Friday, September 30, 2011

Sophisticated Corn

São Paulo is one sophisticated town. People don't live their lives in flip-flops, the best coffee isn't just for export, the graffiti is better than gallery art, and the homeless people have more style than anyone with money, assembling outfits with that impossible-to-imitate creative intuition for pitch-perfect clashing normally achieved only by the most talented Japanese hipsters and Marc Jacobs.

One of my favorite mid-afternoon snacks in Rio de Janeiro was something from the corn man: a pamonha, curau (a kind of corn pudding made with sugar and condensed milk), or boiled corn-on-the-cob served in its pale green husk. On one of my first days here in São Paulo, while wandering alone down Avenida Paulista, one of the city's main arteries of finance, commerce, and culture, I spotted a happily familiar sight: corn man!

Only something was different. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but something about his piles of candied coconut chunks and sweet roasted peanuts seemed a little too tidy. I ordered: "One corn, please." Using a long, two-tined barbecue fork, corn man fished out a bright yellow corn cob from the vat of boiling salted water, but instead of placing it into its snug corn husk jacket, he set it over a small plastic bowl and started carving it with an elegant efficiency I had never witnessed in Rio. I stared and pulled out my camera. He looked annoyed at my bumpkin tourist antics, like the best of the New York hot dog vendors (note the NY baseball cap):

I remarked that while living in Rio I had never seen anything like what he was doing, shaving off the corn kernels into such a civilized spoonable snack, and he seemed somewhat pleased by the contrast (São Paulo and Rio being rivals in the same sort of way that San Francisco and Los Angeles thrive on their differences from each other, though the particular stereotypes between each pair differ). I paid my R$3 and continued on down the avenue, spooning steaming fresh corn kernels into my mouth like a contented baby, free from anxieties of hot water spilling down the husk onto my forearms or corn getting stuck between my teeth for the rest of the afternoon. While there's something satisfying about tearing off a row of kernels with the toothy force of your own hunger, the corn carving is a clever idea for a pre-meeting (or pre-museum, in my case) snack.

see how neat his stacks are?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

São Paulo: Garden of Kosher Delights

Shana tova, vegetable lovers! Happy Rosh Hoshanah. We are on the second day of the new year. How does a non-practicing Protestant-vestigial Catholic, Vietnamese-Pennsylvania Dutch-English American living in Brazil know what's happening on the Jewish calendar? In addition to friends' Facebook posts with muppets singing catchy high holiday tunes in Hebrew, I happen to be spending the month living on the edge of a neighborhood of São Paulo marked by some real deal orthodox kosher livin' (or Kosher Livenn):

I walk by this plaque, "livenn Kosher Today," on my way to the private-seeming but open-to-the-public Senac library in Higienópolis, a relatively tranquil, tree-lined region to the northwest of the city center, highly recommended by  (note: "Senac library" sounds pleasantly like "snack library" but is the library of one of many nationwide centers of professional training—fashion, computer magic, graphic design, etc.—funded by a 1% tax on the goods, services, and tourism sector. It remains something of a mystery to me, but I appreciate how quiet and underused its library is compared to many of the sadly overburdened and underfunded public libraries in San Francisco, though this varies by wealth and accessibility of neighborhood.)

traffic & trees
graffiti outside my building

sidewalk in Higienópolis

family time

At first I thought Livenn Kosher Today was a lifestyle magazine, but one day the sun pierced through the building's tinted windows so as to reveal food displays: a kosher butcher!

dialogue between São Paulo graffiti &  Livenn Kosher Today

Too shy to whip out my camera and take photos of the mysterious packaged vegetable products labeled in Hebrew on the wall facing the rows of shrink-wrapped, chilled kosher cuts, I waited until I got to Kosher Delight to investigate further. (Portuguese pronunciation of "delight": dee-LIE-chee), which proclaims itself one of the foremost suppliers of kosher foods (lots of baked goods, yum) in Brazil and prides itself on "helping the planet to live longer."

I picked up many, many delights that I had very much been missing, including fresh hummus (it's hard to find good hummus around these parts), olive spread, and a cute-as-a-button raisin challah swirl (the size of an overgrown cinnamon bun). The "shana tova" pastry (top photo, with my housemates' painfully adorable Lhasa apso, Marley) is a Jewish take on a Brazilian classic: pão de mel, or honey bread covered in chocolate. Our woman in Rio, vegname Celery Kabbage, observes that this new year's message on a sweet pastry operates as a bit of "poetisserie." She writes:

I  really like the concrete poetisserie of writing "shana tova" on a little cake. The full greeting is "l'shana tova u'metuka"--to a good and sweet year. The dessert itself conveys the second half of the phrase! Kosher Delight is totally avant-garde.

olive spread from Kosher Delight

My most exciting Weird Vegetables find was the Bissli Falafel flavour Wheat Party Snack. Who says fun can only be had with meat or sugar? There's a whole wheat party happening in that bag of falafel flavor.

These wheat sticks taste somewhat like a condensed, dehydrated version of Funyuns. The overall flavor was marked by an onion note that stood out above the wheaty grit, though I don't recall actual falafels being so overpowered by onions. Still, the Funyun connection makes sense with the lemon sunshine packaging and the suggestion of loads of fun and laughs in every package, that onions and wheat can be fun and funny (I prefer to read "party snack" as meaning "party in a snack" rather than merely something you lay out in a bowl for your human party).

Here is the party-for-one platter that I laid out after my festival of delights at the kosher bakery:

On a final note, all this Kosher Livenn got me thinking about the kosher status of vegetables. Judaism 101 informed me that all fruits and vegetables, with the exception of grape products due to the danger of their falling into the hands of idolators, are kosher, no rabbi necessary (in general rabbis are involved in verifying kosher food production practices more as a result of the complications of our industrialized system rather than for their blessing skills). A further explanation and important caveat:

All fruits and vegetables are kosher (but see the note regarding Grape Products below). However, bugs and worms that may be found in some fruits and vegetables are not kosher. Fruits and vegetables that are prone to this sort of thing should be inspected to ensure that they contain no bugs. Leafy vegetables like lettuce and herbs and flowery vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are particularly prone to bugs and should be inspected carefully. Strawberries and raspberries can also be problematic. The Star-K kosher certification organization has a very nice overview of the fruits and vegetables prone to this and the procedure for addressing it in each type.

I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the very involved, very illuminating Star-K vegetable insect-checking guidelines, which include detailed guidelines for leafy vegetables, floreted vegetables, and a really intense (and kind of bizarrely gorgeous) photo gallery of insects-on-vegetables. What's so treif about insects? According to the Torah, "every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth is a detestable thing; it shall not be eaten." Many many learnings to absorb today. But the main moral of today's lesson is this: that vegetables are a kosher delight! (as we suspected all along...) You may eat them with a feeling of both goodness and pleasure.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Neurogastronomical Isis and the "Mouthfeel" of Cassava

"Isis," Romera's signature vegetable dish (photo: New York magazine)

A few weeks ago a very talented and keenly observant poet friend visited me in Brazil and left behind his copy of New York magazine so I could catch up on a little stateside culture. Ever since some invisible eminence decided to start sending New York to my apartment in San Francisco free of charge last year, I'd become familiar with the weekly and now appreciate it as an easily digestible finger on the pulse of what's new in urban culture (though perhaps a finger is not that easy to digest; please excuse my indulgently grotesque figures). The most startling item in the magazine's fall food section was a short piece on neurologist-turned-chef Dr. Miguel Sánchez Romera, an Argentine who recently decided to close his Michelin-bespangled restaurant L'Esguard, located outside of Barcelona, thus ditching the avant-garde Spanish molecular gastronomy set for the grittier pastures of New York City, where he has opened a new fancypants restaurant, Romera.

Drawing on his expertise in neuroscience and haute cuisine, as well as his background in fine art, Romero has invented the term and practice of "neurogastronomy," a culinary blend of philosophy, art, and science that aims to transport the eater to sensory and affective heights of Proustian intensity. The restaurant's site explains it thus:

Neurogastronomy embodies a holistic approach to food by means of a thoughtful study of the organoleptic properties of each ingredient. The result is a natural cuisine driven by the importance of the neurosensory perceptions, the taste-memory and the emotions of food.

I hope I've saved some of you a few clicks by explaining that "organoleptic" means "acting on or involving the use of the sense organs." With his Renaissance-man immersion in multiple, distinct fields and his confident elucidations of the eclectic and ambiguous science of gastronomy, Romera strikes me as a 21st-century Brillat-Savarin, the French lawyer, politician, and aristocrat gourmand whose obsessive interest in food matters led him to write The Physiology of Taste (1825), a collection of essays on the art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food, including meditations on the definition of gastronomy, the role of the senses, the concept of “taste,” and gastronomically crucial matters such as the "Erratic Virtue of Truffles." The now-ubiquitous truism, “You are what you eat,” originates in Brillat-Savarin’s line, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Romera appears to have written two books, though his written work has yet to achieve the influence of a Brillat-Savarin, Alice Waters, or Harold McGee: La Cocina de los Sentidos (The Kitchen of the Senses, not yet translated into English), and La Neurogastronomia, which seems to be a special order from a Danish pharmaceutical company for its favorite neuroscientist customers, also in Spanish.

Without knowing more about Romera's food, and never having experienced it, I'm not sure what to make of his claim to activate "the taste-memory and the emotions of food," since our taste-memory and emotional associations are so particular to individual cultures and to each individual person. Being presented with a tiny carrot nestled on greens laid upon a tightly regulated field of vegetable squares may trigger aesthetically excited endorphins in some systems or panicked memories of childhood in a too-strict, too-clean household in others.

Regardless of claims to memory and emotion, however, the dishes at least look exquisite. Pictured above is one of Romera's signature creations, a vegetable tour-de-force entitled "Isis," after the Egyptian goddess of fertility, nature, and magic (also sister-wife to Osiris, lord of the underworld, and namesake of my mysterious black Wu Tang cat). This article further describes the earthy, edible palette:

The dish is comprised of 48 tiny dried squares of vegetables from beets to potato and spinach, served with even tinier micro-veggies - leeks, onions, cabbage, carrots.

The vegetables all get steam-cooked and stewed together, then cooked in a homemade vegetable broth, a simple yet at the same time complex preparation.

In reading about Romera, I noticed a curious detail that I've never before seen or heard of in a chef's cuisine, a tiny daub of three bright colors—green, yellow, and red—that seem to act as his artist's signature. It appears in the Isis platter as three mini vegetable bits placed at the top right edge of the plate "frame" (some perverse part of me enjoys referring to it as the "platter," like it's merely the rich cousin to the $12.99 seafood platter). 

I wasn't sure what to make of that seeming non sequitur until I saw that the "E" in the   R O M E R A   logo is made of three horizontal lines in precisely the same shades of green, yellow, red. After this, I began to notice the tri-color signature on every dish photographed.

Chef as egomaniac is nothing new, but I'm not sure I've ever heard of such an overtly Picasso move in the culinary world. Maybe one of WV's food-obsessed readers has?

pile o' cassava (photo source)

The second part of the article that made my eyes go wide was the description of one of the esteemed doctor's culinary inventions, a natural additive known as Micri, "an odorless, tasteless gel derived from cassava, which when used in cooking can replace fats and extend flavor without sacrificing mouthfeel." Hmm. I had to read that line a few times. How does one extend flavor without sacrificing mouthfeel? What exactly is "mouthfeel"? Texture? With taste? The emotional geography of our oral cavities? What are the additives that extend flavor but that crudely block out what must be something quite pleasant that we would prefer not to sacrifice in our enhanced food: mouthfeel? Was Mouthfeel part of the secret arsenal of the Vietcong, who won the war through fierce determination and a diet of cassava that kept them going in underground tunnels outside of Saigon for so long? Cassava, also known as manioc and very popular in Brazil as well, does have a certain gummy je ne sais quoi that distinguishes its root texture from plain old mealy potatoes. Could this slippery starchiness be the source of its superlative mouthfeel properties?

Despite the scientific- and not-very-holistic-sounding Micri, and its successor Cassavia, Romera differentiates his process from the Frankensteinian tinkerings of molecular gastronomy, saying "I don't have any technology. . . . A kitchen is made to work with one's hands. All of technological cuisine sacrifices something, which is the taste. And to solve this problem, you have to add chemical additivies." I couldn't track down in-depth Internet information on either of the doctor's own natural (hm, "natural"? not sure if that word alone still retains any meaning in our fallen age of food production) additives, but he assures the readers of New York that his Hippocratic oath prevents him from making anything that's "against nutrition." The site Food from Spain describes Cassavia as "a fat-free paste made from yucca root and, like magic, it can transmit any flavor and take on any texture." It is a merging of magic and science on the site of a chameleon root powerful enough to win wars and nourish populations; in short, a very weird vegetable tale.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tree of Life

Opa! It's been like a million years since I last posted and everyone I once knew has probably moved on to greener online pastures. But phooooooo! That's the sound of me blowing the dust off this space so we can pick up from where we left off. I am still in Brazil, had to take an unintended hiatus from Weird Vegetables because I was up in the highlands of Minas Gerais (the General Mines, very mystical, very mineral, northwest of Rio de Janeiro) doing my Sir Richard Burton thing, living about a half-hour walk from the Internet cafe where the keyboards were sticky and the bandwidth was excruciatingly narrow.

Here are some views of my near-daily sojourn into the old colonial center of Ouro Preto (Black Gold, yargh!), a town that boomed during the 18th-century gold rush, from which sprang a disproportionate number of impressive baroque churches filled with golden altars and black saints, all surrounded by a chain of dark green mountains forming the Serra do Espinhaço.

mineral spirits
ouro preto

igreja são francisco (the church of my hometown's namesake)

ouro preto city center, a good place for a university student protest

Aside from my jaunts into town, where I found some small but very satisfying farmers' markets (more on that to come), I sat reading and writing in front of my little red window with its little green banana palm view while drinking miner's coffee from a little red mug.

But you came for vegetables, and here I am giving you mineral nuggets from my recent life. But it all comes around because on my travels, I met the sweetest Mineiro couple, a pair of retired university professors, one a geologist and the other a chemical engineer, Dimas and Claudia. Claudia's work centers on the Moringa oleifera, a tree of most magical properties, which include purifying water into a potable state, healing and disinfecting wounds, and restoring the vital vitamins to malnourished souls. After inviting me to lunch one day (Mineiros are famous for their hospitality and home cooking), they showed me around their home, and let me take a sprig from the Moringa oleifera sapling they were cultivating in the backyard. I crushed its delicate, benevolent fringe of leaves into my notebook for safekeeping (top photo). In another room, they had laid out fronds of leaves and the tree's small yellow-white flowers to dry in order to crush into a powder to sprinkle on food.

The leaves have a distinctly bitter taste but not so strong as to be unbearable and gave me the sensation of chewing on tiny, fresh tea leaves. Here is a site that calls it "The Miracle Tree" and enumerates the many benefits of its seed pods, leaves, flowers, bark, and roots. The tree originates in tropical Africa and India and is known commonly in English as the horseradish tree, clarifier tree, and drumstick tree. The site also reports its East African alias as "mother's best friend." In Brazil, it is also known as the horseradish tree, good nut or "do-gooder" nut (noz-de-bem), and "corner okra" (chiabo-de-quina) for its long, okra-looking seed pods (also the origin of the "drumstick" nickname). It seems that every single part of this tree has some amazing restorative properties, as our good friend Wikipedia affirms.

sweet botanical assemblage from this site.

Engaging in corroborative library research, I came across some very nutritious tree books by Harri Lorenzi, who seems to be the reigning king of popular plant literature here in Brazil. He tells us that in India the seeds are ground into a paste to treat wounds or are toasted and enjoyed as a nutritious snack. In the northeast of Brazil, they cook the leaves with beans or eat them in a salad with tangy vinagreira, or purple hibiscus leaves. The tree has natural antibacterial components, and it is this (as far as I understand it!) that makes the seeds absorb impurities in water and thus drinkable for our delicately calibrated human systems. The leaves, roots, and seeds also have anti-inflammatory abilities, which make them good for treating wounds. As if that weren't enough, the leaves are also said to be helpful for diabetics to decrease their blood glucose levels, while the seed pods contain all the essential amino acids (super food alert), plus high levels of beta-carotene, Vitamin C, iron, and potassium.

In short, this tree is a crazy miracle. I am glad to have befriended it and to pass it on to you all. Though North American climates are not ideal for the Moringa, your local or online health store may offer the oil essence of this tree of life.

Now that I am in São Paulo, land of cultural over-stimulation and limitless wi-fi, the posts will return to their regular once-a-week (or more!) frequency.