These Gorgeous Flowers Are Made Out Of Sugar

Originally posted on LA Weekly

Standing in front of a coffee shop in Huntington Beach, Shaile Socher is taking a photo of the potted succulents on the table. It looks like a typical centerpiece. “I won an award for this piece at the San Diego Cake Show,” she says.

It’s made out of sugar and the detailing is exquisite. Everything down to the texture and the color of the plant is lifelike. The leaves are plump and fleshy, shaded so that they look hauntingly realistic. You can’t even tell it’s not a real plant — unless you touch it.

Socher gently brushes her fingers against the string pearls on the plant. “I’ve never seen these in real life,” she says. “I made them based on a photograph.”

A bookkeeper by day, Socher is an award-winning sugar artist and teacher. She has been making flowers and succulents and berries out of gum paste for over a decade now and is remarkably adept at realism. The paste is a homemade combination of powdered sugar, egg whites, Crisco and Tylose powder, a gumming agent. The texture is similar to fondant; it’s extremely pliable and sweet.

Socher’s flowers, like her succulents, are breathtaking. Everything is accounted for: The leaves are intricately veiny, the tips of the stamen look like they have pollen on it, the petals look soft, like silk, as if they would bend in the wind. They don’t. It’s merely an illusion.

“The whole idea is to roll the paste really thin,” Socher says. The leaves are made from pressing the gum paste against a mold. The stamen is fashioned from string, painted with egg whites and then gently dipped in cornmeal so that it looks there’s pollen on the tips. Petals are made from pure gum paste, rolled out paper thin and then shaped into waves for depth. Everything is built on wires. Egg whites are the glue of the craft and the paint is called petal dust.

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A Slice Of Tohoku in Los Angeles


I like to wander the town alone and pretend I’m a tourist, camera in hand and with an open-minded but sensible wallet. It’s a mentality that takes me around the world without ever having to leave the Southland, soaring and wheeling over towns and provinces, nooks and crannies, into the hearts and minds of people I normally wouldn’t interact with. Los Angeles, after all, is a city teeming with relatively new, unassimilated immigrant hubs. And what better way to burn off my wanderlust?

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Artisanal Tofu From Meiji in Gardena

Originally posted on the LA Times

Fresh tofu is manna from the heavens and impressive in its austere simplicity. If you can get your hands on a new slab, all you need to do is take a spoon and give it a little taste. No heat or additional adornments are necessary; the natural sweetness of the soy is enough to hold you over and wish for seconds.

“I like to just put it over spaghetti,” Koki Sato says. “Yes. Just spaghetti.”

Sato’s family owns Meiji Tofu in Gardena, which specializes in non-GMO soymilk and tofu. They’re the only Japanese tofu maker in the greater Los Angeles area. Sato is the son of the owner, head tofu maker, and has been behind the reins of the business for 14 years now.

It’s 6 a.m. in the morning on a Sunday and Sato, wearing a baseball hat embossed with the phrase, “Soyfresh,” has been in the back room of his tofu shop since 5:30 a.m. This is considered a late start. On weekdays, Koki begins his workday at 2 a.m.

The entire operation takes place in a teeny tiny store on Western Avenue in Gardena. There’s one machine and enough room for two, maybe three, people to walk around.

Soybeans come from Ohio, sourced from a company called Kanematsu, where the beans are GMO-free and planted with organic practices. At Meiji’s, they are soaked overnight, and then put through a squeezing machine that makes them into soymilk. The milk is then strained, divided into containers, and hand-coagulated using drops of nigari – or deep-sea water.

It sounds simple, but different varieties of tofu require different ratios of coagulant. The firmer the tofu, the more nigari is needed. Also, different breeds of soybeans yield different flavors. The permutations are endless and Koki himself is a fan of experimentation.

He tells a story of a man he only knows as Mr. Oh Momo, a top tofu maker in Japan who made a visit to Meiji because he had heard there were people making Japanese tofu in Los Angeles and decided to check it out.

“Mr. Oh Momo is a tofu scientist,” Sato says. “He taught me how to wash the soybeans and how to soak it. Different soaking times will produce different flavors. Another factor is temperature.”

Sato eventually made a pilgrimage to Japan to shadow Mr. Oh Momo and, inspired, started his own line of experimental tofu at Meiji.

“When I designed this tofu, I wanted to give people something they’ve never used before,” Sato says, referring to a product he calls Supreme Tofu. Supreme Tofu is meant to be consumed simply. Add a scoop of jam or honey and eat it with a spoon. Its consistency is akin to pudding. This was done on purpose.

“Honestly. I just really love pudding,” Sato admits.

Each day, Sato cranks out 500 to 600 tofu bricks and 50 to 75 gallons of soymilk using 180 to 200 pounds of soybeans, a tiring five-hour-long process that’s overseen by Sato and his brother, Kurato.

Deliveries are made around town and then Meiji closes its doors at 1 p.m. The day is then repeated six times. Tuesday is their only day off.

The Sato family’s efforts have not been overlooked. “The biggest moment of my tofu life was when I found out Providence [restaurant] was using my soymilk,” Koki Sato says. Sweet Rose Creamery is another favorite customer. They use Meiji’s milk for their dairy-free ice cream.

The family business primarily distributes to Japanese supermarkets in the area and sells their product through GoodEggs, a farm-to-home grocery delivery service.

It’s a small-scale operation but the quality is unbeatable. Their soymilk is undeniably thick and creamy. Dilute it for a more conventional experience or, make your own tofu with it. “I sell it thick on purpose because I want to give my customers a chance to make their own tofu,” Sato says.

His tofu, raw, is remarkably sweet. No sugar has been added; it’s all in the bean and production process. He also makes a version that comes out a beautiful, pastel green. It’s edamame tofu. The bright, green hue is completely natural. It comes from the edamame beans – baby soybeans that are plucked before maturity. The differences are subtle; edamame has a slightly nuttier flavor. Sato recommends consuming his products as soon as possible for optimal flavor.

“Tofu is not a tasteless health food,” Meiji’s Instagram feed screams. That seems to be their guiding philosophy.

“It shouldn’t be just, ‘I eat tofu because it’s healthy,’” Sato explains. “It should be ‘I eat tofu because it’s delicious.’”

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Behind The Scenes at Szechuan Impression


I love writing about ancient Chinese dishes. These are the type of posts that get me riled up. I can spend hours curled up reading deeper into the historical context of certain dishes.

Originally posted on LA Weekly

Szechuan Impression opened its doors two months ago in Alhambra, one of the latest in a wave of Sichuan restaurants that have graced Los Angeles in the past year. Behind the latest hot eatery are owners Kelly Xiao and Lynn Liu. “Lynn is really good at cooking. I’m really good at eating,” Xiao jokes.

The women, who used to be affiliated with Chengdu Taste down the street, started Impression as a passion project. Their goal: to give folks an impression of the Sichuan they grew up in.

“We want to push forward Chengdu’s favorite dishes, not just the familiar ones.” Xiao says. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan and the hometown of both Xiao and Liu. “We only have a couple of typical Sichuan dishes that most people in America are familiar with.”

She points to the kung pao chicken, boiled fish fillets, and braised beef on the menu. “These are the three classic traditions,” she says. “We don’t even have mapo tofu.”

Impression’s menu is 67 items long. Ingredients are handpicked by Liu and brought in daily, and a portion of the menu is centered on seasonal vegetables. The rest are dishes that are currently trending in Chengdu. The Leshan cross-legged beef, for one, is one of Xiao’s favorite. It’s offal cooked in an herbal broth, paired with a chile sauce for dipping on the side.

Called leshan qiaojiao niurou in Chinese, it was invented in the 1930s during a time when there was a lot of sickness among the Chinese population. In the city of Leshan (which is near Chengdu) an herbal medicine man noticed that people were throwing beef offal into the river. He thought it was a shame, decided to retrieve it, and cooked it into an herbal soup. This soup proved effective into preventing illnesses and it rose in popularity. Lines formed and those who didn’t have seats would just eat outside and sit cross-legged on the streets — hence the name, cross-legged beef.

The menu reads like a Chinese storybook. Cross-legged beef is one of many examples. Another one is the ice jelly dessert, known as bingfener, which dates back to the Qing Dynasty and is made from the nicandra physalodes plant and has a texture kind of like Jell-O. It’s clear and plain but accented with fermented rice and brown sugar water for flavor, and Impression tops it off with a sprig of mint. “I like to tell people the fullness of life requires a little sweetness after spice,” Xiao says.

Legend has it that a little girl, who was known for her sweet disposition and looks, discovered the ice jelly. She lived in what’s currently Pengshan County in Sichuan, and was picking pears when the pulp of the nicandra physalodes fruit accidentally fell into her bag. When she got home, she noticed the clear pulp, tasted it, and added in brown sugar and water because the jelly in itself didn’t have much flavor. The girl started selling the dessert and soon enough, Pengshan County became known as the place to buy ice jelly from a little girl named Wei Yuan.

“We really want to teach people about the culinary traditions in Sichuan,” Xiao says. “This is authentic Sichuanese food made by Sichuanese people.”

That Sichuanese force at Impression is Tony Lai, a long-time Chengdu chef and a graduate of The Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. “Sichuan cooking is all about feeling,” Lai says. “It’s hard to write it down in a recipe. You have to use smells and temperature as indicators of when to put in certain spices. Lai has been around food his entire life; his father was also a Sichuanese chef.

Lai’s kitchen is stockpiled with containers of spices, most of which have been directly imported from Hanyuan, a county in Sichuan known for its peppers and spices. And yes, Impression has a stockpile of Sichuan peppercorns.

“The Sichuan peppercorn is an acquired taste,” Xiao admits. The peppercorn is a spice unique to Sichuanese cooking. It’s actually not even a pepper at all; it’s in the citrus family. The spice looks like miniature pearls, cracked and crumbly, colored purple and brown. There’s a lemony undertone, and if you get a big enough mouthful, it will numb your tongue.

Xiao is especially conscientious of people’s reaction to the peppercorn, especially first-timers. “A lot of people are scared of it, but it’s a part of Chengdu,” she says.

And Chengdu is represented well in her restaurant. “A lot of people think Sichuan food is just hot and numbing. But a good Sichuan restaurant has a combination of flavors in their dishes,” she says.

She adds: “If you go to Chengdu, you taste all of Sichuan.”

And if you go to Szechuan Impression, you’ll taste all of Chengdu.

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Szechuan Impression: 1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, CA

Forest Play


Yay! I have quality photos now.

Over the years, whenever I’ve been asked for a headshot for an event or panel or class, I’ve always had to stage selfies and send over crappy, grainy iPhone photographs. Special thank you to the talented Karen Shih for making me look presentable.

Not that I’m a fashion blogger by any means…but cool facts:

I had the pleated red dress custom-made in Shanghai. Shanghai has a really booming tailoring industry. All you need to do is find the right vendor, give them a photo of a outfit of your choice, and they’ll make it for you for a bargain price. (I’ve had friends get entire tuxedos made there.)

And that duo-tone dress, second and third photo down? That was purchased from the ancient city of Lijiang from a Naxi-owned shop. Naxi people are an ethnic minority group in China. A lot of them are concentrated in Yunnan and the best part? Women are the head of the family.

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Great Restaurants On Ventura Boulevard

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Originally posted on Discover L.A.

Ventura Boulevard is the main artery of the San Fernando Valley, a straight east-to-west shot from Studio City to Calabasas. It’s where you’ll find all the cool shops: there are malls, yoga studios, vintage stores, bars and a multicultural variety of restaurants. Here are the top ten places to eat on Ventura Boulevard.

Asal Bakery
Bread is king at Asal Bakery and Kabob. In fact, Asal’s owner, Reza Abdollahi, owned a flour mill in Iran and is known for his sangak, a long flatbread sprinkled with sesame that’s freshly made in-house every day. Pair your bread with their signature kabobs, dipped in hummus, honey or creamy yogurt. 20008 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills, CA 91364

Asanebo is a Michelin star recipient, and skews to the pricier end – it’s hard to leave without spending at least $80 per person. Their omakase is one of the main attractions of Ventura Boulevard – the seared toro is a must, and believe it or not, the hot dishes are just as good as their sushi selection. 11941 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, CA 91604

Black Market Liquor Bar
Black Market Liquor Bar is the San Fernando Valley’s go-to destination for craft cocktails, but their food menu – created by “Top Chef” alum Antonia Lofaso – is not to be overlooked. Whenever it’s possible, ingredients are freshly sourced from local farmers markets, and the ravioli is made in-house. We love the mussels, which are flavored with fennel, chili and garlic; a baguette is of course provided to soak up all the flavors. The oxtail ragu is another standout dish; it gets an extra kick from pecorino cheese. Finish the night with the house-made nutella and horchata ice cream – flavors that are fantastic apart, and when mixed together, can’t possibly go wrong. 11915 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, CA 91604

Boneyard Bistro
Boneyard Bistro specializes in meat on bones. They have a great barbecue selection, complete with baby back ribs and grilled rack of lamb. Happy hour goes from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, with 25% off all draft beers and a sizeable discount on finger foods like onion rings, meatloaf sliders and our favorite, double hickory smoked bacon sticks. Beer and whiskey are their strong suits – opt for flight tastings, or choose from their list of international libations on tap. 13539 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423

CiCi’s Café
CiCi’s Café is the brunch darling of Ventura Boulevard, a family-friendly establishment where everyone can get their favorite breakfast and brunch staples. The creative pancake selections range from green tea tiramisu to red velvet topped with nutella and bananas. There are eggs aplenty, as well as sizeable hash browns and thick, hearty French toast. Get there early on weekends, the lines can get long. 18912 Ventura Blvd, Tarzana, CA 91356

The Gadarene Swine
The Gadarene Swine is an animal-free eatery in Studio City serving strictly vegan bites. Chef/owner Phillip Frankland Lee, who also created Scratch Bar, is reinventing what it means to eat vegan. The food doesn’t skimp on taste; it’s substantial and popping with flavor. Their kale chips, for example, are dusted in pistachio and paired with honey-drizzled olives. The Swine has a $85 tasting menu, with each course revolving around a fruit and vegetable. Lee is planning on starting a vegetable garden in the back of the property, so expect freshly-picked, garden-fresh bites soon. 11266 Ventura Blvd Los Angeles, CA 91604

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Lum Ka Naad Thai
Lum Ku Naad is the Northern Thailand phrase for “delicious food,” and it’s an apt description of the restaurant’s selections. The food is indeed delicious. The husband and wife team are from Northern and Southern Thailand respectively, and their lengthy menu is filled with dishes from each of their hometowns. We’re a fan of the pork curry, which is seasoned with spices straight from Thailand. 8910 Reseda Blvd, Northridge, CA 91324

Raw fish is Okumura’s strong suit. The tuna carpaccio, marinated in a beautiful light pool of soy vinaigrette, is sprinkled with edible gold flakes, which will have you oohing and ahhing while you pause to snap a photo. You can taste the quality – the cuts are delightful, the choices are plentiful, and the prices are quite reasonable. Ryota Okumura, a Hattori Culinary Academy graduate with experience at Koi, Katana and Sushi Zo, is the owner and chef. 17302 Ventura Blvd, Encino, CA 91316

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal has one of the best buffets in the Valley. Prices are well under ten dollars, and even if you order a la carte for dinner, you still won’t break the bank. The fresh naan, flavored with garlic, is addictive – pair it with their selection of chutneys. The tandoori selections, tikka masala, and curries are also crowd favorites. If you stop by on a Sunday, a tall glass of champagne is happily included. 17815 Ventura Blvd Encino, CA 91316

Tipple and Brine
Tipple and Brine is the home of briny oysters, and you can score them for $1 each all day Monday. One of the most popular dishes (rightfully so) is the uni crostini – a double whammy, creamy mix of sea urchin and avocado. Pair it with a side of nicely crisped brussels sprouts dressed in a delectable shower of chili vinegar, peanuts, mint, and misonnaise – a curious combination of miso and mayonnaise. The Sherman Oaks restaurant is a subscriber to the seasonal, small plates trend, so be sure to bring a group of friends – you’ll need them to help you sample as much as you can. 14633 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403

Where To Get Mi Quang in Los Angeles

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Originally posted on KCET Food.

A bowl of mi quang is always beautifully arranged. Cooked in a pork- and shrimp-based broth, it’s a dish that’s adamant about maintaining a variety of colors and textures. You have the chewy yellow of the turmeric noodles, the bright green ribbons of lettuce, the soft earthy pork, the tenderness of the shrimp, the pleasant crunch of the peanuts between your teeth, and the snap of the sesame-freckled rice crackers.

Mi quang is a central Vietnamese specialty, named after Quảng Nam Province, where it comes from. The broth is minimal; it’s mostly there for flavoring and only covers 1/4 to 1/2 of the dish. The main attractions are the noodles, which are made out of rice and colored with turmeric, and the wonderful array of ingredients surrounding it.

Here are four great places in Los Angeles to get your fix:

Nha Trang
Nha Trang is renowned for their bun bo hue (a rich beef soup), but if you happen to make it into their Monterey Park location, do give the mi quang a whirl. It’s only available on weekdays and is layered with generous heap of lettuce, bean sprouts, pork knuckles, and shrimp. 742 E Garvey Ave, Monterey Park, CA 91755.

Hoa Binh Restaurant
“It means no more war,” the owner Karen said, when I asked her what Hoa Binh meant. The pacifist restaurant, at two years old, has a menu of items from all the different regions of Vietnam. Karen and her husband were cooks back in Vietnam and their mi quang has always been a consistent bestseller. There are banana blossoms thrown in the mix along with fried shallots, sprouts, and a decent sized serving of whole, peeled shrimp. 9911 E Garvey Blvd, El Monte, CA 91733.

Kim Hoa Hue Restaurant
Kim Hoa Hue is one of the few eateries that specialize purely in central Vietnamese cuisine. We’re glad that they do because their rendition of mi quang is one of the best in the area. It’s bright, meaty, and comes with a couple of limes on the side which we highly recommend squeezing in to cut the fatty pork broth. It adds an extra kick. 9813 E Garvey Blvd, El Monte, CA 91733.

Xoia Vietnamese Eats
Xoia is worth mentioning because they have two versions of mi quang: a traditional rendition and a vegetarian one. The vegetarian dish is created with a shiitake broth base and supplemented with crushed peanuts, banana blossom, mint, enoki and beech mushrooms, lettuce, and bean sprouts. 1801 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026.

If Someone Told Me…

If someone told me being single would make me 100x more productive, optimistic, and liberated.. I would have left my negative, condescending ex in a heartbeat.

If someone told me that heartbreak would make me a stronger person, I would’ve taken the waves of grief in stride, fully aware that, even though it didn’t feel like it at the time, I was not being destroyed but rather, I was just going through a refining process.

If someone told me that I would be graced with some of the most positive and supportive friends in the world, I would’ve stressed out less about popularity in the middle school and getting certain guys to like me.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do believe that you can find a meaning behind every happening. And that makes life worth all the while.

Seen In Little Tokyo: Bakeable KitKat Bars

Originally posted on LA Weekly.

When Nestle first introduced its bakeable KitKat bars back in March, crowds in Japan lined up just for a first bite, and a minor media frenzy quickly accompanied the new product.

They’re miniature KitKat bars you can bake — candy crusted wafers that require a toaster oven to achieve the advertised consistency. While it sounds and looks gimmicky, the product worked viral marketing wonders for Nestle. The bars became so popular that Japanese chefs started incorporating them in pizzas and selling those for the equivalent of $15 a pie. It was a hit, KitKat made a how-to video, and of course it started being pawned online for exorbitant prices. The only problem (well, at least for us) was that it was only available in Japan.

Not anymore. We’ve found them in Los Angeles. And they’re pudding-flavored.

The bakeable KitKat bars can be purchased at Nijiya Market in Little Tokyo for $5.29 a pack (including tax), lined up right next to the green tea KitKat bars and other straight-from-Japan treats. In fact, when we walked in to make our purchase, the product was prominently on sale; there was an entire wall of them at the front of the market, largely ignored by the masses.

If only people knew.

The packaging is entirely in Japanese, save for a tiny sticker on the back that refers to it only as “Baked Chocolate Snack.” Ingredients are: chocolate, wheat flour, vegetable oil, lactose, sugar, caramel powder, whole milk powder, cocoa powder, yeast, cacao mass, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, artificial flavor, baking soda, and — our favorite — “yeast food.”

Unbaked, they look like white chocolate bars. (We don’t recommend eating them uncooked but we did give it a nibble for research’s sake and it just tastes like, well, a white chocolate wafer.) It’s also terribly sweet. After all, it contains a whopping 8 grams of sugar per serving.

Directions are entirely in Japanese so we referenced the online video to guide us in our candy-baking adventure. “Bake for about two minutes without preheat,” chef Yasumasa Takagi advises. “If you preheat, the chocolate will melt and the shape won’t be as pretty.”

It worked.

The candy tasted like a sweet, chocolate biscuit. Sandwiched in the middle was the signature KitKat wafer and the bottom of the bar had a nice, caramel sugar crust. It was good enough for seconds. Our first batch came out golden-brown and our second one, well, we burnt them. Note for KitKat candy bakers: Follow the two minute guideline!

All in all, KitKat baking can be a fun pastime for easily-amused folks. You can bake them in pizzas or serve them in ice cream sundaes. The variations are endless.

The video ends with a disclaimer: “Please do not attempt to bake other KitKat products.”

Duly noted.

Fall Foliage at Mammoth Lakes


Mammoth Lakes is a six hour drive from Los Angeles but well-worth the trek up especially this time of the year, where there’s plenty of fall foliage and the weather is pleasant and ideal for hiking and biking. I spent a weekend there recently and had the wonderful opportunity to slow down, disconnect, and marvel at how resilient and randomly beautiful nature can be.

Devil’s Postpile, for example, is a natural landmark with hexagonal rocks formed by fire and ice. Molten lava made the cracks and a glacier brushed through to give the rocks a smooth finish.

A little ways past the Postpile is Rainbow Falls. The landscape surrounding it is slightly charred but from every broken and blackened tree stump are bouquets of new plants and other trees. The juxtaposition is breathtaking. I couldn’t stop taking photos and thinking about the symbolism of it all.

I adore fall. It’s the season when things finally slow down, when leaves tire of being green and vibrant and decide, unanimously, to take it down a notch. There’s no need to be so serious, they reason. Let’s all be different colors.

It’s the season when nature decides to look warm with vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow…as if it was compensating for the temperature going the other way.

Fall is when I begin to eye the warm fleeces in the corner of my closet. It’s the season of long afternoon naps and lattes and foggy Californian mornings. It’s the crunch of the leaves under my shoes, it’s when I mentally begin to retreat and think of all that life has handed me and taken away from me this year.

And finally, it’s when I get to let go. To let go of all the weight that I no longer need. To shed all the unnecessary negativity in my life. To figure out what I need and don’t need.

Sure I’ll be barren and exposed for a time being. But I’ll worry about that come winter and spring is always right around the corner. But for now, I’ll be sitting right here, cozied up, thoroughly enjoying the most cathartic time of the year.

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