Monthly Archives: February 2014


The Papaya (a story)

Yi Jing Mei leans against the cabinets and rests before she pushes the shopping bag onto the countertop. I’m old, she thinks. The bag rustles as she digs out the day’s shopping. Fish. A clammy, squashy lump, just like me. A bag of zucchini. Too many for just me, I suppose. But she can’t pass up a good deal from the “Specials” shelf. So what if they have some spots, if they are a little nicked or a little soft? I’m going to climb up there with a 99¢ sticker on my forehead one day.

“What a bargain, right?” She laughs grimly. “Piggy, I’m home.” A shuffle and a whine and a thump come from the bedroom.

“Lazy dog.” When she turns to put the fish in the fridge, she sees the wet spot on the floor, across from the newspapers in the corner.

“Piggy, you’re going in diapers if you do that again. Do you hear me?” Another scuffle. “Can you clean that up? I’m putting the groceries away.” She digs a papaya out of the bag, another find on the ‘Specials’ shelf. Under the fluorescents of her kitchen, it looks older than in the market, a little grey fuzz in the black circles on the skin and by the stem, and soft on one side like it has lain without turning for too long.

“Don’t know why I bother. Nothing tastes right anyway.” She pushes at the soft spot with an offended finger. But if she stops eating again, Lena and Leo will start nagging her about the Home, especially if she ends up in the hospital a second time. “I guess I should cut this up before it goes bad.”

“Piggy, clean up your mess! I can’t do everything for you.” A slow scrabble of claws and a long groan.

She finds a knife and pares the peel in a thick length into the sink, then cuts the papaya in half in her hand. She plops one half into a plastic tub, then scoops the seeds out of the other half with the tip of the knife. She turns at the sound of nails on the linoleum.

“Piggy, there you are, you bad dog.” Piggy looks up at her through clouded eyes. Her hind legs take three steps in place, then her back end lowers unsteadily onto the floor. Her front paw comes up in a question mark.

“This isn’t for you. This is fruit, Greedy. You don’t want this.”

The paw question marks in the air a couple of times. Piggy says, “Hm, hm.”

“Hm, yourself. You think you know everything. Can’t even find the newspapers to pee on. Hm.” But she turns and cuts off the nub of the papaya and offers it to Piggy. “Like eating styrofoam, right? Or Leo’s dirty socks, right?” She glares at Piggy, who is about to leave another mess on the floor. But Piggy’s pink tongue laps and her jaws work, and she gulps. Her paw comes up in a question mark again.

“What? Crazy. You can’t have any more. Just throw it up.” When she turns away, Piggy sighs and lays down.

She looks at the papaya still in her hand, then at the dog. With a small shrug, she cuts off another piece, brings it to her mouth. Her lips pucker up, but then she pries them open. She shoves the papaya in before she can think better of it.

The tender flesh and earthy-sweet tang — with a touch of over-ripeness — burst on her tongue. It is the exact taste of that papaya that she had shared with Jing Li back in Siantar that year when it seemed like the rain would never stop…. Fat raindrops drummed thickly on the roof and windows that day, too, and the wind raked at the shuttered houses up and down the street. They sat with their skinny legs splayed on the cold tabletop, their bags of provisions on their outspread skirts. They could hardly hear themselves laughing as they pretended to be stranded on a desert island after a monsoon.

“Li Li, look, I have toasted melon seeds to shoot at the marauding hordes of desperadoes! And here are dry crackers for when we are starving to death, right?”

“We won’t starve,” Jing Li scoffed. “Look, Little Sister, I have a fishing pole. We won’t go hungry as long as we can fish,” she said, untying her bundle from the end of a broomstick. “And look, here’s a papaya, the only one that wasn’t blown away by the monsoon!”

“But how’re we going to open it? Oh! I know! We’re savages, and we’ll tear into it with our bare teeth, right?” Jing Mei picked it up and breathed in the grassy sweetness of it.

“No, Mei. Look!” Jing Li looked around. She flipped back a corner of the cloth to show a small paring knife.

Jing Mei put a hand over her mouth. Cook’s knife! She would never have let Li Li borrow it.

She looked around again. “Don’t worry. We’ll put it back. She won’t find out.” The browns of her eyes were ringed with white. “Oh! Pretend that she’s one of the desperadoes, and she’s coming to cut us up and put us in the soup pot!”

Jing Mei couldn’t help shrieking a little, and she huddled close to Jing Li. “Let’s eat it quick!”

Hunching over her lap, Jing Li peeled the papaya, then cut off knobs of juicy, orange flesh that they popped into our mouths. “Oh! Papaya is just the best fruit in the whole world!”

Jing Mei laughed and sputtered and nodded, cramming another piece into her full mouth.

“Keep an eye out for desperadoes!” Jing Li said as she continued cutting chunks and scraping seeds onto the table.

“You’re making a mess!” Jing Mei laughed.

“It doesn’t matter! The desperadoes will get us before Mama does,” she said, but she started scraping the seeds into her hand.

Suddenly, the wind gusted through the room, pushing Cook inside, soaked and scowling at a broken umbrella in her hand, and in the midst of a rant, “…known better than to try to go to the market on a day like this, but Mistress really had her heart set on…” There was a long silence. She looked at us on the table. With her precious knife. Papaya everywhere. Jing Li and Jing Mei looked back at her, and then Jing Mei was snorting papaya out of her mouth, but Cook’s mouth closed and set up in a thin line.

Then Jing Mei looked at Jing Li and saw that she wasn’t laughing. Her eyes were round, and she looked at Jing Mei and gulped, “Desperadoes!” Jing Li threw the papaya seeds that she had gathered in her hands. Jing Mei shrieked and threw the melon seeds. Black dots appeared on Cook’s face and hair and her soaking wet dress. “Run! Run!”

They squealed and scrabbled off the table, Cook’s knife clattered to the floor as they ran out the back way and into the rain, and Cook suddenly came back to life, screaming, “Come back, you ruffians! How dare you…”

They hid at the school yard, laughing as they took turns looking like Cook with her face pocked with melon and papaya seeds. Their bravery in the face of certain death at the hands of the desperadoes made them strong against the wind and the rain all afternoon. They kept their faces turned away from the beating that they knew was waiting for them at home….

“Oh, Piggy, we were terrible.”

Her paw comes up again.

“No, Piggy, it’s mine. Does it smell like it’s going to rain?”” She realizes that she is leaning against the cabinet again. “Let’s clean up that mess, Piggy. Lena’s coming.”


Recipe: Seared Tofu Salad

Mellow tofu, and sweet bell peppers and carrots balance the zesty ginger and onions in this colorful and flavorful salad. I served this salad with a homey side of glutinous rice cooked with azuki beans, and can see it pairing well with other whole grains or a hearty bread, like the buttermilk rye bread I made in week 2 of my Whole Grains and Tofu Challenge. Plan ahead to give the tofu time to rest and marinade.

Recipe: Seared Tofu Salad

Makes 4 servings


  • 14 ounces firm tofu, cut into ¾ inch thick slices, then each slice cut into 6 pieces
  • 8 ounces salad greens
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 6 ounces mixed baby greens
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and grated
  • 1 medium orange bell pepper
  • 1 medium yellow bell pepper
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges (optional)

For the marinade:

    • ¼ cup sake
    • 2 tablespoons low sodium tamari
    • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
    • 1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
    • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
    • 4 scallions, sliced thin on an angle

For the dressing:

  • 1 teaspoon onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
  • 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
  • ½ tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon ketchup
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon low sodium tamari


Remove excess water from the tofu: Place tofu in one layer on a dish towel, cover with another towel, then lay a cutting board on top. If you have a light cutting board, add a frying pan or a couple of cans on top. Allow the tofu to rest for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the marinade: In a flat bottomed casserole just big enough to fit the tofu in one layer, combine the ingredients for the marinade. After the tofu has rested, transfer it to the casserole in one layer. Marinate the tofu for approximately 45 minutes, turning occasionally.

Heat oil in a griddle pan or frying pan, preferably cast iron, over medium low heat, until very hot, almost smoking. Add tofu to the pan in one layer, reserving the marinade. Sear the tofu until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes, then flip it over and cook the other side. Remove the tofu from the pan.

Make the dressing: Place all the ingredients for the dressing in a jar with a tight fitting lid, and shake to mix thoroughly. Alternatively, whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl.

Place greens and carrots in a large bowl. Remove the seeds and ribs from the bell peppers, cut them into thin strips lengthwise, and add them to the greens. Add the reserved marinade and the salad dressing and toss.

Divide the greens onto 4 plates, and top with tofu. Tuck a wedge of lime (if using) on the side of each plate and serve.

Inspired by “Grilled Tofu Steak Salad” in The Wagamama Cookbook by Hugo Arnold (Kyle Books, 2004).


Update: 2014 New Year’s Resolutions

I hope the DH is flexing his fingers, because I’ve just crossed the finish line of my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions challenge. You know what that means, don’t you? He’s going to be treating me to a massage.… there’s that tight spot right behind my shoulder blades…. Aaaah!

But I’m sure that you’re more interested in how the Crazy Foodie Whole Grains and Tofu Challenge turned out, right? My goal was to serve whole grains and tofu at least once a week for six weeks. Here’s the week-by-week break down (recipe sources for new recipes are at the bottom):

Week 1

  • Pepperoni pizza and Hawaiian pizza on 100% white whole wheat crust.
  • Short grain brown rice (with black bean, sausage, and sweet potato soup).
  • Oops! What happened? I forgot to make something with tofu!

Week 2

  • Short grain brown rice bowl with oven-baked miso glazed tofu, red peppers and kimchi (Shulman) New! Too much like red rice with miso-roasted squash, leeks, red pepper, and tofu (also from Shulman), so it was good, but we preferred the other recipe.
  • Buttermilk rye bread (King Arthur) New! Pastrami on rye was ubiquitous in New York City delis and diners when I was growing up — I’m sure they still are — but I couldn’t pass up the hot open-faced turkey sandwiches (on white bread, of course) smothered in gravy, so I never got acquainted with rye. What a revelation! We loved the heady flavor and sturdy texture of this quick bread.

Week 3

  • Stir-fried rainbow peppers, eggplant, and tofu (Shulman) New! (with short grain brown rice) Loved the interplay of textures and flavors: roasted eggplant melting in your mouth, crunchy peppers, and meaty tofu. Beautiful colors, and the earthy aroma of hoisin sauce! Adjusted the proportions of the ingredients from the printed recipe to suit my family’s taste.
  • Short grain brown rice (with beef curry).

Week 4

  • Pine nut-parmesan biscuits (King Arthur) New! Everyone really loved these flaky biscuits except me. I thought they were a little too salty, and the flavor of the pine nuts might be brought out more by toasting them first. With a little adjusting, this recipe has potential.
  • Tofu in creamy nut butter sauce with scallions served with roasted brown rice with gomasio (Kaufmann) New! Roasting short grain brown rice lightened up its texture and punched up the nutty aromas of the rice. I could eat gomasio — a traditional Japanese condiment made of toasted sesame seeds and salt ground to a coarse powder — sprinkled on top of rice every day for the rest of my life!

Week 5

  • Brown basmati rice with onions, peas, and corn.
  • Seared tofu salad (inspired by “Grilled Tofu Salad,” in Hugo Arnold’s The Wagamama Cookbook) New! I used the printed recipe as a springboard, because the bean sprouts that the original recipe called for wouldn’t keep long enough, and also, I forgot to get some other key ingredients… doh! But we all loved the results, so check out the recipe here.

Week 6

  • Long grain brown rice (with red beans and rice).
  • Soba noodles with tofu (which counts for both tofu and whole grains, since soba noodles are made with buckwheat) (Shulman)

Final grade? A-. How embarrassing! I didn’t even realize that I missed the first week’s tofu dinner until I went back over my dinner journal. Still, it’s a decent track record, and a good mix of new recipes and picks from the recipe box.

I’ll raise the bar for my next challenge: can I keep both my resolutions for another 9 weeks? Remember that the recipe for the seared tofu salad in week 5 is here. Drop me a line if you’d like to hear about any of the other recipes that I mentioned!


I gave a short review of these sources (except for Hugo Arnold’s book) in my post, 2014 New Year’s Resolutions.

  • Hugo Arnold, The Wagamama Cookbook (Kyle Books, 2004).
  • Julie Kaufmann and Beth Hensperger, The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2002).
  • King Arthur Flour, Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains (Countryman Press, 2006).
  • Martha Rose Shulman, “Recipes for Health,” in The New York Times.



My 2¢: Genetically Modified Crops

In the last decade or so, I’ve been scratching my head over how to think about genetically modified agricultural products. The debates over GM ag were no-holds-barred mud fights, and I was wary of the claims made by either side of the issue. Recently, The New York Times published an article by Amy Harmon, “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” (Jan. 4, 2014). It generated more than 1,400 reader responses. Thinking that they would help give me some perspective on the issues, I shoveled through the comments, trying to sift out the hyperbole to reveal the nuggets of relevant information.

I didn’t read through them all — I’m a blogger, not a martyr! — but I only put away my fine meshed sieve when the comments started rehashing points that were only repeating things that I’d already seen. This is what I learned: my opinion about GM crops continues to be cautious. It boils down to a couple of points. First, GM crop technologies have not been adequately tested for long term consequences. Second, we are underutilizing agricultural solutions that would limit or eliminate the supposed “need” for GM crops. So, as I can, I’ll vote with my wallet by avoiding products made with GM crops. It would be helpful if food products were labelled, maybe with a “GM-Yes” or a “GM-No” on the ingredients list. The rest of this post shares some of my rationale. It was really interesting to delve into this topic. Hope you find it as interesting as I did! But now I think I’ll go shower off all that mud….


Just to be clear, this post is only about crops, not animals or medicines or other GM products. The vast majority of GM plants falls into two categories: those that are created to be resistant to herbicides like glyphosate (most popularly sold under the brand name Roundup by Monsanto), and those that are created with a pesticide (most often Bt) spliced into the genes of the plant itself. Glyphosate-resistant crops include soy, corn, canola, sugar beets, papayas, and alfalfa: in the US, most of these crops grown are now glyphosate-resistant varieties. Bt-GM plants include corn, potato, and cotton.

I’m leery of GM plants because longitudinal studies of long-term consequences have not been carried out. Studies done by the manufacturers are closely guarded industry secrets. Though the US government declared these plants to be safe, its history of backstepping on products that had previously been declared safe is long: BPA plastics, tobacco, agent orange, dioxins, DDT, asbestos, and lead paint, to name just a handful. To me, skepticism is merited. Even if the plants themselves are safe for our health and the environment, glyphosate use should be monitored more closely. When properly applied, studies show that glyphosate is among the most benign herbicides currently available; however, over application and improper application have negative consequences. The same way that overuse and improper use of antibiotics have contributed to the rise of “superbugs,” glyphosate resistant weeds have proliferated. Similarly, though Bt is used as an organic insecticide, it is used topically, where it degrades naturally in sunlight or washes off. Bt is not meant to be eaten by people or food animals, but the Bt in the Bt crops are, by necessity, eaten, and again, long term studies on potential health and environmental effects have not been done. Meanwhile, Bt resistant insects are also emerging. New, more intractable problems are being created by technologies meant to help us.

One solution is to support well-documented agricultural practices that have been shown to increase the resilience and strength of the environment and desirable plants. Among other steps, farmers should encourage and support a diversity of species, move away from the monocultural/factory model that is essentially an all-you-can-eat buffet for pests, and plant native species along the edges of fields, roadside ditches, and waterways to reduce run-off. Agricultural scientists and farmers can and should develop other techniques that rely on mechanical and structural changes to reach our agricultural goals.

The politics surrounding GMO ag suggests the wisdom of caution as well. “Politics” includes the host of social and cultural issues that aren’t about the actual plants themselves: government regulation, corporate control of agriculture, world wide population growth, consumer expectation of cheap food, etc. Sixty countries have banned, require labeling, or restrict the growth of GM crops, but rather than interpreting these policies as precautionary, GM ag supporters call it a result of political pressure and scare tactics.

Some opponents of GM crops distrust the corporations who develop and market these products. They suspect that, as a general rule, corporations value profits over the public good (think: tobacco, credit default swaps, and the insurance industry); therefore, corporations responsible for GM crops deserve heightened scrutiny. They fear that agriculture and food production will become controlled by a few large corporations. And after all, the most likely way to combat superweeds and superbugs created by GM crops is via more technological intervention, again, most likely provided by the corporations whose products first created these problems. This is already happening. I recently read a newspaper article about the next generation of GM crops, which modifies the RNA of target crops: corporations hope to have these new seeds available by the end of the decade. If the cycle continues, will farmers and individuals be able to grow food outside of the shadow cast by corporations? What are long term health and environmental consequences of these technologies?

Meanwhile, supporters of GM crops cite increased yields and nutrition to feed an ever-growing world population. The opposition contests this claim. Regardless, worldwide population growth does not need to be inevitable. In addition, a majority of GM crops currently grown are commodity or cash crops, used for animal feed, processed foods, and biofuels. They are typically not used to feed hungry populations across the globe. Meanwhile, rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other medical issues in the developed world have exploded ever since cheap, processed foods flooded grocery stores and since food costs as a percentage of total household spending have continued to drop. In the US, consumers have been trained to put a low value on food, but what we don’t pay up front, we surely pay later in health and environmental costs. From a global perspective, ⅓ of food grown for people is wasted, and in the US, the percentage of food waste is even higher. The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop! Focusing on political solutions would be positive for the environment and for people.

Other points are contested by both sides of the issue: whether GM crops have sterile seeds or are self-replicating, whether GM ag products with added nutrients, such as vitamins, are absorbed by the human body in the same way as nutrients that have not been transgenically manipulated, and whether GM crops are as “natural” as crops created by hybridization techniques. I don’t have the answers to all these contested issues. But let’s hang up a big old PROCEED WITH CAUTION sign, and study each GM crop product for 50, or better yet, 100 years. It’s a long time for us, but for Mother Earth, it’s just a blink of the eye.

Caution photo by Michael Theis