Jerel Says, ‘Ato no matsuri’; Organize

Obon Night

Ato no matsuri

Translation: The day after the festival (to be late, to miss one’s chance)

-Japanese proverb

Every August, for three days, the Japanese celebrate the bon festival, otherwise known as Obon. It is one of the most important Japanese traditions: a time when many Japanese return to their hometowns to honor their dead relatives.

Festival Crowd

The origin of Obon comes from the story of Mokuren, one of Buddha’s disciples. Mokuren used his psychic powers to look for his deceased parents to see in what world they had been reborn. Dismayed at finding his mother in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, he went to Buddha to ask how he might save her. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who finished their summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (eighth in the Gregorian calendar, hence August and not July). In doing so Mokuren was able to rescue his mother. Looking into his mother’s past, he also began to see and appreciate her kindness and the many sacrifices she had made for him. Overjoyed and grateful not only for his mother’s rescue but for her selflessness, Mokuren began to celebrate and dance. His dance became known as bon odori, or simply the ‘bon  dance, which is still one of the major aspects of the bon festival to this day.

Bon Dance

I’m pretty fortunate that there is a rather large Japanese demographic where I live, and Edgewater, NJ is home to the largest Mitsuwa Japanese Marketplace in the country. These two things combined mean that every year around the 15th of August our Mitsuwa holds a giant summer festival in honor of Obon and it never fails to draw an enormous crowd. I even ran into an old coworker from my glory days working at Blockbuster and an old classmate and former club member from college. It was nice to run into old friends and catch up for a bit while enjoying a whole assortment of Japanese summer treats. There were all kinds of treats to enjoy. I had an assortment of grilled seafood, grilled chicken skewers, takoyaki (fried dough filled with octopus), yakisoba (fried noodles), okonomiyaki (Japanese style pancakes), squid pancakes with fried eggs, gyudon (rice bowls with simmered beef and onions), gyoza (Japanese dumplings), and desserts like shaved ice and mochi (sticky rice dough filled with ice cream).

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There were games where you could win prizes by shooting targets with a plastic toy bow or if you could get plastic rings caught on wooden pegs. On others you had a tiny net with a thin strip of paper and you had to delicately try to catch toys floating in a kiddie pool. Still others had a whole assortment of prizes attached to pieces of string and on the other side you had to grab one and pull and find out just which prize you ended up pulling out. You could also buy a variety of plastic Japanese festival masks. Some were the traditional demons and gods while others were things like superhero masks from Japanese television shows or even Pokemon.

Throughout the day, local Japanese cultural clubs and societies put on different displays and demonstrations. One was the trademark bon odori with singing and dancing and bells and spinning hats and parasols. The other was a taiko drumming performance. There was something really therapeutic and de-stressing about watching the flurry of sticks and movements and the yelling and the deep thunderous roar of drumbeats.

Taiko Drums.jpg

It really was a huge community event and not just for the Japanese (obviously, since I’m Grilled Seafood 2Filipino). You see a lot of people enjoying the summer festival every year. It’s not uncommon to see a couple young kids from high school and college anime clubs doing cosplay and showing up dressed as their favorite characters. There are plenty of families and it’s adorable to see little kids dressed up in yukata and kimono (traditional Japanese festival wear). I can’t tell you how many times I probably fell in love with some of the young women dressed in kimono as well. Whole generations of families, grandparents, parents, and children, Okonomiyakiwere enjoying the festival together. Some were celebrating their culture, others were learning about an entirely new and different one from their own. Plenty of couples, groups of friends, all different kinds of people coming together not just to enjoy, but tons of volunteers of all different ethnicities running booths and helping to organize the event behind the scenes as well.

In the US the summer festival is a fun celebration of Japanese culture and food. Mainly food. It’s a nice community event, but it’s obviously more about the surface level things like food, toys, and fun cultural displays. But I like to remember the spiritual origins that Ohakamairi.pngare still major in Japan. See the story of Mokuren ended up taking on a very specific and influential meaning in Japan. It became a story of honoring one’s ancestors and celebrating and appreciating family. Over the three days of the bon festival the dead are allowed to return to the realm of the living. Families clean their houses in preparation and hang lanterns to guide the spirits back home. They also visit their ancestor’s gravestones to place offerings such as food and incense and also to clean them up every year by brushing away dirt and leaves and washing them with water. This is known as ohakamairi. On the last day of the festival families light paper lanterns and set them afloat into rivers to send their ancestors’ spirits back off into the afterlife. It’s a beautiful tradition that fills Japan’s rivers at night with floating lanterns that is just surreal and serene and at times equally somber but also celebratory, remembering our family members who’ve since moved on.

Bon Lanterns.png

Obon is definitely a beautiful and wonderful time to reflect on family and to honor the people who’ve moved on. But I also think it’s an especially important time to remember to appreciate life and the moments we have, because we never know when it’s ‘ato no matsuri’. There is a Buddhist teaching that says that the most universal message the dead have to give us is that death will come for all equally. Kings, peasants, rich, poor. Obon is a surreal, magical time where the infinite divide between the living and the dead is shrunk just a little. We feel closer to the people who’ve moved on, who we miss and who were huge parts of our lives. Maybe it’s nice to think that there is this time where we might be visited by them, that they haven’t entirely left us and we can bring them home. Or maybe it’s just nice to have this festival to set aside time for us to reflect and remember them and honor their memories. But it’s also an important lesson that the best thing we can do is to live our lives fully and well, and to leave a mark on the world that our families and friends might remember in the future, so that years from now, they might light a lantern for us.

Jerel says, don’t wait until the day after the festival.

Jerel Says, ‘It’s a nice place to visit’; Tea

Nordic Lodge Entrance

It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

-Twilight Zone, ep. 28 ‘A Nice Place to Visit’

So there’s this great episode of Twilight Zone called ‘A Nice Place to Visit’. In it, a lifelong Twilight Zone Nice Place to Visitsmall-time crook finally has the law catch up with him after an attempted robbery, and after being shot by a cop, wakes up seemingly unharmed and in a bright white place, with a luxurious apartment, a gourmet meal, and a busy bustling casino. His guide, a mysterious figure named Pip, explains that this world was built entirely for him, and that anything and everything he could ever want would be provided for him. No one in the world is real, but they’re all meant to satisfy his every whim. He can eat whatever he wants whenever he wants, he lives in the most beautiful luxurious high end apartment, he can have any woman instantly fall in love with him, and no matter what he can never lose a single bet at the casino. Figuring this must be heaven and somehow he managed to get himself in despite how he’s lived his life, the man goes on to fully enjoy his seeming reward.

Of course, after about a month, he starts to grow bored. There’s no thrill without the possibility of loss. He no longer derives any joy from having his every whim instantly satisfied. He tires of the fake crowds, always cheering him on, always into him, always ‘on’. He tells Pip he’s tired of heaven, tired of this unsatisfying existence, and asks to be brought to ‘the other place’. And this is where and why this episode sticks out as one of my all-time favorites. This is where that signature Twilight Zone twist comes into play and you realize the horror of it all. Pip starts to laugh as the man struggled with the locked door trying to escape and says with self-satisfied glee, ‘Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!’

Ooh, that always gave me shudders. Now I was really young when I first saw that episode. Always wondered what could possibly be so wrong with getting all of your wishes to come true. How could having everything you’ve always wanted spread right in front of you be a bad thing?

Then, many many many years later, I was watching Travel Channel’s Buffet Paradise and there was a particular buffet that caught my eye because it was fairly close by in Rhode Island, and it seemed to me like the buffet straight out of my wildest dreams, serving and focusing almost solely on the things I loved the most.

So of course, on my way back home after two weeks in New England, I decided to extend the stay one extra day for personal reasons and finally take the opportunity to go to this buffet. I’d been dreaming of this place ever since I first saw the Buffet Paradise program back in 2013. I would often tell friends and family of it if the topics of New England, Rhode Island, or seafood ever came up. It was one of my goals to finally make this pilgrimage.

But it was on this journey that I finally understood the torture Valentine had to live through in A Nice Place to Visit. Because at the Nordic Lodge in Charlestown, RI you walk in thinking it’s heaven, but you crawl out feeling like hell.

Nordic Lodge Viking

Look into the cold, wooden eyes of the Devil

Words cannot describe my initial elation to finally be walking up the path to the Nordic Lodge. I couldn’t believe years of dreaming and yearning were finally about to be Nordic Lodge Lakefulfilled. The location is absolutely stunning. The restaurant is a giant wooden lodge on a beautiful stone foundation right next to a large lake. On the other side is a man made lake with a shooting fountain and the entire property includes a couple wide open acres of farmland with horses, alpacas, and sheep roaming around. If you’re thinking to yourself ‘oh this is lovely, a great setting to walk around and walk off my meal’, that’s what I thought too. You’re wrong. It’s to lull you into a sense of false security.

The inside is just as remarkable but for wholly different reasons. The Lodge looks like a

Nordic Lodge Round 1

Round 1: Prime Rib with sauteed mushrooms, shrimp and scallop scampi, 1 1/4 lb lobster

hunting lodge. There’s a stuffed grizzly in the bar area and mounted heads of various animals decorate the walls. It’s an all wood interior which is homey, comfortable, and nostalgic. The people are incredibly friendly. Everyone greets you with a smile, from the hostess who takes your money and gets you seated, the server who greets you with an all-too-knowing grin and gives you a personal tour of the layout of the buffet and knows just when to refill your iced tea without you ever having to ask, to the many buffet attendants who are all too happy to pile prime rib, lobster, crab legs, oysters, hot foods, or ice cream onto your plate.

Nordic Lodge Round 2

Round 2: 1/2 dozen oysters and king crab legs

This is not your Vegas style fly around the world smorgasbord. There are at best, maybe around twenty different dishes. But what they lack in variety they more than make up for in actual noticeable quality. All of their grilled meats are certified Black Angus beef and the prime rib is juicy, tender, and cooked to a nice medium rare with a gorgeous amount of pink. You can dress the meat however you choose, with horseradish mustard,

Nordic Lodge Round 3

Round  3: More of the same BUT with the addition of bacon wrapped sccallops

sour cream, au jus, sauteed mushrooms and onions, or more butter. The scampi is sweet, buttery, garlicky, and full of fresh plump shrimp and scallops. There are bacon wrapped scallops that are fatty, meaty, crispy, but still sweet, soft, and buttery. The lobster are bright red and hefty, full of meat and juices. There’s nothing like cracking into a fresh lobster and knowing there’s going to be a good amount of meat inside. The lobster juices (what experts and aficionados call the tamale) inside the head taste like the sea. If you’re lucky and get a female, there might even be some super sweet lobster roe inside too. The claws are meaty and the tails are plump and slide right out of the shell. The Nordic Lodge also prides itself in its raw bar, and the oysters were sweet and meaty and full of great flavor and the oyster liquor is never spilled or wasted. The crab legs, giant meaty king crab, are sweet and salty and freshly steamed and pop right out for you.

Nordic Lodge Round 4

Round 4: More than a 1/2 dozen oysters and another pile of crab

After the first bite, I was in heaven. After the first lobster, experiencing nirvana. After the first plate, convinced I was in paradise. Around the third plate I was beginning to wonder what I had actually gotten myself into. By the fourth, I knew my soul had been lured into a trap. Long distance runners will tell you about hitting ‘the wall’. A mental

Nordic Lodge Round 5

Round  5: Haagen-Dazs coffee milkshake, Haagen-Dazs butter pecan with whipped cream, strawberry topping, and crushed Oreos, lemon bars, and strawberry shortcake sandwich

barrier that threatens every runner’s resolve and could spell disaster. The mind wants to shut down and every step feels like a leap. Well, eaters have the same thing. Every small bite feels like a pound of food in your mouth. Swallowing becomes arduous. Sweet becomes sickeningly sweet. Salty becomes super salty. Textures become warped and take on sinister mental implications. By the time I made it to the dessert bar, not only had I hit the wall, but I felt like it had fallen right on top of me. But, my mind implored, it’s Haagen-Dazs! Who gets to eat all you can eat Haagen-Dazs? We should probably get some anyways. Ooh and look at all the pretty baked things! Everyone at the dessert bar funnily enough had the exact same look. A dead, thousand-yard stare just trying to look beyond the void and read the list of available Haagen-Dazs flavors and toppings. We’re all beyond the ability of standing on our own accord, leaning against the wooden counter just to make sure we don’t fall over from the sheer weight of our stomachs. We all look at each other knowing the pain we’re going through and yet we can’t help but get a scoop of ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream, a spoonful of strawberry topping, and some of the baked desserts too.

This is literal and figurative hell at this point. You’re so full of food nothing makes sense anymore. You have an existential crisis in the middle of the restaurant, questioning everything you know. Suddenly all the mounted heads feel like they’re looking right at Louis CK Fullyou. Every one of the god damn staff is so god damn nice and polite and cheerful you feel sick. They’re so happy! Why are they so happy?! I’m miserable! What is going on. Stop smiling at me. You bastard, you know what you’ve done to me. I wonder if behind their smiles they take secret pleasure in causing so much pain. I just want to stumble around in pain and misery but everyone keeps greeting me and saying hello and asking how I’m doing and if I’m happy and if I’m enjoying and joking about the food and I want to wring their necks. I’m laughing and crying at the same time. I feel like all the constituent parts I’ve eaten have reassembled themselves into whole animals in my stomach. I don’t know how to walk anymore. I see more and more people coming in and Full CatI want to yell out warnings, tell them to turn back, abandon all hope ye who enter here, but all that comes out is a mighty burp that only slightly relieves the pain. I’ve never spoken in burps before but I fear I’ll never get rid of all this pressure. What was at first a gorgeous expansive property is now just a vast wasteland separating me from my only means of escape from this hell. I finally reach my car and become one with the chorus of moans and cries echoing from all the weary drivers in the lot. This buffet did what I thought wasn’t possible. What I failed to understand about that Twilight Zone episode from my youth. That you can actually be destroyed by having too much of everything you’ve ever wanted.

I am a big fan of The Twilight Zone. I love how it never tried to be explicitly, overtly scary. It was never about monsters or ghouls, ghosts or zombies, Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. Instead, it wanted to get into our heads, peel back our innermost fears, terrify us not with the extraordinary, but with the ordinary. It was pure psychological horror in TV opera form. It might not get you while you’re watching. It might not even be the subject of that night’s nightmares. But eventually, inevitably,  you’re going to feel that immeasurable dread like you, too, are caught…in the Twilight Zone.

Jerel says, ‘it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’.

Jerel Says, ‘Eat the Uni’; Bumble

Sushi Banner

First or second date, I would always take a woman to a really good sushi bar and I would order uni. If she didn’t eat the uni, that relationship was pretty much over. If she’s immune to the charms of sea urchin row or unwilling to try it, there’s no hope.

-Anthony Bourdain on dating

We all have our dating quirks. Relational eccentricities that, beyond any real rhyme or reason, we still look for, or look to, in a person. Even though I’ve definitely changed, Relationship Testlearned a lot, and hopefully shifted some of my priorities and desires when it comes to relationships and the kind of person I want to be with and the reasons I would want to be with them for, I still have these dating ‘tests’ from before that I have used and will still probably always use when I’m dating someone new. Some of it makes sense to me, some of them are about matters of compatibility or the importance of sharing similar interests. Others are just there to help me feel better, more confident about a potential relationship. Now take these for what you will. Obviously I sometimes tend to speak in hyperbole. Would I really consider scrapping an entire potential relationship because a girl might ‘fail’ one or two of these tests? Of course not.

I mean…probably not.

But definitely, maybe.


Jerel’s New Relationship Dating Tests

THE SUSHI TEST

This is of course, inspired by my culinary and lifestyle role model, Anthony Bourdain. He Sushi Jumphas stated in numerous interviews and various episodes on No Reservations and Parts Unknown how important and integral sushi is to him not only in terms of food but in matters of the heart as well. I have always loved sushi, but I’ll admit I was a young naive ignorant fool compared to the master, Bourdain. I wasn’t even good enough to get a white belt in his dojo. But over the years and through extensive study and application *coughs*allyoucaneatsushibuffets*coughs* I too learned the secret ways. I learned that sushi is a finger food first and foremost. Or that sushi should be dipped fish side down into the soy sauce. And don’t you EVER, EVER, EVER let me catch you mixing the wasabi into your soy sauce. And that really great sushi is about the rice, not the fish. It’s 90% in the quality and attention and care to the type of rice and the preparation and seasoning of it.

So what’s the test? It’s part knowledge and part sense of adventure. I usually like to take a girl to a sushi restaurant on the third date. It’s a little more into the relationship than Bourdain, but then I don’t have Bourdain money, so I figure there could be other red flags worth noting before really investing in the sushi test. So by the third date, I’m Sushi Lovemaybe kind of already hoping it’s gonna work out alright. First off, it’s major negative points if I’m with someone who can look me straight in the eye and say ‘oh my god I love sushi’ and then order nothing but California rolls or shrimp tempura rolls or the absolute worst, deep fried sushi. First of all, there’s no way in hell if I want authentic genuine high quality sushi that I would take someone to a place that even has these on the menu. So if she’s searching for it when we order, I’m searching for the exit. While I would be absolutely thrilled and enamored if I found out the person I was with was just as into sushi and knew all the best pieces and ate them with confidence and style and all the right etiquette, I would be just as happy to see them at least interested and adventurous enough to try. Yes, uni would be on the menu. As well as squid, octopus, and raw scallop. Don’t lie about how much you know about sushi and at the very least be interested and open enough to try. Though I would also note, of all my past relationships, the worst have this in common: the girls did not like sushi. So yeah, it might be important that someone I want to spend a good portion of my life with should probably like my absolute favorite food.

Pass: Basic interest/knowledge in sushi or willingness to try/learn

Fail: Lying about their interest in sushi or not having any to begin with

Extra Credit: Orders the uni first and eats it all with her fingers

THE IKEA TEST

I was doing this before (500) Days of Summer! I never thought the deep dark secrets of my dating world would be plastered all over the big screen with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. The Ikea Test comes after the sushi test. This girl is now more than Ikea Fail.gifjust someone I’ve seen a couple times and want to date. This is like, girlfriend territory waters we’re not dipping our big toe in. Like the way they test their furniture, I’m going to use Ikea to stress test this relationship. It’s gonna have to last longer than 1000 open and closes. We start at the Ikea Cafe, which to me is not celebrated nearly enough for the quality of the food and the price. Great Swedish meatballs with that rich creamy gravy and mashed potatoes, sweet and tart lingonberry jam, smoked salmon with mustard and dill, and some of the best fries. Crispy crunchy crusty surfaces with soft fluffy insides. But be honest. The moment I mentioned ‘we’re going to be eating at Ikea’, how did you really feel. Because that’s what I’m gonna want to find out about the girl I’m dating. Look, anyone can take anyone to a five-star top quality first class restaurant and have a great time and enjoy the food and the company. Now I’m not saying I’m taking someone to some unmarked shady hellhole of a restaurant. It’s a bright and well lit and clean cafe with practical, affordable, yet well made Swedish furniture. And the food is good. It really is. We can even get some soft serve ice cream on our way out. They have strawberry topping too if you’d like. The point is, life isn’t always going to be top of the tops. Anyone can enjoy that. I want someone who can see beyond that, to simpler and humbler things, and not only find joy in that, but add to it too.

Then we wander and walk off our meal on the Ikea showroom floor. And we get into conversations that honestly, I don’t know why so many people in relationships avoid. They think that those uncomfortable topics like, what kind of place do you want to live Ikea Datein, what kind of family would you want, where would you want to live, etc are taboo or that they’ll scare a partner. But let me tell you, even on first dates, it’s sometimes nice to break the barrier and get to those kinds of questions because you bond sooner and because really, who the hell wants to talk about the weather, or what they think of the city. No one ended up with their lifelong partner because they both liked the weather. In fact, a dating study found that when they forced couples on first dates to ask more ‘controversial’ topics (number of sexual partners, any history of STDs, if they’ve ever been broken hearted or broken someone’s heart) by the end of the date both the questioner and the replier felt closer and more satisfied with the other person. So here is this opportunity, in a very non-threatening, non-committal, and informal manner, to jokingly but also honestly imagine what a future would look like, and ask those questions responsible people should ask of each other.

Pass: She enjoys the Ikea date in good humor, and is comfortable with the ensuring showroom communication.

Fail: Her upturned nose poo-poos the Ikea date.

Extra Credit: Not only is she so familiar with the dishes she can order them in Swedish, but on the showroom floor she names the furniture she wants us to get.

THE MOVIE TEST

Oh this is way way waaay more than ‘Netflix and chill’. No self-respecting adult should Better Off Deadever utter that phrase unironically. Now it’s obvious I’m a huge cinephile. But this isn’t about finding another film nerd, or quizzing some poor girl on movie trivia. Even I wouldn’t enjoy that. As I’ve mentioned in the past, movies are portals for our emotions, and great movies awaken the Better Off Deaddeepest and most filling and profound expressions. So to save us years of having to dig to find moments of equal emotional depth, I figure I could just have us watch certain movies and see how we (she) will react. I’d like to see how compatible our senses of humor are. Would we be able to find humor in the same things. (Good god I don’t have much, if she doesn’t find me funny I’ve got even less.) Do we share the same outlook and opinion on things like love and relationships. Do we feel emotions on similar levels, is there that sense of empathy that could help us understand each other better. We would actually have to focus and you know, watch these movies, rather than just have it playing in the background and making out.

I love a thousand movies. And in the course of  my life I’ll probably love a thousand more. But two essential must watch films for me are Better Off Dead and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both, interestingly enough, have breakups as the catalysts for the Eternal Sunshineplot. Obviously one is more humorous and the other more dramatic, but both are about how we deal with separation and how we move on in search of love and forever. They’re also both filled with absolutely stunning visuals. Eternal Sunshine has incredibly beautiful natural landscapes and scene-scapes, from the dramatic dismantling of the beach house scene to the wide beautiful sweeping shots of the beaches of Montauk and the frozen waters of the lake. The dream world scenes and the memory wipe scenes are beautiful and done so simply with minimal effects but lasting impression. Better Off Dead is visually overflowing with subplots, visual gags, and extra treats to unlock with further viewings. I remember the scene in Lane Meyer’s math class when his teacher asks everyone to take out their homework and there are a series of brief close up shots of various students bumbling about in their desks and bags. You’ve got one boy who is printing an entire thesis on an old dot-matrix printer, another girl has a metal accordion file that expands to like twenty sections of work. And you’ve got Lane (played by John Cusack) taking out a single folded piece of paper that’s stuck together with old gum and all it says is ‘do homework’. It’s visual gag overload, and there’s even a slightly creepy completely out of Eternal Sunshineleft field claymation scene with a Frankenstein-esque burger that freakishly comes to life and starts singing Van Halen. To me, both are excellent examples of their genre. Eternal Sunshine never fails to bring up these feelings of heartbreak and sadness but also nostalgia and optimism. And it evokes conversation about how we deal with loss, and what we view as the value of a relationship, regardless of it succeeds or not. Better Off Dead is so much more than just silly humor. It’s coming of age, it’s innocence, and it’s the joy and excitement of discovering new opportunities. It is also full of timeless cultural references, and I’ll always want my ‘two dollars!’

Pass: She enjoys the movies in much the same way, and I can tell we share the same sense of humor and outlook on relationships.

Fail: She falls asleep or doesn’t laugh/feel anything.

Extra Credit: She brings her own blu-ray copies.


Relationship Test 2So yeah, these are three of the relationship tests. Don’t know when my next chance to do them will be, but there they are waiting for the next soul. How did you do? Would you have passed some of these, or even gotten the extra credit? And do you have your own innocent little ‘tests’ when you date someone? I’d love to know!

Jerel says, ‘eat the uni’.

Day 339: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 6: Where I Ate; ‘Volume’

Highlights Edition

I could actually fill a full week’s worth of posts with every meal I ate in Canada, but I’ve decided to do a highlights edition on the more memorable dishes at the restaurants I’ve visited. I hope that these posts make you want to plan a visit to Montreal and Quebec too.

Schwartz’s Delicatessen

Alright my New Yorkers, listen up. North of the border, the smoked meat sandwiches at Schwartz’s Deli are giving pastrami a run for its money. The sandwiches are packed. When I first got there I thought I’d have to get two because I was really hungry (shocker, I know). But one sandwich and an order of fries had me crawling out of there. Smoked meat is actually super tender beef brisket seasoned and smoked overnight to create a juicy, succulent, wonderfully meaty flavor. It differs from pastrami in that it has none of the peppery bark that pastrami characteristically has. The sandwiches are modestly dressed with some mustard on white bread but that meat is just…out of this world. I would highly recommend, if you can handle it, to ask specifically for the fatty cuts. It’s a really beefy flavor so be prepared. Otherwise a regular sandwich has a nice balance of fat and lean. I’m not gonna lie, I’m a smoked meat convert. Unfortunately there’s no place to get them around here, so I remain a pastrami eater by circumstance.

St. Viateur Bagels

St. Viateur vs Fairmount is perhaps the most dividing argument between all Montrealers. Both of the famous noteworthy bakeries are within a block of each other and you can find eateries all over the city proudly displaying signs of which bakery’s bagels they feature. I’ve had both in different places, but I took a pilgrimage to St. Viateur because after much deliberation, I am fully in St. Viateur’s camp. But I will speak to both of their strengths. If you like to toast your bagels, you’re going to prefer Fairmount. They bake their bagels a little bit longer, so they are browner, firmer, and have a crunchier crust. It crackles into crumbly goodness as you bite down into it and the bagel has a more pronounced aroma. I don’t like to toast my bagels. I like them soft, fluffy, and even a little bit chewy. St. Viateur visibly, noticeably, almost under-bakes them, so that the bagels are paler and much softer. There is still a slight crust, but you can really focus on the soft, fluffy, chewy interior of a St. Viateur bagel. The bagel itself has a great flavor, not at all bland, and the signature sesame bagel is incredible when you grab one fresh out of their oven. Be forewarned, St. Viateur’s original location is more of a bagel factory than an eatery. You can buy individual bagels, packs of cream cheese, spreads, and smoked salmon too no problem, but there are no seats, no tables, and they can’t slice it for you. You want to make yourself a fancy bagel, take it home. But if you want to grab a seat on a city bench right outside the store, break off bits of bagel and dip it into some cream cheese, and watch the people go in and out, then enjoy.

Patati Patata

Patati Patata Poutine

No trip to Montreal is complete without trying poutine, the quintessentially Quebecoise late night snack. My vote for best poutine in Montreal is Patati Patata. A tiny, unassuming hole in the wall diner that serves non-stop crowds of locals and poutine devotees. This place is salvation after a long night of drinking as you stumble down the quiet Montreal streets. I had the bacon poutine. Fluffy, warm, thick cut french fries are covered in a brown gravy with a bit of saltiness to help season the entire dish. Generous chunks of sizable cheese curds warm and slightly melt from the gravy but not to the point of turning into a gooey, gloppy mess (the cardinal sin of poutine). Mine benefited from an extra dose of salty crispy goodness from chopped bacon. If there’s anything worth eating to death, poutine is definitely one of them.

Le Buffet De L’Antiquaire

My first night in Quebec I went to this restaurant for a taste of authentic, old-school, traditional Quebec dishes. Quebec is a city of beautiful tiny restaurants and outdoor dining. The restaurant has an extensive menu with plenty of offerings. I had a hard time picking, and honestly of the places I’d been during my trip, Buffet de l’Antiquaire is one of the restaurants I wouldn’t mind repeating, as I really felt there were so many items worth trying and discovering. Going with the recommendation of my waitress, I ordered the meat pie. Real traditional Quebec comfort food. Simple, hearty, and oh so filling. Layers of puff pastry filled with sliced potatoes, ground beef, chicken, and pork filled with juicy gravy. The pickled beets and buttered stewed vegetables were surprisingly good. I even ate my peas. I hate peas. I don’t hate theirs though. This would have kept a lumberjack full and warm in the cold Quebec winters no doubt.

Cafe du Monde

A quick glance at this Quebec restaurant’s website will tell you that they do things a bit differently. There is a palpable environment of fun, welcome, and whimsy in this beautiful restaurant right on the waterfront. It’s got an amazing view of the St. Lawrence river and a great bar selection. The duck confit was well done, the skin achieving a crisp texture and the meat succulent and moist.  I also had my first incredible, authentic, Gaspesian chowder. Gaspesie is a peninsula in Quebec known for its maritime traditions and cuisine. Gaspesian chowder is rich and creamy, like a New England clam chowder, with potatoes, bacon, clams, but also tender bits of salmon. The absolute standout though, is the absolutely ludicrous, sinfully delicious, insanely rich FOIE GRAS CREME BRULEE. Oh yes, I said it. That’s what they did. For an appetizer. A creme custard mixed with foie gras then cooked in a water bath and finished with that signature burnt sugar caramel. There’s something wrong and yet oh so right about a dish that sweet, rich, fatty, and savory.

The sheer volume of variety, diversity, and quality of restaurants in Montreal and Quebec is staggering. There are plenty of talented, genuine, sincere chefs making honest, authentic, and innovative dishes. The culinary scene in Montreal is exciting without being pretentious. It all feels so down to earth and homey. It is a gourmand’s paradise, or hell, depending on how you enter and if you can ever leave.

Day 339

Man: 306 Loneliness: 33

Day 335: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 5: Where I Ate; ‘Crisp’

So my last post was just about my first night in Montreal, breaking into the new city with a taste tour of Japan at Kinka Izakaya. The next morning I had my Old Montreal food Liverpool Logotour which I mentioned in previous posts on what to see and do in the city. That night I met up with an old high school friend and her husband. I hadn’t seen them since I was in Toronto…so so many years ago for their wedding. It was great to see them again and catch up. Often times when you hear stories of old friends meeting up again after some time, they talk about how amazed they are at how different everyone looked. I was more amazed by how it looked like we had just seen each other last weekend, and how easily and readily the conversation and good times flowed as such too. I hate to admit that I am very, very bad at maintaining communication with people. Out of sight out of mind is more often the norm for me. I had messaged them a bit before my trip so we could arrange some time to meet and catch up, but other than that, I really hadn’t spoken to them since the wedding. But it felt great to see each other, and I knew, as always, we would be able to pick up right where we left off.

Liverpool President

But let me tell you about the food. The benefit of having had this trip planned in my head so far in advance is as soon as we had set a date, I already knew where we were eating and scrambled to make the reservation. I was actually in Punta Cana and, taking Liverpool Houseadvantage of the free calls to the US and Canada at the resort, made my reservation from there while I was on my work trip. I got us a highly sought after reservation at one of the best, craziest, gastronomically astronomical restaurants in the city, Liverpool House. You might recognize the dining room from the recent photo of (it hurts my heart to say this) former president Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ‘bro-date’. And let me tell you, if it’s good enough for me, you can bet it’s good enough for two of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Liverpool House is the sister restaurant to Joe Beef next door, both under the careful, watchful, and expert eye of co-owners Frédéric Morin and David McMillan. Joe Beef is still one of the most exclusive and hard to secure reservations in Montreal if not the entire country, and continues to elude me to this day. But to sit and dine at Liverpool House is more than just a consolation prize. It is an experience in and of itself; one nothing short of culinary excess and near perfection.

Much like Joe Beef, the menu at  Liverpool House changes regularly with seasonality and Liverpool Foie Grasinspiration. Giant blackboards dominate a majority of the restaurant’s walls listing specials, current cheese offerings, and a wine selection that would make a Frenchman drunk just reading it. The dining room is more ‘survivalist uncle’s living room’ than ‘fine dining mecca’. Wood-paneled walls, stuffed deer heads, and various eclectic pieces of nostalgic knickknacks. The tiny, two room restaurant is packed the night of our reservation and as we wait for our table to be cleared, we all start taking mental notes of the dishes that pass through from the kitchen to the dining room and what looks and smells the best. We start our meal with a sinfully large portionLiverpool Oysters of foie gras served with a Prosecco gelee and warm, fresh bread. The foie is rich, buttery, smooth, and incredibly fatty. When the cool foie meets the warm bread it truly becomes one of life’s greatest pleasures. Perhaps the controversial preparation of foie gras has us straying further and further from God’s light, but I’d rather be a sinner anyways. We also order a half dozen oysters from different parts of the Eastern Canadian coast to start. I am reminded that I Liverpool Crab Spaghettiam in French country when I see my cocktail sauce has been replaced with freshly grated horseradish and mignonette sauce but I am too busy slurping away and enjoying the salty sweet liqueur to mind. Our other started is a light and creamy pappardelle pasta tossed with snow crab meat and fresh garden peas.  The pasta is freshly made in house and has a wonderfully toothsome texture that soaks up the cream and crab sauce. There are large, sizable, generous chunks of seasoned snow crab mixed into the pasta that add an ocean saltiness to the rich cream.

We each order separate entrees with the firm understanding that we will be sharing all three amongst each other. My friend orders the lobster spaghetti which is an all-time Liverpool Lobsterfavorite and classic staple of both Joe Beef and Liverpool house. A generous portion of fresh spaghetti is tossed in a rich and creamy tomato based sauce that is super infused with the flavor of lobster and served with two whole cracked claws.  The tail meat is chopped and mixed into the dish. This is one of the most essential dishes of the restaurant and I highly recommend any newcomer first makes sure to order this for the table. Liverpool House is very particular to ensure that the seafood is always fresh, local, and meaty. It takes little to no effort to get into the pre-cracked claws and extract whole, juicy, tantalizing pieces of claw meat. Her husband orders the half roast chicken served on top of roasted vegetables and a cream of leek sauce. I had a portion of the breast, which I normally do not enjoy because it can become too dry, but this piece was Liverpool Chickensuperbly moist and tender, with a delicately crisp skin crackling with flavor. The chicken’s natural juices were still captured inside the meat and burst when you bit into it. Being the unrepentant carnivore, I wanted to try one of their specials, which was a horse filet wrapped in bacon served with radish, foie gras mousse (because why not have extra foie on everything), and a peppercorn sauce. This was my first experience with horse and I have to tell you, it would be a huge shame if people thought of horses as too domesticated to be considered a viable meat source. There are very many otherLiverpool Horse portions of the world who regularly eat horse meat and I can see why. It is tender, lean, has a wonderful flavor, and is incredibly juicy. The horse filet was treated just like a large steak would be, seared and done to just medium rare with fatty smokey bacon wrapped around to add extra flavor. Mixing the foie gras mousse with the vegetables on top made for an excellent accompaniment. Liverpool House’s wine selection is also top notch, Old World producers and our waiter recommended a wonderfully spicy merlot to pair with my filet.

The three of us, fully stuffed, satisfied, and satiated with an incredible variety of starters Liverpool Briocheand entrees, naturally came to the conclusion that we had eaten way too much already to order dessert… individually. Instead we decided to share a maple brioche bun stuffed with sweet cream ice cream and served with the fresh strawberries, just picked from the beginning of the season. This brioche bun with its fluffy interior and sweet sticky maple exterior, lightly caramelized and browned sugar crust, was everything I wanted a real French pastry to be. And those fresh Montreal strawberries, so tiny but so packed and bursting with sweet tartness, were some of the best strawberries I’ve ever had. Real quality produce that tasted of just pure fruit, grown with attention and care. My friend did tell me that, according to our childhood in Jersey, Montreal fruits were some of the best.

I knew way before we even got to the restaurant and started ordering to our heart’s content that I would be treating my friends that night. A combination of the joy of reunion, the excitement of a new career, the adrenaline of being in a new city, and the slight guilt of not having spoken to them in well over five years, made that decision for me a long time before. So I ninja’ed my way from the table under the pretense of using the restroom, covered the bill, popped my head into the kitchen to compliment the staff, and we headed out into the night. They were kind enough to drop me off at my hotel afterwards, we chatted for a bit more, and once it was starting to really get late they left and headed back home to a suburb just off the island. I meanwhile, had the night, and this beautiful city, to reflect and reminisce not just on what was one of the best meals I’d ever had in one of the best restaurants I have ever been to, but on the rare opportunity I was afforded to meet up with old and dear friends to catch up and chase away the time.

Day 335

Man: 302 Loneliness: 33

Day 332: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 4: Where I Ate; ‘Uniform’

Now comes the very very best part of this entire trip and really, the best highlights of them all. Montreal and Quebec have long been on the lists of go-to destinations for gourmands everywhere and for good reason. There is a very strong and established history and identity with traditional dishes, an exciting influx of new chefs with new ideas and new innovations, and a multiculturalism and diversity of cuisines and culinary adventurousness. Pair all of this with some of the best, freshest, and highest quality produce and meats, and you have a culinary hot spot. But you don’t have to take my word for it (though you really should). Here’s what my culinary (and lifestyle) idol, Anthony Bourdain, has to say about this city.

I had a light lunch on the train heading into Montreal my first day because I knew I was Kinka Izakayagoing to be feasting straight from the get-go. My first stop late night after checking into my hotel would be Kinka Izakaya, only a block away from my hotel. Coincidence? You should know me better by now. Their Montreal location is the newest of this Japanese bar food empire which started in Toronto and has since expanded to other parts of Canada, Tokyo, and with an anticipated addition in New York. I’ve been to the one in Toronto back when I was a poor and struggling college student, and now I was prepared to return with a vengeance, wreaking havoc on their menu. I started with a gallop. A pint of Sapporo to wash down marinated jellyfish, beef carpaccio, and seared salmon. Jellyfish is a popular dish in Asian restaurants, especially bars. The texture is firm but has a slight bouncy give to it, making it fun to eat. It is a bit bland, but takes on flavors incredibly well. In this instance it was marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, and sweet sake. It has that satisfying crunch that most people crave when drinking,Kinka First Round and a slightly sweet but deep flavor from the sesame. The beef carpaccio is Wagyu beef slightly seared and then served with ponzu sauce, a light wasabi mayo, fried garlic chips, and daikon radish with green onion garnish. The meat was wonderfully tender with a strong beef flavor, expected of what is essentially beef sashimi. Swirling it a bit to pick up the complex salty sweetness of the ponzu really elevated the taste and the fried garlic and mayo rounded it out well. The vegetables even picked up some of that marinade and meat juices so I had no problems eating even the daikon. The seared salmon was served in the same ponzu, mayo, garlic combination as the beef though of course it had a completely different reaction. The salmon was super fresh and firm, with a great color and texture. The light sear on the outside and the still cool and raw center was a great contrast of texture, flavor, and temperature.

After the first round of dishes I was ready to really get into a party mood, so I ordered a 1st Flightflight of sake, rice wine from Japan. Kinka actually makes a house sake that was one of my favorites of the night. Crisp dry finish and a slightly sweet polished taste. Sake is categorized by how much of the rice grain is polished before the fermentation process. The more it is polished, the clearer the sake, and the more pronounced the flavor. But just like anything else, this is a game of preferences. Just because a sake is super polished (usually2nd Flight to around 50% of the original grain) doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best tasting. It’s all down to what you prefer, and the only way to figure that out is to try as much as you can! Over the course of the night I had two sake flights that helped me figure out my favorites. Kinka‘s original sake is highly recommended, as well as the Yawari which is a bit sweeter.

I drank because I ate, but now I have to eat because I just drank! It’s a vicious, wonderful Kinka Spicy Salmon.jpgcycle. So what better way to chase my sake flight and second beer than with another beer and more dishes? First I ordered their negitoro which, translated is literally ‘green onion’ (negi) with ‘tuna’ (toro). This is a popular sushi dish in many Japanese sushi bars, and Kinka turns it into more casual bar fare by serving it like a dip or make your own taco. The negitoro is finely minced Albacore tuna that is mixed together with some spicy mayo and plenty of green onions. You spoon a little (or aKinka Short Ribs lot, it’s your party) onto the nori seaweed sheets, dip it into the soy sauce, and enjoy the bite size morsels that pack plenty of flavor. Just the right amount of heat is balanced with the green onion and there is nothing quite like the texture of roasted seaweed to bring out the best in fresh fish. I also had kalbi, which is admittedly a bit more Korean than Japanese, but who is going to complain about grilled marinated beef short ribs? The marinade is sweet and salty and the ribs are grilled with just the right amount of char and smoky flavor. The rib meat is chewy and firm (though for Asians this is a good thing, as we enjoy a bit of bite to our Kinka Baked Oystermeat) but still yields well enough and peels right off the bone. It was also in the second round that I had the absolute highlight, must have, cannot be missed dish of all the Kinka establishments. You. Must. Have. Their. KAKIMAYO. ‘Kaki’ meaning ‘oyster’ and mayo. This is the BEST. Oh man. My mouth waters just thinking of it. Giant behemoth sized oysters are shucked and prepared with tiny button mushrooms, spinach, garlic, Japanese mayo, and cheese and then baked in the oven until the cheese is bubbling and and the oyster liqueur begins to simmer. The oysters themselves firm and plump up with a super concentrated flavor and that gratin like effect of the cheese and mushrooms makes this dish savory, salty perfection. Do. Not. Share. If you want this, and you’ll want this, get your own.

After this round I had another Sapporo and another sake flight, after which I was ready to wind down the night’s meal with juuust a few more dishes. Because it’s vacation, andKinka Kimchi Udon what do we have on vacation if not license to live in the excess of what we deny ourselves normally. I begin the end with some kimchi udon. A fusion dish of chewy, firm, broad Japanese udon noodles mixed with a combination of spicy cod roe and kimchi, Korean spicy pickled cabbage. After the super savoriness of the oysters, this spice, as well as the crunch of the cabbage, was most welcome. In Japanese restaurants, it is not taboo to slurp your noodles, though it isn’t exactly expected or a ‘compliment to the chef’ either, as some click bait travel articles might have you believe. It is simply the way of doing things. Kinka Kara AgeThe udon noodles are incredibly slick and smooth, and with the weight of the broad noodles and the length, they are particularly fun to slurp. In between noodles a bite of the spicy cod roe and kimchi will waken any dulled senses, and the green onion and nori strips serve as balanced accompaniment. No visit to a Japanese pub would be complete without some of the best fried foods to grace your cholesterol count. Japanese frying techniques have been elevated to art forms, from the world famous tempura, to the humble home style frying like ebi furai and kaki furai. First, karaage, fried chicken pieces served with a garlic mayo. You can see in the pic that these are not just some popcorn chicken to shake your fork at. These are giant pieces. Juicy thigh meat is cut up into sizable chunks and then fried with very little batter, so the skill of the person frying is important as there is no batter to shield the tender meat inside. Good karaage has a crispy exterior with a juicy tender interior. These pieces wereKinka Ebi Fry just like that. Some bits of skin perfectly fried crisp, juicy dark meat, and that Japanese mayo is like sweet golden nectar on EVERYTHING. If you have not ever known the joys of Japanese mayo, I feel for you. Kewpie Mayonnaise. Marvels of the modern world, get that delivered. The last dish I had was the ebi furai. A simpler, homier version of shrimp tempuraebi furai is battered deep fried shrimp with spicy mayo and served with fried shrimp crackers. I grew up with these crackers but for those who are not familiar, they are puffed up chips made with powdered shrimp that have a strong fishy taste. The ebi furai kept the shrimp inside juicy, tender, and plump and the fried breading had no excess oiliness or greasiness. A uniform texture with no overdone or underdone bits, perfect to be eaten tail and all. Oh yes, you have to eat the tail.

This was only my first night in the city, and honestly you would have thought I was in Tokyo. The entire environment and ambiance of Kinka Izakaya is incredible. You are greeted with the standard ‘Irasshaimase’ and a super attentive and cheerful staff. Orders are yelled out in Japanese and the open kitchen acknowledges in equally loud, forceful, and energetic cheers. Order a sake bomb and the staff lead you on a cheering ritual to drop shots of sake into a glass of beer. Great food, great staff, and an authentic and energetic environment really set the mood for a great trip. As I stumbled back to my hotel, full and happy, I knew this was going to be the beginning of a lifelong obsession and love with this city.

Day 332

Man: 299 Loneliness: 33

Day 277: The Man and the Dining on Verses; ‘Unravel’

I’ve been on a Japan kick recently, and over the weekend I went to Edgewater, which in my area is a town with a very large Japanese population, to enjoy a nice Japanese lunch, Kimi No Na Wa.jpgdo some grocery shopping, and then watch Kimi No Na Wa (Your Name). If you haven’t yet heard of this anime, and I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t, you should know it is the highest grossing anime film ever, and Japan’s fourth largest grossing film overall. This movie is big, people. If you find the opportunity to watch this movie I would highly recommend it. It started a limited theatre showing in the US on April 7th but was actually released last year. It is a beautiful film, both visually and emotionally. I love that Japan has continued to keep alive the great tradition of hand drawn animation. Most US animated movies have become completely CG, and while it is technically brilliant, it lacks, for me, the same emotion and care. Traditionally drawn animation still reigns supreme in my heart for animated movies. Yes there’s a very special place for films like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke and The Secret World of Arrietty but I don’t leave out Western films too like Lion KingAladdin, and my personal favorite Western animation, Mulan. These are then followed by clay-mation like Studio Laika’s Kubo, Coraline, and Boxtrolls. CGI is fun and the technology is incredible with great potential but I have no real heart for them. Kimi No Na Wa is full of spirit and heart, and its delicate story is enhanced by the subtlety and lightness of traditional animation. I have seen more of Japan in anime than I have in real life, and yet I feel I can speak so much already on the spirit of Japanese landscapes and cityscapes based on how they treat it in their drawings. I won’t lie, there were times during the movie when tears would not stop falling, and the ultimate resolution of the film had me emotionally invested. As the stories and relationships between Taki and Mitsuha tangle, unravel, and come back together, I’ve no doubt you’ll find yourself drawn in as well.

I also got to enjoy a great Japanese meal at Mitsuwa, which is a supermarket chain in the US specializing in Japanese imports and usually has a few stores and a kick ass food court to boot. I always end up over-ordering because there are just too many great choices but I’m proud to say I was able to control myself and stuck just to my kaki-fry (deliciously crispy and light fried oysters), some rice, and miso soup. And a bowl of ramen. Okay, and two onigiri. And some green tea ice cream. Afterwards I did some grocery shopping to make a special bento lunch for myself for Monday. I’m starting a new project at work learning a new system and getting ready to train in the near future so I decided a new haircut and a big lunch would help put me in the right mindset and get focused.

Bento Lunch

One day I will definitely write at length on the culinary traditions of Japan, particularly the ‘5 pillars’ of Japanese cooking. It is a wonderful philosophy that harmonizes taste, nutrition, aesthetic, and Buddhist teachings all in one beautifully delicious package. But as it is National Poetry Month and in the spirit of such, I will instead dedicate this time to trying to capture the essence of food in verse. Poetry and food have always had a deep, visceral connection. There is nothing quite like the appearance, texture, and taste of truly divine food to awaken the poetic muse, and nothing like good poetry to elicit the same hunger in the soul as the thought of food does to the stomach. Some truly wonderful poems have been composed to food: the memories, the experiences, the tastes, the emotional and spiritual connections.

This is Just to Say

-poem by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

 

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast.

 

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold.

Now I’m not saying the next time you’re hungry try to satiate yourself on some Shakespeare. But what I am saying is the next time you have a particularly wonderful meal, or perhaps happen to come upon a particularly beautiful fruit, or find a special memory being formed around food, try to imagine how a poet would capture that moment. Would it be in the satisfying sounds of a meal as you crunch down on crispy crackling or the feeling of sweet wine on parched lips that smile with each sip or in how the secrets of the universe open up in the sweetness of a peach around its dense dark star-like pit. In the spirit of my wonderful bento lunch from yesterday and in honor of Japan’s own poetic claim to fame the haiku, I end first with a poem by Matsuo Basho, the master of haiku from Japan’s Edo period, and then a haiku of my own composition about the joys of office bento.

-poem by Matsuo Basho

Coolness of the melons

flecked with mud

in the morning dew.

Bento Second

-poem by ManVsLoneliness

Office icebox hides

hidden treasure of five tastes,

colors, but one mind

Day 277

Man: 244 Loneliness: 33

 

Day 223: The Man and the Sizzling East-West Crossover; ‘Sound’

Augh. Daily Post is killing me with their prompt choices. I am supposed to talk about the sisig carbonara I made over the weekend today but tomorrow, as has been requested many many times by a dear reader, follower, and fellow pinoy blogger, I will be talking about at least one of my many situational playlists, the one I listen to while cooking/eating. So clearly, ‘sound‘ would just have been so perfect for that but I just…I just can’t stray from the path. It hurts too much. Hahah. I have to follow schedules. SO…playlist tomorrow, and let’s all just hope and pray tomorrow’s prompt is as fortuitously relevant. And instead today…we talk about…

sisig-carbonara-1

TA-DAH! Sisig carbonara. A true east meets west crossover that is rich, creamy, crispy, meaty, and oh so cheesy good. First, let’s meet our two very important elements in their native habitat.

Carbonara is an Italian pasta dish that originated in Rome. It is a very simple yet filling and rich dish. Pork (the tender jowl or guanciale is preferred but pancetta can be used and most Carbonara.jpghome cooks without access to their own authentic Italian salumeria use cured bacon) is cooked and most of the fat rendered before adding pasta (traditionally spaghetti) and then tossing it all together with a mixture of eggs, cheese, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Speed in tossing the pasta and being sure to do it with the heat off is essential to prevent the eggs from curdling and fully cooking. The residual heat of the pan, pork, and pasta will slowly cook the eggs and create a creamy, runny sauce that is most notable for the lack of actual cream. The first time I ever tried this pasta was at the Grand Lux Cafe in a mall near my town. It was very good but unfortunately not the most authentic version ever. It had the addition of peas (which are one of my least favorite vegetables), garlic, and was a full on cream sauce. Forgive me, I didn’t know any better. I loved it so much that I had to go home and research the pasta to make it for myself. That’s when I first learned that authentic carbonara has no cream and ever since I’ve made it the traditional way and have never looked back. With just a few easy and relatively cheap ingredients (pasta, bacon, eggs, cheese, and pepper) you too can make this simple dish at home for a weekday dinner and you’d be surprised by how quickly it’s done and how quickly you’ll want to finish it too. I use freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano and whole eggs but some recipes might switch out for pecorino romano or just egg yolks. This really just depends on how rich you want the sauce to be and if you prefer the saltiness of pecorino or the nuttiness of parmigiano. I think Antonio Carluccio’s video recipe is one of the best and most authentic representations of how to prepare this dish.

Sisig on the other hand, is also one of my all-time favorite foods but I don’t necessarily recommend you try making this any time soon. Hahah. It is time-consuming, tedious, complicated, but yes with very great payout. But since it is such a quintessential Filipino dish, any good Filipino restaurant will have their own version of it on the menu for you to enjoy. Like most Filipino dishes, sisig is extremely regional and therefore subject to plenty of variations. It is traditionally a dish from the Pampanga region of the Philippines and is sisigmade usually using parts of the pig’s head (the ears, the jowls, and the snout). First they are boiled to tenderize, then chopped into tiny pieces, and the bits are broiled or fried before being served super crispy on a sizzling platter. The pork is flavored with soy sauce, vinegar, onions, and plenty of spicy peppers. The last time I was in the Philippines I got to try a lot of different variations of sisig, including ones made from chicken, squid, and even tuna. The tuna was perhaps one of the best versions I’ve ever had. I prefer my sisig super crispy and spicy, but as I’ve said, sometimes you will find milder versions and most often in the Philippines you will find that the dish is served with a raw egg that is then mixed into the dish or with mayo. The ears are great because it is just soft tender fatty meat and then crunchy cartilage in the center. Sometimes cuts of pork belly are also used for the fat and the skin which becomes incredibly crispy and crunchy. When it comes to introducing non-Filipinos to Filipino food, spicy sizzling sisig is right up there along with adobo and lumpia (our version of egg-rolls) as the best and most universally liked introductions.

So interestingly enough, carbonara has already made its way to the Philippines and is actually one of the most popular pasta dishes in the country. Food has its own legs and filipino-carbonaraoften travels a lot faster than people realize. My aunt on my mother’s side makes this incredible version of Filipino carbonara that I think is just a perfect representation of the characteristics of Filipino palettes. Filipino carbonara first of all, actually uses no eggs at all. Like, at all. Instead it is a straight up super creamy sauce made with Nestle all-purpose cream (which is incredibly sweet), bacon, mushrooms, onions, and garlic. In this way it is actually much closer to an alfredo sauce but the very particular addition of Nestle cream gives it an overall sweetness whereas the traditional carbonara is usually characterized by its rich slight saltiness. This is common in a lot of Filipino dishes. We Filipinos just really like our sweet things. Like spaghetti in the Philippines. Ground beef, hot dogs, and a lot of sugar characterize our namesake ‘sweet spaghetti’. Whenever I visit I love that my aunt always makes sure that one night while I’m there she makes this sweet, rich, and creamy pasta.

sisig-carbonara-2

But to truly make an east-west mashup, I wanted to use really crispy, spicy sisig and substitute it for the pork needed in authentic preparation of carbonara. If you think about it, sisig already displays much of the same characteristics of guanciale or pancetta. It is made from the same parts (the jowl) and the previously fried sisig has plenty of wonderful flavors and fat to render into the pasta. I use less black pepper because the sisig already has plenty of kick. In a separate pot of boiling salted water I start cooking the spaghetti and when it is almost close to being perfectly al dente I begin making the carbonara. Adding no oil whatsoever to a cold pan, I put the sisig and bring it up to temperature. This lets the sisig render some of its fat without searing and burning. You know it’s ready when it starts to sizzle and sing and the pieces start popping up and try flying out of the pan (think cooking bacon). Meanwhile in a bowl I’ve mixed four whole eggs, some freshly ground black pepper, and plenty (I mean plenty) of cheese. When the pasta is ready I drain it and toss it in the strainer to get as much moisture out as possible before adding it to the pan of sisig. Once it’s all thoroughly mixed up and I have a good amount of heat throughout the pasta, I turn off the heat and add the egg and cheese mixture. A few incredibly showy flicks of the wrist and tosses of the pan and it’s all mixed up and the egg has turned creamy and the cheese is melty and…oh my god. This thing was good. Added some extra cheese and parsley on the plate and voila, my version of sisig carbonara.

sisig-carbonara-3

Oh yeah. I could definitely make (and EAT) this again.

Day 223

Man: 191 Loneliness: 32

 

Day 219: The Man and the Rubbed Breast; ‘Aware’

My weekend treat to myself this week is juicy, succulent, incredibly flavorful and meaty duck breast! I am absolutely loving getting to experiment with these new ingredients and dishes. This time around instead of re-imagining a Filipino dish, I took a very classic approach to duck breast and just added a few bits of Filipino flair. I enjoyed this for dinner and was drooling during the prep, but I have to admit the mind is already thinking of future changes and improvements. That’s the exciting thing about cooking and creating! There is always room for improvement, improvisation, and imagination!

duck-overall

The most classic preparation I have seen for duck breast has been to score the fatty skin, season generously with salt and pepper, and then first sear it fatty side down in a cold pan brought up to temp (to render some of that incredible duck fat), sear all sides, and finish in the oven. The excess duck fat is set aside for future use (which I’ve done and imagine I could use with say, some Brussels sprouts and pancetta) and what remains is deglazed in some form of sauce. I say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Duck breast is such a luxurious item to begin with that I don’t want to go mucking about with it too much and ruin the best qualities of the meat.

duck-breast

Here’s how I changed it up a bit though. First, aside from the salt and pepper, I also generously rubbed the outside of the duck breast with Chinese five-spice powder. Five-spice powder is an essential seasoning in any Asian household. A wonderfully aromatic and complex mix of cinnamon, clove, fennel, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorns for a slightly spicy kick. After that I did the usual sear and then roast and as it was resting, I de-glazed the pan with some port wine and chicken stock. Once it was reduced to the consistency I liked, I tossed in some cut up canned lychees (a sweet, floral, delicate fruit grown throughout Southeast Asia and a popular snack in the Philippines) with the syrup it came in and after letting it cook a bit, finishing with a nice generous pat of butter.

duck-salad

I cut the breast into nice thick slices and was so proud of the crunch and snap of the crispy duck skin as the knife cut into the pieces. The center was beautifully pink and the five-spice powder had slightly charred and caramelized along the edges and released its full aroma. The lychees I tossed in a salad of watercress and then I spooned the lychee-port sauce over the duck and vegetables. I had a wonderful meal with a glass of port to accompany me.

mango-rum

In the future, I think I can be a bit more brave and really bring out some more Filipino colors. I’ve asked my parents to bring home some mango rum, which is a liqueur popular in the beach destination of Boracay. I’m thinking of using the mango rum, with some thin strips of dried mango along with the lychee, to create a bright orange, sweet and slightly sticky sauce instead (a sort of play on the classic duck a l’orange). I also find that with the sweet and tanginess of the sauce I am craving for some more pepper, so I believe arugula would be better with everything. I hope that along the way of my culinary journey I’ve been able to make some of you aware of the myriad potential and possibilities of Filipino food and cooking style!

Day 219

Man: 187 Loneliness: 32

Day 216: The Man and the Bone to Pick; ‘Heard’

Just in case the high-fat cholesterol-laden taba ng talangka hasn’t killed you yet, over the weekend I also made a dish using rich, fatty, super meaty and incredible bone marrow. Is it any wonder between the talangka, the bone marrow, and all the pork dishes that heart disease is a big problem with Filipinos? Hahah. In case you were wondering how I probably go, it’ll most likely be with a piece of meat.

beef-bonesBone marrow is the spongy, flexible tissue found inside the bones that contain the stem cells that turn into red or white blood cells that help carry oxygen through the body and fight against disease. You’ll find the largest concentration in the larger bones, especially the femur. That is why whenever you go to the supermarket or your local butcher’s to pick up some bone marrow for cooking or roasting, it is often either just the femur bone (which can then be halved or split lengthwise) or the shank, which is the meat on the upper hip centered around a big piece of that split femur bone.

As an ingredient, bone marrow is a prized ingredient in many world cuisines, not just inbeef-shank the Philippines. For example, the classic Italian dish osso bucco is made by braising beef shanks (veal shanks preferred) in vegetables and white wine. In fact, the name osso bucco in Italian roughly translates to ‘bone with a hole’, referring to the rich marrow in the center of the shank that provides the rich beef flavor and is a treat to suck out of the bone at the end. In Vietnam, it is the collagen-rich beef marrow bones that are used to create the deeply flavored broth that is essential to good pho. If you’ve ever had pho and wondered how they can create such a complex and meaty broth, the secret is in boiling the bones with seasonings for a very long time to completely melt the marrow and have it practically dissolve into the broth. You will often find bone marrow split lengthwise and roasted, sometimes simply with salt and pepper, other times with a gremolata like paste spooned on top and then roasted to create a rich, smooth, butter-like spread that can be either enjoyed with a spoon or spread onto crusty bread.

One of my all time favorite food experiences was at the Black Hoof in Toronto. We each Wicked Spoon Marrow.jpgordered our own plate of bone marrow and after we finished it, we used the now hollowed out bones as a luge and did shots of whiskey pouring it in one end and drinking it from the other. The whiskey get into every tiny nook and cranny and carried the last bits of rich meaty goodness and oh man…that night was a blast. If you’re ever in Toronto I HIGHLY recommend the Black Hoof. Or if you’re in Vegas, my vote for best buffet in the city of buffets is the Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan, where, among there myriad offerings (they have this orange mousse dessert that is incredible) is a giant heart-attack inducing pile of spicy kimchi marinated roasted bone marrow. Look, let me tell you, there’s a reason why roasted bone marrow is known as the ‘butter of the gods’. It’s smooth, spreadable, decadent, and if you eat enough of it in one sitting you’re guaranteed to meet your maker.

So here’s my Filipino twist on it. I wanted to recreate the flavors of bulalo, which is a clear Filipino stew that is made rich with by boiling the thick beef bones for several hours. With the soft, smooth bone marrow melting into the soup and the rich beef stock and tender boiled beef, bulalo is a hearty yet simple stew great for winters (ironic, considering the Philippines is unbearably hot). The problem with bulalo though is that the boiling process usually melts all the marrow goodness out and I never get to actually enjoy it as is. So without melting it in a stew, I still wanted to get the other flavors of the soup onto split marrow bones that I could then roast and enjoy by itself.

bulalo-overview

My solution was to roast the marrow bones with a sprinkling of very finely minced garlic and onion, so fine that most of it would melt into the marrow during the roasting process. I topped it with thin slices of onion that would crisp and caramelize in the heat and then after generously seasoning it with plenty of freshly ground black pepper I (sparingly) poured a scant bit of salty/funky fish sauce (a staple ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine) instead of salt. Aside from the unfortunately fishy smell that came from the oven, I think it was an overwhelming success. I’ll just need to Febreze the room afterwards because if you’ve ever smelled fish sauce, you know what I’m talking about. Now imagine that smell heated to 375 degrees. Like Satan’s sweaty pits.

Bulalo Bone Focus.jpg

Often times, to counter the super richness of the bone marrow these dishes are accompanied by some citrus or a light salad with an acidic vinaigrette to cut the fattiness. I decided to pair it with my homemade ‘minute’ version of atchara, which is a dish made by pickling papaya, carrots, and peppers in a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and seasonings. My ‘minute’ version is accomplished by blanching julienned carrots, red and green peppers, and celery in a similar pickling mixture that I season with garlic, ginger, peppers, and star anise. By blanching them I help them keep their bright color and crispness, and at the same time I am able to impart them with just enough acidity and bite to help pair nicely with the bone marrow.

Bulalo Atchara Focus.jpg

So in case you’ve been living underneath a culinary rock and haven’t yet heard of the gastronomic wonder that is rich, meaty, sinfully delicious bone marrow, I hope this has given you some courage to seek it out.

Day 216

Man: 184 Loneliness: 32