Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Recently, the FDA banned the use of the compound bisphenol-A (BPA) in some food containers (notably ones meant for children). The main concern is that BPA can exhibit endocrine disruptive effects in high concentrations, although no such link at the concentrations used in practice has ever been conclusively proven. Nonetheless, the concern over the potential leaching of compounds into food from their plastic wrappings have spawned ideas like WikiCells - edible food wrappers.

But maybe the idea doesn't have to be so high tech. After all, I've written about zongzi. Leaf wrapped food, often entire meals, are the original portable food, with biodegradable wrappers.

Vietnamese shops in Houston sell these beautifully wrapped packages of glutinous rice around a core of bananas and sweetened black beans. For some reason, bananas cooked in this manner turn pink.

Apropos to the season of Ramadan, I present a traditional foodstuff from the Muslims of Southeast Asia: the pastil. Basically, it's chicken or beef (never pork of course) cooked down into flakes with onions and spices, wrapped in rice, and the whole wrapped in banana leaves for convenient transport. Two of these make a pretty substantial and filling meal. I find similarity between these and the musubi of Hawaii, and perhaps a bit less subtle than the onigiri of Japan. But it's basic portable comfort food, every bit as familiar and simple as a taco or a ham sandwich.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Special Meal

I had written earlier about the stellar meal I had onboard Asiana Airlines on a long trip between Korea and the US. Lest you think that the food was always good, the attention to detail exhibited by Asiana could also be its downfall. While checking in online, I noticed a number of options for "special meals" available to request, ranging from halal to gluten-free. I opted to request for a "lactose-free meal", not being particularly lactase persistent (like most folks). 

On a side note, in other airlines in the past, I've had reasonably good luck when requesting special meals - I usually end up with some good stuff not usually available. The chocolate chip cookie from a kosher meal still resonates in memory. 

Alas, this was not to be on Asiana. 

The "lactose-free" meal on Asiana. Basically microwaved crudités and rice. 
The problem is that Asiana tries to bundle every dietary restriction into the meals. Lactose-free also meant gluten-free, meat-free - heck, near as I can tell, salt-free. In short, it tasted terrible. And the vaunted attention to detail came into effect when a ham and cheese sandwich was snatched away from me to be replaced by unadorned stale rice cakes. I tried to explain that all they had to do was remove the cheese from the sandwiches, but I made my bed and had to sleep in it. 

Lesson learned. But I found a compromise.

My salvation: Asiana has these little tubes of gochujang - Korean hot chili paste - available, and provided a welcome respite from the burgeoning blandness of the meals. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

One Word, 3 Meanings


Depending on the language, saba can mean any of three different things. In Italian, saba refers to reduced grape must, a by product of wine production that can be used as a sauce or a condiment. 

In Japanese, saba is the word for mackerel, one of the prized "oily" fishes in Japanese cooking. To accentuate the flavor, it's usually marinated first in vinegar. 

Ok, not really mackerel - this is boquerones (anchovies) nigiri maki from Uchi Houston, but it's a similar presentation for mackerel. 
And then, there's the fruit - saba refers to a variety of edible banana endemic to Philippines. Seldom eaten raw, it's a cooking variety. Like the plantain, it has different properties when cooked unripe or ripe. 

The saba banana. Note the stubby, squared off look. 

Stacks of saba bananas ready for market. 

Deep fried saba bananas. Subtly sweet, somewhat starchy with a lemony finish, the saba banana has a distinctive and delicious flavor of its own, and is an important staple fruit for Filipinos. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Still a salad

There's this great radio ad for a certain beer that salutes the inventor of the taco salad. It proclaims the genius of that dish, noting that despite the meat, sour cream, cheese, and the deep fried taco shell it's served in, it's still a salad. Along with health cachet that name carries.


In Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, salads are unapologetically hearty. Take for example, the crispy pork belly salad. In this case, pork belly isn't some second fiddle to a bed of greens - it is the bed. Bright, acidic, fragrant with lemongrass and fish sauce, this salad eats as a meal with a side of steamed sticky rice.

Filipinos take the pork salad to the next level. In the simply named tokwa't baboy (literally tofu and pork), luscious pork is paired with deep fried tofu, dressed with a vinegar, chile and soy dressing. Often served as drinking food (pulutan), it demonstrates the hybrid nature of the cuisine, drawing from Chinese and Malay influences, but distinctly it's own. Tofu here is no diet meat substitute.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Handling the situation

This is a tale of two restaurant experiences, both of them bad. But the distinction is in how the management decided to handle them.

A few weeks ago, I was in a restaurant of some prominence, having consistently received accolades for their food. But we didn't experience anything like what printed reviews said - the bread was literally burnt, and when we ordered the listed specialty of the house, what we received was so terrible, we debated if it was cold dog food. When the waiter inquired, as is the custom, what we thought of the meal - we answered truthfully.

That it was awful.

A more senior waiter replaced our server, comped out the (largely uneaten) meals, provided us with complimentary desserts, and begged us to give them another try. I haven't been back since, but I withhold the name of the restaurant out of respect for the exemplary service. The food may have been a failure, but the service has earned them at least another chance.

In contrast, I was with a very large group of friends this past weekend on a late night visit to Yard House, the Houston outpost of "upscale casual" restaurants proud of their obscure beer and ale selection (side note: when I inquired about the selection of root beers - I was hoping for a good St. Arnold's - I was condescendingly told that they only deal with "real" beer. This did not endear the service to me.). As the servers went around taking orders, they checked IDs as well (no one in this group was even remotely close to underage). Unfortunately for one of my friends, the waiter pronounced his ID a fake, and refused to take his order. Incredulous, he spotted a policeman outside, and went to ask the cop to validate his ID. And he did so. When presented with the evidence, the house manager simply pronounced that it was her right to deny service to anyone.

Not wishing to inconvenience the 25-odd group, my friend bottled his rage, and quietly left. I believe the whole group would have left in solidarity had we known this was going on at the time. Adding injury to insult, of course, was the automatic addition of 18% gratuity to the bills (I refused to pay it).

Could this have been handled better? Absolutely. My friend would've been an excellent patron; he drinks out regularly, and pays and tips well. But forcing him out, even with undeniable expert testimony, just to save face, is downright insulting. Bars are largely about social gatherings, and this treatment smacked of the dehumanizing exclusion apparent in yellow carding and other discriminatory acts.

I didn't write about the food on purpose (what I had was forgettable), because I think this is a time where front of the house represented the bulk of the experience. And failed miserably.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flying flavor

Trapped in a narrow tube, strapped in with a bunch of unpredictable characters for a good few hours can make for testy diners. But the limited confines of an aircraft make for an exercise in culinary compromise. Particularly on long flights, few things liven the experience beyond the meals served, and all too often, those meals disappoint. Specially in economy class seats, the food can be so bad that they are the standard butt of jokes. invites people to post pictures of their meals and describe the experience. It can be a fascinating site to visit. I should contribute my experience: on a flight from Incheon, Korea to San Francisco, I may have had the most impressive airline meal I've ever had. In Economy class, no less. The airline was Asiana Air, a Korean airline. 
Bo Ssam - airline meal. A multicomponent marvel on a airplane tray.

The airline, in keeping with Korean sentiments, had the chutzpah to serve and pull off bo ssam with the trimmings. Ssam is slow cooked pork belly, served with roasted garlic, rice, and is wrapped in leaves for eating. The paper-like sheets are tofu, flavored and pressed into convenient sheets for wrapping. There are at least four different varieties of leaves in the bowl, from chard to shiso, and each one was impressively cut to almost the same convenient size. The pork, garlic and rice were nicely cooked. Finally, the requisite accompaniments of soybean paste, kimchi, and miso soup, with fresh fruit salad at the end, round out the meal. 
And there was a small manual on the side explaining how to eat it.

When was the last time you saw fresh chile in an airplane meal? 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Chicken Feet Economics

Sad that endorsement from a pseudoscientific quack sells.
I was walking down the aisle of a local market and found jars of PB2 "powdered peanut butter", selling for a whopping double what a jar of regular peanut butter would sell. One can make peanut butter powder using tapioca maltodextrin, but what is this stuff? That's the genius: it's the byproduct of pressing out peanut oil from peanuts. After extracting out the more valuable and versatile ("extra virgin"?) oil, there would usually be a pile of peanut chaff to deal with. In short, the company has found a way to take a waste product, and sell it for a profit. It's just a matter of manipulating perception.

That, after all, is the point of marketing.

The historical example of this are American chicken feet (ok, "paws"). Previously discarded, profits from export of chicken paws to China pretty much props up the entire industrial poultry industry nowadays. Which only goes to show that redefining food can turn worthless junk into valuable assets.

Packaged chicken paw snack. Perfect movie companion. 

And just because you're a duck doesn't mean foie gras is all you're good for. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

One letter

Just to let you know, Vigan is a town famous for making a sausage that is decidedly not vegan. Garlicky and sweet, it goes well with fried rice and an egg.

Friday, July 6, 2012

What is Tuna Spine Jelly?

I was recently consulted by Randy Rucker, famed Houston chef, about "tuna marrow". What is this trendy ingredient? Some refer to it as marrow, others think it is either cerebrospinal fluid, or at the very least, the actual spinal cord of the fish - and there's some concern if it was the latter. Most likely, however, everyone is referring to this posting on the Cooking Issues blog, where Dave Arnold first describes harvesting and serving "tuna spine jelly".

Looking at the anatomy of the section (and much kudos to the photography and illustration), the material is neither neural tissue nor marrow - it's mostly the cartilaginous intervertebral disc that separates the bones to enable the backbone to flex. If you've heard of people having a slipped disc - that's the analogous body part in question. Basically, it's like a pillow of fluid between the bony segments, and when compressed on one side, the other side expands to permit the whole structure to bend.

Chemically speaking, it's basically fish gelatin and whatever proteins and salts are in fish blood, minus the cells. That's why it tastes like sea water. But a potential problem may stem from the fact that it's almost impossible to harvest without contamination from the spinal cord itself.

And that may come from prions. The two best known forms of prion diseases come from either neural tissue either from cows ("mad cow disease" in cattle, variant creutzfeldt-jakob disease when transmitted to humans), and other humans ("kuru", transmitted through cannibalism). The term prion was coined by Stanley Pruisner (who was awarded the Nobel prize for this work) to refer to an infectious protein that had no genetic component.

Basically, versions of the prion protein is found throughout the animal kingdom, yet, once in a while, it "misfolds" into a form that causes nearby prion molecules to fold into this new shape, and all of them lock together into big clumps. Note that the prion molecule itself is biochemically identical - the only thing different is how it is folded. And that's how the disease is transmitted; since it's the folding information that is propagated, it can jump species as long as the next organism makes a similar enough protein. Fish to human prion transmission has never been observed, but the possibility is there.

Prion clumping is usually observed in nervous tissue, and only recently are we beginning to understand how eating that can make it past the digestive system to the brain. For one thing, the new folded form is highly resistant to heat (cooking won't prevent transmission), and enzymatic digestion - meaning that it will make it past the digestive system relatively unscathed. How it is then presented to the central nervous system is still not understood, but science continues to research.

Acceptable Cannibalism

Our reactions to the taboo of cannibalism is probably one of the most visceral. Although the very thought of cannibalism invokes either a murderous Jeffrey Dahmer or a convicted Alfred Packer, humans eating other human tissue is not something always outrageous. Milk, for example, is exuded by mothers specifically to feed their children, but a taboo is invoked when adults consume human milk (say, for example, in the form of breast milk ice cream - prepared by a Lady Gaga impersonator no less). 

Not leaving males out of the donor pool: semen is certainly no stranger to being consumed. But in both these cases, the material is easily ejected and unbloodied. The practice of placentophagy (eating placenta), is more involved. Among mammals in the wild, mothers regularly consume the afterbirth, and the practice is not uncommon among human cultures. Recipes are not difficult to come by, and some midwives extol the benefits of eating the placenta for the recovering mother. I don't think that has been scientifically studied, but this practice trips enough cultural nerves as is. Some practitioners sanitize it by dehydrating the placenta, powdering it, and packaging it as capsules. 

But scientific advance blurs borders. A recent article of making recombinant human gelatin by splicing in human collagen genes into yeast triggered an enormous amount of speculation. The popular dessert Jell-O is made from gelatin; if prepared from the collagen making yeast (human or otherwise) is now a vegan item? And cannibalistic at the same time?

But we don't have to resort to genetic engineering. Technology is advancing the production of meat in culture vats. Combine that with stem cell technology for building transplantable tissue, and we can forsee a day when we can grow human tissue for epicurean purposes. When that day comes, what solid premise does the taboo hold?

Note: this article was originally published earlier, but is reposted due to a glitch.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pyramidal dumplings

Small zongzi from Parisian Bakery, Houston, TX
You'll encounter these tetrahedral leaf wrapped things every so often. Called zongzi, I've heard them referred to as Chinese tamales. Usually the binding matrix is glutinous rice, and come in savory and sweet versions, as well sizes ranging from the size and heft of a baseball to this one, which is only a couple of inches across.

Inside, this zongzi is emerald green, fragrant with the scent of steamed bamboo leaves, chewy, sticky, subtly sweet. It carried a small payload of mashed beans, and is the perfect foil for a cup of tea.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Black Rice

Black rice gelato, Incheon, Korea

Black rice or "forbidden rice" is actually easily found in Houston area markets. It's a glutinous rice variety (no, that doesn't mean it has gluten), rather it cooks up a bit sticky. But it retains a wonderful chew and a nutty flavor all its own. It isn't like long grain rice, and does take a bit of skill to make properly (not to mention the coloration is water soluble, and may make the washing water alarmingly purple). It goes really well with the flavor of coconut - hence, the classic pudding, pulut hitam.

Pulut Hitam, Chilli Padi, Singapore

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Fugu Truffle Fruit

Cooking for someone is an heavy responsibility - food can be deadly. A spoiled item here, a forgotten allergy there, an improperly used ingredient can inadvertently turn a festive occasion into an alarm. And some foods are just riskier than others. 

Ayam buah keluak, Chilli Padi, Singapore

Ever noticed that almost all foods that allegedly require courage to eat involve animals? The poster child for this would be fugu, or the puffer fish. Source of the deadly poison tetrodotoxin,  dining on fugu is literally putting your life in the chef's hands. 

The buah keluak spooned out
The iconic dish of Peranakan cooking, however, is the chicken or pork stews cooked with buah keluak, the poisonous fruit of the Pangium edule plant native to Southeast Asia. The nutlike fruit contains high levels of hydrogen cyanide, and requires proper fermentation and laborious preparation before being served. On fermentation, the fruit turns jet black, and conveys a musky truffle-like flavor and aroma, which conveys a heady perfume to the long stewed meat.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Stoned and green

Again, a harbinger of summer in America are the arrival of stone fruits in the market, such as peaches, nectarines, and cherries. These are all botanically of the same genus, Prunus, which also means that they are amenable to all sorts of fun hybridizations (many of which are patented). Of course, stone fruits of other sorts are found elsewhere.

In the market, I found these curious green lychees. Despite their appearance, these fruit are quite ripe and ready to eat. What makes them distinctive is that they have been bred to have a dramatically smaller pit. 

Although these are a consolation prize, apparently, as the real prize are the legendary seedless lychees (allegedly bred in Taiwan).