Mazatlán’s Endless Seafood Fiesta

Victor, the oyster man

Victor, the oyster man

It’s early morning and I’m perched on a plastic stool near Mazatlán’s stunning seashore, squeezing lime juice on a plate of oysters that were awakened–rather rudely, I suppose–from their oyster beds only moments ago. Victor, the proprietor of this makeshift beachside oyster bar, squats on a rock, shucks the freshly caught oysters and serves them on paper plates with cut limes and bottles of hot sauce. He has worked these waters for the past 33 years with his brothers, uncles, nephews and cousins, as his father did for 52 years. I learn this through the interpreting skills of my friend Dianne, an American who has called Mazatlán home for the past five years. As we slurp our oysters, Victor tells us that since the emptied shells have larva on them, they return them to the ocean to regenerate a new harvest.

oyster diver

oyster diver

The divers, some of whom wear wet suits, take floating inner tubes fitted with nets out into the sea and armed with sharp tools, dive down to the oyster reefs to harvest the shellfish, while holding their breath. When their nets are full, they trudge back onto shore with 50 kilos of scratchy shells on their backs and fill large mesh bags with shellfish that will be sold wholesale to restaurants. Also benefiting from their catch are lucky customers like us who walk up to enjoy the freshest oysters in the world for less than 50 cents each.

ceviche with lime

ceviche with lime

Later, during brunch at the restaurant of my hotel, the gorgeous El Pueblo Bonito, we begin with mimosas and shot glasses of fresh shrimp ceviche. As soon as I place my purse on the floor, however, a pleasant server rushes over with what looks like a very short coat rack and indicates that this is the place my purse should go. Dianne, an intercultural consultant who has lived all over the world and is the founder of a training program called Cultural Detective, knows there’s a cultural reason behind this action. “It’s bad luck, isn’t it?” she gently prompts the server, who confides, “Yes, if you put your purse on the floor, all the money will run out.” From then on, I am on the lookout for more percheros and find most restaurants provide them in styles to match their décor (simple white wood, gleaming aluminum, wrought iron or bright turquoise curlicues).

pelicans wait for lunch

pelicans wait for lunch

Fortified, we’re off to visit some fish markets. Dianne and her husband Greg take me to the simply named Mercado de Mariscos, a basic strip of concrete stands near the docks that the fishermen share with about a hundred pelicans. While the freshly caught fish are gutted and cleaned, pelicans clamor for the scraps they know are coming. The fish laid out here are mostly bought by local residents (not a tourist in sight).

Mercado de Mariscos

Mercado de Mariscos

Then we head downtown to the large indoor market called Pino Suárez. On the way, I can’t resist some neon-hued coconut candy from a street vendor’s cart, which we all munch on while perusing the market’s many stands.

coconut candy

coconut candy

Underneath gaily dancing piñatas, shops sell all manner of spices, seeds, nuts, fresh cheeses, kitchen goods and dishes, more coconut candies and cones of piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar). We get tastes of the huge orange slabs of smoked marlin.

smoked marlin

smoked marlin

The next day, we take a non-fish related excursion to Las Labradas, a UNESCO world heritage site and clamber over boulders to see the ancient petroglyphs carved on volcanic rocks that line the shore 30 miles north of Maztalan. No one has yet deciphered the meanings of the 600 water-worn, thousand-year old carvings, but like the petroglyph fields I visited in Hawaii, they exude a special energy. Dianne tells me that the spring equinox is celebrated here by traditional dances from a group of Indians who wear deer headdresses (Mazatlán is a Nahuatl word for “place of the deer”).



A group of us have lunch at Los Arcos — a cheery seafood restaurant where shrimp is queen. The meal starts with appetizer platters heaped with fresh shrimp, octopus, chunky scallops, and ceviche with lime. (I notice that lemons are nowhere to be found in Mazatlán but tiny, tangy limes are a tasty substitute.) We all order variations on the shrimp theme: deep fried “seahorses” stuffed with cream cheese and breaded with coconut, shrimp in mango sauce, tamarind sauce, spicy red or green sauces.

shrimp and more shrimp

shrimp and more shrimp

After touring some artists’ galleries and a nice siesta, we meet for dinner at La Costa Marinera, a festive spot where Dianne and Greg held their wedding rehearsal dinner many years ago. Their specialty is a mariscada seafood platter served atop a large, pig-shaped clay pot that keeps the food warm. We enjoy grilled shrimp, oysters diabla, lobster, dorado filets, frogs legs, accompanied by a singing waiter and large pink margaritas.

shrimp ladies of Mazatlan

shrimp ladies of Mazatlan

On my last morning in Mazatlán, Dianne and Greg take me to the visit the “Shrimp Ladies” — Changueras — whose colorful umbrellas line a street called Aquiles Serdán. Tubs and tubs of brown shrimp, blue shrimp, white shrimp, fresh water, deep-ocean and farmed shrimp are kept cool with large chunks of floating ice. Maria del la Paz has been working on this street for 30 years and arrives daily at 3am to buy her shrimp from the fishermen; then sells her wares to housewives and restaurant owners until 7 or 8pm. As her experienced fingers peel shrimp at lightning speed, she tells us that her father also sold shrimp and she hopes her daughters will soon get a coveted spot at this shrimp shopping center.

Dianne mentions that ordering a “shrimp tamale” will get you a masa-encased shrimp with head, legs and shell, which you are expected to eat. She has learned to order a tamale “gringa style” to have it peeled first. Greg points out the establishment across the street where you take your freshly purchased shrimp and have them prepared to order, so we pick out a few dozen shrimp and enter the diner that is still empty this early in the morning. (Greg says at night it’s a guy-hangout filled with boisterous men with beer). After ordering one plate of garlic shrimp and another a la diabla, the welcoming aroma of garlic quickly fills the dining room as we see flames leap around the pan on the range. I toast my friends and thank them for showing me a little of their Mazatlán–a seafood-lover’s paradise, thanks to more than 20 miles of beaches, the ocean’s generous bounty and the labors of all the unsung oystermen and shrimp ladies.

(Now I understand why in my search for the best fish taco in the East Bay, one of my favorite contenders was an Oakland taco truck called “Mariscos Sinaloa.” Mazatlán is in the Mexican state of Sinaloa).

(Full disclosure: The writer was a guest in Mazatlán courtesy of the Sinaloa Tourism Office)

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Watermelon and Pomegranate to celebrate Persian Longest Night of the Year

watermelon and pomegranate for Yalda

watermelon and pomegranate for Yalda

I am slicing up watermelon cubes to bring to a party — not the usual dish for a December celebration, but this is a special event, the Persian fête for the longest night of the year, called Yalda.

Knowing my interest in food and culture, my new friend, Monier Attar, owner of  Zand’s Market on Albany’s Solano Avenue, invited me to accompany her to a party at The Golestan Center, her granddaughter’s Persian-immersion pre-school on Berkeley’s Fifth Street.

I first met Monier last spring when I noticed an intriguing display table in her shop for another Persian secular holiday, Norooz, which honors the first day of spring. Monier kindly answered all my questions about this ancient celebration and I wrote an article about it. Continue reading

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Ancient Ethiopian Cuisine Honored with a Limited Run At Guest Chef

Selome Haileleoul cooks traditional Ethiopian dishes served on injera

Selome Haileleoul cooks traditional Ethiopian dishes served on injera

I’m perched on one of five bar seats with a ringside view of the open kitchen at The Guest Chef in Oakland, where Selome Haileleoule and sous chef Showit Woldu adorn injera draped platters with mounds of fragrant spiced stews and salads, creating edible palettes of brightly hued Ethiopian classic dishes. Selome looks completely at home in the kitchen and as she warmly greets guests, but this is the first time the assistant financial controller with San Francisco’s Clift Hotel has taken on the role of restaurant chef and that’s the charm behind The Guest Chef.

The intimate space on Oakland’s College Avenue seats no more than 25 diners and features a rotating roster of chefs who serve everything from California cuisine, Classic French or Italian to the exotic food of the Azores. The usual run is a two-week stint for the caterers, recent culinary school graduates, aspiring chefs and grandmothers who dream of cooking at their own restaurant. Chef-hopefuls must complete an online application with their concept and menu and then do a tasting try-out for Guest Chef owner Scott Cameron. If accepted, the chefs supply all their own ingredients and labor and Guest Chef provides everything else (including a fully stocked kitchen, a cashier and a dishwasher), for a split of the profits.

Selome Haileleoul and sous chef Showit Woldu in Guest Chef's open kitchen

Selome Haileleoul and sous chef Showit Woldu in Guest Chef’s open kitchen

For the past four years, Selome’s passion to share her native Ethiopian cuisine has led her to teach Ethiopian cooking classes, first at Paulding and Company and currently through West Oakland’s Brundo.

Six months ago, she was a diner at Guest Chef when David Hung, the CEO of her sister’s workplace, played co-chef with his daughter Maddy, as a bonding experience before she went to Harvard. The evening proved to be inspirational for Selome. Her run at Guest Chef began November 25, and thanks to an overwhelming response, has been extended for a third week, until December 16.

Selome Haileleoul offers a plate of doro wat

Selome Haileleoul offers a plate of doro wat

Selome named her restaurant Tayitu in honor of the powerful 19th century Ethiopian Queen. Her signature dish is doro wat (chicken in an aromatic, mahogany sauce) that requires slowly sautéing onions for two days (using no oil) until they achieve caramelized perfection. Then she adds berbere, the famous, fiery Ethiopian spice blend.

Spices have always been precious to Selome, I discover, as she shares her compelling story with me. At the age of 16, she was sent by her mother to the U.S. with her sister to escape the political turmoil in her homeland. The young women attended an all-girls school in small town Mississippi. “Mother packed us some dirkosh (dried injera) and berbere (red pepper spice blend) in case we got homesick. I used to sprinkle it on the bland fried chicken, BBQ meats, rice and eggs.”

“We came here in 1974 because of the political situation. When Ethiopia became a communist country, I got completely cut off from my home and was literally stranded. I had attended a British private school in Addis Ababa and spoke English fluently but all the international students at our college were required to take English as a second language–because it was Southern English we had to learn. At first, we were shocked. But they said, ‘Honey, y’all have to learn the language down here.’ It was tough. But I was young, so it was easier to adapt. And Southerners are the most compassionate people. They were all so sad for our mother, letting her girls go so far away.”

Vegan trio: collard greens, yellow split peas, and red lentils

Vegan trio: collard greens, yellow split peas, and red lentils

“It was sad to see in America how poor people are. I come from a poor country but the poverty I saw in America was shocking. Some girls from school invited us for Thanksgiving. Three generations lived in a one-room house like cardboard but they spent everything they had to give us a real Thanksgiving. They were so kind.”

Selome’s father was a Supreme Court Judge in Ethiopia who died when she was 13. Her mother raised 7 girls and 1 boy.

“I want to honor what I learned from my mother and grandmothers’ generations and then pass it on to our next generation: spices, dried and blended the traditional way; it takes passion and patience.  In the old days, people used to make their own berbere and mitmita but now you can just buy them packaged.”

Platter of Ethiopian dishes served on injera

Platter of Ethiopian dishes served on injera

At this point, Selome presents me with the platter she has prepared so I can taste a variety of dishes: diced ahi tuna mixed with mitmita spices, two kinds of lentils, yellow split peas cooked with garlic, ginger and turmeric, shiro (roasted chickpea flour with spices, she describes as “Ethiopian comfort food”), a bright and tangy beet salad, and addictive collard greens. The centerpiece is the doro wat, in whose depth of flavor, I taste history–and an ancient reverence for spice. Each dish has a complex character that is only achieved by skilled spicing and long careful simmering. Selome’s cooking is equal to the best Ethiopian food I’ve tasted.

Vegan vegetables

Vegan vegetables

Selome’s menu of traditional Ethiopian dishes features many vegan options. This is no doubt influenced by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose calendar of “fasting days” (on which no meat or animal products may be eaten) number more than 250 days a year.

The diners at Guest Chef this week have been a mixture of Selome’s friends and co-workers, people who just walk by and Guest Chef regulars who stop in every two weeks to try out the latest chef. Some have never eaten Ethiopian food before and are surprised that no silverware is provided. This is a culture that cherishes eating with the hand.

Food is served the traditional way, arranged on platters of spongy injera and meant to be shared. Rolls of injera are provided and diners are expected to tear off small pieces of the crepe-like bread and scoop up the meats or vegetables with their right hands. “At the end of the day, food tastes better when you eat with your hand,” says Selome. It’s natural.”



With The Guest Chef now booked with eager chefs through March, Scott Cameron seems to have landed on a simple, yet brilliant idea, that elevates a pop-up into a rich dining experience, which is sure to catch on. He and his partner are still scouting for a San Francisco location and “having meetings” to explore the possibility of a reality TV show.

This experience at Guest Chef has made Selome’s secret dream seem more possible: “I would love to have a restaurant like this one, small and intimate. I would get all my spices from Ethiopia and go completely traditional and wash my diners’ hands before the meal by pouring water from a pitcher.”

Next Guest Chef: Dec. 18-23 — Ikeena Reed, Oakland-based caterer who specializes in sustainable, organic, Soul Food dishes.

Guest Chef
Address: Map
5337 College Ave., Oakland, CA
Phone: (510) 658-7378
Facebook: Guest Chef
Twitter: @theguestchef

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A version of this story first posted on KQED Bay Area Bites

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Noriko Nurtures Berkeley Diners with Homey Japanese Dishes

Noriko Taniguchi shares the story of her journey to open her own restaurant

I first met Noriko Taniguchi two years ago as I was examining a package of gray speckled noodles at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market. The pixieish grandmother leaned over her shopping cart and whispered, “Yam noodles — very good for the digestion.” As we chatted, I learned she owns a Telegraph Avenue restaurant that features home-style Japanese cooking and promised to visit.

Two weeks later I arrived at Norikonoko for lunch. Once I figured out how to slide open the restaurant’s traditional wooden door, I was charmed by the cozy interior that resembles a typical Japanese countryside inn, adorned with innumerable tiny treasures, like miniature tea sets and teensy origami cranes and wrote a post on her comforting Japanese home cooking.

Her menu intrigued me with unusual items such as a daikon salad with chirimenjako (tiny dried fish that Noriko sautés in butter to make them crispy).

Golden, crunchy, tiny fish complement cool, crispy, shredded daikon radish.

Recently, I was delighted to be asked to contribute regularly to Berkeleyside’s NOSH  by writing more immigrants’ journeys told through a food lens. This time, when I met with Noriko, she graciously shared her life story. I asked what led her and husband Takumi to open Norikonoko, which, for 18 years, has been serving, as her business card puts it, “homey dishes from Japan.”

“I always wanted to have a little Japanese restaurant,” she tells me while slicing dainty cucumber moons with her favorite Japanese knife, “not another sushi place, but one that served ‘real food’ – what Japanese people eat every day, what Japanese mothers put a lot of effort into cooking to nourish their children.  I cook Japanese food the way it used to be, so young people can be reminded. I love everything about food: buying, cleaning, chopping, cooking and presenting Japanese dishes the way they are supposed to be — as art.”

Noriko was born in Manchuria when it was a Japanese territory. After WW II, when she was five, her family returned to her father’s seaside town. “But life was not easy,” she says pouring me a cup of tea, “So, when I was 14, we moved to California where my aunt lived. I started 10th grade knowing no English. It was challenging but interesting to meet Americans from many different backgrounds. While my mother cooked mostly Japanese dishes at home, I loved discovering new American foods like roast beef, hamburger, corn dogs, meat loaf, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, even Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

During lunch and dinner service, Noriko is a study in perpetual motion: stirring curry on the stove, hand-shaping triangular onigiri rice balls, carefully adorning every dish she plates with a fan of pickles, a sprinkle of carrot shreds or a light shower of sesame seeds.

After high school Noriko attended San Francisco State University where she studied International Relations. She planned to work at the United Nations.

“But I met this man from Tokyo and we got married,” she says. “After eight years away, I wanted to return to my country and relearn my culture, so we moved back to Japan and lived in the middle of Tokyo, where my husband’s parents owned a restaurant. I helped out as a waitress and cashier. Since I spoke English, I was good with American customers. But in Japanese culture, back in the ’60′s and ’70′s, women were not supposed to stand out. My husband’s family believed I should stay home and just be a nice housewife, taking care of our two children. I had other ambitions. When the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1964, I saw an opportunity and hoped to work as an escort to foreign visitors, but my husband and his parents refused me this opportunity and I couldn’t quite understand why.”

Noriko prepares onigiri, traditional filled rice balls wrapped in seaweed.  

While filling a small flower-shaped dish with cooked spinach sprinkled with sesame seeds and little wedges of creamy sweet onion croquette, Noriko says: “Japan is a beautiful country, but I felt it was too small for me. There were so many things I wanted to do, but my opportunities were being erased by the culture. Once you get married, everything you do is supposed to be for the family.”

“I was expected to fit into this narrow box. But that’s not my personality. Plus, I wanted my children to have more experiences, with open possibilities and a broader future. Since my parents and my brothers were here, I decided to move back to the U.S. with my children. I knew my husband couldn’t leave Japan because he was the eldest son and had to take over the family restaurant. It took me almost four years to make him accept why he had to let us go. I felt bad but he finally understood.”

“When my kids were nine and seven, we moved to the Bay Area. It was hard to leave Japan but I’m proud that my son and daughter both graduated college with advanced degrees, are now working independently and happily married here in the Bay Area. I have a grandson and a granddaughter.”

“When we moved here in 1974, I began a series of jobs. The first one was at a bank, but that wasn’t for me. Next I worked at a Japanese travel agency, and finally found a job at UC Berkeley in the housing department. But I always wanted a little Japanese restaurant that I could run by myself.”

On a cold day, a bowl of oden satisfies with a variety of fish cakes and vegetables

“In 1993, when I found I was eligible to take early retirement from UC, I decided to pursue my dream and bought this place to run with my husband Takumi. I met him when I was still living in Tokyo and he came to the U.S. to learn English and pursue his career as an artist. At the same time, he helped me by taking care of my children while I worked. Takumi has also worked at Yoshi’s so he knows a lot about running a restaurant. We opened Norikonoko on April 29, 1994 (the Japanese holiday to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday.)”

For the warming bowl of oden I order, Noriko uses her chopsticks to adjust the vegetables, knotted kelp, gingko nuts and seven kinds of fish cake until they are positioned just so.

Takumi and Noriko make a good team. He cooks the grilled food and she makes the side dishes. Noriko shows me a pair of Japanese cookbooks she uses for inspiration. “Every meal should be balanced, with vegetables, soup, pickles, rice, a main course and 2-3 side dishes.”

Noriko arranges a healthy side dish of Japanese mountain vegetables. 

“Sometimes I have to encourage customers to try their pickles or my variety of side dishes, such as  mountain vegetables, because they’ve never had these before.”

“I try not to serve every customer the same side dishes. I use my intuition to figure what they would like. My pork curry is very special. I learned how to make it at the family restaurant in Tokyo. It takes three hours to make, including two hours in the oven and is so unique that you won’t find it anywhere else.”

“People tell me they like all the little tiny things displayed here, it makes them feel warm. I started putting out some and now customers bring me things all the time. We have many regular customers and I know most of their preferences and try to understand their allergies. The name of our restaurant means “Noriko’s child,” and as soon as customers slide open the door, they are all my children.”

“My life motto is: ‘kiyoku, tadashiku, utsukushiku soshite tsuyoku.’  What this means to me is to live pure, fight injustice and help others while keeping your love, sweetness and politeness. But in the end, be strong enough to stand up for what you believe.’”

This story first appeared on Berkeleyside  November 27, 2012.

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Sugar Skulls and Pan de Muerto Help Celebrate Day of the Dead

skulls bakery
Sugar Skulls from Berkeley’s Casa Latina Bakery

Aren’t skeletons, with their cavernous eye sockets and leering gap-toothed grins, supposed to inspire screams of terror?

Growing up in the central Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende, Adrian Orozco Blair, a 26-year student now living in San Francisco, didn’t find the skeletons that are an integral part of Day of the Dead celebrations to be spooky, “because the skulls were sweet sugar candy and you could eat them. We had an altar in our house with pictures of our cherished ancestors. Lighting the candles was a serious moment of acknowledgement, but the altars were so colorful and full of food that it took away the scariness.” In fact, he still treasures Day of the Dead as “a way the natural cycles of life are celebrated and a time when the existence of death is befriended.”

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) traces its roots to an Aztec festival that merged with the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days. Celebrated in central and southern Mexico on November 1 and 2, families spend weeks before preparing home altars. At midnight on October 31, the gates of heaven are believed to open so that the spirits of deceased children may reunite with their families for one day. Altars are decorated with toys, candy, chocolate, little glasses of milk and small sugar skulls. On November 2, the adult spirits descend to enjoy the festivities and the altars may be set with tequila or the corn-based drink atole and favored personal objects of the deceased. In the afternoon, families move the celebration to the cemeteries, to clean graves and reminisce about their departed loved ones while enjoying a feast.

Regional traditions influence the exact make-up of the altars, but common elements include candles, marigolds, incense, photos of the deceased, cut-out paper banners, fruit, candied pumpkin, mole sauce, stacks of tortillas, pan de muerto (sweet egg bread, fashioned with a bone-shaped top) and decorated sugar skulls. These last two edible items caught my fancy and after a little looking, I’ve complied a list of places to buy or learn to make sugar skulls and pan de muerto or celebrate Dia de los Muertos in the coming week.

eleanor of ethnic arts
Eleanor Hopewell, owner Ethnic Arts

At Berkeley’s Ethnic Arts — a shop much more like a museum — amid Indonesian shadow puppets, African masks and Indian painted silks, stands a traditional Mexican altar set with candles, sodas, fruit and figurines of skeletons in a myriad of guises from bride and groom, to “lady of the night” and even dog and cat skeletons. The altar is decorated with cut-out tissue paper panels, surrounded by marigolds and day-glo colored skulls. Nearby is a large table set with pre-made sugar skulls and everything to decorate your own: bags of bright colored icing, foil, feathers, glitter and sequins. Owner Eleanor Hopewell has been offering this table of materials to children and adults in the community for 25 years.

DIY sugar skull
DIY sugar skull decorating for kids and adults $5/skull at Ethnic Arts

Hopewell, who has traveled extensively in Mexico, was struck by the fun, festive spirit of Oaxaca’s candle-lit processions to the cemetery, the bright colors and sharing of good memories that accompany inviting the spirits of loved ones to come back and visit. A picture of Hopewell’s own mother is placed on the altar because, “Mom always loved a good party.” Hopewell tells me the mood of the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations she experienced was not gloomy but upbeat and inviting. “It’s common to write the dead person’s name on one sugar skull and your name on the other. It’s not morbid, it serves as an invitation to show you want their spirit to come and be with you.”


Where to Buy or Make your Own Sugar Skulls and Pan de Muerto and Celebrate the Holiday

East Bay

Ethnic Arts — decorate your own sugar skull — $5 during store hours 11-6 (good to call ahead as local school groups may be there)
1314 Tenth Street, Berkeley (moving to 2236 San Pablo in mid-Nov)
(510) 527-5270

bread bakery
Pan de Muerto topped with “bones” from Berkeley’s Casa Latina Bakery

Casa Latina Bakery — Pan de Muerto, decorative sugar skulls and small edible chocolate skulls.
1805 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley
(510) 558-7177


Oakland’s Unity Council sponsors its 17th annual Dia de los Muertos Festival on Sunday October 28, 10-5, Fruitvale Village, features live music, Aztec dancers, altars and more.

North Berkeley’s Dia de los Muertos Celebration on Friday November 2, from 5-9pm promises a candlelight procession led by Aztec dancers. Revelers are encouraged to wear costumes or giant paper mâché heads.

pan de muerto
Pan de Muerto

San Francisco

A print shop on Mission Street called Autumn Express is offering a skull decorating workshop Tuesday October 23 from 5-6pm

La Victoria Panaderia on 24th Street will bake Pan de Muerto throughout the month.

La Cocina is hosting an evening exploring the Day of the Dead food and culture connection at their Folsom street center in the Mission on Wednesday October 24, 6:30-9pm with one of the graduates of their incubator program, Chef Luis Valdez, a fifth-generation Yucatecan bread maker and co-owner with his wife of Chaac Mool food cart and catering. Chef Valdez will teach participants how to make traditional breads and other dishes for Day of the Dead. The event includes dinner and drinks.

On November 2, 6-11pm — San Francisco’s Annual Procession and Festival of Altars at Garfield Park sponsored by The Marigold Project

skull fabric

A version of this piece was first posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites

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Aileen Suzara Cracks Open Filipino Cuisine in Coconut Cooking Class

Aileen Suzara

Coconut is the new pomegranate. Touted for its health benefits, it’s popping up everywhere. Electrolyte-rich coconut water has replaced Gatorade as the new sports drink and claims abound that coconut oil boosts the immune system, thyroid and heart. But the reason I took the Cooking with Coconut class at Oakland’s Asian Cultural Center (OACC) was less about health and more about taste. I’m cuckoo for coconuts (the unsweetened natural stuff). I also wanted to broaden my knowledge of Filipino cuisine, beyond adobo and lumpia.

I know it’s risky to spread the word on the insider cooking classes at OACC, because they may all sell out before I get a ticket, but this is an amazing hidden pearl for DIY ethnic food fans: intimate hands-on workshops, most priced under $50 for a three-hour class that includes lunch. (A few months ago, I savored Thy Tran’s Steamed Asian Sweets class at OACC.)

When I arrived in OACC’s kitchen on a recent Sunday and surveyed the ingredients for Cooking with Coconut arranged on tables around the room, I was puzzled by the absence of the familiar brown hairy globes. Turned out we were using young or immature coconuts, which take the form of squat white cylinders with pointed tops.

young coconuts Collage

Aileen Suzara, a 2nd generation Filipina American, guided eight of us through three coconut-centric recipes from her culture:

Binakol: a chicken soup, featuring fresh coconut water, shallot, garlic, ginger, mushrooms and young coconut slices.

Laing: a green vegetable dish traditionally made with taro leaves, coconut milk and chilis. Suzara opted for fresh kale leaves instead of taro and upped the ante with coconut cream, plus plenty of garlic and ginger.

And for dessert, Palitaw: simple rice flour dumplings rolled in sesame seeds and chopped coconut.

To round out the meal, she shared some precious heirloom black rice a friend had brought back from the Philippines.

Against a background of resounding drumbeats from OACC’s Lion Dance class next door, Suzara demonstrated the ease of cracking open the stocky, young coconuts. A few decisive whacks of a cleaver, and coconut water came gushing forth. Then she showed how easy it is to scoop out the soft, slimy white flesh with just a spoon. While some of us scraped out coconut meat, others chopped ginger, as directed by Suzara, “in pieces big enough to slap you in the face with a burst of ginger.”

busy hands

As soon as Suzara spooned a dollop of coconut oil into the hot wok, followed by the chopped shallots, ginger and garlic, a symphony of aromas filled the room. Chicken thighs browned and then slowly simmered in the coconut water collected from the half-dozen young coconuts. Black peppercorns, and lemongrass were added to the soup and finally oyster mushrooms and the white coconut meat.

adding coconut Collage
Adding coconut cream to the laing and young coconut meat to the binakol

Suzara, who encouraged us to cook with our senses instead of relying exclusively on recipes, modeled how to cheerfully roll with the punches of a few kitchen mishaps. These “teaching moments” — as she referred to the pop-up surprises — included: a little cut here, a minor burnt wooden board there and a rice flour mixture that was too liquid, so she changed desserts mid-course.

serving time
Our lunch of binakol, laing and palitaw

While we enjoyed our collectively created lunch, Suzara shared a little about herself. After studying environmental science, she worked with non-profits on environmental re-education, catered Filipino cooking and completed a program at UC Santa Cruz in ecological horticulture.

She is active in social justice and agricultural education and wants to help her community make wise food choices. She cites the impact that 400 years of Spanish and US colonization has had on the traditional Filipino diet, resulting in, for example, a switch to refined flour and convenience foods and fried dishes which were traditionally enjoyed for just for special celebrations (like lumpia) that have become defining dishes of the cuisine.

(This reminded me of a similar struggle in African American food culture portrayed in the film, Soul Food Junkies.)

As we cleaned up the kitchen, I interviewed Suzara about how she learned to cook Filipino food, her involvement in agricultural education and her future plans.

aileen Collage

Why did you pick coconut as the focus of this class?

Coconut is close to my heart. My father is from Bicol, a region of the Philippines famous for its coconut dishes, so cooking with coconut is in my blood. In the Philippines, coconut is called the “Tree of Life” because you can use every part of it. Its trunk and leaves provide building materials and home décor, its oil is used in beauty products and is very healthy for cooking, coconut sugar is better for diabetics and coconut milk is used all over South East Asia, the Philippines and the Pacific Islands.

I grew up in five different states but spent my adolescence on The Big Island Hawaii, so I ate the local coconuts there. When I was a high school freshman, they held a school “Olympics” with running and swimming events but somehow, even though I was the scrawniest 14-year old, they put me in the coconut cracking and husking competition. Of course, I was slower and lost to a bunch of big boys, but I got the process down.

Did you learn to cook Filipino specialties from your parents?

Yes and no, I’m somewhat self-taught. My hardworking parents worked long hours as a nurse and doctor. When I was about eight, they gave me free reign in the kitchen and I started cooking for the family. At first I did scrambled eggs but later moved on to soups and stews. Then I found some old Filipino cookbooks, including one that my mom brought when she immigrated at 23. It was in English but there were all these words for ingredients that I had never seen before. I wanted to learn what it all meant.

Growing up, meals were flavored by my parents’ ‘post-WWII diet’ of American imports — things like Spam, Vienna sausage, corned beef — and of course, fish and rice. So that’s the kind of thing they cooked. But when I was eight, we took a trip back to the Philippines and I met my grandparents and extended family. They took me to these huge markets. I tasted everything and fell in love.

Didn’t you just come back from living and working on a farm?

Yes, first, I spent six months in an apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz in ecological horticulture. (Here’s a video from the Filipino channel interviewing Aileen about her experience working on the organic farm.)

ADOBO NATION. Sustainable Farming. from Jeremiah Ysip.

And I just returned from Pie Ranch, an educational farm in Pescadero with a youth program that teaches young people to learn where their food comes from. I helped care for their 250 chickens, goats and 15+ acres of wheat, squash and other crops.

What are some of your future plans?

If there’s anything I learned from experiences in the food world, it’s that we need more culturally relevant models. I hope to be part of developing new programs to engage Asian-Pacific youth. Filipinos have a long history of leadership in the food movement that, unfortunately, not enough people are aware of. In the early 1900s, thousands came and worked on California farms. And while many people have heard of the United Farm Workers, they may not know of Filipino organizers like Larry Itliong, who worked alongside Cesar Chavez and co-founded the movement.

I’d like to grow traditional ingredients used in Filipino cuisine and work with my community for more access to healthy fresh food and on health issues linked to food. It’s the immigrant paradox, as what we may now think of as a typical Filipino diet has steered away from plant-based foods, which have always been part of our traditions–one reason why heart disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension have all become so common.

I just moved back to Oakland. This week, I start my new job as Garden Coordinator for a green school program at a San Francisco elementary school.

Watch for Aileen Suzara to teach more classes at OACC and share her cooking in a pop-up sponsored by Oakland’s People’s Kitchen to celebrate Filipino American History Month in October.

Aileen Suzara’s website: Kitchen Kwento
Twitter: @kitchenkwento

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

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Food Speaks in Many Tongues – Edible Idioms in 17 Languages

camembert mouth
“Shut your smelly Camembert mouth!” – from the French
All illustrations courtesy Lila Volkas

It was the pungent French insult, shut your smelly Camembert mouth! (ferme ta boîte à Camembert!) that hooked me on my latest obsession: gathering food idioms from different languages. Fellow intercultural explorer Joe Lurie, posted a bumper crop of descriptive FRENCH food phrases, such as these tasty ways to call someone a jerk:

espèce d’andouille!piece of sausage!
une vraie courge!an utter squash!
quelle nouille!such a noodle!

Joe also included these edible idioms:

ramener ta fraise =  to bring your strawberry = to butt in on a conversation
occupe-toi de tes oignons!! = mind your own onions! = mind your own business!
va te faire cuire un œuf! = cook yourself an egg! = go to hell!

As a food writer, interpreter and collector — this is totally my cup of tea!

couch potato
Sofa spud or American “Couch potato”

English has plenty of food-isms too. We refer to others as: the big cheese, a couch potato, or an apple polisher. Or hotly declare, “You’re toast!”

We can also butter someone up with praise such as: “you’re the apple of my eye”, “you’re a peach” or use terms of endearment like honey, sweetie-pie, and sugar.

Just as I became consumed by searching for edible expressions, our summer houseguests from Germany and Argentina arrived. So I peppered them with questions about food phrases in their native languages.

special sausage
“I have to fry you a special sausage” – German

GERMAN  (thanks to Orna Gutmacher)

Extrawurst braten = I have to fry you a special sausage = you always need something extra
Kleine Bröchten backen = bake little rolls = take small steps to start something
Schokoladenseite zeigen = to show your chocolate side = to only see good things
Tomaten auf den Augen haben = to have tomatoes on the eyes = to be blind to something
Ich habe mit dir ein Hühnchen zu rupfen = I have to pluck a chicken with you = we need to talk
Das Haar in der Suppe finden = to look for the hair in the soup = never be satisfied

SPANISH (thanks to Susana Pendzik)

Me importa un pepino = I care a cucumber = I don’t give a fig
Agarrar a alguien con las manos en la masa = to catch someone with their hands in the dough = to catch someone doing something they shouldn’t
Pedirle peras al olmo = to ask for pears from an elm tree = try to do something that’s impossible

Next, I asked two local friends, who enlisted help from their Facebook friends back in Denmark and Turkey and collectively came up with dozens of phrases.

porridge head
“Porridge Head!” – Danish

DANISH (thanks to Kim Aronson)

Nye boller på suppen = we need new (meat)balls in the soup = we need new energy, input, ideas
Pølsearme = sausage arms = you are weak
Grødhovede = porridge head = you are confused, have no brain
En tynd kop te = it’s a weak cup of tea = your case is not very strong

TURKISH (thanks to Suzi Amado)

Incir cekirdegini doldurmayacak sebepler = Reasons that would not fill a fig seed = There aren’t good enough reasons to be upset.
Agzinda bakla islanmamak = A fava bean doesn’t get wet in somebody’s mouth = If you tell this person a secret, they will tell it to others
Her seye maydanoz olmak = Being parsley to everything = Having an opinion and being nosy about everything
Sutten agzi yanan yogurdu ufleyerek yer = If your mouth is burnt by milk, you blow before you eat yogurt = If something bad happens to you, you get anxious about things that are somewhat related, although it doesn’t make sense. This phrase is often used for dating or friendships when someone gets hurt and then becomes very self-protective.
Benim basima gelen cig tavugun basina gelmez = What happened to me would not happen to a raw chicken. This could be used when what happened to me is so weird that it is funny.

Thrilled at the response and variety of food images in different languages, I approached some of the people I’ve written about previously. (It’s helpful that my favorite subject is the intersection of food and culture).

Tomoko Yoshihara, who was such a generous guide on my recent trip to Kyoto, shared these pithy sayings from JAPANESE:

Sansho ha kotsubu de piririto karai, Sansho [a Japanese pepper] is small, but hot enough = Even though a person is very small, if they are cheerful and have talent, you can’t ignore them.
Mochi ha mochi ya, Rice cake, rice cake maker = Each field has an expert.

Lali Ghlonti, (whose Georgian and Russian dishes at the SF Street Food Festival, I recently described) contributed this RUSSIAN saying:

to hang noodles on someone’s ears = to tell them a lie.

Simone Fung, one half of S+S Gastro Grub, the masters of molecular gastronomy I profiled in April, suggested a few CANTONESE phrases:

Chicken feather, garlic skin = irrelevant or worthless things
A jealous person is said be sipping vinegar
Are you made out of tofu? – typically asked of kids who cry all the time

Last March, I interviewed Monier Attar about her Persian New Year celebration. She recently offered this good advice from FARSI:

Whoever eats melon should be ready for shivering = if you do something, you have to be ready to deal with the consequences.

Mostafa Raiss El Fenni, who taught me how to eat with my hands, shared this wise counsel from MOROCCAN ARABIC,

Eda kan hbibak aassel, mat’lehsushi kamel = If your dear friend is honey, don’t lick him all up = “if your friend is very generous, don’t just keep taking from him or her”

And this bit of ironic wit: Rabi aata l’hammus li ma aandu snan God gives fava beans to people with false teeth. He explains, “You need real teeth to chew fava beans. Sometimes people get things they don’t need; while others who can really use it, don’t get it. It’s like a billionaire winning the lottery.”

Then, I turned to my fellow Bay Area Food Bloggers.
Renate contributed this description from GERMAN: Er hat nicht alle Tassen im Schrank = He doesn’t have all of his coffee/tea cups in his cabinet = “he’s a few cards shy of a full deck”

Orly wrote, “In Israel we use a phrase in a mix of HEBREW and ARABIC: Yom Asal Yom Basal = which literally means a day of honey, a day of onions and translates to “a good day, a bad day”.

Another friend, Yardena, shared this from HEBREW: Shikor velo meyayin: Drunk, but not from wine, (meaning, in love).

And Judy Kunofsky from Klez California kindly answered my last minute request with this gem from YIDDISH:

Vi a kalteh kugl af purimlike a cold kugel on Purim (“meaning: when pigs fly or never, because Purim is a Jewish holiday on which you can cook, so no one would ever serve a cold kugel [noodle pudding]”).

Other food bloggers referred me to more than 50 FRENCH sayings complied by Clotilde Dusoulier on her popular blog Chocolate and Zucchini. One example she cites is “Long comme un jour sans pain.”, “as long as a day without bread,” to express that something is very long, especially the duration of an event.”

I was also directed to a terrific collection of ITALIAN food phrases collected by local Vanessa DellaPasqua in her blog, Italy in SF – Intriguingly, I noticed her list includes many phrases about bread:

E’ buono come un pezzo di pane = He’s as good as a piece of bread. = He’s a good person, a really nice guy.

Rendere pan per focaccia = 
To give back bread for focaccia 
= Similar to “an eye for an eye,” it is used metaphorically to illustrate a payback for a suffered wrong.

L’ho comprato per un tozzo di pane
 = I bought it for a piece of bread. 
= It was a real deal, very underpriced compared to its value.

Plus one of my favorites:

C’entra come i cavoli a merenda
 = It fits like cabbage for the afternoon snack 
= It doesn’t fit, it’s inappropriate

cabbage at tea
“Like cabbage for the afternoon snack” – Italian

Not surprisingly, several of the CHINESE food sayings, also compiled by Joe Lurie, refer to rice.

In business, “being handed a rice bowl” is to be hired, while “having your rice bowl broken,” is to be fired.
I love this Chinese bit of wisdom: “if you pick up a sesame seed, you may drop a watermelon,” meaning, if you focus on trivial matters, you may lose sight of important issues.

Then just last week, I met two young Iraqi men who are interning in a local high-tech company for a few months. Wael and Ibraheem were glad to contribute these sayings in IRAQI ARABIC:

He or she is like a tomato =  a compliment for being socially flexible and able to get along in any situation (“because we put tomatoes on everything”)
You’re making a kubba [a fist-sized fried dumpling made of meat covered in rice] out of a bean = you exaggerate too much, or you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

ASL, American Sign Language, can also take its place at the food idiom table with
BRING BREAD BUTTER = earn the money for the family or “bring home the bacon” and
FISH SWALLOW = gullible, as in “Gotcha! You fell for it!” which points up ASL’s historical link to French Sign Language (LSF). In France, April 1 is called “Poisson d’avril” (April fish) and those who are fooled by a prank have “swallowed the fish”.
(Thank you Dan Langholtz, Priscilla Moyers and Nikki Horrell)

The deliciously descriptive food phrases above, representing 17 languages, just whet my appetite. I’m sure there are many more juicy ones from around the world. So, here’s open invitation: Please share your own favorite food phrases and send this on to anyone who might know some from a language not yet listed. Let’s invite everyone to the feast!

My deep appreciation to all the generous friends who got in the spirit of my quest and a special thanks to Lila Volkas, for creating the delightful illustrations above. Lila is an artist and photographer. We last collaborated on a story about Parisian Tea salons.

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

Posted in ASL, Chinese food, Denmark, Food Idioms, France, German Food, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Persian/Iranian, Politeness, Turkey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Drink up the Culture at a Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony


Hiwot Tadesse makes coffee
Hiwot Tadesse makes coffee, the Ethiopian way

Whatever your beverage of choice, I’ve got it covered. My last post was about tea (English style) and thanks to an invitation from a new friend, Fetlework Tefferi, this one is about coffee (Ethiopian style).

Last Sunday morning at 10am, I’m standing in a crowd in the middle of one of the Financial District’s temples to the caffeine-fueled lifestyle. But instead of jittery office workers gulping their lattes, I see an incongruous cultural scene for a downtown java joint. Flanking the gleaming espresso bar, a raised platform is strewn with long grasses and bright yellow flowers, set with baskets, carved wooden boxes and trays of tiny white cups. Just like the mothers and grandmothers of many generations have done before her, a lovely Ethiopian woman in an embroidered dress stirs a pan of coffee beans over a blue flame, while aromatic curls of incense waft across the room.

On the last day of the SF Chefs Festival, 30 attendees (and almost as many photographers) squeeze into Espressamente illy to enjoy a rarely seen ritual that is still practiced in most Ethiopian households, the traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, hosted by Chef Marcus Samuelsson.

Just a few weeks ago, Samuelsson was in town promoting his new autobiography, Yes Chef, and now he returns in one of his many other roles, as an ambassador for illy’s new line of single origin coffees, including one from Ethiopia.

marcus and fetlework
Fetlework Tefferi and Marcus Samuelsson

Ethiopian-born Samuelsson, who grew up in a loving adoptive family in Sweden after becoming an orphan at an early age, returned to Ethiopia only twelve years ago. He is an enthusiastic supporter of authentic ethnic culture for its “tradition, value and meaning.” Samuelsson adds,

“The way to understand a culture is to know what they eat and drink. I didn’t know very much about the Ethiopian coffee ritual when I visited Ethiopia, but now I want to introduce a friend who knows everything.”

coffee Collage
Roasting, grinding and brewing coffee, the Ethiopian way

So Fetlework Tefferi of Oakland’s award-winning Café Colucci takes a bowl with lighted incense and gently waves it among the gathered visitors while a group of women from the East Bay Ethiopian community who work with Tefferi begin to roast the green coffee beans. Two ways of roasting the beans are demonstrated: stirring them on a flat bottomed pan or shaking them in a shallow pan until they sweat and turn a shiny dark brown, being careful not to let them burn. The hot roasted beans are poured onto a flat basket to cool and then passed around so the crowd can appreciate their deep, rich aroma. The next step in the ritual, as narrated by Tefferi, is grinding the cooled beans by hand with a wooden mortar and pestle.

Traditional Ethiopian clay jebena coffee pot

The ground coffee is then boiled with water in a special long–necked, handmade, black clay pot, called a jebena, which Samuelsson remembers seeing sold by artisans in markets on his trips to Ethiopia. When the brew is judged to be ready (which may necessitate some back and forth decanting from the jebena into another vessel), the finished coffee is poured from the jebena held high above a tray of cups, which are then passed around the crowd. Samuelsson advises that this coffee is best drunk black, the better to notice the hints of lavender, citrus and blueberry. As one who usually takes my mug with plenty of milk and sugar, I am delightfully surprised at the smooth, velvety brew. Tefferi adds that in Ethiopia some people may add salt or spiced butter to their coffee. Snacks, such as roasted barley, peanuts, or popcorn are typically eaten with the coffee and a basket of barley and seeds is also passed around the room.

food Collage
Rolls of injera, doro wot with eggs, buffet of azifa and buticha, baklava

After our coffee and roasted barley, Tefferi introduces us to the waiting Ethiopian brunch specialties from her Oakland restaurant and its sister spice store Brundo that line the buffet: inkulal firfir (scrambled eggs with jalapenos and clarified butter), doro wot fitfit, chicken simmered in such a fiery berbere sauce that she cautions diners to be careful, homemade cheese, azifa (lavender hued soft cooked lentils with garlic, onions, lemon) and a pale yellow dish called buticha. “Americans tell me they dream about buticha,” says Tefferi.”People swear there’s cream in it, but it’s actually vegan and really seems to resonate with the America palate.” I try the buticha and Tefferi is absolutely right. It’s a creamy cloud of chickpea flour, olive oil, garlic and onions and a hint of jalapeno, the texture of soft-cooked scrambled eggs. Sweets include traditional dates and baklava-like pastries with pistachios or lavender. As a final touch, glasses of glowing-orange honey wine are handed out.

Ethiopian food is traditionally eaten by hand, served with rolls of injera (a crepe-like bread with which to pick up the meats and vegetables). Although forks are also provided for novice diners, Chef Samuelsson eats his doro wot appropriately by hand, making small bites in ripped off bits of injera.

To complete the hospitality, Ethiopian music fills the room and the women demonstrate a style of dancing where they shake their shoulders with the music. “I’ve been in Sweden too long,” quips Samuelsson, trying to keep up.

As things begin to wrap up, I look at my watch and see that it’s only 11am, even though the event was billed to last until noon. Somehow the coffee ceremony seems to have sped by. So I ask Hiwot Tadesse, the woman who roasted the beans on the platorm, to explain a little more about how the ritual works in her native Ethiopia. “Is this something that happens only after dinner?” I ask.

She smiles and shakes her head. “Coffee happens two or three times a day, morning, noon and night. People leave their doors open and when someone starts to make coffee, the aroma circulates, effectively acting like an invitation for neighbors to drop over,” she explains. Ironically — given our speeded up version — the point of the Ethiopian coffee roasting ceremony is to slow down and take time to chat with friends and family about everything from politics to gossip. The entire ritual, I learn, may take a couple of hours from lighting incense, washing and drying the green coffee beans, roasting them in a special pan, passing them around to enjoy the aroma, grinding them, boiling them with water, then checking the brew by pouring out the liquid and pouring it back for more brewing. The full ceremony consists of serving three rounds of coffee, which each have a distinct name. The third cup is called baraka, which means blessing. Traditionally in Ethiopia, it is only women who make the coffee and part of the ritual is to praise their coffee making ability. Women in Ethiopian households invite family and neighbors for coffee, calling out “Buna Derswal!” (The Coffee is ready).

So the next time I dash in to grab a quick latte, I hope the sweet memories of this measured Ethiopian Coffee ritual will give me pause.

coffee platform

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

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A Cuppa’ Cultural Differences – Taking English Tea and Toast

I’ve just discovered that the way you drink tea in England reveals more about you than you ever imagined. With all eyes on the London Olympics this week, I coincidentally happen to be reading Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by social anthropologist Kate Fox.

It’s an entertaining investigation of scads of unspoken behavioral rules in English culture, including the functions of weather-speak, importance of fair play and “the drama of queuing.” Naturally, I went straight to the chapter on food rules and table manners. As a tea-drinker in our more egalitarian America society, I never thought of my tea taking habits as projecting traits that could be judged by those employing class-conscious radar. (The only judgments I am aware of here in the Bay Area are from inveterate coffee addicts). I was fascinated to read Fox’s accounts of the hidden rules for eating the most mundane meals in England, which illustrate that in a “highly class conscious culture” the way you stir your tea broadcasts your social standing.

For example, Fox reports that “taking sugar in your tea is regarded by many as an infallible lower-class indicator: even one spoonful is a bit suspect…more than one and you are lower middle at best; more than two and you are definitely working class.” Other emblems of lower-class tea drinking behavior include putting milk in the cup first and stirring noisily.

(I must admit I do add sugar to my morning English Breakfast tea. In elementary school, my best friend’s mother was English and often offered me a cup of tea with just milk–-which I turned down (politely, I hope) calling it in my mind, a cup of “mud tea”.)

In England, however, an appreciation of tea’s practically magical properties crosses all class lines. Fox explains: “A cup of tea can cure…almost all minor physical ailments and indispositions from a headache to a skinned knee. Tea is also an essential remedy for all social and psychological ills, from a bruised ego to the trauma of a divorce or bereavement.”

According to Fox, whenever English people feel at a loss for what to do in a socially awkward situation, it’s time to put the kettle on. Encountering a lull in the conversation, dealing with a bad accident where people are in shock, or having to discuss a taboo subject such as money, can all be eased by a spot of tea.

After handling the subject of tea, she moves on to toast and examines a uniquely English object, the toast caddy (which her now-American father joking calls a ‘toast cooler’). The point of the rack (which can be silver, stainless steel or ceramic) is to insure that toast stays dry and crisp, instead of the pile of soggy buttered bread that Americans have for breakfast. “The English would rather have their toast cool and dry than warm and damp,” Fox writes. “American toast lacks reserve and dignity: it is too sweaty and indiscrete and emotional.”

To put the final cultural capper on the subject of toast, she turns her attention to jam. “The darker the colour, the bigger the lumps of fruit, the more socially elevated the jam.”

(I was thrilled to read that the higher classes prefer Dundee bitter orange marmalade. It’s been my favorite since early sleepovers at my Grandmother’s house. Her youth in the commonwealth nation of Canada probably introduced my grandmother to chunky, Dundee bitter orange marmalade and she passed that love on to me with each breakfast we shared.)

Even the way we eat our toast is telling. Instead of spreading an entire piece of toast with jam or butter, Fox tells us that the English “correct (posh) way” is to break off a small piece and spread only that much with jam and then eat it. “It is considered vulgar to spread butter or whatever across the whole slice of bread or half-roll, as though you were making a batch of sandwiches for a picnic, and then bite into it.” The point of this “small and slow is beautiful” principle when applied to food is to avoid appearing greedy and not overly interested in food. “Over-eagerness about food is disgusting and even somehow faintly obscene. Eating small mouthfuls, with plenty of pauses in between them, shows a more restrained unemotional English approach to food.”

Fox acknowledges that, ”In most other cultures, people who care about food and enjoy cooking and talking about it, are not singled out, either sneeringly or admiringly as ‘foodies.’ …Most of us are proud to claim that we ‘eat to live rather than living to eat’ – unlike some of our neighbours, the French in particular, whose excellent cooking we enjoy and admire, but whose shameless devotion to food we rather despise, not realizing that the two might perhaps be connected.”

I imagine if they included Olympic events related to food, France would have a good shot at a medal while England would probably not even qualify, but if they added a competition in polite rule making, England could sweep the gold.

Posted in English food, Politeness | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Saying Yes to Marcus Samuelsson’s Memoir, “Yes, Chef”

Yes, ChefOne of the perks of my position as contributor to KQED’s Bay Area Bites, is getting offered specific stories to write by my editor/producer Wendy Goodfriend. Since my fascination with the intersection of food and culture became apparent (with posts such as Persian New Year specialities, Singaporean sweets, Scandinavian holiday treats and a Palestinian family’s restaurant), Wendy asked me to review the film “Soul Food Junkies”  by Byron Hurt and then the book Yes, Chef  by Ethiopian/Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson. I was delighted to accept these challenges (as a first-time film-reviewer and book-reviewer) and thrilled when I found both works to be extremely well-done and full of fascinating cultural information.

“Food and flavors have become my first language. Not English, not Swedish, not Amharic…”       – Marcus Samuelsson in “Yes, Chef”

Marcus Samuelsson, the award-winning chef and cookbook author who seems to be everywhere at once–including NPR’s Fresh Air, The Today Show and the New York Times’ Best Seller List–spent two days recently in the Bay Area, being fêted at Camino and Jardinière, and reading from his new memoir, “Yes, Chef,” at Book Passage and Google.

The Ethiopian-born chef was raised by a loving, adoptive family in Sweden and went on to garner great success at New York’s Aquavit and to open his own restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem. He recounts his life “chasing flavors” in this compelling memoir, which chronicles his remarkable story, resilient spirit, indomitable work ethic and desire to give back to America, the country he loves and now calls home.

Samuelsson grew up in the port city of Göteborg with a Swedish family that adopted him and his sister after they recovered from the tuberculosis that took his mother’s life in Addis Ababa. Samuelsson’s love of cooking was kindled in his Swedish grandmother’s kitchen, where he describes, “The yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread or the tang of drying rose hips hit you as soon as you walked in.”

With touching candor, he writes that his heart was broken at age 16, when he was kicked off his beloved soccer team because he was deemed “too small.” Samuelsson then decided to become a chef. In the book, he describes how his singular determination helped him work his way up through professional kitchens in Sweden, Switzerland, France and Austria. Besides painting a vivid picture of the rigors of the professional kitchen, he details the subtle discrimination he faced as he tried to advance to a higher level of restaurant, where his Swedish name might get him a meeting with a chef, but seeing his black skin would suddenly change the agenda.

Marcus_Samuelsson author photo credit Kwaku Alston
Marcus Samuelsson, photo credit: Kwaku Alston

His summer working aboard a Norwegian cruise ship was life-changing for Samuelsson as he visited ports of call from Venezuela to Saint Petersburg, always in search of new flavors. He writes passionately of the inspiration he got from tasting local street food: Jamaican grilled fish, Puerto Rican camarones de mofongo and Mexican tacos and how he kept a notebook with ideas for future dishes he might someday create. Aboard ship, he discovered other culinary traditions. “Norwegians were at the top of the heap, and the Filipinos who cleaned and actually ran the boat were at the bottom,” writes Samuelsson, who even though he was black was considered European. The staff mess hall had two menus: one for the Europeans, one for the Filipinos. But Samuelsson always ordered the latter and thus discovered chicken adobo and beef morcon.

Although, he had traveled the world, Samuelsson recounts the moment his plane touched down in New Yorks’s JFK airport, “First thing I noticed was all the black people…second thing I noticed that no one was looking at me differently. No, scratch that: No one was looking at me at all. Right then, I knew I’d come to the right place.”

He came to apprentice at New York’s Aquavit in 1994, and by 1995 was its executive chef and the youngest person to win a 3-star rating from the New York Times. In his work at Aquavit, he incorporated the notes he had taken during his travels. “I wanted to find ways to incorporate the efficiencies of Switzerland, the soulfulness of Austria, the reverence for ingredients I learned in France but I wanted to do it with a Swedish accent.”

In 1999, while still working at Aquavit, Samuelsson got an invitation to return to Ethiopia for an article for Gourmet Magazine. There, he met his father and 18 siblings for the first time. He eloquently describes how fell he in love with Ethiopian cuisine, especially its signature berbere spice blend. “It was both masculine and feminine, shouting for attention and whispering at me to come closer.”

In 2010 he opened his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster. “I wanted Red Rooster to guard the history of black cooks in America while starting new conversations in food. [My mission] “as a black chef is clear: to document, to preserve, to capture, to inspire and to aspire.” Even though he acknowledges that he is a European immigrant when it comes to racial history, during the 15 years he’s lived in the U.S., he has developed several theories about why kitchens of major American restaurants remain so white, including: The Nest Egg Theory and The I Didn’t Iron Clothes So You Could Flip Burgers Theory.

Samuelsson’s desire to share his good fortune is evident throughout the book. Since he personally struggled with racism as a black chef, Samuelsson is more open to giving people a chance to prove themselves. In 2000, he met Michael Garrett, who is now his executive chef at Red Rooster. Garrett presented himself as a line cook with two restaurants on his resume, Houlihans and Olive Garden. Samuelsson immediately gave him a job at one of his restaurants when he knew that other chefs wouldn’t have even let him in the door. He explains, “It’s not just that I believe in food that is global. I believe there’s a door that opens from inside any great kitchen, a door that opens out and gives us the world.”

marcus  at jardiniere
Marcus Samuelsson and Traci des Jardins at the Scandinavian lunch in his honor at Jardinière

I caught up with Samuelsson at Jardinière last Thursday, where Traci des Jardins’ staff delighted him by preparing a Scandinavian lunch, including roll mops with cured local sardines and cucumber dill salad and a smørrebrød trio. Three open faced strips of rye bread topped with veal tongue and tomatoes, salmon, beets and egg and duck liver pate with radishes.

Samuelsson, with an impish smile to match his colorful outfit (orange pants, navy pinstripe vest, checkered scarf and jaunty blue fedora) charmed fans by autographing copies of his book, visiting tables and chatting amiably with diners. After lunch he made a few remarks and answered questions. Highlights: “The kitchen is the new living room.” “What is my favorite kitchen tool? A fish spatula.” And, (unfortunately), “no plans to open a Bay Area restaurant.”

marcus samuelsson at jardiniere

In an interview before a recent lunch at Jardinière, Samuelsson answered my range of questions, on being an immigrant, developing his fried chicken recipe, eating with the hands and food bloggers. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity. (Three of his signature recipes follow.)

You describe Sweden as a total knife and fork culture. In Ethiopia, by contrast, food is served family-style and eaten with the hands. Since you are connected to both cultures, do you feel more like a knife and fork person or a hand person?

I’m definitely a hand person. When you eat with your hands, it requires other things of you. You eat cleaner. With the ritual, you wash your hands more, then dry them on the towel offered to you. It becomes dining on a different level.
At Red Rooster we serve cornbread that people eat with their hands, of course. We also have a lot of communal dishes — like uptown chowder, for 6-8 people to share. It’s about breaking bread together as a concept. It could be with a knife and fork. It could be eating with hands. To me, it’s about not being stuck in one narrative of dining, but being open to numerous ways.

What ingredient or spice is your favorite flavor of the moment?

I love berbere (recipe for the Ethiopian spice blend follows), because I learned so much about myself and my life through berbere. Before, it was just another great spice blend, but when I started to travel to Ethiopia and understood my own culture and its rituals, I started to really develop an appreciation for berbere. It is the salt and pepper of Ethiopia; you taste it in snacks, in bread, in spiced butter and cheese and of course over fish and meat.

You are passionate about chasing flavors and combining different elements from the various cultures that you have explored. Do you have advice for home cooks on deepening or combining flavors?

The key is to be surrounded by diverse sets of people. Ask your friends and coworkers what to do with the pickles and spices from their parents’ or grandparents’ generation.

You have personal experience as an immigrant yourself, plus many of the people in the kitchens where you’ve worked have been recent immigrants as well. How would you describe an immigrant’s food journey — is it about loss, finding comfort, adapting?

It could be different for an immigrant or a refugee. As an immigrant from an upper middle class Scandinavian country, I can go back four times a year if I really want a herring. It’s definitely a privilege, but the loss is still there. When I don’t get my smoked cod roe fix in the morning, I’m still mad. So as an immigrant, I miss my food from a privileged point of view.

Refugees have to fight in a different way, because they can’t go back. So a refugee has almost a spiritual context for their longing for a certain dish. As a refugee, it’s more hardcore. You cannot return. You eat something and feel the loss of your family; you eat something and feel the struggle that you had.

My naturalization ceremony was an incredible experience that I wish that every American who bashes their own country could see. As immigrants and refugees, we fight everything to become Americans. It was one of the biggest honors of my life. I shared the room with 250 other people who maybe had to escape through six countries before they came here, or had to hide for twenty years before they could even say that they are here. So that’s the reason a dish tastes yummy to that person; what they’re tasting is the 25 years of loss and journey. That makes the food incredibly delicious and very deep.

In your book, you had some strong words to say about food bloggers, “…who take the pulse of a restaurant every thirty seconds and sound a death knell if they don’t like the feel of a napkin.” What were you reacting to?

The majority of food bloggers I think are very good. With the democratization of dining, people will be engaged in many different ways. Twitter, The Chronicle, and radio are just alternate platforms. I’m fine with that as long as it is done with sincerity, care and respect for the place, because it took the person a long time to put it all together. But if it’s the opposite of that and bloggers want to trash the fact that you are kind and positive because it’s easier for them to get a click, then I don’t care for that. Because it’s the livelihood of not only the chefs and owners, it’s the busboy’s livelihood too. I can handle criticism. I come from the hospitality field where you train and you respect because hospitality is the highest art form of giving. I think that bloggers are fantastic…they just need to care as much as I would care about the blog they are putting out. Because you don’t just dismiss the big guy, you’re dismissing the dishwasher too.

Who are your favorite Bay Area chefs?

Russell Moore of Camino, who made a great African-inspired menu last night with a lot of soul and spirit.
Traci [des Jardins], I’ve known her for a long time and we cooked together 15 years ago. She represents ‘the other’ for me, not just being a male chef. As a member of a minority, you relate to anybody who is ‘other’ and you want that person to succeed. Alice [Waters] of course. It all started with Alice and Jonathan Waxman. My friend, Chris Cosentino. He’s always pushing it. I admire his guts. I have great respect for chef Gary Danko. One of my favorite restaurants in the country is The Slanted Door. Charles Phan opened the door for ethnic food with a wine list.

You wrote that coming up with a fried chicken recipe was daunting because you didn’t grow up eating it and so many people have made versions that are so good. How did you go about it?

By studying, eating a lot of it, taking my time, failing many times.

What were you aiming for?

Authorship, by combining respect for the past plus bringing a new nuance to it by curing the chicken the way my grandmother did, by marinating it in buttermilk and coconut milk, frying it on low heat with seasoned oil, using seasoned flour and finishing it off with a shake of a special spice blend.

Fried Yardbird - Red Rooster recipe
Red Rooster’s “Fried Yardbird.” Photo credit: Paul Brissman

Recipe: Marcus Samuelsson’s FRIED YARDBIRD

Serves: 4

4 chicken thighs, skin-on
4 chicken drumsticks, skin-on
1 cup salt
8 cups water
1 quart buttermilk
3/4 cup coconut milk
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Chicken Shake (recipe below)
1/2 pound all-purpose flour
2 ounces semolina flour
1 ounce cornstarch
1/2 ounce ground white pepper
5 quarts frying oil

1. Mix salt in water, until dissolved. Place chicken in brine and let sit for 1 1/2 hour.

2. Combine buttermilk, coconut milk, garlic and Chicken Shake then place chicken in marinade overnight in refrigerator.

3. Combine all-purpose flour, semolina flour, cornstarch and white pepper to make breading.

4. Remove marinating chicken from fridge and allow excess marinade to drip off.

5. Roll chicken in breading, shaking off excess.

6. In an 8-quart pot, fill with oil and bring to 300 F. Once oil is hot, drop chicken in to the oil and let fry for about 15 minutes (inner temperature should be at least 165 F).

7. Remove chicken from oil and place on paper towel. Season chicken with Shake, to taste.

Recipe: Chicken Shake

Makes: 4 cups

1/8 cup ground garlic
1/2 cup celery salt
1/2 cup ground cumin
1 cup berbere (recipe follows)
1 cup smoked spicy paprika
1/8 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup ground white pepper

Combine in a mixing bowl and stir until blended.

Recipe: Berbere spice blend

Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 5 mins
Total Time: 15 mins

2 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp. black peppercorns
1/4 tsp. whole allspice
6 white cardamom pods
4 whole cloves
1/2 cup dried onion flakes
5 dried chiles de árbol, stemmed, seeded,
and broken into small pieces
3 tbsp. paprika
2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1. In a small skillet, combine coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, black peppercorns, allspice, cardamom pods, and cloves. Toast spices over medium heat, swirling skillet constantly, until fragrant, about 4 minutes.

2. Let cool slightly; transfer to a spice grinder along with onion flakes and grind until fine. Add chilies, and grind with the other spices until fine.

3. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in paprika, salt, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.

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

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