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What we put in our mouths represents nothing short of who we are, or who we think we are, or who we think we should be.

In the myriad of first world problems we swim in, food often is beyond caloric intake, sustenance, or even pleasure. Rather, that imported can of caviar, that foam-lathed bit of butter poached lobster tail, that century old bottle of red depicts what your suit, your car, your business card dictates. Presumptions of stature.

In resuming to write on this blog, I find myself sandwiched in two divergent worlds, like pb & j and foie gras – unless someone can prove me otherwise. At one end of the table sits the machinery known as Corporate America, a merciless, meticulous creature that thumps according to its own artificial heartbeat. At the other end sits a new-found interest to reconnect with earth, the soil, the mountains, through the primitive art form known as running. Nothing foamy about that.

So as I resurface with a new job and a new mindset, the most appropriate topic for this entry is the oyster.

Oysters deliciously ironic. In many parts of the world, oysters – paired with that can of imported caviar – represent another presumption of stature. A little bubbly, some of them black pearls, and slurp one’s way into the first world. But if one truly thinks this through, one cannot resist from laughing.

Out of the thousands of natural ingredients available to man, the oyster is one of few that takes the least pampering before consumption. Yes, lemons, horseradish, cocktail sauce are understandably on standby. However, let us not kid ourselves; we eat oysters for their oysterness. Shuck and slurp.

The most simple, primitive, minimalistic ingredient as a symbol of something more. While I cannot pinpoint exactly what that is, the aftertaste is remarkably reminiscent of tiny plates with tiny bites and green sauce spooned across.

Food and coffee culture has begun a wide turn to return to its roots: good food, good coffee, good company. White tablecloth and double skim soy mocha flat something chinos are, in some instances, losing their grip to down-to-earth real cooking and meticulous coffee brewing that focus on one thing: taste.

“Food minimalism” is not a new way of viewing food. It is a way of redefining who we are. It is the inherent process of stripping down to the core of cooking, which circles around food that tastes good and eating in communal fashion. Everything else is secondary.

And by the way, these are clams on the half shell, courtesy of the Blue Pig Tavern in Cape May, NJ. Delicious, at a fraction of the price of their cousins.

When it comes to Greek cuisine, I usually prefer the quick bites, the grab-and-go lamb souvlaki, wrapped hastily in pita bread, tsatziki imminently and inevitably dripping over the not so far reaching aluminum foil. Take, for instance, Kosta of the Greek Deli in the heart of DC. A legendary figure, with a bellowing “Next!” not so unfamiliar with the “Soup Nazi” character from Seinfeld. The food is prepped and cooked daily, the line almost always protrudes into the sidewalk, and there are only a handful of tables, used when the sun permits. You go in, you order with Kosta, you get your food in a paper bag, and you’re out. Next.

Greek cuisine at a white tablecloth establishment was new to me, until I dined at Nostos in the Tysons Corner area of Northern Virginia.

Previously, I stopped by to try the moussaka – it was unearthly. Perfectly baked, with distinct, unforgettable flavors at all layers. On this occasion, I had one thing on my mind: lamb. As its Easter Sunday lunch selection, Nostos offered a three set course menus, each one featuring a different lamb creation. The traditional roasted lamb, dashed with herbs and olive oil, is an homage to traditional Greek flavors. The lamb skin was crisp, while the lean meat was moist. And bless the chef’s soul – there was a slight mound of extra skin on the side. My obsession, however, was with the lamb shank. Slowly cooked in a tomato-based sauce, the meat – and the gelatinous, melt-in-your-mouth fatty bits – literally fell off the bone.

Chef Eugenia Markesini Hobson understands fat, texture, and flavor. Lamb, when not prepared correctly, is not a thing of beauty. But when masterfully done, the interplay of skin, lean meat, and fat offers a depth of flavor not easy to find in other red meats. Not only was the lamb superb, the chef’s other items on the Easter menu were spectacular as well. Chunks of liver and sweetbreads is something I have not tried in a soup, but together with fresh dill, I had glimpses of hearty offal heaven between spoonfuls. The grilled octopus leg, a house specialty, was dreamy soft and had a great charred flavor. The rock fish was cooked well, and the assortment of bread and traditional red eggs tied everything together on this occasion. (And I assure you we had more than one basket of bread.)

The Easter meal finished beautifully with crafty desserts and tasty coffee. The galaktoboureko (semolina custard wrapped in phyllo, sprinkled with honey and cinnamon) was other-worldly, and the kantaifi (shredded phyllo dough stuffed with walnuts and honey), although a bit on the sweet side, had great texture between the shreded phyllo, honey, and walnuts. Nostos serves coffee from Eagle Coffee, a Baltimore-based roaster founded in 1921 by Greek immigrants. While the Eagle House Blend did not light up any new light bulbs for me, the balanced coffee matched well with the honey-laden desserts.

Lamb on Easter. Fewer things are more beautiful, especially when it is prepared by Chef Eugenia Markesini Hobson of Nostos.

As expected, the lead curator for modern, “New Nordic” cuisine does not use a standard, traditional kitchen. In a video made for the Culinary Institute of America, Noma’s René Redzepi explains why his kitchen is designed the way it is, and why he does not have a traditional kitchen brigade, composed of saucier, poissonier, and so on.

“We’re trying to move away from the traditional steel cage.”

Sometime in 2015, Noma will be uprooting and replanting itself, in its entirety, from Copenhagen to Tokyo, while its current home undergoes renovations for two months. This begs the questions: how will Noma’s menu change halfway across the globe? Noma’s rise to the top of the gastronomic elite was, in my opinion, its near-obsessive focus on locally-sourced ingredients, mostly in the plant kingdom; Mr. Redzepi is an expert in sourcing and gathering edible creations around their current location.

I know for a fact, however, that reindeer moss does not grow in the wild anywhere near Tokyo. If Noma is to stick with its current mantra of using seasonal, local plant matters, one should be more than intrigued to see how the restaurant will adapt to its new temporary home. Will the torch-bearer for New Nordic Cuisine act as ambassador for its roots, or will its dishes resemble some new creation, a Nordic + East blend?

One can only wait to find out.

Until then, Noma’s ingenuity buzzes on in its kitchen.

With no hesitance, I may say that I return to restaurants for the food. If the food leaves even a slight inscription, I most likely shall return.

At times, however, the inner markings of an establishment, in conjunction with the distinct quality of the food served, also leaves more than a slight inscription on my palette of memories. At times, the mere act of entering an establishment, sitting, and staying seated, has significance that surpasses any level of deliciousness, and exponentially multiplies the joys of dining.

This is why I find myself repeatedly returning to Eamonn’s in Alexandria, VA.

The beer-battered, deep fried cod is a popular classic, the grouper is also fantastic, and my favorite, the ray, literally evaporates on your tongue, bones and all. Eamonn’s fish and chips are superb, but here I focus on its innards.

The innards of Eamonn’s – classic, rustic, new, old, discombobulated, random. Everything you’d want in a chipper. As with many old Alexandria shops, the original brick walls are still in tact, serving as the base of everything that goes on it, in front of it and above it. The dark brown wood frames seem almost as old as the bricks themselves, the chipped crimson hue and the wood creating an overall rich, dark setting.

This darkness is balanced with the somewhat out of place chandeliers and “stained” glass on one side of the wall. The warm yellow lights slowly ooze from the candle-like fixtures, creeping through the Guinness and oil permeated air. The lighting, both man-made and natural, convert the “darkness” to “warmth,” a temperature of the mind that calls upon relaxation and a desire to stay.

As with great pieces of art or fashion ensembles, there are splashes of vibrant color throughout the establishment. Purple, green, and red from the displayed Maltesers and other candies, the not -so-subtle, forest green Guinness balloon, and the sexy fish on the wall, swimming in a sea of mustard yellow.

“Thanks be to Cod.” Yes, and Thanks be to the Capital E.

Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper

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In an era in which everyone and their grandma seems to be opening up ramen shops around every corner, an American chef dedicated to the precision, the art, and the slurpiness of the ramen is a breath of fresh air.

Ivan Orkin took a chance in Tokyo.

Originally from Long Island, Orkin packed his bags and landed in the Far East to master the art of ramen from its motherland. And remarkably for a ‘gaijin’ foreigner, he became a culinary marvel after opening two successful ramen joints in Tokyo.

Now Orkin is back in New York.

Momofuku’s Lucky Peach magazine first introduced Orkin’s return to the West. Re-assimilating to Manhattan was not an easy task.

“I had terrible culture shock when I came back to New York two years ago. During my 30-year relationship with Japan, I had spent a long time learning how to do things a certain way.”

But Orkin embraces his new brothy challenge.

“As a white guy from New York opening a shop in the heart of ramen land, I dealt with some pretty hard customers. But New York’s the same—there I’m still a white guy making ramen trying to convince people that I can cook noodles.”

In this short film, director Jake Sumner captures Orkin’s New York comeback, the Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop at Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen. Not all bowls of ramen are created equal, and Orkin knows that. He breathes that truth. A fresh gust from the East is about to blow through New York, and one only hopes Orkin’s ramen truth overflows to DC and elsewhere in a hurry.

Enjoy.

The Eight Chapters of Ramen on Nowness.com

The “Soup Nazi” was probably not an unfamiliar site in many developing nations in the last century, minus Manhattan. A big cauldron filled with odd bits of animal parts, radishes, cabbages, and the most basic of seasonings, boiling away for hours upon hours, to be replenished at intervals with stock and more cabbages, until all the marrow escapes the carcass and into the soup.

While many forms of soup have now become “exotic” must-haves or hangover cures for Sunday mornings, soup, at its inception, was the lifeblood of the working poor.

Therein lies the true beauty of soup.

“All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel-to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, people, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time, casting a slow, prolonged glance, then to close my eyes and feel the riches deposit themselves inside me calmly or stormily according to their pleasure, until time passes them at last through its fine sieve, straining the quintessence out of all the joys and sorrows.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

I love Nikos Kazantzakis, not only for his fictional work (such as Zorba the Greek), but also for his travelogues. As if his eyes photo-captured every lasting detail, Kazantzakis masterfully portrays the vast layers of his destinations – its people, scenery, architecture, scent, and food.

What made him an “expert” traveler  (and even more gifted travel writer) was not merely his in-depth depictions and artful prose. What made him great was his willingness – and yearning – to get out the comfort of a car and walk the streets, smell the meat market, and chat with locals about anything and everything.

Peking in the early 1900s was no easy place to travel.

“On a cool square a multitude sits cross-legged. In the center, a girl, slender, with disheveled hair, holds the large scissors which she opens and closes continually while she sings and dances slowly. A harsh voice, a hyena howl, an incomprehensible harmony. An old woman sprawled on the ground, stooping, bald, plays a strange elongated lute. Nearby, an old man with glasses and sparse gray beard and two or three thick hairs on his upper lip is sitting on a stone reading a religious book. As he fans himself, his body from the waist up moves rhythmically with his monotonous voice in a lamenting lullaby. And all around, women listen to him, gaping, with bleary eyes plagued by flies. Sweltering heat. And across at the butcher shop the butcher hangs his jacket over a loin of beef.

Two-wheeled carriages drawn by the coolies who run, panting. The sidewalks are covered with goods – old eggs preserved in lime, innumerable pickled vegetables, sour fruit. And next to them, the fairy-tale shops that sell silk lanterns, ivory fans, precious green gems and transparent porcelains with light drawings.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Japan China

The wonderment of this passage is that Kazantzakis’ description of “food” is inseparable from its surroundings. The loin of beef, eggs preserved in lime, pickled vegetables, and sour fruit are almost painted in black and white with limited verbiage, while the old woman, old man, and coolies are written in splashes of color.

And yet I feel as if I could taste the pickled vegetables. The eggs are right there, within reach of my grasp. My mouth already waters from the colorful fruit sprawled about on mats in this busy marketplace. Not from the words used to describe them, but from the accurate and lively depiction of that hot summer day in 1935.

So what, then, is the true beauty of soup?

The true beauty of soup is that, for many of them, it simply cannot be recreated from a “recipe.” A recipe is only useful for one purpose: to bring about a taste portfolio intended to be drawn out by its author. So if a recipe fulfills its purpose successfully, a cook will no doubt recreate the “flavors” of a soup, maybe even better than its original intentions.

But what a recipe does not contain are the blood-soaked wars, ravenous famines, and suppressive dictatorships from which these soups were conceived.

Take “gamjatang” for instance (first photo above).

An exquisite Korean delicacy, this stew is made from pork spine, rehydrated Napa cabbage leaves, and peeled potatoes. The soup – a culmination of pork marrow, dwenjang, garlic, and hours and hours of boiling – is simply divine. It is not a taste one can create easily in haste, and in my gastronomic experience thus far, there is not a single Korean restaurant in the U.S. that is worthy to be called a true gamjatang joint.

While it is something I eagerly scavenge for these days, gamjatang was born out of utter poverty. Pork spine (and other odd bits of animals) was cheap and easy to get, and potatoes (“gamja”) were the staple for the poor. Napa cabbage leaves from last year’s harvest were hung to dry in the autumn wind, to be rehydrated during the winter. So during the crude winter months, when good eating meant nothing more than bowls of barley, folks would throw these together in huge pots with dwenjang and boil away. And voila, gamjatang (literally means “potato soup”).

Many soups were born out of necessity – the necessity to eat, the unavailability of ingredients, the compulsion to multiply quantitatively. More from less.

Soup is beautiful because it’s a story in a bowl. It’s not just maddeningly flavorful broth you are slurping, but also heritage and history. Food, and soup in particular, cannot be accurately depicted without its cultural context. As many of you would agree, a bowl of pho one had a few Friday nights ago somewhere in American suburbia is nowhere near the same thing as a bowl of pho one had squatting on a bright red plastic stool on a street corner in Hanoi.

As the saying goes, you had to be there.

Especially for soup.

 

I like brine.

It has been years since I stepped through the famed doors of Katz’s, stumbled to the front of the line, and ordered more deli meat and chopped liver I’ve seen in all my life. Then one of those “what the hell did I just put in my mouth” moments happened, when the man hand-carving the blackened hunk of pastrami handed a slice to me and said, “Try it, and tell me you don’t like it.” I tried it, and I was speechless. Except my brain was screaming, “what the hell did I just put in my mouth.”

Katz’s has been the standard for me, at least for pastrami. Hand-carving the meat is what sets that deli apart from the rest. Paper-thin slices do not do justice to the fatty juice that should be running through the meat. When that brisket is taken out the steamer, it rises from a bed of billowing steam. Hand-carving the meat preserves that moisture, and delivers the clouds right to your mouth.

I’ve been meaning to try DGS Delicatessen in DC for a while. In search of a decent Jewish deli in town, I wandered to and fro, disappointed mostly with the inability to reproduce my virgin pastrami experience at the Big Apple. Not bad, but nothing special. Maybe it was an atmosphere thing. Katz’s has a distinct noise, a distinct density. And I don’t know of a DC deli that can point to a table and say Meg Ryan had an [cinematic] orgasm there. Right there.

Multiple sources informed me that DGS is legit. So I finally went there, with high expectations.

I like DGS.

Scrap everything I said about pastrami (just for a second). The pickle plate at DGS is a must. Every pickled thing is done in-house, and whatever they are slipping in their brine, it’s working. The mind-blowing appetizer is more like artwork than pickles. Complete with a hot pink egg. I can’t find words to describe pickled blueberries. Sweet, sour, with a tang, but not like pickled cucumbers, still has a reminiscence of late summer. Amazing.

I can say this. The pickles at DGS are better than Katz’s. I said it.

The latke was cooked perfectly, crispy brown on the outside, steaming moist on the inside. The apple chutney (not sure if it is made in-house) was delicious, complimenting the rather salty potato pancakes.

latke

Pastrami. HAND-CARVED.

Am I the only person blown away by this? I’m sure some misinformed TV guy on the Food Network said Katz’s is the last place on earth still doing this. Sorry, Food Network guy, DGS has been doing this forever, just blocks away from my office. Thanks.

The portion was smaller than Katz’s (meaning DGS serves sandwiches for one person, not me, my wife, and Uncle Joe), but the price tag was also proportionately smaller. I got the classic: rye and mustard, nothing else. It was stupendous. All the benefits of hand-carving the meat were there. Moist, juicy, flavorful. Right amount of fat. And something was going on with the mustard, although I shoved this thing down too quickly to observe it. In simple terms, to quote Borat, it was “very nice.”

pastrami

Katz’s is good because it’s in New York. The city adds flavor. By the same token, DGS is good because it’s in DC. Believe it or not, the District also adds flavor.

Even in the midst of a shut-down.

Cold winter winds bring about the season of fresh, raw seafood. My earliest memories of food revolve around winter, the bitter cold of January and February. In the historic Noryangjin seafood market in Seoul, fish mongers and buyers bustled about at the break of dawn. The market smelled of the ocean. When seafood is fresh, there is no fishy stench, just ocean, nothing else. The crisp air was permeated with the sea itself, as if we were walking along the docks somewhere on the peninsula’s eastern shore. Holding me by the hand, my grandfather would pick out the best flounder, snapper, sea squirts and squid. Telling me to open my mouth wide, he would toss in a sliver of glistening white flounder fillet, lightly dipped in a gochujang-based vinegary sauce (“chojang”). The fillet from a fish that was swimming just minutes ago was a taste that would determine the depth of my food philosophy for the next twenty years.

Raw squid is delightful. I’m not fond of ika nigiri sushi, for no good reason. But I was first introduced to the squirming creature, tentacles and all. Twenty or so years ago, during the winter months, the narrow streets of Seoul were littered with “squid trucks.” Yes, trucks equipped with massive water tanks filled with live squid. These trucks would slowly maneuver around the neighborhood, like patrol cars, calling out for customers through pre-recorded PR announcements. “Squid for sale, squid for sale! Fresh squid for sale!”

My grandfather, at the end of his evening strolls, would walk up to one of these trucks and buy a few squid. The driver, now transformed to master squid man, would stand above the water tank with a pole in hand, equipped with a net on one end. Plunging the net in the blue water, he would swoosh it around madly yet decisively, and when he raised the pole back into the atmosphere, so did the squid, shooting water in all directions. After subduing the squid, the squid man gutted and cleaned it, before finely slicing the flesh on his cutting board. At home, my grandfather would smother the sliced squid with an ample dose of red chojang, and chopstick loads of it happily went into our mouths. Not dry and rubbery like the ika at low end sushi joints. Firm yet delicate. Creamy, with the spicy vinegar and peppers smoldering the outer edges of the tongue. Pleasurable.

Our earliest food memories easily determine what we eat. Our capacity to try new food is decided from a very young age; the more you were exposed to a large variety of cuisines, the more you are willing and able to open your mouth to shove in that mysterious yet delicious morsel of whatever in front of you. Food memories not only determine our future eating habits, they define who we are at the most basic level. Food is communication, food is hospitality, food is thought. People say that one can travel the world in an armchair – through books. In the past few months, I have traveled the rigid Siberian tundra, the Inner Mongolian grasslands, and the busy streets of Tokyo, thanks to brilliant authors. A book is the essence of years worth of the author’s research and thoughts, a culmination I can devour in a matter of days. Food is the same. I eat, therefore I travel the world, meet people and cultures vicariously through the dishes. Food has heart, and good food not only transmits flavor, but also a serene sense of togetherness.

After Chen took out the spatula, he said, “Now I’m going to treat you to something different.” First he put in some sheep fat, then broke a couple of eggs, frying them until they were lightly cooked. Gasmai and her son got up on their knees to look into the pan. They stared wide-eyed at what they saw. Chen gave each of them one of the fried eggs, over which he sprinkled a bit of soy paste. . . . Fragrant, oily smoke filled the yurt as the six people ate until they could eat no more and laid down their chopsticks. The wildwood feasters had gone through more than half of the eggs in the bucket.

This is an excerpt from Jiang Rong’s novel “Wolf Totem.” During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, many Chinese college students, including Chen, were sent to the Olonbulag grasslands of Inner Mongolia to “educate” the nomadic herders and “cleanse” them of their old cultural norms. While the novel grapples with much larger themes than food, this scene captures a moment where food bridges a gap, a divide that goes back a thousand years. Han Chinese students and a Mongol mother and son enjoying a midday meal of fried duck eggs in a yurt.

Elders of the Mongol grassland did not eat eggs – or any poultry – for they believed the animals could fly up to Tengger, their deity. It was blasphemous to eat anything that could fly up to Tengger. But Gasmai, the young Mongol mother, and her son enjoy this delicacy, and even in the midst of cultural tension, fried eggs do their share of bringing about understanding. The grassland elders worship birds, but their children eat them with foreign students from Beijing. Odd and unbalanced from one perspective, but appropriate and inspiring from another. Gazelles, marmots, horse meat, lamb. Food is the fertile foundation of this novel, the conscious thread that weaves the seemingly unweavable characters. For Gasmai’s young son, one can only imagine the impact the fried eggs would have in his life. How will this food memory affect his life on the Olonbulag?

It’s one thing to have food memories, deep and profound or bleak and undefined. It’s another to have none. Koreans are said to have descended from Mongols. The physical resemblance is there. Newborns from both nations have pale blue spots on the outsides of their feet or hands, which eventually fade and disappear with time. They call it “Mongolian Spots.” Yet while the wealthier South overflows with food, producing millions of tons of food waste, the North starves. Especially after the great famine in the mid-1990s, entire families have vanished in hunger. Others have barely survived, eating dirt, grass, tree barks, rats, whatever they could find that wasn’t poisonous. Same roots, entirely different food memories. Actually, no food, no memories. Can’t call it “memories.”

The Kaesong Industrial Complex was meaningful for two reasons. First, it was a political success (debatable), a sign that both sides could peacefully do something positive. Second, it was an economic success (also debatable), not only for the corporations involved, but also for the workers themselves. There has been heated debate regarding the working conditions and labor rights within the KIC, but many (understandably) say that working there is infinitely better than working elsewhere, say, the coal mines in the mountains in the northeast, or not working at all. To date, about 120 South Korean companies had hired more than 53,000 North Korean workers. That’s a paying job for 53,000 families with a liveable wage. Unfortunately, the KIC recently fell victim to the escalated tension between the North and South; the complex was shut down completely, and the factories and their workers were vacated until further notice. No more paying jobs, no more food.

A hidden victim of this situation is the “choco pie.” A nationally loved treat in South Korea since the 1970s, the choco pie (short for chocolate pie, but more like a cake) is a three-tiered cake with a layer of marshmallow in the middle, the whole thing coated in milk chocolate. May not sound sexy, but try it and be amazed. When the KIC was in full operation, carts of choco pie were specially manufactured and supplied there, as snacks for the workers. Because cash bonuses were not allowed in the complex (considered too capitalist), instant ramen, coffee and other treats were rewards for hard work. But the choco pie was by far the most popular, and each worker usually received three or four a day. Having seen nothing like this, many workers would save the snacks and take them back home, to disperse to family and friends, or to sell them on the black market. The Guardian reported in this article that the choco pies were sold at three or four times their original price.

So the streets of Pyongyang were flooded with chocolate-covered cake. They achieved “legendary status” not for its taste, but as a symbol of South Korean wealth. It wasn’t food flooding the streets, it was democracy raiding Pyongyang and the bellies of its residents. Along with choco pie, fashion, music, literature, movies – freedom itself – is seeping into the young people’s psyche. Skinny jeans? Risky but yes, that too. A psychological struggle has been brewing in the minds of the North Koreans for some time, the brainwashing propaganda clashing with the influx of news and materials from abroad. How could the South, the mortal enemy, thrive to make snacks like choco pie? Those capitalist pigs, how could they enjoy such prosperity when we were taught that our great leaders have built the strongest nation on earth?

The rising tensions between the North and South meant a roadblock for choco pie. Crates of this stuff now sit in warehouses, unable to make their way into the complex, into the North. These batches were specially manufactured for the complex, and thus cannot be resold in the South or elsewhere; to lower production costs, the KIC-specific chocopie weigh three grams less than others. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation birthed by a 63 year-old conflict. The flood of food culture has come to a screeching halt. Somewhere in the black markets of Pyongyang and its suburbs, dealers are probably hustling for the highest price of what remains, but with the KIC shut down, a symbol of change now sits in moldy warehouses, lost. A veteran snack that has lost most of its popularity in the South is chocolate gold in the North, nuggets of democracy floating around from market to market, pocket to pocket. What a moment it would be to witness a famished child tearing open the wrapper of his first choco pie. Glee, confusion, pleasure, guilt.

Between two nations that fought an angered, blood-thirsty civil war, a simple chocolate cake spread a small token of love throughout the famished North. Food is powerful. Twitter fueled the Arab Spring, bringing a sea of unheralded change and democracy to the region. Great, but Twitter is useless in a country where its populous has no internet, let alone wireless connection. Before tweets and hashtags, people will remember the choco pie. It’s silly to equate a snack to the North Korean equivalent of the Arab Spring, but do not underestimate the power of chocolate.

Food is powerful. It “tweets” with no internet connection, it speaks. The manufacturers factories in the South, the trucks filled with crates of choco pie, the KIC workers’ pockets and bags, the streets of Pyongyang and elsewhere. A chocolate wall blocks the 38th Parallel for now, but when the flood resumes, the choco pie will be remembered as a pioneer in the crumbling of the North Korean regime, of the inevitable shouts of freedom.

The lost generation of the North now has food memory. And it’s covered in chocolate.

My earliest memory of a neighborhood butcher shop has everything to do with pinkish neon light. No, not outside the shop, as if pork shoulders were going fast in a red light district. All but forgotten now, Korean neighborhoods were once home to many mom-and-pop butcher shops, only to be swallowed whole – slowly and painfully – by conglomerate-owned chain stores and massive supermarkets.

Upon entering these small shops, one was always greeted by a pinkish hue, a glow. No escaping it. For whatever reason, the lighting in the meat display was always that color. Not yellow, green, or lavender. Pinkish. So most common folk in Korea, my generation or older, all have fond memories of pinkish neon meat display lights, along with the distinct smell of fresh meat permeating every cubic inch of whatever tight space one stepped into. These butcheries mainly sold beef and pork; plump beef ribs, thinly sliced sirloin, pork belly, pork shoulder. Back in those days, “aging” meat was not popular in Korea. Freshness was the principally sought after quality in any cut.

That meant no 75-day dry-aged bone-in rib eye. That meant no handmade pâté. That meant no half-smoke, no salami, no fat-marbled burgers. But alas, of course none of these existed in the butcher shops of my memory. There was no Red Apron Butchery. I’ve got a new neighborhood butcher now, and there is no room for jacking around with this one. Meat, straightforward meat. Pinkish hues are nowhere to be found, but after a few visits, Red Apron is building up a niche in my gastronomic psyche already.

Red Apron is a temple for cured, smoked, stuffed, aged meat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more impressive display of these things in one gathering. Not quantity, but quality. Everything looks as if they were handmade. Time was taken to carefully set those pâtés, to stuff and smoke those sausages, to cure that salami, to age those steaks. An assortment so mind boggling that I had to pry myself away from its gravitational pull. A powerful vortex of meat, lurking beneath the surface with suction cups as beautifully lethal as those of the Kraken itself. My lust will not be satisfied until I have sampled every morsel offered, an admirable feat worth struggling for.

Just steps beyond the display, in an open kitchen, two cooks were busily grilling, busily assembling, busily frying. In addition to all the meat porn, Red Apron serves up a burger, sandwich and hot dog menu with the potential to reach legendary renown even against the most revered of delis and burger joints. To date, I’ve tried: the porkstrami sandwich, the Cubano sandwich, the meatball sandwich, and of course, the classic cheeseburger. Of these four, the porkstrami was most unique, a definite head turner, a potential question mark. Slices of roasted pork emulating the flavorful, peppery bursts of brisket. Sauerkraut on top of that. The end creation is the best of both worlds; a distinct pork flavor with that pepper-cured kick you yearn for from pastrami. Two dichotomies clash in a bun, under a bed of pickled cabbage. And all for the better.

The more classic the recipe, the harder it is to execute it to perfection. The more common the taste, the harder it is to make a bold statement with it. The giants of meat, the temples of smoked curedom, they all master the most basic of all calling – the classic burger. Red Apron, all innovation aside, does just that. Of the four creations I’ve tried (admittedly, I have ways to go before making a full circle on the menu), the cheeseburger and accompanying fries were the best, simply sublime. Nothing fancy, nothing hipster, nothing too Brooklyn. Toasted buns, lettuce, tomato, American cheese, and a hand-crafted patty cooked to a perfect, bleeding medium. The ground beef actually has flavor, increasingly a rarity even among so-called “gourmet” burger chains. Only choice cuts are used, and with the use of trustworthy, pure meat comes the privilege of enjoying pink patties. Almost tears of joy. And the fries are fried in beef fat. Need not say more. If you’re not frying the frites in peanut oil, the only other options should be either duck fat or beef fat. Red Apron throws in whole garlic cloves and rosemary into the fryer. Crisp, fragrant, deep. Bold and straightforward, just like their burger.

It’s a joy to be around a no-bullshit butcher.

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