Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Burger of a Lifetime

The smell of burning money was making me hungry.

We'd been at it for three days. Each day was the same: get up, put on those ridiculous white sweat suits, then catch a cab to the funeral home. Then spend the next twelve hours folding strips of gold-flecked paper into symbolic gold ingots so our grandmother would be able to spend her otherworldly life in the manner to which she had been accustomed.

We never knew Grandma very well; distance and a language gap kept us apart. And in the traditionally misogynistic Chinese fashion, Grandma never put much importance on her daughter's daughters. But in the end, her last wish was for a big, traditional Chinese funeral with all her embarrassing and now-grown-up American granddaughters present, and whatever she wanted, she got. So there we were, in Hong Kong, trying to navigate the utterly alien terrain of Chinese mourning rituals.

And we weren't the only ones baffled by the proceedings. The ceremony Grandma wished for and got was traditionally Chinese in the same way that being mummified and buried in a pyramid is traditionally Egyptian: everyone had a vague idea of how it had been done in times past, but no one had any idea how to pull it off in real life. Somehow, Mom's family managed to cobble together a three-day marathon of leavetaking involving copious amounts of incense, loud gongs, stale candy, and a twenty-something male soothsayer with a perm whom I'm pretty sure was making stuff up as he went along.

And my role in this operation was to make money. Lots of money.

My sisters and I folded reams of paper into packing boxes full of symbolic ingots, which we handed off to Dad, who fed them into an incinerator in the back of the hall.

We never got to eat during our days of folding and burning. For whatever reason, the idea of stopping for lunch just never came up. But the smell of burning paper reminded me of wood smoke and backyard grills—and the nagging emptiness in my gut I'd been trying to ignore.

By time we got back to our hotel the final night, it was almost ten o'clock. We sat dazed in the hotel's elegant dining room, still dressed in white sweat suits and reeking of smoke and incense. The restaurant staff knew the only reason anyone would be wearing white and smelling like that in Hong Kong was because they'd come from a funeral, and they treated us with great sensitivity. But I felt as if I'd spent the past three days participating in a fumbling historical reenactment, rather than a ceremony of mourning. I felt numb and exhausted, and sad that I didn't feel sad.

I desperately needed nourishment. But I couldn't bring myself to think of the pleasures of food. so I ordered the dumbest, most boring thing on the menu: a hamburger.

What arrived was both utterly unremarkable, and the best thing I ever tasted.

It was a standard high-end hotel hamburger: Two halves of a better-than-average industrial bun splayed across a large white plate. A generous round of beef topped one of the halves; a ruffle of romaine, a pallid slice of winter tomato and a few rounds of white onion topped the other. There were probably French fries involved as well.

But it came to the table in a swirl of savory steam that I can still smell now, and I could see and hear it sizzling as the server set it in front of me

I took a sip of cold Tsingtao and dug in. A rivulet of hot red juice flowed from it at the touch of my knife. I speared a forkful of buttery pink meat, faintly salty and smoky, as if seared quickly on a very hot wok. And I realized this dumb, wonderful burger was exactly what I needed.

I ate slowly, filling myself with the taste of flesh and flames and blood. That taste was everything the white sweat suits and burning paper and incense were supposed to evoke for me, but didn't: the fine and violent boundary between life and death, and the strange and fraught connection between those on the edges of that boundary. Suddenly, being here didn't feel so strange and pointless. I knew it wouldn't be long before we'd be home, and life would go on.

And I also knew that no burger could taste quite like that ever again.


My Hong Kong burger can never be replicated. But here is the next-best thing, an homage to my grandmother and to my favorite grilled-beef banh mi (Vietnamese-style baguette sandwich) from Banh Mi Che Cali in Fountain Valley, California. That sandwich was a thrilling combination of hot lemongrass-scented meatballs on a crisp and fluffy fresh baguette, topped with crunchy-sweet Vietnamese-style pickled vegetables, slices of fresh jalapeño pepper, and sprigs of fresh cilantro.

Grandma had roots in French Indochina and was rumored to be part Vietnamese. And I always believed that addictive grilled-beef banh mi was everything most burgers aspire and fail to be: a perfect melding of hot and cold, crunchy and soft, sweet and savory. I hope Grandma would approve.

Beef Banh Mi Sliders

Serves 2-3

For the pickled vegetables:

½ c. peeled and shredded raw carrot

½ c. peeled and shredded raw daikon

1 tbsp. rice vinegar

½ tsp. sugar

Combine all ingredients; set aside until you're ready to assemble the sliders.

For the burgers:

1 lb. ground beef

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tbsp. lemongrass, minced

1 tbsp. fish sauce

a few grindings of black pepper

1 tbsp. canola oil

2 tbsp. soy sauce

1 tbsp. water

2 tsp. sugar

1. Pound the garlic, lemongrass, and pepper together with a mortar and pestle until they form a paste.

2. Mix the garlic/lemongrass paste, fish sauce, and ground beef together in a medium-sized bowl.

3. Shape mixture into six mini-burgers.

4. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add oil and cook the mini-burgers to your liking.

5. Remove finished burgers from pan; cover and keep warm.

6. Remove pan from heat. Add soy sauce, water, and sugar. Residual heat from the pan should cause the mixture to immediately sizzle and thicken. If this doesn't happen, return the pan to heat until it does.

7. Add cooked burgers and any juices that may have accumulated. Heat through and flip burgers so that they're evenly glazed. Keep warm until ready to serve.

For assembly:

6 French rolls (the kind with crunchy crusts and soft insides)

1 thinly sliced jalapeño pepper

a handful of fresh cilantro sprigs, washed and dried

good-quality mayonnaise, as needed

1. To obtain a more burger-like proportion of meat and bread in the sliders, slice each roll crosswise into thirds. This should leave you top and bottom "buns" of roughly the same size, as well as an extra middle piece. Put aside the middle pieces and make croutons with them later. Heat the tops and bottoms in a low oven.

2. Spread the insides of the warmed roll halves with mayonnaise. Place a few jalapeño slices on the bottom half of each roll.

3. Put a warm mini-burger on top of the jalapeños, top with pickled vegetables and cilantro, then the top half of the roll. Serve immediately.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Sacred and the Profane: How To Make Tortillas

Tortillas are sacred in the Zapotec village of San Lucas Quiaviní, Oaxaca. Devotees worship then by ripping them into little pieces and dunking them into soups, slathering them with spicy stews and sauces, wrapping them around little pieces of grilled meat, or otherwise laying waste to them in any number of thrifty and freakishly delicious ways, each field-tested and perfected by centuries of experimentation and practice.

The hellishly complicated Zapotec language spoken in San Lucas also venerates tortillas. The language has, among other things, a pronoun system that distinguishes referents according to the speaker's respect for them: animals and children are referred to with one set of pronouns; close friends and family with another. At the top of the linguistic pecking order are the reverential pronouns, used only to refer to God, saints, and a small number of culturally salient elements, such as the sun and moon—and tortillas.

The presence of tortillas in the Zapotec pantheon finally made sense to me once I visited San Lucas to investigate that language: Tortillas appeared at every meal, without fail. Whenever I tried to get a Zapotec translation for a sentence such as "I already ate", what I invariably got back was "I already ate tortillas." The term for taking communion in the Catholic church translates literally as "eat the holy tortilla." If the dozens of missionaries trolling rural Oaxaca for lost souls had any sense at all, they'd translate the middle of the Lord's Prayer as "give us this day our daily tortilla."

And those tortillas are worthy of adoration. The most common variety in the village are big, thin corn tortillas—about a foot across—often faintly dusted with the ashes of the open fires over which they were cooked. I thought that I'd get tired of eating them three times a day over the two- or three-week duration of my trips down there, but I never did.

Over the course of several trips to San Lucas, I slowly figured out how to make those amazing tortillas. For reasons soon to become clear, I've never tried to make them this way myself—and I hope I never have to.

Truly Old-School Oaxacan Corn Tortillas

Preparation time: about a year

Actual work time: a couple of months

Equipment needed: a grinding stone (metate) and a stone hand roller (mano), a fireproof flat skillet (comal), at least one adult male relative, one donkey, and at least two children or female relatives

Yield: Never quite enough


seed corn (amount varies according to the size of your family and property holdings)

lime (ditto)

1. A year before serving: Have your husband or other trusted male relative plant the seed corn. Ensure that they plow and weed the cornfield regularly.

2. Once the corn crop has matured, allow the corn to dry on the stalk. Cut the dried cobs off the stalks, load them onto the donkey, bring them home and set them in an airy, covered area to dry further. Do not let your other animals get to them at this point.

3. Remove the dried corn kernels from the cobs, using either your fingernails or better, an old, already denuded corncob. Better yet, have your kids do this. It will take a several hours.

4. Save nine pesos for round-trip bus fare to Tlacolula, Go to Tlacolula and buy some lime to process the corn. Bring along that bag of cactus fruit you picked while taking the sheep out to graze—if you manage to sell it, you'll more than cover the expense of the bus fare and lime.

5. If you haven't done so already, gather up enough firewood for about an hour of cooking. Once back home, light a fire, dissolve the lime in a large container of water, dump in the dried corn kernels, and cook gently over the fire until the skin of the kernels can be easily rubbed off. Let the corn sit in the cooking water overnight. Drain the corn, rub off any remaining skin from the kernels, and set aside.

6. Grind the corn on a stone metate with the stone roller, using a firm forwards-and-backwards pushing/rolling motion and sprinkling water onto the corn as needed to keep it moist and pliable. The ground corn mixture must feel silky-smooth when rubbed between the fingers; there must be no sign of grittiness. (Gringos who buy "stone ground" tortillas that appear to have chunks of Corn Nuts in them are seriously deluded.) This stage will take a couple of hours. Transfer the silky mass to a large bowl.

7. Light another fire and place a large comal (round earthenware griddle) on top of it to heat. Set up your tortilla press and your bowl of ground corn near the fire. Line the plates of the tortilla press with pieces of plastic cut from an old shopping bag.

8. When the fire and the comal are hot, start shaping the tortillas: take a fistful of the ground corn mixture, roll it into a ball, put it into the press and push down hard to flatten it. (Note that tortilla presses in Oaxaca are the size of pizza pans, and so are the tortillas made in them.) The tortilla should be thin and perfectly round. Carefully remove it from the press and immediately place it on the hot comal. It will start to smoke and bubble within seconds. Once the bottom is set and lightly spotted with toasty brown dots, flip it over with your fingers, taking care not to burn yourself. Remove from the comal when the second side is cooked through.

9. Place the tortilla in a linen-lined basket for storage. Repeat the shaping, pressing, and griddling process several dozen more times.

10. Keep the tortillas covered to prevent them from drying out, gather up more firewood, and prepare the remaining dishes for the day's meals. Serve with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at least 3 per person, per meal.

11. Repeat steps 5-10 every day for the rest of your life. Repeat steps 1-4 as needed.

Interestingly, expat San Lucas natives now living in the States tell me that not all tortillas can be referred to with reverential pronouns. This privilege is reserved for homemade tortillas back home: anything store-bought (or, God forbid, that comes in a re-sealable bag with NO TRANS-FATS! printed on it) is referred to with a socially neutral third-person pronoun, if spoken of at all.

If you've tried to work through the recipe above, you won't need to wonder why.


Here is a my shortcut-filled take on a classically thrifty Oaxacan way to make tortillas the center of a hearty breakfast or simple supper: the tortillas are napped in a rich, savory sauce made from seasoned and pureed black beans. The sauce has startling blackish hue, but set aside any visions of the Deepwater Horizon: instead, think of that striking color as either evocatively earthy and primitive, or cutting-edge elegant. Either way, you'll have a stunning-looking plate, even if you must use unholy tortillas from the supermarket.

Enfrijoladas (corn tortillas with black bean sauce, Oaxacan style)

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Actual work time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2-3 servings


1 15.5-oz. can black beans (unseasoned if possible)

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/8 c. white onion, roughly chopped

½ tsp. dried epazote, crumbled (Epazote is a Mexican herb that is almost inseparable from black beans in Oaxacan cooking, and well worth procuring)

8 or 9 corn tortillas

1/8 c. neutral oil, such as canola

Salt to taste

For garnishes: thinly sliced white onion, crumbled or shredded white Mexican cheese (such as cotija or quesillo), chopped cilantro, avocado slices (optional)

1. Heat the beans, garlic, onion, and epazote together in a saucepan over medium heat until the garlic and onion are soft, about fifteen minutes.

2. Transfer bean mixture to a blender or food processor, blend until smooth.

3. Return bean mixture to saucepan. Cook over medium heat, adding enough water or broth to form a thick but pourable sauce. (It should have the consistency of a thickish bean soup, but not be gloppy.) Taste and add salt if needed. Transfer the sauce to a wide skillet and keep it warm while you prep the tortillas.

4. Now it's time to assemble the enfrijoladas: Heat the oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Fry each tortilla for a couple of seconds on each side to soften it. As each tortilla becomes soft and pliable, remove it from the oil, allow all excess oil to drip off, then dip the tortilla in the bean sauce and fold it in half. The tortilla should be completely coated in sauce. (In Oaxaca, where the tortillas are ginormous, they are folded into quarters, like crepes.)

5. You can either arrange the dipped tortillas decoratively on individual serving plates (allowing three or four per serving as a main course) or put them all in a common serving dish. Either way, nap them with any extra sauce, top with any of the garnishes listed above, and serve immediately.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why I Hate Peas

I hate peas.

I hate how their tough, wrinkly skins get stuck in my teeth. I hate how their dry, starchy innards squish out of said skins when I bite down on them. And I hate that grassy, muddy taste that recalls lawn clippings. Yes, I know I'm supposed to believe that flavor evokes the very essence of spring, but spring here in north-central Florida sounds like bellowing alligators and smells like muddy grass. So there.

Peas were a major source of trauma in my childhood. I was blessed with caring parents, reasonably cool sisters—and those little green pellets on my dinner plate at least twice a week. Dinner at our place—until my youngest sister started school and Mom had the time to invest in a Cuisinart and recreational cooking classes—usually consisted of Stouffer's lasagne, the occasional roasted duck or soy-marinated chicken from Chinatown, and lots of frozen peas. Peas with frozen lasagne. Peas with (and in!) Stouffer's turkey Tetrazzini. Peas with hot dogs. Peas, peas, peas!

My sisters also hated peas. One night, our hatred of peas landed one of them in the emergency room.

This was before our youngest sister was born, and some time close to Christmas. The three of us girls were powering our way through our mandatory portions of green poison when Serena, then the five-year-old middle kid, had an inspired idea: She picked a pea off her plate and squished it against the tip of her nose. Just as she hoped, it stuck. "Rudolph, the Green-Nosed Reindeer!" she started to sing.

Pam, who was a year younger than Serena and worshipped her every move, squealed in delight, grabbed a pea, aimed it at her face—and shoved it squarely up her nose.

"AAIYAH!" Mom screamed. ('AAIYAH!' being Cantonese vernacular for 'OMFG!'.) Both parents jumped up, grabbed Pam by the head, and started staring up her nose as she started to wail. They called our pediatrician at home (this factoid should give an idea of how long ago this was) and he suggested pouring pepper up her nose so she would sneeze it out. The pepper made Pam cry, but it didn't make her sneeze.

Since the pea was too big to move any further back in Pam's nose, we left it there for the night. The next morning, Mom took her to the emergency room, where it was removed in an instant by someone with a pair of long tweezers.

Moral: Peas are dangerous. They can put you in the hospital. What better reason could there be to hate them?


A linguistic fun fact about the word "pea": it formerly didn't exist. Its forebear was the word "pease", which was, in older varieties of English, a mass noun. (Mass nouns are those that refer to things that can't normally be pluralized, such as "oatmeal" or "dirt" or "happiness.") So the "s" sound at the end of "pease" was like the "s" sound at the end of 'kiss": not a marker of number, just part of the basic word.

Plurals in Old English used to be formed much as they are in modern German, by either switching out a vowel sound inside a noun (we still do this with very old words in English, such as "tooth/teeth"), or with a suffix "–n" or "-en" (as in "child/children"). After the Norman Invasion, English adopted not only a lot of French vocabulary, but French word-formation strategies—such as using "-s" as a plural marker. Once this strategy became fully productive in English, people started mistaking that "s" at the end of "pease" for a plural marker, and took "pea" to be its singular form.

So the very existence of a pea in English was the result of a mistake.

Which brings me to my recipe: The only pea preparation that didn't repulse me when I was growing up was pea soup—a dish in which peas revert to their historical etymological status as an uncountable mass. Their leathery skins are blasted into oblivion, and that weird starchy texture is rendered pleasant and velvety. And most importantly, it's nearly impossible to get stuck up your nose.



4 tbs. butter

2 c. finely chopped onion

1 small clove garlic, minced

1 tsp. peeled and grated fresh ginger

1 small serrano chili, minced

3 cups chicken stock

1 10-oz. package frozen peas, thawed

1 10-oz. package frozen spinach, thawed

1 loosely packed cup fresh mint leaves, washed and dried

1 loosely packed cup cilantro leaves, washed and dried

1 tsp. fish sauce (optional)

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a soup pot, add the onions and cook over low heat until softened and just starting to color. Add garlic, ginger, and chili, and cook 2 minutes more. Add stock and bring to a boil. Add peas and cook until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Squeeze excess water from the thawed spinach, add the spinach to the pot, and cook until it starts to soften, about 5 minutes. Add mint and cilantro and cook until they soften, about another 3 minutes.

When all the vegetables are tender, remove them from the pot and reserve the liquid. Puree the solids in a food processor, add 1 cup of the cooking liquid, and continue to blend until the mixture is smooth.

Return the mixture to a clean pot and add the cream (and fish sauce, if desired). If the mixture is too thick for your taste, add more of the reserved cooking liquid to thin it to your desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste and cook the soup over medium-low heat until heated through. Serve immediately.

NOTES: This recipe is loosely inspired by the minted sweet pea and spinach soup recipe in the classic Silver Palate cookbook. I added the cilantro because I didn't have enough mint, and because the combination of cilantro and mint reminds me of Thai green curry, the ginger, garlic, chile, and fish sauce seemed to follow naturally. They don't make the soup taste spicy or gingery or fishy, just pleasantly savory. And less like peas.

Which is a good thing in my book. Because I hate peas.