September 7, 2007
Eating Soybean Porridge With the Amateur Gourmet
[Intro: Today I welcome The Amateur Gourmet as he stops by on his virtual book tour! Canada isn't over yet—I still have a final entry, which will go up this weekend.]
Nothing is more frustrating, more anger-inducing than laboring over a dinner that explodes in your oven, that mocks your goodwill and your hunger, that makes you never want to cook again.
Yeah. Hell yeah. YEEAAAHHH! [shoots a virtual pistol into virtual space, killing a virtual bird]
Adam Roberts, aka The Amateur Gourmet, knows what he's talking about in the introduction to his new book, The Amateur Gourmet: How to Shop, Chop, and Table Hop Like a Pro (Almost). I can't tell you how many times I've cooked something, taken a bite of the offensive result after an hour of labor and thought, "Well, this tastes like crap. But I will swallow my pride and eat this tasteless atrocity borne forth from my untrained hands. ...After which I will sit in that corner over there and sob a little while pondering the uselessness of my life."
Of course, Adam doesn't end there. Or else his book would've been really short and depressing.
But here's the catch: floating above the fray is the possibility, the remote but very real possibility, that all of your efforts will collude into something joyous, something extraordinary. The smell of an almond cake baking, the sound of a lamb shank braising, the taste of your very first homemade hollandaise, are such potent sensations that no amount of failure can discourage you once you've tasted success.
...Yeah, I guess that could happen. In a magical land...[strokes chin thoughtfully for symbolic purposes]...
I'm going to assume that joyous and extraordinary results have come from Adam's efforts many more times than they have from mine, which is why he was able to write a book about his joyous and extraordinary results (and more books are surely on the way) while I will never write a book about cooking because it would contain one word: "FAIL." (Or two words: "I FAIL." It depends whether the book needs complete sentences.)
In his book Adam recounts cooking for friends, cooking for family, eating with friends, eating with family, eating alone, eating with Ruth Reichl...yes, there is a theme. But I don't feel the need to summarize the book since amazon.com has already done that for me. (Yay, Internet! It's so smart. It deserves a cookie.) For this leg of Adam's virtual book tour I'll do what I usually do, which is talk about meals I've eaten with other people, instead of something informative like Michael Ruhlman's interview with Adam. I give you pictures, man. Pikchuurrzzz!!...zzz!
At my request we ate at Cho Dang Gol in Koreatown, a restaurant known for its tofu soups. Judging from the header of the restaurant's homepage, this tofu appears to be made in a giant vat with the aid of a wooden paddle. Judging from the tastiness of our soups, I'd say the giant vat was no ordinary vat, but a vat of magic. I'll get to that later.
Shortly after we sat down and exchanged a few words ("Hello," etc) our table was blessed with many various types of banchan (potato with dried fish, pickled cucumber, kimchi, kimchi pancake, some kind of smoked fish, and what looked like a dish of raw lettuce but must've been more than that). Banchan for me are like previews before a movie—they may not the main thing, but they work up to the feature presentation/meal, get the excitement going or something. I'm actually disappointed when the previews are over and the real movie begins. Those complimentary bits are fun! And surprising! All that comedy and drama and action! God, I love previews. I mean, banchan. Yeah.
The banchan provided us with something to munch on while we sat in uncomfortable silence.
...Actually, it was really easy to talk to Adam. Duh. Although we've met a couple of times in the past (and by "a couple" I really mean two) I don't think we had ever exchanged more than ten words. But now he was stuck with me! Me and the tofu! Without any escape in sight! Besides the restaurant's entrance, that is.
"It must be really cool to see your book in a bookstore," I commented.
"Actually, it's kind of scary," started Adam. While I initially assumed that seeing one's book staring back at you from the table of a major bookstore would result in thoughts like, "WEE, HAPPY," according to Adam you're more likely to think, "Will that person pick it up? What about that person? ...OH MY GAWD, she's flipping through it." Adam compared the sensation of seeing his newly published book in a bookstore to that of being fresh meat at a dance and wondering who'll approach you and ask if you would join him/her for a song, if anyone. I don't know what Adam's past experience with dances is like, but if I'm to parallel that with my awkward adolescent experiences that means no one would glance at my book, let alone pick it up.
It wasn't long before our table was covered in food, much of it soy-based.
After the waitress had piled two bowls with rice (a mixture of white and black rice), she filled in the master rice bowl with tea, resulting in some kind of tea and residual rice soup. This tastes just like you would expect tea and rice to taste like. If it were up to me I would've just scraped the rice bits out of the bowl, but if you like tea then I guess this is the way to go.
My spicy soybean porridge arrived at the table furiously bubbling, seemingly threatening to explode its kimchi flavored liquid in my face until it died down and stopped frothing angrily. I filled my spoon with some rice, filled the remaining space with the soft tofu mash mixed with spicy soup and ground pork nubbles and...OH JESUS IT STILL BURNS! But it was awesome, definitely worth killing a few skin cells for, although I would suggest you try to cool it down first before shoving it past your lips and destroying the inner lining of your mouth.
Adam ordered the classic soybean meal, which ended up being a triple tofu hit of white soybean porridge (like my dish without the spiciness), fermented soybean soup, and hand-made tofu , which is pictured above. The tofu wasn't seasoned with anything else besides a sprinkling of sesame seeds, allowing all the pure watery tofu-y goodness to shine through.
Although Adam isn't adverse to spicy food, he still acclimating himself to the burning sensation. I went straight for the spicy tofu porridge because I craved the burning. Maybe Adam will get it next time. :)
I asked Adam what it was like to meet Ruth Reichl (you know, the goddess of food writing and critiquing and stuff...you DO know, right?), from whom he learned the Ten Commandments of Eating Out (read the book to find out, bwahaha). He didn't say anything negative, just that's she's...intense, doesn't bullshit, has strong beliefs, all very good thing of course. As much as I love her writing, I'm afraid I would vomit in her presence due to nervousness. ...Why am I telling you this?...
I asked Adam if there were any more books on the horizon. A novel is in the works and perhaps another cooking related guide will get the Amateur Gourmet treatment. It all depends on how his new book fares. Noooo pressure. (Remember to check out the book, mmk?) I thought a restaurant review book would be nice (one of my favorite chapters in the book is the one where he eats alone at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris) but such a book is unlikely since there's more interest from readers and himself to focus on cooking. His audience is split into two (or more, but at least two); those who prefer his cooking posts and those who prefer his restaurant review posts (I am in the latter). The cooking posts have a wider appeal while the restaurant reviews are mostly favored by New Yorkers. Stuff goes on outside New York? ...Huuuh? ...Okay, I guess it does make more sense to focus on the cooking.
I usually tell people that I don't cook much, but after talking to Adam and reading his book I realized that I do cook some. Lil' bit. I'm not going to roast a chicken in truffle butter, but if I have a craving for omu-rice or lime cream pie I'm gonna fill the craving, dammit (I've made both within the past week). However, as Adam says in his book's introduction, you're going to fail a lot in the quest to be a better cook. I don't like failing nor messing up. I'm not saying anyone actually enjoys those things, but I think it's harder for me to just learn from my mistakes and move on than most people, or at least Adam. Adam strives to do more with his cooking skills while I...well, I just want something simple that I won't screw up.
I'm not sure what kind of conclusion that was. Kind of...sad, maybe. "Robyn is doomed." I think I need to read the book over again and feel the inspiration come through. It's there in every chapter, yet for some reason I resisted. And I really need to not resist the chapter about knife sharpening because my knife in in serious need of a tune up.
On a more positive note, eating out with Adam is fun! You should try it.
Posted by roboppy at 2:01 AM
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