Electric Watercress

It was 9 years ago.  I was working at the Tasty Singapore pavilion at the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center in NYC. My buddy, Neil and I had some time to take a break and walk around the show for a bit.  Walking around such a large space filled with the best in gourmet and craft food from around the world is an awesome experience.  If you ever get the chance, definitely go to the Fancy Food Show.  Anyway, as we were walking around we came across a micro-green and edible garnish purveyor.  Micro-greens are basically baby versions of herbs and vegetable sprouts that are often used to finish a plate of food in a fancy restaurant (see the micro cilantro used to top off my perfect bite). Well, all of a sudden I hear this exclamatory yelp from Neil.  No sooner do I look up, when he presents me with a tiny flower.  The bud is tightly formed and bright yellow, just like a miniature sunflower, but spherical. It’s the size and shape of a very small marble. He tells me to eat it, and as I take it in my hand I see a menacing look begin to form on his face.  As he starts to grin, I hesitated.  He said, ” No man, it’s fine, it’s totally cool…  It’s like electricity.”

Wait…what? Why would I eat this?  I thought, What is the taste of electricity??

“It’s totally cool.  Just eat it.”

I felt like I was back in middle school being taunted to do something I would surely regret.  But then, what the hell… I popped it in my mouth.

My tongue LIT UP! Neil was right. The only thing I could think of was that I just pressed a 9-volt battery to my tongue.  It tasted…just like ELECTRICITY.  Then I realized that I have had a similar, yet much less intense sensation before.  If you have ever eaten a sichuan peppercorn, that is the sensation.  Slightly tart, almost spicy-hot, but not exactly.  The big differences was that it was like one hundred times more intense, and it was a fresh little bright yellow flower bud.  I remember the guy told me the name of the plant.  I know I asked all about it, and how to get more.  I probably even took the purveyor’s card.  I was really excited to introduce this new find to all my fellow cooks, friends and chefs. Then, we went back to hawking products for the Singapore Trade Commission.

After the show, Neil and I did what any sensible cooks in training do.  We sat at the end of a local restaurant bar, proudly ignorant and most inappropriately, still wearing our chef whites, and proceeded to drink our faces off.  (Here’s a pro-tip for budding culinarians:  if your at a food service establishment or event, and you are not a chef of said establishment or event, you should not be in whites.  And unless you are THE CHEF, or THE OWNER, you should definitely not be in chef garb at the bar.  It’s a real bone-head move) We were a couple of real bone-heads, and of course I remembered the taste sensation produced by that super cool flower garnish about a month later.  Of course, by this time I could not remember anything other than it being yellow and tasting like a battery.  Back then, this was not enough to go on for an image search on the internet, and the instances it came up over the following years were often during cook drink-fests when the subject of weird foods arose.  I would start to describe it, nobody would know what I was talking about, and I would have just enough info to make myself sound like a moron.  I literally brought this up intermittently for years.  Then, I went to Brazil.

I was asked to go to São Paulo to help set up a cheese counter – very exciting stuff – totally exotic place with super weird, yet fascinating foods, especially plants and fish and meats, actually all the food is strange if you are from New Jersey, like me.  Well, there’s all kinds of cool stuff because most of the stuff comes from the garden out the back called, the Amazon Jungle.  One of the coolest things for me while working the counter was enjoying some amazing aged artisan cheeses that were incredibly well crafted and super tasty!  The coolest thing about them is that they were also totally illegal to sell.  Now, I knew the producer and the cheese itself was even pasteurized, not that this necessarily makes them safe, it’s just that the milk treatment was not the issue of legal concern, in this case.  You see, the government of Brazil makes it very challenging to sell cheese across state lines.  These cheeses were produced in Minas Gerais and our market was in São Paulo.  These cheeses were very small production and came from the best milk producing area in the country.  Most of the milk produced in São Paulo is produced on a commodity scale and much of it comes from zebu.  Zebu in Brazil give poor milk, shitty for use in cheesemaking or drinking or really anything.  So, if you want good cheese, you have to go the wink-wink, nudge-nudge route.  The problem I faced was that I had made a commitment to building the most impressive artisan cheese offering in the city, so 2+2= We are going to buy and sell contraband from small producers in Minas Gerais.  Now, the reality is that there are only a couple of other cheese shops in town and they do the same thing.  You come to discover that the laws seem to be more or less a deterrent to moving mass quantities of cheese from outside the state, keeps the commodity producer lobbyists at bay, and the laws don’t seem to be enforced anyway. Well, that justification seemed good enough for me.  This was very good stuff, and I was very excited about it.  The other thing that I was excited about, was CULATELLO DI ZIBELLO P.D.O..  If you don’t know CULATELLO, look it up, find some and eat it.  It’s the crown jewel of Italian cured meats, the Jupiter of the Salumi Pantheon.  Basically, it’s the most prized muscle of the prosciutto, seamed out with just the correct amount of fat cap remaining, seasoned, stuffed into a pig’s bladder, tied, cured and dried. If it’s done best, the texture is like butter and the flavor is like Parmigiano Reggiano DOP.  If it’s done poorly, it tastes like dried out, salty prosciutto.  One thing is for sure, you pay premium prices either way.  We were selling the PDO product from Emilia-Romagna, and unlike in the USA, this stuff was actually legal to sell in São Paulo!  Go figure.  Cheese from a few miles away, contraband. Cured meat from the other side of the planet that isn’t legal at home, NO PROBLEM.  What a strange place, Brazil.

We got the counter ready, and the market open (that’s a story!). In came the first rush of Brazilians, with their mouths drooling and their wallets open!  I decided to work the counter, since I knew the cheeses, wait not really, and I spoke the language, wait not at all, and the counter was set up – I lied before, it wasn’t.  Actually, it just made sense because as little as I had to go on, I was still the only person prepared to actually sell a piece of cheese.  The scales didn’t work right, we had no usable plastic wrap, and most of the cheese was illegal.  I was smiling.  I was excited.  I had knives, a cutting board, paper, tape and a marker.  What else do you need, other than customers, and here they came!  One of the first people I encountered was a small woman with a huge smile and a lot of moxie!  She was very curious about Culatello di Zibello.  I was amazed that anyone in the country even knew what Culatello di Zibello was, and she wanted to taste it.  So, of course, I shaved off a paper thin slice for each of us and we discussed it’s merits.  I sliced her a couple hundred grams, and then we started talking cheese.  She obviously was a gourmet and I was super excited to share some of the tasty aged lactic set ashed goat cheeses made by a skilled woman in Minas Gerais.  We tasted through a few, and she made a couple of purchases.  Then, I introduced her to my friend Fiorenzo and while they had a conversation, the manager of the counter took me aside and said, “Do you know who that is?”

“No”, I said”

He said, “She is a very important chef in Brazil.  Her name is Jodie Foster (that’s not her real name). She owns a number of important restaurants, and has her own television shows!”

I said, “Well she’s really friendly, and she seems to really like shopping for good food, so she’s awesome in my book!”

Then she came back to me, along with Fiorenzo, and asked the manager to take a picture of all of us in front of the counter.  Next, she invited us to dine at her house the next evening.  We both agreed, we exchanged contact info and let her on her way to continue shopping.  The next evening Fiorenzo was not feeling well, and so I decided to go alone.  I hopped in a taxi and we made our way through the city to Chef Jodie Foster’s house (I don’t want to use her real name, but you get to see her picture). When I got there it was like a jungle fantasy house.  She had a rock path leading through her entry way to what looked like a banyan tree growing out of her living room floor.  All around me were one of a kind pieces of native art and crafts.  Her kitchen was appointed with various indigenous cooking implements, some on the stove being used to prepare our meal.  Along with her sous chef, she had prepared a meal for myself and two other guests, a beautiful female friend from Trieste, and a world renowned lighting expert – though he usually does commercial and entertainment design, he designed the lights in her house to follow a scheme which reflected her mood at any given time of day.  I think the mood that evening was fucking awesome jungle tasting menu for four!  The meal started off with a rare roasted palm of a varietal only legally sold to natives, followed by a  her own special feijoada, complete with indigenous rice, hand delivered by the cultivator that morning, and two of her own unique blends of farofa.  We finished with a ganache spoon, with a chocolate straw over an espresso flavored liquor.  And then came the digestive.  She broke out the cachaça.  LET THE PARTY BEGIN!

She said that one was very special and that I should definitely try it because it is infused with the flavor of a very unique herb that will make your palate dance.  Huh, I wonder what she means by that… then I saw the bottle.  Right there, on the label was the word JAMBU and under it was an illustration of a flower I had seen before.  Once I tasted it, I was immediately transported back to that moment, years ago, when I tasted electricity!  It was JAMBU!  I mean, maybe that was what the guy at the Fancy Food Fest called it, I still couldn’t remember, but this was definitely the flower!

We finished the evening and I even went back for another meal. She is an incredible person and if she gives me permission I will add her name.  In the mean time, I hope Jodie Foster doesn’t mind her inclusion in my story.  Everything else is true, and I sure learned the value of being a welcoming salesperson.  If I hadn’t cultivated a wonderful moment at the cheese counter with an enthusiastic attitude toward an interested guest, I would still be yammering on about some unidentified flower bud that tastes like a 9-volt battery, but it’s really good and cool, seriously!

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Other uses for Jambu

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