Literature as Lunchbox

IMG_9728 On Monday morning as I sat at the small, wooden table I park at habitually for daily tea and my Internet newspaper I noticed that my breakfast was a hodgepodge of edibles I had discovered through my love of great literature: a pudgy square of green tea mochi and a bowl of flaming orange papaya chunks.

I first read about the exotic papaya fruit in Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street. I was in fifth grade and fell in sisterly love with Esperanza, the young Hispanic girl who documents her neighborhood characters with a sassy wit. One of those characters was Rafaela, a woman locked inside her house by an overbearing husband, whom Esperanza would see sitting at a window looking wistfully out into the street as she passed on her way to and from home. Sometimes, Rafaela would throw down a dollar and Esperanza would run to the corner to buy her papaya, which she would hoist up to Rafaela in a paper bag on a string. This caused me to eye the street side vendors in my own life, who sat with carts stocked full of tropical fruits, eternally looking for my own chance to taste the foreign papaya. Finally, on a fifth grade field trip to Olvera Street, I bought my own cup stuffed with the fuchsia fruit chunks and tasted rapture in the subtly sweet flesh that oozed messy, squirts of juice across the chest of my Catholic School uniform. Rafaela’s forbidden fruit had become real.

In high school, while perusing Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club I found myself absorbed in the descriptions of various Chinese finger foods and ritual holiday treats. I started researching across the Asian spectrum for similar small bites that loomed fantastical to my American snack vernacular. Of special interest were the glutinous rice balls filled with red bean paste called mochi that peppered Japanese grocery store aisles, beckoning like jewels of every color and flavor. Today, they are a mainstay on my tongue, fun and squishy to eat while delivering sugary protein bursts alongside various combinations of tea.

I realize that my love of and adventurousness toward food, and an early impetus in my gradual inclination to food writing, was sparked by my very early passion for reading. In my traditionally American household, I knew nothing of bagels or luscious, black moles or puffed rice with hot spices or French omelets or sexy, sensual oysters. That is, until I stumbled upon my existential crush Jean Paul Sartre’s silly food vignettes, or MFK Fisher’s remarkably independent Consider the Oyster, or Isabel Allende’s women ablaze in the humid, summer kitchens of Like Water for Chocolate, or Jumpa Lahiri’s displaced East Indian women attempting breakfast in cramped U.S. apartments in Interpreter of Maladies, or snippets within the best Jewish essay compendiums of my youth. A big part of my lust for the written word was birthed by the escapism that stories of other cultures provide. But as I look back now, I realize that these stories also became a big influence in evolving my contemporary palate.

P.S. Here’s a lovely essay from this week’s Rumpus by Chef Dana Tommasino, owner of Gardenias floating pop-up restaurant in San Francisco that alluringly combines food and literature in all the ways I love best.

Soul Warming Saffron Kheer

IMG_9537Growing up my American girl breakfasts consisted of two things. Either pour a box of sugary, other worldly colored cereal into a bowl with 2% milk (my parent’s attempt at being healthier) or have a classic scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and butter plate. I don’t remember either giving me the same sense of satisfaction or fortification that I find today through my preferred morning meals made from years’ worth of dabbling in the Asian and East Indian cultures.

It all started for me while reading Jumpa Lahiri’s prize-winning novel Interpreter of Maladies in my early thirties. I was enamored by her descriptions of the everyday breakfasts of rice and nurturing spices or mid morning snacks of puffed rice with chilies and turmeric. I went on to study traditional Chinese herbalism and discovered the Asian culture’s penchant for  jooks and congees (rice porridges) full of savory bits of vegetables and meat or sweet chunks of dried fruits, beans and nuts. Breakfast seemed so much more meaningful when viewed not as a sugar rush to warp speed the day, nor as a lumberjack worthy carb and fat overload, but something hearty to fill the engine with goodness for endurance, brain power and belly warmth.

I experiment often with recipes that combine all the cultures I admire in this vein but of late, my favorite morning starter has been a simple and convenient Indian Kheer. The dish is basically a rice pudding spiked with nourishing goodies and can be played around with in content but I have been elevating mine most recently by using oatmeal instead and adding precious saffron threads brought home to me directly from India by a dear friend. Saffron does something soothing to the soul, and usually ends up in my favorite risotto, but of late has been making its appearance in this morning bowl, instantly boosting my mood for the day.



½ cup quick oats
1½ cups almond milk
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ cup dark raisins
Pinch of saffron
2 teaspoons of honey
1 tablespoon chopped almonds

1. Add the oats and almond milk to a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Lower to medium-low and stir in the cardamom, raisins and saffron. Cook for 5 minutes.
3. Drizzle with honey and top with chopped almonds.

Makes one big bowlful.


American Girl Chinese Breakfast

IMG_7990I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of breakfast and how different Americans treat the ritual meal than the rest of the world. I loved reading Jumpa Lahiri’s book the Interpreter of Maladies where she would describe her East Indian characters eating puffed rice and spices for breakfast. I loved visiting England and eating the traditional English breakfast of mushrooms, beans, tomatoes, sausage and toast. The fatty bacon grease and oozy omelets, overly dough heavy world of pancakes, processed sweet cereals, sugar crusted donuts and chocolate stuffed croissants of America never jibed with my stomach’s deep, guttural desire to be properly nourished in the morning. When I stumbled upon a Gourmet magazine essay from the early 1940s written by a reporter who was observing daily life in a lumberjack camp, it suddenly made sense to me. American breakfasts had stemmed from days when people had to get up early on farms and in labor fields and eat enough carbs to fuel them up and get them going for the day. But that is no longer so relevant to the majority of Americans who get up in the morning to drive to an office and sit on their bums all day.

In China, Japan and many Asian countries, a version of rice pudding called jook or congee is typically served for breakfast. The dish basically consists of rice and lots of water cooked for hours into a thin porridge consistency. Herbs, roots and other nourishing things like ginger, dates, vegetables, and meats are added at the beginning and end of cooking to accentuate the dish, turn it savory or sweet and add medicinal or tonic properties to the stew. In China, a typical grocery store pharmacy will sell bags of “weekly soup” that consist of locally grown, seasonal herbs, barks, seeds and the like for people to add to that week’s batch of rice pudding that is made on Sunday night and eaten for breakfast throughout the entire week. A root like astragalus is typically thrown into the water all year to boost the immune system.

Inspired by this idea but wanting to make it my own, I created a special rice pudding. Instead of white rice though, I use organic brown rice, which I prefer for its heartier textural bite and fortifying nutty taste. It is also one of the main ingredients in kicharee, which is purported to be a food of the gods for its miraculous healing components. Brown rice is known to strengthen the spleen, nourish the stomach, quench thirst, relieve irritability, and astringe the intestines. To make it a little special for breakfast, and because I do love my healthy sweets, I cook it with red Chinese dates and add coconut milk to the finished bowl. A meal just wouldn’t be a meal in my home without a little mixed up, patchwork and planetary ingredients twist!

IMG_7986Sweet Brown Rice Breakfast Pudding

1 cup organic brown rice
2 cups water
7 pieces astragalus bark
1 red Chinese date dried with pure sugar cane
¼ cup coconut milk
¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Bring the water, astragalus bark and red Chinese date to a boil in a pot and then add the brown rice. Cover and simmer on very low for 45 minutes then take off cover and fluff with fork. Pick out the astragalus bits and discard. The rice will now be about 4 cups worth. Take a cup of rice out and put in a bowl. Save the rest of the rice in the fridge for the rest of the week to reheat per meal. Add the coconut milk to the bowl of rice and stir. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top.

At some point don’t forget to eat the chewy, sweet red Chinese date as well for an extra little treat!