I'll see your dumpling Chang, and raise you a taco.
Updated: Jan 9, 2019
EVERY STORY HAS A PREQUEL
I was having dinner at Momofuku for the first time on a summer night in 2014. I was not quite sure what to expect, but I knew I was in for a good time. Pork buns were brought to our table, I looked at them, and immediately picked one in the way I would pick a taco up, took a big bite, and well, the rest is history. From there, to watching on repeat the scene on Mind of a Chef where David Chang makes fried chicken with Old Bay, to reading articles about “street food” on Lucky Peach (slowly pours some beer out), and even tweeting at Peter Meehan in hopes he would become my friend, I couldn't understand what it was, but I always felt a sense of relatability to their storytelling style, their love for the quotidian, and their way of expressing their thoughts through unique ways. Sometimes I even thought they were in my brain reading my thoughts.
The first time I heard the term “ugly delicious” was when I was listening to the Eater Upsell podcast episode where they were interviewing David Chang and heard him explain this phrase to the public. Naturally I got jealous because I hadn't thought about it first. My grandma’s cortadillo is something I constantly think about and have written about a lot, but had never taken a picture because it's sort of “ugly” looking, but fucking delicious (damn you and your wonderful brain David Chang).
I’m a big note and list maker so naturally, when Ugly Delicious came out, I found myself taking too many notes on my phone while watching it knowing I probably should write something about it.
Every episode led me me to a personal memory, a desire to try something new, a need to explore my own reality. Ugly Delicious fueled my drive to talk more about my own food stories and gave my own voice the boost it needed. Thank you for inspiring.
SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT
First episode I clicked-on was the taco one. (“Could you be any more predictable Jimena?” I said to myself with Chandler's voice from Friends )
It's the first taco stop, Chang rapidly takes its first bite, chews with his mouth wide open, but with smaller bites maybe to get more of a taste of the ingredients, gives it a 360 degree examination, and says “Its like a Har Gao”. I laughed so loud because he sounds like me trying to connect everything with a Mexican dish. When I was backpacking through Southeast Asia I remember thinking everything was a quesadilla, especially when I was having Cheese Naan at Indian Restaurants and Roti Canai at Malaysian restaurants. My friend Aaron and I would have the same conversation on a loop, and constantly say to ourselves “Oh, just like a quesadilla!”, “Is this a quesadilla or a taco?”, just like in the Pizza episode when they say “everything is sauce and cheese”. Even in Mexico we laugh at how everything is a tortilla-like vessel with some meat, frijoles, and cheese (taco, sope, tostada, flauta, enchilada, gorditas, and the list goes on and on).
It's the first time I started seeing the immense connections different cultures have with each other. I think the reason I am obsessed with Thailand is because I see so much of Mexico in it (I named my parents wifi “Nampla” in an attempt to teach them what fish sauce was. Needless to say, they were not amused).
With all the sensory overload that comes with going to a new place (especially a place like Thailand) you are in a desperate search for something that looks familiar to you. Out of the corner of your eye you spot a lady chopping cilantro and tomato or cross paths with beautiful big bright smiles and kind hearts that make you feel right at home. You find your mouth burning and salivating from the thai chillies just like you would if you have habanero or serrano salsa, you slurp Tom Yum soup like you would a caldo de camarón, and you drink a Chang beer with as much pleasure as you would a Pacífico. You inevitably connect the dots whether you want it or not.
Same same but different.
In the “Shrimp & Crawfish” episode, David Chang visits Nam Giao, a vietnamese restaurant in Houston, and immediately decides that a dish that has rice flour, minced shrimp, and minced pork is a “Vietnamese tamale”.
Same same but different.
In the “Pizza” episode they question what a pizza actually is and Chang accompanied by the always funny Aziz Ansari go to Savoy, a restaurant in Japan, and have a tuna and mayonnaise pizza that is described by Chef Ryu Yoshimura as “pizza, but sushi”.
Same same but different.
In the first minute of the “BBQ” episode Chang says “American BBQ is distinctly American. I am really interested in how the rest of the world BBQs. I see a lot of similarities in all the cultures. What if I just cook Korean BBQ like an American BBQ place?”.
Take my hometown of Monterrey, Mexico. We are stereotypically known for grilling, or having a carne asada all the time (on Sunday’s, when there’s a futból match, somebody’s birthday, juebebes, lunesitos, martesitos…). You can literally smell the charcoals being lit and the onions being rubbed on the grill on a Sunday afternoon. There is even a song about Monterrey where they say “Saca el carbón” (bring the charcoal out)
“It's about the event” just like Peter Meehan said.
Then you have barbacoa, cochinita pibil, asado de puerco, lechon al ataúd, cabrito, chiles toreados and that's just the ones I can quickly name.
Confession: The first time I tried “American BBQ sauce” I really disliked it and did so for the longest time because I couldn’t connect it with our carne asada. I’m sure this is the same for people who love Basting Sauce and taste Alabama White Sauce and seeing it as something foreign or not correct and vice versa. If you are proud of where you come from, it's probably really hard to accept you like another version of something your city or country does really well and are known for (like BBQ). It took me some time to understand that “American BBQ” goes way deeper and beyond what I know. It also helps having a friend from Alabama make you proper white sauce to truly understand its deliciousness. The rivalry will always be there (because it's fun let's be honest), but I think the thing to remember is that in the end the point of it all is to bring people together. If the food is good and we all realize we’re here to connect with each other, exchange ideas, and be together. What else matters?
Same same but different.
AUTHENTICITY VS. ADAPTATION
…..And then they give them a hard shell taco and I cringed. I became that Mexican stereotype who screamed at the TV “That’s not a taco!”. Then again, one of my favorite tacos are these tacos called “fake tacos” which consist of fried shrimp, chipotle, mango slices, and a jicama tortilla. We are all so defensive about the things we like and so easily judge the things we don’t like and understand. The reality is that maybe I’m afraid to like hard-shell tacos because that would somehow make me less Mexican?
Peter Meehan says “Authenticity in terms of storytelling is important to me, but authenticity in food is not a thing.” If you think something is authentic to you, that in its own, make its authentic. Does anything else matter? History and tradition is important yes, but adaptation and change is inevitable. We need to let go of fearing the unknown.
In Mexico, we have a running joke and an endless debate if a quesadilla is qualified as a quesadilla if it doesn't have cheese. If you’re in most parts of Mexico you say it has to have cheese (The word has the word queso in it come on!). If it doesn't have cheese its a taco. If you’re a Chilango (someone from Mexico City) or from states near this area you say that a quesadilla doesn't have to have cheese to be qualified as a quesadilla (Why would you call a taco a quesadilla?!...I’m sure you can tell where I stand on this issue).
If this was a popularity contest, quesadillas always have cheese would win, except the RAE (The Royal Spanish Academy whose “mission is to endure the stability of the Spanish language”) defines a quesadilla as a corn tortilla with cheese OR other ingredients. Endless debates, endless memes, endless news reports (you heard me); there was even a petition on Change.org to switch the RAE meaning and I love it. People are so attached to what they find familiar, hold dear to their hearts, and have shared memories that they must fight to the end. The passion for quesadillas is real.
In the “BBQ” episode they all try to define what BBQ is, just the same as the quesadilla debate and how everyone thinks they’re a 100% right or that their type of barbecuing is above the rest.
“This isn't real BBQ”
“This is a quesadilla”
“Paella is not spicy!”
I only ask “Is it delicious?”
DON’T HATE THE GAME
“Don't take pictures”
“If you’re taking pictures you won’t enjoy it!”
“Live in the moment!”
To what I respond: “Do not tell me how to enjoy!”
One of the many reasons I started Comino was because I wanted to remember what I ate. Sometimes we would be talking about a fantastic meal we had two years ago but couldn’t remember where it was or what we ate. You take pictures of things you want to remember right? Well, I want to remember what I ate, where I ate it, and what I drank.
A lot of people quietly and not so quietly judge when I take pictures of my food. Yes, I agree there are annoying people (sometimes I am one of them). Yes, some restaurants do not serve good food, but are “insta-worthy” so they thrive. Yes, people go to trending cafes only to take THE picture of the pretty matcha latte with the “unique” wallpaper backdrop even if it might not be a tasty latte (this is why we can’t have nice things).
But for me, there is joy in taking pictures because I want to remember. I want to be sitting in my couch a couple of days, weeks or years from that moment and bring them back to life. Reminisce on my finer moments when I, for example, drunkenly ate noodles after a local beckoned us over and into a ping pong show while travelling.
Life is too short to judge
Last winter I took a slow motion video of me swirling my wine glass while at lunch with my parents. The next day both of them were swirling their wine glasses, videoing it, and sending it to their friends while they smirked in triumph and high fived each other and that my friends, made me genuinely happy.
Life it too short to judge
On the “Fried Rice” episode Chang, Allan Yang, and Chris Nuttail-Smith go to Fishman Lobster Clubhouse Restaurant and order the lobster mountain. When they first show the lobster mountain, you hear Chang mumble “Jesus!” as he and Yang quickly whip out their phones and start taking pictures of this crunchy and intimidating Everest of a plate. Alan Yang then says “Part...of...life. Taking pictures of food”.
I say let everyone “enjoy” their moment however they please. People want to share their experiences with friends and family, and they want to remember the time they ate a giant tower of lobster because they simply could.
CONNECTIONS AT THE DINNER TABLE
One of my first posts I wrote on my Comino blog was about what happens around a table.
“In the end when bellies are full, napkins have been surrendered to the top of the table, but conversations are still flowing and wine keeps being poured I find my happy place and smile. Smile for the ephemeral and magical time I just spent not looking at my phone and ignoring my worries, but rather making other people laugh when I tell that embarrassing story that had happened to me a few days ago. Maybe these tables remind me of the little things that are really important. There is no one present that I don’t want there. Everyone is here to enjoy each other, and of course the food.”
I think what I was trying to say is that humans search for connections everywhere and anywhere, especially at the dinner table. This is where we sat down and had our favorite meals as kids, where I first tried beer with my dad, or where I waited impatiently and happily for my mom to bring out milanesa so I could cover it with mayonnaise (I know… please don’t ask me why I liked this). We all have those memories that remind us of a simpler time or someone special.
In the “Fried Chicken” episode you see Aziz Ansari and David Chang calmly and almost whispery talk about what they grew up eating while they slowly sip their sake at Den in Tokyo. Out of nowhere, Azis yells “What?!” as they bring their fried chicken dish inspired by KFC. You can see their faces glowing of excitement, just like a kid at a candy store (or should I say chicken store?), while geeking out on the KFC-style boxes stuffed with all kinds of goodies.
Humans crave connections
“You know it's so delicious but its not the deliciousness that makes it so memorable, it's something that is so delicious that you associate it with a memory and that’s what moves you to another time in your life. Which is sort of that Ratatouille moment” - David Chang
Adding to what Chang said, most of the time these dishes are yes, linked to a memory, but most likely a person too. We sit and question how do they do it in an attempt to have a quick sniff of that nostalgia. We jott down the recipe, step by step, buy all the right ingredients, intensely watch them do it over and over again, and for some reason we mere mortals never quite get it just like they do. In my case, I am always wondering how my grandma’s crema de papa (cream potato soup) is done. I know I will never cook it to perfection and just like my grandma used to do it, but the intent of me trying to recreate it every time reminds me of her, her hands, and her voice telling me to not add water, but to add more heavy cream (way more heavy cream than you would expect), and I think that is all I care about. It's not about me being a stellar cook, but about keeping her spirit alive in me through cooking.
Humans crave connections
David Chang and his mom shopping and cooking together, Peter Meehan reminiscing on how he started his food journey at the downstairs bookstore, everyone sitting around the table “to celebrate food and not bicker too much”.
Humans crave connections
“Food that I like, has a sense of community, a narrative that’s being told, food that’s made with love….that’s what separates a good meal with a tremendous meal”. -David Chang
For me it's domingo familiares (lunch on Sunday’s) at La Nacional, or awkward Christmas dinners where I’m asked if I have a boyfriend, epic sushi night fails with my sisters, or my friend Caroline and I being nerds at our favorite restaurant. A tremendous meal for me is food, music, wine, anecdotes, and loud conversations with family and friends
[Talking Heads - This Must Be the Place]
FOOD IS THE BRIDGE
“She doesn’t even go here!” - Damian (Mean Girls)
The unknown that comes from change can be a scary thing and that is okay. Feeling like your perfect cozy little warm bubble is about to burst can be alarming and that is also okay. It’s also important to note that sometimes we seem to grasp what we hold as true so tightly that we leave no room to breathe-in other ideas. We’re too frightened to take a second to stop and reflect on what this change might mean. If our stone carved “ways” can’t find a way to at least be receptive to change we are doomed to make the same mistake over and over again.
Whether anyone wants it or not, the only constant in life besides death is change. Might as well jump on board and embrace it.
We are not the world we were a hundred years ago and we will not be who we are as a race in the next hundred. We live in a beautiful melting pot of cultures, where paths of migration cycle through this Earth in constant flow. We all move and bring special pieces of our home, make it into something new, bring it back, and then make into something different. Whether its information, songs, techniques, language, or food we are all intertwined, evolving, and transcending together.
We are all immigrants
My house is now always stocked with several bottles of Valentina sauce. We have oranges with our mezcal while bluegrass plays in the background. We have Tacosgiving, chips with tamarind sauce, and trout with potatoes for dinner. We drink Fernet and Pacífico. We buy MSG by the bag and drink English tea. My room smells like black garlic and sometimes I wake up to baked cookies that attempt to cover this particular pungent smell. Progression is a natural process and as such we must let it be.
Assortment contains assortment
When we feel a little “askew” from the expectations of the ways things are “supposed to be” we try consciously or subconsciously to fit into this box that frankly will never fit you and it shouldn't.
“You don’t look Mexican”
“Aaah entonces eres fresa?”
“Can you pronounce your name again? It sounds so good when you say it”
Bitch, I am Jimena. Punto.
When I was in Malaysia there was an Indian restaurant that had a big bright yellow sign saying they served pizza. My friend and I curiously walked in and asked what the pizza sign was all about…
“Some people don't like Indian food so we have pizza”
While that might’ve been a sign of a smart businessman and an overly nice and accommodating person the fact that he had to say “some people don’t like Indian food” instead of “we want pizza in our menu” shows how he knows people might have misconceived views towards Indian food.
We are all not meant to fit in the same shape sorter cube hole.
Being open to new things, accepting that there’s room for everyone at the top, inside, or el otro lado, and realizing that we should all be sitting side by side sharing food and stories is something we should strongly advocate and fight for.
It does not cease to amaze me the similarities and same struggles different cultures have. When you look at something specific in food and can find a way to connect the dots to something that is familiar to you, that is where the magic happens. That is why food is the bridge that connects us all. This is why we can all sit down, laugh, have amazing bites with a good glass of wine no matter where you’re from or what you believe in. Never forget that there are more things that unite us than differentiate us. After all, we are all just skin and bones.
Nevertheless, #lasquesadillasllevanqueso :)