Dinner with The Spice Whisperer

Vinita Jacinto

Vinita Jacinto told us to close our eyes and taste the sun, moon, stars and earth in the food she had lovingly prepared: saffron-kissed basmati rice and creamy lentils flavored with cumin and turmeric, topped with a dollop of pureed greens (including mustard, spinach, turnip and amaranth).

I had met the chef, who was born in Mumbai, grew up in Calcutta and identifies as Punjabi, when we both worked at the California Culinary Academy. For 7 years, she taught  sustainable, vegetarian, healthy cooking at CCA. I had worked there as an ASL interpreter.

Later I interviewed her for two articles: where to sample breakfasts from different cultures and how to eat with your hands for a sensuous, mindful meal.

appetizer spread

This evening’s dinner, a springtime meal to celebrate Punjabi New Year, began with a table spread with a dozen delectable appetizers, incorporating the Six Ayurvedic Tastes. Vinita’s colorful platters tempted the eye as well as the palate. She thoughtfully provided labels, as the array of dishes was new to many guests and included: stuffed eggplant with ginger and garlic, black chickpea balls, and my favorite, spiced Indian potatoes, topped with yogurt and tamarind or cilantro-mint chutney and crunchy sev noodles.

Indian potato salad

Vegetables included cooked asparagus, spinach and beets and raw radishes, jicama and cucumbers. For a new gustatory experience, Vinita encouraged her guests to sprinkle the latter with “black salt”. She warned us that the black salt (which actually had a pinkish hue), would first give off a scent of sulfur “rather like an elephant’s fart.” I tried it and after a moment’s pause, discovered it did enrich the crunchy cukes with an earthy accent.

black salt

Vinita not only nourished her guests with the dishes she had carefully prepared, but with her culinary memories and wisdom.

In the traditional Hindu kitchen, no one enters to cook until they’ve bathed and no shoes are ever worn in the kitchen. You also don’t taste what you are cooking, but intuitively can smell if something is missing. Through touch, the cook passes on her emotions, be it anger or love. My DNA transfers to you – that’s true farm to table cooking.

Her blog, The Spice Whisperer, not only shares Vinita’s recipes, but her poetic side as well, “Some read auras. I read spices.”

Spices, they resonate with me.

You pound them; roast them,

Dry them and toast them.

And they impart their essence to you No matter what!

They heal. They flavor. They whisper through our foods.

Vinita’s newest endeavor is creating customized spice blends for couples, individuals or wedding parties.

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Sushi California: 27 years as Berkeley’s Beloved Japanese restaurant with an Okinawan Twist

Chef Ryoji Arakaki prepares sushi rice

Chef Ryoji Arakaki prepares sushi rice at Sushi California on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess

Have you ever felt at home in a café or restaurant the moment you walked in? My husband and I have been frequenting Sushi California for less than a year, but the night we discovered this cozy Japanese dining spot on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley, we already felt like welcomed regulars.

We had just returned from a two-week trip to Kyoto, where I took cooking classes while my husband taught at a university. At night, we would wander into little family-run neighborhood restaurants. That immediate sense of shared intimacy with strangers at Sushi California resonated with our best Kyoto memories.

Chef Ryoji Arakaki has been serving sushi and other Japanese dishes to an international crowd of Berkeleyites (including students, professors and Lawrence Berkeley Lab employees) since 1986. We have probably driven past Sushi Cal (as the Chef calls it) on MLK between University and Addison hundreds of times, but with its unassuming name and façade, and its position just below street-level, like a sunken treasure, it is easily overlooked. Continue reading

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A Dozen Deaf Foodies Savor Gourmet Ghetto Tasting Tour in ASL

My pair of professions straddles two worlds. By day, I work as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and otherwise, I’m a food writer. Although these domains rarely intersect, it’s a thrill when they do. In 2011, I broke the news of San Francisco’s first Deaf-owned restaurant, Mozzeria and followed up last Spring with an interview of the owners in ASL.

But there are plenty of Deaf Bay Area food lovers who aren’t chefs, and I recently took a dozen of them–software developers, college professors, actors and retired folk–on an only-in-sign-language tasting tour of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto through Edible Excursions.

I’ve been leading Edible Excursions tours of San Francisco Japantown for the general public since last summer, and recently added ASL–only tours for members of the local Deaf community. (Because ASL is a separate language, with its own grammar, one can’t speak English and simultaneously sign ASL.) Since the Berkeley culinary romp was my third ASL tour, I knew from experience that I would be breaking a rule of politeness in Deaf culture and added the following warning during my intro speech in front of Shattuck Avenue’s Cheese Board.

Due to our tightly planned schedule tasting tidbits at nine places in three hours, I explained that I was going to have to rush the group from one spot to another. In Deaf Culture, despite the advances of email, video phones and texting, face-to-face communication in expressive ASL often has top priority and thus it is considered rude to interrupt signed conversations. In the interest of maximal food appreciation, however, the Deaf foodies replied to my rudeness tip-off with amenable nods.

Saul's deli delights, photo courtesy Alyce Reynolds

Saul’s deli delights, photo courtesy Alyce Reynolds

With that, we headed to Saul’s Deli, where a table was already set with glasses for what proved to be our first guessing game of the day. I told the group that this straw-colored soda was house-made, as was common in the heyday of New York delis in the early 20th century, when this flavor was touted for its health benefits. What is it? Ginger and vanilla were the first guesses. I shook my head no. Finally, a member of the group with a sensitive palate guessed correctly: celery seed soda.

Then, we were joined by Saul’s owner Peter Levitt and over succulent house-smoked pastrami sandwiches, he explained Saul’s mission to serve  locally made deli fare, as opposed to the former practice of flying in deli foods from New York.

Imperial Tea Court, photo courtesy Alyce Reynolds

Imperial Tea Court, photo courtesy Alyce Reynolds

Next, we ambled over to the Epicurious Garden complex and entered the regal Imperial Tea Court for a lecture on the history of tea with seven kinds to sniff and one to taste.

Chocolate heaven at Alegio, photo courtesy Ken Arcia

Chocolate heaven at Alegio, photo courtesy Ken Arcia

The most popular stop on the tour–not surprisingly–introduced the group to “the best chocolate in the world,” accordingly to Alegio’s co-owner Robbin Everson, which grows only on Sao Tome, a tiny island off the coast of West Africa. The series of nibbles of bars from 100% to 73 1/2% cacao was revelatory and sublime. Thanks to Everson’s expertise, the guests delighted in having all their questions answered. Two of the most surprising discoveries: Hershey’s bars contain only 10% cacao and there is no caffeine in chocolate–instead a stimulating compound called theobromine produces a different set of effects on the body.

On our way out of Epicurious Garden, we made a quick stop at Soop for some warming Thai Red lentil soup and I explained that owner Marc Kelly serves Swedish yellow split pea soup every Thursday to honor his Swedish mom’s national tradition.

Monica Roccino of Local Butcher, photo courtesy Ken Arcia

Monica Roccino of Local Butcher, photo courtesy Ken Arcia

After a short walk down Shattuck Avenue, the group assembled in a large semi-circle (with sign language, everyone needs to be able to see) in front of The Local Butcher Shop. While they munched on the sandwich of the day, pork with onion, cabbage and BBQ sauce, I interpreted a fascinating lecture about whole animal butchery from co-owner Monica Roccino, after which she entertained questions. “What’s the most exotic meat you carry?” one person asked. Perhaps the questioner was hoping to find ostrich or reindeer on the menu. But Roccino explained that she and husband Adam’s commitment to local ranchers means that they only use animals raised within 150 miles, so the most exotic meat she could come up with was squab (pigeon).

Cheese Board pizza slices quickly disappear, photo courtesy Kim Aronson

Cheese Board pizza slices quickly disappear, photo courtesy Kim Aronson

In front of the Cheese Board Pizza Collective, I told the group how this worker-owned collective was inspired by an Israeli kibbutz, while they scarfed down the flavor of the day: zucchini, onions, mozzarella, feta cheese, and basil pesto.

After a shot of caffeine and history at the original Peet’s Coffee which started the gourmet coffee movement back in 1966, the group was more than ready to mellow out across the street at Vintage Wine, where owner Peter Eastlake described the three wines the group was about to sample from Healdsburg’s Preston Winery. But as I began interpreting in ASL, I had a momentary brain-freeze as I realized that common terms in the wine world, such as: “full-bodied,” “thick, round texture,” and “floral notes” were not the kind of phrases that usually come up in my daily courtroom interpreting. Thankfully, several Deaf guests were clearly wine connoisseurs and knew exactly what Peter was talking about. Reverence for the grape, it seems, transcends language.

And with a parting sweet scoop of gelato from Lush back in Epicurious Garden, the Deaf tour guests reflected on the satisfying aspects of the day: one enjoyed learning the history of many places she has frequented throughout her years as a foodie, another appreciated “discovering these awesome hidden gems in Berkeley and the stories behind them and learning about them in ASL,” and a third was so overcome with the delights of the day, he admitted, “I’m sign-less!”

Related Information:
Edible Excursions’ Gourmet Ghetto tours Thursdays and Saturdays  (stops may vary).

KQED's Bay Area Bites

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

Posted in ASL, Berkeley, Chinese food, desserts and sweets, Jewish Food, Politeness, tasting tours | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FuseBOX Electrifies West Oakland with Chef Chang’s Korean Small Plates

photo: Anna Mindess

Chef Sunhui Chang. Photo: Anna Mindess

Odd squeaks emanate from a large bowl of choy sum (an Asian vegetable related to bok choy) as Chef Sunhui Chang massages the chopped green leaves with vinegar. It’s Monday and FuseBOX, the hot new dining spot tucked away on an industrial street in West Oakland is closed, but Chang and his crew are in the kitchen preparing pickles, kimchi, marinades and sauces that will be used throughout the week.

photo: Anna Mindess

Pre-pickled kale. Photo: Anna Mindess

“Monday is flavor day,” says Chang as he shakes up jars of kale, rice wine vinegar, garlic and bright yellow mustard. After three days, the pickled kale will be ready to eat and can theoretically last for weeks, but probably won’t — thanks to a steady stream of fans — West Oaklanders who just walk over and devotees who drive in from points north and south to sample Chang’s unique blend of traditional and innovative Korean-inspired cooking.

FuseBOX, whose name aptly conjures up the electric energy generated by its chef and his evolving explorations, opened in May 2012, serving lunches a few days a week (and recently added Saturday dinner). Yet, despite its limited hours and off-the-beaten-track location, The Bay Guardian has already named FuseBOX one of its Top 10 New Restaurants and Diablo Magazine honored Chang with a Top Chef Award.

photo: Anna Mindess

A rainbow of pickle jars fill the refrigerator. Photo: Anna Mindess

Chef Chang enters his walk-in refrigerator and sets the bottle of not-yet-pickled green kale on a shelf with 15 other colorful combinations, including red kale, bok choy, carrots with yuzu, watermelon radish and shiitake mushrooms. His menu features perennial crowd-pleasers like KFC (his spicy chicken wings), pork belly torta, house-made tofu and bacon-wrapped mochi. But seasonality dictates his selection of banchan (small side dishes) that always include several pickled items and kimchi veggies.

photo: Anna Mindess

“Hand-made” kimchi. Photo: Anna Mindess

Chang’s right hand turns bright vermillion as he scoops out the spicy red sauce that will turn his cabbage into kimchi. “The hand is important in Korean culture,” he says. “Nothing is worse than getting a cut on my finger and having to wear gloves. Then I can’t feel the food.”

Born in Korea, Chang’s earliest memory is a house filled with guests enjoying his mother’s cooking. While his mother, who hailed from a small coastal town in South Korea, was preparing her spicy fish stew, Chang sat in the kitchen watching. But when Chang was seven, the family moved to Guam, where his father found construction work.

“I fell in love when I tasted green mango pickles”

Guamanian cuisine featured fish, coconut, citrus and ignited Chang’s passionate relationship with pickles. “Kids would bring jars of pickles to school for lunch and everyone would fall all over them. The moment I tasted green mango pickles, I fell in love.”

While his mother ran her own Korean restaurant in steamy Guam, Chang watched cooking shows on TV, like Julia Child, and Great Chefs, Great Cities. He admits to feeling that the European cuisine featured on these programs was “real cooking,” while Korean food was just “home cooking.”

When Chang turned 17, he left his parents in Guam and moved to Berkeley, staying with family friends while attending two years of Berkeley High and continuing on to Cal. After his strict Catholic secondary school in Guam, Berkeley High induced a case of culture shock. What took getting used to, Chang explains, was going to a school with over 2,000 kids, the open campus at lunchtime, and seeing kids brazenly smoking cigarettes on the lawn. Cheese was another novelty. Chang explains, “On Guam we only had American and Cheddar. So Brie was new to me, as well as guacamole and sour cream. But I missed my mom’s cooking. That was the hardest thing, feeling homesick for my mom’s kimchi and pickles.”

At UC Berkeley, Chang majored in sociology but always worked in food businesses, including a bagel shop, a deli, and a liquor store, where he sold wine. After graduating in 1994, he ran the grill in an Oakland Korean restaurant and became its head chef after only a year and a half. “That really happened too early,” he muses, “I still had a lot more to learn.”

Two years later, when that restaurant closed down, Chang started a catering business “making everything, but Korean food. Back then there wasn’t much interest in Korean cuisine.” So he offered European dishes: Spanish tapas and French country classics (à la Julia Child). But “after 14 years of taking my show on the road,” Chang says, “I wanted a kitchen to call home and a space to host guests. I always had it in mind to open a place in the neighborhood where I lived and I love the rough beauty of West Oakland.”

“I bleed kimchi”

As to deciding on a Korean restaurant, Chang admits that he was “a bit hesitant, as there were not many requests to cater events with Korean cuisine. But my daughter SunIm and wife Ellen [who works alongside her husband as FuseBOX’s general manager] pointed out the deep roots and passion I have with Korean food. They told me I needed to express this and that the public is now ready to embrace Korean cuisine.”

bottom: kale, napa, bok choy crown kimchis top: green mango, shitake,  French radish pickles photo: Anna Mindess

Lower plate: kale, napa, bok choy crown kimchis; upper plate: green mango, shiitake, French radish pickles. Photo: Anna Mindess

Instead of chef’s whites, Chang wears a black T-shirt whose back screams, “I bleed kimchi.” Chang speaks of the iconic Korean staple with reverence. “Kimchi has its own journey. After four days fermenting in the refrigerator, it’s ready to start eating. But the taste will change every day. My father likes it way over-fermented – to me it’s sour and the crunch is gone. That stage is best for making kimchi stew. But actually, ours never gets to that point, because we tend to run out. Kimchi is a part of my life. I feel weird if I don’t have it for a day or two; I start missing it.”

Chang’s signature kimchi and pickles take advantage of every part of the vegetable, including the stems, roots and leaves that others often throw out, what he calls “the offal of vegetables.”

“From my days as a butcher and fishmonger, we always took the meat scraps home. I noticed that people also threw away lots of vegetable parts they didn’t like either, such as beet and radish greens, bok choy crowns, spinach stems and roots [the pink parts]. I would save them and use them for pickles or kimchi. That’s how I found that each part has its own flavor and nutrients.” Chang’s respect for his ingredients is all embracing. “After squeezing out the cabbage,” he explains, “we even save that salted water to make into ‘clear water kimchi’ with napa, daikon and ginger. It’s a palate cleanser.”

bacon wrapped mochi photo: Anna Mindess

Bacon wrapped mochi with pickled mustard seeds. Photo: Anna Mindess

Chang takes a pan from the stove and scrapes off the mahogany mixture that has been simmering for hours: chicken bones, deglazed with sake, mirin and soy. The resulting sauce will be brushed on his chicken skewers. “If I reflect on my nine months at FuseBOX,” Chang says, “I’m most proud of the amount of flavors we’re able to produce in a small space. And I hope that the recent recognition of Korean food has legs – that it’s not just a trend, but becomes part of the fabric of America.”


FuseBOX, 2311A Magnolia St., Oakland, 510-444-3100, open Wednesday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m. (closed some Saturday lunchtimes because of Chang’s daughter’s soccer tournaments. Call to check) and 5:30-9 p.m.

A version of this piece was first posted on Berkeleyside NOSH Feb. 28, 2013

Posted in Immigrants' stories, Korean food | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

How to Buy a Live Fish in Oakland Chinatown for Chinese New Year

E&F Market in Oakland Chinatown. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

E&F Market in Oakland Chinatown

All Photos: courtesy of  Wendy Goodfriend

I’m surrounded by a dozen huge tanks of handsome swimming fish, including red tilapia, black bass and silver carp at the E&F Market in Oakland Chinatown. My friend, Lisa Li, has graciously agreed to take me on an urban “fishing expedition” to buy a live fish that we will cook for lunch, in the Chinese tradition. Among the many choices of fresh and farmed varieties, she decides on a wild-caught rockfish and points the fishmonger to a tank labeled “gopher” fish. He deftly wields a hand-net and scoops up a lively, mottled brown fellow with spiky fins and bulging blue eyes. We see it wriggling for a moment before a discrete thwack on the other side of the counter dispatches it into a state ready to be cleaned and bagged. Lisa also chooses a farmed sea bass for us to compare the flavors.

Weighing Fish at E&F Market in Oakland Chinatown. Photo: Wendy GoodfriendBuying Fish at E&F Market. Photo: Wendy GoodfriendLisa Li holding sea bass. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Fish Tank at E&F Market in Oakland Chinatown. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Fish Tank at E&F Market in Oakland Chinatown

Gopher fish in net at E&F Market in Oakland Chinatown. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Lisa, who grew up in Guangzhou, China, is a world-traveler who enjoys the cuisines of many cultures and together we’ve shared Moroccan tagines and Spanish tapas. She is also happy to expand my knowledge of Chinese cooking and take me along on this shopping trip she makes weekly. “In Chinese culture,” she tells me, “we like to get our protein as close to live as possible.” What could be fresher than a fish that was swimming around less than an hour before you eat it? And for the upcoming Chinese New Year’s Eve feast, a whole fish is the traditional last course. The word for fish yu also signifies “abundance,” making simply dressed, steamed fish a symbolic and delicious way to end the meal.

Although Lisa frequents several Oakland Chinatown fish markets, she decides that this newish, spacious one would be best for me, since it has the biggest selection and its owners speak English.

Co-owner of E&F Market  Finnie Fung, Anna Mindess, Lisa Li. Photo: Wendy GoodfriendCo-owner of E&F Market  Finnie Fung. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

A petite woman in a fish-emblazoned sweatshirt greets us, adding that we are very lucky to live in California since we have so many local fish to choose from. The co-owner of E&F Market has an impossibly perfect name: Finnie Fung. She grew up with fish, helping her parents on weekends in their New Sang Chong Market a half block away. Finnie, age 31, and her husband bought this store, formerly called Hung Wan Market, from her parents and recently changed the name to “E&F” to reflect this new identity (as Eric and Finnie) and also to connect with the younger generation.

“Many Americans [who don’t speak Chinese] are frustrated shopping at the older markets in Chinatown. They often think the shopkeepers are being rude,” explains Finnie. “They aren’t being rude on purpose. It’s just that they don’t speak English well. Here we can answer shoppers’ questions about which fish to buy and how to cook them.”

Meanwhile the orange-gloved fishmongers have quickly scaled, cleaned and bagged our two fish. And as we pay, Lisa picks up some other ingredients we’ll need: fresh scallions, ginger and cilantro.

Oakland Chinatown produce market. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Oakland Chinatown produce market

Oakland Chinatown - PolmelosTangerine tree at Oakland Chinatown Bazaar. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

We chose the perfect day to stroll through Oakland Chinatown: the annual New Years Bazaar. As we walk back to the car, we thread our way through bustling streets, lined with piles of green-leafed tangerines, huge hanging pomelos, red and gold chrysanthemums and branches of plum blossoms (all symbolic of good fortune in the new year).

As children scamper by, happily holding brightly colored pinwheels, we join the shoppers examining rows of red and gold lanterns with fluttering tassels, sparkly strings of firecrackers, embroidered fish charms and strands of shiny gold money purses.

Oakland Chinatown New Year Bazaar. Photo: Wendy GoodfriendYear of the Snake in Oakland Chinatown. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Oakland Chinatown New Year Bazaar. Photo: Wendy GoodfriendRed Panda acrobat.Photo: Wendy GoodfriendOakland Chinatown New Year Bazaar. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Back at Lisa’s house, her husband John helps us quickly shred the scallions as Lisa cuts the peeled ginger into large slices. The classic preparation for the fish is to steam it whole — “to represent completeness,” Lisa explains. It is essential that the fish is served with head and tail attached to make sure that the coming year has both a good beginning and ending.

Steaming whole fish
Lisa Li slices whole fish. Photo: Wendy GoodfriendJohn cuts up scallions for the whole fish. Photo: Wendy GoodfriendLisa Li cleans cilantro for whole fish. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

She fills a large pan with water and steamer tray, places the whole fish on a plate atop a pair of chop sticks (“so that the fishy water will run off”), slits the back, so the thicker areas will cook and stuffs the fish with several coins of ginger. The fish will steam for 8 minutes over a high flame. Meanwhile, in another pan she pours some peanut oil and briefly sautés matchstick pieces of ginger and more scallions. When the fish are done, they are ringed with cilantro and topped with the gently sautéed ginger and scallions. Then she pours a generous amount of a special soy sauce for fish. “How much soy sauce are you pouring,” I ask? “Enough to puddle around the bottom of the dish,” she answers.

Whole cooked fish. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Lisa Li cooks scallions for whole fish. Photo: Wendy GoodfriendKim Lan Steam Fish Soy SauceLisa Li in front of round table with Chinese New Year foods

We move to a round dining table edged with a carved dragon and phoenix motif. As Lisa serves us the tender fish, she explains that at New Years Eve dinner, the head of the fish is always pointed towards the oldest or most honored guest. She scoops up more flesh from the bony skeleton, to refill our plates. John, presents her with the cheek, a prized morsel, and tells me the Chinese cultural belief that you never flip the fish over to get to the other side, because if you do, somewhere, a fisherman’s boat will capsize. With two spoons, he deftly extracts the meat from the underside of the fish. Lisa also likes to eat the fish eyes, which she admits have a “different texture.” She remembers her mom telling her that eating the eyes would improve her sight. “Maybe it’s just that in Chinese culture, nothing should be wasted,” she says. “People who don’t eat the head and tail can boil them with the bones and make a nice broth.” We all agree that the wild caught gopher has a more delicate taste, but the texture of the bass is creamier.

Another important aspect of Chinese New Year tradition is not to finish the fish course on New Year’s Eve, but leave some to be eaten the next day so that the abundance of the yu will continue into the New Year.

Piece of cooked whole fish

E&F Market
333 8th Street, Oakland
(510) 465-1668

If you don’t feel like cooking a whole fish yourself, some restaurants offer Chinese New Year specials.

KQED's Bay Area BitesA version of this post first appeared in KQED.org’s Bay Area Bites. Many thanks to my producer there, Wendy Goodfriend, for accompanying Lisa and me on this adventure and documenting it in lovely photos.

Posted in Chinese food, holiday food, lucky food | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Café Raj Creates Community and Great Food

Raj Raja

Raj Raja is a natural chef who cooked in Paris before opening Café Raj in Albany. Photo: Anna Mindess

Café Raj’s open kitchen belongs to one man, whose commitment and concentration are evident as he shakes, stirs and tosses spices into a half dozen pans filled with aromatic curries, simultaneously bubbling on the range-top. He is Raj Raja, owner and chef of the Albany restaurant. Depending on the time of day, five to ten women complement his cooking crew by grinding spices, mixing chutneys and raita, slapping circles of naan dough onto the scorching sides of the tandoor ovens, and plating and serving dishes to eager diners.

During a momentary lull, I approach Raja with questions for our arranged interview, but find him soft-spoken, seemingly more comfortable cooking than talking. He defers my inquiries to his wife, Rosemarie Eichner-Raja, who tells me “My husband is shy.” But he’s also obviously busy, overseeing every single plate that comes out of his kitchen. “He does 200 or more curries a day, Rosemarie explains, “and every dish is made fresh to order, tailored specially for each guest.” Continue reading

Posted in Indian food, Pakistani food | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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)

KQED's Bay Area Bites

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

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