Don’t Walk and Eat

27 Nov

When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.

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That green pastry is a melon roll, and it was divine.

Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.

But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.

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We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?

We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.

So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?

I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.

It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.

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Another morning find. This store didn’t lecture us about how to eat, but maybe they just never thought to do it🙂

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Inside a high-end grocery store.

Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov levy toast

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

What’s Spaghetti?

30 Oct

I got into a debate about spaghetti the other day.

You might assume I got into a debate about the right type of herbs for the sauce, or how long to cook the noodles. But no: I got into a debate about spaghetti itself. What it even is, at its most basic level.

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From Kawaling Pinoy

It started with a dish called Filipino Spaghetti. This dish includes hot dogs and banana ketchup, adding up to a sort of sweet, sort of savory dish. I’d never had it before, and quite liked it. But then, my dining companion and I got to talking about spaghetti. He wasn’t a fan of Filipino Spaghetti, and said he prefers “Italian spaghetti” with a richer tomato sauce and savory herbs. Which is totally fine: to each their own. Still, we started wondering what makes spaghetti, well, spaghetti. Is it about the shape of the noodle ? The way it’s served? Who makes it?

Technically, “spaghetti” refers to a type of noodle. But when we hear the phrase “spaghetti,” we have specific associations of what that dish should look like. Same goes for most foods, really. What guacamole should be, what fried rice should look like, what ketchup should taste like. These ideas come from our individual food histories: what we’ve experienced so far and what we believe to be true about different foods. Coming up with a standard definition really isn’t that simple, though. There may be traditional ways to prepare foods, but who’s to say what the “right” way is, especially when variations persist across cultures? Where’s the line between “authentic” and “variation” and “reinterpretation?”

Defining dishes has been a hot topic lately because of chefs’ new takes on traditional foods. Recently I saw a discussion about paella that was altered so much, Spaniards didn’t think it should be called “paella.” I also saw a conversation about tacos that shouldn’t be called tacos, since their fillings were so non-traditional. I’ve seen people declare certain dishes a “mockery” of regional cuisine because of ingredient tweaks or technique changes.

When does something become a mockery, rather than a twist on a classic? Where is that line between “creative interpretation” and “offensive bastardization?”

Honestly, it’s sort of hard to tell. Something like Filipino Spaghetti is, in fact, authentic to a specific culture. It is an adaptation that happened over time due to local contexts and local ingredients. This is true with most foods we eat today: few look like the original dish that our ancestors would have consumed centuries ago. Earlier this year, I read a fantastic book called “The Language of Food,” which digs into the linguistic roots of popular dishes to explain how those dishes evolved over time. Most things we eat today morphed over centuries of human migration, crop changes and cultural nuances. Did you know the origins of ketchup are a fish sauce created in 17th century China? That ketchup looked and tasted nothing like our ketchup today. If a restaurant served you that take on ketchup, would you protest it wasn’t ketchup? Or should we rename our beloved tomato sauce something else, instead?

In my opinion, Filipino Spaghetti is equally spaghetti-like to something smothered in marinara. But what about when it comes to more liberal takes on traditional dishes?

And that’s where it starts to get murky. There is a difference between creativity, and disrespect. I often think that switching around ingredients shows creativity, not insult.  I’ll gladly eat your Korean BBQ tacos and your butternut squash paella. But I do think there is a line to watch about respect, about mocking an authentic dish, about claiming authenticity. Which brings us back to the original question: when is paella not paella? Is it about some proportion of ingredients that got swapped out? Is it about who makes it?

Personally, I am satisfied with someone modifying the name of a dish to express that it’s been altered. “Butternut squash paella” or “soppressata kugel” are just fine by me. But I hope that chefs always respect the origins of the cuisine they’re adapting, and that they call it an adaptation rather than trying to claim authenticity or superiority. What ruffles my personal feathers is when chefs get snobby about how they’re “improving” a dish by using different ingredients or techniques–implying that the original dish was not sufficient on its own.

It’s a gray area, to be sure, because lots of people do get offended when they see their traditional dishes “re-interpreted.” But given how much food changes over time, I think respectful creativity is a delicious addition to our menus.

At A Crossroads

9 Oct
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Gion, Kyoto, Japan

Do you ever have those moments where something just clicks and you walk away with a renewed perspective on your world?

I had one a few weeks ago, standing at the very corner you see here. During an early morning stroll around Kyoto, Japan, I found myself at this beautiful intersection. At a literal crossroads, early enough in the morning that no one else was around. I stood there for a few minutes, just taking it all in. The architecture and the history, of course, but also what got me to that corner in the first place.

What brought me there? Change, friendship and a bit of serendipity.

I switched jobs recently, which always causes a shift in perspective. My whole routine changed–every little bit of it. I’m on different routes everyday, since my new office is across town from the old one. I see different people, talk about different things, think about different topics. My role itself is incredibly different from what I was doing before. Everything is new, exciting, intriguing and of course–sometimes intimidating, too.

I didn’t get much time off between jobs so I planned to take vacation pretty soon after starting the new position. I’d originally intended to stay home and take it easy–after all, I’m a huge proponent of staycations. But at the last minute, a friend tempted me to join her in Japan, instead. And I figured: why not? I had the miles, I had the time and most importantly, I had a dear friend inviting me to join her adventure. So off I went to Kyoto and Osaka for a whirlwind, delightful trip.

We crammed a lot into our few days together, exploring as much as we could. On our final morning in Kyoto I took a solo walk around the Gion district, famed for its high-end restaurants and traditional geisha culture. We’d already wandered thru this way at dusk, which is when the guidebooks tell you to go. I’m so glad I made it back there during the daytime, too. Something just clicked as I walked around, taking in the incredible wooden buildings and charming side streets. Soon I found myself at this crossroads, standing  utterly still, contemplating all the change and newness in my life.

I found a lot of peace in that moment. I probably looked crazy, standing there so deep in thought. But it was the perfect burst of serenity and reflection, self-love and self-care. I needed that moment. I needed to stand there and think about where I’d been and what was ahead.

As I stood there, I felt my brain and heart and soul click into better alignment. And I don’t want to forget how that morning felt. So I made this photo the wallpaper on my work laptop. And anytime I need a quick dose of inspiration or a quick brain refresh, I’ll take a peek at the photo and try to remember how it felt to be on that corner, in the crisp fall air, contemplating my world.

Travel Eats: Portland

21 Aug Visiting one of the famous food pods

I’ve found that one of the best ways to reset my brain is to wander a new city or neighborhood. Wandering provides the perfect mix of adrenaline, curiosity and relaxation. As I explore, my brain is so wrapped up in discovery mode that it forgets stressors and to-do lists.

I switched jobs recently and wanted to reset my brain a bit before heading into something new. Portland, Oregon has long been on my mind as a potential vacation destination. I’d heard such good things about its scenery, its people… and of course, its food. So when I realized I’d have a few days between jobs, I booked a rather last-minute trip and finally got to see what Portland’s all about.

We spent 2.5 days wandering every neighborhood we could, and sampling every dish we could. We also rented a car so we could drive to Multnomah Falls, the second highest waterfall in the U.S.

I’d compiled our list of “must dos” based on lots of advice from friends, websites like Eater and a bit of Yelping. We found so many delightful spots on our trip, but today I’m just going to share the very top eats. This was supposed to be a top 5  list… but I couldn’t narrow it down to 5! So, here are my top 8 places to eat in Portland:

1. Chizu 

IMG_0636Chizu focuses on cheese, and its menu is mighty impressive. You can pick cheeses by the ounce to make your own plate or order “omnikase” style and let the staff pick cheeses on your behalf. We ordered $20 of cheese plus some duck charcuterie and were incredibly pleased with what we got. The platter included an awesome mix of hard and soft cheeses, served with accompaniments like honey and dried fruit. The staffe explained the back story for every single cheese we ordered. Plus the staff was super friendly and chatted with us about recommendations for our stay.

2. Hat Yai

IMG_0870Hat Yai is all over the “best new restaurant” lists for Portland right now, and the hype is definitely substantiated. We loved our meal of meat skewers, curry, roti and grilled corn. Everything was so flavorful, and so satisfying. We stopped here on our way back from the Falls and it was the perfect post-hike dinner!

3. MÅURICE

IMG_0907Maurice calls itself a “luncheonette” and is only open until early evening, so make sure you stop here for lunch! It’s adorable inside, and its food is simple but delicious. We got a wonderful shaved carrot salad, delicious scones and yummy open face sandwiches.

 

4. Shalom Y’All

IMG_0632.JPGThis recommendation came from my mom (hi Mom!). I love falafel, and Shalom Y’Alls take on falafel was truly incredible. Spiced with sumac, accented by the unusual additions of walnuts and feta – this falafel sandwich keeps calling to me in my dreams. I usually find falafel options disappointing and really wish I had a Shalom Y’All in the Bay Area! The PDX location is in a “food hall” with several other local favorites.

5. Nuvrei

IMG_0900This Pearl District bakery has the most beautiful display of varied pastries and croissants. I opted for the Kare Pan, a brioche bun stuffed with Japanese-style curry. This thing was SO GOOD.

 

 

 

 

6. The Meadow

IMG_0939This shop specializes in salts, chocolates and bitters. So in other words, it’s a foodie’s dream. I snapped up awesome saffron salt, and resisted the urge to buy every kind of chocolate they had in stock. There are two locations in Portland and one in NYC, plus an online store!

 

 

 

 

7. Cheese & Crack Snack Shop

IMG_0783I found this shop by Yelping “pickles” and man, am I glad we visited! We stopped here for snacks on our way to the Falls. We got a “cheese plate to go” that had a great selection of cheeses, crackers and spreads like honey and mustard. We ended up eating this overlooking a vista point. Turns out that cheese + vista points = the perfect combo.

 

IMG_06148. Simple Local Coffee/Sterling Coffee Roasters

Ok, I’m cheating a little, but both these shops serve the same brand of coffee. First we bumped into Simple Local Coffee, a charming shop downtown that serves Sterling Coffee. A couple days later, we sought out Sterling’s own shop over in the city’s Alphabet District. I drink my coffee black, and loved their flavorful roasts. Fun fact: there are remnants of an old tunnel in the lobby adjacent to Simple Local Coffee, complete with old tools. Pretty cool!

 

 

Here are just a few more snapshots of our wonderful trip. If you’re ever headed to Portland, let me know. I’ll give you all the dirt on different neighborhoods, eats, etc.!

 

((This entry is cross-posted on my baking blog, Sugarsmith

Mapping Memories

7 Aug

It started with a sports bar.

A few weeks ago I was rounding a corner in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, rushing to meet some friends for dinner. As I looked up at the bar across the street, a wave of memories came crashing over me. Back when I lived in Chicago, I’d gone to that bar for a university alumni event. Seeing the bar again reminded me how happy I’d been to attend that event, how nice it’d been to see old friends and how good it felt to meet more alums.

The same sort of memory “flash” happened again the next day, when I passed a French bistro downtown. My thoughts flashed back to getting late night snacks there after a networking event, with people I’d just met that night, and never saw again.

Sometimes when I walk around a city, memories ripple through my brain in a series of bits and pieces. It’s small moments that I suddenly remember, prompted by a physical sight that takes me back to another time. Some of the memories are monumental; I think of my boyfriend whenever I pass the bar where had our first drink. But most of these “flashes” are made up of non-monumental moments. They’re those experiences you sort of forget about over time, but reflect on fondly when they float to your brain’s surface. They fill in the gaps between milestones and big life changes. They make up most of our day-to-day lives, and collectively form most of our life stories.

I’ve been wanting to create a “Memory Map” for a while to chronicle these sorts of moments. The things that make me smile, make me reflect, make me think back to a different point in my life. I’ll probably start with a map of San Francisco, since it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my post-college days. Perhaps over time I’ll do the same for other places I’ve lived, and places I’ve visited. I love keeping track of different pieces of my life: it provides a good mix of nostalgia, reflection and general Type A geekery. And it just sounds so satisfying to draw all over a physical map, to “formally” associate spaces with thoughts, memories with markers.

 

When History Gets Personal

13 Jul

Like so many others, I’ve been swept up in “Hamilton“-fever. I’ve listened to the musical’s soundtrack on repeat, I’ve watched video after video of its cast, I’ve fawned over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s thought-provoking Tweets and speeches. I could sing much of the soundtrack for you at this point – though I guarantee you don’t want to hear me sing. I’ve read the show’s plot synopsis too, trying to envision what action accompanies the show’s masterful lyrics. But the other day, as I queued up the soundtrack yet again, I started wondering about the characters’ real-life stories, beyond the musical numbers and creative license of a Broadway show.

I started by Googling the Schuyler sisters, who comprise the female protagonists in “Hamilton the Musical” (and also sing one of my favorite songs from the show). Eliza Schuyler became Hamilton’s wife, so I figured I’d start there. Googling inevitably took me to Wikipedia, where I pored over Eliza’s biography. The story of how Eliza met Alexander caught my eye – but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn’t the details of their courtship, or hard-won approval that I found interesting. Instead, it was where they met: Morristown, New Jersey.

Eliza Marriage.pngYou see, I spent time in Morristown too. I stayed there for a few months in 2010 to do a consulting project a couple towns over. In my personal history, Morristown is another marker on my “memory map”: a place I have summarized to represent a particular moment in time. When I think about Morristown, I remember the friend I made on that project, our attempts to get (good) pizza delivered to the client site, my first ever Tres Leches cake from a nearby restaurant. I think about the assignment I was on and what I gleaned from it. I never got to explore Morristown beyond my day-to-day life, so my associations with the town are purely personal, and relate to my own experiences.

But isn’t it sort of mind-boggling to think about all the things that happen at any given spot? 230 years prior to my discovery of Morristown’s best Tres Leches cake, Eliza Hamilton discovered her future husband in that very same town. Long before I made a new friend on my work assignment, Eliza befriended Martha Washington just a flew blocks over. Like Alexander, I was sent to Morristown for work. But my client’s technology didn’t even exist during Alexander’s lifetime!

I’ve always been fascinated by the way personal memory, collective memory and “history” overlap. It boggles my mind to think about all the things that have happened at a particular site. Not just the monumental moments, but the things that make up “normal” people’s personal histories.  Reading about Morristown reminded me of the many layers that make up every physical location we see. For every “history marker,” there are plenty more things that happened in that place, that mattered to someone, who maybe just wasn’t famous.

Think of all the mysteries that lie beneath the surface everywhere we step. What else happened there before now? Who else crossed that point? Who do we “share” that spot with? And in 200 years, will it be an important place for someone else’s story?

 

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