All posts by Crystal Cun

About Crystal Cun

Crystal Cun ate and earned her way through a master’s in Food Culture and Communications from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. For one year, through March 2011, she was awash in a sea of olive oil, photojournalism and sustainable food production. Prior to this peripatetic European adventure, she worked in research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and studied economics at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. At the moment, she is a student in the Culinary Techniques program at the International Culinary Center. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works at W&T Seafood, a family-run seafood distributor specializing in premium oysters. Sometimes this requires abundant amounts of research with wine and oysters. She also works as a consultant for FRESH, an indie documentary about the farmers, activists and entrepreneurs who are reinventing our food system.

A Marathon for Justice

Disney Marathon

All right, here goes. On Nov. 5th, I am running the NYC Marathon for Legal Services NYC. A spot opened up last minute, and I decided to seize the opportunity to be the change I want to see in the world. That means I’m fundraising at least $3500 to fund legal defenses and advocacy for immigrants, tenants, women, students, workers, veterans, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses. More

Snapshots from the Sahara

Sahara Desert, Morocco

One of the most popular things for tourists to do in Morocco is to see the desert. If you search online, there are dozens of identical-sounding tour companies that more or less follow the same formula of driving you from Marrekesh or Fes out to the desert, putting you on a camel to trek to a Berber camp where you’ll sleep overnight, then waking at dawn to catch the sunrise and do the reverse trek back to town before it gets too hot. (In November, heat was not actually a problem and I actually found the desert to be uncomfortably cold and damp because it had just rained a few hours before.) I emailed a few tour companies and got quotes of 270-300 euros per person, which seemed outlandishly expensive, even by NYC standards. They also required a deposit, which I was a bit wary of.

After doing some more digging and asking around, it seemed like our best bet was to set up something when we were on the ground in Morocco. Annoying, and it goes against my type-A love for planning, but if we didn’t go with a tour company with a spiffy internet presence, it would likely cost a third to half as much. So I closed my eyes and simply left a few days of the itinerary completely unplanned.

After landing in Casablanca, we immediately hopped on a train to Fes, where we met Ali on the train, who specializes in ceramics designs. Ali was also on the way to Fes, and when we mentioned needing a desert tour guide, his eyes lit up and he immediately called a friend who arranges desert tours. What luck, only a few hours into the trip and we’d already solved our biggest logistical conundrum! The tour guide, Amin, said he could add us to an existing group tour for 1,100 dirhams, and asked to meet us at a cafe the next morning, so that he could explain the tour details. I wasn’t totally sure why this couldn’t be done over the phone, but figured it’d be an opportunity for us to suss him out. After buying us coffee, he promised to text me later with more details about a tour start time and pick up location for the next morning. We walked out after fairly confident that things were going as planned, until the hours went by and I still hadn’t gotten any messages from Amin. In late afternoon, he messaged that he still wasn’t sure about the tour time, and that there was a lot of snow in the mountains. Huh. Evening came and still no answers, and by the next morning, I was in a full panic. I called Ali and explained that his friend had gone AWOL, and he said he’d reach out for me. When he called back, he said that there had been an accident, that the tour was off, but we could take the Supratours bus to Merzouga and it would be fine. I’d researched the bus earlier, and while it was an option, from Fes it would entail back-to-back 11 hour overnight bus rides, which would make us sleep-deprived zombies. No thanks, it was time for plan B.
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How to Buy Real Saffron in Morocco

Moroccan Saffron

Morocco is known for their abundance of spices, particularly saffron. Unfortunately, saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world because of the enormous amounts of labor involved. (The purple saffron crocus harvest lasts only 1-2 weeks in the fall, and it requires 150 flowers to yield 1 gram of saffron threads.) I wanted to see if I could score a deal on saffron (compared to prices in the US), but of course, saffron is also one of the most widely faked spices on the market, so the challenge was on.

There’s lots of information online about how to distinguish real from fake saffron, but having worked with the real thing (and bought the fake version in a sealed container in Turkey), I was confident that my nose would not lead me astray. Real saffron has an intense and distinctive odor; if you can smell the product, it should be pretty easy to tell what you’re buying. If you stick your nose in the jar and don’t smell much of anything, you’re likely being sold safflower, which looks similar but has none of the flavor of saffron. Of course, this does not help first-time saffron buyers or anyone who doesn’t remember what it should smell like. If that’s the case, look for red threads with small bits of yellow on one end and a trumpet-like flare on the other end.

Spices in Tangiers
Continue reading How to Buy Real Saffron in Morocco

Morocco, a Land to Dye For

Paint dyes in Chefchaouen

Let me admit, I had a pretty tenuous conception of what Morocco would be like before traveling there. And I don’t think I was alone in my ignorance.

Me: I’m going to Morocco next week, it’s going to be awesome!
Friend: Cool! Is it going to look like Agrabah? (the fictional setting of Disney’s Aladdin)
Me: No, you idiot, that doesn’t even exist!
Friend (invoking another Disney movie): Well then, is it jungles and lions or what?
Me: Um…let me get back to you. (rewatches Aladdin in the meantime)

Turns out Morocco has parts that DO look like Agrabah, and rocky plains, and lush sweeping sand dunes, and even a town that looks like an orderly Swiss ski resort. (No tropical jungles though.) After spending nine days there, traversing from big cities to remote desert, I can say that Morocco is one of the most geographically diverse countries I’ve ever visited. It’s trite to say, but it really does have something for everyone.

Oh, and the colors! I say this as someone who was obsessed with collecting and analyzing Crayola crayons as a kid, but I don’t think anyone can leave Morocco without being impressed by the natural array of colors on display. From their spices to their architecture, everywhere you turn is an explosion of rainbows. Take a look:

Blue alley in the medina of Chefchaouen
Blue alley in the medina of Chefchaouen

Continue reading Morocco, a Land to Dye For

All Look Same

Japanese school kids

I have a small confession to make: I’m face-blind.

It’s basically what it sounds like: I have a lot of difficulty remembering and differentiating people’s faces. I’m sorry I don’t recognize you, but it’s nothing personal, I swear.

I’ve mentioned it to some of my close friends, but only if it comes up in context (usually out of concern that I’ve offended someone by not recognizing them).

Sure, you’re thinking, I’m bad at remembering faces too, lots of people are, no big deal! That’s reassuring, and for a long time I thought I was just “bad at faces” like everyone else, but after analyzing it over the years, I’ve concluded that I’m significantly worse than average at facial recognition.

My mom tells me that when I was a young child, I would reach for any Asian man with glasses and call him Dad.

Things are usually fine if the other person has unique physical characteristics, like their hair or body type, unusual scars, a particular tenor to their voice. It’s also easier for me to recognize people that I see frequently in person. Otherwise though, I have to make a concerted effort if I want to remember what a new acquaintance looks like, by studying their face, or more frequently, by memorizing their clothing or glasses so I can get through the evening.

A room full of beautiful people induces mild panic in me because everyone looks so generically similar to each other. It’s a sea of symmetric faces, with no distinguishing features that I can latch onto. Events like a dinner hosted by the Korean Tourism Board or someone else’s family reunion also make me nervous. How am I supposed to figure out who’s who when everyone looks the same?

Here’s some of the ways it affects me:

  • Movies: I struggle with movies and TV shows with lots of characters because I can’t tell the actors apart. If the plot involves characters in disguise, spies, clothing changes, etc. I am particularly at a loss. This rules out the Ocean’s Eleven movies for me, and I had to watch Love Actually two or three times before I felt like I really understood what was happening.
  • Meeting Acquaintances: If it’s been a long time since I last saw you and we’re not that close, I will probably struggle to recognize you, especially if we’re meeting in a busy place like a street corner or a train station. Rather than flag someone down by mistake, I sometimes just look away or study my phone, waiting for the other person to approach me first.
  • Meeting New People: I might wait for you to introduce yourself first because I can’t remember if we’ve met before, and I’d rather not introduce myself and have you tell me that we’ve already met. Earlier that same night, in fact. This is most awkward in professional settings, like a job fair. Luckily, I’ve never had a job that required me to meet and remember lots of people at once, like teaching or public relations.
  • Running into people randomly: You know how sometimes you’ll run into friends you haven’t seen in years at a cafe or in the park or back in your hometown? I don’t. Unless you proactively approach me, I will never realize we passed each other. On the plus side, it means I’m never awkwardly running into people I’d rather avoid.
  • Running into people out of context: Placing people when I see them out of their normal setting is hard. I run into my landlord periodically around the neighborhood, and it’s always a surprise to see him waving me down on the street, in the park, at the Food Coop. This was a particularly prevalent problem for me in college, where I was constantly meeting new people and I couldn’t remember how I knew them. Once, I was sitting in a play, and an older man tapped me on the shoulder and began talking to me as if he knew me. I carried on the conversation as if I recognized him, but couldn’t determine where we had met. Days later, I realized it was someone who had been attending my chimes concerts.

Once, I met a friend of a friend who casually mentioned being face-blind. My eyes lit up; it was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about face blindness outside of the Internet. We swapped stories for a bit, joking that we were going to have a recurring meeting for face-blind people, where you’d have to reintroduce yourself every time.

For the most part, my face-blindness is just a minor inconvenience. I simply don’t watch Game of Thrones and I will never spot a celebrity in public.

On the flip side, I think I’m less judgmental about physical appearances, both for other people and myself. I probably won’t notice if you’ve gained (or lost) weight, I won’t make hiring decisions based on implicit beauty biases, and the idea of being instantly attracted to someone based on their looks is rather foreign to me.

Maybe we’d all be a bit less shallow and a bit more kind if we couldn’t see people on the outside.

On Running, or How To Do Anything in Life

Running NYC

“When you’re running… there’s a little person that talks to you and that little person says, ‘Oh, I’m tired. My lung’s about to pop. Oh, I’m so hurt; I’m so tired. There’s no way I can possibly continue.’ And you want to quit, right? That person… If you learn how to defeat that person when you’re running, you will learn how to not quit when things get hard in your life.”

– Will Smith

My general philosophy in life is to try to say yes, as much as possible (so long as it’s not something patently illegal or something I’ll obviously regret). Sometimes this leads me to faraway safaris in Sri Lanka. Sometimes this leads me to running in circles.

Back in late April, a friend said that he was going to sign up for a marathon, and asked if I wanted to do it too. Without thinking too much about it, I said yes. After all, I bike regularly, and go for a short run every week…er, month or so, how hard can running a marathon be? Step 1, you start running. Step 2…there is no step 2. Am I right??

So I logged into the Runkeeper account that I’d set up years ago and used once, and signed up for their beginner marathon training program. Four runs each week, with the first week starting with manageable 4 mile runs and a long run of 8 miles on Saturday. I added the next month’s running schedule to my Google calendar, highlighted in red, and tried really hard to either schedule activities on nights when I wasn’t running or shift runs to alternate days if I knew I’d be busy. Each week, I checked the weather and if conditions were challenging for running (thunderstorms), I would slot time in other parts of the day, like early mornings or late evenings. Sometimes I would end up skipping runs, but it would be anticipated and unavoidable, not due to poor planning.

In July, the furnaces hit New York, and running became a sluggish, molasses-paced crawl to the finish. I realized that switching my runs from late afternoons to early mornings would mean more tolerable running temperatures. The only problem was getting out of bed. I’d tried setting alarms in the past to get up early for a run, and had failed every time. This time though, I forced myself to go to bed earlier (10:30 pm at the latest) and when the alarm went off, I reminded myself that while getting up now was painful, running in the brutal summer heat would be even worse. So I’d best stop dawdling and get going.

By November, I had the opposite problem. Temperatures were dropping precipitously, and an ever-lengthening night meant that it was doubly difficult to pull myself out of bed when it was cold AND dark. I’d hit the snooze button once, sigh, then force myself into the chilly air, where no amount of layering could prevent my fingers from being numb after 120 minutes outside.

But I kept doing it. And every time, it got a little easier. Running a marathon, as it turns out, is less an accomplishment of physical training and more a feat of psychological endurance. While you can certainly push yourself to run until winded, for the most part, running a marathon requires a lot of long but slow runs, done at a comfortable pace where you can easily hold a conversation with someone. In other words, running is not the difficult part. The real challenge is the discipline to manage your schedule and get out of bed.
Continue reading On Running, or How To Do Anything in Life