Archive for the ‘Unfamiliar Foods’ Category

Hyde Park “Falafel Burger”

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Yesterday I lunched with friends (which is to say, with the audience of this site) at Hyde Park in Austin (the old one). It’s required of those living in Austin to like, even adore, Hyde Park, and I do like it. The people there are really nice, at least, and it’s a fun place to meet.

I ordered the “Falafel Burger”, and was rewarded with a beautifully-formed slab of falafel on a bun. The presentation was OK, in the sense that it was interesting to look at, but seriously guys you can’t really think that’s a success. The falafel stuff itself was fine, though not as good as the almost disorientingly fantastic falafel at Sarah’s. The problem is that the material qualities of a block of cooked falafel turn the whole “sandwich theorem” on its head.

You collect food into a (traditional, “western”) sandwich when the foodstuff you want to eat can’t be picked up and held without either falling apart or being a greasy mess. The bread provides a non-gross, grippable container for the internals. The unfortunate bun surrounding my falafel, however, was faced with the serious challenge of containing the fried falafel puck over the lifespan of the meal. It basically failed; it would have fallen apart much sooner had I more liberally applied the yogurty sauce served alongside the sandwich. The falafel itself was so solid and firm that the bread experienced considerable kneading as the sandwich was consumed.

Now, as I said, the falafel itself was fine, and for that matter the bread was fine too. But the architecture of that dish is just wrong. Make the falafel in little chunks like the people who live on the stuff do – they’re the subject matter experts. Wrap it up in something like pita (and by the way I’ve been thinking lately how cool it is that the word “pita”/”pizza” is such a universal accross the Mediterranean) and drop the whole “burger” idea. Try as I might I can’t think of a way to harmonize the structural nature of fried falafel with bun-based delivery systems.

In a way, I think that “veggie burgers” in general suffer from the same problem. However most vegetarian “patties” designed for sandwiches are a lot thinner than the falafel in that Hyde Park sandwich. Cooked ground beef tends to be more pliable than a veggie patty, and of course sliced meat is a whole different story, being very bendy and yet having plenty of tensile strength.

The Hyde Park fries were good. I feel guilty that I consider the fries at the Boat House Grill to be better, though for all I know they’re fried straight out of the commercial wrapper they come frozen in.

Wet Bean Curd

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

This is the first in what may be a series of between 1 and dozens of articles about strange (to me) packaged foods. A lot of the items will come from the fabulous MT Supermarket in Austin.

My son Christopher, who often accompanies me to MT in order to nurture his addiction to mung bean cakes, saw this jar of “Wet Bean Curd” and insisted that I add it to our shopping cart. (Generally at MT I buy one or more packages of excellent shiitake mushrooms, Thai basil, possibly shallots when they have good ones, and random other supplies. Plus, bean cakes.) I don’t know what motivated him, but I said “Ok” because I had half an idea to do what I’m doing right now, and that seemed like as good a start as any.

Wet Bean Curd seems like an honest name for the product; compare it to American product names like Ho Ho’s or Ketchup even, a non-English word whose actual meaning nobody really knows or cares about. However, I feel that Wet Bean Curd should actually be called Salt With Spicy Wet Bean Curd in order to most accurately describe the contents of the jar. Yes, it’s wet – the bean curd and pepper shreds float seductively in a mucilaginous slurry. Yes, it’s bean curd, at least judging by texture. Bean curd itself of course tastes like almost nothing, instead appearing in foods to make sauces and seasonings edible as solid meat-like chunks. In this case, the bean curd has faithfully absorbed the taste and mysterious stickiness of a tank of particularly benighted bilge water. This is one of those foodstuffs whose production really confuses me. How can a whole factory full of people not realize how hideous this stuff is?

I’m jumping the gun a bit. We got the bottle home, and I was of course excited upon noticing that the Chan Moon Kee food packing house is ISO 9001 certified. After stowing all the other purchases, I opened the wet bean curd and snagged a chunk with a fork. The first impression was that it was really salty. The bean curd was slightly toothsome and not mushy; I suppose you could spread it on something if you wanted to, but I doubt that’s what the stuff is intended for. (I have no idea what it is intended for, and I had none even before tasting it.) Though it looked like there were a lot of pepper pieces in the mix, it wasn’t particularly spicy. In fact, the second through fifty-third impressions as I chewed on that chunk of bean curd were predominantly identical to the first: really salty. Oddly, salt is listed as the third ingredient, just ahead of wine (and I really don’t want to find out that there’s gooey wine to be had in Hong Kong).

I tried a second piece of wet bean curd. This time I tried to concentrate on other flavors. There was the spiciness, of a pretty tame sort without much pepper flavor. There was also a strange, slightly acrid tang to it, not pleasant in the least. Overall, therefore, I declare wet bean curd to be a bad-tasting mildly spicy substance that’s overpoweringly salty. Even if you like acrid weird-tasting spicy marinated bean curd, I can’t imagine that you’d like it dosed with ten times as much salt as anything like that should need.

I won’t be buying more of this stuff, but it’ll stand as a cautionary example here at the beginning of this series. It’s not safe to assume that just because something is in a jar, attractively labeled with an image of a wading bird, and placed for sale on a grocery store shelf that it’s worth eating. I accept that somebody might like wet bean curd, just as I accept that somebody out there must be drinking all the Tequiza being produced. I just don’t understand it.