July 2012

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Budai, the Laughing Buddha

Budai, the Laughing Buddha. Photo by David Lansing.

I went back to Ten Fu yesterday afternoon thinking I just might buy a zisha teapot. Instead, I got sidetracked looking at a two-foot-high carving of a Laughing Buddha.

This is Budai, which means “Cloth Sack.” You see the bag tucked under the right arm of this cheerful fella? Well the story goes that Budai, who is always depicted as a fat bald man wearing a robe and prayer beads, carries his few possessions in a cloth sack. Hence the name.

He is oftentimes depicted as entertaining or being followed by children. Perhaps because they say he went around handing out penny candy to poor children.

This Budai is the best I’ve ever seen. There was just something about him that made you want to pick him up (if that was even possible) and take him home. God knows we could all use a little laughing man in our lives, don’t you think?

And I still haven’t bought my zisha teapot. Next time I find a good deal on a hotel in Richmond, I will definitely go back for my zisha teapot.

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Abbey ruins

Abbey ruins in Jumieges

Abbey ruins in Jumieges, France. Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

Shortly before 11 a.m., we make it to the ruins of a Benedictine abbey in Jumièges, just in time for a guided tour in French. Pierre says this is good, and now I’m sure to get the real story rather than authoritative guesses from him. This is uncharacteristically modest of him.

The French guide tells the four of us on the tour that this abbey was first constructed in the Carolingian period. It became subsequently so rich that it was burned and pillaged constantly by the invading Vikings in the ninth century, to the point that it was abandoned until the region stabilized. In 1067, the church was consecrated anew. The Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, freshly successful from his own invasion of England, attended the consecration. The abbey flourished until the French Revolution, when it was ransacked again and partially pulled down for its stone. This, however, made it “the most beautiful ruin in France,” according to visiting authors from the Romantic period.

The guide tells us to take a walk up to the Abbot’s residence to get a good view of the ruins and the surrounding park. Pierre and I do so, and in the quiet misty-gray of the sunless noon, we look down on the once-great property, now deserted of people. Somewhere, a bell is tolling the hour.

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Zisha teapots at Ten Fu

The purple and red clay teapots from Yixing at Ten Fu in Richmond.

One of the nice things about the hotel I’m staying at is that it’s right in the middle of what they call Richmond’s Golden Village with its high concentration of Asian-themed stores and restaurants (they say something like 200 various Asian restaurants). Even better, the Aberdeen Centre is directly across the street. And I keep going back there to discover some new little shop.

Like this morning I stumbled across Ten Fu Tea & Ginseng. This is a very traditional Chinese tea shop. With some amazing teas (some costing hundreds of dollars for a little tin). But what I liked about it were the zisha teapots. These come from Yixing, China and are made from a unique purple clay (the teapots first appeared during the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279).

They have no glazes on them, inside or out, and because of the porous nature of the clay, they tend to absorb the flavor, smell, and color of the tea brewed in them. Over time they become a living repository of olfactory memories—hundreds or thousands of tea times stacked one upon the other.

For this reason, the zisha teapots, which are always small and intended for individual use, are often dedicated by the Chinese to a single flavor of tea so as not to contaminate the smell and taste of a particular teapot. In fact, back in the day, the Chinese would carry their own teapots with them wherever they went and drink directly from the  spout—no cup needed.

They really are beautiful objects. And I was tempted to buy one. Or two. And maybe I will yet.

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How to make a scratch sour mix

Do not, do not, do not use these mixes to make your cocktails.

Yesterday I wrote about how Mexican Controy is now being distributed in the U.S. by a little company in Texas called Pura Vida. I also mentioned a story I’d written a few years ago on how to make The Best Damn Margarita Ever. The keys to that cocktail were using a 100% agave tequila, Mexican Controy, and a homemade sour mix.

Thinking about all this kept me up last night. Getting a really good tequila is obvious and now you know how to get ahold of Mexican Controy. But I didn’t really say anything about the sour mix which is just as important as the spirits.

First of all, if you’ve got a bottle of commercially made sweet and sour mix in your refrigerator, I want you to do the following: Go to fridge. Pick up bottle. Unscrew cap. Pour down drain. Throw bottle away.

Never ever ever insult yourself or your guests by using one of those funky sweet and sour mixes no matter how much they cost (do those colors look natural to you?). There is just no comparison to making your own. And it’s not that hard. First you need to make some simple syrup. This should take you all of about 3 minutes. Simply add 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup of water to a pot and gently heat until all the sugar is dissolved. No need to boil. After it cools, pour the syrup into a clean bottle. (Bar trick: after you pour it into the bottle, add an ounce of vodka to the simple syrup to prevent mold or bacteria from growing.)

Now, to make your homemade sour mix, all you’re going to do is use equal parts freshly-squeezed citrus juice and simple syrup. The easiest thing to do is use equal parts lemon and lime juice. For instance, to make a liter of sour mix you’d combine 8 ounces lime juice, 8 ounces lemon juice, and 16 ounces simple syrup. But you can use other combinations as well. For instance, I typically use a little grapefruit juice when making a sour mix for margaritas. Maybe 4 ounces of grapefruit juice, 4 ounces lemon juice, and 8 ounces lime juice. Sometimes I’ll use blood orange juice as well. Give it a try. You’ll find whatever combination of citrus juices you use will be a lot better tasting than anything you can buy at the store.

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Controy finally gets a green card

A few years back I wrote a guest blog on The Best Damn Margarita Ever for The Foodinista (which is written by Heather John, a former food/cocktail/fashion writer for the sadly missed Los Angeles Times Magazine and then Bon Appétit). I stressed in my story that there were three key ingredients to making a really, really good margarita: use a 100% agave tequila (I always use a reposado, but blanco is fine as well); make your own sweet and sour mix from fresh-squeezed Mexican limes; and use Controy, not Cointreau or Grand Marnier.

As Heather and a few other readers pointed out, the only problem with my recipe is that the only place you can get Controy is Mexico. Which is why I always buy a couple of bottles to bring home when I’m down there.

But last week I got a startling email from Chris Novostad, of Pura Vida, a small Texas-based company, who’d read my story about The Best Damn Margarita Ever and wanted to let me know that Controy—which, since its creation in 1933 has never been allowed in the states by the giant conglomerate Remy Cointreau—would now be distributed by Pura Vida in the U.S.

As Chris wrote, “Controy finally got its greencard.”

For now, it’s only available in Arizona, California, Colorado, Lousiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. But they’ll soon be expanding, both in other states and internationally.

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. In fact, I think I’ll make myself a Controy-based margarita to celebrate.

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