Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hot Pot, Hot Pot...

Survivor: China was the first season of Survivor that I actually watched more than one episode of, only because there was a DVR handy. (The delay on this post is proof of this fact.) In particular, one scene towards the end of the season caught my eye. As TV Grapevine puts it:

"Although Denise, Todd and Courtney seemed blown away by the sight of the Great Wall they spent their entire time complaining about the food they were provided [from the reward challenge]. It was a Chinese Hot Pot which none of the three knew anything about."

A brief definition: hot pot consists of a pot of steaming hot broth (usually chicken, although another meat base can be used). Various vegetables, thinly-sliced meat or seafood are placed by the pot, and it is the eater's job to put into the pot what he or she wants to eat at that time (by using individual mesh baskets with handles). When the food is fully cooked, the eater takes it out and eats it, after dipping it in a sauce - like a fondue, basically. The pot is kept hot throughout the meal, either by a gas/electric stove built into the table, or more commonly, a hot plate. It's also known as the onomatopoeic term "shabu-shabu," for the swishing sound the meat makes when cooked in the soup.

The variations on how people do hot pot are astounding. Some people cook with chicken broth, others splash a dash of chili sauce before boiling. Someone might make an all-seafood hot pot, while the next week, he or she might skip the scallops. Fried tofu? Soft tofu? It depends.

Then the matter of sauce expands hot pot possibilities, as people mix according to their individual tastes. Most Chinese families use a satay sauce - made out of brine shrimp - coupled with some soy sauce (to make the sauce more fluid), and then they add other garnishes, like cilantro. Some people add raw egg to their sauce for thickness as well (it's apparently better than hollandaise sauce). And one person I know adds a teaspoon of sugar to his sauce to "neutralize" the salty part, per his family tradition. Meanwhile, Japanese shabu-style restaurants (like Shabu-Zen, a new Boston favorite of mine) use a lighter, sweeter - almost vinegary - sort of soy sauce or even a peanut sauce. One adds chopped garlic, onions or hot pepper to this base at his or own discretion.

It's these regional differences that interest me the most. Sometimes, when I visit family friends for hot pot, I'm momentarily shocked that they don't put spinach in like we do at home. But ultimately, good soup is good soup. Case-in-point: not only is hot pot one of my favorite meals, it was my dinner tonight.

And so that's what peeved me about this segment of Survivor (if you'd like to look it up, it's episode 12: "Hello, I'm Still a Person"). The hot pot was part of the reward, so clearly it wasn't disgusting, not to mention too daunting to learn - in fact, there was a lot on the table, and it looked pretty good to me. What bothered me was that the Survivors were disgruntled about it and complained all the way to the Tribal Council.

It's fine to not take risks or to refuse something- admittedly, I like trying out "weird-looking" fruits more than I like more physically-trying feats. But in my opinion, it's another thing to complain about how other cultures do food (although cannibalism is another story). And honestly, hot pot is about boiling - not eating bugs or slugs or random pieces of cardboard, and it's fairly easy to do. Food flexibility shouldn't be too much of an issue...especially if you're a Survivor.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

On milkshakes

"My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they're like, it's better than yours." - Kelis, "Milkshake"

Long before Urban Dictionary attempted to clarify Kelis' lyrics, I had long shied away from the milkshake. It's not that I was actually fearful of it - or even lactose-intolerant - but I questioned its legitimacy.

In fact, the ambiguous identity of the milkshake kept me at bay, until sometime this year; now I have a hesitant, though no longer estranged - relationship with this dairy curiosity. After all, milkshakes straddle the border between beverage and dessert. Why buy a milkshake if you can get a scoop of ice cream or even a slice of pecan pie (my fatal weakness)? Why drink a milkshake when you can get a caramel latte, an actual drink? What's the difference between a smoothie and a milkshake? And what the heck is a milkshake, at least in the Kelis sense? What makes a good milkshake? And what led me towards the milkshake lifestyle?

Well, read ahead.

1. Why drink milkshakes?
The cheater way to answer this question would be that it depends on your taste. That’s probably the right answer, too.

I can't quite elaborate on the superiority of the milkshake over other sweet substitutes, since I've never loved milkshakes for their texture. They felt too much like drinks, and not even one that satisfied my thirst. And how healthy you believe a milkshake is depends on the framing involved behind the marketing. The "milk" in the milkshake might suggest vitamin D or calcium, but a milkshake has as many calories as an ice cream sundae. After all, a milkshake has ice cream in it, too. On the other hand, a caramel latte, as a beverage, gives the impression of having less calories than either of the previous two options.

Yeah, right.

So I suppose it’s about whatever floats your boat. Although if you’re drinking milkshakes, I suppose there’s no banana boat involved.

2. What's the difference between a smoothie and a milkshake?

I'll hand over this job to Wikipedia: after all, if Wikipedia says it, it must be true:

"A milkshake is a sweet, cold beverage which is made from milk, ice cream, or iced milk, and sweet flavorings such as fruit syrup or chocolate sauce..."

A fairly basic definition. (Side note: I'm a huge fan of actual frozen milk - not the sherbet/sorbet concoction Wikipedia links to for "iced milk." Our freezer was set too cold, and I woke up five minutes before class scooping frozen skim out of the carton. Delicious - no sarcasm.)

"A smoothie is a blended, chilled, sweet beverage made from fresh fruit. It is sometimes blended with crushed ice, frozen fruit, or frozen yogurt, although it can be argued that adding these items makes the drink less of a smoothie and not entirely natural. They have a milkshake-like consistency which is thicker than slush drinks, but unlike milkshakes, they do not usually contain cow's milk or ice cream. Smoothies are marketed to health-conscious people..."


There we go: the difference is marked by non-fruit flavors (or fruit syrup) versus actual fruit, as well as a recurring lack of dairy.

So if smoothies don't involve dairy and "regular flavors," then how do we advocate for Jamba Juice's matcha smoothie imposter, aka the Matcha Green Tea Blast? Well, we don't have to - Jamba Juice's online menu doesn't refer to any of its items as smoothies. So when I complain about the icy texture on my Caribbean Passion, it's partially from the inherent definition of the smoothie, if not from a shortened blending time. On the other hand, Orange Julius' smoothies are creamy good impostors, by the Wikipedia definition.

Conclusion: whatever floats your boat. (Again.)

3. What is a Kelis-style milkshake?

Since it's a long-debated question among my fellow friends and dormmates, I can't give a conclusive answer here without an equally valid (or quoteworthy) retort. Unfortunately, the best bet for settling the dispute - Urban Dictionary (in lieu of a sketchier venue) - contains a variety of interpretations. Apologies for the bait-and-switch!

4. What makes a good milkshake?

Most people would probably say the richness or the quality of the ice cream involved: texture is key. (Did you know that in Boston, "milkshakes" are made with syrup and milk? Adding ice cream transforms the creamy concoction into a "frappe" in the Boston vernacular. Now that's good trivia.)

I take a different tack, though - I really don't like thick milkshakes. By those standards, my first time drinking a "legit milkshake" was actually last summer with my cousin Howard. Sitting in the Steak 'n Shake (which is open twenty-four hours, for the win) was quite enjoyable, but I underestimated the regular sized dark chocolate shake (approximately 20 ounces of short-run energy, topped off with real whipped cream and chocolate chips). Whoops. Since then, I've had an aversion to thick shakes - even at Herrell's, where as the Tufts Daily claims, "their milkshakes bring all the boys to Harvard Yard." and of all things, Bartley's Burgers. (Reviews for both forthcoming.) And that leads me to my last question:

5. Why convert?

I might've misled you when I said I didn't like milkshakes, and as previously stated, I'm still wary of them. But having found the definition of milkshake, I do realize that I did like some milkshakes from the very beginning - they just weren't the traditional sort. For instance, good ol' Mickey D's, spurned for its artificial ingredients, captured the sweet taste buds on the tip of my tongue, as did Orange Julius' tropical pseudo-smoothies. Why?

Somewhat thinner than other comparable dairy desserts, these shakes are thin enough to be easily slurped up by a straw and foamy at the top. Perhaps their machinized production process appeals to the soft-serve addict in me.

As George Orwell might (not) have said at his (non-existent) neighborhood soda fountain, "All milkshakes are created equal...but some milkshakes are more equal than others." Certainly, all milkshakes start off with milk, "a flavor," and optional ice cream, but the product quality can defined by the qualities of each individual ingredient. That's probably a good place to start, but ultimately, evaluating a milkshake - as well as whether one likes them in general - is for the most part, subjective. (So yes, reviews are subjective - but finding bits of plastic wrap in your food should be a good indicator of "bad.")

Whether they lead to Harvard Yard - or uh...hopefully not Kelis' - a little more milkshake taste-testing won't hurt too badly. I think.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

When I read the title of the following article, I immediately thought of cannibalism. Don't ask.

My thoughts on eating local and in general, local food, are a bit confusing. Don't get me wrong - locally-grown produce does enhance the flavor of the food; Spoonriver is the Minnesotan example of that.

Yes, by eating locally you can save on gas consumption. And yes, growing produce in Berkeley schools with Alice Waters simultaneously helps middle schools enjoy their food and learn about the environment.

Somehow, though...the local food movement seems a little bit - dare I say it? - overhyped.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Food Writing: the Holiday Gift Edition

I'm excited for this: although I found his United States of Arugula to be amusing but a little overhyped, David Kamp is back.

According to Sara Dickerman in the Slate piece (linked above), it looks like it may be a food version of the Preppy Handbook, whose droll text was a hit of the 80s. Consequently, it might also run in a similar vein to The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and An Incomplete Education - as it were, staples on my bookshelf. The only concern with this is that the number of food snobs might actually increase - after all, some people ended up taking the tongue-in-cheek Preppy Handbook as gospel.

The article also comments on the Food Lover's Companion and its references to Asian food, which makes me glad that something besides consomme is acknowledged...which somehow leads me to my next point: the Harvard Book Store has a lot of great food writing - and not just cookbooks. The staff does a great job of picking books to display, and the food section - towards the front of the store - is prominently featured in the front of the store. If you're in the Cambridge area, check it out.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The elusive Veritaffle...


...in its natural habitat: my plate.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Quick hits: six dining halls

Although I'm currently sitting in a real kitchen (and therefore, not in my Cambridge dorm), I've finally compiled my thoughts on a few upperclass dining halls. As I've briefly explained before, Harvard has twelve houses (thirteen if you count Dudley House) which serve as residential communities. Residents take pride in each of their houses' vibe - even as they are randomly sorted into it.

In any case, my friends and I - as well as probably a good portion of the freshman class - have made it a goal to try all twelve upperclass houses before we are assigned to our official houses in February. Of course, our opinions of the dining halls have influenced our current opinions of the houses. We won't lie - the dining hall decor plays a big role. After all, who wants their claustrophobia to overpower their omelet? So expect some candid reviews until February, because come then, my house will naturally have the best food. Brief reviews for five of the d-halls follow.

1. Annenberg
Oh, Annenberg. The dream of overeager prefrosh: "Oh-my-goodness-I'm-in-the-Harry-Potter-dining-hall!" The fact that Annenberg is a freshman-exclusive dining hall during lunch and dinner - not to mention the gorgeous views from the third-floor classrooms above the cafeteria - only adds to its allure.
But sooner or later, freshmen (including me) soon discover that there is a tradeoff between proximity of classes and quality of food. (A perfect example for Ec10.) Given that it's meant for 1600+ freshmen, food is served in large batches and is neither as warm nor appetizing any other cafeteria. (On any given day, the same menu is served across all dining halls.) To its credit, the salad bar is much larger than other houses - but after three weeks of drizzling Thai Peanut dressing over spinach, the sodium overload might kill you. As for dessert, we get fewer occurrences of cake, and when it is there, it's usually dry - one horror story: we found mold on my chocolate cake in September, which I almost mistook for "green dust." Despite that, the rocky road bars (s'more bars without the overly-buttery graham cracker crust) are worth standing in the usual thirty-person line. The line only gets bigger, especially when people are waiting for one of the six Veritaffles irons at Sunday brunch.

2. Adams

Admittedly, I have a small bias towards the Adams dining hall. My host treated me to Sunday brunch at Adams, where I first encountered the elusive Veritaffle. I am not (entirely) kidding when I say that the Veritaffle was the other major factor in my college choice, although little did I know that I would be waiting forty-five minutes for one at Annenberg weekly. I also discovered the wonders of rosemary-crusted chicken at Adams, although since I have been here, I have not found it since.

I would argue that Adams has the best desserts, the nicest salad bar and one of the more freshly cooked hot bars. And not only are they also the closest upperclassman house to the Yard, they have gold-and-wood-paneled walls. This might make it the best of both worlds - were it not for the fact that freshmen are not allowed in Adams from 6-7 pm, on Sunday brunch, and during lunch too.

I'll take this time to elaborate on interhouse restrictions. Each house is allowed to set its own rules on whether non-residents are allowed to eat in the dining halls, and for the most part, every house has some restriction. Adams is by far the strictest, and my entryway never goes there to eat together based on the knowledge that we will never be able to enter together. That said, Adams is awfully good. They just happen to be awfully mean.

3. Quincy
Quincy, like Lowell, is one of my "backup" house decisions for dinner, as they don't really have any interhouse restrictions. The food is decent, though lacking at the salad bar, and it isn't as warm as Adams food. In addition, the layout of the dining hall is a little strange, because you have to go back and around the side for drinks and dessert, while the froyo machine is located in the opposite corner of the cafeteria. As for seating, the dining hall is more modern than other houses. But when I mean modern, I mean tapestries and murals that look like they should be upholstered and a dimly lit dining hall on top of concrete legs. The plus of Quincy? They have a flavored water machine like the one in my high school cafeteria, except Quincy isn't constantly running out of strawberry-kiwi syrup. They have green tea with honey ginseng in the water machine as well. Rumor has it that Quincy is the pilot project for the flavored water machine, so hopefully it'll be installed in the other houses next year.

4. Kirkland
A small secret: Kirkland is where my floormates and I go for brunch. Why? Like Lowell - again - there is no line for Veritaffles on Sundays. Located closer to the river in the cul-de-sac, you might expect freshmen to be heading the other direction towards A-Berg, but the detour is worth it. Kirkland, by far, is the most homelike dining hall that I've been in so far. The interior is white and full of light, and the cafeteria is partitioned into several rooms: a room for the grill and hot entrees, and then another room for the salad bar and everything else. Little encouraging decorations ("dream," "love") add to the "awww" factor. Kirkland's hot food quality stands between Adams and Quincy, although their desserts leave something to be asked for. In previous visits, the only desserts were a strangely flavored and fluorescent whipped cream concoction as well as a cherry pie with a hard crust.

5. Pfoho
Short for Pforzheimer, Pfoho forms the Quad houses with Currier and Cabot. In general, Quad houses are supposed to have better rooms and better food, given their desperate distance from everywhere else (3/4 mile away from the Yard), and yes - Pfoho has better food. The food is warm and flavorful without being too oily - in fact, it might have been the best so far. In one visit, the pasta and pesto was a standout. And although the Pfoho dining room is more modern, it is, after Kirkland, the coziest; the second level that surrounds the main dining room from above is also a neat feature. To boot: they are the only dining hall so far to have large marshmallows for their hot chocolate.

6. Currier

On the other hand, Currier did not reinforce the negative correlation between distance from the Square and tasty food. To their credit, they do have Tazo chai, and their drink bar is in a convenient location. But everything else isn't quite as good - the food is dimly lit and oily, though warm. Furthermore, the night I visited, the majority of the food was mislabeled, and I couldn't recognize some of the food until I tasted it (it was a dry chicken breast, too). And while the food was visually unappetizing, the only food I was willing to eat at the salad bar - mandarin oranges - had run out, as did the dessert. I ended up scrounging for cookies that were only made better by the chai.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

the obligatory Thanksgiving post

Not unsurprisingly, my Thanksgiving involved quite a bit of food from the get-go, and then some. My original intention was to grab a quick meal at Quincy House (since the freshman dining hall, Annenberg, was closed today) and then catch my flight. Although my alarm clock caused me to forgo that plan, I found a well-hidden (though extensively bruised) in a corner of my backpack and consequently escaped short-term starvation.

Upon arriving at the airport, I headed towards Au Bon Pain, colloquially known as ABP. ABP
is my East Coast-fairly-cheap-and-fast-culinary-friend. Though PETA activists have protested the Harvard Square's use of "innocent eggs," I take a sympathetic stance towards the company. Especially since their ubiquity ensures almond croissants on every corner. I bought a piece of Southwestern cornbread ("it's spicy," the cashier warned me), and chewed it fast.

Maybe this rush - or the anticipation of real Thanksgiving food, whatever that may mean - caused me to appreciate the cornbread less this time, but I found myself losing affection for the spicy Southwestern cornbread. First of all, it wasn't that spicy. The small green specks on the interior might have been jalapenos, but for the most part, the cornbread tasted like a hybrid of jalapeno kettle chips and red pepper flakes - not a terrible combination, but selective enough to be only fitting for a craving. In addition, the cornbread had a strange texture on the outside - crusty, but not entirely so to be crisp - which made it taste like an overcooked muffin.

I wanted something more, which is why - of all things - I found myself in front of McDonald's.

(To clarify my stance on Mickey D's: yes, I read Fast Food Nation. Yes, I realize the extent to which McDonald's branding has penetrated society, especially children: in fact, my junior high science project was on that topic. And yes, I enjoy their French fries and soft-serve (which I daresay, is their best-kept secret). I even occasionally delight in a discreetly hidden and textureless McChicken sandwich. So in short, I'm still confused.)

Airport menus are particularly limited, so I encountered some difficulty in finding a snack-sized item. Then I had my decision made for me: a poster on the side declared "Snack Wrap." Since the word "snack" was in the title, I ordered that.

In short, I finally got a Chicken Select (capitalization not mine) wrapped in a limp wrap, with a ranch dressing the consistency of tartar sauce and a few scattered cheese strips that looked as if they had been stolen from a Taco Bell...there went my $2.

My next stop on my food quasi-adventure was the plane. Don't get me wrong - I actually didn't consume any food on the plane - not even a flimsy aluminum bag of cocktail peanuts. Especially since they too, like my snack wrap, were $2. Instead, I read The United States of Arugula by David Kamp.

When my pundit friend lent me the book a few months ago, I originally thought it referred to the campaign speech where Obama complained about the rising price of arugula. Actually, the subtitle of the book is "How We Became a Gourmet Nation."

The book is quite cleverly written, and for its size it goes into a good amount of historical depth. Kamp does trace the evolution of the American gourmand through the twentieth century, but ultimately his book seems to imply that cults of personality are what really caused this change. It is interesting to see the culinary world as one big, dysfunctional family full of juicy affairs, occasional cocaine usage, and entirely different perspectives on who contributed what to the field, all of which Kamp covers eagerly and footnotes with asterisks. Having read other food history books and memoirs first, it was rather pleasant to read through the chapters and automatically recognize the "big critics" of that era by their first name, although Kamp does take a different perspective on culinary disputes than those memoirists themselves.

Ultimately, The United States of Arugula serves as a breezier, introductory book for the history of food writing and cooking. While it was nice to finally read through a sampler of interviews and to actually form a timeline of food in America, I wish less emphasis was given to the celebrity status of cooks. While I understand that the business and publicity aspects is often overlooked in the recent history of food, it would have been nice to see more of what the American consumer was becoming interested in, instead of how foodies were catching onto the biggest trends.

I finished the book just as the plane landed, and shortly after arriving home, I was treated to Thanksgiving dinner. A family friend brought handmade wraps that tasted like naan. We wrapped the turkey, along with Hoisin sauce and green onions, up in the wraps to make "Peking turkey." And of course, we had plenty of veggies - roasted, corn-on-the-cob, and my absolute favorite - green bean casserole. I have no qualms about green bean casserole, even if it looks spartan grey. Sure - when it's made badly, it can be rubbery. But when it's good, it's amazingly comforting - and for the most part, the french-fried onions will cover any mistake made during the preparation.

The sweet potatoes were quickly cooked to retain a crispy-carrot texture and tossed with cranberries for extra tanginess, and the mashed sweet potatoes with the mushroom gravy (Mom's somewhat-classified recipe, of course) topped it all off, with fruit tart and pumpkin pie for dessert.

Delicious. It was wonderful and fully satisfying (maybe too much - I definitely ate my share) to finally sit down to a home-cooked meal, and the company made it great. Happily enough, my day started from a mediocre banana-on-the-run and reached its climax to an amazing dinner. If there wasn't evidence already: there is something transcendent when food and family collide.

(I think we call it joy.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Two Good Meals, One Great Day

Fresh off of eight hours of sleep, I started off with brunch at Lowell House again. (Apparently Lowell was a after-party battleground the night before, but I didn't see any broken chairs.) While Lowell brunch was pretty good, the point was that I got my Veritaffles with no wait at all.

(Veritaffles (n.): 1. Waffles stamped with the Harvard Veritas crest. 2. Why freshmen stand in a thirty minute line at Annenberg. 3. The subject of a future post, not to mention shout-outs every Sunday.)

I then headed down to Chinatown. For those of you who have heard of the "Harvard bubble": yes, this was my first time to Boston in a very long while. I managed to stock up on Asian cookies (including a new member of my Pocky collection - more on that later) and followed that up with a bakery trip for sponge cake (tomorrow's breakfast!) and sesame balls (deep fried rice flour balls, coated with sesame seeds and stuffed with sweet red bean).

Four hours later, I stumbled onto mindblowingly fresh sushi. Teaser: let's just say that sometime this week, there will be a post comparing two of Boston's sushi superpowers.

And then I topped that off with another visit to Berryline.

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Since I'm all hyper from the Yard-wide cheering for the Red Sox victory sweep, I thought a good trivia fact would be a good way to close: Did you know that Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima has his own cocktail named after him at Boston's InterContinental Hotel? It's called the "Oki Doki Mojarita."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dinner at Lowell House

At the risk of sleep deprivation (that is, my necessary eight hours), I'm a-catching up on my reviews, so here we go.

Tonight I went to Lowell House to meet a friend for dinner. (One of Harvard's twelve upper-class houses, it's probably best known for its set of Russian bells.) Of course, the company was better than the food, but surprisingly enough, the food wasn't that bad either. In general, the houses tend to have better food than the 'Berg (more on that later), the general assumption being that there are culinary consequences of cooking for 1500+ freshmen instead of about 400 upperclassmen.

Each dining hall has its own distinct vibe, and like most freshmen, I've made it my goal to eat at least a few meals at each house. Lowell House's dining room, like any other house, is relatively cozy for its size, and it's got a yellow-mustard tinge to its walls. But the long windows that face the courtyard are lovely.

Back to the meal. I went for the salmon, spinach-apple-onion mixture of my obligatory vegetable serving and some canned mandarin oranges. The salmon was pretty good, and the spinach wasn't bad as it sounds. In fact, the sour-sweet apples helped pep up the somewhat bland flavor.
And no one can complain about canned oranges.

Then I found my heart's desire: the cheese table.

I should probably point out at this point that I have never really had a connection to cheese. My sister's adolescent addiction to mac-and-cheese (and none of that Velveeta stuff, kay-thanks-bye) never really spread to me. In fact, except for pizza, I would vehemently scrape the stuff off of my plate.

After several minutes of pacing and rationalizing to myself that "blue cheese isn't always evil," I hesitantly took a cracker with cheese. It crumbled in my mouth. Mmm, good; I took a plate. Ditto for the cheddar, and for the Swiss.

Two more things about the Lowell dining hall that I don't want to forget:

1. They have Tazo tea (at least sometimes, my friend explained). I've become a tea addict over the past year, partially because I really don't think the caffeine kick is that high and then, it actually turns out to be that way (this blog post sponsored by green tea, thanks!). My brew of choice was Tazo lotus tea, but after it suddenly disappeared from the grocery shelves, I was left leave-less this fall. Lowell doesn't have Tazo lotus, but they have the next best thing: Tazo green ginger. With or without honey, it leaves a spicy tingle in your throat that somehow manages to soothe it as well.

2. The froyo situation. My dormmates know that I'm addicted to frozen yogurt. In fact, the first thing I do upon entering an upperclass dining hall is check the froyo flavors. I was really excited when I went into Lowell because the choices were "German" chocolate and "strawberry with real strawberries"...and then I was warned.

"You should probably eat it with a blindfold," my friend informed me.
"Why...is it mushy?"
"It just...doesn't look very appetizing," someone jumped in.
"Can I eat it in a cone? Is it liquidy?"
"Well..."

Indeed, they were right - the froyo was ugly. And by the way? Melty strawberry and chocolate don't mix. Luckily, coconut ice cream (another reason why I go to upperclass dining halls: real ice cream, if you're lucky) was there to save the day. I don't even like coconut - I fully intend on donating any earned Almond Joys to my roommate on Wednesday - but it was good. It was like frothy coconut milk...and with that in mind, I left my tray on the dumbwaiter and stumbled out to the courtyard with another green ginger tea.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

An Update

Halfway across the country from Minnesota - and two months later - I'm sitting down in my dorm room, eagerly - and perhaps foolishly - avoiding my problem sets to blog right now.

A brief update on my status: in early September, I packed my bags and hummed the same Augustana tune as thousands of other apple-cheeked freshmen. (Apple-cheeked...it absolutely begged to be used in a sentence.) And now I'm a new "citizen-scholar" (if you will?) of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It feels like such a long time since then. With Opening Days came icebreakers and nonstop noshing of Herrell's ice cream. Now, I've just finished my first midterms, and you can imagine that the post-exam celebration involved food. Boston, Cambridge, even the Harvard bubble if you will - has some great places to eat. Thankfully, I haven't hit the freshman 15, but I've got the rest of the year. (Not that I'm trying to, of course.)

I've got lots to share: my new addiction (as my dormmates insist on calling it) to Berryline, why I recommend Bartley's Burgers to the high school seniors on college visits, and how living on a floor crammed with amazing cooks pays off. And of course, we can't forget the culinary roller-coaster that is the Harry Potter dining hall: Annenberg, where tourists fear to tread upon hungry freshmen (...not. Man, I hate flash cameras).

In short, this won't be the only hello you'll hear from me: I'm back on Foodivia.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Culinary Photo Tour: Part I


KS Seafood, 2163 S. China Place, Chicago

If you're wondering about the recent dearth of posts, it's not for lack of material - I've been eating my material. That said, I tried to run through the photos I've taken this summer, and admittedly, most of them were of food - I've been trying to hone my steady-shot technique, and what better subject than my lunch.

Here's one of the restaurants I tried during then: located in Chinatown, KS Seafood is a bit more upscale than its peers, but its major difference is that it serves Taiwanese food. (On a side note, it also has a wireless service button on each of its tables.)

Shown above is the gua bao, steamed bun ($12.95) - what I crudely call "taiwanese hamburger." In fact, gua bao is more than that - it's stewed pork in a thick, sweet soy glaze, wrapped in a steam bun and garnished with chopped peanut, pickled mustard greens and cilantro. The mustard greens give the gua bao a sweet and sour feel without being overwhelmingly sweet or sour.

Another highlight was the preserved pork and leek dish. Although it initally looked simple, the pork had a complex flavor and chewy texture. Lastly, the hakka was a standout. Since most Taiwanese people - and therefore Taiwanese restaurants - are of Holo ethnicity, it was quite interesting to have a Hakka dish at the table. A mix of vegetables, including bamboo and thin Chinese celery, plus strips of meat and squid and small fish, the dish was garlicky and seasoned with chopped, spicy peppers. Despite their size, the red peppers were really what added the heat to the hakka.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Things that bother me, #486

When ice cream (that includes fro-yo, shaved ice, popsicles, gelato, etc.) melts. Or worse, drips.

Don't let it happen.

Sincerely,
Heidi

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On a side note, I tried black sesame ice cream last weekend. It had the right "only-slightly-gritty" texture, but even better, had a mild taste that wasn't vanilla-y. In addition, my $1.75 cone came with two scoops, which I was allowed to divide into two cones. Yumtastic.

Monday, July 16, 2007

NYT: Food press day!

It continues to be a good day for reading New York Times...with my stomach. These two articles, relating to food, were on its online front page today:

American Food Writing

Sushi for Two

I particularly liked the latter article; I remember sixth grade when a girl ridiculed the kids in our class that dared to enjoy tofu. It's - in sixth-grade-terms - cool that we're approaching an era of more adventurous eating. Even if it's one that began long ago.

Cadbury Weekend

The juxtaposition here is interesting:

The World's Best Candy Bars? English, Of Course

Cadbury fined $2 million over unsafe chocolate

The Cadbury in my supermarket you find here does taste like a Hershey's; good to figure out that the bars made here are both made by the Man.

Admittedly, I'm not a fan of either brand. I've read frequently in other books that Hershey's tastes like sour milk, vomit, etc., and consequently, that idea was stuck in my head. I tend to think that Hershey's tastes more chocolate-y and less like chocolate. Given that reputation, prominently displaying the Hershey's brand on their new upgraded, single-origin bars might backfire. For me, Hershey fits better in a general "candy" category, rather than chocolate.

On the other hand, selling Cadbury in its own customized Underground vending machines is a nice touch, compared to finding a Hershey bar randomly stuck next to a bag of Fritos. Cadbury is also fun to say in a British accent. But even when I can get my hands on the real deal, it's a little too rich for me (albeit creative!).

Even though they hold Cadbury's U.S. licensing, I suppose Hershey's might be getting revenge: sweet revenge. (The pun was necessary.) When people are so nationalistically dedicated to their candy, what better way to retaliate than by buying an opponent out?

...though I might be wrong on all of this. I am, after all, one of three people in the world the only person I know who likes Mr. Goodbars.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Secret Menu: Drinks

Imagine this scene:

I strolled up to the bar and took a seat; the seats were cushiony. I winked smoothly at the bartender – he fully turned around – shoot, it wasn’t a dame. Still, I called out my order. The same order I had been calling out for five years…ever since my ex-wife left me five years ago. (That temptress.)

“I’ll take a blue dragon.”

“A what?” replied the bartender (let’s call him Billy). I could tell his mustache needed some trimming. Perhaps with my pistol, which was the only thing that could knock him down faster than my glare could…

I tipped him a five and walked away.

And this is what “off-the-menu drinks” conjures up in my head. Okay…so I exaggerated a tiny bit. But really, the idea of customized ordering is glamorous (albeit on the small scale, and although it shouldn’t be. After all, at Burger King, you’re supposed to have it your way), and it’s something I’m going to try. There is an extensive secret menu within chain restaurants, and I’ve picked three drinks to start off with:

1. The white gummi bear smoothie at Jamba Juice. This was something I saw on the Jamba Juice Wikipedia entry, before it was sidetracked to the secret menu. (Conspiracy!)

2. A London Fog. Not the cocktail, but the drink below on the Wikipedia page: Earl Grey tea steeped in soy milk and vanilla syrup. I was reading a Canadian coffee forum, and it seems that Starbucks makes it under-the-table because another chain has copyrighted the phrase. In the States, apparently 1369 Coffeehouse in Cambridge (Mass.) makes it. I'd still like to try ordering it at Starbucks and see how strange that might be.

3. Caffe Medici. In more detail from the Espresso and Coffee Glossary, another Canadian site:

A doppio poured over chocolate syrup and orange (and sometimes lemon) peel, usually topped with whipped cream. Formerly, the Last Exit, now gone, was one of the few places in town where you could get one of these, although I've heard recently that you can get a Caffe Medici at the Pearl, a coffee house also located on the Ave (where else?) which has been described to me as having "the spirit of the Last Exit more than the Last Exit in its final years."
I'll credit our neighbors up north for the last two picks - judging from their directions on where to get coffee, they just might be more dedicated than the rest of us.

If you're looking for more, Slate offers a more academic take on another off-the-menu Starbucks drink, the short cappucchino, and relates it to profit margins.

And as they put it, all you have to do is ask.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Three quick observations about the Food Channel

(Apologies - it looks like this didn't post through the first time.)

1. As much as I love Food Channel (and despite the fact that it makes everyone hungry), it strikes me as a little strange that they don't call their hosts "cooks" or "foodlovers," they're personalities.

2. Tyler Florence kind of looks like Bobby Flay.

3. I read this article in the New York Times about the growing trend of female food personalities to wear V-necks (cashmere and three-quarter sleeves) in order to allude to some sexuality. We don't note that most men on the Food Channel are in chef's whites or plaid button-downs, but rather, the article's interesting to think about in juxtaposition with the fact that despite the idea of the kitchen as a "female domain," the majority of executive chefs at restaurants remain male. I doubt this piece will ever be a controversial moment in the NYT, but to what extent does it really help the advancement of female cooks (or food personalities)? And does it have to?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Female Food Writing (part two)

This week, it was back to food reading...as well as the trip to the library. In searching for "food writing" in the catalog, Through the Kitchen Window: Women Writers Explore the Intimate Meaning of Food and Cooking (ed. Arlene Voski Avakian) was on top of the list.

Unfortunately, that was kind of a misnomer, because this book related more to gender studies than food. (The editor is a associate professor of women's studies.) Don't get me wrong - I love how food intertwines with everything, including gender, and as a female, I think it's incredibly important to observe how such a basic function like eating relates to identity. But in my opinion, the majority of this anthology was overly ambitious by attempting to tie the relationship between food and gender into one neat bow. Ultimately, the food writing portion suffered. Pieces that focused exclusively on narrative or on an academic perspective tended to be better reading - standouts included "Laying on Hands through Cooking: Black Women's Majesty and Mystery in Their Own Kitchens" by Gloria Wade-Gayles, and "Follow the Food" by Barbara Haber. But for the most part, no piece was particularly memorable. I was also uncomfortable with the explicit material in some essays.

On the other hand, I'm in the first half of Cornbread Nation 1 (ed. John Egerton), an annual anthology of Southern food writing. While its Southern nostalgia overwhelms me at times as I read, each cook's profile draws me in. The writing doesn't have as much "sparkly metaphor" as Through the Kitchen Window, but the storytelling paints a vivid picture nonetheless. The food is not necessarily the main character here - sometimes dedication is - but it plays a meaningful role. Interestingly enough, it's easier for me - a teenage girl who has never been to the South - to identify with this compilation.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Review: I-Mei Black Sesame Ice Cream Omochi

I
After a review of chocolate, I felt like continuing on the ol' dessert route. I-Mei Black Sesame Ice Cream Omochi ($5) did the trick. It was the last box in the Chinese market freezer, so I was a little bit suspicious, but I decided to interpret that as overwhelming consumer demand rather than the possibility of being a guinea pig. My mother also told me that I-Mei, as a well-known Taiwanese brand, would be reliable with taste.

I opened the box - there were five packages of 2 mochi (called "omochi" here) each, filled with black sesame ice cream. Each ball was relatively larger and heavier, compared to other ice cream mochi brands: about 2 inches in diameter. I did like the individual packaging of the ice cream mochi (above), but the tiny two-pronged fork, while cute, was useless. I used my fingers.

Some freezer burn was evident on my mochi, but again, my observation may have been based on my "guinea pig paranoia." Holding the mochi (still dusted with rice flour) seemed to get rid of the burn; I found that if I waited a little longer, the shell as well as the ice cream took on a softer, more "authentic" texture.

As for the ice cream center, it initially tasted like vanilla, with small pieces of sesame grit, but as time passed, I tasted some (but not much) black sesame as it began to melt. I did like the texture of the mochi better than other brands, and I did like the fact that it highlighted an Asian flavor. In fact, this mochi reminded me of a Chinese dessert - much smaller "mochi" with sesame or red bean filling, boiled in hot water. This particular omochi seemed too "sophisticated" to be a novelty (like a chocolate mochi), but would be improved if the black sesame flavor was stronger.

I'm back, and I'm still a Chocolate Snob.

Apologies - graduation (and the barrage of activities that go along with it) have held me captive for about the past two weeks. That isn't to say that I've stopped eating, though. Incidentally, three of the more memorable experiences this week involved food:

  • The post-commencement reception - besides the jumbo cocktail shrimp, my personal favorite was the Craisin/bleu cheese endive "boats."
  • Playing Apples to Apples - which really doesn't have to do with food, but for the fact that it's named after a food...or an idiom. Whew, I finally figured that out.
  • Accidentally eating rum-soaked pineapple at one open house. Because I've never had alcohol, I thought the pineapple was canned in sugar water. Until after my third piece, I wondered why the chocolate fountain was so...bitter.
That said, I absolutely love dark chocolate. For the past few years, I have had trouble eating Hershey's chocolate (with the exception of recently-released Coconut Hershey's Kisses) as a result of its sour milk taste.

Last week, I made a trip to Whole Foods. Not including local chocolatiers (e.g. Bellaria Bakery, Just Truffles, BT McElrath, etc.) this is the place to go for good chocolate - to clarify, chocolate bars that don't empty my wallet.

Or at least, where I took a pilgrimage a la Steve Almond. His hilarious book, Candyfreak - specifically, the chapter on Lake Champlain chocolates - took me on a search for Five Star Bars to celebrate the end of finals.

My first find, the Fruit and Nut Bar ($2.49) was beyond brilliant. A quick disclaimer: the bar is about the size of a tiny 1" by 2" brick. But it's also as dense as one, which makes it about $1.25 an ounce - a fairly reasonable price. The Gianduja chocolate cut easily with a butter knife and melted in my mouth; there was just the right amount of fruit and nut (dried cherries) so that it didn't taste like trail mix. It also held well in my Tupperware for a few days - the chocolate was (enjoyably) rich enough to consume in three sittings.

The alleged crown jewel of the Five Star Bars, the Hazelnut Bar ($2.99), was more difficult to find. Before I searched Whole Foods, I tried to custom-order a box from Byerly's (which didn't work out). Unfortunately, as my search continued, my expectations had grown so high that when I finally found the Hazelnut Bar, it was a letdown. Steve Almond's account of the chocolate absolutely made me swoon, but in actuality, the chocolate seemed more cream than actual chocolate, and the sugar content made it hard to swallow without the chocolate coating my throat. The feuilletine (or "vanilla-infused geometric planes" as Almond calls them) were a nifty, crunchy little touch, especially when I cut the thick bar into cross-sections, but overall, the bar was too rich for my taste.

Moving on to different brands, I tried the Chocolove 55% cocoa with raspberries bar. Initially, I was attracted to the fact that 1) it was on sale ($2 for 3.2 ounces) and 2) it had a love poem as an insert.

I was also disappointed with this bar. The chocolate wasn't a problem, but the raspberries were a distraction. What had been advertised as "crispy bits of raspberry infused to flavor" was basically the same freeze-dried stuff found in Special K berry cereal, only in less generous quantities. The love poem was just English and obscure enough to seem trendy, and to apparently "accommodate" the poem, the large paper wrapper had made the chocolate bar seem thicker than it actually was.

Finally, I bought the Dolfin Chocolate Noir au the Earl Grey ($3.99 for 2.47 ounces). This 52% cocoa minimum came in a checkbook-sized, plastic-covered envelope. Major points for presentation (although it was covered by the price). There was no signs of caloric content, and so I cheerfully indulged over the past week. It was good, but try as I might, I could not taste the Earl Grey tea in the chocolate. There was no sense of bergamot (which gives Earl Grey its distinctive taste), although the chocolate did have some "grit" to it. Some of the bar tasted like coffee grounds - which wasn't a bad thing, texturally. The problem was that they were just tea bits without flavor.

Although most chocolate bars come in squares, I have a problem with this. First, squares are hard to remove from a bar. You have to break the bar in one direction, and then in the other. The Dolfin solved this problem by simply dividing the chocolate in little vertical chunks. I would also argue that triangle shaped pieces (not like Tolberone, though - those things are tough!) on a flat plane would do the trick. They tend to break the bar "naturally" and are easier to nibble on.

Lastly - now that we're on the subject of Earl Grey tea - did you know that Twinings makes a female equivalent called Lady Grey? Kind of sounds like the reverse situation as Men's Pocky.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Against Preparing Food (but not Eating)

350. Good baked goods?
They don't exist.
Simply, eveything is half-baked, or half-
good. Nothing is both.
At least, not in metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.
Certainly not in my kitchen.
Just like how Descartes argued for body/soul,
I argue for baked/good.

375. Then again,
effort has never quite been
so mindlessly tasty. All you need to do
is chisel
frozen cookie dough chunks
with your chortling clan.
Why not enjoy your family
in thirty-minute intervals,
just like those Nestle commercials.

400. And I won't stop, because
this
is a protest: I speak
for those poor mascots exploited.
I refuse to eat Charlie the Tuna, and even
the Jolly Green Giant.
So go ahead and
toss the tuna noodle casserole
into the garbage.

But the Pillsbury Doughboy is one
exception.

425. At this point, here is my solution.
It's rather simple - I am a master of Pizza Rolls.
Pizza Rolls are meant to toast,
As much as I am meant to
not cook.
Only just as grand as the Grand Unifying Theory,
my toaster and I.

(written this spring for my poetry class)

Monday, June 4, 2007

This is Foodivia: #4

Certain members of my quiz bowl team have prompted me with the following:
"Heidi, we get questions about food all the time during meets."
"Not as many as Bill Gates questions."
"But quiz bowl questions about food are exactly about Foodivia. Write about us."

So let me tell you about food and quiz bowl: each competition featured greasy pizza. And another time, our teammate John once brought a half-gallon of chocolate milk from a gas station. He drank half of it straight from the jug, then offered it to a rival team. But I digress. (After all, food does play a starring role in memory.)

The two food questions I remember:
"The Japanese term that means to grill..." "Hibachi!"
"From French roots, the cooking term that means to delicately slice..." "Julienne!"

Julienning was something I had briefly encountered. Yet, it was "obscure" enough to be a quiz bowl question. Interestingly enough, my inspiration for this blog was that question - the first example of foodivia I encountered.

Do forgive my nostalgia, of course.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Remembrance of Things Brat


After a one-year hiatus, I finally returned to the Minneapolis Farmer's Market.

The reason for this is simple. I had, after all, been following a perfectly logical extension of Newton's first law of motion: a teen in bed stays in bed during the weekend. That is, until I was bribed with a bratwurst from the market stand...in which case I set my alarm for 8:30 am.

It was rather cool when I arrived around 10:15, several snooze alarms later - the perfect time to shop and carry vegetables without being too exhausted. I was particularly excited because
recent trends in food writing had pointed to organic food and locally-grown produce. One Minneapolis example is an article in which someone followed well-known chef Brenda Langton (the chef of acclaimed Spoonriver) as she bought her ingredients from the market last year.

But while the fiddle music bolstered my spirits that day, I didn't end up buying any produce.
The market was different from how I had remembered it. This time around, more vendors were selling strawberries and raspberries out of Driscoll's boxes. The sugarsnap peas weren't in their "usual" place, in the green boxes resembling egg cartons.

Maybe it was just too early, or it was a flower day. (After all, I did end up buying a carton of pansies.) I headed to the roasted corn stand, where a woman traded me a ear of corn hastily slathered in butter mixture for $2. I shook lemon pepper on it, and let its sourness dissolve into the sweetness of the corn; it was good.

Next, it was time for the bratwurst. I edged up to the counter. "A bratwurst with vegetables, please. And a lemonade." The man yelled to the other side: "Bratwurst, not naked!" then slid a cup down at me. The lemonade consisted of a half lemon squeezed and thrust in the cup. I took a sip, catching the powdery sugar on the bottom. My bratwurst arrived. I could see in the huge heap of vegetables that none of them were grilled, like I had thought years ago. "$6.50." Digging for quarters, I handed the money over.

The market was crowded as ever; I managed to get a spot with six other strangers at a red picnic table while soon figuring out my small apprehension over the price, though. Everything - corn, brat, lemonade - had gone up exactly a dollar since I had last came. But the brat was amazing; it probably tasted better since I had learned to appreciate red peppers. Even more, it brought me back to memories of other brats as I began to mentally compare this new "best brat" to other incidents. After some hesitation, I finally ranked it number one, beating my eight-year-old marvel at the beer-and-cheddar brat served at the church retreat (or mainly the fact that the brat had beer).

I still enjoyed coming to the farmer's market and might enjoy it some more in the future. I must admit that I wonder a little bit if the prices are compensating more for higher quality or more for the atmosphere, and I was disappointed in the dearth of fresh vegetables that week. Many things have changed, and not just in the price.

It could be me, too.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Review: Ming Dragon Chinese Restaurant

Encouragement to find lesser-known places in the Twin Cities led me to, in typical-rebellious-adolescent fashion (well, not really), head out of Minneapolis and into the south suburbs. Aside from Mandarin Kitchen in Bloomington, the south suburbs aren’t really known for Asian cuisine. Case in point: I searched Google Maps first with “asian restaurants,” but an initial search yielded Leeann Chin and…Hooters.

Not to be discouraged, I called someone else who lived around there. Might they know of a Asian restaurant? She did, and to boot, added that it wasn’t too bad. It was somewhere…in Savage, but she didn’t remember the name. I searched Google Maps again. A detailed “Chinese restaurant” search this time resulted in three Chinese restaurant listings. Interestingly enough, two of them bore the same address, only with different names.

My “logical skills” deducted that a Chinese restaurant would still be at that location, so
enter my drive to Ming Dragon Chinese Restaurant (4391 Highway 13 W, Savage). After some five miles past gas stations and a Famous Dave’s, I hadn’t seen it yet and was about to turn in the opposite direction of the road. Fortunately, the turn we looped into was actually the side street where Ming Dragon was located; I almost missed it as it was on a strip mall corner.

The restaurant was clean, but as it was past peak lunch hour, around 1:30, there were only about four customers inside. All of them were having the lunch buffet; they seemed relaxed as they read the newspaper. I checked the food at the buffet, but it was dry, probably because it was too late to cook for potential customers. Instead, I asked for a menu, which only came in a dinner version.

The food arrived fairly quickly. I had ordered the “fish filet with green vegetable” ($10.50) and the “mapo bean curd” (a traditional Szechuan dish with chile, ground pork, and tofu, $7.95). I was slightly apprehensive about ordering the former, not because I did not know what the green vegetable was, but because it was American broccoli. That said, the presentation was very nice, as seen above. The fish was well textured, with bits of mushroom and tiny ginger squares in the thick sauce for flavor. However, the small portion did not seem worth the $10.50. I wondered whether I was paying dinner prices for a lunch portion – not a uncommon situation at other restaurants.

As for the mapo bean curd, it never came; the kitchen had made the wrong order of tofu. This was initially disheartening because I had wanted something spicy; in addition, the waiter had shrugged the wrong order off. However, the braised tofu with shitake mushroom (also $7.95) was our replacement, and more importantly, was not a disappointment. The shitake mushrooms were large, and there was a slight taste of ginger in the garlic sauce (which was the thick enough to spoon onto rice). Furthermore, instead of having been bought pre-fried, the tofu had been deep-fried in the kitchen. (You can usually tell if tofu has been pre-fried if it tastes like a sponge. Also, store-bought tofu is usually cut into triangles.) This allowed it to remain hot at the table with a soft texture.

My summary: while I would probably not make a special drive (at risk of getting lost again) to go to Ming Dragon, if you’re in the south suburban area, it's good enough to stop by and try for yourself.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

This is Foodivia: #3

#2 and #1 (the actual definition of foodivia) are here and here, respectively.

Not to paraphrase Johnny Gilbert with my post title, but besides the “Did you knows?” I’ve also been searching examples of foodivia. And there are so many of them, it’s absolutely wonderful. Here is one that absolutely nailed my arbitrary definition on the head, from Floyd Skloot’s “Jambon Dreams”:

Halfway through lunch, [my brother] began the ritual quiz: “Okay, what’s a hero sandwich called in Philadelphia?”
“A hoagie.”
“In Boston?”
“Grinder.”
“What about Chicago?”
“A sub.”
“And why do they call it a sub?”
“Because it’s shaped like a submarine.”


Esq. Supertaster?

A food writer with no capacity for taste. A wave of nausea hit. I had no idea if it was the sour cream or white-hot panic. - David Leite, from "Tales of a Supertaster"

67% of the books that I’ve read this week (consisting of Eating My Words and Best Food Writing 2006) referred to Dr. Linda Bartoshuk. She’s a Yale professor who has developed tasks to evaluate how sensitive to a taste or taste element (e.g. sweet or sour) an individual is. (An example would be the test that our class did in biology, when we placed paper strips on our tongues to test our sensitivity of PCP PTC. This dominant trait causes most people to taste the paper as bitter.)

There is so much to be said about the sensation of food in your mouth, and most writers describe it from an emotional perspective. But the word “sensation,” like “sensual,” derives from the word “sense” – something grounded by physiological observation. In a similar vein, Bartoshuk’s research examines the biological basis and mechanism of taste, something we often overlook. Maybe we forget what our meatloaf tastes like because we’re engaged in a dinner conversation, but it could also be because we have stuffy noses – or as Bartoshuk’s lab considers, we’re genetically less sensitive to the flavors that comprise meatloaf.

Although Bartoshuk calls those significantly more sensitive to these tests "supertasters," but Connecticut food writer Leite discovers that the term doesn't refer to "gustatory supremacy." Nevertheless, I'm still interested. It's an good reason for a New Haven field trip.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Female Food Writing

(Unrelated Did You Know?: right now, I'm watching a special on a chocolatier in Taiwan that makes chocolate shaped to look like Hermes purses. Just thought that was interesting.)

"From the nameless fifteen-year-old bride given book-length instructions on how to run her husband's home, to M.F.K. Fisher [one of the first modern food writers] who dared to write about men the way Brillat-Savarin [a 18th century male writer who related female sexuality to food] wrote about women, the history of food writing became the story of the long, slow struggle toward women's emancipation."
- Mark Kurlansky in Choice Cuts

Currently on chapter seven (of thirty), I've managed to go through chapters in Choice Cuts entitled "Not Eating" and "Food And Sex." (For your information, the latter's contents are much, much more discreet than say, Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back video featuring fruit. As I learned on a VH1 retrospective.)

The above excerpt (I believe it was in that same chapter) caught my interest,as it somewhat related to my History Day essay (quick thesis: While advertising for appliances and pre-prepared food in the 1920s and 1930s championed emancipation from housework for women, it simultaneously and intentionally pressured them into the image of the "perfect housewife" that shied away from suffrage).

The paragraph also seemed to mesh perfectly with the confident voices of female food writers I have read. Aside from the anthologies I have been reading, I read Mimi Sheraton's memoir Eating My Words as well as Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires. It was difficult to not compare the books to one another - while Sheraton and Reichl were both restaurant critics at the New York Times, their tenures were about two decades apart, but even with that, as very "strong" women, their personalities were similar (great, since critics are supposed to have opinions on food).

They also both dealt with comparisons to male reviewers, which I thought was interesting - those incidents played on the idea that there is "male food," and then there is "female food" (invariably more delicate), and that for example, a woman couldn't adequately review steaks.

Fortunately, these women rose above these misguided ideas, and fortunately for my reading, each book's main theme was different. Sheraton focused on how her food career spanned her entire life, while Reichl examined her career at the NYT (dividing each section of her book as a different disguise that she would use at restaurants); I enjoyed the specificity of the latter more and probably would recommend that first.

That said, time to read about bread - excellent.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thursday's here, which means...

the arrival of the Star Tribune's Taste section on my doorstep. I love the Taste section, for several reasons:

1. It provides a rationale for me to eat at new restaurants. "But...it was reviewed by the Strib!" And sometimes, to buy new products (read: pomegranate chip ice cream).
2. I can cook vicariously by marveling over the pictures that accompany the recipes. (This is actually a reason why I've started to begin reading Martha Stewart Living.)
3. If Foodivia was a word (in the same vein as truthiness), then the Eat Your Words game is definitely foodivia (remember, food + trivia?). Tucked into the corner of one of the pages, it's a word game that tests your knowledge of food/cooking terms.

Today's Taste featured the "Taste 50," subtitled "Fifty people, products, places and ideas that make Minnesota the place for food fans." This time, nothing related to the State Fair was on the list, which makes me relieved that I hadn't missed out on deep-fried Snickers bars last year. (But...did you know that deep-fried Snickers bars are not unique to the Minnesota State Fair?)

The Taste 50 is an listing I annually pore over, and as usual, there were plenty of things I didn't know about. I'm hoping to try them soon (perhaps another quest for this blog?) -- but I was particularly excited at the second entry: Dong Yang. I would yell "Scoop," but judging from the fact that Dong Yang's always packed on weekend lunches, I don't think I was the first one to find out...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Three Rs

You might be wondering what I do aside from eating on this senior program, or what I'm doing in between blog posts. Like traditional learning, it can be summarized from the above acronym.

1. Reading
I love to read, and I read almost everything. If I'm particularly bored at the dentist's office, I will actually read a copy of Bikers Today or something like that if it's there. Granted, if Gourmet is on that same coffee table, I will pick that up first.

Reading about food was what got me interested in writing about food. Furthermore, I'm hoping to improve as a food writer/blogger through examples.

I'm currently reading three books:
- Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History (Mark Kurlanser, ed.)
- Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life (Mimi Sheraton, former NYT food critic)
- Best Food Writing 2006 (Holly Hughes, ed.)

If you'd like to read with me, I suggest beginning with the latter. The Best Food Writing annual anthologies is a sampler of a diverse array of topics, from barbeque to candy bars to childhood. It was the 2004 edition given to me as a Christmas present that culminated in this senior program proposal. I may write reviews upon finishing this reading.

2. Writing
What you see in this blog post. Something I've learned is that reviews take longer than I thought, even with a subject in mind. I've also learned to take detailed (though discreet) notes at the dinner table.

3. Arithmetic
Okay, so recipes have numbers in them. And you can use proportions (from pre-algebra) to make them for greater or fewer servings.

But my project title is "Food = Life, Food = Art" (whenever I don't feel like saying the "equals" sign, I say "as" instead). And although I can't draw a still life of fruit, aside from a lopsided banana, eating and writing are things that I hope to refine - discovering the complex layers (insert cake metaphor here) within each. With that said, one larger theme I am working on within this blog is what food means to me and to people in general. I wonder if I can sum it up in one large statement - "Food = Life" is deep, but a little broad. Aside from that "equation," my next guess would be "Food = Emotion." Couples save the top layer for their wedding cakes for sentiment. For a crude example, after a person throws up a certain food, they often are not willing to eat it at a later time in their life. I have a feeling this is a question that will take longer than three weeks to answer, but for now, that's my conjecture.

Review: Whole Foods'/Byerly's Asian selection


My friends know that I dislike Leeann Chin (the Midwest fast food restaurant chain). I should probably note that I have had some success with their Peking Chicken Stir-Fry (mainly because it has jicama). (Yes, for the most part, these informational links lead you to Wikipedia.)

That said, I complain often enough about Americanized Asian food, although I have gotten accustomed to it. Another complaint that I have is regarding the dearth of vegetables in my entrees at Americanized Asian fast food places. More often than not, I get meat in a tasty brown sauce over my rice. No veggies - unless they involve a (not-so-very) special fungi. That said, I began a quest for vegetables, and for really good - not just edible bordering on vaguely tasty - lemon chicken. Or something to that effect.

I went to Whole Foods first and bought some sweet and sour tofu ($7.99/pound) and teriyaki sweet potatoes ($6.99/pound). Following that, a trip to Byerly's yielded me Big Bowl Chinese Express, in the same spot where Leeann Chin had been a year earlier. And my Big Bowl Chinese Express choice was the teriyaki chicken ($6.99 regular size, $5.79 small).

The sweet and sour tofu was not really typical tofu, but bean curd, a tougher, denser version that explained the more expensive price. It was nowhere near sweet and sour, and not particularly Asian, but was vaguely sweet and salty. The bean curd, because of its texture, did not absorb the sauce but was nonetheless pretty good, especially if you treated the sauce as a light dip. Chopped green onion added flavor, though I wished the red pepper slices were thicker to contribute more sweetness.

The teriyaki sweet potatoes were long, quartered and covered in sesame seeds. They also looked shriveled. Nonetheless, the interior was moist, although some potato pieces were clearly less cooked than others. The teriyaki sauce was slightly sweet and even a little bit spicy, a good complement to the chewy texture.

Finally, the teriyaki chicken. While I enjoy Big Bowl as a sit-down restaurant, its Express chains in Byerly's don't match the main restaurant's flavors. For example, the kung pao chicken on display had a significantly lighter tone than that served in the restaurant. In addition, the entrees are limited, and in particular, none of Big Bowl's noodle dishes are available via Express. Instead, a refrigerated peanut noodle salad was in the case. The teriyaki chicken that I ordered was standard Teriyaki, but the sauce was a little too sweet and rich for my taste. Green peas added color to the chicken, but were few and far between, and didn't soften up the tough texture of the chicken.

My verdict? I would pass on the teriyaki chicken, but I think it's up to you on the teriyaki sweet potatoes and the sweet and sour tofu. Of those two, I preferred the latter; I could see myself becoming bored with the teriyaki sweet potatoes after one serving.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Review: Dong Yang



735 45th Ave NE, Minneapolis (Google Maps tells me that this is in Minneapolis, but I know better...well, it's somewhere in or between the towns of Columbia Heights and Hilltop, next to Fridley.)

When you drive into Dong Yang's parking lot, you're immediately confronted by a giant hardware store next door. That's okay - because Dong Yang is just as big. In fact, Dong Yang's official name is Dong Yang Oriental Foods and is the largest Korean supermarket I know of in the Twin Cities.

Walk in and don't take a cart. You should probably shop after the meal, when you're not hungry. (But Dong Yang has a lot of food - from the Korean equivalent of Pocky to aloe vera juice.) Head to the back of the store and turn left at the meat counter. You'll find an opening with tables, chairs and a counter. This is Dong Yang's restaurant: the decor is lacking, but clean. On Sunday lunches, it's full. It's also self-service, so choose what you want from the signs on the wall surrounding the counter that comprise the menu and pay up.

In general, when I go to a Korean restaurant in the area with friends (for example, King's, Mirror of Korea, or Shilla-turned-another-name-I-can't-remember), I order at least one of the following three dishes because they tend to be friend-pleasers:

1) Bibimbap. This is the dish pictured above: it's a large serving of rice covered with cooked vegetables and thin sliced beef, then topped off with an egg. If you request it to be served in a stone bowl (which usually amounts to a $2 price increase), it's a showpiece as it sizzles in the pot. You would also be required to do some cooking work by adding hot sauce to your taste and stirring the rice in the bowl so that it's evenly browned and not too wet.

2)Bulgogi. Thinly sliced, it is Korean barbequed beef with a slightly-sweet marinade of mainly garlic and soy sauce. The secret ingredient, though? Grated Asian pear. At times it is also stirfried with sliced white onion for additional flavor. With large orders, it is often grilled tableside. Bulgogi can be eaten by itself, or wrapped in a lettuce leaf with hot sauce.

3) Japchae. This dish consists of clear cellophane noodles made up of sweet potato flour (like transparent vermicelli). Vegetables (zucchini and mushroom seem to be popular in Minnesotan restaurants) and sliced beef are added, and the japchae is stir-fried in sesame oil and soy sauce. This makes for a smooth texture to the noodles without them being slimy.

In general, these tend to be consistent good dishes to try for your first time at a Korean restaurant. They will also come with a set of small dishes (about six) that you eat with your meal. At Dong Yang, at least two will be some form of the infamous kimchee (one lettuce, one daikon). Another might be mung bean sprouts; all six dishes will have been chosen for the day. If you are lucky, you might get slices of fish paste slices (there is no overwhelming fishy smell to them) in sesame oil. If you're really lucky, you'll get their batch of marinated potatoes, which are coated in a sweet pseudo-crust. Dong Yang does allow take-out orders, but make sure that you specifically request the small dishes; otherwise, they will not be included.

The ordering process at Dong Yang:
1. Pick your meal. In general, dishes are written in Korean with English translations in small text on the side. I've written down these translations below as best I remember.
2. Pay.
3. Get your chopsticks, napkins, etc. from the containers adjacent to the register. Some of you may have qualms about this; they are clean.
4. Make sure you get some of the roasted barley tea from the coffee machine to the left; pour it on your own from the stacks of styrofoam cups.
5. If you order bibimbap (described below), grab a tube of hot sauce from the counter as well for your table; return it when you're done using it.

When waiting for your food, it pays to be observant. Your food will come to the counter and the cook will yell the order, in Korean. The small dishes (read below) will come in a tray just before your actual orders. When in doubt, you may want to ask if that is your order. After your meal, you'll want to bus your trays to the cart in front of the kitchen door.

Over my (frequent) visits at Dong Yang, I've tried about seventy percent of the menu. The bibimbap ("rice in hot stone bowl," $9.99) is excellent; in particular, they tend to give a large quantity of one ingredient, the bellflower root/fern stems (I'm not exactly sure what a bellflower root is, but I'll find out) which adds a tough, crunchy texture to the mix. Their hot sauce is also not too watery but not too thick, which means it evenly spreads throughout the rice mixture (see additional picture).

While the bulgogi ("sliced beef") is reasonably priced at $9.99, flavor (salty/not as much flavor) and quantity tended also to be inconsistent; sometimes, there was a greater proportion of onions versus beef. The japchae ("clear noodles with vegetables," $9.99) was also not a standout. Unlike other restaurants, there was also more vegetables than noodles sometimes, which took away from the dish. The noodles tended to have less flavor and were drier as a result.

That said, Dong Yang is probably my favorite Korean restaurant so far. The quantity is usually quite generous, and if you experiment off the menu, the results tend to be great. My mom's favorite was the noodles in black bean sauce ($7.99); the dish is very similar to another Taiwanese dish. In general, the sauce contains chopped pork, onions and carrots slathered in the dark sauce over noodles. (Warning: if your taste depends on your food's appearance, don't order this dish.) The dish is probably a acquired taste, as the noodles became less sticky and the sauce a little bit more flavorful the second time.

Another notable dish was the seafood pancake ($9.99). Typically, most Korean restaurants create a circular, crepe-like patty with squid, shrimp and onion decoratively placed in a circular design. Dong Yang's rendition, by these terms, was radically good. Think a 9"x13" rectangle cut into 2"x2" squares. Each square is filled with squid and green onion, like the others, but more so. The batter (I believe cornstarch-based) that holds it together is deep fried and served with a soy sauce and sesame seed-onion dipping sauce.

Finally, the mackerel in spicy sauce ($11.99) is a slight misnomer. It's not all that spicy, and it doesn't just contain mackerel. Rather, it is a mackerel covered in a spicy-sweet sauce that goes well with plain rice. Large chunks of daikon and carrot, also marinated in this sauce, surround the dish. It had a complex flavor that I got seconds for.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Update on senior program: I am eating.


Thanks for the comments. I just realized that they were getting "blocked" by my account, but feel free to post - they should be working fine now.

After two messages, one plane trip (!) and three voicemails, I got my first lunch scheduled - for a half-hour. Hurray! (Anyone I actually know: if you'd like to be part of any additional trips, please email me to schedule a time.)

Review: Chin's Kitchen, 1533 Larpenteur Ave West, St Paul
It's hard to find authentic Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities, but Chin's Kitchen is one of them. It's even harder to find a Taiwanese restaurant in the area (with the exception of Evergreen on Nicollet Avenue), but Chin's Kitchen is that, too.

Like most Chinese restaurants, Chin's Kitchen has a full dine-in menu with chow mein, but the real deal is on the back page. "Hot dishes" and "cold dishes" are both labeled in Chinese and English. I tried favorites that the majority of people I had talked to had recommended to me.

First up was the seaweed salad ($2.40). Taiwanese seaweed salads are unlike Japanese seaweed salad (bright green, stringy) in that they are darker in color. While some seaweed salads feature thick strands of seaweed tied in knots, this salad was cut in thin, smooth strips. The texture worked well with the flavor, which was pleasantly more "garlicky" than soy-based, but did not overpower the actual seaweed taste. The assorted roasted sampler ($6.35) contains this as well as some other appetizers and was generally very good over my trips.

Next was the beef stew ($5.70). Chin's Kitchen is known among family friends for its soups, so I didn't exactly need a repeat visit for this. I ordered it anyway. That said, it was excellent. Note that unlike American beef stew (read: biscuits and thick stew), this beef stew is more of a soup. The texture of the noodles was wide enough and hearty for the stronger flavor of the beef broth, and the beef was pre-cut in manageable pieces. Carmelized onions also added to the flavor.

I custom-ordered the pork stew (above photo, $5.70), the beef stew's equivalent, with rice noodles (a popular option) instead of the typical wide noodles or rice. It also came with an additional five-spice egg, a traditional Taiwanese appetizer. While the staff was flexible enough to accomodate me, changing the noodles probably was not a good idea on my part. The rice noodles absorbed nearly all the soup, making it more delicately flavored than it needed to be. However, on a later visit, the pork stew was rather tasty over rice. The egg was nicely flavored.

Finally, I went to the extreme: I went off the menu. That is, I asked the owner about any new dishes that would soon be on the menu. She came back with a large bowl of a traditional Taiwanese recipe she was trying out. I recognized it as a soup that my mother made. Pronounced "bah gay" (nasal "n" overtone on the "gay" sound), the dish consists of pork covered with fish paste, then boiled in a shiitake mushroom-black pepper soup with Napa cabbage. Chin's took a different route - while they did the same thing, they also boiled taro and ginger (both roots) together for their soup base. The ginger flavor was particularly strong and added a heated flavor to the soup without making it sour (a problem that can occur when making it). I'm not sure when this will be added to the menu, but I ordered a bowl home for the road.

Chin's isn't made to be a banquet facility, but it does offer authentic homestyle Taiwanese food - a rare occurence. Portions are also generous, especially at the price. The restaurant also offers a take-out, but not with the more Chinese menu. However, if you asked, it probably would be fine with the friendly staff. If not, go for the juicy potstickers (10 for $6.00). One particular pro is that the bottom of each is evenly browned.

Did you know?
"Smarties [the British, Nestle equivalent to M&M's] are oblate spheroids with a minor axis of about 5 mm and a major axis of about 15 mm." - Wikipedia

This fact just needed to be heard because I have never used the phrase "oblate spheroids" before (hello to all math teachers!). And despite having collected M&M dispensers for fourteen years of my life, I have never measured an M&M nor Smartie...so I'm impressed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Introducing...Foodivia.

The second-most frequent conversation I've been asked this month is "What are you doing for your senior program?" (Senior program is the independent project seniors at our school complete in May.)

I always reply, "Eating."
"What? Aren't you supposed to actually do something?"
"Yeah...I'm eating."
"That's like getting credit for breathing. What a slacker."
"Ohh, let me clarify: my senior program is food writing."
"Food...writing?"
"Yeah. Writing about food."
"People do that? Oh, like reviews?"
"Yup - I'm excited."
"Me too. When are you bringing me out for lunch?"

---

I'm Heidi.

I've always liked writing, and even before that, I liked eating. For me, food writing intersects both realms. This blog will document my interactions with food - and some of yours, via feedback from comments and even guest bloggers. One of the larger themes of this blog will be how cultures are expressed in food. On this blog, I'll be writing restaurant reviews for (mostly) Minnesota as well as personal essays. Soon, I'll be investigating what "chocolatey chips" really are. I'm not a cook - as my friends know, the closest thing I have to a gourmet specialty is Pizza Rolls (Totino's), but I might try to make something. I'll keep you updated on that, too.

As for the name of the blog, Foodivia: it's a portmanteau of "food" and "trivia" - two of my very favorite topics. Where does the trivia come in? Well, this is a learning experience for me, from the writing to the eating, and I'm excited to take advantage of all the fun tidbits that will come along. There'll be a regular "Did you know?" feature - ranging from cooking techniques to weird facts about snack foods. (For your information, the Golden Gate Bridge is 28,800 Oreos long. I have an "Oreo Trivia" mug that tells me these things...)

So join me here - and happy eating.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Upon return, false expectations...

Where dinner and musical theatre meet...




...so that's why they call it dinner theatre.

(As previously referred to, Annenberg would be the freshman dining hall.)