Coming Home.

This is what I remember.

My mother making paella — from where I stand on a stool at the sink I can see the wooden spoon she’s using is stained yellow from the saffron. I’m tearing the legs and shells off of the frozen shrimp she will cook and stir into the pot. My hands burn from their cold flesh but it is oddly pleasing work, and their multiple slender legs make a strange and faint zipping noise as I separate them from their frosty, firm abdomens. I reward myself for each tail I coerce intact from its flimsy gray armor, and don’t realize I’ve been given this task to keep me busy, and quiet.

Tomatoes from the garden gathered in a wooden basket and placed before me. I grasp at them clumsily before they are washed, diced and tossed with feta cheese, herbs and olive oil, and then scooped up with pita bread.

Pan de sal, palm-sized rounds of bread dusted with grainy cornmeal and spread with rapidly-melting butter, brought to me on a hand-painted plate by one of my grandmother’s maids, along with a cardboard box of mango juice. Fried baby cuttlefish the length of my index finger, but much thinner and consumed whole — bones, head, tail. After eating them with my cousins in Manila, I clamor for it, but my mother only cooks the little fish for me once, when my father is out of the house; he hates smell.

Leaves of lox and slabs of cream cheese bookended by bagels from H&H, so salty and thick behind the teeth that talking is impossible. Ful, chick peas and fava beans warmed on the stove and spooned into a bowl before getting mixed with mashed garlic, lemon juice, parsley and olive oil. Honey Nut Cheerios and Rice Crispies, crunched with as little milk as possible so the round O’s and puffed rice still snap with each bite. Eggs scrambled with the sujuk my father hangs inside a wooden frame lined with mesh; it looks like a rabbit hutch, but nothing has ever lived in it but sausages drying.

Dolma, stuffed with rice and ground beef, the leftover orange oily broth of which my mother ladles into a mug for me to drink after dinner. Hummos whirled in the food processor with more and more lemon, garlic and tahini added until my father is satisfied. It’s that or mutabbal, which I dislike. Boureg, sheets of phyllo layered with shredded cheese, parsley and red pepper, flaky on the first day and reinflated in the toaster oven on the next. Tray after tray of baklava and Lebanese pastries, and separating each crumbly tier with my tongue. I suck at its rose-scented sweetness with as much strength as I can before finally chewing.

Spaghetti with meat sauce, my Armenian grandmother’s recipe, full of glistening sautéed onions. I plaster it with so much Kraft Parmesan that it resembles the surface of the moon more than a plate of pasta and I don’t care that it feels grainy. More strands of spaghetti, Filipino-style, sweetened with sugar and ketchup and cooked with sliced hot dogs and Spam.

Baloney sandwiches on white bread or lunch rolls, carried to our table in the dining hall on brown plastic trays. I am scared of the meatloaf, which I have neither seen nor eaten before. Breyer’s Cookies and Cream, chunks chiseled off with spoons while sitting on commercial-grade dormitory carpet next to my roommate, who is eating maraschino cherries direct from the jar. Rum and Cokes, obscenely syrupy, sipped nervously from red Solo cups from the corners of parties.

Wilted triangles of pizza oozing neon drizzles of oil onto flimsy napkins. Pasta salad drenched in bottled Italian dressing and tossed with cubed cheese, tomatoes and olives. We pretend we made it all from scratch and finish the leftovers in front of the open fridge. Wonder Bread toast, blanketed with butter and Smucker’s while still warm, so that together they melt into the crunchy top. Corn fritters we fry on the battered stove and dip into a puddle of maple syrup, leaving sticky trails across the counter.

California rolls, the first sushi my best friend tries, and I convince her to place the entire circle in her mouth even though she’ll struggle to chew it. Char siu baau buns, startlingly tangy inside puffy dough, shared with my mother’s father in countless Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns around the world; I carry this memory with me like a creased photograph kept in my wallet, and pull it out often in the days after his death. Chicken B’stilla, simultaneously savory and sweet, drenched in a yogurt and mint sauce I greedily lap up even though mint makes me think of being a child and ill, and of the strong teas my father brewed for me from the plants he tended in old wine barrels in the backyard. Aloo mutter in a room with tangerine-colored walls on Mass Ave, and the man I will marry in six years winks at me across the table.

Rib-eye steaks cooked medium-rare and eaten off of plates balanced on our knees. We don’t have a dining room, let alone a dining room table. Onions sweated for hours until they caramelize; I stir their gilded ropes into majedera, a mixture of lentils and bulgur, or cluster them across the crust of a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza I will later adorn with an herb chiffonade. Whole split chicken breasts, garlic and lemon slices slipped beneath the fatty ivory skin that will turn crisp and blush gold within the heat of the oven. Butter cookies flavored with mahleb, powder ground from the pits of sour cherries, baked in my new kitchen following the recipe my father’s mother dictated to mine decades before she quietly dies at age eighty-eight in a Los Angeles nursing home that smells of copper and Lysol.

Sausages, sauerkraut and beer underneath the green and white striped awning of a tent on the Rhine. Lechón, the suckling pig I can’t eat without thinking about the sound the animal makes when a knife is plunged into its throat, something I heard for the first and only time when I was ten. Croque-monsieurs on the Pont Neuf, the wind threatening to loosen the scarf from my neck. Fruit-flavored margaritas on D’Aguilar Street; I’m panting in the Hong Kong heat and the tequila goes straight to my head. Cornish pasties and licking crumbs from my fingers in the shadow of Bath Abbey at Christmastime. Squat foil-capped bottles of Yakult, sweetened fermented milk purchased from a 7-Eleven in Seoul. Durian stinking up the car in a Bangkok traffic jam, though later as I eat its sweet and tender flesh, I’ll forget I breathed through my mouth for an hour and nursed a stench-induced headache.

A candied shell enclosing a dollop of sugared olive oil alongside a kumquat skin holding its flesh turned into sorbet. Breaded cubes of liquefied foie gras placed on the tongue whole, then made to explode by the pressure of my mouth closing. Wintermint and vanilla ice cream coerced by science into a pliable rope, knotted and twisted into a cool, icy coil that I cut into with a fork. A Stonehenge of roasted bones upright on a white plate, its marrow shiny and bright under overhead lights before I smooth it across craggy planes of toast, decorate it with verdant parsley leaves and dot it with coarse gray sea salt. And chocolate chip cookies, either straight from the oven or out of a bright blue package that noisily crinkles at my touch, served with a glass of milk to bring me home again.

Coming Home” by Leon Bridges.

CSA 2008, Week One: Part Two.

After thumbing through the pages of my cookbooks, I finally settled upon a turnip recipe from Deborah Madison‘s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. This easy recipe calls for turnips, rutabagas or a combination of the two; I used only turnips, though I actually had to buy a few more from the market in order to reach the 1 ½ pounds needed. Because my CSA turnips were new and quite young, they didn’t require peeling but I had to take my peeler to the older turnips I purchased this afternoon.

(Oh, and a side note: turnips smell surprisingly nutty. For not inconsiderable period of time, I found myself leaning over the stove, literally just inhaling and trying to figure out why these turnips smelled so frustratingly familiar. It took me a while, but I placed it: they reminded me of Choc-Nut, a Filipino candy that my mother absolutely hoards. It’s chocolatey, it’s peanutty, it’s chalky… and now, it seems, it makes me think of turnips.)

I was so pleased with how this turned out. I ended up tossing the breadcrumbs with the turnips before transferring to a bowl, as opposed to sprinkling the crumbs on top; that’s only because I love breadcrumbs (how many times did I order migas in Spain?). For me, breadcrumbs is every bite is a necessity.

Oh, and Keith and I ate this alongside some lamb chops that I had thrown in under the broiler with salt, pepper and garlic, in case you were wondering.

Buttered Turnips with Mixed Herbs, from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (with slight adaptations)
Makes four to six portions as a side dish.

1 ½ pounds turnips, peeled
Salt and freshly milled pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter or sunflower oil
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoon chopped tarragon or thyme (I used thyme, but only because I’m partial to thyme.)
2 tablespoon snipped chives
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs browned in 1 tablespoon butter or oil

  1. Dice the turnips into half-inch cubes. Boil them separately in salted water until they’re tender-firm, about twelve minutes for the turnips. Drain.
  2. Melt the butter in a wide skillet. When foamy, garlic and cook until light brown; add the vegetables and sauté over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until golden. Toss with herbs, taste for salt and season with pepper. Remove to a serving dish and sprinkle the crisped breadcrumbs on top.

Breakfast at Hei La Moon.

It’s been a while since I’ve had dim sum, so when Beth asked me to meet up at Hei La Moon this past Sunday I almost felt as though I had no say in the matter. As I was running a little late — I blame the Sunday subway schedule! — by the time I maneuvered through the throngs of tourists and market-goers crowding Chinatown’s streets, more than a few carts had rolled past my friends’ table.

Truthfully, I can’t even fully describe the sheer amount of food we plowed through. Yes, there were six of us — Alyssa, Beth, Dan, Guillaume, Kristy and me — but frankly, the food came and went so quickly that not even a diner with photographic memory could recall it all. Heck, not even my camera could capture it all. There were the shrimp folded into rice noodles, char siu baau (barbecue pork dumplings), the spring rolls, the sticky fried rice, jiaozi (steamed pork and vegetable dumplings), meatballs rolled in rice, dou hua (silken tofu with sweet syrup), dumplings stuffed with bean paste…

My favorite, hands down, were the char siu baau. The sweet barbecue cradled inside the steamed buns is delicious, but that’s not the only reason why I like them so much. It’s sentimental, since the flavor brings to mind two things — sho pao (also spelled sio pao), a similar Filipino item, and the long strips of barbecued meat that hang in the windows of Hong Kong take-out shops — that both remind me of my maternal grandfather, who died less than three weeks ago. He was a great lover of food, and just as great a lover of travel; from when I was a little girl up until my late teens, it was mostly with him that I traipsed around Asia, eating everything that looked interesting, or at least smelled good. Walking through Chinatown to get to Hei La Moon made me think about him too, and how difficult it would have been, towards the end of his life, for me to push his wheelchair past the hunchbacked Chinese grannies haggling over the price of bok choy. I don’t think I would have minded, though. He would have loved the dim sum.

But back to the topic at hand…

One thing that is absolutely amazing about Hei La Moon is its sheer size. Like so many other restaurants in Chinatown, the space is cavernous. And like a cavern, sound echoes. In this case it’s the sonance of waitstaff trying to tempt diners with the contents of their carts, children teasing each other across the table, chopsticks clicking and the raised voices of your tablemates. Trust me, you’ll be shouting.

A big plus about breakfast at Hei La Moon? Our meal came to twelve dollars a person, including tip. That’s pretty tough to top, considering we almost ate our collective weight in dumplings. How I would love to have my own little dim sum cart to wake me up each Sunday — a very dangerous thought indeed. It would be far better for my waistline to take a walk down Beach Street.

Hei La Moon
88 Beach Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02111
617.338.8813

Hei la Moon on Urbanspoon

A List of Food-Related Things That Make Me Happy.

I love lists and I can’t believe it has taken me this long to make one. Here we go.

  1. Tearing into a mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup to find it nestled in not one, but two brown paper wrappers.
  2. Ripping the pith off of a grapefruit.
  3. Hot fudge sundaes in parfait glasses.
  4. The absolutely intoxicating aroma of butter melting in a hot pan.
  5. The embarrassing sort of farting noise pudding makes when slurped.
  6. The coffee from the Restaurant Orphée in Regensburg, Germany.
  7. The smell of Regensburg, Germany — I swear to you, the entire city smells of sugar, I think from all of the cones being made in the gelaterias.
  8. The scattering of granular breadcrumbs left behind on a plate after eating pandesal.
  9. Anything and everything that has to do with boereg.
  10. The shiny, waxy, almost-black skin of a ripe eggplant.