Boy, today was h-o-t! Yesterday was bad enough but this morning was unbelievable. April’s not even over yet and we’ve already had a record high of 92°F. To many of you it may seem that I’m overstating this, since you may live in much hotter places. Heck, I’ve lived in much hotter places. Bombay is far from a ski vacation and college in Texas had many sweltering days where being outside gave you a fairly good idea of what hell must feel like. The difference is, here in the Bay area, we’re spoiled weather-wise, especially in San Francisco. Think bright beautiful sunshine with your own personal air-conditioning around you. That’s what it is like, sunshine with heat optional. The fog ensures that we need jackets in the summer, because when there is no sun, it is cool. Even on hot days, the temperature difference between night and day can be as much as 30°, as it is supposed to tonight. And as I sit here writing this, smelling the ocean on this hot spring night, the breeze starting blow in through my window is telling me this will be true.
It’s a darn shame I can’t sleep on the roof of my apartment building. I would brave random nocturnal creature attacks to enjoy a few hours of cooling slumber. It is impossible trying to sleep when you are hot. You slowly roast where you lie, incapacitated and zapped to near death by the crazy heat. Living in these cooler climes has taught me that I prefer the cold. I love everything about summer except the heat. Crazy but true. Even as I continue to slowly type this at the rate of two words per minute, I’m getting slower as my brain continues to melt into oblivion. Oh my future and past kingdoms for an air-conditioned room! (Incidentally in case you are wondering, apartments here rarely have air-conditioning, courtesy the normally fabulous weather.)
It’s no secret I love potatoes. Anyone who knows me a little could tell you that about me. Sometimes, random strangers have been forced to hear about my life-long love affair with the aloo. I do my Ancient Mariner routine and they are forced to go through what it must feel like to be a patron of Hotel California. You can just see them, politely yet desperately move away from me while I prattle about boiled potatoes, steamed potatoes, baked potatoes, fried potatoes, the several ways the French cook their potatoes..(droool!! smack!!)…but I digress..
I am the self-anointed ultimate potato critic. When I go to a new restaurant, I will peruse it with the express intention of finding their pomme de terre dish du jour (or belonging to their permanent collection, I’m not too picky about the little things). I look to see how they serve it, what accompanies it, and then look through the rest of the menu. Yes, I know that it is most unlikely to find several dishes where the potato is the star on a menu. My philosophy is that the potato is the star, not the side, the chicken and lamb or (insert anything else here), serve only as a basis of a flavourful accompaniment. It gives me a feel of the essence of the restaurant when I find what they choose to pair my favourite with. While I’ve accepted that restaurants serving Asian cuisine are unlikely to serve patatas, most others do. So imagine my horror when I went to one that serves vegetarian food (pages and pages of it, you never saw such a vast menu!) but didn’t have a single potato on the list! Yes, Cafe Gratitude, bet no one told you that about your menu before! A combination of that, the pervading smell of pot and the bleary-eyed waitress (who didn’t know their desserts and made my friends accompany her to the display case to find out) has ensured that I will never again step through your doors. But mostly the ‘no potato’ thing.
The rain is leaving us as spring waltzes in but it certainly isn’t leaving quietly. In the night, my little kitchen was flooded in moonlight but as I looked up, swift grey covers silently stole in and blocked her from my view. The next morning, formerly azure skies were swathed in threatening grays and mauves. People who had put away their winter wear were sent scrambling for their coats and spent the day wishing for the sun again. But despite the shocked gasps that I’m going to incite from that quarter, I’m not sure I’m ready for the rain to leave us just yet. I do like the sun but I’m going to miss winter’s quiet monochrome days this time around. It’s perfect for staying in and studying, which I’ve needed to do. Nevertheless, foodwise, I am looking forward to spring and summer’s bounty of fresh produce, which in the Bay Area is tremendous.
Before then, we continue to make the best of staples and our small pantry. Greens restaurant here in San Francisco always seems to have wonderful menus no matter what the season and their head chef Annie Sommerville’s cookbook Field of Greens is one of my favourite places to go looking when I want different flavours. This light and lovely scrambled egg breakfast is simple, with ingredients quite different from what I’d normally put in scrambled eggs. The sesame gives it varied smoky nuance and the ginger brings a lovely mild heat.
Plan a visit to San Francisco and chances are good that Chinatown will pop up on your itinerary. It’s a favourite with tourists. Yet unlike most tourist frequented areas, this also has a very strong local pulse. There are times in the day that this pulse becomes an aggressive beat, sort of like watching hundreds of people scramble to Iron Maiden’s Run to the Hills. Stand in one place and you are liable to get bowled over by carts unloading or old grandma’s armed with shopping carts. For Chinatown, among other things, is also a veritable treasure trove of a market.
Living in the next neighbourhood as I do, I had never really spent much time in Chinatown since the very first time I lived in the city. I passed through it often yet never lingered much. The tourist attractions hold none for me and the markets, bakeries and restaurants confused me. I have a comfort zone with food which I tentatively push and expand a little at a time, and will certainly not do under any duress. And the stress of trying to figure out what was in a particularly enticing bun always reduced me to a bundle of nerves. And in that condition, I reach for the old and familiar not the new and untested. So Chinatown and I went on like those ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing.()
Look anywhere these days and you’ll see individuals, entities and whole countries cutting back. The current economic crisis has proving to be critical enough that no one escape unscathed. I work in the downtown area in San Francisco, and remember marvelling at the fact that even on work day nights, the mall next door used to be teeming with life, shoppers and lollygaggers galore. In recent times, the mall has the hush of a museum, the various shops looking like so many exhibits as we all walk by in a self-imposed mode of look-but-don’t-touch. This is easily emphasized by the fact that there aren’t that many stores as there once were, patches of dark are added to the retail tapestry all over as stores kick the bucket, sometimes stealing suddenly and quietly away into the night. Architecture and construction has been summarily decimated by the economy. As part of the belt tightening at my workplace, discretionary spending has been severely reduced. Lunch & Learns have taken up the ‘bring-your-own’ slogan definitively. There are no team lunches. Our team has come up with a good idea to work with this, in keeping with the bring-your-own theme. We have become our own caterers.
Once a month, the team meets to discuss ideas and current issues pertaining to the profession and what we do. This is different from working team meetings because the talk is not just restricted to the project at hand. It is an essential part of team building which we all appreciate at a time when communication is key. Plus there is nothing like bonding over food. This element was essentially renewed when my team-mate P.K suggested that she cook for this month’s meeting. P.K is a Malaysian native, who has lived in several places all over the world. She has a great sense of humour and is wonderful to work with. At the end of a long Wednesday, the smell of her chicken curry was intensely appetizing. She made a delicious silver noodle salad to accompany it, and served it alongside what Malaysians call roti-platha (and what Indians would call paratha, one of our forms of bread). I learned just how similar Malaysian food can be to Indian food and how delicious. Swooning over this curry as I did, P.K and I had an engaging conversation after the meeting about how she made it. She graciously presented me with a packet of my very own Malaysian meat spice mix the next day that I tried out as soon as I could, that very weekend. For a long time lover of curries, I am ecstatic to find a new one I love. I love how this country continues to engage in a diversity very different from the one I knew back home.