Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Commute

I am not a fan of multitasking. Especially not of drinking and driving. However, I have had to revise that opinion a bit, seeing as I really do look forward to my first morning cup of tea in the car while commuting to work. This rather questionable behavior on my part has evolved over time, borne of necessity. I would have liked to leisurely savor that first morning brew, ensconced in the warm kitchen, cats ambling nearby drowsily, with the cup tingling warm in my hands. But often, my penchant for sneaking in those several minutes of sleep upon hearing the blare of the alarm clock prevents that scene of domestic tranquility from occuring . Instead, I find myself, minutes later, in the car with the travel mug at my side and the cold steering wheel in my hands.

I usually choose an invigorating black tea for this drive. It often is Keemun, with its assertive notes of the cacao plant, that makes its way into the car. As I take the first draught of the liquor, inhaling with pleasure, the car winds its way towards the lake. It is always with excitement that I greet the first sighting of the promontory overlooking the water, a sweeping vista of the lake. What will the mercurial lake look like today? This morning, it was overlapping shards of shades of slate blue under a pellucid sky. The trees on the bluff, sparsely numbered, were like stalwart soldiers standing at attention, denuded of their uniforms.

A large truck laden with stacks of wooden boards planted itself athwart the avenue, obstructing the traffic. A wave of annoyance passed over me as I looked at the clock, and I sipped the still warm tea from my mug. I gazed at the trees flanking the road, the highest branches fuzzy with dead brown leaves, spiring into the clear sky.
Many minutes later, heartened by the tea and the drive, I was ready for work.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Vegetarian Sushi

Sencha and sushi. Now that's a felicitous combination. The interplay of savory flavors in the food against the mild astringency of the tea works so well.

However the challenge for me has been how to abide by my usual vegetarian fare in a sushi restaurant without feeling a nagging sense of hunger at the end of the meal. And I want to be able to do so without indulging in the tempura dishes, which would be a facile way of becoming full. So E and I set out to a downtown Japanese restaurant this weekend with anticipatory derring-do.

Our cups of sencha were surprisingly good despite being derived from teabags; it was brewed, I was sure, at the right temperature which can make such a difference in determining the taste. Our dishes consisted of solely small plates. This conceit really maximizes one's dining experience in having a multitude of flavors in contrast to the often monochromatic nature of a standard sized (many times, super-sized) entree dish.

The seaweed salad was of wakame with hot chiles in mirin sauce, nicely mingling tartness and heat. The gelatinous consistency was fun to eat as well. The goma-ae, blanched spinach in soy sauce, was a humble dish elevated to stratospheric heights by the intensity of the flavoring. My carbohydrate craving was met by the shiitake maki, a happy pairing of aromatic mushrooms and sticky rice readily dunked in dipping sauce.

And where was the protein, one would ask? I found it in the tamago, satisfying my endless yen for all things eggy. Its pillowy texture and relative blandness was a fitting counterpart to the previous flavors that still lingered with me.

Buoyed by the company, food, and bracing cups of sencha, I was now thinking about dessert. Although I was pleasantly full, the dessert menu beckoned wildly. However, I did resist choosing the more fulsome trio of creme brulee and opted for the chaste( relatively speaking) espresso stout ice cream. And indeed, the stout did impart an off-kilter taste to the ice cream that would make me think twice before ordering that combination the next time.

As the candle flickered , another gastronomic adventure came to an end.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Brunch Buffet

I avoided a foray into gluttony this weekend. It was at a brunch buffet served in an old-world hotel, rather hoary with the weight of its history. It would have been so easy to let go of all discretion and be swept away by the sights and scents which besieged me from all sides. It did not help that I was foolhardy enough not to have eaten anything that morning save for a glass of soymilk.

After a cursory survey of the buffet arrangement and making mental notes, I settled myself in front of the omelette station. As the oil sizzled on the pan and the ingredients I had chosen were folded into the eggs, I was struck by both the simplicity and luxuriance of this dish. The omelette has a down-home heartiness, yet its pillowy lightness suggests a more sybaritic indulgence.

I chose an English Breakfast tea, carrying the Revolution brand, which I had not heard of before. The tea was loose-leaf but was packaged in a mesh-like bag which fortunately did not interfere with the inherent taste of the tea itself. It was surprisingly good, imparting a definite note of lemon from the Assam and Ceylon blend.

It was not difficult to stay mindful in these pleasant surroundings: the piano tinkling in the corner, the glass chandeliers twinkling, and the warmth of the tea in my hands. I luxuriated in the taste of each mouthful of the fluffy omelette, the piquancy of the black bean risotto, the crunchiness of a fresh green salad, and the delightful creamy sweetness of the banana cheesecake.

The slow savoring of each morsel synchronized easily with my breathing as my hunger passed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Prosaic and the Historic

A little misty-eyed after watching the podcast of the inaugural speech, I celebrated with a cup of lotus tea. And then it was off to see my nursing home patient.

She was in her usual position, propped up rather awkwardly on several badly placed pillows. However, instead of the cacophony of duelling talk show guests on her TV set, I was greeted by jubilant paraders in sequined costumes marching in the inaugural parade. The TV set, with its wide screen emanating vibrant colors, dominated the small room.

She had been watching TV all morning, imbibing images and sounds of the inaugural broadcast. A styrofoam cup placed on the corner of her bedside table proclaimed in a scrawled handwriting on its surface, "We can do it."

I did not turn off the TV, as is my wont when coming to see her, as I felt it was fitting that we share these historic moments together. She was very happy for the nation - and also pleased with the First Lady's sartorial choice for the occasion. We chatted a bit on nonmedical matters, touching on interesting points of the broadcast.

She complained a bit on the unpalatability of the chocolate cookies that "were hard as rocks" as they had been sitting around for hours uncovered. The orange juice that she counted on having daily at breakfast seemed to be on short ration as well. She asked me to do something about these matters and I told her that I would do what I could to help. Feeling rather ineffectual as I took leave of her, I made a note to remind myself to bring her a bottle of orange juice when I see her next month.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Ethiopian Restaurant

Acting upon a reliable tip, E and I went to an Ethiopian restaurant downtown. It had opened a year ago and has already earned a reputation for good food. I was looking forward to having their version of the chai as well as a dish which my informant had told me about: shimbra assa which is made of chickpeas and cooked to resemble fish stew. Those were his very words, and I was immediately intrigued by the description. I was reminded of the artistry that Asian cooks employ when molding tofu into replicas of meat dishes that I have encountered in vegetarian restaurants catering to Buddhists. The resemblances of these ersatz meats to their authentic counterparts are amazing in both appearances and taste. Thus, I wonder if the shimbra assa would be similarly concocted.

We trudged into the restaurant on one of the coldest days of the year and were ready for a pot of hot tea; our waitress indicated to us that the tea was an infusion of cardamon and other spices found in chai, brewed with Lipton tea. I was a little disappointed to hear that the tea was not loose leaf but brightened up when it was brought out; the tea glasses and pot were carried out with friendly ceremony on a tray, set out daintily in front of us, and the tea poured out.

The tea did taste a little bland as expected but this was an apt counterpoint to the shimbra assa and the side of collards redolent of garlic. As I bit into the tuber-like shimbra asssa, I can't say that I was reminded of a fish stew. It was more like a robust sweet potato, with multitudes of spices commingling with harmony. The slightly insipid tea permitted the flavors of the food to shine. We used the injera bread, made of the teff grain, native to Ethiopia, in lieu of utensils to not so neatly scoop up the food.

And then it was time for dessert - which will not be bypassed despite my feeling full. There was only baklava on the menu but that was fine by me as I have always felt that this was a dish that was justifiably contested by many cultures as to its provenance and authenticity. A sweet this rich and honey-dripping deserves this much controversy.

Despite E's avowal of abstaining from dessert, he did end up having half of my baklava. With the phyllo dough's buttery taste in my mouth, I finished my tea with pleasure.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

Savory or sweet? What shall it be? These questions nag at me when I am trying to decide on an accompaniment to my tea. The answer turns out most of the time to be dependent on not easily explained gastronomic/physiologic urges; the tea chosen is often a minor consideration. I do concede, however, that a hearty black tea calls for a pairing with some delectable sweet. But a green tea like sencha can accompany mandarin orange thumbprint cookies with as much ease as it can with salty crackers studded with poppy seeds.

The richness of a sweet pastry, redolent of creamed butter and eggs, is heartily welcomed after some strenuous snow shovelling today. As I piled the snow onto the quickly growing snowbanks flanking the sidewalk of our house, I pleasantly anticipated the taste of a crumbly cookie alongside Rishi's Ancient Snow Buds, a wonderful Chinese green tea. I think that my natural sweet tooth combined with a falling blood glucose level both conspired to the above decision.
I hate to admit it, but there is something slightly plebeian about the savory treat when compared with, say, the opulence of a chocolate eclair even if its salty counterpart is a beggar's purse filled with aromatic shiitake mushrooms. For me, the primeval salty snack is the childhood memory of the large bag of Doritos , so addictive and guilt-inducing. However, I can easily put that compunction aside now and finish off that bowlful of wasabi peas with relish.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Teahouse Culture

I have in the past several months enjoyed going to various teahouses in the area. My experiences with coffeehouses are more manifold due to their sheer number compared to establishments that solely serve tea. Fortunately, many cafes do have a selection of teas (quality, often variable) from which I can choose when the yen to have a cuppa strikes me as I am out and about. But given a choice, I will go to a teahouse without hesitation.

I have observed interesting differences between the tea and coffeehouse cultures exemplified by a recent visit to the anaba tea room with my husband, E, on a late fall afternoon.

As we entered the tearoom located in the lower level of a store devoted to selling gardening implements, we were struck by the exclusively female clientele present. Fortunately, this did not cause E to flee from the all distaff company and we were then taken to our seats. The sound of trickling water emanated from a large fountain nearby, interweaving with snippets of conversations from the surrounding tables. We both ordered matcha (this was indeed our introduction to this wonderful Japanese powder green tea). My accompaniment to the tea were two piping hot crumpets served with dollops of lemon curd and clotted cream on the side. This proved to be an inspired pairing, indeed!

We were warmed by the tea and food as we chatted, feeling calmed but also convivial. Other parties around us similarly disported themselves. There was nary a soul manning a laptop nor similarly attached to a blackberry, a ubiquitous sight in cafes. We continued sipping our tea, glad to be unencumbered, at least for that moment, by the available electronic technology.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Korean Restaurant

I was in the mood for Korean food. This happened in the middle of the week, amidst the hurlyburly of entrenched workday routines. However, I was longing for the taste of hot chile peppers and especially for the boricha, the Korean roasted barley tea. It is really a tisane and not a true tea as it is not made with the Camellia sinensis tea leaves. This drink is a concoction of roasted barley boiled in water, with the tea being the resultant liquor.

E and I, swathed in our warmest clothes, drove to the only Korean restaurant in town. Fortunately, despite the lack of competition, this restaurant does serve good hearty food. We plunged into the savory vegetarian dumplings that were quickly brought out from the kitchen, which was emitting hunger-inducing aromas. We dipped these gyozas in hot sauce and sipped our individual teas. Mine was naturally the boricha, E ordered the hot ginseng tea. The roasty flavor and warmth of my tea nicely offset the spiciness of the dipping sauce. After some reluctance (and coaxing from E), I decided not to order the bebimbop, hitherto my invariable choice when ordering an entree at this restaurant. Instead, it was the spicy (very spicy, as I would eventually find out) squid, doused with the long sought-after chile peppers. This dish was accompanied by steamed white rice and an array of the banchan, little bowls of savories which often include kimchi. I have always thought that the conceit of having these savory accompaniments -at least 4-5 to sample from- is a gourmand's (or if you prefer, glutton's) delight, the manifold textures and levels of spiciness tingling one's palate.

The tea was of a limpid brownish hue and pleasantly malty . Alternatively, we have been served a similarly tasting oksusucha at this restaurant on past visits. Oksusucha is roasted corn tea, also prepared hot and equally welcomed on cold days such as this one.
Our hunger and my cravings fully sated, we left the restaurant mightily content.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Meditations on Keemun

I am back at home again after a weeklong stay in my childhood home. I woke up with a lingering desire to sleep in, a habit I was quickly getting accustomed to during this vacation. However, the prospect of my morning cup of tea did have the fortunate effect of propelling me out of the warm sheets. I decided on Keemun Golden Buds, an organic fair trade tea from Rishi.

I proceeded to boil the water with the trusty electric kettle and was excited at using the delicate gaiwan to drink the tea from. It was of an eggshell color, its flaring lips thin, topped with a similar hued lid. I poured the hot water into the gaiwan, spooned 1 teaspoon of the dry tea into the steaming water. It is a different experience to see tea leaves moving so freely, unencumbered from the infuser. The leaves imparted a slowly deepening rusty brown to the liquor. I inhaled the strong aroma, bracingly aromatic. I sipped the tea, maneuvering the lid maladroitly, to keep the tea leaves at bay (I was not too succesful as several stray tea leaves wandered into my mouth). The taste had hints of dark chocolate, with a nice roasty flavor.

As I slowly emptied my first morning cup of tea, I gazed at the wet tea leaves now nestling on the bottom of the gaiwan and had an irresisible urge to read my fortune from those leaves