Food politics in My future…

During the past week or so I’ve thought over and over again about the idea of food politics and what this phrase means for my life in particular. I wish I could say that I’m committed to make drastic changes in how I choose which food products to consume and which companies to support, but in reality I’m more concerned with what I need to do to protect the well-being of my own little family in regards to this matter. I think first about the physical health of my little one and wonder how many effects on his health are attributed to the types of foods he eats? And then I wonder is he at greater risk for health problems later in life because of what he puts into his body now? And then most importantly, what do I change or how much do I change to prevent this?

But I know I can’t be the only parent wondering the same things. In fact, my questions are pretty basic parenting ones. How do you save your child from the things in the world out to get him? The changes I do plan to make in my life are small, such as maybe planting a vegetable or shopping more critically for well-made ingredients. But then my range of thoughts begin to expand beyond just my little world and begin the consider the millions of other parents who must also be freaked out at the thought of screwing up their children. And in those moments, the focus begins to be about how to get information that can help parents raise healthier kids to more families? What information needs to sent out and on which avenues? Who can we trust to deliver real truthful information and who do we trust to have the best interest of our kids at the center of their concerns? As a mom, I hope to not only find ways to make my own son’s life and relationship with food better than before, but also to figure out ways to support those who are helping other families do the same. And if they don’t exist yet, maybe that start will begin with us…

Discovering Temescal on a Friday afternoon…

After days of rain storms and umbrellas, our last food tour excursion began outside a cheese shoppe on a bright weekday afternoon. It was cold outside but with the sun unobstructed, our walk around Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood was easily becoming the warmest food tour yet. Our first stop, Sacred Wheel, introduced us to a friendly neighbor spot that featured a plethora of different cheeses, pastas, sauces, jams, and a hot food menu. I thought for sure that this was going to be my favorite destination on tour and we had just started. Our first taste came in the form of tomato soup and macaroni and cheese. The dark red soup featured a beer reduction and a hint of spiciness at the end of each spoonful. Even as a lover of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, I had never experienced such a richness in a soup that wasn’t overpowering. The heat came from slight Sriracha flavoring that hit right after the soup coated my mouth and was a sweet surprise with each bite. This was complimented by the honey-sriracha sauce on the macaroni and cheese. It was comfort food love at first sight. By the end of this first tasting, I already felt a little full and definitely unsure I could enjoy any more food. But next came an Ethiopian restuarant and then a fried chicken sandwich that proved I could definitely eat more.

I’ve never experienced Ethiopian food, but the vegetarian spread of lentils, collard greens, and potatoes was flavorful and filling. The fermented flat sponge-like bread had a texture that reminded me of Chinese steamed buns and mild flavor that worked so well with each veggie and legume component. There were three different lentil offerings and it would seem they would be similar to each other, but each one featured completely different complex flavors and didn’t resemble any lentil dish or taste I had experienced before. I’m definitely excited to try it all over again.

And then there was the fried chicken sandwich. And by the way, I am not normally a fan of chicken. I know, call me weird, but I ate so much chicken as a kid that I usually pass on it for anything closer to red meat. But this fried chicken sandwich was not something I was passing on. It came served on fluffy roll with a coleslaw that had what I think was a vinegar-based dressing. The bread was super soft but held up great with the crunch of cabbage and moist chicken. There was no spread or sauce on the sandwich besides the dressing on the coleslaw, but it didn’t need it anyways. It was so simple, but so incredibly satisfying that it was no surprise that in the few minutes we spent there, the line outside the front door had expanded down half the block.

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Fried Chicken Sandwich at Bakesale Betty’s

For our final food excursion, I’m so glad it was in Temescal on such a beautiful day. Being able to explore the shops and restaurants in the neighborhood at leisure created the feel of a weekend adventure I’d have with my son in the summertime and reminded me of the great variety that is offered in food and experiences across the Bay Area. There’s no place I’d rather call home.

Conversations with Papa

When he joined the U.S. Coast Guard, my grandfather, Papa, was only 18 years old. He promised his cousin they would enlist together, but when his cousin didn’t show up he decided to enlist anyways. This is where he learned most of his skills in the kitchen. Coming from a large family helped in the acquisition of cooking knowledge. “Both my parents cooked for us at home,” he recalled, noting how most of his early memories were surrounded by family and Hawaiian food. He remembers fond memories of his mother snacking on favorite foods, which included such simple combinations such as onions and soy sauce. While stationed in Monterrey, far from his familial life on Oahu, he met my grandmother. They went on to have seven children and after years of living back home with his parents and siblings, the family moved permanently to San Francisco where my grandmother’s parents were living.

Far away from his family in the islands, Papa began to use his cooking skills learned from cooking for large groups in the Coast Guard to accommodate feeding a family of nine. Since he couldn’t be surrounded by his family in Hawaii, he began cooking for his children and making mealtime a family event. “I love cooking for my family,” he says, “I love it when everyone is together.” These big family mealtimes provided little reminders and comforts from home.

As his children grew and started their own families, he continued cooking for his visiting children and grandchildren. While he can’t particularly remember the first meal he ever cooked or choose just one favorite dish, Papa has the unreal ability to remember almost everyone’s favorite meal. “Your cousin, Ashley, loves Curry Stew. Uncle Rob is always eating Chicken & Cabbage and Calowin (a variation of a Guamanian dish taught to him by his father). Your brother Sonny wants Hamburger Steak. And you, you like Chicken Long Rice. Or Curry Stew if there’s Macaroni Salad too. And Mikey and Rachel want Musubi,” he tells me, going down the long list of people in our family and naming a specific dish he cooks for each one. When asked if he ever felt tired after cooking for all of us (7 children & currently 21 grandchildren & 6 great grandchildren), he looks up from his seat and smiles, “I love my family. I always want to cook for them.”

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Papa spending time watching football with his great-grandson… Always focused on family

Nostalgia in SF Japantown

I rushed up the stairs from the parking garage and stood on the sidewalk looking from left to right for any recognizable face. Once I found my tour group, I took my first moment to look around where I was, Japantown. It dawned on me that I haven’t been back to Japantown for easily over 15 years, but the memories of childhood adventures with my parents and brothers quickly came to mind. And as we entered our first stop on the tour, a ramen restaurant, I thought only of my parents and grandparents. They’re not Japanese, but having lived in and raised children in San Francisco for the majority of their lives, any reference to Japanese food or the Japantown neighborhood and I immediately imagined our family outings there.

img_3340As I admired the bowl of pork belly ramen placed before me, images of my grandparents preparing their own versions of ramen at home with similar ingredients like nori, green onion, and egg created a very nostalgic moment. I couldn’t even try the ramen without first sending a photo to my grandmother. The salty broth and tender pork belly was a great comfort food at the beginning of our tour, filling me up with warmth and ease just like if I had eaten it at home on a rainy day.

img_3346Next we visited a local supermarket, Mira’s, and sampled some of their freshly prepared hot food. Not all the pickled vegetable maki were flavors I knew, but even as I bit into the pickled eggplant, it was as if I knew the taste. The briny, almost sweet, sensation moved across my tongue with each bite of cucumber and diakon radish. Walking down the store aisles, I felt so much excitement in seeing familiar items my parents or grandparents would know and have recipes for or stories to tell about.

Strolling through the neighborhood by each restaurant or shop window and listening to our guide explain her own family roots in the neighborhood, I felt a nostalgic connection with the neighborhood too. Every traditional food we tasted, like udon and mochi, reminded me of weekend outings there with my parents to shop and eat saimin or sushi. And nostalgia about my grandparents continued to come to mind. Living away from any predominantly Asian community, they no longer treated us to fresh-made mochi very often or ate out at traditional Japanese or Asian restaurants. As I bit into the hot, made-to-order, rice ball I couldn’t help but be taken back to a memory of my grandfather making rice balls at home, filled with a surprise, all the time because they were once my favorite food.

First attempt at my own Chopped challenge…

Required Ingredients:
– chickpeas
– Cajun seasoning
– black olives

The first idea that came to mind when rereading the above list was to make something easy like hummus. I could easily see myself making a cajun hummus with chopped olives on top. But for some reason that just seemed to bore me. I didn’t really want to be eating hummus by myself for the next few days. So I started searching for other ways to use chickpeas and found some different mentions of cajun pan fried chickpeas. This seemed much better of an option for two of my ingredients than hummus. I started by combining some flour with cajun seasoning and lightly coating a can of rinsed and dried chickpeas, then lightly sautéing them in olive oil until browned and crispy. Pan frying the chickpeas definitely gave the beans a different texture. I wasn’t sure how long to leave them in the pan, so they definitely came out probably crispier than intended. The cajun spice coated the chickpeas in a subtle spiciness that made them impossible to stop eating, especially for the little brother who couldn’t pass up a snack food during Sunday’s basketball and football games. But now I had to figure out how to use the olives with this.

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Sizzling Cajun seasoning-covered chickpeas

If this were an episode of Chopped, the judges would definitely say I didn’t utilize the full potential of the olives because I could think to do was put together a pasta salad and use the cajun chickpeas as croutons. I cooked some fusilli pasta, threw in baby spinach, grape tomatoes, and the olives. Then I tossed it with a very simple dressing of olive oil, lemon, and salt and pepper. I usually use an Italian dressing on pasta salads, but with the cajun chickpeas on top, I started to worry about too many different competing flavors. But the salad ended up tasting pretty well put together and I was able to say using the required ingredients in a meal was a success! I was able to enjoy the usual comfort of a hearty pasta salad with a surprised flavor and crunch. My little brother approved of it as well, especially since he managed to destroy it before I could get a photo of the finished product. However, I wish I could boast that I created something truly original and new with all 3 items. I think I might try it again and see just how far I can really take it.

My holiday kitchen disaster…

During my first Thanksgiving attempting to cook the turkey without the help of our patriarch chef, my grandfather, we almost lost the main entree all together. My mom absolutely hates cooking of any kind and the idea of hosting a big family gathering without Papa to prepare the food completely freaked her out and she insisted on ordering a pre-cooked meal from a grocery service. Instead, I bought all the ingredients and called Papa early in the morning on that Thursday. From my aunt’s home in Pasadena he gave me his step-by-step instructions for a foolproof turkey. I stuffed the turkey full of onions, garlic, lemons, and rosemary just like he told me with my mom nervously hovering nearby. With the outside of the bird moistened generously with olive oil, salt, and pepper, it was ready for the oven. I placed the turkey in the oven and headed to take a shower and get myself ready for the arrival of other family members and preparing the rest of the meal. My mom stood watch over the turkey to baste it to Papa’s specifications and make sure it didn’t dry out.

All of sudden as I stood in my bathroom, just out of the shower and blow drying my hair, I heard a huge THUMP and an even louder scream. I flung the bathroom door open and ran out in just my towel to see my mom screaming at my dad in front of the oven. “What?! What happened?” I yelled. They were yelling at each other now on who’s fault it was and how to fix it. “The turkey fell out of the oven!” she screamed back at me. As the timer rang to baste the turkey, my dad had pulled out the rack so my mom could reach the bird, but somehow misjudged just how far to pull it out of the oven. The thump I heard was the turkey and pan rolling out of the oven onto the kitchen floor followed by my mom’s horrified screams. Here we were hosting our very first Thanksgiving without Papa as executive chef and we let the turkey fall out of the oven and onto the kitchen floor. Thank God it didn’t completely fall out of the pan and none of the stuffings fell out during the debacle. After a bunch of screaming and yelling, we managed to get the bird back in the oven in one piece. For the rest of the day my mom was completely stressed out and checking on the turkey non-stop, even putting my aunt to work later in helping her keep watch. We survived though. And so did our Thanksgiving dinner.

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Not my turkey, but the golden one Papa made us once he came back home and heard our kitchen horror story.

A great day to explore 24th & Mission…

I was not at all excited to ride BART that day. Even worse, I forgot to grab any distraction, earbuds or book, for the hour-long ride that seemed to move as slow as my little brother gets ready for work. It’s part miracle and part familial obligation that he still has a job at all. Following a morning of non-stop speed bumps (the kid fighting me all morning instead of getting ready, Starbucks taking forever to pour my coffee, and almost missing my 9:32am train), I was beyond ready for a few hours of sampling food in the Mission. Even with the knowledge of the upcoming stuffing of my face, as I reached the corner of 24th & Mission, everything on my future To-Do list bombarded my ability to focus on the present situation of a walking food tour with Edible Excursions. I felt overwhelmed with schedules for that afternoon: making sure I got back on BART in time to pick up the little boy at preschool, finding a ride to my car, getting dinner ready, and still making it to work on time later that evening. So when we reached our first destination on the food tour to try a cupcake at Mission Minis, I still wasn’t convinced I could relax and enjoy the experience.

By the time we reached our second destination, the stressed, overwhelmed Desiree was completely replaced with a whole different person, the hungry girl. I joke all the time about food being my real love language, but there seems to be something to that. Even with what seems to be the entire day’s weight on me, the moment we started tasting and talking about food, everything else evaporated. That first bite of Cinnamon Horchata cupcake instantly transported me away from the hectic daily life of a single mom to a lazy morning with banana bread. The calm of the slight spice and hint of sweet from the cream cheese frosting is everything I want with my morning coffee. With each following destination, I found myself easing into a land of comfort food. Tacos al pastor y horchata, pupusas y tamarindo, pork tamales, ice cream.

But the taste that brought about a real feeling of momentary joy, a break from the chaos, was the first bite into the warm pastrami on rye at Wise Son’s Jewish Deli. With a drizzle of mustard, the richness of the meat seemed to disintegrate immediately on the tongue. The heated sandwich spoke of total comfort food and the accompaniment of house-made celery soda offered refreshing breaks from the fullness of the sandwich. It’s been years since I’ve had anything close to pastrami from a Jewish deli and instantly, warmth seemed to fall from my mouth downward. It was in that moment that I knew, good food really is my love language, bringing peace and comfort to a crazy world.