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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.

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.

Working with great friends at Roads & Kingdoms is always a true pleasure. Since I first contributed to R&K a couple of years ago, the site has grown organically into a beautiful cosmos of pristine journalism and photography.

R&K is at its best when it uses food to shed light unto greater aspects of light, and its most recent Breakfast Series is an embodiment of that strength. Every day, the sight features a different breakfast dish from around the world. It’s simple – a photo accompanied by a short narrative. But the installments are informative, powerful.

Breakfast has been a religion of sorts for me. Food in general, but breakfast in particular. While many mornings these days consist of cramming down bland oatmeal, cereal, or a bagel out of haste, there have been many more when that first bite in the morning allowed a flooding of the senses and memory.

As for my piece, I chose haejanggook. Hearty, simple, bloody, it’s a pick-me-up of all pick-me-ups, an aesthetically brash yet soulfully tempered soup. You can read the piece here

Also, as an introduction to the art of breakfast, you may also enjoy Matt Goulding’s delicious piece here. Masterful as always.

There is a first for everything. First kiss, first drink, first car. Then there’s the first meal of the new year. Critical. You can laugh, but the first meal of the year can have implications of how a year will (or will not) play out. After the ball drops in NYC, after the cheers, the hugs, it’s chow time. Last year, my choice was cheese steak with fries – very respectable. This year, I went for a classic: Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.

Parking was hell. I considered public parking in a garage, but the shady-hustler-bouncer-like gentleman was asking $20 in cash. No way. I parked a few blocks away and braved through the cold at 3:00 am. In typical New Year’s fashion, U Street was flooded with people. In typical Ben’s Chili Bowl fashion, the place was jam packed. Nothing new, I heard.

The line to the cashier snakes around; it’s Disneyland trauma all over. Only this time, I seem to be the only sober one in the crowd. For good reasons, I always welcome the new year in a sober state. I cannot see the benefit of leaving one year and entering another completely inebriated, unable to remember anything. I would think that is the last thing you would want. Nevertheless, the crowd was drunk, rowdy, jovial, stinky. Who cares, it’s the full Ben’s experience.

In all honesty, I had heard so much about Ben’s prior to my (virgin) visit, that I thought their food was probably overrated, uber-hyped. But three things surprised me for the better. One, the chili is fantastic. Spicy, tangy, smoky, creamy, it was much better than I had expected. Two, the half-smoke. You have to get the half-smoke. The griddle must have been under a spell. Perfectly cooked, crisp snap of the casing, smoky and salty. It was complementary to the spicy chili. Three, the chili cheese fries. You take all the good things I said and pour cheese over it, you get their chili cheese fries. Not going to say much more – it’s just damn good.

What a meal to bring in the new year.

I was never a great drummer. Snare, I could tap the snare just fine, but not in conjunction with the bass, or with the symbol or the toms. I was never a great classical pianist. I could play the right-hand treble lines just fine, but not while reading the left-hand bass lines. Dammit, I wanted to focus on one thing at a time.

Multitasking is not a great virtue of mine. And despite many critical voices telling me otherwise, I am not too keen on developing it as a skill. The ability to do and complete multiple tasks simultaneously is a valuable asset when your goal is to complete many tasks in a short amount of time. Wait, that is the goal for almost any modern office environment – more, faster, now.

In this centrifuge of everyday “productivity,” no one bothers to ask, “at what cost.” Day is night, night is day; weekday, weekend, it’s all the same. Life becomes a round of pinball, violently bouncing from wall to wall, not at one’s one volition or will, but by sheer opposite forces.

This traps us in “fast-think.” It’s fast food for thought.

We lose the ability to think strenuously. After one-too-many years of fast-think, we lose interest in simmering our thoughts, and our taste buds have become too immature to appreciate or too senile to care the slow-think process.

Running, writing and reading, and cooking combats the epidemic urge to feed all our thoughts into the processor.

Trails and the mountains present us with both the macro and the micro. The sheer size of nature’s peaks and falls dwarf us, putting us in our place as mere specks in a much larger sphere. Meanwhile, every tree root and rock on the trail must be taken into account – your mind and body is on full alert as you nimbly and efficiently make your way through weaving paths. Your body may be moving swiftly, but your mind is at a calm standstill. Your thoughts dwindle down to the bare essentials; it’s you and your next step, nothing else. Scrambling demands your utmost attention and nothing less, as your fingertips and toes are often the only things keeping one from a devastating or fatal fall. Sounds crazy, but in that void, I get most of my heavy “thinking” done. Thinking less ends up being more. Doing more with less. Things come together at the end of the trail.

Writing, done right, is a painstakingly slow process. The distance from one end of a computer screen to the other is a matter of inches, but sometimes, jotting down that next word feels like a power-hike up a vertical mile. Few other exercises devised by mankind requires you to focus as much as writing. In that moment, you are battling with your self, both past and present, on every word. Then you delete-all and start from scratch again. Reading is similar. Textbooks, Supreme Court opinions, news articles, you can get away with skimming through. You can’t bullshit through a novel. I find novels are hard to read during rush hour subway commutes because they require an extra gear of attentive devotion. The sheer depth and breadth of characters and intertwining of plots are only fully appreciated with your ass on a couch for a good three or four hours at a time.

What more can I say about food. Slow-food is now a popular term, countering fast-food. But apart from that, cooking at its core represents the most raw human behavior. Gathering (or shopping for) ingredients, preparing them, cooking them, and eating around a table is the ultimate symbol of slowing down. Along with brewing freshly ground coffee in the morning, cooking and eating a meal with other human beings is what bonds us to life and why we work to sustain ourselves. You stop, you breathe, you look around. The dinner table is a powerful glue that has steadily lost its adhesive power.

Fast-think, it’s no different from fast food.

billygoat2 thanksgiving

Versatility is an important characteristic in an ingredient, and few are more versatile than pork belly. You ask folks about Korean cuisine, and the usual suspects come up – BBQ, bibimbap, kimchi. In the grilled meats realm, bulgogi and galbi were the top vote-getters maybe five, seven years ago. But arguably in recent years, charbroiled pork belly has risen in the ranks.

But pork belly over charcoal is just one way to transform the animal to edible form. A recent stroll through H-Mart was enough to remind me of some sublime recipes.

I give you “Pork Belly, Five Ways.”

Here is the standard cut. Around half an inch thick, balanced layers of fat and muscle. Perfect for grilling with course sea salt.

Here is a similar rendition – “tenderized.” We also call this “honeycomb” pork belly. The H-Mart offering looks like an angry butcher had himself a tricep session. The idea is for the pork to cook faster with increased internal heat exposure, with added tenderness.

Pork and kimchi (specifically, “old” kimchi that is further along in the fermentation process) goes well together like chicken and waffles. The cut below is in smaller chunks for stir-frying with spicy-sour-pungent kimchi. Add peppers, onions, gochoojang, garlic, and rice wine, and your pork horizon will expand beyond your imagination. (Not pictured here are cuts for inclusion in kimchi stew. Those cuts typically have more fat, which produces a rich, hearty broth.)

I have not yet tried pork belly in shabu shabu. I would imagine it would be best in Szechuan-style shabu shabu (hot chili oil), instead of the milder/clearer Korean or Japanese varieties. The final cut is for boiling. In most cases, these two-inch thick cuts of meat are boiled in a simmering pot with dwenjang (fermented soy bean paste), green onions, onions, garlic, and other spices, until tender. Slice into centimeter-thick slabs and consume with raw oysters, garlic, and dipping sauce that is a combination of dwenjang, gochoojang, and sesame seed oil (folks call it “ssamjang”).

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