Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Turnip Cake

It would have made more sense for me to make a carrot cake. Everyone loves a carrot cake, especially topped with a thick layer of cream cheese frosting. The last time I made a carrot cake it was consumed before it had time to set and cool properly.

Last Sunday I made a turnip cake. Unlike my immediately popular carrot cake, the turnip cake was a tough sell. It’s been four days since I made the cake and more than half of it is still sitting in my fridge.

The turnip cake, a traditional dim sum dish, is not sweet but savory. A white turnip is chopped up and combined with rice flour, Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and dried shrimps. This mixture is poured into a cake pan, steamed for an hour, sliced into small rectangles, thrown into a pan to fry, then topped with a bit of cilantro and hoisin sauce.

I was introduced to this peculiar dish years ago as a young Mormon missionary in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Missionaries in my area were often invited by Chinese church members to join them for dim sum. We all thought this was a friendly gesture but now I think we were invited to be the entertainment. Our Chinese friends found it amusing to call all sorts of strange dishes to the table just to watch us corn-fed American boys struggle with the new flavors and textures.

At one of these dim sum lunches I became the victim of a cruel joke. A fried chicken, all parts still intact, was ordered for the table. I was told that that Chinese people savor the chicken’s head as the most delectable part of the bird. Not aware that I actually believed them, my friends placed the bird’s head on my plate. Everyone was stunned when I trustingly bit into a deep-fried chicken brain.

Once initiated I was willing to try just about anything new in Chinatown – jellyfish tentacles, chicken feet, and even fried frog legs. And now I understand the joy of introducing these strange culinary traditions to my unacquainted friends. This is why I went to all the trouble to make something not so immediately loveable such as the turnip cake.

I was invited to have dinner at a friend’s apartment Sunday night. I brought the freshly steamed turnip cake to offer as an appetizer. I fried small pieces to the right amount of crispiness and tried to plate my creation to look as enticing and friendly as possible. I watched and smiled as my friends poked nervously at their plates, wishing the turnip cake was actually a carrot cake.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ugly Food

During my holiday visit to Utah I met a friend at one of Salt Lake City’s few teahouses for dim sum. We ordered dish after dish, most of them standards, including ha gow (shrimp dumplings, siu my (pork dumplings), and cha siu bao (roasted pork buns). All of these tasty bites came to the table in traditional wooden baskets looking cute and delectable. There is something very festive-feeling about dim sum. Just about everything comes wrapped like a present inside a dumpling, bun, roll, ball, or wonton.

We also ordered a dish the Cantonese speakers call "ha chong fun". In English it translates as “shrimp rice roll”. Consisting of shrimp wrapped inside a roll made of ground rice, there is nothing cute or attractive about this dish. In fact, it usually looks sort of wet, slimy, and inedible. I’ve been out with many friends who refuse to eat this dish, complaining about the slippery, gelatinous texture.

But today my friend and I are feeling tolerant and will eat just about anything (although this time we decided to forgo the highly hideous-looking chicken feet).

My chopsticks nervously attempted to transfer one of the long, white rolls to my plate. This dish is as stubborn as it is unattractive. After many badgering attempts I had a mutilated clump of ha chong fun on my plate. It now looked even uglier sitting there in a puddle of soy sauce with pieces of shrimp exposed through the roll’s puncture wounds. The unsightly appearance of the roll took away any excitement I had about eating it.

Like many dim sums before, I had forgotten everything about the way it looked as soon as the roll got to my mouth. The shrimp was surprisingly fresh and crisp while the ground rice was perfectly chewy and gummy. Clean and precise flavors filled the mouth as this ugly duckling of a rice roll transformed to reveal its true value.

Are we willing to forgive our food for being drab, unattractive, or messy? Does an attractive presentation enhance a meal or does it confuse the eater into thinking something will taste better because it comes wrapped in a dainty-looking dumpling? Ugly food can be the most delicious food to grace our palates but many are unwilling to look past the appearance of food.

After leaving the restaurant I thought about wearing a blindfold the next time I sit down for dim sum. I might even give chicken feet a second chance.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Eat your heart out Hasbro.

When I was just a young boy all I wanted for Christmas was an Easy-Bake Oven. I was enticed by Hasbro's colorful, jingly commercials showing young kids baking little frosted cakes. My dad made it very clear that this was a girly toy and refused to indulge my "feminine" interest in baking.

In an attempt to reach a compromise, my parents bought for me a drafting desk. In their eyes the desk was a safe balance between a Barbie doll and say, a baseball mitt. It was actually a very nice desk, with a lid that opened upward and an attached lamp that moved on hinges. But it wasn't really what I wanted. I wanted to bake cakes.

Year after year I asked for the oven. I never got it. Later I gave up when I realized that I was old enough to start using the real oven in our kitchen. I somehow convinced my mom to enroll me in some youth community cooking classes I heard about at school. I told her that all the boys in my class were signed up. Without consulting with my dad, she hesitantly signed me up for the class. The class was taught by a plump Mormon housewife with a sweet tooth. We learned to make coffee cake (even though Mormons do NOT drink coffee), chocolate pudding, peanut butter squares, and cherry pie. It was fat camp in reverse and I loved every minute of it.

But I felt guilty enjoying the classes. I had lied to my mother about there being boys in the class. The truth was, I was the only boy in the class. I also felt like I was disappointing my dad, who relentlessly tried to get me interested in tossing around a baseball with him in the front yard.

As parental pressures accumulated, I eventually caved. I didn't want to let my parents down as the effeminate son who enjoys being in the kitchen baking fruit tarts or picking tomatoes in the backyard garden. I never joined the Little League but I was willing to compromise by joining the swim team. I could tell my dad was pleased to see me doing something athletic. Little did he know that my main motivation to attend those early morning practices was the sight of boys in Speedos. As I became more aware of gender expectations, I was compelled to hide the side of myself that enjoyed being in the kitchen.

In recent years my childhood fascination with food has resurfaced. Cooking at home and working as a waiter, barista, bartender, wine store clerk, and member of a food co-op has given me the foodie thrills I was seeking in my youth.

As a recent follower of the Slow Food movement, I am on a mission to explore my current food surroundings in New York City and beyond. Among other things, I plan to visit restaurants old and new, hold neighborhood potlucks and wine tastings, try new recipes at home, get involved in food activism, and travel to local farms and vineyards to get as close as I can to what we eat and drink.

I would like to use this blog as a journal of sorts where I will document my food findings and hopefully develop a diverse network of fellow "foodamentalists". All are invited to sit at the table to both partake and share new ways to experience and enjoy what we eat, with or without the use of an EZ-Bake Oven.