Chinatown San Francisco

Searching for Dan Dan

I lived for a while in Chinatown, San Francisco. My 200 square foot studio apartment was squashed next to an opera school, an infamous tong1, a flower shop, and a small Szechuan restaurant called Spicy King. Spicy King was run by Truman Du, one of the first chefs to bring Szechuan cuisine to the forefront of San Francisco’s Chinese food scene. I would eat at his restaurant every week, as I didn’t have a kitchen. Spicy King introduced me to the world of spicy numbing, of egg yolk fried bitter melon, and of hot pot. The first time I ordered Dan Dan noodle, I put it to one side, my mouth completely numb. It was confusing, like I had just gone to the dentist.

Something, I assumed, had gone horribly wrong in the cooking process and there was a chemical reaction taking place in my mouth that clearly shouldn’t. Undeterred, I ordered it the next day, and the same numbing sensation returned, but this time, prepared for it, I realized how much depth and feeling it gave the dish. It was cooling after the fiery Ebe La (another Szechuan import by chef Chen Kenmin), it was invigorating, it was above all…different.

The spice that was providing this heat goes by many names — Szechuan pepper, prickly ash powder, dried prickly ash, numbing pepper, or spicy numbing pepper. There is no proper translation because there is no English word for a pepper, or even a flavor that makes your mouth numb. The Chinese word is Ma. Ma is spicy numbing flavor, so a ma-po tofu is tofu with Szechuan peppers. If a dish is La it is spicy in our sense of a rush of blood to the tongue. It has been hard to get these dishes in the United States, partly because Americans are weirded out by things that make their mouth numb, and partly because it was banned for import, probably because the FDA agents were just as weirded out as everyone else.

Szechuan Pepper

Chilled noodle dishes make a great light lunch in the hot summer months, so I knew we needed to have one on the menu. The obvious solution was to go to the now ubiquitous cold soba noodle salad – called American Style Soba in some restaurants in Japan due to our appetite for it. Soba dough takes years to master as buckwheat is notoriously difficult to work with since it is gluten free and, as such, has very little to bind it together. The dough will crack, and the noodle will dissolve in the hands of anyone who isn’t a master. By adding other non-buckwheat flours, these noodles gain elasticity and can now be dried and exported to America to slake our thirst for healthy but filling noodle salads. While the salad is normally dressed with fresh vegetables and some ginger dressing, it’s a dish that isn’t native to Japan. Like most of our imports, it has evolved to suit our palates. There is something about buckwheat’s texture that holds up well to being cold: the chew, the slight bite, the earthy quality.

ab-dandan-sesamesobaThe second most common cold noodle, at least in my mind, is the cold Dan Dan noodle. So it just made all the sense in the world to marry these two traditions into something that would be familiar enough in its form, but piquant in its spicing. The result was our Sesame Soba – our own combination of Chilled Soba, and Dan Dan. It is tossed with delicious fresh vegetables and the Ma should cool your palate in what is expected to be a long, hot, summer. As an added bonus, this dish is an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin D, iron, fiber, and calcium.

I hope you enjoyed this story. Stop by your local Atlanta Bread to try this delectable dish. We would love to hear your feedback so please visit our Facebook and Twitter and let us know what you would like to hear about in future blog posts.

– John

John Hutt has been a chef all of his professional life and has traveled around the world to experience new cuisines and cultures. Based in New York and Atlanta, he is the head chef of Atlanta Bread where he is currently developing exciting new menu items while also refining many current offerings. He is also a writer, focusing mostly on contemporary art.

Chef John Hutt
  1. So you might wonder, what is a Tong? In North America, a tong is a type of organization found among Chinese living in the United States and Canada. These organizations are described as secret societies or sworn brotherhoods and are often tied to criminal activity.


Share experiences with friends

Shrinking Your World Via the Vast Online Universe

The world is a huge place – even your own little section of it can feel overwhelming sometimes. Where are the best places to go, who should I call for a repair, how do I get to know people with the same interests? The days of hanging out at the corner drug store or sipping lemonade together on the porch while neighbors strolled past or stopped to chat are long gone. But the digital world has opened up a whole new arena for connecting and learning that is seemingly unlimited. It’s exciting, but it can be a lot to navigate.

Some people believe social media and online relationships are killing true social experience or fostering relationships that aren’t real. But there are reputable sources that find any shared experience, whether online or face to face, can produce positive effects on our lives. According to Psychology Today – research shows that social media has enhanced relationships, especially for shut-ins and ‘socially avoidant’ people. It can also strengthen our offline relationships and keep folks together when there is a long period between face to face meetings. We can use our online resources to connect and learn about our area or to have shared experiences and enjoy new activities.

For those who want to establish a connection to people and to places in their community, there is a great way to learn and get to know people online that also transfers into actual shared experiences. Using these resources is especially beneficial if it also drives in-person encounters, allows you to find people who can help with a project, recommend a place to sample local craft or try local food, or contribute to the community. It goes well beyond sharing what we ate for lunch, posting photos of our cats, or ranting about our day.

The ability to shrink our world and develop a local online community hinges on discovering sites that keep it close. There can be a touch of risk when engaging people you’ve never met, but hesitation can impair your ability to grow your community relationships and awareness. Keeping it truly local provides a sense of security in many regards.

Recommendation and referral sites offer great advice and information, and if it’s only open to people in your geographical area, chances are many of the people on it have that “6-degrees of separation” or less. Groups that are started by someone who is involved in the community and has a drive to make it a better place can yield meaningful connections and eventually fosters a circle of trust.

There is a group north of Atlanta that limits the number of participants and only allows new members to join via invitations from current members.  It’s called The Milton Sweet Tea Society (MSTS) and offers a referral and info site as well as a flea market page where people can post certain items for sale. While most activity is online, often members organize a get-together to discuss issues of interest in the community, or simply to meet other members. Once you receive a recommendation from someone for the best repair company or place to take your bored kids, you feel as though you’ve made a new acquaintance. Unlike larger sites, when a stranger comes to pick up an item you had for sale, you feel safe about making a transaction you’ve organized through the MSTS.

Sites like can lead people to others with the same interest and you don’t have to feel as though you’re entering a singles group. From dog-lovers to yoga and outdoor enthusiasts – to foodies, the site has something for everyone. These are only two examples of places where you can create an online connection that is helpful. There are a wealth of others you may find in your area.

Yes, it’s possible to use online sources to have shared experiences, new adventures, and to contribute to the community. The world is big and the internet is overloaded with places to go, but why not use it to improve your network and find a way to keep it close?



Explore your local community with a Sunday drive

Transforming an Old tradition Into a New Adventure

So many traditions fade into a memory as they are no longer relevant or practical. It hurts to let go of some of these long-held customs, but when time, resources, and lifestyles change certain practices simply don’t make sense anymore. I believe, however, that some are worthy of revival -the ones that could become a fresh experience once again, a new adventure, a discovery.

Lazy Sundays are often spent online, our faces in screens. It is a narrow view of our community as we convince ourselves that reading or watching a video about something makes us more in touch with the world. As we sit in our home, or if we are really bold, in a coffee shop, we move our thumbs and sip our latte. Not wrong, it’s simply the way.

Imagine instead engaging in a truly shared experience at a leisurely pace. Hands free to rest, eyes engaged in truly noticing what’s around us. A new adventure – the good old Sunday drive.

Families used to pile in the car and head out. No real agenda, no GPS, just a loose timeline and a leisurely pace. The idea was to explore the community – to make the exercise about discovery. “What’s down that street?” “Is that a new building on the corner?” “Look at the flowers beginning to bloom in that park.” People really took notice of the little things –  their eyes scanning from left to right and then looking ahead.

See something interesting? Stop the car and gaze for awhile. Perhaps get out and wander around. It was the shared experience of a local tour that brought families closer, provided conversation topics, and introduced them to previously unknown places in their community. There’s a feeling of freedom that comes with taking to the road. Why not venture further, drive past town and into the open or to undeveloped areas, and soak in the scenery?

Yes, people are so busy these days and fuel isn’t cheap. But gas prices have dropped and there’s always time if you make it. The key is to forgo the trappings of today and immerse yourself and your friends or family in a good, old-fashioned activity. Don’t use your GPS, don’t Google locations to see, just drive.

Make note of places you’d like to revisit or explore further. Listen to music, talk with each other, enjoy the leisurely pace. Revive a tradition. It could provide you with the drive to become more of an explorer, to delve deeper into your community, to be curious about the real, 3-dimensional world. Or it could simply be a nice way to spend a Sunday.



Love is many things

Love Leads to Discovery

When the inspiration comes for choosing a gift it’s an easy flow from conceptualization to realization. Then there are times when the desire is there, the inspiration is hidden away and reluctant to be coaxed out into the open. Inspiration and ideas for a loving memento or gift is more of a challenge when the pressure is on. When it comes to expressing love and appreciation it would be easy to turn to the traditional or the obvious. Let’s face it, the traditional card, flowers, chocolates, or boudoir attire gifts  just feel insincere. Since so many people loathe this forced “expression of love on a given day” idea, they prefer to ignore the Valentine’s Day holiday altogether. But let’s think about it in a slightly different context lest we upset our significant other. It doesn’t have to be a gesture that breaks the bank or plainly says “At least I remembered the day, so you can’t get mad.” For those still brimming with the desire to acknowledge their love, or even just to keep it intact, why not take a risk and try something different?

Love is an adventure, an exploration, and a discovery of the person you have special feelings for. So instead of a traditional gift, how about giving your loved one an experience based on these principles instead? Several years ago I chose to do something reminiscent of childhood, yet rooted firmly in the here and now. My husband and I had recently moved into a new area (just outside of Atlanta OR  Alpharetta)  and I thought a gift that would not only express my love for him, but also an understanding of his interests would be the best gift. The fact that it helped acquaint us with our new surroundings was an added bonus.

We would embark on a Valentine’s treasure hunt. It isn’t the most original idea but I’m not wildly creative when it comes to these things. I suspected that whatever effort was invested, it would yield the desired result – that he would feel loved, appreciated, and understood. Isn’t that the point? It’s not to outdo or overspend. Show your love in a way that you don’t (hopefully) already express on a daily basis.

I won’t kid you into thinking it was an easy task – it took some thought and preparation to create such an adventure as I had to channel my inner tour guide. The risk of it falling flat seemed high, but I had to believe and fully commit. Just as in a relationship of any kind, commitment is a must when you take a risk. My plan was to scout the area around our new home for places that would interest my husband. What does he like to eat, where would he want to spend time with me, what are his hobbies, and what sort of small gift might actually have meaning?

The inspiration began to flow and soon I was generating clues that would lead him from one location to the next like a tour guide. As I mentioned, I am no creative genius, so the clues each rhymed and weren’t all that difficult to decipher, but there was just enough mystery to make it a challenge. To be honest, I may have been more excited about the whole thing than I imagined he would be.

Rather than trying to plant clues all over town, as is traditional, I kept them in hand, only revealing the next clue once he determined the correct location. We began with a walk along the Greenway trail to acknowledge his love of the outdoors. Because he is a foodie the next clue brought us to lunch in a local Indian restaurant. The day before our hunt I made a very small purchase at a nearby sporting shop and made arrangements with the owner to keep it tucked away behind the counter until we arrived. My husband enjoyed the gift and the opportunity to speak with the shop owner.There were a few other stops along the way, but the grand finale, which occurred later that evening, came when the final clue led us to a small venue where a local artist was playing cover tunes and original songs.

It may seem like a lot of effort to put together something like this, but it wasn’t as time consuming as I’d feared. Ultimately it was an experience that offered something for us both. I was able to show my understanding of what he enjoys and he felt the full intention. His willingness to go along resulted in an enjoyable journey for us both.  It was a journey that made ordinary outings feel like a game and brought us closer together with each other and our new community.

The point is to stretch yourself, to think about the person you love and express it in a way that will feel real. Make it an adventure of some sort, whether it’s a treasure hunt around town or something else that expresses your feelings – don’t let the Valentine’s naysayers get you down!

If you don’t currently have a significant other in your life, why not buck the traditional and lavish a little love on your friends or family on Valentine’s Day? Take a risk, keep your heart open, and you might find real treasure where you least expect it.


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