As smells go, foot sweat ranks among the most putrid. Add a well-worn sandal and the resulting aroma is not one any civilized person would want to endure—especially not while dining on a plate of, say, rice noodles and shredded chicken in basil sauce. So when Sean Lennon (yes), touring bass player for Cibo Matto, lowers his perspiring, sandal-clad foot directly over a takeout container of “drunken noodles” from Pan-Asian Noodles and Grill sitting on the floor, we who have our chopsticks primed to dig in are not amused.
“Oh Sean, that’s really gross,” barks Yuka Honda, Cibo Matto’s esteemed mixologist and offstage spokeswoman. Honda slaps Lennon, then warmly strokes his back as he sits on the arm of her chair.
To counter Honda’s fuss, Lennon points out that he didn’t actually touch the food, he only came dangerously close. “That’s not the point,” Honda explains. “You could have stepped in doo-doo. And we want to eat that.”
Russell Simins, who is playing for Cibo Matto while on break from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, sits on a folding chair in a closetlike room backstage at the 9:30 Club, where the band has just finished the last show of an East Coast tour. Simins watches the exchange between Lennon and Honda. “Now do you see the dynamic and how much food means to them?” he asks. With a piece of fried tofu stuck to the ends of his chopsticks, Simins gestures to the Pan-Asian bounty spread out on the floor. “We got a shoe a little too close here, a little too close there. Those things are not good.”
On the group’s debut, Viva! La Woman, Miho Hatori (the vocalist who rounds out the band, officially a duo) sings, raps, and howls about the all-encompassing pleasures of gastronomy like a downtown-scene M.F.K. Fisher.
A list of song titles suggests that the band’s culinary tastes are nearly as broad as its musical ones, ranging from the simple (“Apple,” “Artichoke”) to the exotic (“White Pepper Ice Cream”) to the lowbrow (“Beef Jerky”). But even though the names of nine of Viva!’s 10 songs refer to something edible, Honda insists that the meaning in Matto’s music reaches far beyond her and Hatori’s appetites for grub.
“Food wasn’t the focus of the record,” Honda says. “We just picked food titles and chose to use those words. It was kind of a funny idea, but the album’s not only about food, really. It’s about us and what we like.”
Hatori, whose stomach is churning from some bad Vietnamese and one too many fast-food runs, can only nibble on the vegetables in a very lemony Asian shrimp salad. “I hate food,” she gripes, turning her head toward the floor to mimic a loud barfing ritual. “Oh Miho,” says Honda, laughing. “We actually love food, but she’s a little sick right now….We just hate it when people hear our songs and think we’re, like, cute or a gimmick.”
Having their victual imagery misconstrued as an empty joke is in fact a manifestation of the greater stereotypes Matto works to combat. As Japanese-born women with slight builds, Honda and Hatori visually represent what some people naively think to be the conventional Asian woman: frail, timid, sweet, adorable, and childlike. Cibo Matto’s music is in constant conflict with such notions. In the scream-along chorus to “Beef Jerky,” Hatori gives a mighty testament to the band’s defiance and personal strength: “Who cares/I don’t care/A horse’s ass is better than yours.” And in the generally male-dominated world of found sounds, beats, and samples, Honda herself is an aberration—and a visionary one at that. When Honda and Hatori chose food as Viva!’s recurring metaphor, they actually thought it would provide an area where they could free themselves from biased assumptions.
“Food is easier because you can put all these weird things together and it doesn’t really matter,” says Honda, picking now at a Styrofoam box filled with vegetarian stir-fry and noodles. “You know, if you take whatever people are trying, you put it into something, and if they like it, they like it. It just has to taste good. We hope people will think about our music in that sense, too.”
However, the idea that Cibo Matto is a band that takes its eating seriously can hardly be overstated. When I tell Honda about several Burmese restaurants I tried in London last summer, she hits me with a flurry of questions about their names and specialties. “We love Burmese food,” she gushes, glancing knowingly towards Hatori. All the musicians repeatedly thank me for bringing them a decent meal (“It’s hard to eat well on tour,” Honda says), their overall favorite dish being a refreshingly cold plate of noodles topped with vegetables, chicken, and a peanut curry sauce. An
unopened container of Asian ravioli is
discovered as I get up to leave, prompting us to sit back down and
discuss how there’s nothing funny about the pleasure that can be derived from a sensuous offering of fine
“You wouldn’t believe how a lot of people don’t realize what we feel about food,” Honda says. “They just think it’s really funny. When we try to explain, like, what we think of food and how we think of music, they don’t understand cause they don’t have the same amount of interest in food in their mind. It’s amazing how people think it doesn’t mean anything when actually it means a lot.”
Pan-Asian Noodles & Grill, 2020 P St. NW. (202) 872-8889.
The dolmeh at Kabab Cabana has its good days and its bad days. On one visit, an order comes appropriately chilled and firm, preserving the light crunch of the grape-leaf wrapper. Another time, the rolls stuffed with rice, herbs, and split peas taste like they’ve spent too much time close to the grill and are limp and lifeless. But you can always count on the Cabana’s proprietor to go off on a tangent about the kids he has at home or his countrymen. “People in America are afraid of Iranians, like they think they’ll take over or something,” he says, holding onto my change while I hear him out. “Like those guys who build those megamalls—they’re Iranians and they live in Canada, like they aren’t welcome here. And you know what? They bring millions of dollars to their community, and that’s Americans’ loss. They’re like me. Hard-working businessmen.”
Kabab Cabana, 3205 Mount Pleasant St. NW. (202) 667-9500. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.