Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Banh Xu Xe

Banh Xu Xe
Oaktree Market, $1.99/4

I try not to poke fresh produce, but since squishy treats won't bruise, I prod the little darlings with impunity until I find the tenderest batch on offer. Although I gave these banh xu xe a thorough once-over, the texture was a big disappointment. The padanus-tinted tapioca flour exterior was unpleasantly rubbery--just on the edible side of chewing on a fishing lure. Since another on-line review described banh xu xe as "jelly-like" (and "amazing" and "addictive"), I'm willing to belive that my experience wasn't typical. More likely the trip from Mai's Bakery in Montery Park, CA to the Oaktree Grocery in Seattle, WA didn't do the texture any favors. The paste inside was a tasty blend of mung bean, coconut and vanilla; I managed to think of the green part as just a disposable wrapper.

Banh xu xe appears to be a close relative of banh phu the, a sweet with very particular role in tradtional Vietnamese culture. Because the cakes' sticky texture is considered to symbolize the tenacious bonds of marriage, banh phu the can be given as part of a marriage proposal, distributed to announce an engagement, exchanged by new in-laws, or served at a wedding. The name refers to a tiny origami box folded from fresh coconut leaves for each cake; ideally, the box, lid, and cake should be a perfect fit.

Vietnam-beauty.com has a recipe for a cake that looks almost exactly like my banh xu xe, but calls for entirely different ingredients. Hmm...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Heirloom Apples

Heirloom Orchards Apples

Metropolitan Market, $2.49/lb

The first day of my freshman year of college I took a "Red Delicious" apple from the dining hall and placed it on a shelf in my room. I'd heard rumors that the cafeteria produce was irradiated so I figured I'd do a little low-tech experiment. When the school year ended, I took the apple down and threw it in the trash. Under its blanket of dorm dust, it was just as shiny, red, and rock-hard as the apples I'd eaten throughout the year--and presumably as tasteless.

After college I spent two years living in a small English village that holds an "Apple Day" festival each autumn. Apples were celebrated in all their solid, semi-solid, and liquid forms. There was a bake sale, apple champagne, and fresh cider, courtesy of an ancient stone-wheeled press and a very patient horse. Among the attractions was a leathery old man that a few of us called the "apple whisperer". Bring him a branch, leaf, or fruit from an unidentified apple tree and he'd tell you the make and model, then diagnose any ailments. I particularly loved to watch him take on a mystery apple; after giving it a long and serious look, he'd whip out an old wood-handled Opinel, excise a wedge, and pop it in his mouth in less time than it would take for me to find a clean cutting board. After a few seconds of furious chewing, he'd spit into the garbage and pronouce, "Dropsey's Amber Fleshpot grafted onto Blackgold Pucker; wants fertilizing." It was tremendously good regional theater.

Another booth sold a bewildering array of heirloom apples. My favorite of all was the tiny Egremont Russet, named for the lord of a nearby village and for the fruit's potato-like papery brown skin. Its creamy-white flesh tasted of honey, roses and jasmine. The first year, I bought a couple of pounds in spite of the stallholder's warning that they "wouldn't hold". I remember being surprised at how quickly they started to go soft, and then delighted that I had a good excuse to eat them one after another. Not in a million years would I trade an over-the-hill Egremont Russet for a dozen ageless, tasteless Red Delicious.

More recently I was delighted to find a selection oddball apples from Heirloom Orchards at a nearby grocery. I bought one of each and had my own tasting. My favorite of the bunch was the King David, a small apple as shiny and red as a garnet, with a sweet-sour tang reminiscent of Sour Patch Kids.