Archive for April, 2011

Now you know too

Every Thursday afternoon at about 1:30, a handful of cognoscenti crowds into Tung Cheng Grocery at the corner of Chestnut and Wunder Streets in Reading to snare the goodies fresh off the truck from Philadelphia. This is one of the many places where I shop for mysteries as well as for fresh greens, sprouts, tofu and fish, ginger and lemon grass, Vietnamese sandwiches laced with cilantro, sweet rice and beans with salty peanuts and coconut milk, fresh rice noodles embedded with tiny shrimp, and my latest find: pork belly. More on that later.

The greens lie stacked in open cardboard boxes at the back of the store. Baby bok choy, frilly cabbage, spinachy greens with tiny yellow flowers–tender and lovely, like babies, from the nursery.

Lo and behold, the delectable sweet pea-tasting leaves with tendrils are in fact Sweet Pea Greens. They were yummy even before I knew what they were.

Among my favorite weekly items are sticky rice bundles–sweet and savory–wrapped in banana leaves. Delicious, satisfying and they take me back, not just to the years in Japan but to my own pre-history.

My mother lived in China in the mid-1940s, a period marked by prolonged civil war, the ascent of Mao Zedong and, with the success of the Chinese Communist party, the transformation of the country into the People’s Republic of China. Americans tend to love revolutions, given our own revolutionary origins, and we applaud the liberation movements now sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East. Doubtless there were millions who welcomed the Chinese communists, certainly their mission to eradicate poverty and disease, but their methods were harsh. (We have friends who survived the so-called Cultural Revolution, but just barely; no love lost there.)

Fast forward to the 1950s and the dawn of mine own consciousness. On the wall of our living room in Detroit hung this painting, which had been given to my mother by an artist fleeing from the Communists. She described it as a typical scene: a farmer stopping for lunch, sitting on a bamboo leaf and eating a meal of rice, presumably, likewise wrapped in a leaf. She spoke of the farmer’s dignity, undimmed by what we would call poverty, and of the end of the rural life as China became industrialized.

The painting hangs now in my own house, and every Thursday I get myself a batch of sticky rice dumplings that could surely trace their lineage back to this fellow’s lunch. In China, they’re called zongzi; bánh tro in Vietnamese.

The sweet ones, in bundles of four, have a core of sweet black bean paste.

The savory ones are larger, a meal in themselves. Inside a four-pointed pyramid of sticky yellow rice is a peppery mixture of yellow beans and pork. I pop it in the microwave for about a minute, until the steam starts squealing, then carefully (it’s hot!) snip the string and peel open the leaves. The top two or three leaves will come right off.

The inner leaf is your plate.

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My son Sam tells me the masses want food porn. The next best thing being a quick post about what we had for dinner. I’m too busy, I tell him, too busy to take the care I would like with each post, to reflect on what we talk about when we talk about food–the politics, community, adventure and love. Just do it, he says.

So, having just spent a low-budget week at the Four Points Sheraton at Baltimore Washington International airport, eating chicken every single night (in the course of an otherwise fantastic training program), I am herewith rolling out a somewhat random selection of photos from our recent trip to France. It will help to erase the memory of all that chicken and get something out on Itadakimasu, yo. Food porn, minus the fancy camera; these were taken with my iPhone.

Tomatoes from the local quick shop, the Monoprix. Beautiful enough to break your heart.

My first homemade meal in Paris: radishes, bread, and sweet butter threaded with crunchy bits of sea salt.

Breakfast. I know it’s not nutritionally sound, but what the hell. Add a newspaper and insouciance, and you’re all set for the day.

Wild boar with two-celery cake, a souffle-like concoction make with what I imagine was celery and celeriac. At Mesturet.

Coq au vin, also at Mesturet.

Huitres at Brasserie Bofinger. Traditional at Christmastime, with champagne.

And for dessert, Floating Island, which is located between the heights of sophistication and the nursery.

And in case you were thinking this food looks fancy, here’s a table setting at Versailles. So glad I don’t have to polish the silver or fold the napkins.

Bon Appetit!

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