SIMULACRA OF A SIMULACRUM: The Foundation Of My Food Fascination

I chose Mock Eel as the title for my culinary blog, because it was one bite of that dish that fomented my first foray into culinary experimentation, which over the past few years has become a consistent passion and occasional obsession. It’s funny to me, thinking of how many times I tried to recreate an entity that was itself pretending to be something altogether different.

It all started when Steve Bogart opened his unique Northern Chinese restaurant, A Single Pebble, in Burlington, Vermont. The bill of fare read like a fairytale to this small town boy, and my already budding passion for Asian cooking was piqued by the delicacies on offer. Before putting a second awe-inspiring spiral into my mouth, I inquired as to the mock eel’s ingredients, embarrassedly implying a potential allergy, but to no avail. The server informed me that the recipe was a secret, leaving me with only the menu description of,

"Braised shiitake mushrooms in a ginger sauce.
A delightful, crispy flavor and texture.

Until that point, I had been content to obediently follow recipes scavenged from friends, family, books and the Internet, recreating each with such reverence for exact specifications that one might think they were holy scripture. I feared the mystical voodoo science involved in cooking (as I still do of baking) and had yet to embrace the art. I was young in my culinary development and I could only grasp the potential for tasting new flavors, the satisfaction of creating and the impact it had on how pretty girls perceived me.

Intrigued by this mysterious dish, a mound of sticky over crispy fake-fish ribbons, I started on my quest with nothing but the description torn from a menu and my underdeveloped palate. I knew that the "eel" was shitake and I could tell by sight and crunch that it was fried, not braised. Garlic was palpable, as were the scallions and the sauce was thick and viscous like a glaze and exceedingly sweet, yet dark and salty.

I tend to over-think things, so when I retreated to my kitchen with leftovers and a bag of fresh shitake caps, I began to scheme about the sorts of ingredients and techniques that I could employ. After fruitless web searches, numerous charred and reeking saucepans and with hands cramped into grotesque contortions from spiral-cutting mushrooms with a paring knife, I was eventually sautéing shitake strips in a citrus and tamari reduction that resembled the original in essence of flavor, but approached it neither in texture nor appearance. I continued to experiment, to tinker, to sample the original and to look for inside information on Bogart’s baby, and I thought I was gradually narrowing in on the master.

Years later, having long since moved on to other projects, I asked the sister of a dear friend, who waited tables at A Single Pebble, how mock eel was made. She told me that dried mushrooms were spiral cut with scissors, reconstituted, deep fried and then tossed in a wok with a 50-50 mix of boiling cane sugar and soy sauce along with ginger, garlic and scallions. Essentially, he was deep frying mushrooms and tossing them in soy sauce caramel!

She also informed me that the task required the sort of heat that my electric range could never provide, and since that day, I have never been willing to move into any apartment without a gas stove.

I have come to like my own evolving sauce variations more than the sickly sweet original, and it works just as well with the fundamental techniques. The sugar, although I dread to meddle with the chef of provenance, is a little too much after the first few bites and swapping some of it for fruit juice gives it a more robust character and a little more complexity of flavor.

So that is the story of the fascinating flavor that sparked my obsession with culinary experimentation and just the tip of an expanding iceberg that I hope to chip away at here. I see this blog as a chance to archive my thoughts and replace my tattered folders filled with crusty scraps of paper, recipes that have been drawn on and written over, oil-soaked articles torn from culinary magazines, illustrations for utensil designs or procedural diagrams and my logs of ongoing projects that document the many manifestations of each new trial. I suppose it may not be interesting to anyone other than myself, but on the off chance that you are reading any of this, post a comment so I know I'm not alone.

1 comment:

ab said...

So, you wrote this several years ago...I'm wondering if the recipe is posted on your site....will look. You are not alone.
I too like to make some of the yummy food I eat in restaurants....it is satisfying to re-create someone's masterpiece and make it your own.