Celeste Heiter's Daily Adventures in Asian Food & Film
Explore the Far East from the comfort of home through the cuisines of ten Asian countries, paired with movies by some of Asia’s most visionary filmmakers.
With Asian food and film blogger Celeste Heiter as your guide, and Chopstick Cinema as your culinary and cinematic passport, savor the delicacy of Vietnamese Crab-Filled Summer Rolls as you inhale the intoxicating Scent of Green Papaya; relive the bone-chilling saga of a haunted village over a steaming bowl of Pad Thai; spend a contemplative evening on a serene lake in a floating Buddhist temple as you nibble on Korean Kim Bap and Mandu Dumplings; feast on Samosas and Chicken Vindaloo while cheering a rag-tag team of Indian locals in a cricket match against the British raj; or spend a summer in rural Cambodia to learn the true meaning of a simple bowl of rice.
Based on her belief that anyone with basic cooking skills can prepare an authentic Asian meal using ingredients that are readily available at almost any well-stocked food market, Celeste has selected her favorite Asian dishes from among the hundreds of recipes featured on her Chopstick Cinema blog. The menu for each country is a collection of ten dishes: nibbles, cold and hot appetizers, soup, salad, noodles, main course, two side dishes, and dessert, along with a shopping guide and online sources for hard-to-find ingredients; followed by a review of Celeste’s favorite film from each country, and recommendations for several alternate films.
With a pair of chopsticks in one hand, and your remote control in the other, satisfy your appetite for Asian food and adventure that’s sure to be as memorable as the real thing.
Five Hours in Heaven (February, 2007)
Through a chain of near-miraculous events, René arranged for the two of us to have dinner at the French Laundry last night.
For those of you who may have been living in the jungles of Borneo, or high atop the lofty slopes of K2, and have not yet heard of it, the French Laundry, by popular consensus, is the world’s best and perhaps most famous restaurant. And to think, it’s right up the road from my front door, in the town of Yountville, resident population 2,900.
All day yesterday, I managed to keep a lid on my anticipatory anxiety, reminding myself that it was ‘just dinner’, not dinner with the Queen or the Dalai Lama, just dinner…at the French Laundry. Yikes! Dinner at the French Laundry!!!
We arrived at 7:30, and much to my delight, standing at the reservation desk to greet us was my old friend Kevin Macway, a former co-worker with whom I spent many a busy Saturday night working side by side at the St. George restaurant in St. Helena, years ago before it became Tra Vigne. It was good to see him, and I immediately felt right at home. He seated us in the main dining room, at a table in the epicenter of the restaurant, front row center for the culinary ballet that was about to unfold.
Kevin started us off with a glass of Pierre Gimonnet champagne to sip while we perused the menu and the wine list. And after a descriptively detailed litany of the nine course pre-fixe tasting menu that awaited us, we turned our attention toward the wine list, which features an impressive array of both local and international labels, with a wide selection of half-bottles to complement the variety of dishes on the tasting menu. To accompany the lighter, early courses, we chose a half-bottle of Tantara ‘Bien Nacido’ Pinot Blanc, and to accompany the main dish meats, a half-bottle of Sinnean ‘Resonance’ Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley. And not to get ahead of myself here, but both proved to be excellent choices, not only for our mutual taste in wines, but also as fitting choices for the menu du jour.
One of the trademarks of a meal at the French Laundry is the unexpected appearance of ‘amuse bouche’, tiny tastes of things not mentioned on the menu. Gifts from the chef. And without further ado, the procession of edible treasures began:
First came a pair of Gougeres, no bigger than an olive or a bing cherry, filled with Gruyere cheese. An ethereal harbinger of the thousand pleasures to come.
Next: Cornets of Scottish Salmon Tartare in a Black Sesame Tuille with Red Onion Crème Fraiche. And when I inquired whether the onions in the crème fraiche were raw, as I am allergic to raw onions (they put me right to sleep), at no protest or insistence on my part, in less than two minutes, the waiter reappeared at our table with another one, this time with plain crème fraiche, no onions. This level of service continued throughout the meal, with plates and utensils discreetly appearing and vanishing without intrusion, stray crumbs whisked away, glasses refilled. And when René excused himself from the table, in a twinkle, his rumpled napkin disappeared, with a freshly folded one awaiting him when he returned.
And now, back to the food.
Next came another ‘amuse bouche’, an egg shell, filled with White Truffle Custard finished with Ragout of Black Perigord Truffles, garnished with a translucent-thin sliver of russet potato, inlaid with a single chive.
And then an attentive young woman came around with a basket of brioche, served with two types of hand-churned butter: a salted butter from Vermont, and a sweet butter from Petaluma. Who knew butter could be so unique in texture and flavor?
And now, on to the main menu. With the three ‘amuse bouche’ we’d already been served, I hesitate to call this dish an appetizer, so perhaps the term ‘first course’ would be more appropriate. ‘Oysters and Pearls’ – Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar.
Second course: For me, Salad of Grilled Bluefoot Mushrooms, Compressed Hosui Pears, Celery Branch and Hazelnut Emulsion. For René, Moulard Duck Foie Gras en Terrine, Salade de Pomme de Terre, Confit de Langue de Canard, Laitue Frisee, Cornichons et Moutarde.
Third course: For me: Tartare of Japanese Hamachi, Fennel Bulb, Nicoise Olives, Piquillo Peppers, and Winter Citrus Vierge. For René, Sautéed Fillet of Atlantic Halibut, Wilted Bok Choy, Glazed Tokyo Turnips and Preserved Kumquat Butter.
Fourth course: Main Lobster Tail Cuite Sous Vide, Belgian Endive, Field Rhubarb Confite, Watercress Leaves and Sauce Paloise.
Fifth course: Sirloin of Devil’s Gulch Ranch Rabbit, wrapped in Applewood Smoked Bacon with Ragout of Mayflower Beans, Arrowleaf Spinach and Black Truffles.
Sixth course: For me, Filet Mignon of Marcho Farms Nature Fed Veal, Sweetbread Pierogi, Baby Red Beets, Caramelized Savoy Cabbage and Toasted Caraway Crème Fraiche. For René, Herb-Roasted Sirloin of Australian Wagyu Beef, Crispy Broccolini, Pearl Barley, Green Garlic and Vinaigrette Bordelaise.
Seventh course: Brillat Savarin cheese, Muscovado Sugar-Glazed Pecans, Cipollini Onions and Arugula.
Eighth course: Fuji Apple Sorbet, Gateau au Gingembre and Tahitian Vanilla-Scented Apple Puree.
Ninth course: Pavé de Chocolat Blanc au Thè Vert, Pistachio Pain de Genes, Passion Fruit Jelly and Bitter Chocolate Sauce.
And as if that weren’t enough to send us into the stratosphere, interspersed with the apres dinner treats were several more ‘amuse bouche’: Meyer Lemon Custard, a tiny Crème Brûlée, Espresso Mousse with Cinnamon Sugar Beignets, Sugar-dipped Macadamia Nuts, and an assortment of truffles.
And as if THAT weren’t enough, we were sent home with two packages of shortbread cookies tied with a navy-blue French Laundry ribbon.
I may never eat again…
More Musings on the French Laundry (February, 2007)
Yesterday morning, after my gastronomic orgy at the French Laundry, I was more focused on recording every detail the evening’s events and describing the menu than waxing poetic or analyzing the experience. But now that my feet have returned to terra firma, I have some thoughts on the subject…
In the almost three years that I’ve been creating menus for Chopstick Cinema, and the years before that, when I dabbled in gourmet cooking on a fairly regular basis, and years before that, when I was a front-row spectator as a waiter in the kitchen of the St. George restaurant, and years of watching the Food Network, I’ve managed to piece together a pretty good culinary education. But Thursday evening at the French Laundry, I realized early on that I was WAY out of my league. I felt like a Danish peasant at Babette’s Feast. Although I had a pretty good idea of what I was eating, the names of many of the components and sauces were unfamiliar, and my pedestrian palate was utterly unprepared for the whirlwind of tastes, textures and aesthetics that were laid before me that evening.
More than anything, the experience raised in my mind the philosophical question of quality. Wherein lies the secret of the ‘fine-ness’ I experienced at the French Laundry on Thursday evening. Although I strive for it with each and every dish I prepare, I had to wonder what magic renders transcendent the bewildering array of delicacies served each evening at the French Laundry, while mine, no matter how artfully prepared, still hover somewhere around the level of yummy, tasty, delicious, and occasionally Wow! But never transcendent.
Of course, that is a rhetorical question, as I already know the answer to it. The transcendence of French Laundry cuisine is a gestalt of ingredients, expertise, ambiance, attention to detail, and, dare I say it?…Cachet. Had I been served similar or comparable dishes at, say, Domaine Chandon, or even Bouchon (Thomas Keller’s ‘other place’), both of which are just up the road from the French Laundry, and both of which are places I’ve had the exquisite pleasure of dining, would I have been as impressed, mesmerized even, as I was by the meal I experienced at the French Laundry? The answer, I think…is No.
The French Laundry is the French Laundry because it’s the French Laundry… It’s a rapturous riddle wrapped in a magnificent mystery inside an epicurean enigma…
So…Welcome to my little kitchen…
The image in the photo above is the noren hanging in my kitchen doorway. Noren are a Japanese tradition and may be seen hanging in the doorways of both home kitchens and restaurants. The image on my noren is the Takarabune, a legendary Japanese treasure boat bearing the Shichifuku-jin, the Seven Gods of Good Fortune: Daikokuten, variously regarded as the guardian of monasteries, the kitchen god, and god of the harvest; Ebisu, the god of fishermen in Japanese mythology; Bishamonten, the Japanese god of war, regarded as one of the four Buddhist gods of the horizons and protector of the north; Fukurokuju, the Japanese god of wealth; Juronin, the Japanese god of longevity; Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment; and Benzaiten, goddess of music, eloquence and wisdom. The Takarabune bearing the Shichifuku-jin is believed to sail on New Year’s Day, and the tradition is to place a picture of the Takarabune under one’s pillow to ensure that the year’s first dream will bring good fortune.
And speaking of good fortune…I just recently moved into this lovely apartment in downtown Napa. It borders a wooded ravine with a tributary of the Napa River running right under my balcony, and my kitchen window looks right at it. The ‘lucky bamboo’ on the table is a [thankfully still thriving] gift from my friend Alice Jackson.
My little kitchen is a walk-through efficiency that opens into the foyer on one end, and into a dining area on the other. The passageway between the two parallel countertops is only 36″wide. My grandmother, bless her soul, would have called mine a ‘one-butt kitchen’. The up-side is that no matter where I’m standing, whatever I need to lay my hands on is within arm’s reach. The downside…my tush is tattooed with bruises from bumping into the sharp edges of the oven door handle.
I have all the cupboards organized according to where their contents are most often used. The pots and pans are on either side of the stove, as are all the storage containers and food wrap. Dishes and glassware are right over the dishwasher for efficiency in putting them away [my son Will's job, so he's thankful for that].
I store my Asian tableware in baskets. That way, when time comes to plate up and take pictures, I can haul them all out at once and choose those that best accentuate the aesthetics of the dish.
At the far end of my kitchen, at the end of the walk-through, I have placed a tall set of shelves that I call ‘my pantry’. There I store canned and dry goods, and my cat Mochi eats her meals from a little tray right in front of it. My laundry is right next to it. The washer rolls up to my kitchen sink, and the 110v dryer works on regular household current. Pretty nifty, eh? And on the other side is a little breakfast table that also serves as an extension of my countertop when things really get cookin’.
Above the washer is my spice rack. Nothing fancy, just something I hammered together one afternoon. But I’ve sure made some tasty food with the contents of those hand-labeled jars.
The most frequently visited shelf in my kitchen is the one at eye level in my ‘pantry’. There I store everyday chopsticks, the basics like soy sauce [oops, looks like I'd better put that on my shopping list], salt & pepper, tabasco, basil, toothpicks and a fire extinguisher that, thankfully, I have never had to use.
My favorite part of the kitchen is the artwork. Across from the entryway is a very large closet that houses, among a miscellany of other things, Mochi’s catbox [well...where else was I going to put the dang thing?]. So for her convenience, I leave one of the sliding doors open, and camouflage it with a set of hanging bamboo curtains bearing an image of Hokusai’s classic ukiyo-e woodblock print ‘Beneath the Waves off Kanagawa’ from the series ’36 Views of Mt. Fuji’.
Hanging over my kitchen sink is a series of seasonal photographs taken many years ago by my dear friend Mark Peterson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin West Bend. I’ve never had a kitchen with a window over the sink, so that’s where those photographs always hang. And just for the record, this is my kitchen sink on one of its better days. Even with a dishwasher just a few inches away, I still have a hard time keeping it emptied of all the dishes that accumulate over the course of each day.
And right next to the kitchen doorway is one of my very favorite pieces of art in all the world. It’s an original silk screen print created in 1973 by my elder brother R. Steven Heiter, birdwatcher and artist extraordinaire. It’s titled ‘Up the Country’. And no matter where I go or how foreign the kitchen may feel, once I hang that on the wall, I’m home.
Mine is a humble kitchen. I don’t have a lot of fancy gadgets, shiny pots & pans or sleek knives. The most treasured things in my kitchen are the well-worn ones that bear the scars of a thousand memorable meals. And as I told my friend Guy over at Meathenge, they say that the best things come in small packages, so perhaps the best food comes from tiny kitchens.
En Mi Cocina… (May, 2006)
My son Will is studying Spanish II in high school and was recently assigned to write a paragraph about our kitchen. Here’s what he wrote…
En mi cocina
En mi casa, no hay una cocina grande. Hay una cocino poquito. Siempre hay muchas frutas y legumbres exóticos. Mi madre prepara muchas tipos de comidas de Asia. Mi madre algunos asar mucho pollo y papas, pero casi nunca freir los comidas. Es una cocina moderna. Nos estufa tiene hornillos eléctricos. No nos gustan los hornillos eléctricos.
Precious don’t you think?
The Changing Face of My Spice Rack (October, 2004)
Last week, before my Taiwanese Dinner & a Movie, I gave my kitchen a very thorough cleaning, which included wiping all the jars in my spice rack. I couldn’t help noticing how it has changed over the past few months as I have added new spices for each Asian cuisine. Where I used to stock only salt, pepper, garlic powder, basil, cumin, paprika, bay leaves, cinnamon, nutmeg, a generic curry powder, cayenne pepper, Chinese mustard and powdered ginger, I have now added such exotica as garam masala, sumac, cardamom, turmeric, coriander, Chinese five-spice powder, whole cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon sticks. And with trying a new Asian cuisine every month, I don’t know that I will ever go back and use them all up, however many Asian cuisines have spices and other ingredients in common, so my array of exotic new spices may do double duty in many meals yet to come.
Food Blogger Versus the Grain Moths (March, 2007)
I have a dirty little secret. One that I can finally confess, now that the ordeal is over.
For weeks, I have been battling an infestation of grain moths in my kitchen. For those of you who have never had the experience, grain moths, aka Indian Meal Moths (Plodia interpunctella), are among the most insidious and destructive little pests on the planet. Oh, they may look harmless enough, as they flutter about on dusty wings like so many kitchen faeries. But don’t be fooled, they will worm their way into every cereal, grain, meal, flour, noodle, chip, and cookie in your pantry. They even get into paper products, tea bags, and believe it or not…powdered wasabi! They can get into tightly sealed jars, heavy plastic bags, and unopened boxes lined with airtight envelopes. No form of packaging, no matter how invincible, can stop these relentless creatures.
They infiltrate your kitchen by hitching a ride as larvae, somewhere among your groceries, in some seemingly innocent bag of granola, cornmeal, or ramen. And before you know it, they’re everywhere. At first, all you may notice is one or two, hovering about your kitchen. Next, you might notice them in tiny swarms, taking flight as you disturb the air in your kitchen when you get up in the morning to make breakfast.
But by then, it’s too late. Although you may not see them yet, they’re already everywhere. Canoodling in your kashi, romancing in your rice, cocooning in your cornmeal, nesting in your Nabiscos, and hatching in your hibiscus tea. They multiply like mice on Viagra, and I swear the little buggers must be born pregnant, although they can be seen doing the wild thing on your kitchen walls and countertops during their brief mating season.
You can also recognize their presence by the microscopic holes in the packaging of your carbohydrate products, and the dainty little webs they weave once they’re inside. The good news is: they’re mostly harmless. They don’t bite or sting, they’re relatively easy to catch and kill, and their life cycle is very short. The bad news is: you’re gonna have to GET RID of every box, bag, jar, and cannister of carbohydrates in your kitchen, and possibly all your tea bags and paper products too. And don’t forget to check your dry pet foods.
Once that’s done, and you’ve replaced all your carbohydrate products (flour, cereal, crackers, cookies, noodles, etc.), you’re going to have to store them in the refrigerator or freezer until you’re certain that you’re rid of all the undiscovered progeny they left behind. In other words, once you suddenly notice that you haven’t seen a single grain moth or any sign of them for weeks. After that, whether you choose to store your carbs in your cupboards and pantry is up to you. But do so at the peril of reinfestation the next time you bring home a box of that bargain granola or a bag of exotic flour from the Asian or Mexican market.
Pesticides are not recommended for treatment of grain moths, however, one highly effective weapon is an ordinary strip of fly paper, the kind that comes in spiral rolls and can be thumbtacked to your kitchen ceiling. You will be amazed at how quickly it fills up with the little devils.
And one last word to the wise: DON’T LIVE IN DENIAL. If you see even a single grain moth, as heartbreaking and inconvenient as it may be, go through your pantry, look for signs of them in your carbohydrate products and get rid of anything that shows any sign of them. And if you begin to see more than just a few, bite the bullet and get rid of all your carbs immediately, before Plodia interpunctella takes over your kitchen and your life.
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Each year, I watch and review all the Asian entries for the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, CA. Over the years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of watching dozens of rare film that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Three of those films are now among my favorite cinematic works. Amal Amal is [...]
Three Southeast Asian Favorites: Vietnamese Summer Rolls, Thai Green Chicken, Cambodian Mahogany Pork Ribs26 DEC
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Every year since 1994, my son Will and I have spent Christmas Eve together. There have been times throughout those years that we joined in social gatherings, but in recent years, it’s been just the two of us. I make a gourmet dinner and we open Christmas gifts. This year’s menu is Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp (Will’s [...]