Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

No Pig in This Poke

Are you old enough to remember when the idea of eating raw fish was startling to most Americans?


Because of the influence of Japanese cuisine, and its mid-ocean location, Hawaii was the first of the United States to have fully embraced raw fish in a classic local dish:  poke (pronounced poh-KAY or poh-KEE or poh-KEH). This is a delicious mélange of chunks of raw fish, usually tuna, stirred with seasonings such as soy sauce, sesame oil, hot peppers, onions, seaweed, nuts, the possibilities being endless.

There were days, not that long ago, when even the most passionate lovers of raw clams and oysters, or of smoked fish or gravlax, shuddered at the idea of raw tuna, or even medium rare salmon. The emergence of Japanese cuisine here shattered that mindset, and in the 1980s, New York’s Le Bernardin brought the concept to a whole new level, becoming renowned for its elegant, intensely flavored raw fish dishes. Today, their menu still has whole sections headed “almost raw” and “barely touched.”

Crudo: Raw salmon and fluke dressed with Meyer lemon and ponzu sauce

One very popular dish often found on menus is “crudo”, literally, “raw”, but referring to raw fish. This can take on many guises, one or more types of impeccably fresh fish in a seasoning or with a dipping sauce. It’s elegant and, other than finding a totally reliable source for the fish, easy.

Other examples are tuna carpaccio and tuna tartare, the same sourcing issues, but simple as can be, just raw tuna, your best olive oil, and a sprinkling of sea salt, maybe a dash of parmesan or shaving of white truffle. Perfection.

Incidentally, the name tartare, as in Steak Tartare, has nothing to do with the myth regarding Tartars (or Tatars) riding around the Steppes of Central Asia with their steak under the saddle to tenderize it. Raw, chopped steak was traditionally served with tartar sauce (and that was named by the French for the Tartars), hence an enterprising early 20th century restaurateur came up with the name.

Then there’s ceviche. Whether it’s raw or cooked depends on how you define “cooked”. Applying heat to proteins will denature them, the same effect as soaking in an acidic liquid such as lemon or lime juice. Some traditional ceviche, particularly shellfish like shrimp or lobster, is cooked and then marinated. One of my happiest ceviche memories was in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where the local version included vibrant jalapeno peppers.

Enjoying sushi near Tsukiji Market

A favorite travel memory is of Tsukiji, the giant wholesale market area in Tokyo, best known for its fish division, and more specifically, for crack of dawn auctions of tuna sourced from around the world, and every other kind of seafood imaginable. Because the market has become so wildly popular that tourists started impeding business, not to mention safety concerns (FAST forklifts racing by), access is now strictly limited. But, it’s worth a visit, and a sushi breakfast at one of the many restaurants surrounding the market is a treat not to be missed.

The only time I’ve felt unsafe approaching raw fish was in the mountains of Japan, at a tiny, family owned ryokan (inn) where uncooked fish from the stream was served. Because the parasites that affect land animals can affect humans, eating uncooked fresh water fish can be dangerous. But the host would have lost face (and we as well, having said we eat everything) had we not consumed it. What to do? Dip it in the bubbling soup pot when they weren’t looking. There’s a solution for everything!


How else can you describe the delightful sensation of eating an icy cold oyster, briny and maybe with metallic or nutty overtones, and accented with lemon or maybe a splash of a sauce?


Looking at an oyster bar menu, you’d think there were dozens, if not hundreds, of species of edible oysters, but there are only five. Like grapes, oysters develop and taste differently depending on where they were grown. The chemical composition of the sea water, salinity, and temperature are among the factors that cause a particular bed to have its flavor and shape nuances.

All oysters which humans eat fall into one of these groups: Atlantic (bluepoints, Malpeques, Gulf oysters), Creuse (Europe and the Pacific Northwest), Belon (flat shaped), Kumomoto (tiny Japanese oysters now a mainstay in the Pacific Northwest) and Olympia (also small, the indigenous oyster of the Pacific Northwest).

Another mistaken notion about oysters is that they should only be enjoyed during the R months. This used to be true due to the deterioration in flavor and texture during the summer spawning months, not to mention unreliable refrigeration and spoilage in hot weather. The latter is no longer an issue and the spawning problem has been corrected by highly controlled oyster farming. Some oysters are now bred to not spawn at all.

A few hundred years ago, oysters were so common that everyone residing near the ocean ate them. Then the natural beds, including New York Harbor, one of the world’s largest at the time, started to falter. By the time the Titanic sailed 100 years ago, they were offered only on the first class menu: plain and a la russe (dressed with with vodka and horseradish).

As the United States was growing westward, oysters were an important food shipped by train from places like New Orleans and the Chesapeake Bay, either tightly packed in barrels (oysters in the shell keep well for a long period of time) or shucked and either chilled or canned.

Two old fashioned oyster delicacies are stew (oysters poached in butter, milk, cream and a little Tabasco) and pan roast (stew plus Worcestershire sauce and paprika served over a toast square). New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar still makes these dishes in the same steam heated, 1 – 2 portion pots used 100 years ago.

Fried oysters are another decadent treat, especially when tucked into a po’boy sandwich eaten while strolling New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Oysters Rockefeller (baked with a thick sauce, greens and spices) is probably the best known of the hot oyster dishes, but there are countless others, Bienville (richer sauce, mushrooms, shrimp and cheese) and Suzette (bacon, green and red pepper, a little like clams casino) among them.

Every oyster lover has their preferences.  My favorite is the flat Belon, unfortunately the most expensive and hardest to find here in the United States, but the most flavorful. I like medium sized oysters the best; giants are just as tender and tasty, but a little unwieldy to eat. I’ll take oysters from as far north as possible, finding those from Southern waters to be less flavorful.

Then there’s the debate about garnish: cocktail sauce or lemon or mignonette (shallot/vinegar sauce, very popular in France) or maybe a few grains of caviar. I’ll take lemon any day.

Oyster Plate

Special plates are made for serving oysters on the half shell, indented to keep the shells from sliding around.  A plate with a reasonably high rim, covered with crushed ice from the fish market, works just fine.  And there are oyster forks, a nicety but certainly not a necessity.

All oysters can make pearls by building a smooth surface around a particle irritating it, but those that make jewels are not eaten by humans. Tales of finding valuable pearls in oyster bar orders are urban myths.

Tiny pearl resting on black spot

Morning in Myanmar

Schwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Yes, the emerging political news is exciting, but so were the chili laced noodle soups that were part of every breakfast during my 2011 visit there.

Dawn in Bagan

The current news coverage is stirring up wonderful memories of what a fascinating, sometimes bizarre, place this is.

Formerly known as Burma, it is a genuine third world country, incongruously dotted with pure gold pagodas, some topped with priceless jewels.

The food is not why you go to Myanmar, but it is delicious, a cross between Thai and Indian flavors. Unlike peripatetic gourmet chefs who eat everything in sight, this normally intrepid eater was very careful to limit her menu to hot foods, avoiding anything room temperature other than in the hotels.

I loved the eggplant dishes and ubiquitous curries, especially the ones made with butterfish, a large smooth river fish which tastes a little like swordfish. Much to my surprise, I came across wines made in Myanmar, drinkable and an inexpensive alternative to the few pedestrian and pricy imports available.

One supposedly tasty treat I declined to sample was fermented tea leaves, a room temperature snack which looked and smelled about as appetizing as it sounds, particularly having seen buckets of it in the market swarming with flies.

Arriving in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is a study in contrasts. On landing the first time, the third worldliness smacks you in the face. But returning there from an excursion north, to much more rural Bagan, felt like being back in civilization.

Internet and email usage are severely restricted (if you can get on at all), and I know some of my friends worried when I went email silent for several days while there. Credit cards are not accepted (most hotels have signs to that effect) and ATMs do not exist; you trade crisp $US for local currency, the newer the bill, the higher the exchange rate, and old bills aren’t accepted at all.

The culture shock is compounded by the strange traffic pattern of driving on the right in cars with the steering wheel on the right. This was explained by my tour guide: “When we got rid of the Brits, we changed the driving pattern immediately, but the cars, all used, still come from Japan” where they drive on the left.

Enjoying a Cheroot

On a totally non-culinary note, I was fascinated by cheroots, cigars made of tobacco and wood chips wrapped in corn husks, traditionally popular in Myanmar, although I only saw older people using them. It is rumored that the aroma permeates one’s skin, and this deters mosquitoes, but this may just be a dubious excuse for a questionable habit.

On another cultural note, I am surprised at the near absence of thanaka in the recent news photos (other than the April 4 page 4 photo in the New York Times) and as I was viewing the trailer for the The Lady, the new film about Aung San Suu Kyi. This astringent paste made of tree bark is ubiquitous in Myanmar, worn primarily by women as makeup, applied either in smears (as one might put on blusher) or in elaborate designs. There is even a thanaka museum where you can sample it.  Any takers?

Thanaka Vendor

Bottom line, visiting Myanmar was a fabulous experience, but I would not recommend it without a good guide, given cultural, language, and logistical challenges. Absolute Travel (whom I used) is a great place to start.

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