Salon’s Francis Lam Feasts for Chinese New Year, Really Digs ‘Fro-mami’

By
Francis Lam at his office, with a red envelope from Mom. Photo: Melissa Hom

"I'm feeling very Chinese right now," says Salon senior writer Francis Lam. "It's the Chinese New Year. I'm in touch with my people — some zodiacal action." Lam says that's a good thing, because it means his diet — which he assures us, despite the fact that he is Salon's go-to food expert and a frequent contributor to Cooking Channel's Food(ography), would under normal circumstances "bore" everyone — is especially interesting this week. Of course, Lam was also a contributing editor to Gourmet before its demise, so even food that's boring for him will probably seem fairly exciting for pretty much everyone else. But who are we to say? Judge for yourself in this week's New York Diet.

Friday, January 28
I usually only eat two meals a day. So I don't have this situation of, Oh, I go to my cool café in the morning and have my coffee ritual. I wake up and I stumble out of bed and usually don't start eating until lunchtime, which is around one.

I usually try to scarf something down before my editorial meeting in the afternoon. So this is the exciting world of my eating. Which is all a way of saying I can't for the life of me remember what I ate for lunch on Friday. It was probably something fairly shitty, and made me feel a little bit bad about my choices.

At three or so, I ran out for a coffee and a cookie. You can just blanketly assume I do that every day.

I had dinner in my neighborhood, at Buttermilk Channel, with a friend and my girlfriend. I should start by saying I have this thing with burgers. I like them, and I get these urges to get burgers, but then this calorie-counting ghost of a fat, 18-year-old me is on my shoulder saying, "Don't get the burger — you don't want to die." So I'll go out for burgers, but then wuss out and get the macaroni and cheese, which isn't really any better for you. But I was tired of wussing out on burgers, so I had the burger. And it was a fine burger. I also had the squash tart there, which was really good.

Saturday, January 29
Earlier in the week I'd gone to this tour de force dinner at a friend's house — her mom had come in from out of town to cook an extraordinary meal for twenty people, and they stocked up on ingredients, so by the time dinner was over my friend was giving away not just leftovers, but just pounds and pounds of raw ingredients. So I'd come home with two pounds of various mushrooms. So for brunch or lunch or whatever you want to say on Saturday, I roasted a bunch of them and mixed in some cream and just, yum. I had that on toast with some sauteed kale, because kale is good for you. And it's quite delicious.

Chinese New Year is a weird thing. There's the day that's the New Year, but there's traditionally a big meal that you have to end the year, and because the New Year was this week, my aunt and uncle in New Jersey had that meal on Saturday. Dinner was great.

There were a few traditional dishes, and I don't know a lot of the history, but one of the dishes I always see is like that stir-fried chicken with a lettuce cup that you get at cheesy Chinese restaurants — that actually comes from somewhere. And my family makes it with dried oysters, which are an incredible ingredient with a musky, earthy flavor. If you're in Chinatown and you walk past those stores that have the dried things out front that smell funny, look around and you'll see what looks like an oyster that's been sitting around for a while. We take them, reconstitue them, braise them, chop them up and have them in lettuce cups.

There was also lobster; noodles, which signify long life; sticky rice; some poached chicken; Chinese sausage; and this really sweet, black stew of ginger. It's basically ginger stewed with pigs' feet. When I was growing up, it was what grandma would eat. So I tried some of that because I'm an old man now and I might as well get with it. It was very sweet, very gingery, kind of stinky, and incredible.

Sunday, January 30
I went to lunch with some friends at Hotel Griffou, which is way "cooler" than anyplace I would ever normally go. But my girfriend is Portuguese, and they started doing this Portuguese brunch. We had the rissois de camarão, which are shrimp turnovers; the pasteis bacalhau, salt-cod fritters; the kale soup; pork and clams; and the baked eggs with chorizo. There was something weirdly delicious about that dish.

Not that I'm suggesting it was frozen food, but it had this fro-mami quality about it. You know, that deliciousness you only associate with frozen food, like when you go to a shitty pizza place and get the eggplant parm sub and you know they're just pulling it out of the freezer, but it's delicious anyway. That's fro-mami. I think the food at Hotel Griffou was well prepared, but there was something to it. I had coffee, too. Black.

That night was the Pro Bowl. Watching the Pro Bowl is really admitting your addiction to football. So I was at home, watching the goddamn Pro Bowl. On the stove I had chickpeas stewing in a little bit of wine, soy sauce, kale stems from the other day, carrots and a bunch of other vegetables, and dried shrimp roe, which is another really awesome ingredient.

Monday, January 31
This was one of those sad days where it was like 5 o'clock and I realized I hadn't even eaten lunch yet. Yes, I'm a food writer — that's just how the players play. So I went to Pret a Manger. I have nothing against Pret, it's fine, but you feel like you've made a compromise in your life when you walk in and grab the cold baguette sandwich out of the cooler. I got the ham and cheese and had it at my desk. I dumped a bunch of olive oil on it because I think the people at Pret hate the idea of having any moisture on a sandwich. I also added some Clancy's Fancy Hot Sauce, this really awesome hot sauce from Ann Arbor, Michigan. It's really lovely — garlickly, with a little bit of honey.

Speaking of compromises in life, that night I had a DiGiorno pizza with Toll House cookies. Because, in what's being called a watershed moment in American obesity, DiGiorno is now packaging their frozen pizza with Toll House cookie dough. So I tried it for this column I do called Sacrificial Lam. The thing about the pizza is ... it's disgusting, but I have to say, when I got to the bites that had the sauce on them, it was that fro-mami thing again. But I can't say it was technically any good at all.

Tuesday, February 1
My office is at 37th St. and Sixth Ave., not the most storied area for food. But there's this little Japanese café down the street, and I have a weakness for Japanese curry. The place used to be called Washoku Cafe, but you can't really tell what it is anymore. The sign's still on the door, but it's different people and different on the inside, so who knows? I got the pork katsu curry, which is really pretty good. They give you so much curry sauce, and it's so flavorful that you only need a little, then you end up with half a container of that sauce leftover, sitting in the fridge in the office. And I could totally eat a pile of rice with that sauce.

That night was supposed to be that incredible ice storm of 2011, where you're stuck inside and you find out all these awful revelations about your girlfriend and you break up. So to prepare for that, my girlfriend and I stayed near home and went to Frankie's. She had the braised-octopus salad — far and away the best thing they have. I had the pork braciola and polenta. Totally great. And they have these prunes. They're stewed in red wine and come with mascarpone. Totally delicious, with this cinnamon-y red-wine reduction.

Then we went home and waited for the ice storm and the revelations, but neither really happened.

Wednesday, February 2
I don't know if this is traditional, but you're supposed to be vegetarian for Chinese new Year. And as hard as it is to get good, interesting food around my office, it's harder to get good, interesting vegetarian food around my office. So I went back to the Washoku Cafe or whatever it's called and got the curry again, but with vegetables instead of pork. And now I'm one of those people that has another half-container of curry in the fridge.

For professional reasons I ate a shit-ton of Valentine's candy. But not like we ordered from La Maison Chocolat. No, we went to Duane Reade. And it was disgusting. It's definitely not what you should get someone when you want to have sex with them.

That night, a bunch of friends got seats at the Eddie Huang Chinese New Year dinner at No. 7, which was great. We started with noodles — again: long life. We had fried taro balls with Chinese sausage, broccoli pancakes rolled around Chinese sausage, and these chunks of fried cruller that you get with congee sometimes, which was awesome. I think it was one of [No. 7 chef Tyler Kord]'s dishes and it was total, like... Chinaman junk food, in the best possible way.

We had sauteed greens that were great, and this really fantastic red-cooked pork shoulder. It was sweet and unctuous and really lovely. There was steamed dorade with peanut oil and ginger. And they did a braised duck that was stuffed with sticky rice and ham. It was like eight-treasure duck, just filled with all this stuff. It was great.

They were offering this beer called Taiwan Beer for the table. They also had two different wines: a red one and a white one. I didn't catch what they were, but a friend of mine was inquiring as to the providence and varietal of each and it's just, like, dude: they have red and white. Don't be an asshole, just pick one.