Not too long ago, us foodies in Los Angeles were following the development of the Flying Pig food truck lawsuit lodged against a “film production” company they rented out their truck for use in a “movie”. Aside from the gross-out factor, I actually think it’s lovely that the foodie trend has grown large enough to merit a porn niche. After all, you know you’re legitimate when your desires are being catered to. So kudos to director Erica McLean for being savvy enough to recognize that foodies are the modern-day Hedonists. On the other hand, the concept was lackluster and textbook: a damsel in distress struggling to keep her food truck business alive needs money. Polite cough. Let me reimagine this in a proper foodporn scene: A beautiful, golden soufflé exits the oven quivering high and tall, surrounded by dozens of hungry faces waiting in anticipation—only to suddenly be pricked by some invisible force,and deflate into the sunken edges of the ramekin.With their storyline, they might as well have set up shop in a fast-food restaurant. (Jack needs to think outside the box) We need richness! Inspiration! Food, sex, and wit, is that too much to ask for in life? Couldn’t it have poked fun at our unhealthy addiction to food porn? Better yet, it could’ve made a pointed note at how all us foodies may just have a deep-seated oral fixation. And what are us spice fanatics but hopeless sadomasochists? Alas, I am but a sporadic food blogger—and not a food-porn director extraordinaire.
But really, is it just foodies that have an oral fixation? Or is it everyone else as well? I don’t think it’s far off. Too many times I’ve caught myself mindlessly gnawing on something in the fashion of bovine when I’m stressed out or simply bored. And thanks to the pervasiveness of advertising, we’re constantly being told that we’re hungry, thirsty which may drive us to eat even more. All this creates a need to satiate the newly-created subconscious desire in our minds to (quite literally) consume.
And since it is in entertainment where you’ll find the most advertising, consumption of entertainment nowadays is inextricably linked to the consumption of food. Why? Entertainment in its nature is designed to distract. That’s why it’s so easy to inadvertently over-snack while watching tv. If the fast-food commercials aren’t immediately making you run out to grab some fast-food, it’s at the very least driving you to the kitchen to forage for snacks. You bring out a box of Girl Scout cookies, and by the end of the whatever show you’re watching (which according to ratings, is most likely 2 and a Half Men), you look down in horror to realize that not only did you eat half the box, but that you’ll now have to track down another group of Girl Scouts to restock your supply of Samoas before they go in hibernation for another god-awful year. One disturbing study even shows that we’ll eat larger quantities of stale popcorn during a movie if more of it is given to us. Clearly, once reduced to a zombie-like state, mouths already conveniently agape, junk food companies figure this is the best time to get people to mechanically shove popcorn/hot dogs/nachos into their mouths.
Which all leads me to the reason why spicy food may be just so addicting. I’ve never really tried to make myself understand it until now. Like humor, you really don’t want to dissect something you really love. Yet, what could cause someone to crave the tongue lashings derived from spiciness? It seems inexplicable, the way I’m compelled to continue wolfing down bite after spicy bite, ignoring the tears dribbling down my cheeks and desperately gulping water until that dribbles down my chin as well. For me, I think my addiction to spiciness stems from the fact that I love eating, plain and simple. Having a spicy addition to your food makes you sit straight up and really focus on what’s on the dish in front of you. Truly if there’s no pain, there’s no gain. It’s like taking a shot of espresso to your palette. For our attention deficit culture, chili makes it no longer possible for you to remain a passive eater, listlessly tuning out your food when each one of your 10,000 taste buds are ringing alarm bells. Every thought in your brain is completely marshaled towards the moment.
The global stage is a messy place fraught with even messier relationships. With all that’s happening in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world right now, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on in the minds of diplomats. While the world waited with bated breath to hear whether Mubarak would step down, you could just imagine the tension felt as they waited to see how they would proceed with the next step of their job.After all, it is them who represent the faces of nations. All their interactions must be conducted with caution. Seemingly innocuous gestures may be seen as acts of subtle calculation. And with cultural divides in mind, certain measures need to be taken, so as to not risk offending anyone. As a result, meetings between foreign countries always seem formal and painfully stiff. Even literally stiff as well, since most of them tend to be photo ops for the press. When I think of global diplomacy, I think of the news coverage on television, running clips of world leaders or diplomats leaned in awkwardly with frozen smiles in grasping handshakes, with multiple flashes going off before them…
Nevertheless, as awkward and scripted as these meetings can be, they can sometimes be fun. 2 weeks ago, much attention was given to the State Department dinner held in honor for China’s President Hu Jintao. Affairs of these natures are always meticulously planned right down to the T. But despite being so coordinated and heavily scripted—they take on a certain dreaminess, like highly-staged Kabuki performances, where each guest is a significant actor defined with a strategic role for the night. So much effort is poured into a state dinner that though the mood is celebratory, the setting beautiful— there exists a certain tenseness until we receive the first reaction from the guest of honor. When attempting to strengthen foreign relationships, the test is to first establish approval. If they pass, you can let the guard down.
While I can only hope that I’ll one day get the chance to be invited to a snazzy state dinner catered by Rick Bayless or whatever, I at least had the fortunate opportunity to join my friend Giovanna on a trip to visit her family in Mexico last year. The running joke there was that the dining room was the congregation area—yet it was always the smallest room of the house. There, in rapid Spanish and insistent gestures, they would usher me to sit down, and I would have a spot at the table with a ring of friendly, but strange faces around me. To them, I was probably a curious little thing. I would sit there, watching the flurry of activity between the children, aunts, men and the grandma, while grinning foolishly from ear to ear and giggling timidly at what I could understand from their actions and body language. As soon as the food was set down on the table however, all eyes seem to flit towards me. A small, strange China speaking not a lick of Spanish was thrust into the middle of on of their intimate family gatherings. How I would respond to their offering of a lovingly home-cooked meal— that was the real test.
Read more …
Chili-Oil Glazed Cell Phone (Cooking time: 5 minutes)
*Note: This recipe will require some preparation in advance.
- 1 Cell-Phone
- 1 White Purse (preferably your mother’s vintage Dior)
- 1 Binder
- 1 Set of Car Keys
- 1 Water Bottle
- 1 Meal taken to-go (in this case, pho)
- 1 to-go container of Chili Oil
- Request some chili oil to-go when the cashier hands you your food. ***DO NOT*** unwrap the tightly double-knotted bag to throw in the chili oil. It is absolutely imperative to this recipe that you be lazy and instead carry the chili oil with your other hand.
- Drive home.
- On arrival, sling purse over shoulder, grab binder with left arm, clutch water bottle with respective hand, and loop fingers through your to-go meal bag.
- Your car keys and chili oil should now be in your right hand. ***DO NOT*** unwrap the tightly double-knotted bag to throw in the chili oil. As you exit the car and lock your door, fumble with the chili oil, and toss into your purse since you’re going to be home in 5 seconds anyway.
- Walk up to your door, and open your purse to reach for your home keys.
- Discover that the chili oil has now oozed out onto your keys, wallet, and cell phone.
- Jam the keys into the door as fast as you can, immediately throw everything on the floor, and run into the bathroom with your cell phone.
- After wiping it down, call one of your friends to test out the recipe, and listen to the (now) faint, faint peals of their mocking laughter.
The most important lesson that you gain from this recipe is that you do not learn anything at all. A similar recipe was used during the Great Whiskey Debacle of ‘09, when I stashed a small bottle of Jack Daniels in my purse on my way to a New Years celebration. My phone must have marinated a good 15 minutes before a friend announced that he strongly smelled whiskey coming from my direction.
Berkshire pork sausage/Fefferoni Pepper/Pineapple
The Balkans region has gone through more than its fair share of bloody humanitarian conflicts: invasions, secessions, civil wars, and dare we say—the ‘g’ word. But at last, things have considerably simmered down, and we are now able to focus on the one thing that unites the Balkans— their beloved condiment ajvar (pronounced aye-vahr).
It is a particularly apt time to discover ajvar, as this condiment falls under the category of zimnica—foods that are preparedin advance for wintertime. Because it’s meant to last the entire duration of wintertime, ajvar-making is thought of as a laborious, day-long process due to the sheer amount they produce in one sitting. Heavy steel pots the size of drums are lugged out by mountainous piles of logs to be kindled over the fire in the wood-burning stoves. The work doesn’t end at ajvar of course: vegetables must be pickled, fruits must be boiled down into jam, and so forth. Lucky for us, we can still enjoy this dish before winter ends since we’ll only be making a small batch.
Before I attempted to make my own however, I went back to Jon’s and bought a jar from the Zergut brand so that I could get a general idea of what it should taste like. Tucking a freshly baked loaf of French bread under my arm and clutching my bag, I raced back to my friend Phuan’s apartment. After staying up the night before reading about it, I could hardly wait to sample it for myself. Upon my first taste however, I was disappointed. I found the sauce to be too heavy in its sweetness, and too lacking in its spiciness. Had I bothered to check the ingredients label in the store, I would have noticed that the second ingredient was sugar. I ending up leaving the jar of ajvar at Phuan’s house and forgot all about it.
Upon returning home, I did more research and discovered that the spiciness of ajvar varies by region. Northerners in Croatia for example, prefer making their ajvar spicier, while Southerners prefer their ajvar milder. Perhaps this could account for why my store-bought ajvar was so lackluster.
I eventually reclaimed my sad, untouched jar of ajvar from the counter where I had left it. I decided to give it another shot, and gingerly took another taste. It’s funny how expectations work, isn’t it? The first time I tried it, I had been eagerly anticipating a fiery, full-bodied salsa of sorts—and as a result, practically recoiled in disgust when instead, sugar hit the tip of my tongue. When envisioning spicy foods, sweetness does not enter my mind. Now however, as I braced myself for some sickly sweet mush, I discovered instead that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered it. Sure, the sweetness was still there. But it sang boldly against the thicknessof the eggplants and roasted peppers, and smoothly led up to a gentle, rolling heat.
My own ajvar ended up having a bitter touch (I suspect I overbaked the eggplant). But once I squeezed in half a lemon, the flavors rounded out a bit and elevated the profile of the roasted vegetables considerably. When I tried the jarred ajvar, all I tasted was one flavor: sweetness. It was too one-dimensional. Where the jarred version sang boldly, the homemade version sung sweetly and delicately.
In fact, the sauce is just so irritably light that I had the overwhelming urge to tamp it down by pairing it with the most curmudgeonly food possible—brown rice. Sure ajvar can uplift even the most desolate of spirits during wintertime, but could it make cardboard tasty? As it turns out, yes. I cooked some tiger shrimp in the ajvar sauce, and laid them over a bed of brown rice. The whole grain offers some much needed heft to the dish. Other ideas I’ll consider trying with the rest of my ajvar include: Grilled foccaccia with fresh mozzarella and ajvar, ajvar baked over polenta.
It’s not difficult to see how a dish like this would be comforting and uplifting during the drab and dreary winters. It also dawned on me on what particularly made this condiment just so popular. Winter comfort dishes are defined by their component of heat, which is why spiciness is so enticing during cold weather. What makes ajvar that much more significant however, is that the element of freshness and brightness from the combination of roasted peppers, eggplants, and hot pepper is either a reminder or thing to look forward to of sunny days outside when food is at its freshest. What ajvar is essentially a direct beam of sunlight conveniently packed away in a jar. One even eats it in a manner you would expect with comfort food. As I stood over the table, gathering all the spoons, knives and dishware that I accumulated during the ajvar-making process, I found myself swiping my finger on any bit of sauce of sauce I came upon. The sauce itself is like a savory jam, and in a way I felt like a kid again, naughtily stealing bits here and there, eating it straight with nothing else. There’s not much more comforting than a guilty pleasure.
I promise the brown rice tastes better than the placemat…
Ajvar (Makes approx. 12 oz. Cooking time: 45-50 mins)
- 2 red bell peppers
- 1 eggplant
- 3 red Fresno chiles
- 1/2 onion
- 1tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp white vinegar
- 1/2 lemon*
- Salt + Pepper to taste
- Broil the red peppers for 15 minutes, then add the eggplant. Flip red pepper if the top has begun to blister and char.
- After another 15 minutes, add the 3 chile peppers. Broil for another 10 minutes or until the vegetables are charred on all sides.
- Peel the skins off, and let cool.
- Puree the onion and sautee over medium heat with the 1tbsp of oil.
- Puree the eggplant/bell pepper/chile mixture and add in to the onion puree. Continue cooking over low/medium heat for 5 minutes.
- Add in the white vinegar and salt and pepper and taste!
*The lemon is optional. I used it to round out the bitterness from the eggplant and the sweetness from the vegetables.
Three of the main ingredients for muhammara: pomegranate molasses, paprika pepper paste, and Aleppo pepper.
Many may grouse that Los Angeles is less of a city than an urban sprawl. They’re correct in a sense— it’s an urban sprawl comprised of diverse neighborhoods knitted to each other. It’s unlike other cities in that ethnic areas here have the geographical space to be fully fleshed out from pockets into mini-worlds. Los Angeles is essentially a veritable playground for those who are interested enough to realize it, akin to a culinary Disneyland, where we hop (and by that, I mean drive) from neighborhood to neighborhood, taking advantage of all the city has to offer. But, in the end, Los Angeles must be a city. After all, if it weren’t, there wouldn’t be as many different immigrants flocking towards it!
It is precisely this access to diverse ethnic cuisine that inspired me to start this blog. I am, after all, one of those woefully underemployed 20-something year olds perpetually suspended in this seemingly endless recession limbo. Traveling around the world may not be within my reach, but ethnic food is. I have always had a particular passion for spicy foods, and non-western cuisines generally share this same passion.
Earlier this year, my friend Phuan moved to the Los Feliz neighborhood (aka Little Armenia). I was wildly enthused because she now lived right around the corner of Zankous Chicken, an Armenian restaurant that is Los Angeles’ unofficial official rotisserie joint. It wasn’t long before Jons, an Armenian-owned supermarket, became the default go-to place for fetching our dinner-party ingredients. My favorite part used to be their vast selection of Eastern European beers—on the cheap! After starting this blog however, I suddenly realized that I could be mining ethnic markets for much more.
Read more …
The ever-so-ubiquitous Sriracha Hot Sauce, and Thai Sweet Chile Syrup
Even something as basic as spaghetti does not escape my desire to somehow make the dish spicy. I’ll always be just a tad too heavy-handed in sprinkling hot pepper flakes over the marinara, cheerfully bubbling away. Even my pestos have a tendency to be mouth-burning, as I tend to double the amount of garlic (raw). It can’t be helped. Pasta is just as much as a comfort food to me as with anyone—and I just find happen to find comfort in a little discomfort.
Read more …
The three main spicy components of Kimchi Jigae, clockwise from top: Kimchi, Korean spicy pepper powder, Gojuchang.
Call it a hobby or a habit, but I eat. Frequently. Throughout it all though, it is the chile pepper that is featured most prominently in my diet.
Like most households across the world, it is my mother who assumes the helm of the kitchen. Every so often, I give silent thanks that it was my mother who was raised in Taiwan, and that it was my father who was raised in a southern province of China. You see, had it been the other way around, the cuisine I grew up with would have, in all likelihood, been drastically different. Hong Kong and the southern regions of China have a tendency to gravitate towards softer, milder flavors in their cooking. Think: dim sum, Hong-Kong western-influenced “diner” food, and won-ton noodles. However, the farther up north you venture—the spicier and bolder the flavors seem to get. Beijing for instance, is known for their fiery hot pots that bubble over with oil that burns your mouth from both its spiciness and heat in temperature. Similarly, what is most attached to the identity of the Sichuan province is their tantalizingly numbing, pepper laced sauces. Having been born in Indonesia, and raised in Taiwan, my mother boasts that she has been eating spicy food since her early childhood. And my sister and I, having been raised in her kitchen, learned early on to withstand not only her forceful nagging, but the sweltering heat of her dishes.
Read more …