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What a fantastic game it was yesterday ! Last year, when the Patriots won after trailing by 25 points in the second half, I didn’t think there could be a more exciting game. I was wrong and how! Last year’s game was one-sided for more than a half ; this year, there was tension throughout. The Patriots and the Eagles traded scores before New England nosed ahead only to see the Eagles grab the lead and strip -sack Brady to put the game almost out of reach. With just over a minute remaining, it would have taken a miracle ( a TD and a two point conversion) for the Pats to pull it out but Brady’s Hail Mary fell short.

In the past, I’ve gone along with those who think a defensive struggle ending in a tight 9-7 or 10-9 finish as the ideal game. I’ve changed my mind. Yesterday’s game showed that a high scoring game can be just as enjoyable, if not more so. If the game is close throughout, and if the lead changes hands once or more, a high scoring game is more exciting to me.

Yesterday, there were Super Bowl records set for most yards gained and most points scored. What is one to make of this? Some sports scribes label this a failure of the defenses.  I can’t agree. The Eagles pass rush was fierce throughout and, if they sacked Brady only once, I credit Brady for his coolness and poise under fire. Many times he only just escaped the pass rushers to throw strikes to his receivers. Foles too was equally impressive. Thus, I wouldn’t fault the defenses on either team; it’s just that the offenses were outstanding.

So was the play calling. After the first quarter, almost every time the Patriots had the ball they looked likely to score and often did. I’m not sure whether to give all the credit to Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator ( or reserve some for Belichick) but as, the game wore on, it seemed like the Pats were one step ahead of the Eagles defense. One has  come to expect that from Bill Belichick led teams but, yesterday, Doug Pedersen, the Eagles head coach, was just as brilliant. His play-calling was innovative and daring, never more so than on the two fourth down plays both of which the Eagles came through, once for a TD.

One topic that will be the subject of much discussion is Bill Belichick’s decision not to start Malcolm Butler, the cornerback who became a Super Bowl star when the intercepted Seattle QB Rick Wilson on the goal line and preserved a Patriots victory. Belichick is, of course, mum on his reasons for doing so. One school of thought is that Butler was benched in favor of Eric Rowan because the latter being taller would be more effective against the Eagles athletic receivers. Considering that Rowan was repeatedly torched by the Eagle wide-outs, it boggles the mind that Belichick did not relent and re-insert Butler.. if indeed the reason for the original decision was as surmised above. Belichick is always pragmatic and you’d think he would not let his stubbornness get in the way of what was best for the team. Another ( rumor?) is that Butler was benched for disciplinary reasons. What the truth is we may never know. In any case, Butler will soon be an unrestricted free agent and has probably played his last game for the Patriots.

I had been rooting for the Eagles to win, though I had no real hope that they would do so. Even though I consider Brady as perhaps the best QB ever and Bill Belichick unquestionably the greatest coach and judge of talent in the NFL, I was tired of seeing the Patriots win. Furthermore Brady,  though he says and does all the right things, strikes me as being arrogant. Thus I was very happy when the Eagles pulled off an upset yesterday even though I’m not an Eagles fan. Nick Foles has had an up-and-down career and I was glad for him and for the Eagles as they won their first Super Bowl rings ever.

For a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that my team (the N. Y. Giants) was dismal this season, I’d not really followed the NFL this season. Yesterday’s game was only the second I’d seen all season long, the first being the Patriots- Jacksonville thriller two weeks ago. Hearing about the Eagles roster, how they are loaded with talent and will be a force for years to come, makes me apprehensive for the Giants future. With an aging QB in Eli Manning and with gaping holes at a number of positions, the Giants are in for a long re-building phase. Since I’m not a fair weather fan, I won’t abandon the Giants but it looks like rough seas ahead. But all that is in the future. For now, congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles for a game well played and a tremendous victory.

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I was in the checkout lane at the local supermarket and the cashier was ringing up my purchases when she hit a snag. One item had her stymied . She held it up and asked the girl at the next lane,” Do you know what this is?” The other girl knew the answer.

“THIS” was a cauliflower.

This was many years ago. It would not happen today, mostly because every item has a bar code that can be scanned. Cashiers don’t need to know what the items they are checking out are. Otherwise … who knows?

At the time this incident happened, I remember being astounded. How could she not know what a cauliflower was? Then I realized it was not surprising when you consider how few vegetables most Americans eat. Even today, the American diet is heavily meat-centric. When I’ve been invited to dinner at the homes of my friends, the meal has consisted of a salad followed by roast chicken or steak accompanied by potatoes( boiled, mashed or French Fries) and a vegetable.  “Vegetable” usually means carrots, green beans or green peas. This I believe is the standard fare in most American homes. BTW, this comment does not apply to families living in the big metropolitan centers and to first generation immigrants ( particularly Asians) who still eat the cuisine of their native countries. I know this is true when I look at the laden shopping carts of fellow shoppers in the supermarket: Meat, frozen entrees and pizzas, pasta, tomato products, very few vegetables, bags of chopped salad, cereals, eggs, desserts and soda. Though, nowadays the soda has been replaced by bottled water. When I took my friend to an Indian supermarket he was amazed at the number of vegetables on offer, many of which he had never seen and did not know the names of.

Why is this so? Why is the American diet so meat oriented? I don’t know the answer but I have observed this fascination with meat in other countries too. When we were in the Dominican Republic, some years ago, I went to a local restaurant to see what the local food was like. There on a steam table were mostly meat dishes, the only difference with high end hotels being that they were stews and casseroles made with inferior cuts of meat, what we would call ” organ meats” or ” offal”. Vegetables( except for potatoes, onions, tomatoes and carrots) were conspicuously absent and I later found out that vegetables were in short supply and relatively expensive.

Even among the poor, there is a hankering to eat more meat. I remember reading about a riot in Egypt where the rioters marched on the luxury hotels in Cairo shouting slogans, among them ” We eat bread while they eat meat!”

Many of us seem to make a connection between meat eating and upward mobility. In Shanghai, we were dining in a half empty restaurant on some the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten. Next door was a jam packed McDonalds with a line of customers snaking out the door. Our guide remarked sadly that Chinese never had a problem with obesity until the American fast food chains came to China.” Now”, she said ” kids want to eat hamburgers and fried chicken all the time. They don’t want to eat Chinese food anymore”. The results were not difficult to see. Shortly thereafter, I was looking at the Guinness Book of World Records and noticed that the world record for heaviest child was held by a Chinese boy of 14 who weighed in excess of 350 pounds( I can’t remember the exact figure). I also saw the record for the maximum weight loss was also held by another Chinese boy.

And yet, all this meat eating is not good for the body. My wife had been to a talk by a nutritionist at the public library. After talking about the desirability of a balanced diet with plenty of fiber and lots of grains and vegetables, he mentioned how they aid digestion and bowel movements. Going to the toilet at least once a day was a must, he declare; otherwise retaining this waste in the body for longer periods could lead to illnesses such as colon cancer, besides being highly uncomfortable. One lady in the audience was amazed. ” But I go only once a week !” she said. I don’t know what else was said in response but I can’t help thinking she must have been perennially constipated. What a horrible condition to be in. If I miss going even for a day, I feel terrible and I know I’m difficult to live with. To be in such a condition for a week, week in and week out, boggles the mind. No wonder I see so many TV ads for extra strong laxatives and stool softeners.

I want to make it clear that I am not a vegetarian. I do eat meat, all kinds of meat ( beef, pork, chicken, fish), though in much smaller quantities. I do not eat it at every meal though I have some protein every day. When I eat meat, it is the supporting, rather than the main, component of the meal. While I occasionally will have a steak or roast chicken, most of the time I eat meat in the form of curries, casseroles, stews or chili. And , of course, plenty of vegetables, sprouted grains and legumes. To my mind, the Japanese and the Chinese have the ideal diets; small quantities of meat or fish in almost every dish and plenty of vegetables, often raw or par-cooked. Perhaps a strict vegetarian diet is best, as some diet gurus aver, but it is not for me. I like the taste of meat and to satisfy my  body’s protein needs entirely from vegetarian sources would be difficult and too much of an effort.

 

 

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I love Thai food. I love the soups, satays, crunchy spring rolls, green papaya salad,  curries ( red, green, yellow and Masaman), stir fries flavored with basil, noodle dishes      ( Pad thai, flat noodles , glass noodles), the desserts. I have been eating at Thai restaurants for the better part of fifty years and on occasion, even cook it at home. I think I know a little bit about it. I was surprised therefore to read an article in the New York Times magazine complaining that Thai restaurant food in America has become too sweet. This couldn’t be true, I thought. I remember Thai food as being predominantly spicy and sour, not sweet.

In the past two months, I’ve been to three Thai restaurants, two in New Jersey and one in Henderson, Nevada and guess what… the food, especially the noodle dishes, was too sweet. At one of those places, the pad thai was so sweet it could have passed for dessert. When did this happen? Was my memory playing tricks or had Thai food always been sweet?

A little internet research showed me that complaints about Thai food are not new. Ten years ago, one commenter sagely declared ” When you ease up on the heat, the balance goes wrong”. Another groused ” I hate this creeping sweetness thing. ” Yet another implored ” Don’t cater to the American sweet tooth this way.” As far as that last comment is concerned, I am glad to inform you that we are not solely to be blamed. Similar criticisms were voiced by restaurant goers in countries as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Apparently, Thai food was not always sweet. But when did it become so?

To answer this question, I looked up several Thai cookbooks and found that while many recipes did call for sugar or palm sugar, the quantities varied widely. In cookbooks published in Thailand and in blogs based in Asia, the quantities of sugar specified were appreciably smaller. I next looked up pad thai recipes in several blogs and cookbooks. I found that for the same quantity of noodles, the amount of sugar called for varied from a low of 1 teaspoon to a high of 1-1/2 Tablespoons  (more than four times as much). One recipe in the N.Y. Times  even specified 1/3 cup of honey.

It looks as if Thai food was made sweeter over the years to suit the Western palate. Many Westerners can’t handle spicy food and rather than drive them away, restaurateurs added sugar, lots of it, to their dishes while also cutting back on the heat. I confirmed this by speaking to my daughter who has spent a month in Thailand. She agreed that while Thai recipes, particularly the noodle dishes, did often include sugar the food was not overly sweet.

One final thought: In all the neighboring countries of Asia ( Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia) the food is always spicy and often sour. Does it make sense that only in Thailand it is sweet? No way.  The New York Times article was right. The food in many Thai restaurants in America is too sweet and  it is inauthentic.

 

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Tipping or service charges are so much a part of eating out in America that it is strange to be in an environment where tipping is not the norm. Five years ago, on a trip to Tokyo, we were taken aback to find that tips were not expected, where they were politely returned to us. We learned quickly and did not repeat our mistake. It was a practice that I wish existed elsewhere.

Though I always add tips when paying restaurant tabs, it is something that leaves me feeling either foolish or parsimonious. Did I tip too little or too much? Sometimes, I am not sure. Years ago, 15% was the standard tip, then it became 18%. Now , we are told it should be 20%, even 25% for exceptional service. Why? Why do these standards keep changing, always going up? Also, initially, the percentage was supposed to be calculated on the food and beverage cost; then it switched to a percentage of the entire bill, including tax. Finally, with the hefty markup on wines and drinks, the expected tip increases out of all proportion to the service being provided.

Tips were supposed to be optional, not mandatory. Now, they are expected as a right. They are even suggested and encouraged where they should not be. At the coffee shop where I pick up a bagel and coffee, there is a tip jar on the counter. What exactly is the tip for in this instance? For ringing up my order and handing it to me? I don’t buy it.

Service charges are not the answer. They merely mean a mandatory tip, whether the service is good or not and just take the guesswork out of figuring out what is appropriate. Besides, one has way of knowing how much of the service charge actually goes to the wait-staff and how much is skimmed off by the management, something I suspect happens a lot.

By not including the service in the basic cost of the meal, restaurants are doing what the airlines do. Keeping the stated price low and then socking customers with extras. Airlines do it to hide the true cost of a flight; restaurant owners do it to pass on the cost to diners and to avoid paying employees a living wage.

I’m glad therefore glad to read that some restaurants ( many of them owned by Danny Meyer) in New York City have abolished the practice of tipping. The prices listed on the menu ( plus tax) are the total cost of the meal. No hidden charges. This way, I can look at the prices on the online menu and decide whether a particular restaurant is worthwhile or whether it is too rich for my blood.

P.S The above might make me seem a curmudgeon but I don’t think I am. I am careful to tip ( and quite generously too) at ordinary restaurants. At low end restaurants, I tip more because I know the servers don’t make much. What gets my goat is the outsize charge for service at the upper end restaurants that I occasionally eat at.

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In my previous post, I had written about tasting menus and their shortcomings: expensive, marathons with too many dishes, too many flavors and not enough food. There is, however, a simple alternative that diners can use to taste many dishes at a lower cost.

No, it is not the buffet. Generally, buffets are available only in low- end ethnic restaurants and there is often the suspicion that the food is left-over from the previous day. It doesn’t compare with the a la carte dishes at the same restaurant. This is not a blanket statement about ALL buffets but it is true of most of them.

Instead, why not try ordering family style? At most restaurants, that’s what we do. We each select a dish and share it with the others. This way, each diner gets to try everything and no one is stuck with a bad choice. If we find that a particular dish is a winner then ,on a return trip to the same restaurant, we order a double serving of that dish along with singles of the ” new” entrees. By ordering family style, we are able to try all the dishes we want on the menu within two or three visits to the restaurant.

Two other advantages of ordering family style 1) No meal is the same because we are always trying out new dishes while sticking to old favorites. It’s a combination that can’t be beat. 2) It enables us to be adventurous when trying out new unfamiliar cuisines. I remember how, when I used to lunch in Chinatown, there would sometimes be out of town lunchers at a neighboring table. I could tell they were from out of town , because each person would order only for himself.  They would order the old familiar standbys : fried rice, egg fooyung, chow mein  etc. One would have only the chow mein. Another, only the fooyung. A third, only the chow mein. Meanwhile , my colleagues and I would be sharing dishes like Sauteed Lamb with Basil, Chengdu Chicken, Tea Leaves Smoked Duck, Pork with Special Pickled Radish, Seafood with Pan Fried Noodles and Sizzling Hong Kong Steak.

Family style… It’s the only way to go.

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The Tasting Menu

The tasting menu has been all the rage at upscale restaurants for the past decade. Instead of  selecting from an a la carte menu,  diners enjoy smaller quantities of an assortment of dishes from a set prix fixe menu. It is an expensive option, often running to $250 or over, per person ( without wine). Now, even as more and more restaurants offer these tasting menus, there seems to be a backlash against them.

Not only are the meals very expensive, they are marathons lasting three or four hours, and they leave diners feeling bloated  and bored by the experience. As the succession of dishes arrives at the table, one feels like throwing in the towel and crying ” Enough!”

I haven’t much experience of such menus. I’ve only eaten from them three times at Morimoto, the last occasion  eight years ago. The dinners were hosted by my brother-in-law and namesake, and each was a memorable experience

I will never forget the first time at Morimoto. Each dish was a revelation, an explosion of flavor and what made each course special was the presentation. The dishes they were served in were beautiful and different from each other, unique, works of art. The artfully designed food was almost jewel- like in appearance, a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Each dish elicited ” oohs” and “aahs’. I wish I could describe how beautiful it looked but words fail me as does memory. ( This was, after all, several years ago.) There was also a “layering” of flavor such as I had never experienced before. Just as I thought, I knew what a morsel tasted like on the tongue, the taste buds detected another underlying flavor. ( Was  that a hint of yuzu? And that hint of sweetness…where did it come from?)The wait-staff was solicitous and efficient and we diners felt pampered. The first time is always the best but the second and third time were almost as good though the sense of expectation and wonder was somewhat dulled.

There were only two shortcomings to this luxe meal. One:  So many different flavors that, by the end of the meal, I was overwhelmed. Scant hours later, I did not have a clear idea of any of the dishes. I liked all of them but I could not tell you what they were. There were many different ingredients in each dish that I couldn’t tell you what they were without referring to the menu. Second: though there were many dishes in the multicourse meal, the quantities were small and at the end of the meal, even though I do not have a big appetite, I was not quite full…. which, when I consider how much it must have cost, was troubling. (Anticipating this problem, the host also ordered two dishes from the a la carte menu so that we did not feel peckish at the end of the meal).

My last words on tasting menus: They are an experience to be savored once or twice, if cost is no object, but they are not something I would enjoy regularly.

 

 

 

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Many TV shows allow you to travel the world, see different places and eat different foods while sitting in the comfort of your home.  There is one I discovered recently which I think you will quickly become your favorite as it has mine. It is Migrationology.com, a vlog or video log by Mark Weins and you can watch it on You Tube.

Mark Weins is a 31 year old American, born in Arizona, brought up in France and Africa by missionary parents, who now lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife, Ying, and their one year old son, Mika. He has been producing these videos for the past six years, first in Asia but lately in Europe and the rest of the world. His videos make you feel that  you are at the table with him ; you can see that roadside stall or restaurant, smell the food, almost taste it.

What makes these videos so appealing, so much more enjoyable than the rest? It’s three things. Firstly, the camera work. The visuals are crisp and the editing masterly. The narrative focuses on the food and the ambience, mostly the former and just enough of the latter to give viewers a feel for the country Mark is visiting. BTW, Mark Weins is a one man show. He is the star, the cameraman ( he uses a video camera on a stick, like the one you shoot selfies with), the writer, the planner and the editor.  Secondly, the restaurants and the roadside stalls he eats at are just the sort that any foodie traveler would love to experience. They are recommended to him by his legion of fans worldwide who often guide him and accompany him to the best local haunts Next to home cooking, this is the most authentic food there is. Lastly, and most importantly, Mark’s personality is  a big reason for the popularity of his videos. He is knowledgeable about food without being pedantic, always pleasant and smiling, personable, good natured and respectful of the places he finds himself in and the people he encounters. I’ve never seen him say anything bad about anyone or any place that he has been to. Never.

Recently, I watched videos of Mark’s five day trip to Mumbai, India , the city where I grew up. I saw him visit familiar places, go to  restaurants that I’ve been to, eat dishes I’ve enjoyed. For instance, on Day 4 of his trip, Mark tried nalli nihari and tandoori roti at the Noor Mohammed Hotel on Mohammedali Road, demolished a vegetable sandwich  street side, and ate a malai cream ( a sweet dessert made from the first milk, or colostrum, of a cow that has just given birth). Then onto the Elco Arcade for bhel, pani puri and sev puri before a final stop at the Jai Jawan Punjabi restaurant on Linking Road in Khar for a dinner featuring Fried prawns, Tandoori Chicken and Daal Makhani. Imagine… all this in a single day. Truly, the man is a fearless eater with a cast iron stomach and the amount of food he can put away is amazing.

Mark is an adventurous eater though he does not go out of his way to find bizarre foods. He eats the local specialties, stuff that you and I would love to eat and he eats street food without a care in the world. He is not too fond of sweet things but  loves spicy foods and crunchy things. I watched in horror as he popped a fresh green chilly into his mouth and chewed on it.  Mentally, I was screaming” Don’t do it, Mark! Don’t do it!” but all he did was go ” Umm, a little spicy.”

I love to watch Mark eat. As the first morsel pops into his mouth, his eyes open wide in delight and a blissful smile spreads over his face. Then his eyes close in ecstasy and he goes ” Wow!” as he slowly tilts sideways to the right. Words can’t adequately describe this spectacle; you have to watch the video. Most dishes provoke this reaction in Mark but I have become an expert in gauging how much Mark really loves a dish. The reaction I’ve described means that the dish is top classs, A-1, not to be missed. If , however, he omits the sideways lean, it means just ” Good”, not ” Very Good or excellent”. If, on the other hand, Mark goes ” Ummm!’ while widening his eyes and pointing to the dish, it means the dish is just OK. He never finds a dish less than OK. Once, in Korea, when he was tasting sea pineapples- a shell fish that looks like a miniature pineapple – he said the fish flavor was very intense. That should have been enough to warn viewers away from it. ” Intense” is also the adjective he used to describe traffic in Mumbai, an epic understatement. Mumbai traffic is terrible, exhausting, intolerable. Comparatively, being caught in rush hour traffic in New York is relaxing.

Mark’s enjoyment of food may seem theatrical but it is genuine. When he was eating nalli nihari, a sinfully rich dish of mutton and bone marrow,  on his first stop that day, he expertly scooped it up with his tandoori roti but ran out of roti before he finished the dish. No problem. Remarking that the nalli nihari could be eaten like a soup, he grabbed a spoon and polished off the rest of the dish.

Many of us dream of traveling and eating  all over the world. Mark did too. The difference is that he went out on a limb in the pursuit of what he wanted to do and is now living his dream. Strangely , I am not jealous of him. I’m just happy that I get to watch his videos and share his experiences, even if it is only vicariously. You can too. remember ” Mark Weins” on You tube. Or if you want to read his blog, it’s migrationology.com.

 

 

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