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Today I am starting a new feature series on i am not a lawyer.

Portraits of Cooks” will be a series of photos of the men and women who do the real cooking behind kitchen doors – the cooks. The “star chef” conundrum has proven to be phenomenally profitable for many, including the Food Network and its posse. In the midst of all the Bobby Flays and Paula Deans, however, the faces of the people who actually prepare most of the food we eat at restaurants – the line cooks that tirelessly wash, chop, fry, stir and grill – are lost. The star chefs get all the acclaim and fame; this series will pay due regard to the owners of the calloused and burnt hands that too often remain unrecognized. This series connects food to face.

Whether I’m dining out in my favorite joints or discovering new spots, getting to know the cooks has been invaluable. Not only do you learn firsthand about the restaurant and the food, you build a deeper understanding of the restaurant industry and of the people who comprise it. Understanding the people behind the food is the first step in truly understanding food itself.

Meet our first cook, Jose Ventura of Famous Luigi’s Pizza. One of the oldest pizza joints in downtown DC, Luigi’s pizzas are made fresh and baked to perfection, never shy on the cheese. The handmade dough is actually the best part of their pies, thanks to Jose and his crew.

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Just minutes ago, I was driving across Bay Bridge in what seemed like miles of concrete, the ferocious rain slapping against the barely visible windshield, all the temporary residents of the bridge enveloped in a thick fog. Even with the wipers toiling at maximum speed, visibility was near zero. Then, in spectacular fashion, the sky cleared and the clouds parted, collecting the rain and its remnants. As rays of sunshine pierced the withering layers of precipitation, the fog cleared as well, dissipating in a heartbeat, as if it were never there to begin with.

“I’ll have a shot of espresso, pulled long please.” Thanks to a faulty navigation system, a supposed two-hour drive up to St. Michaels had taken closer to four, and with a stiff back from the extended drive, I desperately grasped coffee’s medicinal healing powers. Espresso for the back. Worked before, so why not. Doctor’s orders. What came back was an overly bitter, acidic specimen of espresso, remarkably similar in taste to the ginseng extract my mom used to shove in my mouth as a child. Not something you would want to correlate with coffee, especially the first few sips in a new town. In open defiance to the predisposed list of “coffee cities” – the likes of Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – I was, in part, in search of a noteworthy coffee scene in this small tourist destination, a roaster and a cup or two of praiseable beans and coffee. Maryland has its share of excellent specialty roasters, Ceremony Coffee being one of them. But my first stop at Blue Crab Coffee quickly dwindled any hope of making a significant discovery (TripAdvisor and Yelp are not to be trusted blindly). Disappointment trickling down my esophagus along with the shot – I had expected much more from a relatively well-reviewed cafe, especially a more jovial atmosphere in lieu of sorry music – I stepped back outside and into the sun on my first afternoon in St. Michaels.

A trip to crab country when crab season is still months away. The only glimpse of Maryland blue crab was a glistening plastic replica hanging on a wall at Blue Crab Coffee. But St. Michaels was much more than just crab. It is a quiet coexistence of opposites, centered around shipbuilding and leisure. The town first flourished as a mecca of shipyards in the Chesapeake, fueled by people’s explosive appetite for oysters and later crab. A boom in ships, oysters and crab meant a boom for the town. Churches and schools were built, homes were settled, and fisherman, oystermen and businessmen alike flourished. Then the ships were no more. The oysters never died off, but harvest levels fell drastically. Crabbing became the main source of livelihood. Over time, the once thriving ship town evolved into a quaint retreat, with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld purchasing vacation homes on the Bay. Different types of vessels are built now, mostly luxury yachts. Tourism, especially during the summer crab season, sustains the town.

But ironically, the off-season is the ripe time to immerse oneself to the quintessential Eastern Seaboard. Away from the flocks of tourists, jam packed in the one-two-many crab shacks near the docks. Distanced from the temptation to settle for only the guided tours offered twice a day. In all honesty, escaping “touristy” St. Michaels is near impossible. You should pay admission and check out the maritime museum, a must to understand the backbone shipping industry that sustained this regions for decades. Guided tours or not, you should walk through the heart of the city on foot; the historic section is tiny, and you’d drive through it in minutes. In the midst of “touring,” however, be sure to chat up the locals to find out where they eat and where they drink their coffee. In doing so, you will find that crab country is possibly more charming when there are no crabs around.

From my short trip to the heart of the Chesapeake, here are three takeaways.

1. Fried Oysters and Pulled Pork, at Once

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Talbot Street is the main street piercing the belly downtown St. Michaels. The narrow street is clubbered with eateries left and right. One restaurant was particularly eye-catching, with an open patio resembling Cancun during spring break. A menu displayed the usual of what you’d expect on the coast – fried fish, burgers, sandwiches. Packed and bustling, very “family friendly.” Pass. Instead, I walked further down the road, a few blocks, towards the outer edge of downtown. Fewer people on the sidewalk. In the distance, I spotted a cloud of smoke slowly rising from a smoker on a trailer. The smell of smoky, caramelized meat was violently enticing. Gripping. The last thing I expected on this trip was to be standing next to a cozy smoker, inhaling the Divine Breath while contemplating whether to have grilled grouper or oysters. And pulled pork. The sign outside read ‘Big Al’s Market.” Smoked meat. Plus freshly fried Chesapeake oysters. Needless to say, I walked in.

On the hand-written menu, “barbeque” and “oysters” floated harmoniously, shyly as if the two acquaintances did not really know how to coexist within the limited square footage of the establishment. Surf and turf was no longer a plate of disdainfully well-done steak with dehydrated shrimp. Here, pork butt slowly roasted for hours in an actual smoker married just-shucked oysters the size of dried persimmons, breaded and perfectly deep fried. Smoke, pork, bun, oysters, cocktail sauce (with extra horseradish). All consumed at a “smoke-side” table outside, right next to that smoker. Did I mention the smoker? The oysters, still hot, had an audible crunch, and yet I could still taste the sea from the juices in side. The horseradish pleasantly shot up my nostrils, while the fuming smoke from the roasting pork bun and ribs cajoled the left side of my face. No complaints on being completely enveloped in that smoke.

A proper hello to a new city. Cars whizzing by behind my back, the warm midday sun easing the still brisk spring winds, a few local high school students taking the table next to ours with baskets of pulled pork sandwiches and fries. Even if I was sitting on the curb, without tables, I would not have had lunch any other way in St. Michaels. Expected and unexpected at the same time, on that main touristy road but not touristy at all. Southern charm from the ongoing smoker, Chesapeake charm from the oyster juice. A wonderful dichotomy reflective of the bygone glories of the shipyards, the mounds of shiny oyster shells, and the remaining gift shops selling disturbingly ugly t-shirts. Embracing this dichotomy presents a new prism in which to view St. Michaels as something more than a mere settlement of vacation homes. Embracing this dichotomy tastes like, well, smoke. That smoker!

2. White Tablecloth is Not the Devil

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I have a thing on fine dining. Not against, just “on.” The one-too-many shiny utensils, two-too-many glasses, the obviously American-born waiter (quite possibly a George Washington University student) painfully saying “voila” every other visit with an accent even I can detect, the pitifully frugal morsel of food on my overpriced plate with some sauce smeared across the top and mysterious foam slowly deflating on the side. Not against fine dining, not against it. I’d like to redefine it, somewhat. White tablecloth does not make food “fine,” nor does an over indulgence of fois gras or truffles on every dish. To be honest, I don’t know how I’d define fine dining. “Fine” is subjective on so many levels, although Michelin or the Beard Foundation would disagree. Defining subjective things is almost a pointless task, for the final definition of the term will be, by “definition”, different for any individual or group. Different definition across cultures, race, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this, I say the hell with it, here is what fine dining boils down to: enjoyment of well-prepared food in the company of likeable people within the confines of agreeable surroundings. Food, people, place.

Hence the heightened speculation when I was seated at Sherwood’s Landing, the exquisite restaurant at the Inn and Perry Cabin hotel. In any city I visit for the first time, my priority is to explore the hidden huts and shacks no one has heard of and not reviewed in Yelp or TripAdvisor. That cafe only the locals frequent, that burger joint students visit for their hangover cure. But this trip had a grander purpose than my priorities, our first wedding anniversary. For one meal, no shack will do, no hut will do, only the best dining experience in all of St. Michaels would be worthy of our occasion.

The dining area was beautiful, overlooking a small bay with wooden docks, the late afternoon sunshine illuminating the entire room. The tables were mostly empty, as we had opted for an earlier time slot. Like much of the resort itself, the restaurant was serene and calming, the famous spa having rubbed off its influence even in the gastronomic arena. Enchanting, but my interest, as always, was whether the food would match the ambiance. And indeed, the chef rose to the challenge. No foam. No fluff. No frills. Local, in-season ingredients, generous portions. The warm salad, with blanched asparagus and morel mushrooms, was more than pleasing even to this salad-despising carnivore; the butter and crème fraîche sauce, punched with chopped garlic, was perfect. The real highlight, however, is the stuffed duck breast I had for my entree. If you’ve had duck breast done blasphemously incorrectly on more than one occasion (read overcooked), you will empathize with the praise I am about to pour out. Most importantly, the breast was the perfect temperature, pinkish and very moist. The chef butterflied the breast, pan fried it, and stuffed it with a tantalizing concoction of apples and smoked walnuts, among other things. Three medallions, rolled like a futomaki, rested on three beds of pureed parsnips, a much wiser supplement than potatoes or other starches. To best enjoy this dish, every criterion must hit the tongue at once. Juicy duck, tart apples, smoky walnuts, sweet and buttery parsnip. Oh, and the medallions were wrapped in bacon. Not overpowering, just adding salt and smokiness. Do I need to say more? The sauce was something wine-based, sweet, savory, brilliant. No other single dish has left a lasting impression as this one. That says a lot.

Fine dining has reinvented itself in my psyche. The fancy frills, the foie, even the foam – they’re okay. As long as the food is profound and prominent throughout the dining experience, as long as the food is straightforward, as long as the food tastes “fine,” white tablecloth is not the devil.

3. Locals Know Their Brew

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Exploring a new city through its cafes is a brilliant approach. Coffee, the people who serve it and the cafes in which it is served, is a vein that connects cities and their inhabitants. Where there is coffee, there are stories, stories about stories, and the people behind the stories. Cafes are microcosms of the city itself, a miniature that captures its essential characteristics. You know a cafe, and you’re half way there in knowing the city.

I did not have high expectations of St. Michaels’ coffee scene. Most reviews I glanced over indicated two cafes, one of which was closed in 2011. The other is Blue Crab Coffee, a supposed local favorite located in a big yellow house known as the Freedom’s Friend Lodge. As my first stop in town, I walked in and ordered an espresso. The rest is as stated in my opening; nothing special, nothing noteworthy. Bad espresso. Maybe it was that particular barista. Maybe the specialty pour over coffees would have fared better. I judge sushi joints the same way. One bite of nigiri; if it’s off, you haven’t got the basics down. Coffee? Espresso, if it’s off, it’s off. Whatever the reason, my first impression of St. Michaels, and any hopes of discovering a hidden coffee culture within, was all but ruined.

This is why you talk to waiters, bartenders, baristas, and hotel concierge. These folks know their cities in and out, and usually are giddily happy to share nuggets of information with you. At the end of a mind boggling meal at Sherwood’s Landing, as I was stuffing my face with an equally delicious souffle, I asked our waiter about their coffee. Restaurant coffee service, especially in starred establishments, is a recent interest to me, as I have written about it in this post. A blend of Sumatran and Guatemalan beans, the coffee was smooth, full body, and very nutty. With obvious pride, the waiter informed me that they have been working with the local roaster Rise Up Coffee for some time, and this was a specially designed house blend for the restaurant. Rise Up Coffee, I had to get me some of that, pronto. Evidently, the nearest nexus to this new found wonder was a drive thru kiosk a mile or so away.

The kiosk was the last pit stop before driving back to DC. I usually enjoy the cafe experience, walking in, perusing the single origin menu, checking out the espresso machine, the whole bit. But if a ten-by-ten hut in a parking lot serves fresh, tasty coffee, I do not care. Nothing frivolous, just a standard cup of the daily house blend, and yet my last impression of St. Michaels is now etched with Rise Up’s rich brew. The coffee scene did not let me down, after all. A local roaster in existence since 2005 serving great coffee on par with bigger competition in cities like New York and Seattle. It was a shame I did not visit the newly opened roastery in Easton; you can be sure I will drop by during my next visit. New roaster (at least to me) doing things right, brewing excellent coffee – these things excite me. Who knew. The “locavore” concept now makes more sense to me. Local oysters, local duck, and locally roasted coffee. Besides the obvious benefits of freshness and taste, the discovery of locally owned and distributed foods and coffees adds pure bliss to travel. And such discoveries will be the focal point of future tales to come.

The big hand on the clock had not yet passed the number twelve. It was not yet seven a.m., early for breakfast, according to some standards. I had barely taken off my parka when the kimchi jjigae started to boil, simmering atop the makeshift butane gas burner. “Aged” kimchi, fatty morsels of pork, fish cake, and in spectacular fashion, instant ramen noodles. This was the most memorable meal in my trek through Korea, and a worthy champion of all breakfasts of champions, a mesmerizing symphony of hot, spicy, sour, fatty and nutty.

Eating through Korea, and much of Asia, one inevitably encounters levels of heat and a variety of spices. They are what make the dishes unique, that “bang” effect when you pop that first spoonful in your mouth. Meat from all parts of the animal (and from all kinds of animals) smeared in deliciously mysterious blends of red chilies, fish from all depths of the ocean simmering in heat-infused cauldrons, and the freshest produce with nothing else but touches of sesame oil and mother loads of garlic. Personally, anything in soup form turns my head; alongside coffee, things boiling in savory broth are my favorite psychoactive drugs. What can I say, doctor’s orders. Soup fetish is shared amongst many travelers, writers and eaters alike. Fellow non-lawyer lawyer Jodi Ettenberg, travel writer and author of the blog Legal Nomads, knows a little something about eating through Southeast Asia, and has professed her love for all things soup in a beautiful piece about the gastronomy of Mekong (read it here).

One problem. I have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. According to the renowned Mayo Clinic, “Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic digestive disease that occurs when stomach acid or, occasionally, bile flows back (refluxes) into your food pipe (esophagus). The backwash of acid irritates the lining of your esophagus and causes GERD signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms of GERD include acid reflux and heartburn. Both are common digestive conditions that many people experience from time to time. When these signs and symptoms occur at least twice each week or interfere with your daily life, doctors call this GERD.” In food terms, anything flavorful and exciting will cause stomach acid to shoot up my esophagus. No good.

Thankfully, my case is not that severe, nothing that cannot be treated or controlled with “healthy” eating habits and Prilosec OTC (and my condition has improved significantly within the past year). Nevertheless, eating my way through Korea was not always easy with GERD, especially when I was treating every meal (starting with breakfast, and often more than three times a day) as if it was my last. But I wasn’t about to settle for salads and bland rice porridge. So over the years, I have developed a list of sorts, comprised of tips to control and minimize the level of discomfort. Every street I strolled down, something was boiling to my left, something steaming to my right, the soondae lady calling for me, the catfish stew guy grabbing my arm. As Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything, except temptation.” Ah, the temptation. Ceaseless. Having GERD could be a death sentence to a traveler, a crippling Achilles heel. While shitting like a mink and crawling on all fours after eating bad crab is probably worse, GERD still impacts your eating routine. So awareness and precaution is critical. That is why I share this list with you, in hopes that, if there are any travelers out there suffering from this annoying-as-hell disorder, they will still manage to conquer the gastronomical path without a trip to the emergency room.

With that, here is some non-medical advice from a non-lawyer lawyer.

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1. Take Prilosec OTC (or equivalent) Religiously

I cannot emphasize this enough, for I once too underestimated its usefulness. Prilosec should be taken once a day, and it essentially blocks the release of excess stomach acid. Better than Tums. One doctor recommended I take it right before bed, because, theoretically, acid is more likely to travel upriver (meaning up the esophagus) when one is reclining. Makes sense. Another doctor told me I should take it about an hour before an anticipated “big meal,” so when this anticipation comes to fruition, my stomach is not freaking out, spewing acid like a frightened sea squirt. Personally, I think taking it at night before bed has worked better, but I cannot say that for others. Try both and see for yourself.

2. Stay Away from Aspirin

Down all the gochoojang you want, chomp on all the chilies you want, drink that late night coffee (ok, these are bad, too, for GERD). But whatever you do, don’t take aspirin, especially when your GERD symptoms seem to be on the rise (trust me, you know when things are about to get worse). I cannot explain why this is, and my med student brother told me some gibberish at some point, which I rarely comprehend. Bottom line, aspirin makes your symptoms worse. If you need pain medication or a fever reducer, try other drugs that do not contain aspirin.

3. Carbohydrates are Your Friend

You should eat your bland carbs (often meaning bland rice) to balance out the spice and heat of the other foods. In addition to all the grilled meats, fish, and stew, a bowl of rice or a slice of bread goes a long way, in my opinion, absorbing excess acid generated from the fiery pork belly and raw garlic that just went into your mouth.

4. Breakfast Does a Body Good

This isn’t your mom nagging you through grade school. Yes, breakfast is good for you, especially if you have GERD. In my experience, an empty stomach is ripe for acid action, especially if that empty stomach is blitzed with heavy, fatty, spicy, delicious creations without notice. Wherever your current destination is, the locals probably know where the best breakfast grubs are. You don’t really know a culture until you sit down with locals for breakfast. So for everyone’s benefit, search for breakfast and enjoy it, regularly.

5. Snack Away in the Streets

For true travelers, I do not have to emphasize the thrill and joy of street food. Street food is not a fad, it is certainly not a “hipster” thing. It does not spring up by every John Doe crowing every street corner with a truck or cart. While they may be serving ridiculously good food too, “street food” is a time-cultivated, history-tested tradition. Folks eating on the streets – while selling and bartering whatever they could find to earn very little – is what created street food. This is certainly the case in Korea, where outdoor markets were (and still are for many) the very source of livelihood. People had to eat while working, and voila, street food. In any event, an empty stomach is bad for GERD. So while you are exploring the explorable (by foot, wherever possible), snack and snack often. Control the acid with regular food intake, and really learn the streets and the people that inhabit them. Tough to learn that in front of tablecloth.

6. Tums for Your Tummy

While drugs like Prilosec are better for long term treatment, Tums can save your ass in an emergency. Carry some with you at all times. But a word of caution: do not rely on them. For me, there were days when each meal was a grand slam; hearty kimchi jjigae for breakfast, spicy monk fish casserole for lunch, snacks, snacks, more snacks. Ah, and dinner was something grilled, intestines perhaps with a little skirt steak on charcoal. Having forgotten to take Prilosec the night before, I took some Tums before dinner. No good. It didn’t seem to work as quickly as I thought it would. But that was one particular day with meal after meal after meal. Tums would have worked wonders on any other day, and if I had taken them earlier.

7. Raw is Good, but Not Always

Sashimi is sexy. It just is. Raw fish in any form – also, beef tare-tare in any form – is plentiful throughout the Korean shores and elsewhere in Asia. But, unfortunately, raw things do not seem to be best for GERD people. My most memorable sushi experience to date has been at Sushi Sunsoo in Seoul (which I wrote about in this post). Cruelly, I was fighting off a nasty cold, and my GERD was acting up again, thanks to many fantastic meals preceding Sunsoo. Sashimi, oysters, nigiri sushi, maki, tempura – divine. But that night, I almost crawled into the ER. Raw fish plus cold plus that mysterious medicine the pharmacist gave me (which I stupidly consumed without reading the labels for aspirin) did not please the GERD gods. So if you are in a region prone to magnificent uncooked foods, schedule your meals accordingly.

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There it is.

Travel is meaningless without food. The essence of travel is the acquaintance of and interaction with the people that make up the destination, and food happens to be the universal language spoken across all continents. To reach a soul, the stomach is the quickest route.

Don’t let that acid get in your way.

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.

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.

1.

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

monkfish

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

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

3.

I am against the death penalty.

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

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

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

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

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

But death has a face.

4.

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

gaejang

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

By definition, winter signifies a shriveling of life. Retraction takes a grip on trees and shrubs, and even people, as we pull our hands up in our sleeves, pull our coat collars tight against our exposed necks, and bundle up in layers of cotton, goose down and fur. By definition, winter signifies death, the polar opposite of life, of creation. Evidence of life – greenery, warm rain, gently caressing wind – is absent, nowhere to be found. All of life temporarily submits to the cold, awaiting the dissipating frost, awaiting that first sign of sprouts and roots. Yet until then, hibernation blankets the fields, patience seemingly dwindling from the foreground of bustling production.

How ironic, then, that the very symbolization of winter – death – so often creates highly prized delicacies in localities scattered about. From death itself blooms a creation that would not have seen light in the warmth of spring; death nurtures a will to thrive, a will that sparks ingenuity.

It is no surprise that humankind’s wisdom blossomed greatly around food and the preservation of it. After all, no matter what the circumstances. one must eat. For survival or for pleasure, exponential wisdom and know-how has been dedicated to ensure the steady intake of food. Such wisdom was ever more vital during the per-cannery era. Today, at any given Safeway or Whole Foods, there exists entire aisles dedicated to canned foods; anything and everything can be canned and stored for, well, until the apocalypse. If I may digress, my high school building was built as a bomb shelter in the fifties, and according to school legend, there were a complete system of tunnels underneath school grounds, all the way out to the baseball field. And along these tunnel routes rested thousands of canned rations. Russian missiles never did come, and our yearbook staff’s efforts to uncover the myth never led to any solid evidence. Nevertheless, the science of canning food for preservation is a relatively new phenomenon in gastronomic history.

Preservation of fish has played an integral part in human development. From various parts of the world, where civilizations sprouted and blossomed near rivers, bays and other bodies of water, preserved fish was a critical protein source throughout the year, especially during the cold non-growing months. With no refrigeration technology available, fish was preserved using other sources of wit and wisdom – salting, pickling, smoking and drying. Fermentation was extensively used even in hot and humid climates. In Southeast Asia, fermented fish paste, in its many forms and varieties, are used daily as in important flavoring ingredient in countless local dishes (Cambodia’s “prahok” is something I have wanted to try for years). In Japan, the ancient ancestral sushi, known as “nare-zushi”, was pickled by stacking fish with layers of rice, the season-long fermentation process, often lasting months, breaking down the rice and fish to create its distinct taste and funk. Herring has been pickled as a delicacy in the Baltic and Nordic regions, and Alaskan salmon is just one type of fish that has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type personality change upon smoking.

Perhaps the practice of drying fish leaves the least amount of control in one’s hands. No amount of salt, rice or any other pickling agent is used for preservation; in most other methods, variables of similar likeness are under full command of one’s hands. As some may say, “control is power.” Put in another way, the relinquishment of control is a direct loss of power. But the process of drying asks of such relinquishment; all one can do is clean the fish, perform blade work on it as deemed fit, and hang it. The rest is left to nature. Conditions of temperature, humidity and air velocity is beyond one’s reach, and one may dare say that Mother Nature takes over from then on, preserving the day’s catch at her pace in a manner she chooses.

In direct contrast to the central element of its definition, winter bears and births one local delicacy in particular that may only be found in the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula. Affectionately called “gwamegee” by the locals, this air-dried mackerel pike is the offspring of the unique environmental and historical roots of the city of Pohang and the North Kyungsang province.

Although the exact ancestral beginnings of gwamegee is debatable – most say it started around the early nineteenth century – the preservation process and its unique texture and taste have been passed down through generations. Originally, gwamegee was made with herring, as the fish was caught in great abundance in the seas of Pohang and even upstream in some of its rivers. As the supply of herring diminished, mackerel or saury took its place. After being gutted and cleaned, the fish is hung in the sea breeze of Pohang for up to two weeks. The flesh, not fully dry, still retains the essential oils of the fish, compacting its flavor. As it was hundreds of years ago, it is best enjoyed with an array of seaweed and cabbages, often with chives, raw garlic, and spicy vinegared pepper paste. This delicacy was so sought after that, in the Chosun Dynasty, kings ordered the artisans to ship cartloads of it to Seoul before the product could be sold in the general market.

I once again was reunited with this dish in the most unassuming restaurants in Shinsa-dong, part of the now infamous “Gangnam” district of Seoul – miles and miles away from Pohang. There were no waves to listen to, no ocean breeze to walk against. No seagull in sight, not a fish line in before us. Just Gangnam, in all its deceiving glory. As if reenacting the history of supplying the royalty, the gwamegee was personally delivered from Pohang, just days after it was plucked from the drying lines. No kings of Chosun were present at our table, but with each bite, one drew closer to understanding why the well-fed monarchs anxiously awaited their chariots to arrive from the poverty-stricken coast land.

Winter creates. Its harshness is often misunderstood, temperature acting as a deceptively cunning shadow of its true nature. Its slashing winds dig through outer layers, almost seemingly through our bones, but in our modern, everyday concrete jungle, the shrill of the wind is magnified through our man-made wind tunnels. Out in the outskirts of Pohang – and any other quiet sea-side townships – the ocean breeze, even its winter variety, gently caresses the hanging fish, rocking it back and forth ever so slightly. Harshness and shrillness are no longer accurate descriptors. Like a newborn in a crib, like budding leaves and flowers in the early days of spring, the wind here is a nursing mother, cooing her young to the most intimate lullaby.

Winter creates. By no means is the temperature cuddly during Pohang’s winter months. But in creation’s perspective, even the cruel thermometer has its place. During the two-week drying process, the freezing temperatures of the night enraptures the fish and freezes it. Throughout the night, as the full moon watches on, the hanging fish is a cocoon in deep sleep, swaying back and forth at times, and holding still as a rock when the wind retracts itself to the depths of the dark. It awaits. When the morning sun bursts open over the East Sea, the gradual warmth of day re-heats and melts the flesh. As a butterfly breaks into the world, so does the fish stretch from the cold of night into a day’s worth of sun. As this process of freezing and re-heating repeats itself for fifteen days, the natural oils of the fish are harnessed, compacting its flavor and nurturing a wonderfully chewy texture.

Winter creates. The blistering heat of the summer sun would have overwhelmed the tender mackerel, devouring its nutrients and succulent juices. The winter sun warms the flesh just enough to semi-dry it; only the winter variety of sunshine is sensitive enough to preserve the fish’s distinct qualities. In conjunction with the sea breeze and frost, rays of light stroke the fish gently, gliding over every morsel, every molecule with equal due care. The degree of alarm associated with the microwave oven jolts whatever specimen occupies its chambers; on the contrary, the winter sun is in the midst of a delicate ballet with the rows of hanging fish, allowing patience and time to bloom in their roles as facilitators.

Alain de Botton, in his book “Status Anxiety,” quotes the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, in defining and defending art – and thus creation: “Every great work of art . . .  was marked . . . by the ‘desire to remove human error, clear human confusion, and diminish human misery,’ just as all great artists were imbued with the ‘aspiration to leave the world better and happier than they [found] it.’ They might not always realise this ambition through overtly political subject matter . . . and yet embedded within their work, there was almost always some cry of protest against the status quo, and thus an impulse to correct the viewer’s insight or teach him to perceive beauty, to help him understand pain or to reanimate his sensitivities, to nurture his capacity for empathy or rebalance his moral perspective through sadness or laughter. Arnold concluded his argument with the idea upon which this chapter is build: Art, h insisted, was ‘the criticism of life.'” Through plagues, famines, and wars, art symbolized creative vitality. When pressed, humanity responds in full bloom, preserving every percolating ounce of richness.

The worst circumstances draw out the best in humanity. When the fields are barren, stripped of its life-giving capacity, frozen solid three layers deep to the core, winter creates wisdom. The need to survive creates the urge to thrive. The slashing winds are different. The night frost is different. Rays of sunlight are different. Previously perceived as villains of angry blizzards and wind tunnels, nature’s ingredients are themselves transformed into creators. Destruction no longer subdues the fields; although still frozen, humanity thrives in the most frigid of temperatures, the darkest of hours.

All this is illuminated by winter, which by definition creates nothing but death.

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