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.