Neighbor Friday: Here Where I Have Landed

February 24, 2011

Hi wonderful readers! I’m so proud to feature Justine from Here Where I Have Landed today. Justine’s blog is a beautiful blend of motherhood, culture, joy and wisdom. When she agreed to be featured on Neighbor Friday, I was more than thrilled. I know you’ll adore her. She’s going to make you hungry today, though, so be warned!

For more neighborly awesomeness, head on over to The-Never-True-Tales! We’d love to have you join in the mischief!

And now, please welcome my lovely friend Justine!


The dilemma

In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not about to go KitchWitch on you. I couldn’t possibly because I don’t have a recipe here. Or the snark and talent required in weaving together stories from the past with recipes that leave you salivating like a St Bernard in Arizona. What you see here is the reason why I’ve been in a dilemma this past week.

You see, my family is growing. With the future addition of our second baby and my mom, we are in a frantic search for a place that could accommodate all of us. Finding an ideal place for five humans, three pets and numerous electronic gadgets (because of My Guy the E-Geek) under one roof within our (limited) budget is proving to be harder than we thought. When a perfectly sized home presents itself, it’s usually at a location further from the heart of the action. And by action I don’t mean downtown Chicago. I mean where we do our grocery shopping, take-outs and the majority of our dining. Yes, the exciting stuff.

As a Chinese-Indian from Malaysia who came to the States 16 years ago, the best way for me to continue that connection with my place of birth and my cultural heritage is through food. When I’m homesick, I throw together a meal I remember from childhood, and voila, it instantly transports me back home. It also makes my belly satiated, my soul sing and my own little girl connected to her cultural heritage. Not two, not three, but four birds with one stone. Not bad for an hour’s work in the kitchen.

Right now we live five minutes away from two of my favorite grocery stores – one Southeast Asian/Chinese, one Indian – that provide me with products that don’t often appear in regular supermarkets. Stuff like Yu Choy, bitter melon, dried anchovies, preserved mustard greens, Szechuan peppercorns, rasam powder, toor dal, etc. And if I do find them, they’re not in the price range I like. I’m also a bargain hunting freak, so when I see oyster sauce for $4.00 at the store down the street, I like feeling smug about the one I got for $1.39 at the Asian grocery store. Hah! Suckers!

And because I tend to look for and stock up on authentic Asian, Mexican, Greek, or Eastern European items, I go to different ethnic stores to procure them for their affordability. Sure I could order some of those items online or get them from Whole Foods, but that also means bye bye kids’ college fund.

So, when considering a location of our next home, it hurts my heart (and belly) to think that my favorite grocers may not be as convenient. My daughter’s favorite takeout foods like beef pho and wonton soup from the Vietnamese and Chinese places by us, where whole roasted ducks hang by their feet in the display window, will no longer be just a hop and a skip away. We could live closer to these spots but that means we’ll have to suffer a smaller place; it will only be a matter of time before we drive each other crazy. Or we could move away from soul food central and live comfortably, perhaps even peacefully, in a larger space. Decision. Decisions.
What would you do? No, seriously, what would you do? Thinking about this – weighing the pros and cons and still not being able to decide – has been the bane of my existence for the past few days. I’m hoping someone would give me the answer already. Pretty please?

While you are contemplating what I should do with my life, here’s a glimpse of one of my regular weeknight meals, just to give you an idea. Come on, it’s Kitch’s blog – I can’t not end with some kind of food item, although, unlike her, I don’t have a recipe for you because I rarely use one myself. Where I’m from, we learn by watching our mom, aunts or grandmothers in the kitchen and hope for the best that our version comes out fine.

In this case, these stir-fried noodles are ubiquitous in morning markets in Malaysia. I was one of those oddball kids who actually enjoyed accompanying my mom to the market. That was the beginning of my lifetime love affair with fresh produce. My Guy gets excited over the latest Android tablet; I can hardly contain myself when I see fresh, vibrant hues of green, red and yellow stacked precariously at grocery stores or especially at farmers’ markets.

The markets in Malaysia also offer breakfast items to tame tummies wild with anticipation from all that meal planning and dreaming, and these noodles happen to be one of them. Yes, rice and noodles appear in every meal in our culture. Since I’ve never watched the food peddlers make this particular dish, I’ve had to mostly guess at the flavors.

The end result? The dish turned out nothing like what I remembered. But the flavors, aroma and texture did take me back…waaaaay back. An invisible but surprisingly strong string that tethers me to my past. Sometimes, that’s good enough for me.

And hence, the dilemma.

All of the ingredients, clockwise: Rice stick noodles, toasted sesame oil, oyster sauce, thin soy sauce, Chinese sausage, onion, garlic, egg, shitake mushrooms and leafy greens called choy sum. All easily found at the Asian grocer, and it didn’t even break my bank.

The final product, garnished with fried shallots and eaten with my favorite hot sauce on the side, both staples at my house.

***

Justine, you are teasing me with those photos–Ethnic dishes like yours are KitchWitch crack. Please, if you ever perfect the recipe, I NEED to have it, Sam I Am. Thanks for sharing my space today–you’re the best.

And hey, readers, if you have any ideas on a solution for Justine’s dilemma, we’d love to hear it!

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

bryan February 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm

I don’t think that I can help Justine with her dilemma but you do have my mouth watering. One of my favorite things about moving to the area that I live now is the great selection of Mexican, Polish and Asian stores.

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6512 and growing February 24, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Because I live in an 800 square foot house with 2 kids and a hubs and it all works perfectly fine, I say: don’t stray from the food.

Also, how cool that your mom is coming. Are we talking live-in grandma?

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Justine February 24, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Yes, Rachel, she’ll be live-in grandma, live-in sitter, live-in cook of childhood favorite dishes, live-in baker, etc. We can’t wait!

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Stacia February 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm

I think you’ve cleared my sinuses just by posting that picture of the chili oil. Whew, I can feel the scrumptious burn! As for your dilemma, I think you’ve got to go for space and comfort (and also sanity and privacy). You can stock up on what you need when you’re in the city for work or fun. And another plus: you’ll probably have a bigger pantry to store larger quantities of the items you need!

Also: When can I come to dinner??

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Justine February 24, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Stacia, you don’t need an invitation – just come on over anytime. You know I’d love to have you!

Good point on stocking up. Now to add to this already too-long list of criteria: Must have enormous pantry.

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Katybeth February 24, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Are you near Devon in Chicago?
The ingredients look wonderful and I’m sure the dish is very tasty…now if only I had a recipe…I am in the remedial cooking group ). But your husband and I could bond over gadgets!

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Justine February 24, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Why, yes I am, Katybeth. And now that I’ve told you that, I’m going to have to kill you. So much for anonymity :)

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Justine February 24, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Kitch, believe me, the pleasure and honor is ALL mine. I still can’t believe you asked me! I feel like a schoolgirl who just got asked to the dance by the boy she has a crush on. Although really, I don’t think of you in *that* way. I’m sure you’re lovely and all…

Thank you again for hosting my words here. If I remember how to replicate this dish, I’ll be sure to share the recipe. That’s the problem with winging something. I often can’t recreate even my own accidental masterpieces. :)

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bryan February 25, 2011 at 2:54 am

Justine, where are you considering moving to? I moved from Chicago (Logan Square) to the suburbs (Shaumburg) about 6 years ago. I lucked out with the grocery store situation. I have several small specialized stores within a couple of miles and the biggest Whole Foods just a couple more miles down the road (do they really need a bar in a grocery store?). The drive into the city every day is a pain but we co have a big yard and affordable living space for us.

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Justine February 25, 2011 at 8:14 am

Bryan, you’re a brave, brave man, to make that trek every day. I used to live in Palatine, so I kinda know what you mean. But to my embarrassment, I really wasn’t planning on going too far – Rogers Park or even Wicker Park/Bucktown at most – but adding even 15 minutes in city traffic is way too long for us :) Endless stoplights and potholes make the journey harder than it is. Or maybe I’m just a whiner…

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Phoo-d February 25, 2011 at 5:49 am

Growing up I lived in a tiny 900 sq ft house with 4 people and 3 large dogs and it worked just fine. You learn to keep only the things you need and resolve arguments quickly because there is no where to go to get your own ‘space’ when mad. On the flip side I now have a lot more space but am more than 100 miles from the nearest specialty grocery store. If you opt for the space just make sure you have a large pantry/extra freezer. You would be amazed at how you can stock up on ingredients if the need arises! The lack of take-out, well that can’t be fixed…

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Jenna February 25, 2011 at 9:10 am

It’s a tough dilemma, no doubt about it . . . I think location may trump space at least for this season of my life. However, I can’t speak for the future, and I totally understand how with kids (and mom) a small space could feel stressful and overwhelming. Because you definitely want that sense of peace in your home . . .
So I haven’t actually answered the question (heh heh), but I will say that I LOVE Golden Pacific Market on Broadway. I haven’t been there recently because it’s too cold to make an extra stop on my way home from work, but the spring weather is bound to bring more Asian groceries into my life. =)

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Amy @ Never-True Tales February 25, 2011 at 11:59 am

And as always, after visiting Kitch’s blog, I walk away wishing I could cook. You’re the perfect complement to her site today, Justine! (No easy answers on the housing dilemma, but for what it’s worth, I’d choose space over food convenience, I think!)

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Belinda February 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Hey TKW and Justine, I can get all those ingredients in the picture from my local grocery store just a few blocks from my home! And I can get all other ethnic ingredients you mentioned within walking dsitance! All kinds of authentic ingredients at my fingertips without having to drive anywhere. Yeah, I’m spoiled. I feel your dilemma.

So my question to you, Justine, if you’re having to drive anyway to all these grocery stores to get your authentic ethnic ingredients, and you absolutely can’t accommodate your growing family where you are, then maybe it won’t be so bad to add another few miles to get to these places from a home with more space? You’d have the space to stock up your pantry and have the room to breathe when baby and Little Miss misbehave. I do think it’s important to have a home that’s a safe and peaceful haven for you and your family. Just my two-cents.

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Justine February 25, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Belinda, I’m so jealous! Walking distance?? I have great restaurants right by me but not the grocery stores.

And you’re so right. If we’re going to drive anyway, what’s a few extra miles and minutes. I’ve always been in awe of your wisdom, but this time, especially since your insight clarified things for me, I’m very grateful for it.

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BigLittleWolf February 25, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Looks and sounds absolutely delicious! (You do Kitch proud.)

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Cathy February 25, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I don’t know Justine. I must say that I am all about the food. And, my experience with moving into a larger space is that you just end up collecting more stuff. But, if you think it would negatively affect your quality of life, you can always make trips to the store and stock up. I know that’s probably not the best solution.

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Biz February 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm

I could relate to this post! When my husband and I moved from Oak Park (about 10 miles NW of Chicago) we were in the middle of everything – food, transportation, restaurants!

We moved 45 miles NW of Oak Park, and suddenly while we had a house on an acre lot, we could not find decent Chinese food within a 45 minute drive. Fast forward to a few weeks ago – my husband hears about a Chinese place that has the best food – here’s the kicker – its 10 minutes from our house and we’ve passed by it a million times!

So buy the house that is comfortable for you – and here’s hoping you’ll have the same luck as us! :D

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Justine February 26, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Are you anywhere near Asia Noodle House in Hoffman Estates? That’s the only place in the Chicagoland area now that serves authentic Malaysian food and man, sometimes I do make that trek out there when absolutely nothing will do to quell my homesickness. They do the street foods really well.

And yes, I think I’ll do just that – find a comfy place and hope I have a new string of discoveries closer by me.

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Leslie February 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Hiya, neighbor faves!
Justine, I hear you on the lack of recipe – I cook mostly on instinct and memory, too, with or without a parent or grandparent to watch. Sadly, I’m 35 minutes from the nearest Asian market, further from Chinese takeout, and further yet from anything good and Indian. Not so sadly, I make it work – carefully planned grocery trips and celebratory weekend meals. Our rural situation leaves us far from lots of good stuff – a big library, most of our friends, the movies, the coffee shops – and because we love our home, we sort of forget the inconvenience of it.
I’ve been eager to hear about your house hunt!

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Justine February 26, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Hi Leslie, I think you touch upon a very important point here – “because we love our home, we sort of forget the inconvenience of it.” Right now, home is a place where my things are but I don’t necessarily love it, so I think if we did find a place that we all love, I may overlook whatever that’s lack outside of it. So…wish us luck! :)

As for the hunt – still nada, but I’m sure I’ll keep you guys posted. It has been all-consuming lately, as you can imagine.

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TKW February 25, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Personally, I could deal with living away from an Asian/Indian grocer–that’s what STOCKPILING is for! My neighbors and I even alternate trips down to good markets (45 minutes away) every few months. Can you say: ginormous bags of basmati and curry leaves?

But I couldn’t bear to be far away from good ethnic restaurants. I’m 20 minutes away from the best our area has to offer, and that’s passable, but still a drag when you are sick and snotty and Need The Pho!!

Damn, I am no help. But I still was so happy to have you posting here today. xo

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Justine February 26, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Kitch, I LOVE that you need The Pho too, just like we do, especially when the weather’s so cold. And yes, stockpiling is going to be the name of the game – we’ve already decided on the size rather than the location. But even then, we haven’t found one that fit all our criteria. You’d think a city of this size would have something for a family of 5 plus 3 pets!

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KLZ February 25, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Chicago you say? Were you living in Uptown??

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Justine February 26, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Very close. Andersonville, although my first place in the city was Uptown, and boy was that my undoing!

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Contemporary Troubadour February 25, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Oh man. I miss me some proper Asian choy like my mother always makes when I go home. The selection at our near-enough-to-venture-there grocery is limited, and I haven’t plucked up the guts to check Uwajimaya’s prices in downtown Seattle. The rest of the Asian grocers are too far of a drive from us to make it worth the gasoline, even without traffic.

I say build an addition onto your current house, even if it means going vertically!

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Privilege of Parenting February 25, 2011 at 11:01 pm

I was reading this, finding myself both tempted by the ingredients and a touch intimidated to just jump in… and then reading the comments the Devon/Chicago location took me back nearly five decades (when I lived on Damen Ave and the culinary epicenter of my life was Devon and Western).

Your post made me miss Chicago hot dogs, a certain deli in Ann Arbor, the ducks at 22 Mott Street in New York (and the poppyseed pastries from Bruno’s around the corner from me on Thompson Street)… and yet now I am happy where I live in LA, and I think I can get the exact greens you suggest, fresh at my local farmers market.

There is a latin term, genius loci, which means the spirit of a place.

My thought on the move is to go where fate takes you, and then explore, sniff out the cool “local” things in whatever corner of the city you land (and then give us a few more hints on how to make whatever it is you end up throwing together).

Thanks for hosting KW—and all good wishes to both of you.

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Tom B. Taker February 26, 2011 at 8:45 am

Living in a small town, there are many, many times I can’t find the ingredients called for in a recipe. It can be frustrating.

Nice post.

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Mrs.Mayhem February 26, 2011 at 8:58 am

There are pros and cons to both places. Such a tough dilemma. Good luck with your decision!

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Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities February 27, 2011 at 3:35 pm

A true dilemma indeed. I love that such a vital part of your identity is tied up in the rich foods you and your family make and eat. Wonderful to see your words here. I love this neighbor-hopping.

(Hi, Kitch!)

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Christine @ Coffees & Commutes February 27, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Hello to both my wonderful friends! Sorry I’m late…my weekend away and all that. Justine, I am so very envious of your little one’s palate. Tonight it was Shepherd’s Pie here because I knew my kids would eat it. Food is very boring where my children are concerned.

I have no solutions for you with regard to your dilemma, I live in rural Ontario, and I can assure you there are no ethnic grocery stops anywhere near by. However, I am heartened by the increasing diversity I can find at my everyday supermarket. It gets better and better. But the time my boys will actually eat the stuff, I’m hopeful I’ll be able to find whatever I need!

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Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri February 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Justine, nice to see you here! I understand this dilemma because where I live the closest Indian grocery store is about 30 minutes away. They often don’t carry all of the items so I am relegated to ordering them from mother-in-law who sends them via mail. There is a lot of built-in planning that we have to do if want certain Indian items. I was certainly spoiled in Houston, where I could be transported to the streets of India within five minutes (Hillcroft has the most delicious Indian goodies).

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Velva February 27, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Stay close to the food! It’s all give and take but, once you move away from the food, you have given up too much. Trust me on this one.

Great post.
Velva

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Amber February 28, 2011 at 10:41 am

Lovely to see you here, Justine! I don’t have any solutions for you but I do have one question: How do my husband and I acquire traditional spices in our not-so-cultural-friendly neighborhood? Perhaps under your guidance we can make our meals so much more delicious.

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Justine February 28, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Hey Amber, nice to see you here too! I’ve not ordered from them before but I did a quick google search and they’re one of the many sites that carry spices you can easily order online. They don’t just sell by the bulk, which is nice: http://www.spicebarn.com/ Hope you get to try some of them and feel free to email me with questions about spices – I absolutely love them!

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Kelly February 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Wow – looks delicious, Justine! My suggestion is choose space over convenience for all the reasons previously mentioned. Plus, going to the market or to your favorite now-far-away dining spot will make great family bonding or date night time!

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subWOW March 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Spices and sauces make the cooking! This post rocks Justin!

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