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  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:51 am on November 27, 2007 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Cloud Atlas, comfort food, , Donald Westlake, fellow semi-autistic software developers, , , , , , Pho, , , Timothy Cavendish, travel journal, , Vietnamese cuisine, Vietnamese noodles, weapons dealer   

    Bread and Circuses 1: Pho and David Mitchell 

    Let’s talk about what me and every other plebeian cares most deeply about: bread and circuses.  Like many of my fellow semi-autistic software developers and primitive cave people I fear the unknown in both food and entertainment. I have to make conscious efforts to try out new stuff and turn it into a source of comfort. I’d like to share with you some patterns I discovered for myself.

    Anthony Bourdain, the author of the awesome Kitchen Confidential likes to ask people on his slightly less awesome TV show about their choice of a last meal. Most people chose comfort food. Also, there’s the cliche  question about a book one  would take to an uninhabited island, but I am guessing most people would pick the most comforting literature as well. I’d like to make three cuisine/dish/author/book pairings in descending order of comfort they bring me.

    At the top of the list is Vietnamese cuisine and novels by David Mitchell. Vietnamese food has explosive flavor, amazing variety of textures and is at the same time very light, fresh and very filling. Same is true about Mitchell’s novels. 

    My favorite Vietnamese dish is Pho, which is basically a clear beef broth with herbs and spices topped with  noodles, thin slices of meats, onions, fresh cilantro, mint, basil and bean sprouts.  You can add some hot chili sauce and lemon juice to taste. Good Pho broth is simmered for 6-8 hours, and the meat from the broth bones is reserved for other dishes, but never Pho itself.  The main part, the spiced broth is umamiest thing ever. It’s like the explosion of beef on your tongue, the substance of the dish. It’s the toppings that add interest to Pho. When you order it, you get a wide variety of choices of thinly sliced meats. You can stick with traditional steak, flank, and brisket.  I very much like  cheap cuts and organ meats because they have better flavor and texture – tendon, tripe, liver, navels etc.  There’s something called “omosa” – I am not sure what it is,  but  I’ve had it many times and it’s way tasty.  Then  you have another level of  texture and flavor – noodles, cilantro, crunchy bean sprouts, fresh onions, basil and mint. All the topings are added just before eating. It’s a meal in a bowl, meaty, but not greasy, and oh so fresh. It’s kind of like eating a very good steak and a very good salad, but better.

    Mitchell’s novels are literary Pho. His books are both light and serious reading. The primary example of his work is his masterpiece, Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has a rare talent of flawlessly mimicking a wide spectrum of genres and styles, and he does not hold back. Also, he likes to play around with the physical structure of his novels in subtle and not so subtle ways.  He shaped Cloud Atlas from six stories that range in style from Victorian travel journal to a post-apocalyptic science fiction story. Furthermore, he sliced the five stories in half and wrapped them around a central story in a matryoshka doll fashion.  At first it is rather jarring to find that the short story you are reading is cut in the middle and a new one is starting coitus interruptus-style just as you adjusted to the places and people. But then you notice, that everything is connected and interlocked in various subtle and elegant  ways. First of all, in every story there’s a character with a birthmark that looks like a comet. The first story is a found and read in a book form by a character from the second story. The fourth story is watched in a movie form by the character from the fifth story. A character mentioned in the second story is… well,  I don’t want to spoil it for you, but there are many, many hyperlinks in Cloud Atlas.  Everything is further tied together with common themes: loss of freedom, violence, pacifism, betrayal, civilization vs barbarism, reincarnation.  Mitchell even uses cheap subconscious  tricks: certain words and expressions are repeated in different contexts in his books almost in every chapter (I’ll let you find out which ones).

    For some weird reason I am very attached to some Mitchell’s characters. He does this strange thing, where the characters reappear in different books, sometimes making an important contribution, and sometimes playing the most insignificant role. My two favorite characters – Mongolian hitman, weapons dealer and all-around villain Suhbataar, and publisher Timothy Cavendish make two appearances each in three different books. Suhbataar reminds me of the hitman in the murder that happened on the sidewalk which I wasn’t on during lunch only because I wanted to finish a piece of code before eating. Timothy Cavendish – I met a few people very much like him. One’s a villain, another – well, morally gray, yet strangely endearing. Both very, very real to me.

    I finished all of Mitchell’s other novels – Ghostwritten, number9dream, Black Swan Green. Now I really only reading other books just to tide me over until his next book is going to come out. In 2009! Really, not a day goes by when I don’t think about what it’s going to be like. It’s almost an unhealthy obsession.

    In short, go read some David Mitchell and go eat some Pho. I might like that Japanese gangster showdown in number9dream and that tripe in Pho, but you might find other things that will become your favorites.

    Tomorrow I’ll try to write the second installment, about Korean BBQ and Mark Haddon’s Agent Z series. The last one is going to be Japanese smelts and Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series plus uni roe and Gideon Defoe’s Pirates! series (a two-fer!).

    Also, let me know what dishes and cuisines you’d pair with what authors and books (but no Harry Potter and Discworld – in my mind they go together with califlower and boiled onions – other people might like them, but I just don’t have the taste for them).

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 3:27 am on October 3, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Bento, , comfort food, convenience store food, county fair food, , festival food, festival junk food, , , food pyramid, , , junk food overlows, , Miso, , Ramen, , , Squid, , Tempura, , , Yƍshoku   

    Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part VIa : Japanese Food 

    You know that a have a japonophiliac streak in me, but I can’t honestly say that Japanese cuisine is my favorite. In fact it holds a shaky fourth position, after Vietnamese, Korean and Thai cuisines (in that order). Sushi, sashimi and kushiyaki (stuff on skewers) are great comfort food, and not many things achive the perfection of high quality sashimi (especially if I caught the fish) and fried smelt is probably one of my top 10 favorite foods. But overall, I think Japanese cuisine is all that great, but I still like it better than French and Italian.

    Let’s start at the base of Japanese food pyramid. The fast food. I am not going to get into details about Japanese McDonalds and the like. Calling it Macdonurado and making the clown hot and female does not change it much.

    Let’s start with the first meal that you might encounter – the bento, the boxed lunch. The sell these in most trains and train stations. The variety of bento is amazing, almost always reflecting the season and featuring fresh local produce. It’s probably the perfect and the best fast food in the world. Sadly, obentos are not popular in the US, which I think might change in the future. The thing that most resembles the bento, the tv dinner, is terrible and thankfully extinct.

    Here’s a group of Japanese businessmen enjoying their bentos in a shinkansen. One of my favorite features of Mainichi Daily News is a special feature about bentos written by Shinobu Kobayashi. A bento usually cost about $10. My favorite part of bentos is the little exotic pickles, from lotus root to stuff I can’t even identify. They are like a little surprise – you never know how they’ll taste.

    A whole separate category should be devoted to festival junk food. Think the Japanese version of American county fair food.

    First, there’s takoyaki, which should be familiar to all I Love Katamari players. Takoyaki are greasy balls of fried batter, filled with chunks of octopus and drenched in mayo, served searing hot. Unhealthy as hell, but great with beer.

    Okonomiyaki is sort of Japanese take on pizza. They are also hot and greasy beyond belief, and again, a great drinking food.


    Grilled squid on a stick is a popular festival food.

    Mitarashi dango are sticky rice flour dumplings on a stick. They are very filling, but not particularly tasty. I liked mochi a bit more.

    Fried foods are very popular in Japan, and the idea of deep frying was introduced by Portuguese missionaries. I always thought that it were the Dutch and the word “tempura” refered to “temperature,” but Wikipedia article tells me that it’s from “”ad tempora quadragesimae”, meaning “in the time of Lent””. In any case, tempura is only good when it’s made in front of you, and even then too greasy for my taste. I had a good tempura meal in a moderately expensive tempura place (it set me back something like $50) and I am still underwhelmed. Tempura here in New York is outright horrible.

    Japanese cuisine is at its worst when it tries to emulate western food. There’s this class of meals called yoshoku, which means western-style japanese food, and it’s usually horrible. What it reminds me of the most is medieval artists trying to depict elephants and rhinos having for reference only pictures made by other medieval artists who also haven’t seen the real thing. Here’s an gratin of some sort that my wife had:

    The variety of convenience store food boggled my mind. Even the most basic student staples like ramen soup are exotic there: here’s one that has real clams in it’s fixin’ package:

    While junk food overlows and is dirt cheap, fruit and vegetables generally are very expensive. To make up for enormous prices, they are often local, hand picked, meticulously packaged (sometimes with an autographed photo of the farmer), and of great quality. Here’s a moderately cheap grocery store – those tiny little watermelons are $20 each.

    For all the corruption of the west, traditional meals are great. I already covered the phenomenon of the “morning set” in a previous post, so here’s a photo of a traditional Japanese breakfast that I had in a ryokan. It consted of fried salmon, rice, miso soup, seeweed salad, pickles and interestingly shaped egg omlet.

    Traditional dinner at ryokan was also great – sashimi, two kinds of seafood salad, pickled shrimp, miso soup, rice and sake. The little pink flower-like thingy is a slice of a special boiled fish cake (I think).

     
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