Tee Tran’s Monster Pho Invades Oakland with Traditional Vietnamese Cooking

Monster Pho's Tee Tran

Monster Pho’s Tee Tran

When the woman at the Small Business Administration discovered that 25-year old Tee Tran wanted a loan to open a Vietnamese restaurant even though he had absolutely no experience in the food business, she laughed at him. “You’re kidding me, right? Do you know your chances of getting a business loan,” she asked rhetorically. “It’s zero! Don’t even think about it.” Rather than discourage him, those cutting remarks inspired Tran to prove her wrong.

Pho at Monster Pho.

Pho at Monster Pho.

Monster Pho, his often-mobbed, year-old Oakland restaurant is a testament to Tran’s tenacity. At lunchtime, the airy dining room is buzzing with banter and tables are filled with a blue-green sea of scrubs, sported by numerous Kaiser Medical Center employees. It’s not just proximity that repeatedly brings Kaiser folks, Cal students and locals alike to the restaurant with the cute monster logo, but gracious service and dependably fresh, traditional Vietnamese cooking. Hearty bowls of pho soup, vermicelli noodle plates, crispy imperial rolls, Vietnamese crepes and banh mi sandwiches are served in an inviting, light-filled room. Unfailingly polite, Tran treats both his customers and employees like family.

Opening a successful restaurant is not the first time this family has beaten the odds. When he was a toddler, Tran, his parents and two older brothers escaped from Vietnam in 1989 as “boat people.” After spending two long years in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines, they landed in Oakland–with literally nothing. He remembers the five of them sleeping huddled together for warmth on their bare living room floor.

Tee Tran and mom, Tina Le.

Tee Tran and mom, Tina Le.

Tran’s mother, Tina Le, has always been his hero, mentor and inspiration. “She worked four jobs to keep the family afloat [as a dishwasher, babysitter, caregiver and seamstress]. She never took ‘failure’ as an answer,” says Tran. Part of his motivation to open a restaurant was to honor his mother and make sure he could take care of her, the way she had taken care of the family. Ironically, his devotion to the family recipes resulted in Le’s insistence on working in his kitchen daily to prepare her sauces.

Tran, now 31, has been an ingenious entrepreneur since the age of eight, when he borrowed money from his mother to purchase candy bars, which he then went door to door and sold for double what he paid. The whole family worked together on paper routes and sewing upholstery samples to earn money for the household. Tran also learned from his mother that no matter the difficulties thrown in one’s path, one should still treat others with respect and kindness.

Monster Pho's spring roll.

Monster Pho’s spring roll.

The Monster in his restaurant’s name stemmed from Tran’s desire to be different and appeal to kids. Its family-friendly atmosphere includes crayons and coloring book pages to keep little diners busy; plus scissors and small bowls are provided so parents can cut up noodles and pieces of meat into kid-sized bites–in the traditional way. Tran has also made his restaurant 100% peanut-free, an unusual move for a Vietnamese restaurant–where peanuts are regularly ground into sauces or crushed and sprinkled over dishes for texture–but one that has parents of children with peanut allergies cheeringTran aims to cater to a range of diners, so his Vegetable Pho uses a 100% vegetarian broth and his Chicken Pho is made with a chicken broth (without beef).

Using her son as an interpreter, Tina Le explains shyly that growing up in Vietnam she was the second oldest of 10 children and helped take care of her siblings. Those duties, plus the fact that her family moved many times, prevented her from regularly attending school. The reason she wanted to bring her family to the U.S. was so that they could get the education she didn’t.

Monster Pho’s menu is simple and straightforward. “Everything is as Mom and Grandma made it,” says Tran. “If you start playing around with fusion, stuffing the spring rolls with all kinds of things, you lose where you came from.”

Monster Pho's pandan waffle dessert.

Monster Pho’s pandan waffle dessert.

“In Vietnamese culture,” Tran says, “you don’t throw anything away; you use every part of the cow and the chicken.” For the regular soup broth, he daily simmers 100 pounds of beef bones in a 160-quart pot with onions and spices such as star anise, coriander and ginger. Tran admits they are always fine-tuning the broth. After months of trial and error, they also came up with a version of kelly-green pandan waffles, a popular Vietnamese street food, usually eaten plain. But Tran tops his decadent dessert waffle with ice cream and whipped cream.

Prior to opening Monster Pho, Tran worked for seven years at an auto dealership, that’s coincidentally just down the street. His deeply held feelings about honesty and integrity didn’t exactly match up with the standard operating procedure for car dealers. Tran stubbornly followed his own internal compass, but found out that his fellow car salesmen had a wager going, on how soon he would be fired or quit. “That lit a fire under me,” says Tran “and in my third month, I sold so many cars I almost made ‘Salesman of the Month.’” Although Tran did well selling cars, he knew his future lay elsewhere.

While working at the dealership, he kept a notebook of possible ideas for businesses. After he finally decided to open a Vietnamese restaurant, he scouted around the Bay Area for a good location and was surprised to see a For Rent sign in a print shop, down the block from the car dealership. When he approached the landlords with his plan, however, they thought he was joking or crazy. “They brushed me off, but that’s always something that motivates me,” says Tran, smiling. “If people tell me I can’t do something, then I have to do it. Six months later, he came back and the storefront was still available.

Monster Pho's flan with coffee syrup.

Monster Pho’s flan with coffee syrup.

Now,  Tee Tran’s restaurant is a monster hit. He happily greets his loyal customers and oversees the dining room. At Monster Pho, there is often a waiting list to be seated. Oh, and that woman from the Small Business Association who was so discouraging, Tran would like to find her again – to thank her.

KQED's Bay Area BitesA version of this article originally appeared on KQED.org 8/31/15

Monster Pho

3905 Broadway, Oakland [Map]
Ph: 510-788-4459
Hours: Wed-Mon 11am-9pm, Closed Tuesday
Facebook: Monster Pho
Price Range: $ (entrees $9-$13)

Posted in Immigrants' stories, Oakland, Vietnamese food | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Kobani Kurdish restaurant: Defiant and delicious

Kobani's owner Emin Tekin photo: Anna Mindess

Kobani’s owner Emin Tekin
photo: Anna Mindess

I often write about food and culture to educate myself as well as my readers, but rarely is the culture in question in the midst of armed conflict as my post goes live. On July 20, 2015, the same day this piece first appeared on Berkeleyside.com, a suicide bomber killed 32 young people who were on their way to rebuild the city of Kobani. That attack in Suruc, a Kurdish-dominated town in south-eastern Turkey, began a chain of events that is still unfolding. See this BBC article for more details.  Meanwhile, profound thanks to Emin and Filiz for sharing your stories with me.

Kobani’s succulent chunks of chicken kebab, creamy hummus, moist dolmas, richly flavored lentil soup and generous gyros are a welcome addition to the corner of University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley.

But there is more to this new casual dining spot than meets the mouth.

The name of the restaurant may be familiar if you follow the news. Kobani, a city in northern Syria, was the site of the biggest defeat dealt to ISIS by Kurdish soldiers. But the four-month-long battle that raged from September 2014 until ISIS militants were driven out in January resulted in the widespread destruction of the 100-year-old city that was famous for its olive-oil and cultural diversity. And in a recent, disheartening reversal in June, Islamic State militants re-entered Kobani, killing dozens of civilians.

The restaurant’s logo features a massive golden sun that in Kurdish culture signifies rebirth and figures prominently on the Kurdish flag, whose red, white and green stripes grace a sign above Kobani. Both the name and the logo are acts of defiance.

“That flag is still illegal in Turkey and the Kurdish language is rarely spoken,” said Emin Tekin, Kobani’s owner, who grew up in Van, a Kurdish city in Eastern Turkey, and immigrated to San Francisco in 1999. Perhaps Tekin’s most daring move is the simple description on his window, “Kurdish and Mediterranean Grill.”

Assorted starters: dolmas, babaganoush, hummus, kibbeh. Photo: Anna Mindess

Assorted starters: dolmas, babaganoush, hummus, kibbeh. Photo: Anna Mindess

For some historical context, the BBC summarizes: “Kurds received harsh treatment at the hands of the Turkish authorities for generations. In response to uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s, many Kurds were resettled, Kurdish names and costumes were banned, the use of the Kurdish language was restricted and even the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity was denied, with people designated ‘Mountain Turks.'”

In recent years there have been a few in-roads: Kurdish music, theater and film are more visible in Turkey than they were a decade ago. But tensions still remain high and surprisingly extend to Kurdish cooking, as reflected in this story from The Media Line: “It may seem strange to outsiders that in Turkey, where Kurds represent 15 to 20 percent of the population and boast a century-old culinary tradition, there is not a single Kurdish restaurant. There are however, restaurants with ‘southeastern’ food, referring to the regions of Turkey with a predominantly Kurdish population.”

While we in the Bay Area are under no such restrictions, and several restaurants do serve Kurdish food, it seems Kobani, which opened in May, stands out for its proud proclamation of Kurdish-ness.

Whether taking orders, delivering plates loaded with freshly sliced, marinated meat to the eight tables in his restaurant, or chatting with his already loyal customers, Tekin is a charmer. His position as the youngest son in a family of nine children served him well. All of his older brothers, except one, opened restaurants, which became training grounds for the succeeding siblings. But Tekin is quick to admit that his family’s menus do not exclusively feature Kurdish dishes.

“Being from the Mediterranean side of the world,” he said, “in every country from Greece to Turkey, Syria to Lebanon, Israel to Morocco, people eat almost the same things but with different herbs and spices. In our casual dining joints, the idea is to provide comfort food that people are familiar with.”

Kobani's arugula and beet salad with creamy lentil soup. Photo: Anna Mindess

Kobani’s arugula and beet salad with creamy lentil soup. Photo: Anna Mindess

According to Tekin, however, a few of the dishes on his menu do carry a subtle Kurdish spin: take, for example, the tangy pomegranate dressing on the beet, arugula and goat cheese salad, the bulgur pilaf with pepper paste; the couscous salad; mast o sir (yogurt and cucumber dip) and the Kurdish baklava layered with cooked semolina flour and milk.

Although gyro spits rotate on many a Berkeley street, the smoky babaganoush, meltingly smooth hummus, and tender, deftly spiced meat at Kobani are definitely a cut above the rest. And the wrap sandwiches are large and reasonably priced for the student crowd who often orders them to go.

One evening, however, I find a large group of international students seated around a table, sharing the “family style mixed grill platter” — a wide, wooden board lined with lavash and topped with a mountain of sliced meats, assorted kebabs, mounds of bulgur and vegetable-studded rice.

Kobani's Mixed Grill Platter is enough to feed a crowd. Photo: Anna Mindess

Kobani’s mixed grill platter is enough to feed a crowd. Photo: Anna Mindess

“This is the traditional way we Kurdish people eat, sitting around a big platter and all partaking from the same dish,” explains Filiz Celik, a Kurdish woman from Eastern Turkey, who is taking a break from her doctoral studies in Wales to visit friends in the Bay Area.

Celik was attracted to this new restaurant as soon as she saw its name. To her, “Kobani signifies the solidarity and strength of the Kurdish people uniting in the face of atrocity, as Kurdish forces from different countries cooperated to singlehandedly liberate Kobani, a Kurdish town, from ISIS.”

“It is thrilling to see a restaurant that proclaims itself Kurdish,” adds Celik. “In Europe, I’ve seen many Kurdish activists open restaurants that are labeled ‘Turkish food’, although recently there is a momentum to broaden the description of their eateries to ‘Mediterranean.'”

To Tekin, the name Kobani also signifies his pride in other Kurdish accomplishments: “The power of women and the fight against inequality. In Syria, 80% of the fighters are women. To us, men and women are equal,” he says. “For the last ten years, whenever there are elections for mayors, we elect one man and one woman to run the city as co-mayors.”

Kobani's lamb shish kebab plate. Photo: Anna Mindess

Kobani’s lamb shish kebab plate. Photo: Anna Mindess

Tekin is enjoying the success of his new restaurant. But his road to Berkeley was not a smooth one. He saw the Kurdish villages around his hometown burned down by Turkish forces, the men executed, the women and children left to survive on their own.

“Being a Kurdish person living in Turkey was always dangerous,” he said. “There were aggressive words and racist discrimination, with people saying things like ‘Dirty Kurds. You shouldn’t be in our country. Go back where you came from.’”

In 1997, Tekin moved to Marmaris, a Turkish resort town on the Mediterranean, where his brother managed a restaurant. “One night,” he said, “four [plain-clothed] policemen came to the restaurant where I was working.” His gaze switches to look off in the distance, as he recites the disturbing events of that night.

“Two of them were very drunk. They attacked my friend who was working there as a bodyguard and stabbed him 29 times. He died. As I rushed over to try and save him, they stabbed me too, in the spine. Then the uniformed Turkish police arrived. A bystander screamed at them to take me to the hospital. The policeman said, ‘I don’t want to take him in my police car because it will make it dirty with Kurdish blood.’”

Tekin continues, seemingly driven to finish the story, “After lying in the street in the rain for an hour, waiting for an ambulance that never came, a taxi driver saw me and volunteered to take me to the hospital. At the hospital, they never asked me my name or what happened because they didn’t want to write up a report that would make the Turkish officials look bad. So I couldn’t take them to court because I had no evidence. ”

Tekin was temporarily paralyzed for three months, but thanks to one brother living in the Netherlands, he received treatment there and a got visa to come to the U.S., where another brother had settled in San Francisco. After sharing the details of these traumatic events, there’s a slight pause, then Tekin returns to his role as congenial host.

While he attended Foothill College in Los Altos, Tekin taught Kurdish folk dancing at the local Jewish community center. He had been part of a prize-winning professional folk dance company in his homeland and in Los Altos brought Jews and Kurds to dance together. “Kurds, Jews and Muslims should all live together in peace,” he says. “All religions come from the same God, so all are equal.”

He later transferred to Stanford University to study finance, but before he could graduate, he eased into the real-estate business.

Kobani's Kunefe, a warm dessert of sweet shredded fill dough, stuffed with cheese. Photo: Anna Mindess

Kobani’s kunefe, a warm dessert of sweet shredded filo dough stuffed with cheese. Photo: Anna Mindess

Today, Tekin is a busy man. He is opening two more restaurants in San Francisco that will also be called Kobani, and is helping his brother to re-open his popular restaurant, Hayes and Kebab, after renovations are complete in 2016. That’s not all: Tekin also owns a parking garage in a densely populated area of San Francisco and has a real-estate business specializing in restaurants and cafés.

“When you are born hungry, and you get some opportunities, you must use them wisely and not become spoiled,” he said. “My intent is to work as much as I can so I can contribute to my communities both here and back home. I have, and will continue to support, several non-profit organizations, like those that provide help for breast cancer, children’s education and abused women and children. I also intend to support associations that are against war — any war that will oppress a nation and destroy innocent civilians. As I have financial success, I will use that to contribute to people in need.”

Kobani Kurdish & Mediterranean Grill is at 1901 University Ave. (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way), Berkeley.

This piece first appeared In Berkeleyside.com’s NOSH on July 20, 2015

Posted in Immigrants' stories, Kurdish food | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mother & Daughter Realize Big Dreams at Vanessa’s Bistro

As a child and grandchild of immigrants, I notice that in writing about food and culture I am repeatedly drawn to the stories of immigrants, their struggles and triumphs. And every time someone shares their journey with me, I feel I have been given a precious gift that I want to pass on. Here are the women behind one of my favorite restaurants.

Vanessa Dang and Vi Nguyen: Dynamic mother-daughter duo behind Vanessa’s Bistro. Photo: Anna Mindess

Vi Nguyen and Vanessa Dang, the dynamic mother-daughter duo behind Vanessa’s Bistro. Photo: Anna Mindess

Vanessa Dang briskly chops a pile of red and yellow peppers, speedily stir-fries chicken slices in a steaming wok, and tosses a tangle of rice noodles into a bowl in the compact kitchen of her Berkeley restaurant, Vanessa’s Bistro. Meanwhile, her daughter, Vi Nguyen, greets and seats customers, takes orders and shakes up a mojito while chatting with the regulars sitting at the bar. Both mother and daughter operate in a blur of continual motion, like two speeding comets whose orbits occasionally intersect.

The amazingly energetic Dang, 54, is executive chef of not one, but two bustling restaurants. (Her sons, Michael Nguyen and Jimmy Pham, run Vanessa’s Bistro 2, in Walnut Creek.) Loyal customers return again and again for her innovative and satisfying creations, such as tuna and salmon poke, Saigon noodle salad and warming claypot dishes.

Dang’s daily routine often starts at 8 a.m. when she goes shopping for ingredients.

“I’m a hands-on kind of person. I need to see what’s fresh in the market to help me decide on my specials,” she says.

After loading up her car at several stops in Oakland’s produce markets, Chinatown and Berkeley Bowl, she heads over to her Walnut Creek location to cook lunch before driving back to Berkeley to prepare dinner. “I put about 24,000 miles on my car a year,” she admits.

Tuna and Salmon Poke: ginger, avocado, mango, cucumber and tomato salsa. Photo: Anna Mindess

Vanessa Dang’s Tuna and Salmon Poke with ginger, avocado, mango, cucumber and tomato salsa. Photo: Anna Mindess

Dang’s accomplishments are all the more impressive when she reveals her background. “I grew up in Vietnam,” she says. “And when the Communists took over in 1975, life became miserable. I never knew my mom, and my dad was in the military. I stayed with my auntie and in a Catholic Boarding school. Thank God my auntie accepted my sister and me. She was the best cook! But I never learned how to cook in Vietnam.”

Dang moved to the U.S. in 1981 with her then-husband, two uncles and little Vi. There was already a growing tension between Dang and her husband when he opened a restaurant and named it Vi, after their daughter. The Chinatown restaurant, which specialized in noodle soup, is now closed, but Dang admits that her ex-husband’s restaurant served the best pho. “I still miss it,” she says.

Vi Nguyen, now 36, also remembers her father’s restaurant. She grew up working there as a server and supported herself through school. “But I don’t like working in kitchens,” she says. “It’s too hot.” So at Vanessa’s Bistro, which Nguyen owns, she works the front of the house, handles the books and tends bar.

Claypot rice with chicken & prawns, fresh shiitake mushrooms, baby bok choy. Photo: Anna Mindess

Vanessa Dang’s Claypot rice with chicken, prawns, fresh shiitake mushrooms and baby bok choy. Photo: Anna Mindess

When Dang was 27, she and her husband divorced, and Dang lost custody of Vi and her younger son. “I couldn’t speak English and had no marketable skills. I only got to see my kids on the weekends,” she remembers. “The problem was that I had no job and no place of my own for them to stay.” But the strong-minded young woman was not about to give up, not by a long shot.

“What could I do? I didn’t speak English. I didn’t know how to cook or anything, so I got a job at Denny’s,” Dang says. “And I learned the English words on the menu. But I worked the night shift, which was tough. The customers who came at night could be so mean. They picked on me, said nasty things and left me tips of 8 or 15 cents. So I quit, because I realized I had to work in a place where I could communicate in my language.”

Dang approached Le Cheval, the popular Oakland Vietnamese restaurant, and started there as a dishwasher. But soon she offered to help out when the kitchen got busy. Tuyet Bui, the matriarch of the family-run restaurant, took a special interest in Vanessa. “She was like a mother to me,” says Dang, gratefully. Dang started out peeling carrots and chopping onions. Gradually, she learned more skills as Bui gave her additional responsibilities.

Saigon Noodle Salad: filet mignon, rice noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumbers and peanuts in a tangy sauce. Photo: Anna Mindess

Vanessa Dang’s Saigon Noodle Salad with filet mignon, rice noodles, carrots, cucumbers and peanuts in a tangy sauce. Photo: Anna Mindess

That didn’t stop the assumptions about her lack of knowledge. “The bartender at Le Cheval used to laugh at me and call me names,” says Dang. Secretly, she enrolled in, and passed, a three-week bartending course, but didn’t mention it to anyone at the restaurant. Then one day a customer ordered an Alabama Slammer and the bartender was stumped. Dang volunteered the recipe: Southern Comfort, amaretto, sloe gin and orange juice. The bartender was dumbfounded. “How did you know that?” he demanded. Dang showed him her bartending certificate and finally earned some respect. “But no hard feelings,” she shrugs, smiling. “We still are friends.”

Dang was promoted several times at Le Cheval, but finally decided it was time to take charge of her life. She landed a job at Bridges Restaurant in Danville — the California fusion restaurant where a pivotal scene in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire was filmed. The self-taught chef did attend The California Culinary Academy for a few weeks, but had to drop out for financial reasons. “In the USA, you get respect from a piece of paper,” she says. “I had to earn my respect from hard work and determination.”

After six years at Bridges, a co-worker approached her with an idea and she formed a partnership with him to open La Rose Bistro in Berkeley. Later, after a falling out with her partner, she left La Rose and found herself over-qualified for most restaurant jobs.

Vi Nguyen mixes drinks and more at Vanessa’s Bistro. Photo: Anna Mindess

Vi Nguyen mixes drinks and more at Vanessa’s Bistro. Photo: Anna Mindess

Meanwhile, in 2006, her daughter, who had been working for the non-profit St. Mary’s Shelter, was also looking for a change. She saw her mother’s unhappiness and asked her to name her dream. “I dream big,” confides Dang, smiling. They decided to work together and open a restaurant on Solano Avenue called Vanessa’s Bistro, with the tagline “Vietnamese Tapas with a French Twist,” which quickly became a beloved neighborhood institution. The family affair had Dang, Nguyen and her two brothers all working together in the intimate eatery.

“It was too small for the four of us,” she says. “Everyone wanted to be a leader.” So in 2009, Dang opened a second location in Walnut Creek for her sons to run, just in time for a couple of tough years during the economic downturn. Things are looking up now, though Dang comments that “Berkeley and Walnut Creek have different personalities. Solano Avenue is very neighborly, and I’ve seen the same families coming in for eight years.”

Besides food that Zagat calls “imaginative” and “gorgeously presented,” part of the charm of dining at Vanessa’s Bistro’s is watching Dang in the kitchen — effortlessly maneuvering the space in her signature designer dresses and spiky heels, jewelry, long nails and elegant coiffure — looking less like a typical chef and more like a party hostess who is putting the final touches on the special dishes she has lovingly prepared for her guests. And that intimate warmth is communicated to her patrons when she enters the dining room to sit at the bar, enjoy a glass of wine and chat with her guests.

Vanessa Dang prepares basil in her restaurant’s kitchen. Photo: Anna Mindess

Vanessa Dang prepares basil in her restaurant’s kitchen. Photo: Anna Mindess

“I am very lucky,” Dang admits. “I enjoy my career and can work with my family. I could not have done it without my children. As a single mom, I got strength from them. I saw what working in corporate America was doing to one of my sons who had to get up at 3 a.m. and never got enough sleep. I wanted to give them something to inherit as a family business, even though we have to work extra hard to keep up now.”

Vanessa Dang and Vi Nguyen are also lucky that they can work together in relative harmony. “We get along so well. She’s my best friend; I love to see my mom happy,” says Nguyen. “As the oldest child and her only daughter, we share a special bond. We work well together, and when one of us is stressed out we know how to leave the other alone.”

They also play well together. “We go out to dinner dates at Café Rouge and Zut! on Fourth, and once a year to Las Vegas for a big blowout,” Nguyen adds. It is hard to imagine these svelte women chowing down as much as they describe. Then Nguyen mentions that, until recently, she was a competitive body-builder and that she and her mother both still work out and jog several times a week in order to enjoy to the food and drinks they love.

Vanessa’s Bistro is at 1715 Solano Ave. (at Tulare), Berkeley. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook and Twitter.


A version of this article first appeared on Berkeleyside NOSH on March 3, 2015

Posted in Berkeley, Immigrants' stories, Vietnamese food | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

On a Quest to Preserve Traditional Ethiopian Spices

Ethiopian dishes atop injera at Cafe Colucci. photo: Anna Mindess

Ethiopian specialties accompanied by injera flatbread at Café Colucci on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Photo: Anna Mindess

At Café Colucci on Telegraph Avenue, when you dip your injera into pungent, deftly seasoned creamy lentils, collard greens or chopped beef, you are dipping into thousands of years of Ethiopian culinary history.

“Sheltered in isolation, Ethiopian culinary art flourished autonomously for centuries,” writes restaurant owner Fetlework Tefferi in her book Ethiopian Pepper and Spice. “Farmer families have entrusted the seeds of their crops as well as ancient cultivation processes from father to son, while family spice blending from mother to daughter for generations on end.”

In order to ensure that the dozens of indigenous spices and herbs used in her beloved Oakland restaurant retain their authentic flavor, Tefferi has been passionately supporting the local farmers and dairywomen of Modjo, Ethiopia since 2009.

Fetlework Tefferi holds Ethiopian-grown coriander. photo: Anna Mindess

Café Colucci owner Fetlework Tefferi holds Ethiopian-grown coriander. Photo: Anna Mindess

Several times a year, Tefferi travels to her native land, where a majority of the population is still farming and much of the land has not yet been exposed to the chemicals that would burn the earth. Her goal: to help local farmers thrive using their traditional agricultural methods by ensuring they receive training in everything from irrigation to recycling.

Tefferi tries to enlist the aid of local agronomists to show farmers how to install drip-irrigation systems so they can grow more crops — instead of just waiting for the rainy season. She also supplies stainless steel pots so that women (the traditional dairy farmers) can still make butter by hand, but more efficiently than with traditional clay pots.

Encouraging them to help her fill the growing demand for authentic Ethiopian spices and other food products not only benefits the farmers, Café Colucci’s diners, and the customers of her online spice store, Brundo, it completes a cultural circle that connects Tefferi to her homeland.

When she was still a teenager, Tefferi’s parents decided it would be best to send her to the U.S. to live, considering the situation in Ethiopia at the time. Her mother, who stayed in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, gave Tefferi a precious package to begin her new life in Michigan: five plastic bags sealed with wax, containing the five most important spice blends that bestow on Ethiopian food its characteristic intensity and flavor.

Tefferi kept the treasured bundles of spices in the freezer of her new home and sprinkled tiny amounts of them onto the unfamiliar (and “bland”) American dishes she was served. Sparingly used, these spice blends lasted for two years, preserving a vital link to her lost homeland and family, and fueling a persistent passion in Tefferi’s life to share the ancient food ways of her native culture.

Over the past 20 years, Tefferi’s award-winning restaurant has introduced thousands of diners to intensely flavored dishes such as doro wat, azifa and buticha, served traditionally atop spongy crêpe-like disks of injera — and always eaten with the hands.

Berbere, the heart of Ethiopian cuisine takes two dozen ingredients and two weeks to make. photo: Anna Mindess

Berbere, a blend of more than twelve spices and the heart of Ethiopian cuisine, takes two weeks to make from scratch. Photo: Anna Mindess

It is hard to overstate the importance of spice blends in Ethiopian dishes. Far from adding a sprinkle of flavor at the end of cooking, they constitute the deep soul of the cuisine, and their creation is considered an art.

Berbere, for example, a crimson blend of more than a dozen spices (each family would have their own recipe) takes at least two weeks to prepare. After the peppers are washed, deveined, trimmed and seeded, they are sun-dried. They are then crushed, sifted, and blended with sacred basil, rue, ginger, garlic and shallots. Honey wine is added to make a thick paste, which is sealed in an airtight container for several days. The paste is again sun-dried and other lightly toasted spices (such as fenugreek, black cumin and cardamom) are added. Finally, the mixture is lightly roasted on a clay griddle and, after cooling, milled into a fine powder.

Sixty-five kilometers from Addis Ababa, Tefferi recently built a spice-processing facility, in Modjo, a city that boasts warm breezes, beautiful flowers and rich soil. There, she employs local women to pick, dry and blend the traditional herbs and spices she then imports to sell or use in her restaurant.

“It is thanks to Café Colucci’s customers that we are able to support our work in Ethiopia,” she acknowledges gratefully.

Tefferi speaks passionately about her dream and mission: to preserve and share traditional ingredients and cooking methods from her 3,000-year old Ethiopian culinary heritage, especially the variety of spice blends that are essential to preparing meat and vegetable dishes. On her trips to Ethiopia, Tefferi sees these traditions slipping away as younger Ethiopians turn to fast food.

“We have to help the traditional cuisine live, or it will die, killed by a common palate – burgers,” she said.

Ethiopian souff (safflower seeds) used in salads, mustard, dips and digestive drinks. photo: Anna Mindess

Ethiopian souff (safflower seeds): used in salads, mustard, dips and digestive drinks. Photo: Anna Mindess

A quiet manner belies Tefferi’s many accomplishments and steely determination. Besides setting up the spice-processing facility and organizing trainings, she also oversees her restaurant, its sister shop, cooking classes in Oakland, a catering business and the online store. A common thread runs across all these ventures: the need to use Ethiopian-grown spices.

“I’ve tried doing blind-taste tests with turmeric, cumin, and cardamom from Safeway. There is no comparison,” says Tefferi bluntly. ”They taste completely different from those grown on healthy Ethiopian earth.”

Tefferi is careful to balance her relationships with her farmers, buying no more than 40% of any one family’s production and encouraging entrepreneurship.

“It’s a win-win situation. We help farmers by introducing new technology so that they can deliver more good food both in Ethiopia and here,” she said.

She hopes her facility will serve as a model for other similar sites around the country.

Brundo staff in Modjo with?. photo by: ??

Brundo staff in Modjo manually sift grains for impurities. Photo: Fetlework Tefferi

And for those who are inspired by Tefferi’s initiatives, there are ways to get involved. Tefferi needs volunteer trainers with experience in organic farming, cultivation, packaging, small-farm irrigation or food processing who are willing to travel to Ethiopia.

“Come for six weeks,” she said with a warm smile. “I can provide food and lodging. We would welcome people who can observe and improve our methods to affect change and help the environment.” If interested, contact her at tefferi1@gmail.com

On February 1, 2015 she officially launched  Brundo International, the spice processing plant in Mojo, Ethiopia.

Tefferi's brand new plant opened on Feb. 1, 2015 in Modjo, Ethiopia. Photo: Brundo.

Tefferi’s brand new plant opened on Feb. 1, 2015 in Modjo, Ethiopia. Photo: Brundo.

Tefferi also offers catering and Ethiopian cooking classes in Oakland. For more information, visit the Brundo Ethiopian Spices website.

NOSHA version of this article first appeared on 1/21/15 on Berkeleyside .com

Posted in Ethiopian food, Immigrants' stories | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Handmade Tofu and Mochi Keep Traditions Alive in San Jose’s Japantown

Handmade mochi and manju from Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San Jose Japantown. Photo: Anna Mindess

Handmade mochi and manju from Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San Jose Japantown. Photo: Anna Mindess

Amy Nozaki pats the jiggly block of tofu she has just uncovered after pressing it in a wooden crate and pronounces it “perfect.” She and her husband Chester run The San Jose Tofu Company, which may be the last local shop to make tofu the traditional way, completely by hand. This physically demanding, time-consuming process creates creamy blocks of utter freshness: sweet, silky, slightly nutty bean curd that is as far from those chalky chunks packed with preservatives in plastic tubs as a loaf of Acme’s Pain au Levain is from Wonder Bread.

San Jose’s Nihon Machi, a long, wide city block, is one of only three Japantowns nationwide. (The others are Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and San Francisco’s Japantown — which I previously profiled on an Edible Excursions tasting tour).

Chester Nozaki, whose grandfather started San Jose Tofu Company. Photo: Anna Mindess

Chester Nozaki, whose grandfather started San Jose Tofu Company in 1946. Photo: Anna Mindess

On my recent foray to San Jose’s Jackson Street, nestled among the gift shops, ukulele stores, ramen and sushi spots, I discovered two culinary cultural gems run with devotion by husband and wife teams: the Nozakis and the Kumamarus.

The San Jose Tofu Company was started in 1946 by Chester Nozaki’s grandfather and passed down to Chester’s father. Although Chester had worked in the shop as a boy, delivering fresh tofu on his trusty red Radio Flyer wagon, as the second son he had no plans to follow in his father’s footsteps. In fact, he was studying industrial engineering. But when his older brother declined to inherit the tofu company, Chester dropped out of college and stepped in to help his father. He met his future wife, Amy when she was a waitress at a Japanese restaurant down the street from the tofu shop. Amy, originally from Taiwan, turned out to have an innate talent making tofu and eventually joined the family team.

The mild-mannered Chester tells me about a turning point in his life, “When I was in my 40s, customers began asking me if I was ever going to take over the business.” Emboldened, Chester informed his father that he didn’t want to wait until he was 64 years old to take the reins. As an oblique answer, his father immediately handed over the ledger book and described how he should make payments to vendors.

Once he was in charge, Chester’s first thought was to automate the business in order to produce more tofu. His father, in his characteristic soft-spoken manner, made it quite clear that this was not an option. Nowadays, Chester is in charge of PR and the business side, while deferring the cooking duties to his wife’s skill and intuition. Amy, clad in boots and apron, deftly navigates the slippery floor in the open kitchen, a simple set-up that allows the steady stream of customers to view the entire tofu-making process.

Amy Nozaki in a few of the steps involved in making tofu by hand. Photo: Anna Mindess

Amy Nozaki in a few of the steps involved in making tofu by hand. Photo: Anna Mindess

With the vagaries of weather and over 200 possible varieties of non-GMO soybeans, there is no ironclad recipe for length of cooking and pressing. “It all depends,” says Amy explaining that she does everything by feel. After the beans are soaked overnight, ground with the help of the shop’s lone machine (a bean grinder), they are cooked in water, then transferred to a hand-operated bean press which liquifies the ground beans into warm soy milk. A natural coagulant, nigari, is added to the soy milk. Armed with a large paddle, Amy stirs the curds in a huge pot until just the right consistency is achieved, then scoops them into wide rectangular wooden crates, lined with cheesecloth. These are covered with wooden mats and heavy weights for about a half an hour until they reach the desired density. Amy then turns out the scored tofu blocks to bobble in a cool water bath and hand cuts them into cubes.

Two years ago, the Nozakis added a new product to their line, a softer textured “tofu pudding” which comes with a brown sugar and ginger syrup, a traditional Taiwanese combination. This popular sweet sells out quickly every day.

Many of the customers are regulars who come into the shop armed with their own plastic tubs to transport their delicacies. The Nozakis sell to a few nearby markets but without any preservatives their tofu is at its best for only a few days. A while back, Iron Chef Morimoto visited the shop while he was setting up his restaurant in Napa. When he tasted the Nozakis’ tofu he was impressed with its sweetness and informed them he would serve it at his restaurant as long as they could deliver to Napa. Chester smiles ruefully and explains that he had to turn down the Chef’s request as his tiny family business didn’t have the resources to make such deliveries.

Batches of the Nozakis’ fresh tofu are produced all day long and usually sell out completely. “Quality is more important than quantity,” Chester says modestly. “Back in the store’s heyday we were producing up to 1600 blocks a day (versus the millions made by automated production companies). But the economic downturn had an impact and now we average 400-500 blocks a day. Our customer base is changing too as elderly Japanese customers are thinning out. But we are getting more Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese consumers as well as a few Caucasians and Latinos.”

When I take my precious bundle of tofu home, I decide to let its pure fresh taste shine through and so prepare it in the simplest fashion: topped with grated ginger, chopped scallions and a drizzle of soy sauce.

The freshest tofu deserves the simplest preparation. Photo: Anna Mindess

The freshest tofu deserves the simplest preparation. Photo: Anna Mindess

Puffy Sweet Treats

In a modest shop down the street from the Nozaki’s tofu shop, a long glass case holds jewel-toned gems of sweetness: enticing orbs of pink, mauve, and gold. In the back room of Shuei-Do Manju Shop, I meet Tom and Judy Kumamaru and learn the secrets behind these traditional Japanese treats. The couple sits amiably across from each other in the humid, sweet-scented room, like they have for 27 years, with a glowing pastel blob of hot rice flour mochi between them, their hands a blur of movement: pinch-stuff-fold-roll-pinch-stuff-fold-roll. They produce 800-1000 sweets a day: puffy pillows of rice flour mochi, glowing green yokan jelly cubes, strawberry chichidango or golden baked manju—most stuffed with the traditional red adzuki bean or white lima bean fillings, in a variety of shapes and combinations.

Judy and Tom Kumamaru have made mochi together for 27 years. Photo: Anna Mindess

Judy and Tom Kumamaru have made mochi together for 27 years. Photo: Anna Mindess

Before they started making these soft sweet clouds, the couple fabricated other things. Judy was a dental technician fashioning false teeth and Tom manufactured printed circuit boards. With the looming prospect of layoffs in their future, they became interested in the idea of owning their own business.

Shuei-Do Manju Shop (the name literally means “gathering place”) has been around for 62 years and was established by another husband and wife team: the Ozawas, who ran the business for the first 35 years and were friends with Judy’s parents. One day while the four elders were on a fishing trip, Judy’s parents (who were big fans of the store) remarked that when the Ozawas retired, maybe one of their children could take over their business.

During the ensuing negotiations, the Ozawas promised to train Tom and Judy for the first 6 months of ownership, but there was just one snag. They refused to let them see the back room where the actual labor occurred until the deal was signed. “Maybe they thought we would get scared to see how much work it really took,” quips Judy smiling.

Tom, who was born in Japan and came to California when he was 4 years old, grew up in Stockton, where his father worked as a gardener and tofu maker. He wasn’t particularly fond of sweets. Now his days are filled with them. The beans for the anko fillings must be soaked overnight, then cooked, strained and pressed. He cooks the bean fillings, whips the hot rice mochi so it will have the proper elasticity and helps his wife roll out multitudes of little balls.

Stuff mochi ball with sweet bean filling. Repeat 800 times a day. Photo: Anna Mindess

Stuff mochi ball with sweet bean filling. Repeat 800 times a day. Photo: Anna Mindess

Tom and Judy make 18 different kinds of manju and mochi, including a wildly popular variety for the traditional Japanese celebration of “Girls’ Day” in March—sakura mochi with textured pink rice wrapped in a cherry leaf. Although you can find boxed mochi in stores from Japantown to Costco, like the Nozakis, the Kumamarus use no preservatives, so their products are at their best for just a few days (but Tom says you can freeze them). They sell to a handful of stores and have a standing order with Apple. Steve Jobs had such an affection for handmade mochi that he told his chef to fly to Japan to procure some. A bit of research turned up Shuei-Do just 10 miles away, where Apple still has a standing order twice a week.

“Converting to machine-made mochi and manju is tempting; we could make maybe 2000 pieces an hour,” says Tom, “but then we would lose our uniqueness. It’s important to carry on the tradition of working hard so that Japantown does not lose its special flavor. What makes me happy is seeing how customers react to their first taste,” adds Tom, who was impressed to learn that many of his patrons hailed from countries across the globe, including Germany, Australia and Saudi Arabia. His rice flour treats also attract Asian customers, whose own cuisines feature similar rice flour sweets, including Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Mochi balls' sweet bean fillings. Photo: Anna Mindess

Mochi balls’ sweet bean fillings. Photo: Anna Mindess

The classic Japanese filling is sweetened bean paste, but that doesn’t stop customers from making other requests. “People ask us to fill them with berries or chocolate,” says Judy, “but we prefer to stick to the traditional.” The one concession they’ve made is a crunchy peanut butter-filled mochi that achieves the perfect balance of sweet and salty.

Perhaps not surprisingly in the 21st century, neither the Nozakis’ nor the Kumamarus’ children (who are all in their 20s) have expressed any interest in taking over their parents’ businesses, so the future of these two cultural gems is uncertain, which makes their traditionally-made tofu and mochi all the more precious.

San Jose Tofu Company
175 Jackson Street
San Jose, 95112
(408) 292-7026

Shuei-Do Manju Shop
217 Jackson Street
San Jose, 95112
(408) 294-4148

KQED's Bay Area Bites

A version of this post first appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites, June 16, 2014. I am thrilled that it’s been the most popular piece I ever posted and has brought customers to the lovely shop owners who shared their stories with me.

Posted in desserts and sweets, food artisans, handmade, Japanese food, Japantown, San Jose | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Lunar New Year, the Horse Gallops in with Traditional Foods of Tết

Giant painting at Oakland's beloved Vietnamese restaurant Le Cheval (French for "Horse") welcomes Year of the Horse.

Giant painting at Oakland’s beloved Vietnamese restaurant Le Cheval (French for “Horse”) welcomes Year of the Horse. Photo: Anna Mindess

As the Tran family gathers to celebrate the Lunar New Year–which officially started last Friday but is often celebrated for many days–they share wedges of thick, sticky rice filled with peppery pork and mashed mung beans (banh chung), slices of a cold cut made from chopped pig ears and snout (gio thu), pickled vegetables, and perhaps some fish in a caramelized kho sauce. When friends and relatives come by to visit, there will be endless cups of tea, served with dried fruits and nutty sweets.

Happy New Year proclaims this box of nut and seed cookies, a traditional snack for the Vietnamese celebration of Tet

“Happy New Year” proclaims this box of nut and seed cookies, a traditional snack for the Vietnamese celebration of Tết. Photo: Anna Mindess

These traditional foods are specific to the Vietnamese observance of the Lunar New Year known as Tết. The ancient holiday shares the annual date with the Chinese New Year and both cultures cherish similar traditions of buying new clothes, decorating recently cleaned houses and giving gifts of money in red envelopes. Yet at the essential family get-togethers to honor ancestors and exchange wishes for luck and prosperity in the coming year, the treasured dishes enjoyed around the holiday table vary considerably.

A festive bundle of banh chung, the quintessential Vietnamese Lunar New Year dish.

A festive bundle of banh chung, the quintessential Vietnamese Lunar New Year dish. Photo: Anna Mindess

In the Bay Area, with its large Chinese population and their early arrival as immigrants, Tết, (as well as Lunar New Year celebrations in the Korean, Singaporean and Indonesian communities) seems to get eclipsed by the older and more well known Chinese New Year parade and events.

Owner of Oakland's Le Cheval, Son Tan, was born in the Year of the Horse.

Owner of Oakland’s Le Cheval, Son Tan, was born in the Year of the Horse. Photo: Anna Mindess

What better place to honor the lively equine spirit of the Year of the Horse than Oakland’s Le Cheval Vietnamese restaurant? I recently met with owner Son Tran, who was born in the year of the Horse and started the restaurant with his mother and other members of their large family. When they were trying to decide on a name for their restaurant more than twenty years ago, Tran told me, they thought a Vietnamese word would be too hard to pronounce, English would sound too American, and finally agreed that French, the language of the older generation and an artifact of France’s almost century of colonial rule, could convey just the right tone. Son’s astrological sign became the moniker of his family’s popular restaurant, which was sealed by his lucky find of a huge painting of stampeding stallions that defines the proud spirit of this beloved, downtown Oakland restaurant.

Since the “Horse is a highly intuitive animal,” says astrologer Susan Levitt, “people born in Horse year follow their hunches. Their keen judgment and natural intuition often help them make the right decisions throughout their life.” The Horse personality has also been noted for its independence, stubbornness and refusal to accept failure.

These traits undoubtedly helped Son Tran meet the challenges that came his family’s way when, in 2010, after 20 years as a prize-winning, neighborhood institution, Le Cheval lost its lease, was forced to close and had to lay off 70 workers due to a clash with their contentious landlord (who was later found guilty of massive wage fraud and other crimes).

When the building went into foreclosure and then auction, the Trans’ luck finally turned around and they were asked back by the new owner. In 2012, Le Cheval re-opened to the acclaim of neighborhood regulars who couldn’t wait to once more enjoy their bowls of pho, claypot rice, calamari salad, succulent beef cubes and complimentary creamy carrot soup in the same cavernous space on Clay Street beneath the soulful stares of its iconic herd of horses.

Banh Chung, the must-have dish of Tet, sticky rice stuffed with peppery pork, is eaten fresh, dipped in a bit of sugar or fried.

Banh Chung, the must-have dish of Tet, sticky rice stuffed with peppery pork, is eaten fresh, dipped in a bit of sugar or fried. Photo: Anna Mindess

Tran explained to me the story behind the most ubiquitous Tết dish, banh chung, hefty brick-like packages of pork and rice. In the Vietnam of olden times, shops and businesses would close for at least the first three days of the New Year, so townsfolk needed food to last them till the markets reopened. These blocks or cylinders of stuffed rice, were wrapped with banana leaves, neatly tied up, and then boiled for upwards of eight hours. Although some people made them at home, their labor-intensiveness compelled most families to stock up on premade bundles to enjoy for at least three days, either freshly cut or fried until crispy.

Many Chinese New Year dishes represent good luck by their shapes. A whole chicken, for example, symbolizes family togetherness and dumplings resemble golden ingots. Others take advantage of sound puns. The word for fish “yu” can also sound like “surplus” which portends prosperity in the coming year.

The same principle operates in the  Vietnamese language. Tran tells me it is important to have a Tết display in the home with budding flowers and the following fruits: mangosteen, coconut, papaya and mango, because their names also sound like other words that convey a message. For the answer to this riddle, I turned to Professor Dzuong Nguyen, who teaches Vietnamese language courses at Stanford University.

He revealed that:

    • The word for Mangosteen sounds like the verb “to pray.”
    • Coconut sounds like “barely”
    • Papaya sounds like “enough”
    • Mango sounds like “to spend”

So this fruit quartet conveys the concept of “Wishing to earn just enough to spend” (or “Here’s hoping you make enough money to cover all your household expenses”).

Sweetened dried lotus seeds are another popular snack for Tet.

Sweetened dried lotus seeds are another popular snack for Tết. Photo: Anna Mindess

Award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher Andrea Nguyen, describes many traditional festive foods like banh chung and kho, (simmered meat or fish cooked in a caramelized sauce of sugar and fish sauce) that are prepared ahead of time and preserve well “…because during Tet, you’re supposed to be out having fun not slaving away in the kitchen!”

Son Tran told me about other festive foods, including a kind of sausage made from chopped pig ear and nose, formed into cylinders by packing tightly in cans. Pickled vegetables, such as mustard greens, daikon radish, carrot and cabbage, help with digestion of the fatty meats.

Tea and sweets, like these nutty cookies, are served to family and friends when they come to visit.

Tea and sweets, like these nutty cookies, are served to family and friends when they come to visit. Photo: Anna Mindess

Since an essential element of Lunar New Year celebration involves visiting friends’ and relatives’ homes, one must have an array of sweets on hand to serve the parade of guests. Nuts and seeds figure in many of these because, Professor Nguyen ventures, in old Vietnam, nuts were seen as a luxury item, so treating your guests to them was a special gift.

Watermelon seeds made even more lucky by red coloring. Photo: Anna Mindess

Watermelon seeds made even more lucky by red coloring. Photo: Anna Mindess

Both the flesh of the watermelon and its seeds are eaten, for their lucky red color. Dried fruits are also traditional snacks to be shared with visitors over a cup of tea. “Sweet foods are important for this holiday,” Professor Nguyen explains, ” because we are always wishing each other a sweet and happy life.”

This Sweet Fortune Snack Tray contains candied winter melon, carrots, yam, kumquats and soursop.

This “Sweet Fortune Snack Tray” contains candied winter melon, carrots, yam, kumquats and soursop. Photo: Anna Mindess

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! Happy Lunar New Year!

It’s not too late to celebrate the Year of the Horse at Le Cheval

Le Cheval will host their annual Lunar New Year celebration on Sunday February 9 at 7pm with Lion Dancers and Martial artists entertaining guests inside the restaurant. Reservations are recommended: 510-763-8495

Le Cheval
Address: Map
1007 Clay Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Phone: 510-763-8495
Facebook: Le Cheval

KQED's Bay Area Bites
A version of this post first appeared on KQED.org Bay Area Bites

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Don’t Poison Your Guests: Tips for Hosts on Food Allergies, Intolerances and Sensitivities

New challenge for hosts: pull off a delicious dinner without knocking off your guests. Illustration: Lila Volkas

New challenge for hosts: pull off a delicious dinner without knocking off your guests. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Illustrations by Lila Volkas

As her friend spooned a ladle of steaming, scalloped potatoes onto Tara’s plate, he murmured, “Oh, I always put a bit of flour in the sauce, I’m sure a little won’t hurt you.”

“Yeah, right,” replied Tara, who has celiac disease and had provided her host with a complete rundown of her extreme intolerance to gluten, “if you want me to end this evening in an ambulance!”

Modern menus have turned into minefields, as it seems that everyone and their little brother asserts their sensitivity to something: nuts, wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, fish–even cilantro. Suddenly, it’s puzzling or even perilous to invite people over for a simple meal. What’s the difference between a trendy, personal preference and a life-threatening condition and what can we serve that all our guests will enjoy without a trip to the ER?

Many people are sensitive to bell peppers. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Many people are sensitive to bell peppers. Illustration: Lila Volkas

When I cook for friends, I always inquire about their dietary restrictions, because I have a collection of my own: bell peppers make me burp, and dairy, wheat, and soy cause painful bloating. But luckily, my food intolerances are not the same as allergies and thus are easily managed. Lacking the right enzymes to digest these foods, I do best just avoiding them, but I’ve also found some workarounds.

Smaller fat molecules make goat milk easier to digest than cow milk. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Smaller fat molecules make goat milk easier to digest than cow milk. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Goat milk, for instance, is much easier to digest than cow’s milk because it contains less lactose and its fat molecules are one-fifth the size of those in the bovine beverage. So I only pig out on goat cheese. If a friend offers me a tempting slice of her homemade pumpkin bread, I can pop a couple of enzyme pills, which usually do the trick. And even if I unknowingly consume a bite of wheat or dairy, while I might be uncomfortable for the rest of the evening, it won’t send me to the hospital.

Not so for my friend Rachel, who has severe allergies to a host of foods, especially fish and nuts. These extreme allergies run in her family and compel her to carry a self-injecting dose of epinephrine, which might just save her life.

Scientists cannot yet explain the recent rapid growth in the number of people (especially children) who suffer from potentially fatal food allergies. Nearly 15 million Americans have a moderate to severe food allergy. This now includes 1 in every 10 preschoolers, a rate that has more than doubled in the last decade.

These life-threatening allergies are a disorder of the immune system, in which the body sees the allergen as a foreign invader and mobilizes its forces to attack by releasing histamine and other powerful chemicals that trigger allergic symptoms, such as nausea, hives, itching, swelling, and shortness of breath.

Even a sharing a kiss with someone who just ate fish is enough to unleash a vicious anaphylactic reaction. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Even a sharing a kiss with someone who just ate fish is enough to unleash a vicious anaphylactic reaction. Illustration: Lila Volkas

It only takes a tiny bit of the offending food to unleash anaphylaxis which can lead to death in a matter of minutes. Even kissing a person who just snacked on sushi or polished off a PB & J is enough to spark an onset of dire symptoms.

With more children suffering from severe allergies, their parents try to cope by taking full control of everything their children put in their mouths–a daunting task. But recent news of a new therapy has shown promising results in desensitizing even those with multiple allergies.

When my friend Rachel was in her twenties and had a battery of allergy tests, her doctor noticed obvious positive results for allergies to many fish, but didn’t see a reaction to salmon and so recommended that she cautiously experiment with it. The next time Rachel and her husband went out to dinner, he ordered the grilled salmon and she dipped her fork into a drop of salmon juice run-off, but the minute it hit her tongue, Rachel immediately felt a tell-tale itching sensation on her lips. Her husband rushed her to the hospital and she made it just as her throat was dangerously starting to swell.

Now, Rachel picks her restaurants carefully (avoiding fish-forward cuisines like Japanese or even Thai, where fish sauce is a common ingredient although it’s not always listed on the menu). She informs waiters and friends that she cannot have any nuts or fish or even anything that came in contact with these foods.

“Sometimes people just don’t understand the severity of this condition,“ Rachel tells me. “Last summer, I was invited to a friend’s barbeque and although he assured me he would be preparing chicken and burgers, when I arrived I saw a plate of fish sitting by the grill. I was horrified. My friend had good intentions, but didn’t understand that cooking my chicken next to his fish could cause an allergic reaction. In the end, to my immense relief, he decided not to cook any fish that night.”

For those with celiac disease, gluten acts like an alien invader and tramples the villi in their small intestines. Illustration: Lila Volkas

For those with celiac disease, gluten acts like an alien invader and tramples the villi in their small intestines. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Celiac disease is another autoimmune disorder, but one that targets the small intestines. Gluten destroys the villi, which are fingerlike projections lining the small intestines, where the vitamins and nutrients from the foods we eat are supposed to get absorbed. Continued exposure to gluten often wreaks havoc on the entire body.

My friend Tara only discovered she had celiac in her mid-30s, after a lifetime of assorted complaints (skin problems, arthritis and digestive issues). After a few months on a trip in India, (with its rice-based diet), her symptoms inexplicably improved. But when she returned to California, they worsened. A clever doctor made the connection and the diagnosis.

“Twenty-five years ago, there weren’t many resources for those who have to eat gluten-free,” says Tara, “but thankfully now there is so much more awareness, gluten-free products even restaurants with gluten-free menus. “And Mariposa Bakery in Oakland,” adds Tara smiling, thinking about their cupcakes.  Tara has become an expert gluten-free baker herself so that she does not have to feel deprived.

For both my friends Tara and Rachel, getting invited over to someone’s house for dinner necessitates preparation and backup plans. They let their hosts know their dietary restrictions and often offer to bring a dish to share. If they are going to a large event where it won’t be easy to know for sure what possible allergens are in the food, they may eat something at home first, or bring an emergency back-up snack, just in case.

Like my problem with peppers, some food sensitivities don’t fall neatly into the categories of intolerance or allergy. Take the great cilantro divide. Genetics seems to determine whether we love the fragrant green leaves or find their flavor reminiscent of soap.

And while the focus here is on medical conditions, strongly held personal preferences and practices — from veganism to the Paleo diet — can be just as fervently followed and thus present their own set of hosting hurdles.


What are the best ways to deal with this array of possible food proscriptions? It depends on the size of the group you are cooking for. If it’s an intimate dinner for a couple of friends, you can probably make the whole meal conform to their dietary needs and thus be assured of a relaxed evening for everyone. Here are some other strategies if you are coordinating a large potluck or serving a buffet for 100.

Thoughtful hosting: a make your own salad bar. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Thoughtful hosting: a “make-your-own” salad bar. Illustration: Lila Volkas


  • Ask guests re: dietary restrictions before you plan your menu. If you are unsure of the specifics of their sensitivities, ask clarifying questions.
  • Keep the labels, boxes and bags of foods you used, so guests with allergies can check them out. Sometimes they will recognize a benign sounding ingredient as potentially harmful.
  • On a buffet table: a card next to each dish, detailing ingredients will be much appreciated.
  • Since even a small amount of an allergen can make people sick, avoid cross-contamination of utensils, dishes and cutting surfaces with offending foods.
  • A “make-your-own” bar for salads, tacos or ice cream sundaes, etc. will allow guests the freedom to include or avoid ingredients.
  • Provide questionable add-ins in separate bowls, each with its own spoon, to avoid cross-contamination
  • For a potluck or buffet, set aside a corner of the table for g/f, nut-free, vegan, etc. so these dishes can be grouped together.
  • Read labels. There may be hidden ingredients that you are not aware of, (e.g., regular soy-sauce contains gluten; while wheat-free tamari does not).
  • Don’t take it personally, if a friend declines to try your prize-winning ceviche or sculpted marzipan fruits.

KQED's Bay Area Bites

A version of this post first appeared on KQED Bay Area Bites on December 26, 2013

Posted in Food allergies, Politeness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making Chevre with a Cheese Whiz, San Francisco’s Own Milkmaid

Goat cheese platter, Berkeley Cheeseboard Collective. Photo: Anna Mindess

Goat cheese platter, Berkeley Cheeseboard Collective. Photo: Anna Mindess

I’m gaga for goat cheese. When I saw a little sign at Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective announcing a goat cheese class, I was all over it. On a recent evening, two dozen eager, cheese-maker-wannabes were welcomed by platters laden with dates, pears, persimmons and several varieties of goat cheese to get us in the mood. The Bonne Bouche, with its squiggly gray, ash-ripened crust and pungent creamy interior disappeared quickly among this herd of goat cheese lovers.

Louella Hill, SF Milkmaid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Louella Hill, SF Milkmaid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Then we met our instructor, the lovely Louella Hill, better known as the SF Milkmaid, who, in her old fashioned milk maid cap looked like she just stepped out of an illustration from a 19th century book of nursery rhymes.

Hill told us that her love affair with cheese started on a sheep farm in Tuscany, twelve years ago and then waxed poetical on her obsession:

“Cheesemaking is an art form that asks for patience. It’s a puzzle that challenges your brain and asks you to trust time. It encourages us to embrace the invisible microbial world, and that can’t be rushed.”

Then, on to the basics of her simple, but versatile recipe that is suited to making soft, fresh chevre or a complex, molded cheese. The fresh chevre we would go home with could be eaten in a day or so, or left to age with a pinch of added mold spores (geotrichium candidum) to turn it into a distant cousin of the Bonne Bouche.

Scooping the curds from the whey.

Scooping the curds from the whey.

With an animal lover’s tender gaze, Hill confided that cheese is better from a sheep, cow or goat with whom you have a personal relationship. But if you don’t happen to have your own goats and hillside, she recommends buying Summerhill Dairy Goat milk. And the only other ingredients needed are cultured buttermilk, and a drop each of calcium chloride and rennet (both available at the Cheese Board).

That led us into a serving of science, (including: coagulation, effects of homogenization, temperature, fat globules…etc.) but Hill’s explanations made these technical aspects easy to digest. She showed us a simple method to mix everything in the goat milk bottle, but instructed us to combine by gently tilting the bottle back and forth several times, instead of shaking. In order to help solids clump together and get rid of excess water, the milk mixture needs to rest quietly for about 12 hours (and not near a radio with a booming base, Hill cautioned).

When she brought out a pot she had made the day before, we got to ladle the curds from the whey into cheese molds to let finish draining in our own kitchens. Hill offered us the probiotic-rich, leftover liquid whey to take home and drink, put in our gardens or use to start another batch of cheese. (And I finally understood what Miss Muffet was eating when that insistent spider took a seat beside her.)

Plastic cheese mold vs. cheesecloth draining. Photo: Anna Mindess

Plastic cheese mold vs. cheesecloth draining. Photo: Anna Mindess

As an alternative to using a plastic cheese mold, with holes for the whey to continue to drain out, Hill demonstrated the tradition of tying up the cheese in–what else–cheesecloth.

She also showed us how to sprinkle already formed cheese rounds with ash or, for an added zing, wrap them in booze-soaked fig leaves.

 Wrapping goat cheese in booze-soaked fig leaf. Photo: Anna Mindess

Wrapping goat cheese in booze-soaked fig leaf. Photo: Anna Mindess

San Francisco Milkmaid Information:

SF Milkmaid classes
Twitter: @sfmilkmaid
Facebook: San Francisco Milk Maid

Upcoming classes include:

Louella Hill has a book coming out next May from Chronicle Books, called Kitchen Creamery, with 30 recipes for home cheesemaking.

My chevre comes home. Photo: Anna Mindess

My chevre comes home. Photo: Anna Mindess

KQED's Bay Area Bites
A version of the post first appeared on KQED.org, Bay Area Bites

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Gruesome Goodies: Halloween Bentos to Make for your Little Bats and Ghouls

Frankenstein bento, with cheese ghost and persimmon pumpkin. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Frankenstein bento, with cheese ghost and persimmon pumpkin. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

I’ve always loved the spooky aspects of Halloween — its spiders and skeletons — and reveled in the creative challenge of sewing costumes and decorating the house. But I’ve never been crazy about the forced candy overdose. When my daughter Lila was little, I tried various ideas to part her from her ton of sugar. (Did you know there’s a Candy Monster who will buy back your trick-or-treat loot if you leave it on your doorstep overnight?)

Lila has always appreciated my cute culinary creations. Now she’s away at college, but I still enjoy playing with food and I finally discovered the perfect antidote to candy mania: Halloween bento boxes — whimsical, packed lunches with healthy, attractive food that tempts your kids to taste new things and eat their veggies.

Vampire egg bunny and sausage fingers with red pepper nails. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Vampire egg bunny and sausage fingers with red pepper nails. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess


In Japan, the tradition of charmingly aesthetic food fabrication is taken quite seriously (with more women in the work force, it will be interesting to see if this cultural trend continues). You can read more about this Japanese tradition and view slides at PBS’s The Meaning of Food.  A brief excerpt:

A typical mother spends almost an hour crafting every lunch into a healthful, beguiling blend of cartoon characters, flora and fauna — anything that will make the food appeal to her child. The teacher judges whether the lunch box is prepared according to obento rules (e.g., the food must be as handmade as possible, and it must be appetizing and aesthetically appealing to the child).

Bentos often highlight the season or a coming holiday. Although Halloween trick or treating is not practiced in Japan, the nation that is wild for cosplay loves to dress up and Halloween is sneaking into advertisements and decorations, thanks in part to Disneyland and Universal Studio theme parks in Japan.

Boo!: nori black cat, soba noodles, olives and pickle. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Boo!: nori black cat, soba noodles, olives and pickle. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Not just for kids

The practice of bento lunchbox making has now been adopted around the world. Bentos’ popularity is due, in part, to the fact that they encourage healthy, mindful eating and are environmentally friendly — since there is no extra packaging to throw away. Adults often appreciate the portion control in pre-made lunches for weight loss. And taking the time to prepare an attractive meal definitely is a sign of love, (even for yourself).

Surfing the Internet, I discovered a lunchbox artist, who goes by the name of Gamene. Although she has moved on to a different job now, the former Manhattan attorney explained her motivation for making these edible works of art:

“…while at the law firm, Gamene found the work environment to be chaotic and often stressful… by taking the time to prepare healthy, colorful, and artistic lunch boxes, she guaranteed herself at least one moment of harmony during her busy work day.”


Really, you don’t need any special tools or equipment, just a sharp knife and a little patience. That said, there is a ton of stuff out there either made specifically for bentos or available at your local art, hardware or dollar store. Optional helpers: cookie cutters, hard-boiled egg molds, rice molds, divided boxes, silicone containers, fancy toothpicks.

Optional tools include an Exacto knife, cookie cutters, egg mold and containers. Photo: Anna Mindess

Optional tools include an Exacto knife, cookie cutters, egg mold and containers. Photo: Anna Mindess

Locally, a cheap place to buy bento-paraphernalia is the $1.50 store, Daiso. There’s one in Berkeley, one in SF Japantown and others in the larger Bay Area.

A little more classy assortment can be found at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market Gift Shop.

Mummy of cheese-wrapped raisin bread, turkey patty witch. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Mummy of cheese-wrapped raisin bread, turkey patty witch. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

If the Internet doesn’t provide enough inspiration, Amazon lists hundreds of books on the subject. Number one on their list is The Just Bento Cookbook by Makiko Itoh, whose twin websites, Just Bento and Just Hungry, I visit often. They have deservingly won wide acclaim. Here is a post on Halloween bentos by Makiko.

 Graveyard with rice cracker tombstones set in hummus, jicama bones. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Graveyard with rice cracker tombstones set in hummus, jicama bones. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

You don’t have to make special food items for bentos; left-overs often serve well, with a little decoration. The unwritten rule seems to be that each bento should contain a well-rounded meal with protein, carbs, fruit and veggies.

In making my Halloween bentos, I found the following useful tips:

  • Persimmons sliced through the middle make great pumpkins
  • Pre-sliced jicama is perfect for bones and picket fences
  • Nori (dried seaweed) can be used for the bats, black cats, eyes and other accents (most easily cut with a very sharp pair of sewing scissors)
  • Olives, pickles, grapes, pimentos can make assorted facial features
  • Hummus works well as “glue”
  • Even though I don’t usually buy them, sliced cheese in pre-wrapped squares comes in handy
  • A slice of red pepper studded with teeth (of cheese or slivered almonds) looks just like “wax lips”

Happy Halloween Lunch making! (Hmm…I wonder if Lila would appreciate a bunny hard-boiled egg when she comes home for Winter break?)

Avocado monster with cheese accents. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Avocado monster with cheese accents. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

KQED's Bay Area Bites

A version of this post first appeared on KQED Bay Area Bites

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Icy or Spicy? Cooling Foods Across Cultures

In summertime, some like it cold and some like it hot. Left photo: Managementboy, wikimedia commons; Right photo: McKay Savage, Flickr

In summertime, some like it cold and some like it hot. Left photo: Managementboy, wikimedia commons; Right photo: McKay Savage, wikimedia commons

Like a dripping popsicle in an overheated toddler’s hand, I’m melting in Kyoto’s sultry, summer streets. Luckily, my friend Tomoko knows the perfect thing to revive me: a cooling lunch of icy noodles at a restaurant perched atop a cascading mountain stream. The only hitch — and part of the fun — is that we’ll have to catch our somen noodles (with chopsticks, of course) as they whiz down the cold water rushing through a bamboo tube. Nagashi Somen or “flowing noodles” is a traditional treat to cope with Japan’s sauna-like summers. Some families erect a backyard bamboo course to delight the kids — as in this video.

Catch your noodles before they get away. Nagashi Somen, Kibune, Japan. Photo: Anna Mindess

Catch your noodles before they slip away. Nagashi Somen, Kibune, Japan. Photos: Anna Mindess, Tomoko Yoshihara

Near Kyoto, just one restaurant serves this summertime-only, snatch-your-noodle-experience. Tomoko and I take a 20-minute train ride and a 10-minute bus ride to the village of Kibune, nestled in a forested valley. Then we walk up a narrow mountain road, past picturesque inns and high-end kaiseki restaurants set on platforms over the gushing river. Even though it’s an uphill trek to the last eating spot at the top of the path, the forest’s shaded greenery, undulating thrum of cicadas and refreshing river air feels revitalizing — plus it’s twenty degrees cooler than in the city.

This popular restaurant adds a stainless steel gutter inside the traditional bamboo pipe — perhaps for ease of cleanup or added speed? The crowd of diners are seated ten at a time at the noodle bar and treated to bracing breezes from nearby dramatic waterfalls. As the server brings us each a bowl of dipping sauce and pair of chopsticks to nab our noodles, she points out which of the several pipelines are assigned to which diners and the fun begins as slippery strands zoom by hungry patrons. Squeals of delight or frustration are heard all around, followed by murmurs of enjoyment.

Tomoko is seated “downstream” from me, so she can snag a clump of noodles if I miss it, which I do on the first round. Then she shares her strategy: stand the ends of the chopsticks in the water to act as a dainty dam. It works! My chilled nest of noodles, dipped in tangy sauce, tastes even better for having caught it. Once we all get the hang of it, the challenge is to grab your noodles, take a photo, dip and eat before the next bundle comes whizzing by. You can watch all the diners attempting this juggling act. After a dozen or so rounds, a last tangle of pink noodles silently slides by to announce the final serving.

On our journey back to the city, I ask Tomoko what other foods are eaten in Japan’s meltingly hot summers. Besides cold noodles (somen, reimen and soba), she tells me that unagi is supposed to supply strength to withstand the withering weather. Plus cooling sweets such as mizu-yokan (a jelly made with red adzuki beans) and shaved iced desserts like kakigori, flavored with green tea or other syrups.

Even though our rare Bay Area hot spells are short and blessedly dry,” I start to wonder about “cooling foods” in other cultures. So I ask a few Bay Area connections to share their wisdom. (This is just a sampling of cultures. Please feel free to add your favorites).

Sweet and Icy. Left: Halo-halo, photo: tumbler??. Center: Kakigori, photo: Chris 73, wikimedia commons. Right: Ice Kachang, photo: Anna Mindess

Sweet and Icy. Left: Halo-halo, photo: tumblr. Center: Kakigori, photo: Chris 73, wikimedia commons. Right: Ice Kachang, photo: Anna Mindess

Sweet and Icy

Aileen Suzara, educator, natural chef and environmental justice advocate, who often writes about Filipino cuisine at Kitchen Kwento,  suggests the classic Filipino icy treat, halo-halo, “literally a mix-mix” with a range of possible ingredients. The layered medley may include jackfruit, kaong palm fruit, pineapple gelatin, red beans, a scoop of shaved ice, toasted rice pinipig or ube (purple yam) ice cream, topped with evaporated milk, leche flan and strands of coconut.

This reminds me of Ice Kachang, a mountain of shaved ice, doused with syrups and toppings, which I sampled on a trip to Singapore, another steamy city. Korean Pat-bing-soo also features shaved ice, topped with sweet red bean paste and mochi. And of course, even a day in the 70’s would be an excuse for San Franciscans to head over to Bi-Rite Creamery for a scoop of their salted caramel or balsamic strawberry ice cream. Ironically, this article in Time reveals that slurping ice cream actually heats up the body, thanks to its fat content. (Oh, now I know why SF is such an ice cream-crazed city — it makes us warmer!)

Soup (cold or hot)

While we’re on the subject of chilled dishes, people in many countries enjoy cold soups during the hottest months — think Spanish gazpachos, Swedish fruit soups, and French-inspired vichyssoise. Yet, on the opposite end of the culinary continuum, diners in other cultures prefer to sip hot summer soups for their cooling properties.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune featured Korean summer foods, like Sam gye tang (Ginseng Chicken Soup).

“Boiled chicken in a steaming stone bowl may sound like the last thing you crave on a sweltering, 90 percent humidity afternoon. But that’s exactly what Koreans line up for during the summer doldrums. Sam gye tang is young chicken or hen stuffed with glutinous rice, garlic, jujube (a prune-y maroon date), ginseng and sometimes ginger, then simmered in its own fat and juices. The two vital “warming” ingredients, ginseng and garlic, are meant to inject you with nutrients lost to excessive sweating, as well as regulate blood flow and metabolism.”

Wok-wizard and acclaimed cookbook author, Grace Young, grew up in a traditional Chinese home in San Francisco. In The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen she presents “the brilliant harmony of Chinese cooking” as an ingenious system to mitigate the effects of external as well as internal heat. “Unlike the Western practice of drinking iced beverages to cool the body,” Young explains, “hot soups are often drunk in the summer in China.”

Young includes recipes her mother and aunt would routinely make during hot weather, including Herbal Winter Melon Soup with adzuki beans, and Soybean and Sparerib Soup with ginger. She explains that these soups are “tonics” and sipped for their healing properties, rather than consumed as a meal. Young recalls that growing up in her Cantonese family’s home, a bowl or two was drunk at mealtimes, in place of water, milk or soda. She also notes that these  “yin-yang concoctions” are “an acquired taste” and change with the seasons.

Heat from Spice is Nice

It’s not just the warm temperature of the food, but the heat from spices (especially peppers) that many cultures employ to beat the heat. Vinita Jacinto, chef and cooking teacher, who writes at The Spice Whisperer  shares that in India, certain herbs and spices (like cumin and cayenne) promote perspiration to naturally cool the body. “Spicy food is a natural way to keep cool in the tropics,” she says.  One of her favorite hot weather beverages is  Jal-Jeera, a spiced lemonade she prepares with toasted cumin powder, mint, cilantro, black salt and raw sugar or agave.

Vinita Jacinto, the Spice Whisperer

Vinita Jacinto, the Spice Whisperer, photo: Anna Mindess

Because of its replenishing, high water content, watermelon is a natural hot weather favorite around the world. Jacinto amps up watermelon’s cooling capabilities by sprinkling chunks of fruit with a mixture of dry mango powder, black salt, ginger powder and garnishing with chopped mint. An additional summer drink she suggests is a salted buttermilk lassi with toasted cumin and muddled mint. “Its protein fights off heat exhaustion as it rehydrates the body,” counsels Jacinto.

Another devotee of the power of peppers is Nico Vera, who chronicles the drinks and cuisine of Peru in his blog Pisco Trail.  “During Peruvian summers [November-March], when Lima is hot and humid,” Vera says, “the most cooling dish for lunch is ceviche: fresh fish, lime juice, onions, salt, hot peppers, and a cold beer make quite the combination. I suspect that the hot peppers also act as cooling agents, in that they make one perspire and cool off.”

Japanese inspired Peruvian Ceviche by Nico Vera

Japanese inspired Peruvian Ceviche, photo by Nico Vera

Traveling full circle back to Japan, Vera comments that, “Peru has a tremendous abundance and variety of fish. But not until the arrival of the Japanese 100 years ago, did Peruvians truly become interested in seafood. Thanks in large part to their profound appreciation for fish, the Japanese transformed how Peruvians prepared and ate Ceviche, making it one of Peru’s most culturally significant dishes.” Here is his recipe for Ceviche Nikkei.

With our quirky Bay Area weather patterns, we often get our warmest days in early fall, so you might just want to keep some ice and spice handy.

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version of this post first appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites

Posted in Chinese food, Filipino food, Indian food, Japan, Japanese food, Korean food, Peruvian food, Singapore | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment