Saturday, January 30, 2010


An unexpected thaw left puddles in its wake. On a late morning walk, I skirted pools of melted snow while peering into their shimmering depths. I saw the outlines of trees, their branches startlingly clear, shake a bit on a glassy surface as a light wind blew in from the lake. The ruffled limbs soon rearranged themselves into a world more seemingly perfect than its source.

At home, I brewed some lotus tea, celebrating the unseasonable warmth with a cup of tea redolent of flowers. Lotus tea may lack subtlety but it makes up for it in being so good-naturedly floral. Its base of Vietnamese green tea is generously perfumed with the essence of lotus flowers, and it has a self-styled tea purist like me embrace it as one my favorite greens.
A reflection of the maple tree which stands in our neighbor's backyard -trimly framed by the curves of my teacup- vanished as I took the first sip. Miniaturized, the reflected reality has a dreamlike quality -always seemingly taking place in the twilight of day when a placid surface barely conceals unknown possibilities.

I sip the tea and I become steeped in its warmth. My thoughts and perceptions feel suffused with mellow clarity. The cynic in you may dismiss this state as merely the overcaffeinated brain of one who has read The Doors of Perception once too many times. And perhaps there's a tinge of truth to that. Caffeine content aside, however, tea for me is a daily reminder, a welcome nudge towards mindfulness. It's when I allow myself those few minutes each morning to rest my eyes on that otherworldly reflection of a tree, the starkly outlined branches of the maple, while swirls of steam rise from my cup. I remember to sit down at the kitchen table, even if just for one sip, as I hold the cup in my hands, the heat prickling my skin. With the first sip, I am expectant: a familiar loll on the tongue, a deep inhalation that's deeply luxuriant.
I sighed, glancing at the clock, pouring the rest of my tea into the Thermos for the short ride to work.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Chinese Green Tea

The large bag of Chinese green tea stayed unopened on a shelf dedicated to tea in our kitchen cabinet. The tea was a gift from one of E's graduate students who had declared that it was an example of a typical Chinese green. I removed the tea from its resting place and examined the unopened bag: all Chinese characters, save for several words which I hoped would shed light on the tea's provenance. A quick Google search of the few words I could read revealed the tea to be one from Anhui Province. Supplied thus with this scant knowledge of the tea, I brewed it for 3 minutes, a typical brewing duration for non-Japanese greens, and in water around 170F.
The tea brewed up a liquor that tasted steamed and faintly briny, reminiscent of a Chun Mee, and indeed typical of what you would expect a Chinese green to be.
As I drank my tea, I enjoyed the nuances that continued to surface with each sip. This was one of the rare times drinking tea when I was not armed with descriptions, often fanciful, of the tea's nature, its scents and flavors. There were no passages on the bag -at least, in a language that I could read- extolling the riots of flavors, from steamed artichokes to ripe honeydew melons, that would tickle my palate. I felt unencumbered as I sipped my tea, free to form my own impressions, my appreciation unsullied by preconceptions.
I thought about the reliance that we place on the "liner notes" that often accompany potentially enriching experiences. How many times have I gone to a new exhibit at our art museum and launched forthwith into reading the curator's notes accompanying a work of art before I would feel properly equipped to appreciate the artistic piece? Did I not trust my sensibilities enough to stand before a painting without possessing any prior knowledge of it? I have felt then that my appreciation of the painting would somehow be richer if it were informed by the impressions of an "expert". I was fettered by a desire to make my own impressions congruent with someone else's, and in the end, I found this burdensome.
Now, I brewed a second infusion of this Chinese green tea and detected, without a doubt, a note of overripe honeysuckle.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Gateau aux pommes

When it comes to desserts, I am avowedly a snob. I have my mom to thank for this. She spoiled us with all manner of French pastries when we were growing up. I remember studying upstairs and the sweet waft of orange zest would find its way to my desk, drawing me along into the kitchen where I'd see my mom, her back towards me, intent over a large skillet. I would watch her pour creamy batter that sizzled into gossamer-thin creations. Soon, the entire household surrounded her, each with a plate in hand, ready to receive a delicate crepe Suzette to go along with the bedtime glass of milk.

On a recent trip to visit my parents, my mom pulled out her collection of old recipes. No longer stuffed into the dented tin box -of an indeterminate green hue- in which they had once been stored, the recipes were now held together by a large metal clip. Index cards, pieces of paper with ragged edges, all were browned and crinkly with age, some smeared with ink beyond the borders of the written words, and in my mom's distinctive handwriting -they held the recipes from the past. I saw the recipe for the gateau aux pommes (apple cake), and as I read it over, I conjured up the scent and taste of one of my favorite foods.

That night, my mom again baked the gateau aux pommes. She pored over the instructions on the browned and crinkled index card. It had been years since she last made the cake, and what had been steps made facile through habitual experience - the presence of the recipe card then, a mere formality- now require more thought and study.

Soon, I again breathed in the familiar scent as the cake emerged from the oven. We all made quick work of it, gathered around the kitchen table.

At home, I added this recipe to my own file and pored over my own recipe collection. The individual recipes, culled over the years, marked different periods of my life. There was Gabrielle's favorite fudge recipe, one that I cajoled from its namesake, my then anatomy partner from medical school and friend. So bowled over was I by the fudge, I became a temporary chocoholic, and for several weeks on end, I compulsively grazed on it while studying for my Boards.

Years have gone by since I last made that fudge. Tucked in a phase of life in which I no longer reside, Gabrielle's favorite fudge and other recipes cobweb comfortably until I think to clear off the dust.

Now, as I sit over my bowl of matcha, I think about making the gateau aux pommes in my own home. It would be a transmutation of a family tradition, served with tea instead of milk, shared with E and friends, sweetly permeated with memories.

Recipe for Gateau aux Pommes (Apple Cake):

1st mixture:
5 Tbs flour
4 Tbs sugar
3 Tbs milk
2 Tbs oil (canola or olive)
1/2 packet of Alsa baking powder
pinch of salt
1 egg
1 Granny Smith apple, thinly sliced and peel removed.

Grease baking dish with butter and flour. Mix dry ingredients (except baking powder). Combine with wet ingredients. Add in baking powder last . Pour batter into baking dish and arrange the apple slices on top. Bake at 375 for 25 minutes until batter rises.

While waiting, make 2nd mixture.

2nd mixture:
1 egg
1/4 c butter
1/4 c sugar

Combine ingredients of 2nd mixture together. When batter containing the 1st mixture is ready, remove from oven. Add 2nd mixture to the 1st and bake for another 20 minutes.

Serve warm.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Barley Tea

I have a soft spot for Korean food. I developed a taste for it in college, at Steve's Diner. This was a former deli -whose heartland-sounding name stuck after its conversion to a Korean diner- known to be the place to get the best bebimbap in town. Replete with a long counter and attached stools, Steve's was the most humble in a sea of Korean restaurants that popped up in Ann Arbor in the 80s. However, my allegiance to Steve's never wavered despite having eaten at all its other competitors.

I would walk into Steve's, glad to escape the wintry blast that without fail, blew into town this time of the year, and peer at the blackboard tacked to the otherwise bare walls. I'd scan the list of homey Korean fare, going through the ruse of deciding what to get, and end up with the invariable choice of the bebimbap. An egg cracked on a bed of steamed rice, festooned with chewy root crops whose identities were quite obscure to me, all these sizzling away in a big clay bowl that was plopped in front of me by the smiling cook. I'd hunker over the bowl, perched on one of the coveted stools, and forget for the moment that I had an organic chemistry exam to study for.

Steve's closed years ago, not long after I finished college and left town. I think that there are still many other places to go for Korean food in town, but I have not gone to them when I have returned to visit. Perhaps, I still harbor an outdated allegiance to a former dining place where the stuff of olfactory memories reside. But I don't want to cede these memories just yet.

Today, I can recreate the Korean barley tea (boricha in Korean), first tasted at Steve's, in my kitchen. I make it from roasted barley, sold in bulk at a Korean market in Detroit.

I poured the tea into cups for E and me, and we sipped this most nutty of tisanes. The fragrance and warmth revived my remembrance of things past.

How to make boricha:
Boil 10 cups of water.
Add 3 tablespoons of roasted barley to the boiling water.
Turn heat down to medium and simmer for another 5 minutes.
Ladle the liquor and serve the tea hot.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I've set myself up to be derivative by entitling the post Beauty. For what has not already been said on the subject? Philosophers and poets from time immemorial -some more lucid than others- have weighed in with treatises on the nature of Beauty and its Muses. My intent is much more humble as I now sit at a cafe, my cup drained of its sencha, pondering the presence of beauty in my own life. Perhaps, the ushering in of a new year lends itself to musings of this sort and the desire to feel the presence of beauty daily.

I read a poem nightly, often randomly turning to a page of verses and settling my eyes expectantly on it. The words often surprise and delight, and a poem that I came across recently moved me to tears with its sense of longing and its beauty.

Excerpts from the Ninth Elegy (from the Duino Elegies):
Why, when this short span of being could be spent
like the laurel, a little darker than all
the other green, the edge of each leaf fluted
with small waves (like the wind's smile) -why,
then, do we have to be human and, avoiding fate,
long for fate?

Oh, not because of happiness,
that quick profit of impending loss, really exists.
Not out of curiosity, not just to exercise the heart
-that could be in the laurel, too...

But, because being here means so much, and because all
that's here, vanishing so quickly seems to need us
and strangely concerns us. Us, to the first to vanish.
Once each, only once. Once and no more. And us too,
once, even if only once,
to have been on earth just once - that's irrevocable...

-Rainier Maria Rilke

Its beauty invoked a desire to live more deeply. To sustain hope and soar, I felt these impulses as I read the verses. I brushed the cobwebs, layers upon layers of confused filaments, those that shackled, now falling away airlessly.

I seek out beauty daily and readily find its manifestations in poetry, music, and art. Perhaps, I turn towards them to illuminate the possibilities in my own life.

But I also look for beauty inherent in my life, in the little rituals and rustlings of daily activities. The manifestations are often quiet -there are no grandiosity of cymbals heralding Beauty's presence. There is however the ritual of tea, present daily, and easily gathered up if neglected for a day or two.

I look forward to preparing and drinking tea each morning. There is beauty in the unfurling of a leaf as the tea brews, in the reflection of a winter landscape in the liquor when I look into my teacup. Beauty unfolds in the chimerical patterns that matcha powder makes as it creates whorls in a steaming bowl.

The quiet observation of these rituals usually does not bring transformative epiphanies. That, perhaps, would be too lofty a goal to attain. Instead, I see, through mindful attention, a gracefulness that imparts beauty to the most prosaic activities of my daily life.