Category Archives: food

Awakening the inner chile

The world outside New Mexico has finally discovered Hatch Chiles. Not that they’ll stop spelling “chile” as “chili” but at least they’ll stop using those damn Ortega’s.
Like ice cream being the new cupcake or paleo being the new Zone diet, there is nothing hotter than being in the know about Hatch chiles in August. Used to be I’d have to pack them in a cooler for the 16-hour drive from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, or stash them frozen in my luggage for the flight. Friends that knew I was packing the green stuff prepared for my arrival by buying posole, orange cheese, Negro Modelo and cubed pork butt. The short harvest season (six weeks) makes timing super important.

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Now it seems globalization has hit Hatch. 18-wheelers that have driven all night from New Mexico to California set up in school parking lots filled with burlap bags of chile, and if you’re really in the know you will ask for “Chavez” to roast your stash. Now that Bristol Farms has fully embraced this “the roast is on” fad, in the cake and cookie department the signs say “It’s now or next year! Hatch chiles are here!”

In the cheese department, “It’s now or next year! Hatch chiles are here!”
In the meat department, where at least there you can get tenderloin marinated with HATCH CHILES! or sausage made with HATCH CHILES!, but yes, by the pickles and the beers: “It’s now or next year! Hatch chiles are here!”

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So I bought some. Why not? They’ve come all this way, and they smelled, even un-roasted, incredible.
I made my way to the checkout aisle, where a lady wearing a t-shirt with a green man-chile and the phrase “Ask me about Hatch Chiles” on it asked me if I found everything I needed. I nodded. She scanned my groceries quickly, slowing down only to count the snack bars that I buy by the box because Bristol Farms is the only place that carries them. But then she got to my bag of chiles. She frowned. I looked up, just about to swipe my card. She turned one of the chiles over and then slid the bag on the scale, pressing with both hands to keep the chiles from falling out of the plastic bag. She looked up at her monitor and then she pulled out the book to look up the code for… what ARE these?”

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PS. The one sign that didn’t mention Hatch said “Now serving coffee in our café.”

Just floss the ones you want to keep (ode to Dennis Oppenheim)

I remember being in high school and sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet my friend Ellen. She’d pick me up at the end of the cul de sac, having rolled all the way down my street with the engine completely shut off. We were sneaky. But this being White Rock, New Mexico, there was nowhere to go. The fun was climbing out the window and seeing if all the stars were still there. OK, sometimes we’d light firecrackers. It was also before gas stations took credit cards, so if we didn’t have any gas we were stuck, and Ellen often had no gas.
One night we were in my room and Ellen had to pee. In the darkness she went to the bathroom which I shared with my grandparents, who were sleeping in the next room, and since she thought we were good at nighttime maneuvers she didn’t turn the light on.
I heard her scream, and then she called out “Abby!”
I wondered why the hell she would call me “Abby.” Ellen and I had been friends forever, and we didn’t even know an Abby. I went into the hall, stopped for a few breaths to listen for rumblings of my grandparents, and ran into Ellen carrying a glass jar on her head, with my grandmother’s full set of dentures submerged in water, rat-tat-tatting. The moonlight sparkled off the metal, and the water gave the dentures a magnified look, causing the pink simulated gum to actually look like flesh. Bubbles rose to the surface and popped. It was alive.
Ellen danced the jar back to my room, saying something about how that Polident shit was weird looking.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“We’ll need this!” she said, tapping on the jar. “It’s Abby Normal!”

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Also back in high school my teeth didn’t respond well to orthodontic manuevering so I had to have several teeth pulled and a bridge put in. The doctor who put my bridge in told me I’d probably get twenty years out of it, and by then some new technology would be invented to solve my problem. Well that time has come.

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Here is what’s been helping me eat for the past 25+ years. It’s like having your personal fork taken away.
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Reminder and Remainder

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Behind any published piece of writing are many pages (and in my case many many pages) that were written but never meant to be read. These excess words are like the camphor tree that’s planted alongside a tea tree, by the time the tea leaves have been picked and processed there’s no thought of whose roots were co-mingled with what, but the slight cooling sensation on your tongue is both reminder and remainder.

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Many thanks to Black Balloon Publishing for publishing my profile on Koh Kikuchi (Chef Otto) this week. While editing the piece I went back to my notes and found a few lines comparing Koh’s cooking to Morton Feldman’s piano music. Needless to say such abstract nonsense didn’t even make it into the first draft but I can post it here for the minimally inclined.

A Morton Feldman piano piece:
– sometimes the audible has already been played
– sounds become inaudible before their notation ends
– notes that fade away by themselves without the pianist’s influence
– not everything in the score is audibly recognized

Koh’s cooking:
– takes into account what you may have already eaten, or may still be lingering in your palate.
– dictates textures and flavors in a sequence, within a time frame lasting between two bites to a five-course meal
– flavors that emerge without Koh’s influence (he likes to say “I did nothing to this piece of meat!”)
– not everything he does to the food is intended to be tasted

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One has to read what the dish is trying to do. Like minimalism piano music, there are tones and rhythms, but the music has a purpose. It’s going somewhere, though some notes fail where others succeed. One has to study the dish, how it relates to what was served before, or what is coming.
The seared tip of a triangle of whitefish, the slimy spiral of seaweed in a clear consommé, the dull grayish blob of leeks that were cooked in soy sauce and wine and pork ribs for 8 hours. All of these are notes/textures in his little compositions.

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A few lingering online reviews of Koh’s cooking:

LA Times: February 11, 2001

Metropolis: March 17, 2011

Mouthfulsfood.com, July 2004

Uwe’s World: September 2005

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Chef de Brigade resurfaces

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In 1975 John McPhee published a story called Brigade de Cuisine about a chef he calls Otto, who ran a 55-seat restaurant with no help except for Anne, his pastry chef/wife, their children (who served the food), and a dishwasher on the weekends. Seven years ago as a dear friend of mine was closing his French Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles to move back to Tokyo, I borrowed McPhee’s line where he asks the chef if he could sit in his kitchen and take notes.

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This April my profile of “Chef Otto” will be published online at airshipdaily.com by Black Balloon Publishing, and the only thing that could possibly make me any happier is knowing that the Chef de Brigade is coming back to the states.

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You lucky people of Seattle will now have a chance to taste this guy’s food. Don’t be turned off by the name of the place (Yes, it’s called I Love Sushi, the one in Bellevue). Just know that even though “Otto” is not a sushi chef this place is owned by the same people who own Shiro’s, and if you follow the hype, both owner, Shiro Kashiba, and sushi chef Daisuke Nakazawa (who recently left Shiro’s and is now running Sushi Nakazawa in NYC) apprenticed with Jiro Ono from the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” You can imagine they take their fish-craft very seriously.

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Add to this “Otto’s” weird obsessive concept of how things should taste and be cooked, and his commitment to achieve particular flavors and textures by controlling how everything from the trimming of herbs to how to clean to the pastry brush, and you’re going to be saying “I loaf loaf loaf sushi.”

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For those of us stuck in Los Angeles, there’s the hope that “Otto” will someday come back here, but in the meantime for sushi there’s Kiriko Sushi on Sawtelle. These guys are buddies.

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What do they talk about during a precious layover at LAX? An 80 year old sushi chef just outside of Tokyo who’s the hands-down grandmaster. All skills, no hype. From what I heard: Sushi chefs that have been at the top of the business for 40+ years eat his food and get goosebumps. Always room for improvement, as “Otto” likes to say.

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Love Will Tear Us Apart

I made a pork loin the other day, stuffed with salt-cured olives, pickles, and pistachios. It came out a perfect spiral, dripping with juicy bits, but because of work/schedule/whatnot we didn’t get to eat it that day so I put it in the fridge.

Yesterday David busted into it for lunch while I was out. With an awesome knife from Cut it’s easy to get carried away with how thin you can slice the thing, and no matter what you do the hunk stays perfectly put together.

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Then came this text:

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Pretty much sums up the secret to why we’ve stayed together all these years.

And now to curb the sappiness of this post a little:

Celery Root Soup vs. me

It’s supposedly winter, and despite the high 80’s temperature it’s still the season for soup. I’m batting 0 for 3 in the celery root soup department, though, so I’m thinking I should cross that recipe off my list.
A month ago I thought I bought celery root and I came home with horseradish. It was a little difficult to tell what it was at the store. I had a cold, and couldn’t smell anything. I was going to bite into it, but the grocery boy was staring right at me. Never mind that horseradish root looks a little “schlongy.”

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A week later I saw celery root at the Malibu farmer’s market but couldn’t squeeze them into my bike jersey. At a couple pounds a piece they’re not the kind of thing you want to be dragging down the PCH anyway.

Finally last week I came home with the right thing but left the burner on too high and boiled the soup into a charcoaly mash of smoked root bits. I had a cold (same one as everyone seems to have), and couldn’t smell the smoke until the smoke detector went off, and then went off, and went off some more. Sigh.

Good things come to those that fail though. I finally decided to do something with the horseradish so I turned it into horseradish. It’s hotter than crap, in fact it’s holy mother blow your head off good. So here’s to clearing up all sorts of sinus issues. Prime rib, deviled eggs, sausages, herring under a fur coat, anyone?

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When fate strikes in China

Pu’er might be the only tea that hurts when it hits you, but watch out when the Chinese concept of fate, “Yuan,” comes hurtling your way.

Like Schrodinger’s cat, you can’t go looking for Yuan, and when it does happen, how it manifests depends on your attitude at the moment of its appearance.

Our tea master Vesper Chan had a pretty good nose in 1992 when he tasted a tea that no one else was interested in buying. He decided to purchase the entire lot, some 30 tons of it, at something like 8 RMB a cake. Here’s a photo of the guy he bought it from, after being asked what he thought about the current selling price of 48,000 RMB.

The funny part? Our dear tea master kind of sold his lot too soon, he got the fame of having sniffed out this unbelievable tea, but didn’t score as big as he could have.

On our recent trip to China last month, my friend Linda wanted to meet face to face with James, the guy who does her printing. He had recently screwed up an order, and she wanted to decide whether to give him a second chance. Turns out James agreed not only to reprint the order for free, but he showed up with correctly printed samples and also offered to take us to the airport.

Turns out James planned for us to taste an organic crysthanamum tea his friend produced, and insisted that checking in only a half hour before the flight time would be okay.

Turns out James was wrong. But he insisted that the fact we missed our flight was meant to be (ahem), as in we weren’t allowed to leave the city until he had a chance to take us out for dinner.

So we got treated to goose-in-a-wok BBQ AND a foot massage.

Here’s how the goose started,

and as you eat it the goose continues to cook until at the end of the meal you’re left with goose and scallions BBQ’ed into pure crispy deliciousness. (That yellow stuff in the bowl that looks like soup? One of the few things in the world I’ve met that I could not stomach. Ug)

The foot massage played out exactly like the goose BBQ. It started with a neck and shoulder massage, a brief neck-cracking session, twists and backbends over the masseuses’ knees, cupping and foot massage, and then they poured alcohol on a towel on our backs and lit us on fire.

Since we were all on fire, no one was left to document the event, so here’s a video that pretty much captures it. The video also advises against getting this treatment done if you’re “mind confused,” but it’s a little late to worry about that now.

We managed to make the flight to Xixuangbanna on time the following day, and traipsed around the tea mountains visiting some really old trees.

In Nan Nor we bought some loose 2013 Pu’er, and just as we were pondering how we were going to get the fluffy delicate tea back home, we found out that the owner of our mountain inn, Mr. Chen, aka the Chinese Patrick Swayze, just happened to have a stone press for making Pu’er bricks, and he graciously turned our pain-in-the-ass bags of tea into compact bricks.

At dinner that night at the inn there was a group of men from the Ai Ni ethnic minority drinking local moonshine and toasting each other (“Sai sai sai!”). I just happened to be traveling with Jeni “Gimme Some of that Moonshine” Dodd so us gals sauntered over to give the other table a toast. This is not what you’d call common in China. Women don’t usually initiate a toast, much less take a drink with a table full of strangers, but hey, moonshine is moonshine.
In return they shared a traditional Ai Ni drinking song:

The evening ended with a some more singing, Patrick Swayze belted out some Dai minority love songs that made Jeni Moonshine cry, Linda showed all of us that if her tea business failed she could make a living as a singer, and Jeffrey played the guitar while reading the chords ad hoc off my iPhone. Turns out everyone knew the words to Hotel California. The look on their faces when we told them that Linda and I were actually from California was pure Y-U-A-N, though I was a little worried the way Patrick Swayze sang “And you can never leave…”

PS. One of the guys was a Beijing official, not from the Ai Ni tribe, and I wanted to ask him exactly why Facebook was blocked in China, but the following morning when I saw him at breakfast he was wearing cute flannel PJ’s so I changed my mind.

Hong Kong’s other ear

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In 2001 when I spoke Mandarin in Hong Kong the people ignored me or replied in Cantonese.

In 2003 when I spoke Mandarin in Hong Kong they replied in Mandarin.

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China’s economic boom had turned the bumpkin next door into a rich relative. I thought everyone had just gone to language school. My HK friend told me they called it “opening the other ear.”

Now in 2013 when I speak Mandarin in Hong Kong they try to ignore me, but then reluctantly reply in Mandarin. The ever-fatter and ever-richer relative just won’t go away.
What a world of difference flashing a US passport makes. With that gold eagle I am converted from an annoyance into a tourist, speaking Mandarin as if its not my fault.

It’s not like I’m going to start wearing the stars and stripes everywhere like the Canadians do in Europe with the maple leaf (for the exact opposite reason) but it sure is nice to pull out the California dialect when politics rears its ugly head.

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This morning in the train station I tried to take a photo of a poster informing travelers of just how many kilos of milk powder one was allowed to take out of Hong Kong. The guard came over and said no photos in Cantonese and I said “Oops sorry!” He then went to his post and returned with a couple of flyers in English explaining just how many kilos of milk powder one was allowed to take out of Hong Kong. So nice! (FYI-limit is 1.8 kilos, with possible $6000 fine or two years jail)

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So, if China is Hong Kong’s fat relative with unruly nose hairs, then Macau is the bastard step child. Overshadowed by size, population, historical importance and even in the economic status/seaworthy might of its European colonializer (what is the term for the “empire that colonizes?”) Macau loses on all fronts. I didn’t even know Macau was handed over to their own government AFTER 1997, when Hong Kong was retuned to China. I thought Portuguese control was something from the past, a novelty almost, until I arrived and there’s Portuguese on all the signs. Not just at the airport and in the tourist areas but all the freeway, information, and any official looking signs.

Like all good island countries Macau has a truly awesome baby suckling pig dish. Like all good Chinese communities they know how to turn the skin into the most mouthwatering salty crispy wafer.

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Its obvious the Portuguese influence in Macau dating back to the 1600’s was substantial:

– sidewalk design
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– bus maneuverability skills

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– desserts: my hunt for the Pasteis de Nata and the double skin milk makes Macau sort of an old home.

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But the Chinese culture fights backs for prominence:

– beef jerky graphs

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– Macau’s most famous almond cookie producer is on every single corner, selling cookies, orange peel, ginger candies, jerky, mushrooms and cancer fighting herbs. Their secret? Free samples.

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– the taming of the wild lettuce

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– photography as sport

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– casinos

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The “Asian Las Vegas” is now home to MGM, Wynn, and the timeless Sands. But the weirdest thing? Of all places the casinos are just about the quietest buildings on the continent. No screaming, no ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching. Just heavy perfume, auspicious felt-scraping techniques, and little ditties from the slots that seem directed for your ears only (opened up or not)

Maybe it’s me, I haven’t been to Vegas since before they went digital and definitely when there were still places on the strip to play one-deck blackjack, but something about the place (I mean, this is the Wynn) seemed eerie and sad.

The people who work there are locals, or from nearby Guangzhou, and have real lives totally disconnected to the world of casinos. What they do is actually a performance, which requires quite an effort, so when random stuff happens, things outside their training course, they revert to their normal selves.
(As a woman visiting Japan a few years ago I was served last everywhere we went except for at a “French” restaurant where the staff performed their managers idea of “westernness” and let the ladies sit first, order first and get served first)

In a county where so many people have no running water they know how to pour Perrier. In a country where everyone packs their own toilet paper they know how to place silk napkins on the ladies’ laps.
But ask them how the slots work and they go fetch their coworker who fetches another coworker who fetches another coworker until there are no more. Ask them how come they want us to make a reservation five minutes before the restaurant opens even though there’s no one else waiting and we’re all here standing around, and they smile and ask us for our name, please. Forget about asking how come they provide wireless in the restaurant but not in the adjacent lounge area.

I was reminded of two friends we made traveling in China ten years ago, Rainbow, a single mom working in a tea shop, and Gao Bei, a twenty something that had defied her parents by leaving home and working in an ad agency. It could be them working at the Wynn, Rainbow with her designer jeans and Gao Bei in fake eyelashes, and thinking about them and their lives made my five-spice-thai-hot-sauce cocktail more than just a mandatory thing.

Alphabet Soup

Several years ago a friend of mine, who happens to be a Japanese French chef, closed his restaurant in LA and moved back to Japan. I spent the last few days he was open for business standing in the kitchen and taking notes while he worked. He ran the kitchen and his wife ran the front. No dishwasher, no sous chef, no waitress. He’s a bit of a freak. He’d often wait until he saw the customer’s face before he decided what to serve him. He’d also claim “I’m a chef, I’m nothing. I’m just using things available in the world.”
Aren’t we all.


On Monday I head to China to visit some really old Pu’er tea trees, and at the end of the trip I get to visit Koh and his wife Aki in Tokyo. This afternoon while hunting for a good notebook to bring I came across something I had written during that time:

“Alphabet soup is instructive in the same way as food writing is meaningful. Stir it around and the words are different but the taste is the same. Seared hoobidyhoo with small batched blah blah covered with a la la la reduction and baby poobahs. The language has become flat and sterile. Who doesn’t use meyer lemons, organic micro greens and first flush blooms? What does the use of tapenade, marinade, etceterade say about what the food actually tastes like and what kind of thinking has gone into the work?
One could create a series of food descriptors and spit them out on a ticker tape and people can buy them by the linear inch. Or maybe a radio program on a station called WFRY that just has a voice reading dinner entree options…”

I once watched Koh make a Pear Charlotte (and I will take credit for helping him figure out how long to make the wall of lady fingers in order for it to wrap nicely along the inside rim of the cake pan), and I asked him if it was a special lady finger recipe and he said “No, if it’s for serving with coffee I make them more crunchy, harder. This one’s a Charlotte, it’s supposed to go with the Barbara, which is heavy, and if you make it with regular lady fingers the inside is moist from the Barbara but the outside is crunchy. I don’t want your mouth to be bothered by the crunchy. The Barbara is smooth and melts in your mouth.” (Barbara = Bavarian cream) So before he puts the cream in he coats the lady fingers with sugar water and so when you bite into it the cookie is consistent all the way through. “If you want texture,” Koh said, “just add the little cut off bits of lady finger to the middle.”
That’s some good advice all around.

tea smoked duck

Many years ago when we lived in Los Feliz (and rent was $525/month for a 1 bedroom apartment), we held a garage sale and some friends came over with orange juice and vodka to liven up the sales. In fact the sales went so well (sold some nice skirts to the guy next door, and my Doc Martins went to the lady who took all of our clay pots, etc.) that we went back into the apartment many times scouring the place for more things, anything, to sell.
I had a little bit of that feeling this week after getting my sea legs with the Ibushi Gin Donabe Smoker. I trolled the kitchen wondering what else I could possibly put in that little pot belly. Soy sauce! Cod roe! Salt!

If I could only smoke one thing in the whole world however, it would be tea-smoked duck. Hands down.
OK, maybe a hard boiled egg. OK, maybe a slab of pork cheek. Well, it would be in my top three things, alone on my smoking desert island.

Here is the smoking goods: rice, lapsang souchong tea, brown sugar and pieces of cinnamon.

The duck breast is crosshatched, then marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, and Shaoxing rice wine. I ran out of time so it was only marinated for two hours, but I sprinkled it with Sichuan peppercorns before searing the skin and tossing it into the smoker.

Like the communist party that promises a bowl of rice for every person, we promise a shaft of crispy skin on every slice.

Quality taste tested and approved.