Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Houston's Diners

Ethiopian style congee.

In a recent survey by Zagat (now a property of Google) revealed that Houstonians dine out more often than any other city in the US. Some seem to think that this is something to be bragged about.

Why is that?

If there's anything I've observed about local dining out habits is that these diners tend to go to the same narrow range of restaurants, all of whom tend to offer very similar dishes. Moreover, people tend to order the exact same dish with every visit. I believe the latter part is true of most American restaurant patrons. These habitual systems fuel the burgeoning monotony of the dining scene in Houston. Our diversity stems from the number of different ways one can put toppings on a hamburger, or the minutiae of smoking brisket. And at the end of the day, familiarity often trumps flavor at the checkout receipt.

But the necessary consequence here is that Houstonians tend to cook less often at home. And this should be recognized as a sad matter. There's a true and essential skill to cooking - it's the art of finding flavor amidst compromise, a balance of knowing enough of the science of chemistry and microbiology to apply heat and time to raw ingredients, to bring forth a transformation worthy of one's palate, discriminating or otherwise. And above all, it's about taking responsibility for the outcome, something that Texans, and all Americans, for that matter, are supposed to take pride in.

And even the humblest of cooks are better equipped to appreciate the vision and efforts of a fellow cook by their very exposure to the craft.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Veggie of the Mother Continent

What do potatoes, tomatoes, and chile peppers have in common? They are all crops native to the Americas that have changed world cuisine. One cannot even imagine Italian food without tomatoes, English cooking without potatoes or Indian food without chile.

But here's a triumvirate you probably don't think about: okra, tamarind and coffee - crop plants that originated from Africa, that have changed much of world cuisine.

Okra tempura as part of the "dry" sinigang

Americans tend to ascribe okra to Southern cooking - as it was the import along with African slaves to the South. Beyond gumbo and fried okra, though, the fruit doesn't figure heavily into North American cooking. I have encountered Yankees who don't even think that okra is a real word. What surprises me is that it didn't seem to transfer into Mexican cooking, despite the proximity. But the African influence certainly shines in Brazilian cooking.

Okra is also quite popular in Filipino cooking. Without a direct African immigration, I was puzzled how the okra got there. The lack of okra in Mexican cooking added to the puzzle, as the close history of two countries as colonies of Spain may have explained things. So, where else is okra a major culinary ingredient? Cuisines of Egypt, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia - it appears that okra traveled along the path of Arabic explorers along Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Not photogenic

"But it looks like cat poop."

Kopi Luwak, or "civet coffee".
I wasn't even showing my friend the infamous kopi luwak, which is indeed the product of cat poop (those are coffee beans recovered from the droppings of civet cats that eat the coffee berries).

 Instead, I was showing them a fruit that is quite ubiquitous the world around: the tamarind.

A sweet tamarind pod. A particular cultivar from Thailand that is less tart and is eaten as fresh fruit. 
A brown pod with a papery dry skin, the edible part is the sticky brown pulp surrounding the shiny seeds.

Peeled tamarind pod. 

A sweet tangy flavor, it's an essential component of multiple Asian cuisines, from chutney to pad thai. Tamarind figures prominently in worcestershire sauce, but in places from Mexico to Trinidad, tamarind pulp is diluted into a kind of chilled sweetened drink, or mixed with sugar and spices into a kind of candy.

Unlike plants like tomato and potato, that originated in the Americas to transform old world cuisine, the tamarind originates from Africa, and in fact, did the opposite: it infiltrated itself into the cuisines of the Americas. I think it is only the appearance that keeps it in the under the radar of the fragile North American sensibilities.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pet Peeve: Ethnic Flavored

I have a good friend who once worked as a translator. She related this anecdote about a client who called her asking if she can translate from "Asian". Which leads me to a pet peeve of mine: the generic ethnic food descriptor. Take this article, for example, writing that there's an imminent rise in popularity for "latin flavored" cocktails. It's preposterously comfortable in its ignorance and lack of respect for individual cultures. I'm tired of people ascribing nachos and tacos to Spanish cuisine. Or the fact that "Chinese" restaurants in certain parts of the US are expected to carry pad thai and sushi. And what the heck is so Chinese about "Chinese Chicken Salad"?

And the biggest annoyance of all? The ubiquitous "oriental flavored" items.

Or maybe a backlash is coming for the "Nordic flavored", "Muslim flavored", "Eskimo flavored", or "Canadian flavored" products.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Steen. Mangosteen.

In the last post about longans, commenter John L. (an esteemed and educated person) inquired about mangosteen. No relation to the mango, this treasured fruit has been dubbed "The Queen of Fruits" (apparently, the odoriferous durian claims the King title) and is indeed difficult to ship outside of the tropics. I've seen and purchased them in frozen form in area Asian markets, and I fear that they lose their distinctive flavor this way. The promise of fresh domestically grown mangosteen was reported in 2006, but I've yet to see the fruit of that promise. The Panoramic Fruit Company founded for this purpose in Puerto Rico simply reports that they are not shipping to the mainland US.

It's a shame. I've had mangosteen in Canada (for a shocking price), but it couldn't be brought back over the border.

Mangosteen, opened.
Like the pomegranate, one eats the white arils surrounding the seeds (don't bother spitting the seeds out, just swallow them). The main pulp is a beautiful purple color, but isn't really eaten. The flavor is bright, acidic, sweet, ephemeral. It really is its own flavor. Some of the best are grown in Thailand - if you have the opportunity, you should try it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stoned Fruits

 As we come to the end of summer here in Texas, we also come to the last points of plentiful fruit season. When people speak of stone fruits, they generally speak of peaches, plums, nectarines and cherries (and the various hybrids thereof). But the basic architecture of such stone fruit - a skin around an edible flesh surrounding a stone - are found in other fruits not of the Prunus genera. Although these other stone fruits were previously known as exotic Asian crops, they are now quite readily found in Houston area markets. Pictured above is the rambutan. Despite the furry appearance, the outer skin peels off easily to reveal a delicious white golf-ball sized meat.

  You may encounter lychee quite frequently in the canned form in Chinese restaurants. Or in the trendier bars as part of a martini. But the humble longan seldom gets such star treatment.
So how does one eat one of these fruit types? Let's dissect one. The longan is about the size of a large marble, and if you press on it, the skin splits, and can be easily peeled away.
Longan, half peeled. 

Longan, naked.

One then chews around the sweet translucent flesh, and spits out the pit. Repeat with the next fruit. Enjoy.

Longan seed. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Zen Mastery of Pasta

Hiyashi Soba, Nagoya, Japan
Walking through a train station in Japan, I stumbled into this little stall with a line of people patiently waiting. So I joined in with my friend, not knowing what they sold. But we figured it must be good. As we got seated, I waved away the menu with a simple, "omakase" - chef's choice.

The stall specializes in soba - thin noodles made from buckwheat. One important point here is that buckwheat, despite the name, isn't even related to wheat, and thus, does not have gluten. Gluten is the protein in wheat that gives it the ability to be structurally sound - it gives bread the spring, the pasta the chew. Thus, crafting toothsome noodles out of buckwheat is a revered skill in Japanese culture.

Zaru soba, Nagoya, Japan
And this little stall did not disappoint. In the hot Nagoya summer, the buckwheat noodles were served cold, and the unsweetened green tea alongside was iced. The classic preparation is cold noodles simply served on a wicker plate, to be dipped in a cold mirin, wasabi and soy sauce, before being slurped. Or dressed, as in the hiyashi soba, with some grated ginger, shaved bonito flakes, and a perfectly poached egg (I was agog at the poaching technique - it was reminiscent of an egg prepared in a precisely controlled immersion circulator - except I didn't see one in this little stall).

The noodles were delicious, and shone in this simple preparation. A simple exclamation of "oishii" was enough to send our cook grinning.