Love in the Time of Coriander

Thoughts on food & more.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The 11th Hour

It's probably a bit premature to begin calling the next few weeks to my wedding the "11th hour." It is something more like the 5 week countdown, which in wedding time is almost the end of the road. Coupled with a few weeks left of school (including a 12-page paper and a few hundred pages of reading left--and I am ahead, mind you) and only a mere few days left at my practicum with clients, I find myself wanting to sleep the days away. When I'm not napping, the reading suddenly drops by the wayside and buying plants from the nursery down the street for my yard looks like the only option to keep awake. That, or, an ice cream sandwich.

So, instead, I blog. (Well, I did grab a bit of Reed's ginger ice cream from the freezer to help.) I've been piling up a few reviews and a question or two, so I'll make it brief. At least, I'll try.

1: Osha Thai.

For many years, I craved a good Thai restaurant in my old hood near the 16th/Valencia corridor. It was astonishing to me that in the middle of a multi-ethnic dining nabe (high and low end) there was a scarcity of good Thai. For anything resembling it, you'd have to haul butt up to the Castro or walk to the far end of Valencia (26th) to dine at Suriya (which has a good rep for good reason). Finally, in the last year of my Albion Street life, I discovered the original Yamo Thai at the corner of 18th & Mission--one of the places that has been written up a gazillion times by food writers for its very colorful owner. You never knew when she'd turn on a dime and yell at you for something as innocuous as requesting hot sauce to go. As rude and unpredictable as she was, she made a mean pumpkin curry. I've yet to taste one as good as hers. But the downside of Yamo were multiple: it was mostly a lunch place and didn't have seating aside from a 5-stool bar. Then, suddenly, instead of the grungry exterior which defined Yamo, I saw hipsters putting up signage with a fancy logo. She had sold the place, and in the process, it has become an exclusively vegetarian Thai joint. Is it any good now? I don't know. I haven't eaten there since. If you have, let me know what you think.

Now, after I have moved out of the Mission, my prayers for excellent, sit-down Thai have been answered. As the folks on Iron Chef would say, "Osha Thai reigns supreme!" On Neela's suggestion, I had gone in for an early dinner once a few months back, but because I only ordered one dish, I didn't comprehend the full scope of the restaurant. Then, Hansa, my brother's girlfriend, requested a recommendation for good Thai for her graduation dinner. I passed my knowledge along (including Suriya as a possibility), and we (mostly family) ended up dining at Osha.

It was an absolute hit from the moment we put the food in our mouths. Actually, it may have started even prior to that with the funky ambiance. Large tropical pictures are placed behind elusive screens and lit in a futuristic way. Even some of the furniture, retro plastic or metallic mesh, pays homage to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Despite the 70s vibe, the decor's finishing touch is modern and clean. It's not super fancy, but it's no Yamo, either.

The drinks were on the money. Hansa's sisters praised the Lychee martini, which was more fruity than alcoholic. The food, though, was the star. We began with chicken satay and spring rolls, moved onto pad se ew, pad thai (again, not the best dish in the house but also not in the East Bay so I'm not rating it), green curry with chicken, green curry with vegetables (we had a few vegetarians at the table), spicy green beans, and an eggplant and tofu dish. The standouts, many of us agreed, were the green curries and the pad se ew. For dessert, we shared a few fried bananas with coconut ice cream. They were fresh and divine.

Everyone thanked me for the recommendation, and one of Hansa's sisters even said it was "the best Thai food she'd ever had." Them's are fightin' words.

2: Firefly.

I took Kirthi for a pre-birthday celebration to Firefly. We had both heard of this place--often described as "cute"--in the almost completely residential part of Noe Valley, but neither of us had ever eaten there. Friday night, and we ended up in this quaint restaurant.

Even as we approached from the outside, I felt a warmth toward it. Strangely, Firefly has the charm of an authentically French cafe (like in France!), partly due to the waitresses we had who wore very plain but stylish black outfits and one of whom definitely had a European accent of some sort. But there are other things that give it that non-American feel. There are charming (and not so artistically brilliant) paintings on the wall of fireflies. The lighting is dim, and the space is small, adding to the cozy feel. Standing in line for the bathroom before dinner, I ran into a woman who claimed that the last time she had been to the restaurant, the lights flickered like fireflies. But when she asked the waiter about whether this was actually true, he replied that they had recently fixed the glitchy system. Both she and I were disappointed that the lights no longer mimicked the restaurant's theme.

I mentioned to Kirthi that I thought it was a good date place, but there was also a family (with older children--maybe 10 and 13) seated next to us. Though the prices are a bit steep for family dining (entrees in the $15-20 range), nevertheless, it seemed like a family get-together joint, too. For starters, we ordered a salad with strawberries and pistachio-encrusted goat cheese, which was unassumingly delicious. Kirthi, a vegetarian, opted for vegetable and goat-cheese tamales for an entree. More than I am, she's a fan of Mexican food--but I was tempted by this dish on the menu, too. I ordered a cajun-spiced halibut with quinoa, artichokes, and an ever-so-slight flavor of anchovies.

The food was very good, but not amazing. My fish was well flavored and well-cooked but its accompaniments needed a little va-voom. A lemony spring sauce or something like that? I only tasted a bite of Kirthi's dish and can't write extensively about it, but I know she enjoyed it. Oddly, we were stuffed when the meal ended (even though we had even what seemed to be a normal amount), so we forewent dessert. I was so full, I wasn't even tempted by the strawberry-rhubarb crisp or chocolate pot-de-creme. What was I thinking?

3: Gioia Pizza.

Saturday night, Laurie's family and Tabatha came over to have dinner & dessert in my little pastoral yard. We ordered pizza from Gioia--a pizzaria on Hopkins & Monterrey, next door to the Hopkins Bakery and down the street from the Monterrey Market. This might possibly be the best pizza on earth! Super, super thin-crust Italian (as in Italy!) style with just the right amount of toppings and a very fresh tomato sauce. We ordered one anchovy and chili-pepper pizza and one mushroom pizza--and gobbled them up within minutes.

For dessert, I made blueberry lemon cupcakes with lemon cream cheese frosting. The frosting never, despite the recommendation of the recipe to refrigerate, hardened to the consistency of regular cream cheese frosting. Thus, I plated the cupcakes & poured the frosting like a sauce over them. In terms of taste, it was a hit. I searched extensively for advice on how to thicken a frosting and couldn't figure out what would be the best thing to add. Instinct told me that more powdered sugar might firm up the frosting, but it had already reached an optimal level of sweetness. Any more would have wiped out the lemony flavor. Please email me if you've got thoughts on what might help.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Salt Sodas

Oy! I'm so swamped with planning my wedding and trying to complete the last quarter of my first year in graduate school for psychotherapy that eating and blogging have really become secondary to all the other stuff.

Nevertheless, I wanted to work in at least one blog. For one of my classes, because it is both difficult and highly experiential, each of the students have been given the assignment to bring a "ritual" to share in our smaller group. One of the instructors kicked off the class with a Jewish passover ritual involving the consumption of a chocolate-covered raspberry jelly candy.

That sparked in most of us a desire to share rituals related to food. A fellow student, Hillary, brought a "Depression Cake." The cake, eggless and dense with ginger flavor and a sugary white icing, was a recipe developed by the women in her family to continue the tradition of birthday cakes in a time when eggs were a luxury. I felt inspired by the spirit and history in this ritual.

I didn't want to do what others before me had already done, though. Thus, I was wary of bringing food, particularly because it was so easy to gravitate toward sweets, which in almost every culture, are a powerfully celebratory and unifying ritual. So what did I do? I brought a drink instead: "the uppu soda." Translated from the Telugu, these are salt sodas made with carbonated water, fresh lime or lemon juice, ground cumin, and salt. I lugged a murky 2-liter bottle to class and offered it to my peers in plastic cups.

Vendors sell these drinks in the streets like ice-cream in a push-along cart. The salt mitigates the effects of dehydration while the water hydrates. Here in the US, my brother is the uppu soda maestro, who concocts the drink at family gatherings and individually tailors each to suit the lemon-salt preference of our palates.

In offering the uppu soda, I warned my classmates that there was the possibility that it could be perceived as anywhere from digusting to refreshing. Uppu sodas are akin to salt lassis or the garlicky Mediterranean yogurt drinks filled with fresh herbs, which, to me are delicious, thirst-quenching beverages. But for Americans, salt in a drink is strange. Whereas the same tastes fly in a savory dish, they're unwelcome in the realm of whistle-whetter.

Admittedly, part of sharing this ritual was to confess my desire for the non-Indian tongue to be turned off by this funny soda. In a way, my cravings for salt sodas, against the grain of American tastes, remind me that I possess a relationship, through my tastebuds, to another world, a world that has not yet been coopted by others. I feel strangely aware lately that globalism, while it has brought me closer to the rest of the world, has also rendered much of the world already explored and commonplace. Instead of wondering what wonders lie outside of California, we now wonder what we can't find here.

This one, my salt soda, to my knowledge hasn't yet caught on. It's firmly stood its ground as its own entity. Blame it on a lack of audience, perhaps, but I haven't even seen it sold in South Indian restaurants. It is still ours to make and enjoy in the quietness of home, when my family convenes to reminsce in their tastes of South India. Of course, I have just revealed it to you, to the internet, for all the world to see. I still doubt its ability to transcend, at least not yet.

So for now, it will remain a slice of South India. One that I folded into my heart long ago.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Pad Thai #1: The Berkeley Thai House

I mentioned to my friend, Elizabeth, that I had in the pipeline a pad thai-rating project. She quickly perked up and wanted to join me in doing a sampling of this widely-loved noodle dish. Immediately, we scheduled our first adventure, an old fave of mine from the college days -- The Berkeley Thai House. I've been a huge fan of their red curry and the eggplant basil, but don't remember feeling particularly drawn one way or another to the pad thai.

Another lovely friend, Kelly, also joined us for the tasting. The three of us came up with a lichard scale rating -- a 0 to 5 in three categories. Here they are:

1. Flavor: What's the sauce like? Is it too sweet or too salty? Does it match the other ingredients?
2. Consistency: Are the noodles done right? Crunchy and soft in all the right places?
3. Ingredients: What went into this particular pad thai? Was it missing anything? Were the elements fresh?
4. Overall Gut Feeling: This is purely subjective feeling of "did we like it?" and not based on a composite of the others!

While I believe in the importance of ambiance and price, we determined that it isn't a huge factor in the quality of East Bay pad thai for us. Incidentally, whether this is urban legend or not, I don't know but I remember hearing that Bill Gates was asked: What's the most you've ever paid for a pizza? He answered in the range of $300. Goes to show that no matter how much money you have, there's still a limit to how much you might spend on a certain item.

All this to say, that unlike some foodies, I don't have an infinite amount of money to be spending on food. On the other hand, my guess is that there will be few places where we will be priced out of good pad thai. Afterall, we're buying a plate of noodles--not a house--in the East Bay!

Okay, Summi, back to the Thai House. We ordered pad thai, red curry with vegetables (it's too good to resist), and tofu tod, which are squares of fried tofu served with a sweet, peanuty sauce. "Tod" was crispy on the outside but its soft interior melted in my mouth.

Drum roll, please. The results are:

The sauce was sweet and had a subtle undertone of barbeque to it. The dish was a little dry and could have been more liberally doused with this flavorful sauce. It also could have been slightly spicier, but that was our fault. My experience with the Thai House strongly suggests that had we asked for it, I'm sure our request would have been honored.

The noodles were a bit on the rubbery side. Also, no peanuts and listless scallions. (see below)

Thai House's pad thai had noodles, fried eggs, scallions, fried tofu, shrimp, bean sprouts, and a lemon on the side. The tofu could have definitely been cut smaller. More shrimp was in order. The scallions were cut into long (2 inch) pieces, which added little to the crunch or to the flavor. Furthermore, where's the ground peanut garnish? Or cilantro? Why lemon instead of lime?

Though we felt that this pad thai could have been enhanced, especially in its attention to the ingredients, the sauce was nevertheless unique and a pleasure to eat. Another plus for this dish: it wasn't too greasy.

More pad thai adventures to come. Stay tuned . . .

Monday, May 09, 2005


means bananas! Well, technically, that's not true. They're "plaintains" which are closely related to bananas but are starchier and used as a vegetable, especially in Latin cuisine.

Alas, I'm not talking about the fruit but rather the restaurant at the corner of 18th & Guerrero. This hub, only a hop from my former apartment, is turning out to be quite the foodie hotspot, sporting Tartine and Delfina, as well as the yet-to-open enterprise of Pizzeria Delfina. On this block, too, is the small but hip Fayes Video that not only carries a good selection of queer cult flicks and documentaries but also offers lattes to go. Of course, Bi-Rite is the law of the land, a bodega packing everything you might want to cook up your gourmet meal in such a small storefront that you've gotta wonder if there's some sort of optical illusion at play.

All this background to lay the foundation for my rant about Platanos. Amidst the epic quality of this block, Platanos might as well be a five-star restaurant in Kansas City. In other words, it may fly in the middle of the country (or even in Hayes or Noe Valley where, in my experience, the restaurants serve mediocre food for astronomical prices), but it just doesn't live up to rep of this hood.

To its credit, the white wine sangrias were quite tasty. The small plates (aka appetizers) were by far the strongest offering of the restaurant. The fried plantain chips with guacamole and salsas were nicely done, but of course, their restaurant's name hangs on the reputation of these delicacies! The flavors and textures of the corn and chicken empanadas hit a high note. But the ceviche? "Eh." Maybe I'm spoiled but I kept thinking of divine experiences I've had with ceviche, particularly at Fresca on Fillmore St.

We ordered the entrees family style, making it easy to take a bite of all of them. The chicken mole was extremely disappointing. It had none of the complexity, none of the kick, that its fellow moles possess. By kick, I mean that sweet and spicy undertone, often inducing a revelation about the well-matched wedding of chiles with chocolate. The halibut with a mango salsa was . . . well, it was. And the pork? It was meat and rice. Nothing fancy. Nothing even dressed up to be fancy. The standout might have been the Latin version of an eggplant neapolitan, which had both the looks and the taste to live in the neighborhood. But was any of this worth the 16 to 17 dollars a dish price-tag? Give me a break.

On the bright side, did I mention the sangria? I could have swum happily in a lake of it--not ever being privy to the food--and remained a merry woman.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Pang's Rockin' Curry

Pang & Ben have bought their first house! It's been a month since they've lived there, but they already look settled and very happy. I had the pleasure of joining them for a lunch in their new dining room, sun spilling through the skylight.

We sipped iced cold Tecates with lime and ate brown rice with a rockin' Thai green curry. No doubt, the food was on the money. Perfectly spicy (perhaps sinus-clearing for the meek!) with the flavors seeping through the vegetables and chicken. Pang credits the brown sugar for being key to a winning balance. We ate out of deep, stunning ceramic bowls made by Heath Ceramics ( I've been obsessed with Heath's stuff, having just registered for some it myself.

Unfortunately, I hadn't yet gotten my new hand-me-down, a digital camera from my brother, to document the beauty of the food against the backdrop of sublime dishware. You'll just have to daydream it on your own until I can offer photos. (I'm still learning the nuances of this "blogging" business, so forgive the rough-around-the-edges quality this new endeavour has.) Oh, and, perhaps this is the perfect excuse (that I was sans camera, after all) for another round of delicious grub. Pang?

Friday, May 06, 2005

Homo Culinaris

This eyebrow-raising article appeared in The Advocate today. When I've doubted my humanity, I can always enter the kitchen to reclaim it.

Professor Says We Are What We Eat

Richard W. Wrangham, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University, drew applause from the International Association of Culinary Professionals crowd when he said that "cooking may be the key to what makes us human."

Wrangham admitted that his hypothesis is radical. Some anthropologists dismiss cooking and describe it as something humans do for symbolic reasons, he said.

Wrangham disagrees and maintains that Charles Darwin looks increasingly perceptive in his claim that the art of making fire may have been the greatest discovery ever made.

Wrangham bases his conclusion that it is cooking that prompted human evolution on years of study of chimpanzees and aboriginal tribes in isolated areas of the world. Human beings are the only living species who cook their food, he reported to the IACP members in his presentation on the "Significance of Paleo-Gastronomy."

Chimpanzees will seek seeds that have been cooked in bush fires and thus tenderized to eat, Wrangham said, but they never developed the skills to make fire and control it to cook food. What this means, he explained, is that chimpanzees and all other apes, as well, spend 5 to 6 hours a day chewing and eating because raw foods take longer to eat and digest. Humans, on the other hand, take an hour to eat a day's worth of food, which is a 2,000-calorie diet.

As early humans developed the ability to cook foods, which could have been anywhere from 300,000 to 1.9 million years ago, human physiology began to evolve. Humans began to have smaller mouths and jaws and shorter digestive systems than apes. "We are the cookivore," Wrangham observed, because now humans must consume softer foods, low-bulk and high-energy diets. "We have more energy, but less digestive ability," he continued.

Critics of cooked foods, and there is a raw foods movement in the world, Wrangham pointed out, say "Look at chimpanzees. They eat raw and thrive."

Chimpanzees, he re-emphasized, spend far more time eating than humans do and as a result don't have time or energy to expand far beyond their range. In German research studies on the effects on humans of following a raw food diet, the results show that humans eating only raw food are hungry, experience weight loss and, in the case of women, quit having regular menstrual cycles, which means that the rate of reproduction is precariously lowered.

"It seems difficult for me to deny the evidence that the evolution of man came with the discovery of fire and cooking," Wrangham said. "Cooking changed the biological design of humans, and that fact is the basis of paleo-gastronomy," he added.

"Being able to spend a low percent of time eating made hunting possible and expanded the range of humans out of Africa and into Asia," Wrangham said. Cooking also prompted the sexual division of labor: men, being bigger and stronger, hunted, and women provisioned and cooked.

Cooking created the human family or civilization, where humans not only assumed tasks suited to their skills but also put those skills to work in taking care of one another. You hunted for the group or family, as well as yourself. Or, you cooked for the hunter, as well as yourself.

Wrangham believes that it is important to recognize the universality of the evening hot meal. For 2 million years, humans have gathered around the fire each night. Why, we may not fully understand, but the fact remains that "humans are adapted to the hearth," Wrangham said, "and apparently it's this cooking and gathering that makes us human."

Sunday, May 01, 2005

A Typical Berkeley Weekend

Saturday morning, I met up with Laurie, my ex-roomie, in the East Bay. I promised to indoctrinate her with delights from the Cheeseboard (, which we did promptly after her arrival. I grabbed a Zampano (a sourdough roll sprinkled with parmesan & red pepper flakes), a Cheese Roll (oodles of delicious cheese baked into this roll), and a Cherry and Corn Scone (which is self-explanatory!) Needless, to say, we were making gurglings of pleasure on our walk down Shattuck Ave.

After our leisurely stroll, I had the idea to go to the Downtown Berkeley Farmers' Market, which I have not visited since the olden days when I was a mere undergrad lass. It still has the same flavor it has always had--all things Berkeley do actually, except perhaps 4th Street. What do I mean by this? Well, all different sorts of people, lots of children, many interracial couples and families, and one or two naive souls from CalPirg trying their darndest to make a dent in environmental policy.

The veggie stalls looked great, many were CSAs, which I feel compelled to support because they are small, ethical farmers who grow mostly organic food. As with most farmers' markets in the area, there were also several stalls dedicated to artisan goods. One stall was patrolled by a man constantly handing out minute bread samples for ducking in an assortment of amazing olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Behind another stall sat a post-hippie woman with perfect skin, peddling natural soaps made from local foliage with the odors of incense cedar, sage, and pine. A few other stalls sold things like flavored honies and mouth-watering goat cheeses. I was in a browsing, not buying, mood, so we settled for a couple of baskets of fresh strawberries, revealed to be as sweet and delicious as they looked.

In the middle of the day, I helped Anne & Sami move to a new place, still in Berkeley. I also joined them for some pizza and beer at Lanesplitter (San Pablo & University). This place wasn't around when I was an undergrad, but it might not have mattered anyway. There is a distinct thirty-something vibe about it. I guess as we grow older, we are finding new, more appropriate places to patronize. The pizza is nowhere near as brilliant as Gioia (on Hopkins & Monterrey), but it's probably an unfair comparison anyhow. Lanesplitter's pie is a decent ultra thin-crust with a wide array of toppings. They've got a solid selection of beer on tap, too. I've found that , if you're into this sort of thing, it's a good place to watch a Giants' or A's game in a leisurely, not-so-dedicated way. The best reason to frequent it? They've got a special called the 7-10 split, which gives you two slices of pizza and one pint of beer for a measly $7. Not bad, I'd say.

I woke fairly early Sunday morning and cleaned the house. It was in urgent need of vacuuming. I had been putting it off so long, it felt extremely gratifying to hop to it finally. The treat following this onerous activity was Thai Temple (Russell near MLK next to the Berkeley Tool Lending Library). Yum! Yum!

For those of you who are newbies to the Thai Temple experience, let me just say that there is almost nothing that gets my mouth watering on a Sunday morning than thinking of paying homage to the flavors of Thai food. Anne & Sami feel similarly, and we had vowed on Saturday night to meet up at 10am on Sunday. Alas, we all made it on time and felt invigorated by the short wait for the dishes at that hour. If you arrive closer to noon, you'll find a mob of people patiently spying their forthcoming meal a good while before consuming it. The Thai Temple is, afterall, a real Buddhist temple, and members put together the brunch as an ongoing fundraiser. Service and speed, though not lacking, are certainly not the priority. What is a distinct feature, besides the food, is that it is cheap. For a measly number of tokens (one token equals a dollar), you can get a wide array of Thai teasers.

Though I'm addicted to my routine of curry plus sticky rice, I have vowed to branch out. The Temple offers what looks like a very hearty noodle soup, an arse-kickin' papaya salad (don't ask for it "normal" unless you can handle really hot food), Thai-style barbeque chicken, spring rolls, and sweet and savory coconut dumplings. There are also the standard Thai beverages, the iced coffees and iced teas. The food is suprisingly consistent, and sometimes just stellar. For instance, a few weeks back the Temple had added the purple sticky rice to the mango sticky rice ensemble, which resulted in a sublime experience for me. The only viable critique I've heard about the food is regarding the Pad Thai. It's okay, but doesn't match up to quality of the rest of the food.

Good Pad Thai is quite possibly a metaphysical issue. What is the meaning of good Pad Thai? How and where can we find it? Does it exist a priori? My morning's visit to the Thai Temple has sparked my interest in a search for good Pad Thai. In the coming months, I'll attempt to taste-teste and return with ratings of the best and worst of East Bay's Pad Thai.

Let me also sign out on a weekend of pure belly- and eye-pleasing joy. Until next time . . .