The Hexacoto

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Tag: food

The most complicated Chinese character food chain in New York

Image credits to Wikipedia

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the most complicated Chinese character, Biáng. With 57 strokes, it is used in the name of a dish from Shaanxi, the Biang Biang Noodle (Biáng.svgBiáng.svg面). Note how even copy-pasting the character from Wikipedia results in the character’s inability to be displayed normally alongside the noodle character. Also, this word is not standard Chinese, so typing it into Google translate will not yield anything, nor can the online keyboard from Google yield this character. Speculations of the origins of the word include that it is the sound people make when munching on the noodles, or that it is the sound the dough makes when the chef pulls the dough and slaps it against the table. Some concluded that it was merely made up by a noodle store.

For anyone wondering “Where do I even begin to write this character??” here’s a nifty video (below) to help you out.

However, I’m not just here to talk about the “biang” character. I’m here to talk about Biang making its ways onto the shores of New York. There has been a Xi’an Chinese food chain, called “Xi’an Famous Foods,” that’s been popping around New York. They’re known for being cheap, with good portions, and offering the rarely-seen Xi’an cuisine, which often includes meat skewers, cumin lamb buns, and of course, biang biang noodles.

Most Xi’an Famous Foods chains are hole-in-the-wall kind of establishments, with nothing to write home about for its decor, ambience, or any of the other bourgeois things people talk about when assessing eateries; Xi’an Famous Foods is a no-nonsense, eat-yer-food-and-get-out kind of place.

So when that chain introduced Biang!, their upscale version of their chain restaurants (replete with a spiffy website!), serving the exact same menu, one wonders what is the point. Even more important, one wonders if they would jack up the prices, given that Biang! features mood lighting, air-conditioning, nice brick walls and made itself the kind of place you would potentially bring your date to. Well it seems that Biang! does have some slight variation in their menu, offering some food items not usually available from the laminated pictures of the food stuck onto the walls of its lesser chains, so were one so moved to go all the way to Flushing (about 40 minutes from Manhattan), one should go just for a taste of Xi’an, if not to just take a picture of the signboard with the most complicated Chinese character in existence.

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A kueh/kuih by any other name

When people ask, “What food is uniquely Singaporean/Malaysian?” the usual dishes of kway teow, rice dishes, curries, and so on usually come to mind. But a lot of those dishes do originate from elsewhere — curry from India, many rice and noodle dishes are from China — it is the adaptation of these foreign influences and transformation into what it is today that make them uniquely Singaporean/Malaysian.

One of the ultimate amalgamation of cultures would be the Peranakan; descendants of Chinese immigrants in Indonesia and the British Malaya in the 15th or 16th century. They’ve retained the ancestor worship of the Chinese, but mostly assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. Their language, Baba Malay, is a creole of Malay with many Hokkien words in it. Given that many Peranakans are of mixed heritage of Chinese and Malay, many look like a cross in-between — darker skinned than most Chinese, but slightly paler than many Malays.

But one thing that’s absolutely amazing about the Peranakan culture is their food. Using many typical Malay spices and traditional methods of cooking, such as crushing flower petals to obtain natural food dyes, Peranakan food is something as much to look at as it is to eat. “Kueh” (sometimes spelled “Kuih”) are various cake-like confections that range from savoury to sweet. The below, taken from Lee Xin Li’s post, demonstrate the mind-boggling variety of Peranakan kueh that exists.

k1 k2 k3

Getting it right until the future is now

Image taken from Epic 3D Printing Fail

The New York Times had an opinion article about the future of 3D-printing, and how the next stage is 3D-printed food. In the article, the author had 3D-printed pizza, pasta, and some frankenfood, all served on 3D-printed cutlery and utensils.

Of course, we don’t all have a meticulous scientist tinkering around with a 3D-printer, making sure that everything goes smoothly. More often than not, 3D-printing ends up in failure.

Beautiful failures, in fact.

Image taken from Epic 3D Printing Fail

In fact, this Gizmodo article shows us how easily 3D printing can go awry. There’s also a Flickr group dedicated to 3D printing fails.

Imagine if a 3D food printer went rogue, taking over the word, one shot of printed food at a time.

3dprint

The most hassling form of instant food

ramen burger1The instant ramen noodles are supposed to be quick, painless, and above-all, hassle-free. But when someone came up with the idea of turning ramen into burgers, what he ended up with was a craze that caught New York and the internet by storm.

Since they were introduced into the Western world (there have been several ramen burgers floating around Japan years already), people have put up recipes on how to make their own, since getting in line for one in New York takes hours.

I simply took one of the recipes online and made it, and I must say for the effort, the result was underwhelming.

It tasted alright; it took a little getting used to to biting into a soft noodle cake rather than a firmer bread bun, and implementing umami into the burger by adding scallions and soy sauce made it taste like the Asian meatballs my grandmother used to make.

But multiple skillets and pots were used in the process, many ramekins and much counter space were sullied in the attempt to create this — the exact antithesis of the instant ramen: mess-free.

Would I make it again? Maybe for a hoot to impress somebody. Would I make it again for myself? I don’t think I would.

Wild broccoli is a lie

wildbroc1

Did you know that there is no such thing as wild broccoli? They were bred from leafy cole crops in the Northern Mediterranean in the 6th century BCE. Other vegetables that are man-made include the cabbage and brussels sprouts.

No wonder they look so weird.

As a kid, I have always wondered what wild broccoli might look like in their natural environment. I thought they looked like miniature alien trees. I once even made illustrations of it.

wildbroc2

Outrunning the rain on a unicycle

unistormIt began in Williamsburg. “I know this is a weird question, but are you going to ride on that?” asked a fine folk working at the Meatball Shop, pointing at my unicycle. “Yes, I will be riding home on it,” I said. “Ooh, can we see you ride on that when you do?”

The skies were overcast and the clouds above were getting chummy with each other.

“I’ll sweeten the deal. Would you like some free cookies?” the lady said.

Who’d turn down free cookies? “Uh, sure,” I said, slightly taken aback.

So I waited a couple minutes more and received some delightful chocolate chip cookies. I ate one, gave my friend one, and took the last one in my hand and got ready to go. Half the staff came out to see me ride off triumphant with their cookies in hand. A couple drops of rain landed on my head. I hugged my friend goodbye, mounted awkwardly on my 29″ unicycle whilst trying not to drop the cookie. A car behind me honked angrily as I took some seconds to gain momentum.

The staff and my friend cheered. I was a celebrity! And then I took off. The cookie lasted the length of North 8th Street to North 9th Street.

And I commenced my six-mile dash back to Prospect-Lefferts.

I could see that the sun still shone warily from behind the consternation of the angry clouds some distance ahead, while behind me the rain was starting to become heavier and heavier. I was chasing the sun, pursued by the rain. Pedalling as fast as I could, I could feel the rain less and less. Down Union Ave I went until I hit Atlantic Ave. Curses, a red light! As I waited for light to change, the slow but steady clouds crept up and dropped its vindictive, wet victory over my attempt to outrun it. Green light! I sped off again, swerving the wretched potholes that comprise Brooklyn roads.

My legs were starting to burn and I started to sweat profusely from exertion. Down Brooklyn Ave, I had gained the lead on the rain clouds and only the slightest rain drops landed on me, but at this point where the rain failed to get me wet, I was doing a fine job of wetting myself with my own sweat; it was impossible to tell if I was wetter from the rain or from sweat.

I turned onto Nostrand Ave and continued down. The storm clouds yawed away and the sun came out to announce my victory. Yes! Score one for man, over Mother Nature. I reached home and hobbled up the stairs to gloat my sweaty, hard-earned victory.

My Milo is ‘kosong’ out of necessity

miloI am a huge fan of Milo, this chocolate malt drink that I have been drinking since I was a kid. Back home, the way it is usually made is to put heaping spoonfuls of the chocolate powder, add hot water and then a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk. Not with regular milk, not with creamer, just condensed milk.

These days, I’ve been having to drink my Milo ‘kosong’, or ’empty’ in Malay. What that means is simply a cup of Milo without any condensed milk; just Milo powder and hot water. This variant is preferred by those who like their Milo less sweet, since there is a measure of sugar in the Milo chocolate powder mix already.

Milo has been my regular substitute for slabs of chocolate, since it is rather chocolate-tasting and we all know chocolate makes people feel better about themselves. Heaven knows I need plenty of feel-goodness, to help the days pass by.

condm

I had a can of condensed milk at the start, and every cup of Milo made a spoonful of this sticky, sweet goodness would always go with it. Sometimes even two, if I felt like it. At times, I would even lick the spoon for the remnants after I put it into the drink. I have on occasion, simply taken a teaspoon of the stuff because it tastes really good (don’t judge).

But as the condensed milk fell from brim to bottom, and the spoon made a cloying scrape that signified the pending depletion of the condiment, I started to ration it. A full teaspoonful of condensed milk per cup of Milo became half a spoonful. Eventually the condensed milk ran out.

I then started using the milk for my cereal into my Milo, which is not as good, but a fair replacement. After all, I had run of cereal and was not planning on buying any cereal for a while, and I had been using whatever milk was left in cooking anyway. Making Milo is sort of cooking. It is a preparation of a beverage — the use of milk in Milo is certainly justified.

It would not even be a week before even the milk disappeared. And thus for the two weeks, my Milo has been unsweetened, unmilked, unembellished by anything. But I persist in imbibing this concoction, because even without the sweetness of excess, life and cups of Milo go on.

I might be unable to afford the sweetness that makes our life pleasurable, but that does not mean I should simply throw out my brew or stop drinking Milo altogether. We have become a culture so addicted to the sweet things in life that we forget what it feels like to live humbly. Maybe I grow to like the taste of ‘kosong’, maybe I will pull through and find a job and one day be able to afford condensed milk again. But in the meantime, let the hot chocolate warm my heart and relish in the joy of knowing at least you still have Milo to hold in your hands.

(If anyone is wondering why I can afford Milo but not condensed milk, when Milo in New York costs like $14 or something ridiculous for a 1kg can, I can’t. These cans of Milo are gifts. I will lament the day I run out of even Milo powder.)

Can I have some more gruel, please?

You know you’re falling on hard times when you start rationing even cabbage, and cutting out a 1/16 part of it for lunch.

Grocery shopping has become challenge as I start to cut out on things that were once deemed nice to have, but are now crossed out out of necessity. I have always been a frugal shopper, but lately I have had to extend how long groceries last in my fridge, thereby reducing the frequency with which I have to go grocery shopping. I now have to try to make two weeks’ worth of groceries last three.

I have resisted the temptation to live on a diet of processed food, even though they are probably cheaper. It’s depressing enough that I don’t have a lot of money, I shouldn’t have to suffer the idea of eating sub-par frozen dinners and the such. Besides, eating unhealthily might eventually lead to health complications that might end up costing me more. A friend who is similarly unemployed tells me that on certain sale days, frozen dinners can cost as little as $1 each, but having never grown up in a culture of microwaving meals as a norm, that idea did not sit well with me.

On average, I manage to rack up about $25 on Asian groceries and about $35 for Western groceries each trip. This $60 usually sufficiently provides me two meals every day, for about two weeks, making it a cost of $4.30 a meal a day, which isn’t bad at all. This $60 now has to last me three weeks.

The following chronicles how my diet has changed in this time of rationing.

Carbohydrates

noodles

The above are two of the cheapest noodles available in the Asian and Western supermarkets I go to.  The Chinese egg noodles on the left cost about 80 cents (the supermarket doesn’t tax!) and the capellini pasta costs about 88 cents before tax. While it seems like the pasta costs only a paltry eight cents more, too little to make a difference, the number of servings I can prepare before I finish each box is hugely different. These noodles are all the carbs that I buy.

I wonder why I always end up using finishing the box of pasta faster than the Asian noodles. I usually finish using the box of pasta after 4-5 meals, whereas the Asian noodles lasts me about 5-6 meals. This is odd because by weight, the pasta is a full pound while the Asian noodles are about 14 ounces. Maybe because the Asian noodles are in cakes and makes it easier to divvy up (one is usually enough, two if you’re really hungry) whereas I usually just eyeball how much pasta to use.

I have also stopped buying bread or pitas or tortillas.

Meats/Proteins

prot

I used to have protein from meat at least one meal a day, or once every two days if I felt like having less meat in my diet. Now, my source of protein comes primarily from eggs, and occasionally I’d be able to have some pork, perhaps twice a week. The one-pound round of pork butt which I made char siew out of in a previous post has been made to last me two to three weeks, by strategically cutting off what I need and freezing the rest.

I have also been substituting meat with tofu, because a pound of it is about a dollar.

Vegetables

veg

This is the above-mentioned 1/16 of a head of cabbage, which I have been painstakingly rationing, since they’re one of the hardiest vegetables to keep in the fridge. Even though a pound of carrots is $1 each, I also have a bag of frozen carrots and peas. However, I reserve the fresh carrots for making stew, and use the frozen ones in pasta and rice dishes. I have stopped buying bell peppers and fresh herbs such as basil, rosemary and thyme.

I love mushrooms, but they’re impossible to keep for extended periods without turning mushy.

Luxuries

snack

Chocolate has been struck off of the list. Today, my friend was kind enough to give me a slab because it was too bitter for her. Thanks goodness I love bitter chocolate.

However, I have been snacking on spoonfuls of peanut butter instead; peanut butter that I bought a long time ago but ran out of bread on which to spread.

I have also been drinking copious amounts of Milo because it tastes so chocolatey.

Flavorants

flav

I used to have flavour bouillons and stock pastes, but ever since I ran out, I’ve been relying on using shallots, onions, garlic and scallions as a replacement. These vegetables are rich in umami, and when burnt in a pot or pan, release a lot of flavour. Buying scallions from Chinatown has been a steal for me, since in Chinatown they’re usually two or three bunches for $1 (approximately 5-6 stalks per bunch!) whereas it might be as expensive as $1 a bunch in Western supermarkets. It’s also $1 for a rope of garlic and a dollar-something for a bag of shallots. Scallions last only about three weeks before they yellow, but onions, shallots and garlic stay good for a really long time, about a month or so.

Vegetable Rhythm

I have no idea why I’m so addicted to watching this, but this is べジタリズム (bejita-rizumu/Vegetable Rhythm) performed by TEMPURA KIDZ. The song was commissioned by national broadcasting channel, NHK, for a children’s show, Minna no Uta. The song is meant to promote eating vegetables, which is also what the song is about, and that explains why the kids are dressed with vegetable headdresses.

One of the four dancers is a boy! It’s the purple one, whose stage name is P-Chan.

But seriously they’re all really good dancers. I was looking at their footwork and hands, and the gestures and movements are all very clean, crisp and well-executed.

This is going to stick in my head for a while.

Waking dreams

It is often said that dreams are manifestations of the subconscious; I find that very plausible. As if spending every waking moment being reminded that I have yet to find a job is not enough, I am dreaming about them in my sleep too.

I have always had the ability to remember my dreams pretty well, though I am not sure that’s a gift.

I am back in Singapore, but instead of returning to my parents’ home, I go to my grandmother’s. “You’re back,” she says, happy to see me return, and I said, “Yea, but I will have to go back soon.”

“You should call your parents and let them know,” she says.

“Ok, I will do that later.”

And then I procrastinated by going grocery shopping. Being back home, I need not scrimp and save when it came to shopping to feed myself. I did not have to forgo buying meat because it was a tad expensive, I did not have to buy the hardiest vegetables and produce so that they last in the fridge the longest. I could sense the temptation to just embrace this purchasing-power-freedom.

I made it home, and then I called my mother’s mobile phone, instead of my father’s, but a bad connection forced me to call the house’s landline instead.

“Mom, I’m back.”

“That’s great. When did you return?”

“Earlier this morning,” I lied; in the dream I returned last night. “I’m at grandma’s now.”

“Ok, will you come over for dinner later tonight?”

“Yea, sure.”

“How were things in the States? How was the flight?”

“Er, we’ll talk more when I go over. See ya later.”

“Alright.”

I could sense that my father was there in that room when I was talking, and it was an uneasy feeling.

The dream ended, I never got to go over to meet my parents for dinner. Maybe I didn’t want to.