Monday, March 12, 2012

The 'Soul' of Cooking

Over the past few months I have been working to document the kitchen life and cooking of some of West Tennessee's ethnic restaurants. Most of the places that I have visited are places that I frequent and have come to know as my culinary 'homes' away from home. All of them are locally owned. Most of them are maintained by families who have immigrated to the good ole USA in search of greener pastures.

There's my friend Mister Joe. Mister Joe owns and runs the Lotus Vietnamese Restaurant in Memphis Tennessee. Mister Joe drives an old mini-van to work and is there sometimes 10 hours a day. He came to the U.S. back in the late Seventies amidst some very stressful conditions in North Vietnam. He is a sweet little guy who describes almost every item on his menu as 'very delicious, very delicious'. Everytime I visit his place, it takes a little while for the food to arrive. But the reason is cooked fresh when it is ordered.    His place is so 'kitch' decorated with faux ocean scene murals, the classic 'dogs playing poker' and mother of pearl wall hangings with scenes of Vietnam. Multicolored lights decorate Buddhist statues and vintage beer signs. While it looks like a mad mix of a college dorm and a Saigon lounge in the Vietnam era, it is homey, comforting and familiar.

Then there's Thurley and her mother cooking up hot delicious Honduran dishes at 'Los Amigos' in Jackson Tennessee. Piles of green plantains and bottles of homemade sauces fill their kitchen . Thurley's brother comes in a jokes with his sister and mother, all of them laughing and cooking as if they were home.

My visit with legendary Chinese Chef Lisa Lie at Asian Palace in Memphis Tennessee was surreal. She asked me "what do you like here?" when I answered " The chicken feet", she erupted into laughter and said "Oh I am going to take care of you!" She toured me into a room full of flaming stoves and giant size woks. A man walks by and opens a rack of Peking duck. She smiled and cooked and laughed. She began to crank out a number of dishes...steamed chicken buns, shrimp dumplings, hot and spicy prawns...and on..and on...The men and women working in the kitchen seemed to light up when I asked them about their work.

While working on my book on southern barbecue I discovered similar themes among families who own barbecue joints. Pride in their cooking, love for the business and most of all...a love for the food that they cook. There is a certain 'spirit' that flows throughout the hands and kitchens of all of these great eateries. The 'soul' of cooking is the love for food and the love in sharing these foods with the world around them.

May we continue to support the souls that prepare these foods...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sweet Treats from Latin Lands

Most West Tennesseans might be familiar with Mexican desserts like flan and sopapillas from the numerous Tex Mex style Mexican restaurants throughout the region. But there are a wonderful number of sweets available in the growing community of Latin specialty markets and taquerias throughout West Tennessee. One of these community jewels is 'Sarai's Panaderia and Taqueria' located in South Jackson Tennessee.

Owner Martin Martinez and his staff offer up a great menu of authentic Mexican dishes like Al Pastor Tacos, Barbacoa Tortas and Chorizo Gorditas. Chef Maria cooks all of her traditional Mexican dishes in the true spirit of Latin American cooking. Fresh ingredients, authentic spices and Mexican cooking techniques all combine to produce some truly amazing dishes.

While the savory dishes of Sarai's are worth the trip alone, it is the sweet treats that they produce that really steal the show. Owner Martinez creates homemade Mexican style cakes for birthdays, weddings and family celebrations. A display case showcases a number of the breads and pastries made in the traditional style.

Some of the items include:

'Conchas' which are traditional Mexican sweet breads. Butter, flour and sugar are combined to create these traditonal breads that are popular breakfast items.

'Empanadas' which are stuffed sweet pastries filled with fruit and covered in sugar.

'Felites' are French inspired pastries that combine butter and dough. (Maria points out that these pastries resemble an 'ear' and giggles. )

'Guayabas' are balls of sweet dough made to resemble 'mountains' that are made from milk, eggs, sugar and butter.

'Pan Fino' are cinnamon covered sweet breads.

'Polvorones' are sweet colorful pastries that resemble cookies.

All of these wonderful treats are affordable, tasty and made fresh daily. Sarai's is located at:

Sarai's Panaderia and Taqueria
1433 South Highland
Jackson Tennessee 38301