Category Archives: writing

Hooked on a Feeling

"This never would have happened if that Schumacher guy were still around."

“This never would have happened if that Schumacher guy were still around.”

We managed to see Guardians of the Galaxy the other day and I think it’s time for someone (whomever makes declarations about such things), to declare this one of the greatest geek movies of the year; of the decade; of a generation. It’s an unapologetic space opera with a stylin’ throwback soundtrack, comic book tie-ins, and freakin’ Bradley Cooper as a trash-talking racoon.

We watched Guardians not long after reading up on the upcoming Batman v Superman teasers from San Diego Comic Con. I agree with others that based on the title alone, this should totally be about a Supreme Court case… but that’s not going to happen. We’re far more likely to see a rehash of The Dark Knight Returns.

Growing up, I was a much bigger fan of DC’s comics than Marvel’s comics, X-Men notwithstanding. That said, watching Guardians helped clarify something that’s been bugging me for a while about teasers for this film and some of DC’s recent movies in general. The fact of the matter is, I’m frankly not looking forward to watching Batman v Superman. I’m sure I will watch it. I’m just not expecting to enjoy it.

There’s an article on Vulture about DC’s overuse of Frank Miller as source material. I quibble with some of the details. Case in point, the recent movies have drawn from plenty of not-Frank-Miller sources. Jeph Loeb and Alan Moore jump to mind. I agree with the main premise of the article though that DC’s movies have all been a bit one-note in the post-Schumacher era. Not that I’m holding up the Schumacher Batmans as some ideal. Hell no. Just that something’s been kind of… off. Contrary to the above article, I would argue that the problem isn’t Frank Miller himself. It’s the type of grimdark storytelling he championed.

By “grimdark,” I’m not calling out the fantasy subgenre here, though I’d argue they’re a related phenomenon. Rather, I mean the tendency to draw out the grit and grim that hit comics like a sack of bricks in the eighties.

Here’s my biggest problem with comic book grimdark–it’s been done before. And taken to an extreme, it’s a creative dead-end. Thirty years ago, Alan Moore pointing out that capes are a silly and potentially dangerous fashion statement was clever and subversive. Now even Pixar gets thatWatchmen and The Dark Knight Returns changed the way many people perceived comic books… thirty years ago. Think about that. We’ve already seen Batman beat the living snot out of Superman. As a stylistic choice, grimdark can lend itself to lazy storytelling.

If one of my biggest problems with recent DC offerings is their grimdark edge, a related problem could well be Zach Snyder–watching his take on Watchmen and 300 made me realize he eats this shit up. Watchmen was a pretty well-crafted film. Being pretty literal to the source, it was also to me borderline unwatchable. His ability to approach his subjects with less irony than they warrant startles me. Especially since, you know, comic books. DC’s movie approach compared to Marvel’s serves up an ounce more verisimilitude at the expense of a pound of fun and charm.

And here’s another thing: this is one of the reasons I’ve hesitated to watch Man of Steel despite loving most of Superman’s live action incarnations (spoiler alert). A storyteller is god of a lesser world. She or he can tell a story that reinforces violence or a story that fosters empathy and understanding.

I’m not arguing there’s something inherently wrong with a particular mode of storytelling over another. The Dark Knight Returns was my all-time favorite comic as a teenager. That was a very long time ago. All the while I’m dreading a comic book movie about two of my all-time favorite characters meeting up, I’ve spent the last week with Blue Swede looping in my head.

Is that so wrong?

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Why the Lego Movie is a Better Matrix Film Than the Matrix

Our six-year-old daughter took me to see The Lego Movie a few weeks ago. My takeaway: this is what the Matrix trilogy should have been.

Read on only if you don’t mind spoilers of both films.

My parents went with our daughter the first go-around seeing the movie and, having not seen The Matrix, totally didn’t realize the The Lego Movie is more or less a spoof thereof. It blatantly and hilariously borrows from The Matrix: from its “chosen one” plot to its philosophical premise–the world as we know it is a facade. Here’s how the Wachowski siblings could’ve done it better.

1. The Lego Movie knows its place in the world 

Yup. It’s a movie about Legos. Produced by the company that creates Legos. With the intent of selling you Legos. Should we pretend that the Matrix trilogy didn’t try really hard to sell us video games? The Lego Movie never pretends to be something it’s not and its wry self-aware humor makes its blue pill a little easier to swallow. Yes, The Matrix offers a few chuckles. It’s also got a hell of a lot of plot holes as well as a premise that doesn’t make a lot of sense in spite of (or because of?) its Platonic cred. We can give The Lego Movie a pass on its plot holes because it presents its comedy front and center. If a movie wants to sell you “big ideas” it’s best not to shout, “THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT BIG IDEAS” upfront.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Big Fish. It’s absolutely hilarious and its final scenes left me bawling uncontrollably. I almost never cry during movies. The poignancy snuck up on me. Yoon Ha Lee writes some of the best short space opera around. She describes herself as a writer aiming to “assassinate the reader.

“The thing is that I don’t want the reader to see the short sharp point clearly from the beginning, but I want it to make sense afterward as the angle of attack.”

Sorry, Matrix. You broadcasted it a mile away and the point was not all that sharp. Lego Movie? I never saw it coming. And for the record, I sniffled just a little.

On the subject of philosophy…

2. The Matrix is morally bankrupt

Cracked says it best. Also here.

The “heroes” of The Matrix would have us believe that confronting a life of deceit is an inherent good that justifies any means. Call me crazy. I feel like they need to support that theorem a little better. Also, I’m not sure what’s more disturbing–the callousness with which the “good guys” kill people they purport to want to save and so readily call them “the enemy” or the fact that after all of that, the movie trilogy has an out-of-left field “we can live in peace” ending.

Seriously?

3. The Lego Movie handles its philosophical dilemma with more nuance

Neo is the Chosen One. “Chosen One” narratives are problematic as all hell. They’re about the elite and able saving the masses through arbitrary means at the discretion of the storyteller. They tell us little about the world or the human condition. You could say there’s something Christlike about Neo’s sacrifice at the trilogy’s end. If Christ had an uzi.

Alongside The Lego Movie‘s purpose of, you know, selling us all more Legos, is a message that manages to be naive, audacious, and heartwarming at once. There’s something beautiful about the way it resolves its own “Chosen One” story. There’s worth and uniqueness in all of us. Even the “bad guy.”

Corny? Sure. At least it makes sense in the context of the film.

So those are my two cents. If you still don’t believe me, consider this–The Lego Movie earned a higher score on Rotten Tomatoes than The Matrix. This blog is strictly my opinion. But Rotten Tomatoes? That’s science.

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William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Verily, a New Hope)

Back in high school, I was a Star Wars superfan.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a Star Trek household, but when it came time for the inevitable “Trek vs. Wars” debate, I always took up the Lucasfilm gauntlet. Why? The fantasy and mythology resonated with me in my youth. Return of the Jedi is one of the first films I clearly remember watching in theaters. Also, I could smile and nod, but never completely bought Star Trek’s utopian underpinnings. Star Wars’ Force seemed far more “real” to me.

Oh yeah. And laser swords. Star Wars won the “rule of cool” award hands down even if I didn’t know there was such a rule as a teenager.

I gobbled up every Expanded Universe story I could get my hands on. Tales of the Jedi. Dark Empire. Pretty much every novel from Heir to the Empire to the Black Fleet Crisis. I even bought the RPG sourcebooks even though I didn’t actually play the RPG. I poured over the vehicle schematics; the Alliance and Imperial military hierarchy; the alien races.

After a couple of years, I burned out on it all. It annoyed me when I found contradictory diagrams of the Millennium Falcon’s layout. It bugged the snot out of me when I felt the core characters were out of character. I still love Star Wars, but my passion for the series is more smolder than raging fire.

That’s where I was when I approached Ian Douescher’s William Shakepeare’s Star Wars. It was a gift from my wife. If she weren’t as big a geek as me, we would have problems.

Darth Vader and my shadow

Darth Vader and my shadow

At first glance, it struck me as too much of a gimmick. I never jumped on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies bandwagon.  Then I actually read this lovely book and decided it’s got to be one of the greatest feats of Star Wars fandom ever accomplished.

First off, hardly any action or dialogue is omitted. It’s Star Wars, in iambic pentameter. With authentic Shakesearean archaisms. With terse stage directions and a chorus describing all of the action. Seriously. My favorite stage direction:

Enter PRINCESS LEIA, in beam projected by R2-D2.

And we mustn’t forget asides and soliloquys:

HAN [to Luke]: I say, what a charming girl thou here hast found!

Either I shall destroy her or, perhaps,

I may in time begin to like the wench!

LUKE [aside]: Nay, executioner or lover, both

Are far too great a role for thee to play.

The book provides a few diversions into camp and parody. In a way, not unlike its source. In one groanable passage, Luke Skywalker gazes upon his helmet and laments, “Alas, poor stormtrooper.” There’s also a clever “who shot first” diversion in Mos Eisley. But for the most part, the book plays it straight, to its own benefit. And truthfully (verily?) its shockingly Shakespearean.  The transition is remarkably sharp.  Han Solo’s one-liners translate into surprisingly eloquent verse, as in here, aboard the Millennium Falcon:

A pilgrim, truly said! For I have gone

From galaxy to galaxy and more,

Yet never hath this faithful worshipper

Found aught to recommend that strange belief–

A singe Force that binds the universe.

True ’tis, no power mystical controls

Han Solo’ yet unfinish’d destiny.

And so I preach the one and only faith:

My simple, merry tricks are all my gods,

And nonsense is the only testament.

I worship at the shrine of my own will.

I haven’t read much Shakespeare since my English major days and this book reminded me of all sorts of stylistic quirks I’d forgotten. Rhyming verse to conclude scenes? Check. The ubiquitous chorus? Check. Expository asides that totally state the obvious? Yes, I’m looking at you Obi-Wan. And furthermore, the book’s iambic pentameter is really solid–using some of Shakespeare’s cheats (abbreviating words and fusing lines of dialogue) to make it work.

And now I’ll write the rest of this review,

In ‘glorious’ iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentam’ter.

Iambic…

See, that shit’s hard.

Beyond mimicking Shakespeare’s style, however, there really is something Shakespearean about this undertaking. Shakespeare wrote in a time when originality was not highly prized. Before becoming plays, his stories existed in legend, lore, or the zeitgeist. He didn’t invent Hamlet. He didn’t invent Romeo and Juliet. But he made them popular. It was okay to be derivative as long as one was entertainining.

Critics of Star Wars could always, fairly, argue its sci-fi setting is inconsequential. It doesn’t do anything with its plot you couldn’t do as a western or fantasy epic. I have a feeling Shakespeare would have shrugged at that criticism (after, you know, puzzling out what “sci-fi” actually is).

Lately, I’ve noticed a flood of Star Wars properties, whether Origami Yoda or Vader’s Little Princess. As a popular culture, we seem to be putting more value than ever in the nostalgic and derivative. That was Shakespeare’s forte. Hell, if Star Wars were around during the reign of Elizabeth he probably would have written his own version of the story.

But then, if you ask me, Goffrey Chaucer’s Star Wars would have been so much cooler. More ironic, more sublime, and more metamodern. Shakespeare’s fine and all. Just a tad overrated.

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Thoughts on Joss Whedon

Is this what they mean by “mansplaining?”

The other day, Joss Whedon tried a little verbal jujutsu in his dissection of the word, “feminist.”

Included is an excerpt:

Ist in it’s meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can’t be born an ist. It’s not natural… So feminist includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state. That we don’t emerge assuming that everybody in the human race is a human, that the idea of equality is just an idea that’s imposed on us. That we are indoctrinated with it, that it’s an agenda……My problem with feminist is not the word. It’s the question. “Are you now, or have you ever been, a feminist?” The great Katy Perry once said—I’m paraphrasing—”I’m not a feminist but I like it when women are strong.”…Don’t know why she feels the need to say the first part, but listening to the word and thinking about it, I realize I do understand. This question that lies before us is one that should lie behind us. The word is problematic for me because there’s another word that we’re missing…

…When you say racist, you are saying that is a negative thing. That is a line that we have crossed. Anything on the side of that line is shameful, is on the wrong side of history. And that is a line that we have crossed in terms of gender but we don’t have the word for it…

…I start thinking about the fact that we have this word when we’re thinking about race that says we have evolved beyond something and we don’t really have this word for gender. Now you could argue sexism, but I’d say that’s a little specific. People feel removed from sexism. ‘I’m not a sexist, but I’m not a feminist.’ They think there’s this fuzzy middle ground. There’s no fuzzy middle ground. You either believe that women are people or you don’t. It’s that simple…

Genderist. I would like this word to become the new racist. I would like a word that says there was a shameful past before we realized that all people were created equal. And we are past that. And every evolved human being who is intelligent and educated and compassionate and to say I don’t believe that is unacceptable. And Katy Perry won’t say, “I’m not a feminist but I like strong women,” she’ll say, “I’m not a genderist but sometimes I like to dress up pretty.” And that’ll be fine.

This is how we understand society. The word racism didn’t end racism, it contextualized it in a way that we still haven’t done with this issue. Does that mean that this will end the problem? Yes, definitely, we’ve done it.

So while I think I see what he’s getting at… okay, I actually don’t. Did he just 1) make up his own word to take the place of “sexist?” And 2) did he just say that we’re “past” it?

Joss Whedon’s always occupied a peculiar place in pop culture–a white, heterosexual cis-male who has been closely aligned with feminism over the years. A lot has been said about whether or not the title “feminist” really fits for him.

He writes swashbuckling stories with larger than life characters and I’m glad he gives women a space to be larger than life and swashbuckling. Some of his stuff can get pretty problematic though. First and foremost, most of his “strong” women are exceptional. What you won’t see in a lot of in his stories are women who are… well… ordinary. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I mean it in a “Free to Be You and Me” kind of way. You don’t see a lot of women who are not the Chosen One. Not science experiments. Not following male ideals of heroism. Traditionally feminine in a way that doesn’t hyper-emphasize their sexuality. Cracked has a great, albeit tongue in cheek, breakdown of Joss Whedon’s female archetypes.

What you don’t see are a lot of female lawyers and judges and doctors and police officers and politicians and… you get the idea. In fact, his worlds tend to be depressingly patriarchal. Runaways is one of my favorite Marvel Comics. During his run on the series, the characters travel back in time to 1907 Manhattan where they meet 12-year-old Klara Prast: a physically and sexually abused child bride. A mutant, she travels back to the future with them, becoming a regular (and emotionally stunted) character and Whedon’s contribution to the series. It was hard not to feel crawly reading that arc. Whedon writes a lot of “powerful women,” but not a lot of women with real power.

Others have written more nuanced critiques of his remarks on sexism. Excuse me. “genderism.” I’m not trying to condemn the man and his creations. Any work of fiction’s going to be problematic to someone, sometime, somehow. In fact, I quite liked Buffy and Firefly. His works tend to be pulpy and entertaining. But are they feminist? Joss Whedon himself seems to be saying we should stop calling them that from now on.

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Politics as Usual

The other day, I took a little time to catch up with Ursula Le Guin’s blog. I’m often a little surprised by her eagerness to embrace political topics. But then, to those familiar with her works, her political views seem unlikely to surprise. That got me to thinking–she is by no means strictly a writer of speculative fiction, but it is the genre for which she is best known. Is speculative fiction more political than some other genres?

Let me be clear–I don’t think think any narrative is apolitical. This goes beyond fiction. A friend’s father used to work for Voice of America. His father, he said, objected to frequent assertions that Voice of America is a political instrument of the United States government. He argued journalists for Voice of America’s passions generally lie not with U.S. interests, but with earnest, free speech. “Their only bias is that people be happy and well fed.” I believe and respect that. But it is a bias. Not all worldwide media outlets would give a snot about whether or not all people are happy and well-fed.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something about sci-fi and fantasy that sets it apart and I wonder if that something has to do with “world building.” Whether you’re talking the slightly sci-fi (let’s say, Atlas Shrugged) to the hard sci-fi (Let’s say, Star Trek) the “speculative” nature of spec fic inevitably involves some sort of deconstructing and reconstructing of setting. Even if it’s as simple as “Capitalists are smart enough to invent a perpetual motion machine and everyone else is not.” Yes, world building occurs even in supposedly naturalistic fiction, but at its heart, a work of speculative fiction tends to be a “what if..?” story. Good, bad, or ugly, the answer to “what if…?” is always, “whatever the author damn well wants.” We all carry underlying thoughts and assumptions about the way the world works. Those come to the fore in sci-fi and fantasy.

Politicization is, in my opinion inevitable in the process of creating meaning for things. But I feel like in some ways that political dimension you can find in speculative fiction is part of its allure. It gives you something to believe in. Something to point to and say, “see!”

I grew up loving Trek, in a household that loved Trek, but as I grow older I become more and more suspicious of its politics. More and more, I feel like there’s something disingenuous about the United Federation of Planets–an intergalactic coalition based out of San Francisco and led by socialist anglophones. Through its eyes, alien cultures come across as somehow less enlightened and easy to caricaturize. The Original Series was practically built around episodes devoted to Kirk and crew convincing foreign cultures how screwed up they’ve been. The Next Generation isn’t much better in some ways…

Still, it’s effective. It’s hard for me not to like Trek’s fundamental message of human actualization on some level, even if on another level I think it’s a total crock of shit. That’s powerful storytelling. As skeptical as I am, just queue up Alexander Courage’s fanfare and I’m ready to drink the Kool-Aid.

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Flour, Water, Salt, and Speculative Fiction

As photogenic as I could possibly make it.

As photogenic as I could possibly make it.

I mentioned last post that I took a shot at making demi-baguettes again recently. Baguettes and I haven’t always been BFFs. They never quite turn out like I would hope. Even within the same batch, they turn out differently. This last time, I followed the Bread Baker’s Guild of America 2008 Coupe du Monde formula to the letter–scaled down such that flour in the main formula was 250 grams (disclosure though–I could not find and therefore did not use malted barley powder). The results were good and after having made demi-baguettes periodically for over a decade, I’m still learning nuances to shape and crumb and texture. The more hydrated the dough, the more open and attractive the crumb, but the harder it is to shape and score (65-70% hydration seems to be the sweet spot). I usually add too much water in the initial mixing and too much flour for the shaping. I learned from this last attempt that if the dough is not a little tacky without being too sticky, it is almost impossible to make the finished bread look as it should. This dough used a tiny amount of levain and a lot of poolish to give it that extra kick.

All that to say flour, water, salt, and maybe a little yeast can yield an incredible range of flavors. That’s what I love about baking.

What I love about writing is that arrangements of letters can yield even greater diversity.

I’m a little late to the party, but the Nebula Award Nominees for 2012 are out there. Furthermore, many of them are available to read for free online, including all of the short stories. I can’t help but feel like this is an exciting time to be a reader of speculative fiction.

Robot” by Helena Bell gets props in my book for successful use of the second person.

Ken Liu’s “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” defies conventional plot structure and manages to be meta in the process.

I appreciated Aliette de Bodard’s “Immersion” and couldn’t help but think of my own bicultural family through this sci-fi lens. Oh yeah, and more second person!

I found “Fragmentation” by Tom Crosshill beautifully poignant, especially for a story evocative of mobile operating systems.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” is the only fantasy story in the mix–to me, not very relatable (disclosure–I think “love at first sight” is silly) but so beautifully wrought.

Leah Cypress’ “Nanny’s Day” is a whole different animal–almost plausible–and it resonated with me like none other. I can’t help but feel like it takes the easy way out in the end, but then it goes to a very real, vey uncomfortable place for many readers–myself included.

Cat Rambo’s “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain” is a fascinating speculative story and gets props in my book for being one of only stories not published in ClarkesWorld or Lightspeed.

I didn’t really read short fiction until not long ago. I always imagined stodgy, contemplative works in the tradition of Chekhov. These nominees make a fascinating study of how tense, tone, plot structure (or lack thereof) interplay–like a simple lean bread, complexity from a simple foundation. My favorites were “Nanny’s Day” and “Give Her Honey.” Curiously, the former is the most realistic of the bunch and the latter: the most out-there. I appreciated their places on different dimensions of pleasurable writing.

So, reader, if you have not read this year’s nominees, you are doing yourself a disservice. Any other thoughts on the the nominees for this year? Favorites?

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Beef. Stew.

There’s something therapeutic about a good braise–something soul-soothing about chunks of meat that soak up the flavor of everything nearby and stew until they’ve just about turned to mush. It’s alchemy. You can manipulate the ingredients and manipulate your sear and the temperature, but time and the laws of nature are far more the chef than you.

I made beef stew over the weekend and I needed something simple and soul-soothing–something to help me slip into an A-grade food food coma. Becuase sometimes you just need to let go a little.

This is a fairly “stock” braise recipe, but with a few unique flairs. I love the combination of star anise and/or cinnamon with beef and tomato. The sweet licorice spice and tangy tomato balance the beef so well. Taiwanese beef noodle soup is one of my favorite dishes. For the red wine, I used Prince Michel Cabernet Franc. It’s light-bodied, fruit-forward, and has a ridiculously long vanilla finish that plays off the anise nicely. It’s local too. I served it with homemade demi-baguettes and used this formula, scaled down. We’ll probably serve the leftovers with Chinese wheat noodle.

What quintessential comfort foods get your food coma on?

Aroma Therapy Beef Stew

Ingredients:

3.5 lbs. beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes

12 oz. (or 1 1/2 cups OR 2 glasses) light-bodied red wine.

1 cup broth or stock

1 cup tomato sauce (I used homemade)*

2 onions cut into 3/4-inch chunks

2 carrots cut into 3/4-inch chunks

3 celery stalks cut into 3/4-inch chunks

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

2 star anise

1 bay leaf

Olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Season the beef all over with salt and pepper (I use about a half-teaspoon per pound) and let rest for about half an hour to an hour.

Heat a Dutch oven to medium-high. Add olive oil to coat the bottom and sear the beef in several batches. Remove from the Dutch oven and reserve.

Add more oil if necessary and sear the vegetables with a pinch of salt for five to ten minutes or until browned. Deglaze the pan with the wine and reduce until the alcoholic smell has cooked off. Add the broth, tomato sauce, reserved beef, herbs, and spices. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and then cover.

Simmer for 2 1/2 to three hours or until desired tenderness is achieved, stirring occasionally. Simmer uncovered for ten to twenty minutes at the end of the cooking time to thicken, if desired.

Serve with rice or bread.

In other news: my first presentable demi-baguette.

In other news: my first presentable demi-baguette.

*Homemade Tomato Sauce:

Ingredients:

2 28-oz. cans whole tomatoes in puree

About 6 tablespoons olive oil

6-8 cloves garlic, crushed

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Add just enough of the oil to a skillet to coat the bottom and heat to medium/medium high. Add the crushed whole garlic cloves and toast, stirring occasionally until they are a light nutty brown, but not burnt (burnt garlic should be discarded immediately).

Crush the whole tomatoes and add to the skillet with the tomato puree. Bring to a boil and add the remainder of the olive oil. Cook until reduced. The sauce will have reduced, sweetened, and have a glossy appearance. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

beefstew

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Curry Rice: Not Very Pornographic, but Japanese

I’m following up from my previous post in which I intended to post my tried-and-true recipe for Japanese curry but timed out for ranting.

Japan, as anyone with connections knows, has a long and illustrious gastronomic tradition reaching into its antiquity. A friend of mine moved there some years back and works as a game designer. He observed even non-foodies (I don’t love that word) he knows in Japan seem to engage in highly nuanced discussions about food. In 2010, Michelin released its Red Guide of Japan. Michelin awarded more stars there than anywhere else in the world: even major seats of western gastronomy. Consider too that not only is Japan a small country, its geography is such that its population is cluster in just a handful of major population centers. And you know what?

Japanese people complained.

They said Michelin missed out on the real gems. They said they awarded multiple stars to restaurants that weren’t really that big of a deal. They said a lot of things.* This is a culture that doesn’t screw around with its food, and Japanese curry rice remains one of its most popular dishes**

So what makes Japanese curry rice so special?

Hard to say. Honest to goodness.

A little background. Japanese curry rice is a pretty old dish in Japan, with roots in the Meiji era, shortly after opening trade with the west. Let’s examine the ingredients of a leading brand of curry sauce mix marketed in the U.S.:

Wheat flour, edible oil, salt, sugar, curry powder, spices, food color, monosodioum glutamate, malic acid, sodium guanylate, disodium inosinate.

Essentially just flour, oil, and seasoning. With the exception of malic acid and the flavor enhancers, nothing, in fact, one wouldn’t find in a typical Western kitchen. The above paste is dissolved into water simmered with meat and vegetables. As you can see. Curry rice is essentially a Western stew thickened with a roux. Not something you’ll find in a Betty Crocker Cookbook, is it? And certainly not anything like the curry we would eat in the West. We just don’t cook stuff like this anymore. But British sailors did a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s a simple, homespun stew seasoned with ready-made curry powder–maybe or maybe not to mask pungency of subprime meat.

That’s right. Japanese curry is a page out of culinary anthropology. Like an alligator,a coelacanth, a Lincoln Town Car: a dish that’s remain unchanged as the world has moved on. It is, in a country with more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world, a dish invented by dirtbag seafarers to stave off scurvy.

I love it. Love it, love it, love it.

So on to the recipe. As I’ve written, you can find bricks of “curry roux” in most American grocery stores these days, but again, there’s not a lot in the commercial curry roux you don’t already have in your kitchen. In place of the malic acid and sugar in the store-bought stuff, we’re using grated apple. My first curry recipe came from a Japanese-language cookbook whose name I have trouble recalling–Something like “Mama’s 1000 Recipe Cookbook.” I use chicken, as did that recipe; thighs in particular. They’re not only one of the cheapest meats around, but also just about impossible to screw up. Variations will follow after the recipe.

Basic Japanese Curry Rice

Ingredients:

(serves 2-3)

½ to 3/4 lb. chicken, cubed

1 medium carrot, sliced into half-inch rounds

1 medium potato, coarsely diced

1 medium onion, coarsely diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 medium apple (such as a fuji), grated or shredded

1 oz. (2 tablespoons) butter

1 oz. (about 3 ½ tablespoons) all-purpose flour (short-patent works best as a thickener)

¼ tsp. salt plus more to taste

1 tablespoon curry powder (more to taste)

2 cups broth, stock, or water (if using water, more salt may be needed)

Cooking oil

Pepper to taste

My mise-en-place, clockwise from top right: diced vegetables, cubed chicken, minced garlic, grated apple, home-made potholders, and a gingerbread house our cats f*cked up.

My mise-en-place, clockwise from top right: diced vegetables, cubed chicken, minced garlic, grated apple, home-made potholders, my pay stub, and a gingerbread house our cats f*cked up.

Directions:

Heat a lightly-oiled pan to medium-high heat until the oil is almost smoking.  Season the meat cubes with salt and pepper and sauté until browned but not necessarily cooked through.  Remove from heat and reserve.  Reduce heat to medium.

Melt the butter in the pan.  Add the flour and curry powder and stir until it forms a paste.  Cook this mixture, stirring frequently until it begins to brown.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two, until fragrant.  Add remaining vegetables, browned meat, and grated or shredded apple.  Add the broth, stock or water, salt, and pepper and stir until the butter and flour are incorporated.  Increase heat to high and bring to a boil.  Once it has come to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook covered for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the meat and vegetables are tender. The sauce should be about the consistency of a gravy. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve with white rice.  May be garnished with beni shoga or other Japanese pickle.

Notes:

More heat can be achieved by adding cayenne pepper or increasing the amount of curry powder.

Japanese curry is a very versatile dish. Beef. pork, or seafood may be used instead of the chicken. Beef is more stereotypical of an authentic curry in fact. For cubed beef chuck, do not add the carrots, onion, and potato immediately to the pan. Instead, braise it covered with the roux and  broth for about an hour. Add the remainder of the vegetables for the last half-hour of cooking.

Other vegetables may be used–the recipe upon which this one was based called for minced carrots, celery, and onion. I’m also a fan or parsnips and sweet potato in curry.

Leftover curry makes a great sauce for breaded, fried cutlet (katsu curry; カツカレー)

  • Optional ingredients can be added for a more complex taste:
  • About ¼ cup wine or coffee (the wine should be allowed to boil down before adding the broth)
  • Several dashes of Worchestershire sauce
  • Five-spice powder
  • ¼-inch slice of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • demi-glace
  • 1 to 3 teaspoons tomato paste

JapaneseCurry

* I’m over-simplifying. A lot of people criticized Michelin. Here is a longer discussion from the Wall Street Journal.

** For a relatively brief, but more detailed account of the history and popularity of Japanese Curry rice, see this page on the Kikkoman Corporation website.

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My Inability to Create Foodporn

There are some gorgeous blogs on WordPress featuring gorgeous food photography. This is not one of them.

I created this blog in order to connect with others and exercise my writing chops. Also, I’ve spent years crafting original recipes and thought I may as well share them lest they spend a limited existence in a falling-apart notebook.

I had a number of Japanese friends in college and studied the language for a few years. Being a recovering Japanophile, I fell in love with Japan’s take on that pan-national delight, curry. The thing is, I’ve never been a great photographer. I began this adventure about a month ago armed with a Macbook, Photoshop Elements 11, and my iPhone camera. It couldn’t be too hard to hard to create sumptuous foodporn, right? Right?

gah.

My wife glanced over the picture I’d captured to accompany my recipe for Japanese curry rice:

JapaneseCurry

 

 

“Hm…” she said. “Very beige.”

Our house isn’t terribly bright. And I suppose it is rather beige. My camera tends to be rather grainy in the dark. Of course, there’s always the flash, right?

Well.  No.

Exhibit A:

Our cat, Rose: a beautiful black short-hair with oriental features…

rose1

 

in the presence of flash photography becomes Zuul, minion of Gozer.

"Eat your soul?"

“Eat your soul?”

 

So many other sited here make it look so damn easy. I suppose I could get a nicer, dedicated digital camera. There are just a few problems:

  1. I’m cheap.
  2. I’m horrible at remembering to use nice cameras I’ve had.
  3. I’m cheap.

 

I’m not getting a five-hundred-dollar camera just yet. That’s why God made Photoshop. So, reader, I present to you, Phenix Nash’s Pornographic Japanese Curry.

foodpr0n_edited-1

(Recipe to follow next post.)

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High Fantasy for Five-Year-Olds

We bought a copy of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn recently. The Rankin / Bass cartoon is one of the first movies I remember watching. Our five-year-old daughter was fascinated by the notion her parents were reading a book about unicorns. We have the cartoon, but I’m afraid it might be a little intense for her yet. Still, she has wanted me to read her excerpts and tell her about the story.

The following contains spoilers.

Daughter: Why is she the last unicorn?

Father: The others were kidnapped by a man named King Haggard.

Daughter: Why did he kidnap them?

Father: Well, he thought they would make him happy.

Daughter: Did they make him happy?

Father: For a while they did.

Daughter: But then they didn’t?

Father: Not really, no.

Daughter: Why?

Father: Well, he tried a lot of things to make him happy.

Daughter: And they didn’t?

Father: No.

Daughter: Why?

Father: Well… Some people have something called clinical depression.

Daughter: What’s that?

Father: That’s when, for some people, no matter what they do, they’re always going to be depressed. Sometimes, only medication can help. But a long time ago, they didn’t have medication. So people just stayed depressed.

Daughter: … Until someone invented medication?

Father: Yes.

Daughter: Did King Haggard get medication?

Father: No. He fell out of a tower.

Daughter: Why?

Father: Because sometimes, people with clinical depression fall out of towers.

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