August 8, 2011 § 3 Comments
E arrived in Shanghai on Saturday afternoon and we decided to go for afternoon tea. I am obsessed with Sichuan food lately, so I did that intense online restaurant hunting thing again, going on Dianping (Shanghai verson of Menupages in NYC or Openrice in HK) and finally settling down on this restaurant near People’s Square.
Shanghai is so LARGE. Do you know, that it is the largest city in the world? There are TWENTY exits for the metro at People’s Square and we sort of (I think) got out at the right exit and found the Mall where the restaurant is. But turned out, the mall has about 10 entrances, 5 sets of lifts that go to different floors and sections and you could imagine the ecstasy on my face when we, after looping back and forth on the ground floor, suddenly saw a sign to the restaurant somewhere far off.
I decided to be exceptionally organized and obsessive that morning when I did my restaurant research, so I had a picture with me on my iphone of all their signature dishes:
and we ended up ordering the 钵钵鸡 (chicken) and 水煮鲶鱼 (literal translation: water cooked fish. In reality…. well you’ll see in a second)
Then E and I started catching up for a bit while we waited for food. It always makes me so happy to catch up with LPC kids, there’s just something… something about us…
Nah, just kidding. It’s just that I ran out of vocabularies.
And then suddenly, E’s eyes widened and she let out an almost horrified whisper ‘Oh…’
I turned, and towards us, loomed a GINORMOUS china bowl – actually more like a lake of chili oil in a water tank made of China. It was so large, I swear you could bathe in it. Note that we were having afternoon tea at that time – the dainty little scones and tarts from Brown Hotel’s high tea tower could drown themselves like sweet babies in this abyss if they wish.
Our immediate reaction: Gawk at pot for the longest time, hear it settle with a bang on our table, look at each other and then slo-o-o-o-oowly reach for our cameras. I swear we were like a mirror image.
Nevermind the shock of the new. I picked up a slice of catfish with my chopsticks and waited a few seconds for it to drip free of excess liquid. I call it liquid because the ‘lake’ is not oil and not water – but somewhere in between.
Bite. Chew. Swallow.
The flavors …. were truly…. INSANE.
INSANE. It’s like introducing spicy fireworks to your tastebuds. Only, it couldn’t be described as ‘spicy’, because it is much, much more than that. There’s also a herb in it, very much resembling hybrid between a peppercorn and a caper, that when you bite down on it, releases a most mind blowing circus performance in your mouth. It’s numbs your tongue for the first few seconds, then it turns tart… and then I don’t even know how to begin explaining the rest of the journey. People often generalize Sichaun food as ‘spicy’. But spicy is a single, straightforward adjective – it could be used to describe a fraction of this dish, as well as KFC wings, or your sauce of choice at Subway. But this is like… like an orchestra playing in your mouth – no, like you’re doing a live DJ set and you’re mixing and meshing the sickest tracks with one hand and punching the air with another. And by god, the crowd is dancing. They’re dancing my friend!
… which calls to mind a memorable quote. From the 1997 Julia Roberts movie My Best Friend’s Wedding:
‘Suddenly, a familiar song. And, you’re off your chair in one, exquisite movement… wondering, searching, sniffing the wind like a dapple deer. Has God heard your little prayer? Will Cinderella dance again? And then, suddenly, the crowds part and there he is: sleek, stylish… radiant with charisma. Bizarrely, he’s on the telephone. But then, so are you. And then he comes towards you… the moves of a jungle cat. Although you quite correctly sense that he is… gay… like most devastatingly handsome single men of his age are, you think… what the hell. Life goes on. Maybe there won’t be marriage… maybe there won’t be sex… but, by God, there’ll be dancing.’
And there will sure be.
In short, what I am trying to say is: This is the beginning of an obsession with Sichuan food. And guess where I’m flying to in a few hours to join the rents? CHONGQING. Land of Sichuan food.
Excuse the title. You’d expect me to apologize and say I ran out of ideas but believe it or not, Sichuan food does make me feel that way. *Big Smile*
July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
I realized, out of the blue today, that I haven’t had ketchup in a while.
Actually, quite a long while.
This is momentous as I remember that when we did dorm clearance, five minutes before the whole building was to shut down, I threw out everything in our fridge….. except for my bottle of ketchup.
That was towards the end of a phase in recent history when food… meant almost nothing to me for a while – a few weeks, maybe even a few months with spare moments of exceptions. Is this what art school has done to me? Plus living alone in Manhattan with a student budget? My allowance wasn’t a very large one, it wasn’t an entirely meager one either.
I guess It just so happened that under the influence of… stick-skinny-i-dress-only-in-black folks and chain-smoking-word-slurring-i’m-just-cool-like-that ladettes, the choice is easy – I’d rather shell out a healthy chunk of my wallet for a pair of shoes than a 3-star dinner. (‘Food just…. goes! Shoes stay.’)
Eating becomes a necessity, rather than something, more than necessary – 2 minute microwaved affair laced with ketchup (a must in homemade fast food, makes cow shit taste like gourmet burgers) between sewing that last stitch and running 4 avenues to print out a presentation board.
During the past school-year, I always use ketchup. I barely ever use it before coming to America. Now I think it’s genius. It’s like aspirin. I put it on everything — unless it is something really good, ‘mmmmmmmm’-worthy.
I promise you, I would throw myself off a cliff and hug on as tightly as I could to the cross in ‘Piss Christ’ twice before letting a molecule of that red semi-liquid touch my plate at Pierre. That means, most times when I am not sitting down for a ‘proper meal’, as in most school times, I run to the nearest Macdos or ask the Chinese deli-man to give me five packs of those things.
It tells me ‘You are not exactly having the best meal of your life, so? Suck it up, deal with it.
Oh come on. Move over. I’LL HELP.’
And that, is all I have to say about ketchup.
One more thing, I apologize, Mr. Gagnaire, if it offends you that I mentioned your name and ketchup in the same sentence.
June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
Baking is a very calming activity.
My limbs were moving back and forth emotionlessly, my eyes and hands and body were coordinating mechanically – according to some written instructions typed in Times New Roman by a chocolate obsessed grandma, and my mind… my mind was galloping between the smooth, slick surface of the batter and a void somewhere along the Milky Way.
My eardrums suddenly picked up a song, a familiar, blue kind of reminder of the heartbreak period from some time back. I wondered if I should feel saddened by it. As if that actually happens by choice.
If you want to be happy, be. A familiar quote. I smiled a little. Leo Tolstoy.
I realized that I haven’t skipped a single song on my iTunes. Only several hours ago on a cab home I was listening to the same playlist and skipping and cutting almost every song, sick and absolutely furious of those overfamiliar tunes blaring on my earphones like a nagging mom. Now the same songs sound like the good kind of company in a kitchen – the kind that doesn’t look concernedly over your shoulder every two seconds and ask if you need help. The kind that just sits on the stool, reads a book, maybe occasionally comments on something completely irrelevant.
Somewhat like a kitchen cat really.
Whereas cooking, say, a piece of steak is part technique (2 mins on each side = medium rare), part instinct (no one ever said it was 2 mins to the millisecond!), baking is almost, all technique. It is all about getting the proportions perfect, getting the temperature of the oven right before you shove the tray in, taking it out before the pie top cracks, but not before the souffle sinks. It is all about following instructions. Thoughtlessly. Following. Instructions.
Which is great as I have come to love doing things that don’t require much thought. Like eating. Like lying on my bed pretending to be asleep. Like sitting on 6 hour bus rides from NYC to Providence. Like baking. They give me excuses for thinking about things that require thought. Like life. Like what to do if I run out of almonds.* Like writing.
Baking, is also the only orderly thing I do in this life. The rest, is the rest.
The oven admitted a series of monotonous beeps. I checked the cookbook. 20 minutes, it said. 20 minutes on the mark it was. I took out the tray and placed it on the stovetop. Stripped naked of expectations, I scooped out a chunk from one of the six dark chocolate cupcakes. Steam snaked out, faint, white, coiling into thin air. The chunk looked uneven, porous, brown, a little ugly. I’ve seen this before, I’ve done this before, I thought. I sent it into my mouth.
And then, baking doesn’t seem so emotionless after all.
*I substituted cranberry trail mix instead. Turned out even better