. The brewing time varies for different teas, but three to five minutes for most loose leaf teas is the norm. This moment is the reincarnation of sanctity. All noise and action comes to a halt. The incessant tweeting stops, the recurring Sports Center broadcast is no more, no humming of the radio, phones, tablets, computers, everything halts. Perhaps, at that moment, the only sound one hears is that of green tea leaves soaking and gently dancing in their warm bath. Their movement, while almost impossible to detect, seems to muster up a current in the pot, ever so slowly but surely. A Japanese tea ceremony this may not be, but sublime tranquility is enough to impart the spirit of Kyoto and other tea hubs.

It is said that tea was first enjoyed by the Chinese as medicine, believing that it relaxed the nerves, strengthened sight, calmed the soul, and fortified the will. As Buddhist hermits drank tea to help with exhaustion, tea was eventually tagged as a religious tea with accompanying rituals and ceremonies. When the Chinese brought Buddhism to Japan, tea also came along. It was a sacred experience, brewing and drinking that tea. Enjoyed in small rooms in isolated gardens, rules were made about how the tea room should be decorated, how the garden should look, and how the tea should be brewed. Even the content of the conversation around the tea table was restricted – a beverage so sanctified and ritualized. The essence of tea need not be laden with such religious subtleties; however, the process of sorting the best of the dried leaves, capturing the water at its optimal temperature, timing the brew just right, and serving the tea in the right cup (think porcelain) is sacred enough for the gas pedal loving modern world. Green tea may well cleanse our biological system. It most certainly cleanses our daily routines. As coffee “fortifies the will” with sheer energy, kinetic in many ways, tea does so with controlled strength, potential energy. With every sip, all else blurs, leaving just you. Even the tea is not the focal point, as its existence is to lift its drinker, and thereafter dissipate into the spring winds like the gentle sakura.

Tea follows the rhythm of the blossoms.

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There is Korean food. Then there is the hybrid cousin, Korean-American food. Koreatown food. You may ask what the hell is the difference, but I implore you to search deeper into your honorary Korean self and, surely, you will discover the nuances. When waves of Korean immigrants flew into this country, with no short supply of emergency gochoojang and kimchi, Korean cuisine and food culture was also transplanted. Food and eating in general is central to Korean culture, as evidenced by a popular greeting, which literally means “did you eat?” Perhaps our obsession with food is partially rooted in the devastation of civil war in the fifties and ensuing deprivation and starvation in the sixties. Rebuilding from the rubble meant an entire generation struggling to thrive, rising from virtually nothing. Even before the tragedy of war, the geographic diversity of the peninsula must have contributed to a rich culinary tradition. Surrounded by water on three sides, and with a vast mountainous region to the east counterbalanced by fertile farmlands to the west, an abundance of ingredients coupled with a love for food ignited to culminate in the Korean cuisine we know today.

Folks may have forgotten toothbrushes and a few other things, but rest assured, the Koreans brought the food (airport customs officers still ask me if I have any kimchi in my bags). As the majority of immigrants settled in Los Angeles, Northern Virginia and Flushing, NY, Korean restaurant’s also sprung up, mainly to satisfy other Korean immigrants who found it impossible to part with their craving for the food of the homeland. Now, as this insatiable appetite took root here, eyes were popping open to a much greater variety of produce and meats, and at a fraction of the cost of what it would have cost in Korea. In my experience eating through various Koreatowns from coast to coast, I am always fascinated by the amount of jalapeno peppers used in dishes. You just don’t see that in Korea, because, well, jalapenos were really hard to come by. Back home, Koreans used their own varieties of hot peppers; their acquaintance with the jalapeno and its added kick seems to have revolutionized Korean food. Hotter the better, says the Korean.

The ensuing decades of immigration history cannot be discussed without a taste tour through LA, home to most populated Koreatown in the US. Driving through Wilshire and Olympic boulevards, you are surrounded by Korean signage – restaurants, saunas and spas, groceries, mechanics. And yet something is remarkably different from the bustling streets of Seoul, as if time stopped with the arrival of the immigrants; Koreatown is eerily reminiscent of Korea in the 80s. But the food has changed, has adapted to the distinct taste buds of folks that now call themselves “Korean-Americans.”

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A prime example of “Korean-American” food is the soondooboo, soft tofu boiling away in a spicy broth with basically whatever else is available – beef, pork, clams, shrimp, oysters. Urban legend says this spicy version of soondooboo (literally means soft tofu) was born in LA Koreatown, unheard of back home in Korea. A few years ago, while I was traveling through Sulak Mountain and the surrounding Sokcho area on the mountainous eastern shore, I actually had the “original” Korean soondooboo, in its pure form. Surprisingly, it was not spicy. Not at all. It was white. This is how soondooboo was enjoyed on the peninsula. Sea water was used in the tofu-making process, allowing the softer particles to rise and curdle at the top. This fluffy, pillowy matter is then put in a bowl with a clear broth, often made from anchovies, seaweed and fish stock. It is then seasoned with simple soy sauce, garnished by chopped scallions and toasted sesame seeds. The result is a much mellower, sophisticated flavor. Delicate.

This mellow soondooboo radically transformed in the streets of downtown LA. Boiling cauldrons of red hot lava-like stews, raw eggs plunging right in the midst of it, meat and seafood lay in abundance alongside the soft tofu, slices of raw jalapeno peppers dancing vehemently to and fro. This is the jacked up Super Sayan version. And it is absolutely delicious. LA has a laundry list of tofu houses to choose from, and Buk Chang Dong Tofu House (“BCD”) is the most well-known. If the rounds of soju or sake the night before has taken their toll, BCD brings you good news, in the form of soondooboo for breakfast. In fact, they are open twenty-four-seven. The tofu that never sleeps. My usual is either pork or oysters with kimchi, but on this particular morning, I had to try the one with beef intestines. I am a huge fan of grilled intestines but had not tried it in soondooboo. Did not disappoint. BCD is also known for serving whole croakers on the side. Lightly coated with flour and pan fried, these salty little things go well with steaming rice and kimchi.

To nobody’s surprise, LA Koreatown is infested with Korean barbeque joints. It would be a crime for me not to introduce you to my personal favorite, in which the better known cuts of galbi and bulgogi take a back seat. At the Corner Place Korean Barbeque (Korean name and pronunciation is Gilmok), “joomuluk” is king, and grilled brisket is a close second. I have long loathed the limited stereotype of Korean meat culture; every corner of the peninsula is saturated with unique meat dishes that have not been featured in a cookbook or blog somewhere. The now-famous galbi and bulgogi are still popular, but by all means they are just the cover of the multicolored meat culture in Korea.

Corner Place is famous for joomuluk, lightly marinated chunks of rib meat. While using the same part of the animal as galbi (which literally means “rib”), joomuluk gets its name in the marination process. The meat, cut into cube-like chunks, is “massaged” with a soy-based sauce similar to galbi. Every restaurant is different, but I think joomuluk tastes best when it is marinated just before grilling, like seasoning a steak right before it hits the heat. Also like grilling steak, where it is a crime against humanity to cut into the finished steak before letting it rest a few minutes, there is a rule of thumb for grilling Korean meat. FLIP ONCE. Do not poke at the meat, do not stir it around on the grill, do not hassle it. Just one flip, when the blood seems to seep through. Never overcook the joomuluk or galbi; medium or medium rare is best, just like steak. Brisket is also loved dearly. Sliced thin and grilled with no marinade, a few seconds on each side on a hot grill will do. The best brisket will melt on your tongue, the tender fat enveloping the meat. For heigtened pleasure, make a dip it in something. I prefer a mix of soy sauce, vinegar, wasabi paste and sesame seeds. Wasabi and brisket, a surprising combination.

I should be slapped twice for saying this, but at Corner Place, the meat – oh yes, it’s still magnificent, still magnificent – can take a seat. I first found the grill house for its meat, but I return for its cold dongchimee noodles. “Dongchimee” is a type of kimchi – in a clear, white liquid. Unlike other red kimchi varieties more familiar to us, dongchimee is mostly radish fermented in water with sea salt, garlic, radish stems and leaves, ginger, and maybe even apples and pears. White somen noodles in a bucket full of this dongchimee liquid (tart, sweet, tangy, slightly vinegary), cucumbers, tomato wedges and scallions as garnish. After sweating through rounds of joomuluk and brisket, diving into this cold bowl is pure bliss. Shivering cold, as dongchimee was traditionally a winter treat, sometimes half frozen with ice chunks floating around.

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Compared to Japanese, Latin American, Vietnamese, Thai and other foreign cuisine, Korean food seems to have resisted a global urge to mutate, launching sushi, tacos, pho and pad thai into a much wider culinary platform. Yet a bowl of tofu and a night of grilling and noodle-slurping in Koreatown reminds me that, in a miniscule sense, “Koreatown food” may just be a genre on its own, evolving at a sloth’s pace. In the meantime, get out there and crack an egg in that red boiling lava of a stew, try something other than galbi. Koreatown never sleeps.

Coffee is about taste.

In my first substantive piece on coffee, which you can read here, I elaborated on how coffee epitomizes a sense of “place.” That is still true to the core; “where” we drink our coffee affects our perception of the coffee we drink. Coffee is an experience that, at times, goes beyond what is contained in the mug itself, drenching our senses with the surrounding atmosphere of where we partake in our coffee sipping. Transcendence is the optimal word to describe coffee, in which our minds travel freely in the midst of memories and thoughts intermingled with every mug we have ever held in our hands.

Perhaps this is why we have come to expect so much of coffee. Specialty roasters introducing enticing, single-origin offerings from the most exotic of farms along the equator, a disdain for internationally chained coffee shops, and an uprising of local, quality-focused cafes armed with highly trained and sophisticated baristas have contributed to our growing expectations of coffee experience. Given such expectations, recent articles criticizing Michelin-starred restaurants serving Nespresso pods, and charging small fortunes, are not surprising. This is a crime against humanity. A restaurant’s coffee, especially if proud Michelin stars hang by its name, should be on par with its food. If the bill requires me to pull out Benjamins, serving me a Nespresso pod I can sip for free at the Williams-Sonoma shop down the street is absolute nonsense. Coffee at the end of a meal should be nothing short of the pinnacle of pleasure. Pods and capsules are lame letdowns, air whooshing out of a balloon. Deflating, deflating, deflating.

Along this line of thought, it would undoubtedly make sense to expect an extraterritorial coffee experience at Noma – the number one restaurant in the world, touting a newly revamped coffee service to match its renown for mind-blowing creations, such as fried sea moss and fermented crickets. Surely, the number one restaurant would conjure exotic coffee porn worthy of its culinary magic. Surely, the number one restaurant would awe us by serving a cup of beans extracted from cat fecies, freshly grounded and brewed table side, in a vacuum, by an astronaut. That would scream innovation. Surely, the number one restaurant would not bring out a V60 and do the whole hand-pour fad thing. That would never scream innovation.

That is exactly what Noma did. According to the coffee blog Dear Coffee, I Love you, Noma recently revamped its coffee service to match its four hour long, $400 dining experience. The initial result of such revampation is as follows: head sommelier Mads Kleppe using an 03 size V60 to brew Kenyan beans sourced and roasted by Tim Wendelboe, winner of the 2004 World Barista Championship (read the full article here for an in-depth culinary and coffee experience at Noma). Beans are seasonally sourced and roasted to match the seasonal menus. In particular, I took great interest in the fact that one was guided and seated at a separate post-meal lounge, just for the coffee, and that the coffee was decanted in custom-designed brown glassware before serving. Artisanal brewing on the V60, extra care in decanting, and served in beautiful mugs.

While admirable, what sparked my conscience on “coffee and innovation” resides elsewhere, on an article posted on an “espresso news and reviews” blog, arguing that Noma’s table side V60 coffee service does not live up to the restaurant’s reputation, “as if high cuisine has fallen for the pour-over coffee fad rather than trying to chart its own course.” (you can read the full article here) A restaurant has been heralded as the world’s best for three consecutive years, the executive chef announces that he is revamping its coffee service, and after four hours and too many courses to remember, one expects big things from the coffee. But the author of the “Dear Coffee, I Censor You” article misses entirely the point of coffee and innovation. The author is displeased that the number one restaurant has settled for a V60 “fad” that has sprung up in the last few years among any old around the block wannabe third wave coffee shop. The author expected more. But what fuels this expectation? Would cricket coffee be less of a fad and more of an innovation?

To begin, what is “innovation” anyway? What does it mean to innovate? What can be defined as innovative? Perhaps something new, something not seen or experienced before. Perhaps taking something old and transforming it, giving it new life. Perhaps it needs a “wow factor,” that light bulb in one’s head, that “aha” moment. For the sake of food and culinary history, cooking methods have evolved over time to make ingredients taste better. Ancient humans consumed raw meat at first, before the discovery and use of fire. Then one day, they thought ‘hey, why not put this hind leg of gazelle over an open fire’ and voila, meat cooked over flames, the char and the fat dripping off, has been loved since. These ancients did not sit around and watch the burning fire: they ate the meat. In the coming generations, man tweaked his fire techniques to better roast the meat, to create maximum taste from the meat. What the hell is innovation as it pertains to coffee, then? It must be “taste.”

Noma is all bout “taste.” Its seemingly innovative ingredients and cooking methods are chosen and executed to bring about innovative “taste.” Accordingly, the chosen beans (Kenya) and brewing method (V60 pour-over) were precisely called out of the bench and into the game because they bring about great “taste” to accompany a great-tasting meal. Innovation for the sake of innovation is useless. There is no need for rocket science brewing for rocket science brewing’s sake. When did we start needing circus acts to enjoy a cup of coffee? When did we start expecting circus acts to enjoy a cup of coffee? The coffee experience need not look like a damned AP chemistry lab. As one may observe, the word used here is “experience,” not “experiment.” An innovative coffee experience means one will enjoy a great tasting cup of coffee, period; the road one takes to reach that great cup is varied on a wide spectrum, but the road itself is never centerfold in the coffee experience. It is just the road. Noma’s coffee acts as a sub-part to its overall dining act; the coffee compliments the food. The room in which the coffee is brewed and served compliments the food. The vessels in which the coffee is decanted and served compliments the food. After all, it is a restaurant. If this revamped coffee experience (beans, roast, brew method, service vessel and atmosphere) accentuates the food, then the coffee is innovative. Also, to Noma’s credit, the coffee was served with a chocolate-dipped potato chip and a bone marrow infused caramel (what?). Even these accoutrements, undoubtedly, were served with the Kenyan coffee because they accentuated each other in the best of ways, not for the sake of infusing bone marrow with caramel, although that is truly innovative on its own merits.

For black coffee lovers, there are two broad categories of brewing techniques: (1) full immersion, and (2) filtered. There are other methods that take both of these into consideration, such as the syphon and the aeropress. One’s brewing method of preference depends on one’s preference for coffee “texture”; if one enjoys, a more dense, thick texture, with a fuller taste, full immersion methods, like a French press, best suites ones desires, which allows the coffee’s natural oils are “immersed” into every yielding drop. If one enjoys a lighter, cleaner, more crisp texture and taste, filtered methods, like a Hario V60, best suites those desires. More importantly, brew methods differ from bean to bean, and from roast to roast, to draw out the best flavors of each batch. And much like sommeliers and their wines, “coffee pairing” is also emerging, in which coffee is matched with food, both savory and sweet. Nothing surprising there, as the hundreds of varieties of coffee each have unique characteristics that lend themselves to different dishes. For example, with a medium rare bone-in rib eye steak, I prefer more bright and acidic beans, perhaps Ethiopian, to accentuate the steak’s richness. With sweets, such as pies and cakes, I prefer more medium to dark roasts, with fuller bodies and cocoa notes. This is coffee innovation centered almost entirely on taste, not a cat-shit-coffee-brewed-in-a-vacuum-by-astronaut science project.

The brewing method is a mean to an end. The method can be a single “particle” of the show, but it is never the show itself; the cup of coffee you put in your mouth at the end, that is the show. To be fair, some brewing methods are downright innovative and fun to watch. Hell, have you seen someone work a syphon? All that glassware and heat lamp action is beyond sophistication. That moment when gravity pulls the immersed coffee down through the filter is a great pleasure to look at, let alone taste. This performance has a purpose, to brew a cup that incorporates both a full immersion body and a filtered crispness. That said, even syphons and other outer space methods serve only as means to that golden end we all search for – a good cup of coffee.

It is possible that some day in the future of coffee brewing, there will be some new and fascinating way to brew coffee that will shock our taste buds. But in the meantime, certain brew methods are loved and used repeatedly because they yield the best cup. Steak still tastes the best when its flame-kissed, right? One does not take a dry-aged, luscious cut of meat and dump it in a boiling pot of water for the sake of doing just that. If, for unimaginable reasons, boiling steak results in better taste, go for it. Yet this is highly unlikely. Flame-kissed. Very few things have changed in that department. This truth also applies to coffee. The pour-over method is no fad, as the Melitta cone has been around for a century, and the Chemex is over seventy years old. The popular nature of a brewing or cooking method does not devalue the method. On the contrary, it heightens its value. “Boundaries of the culinary world” are bent and broken by ingredients and methods that have been proven over time. Yes, fried reindeer moss and fermented crickets do not typically fit the definition of “popular nature,” but using dried ice on every other dish and topping everything with nasty and pointless foam is not innovative either. Under this definition, even Starbucks is capable of innovation, coming up with their blond roast, which just means they managed not to double burn the hell out of their beans. Does not change the fact that it sounds funny to step up to the counter at seven a.m. to order “two tall blondes.”

One may argue (meaning the author of “Dear Coffee, I Censor You) that coffee’s boundaries will never be pushed using a simple V60. But then you are doing it wrong. To utilize the best characteristics of a V60, it makes more than a scale and a blog post to follow. It is not something “every wannabe third wave coffee shop has been pumping on every street corner in every coffee-aware city in the world for the past several years” (quoting Dear Coffee, I Censor You). You need to do it right. The perfectly roasted been, under two weeks old, the perfect, even grind, the perfect water temperature just off the boil, the perfect bloom, the perfect timing. It takes perfection. This required perfection is what creates innovation in coffee. That light bulb in your head after that first sip, or on some mornings, that slap-in-your-face flavor you get after a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, is what draws out that “holy shit” shit expression, which, translated, means “innovation” in coffeese. After a great meal, you are led to a “coffee lounge” (that sounds sexy), presented with a carefully picked Kenyan batch that has been specifically chosen to match the food you just devoured with all five senses, and handed a hand-poured cup in a custom-made mug designed to help you reach coffeegasm. Take that first sip, and if your first thought is “why the hell is he using a V60,” something is terribly wrong. Coffee innovation is spoken through the final liquid itself. If one expects a show, Vegas is open twenty-four-seven, and one would not be surprised to find exploding capsules of coffee somewhere on that strip. But this is not the essence of coffee. Not even at the world’s number one restaurant. No coffee porn fantasies here. Just coffee.

This is in line with what I have written previously on coffee; you pay for the experience, the atmosphere associated with coffee. You’re in Copenhagen, in a specially decorated coffee room, sipping hand-poured Kenyan coffee, nibbling on bone marrow infused caramel. Digesting, relaxing, reflecting on that incredible meal you just had. This is priceless aurora resulting in a highly innovative and non-duplicative coffee experience. Much like that cup of Ethiopian coffee I had on the shores of Haewoondae beach in Busan, after stuffing myself with the best bulgogi in the world at Uhnyang Bulgogi. Coffee, in signifying “place” and “circumstance,” also signifies innovation. The process of brewing that perfect cup of coffee, from the harvest, the washing and drying, the roasting, the grinding, and the brewing of the beans, is nothing short of a miracle. The masterful end product, black liquid gold, is at the pinnacle of innovative beings, even without the presence of unnecessary circus acts. The coffee itself, while arguably the most important criterion when discussing coffee, need not always be the center focus of an “experience.” Where one drinks it, with whom, after eating what, in what the coffee is placed in – all of this adds insurmountable value to the overall coffee experience. Innovation is place. Innovation is people. Innovation is the pairing of coffee with food. Innovation is in the vessel. One need not look further. Innovation is right there, in the cup in front of you.

After all, fermented cricket coffee would taste like, well, fermented cricket.

Readers are already familiar with my fetish for things boiling in hot soup. If not, rest your gaze on this post here.

Upon much thought and consideration, I share with you today a ramen recipe that will shock your digestive track in the most pleasant of ways. No more chicken-flavor-powder Maruchan with Tabasco. With a few more ingredients and maneuvers of love, instant noodles shall be anointed as one of the best things-boiling-in-hot-soup creations ever devised within a home.

Bean sprouts add depth to any soup or broth. Sesame leaves are refreshing yet not overpowering, a great complement to the inherent spiciness of ramen. Hot peppers fully draw out the sweat-my-ass-off-and-blow-my-nose-twice quality of the ramen; it completes the spiciness and makes it more robust.

This makes a great midnight snack. Surprisingly, it makes a better weekend breakfast or brunch. After a night out, and before brewing your mid-morning coffee, give it a try – in lieu of sagging eggs benedict in room temperature hollandaise sauce. Empower your mornings!

Here are the ingredients:

1. Korean instant ramen noodles (preferably Shin Ramen, but any would do)

2. As many sesame leaves as you deem desirable

3. Handful of bean sprouts

4. Hot as hell peppers (though I would stay away from anything habanero and up if you want to retain any flavor in your final product)

5. A thing of green onions

6. An egg if you feel lucky

Instructions: Feel free to follow these liberally, and ad lib at your leisure. But remember this. Timing is priceless when cooking instant noodles. The boiling and chilling of the noodles take artisinal skill and care. Whatever you do, do not overcook the noodles.

1. Without opening the ramen bags, break the noodles in half. I find this to be a pleasant way to control noodle length, and your dining experience will be enhanced. Trust me.

2. Rinse the bean sprouts in cold water and strain them.

3. Stack the sesame leaves on top of each other and roll them, much like rolling a cigar or other like substance. Chop the rolled leaves in half-inch intervals (wider or narrower per your taste). This is an easier way to cut these leaves. The stems can be nasty, so discard.

4. Cut the pepper(s) diagonally. I think it looks better. Cut the green onion(s) the same way, but throw away the roots.

5. Start boiling a pot of water for the noodles. When the water comes to a boil (do NOT add the noodles before the water reaches boiling point), add noodles.

6. While noodles are boiling, start boiling a second pot of water. This is for the ramen broth. For quantitative measurements, follow what the back of the ramen package says; you could add a bit more, since you have more ingredients going in other than the noodles. Before water comes to a boil, add the powder flavorings and dried ingredients included in the original ramen packaging.

7. Back to your pot of boiling noodles. Whatever you do, you do NOT want to overcook the noodles. Once they are cooked enough that the original block forms are now no longer block forms, and the noodles are now untangled in a reasonable manner, take the pot off heat, place noodles in a strainer, and rinse with cold water. Much like cooking al dente pasta, this prevents the ramen from turning into a soggy bowl of morning cereal. Once rinsed, place noodles in a bowl and place the bowl in the fridge. Let it chill.

8. Add the bean sprouts, sesame leaves and peppers to the broth. After this concoction boils for a few minutes, here comes the egg dilemma. Per your taste, you can do one of three things: (1) go with no egg; (2) add an egg to the broth but barely stir it to keep that poached effect; or (3) add an egg and stir away. Once this dilemma is settled, add the green onion, just moments before you take the broth off the heat.

9. While the masterful broth is boiling, take the chilled noodles out of the fridge.

10. Pour the broth onto the noodles, with sprouts, leaves, peppers, green onions and all. Gasp in awe as the hot broth thaws the noodles into a perfect state of firmness and texture.

11. Enjoy with sour kimchi.

 

1.

Open eyes. Peek outside through shutters. Squint, not because of blinding sunshine, but because you can afford to. It’s Saturday morning. Check iPhone. Look back outside through shutters. Clouds. Clouds? iPhone again.

You think pie.

You put on a soft cotton t-shirt, put the kettle on high for a morning brew, sit in front of the computer, and you think pie. You are not infatuated, crazy about pie. You do not mind it, maybe an afterthought of a good strong cup of coffee, but you are not obsessed. You say to yourself, I am more of a savory kind of guy. Pork fat, rare bone-in rib eye, chili flakes and peppers and onions and garlic type of guy. But you think pie.

Kettle klinks. Rattle and some more rattle. Grind coffee, inhale smell. Bloom the grounds, inhale smell. Finish the hand pour job, inhale smell. Just from the bloom, and smell, you think damn, that is some good coffee. And you think pie.

You go for a run on the treadmill, watching stale Sports Center, lamenting over your now-destroyed bracket going down in glorious flames. Wichita State, are you serious? Sour kimchi stir fried with spicy Italian sausage over rice with a sunny side up egg may be the most orgasmic ten-minute meal ever created (Rachel Ray are you reading this? Don’t be shy), but it sure does no wonders on a treadmill the morning after. Or does it. And you think pie.

You sit down in front of a blank Microsoft Word page, can’t seem to jot down a single word, mind wanders out of your skull, fingers tap, bloodstream screams more coffee. And you think pie.

2.

You thought pie.

As you grab your car keys and Raybans before heading out the door, your mind races, in search of a pie worthy to quench your unprovoked, unilateral desire to put in your mouth a methodically organized layer of crust, fruit and sugar. A piestorm in your brainstorm. Safeway will not suffice, too cookie-cutter, too manufactured. Could qualify on any other day, for any other desire, but no, not today, not this desire. Further up the pie chain, you think Whole Foods. Yes, more money, but pie selection is shallow, too shallow to quench the craving on the tip of your tongue. They have three rows of hot and cold food buffets, and an arguably delicious pizza selection, but a brother cannot get a decent pie. Shame.

The township of Vienna surprisingly has some good eateries, including lamb noodles at Lotus Garden, hearty Mexican breakfast platters at Anita’s, and decent gyro at Plaka Grill. Not to mention the horrific tragedy of a sushi joint named Sushi Yoshi. After countless shoutouts and endorsements of the place, I mustered the appetite to give it a try, only to be utterly disappointed after the first bite of nigiri. It is one thing to walk into a sushi establishment with absolutely no prior praise, thus no expectations. It is another thing to nudge at my taste buds for weeks with accolades not short of hikus and sonnets composed on behalf of the place.

Nonetheless, Vienna has the best pie shop in the Mid-Atlantic, hands down. Baked fresh every morning, with generous amounts of the highest quality fruit, Pie Gourmet’s creations are reminiscent of Helen’s beauty that caused thousands of Greeks to sail across the Aegean to burn down Troy – pure irresistability. This is not like the dark ages during law school where the burning need for a sugar high would push any pupil to the Super Fresh behind the school building to purchase and consume a mound of colored sugar and dough. That and the burnt liquid matter the school served on the sixth-floor cafeteria known as Starbucks Coffee, with an odd aftertaste of dish soap. Burnt acidic soap-flavored coffee water. Pie Gourmet is different. After a slice, your mind asks whether you just ate the freshest apple from the tree itself, and if the raspberries were hand-picked right before your eyes.

You can have all the Peeps you want, but a single slice of Pie Gourmet’s apple raspberry pie (and frankly, all of their other pies) has no rivals in terms of a naturally sweet flavor outburst. The crumble topping draped over the contents embodies all desirable characteristics of the top layer of a pie – crunchy yet moist, nutty, buttery and toasty. The lasting flavor of the crumble is a nutty aftertaste; sort of a Cracker Jack peanut aftertaste moment, yet much deeper and richer and nothing artificial. Nutty and crunchy always go well together, but I am often offended of rock-hard crumbles or crusts that make mining sounds in my mouth. A good crunch in a crumble should be a “thought.” I shouldn’t say, “This is crunchy,” while hearing my molars work like a construction crew. A crumble’s texture acts as the counterpart to the luscious fruit filling of the pie, and when consumed together, the crumble should provide a pleasurable contrast, as an afterthought.

When purchasing fruit pies anywhere, beware of the light pie. The round object identified as a potential supplier of sugary pleasures may be ten inches in diameter, and yet be light as a bag of Peeps. No good. Light means an overwhelming proportion of crust and other pastry parts, and an inherent lack of real fruit. Grabbing that box of pie, your wrist should be merrily shocked – heavy! Heavy is good. Dense is good. Heavy and dense means moisture, which means fresh fruit packed in layers and layers. The crumble and the crust are also important, as a half-ass crumble would inevitable take away from a filling made by Paula Dean herself (insert joke here). But the true essence of a fruit pie is, undoubtedly and so obviously, the fruit. Fresh fruit still retains its natural moisture, thus contributing to the weight of the pie. Real apples and raspberries mean HEAVY.

Pie Gourmet’s pies are dense. Yes, they are pricey, but even when you pick up the smaller of their pies, your fingers and wrist may buckle at the unexpected weight of those things. Get home, take out whatever knife you find, and cut through. Or if patience is not a virtue to be observed in front of such creations, only a fork would do; dig into the pie as a whole, as if no weight of this world is holding you back. Dig in. The layers of a good pie need to work together, meaning, even if you mushed the pie so that its original shape is no longer recognizable, you should still be able to taste and discern each layer – crumble, filling, crust. And simultaneously, the three layers should taste as one. The fresh apple’s tartness and the raspberry’s sourness mingles with the nutty butteriness of the crumble, all wrapped together by the flaky crust.

3.

“He sat by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness. Till that moment he had not known how beautiful and peaceful life could be. The green square of paper pinned round the lamp cast down a tender shade. On the dresser was a plate of sausages and white pudding and on the shelf there were eggs. They would be for the breakfast in the morning after the communion in the college chapel. White pudding and eggs and sausages and cups of tea. How simple and beautiful was life after all! And life lay all before him.” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man –

4.

Happiness is simplicity.

One could write volumes of pies of all types of all regions, with dozens of types of crusts and crumbles, and of fillings beyond words. But what makes Pie Gourmet superb, and what makes pie equivalent to happiness, is this – that fleeting layer between the toasty crumble and the lava-like filling, still retaining some crunch while slightly transforming to a soggy matter, soaking up the juices of the filling. This is happiness because this state does not last, here and gone, like blooming cherry blossoms that peak for only days before being carried across the Potomac by the spring winds. In a matter of hours, the crumble will become too soggy, like lackluster cereal that has bathed a little too much on lackluster mornings.

One’s mind often travels too far in search of happiness. One’s desires are like salt-crazed, MSG saturated beings, never quenched, never satisfied, in an eternal maze in search of some greater reward. That fat paycheck at the end of the month is considered happiness, but as experience suggests, it dissipates faster than it comes in. That powerful job of yours is considered happiness – all the influence and control and head-bowing – yet what we can truly control in life never yields a solid, acceptable answer. This is why discovering happiness in the small things in life is more meaningful; they too dissipate rather quickly, but the repetitive ebb and flow of these droplets of happiness leave a more lasting mark on thirsted desires. Looking up becomes tiresome – always looking for that next raise, that next job, that next gig. Strains your neck. Look right in front of you, and easily you will find constant joys that one would have never found by squinting into the sky.

Rather than eating dinner at an ten-foot dining table in a mansion with one too many unoccupied rooms (in which one must holler through an intercom to communicate with members of the other species otherwise known as “family”), happiness is eating on the floor, around a small, crowded table, not even enough space for all the delectable dishes Mom made, knees touching.

Happiness is finding just the right amount of change in my pocket on my way home, to buy five roses in front of the subway station for my wife.

Happiness is wiping off burger grease off the sides of my hands, while my eyes are glued on the next still-hot onion ring I am about to devour.

Happiness is getting your ass out of bed, 7 am, rushing to the shower, only to realize that it’s Saturday, the sun is gorgeous outside beyond the shutters, and you have nothing planned all morning, maybe all day.

Happiness is miraculously finding an empty seat on a rush hour subway train, sitting down, opening up that travelogue you’ve been pondering about during the last four hours at work; you are now transported to Peloponnesos, while your body is rapidly leaving downtown, underground, in a pitch black tunnel heading straight towards the light at the other end.

Happiness is flying economy on an international flight (minimum of ten hours) and the seat next to you is EMPTY.

Happiness is a hot shower following a quick three-mile run, and slipping into that clean, soft, still-warm-from-the-dryer white v-neck t-shirt.

Happiness is that moment when a damn good first sip of coffee clears a writer’s block, like a clogged toilet roaring through after one too many Ben’s Chilli dogs the night before. That brilliant sentence, that word you were searching for, that phrase. Light bulb moment.

Happiness is coffee. What more to say.

Look no further. Nothing lasts, few things are eternal. Things die, rust, evaporate, disintegrate, melt. End. But the mind’s trained ability to find contentment in the small things in daily life transcends limitations of mortality. What your eyes perceive feed directly to your mind, saturating it with images and illusions of success and satisfaction. Constantly looking up, focused on that next level, you miss sight of life’s gold nuggets as they idly pass by, one by one. One’s level of happiness is correlated to one’s ability to perceive. Smell the spring rain on freshly cut grass, admire the blossoms that sway at the slightest breeze, stop for a moment to brew yourself a cup of slow coffee with bloom and all. Stop and observe. A simple thing as a slice of pie rewards one’s soul with the deepest variety of happiness. Who the hell knew of that hidden layer between the crumble and filling, which transforms a good apple and raspberry pie to a shut-up-and-shove-in-your-mouth great apple and raspberry pie?

5.

Happiness is bite-sized.

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