What I brought

When I knew that we would be living in a furnished temporary apartment for two months with a “fully equipped” kitchen, I suspected rightly that the kitchen would only be considered fully equipped by someone who ate in restaurants exclusively, with perhaps an occasional “home-cooked” bowl of cereal. I started a mental list of things I used most often and then pared that list down to the most easily transportable basics. Here is what I brought:

-3 knives, a small paring knife, 1- 8 inch chefs knife and my slicer.

-my little emergency knife sharpening doohicky (because a dull knife is worse than no knife)

-a bamboo stirrer

-tongs ( my second pair of hands)

-pepper mill

-one-cup-at-a-time drip coffee maker and filters (and the last of my Peet’s Sumatra)

-Sherry and Champagne vinegar and olive oil- these were last-minute additions because the packers didn’t think they would make it intact in the truck, but I’ve  used them a lot anyway, so I’m glad they came along with us.

Once we got to the apartment and my worst fears about the kitchen equipment were realized (this cookware is the reason “heavy-bottomed pots” are specified- I feel like I am cooking in big Coke cans), I started another mental list of things I wish I had brought:

-a flexible plastic cutting board as we’ve been provided a 3-legged glass cutting board (yes, I know that you don’t cut on glass)

-my saute’ pan, probably my most versatile and oft-used piece of cookware

-a small cheese grater- because believe me, you only grate an entire block of cheese with a fork once before thinking “that little cheese grater wouldn’t have taken up that much space in the car.”

-my jar of good paprika, because you can do a lot to meat, pork and chicken with salt, pepper, and paprika.

and finally

-a silicone spatula for making omelets and general stirring of things like pimento cheese

I tend to keep my kitchen tools pretty well-edited to things I actually use regularly; I’m not a big gadget collector. But it has been interesting to see that I can function reasonably well with a really basic handful of tools and what things I miss most when they are unavailable to me.

One thing they do have here that I don’t have in my own kitchen is a microwave oven. I’ve been making microwave popcorn just because I can. But I’ll be happy to give up the microwave popcorn to cook in my own kitchen again. I’ll be looking at apartments today, hoping to find a kitchen that I can settle happily into very soon.

We made it

After a 6 day, 3,000 mile end-to-end blitz of I-80, we made it all the way from California into Hoboken Tuesday afternoon.

We rented an immense juggernaut of a vehicle to carry us across the vast width of the country, large enough (but just barely) to hold two months-worth of clothes, two plants, two guitars, cameras, some essential kitchen tools, and the odds and ends that we didn’t feel comfortable entrusting to a moving company.

We only made it as far as Reno on our first day. Wednesday was an agonizing day of loading the big moving truck, renting the car, dropping off our car to be shipped, packing the rental car, closing up our apartment, saying our last goodbyes, and finally taking that gut-wrenching drive out over the Suisun Bay Bridge to I-80 east.

Our first full day of driving through Nevada was surprisingly beautiful, our late, wet Spring leaving a green haze over the immense landscape. We kept timing the distance as far as we could see because the road looked like it went on forever; it was always seven miles from rise to rise. Like Johnny Cash, we stopped in Winnemucca and had some lame stringy BBQ at a restaurant with some kind of slot machines on the bar. Maybe the slot machines should have been an indicator. However, there are not necessarily a lot of options along the interstate for the “culinarily-aware”and it beat another fast-food stop. The mountains quickly dropped away as we approached the Utah border and we sailed down in the huge white salt flats, a strange lunar-looking landscape full of mirages, speed testing tracks and salt factories.

After a night in Salt Lake City, we made it way up through the Wasatch Mountains (with a quick detour through Park City- beautiful!) and on through Wyoming. Wyoming was incredibly beautiful, especially the eastern half as we approached the Medicine Bow area and our destination for the night, Laramie. Scott decided a couple of hours earlier that it was Friday night, he was in Wyoming, and he wanted a steak. I did some looking around on Yelp, and since Yelp agreed with the front desk at our hotel, we ended up with a fabulously good grass-fed steak and a couple of house-brewed beers at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery downtown. We were a couple of hours too late for the annual Beerfest, although we passed a store front with some judging in progress, but the bands at the street party afterward were great. I was really impressed by what good and enthusiastic dancers the Laramians were.

Day three was spent in a long slow descent from the continental divide, beyond the edge of the dry, sere beauty of the West, through the hypnotic monotony of Nebraska (we distracted ourselves by eating “spicy hot” chicharronnes and lurid blue slurpees) and across the Missouri River and into Des Moines, Iowa. When we got out at a rest stop to stretch our legs and switch drivers in eastern Nebraska, we remarked on the humidity, the first we had felt. And then as we drove into the green fecundity of Iowa, it was a distinct regional shift- we were out of the West and had made it to the mid-West, the heartland.

Iowa was remarkably pretty, with chalk-white dirt roads between the greenest fields I had seen in years. There were pretty farmhouses in their groves of mature trees and the verges of the roads were a tangle of Queen Anne’s Lace, blue flax, purple coneflower, yellow buttercups, gold black-eyed susans, indian paintbrush, clover, and orange day lilies. We made a short detour through Iowa City to try the BBQ at Jimmy Jacks’ Rib Shack, which I would characterize as “fusion” style, a little mustard for the Carolinas, a hint of celery seed for Memphis, pulled pork for the South, beef brisket for Texas. It was really good BBQ at an establishment obviously run with a lot of care.

We crossed the mighty Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa and it all started to blend together in a thousand miles of flat, straight roads, cornfields and rainy weather. I must have seen a million acres of corn on this trip. Illinois was remarkable only for its bad roads and worse traffic. Overnight in South Bend, Indiana, we met a very nice waitress who chatted with us and said that she aspired to visit the South someday, and we encouraged her to visit California too. Then on through Ohio and into Pennsylvania and the Appalachians, with high bridges crossing deep ravines with boulder-strewn rivers at the bottom, fern covered forest floors, and bits of fog catching the edges of the mountains like bushes on the roadside after a cotton truck has driven past.

After one last night on the road in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, we loaded the truck on last time for the final leg of the trip into Hoboken. Almost as soon as we crossed the Delaware river into New Jersey, we were engulfed in a torrential rainstorm- welcome to East coast summers! All the way into Jersey City, we had to drive slowly just to be able to see. The low-lying areas as we finally  left I-80 were flooded, small cars stalled out in a foot or two of rainwater. The rain began to lift as we approached the railroad bridge announcing the entrance to Hoboken and we drove past the weekly downtown farmers market being set up on Washington Street and then around the corner to the Hudson River and our temporary apartment.

So, we made it. Six days and 3,000 miles from one end of 1-80 to the other, and it seems like from one world to another. It still doesn’t feel real- I keep thinking I can go home after this trip is over. It’s a new chapter starting now. We’ll see what happens next.

Road tripping

After griping about the weather, what could be nicer on a Saturday than a short road trip through the green and pearly-skied Sonoma County countryside.

What could be better? Maybe arriving in Bodega Bay conveniently around lunch time. And knowing that the best fried seafood you’ve had in a long time is (surprise!) right there in Bodega Bay! We’ve made the round trip before just for the calamari- it’s really swell.

If you drive up Highway 1 through town and look for the shop with the flags and kites on the shore side, pull into the parking lot just past it. The Boat House parking lot is reassuringly lined with piles of oyster shells and management has clearly been spending more money on the ingredients than the decor- it’s wood panelling and formica tables all the way. Order at the counter- everything that I’ve had is fresh and crisp, cooked perfectly, but I especially recommend the calamari, scallops and bbqed oysters. Grab a beer while you’re at the counter. A hoppy Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale compliments very well and find a sunny table. If they don’t bring cocktail sauce with your order, ask for it. It’s homemade and has a good not-too-sweet flavor.

It’s probably best not to talk for a while. There are better things to be doing with your mouth and fried seafood waits for no man. All it takes is a little perserverance and dedication and you’ll end up in the clean plate club.

The shop next door with all of the kites sells salt water taffy and retro candy like Pop Rocks and Boston baked beans. We got Zotz for the road.

We meandered back down Highway 1 through Valley Ford, Olema, and Point Reyes Station, stopped and watched the surfers in Bolinas for a minute. Is there anything like fried food and beautiful scenery to refresh the winter-weary soul?

You can go anywhere

My mother, quoting her mother told me my whole childhood; “it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, if you have good manners you can go anywhere.” She was kind of a stickler about it, making us sit on our left hand if we were poking in our food too much, telling us not to lean over our plates like a puppy at a bowl. I even remember her making me stand up for the last part of a meal because I had tipped my chair one too many times. The caveat was that no matter what, making other people comfortable is the soul of good manners. So when I found myself at a table where the hosts used their hands to eat, I washed up, watched for technique, and dug in.

We were guests in the home of a colleague, a family from Calcutta who live in Hong Kong. Along with my husband, a Chinese colleague, another visitor from India and our host, I was the only woman seated for the meal. The lady of the house, her daughter and a house helper bustled around serving food onto our plates, filling glasses with drinks, bringing new plates and bowls and fussing over all of us.  The table was covered with chapattis, a curry made with chickpeas, a saag paneer or spinach with paneer cheese, a spicy shrimp dish that was redolent of mustard seeds, fried fish served with a spicy mustard, a mutton curry with a cinnamon, cumin and rosewater scented biriyani, cucumber raita, hot mango pickles, and a fruit chutney with dates and mangoes. “Using a fork to eat is like talking to your fiancé through an interpreter,” they told us.

Chapattis are a flat round bread that is used sort of like a spoon to scoop saucier foods into your mouth. It is flaky, a little crispy and chewy .The fish and shrimp were all peeled, dipped in sauce and eaten with the right hand, the left hand not being used to touch the food, only to serve yourself with the serving spoon. The biriyani and mutton curry were mixed together by hand on the plate and when it was sticky enough to hold the rice together but not saucy enough to drip, you pick up a clump on your four fingers, bring it to your mouth and flick it in with the thumb. I did my best to keep myself food free above the wrist, and by leaning over the plate, only dropped a little into my lap.

It was a delicious meal characteristically full of complex flavors and the taste was enhanced by the uniqueness of the experience. I think my mother or grandmother would have been proud of my eating with my hands. Showing respect, trying to adapt, and eating whatever is put before me with thanks is what they taught me and that is what has allowed me to go anywhere.

One is the loneliest number

The downside to trips like this is that I end up spending a lot of time alone. With the language difference, I can walk around for hours with out understanding anything that anyone around me is saying, none of the ambient noise of familiarity, until I feel like I exist in a bubble. Mealtime is when it really hits.

Eating is a pleasure that is doubled in the sharing. That moment of “Ah” when the day is over and you relax with someone over a meal is one of my favorite times in life.  Last night, I was beginning to feel the loneliness and knew that I needed a supper that would not only be comforting and delicious, but would also give me something to intrigue my mind in lieu of conversation. I did a little research and found a ramen restaurant in the Miramar Building nearby that was well reviewed and took off looking for solace in a bowl.

I was eventually seated at a single table on a little red stool. The table had been pulled apart from another table so it was sans condiments, but all of the food going by looked great and the waitress was friendly. I ordered an Asahi and a bowl of tonkotsu or pork bone ramen.  The broth was incredible- milky white, rich and buttery with intriguing flavors lurking under the surface. There was cabbage, scallion, thin slices of what looked like wood ear mushrooms and some gorgeous chunks of braised pork belly all atop a tangle of chewy ramen noodles.

There are worse places to be than alone with a warm delicious bowl of soup that is as rich and comforting as the best chicken noodle but is also exotic and unfamiliar enough to leave me wanting to know more. I sat silently and drank my Asahi and the smoky oolong tea from the tiny glass and mug, thinking about this opportunity that I have to be challenged and have my horizons expanded.  I don’t want to miss out on moments like this just because I’d rather not eat alone.

Chungking Mansion

Have you ever seen one of those cars in a salvage yard that has been crushed into a little cube? Chungking Mansion is like a city that has been sent through the compacter and is now a condensed version of an entire city, but fits on one block of Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.  An anthill of activity, it’s labyrinth of hallways houses 4,000 people and hundreds of shops, guest houses, import companies, restaurants and food stalls and everyone is there to hustle.

This is where we had supper last night. Third floor, block C , in the (unmarked) Delhi Club. I had read about it on openrice.com and was in the mood for adventure. Walking in felt like walking into someone’s basement that had been decorated with cheap tile and glass Christmas balls, but the smell! We sat and ordered a couple of Kingfishers and looked through the menu. One of the waiters came and asked if we knew how to order and I said no because I like to see how he would guide us. “Spicy or mild?” he said, “spicy”I replied and we were off on a series of questions like mutton vs chicken, masala vs vindaloo, plain vs garlic naan, meat vs veg samosas. Another waiter dropped off a couple of crisp fresh papadam which we smeared with cilantro- mint chutney. The chutney was fresh, cool and spicy at the same time. Veg samosas were next, very hot with the flakiest shell and an intensely spiced interior. My tongue had started to heat up to the point where all of my taste buds are paying attention to what comes next, my favorite heat level. We shared a mutton vindaloo with garlic naan. The vindaloo was intense- sweet, sinus clearing hot, and rich with chewy mutton and potatoes. We used the flaky naan to wipe up the sauce into our happy mouths. We finished with cardamom scented masala tea, a milk tea made with black tea steeped with a spice blend that is both exotic and soothing.

When we left, winding our way back down and out, it struck me that our meal had a similar vibe to the Mansion- intense and hot, a complex blend of flavors, spices, and textures, a little overwhelming, but deeply satisfying and completely unforgettable.

Grits and congee

There are few foods more universally satisfying than starches. Who doesn’t love mashed potatoes, or biscuits, rice, or even millet? Billions of people probably start their days with oatmeal, rice, cream of wheat, or grits. It fills our bellies and satisfies our hunger gently without challenging us or forcing us to pay too much attention early in the morning.

I started my day with a delicious bowl of congee this morning at Sweet Dynasty on Canton Road in Hong Kong. Green onions, shitake mushroom, smoky, salty shreds of pork and rich gelatinous preserved egg elevated the rice porridge from a serviceable Asian breakfast to simply delicious. Each bite was a little different and as I sat there slurping my porridge looking through the menu at the 25 other congee options that I had had to forgo, I started thinking about their similarity to grits.

Grits are one of my favorite foods. Oft-maligned for being boring and well, gritty, this mainstay of the Southern table is to often misunderstood and sadly often mis-cooked. Take any starchy dish- potatoes, rice, taro, and underseason it, and anyone will hate it. But with a little salt and butter, you have a blandly handsome bowl of goodness- the Ben Affleck of hot breakfasts if you will. But then there is shrimp and grits, grillades and grits, even sausage egg and cheese grits and now you’re talking Johnny Depp-like gorgeousness.

Same thing with congee. It’s all in the add-ins. I had to pass up congee with fish belly, congee with salted pork and oysters, and congee with chicken and mushrooms today and that’s just three possibilities. Seafood congee is as fabulous as the ingredients make it. I think I’m going to have to go back  and work my way through a bit more of that menu while I’m here.