Eating in Hawai’i

It’s been a long time since I last wrote in this blog. I’m tempted to blame grad school and its craziness, but I also got lazy. Now I’m back with more energy, and new stories to tell.

Over the summer I was back in Japan (doing research on food — more about that in a future post), and on my way back to Boston I got lucky and managed to squeeze in a stopover in Honolulu and visit Paul.

More than stories, I just have straight up food porn to show. This is an awesome place to eat!

Hawaii 2009-1

Local fish. I went to the fishmonger, but had no idea what was what. I ended up getting a parrot fish, which had a firm and almost chewy white meat.

Hawaii 20091-1

Oh yeah, fried Malasadas…like a doughnut, only that they serve them warm all day long, and filled with pure tropical awesomeness. My favorite was lilikoi (passion fruit), followed by hopia (coconut custard). Chocolate…not so good. The picture from the top a volcano that overlooks honolulu is where we went hiking after feeling guilty because of so many malasadas.

Hawaii 20092-1Hawaiian food at Ono’s. It was recommended as one of the few places where you can try traditional Hawaiian foods. We got the lau-lau with pork (the big bunch of taro leaves with meat inside), poi (taro root “gruel”), lomi-lomi salmon and other stuff. All washed down with Maui beer. I quite liked the lau-lau, but wasn’t a huge fan of the poi…takes a little bit getting used to. The beer, however, oh, how I wish they would sell it in the East Coast. The coconut porter is one of the best and most original brews I’ve had. You’d think it’s sweet, but it’s not!

Hawaii 20093-1The farmers’ market. Someone must have written this down in a Japanese guidebook, because they were arriving by the busloads every 15 minutes! Really good produce, and fun ingredients to play around with. I got tiki leaves and assorted mushrooms, and steamed the parrot fish inside with a knob of butter, ginger, lime and chili. mmmm….

The other thing that amazed me from this market was the lettuce. We bought it from a farm that grows their veggies on volcanic soil, and the nuttiness and spicyness of the leaves left me dumbfounded. I guess this is what ‘terroir’ really means.

Wine fountains

“Big nose…that’s it.”

Behind me is a middle-aged guy with a shirt unbuttoned dangerously low for a Boston winter, even at a wine tasting. He’s talking to himself, registering the wine in a loud way so we can all hear him.

“This one feels boxy.”

He either knows his stuff, or bluffs like a poker champion. I am busy trying to figure out the differences between a cabernet from Argentina and another from Napa valley, so I stop paying attention to his mumblings. Playing connoisseur takes a lot of energy and determination.

I suddenly hear “pssssssssssssssssssss.”

This man is spitting wine out of his nose, eye sockets and every other orifice connected to his mouth. The Italian cabernet is flowing out of him as if he were the fontana di trevi. I suspected this guy of having done some tasting before coming to the store, and the wine coming out of his nose seems to confirm my suspicions.

Unfortunately for my friends, they get caught in friendly fire and are forced-showered with red wine. The man feels horrible, and oddly starts kissing my friend’s hand in apology. We are all weirded out, but he doesn’t seem to mind his indiscretion for more than a split moment. He buys them the bottle of wine he sprayed them with, and continues the tasting, mumbling under his breath lots of adjectives

Morale of the story: at a wine tasting, stand in the back row.

Sugar Mountains

I get off the lift but am too busy to notice my surroundings just yet. I rode to the top of Mt. Kagura alone, and have been following on the footsteps of a group of Japanese riders that obviously know the mountain well.

We all congregate around the lift area and sit on our asses while fixing our loose boot to the snowboard. We exchange a few looks and smiles, and I can tell that I am welcome to follow them. My bright orange helmet is a source of amusement and soon enough we are all strapped in and start riding away, except that we head in the opposite direction of the marked runs.

It snowed all of yesterday and overnight, and I woke up to a bright sunny day with no wind and more than half a meter of fresh snow on the ground. I’ve been eyeing the top of the mountain all day long, and finally after lunch I rode several lifts for half an hour to get here.

There is a flimsy rope that separates the marked runs from the wilderness, but it’s no serious obstacle. We simply duck and ride past it. We keep going a little bit longer until we reach the edge of the mountain and I finally pause to take in the scenery. I’m in the middle of the Japanese alps, and there are snowed mountains as far as my eyes can see. Before me there is a steep bowl full of fresh powder snow, with a few trees dotting the landscape. We exchange nods, and drop in one after the other.

My legs are on fire, keeping the snowboard stable while I ride the mountain far faster than I should. I take a right to avoid a tree, and soon enough I separate from the group. They are taking a small run to go back to the same lift and repeat the exercise, but I want to ride the mountain to the bottom on these unexplored runs. I ride the top of a ridge until it’s over and drop into a second steep bowl, but with more trees this time. The snow is light and feathery. I spot rabbit trails and a couple of skiers who are trying their best to keep from sinking in the meters of snow below them.

After five minutes of serious riding, I reach the cafeteria below and find my travel mates waking up from a well-deserved nap. I insert 150 yen into a vending machine and collect a warm can of cafe au lait. From my pocket I produce a frozen granola bar and nibble at it here and there. The grin on my face is obvious.

“How was the run?” — they ask.

I am reminded of my favorite cookie recipe —  brown butter meltaways by Sherry Yard. The last step is to dust the cookies with icing sugar, and Yard’s suggestion is to think of the mountains of Austria to know how much sugar to add.

“It was like a big bowl of icing sugar, and I was floating on it.”

On the road, with a travel mug

Americans fly a lot for a good reason. This is a damn big country, and I’m sitting in a bus, facing a 14-hour ride that will merely move me from the East Coast to lake Ontario.

I would try to make conversation with the other passengers, but they are all encapsulated in their little bubbles deploying various strategies to fight boredom. There are few people on board anyway, so we all spread out and took double seats. A nearby couple has been smooching for a while and doing whatever it is they are doing underneath a big coat. At least they are quiet and whatever noise they do make is muffled by the engines. Another guy has been sleeping for the last five hours across the aisle from me, even though we boarded the bus at 9.30am. Guess he stayed up last night. One thing for sure, his neck will hurt because his head has been bouncing around aimlessly for five hours.

I’ve carved my little kingdom and stretch my legs into the aisle. I watch movies in my computer until the battery runs out, and then look out the window for entertainment. Except that all is covered in snow, and as far as I can tell, there isn’t much to see in upstate New York. Maybe summer is prettier, but for now, all I see are rolling hills covered in snow, and the occasional billboard.

After five hours on the road, the driver announces a pit stop. We will have 1.5 hours to stretch our legs, eat lunch and do “whatever it is that you need to do” according to the driver. That is a loose sentence with plenty of room for interpretation.

I step off the bus, but realize I’m in the middle of nowhere. We are at a gas station, and there is a McDonald’s and a minimart attached. Walking anywhere is useless, unless you like walking knee-deep in snow looking for a few remaining blackberries still on the bush.

I walk into an unexpectedly crowded McDonald’s. There are several families, fighting to keep their children under control. These parents expect a child to continue sitting still even after several hours of sitting in a car. And they give them sugary drinks on top of it. Good luck with that.

I walk over and order a burger sans the fries. Then I find a spot at the counter facing the window and munch on my mystery meat with tomatoes, lettuce and healthy dose of mayo. Cars come and go. This place is an oasis in the middle of nowhere.

I notice that McDonald’s has espresso machines, and decide to caffeinate myself ahead of the ride.

“Can I get a latte in here please?”, I say to the girl while handing her my travel mug.

She looks puzzled.

She continues to look puzzled.

“Carrie, could you come to the front?” She announces into the loudspeaker.

A plump woman in her forties arrives, and she shows her my travel mug.

I gather they don’t know what to charge me. Finally, Carrie makes an executive decision and pours me a medium latte in a paper cup, which she then dumps into my travel mug. So much for the environment. At least the insulated walls will keep my drink hot, and the spill-proof cap will prevent me from showering my fellow bus riders with coffee at some bumpy turn.

While Carrie is busy pushing buttons away into the automatic espresso maker, I continue the transaction at the till.

“That will be a medium latte. 2.78 please”

I hand her a five.

“From five…and will that be for here or to go?”

I look at her in puzzlement, but she repeats the question.

“For here or to go?

“In the cup please,” I say.

“Yes, but will that be for here or to go.”

“I’ll take my travel mug with me.”

She tries to ask me a third time, but I use a small pause to take a step back and collect my mug from the coffee station. She gets it.

I return to the counter, where I kill time until it’s time to board the bus and continue for another eight hours until my destination. That McDonald’s was an oasis in the middle of nowhere — I don’t see any signs of human activity for quite a while and it’s getting dark. I take a sip of my coffee, and settle down to watch another movie. At least I recharged my battery.

Sandwiches!

I’m a sucker for bread, and all things layered inside bread.

The last two months I tried some seriously good sandwiches. I’m still of the opinion that Chilean sandwiches come out on top, but there’s some good contenders.

chile11From top to bottom: Thinly sliced pork loin with tomato, mayonnaise and saurkraut (Chile); Dinamica hot-dog — avocado, tomato, mayo, relish and chilies (Chile); Cubano sandwich in Miami with lots of pork.

chile21My brother’s dream sandwich in Chile — thinly sliced beef, cheese, eggs and bacon…a heart attack between bread; Chacarero — beef with tomato, green beans and chily (chile); and a churrasco italiano — beef, tomato, avocado and mayo. In Chile, ordering an Italian sandwich means you’ll get the colors of the flag — tomato, avocado and mayo.

new-yorkI went to Carnegie deli in New York to attempt one of the huge sandwiches they serve. You can tell the tourists from the regulars right away. Us, tourists, laugh when the load of meat shows up and take pictures, whereas regulars get right down to business. Some guy in front of me managed to finish the thing in under 15 minutes. This is the “Woody Allen” sandwich, with loads of pastrami and corned beef. While the meat was excellent, I didn’t enjoy it — it’s just way too much meat and no balance. The homemade pickles are great.

The bottom sandwich is a pork belly concoction I ate at Momofuku’s noodle bar in the East village. There was something about the ueber-cool atmosphere of Momofuku that made me uncomfortable, but the sandwich is gorgeous. Crispy and juicy pork belly, some kind of sweet sauce, cucumbers and scallions….ah…this is the closest contender to a Chilean moster sandwich!

Tastes like ass

“Excuse me waiter, what is in the special bbq set?”

“A mix of pork, beef, sausage and organ meat”

“Such as…?”

“Blood sausage, cow utters, tripe, etc.”

“We’ll have one of those.”

Thirty minutes later I’m munching on some mystery piece of meat that was not in the original list. I already ate the utter and the tripe, while my mom’s partner is happily munching on a blood sausage.

“Excuse me waiter, what is this cut of meat? I’ve never seen it before.”

“That is the rear end of the cow.”

“…”

“…”

“You mean, the cow’s ass?”

“Well, not the outside.”

“I’m eating the colon and the anus?”

The waiter looked uncomfortable that I was speaking too loud and might scare other customers.

“It’s perfectly clean, and tasty. Wouldn’t you agree?”

During my time as a restaurant critic in Tokyo I ate a fair amount of strange cuts, the weirdest of which was beef “throat” or whatever you call the meat that hangs underneath a cow’s jaw. But charcoal-roasted cow anus is a first for me.

The ass was hidden underneath the mountain of meat

The ass was hidden underneath the mountain of meat

Besieged by Choice

Madagascar Vanilla extract, Mexican, Tahitian, Sri Lankan, fair trade, with no alcohol, real vanilla beans…

One thing I know for sure — real cooks don’t buy artificial vanilla, even though it costs five times less.

Next to the vanilla was the salt.

Kosher, table salt, Himalayan rock salt, truffled, sea salt, smoked, black salt, red Hawaiian salt, fleur de sel…

I am besieged by choice.

Tuscan olive oil, light olive oil, Kalamata olive oil, Spanish, Greek, wrapped in golden foil…

I am tempted to blame the food network, but that would be an easy way out. Part of me must like having this vocabulary at my disposal.

French Roast, Viennese Roast, Colombian, Mocha Java, Arabica, Robusta, Kenyan, Blue Mountain…

As I stood at whole foods contemplating my vanilla choices and whether they would make a difference once I added one of ten available salts, I started thinking about graduate school and how it is flooding my brain with vocabulary.

Functionalism, Structural Functionalism, Structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, semiotics…

I am tempted to blame my teachers, but that would be an easy way out. Part of me must like having this vocabulary at my disposal.

Moiety, hegemonic blocs, commodity fetishism, deconstruction…

As I read through my books and try to decide which words from the endless list of academic jargon I find most useful, I am mentally transported back to whole foods and the vanilla counter.

Only that, at the end of most days, all I want is a simple slice of bread and butter.