Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Jason Bourne and a Hot Pot

Hot Pot at Shabu with cuttlefish, tofu, seaweed, and shitake mushrooms. 

Last Saturday was my splurge night of the month, and I spent it with the new Jason Bourne movie followed by a luscious hot pot and a sweet dessert. Dinner is the primary object of my report, but I'm going to say just a few words about the movie, so if you're not interested in Jason Bourne, skip down a bit. The embedded video down there, Bourne in 90 Seconds, tells you what fun you're missing, and beyond that lies the food story.

Waiting for the show at the Alamo Drafthouse
in the Village, which has new reclining seats with
extending leg rests that are electrically controlled.
They also have new tables. The Alamo in its older
configuration was already more comfortable than
any other theater in town, and now they've outdone
even themselves. Only under extreme duress do I
go to another theater.
Jason Bourne is also the title of the movie, and it's at least as good as its four predecessors, which says a lot for the quality of the franchise. Matt Damon is back as Jason, of course, and Paul Greengrass, who directed The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, directs this one.

Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons, whom we met in The Bourne Identity as the administrator of the Paris Treadstone station, and who allies herself with Jason in the Bourne Ultimatum, is also back—at the beginning of the movie she goes to Reykjavik, Iceland, and infiltrates a CIA computing station redolent of WikiLeaks, which is also based in Reykjavik. She steals documents dating back to how Jason got into the project in the first place.

Both Nicky and especially Jason are showing the strain of living invisibly and off the grid. Jason has apparently run out of money—remember that huge stash of cash in the safe deposit box?—and fights in impromptu rings for money. His living quarters are also a massive come-down from the posh and expansive flat he once had in Paris.

Matt Damon (Bourne) and Alicia Vikander
(Heather Lee) in the movie poster for the new
Jason Bourne.
Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee at CIA in Langley signals a sea-change in either company policy or strategy: maybe her offer for Bourne to "come in" (as in "come in from the cold") is a legitimate offer to let Bourne have an office job and a house in suburban Virginia, or maybe it's just a strategy that acknowledges the failure of cat-and-mouse approaches to catch Bourne and seeks to replace them with a sweet lure into a trap. The sea change is too big to play out in a single movie and will likely be with us for a couple more episodes. Vikander, a Swedish actress whose film appearances have gone internationally viral, played Ava in Ex Machina and Anne Marie in Burnt, and she's playing lots of action figures like Gaby in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Lara Croft in a new Tomb Raider movie currently in pre-production.

If you're not familiar with the franchise, here's is Matt Damon with a delightful ninety-second summary of the first four movies:
Fine. I love movies, but, gods help me, I love to eat even more. My many vicarious adventures with Asian-based foodies like Mark Wiens, Yuka Kinoshita, and Simon and Martina have given me cravings of late for either a big bowl of ramen noodle soup or a hot pot. I've eaten lots of the twenty-five-cent ramen noodle soups, self-contained meals almost ready to eat—just add boiling water—with cardboard noodles steeped almost to softness and seasoned with their metallic envelopes of flavoring for the timid broth. But I want the grown-up twenty-five-dollar version of ramen where the noodles are fresh like handmade pasta instead of something pasted together, and garnished with green onions and other savory aromatic vegetables that enrich the broth, and where I can also find mushrooms and meat and a hard-boiled egg.

Of the two yearnings, I let the ramen wait for now and went for the hot pot. A few weeks ago I wrote about tea and the Chinese and Japanese ceremonies around the beverage. The east Asian cuisines are more keenly aware of the essen and fressen distinction that I talk about in that blog—the distinction of sanctifying eating in a reverent, human way vs. eating like an animal—and while the center of the Asian version of this concept lies with tea, it also extends to many dishes in which the restaurant staff focus on sophisticated presentations for the food but leave the actual cooking to the customer.

I came across an old but great example of the importance of sanctified eating a few days ago in Kill Bill, vol. 2. (I will presume by now that everyone who's going to see this movie has seen it so I don't have to worry about spoilers—come on, it's been twelve years, people!) When Budd (Michael Madsen) buries Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) alive, the narrative flashes back to her training with the ancient master Pai Mei, who tasks her with Karate Kid-like repetitive tasks like carrying hundreds of gallons of water up a long stone staircase and endlessly trying to punch a hole in thick wood from a distance of only a few inches, which of course just happens to be the skill one needs when buried alive in a wooden box. At the dinner scene, when she and Pai Mei are eating bowls of rice, her hands are so sore from punching thick wood boards all day long that she cannot manipulate her chopsticks to eat, so she starts eating with her hands. This violation of the esssen/fressen code infuriates Pai Mei, who throws her rice on the floor and says that if she wants to eat like a dog, she can get down on the floor and eat. But having made his point, he slides another bowl of rice across the table to her, and she painfully picks up her chopsticks and begins to eat.

Bi-bim-bap (비빔밮) not yet all mixed up.
Photo by Agnes Ly. Licensed by CC By-SA 2.0.
In the heart of the Japanese steak country in Kobe, customers grill their own thinly sliced, highly marbled steak. Dak galbi (닭갈비), the Korean stir-fried dish of diced chicken in gochujang (spicy red bean paste) with sliced cabbage, sweet potato, scallions, onions, perilla leaves, and tteok is presented lavishly to the customer, each food in its own bowl, and the customer cooks at a grill built into the table until dinner is ready. Even the simple bi-bim-bap (비빔밮), which means "all mixed up"—like the title of a Cars song—is served as a glorious presentation of its ingredients, and the customer is supposed to take his chopsticks and stir everything until it is one big mish-mash, then eat it with a spoon. Yet many Koreans share received cultural truths—like sleeping in a closed room with an electric fan is fatal—so all mixed up is the way bi-bim-bap must be according to that thinking. Yet just as I love beautiful presentations—and I think the East Asians overall beat everyone else on the planet at presentations—I have an aversion to mixing foods so they look like the contents of the slop barrel at the tray-turn-in window in a school cafeteria, so left to my own devices I never ate bi-bim-bap all mixed up, but randomly sampled the ingredients kept apart in my bowl. One time a well-meaning Korean told me I was eating it wrong and seized my bowl and chopsticks and had stirred everything up to look like school cafeteria slop before I had a chance to object.
After I was seated, the waiter brought me this simple plate of pickled vegetables, that I really enjoyed. When he brought out the hot pot, he set them out of reach, but I moved them back because I was determined to relish every julienned strip. ©2016 MW.

The choice list for hot pot is daunting, and it took me a beer and ten minutes to make up my mind. ©2016 MW.
Simon & Martina have a video about shabu shabu, which is a particularly Japanese rendering of a hot pot featuring thin slices of either beef or pork. Shabu, Martina explains in the video, is the Japanese word for swish, as in "Swish and flick," the peculiar motion that Hermione masters in the first Harry Potter movie. So shabu shabu means "swish swish," which is all it takes to cook thinly sliced red meat in a hot pot.

The scored flat cuttlefish diamond curls back upon itself to
make this florette pattern. Here's a piece with a dash of sauce
ready to be eaten with an ecstatic joy for seafood.
Shabu shabu is a Japanese subset of hot pottery in general, and the restaurant where I was, Shabu, offers a pan-Asian assortment of hot pots, including the Japanese kind. But I was in the mood for something lighter, like fish, which is how I settled upon the cuttlefish. In its raw state, the cuttlefish brought to my table was cut in thick, diamond-shape pieces. I ate one raw, but it lacked the zingy freshness that I'm accustomed to with sushi. When the cuttlefish cooked in the hot pot though, it curled around itself, and the prep cook had scored the meat so that it takes on a florette appearance.

I chose the shitake mushroom stock, so the tureen arrived with mushrooms already in the pot. I used to think of mushrooms as wispy delicate things, like dandelions, that would fly apart at the lightest touch, but it turns out that they are quite resilient in a soup, stew, or in the bottom of a slow cooker beneath a pot roast. In this hot pot stew, they took on a hint of the cuttlefish and provide textural contrast. Each of my ingredients made like what seemed to be a separate stew in the one pot: the cuttlefish created those lovely flowers of fish, somewhat like calamari, but not as tough and chewy. The tofu, which was medium or soft before it went into the pot, came out in bits and strands, and it made a wonderful tofu soup like I ate when I was in Korea. The long strips of seaweed bore their own marine vegetable taste in which a slight lettuce-like flavor was amplified by the sea and made rich in nutrients. I want to say I could taste the iodine in it¸ but I don't really have any idea what iodine would taste like in nutrient quantities, but I do sense the essences of the vegetation with a strength that makes the underwater world seem as though it's another planet with its own flora.

I was surprised by how much food came to my table. Since this was a first time for me, I relied upon the waiter to tell me how much I should order, and he recommended three items, so that's what I ordered. That turned out to be a lot, yet one item, even with the shitake mushrooms in the stock, would not a hot pot make, so maybe next time I'll get two items. I rotated among the cuttlefish, the tofu, and the seaweed in both my adding to the pot and my taking away. After I'd added one particular large batch of tofu, I also put in the egg that I'd ordered, and I picked out cuttlefish while the tofu and egg cooked.

During the course of dinner, something that I had been trying to remember on and off for years suddenly flashed clearly and solidly in my mind. The name of a Vietnamese and Pan-Asian restaurant in Washington, DC, came to me. Germaine's, which was on Wisconsin Avenue. When I lived in Washington I had read that Germaine's had been Henry Kissinger's favorite restaurant, and that was saying a lot because the old insidious imperialist knew how to eat and had eaten widely in many of the world's best restaurants—I can imagine a man becoming the particularly vicious imperial engine of a presidency with the ulterior motive of broadening his culinary horizons—so Henry knew. When I went to Germaine's it was utterly exquisite because every detail had been tended with care.

Mango pudding. ©2016 MW.
After that lingering over a delicious and adventurous dinner, I spotted on the menu a mango pudding that fit my mood and the night's Asian motif, and I love mangoes above all other fruit. I flashed on the scene in Apocalypse Now when Willard (Martin Sheen) and Chef (Frederic Forrest) get off the boat to look for mangoes and find a Tiger instead. Their flight back to the boat as they shoot in random directions sets off a reaction among the men in the boat, and they start shooting too because they believe the Vietcong are swooping down upon them. Finally Chef gets everyone to calm down because it was only "a fucking tiger."

CHIEF
You forgot the mangoes, didn't you?

CHEF
Mangoes? There was a fucking tiger in the woods -- I could've been eaten alive. I'm never going into that jungle again. I gotta remember never get out of the boat; never get outta the boat.

They move off; swallowed by the darkness. The JUNGLE  NOISES remain, as OUR VIEW BEGINS a MOVE INTO the jungle.

WILLARD (V.O.)
He was right, the Chef -- never go into the jungle, unless you're ready to go all the way.

But after that deeply Asian hot pot, a sweet and jungly mango pudding made perfect sense, and it was a pudding worth getting off the boat for.

Dragon's Lair. ©2016 MW.
When I came out the sun was just going down, and I was in the mood for a leisurely walk home with a few stops along the way. I stopped at Dragon's Lair, the comics, manga, and game store, where I found a half-price copy of the fourth volume in a graphic novel by Osamu Tezuka on the life of the Buddha. I already have the first volume, so it was impossible to resist this book, especially at half price.

After that I walked over to Northcross Mall across the street and stopped at Tea Haus and had a hot black tea. Apparently Tea Haus is a social center for the youthful component of one of Austin's Asian communities because there were many Asians there drinking tea, talking, laughing, and having a good time.

Neighborhoods rise and fall then undergo their gentifications on the way up again, and that's what's happening in north central Austin. The area along Anderson Lane—the Village, Northcross Mall, and some other shopping centers—have some exciting things happening, particularly in the way of restaurants, but, with a few exceptions, my mile homeward down Burnet Road is a path among dry dinosaur bones of the last century's extinction. At nine o'clock, unless I'm looking for a bar to hole up in, those few good places—Juiceland with its excellent smoothies, and the nearby head shop; El Chilito with its neo-hip cuisine tacos; Ichiban, the Korean Japanese restaurant with its exquisite sushi; and Taqueria Arandas, with its authentic regional cuisine—are closed. Well, I take that back: Ichiban was open, but most likely at that hour it's functioning as a bar serving another one of the Asian communities. Much of Burnet Road had shifted from service industries to used car lots, but slowly now the car lots are closing down and the service industries are coming back.

One innovative place along my way is apparently a place where you can bring your dog and sit at a picnic table in the outdoors and drink. That might explain the drunk man standing on the corner who was asking me for something, probably money. When I lived in Colombia I learned to do a threat assessment of everyone in my path—rather like Schwarzenegger's android in the first Terminator movie with his red LED readout for everyone in his path. I told the drunk on the corner as I passed him that I don't carry money (which is true), and kept walking. I judged that he was too drunk to keep up with me or to pose much of a threat, but I glimpsed back over my shoulder from time to time just in case.

When I was in high school I had a long walk home from school, and I learned then to not worry about the distance or the time but to focus on my own thoughts, and I did that well that night. So coming down the last stretch almost took me by surprise, but it was good to be home. It was a good splurge night for July.