When I pack for travel, my Tippy Orthodox Assam comes with me, courtesy of Upton Tea Imports. Having just migrated east for the summer, my tea stash was one of the first items tucked into my checked luggage. I considered carry-on, given its crucial role in my morning ritual, but while the tea didn’t weigh much, its container was large enough to warrant the belly of the plane.
I might not be quite as fastidious about tea as, say, George Orwell, but his 11 golden rules for making the perfect cup of tea, courtesy of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, struck a chord.
Hot. Strong. Milky. That’s how I drink my tea. Sure, I’ll gladly accept a tall glass of iced tea as the temperatures soar, but I’ll always return to my traditional brew. It sets my day in motion, and often rewards me in the afternoon.
I marvel at the ubiquity of tea and its versatility when it comes to consumption and cultural norms. From India to Iceland, people gather over cups of tea. We read its leaves. Sometimes it’s medicinal. Historically, tea has been valued beyond gold. It has launched revolutions and soothed weary travelers. Often sitting down to tea is social.
For me, tea is foundational. I build my city every day on its constancy.
[This post originally appeared for The Seattle Globalist on April 17, 2014]
On Monday I flew from Seattle to Beijing, 27 years since my first visit to China’s capital city. I feel like a modern day Rip van Winkle.
Gone is the sleepy city of Mao-suited bicyclists, the blue and grey peloton outnumbering cars, which in 1987 were a rarity. Today, bicycles are a novelty in much of the city, which is choked with motorized traffic that makes rush hour on I-5 look tame.
Gone is the city of one-story historic buildings with glazed tile roofs, replaced by dozens and dozens of skyscrapers.
And gone is the invisibility of wealth, as Maserati sports cars that cost more than my home in Seattle vie for parking spaces in front of palatial malls.
But while Beijing and I have both changed in the intervening three decades, one thing we share has stayed the same: our love of food.
Fewer countries offer a better buffet for the traveling chowhound than China, and Beijing is one of the best eating cities in the world. A recent breakfast underscores the collision of old and new in a city determined to showcase its historical richness, while at the same time blaze trails into the new century as a global crossroads.
Let’s start with what I ate for breakfast.
Beijing has a history of mouth-watering street food, and one of the most popular grab-and-go items for the harried morning commuter is a jian bing, or savory crepe and egg dish.
Vendors set up on street corners across the city, where with deft strokes they pour and spread enormous crepes, crack an egg atop and whisk it across the crepe to cook it quickly, smear the crepe with plum sauce and a dash of chili, and then garnish it with chopped scallions and crunchy fried dough center.
Once folded to the size of a pocket paperback novel, the jian bing is handed over to the eager customer for immediate consumption. It’s cheap (less than $1), delicious, and fast.
I hadn’t eaten a jian bing since 1995. Tasting jian bing on this trip was culinary time travel. From the first bite I was transported: the taste, texture, and temperature we exactly the same. (I learned right before my trip that Seattle is home to a “Bing of Fire” a jian bing food truck.)
In my other hand was a fixture of contemporary Beijing. Not to mention deeply familiar to this Seattleite: Starbucks.
The Chinese market is an important one for Starbucks—they boast their own website for the market of a billion potential customers—and have over 500 cafés in the Middle Kingdom. I know of two stores in walking distance from my Beijing apartment and I’d be willing to bet a kuai or two that there are more.
While Starbucks is out of reach for many in Beijing (my latte cost over five times my jian bing) the stores are full of the Chinese rising middle and upper classes, hands clasped around their Venti Americanos.
So there I was: a jian bing in one hand, a lattein the other. China’s current balancing act in a meal: expansive new status food for the relative few, and cheap traditional food for everyone else.
I have a smoothie for breakfast almost every morning.
When I travel, I often abandon this ritual because I cannot find an establishment that matches my smoothie standards. (I’ve even been known to pack my own blender on road trips, much to the amusement of my travel companions.)
Happily, in Austin I discovered Blenders and Bowls, a fantastic smoothie shop that fuels my days in this town.
I know, I know. Smoothies are the last thing culinary you think of when you think Austin. Torchy’s breakfast tacos, Iron Works BBQ, and Amy’s Ice Creams are legendary. And rightfully so. I’ve had them all.
But this week I’ve been in Austin at SXSWedu, I’ve appreciated starting the day off with a smoothie concoction that not only meets my standards, it exceeds them.
Blenders and Bowls opens at 7 AM tomorrow, and I’ll be one of their first customers in line.
But as intentional as we might be about our purchase power when it comes to food, the world still fills our kitchens. Martin Luther King Jr. not only understood this, he preached about it in his memorable 1967 sermon, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”:
“And don’t forget in doing something for others that you have what you have because of others. (Yes, sir) Don’t forget that. We are tied together in life and in the world. (Preach, preach) And you may think you got all you got by yourself. (Not all of it) But you know, before you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than half of the world. (That’s right) You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and that’s giving to you by a Turk. You reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a Pacific Islander. And then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast. You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American. (That’s right) Or maybe you decide that you want a little tea this morning, only to discover that that’s poured in your cup by a Chinese. (Yes) Or maybe you want a little cocoa; that’s poured in your cup by a West African. (Yes) Then you want a little bread and you reach over to get it, and that’s given to you by the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. (That’s right) Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world.”
King was killed less than a year after speaking these words.
While I prioritize investing my food dollars close to home, I appreciate King’s sentiment. Our struggle may be local, but our sustenance is global.
Last Saturday I was honored to attend a Burmese new year celebration of the Karen tribe (their lunar calendar put us at year 2753), where I served as a Ta Ka Paw judge. Ta Ka Paw is a traditional stew with a rice or rice flour base, typically made with a meat, bamboo shoots, vegetables, and garnish. There were to be double-digit entries.
Needless to say, I had a light breakfast in anticipation.
There were twelve stews for me to taste and judge, and I went about the responsibility with the precision of a surgeon. I took small sips from various sizes of pots–some holding as many as five gallons of stew. The range of Ta Ka Paw was impressive. Some were smoky and spicy. Others were light and citrusy. Many were thick with rice, others were thinner with just a hint of rice power. Each of them was made by hand. Each of them a family recipe. It was hard to choose amidst the spectrum of flavors, but there were definitely some that rose to the top.
The celebration was hosted by the Northwest Communities of Burma, and I was fortunate to have learned of the event through the founder of Project Feast, Veena Prasad. Project Feast works with immigrant communities to showcase food traditions in order to grow mutual understanding, aid with integration to a new culture, and build life skills.
In this season of bounty and shared meals, I have a favorite dish. Not surprisingly, it combines three of my favorite edibles: chocolate, pie crust, and whipped cream. My family calls it Chocolate Silk Pie.
This pie was perfected by my maternal grandmother, Anne Bowly Maxfield. It’s quite possible that I tasted a piece of this pie as early as 1971 or 1972, likely over Christmas when my parents traveled to my mother’s hometown to celebrate Christmas with Gramanne, as all of her grandkids referred to her, and Grandpa Bill.
The filling recipe calls for only six items: Baker’s chocolate*, sugar, butter, eggs, and vanilla. Simple. Elegant. Decadent. No holiday meal is complete without it.
Last week while celebrating Christmas down in Portland, OR, I was able to serve a slice to Gramanne’s great-granddaughter. Sharing Gramanne’s genes, this 3-year-old never turns down chocolate. After demolishing her piece, she turned to me clutching her fork, mouth ringed with a tell-tale trace, and exclaimed with happiness, “CHOCOLATE!” Then she dissolved into laughter.
*I once attended a chocolate class where the instructor declared that the only thing Baker’s chocolate was good for was throwing at squirrels. I beg to differ.
Last week I was lucky enough to have singer/songwriter Jon Troast return to my home for a living room concert. He’s performed in over 800 living rooms, he figures, and he always wears his trademark red sneakers.
A Jon Troast living room concert spills over into other rooms as well–namely the kitchen and the dining room. Hosts prepare a meal (Jon eats anything but he especially appreciates vegetables when he’s on the road) and Jon and guests fill their plates and glasses before the concert begins.
Jon is a performer who dials in to the human condition like few others. His songs are like a meal, they can be so satisfying.
Last Tuesday, while Jon was tuning his guitar in preparation for the concert, I moved the dining room table off to the side of the room to clear a performance space. This positioned Jon between the audience and the table, where three kinds of dessert beckoned. Jon graciously allowed the kids (and some adults) to snag a brownie or cookie before he crooned his first number. Half an hour later, two boys went back for more, and quietly freed two brownies from the pan so as not to disturb Jon’s next number. They gave him a wide berth as they returned to their seats. Jon never missed a beat.
A Jon Troast living room concert is magic not just because the spell he casts with his music. The experience of sharing a meal and then sharing music is as old as the hills and as comforting as warm hearth on a cold day. Jon treated us to not one, not two, but three sing-a-longs that evening.
His music is not just performance, it’s nourishment.