Take, for instance, this photo of...? Ice cream probably comes to mind: The concoction looks like a white, creamy glop topped with caramel drizzle (not to mention a maraschino cherry), flanked by parlor spoons.
Assumption will not get you far.
In reality, this unassuming, somewhat dull-looking edible is actually Shey-tsi, a signature Tibetan dessert (minus the cherry) offered at Tsampa, one of my favorite New York City restaurants and a former East Village haunt. The white glob is, in fact, a tangy, rather piquant yogurt, smothering one of the most delicious and complex cakes that I have ever tasted. The brown-sugar-kissed sweet is made from tsampa, or roasted barley flour, a staple in Tibet (think corn in America). Unlike our American counterparts made with enriched wheat, or no flour at all, the barley gives this cake a dense, grainy texture. It may be the only dish at Tsampa with tsampa as an ingredient, but no matter: The cuisine is superb, heavily influenced by Chinese and Indian food, as well as Japanese and Thai (for good measure).
In New York, I would often photograph my favorite dishes. Sorting through, I see that I have dozens more of food than of friends. Nothing against my beloved dining companions, but it’s just that beyond the frame, I can see them. I know the dim and din of the restaurant, the purr of the cab outside. This food reminds me of me in a city where I no longer live, but the essence of which I carry—full tilt—every day. It reminds me of what I focused on in New York, what the city brought out in me (or of me), what was missing.
All this, plus the fact that eating is joy, pure and simple.
Funny how food—a gloppy mess, at that—can be so potent. But this is food for me.