Friday, December 31, 2010

Waking up.

At the start of this year, I was in snowy Berlin. Feuerwerk blasts had echoed across Kreuzberg for days -- sinister at first, then enlivening -- but after the holiday, the whitened streets around our corner of Görlitzer Park fell quiet. Nearly everything was closed. We spent the earliest part of January wandering for too long between meals, pooling change for a single cup of glühwein, making a dinner of Turkish Delight and beer, pretending to be satisfied with cold blood sausage after walking 30 or so icy blocks to a coffee bar recommended by a friend.

I think it was the morning of the 3rd when the neighborhood began to stir. Around the corner from our apartment, in front of a previously dormant café, we found a man sculpting a pig out of snow. Spray bottle in hand, scarf neatly tucked, he explained that he needed to make a new one every few days because people (presumably) carried them off in the night. We asked if he knew if the café was open. "We are the café. So if you want something, come in." Sitting at a table over two croissants and heisse schokolade, N remarked, "Can you think of anywhere in San Francisco half as pleasant?"

Later that day, looking for dinner after dark, I was sulky because the raclette restaurant where I'd hoped to eat was booked -- filled with robust Germans, laughing, quicker than we were with reservations. I stomped down the sidewalk along the darkened, seething park, imagining bad spaghetti, certain that coziness had eluded us.

But then, a few blocks from our apartment, I let Nick steer me into Nest. A beacon, winningly disheveled, cavernous and white-walled with massive dark wood tables. We sat on a church-pew banquette. I relaxed. Our waitress, running around in fluourescent patchwork Nikes, charmed us with her description of pellkartoffeln: boiled potatoes. These came with pickled fish, red onions and dill, yogurt sauce, and bread.
"It's very poor food, very German. Good for winter."
I don't think she thought we'd want it. We did.
"It's going to take about ten mintues, because I have to boil the potatoes, yeah?"
We waited with beers, entranced by a trio of friends across the room, smiling quietly in sweaters, sharing pasta and salad from giant glass bowls.

Our kartoffeln came warm and towel-wrapped, in an oblong basket. Earthy, waxy, golden, next to pale, sweet-bright pickled herring and a bowl of quark. Our hands began to move, forks clinking: take a bite of fish, butter the bread, spear a potato, swipe it in cream, break for beer, keep going. Eat everything.

Sometime during that dinner blur, kartoffel became my favorite German word. Yes, there are other nice ones -- spiegelei, Kottbusser Tor, flohmarkt, tschüss! -- but kartoffel doesn't merely sound funny or pleasant. It turns something regular into something unexpectedly wonderful.

Next year, I will eat unexpectedly wonderful things, and I will write about them. Happy 2011!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Holiday Medley

Hello dear friends. Here are some festive weird vegetables to feast your eyes on while you nibble away at leftovers and warm your fingers by the fire (or with your own steamy breath). These all come from the Heirloom Organics stand at the Ferry Building market. Above are purple orach and bordeaux spinach. The first is also called mountain spinach or goosefoot, and the second is a French variety that our very own colonial hillbilly francophile Thomas Jefferson liked to grow (the Heirloom man announced this fact). Look out for an upcoming post on Mr. Jefferson and his famous vegetable obsession.

And here are the cutest pair of carrot cherub peg-legs I've seen in awhile. A romanesco flourish to whoever can identify its two companions...

The one on the left may look and feel like a daikon or even a parsnip, but it is in fact a very robust white carrot. They are sweeter than the orange ones. That chubby fellow lasted me for days in various soups and salads. And the splash of hot pink on the right belongs to the watermelon radish, an old favorite around here at Weird Vegetables.

Okay, I'm off in search of hot springs and evergreens, maybe a mushroom or two. Much vegetable cheer to you.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Magic Mushroom Seasoning

This post to be filed under: Asian Foods I Grew Up With and Never Questioned the Provenance or Chemical Composition Of Until Very Recently. (Should come right after Haw Flakes).

Somewhere in the mid-to-late-80s, my Vietnamese mother caught on to the evils of Monosodium Glutamate. It was clear that MSG had to go, but there seemed to be no adequate substitute. Regular salt didn't have that extra little je ne sais quoi, the quoi now rapturously popularized as umami or the Fifth Taste. Soy sauce had that added depth but could sometimes be overpowering in both color and taste.  Nuoc mam, or fish sauce, had a pungency that required it to be used only sparingly.

Infinitely resourceful and a woman of great cunning, Mrs. Thao, as she is known in certain milieus, investigated the back alleys of Chinatown and penetrated the fluorescent obscurantism of Japantown's mini-malls.

Her golden discovery was this: Natural Mushroom Seasoning, Alternative Substitute for MSG and Chicken Essence.

For years I watched her sprinkle the tiny, tawny pellets into soups and stir-fries. After I moved out, she would always give me a jar of what I came to call the "magic mushroom seasoning." I never saw the original packaging. The mysterious substance would appear in old containers that once housed western spices and condiments with "mushroom seasoning" scrawled in my mother's singularly illegible handwriting on paper scraps scotch-taped around their middles or to their lids.

Then in my mom's spice cupboard I found this McCormick Family Size parsley container, with a printed label version of MUSHROOM SEASONING affixed cunningly, ransom-letter style, below the now-misleading brand name and just above "flakes," so as to suggest an entirely new product: McCormick Mushroom Seasoning Flakes (Perejil Picado). The unsuspecting eye would think this was just another regular seasoning, to be found innocuously in the Safeway spice aisle between Marjoram and Paprika.

One day recently, I finally cornered her. "Mom," I said. "I'm over thirty years old. A grown woman. Kind of. I think it's time I knew what this so-called mushroom seasoning really is and how to procure it myself."

She looked at me for a few seconds. "I don't remember where I got it. Somewhere on Clement St. probably."

I stared back at her, mind working. "It's MSG isn't it? I knew it. If it is, I can handle it. I promise. I won't tell the others."

Wordlessly, Mrs. Thao turned her back on me and walked into the pantry. She squatted to the floor and moved aside a 10 lb sack of rice. A flurry of plastic grocery bags, pocket packs of Kleenex, a box of expired Advil Cold & Sinus, and bags of green tea leaves and dehydrated black mushrooms flew past her head and landed at my feet. Finally, I heard the heavy rustle of thick foil packaging.

Hair tousled around her head like a floating bird's nest, my mother handed me that which I coveted: the original packaging of the now infamous magic mushroom seasoning:

A fascinating glut of information confronted me. My eye knew not which path to follow first. Buddhist swastikas, the regally pale daikon, the triple-decker Chinese-English-Vietnamese product name. From whence did it originate? What did the slightly ominous "SETSCO Test No (Chinese characters): W2136001" mean? Was this an experimental product, not yet legal on the U.S. market? Or did "GENERATION II" mean second generation, so more advanced and more healthful and tastier than the original incarnation? "No M.S.G.," "Cholesterol FREE," 0% of something in Chinese probably bad like MSG or cholesterol, the yellow triangle in the upper left corner assured me. I was informed that there were both calcium & Vitamin B lingering in this salty dust. And plus or minus 400 g of it in one package. But what kind of mushrooms were in this "mushroom" seasoning? Were those shitakes? What were all those other vegetables doing in the photo? Had they been involved in the flavoring too?

More of the mystery unraveled across the back of the package.

Here I learned of the technological prowess that had gone into developing this super seasoning:

"Using modern technology and special technique of extracting the relevant ingredients from mushroom, we are able now to enjoy the natural seasoning tasting as a substitute to MSG."

And finally, what I most burned to know--the ingredients:

Mushroom powder, Salt, Mushroom extract, Vitamin B, Calcium.

But far from resolving the mystery, this list only opened the door onto another, more disturbing, labyrinth, like a sparkling David Bowie beckoning me ever deeper. For not only were these just the "Main ingredients," suggesting that there were untold numbers of minor players left uncredited, but even more importantly, the kind of mushroom was not specified. And why did the mushroom have to be acted upon by "modern technology and special technique" to be divided into "powder" and "extract," leaving some other mushroom parts unaccounted for? Why had Vitamin B and calcium been deemed the most appropriate nutritional supplements?

I knew more answers would be found with the product's manufacturer, but even this avenue of inquiry led to a cipher wrapped in a riddle. . . all covered in secret sauce. My magic mushroom seasoning was a Product of Singapore, packed by Po Lo Ku Trading company, which also seemed to be in Singapore. But then there was also this other entity, HSinwell Co., Ltd, which seemed to belong to the next line of all-caps: TAIPEI TAIWAN. But then what was this "Vegetalk Food Supplies Pte Ltd (Singapore)" listed at the very bottom? I figured that "Ltd" was "limited" but what was "Pte"?

I should never have opened this Pandora's Box. My mother had tried to protect me. My head spun and I felt faint. The words swirled around my head in a terrible hallucinogenic cloud. Everything took on a deep purple tinge. To steady myself, I took a metal top out of my pocket and watched it spin madly on the table, reassuring myself of the reality of the situation. It wobbled and fell, and I knew there was yet another level of information to be mined. 

The Internet took me by the hand and led me to the site of one Po Lo Ku. It turned out to be a registered trademark of the Hsin Sui Industry Co., a Taiwanese company (remember the "HSinwell Co., Ltd" on the packaging? Close enough...). The Singapore connection is through the exporter, Vegetalk Food Supplies Pte Ltd ("Pte" stands for Private, as in the very VIP exclusive sounding "Vegetalk Food Supplies Private Limited"). Incidentally, the Vegetalk website has an amazing tiled menu that features tiny vegetables that slide into view when your mouse passes over them (the radicchio and bok choy are my favorites).

Back on the Poloku website, an October 2007 press release announcing the introduction of its mushroom seasoning into India's markets offered some illuminating highlights. Company sales manager Hung-Te Sheu touts the texture of what seems to be their star product as superior to mere mushroom powders, boasting:

"The mushroom seasoning sold in the granulated form is unlike the powder form that gets soogy due to the humidity in India. The mushroom seasoning can be exposed to air for about five days and yet remains crisp." 

Through my various researches I was further able to ascertain that the mushrooms used are in fact shitake, though of a "special breed":

"The company is delivering a special breed shitake mushrooms into concentrated dices acting as a replacement to aginomoto." 

"Aginomoto" is a charming synonym for MSG. I also learned that the mushroom intensity can be varied according to desire:

"We make client-based mushroom seasoning. Some clients demand more mushroom content while other's want less. We are involved in B2C (Business to client) so far." 

If there remains a single person who is unconvinced of the superiority of mushroom seasoning to aginomoto/MSG, here is Hung-Te's further testimony:

"You feel thirsty after consuming MSG products but after using the mushroom seasoning in their food, customers have given the feedback that they do not feel thirsty." 

The press release leaves us with a final endorsement of the magical allure of their seasoning:

"Poloku mushroom seasoning has thus been able to retain the original sweetness and freshness of the mushroom and gives the most alluring taste if blended with the richness of one's food."

I hadn't ever considered the sweetness of mushrooms, but perhaps that was the secret to the seasoning's textured flavor, an almost supersensory sweetness underpinning the savory. After returning from down the rabbit hole, I realize it looks the same, tastes the same, may still have the same amount of unknown harmful chemicals. I continue to sprinkle my soups and stir-fries with my magic mushroom seasoning. Am I persisting in dangerous ignorance or have I reached the practical limits of my knowledge about the origins of my food and acting as best I can considering what I have learned? Or should we stop talking about mushroom seasoning and just enjoy it, in the spirit of Jonathan Richman when he sings:

"He gave us the wine to taste
not to talk about it
He gave us the wine to taste
and not to discuss
so let's taste it, let's taste it
don't criticize it and waste it"

Monday, December 20, 2010

Weird Veg Logo Winner!

Congratulations and a giant kohlrabi kale kiss of gratitude to Steph the Paisley Fox for designing our new Weird Vegetables banner and winning all the cookware she can get for $55! My little niece of three wise years wandered into the office while I was tinkering with the sizing in Photoshop and in her little voice she said "carrot... broc-oh-lee... raaaaadish." So cute! My artichoke heart is beating greenly with pleasure.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Kim Jong-Il's Veggie Fascination

Okay, I am pausing Klaus Kinski being really abrupt and crazy at the start of My Best Fiend to show you what happens when one of the world's strangest leaders gets close to vegetables: massively spooky staring contest. A quick scan of facebook while loading the DVD brought me to this new and amazing blog: Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things. (Thanks, Mr. Simon, for all that you do.)

This candid shot with the huge radish brought tears to my eyes. Tears of what? Joy? Recognition? Shock? Hilarity? Who knows? Kim Jong-Il always appears so expressionless, and generally looks like a big, schlumpy doll in photos, so it's crazy to see his delicate eyebrows suddenly raised up above his sunglasses frame and his mouth turned down in unmistakable perplexity. "What is this radish I see before me?," his inner voice whispers. "Can its wisdom feed an entire nation?"

Again, a kind of surprise mixed with humor overtakes this normally composed leader as he encounters  this ear of yellow corn. His face registers a response to the uncanny--that which is at once familiar and strange. Do the spaces between its kernels remind him of the spaces between his teeth?  What labyrinth of time does this maize beckon him to enter?

He seems to feel at home in this green field of wheat, however:

He strokes his chin and remembers a spot of time when he was carefree and happy. But the effect seems to fade when this wheat is processed into crackers. The pastoral magic dissipates, and Kim Jong-Il is returned to our industrial present. He becomes agitated.

He seems to remain stern yet somewhat indifferent toward fruit...

... and maintains a sincere curiosity about smorgasbords.