June 7, 2015

Don’t Let The Egg Fool The Young

Good morning and greetings, Asian Fusion fans.  With the Golden State Warriors tied up one game apiece with Cleveland  in the NBA championship series, I thought I would shift gears and head back into the culinary lane of  life.  As the poet Yuan Mei of the Qing Dynasty once said,“There is a difference between dining and eating. Dining is an art. When you eat to get most out of your meal, to please the palate, just as well as to satiate the appetite, that, my friend, is dining.”

I recently ran across an article by Dan Gentile on yahoo.com, entitled, “19 Ways To Spot a Fake Chinese Restaurant.”  The author starts out by saying, “There are plenty of ethnic cuisines that America has doused in the thick, sweet sauce of appropriation, but perhaps none more so than Chinese food. There’s a time and place for things like sweet and sour chicken and crab rangoon, but it never feels good to be expecting a plate of mapo tofu only to get your food and realize you’ve walked into a trap set by General Tso.”
Now let me say, first off, that I am on the sweet and sour bandwagon.  I know this to be politically incorrect, as years ago, I was dining with a Chinese friend at the Yank SIng restaurant in San Francisco, home of the overpriced traditional and contemporary dim sum.
We sat down, and soon the parade of shrimp siu mye, Shanghai dumplings and a variety of steamed buns were stopping at our table.  As soon as they hit my plate, I went right for the sweet and sour sauce.  After a few rounds of watching me drown these delicate food items in the sauce, she couldn’t take it any more and said, “If you dip anything else in that sauce, I’m going to have to kill you.”
From there it went downhill.  Later on, I passed on eating a dish called chicken feet.   I didn’t care that they were first fried, then marinated and then steamed.  I just didn’t want to digest anything where you have to chop off the toenails.
So getting back to the story, the author went and met with the owner of a recently closed but very popular Asian fusion restaurant in Los Angeles named Starry Kitchen.  If you are wondering what this Asian confusion, er fusion, might be, it is defined as the blending of various Asian styles of cooking to create new, imaginative dishes, like Chinese Bourbon Chicken with Soy Sauce and Ginger, Spicy Smokin’ Asian Salmon Cakes and Black Sesame Ice Cream, topped off with some jello mixed in with tiny pieces of fruit.
The author spoke with the co-owner Nguyen Tran, who also shared some thoughts from his chef/wife Thi Tran, about how to tell an authentic Chinese restaurant from an Americanized one.  As he says, “If you see more than a few of these red flags, you might want to rethink what you’re putting between your chopsticks.  Or in my case, a fork.

Sweet and sour sauce that’s starchy or sugary

“Sweet and sour is also an authentic Chinese preparation.   If it’s saccharine and sweet, it’s definitely an Americanized Chinese place. It shouldn’t overpower the other flavors. It’s lightly salty and lightly sweet, but if it looks thick like molasses, then it’s probably Americanized. It can be made on the fly too, it’s usually just sugar, vinegar, and other ingredients poured onto the chicken.  You shouldn’t need a machete to cut through it.”

I say, come one, come all, the sweet and sour sauce livens up any Chinese dish.  I would love to bathe in the Sweet and Sour Sea of life.

Egg foo young is on the menu

“Sometimes authentic places will have this on the menu, but it’s really an American invention, and it can be disgusting. It’s like a savory pancake that’s an amalgamation of vegetables, batter, and shrimp that’s deep-fried and topped with gravy. It loses all the texture when you put gravy on it, and it just becomes mush on mush.”

This is my father’s favorite dish, along with shrimp and lobster sauce. Enough said.

Kung pao chicken is front and center

“This is actually a Chinese dish, so it kind of depends. It could be a gateway dish, but if they showcase it, more than likely it’s an Americanized Chinese place.”

I’m not really a kung pao man, as I was never crazy about the peanuts.  But I could adapt.

You must select the protein for the fried rice

“In Americanized places there’s a generic fried rice formula. Fried rice equals choice of protein plus fried rice. You’re ordering by protein. But with more authentic places it’s more about marrying a specific protein to a specific profile; that’s what’s unique about stir-fry. So instead of shrimp fried rice, you’d be looking for something like yeung chow fried rice.”

I don’t know much about yeung chow fried rice, but I know it goes great served with thousand fish soup.

The use of the term potstickers

“I don’t even know where that word comes from. I couldn’t understand for years what my American friends were talking about.”

Who knew?  My daughter and I love potstickers.  We buy them in Traders Joe’s, where you get 24 pieces for $3.99, which is quite the deal.

Mu shu pork

“This is another that’s actually a real Chinese dish, but it’s one that I think no Asian has ever eaten in their life.”

My wife loves mu shu chicken, all wrapped up in a thin pancake with the tangy plum sauce.

Crab rangoon

“You’re not going to see that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen sour cream in any dish in a real Chinese restaurant.”

Love the crab rangoon at the Golden Palace on Ocean Street, dipped in the sweet and sour sauce.  And it’s cream cheese, not sour cream.

Egg roll and soup lunch special

“This is a sweeping generalization, but many authentic Chinese restaurants don’t even have egg rolls on the menu. This is my bias, but Chinese egg rolls are some of the worst egg rolls I’ve ever had in my life. These are the Americanized ones. It’s all cabbage, wrapped in a really crappy wrapper, it’s fat, and you’re dipping it in sweet and sour.”

I hate to say it, but the soup and the egg roll are my mother’s favorite Chinese dishes.  She likes dipping the egg roll in the Chinese mustard, and then adding on the sweet and sour sauce.  And she’s nuts about the soup.

A giant container of soy sauce on the table

“A lot of people just add soy sauce to everything they eat. You should try the food first; soy sauce is the equivalent of salt. That’s the exact reason it’s there. If there’s a huge bottle or it looks like it’s replenished a lot, that might be a sign. You might not even see it that often at an authentic restaurant.”

I never touch the soy sauce.  Don’t want to hurt the sweet and sour feelings.

Metal American spoons

“If they have metal Western spoons versus Asian soup spoons, it’s more than likely an Americanized Chinese restaurant. Most real Asian places don’t see the need for both. It’s subtle, and people might argue this to death, but if you ask for a spoon, I’ll hand you a soup spoon.”

I never ask for a spoon.  Just a fork and and keep the water coming.

Everything comes with an individual side of rice

“Asian food is usually eaten family style, but at Americanized places the rice is more likely to be individually portioned. So if it’s served individually right in front of you versus in the middle of the table, that’s a tell.”

At Golden City on Mission Street, they serve enough white rice to feed a small African nation, so I order the egg fried rice.  But I prefer the out chow fun noodles, because that’s the way I roll.

American desserts

“If there’s an American dessert or a fried wonton with honey and powdered sugar, that’s not an authentic Chinese restaurant at all.”

I don’t want a fortune cookie or sesame ball for dessert, just give me an old-fashioned almond cookie.  Or a dish of coconut ice cream.

There aren’t any Asian people eating there

“If the only Asian people in the restaurant are working there, that’s always a sign of it not being an authentic Chinese restaurant.”

There are usually Asian people eating in while I’m eating, but I have no idea what they’re ordering.  It’s like we’re in separate universes.

The tri-fold door menu

“If it looks like something that could be a mailer, or be put on your door, then it’s more than likely a totally Americanized place.”

Guilty.  But the take out menu is convenient.

Pictures of Americanized items on the menu

“This has moved into Asian culture, but if you see a picture of kung pao chicken at the front, it’s definitely a fake place.”

I prefer a video.

The sign/menu uses a stereotypically Asian font

“That font can get people riled up. It’s so embedded in our culture from the early days of America, with the Chinese working on the railroads and stuff. It instills in someone who’s not Asian that, ‘wow, this must be Asian food.’ Visually it does trigger that. It’s funny because in Santa Barbara the street signs have this font. My wife gets worked up about it!”

Interesting.  There’s an old Cantonese saying.  “Anything that walks, swims, crawls or flies with its back to heaven is edible.”  But Confusious say,  “The way you cut your meat reflects the way you live life.”

Bags filled with stacks of to-go orders

“If there’s a side table with all these bags tied up at the top with containers, or with the Chinese folding box with the handles… if you see that ready to go, it’s more than likely to be fake. What’s more Americanized than Chinese takeout?

Apple pie? Baseball?  The first season of “True Detective?”

Empty fish tanks

“If they have big fish tanks that are empty, it might be an Americanized restaurant. Live seafood is a big part of authentic Chinese food, so an empty fish tank shows that they might’ve evolved into being more Americanized over time because the seafood was too expensive.”

I always felt sorry for the fish and the lobsters in the tanks.  Those lobsters screams haunt me.

There are dragons everywhere

“It’s not offensive at all, but it’s probably an Americanized place. It goes with things like latticework and a big circular doorway. Current Chinese culture is pretty modernized, so it’s weird if you’re literally entering the dragon.”

I was born in the Year of the Dragon, which occupies the 5th position in the Chinese Zodiac.  The Dragon is the mightiest of the signs.  We are colorful personalities who are driven, unafraid of challenges, willing to take risks and passionate in all they do.  Yup, that describes me in a nutshell.

It’s the beginning of the summer fire season in California, and for our photo feature, we are returning to June of 2008, when a fire was raging on the central coast.  I grabbed my camera and headed down to Lighthouse Point, and started shooting the billowing clouds of smoke over Steamer Lane.  I then moved north along West Cliff Drive to capture landscape of the waves and the sky on this very unusual day.

On to some late night humor.  “In a recent interview, George Clooney said that he doesn’t believe in plastic surgery and thinks people should just try to look the best that they can at their age. Then the interviewer said, “Great. Do you have any advice for people who aren’t George Clooney?” – Jimmy Fallon  “Senator Ted Cruz said he thinks John F. Kennedy would be a Republican if he were alive today. Well, of course he would be Republican. He’d be 98 years old.” – Seth Meyers

For the second year in a row, the Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a tie with two winners. Or as each of their parents put it to their kids, “I told you that you shouldn’t have gone outside to play that one time.” – Jimmy Fallon  “The spelling bee co-champions are Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam. They won the competition by spelling each other’s names correctly.  Winning the spelling bee is a big deal. You get to hear your name mispronounced by every newscaster in America.” – Jimmy Kimmel

“A lawyer from Africa wants to marry Malia Obama in exchange for goats, sheep, and cows. In response, President Obama said, “Don’t be ridiculous. My daughter isn’t marrying a lawyer.” The Christmas-themed town of North Pole, Alaska, has officially approved marijuana dispensaries. So don’t expect your presents from Santa until next April. Santa will be showing up with Rudolph the Red-Eyed Reindeer.” – Conan O’Brien
We’ll catch you coming off the bench and being MVP of game one of the Finals.  Aloha, mahalo and later, Andre Iguadola fans.

June 1, 2014

The Daze Of May

Good morning and greetings, sports fans. April showers and May flowers, like my once perfect eyesight, are now history. I can still remember the day I realized I needed some cheater glasses. I blame it on the lemon chicken.

I was sitting inside a darkened room at O’mei, a restaurant on the westside of Santa Cruz that has been serving Chinese provincial cuisine with an understated elegance since 1979. For people in the know, it’s the best Chinese food in town. The only problem was that every time I walked out of the place, I was left wanting more.

But why point fingers? As my favorite Swami Tejomayananda once said, “If your heart is full, you don’t feel that hungry.”

Now I could have ordered more food and come away with a fuller belly, but at the time, my digestive tract was more suited for the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets, where I rarely left not totally satiated.

Back in the 80′s, these noon time feasts were always a Friday tradition, as we would roll out to the Mandarin Palace on a search and destroy mission, intent on devouring anything and everything that came down the pike. Egg rolls, pot stickers, fried rice, Condoleezza rice, beef and broccoli, cashew chicken, shrimp toast, french toast, chow fun, spare ribs, mu shu and grits, along with enough sweet and sour sauce to fill Lake Tahoe.

Back in those crab rangoon days, I was counting cream cheese filled won tons rather than carbs. The cooks would come out and fill the display trays. We would immediately empty them and eagerly anticipate the next round. It was the circle of life.

Or as the old Chinese proverb goes, “A peasant must stand a long time on a hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in.”

Anyway, to make a long story shorter, I was trying to read the menu but I couldn’t tell if it was beef with baby corn or corn beef. One of the gentlemen at the table pulled out of pair of cheater glasses and before you could say, “red chili dumplings,” it all became clear. I had seen the light. Help was on the way.

Anyway, April started out in fine fashion, as the first round of the NBA playoffs got underway and were beyond fantastic. Everybody talks about the greatness of March Madness and college hoops, but this was full blown April insanity.

The opening round were all best-of-7 series, which means you have to win four times to advance. That leaves lots of time to sit around recapping the action and anticipating the what happens next.

The first round matchups featured San Antonio-Dallas, Oklahoma City-Memphis, LA Clippers-Golden State and Houston-Portland. Eight solid, exciting NBA teams. All wanted to move on in their quest for an NBA championship.

Turned out, three of the four series went the full seven games, while the fourth went six. Every night there was a game going down to the wire, and better yet, eight overtime contests, which is just a hoop dream. This was a two week stretch of wall-to-wall excitement, with fantastic finishes as the excitement kept building as the series moved along.

It was basketball heaven, as the first weekend in May brought us to the deciding game seven action. Then it was on to the semi-finals and then the conference finals. Now we are back to a rematch of last year’s finalists, which features the Miami Heat, led by the best player on the planet, LeBron James, who are gunning for their third straight championship and the San Antonio Spurs, who are seeking redemption for a title they had within their grasp last season but let slip away.

But as May brought joy, it also drew pain, as tragedy struck when a crazed madman slaughtered six students in a rampage in Isle Vista, which borders the UC Santa Barbara campus. The six killed were all UCSB students. None needed to die.

My son, a sophomore at UCSB, was there that night in the area where the shootings took place. For not some sort of fate, he could easily have been out on the street when the bullets were flying and never would have known what hit him.

Turns out, he knew three of the students who were slain, which is three more than needed in anyone’s lifetime. Jason has seen other friends and classmates die. It seems strange, as when I was growing up, I can’t remember anyone dying, except my dreams of playing in the NBA.

The shootings hit a little too close to home. When I saw the video of Richard Martinez, the father of Chris Martinez, who was shot and killed as he walked into a deli, his pain, grief and anger was heartbreaking. If Jason had decided to go out for some dessert, that easily could have been me being the new poster Dad for our latest national tragedy.

So this Memorial Day weekend was memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. Jason’s life is now back to semi-normal, as as he is studying like a maniac for finals. The Isle Vista shooting are fading out of the national news cyle, replaced by other disasters around the globe.

But will this insanity ever end? We have gun and mental health issues that are out of control. Parents should not have to bury their children.

On today’s photo front, we are returning to Lighthouse Point on the evening of January 21. There was a lovely sunrise that morning, so this was a day that I took a double dip on the digital frontier. As you can see, the swell was up, as the waves had been pumping since dawn’s first light. They continued to roll in at Its Beach as the sun set, which delighted everyone who had gathered along the edge to take in the evening’s hazy festivities.

No late night humor this week so I’ll go with a couple of jokes.

A woman has twins, and gives them up for adoption. One of them goes to a family in Egypt and is named ‘Amal.’ The other goes to a family in Spain, they name him Juan’. Years later; Juan sends a picture of himself to his mum. Upon receiving the picture, she tells her husband that she wished she also had a picture of Amal. Her husband responds, ”But they are twins. If you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen Amal.”

A turtle was walking down a street in New York and suddenly got mugged by few snails. A policeman arrives to investigate the matter and asks the turtle, “Could you please explain to us about the incident.” The turtle not knowing what to say, replies, “I don’t remember. It happened so fast.”

So that’s our first blast for June. We’ll catch you coming up big down the stretch and leading your team in the quest of another championship. Aloha, mahalo and later, Tim Duncan fans.


Follow Sunrise Santa Cruz on Twitter
Sunrise Santa Cruz in the news!