The other day, the Chef and I pushed our grocery cart through Uwajimaya. We’re always a little dazzled by the place, the red bean curd desserts, the tiny Japanese ladies pushing past us on a mission for the right fish, the shelves of Kewpi mayonnaise and Pocari Sweat. When we drive there, we quote our nephew Elliott, who said, a few years ago: “When I am in Seattle, the place I like to go is called Uwajimaya.” (He was only 3 then. For those of you who have been reading this site for awhile, you might be as astounded as I am to find that Elliott is turning 6 next month.)
Little Bean, it seems, was just as dumbfounded as we were to be there. Normally chattering away, in her multi-syllable babbles and chants, she stared up from her car seat attached to the cart, taking in all the cans of coconut milk, the tempting shelves of notebooks in the bookstore, the cases full of sushi made that day. She drank in everything with her eyes.
The Chef and I discussed what to have for lunch later that day. Silly as this sounds, we sometimes forget to eat lunch. I don’t know how this happens, since the mere fact we can eat three times a day is pure delight. But we eat breakfast late, usually a plate full of potatoes and eggs, or a big bowl of something hot. And then Little Bean distracts us. The computer pulls me away. He’s working at something in the kitchen — pomegrante sherbet; six-hour brisket with horseradish cream; a yellow split pea soup with the ham hock slowly shredding in the simmering liquid. And then we leave the house to run errands, and Little Bean needs a nap, and we find ourselves laughing about something else instead… And then we’re ravenous.
So we stood there, discussing something to eat. There are so many possibilities, always. On this afternoon, we happened to be standing in front of bags and bags of Taiwanese rice sticks. “I love this kind of noodle,” he said.
So do I. And they’re gluten-free.
“Ramen,” we both said.
We went straight for the produce department, throwing Daikon sprouts and mushrooms in our cart. While the Chef went in search of baby bok choy, I reached for the ginger.
The smell of fresh-cut ginger is one of my favorite sensory experiences in the world. Lean down toward the cutting board and drink in the sharp whiff of sweet perfumed sharpness and everything else fades into darkness. No matter where I am, or how foul a mood I am in, that smell brings me right back to now. I had to give Little Bean that experience.
Since she was two weeks old, and home from the hospital, we have been putting herbs and spices under Little Bean’s nose. During those first few weeks, she lay in a large Moses basket as we cooked on the other side of the kitchen. Now, she sits in her highchair, kicking her legs in time to the music playing and we are all singing together. At first, sniffing was a passive experience. Now, she leans in, takes real whiffs, repeatedly, and smiles. She’s not fond of raw onions or citrus fruits. But roasted carrots, hot coffee with milk, and fresh thyme? These make her eyes go wide, and she leans back in for another smell.
I snapped off an arm of the ginger root, tucking the other part in the bottom of our cart. Removing a fibrous thread or two, I sniffed the fresh ginger, and then passed it under Little Bean’s nose. Her nostrils flared as she gulped in the air before her. She looked at me, and then moved toward the root, landing her nose on it. She sniffed and sniffed, transfixed. And then she threw her head back and let out a high-pitched squeal, a singing sound of pleasure and amazement.
The Chef rushed back, carrots in his hands. “Was that her?”
“It was,” I said, tears in my eyes. “She loved this smell.”
We wish for her a lifetime of smells she always remembers, pleasant or not. The surge of fresh-cut grass on a baseball field in March, just before the first sounds of Play Ball. The dank mass of water swirling next to the curb on a corner in New York City, in July. The aroma of onions simmering in oil, garlic and fresh herbs waiting. A whiff of the sharp tinge of green stem at the top of a tomato, warm in the sun. The whoosh of exhaust from a city bus she has just missed. The unmistakable smell of cool air and wet pavement after a hard rain, long awaited, when she can almost smell the clouds. The reek of a bag full of dirty diapers, desperately needing to be taken out the garbage. The smell of a wood-burning stove, outside the house, in cold air. Tart apples mellowing in the oven, cinnamon among them, crisp topping browning in the heat. And hopefully, someday, the sweet cake batter smell of her own daughter’s skin, just days after being born.
All of those hopes were there for me, in her barbaric yawp after sniffing fresh ginger for the first time. Little Bean, we hope you experience them all that awake.
p.s. If you have not read this yet, you simply must read Molly Birnbaum’s piece from The New York Times, “Finally, the Scent of the City.” Molly’s blog, My Madeline, has always been one of my favorites for her poignant, pointed writing. But this piece of hers condenses a profound experience into such a small space that it will have you experiencing the world differently all day after reading it.
Spontaneous Pork Ramen
As the Chef said after we finished eating, and he couldn’t stop exulting: “This is just one of those dishes where you want to eat and eat and eat. You want a little bit of hunger left over at the end of a meal, and you do here, because it’s light. But my god, I haven’t had anything like this in a long time.”
I could eat this at least three times a week.
2 cups chicken stock
couple glugs fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon oyster sauce
couple glugs tamari
pinch chile flakes
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
3 ounces thin sliced pork
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 small onion, fine diced
1 large garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms, sliced and then julienned
1 baby bok choy, leaves chiffonade, bottom sliced thin
1 tablespoon Thai basil, chiffonade
1/2 package rice sticks
1 tablespoon sliced ginger
1 carrot, peeled and julienned
handful daikon sprouts
1/2 cucumber, peeled and julienned
Flavoring the stock. Heat up the stock in a large saucepan at a medium simmer. Add the fish sauce, oyster sauce, tamari, chile flakes, and rice wine vinegar into the stock. Keep it bubbling, at a slow simmer, while you finish the rest of the dish.
Searing the pork. Season the pork slices with salt and pepper. Bring a large sauté pan to high heat. Get it screaming-ass hot, as the Chef likes to say. Pour in the oil. Put the thin strips of pork in the hot oil. Sear one side of the pork pieces, and then the other. Remove the pork from heat. Drop the pork into the simmering stock.
Sautéing the vegetables. Bring the sauté pan back to medium-high heat. Drop the onions into the leftover oil and goodness from the pork. When the onions have started to soften, put in the mushrooms, garlic, and the roots of the bok choy. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion has become soft and translucent. Add the Thai basil. Cook until it releases its fragrance. Spoon all the sautéed vegetables into the stock as well.
Cooking the rice sticks. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. (The water should taste like the ocean.) When the water is full roiling boil, drop in the rice sticks. Cook about 5 minutes, or until they are soft with a bit of bite left (al dente). Drain the rice sticks. Put them in the fragrant pork and vegetable stock now too.
Finishing the ramen. Put the ginger into the stock and bring the liquid to a boil. Taste the broth. Is it what you want? Season with salt and pepper, if necessary, plus any flavorings you feel are missing. Toss in the bok choy leaves and remove the pan from the heat.
Divvy up the ramen into bowls. Toss in the julienned carrot. Top with the daikon sprouts and cucumber.