Dog Days Are Over

For food writers, Thanksgiving starts as early as summer, when November magazine issues are getting ready to go to press, and generally go through all the way to the end of November for web. I’ve been thinking about mashed potatoes a lot for work lately, and I remembered a particular lesson I learned when I was teaching myself to cook western food.

Early in my New York life, I used to dogsit a little blond dachshund mix named Luna. She had pee pads for days she couldn’t wait for her dogsitter to come home. Sometimes, I’d come back to the apartment after work and find little skid marks on the pee pad, but no poop. I never had dogs growing up. I’d think, she didn’t eat her poop, did she???

One time, there was a downpour and I tried to take her out for a walk, not wanting to shirk one of my few duties as caretaker. I fastened a little raincoat around her narrow shoulders and we took the elevator down. When we got to the lobby, she dug her heels in and refused to cross the threshold onto Bleecker St. I pulled on her leash. She growled. Petulant and indignant, she popped a squat and peed right there in the doorway. I don’t remember if the doorman offered the clean it up or if I went back to the apartment to get paper towels. I just remember thinking, well, even posh blond dogs in the west village are still just dogs.

Luna belonged to a very fancy couple who lived at Bank St. and Bleecker St. They had purchased two apartments on the ground floor and knocked the wall down to combine them. Even then, 15 years ago, I guessed I’d never have a life like that.

They had a pretty kitchen, gorgeous Le Creuset pots, and terrible Ginsu-style serrated knives. There were shelves of cookbooks for perusing.  As a thank you for taking care of Luna, the lady of the house cooked me dinner once — a gigantic, curling fillet of monkfish over wet, tomatoey couscous. I had never had monkfish. “It’s supposed to taste kind of like lobster,” she said. I had never had lobster.

They encouraged me to cook while they were away, to take advantage of all of their amenities. Rooting around in their cabinets, I found a food processor, the first I’d ever touched. Here was my chance to take this technology for a spin. I decided to make mashed potatoes.

I boiled the potatoes, stuck them into the processor and poured hot milk and butter down the chute. Whizz whizz whizz! I removed the cover and stuck a spoon in.

Disgusting! The potatoes had become glue. There’s no other way to describe it — they were gloppy and elastic in a way I never knew potatoes could be. How could such a benign substance betray like that?

The food processor lost my trust that night, and, frankly, it hasn’t done much to earn it back in the years since.

If I had to draw a lesson from this persistent memory, it would be this: I’ve been in L.A. for five months now, and I’m frustrated with how little progress I’ve made getting to know the city. I still don’t even know my way around my local grocery store. This transition feels a little like those early years in New York did, when my days were full of questions and frustration and experiments gone awry. These feelings were fine when I was in my 20s, but they’re discomfiting now. I guess it’s good to remember what it was like to be green, and to know that it passes. And to know that, like Luna, I’ll always be who I am wherever I am.

 

Einstein on the Beach

einsteinOnBeach-LightboxI’ve been struggling with how to explain Einstein on the Beach to people, and what an impactful, unexpectedly moving piece of art it was. And I could tell you what it meant to me, but it would have nothing to do with what it might mean to you. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’m sure I never will again.

I really, really didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I had never understood Philip Glass’s music before. Full disclosure: I went to see Satyagraha at the Met from our usual nosebleed balcony box seats and slept through half of it. But a friend gave me tickets to opening night for Einstein on the Beach at the LA Opera and I jumped at the chance to check it out*.

Einstein on the Beach

It runs 4 hours without intermission, with music that constantly repeats itself (and mostly stays in the high end range, puffing the sinuses). Maybe that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea. Whose cup of tea could it possibly be? But stay with me.

I had the privilege of sitting in the third row orchestra, dead center, and looking into the pit to watch the orchestra, ensemble, and chorus. The first two scenes are difficult and feel interminable; the organ cycles are relentless bordering on sadistic; the repetitive scenes made me squirm with discomfort. I watched several people plug their ears, then file out of their primo seats, never to return.

But then I found a fissure in what Robert Wilson calls a “knee play”, an interstitial scene performed from the pit. I watched the chorus and the astonishing Lisa Bielawa sing the numbers “1, 2, 3, 4…” over and over again. What I love about opera in general has nothing to do with any lofty intellectual appreciation. I love opera the way other people love the Olympics — it’s a chance for me to watch people contort their bodies through sheer will and do what few others in the world can do. In this knee play, I found that mind-boggling virtuosity, not in showy high Cs but in an ensemble keeping track of time and space in a superhuman way. That fissure became a crack that poured light over the whole experience. My body and mind made the transition from linear expectation into a kind of trance.

Einstein_2212890bEINSTEIN-articleLargeFrom there, it became a meditation in kairos time. I was glued to my seat, and my nerves were firing. I got lost in the imagery on stage, the choreography, the unbelievably difficult music. Scenes would typically cycle through a sequence and repeat again and again, adding a layer here, a note there, a new character or a new movement. A woman with anime eyes and Minnie Mouse hair puts her ear to a conch shell and bathes in its sound. A chorus, as a jury, simultaneously and gingerly places their paper lunch bags next to their feet. A white bar of light oppresses, blinding you, but you miss it when it rises up and leaves. Dancers in white and beige uniforms pirouette and jeté across the stage in a sequence that is light and energetic at first until its length feels cruel.

02EINSTEIN1_SPAN-articleLargeIt rings in my ears. This week, I found myself thinking about the repetitive motions of modern life. Wake up, work, go to sleep. Stoplight red, green light go. 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, weekend. It is the moments that break those cycles that can crank up the tension but also offer relief from monotony. My life was propelling forward in daily cycles at an unnoticeably rapid clip until my father had a heart attack and I moved back to L.A. This year is one of those extraordinary moments for me — a dilation of time and space, a paradigm shift, an atomic bomb.

Maybe you don’t buy it. I don’t blame you; my articulation has limitations. But if you have a chance to see it, you really should.

* With deepest gratitude to the friend who gave me the tickets. Holy shit, I owe you.

Lessons in LA Public Transportation

When you are new to an area, there are costs accrued in learning to get around. Sometimes you pay in transportation fares or gas, sometimes you pay in time; often, it’s both.

When I first moved to New York, I’d often get on the D train at Broadway/Lafayette and wind up in Brooklyn instead of midtown. Seems so elementary now, recognizing the difference between the downtown trains and the uptown trains, but it took me a while to figure it out. When I got lost, I’d just exit the train and cross over to the opposite platform. I mostly paid in lost time, which I had plenty of back then.

20131014-110141.jpgI’m back to being a n00b here in L.A., and it sucks. On the way to the Central Library today, I paid $17 for a round trip Metrolink ticket + $1.50 for Metro Red subway. But when I got there, the homeless folks and I clustered around the entrance only to find it closed for Columbus Day. (I have never had a job that gave me the day off on Columbus Day. It is not a real holiday!) So I stepped on the wrong bus and paid $1.50 (fuck) before I took the Metro Silver bus back ($2.45), thus learning that it is a much cheaper and more efficient way to move between my hood and downtown.

Well, that’s what I thought while I was on the bus. Then I realized that it takes about 25 minutes to drive to the El Monte bus station, which is about how long it takes to drive to the library. The only thing I avoid by taking the bus is having to navigate the confusing, swirly one-way streets of downtown L.A. Oh, and I also don’t have to deal with the confounding business of parking validation. (I once parked in the wrong lot and had to pay $15 for parking. $15! On a Saturday! That is outrageous.)

So the morning was a complete bust and I generously donated $23 to the Metro. I’m not even going to calculate the cost of gas used on roundtrips to pick me up from the stations.

All of which is to say that I miss the simplicity and reach of my unlimited NYC Metrocard. Do you know how much freedom you have, my New York friends, and how cheap it comes? I don’t know that I did.

 

 

Habemus Papam!

Saint_Francis_statue_in_gardenLike many, I’m really enjoying the tenure of Pope Francis so far. I’m charmed! The guy chose the name of a saint whose statue always has little creatures perched around him. I’m in no danger of being converted, but I like the mystic, generous form of the religion the Pope is presenting — one that is virtually unrecognizable to me as an outsider.

One part of his recent interview in La Repubblica hit home for me:

The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more.

Was like a little pearl of affirmation for me. Not that my parents are so old yet, but they will be.

A nice thing about seeing my father every day is that we can now joke about shit that used to be too serious to laugh about. Like after my dad’s been at the 99-cent store down the street for hours:

MEI thought maybe you got forgot your way and I’d have to drive out to find you.

or after I complain about my dad’s affinity for junk:

PAU: The house is yours, but the stuff is mine. When I die, you can just put all my stuff in my coffin so they can cremate it with me.

 

Gestures of Love

“Pau is in hospital call for details.”

In April, my mother tapped that blunt message out to me from her ancient cell phone at 2:30am her time. Back when I lived in Brooklyn, whenever I got texts in the middle of the night, I’d always be up like a shot. This was the scary message I had expected for many years, not the good night texts or “emergency” website outage texts I got from work. I came to fear this message after my father had a quadruple bypass while I was doing a junior year abroad in London. I worried when I saw him pull the car over to take a nitroglycerin pill for his not-infrequent chest pains.  I fretted at the thought of my Pau overexerting his body while threading the mouth of a 5-gallon Sparkletts bottle into the water cooler.

Despite my mom’s protestations that I wait a few hours and see how my dad felt, I purchased the next available ticket to LAX, put my laptop and two outfits in my backpack (oops — minus socks), and called a cab to get to New York’s LaGuardia airport.

In the cardiac ICU, my dad’s jolly Buddha proportions were flattened out and woven with tubes. He looked like a frog on its back, white belly round and vulnerable. I felt so acutely the utter uselessness of my chosen profession while watching the evening nurse administer morphine and oxygen to my panicking, out-of-breath father. The ominous machines around him blinked, beeped, and hissed, communicating his status in codes I was powerless to understand. My mom asked me to take a damp cloth to clean his hair and head. I realized as I wiped his forehead down gently that I had never put my hands that close to his face, as Thai culture forbids the younger from touching the heads of elders.

The hospital dinner came, a sweaty tray served with small packets of acrid, dessicated “salt-free seasoning”, which failed to make the drab, but heart-healthy, entree any more appealing. I used the plastic knife to dice a pale, thin chicken breast swathed in dull, beige gravy, and flexed the bendy straw into a small plastic tumbler of water for my dad to drink from. We laid another washcloth down to use as a bib and he scooped up the chunks of meat with a bit of dry brown rice pilaf and spongy frozen string beans. He ate, and he groused about the nurses stealing his Jello cup.

Eating and complaining — this is life.

***
Family

I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again: I last attempted to hug my father about twelve years ago. I had just flown in from Brooklyn to L.A., and my parents had both come to pick me up. Seeing them smaller and older, I felt daughterly guilt and altitude sentimentalism burst from my heart like goop from a pimple. I wrapped my arms around my Pau. His whole body kind of clenched, and when I released him from my grip, he gruffly said, “Chinese people don’t hug.”

He may not have been speaking for the whole diaspora, but it’s certainly true in our Thai-Chinese family; we’re not touchy-feely. But my Pau showed his love in the kitchen. My whole life, he’d go to great lengths to prepare the foods my brother and I loved. Dinner always included at least two dishes with rice, which he’d have prepared while cooking until midnight the night before. Sundays were reserved for congee with a phone book-thick, speckled frittata; or Thai rice soup made with firm, sweet fish or long-simmered pork ribs, fragrant with julienned ginger and a shower of cilantro. When my brother and I clamored for the lasagnes we saw on TV shows, my Pau used his imagination and approximated the dish using pasta layered with cottage cheese, pepperoni, and little cocktail weenies. When we begged for McDonald’s Egg McMuffins, my Pau fashioned a ring mold from a folded piece of tin foil and fried eggs into the perfect circles his facsimile demanded. His culture — our culture — had never given my Pau the vocabulary for expressing affection, but I had always recognized these thrice daily culinary rituals as gestures of love, as demonstrative and clear as American TV families’ mawkish embraces.

***

Now, food has become the enemy in our midst.

The household is on a diabetes-friendly, low-salt, low-cholesterol diet now. All for one and one for all! If he can’t have white rice with every meal, neither will I! I worship the nurses and doctors who literally saved my father’s life, but I don’t want to have to see those people again. Once my dad was discharged, I came home and purged their kitchen of bouillon cubes, breads, croutons, and other high sodium culprits.

But I paused in front of my dad’s stoveside army of Asian condiment bottles. The once familiar, brown friends, flavors that nourished me and stoked my appetite, had become infiltrated perpetrators overnight. What used to be benign fish sauce, thick black soy sauce, coffee, palm sugar, and Splenda had become harbingers of high blood pressure, lung fluid retention, heart palpitations, diabetes, and cancer.

This is a problem, me being a food writer and all. I haven’t figured out how to reconcile it, yet.

***

At first, my mom and I shared cooking duties, making invisibly seasoned vegetable stir-fries and kaeng jud, bland, clear broths with mild blocks and blobs like translucent winter melon, tofu, and a tiny bit of ground meat.

On the second night he was home, I made a fish soup meant to be ladled over rice. Even after boiling the bones for some time with aromatic Chinese celery, slices of ginger, and crushed cloves of garlic, the soup was wan, and not up to par, I knew.

Later that night, I saw my dad enjoying his dinner with a suspicious amount of gusto, so I went to the pot and stuck a spoon in. He had clearly added thang-chai, mouth-puckeringly high-sodium preserved vegetables. Look, I knew it needed the thang-chai‘s unique musty tang and salinity; I also knew he didn’t need it. I surreptitiously added more water to the pot to dilute it down.

This would be our game now, I could see.

***

My cousins sometimes hint that I ought not to police my dad’s diet so much. That’s what he enjoys in life, they say; Can’t you let him have what he likes? NO. I want him to live, and I’m going to be selfish about it.

Months have passed since my move back here, my grand gesture. My dad’s back to doing most of the cooking, though he’s recalibrated his seasoning hand to accommodate the doctor’s orders. Though we still don’t hug, this latest brush with death seems to have made him a little more ABC Afterschool Special.

As he watches me eat, he says, “You know, my Mae used to cook for me, too. Even when I visited her in Thailand before she died, she tried to get up and cook for me. Can you believe that? At 80 years old.” He shakes his head. “Nothing tastes like home, right? That’s why I cook for you. Makes me happy to see you happy,” he says with a smile.

Sometimes, my social network feeds are dangerous to peruse. I see what my friends are eating (particularly my friends in New York), and I am seized with cravings that make me want to chew my tongue off. I try to scroll quickly past descriptions of chewy soppressata pizza hit with hot honey or milky pork tonkotsu ramen. For now, I’m eating in solidarity with my parents; after all, it was never the food that mattered. We are eating together, and that’s enough for me.

***
Pau

(My dad asked me what I was doing. I said I wanted to take a picture of him wearing this insane highlighter yellow, probably irregular, XXL t-shirt, surely purchased at the 99 cent store. He laughed. I took the picture.)

***
And so the natural pecking order has been re-established in our kitchen. The other day, I spy my Mae at the sink with the biggest kabocha pumpkin I’ve ever seen. She’s balancing the monster on one curved side and is trying to hack into it with a thin, long carving knife. I feel pretty confident that she’s going to take off several of her delicate digits with it.

“Mae, don’t do that.” I come over and choose a large, heavy, 10” chef’s knife from the block. After setting the pumpkin on its ample bottom, I dig the heel of the blade into the pumpkin near its stem. Just as I’m about to give the knife another whack with the flat of my palm, I see my Pau hovering next to me, shaking his head with disdain.

Lheek,” my dad says in Thai. Get out of the way. He pulls a giant cleaver out of the knife block. Using a wooden pestle as a mallet, he taps the cleaver blade and chisels the tough gourd into chunks. Tap-tap-thwack. Tap-tap-tap-thunk. I smile at his ingenuity, and I hear his message, loud and clear.

FML

So last Friday, I’m on my regular morning jog route which goes by my old high school. I’ve got my KPCC going, Morning Edition, and Renée Montagne is putting Ted Cruz on blast or some shit. Then I pass a parked van and a parked truck and there are these two kids standing there. And they are just standing there. But let me give you the details of this freeze frame.

So the girl is high school age; I assume this because her lush mane is groomed with the kind of precision that only girls with no responsibilities can muster the energy for. Her hair falls down to her waist in fat, hot roller curls that lay on her back like big logs of bologna. Her hair is that special shade of rusty schoolbus yellow that the children of immigrants get when they try to bleach their dark brown hair blond before they know better. (No hate — you will see below that I speak from experience. This photo was taken probs the year 2000. Look at the size of the cell phone pocket on my velcro one-shoulder messenger bag. Ha!)

Untitled

Why am I so focused on her hair? Because I can’t see her face. You see, she’s resting her cheek against the hood of the van she is leaning against. Like she was so tired that she needed to take a nap for a second and the nearest place to rest her head was on the hood of this car.

Meanwhile, her companion also seems to be from the high school. He’s wearing some sort of athletic top, I think, and baggy pants. Completing the athletic theme is a baseball cap, which he has turned backwards. He is facing, and perhaps contemplating, his companion’s bologna curls.

And they are standing perfectly still.

Here’s a visual aide.

Blank-3

Now, what do you think they are doing? I can’t tell. The fact that they are standing totally still and not making eye contact with each other or with me makes me think nothing is going on at all.

Just kidding!

But seriously, WERE THEY DOING IT? Or were they just making out? Am I a perv for thinking they might be doing it? Isn’t this a terrible place for a romantic tryst, chaste or not? Is she happy to be here? Is she really into this guy or is she demeaning herself in public because she has low self esteem? Did she do her hair perfectly for him? Was he able to appreciate her perfect coif? These thoughts kind of bloom in my mind like algae on the surface of a murky lake.

And so with all of these questions, I come home, bursting at the seams to tell this story. But who am I going to tell, my parents? I do not acknowledge the existence of sex when I talk to them. Also, my mom would make me change my jogging route, and because I am a dutiful Asian daughter, I would probably comply; better not to tell them anything at all.

The next day, I go to a party where I only know the hosts. It’s at a big park in town, and we are all kind of sitting in clumps on the grass. I’ve really been very good about saying yes to every social opportunity that comes up here, despite my general fear of introducing myself to strangers. I find that I am unable to tell people I live in the San Gabriel Valley and just leave it at that — I also have to divulge that I’m living with my parents. No matter how justified the move was by love and duty, it still makes me feel like a capital L Loser.

So this woman is telling a story about how she works at a hospital and recently watched two patients beat the shit out of each other. When I think she is done, I tell these strangers my story about the two teenagers. And the woman is like, “Were they beating each other up?” And I am like, no. And she is like, “What does that have to do with what I was saying?” Because, as it turns out, I’ve interjected in the middle of her story with what must seem like a non sequitur. You know that moment where you just know you’ve lost your audience? Riiiiiiight…there!

I realize that I am telling a totally inappropriate story, poorly, to a bunch of people who do not know me well enough to forgive my social awkwardness. And that while this event was the most interesting thing to happen to me all week, it did not actually deserve to be told as a story, but I don’t know any better because my life is so boring now. And I realize that perhaps the stagnation that comes with living with your parents like you are 14 years old again is not as benign as it seems.

I miss my old life and my old self right now.

How to cook boba perfectly

Boba
I have been on a quest for the perfect boba recipe for years. YEARS. And I have finally found it. After hours of research and six packages of tapioca pearls, I can tell you the secret:

It’s less about how you cook and more about what kind of boba you’re buying.

I’m writing this post as a PSA for all likeminded non-Chinese-reading or -speaking bobaheads who have found the search for the perfect recipe as frustrating and inconclusive as I have. Little Bean in Rowland Heights makes my ideal bubbles — they’re soft but chewy, and springy between the teeth, so the first bite never tears all the way through.

(My friends Sarah and Claire remind me that “boba” is slang for big breasts in Taiwan. Draw whatever conclusions you want to about how that translates in terms of texture. According to the participants on Urban Dictionary, tapioca is referred to as “zen zu,” or pearls, in Taiwan.)

As much as I tried, I was never able to recreate it at home, and I was too sheepish to ask the lady at Little Bean how they made theirs. Some recipes call for soaking the beads. Some call for a long cook followed by a shorter steep. Some call for a rolling boil, while some call for a simmer. Some call for a 12-minute boil, others call for a whopping 35 minutes. Some insist that the rice cooker or slow cooker makes the difference.

I saved every recipe I could find. It’s amazing how many variations exist, and how incomplete they tend to be. Should I use lots of water, like pasta, or just enough water to soak up, like risotto? Should I add sugar during the cooking process or soak after? Should I rinse the beads or not?

I tried everything, but none of the methods were able to yield the texture that makes me crave boba. Sometimes the pellets would fall apart, leaving me with a beige sludge at the bottom of the bowl. Sometimes half the beads would cook through while the other half remained opaque and uncooked in the center.

It took some time before I realized that I was just buying the wrong brand. The problem was that I didn’t know what to look for.

What not to buy

The quality of product, and the properties for cooking, are wildly inconsistent with boba, more so than any other ingredient I can think of. For this most recent round of testing, I purchased boba from my local 99 Ranch, which you’d think would have the best possible selection of raw ingredients. Their dried foods aisle offered four options, of which I tried three:

WuFuYuan

WuFuYuan 5-minute tapioca pearls come in a 250g package for about $2.60 each. They’re nubbly and dark and look a little bit like The Thing (or, more specifically, Tobias Fünke’s Thing costume). They’re very light; if you drop one on the table, it bounces. They’re pretty good in a pinch, as they take about 12 minutes (to cook to my taste – 7 minutes rolling boil, 5 minute steep) instead of 60. But they have a tendency to get a little too chewy and dense once they hit cold liquid or ice. These are made in China.
Boba
The Kimbo brand “Starch balls” are about $1.30 for 200g. They’re made in Taiwan. After a long boil, half of the balls were raw and starchy in the center while the other half were slimy.

Chang chi
Boba

But I found that the worst were the Chang Chi tapioca balls, which are about $1.60 for 300g. These are made in Taiwan. I made the mistake of trying to soak 100g of these in a bowl of cold water. It took about 10 seconds for them to just burst open and disintegrate. It was like dropping a saltine into a bowl of chicken soup. For the second attempt, I got the water to a rolling boil before dropping the tapioca in. Many of the beads still fell apart and became mush with a soaked, spongy texture like tres leches cake. It was gross.

(The fourth brand looks pretty much like the Chang Chi and Kimbo, and was the cheapest, so I never tried it.)

One odd health note I learned about in the window of a nearby Taiwanese restaurant — on June 6, 2013, certain boba brands from Taiwan were recalled for having maleic acid in them, an additive that is not approved for food and could harm the kidneys. Here’s the FDA advisory.

The Aha! moment

Three packages later, I was back to square one. Then, after watching this YouTube video and following the link to Boba Store, I had a revelation — why didn’t my raw tapioca pearls look like those raw tapioca pearls?

Boba
The two brands of slow cook boba pearls I bought look like toasted fregola. They are dense and powdery spheres, often with one suntanned side and one light side (pictured left in the photo above). The ones in that video and site, as well as Nuts.com’s site, are sold in vacuum-packed packages. The big beads are evenly mocha brown throughout, with more dents and dimples in the shape, indicating a different texture and density (pictured right in the photo above). Why didn’t 99 Ranch have those for sale? Were they only available wholesale or could I find a package at a different Asian market in the area?

I went hunting, and at T S Emporium in Rowland Heights, I found what I needed.

Boba
Boba

This 1kg package of Bolle tapioca pearls was only $2.60. They had that even brown color I was looking for. And here’s the thing — the only starch listed in the ingredients is tapioca starch.

Bolle

Compare that to the Chang Chi, which lists tapioca and sweet potato starch:
Chang chi

The Kimbo lists only potato starch:
Kimbo

That fourth, untested brand I saw at 99 Ranch mysteriously listed only “starch” as the ingredient.

Meanwhile, the WuFuYuan quick-cook tapioca is full of chemfood ingredients like methylcellulose, guar gum, sodium hydrogen diacetate, and agar powder. (Maybe that’s why they are so weirdly bouncy.) The 5-minute boba became a lot less appealing once I learned that they’re a chemistry concoction and not just parboiled, as I had assumed at first.
WuFuYuan

Cooking

I knew I was on the right track with the product. Now I had to figure out the right cooking method.

Why you shouldn’t presoak

Here’s what happens when you presoak. The three fragments on the right are a single Chang Chi pearl that exploded upon contact with the water. The pearl on the left is a Bolle tapioca pearl which isn’t breaking up, but it is dissolving in the water. I poked it with my finger and it just kind of melted on contact. These tapioca pearls are not like the kind you buy for pudding. They’re very soluble, and if you touch them when wet, they have a tendency to just disintegrate.

Why I don’t rinse after cooking

I don’t see the point in the after-cooking rinse. It gets the pearls cool, and that’s not what I want. One of the things I’ve learned from years of patronizing Little Bean is that the tapioca pearls lose their magical chewy tenderness when they get cold. However, bubble tea is always served cold (at least on the west coast). It’s a conundrum! Perfection can only be achieved when the warm pearls stay on the bottom of the cup, the cold liquid only joining the tapioca en route to your mouth in the fat straw highway. Keeping them segregated as much as you can preserves the texture for longer. I think that’s why you see so many boba tea joints serving their boba in rice cookers on keep warm or crockpots.

Anyhow, no rinse.

Why I don’t keep the pearls in their cooking liquid

I thought this was a good idea at first, but, like pasta water, the cooking liquid gets quite murky and unappealing. Better to drain that stuff off and store them in the syrup (which adds flavor, anyway).

Why the long cook

The Kitchn recipe recommended 12-15 minute boil + 12-15 minute steep. This is not enough for me — the results are far too chewy, especially after a few hours. I tried the 20 minute boil + 25 minute steep as written on the package and these were still too chewy in the middle.

But I came back to the Boba Guys recipe, which finally worked as it should work once I had the right product. I made some adjustments to suit my taste, so I’m writing them up below. I’m very, very, very satisfied with the results. I get the chew I want without sacrificing the silky springiness, and the pearls don’t seize up once they’re in an iced drink.

Storing your dry boba

I’m also finding that, once opened, the previously vacuum-packed pearls tend to evaporate moisture which condenses inside the bag and looks like it might court spoilage. You’re probably better off cooking and serving a big batch rather than trying to make a single package last all year. (I’ve read that you can freeze them, but I haven’t tried that yet.) (UPDATE: Yes! Once you’ve opened the package, freeze them. They cook up perfectly after being frozen, exact same method applies.)

Conclusion

So remember — look for pearls that use all tapioca starch, no substitutes. That’s it! They won’t necessarily be the most expensive brand; you have to read the ingredients list. I wasn’t able to find a supplier on Amazon that looked trustworthy. These pearls from Nuts.com get good reviews and look right, but the shipping will kill you. If you’ve got an Asian market in town, check there first.

The Perfect Boba Recipe

This recipe is adaptable for whatever amount you want to make, whether it’s just a few servings or enough to feed a crowd. It’s about 25 grams* of dry pearls per small serving (think small cup of boba tea).

Ingredients:

brown sugar

white sugar

water

boba pearls

tea or shake of choice

Equipment:

A big pot with a lid

A wooden spoon

A strainer

glasses

fat straws

Instructions:
Boba
Make a simple syrup by heating 1 part brown sugar, 1 part white sugar, and 2 parts water until dissolved. Set aside. Leftovers can be refrigerated.


Boil water like you would for pasta — lots of it (at least 10x the amount of water, so if you’re doing 100g, do 1000mL water). Once you’re at a rolling boil, weigh out your tapioca pearls (I cook in increments of 100g) and add the tapioca pearls to the water all at once. Stir. Let the water come up to a boil again; the pearls will float to the top. Once the water is boiling again, lower the heat to medium. Set a lid slightly ajar on top and cook for 35 minutes. Stir every five minutes. Turn the heat off. Cover completely and let the pearls steep for 25 minutes.

Drain the pearls. Do not rinse. For every 100 grams of dry pearls, add 50mL of the simple syrup. Let steep for at least 15 minutes. Serve right away or within a few hours. If you have leftovers, you can refrigerate them for a day, but you must microwave them for about 30 seconds before serving. (Alternatively, keep them warm in a rice cooker on the “Keep Warm” setting or a crockpot on the lowest setting, but don’t let them overcook. I haven’t tried rewarming on the stovetop, not sure if this would work.)

To serve: Place a few heaping tablespoons of warm tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup. Add your beverage. Add your ice last. DO NOT SHAKE AROUND — boba texture suffers in the cold. Serve with a fat straw. Preen triumphantly.

Note: these are very, very soft when hot and fresh; they firm up after soaking in the syrup and once your cold drink has been added. If you want to serve these with a hot drink, I’d probably cut the cooking time back down to 25 minutes.

*Yeah, that’s right, I said grams. Use your scale. I am all about g and mL now. Here’s why. 

Ikea hack standing desk for shorter ladies

Standing Ikea desk hack!
I made the Colin Nederkoorn Standesk 2200! If a home improvement dummy like me can do it, so can you. I made a few minor changes:

I’m 5′ 4½” with short arms. My existing desk is 31″ tall. This meant that the height of the recommended bracket was too high for my keyboard height. Instead, I chose the Ekby Valter birch 7 ⅛” bracket (2 brackets, $3 each), which is 3 ¼” shorter than the 11″ brackets in the original. I attached them to the very bottom of a white Lack side table ($8) — the white is ⅜” smaller than the black version used in the original Standesk, but it doesn’t make a difference. Because I used the smaller brackets, I also went for a smaller shelf, the natural wood Ekby Tryggve shelf* ($4), which is the perfect size for my wireless keyboard.

Assembly required a flat screwdriver and a couple of 1-¼” wood screws from the garage.

Desk

I was worried the Lack would be just a touch too high, but my laptop screen is at the perfect level, and I find I’m just adjusting my focal point on the monitor a bit lower than usual, which is not bad at all.

Standing mat
I’m also using a couple of gel mats that my dad happened to have in the garage because he’s my dad.

So far, I like! I had a desk with buttons that could raise it to standing level when I was working in Sweden, but I almost never raised it. (If only I had known what a luxury it was!) I also had made a makeshift standing desk in an old TV cabinet that was in my room when I first moved back here, but the lack of ventilation in the cabinet was an issue. But at least I knew I’d like standing. And it forces me to take breaks, which I need.

I think this is an awesome set up for someone who just wants to try the standing thing out — after all, the whole thing cost only $18 before taxes. Maybe I’ll be able to afford this $1600 model someday. I’m sure it’s a dream. Until then, I’m happy to have gotten rid of the leaning office roller chair I had been insulting my hip with.

To recap:

From IKEA:

2 Ekby Valter brackets, birch, 7 ⅛”: $6

1 Ekby Tryggve shelf, 31 ⅛” x 7 ½”: $4

Lack side table, white, 21 ⅝” x 21 ⅝”: $8

Equipment needed:

4—6 1-¼” wood screws from home (I didn’t screw the shelf onto the brackets, just used double sided 3M adhesive)

Screwdriver

Credit to Colin Nederkoorn for the brilliant original

* Tryggve happens to be the name of the hot Swedish exchange student and swimmer who somehow wound up in La Puente for a year and whom I interviewed for the school newspaper. He told everyone to call him “T” since nobody knew how to pronounce his real name. I had never met anyone so blond in my life. I always thought he was so unfortunate to have wound up at my high school, but I suppose those kids who wind up in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere only to endure a Sweden-like winter would say otherwise.

Khao Shong coffee peanuts

Peanuts

I’m OBSESSED with these Khao Shong peanuts. They’re like the Thai version of Mexican Japanese-style peanuts, another bar/car snack you should immediately acquaint yourself with if you haven’t before.

They’ve got a super crunchy, smooth, brittle shell, and the peanuts themselves are very fresh. I prefer the coffee flavor — the coating departs just the right aromatic edge to the peanuts so they ride the edge between sweet and savory without veering into salt. Best of all, they’re dry, so they don’t leave grains of seasoning or oil all over your fingers (which, in turn, keeps your steering wheel free from grease smears as you drive — delicious and practical). I ate half a package the other night while binge-watching the first season of Borgen, another obsession.

I bought a canister of Koh Kae during the same outing to the Thai market and I can tell you with certainty that Khao Shong are 100x better. The Koh Kae are crumbly, feeble disappointments by comparison. Here in L.A., you can get them for $2.70/bag at Thong Lo next to Lax-C, the huge Thai restaurant supply warehouse near Chinatown, or for $3 at Silom market in Thai Town.

The Grandmaster

grandmasterIt’s a sign of how much this neighborhood has changed that of the 10 or so options at my local movie theater, there’s always one Chinese-language release. Given that the other films are generally cartoons or action movie sequels (Red 2? I never even heard of Red 1), I always check to see what Chinese flick is playing.

So when I saw that Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster was here for the weekend, I immediately bought a ticket. This is the closest my local theater has ever come to showing an arthouse movie. Ziyi Zhang and Tony Leung are such a pleasure to ogle. As with other Wong Kar Wai films, the costumes are their own characters, and much attention is paid to everyone’s shoes. One martial arts specialist wears embroidered, bound foot platform shoes which she does improbable roundhouse kicks in. Everyone slides around in cloth shoes and white socks, kicking up snow and rain.

When you think of Chungking Express, you think of Brigitte Lin in the trench coat, blond wig, and sunglasses.

In the Mood for Love is all about Maggie Cheung’s lithe body in a bodycon cheongsam.

[SPOILER: Full scene below. Don't click if you don't want to see it.]

In The Grandmaster, it’s Ziyi Zhang in a winter maxi coat with a plush, jet black, mink collar and cuffs that breathe of their own accord; a single snowflake ornament is nestled in the smooth lacquer of her hair, echoing the paleness of her face against all that rustling black.

My favorite quote (paraphrasing from memory here): “Life would be boring without regrets.”

I enjoyed the movie; sure, the story was choppy and a little toothless, but it’s full of gorgeous people and fight scenes and scenery that stick with me. It’s worth it just for the scenes of the women at the brothel with pencil-thin eyebrows, rosy cheeks, and pin curls, looking like those vintage Chinese ads come to life.

My fellow Puente Hills Mall patrons, however, were NOT into it. I think they were expecting something more Jet Li. A bunch of people even walked out. Which makes me feel like, ugh, this is why I can’t live in the burbs.