Month: January 2005
I’ve never been a fan of Chinese food, or at least not the stuff that generally goes by that name in the U.S. When I was little, my family often went to our nearby Hunan Chinese Restaurant, but I remember it less for the food than for the décor: the goldfish in the fountain at the center of the room; the tinkly click-click of the beaded curtains in the hallway to the bathroom; and Shawn, the maître d’ with tight, shiny skin and starchy chinos with cavernous front pleats. As for the food, I’ll admit to a pre-teen’s weakness for crispy egg rolls, sweet-and-sour chicken, and beef with snow peas, but I drew the line there. What I knew as Chinese food always seemed to taste the same—lightly salty, greasy, and slimy with cornstarch.
But in recent years, I’ve found myself enjoying many things I’d previously relegated to the “no, thank you” category, and I realized that I had to give Chinese food another shot. After all, my condescension was based almost solely on those childhood experiences in Oklahoma, a state much better known for chicken-fried steak than for Peking duck. For the sake of fairness, I had to give it another go.
Still, it wasn’t a priority. In fact, I managed to live in Seattle for two years without ever venturing into the International District, although I often thought longingly of things I’d likely find there: bahn mi, rice noodles, knobby vegetables, musty-smelling teas. Note, however, that Chinese food didn’t make the list.
But all that changed last Sunday, when Kate and I strolled from her apartment down to the “I.D.” (as it’s called around here) on a scouting mission for a cocktail party we’re scheming. Dear reader, we both know that I’m prone to exaggeration, but believe me when I say this: I was in heaven. We gazed through windows at menus; we stroked bagfuls of wiry greens; and I dragged Kate into all the Chinese bakeries, where I ogled the soft, round buns and brioche-like breads filled with coconut or taro. I could have stared into the bakery cases for hours, singing along dreamily with the easy-listening music (ahh, the sound of my childhood!) that seemed to follow us from storefront to storefront. Even Kate, half-Chinese and something of a regular in the neighborhood, was entranced by the brightly colored, eerily perfect cakes, although she was less impressed with my lip-synching.
Somewhere along the way, after the fortune-cookie factory and before the Chinese grocery, we passed a restaurant called Shanghai Garden. Grabbing my arm as though a bolt of lightning had surged through her body, Kate panted something about vines. From what I could understand, Shanghai Garden is apparently known for its stir-fried pea vines, a dish that Kate likens to catnip for humans. Recalling an exchange I’d read on eGullet, I asked if they served hand-shaved noodles. Kate nodded. It was a date.
So last night we two descended on a very full Shanghai Garden, its glass tabletops gleaming and requisite fish tank glowing. We were seated by the window, at a table bathed in surprisingly flattering neon pink light. Warming our hands against white ceramic teacups, we sized up the extensive menu. The pea vines were a must, and after some discussion and more panting, we settled on barley-green hand-shaved noodle chow mein with pork, as well as an order of vegetable steamed dumplings to start.
The dumplings arrived quickly, little doughy purses gathered into the shape of waves.
Their deep orange skin was a bit unsettling, but we didn’t ask questions. Pinching them with our chopsticks, we dipped them into a sauce of soy and sesame oil with shavings of ginger and, slurping up errant drips, bit into them gently to reveal their verdant spinach filling.
Then came the pea vines, hot and sleek with oil from the wok. They were sweet, barely wilted, and astoundingly green-tasting, as though they’d just been picked.
The hand-shaved noodles were less photogenic, thick green ribbons stir-fried with egg, Napa cabbage, ruffly carrot coins, and thin strips of pork and piled onto the plate like debris from an explosion.
But they made up in texture (soft, almost melting under the tooth, yet not at all gummy or slippery) and flavor (mild, earthy, comforting) what they lacked in visual sophistication. We had two servings of everything and picked our plates clean, working our chopsticks like long, graceful fingers. We also carried on as usual, howling and slapping the table, making faces and talking microfinance and modern capitalism, but that’s old news by now.
Our fortunes were a bit vague and vanilla,
but between the table’s rosy pink glow and our full bellies, we were too happy to care. And anyway, now that I’ve learned my lesson, there’s always next time.
It’s been a long, mundane week. By day, I poke and prod at other people’s punctuation. I cross items off the list. I fall asleep on the bus. And I pass my nights on the couch with a highlighter and a pack of Post-It flags, wrapped in a wool blanket and wearing pink-and-green Christmas gag-gift socks with candy canes and “Sweet Stuff” printed around the ankle. After so much toil and troubling footwear, I’ve earned something very, very good. Short of dashing Frenchmen beating down my door, I at least deserve a glass of wine, a piece of cake, and hours of exuberant hip-shaking and singing to myself. With years of practice, I’ve learned what makes me happy, and although…Read more
I’m generally very well-behaved, of a willpower that knows few equals. I can bake a whole mess of very treacherous and tempting stuff, stash it in the freezer, and peacefully coexist with it—no boundaries transgressed!—until the next dinner party, appropriate event, or emergency. But, dear reader, I’ve met my match, and it’s a chocolate-covered coconut macaroon. For the first two decades of my life, I associated coconut strictly with the scent of cheap tanning oil, a very nasty substance indeed, and especially for a redhead whose skin has only two settings: pale and burnt. As a child, I had a deep-seated, visceral aversion to lotions in general and put up impressive battles whenever my parents approached with a bottle of…Read more
Intensive training in anthropology and ethnographic methods has taught me the delicate art of participant observation, and, because it’s a shame to let these things atrophy, I feel compelled to exercise my skills every now and then, or constantly. I’m the one in the grocery check-out line who’s fervently studying the contents of your cart, the one quietly noting behavior on the bus. Most recently, using my best eavesdropping and staring skills, I’ve compiled an informal and quite accidental study, and the results are promising indeed. With a sample size of two and no further delay, I’m happy to announce, dear Seattle, that your children are of unrivaled sophistication. They’re very significant, statistically. For example, I recently overheard the following…Read more
Every now and then, something comes over me, and I produce. With no real hunger or purpose, I make, say, three mini-loaves of fancy banana bread, a batch of strawberry scones, a loaf of sourdough, and barrelfuls of Italian vegetable soup—all in less than twenty-four hours, and mostly on a Friday night, no less. Behold the pinnacle of geekiness! But because a girl’s got to keep these things in check, I usually make sure that my bouts of industriousness are immediately followed by a good dose of sloth, generally in the company of someone upon whom I can foist some of the products of my labor. Hence Saturday night’s languorous session on the couch, spooning whipped cream and sipping wine,…Read more
Be warned: I’m baring my geek stripes. If you’re of weak constitution, please avert your eyes. Since our lengthy discussion of soufflé, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about cabbage. After all, whenever I’m plotting a soufflé for dinner, cabbage inevitably shows up, usually bringing its posse of caraway seeds, vinegar, and an apple or two. It doesn’t take much to convince me to eat this humble crucifer, and anyway, the unctuous, dairy-rich egginess of a cheese soufflé truly has no better match than the sweet-tart earthiness of braised cabbage. I think a lot about these sorts of things, and about social science. And that’s where things get geeky. Today, while riding the bus home from work and school,…Read more
In this world, there are plenty of things to be afraid of, but soufflé is not one of them. We know all too well the horror of a natural disaster, the freak accident, the uncertainty of change, the fearful dwindling of the bank-account balance, the sleep lost to worries and wondering. For me, there’s a special terror reserved for the blast of a tornado warning siren: evidently, my Great Plains youth still haunts me. But if there’s one thing that won’t keep me up at night, one thing that I can count on, it’s soufflé. I ate my first soufflé as a preteen, at Oklahoma City’s swank but sedate Coach House Restaurant. It was an apricot soufflé, tall and trembling,…Read more
It was a circuitous route that brought me to le pain de Gênes, the sunny yellow French cake rich with butter, eggs, and almond paste, and I never would have made it without a former New York cabbie and his Citroën. It all began one day in the mid-1990s, in the parking lot of an Albertsons grocery store in Oklahoma City. My father, the ever-willing food shopper, paused with his grocery bags to admire a Citroën parked near his (beloved but ridiculously unreliable) Alfa Romeo. Because Burg was that sort of guy, he struck up a conversation with the owner of the Citroën, and, to make a short story shorter, they became best friends. Every Saturday for years to follow,…Read more
Since Christmas morning, I’ve been nursing a mild but persistent cold, the sort of thing that manifests itself in unladylike snorts every few minutes and a nasal bedroom voice by early evening. It hasn’t slowed me down, but it’s made soup sound exceptionally good. So this New Year’s Day, I shelved my tentative plans for good-luck black-eyed peas masala and opted instead for a cauldron of rustic chicken stew. And because it was indeed a cauldron, I invited my favorite Dutchman, he who crafts beautiful cutting boards, spoils me with sausage and greens, and boasts woodsman biceps as big around as my head. [And I don’t take this last lightly, seeing as the diameter of my head is pretty large;…Read more
Two thousand five has officially arrived, bearing hip-shakin’ hip-hop, sparkly lights for the Space Needle, an unwelcome nuzzle, and tater tots. Seeking a relatively low-price, low-key New Year’s Eve celebration with the possibility of dancing, three of us traipsed down Fremont Avenue to a hip-hop show at Suite G. I stuck to gin and tonic—not quite ginny or limey enough, but then again, the bartender was no David Rosengarten—and Teresa took quite a liking to the “Strasberi Drop,” while Megan sampled the “Bird of Paradise.” Featuring crème de cacao, amaretto, something else I’ve forgotten, and cream (reassuringly billed as “fresh”), it was dessert in a martini glass. I wanted desperately to fill a bathtub with the stuff and roll around…Read more