From Scratch

“These things,” Shan’s saying, patting the dough in his hand, turning it over and over while the flour showers down between his fingers, “all of these things, take care.” His eyes motion for his busy hands at the cook station, organized meticulously, fingerprints in the spice containers, knives at the ready.IMG_2714

“You have to care about food like this.” and he lays the dough over the paddle, pulls the topper off the tandoor, heat burbling out of it like the foam on an overpoured beer, swirling in the already suffocating heat of the kitchen, pooling around our ankles and rising into the roar of the hood fan. He slaps the dough to the inside of the oven, and it sticks there, swelling in places, coloring warmly.

Krishan and I look at each other and the word ‘awesome’ ripples noiselessly through the air between us. We’re nerding out real hard on this one. Between the oven, the serious looking dudes behind us working like a battle hardened mortar crew, and taste of the product of all that seriousness and care still heavy on our tongues and in our guts, we are trippin balls. Sensory overload. Cocaine at a KISS concert, only, you know, good.  

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You can find Naan-N-Curry at the corner of 3rd and Burnett in downtown Renton in a building that’s over 100 years old, tucked between a bank and an auction place. Maybe you’ve heard about it, considering that it’s got 700 and something Yelp reviews and a fat chunk of Urbanspoon and Google plus ratings. Maybe you read about it in the Seattle Met or on one of the many Halal eating guides that have featured it over the past few years. I certainly had never heard of it, which surprised me, considering that, in the course of our work, Krishan and I have spent a good chunk of our time following shitheads through that former coal mining town, pulling surveillance from the backs of panel vans, tailing old beater cars down alleys to the snap and flicker of a Nikon shutter opening and closing. I thought I was starting to get to know that city pretty well. It’s hard not to get to know a place that you’re trying to learn the street names of so that if you catch a bullet in the gut you know where to send the paramedics. So when Krishan asked me to meet him at the Pakistani/ Indian food place on 3rd. My response was,

“The fuck are you talking about?”

I’d been up and down 3rd. I knew which direction it ran, what zip code it was in and how long it took to get to Valley Medical from there. (12 minutes. 7 if our buddy Danil is driving.)

“Naan N Curry” he said, and my brain tried to turn over twice on empty. Nothing.

So he sent me the address and I punched into my google machine, fired up the jalopy and set out to learn something, which is exactly what happened.

 

Krishan knew what he was about when we sat down in the place and he ordered for me like a confident guy on a date. With my permission of course. It was beautiful. He was like,

“Is it cool if I order for you?”

And I was all,

“Oh, a man who knows what he wants. Tee hee. Yeah.”

And he was like,

“We’re gonna have an order of the Chicken Tikka Masala, some garlic naan, the Boti kebab with lamb and two glasses of the mango lassi.”

And I fanned myself with my acrylic nails and took in the interior of the of the place. Dark colors, splashed in light by the fixtures on the walls. Bollywood on the TV, in all its crazy glory, and the smell eastern spices floating through the room, just plain not fucking around. Then the  lassi hit the table and my focus drained down into the glass.

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“Everything in this place is made from scratch.” Shan is saying but his eyes are on the tandoor and the spatulas in his hands. Behind him on the assembly line, there are bulk spices, separated into their basest elements. No store bought mixes back here. No tubs of name brand dairy waiting to be plopped lazily into dishes and upsold. Just hard working people with pieces of excellence mid-assembly. “We could buy yogurt at the store and use it to make the lassi, but it doesn’t taste the same. It’s not as good. That’s important to us.”


I want to preface this next part with the fact that I FUCKIN LOVE YOGURT. I can’t trace the geneology of that obsession back to any particular moment in my past. It wasn’t some family tradition or childhood experience that I latched onto. It was just back in there like a genetic anomaly. Yogurt=Good. I eat it almost daily as an after dinner snack and my wife won’t watch me spoon it down because the fervor and attention with which I do it is straight up upsetting. SO, that being said, it’s not particularly surprising that I would be all about the lassi, a beverage that originated from the Punjab region and is made with water, spices, fruit (in this case mango) and most importantly, some tasty ass homemade yogurt. Despite my predisposition, I feel like I can look at this objectively and say that it was incredible. Life changing. Epiphanic. Well, kind of objectively.

 

The food came next, all at once, probably 10 minutes after we ordered it, steaming lustily. The pace and  aggression of our eating increased with the intensity of an avalanche. Couple chunks of ice slipping down a hill as we took the first few bites, felt the flavor crackle over our tongues like pop rocks. Whole sheet of ice let go as we tore chunks off the garlic naan and started dipping it in stuff, then I got a hold of some tangy, perfectly cooked lamb and it was total chaos roaring down the mountain. We couldn’t eat fast enough. Plates were licked. I think I dipped some naan in a candle, because I was on autopilot and there wasn’t any tikka masala left to smoosh it into.

 

When the dust had settled, I was sufficiently sold on the place. I flagged down a waitress and asked her a few questions, which led to her flagging down Shan, the son of the owner, which led to Krishan and I being led, Willy Wonka style, through the kitchen while Shan explained the intricacies of Pakistani/Indian food, and the love with which they make it. That brings us finally to standing in front of a tandoor, watching Shan peel naan off the side of it with spatulas, saying,

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“I’ve been around this food for my whole life. I remember when I was 7, sitting in the back of a van, heading back from a catering gig that I’d been on with my dad.” They catered, and still cater, a lot. The back kitchen area is full of industrial looking machines that they use to crank out huge portions of quality food for some pretty prestigious clients. Shan continues, “ There was a huge dish full of rice pudding beside me, and my dad took a corner too hard and BLAM!” Shan slips the golden naan out of the oven, flips it onto the cook station and one of the cooks descends on it with butter and garlic.

“I was covered in rice pudding, head to toe.” Shan says, laughing.

 

He’s picked up a master’s degree in finance and worked in some other fields, since then. But he couldn’t stay away from the family business. And how could he? It was about history and care and passion, and you don’t just walk away from something like that. Especially not when you’ve been immersed so completely in it.
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Links:

http://www.naanncurry.com/

 

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Room on the Plate

Food has been my wayward 13 year old this week. I’m not mad, just disappointed. Except you, airport meal. Im mad at you. Fuck you. The rest has been just different shades of beige. Underwhelming flatbreads, half-assed sandwiches, meat basted in mediocrity, broiled in ‘meh’. I kept pushing myself away from the table with a groan stuck in my throat, thinking “next time. It’ll be better next time”. But every time I sat down there was a sigh and a groan and the chattering of those chair legs on the hardwood and I started to think that maybe it was me. Maybe food just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. It would be understandable, if that were the case. With two sick grandmothers and a rocky professional life, new house with old house problems and my own poor health to worry about, I was beginning to think that maybe I didn’t have a lot of room left on my plate for anything, no matter how well seasoned or prepared.

If I was wrestling with that feeling as they waved me through security at the airport, reluctantly bailing dirt out of the hole in which I intended to bury my love for good food, the sandwich I picked up at a kiosk (that will remain nameless) showed up like a backhoe and finished that grave in one noisy handful. Sadness on a half stale bun. I boarded my plane and streaked across a pale blue sky. When I landed in Sacramento I pulled my book bag out from under the seat, packed my boohoo bullshit into it and promised not to take it out until the trip was over.

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“How are you feeling, Nana Susan?” I said the words and I felt stupid the moment they whistled past my lips. Not good. She’s feeling really not good. She’s feeling like fire forged fuck-this with a solid shit hilt. Every part of her is thinning. Her hair and her skin and her muscles and her patience and that’s just a result of the thing that’s supposed to be helping her. Someone once told me that chemotherapy is just an attempt to bring you so close to death that the cancer thinks its finished its job and clocks out. Setting the house on fire to scare the burglars out.

“Everything hurts.” she said and I ran a hand through her wispy hair because there was nothing else to do.

That night, when visiting hours were over, my father and I were sitting at the kitchen table, pondering dinner in the offhanded way one might consider whether they’d left the burner on at home while their plane is crashing. I was fresh off the jetway and new to the situation, but my father had been in town for at almost a week before already, and it was a rough one. Aside from my grandmothers partner having cancer, which is plenty, my grandmother had taken a fall, or as she adorably referred to it  “what the kids call a face plant”, in the backyard a few nights before. The photos they took are what sent me scrambling for the airport. She looked like she’d been hit by a blueberry cobbler with a brick in it. 12 stitches above her eye,  broke her arm in three places.

The nights just got longer and the mornings earlier from there. The day’s bled together and I landed in Sacramento to find a group of righteously exhausted people.

“There’s a uh… There’s a… Whathisname… Uh.. Ramen, down the way.” My dad said, grinding the heel of his palm into his forehead, trying to mash some lucidity back in there.

“Yeah, whatever sounds good to you.”

“It’s good.” He said. ”… It’s fucking great.”
So we ordered two bowls of oxtail ramen to go, picked them up in Nanas minivan, brought them back to the house and poured the still steaming broth into mismatched Goodwill bowls. Then the noodles, the spinach, the roasted garlic, the sprouts and the hard boiled egg. Finally the oxtail, chunks of chewy looking meat wrapped around little smoked looking bones. In my bag on the floor of my grandmothers spare bedroom, my boohoos muttered something pessimistic about the meal I was about to shovel down.
Probably not very good. – Or –  don’t get your hopes up.
Something shitty like that.


My dad was slurping on his side of the table, his bowl nestled in among the sympathy cards and the unpaid bills scattered around it and I lowered my expectations and my face to the bowl, sipped some broth.

Suck Me Sideways.

There was a gurgle and a rasp as my boohoos died a painful and well deserved death in the next room. A knock at a door inside me, which I answered eagerly. My groove was back. Escorted passionately into my life by that warm bowl of Taye Diggs, with its crunchy little sprouts and chewy noodles.

“Oh my god” I said.

And my dad lifted his face from his bowl, color coming back into him, that punch drunk look leaving his eyes.


“Try the oxtail” he said, and I rescued one of those swimmers from the savory butterscotch broth, picked the meat off the bones with my teeth, though I could have done it with my tongue as tender as it was. So sweet and complimentary to the salt in the broth.

We ate in silence, save the exclamations. Mouthfuls of broth, lungfuls of steam, hearts full of happy, if only for moment.


The next few days were flash paper. 100 plus degree Sacramento heat, nicotine skyline, with all the smoke from all the fires trying to consume the state of California. I did dishes and bought groceries and fed dogs and all those other little tasks that get harder to do when you’re busy fighting your own fires. Things weren’t okay, but they were managed. I had more meals, some good, some mediocre, all interesting, but I charged into each one hopefully, and I found something in each one worth hoping for. The second to last day, the nurses brought lunch into Susan’s bedroom as we sat in our folding chairs around her bed, watching baseball on a muted television. It was cafeteria food under a plastic lid and Susan picked at it with her fork. When she’d had as much of the savory stuff as she could handle, she moved on to the dessert, an eccentric looking hunk of carrot cake with a cream cheese frosting painted across the top of it. It was perfectly square, off white with chunks of neon orange embedded in it and Susan worked a corner off it, eyebrows knitted together in doubt. She chewed it carefully and we watched her eat it the way you the way you watch sick people do everything.

“That’s good.” She said.

“Oh yeah?” My grandmother said, smiling carefully, crinkling the bruise at the corner of her eye, cradling the cast on her arm.

“Yeah.” she said, smiling. “It’s good”

And they fed each other forkfuls, smiling impossibly in the face of all that awfulness, making room on their crowded plates for something good.

Sources:

If you’re in the area of Kansai Ramen and Sushi House , in Sacramento California, get into that place and rearrange your brain for a bit. Really top shelf shit.

Kiki’s Chicken Place is another one of the fantastic ones. Seriously good stuff…

Alone on an Island of Goodness

Music gurgled softly through the walls of the bakery, all plucky in the strings and plinky on the keys. From my perch on the patio, I was the centerpiece of a summer tourism themed baby mobile, cars circling the building, looking for parking on the choked and narrow roads of this coastal inlet. Between the bookstore and the boutique across the street, I saw the water sparkling in the late July sunlight, islands of green pine floating between the sea glass water and the periwinkle sky. My dog was a loose, drooling pile at my feet. Loose because he’s not a fan of boats, changes in his daily routine, long car rides or unfamiliar places and he was exhausted from weathering all of the above and being a dick about it.  Drooling, because the smell of freshly baked salmon quiche was in the air and even a long, dark night of boating and driving to an unfamiliar place isn’t enough to dim the warm allure of soft flaky crust and meaty-like-mama-makes-it texture of the breakfast in front of me. Pair that with a hot mug of liquid bang-bang and the Orcas Island Magic sparkling in the water and goddammit you’ve got yourself a morning.

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My wife and I first found Brown Bear Baking in the winter of last year. Her brother, a Wall Street trading, mountain climbing, finer things appreciating, renaissance man, got us a gift card for a farm cottage stay at a place called Pebble Cove Farm, on the west side of the island. We were, at the time, dealing with some heavy life issues and desperately in need of a little escape. Someplace quiet where are phones wouldn’t work and therefore couldn’t chirp at us from our pockets, drag new stress onto our already full plates. We needed the sound of deep water moving and the rush of wind through the trees. We needed to pull some miles beneath our car and some rain through our hair. Put a little silence in our lives.

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We weren’t disappointed. We pulled our car off the ferry and followed our email directions through the front gate of the farm in the misty morning light. Moments later we were standing amidst a crowd of curious pigs and goats in a meadow that tumbled down to the water, wind blowing cold and bracing up off the sound, scented with sea salt and pine.

We spent the next few days frollicking (yeah I fuckin’ frollick) through the town of Eastsound, tasting local treats and enjoying some solitude. That time of year is the off season, so it’s a ghost town. We had candlelit dinner in a nearly deserted italian place and rummaged through knick knacks in boutique shops. We poked around some of the historic hotels and took in some views and we ate, and we ate, and we ate. Amongst all of our frenzied feeding, one place in particular stuck out for us. A bakery just off the water in Eastsound, where we popped in more than once for pastries or the occasional cup of coffee. Warm and comforting against the wind driven gloom, full of friendly, knowledgeable bakers in their element. We left happy every time.

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So, when the time came to redeem the final day of our gift card before it expired, I was elated. I thought, I could use some solitude. I could use some frollicking. I could use some food. We loaded the dog into back of the station wagon and pointed the nose of it north.

 

That plan then proceeded to shit the bed like it had Taco Bell for dinner.

 

First, my wife waited until we were plowing over open water in an overcrowded ferryboat to realize that she couldn’t remember getting a confirmation letter from the bed and breakfast we were staying at and that she wasn’t sure if they would even have a room for us. Then, when we’d deboarded into the groping darkness of the island night, she realized that she didn’t know exactly where the B&B even was, and that her phone didn’t have any service with which to look up such information. That left the three of us driving desperately into the inky blackness on a two lane road that she was “pretty sure” was the right one, trying to find the turn off for the cabin that might or might not being expecting us. “Maybe they don’t even exist anymore.” She said as we crawled past, yet another, wrong turn, elm trees hanging ghoulishly in the glow of our headlights, dust drifting off behind us into the night. When we finally found the place, I had a kink in my neck and cramp in my gun hand. I smelled different. They were ready for us of course and the place was cozy and economical. We woke to hot buttery sunshine, Pale blue, cloudless skies and birds chirping in the trees. There, in the field, we found our same animal friends,  drier and warmer, but just as curious and enterprising.

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We checked out of the room, feeling encouraged by the pleasant morning, shaking off the tension from the night before, and drove out to the East Sound for a peaceful day of wandering.

 

The three of us found quickly that Orcas in the summer, is quite different from Orcas in the winter. The ghost town we’d experienced with it’s cloudy skies and frothy seas had given way to bright sparkly sunshine and tourism. So. Much. Tourism. Now, before you go thinking I’m some jerk who doesn’t understand how places like Orcas Island survive, please remember that I grew up in a coastal town in Southern California. I get it. Tourism is life for places like that. It’s money in pockets and food in bellies. Also, I realize that my wife and our dog are members of that same tourist crowd, so we don’t really get to complain, which is why I’m not. It wasn’t bad, just different. A little more hectic, but still more than made up for by the weather and the wonderful people everywhere we turned.

 

A major miscalculation that we made, however, was bringing our dog on this particular adventure. With the temperatures in the mid to high 80’s leaving him in the car was a no-go, which meant he was out with us everywhere, and our dog, for lack of a better term, can be kind of an asshole when it comes to large crowds of people. He’s an old man, and a rescue dog, so we’re working on retraining him, but it’s slow going. He barks incessantly when one of us goes into a shop, even though the other one is outside with him. He gets in snarling matches with passing dogs and although he never appears  to start the fights,  it is getting harder and harder to believe that EVERY dog he’s EVER walked past is a douche bag.

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Anyway, an hour into our day, sweaty and crowded, towing a lawsuit on a leash, we were feeling less than relaxed. Then we passed by the doorway of Brown Bear Baking, our favorite bakery from the last trip.

 

Hope in our hearts, we scrambled into it. My wife and the dog posted up on the sun kissed patio and I waded into the throng of happy people cradling steamy coffees and chewing on flaky buttery goodness, to the counter where they keep the magic. I put in for some beverages, and I smashed my stupid nose against the glass of the pastry case like the kid in The Christmas Story, and the lady behind the counter said, “ what can I get you?” and I said “Gimme that quiche”. And she did.

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Holy shit this quiche. Buttery and flaky in the crust, with guts like a dream, all creamy and velvety. The fish was hearty and fresh, but not fishy, which could really put the brakes on a breakfast treat. It was exactly what we needed. Sitting there on that island patio, cramming it into our face one forkful at a time, sneaking little bits to the dog beneath the table, we were finally alone again. Alone on our little island of goodness.

Links: