What’s Missing From Cookbook Reviews

My post at Aesthetics for Birds on What’s Missing From Cookbook Reviews:

“Read enough cookbook reviews, and you’ll start to notice a curious gap. Cookbook reviews mostly focus on how the recipes turn out — how tasty the dishes are, or how authentic they are. Sometimes they’ll also talk about the quality of writing, or how much you learn about some region’s culinary history  or food science or the author’s childhood or whatever. But usually they leave out what it feels like to actually cook the goddamn things…”

Later, it talks about how we ignore how food makes us move:

“Why do we legitimize aesthetic commentary, in conversation and reviews, on the taste, smell, and look of food, but refuse to legitimatize aesthetic commentary on the quality of the physical movements that food urges on us? The movements you make on the plate with your fork and knife are a tiny little dance, and dances can be graceful and awkward, and choices that a chef makes about how to plate will push on you more awkward or more graceful forms of dance.”

Keep reading it at AFB.

Salt Lake City: My food favorites

I arrived in SLC five years ago in a tumble of culinary sorrow. I’d been writing food for the LA Times during graduate school, and I had to give up that half of my life in order to stay on the academic track. (I’ve only regretted that particular decision for, say, forty percent of the rest of my life.) But it was intense – the culinary shock of going from the ethnic food wonderland of Los Angeles, to this godforsaken land-bound smog-infested, culinary wasteland…

Except, as it turns out, Salt Lake isn’t so bad. Salt Lake is kind of actually really great for its size. There’s more weird little ethnic neighborhoods and hidden communities entangled into the Utah Suburban Monolith than you might think. And every year I live here, the streets get a teeny bit more diverse, and the food scene gets a little bit better.

So, here’s my best of, as of right now:

 

Indian and Pakistani

Maybe my favorite restaurant in this whole town is Zaika Grill ‘N Kebab. Warning: it’s slow as hell, especially if you order anything besides the standard combo. But you should definitely order things that are not the standard combo. That’s because the whole show is run by a husband and wife team who actually cook things carefully and lovingly and painstakingly. This includes fresh naan, fresh roti, gorgeously weird Pakistani dishes that I’ve never had before (curried horseradish?). The seekh kebab is perfectly crumbly and dense and shot through with little crispy bits of green onion. It burns with life. Nihari is one of my very favorite dishes — kind of a densified intensified liquified meat essence that hangs right on the edge of soup and stew, full of the deep low tang of bone-extracted broth. If you’re feeling super adventurous, order the haleem, which is insanely great and almost impossible to find in these parts.  It’s a weird mysterious concoction of beef and pounded wheat or barley or something, and maybe some lentils. It’s hard to tell. It’s deeply and profoundly sticky, like Pakistani meat mochi. Definitely freaks out some people, though. Also, the kitchen can be vegan friendly if you need. A lot of the best stuff isn’t on the little printed menu. Sometimes it’s on the chalkboard. Sometimes it’s not, and you just have to have a long and rambling conversation with the owners about what you like and what ingredients they happen to have today, and then it occurs to them to offer you this or that special thing. These days I just go, wave my hand, and say, “I trust you,” and the kitchen brings forth wonders, eventually.

Imagine my total mind-melted surprise when I found out that the greater SLC area actually has a genuinely great chaat shop. It’s Pastries ‘n Chaat. Chaat, if you don’t know, is Indian street food – gorgeous little lovelinesses like pani puri, which are little shells of fried bread that you fill with chickpeas and potatoes and cold spicy mint water and throw in your mouth and let it explode. There are great many variations on a theme of little crispy things covered with yogurt and tamarind and bits of other, differently crispy things. All the chaat here is absurdly good – fresh and vivid, like little spikes of clean brilliant freshnesses shooting through your skull. Also: great biryani.

 

Chinese

Alas, Hot Dynasty, I loved you well. You had godlike Sichuan. I was perceptually shocked that you managed to exist in Utah. Turns out, you were too good for this world. Now you’re dead, and we’ll have to content ourselves with merely quite good Sichuan: Sweet Ginger. It’s legit, though, numb-tingly flavors and all. Order your heart out – it’s all good, and way better than you’d think Utah capable of in the Sichuan department. All the fish boiled in hot chili oil and the masses of chicken in pickled pepper and dried chiles and fresh chiles and more piles of chiles. Definitely hit the cold tray for all the weirdo Sichuan cold snacks, like husband-and-wife slices and seaweed. (WARNING: Comment from Stuart, below, indicates that the good chef might have left. I will check soon. Please hold.)

There’s a lot of good Taiwanese in this town. Best choice: Mom’s Kitchen. It’s even better since they made, like, a real picture menu for all us non-Chinese speakers. It’s stuffed with all the Taiwanese comfort food favorites. The beef roll is, like, jellied sweet beef rolled in an onion scallion pancake with plenty of raw cilantro and crispy green onion. Dumplings are fantastic, boiled or fried. Freshly made noodles in all the soups – I particularly like the subtle, rich sourness of the sour mustard and ground pork soup. The leek pancake turnover thing is a wonder – the soft leeks and the wiggly vermicelli and that lovely near-crumbly texture of finely chopped filling inside a crispy, crispy, chewy, crispy shell. Eat this and think of what a pathetic thing the Hot Pocket is, that tried to be this leek turnover and failed.

Also: super-special Taiwanese bonus: Sasa Kitchen! A tiny menu, but they’re specialists! Most important thing: the “shaved noodles”, which are fresh made, sliced thick and full of chaw, and have just that right mouth-filling heft. Noodles this good would be like $30 if you were in an Italian place, but since it’s Chinese, it’s like $8. My personal favorite: the clean, subtle, fragrant, warming lamb and shaved noodle soup. Also, get the hot and sour dumpling soup if they have it.

Also: best dim sum is probably Red Maple House. Definitely go when it’s busy for freshness – Saturday and Sunday brunch time. They nail those gossamer-bouncy textures.

 

Peruvian

The whole Wasatch area has freakishly great Peruvian all over the place. I’m not going to list them all – just go and try any you can find. They’re everywhere, and they’re mostly all great. The fanciest and finest is Del Mar al Lago, which is another “WTF is this doing in UTAH?” kind of place. High end, pretty, immaculate Peruvian. Beautiful and zippy ceviche, excellent piles of fried seafood, and all that stuff. Definitely the more future-facing, more inventive, and more respectable place. It’s fantastic.

But if I had to be honest, in my heart of hearts, my absolute favorite Peruvian out here is the Bountiful branch of El Rocoto. It’s just more heart-felt. I never know exactly what that means, and why certain food feels merely clinically perfect, but other food feels full of love and life. But El Rocoto has that mysterious perfect hunk o’ soul. The stuff all feels just the right amount of chunky, hearty, and chewy; all the flavors are full-throated. Things to try: the platter of fried seafood. The ceviche. Lomo saltado, that glorious Peruvian stir-fry of french fries and beef in red wine, soy sauce, garlic, and tomato. Pretty much anything.

 

Ethopian

There were once two utterly fantastic Ethiopian places in SLC. They both closed. Sad face. I have some new possibilities though. Watch this space.

 

Coffee

Probably the most important Hipster Culinary Experience in SLC is Cafe D’Bolla, which is one of the very few genuinely world-class culinary experiences in Utah. It’s a coffee bar. I mean, let me say this again, it is a Motherfucking Coffee Bar where you are going to go and pay a lot of money for a Coffee Motherfucking Experience. It has extremely good espresso at a decent price. But the thing you’re really here for is to have the hands of the master make you an earth-shatteringly superb cup of vacuum press siphon coffee, for which you will pay a modestly princely sum. I mean, like, $8-$12 or something. (Though it perpetually irritates me that people will slap down that much for a glass of wine without even thinking about it, but then proceed to loose their collective gourds over the idea of paying that much for a cup of coffee.)

It’s worth it. He knows what the fuck he is doing. He will do you a full process and ritual with explanation. Perhaps too much explanation. He roasts all his own coffee to spec (and he thinks that it’s crucial, if you’re brewing at SLC elevations, to roast with that in mind.) He gets weird coffee rarities. He brews them superbly. He will also, unless you ask firmly, loom over you and shout at you all the tasting notes that you’re supposed to be tasting. He also won’t let you sip the hot cup of coffee because he’s going to tell you that it’s much better after 5 minutes of cooling – and it turns out he’s COMPLETELY RIGHT. He also serves his coffee in these very specific antique Japanese tea cups that he decided give the best aromatic experience and, once again, he is COMPLETELY RIGHT.

So: it’s weird. Also only for the kind of fanatics who like light roast, high acid, very sculpted coffee profile. But if you are, this is totally a pilgrimage worth making. Taste at the feet of a true master.

 

Other White People Stuff

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because my favorites are well-known and well-covered elsewhere. Tulie has impeccable croissants and other Euro pastries. If there’s a criticism of them though, it’s that they’re a little cold in their version of impeccable, professionally crafted, and perfectly French-correct bakery arts. My deepest affections have lately shifted to the new Amour Cafe, from those people that brought you that shockingly good jam you bought in the farmer’s market. Homey, deeply felt, subtle and soul-punchingly good baked goods. Among the best scones I’ve had in the States. Also, sometimes, they have the most magical thing: a beet walnut cake, which is basically like a red velvet cake, but profound.

Most expensive and also best place for super-boutique groceries is Liberty Heights Fresh. Most importantly, they are home of the best cheese counter in town. (Caputo’s is also very good, but they’ve lately gotten really into their ultra-funkifying cheese cave thing. I suspect they’re beginning to proceed down the More Funky Than Thou path which reminds me, worryingly, of the Late Stage Craft Beer Quadruple IPA Bitter Fuck You Manly Arms Race of Doom.)

Salt Lake is also, importantly, home to like the second best butcher and charcuterie in all of America, as far as I know: Beltex Meats. Ungodly good classic cuts and oddball cuts and all kinds of glorious in-house pates and charcuteries and headcheeses and blood sausages, all with that deep profound modulated wild funk that I crave. This place is a treasure, and when I have friends coming back to visit me from the culinary hotspots of the world, what they demand, perpetually, is to gorge themselves on Beltex shit. (My very favorite charcuterie maker in America is Fatted Calf in SF, and it turns out some of the Beltex gang trained there.)

Best tea selection in town: Tea Zaanti. Nice places to spend medium to large amounts of money on conventionally nice food in a setting with real “service”: Manoli’s, Provision, Veneto’s.

There are two excellent cocktail bars in SLC: Water Witch and The Rest. Water Witch is the kind of place where they’ll chat you up and make you a cocktail to your weirdo requests, and they’ll nail it. The Rest is a speakeasy hidden oh-so-adorably underneath The Bodega, where you have to, like, call ahead and speak the secret words and be lead to a secret passageway in the back. The Rest is fancy and very I-dream-of-New-York and has quite good food. The Water Witch has a much more half-drunk bartenders ranting about their lives and shout at the audience vibe. The Rest offends some people with it’s excessively twee preciousness (it does feel a little bit like somebody ordered an interior decorator to “Make me feel like I’m drinking in a Wes Anderson film!”). Water Witch offends some people for its hipster-bro man-ergy. I go to both, because I’m a terrible person, and I just like drinking. (For the true cocktail fiend, though, I give a definite edge in pure cocktail craftsmanship to Water Witch.)

 

Korean

There’s not a huge amount of Korean in this town, but what there is, is surprisingly great. Far and away my favorite is Jang Soo Jang. Superb homey-style Korean food that would hang with some of my favorites in LA’s Koreatown. Favorites: spicy squid, sundae gook (blood sausage soup with bits of offal, shockingly clean and deep), spicy goat soup, spicy rice cakes, Korean dumplings, kim chee pancake. Super spread of lovely homemade Korean pickles, brimming with fresh ferment-y life. But: if you go here and only order Korean BBQ because you think that’s the beginning and end of Korean food, I will personally hunt you down and shoot you in the head with a pickle.

Other good choices: Myung Ga is pretty good and more conventionally “nice” location, with a bigger menu with pretty good versions of all the standards. For some reason, the name It’s Tofu! subtly creeps me out on like five levels that I don’t fully understand, but they have a pretty nice dol soat bi bim bop – that’s bi bim bop in a hot stone bowl that you mix up and let crisp.

 

Mexican

For my first two or three years, I just mostly ate at the taco trucks – the two clustered around the Ocean City Market at State and 9th are probably still my favorites. I eventually found Victor’s Restaurant, the well-known tamale specialist inside Victor’s Tires. They’re awesome for many standards – their menudo and their chilaquiles are particular favorites).

But the real magical winner for Mexican in SLC is Mi Lindo Nayarit. It is a Nayarit specialist, and once again, HOW THE HELL DOES THIS EXIST IN UTAH? Nayarit is a region in the Central Pacific coast of Mexico. Nayarit food (and the food of neighbor Sinaloa) is completely distinctive, especially if you’re used to the kind of northern Mexican food that suffuses the American imagination. Nayarit food is seafood, in a thousand subtle variation, balanced right on the edge between crispness and hyper-complexity. Even in Los Angeles, Nayarit and Sinaloan places were rare finds. I have no idea why there’s one way out here in Utah. Things to try: the empanadas, which are stuffed with ground shrimp, deep-fried, and topped with an avocado. The dozen variations of shrimp, all delightful. The fish ceviche, which is unlike any other ceviche I know. It’s a mixture of citrus-soaked fish and finely shredded carrots and lots of other raw bits of veg, and it’s like a raw fish carrot slaw, and it’s totally awesome. (Beware: as with other raw fish, much depends on your relationship to market-day. I wouldn’t get this on a Sunday.) And the fish chicharron, which is small pieces of fish fried so deeply and intensely that they take on the heft, crunch, and chaw of fried pork rinds. Special bonus: they make the best michelada in town, which is kind of like a beer bloody mary served in an enormous stein rimmed with chile powder.

 

Vietnamese

There’s a huge Vietnamese population in SLC, and tons of great Vietnamese. A few favorites: Pho Thin for pho, with that radiant, subtly sour clean-quiet tang of a really well-executed beef broth. Pho Tay Ho, set in just the kind of chilled out remodeled house that reminds me of Vietnamese joints from my San Jose childhood, for heart-warming pho with really nice noodles. Little Saigon for excellent Vietnamese sandwiches, vermicelli noodles, and bun bo hue, the heartier, beefier, spicier soup of central Vietnam.

And, from left-field, there’s an excellent Viet-Cajun crawfish boil place! It’s called Bucket o’ Crawfish. You can get all manner of seafood – including crawfish, clams, and crab legs – boiled in anything from the Vietnamese take on Cajun spice mix to Chinese black bean sauce. Don’t go and tell me it’s not genuinely Cajun. Because it isn’t, and it never claimed to be. It’s goddamn Viet-Cajun, and you’ll enjoy it for being the heartfelt representative of this new gorgeous melting pot world, you motherfuckers!

 

Japanese

Japanese in this town is currently suffering, ever since Naked Fish died. The best we have is probably a pair of tonkatsu ramen joints: Tosh’s and Jinya. If you haven’t had tonkatsu before, it’s nothing like the standard thin Tokyo-style ramen. It’s this mega-long cooked, ultra-rich bone-and-meat-fat, like, velvet or something. Both places are quite good, but I’m going to give a slight edge to Jinya, for getting just the right profound velvety-ness in that rich, rich, bone-mineral broth. I particularly like the ones that mix their pork broth with their chicken broth.

 

Salvadorean

I used to live in the Salvadorean part of East Hollywood, where I acquired an undying hunger for pupasas that can never be adequately quenched. I think I have tried every Salvadoran place in Salt Lake City. For me, there is only one choice: Fernando’s Cafe Guanaco. Everything else there has been great too, especially the beef soup.

 

Middle Eastern

Mazza. Groceries at Black Cherry. O Falafel is great at a lot of things, but, perversely, sucks at falafels. Look to the cooked entrees, like moussakka, chicken banana squash ,mughrabiya, and my very favorite, makshi – gorgeously soft eggplant in a yogurt tomato beef gravy sauce thing.

 

Best rotating stand to watch out for

Spice Kitchen Incubator is this great non-profit thing that helps immigrants start up restaurants. They have a stand at the farmer’s market that rotates through new start-up food gigs. Often, they’re fantastic. Best West African food I had was from one of their gigs. I’ve also had super nice Indonesian, and good Filipino. Always try whatever’s on offer.

 

 

Time-Slices of Tea: How to brew gong-fu style

This post is for my dear buddy Tiffany, who’s just discovered that she’s allergic to coffee and therefore having a minor drug-culinary meltdown. She asked for a guide into my most intense life-long culinary obsession, tea. Specifically: Chinese tea, done gong-fu style.

Gong-fu style is basically the hard-core Chinese tea addict’s delivery system of choice. Basically, you’re using a very large amount of tea in a relatively small brewing vessel, and doing lots of really fast steeps. I mean, a LOT of tea:

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What you’re doing is cutting time-slices out of the tea. Different flavors extract at different rates and times. In normal, Western, throw-it-all-in-a-big-pot-and-brew-it-for-a-while, you’re taking all these different flavors and muddling them all together. When you do it gong-fu style, you’re separating it out and slicing it up – peering into this weird, fluid, ever-changing evolution and transformation of the tea. The tea above, for example, started out sweet and dairy and thick. Then around steep four, this weird glorious intense quinine-bitter took over. Three steeps later, the dairy was back and balancing out nicely against the bitter. Then around steep fourteen, this crazy apricot-hay flavor came out of nowhere. And then they all melded into this weird fuzzy happy meaty warmth.

In the piece of food writing I’m proudest of, I got my tea mentor totally shitfaced on good rum and got this quote out of her: “‘The evolving of it, it’s like old films,’ Shan says, ‘Like when it was slow enough you could almost see it frame by frame, moving’.”

I’ve gong-fu brewed other stuff – Indian teas like first flush darjeelings – and sometimes gotten good results, and sometimes unbalanced weirdness. That stuff wasn’t really bred for this style. But gong-fu brewing is what high-quality Chinese oolongs and puerhs were made for. When you’ve got some good tea and decent technique, it becomes this… drama. This journey through like a thousand weird transformations of flavor and texture, and all these strange intense little flavor nuggets will build on your tongue, and you’ll get this ever-shifting flowing glowing aftertaste.

Or it can be just be some shots of pretty decent tea that you slug down before you walk out the door. But even then: it still changes enough to be fun.

(PS: “gong-fu” means “mastery”. It’s the same Chinese word as “kung fu”. I suspect Western tea-nerds use the newer anglicization mostly because it would sound unbelievably dorky to say you were making kung fu tea.)

A whirlwind tour of tea types. 

There’s like two billion and a half kinds of tea, and I don’t want to choke your brain. So here’s a quick run-down of some favorite styles. For the basic categories, green teas aren’t oxidized, oolongs are partially oxidized, and black (a.k.a. “red”) teas are fully oxidized. (Don’t confuse oxidization with roasting, which is an independent variable.) And then there’s puerh, which is a green tea that’s pressed into cakes and then stuck in basements and actually fermented. Sometimes for decades.

Green tea is surely fantastic, and most of it responds very well both to gong-fu brewing and longer, western-style steeps. But I’m going to concentrate on oolongs today, because they and puerh are what call to my soul the hardest. Green teas are capable of incredible delicacy and beauty, and long jian green was my first true tea love, but, over the years, I’ve come to feel that they tend to have less variability and drama. The best of the oolongs and puerh have this balance of delicacy and bottom-of-the-soul-pounding warmth, this indescribable life, this flux, that often enlivens, occasionally frustrates, frequently delights, sometimes overwhelms, and never bores.

Balled oolongs: the first kind of oolong I fell in love with. There’s a ton of styles here, split between the mainland and Taiwan. Tieguanyin is a lot of Westerners’ introduction to this sort of tea. The green unroasted kind is sort of this nuclear fresh vegetal jaw-punch. I tend to prefer roasted tieguanyin, which is an easygoing, warm, well-balanced, chilled out sort of tea. A close relative is Taiwan’s dongding. But if this kind of stuff floats your boat, a lot of people end up paying the big bucks for Taiwanese high mountain oolong. At its best – right off the springtime harvest, lightly oxidized, unroasted and virginally fresh – it’s basically throwing yourself headfirst into the oozing spirit of spring. Unbearably sweet spinachy flavors, like the umami part of fresh-cut grass, like dew and rain and moss and jungle and everything green, damp, glowing, and alive.

Wuyi oolong (a.k.a. yancha): The cliff tea, the mountain tea, the old man tea. This is some of my favorite stuff in the world. The platonic wuyi is sharp and narrow, like a mineral scalpel delicately slicing into your tongue, which then will give way to all sorts of toasty, chocolatey, earthy, dried fruit flavors. Wuyi is a good place to take sort of the big leap into true Chinese tea appreciation, because it’s often so alive on the tongue, but fascinatingly thin, flavor-wise. A lot of people with a basically European culinary background hyper-focus on just the flavors of tea. They look for richness, complexity, tons of flavor-notes. But the deeper I get into tea culture, the more I think that flavor is only a part of a larger gestalt. There’s flavor, but then there’s the aroma, the texture, and the refined drug-effects. Wuyi is the place to appreciate texture. There’s this lovely dryness, this sharp, subtle razor-blades-dancing-on-your tongue, and then this slippery, oily sliding down your throat thing. Where the standard Western aesthetic in darker teas is, I think, to go big – big, bombastic flavors, tons of complex flavor notes – some of the best wuyi is gloriously lean and delicate. Wuyi: like a razorblade of dry toast, pushed through your tongue into your soul.

Puerh: is the weirdest and most fucked-up kind of tea – some fermented insane bullshit. I just had one that tasted like a cross between a tide pool, a honeycomb, and scotch. I love it so much that it deserves a separate post all its own.

The Basic Technique

First, you need a gaiwan – a traditional Chinese covered cup.

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Everybody starts by buying them too way too big. When buying your gaiwan, look at the size and think to yourself, “Every time I put tea in this thing, I’m going to drink seven to twenty times that amount of liquid.”

You use the lid to strain the tea. And you can do that, because you’re buying good tea, right? Real, whole leaf tea, that looks like this once its been brewed:

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Because you know that most of the tea that gets sold to American and Britain is total crap, right? It’s all tea dust and fannings and it’s basically the junk that falls onto the factory floor which they sweep up and foist off on the hapless west. Most of what the west drinks is, essentially, the particleboard of tea. All those broken edges will just extract overloads of horrible tannic crap. And even when you go into some fancy American tea shops with intricately labelled tea with flavor notes and romantic vaguely orientalized tales of wandering misty mountaintops, be wary and check the leaf. Sometimes it’ll be great. But a lot of times you’re still just getting a slightly higher grade of crap in lacy packaging. Like this stuff, which I got from a well-known “luxury” boutique American tea vendor:

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Fuck this stuff.

Anyway: put some damn tea in your gaiwan. The dry leaf will tinkle a little, like crystal raindrops. The standard advice is to fill the bottom 1/4 to 1/3 of your gaiwan with tea. It’s going to expand. Balled oolongs are denser and will expand a ton, so use relatively less. Wuyi is long and uncompressed, so use relatively more.

Water temperatures. Typical advice: green teas at 176 F, oolongs at 180-195 F, puerh anywhere from 190 F to boiling. As a very loose rule of thumb, the greener something is, the lower the temperature you should brew it with, and the darker it is, the higher the temps. I have a fancy electric kettle that hits temperatures exactly, but you can also count down from boiling. Boiling and then waiting for two minutes gives you approximately oolong temperatures. For the ultimate in vintage-y tea-hipster cred, you can do what young me did: the traditional Chinese thing of estimating temperature by the exact appearance of the bubbles in the water.

First, give your leaves a rinse. Just dump some water on it and then immediately pour it out into your cups and then throw that liquid away. This starts re-hydrating the tea and warms everything up. But don’t drink the rinse. When I asked one of my tea mentors why she was dumping the rinse-water and maybe wasting some flavor, she said: “Dude. I’ve toured the tea plantations in China. I’ve seen the shit they do over there. I mean, literally: shit. Rinse your damn leaves.”

The pour is basically this: cock the lid back a little to reveal a tiny bit of space between the lid and the side of the cup. Hold the lid down with one finger and the rim of the gaiwan with the others. Pour with commitment. (Check out this video instruction, too.)

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For brewing: pour the hot water into the gaiwan. Try to avoid pouring hot water directly on the leaf, especially if the tea’s on the greener side. Put the lid on. A usual brewing schedule looks something like this: first brew, 5 seconds. Then 7 seconds, then 9s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 45s, 1 min, 1:30 min, etc. It’ll vary widely by tea-type, but you usually start going up by 2 seconds each brew, then by 5, then 15, then 30. You can also slowly start creeping up the temperature, too, if you want to be really fancy. But play around with it. Fuck up some tea and find out where its limits are.

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If the last steep tasted right, then bump up the time one step according to the standard schedule. If it was too weak, bump it by up two steps. If it was too strong, just repeat what you did last time. Don’t worry about being too precise. Especially in the later brews, I tend to get pretty sloppy. And don’t be afraid to experiment. Good tea will respond very differently to different combinations of variables, and you’ll find weird little corners – one tea will respond to lower temperatures by emitting a marvelous weird malty sweet; another will respond to a double-length steep by giving you a bitter backhand slap, but which will give way to ultra-long resounding aftertaste. Sometimes I get distracted and way overbrew the tea. Sometimes it’s awful, but sometimes it reveals something new and delightful. The dynamism and unpredictability is part of the joy.

Keep going until the tea gives out. It’ll turn either boring or horribly astringent. Some OK-ish teas will only go five steeps or so, but a lot of good oolongs will go ten, fifteen steeps. They’ll often keep getting better for a while, peak, then start a long decline. In my early days I used to give up too early. If the tea tastes weak and you’re about to give up, try blasting it with hotter water and a much longer steep. The really best stuff will just seem to give endlessly: I’ve had really nice aged puerhs go 35 or 40 steeps, just kept on emitting flavor through longer and longer steeps. The last steep was overnight, and might have given me one of the best cups of all.

Oh, and smell everything. Smell the dry leaf. Smell the leaf after the rinse. Smell the leaves between steepings. The tea was bred for this. Just smell that sexy leaf.

Wuyi has a particular love for being brewed very, very intensely. A lot of us will get a little teeny gaiwan (check out my 50 ml baby) and pack it completely full of dry leaf and brew it on a 1s/2s/4s/6s/8s/10s/12s/15s/18s/20s/25s etc. schedule. You’re basically making yourself lots and lots of teeny little espresso shots of tea. Especially good for getting that dry-mineral scalpel effect, with that ultra-long glowing aftertaste.

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More fussiness: in the classical style, you pour from the gaiwan into a cute little pitcher, and then pour it out again into the cups. A lot of us just pour directly into the cups. But the first bit of water that comes out of the gaiwan is the weakest tea, and the end of the pour is the strongest, so if you’re pouring into multiple cups, you want to move the gaiwan back and forth to even it all out. Also: have a bowl or something to dump the dregs into. With the gaiwan, any loose bits of broken tea will go right into your cup. Don’t inflict that crap on yourself. Dump it. Preferably onto an adorable clay “tea pet” that you bought from some shady Chinese vendor on eBay.

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Pay attention to: the aromas of the leaf in your gaiwan. The aromas in your cup. The physical sensations on your tongue, like various lovely pricklings or soft creaminesses or thick oilinesses. The texture in your mouth, in your throat. The aftertaste, which is where so much of the experience lives. Try breathing out to flare the aftertaste, like with scotch. A tea vendor once told me that there was a Chinese term for that flared aftertaste, which he translated as, “The Returning”. But from the twinkle in his eye, he just might have been bullshitting me.

Gong-fu style may seem like a lot of work and fuss. But you can internalize it quickly. And you don’t always have to be that careful. With really amazing tea, I’ll be really focused: counting the seconds out, watching the water temperature, coaxing the best I can out of the tea. But most of the time I’ve just got a tray and a gaiwan at my desk next to my laptop, and I’m brewing absentmindedly while I work. It’s really quite pleasant. There’s something about the very tiny packets of fiddliness that just helps me work and think. My lovely wife thinks it’s because sometimes your brain wants a break, but if you let yourself Internet then you’re doomed, because that shit goes on forever. But with gong-fu brewing, you’ve got charmingly packaged, closed-ended bits of fuss. You fiddle with the tea for like twenty seconds and then you have a nice little cup of hot tea in front of you and it’s over and now it’s time to get back to work.

Grandpa style

Or, if this is all too much work, you can also do it grandpa style. Dump the tea leaves in a normal glass and pour hot water on it. Wait for the leaves to settle. Drink. When you’re down somewhere between the halfway or one-third point, re-fill it with hot water. Keep on going like that for as long as you want. Works great with green teas and oolongs.

For my on-the-go life, I have a tea tumbler: an insulated glass with a filter at the spout. Dump in your leaf, pour in some hot water, pop in your filter, and go.

Buying it

You need a gaiwan. My two most used gaiwans are 100ml and 50 ml.

On tea pricing: don’t cheap out. Most people in the western world have basically only drunk Fifty Shades of Two Buck Chuck, tea-wise. So many people are so used to really cheap tea, and are absolutely unwilling to pay for anything past the particleboard, that they will spend their whole lives in a crap tea dungeon of their own making.

When buying tea, remember this: most times, you’re putting 3-5 grams of tea in a gaiwan, and getting, like, one or two liters of beverage out of it. Tea is extremely, extremely light. When you buy it, don’t think in terms of the actual weight, which might make you choke – think in terms of the price-per-drink. If you buy 50 grams of tea for $10, that’s 80 cents per session of tea. And really, really nice tea – the extraordinary stuff that’ll light your soul on fire – might be $30 for 50 grams. But that’s still only, like, $2.50 a session. Compare that to how much we’re willing to throw away on beer and wine and cocktails or even godforsaken Red Bull.

The best tea I’ve ever had in my life totally rocked my world and cost me a dollar a gram – so for $5, I kept myself and my closest compadres in a fascinated rapture for two hours. That’s not by any means the grade of stuff I chug in the morning on the way to work. But, as unbearable culinary glories come, it might actually be one of the cheapest.

Some favorite shops:

Tea Trekker recently beat out Seven Cups as my favorite US-based generalist. Tea Trekker has great green tea, great wuyi, and is generally trustworthy across the board. Decent prices for the quality, too. It’s the best place to start. And they’ve got some really nice white teas, too, for when you want that experience of drinking the purified sensation of light.

These days, I often order in bulk from China. Even with shipping, it’s often cheaper if you’re ordering large amounts. Jing Tea Shop used to be my go-to for wuyi, but it’s been recently displaced by the wonderful JK Teashop and an extraordinary new shop, Wu Yi Origin, direct form a Wuyi farmer in China. Awesome Wuyi, full of vivid textures and rich dense flavors, and relatively affordable for the quality it sells. Also excellent is Tea Hong, which tends towards a more delicate, clean, precise sort of Wuyi.

For Taiwanese high mountain oolong, my favorite US-based shop is the superb Floating Leaves. There are several very good vendors in Taiwan, but if you really want to throw down the dollars for some serious high mountain vegetal glory, I’ve had truly incredible stuff from Tea Masters.

Two good generalist shops: first, Norbu Tea. Great Wuyi, great rolled oolongs. The proprietor has a taste for the rich, the densely flavored, the really warm. I particularly like the variety of moderately roasted rolled oolongs he sells. Second, Tea Urchin. They’re mostly a pu-erh specialist, and you’ll hear way more about them when I finally get around to writing the big post on pu-erh. But they also manage to source small amounts of some the most extraordinary Wuyi and rolled oolong I’ve ever had. It goes from moderately expensive to holy-crap expensive, but it’s always been worth it – even when I can only afford a single serving for a special occasion.

If you’re into erratic obsessed weirdos with barely functional websites but exquisite curation, check out Life in a Teacup. And if you’re feeling particularly rich, Tea Habitat – the place I wrote about in that article – still sells some of the best tea I’ve ever had in my life. It’s dancong oolong – a delicate, subtle, aroma-oriented style – and you can literally buy batches from specific, single trees and compare.

More: Den’s Tea is a good American vendor for Japanese greens. Thunderbolt Tea has awesome first-flush darjeeling. Oh man, there’s so much more. So much, so much more.

Uh, teaware. JK Teashop has a good spread of affordable cups and gaiwans. Jing Tea Shop and Tea Masters have wonderful stuff on the nicer end. My favorite gaiwan ever came from Floating Leaves. And Music City Tea sells good tea trays, to catch all your drips and drops. And when you really feel like you have more money than you know what to do with, you can check out the world of yixing unglazed clay pots which subtly modify your teas and sometimes improve them. But beware: that world is full of asshole collectors and fakes and dead-ends, and some of us have dabbled heavily in that world and eventually gotten fed up and ended up mostly just brewing tea with the neutral, true rendering of the gaiwan. Yixing pots can be great, but some people fall down the collector hole and turn into the tea-nerd equivalent of those audiophile assholes who spend more time obsessing over the impedance specs of their transistors than actually listening to music.

Which is not to say that I don’t also have an unfortunately excessive number of yixing pots:

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What else? Greens fade quickly. They’re at their absolute best just after the harvest. Lightly oxidized oolongs, like Taiwanese high mountain, are also best fresh. More oxidized and roasted stuff, like wuyi, actually ages beautifully, getting softer and rounder and subtler and deeper over the years, if you’re lucky. And then there’s puerh, which some people think reaches its peaks after thirty years of aging in a damp Hong Kong basement, and is probably best appreciated after some poor collector dies and his hoard goes on the auction block. Puerh is basically my favorite thing, and its weird, druggy, euphoric dense bizarreness deserves a consideration all of its own, which will be Part II.

Food assembly and the idea of a dish

The Korean dish of bibimbap comes as a bunch of distinct little piles of veggies and meat, on a bowl of rice. You pour out a little splat of hot sauce, and mix all it up yourself.

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My friend Kathy Shin told me that mixing it up yourself was part of the very meaning of bibimbap. When I asked her what would happen if they brought it to you pre-mixed, she jumped out of her seat and actually smacked me. “It wouldn’t be bibimbap! You’d be eating something, but it sure wouldn’t be bibimbap.” When I pointed out that the (non-Korean) patrons at the next table over were eating their bibimbap without mixing it up at all, she recoiled it almost moral outrage. “I don’t know what they’re eating, but it’s definitely not bibimbap either.”

Her horror and semi-comic outrage might map onto how an American might react, say, if they saw somebody carefully disassemble a sandwich and eat the bits daintily and separately, with chopsticks: they’re eating something, but it sure ain’t a sandwich.

All of this makes me wonder how culturally complicated the idea of a particular dish is. Is our idea of “sandwich” or “bibimbap” or “egg roll” made of, not just the ingredients, but how we how we assemble them for ourselves? Does the idea of a particular dish include a very specific idea of the eater’s role in assembly or disassembly?

Hsian Ju Lin, in Chinese Gastronomy, comments that, though Westerners often view the chopsticks of the East as comically uncivilized (“look at ’em, eatin’ with a bunch of sticks”), to the Chinese watcher, Western eating traditions are unbearably barbaric. European eating culture involves bringing tiny little tridents and tiny little knives to the table, for God’s sake. It’s one step away from Vikings in the long hall, eating with their hunting knives and throwing the rest to their dogs. Whereas in high Chinese cuisine, everything comes to the table perfectly bite-sized and ready, all the violence confined, out of sight, to the kitchen.

In fact, it becomes curiously evident that a lot of Asian culinary traditions involve building the final dish-entity at the table. In a Vietnamese restaurant, when you order egg rolls, you’re brought the egg rolls with a plate of fresh green herbs, and you’re supposed to wrap the egg rolls in a bit of lettuce with a few bits of fresh herbs, and eat the whole thing, glorying in the contrast between the hot crispy roll and the cool crispy lettuce. There’s the various forms of beijing duck (a.k.a. Peking duck) where you assemble just the right amount of crispy skin and soft wrapper and sweet sauce, just to your precise desire.

And there’s my beloved pani puri, the mint hand-grenades of Indian street-food culture, where you take a little tiny crispy fried hollow bread puff the size of a golf-ball, and carefully tap-tap-tap a hole in the top, and fill it with bits of chickpea, bits of potato, a little drizzle of sauce, and the fill it to the brim with cold spicy mint water and – quickly now! – throw it your mouth and bite down and feel the whole thing explode cold mint water and crispy shards of bread all over the inside of your mouth.

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And then think of the Western traditions: carving the chicken at the table. Carving the ham at the table. Carving the roast at the table.

And here, I was so goddamn excited about the clarity of this contrast, that I was pounding on the steering wheel and shouting to Melissa: “Don’t you see? The Asian traditions are all about creation at the table, and the Western traditions are all about destruction at the table, and of course it must seem so goddamn uncivilized! You’ve got to kill the thing outside, and then symbolically kill it again at the table!”

But, of course, she brought me down to earth. Western culinary tradition is full of assembly-dishes, too. Most preciously: the Thanksgiving dinner. Think of the horror if you were to come to a Thanksgiving dinner, and were presented with a pre-assembled plate. No no! The right thing, the only thing, is to make your plate yourself, to assemble just the right balance of turkey and ham and stuffing and potato and gravy, placed with just the right amount of overlap – mashed potatoes just barely spilling over the turkey, maybe – arranged on the plate to by yourself to please nothing but your very own gut. The notion of self-assembly is so deep in our soul-concept of Thanksgiving dinner, that you probably don’t even see it, until somebody breaks it.

So inane cultural reductionism doesn’t work here. Maybe there’s a practical explanation for some of this stuff – for the lettuce-wrapped egg-rolls, for the pani-puri, you have to assemble it at the last moment. Otherwise, you couldn’t get the temperature contrast, the crisp-wet contrast. But that doesn’t explain all the cases. It doesn’t explain bibimbap; it doesn’t explain Thanksgiving.

I need more examples.

Vietnamese crawfish and why racial diversity is a sign of good food

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So, this Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish boil place turned out to be the single most racially diverse joint in Utah. Asian, black, white, Latino, all united in a bliss of smeary crawfish slurping and crab-leg cracking and goo. A little part of me that had been clenched up for so long that I’d forgotten about it, unclenched momentarily.

And I remembered something, something I’d almost forgotten since I’d left Los Angeles, three years ago. Back when I was still posting on Chowhound like a madman and working for the LA Times, on the food beat, trying to cram in enough time to check out about four new restaurants a week between my bouts of grad school, I started noticing some patterns.

Like: diversity is a sign of good food. Not a sure sign, but a damn good one. I mean: racial diversity, economic diversity, cultural diversity, age diversity. If you hit a restaurant and it’s all young trendy Korean club kids, you’re screwed. If you hit a restaurant and it’s all elderly couples who’ve been going there for twenty years, you’re screwed. If you hit a restaurant and it’s wall-to-wall manicured mustaches and thrift store sundresses, you’re about to get screwed AND overcharged.

But if you walk in the door and there’s everybody – young kids, older couples, Asians, white people, black people, every indeterminate color – well, it’s a good sign. I’m not saying this out of some kind of soggy pseudo-liberal hopefulness. I’m saying it because there’s a genuine goddamn empirical correlation.

My theory, in the end, was this: people tend to move in herds. Like attracts like. But something that can break through that barrier is some good damn food. It calls people out of their comfort zone, of their cultural class.

So, Salt Lake City, I give you: Bucket ‘o Crawfish, a Vietnamese-Cajun seafood joint, and the best damned seafood in town.

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