Exploring the Conspiracy, item L14c: Shrimp Lo Mein

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Sick of lo mein yet? I konw I am! Shrimp lo mein is a lot like any other sort and the comments are mostly the same. But for a change of pace, I went to Double Dragon 2, the Germantown Square restaurant’s evil twin down south of campus. Rumor had it that DD2 was the institution responsible for Double Dragon’s signage disclaiming any affiliation with other restaurants of that name. Anyways, long story short, this is from a different place with a somewhat worse reputation, where the combos are a little pricier, and instead of coming with an egg roll, come with a soft drink and a crab rangoon.

Shrimp Lo Mein

In the interest of fully documenting the adventure to a new place, I put the crab rangoon up in the top center. The soft drink is not pictured.

What exactly is this dish? Small shrimp stir-fried in a tangle of round wheat noodles, with a brown sauce that’s reduced down to be basically dry. Veggies are sparse and light: bits of scallion, onion, and carrot are among the more prominent.

How authentically Chinese is it? Well, lo mein (捞面) is a real variety of noodle and a dish made with them, but in the Cantonese tradition it’s apparently some kind of deconstructed soup, with the noodles served on the side and dipped into the soup. The Chinese-American stir-fry dish is a wholly local creation, although it’s not entirely sui generis: it’s not too far afield from, say, Shanghai fried noodles. I’m a bit suspicious of any direct ancestry there though, since Chinese-American cuisine derives more from the culture of Guangzhou than Shanghai.

Is it any good? In this particular combination, it’s not really, and for reasons which can’t actually be laid at the feet of the dish itself. This form is a lunch combo with fried rice (or white rice on demand), and there’s no two ways about it: noodles with a side of rice is kind of aggressively starchy. Most of these lunch-combo dishes are driven by protein and veggies, and while shrimp certainly has a toothsome texture and a reasonably strong flavor, it also tends to be used more sparingly than other proteins and, in this particular setting, is swamped entirely by the noodles. All in all, this combo taken as a whole is something of a carbohydrate monster with only moderate relief from the bland starchiness. Noodles alone would actually work OK, in a not very aggressive way, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for either the main or the side when they have a certain indistinguishable cereal aspect. In considering this particular incarnation of the dish, it’s worthwhile noting the differences from the more familiar Double Dragon (1) presentation: the rangoon, to my eyes, is a less pleasing appetizer than an egg roll, but opinions may differ there; more substantively, the fried rice had bits of either raw or undercooked onion in it, which still had crunch and the sharp raw-onion flavor. In this particular pile of indifference, that sharp flavor and crunch was somewhat welcome, but it’s still a bit irregular and unnerving.

How does it complement the rice? Er, see above. The rice entirely upsets the balance of the meal and turns it from a reasonably tasty tangle of fried noodles into a grim deathmarch through the Land of Starch. The noodles themselves are, while not bone-dry, only thinly coated with a sauce which does not really transfer onto the rice at all.

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Tasting the Conspiracy, item L14b: Beef Lo Mein

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Unsurprisingly, beef lo mein is pretty similar to chicken lo mein and most of the comments below are the same as those for the chicken.

Beef Lo Mein

Yup, looks a lot like any other lo mein.

What exactly is this dish? Strips of beef stir-fried in a tangle of round wheat noodles, with a brown sauce that’s reduced down to be basically dry. Veggies are sparse and light: bits of scallion, onion, and carrot are among the more prominent.

How authentically Chinese is it? Well, lo mein (捞面) is a real variety of noodle and a dish made with them, but in the Cantonese tradition it’s apparently some kind of deconstructed soup, with the noodles served on the side and dipped into the soup. The Chinese-American stir-fry dish is a wholly local creation, although it’s not entirely sui generis: it’s not too far afield from, say, Shanghai fried noodles. I’m a bit suspicious of any direct ancestry there though, since Chinese-American cuisine derives more from the culture of Guangzhou than Shanghai

Is it any good? In this particular combination, it’s not really, and for reasons which can’t actually be laid at the feet of the dish itself. This form is a lunch combo with fried rice (or white rice on demand), and there’s no two ways about it: noodles with a side of rice is kind of aggressively starchy. Most of these lunch-combo dishes are driven by protein and veggies, and giving credit where it’s due, the beef is less aggressively bland in texture or flavor than the chicken. Nonetheless, here it’s really in a pretty lopsided balance with the noodles. All in all, this combo taken as a whole is something of a carbohydrate monster with only moderate relief from the bland starchiness. Noodles alone would actually work OK, in a not very aggressive way, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for either the main or the side when they have a certain indistinguishable cereal aspect.

How does it complement the rice? Er, see above. The rice entirely upsets the balance of the meal and turns it from a reasonably tasty tangle of fried noodles into a grim deathmarch through the Land of Starch. The noodles themselves are, while not bone-dry, only thinly coated with a sauce which does not really transfer onto the rice at all.

Wibble Wednesday: Here be dragons (Isaiah 27)

Back from travels, and here to stay. OTOH, the semester starts up soon, and then I’ll be slammed again, but I’ll try to continue my routine.

Short snarky summary: How do we differentiate between eschatological battles of primal elements and the usual scuffles with the Assyrians? How about including a huge-ass sea monster? That’ll do the trick.

So Chapter 28 starts out with a distinctly supernatural turn. Admittedly, all of Isaiah is pretty suffused with supernatural elements, but there’s an awful lot of it that’s vague enough that you could squint at, say, “God’s wrath will destroy Israel’s enemies and bring Israel prosperity,” and read it as “Israel will destroy its enemies and prosper, and we attribute that to God”. So in the end it’s all much less mythological than it might seem, but in this chapter we meet an authentically extraordinary foe: the serpent Leviathan, whom God will “in that day” (typically read eschatologically) smite and slay.

Weird beasts actually abound in the Bible. At least some of them are presented in utterly mundane contexts: Deuteronomy 14:5, in listing kosher animals, identifies at least 3 which don’t seem to correspond to any known Near East species, but that may be a vocabulary issue rather than one of exotification (e.g. the “תאו” is variously translated as “wild goat” or “wild ox” or “bubal”, which wouldn’t make it rare or supernatural, but the word itself is a complete stumper and these translations are guesses). But then there are the Biblical beasts which are unmistakably monstrous or at least extraordinary: the בהמות (Behemoth), the ראם which is apparently some sort of mighty hoofed beast, and the לִויתן (Leviathan) There are other kind of dubious beasts in between, like my favorite, the  תחש, whose leather was prized for the Tabernacle and for fine sandals. Interpretations of what this beast might be have included ermine (R. Nehemiah), porpoise (NAS bible and Strong’s Concordance), badger (KJV bible), goats (ESV bible), dolphins (ISV bible), and seals (JPS Tanakh); other views hold that it’s not an animal at all, but a description for leather that is either durable (NIV bible) or exceptionally fine (CEV bible). But the Talmudic consensus is that the תחש is a magical beast no longer visible to humanity, possibly with a horn (following R. Hoshaya) and multicolored (according to Rashi). So depending on who you follow, this could be anything from a goat to an invisible multicolored unicorn..

That digression on mythical animals in the Bible was fun, but it was at best incidental to the text in question here. The point, however, is that there’s no real controversy that the Leviathan is, or was meant to be, a mythic beast. Huge serpents have mythic significance in a lot of cultures, and disproportionately serve as forces of destruction: both the Egyptian Apep and the Norse Jormungandr are key players in the great, epic wars between good and evil which fundamentally reshape or destroy the universe. So the idea that Leviathan might have a role to play in the end times is one which seems to accord with a fairly common mythological mode (and one which the Hebrews could plausibly have adapted fro an Egyptian model hey’d encountered). But for all that, this chapter tells us little about who or what Leviathan is, other than associating it with a twisty and elusive serpent and indicating that it somehow deserves God’s wrath. The other Biblical references (mostly in Job) focus on its bigness. If there’s a mythology of Leviathan’s origins and malice, they don’t show up in this text. This means we can’t attach any real-world consequences to Leviathan’s death, save that it’s a fundamentally epochal event. And maybe that sense of enormity is all we’re meant to take from it, because the rest of the chapter (there are 13 verses, and Leviathan’s only in one of them) describe goings-on among the people Israel.

And one of the reasons I spent a lot of paragraphs teasing out this one offhand mention in the first verse is that the other verses are, thematically, awfully familiar and I feel like I’ve said everything there is to say about this kind of triumphal prophecy. There’s a paean to God, which makes use of an extended metaphor of his favor as a “Vineyard of Delight”, kept fresh by God’s tender care of the vines and his ruthless purging on the weeds. This metaphor is carried forwards in a proto-nationalistic vein, with the people Israel themselves taking root and blossoming. There’s then an abrupt shift to suggestign that Israel itself (in spite of representing the vines, not the weeds) will be scourged. The agentof this scourging in opaque: it’s simply about the House of Jacob getting beaten to purge away its sin. That last bit suggests God’s approval, if perhaps not his direct agency. Peculiarly, the purgative includes the destruction specifically of temples, razing altar stones, sacred posts, and incense altars. It’s possible these particular sacred sites (especially the sacred posts and incense offerings) are actually cultic sites to other gods and thus offensive in the site of the Israelite God, but that’s a surprisingly Deuteronomical bent to what has otherwise not gone that way (quick recap of this discrepancy: the Deuteronomists were highly invested in a strong centralized priesthood and temple system, and spent a lot of invective on worship of other gods and even of Yahwist cults outside of the Levite priesthood; Isaiah has hitherto not really fought that fight and, to the extent that the Israelites are guilty of crimes against God’s majesty in his mind, it’s for outright lack of faith, not for faith misdirected).

So, as the above discussion suggests, we segue (rather abruptly to my mind) from one of Isaiah’s tediously repeated tropes (joy and ease in the time to come) to another (the harrowing and destruction of Israel). They’re a weird fit particularly in that order. Interpreting the textual ordering as suggesting a chronology, we have God’s defeat of Leviathan ushering in an era of delight under the wings of God’s grace, and then, after that, Israel is laid waste by God’s wrath. It doesn’t read very well in this order and it works better the other way around (which has been the usual flow in previous chapters). And just to be confusing, it seesaws right on back, because right after Israel is beaten out like grain being threshed and scattered, then the sounding of a horn (a happening which could be either commonplace or mythical depending on interpretation and setting) brings the exiles back home to once again serve God in Jerusalem. So the text bounces from apocalyptic supernatural battle to ease and comfort in the aftermath, immediately to ruination and exile, and then right back to triumph. And none of the connections seem motivated. It’s a peculiar and uneven text and frankly the ill-described sea monster might be the least of its woes.