Entries from August 25th, 2013

Fennel Rosemary Soda

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The cicadas have taken over here, at least in terms of acoustics, since the first white hot day of summer back in April (really, since mid-June, but two months of a Seoul summer feels a lot longer than it sounds). We talk about yeol dae ya, or tropical nights of restless sleep, and we wake up to the sound of cicadas screaming for mates from the trees, the blazing sun already halfway up the sky.

Summer unbinds us, pushes us outdoors, provokes intrinsic hungers that are altogether different from the reliefs we seek during winter. The other night, a storm came, full of thunder claps and bolts of electric sparks. The humidity broke, and for a day, the cicadas were quiet. Our mint and basil plants have croaked of unknown causes. Could have been from heat stroke. Could have been from neglect. But they look as if they’ve been struck by lightning. I’ve killed plants before, but never have they shriveled to black leafless stems of death, poking out in every direction but straight up to the sun. The rosemary, however, is hanging on.

Cold, ripe, juicy fruits and carbonated drinks are so thirst quenching this time of year. A fennel-spiked syrup is super simple to make. Swap out the fennel for any whole spice or fresh herb if you don’t care for the flavor of anise. Adding the rosemary at the very end keeps a distinction between the taste of sweet, woody fennel and the smell of herbal, fresh rosemary as you drink.

Fennel Rosemary Soda

First, make a fennel simple syrup. Combine equal parts sugar and water in a pot. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved, then remove from heat. Add two tablespoons fennel seeds, stir, and let steep for ten to fifteen minutes. Strain and store in a glass container, in the fridge, for one week.

Pour chilled syrup over ice by the teaspoon, depending on how sweet you want it. Fill with soda water. Add a sprig of rosemary and stir.




Dear Annie

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I’ve known Annie since we were sophomores in high school. She’s been a rock, a confidante, a partner in crime. Recently she applied for a job to teach in New York, and to the surprise of no one (besides, possibly, herself) she got it. She leaves tomorrow.

Annie, cheers to you.

So you’re moving to New York. Ho.Ly. Smokes, A. You may not feel brave, but you are.

It probably doesn’t help to hear from others that you’ve got guts. Sometimes it’s the last thing you want to hear. The rest of the feelings on your emotional scale are easy to identify – the anxiety, excitement, sadness, terror, ambivalence, hope, confusion – but bravery’s there, in the background. Those other emotions? To remind us we’re human.

I will say it anyway. It takes courage to uproot your life. Don’t let the voice of uncertainty drown it out. One day, you’re going to wake up in your Harlem apartment, pleasantly surprised to feel at home. You’ll realize you know exactly where to go for the best cup of coffee in your neighborhood. The owners of your corner bodega will know who you are by the brand of your vice. You’ll recognize your neighbors on the street, and you’ll start to see patterns and routines that’ll bring comfort, a cadence of fellowship right there on your own block of New York. This very process shows us that we adapt in ways we don’t even know, and can’t know, and this is probably what saves us: our ability to cope, and thrive, with change.

I’m proud of you for giving the interview your best shot. The anticipation must have been petrifying – the day you auditioned for the job. But if I imagine you in front of those middle school students, you in your hot pink blazer, I see you commanding a presence that no doubt shocked your soon-to-be colleagues and supervisor and gave the kids something to talk about for days. Especially when they (the kids) asked you how you felt about the Knicks, and you told them (and I quote), I ain’t got tiiiime for that. (Unquote).

I haven’t spent much time in Harlem, besides for one show at the Apollo Theater and a single blues harmonica lesson from Arthur on 128th Street. My roommate Megan insisted on coming along, and afterward she and I went for lunch at Sylvia’s. Make Sylvia’s top priority of your restaurants-to-try, and make sure to order the collard greens and baked mac and cheese. If you want Arthur’s number, let me know. He’s also on Facebook (I checked).

When I got off the plane at La Guardia, a guy named Chaplin scooped up me and my oversized luggage and we drove to his apartment on Roosevelt Island where I stayed with my would-be new roommates until we could move into our apartment in Bushwick. To me that first day, Roosevelt Island was the absolute most dismal place in all of New York. There was nothing but a huge rehabilitation hospital, brown brick high rises and a single cafe that was usually empty. So depressing. But last summer, Time Out rated it as one of NY’s best lesser-known attractions. So there you go. Matter of perspective, and what strikes you as strange or dreary at first will hardly affect you once you get the hang of the city. In other words, maybe you’ll love your new neighborhood right away, and maybe you won’t. But chances are, you’ll learn to.

Don’t be afraid to cry in public. Or to shout at someone who deserves it. That’s what’s great about New York. So much bustle and density encourages open expression, and you’ll rarely have to wonder what someone’s actually thinking, unlike in Minnesota. Because in NY…..

You’ll soon find your favorite parks in all boroughs of New York.

Live music gems. Most are in Brooklyn, but you love Brooklyn, so you’ll probably spend a lot of time there anyway?

NYMag is a very good resource, especially for places to eat. You can filter by neighborhood, cuisine or price. A list of Harlem restaurants is hereRed Rooster is supposed to be great.

short list of Vikings Bars, not quite the same as a tailgate, but it’s something. And here’s a collection of Eastern European restaurants for when you’re feeling homesick.

West Village: On many nights, Arthur’s Tavern was a last-minute stopover on the way back to Hoboken. You must visit Corner Bistro for burgers, Tavern on Jane, and Mary’s Fish Camp, all also in the Village. Megan, my old roommate, swears by John’s on Bleecker for the best pizza in the city. But I’d argue for Di Fara in Flatbush (Brooklyn), bar none. Three Lives and Company is such a great, quaint book store.

I told you about Garden of Eden, the gourmet chain of groceries. I’d often go there just to hover and de-stress when I first moved to NY, even if all I could afford was a small tub of mixed olives.

A few other favorite restaurants by neighborhood:

East Village: Grape and Grain // Frank // Prune // Ess-a-bagel

Lower East Side: Katz’s // An Choi // Barrio Chino

Midtown: The Breslin

Brooklyn: El Almacen (Williamsburg) // Roberta’s (Bushwick) // Teresa’s (Brooklyn Heights)

Soho: Cafe Select

Korea Town (near Herald Square): Mandoo Bar

There’s a dive bar in the lower East side with a jukebox and pool tables that sells a can of Tecate and a shot of tequila for $3. I can’t remember the name, but you’ll recognize it by the smell of urine that wafts from the dilapidated exterior, beckoning you to step inside. Just do it.

Whether you stay in New York for six months or six years, who cares. Think of all of the other millions of people who’ve also made the move from places all over the world. Not one of them wasn’t scared and unsure of what would come. The day before I moved back to Minneapolis, I shipped the last of my boxes from a huge post office near Penn Station. The woman who helped me had left India twenty-seven years before. Don’t forget New York, was the last thing she said. I remember her more than any other stranger I met during those four years. Her and the other woman who told me everything would be alright as I sobbed on a park bench in Roosevelt Island on one of those first few days. You’ll pass hundreds of thousands of strangers you’ll never speak to, and that’ll feel lonely, but you’ll also meet people who will help you and restore you with the simplest, most unexpected gestures.

See you in New York, when it will be my turn to visit you. I’ve no doubt you’ll be the one leading the way. I can’t wait.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

I did some housekeeping today to get the site up to speed, and came across this entry from over two years ago in the drafts. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve decided to publish it.    

Here we are, five weeks in.  I thought the time would go by more slowly…

I met Joanna, a friend of Natasha’s. We immediately hit it off, and the day after she arrived, three days after I arrived, we boarded a bus to Mendoza to visit some wineries. We had no hotel booked, but we brought along a guidebook and a good punch of spontaneity.

We found a great place to stay, a finca with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a porch. Four german shepherds snarled at us when we arrived, but by the second day we were all friends. Olive trees lined the rocky driveway leading up to the house. We went horseback riding in San Rafael. Laura, our fantastic tour guide, and her aunt Moni led us through vineyards. We ate cabernet grapes straight from the vine. The horse I rode kept stopping to eat from the trees, holding up the rest of the group. Kindred spirits, we were, always eating, and so I let him instead of pulling on his reigns, like Moni kept instructing me to do.

We rode bikes to different vineyards, and we met Sebastian at his family’s vineyard just before they closed for the day. He invited us to drink wine at his house, which he calls the Flower Power House. The name fits. He’s painted his Fridgidaire pink and left the brush strokes rough. A curtain of beads separates the kitchen from the dining room. After hours around his table, Joanna and I went to dinner in town, and it so happened that Sebastian’s parents were eating dinner there also. The next day, he met us at the bus station and we had a parting beer, a Quilmes, of course. Sebastian, we’ll miss you.

I drink coffee, but I’ve never drank so much as I do here. Every morning, every afternoon, and after dinner, if it happens to be at a restaurant. Espresso comes with a side of something sweet, usually chocolate coated, and a small glass of sparkling water. I always eat the chocolate first, then drink the coffee, and then the water. Is this the proper way? I’ve no idea.

I moved in with Natasha’s sister, Nicky, who has also become a friend. We found an apartment in Palermo. It’s modest and charming, decorated with vases of silk flowers, brass lamps, and a salmon colored tapestry love seat. Very 1960s. It’s nice to unpack my clothes and to put my toothbrush in the same place every day, some place other than its plastic travel tube or thrown willy nilly amidst well-worn clothes. There is also a stereo that we’ve permanently set to the eighties station. We hear this one a lot.

I met someone. He’s flippant and beautiful and vain, and he seems to think I’m beautiful back, and this is a very effective distraction from the person I last loved (and his new girlfriend). Though I’m trying to approach our circumstance as nothing more than coincidence, as two singles in transition who’ve collided for a few weeks, tops, something tells me this. will. end with me reaching.

I did reach. And that was that.   

Green Melon Granita

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Yesterday afternoon Yaer, Sonj, and I were working on Seoulist in Yaer’s studio when a man with mad scientist hair and big eyeglasses pulled up in his truck, opened the front door, and stuck his head through, all jocular, to make an announcement. He was selling melons, a whole load of them from the bed of his truck. He wore those scratchy white gloves all Korean men who sell fruit from trucks wear, and he had half a melon in one hand. With the other hand, he offered each of us a sample at the tip of his paring knife, pierced like a spear through a fish. Light green, tender and mellow, the fruit was good, but we said yes to his gumption and stellar sales pitch. He picked out three heavy balls of fruit from the bed of his truck, bagged them separately, posed for a photo and drove away.

Since I recently mentioned Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach, I feel like I should say something about the difference between a melon that was harvested too soon and a melon that wasn’t (which I didn’t think about yesterday and only relearned today when I leafed back through this specific chapter). Parsons says rough-skinned melons (like these) that are harvested at the right time will detach neatly from their stems, leaving them behind on the vine. Melons with a layer of textured netting, like cantaloupe, should have outer skin that’s golden in color, not green like the melon we bought yesterday. But we don’t always have access to produce at it’s peak, and so we compromise for the sake of survival. I don’t even know if that makes sense. It’s 98 degrees in our apartment with 3,410 percent humidity, and there’s a threat of a citywide blackout starting tomorrow.

Granita might be the idyllic antidote on days that make us feel like this.

Green Melon Granita

1/2 melon, peeled and seeded, cut into chunks (save the seeds in a separate bowl). Substitute any ripe melon (except watermelon for this specific recipe)

juice of 1 lemon

2 teaspoons sugar

pinch of salt

1/2 cup water

The sweetest part of the melon is around the seeds, and it’s worth it to extract as much juice as you can from the flesh that’s attached to them. Do this by putting the seeds in a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and pushing the liquid through with the back of a wooden spoon. Mix in the lemon juice, sugar and salt until the sugar and salt dissolve. You’ll end up with about 1/2 cup of liquid.

In a blender, puree the melon with the strained melon juice and water. Taste and add more sugar or lemon juice to your preference. Pour into a shallow metal tray and stick in the freezer. After an hour, the edges will start to freeze. At this point, scrape around the frozen edges with a fork and rake through the whole thing. Keep checking every hour, raking through each time, until the mixture resembles delicate, finely crushed ice. Serve frozen with a spoon. If you forget or you don’t have the time to keep checking and your granita freezes solid, take it out of the freezer and let it defrost a bit.

Malaysia, The City and The Jungle

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A black sky was awash in a broad ban of light above the city’s towers, the Petronas Twins making glittery interest of the otherwise banal skyline when the plane touched down in Kuala Lumpur. It was my first visit to Malaysia. I’d written directions to my hostel on a post-it that I clutched in my left hand all the way through immigration. The train station at the city center was desolate and seedy. It was place to avoid after dark as a solo female traveler, but we were delayed leaving Seoul, so there I was, pack strapped to my back, a ‘best not fuck with me’ look on my face. No one took much interest besides a harmless cab driver who insisted on calling me Baby. I gave up on the directions and asked two women for help. When I turned the wrong way, one of them chased after me and righted my path, and I could have kissed her. Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting at a restaurant across the street from the hostel while rickety fans swept the woody smells of Indian curry through the open-air space. A dollar was all for a giant, warm garlic-mottled naan, mint chutney and tomato curry on an aluminum platter, spotless when I was finished. A pair of British couples lounged over beers on one side, and a Malay man smoked and drank tea alone on the other.

The next morning, I road the train to meet Ami. She’s married to Ladya, and they live about three hours outside of Kuala Lumpur on a permaculture farm in the middle of the jungle. I planned to take a bus to their farm the next day, and because she was two weeks away from the due date of their first baby, she was staying back in the city with her family. I hadn’t known she was pregnant until I climbed into the passenger seat of her car. She was good and up for the outing, she insisted. She drove us to a wet market where Chinese stalls bumped against Malay stalls, where fresh fish laid across packed ice and pork was kept from plain view out of respect for working and visiting Muslims. Baskets of exquisitely fresh and local fruits and vegetables were laid out for shoppers to pick and taste, and I remembered my mom’s habit of sampling grapes at the grocery store before she’d buy them. When I was young, I never saw anyone else do that.

Showstoppers, bushels of mangosteen and rambutan seduced first with their sexy husks hiding soft white fruits, simple as their shells were complex. Smells of hot mint, kaffir lime and durian soaked the air. We stopped for soy milk pudding layered with liquid palm sugar. For lunch, we ate rice doused with hot vegetarian sambar, and curries, chutney and pickled peppers mounded next to crackly papadum that we broke apart with our hands. Banana leaves are said to enrich the flavor of the food they touch, and as a nod of appreciation to the cooks, we folded the leaves in half toward us when we could eat no more. I asked Ami if Malaysia had always been a place of such celebrated coexistence. I’d never been anywhere and seen the kind of respect for multiple religions and ethnicities as in Malaysia, whereby this country’s mash-up of culture results in a rich culinary landscape unlike any other place in the world.

That afternoon, I checked into the next hostel of the trip and ran into Wojcech at the front desk. We’d met for a minute the night before and discovered we were staying at the same hostel that second night. He was from Poland and traveling on a break from an MBA program at Harvard. To even the score a little, I told him my grandmother had been Polish, and she’d taught me a small but useful string of words, one of which was dupa, which means butt. He asked me why I was in Malaysia. Research, I said. Instead of going for a graduate degree in food studies, I’d opted to study independently. And that’s true. I don’t know what he thought of that plan, but he seemed to like the idea of spending the afternoon eating our way through Kuala Lampur’s outdoor markets. So we did.

It was dusk when we passed the front gates of Masjid Jamek, a one hundred year old mosque at the epicenter of Kuala Lumpur. The muezzin’s voice split through the loudspeakers of a minaret above to blanket the air with sacred, mystical call to prayer. Motorbikes tore up and down the road at our backs, fuming and swirling city grit, and a line of men waiting for Friday prayers snaked around the corner without an endpoint in sight. Right there was a moment that stopped me cold. I told Wojcech, and he said, Really? Haven’t you ever been to a Muslim country? I hadn’t, and again, the world proved its limitless ability to stun.

Red tents bordered both sides of the street. Hawkers cooked and readied for the rush of people who’d soon fill the gaps and buy dinner to break fast for the day. Ramadan had begun three days before. We bought coconut water, papaya juice and cendol, an icy drink with coconut milk, palm sugar and radioactive green rice flour noodles that squished like slime through our teeth. We waited for a thick strip of sting ray to cook, which was wrapped in banana leaf, grilled skin side down on an open flame and oiled with a brush made from lemongrass stalks bound together by string. Nasi kerabu was rice the color of cornflower blue, dyed that way from a flower called bunga telang biru, and came with a piece of fried chicken and a bag of sweet sauce that we poured over the rice and mixed in. We took back four pieces of plastic-wrapped durian, its acrid bouquet trailing alongside us as we walked. When we got to our hostel, we spread out and feasted, and we capped the night with icy Tiger beers.

The next morning, I took the daily bus from Kuala Lumpur to the state of Perak: destination Lenggong, a town so small most Malays don’t know it. From there, Ladya would pick me up and we’d drive halfway up the mountain to the farm. My ticket was handwritten on flimsy paper and sold by a woman who wore a colorful hijab and an attitude of total indifference, a ticket I scrambled to find that very morning. I waited until the last moment to make a stop at the restroom, and when I ran out the door a man yelled after me. Unbeknownst to me, I owed a fee to pee. I ran back, slid two coins across the counter and hauled ass to the bus. We pulled out of the station and sat in city traffic for an hour, and then we were on the highway heading up the peninsula. At the only rest stop of the trip, I hid around a corner and ate a bag of sliced pineapple dusted with sweet sour powder. I hid because it was Ramadan, which might have been either conscientious or cowardly and unnecessary, or maybe all of it. I hid because I didn’t know what else I should do, but I knew that most of the other passengers on the bus hadn’t eaten all day and wouldn’t until after sunset, by choice.

Ladya was easy to spot off the bus, with a head covered in blond dreads, turquoise eyes and a heavy Czech accent. He’s the only white person in the town’s whole five thousand, though it’s hard to believe a number even that high. Lenggong’s got a hardware store, a junkyard and two petrol stations all along the stretch of the main street, plus a Chinese restaurant famous for won ton mee. Are you hungry? he asked. Soon we were the sole customers in the tiny famed spot and Ladya was asking the chef for two cigarettes. I sucked mine down to the filter, the results of which have never failed to calm me. It would be another two days before I’d start to settle into myself, and I spent that lunch searching for ways to adapt while trying to believe I was okay as I came. Opportunities to self-parent are never hard to come by, least of all when traveling alone. Ladya was probably thinking I was in for a shock over the next 48 hours, me with my modern devices and leather shoes. My friend Melda calls them Jesus sandals, and even though they make me trip more than usual, I wear them almost daily. They’re comfortable.

To eat dry won ton mee, like we did, you dig up from the bottom of the bowl with chopsticks where a shallow pool of salty concentrated sauce hides under a tangle of pork and egg noodles, crispy and chewy and the color of butterscotch. You twirl the noodles around the bowl, soaking them in sauce, adding spoonfuls of broth from the side dish of soup, where two or three pork and shrimp dumplings are bobbing around. When the noodles are gone, you mix the last bit of broth with the last bit of sauce, and you spoon it onto your flat-bottomed ladle with the last dumpling, for a ceremonious, crowning bite. There is also wet won ton mee, which is more like a soup in one dish.  

Another smoke and we were on our way.

We stopped at the town’s junkyard where metal castoffs were rusting in piles. I just want to see if they have something we need, Ladya said, while I wondered what the hell that could be, since we already had a machete, which was lying on the floor under my feet. But two minutes of browsing around junkyard or treasure pit or however you call it, and Ladya was lifting a wide copper bowl from the top of a pile in front. For the oven, he reasoned, as he shoved it in the back of the car. (The next day, propped against a bonfire, this new oven turned out a loaf of garlic sesame bread that we smeared with a blend of hot sardines, tomatoes and lime). Then to the hardware store, and while I waited again in the car, two men pulled up, the passenger looking magnificently less sober than the driver. He kept trying to tell me he knew what I’d done, and I shrugged and smiled and kept Ladya in my periphery until they sped away, quickly as they’d come.

We rode fifteen bumpy minutes up to the farm then, the thicket of jungle whipping across the windshield, shedding leaves and bugs and seeds in our laps through the open windows. A trio of dogs greeted us, howling, and then a trio of hungry goats. Ladya gave the grand tour, boiled water for coffee, then set to free a freshly fallen pomelo from its stubborn rind and pith. I took over so he could mix formula for the three goats, orphaned babies who depended on Ladya for milk. That single orb of citrus gave us enough fruit to snack on for two days, which we kept on the kitchen table under a giant blue plastic colander, a shield that protected against nothing but the resident kitten. Throughout the next two days, we ate whatever grew on the property– pomegranates, durian, basil, dragonfruit, turmeric and limes.


Later, we drove back to town and shopped for dinner at a Ramadan market – jackfruit curry, pineapple curry, chicken skewers, rice and spicy pickled fruit – before meeting Ladya’s friends, Steve and Seti, a couple from Kuala Lumpur who would also spend the night at the farm. We stopped to have beer until it was dark, and then we took our dinner back to the jungle. We sipped whiskey while the generator lit a single bulb above. Rain sluiced from the sky with steady intensity. No thunder or lightning, just pellucid, torrential rain.

After breakfast the next morning, we fed the goats and squeezed limes for tea, and I learned why green limes always seem dry. Ripe limes are light yellow and swollen with floral juice that will gush forth with a light squeeze. Green limes are unripe, simple as that. I feel like shouting this everywhere I go, but here will have to do, so this is me screaming: Green limes aren’t ripe, dammit, not even close! Tell me I’m not the last person on the planet to learn the truth?

Later we cut big leaves from a banana tree and spread them on a mat in the sun for lunch. As we ate, a teenaged bird poacher pulled up on his motorbike, and after a few words with Ladya, he turned his bike around. When we finished, we all took a dip in the icy jacuzzi, an inlet of water formed from the stream flowing down from the mountains. I pulled a small leech from my foot when I felt a sting, and I learned that if you yank out a leech without some sort of special tool, it’ll leave behind its toothy head. Also, that leeches release an anti-coagulating enzyme that purifies and thins the blood, a therapy that has been used for centuries to prevent deep vein thrombosis, strokes, and to treat glaucoma, arthritis and cerebral palsy in babies.

When I left the farm, I felt a comedown, like the jungle had given me a steady stream of drugs, and as soon as the bus hit the highway, the fix was gone. I could have stayed for at least another week or two, and I wanted to, but a part of me was also itching to leave. Six years in huge cities makes for a certain temperament, an addiction for stimulation and buzz, even though big cities can be some of the most isolating of all places. A life outside of this used to be unfathomable to me, but not lately.

Bravery. I imagine Ladya would say he didn’t have a choice, that it wasn’t about bravery but about necessity. Maybe for Ladya and Ami, there was no way around it. I don’t imagine a life so independent of modern conveniences and common thought is so easy even after several years. Choices that thwart the societal grain never are. Their daughter was born last week, and they plan to raise her on the farm while starting an alternative primary school, one with a curriculum that teaches children to be self-sufficient, resourceful and creative, to live responsibly and in harmony with what was here way before we were.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, Seti invited me to her company dinner on my final night in Malaysia. She and her colleagues were all dressed impeccably, of course, and I wore the cleanest clothes I had – cutoff denim shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops. The restaurant filled before anyone took a single bite of food. Gigantic silver dishes filled the u-shaped buffet. We piled our plates with chicken and lamb biryani, hummus, pita, cucumber mint salad, baklava and other things I couldn’t identify. At the sound of the evening call to prayer, we ate. And we ate. Seti and her friend Ahmin took me to one last spot in the city for teh tahrik, hot tea with a frothy top formed from pulling the tea back and forth between two glasses. Such generosity from these two, and I hope that I can return the favor one day. Though part of traveling is meeting really good people you might not see again.

I took a taxi to the bus station for an early flight the next morning, a string of Muslim prayer beads hanging from the driver’s rearview mirror, techno trance blaring from the speakers. Around the corner from the hostel, stacks of thousands of newspapers waited to be picked up and delivered, a final vignette that was completely worth waking up at the ass crack of dawn.

I’ve sat on this post for two weeks. Eight days in Malaysia flew by but left me with enough to think about for while. Mostly, the trip eased the usual hesitations about traveling alone, feelings that always come no matter how many times I do it. I like traveling solo, but it can be lonely. That certainty that you don’t know what the next few days or weeks will look like, or how your instincts are going to take you from one circumstance to the next, but still trusting that they will. Because they always do. All the rest you can’t control? That’s the stuff to live for.