Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dionysis Would Approve

A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone!

I owe an apology for the belated Christmas wishes, but of course, I have what I consider a fairly fool-proof alibi. Em and I had been stocking up wine for about a week before our Christmas lunch and dinner. The boyfriend, who is usually the voice of moderation in all matters alcoholic (given that he doesn't drink anything besides a few gulps of Bailey's Irish Cream) went off for a two-week vacation to see family for Christmas. So here I was free to pick up a California Riesling here and a New Zealand Chardonnay there.

I snagged up two Italian wines as well, made with grapes that I for the life of me cannot remember. Even if I did, how were you going to track them down? The Italians are the largest wine producers in the world (yep, not the French, mon ami), and most of the varietals are restricted to small areas and many are so obscure that perhaps many Italians living in other regions wouldn't have heard of them. The sheer variety of wines classified under the DOC/DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata/Denominzione di Origine Controllata Garantita) is mind-boggling. And these unfortunately, weren't particularly worth tracking down. A pity, because the Italians do make excellent wine.

Anyway, so it's pretty obvious that I'm building up to something here, and the dominant theme happens to be wine. On Christmas Eve, which is when I should have been sending out my "Joy to the World" wishes to everyone, curiosity and the romance of my new adorable wine glasses get the better of me and I open up the bottle of Riesling. Not the sort of stuff that made Riesling the king of aged wines, but woo-hoo 12 per cent alcohol, here I come! A second glass definitely tastes better, and I had decided a long time ago that emailing while drunk isn't exactly the best mail etiquette.

The next day was the big day. Our annual ritual of Christmas lunch and dinner had shifted to my apartment this year, and Em and I spent all morning getting the rotisserie chicken and cake. One of these years, I'll definitely try and roast a chicken at home, but as things stand buying a rotisserie chicken is incredibly cheap and hassle free. Besides, I don't own a rotisserie, and as anyone who's ever made a rotisserie, tandoori or barbecue chicken would tell you, the oven's definitely an inferior option.

And then the lunch began. We had a three guests bailing out, because the person they were coming with, Frid, called in sick. But there was Em, me, Soto and AI, another friend who's recently moved back to LA. And guess what, besides all the bottles amassed by Em and I, Soto and AI brought more wine. We started eating and drinking at 2, stopped eating some hour and a half later, moved on to dessert and coffee, but kept up with the wine. Bottles magically opened, and I still had my corkscrew by the end of the night, unlike previous parties where my corkscrew always mysteriously disappeared (the fact that folks are lifting corkscrews gives you an indication of how humble my abode is). And glasses seemed to fill up magically as well - well not so magically, we were hellbent on getting drunk and getting the others drunk as well. The conversation was fabulous, which it would have been even without the wine, given that my lunch companions were three great guys.

My choice for the evening? Definitely the California Pinot Noir brought in by AI. I swear I had no idea what it was before I took a sip and felt that it was very smooth and a very pleasant wine. Although I have seen Sideways, I'm honestly not one of those who contributed to the 12 per cent jump in Pinot Noir sales after the movie came out. In fact, after seeing Sideways, I unconsciously censored many a desire to pick up a Pinot Noir at stores for fear of "The Look", the one that fellow wine shoppers give you, that seems to say, "You saw Sideways, didn't you?" Actually, it's more than that. I'm a bit of an adventure-seeker in food and wine (to a point, I draw the line at monkey brains), and love tasting obscure grape varietals. Besides fairly good wine from not so well known wine producing regions like Greece can be had at great bargain prices, unlike even middling Burgundy (the finest manifestation of Pinot Noir) that comes with a price tag befitting its scarcity value and name recognition premium.

After all the food, wine and happy conversation, there was only one thing left to do. Round off the evening with a light-as-souffle chick-flick, a breezy finale to a great day. Unfortunately the choice of film, Rumor Has It, left much to be desired. I had rooted for Pride and Prejudice, but I was the only Austen fan there. Apparently most Austen fans are disproportionately spinster cat owners, I don't own a cat, but can check off the spinster box. So off we went to see "Rumor Has It", a movie that very strangely tries to cast Pasadena as some sort of tiny, suburban, conservative bastion. Now, Pasadena isn't the most interesting part of town, and most of my friends would rather drive to the Westside or South Bay or weekends, but that doesn't mean it's teeming with vanilla-bland country club members. It seems the LA Times agrees, for they too noticed how laboured the Pasadena spiel was.

But then you might say, what was I doing for three days after Christmas? I could have said hangover, but I'd be lying. No, I think I was in a sort of post-holiday stupor. And amused myself with inane surfing that yielded this gem. For those too lazy to click, this is a feature section on IndianTelevision that interviews executives working in the television industry about their lifestyles, choice of books, etc. In case you are wondering about those who make Indian television what it is today. Pay special attention to the favourite books listed by the executives. Bless Ajay Chacko and Zarina Mehta, there's still hope for the book lover in the Indian television industry!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Man, Check Him Out!

I talked to Suze a few hours ago, she's in Boston these days. And I nearly made her choke when I told her I thought Akshay Kumar is sort of attractive. "Have you lost your mind?" she demanded. Umm...no, I really do think he's handsome, not heartbreakingly beautiful, but rather easy on the eye. And then I told her I find Rajneesh Duggal hot. I have a feeling I'm going to get an earful from Suze tomorrow about my total lack of taste, once she googles his pics and reads his interviews. I did warn her that he was a bit of an airhead, and then she insisted that all Punjabi men are airheads. Well certainly not this Punjabi man. But this is a woman who finds Tommy Lee Jones irresistibly hot, so there.

This business of checking out men for purely eye candy purposes used to put me in the throes of intense guilt in the past. Those were my teenage years, spent reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, yearning to be dazzled by razor sharp witticisms, obscure allusions and general intellectual snobbery at large. And yet a little pesky corner of my brain throbbed and squeaked at the sight of the few gorgeous boys in our senior classes. The others were unabashed and honest in their admiration for their crushes, and every day they would make the trek down to the school cafetaria at recess time to check them out. I pretended to be the unwilling accomplice, dragged along by friends, with little patience for this gawkfest. And yet never did I avert my eyes, when the cutie from XI Sc.A, with his gorgeous brown eyes, close cropped hair, and dazzling smile ambled across to get his daily fix of a potato burger or vegetable patty.

All my other friends, girls and boys, would gush about their crushes. Elaborate plans were made for striking a conversation with these crushes, and then rejected for fear of being a bit much. Just the thought of walking up to a crush and talking to him/her was enough to make them go into spasms of anxiety. And I would sit and smirk, and make fun of their lovelorn state, while all the time mentally making and destroying a hundred plans to strike up a conversation with XI Sc.A boy. Of course I couldn't admit to feeling the same way as they did, all this was quite beneath me you see, I wasn't shallow, I admired and respected men for their minds, not for their smiles. This is what the rest of my brain wanted to browbeat my pesky corner into believing, that somehow finding someone attractive based merely on looks was intellectually degrading. Sure, that was the official stance, and yet when my cousin came visiting from Bengal, we spent most of our vacation ogling at the boys wherever we went, giggling hysterically if one would catch us checking him out. Damn, was we were such shameless leches!

I think it was only in college that I managed to figure out that you can be attracted to men in many different ways, be in love, lust, affection, admiration, respect, all at the same time, and often with many different men. Besides, it was hard to sit in the college canteen, with my face buried in a book, when there were oh so many hotties strutting their stuff. It became really hard to lie to myself that what got me eager to catch that U-special bus and make to the first class at an ungodly hour was not erudite discourses on the interpretations of mercantile law, but the absolutely gorgeous senior whom I'd pass on my way to class. Yes, I was objectifying men, and it was oh so much fun!

Sure it was a bit hard to sustain interest in many of the hot eye-candy men afer initiating conversation with them, but that was rarely the point anyway. The point was to check them out, compare notes with friends, compile hot-lists and gush. I guess you could say we were hypocritical, because if I saw a man indulging in similar behaviour he was labelled a mannerless gauche who had no respect for women. But then Indian women are taught from an early age to be uncomfortable with the male gaze, and the business of female gaze is glossed over because the social consensus is that it is impossible for women to objectify men. Well auntyjis and unclejis, I have news for you. I have an Indian female friend who tells me that when she looks at men the first thing she checks out is their, ahem, "package". Quite frankly, I hardly ever allow my eyes to wander towards the nether regions when I'm looking at a man. Perhaps I'm prudish, or observe some unspoken code for respecting privacy.

Regarding the male gaze though, I feel that it takes a certain level of comfort and acceptance of one's body for a woman to be unperturbed by it and to know when a man's behaviour crosses the line to become sexual harassment. Things are changing, but in the India that I grew up in, women were taught to distrust every male look, somehow obliterate evidence of the possession of a feminine body by wearing loose, ill-fitting clothes (a long, bum-covering loose T-shirt over jeans being the de rigeur uniform of college students). I think the more I was aware and appreciative of men physically, the more I could lessen my phobia about being at the receiving end of looks. It took a while to reach a level of equanimity, where to see and be seen could be free of the taint of shame and guilt.

Darn, don't you just hate how academics have to theorize every aspect of their wretched lives, instead of just getting on with it. I mean here I spend an hour writing about why it's totally ok to check out a guy, when I could be looking longingly at him, him, and them (I had to put the last link in, in case the boyfriend's reading this :) ). Vive le difference, there's so much to admire.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Food, Glorious Food!

This tag by K is at once a very fun and difficult meme to answer, because I can talk ad nauseaum about food, but to restrict it to merely 10 dishes seems too cruel! 10 dishes per cuisine would be so much better. So let me start with the caveat that this is a list of favourite food that sprang immediately to mind in compiling this list. It is by no means exhaustive, but gives you a sample of where my gastronomic inclinations are.

1. Posto: This is a class of dishes that are perennial favourites of Bengali home cooking. The primary ingredients in the dishes is poppy seed paste (posto=poppy seed). My parents have speculated for decades whether there is some transference of the narcotic properties of other parts of the poppy plant to the seeds, hence the almost addictive craving for posto that many Bongs experience! Poppy seed paste is combined with an almost endless array of vegetables to produce a wide variety of posto. In fact I've seen families in the US make posto with zucchini, which to my taste is not a very successful experiment. The seasoning in the dishes is very basic, turmeric is optional, and besides salt you can have whole cumin, whole red chillies, red chilly paste, nigella seeds or whole green chillies (any one or two of these, never all together). My favourite posto are

Aaloo posto (with potatoes)
Kumror shaaker posto (with leaves from the pumpkin vine)
Bodi posto (with potatoes and dried lentil dumplings)
Peyaanj posto (with onions and red chilly paste)

Posto is impossible to make without the Bengali style mortar and pestle (shil noda) or a really good grinder, hard to find in the US. Hence, I have to either make do with grainy posto, or wait for trips home for the real thing.

2. Arni sti souvla me patates: If you glance through the menus of Greek restaurants outside Greece, you might think that Greeks consume copious amounts of lamb on a regular basis. This may or may not be true, and I've hardly travelled everywhere in Greece or lived there for extended periods of time to form an adequate opinion. This is certainly not the case in my boyfriend's family, and lamb is reserved for special occasions, the most special of them all being the Greek Easter. The Greek Orthodox Easter (Pasxa/Pascha) falls on a different date from the Protestant or Catholic Easter, and is preceded by a 40 day Lent where the devout do not consume any meat.

On Easter Sunday, Greek families set up the souvla, a large spit on which a whole lamb is roasted. The seasoning is almost minimal, salt, pepper lemon juice and oregano. The idea is to allow the fine flavours of roasted meat to sparkle through, as opposed to the masking of stringy lamb with mint jelly, a la the English. Separately in the oven, large chunks of quartered potatoes are roasted with lemon juice, salt and pepper. A salad is optional, the star of the plate is the lamb, and you haven't had potatoes until you've had the Greek patates sto fourno (oven roasted potatoes). A meal worth waiting a year for.

3. Pho: It is deceptively simple. A clear broth with a few thinly sliced scallions, thin strips of beef, coriander leaves, chopped spring onions and rice noodles suspended in it. A plate of add-ons accompany it, a few herbs (basil, mint, sawtooth herb), a lime wedge, slivers of jalapeno-like peppers and bean sprouts. And a dipping sauce, which to me is quite redundant anyway. Because in a great bowl of pho, it's all about the broth. Rich meaty flavours, and yet sublimely light, with a hint of star anise. Pho can be anyone's comfort food, you don't have to be Vietnamese to appreciate it's pristine glory. But it's good to have gourmand Vietnamese friends, who know just where the best pho is served up in the city.

4. Spaghetti con Cozze: Two years ago, a very fortuitious meeting of leisure and means took me to Napoli, where I stayed in the bed and breakfast of Don Ciambrone, the wonderful father of my friend Giuseppe. Don Ciambrone is a chef of nearly 50 years standing and has the most amazing glowing skin of any person I've ever seen.

Working with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, he made spaghetti con cozze for us one day. I had spent a lifetime being underwhelmed by pasta till that day, and after but a bite, I was a pasta convert. Again, simple enough ingredients, spaghetti, mussels, tomatoes, Italian parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. But what mussels, what tomatoes, what salt! (I'm not kidding, he used a special Italian sea salt that really enhanced the flavour in all dishes). Two days later, Don Ciambrone's assistants prepared a fresh batch of mussels for a risotto. The mussels had been boiled and were being picked from their shells, and one of the girls handed me a mussel shell with lemon squeezed on the meat. It tasted divine.

Alas, don't expect your neighbourhood ristorante to recreate the magic, it takes the Amalfi coast to produce a great spaghetti con cozze, a true Neapolitan speciality.

5. Sabzi polo ba mahi: The refinement of classical Persian culture finds culinary expression in their rice dishes. I would argue that no nation takes rice to greater heights than the Iranians, and it is in Iranian polos (pilafs) that the full potential of Basmati rice is realized. The Iranian double cooking method strips the rice of its starch, and hence each grain of rice stands out distinct, glistening, moist yet chewy, fragrant and delicious. I love most Iranian polos, but my two favourites are baghali (with lima beans) and sabzi (with a mix of greens). And when combined with grilled or fried white fish (mahi), sabzi polo ba mahi forms one of my most favourite dishes.

It is a festive meal as well, the traditional repast of Norooz, the New Year of the Zoroastrian calendar, the biggest holiday in Iran. Traditionally the white fish accompanying the sabzi polo is fried, but I like the grilled version equally well.

6. Som Tam: If you are looking for a flavour jolt, you cannot do better than Som Tam. Starting with the fairly bland shredded green papaya as a base, it quickly builds up the flavour and texture stacks, with crunchy peanuts, green beens with a bite, juicy tomatoes, sharp tamarind or lime juice, palm sugar, salty and fishy nam pla (it's not fish sauce for nothing), chopped green chillies and dried shrimp or tiny salted crabs. Urmi's guru Kasma Loha-unchit adds garlic and carrot as well, which I'm sure adds another flavour dimension.

If you are a non-Thai like me, and also enamoured of Som Tam, you'd be glad to know that according to some polls Som Tam is the most favourite food of Thai women. And for me, it's easy to see why. The crazy mix of flavours and textures, each bite full of sour, hot, sweet, astringent tastes is quite unique and makes for an amazing snack or meal, that's fairly healthy as well (if you're not counting the calories in the shrimp and palm sugar).

7. Phirni: I detest rice kheer. I really do. Just something about cooked rice suspended in reduced milk does not excite my taste buds one bit. But the same combination of rice and milk, in a completely different form is my most favourite dessert in the whole world. Perhaps it's the chewy goodness of rice infused with the flavour of the milk it's cooked in and yet not overpowered by it. Lightly sweetened, not overly sweet like many Indian desserts soaked in sugar syrup. Or the hint of kewra (pandanus), which makes a tantalizing appearance in most South-east Asian kueh (rice cakes). Or the slivers of pistachios carelessly strewn over little portions of phirni, set in clay bowls.

Ah, the clay bowls, now they play a part too, imparting an earthy goodness, cutting into the richness of reduced milk. After every great meal at Karim Hotel, Jama Masjid, Delhi, my cousin and I order phirni. And we know our little drill. That we'll invariably order another portion. And yet, we never order two at once. You see, we don't want to appear too greedy :).

8. Ciorba de fasole boabe: Romanian cuisine, as the cuisine of many Eastern European nations is held to be very meat intensive. Certainly meat does figure very prominently in the food, and my two vegetarian colleagues did face some discomfort navigating food in restaurants in Romania. However, meat dishes per se are not the highlight of Romanian food.

What the Romanians do remarkably well are the soups. In Romanian cuisine, the soups are divided into two distinct categories: supas, and ciorbas. The latter are often generically called sour soups, and certainly some sort of sour ingredient, tomatoes or vinegar make an appearance in the soup. My favourite among all the ciorba, and one I ate almost every other day in my two weeks in Romania is ciorba de fasole boabe. On the face of it, it's a simple bean soup made with white beans (haricot, navy, or great northern) and flavoured with onions, parsley, carrot, dill, tomato, salt and pepper. However what makes this soup stellar is the addition of smoked pork, in small portions, more as flavouring than a major ingredient. The pork and beans combination exists in many other cultures, in Mexican food, German cuisine, Southern food in the US. However, nowhere else have I found a soup where the excessive fattiness of the pork is cut by the sourness of the soup, giving it a fresh, soothing quality that is not overwhelming or heavy.

9. Dahi Pakodi Chaat/Dahi Bhalla: One of the great pleasures of the neighbourhood that I grew up in was the trek to the little cluster of shops on the main street in the evenings. A bunch of us, who lived in adjoining apartment buildings would wear our latest outfits (a red Adidas jacket and a pink frilly organza miniskirt, if you must know), sneakily apply lip gloss and amble off to the neighbourhood market to escort our pocket money to its rightful destination: the chaatwallah.

In this case, it was a man who had been allowed to set up his stall next to a sweet shop, and out-profited the sweet shop with his chaat, that came in but two variations - papdi or bhalla. Some ambitious souls would try and combine the two into a bhalla papdi, but that was only if you were brave enough to skip dinner and risk your parents knowing that you had consumed chaat. I was a bit too picky about papdi, if it tasted even a little bit off (had been made a while ago), it ruined the chaat experience. But the dahi bhalla could always do with a water bath, and got fluffier and spongier.

Years later, one of my colleagues told me that the dahi bhalla was always referred to as the dahi pakodi chaat in Old Delhi (which is where she grew up so she should know). "Bhalla" is the Punjabi term that gained ground after the post-1947 migration of Punjabi immigrants into the city. And of course, dahi pakodi chaat has been in existence in Delhi for a long, long time before that.

10. Mangoes: Yes it is that simple. Sometimes all the heart desires is a good in-season Dussehri, Langda, Chausa and Himsagar. If only I knew, when I was turning up my nose at the excessive profusion of mangoes in summer time, mangoes for dessert twice a day, ripe, juicy, sweet, and yet complex with chalky, astringent, herby overtones. If only I knew that summers would pass by without a single mango, withering glances of contempt would be cast at dull, tasteless mangoes that populate supermarket shelves, when at the boyfriend's joy at eating a Thai mango I would say: "Oh, but you've never had an Indian mango!"

And now, I need to pass this along. Beware, Urmi, Anthony, Vish, Jai, and Rimi, you're food obsessions shall no longer be secret!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Weekend Vignettes and Please Leave Rekha Alone

A few short takes:

Thursday: Important presentation to be made. Heart pounds real hard, palpitations, clammy hands, I'm the archetype of the public speech-phobic person. When I was a kid, I won a book on "Painless Public Speaking" as a prize for a writing competition. Needless to say, it didn't do me much good. Over the years, I've painfully learnt to manage, rather than eliminate the fears. And it is indeed true what they say: there is no substitute for practice, practice and yet more practice. So I managed to get from start to finish without too many glitches (this was only 10 minutes after all). I did detect some yawning and at least one person dozing off, but hey, I know how utterly banal and boring my research can be to a non-specialist. Surprise, there were actually a few questions at the end. Wow, some of them had actually been paying attention! And later, warm praise by others at the reception.
I love this! It may have been the wine, but gosh people are so kind.

Saturday morning: An impromptu bus trip to Chinatown. Off I go, sunny warrior that I am, with the benign faith in public transport. Turns out that the connecting bus to Chinatown does not run on weekends. Hence, stubborn me decides to walk nearly 15 blocks to Chinatown, passing through much of historic downtown LA and killing my poor feet (they still suffer). Some quick dimsum to go is consumed on a bench in a courtyard with a traditional Chinese wishing well, in which the vacation slot is the hardest to hit (the Chinese have their priorities straight)! I poke around in stores that stock more than 50 kinds of ginseng, and about 20 kinds of dried plums. And find an open air market, covered with cloth awnings on top, organized around cavernous narrow passages, not unlike traditional Asian markets.

There, as promised to me many months ago by a friend, I find the ultimate prize, raw guava. The bag was big, and I knew I'd be sick if I consumed the entire bag by myself before the guavas have a chance to ripen. I find ripe guavas distasteful, and was unsure if S would appreciate the joys of guava as much as I and my mom do. He's usually pretty good with most Asian fruit, lychees, mangoes, is even game for fresh durian, but guava is a bit eccentric, with it's astringent and ever so slightly bitter qualities. So I decided to pass. As I left the market, I passed by some Chinese traditional medicine shops, where practitioners of traditional medicine had set up desks outside the stores, complete with laptops and blood pressure monitors, offering a free diagnosis and prescription for whatever ails you.

Sunday: Ode to consumerism. Trip to the mall to buy S' Christmas gifts for his family. After about an hour of jostling with holiday shoppers, I was gasping for breath and wanted to get out. But S is like a kid in a candy store in a mall, especially one with his favourite gadget stores like Brookestone, The Sharper Image and the Discovery Channel store. This one, to my great misfortune, had all three. So off he goes checking out the all-wind lighter and the super compass, while I'm wondering who buys the mini cellphone charger, the wine temperature monitor or the giant corkscrew, as big as a food processor. What's sad is that this mall is but a block away from a super cool bookstore, an animation studio with a sales counter, a great curio store, and other sundry stores far more interesting. But we had very specific gift requests, so a trip to the mall had to be made.

And before I end, here's a bit of a silly rant. It seems a remake of the 1980s Indian cinema classic Umrao Jaan is on the cards, and the woman chosen to play the lead happens to be Aishwarya Rai, arguably the best known Bollywood face this side of the pond. Our lady is also the most vacuous of all the sundry leading actresses ever to grace Bollywood, and wouldn't know sensuality if it came and bit her in the ass. What have the fine Bollywood minds behind this new project been smoking? To even think that Aishwarya could in any way measure up to the luminous, restrained and yet utterly seductive and sensual performance by the divine Rekha in this movie is utterly absurd! Well, after all this is the same Bollywood that had the temerity to assault the memory of Bimal Roy's stellar movie making skills by making the latest version of Devdas, an unwatchable film shot through with the worst sort of hamming by the lead actor and actress (Madhuri Dixit thankfully is a study in understatement by comparison). I never thought much of the novel per se, but in Bimal Roy's hands, Devdas is such a tortured complex character, fraught with such tender love and painful regret.

And so it is with Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan, though Ali is nowhere near the calibre of Bimal Roy as a director and the film's high points were the music and Rekha's heartbreakingly beautiful presence throughout the film. And now the memory of that flirtatious, yearning, surrounded by pathos persona is to be overshadowed by a woman whose primary talent lies in positioning her face at the best angle in every shot of her films. Aishwarya doesn't act, she merely poses, period. Ergo I predict the film shall be an unmitigated disaster, which of course does not prevent our Bollywoodwallahs from repeating mistakes ad nauseaum.

If Harry never met Sally?

Picture this:

Boy walks into a party, hosted by the cousin of a friend of a friend (that's not a typo, the relationship is indeed that remote). He had been at an office party before he arrived at this one, so not only is he dressed pretty nattily, but has imbibed enough alcohol to inhabit the borderline zone of buzzed and tipsy. He meets an attractive brunette, they hit the dance floor, consume copious amounts of alcohol and are all over each other as the party draws to a close.

She wants him to take her home, but on the way changes her mind and asks him to take her to his home instead. The next day, he drops her home, and comes back to realize that she had forgotten her coat and earrings. A-ha! an excuse to meet again eh? No problem, she gave him her phone number. But when he dials her number, he realizes something is horribly wrong. The number is non-existent. In all probability they were way too drunk at the time of the exchange, and hence he didn't take down the number properly. Also, the girl was invited through a generic email sent out by the hostess, and hence, not known to the hostess at all. Ergo, now boy and girl have no way to find each other in this humungous city. Or do they?

If you think I'm writing a Hollywood blockbuster script, let me just say that at times truth merely mirrors fiction, even the sappy, chick-flick kind. The boy happens to be Soto, S' friend, the hostess of the party was Em's cousin, and not only did we attend the party, but also shot surreptious cellphone videos of Soto on the dance floor with the brunette to embarrass him later (ha ha, look what you do when you're drunk!).

We arrived at the party stuffed to the gills, coming as we were from a potluck thrown by S' friend Florence. In a move that could have been terribly foolhardy, I made Thai sweet sticky rice with mango (Khao Niew Ma Muang), a dish I've never attempted before. Thankfully the guests were mostly Vietnamese and Chinese, so no Thai accused me of massacring a beloved Thai dessert, and the others were kind enough to not berate me for the out-of-season mangoes. After the food we got a fresh green coconut each to drink, which apparently is very inexpensive in the markets of the New Chinatown in San Gabriel Valley.

So at the party, all we did was drink and dance (well S drank loads of apple juice and water, and I downed some jello shots with unidentified liquor). The mother of the hostess, Em's aunt, revealed herself to be a champion vodka drinker. She and Em
stood talking in the kitchen downing one vodka shot after another, till Em was completely drunk, but she, amazing woman, held her liquor superbly. As the night progressed, Armenian music took over from salsa (the family is part Armenian) and many of the guests formed a circle to dance a traditional Armenian folk dance.

The amazing part is that all of them were Iranian Armenians, most of whom had never lived in Armenia, and yet they had preserved the cultural facets so well. In fact the Armenian diaspora of Los Angeles is a fascinating mix, of people of Armenian descent mostly from Iran, Lebanon and Armenia, as well as from other parts of Europe like Greece and France. The neighbourhoods of Glendale and Hollywood have substantial Armenian populations, many of the best known Lebanese restaurants in town are run by Lebanese-Armenians. Also, the ever so slightly Francophilic Armenians run the best pastry shops in town, with delectable cakes and French-style pastries.

After the party died down and brunette and Soto left together, we decided that Em was a bit too happy (read drunk) to be allowed to drive by himself and bullied him into getting into our car. On the way the freeway snaked through the Hollywood hills, parting at times to reveal the valley of Glendale, lit with what seemed like a zillion fireflies. Some of these fireflies twinkled through the hills as well, marking spots were houses had sprung up, perched precariously on the hills, holding on optimistically against landslides and forest fires. There is something eerie about the hills at night, at times a primaeval fear returns: what if the road does indeed get swallowed by a never-ending vortex that the hills conceal. But no, such romance gives way to the sure knowledge that the road entwines the sinews of downtown skyscrapers, all very modern and rational, standing firm as the emblems of the loss of mystery. Ah well.