Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What makes a ma-po?

For the last 30 years, Houston has been host to a Caesar Salad Competition, where different restaurants send their chefs to do celebrated riffs on the ubiquitous salad. The end result can look nothing like a salad - notable reinterpretations included cupcakes and jello shots. But the key there is to capture the essence of the "classic" dish - from lettuce to anchovies - and rearrange the ingredients in another imaginative way which hewing to the original.

This is by no means unique to Caesar salad - various deconstructions are still trendy in upscale restaurants to use highly sophisticated techniques to (often) recreate a familiar flavor and texture combination. One dish that I think deserves some celebration and reinterpretation is ma-po tofu. Loosely translated as "pockmarked old woman's bean curd", it's the unofficial poster child of Sichuan cooking - a contrast of intense flavors and cooling soft tofu. The commonality seems to be a thickened umami rich sauce base (often with fermented bean paste and bit of meat - yes, this tofu dish is not usually vegetarian), ample amounts of spice and ma - that numbing sensation from the headlining Sichuan peppercorns, mixed in with a bland contrasting item. Usually, that's silken tofu, but versions can be made from poached white fish.

So, how imaginative can you get with ma-po? Different sources of umami? Nuts? Ma-po turkey breast may be the right thing for next Thanksgiving. Or the sauce items can be embedded in tofu to be cooked and served like xiaolongbao.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bite Highlights of 2014

As 2014 draws to a close, I look back at some of the more memorable food experiences of the past year. With travel, I got to expand my culinary horizons a bit, as well as revisit some old favorites. So, let's reminisce. 

Mary Macs is an institution of Southern cooking in Atlanta, and a tourist attraction. But most notable for first timers is a bowl of pot likker with the excellent corn bread. The salt pork suffused liquid from cooking greens was quite welcome on a rainy day. 

I finally got to try Pig Wings at the Old German Beer Hall in Milwaukee. I'm surprised we don't do this in Houston. 

What we do do in Houston are these creative fish chicharrones at Tampico on Airline. Basically tilapia cooked to crispy chip consistency, the spicy picked onions was a genius accompaniment. 

At Rangoon Ruby's (with branches around Northern California, this one was at the Palo Alto location), I got to try the fermented tea leaf salad (thoke on Burmese). Excellent and unique flavors, with a large dynamic range of textures and flavors. 

Here in Houston, however, getting to eat an egg custard tart from ECK bakery fresh out of the oven is in itself a pretty unique treat. 

Al-Aseel is probably best known for fried chicken, but the restaurant serves up dishes designed to encourage people to linger. Pillow lined corner tables beckon, and this beautifully plated and delicious hummus denotes meals of sharing and community. 

The loco moco is an iconic dish of Hawaiin adaptability, and at Ma'Ono in Seattle, it's elevated to high art. 

Bambu opened a new branch in the Greenway Plaza area, and the icy che preparations are refreshing in the Houston heat.  I returned often to try the different combinations, but settled on the basil seed rich "black and grey" as a memorable combination. 

The venerable Mala Sichuan collaborated with Blacksmith Coffee on a one time  popup brunch this year. On a packed menu of old Sichuan comfort breakfast items, the beautiful and crispy gold coin omelet stood out in my mind. 

Steve Marquez opened my year with a bang by crafting this complex and complete dessert - a spicy chocolate cake  topped with fish sauce caramel. 

I believe the restaurant Spicy Sichuan has closed, but I did get to try this unique dish there: a roulade of sticky rice "pasta" filled with spiced meat and vegetables. 

By way of introduction from Javier Fadul (@inspired12 on Twitter) of Culture Pilot, I went to try the very rich and flavorful uni carbonara at Tea Bar Organics (normally, I'd stay away from any place that primarily hawks the organic food fallacy). But this dish was indeed quite memorable.

The bakery/cafe Tout Suite opened in downtown Houston this year, and in addition to have an overall strong coffee and tea program, the pastries were on point. This Paris brest illustrated to me the mastery of choux in that kitchen. 

On deficiency in Houston is in the area of hot chocolate, more notably, the sipping chocolate variety. I had to travel to Durham, NC, to find Bean Traders, and their nicely done sipping chocolates drinks. 

And finally, a bit of international flair. In Vancouver, the very busy JapaDog establishment serves up these Japanese hot dogs. But unlike the usual trend of topping the same hot dog with different things just to create variety, each type had the careful consideration of a sushi chef. Down to the obsessive manner the bread is heated, to the pairing of sausage with (in this case, grated radish or shaved bonito), a Japadog stood out in the competitive Vancouver dining scene. 

Monday, December 15, 2014


"Lato" - seaweed salad
"Sea grapes"
Despite the productive abundance of the Gulf Coast near Houston, we don't have a particularly strong seaweed cuisine in the area - I was told that regulations forbid harvesting seaweed. But I've always held a soft spot for the seaweed salads in Asia made from lato or sea grapes. These are not available dried, and so can only be eaten in the countries there (I've even had them on sushi, although they're more commonly eaten as common vegetable fare). The little "grapes" pop with a briny sliminess that's fun and delicious paired with vinegar or lime juice.

What I only recently learned is that they belong to the genus Caulerpa, where the entire plant is just one giant cell with multiple nuclei. So int he pictures above, those fronds aren't even a whole cell, but the harvested bits - these are recorded as the largest cells known to science. Doesn't that just make it sound even more delicious?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Food and Fighting Cancer

Beautiful fall produce of North Carolina
An event was held here in Houston recently called Food Fight Against Cancer, which aims to raise money and the awareness of "cancer-fighting foods". The page describing the specific ingredients is an excerpt from the cookbook by Katz and Edelson, and uses some pretty fancy words like glucosinolates (that's a chemical - where's the panic?), but remarkably little primary research sourcing. I am left to wonder - what does it mean for food to "fight cancer" or be of "anticancer" nature?

"cancer fighting" smoothies? And I am pretty certain there's no way they have no sodium.
This concept is difficult to parse because cancer itself is actually more than 100 different diseases. And when we talk about "fighting cancer", it can be interpreted as a therapeutic measure prescribed to someone who is already afflicted with cancer, or it can be thought of as an active portion of an cancer prevention regime. Those sold into the "herbalist" or "naturopathic" modes latch onto this nebulous promise, but seldom provide concrete biological reasons. Some may cite minor compounds present in certain fruits or vegetables that have inhibitory effects on cultured cancer cell lines, but this is far from how it would work when eaten. Is the compound present in high enough concentrations to matter? Will it survive digestion? Does it cross the blood brain barrier? Would it work on all types of cancer, either as a preventative or a therapeutic agent? What is the relevant dosage? Are there other confounding compounds?

This is the precarious limbo between being classified as a drug or a food. Legally speaking, foods can make such imprecise promises, and get away with it, while drugs are held to exacting standards. Population based studies do not indicate any positive correlation between most cancer types and diets of fruits and vegetables, and there's weak evidence linking meats cooked under high heat with increased cancer risk. Otherwise, much of the promises of "fighting cancer" seems to be conflated with avoidance of certain behaviors, i.e., vegetarians are less likely to smoke. So, despite the bogeyman of "toxins" in processed foods, "anticancer" foods, unless better defined, seems more ghostly than plausible.

Addendum:  Despite the imprecision of the term, the popularity of exhorting "anticancer" foods is undeniable, from athletes to nutritionists - and even the occasional "advocate" hack. I am quite puzzled by this. Where does this come from? How does it become so pervasive?
Kavin Senapathy dissected a tweet from Vani Hari (the fear mongering "Food Babe") that exhorted poor food choices as the underlying risk factor even if someone inherited the BRCA allele that is highly linked to breast cancer, that the final condition can even be somehow overcome by "avoiding toxins" (she's not the only one who's bought into this toxins mythos). The author correctly calls out that this is victim shaming - the someone who is diagnosed with cancer can somehow be held responsible for their predicament.
Cancer is a set of complex diseases that stem from poor regulation of cell division, something that often arises from mutations that affect the evolved series of checks and balances regulating proper cell division and differentiation. If you do the math, the number of cell divisions that happen going from a single celled embryo through the lifetime as complex organisms consisting of trillions of cells descended from this one cell, even with an error rate of 0.01 in a million, the probability of mutational error leading to cancer is quite good. The fact that observed deleterious mutation rates are as low as speaks volumes to the error correcting rates that happen in animal physiology. It's a matter of chance that we avoid cancer - the longer we live, the greater the chance that this kind of misregulation can happen at the inopportune moment. We can increase these odds by smoking, or being subjected to unnecessary radiation, or things that can damage DNA like carcinogens (incidentally, alcohol is classified as a class 1 carcinogen - but I seldom see people picketing the booze aisle). But to have a food that either mechanistically protects against DNA damage, or promotes repair, or extirpates tumors? That is a difficult to imagine scenario.

Update (1/2/2015): Parsing the data points out that sheer bad luck is the bigger factor in getting cancer.

No, this is about selling a false promise of certainty in a situation of uncertainty. And I find this practice reprehensible precisely because these profiteers, under the guise of health, are fanning the fear and fighting the facts. And the end may not be too different physically - getting people to eat more fresh vegetables over bagged potato chips may not be a bad thing - but the reasoning behind it is suggestible brainwashing over critical scientific reasoning. And that may be a greater harm than the physical gains.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Turkey Virtue

Our Friendsgiving Spread this year included turkey cooked sous vide and skin cooked ala plancha.

This week is the American Thanksgiving celebration, a time of traditional foods, centered around eating turkey. It isn't some simple obsession, the American tradition requires serving a roasted bird whole to be carved at the table as a highlight. Cooking this unwieldy beast in this manner is a biophysical challenge that drives people to ornate lengths, but perhaps the shared adversity serves to bond families and tribes together, albeit in ritual.

Noting the unusually high demand for this meat in this season, Maryn McKenna penned an article on Wired urging people to buy "antibiotic-free turkey" to "slow down drug resistance in health care" (a more accurate phrase than stopping drug resistance). Basically, it highlights the Sharing Antimicrobial Reports for Pediatric Stewardship (SHARPS) pledge to encourage purchasing "turkey raised without routine use of antibiotics"). Notice, however, how the two phrases are so readily interchanged. I've written before how there really is no such thing as "antibiotic-free" meat. That phrase is based on the conceit that antibiotics are only synthetic products added by humans, when in fact wherever microbes interact with each other, they produce antibiotics - some of which we may exploit one day for human use. That's not even considering the fact that the antibiotic classes used in farms overlap in a very minor manner with the clinically relevant types.

What puzzles me, though: why target turkeys? Are turkeys a notable reservoir for incubating clinical antibiotic resistance? McKenna's article links out to a 2013 Consumer Reports article that points to conventionally grown turkey as a "persistent source of antibiotic resistant bacteria". For its claims of testing, this article did not adhere to good scientific reporting: it did not completely document the methodology for the sample collection and testing, and lacked controls and proper replication. Most any microbiologist will note in the sloppy nomenclature that the testing design was amateurish. Put into context - finding antibiotic resistant bacteria is actually quite easy, as it predates the development of modern antibiotics. From what I can tell, the writers conflated detection of bacteria post culture with the emergence of antibiotic resistance, and that just serves to confuse the reader. In fact, even birds "raised without antibiotics" yielded significantly antibiotic resistant bacteria — unsurprising, given the survey design.

The SHARPS Tumblr post linked from the article writes: "It has been shown in study after study that use of low-level antibiotics leads to the emergence of resistant bacteria." Both of these studies were done in cattle, and in the second study, the type of diet fed to the animals correlated more strongly to the emergence of antibiotic resistance traits than the use of antibiotics.

An investigation last year (about the same time this sloppy Consumer Report article was published) by NPR's The Salt couldn't find specific data on antibiotic use in raising turkey as the industry doesn't track this information.

So, I remain unconvinced how pledging to buy birds that are specifically labelled "antibiotic-free" or "raised without routine antibiotic use" is going to help impede the evolution of clinically relevant antibiotic resistance traits. But what this will do is create a virtuous halo around producers that label their turkeys in this manner - but how do you know what was turkey labeled as "raised without routine antibiotic use" was indeed raised so? Is there an enforcing body? Not to start a conspiracy theory but where there's a profit motive, fraud becomes tempting. And instead of raising awareness of this complicated topic (which requires a good understanding of evolutionary theory), people will compartmentalize it into virtuous fads.