One bite is never enough
Early memory: my mother propped up in bed, licking her lips, as she thumbed through cookbooks. We always ate well at home. My mother liked roasts, stews, plates of good breads, baked potatoes as well as “foreign” foods that no one I knew ever ate.
She cooked rabbit, escargot (snails), curries and fondues as well as Italian dishes she knew from her childhood. On Sundays, my grandparents would arrive for brunch carrying bags filled with bagels from the Fairfax area, along with lox, whitefish and all sorts of Jewish goodies.
When she bought meat it was at the butcher shop. It was personal. She would ask the butcher for the “good” piece of meat. I always wondered who would get the “bad” piece.
She found a Japanese restaurant on the Sunset strip called The Imperial Gardens and we sat on the floor enjoying our meal of things I was not used to at home. My mother was a food adventurer and I was not immune—I caught the food fever.
My all time favorite best eating experience was during cherry blossom viewing in Tokyo when I went to visit the display with a Japanese friend at the Ueno Park. Blankets and tarps were laid on the grass for families and friends to picnic under the spreading and shedding cherry trees. The traditional picnic was with bento boxes filled with little delicacies of sushi and sashimi and salads and dipping sauces. That year what I saw were carryout boxes from Kentucky Fried Chicken. A good laugh and a disappointment at the passing of traditions.
I was lucky to be taken to a very special restaurant that served Kaiseki food. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multicourse meal prepared by a chef with select seasonal ingredients. Small plates of beautifully arranged foods were paraded to our table one after another. Each was a tasting experience. Sometimes I see well known chefs on television delicately plating small morsels of food and placing a sprig of this and a snippet of that so carefully and I am reminded of my Japanese Kaiseki meal.
I have also had some wonderful meals throughout my travels in India. I loved best the vegetarian meals in the south. Usually my friend Frances and I would go into a small workman’s restaurant with the word vegetarian on the outside.
We went to the back to wash our hands at the large open sink, as all the eaters did, and then we ordered the thali dish of the day. A thali is a large plate or banana leaf on which a mound of white rice is placed, and around that are the different curries and condiments. There will be wet curries and dryer ones, sweet chutneys and and spicier sandbar sauce, as well as Dahls of lentils and cooling yogurt sauce. Breads are useful as shovels and to mop up sauces. There are dosas and idlis made from a fermented lentil and rice batter and a sweet dessert for the end. I love thalis, and when I go to England I go to a south Indian restaurant called Sagar where I can get my fix.
I spent a few weeks in Sri Lanka taking a writing course. The environment was very exotic and colorful and we ate food on a covered platform with padded benches all around. In the morning we wrote together and shared our writings, then at mid-day wonderful local food was prepared and spread out for us to eat.
I remember freshly prepared vegetable dishes and curries and it was so delicious that all of us stuffed ourselves almost believing it was to be the last we would see of such a lavish spread. The place itself was magical—the colors of the buildings and how the local traditions were incorporated in our daily process of writing and walking.
On another trip, Frances and I were in Thailand and had traveled to Chaing Rai in the north and then by car into the Golden Triangle where Thailand meets with Laos and Myanmar, and where the border was still closed to westerners. But our tour guide drove us across the border just for lunch at a small street stall. We didn’t know what to order so we pointed to a vegetable stir fry dish and when it came to the table it was served with a wonderful bowl of crispy fried onion bits. These we happily sprinkled liberally on top of the dish of food. It was so fresh and deliciously seasoned that when we finished our plates, we immediately ordered a second serving and repeated the whole yummy process.
I enjoy the atmosphere of where I am eating as well as the food itself. Street food calls you over to examine what is being offered and to be enticed by the smells. I used to be afraid of eating from the street but more recently I have followed a few rules such as going to a place with a lot of foot traffic and with thoroughly cooked, hot food. I have always been lucky in my choices.
I also love getting a cup of chai (Indian tea) from a street vendor. After it is cooked it is poured from pot to pot and back, while the pots are held far apart. Then it is poured by a long stream into a cup. Somehow it manages to taste better than in a shop or restaurant. Even on trains in India, the tea walla would rush aboard at a train station and swoop out a cup of tea before dashing off of the train just as it was ready to depart.
I am my mother’s daughter. I love to read cookbooks and to thumb through cooking magazines. I love to imagine the tastes. My friend Amy and I were always ready to find and try new restaurants and we would feel thrilled whenever we found a “good” one to add to our list of favorites. Somehow we seemed to favor Asian restaurants. We loved dumplings and stir frys and curries. The search was part of the fun.
When our children were small we would go up to Griswolds Smorgasbord, where the choices were wide enough to entice all the children to eat as well as grandparents.
Another special Claremont eatery was on College at Pomona College, the Claremont Restaurant, where you wrote down what you wanted. It was homey American food and when my parents came to visit they always enjoyed eating there. And how many of you remember Soups On at the Danish Kitchen on Foothill? Another favorite of long ago. Okay, so I’ll admit it I am going out for Thai food tonight. Special treat. Eat well.