Review of Zaab in Canberra

Chaki Chaki turned us away at 8:15 on a Friday night because we didn’t have a reservation, so we wandered up the street to Zaab, a place I’d only just read about that afternoon. They had a couple of empty tables towards the back.

Nigel and I couldn’t decide what to order, so we asked our waiter to bring us one of each of the items on the street food menu (there is also an option called Feed Me with two different price points). We may have miscommunicated our intent (one of each dish not one of each for each of us). Our waiter warned us that it would be a fair amount of food, and asked if it would be alright if he fired half the food and held off on the rest. We deferred to his good judgement and he listed off the dishes we would get first.

We started with chicken skewers (one skewer for each of us). Lao/Thai food in this country is often unbalanced, skewing too far towards sweet but not hitting other parameters of taste. We agreed after one bite that Laotians would recognise these moist, marinated morsels of dark meat and its accompanying mildly spicy peanut dipping sauce as the food of their people, and we looked forward to the next offering.

A crispy rice salad (one portion, I think) and an order of beef jerky came next.  These were both excellent and solidified our opinion of the food. The rice salad was broken up chunks of coconut-y browned sticky rice, gently spiced, and scattered through with wok-fried peanuts- a simple but lovely textural exploration.

The beef jerky was a heaping plateful of semi-dried beefy perfection- a sprinkling of sesame seeds and just the right amount of sweetness. I remarked that this probably was an improvement on what you might find in Laos, due to the quality of the beef in this country. In Laos, I suspect the jerky would have been stringier and more fully dried, and in fact more likely to be water buffalo. The jerky would have been a perfect accompaniment to a cold glass of Beerlao, had I been drinking.

Lao sausages were next. Another authentic rendition, packing a healthy dose of lemongrass, and maybe slightly moister than what you might find in Vientiane. While it was very good, it was a blander dish compared with the jerky or the chicken skewers. Even so, I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again.

The last dish to come was a betel leaf wrap (one each). I’m not sure what the ingredients were, other than the obvious tiny wedge of lime on top. It was quite sweet and also hit the sides of the mouth in an interesting way.  A unique experience.

This was just half the street food section of the menu, but Nigel was done. I wanted just a bit more and ordered the prawn carpaccio. The waitress warned us that it was quite spicy and she wasn’t kidding. It was tear-inducing, sweet, and savoury all at the same time. Though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I thought the portion small for the price.

We were there on a Friday night and the place was comfortably full of single public servants and women out with their girlfriends. A soundtrack too hip for my middle-aged ears played just a smidgen too loudly. The place is minimally decorated- corrugated tin plastered with Lao newspapers on one wall, a street food cart out the front decked out in fairy lights, and a collapsible gate formed the backdrop to the bar, which was stocked with Beerlao, Chang Beer, and a nice selection of cocktails. A row of Thai Red Bull lined the bar counter.  Nigel enjoyed one of the cocktail specials, a sort of creamy gin concoction with grenadine. I stuck with water as they were out of both cider and ginger beer. The waitstaff were fairly young, but professional, and though it was Friday night, they seemed to be handling the crowd fairly well.

All in all, Zaab was a positive dining experience, and I look forward to going back to try some of their other food. Seeing that the kitchen pulls no punches, I have no doubt they make a mean larb, and I expect their curries will have layers of complexity. 

5 for food, 4.5 for service (on a Friday night), 4 for ambience.

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Katz’s Delicatessen: A Landmark on the Lower East Side

(My 1500 word mid-course essay from Food and the City last semester.  I’ve removed the in-line references for readability.  The requirements for the assignment are noted in the comments.)

Introduction

This essay places Katz’s Delicatessen in its historical context and explores the transformative role of Jewish delicatessens in shaping American foodways.  In the first half, I trace the development of these delicatessens to a period of immigration in the late-19th and early-20th centuries and look at the origins of the pastrami sandwich.  I discuss the mainstreaming of Jewish delicatessens and the reasons for their subsequent decline.  In the second half, I look at Katz’s itself, with an overview of key moments in Katz’s history and an exploration of the characteristics that make Katz’s such a quintessential Jewish delicatessen.  Finally, I look briefly at the recent revival of delicatessens, the so-called ‘third wave’ or ‘nouveau delicatessens.’

Beginnings

More than two million Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews arrived on New York’s shores between 1880 and 1920.  They came from the area that is now Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, and Ukraine, fleeing pogroms in the Russian Empire triggered by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.  These Jews displaced the previous large wave of immigrants, Germans, who began arriving in the 1840s.

New York in 1855 had the third largest German population of any city in the world, behind Berlin and Vienna.  German immigrants introduced delicatessens to America.  Jewish immigrants adapted delicatessens to conform to Jewish dietary laws and elevated ‘deli’ to the status of an iconic food of New York.

Each successive wave of immigrants faced economic marginalisation and racism.  Because of this discrimination, each group of migrants found few business opportunities outside of their own communities.  Since catering required little capital investment and recruiting was done through informal and family channels, ethnic restaurants were a logical outgrowth of these waves of immigration.

Evolution and transformation

Immigrant foodways informed and were transformed by general American culture.  The culinary contributions of Jewish immigrants included dark rye breads and the complex kosher dishes that were the stock-in-trade of the original Jewish delicatessens.  Americans of all kinds were making corned beef long before Yiddish Jews showed up.  The Yiddish Jews innovation was to create pastrami by flavouring and smoking corned beef.  The basic recipe (for mutton or goose breast) came from parts of south-eastern Europe (Romania, Bessarabia, Moldavia) that had been ruled by Turks.  One account from 1899 tells us cafes and saloons sold food, “bean soup, borscht, cold fish, Russian dishes, Jewish dishes, and something pronounced samitch.”  Another, from 1920, describes a sandwich as, “a new experience, for eating without dirtying the hands- from a deli.”

The Jewish delicatessen went through a process of transformation during the twentieth century.  What began as a “bare-bones schlacht (butcher) store that sold only salamis and other cured meats” led to strictly kosher delicatessens, which sold other prepared foods and had a seating area.  Eventually, kosher-style delicatessens, where you could find roast beef (a non-kosher cut), Reuben sandwiches (dairy and meat together, not kosher), or sometimes even ham (not kosher), became the norm.

Harry Levine notes that the huge pastrami sandwiches, typical of Jewish delicatessens, were unknown to poor Jews in Eastern Europe.  They were invented in New York, brought about by a convergence of new and traditional foodways, and a plentiful supply of meat.

Mainstreaming

As Jewish food joined the mainstream, ‘deli’ became an iconic food of New York, alongside other foods with Jewish connections: bagels, knishes, cheesecake, egg creams, and frankfurters.  As Joan Nathan noted in a New York Times article on October 6, 2009, there were at least 1,500 kosher and kosher-style delicatessens in New York by the 1930s.  These little delicatessens started to face competition in the 1950s from larger markets and supermarkets, as well as competing foods, such as pizza.

With mainstreaming, curing deli meats evolved into industrial processes.  Arthur Hertzberg, a kosher food aficionado, remembers when the delicatessens of the Lower East Side each cured their own meats.  ‘Now you get two-week old corned beef, supermarket corned beef and corned beef and cheese- utter desecrations of Jewish soul food.’

Decline

As their fortunes grew, the Jews left the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side.  Later generations eschewed these ‘ethnic’ foods of their forebears.  With assimilation, delis in New York became a dying breed.  David Sax notes in an article in The Atlantic on October 1, 2009, that when he was researching his book in the early 2000s, it was originally to be titled The Death of the Deli.  Why did Katz’s survive where others failed?  Looked at through a simple economic lens, one of the reasons would be because they own the building, and thus their operating costs were lower than competitors, allowing them to weather the 1950s when New York was experiencing white flight to the mid-1970s when the city neared bankruptcy.

Katz’s History

Katz’s Delicatessen, established in 1888, as either “Iceland Brothers”, according to Katz’s website, or “Kostagin’s” was located on the southeast corner of Ludlow and Houston Streets.  Houston Street was a major street within the one square mile ghetto known as the “Jewish Lower East Side”.  In 1903, Willy Katz joined the enterprise.  Willy’s cousin Benny bought out the other partners in 1910 and the venture was renamed Katz’s Delicatessen.  In 1917, their landsman (someone from the same village) Harry Tarowsky bought into the business.  That same year, the construction of the subway system necessitated a move to the other side of Ludlow Street.

During World War II, when the three sons of the owners were serving in the armed forces, Katz’s adopted the slogan “Send A Salami To Your Boy In The Army” which was actually coined by another deli man, Louis G. Schwartz of the Sixth Avenue Deli.  Katz’s continues this tradition, shipping salamis to military addresses in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A storefront facade was added between 1946 and 1949 and the entrance moved from the Ludlow Street side to the corner.   Since then, Katz’s has remained relatively unchanged.  According to Katz’s website, their corned beef and pastrami is cured using a slower traditional method which can take up to 30 days. This is one of the two key ingredients to a good delicatessen, according to Sax.

Katz’s was kept in the Katz and Tarowsky families until the mid-1980s when the owners realised they had no immediate offspring to pass the business to.  A long-time friend, Martin Dell, along with his son and son-in-law bought into the partnership in 1988.  The business continues to be family-run, the other key ingredient for success, according to Sax.

Characteristics

Delicatessens are social gathering places.  Katz’s introduced and still uses a ticket system, in which foods consumed are marked off and the total is later tallied by the cashier situated near the exit.  In this way customers can linger, socialise, and have more helpings of food without having to handle money each time.  An important part of the ambience is the witty banter with the counter men.  This tradition continues as well, though most of the counter men today are from the Dominican Republic, reflecting the shifting trends in immigration.

Other traces of the area’s Jewish history exist.  One block west on Houston Street, Russ & Daughters (est. 1914), an appetising store, is another survivor.  Niki Russ Federman, the fourth generation owner says, “I love when people walk into our store and say, ‘I remember coming here fifty years ago!’  The truth is, the shop doesn’t look all that different.  In a place like New York, where everything is changing all the time, to have a place where you can feel that continuity is really special.  For many people, these foods represent what it means to be from New York, and to be Jewish in New York.”

Although people increasingly prefer lighter and healthier options when eating, Katz’s remains popular.  It is the vanguard of American Jewish cuisine and the wellspring of tradition.  Customers who come here remember dining at Katz’s with their grandparents.  Others come to re-connect with their Jewish heritage.  Many others may only know Katz’s from the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally and want to “have what she’s having.”  James Barron, in an article in The New York Times on May 14, 2013 reported that the restaurant goes through 20,000 pounds (9000 kg) of meat in a typical week.

Harry Levine likes “Katz’s because it’s so archaic, so huge, so busy, and because some of the old German influences remain visible.  I like that frankfurters and salami are still a big deal at Katz’s.”  He calls it “the great mother of all sit-down delis.  Ancient and fabulous.”

Revival

Today, a third wave of delis is sprouting up in unlikely locations like Berkeley and Portland, as well as overseas (Mogg and Melzer’s in Berlin).  The restaurants of this ‘nouveau deli’ movement often take a local, sustainable, artisanal approach, the buzzwords of the day, to how they prepare food, ironically exactly how it was done in the old days.  While these new restaurateurs don’t explicitly model themselves after Katz’s, there is a tremendous reverence for this great temple of American Jewish gastronomy.  Katz’s serves as the benchmark for, and a bridge of continuity between the origins of this style of food, and its current re-interpretations.

Conclusion

Katz’s Delicatessen, which turned 125 this year, is the only surviving example of the Jewish delicatessen from the era of massive Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side.  It is an important link to the origins of this style of food and has maintained its traditions throughout the evolution and mainstreaming of Jewish delicatessens.  Katz’s serves as an inspiration and a benchmark for the current revival movement in Jewish delicatessens.

References

Berg, Jennifer. 2009. “From the Big Bagel to the Big Roti: the evolution of New York City’s Jewish food icons” in Hauck-Lawson, Annie & Deutsch, Jonathan (eds.), Gastropolis: food and New York City, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 252-273

Bergquist, James M. 2008. Daily life in immigrant America, 1820-1870, Westport: Greenwood Press.

Bernamoff, Noah, Rae Bernamoff, Michael Stokes, and Richard Maggi. 2012. The Mile End cookbook: redefining Jewish comfort food, from hash to hamantaschen. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers.

Comer, James. 2012. “North America from 1492 to the Present”, The Cambridge World History of Food. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1304-1323. Cambridge Histories Online. Web. 20 August 2013.http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521402156.021

Diner, Hasia R. 2001. “Food Fights: Immigrant Jews and the Lure of America.” in Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish foodways in the age of migration, by Hasia Diner, 178-219. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Epstein, Lawrence J. 2007. At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side 1880-1920. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goldstein, Darra. 2005. “Will Matzoh go Mainstream?” The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, 4, accessed August 20, 2013. http://darragoldstein.com/files/2012/12/Darra_Goldstein_Matzoh.pdf

Katz, Solomon H., and William Woys Weaver. 2003. Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. New York: Scribner. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed August 20, 2013).

“Katz’s History,” Katz’s Delicatessen, accessed September 6, 2013, http://katzsdelicatessen.com/history/

Levine, Harry G. 2007. “Pastrami Land: the Jewish Deli in New York City” in Contexts: Understanding People in Their Social Worlds, 6 (3): 67-69, accessed September 6, 2013. doi:10.1525/ctx.2007.6.3.67

“Places the Matter: Katz’s Delicatessen,” Place Matters, accessed September 6, 2013, http://www.placematters.net/node/1273

Reiner, Rob, Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, and Bruno Kirby. 1989. When Harry met Sally. Castle Rock Entertainment.

Roden, Claudia. 1997. The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day. London: Viking.

Sachs, Andrea. 2009. “David Sax: The Deli King.”  Time, October 22, accessed September 6, 2013, http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1931584,00.html

Sax, David. 2009. Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army,” New York Historical Society, accessed September 6, 2013, http://www.nyhistory.org/community/send-a-salami

 

Bond Street in New York

(Full disclosure: I worked at Bond Street from 1998 until 2002.  This review was written as an exercise for a food writing class.  It contains no edits to the version I submitted.)

When Ruth Reichl reviewed Bond Street for the New York Times in 1998, she was struck by the “sheer fabulousness of the crowd, the attitude at the door and the cool glamour of the small dining room”.   Digging deeper, she found Bond Street to be “an earnest Nobu emulator” with “inventive Japanese dishes”.

No wonder – the talent pool that founded Bond Street was deep.  Head sushi chef Hiroshi Nakahara was lured away from cooking for top executives at the Sony Club, while executive chef Linda Rodriguez and pastry chef Sonia El-Nawal were Nobu London alumni who felt they could do better in an independent operation.

Over the years, Bond Street has gone from strength to strength, with branches spinning off in Los Angeles (although it wasn’t able to compete with an already well-established sushi scene) and Miami’s South Beach (recently closed after a 12-year run).  The menu has incrementally expanded, and each addition is as carefully thought out as the restaurant’s original offerings.

Upstairs, a second, quieter dining room and a tatami room seating up to 30 are available.  These, as well as the downstairs lounge, can be booked for private events.  Bond Street caters for off-premise parties too, preparing nibbles for the likes of Donatella Versace and Donna Karan; a birthday dinner-cruise for Barbara Streisand around lower Manhattan once included a private fireworks show.

Skip to the present, and the hostess projects just enough attitude to catwalk her way through the fashionable black-clad, saketini-sipping set that fills the dining room.  Not much has changed at the restaurant, housed in a modest red and white townhouse on the cobblestone-paved street whose name it bears.  The front of the restaurant, gutted after an electrical fire in 2007, was completely restored to its original form, complete with billowy gauze curtains and dramatic lighting.

Bond Street’s front room continues to attract the glitterati and the well-heeled, but food lovers have long known the action takes place in the back, where the sushi bar fronts a semi-open kitchen, and shouts of “IRRASHAIMASE!!” (welcome) freeze first-timers in their tracks.  A woman, self-conscious in a bright coral blouse, shrinks against her date.  The sushi chefs soon put her at ease, cracking jokes and having a good time, as they lob chunks of fish across the room to each other.

The service staff are as beautiful as the guests; and efficient and knowledgeable.  They bring hot, lightly scented hand towels, and cups of toasted barley green tea shortly after guests are seated.

A server describes the flavor profiles of fresh oysters on offer – from Hama Hama (Washington state) and Wellfleets (Massachusetts), and without missing a beat, suggests sake pairings for each.  He doesn’t judge when we decline, saying that we don’t drink alcohol.  (The drinks menu is extensive and varied, with offerings for every taste and price point.  Of particular note, there are the 15 sakes available by the glass, and 22 others by the bottle.)

Big-eye Tuna Tarts have the option of coming with shavings of Australian black truffle.  “Australia produces truffles?”   The server checks in with executive chef Marc Spitzer, who took over from Rodriguez in 2003, and confirms they’re from Tasmania.

Faced with many choices, diners may find it difficult to order a la carte.  Shigeru Mikami is happy to help. He has been a cheery presence behind the counter at Bond Street since day one, taking up the head sushi chef role when Nakara returned to his native Osaka in 2006.  He will ask if there are any foods you avoid, and ascertain how much you wish to spend.  Oysters will be called for – one tasting of cucumber, the other packing a saline punch – and while you lose yourself savoring their difference, Shige will work out your menu.  Sushi and sashimi tastings start at $40, and full tasting menus range from $80 to $120 per person.

Some of the appetizers are clever twists on the signature dishes of other notable chefs – Szechuan Yellowtail Sashimi is a take on Nobu’s Yellowtail Jalapeno, and Maine Lobster Rolls are a play on David Chang’s famous pork buns.  In each case, Bond Street’s creations stand favorably.  Szechuan pepper lends a pleasant numbing sensation to the yellowtail, more nuanced than Nobu’s fiery original.  Sweet Maine lobster is served up in a steamed bun; the nuttiness of brown butter ponzu tempering the bite of hot Japanese mustard.

Uni Chawan Mushi is more delicate, a silky egg custard paired with rich California sea urchin, and topped with briny American caviar.  Of the four noodle dishes, Ruth Reichl liked chilled green tea soba, topped with a raw quail egg.  Kakiage Inaniwa is better in cooler weather – slippery udon noodles in a rich broth, crowned with a crispy cake of seafood tempura.  A few other traditional starters can be had: fried tofu in a soy vegetable broth or sweet miso grilled eggplant – these are fairly standard; done well, but unexceptional.

The Soba Nomi Risotto that Reichl enjoyed, is also still on the menu.  It’s toasted buckwheat risotto with sautéed shrimp, Alaskan king crab, and smoked trout butter.  Shreds of bonito flakes dance over the risotto, and three young ladies sitting at the end of the bar comment on how pretty it looks.  A chorus of “YOOOU TOOOOOOOOOO!!!” erupts from the sushi chefs, to giggles from the ladies.

Besides traditional miso soup, Bond Street serves a spicy seafood soup, bursting with local Montauk clams, shrimp, scallops, and red miso.  Dobin mushi, a powerfully aromatic clear soup with cockles, is available when expensive matsutake mushrooms are in season.

Mains from the hot kitchen reassure diners who are squeamish about raw food.  Broiled Chilean sea bass, pioneered by Nobu, is popular and done well here.  Steak and lamb dishes are also available, or try Squid Ink Pasta with Scallion Wasabi Sauce, which has clams, lobster, uni, and karasumi (cured mullet roe; bottarga in Italian).  Vegetarians can order Yasai, which is seasonal vegetables marinated in chili miso vinaigrette and each prepared for optimal flavor – roasted, grilled, braised, or pureed – before being finished with curry oil.  Tempura options include sea bass, lobster, mixed vegetables, shrimp, or Jerusalem artichoke.

A vast array awaits those who do enjoy raw fish – stick to a few small starters and save space for the offerings from the sushi bar.  Bond Street is one of only a handful of restaurants in the city to purchase premium sashimi-quality fish at high enough volumes to negotiate preferential treatment from purveyors.

The nigiri and sashimi choices at Bond Street are extensive, and everything is neatly displayed at the sushi counter.  The sushi chefs can tell you the provenance of each precisely cut saku of fish, and several exotic, seasonal specials are usually available.

The Zuke (big-eye tuna marinated in Gorgonzola and red wine) is worth trying, for those who enjoy big flavors.  Maine lobster sashimi, on the other hand, is not for the squeamish.  The ladies in the corner seem taken aback by its presentation – the lobster is served in its own carapace, antennae still waving.  Some of the other items that arrive at Bond Street still wriggling are sea eel, giant clam, octopus, and baby abalone.

A very old-fashioned form of sushi called chimaki is on the menu; kombu-cured fluke is wrapped in a bamboo leaf parcel.  The fluke’s fin (engawa) can be seared for a rare treat – each fish only yields 2-3 orders.  For something a little more delicate, try tai (Japanese red snapper) or kanpachi (amberjack).   Vegetarian nigiri are also available: options include tonburi (mountain caviar), yuba skin, and “devil’s tongue” (konnyaku, a kind of yam cake).

In a move seemingly inspired by winery tours, the sushi chefs sometimes offer comparative tastings of fish.  This may take the form of a quartet of nigiri composed of different members of the salmon or Hamachi families; a vertical tasting of Bluefin tuna from lean to fatty; or a decadent quartet of seared belly cuts from tuna, Hamachi, salmon, and Japanese snapper.

Sushi rolls at Bond Street run the gamut from traditional to creative.  Simple classics like tuna, toro-scallion and salmon-avocado allow the flavor of the fish speak for itself.  The spicy tuna roll is still the very best in town, while hot eel dice offers lovely contrasts between smoky sweet, meltingly soft eel, toasty sliced almonds, avocado, and sesame seeds.  Vegetarians shouldn’t miss the sundried tomato and avocado roll with garlic chips, ponzu oil, and green tea salt, or the arugula crispy potato roll with carrot ginger dressing.  Both are Bond Street originals.

Shouts of “SEE YOU SOOOOOOOON!!” and “SEE YOU TOMORROOOOOOOOW!!!” fill the air as the trio of ladies prepare to leave.  Dishes are cleared and places reset for dessert, in which pastry chef Manuel Salamanca’s menu incorporates Japanese influences here and there.  A Suntory Crème Anglaise accompanies Tart Tatin made from Fuji apples.  A plate of freshly-fried donuts, rolled in sugar, contains three with yuzu cream and two with yamamomo jelly.  Green Tea Mille Crepe, many alternating layers of crepes and green tea mousse, is a lighter dish than it appears.

Bond Street has been serving consistently high quality Japanese food, both modern and traditional, for over 15 years.  See and be seen in the front dining room, or ogle the fresh fish at the sometimes raucous sushi counter; enjoy the serenity of the upstairs dining room, or try an inventive cocktail in the lounge – chilled-out vibes early and cranking by eleven.  Whatever the occasion or mood, Bond Street deserves to be on your go-to list.

Address: 6 Bond Street, New York, NY  10012

Telephone: (212) 777-2500

Price per person including drinks: $50 – $150

Wine list: The reviewer doesn’t drink, but has it on good authority that the extensive selection of wine, sake, shochu, and cocktails offers something for every taste and price point.

Dress Code is upscale casualNo jacket or tie required.

Children are welcome, but the restaurant is not particularly well-suited to young children.

Disabled access: Entrance is up a flight of stairs to the dining room, and down a flight of stairs to the lounge.  An elevator links the three floors.

Dining Room                          Lounge

Sun – Tues: 6 – 10:30          Sun & Mon: 6 – 11 (kitchen closes at 10:30)

Wed – Thurs: 6 – 11             Tue – Wed: 6 – 12 (kitchen closes at 11:45)

Fri & ­ Sat: 6 – 11:30              Thurs – Sat: 6 – 1:30 (kitchen closes at 12:45)

Global Sushi: Soft Power and Hard Realities

Global Sushi: Soft Power and Hard Realities

Is sushi elite, authentic, traditional, or good to eat for everyone?  Is it a national cuisine or a global cuisine?  This is a lecture at Boston University in 2009 by Theodore Bestor, a Professor of Anthropology and Japanese Studies at Harvard University, who wrote the book Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World.

Back to School

Hey folks, I’ve been studying towards an MA in Food Studies (via the University of Adelaide) since last August.  While I don’t have any concrete plans for what I’ll do with that learning once I finish, I must say that I’m really enjoying the study.

Instead of going to university after high school, I chose culinary school.  That was over 20 years ago.  Now, many kitchens, bakeshops, and countries later I’ve taken an extended break from the industry.  It has felt good to step away, though on the other hand, there are aspects of kitchen life that I miss.

Luckily, I have found a way to step back into the life every now and again.  I’ll be posting more about that in the future.

In the meantime, I hope you’ve liked reading some of the pieces I’ve done as assignments for my Food Writing class.  There are two more to come, a piece of creative writing on the topic of dining alone, and a longer restaurant review.  I may also put up some of my writing from last semester, so stay tuned.

 

Warung Garasi in Ubud

(This review was written as an exercise for a food writing class. It contains minor edits to the version I submitted.)

Warung Garasi is located near the hustle and bustle of Ubud’s main drag, the Monkey Forest Road (Jalan Hanoman), but tucked away enough to feel like a well-kept secret.  The location of this contemporary warung (food stall) was once a moped repair shop and the owner, a Vespa enthusiast, has kept the theme.

Yellow and black hazard striping encircles a small room of approximately two dozen seats.  Several vintage Vespas (including one with a sidecar) occupy one corner.  Old posters of motorcycles and a pair of old touring bicycles hang against the walls, and near the entrance, one can cosy up to the counter on the seat of a chopped scooter.

Some warungs overreach with too many choices, which results in poor execution.  Garasi does neither, although choices are limited for vegetarians.  The menu presents a compact list of Indonesian classics you could expect to find at any warung, but prepared with an attention to detail not usually associated with food stalls.  Dishes arrive on china that looks as if it came from a classy hotel.

Soto ayam contains shredded chicken breast, big, evenly cut potato chunks, quarters of hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, and glass noodles.  Bits of Chinese celery and bawang goreng  (fried onions) add interest.  The flavoursome broth begs for the dome of rice that comes alongside, turning the dish into a light meal.

Gado-gado, the classic Indonesian salad, has green beans cooked to just the right bite, freshly wilted pea shoots, tomato, cucumber, and pieces of nutty tempeh and silky fried tofu.  The aroma of lime leaves perfumes each mouthful, and the deep reddish-brown peanut sauce is head and shoulders above standard warung fare.

Fried chili prawns are nestled among softly cooked red and green capsicums, a slick of spiced orange oil pooling under the mass.  The prawns are no larger than a pinkie finger, with their heads and tails still attached.  The sauce is a careful balance of sweetness and slow-burning heat.  Use the remaining rice to sop up every last bit.

Desserts are generous.  Bubur injin, a hot black rice pudding, is a perfect blend of salty and sweet.  Kolak pisang, or banana fritters, is two ladyfinger bananas sliced, battered, and fried crispy, then drizzled with (not quite enough) palm sugar syrup.  The house favourite is dadar garasi, a cross between a crepe and a pancake, filled with finely shredded coconut and sweetened with more of the same palm sugar sauce – this time with just a pinch of salt to heighten its caramel notes.

Drinks include the standard assortment of soft drinks, fresh fruit juices, beer, teas and coffees.  The flavour of pandan leaf gives the sweet iced tea an aromatic kick.  Homemade rice wine is available in black and white varieties, and the Two Stroke is a mixture of rice wine and arak, distilled from sugarcane and fermented red rice.

Warung Garasi is an excellent place to duck away from crowds in the streets for an hour or two, and the steady stream of locals who come for takeaway attest to the quality and authenticity of the food.

Address: Jalan Hanoman (opposite Hotel Inata), Ubud  80571

Telephone: +62 361 7811106

Price per person including drinks: $4 – $10

Open: 10 – 9, closed Sunday

Thanh Thanh Vietnamese Restaurant

(This review was written as an exercise for a food writing class. It contains minor edits to the version I submitted.)

Thanh Thanh, located down an unprepossessing laneway, fits the bill for cheap and cheerful dining.  Single young professionals, couples, families, and a few larger groups, slurp steaming $10 bowls of phở, redolent of cinnamon and star anise, which is the restaurant’s raison d’être.  Despite regular turnover, Thanh Thanh stays comfortably half-full through the evening.

The room, in bright shades of orange and green, is sparsely decorated with potplants.  A room divider in those same colours playfully mimics the plastic chopsticks found in eateries all over Vietnam.  A crystal clear tank in the front houses Saratoga, an ocean trout (pet fish; not on the menu.)

The menu (mostly priced $10 to $13) isn’t limited to Vietnam, offering tom yum and laksa, and dishes of murkier provenance: fried wontons, salt and pepper squid, and Hokkien noodles. Lamentably absent are standards like bún bò Huế, cháo lòng, curry chicken over broken rice, and bún thịt nướng.

The menu has other peculiarities: Crisp fish, usually prepared whole, is listed as fillets, while long beans stir-fried in XO sauce are actually blanched green beans that never saw the inside of a wok.  On the positive side, mint, rau răm and bits of smoky air-dried beef liven up an otherwise quotidian pawpaw salad. Thin slices of tender duck and bamboo lack visual appeal, but surprises with its’ harmonious balance of savoury, sweet, and mellow ginger flavours.

Two dozen Australian wines and an international selection of beer (including 333 from Saigon) are offered.  There are also Vietnamese coffees, sodas (try the soda chanh) and fruit smoothie flavours including avocado, custard apple, durian and jackfruit.

Address: 18 Field St, Adelaide SA 5000

Telephone: 08 8212 8788

Price per person including drinks: $15 – $30

Open: 7 days, 10 – 8

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