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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.

Thanks
– 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.

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Butchart Gardens Holiday Lights

Bright Lights Any City – Experience the Wonder of Holiday Displays

I would like to be a kid again, especially during the holidays. Wouldn’t it be nice to experience the wonder of the season with all  that excitement? As adults we race around town to purchase gifts and prepare for guests, but what if you could recapture the sense of awe you had as a child or at least put the stress aside and simply enjoy the moment? A tour of a local holiday lighting display can do just that!

Last holiday season I took a tour of the “Garden Lights, Holiday Nights” display at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. I was reluctant at first but turned out to be one of the best holiday experiences of my life.  A self-guided tour, the Botanical Garden display sprawled across 30 acres of nature’s beauty. Enhanced by sparkling lights, the grounds were transformed into a tastefully designed exhibit that brought a sense of awe and wonder.

It’s hard to describe the sensation of nature mixed with radiant lights and perfectly selected musical accompaniment. It wasn’t the synchronized holiday music some people create in their yards but lovely classical or jazz tunes that suited the scene, or strolling carollers that made you want to sing along. As we meandered through the transformed gardens, I had the sensation that I too was being transformed. Amazed by the spectacle, it was as if I was in a dream – each luminescent display growing more wondrous than the last. I felt like a kid again, as mesmerized as my son at the joyous colors and twinkling  lights.

I noticed that others around us were feeling something special too, the comments I heard around me and the smiles people gave me indicated that this community was bonding as if we’d discovered a secret too good not to share. As we sipped hot chocolate and wandered the grounds, it struck me that something so simply beautiful can do more to put you in the holiday spirit than almost anything else. It was no longer about the shopping, the stress, the pressure to create our own extravaganza, this was a moment to soak in the feeling of being a kid again.

While “Garden Lights, Holiday Nights” is a unique program years in the making, there is likely something similar in your community to explore. It may be a driving tour of light scenes, or a local attraction breathtakingly lit. Whatever the scenario, take a chance and marvel at something as simple as holiday lights. If you do, your holiday season will be bright.

 


Written by: Brenda Homrich  – Brenda grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and currently works there as a content writer.

Image: Butchart Gardens Holiday Light display.

 

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Be thankful for what you have. Give thanks.

Other Cultures Can Inspire Us And For That, We Are Thankful

In the US, we typically celebrate thanksgiving, or the season of giving thanks by gathering with family and friends, around a huge meal.  We give thanks for our relationships and everything good in our lives, while we look forward to everything to come in the new year.  Most Americans, however, are unaware of the fact that the tradition of giving thanks is not unique to America.  Giving thanks dates to the earliest of human societies, and is practiced in nearly every culture.  Let’s take a look at what the rest of the world does to give thanks.

Most ancient cultures had harvest festivals, many of which are still celebrated today.  The names and stated reasons tend to change, but the festival dates and purposes are largely the same.  Ancient Egyptians celebrated their springtime corn harvest by worshiping their god Min, while ancient Greeks celebrated a festival to honor the goddess Demeter in early autumn.  The timeframe of both these festivals tends to revolve around the harvest.  Many of the traditions and symbols, like the cornucopia from Greece, carry forward to modern times.

Modern celebrations from different cultures generally blend the old with the new.  In Alaska, natives celebrate both the traditional harvest festival and the American Thanksgiving.  The Alaskan traditional harvest tradition involves thanking the spirits for berry and salmon harvests that includes dancing to attract beneficial spirits.  They also have, for the most part, adopted the turkey and mashed potatoes of the traditional American Thanksgiving.

Canada is a nation that celebrates the survival of colonists, rather than a harvest.  That part of the tradition may be unique to the new world.  As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Thanksgiving has been exported to a good bit of it.  Brazil, for instance, celebrates a bountiful harvest in the same way we do in the states.  A Brazilian ambassador to the US fell in love with the idea of a dedicated holiday,8 and brought it back to Brazil.   Liberia celebrates Thanksgiving like the US, because they followed the US model very closely.  The nation was constructed as a safe place for freed slaves after the US Civil War.

The Netherlands claims to have given many traditions to the US, mainly because a tremendous number of early settlers were Dutch.  On the fourth Thursday in November, they share coffee and cookies – not nearly as elaborate as our Thanksgiving – regardless, the date is significant. Many other European nations borrow from or celebrate the American Thanksgiving in some part.   In Germany, they celebrate Erntedankfest in October, and many have begun serving turkey and stuffing in addition to their traditional chickens and geese.

Even in the East, thanks is given.  The Chinese celebrate the harvest moon festival, or Chung Ch’ui,  on August 15th.  While this celebration is also called the woman festival, it’s believed the moon is brightest and roundest on this day.  They bake small yellow cakes called moon cakes which are gifted to friends and relatives to show appreciation.  This is similar in both timeframe and custom to the Korean practice of ‘Fall Evening’ which is celebrated from the 14th to the 16th of August.  They also make a special food called songpyeon which is eaten after a family gathering in the moonlight to honor ancestors and dance for good fortune.

You’d be hard pressed to find a culture that doesn’t give thanks in some way.  We just tend to go all out on the food here.  Take some time this Thanksgiving to consider the things we share with the rest of the world – humanity is outstanding at thankfulness. And perhaps consider pondering on all the things you can be thankful for…