Bread and Circuses 2: Korean BBQ and Mark Haddon

I did not get much response to my previous installation of Bread and Circuses, the series of articles where I match my favorite books with my favorite food, but since I started already, well, I can’t chicken out now. You can read the first part here.

Ok, so let’s say it’s 22 century, agents of the corpocracy captured me, and are about to send me to the Litehouse. Michael-47, they say, what kind of a last meal and book would you like?  I’d choose a David Mitchell novel and some pho, but they tell me that they are fresh out. What would my second choice be?

Korean BBQ and a novel by Mark Haddon, of course.

Korean food is spicy and strong smelling. It’s not subtle. It’s not refined. But it is the ultimate comfort food. It’s a bit like a little room in a Soviet communal apartment – dingy, smelly, but oh so homey. Also, I’m not sure I’m making myself clear, it’s very, very tasty. To me, the ultimate family meal is Korean BBQ (aka galbi).

Whenever I feel extra bad and I need a cheer-me-up meal, I drag my wife to K-Town.  A typical meal involves frying bits of high and low grade meat over a special fire pit in the table, wrapping them in lettuce leafs and eating them. My favorite part is the little side dishes called banchan containing high quality kimchi (not the stuff you can find in a jar in a supermarket), various pickles, pancakes, salads, and many steamed, crunchy, slippery, tentacly things I don’t know the name of.  In better places they replenish the little dishes as you consume them. A galbi meal rarely fails to lift my spirits.

Mark Haddon rose to prominence  for his book  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel written from the point of view of an autistic boy.  As most programmers I am slightly touched by the engineer’s affliction, so I can understand it very well. Haddon knows a lot about working class British engineers, dysfunctional families and  psychological trouble. His second novel, A Spot of Bother  is about a retired engineer who is losing his mind, yet keeps a stiff upper lip about it.  Haddon’s plots are very interesting, characters likable, and sense of humor outstanding.  These two novels really put of my mind from waiting for David Mitchell’s next novel.

Once I finished Haddon’s bestsellers I learned that he actually started his career as a children’s writer.  He wrote and illustrated a number of children’s books,  culminating in the so-called Agent Z series. Oh, Agent Z. How I wish there were a few more of these left for me to read. Unfortunately the last one was written in 2001 and it does not look like Haddon is planning to write any more.

The Agent Z series is somewhat similar to the popular American tv show Malcolm in the Middle. In fact, I suspect that “Malcom” was inspired by “Agent Z”.

Agent Z is the pseudonym assumed by three British school kids who specialize in elaborate pranks. They are: Ben Simpson, the ‘handsome’ one of the crew, too smart and creative for his own good daydreamer from a lower middle class family; Barney Hall, a fat practical kid from an upper middle class family, who understands the adult psychology and is usually the brains of the outfit; and Jenks Jenkinson, a super skinny, wound up and ratty kid from a working class family who nevertheless has great fighting spirit.

  They take their revenge on bullies, boring teachers, nasty neighbors and relatives. Being kids, they don’t always stay anonymous under the cover of Agent Z organization, but usually get away with enough dignity to triumph over their tormentors.

These books are infused with British culture, and I learned many interesting things.  For instance, it turns out that the Brits call ballpoint pens “biros” – honoring its Hungarian inventor (I guess that theory about Hungarian Martians is not that far from the truth).

I also learned about chip butty (one of Ben’s favorite foods). Believe it or not, a chip butty is a sandwitch made out of two white (!) buttered (!!) pieces of bread, french fries (!!!) and ketchup (!!!!).

Why am I so hung up on the Agent Z? Well, in my youth I had two friends, a good looking one and a crazy one, and together we formed the XYZ secret society. We did pull off a few pranks. MIT is home to a very powerful and very secret society that specializes in pranks, I followed their fine work for years. Hacks and pranks are ingrained  in the souls of all engineers.

One of my favorite parts of the books is the illustrations that the author drew himself. Haddon is a very talented illustrator.

Agent Z Goes Wild is hard to find for some reason. I got my copy at abebooks.com.

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).

Muji-Shmuji

Yesterday I went to see the new Muji store in SoHO. I’ve never seen so many hipsters and so many $800 baby strollers concentrated in such a small space outside of Williamsburg. Spent about half an hour in the store, but could not find anything to buy – there were some good and hard to find soy sauce pourers, but I already have a similar one.  The rest seemed to be well designed kipple. Also, the items only seem well priced to those who willingly buy the strollers I mentioned earlier. The selection was rather small – maybe the forthcoming flagship store will be better…

A Recipe for Disaster

Have any of you seen an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa becomes a vegetarian? If you haven’t, too bad, because it has a lot to do with my first paid review on this blog.

Lisa: They can’t seriously expect us to swallow that tripe.
Skinner: Now as a special treat courtesy of our friends at the Meat Council, please help yourself to this tripe. [Class cheers and runs to table loaded with tripe.]
Lisa: Stop it Stop IT! Don’t you realize you’ve just been brainwashed by corporate propaganda?
Janie: Hmmph, apparently my crazy friend here hasn’t heard of the food chain.
Uter: Yeah, Lisa’s a grade A moron!
Ralph: When I grow up, I’m going to go to Bovine University.

Joel Spolsky has his underpants in a bunch because spoiled grade A… I mean, A-list bloggers are currently being showered with fancy laptops, all expenses paid trips and other goodies by PR agencies. Next thing we’ll see is the Webbys attendees start getting Emmys-like gift baskets. It’s a widely known fact in the entertainment industry: if you want the A-listers to attend your crappy awards show, you better give them some stuff that they can buy with their pocket money.

Since I am not an A-list blogger, nobody is trying to bribe me with a drool-inducing HDTV TIVO or a shiny new laptop, so if I want to shed some of my credibility, I’ll have to do some work. I decided to try out the very controversial http://www.reviewme.com.

The deal is simple: an advertiser asks me to write a review on my blog, and if I do, I get some money. I do have pretty good pagerank and a decent amount of readers (aka blog juice), so after a month or so of waiting, I got my first paying reviewee, chefs.com. They want me to review their recipes. Fine. Off to http://www.chefs.com/recipes/default.aspx I go. I do like to cook, and I do use recipe sites all the time.

The last time I searched for a recipe I was looking to do curry. See, I purchased this really awesome Maharajah Style Curry Powder from PENZEYS Spices. It’s pricey, but unlike curry powder that you might find in a supermarket, it’s made out of the best and freshest ingredients with a pound of Kashmir saffron for every 50lb of curry.

So I type in “curry” into chefs.com and sort by cook time (a seemingly useful feature). What do I get? 133 results overall, which is not stellar, but a number of curry recipes that take 0 minutes to prep and 0 minutes to cook. A boon to a busy web developer and blogger like myself. Just to think that I was using Joe Grossberg’s How to Make a Simple Curry “Anything” that takes whole 15 minutes!

Ok, so the supefast curry recipe turned out to be just a case of bad data, a lazy developer and a company (it could be that it consists of that one lazy developer) that does not use it’s own product(or does not care about it).

Moving on. Some time ago I had to look up a recipe for another exotic delicacy, Ä°ÅŸkembe çorbası. It’s a Turkish soup made of tripe. I have it regularly at a Turkish restaurant near my house, and it’s extremely delicious. Tripe can be very tasty when prepared right.

So I type in “tripe” into chefs.com. Here’s what I get:

To my disappointment, the first result, “Lighter Fresh Applesauce in Puff Pastry” does not contain any tripe. Neither do the rest of them.

From what I know, recipes are not really copyrightable. Because of that, it’s possible to get a couple of cds with recipes from somewhere or just scrape the web and start your own site. For instance, the recipe for “Lighter Fresh Applesauce in Puff Pastry” shows up on different websites with the same phrasing down to “Bake puff pastry shells according to package directions.” One of the sites even has nutritional info, but also omits the source of the recipe.

To conclude my review, chefs.com has reviews available elsewhere with one of the buggiest search interfaces I’ve ever seen. The owner of the site probably used some Bovine U-trained developers, and not that the site is generating pretty good revenue, is looking for a way to improve the search engine positioning. He or she has no clue about web development and marketing. I could provide that clue, but it’ll take a bit more than the $50 I should get for this review.

Latte Art

Slowly, but steadily I am getting a little better at latte art. Once I’ll figure it out completely, I’ll make a couple of videos and write a how-to article. Meanwhile, head over to youtube and look at some of the videos that they have of rosetta pours. Neat, eh?

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part VIb : My Three Favorite Meals in Japan

I’ve had three exceptional meals in Japan. The first, and probably my favorite was in a little restaurant located on the grounds of Ryōan-ji, the famous temple with the rock garden. The restaurant is sitting in the middle of a gorgeous garden that is open only to the restaurant patrons. They serve beer and yudofu, a vegetarian stew with tofu and seven herbs.

I am not a fan of vegetarian dishes, but this one completely blew me away by it’s simplicity and clean flavor. I can see how the monks could spend their entire life eating like that.

You eat sitting down on tatami, the traditional way.

We ordered a yudofu set that came with numerous side dishes, of which this is one. It wasn’t cheap at about $60, but was totally worth it. Maybe seeing the rock garden prior to eating this had something to do with it, but this was my favorite meal in Japan.

My second favorite meal was in a little restaurant in Ryogoku, Tokyo’s sumo district. They serve chankonabe, stew traditionally eaten by sumo wrestlers. That was probably one of the most filling and healthiest meals that I’ve ever eaten in Japan – it was mostly protein.

The restaurant was filled with trochees, memorabilia and pictures of sumo wrestlers, many in the restaurant itself and together with their families.

Chankonabe is a meat, seafood and vegetable hot pot. It was prepared right in front of us.

It’s eaten piping hot. I need to cook this at home more often.

Our last meal in Japan happened in a rather famous place, the Sapporo Lion Beer Hall in Ginza. It’s the oldest Japanese beer hall that opened its doors in 1899.

The interior has huge vaulted ceilings, Art Deco and Gothic decor. There’s a huge mosaic over the bar depicting a harvest scene.

The selection of beer is as good as can be expected in a place like this. My favorite was Yebisu Black, which I sadly can’t locate here in the US.

The selection of appetizers was huge too, and we tried several, including this awesome sashimi appetizer. Sadly, despite my advice, my wife ordered a chorizo(!) appetizer (it was the only thing that I did not have that night) and got a bad case of upset stomach later that evening. I was fine, so I guess a historic Japanese beer hall is not a great place for chorizo.

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).

Cafe Grumpy

Recently I jumped into my minivan and took a road trip on the BQE to visit Cafe Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It used to be impossible to find a decent espresso in all of Manhattan, but now even Brooklyn boasts several world class cafes, of which Cafe Grumpy is one.

Located in a handsome three story circa 1890s Renaissance Revival (correct me if I am wrong) building, Cafe Grumpy takes up the whole first floor. Notice a movie prop truck – apparently “The Brave One” starring Jodie Foster is being shot in the surrounding streets.

Cafe Grumpy building

Greenpoint is a formerly bad/industrial neighborhood that is being gentrified like crazy. Notice a fresh crop of condos in the background. I bet having Cafe Grumpy across the street is a strong selling point – it’s probably enough for a bloodsuckerRealtorTM to take the clients for a cup of coffee to seal the deal.

Cafe Grumpy Logo

Inside you find a typical Victorian interior of a high end cafe: pressed plaster ceilings, exposed brick and plastered walls, hardwood floors, schoolhouse lights, and mac-toting hipsters.

Cafe Grumpy Interior

The big selling point is not food.
Cafe Grumpy organic eggs

It’s the combination of the best espresso machine money can buy (Synesso Cyncra),

Cafe Grumpy Synecco Syncra

freshly delivered coffee roasted by some of the best roasters (Counter Culture in this case) and highly trained staff.
Cafe Grumpy Counter Culture beans

As I was enjoying an impeccable espresso and a latte with a perfect textured milk rosetta (made from two different types of beans), fresh beans arrived. I bought 3 half pound bags of Counter Culture-roasted goodness.

There’s also an art gallery in the back, but I am not particularly into the local arts scene.

Cafe Grumpy Gallery

Cafe Grumpy is holding a “Coffee Nerd Fest” on Wednesday, September 6th, at 7:30 pm. There will be a cupping (sounds dirty, but it’s actually a technical term for coffee tasting) and beer. And maybe they’ll let me pull a shot or two on that Cyncra.

They are located at 193 Meserole Ave, Brooklyn, NY. They have a website and a blog.

Homemade Sashimi

I did not get to go fishing as much as I wanted to lately, and a recent winter flounder trip that despite amazing weather resulted in only one keeper fish is not a highlight of my fishing career. But the flounder sashimi that I made out of it was absolutely awesome.

Fluke Sashimi

Here’s a picture of striped bass sashimi that I made a few years back. I’m told that the dark brown (looks red in the picture for some reason) meat should be removed from fillets. It was very tasty anyway.

Striped Bass Sashimi

Food safety is not something to be taken lightly, of course. A lot of people gasp – homemade sashimi? That’s suicide! But if you ask me, food police, fear of lawsuits and American germophobia goes a little too far.

Over the years I ate a lot of potentially deadly stuff. Street vendor food, for example. Did you ever wonder how those guys go to the bathroom? Cafeteria food. Oh, and not only American street vendor food and cafeteria food. Soviet too. I ate a lot of sushi and sashimi. I’ve had raw Korean beef. A lot of oysters, some rare steaks (usually I order medium-rare). In Ukraine I liked to snack on raw chicken eggs. I ate fish that I caught in the uber-polluted Black Sea. I even ate raw mussels (and they concentrate all the bad sea crap) there.

And you know what? While long term health effects of my omnivorous eating are not known yet, I had a very mild case of food poisoning only once. From a reportedly unexpired can of Alaskan salmon.

Alleged time traveler John Titor wrote this about American food:

“What are people thinking? You willfully eat poisoned food. It’s very hard for me to find food here. It all scares the Hell out of me. I am amazed at the risks people here are willing to take with processed food. All of the food I eat here is grown and prepared by my family or myself.”

I am scared myself. Food here for the most part does not taste right. The large scale growing and processing does something to it. I highly suspect that it’s one of the major contributing factors in the obesity epidemic.

In any case, I remember watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” where he sat in a French bistro and pointed out half a dozen things that would be completely illegal in an American restaurant, but actually make a eating in that bistro amazing.

As far as homemade sashimi is concerned, I hear a lot of talk about freezing fish overnight in a freezer to kill parasites before eating it. I’ve tried this, and it makes the texture of the fish mushy. I am not sure about this, but it seems to me that the only fish that gets that treatment is tuna – I’ve seen huge frozen carcasses in the Tsukiji fish market. In any case, raw fish that I caught myself if probably the freshest that it can be. The only way this sashimi could be any fresher is if I cut and eat the still alive fish right on the boat.

Bolivian Cup of Excellence

I am sitting here, reading my blogroll, having a double espresso out of a special cup (“on loan” from a certain European monarch’s palace). The espresso is made from Bolivian Cup of Excellence Juan de Dios Blanco that has the following sad story:

Juan de Dios Blanco, the grower of this #1 ranked Bolivian Cup of Excellence Coffee, passed away in a car crash less than a week after his coffee was awarded the highest dollar amount ever paid for a Bolivian Coffee.

Victrola Coffee staff describe the flavor like this:

This coffee is a mind blower. It is wonderfully sweet with layers of butterscotch, honeysuckle, orange marmalade, dark chocolate and toffee. It is silky on the tongue with a nice, clean finish. Add a drop of cream and there will be no need for dessert.

You’d think this is a load of bull, but no, not so much. I have no idea what honeysuckle and toffee tastes like, but it definitely tastes a little bit like dark chocolate and orange rind. And it is sweet, even though I could not bring myself to throw out the first shot which never comes out right (that does add a bit more acidity than I’d like).

And now I want is some grilled cheese.