Dec 172008
 

And a little drunk. But not quite ready to break my streak yet. This post is a lie. A tease. It is pretty, empty, pointless, and a little wrong, like a corporate lunch at Hooter’s. But I have the next ten days off, so maybe I’ll get ambitious.

In the meantime, prepare for Saxophone Jesus:

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Dec 162008
 

I’d like to dedicate this one to, um, to the draggy scene that’s going on…all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago…and Milwaukee…and New York…oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam.

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Chances are, if you’re neither a Vietnamese restaurant worker nor me, you’ve never given the Vietnamese coffee filter much thought. Hell, you may not ever have come across one. And you’ve almost certainly never wound up owning two different versions of the same basic device in order to compare their coffee-brewing ability.

You see, there apparently two varieties of Vietnamese coffee maker: Chinese (for some reason) and Vietnamese. The Chinese, pictured on the right, comes in three pieces, and works by screwing down the filter screen over the coffee grounds (a delicate, error-prone process). The Vietnamese, on the left, comes in four pieces, and instead of being screwed down, the filter screen merely sits directly on top of the grounds.

My mom sent me the Vietnamese variety – branded with the logo of Trung Nguyen, the main Vietnamese coffee manufacturer – the other day when she ordered one online. I was interested in comparing it to the Chinese variety, which is what I had been using at home and seen used in the phở trenches of Austin. Due to the imprecise nature of the screw-down filter, the Chinese model makes for an often inconsistent product: screwing it down too tightly, or using too much coffee, doesn’t allow water to pass through quickly enough, giving you weak, watery coffee after about twenty minutes of waiting; not screwing it down tightly enough, or using too little coffee, lets the water through too quickly, which results in (you guessed it) weak, watery coffee after about two minutes of waiting. It’s not just my lack of expertise. I’ve had highly variable brew speed and strength at Vietnamese restaurants too, where somebody else is manning the filter.

Trung Nguyen promised that the Vietnamese-style filter solved all the consistency problems of the Chinese make while being easier to use. I was skeptical. I figured if there was an indigenous Vietnamese product that was simpler to use than a complicated foreign knockoff, all those phở joints would have embraced them. The Vietnamese, after all, have never been accused of lacking national pride. But after due experimentation, I have concluded that the Vietnamese version indeed rams a punji stick through the foot of the Chinese version. It brews quickly (about six minutes) and most importantly consistently: just put the filter on top of the grinds, add your water and relax. No mucking about with the screw, scalding your finger trying to loosen it after already having added water. Just delicious Vietnamese coffee.

I also bought an unbranded version of the same variety of filter at the Asian supermarket – they were hidden on the bottom shelf in an odd corner of the store, far away from where they sold the Vietnamese coffee together with the Chinese filter. Other than the Trung Nguyen stamp and a weight difference of one gram between the filter screens, the two filters look and function identically.

And now, for your edification, my painstakingly researched Vietnamese coffee brewing tips:

Chinese-style coffee filter:

Ground coffee: Roughly 2.5 tbsp, or about 16-17 grams. Less is too little; more will prevent you from successfully screwing down the filter.

Procedure: Add the grounds to the filter cup. Tap the sides to level the grounds. Screw down the filter screen just until it begins to tamp down the grounds. Add hot (190°) water about a fourth of the way up the cup and wait 20 seconds for the grounds to fully absorb the water and begin to drip. Then add hot water all the way up to the lip of the cup, put on the lid, and wait. There should be several drips per second. The full process should not take more than ten minutes, and preferably somewhat less.

Vietnamese-style coffee filter:

Ground coffee: 3 tbsp or 20 grams. Not a small amount, but it works.

Procedure: Add the grounds to the filter cup. Tap the sides to level the grounds. Press the filter lightly down onto the grounds – don’t tamp down all the way, but don’t just lay it on top without pressing either. Add hot (190°) water about a fourth of the way up the cup and wait 20 seconds for the grounds to fully absorb the water and begin to drip. Then add hot water all the way up to the lip of the cup, put on the lid, and wait. The dripping should start off fairly fast and slow down to a rate of slightly faster than a drip per second. Expect to wait about six minutes.

Note that whichever method you use, Trung Nguyen’s recommendation of 65 ml total of water is wrong. That is far too little. The exact measurement of the water isn’t important, though: just add the initial bit, and then fill it up to the top. Couldn’t be easier.

Don’t forget your Longevity condensed milk, either: it is scientifically proven to make you live as long as the contemplative white-bearded man on the label, who may or may not be Pai Mei.

Dec 152008
 

Another day at Austin’s finest Asian mega-grocery brings you:

Squid Jerky
“Best Quality Food”

Strangely enough, at the My Thanh Supermarket, squid jerky (dried shredded squid) is, along with food coloring, yeast balls and “ginger candy,” marketed at the register as an impulse buy. Somebody is relying either on customers to think to themselves, “Shit, I almost forgot squid jerky!” or on children to tug at their parent’s sleeves and beg for a bag of squid jerky as a special treat. Whatever the logic, it worked hard on me.

The packaging seems to be in some manner of Chinese, but the country of origin is not listed. It is also not hot at all, despite flagrant indications to the contrary (in fact, it contains no spices whatsoever), but it is disconcertingly sweet. And, in case you were wondering: an entire bag of squid jerky offers 176 calories, no fat, and a solid 100% of your daily cholesterol allowance.

Chocky Stick
“That’s Delicious and fun”

Piracy is not dead; it just changed focus from doubloons, parrots, peglegs and preying on the Spanish to CDs, movies, candy and preying on the Japanese. Your piratical friends in Thailand bring you this barely disguised knockoff Pocky. I don’t particularly like Pocky – and I like even less what it represents, which is scads of awkward teenagers in black leather and acne bloom trying to make a statement about their uniqueness and affection for terrible manga by buying it – so of course I couldn’t resist making an economic stand against historic Japanese imperialism and the wretchedness of otaku culture by purchasing a box of Chocky. That’s for Pearl Harbor! And for making me sit through twelve episodes of Cowboy Bebop before realizing that great music, appealing design and abundant jazz references still couldn’t lift the anime curse of murky, erratic plotting, terrible writing and excessive T&A! Take that, Hirohito!

I love your cuisine and cutlery, though. Keep the Pocky; send more ankimo.

Also, incidentally, Chocky sticks are less chocky, more chalky.

Dec 142008
 

Poor Jorge Ben has suffered far too many indignities for an artist of his stature. His breakout song “Mas Que Nada” was entirely co-opted by the schlocky Brazilian Herb Alpert, Sérgio Mendes, and then further desecrated by a Black Eyed Peas-assisted remake, the closest modern analogue to ’50s-era doo-wop whitewashing. And his titanic Brasil-funk track “Taj Mahal” was outright stolen by Rod Stewart in the midst of his coke-fueled disco-era meltdown and repackaged as the execrable “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” a unforgivable musical theft that was later, of course, vigorously rubbed against by Paris Hilton. Gilberto Gil gets to be the Minister of Culture; Mr. Lolita Complex himself, Caetano Veloso, gets to provide ambience in classy Almodóvar flicks; Jorge Ben gets Fergie. And what did he do to deserve all this? Only release album after album, one (sometimes two) a year for twenty years, of the finest samba, MPB and Brazilian soul ever committed to record. A vida é uma merda.

I have, and fiercely love, all the ’60s and ’70s Jorge Ben albums that have seen US releases, but many of his classic period recordings were never officially released and were essentially impossible to find. I had heard whispers about the excellence of 1970’s Força Bruta, reputedly a slice of the very finest raw Brazilian soul, but it wasn’t even available through the magic of the Internet. So I gave up – and that is why I was surprised and delighted to find a brand new, recently reissued CD copy while browsing the Brazilian section of one of Austin’s many funky record stores.

As promised, it’s fucking awesome. Percussionists Trio Mocotó provide plenty of bottom, and more than enough cuíca to keep the proceedings well lubricated.

Oba lá Vem Ela
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“Alright! Here she comes!” For some reason, the killer track on Jorge Ben albums is almost always the first one. The groove is already great; then syrupy Barry White strings get poured all over it and something profoundly delicious results.

Mulher Brasileira
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After countless hours of research, I have arrived at a theory: between 90 and 95 percent of all samba, bossa nova and MPB songs are about either: a) how awesome samba, bossa nova or MPB are; b) a girl; c) how awesome a girl dancing to samba, bossa nova or MPB is. This is an excellent example of “b.”

For real. Doesn’t this man deserve better than his lot?

Dec 132008
 
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You know what band I like?

Steely Dan.

Just about every time I go out, I hear one of their songs on MOR canned radio, and I smile to myself, because behind the immaculate production and tasty guitar solos are left-field jazz harmonies and Talmudically esoteric lyrics about terrible people with cocaine problems.

No, seriously: you can stick “Hey Nineteen” between Huey Lewis and James Blunt all you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a song about a middle-aged man romancing a teenage girl who alternately entices and disgusts him, and with whom he shares nothing save a predilection for tequila and blow. That’s a tune made for the minivan and the Target if ever there was one.

And on that note, I greatly enjoy this site.

Dec 132008
 
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Why is marijuana the only drug that leads to the fetishization and aestheticization of paraphernalia? Junkies don’t keep around hand-crocheted red-gold-‘n’-green tie-off belts. Cokeheads don’t carry around tie-dye-colored blown glass snorting tubes. Methheads are far more likely to chase the dragon from a lightbulb than a $500 vaporizer they ordered direct from the Netherlands off the Internet. And no crackhead has ever collected enough pipes to fill a display case – and of the pipes they do have, not a single one has ever been named after a Hobbit.

Clearly, there’s a missed opportunity for merchandising here. Imagine, whatever mysterious company markets this shit: a junkie cooks a hit in his trusty spoon, and smiling out at him from beneath the bubbling black tar is the Grateful Dead teddy bear. Or Lou Reed’s face. The possibilities are endless!

Dec 122008
 

I got a drink with a couple of friends tonight at the Spider House, a mildly-to-highly irritating Austin institution that serves as coffeeshop, restaurant, bar and hipster spawning ground in roughly equal measures. While trying to quietly get through my drink order (double espresso; Campari and soda), my line of sight was befouled by a pair of hipsters in pea coats, floppy haircuts, super-tight pants and extreme winklepicker shoes. And that’s when I made a terrible realization: hipsters, having exhausted the sartorial possibilities of the ’80s and ’70s, are turning into mods. The time to invest in Vespa is now – and that’s the only stock tip you’ll ever get around here.

But what truly frightens me is the possibility that once the hipsterati have, in their time-honored way, chewed up scooters, thin ties, and ska and spit them back out for the proles at Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, they will take the logical step backward in time, embrace the beat movement, and start pretending to like Charlie Parker. That is not okay with me. I love jazz. It is far too excellent to become 2009’s James Taylor mustache.

The only bright side, of course, is that eventually they’ll move on to swing dancing and ironic appreciations of Glenn Miller, and then I won’t have to care anymore.

Dec 112008
 

Berbere/በርበሬ/በርበረ/ברבריי

Now that we’ve gotten kibbeh, kubbeh, and kasha out of the way, it’s time to visit a little-known corner of the Jewish culinary world: Ethiopia. For all intents and purposes, Ethiopian Jewish cooking is indistinguishable from Ethiopian Christian or Muslim cooking – none of the staple grains, plants or meats of Ethiopia are unkosher by nature, so Ethiopian cuisine never had to be ramrodded through the strictures of Jewish dietary laws like the cuisines of other regions in which Jews found themselves. In fact, the Ethiopian Jewish community, which was largely unaware of the developments of Rabbinic Judaism, continues to this day to allow the eating of chicken with dairy, prohibited for the rest of world Jewry long ago as one of Judaism’s charming moats around the wall around the fence around the Torah. But that’s neither here nor there. I learned to love Ethiopian food while living in Israel, so I’m calling it Jewish food.

I’m starting this series within a series with a primer on the basic building blocks of many (if not most) Ethiopian dishes – all of which you’ll need before you can think about making a full Ethiopian meal. First off is berbere, the piquant orange blend of chili peppers and fragrant spices used by the fistful in all those atomic bowls of wat. There is nothing subtle about berbere. It is a sucker punch straight to the sinuses. Naturally, you can’t do without it.

A note of warning before we begin: African birdseye peppers are hot. I don’t mean hot like your homemade pico de gallo when you’re feeling frisky and chop up a third jalapeño. I mean that the process of pulverizing dozens of them will produce invisible yet highly potent clouds of fine pepper particles which will spread quickly and thoroughly throughout the house, and you will essentially be mainlining 170,000 Scoville units with every breath you take. I have a high spice tolerance, so an afternoon of standing in the eye of a capsaicin hurricane only caused my eyes to water and nose to run, and also gave me a weird adrenaline rush, but when one of my roommates and her friends came in – up a flight of stairs from the kitchen – they immediately began gasping and coughing. I am not bragging; I am cautioning. If you can’t handle spice – and I mean spice, not Tabasco – don’t make berbere. You won’t survive the grinding, much less the eating.

On we go:
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