What Does It Mean to Cook Well?

Cooking well is what the little old woman in front of me does. She has approximately five teeth, one good eye, and two hands that orchestrate the movement of nearly sixty gargantuan shrimp on the grill in front of her. Her vocabulary and mine don’t overlap at all, but she knows what I want, and she smiles as I watch her work.

Those are not shrimp she’s grilling, actually, but river prawns plucked from the Chao Phraya River here in Bangkok. From left to right in front of her, the crustacean color spectrum goes from a raw, translucent blue to a charcoal-kissed coral. If the fire gets too low – below what is left of her eyebrows – she grabs a small bellows and blasts it back up. I laugh to myself when I compare her stature to that of the ogres I’ve seen work the grill station back home. And I practically giggle with delight when I taste what she’s made. Smoky, juicy, and plump on their own, the prawns are better still dunked in a fiery sauce that could not have been much more than just fish sauce, vinegar, and some bird’s eye chilies.

It’s a bittersweet moment, for she might not be back in this same spot tomorrow, and I know I won’t be. I’ll be on a plane back home, where the shrimp are a little smaller; the cooks, a little bigger; and the exhaust fumes from the cars and the grill smoke of the sidewalk food vendors might not mingle in the same, beautiful way. Continue reading

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Grace

If one has to experience heartbreak to appreciate love, then I think I’ve earned this dessert. For the first time tonight, my eyebrows climb halfway up my forehead. I’m feeling things I’ve not felt before.

Until I met this custard — spiked with hyper-sour sudachi, its sugars gently burnt — I thought I had the food here all figured out. Now I’m grasping at fireflies. Ginger, cashew and nasturtium seem to glow and dissipate at random. Along with the citrus, they flicker between sweet and spicy, nutty and smoky, creamy and — yes — bitter. It’s that last one that I’ve been chasing all night.

This dessert is the eighth of nine courses at a restaurant called Grace. Along with the six months I’ve waited since this place opened, that feels like a generous enough grace period. Continue reading

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Cesare al Casaletto

The first time I went to Italy was in 2007. I gained thirty pounds in nine weeks.

Quattordici chili,” a pudgy-cheeked version of me would boast, as if saying the words in Italian made them somehow meritorious. I dropped two pants sizes — first 30, then 32 — before the trip’s end. And I ate in my first Michelin three-starred restaurant in jeans, because slacks were by then an impossible dream. Moderation has always been a problem for me.

Over time I’ve learned that in Rome there is no moderating guanciale. Tonight at Cesare al Casaletto I encounter the first piece, thick like tree bark, leaned casually against a plump pile of tonnarelli like the bouncer at a nightclub door — the carbonara gatekeeper. I dodge it at first, not to avoid the precious pork but to skewer it last, with a swirl of noodles. A fine varnish of egg yolk, pecorino and pepper holds it together. The bite looks, I reckon, just about perfect. But it’s not for me — it’s for a girl back home. She loves carbonara. Continue reading

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