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POSTCARD — February 10, 2014

Nothing Is Strange

A trip to Murakami’s jazz club

By 

Murakami at Book House You. © Tatsuya Mine

Murakami at Book House You. © Tatsuya Mine

Before he became a novelist, Haruki Murakami was a jazz fan. He got into it when he was fifteen, after seeing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers perform in Kobe in January 1964.The lineup that night was of one of the most celebrated in the band’s three decades of existence, featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Cedar Walton on piano. “I had never heard such amazing music,” Murakami later said. “I was hooked.” Ten years later, he postponed his university studies to open a jazz club in suburban Tokyo, naming it Peter Cat, after one of his pets. In 1977, he and his wife, Yoko, moved the club to Tokyo’s central Sendagaya neighborhood, where he wrote his first two novels, which led to later books whose titles referenced doo-wop like the Dells’ “Dance Dance Dance” and jazz tunes like Fuller’s “Five Spot After Dark.” The music equally influenced his writing style, which he sometimes conceived in terms of jazz rhythm, improvisation, and performance. Continue reading here…

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Located in New York’s East Village on St. Marks Place, Oh! Taisho gets busy most nights.

A cool, bustling yakitori, they specialize in skewered meats grilled over Binchōtan charcoal. You order by the skewer: chicken gizzard, chicken wing, chicken skin, chicken heart. The menu even lists a “chicken chunks” skewer called yotsumi, though their many offerings have kept me so busy that I’ve never ordered it. Along with offal and other yakitori classics, Oh! Taisho serves ramen, yakisoba, salt grilled mackerel, seaweed salads, ebi shumai, gyoza, tatsuta age, agedashi tofu, a mixed vegetable sauté called yasai itame, and a pork belly and kimchi sauté called buta kimchee, which is a variation of the Korean dish jaeyook bokkeum.

If you like fish and pork, this is your place.

Grill

Long and narrow, cramped and loud, Oh! Taisho’s tables are tightly packed. The counter leaves you elbow-to-elbow with strangers. In winter, traffic in and out of the front door blasts you with frigid gusts, and the small wall rack by the prep area overflows with coats. There’s nowhere else to hang them. For lack of better options, women at the counter often set their purses on their laps.

While you eat, the friendly wait staff leans over and around you, yelling to each other in voices as piercing as alarm clocks. From behind the grill, cooks call out finished orders in Japanese, as customers and servers rush perpetually past you, and others scan the perimeter to understand what all the commotion is about. It’s not the kind of place you come to relax. It functions like an izakaya: you order small plates, drink and eat and talk and have fun.

Quail eggs, ume sasami skewer

Quail eggs, ume sasami skewer

On a recent visit, between eight and ten staff members waited tables, though they moved too fast to get an accurate count. When I asked my waiter what the whole grilled hokke fish tasted like, he said he didn’t like fish. No fish? “No,” he said smiling. “No fish. Shrimp, the squids. But fish—no.”

I started with a kaisou seaweed salad for $5.75. A squeeze of lemon brightens the flavors, offering a nice, light prelude to the meat-fest come.

I followed that with some old favorites: a pork belly skewer, or bara, a shishito pepper skewer, and sasami mentai: a moist hunk of white meat chicken drizzled with bright orange spicy codroe. These cost $1.75, $1.75 and $2.75 respectively.

Skewer selections

Despite their name, shishito peppers taste mild—although, for some reason, about one out of ten packs some heat. Dressed only with coarse salt, the little green spears are grilled until a nice dark char marks their sides and the skin melts in your mouth.

Shishito pepper skewer

Shishito peppers

The $7 large grilled squid, ika yaki, is the best I’ve ever had. It plumps and turns a lustrous purple when cooked.

Ika yaki, skewer, squid

Ika yaki, grilled squid

I like a little starch with my fish, so I usually order yaki okaka onigiri: a grilled rice ball stuffed with bonito. It’s $3.25. It’s bigger than your fist. Dressed with oil and soy sauce and cooked to a crisp, the outside kernels crunch like corn, while the ones inside remain soft and white. In the center: hot, moist, shredded bonito fish, one of the best flavors on earth. Salty, smoky, rich with umami, a buddy described it as “sea bacon.” Oh! Taisho was the first place I tasted bonito, and it revolutionized my idea of what flavor could be. I now buy bags of shredded bonito to sprinkle on everything from omelets to salads, and to flavor soups.

Onigiri close up

yaki okaka onigiri

Don’t let people tell you that all Japanese food is healthy. Oh! Taisho grills greasy seasoned strips of seasoned pork belly and wrap bacon around everything from peppers to scallops, asparagus to enoki mushrooms. They serve sliced roast duck, French fries covered with cheese, and something called chikuwa cheese, which are deep fried surimi tubes filled with dairy.

This mix of fatty and fresh, healthy and decadent, partly explains the crowds. White, black, college kids and businessmen—everyone comes here.

Two couples at a nearby table ordered the $39.50 Party Set: a total of thirty skewers. One man clapped when it arrived, while his wife covered her smile and shook her head at the excess, and maybe at the challenge ahead. “Kampai,” they said, raising sake glasses.

“Order ready!” the staff yells as they try to find counter space to set huge steaming bowls in front of you.

Pork broth soup

Pork broth soup

The old wooden counter is resinous and tacky—not dirty, but sticky from lacquer. When you sit there, you can watch cooks chopping, drizzling sauces, garnishing dishes and shaking skillets over bursting flames, laughing and smiling despite the pace and tight quarters. If you sit in front of the grill, you can feel the heat on your forehead. Without room for your bag, you have to set it by your feet. With few places to look, you’re forced to stare at the aluminum foil that covers the grill’s exterior, or to watch neighboring diners stare longingly at the cooks, waiting for their food. Others talk, drink beer. With crowds, it’s not unusual for your food to arrive between five and twenty minutes after ordering.

Life at the counter

At the counter, to my right, a Chinese high school girl was on a date with an Indian high school boy. After sitting down he said, “Soy sauce is the real deal.”

She said, “It’s kind average, you know?”

“Okay,” he said, “name a sauce that’s not average then.”

Without hesitation she said, “Worchester.”

“What’s that taste like?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“You made that up.”

“No, I didn’t. It’s real.”

“Really?”

She proceeded to teach him Chinese mythology and describe which parts of our bodies symbolized good luck, health, wisdom, and so on.

To my left, a Japanese-American NYU student was on a date with white NYU student. She set her strawberry-shaped purse on the counter by the shichimi tōgarashi. “Well,” he said smiling, “I knew I liked teriyaki chicken, but those rice balls—yum! They’re not even balls. They’re spears.”

The cook!

The cook!

At the end of the counter, the cook reached inside a refrigerated case and grabbed prepped skewers. His timing was impeccable. With multiple skewers of varying thickness grilling for multiple tables at once, he knew how long to leave each skewer on the grill, when to turn them so they cooked evenly, how to stagger items, all while pulling new tickets from the hanging queue. He read the ticket, removed skewers from the cooler, dipped them in the vat of tare sauce and draped them over the black cauterized grills. As the food sizzled, he glanced at the door and called out orders.

Bacon-wrapped scallop skewer

Bacon-wrapped scallop skewer of doom

It’s easy to order more food than you can eat.

To keep from ordering the same familiar items, I branched out and tried the grilled skate wing. Dense and chewy like a moist seafood jerky, el hire carries the strong, deep flavor of the ocean. It arrived with a mayo dipping sauce which I skipped in favor of a squeeze of fresh lemon. My suggestion: eat it fast. When it cools, it dries.

The hotate bacon, or bacon-wrapped scallops, delivered the desired hit of fat, salt and seawater.

The chicken skewer with plum sauce arrived moist and fresh.

The soup made from pork stock, filled with rice and topped with scallion and sliced charsu pork, was equal in every way to ramen.

And the quail egg skewer offered texture and flavor in bite-size morsels that left room for more morsels.

‘Taisho’ is the name of a historic period in Japan, defined by the reign of Emperor Taishō, which ran from 1912 to 1926. I can’t explain what that has to do with this yakitori joint.

For booze, they serve beer and sake, and offer unusual sho-chus made from rice and wheat, sweet potato and sesame and one called jougo made from brown sugar ($6 glass, $50 bottle).

Stay a while or eat fast and get out—no one’s going to rush you, but the sight of people constantly asking staff about the wait will make you aware of how in demand your seats are, and might hasten your pace.

While I ate, a Japanese chef and the Indian cook were forcing seafood dishes on a Latino staff member. They had him seated at the counter by the cold case, eating seafood soup and picking at a weekly special: tiny baby horse mackerel, deep fried and seasoned with a hint of curry, called mame aji no karaage fuumi. The man shoved the little fish in his mouth and shook his head. He liked it. The soup, not so much. He pointed at the fried fish and waved to another staffer who was prepping in back. People kept checking on him. The large Japanese chef rubbed his back and poured more beer into his mug. Another prep cook came out to measure how much he’d eaten from the bowl. He must have been new, and they were testing and teasing him.

A young server came over holding a large plastic cup with a red straw. He patted the man’s shoulder. “Avocado milkshake,” he said, “you like that, right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the man said. He liked it. The kid flashed thumbs up and walked out the front door. Later, a waitress in sweatpants came by and asked him, “Doing okay?” He nodded yes and grinned. He really liked the horse mackerel. When I asked my waiter if he was going to at least try the weekly special, he laughed. “No,” he said, “not for me.”

Long view

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As part of my book project on crowding, I traveled to New York in August to do some research and reporting. That research brought me to the busy Trader Joe’s in Chelsea, to write about the store’s “End of Line” position and their unique crowd-management technique. Here’s the piece:

 

In the produce section of Trader Joe’s store in the Chelsea section of New York, Karl Holman holds an eight-foot-tall sign that reads “End of Line.” It’s six o’clock on a Tuesday, and Holman is managing the line for the second time this shift.

While customers test peaches for ripeness, Holman holds the towering metal pole aloft, making the banner’s orange and yellow lettering visible to anyone who gazes up from the shelves. For the next hour, the line’s end moved constantly.

Short and stout, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a grey Trader Joe’s T-shirt, the forty-nine-year-old Holman addresses a knot of stopped customers who are blocking traffic. “Are you ready to check out?” he asks. “Step right here.” Customers glance at his sign and then file into place.

Continue reading…

 

 

 

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SaturdaysNYC-StripeTee-05

the classic

I was riding my bike home last summer when a homeless man laying down at a bus stop yelled, “Nice surfer shirt!”

I flashed a thumbs up as I passed and howled, “Thanks!”

 

Hang Ten

I have a closet full of striped tees like the one I was wearing, some vintage 1960s and ’70s, some reproductions. I’ve worn this style shirt, off and on, for nearly half of my thirty-seven years. I discovered them while thrifting in early high school in my native Arizona, yet I’d never stopped to consider: who invented them? How did they evolve over time? And what makes a striped tee a “surfer shirt,” anyway?

Vintage Rusty Surf Skate T

The Hang Ten clothing company set the surf tee standard. The produced the first surf wear clothing line, and were the first to popularize the striped tee in the gaudy colors and color combinations we associate with the 1960s and early ’70s: orange against lime green; brown paired with mustard yellow; yellow paired with turquoise; purple cut with white and pink bands. Along with classic beach culture icons such as Dick Dale, Gidget, Rat Fink and The Beach Boys, the tacky striped patterns helped define the look of the era. The Brady kids wore the shirts on The Brady Bunch. Brothers Kevin and Wayne Arnold wore them on the period piece The Wonder Years. Depending on your age, your parents probably wore them. (Check your family photos.) According to a 1992 LA Times article, the Hang Ten company kept their original, iconic, eye-catching shirt patterns on file.

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Contrary to reason, the guiding design principle seemed to be: the gaudier the better. And somehow that approach worked. The best shirts possess the quality that Thelonious Monk references in his song “Ugly Beauty.” Op and Hobie made them. Striped surfer tees were so popular that mainstream companies such as JC Penny, Sears and Montgomery Ward evenmade them, along with a litany of forgotten off-brands like Wentworth. (I have a Wentworth shirt that is a work of freak art.)

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Ugly Beauty: Vintage Hang Ten

Although they eventually fell out of fashion by the late-70s, in some ways, these shirts never completely went away. Any longtime thrifter has run into at least one on a resale rack. There was a brief revival in the early ’90s, when Hang Ten released a line of reproductions after company executives noticed kids in Newport Beach, California sporting vintage Hang Ten shirts with a particular zeal. The bold stripe pattern, both collared and pocket tees, have been experiencing a bit of a moment during the last year, worn by people in the beach pop and garage-pyshe set, some of whom style themselves after ’70s Bowery punks like The Ramones; examples include Nobunny, The Mean Jeans, Jeff The Brotherhood. And Russell Quan, drummer for the legendary Mummies as well as a billion other San Fran garage bands, seems to have been born in one: (See here and here.)

Vintage Hang Ten

FURTHER READING:

Here’s a cool history of the Hang Ten brand: http://surfcrazy.com/stanleys/hangtenhistory/HangTHistory7080%5B1%5D.htm

And a 2008 article about how Kohl’s was going to revive the Hang Ten brand: http://www.jsonline.com/business/29461529.html

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Vintage JC Penney’s Towncraft shirt

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Korean tea and traditional snacks

Korean tea and traditional snacks

Talk of tea usually revolves around China or Japan. These countries boast innumerable varieties and ancient tea-making traditions. South Korea does, too, yet you hear less if anything about them. What you also don’t hear about are their tisanes.

For a nation the size of Portugal, Korea produces a staggering number of herbal and fruit teas. Pine pollen and honey tea. Ginseng, ginger and jujube tea. Infusions made from roasted corn and Job’s Tears. Such variety makes sense when you consider the richness of their landscape: both hardwood deciduous and coniferous forests filled with fruits, roots, nuts, seeds, blossoms, leaves, herbs and berries. All make appearances in their teas. Occasionally I set aside the sencha and mao feng in order to indulge in Hanguk’s overlooked beverage pleasure dome. To spread the word, I wanted to tell other tea drinkers about Korea’s incredible tisanes and suggest Seoul teashops where travelers can try them. Seoul’s Insadong district offers the best place to start an exploration, because of the neighborhood’s central location, subway service, and the density of teashops and cafés.

As a passionate, daily tea drinker of over twenty years, I’ve tried many of Korea’s tisanes, even though I’ve not yet visited the country. I buy imported bagged and powdered versions, and I’ve made a number myself using fresh ingredients. Here are five different tisanes and a list of Seoul teashops where I’ve never been, but which do serve these teas. One day I’ll hopefully get to drink some of these in Seoul, too.

1) Five Flavors Tea

Omijacha, image from koreajjang.wordpress.com

Omijacha, image from Koreajjang.wordpress.com

Omijacha (오미자 차), or “five flavors” tea, at Jidaebang (지대방)

(2F 196-6 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-738-5379)

In Korean, cha means ‘tea.’ Although English-speakers frequently use the term ‘tea’ to describe any hot beverage, tea is technically derived from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. A tisane is an herbal beverage containing no tea. Koreans drink green and black teas, yet the term ‘Korean tea’ usually refers to uncaffeinated, native tisanes as well.

Omijacha is brewed from the berries of the Chinese Schisandra chinensis vine. In traditional Chinese medicine, Schizandra is considered an adaptogen, like ginseng, and restorative, believed to help the heart and kidneys. It’s also said to contain all of the five distinct flavors central to Chinese medicine: salty, sour, pungent, bitter and sweet. Opened in 1982, Jidaebang is one of Insadong’s oldest teashops. They serve omijacha hot on cold days and iced during Seoul’s sweltering summers, sprinkling a few pine nuts on top, which float in an appealing contrast to the bold red tea.

2) Quince Tea

Mogwacha, image from irenefranseda.blogspot.com

Mogwacha, image from irenefranseda.blogspot.com

Mogwacha (모과차), or quince tea, at Yetchatjip (옛찻집)

(2F, 196-5 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-722-5019, or 02-722-5332)

Mogwa is a Chinese quince which yields a tart, sweet brew reminiscent of citrus. ‘Jip’ means house in Korean, and Yetchajip translates as ‘Old Tea House.’ Insadong has been Seoul’s arts district since the Joseon Dynasty. Hidden within the neighborhood’s maze of bustling streets and alleys, Yetchajip’s building – a hanok, or “traditional house” – was built over 125 years ago, making it Insadong’s oldest teahouse. Although it’s a bit difficult to find, many people considerthis quiet, cluttered shop one of the most peaceful places in Seoul. Light is low. Fountains trickle and candles flicker. Birds chirp from a cage. Tea selection is limited (nine hot and seven cold), but ingredients are high-grade, and. The quince tea might be one of their best sellers. Tea comes with a small plate of traditional snacks, many made from glutinous, sweetened rice.

Here are a few interior photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/68558939@N00/4245023786/

3) Citron Tea

Yujacha

Yujacha

Yujacha (유자차), or citron tea, at Star Miss Lee Café (별다방 미스리)

(Address TK. Phone: 02-739-0939)

Yuja is a tangy citrus fruit popular in Japan and China. Korean grocers sell this tea in jars, where the fruit is preserved in honey or sugar like marmalade. When people start to develop a cold or sore throat, they often spoon a bit into a mug to treat the symptoms, but nothing compares to fresh versions made in a teahouse.

Star Miss Lee Café sells yujacha and nostalgia. Located on the second floor above a convenience store, it offers games, toys, childhood comfort foods such as dosirak boxed lunches, and tea snacks such as yakgwa, a fried cookie dipped in honey. Patrons can also hang notes from nearly any surface, including an indoor tree. Here is the menu: http://www.missleecafe.com/menu.php Also, some photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seoulkorea/4946926893/in/photostream/

4) Jujube Tea

Daechucha (대추차), or jujube tea

Daechucha, image from CNN

Daechucha, image from CNN

Westerners might be shocked to find so much stuff floating in their tea. Blossoms, pine needles, sliced jujube fruit – with so much plant matter floating in the cup, they could mistake it as soup. It’s a problem of texture rather than taste. Western palates are accustomed to clear beverages; we’re only still getting used to tapioca pearls in tea. But the same ingredients that commonly appear in many Korean porridges and desserts also decorate teas such as daechucha.

Daechucha is believed to stimulate your appetite and help you fall asleep. You’ll commonly find jujube teas blended with ginseng, ginger and honey. Fans of herbal liquors such as Chartreuse will enjoy this classic combination. Herby and earthy without being medicinal, it carries a rich taste of earth similar to a roasted beet. Despite how that sounds, it’s surprisingly appealing.

Jujube tea is so popular that it’s sold at most teahouses, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a standout version.

5) Persimmon Punch

Sujeonggwa, image from My Korean Kitchen

Sujeonggwa, image from My Korean Kitchen

Sujeonggwa (수정과), or dessert punch, at Banjjakbanjjak Binnaneun

(6 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-738-4525)

Koreans drink tisanes for health, but they also drink them for taste. Fortunately, even their healthiest teas are delicious. Sujeonggwa is a dark red brew, sweet enough that it’s called punch. Made from cinnamon, dried persimmons, ginger and peppercorn, it’s commonly garnished with pine nuts and served as dessert. Each ingredient boasts a number of healthful properties, from aiding digestion to increasing circulation. Sujeonggwa is sold commercially in cans, such as the Paldo brand’s popular 8.4oz version. As with jujube tea, sugeonggwa is so widespread that travelers who ask around should easily find a solid teahouse version. From what I can tell, though, there’s a teahouse named Banjjakbanjjak Binnaneun that brews their own sujeonggwa and sells tea serving sets. Another place to get good homemade sujeonggwa is Su Yo Il (수요일).

Perched on the second floor above the main road through Insadong, Su Yo Il means ‘Wednesday.’ Although this café is bit on the pricey side, they often throw a whole persimmon into their sujeonggwa. With such a great view from the window seats, high prices seem worthwhile.

Read-to-drink teas, just stir into water

Ready-to-drink teas, just stir into water

Further info:

For more info, you can also check out the book Korean Tea Classics, written by Hong Kyeong-Hee (a native Korean, he teaches the Way of Tea at a wing of the Panyaro Institute for the Way of Tea, outside Seoul), and Steven D. Owyoung. Also, check out this this food-focused blog by a vegan named Mipa.

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Am happy to share this roundtable chat I had with writers Courtney Maum and Bart Schaneman over at Vol. 1 Brooklyn. The subject was travel writing and chapbooks. Tobias Carroll asked the questions, and I was as excited to hear Courtney and Bart’s answers as I was to have to think about these topics myself. Here’s the link:

 

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2013/05/13/talking-travel-chapbooks-and-a-sense-of-place-with-courtney-maum-aaron-gilbreath-and-bart-schaneman/

 

Make sure to order copies of Courtney’s chapbook Notes from Mexico here at The Cupboard, and Bart Schaneman’s Trans-Siberian here or over at Thought Catalog. You can still order my chapbook A Secondary Landscape here at Future Tense Books.

 

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I’m writing a book proposal currently titled Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet. In an effort to raise money to fund two short reporting trips to finish the proposal, I’ve launched a Kickstarter.

The Architecture of Density, by photographer Michael Wolf
The Architecture of Density, by photographer Michael Wolf

The book is narrative nonfiction about the profound yet overlooked ways dense communal living has shaped human affairs, including everything from our moods to our businesses to interior design. Crowding isn’t just an environmental and urban design issue. It’s a social, psychological and moral issue. With over half the world population now living in cities, it’s also our future. As the novelist Don DeLillo said, “The future belongs to crowds.” I plan to portray what that future looks like, how we’re preparing for it, and write the first book to detail exactly how crowds have shaped human history through time. Once I finish the proposal, I can find the right publisher and get to good hard work of writing the rest of the book.

I’m trying to raise  $3,000 by June 1st. Funds will cover flights to Tokyo and New York City, and small rooms in lean, inexpensive lodging like the YMCA and a capsule hotel. I’ve never asked people for financial help before, but I’m enormously passionate about this book, more excited than I’ve ever been about a project, and I believe that the subject’s global scope will impact the lives of city-dwellers both in the U.S., Canada and in Europe, and in developing countries such as China, India and Bangladesh. Maybe it’s a tall order, but it’s also a big world, and I want to make this book happen any way that I can, so I’m asking for help. As the saying goes, where there’s a will. If you feel like contributing a little, be it financially or by spreading the word, here’s more information.

Thank you for helping make Crowded a compelling read and a book to be proud of.
Love to all,
Aaron

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