Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Baba-Hera Ice: Rising Tohoku Food Fair Celebrates Japanese Resilience

The Peace Rose
One of my favorite flowers has always been the "Peace" rose, a blend of yellow to gold petals, edged with pink. The rose is aptly named, as its origins reveal. French rose breeder Francis Meilland developed it in 1935, a few months before Hitler invaded France. To ensure that his new creation was not trampled underfoot in the ensuing chaos of war, Meilland smuggled parcels of budwood onto the last plane out of France. The cuttings ended up scattered throughout Italy, Germany, and the United States.

Meilland launched what was left of his new rose in France, and named it, "Madame Antoine Meilland," after his mother. Over time, he learned that the rose was being cultivated in Italy, where it was named, "Gioia" (Joy), and Germany, where it was known as "Gloria Dei" (Glory of God). It was only after the liberation of France in 1944 that Meilland heard from Robert Pyle, an American rose breeder in Pennsylvania who ended up with one of the parcels of budwood, who notified him that the rose had survived the war and was being grown successfully.

A rose by any other name... ought to be made of strawberry
and banana ice! A vendor prepares baba-hera in the shape
of a rose at Mitsuwa Marketplace.

Meilland decided to change the name of his rose, and wrote to Field Marshal Alan Brooke, a British Army officer, to thank him for his part in liberating France from the Nazis, and if he would give his name to the rose. Field Marshal Brooke declined, and suggested that a more fitting name for the resilient bloom would be "Peace."

Given the Peace Rose's history, I was profoundly moved when I noticed a bright pink and yellow rose made of sorbet,  blossoming under the hands of a skilled vendor at a stall in Mitsuwa Marketplace last Sunday afternoon. His stall, which sold the "baba-hera ice," was part of a "Rising Tohoku Food Fair," which showcased the culinary specialties of the region of Japan that was ravaged by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011.

The words, "baba" - which means "old woman," and "hera," which means "spatula," belie the ethereal beauty of this unique treat. I almost missed baba-hera stall, walking past displays of richly marbled Wagyu beef, intriguing kiritanpo rice sticks, and colorful Japanese sodas.

Unusual tanabata decoration - kind of like a sumo
wrestler pinata.
Mitsuwa Marketplace has these food fairs periodically, highlighting the cuisine of various regions of Japan. The crowds are a wonderful mixture of native Japanese, Japanese Americans who in some cases, are just learning about the food of their parents' homeland, and the rest of us. The name of this particular fair, "Rising Tohoku" was particularly poignant, giving the extensive recovery efforts that the region has undergone in the last four years.

In July of 2011, three months after the earthquake and tsunami, the organizers of six traditional festivals in the
six prefectures of Tohoku, collaborated to present
for the first time ever, a combination of all of their festivals in the city of Sendai, in order to celebrate this northeastern region of Japan, and to encourage hope among the people.

At Mitsuwa that day, there were performances by dancers and drummers from Morioka, and Nobuta dancers from Aomori. A large empty space that for years used to contain a stationery store, a bookstore, and a couple of other retailers, had been cleared to create a common area, with tables and chairs for activities such as this. That day, it was festooned with elaborate tanabata decorations typical of Sendai, and paper lanterns of the type used in the Akita Kanto Festival.

Dancers and drummers from Morioka,
Iwate Prefecture. The colorful streamers
on the back of the drummers' outfits
are meant to ward off evil.
Mitsuwa is one of those fantastic ethnic markets where even on a regular day there, you almost feel like you've left L.A. behind and have gone somewhere different and often, rejuvenating and transformative. I had only stopped in to get a snack after a drive back from the Westside, where only a few hours previously, I enjoyed a wonderful brunch with a friend. I wasn't hungry for food necessarily, but needed to stretch my legs and a change of scenery from the 405. I didn't know the Tohoku fair was taking place, and it was a welcome surprise.

Although I hate waiting in line for anything, queuing up for my own baba-hera was an experience. There was something calming and magical about watching this iced confection being created in front of our eyes. A little girl asked for hers to be made of all pink strawberry sorbet. I couldn't hear what others in line before me asked for, but I saw more pink in some, more yellow in others.

The baba-hera ice was refreshing and pretty. Moreover, seeing someone making it by hand made me stop and if not smell the roses, enjoy the expertise that created them out of sorbet. And it made me think about the all-too-human need to reclaim a positive outlook after disaster and tragedy.

Three years later, recovery from the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku is far from complete. One can assess how far things need to progress, depending on whether one chooses to accept positive or negative updates. But one thing is for certain: giving up is not an option. If it was, no one would continue to find joy in festivals, foods that bring up feelings of nostalgia, or roses made out of sorbet.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Party Fowl: Giant Rubber Duck is Everyone's Very Best Friend, It's True

A duck to water: Florentijn Hofman's "Rubber Duck" presides
over revels at the 2014 Tall Ships Festival LA at the
Los Angeles Harbor.
The Tall Ships Festival L.A., which took place in San Pedro a couple of weeks ago would have been exciting enough with the thought of vintage yachts and schooners gliding along the L.A. Waterfront. However, it was the giant rubber duckie that floated near the Cruise Terminal that caught my attention.

Attending the Festival with two of my best friends, Shiho and Jason, added to the experience. I was a bit perplexed by the posters I had seen around town for weeks: announcements of the Tall Ships Festival with an image of a rubber duck, photo-bombing at the margin. Jason, who had seen photos of the sculpture on display all throughout Asia, solved the mystery for me.

The 54-foot inflatable sculpture, titled simply "Rubber Duck," is by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who has also created other gargantuan icons of childhood nostalgia that have been shown all over the world. Outsized stuffed rabbits, a concrete bear carrying a pillow, and an inflatable frog wearing a party hat are just some of Hofman's fanciful menagerie. Created in various sizes, "Rubber Duck" has been on display across the globe, including showings in Australia, Brazil, Japan, China, and Europe. San Pedro is only the third location in the United States where he (I've decided it's a "he") has radiated his sunny yellow glow.

Live chaat: India Jones Chow Truck proves once
again that it's a small world after all when it comes
to great street food, with this Mexican-Indian collaboration.

At the Festival there were, of course, the food trucks that are now de rigeur at any large gathering or fair. We enjoyed the menu at India Jones Chow Truck, with its inventive takes on Indian chaat, or savory street food. Shiho and Jason each had the "frankie," a piece of roti flatbread rolled up into a burrito-like tube that contains a variety of fillings like lamb, chicken, or paneer cheese. I went for the taco chaat, which was made up of two blue corn taco shells, filled with spicy lamb and potatoes.

Yellow was indeed the hue of the day, as we all toasted "Rubber Duck" with mango lassis, a drink that would beat out Starbucks Frappucinos any day. Imagine if Ganesha was on the coffee shop's logo instead of a mermaid.

There were other notable sights at the Tall Ships Festival that depicted a sense of nostalgia. The International Guild of Knot Tyers had their own booth, where they showed off examples of nautical practicality and knicknacks made of thick ropes. And the current incarnation of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile (the original was created in 1936), was on display at the end of the Cruise Terminal. Hordes of kids were posing for photos in front of it - kids whose well-meaning parents probably only feed them hot dogs made of soy. Nevertheless, who can be mad at a giant frankfurter?

Holy nitrates, Batman! The Oscar Meyer Wienermobile
celebrates two great American traditions: cars and
processed meat.
But in the end, it truly was "Rubber Duck" that was the main event. What was amazing about the experience was that everyone at the Festival seemed more excited about the giant duck than anything else. I was astonished by how many people would show up to view a giant inflatable toy, but will readily admit that it was what I was most looking forward to at the Festival. People took shot after shot of the sculpture, and even featured him in selfies and photos of friends. The three of us were no exception to the madness. Shiho, an accomplished illustrator, sketched the scene, while Jason, whose photos easily belong in National Geographic, and I took shots of the duck from every possible angle, with the Vincent Thomas Bridge, passing ships, or mere mortals en masse for scale.

The artist's statement on Hofman's website declares that, "The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn't discriminate people and doesn't have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them." This was evident in the way that the crowds venerated the oversized duck like it was a giant golden Buddha (no offense to practicing Buddhists). The imposing but friendly golden deity truly emanated a peaceful feeling of calm and happiness.

Even at night on Harbor Boulevard, "Rubber Duck" still has had numerous visitors, who can't get enough of his glowing personality, even in relative darkness, with some street lighting and the happy smiles of his fans. And those of us who are Duck-obsessed are in luck: after a two-day hiatus in Wilmington Harbor - and a deflating misadventure - "Rubber Duck" was reinstalled after Labor Day weekend, near the L.A. Maritime Museum where he continues to bask our collective adulation until Sept. 6.

After the Festival, we three headed to Baramee Thai in nearby Downtown San Pedro, where we were happy to find Papaya Pok Pok. The classic green papaya salad was prepared sans dried shrimp - a boon for Shiho and others who are allergic to shellfish - yet still featured its complexities of spicy coolness. I am ashamed to report that Roast Duck Salad did beckon to me from the menu for a second, but only for a second. I ordered my default Spicy Beef Salad instead, as I could not in good conscience eat roast duck that day.

Lucky duck: Our resilient inflatable friend
survived a deflation mishap and will
continue to grace L.A. Harbor until Sept. 6.
Admittedly, this post really wasn't about the food. But time spent with good friends while experiencing an event of rare wonder can feed the soul, much in the way that a great meal nourishes more than the body. Such experiences can also make you see things in a more optimistic light than usual.

Seeing "Rubber Duck" in person, as opposed to the thousands of photos online, is unforgettable in a way that defies description. At the very least, the experience got me to post on this blog after nearly a year's hiatus. I'm still floating (no pun intended) from the euphoria that the whimsical sculpture has given Downtown San Pedro and the L.A. Harbor, areas that can be less than idyllic, despite some admirable efforts. I will miss him when he goes off to new vistas and more delighted viewers. And I hope that San Pedro locals - myself included - will see our hardscrabble Port Town as capable of greater resiliency in the future - kind of like a deflated 54-foot duck that can rise again.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Between the Sheets (Of Dough): Mishi's Strudel Bakery and Cafe

(NOTE: What follows is a thinly veiled work of fiction - thin as a sheet of strudel dough. The characters and incidents depicted are drawn from actual events and have been changed slightly to keep the reader awake.)

Elaine was in a foul mood. The streets of San Pedro, which on a weekday during the rest of the year, were pretty quiet, took on an even bleaker hue in the crumpled-paper strewn days after Christmas. Crumpled lists, crumpled giftwrap, crumpled hopes.

Her winter vacation from the university was dragging on and on; she could not wait to get back to the comforting reassurance of her work schedule, the companionable demands of email, the putting out of fires, small and great, that made her feel useful.

Port in a storm: Spinach Strudel at Mishi's charming
cafe provides welcome refuge from post-holiday doldrums.

It was New Year's Eve. She had been planning to visit Jake up north, and for once in her life, maybe have someone to kiss at midnight. But they had gotten into another huge fight. Elaine thought she had learned her lesson and had made a rule not to date any more writers. They were too neurotic, too competitive - being a writer, she would know. So she stayed home and waited out the second-to-last day of vacation.

Elaine kept to her daily exercise routine, but would head to the gym an hour or two later than she would during the workweek. She drove home after her workout, looking forward to a big brunch of buckwheat pancakes and Italian sausage. But alas, it was not to be.

Usually, Elaine would not be anywhere near home at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, so she never had to search for a parking spot near her apartment at that hour. Today, however, it seemed that everyone had the day off, lining the streets with their parked, not-going-anywhere-until-partytime cars. After circling her block in wider and wider orbits for nearly 20 minutes, she gave up in disgust and ran through the nearby options for breakfast. She decided to finally try that Hungarian place around the corner, the one that was always closed when she got back into town after work. She parked her car across the street - never a difficult thing to do in Pedro's "downtown" shopping district, except when the streets exploded with life during the 1st Thursday Artwalk - and entered the restaurant.

She had been to Mishi's Strudel Bakery and Cafe once before during the previous summer, when she had first moved back to town, and sat drinking coffee and nibbling on a tiny pastry on an exquisitely decorated dessert plate at a sidewalk table in the sunshine. The idea of a thick slice of apple strudel didn't quite appeal to her that day in the August heat, but today, it was time for a late breakfast. Besides, she had earned the right to indulge in some level of decadence with those 26 minutes on the elliptical machine.

Although the traditional sweet strudels sounded heavenly, Elaine, who was always rather diet-conscious, thought that she should have something a bit more substantial for the first meal of the day. She ordered the spinach, feta cheese, and mushroom strudel, which sounded like Greek spanakopita with a bit of Eastern Bloc gravitas. She loved mushrooms, those loamy, musty bits of cellulose that made her imagine what it would be like to eat actual earth.

Despite her self-consciousness over still being in workout clothes, Mishi's had a civilizing effect on Elaine's ruffled mood. She had asked for a cup of blackberry sage tea, one of those overly inventive flavors that Jake would roll his eyes at when she would order it. The only diner in the restaurant, she reveled in neatly blotting excess liquid off the tea bag against the side of her cup, carefully pouring in one sugar packet without dropping a grain of it on the table, and perching the remains of these demurely on the edge of her saucer.

Shortly before the spinach strudel arrived, a portly young man walked in and sat at another table. Elaine tried not to eavesdrop, but as they were the only two customers, it was difficult not to overhear him chatting with the waitress, ordering goulash, and telling the waitress that he ate there all the time. It sounded as if he was running up some sort of tab at Mishi's, perhaps even doing so up and down the block at the mom-and-pop restaurants and cafes that lined 6th Street.

After ordering his food, the young man acknowledged Elaine at her table. She responded with a polite "Happy New Year," with an expression on her face that she knew was less than happy. She had heard him telling the waitress that he had just taken a meditation class at the yoga studio one block over. Elaine took in his too-tight and too-short shorts, a Tyrolean-style embroidered vest, and a couple of Native American stone animal fetishes that swung from a chain around his neck. His body, while generous, seemed taut with youth, despite his apparent girth. He didn't appeal to her physically, but moreover, the affectation of John Lennon-esque spectacles and his nervously gregarious manner sent the needle on Elaine'sWeird-O-Meter flying.

Nothing says that someone cares like a madeleine,
freshly dipped in chocolate and presented
like a yummy jewel.
After a cursory attempt at small talk about how quaint the neighborhood was, the yoga studio around the block, and Hungarian goulash - which the young man admitted he had never eaten before - Elaine decided that she was done talking. She usually felt compelled to entertain strangers, or people who were tending to her, and chatted nervously away with her hairdresser, the lady who threaded her eyebrows, even her dentist. The latter posed somewhat of a challenge, once her teeth cleaning or procedure was underway. But Dr. Branch was capable of talking for both of them, chatting nonstop throughout an entire procedure on music and film, much to Elaine's delight. Thus, she was often relieved of her conversational duty she sat in his examination chair, although she was tortured by the desire to participate in the conversation, while her mouth was being prodded with dental tools.

Finally, the spinach strudel arrived, a compact but substantial parcel of golden brown pastry stuffed with a harmoniously seasoned blend of spinach, mushrooms, and a mild feta cheese. A tiny cup of sour cream, which proved to be more delicate than the cold, stiff paste that Elaine usually found next to a baked potato at a steakhouse. The creamy condiment, pleasantly chilled, but not exactly cold, was just enough embellishment to bring out all the flavors in each savory bite of strudel, which Musette navigated with great delicacy and care.

Once the first few bites sated her initial ravenous hunger, Elaine took her time enjoying the subtleties of the dish, and listened to New Age Shorts Guy tell the other waitress that he lived with his brother across the street. The only building in any direction across the street from Mishi's that could provide a residence was an old building straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, with aged russet-colored bricks, crumbling fire escapes, and a bar on the ground floor called "God Mother's." The name, erroneously split into two words, drove Elaine's inner-"Grammar Cop" up the wall every time she drove past the bar. She imagined what it would be like to live in one of the residence hotels that dotted 'Pedro's downtown area. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to live in one of the residence hotels that dotted 'Pedro's downtown area, and envisioned it as an alternate existence, something between the squalor in "Trainspotting" and the insanity of  "Running With Scissors." 

As she slowed down toward the end of her strudel, Elaine made a mental note to order goulash next time, maybe even actually plan her next visit to Mishi's. She noticed that the large white ceramic bowl that had been served to New Age Shorts Guy, overflowing with a crimson broth and accompanied by a hearty-looking bread, was nearly drained of its contents. As she took her last bite of the spinach pie, Elaine wondered if dessert was a good idea.

It was. She had chosen a chocolate-dipped madeleine, thinking that a perfectly good, but commercially baked version would be served up. The cookie arrived, freshly dipped in a creamy chocolate coating, and dusted with a snowdrift of powdered sugar.

Elaine was touched by the extra effort that it took to present a typically unassuming cookie with such care. This is what makes Mishi's, Mishi's, she thought.

Elaine nibbled on the madeleine as slowly as possible, and drank a second cup of tea. When the bill was paid and the madeleine was gone, she tidied up her place setting a bit, gathered her car keys and backpack, and raising her voice slightly, wished everyone in earshot a "Happy New Year." This time, she meant it.