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BC Food & Culture Writing

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February 2017

Chinese Takeout: Fake Fast Food?

“It’s so cheap and fake”

“It’s not authentic”

“It’s a disgrace to real Chinese food”

Thus sound the cries of righteous indignation from the Chinese community whenever the subject of take-out comes up. It’s as if the very existence of a unique cuisine that emphasizes quick service and in-your-face flavors is an affront to the Chinese cooking from which it originated. It is true that the takeout variety modifies many elements vital to traditional Chinese cooking. It is true that many takeouts overload on the oil and sodium to an unhealthy degree. However, Chinese takeout offers diners a cheap and low-risk opportunity to experience an unfamiliar culture for themselves, complete with weirdly-folded paper decorations and hilarious translations, and acquires value far beyond fried pork belly and crunchy pastries. Chinese takeout may not find true value in the quality of its food, but in its ability to bridge gaps between cultures through a common interest: eating.

17 Inadvertently Meaningful Chinese Menu Misspellings: An Annotated List

An overly literal translation of a spicy dish from Szechuan province

For some of us, the best way to learn about a foreign culture is to buy a plane ticket and book a tour group. However, most people would have to settle for an internet search or an encyclopedia. But what happens when reading about it just isn’t enough? What if we hunger for more than the words printed on a page or the images frozen on our screens? That where takeout comes in – the squiggly noodles, tangy pork slices and the stories connected to them open up a portal to a rich and ancient civilization. Food is an integral part of any culture, and it is especially big in Chinese tradition. For example, dumplings are served during the Chinese New Year to ensure prosperity and good luck. Mooncakes eaten during the Mid-Autumn festival symbolize reunion, as all family members and friends live under the same moon, even if they are across the world from each other. Chinese food brings Chinese culture to your taste buds, bursting with vibrant flavors and vivid colors.

Now, I know some of you are thinking: takeout isn’t even in actual Chinese culture, is it? It’s true that you won’t find Panda Express or Golden Dragon Chinese Food in Beijing, but you will find it in New York City or San Francisco. Thing is, there’s a whole new culture that has developed in the Chinese population in the United States and takeout has been a huge part of it. It is rooted in the old memories brought over from China, but infused with energy and optimism of the hordes of Chinese who immigrated to America to in search of new opportunities. It is cosmopolitan, adaptable, and always avid for a profit. Takeout is the perfect example example – it is cheap and easy to make with ingredients common in the United States; its flavors are amplified to attract curious Americans accustomed to larg amounts of sodium; and last of all, it is quick and convenient for people eager to eat lunch and get on with their jobs. Though it is an integral part of Chinese-American culture, takeout has had an even greater role in modulating the American culture in which it developed.

There have been multiple generations of Chinese-Americans who grew up eating sweet and sour pork and chow fun. More significantly, shared experiences with Chinese takeout has allowed us to connect with the generations of Americans who also grew up eating the same meals packaged in the iconic white disposable boxes. I remember moving to a new school district in 2009. Being one of the few Chinese kids, some of my new classmates asked me to take them to the local Chinese takeout, as they were German Jews and were afraid they would accidentally order a dish with pork in it. Long story short, we found out the cook attended the same church as I did and my newfound friends and I consumed plate after plate of chicken dumplings, chicken friend rice, and spicy fried chicken, all on the house. Eight years later, I still find myself giving out recommendations to friends at BC who want to order out from New Hong Kong, or Jojo Taipei. The fact that many Chinese take-out dishes were created in the United States for American palates does not make them inferior to culinary creations from China. They were simply made for a different audience and for a different purpose.

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Skip NHK and order from Jojo Taipei 

Love it or hate it, Chinese takeout is here to stay. Though its niche of “exotic Asian food” has mostly been replaced by Japanese raw bars and Korean fusion gastropubs, Chinese food has staked out its own territory in American society. Comfortable, accessible, and cheap, Chinese takeout is reliable and affordable for the tired construction worker and the penniless college student. I will always love it, no matter how inauthentic or blasphemous it is to traditional Chinese cooking. In return, I hope Irish people don’t get mad at me when I use ground beef instead of lamb in my shepherd’s pie.

 

Beets

My family is a “farmer’s market” family. Every Sunday we get into my Dad’s truck, load up  on our reusable Wegmans bags and drive over to the commuter lot used for the stands. We have our people. The old tomato man, the peach family, the okra kids, but most importantly- the beet crew. The Lee’s love our beets let me tell you. Pickled, boiled, baked, you name it we eat it.

Being VA born and raised, I have a good mix of traditions, my Dad’s side being of the more stereotypically Southern domain. There’s a certain insatiable hunger that comes with a Southern-ish palate when you come to Boston. BOY do I miss those beets. I can make them myself or buy them pickled in the jar at the store, but its never the same. The Lee’s don’t like them sweet, we like them vinegary -almost acidic. We don’t like them smooth, we like them thick cut and jagged. When you taste a Lee beet, you know. The hunger for one has been the same since someone’s grandmother decided it was how it was supposed to be.

There’s something about a food memory and the nostalgia that comes with it, that makes your stomach long for good meals and hands long for good kitchen tools to forge more.

I Have to Tell You Something

img_4874            Look at this. Look at it. This is Bull Dak from Bonchon in Allston. According to Bonchon’s website this is what Bull Dak is:

           “Spicy chicken stir-fried with rice cakes in a fiery sauce, topped with thinly sliced scallions, onions and mozzarella cheese. Served with white rice and steamed vegetables.”
            That description makes sense. It also sounds appetizing. Although I didn’t really know about the use of Mozzarella cheese in Korean cooking. But still, none of the flavors seemed like they would clash, and I was in the mood for something spicy. I had a $50 credit for Postmates, the third-party delivery app, and Ellie had written great things about Bonchon, so I went for it.
            When the delivery guy finally got here, having been misdirected by the app (not his fault at all), I thought the food would have cooled off. It hadn’t. My Bull Dak was still steaming hot in its black plastic takeaway container, and the mozzarella cheese was still melted. The scallions hadn’t wilted, either. The chicken appeared to be breasts or thighs chopped into little bits, all of it drowned in this deep, vibrant red sauce that had a slick of orange oil. Orange oil, like chili oil. It looked so delicious.
          I now understand what Hell is like.
          My first bite of the Bull Dak went down fine. But, good Lord, was it spicy. I try to pride myself on handling spiciness pretty well, but this Bull Dak was in for a fight, and it did not want to lose. About ten bites later, I was in full-blown pain, rocking back and forth in my chair with a tall glass of milk that didn’t even begin to mitigate the heat. I didn’t finish it during that sitting. I, defeated, put the remaining half back in the fridge.
           I could feel it burn in my stomach, the Hellfire scalding my insides.
          The next day, I looked Bull Dak up. By what sorcery is this infernal dish made, I wondered. I had to find out. I found this how-to video on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9uI1-6Ac6A
           And through the video I realize two things: it’s actually spelled buldak (bul=fire, dak=chicken), and also I never stood a chance. In another video, the chef puts in straight capsaicin powder. This was a recipe meant to hurt you.
           The next day, though, I found myself craving it, craving the burn and the pain, craving the sweet/spicy red fire brew that coated the chicken. It was all I could think about. During class, I’d daydream about getting back to my buldak, about how good it would taste cold. And it was brilliant cold but still an ungodly level of spicy. It fought through the physical temperature to light my mouth ablaze. I left some for the next day; I wanted to savor it.
           The picture you see above is what was left on the third day atop a little bit of rice. The deep red of the hellsauce had faded, and the cheese had reset, but it was still so delicious. Finally, I had acclimated to the spiciness, and I was enjoying it. I was winning the fight. Or maybe I was just joining the dark side. Maybe it wasn’t that I had conquered the buldak. Maybe I had simply submitted to it, to the inferno that swallowed up entire souls in Dante’s journey.
          It was the food of Satan himself.
          And I liked it.

A Taste of Childhood. A Taste of Home.

While the snow day was not my first, I have never seen as much snow as I did this past week. Back home in Texas when there is snow in the forecast, schools are usually cancelled by 7:00 the night before. Most times the outcomes are far less substantial than the predictions, ultimately gifting students an extra day off from school but no snow to accompany the snow day. On the rare occasion that we do get “snow” it is usually less than an inch and more similar to the consistency of ice than snow. Nonetheless, when it’s that cold out the foods I crave are a cup of tomato soup and a homemade grilled cheese sandwich.

Back in my dorm on Friday night this is all I wanted. You know when you want a type of food so badly that you can imagine the smell and the taste as it hits your tongue as if it is on a plate in front of you? That was how I felt as I tried to go to sleep and it was the worst! I vowed to myself that I would fulfill my craving the next day.

When I woke up Saturday morning I began my research first by looking to see what the dining halls were serving for dinner. No grilled cheese. Throughout the day I began to ask friends with kitchens if they would be willing to lend their kitchen to me for three hours to concoct an extravagant tomato basil soup. Negative response.

With dinner quickly approaching, I looked to Boston. As I typed in “grilled ch”, google already knew what my heart was searching for. “Roxy’s Grilled Cheese & Burgers” popped up before I even had time to finish typing. I immediately ordered an Uber and told my roommates to put their winter jackets and snow boots on.

On the corner of Cambridge St and Brighton Ave in Allston rests a yellow building. As you walk in, the smells are overwhelming in the best possible way. Fresh baked bread and melting cheeses fill the space decorated with blue chairs and a pinball machine in the far back corner.

The menu was overwhelming in the best possible way: I wanted everything. I ultimately settled on the Green Muenster: warm muenster cheese, crispy bacon, and house made guacamole (a shoutout to Tex-Mex from home) between sliced grilled bread. For a side I opted for the roasted tomato soup for obvious reasons and HAD to have the truffle fries. I can never resist truffle when it’s on the menu.

I patiently waited next to the pinball machine knowing that soon my craving would be fulfilled. My roommates wanted me to participate in the game but I could only focus on the meal I was about to consume. Finally I hear “order for Emily” and before she had the chance to deliver my tray I had already met her at the counter to grab it for myself.

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Each bite was a gift from God as I alternated from sandwich to soup to tasting the fries. I was in heaven! Or maybe back at home sitting next to my dog and the fire on the back porch with my sisters as my dad pulled sandwiches from the skillet off the grill and my mom served soup in bowls with handles on the sides that are a pain in the ass to store but we love regardless. Each bite reminded me of home and family and maybe that was what I really craved.

Emily Rayball

You Shakshuka Me All Night Long

Sorry for the sexual innuendo but I’ve been dying to use this pun for way too long. Shakshuka is a dish that I get really excited about because it’s Instagram pretty but also Jess accessible. This means that I can prepare this dish, not set off the smoke alarm and/or have a stress-related aneurysm, and it will come out well – so you can definitely make it too. It’s quick and easy to make, it’s delicious and relatively healthy, so I’m not sure what more you could ask for. Dreams coming true in just one large skillet.

Shakshuka (also spelled shakshouka) is a traditionally Arabic dish, originating in North African countries like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Shakshuka translates to “mixture” from Arabic. Even though eggs are the main ingredient in this dish and it’s typically a breakfast food, it makes for a filling dinner and perfect lunch the following day. The only thing I wouldn’t suggest is eating shakshuka and then attempting a spin class because you might yack up the shak’. And while you can easily find this beautiful egg dish at an overpriced, photogenic brunch hotspot in NYC, I can just as easily make it in my humble kitchen in Iggy –  our “vintage” lemon yellow countertops from 1975 photograph really well, too.

There are just five main ingredients to this dish: red bell pepper, onion, a can of whole plum tomatoes, eggs and feta cheese. The onion and bell pepper go into a large skillet to soften, followed by the coarsely chopped tomatoes. Of course, you can’t leave out the garlic and spices – cumin, paprika, cayenne. In my humble opinion, the more garlic and spice the better. This mixture is left to simmer for a while (the longer the better), and then the crumbled feta is incorporated (my fave). Here comes the fun part: you have to make little nests to crack your eggs into. I know. It’s thrilling. After five or six eggs get nestled, the skillet goes into the oven to bake and set the eggs – this shouldn’t take more than ten minutes. When it’s done, simply sprinkle with cilantro. Unless you have that issue where you think cilantro tastes like dish soap. In that case, no cilantro for you.

*DO NOT FORGET THE NAAN! In general don’t forget it, and then more specifically don’t forget that it’s in the oven toasting with its olive oil and za’atar topping. While not essential to the dish, naan just makes everything better.

I post a Snapchat every time we eat shakshuka which is probably very obnoxious but here is what my dinner often looks like:

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I hope you give it a try!

-Jess

Ode to that Burning Smell

There’s something to be said for the kids who cook in college. No, microwave Hot Pockets and instant rice don’t count. I mean those well-seasoned chicken and omelette making kids who value their meals like a comfort blanket.

At the start of the year, my mod had a sparkly new oven. Clean burners, shiny un-sauced up knobs. It was like a beam of light came down from the sky, shining right on my knew home-within-my-home.

Writing this now, I am staring at a sad, abused, smelly mess.

The only bad part about living with 5 others is the differing views as to what the stove should be used for, how its cared for and what cooking really is. My egg white omelette with perfect fluffy edges and a hint of black pepper pities their sad microwaved Tostitos nachos. Yes. Chips on a plate. Sprinkled heavily with shredded cheese. “Nachos”.

If something sprinkled heavily with something= nachos, my stove has 4 burner nachos.

They love to use the burners as holders for everything but food-in-the-making. Bag of pretzels, platform for slicing things. YOU NAME IT,IT HAPPENS. Because of this, literally everything gets on the burner. Every time you cook on them you get a face full of smokey fog, questionable popping sounds and the worst burning smell that penetrates everything even if you scrub and scrub and SCRUB the coils until they look clean.

At first, I was so enraged at this I wanted to scream. A nice new oven, well seasoned with mess… so sad. But now, that exact burning smell reminds me I am home, that I’m cooking and that something delicious is about to be in front of me.

Sometimes we sacrifice for food.

Sometimes that sacrifice makes it that much better.

Although its not the same pristine stove I first met, this new one shows a story. The crisped up burnt crumbs remind me of nights I’ll never get back surrounded by my best friends, the meals (or messes) we made instead of doing homework and what I’ll miss when I walk out of this place in 100 days.

Home is a dirty stove and a full oven after all. ~Allison L

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Ahhhh… Snow Day

KRISSY DOWNEY

When the BC emergency system sent out the “school is closed” text last night, I could only dream of one thing: soup. I absolutely sprinted to my car to make it to Wegmans before they closed. I needed to stock up (no pun intended) on soup ingredients! I arrived with time to spare and got what I could from the picked over produce and last few gallons of milk. I could smell the storm coming.

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This morning I woke up, ready to prep and cook and get my apartment smelling like my parents’ house. My mom makes this soup when it’s hot, when it’s cold and everywhere in between. It tastes like sick mornings at home watching “The Price is Right” and Sunday nights during NFL season. The best part? It’s really fun to make. Check it out:

First, you’ll have to prep the mirepoix. For all of you wondering what that is- it’s the prettiest thing in the world. You’ll get to practice your knife skills and see and smell the base for all great dishes. It should look like an Irish flag.

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Ain’t she a beaut? Put them in a big pot with some olive oil and let them cook down. Don’t be hasty- give them a good twenty or so minutes to get tender and fill your kitchen with, for lack of a better phrase, the best smell ever. In the meantime, prep the rest of the veggies. You can really use anything you like, but I like broccoli, zucchini and spinach. Sometimes my mom uses broccoli rabe or sweet peppers. Sometimes she throws in cece beans (Italian-American for chick peas) and leaves out the zucchini and broccoli. Whatever you like is what’s going to be good. I like to prep everything into cute little bowls.img_8386

It makes me feel clean and official, like I’m a cookbook author or something. Even in my slimy kitchen in Vouté, I can be clean with clear prep bowls. Extra dishes are worth the feeling, trust me. My mom’s secret in her soup is adding some canned tomato sauce. It makes it smoother and sweeter and just the right amount of Italian. I like to add a very small can of sauce and a big can of whole tomatoes. During the prep phase, I like to pour the tomatoes in a bowl and crush them myself. It feels like play-doh day in kindergarten. You get to get your hands dirty and make a little mess.
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Once the mirepoix is soft and perfect, I add some garlic to it. You know that song “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard?” Well, the smell of the garlic in the mirepoix brings all the boys to Vouté. Seriously, it smells so good and my neighbors always run to the door as soon as it hits their room. Once the garlic gets cooking, I add in three bone-in chicken breasts.

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After a few minutes of browning, I add in four containers of chicken stock. If I was home, I’d reach into the fridge for a perfectly packaged container of homemade stock, but at school I use store-bought. Not about to have a roommate use my homemade chicken stock- I don’t need that headache and neither do they. I throw in some herbs and a few parmesan rinds. Have you ever used parmesan rinds in a stock? You will now.

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I let that come to a boil and simmer for about forty minutes. In the meantime, I read, make hot chocolate, watch a TV show- anything to really make it a snow day. Then I take out the chicken and add the rest of the vegetables and, yes the tomato sauce. I let that go for another half hour or so and let the chicken cool off. It took my chicken one episode of “Friends” to cool off enough to properly handle. I take off the skin and shred the chicken. It can be kind of gross to pull it off the bones and everything, but I really enjoy it. It’s like facing a small fear every time I make the soup. I can handle you Mr. Chicken!!

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I throw the chicken back into the pot and let it all cook together for a little while. Then I make some ditalini pasta to put in. Once that’s done, it’s finally time. I got my mug out, put in some pasta, and poured over my hot and toasty soup. Note: A sprinking of parmesan cheese over soup never hurt anyone. After a little celebratory dance today, I picked out a movie and poured a glass of wine. My roommates and I decided on “The Wolf of Wall Street.” What says snow day better than a healthy dose of capitalism?

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The Magical Drink that Tastes Bad

Teeth whitening costs $650 on average now, but it costed over $1,000 on average when I got it done 5 years ago. The process involved 30 minutes of chemical application on my teeth and my mouth being forced open with a plastic device. I couldn’t even swallow . My teeth were not severely stained or anything, but my parents decided to even out the tone after I finished wearing braces. They wanted me to get pretty before going to college. Braces themselves, costed over $3,000, so it turns out that I spent almost $5,000 on teeth for both cosmetic and medical reasons. Due to such experience, staining my teeth became one of my worst fears.

We all know that coffee and tea stain your teeth. For that reason, I managed to survive three years of college without drinking coffee. Being an economics major with minors in biology and chemistry and pre-med concentration, I had to endure many sleepless sleepy nights. Resisting coffee was extremely difficult. Free coffee during finals, knowing that they could keep me awake, was almost irresistible. But I was determined not to stain my teeth, so I walked away. The summer after junior year, though, everything changed.

On the first day of my corporate banking internship at midtown NY, a man in the perfectly ironed Armani suit sets completely changed my opinion on coffee. I don’t even remember his exact position—perhaps, a VP of Capital Markets. But I clearly remember what he told the interns. He said, “Drink coffee. You will have to. If you don’t like coffee, force yourself. Coffee is the key to energy and networking.” After that, working nearly 60 hours a week, I drank countless cups of coffee.  From instant coffee to Starbucks Americano to Australian flat white. They kept me awake and helped me to meet more people. It was a magical drink—that tasted bad.

To this day, I cannot get used to the bitter tannin taste and the acidity of coffee. I drink my coffee, therefore, only iced with a straw, or cold brewed. Those are the two most effective ways to consume coffee and avoid stains on teeth. I drink it not for the taste, but to survive and carry on with my daily routine. Although my teeth seem fine, I still fear getting stained teeth, so I chug the coffee as quickly as I can.

I don’t know exactly how they taste except that to me, they taste burnt and biter. But now that I will go back to banking after graduation, I will consume more of this magical drink. Hopefully, I will make enough to be able to afford teeth whitening.

 

Ellie Kim

 

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