Precision in packaging

Szechuan peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns, oh yeah! Raven of Made with Molecules after eating them wrote, “There’s a war in my mouth.” They create a riot of numbing and tingling sensations, particularly if you can get relatively fresh ones (i.e. not stale from sitting around in a Whole Foods bulk bin). Raven links to an abstract about the particular anesthetic-sensitive potassium channels inhibited by hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, one of the components of sichuan peppercorns that make them so exciting.

Science aside, we recently found some in a local asian grocery store, and were particularly struck by the packaging. American packaging often has annoying disclaimers about how contents are packed by weight and may have settled. These peppercorns were not only weighed, but the precision of the scale is indicated! If only all packaging was so straightforward. I was going to complain that the package doesn’t say what kind of peppercorns were inside (sichuan peppercorns are not related to other peppercorns) but then realized that the Chinese characters are specific to these “flower peppers” even if the English words are more general. In any case, the reddish husks are recognizable through the bag.

South Indian Restaurant Menu Decoder Ring

For years, we’ve enjoyed eating out at South Indian restaurants– they often have exceptionally interesting food. They are almost invariably vegetarian, so it is generally safe– even for non-carnivores –to order anything off of the menu.

But here’s the rub: the menus tend to be terse. Many of them have only a list of items, without description at all (Tirupathi Bhimas has an excellent example). It’s not clear if this is because they don’t expect “outsiders” to want this kind of food, or perhaps some other reason, but restaurants with clear descriptions of the menu items are the exception, not the rule.

Moreover, the waiters aren’t always trained to give explanations to non-Indians. If you ask what the difference between a dosa and a rava dosa is, you might hear that rava dosas are crispier. But your waiter may not know that rava means wheat or be able explain that in a rava dosa semolina replaces the rice flour. And that won’t help you if you don’t already know that a dosa is a large crispy crepe made with a fermented batter of rice flour and ground lentils. The semolina in a rava dosa does make it crispier, and a little thicker than a regular dosa. It also takes a little longer to cook, so you can expect it to come out of the kitchen a bit later than a regular dosa.

That little bit of trivia may stick in your mind for a short while, but will you remember it the next time you are at the restaurant? (Will we?) And what if you can’t remember what uthappam is? Some restaurants include more information on their website than they do on their printed menu (Saravanaa Bhavan [pdf] and Udupi Palace are good examples) but it would be a hassle and require planning to print out their online menu to take with you.

Decoder 1

So you need a decoder ring! Or at least a wallet card. With a little help from Wikipedia (check out their page on curry!) and the glossary in my copy of 1000 Indian Recipes, we’ve put together a South Indian Restaurant Menu Decoder Wallet Card (800 kB PDF) for your enjoyment, education, and dining pleasure. You can print it out– single sided so no hassle –and it compresses to standard business card size: 3.5″ x 2″. You can also not print it out, and just view it on your iPhone. (And if you’ve never been to a South Indian place, isn’t this a good time to try one?)

Decoder 2

A note on spelling and vocabulary: India is big. Many ingredients and dishes have different names in different regions, languages and dialects. Spellings vary a lot. I have used some of the more common variants, and tried to use multiple versions where the variance seems significant to me. I used versions that I have seen on menus in my area. I have not included all of them. If it sounds similar, it probably is.

A note on my definitions: I tried to include enough information to be useful, not so much as to be tediously accurate. My translations are gleaned from lots of sources, including my own experience and experimentation. Space considerations for the wallet card have led to some compromise on absolute accuracy. But I’m not Indian or I wouldn’t be writing this, so if you see something that’s blatantly wrong, please let me know.

We’d love to see wallet decoder cards for other kinds of restaurants, so let us know if you make one! Korean? Pakistani? Where else do we need one?

Improved Custom Message Hearts

LOLHearts - 34

In some ways, we really like candy message hearts. They make good ammo, you can stamp them with your own messages, they make halfway decent sidewalk chalk, and they do bizarre things if you cook them.

On the other hand, you may or may not like the way that these things taste. (To us, many years ago, they compared very favorably to the other varieties of sidewalk chalk that we had tried.) In either case there is certainly some room for culinary alternatives.

Read on and learn how to make your own highly edible custom cookie message hearts.

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High Cuisine for Halloween: Eyeball Caprese

Caprese - 16

Insalata caprese, an Italian classic, becomes an instant halloween classic as well.

The traditional ingredients for this delicate salad are fresh mozzarella, basil, plum tomatoes and olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper. Our version goes only slightly further, adding a thin slice of olive as the garnish. And, a clever trick produces perfectly round pupils every time.
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Five Minute Project: Hot Dog Bun Grilling Jig


Cooking hot dogs (and similarly shaped things) on the backyard grill is one of those classic American summer traditions. One of the weaker parts of this scheme is preparing the hot dog buns. I happen to like mine toasty and warm and crunchy, and without the hinges broken! Not everyone likes grilled buns, but for those of us who do, this is a legitimate concern. Folding buns wide or flat to grill them seems to universally weaken the hinges to the point that they are prone to break upon introduction of a sausage, particularly if there are condiments involved.

So, here’s our quick DIY Hot Dog Bun Grilling Jig, which holds your bun open at the perfect angle while it warms on the grill, forming a sturdy toasted structure with potentially good hinge integrity. Bonus: by grabbing the jig, you can use tongs to set down and pick up your bun without fear of a squished bun.
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"That’s no melon!"

"That's no melon!"

One cantaloupe, a knife, and five minutes. Your very own (and very tasty) planet-killing superweapon.

Hint 1: Center the “crater” around where the stem was connected so that the darker fibers under the skin point towards the center of it.

Hint 2: Stretch a string around the melon to help guide your equatorial trench.

(Also: you don’t really need that exhaust port. It’s a weakness.)

Cubyrop: the perfect candy

We first discovered Cubyrop via flickr and were smitten, so we put them in an Amazon wishlist. But after more than a year, we happened to just come across a bag of them at Nijiya(a Japanese supermarket) and were thrilled!
Cubyrop The verdict? Cubyrop are intensely charming — even better in person than they look in the photos. They are hard candy, intensely fruit flavored as only Japanese candies can be. While the name would imply that they are perfect cubes, they are indeed perfect but are not always cubes– the sides vary from 11-13 mm. They come wrapped two to a package, which is just the right amount of sweet and flavor.
They are color coded:

  • Orange = Mango
  • Yellow = Lemon
  • Orange = Orange
  • Dark Pink = Grape
  • Super Light Pink = Litchi
  • Green = Melon
  • Light Pink = Peach
  • Medium Pink = Strawberry

Mango and orange are difficult to tell apart visually, but they definitely taste different. Cubyrop also come in a (slightly larger) gummy variety, which also have intense flavoring but are jiggly with a dusting of sour powder. (Note: Some of you who grew up in the same era as us may also have an innate fear of gelatinous cubes.) There is also a variety labeled as throat drops, with some sort of cough-drop powder in the center of the cubes. They taste vaguely medicinal, but are still significantly better than most cough drops.

As with so many Japanese products, presentation is everything. The product shape carries over into the font, and the square color coding for the flavors is listed both in English on the front and in Japanese on the back. Charming, andtasty! What more could you want?

Another oddity of lotus roots

Lotus Rootlets 2

Nelumbo Nucifera, also known as the Sacred Lotus (amongst other names) is a magnificent oddity of a plant. It roots in the mud of shallow lakes and ponds, growing leaves that float on the surface as lily pads lily pads or rise up above the water on hard stalks. The lotus flower itself is the model of a classic and gracefulwater lily flower, where both the flower and resulting seed pod have a characteristic pattern of holes.


Lotus Rootlets 1   Lotus Rootlets 3one rootlet   Thin Section

The hole patterns continue throughout the plant, showing up in in the stalks and underground stems (rhizomes) of the lotus plant. The rhizomes, usually just referred to as “lotus root” are prepared as vegetable in many types of asian cuisine. Typically you’ll find them served as thin slices through the root (a couple of inches in diameter), showing the distinctive pattern and prepared in many different ways– I’m partial to tempura. (If you haven’t had them, the taste is a bit like a more substantial and nutty version of a water chestnut.)

Another way that you can sometimes find lotus root prepared is as pickled lotus rootlets, which are immature and more tender lotus roots in brine (pictured here). You might find these in a salad or Vietnamese sandwich– they are tasty like their bigger friends.

Appearances aside, the first bizarre thing about the Sacred Lotus is that it’s one of only a handful of known plants that displays “warm-blooded” behaviour: It actively regulates the temperature of its flower to be at a near-constant temperature, even as the ambient temperature varies by a much larger amount. (

The second thing, which I haven’t seen written about anywhere, has led me to ask: how can a lotus root be like a spider?

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Sierpinski Cookies

Sierpinski Cookies-11

A few months ago we showed you how to make beautiful fractals in polymer clay.

Take that idea, run with it, and where do you end up? In the kitchen, making Sierpinski cookies! These cookies, made from contrasting colors of butter cookie dough, are a tasty realization of the Sierpinski carpet, producing lovely, edible fractals.
As with our earlier project involving clay, you can make these by using a simple iterative algorithmic process of stretching out the dough and folding it over onto itself in a specific pattern.
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