Bread and Circuses 3: Smelts and Westlake; Uni and Defoe

This is a third, and likely last article in which I pair up food with books. The previous two did not generate a single comment, but I still want to finish the series.

My third favorite cuisine is Japanese. The best Japanese cooking is about the ingredients. Think about it: sashimi is basically sliced up raw fish. It’s an ingredient with the least preparation possible. Yet it’s one of the tastiest things ever, if the fish is good and the chef sliced it well. Simplicity and lightness, that’s what I like about Japanese food. I’ve picked two of my favorite dishes, a fried fish and sea cucumber roe, and paired it up with two simple light reading book series.

My father grew up on Sakhalin island, a place where salmon and even sturgeon roe were dirt cheap and widely available. Kids would thumb their noses at their caviar and smoked fish, my dad said. But there was one fish still highly prized. A humble smelt. Easily caught, it was usually full of delicious roe. Fried – the tastiest thing ever. While fresh, interestingly enough, smelts smell like fresh cucumbers. I first tasted a fried smelt in a Japanese restaurant Yakitori East, one of the few places in New York that serves them. They are also available in Japanese and Korean supermarkets, I’ve bought and fried them at home many times.

Fried smelts are just as addictive as books from the Dortmunder series by Donalde E. Westlake. These are masterpieces of a particular subset of subset of crime fiction genre: a comical caper story. You get too root for a band of bumbling crooks led by John Archibald Dortmunder, a very competent, but extremely unlucky master thief with a beer-inspired last name.

You know how the two Alice stories have a chess game and a card game theme? Well, Dortmunder stories can be thought of as games of American football. The characters are highly specialized, just like football players, they face constant fumbles and setbacks, but from time to time they get to score. In fact, if I remember correctly, one of Dortmunder books even has chapters based on football: “First down”, and so on to more downs than there are in game rules.

Dortmunder’s core crew includes an all-purpose crook Andy Kelp, a thuggery specialist Tiny Bulcher, a getaway driver obsessed with New York City traffic patterns Stan Murch. Kelp and Dortmunder can pick locks, but when the job calls for it experts are called in. So are extra drivers, computer experts, and other colorful characters. Everybody except Stan Murch has long time girlfriends who take part in criminal acts from time to time. Stan’s cab-driving Mom known as “Murch’s mom” is a frequent cast member.

The now-canceled Firefly tv series is definitely inspired by the Dortmunder stories: as a nod, Joss Whedon named one of the big Alliance ships IAV Dortmunder.

There’s something amazingly likable about a competent, but unlucky master thief with a hang-dog look about him. I, for some reason deeply identify with Dortmunder. On the other hand, in real life I’m probably more of Arnie Albright, the friendless and obnoxious (and aware of it) fence. Arnie’s so obnoxious that nobody willingly deals with him (unless they have to). Dortmunder would much prefer dealing with another fence, Stoon who’s unreliable and pays much less.

I’ve read every single Dortmunder book there is. Westlake is currently working on the next installment in which the gang participates in a reality show.

***

Uni is a simple dish. Well, it’s not much of a dish. It’s sea urchin’s roe. You just dunk it in soy sauce and eat it. Uni had amazing taste: creamy, briny,sweet, custardy. If you watched Iron Chef at all, you probably spent hours listening to the judges rave about uni.

What would go great with uni? Gideon Defoe’s Pirates! books. What are they about? Well, they are about oh, only the most important things in the world. Ham. Piracy. Marine mammals. Science, Philosophy, Love. Sea shanties. Ham.

The nameless Pirate Captain leads a large group of child-like pirates and Cutlass Liz through most amazing adventures. His evil rival Black Bellamy constantly defeats an humiliates him and his crew, but the Pirate Captain does not like to dwell on that.

If I were to trust what I’ve read on the Internet, Pirates! was written to impress a girl to leave her boyfriend (which she didn’t). Defoe also is somehow related to Daniel Defoe.

There are three books out:

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According to Gideon’s livejournal, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Napoleon is already out. Also he’s working with Aardman on a Pirates! cartoon.

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).

Crawl of the Concordes

A couple of days ago I went to Floyd Bennett Field to once again renew my fishing license. On the way in I noticed a familiar plane standing next to the new Aviator Sports Center.

I went by to take some pictures, and a rather unfriendly security guard explained to me how this worked: I needed to go inside, buy some food and then I could take all the pictures I wanted and even get a tour of the inside of the plane.

Don’t you hate it when security guards jump out of nowhere and will not leave you alone unless they can make you comply with their wishes? Or the way they repeatedly call you “sir”, but they pronounce “sir” as they would “jerkoff”? Anyway, despite the unpleasant tone in which this information was conveyed, it was a pretty good deal. Last time when I wanted to see the same Concord, I had to pay 15 bucks or so and stand in a long line. The inside tour was, and still is not very interesting. The chairs are not original (the real ones were auctioned off) and they don’t let you into the pilot’s cabin. Sitting down and imagining how it would have been to fly on a Concord would have been interesting.

Despite that, the experience that I’ve had is even weirder. At the Floyd Bennett Field the Concorde is tied down to several concrete blocks and basically serves as a giant shade over several picnic tables. Eating cafeteria food under the mighty engines is rather unique. I ate and remembered how every fishing trip that I took out of Sheepshead Bay I waited for the loud whine that announced the streamlined needle that propelled the rich on their way to London or Paris and the sonic boom that followed a little later. Also, I remembered seeing the horrible pictures of a Concorde on fire and imagining what it must have been like for its passengers on their way to New York.

The whine of the Concorde engines over Jamaica Bay always stuck with me, and made me especially appreciate the airplane sound in Darren Aranovskiy’s “Requiem for a Dream” sequences. There’s something about that sound, the promise of a larger world, of a possible escape, of bigger, better things in life, and also of the danger of losing everything is a giant ball of fire.

The butt of the Concorde looks like a cheery 60s robot:

De gustibus non est disputandum

In the former Soviet Union, cognac was the expensive booze of choice, while whiskey was relatively unknown. Technically, you can only call cognac the brandy from Cognac in France, but the Soviets did not care much about that, already abusing Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée with Soviet Champagne.

In any case, high end Armenian brandy was considered the ultimate drink. Armenians were one of the first to invent the alcohol distilling technology, and Armenian brandy, by the way was the very same drink that Odysseus used to knock out the Cyclops.

The reason I remembered all this, is because two news articles reminded me of a Russian saying: to a pessimist cognac smells like bedbugs, to an optimist – bedbugs smell like cognac. Good cognac has a rather peculiar smell, and some say that it smells exactly like squashed bedbugs. Although I smelled cognac often enough, I’ve never smelled squashed bedbugs. Thus I can’t really say if the saying is true, or just an artifact of crappy Soviet cognac.

Consider the contrasts:

In Zimbabwe people are eating rats:

“Twelve-year-old Beatrice returns from the fields with small animals she’s caught for dinner.

Her mother, Elizabeth, prepares the meat and cooks it on a grill made of three stones supporting a wood fire. It’s just enough food, she says, to feed her starving family of six.

Tonight, they dine on rats.

“Look what we’ve been reduced to eating?” she said. “How can my children eat rats in a country that used to export food? This is a tragedy.””

Zimbabwe’s ambassador to United States, Machivenyika Mapuranga, told CNN on Tuesday that reports of people eating rats unfairly represented the situation, adding that at times while he grew up his family ate rodents.

“The eating of the field mice — Zimbabweans do that. It is a delicacy,” he said. “It is misleading to portray the eating of field mice as an act of desperation. It is not.” “

It’s hard to be optimistic about rat eating, but I guess it’s not as difficult for Mr. Mapuranga.

On the other hand, it’s probably pretty hard to be pessimistic about gourmet food served in some Manhattan soup kitchens:

“The multicourse lunch that Michael Ennes cooked in the basement of Broadway Presbyterian Church last week started with a light soup of savoy and napa cabbages. The endive salad was dressed with basil vinaigrette. For the main course, Mr. Ennes simmered New Jersey bison in wine and stock flavored with fennel and thickened with olive oil roux.

But some diners thought the bison was a little tough, and the menu discordant.

“He’s good, but sometimes I think the experimentation gets in the way of good taste,” said Jose Terrero, 54. Last year, Mr. Terrero made a series of what he called inappropriate financial decisions, including not paying his rent. He now sleeps at a shelter. He has eaten at several New York City soup kitchens, and highly recommends Mr. Ennes’s food.”

The gourmet soup kitchen chef is an optimist though:

“Despite the care he puts into his cooking, he doesn’t mind a little criticism.

“They’re still customers, whether they’re paying $100 a plate or nothing,” Mr. Ennes said. “One thing we do here is listen to people and let them complain. Where else can a homeless person get someone to listen to them?” “

I grew up with the Soviet media feeding me horror stories about life in America, and I know that indeed, looking at the world through the eyes of reporters is “looking through a glass darkly“. I trust the CNN reporter over the Zimbabwian politician because the latter has a much keener interest in misrepresenting the reality. But on the other hand, the efforts of the New York Times reporter to find the several homeless critiquing the free gourmet cuisine seem a little artificial. I bet 99% of them were rather grateful for tasty meals. But then, I don’t doubt that the New York City homeless can be rather picky — I’ve seen some refusing and even throwing offered food at the would be Good Samaritans.

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.

Nippon on Hudson

What is the the first ever sister city to be twinned with NYC? That’s right, Tokyo, Japan. And nowhere it’s more apparent than in Brooklyn, at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival (aka Sakura Matsuri) that is held at the awesome Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

You know that word that the Naked Chef likes to say a lot? “Pukka”? It turns out to be a Hindi word meaning “authentic” and “first class.” Well, on the minus side many Japanese things in Brooklyn Botanic are not pukka at all.

For instance, the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden is a masterpiece of true Japanese garden design. But the house and the Shinto shrine are empty shells and not authentic at all. If you want to see a real Japanese house you have to go to Philly to see Shofuso. I don’t even know where the closest real Shinto shrine is.

Also, would it kill them to have a decent bento? They always sell the worst bentos ever at Sakura Matsuri. They should totally get in touch with Shinobu Kobayashi, Mainichi Daily News bento specialist.

These are all minor gripes though. I love Sakura Matsuri at Brooklyn Botanic. I especially love the distinctly Brooklyn flavor that it acquires.

How awesome is this lady’s kimono? My wife wore a vintage Haori that we bought in a second hand store in Arashiyama.

Those without cromulent attire can compensate with appropriate coiffure.

Brooklyn badass samurai, wearing dark sunglasses

and cutoff kimonos.

There’s some meditatin’ going on.

And mingling of food.

In the end, you can appreciate the cherry blossoms amongst the throngs of people, just like in Japan. It’s that just that the cops won’t let you get drunk under the cherry trees, like they do in Japan.

The Pigeon Washer

I ducked into the Hidden Starbucks to get a sandwich and a Venti Quad Iced Latte for lunch, then sat down outside on the parapet of the weird little plaza to eat. There were a few salariemen and women sitting on the curb, eating, drinking coffee and smoking. But once I got up to return to my cubicle, I noticed something very strange. See, there was this woman sitting on the parapet, and she had a blue plastic bucket with soapy water and a washcloth. In her hand she held a particularly gnarly sick pigeon. She was giving the pigeon a bath. Unless she’s washing the poor bird for food (hey, you never know), Nikola Tesla, who lived and worked close by would have approved.