11 February 2017

On The Salubrity of Garlic Burps Versus Chewing Chalk

It was the heartburn that had me reaching for an extinguisher. Not for the first time had my taste for red beans led to a rebellion in the esophagus. This particular revolt was robust in scope. While the pain was far from crippling, it resulted in a certain lack of cheer and patience on my part. The roots of this crisis were in New Orleans, Louisiana. That the cure, or part thereof, slipped in from Korea was a bit of a surprise. Hunger will do that to a body.

Lunch on the day had been a leftover pot of red beans. It was hanging around from an earlier midweek meal and looking forlorn as my belly contemplated getting a sandwich for something to eat whilst errand-running. Two things changed my mind: I was famished (in spite of the chorizo omelet that was breakfast) and the only currency in my wallet was nostalgia for the bills that got away. An easy equation to solve by heating up the beans and setting to.

Ah, red beans. Of the many delicious dishes to come out of New Orleans, red beans is one for which my imagination fell hard. With the exception of gumbo, when I hanker for things Cajun or Creole, red beans is the dish of choice. There is no recipe for it yet which did not hold some attraction for this belly. 

The attraction is not always mutual though. There is no real malice in a good pot of red beans but the aftereffects on this eater often put him in mind of a spat with one's beloved. Maybe the belly is just older and crankier, I don't know. But this batch of red beans brought the pain after lunch. The fire crept up on me as I was driving to a local Asian market (an earlier visit to which was chronicled here) to pick up some ingredients for the night's dinner.

Upon arriving at the market, things became complicated. Fire in the chest, shopping on my mind, and damned if I wasn't getting hungry in the midst of it all. Then I walked through the door to fall victim to the usual ecstatic discombobulation of All The Things. I did myself no favors by visiting sections previously unexplored, including a Middle Eastern section, the seafood counter (Oh.my.god. Story for another time.) and the meat counter. Focus was slipping fast and I had nothing in the basket yet.

Strolling the refrigerated cases brought me to the kimchi. The jars of kimchi. The BIG jars of kimchi. And not just cabbage. There was radish and cucumber kimchi. Plus, some kimchi new to me that was pickled fish and shellfish. The belly growled as it settled upon the snack it so desperately seemed to want.

I bought a big jar of kimchi. Perfect for that impulse buy mingled with a disregard for heartburn.

Discipline of a sort reemerged as Japanese noodles and a bottle of chili oil ended up in my haul of swag. No sesame seeds or sesame oil yet even though those items had been the impetus for the visit. The dull burn in my chest added its own urgency to the situation. Oil and seeds were swiftly tracked down to wrap things up. Arriving home to settle this matter of the imperative of the belly. Still a fire in my gullet and a growling in my tummy. Heartburn versus appetite. I was hungry, so I ate.

Some may think that kimchi with chilis would not be the most efficacious balm to apply to a case of heartburn. In the abstract, I would agree with them. That seeming contraindication looped around my brain while the kimchi worked its way to my stomach. Sips of fresh-brewed jasmine tea served as lubricant between swallows of pungent cabbage. Any anticipated squabbling between the kimchi and my aggravated esophagus failed to materialize, at least not while I was standing in the kitchen.

I returned to my workstation, graced by a short series of garlic-flavored hiccups. A sated belly makes for a pleasant working experience even at the risk of an odoriferous workspace. A few minutes into my late afternoon labors it sank in that my chest was no longer burning. A faint prickle, but no burn. I no longer felt the need to reach for the cherry-flavored chalk that seems to never be far out of hand these days. Maybe it was the tea, maybe it was the kimchi that helped knock back the pain. It is an experiment worth repeating, because I'll take garlic burps over chewing chalk any day of the week.

02 February 2017

Gochujang Made Me Do It


It was a trip to get three things. Three. A loaves and fishes minor miracle that I walked out of the store with as few as I did. Yet...three things. Curiosity, hunger, and some free time conspired against discipline, hence the haul you see above.

The original plan, as scribbled on a torn scrap of notepaper, outline the procurement of soy sauce, water chestnuts, and gochujang. For those who are not familiar with gochujang (and I was not until sometime last summer) it is a spicy, pungent condiment originating in Korea. Traditional ingredients are red chili peppers, rice or wheat, fermented soybeans, and salt. I had eaten it before last year but did not know it as an ingredient.

Food and cooking are never far from my mind. Reading and researching as much as I do had brought the gochujang into my awareness. Not surprising considering how much I was hearing about it. It took on the character as an "It" ingredient in cuisines outside of Korean. While it may be unavoidable that it ran the risk of being the latest trend it fired my imagination immediately. When that occurs, there really is no choice but to track it down for research purposes. Tasty, tasty research.

There are a number of Asian markets in the area where I live. One of those markets happened to be within easy striking distance of my mid-week errand running. My mind and my belly rejoiced at the coincidence, so with small shopping list in hand, it was off to the store.

Confession: no matter the culinary traditions of a particular market, I tend to regard them like kids regard candy stores. The stuff! The things! The food! This one was no different. Well, no different in my reaction to it. Different certainly in the scope and type of offerings as compared to the average "American" market. Any pretense to a plan abruptly evaporated in the face of the goodness I came upon.

Mind you, a lot of it was not immediately apparent to me in terms of the "CONDIMENT" or "BAKING" aisle of the stores I typically frequent. There were plenty of signs in English, but more predominantly in Chinese, Korean, and possibly Japanese. The shelves themselves had little tags listing the products in English, but what most fascinated and amused me was that many of the products were faced so that the labels read in the language of their origin. This is just the sort of thing I enjoy when I am doing research. It invites engagement and attention to detail.

That engagement really came into play as I wandered up and down the aisles. Every Asian cuisine known to me was represented in the astonishing array of products. China. Korea. Japan. Thailand. India. Pickled radish. Dried seafood. Kimchi and not just of the cabbage variety. Preserved mangoes. Millet, sorghum, and black rice. Potato flour and dried noodles of all types. I wondered if the hand basket I carried was adequate to my ambitions. A pallet loader would have been a better choice!

Discipline began to crack. The basket grew heavier. My ambition swelled, damn near drowning out the small voice crying out to "Stick to the plan!" Eventually, I came to and the bubble popped as I realized that I had everything except the gochujang. I was standing in an aisle that was one long wall of soy sauces and bean pastes. Scanning the shelves I could not locate the elusive condiment. This is where my near non-existent knowledge of written Chinese, Japanese, and Korean truly hampered me. Where was it, this gochujang?

That is when it dawned on me. I realized I was looking at a wall of Chinese condiments. I had made the naive mistake of assuming that fermented bean paste is fermented bean paste, so naturally it would be on the "bean paste" aisle. However, what I wanted was Korean. Embarrassment crept over me as I sheepishly slunk over to the Korean section. Down to the end by which I had passed without registering the wall of gochujang there. 

A whole wall. Of gochujang. Right there. Deep red goodness in small jars to little buckets to big pails. I quickly placed a jar in my basket thereby completing my collection. A fine collection, indeed. I hoofed it up to the counter before I could be tempted by anything else. As I waited to pay I knew I would be back soon. But next time, I'll remember that geography, culture, and language are crucial to understanding what my far-away neighbors like to eat...and what I hope to have the privilege to share with them.

15 January 2017

Sunday Meditation #48: We Are Imperial and Ridiculous

The night sky bears down on us with its scattering of diamonds on black velvet. The pale smear of the Milky Way slips in and out of vision, frustrating and captivating all at once. In the fleeting moments where the Via Lactea can be seen it is brought home with dizzying impact that everything in the Universe is either You or Not-You. Such thoughts either evoke laughter or consternation.

You or Not-You. The imperial absurdity of it comes clear if "potato" is substituted for You. Everything in the Universe is either a potato or not a potato. An internet meme thus becomes the cornerstone of a new philosophy of self-awareness. It can be safely said by us all that "I am not a potato, therefore I am!" 

Silliness, indeed. Such thoughts on an icy winter night turn life into an extended Monty Python skit, a theater of the absurd in which we all star. "I am not a potato," we mutter into the cold air whilst shaking our relatively tiny fists at the sky. It all becomes meta. A conflation of the Universe in its immensity with tubers and all the things we are not but which we consume. We may not be potatoes or air or books, but these things become part of us the instant we chew, breathe, or read. Sometimes all those at once.

To stand under the stars and revel in the mundanity of a humble tuber as being you and not-you is profound and absurd. The paradoxes within can make the head spin and the mind marvel at the amount of energy we expend on the maintenance of partitions between ourselves and our circumstances. By such fiction we strive to convince ourselves we can be masters of the universe. 

To see the stars above and the ground below is to know, however, that we are not potatoes. We are not the Universe. We eat the one and curse and praise the other. This assures us that we are human, even if potatoes and galaxies do not seem to know we exist. We consume them both, and are consumed by the imperial and the ridiculous.

05 January 2017

Jaguar in Winter

Blood slows after the solstice but does not stop. Sunlight is a precious metal mined from the space between the shadows of the leaves and branches. The dappled chest breathes deep while drawing in the scents of a forest teetering on the dull edge of a chasm called sleep. The price of a full belly rises in proportion to its increased rarity, and occupies a greater volume of the mind behind green-gold eyes on the lookout for any opportunity for satiety. The jaguar, el tigre, knows this as blood-red filigree upon its fangs.

Breath acquires new edges in the blue-tinged light of the turning of the year. It flows against the lips and throat like ice slurry in a freezing river. This is a very different thing that the cottony dampness of summertime air, gravid with the weight of humidity and magnified odors. But those odors are there, if muted. The coding still exists, the minute signals of direction, time, and taste that orient the jaguar in the universe. It knows by dint of experience what will be worth the effort and what will not. Energy is a resource to be nurtured not squandered when the earth is being stingy with its offerings.

Flesh hangs upon bones soaked in magic, enrobed in a glory of rosettes evoking the interweaving of el tigre with the soil and rock upon which it sits. The pads of its paws register the chill seeping up through the earth. The cold itself is another marker, a facet of the medium which delivers the message signified by two hundred pounds of deadly miracle. The jaguar does not think much about the cold. It is acceptance of a rhythm composed eons before the jaguar manifested in this particular set of temporospatial circumstances. It knows that outrunning the cold is foolish and wasteful. It will not bother trying.

Bones hold the flesh in place. Bones are its bulwark against the capriciousness of seasons and the weather. It is perhaps bones more so than belly that have a deeper regard for hunger and the changing of seasons. The belly yawps and whines when it goes unfilled. The bones repose stolidly in the memory of what it means to be truly hollow. The belly may be satisfied with the sucking of an egg, but it takes blood on the fangs to calm the bones. This is wisdom to the jaguar. It will breathe patiently in the wan light of winter, moving carefully, keeping in mind the gift of flesh and blood, and all the glorious power contained within.