Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Mexican cooking class

Ash and Arturo the chef-owner at Chavela's, Brooklyn

Today I learned how to cook the tasty dish, Pescado a la Veracruzana, at my favourite Mexican restaurant. That was at midday. It’s nearly midnight inNew York and I’m still on a high. Sustaining this level of ecstasy usually costs a lot more than what I paid for lunch.

Problem is I won’t be able to get my Mexican hit once I’m back home. And so I planted a seed. Open up an offshoot in Sydney where demand for good, authentic Mexican food far outstrips supply, I recommended to Arturo,the chef-owner at Chavela’s.

Don’t get me wrong. A tasty Guzman y Gomez burrito is awesome for capping a night out at Kings Cross, carbing up over lunch in Martin Place or nursing a hangover on a Sunday, northside at Crows Nest. But a culinary experience it ain’t.

Sydneysiders, I hope for your sake that Arturo takes hisbusiness down under. If not, then here’s a taste of what you’re missing.

It’s hard to separate the food from the context, so let’sstart with the location of the restaurant, Franklin Avenue in Crown/ProspectHeights, Brooklyn. The five-minute stroll from the subway to the restaurant gives you a brief chapter in the story of the evolution of New York which, like Madonna, constantly reinvents itself, as if afraid of becoming dull.

Just within the past twelve months, these businesses haveset up shop on the main commercial strip on Franklin: a liquor store called Wino, a woodfire pizzeria, a contemporary take on an old-fashioned candy shop,a bar that I believe used to be a nondescript office space, and Chavela’sitself, which relocated here after it outgrew its original venue.

Inside the trendier stores, you can typically find Occupy Wall Street calls to action alongside ads on personal training, vintageclothing and standup comedy shows.

More than mere traces of the seedy underbelly of Crown Heights remain, under the new shiny veneer of Brooklyn hipness. The neighbourhood wouldn’t be hip if it were to totally lose its edginess. At night, police patrol cars make their presence felt. Locals talk about witnessing gang initiation rituals which were regularly held nearby only a few years ago, and say there are walls that are still pockmarked from bullet shots (not that I’ve seen these).

Chavela’s is one of the hubs where the hipsters congregate.The restaurant doesn’t take reservations so on the weekends the waitlisted would-be diners patiently chat outside on the footpath, setting the tone for the buzzy atmosphere inside.

Having been to Chavela’s eight times in as many weeks, for quiet lunches on my own ($5.95 specials), happy hour drinks with friends ($5margaritas, $2 tacos) and late-night feasts, I have eaten alongside a good cross-section of the clientele.

I’ve met a student who’s learning Sanskrit. Numerous times I’vesat next to lesbian couples. At the bar, which is lovingly adorned with handpainted tiles and a quirky miniature human skeleton in traditional dress, I’ve chatted with a dancer, an entrepreneur and two retired elderly men. I’ve watched a young giggly couple slowly get drunk on tequila (the restaurant’s tequila and mezcal list takes up an entire page on the menu). They both looked a tad overdressed. She had a bunch of flowers on the table, which looked very muchlike a wedding bouquet. I reveled in their anti-establishmentarianism
Scene set. Onto the service. Chavela’s wait staff are unfailingly attentive and friendly. The bartender’s dimples suggestive-sell better than thecookie-cutter-trained fifteen-year-olds at McDonalds. And of course there isArturo, the most amiable chef I have come across.

Pescado a la Veracruzana

Before letting my husband and me into his kitchen for today’sclass, Arturo had already prepped the ingredients for the fish dish, and hadeven assembled the bits and pieces neatly on a plate, a sign of a fastidious chef. The recipe is deceptively simple – pan fry the fish, add tomatoes,capsicum, olives, capers, caramelized onions, broth and butter. I was sure there’s coconut milk in the dish but I was wrong. Plate with tomato rice, banana leaf,cabbage and coriander. I suspect the secret lies in getting the fish broth justright and, of course, timing is everything.

I wanted to learn how to cook the tamale as well, but alas not today. As it was, we had encroached on prep time. The kitchen staff were starting to look antsy.

Doing a cooking class was on my to-do list for my extended sojourn. Thanks to Arturo and Chavela’s for making it happen.

Monday, 28 November 2011

America - a pictorial

A few favourites from my collection of pics from the US.
Ash on our stoop, St Marks Avenue, Brooklyn

Quote from the Martin Luther King Jr memorial, Washington DC

Bruno hamming it up at Prospect Park

Fave restaurant in Brooklyn. Best Mexican ever

Money birthday cake

... and the birthday celebrant, Kevin the entrepreneur with daughter
View from our rowboat, Central Park, wedding anniversary

Thanksgiving in New York

During my first Thanksgiving in the US, I set aside my usual cynicism about retailers using the holidays to boost revenue.

A wise man once said: If you’re not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart. If you’re not a capitalist by the time you’re thirty, you have no brain.

Inflation night with cousin Thea, in front of Tim Burton's balloon

Well into my thirties, I embraced my inner capitalist and kickedoff the holiday by hotfooting it to West 77th Street in Manhattan, where inflation night was underway. No, this is not when the Reserve announceskey economic data, which would hardly be a cause for celebration. It’s a New York tradition to witness the spectacular balloons take shape the night before the Thanksgivingparade. What fun! How surreal to see an oversized Snoopy, smurf and Spiderman lined up on the street, noses on the concrete, as if they were getting their beauty sleep before the big day.

The first balloon on the parade is emblazoned with the logo of Macy’s, the department store that has sponsored the parade since the 1920s, when the retail sector was going gangbusters. For a foreigner, it’s one of many elements of Thanksgiving lore that inextricably link the holiday to consumerism.

The origin of Thanksgiving is mooted, but it is generally agreed that celebrations were held by both the Native Americans and Pilgrims to celebrate a good harvest. During the Depression, Franklin D Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving earlier for the benefit of retailers, giving them a longer lead time to Christmas. (Back then it was considered distasteful for stores to market Christmas before Thanksgiving.) The public generally disapproved of the change, and the day became known mockingly as Franksgiving. The people won and the date was restored to the fourth Thursday of November.

Around two-thirds of the United States’ gross domestic product comes from retail spending. No wonder marketers are so innovative andcompetition so cutthroat here. The retail sector has learned to work within thetime limits and milk the holiday for what it’s worth. The day after Thanksgiving is branded Black Friday, when prices are slashed by as much as 70 per cent. Then there’s Cyber Monday, when shoppers are encouraged to shop online. Presumably we’re all exhausted from the cardio exercise gained from physically traipsing through the mall on Black Friday, so we resort to the Internet.

The shopping frenzy in fact began late on Thursday night. Atthis point the dining table had been cleared, friends and family who haven’t seen each other in months have had a chance to catch up. Time to walk off the feastand get ready for the next holiday on the assembly line … Christmas shopping! Most stores opened at midnight, though some tried to get the edge on their competitors by opening at eleven.

I question the extreme measures of retailers (who cut prices below cost but only for a limited number of items) and shoppers (who elbow each other out of the way to claim the last bargain-priced flat screen TV), but as an avid consumer I appreciate the benefits of consumerism on steroids. Being in the US during the holiday season is a feast for the senses. Shopping in my local grocery store is like being in Homer Simpson’s shoes when he dreamed about being in a land of chocolate and sweets. Never have I seen such a variety of upscale, fresh, gourmet groceries at reasonable prices. I am gaining a few kilos not necessarily from eating bad but from trying the mindboggling range of food, glorious food.

The master chefs - Ash, Ann and Lenie

My New York family – my cousins who in fact lived on the same street as me, an era ago in Manila – went to impressive lengths to make Thanksgiving special for their extended family. The sit-down dinner for fifteen people featured the necessary centerpiece, the turkey. I’m not much of a meat-eater so, for me, the sides and desserts deservedly stole the limelight from the bird. On the menu were: pumpkin soup, sautéed mushrooms, steamed beans and asparagus, salad with artichokes and leaves, brussel sprouts with bacon, brie ,yams with marshmallow sauce, roast potatoes, macaroni salad, French bread, Italian bread, pannetone, pineapple upside down cake, chocolate dipped strawberries, poached pears, apple pie, pecan pie and mini-cupcakes.

And yes, I did top it off with some bargain shopping last Friday. My best buy – a Diane von Furstenberg trolley bag for seventy bucks.

As a fan of American-style consumerism, I hope that, especially for the sake of the ‘99 per cent’, the December quarter economic figures get a healthy boost from the retail sector, to help stave the US from a still-dreaded double-dip recession. Strong spending in the previous quarter put retail sales data firmly in positive territory. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Gangsta grandma on the subway, loco at the White House

Rich, me and Ash at the Lincoln Memorial, near the White House. A few days later, shots were fired at the White House.

‘I’m packing lead in here,’ the elderly woman said to the younger one, her face set in a snarl. Gangster grandma rummaged through her handbag as if she were looking for a gun. She had plopped down next to me.  I couldn’t help myself. Curiouser and curiouser … I peered down. All I could see were tissues stuffed into a side pocket. She didn’t unzip the main section of her bag all the way. She may have been bluffing.  But then again …

The younger woman was unperturbed. ‘I’m gonna respect you ‘cos you old,’ she said from across the aisle. ‘But next time you better watch where you’re going. And you’d better watch where I’m going too.’

They traded insults like this until the 2 train from Brooklyn reached Wall Street. I kept looking at the woman’s bag, which she held tightly on her lap. She continued to hold her palm open over one lumpy section of it, as if she were indeed making sure she knew the exact location of her gun. Judging from the creases on her face, she was at least sixty. A fashionable one at that, with chunky gold earrings, shades, skinny jeans and ankle boots. The other woman was dressed in the same way. They could’ve been mother and daughter.

Our fellow passengers ignored the conversation as if it were white noise. Not knowing what to do, I tried to appeal to the passenger sitting across from me, communicating silently, now what? Do I get up from my seat so I’m not in the line of fire? Pretend like nothing’s happening, like everyone else? He was sitting next to the younger woman so was in a similarly precarious situation. Unlike me, he was nonchalant. Just another day on the subway.

I chose herd mentality over panic. I tried to relax and decided to stare at the map overhead, a line of dots showing the stops of the 2 train line. I consciously avoided the shaded eyes of both women, struck by the irrational fear that they might collectively direct their anger at me. Images of the two women whipping out guns out of their streetwear handbags and shooting me, execution style, flitted in and out of my mind. Alert and observant, I realised I was the lone Asian in the carriage until the train arrived at Wall Street, when finance workers embarked. That fact probably made me stand out as a target for at least five minutes. Yikes.

I was jumpier than normal because only the day before, on my way home from the supermarket, I walked past a couple of kids who, from a distance, appeared to be goofing around. Then one drew a sharpened wooden stake up against the other’s neck. Where did that come from, I thought. That boy must have brought that weapon with him. It’s premeditated. They’re not just two hyperactive kids jostling each other. I passed them hurriedly, not wanting to interfere and risk having that stake pointed in my direction.    

These random acts of violence in fact happened about two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve had to pack up my place in Brooklyn (the sublease expired), spent a week in Washington DC and moved into my new place in the Upper East Side. Yes, the two events contributed to my decision to move to a safer neighbourhood in Manhattan. Also the apartments in the hip areas in Brooklyn are ridiculously overpriced, and I have to go to Brooklyn for work anyway, so can still hang with my new friends there. So why not live in a nabe where it’s overpriced for reasons more substantial and diverse than proximity to awesome bars?

On more current events, the number one news item today is a loco with a Spanish name and a tattoo on his neck that spells out Israel has been arrested. He’s suspected of shooting at the White House last week, using an AK-47. As I said, we just visited DC last week.  My husband and I caught up with our buddy Rich, a DC local and ex-military guy. We also made friends with an Air Force veteran who now works at the Pentagon. (We met him and his wife at a bar in the Willard Hotel, a stone’s throw away from the White House.  Interesting side note: lobbyists used to meet with government higher-ups in the hotel’s lobby, to do their wheeling and dealing, and Washingtonians believe this is how the term lobbyist was coined.) Our friends’ combined knowledge on the security detail around government buildings is impressive. Besides which, I saw firsthand how the Secret Service make their presence felt around the White House grounds. There’s nothing secret about it. Only crazies would try anything stupid.

So. Whether you’re in the high-security surrounds of the White House or on the New York subway or above ground on the gritty streets, the threat of violence is real and imminent in the US. There’s nowhere to hide.

Suddenly, to me, Australia, with its less liberal gun laws, seems the more attractive country to live in. Of course, it doesn’t have the Guggenheim where I saw what I thought was the most original jazz/dance/boxing production last Sunday, nor will my husband run into Matthew Broderick while getting a coffee in Sydney, or see Samuel L Jackson on stage; not to mention experiences like a real autumn when the trees display the boldest shades of burnt oranges and reds, and Salvation Army workers dancing to Feliz Navidad on the footpaths (with bells on!). Sydney doesn’t have the New York Society Library which runs tours for the public (hooray for bibliophiles), authentic Mexican food, Central Park, Prospect Park, red velvet cake, a real 24-hour news cycle that makes news addictive (I feel sorry for Sky News at home, which scrapes the bottom of the barrel and constantly recycles news), an upcoming election that matters on the world stage, moving orations carved in marble … these are a few of my favourite things …

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Colour me Brooklyn

Living in diverse Brooklyn is like traversing through different worlds and the whole colour spectrum.

On a chilly autumn day in New York, the steamy laundry I go to is almost like a tropical haven. I like Island Bubbles on Rogers Avenue, mainly because the friendly storekeeper greets me with a sunny smile and a ‘yes, Mami.’ Her accent and cheery disposition make me want to hum a Bob Marley tune.

West Indians and African Americans are the dominant ethnic groups in my patch of Brooklyn, Crown Heights. Go just six blocks west to Prospect Heights / Park Slope and the demographics change startlingly, as illustrated in this handy racial and ethnic distribution map created by the New York Times. Enter 11216 in the zip code box.

Park Slope Hair Salon on Flatbush Avenue, located on a green-dotted block on the map, was my destination on Monday. I was determined to treat my locks to some tender loving care after six months of backpacking and foregoing luxuries such as a cut, colour and dry.

Spend a couple of hours in a hairdresser’s chair and inevitably you get the back story. The shopowner (and, for now, sole hairdresser) is named Marat. He opened the shop late because it was his son’s bar mitzvah that morning, he announced proudly, as he brushed colour on my hair.

A Russian Jew, Marat travelled with his parents to the US as refugees, over 25 years ago. He met his wife, also a hairdresser, while on vacation in Israel. Both astute entrepreneurs, they now own three hair salons, a spa and a wedding gown shop. Meanwhile, Marat’s brother runs the drycleaning business nextdoor. He popped in for a chat and didn’t miss his window to promote his services to a captive audience. The hardworking family is proof that anything is possible in the land of opportunity.

Russians are a small minority in Brooklyn, comprising just 3.8 per cent of the population. There are however plenty of Jewish people around.

Hasidic Jews, walking in groups, have stopped my Australian husband and Swiss friend on the street several times, asking, ‘Are you Jewish?’ They of course don’t approach me because an Asian can’t possibly be Jewish. One of these days I will tell any white companion of mine to say yes, so we can find out what the mysterious bearded men are after. Asians make up 9.3 per cent of the Brooklyn population, a decent portion but seemingly small compared to the Jews. Out of all Brooklynites who identify themselves as religious, a quarter are Jewish.

Also on Monday, I met with a redhead originally from California, Casey, about a social media business she runs with an Ethiopian lady Garnett and a white ex-professor Mike. We met at Garnett’s lolly shop on Franklin Avenue, easily the street that is gentrifying the fastest in the neighbourhood.   

Diagonally opposite the lolly shop is Chavelas, hands down the best Mexican restaurant in the area. A Chilean friend of mine, and my visiting Swiss friend who is married to a Mexican, are both impressed with the authenticity of the cuisine. I’ve eaten there four times in two weeks, including at midnight last night.

Convenience stores run by Hispanics are ubiquitous on Brooklyn’s street corners. The stores are called bodegas, which did confuse me at first, because I’ve bought dishwashing liquid, newspapers and milk from the one nearest me, but have yet to spot wine on the shelves.

Other than English, the most common language spoken in Brooklyn homes is Spanish. New York’s subway trains have signs in English and Spanish. Target’s instore signs are also in Spanish.

In the melting pot that is Brooklyn, Australians are considered exotic. Aussie singletons, are you looking for love? Come to Brooklyn and you’ll find out what it’s like to be French. Case in point – online restaurant reviews about a café called Milk Bar on Vanderbilt Street make for an entertaining read. The broad accent and laidback attitude of the Aussie wait staff score favourable mentions amongst the clientele. The coffee’s not bad either – I tried it last weekend.

One of the oldest ‘ethnic’ groups in Brooklyn has nearly disappeared. Also on the weekend, I visited Brooklyn Museum, a welcome change of pace after too much wining and dining. On the top floor are installations of Dutch houses that had been uprooted from sites all over Brooklyn and carefully restored by curators. The Dutch settled here in the 1600s. Now only 0.2 per cent of Brooklynites have Dutch ancestry.

Again on the weekend, on my way back from a Caribbean-themed Zumba class (the instructor decided to freestyle), I got caught up in an animated conversation between an older black ex-DJ cleaning out his house via a yard sale on his stoop, and a young white, self-confessed music geek. They were expounding the superiority of record players over iTunes, especially for tracks by jazz legends like Herbie Hancock. They doled out advice on where to buy the gear (corner of Atlantic Avenue and something) and how to set it up. Dropping a needle on a record is more interactive than pressing a button, they claim.

Last week I took the subway out of Brooklyn to Broadway, to see Mountaintop, a moving and cosmic production about Martin Luther King. It was interactive too, in places. When Samuel L Jackson, who plays the reverend, addressed the audience with ‘Can I get an amen?’, we answered back, like an obedient congregation in one of those Harlem churches that tourists like to visit. In fact, here in Brooklyn, it seems there is a church like that on every second block. On Sundays, your spirits can be lifted just from strolling around and listening to the good god-fearing folk belting out gospel songs.

This week I am exploring surrounding neighbourhoods, not by choice. Because we only sublet our apartment for a month, and asked for an extension too late – yes, we are kicking ourselves over this – we are looking for another apartment. Our search took us to Greenpoint today. The Polish are the dominant ethnic group in this area. It’s only a few stops away on the subway but the colours of Brooklyn change dramatically again.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

New York, how do I love thee

This week a recruiter asked me what someone from Australia (with its miraculous 5% unemployment rate) is doing looking for a job in New York. Fair question. The number of people unemployed in the US, at 14 million, is equivalent to two-thirds of the population of Australia. 

‘It’s the centre of the centre,’ I answered, paraphrasing Zadie Smith’s Autograph Man. He agreed and proceeded to give me sage advice on the current market, from one Brooklynite to another.

New York, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Ash, me and Aussie buddies Sam, Laura and Matt on the Brooklyn Bridge

I love that I had the recruiter at Brooklyn. His parents immigrated here about 100 years ago. For even longer than that, it’s been act one, scene one of the drama of many American dreams since the industrial revolution. My own cousin settled here back in the 1980s, back when Jay-Z still lived in the borough as a rapper keeping it real (not in Tribeca next to DeNiro). Now writers, artists and designers are colonising this borough faster than you can say American Idol. The changing social fabric is causing some ruptures in the community. A civic meeting is being held this weekend, to allow longtime residents to air their concerns about the new demographic of my temporary neighbourhood.

Mostly the locals just go with the flow. There is, after all, a tradition of being uprooted and displaced and settling elsewhere in this area. They watch the artistes and hipsters walk by in their vintage gear, and liberal young families pushing their mixed race kids along in expensive strollers. My husband Ashley gets a regular wassup from the guy in the hardware shop on Rogers Avenue, who seems to work full-time outside on the driveway, a self-appointed welcome wagon for passersby. Kevin from the funky T-shirt shop About Time on Franklin Avenue (get your Brooklyn souvenir shirts here, hip tourists), his wife who runs the lolly shop across the road and their friend Mike the ex-professor are helping me look for a job.

The place grows on you. On our second day here we ventured out of our brownstone through a less friendly block along Bedford Avenue, which was dotted with pimped up four wheel drives where thug looking types were watching us shiftily while talking tough to each other. The police doing the rounds on the block, stopping to question the thugs, confirmed our fears and made me feel less guilty about inadvertently racial stereotyping. After that experience paranoia temporarily set in – did that old man loitering on the street corner have a drill so he can break into a car, I wondered as I quickly walked past him, dismissing his friendly hello with a nod. I hoofed it out of there without glancing back. See no evil, hear no evil. Today we strolled past him again. What a difference a few days make. I am now willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But I cannot drop my guard. Making headlines for weeks now is a series of sexual assaults in the area. The police nabbed a key suspect just this week. On the New York news channel, voxpops show female residents getting on with life – they are stoic Brooklynites after all – albeit they don’t walk the long blocks home in the dark without a can of pepper spray or a good male friend.

But I digress. This is about how much I love New York.

I love that my friend Samantha has lived here for the past three months, just because it was on her bucket list. As it turns out, the city is not for her, I’m afraid – she’s a beach girl, she likes fresh open spaces, New York is grimy, you have no personal space – but she toughed it out and now gives visiting friends walking tours around Manhattan like a local. I’ve met talented Aussie artist Miriam whose work has been exhibited in DUMBO, currently the most fashionable neighbourhood in Brooklyn. She loves New York too and our little patch in Brooklyn, Crown Heights. I love that artists are drawn to this city and the art world is not as cliquey as in Sydney. For a town that is best known for its tendency for capitalist excesses – Occupy Wall Street has not really shown us anything new, other than that under 30s are not all apathetic  – there is an awful lot of non-financial activity lurking in the more interesting enclaves of New York, where people still starve for their art. Until, that is, they turn 30, value earning a regular income and decide to pursue their art as a weekend hobby.

New York, I shall love thee better after I arrive in Sydney, because alas I cannot remain unemployed here for too long. When even a fellow Brooklynite cannot help me out, because his financial services clients are expected to shed 10,000 staff next year, in all likelihood I will have to love New York from afar.
PS Longer blog today is courtesy of my new laptop with a proper keyboard. The IPad has its limits.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Obrigada Brasil! Last day

The famous steps that have been tiled by eccentric local artist Selaron. Snoop, Pharrell and that redhead from CSI have all filmed at this location in Santa Teresa, our favorite neighbourhood in Brazil.

For pop culture reference, see here Snoop's video

And the artist himself! He lives here.

More street art...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Santa Teresa, outdoor art museum