27 March, 2016

Easter Treats 101 For The Non-Christians: Food Traditions From Around The World

Simnel cake, popular in the U.K. Image courtesy of bbc.co.uk.

As a child growing up in a Catholic household in Ohio, I always looked forward to the Easter season's religious theatrical rituals and customs (behind the adults' backs of course): dancing and poking each other with exotic (and sharp, thorny) palm fronds that threatened to slice our fingers open as we wove them into crude costumes and hats after services concluded on Palm Sunday; stuffing our faces full of junk food and meat on Fat Tuesday since we'd have to give that all up during Lent; teasing each other about the ash smudges marking our foreheads on Ash Wednesday and trying to trick others into "accidentally" washing them off; a day off school for Good Friday; and of course the headlining act on Easter Sunday when the whole church became coated in pastel colors in the forms of candles, the priest and altar boys' vestments (clothing), fabrics hanging everywhere, flowers, and the wardrobes of the parishioners (worshipers). 

Peeps. Image courtesy of latimes.com.
Cadbury Creme Eggs. Image courtesy of youtube.com.

The Easter season was simultaneously a time to celebrate the Pagan traditions of Springtime (though I never realized this irony as a child) through the secular adoration of pastel food: plastic eggs filled with treats that we hunted in backyards, armed with Easter baskets to collect our prizes; real, hard-boiled, brightly colored eggs that we spent hours hand-dying with food coloring (along with our fingers); unnaturally neon-colored (probably toxic) marshmallow Peeps; the notorious Cadbury Creme Eggs whose inside always resembled a slimy, fetid, dying chicken to me - no thank you!; and the hollow, low-quality-milk-chocolate bunnies that no one really liked to eat, but felt cheated if they didn't get. 

As an Agnostic adult who now loathes anything pastel colored, Easter has lost a lot of its sparkly sheen that it had for me when I was young. Untarnished, however, is my appreciation for the way Christians have developed Easter food traditions that continue through till today. One of these recipes is for a cake from the United Kingdom that I had never heard of before - the Simnel cake. It's full of dried fruit, layered with marzipan (almond paste) and topped with marzipan balls balls meant to symbolize the twelve apostles, minus Judas.   

(Two photos above) Popular grocery-store version of paçoca de amendoim found year round in Brazil. Images courtesy of paodeacucar.com.br and bakesforbreastcancer.org.
Paçoca de amendoim from Brazil - the homemade kind. Image courtesy of aguanaboca.org.

Paraguayan chipas. Image courtesy of saveur.com.

A few other treats include one of my favorites, paçoca de amendoim (peanut butter candy) from Brazil, that I ate year round when I lived there, and that reminds me of a cross between the non-chocolate parts of a Butterfinger candy bar and a Reece's Peanut Butter Cup. Then there are Spanish rosquillas (sugared donuts), pashka cheese pyramids from Russia, cheese and anise seed chipas from Paraguay, and starchy/sweet mämmi from Finland (called memma in Sweden). And here and here are great links to lots of other Easter foods/drinks (sweet & savory) from around the world.

Finnish mämmi (memma in Sweden). Image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk.
Rosquillas from Spain. Image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk.
(Two photos above) Different styles of Russian pashka. Images courtesy russianmomcooks.com and viaggiamo.it

07 February, 2016

Lunar New Year 2016: Year of the Fire Monkey. What are we eating?

Image courtesy of cnyca.net
Today, February 7, 2016, begins the lunar new year, the Year of the (Red Fire) Monkey. According to Chinese astrology, every year is associated with a different animal/deity, complete with their own personality traits and influence over the life of the person born to the sign. These animals rotate every 12 years. Those born in the year between February 12, 1956 - January 30, 1957 are Fire Monkeys. They are energetic, clever, aggressive, and, well, "fiery". Here and here are some cool astrological breakdowns. But why a "Fire" monkey, or the other versions that are based on the elements earth, wood, metal, and water? Are they different from regular monkeys? Yes. The different versions are also cyclical like the animals of the zodiac themselves. If your birth year assigns you to the Fire, Water, Earth, Metal, or Wood monkey, you also get the added privilege of some bonus qualities (like I am a Fire Snake, for example). Regardless, all monkeys are celebrated this year. 

Image courtesy of blogs.sacbee.com.
Most people associate China with being the country to (literally) celebrate with fireworks. And while the Chinese are definitely beautifully flamboyant with their festivities, Korea and Vietnam, as well as other Asian countries including Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, and the Philippines also celebrate the lunar new year with their own takes on good luck food. Here's what the Lunar New Year means in a few of those places.

So what do we eat to celebrate? Let's start with Korea where it's called Seollal.  

Image courtesy of 4.bp.blogspot.com.

Image courtesy of koreanlunarnewyear2016wishesgreetings.com.

Image courtesy of mykoreankitchen.com.
Image courtesy of mykoreankitchen.com.

Traditionally in Korea the foods are first presented more as an altar to family ancestors than as a gather-round-the-table meal, though of course lots of food is prepared and eaten after the rituals, called Charye. People dress up and families travel far to celebrate. And included in the list of yummies are rice cake soup (which starts the new year out on a positive, cleansing note), kimchi dumplings, and barbecuzed beef and short ribs. Check out this site for more recipes, and here for more info on Korean New Year traditions. 

In Vietnam, the New Year is called Tết

Image courtesy of vietnam-travel.org.

Making rice & pork squares. Image courtesy of ocweekly.com.
Rice & pork square. Image courtesy of vietnam-travel.org.

What about the food? Think sticky rice, boiled chicken, banana-leaf-wrapped rice and pork, candied fruit, and Vietnamese sausage. Try here, here, here, and here for some more ideas.

Candied fruit. Image courtesy of toplisttips.com.

And now onto China!

A little bit of everything.
Dumplings. Image courtesy of thejustist.wordpress.com.
Here we have whole, steamed fish, and steamed, sweet nian gao (year cake) made from gluttonous rice. Then there are citrusy pomelos, tangerines and oranges, as well long noodles, long beans and long, leafy greens. But don't forget the fried turnip cakes and fried rice, nor the dumplings or egg rolls. More details are at these links here, here and here

Whole steamed fish. Image courtesy of takpo.com.sg.
Nian gao (year cake). Image courtesy of chowhound.com.

And that's just the food! What gets most of the attention are the parades with dancing dragons, lanterns decorating the sky, joss sticks burning on altars to remember those who have died, and the color red everywhere you look. Then there are the chores, customs and simple rituals that need to happen to bring good luck.

Chef Tin Vuong.
What about another way to celebrate Lunar New Year 2016? Follow the example that thousands of Asian Americans are doing who want to honor their cultural backgrounds, but who grew up in the United States and want to incorporate their modern identities into their celebrations. They blend the foods together and make something brand new. People can go to parades that have Chinese dragons AND hybridized Chinese food trucks, for example. In a Los Angeles Times article, chef Tin Vuong puts it this way, "I learned all the good things and all the bad things I know from Chinese New Year's, drinking, gambling, respect for elders, religion, tradition. Everything about me was centered around this." Yet, he doesn't uphold all of the traditions since his elder relatives have passed away. 
Monkey Bread Pork Buns. Image courtesy of foodandwine.com.

And in New York City, chef Anita Lo has concocted a new snack that fuses Lunar New Year food with the most American of sport holidays - Super Bowl Sunday - to make what she calls "Monkey Bread Pork Buns". Personally, I think these should be for all holidays from now on. Here's the recipe in Food & Wine Magazine.  


Here are some recipes for Americanized Chinese foods for new years, but with a respectful nod to authenticity. 

And whichever way you choose to celebrate this Year of the (Red Fire) Monkey, eat well and eat with meaning. 

15 November, 2015

Solidarité: Turning Tragedy Into Learning, Appreciation And Laughter...Through Food

Image courtesy of slate.fr.
What else can I say other than horrific acts took place in Paris, France on November 13th and we cannot let the fear of such things take control. Of course it's scary to oppose such evil, but it's worse to think that those forces could set a new status quo of terror. So how can those of us so far across the Pond help? My solution is to remember how wonderful France still is and why the City of Lights will forever be one of the magical places on earth. Millions have showed their support through the display of the Eiffel Tower/Peace sign image designed by French-born graphic designer Jean Jullien. Others have illuminated their country's landmarks to show their solidarity. So I've compiled some food videos that will make you sentimental, maybe teach you a few new things, giggle, and hopefully be inspired to make a French dish at home that will in your own small way, give the middle finger to those that would use terror to get make their voices heard. 

La solidarité avec la France. Bon appétit!

While you're cooking listen to this playlist of musicians reminding us how wonderful Paris is: 
(Click here for video) PARIS

(Click here for video) Le Petit Chef - Bouillabaisse

(Click here for video) Le Chocolat

(Click here for video) Food I Ate in France

(Click here for video) Specialty Coffee: Paris Awakening

(Click for video here) A Stranger in Paris: Food (A travel series in Paris for a Chinese audience)

(Click here for video) NATURALITÉ

(Click here for video) The Local Way Paris—Baguettes & Boulangeries

(Click here for video) RESTAURANT GUY SAVOY

(Click here for video) FRENCHIE RESTAURANT

03 March, 2015

Frida: As Remembered In Opera And Food

Frida Kahlo's painting, "The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened". Image courtesy of npr.org.

Image courtesy of michiganopera.org.
This is a simple post, but one close to my heart. Frida Kahlo, the early 20th-Century Mexican painter, is one of my favorite artists. I love her creative skills, her political passions, her open-mindedness towards gender and sexuality, and I love that she loved food. So you can imagine how happy I was when I saw that the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit will stage an opera called Frida starting on March 7th. How exciting that Frida will be revered in song, but even better is that three local Mexican chefs will create special menus to commemorate her. They will serve dishes like posole and three different moles: negro Oaxaqueño (black), rojo (red poblano), and amarillo (yellow). Yum, yum! I can't get out to Detroit, but it warms my heart and stomach to know that such a special event is taking place there. ¡Salud!

Mexican posole. Image courtesy of nytimes.com.

19 February, 2015

Happy Lunar New Year! It's The Year of The Goat, I Mean Sheep, I Mean Ram, I Mean Mongolian Gazelle?

Image courtesy of chinahighlights.com.
Image courtesy of chinahighlights.com.
The confusion over which lucky animal will represent 2015 stems from a subtle distinction between these animals in Mandarin, and therefore in the Chinese zodiac. The  animal is written as yang in Chinese, which can be translated as any of the above animals. Watch the video below or read this article for more info. Regardless, if you were born in one of the following years, it's your party: 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015. And to get an idea of what kind of financial forecast we ALL have ahead of us this year, check out this article in FORTUNE online.

So what do we eat for the Lunar New Year?  (P.S. I choose to say "Lunar" because the holiday is celebrated in many parts of Asia and not just in China). CHOW and the Food & Drink section of LA Weekly have put together handy lists of 10 edibles that will bring you a better 2015. Each item of food has a special significance like giving you a long life, good fortune, happiness, or many sons. Wait...many sons? Hmmm, I think I'll overlook that one. Anyway,  the links above differ a little, as did many of the websites that I found with similar articles, but overall here is what you should consume today:
  1. Long noodles
  2. Citrus fruits like oranges, tangerines or pomelos
  3. Sweets, like tang yuan ("sweet rice balls" filled with things like sesame paste, red bean or peanuts)
  4. Long leafy greens and long beans
  5. Rice
  6. Whole fish
  7. Sweet or savory cakes, like Nian Gao ("Year Cake"- steamed glutinous rice and sugar) or luo buo gao ("turnip cakes" - steamed or fried)
  8. Dumplings
  9. Spring rolls
  10. Chicken

Image courtesy of huyfong.com.
So what did I make today for lunch in honor of Lunar New Year you might ask? I used what was already in my apartment, so it's not a completely authentic meal, but it was tasty! Ground beef sauteed with rice vinegar, soy sauce, fresh garlic, sesame oil, and one of my favorite condiments, Hoy Fong Vietnamese Chili Garlic Sauce - yup, the same people that make "Rooster" Sriracha Sauce. I know it's technically Vietnamese-American, but I've seen those little pots of chili garlic sauce with the green lid in every Chinese restaurant that I've ever eaten in, on the West Coast anyway. Next I added green cauliflower (I talked about this in a previous article), snap peas, crimini mushrooms, and green onions, and I created a "sauce" by adding a little water. This went over long-grain, brown rice. For my sides, I had an orange and some preservative-free gummy bears. So I ate rice, "long" "beans", citrus, and sweets.

This morning for breakfast, I had sweet fig preserves mixed into goat-milk yogurt. For dinner I'll have chicken and veggie dumplings, cabbage kimchi and veggies over soba (buckwheat) noodles, some grapefruit, and a piece of carrot cake with cream cheese icing.


Image courtesy of fortune.com.

15 February, 2015

It's Restaurant Day 2015

A Piece Of Finland. Amsterdam, Netherlands. Restaurant Day, 17 August 2014. Image courtesy of restaurantday.org.

Restaurant Day is a worldwide food carnival when anyone can set up a restaurant, café or a bar for a day. It can happen anywhere: at your home, at the office, on a street corner, in your garden or inner courtyard, at a park, or on the beach – only your imagination is the limit.  

Punavuoren Teehuone ("Punavuoren Tea Room"). Helsinki, Finland. Restaurant Day, 4 February 2012.Image courtesy of restaurantday.org.

Bun Brothers & Friends. Helsinki, Finland.
Restaurant Day, 17 May 2014.

Image courtesy of restaurantday.org.
That's the official description on the group's website, and it's perfect! Restaurant Day is a one-day event started by Timo Santala in Helsinki, Finland in 2011 as a way to creatively push back against the bureaucratic regulations and prohibitions against self-made, public eating establishments in that country. Since then, it has become an international success and even sparked discussion in Finland regarding a need to reconsider the laws that were the catalyst for Restaurant Day in the first place. In the May, 2012 issue of Monocle magazine, Jussi Pajunen, Mayor of Helsinki, was quoted as saying: Restaurant Day is exactly the sort of project that will define our future. Restaurant Day has inspired the city’s population to question how things are run and to experiment and put forward new ideas of how daily life might be improved in the future. And check out Timo Santala's TEDxTurku talk below where he describes the wacky-wonderful experience that is Restaurant Day.

Tokyo Kitchen. Helsinki, Finland. Restaurant Day, 19 Nov 2011.Image courtesy of restaurantday.org.

Emilie’s Alley. Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Restaurant Day, 17 August 2014.

Image courtesy of restaurantday.org.
Blini-ikkuna ("Blini Window").
Helsinki, Finland.
Restaurant Day, 4 Feb 2012. 

Image courtesy of restaurantday.org.

The website offers suggestions for how to plan your pop-up restaurant: Coffee and cakes at the docks, treats from the trunk of a van, a six-course dinner in your living room – what does your own ideal restaurant look and taste like? The more fun the concept, the more happy customers it will attract. Quirkiness is not, however, the main aim – just try to think of a restaurant that you personally would love. Location is key. In the summertime, favorite spots have included parks, courtyards and street corners. In the winter, Restaurant Day lovers have gathered in homes, offices and other indoor spaces.

Ravintola Talvisota (Restaurant Winter").
Helsinki, Finland.
Restaurant Day, 16 Feb 2014.

Image courtesy of restaurantday.org.
The Hog & Apple. Helsinki, Finland.
Restaurant Day, 4 Feb 2012
. Image courtesy of restaurantday.org.

Ravintola Ötökkä ("Restaurant Bug") Helsinki, Finland. Restaurant Day, 19 May 2012. Image courtesy of restaurantday.org.

Image courtesy of bobaguys.tumblr.com.
A few years back I made a short documentary as part of my BA thesis in Interdisciplinary Studies about a pop-up restaurant in San Francisco called Boba Guys. I was working with outdated equipment so the tech quality isn't the best on the film, but you get the picture. Bin and Andrew loved boba tea (also called bubble tea or pearl tea) and had a passion for maintaining a connection to their Taiwanese ancestry through the drink that was invented there. So they opened a pop-up cafe that operated out of the front of a hip noodle house during the day, and closed shop in the evening when the rest of the restaurant opened for dinner service. 

Image courtesy of bobaguys.tumblr.com

Since then they have moved into not one, but two, brick-and-morter locations and have a third in the works (that's working as a pop-up for the moment), an expanded menu that includes snacks, and a line of groovy merchandise.Way to go Boba Guys!

Enjoy Restaurant Day in any way that you can today: make and sell your own food, visit a food truck, patronize a new restaurant, or grab a cupcake with a friend and eat it outside somewhere while enjoying the good company and surroundings. ¡Bon provecho!
The main concentration of Restaurant Day pop-ups today are in Europe, but their website has a location finder to see if there's one happening near you. In the USA, there are pop-ups in Santa Cruz, CA and Brooklyn, NY.