Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Day in Tibet - The Dalai Lama and Tibetan food


Last week, His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to New York to give a talk on the Four Noble Truths, a basic tenet of Buddhism. Frank and I went to see him speak at Radio City Music Hall. I'd seen him speak several years ago when he did a free talk in Central Park - it was an amazing and inspiring experience, so I was excited when Frank managed to get tickets for this event.


I was excited to see the Dalai Lama because I had been wanting to ever since I went to a Free Tibet rally in Washington DC almost ten years ago. I became interested in the philosophies of Buddhism after reading The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation: As Taught by S. N. Goenka earlier that year. Which, by the way, is a great beginner book if anyone is interested in learning more about Buddhism or just wants a little more zen in their busy, hectic, over-crowded, noisy, cockroach-infested lives (apparently I need to dust my copy off).


I have to say, we were both a little disappointed with the actual event. While it was cool to see him again, our seats were pretty far back and we found the lecture to be almost too textbook-y. Although he did intersperse his comments with funny anecdotes, it was difficult to hear him (a problem that was exacerbated by a woman who was seated very near to us using an automatic translator - a VERY LOUD automatic translator) and we quickly grew frustrated.

Even though the Dalai Lama's lecture itself didn't exactly inspire us, we were inspired by the throngs of Tibetan people that both attended the lecture and showed up at Radio City to try to catch a glimpse of His Holiness. There were hundreds of people there wearing traditional Tibetan clothing (layers of heavy silk) - in the 90 degree heat. To wax political for a moment, their dedication to holding on to their unique culture in the face of unchecked oppression by the Chinese government is nothing short of incredible.

Seeing the Tibetan people in their traditional clothing piqued our interest in Tibetan culture in a larger sense. We knew that Tibet is a mountainous country, but beyond that we had little experience with the culture. We decided to change that immediately.


There are three Tibetan restaurants (that I know of) in New York City; Cafe Himalaya (on 1st St. btwn A & 1st Ave.), Tibetan Kitchen (on 3rd Ave. at 31st St.), and Tsampa (on 9th St. btwn 2nd & 3rd Ave.). That weekend we decided to go to Tsampa and learn a little more about the culture and food.


We walked into Tsampa on a busy Saturday night. We were seated right away at small wooden table, lit by a single tea candle. Our wooden seats were cushioned by decorative woolen rugs. The overall effect was dim, warm and austere. Right off, Frank ordered bocha, which is Tibetan tea. Being from the South, when I think of tea, I think of a nice tall glass of sweet tea. So when Frank offered me a sip, the last flavor I was expecting was...butter. That's right - traditional tea in Tibet is served hot, and prepared with the usual black tea, but instead of a nice heap of sugar and maybe splash of cream, it's flavored with unsalted butter and salt. In my mind, that's a preparation for a baked potato, not tea, but Frank drank it down happily. He was even a little let down when he discovered the milk in the tea was cow's milk, and not the traditional yak's as he had hoped.

We began our meal with momo, a dumpling that is the most popular dish in Tibet, according to our waiter. They were fairly typical of Asian dumplings in shape and filling. Their shell was a little...earthier, almost whole wheat, or something. They were smaller than Chinese dumplings, but very filling.

We followed that up with our entrees - I got something called Ngo Ngopa, a vegetarian dish comprised of sauteed kale, collards greens, and shitake mushrooms. Frank got Shende Ngopa, which was a pan fried rice with basil and ginger. Both of our dishes were so flavorful that it prompted us to ask our waiter to explain the typical spices in Tibetan cooking. He was actually from Tibet, so we ended up talking to him for quite a while. He told us that the primary spice in Tibetan cooking is pepper. Since Tibet is so mountainous, the soil isn't the best for growing stuff. The main staples of their diet are meat and dairy (yak dairy!). He pointed out that, while no red meat is offered on their menu, it's rarely absent from meals in Tibet.

We noticed several things on our own. First of all, the food on the menu had a heavy curry influence. Tibet's geographic closeness to India is no doubt responsible for this. Also, the food had a delicate balance of key flavor, much like Thai cooking. The main characteristic of the food was its heartiness. Even my vegetarian dish was a MEAL meal. There was nothing dainty about this mountain fare.


Although my Tibetan meal was tasty, I would recommend going in the winter months rather than the 90 degree day in July that we chose.

And not to get all philosophical on you but, when going to see the Dalai Lama my biggest mistake was seeking out some sort of enlightening experience. Most of the best discoveries in my life have been made when I least expected them.

Monday, July 14, 2008

iPhone 3G


Forget the super useful GPS, the lightning fast 3G network, and seriously try to forget about the not-so-great battery life. The thing that has me most excited about the new iPhone 3G are all the new applications that are now available. (There is even an application where you can sing into your phone and it will tell you the name of the song, very useful when you've got one stupid line from a song stuck in your head and you can't remember the title)

Yes, I was one of those idiots who stood in line after work for 5 hours on the Friday it came out to get the new iPhone at the 5th Avenue Apple store in Manhattan. At first, Meg and I wondered why on earth we were wasting our Friday night standing in line for a phone. But eventually we made friends with the people around us (standing next to someone for five hours will usually create that kind of bond) and it was kinda like a party with no beer and food catered by street vendors.


The best part about Frank getting a new iPhone was I got his old one! As my Dad pointed out, I suppose I was the only person in that 5-hour line to walk away with a free iPhone! Even though mine isn't a G3, I am still able to access the Application Store and download apps to my phone. I've noticed that apps run the gamut from extremely useful (Mobile Google) to total time-wasters (like our iSabers, that come complete with Star Wars sound effects) and tend towards one extreme or the other. The food apps follow this trend - they're either very useful, or fun for five minutes, then quickly forgotten.

The one Frank and I have gotten the most use out of has been UrbanSpoon. The application detects your city (or you can enter it), and then you "shake" it for a dining suggestion. It breaks it down by neighborhood, cuisine, and price range. If you'd like to stick in your neighborhood, you can scroll down and "lock" it in, and leave the rest up to chance. If you find a restaurant that sounds good, you're one click away from a more detailed description, reviews and links. It's a fun and interesting way to find new restaurants in your city. They are expanding their available cities and their restaurant database via regular updates.

There's also another one called Restaurant Nutrition that I have. This is an interesting concept, but its usefulness to us is limited. Its focus is fast food restaurants - it allows you to find the closest one to you and to access its menu and nutrition facts. So, say you're standing on the street, waiting for the light to change, and suddenly you have a desperate craving for a Big Mac. You can bust out your iPhone, access Restaurant Nutrition, tap "McDonald's" and it will automatically bring up a map pinpointing both your current location and all the McDonald's in your immediate vicinity. Amazing. Even more amazing - after hasten to your nearest McDonald's to satisfy your Big Mac Attack, while you stand in line you can quickly see that your craving will cost you 540 calories, 29 grams of fat, and 1040 grams of sodium. Ouch. A McSalad it is. If you find yourself eating fast food frequently, this would be a helpful application to get. It also keeps a running tally of the calories you've consumed at a fast food joint on any particular day (which could make you think twice before ordering the large fries).


As cool as most of these applications sound, to be honest, I think I've gotten more use out of my iSaber than out of any of the food applications. But there was one food application that I did find useful. However it is a web app (which means I need to access my web browser instead of downloading the application) that has been out for quite some time. It is 101 Cookbooks. You can look up recipes right in the grocery store and get what you need right there on the spot. I'm not going to name any names but I think someone needs to get their developers into gear and start negotiating with Apple's new app store.

Until then I suppose Meg and I will have to make do with our iSaber battles in the aisles of the grocery store and make a grocery list like every body else.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Frank's chipotle-cinnamon BBQ sauce: How to spice up your 4th of july picnic

FrankenMeg: BBQ Sauce from FrankenMeg on Vimeo.

What is it with men and sauce? Barbecue sauce in particular. They have festivals in its honor; contests to taste and compare various recipes (and, of course, compete for the bragging rights that accompany an "award-winning" BBQ sauce); entire restaurants dedicated to barbecue. I'm from the south, so perhaps I understand this uniquely male love affair better than some. For this reason, I don't complain when my mustard and relish are pushed to the back of the fridge to make way for one of Frank's new sauces. Even when our fridge is bare, it's still teeming with sauces - hot sauces, marinades, teriyaki sauces, steak sauces, but most prominently: Barbecue sauces. Frank dearly loves BBQ sauce, and collects it feverishly in every imaginable flavor and style. He scrutinizes ingredients lists with scientific zeal, occasionally nodding and grunting in approval or disdain.

He's also a whiz in the kitchen and has a keen sense for flavor combinations. When he finds a sauce he likes, he frequently takes it upon himself to create an improved version of it, or to pair it differently. While he may enjoy a bottled or restaurant sauce, it's very rare that he's "blown away" because he can usually make a similar sauce at home (only his is better). In fact, the only time this year he's been really impressed was when we were down in Mexico. Our first night there, we were exhausted after a very long day of traveling. We decided to treat ourselves to dinner at a nice restaurant on the beach. I had a very nice shrimp quesadilla, and Frank ordered the special. It arrived, and the aroma was heavenly - perfectly cooked shrimp served in a chipotle-cinnamon sauce. He devoured it and fell in love with the unusual flavor combination.

Fast-forward five months to Frank's family's annual 4th of July reunion/cook-out. Frank struggled for a bit deciding what to bring as a dish to pass. He wanted to bring something summery and suitable for a picnic, but he didn't want to bring your run-of-the-mill potato salad. Luckily, inspiration struck: Chipotle-cinnamon barbecue wings. He realized the smokey sweetness of the chipotle-cinnamon sauce would easily translate into a savory but distinctive barbecue sauce.