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Saturday, February 29, 2020
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Suggestions for your senses,
every Saturday at 9 a.m.
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SPONSORED BY
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Good morning.

This week, we peruse Shantell Martin’s entrancing new book, Lines; consider Light’s new take on the “dumb phone”; talk koji with fermentation expert Rich Shih; get expressive with the new rollout of MIDI 2.0; and learn about the sweet, sweet scent of hinoki cypress.

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See
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Drawing the Line
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Courtesy Shantell Martin
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With a chunky marker in hand, artist and illustrator Shantell Martin is widely known for the distinctive black-and-white line drawings she creates in meditative, stream-of-consciousness grooves, live and in real-time, transforming everyday spaces and objects into canvases for her freewheeling compositions. The performative and often ephemeral nature of Martin’s works is partly why, despite being no stranger to pen and paper, working on her first book, the soon-to-launch Lines (Heni Publishing)—with texts from Katharine Stout and Hans Ulrich Obrist—was more of an undertaking than she’d imagined. 

While the book’s title was a no-brainer (“everything starts with drawing, everything starts with lines,” Martin says), revisiting her earlier works from the aughts was a trickier task that required digging through her old hard drives and tracking down photographic documentation. A graduate of Central Saint Martins, she got her start as a “visual DJ” while teaching English in Tokyo, partly as a scrappy way to forgo cover entry into the city’s clubs. “I attribute the acceleration of my style to those formative years,” Martin says, though the fast-paced nature of the work meant they were rarely documented. That’s since changed—as has Martin’s work. A number of solo exhibitions and high-profile collaborations (with the likes of Nike, Max Mara, and Kendrick Lamar) have given rise to a global fanbase. And while Martin’s works are arguably best experienced in live, in-person sessions—you can catch her in action this May, as the featured artist of our #HandMarkingTime series on the @slowdown.tv Instagram—seeing her works printed and bound offers a satisfying second. 

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Touch
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A Leading Light
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Courtesy The Light Phone
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Americans spend an average of more than four hours a day on their smartphones—and it’s hardly innocent fun. A new study finds that smartphone addiction can have the same effect on the brain as drug addiction, reducing gray matter and delivering a dopamine rush that’s even likened to the high of snorting cocaine. For artist Joe Hollier, it took just one stint working in an experimental program at Google—where he was tasked to conceive the very apps designed to keep users glued to their screens—to convince him to take an about-face approach to tech. “I kind of said, well, geez, could being any more connected to my smartphone for another two hours a day be what I actually need,” he recalls, “or am I constantly craving escape and wishing I lived in a van off the grid?” 

In 2014, Hollier joined forces with product designer Kaiwei Tang to launch Light, then the latest startup to offer a “dumb phone” under the premise that “a phone is a tool, and it should serve you as the user, not the other way around.”  Its current model, the Light Phone II—touted as “a phone that actually respects you”—features a monochrome touchscreen and a smaller handheld size, with severely edited-down features. No social media feeds; no apps, push notifications, emails, or ads; and no camera. Still, the Light II is smarter than other designer dumb phones. Unlike Jasper Morrison’s phone for Punkt—which scraps an internet connection and touchscreen altogether in favor of static, calculator-like buttons (a design that philosopher and social scientist Christian Madsbjerg discusses his affinity for on Ep. 27 of our Time Sensitive podcast)—Light’s phone makes a few concessions. It has full texting capability and typography that’s easy on the eyes, and will soon roll out features for ride-sharing and listening to music (i.e., millennial essentials). 

At first glance, you might simply mistake Light as an older iPhone model from the early aughts. But while Light may read as a nostalgic wish to tuck Pandora back into its box—and ironically gaining attention on Instagram along the way—Hollier attests it’s not about dialing back the clock on innovation, or intentionally staying a few steps behind current tech trends. For him, it’s simply presenting an alternative that makes a case for reclaiming idle time: “Many artists have claimed that boredom is the necessary aspect, if not the essential aspect of creativity.”
 

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SPONSORED BY
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Taste
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Mold Gold
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Photo: Claudia Mak
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Rich Shih, founder of the blog Our Cook Quest and co-author of the forthcoming book Koji Alchemy: Rediscovering the Magic of Mold-Based Fermentation, is a self-taught cook and fermentation expert who makes everything from takuan pickles to fish sauce from scratch, tweaking each ingredient, method and process along the way. Here, Shih tells us about the special fungus in koji, the source of umami in fermented ingredients like miso, soy sauce, mirin, and more.

You’ve become an expert authority on all things related to pickling and fermentation—and especially koji—despite holding down a full-time job as a mechanical engineer. How’d you fall into the culinary world?

I grew up eating my mom’s food—she’s a really great cook—and I’ve always been exposed to an array of flavors and textures. I've been super enthusiastic about food my whole life, but I think the bug for cooking and wanting to really understand more about it really hit me when I got to college, just from the standpoint of funding my own food adventures, as opposed to having to go out to eat. So I just started perusing PBS and a bunch of magazines like Cook’s Illustrated, making my way through a bunch of media research, hanging out with folks in the food industry and learning how to cook. 

Maybe four or five years ago, I didn’t know all that much about fermentation, though I knew how to brew beer and make simple things like kimchi and vinegar. I would say my enthusiasm for the more in-depth stuff all started with my obsession with fish sauce and doing as many things with it as possible. I think one of the coolest things I made was fish sauce–cured bacon. I’d basically bought a bunch of fish sauce to experiment with, and at that point it only made sense to learn how to make it from scratch. Because of my engineering background—and with the rise of modernist cuisine, molecular gastronomy, and all of that, which leverages science equipment to make food—I was able to figure out these machines and processes, tinker in my kitchen at home, and help people understand them more.

How is koji made and used to create ingredients like miso?

To make koji, you basically cook the rice in a way so that it’s slightly undercooked, to create a situation so that the mold can grow well and has access to air. You’re gelatinizing the starch to make it easier for the mold to eat: If it’s not cooked enough, the mold can’t infiltrate the grain to grow. On the other side of things, you don’t want the rice too mushy or overly wet because it’ll just become this mass with no air circulation. You have to strike a balance, then you have to put an incubator that's slightly warmer than normal conditions—typically around 80 Fahrenheit/30 Celsius is a good number to hit—along with high humidity. 

The key to growing koji is that it creates enzymes that allow you to break starches down into sugars, which feed the fermentation process. There are two sides to that: one is making alcohol, and the other side is using these enzymes to break more complex nutritional building blocks into simple ones—that makes them easier for us to digest, but also breaks proteins down into amino acids, which creates the umami in things like miso, soy sauce, and a lot of other ingredients. Basically, to make miso you take the koji starch substrate, you add a protein mash to it (that’s typically soybeans), and you add salt to it. Depending on when you prefer to enjoy your miso and what side of the flavor profile you want to drive, the rest comes down to the duration and the salt level.

What are some of the ways you’ve experimented with koji and miso? 

The flavors are driven primarily by the core ingredients. So if you use rice for your koji, or if you use barley, that variation lends to a really different flavor profile. Then if you’re using soybeans as the base for your miso, which is the traditional way, or if you choose to swap it out with something like chickpeas, or some other bean or nut, those will yield a completely different range of flavors. One of the things that I kind of messed around with in the beginning was just swapping out soybeans for another type of protein altogether. For one miso variant, I used a fresh cheese on the side of ricotta, which after a couple of months had aged cheese flavors on the order of some combination of a parmesan, romano, or blue cheese. It all comes down to just understanding the basic components, what they are, and how they function, then doing whatever it is that you want by playing with those variables. 

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Hear
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MIDI to the Max
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Photo: Andrew Zuckerman
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If you’ve ever listened to a song with synths, drum machines, or other digital instrumentation—which is to say, most any genre of music produced since the ’80s, aside from classical or acoustic—you’ve likely heard the powers of MIDI, short for “musical instrument digital interface,” at play. First introduced in 1983, MIDI revolutionized the recording industry by allowing musicians and producers to input a range of hardware and digital instruments for further mixing, programming, and adjusting on a computer. Retro as that may sound in today’s tech-driven landscape—in which nearly every bedroom musician has access to GarageBand on their laptop—MIDI is the industry-standard protocol that converts digital information into audio. Despite its age, creatives have continually found ways to innovate with MIDI, and the sandbox just got much more interesting: A few weeks ago, MIDI received its first major update with the rollout of MIDI 2.0. Chief among the updates is a two-way control system, and a much higher resolution of sound, allowing for deeper textures, tonalities, and ranges—something many producers say will open up a host of music-making possibilities we can’t yet fathom.  
 

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Smell
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Hinoki Heaven
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Photo: Andrew Zuckerman
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A species of cypress native to central Japan, hinoki is prized for its deeply fragrant scent, and its soft-wood timber is used to build a range of buildings and interiors—from 800-year-old castles and shrines, to everyday sushi bars and hard-wood flooring in homes. “Hinoki is not only a material, it is a spiritual and aesthetic concept,” says Italian expat Iacopo Torini of Kobe-based Bartok Design, a top exporter of the wood. “Hinoki grows straight. Its color is light and its fragrance is fresh but delicate.” Despite its ubiquity in modern times, he adds, “Hinoki symbolizes purity and sincerity, therefore it is the preferred choice for buildings dedicated to the gods, as in the shinto shrines.” 

From a functional standpoint, hinoki is also a resilient, load-bearing wood that’s impervious to rot, owing to its slow growth in cold and rugged, mountainous regions. It’s what makes traditional bathtubs made from hinoki a fixture in Japanese culture—and a superior treat elsewhere in the world, imparting a gentle, sweet aroma when hot water and steam hits the raw, unfinished wood that’s machined to a soft surface. But not all hinoki is equal, says Torini, who sources only the highest-quality hinoki from Kiso Valley in Nagano prefecture, northwest of Tokyo. Unlike wood sourced for buildings, hinoki used for tubs must withstand the trials of continual water pressure, wetness, and drying—a set of conditions that only old-growth trees, 250 to 300 years old or more, are equipped to endure without warping or cracking between uses. Like a fine wine, Torini says, this age also lends hinoki tubs their distinct aromatherapeutic charm: “The aroma is a direct consequence: more complex and almost fruity, compared to younger hinoki that tend to have a stronger conifer smell.”

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Until next week...

Today’s email was written by Aileen Kwun.

Editor: Spencer Bailey
Creative Director: Andrew Zuckerman
Producer: Mike Lala

Correction: Last week’s Taste column misidentified the lake on which the Iga region of Japan rests. It is Lake Biwa, not Niwa.

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