Times have changed: not waiting in crazy lines anymore

I was excited about my pizza outing with my friend visiting last night, but what could have equally gotten me just as excited was the fact that I knew Scarr’s had crazy long lines, but I had somehow snagged a dinner reservation at a prime dinner time. Most of the people who want to eat here are just getting a slice since Scarr’s was originally a slice shop, but hey: who DOESN’T want a place to sit down and enjoy that slice? So when I took the train downtown and walked a few blocks to the restaurant, I was eagerly anticipating a long line, which definitely was in front, when I entered the restaurant. I immediately bypassed the line and tried hard not to make eye contact with anyone in line and walked right in to the host. She asked if I had a reservation, and I told her my name, and to my surprise, she actually seated me right away even though my friend wasn’t with me (she was running late). I took a look at the menu and at the people dining around me. It was actually quite empty, so I wasn’t sure how “booked” this place was according to Resy. A couple of two tops had couples dining around me, plus one family with kids in the single-digit age range. My friend finally came about half an hour later, and she was so ecstatic at the fact that she ignored the long line snaking outside and joined me so quickly. “This is the best New York pizza experience!” she exclaimed.

Ten to fifteen years ago, I would have been happy to wait in that line. I figured then that it was just a right of passage, something you did when you wanted to eat the latest new, trendy thing in New York City. But now, having been in New York over 15 years and having a little toddler running around, my patience has waned. If I can get a reservation, I will check way in advance if I need to so I never have to wait in some crappy line. Many restaurants won’t allow reservations when they are new, but eventually, they will cave in and allow them. And when that does happen, you can count me in on checking the reservation list.

Going out for dinner tonight

A friend of mine is visiting from San Diego from work for a meeting that was last minute, so I’m meeting her for dinner on the Lower East Side tonight. Since Pookster was born, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually gone out for dinner without her. So it always feels a little funny when I think about “going out” at night. I’m so used to being a homebody, both given I work from home full time, and I have a young child, so it’s not unusual for me to not only eat dinner by 5:30, but be in my PJs by 6:30 or 7, and be in bed or on the couch after she’s asleep by 8:30. We’re not meeting late by anyone’s definition, as our dinner reservation is at 5:45, but somehow, it still feels a bit novel to me.

I am excited for where we are going, though. After a few months of reading about them, I’m finally going to try Scarr’s Pizza, which is supposedly one of the best pizza places in all of New York now. As I made the reservation and reviewed the menu, I started remembering that this used to be my weekly life: I’d spend so much time reading about restaurants and what was interesting and planning where to go, but I don’t do much of that anymore. In fact, now I feel very behind when it comes to knowing where all the new or “trendy” places are. So now, I get to do a little bit of what I’ve always loved — tonight!

The dead bodies all over Amsterdam Avenue

About three years ago, these strange, large, spotted black and red flies started appearing in Manhattan. I started noticing them during my walks up to Trader Joe’s. They were hard to miss: they were literally flying everywhere in droves, and oddly, they love to hang out low to the ground. As I’d pass by our sister building two blocks away on my walk up to 72nd Street, I noticed that there were splatters of dead bodies all over the sidewalk. You knew they were the bodies of these dreaded spotted lantern flies because the black and red stains were huge, like a mix of some black who-knows-what and blood, or perhaps even appearing like ketchup. Porters of buildings would be cleaning the sidewalks, attempting to sweep and scrub these corpses off their sidewalks and off the walls of their properties. It was absolutely hideous.

These little scum flies came to New York from Pennsylvania and then New Jersey, but they are originally from China. While spotted lanternflies are harmless to humans, they are an invasive species that can apparently cause widespread economic harm by damaging some of our most beloved plants. They feed on the sap of more than 70 plants, and so they pose a huge threat to species like vineyards. They are also not going away anytime soon; they reproduce at ridiculously fast rates and in large numbers at a time. Spotted lanternflies are essentially the cockroaches of flies. Every single day I leave our building, I constantly am watching people dodge them, squash and kill them, and wipe and scrub them off buildings and sidewalks. It’s this never ending state of nastiness of these disgusting bugs and their invasion onto our daily turf.

Yu xiang qiezi aka “fish fragrant” eggplant at home

When I was growing up, we enjoyed regular meals out as a wider family, with my grandma, aunt, uncle, and three cousins who lived upstairs from us. The meals were always at the latest Cantonese restaurant somewhere in the Richmond District of San Francisco that my grandma deemed “the best” at the time for Cantonese Chinese food. When I started getting into my tweens and teen years, my aunt always insisted that “the kids” have a voice when ordering. And because I loved eggplant, I would request it as soon as I was asked. So my aunt always made sure that there was some tofu dish and some eggplant dish at the table especially for me.

The thing I found funny, though, was my aunt used to say that I always wanted to eat “healthy foods.” Little did any of us know back then that the Chinese preparation for eggplant was really anything but healthy: to get that silky smooth, buttery, luscious texture in each bite of eggplant, the eggplant actually needs to be deep fried. After deep frying, it’s then lightly stir fried in a sauce that is known as “yu xiang” or “fish fragrant,” with a chili bean paste that is characteristic of Sichuanese cooking. Even the Cantonese restaurants do it this way, just with perhaps a different version of chili bean paste. Then, it’s served, glistening, silky, smooth, and with the eggplant skin nice, bright, and purple.

Both my mom and aunt tried replicating this at home by simply sauteing the eggplant. It never worked: the eggplant texture was always squishy instead of silky smooth; the eggplant skin would turn from bright purple to this sad, miserable brown color. When I moved out and started cooking on my own, I tried doing things like steaming (tasty, but again, not the same. Plus, in a stir-fry it would totally fall apart into mush) or roasting/broiling (good, but again, wouldn’t stay in tact). But finally, I decided after my corn and coconut fritters worked with some shallow frying that it was finally time to shallow fry eggplant. I wasn’t doing it totally traditionally: I wasn’t deep frying the eggplant. I was soaking the pieces in a salt water mixture to a) remove any bitterness and b) prevent the eggplant from soaking up too much oil, which I didn’t want. I shallow fried the eggplant in my Instant Pot for 4 minutes per batch, drained on a towel, and lightly stir fried. And I was totally floored… if I can even say that about something I cooked myself: it really tasted and looked restaurant quality. The eggplant pieces remained in tact and the skins were bright purple and glistening. Each bite was addictive, super luscious in the mouth. And the sauce was perfect — not too spicy but very savory. Kaia enjoyed the sauce, too, but kept smushing the eggplant itself in her hands…

For health reasons, I probably won’t be making yu xiang qiezi that often at home. I also don’t love shallow frying because even if it’s not deep frying, it’s still way more oil than I am used to cooking with. But I had a deep satisfaction in knowing I faced my fear with frying eggplant and can easily replicate this when I’d like in the future… pretty much anytime. It really was delicious and made me feel proud.

Instant Pot for shallow frying

The Instant Pot official site explicitly says that it does not recommend using the Instant Pot on “saute” mode for frying. “Frying” or “deep frying” is *not* a mode on the Instant Pot. But when you look at all the Instant Pot comments and posts in Instant Pot groups that are dominated by Asians and Asian Americans, you can see very clearly that they have found *the* solution for mess-free shallow or deep frying: IN THE INSTANT POT because the walls are so high, and so any splattering would be fully contained. It’s a win for everyone! And because the Instant Pot is so contained, you can also use less oil for shallow frying, which I think pretty much everyone would like when frying. It’s less waste, less mess, and less oil (less $$) to use.

After six years of owning an Instant Pot, I finally decided to try this out using a recipe from my Andrea Nguyen cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. I made her batter for corn and coconut fritters and shallow fried them in the Instant Pot, and WOW, was it not only quick to heat up, but it was so clean and mess free! I had virtually no splatter at all to clean up and just the Instant Pot insert to clean and wipe down. I was so satisfied with this experience that I’ve now decided to try shallow frying eggplant, which I’ve always wanted to do, but was scared of because of all the oil and mess. So tomorrow, here I come: shallow fried eggplant!

Happy 44th birthday, Ed

Dear Ed,

Happy birthday. Today, you would have turned 44 years old. Today if you were alive, I would have made fun of you and called you old for being in your mid 40s. Unfortunately, dumb jokes about age and getting old and white-haired cannot happen since you aren’t here anymore. It’s still strange to me to think that you died 10 years ago. Ten years passed slowly, yet quickly all at the same time. Ten years ago, the thought of bearing children seemed quite far away, but today, Kaia is over 20 months old, thriving and growing right in front of my eyes. Sometimes when I look at her, I become very sad, knowing that the two of you will never meet. And I wonder what kind of relationship you would have had with her, how you would have spoiled her with endless clothes, accessories, and toys, how you would have played with her and read books to her and enjoyed each other’s company.

While it is pointless to think about what could never be, I still think about it quite often. I think about what life would be like if you were still here. I think it goes without saying that if you were still here, our parents would still not get along with you; hell, it’s not like our parents get along beautifully with me, nor did they ever. Their lives were stressed when you were here; their lives are still full of stress, but for reasons I am completely unaware of. I don’t really know if they would have more or less stress with you still here. That is unclear to me since everything for them is always miserable.

This year, I also thought about all my AFSP fundraising efforts in memory of you and if it really meant anything. This is the tenth year that I’ve participated in AFSP’s Out of the Darkness walk and fundraising for it in your honor. As the years have passed, the funds I’ve been able to raise have dwindled, and I can’t really blame people. People are always supportive of a cause when it’s brand new and freshly painful to the person fundraising. But after a while, it gets tiring and old. I do have a number of very loyal and generous donors who have tirelessly given money every single year since the beginning, but I am wondering now if I am asking for too much by continuing this. I work remotely and have been for the last 3 years, and so I haven’t had enough face time with colleagues to really hustle donations the way I used to at my previous two companies. I’m wondering what all of this is actually worth? But I’ll continue it anyway. I hope this is helping SOMEONE out there.

Or maybe I’m just speaking this way because I’m tired. I’m trying to find some meaning in all of this, and I’m not sure it’s identifiable. All I know is: I miss you, and I hate that you aren’t here anymore. I hate that you cannot meet Kaia and that Kaia will never know you. I will dread the day when I finally have to explain to her how you died. I will not enjoy explaining to her what suicide is and why people “do” it. I would also love it if no one could relate to losing a loved one to suicide. But that is a big, big request in a difficult world where we live.

I’m not feeling super optimistic right now, more just exhausted, also because I’ve been sick for about four weeks now, and just feeling like I need a break from life in general. I saw a glimpse of you in my dreams the other night, and for a split second, I actually thought it was real, that you were real again. But it was all gone when I woke up coughing.

I hope you will send me positive vibes from wherever you are. I love you and miss you. Hope you are thinking of us fondly.



Being cognizant of age as I approach middle age

After my haircut this morning, I went down to Chinatown to pick up some groceries and goods. Whenever I go to specific stores or street carts over the last 15 years of living in New York City, the vendors and workers have always addressed me the same way by calling me “mui mui” or “moi moi” (Cantonese or Toisan for “little sister,” which is how a younger woman/girl is addressed in a semi-affectionate/friendly manner). Usually when you get older, people will either call you “jie jie” (big sister) or even “tai tai” (married woman). But that’s never happened to me in any Chinatown I’ve visited, whether it was 15 years ago or now. The funny thing I did notice between 2008 and 2019 when I visited Vietnam was that in 2008, everyone addressed me as “little sister” there, but in 2019, everyone addressed me as “big sister,” so clearly in their eyes, I was “older” the second time around.

I was meeting Chris for lunch and wanted to try a place that had been on my list but I hadn’t eaten at yet, so I chose S Wan Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall Hong Kong style cafe that had been around forever, but was a true “locals” joint; everyone in there was speaking either Cantonese or Toisan, and they were all older than me. There were barely four tables in there, and the vast majority of people ordering were doing takeout. When Chris came in, he realized how “local” and no-frills it felt, and he said he was adding diversity to the place as the only non-Chinese person there. I told him that I was adding diversity because I was younger. He kind of scoffed at me and said that I wasn’t actually much younger than some of the women in there, who could easily have been in their mid forties if not even younger. I retorted back, okay, maybe, but I look younger than most of the people here!

That’s the thing, though. Even though at heart, I don’t feel old, and I certainly look and sound younger than I am, the truth is that yes, I am getting older every day like everyone else. I’m 37 years old and quickly approaching “middle age.” In Chinatown for whatever reason, I rarely think or feel this because of how I am treated and addressed. But then I thought: how would I get treated if people actually did realize I wasn’t some 20- or early 30-something year old person, and I was actually in my late 30s and quickly approaching my 40s? Would the treatment actually get better or worse? Would there be any deferential treatment at all? I’m not sure.

Kaia sleeps with books, not stuffed animal friends

Kaia has never really had any affinity to any stuffed animal. While she used to enjoy peekaboo with her elephant lovey that we named Shungu, and she occasionally grabs her elephant Babar and plays with his different sensory parts, she doesn’t seem to have an attachment to any stuffed animal. She’s never dragged a specific stuffed animal from one room to another or used one to sleep with. Once, I even wondered if it was abnormal for her to NOT have an attachment to a stuffed animal and even went down the Google rabbit hole of checking (it’s not a bad thing; in fact, over 50% of children don’t have attachments to any objects).

But we knew quite early on that she loved her books. She loves, loves reading, and now she loves repeating words and naming what things are in the books we read together. She goes through phases where certain books are her favorites, and she demands we read the same book over and over again. She will drag the book from one room to another as though it’s an animal friend. Currently, her favorite book is called Penguin and Pinecone, which is the story of how a penguin found a “friend” in a pine cone, but realized that they couldn’t grow and live in the same place because they needed different environments in which to thrive. Penguins need to be in cold areas, whereas pine cones need to be in the forest to thrive. But despite that, they always love and remember each other and their fun times together. The hilarious thing is that Kaia doesn’t seem to care about the penguin as you might assume; she is especially fixated on the pine cone. The last few nights, she has refused to let go of the book when we’re done reading it (you know, for the fifth time), and she ends up falling asleep either holding it or on top of it. I eventually have to sneak into the room after she’s fallen asleep to take it away. One night this week, she woke up after an hour to discover that the book was no longer with her, and she started crying, yelling, “Pine cone! Pine cone!”, until I returned the book to her side. She then immediately calmed down and went back to sleep.

Child development is so peculiar and fascinating. It’s been sweet and endearing to watch my baby grow into this very curious, thoughtful, cheeky toddler.

Kaia’s bilingual comprehension: on the up and up

At school on the weekdays during morning circle time, Kaia’s class goes through a few routines, such as counting from 1-10, colors, shapes, days of the week, and body stretches/identification of body parts. The majority of the language used in class, unsurprisingly, is in English, but the teachers do work on introducing American Sign Language as well as a few words here and there in Spanish. I noticed that once Kaia started daycare in May that her affinity for Chinese songs had started to decline, so I’ve been a bit more deliberate about trying to continue her exposure to those songs at bedtime. In addition, I also try to do things like count in Chinese and discuss colors in Chinese, as well.

It’s hard to know sometimes what she understands and what she doesn’t given she’s still quite young. She’s increasingly verbal every single day. My Pookster is a total sponge, constantly studying what you’re saying, doing, and even how your lips are moving when you speak. Last night, we were counting in English and I transitioned to counting in Chinese and let her know I would count in Chinese. I asked if she could practice counting in Chinese. She initially looked at me thoughtfully, then climbed off the bed and made a beeline to the bookshelf. She immediately grabbed the Chinese counting/food book we have and handed it to me and demanded, “Read!”

That made me so, so happy. My baby does understand what I’m saying, and she also knows the difference between Chinese and English. Every day, I feel so excited and proud by her development. At the same time, it makes me feel a little sad that she’s growing so rapidly. Sometimes, I still have moments when I just want to bottle her up and freeze time to make a note of exactly how adorable, sweet, curious, and intelligent she is.

Turning to TCM in an attempt to cure myself

Today marks four weeks of being sick. To be clear, I no longer am experiencing fevers, body aches, congestion/stuffy nose, but I am still suffering from a lingering cough, which still results in the occasional violent coughing fit that then leads to running to a toilet to either vomit up phlegm or what I had previously eaten. I still get choked up and my voice changes, or my breath is weird, so my voice sometimes sounds strange. Sometimes, it seems benign, like I literally just threw up my Theraflu that was honey-lemon flavored or my black tea. Other times, I have vomited up my entire dinner of chicken, rice, and soup. Regardless, it is never pleasant, and I usually feel like my eyeballs are about to burst from the sheer force of the vomiting. Because, as you probably are aware, food is meant to leave your body in one way and one way, only. When it comes out the way it came in, it’s generally not great for you.

So my mom got worried that I’d been coughing this long, so she insisted that she send some Chinese herbs for me to prepare a cough/lung tonic for myself. She sent this along with some dresses and gifts for Kaia. And I took a look at the herbs she sent and discussed instructions on how to prepare them over the phone. Then, I started referencing my Cantonese cookbook and some TCM websites for other “moistening the lungs” tonics I could make. On Sunday, I started brewing the tonics. At this point, I figure I have nothing to lose, and if nothing at all, these will still serve to hydrate me. Unlike some people, I do believe in some aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), as it’s clear that most of the western medicine I have taken to date for my illness has done absolutely nada to help me. The ENT doctor can go ahead and tell me to take Prilosec or Pepcid or Tums or whatever, but nothing actually feels like it’s moving the needle for me and getting me on a real road to recovery. Maybe my body does need a cleanse, and these herbs will actually help me get across the finish line to full recovery? We shall see.