Check out my new blog: East Bay Ethnic Eats

November 21, 2010

East Bay Ethnic Eats – seeking undiscovered culinary treasures in our Bay Area Backyard

Fresh filo makes a world of difference

I am thrilled to live in The East Bay of Northern California, a culinary cultural wonderland. Eating, cooking and learning about the foods of different cultures  opens up a small window into a deeper understanding of others and ultimately ourselves. As a food writer for local magazines, I have challenged myself to ferret out traditional breads that span the globe, authentic ethnic grocery stores, and international breakfast spots that offer a variety of ways to start the day.

my bunny bento

My new blog is a forum for exploration. Join me as I visit local bakers and watch them create their regional specialties, interview food artisans, uncover captivating ethnic restaurants and go in search of international ingredients and dishes from all over the globe.

I share with readers the only place to buy freshly made filo dough, traditional seedy German breads, and a restaurant with two dozen varieties of jook / congee. Join me on a sake tasting or a visit to the Afghan restaurants of Fremont’s Little Kabul. I track down the best fish taco, a free French pastry class and places to purchase bento box paraphernalia.


Deli Dilemma

April 2, 2010

When I started my Food and Culture blog earlier this year, I imagined describing exotic foods from distant lands to illuminate intriguing cultural insights. Ironically, it never crossed my mind to include my own food culture, which I suppose could be called Jewish American. Growing up in a more culturally, than religiously identified family in Los Angeles, my grandmother’s house was the center of all things Jewish. Like generations of Jewish matriarchs, she carried the torch of fluffy matzo balls, fork-tender brisket and crispy, golden latkes.

But it was my grandfather who introduced me to the delights of Jewish delicatessens on Friday afternoon forays to collect foodstuffs for the weekend. I was just about as tall as the pickle barrels that sat on the sawdust sprinkled floors. He would reach inside and to my amazement, pull out bulbous, dripping jade pickles; then order up smoked whitefish and tongue, which the counter man wrapped in neat, white paper rectangles. And as a treat for me, a thick slice of chocolate marbled halvah, studded with pistachio nuts.

Nowadays, I call locavore-loving, food-centric Berkeley home and live walking distance from Saul’s Deli, which organized a recent event that gave me a glimpse of my gustatory split personality. The public forum, entitled A Referendum on the Deli Menu, drew an overflow crowd who listened in respectful awe to an esteemed panel, featuring organic torch-bearer, Michael Pollan, debate the question, “Can the traditional Jewish deli be sustainable?”

Owners of Saul’s Deli, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt explained how mile-long menus with a hundred choices are impractical and expensive. Our grandmothers would laugh at the idea of cold borscht in the winter or hot borscht in the summer. Saul’s owners sought approval from their assembled patrons “to drag Jewish cuisine out of the museum” and reclaim its roots, in which vegetables and grains appeared more often on our forebears’ tables than towering piles of meat and chicken soup was a clever way of squeezing every last ounce of flavor from a leftover carcass. Adelman acknowledged that many deli patrons “hunger for more than pastrami; they hunger for meaning or nostalgia.” But, she added, “the deli has to be re-imagined; it can’t stay in a hermetically sealed vacuum.”

Michael Pollan spoke to sustainability and seasonality and applauded Saul’s recent changes: their exclusive use of organic, locally made, Acme breads, humanely raised meat and produce from nearby organic farmers. Additionally, Saul’s has eliminated Dr. Brown’s sodas, an old favorite that is now sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, substituting house-made natural sodas flavored with celery, ginger, cardamom and seasonal fruit, annually saving 20,000 pop bottles and replacing 360,000 plastic straws with compostable cardboard.

Saul's housemade sodas

Like most of the crowd, I endorse the efforts of Saul’s owners and support locally sourced, sustainably grown food. Their grass-fed roast beef, butternut squash soup and winter vegetable salad with beets, feta and pine nuts are yummy. And yet…even though my socially-responsible adult brain knows this is better for the planet…my petulant inner kid screams,  “sustainability, sheshmainability!  I crave a corned beef sandwich stuffed so full of meat it would require a tire-jack to open a mouth wide enough to take a bite. I miss my Dr. Brown’s caramel colored cream soda! I long to dive into this edible memory, and be cocooned in its embrace.”

The delicatessen of my childhood and young adulthood was Canter’s Deli in L.A.’s once completely Jewish Fairfax district.  Canter’s is still open 24 hours a day and delivers bulging ½ pound corned beef sandwiches on soft, yet chewy rye bread, with the ubiquitous bowl of pickles on formica tables that haven’t changed much in more than half a century. Back in the 1970’s, as an actress in my husband’s experimental Jewish Theater company, Canter’s was the perfect spot to hit at midnight after a rehearsal or performance. Other evenings when we yearned for some pseudo-maternal energy, a well-upholstered waitress who urged us to call her “Mama,” delivered steaming plates of hot turkey sandwiches and kasha mit varnishkas (buckwheat groats with bow-tie pasta).

Whenever I return to LA – and lately, it’s been to visit my father who is slowing succumbing to the mind-robbing effects of Alzheimer’s — I always pay my respects to Canter’s, where time has miraculously stood still; the seediness of the neighborhood matched only by the dependable seediness of the rye bread.  It is supremely reassuring to find that some things do not have to change. In these moments, I don’t give a fig about locally grown produce. I want someone to take care of me — the Jewish way, with too much food.  I want to submerge myself in a steaming bowl of chicken soup, wrap myself in a comforter of warm cheese blintzes, cuddle up with a hot potato knish, slathered with dark mustard.  After losing myself in a mound of corned beef on chewy rye and slurping a satisfying Dr. Brown’s cream soda, I hit the bakery, where Canter’s hair-netted, Russian bakery clerks, like surrogate Jewish mothers, wrap up enough dense pumpernickel rye, oozing raisins, cinnamon sprinkled rugelach and chocolate dipped almond horns to last me the entire drive home to Berkeley.

Copenhagen’s Pacifier Tree

February 20, 2010

On a chilly December day in Copenhagen, my Danish friend Sussi takes me on a brisk walk through Frederiksberg Gardens. The tree trunks are drab and bare. Then in the distance I spy one tree whose branches are alive with color: pinks, yellows, blues, and reds. As I get a closer, I can’t believe what I am seeing: hundreds of baby pacifiers, tied onto the tree with bright ribbons, dancing in the wind.

“What is that?” I ask my friend.

At first she can’t think of the English equivalent of the Danish word sut, so she calls it “the sucky tree.”  Then she explains that in Denmark tradition dictates that when toddlers turn 3, it is time to give up their beloved pacifiers. To make the painful separation easier, they are brought by their parents to this 250-year old park to bestow their treasured companions on the Pacifier Tree.

Toddlers often visit the tree before they turn 3 to see how other children have entrusted theirs to the tree when they got “big.”  Some parents tell their little ones that the Pacifier Fairy will reward them with a small gift in exchange for their pacifiers and they can always come back and visit their old pacifiers whenever they come to the park.

I remember when I looked for ideas to help my own daughter take the big step. It was a lonely battle. Books and online sites advise American parents to give all the pacifiers to a new baby who needs them, take them to the dump, secretly cut off a quarter-inch of the nipple everyday until it is reduced to a stub, paint it with bad tasting liquid or even make a slit in the bottom then insert a plastic ant and show the child how gross it is.

Frederiksberg Gardens is an inviting expanse, with lakes, playgrounds and a zoo to explore. Looking at the venerable Pacifier Tree, its arms covered in gaily colored ribbons, notes, balloons and binkies, I am struck by a feeling of connectedness to all the children whose first rite of passage out of babyhood has been eased by this lovely ritual. The clusters of pacifiers sport heartfelt notes from the toddlers to the tree (transcribed by their parents, of course). Sussi translates for me:

“Goodbye, pacifier, my best friend. I love you. I will miss you. But now I am BIG boy. Kind regards, Lucas”

“Dear Pacifier Tree, I hope you will take good care of my pacifiers, because now I am 3 years old and won’t need them any more. Love, Brita.”


Stockholm’s Ice Bar – on the rocks with a twist

January 31, 2010

A lingonberry cocktail in a solid ice glass

One usually gets dressed to go out for a drink, but not in a heavy, fur-trimmed, floor-length cape with thick gloves to match. Unless the drink is in one of the world’s coolest night spots, a bar made entirely of ice. The insulated clothes that all visitors must don before entering the climate controlled interior serve a dual purpose: protecting patrons from the chilly 23° environment, and protecting the icy interior from patrons’ body heat. The unique feature of this hot spot is that the walls, tables, chairs, artwork and even drinking glasses are all fashioned from ice.

Don’t try this with your ice cubes at home, though. The crystal clear ice comes from the Torne River in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. A place so far north (125 miles above the Arctic circle) that the river is literally pollution-free. Six thousand tons of pristine ice are harvested every spring and stored in a warehouse so that two times a year, ice sculpting artists can completely redesign the interior with the help of specially designed saws.

There are ice bars all over the world now, but Stockholm’s Absolut Ice Bar, established in The Nordic Sea Hotel in 2002, was the first permanent installation, inspired by the ten-year old Ice Hotel, an exclusive resort in Swedish Lapland,  open only 5 months of the year. Reindeer skins cover the ice beds and guests snuggle up in thermal sleeping bags (and if you are wondering, bathrooms are in an adjacent warm building).

Fruits de la Mer – the platter that jumped out of the sea

January 24, 2010

Driving around the craggy French coast of Bretagne, my husband and I stopped for lunch at a fishing village with the mouth-filling name, Ploubazlenec. Sitting in a café on the water’s edge, close enough to inhale the salty spray, the only possible midday meal was something that recently swam in the sea. Armand, who is not an adventurous fish eater (no bones, no shells, no fishy taste, please), picked a safe but boring filet of something. I, however, was thrilled to discover large metal platters in front of most of the other diners piled with mounds of shellfish. “Je prends ça,” I told the waiter, pointing.

My plate arrived, heaped with sea creatures, many of which I had never seen before. It also came equipped with an entire tool kit – picks and forks and shell crackers of assorted sizes, as well as little pots of various sauces and dips. I recognized the oysters, clams and shrimp, but the latter still had its legs, head and beady eyes attached. The oysters were so fresh, as I sipped their liquor, I felt as if I was literally drinking in the spectacular view before us.

After another glass of Sancerre, I was ready to tackle the pretty spiral shells that I had  previously viewed only in aquariums. I decided some delectable morsels must be hiding  inside. The bigger shells, I found out later, were bigorneaux (periwinkles), and the tiny ones bulots (whelks). I faced my “tool kit” without a clue of how to proceed. As I scanned the dining room for some guidance, I noticed with dismay that my fellow diners were on to dessert already. So I grabbed a metal pick that resembled something my dental hygienist uses on my teeth and poked around in one of the shells, fishing for some little crustacean to emerge, and in the process squirting my husband with its sea juices.

Finally, I hooked into something and wiggled it out triumphantly. With a twinkle in his eye, my  husband suggested that the grey-green wormy thing resembled something that might come from  one’s nose. Nevertheless, I plunged it into a pot of sauce and popped it into my mouth. Chewy, yes…but brimming with the ocean breeze, the foamy waves and the cloud-dotted blue sky.

To Slurp or Not to Slurp: How Table Manners Vary Around the Globe

January 17, 2010

If you cut your potatoes with a knife in Germany, you will insult your hostess. Go ahead and slurp your noodles in Japan – it shows you are enjoying your lunch. In India, you are expected to eat your rice and curry by hand, but using your left hand will disgust your host.

While many Americans make an effort to be polite overseas, we may be shocked to learn that what we consider proper table manners looks rude in other lands and vice versa. Awareness of simple rules and taboos can save us from embarrassment abroad, but deeper examination of varying etiquettes around the globe can provide insight into the cultural differences that define us.

Vinita Chopra Jacinto grew up in northern India and is now an instructor at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She explains that Indians eat with their hands because they believe that food is more than “just protein, carbs and fat … it nourishes the mind, intellect and spirit. Food has to be sensual and mindful. Eating with your hands gives you a connection with the food. It’s the least violent way to eat.”

In the Indian, Pakistani, Arab and African cultures that shun silverware, eating with your hands doesn’t mean that anything goes. Before the meal, the hands must be washed, wiped or even rubbed with sand, as desert Arabs do. But the foremost rule is that only the right hand may be employed for eating.

“The left hand is never used for that,” Jacinto says, “It is considered unclean.” In principle, at least, this is because the left hand is saved for elimination.

Another taboo Jacinto describes is jutha or double dipping your bread into a communal dish of food, “It is never done,” she cautions.  Also, in Indian culture, you are expected to clean your plate. “Grain is so important in India, that not one grain should be left.” This brings up an interesting contradiction: in China, Japan and India, finishing every last grain of rice you are served is proof that you enjoyed the meal. While in Cambodia, Jordan, Egypt and the Philippines, it is more polite to leave a little food on your plate. An empty plate could insult your hosts, implying that they did not serve you enough.

In fact, every culture has specific ways of showing appreciation of the meal. In Saudi Arabia, diners burp after eating to compliment the cook. In Hong Kong and Japan, loudly slurping your noodles demonstrates your enjoyment of the food; literally, that it is so delicious you cannot even wait until it cools off.

The use of chopsticks in Japan carries another set of rules. Kim Mosby, an American who has lived in Japan for the past six years, discovered that if you want something that is out of reach and another person offers to pass it to you, give them your plate. Do not take the item with your own chopsticks. Two people passing the same morsel of food from chopstick to chopstick is considered a huge faux pas because, Mosby explains, “In a traditional Japanese funeral, the relatives of the deceased use chopsticks to pass the cremated remains to each other and finally place them into the urn. The passing of an object from chopstick to chopstick has come to symbolize death of a loved one.”

Members of cultures that eat with their hands or chopsticks have to follow specific rules of etiquette. But since you only have two hands or one set of chopsticks, the chances of using the wrong utensil are relatively small compared to the vast potential for embarrassment given the dozen different implements wielded by Americans at a formal dinner. We have no qualms about laying out knives for fish, fruit, salad and steak. In Asian countries, however, knives still carry an association with violence and are rarely set on the table. Even in Europe, the manners connected with knives differ greatly from our own.

Rudi Raab grew up in Germany, and moved to California 35 years ago, after marrying an American woman when he was 20. He still remembers an embarrassing moment at his first restaurant meal in California with his new mother-in-law. Everyone ordered hamburgers. As is the custom in Germany, when the food arrived, Raab picked up his knife and fork and began cutting the big bun and juicy burger into bite-sized pieces.

His mother-in-law was amused and Rudi explained that in Germany, “You never take any food in your hands. It’s always eaten with a knife and fork.” On the flip side, Raab advises travelers to Germany,  “Never use your knife to cut the boiled potatoes that are commonly served. It’s insulting to the hostess. Like saying that they are not tender enough to eat. Use the side of your fork, instead.”

On our travels, it is not only new foods, but also new ways of eating, that can give us a fresh perspective to take home. In Japan, you need to remember to turn your chopsticks around and use the wider ends when taking something from a serving dish for hygiene. In France, you might need some practice to master the French art of folding your lettuce leaves into a little packet over your fork (they believe that cutting them bruises the delicate greens). In India, you may have to actually sit on your left hand to make sure it doesn’t join you while dining.

Eating a meal with others’ utensils may deliver more appreciation of cultural differences than walking a mile in their shoes. The story goes that after sensuously dining with his hands in India, the former Shah of Iran was so impressed that he likened eating with a fork and spoon to making love through an interpreter.

Danish smørrebrød

January 10, 2010

You Only Eat Once

On a crisp fall day in 2005, I arrive in Copenhagen with a rumbling stomach. Looking for a place for lunch, I bump into a line snaking out the doorway of a tiny shop under a blue awning. A glass case is filled with what look like artistic assemblages, but are actually exquisite, open-faced sandwiches. The colorful compositions display backgrounds of creamy havarti, velvety pate or golden battered fish, set off by asparagus spears, cucumber disks or tomato crescents. The foregrounds feature decorative details: radish coins with a sprinkle of chives; pickled herring with a twist of lemon, a mini-bouquet fried parsley.

When it’s my turn, I point to an undulating wave of smoked salmon topped with a mound of baby shrimp and a sprig of dill and some neatly folded slices of rare roast beef dressed with a dollop of remoulade and a fan of cornichons. I take my edible artwork outside, find a sunny bench and promptly fall in love with the traditional Danish lunch of smørrebrød. The word means “buttered bread” and refers to the essential ingredient: a buttered slice of dense, dark Danish rye, hiding coyly beneath the elegant toppings.

I have been invited to spend the week lecturing in Denmark and in my remaining days taste multiple variations on the theme of smørrebrød. They epitomize the way Danish design enhances everything from sleek furniture to sinuous plastic forks.

Arriving home, I lose no time in recreating my food find for my unsuspecting family. I buy a lot of herring, which no one but me has any desire to eat. And I compulsively decorate every sandwich with little flourishes of capers, pickles or fried onions. For some reason, my husband and daughter do not share my enthusiasm. Then it hits me. Obviously, it’s the bread. Without the hearty Danish rye, it’s not authentic smørrebrød. I try packaged pumpernickels from Germany. Close, but not close enough. My sweet husband, who has humored me through many food fetishes, goes online and orders a genuine rye bread mix from Denmark. But even after making that, there’s still something missing.

I finally recognize that I am suffering a bad bout of “Greek salad syndrome”– the delusion that if I could perfectly recreate the food I savored on a blissful trip, I could recapture the sensations as well.  I name this malady in honor of a trip to Greece my husband and I took 25 years ago. On the tiny, car-free island of Hydra, we dined on wooden tables set on cobblestone streets next to sun-baked buildings, cooled by the evening breeze. We fed each other bites of perfect salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and olives. Something so simple should be easy to recreate at home. But I can never capture that feeling of being at one with the ocean, the glowing sunset and each other. I tell myself, these olives just aren’t earthy enough; this feta doesn’t have the right tang.

My culinary compulsion favors everyday foods. The warming Swiss raclette (broiled cheese with potatoes, pickles and onions) our friends made us on chilly nights in Moutier; do-it-yourself falafel with bowls of spicy toppings at a stand-up counter in Haifa; warm goat cheese salad and pear tarts at sympathique sidewalk cafes in Paris. No matter how many times I try and fail to cook myself back into those magical moments, I never give up the pursuit.

In early 2008, I am thrilled to receive another invitation to Denmark for December. This time I will be traveling around with only one day in Copenhagen. Before planning my lectures, I research the best place to renew my love affair with smørrebrød and so discover Ida Davidsen, who runs a restaurant of the same name. It was her grandfather who opened the first smørrebrød restaurant over 100 years ago. Ida Davidsen’s is renowned for the longest menu in the world with more than 200 varieties of smørrebrød. Clearly, this is my destiny and I pick a hotel a short walk from her restaurant in the charming Nyhavn district.

On my only day to lunch there, I arrive exactly at noon. Entering the cozy cave-like atmosphere, I notice the tables are already full of diners enjoying themselves with the help of beer or the aquavit that traditionally accompanies smørrebrød. The harried waiter asks if I have a reservation. As I shake my head sadly, I tell him I came all the way from California to eat here. He explains that in December, it is traditional for work groups to reserve the restaurant weeks ahead for their Christmas festivities. There is nothing he can do. Heartbroken, I hold back the tears and ask to use the restroom.

When I emerge, the waiter amazingly winks and beckons me to a tiny table he has somehow squeezed in-between the revelers. After my profuse thanks, he directs me to line up in front of the display case where Ida Davidsen herself, a short cheery woman in a tall chef’s hat, will describe today’s specialties.  As I drool over the possibilities she speaks in rapid Danish to the group ahead of me and switches into charmingly accented English for me. I choose silky salmon studded with shrimp from Greenland and chicken salad layered with smoked potatoes and bacon, topped by a haystack of fried carrot shreds. This time I won’t try to replicate the experience at home. I close my eyes and savor every bite.

Tsukiji – Tokyo Fish Market

January 9, 2010

6:00am in a cold damp warehouse, a way station where freshly caught fish rests before reaching discerning diners all over Japan. Walking the aisles, peering into boxes, trying to stay out of the path of beeping trucks and machete-wielding fishmongers. Then the only possible breakfast: sushi so fresh it wiggles.

I miss Danish bread!

January 9, 2010

Last year, I was lucky enough to be invited to Denmark. I loved the herring, the salmon and the smørrebrød sandwiches, but most of all I adored the breads: dark and hearty, seedy, grainy, studded with nuts, giving my mouth plenty to do.

Turkish dessert – “Ashure”

January 6, 2010

Noah’s Pudding – January 3, 2010

As a lovely gesture to promote cross-cultural understanding, a group of Turkish Muslim women spent hours cooking a special pudding for the members of a Berkeley Jewish temple. This yearly event commemorates the landing of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, in northern Turkey. It is believed that the people on board the ark wanted to celebrate, but their food was almost gone. So they put all they had left in their pudding.

The Turkish women made us a traditional warm mélange of barley, wheat and garbanzo beans, topped with nuggets of dried fruit, nuts, sugar, cinnamon and pomegranate seeds. A key custom connected to making Ashure, one of the oldest desserts in Turkish cuisine, is the tradition that one makes a large pot which is then shared with friends, neighbors,  classmates and co-workers, regardless of their religion as an offering of peace and love.