November 11, 2015

Asianifying fall vegetables (part 2): kabocha & chicken stew




Okay. This one is a bit of a cheat. In continuing my series, “Asianifying fall vegetables in the U.S.,” I should, in theory, be choosing vegetables that do not typically feature in Asian cuisines. However, this is not the case in today’s recipe, since kabocha is a type of small pumpkin that is used in a variety of East Asian culinary practices. The reason why I decided to try it was because of the interesting nature of the recipe book it came from. Nikkei Cuisine: Japanese Food the South American Way, by Luiz Hara, is an attempt to clarify and explain the legitimacy of Japanese cooking as interpreted by members of the Japanese diaspora. Hara is one such member, having grown up in Brazil before moving to London to become an influential food blogger (while working in finance) and, eventually, a chef.

That being said, this recipe is what I would classify as restaurant-level one, given that it took what seemed like an eternity to make and contains detailed instructions such as “caramelise [the] konbu strips to garnish” and “Bevel the edges of each [pumpkin] slice” (i.e. scrape the pumpkin skin off the edges.) Still, it made for a delicious soup erring on the unexpectedly sweet side, which was nicely off-set by the savoury chicken element. I would make it again, but next time I would break up the preparation in a way that wouldn’t require me to do everything in one session, since there is quite a bit of steeping  and waiting involved. My recommendation is to prepare the dashi and ensuing kabocha soup well-ahead of time. The chicken can be done shortly before serving. For this reason, I’ve taken the liberty of separating this recipe into steps so that you can do “Step 1” in advance, and save “Step 2” for later.

From Luiz Hara: One of the simplest meat recipes in this book, this is a delicate but flavoursome dish with three main components–chicken, dashi stock, and kabocha pumpkin. For this dish to work, all three should be fresh and of the highest quality. If the budget stretches, I recommend corn-fed, preferably free-range chicken, and the dashi should be primary, crystal-clear and freshly made. This is an elegant chicken dish that is sure to impress.

Serves 4

-1 litre (4 cups) Primary dashi

-1/2 small kabocha pumpkin

-100 ml (1/2 cup) mirin

-1 1/2 tbsp. caster (superfine) sugar

-5 cm (2 in.) piece of konbu

-5 tbsp. light soy sauce

-4 corn-fed chicken thighs, skin on, bone in

-1 tsp. sansho pepper, to garnish

-1 tsp. toasted white sesame seeds, to garnish

-2 tbsp. caramelised konbu seaweed, to garnish

[Step 1.]

Prepare the primary dashi; this dish is all about the quality of the dashi and the chicken.

Start by preparing the kabocha pumpkin. First, cut the kabocha in half and remove the seeds. Then cut each half in half again: the quarters will have a thicker top part and a thinner bottom part. Then cut each quarter in half again so that you have eight pieces of roughly the same weight and size, for even cooking. Bevel the edges of each slice using a potato peeler (I do this to stop the sharp edges from breaking off into the dashi and making it cloudy, which would also spoil the presentation.) Finally, tap the heel of the knife blade into the kabocha‘s skin to cut small nicks into it, so when the kabocha cooks and the flesh expands, the harder skin will be able to expand with it and the slice will not crumble.

Put the kabocha in a medium pan, skin side down. Add the dashi, mirin, sugar, and konbu piece. Bring to the boil over a medium heat. When the liquid boils, reduce the heat so the kabocha gently simmers. Cook until the kabocha is just cooked through but firm, about 7 minutes; test for doneness by sticking a toothpick through it. Do not overcook at this stage, as the kabocha will be cooked again. When the kabocha is ready, turn off the heat and add the soy sauce. Let the kabocha steep in its cooking liquor for at least 1 hour (more is fine, even a few hours but don’t refrigerate.)

[Step 2.]

Carefully remove the kabocha from its liquor, setting it aside but reserving the liquid in the pan.

Next, preheat a heavy griddle pan over a high heat. When the pan is very hot, add the chicken, skin side down, and brown for a minute or so. Turn the pieces of chicken over and brown the other side for 2 minutes. Transfer the chicken to the pan of cooking liquor and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, so the liquid simmers gently, and continue to cook for 12 minutes. When the chicken is done, remove it from the pan and keep it warm.

Now, return the kabocha pieces to the cooking liquid, bring to the boil then turn the heat down and simmer gently for a couple of minutes to heat the pumpkin through.

To plate, place one chicken thigh in a shallow serving bowl followed by two pieces of kabocha pumpkin alongside, then add a ladleful of the cooking broth. Finish off with a sprinkle of sansho pepper, the toasted sesame seeds and a few strands of caramelised konbu over the chicken. Serve immediately.


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November 4, 2015

Book Review


After reading Ann Reavis’ Italian Food Rules, a book that aims to explain many of the differences between Italian-American cooking and authentic Italian cuisine, I was curious to see whether the ‘rules’ presented in the book matched up with those of an actual Italian person who’s been well-exposed to Italian-American food. Enter Mario.

Mario Merone is originally from Ariano Irpino in the southern Italian region of Campania and has worked as a playwright, actor, director, and drama teacher all over Italy and other parts of Europe. In 2013 he moved to New York to pursue his dream of joining an American theatre company. Like many actors, Mario works part-time as a waiter—in his case at Piccolo Café, an Italian-American café and restaurant with a location near my apartment, which I like to frequent especially when I’m trying to get some reading done. Its tiny, narrow interior limits the number of customers, which makes for a quiet and intimate atmosphere, and the wait staff has always been kind enough to charge my phone and seat me next to the heater in the winter.

With his first-hand knowledge of culinary interpretations in both Italy and the U.S., Mario very kindly accepted my request to evaluate some of the ‘rules’ listed in Reavis’ book and either confirm or correct them. He credits his grandmother for first introducing him to Italian cooking and inciting his culinary interests thereafter:

I love food and I love to cook. My culinary experience began at my grandmother’s house in 1980. Even though I was only a year old, I started to taste the delicious food made by Nonna Carolina, and day by day, she taught me the secrets of what tasted good.

1.) Italians only drink tea when they are sick (they much prefer coffee). 

False. Coffee is the number one choice, but a lot of people also drink tea even when they’re not sick.

2.) Don’t dip bread in olive oil. Bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar is not served automatically in Italian restaurants. 

Partially false. In Italy, bread alone is served automatically in restaurants, but without the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. However, they can provide those condiments upon request, and then you can dip your bread into them.

3.) No pizza for lunch. Pizza is meant to be eaten for dinner, with friends (as opposed to a family outing), after 9 PM, and at a pizzeria. One should also eat pizza with a knife and fork, unless you are a guy and in Naples.

False. You can have pizza for lunch and/or for dinner with your family or friends, at any time (not just after 9 PM). Usually, pizza is served already cut into slices so that you can use your hands and enjoy the delicious taste. But you are also welcome to use a knife and fork if you’d like!

4.) Don’t put ice cubes in beverages. This is because Italians believe that icy cold beverages are bad for your digestion. They can even cause congestione, an abdominal cramp, that can kill you. Italy is a land of simple drinks–wine, beer, water, none of which require ice.

False, mainly for the wrong reason. Putting ice in beverages isn’t common in Italy, but the reason is because ice changes the real flavour of the beverages. People like to keep the taste undiluted.

5.) Spaghetti is not served with meatballs. That is an American thing.

True. “Spaghetti with meatballs??? Are you kidding me??” That was my first reaction…

6.) Don’t eat eggs in the morning. Eggs are not part of an Italian breakfast, as usually people opt for a cappuccino and a pastry. They might even stretch to some fruit or yoghurt. But no eggs.


7.) Italians don’t drink orange juice in the morning because they believe it is too acidic and bad for your digestion. 

False. We drink fresh orange juice in the morning. I’m one of them.

8.) Bistecca alla Fiorentina should only be eaten rare.

Following the tradition, yes, but it’s up to you. There is no prohibition to ask for Bistecca alla Fiorentina cooked ‘medium.’

9.) Different dishes are meant to be served on different dishes. For instance, a dish of potatoes is served separately from a dish of meat. The different foods therefore don’t touch each other. 

False, because it depends on the food combination. For example, you are not supposed to serve something like tomato sauce with potatoes on the same dish.

10.) Don’t use bottled “Italian salad dressing.” Real Italians dress their salad simply: olive oil, red wine vinegar or lemon juice, salt, and pepper are added sequentially to the salad. These ingredients are not shaken into a vinaigrette and added all at once. Vinaigrette is a French invention.


11.) Don’t dip biscotti in coffee. The only drink biscotti should be dipped into is Vin Santo or vino santo

True. But you can dip biscotti into a cappuccino, latte or caffe llatte. By the way, I saw someone once who dipped biscotti into coffee, and he’s still alive…

12.) An actual panino is a small roll (not sliced bread) containing two to three ingredients. Most panini are not usually heated under a panino press, as they are in the U.S., and butter is never used on them either. 

False. We serve them using sliced bread, too. We also heat them under a panino press. But it’s true that we don’t use butter. Ever.

13.) Eating melons without prosciutto is considered somewhat dangerous to Italians. The logic is that if a ‘cold’ food like melon is eaten without a ‘hot,’ balancing food, like a salty meat, the body will be ‘chilled,’ which leads to the dreaded congestione



For a complete list of Piccolo Café locations, see here


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October 31, 2015

The Charm of the Grotesque (and Egregiously Tacky)



A few years ago, I had a bedazzled phone cover that looked a lot like one above. Certain friends of mine with a predilection for frilly, fluffy, sparkly things would call it cute upon seeing it, but others would find this both amusing and ugly, as I myself did. So why did I like it? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that its appeal lay in the very fact that it was so overtly tacky it actually managed to achieve some kind of unconventional charm.

It sounds strange at first, if anything because it seems totally counter-intuitive to our aesthetic sensibilities, which we regard as usually attracted to the beautiful, symmetrical, and clean. But it is not so strange when we think about the appeal found in the art of the grotesque, a term coined in the 16th century that refers to styles of art which incorporate elements of the bizarre, fantastic, ugly, uncomfortable, and horrific. First revived during the Renaissance by the school of Raphael in Rome after a landmark excavation of grottoes in which such decorations were found, the grotesque style quickly became popular in decorative art and architecture throughout Europe and remained so until the 19th century.

But how did those who found it appealing explain its appeal? Like several terms that first appeared in the field of art but were then brought over to other branches of the humanities to be discussed, one of the first attempts to understand the term, ‘grotesque,’ occurred in literature, more specifically, in Michel de Montaigne’s (1533-1592) Essays to denote a burgeoning genre. In it, Montaigne described the genre as closely related to satire and tragicomedy because of its ability to effectively communicate grief, pain, and comedy all at once. Thomas Mann (1875-1955) later concurred with this feature of simultaneous discomfort and delight, thereby calling the art of the grotesque a “genuine anti-bourgeois style” in Past Masters and other Papers (tr. H.T. Lowe-Porter). Mann’s view was in the context of his broader opinions on modern art, the key characteristic of which he regarded as the refusal to acknowledge tragedy and comedy any further because “[Modern art] sees life as tragicomedy, with the result that the grotesque is its most genuine style.”

The funny thing is, though, that because of this tragicomic trait, the grotesque could very well relate to what we deem as cute. As tragicomedy tends to elicit a feeling of sympathy towards the pathetic, it creates an imbalance of power in which we viewers have the upper hand, and according to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai in Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany, Interesting (2012), so do cute things, which evoke “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency” out of the fact that they are “small, helpless, [and] deformed object[s].”

Arguably, then, the reason why things like my egregiously tacky phone case are somehow charming is indeed because they are cute— oddly enough by way of the pity they inspire in us, much like the art of the grotesque. Who would have thought that my giggly friends with a penchant for stuffed animals were right all along?

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October 15, 2015

play/movie review: Macbeth

Marta SpendowskaMarta Spendowska. Abstract Lands: Rivers.

A very well-read friend of mine, who lives in London, went with me the other day to see the new Macbeth movie in a charming little Everyman Cinema on Baker Street (incidentally where Sherlock Holmes was supposed to live). It was a short, powerful movie on the whole, with beautiful cinematography, costumes, settings, and a score. I also enjoyed the acting, although I think it could have done with slightly less strained whispering.

The movie made me think about certain ideas that hadn’t occurred to me when I last read the play in high school. Two, in particular, stand out:

  • Differing attitudes towards the concept of masculinity

While I had studied Lady Macbeth’s purposeful rejection of conventional femininity and her belief that it breeds weakness, I hadn’t yet thought about attitudes toward masculine gender roles. Not only does Lady Macbeth pressure her husband to kill King Duncan by questioning his manhood (“When you durst do it, then you were a man. /And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more than the man.”), but she also wishes for the abandonment of her own womanhood in her quest for power (“Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top full/ Of direst cruelty…”). She goes so far as to say that she would even kill her own child, against any innate maternal instincts, if it means the procurement of a more masculine and therefore powerful position because, to her, masculinity and capability are one and the same. Both husband and wife desperately cling to each other while drowning in a sea of their insecurities before, finally, Lady Macbeth’s suicide and Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff highlight the ultimate Shakespearean triumph of ‘true’ morality and masculinity. This is because Macduff, by contrast, is self-assured in the full knowledge of himself and his limits. When told to take the brutal murder of his wife and son “like a man,” Macduff replies, “I shall do so, / But I must also feel it as a man.” In stating this, he asserts that sensitivity of feeling is not necessarily linked to weakness of character. Even though he feels deeply, these emotions do not undermine his ability as a successful warrior and mentally strong hero of the play. If anything, they strengthen his resolve.

  • Was Macbeth suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)?

Never before had it occurred to me that Macbeth might have been especially impressionable at the beginning of the play because he was psychologically unsound at the time when his wife pressured him to kill King Duncan—the first murder that snowballed toward others and, eventually, Macbeth’s own undoing. In fact, the reason why he is so easily able to assassinate Duncan in the first place is because Duncan has come to personally thank Macbeth for his bravery in the recent battle, which was fought on Duncan’s behalf. Still freshly traumatized from all the carnage, Macbeth exhibits a mentally unstable disposition throughout the play, even at times when he should be theoretically at ease without murder actively preying on his mind by dint of urgency. The banquet hall scene following his coronation is one such example. Although he has just been given worrying news that Fleance, Banquo’s young son, has managed to escape while Banquo was being killed, Macbeth’s ensuing frenzy of fervour in front of all his guests can hardly be seen as a normal reaction. After all, the last thing a king would want to do is show his subjects how unhinged and unfit to rule he is. Lady Macbeth, in response, tries to quell the situation by explaining to their guests that her husband usually has these fits and that this is completely typical of him: “Sit, worthy friends: my lord is often thus…Feed, and regard him not.”

It was only when I saw this scene acted out that I started to wonder whether Macbeth’s madness can indeed be considered as only belonging to the same type as his wife’s—namely, the lunacy that comes from being unable to overcome vast guilt. While there is ample evidence to show how he, like his wife, cannot reconcile himself with having so much blood on his hands, I think that his madness is exacerbated by an untreated, underlying layer of trauma, which is found in the behavioural symptoms of PTSD that he exhibits  but is not found in his wife’s cold-blooded attitude towards murder. Symptoms shown by war veterans often include paranoia and irrational panic as though they are constantly in danger, as well as depressed moments in which they seek isolation. Alongside his outburst in the banquet hall, Macbeth also has times when he withdraws from everyone, thereby showing both symptoms just mentioned. For example, In Act 3, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth finds him brooding by himself and asks, “How now, my lord! Why do you keep alone[?]”

All in all, I would see the movie again and highly recommend you see it, too!


For more on the locations of Everyman Cinemas, see


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October 2, 2015

Technology-assisted dating in the 1800s and 2010s copy

Recently, I read two books that address mankind’s experience when faced with finding romance through new technologies, albeit one instance in the 1800s and another today: Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (2014) and Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance (2015).

The bulk of Ansari’s book is focused squarely on how dating in today’s digital age is markedly different from the past when one was forced to date in-person and/or through communication formats that required a more physical, personal presence. Mobile or app texting has become such an essential communication tool in dating that we have now developed two selves: a “phone self” and a “real-world self,” whereby our phone selves are defined by the perceptions that others have formed of us based on what texts we sent them.

His main critique of this medium is that “texting facilitates flakiness and rudeness and many other personality traits that would not be expressed in a phone call or an in-person interaction.” And because of this ability to communicate with very little accountability or linkage to our real-world selves, people capitalize on the fact that they can get away with bad behaviour so easily. As such, they become much more uninhibited about the way that they express themselves, which often leads to results that come off as inconsiderate or hurtful. This is especially true when paired with the fact that conciseness as a form of casualness is highly prized in texting and therefore an added pressure that encourages us to exclude explanations and present ourselves in ways that we otherwise might not, verbally or in-person, in order to preserve our self-images.

However, in light of Standage’s The Victorian Internet, that these bad behaviours are exacerbated by a protective layer of impersonality is not an entirely novel happenstance in the history of human interactions through technology. More specifically, the technology he refers to is the electric telegraph, the precursor to today’s Internet, which connected the globe and “unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press.” Throughout his book, Standage explores the range of wrong-doings that accompanied the advent of the telegraph and cumulatively views them as a demonstration of society’s tendency to blame problems that are facilitated by new technologies on the technologies themselves.

His chapter entitled, “Love over the Wires,” is devoted to examples of romances that were made possible by the telegraph. These romances ranged from inconsequential flirtations between people who had never met, to long-distance dating, to marriages. As Standage writes, “Spies and criminals are invariably among the first to take advantage of new modes of communication. But lovers are never far behind.” Within the first few months of the telegraph being opened to the public, “on-line wedding[s]” took place, and strict regulations between female and male operators were enforced to keep flirtations at bay. “Romances of the Telegraph,” an article published in Western Electrician in 1891, detailed numerous examples of couples who met each other over telegraph lines and sustained their relationships that way. Predictably enough, the varied results of such unions were strikingly similar to the varied results of relationships that happen over text today. Both flaky and considerate people who dated using fast communication tools existed in the Victorian age, just as they do now.

It makes me wonder to what degree the human experience has changed with regard to courtship, irrespective of what new technologies we’ve employed to assist it. Although the world is infinitely more connected now, and there are many more options as a result, the concept of ‘The Game’ has always existed: the vacillation between expressing our true feelings and hiding them in order to uphold the self-images that we’ve created and would like others to see us as. We humans are proud. We do not like being vulnerable or losing, so we play games with each other. The only difference is that now we are able to play as many games as we want, with as many people as we want, whenever we want. This was not the case in the Victorian age. It seems that the dating process is far more exhausting today, the main reason for which can be largely attributed to the burden of immense choice.

On a more positive note, here is some pertinent advice from the Dalai Lama, whose insightful wisdom even on popular culture has impressed me ever since he remarked that Hollywood is “very bad for [his] eyes and a waste of time.” Concerning technology and our livelihoods’ dependence on it, he recommends the following: “I think technology has really increased human ability. But technology cannot produce compassion. We are the controller of the technology. If we become a slave of technology, then [that’s] not good.”

And that’s why he’s the Dalai Lama.

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October 1, 2015

Isn’t it kind of narcissistic to write a blog about yourself?

bonnassieux_modestie_Ly                                         Jean-Marie Bonnassieux. La Modestie (1846). 


Isn’t it kind of narcissistic to write a blog about yourself?
Such was the question I confronted myself with over and over before starting this blog. Like many people, I was conditioned from an early age to believe in an intrinsic bond between modesty, morality, and professionalism. Now, however, with the widely documented success of professional bloggers who earn a living off of ‘just being themselves,’ it appears that the notion of self-promotion, especially with regard to one’s professional image, has changed. Being your own brand is now encouraged. Whereas members of my grandfather’s generation believed that ‘what do you defines who you are,’ now the commonly encouraged belief is that ‘who you are defines what you do.’ And while it’s easy to dismiss this as a result of an ever-growing cult of individuality, I wonder to what extent the public presentation of one’s personal self can be rationalised as morally praiseworthy, acceptable, or questionable.

Man Booker Prize-winning novelist and art critic, John Berger, in his 1972 seminal documentary and companion text of critical essays on Western cultural aesthetics entitled, Ways of Seeing, similarly observed this phenomenon of disseminating private opinions for public consumption, albeit largely in the context of image mass-reproduction rather than the mass-distribution of personal information via the internet. In the final paragraph of his last essay, which concerns issues of glamour and publicity, he writes that, “Publicity is the life of this culture—in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive…Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible.”

A key characteristic of capitalism has always been the emphasis on individual gain rather than communal progress, and here, Berger presents the idea of using publicity to gain an advantage over the rest of society by editing ourselves into exclusive forms for public consumption. But beyond the issue of capitalism, what actually catches my attention most is how Berger believes that people are now forced to “define their interests as narrowly as possible.”

It’s an interesting thought because it resonates with those presented in a book published forty-three years later by Aliza Licht in May 2015 about using self-promotion to build one’s own brand, and in doing so, creating a niche market for which there is only one product available: ourselves. In Leave Your Mark, she encourages readers to reflect on the key characteristics that make themselves unique in order to present that edited image to the world. The mentality from which she advocates this operates on the assumption that people are “innately judgemental” and view each other in “one-sentence description[s]” anyway, so we might as well play an active role in creating that image for our own benefit. In short, she promotes the reduction of our complex selves into their best, most essential forms in order to be comprehended faster and more easily by the public. Exclusivity and the usage of it for upward mobility—in this regard, doesn’t building one’s own brand seem in line with the selfish mentality that Berger is wary of after all?

Perhaps. And perhaps I am playing into that game, whether I like it or not. But the desire to share our thoughts with others comprises an innate part of our sociality as humans, and it is hard for me to see anything wrong with that. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Practice any art…fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money or fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.” And as the internet is but one tool to share our thoughts with others, I see this endeavour as a way to practice collecting my thoughts and writing—something I do professionally, but here on a more casual platform and with a wider audience given the wider range of content.

And that is all I have to say about the conception of this blog. I hope you enjoy it!

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