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I am not a fan of tomato ketchup. Some brands are better than others but many have a tinny after-taste which I dislike . Trouble is, I can’t remember which are good and which are not. At one time, there was also catsup ( Hunts, I think) but I haven’t seen it in recent years. I used to think catsup tasted different ( and better) but perhaps it was just my imagination and because I liked the word ” catsup” better than ” ketchup”. The ingredients  of both are very similar though some claim that catsup is tangier.

Perhaps my aversion to ketchup is conditioned by the fact that I was brought up on fruit ketchup. In India, tomatoes were relatively expensive and food companies substituted them with cheaper ingredients like bananas or even pumpkin. ” Tomato” was dropped from the product designation and the bottles were labeled just” Ketchup” or , sometimes, ” Fruit Ketchup”. Growing up in India, this is what we had most of the time  and this became the standard. Not surprisingly, it was sweeter than regular ketchup and this accounts for my bias. Fruit Ketchup is also manufactured in other Asian countries, notably the Philippines. One of the popular brands, Jufran, is available at Asian stores in the U.S. Check it out.

A Washington D.C company , Chups, makes fruit ketchup in 6 different flavors ( cranberry, mango, peach plum, blueberry and spicy pineapple) and adventurous home cooks make it in flavors such as tomatillo and sweet cherry. Another company, Blackberry Patch, makes ketchup in three flavors… raspberry Chipotle, Blueberry and Blackberry. These artisanal products sound intriguing but they don’t interest me … they seem far removed from ketchup.

Ketchup has been steadily losing ground in the U.S  because of  demographic shifts. Americans, particularly those on the coasts and the big urban centers, have developed a taste for spicier condiments and about 15 years ago, salsa overtook ketchup both in sales and popularity. Of course, a major reason is that salsa is a dip that goes very well with tortilla chips, a popular munchie at parties. I like salsa but prefer the homemade kind to the bottled variety.

My preferred condiment is hot sauce. I started out with Tabasco and Red Devil but found that their acidity overwhelmed the dishes that I was adding them to. I switched to Asian hot sauces such as Chili paste with garlic, and Sambal Oelek. They were fine but , once I discovered Sriracha, there was no going back. Sriracha has a more rounded taste and it complements whatever it is eaten with. It is amazing to think that the Sriracha company was only founded in 1987 by a Vietnamese immigrant to the U.S. So popular is it that it’s name has become synonymous with hot sauce just as Xerox was once with copiers. Of course, success breeds copycats and competition. Since the name” Sriracha” cannot be copyrighted ( it’s the name of a town in Thailand), Sriracha has spawned a host of imitators, including Texas Pete and Badia. Many of these are quite different and inferior in taste to the original. I make it a point to always buy the original products which can be distinguished by the Rooster logo.

Recently, I was surprised and delighted to find squeeze bottles of Sriracha Hot Chili sauce Ketchup at my local supermarket and it has since become my condiment of choice. I still use the hot sauce regularly but, when I want ketchup, I use the Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce Ketchup. It’s excellent.

Just as Sriracha has expanded into the ketchup business, Heinz has gotten into the hot sauce genre. The company not one but four entries in this category.. Hot Pepper Chili sauce, Sriracha ketchup, Jalapeno Ketchup and Balsamic vinegar ketchup.

I guess turnabout is fair play.

 

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Dhabas are roadside eateries in northern India that serve hearty, inexpensive food to travelers. A friend of mine stopped at one of these dhabas where the chalkboard advertised TODAY’S SPECIALAloo Mattar ( Potato and Peas Curry). It was quite tasty so, on his return journey, he stopped at the same dhaba.

This time, the chalkboard read TODAY’S SPECIALMattar Aloo. (Peas and Potato Curry). Puzzled, my friend asked the proprietor about the difference in nomenclature.

The reply, ” Sir, last week there were more potatoes than peas in the curry. This week, the curry contains more peas than potatoes.”

Talk about truth in advertising!

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Ichiran, a Japanese restaurant chain, opened its first New York City restaurant earlier this year and it is based on a very strange concept. About half its 82 seats are ” flavor concentration booths”, the rest regular group seating. These booths are like library carrels with dividers on either side and in front so that the diner is utterly alone. After filling out a menu with his choices, the diner pushes a call button. A”faceless server “then retrieves the menu -” faceless” because the booth is constructed with a movable shade to reveal only his/her torso – and delivers the order when it is ready. Throughout the entire meal, the diner never interacts with any other human, presumably so that he is free from distractions and can concentrate solely on the food. The average meal time (in Japan) is only about 20 minutes which makes for a quick turnaround and enables the restaurant to enhance  turnover.

But what does it do for the diner? I don’t know.

Forget about the supposed intent of enabling the diner to have a heightened dining experience because he is concentrating only on the food. Ichiran is a ramen restaurant serving only one kind of soup ( pork-bone-broth tonkotsu) though diners can customize their soup by specifying the richness of the broth  and the strength of the dashi. Ramen lovers may blanch at my assertion but… ramen is ramen. Dining at a ramen restaurant is like eating at a pizzeria or at a barbecue joint. A fine dining experience it is not.

Leave it to the Japanese to come up with a concept like this. There is much to admire about the Japanese but they have some strange quirks. Remember the tube like ” hotel rooms” that guests can crawl into  and sleep when they want an economical overnight stay. Just the thought of it gives me the willies.

While I agree that food is the main ingredient of the experience of dining out, it is not the only one. The total experience includes such things as the ambience, the table settings and the interaction with other diners and the restaurant staff. Without them, one might as well take out food and eat alone at home.

I wonder how long Ichiran will last in New York. New Yorkers are canny customers and I expect them to see through the gimmick very soon. No matter how good the ramen and the broth, there are plenty of other ramen restaurants in New York to choose from.

 

 

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The original Itzk Hagadol is a bistro-like eatery located in Jaffa, Israel  and its only U.S outpost is in Encino, a suburb of Los Angeles. We were in Los Angeles recently for a family re-union and one afternoon we wound up at Itzk Hagadol for a luncheon. The restaurant has an indoor area with the standard Middle Eastern décor and an annex, the exterior wall of which is open to the elements.

We were a large party, 25 adults and 6 children, and we occupied most of the outside seating area. Because of the chill, plastic sheeting was drawn across the open side abutting the sidewalk and the space heaters turned on to make it warm and comfortable.

Itzk Hagadol terms itself a grill ( true enough, because the entrees are almost wholly grilled meats ) but it prides itself on its vast array of salads and offers diners several  dining options. They can order just the salads with unlimited refills OR they can order skewers of grilled meats a la carte for an additional price. If one combines an order of grilled meat with the unlimited salads, the price of the salads is reduced.

Our party had opted to have the unlimited salads (really side dishes) plus skewers of three different meats. We were seated six to a table, three on each side, and the waiters soon started to bring out the salads and place them in a straight line down the center of the tables. The small ceramic dishes each contained about a cup full and the overall effect was like sitting down to ban chan at a Korean BBQ except that the salads were Middle Eastern.They included celery salad, pickled cucumber, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, egg salad, roasted bell peppers, beets, red cabbage, vegetarian pate, corn & mushroom in mayo, chopped eggplant w/ peppers and zucchini, baked rosemary potatoes, falafel balls, roasted jalapenos and hummus with pine nuts. There were about 20 salads in all  and they were constantly replenished. All of them were freshly made and good , particularly the vegetable pate  (it  fooled us initially into thinking that it was chicken liver), the red cabbage, the rosemary potatoes and the corn and mushroom in mayo. The hummus which was attractively presented in a babka like ring also came in for appreciation though I thought it could have used some salt. Accompanying all these were  baskets of laffa, a pillowy Middle Eastern  bread sprinkled with black sesame seeds. Each laffa was about the size of a personal pan pizza and I enjoyed tearing off pieces to eat.

When we had enough of the side dishes/ salads it was time for the grilled meats, three of them . We stuck with the basic options: house kebabs, the Rumanian kebabs and chicken. There are several other options for the meats including merguez, veal sweetbreads and foie gras but they are expensive and not worth it. Better to stick to the basics as we did.The kebabs were served family style so that each of us was able to taste everything, and were accompanied by plates of  flavorful white rice. Each diner had approximately one skewer’s worth of meat. Perhaps you are wondering about the difference between house kebab and Rumanian kebab ? Well, one contains garlic and the other onions but don’t ask me which is which! The meats were tasty and well grilled and, overall, we were well satisfied with the meal.

I almost forgot: the kids were served plates of French Fries. I snaffled a few for myself and they were excellent. The service was good and the servers were attentive, quickly bringing us more salad as soon as a dish was emptied.

Itzk Hagadol’s concept of all-you-can-eat salads followed by limited amounts of meat is a new one for me. It’s charm is that when all the salads/side dishes are spread out on the table, it is a colorful feast for the eyes. I also like the idea of focusing on vegetables and eating  smaller amounts of meat. It is so different from the Brazilian rodizio where the staggering amounts of meat tend to leave diners overwhelmed; after a while, all the different cuts of meat begin to seem like each other.

One shortcoming of Itzk Hagadol fare, for lovers of spice like myself, is that the salads/ side dishes are all mildly seasoned, salty and sweet, sometimes very mildly sour and never, never spicy/ hot. The barely roasted jalapenos are unsalted and tasteless, and a spicy green salsa that accompanies the kebabs is  hot but one dimensional. Oh, for a bottle of hot sauce!

I was only a guest at the party and so cannot be sure about the cost but I have the feeling that it was expensive; probably around $40/person including tax and tip. Considering that restaurant food in LA is cheaper than in N.Y/ N.J and considering that most of the food consisted of vegetarian salads , this is not cheap. We had a good time at Itzk Hagadol and the food experience was unique but I don’t think it is one that I want to repeat any time soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When it comes to cooking, our friend V is a perfectionist. When she makes a dish, she uses exact amounts of the ingredients and follows directions religiously. When she likes an unfamiliar dish and wants to add it to her repertoire, she does her homework meticulously. She watches the dish being prepared ( more than once if necessary), taking copious notes all the while. Then she tries it out as many times as necessary until she gets it just right. Only then does the recipe become part of her collection of dishes to cook.

Needless to say, V is a very good cook. Every thing she cooks is consistently good and it is a pleasure to watch her in the kitchen. Her every movement is as if choreographed, sure-handed and economical. When she rolls out dough, it comes out a perfect circle – every time. If one were to use a protractor or a stencil, the circle could not be more perfect.

Most people cook quite differently. Whether they are good cooks or not, they almost never follow the recipe exactly or even attempt to do so. My wife and I know our way around the kitchen and , for us, a recipe is merely a guide, a rough guide. We do not –  cannot- always rely 100% on the recipe as written. Some cookbook writers  list an ingredient but omit it from the cooking directions. Other times, the quantities of some ingredients appear wrong and we use our judgment to alter  them as we think fit. It doesn’t matter how experienced or well- known  cookbook authors are; they can still make  mistakes. Recently , we were trying out a recipe from a cookbook by a woman who has written 40+ cookbooks. The photograph of the dish showed a dry curry but when we tried to replicate the dish it came out more like a soupy stew!

Both V ‘s method and ours have their advantages and disadvantages. V’s repertoire of dishes is, understandably, somewhat limited. She will not try out a new dish unless she is absolutely sure about it. Thus,  though the dishes she makes are perfect,she makes the same dishes over and over again. In the case of more adventurous cooks , like us, we are always ready to try something new. Thus, our dishes taste different each time. They may not turn out great but we know enough about cooking that it is rarely a disaster. Having to change the recipe on the fly ( either because we don’t have an ingredient or because recipe directions are iffy) is not a problem. And, I like to think, such flexibility makes us better cooks and cooking more interesting.

Recently, I was thinking about this subject and about how it applies to other aspects of daily life. There can be little doubt that, in matters other than cooking, a less rigid approach is far better. This is true both for our thoughts and our actions. As Aldous Huxley said  “ Consistency is contrary to nature, to life. The only completely consistent people are dead“. Conditions change and it behooves us to keep an open mind and change our thinking, our positions as necessary. I’m not in sympathy with those who expect a politician to be absolutely consistent over the course of an entire career. To unload on someone because what he says today is different from what he said ten or twenty years ago is ridiculous. As long as his position on an issue is not a complete flip-flop  and as long as it is dictated by a changing reality, I think such changes are perfectly OK.

When it comes to what we plan to do, a ( little) adventurousness is similarly a good thing. Otherwise, we will never try anything new, always do the same things again and again. Trying something new, whether it be a new dish at a restaurant or a new activity, can be beneficial. It makes life more interesting and , sometimes, can expand our consciousness even as it gives us pleasure. A case in point: Recently, I sang karaoke  for the first time. It came as a huge surprise, not only to my friends but to me, because I had never done such a thing. Never even tried it. My wife sings well and, for many years , we had been attending these karaoke sessions without my ever uttering a peep. I just knew I couldn’t sing and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, I got the urge to try–after all, I couldn’t do worse than some of the others. So, I chose a song I loved, one I thought might be doable, and practiced for about a week. Then, I made my maiden attempt at singing last weekend. Surprisingly, for all my previous trepidation, I wasn’t very nervous as I took the mike.  I am not going to say that it was an unqualified success but , for a first attempt, it wasn’t half bad. I did not make an ass of myself and the experience was actually fun. If I had not put aside my fears, I would never have gotten over them.

To get back to the point I was trying to make: sometimes it is good to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Structure is good but, occasionally, it’s important to take a chance. If you prepare well, you will not do badly,. And, in the unlikely event that you do, who cares?

June 25th is our next karaoke session and, yes, I plan to sing.

 

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Twelve years ago, when my son first started work, I was concerned about his diet and how he would find the time to cook for himself. Those first two years, he regularly put in 70 hours a week at the office, sometimes even 80 or 90. There was no time to do anything much else except sleep and commute. The company did provide meals at lunchtime ( all the better to keep workers at their desks) so lunch was no problem. The rest of the time he ordered take-out food. Not the best option because it is loaded with fat, salt and sugar but, at the time, almost the only option.

How things have changed over the past few years!

Now, there are a number of firms that deliver meal-kits, or meals in a box. These kits include exact portions of meat, fish, vegetables , sauces, spices etc. along with recipe cards that tell buyers just how to use them into a satisfying and healthy meal. Generally, there are two options: three dishes / week, each serving two persons or the family plan : two dishes, each serving four people. Among the companies selling meals in a box are Blue Apron (emphasis on easy, healthy recipes), Plated ( sustainable foods), Pete’s Paleo,  Peachdish ( Southern food), and Purple Carrot ( vegan). Subscribers sign up on-line and select recipes from about 6 to 8 options each week ; the cost works out to about $ 10/ serving, about a dollar less for the family plan. Certainly advantageous to these young people, both in terms of money and time. Since all the ingredients are premeasured and prepped, it takes only about 45 minutes to cook a meal.

Three of the biggest advantages are: 1) No need to spend time grocery shopping, 2) No danger of excess food spoiling in the refrigerator and 3) Portion control. Servings are about 800 calories apiece, plenty enough for a meal but not excessive. When one cooks from scratch, the tendency is to buy more than what one needs. Either the excess food goes to waste or you wind up cooking and eating too much.

There are several other advantages too.  These meals are far superior to take-out food, and easier than cooking from scratch. The ingredients are high quality and the detailed instructions that come with the recipes make it easy to put a meal together. There is a lot of variety;  many of the services guarantee that recipes will not be repeated for at least a year. Cooks can also alter the recipes to their liking, by adding a little of this or a little of that. And the recipe cards can also be a guide in the future when cooking from scratch. In fact, cooking with these meal-kits often leads to a revived interest in cooking.

Nothing is perfect , however and there are some drawbacks to these meal kits. There are a few, very few, mishaps with the shipping but they are not worth bothering about. A more serious problem is that cancellations or skipping a week’s delivery have to be done well in advance; usually a week, which is not always possible. Another, which will bother the socially responsible, is that there is a lot of packaging to be garbaged each week.

For those who cannot spare the time to cook, not even 45 minutes, there are services like Munchery which provides ready made meals at about the same cost. All that buyers have to do is reheat the delivered meal for about 10 minutes.

My son also told me about another service which makes it easy to host a party. All you have to do is to specify the kind of food you want ( Thai, Chinese, Italian etc.), and the number of people expected at the party. You put out the requirements on the internet and take bids on your smartphone. Once the price and menu are agreed upon, you can sit back and relax. On the appointed day, a chef turns up and prepares the food in your kitchen. Once again, the cost works out to less than you would spend at a restaurant. Two other advantages are that since you don’t have to cook, you can spend a relaxed evening  with guests, and there is much greater leeway in selecting the food.

Yes, things are much different now; I no longer worry about my son’s diet.

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Towards the end of an Alaska cruise that we took some years ago, passengers were informed that a Seafood Buffet had been arranged for the next to the last evening. It was indeed a grand buffet. In addition to seafood salads, shrimp and fish prepared in different ways, mussels and clams, there were steamed Alaskan King Crab legs. Now King Crab legs are expensive. I saw them on sale the other day and they were priced at $ 20 / lb. As expensive as they might be, I was not prepared for the behavior of some of my fellow diners. They loaded up their plates with King Crab legs and neglected everything else. Some of them even went back for seconds.

Why is it that we turn into such gluttons at the prospect of unlimited food? I have seen this behavior in a number of settings over the years and have never failed to be turned off by it.

At lunch buffets at Indian restaurants, patrons concentrate on the tandoori chicken. At a Chinese buffet, I once saw a father and son pile their plates high with spareribs. No wonder they were obese. At an Italian/ Indian wedding that we attended, the food was over the top. There was one section for Italian food and another for Indian delicacies. As if this was not enough there was a third table with a lavish display of seafood, the highlight of which was whole steamed lobsters. To my disgust, some diners took two lobsters apiece and I afterwards noticed that they had left most of them half eaten.

At Ichi Umi, in Edison N.J, which offers an unlimited buffet that includes all you can eat sushi, there are now signs on the tables warning diners that if they take sushi and eat only the fish ( leaving behind the rice), they will have to pay extra. BTW, the idea of all-you-can-eat sushi is peculiar to America. In Japan, sushi is a delicacy to be savored by the piece. By contrast, there is at least one restaurant chain here in New Jersey that offers unlimited sushi for about $ 24 apiece.

At an awards ceremony dinner in Tokyo that I attended, there were continental specialties and Japanese specialties. I took a little time deciding what I wanted to eat. By the time I got to the buffet, the sashimi was gone, every last piece snapped up by the (mostly) Japanese invitees.

This last experience led me to conclude that such deplorable behavior is not the province of any one country or nationality. It is to be found all over the world. In countries where food is expensive and not easily afforded, it is perhaps understandable but there is no excuse for taking food and wasting it. In my case, I was taught as a child to clean my plate and that lesson has carried on into my adult years. The same goes for my wife. We never take more than we can eat and we don’t focus on the most expensive foods at a buffet. After all, once you have eaten a few bites of a particular dish, the rest is not nearly as enjoyable; it is time to move on to other items.

There is one case, however, where I can understand people taking more than their fair share..

At the Men’s Club meetings in our development, there are usually coffee and cookies laid out at the end of the meeting. Some men, I notice, take four and five cookies apiece and that does not leave any for the tailenders. I used to be annoyed because, on more than one occasion, the cookie platter has been bare when I got to it. Thinking it over, though, I understand the reason for my fellow-members behavior. Most of them have a sugar problem and their wives are very strict ; there are no cookies at home. These meetings are only occasions when they can get any. You’re excused , fellows!(LOL)

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