Category Archives: writings

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.

On gifting: Thou must bleed for me

“The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.”

In the spirit of Emerson’s essay on gifting I struck a deal with the pups. If I got to order a box of chocolates from Dude, Sweet, I’d get enough insulation material to make them thermo-nuclear crate blankets. But that would have to be a giganto box, I said, and they said, we love the UPS guy, go for it.

I wanted to use two old pillowcases that got accidentally melted in the dryer (fleece vs. heat = craft project) but the thermo material wasn’t wide enough so I cut up the little pockets that held the ice packs to fill up the gap.

“Some violence, I think, is done, some degradation borne, when I rejoice or grieve at a gift. I am sorry when my independence is invaded, or when a gift comes from such as do not know my spirit.”

so a clear case of how to “go to mat.” thinking of all that chocolate gives Stevie a real flat head.

RIP Daddy-O

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If you ever wondered how come I am such a fan of colloidal suspension of tiger-striped polyphasic foam or why I thought the argumentative atmosphere of Cal Arts was just an extension of home life or why the hell my cat speaks one language and my dogs another, here’s the primal source.

Huan Lee
8-29-1939 — 6-1-2012

There just wasn’t a way to know my dad casually. Even if you didn’t understand physics, or mathematics or the other things he was passionate about, like playing go, or skiing, it was impossible not to get caught up in his quest to make things better, to try harder, to figure things out. He instilled in me the idea that you can always do more, and to never be satisfied with “good enough.” He was the King of the Satisfaction Upgrade. This meant to have high expectations for other things but save the highest expectations for your own self. This didn’t mean life was all work, however. When I was younger he inspired me to never give up, but when I worked too hard he always reminded me of the breakthrough discoveries solved by scientists while they were on vacation.

There are some people in the world who you meet under one context, and then after awhile you find out something else about this person that surprises you. With my dad, no matter what the context, for better or for worse, you got the entire package. This meant he would always keep his word, he did everything he could when friends or family needed help, and I don’t have to tell anyone here that he was a champion of integrity, a big fan of math puzzles and intellectual debates on all subjects. What you might not know are some facts of his life, so I would like to give a little timeline.

In 1937 the Japanese invasion of China forced the government and many universities to relocate west to Sichuan and Yunnan. Amidst this chaos my father’s parents met at a train station in Wuhan and decided to spend the rest of their lives together. Two years later my father was born, in a small town called Bei Wen Quan near ChongQing.

In 1948 as China entered a civil war, my grandfather took a job in Taiwan, thinking that it would be a yearlong assignment. Instead, the communists took control of the mainland and it would be decades before any of them could go back.

In Taiwan my father studied Chemical Engineering at the National Taiwan University and received his masters in Atomic and Nuclear Physics from Tsing Hua University. In 1962 he received a scholarship to U.C Berkeley to study Theoretical Particle Physics for his PhD and together with my mom began a new life in the United States. It was an adventurous, and thrilling time to be here.

My dad was part of a generation of forced ex-patriots. He came out of China at a unique moment where the old China no longer existed and the new China was yet to be. He believed in all the traditions and values that the old China had, but he also knew America was the future. From the moment he arrived until his death this was the profound balancing act he navigated on a daily basis. He took care of his parents, and helped them with their English, and he took care of his kids, and helped them with their Chinese.

After graduating from Berkeley my dad had post docs at MIT and Northeastern University, so we moved to the east coast, where I remember summer road trips picking apples, looking at foliage, and of course, doing math problems.

In 1976 he was hired at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where he worked until he retired. He worked on various experimental and theoretical projects, and published over a hundred papers on subjects I can barely comprehend, such as Regge-Pole Formalism, Origin of the B-dot Jump, Energy Loss of bunched beams, and Monte-Carlo calculations, which to me sounds like one of his theories on beating the dealer in blackjack.

Though he loved the landscape and the mountains of New Mexico, he couldn’t quite handle the local food, and the nearest Chinese market was a two-hour drive, so instead he performed small garden miracles by growing Chinese vegetables no one believed could grow in the high desert climate. He also watched Los Alamos grow from a town where we were the only Chinese family around, to one that had a Chinese Cultural Association. An association that had many informal meetings on the ski hill, even.

He spent many lunch hours practicing figure 8s and jumps at the skating rink, but I don’t think I have ever seen my dad so happy as when he was on the ski hill. Not only did he master the black diamond mogul runs, he figured out the perfect velocity, angle and weight distribution to approach a mogul in order to maintain absolute control of his speed. During my last year in high school, we had an arrangement: provided I kept up my grades, he would occasionally pull me out of class in the middle of the day to drive up to the ski hill for a few runs.

In 1984 my father’s parents moved from Taiwan to live with him, and then the garden really took off. My grandmother was an exceptional cook and my father always bugged her to write her recipes down. However, every time she would make the dish the recipe would get an addendum or a revision. This endless tweaking, the continual quest to find ways to improve something, was a trait my father got from his mother, so watching him go crazy trying to make sense of the recipes, to comprehend the final, final and ultimate final number of tablespoons of salt, was very funny.

When my grandfather developed dementia my father was still working at the lab, but he wanted to find a way for my grandfather to be cared for during the day. When an unemployed mathematician offered to help out, and this mathematician also happened to be a really nice guy and also Chinese, I think my father came as close as he ever was to believing in something as totally irrational as fate.

In 1999 and 2001 my husband David and I were awarded grants to travel in China to study tea and the classical gardens. My father prepared an exhaustive itinerary, and we zig-zagged across the country armed with not only the typical stuff like history lessons, cultural tidbits and political criticisms, but select Huan Lee specialties like how to speak the Shandong dialect using a rule of switching the inflections used in Mandarin, what the local specialties were and which towns were worth a detour just for a meal, and to beware the steamed bun that shows the meat on the outside but is empty in the middle. Every time we called him he would ask “Where are you?” This was followed by “What did you have for breakfast?” After that he’d recommend a list of sites to visit, including specific objects of significance, such as a certain poem carved in stone, a painting, or even a famous old tree.

It wasn’t until we returned from our second trip that we realized he himself had not been to many of those places. The itinerary he planned for us was based on memory and his historical perspective of a country he had left when he was 10. We were his eyes and ears, we soaked in the famous hot springs of his birthplace, Bei Wen Quan, and we even went to visit Cixian, his actual lao jia, or “old home,” which he had never been to. He was so proud of China’s past, and so hopeful for its future, and so he was one of its fiercest advocates as well as its harshest critic.

Following my grandfather’s passing in 2001, my father retired from the lab and moved to Moraga to enjoy the bay area, to marry Ying, and be close to his grandchildren. Somehow, though, the lack of stress in his life backfired and he suffered a heart attack on the tennis courts in 2004. He recovered from the heart surgery fine, but had an allergic reaction to one of the medications, and it poisoned his lungs, causing him to stay in the hospital for several months. We all think it was a gift to have him live for eight more years, as he was able to finally enjoy his retirement. He took the cruise down the Three Gorges, and travelled to Taiwan, and Hawaii.

My dad taught us to always look for the interesting parts of things, and also to do things that we loved, because that would make them interesting. He showed us how much fun it was to change spark plugs, how playing pool reflected Newtonian physics, how to cut a block of tofu into thirteen exactly uniform pieces. Sometimes he got carried away, for example the rules governing sponges and scrubbies in the kitchen still strikes fear in me, but my father never had an opinion without a well-reasoned argument to back him up. This is not to say he was always right. He wasn’t. But he respected you more if you could match his level of debate, because that meant you put in the effort to think about it. Looking back, these debates were never about him telling me what to think, while I was growing up, he was teaching me how to think.

Sometime after graduating from college, my father told me something that I think would be what he’d like to leave everyone with today.

He told me I should remember the words of advice he’s given me, the problem solving tips that he’s shared, and that I should think about the things he’s criticized, to really think about them, because now that I was an adult, I wouldn’t necessarily have him around any more for guidance.


And in the end, it all comes down to the “Physicist’s Afterlife.”

After my dad left his hospital room he found himself floating in a very dark space filled with pinholes of light. It was hard to tell which way was up and which was down, but he felt all the strength returning to his body. His lungs filled with air. Slowly the lights grew larger and larger and as my dad turned to look around him he saw Richard Feynman standing right in front of him.

“Welcome Huan.” Richard said. “How was your journey?”

“Oh. Very relaxing! I’m curious though, I felt some sort of a low-gravity situation on the way over here.”

“Well, that’s to be expected. Welcome to the physicists’ afterlife. Are you ready for today’s puzzle?”

“Wow!” My dad said, excitedly. “Is that what we do here?”

“All day long if you want. But there’s plenty of other activities too, like skiing and tennis and go. We have some of the best chefs too, myself included, and wait until you see the stock market!”

“I’m very excited.” My dad said. “What’s today’s puzzle?”

Richard Feynman turned and pointed to three doors located on the wall behind him. “Where would you like to go today? To a beautiful little picnic spot, filled with wildflowers, pretty birds and rock formations… or …would you like to go to the Puzzle Wonderland.”

“What’s the Puzzle Wonderland?”

“The Puzzle Wonderland is a very special place. At every fork in the road you will encounter the guy who always tells the truth, and the guy who always lies. Every creek you cross you’ll have to figure out how to get yourself, a fox, a chicken and a sack of grain to the other side one item at a time without the fox eating the chicken, or the chicken eating the grain. At every farm house you see there will be dueling brothers with odd shaped land that needs to be divided evenly. There are stacks of coins, plus other goodies like hot tea, fresh fruit and unlimited macadamia nuts.”

“Oh yes, I’d like to go to the Puzzle Wonderland, please. But I have a question.”

“Sure. What’s your question?”

“Are the macadamia nuts roasted?”


“OK, great. So how do I get there?”

“See these three doors? Two of these lead to the nice picnic spot, and one door, only one, leads to the Puzzle Wonderland. Now first thing is for you to pick a door.”

My dad pointed at one of the doors and Richard Feynman walked over to it and spray-painted a large red A on the door. “We’ll call that door A. I’m not going to tell you if you’ve picked the picnic spot or the Puzzle Wonderland, I’m not even going to open it. What I will do is show you one of the other doors that leads to the picnic spot.” Richard Feynman went up to one of the unmarked doors and opened it a crack. “Yup. Lovely, just lovely. Just missing all the puzzles. This one we’ll call door B.”

My dad craned his neck so he could take a peek inside Door B. The other side looked very sunny, with a faint smell of jasmine.

Richard Feynman smiled. “Now you have to make your last choice. Knowing that door B does not lead to the Puzzle Wonderland, you can keep the original door you’ve selected, Door A, or you can switch to the last door, Door C.”

“But I don’t know what’s behind A,” my dad said.


“But you’re saying I can also switch to door C. Which means you’re really asking me whether my chances of getting to the Puzzle Wonderland are better if I stay with my original door A, or if I switch, or if it doesn’t matter whether I switch or not.”


“Hm,” my dad said, lowering his gaze to the ground. “May I have a few minutes to think about it?”

“Here’s something to write with.” Richard Feynman said, handing him a pad of paper and a gold cross pen.

After a little while my Dad handed the papers back to Richard Feynman and said, “That’s my final answer.” He had a smirk on his face as he walked over and rested his hand on the doorknob. “Am I right?”

Richard Feynman nodded. “You sure are. Have fun in there. Hey, later tonight Albert and Hans are meeting me for a game of bridge. Would you like to be my partner?”

My father scratched his chin. “You and me against Albert and Hans?”

“That’s right.”

“You and me against Albert and Hans? Well, sure!”

“Great. See you later. And Huan.”

“Yes, Richard?”

“Take it easy on those macadamia nuts.”

geek out

my mom, in between taking me to assorted rock concerts as a kid, also taught me how to sew, knit, and crochet. sometimes she combined the two: i came home from a Rush concert once and drew her a picture of the black/white seersucker jacket Geddy Lee had worn, and she made me one. kick ass.
in college i started knitting sweaters, but knitting while attending lectures led to miscounts on rows so my sleeves tended to be really, really long.
when skinny scarves came into fashion and were selling for $40 a pop, i turned up my nose and went to the knitting store, only to hand over $200 for crazy fun yarns.
one year over the holidays in New Mexico we scored a huge ream of black fleece on sale so we made backpacking pillows, neck warmers and hats. tons of hats. tall hats, bishop’s hats, arty hats. everyone got a hat that year. my brother, who had slept during the entire hat making enterprise after eating too much for dinner the night before (oh, the days of La Tertulia) woke up and said “i want to design one.” he disappeared for about an hour, then came back and said “imagine a ball made out of 8 equal triangles, can you make a hat just like that, only the 8th piece would be my head?” when we finished there was only one word for it: genius.

i’m glad to say i don’t have the “craft bug” or any other hipster ailment concerning making things, but every now and then i see something and i say “Oooh. i gotta make me one of those.” my enthusiasm for making something drops drastically if i have to go to the store and buy something so i’m a big fan of using what i’ve already squirreled away in my (kind of large) cool-shit-i’ll-maybe-use-in-a-few-years box. i will admit that despite my best intentions i usually end up with things that are ridiculously, shamefully cute, but i think that’s somehow related to not wanting to go to the store, like i am forever dipping into the same stash of über cute raw materials.

so, a couple days ago a friend sent me a link to this bit of insanity:

yay! now i can make things out of my cat that my cat can play with. perverted, but really cool. the only problem was i had to start building up my collection of cat hair. this is what i got from this morning, clearly with some help from the pups:

and this is what BB thinks about getting brushed more:

so, intent on procrastination, i decided to make a fleece sack for my phone! after a long debate over whether to protect the glass with the plastic sticker or carry around an ugly case, i settled on making my own.

it’s a moon on there, though i could easily have made it a fried egg. which got me thinking. maybe i should concentrate on making crafts that illustrate old titles for my novel. it’s a good way to procrastinate. so this one’s for “Moonquake.” the next one’s going to be for “Drink with Clarity More,” though that’s not much of a craft project, more like a lifestyle.

“not dead yet”

this sentence has survived decades of editing, and now that i have the photo to go with it, it’s probably going to stay:

“In the winter the coyotes hunt in packs, but they all know to walk in the same exact footprints to give the impression there’s only one animal, ever, featured in profile on the cover of Après Magazine, its obsidian eye trained on the moon.”

traveling pastries

while the garden and backyard was being dismantled i went to Lisbon for two weeks to attend the Disquiet: Dzanc Books Literary Program and solve the mystery regarding certain Asian pastries and why they don’t seem very Asian once you stop cooing over how delicious they are and think about them in relation to their fellow brethren (like fried milk, red bean paste, sesame rice dumplings, etc).

i thought i was onto something when i found out the wine my parents used to serve (before i had a say on the matter) on fancy occasions (Lancers and Mateus) were both from Portugal. hm… i thought, was it something that filtered into their consciousness via Portuguese influence over Macao and Hong Kong? i asked my father, and he said “I know Mateus is made in Portugal, it is the info I got from recommendation from some magazine long ago. Lancers was introduced by some friend.” not that he answered the question, but that’s Dad for you.

so, the great pastry tale starts in Portugal in the Age of Discovery: in 1498 Vasco De Gama found the route from Portugal around Africa to India, allowing the Portuguese to dominate the spice trade, colonize Macau and various other spots along the way, and bring pastries to China. thank you!

i have always wondered why the egg tart served in Chinese dim sum was such an anomaly. it’s baked, for one thing, it’s a custard, which is weird for the Chinese, and it’s a tart, even weirder. now that i have gone to Belem (the old home of Pastel de Nata) i’d have to say the Chinese should have followed the recipe better. more creamy, less egg-y, and with the dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon the thing goes “poof” when you bite into it.
visiting the old home of a special food is a great thing. in Belem when you order the custard tarts they ask “how many.” maybe the little guys operate on the buddy system, or maybe this was influenced by the Chinese. In Nanxiang, China, when we ordered soup dumplings they asked how many steamer baskets. makes you want to learn the numbers of foreign languages real fast.

one morning i dropped by my favorite cafe and ordered a coffee (by the way, their espressos are ok, not great, but ok) and the largest pastry i could see. i took one bite and almost peed my pants. whatever it was called in Portuguese i don’t remember, but what i was eating was the famous Hong Kong pastry called the Gai Mai Bao, or the Chicken Tail Bun. Buttery and coconutty and open faced, it’s always been my mom’s favorite, even though what she knows is an eclair-shaped pastry with the buttery goods stuffed inside. Same difference really.

finally i went to Castella do Paulo, a Japanese/Portuguese bakery where i found out that a famous dessert called Pão-de-Ló was taken to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 1500’s, and the Japanese in classic form morphed the recipe, perfected it and renamed it Castella cake. And how. here’s a video of their “and how.” (They’ve got this thing about beating it by hand in gorgeous copper pots. Please play the sound full volume.)

also in Belem is the port from where all the Discoverers set sail. pretty amazing to think Vasco De Gama looked at this same view as he took off. minus the bridge, of course, which, incidentally, was built by the same people who designed San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. I know I know, looks like the other one…

nowadays Lisbon is so lovely and beautiful i can’t believe anyone would want to leave. the drinks all come Pantone coordinated and all the plants look like Los Angeles. and that bridge? really…

eggs on a deserted island

Jacques Pepin has a great show on television called Fast Food My Way, where he prepares a three course dinner in a hour, from start to finish. the details are lovely to watch, if you’re not too busy drooling: the way he slices an onion, or spreads jam on poundcake. one of my favorite things is whenever he uses eggs or chickens, he talks about how if he were on a deserted island he would be perfectly happy if there were nothing on the entire island but eggs. but then his sentence always seems to drag on, and he adds to that island a few chickens, a bottle of wine, some fresh peas…a couple of sausages… but really…just a couple of eggs…

a month ago the folks at Chamber Four started a series called Desert Isle Books, where writers were asked to discuss the one book they would bring with them to a deserted island. they didn’t make any restrictions on food, so i figured i’d get to bring my one book, plus all the eggs, chickens and bottles of wine i wanted.

here’s the piece i wrote, and happy cooking.

the real best coast

my new favorite band, Best Coast, has the sweetest beach-fuzz sound i’ve heard in a long time. and that’s an earbuds-on-fire-i’ll-coo-with-you, long time.

having spent many years on this best coast, one thing i thought i missed from the east coast were these swirly things that came down from the trees every fall. the few that i found in northern california didn’t have the nose adhesive that i remembered from my childhood.
but, two weeks ago at the amazingly fun Tin House Workshop, i discovered that Portland is full of these things. ah!!

Portland is home to many other great things, including a barista that offered me the extra shot of espresso that he was “going to throw out anyway,” my buddy Too Much Coffee Man, the literary duck that came and sat at your feet as you read into the sunset, and a donation-based service that pays for your taxi home if you’re too cocktail-ed out to do otherwise.