Eating Golden Steamer's Bao and Traveling in Chinatown by Emilia Morano-Williams

Golden Steamer
Golden Steamer. Image by Robyn Lee via Flickr

Last week, I was restless. A narcoleptic at work and wired at night. So I went to Chinatown in hopes that crowds jostling amidst Cantonese signs could revive me after hours of wading through Instagram for another photo of orange soup. I left my desk and went. I went past noodle stands and past people expertly rummaging through bins of dried mushrooms. I went past basement level massage parlors and kids racing home.

I went to Golden Steamer.

Golden Steamer is easy. Sure, the city gave it a C sanitation rating, but The Village Voice, Serious Eats and New York Magazine gave the tiny takeaway operation a thumbs up. These reviews are taped in the window to lure tourists and pseudo-travelers (like me). Golden Steamer is on the corner of Mott and Grand across the street from Di Paolo’s and Ferrara’s. Cases filled with packs of buns in plastic containers line the walls and neon lights illuminate the room with a spaceship-like glow.

But this spaceship has a secret: the fluffiest steamed buns with the richest fillings in dainty proportions. While you could bring friends and try all twelve in one go, Golden Steamer deserves to be explored bun by bun. Make it a weekly trip for a new flavor (a new experience). Let your stomach choose between the nostalgic pumpkin bun or the sticky barbecue pork. This slow-approach emphasizes the flavors and makes Golden Steamer your pseudo-travel Launchpad.

That day I wanted chicken and ginger bun. They were out. They had pork. That would do.

Outside, the bright Chinatown evening enveloped me like the wax bag wrapped around my bao. Each pastry from Golden Steamer just about falls out of your hand without feeling unwieldly. It begs you to take that first bite. That warm, pillow-y bite which tastes like cake without the buttery heft. Naturally, you do this outside the store while passerbys slam you with shopping carts and backpacks.

When you reach the filling, you begin to walk. Golden Steamer could not franchise in America. The fillings are just one to two bites—enough to remind you that dinner will taste better so save room. Fluff your stomach with bao instead.

I walked past people drinking bubble tea and grocery shopping and chatting on the streets, which shouldn’t seem transgressive but resembles resistance in the smart phone age. The fluffy bread enveloped me and gave me an excuse to suspend my daily life. It’s okay, you have a comfort blanket. It’s okay, dinner will come. It’s okay, you can escape and you can return.

Travel doesn’t need plane tickets just as snacks don’t need to inoculate your taste buds. An hour or two of wandering and experiencing the not-my-routine reminds you that, yes, the world does hold wonder. And it’s right beneath your feet.

Book Review: The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen by Emilia Morano-Williams

I’m drinking Swedish coffee from a Moomin mug while listening to Lukas Graham and wearing a Marimekko scarf over my Cos dress. I didn’t need to be convinced by Anu Partanen’s argument in her book The Nordic Theory of Everything—I already dreamt the Nordic dream. I believe that a modern country should provide its citizens with free education, universal health care, and generous vacation days. And I believe that America is in peril because it offers none of the above.

This is the crux of Partanen’s admittedly predictable argument: in the 21st century, Nordic countries practice the American dream better than America itself. You’re not reading The Nordic Theory of Everything to understand this. Instead, you read with a pace reserved for romances and thrillers because Partanen’s commentary offers something revolutionary: hope.

Partanen grew up in Finland and moved to New York after falling in love with an American. But she didn’t fall in love with America. At least not after seeing bums sleeping on the subway and getting a headache filling in tax forms as a freelancer. Unimpressed? Partanen’s dismay at these everyday American affairs proves her point: in comparison to Finland and its Nordic brethren, America fails to secure a high-quality life for all citizens.

In the hands of a lesser author, this message would be inflammatory. But Partanen’s comparisons and juxtapositions illustrate how American society could once again embody the American dream. Her belief in this dream permeates every page.

True, Partanen could give more actionable steps and she could be more realistic about the differences between governing the United States and a small, relatively homogenous Nordic country (at one point, she does mention that States could implement education strategies like the Nordic countries have had success with, but she doesn’t elaborate). But to nit-pick on the lack of to-do lists overlooks the book’s message. Partanen doesn’t want to tell Americans how to correct our society, but rather to inspire us as to America’s potential. And, just a bit, to rile us up at a foreigner’s brazen critique.

It is a critique we need. Unfortunately, the struggle will be encouraging those resistant to listen. As The New York Times mentions in their review, if you didn’t start the book convinced that America needs to become more Nordic, Partanen probably won’t convince you. Thus, it falls to the inspired reader to, armed with data and facts, disseminate her message. Us Americans need to promote a vision of our country as a community that cares for each other—and where everyone is worthy of equal care.

College Basketball at the barclays center Is a Garden of Earthly Delights by Emilia Morano-Williams

Basketball at Barclays Center

Only the amateurs enter the arena before the game. The pros linger outside swilling Coors Light and eating nachos. Occasionally they check the score on the televisions hung outside the stadium, but they’re not concerned about missing their favorite player score a basket. They’re engaged in their own gameplay.

Welcome to basketball at the Barclay’s Center. The Barclay’s Center is an anomaly for the neighborhood and to overhear the conversations between attendees proves they aren’t from the surrounding areas. Is there a Starbucks nearby? Where can they nab dinner after? But first, game time. It’s a college exposition game on today. Nothing is at stake but the fans parade the hallways decked out in their blue UK gear and equally blue Hofstra kit. Scan your ticket and enter—it’s a different world and what an entertaining world it is!

Start at the bar, the one over on the left is fine—but wait. Do you want a Coors or would you prefer a Corona? Because if you want Corona head to the bar on the second mezzanine (that’s the one that sells imported beers). You could also get a Gin & Tonic from the kiosk by the Men’s room or a glass of Cab Sav from the bar behind section ten. Then there are the milkshakes and sodas and special drinks at the food stalls. Don’t worry if you can’t decide—you can always get a can of Brooklyn Lager or Heineken from a roaming vendor during the game.

They won’t be selling food though, so get yours now before the hoards arrive for Nathan’s hot dogs. You could also get a slice of pizza or a knish or, to ruin the Brooklyn theme, a bucket of chicken from Carla Hall’s Southern Fried Chicken. But this is Barclay’s world where a hotdog costs $9 and there are only three types of pizza, none of which have pepperoni. Remedy the stale aftertaste of disappointment with a trip the pick and mix store for team pride boxes of Junior Mints and multi-colored M&Ms (yes, they use lever operated machines that inevitably pour the entire column into your plastic bag as you pull the handle down oh-so-carefully in a vain attempt to get just a few. Discretion be damned). You have sugar and you have alcohol and now you’re ready for your seat.

You arrive for half time. The cuter-than-cute cheerleaders fluff their ringlets and polish their sequined dresses. They turn and twirl and tumble. Yeah, you came for brawny ball bros, but their smiles remind you that diversions deserve pomp too.

Then they appear! The view from your couch might surpass your current seats, but then you wouldn’t feel like a giddy dwarf next to the players’ hulking frames. How tall is number 11?! 6’ 11”!? He probably wants to be a ball player just to have enough money to never need to buy a cramped economy airplane seat on ever again.

Gameplay begins and your team makes some shots, though number 11’s performance is inversely proportional to his height. What’s the score? Your team is winning?! Your friends do a coordinated handshake and appear on the TV hanging down in the center of the court. You’re on the “Dance Cam.” Your enthusiasm teaches apathetic fans to party.

Pass the junior mints! Or actually—are there team color M&Ms left? Toss them back and forth (John is weirdly good at throwing them in his mouth. Except for that time it fell in Stacy’s drink). The other team scores a hoop and then a foul and the M&Ms are done.

Which means beer. The vendor is coming around right now and there’s five minutes remaining—with a score this close, there should be plenty of time outs for you to finish your beer. People return to their seats. The other team scores. Yours retaliates. You’re in the lead! Another point! Yell and tell ‘em how it’s done. You participate like you never do at home or work because here it’s okay. So you let loose and scream and comment and feel

Thirty seconds left. The other team shoots. And score! Your team retaliates with a time out. You drink beer. This is it! They shoot. They miss. The other team nabs the ball but your team grabs it back. And, sprint. Shoot. Score! Buzzer. Done. Game over and won.

Cheer before decorum returns. After two beers you wobble to the bathroom. On line you resituate yourself for society, where there can be no skipping or yelling or jumping up and down. Where tossing M&Ms into your mouth isn’t a skill and where no one would spend $10 for a slice of cold pizza.

The game is over, but the game lives on in you. In the team of viewers who comes together to watch and cheer and participate in a society where fun and entertainment are the most important values. Welcome to the real world.

Meet Becherovka: the Czech Republic’s bitter spirit you’ll want to drink straight by Emilia Morano-Williams

Becherovka bottle. Image via Koncern.

You’re in a forest. The towering brown trees turn daytime into night. You reach up to brush away the dense branches and only to discover that the mossy leaves are bottles of Becherovka, the Czech Republic’s favorite bitter herb liquor.

First off: you’re pronouncing it wrong. It’s beck-ur-OHV-ka (emphasis on the ‘h’). Hailing from Western Bohemia, Becherovka combines 32 herbs, roots and spices with spring water from near the town of Karlovy Vary and bunch of sugar before being aged in oak barrels. The process resembles that of any digestif and the taste is similarly inscrutable—you’ll pour half the bottle into your glass as you attempt to identify their proprietary mix herbs, spices and roots. There’s a little cinnamon and a touch of cloves; a twist of mint and citrus; and, perhaps, a touch of anise (though the strength depends on how well you cleaned your glass after sampling absinthe). It’s not the precise flavors that make Becherovka stand out, but the total experience.

Some people liken the taste to cough medicine, which is unsurprising given the fact that the spirit was created in the early nineteenth century as a medicine. Josef Becher first brewed Becherovka in 1807 with the help of his friend, the British doctor Dr. Frobig. They sold the tincture in drug stores as a cure for stomach ailments (though it presumably created more problems if you drank it all at once).

Outside Becherovka Museum in Karlovy Vary. Image via Munchies.

Ever since, the recipe has been a well-guarded secret. It’s rumored that only two people know the ingredients. Once a week during witching hour on Wednesday, this duo slinks away to a secret chamber called the Dragikamr deep in the Becherovka laboratory. They drop the ingredients into their cauldron, stirring three times before chanting the magic words.

Unfortunately, despite its beguiling flavor and history, Becherovka is rare outside eastern and central Europe. Pernod Ricard bought the company in 2001, but the spirit has struggled to woo an international audience. In the Czech Republic, you’re more likely to drink Bechrovka as a chilled shot when visiting a friend’s house for dinner than you are at a cocktail bar. But this is slowly changing. Although the Czech have been drinking bracing Be-Ton, Bechrovka and tonic, since the late ‘60s, only recently have trendy Prague cocktail bars began playing around with other cocktails that feature the bitter digestif.

But you should drink Becherovka in more ways than just straight and with tonic. Top a shot with boiling water for a pine-y hot toddy. Shake it with ice for a bracing Martini. Those 32 herbs and spices create versatile palate for your inner mixologist.