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.


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 102008

Went and got Korean tonight – the kind of bibimbap that comes cold with raw beef topped with a raw egg (makes you strong). There is some official Korean name for this, but I like “Daredevil Platter” better. I didn’t let it psyche me out. There can be nothing to fear from the nation that brought you America’s post-WWII afterglow war and pro-circuit Starcraft.

Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t great. Something in it was most decidedly a little bit frozen. So here’s a philosophical question: if a raw dish comes with frozen bits, do you let yourself be cheered by the fact that the meat probably hasn’t been sitting out raw and unthawed, or disturbed by the thought that a restaurant that sends out slightly-frozen food probably isn’t terribly diligent in the kitchen, including in such arenas as food safety? Or do you let those conflicting thoughts cancel each other out and go about your business, which is mostly considering how much the name “bibimbap” sounds like Slim Gaillard code for a drum set?

My stomach hurts.

Dec 092008

I spent at least an hour today making mukimono out of the fruits and vegetables I had lying around.

Uh…adorable little apple bunnies…and…uh…apple…feathers…and…a…tomato rose…

Yeah. I’m really fucking bored.

On a related note, I know that it’s more eco-conscious, or locavorous, or whatever buzzword the Daikonoscenti come up with this week, for grocery stores to stock only in-season fruits, but sweet Elijah’s chariot, when you live in a place that’s 75 degrees in December, five months of nothing but apples is needlessly cruel. Apples are the masturbation of the fruit world: it gets the job done, but there’s always the nagging feeling that you could be eating a peach instead.

Or, uh, a kiwi…or…a strawberry. Could be anything, really.

Dec 082008

Today I made naan. I kneaded minced garlic into the dough, and instead of brushing it with ghee, which I did not have, I brushed it with niter kibbeh, of which I have a ridiculous amount. Warm naan with garlic and overtones of cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon and fenugreek is…awesome.

Now I just need a massive 800-degree tandoor in the kitchen for that proper heat-blistered effect. It’s almost Chanukah, y’all.

Dec 052008

Make every morning a Tet Offensive with the rich taste of Trung Nguyen Gourmet Blend and Longevity Brand Condensed Milk!

Smell that? You smell that?

Cà phê sữa đá, son. Nothing in the world smells like that.

I love the smell of cà phê sữa đá in the morning.

Dec 012008

I know you work the sushi bar at a mediocre Chinese restaurant. I know you don’t have any customers. I wouldn’t even be in here if I had any friends who wouldn’t be content to eat Sonic breakfast burritos and dry, Kikkoman-drenched pork fried rice every day for the rest of their lives. But for real, man: when you wander off for half an hour to go pick your nose in the walk-in, don’t fucking leave your knife covered in crud.

You see, your knife is made out of high-carbon steel. High-carbon steel is noted mainly for two things: its incredible capacity for sharpness; and its incredible tendency to rapidly corrode, especially when exposed to acidic foods for significant periods without regular wipedowns. So when you leave your carbon steel yanagiba encrusted in vinegar-coated sushi rice on a wet cutting board, very soon it will start to look like, say, this poor kodeba, yanagiba and usuba:

As opposed to:

Used, sharpened, yet corrosion-free.

Your abandoned, rice-encrusted sashimi knife says more about your professional apathy than the fact that you’ve got more imitation crab in the case than fish.

Respect your tools, dick, and they won’t fail you on the day’s twentieth “Spicy Longhorn Cream Cheese Roll.”

Aug 012008

Fish sauce. Liquid umami. A innocuous-seeming whiskey-toned brew that, when popped open, takes about thirty seconds to make an entire room smell like the Jersey Shore. Who wouldn’t want it in their kitchen?

I recently bought a bottle of Tra Chang fish sauce, a high-quality Thai brand, and it’s done far more for me than simply seasoning my stir-fries. It, in its inscrutable Southeast Asian way, has blown my mind.

That, friends, is a thinking man’s label, and I have spent quite awhile pondering what exactly it’s trying to convey.

At first I took it at face value: obviously, the ingredients of the sauce, apparently a fish of unknown denomination and a prawn, weigh exactly the same as an odd-perspective block of 100%. This means quality. This means the sauce is 100% composed of the things composing it. Other fish sauce brands may be content when their ingredients weigh in at only 99%, but not Tra Chang. Tra Chang will not accept a product that weighs even an ounce less than a physical representation of a mathematical abstraction.

But then I looked at the back label, which informs the consumer bashfully that the sauce’s ingredients are “anchovy-fish 70% salt 29% sugar 1%.” But the fish on the label isn’t an anchovy. And whither the prawn? Is Tra Chang entirely a lie? If you placed a block of all of Tra Chang’s untruth on a scale opposite a block of 100%, would it balance? Why is the background exploding? How many prawns would it take to equal the weight of a block of my confusion?

I feel like I can’t trust anything anymore. I swear, next someone will tell me egg creams contain neither eggs nor cream.

Jun 032008

I write to you today a different man than I was scant more than a week before. I have grown. I have matured. I have expanded my horizons and waist size. I have consumed a whole bayou’s worth of crawfish. I have, my friends, eaten my way through Acadiana.

Looking out towards the Gulf at Big Lake

My friend John, a Cajun-bred college chum for whom I played the drums in an alt-country band that spectacularly imploded under the weight of several aged-19-years egos, and who will allow me talk his ear off about cooking in exchange for home-cooked food, had the bright idea a couple months ago to go on a gustatory pilgrimage from Austin to the homeland around Lake Charles. And so it was that the weekend before last he, his girlfriend Kristen and I set out on a voyage to the crawfish-scented heart of Cajun country for a three-day binge on the fried, buttered, drowned and smothered Continental-cum-crustacean cuisine of those long-expelled French Canadians. In southern Louisiana, God bless it, the roux is dark, the people are Catholic and the arteries explode by 55. We were determined, kike and swamp kike alike, to sacrifice our circulatory systems on the altar of étouffée and andouille. And we did. Lord, we did. I would have taken pictures, but I’m unable to bring myself to take pictures of food anywhere outside my own kitchen. It’s tacky. So use your imagination, kids.

I should note that despite their frequent confusion in the popular imagination, Cajun cuisine (originating among the exiled Francophones of south-central and southeast Louisiana) and Creole cuisine (originating among the culturally and ethnically mixed Creoles of New Orleans) are fairly distinct, even though they share several dishes. Creole cuisine draws heavily from aristocratic French haute cuisine with distinct Spanish and African influences; Cajun cuisine evolved out of peasant French cooking traditions, and was insulated from the pernicious influence of the yellow-bellied Spaniard while picking up foods, cooking techniques and culinary vocabulary from the local Indians. It’s easy to spot the differences: if the dish in front of you has tomatoes, hot peppers or beans, it’s Creole. If it has something that was recently clubbed to death in a swamp before being heavily cayenne peppered and served over rice, it’s Cajun. If it features blackened anything, it’s Emeril food, and thus neither Cajun nor Creole. Know the difference and you’ll never utter the phrase “spicy Cajun red beans and rice” again.

The trip marked both my first time in Lake Charles and my first time back to my old southern Louisiana stomping grounds since 2005; my planned return back then was forestalled by the series of unfortunate meteorological occurrences which precipitated my luckless Israeli odyssey. The landscape had changed a bit thanks to a couple of lovely Cat 5 ladies, but the feeling of content stagnation that hangs over Louisiana like August humidity hadn’t changed a bit. I was surprised to realize that I had missed it.

We stayed on the shores of Big Lake in a nicely-appointed beach house on stilts (called, modestly, a “camp” in the local argot) owned by John’s rarely-glimpsed father, a prominent local attorney and sports novelist who spent the weekend tourneying about the immaculately manicured artificial hills of the Lake Charles golf course with the son of Bing Crosby. Bing himself showed up in the form of a vinyl copy of White Christmas John’s stepmom had perched on the end table in the living room; Son-of-Bing remained unseen, although John’s grandmother, an eccentric of the very finest variety, told us over her restaurant water glass-sized vodka on the rocks that we hadn’t missed much, as she had always preferred Frank Sinatra anyway. She also invited the three of us back next month to witness the creation of her crawfish bisque, an event of apparently quasi-religious significance in the family.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our first order of business upon arrival was to attempt to eat our weight in crawfish. The local seafood shanty obliged with enormous steaming platters of the ugly little bastards. It’s a lot of work to eat five pounds of crawfish; a fat specimen still only yields about a cocktail shrimp’s worth of meat, and you have to pry off the tail to get to it. But put down enough beer and, like most everything else, what started out arduous quickly becomes a good deal of fun. So between us John and I dismembered ten pounds of Acadiana’s finest edible aquatic bugs. For dessert, we each had a big plate of crawfish étouffée. Kristen, a vegetarian who had, at least for the weekend in confirmed meat country, essentially given up the green-conscious ghost, went experimental with a dish of oysters in a heavy yellow cheese sauce, which almost managed to transcend the oddness of its conception and arrive at “good.” Ten pounds of crustacean, half a dozen bottles of beer, good company and a view on the water at sunset all conspired to create a ferocious dinner. And that was only the first night.

The next day our ragged and insatiable party was joined by John’s little sister, back in town from college, and we swung by a popular 24-hour diner to shovel down the world’s most Southern breakfast, to which any written description does not do justice. Imagine, if you will, a baked potato. Then imagine that said baked potato had been buried under a mountain of grilled chicken and melted cheddar cheese. Then imagine that the grilled chicken and melted cheddar cheese were really only theoretical constructs anyway, because they had been rendered completely invisible by a Biblical deluge of cream gravy. Then imagine there were some grits, and also that your heart stopped out of spite for your brain. Simply breakfast.

The day meandered towards a vague plan to go mucking about in the wetlands, or at least on the paved trails leading through the wetlands, in order to see some of the native game, known in the common parlance as “alligators.” Such dangerous business demanded further dietary fortification, so we stopped at a roadside shack to pick up some cracklings (gratons), deep-fried cubes of pork skin with meat and gristle still attached, a Church-sanctioned form of mass suicide on the part of the Cajun people. Those were good, although perhaps not good enough to justify the three months every single one removed from my life expectancy. The same shack also equipped us with crawfish pistolettes, sweet and flaky rolls filled with stewy crawfish goodness, essentially a portable version of crawfish étouffée.

Southern Louisiana wetlands, it turns out, look essentially like wetlands everywhere else, although they are significantly hotter and full of large relict reptiles. I mused that if Purgatory existed, it must look much like a Louisiana wetlands state park: endless expanses of marsh grass and cattails on either side of an asphalt path leading to nowhere to in particular. It’s not Hell, but it ain’t like there’s a Ramada neither. The gators were disinclined to put in an appearance, much to the dismay of John’s sister, so we piled back into the car and turned back towards relative civilization. Then we saw some out of the car window, sunning in the little canal by the road. So let that be a lesson: if you want to see nature in Louisiana, be it alligators or neon-clad canal-fishin’ locals, stay in the car.

On the way back, we hit up a gas station – America! – for yet another local delicacy, boudin, a delicious goo with aspirations to sausage status made out of swiney mystery meat, rice and herbs stuffed into a casing. And then? Well, then we went to dinner. John’s aforementioned grandmother treated us all to a grand feast at a seafood restaurant, which made up for its inferior crawfish with great deadly piles of fried shrimp, fried catfish, fried oysters and fried stuffed crab. We washed it all down with Abita, which if memory serves may well have been fried.

Heading back on Memorial Day, which locked up Lake Charles solid, we chanced upon an open restaurant/game animal processing facility a town or two over for what would be our last Louisianan hurrah: jambalaya, gumbo and an armful of local sausage and filé powder to stock the kitchens back home. A fitting and gut-busting end to three days of unrestrained binging.

Necessarily, my first order of business upon returning was to track down a source of live in-season crawfish, Louisianan andouille and tasso in Austin. Louisiana isn’t that far away, but it’s enough of schlep that I worry all that plaque might start to clear up if I don’t learn how to make Cajun suicide cuisine myself. It’s pretty easy: you just gotta start with a whole stick of butter and go from there…

Jun 012008

I learned something today. I learned that Tony Chachere’s, the seasoning blend of salt, salt, salt, salt, salt, cayenne pepper, garlic and salt which is, along with Crystal hot sauce, de rigueur on every Louisiana table, was actually invented and marketed by a guy named Tony Chachere from St. Landry Parish.

This came as a surprise. I had always assumed Tony Chachere was an imaginary corporate focus group food mascot, like Ronald McDonald, Aunt Jemima or Rachael Ray. I thought that somewhere deep in the bowels of ConAgra marketing research drones had built the perfect ersatz Cajun, cartoonized and outfitted with a chef’s hat and glasses scientifically proven to drive consumers to heavily season their food with the company’s proprietary lab-tested spice blend, which they then could spin off into a whole product line of similarly branded food-type products.

But I was wrong. He’s real, man. He’s real. Look at him:

Once upon a time, somewhere deep within the dark beating heart of the swamp, specifically Opelousas, the real live Tony Chachere stood whisking a skillet of dark brown roux, plotting and waiting for the moment when he would convert it into a container of no-fuss just-add-water powder and in so doing conquer America (Note: Soul and Gone does not recommend making roux out of powder, unless the powder happens to be flour which you then add to heated oil, drippings or butter.)

But really, what next? Is someone going to tell me that Paul Prudhomme is real too?

(More on Cajun food coming up…)