Low Tide with The Sea Forager

I talk a decent amount of shit.  There's a fine line between healthy skepticism and straight up hating, and I frequently walk it.  Some of my more recent posts have encouraged civil discourse and respectful discussions rather than passing judgment and these "I'm right - you're wrong" proclamations.  I do believe and stand by that.  We'd all be better off with candid yet considerate conversation.  But still, I talk shit, throw shade, sip water (any Beanie Sigel fans?).  My friend even recently told me I "bleed cynicism."  We're all hypocrites from time to time, or at least I certainly am.

It is pretty easy to sit back and be a critic.  There are a number of sayings out there in one form or another.  "Any fool can criticize, and most fools do" or "be a creator, not critic."  And "Those who can, do.  Those who can't, criticize....or teach gym."  Something like that.  Sorry, Mrs. Horsey.  High school gym class was the absolute best.  Just jokes.  But it's good to always be aware of this.  I too often find myself critiquing meals, movies, football matches, and so on.  And nobody wants to be that guy, right?  The Skip Baylesses and Colin Cowherds of the world are about as helpful as social distancing in a submarine.  I try to counterbalance my petty caviling by getting out of my comfort zone and doing things that are new, unfamiliar, or even that I'm genuinely bad at.  A nice hearty dose of humility does everyone some good.  

So, back in the fall of 2019, pre-apocalypse 2020, some friends and I decided we'd try "sea foraging," something none of us were particularly familiar or comfortable with.  There were decades of culinary, restaurant, and even fishing experience between us, but nobody could poke-pole for a sculpin or confidently pick out the edible seaweeds of the coastline.  I'd always thought I had a decent grasp on many things seafood.  I've shucked hundreds of thousands of oysters and clams, butchered more varieties of fish than I can remember, and even regularly messed around with exotics like percebes or making my own bottarga.  But ask me to go and pull a razor clam from the sand a short 25 minute drive from my house, I'd embarrassingly have little to no success.

Half Moon Bay at low tide 
While we were definitely out of our comfort zone in attempting this, we weren't stupid enough (at least anymore) to dive into it blindly.  Picking up stuff off the beach and eating it, after all, isn't like casually trying your hand at water colors or giving tennis a go.  Wrong kelp, wrong time, wrong clam, wrong tide - any one can quickly equal a trip to right the emergency room.  We were fortunate enough to enlist a pro's help.

Enter Kirk Lombard, a.k.a. the Sea Forager.  He's a Bay Area icon who I've been following for a bit now.  His biography on the website summarizes it better than I can, but he's basically all things NorCal fisheries.  Education, sustainability, research, commerce, preservation, recreation, and more.  If it's akin to the ocean, it's akin to Kirk.  He's got an informative and wit-filled book, provides guided classes, and even offers a weekly sea-to-table delivery service for at home cooks.  So, on a brisk but sunny day in November, we all met up in Half Moon Bay during a mega low tide in search of all the forageable, scrumptious sea creatures it had to offer.   

Fried whole smelt, or "fries with eyes," at
Hog Island in San Francisco's Ferry Building
As herring season was near, we started off with a tutorial in cast netting.  Not that herring were in Half Moon Bay, but the goal was to teach us as many sea foraging techniques as we could cram into one day.  Pretty straight forward in theory, but rather difficult to execute.  It's simply a circular net with weights on the edge that's attached to a handline.  You throw it out into the water, the weights drop, and with a quick pull of the line, anything beneath the net is caught.  The hard part is actually getting the net to spread out on the throw.  Takes a lot of practice, but it's great for catching large hauls (I've been told) of surf smelt.  It's also impressive as a fishing method that dates back millennia and is still employed daily from San Francisco to Shanghai and everywhere in between. Careful, though, as regulations vary by area and season.  Cast netting is something I'm nowhere even close to proficient at, but I'm keen to be as freshly caught fries with eyes are damn delicious.

After about twenty minutes of what can be best described as cast net fails by all of us, save Kirk, we were on to the main task at hand: clammin' - horseneck clammin' specifically.  I wasn't very familiar with horseneck clams until I heard we'd be targeting them.  They're a gaper clam and basically like a mini geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck).  If you've had mirugai sushi, that's geoduck.  It's also the comedically massive and phallic clam that's always elicited wry smiles and audible chuckles at every restaurant I've ever worked.  Yes, people do call it the penis clam and every other clever variation you can think of.  Clamming in general is just too easy for sexual innuendo and double entendre. I'll do my best to refrain. 
Half Moon Bay Horseneck Clam
   Horseneck clam harvesting on the Pacific coast goes back centuries with archaeological excavations unearthing shells at several coastal sites.  Native Americans would use both the meat as food and the shells for tools or jewelry.  How they did this without modern day means is beyond me as digging for these clams is a fairly tall order.  It starts pretty leisurely with a simple stroll down the beach at low tide.  You're looking for small, but not too small (quarter-sized or so) holes in the sand.  After spotting one, stomp a few times in close proximity.  If a spout of water squirts out, it just may be a clam.  This spout is from the clam being startled, sharply retracting it's siphon, and expelling the water it held.  It can be tricky as many of the holes are misleading and often just ghost shrimp, crabs, or other aquatic critters.  You want to be as close to positive as possible it's a clam, too, cause the tall order I mentioned starts here.

Digging up our first clam
Unlike the casual clamming of the East coast I was familiar with, digging for horseneck clams is an arduous endeavor as they can be buried deep, up to three or four feet sometimes.  Just to procure a single clam requires jamming a 3' x 18" PVC tube several feet into the ground, shoveling out heaps of wet, heavy sand, and siphoning out seawater that's constantly rushing in to fill the hole.  Then, you've got to get face down in the muck, probing around with a small trowel to locate the clam.  And once you've found it, you have to gingerly extract it with a gentle touch as to not crush the shell or tear the siphon.  As I said, a tall order.  Oh, and I forgot to mention, on that leisurely stroll down the beach, you're lugging around all this equipment the whole time. 

However, I must admit the labor is worth it.  Surfacing with that first gaper clam after a thirty minute physically draining battle was quite the reward.  "No pain, no gain."  Well, Kirk's pain and our gain.  I won't lie.  He did most of the work while the rest of us, let's say, supervised.  We ended up with two medium sized clams and discovered all sorts of interesting sea life along the way, ranging from adorable to appalling.  Innkeeper worms, sea lettuce, purple urchin, Turkish washcloth.  The most thrilling and incredibly rare find, though, was the Lewis's moon snail.

Half Moon Bay Moon Snail 
 You could immediately tell we'd found something special with Kirk's giddy, kid-on-Christmas-morning reaction.  First, they're massive.  About the size of a large dinner plate with a bulky weight to match.   Second, the expression "happy as a clam" wouldn't exist if moon snail predatory behavior were more commonly known.  The full phrase is "happy as a clam at high tide," presuming a clam would be happy as people can only dig them at low tide.  Safe equals happy.  However, moon snails go around chomping down clams all day every day.  As Kirk says, "they're the lions of mudflats" and "if clams dream, moon snails are their stuff of nightmares."  They are edible, but apparently require a jackhammer to tenderize and make palatable.  The size is also misleading as it's mostly water weight and they don't yield much meat.  Lastly, as they prey on other mollusks, they're more susceptible to dangerous toxins through biogmagnification.  Given the rarity, esteem, and culinary considerations, we decided to place this guy back in the sand, much to the dismay of many a clam I'm sure. 

For the last leg of our tour, we headed outside the Half Moon Bay jetty onto the rocks of Maverick's Beach.  With the mega low tide, there were scores of people scooping up bag limits (and probably beyond) of whatever they could find, mainly mussels.  Kirk had a few choice words on preservation, sustainability, and responsible harvests, given what we were witnessing.  It's certainly an important topic and warrants further discussion, but that's a whole separate post.  The main point: please forage responsibly, keeping in mind we want these valuable sea resources to stay around for generations to come.  That being said, grab all the purple sea urchin you can.  Climate change, warmer waters, disappearing predators and other factors have created a breeding boom for these urchin and they're laying waste to many California coastal ecosystems.  Perhaps a marketing catchphrase for purple sea urchin hunting is needed, like "stay calm and eat uni" or "munch an urchin just for the halibut."  

Poke-poling for pricklebacks
Anyway, we were there to focus on a method and a fish: poke-poling and monkeyface eel.  Poke-poling is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.   Just like cast netting is casting a net, poke-poling is poking a pole, more specifically into tidal pools.  It consists of a long rod (sturdy fishing rod, bamboo, or even a broomstick would do), a flexible but strong wire tied to it (coat hanger seems to be standard), and a few inches of fishing line with a hook at the end.  Squid, surf clam, mussels, or any other manner of bait is placed on the hook and poked around into the holes and crevices in the rocks, basically anywhere that looks like an eel would comfortably call home.  The fish bites, the hook is set, and out comes the catch.  It's a great way to nab monkeyface eels and even a clunker cabezon occasionally.   

The monkeyface eel, or monkeyface prickleback, can be found all over coastal California and Oregon in abundance.  There's no size limit on a keeper, and they have same bag limit as rockfish at ten a day.  That's a lot of monkeyface meat in twenty four hours.  But as they're not exactly blessed with the best looks or reputation, they haven't been the focus of many commercial fisheries and are sparsely prized by local anglers.  As of late, however, more and more restaurants in the Bay Area have begun to recognize their value as a sustainable seafood.  The most curious thing is that monkeyface eels are omnivorous, eating mostly crustaceans and plankton while young and switching to primarily seaweeds and algae as adults, as if to grow some sort of ethical culinary conscience.  Lucky for us, though, the adults still can't resist a bit of squid being dangled right in front of them.  

Larger of the two Monkeyface Eels we kept
We each tried, but Kirk did most of the poke-poling and ended up bagging two respectably sized eels while losing a few and releasing some of the smaller ones.  They're slippery little buggers, don't always take the full bait, and can seemingly loose the hook with ease.  You basically have to pop them out of their holes and grab them by hand before they flop back into the water.  Or, if you're wise, just have a small mesh landing net on hand.  The amazement of onlooking mussel harvesters was probably the funniest bit of the whole poke-poling tutorial.  That, or getting to say "poke-poling" over and over again.  Seeing Kirk pull out eel after eel like reverse whack-a-mole drew quite the crowd.  The crowd's amazement then soon shifted to mild alarm as they realized such gnarly creatures had been lurking mere inches from their bare toes as they navigated the tide pools.  Some in the crowd even recognized Kirk, as we overheard "dude, that's the Sea Forager" a few times.  Must be cool to be a poke-poling celebrity. 

With a day's worth of invaluable mudflat lessons done and a modest but healthy haul of pricklebacks and clams in hand, we said our thanks to Kirk for the great experience and headed back to my buddy's house to cook our spoils.  But how was the big question.

Trudging back through the low tide beds of seaweed
Preparing a horseneck clam isn't like your standard littleneck or manila.  You can't just drop them in a pot and cook (that would be one awfully big steamer).  They require some butchering and cleaning.  This video by another Bay Area foraging legend, Hank Shaw, is one of the best instructional demonstrations I've seen.  First, just like oyster liquor, all that valuable juice that pours out of the clam while shucking is cooking liquid gold.  Be sure to save as much as you can.  Next, in breaking down the clam, most of the meat is in the siphon, which needs to be blanched, skinned, split, and rinsed of sand and particulate.  It can either be tenderized and used in chowders, stews, sauces, etc. or thinly sliced and eaten raw.  The body of the clam has to be thoroughly cleaned of its guts, basically any of the goopy dark stuff.  After this, you're left with a tasty foot, belly, and adductors.  These parts can be chowdered, but are best prepared seasoned and fried.  Also, aquacultured geoduck can fetch upwards of $30 dollars a pound commercially, often double or even triple that in parts of Asia.  To me, these gaper clams were just smaller versions of geoduck, so keep that in mind while savoring every last bit. 

Half Moon Bay Sea Lettuce
The monkeyface eel was just as, well, interesting.  I'll try to phrase this as delicately as possible.  After the eels had been dispatched, their resilient nervous systems pressed on.  While rinsing them off in the sink to prep, one even to managed wriggle its way down into the sink's drain, requiring pliers to remove.  No joke.  Like I said, they're slippery little guys.  And not to be crass, but all food comes from living things that shuffle their mortal coils to become nourishment for us.  I don't want to delve into the whole sentience and physical pain debate of our dietary choices, but I do believe the closer we are to our food, in all aspects, the better.  Distancing ourselves is what created the factory-farmed horrors of plastic-wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breasts and ecosystem devastating salmon steaks.  "Out of sight out of mind" shouldn't apply to our food.  If you want to eat the sausage, you should be comfortable seeing how it's made.  Humane is respecting all living things while understanding some must pass on for us to eat, from peas to pigs and everything in between.  

Stepping off my soap box and getting back to the point, we now had four nice monkeyface eel loins and two cleaned and prepped horseneck clams.  I'll be honest, having spent hours trudging around the beach, digging for clams, lugging equipment, and scaling tidal rocks, we were flat out exhausted.  And hungry.  Sea foraging works up an appetite.  There was no way in hell we were expending more time and energy to make a hearty seafood stew or fancy sauces to go with pan roasted fish.  We wanted instant gratification, so out came the deep fryer.  The clam bellies and eel fillets were lightly seasoned and in they went.  No pomp.  No circumstance.  No ceremony.  Just salt, citrus, and hot oil.  We breaded some too, just for contrast.  Surprisingly, the naked fry versions won out.  Either way, clam bellies are always delicious deep fried.  The eel was also great and reminded me a lot of catfish, both in taste and texture.  I've heard it criticized for being too muddy or astringent tasting.  I found it rather pleasant and could see it cooked or prepared in any number of ways, just like any other firm, white fish.  The skin crisped up nicely too when fried and would make some delectable chips.  As for the clam siphon, sashimi style was definitely the way to go.  Thinly sliced on the bias and dipped in a soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and jalapeno mixture made for quite the treat.  It was very toothsome, but incredibly sweet, briny and almost nutty in flavor.  Clamming and poke-poling might just become a regular hobby of mine as the bounty was so delightful. 
Filleting the Monkeyface Eel
Deep fried Monkeyface Eel

Our entire sea foraging day was incredible.  There were so many nuances and intricacies of the mudflats I'd never imagined, and still so much to learn.  From cast net fails and poke-poling misses to the deep fried delicacies, it was truly a new and somewhat intimidating, but eye-opening and amazing experience.  Hopefully you too, despite all the recent craziness, have the chance to try out something a bit different, new, or even scary.  Or at least, in the words of Kendrick Lamar, you can sit down, be humble....and eat some monkeyface eel. 

Special thanks to my buddies Dana for the photography and Rizzi for the cooking.

The SF Oyster Nerd


Pickled Oysters

Crazy days in the time of corona, to say the least.  I hope everyone is staying safe and socially responsible.  And my thoughts are certainly with everyone afflicted by this pandemic.  Medically, financially, emotionally, mentally...everything.  The silver lining stories have really kept my spirits up.  Chefs mobilizing to make meals for healthcare workers and restaurant regulars leaving 1000% tips for soon-to-be furloughed servers.  Distilleries producing hand sanitizer instead of vodka, fashion designers shifting to PPE from their summer dress lines, and the innumerable videos of parents coming up with creative home entertainment for their kids.  The at home Splash Mountain was particularly cute.  With this unprecedented crisis, it's nice to see an unprecedented number of heroes stepping forward.

I'll be honest though.  Sitting on the couch and watching TV is one of my favorite hobbies.  The isolation hasn't been that challenging, at least in terms of boredom and sanity, for me.  However, as the start of the fourth week of shelter in place in the Bay Area approaches, I can say that all my Netflix, Hulu, On Demand, and other viewing queues have swiftly been exhausted.  Watching a decade old BBC docuseries on the Peloponnesian War the other night felt like a new low.

Attempting to use my time more constructively, I tried to think of what, if any, would be an appropriate post on oysters during these times.  Well, this isn't really constructive per se, but writing a blog is definitely better than binge playing FIFA 20 on PlayStation or re-watching every single episode of Parks & Rec.   It seemed tough, though, as it's not like I could drive up to Tomales Bay and check out an oyster farm or try out innovative seafood dishes at the newest Bay Area restuarants.  However, with all the doomsday prepping, toilet paper hoarding, apocalypse is nigh happenings, preserved and shelf-stable foods are definitely "in" right now, if I'm being facetious.  Why not try my hand at pickling some oysters?  They're a thing, right?  Also, a new gimmicky and, quite frankly, terrible show on The History Channel, Eating History, provided a little inspiration.  I'm embarassed to say, but yes, I have watched every episode so far.  Like I said, viewing content is getting thin. 

Pickled oysters are by no means common fare these days.  People even wince or cringe just at the thought, as you still may while reading this.  However, that was not true of our past.  Oysters were ubiquitous on both sides of the 1800's Atlantic.  Rich or poor, high-brow or low, fancy or simple, oysters were everywhere.  And, given the absence of reliable refrigeration, oysters were preserved - smoked, dried, canned, and most popularly, pickled.

My Grandma's 1964 edition of The Joy of Cooking
James. A. Garfield's inaugural presidential dinner in 1881 boasted 100 gallons of pickled oysters as one of the culinary highlights, being an identifiable and treasured American food.  Victorian cookbooks are heavily peppered with pickled oyster recipes.  Cornwall and Wales made an industry of pickling and shipping oysters around the world, from Spain and Italy all the way to the West Indies.  The Dutch had an even larger shipping industry for pickled oysters.  Escoffier's Le Guide culinaire, published in 1903 and recognized as a culinary authority to this day, has a huîtres marinées (pickled oysters) preparation.  Half way around the world, records of pickled or fermented oysters in China and Korea go back even centuries earlier.  And you would have been hard pressed to find a tavern or bar without pickled oysters in 1800's New York.  People really liked pickled oysters.  Not sure what changed.  Well, refrigeration was the change, obviously.  But you know what I mean. 

The Joy of Cooking's Pickled Oysters Recipe
Even the horrifyingly amazing story of the indestructible Iron Mike Malloy included a homicide attempt with oysters preserved in toxic, denatured wood alcohol instead of the traditional pickle.  If you're not familiar with the Mike Malloy legend, I highly recommend reading about it.  Trying to make a long story short, a couple of depression era Bronx bar owners were connivingly cashing in with life insurance policies on unemployed and alcoholic patrons.  They'd give them open-ended bar tabs and basically allow them to drink themselves to death, subsequently filing for the payout claim.  Iron Mike wasn't exactly following the protocol and dying, but rather drinking the bar dry day after day with no apparent ill effect.  The bar owners tried to then speed the process up by serving him poisonous cocktails, the toxic oysters, rotten food with ground up glass and tacks, hitting him with a cab, and even leaving him blacked out, naked, and covered in water in the snowy subzero Bronx streets overnight.  However, Mike simply wouldn't die.  He kept showing up day after day for his free libations, even asking for second helpings of some of the noxious food.  It's a pretty crazy Rasputin-esque story, and I know you've got the time to read it with the quarantine, so give it a shot.

Anyway, to pickle my own completely edible and hopefully tasty oysters, first step was to head to the practically deserted Ferry Building farmers' market for some Hog Island Sweetwaters.  Sorry, I wouldn't trust Amazon Prime delivery oysters, if they even have them.  And don't worry, social distancing was well observed by everyone and I hand sanitized every ten steps I took.  Seriously though, all vendors and shoppers seemed to be taking the utmost precaution, and it was really nice to see that several stands were close to sold out at my noon arrival time.  Glad that people are still supporting them in these dire straits.  Quick trip back home, knife out, and I soon had three dozen plump oysters ready for the pickle.

Without going into the textbook long art and science of preservation, pickling is basically preserving something through fermentation or immersing it an acidic liquid, typically vinegar.  I feel like fermented oysters (굴젓 or guljeot) are deserving of their own, separate experimenting and exploration, so I knew I was sticking to the much less intimidating vinegar style of pickling.  Pretty straight forward and simple.  Make a pickling liquid with water, vinegar, salt, sugar, add in some spices, let it cool, and throw it over the oysters.  Pickled oysters, done.

And these are just the vinegars I considered
But while flipping through several cook books, old and new, and conducting a few deep Google dives, it seemed a lot of pickled oyster recipes were all over the place.  First, vinegar, as with most pickled items, ends up being the predominant flavor.  Doubly so with something like oysters, I knew.  But which one?  Some called for champagne vinegar, others for rice wine vinegar.  What about white or red wine vinegar, or even sherry vinegar?  The beverages themselves go so well with oysters.  The recipe for President Garfield's pickled oysters called for cider vinegar, and several of the other old recipes, like the aforementioned Joy of Cooking one, just said vinegar.  Thanks a lot, Irma.  I've got a lot of different vinegars.  Second, to cook or not to cook the oysters.  Admittedly, most of the recipes called for a quick poaching, just until they curled around the edges.  This would remove moisture from the oysters and preserve them longer.  But some said to immerse the raw oysters into a chilled pickling liquid, or even just pour the liquid over the oysters on the half shell, freshly shucked.   Seasonings?  Cayenne, tabasco, peppercorns, cloves, citrus, allspice, mustard seeds, garlic, and everything else under the sun came up.  The older recipes always call for some fun ingredients, like a blade of mace.  And what about all that flavorful oyster liquor?  Some said add to the pickling liquid, others made no mention of it at all.  A lot to consider, no?

With nothing but time on my hands, I said fuck it and tried three different preparations:

1) I'll admit, I was going to make this one from the start, regardless of what I'd read.  I really wanted to do a mignonette style pickle.  A classic mignonette is red wine vinegar, macerated shallots, and fresh cracked pepper, traditionally served over a raw oyster.  A restaurant I used to work at served the same style, but with malt vinegar, specifically Four Monks, and it's hands down the best I've ever had.  That flavor but in a pickled oyster sounded phenomenal to me.  I poached the oysters in their liquor until slightly curled, removed them and added in malt vinegar, a few tablespoons of salt and sugar, and whole peppercorns to the remaining oyster liquor.  The pickling mix simmered for 10 mins or so and once cooled, into a jar with the oysters and sliced shallots.  Then, off to the fridge to sit at least 24 hours.

2) I had to at least try and do portions of the President Garfield recipe, so I decided to go with a cider vinegar version.  Same process as the first.  Oysters slightly poached, removed from the liquor and pickling mixture added in.  Unfortunately, this was a shelter in place undertaking, so I couldn't casually scramble down to the market, let alone spice merchant, for cloves, allspice, and mace.  Poorly stocked cupboard, I suppose.  I threw in some serrano peppers, mandarinquat slices, and peppercorns and called it day.  Batch number two cooled, onto the oysters, and into the fridge to also sit at least 24 hours.

3) The last batch I wanted to test out pickling the oysters raw and without any of their liquor.  I was certain the texture would come out different, and they'd probably have a shorter shelf-life.  For this, I decided to go with a simple champagne vinegar, salt, sugar, and peppercorn pickling mix.  Heated, simmered, and cooled, into the jar it went with the raw oysters.  24 hours minimum in the fridge, as well.

Left to right - cider, malt, champagne
After patiently waiting 36 hours, I woke up to a pickled oyster Christmas morning, of sorts.  How'd they turn out?  The first thing I definitely learned was that pickled oysters aren't exactly the most photogenic preparation.  Not going to lie, they look like some 9th grade biology project or an oddity straight out of the Mütter Museum.  There's a reason I went with the smallest possible size of this photo.  Also, the oyster liquor definitely added to the flavor of the pickling liquid, but it made a cloudy and particulate riddled visual.  Whatever.  I'll cop-out and go with "taste is all that matters."  I tried each oyster individually with no accoutrement.  As expected, all very forward in flavor of their respective vinegars.  The malt vinegar won, by far.  The Four Monks malt vinegar was the best vinegar to start with, so it wasn't surprising.  But the added twist of brininess from oyster liquor and sweet crunch from the shallots made for a tasty bite.  The cider vinegar version was nice as well, with a good heat coming through from the serranos.  The cooked were also much better in terms of texture than the raw.  They had a nice firm and toothsome texture, similar to the meat of a fried oyster.  Much nicer in comparison to the creamy, almost slimy mouth feel from the raw pickle.  Some people like a creamier oyster though, so to each their own (yup, that's grammatically correct.  3rd person plural is acceptably used in the singular with the gender fluid times.  I stay woke).  The only thing I have yet to confirm is which version lasts the longest before, well, becoming inedible.  I don't really see any spoiling, given they're pickled.  But I do see the texture of the oysters deteriorating, making them very unpalatable at some point.  Only time will tell on that, so I'll have to report back.    

And for ways to enjoy the pickled oysters, the possibilities are endless.  Modestly on top of crackers with a little hot sauce or ornately back in the half shell adorned with fresh dill, caviar, and crème fraîche.  I could see them topping a caesar salad or a nice addition to a banchan spread while enjoying Korean BBQ, depending on the flavors you chose to pickle with.  And of course, they'd be a great bar pairing with an ice cold beer.  I enjoyed some for lunch one day on ciabatta slices with frisee, radishes, some of the pickled serranos and shallots, and a light spread of aioli.  Not half bad for a working from home during the pandemic lunch break, right?

I'm excited to see how the pickled oysters fare over the next few weeks and for different ways to enjoy them.  Hope you all stay safe and try passing the time with some fun culinary projects and experiments of your own.

The SF Oyster Nerd


Mariscos de Miami

I had a work trip to Miami recently.  First time I had been in twenty-one years, almost exactly to the date.  And I can't say that previous trip was a genuine representaion of the town as it was purely for Super Bowl XXXIII.  I was also only thirteen years old at the time.  But now, I was excited to get a taste of the true Miami experience, to say the least.   

Unfortunately, the trip was to be real brief.  Fly in late Thursday night, work nonsense all day Friday, another work event on Saturday night, and then fly out on Sunday.  However, if I planned right and did some research, I could fit in a little The Layover-esque seafood focused tour.  I needed to do Miami a little culinary justice from the shitty corporate conference meals I knew I'd be having.  Think of the most mediocre chicken-or-fish wedding you've been to.  That's basically every business conference meal I've ever had.

The hotel was located in South Beach and my first impressions were the standard.  Beautiful beaches, palacial looking palm trees, sultry weather and women.  Merengue music blaring from every club on Ocean Drive as street vendors hustled Cuban cigars.  Multichromatic deco hotels everywhere and luxury sports cars cruising by at four miles per hour.  Miami's South Beach is one of those few places that feels exactly like the stereotypes you know and expect.  

A couple of things did surprise me, though.  I had no idea there was such a Middle Eastern influence in the area.  Every other storefront seemed to have a hookah lounge, and pretty legit looking döner kebabs or shwarma shops were on every block.  The other odd thing was that nearly every menu I looked at had a Philly cheesesteak.  Cuban place, cheesesteak right under Cubano in the sandwich section.  Italian restaurant, Philly cheesesteak.  Late night dining options, cheesesteak, cheesesteak, cheesesteak.  Philly cheesesteaks were more ubiquitous than all the bulging biceps and bronzed buttcheeks.  Perhaps for all those foreign tourists trying two-bird-one-stone it while in the States.   

Anyway, with most of my work obligations out of the way on Friday, I woke up bright and early on Saturday to get down to the real business.  I had a few specific destinations in mind, but only half a day and so many other possibilities.  What should I go for?  White table cloth or economical?  Classic or eclectic?  Try and focus on oysters or go for any and all seafood?  Every tourist town poses a real challenge in terms of finding solid cuisine.  World renowned dishes specific to a region often get exploited, being overpriced, poor quality, and often both.  Miami is certainly no different.  I had to be careful to avoid the culinary equivalents of Pier 39's chowder in a bread bowl.  So, with a loose plan, an immense appetite, and company plastic in hand....let's get it!  

First stop was of course the famous Joe's Stone Crab.  A South Beach instituion serving all things seafood to the community since 1913.  As Delmonico's is to Manhattan, Union Oyster House is to Boston, Tadich Grill is to San Francisco, Peter Luger's is to Brooklyn, and so on, Joe's Stone Crab is to Miami.  One of those historic "see-and-be-seen" type places that celebrities, athletes, and the rich frequent.  Apparrently Lady Gaga was in just the night before my visit, according to the manager.  No need to go into all the history as the link provides that.  Joe's doesn't take reservations either and given my limited time, I wasn't going to wait in line for ninety minutes just for glitz and glamour or pomp and circumstance.  I was just there for the namesake: Florida stone crab claws.  Fortunately, Joe's has an adjacent takeaway place that's open from 7:30am to 10pm.  So, I was able to get my day started early and right.   

Stone crab claws are an interesting fishery.  One, the season is only from October to May the following year.  Not an uncommon practice for most wild fisheries.  Joe's isn't even open the other months.  Two, and the curious part, is that the whole crab isn't harvested.  Fishermen trap catch the crabs, pull them up, break off one of their claws if being ethical, both if being assholes, and throw the crab back.  The crab will live and be able to regenerate its claw(s), often up to three or four times in its life.  I've had stone crab at several places I've worked in the past, and I have to say it's certainly the sweetest crab you can find.  At Joe's they were no doubt some of the best I've had.  Not exactly the most budget friendly of meals at $25 per claw for the jumbo size, but definitely worth the once in awhile treat.  Served alongside a creamy mustard sauce, drawn butter, and plenty of lime wedges, I cracked and ate right by the water in South Pointe Park, watching boats and early morning joggers pass by. 

With the perfunctory but pleasant Joe's Stone Crab under my belt, it was time to head to the next destination.  From 100 plus years of service at Joe's to less than 100 days at the next, INTI.MO is the newest establishment in Juan Chipoco's Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant empire.  Chipoco not only celebrates his Incan roots in decor and cuisine at INTI.MO, but also in his restaurant group's imperial takeover of Miami's dining scene.  Guy is the hottest thing in South Florida since guayabera shirts.  And luckily, at a block and half away in South Beach, this new location was only a stone crab claw's throw away from Joe's.  Dad jokes always crush it.

Tiraditos and tatakis, ceviches and causas, sushi rolls and sashimi, plus everything in between.  All sorts of mishmashed items littered the seemingly overwhelming menu.  I didn't even ask what the "sushi bomb" was.  I decided to stay classic.  "Ceviche mixto, please, and one of those fruity cocktails rimmed with chili salt."  When in Miami, right?  It was good.  Cubed corvina, squid, shrimp, and octopus.  A simple citrus forward leche de tigre with a floral habenero heat balanced out by sweet hominy (choclo), crispy corn nuts (canchas), and blistered sweet potato.   The dish lived up to the ostentatious decor and Andean gold ornamentation, and came with a side of nice conversation I had with one of the sous.    

Ok, that's two South Beach locations down.  Time to head West, specifically to Miami's Art District of Wynwood.  I'd scoped out Mignonette quite some time ago in a Miami Herald article I found in my frequent and diligent regional oyster research, a.k.a. Googling random shit on my phone while sitting on the couch and ignoring 30 Rock reruns on TV.  I would say that when you think of the Miami food scene, oysters aren't exactly the first thing that come to mind.  "The colder the waters, the better the oyster" is a common saying, and oyster culture (in every sense of the word) changes drastically by latitude.  The "months with only an R" rule is necassarily more observed in the Gulf and Southern Atlantic, and most oysters are wild harvested rather than farmed, unlike their Northern counterparts.  The Florida Panhandle's Apalachicolas are probably the most recognizable, and there are some growers starting to cultivate more oysters in the Southern states, Southern Cross Sea Farms in Cedar Key being one of Florida's great examples.

Mignonette seemed to be one of the city's oyster bars held in the highest regard, and was included on Eater Miami's Essential 38, so I figured it the best place for my bivalve fix.  The establishment itself was gorgeous.  Retrofitted 1930s gas station with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the City of Miami Cemetary.  Staff was as nice, informative, and welcoming as could be.  The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way was, I guess, just the general concept of the place.  It felt like it was trying too hard to be a NYC or Boston raw bar.  You're in Miami, so be a Miami raw bar.  It is possible.  Out of six oyster varieties, not a single one was from Florida, or even the South, despite it being January and about as peak oyster season as you could get down there.  The chef I chatted with briefly said he simply couldn't find good Florida oysters.  Maybe locavorism hasn't hit Miami yet?  I doubt either are true.  And if you are going for a reputable North Atlantic style raw bar, dubious Blue Points and listless Hood Canal Quilcenes aren't the way to get there.

The crudo and baked oysters I had were delightful, though.  Thinly sliced amberjack, jalapeño, and chives dressed with olive and blood orange juice and topped with spiced brioche croutons.  Simple, refreshing, and spot on.  The baked oyster line up consisted of:

 Oysters Rockefeller - spinach, parmesan, breadcrums, and pernod
Oysters Frank - manchego cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and sherry 
Oysters Bezos - foie gras, mushroom duxelles, and marsala   

All three were well done.  Cheers for the bacon and oyster combo on the Oysters Frank - salty pig parts and shellfish always hit home.  The foie gras oysters were damn tasty too and I can't help but applaud their titular whimsy.  Oysters Rockefeller, at their advent in 1889 New Orleans, were described as so rich that they had to be named after the wealthiest man alive, John D. Rockefeller.  Foie gras packs that same richness, so only our contemporary Amazon mogul would be suitable for the name.  Thumbs up.  

I also admit I'm not being entirely fair in my criticism of Mignonette's concept.  It did have a great menu of classic and creative dishes, several locally focused or paying homage to the South's regional cooking styles.  It was an objectively nice dining experience.  I think I was the asshole at fault in wanting something a little more Miami in my oyster bar.

So, with my reactions to Mignonette's style and approach, I was clearly getting sick of the higher-brow Miami restaurant scene I'd experienced so far.  Noted.  Time to get farther West to Little Havana's La Camaronera.  Jumped in a cab and off I went.  Immediately, I started feeling better as the fancy gardens and gaudy hotels made way for Tigo Móvil signs and joyerías or casas de empeño.  I even got to dust off my decade old Spanish, mostly with my Venezuelan Uber driver and in my search for a cajero.  La Camaronera is cash only.  No se aceptan tarjetas.  I can appreciate that.  An old saying I heard was confirmed, as well.  Years ago, while in Panama, a local described Panama City as "the Miami of Central America, only we speak more English."  That was definitely true of Miami's Little Havana.

Fresh fish market and fry house, La Camaronera is a 40 year-old Cuban seafood joint from the famed Miami fishing family, The Garcia Brothers, dating back to 1976.  Long story short, several of the Garcia brothers immigrated to Miami in 1966 and worked as fishermen, a trade they'd learned as kids in their native Cuba.  They saved up their earnings, and in a few years, opened their own wholesale and retail fish market.  A few years later, they threw in a deep fryer, added some standing counters, and La Camaronera was born.  It's also seen as kind of a crossroads of Miami culture.  A place where everyone from Coral Gables billionaires to Liberty City gangsters can be seen queueing up for a fried shrimp basket or caldito de cherna.   

Similar to Joe's Stone Crab, the establishment is best known for one item in particular:  the pan con minuta or fried red snapper sandwich.  Straightforward in concept, it's a butterflied and deep fried red snapper filet served on a lightly toasted Cuban roll topped with chopped onions, ketchup, and tartar sauce.  Can't deny that the tail on presentation adds major bonus points to the experience.  It was as tasty as I'd imagined and exactly the direction I'd hoped my crawl would turn.  Step aside ham, pork, pickles, and mustard...there's a Cubano de pescado that's definitely one-upped you in my sandwich book. 

Four stops in less than six hours was probably respectably sufficient, no?  But thankfully, I still had one more to go.  Even before my trip to La Camaronera, I felt I was missing something major.  I'd checked off most of the main places on my list, but I hadn't had that one maverick experience.  You know, that culinary wildcard where you just stumble across a cool looking spot, enter with no expectations, and have one of the best meals of your life.  True hidden gems.  Obviously, they are few and far between and you can't force them.  They just happen when they happen.  But I definitely wanted to try and find something akin, free of TripAdvisor and Yelper opinions.  Also, there are large Haitian and Bahamian populations in Miami.  Why hadn't I looked into that?  Where were the lambi and bannann peze or the conch fritters?  Admittedly, we do need to be sensitive to the conch's populations and over-fishing, or better yet, "conchservation" (read the article, I can't take credit for that one).

So, I decided to start asking around, in short, "where can I get some good cutty Caribbean cuisine."  The shucker at Mignonette, without any hesitation, had said "Chef Creole's Seasoned Kitchen.  But careful, you gotta be sure to go to the original on 54th Street.  That's the best."  Ok, I looked into it a little.  My initial impression was that it couldn't be good or what I was looking for.  Basically a local chain with six locations, a massive catering service, and even an online retail store for sauces and swag.   

Then, I asked the La Camaronera cashier the same question.  She was very nice and gave me a few options, and Chef Creole's was on that list.  It was even nicer when she started ignoring a long line of customers waiting to order so she could call her "chef friend" and ask for his recommendations, on speaker phone no less.  You don't find personal service like that often.  He immediately said "Chef Creole's Seasoned Kitchen, but the original one on 54th Street," as well.  Ok, there had to be something here.  Three completely unsolicited, industry veteran responses of "Chef Creole's."  That's more than enough evidence for me, chain or not.  Google doesn't have the answer to everything sometimes.  Enter Uber ride number three of the day and away we go.

The Little Havana landscape gradually gave way to what can be best described as the residential scenes from a Trick Daddy music video.  And as soon as I arrived at Chef Creole's, I knew I was in the right place.  It consisted of three parts:  a walk-in takeaway section, a drive-thru, and an outdoor cabana dining area.  Bright yellow, bright blue, and Chef Creole branding covered every door, sign, table, employee, catering van.  Chinese takeout-esque photos of braised oxtail, red beans and rice, fried shrimp, and pork griot lined the walls over ice chests filled with Cola Lacaye.  The only regret was that I had no stomach real estate left for a proper Chef Creole feast.  It was tough to decide as I defintely couldn't handle a full plate of garlic lobster and crab with all the sides.  So, I went with the conch salad.  Quick cash exchange for a pre-packaged pint of the salad, styrofoam cup of Hawaiian Punch, and out to the cabana I went to enjoy the beautifully balmy weather of Little Haiti.

 Conch is a damn tasy meat.  Kind of like a marriage between crab and octopus in flavor, but with the firm texture of geoduck siphon.  I would have loved to find a Bahamian Conch Chowder or tried the stewed conch at Chef Creole's, but perhaps that's for next trip.  The salad was legit, though.  Diced up conch with tomatoes, jalapeño, and onions mixed with ample amounts of lime juice and salt. Tough to beat.  Whatever the hell you want to call them: ceviches, salads, cocteles, crudos...if you're mixing citrus, shellfish, peppers and alliums, I'm always game.  And I couldn't remember the last time I'd had Hawaiian Punch.  Talk about a nostalgic sip.  Too bad red sugar water is out of favor cause that shit is delicious.  All in all, the conch salad at Chef Creole's was the perfect ending to my Mariscos de Miami tour.  

Actually, that's a lie. I was able to sneak in one last ceviche at a South Beach farmers' market right before I left for the airport on Sunday.  Like I said, I'm always game. 

The SF Oyster Nerd 


Oyster Sauce - 蚝油 - ซอสหอยนางรม

I had been poking around for some oyster inspiration the past few months and was sadly lacking in imagination and creativity.  Visited Placerville to explore an updated Hangtown Fry post, which is certainly still to come, have some oyster takes on classic cocktails I'd still like to make for others, and I really want to do a deep-dive into the Chesapeake Oyster Wars at some point.  All great stuff I'd love to explore, but nothing was really motivating me much beyond just thought.

However, an old and reliable social media addiction ended up providing just what I needed.  I was scrolling through some older posts of one of my favorite Instagram feeds, TasmanianAritisan, envying his skill, knowledge, and resources to play with all things foraged, pickled, and preserved.  His charcuterie is what drew my attention at first, though he has fun with all sorts of things from smoked salts to his own bottarga.  And sure enough, a February 2018 post led me right to his Homemade Oyster Sauce.

I immediately felt this was something I needed to do and wondered why I hadn't yet.  Little did I know the culinary, and more so, cultural Pandora's box that it would open.  Disclaimer: I am by no means an authority and genuinely encourage civil discourse and discussion around this and all topics, a thing the US is in dire shortage of right now.

To start, I guess, what exactly is oyster sauce?  I'm sure you are all familiar with your local Chinese takeout's beef and broccoli.  The predominant flavor in that is most often oyster sauce.  It is a "viscous, dark brown condiment made from oyster extracts, sugar, salt and water thickened with corn starch," commonly used in Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, and other Asian cooking.  A rich, sweet yet savory sauce with a strong ocean salinity and low-tide aromas (in the good way) used to flavor a variety of dishes.  You may even have a bottle of the classic Safeway supplied Lee Kum Kee or Dragonfly versions in your fridge.  This, admittedly, is my Westernized concept of oyster sauce.  Francis Chan, the CMO of Lee Kum Kee, has even said of their oyster sauce recipe that "minor adjustments are made to suit the tastes of specific markets," a common practice it seems in Americanizing ethnic cuisines

Shockingly, these six bottles cost less than $15 combined.  Pretty
reasonable for a taste test of six oyster sauces.  Kikkoman and Lee
Kum Kee's Premium were best (the two on the far left).
I think Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu's, a contemporary California spin on Cantonese cuisine, nailed it in saying "oyster sauce is like if fish sauce and barbecue sauce had a child, a stinky yet sweet one."

The discovery or creation of oyster sauce seems to be commonly held, from my limited research, as that back in the 1880s, Lee Kum Sheung, founder of the aforementioned Lee Kum Kee brand, was cooking oysters in some fashion, soup or other, for customers at his teahouse in Guangdong, China.  He accidentally forgot about the oysters, and, to joyous surprise, came back to a thickened, salty-sweet caramelized brown sauce.  I've also read that true oyster sauce has no added ingredients, it's just "oyster essence" concentrated and caramelized.  

From my understanding of what oyster sauce is, I don't think either claim true.  No matter how low, slow, and high volume, oyster "essence," "juice," or "stock" doesn't seem to concentrate or caramelize into the thick, sweet sauce we're familiar with.  Maybe you could end up with a teaspoon, or maybe I'm just an inept saucier.  Similarly, I don't think the desirable flavor or viscosity of what I know oyster sauce to be is achievable without at least soy sauce, sugar/molasses, and corn starch/natural or pureed thickeners.  However, I had also read that traditional oyster sauce doesn't have the viscosity we're so familiar with from bottled versions.  I certainly wouldn't know, just going off commercially available ones.  Also, how the fuck can actual oyster sauce be sold at a profit for literally $1.99?  What is oyster "extract" and how is it so cheap?  I'm sure actual oysters are somewhere in the process, right, and those by no means are a casual bargain. 

Thus, in making my own oyster sauce, I realized there was a lot to consider.  Attempt the purist approach?  Go for as rich and robust a sauce as possible, regardless of tradition?  What would really constitute it being "authentic," "homemade," or "from scratch?"  A simple Google for "homemade oyster sauce" will most frequently give you some iteration of the following:
  • Steep two to four dozen fresh oysters (possibly chopped up to impart flavor more quickly) in their liquor and water for anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes.  Aromatics can be included here.
  • Strain the resulting liquid, discarding the rest (more on that later) and return to a saucepan.
  • Reduce further and finish with some combination of light or dark soy sauce, sometimes brown sugar, syrup, or molasses, and optionally thicken with cornstarch. 
I figured I would at least have to do what the most frequently reported recipes call for.  So, with 4 dozen Maro-ishi oysters and knife in hand, off to the races I went.  Pure coincidence on the oyster name, by the way.  They're from Washington and I wasn't going for any theme.

It was a damn shame to have to cook these Maro-ishi oysters cause they
were pretty perfect on their own.  4 dozen quickly became
just 3 before they hit the pot.
3 dozen freshly shucked and roughly chopped oyster meats and their liquor, garlic, and ginger simmered in water for approximately 30 minutes.  The liquid quickly took on a strong "oyster essence," similar to clam juice in both aroma and slight translucence.  I strained this through coffee filter (didn't have cheesecloath) and returned to the pot.  Reduced further, to about 8 oz, added in soy sauce and molasses, and the final result: homemade oyster sauce.  It was about as thick as Coca-Cola and the same color, but the taste was spot on.  A little funkier, deeper in oyster flavor, and pretty close to what I was hoping for.  I chose to exclude any thickeners for fear of tainting the flavor. 

A few things bothered me about this approach, though.  First and foremost, making a sauce this way is an awful waste of valuable oyster meat.  It's pretty obvious this isn't the industrial way it happens given the low price tag on bottled oyster sauces.  All of them list some variation of oyster extract, concentrate, or flavor, probably obtained from other commercial operations involving oysters and their by-products.  They don't use meats solely for the sauce; nor do they spend the hours it takes to reduce but rather add cornstarch, cellulose, and caramel for color and consistency.  

Chan Moon Kee:  Oyster Extractives
Dragonfly:  Natural Oyster Flavor
Kikkoman:  Oyster Juice Concentrate
Second, it made me reconsider the storied Lee Kum Sheung and his credit of having discovered oyster sauce.  Perhaps he did forget about cooking some sort of oyster soup only to find it reduced into the sweet, rich sauce we now know.  His founding of Lee Kum Kee to follow and commercial production of oyster sauce with actual oyster meats may have even been possible back in the 1880's as they were so cheap and abundant.  However, I still don't see those meats being overcooked and discarded or, in some fashion, being only used to make sauce.  Cantonese cuisine is celebrated for its resourcefulness.  Now popular food trends like nose-to-tail are not new to Chinese cooking.  Nothing goes to waste.

Dried oysters in San
Francisco's Chinatown
That being said, dried or preserved oysters are a popular part of the Cantonese pantry and used in many dishes, most notably the Chinese New Year Ho See Fatt Choy.  Part of preserving oysters is often first blanching them in water then sun drying them.  Once the meats are blanched, removed from the water, and set to dry, you're left with an umami-laden oyster juice.  It makes most sense this resulting liquid would not be thrown away.  Instead, it could be cooked down, concentrated, and made into oyster sauce.  Mind you this not of my own finding.  I learned of it in a few other recipes I did come across.  I can easily see this having been done for centuries rather than the accidental discovery of overcooked oysters resulting in the famed sauce. 

Ok then, oyster sauce take two.  From a brief conversation I had with Brandon Jew at his restaurant and listening to his interview here, I had a new approach in mind.  I didn't have any fresh oysters left to blanch and dry, but did have 4 dozen oyster shells and scant meat that remained on them.  How cool would it be to achieve a full and robust oyster sauce just from the by-product of shucked oysters?  I made an oyster stock to then be reduced for hours.  And damn did it take hours.  I'm scared to see my PG&E bill this month.  A near gallon of stock slowly became two cups or so, though it really didn't have a deep oyster essence.  It was more like mildly briny calcium water.  Luckily, my curiosity of all things oyster finally paid off in a previously purposeless purchase of 8 oz of dried oysters from Chinatown.  Into the still-reducing stock they went and simmered away for another 30 mins.  The result was about a cup of full flavored oyster concentrate.  I added in soy sauce and molasses, and now had another homemade oyster sauce.  Consistency was still thin, but this version was definitely better than the first.    

Final Product:  Take Two
Great.  Research, done.  Tasty oyster sauce, check.  Now what?  I humbly concede I know very little about DIY Chinese or Asian cooking in general.  Yeah, I have read and eaten as much as the next person and have my thoughts and opinions; however, I wanted to do something a bit more special with this oyster sauce.  Enter Rizzi of Global Eats.  Former Vietnam resident of two years, two time world circumnavigator, chef, committed student of all things culinary and cherished friend.  Most importantly, homeboy knows his noodles.  That and he's always down to blast the BTUs and fire up his wok.  After my quick and embarrassingly confusing trip to 99 Ranch Market for other ingredients, we were working away on some lo mein.  By we, I of course mean he cooked and I watched and took shitty Android photos.  I will not apologize for owning a phone half the price of an iPhone that texts, emails, Googles, and operates Angry Birds equally as well.  After thirty minutes of prep and cooking, we sat down to a delightful rendition of Cantonese style lo mein with dried shrimp "cotton candy," Rizzi's home fermented gai choy, minced pork, nappa cabbage, mung bean sprouts and garlic chives.  All well-seasoned with homemade oyster sauce, a little pork and chicken stock, and some sugar.  The best part though, as always, was the conversation.  We explored a lot, and this is where things get a little sticky.

First, what does it really mean if something is "homemade" or "made from scratch?"  Which was my oyster sauce?  There's certainly a differentiation between the two, the former being more forgiving, but where is the line drawn?  A Bisquick strawberry shortcake may be "homemade" yet it's definitely not "from scratch."  I see calling that shortcake "homemade" a disservice to the word and a false representation.  Sure, it took effort, but come on, pretty minimal.  I bring effort into the matter only because these phrases, "homemade" and "from scratch," carry the connotations of pride and respect to be paid, right?  Nobody honestly says "hey, this is my homemade chili, all from scratch" without a little hope for some sort of recognition.  If we can agree on that, we can further think on "from scratch."  For the strawberry shortcake, if you opted for mixing your own flour, shortening, salt, and baking powder, now you're cooking from scratch, correct?  Did you mill the flour from your home garden grown wheat or render the shortening from your own pig?  Sure, an extreme side of the discussion, though I believe important to consider.  What about using canned tomatoes for homemade marinara sauce?  Did you grow and can them yourself?  Probably still from scratch if not.  What if they were fire-roasted canned tomatoes rather than just plain?  Canned tomatoes with added Italian seasonings?  Both still from scratch?  I don't mean to challenge but rather explore these thoughts.  Again, is a hot dog a sandwich?  At the end, you're the one deciding these definitions for yourself and whatever rings honest and true to you is probably best.  

This still all carried into a larger conversation of who is the authority on this: "from scratch" - "authentic" - "homemade" - "proper" - and so on.  Here we were, two white boys, working with "homemade" oyster sauce and making "authentic" Cantonese style noodles.  Or were we?  Cultural appropriation of food has been hot topic as of late.  The clean Chinese controversy in New York City, the Portland taco chefs, and Andrew Zimmern, well, just being a straight up dick immediately come to mind.  Seriously, how someone who eats like a ruminant chewing the cud became a celebrity TV chef will forever be beyond me. 

Just broaching the subject is dangerous.  I've previously written about how fiercely defining people's culinary identities are, so trying to say what's "proper" or "authentic" is even dicier.  Does it have to be only ingredients traditional to that cuisine?  Tomatoes are native to the Americas, so what is "authentic" Sicilian cuisine without them?  American as apple pie?  Hmm, apples are from Kazakhstan.  What about just using the traditional techniques?  Al pastor came from early 20th century Lebanese immigrants who brought the shawarma style of spit roasting meats with them to Mexico.  Pork isn't native to Mexico either.  Much of what we see as modern day cooking has it's foundations in French technique.  Foods and cuisines are constantly evolving and changing, so it's hard to pin down what's authentic and what's fusion.  Is one right and one wrong?  Some amazing things have happened from flouting tradition. Don't get me wrong, I put high value in the classic and can be hater of many things fusion.  Just take the sushi burrito or Lil Nas X's Old Town Road, for example.  At the same time, cronuts are amazing.  Some things work, some things don't, and that's ok.  

I am also very comfortable with my hypocrisy on this.  I will talk shit on Señor Sisig til blue in the face (both for not really being sisig and for being a food truck that somehow doesn't accept cash), then, turn around and make Old El Paso tacos for myself at home.  I suppose it's what I see as the hoodwinking nature of these places that pisses me off.  You know, sort of like how Panera Bread and Kind bars market like they are healthy options.  Just that people aren't really getting what they were sold on and leave with some false sense of accomplishment in their dining choice.  Old El Paso and Chili's don't give off that same vibe.  They just are what they unapologetically are, and for some reason I like that.  (Also, sorry Señor Sisig, I actually do think your California burritos are pretty tasty, but would still go for some Chili's boneless buffalo wings first).

This brings me back to the bigger point.  Who the hell am I to bash Señor Sisig and Sushirrito? How do you determine who the "authority" is on all this?  Who cooks what "authentically?" What qualifies a person as a culinary expert?  Can people not immerse themselves completely in another culture's cooking and learn its nuances and traditions to earn the credibility?  I totally understand that a person foreign to a cuisine will never fully grasp hand wrapping tamales negros for Christmas as a child or the taste of Nonna's minestrone when they were a kid.  At the same time though, I'm Irish-American, and by no means an expert on corned beef and cabbage (which is funnily enough not even Irish).  It really lies in a person's dedication to the craft.  Is Ed Lee not an expert on Southern cuisine?  Is Andy Ricker of Pok Pok not an authority on Northern Thai cooking after decades of study?  Was Rene Redzepi's Tulum pop-up not one of the coolest things you've ever followed on Instagram?  I'm a big fan of how Ken Albala from the University of the Pacific profiles it on his food rant blog

It's how people both seek and spread their culinary education, and their motivations in doing so.  It's undeniable that cultural appropriation exists.  The world is an unjust place where people have stolen ideas and identities and, only because they come from a place of means, are able to profit from them with no acknowledgement of their origins.  Fuck those people.  But to go en vogue with our current public shaming call-out culture and label all as culinary colonialism just seems misguided.  It comes full circle with the absence of civil discourse we so sorely need right now.  These proclamations of "eww, that's not real sushi" or "this is true barbeque" only prove to be divisive and insulting.  "I'm right, you're wrong."  Andrew Zimmern calling Midwest Chinese restaurants "horseshit" or Arielle Haspel say we serve "clean" Chinese food.  This constant need for people to one-up each other by having a "more authentic" experience.  True experts admit they'll never know enough.  They share and celebrate their passion rather than mock or criticize others attempting it.  They respectfully discuss, disagree, and acknowledge when they are wrong.  They're always learning, reading, questioning, studying, tasting, testing. 

I look forward to more people both candidly and tactfully talking about topics like this.  How else can we understand other's thoughts and opinions if we do not?  More importantly, I look forward to making homemade oyster sauce again, and again, and again.  It was a real adventure from the serendipitous oyster pic I stumbled across to learning all I now know, or rather don't know, about oyster sauce and its history.  And hey, if Malcolm Gladwell is right, I'm now just 9,990 hours shy of becoming an expert at it.

The SF Oyster Nerd