Friday, April 28, 2006

Eat Local Challenge - May 2006

USGS map downloaded from the Perry-Castaƃ±eda Library Map Collection,
University of Texas at Austin, found via Wikipedia:Maps.
Post-processing with Microsoft Visio and the tools at

An Alternative to Petro-Eating
The American food system is powered by an immense amount of petroleum: raw materials are transported across the nation, converted into a product, sometimes wrapped in layers of plastic and shiny cardboard, transported somewhere else for sale, and then carried home for consumption, generally with fossil fuels powering each step. The Oil in Your Oatmeal, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, described one eater's investigations into the far-away origins of his breakfast, which included oats from Europe, coffee from the tropics, and organic raspberries grown in South America. One of today's most eloquent thinkers on food production is Michael Pollan, and you can find an audio stream of an interview on NPR's Science Friday, a Q&A session at the New York Times, and an interview at Truthdig magazine.)

One way to partially lessen the impact of eating is by choosing foods that were grown close to where you live. This act--which is often not easy and requires old ways of thinking--can also lead to an appreciation of seasonality and more enjoyment at the table. For example, local vine-ripened tomatoes taste substantially better than those grown on an endless industrial farm and trucked across the country, especially after you have been waiting months and months for the season to begin (I think I had a dream about tomatoes last night). Eating local can also help keep farming as a viable alternative to shopping malls, office complexes, and housing subdivisions. And eating local can assist the survival of traditional foods andculinaryy techniques, such as varieties of apples or tomatoes that have been grown in a particular region for generations because of their flavor and compatibility with the local conditions (see Raymond Sokolov's Fading Feast for the story of several disappearing foods).

The Challenge
To help stimulate discussion and explore creative solutions about local eating, a group calling themselves the Locavores started an Eat Local Challenge, which this year will be in May (for California residents, at least). I will be devoting my month to cooking and eating local, and will, of course, post some of the results at Mental Masala.

In the Announcement for the May 2006 Eat Local Challenge, Jen asked three questions, which I answer below:

1. What's your definition of local for this challenge?

I will be using the Locavore's 100-mile radius as my "local" definition. The region is shown in the graphic above.

2. What exemptions will you claim?

In my cooking, I will exempt salt, black pepper, soy sauce, and vinegar from the challenge, and stretch the circle a little bit to include ginger root from Vang Farms in Clovis, California (160 miles away, but a vendor at the Berkeley Farmers' Market). Soy sauce and vinegar are important exemptions because I plan to make several Japanese-inspired meals, including some pickles to eat with rice from the Sacramento Valley. Regular readers of Mental Masala know that I use a lot of spices, imported lentils, and other Asian products, so my cooking will undergo quite a change in May.

In everyday eating, I will continue to drink coffee and tea, and use a little bit of refined cane sugar with them.

3. What is your personal goal for the month?

I would like to have every one of the meals that I cook this month be made using local ingredients subject to the limits in #2 above. It won't be practical to have all of my meals be from local ingredients (business meals, travel, and so forth), but since most of what I eat is what I cook--and little of that is from a mix or pre-made, my local fraction will end up to be fairly high.

What is in the "Pantry"
The above-average rainfall of 2006 has led to a delay of many crops, especially fruit. My "local pantry" currently includes

Vegetables: various greens (chard, collards, spinach), root vegetables, artichokes, fava beans, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, dried hot chilies, many kinds of herbs
Fruit: citrus, dried fruit from last summer, kiwi, possibly strawberries and apricots
Grains: short-grain rice from the Sacramento Valley
Dairy and Eggs: milk products from Strauss Farms in Marin County, cheese from several nearby counties (notable producers include Cowgirl Creamery, Fiscalini Farms, Redwood Hill)
Other: honey, walnuts, pecans and almonds
Let the challenge begin!

Indexed under Miscellaneous
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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Weekend Herb Blogging - Thai Basil

For Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging I'm going to take a look at Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum, bai horapa in Thai, sometimes called anise basil or licorice basil). Thai basil has bright green leaves and purple stems, with a distinctive aroma that immediately makes me think of Thai food (the herb is also commonly used in Vietnam and Laos). The herb has a strong anise-licorice flavor on top of the standard basil flavors.

Basil and Mondays
According to a section of the Thai Royal Flora Expo web page, auspiciousness in the Thai garden is often more important than beauty or utility.

The commonest sanctions relate to auspicious names. "‘Noon"’ in khanoon (jackfruit) means "‘support"’, so it often stands reassuringly behind a house. The pungent durian fruit contains the syllable rian (learn), which augurs well for knowledge. Phutsa (jujube) and mayom (star gooseberry) planted together in the west of a compound mean "‘eternal popularity"’ from their components "sa"’ and "‘yom".

Uncannily, the luckiest tend to provide food, shade, flowers, hedging or useful by-products. Unfortunately, taboos discriminate against practical plants with inauspicious names or associations, like the haunted takian tree which shipbuilders prize for its water-proof wood. Since lanthom (frangipani) sounded like rathom (misery), this fragrant beauty languished largely in temples, until rehabilitated for wider use through HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn re-naming it leelawadee.

Plants are also associated with days of the week in Thailand. Sunday, for example, is for "fruit-bearing trees, kitchen garden plants and herbs and roots and tubers." Monday is basil's day, the day of vegetables and culinary herbs. So next time you have a "case of the mondays" (sound clip), just think of a rich, spicy Thai curry fragrant with basil to cheer up a bit.

Thai Basil in the Kitchen
One of my favorite cookbooks is Thai Vegetarian Cooking by Vatcharin Bhumichitr. Most of the dishes I have tried have been instructive and delicious, and my favorites include the pad thai, hot and sour soup with mushrooms (tom yam het), coconut-cauliflower-galangal soup (tom ka), lemongrass spicy vegetables (pat pet takrai) and the various curries.

A recent favorite is what Bhumichitr calls "Dry Curry Mushrooms" (penaeng het). Like many Thai dishes, it is relatively straightforward to prepare, but requires some endurance.

Dry Curry Mushrooms
Adapted from Thai Vegetarian Cooking by Vatcharin Bhumichitr

Making the curry paste
The first step is to make a curry paste. The traditional tool for this is a mortar and pestle made of wood, rock or clay. It is possible that a blender could work--a food processor definitely wouldn't because of its slow blade speed--but I'm skeptical because the paste is thick, granular, and composed of fibrous foods. And since the paste is initially cooked in hot oil, adding water to keep the mixture moving in the blender jar could lead to unwanted consequences.

10 dried long red chilis, deseeded, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes, then chopped fine
5 small shallots, finely chopped
2 T. garlic, finely chopped
1 T. galangal root, finely chopped
1 t. ground coriander seeds
1 t. ground cumin seeds
About 4 in. of lemongrass stalk (the inner portion), finely chopped
2 T. roasted peanuts

Makes about 2/3 cup
(Unit conversion page)

For a long time, my curry paste technique was terrible, resulting in poorly ground ingredients and much frustration. But then I found Pim's thoughtful essay On the Pounding of Curry Paste. Now I take my time and tackle it in stages: I finely chop the major ingredients (shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass), then pound them individually in the mortar until reasonably smooth. Eventually, I mix some of them together, continue pounding, and so on until I get the texture I want (or lose patience).

For the chilis in this curry paste, I used small dried red chilis from the Indian grocery. Their heat level is not as intense as a Thai chili, but still potent. I don't know if these are the "right" chilis, but they worked fine for me.

Preparing the vegetables and seasonings


1/2 cup coconut milk
2 cups of mushrooms (I used a mixture of white and fresh shiitake)
1 cup long beans, chopped into 1-inch lengths
2 makrut lime leaves, cut into extra-fine slivers
2 T. light soy sauce
1 t. sugar
1 T. roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
15 Thai basil leaves

Assembling the curry
Heat about 1 T. vegetable oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. When it is hot, carefully add about 1 T. of the curry paste, then stir for about 30 seconds to lightly fry it. Pour in the coconut milk, cook for 30 seconds, then add the long beans and mushrooms. When the vegetables are as tender as you like them, add the soy sauce, slivered lime leaves and sugar. Stir, add the peanuts and Thai basil leaves, stir again, and serve.

Variations: the mushrooms and beans could be replaced by your favorite vegetables, or whatever is in season. Pre-fried tofu is also a good addition.

A few more links about Thai basil: Kasma Loha-unchit (an Oakland-based cooking/culture teacher), Oregon State Food Resource, and GourmetSleuth.

Indexed under Thailand, Main Dishes
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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

April 18, 1906

Today is the 100th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire :
San Francisco celebrated and mourned an infamous anniversary early this morning, 100 years to the minute after the city shook and burned in the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

In the pre-dawn hours, thousands packed downtown streets around Lotta's Fountain, glowing gold on Market Street, to honor the people who died in the quake and rejoice in a city that survived and thrived after a fire burned for days. (link)

The San Francisco Chronicle has plenty of great coverage of the centennial, including historical documents, guides to help prepare for a disaster, and the latest science about earthquakes.

Get ready for the next one.

Indexed under History
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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Snacks for the Ears

A lot of food blogging is enticing to your eyes--the photography at 101 Cookbooks or Chubby Hubby, for example--but this post is going after your ears. The internet is a phenomenal library of documentaries and interviews, so whenever I go on a long drive, I load my digital music player with documentaries to help pass the time and put new ideas into my brain. The following list contains a few of my favorite food-related audio streams. For each entry I note whether the audio can be downloaded to your hard drive or can only be streamed in real time through the Real Audio program.
  • Two interviews with Michael Pollan, one of today's most thought-provoking writers about what we eat and where it comes from. An Interview with Michael Pollan on NPR's Fresh Air (originally broadcast on April 11, 2006, stream only), and an interview and call-in with Michael Pollan on NPR's Science Friday (originally broadcast on April 14, 2006, downloadable).
  • Poultry Slam '99 at">This American Life: Compelling--and slightly odd--stories, including Duki the duck puppet, the surprizing history of KFC's Colonel Sanders, the fine line separating pets and meat (told by LA Weekly food writer Jonathon Gold), and an opera about Chicken Little. Originally broadcast on November 26, 1999. (stream only)
  • KCRW's Good Food: Good Food is the Santa Monica-based KCRW's weekly program about all things edible and quaffable. Hosted by the energetic and curious Evan Kleiman (owner and chef of Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles), the program features interviews with cookbook authors, chefs, farmers, and others in the food business. A weekly podcast is available to download to your hard drive. KCRW is on the cutting edge of the new music scene--often playing things that other radio stations have never even heard of--so be sure to check out their music archives.
  • The Eat Feed podcasts: "The food podcast that takes you back in time, across the country, around the world, and back to your own table." I especially recommend The French Flavors of Cinco de Mayo and A Culinary Passage to India. (downloadable)
  • A very short interview with Mexican food expert and restauranteur Rick Bayless at the website of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper from December 11, 2005. Bayless is host of one of the best cooking shows on TV and the author of a few incredible Mexican cookbooks. I've blogged about cooking from his books a few times. (downloadable)
  • Tequila on KQED Forum: "A conversation with photographer Doug Menuez, whose new book, Heaven, Earth, Tequila, celebrates passion, life, love, family and friendship through the spirit of Mexican tequila." Originally broadcast on November 25, 2005. (stream only)
  • The Kitchen Sisters on KQED Forum: " producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of the Kitchen Sisters. Their new book, inspired by their Morning Edition series "Hidden Kitchens," reflects on the stories and sounds of communities united through food." Originally broadcast on November 23, 2005. (stream only)

Indexed under Miscellaneous
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Saturday, April 08, 2006

VRC: Most Requested Recipe - Masala Chai

While catching up on my RSS feeds today (I use the Sage add-on for Firefox), I ran across Alysha's Virtual Recipe Club at The Savory Notebook, and this month's event inspired me to finally finish the first part of a post I have been working on for a while. So here it is, my most requested recipe, masala chai. Or as I call it: Marc-sala chai.

A good cup of masala chai is to your tastebuds what a fine piece of Indian fabric is to your eyes: complex, colorful, discreet, and alluring. And potentially very expensive. If you buy a prepackaged mix (like the bricks at Starbucks), you will pay a Raja's ransom, but excellent masala chai is something you can make at home. Before I reveal the recipe, a few notes about tea in India.

When I think of a drink to go with Indian food, one of the first things I think of is masala chai---the spicy, milky, sweet drink that complements the flavors of the meal. India is the world's leading consumer of tea by volume (23% of total) and the world's leading producer, according to World of Tea. But although tea is thought to have originated near India's borders, and has been consumed in China and Japan for hundreds of years, tea cultivation and drinking was not widespread in India until the British colonial era. During the early 19th century, the British East India Company was looking for an alternative to China, and after a long and extensive agricultural effort, tea was cultivated in the Assam region of India, with the first successful introduction into England in the 1850s. After tea became a key cash crop in India, the locals started drinking it, and adding spices was a natural progression.

The story of tea in India is told in much greater detail in A History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage (highly recommended!), and also in less detail at Stash Tea and Info Please.

Marc-sala Chai
There are many ways to make this, and here I list two: a relatively simple one, and a complex and messy one.

Method 1:
(Unit conversion page)

  1. Mix 4 t. sugar with 2/3 cup of milk in a mug.
  2. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan, then add 1 T. of Marc-sala Chai Spice Blend (recipe below).
  3. Lower heat to medium and let spices simmer for 2 minutes.
  4. Add 1 T. of unflavored black tea (I prefer Assam or Ceylon), and cover the pan.
  5. Steep for 3 1/2 minutes.
  6. While tea is steeping, pre-heat the milk-sugar mixture in microwave.
  7. Pour the milk-sugar into the saucepan, then strain into a thermos or several mugs.

Method 2:
  1. In a heavy pot, mix 4 t. sugar, 2/3 cup of milk, 2 cups water, and 1 T. Marc-sala Chai Spice Blend (recipe below).
  2. Use medium heat to bring to a slow boil --- be careful near the boiling point as the water-milk mixture can quickly boil over!
  3. Turn off heat, cover pot.
  4. Let mixture steep for 3 minutes.
  5. Add 1 T. of unflavored black tea.
  6. Steep for 3 1/2 minutes.
  7. Strain into a thermos or several mugs.
(cooking technique from one of the Saveur magazine's Saveur 100 issues)

Marc-sala Chai Spice Blend

6 allspice berries, roughly crushed
2 T. cardamom seeds (already extracted from pod) (~1/2 oz.)
6 T. roughly crushed cinnamon sticks (~1.75 oz.)
1 T. coriander seeds (~1/8 oz.)
1 T. whole cloves (~1/4 oz.)
20-40 whole black peppercorns
3 T. fennel seed (~1 oz.)

Cinnamon Hint: a tortilla press works great to crush the cinnamon sticks, as shown in the photos below. Just put the sticks into the press, aligned perpendicular to the handle, then crush away. The resulting shards will be much easier to break in the mortar or by hand.

Cardamom Option: I have had good success using cardamom powder instead of seeds. But I have not determined how to use the whole pods in the mix.

During the time that my Marc-sala chai post has been steeping in my drafts folder, I have seen a few other posts about masala chai that are worth checking out for other perspectives on masala chai indredients and techniques: Chai-Spiced Kulfi from Nupur, Masala Tea from Indira, and Kashmiri chai from Brett.

Indexed under India, Events
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A few more photos and words about Japan

My short trip to Japan provided a lot to blog about, and I think I have finally run out of material (at least until I buy the Washoku cookbook and start cooking my own Japanese cuisine). This will be a mix and match post to bookend the first one.

The object in the photo to the left is a sakura-mochi, a sweet (okashi) that is made before and during hanami, the period of cherry blossoming across Japan. The item consists of a center of lightly sweetened adzuki bean paste around which a piece of cooked glutinous rice flour and a cherry leaf have been wrapped. The inside is what I expected from a Japanese sweet: gooey and light in flavor and sugar. And although it felt somewhat odd to eat the leaf of a cherry tree (i.e., we eat the fruit of the tree, not its vegetation), the cherry leaf had a distinctive flavor. It seemed to have been lightly pickled in a sugar-salt solution, which gave my mouth an unexpected sensation to go with the subtle cherry flavor of the leaf.

The written language of Japan makes it a challenging place to travel, as there are so many characters and they do not lend themselves to looking up in a dictionary (I wouldn't even know where to start). And it turns out that words aren't only challenge, as some establishments use characters to represent numbers too. The photo of the menu to the left is one of the pages of drinks at an izakaya (a casual pub-like restaurant) near the Shinjuku station. The large, bold characters in the yellow box are the prices of each drink, by the glass and by the carafe. Zero, one and two are easy to identify, but then it gets trickier. But since there are only 8 more characters needed to complete the 0-10 collection, a quick reference card is a manageable proposition.

This photo shows a wrapped package of Japanese pickles (tsukemono) from a department store (photo of the stand). The paper includes a poem:
Talk to the earth
Praise to the vegetable
DIAYASU makes much of the
nature of KYOTO
We seek after delicious taste
of "KYO-tsukemono"

A little while ago, I wrote about an exhibition of Japanese painting at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the concept of negative space. I suggested that the absence of a certain flavor can act to heighten the flavors present. It seemed like a somewhat half-baked idea, but a few months later, I was surprised (and validated) to find a discussion of negative space in Japanese cuisine in Richie's A Taste of Japan:

Asymmetrical aesthetics also apply in the way in which food is placed in relation to the surface area of the dish itself. Let us say something roundish---a fillet or a teriyaki-style fish---is to be served. It will appear on a long, narrow, flat dish. Resting against the fish, and extending the length of the dish will be a single stalk of pickled ginger. An asymmetrical balance has been created in which the negative space (the empty part of the dish) serves as balance to the positive (fish-filled) and is accentuated by the single line (pickled ginger), which intensifies the emptiness and, of course, by so doing also intensifies the succulence of the fish.

That such aesthetic considerations should extend to food surprises the West. One is used to Japanese concepts of negative space in such arts as sumi-e (black ink painting) or ikebana (flower arranging), but to see such ideas in the kitchen strikes us as odd---as though Poussin's ideas on the golden rectangle should be made apparent in the way a quiche is sliced.

But this just goes to show how very different Japanese ideas on food are. And there are many more aesthetic considerations common in Japanese cuisine as well. For instance, there is a general law of oopposites, which has nothing in common with food presentation elsewhere. Foods that are roundish in shape (small dumplings, ginkgo nuts, small fillets) are served, as we have seen, in dishes having straight lines, while foods which are straight (square-sliced vegetables, blocks of tofu) are always served in round dishes. (from page 9)

Since it is cherry blossom time in Japan (and in many other places), I'll close with a photo and some links to blossom art. To the left is a photo of a manhole cover in Ueno Park, one of the most popular places to view the blossoms in Tokyo. The links below go to some wonderful cherry blossom-themed art:

Indexed under Japan

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