Friday, December 26, 2008

Kichisen Kaiseki Dinner

Christmas Eve is my wife’s birthday, so we decided to go for kaiseki again. We arranged a babysitter for the little monsters, and called Kichisen for a reservation.

Kichisen was recommended to us by the Kyoto Foodies as the best traditional-style kaiseki in Kyoto. We were more than a little worried about the reservation, since we were calling just a couple of days in advance for dinner on one of Japan’s top date nights, at an amazingly celebrated restaurant whose chef beat Morimoto Masaharu on the original Japanese Iron Chef program — no mean feat, especially considering he won unanimously against Morimoto, who almost never lost. In the event, we called, and they said no problem, see you then.

Kichisen, known also as Kisen, is in Shimogamo, which is a triangular area of northern Kyoto defined by the two big streams that join to form the Kamogawa river. The restaurant is on the southwest corner of Shimogamo Shrine, an old (technically older than Kyoto itself, in fact) and picturesque shrine with lots of grounds that you can see from well down the Kamogawa. The doorway could be anything old-fashioned, really: a big house, a ryokan, anything. But it’s a restaurant.

We go in, slip off our shoes, and are led immediately to the right, into a little room with a bar and a stone floor. We’re given straw slippers to wear from the door to the bar, and I have some trouble putting them on because my feet are big and besides I’m wearing socks, the latter making it tricky to get the sandal thong between my toes. But the distance is about six feet, so it hardly matters. A burly man with a widow’s peak, wearing a white gi top — like a martial arts uniform — took my coat and folded it neatly on the shelf behind us. He also gave my wife a blanket to keep her legs warm, which is a common routine at nice places in the winter. We sat.

For Openers
The burly man went behind the bar and the various other attendants and such vanished. It was just us and him. After handing us hot towels, he promptly gave us these little dishes filled with hot dashi sprinkled with toasted rice (genmai, like in genmai-cha). Pleasant, warming, and stimulating the appetite.
Dashi with genmai
He also checked that we spoke Japanese — me, no, but my wife certainly does — and then asked whether there was anything we don’t like to eat. Nope, we eat everything, no worries. (I wasn’t going to mention the one Japanese favorite I almost always dislike, which is boiled or simmered daikon, because I think he would have been well within his rights to chuck me out. It would be sort of like going to a high-end Italian place and saying you can’t stand garlic, cheese, tomatoes, or pasta. Not that daikon dominates Japanese food, any more than that little list dominates good Italian cooking, but it’s a constant presence. More about this later.)

On to the first course, presented in these cute little dishes, on top of this piece of calligraphy. He explained that we’re leaving the year of the Rat and entering that of the Cow, so in late December we get both. The calligraphy was, as I understand it, a poem with very heavy allusions to Sen no Rikyu, the inventor of tea ceremony and thus the ultimate forefather of kaiseki.
Hassun covered
Inside the dishes, a range of things, not all of which we can identify. From left, clockwise, in the top container: Sliced duck squares sandwiched around a thin slice of sweet simmered something, possibly some kind of sweet turnip or maybe fruit. A cube of some kind of tofu cake, I think with gingko nuts in it. Broccolini simmered in what I believe was Tosa-zu (Tosa-style vinegar), seasoned with ground toasted sesame. A teeny-tiny piece of a stick of super-mild pickled ginger. In the very front right, where you can't see them, were two little long-simmered whole fish, to be eaten whole. In the lower dish were two things: yellow stuff and green stuff. My wife thinks the yellow stuff might have been prepared persimmon of some kind; I think she's wrong, but I can't offer any better guesses. The green stuff... no idea. Maybe some sort of bamboo shoot, but that's out of season, so who knows?

On With The Show

We continued with a clear soup: dashi, shiitake cap, teeny baby bok choy, and a cube made primarily of Ise-ebi (spiny lobster), garnished (aromatized) with julienned yuzu zest. The chef instructed us to taste the dashi first by itself, then drop the yuzu in the front and taste again, and then eat the things in the soup in between sips of broth. That business with the yuzu creates the effect called “aromatized”: the dashi remains dashi (and very good dashi at that!), but the yuzu adds an intense acid-floral aroma. My sense was that these two strongly different flavors are supposed to create a sort of frame for the things in the soup, but I could well be misunderstanding. In any case, it was nice finally to have a classic suimono clear soup made by somebody who’s into it, and I must say that it's lovely when done right.
Next up, otsukuri, which is the local term for what Tokyo-ites call sashimi. It didn’t come up, but it was becoming clear that if we had asked the chef, he would have told us that the proper word is “otsukuri,” although of course a lot of hicks from polluted holes like Tokyo use silly terms like “sashimi.” He is, as you’ll have figured out, pretty proud of Kyoto — “best food in the world.” He also doesn’t like food outside Japan, and told us about how he ate uni (sea urchin) in New York; his host apparently said it was very good, so he was polite, but actually he thought it was old and nasty. Tokyo, he doesn't like much either -- the air is foul and you can't breathe. The only place he seemed to have anything nice to say (other than Kyoto) was Finland, where he liked the fact that the air is clean. Back to food, he also didn’t like the bread in France, but we had to disagree (equally politely) about that one! In any event, the uni question came up because of the otsukuri he served.
The photo is too bright because of the shaved ice, I’m afraid, but you can still see what we ate. Dead-center is a raw shrimp, behind which is a pile of uni. Mmmm, I love uni. In the front is a baby daikon, and then the whole thing is garnished with little edible nibbles. He gave us some sheets of toasted nori seaweed and instructed us to wrap the uni in it, then dip lightly in soy. The shrimp and daikon got the ponzu with grated daikon and so on. Personally, I’m not a fan of raw shrimp, and now I know for sure that I just don’t like it all that much: if I didn’t like it at Kichisen, I don’t like it! But the uni was just right: seafood butter with a little texture, and with the dab of soy and the crunchy nori it was spectacular.
Yuzu-steamed rice covered
Then a hollowed-out yuzu steamed with rice, little dried berries, and tiny fluted potatoes. He encouraged me to photograph it both as presented (with the lid) and opened up. We didn’t quite figure out what the berries were. I thought they might be kuromame, black beans, but he said they were berries and gave the name — which my wife didn’t happen to know off the top of her head. It’s a rather specialized vocabulary, and probably he was using a regional dialect term anyway. They had a very mild taste and a little bit of crunch. The potatoes didn’t taste like all that much, really, but the rice and yuzu combination was warming and friendly after the icy otsukuri. Clearly part of the idea here is an alternation between snow and warmth, giving you the best things of December.
Yuzu-steamed rice


For me, the climactic moment — the best dish of all — was this cup. Inside was fugu, the much-discussed poison blowfish, covered with chopped thin negi (asatsuki) and a sauce of ponzu and other things I couldn’t quite place. I’d had things flavored with fugu before, but here we really got to taste what it’s like: mild, creamy, and rich. (My wife thinks that this might not have just been regular flesh, but obviously it can't be the liver, as the fugu liver is where the tetrodotoxin is, and if you eat more than a trace amount, you die. I think it can't have been organs of any kind, as I think then you'd have had some trace tetrodotoxin and gotten numb lips, which some fugu crazies enjoy.) In any event, it was extraordinary to me. The texture was reminiscent of uni, but firmer. The flavor was very sweet as fish go, and yet ocean brine-y. The only way I can explain it, I guess, is that this fugu was for me everything otsukuri and sushi really ought to be, but never is.
Back to the snows: crab legs split and served in shaved ice. The little dish in front contained the “mustard,” what the Japanese call the miso, i.e. the liver and fat of the crab. It was mixed with a little soy, dashi, ginger, and a little bit of some kind of citrus juice — I think sudachi, but I wouldn’t swear to it. We discussed this with him, while we drank off the dish — it’s for dipping, but it’s too good to let it go to waste. The usual way to serve cold steamed crab in the West is with something like a mayonnaise, which is nice, but my wife and I agreed that you really need something more acid to cut the richness. This combination was lovely: the richness was from the crab, in the form of its mustard; the acid comes from the citrus; and the whole thing is deepened with the Japanese standards of dashi and a very small amount of soy. The chef mentioned that the crab was from the Japan Sea, not Hokkaido, and that the ginger is Japanese, not imported, both of which make it enormously more expensive; his point wasn't that it was expensive, I think, but that he insists on these ingredients because (a) they're local, and (b) they taste better. [Admittedly, I think he probably thinks "local" and "tastes better" pretty much imply one another, but he wouldn't serve local ingredients that didn't taste good, whatever they cost.]
Back home, I will have to try something like this with lobster or softshell crab. I’ll pass on the soy and dashi, which don’t speak to me the way they do for the Japanese. But instead of just drawn butter and lemon, or mayonnaise, why not use the mustard or tomalley, a small squeeze of seasonal citrus, and then a teeny drop of white wine? Maybe just a whisper of finely-minced shallot too.

Now the next thing was much, much better than I think it had any right to be. Steamed or perhaps poached turnip on top of a little pile of amadai (tilefish, or Japanese branquillo), with grated daikon and minced negi, some gingko nuts, a little ball of mild wasabi on the top, all in a puddle of warm jellied dashi aromatized with toasted rice. Described that way, I would have assumed I’d hate this. But first of all it was made so well, and the flavors balanced so perfectly, that you really couldn’t dislike it. And coming after the snowy crab, once again the little dish of warmth was delightful. I would not want this dish by itself, though I wouldn’t complain, but in this context it was wonderful.
Kabu and Amadai
Next up, soba and then tempura. The soba came as you see it: a mound on a little wooden dish, in a basket lined with leaves, with a classic dipping sauce... or so we assumed. We were told that when we’d finished the soba, we’d have tempura with the same sauce. Now I will say that this soba must have been pure buckwheat flour, or nearly so, and was firmer and more flavorful than soba normally is. Other than that, it was mostly a sort of palate-cleanser: going from the squodgy turnip and amadai straight to rich tempura would be problematic.
Then came a basket of freshly-fried tempura, and we picked out equal portions, as you see here. Two shrimp, two quartered shiitake caps, a short stalk of pickled ginger, and a bit of gobo (burdock) stalk. I am not normally a fan of gobo, but this was terrific. And the shrimp were moist and creamy in a way that tempura, even good tempura, normally isn’t. All in all, the best tempura I’ve ever had, though I can’t say I’ve had all that much good stuff.
I was very proud of myself here. As we ate, I kept thinking that there was something odd about the sauce. On the one hand, this was your basic tentsuyu: mirin, dashi, and soy, with grated daikon mixed in. But it was slightly, yet distinctly, spicy. I asked what it was, and the chef said it was daikon. I insisted: what’s making is it spicy? He seemed quite pleased, and told me that it’s not normal daikon but rather karashi-daikon, which is indeed slightly spicy. He also called one of the other chefs in the kitchen to bring him a karashi-daikon to show me. It looked like a small kabu turnip: round, white, and about the size of a small baby’s fist. I think he was pleased because here was a foreigner who could identify the difference between types of daikon even when mixed into tentsuyu. I was, as I say, pretty proud of myself. (Thing is, karashi-daikon I consider a major improvement on regular daikon, having the sweetness of daikon, the sharpness of red radish, and none of that old turnip flavor I associate with daikon and which is why I dislike boiled daikon. I’m going to go looking for karashi-daikon at Nishiki market.)

The last major course was rice and pickles. The pickles were the round "thousand-slice" daikon pickles (senmaizuke) that are a Kyoto winter specialty, plus some preparation of lotus root that I couldn’t place. The rice is apparently this super-fancy rice grown just for him, and he asked if we could tell that it’s so good. I answered, honestly, that I could tell either that it’s extremely good rice or very well made, but beyond that I’m lost; since this rice fitted both descriptions, I’m afraid its spectacular qualities were largely wasted on me. He seemed mollified, though.
Rice and Pickles

Closing Acts
For dessert, this beautiful dish. It’s a California citrus of some kind, which I still can’t place: it’s like a very tart orange with a green peel, but I don’t think it was actually underripe. Perhaps a green grapefruit? Anyway, he’d hollowed it out and made a medium-stiff jelly with the juice, which set back in the shell — no mean trick, this. Over the top, a fine web of lightly-cooked caramel, garnished with a shaving of caramelized peel. The sauce was, I think, dark-caramelized sugar, citrus juice, and just enough water (I’d guess) to keep it fairly thin. You put the web on the jelly, pour sauce over the top, and then dig in with a spoon.
Dessert 1 Citrus Jelly
Of course, because this was garnished with snow again, and was quite bitter-sour, we finished it up thinking, “hmm, kind of cold and bitter here.” So on came the second dessert: zensai, as they call it here. Red beans and mochi simmering in a little cup.

It came like this, with a lid on, and under it you can see the actual dessert.
Dessert 2 Zensai
In the bottom was a little mound of hot charcoal, which kept the mixture bubbling and very close to too hot to eat. My wife actually burned her tongue a bit, but she’s kind of a klutz that way.
Dessert 2 Zensai uncovered
I didn’t get photographs here, but we had another demonstration of the brilliance of kaiseki at its best. We’d finished the citrus thinking we wanted something hot and sweet, and we got it — but it was too hot, and too sweet. So what then? Well, then came bowls with a small amount of macha, powdered green tea, which is extremely bitter because you’re actually drinking the leaves as well as their infusion. Wonderful... but now kind of bitter in the mouth, albeit warm? Oh, yes, then came just a little mild tea to finish up. So each time you finished one thing, it took you just a bit too far in one direction, and then you got something that met this need but pushed a little too far in another direction, and so on. Fantastic, honestly.

The Chef's Table
While we drank our final tea, the chef chatted with us. As we’d long since realized, this burly man in the white gi was the chef, Tanigawa Yoshimi. The guy who beat Morimoto hollow on Iron Chef. The guy who seems to be one of the architects of the kyo-ryori movement against the over-elegance of kaiseki as such. (As I understand it, the point is that Tanigawa thinks much of kaiseki has lost touch with the rustic elegance that was so central for Sen no Rikyu’s chanoyu; it’s become sophisticated in a more urban, courtly style. His kyo-ryori emphasizes a greater simplicity, but as you can see, that’s not “down-home cooking” or anything like that, just a renovation of the aesthetic.) In any event, the guy who mopped my wife’s dish when she slopped on it (told you she’s a bit of a klutz!) was one of the most celebrated chefs in this whole cuisine.
Chef Tanigawa Yoshimi
You may recall that Chef Murata served us most of our food at Roan Kikunoi, and now Chef Tanigawa served us at Kichisen. This isn’t because we’re special: that’s how kaiseki (or kyo-ryori) works. Murata was less attentive, because he had three parties at the bar; Tanigawa was with us almost the entire time, though he didn’t stand over us, because we were alone at the bar.

By way of contrast, my wife gave me this link to an article in the New York Times. It's about a new fad, dining at the "chef's table." The idea is that when you go to some place like Craft or Blue Ginger or wherever, a place where the chef is more or less a celebrity (as Tom Colicchio and Ming Tsai are, at these restaurants), they actually cook your food. That's right, if you make a reservation weeks and weeks in advance, and pay extra, you too can have the special exclusive experience of having the chef of a fancy restaurant actually cook. Isn't that grand? The NYT reviewer seems underwhelmed by the cooking, but he doesn't criticize the concept.

Thing is, this is absolutely normal in kaiseki. If you go to Tanigawa's restaurant, or Murata's, you know that they're cooking. Where else would they be? Not that Tanigawa made every part of every dish we ate -- far from it. But every bit was done under his watchful eye, finished by his hands or with him standing over (and possibly yelling at) the guy doing the finishing, and served to us from his hands (actually two things were served by apprentices, but Tanigawa was a constant presence). And this isn't because we're special: that's how this cuisine is done.

In this situation, Chef Tanigawa really could have gotten away with murder: he could have tried to impress us with his wonderfulness, or awe us, or whatever. But that's contrary to the aesthetics he believes in. He wants us to eat and enjoy, and he works very hard indeed to make that happen -- but the hard part of that work is hidden, so as not to disturb us. He wants to entertain us, but he makes minimal use of his celebrity to do it. He did mention the Iron Chef thing, but actually the point was that it gave him an opportunity to ensure that we went home with a copy of the DVD of the show. He also put in a box of his own chirimen, in this case chewy little teeny semi-dry fish seasoned strongly with sansho. Why? Well, you want your guests to leave without that feeling that it's all just over, the sort of post-dining letdown, so you give them some gifties. The fact that he's a culinary celebrity helps him to do this, but it's not something he made a big deal about. My wife asked him, "What was doing Iron Chef like?" His complete response: "Shindoi" (tiring). As to Murata, whose book is apparently something of a sensation among Western cooks lately, and is on TV a lot, and so on -- he just never mentioned any of this, nor in fact made it clear who he was.

There's a kind of high elegance to that. You're being served dinner by a famous celebrity chef, but he's too busy focusing on you and your meal to make a fuss about himself. You're what matters, not him. Isn't that how it should be?

My conclusion? I really like kaiseki, kyo-ryori, whatever. It’s brilliant, elegant, sophisticated, and just beautifully constructed to produce a fabulous dining experience. Perhaps most importantly, it is completely unpretentious. No arrogance, superiority, or whatever. He just did what he did, and wanted us to enjoy it as best we could, and his explanations and so forth were clearly aimed at helping us get more out of it. But I don’t think he thought we needed helping along: he’d have done the same thing with any diners who seemed interested, pitched to the appropriate level.

So, after perhaps the best meal of my life, I find myself wondering: could kaiseki be done outside Japan? Arguably it doesn’t really exist outside the Kyoto area, but that’s not what I mean. I mean, could the whole approach, the conception of the cuisine, be reformulated elsewhere? At some point I’ll jabber about that here on this blog — you’ll be the first to be truly bored by it!

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Seven Lucky Gods

I got a chance to try another place for tantan men today. Unfortunately, it was very cold this morning, so I switched coats, and the result is that I didn’t have my camera. Argh. Oh well, the internet is a wonderful thing.

Today was Seven Lucky Gods (七福神), at the northeast corner of Horikawa-Oike. It’s a classic ramen joint: long counter, a couple of tables, open kitchen, and so on. Their specialties are a fish-broth ramen and their Ninth Street Scallion Tantan Men (kyujo-negi tantan men 九条ねぎ坦々麺).

Sam had miso ramen with roasted pork (chashu) and medium-boiled eggs, no negi. I ordered a batch of gyoza. And, of course, I had the tantan men.

The Rundown
All in all, a satisfying if rather strange approach to this dish. Here's a photo I found on-line (fortunately, all Japanese are apparently trained from the cradle to photograph their food and post it for public discussion):
The stock was strong and effective, with a definite pork flavor. The noodles were just about right in terms of richness, egg flavor, and bounce. And of course the 9th Street Scallions were good: that’s one of the kyo-yasai, the special Kyoto vegetables everyone’s on about these days.

But otherwise, the dish was very odd.

No ground pork topping: roasted pork instead. Minimal sesame flavor. A lot of togarashi (red chile), and very little rayu (spicy chile oil). No Sichuan peppercorn. And I’m pretty sure there was some sweet miso in there as well.

What's really peculiar is that the sign says that the kyujo-negi are certified to be really kyujo-negi by the Kyoto Agricultural Council, and that the rayu is special stuff from 山田油店, which appears to be in Saitama, north of Tokyo. But having made this production about it, there wasn't actually all that much negi and there sure as heck wasn't a lot of rayu.

By The Way
Sam adored his miso ramen. He’s no great judge, but certainly he was down on Ginza Shisen, as was I. I thought it was good miso ramen, but I admit I don’t have a whole lot of experience with that dish. This looks a good deal like what he ate -- again, an image I found on-line.

The bowlful Sam ate was a little different, in that it had no negi: Sam hates negi, and in fact all types of onions, in every form we have yet tried. And he has a surprising ability to detect them lurking behind other flavors, whatever they might look like.

The gyoza were classic Japanese gyoza: thin, under-flavored, thin-skinned. Not excellent, as they lacked the crunchy brownness of perfect gyoza. But well made, with none of the peculiar off cabbage flavors of Ginza Shisen. One thing I thought odd was the sauce with which they served these gyoza, which I couldn’t place at all (although eating tantanmen at the same time makes it a little difficult to identify subtle things without pretty strong cues).

I would bet that their fish ramen, and their more basic ramen offerings, would be good.

In essence, this is tantanmen as another form of ramen, an approach I think is perfectly legitimate but which I’ve never seen taken to this extreme. The only way in which this bowl differed from any other miso ramen was in the replacement of sesame paste for some of the miso, and the admixture of some spicy stuff (togarashi and, according to the sign at least, rayu).

I would definitely recommend this to someone who’s a big fan of miso ramen and is looking for something a little different. As tantanmen per se, however, it’s very peculiar.

All of which makes it difficult to rate this entry.

As a dish, assessed on its own merits, I give it a 6/10: solid, tasty, well executed, but nothing spectacular.

As tantanmen, assessed with reference to that dish, I give it a 5/10: very tasty, but so outside the normal range that it gets some demerits.

I now think I should have rated Ginza Shisen lower, but them's the breaks.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tantan Men: Preliminary Tasting

My passing remark about how I intend to do a comparison tasting of a lot of different bowls of tantanmen in Kyoto has already prompted some slavering comments, so let’s get cracking.

Before the tasting begins, though, let’s consider what tantan men actually is.

Origins: Dan Dan Mian
Dandan mian
This is a Sichuan dish that is, at base, extremely simple. Take hot, fresh egg noodles. Toss with lots of chopped scallion, chili sauce (doubanjiang, for example), soy sauce, chili oil (la-yu), sesame paste, and usually some ground-up Sichuan peppercorns. Often some pickled vegetables are added. Carry it to work in a lunchbox, where the residual heat will bring out the flavors.

Made this way, the dish is a marvelous demonstration of the Sichuan penchant for simple, rustic, yet deep and complex dishes. Every major flavor is here: sweet (sesame paste), sour (in the sauce), salty (soy), bitter (raw scallion). In addition, you have two contested flavors: spicy (chilies) and fatty (sesame and oil). Depending on how the ingredients are prepared, there may also be more or less umami or savory, the famous “fifth flavor.”

And yet, there is nothing additional, no gilding, no tricks. The dish is at base as subtle as an axe. But made well, it’s a dish fit for a peasant or a king.

You will often see it said that there must be ground or minced pork in the dish, and while this is now usual, it is certainly a deviation from its peasant origins. After all, meat of any kind was long a rarity for Chinese peasants, and everything else about the dish bespeaks peasant simplicity. For the same reason, it is very unlikely that the dish would be served in soup, soup being again a delicacy requiring expensive ingredients, time, and cooking fuel.

Japanese Adaptation: Tan Tan Men
Tan Tan Men
I have seen it suggested that tantan men was invented by the “father of Sichuan cuisine” in Japan, Chen Kenichi, who later turned up as Iron Chef Chinese on the original Japanese Iron Chef show. In this account, Chen took a sort of vaguely gourmet version of dandanmian — with the pork, for instance — and made it into ramen-like soup noodles.

Whether this story is actually true or not, certainly the Japanese version is precisely thus. Instead of a sauce, there is a soup consisting of a pork broth (or sometimes chicken, or both) flavored with sesame paste, chili sauce, soy, and chili oil (rayu). Noodles are added, and then topped with minced pork, chopped scallions, sesame seeds, and some kind of vegetable — usually bok choy (chingensai), usually not pickled. In some cases, black sesame (paste and seeds) may be used in place of the usual white. More chili oil is commonly added as a pretty red garnish.

Now I like both the Sichuan version and the Japanese one, and a number of the many variations on the theme that I’ve tried. So, as noted in an earlier post, I have decided that it is my bounden duty to try a ridiculous number of different restaurants’ offerings of tantan men and tell you what I think of them, ultimately leading to a sort of guide.

To my mind, this makes more sense than a guide to ramen in Kyoto. I mean, ramen is all very well, but first of all, which style of ramen? And second, ramen is much too Japanese for me, and never nearly spicy or complicated enough. It’s fine, I guess, but my palate lies much closer to Sichuan and Hunan.

Before finally getting on to specific examples, let’s run through the four basics:

Stock — normally pork or pork-and-chicken. You should be able to tell.
Flavor Base — sesame, chili sauce, soy, and usually chili oil
Noodles — bouncy egg noodles, as in ramen
Topping — minced pork cooked with garlic, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns until caramelized; green vegetable, pickled or otherwise, usually bok choy; chopped scallion; often sesame seeds; sometimes toasted whole dry chilies and/or toasted Sichuan peppercorns; often a drizzle of chili oil

Each of these basic four components should stand up for itself and be worth eating.

So without further ado....

Ginza Shisen (銀座四川)
Tan Tan Men
In the Porta underground shopping arcade, by Kyoto Station. Here is a Japanese website with links and some reviews and such, giving it an overall 5 out of 5: high marks indeed!

Just goes to show you what trust you can put in websites like that. All told, a pretty mediocre bowl, but so typical that I’ll use it as a first basic discussion.

Stock: Weak, thin, and lacking character. I’d guess it was pork stock, but it tasted mostly of salt. No depth of flavor to stand up to the other ingredients.

Flavor Base: Somebody tell these guys about chili sauce (doubanjiang), because apparently they forgot it. Thus the flavoring was sweet and rich, and rather salty, but lacked both the fire and the complex sourness of chili sauce. As a result it seemed, again, thin and lacking character.

Noodles: Respectable ramen noodles, but a little too eggy for my taste. This would have been perfect for the dish, actually, if the other things had stood up to it — if your noodles are too light they ought to be overpowered.

Toppings: Minced pork appeared to be simply stir-fried without any significant flavoring, and certainly wasn’t caramelized; bok choy was respectable; minimal scallion; no sesame seeds; and finally a couple drops of chili oil off to the side as a sort of ironic comment on the lack of flavor here. No hint of Sichuan peppercorns anywhere.

The thing is, I’d currently give this about a 4 out of 10. From what I’ve said, it sounds like I’d give it a right panning, but in fact, it was well within the average range of tantan men as I’ve had it in Kyoto. Weak, thin, low on flavor, poorly balanced, and basically lacking depth or force... but that’s the way most Japanese seem to like it. Sichuan peppercorns are rare indeed, which means that the dish usually lacks the numbing-spicy special flavor that is distinctive to Sichuan.

Which, in fact, is precisely why I’m doing this little quest. I want to find tantan men made the way I think it should be, not the way they do. I mean, of all people to get Sichuan food wrong, I’d put the Japanese and the English at the top of the list: they don’t like hot spices, garlic, or robust and even brutal flavors. (Let’s not talk about what they call “curry,” okay? The really spicy-hot curries are worse, actually, because they’re just hot with no depth.)

To conclude, I noticed on the way out that more or less next to Ginza Shisen is another place that serves tantanmen, so pretty soon it’s back to Porta for another bowl.

As time goes by (sing with me!), I will post more reviews, and I will also progressively refine my own secret recipe. Ultimately I hope to develop a recipe that is as good as any in Kyoto. And if I can’t, I hope it’s because I’ve found some truly killer tantanmen.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Steamed Custard Kabocha

I stumbled on the blog No Recipes, and saw this lovely post on a custard-stuffed steamed kabocha squash. Kabocha is in season here, and this looked like just the thing for the oven-challenged. 'Course he made his by steaming in a pot in an oven, but I figured I could just modify it for a pot. I won't give a recipe, because he gives one and I don't want to steal his thunder. Here's his picture (nicer than mine).
I also thought I should modify the flavorings. He uses things like cardamom and nutmeg, but for me it made more sense to use ginger and yuzu peel. (Incidentally, that don't look like a kabocha to me, but whatever.)

Now, I did have some minor trouble finding condensed milk, but it wasn't all that tricky -- I just stopped fooling around and went to Daimaru, the department store a few blocks from home. Expensive, but they had what I wanted.

My main problem was that steaming in a pot didn't work as smoothly as I'd expected. It took quite a while before the custard really seemed to be set -- nearly 90 minutes, in fact -- by which point the kabocha was rather saggy. Held up, though, as kabocha are pretty tough. I expect I did it too hot or too cool. But I am also thinking of a thing Diana Kennedy does with a whole Gouda cheese (which is a ball), where she has you wrap it firmly in a smooth kitchen towel before steaming, and I wonder whether that might be the way to go here.

I do think it's something of a pity that the custard absorbs into the squash as you go, because this means that the upper part of the squash is a bit dry and bland, although on the other hand the bottom half or so is amazingly good. Next time I might try mucking about to get some kind of layering effect. Certainly I'm going to do some research on steaming a whole stuffed squash!

Here's my version -- just a slice, I'm afraid:
As you see, the end-result was very pretty, and it sure tasted great. Sam pretty much passed on the pumpkin part (excessive alliteration!), but scarfed down the custard.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Lovely Chinese Lunch

I’m starting to work on an entry about Tan Tan Men (淡々面), the Japanese version of the classic Sichuan dish Dan Dan Mian. It’s a spicy bowl of noodles I love in both forms, and just about every semi-Chinese place has them at lunchtime. So I’m going around cataloguing, trying bowl after bowl of noodles, taking pictures, and so on.

But I just had to share this place.
Tan Tan Men 01
I had some trouble finding these characters, partly because they’re so stylized in the sign, but I think this place is called Sen Gō Kan (膳豪漢). A local on-line restaurant place gives the characters as 膳處漢, but I think they're misreading the middle character -- at any rate, that's not what this sign says. Admittedly, I also think I've got the middle character wrong, but it appears to be extremely obscure and I don't have really good dictionaries to hand. On the other hand, Google maps and such do give the other version. I don't care, the noren has different characters, so there. Anyway, it’s on Nishikikōji-dōri, between Muromachi-dōri and Shinmachi-dōri.

The first time we went there, I had black sesame Tan Tan Men, and my wife had the dim sum set lunch. Both were wonderful. But just when my wife was feeling pretty full, they came in and gave her one more thing: a bowl of shark’s fin noodle soup. This seemed like overkill, but it looked great, and she had a little, and I tasted it... And then the waiter comes zipping back in all apologetic: this wasn’t supposed to come with the set lunch, but was ordered by another table. My wife is equally apologetic: it’s fine if they take it, but they ought to know we’ve tasted it already. The waiter looks pretty worried, and goes off. He comes back with the manager, who says, “no, don’t worry, just eat it. No problem.” So we had a gourmet extra!

Now since then, I’ve gone back by myself several times. I always think maybe I’ll try something else, but then I can’t resist the black sesame noodles, which look like this:
Tan Tan Men 01
This time, I also ordered gyoza. I happened to notice that they come in two plate sizes: 3 dumplings or 6. This is odd, because usually they come about 5 or so to an order, and the price isn’t spectacularly low. So I figure, what the hey? And when they arrive, I see why:
Tan Tan Men 01
These things are huge! Unfortunately, they do have that thin skin the Japanese like, where I like them a little more robust, but at least these ones weren’t the ultra-thin paper-skinned ones that I think are silly.

Anyway, I just had to show you my lunch.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008


I realize I haven’t posted in a while, mostly because I’ve been lazy and haven’t been cooking much that’s interesting — and I haven’t been bringing my camera to restaurants either, sorry to say. But this is Thanksgiving, so it’s time for a good old-fashioned meal.

Unfortunately, I dislike turkey, and what’s more I don’t have an oven to roast it in anyway. So I decided to do old-fashioned Japanese-style late autumn food, with a Thanksgiving twist.

For the bird, duck, which is a big deal in Kyoto. The main river here is the Kamogawa, which means Duck River, so you can already tell they’re into this. Mashed squash, which around here is kabocha. For a sweet-and-sour fruit thing, à la cranberry sauce, I found a nice-looking recipe for a persimmon with vinegared fruit and vegetables inside. And then, because it’s Japan, I figured I’d do some soy-glazed sardines (the fresh kind, not the ones in cans).

Now the first step was to get some miso. The recipe I had for duck involves grilling duck in a complex miso glaze on top of a magnolia leaf — a very old-fashioned preparation called hoba-yaki (hoba means “magnolia leaf,” and yaki means “grilled”). But the recipe was also pretty specific about which misos to use, and that meant a little hike.

Acting on a tip from the Kyoto Foodies, I hiked up to Honda Miso (no relation to the cars, I think), which is at Muromachi-Ichijo, just southwest of Karasuma-Imadegawa, for those in town. As you can see, I had something of an embarrassment of riches here: too much to choose. Fortunately I knew what I wanted, and asked, and was handed three packages of miso: white Saikyo miso, near-black sakura miso, and a red-brown kōji miso.
I now have nine kinds of miso in my fridge, and must start experimenting rather more vigorously or I’ll never get through it all.

Then it’s off to Nishiki Market to get the rest. Clockwise from the top right golden box: sake, katsuo bushi (fresh-shaved bonito flakes), negi scallion-leek, yuzu (yellow at this time of year), mitsuba, daikon, red carrot (a big deal locally), ginger, sesame seeds, sliced inexpensive matsutake mushrooms, duck breast, sardines (in the bag), chestnuts (below the sardines), persimmons, half a kabocha squash, magnolia leaves (in the very back).
The magnolia leaves were tricky, but fun. I asked at every vegetable stand, and was told they didn’t have it. At one place, a guy about my age didn’t even know what this was, and I explained it was for hoba yaki (or hoba miso), and he still didn’t understand. He was about to start apologizing politely to the nice foreigner who’s using bad Japanese and terms that don’t mean anything, but then his father steps in. I couldn’t follow all of it, between my minimal Japanese and the thick Kyoto accent of the father, but it was pretty clear:

Father: He wants hoba leaves, for hoba yaki.
Son: What are you talking about?
Father: You’ve never had hoba yaki?
Son: Um, no, what is it?
Father: You’ve never had hoba yaki? What the hell?
Son: Dad, what are you on about?
Father: I can’t believe you’ve never had hoba yaki! I mean, no, we don’t have the leaves, but it’s a great idea for a day like this, and you’ve never even had it? I can’t believe it.
Son: Oy ve, here we go again.

Okay, something like that.

Eventually I go to yet another place and ask, and the dour-faced woman says something totally incomprehensible to me. I apologize. Impatiently, she repeats it, slowly. I apologize. She stalks to the back, argues with an old man (her husband?), and disappears. She returns with a flat package containing 10 frozen magnolia leaves. Now it’s clear: she’s saying that (a) they’re frozen, and (b) they come 10 to a package, and is that okay? I agree, sweating a little, because I’m worried this is going to cost me. Still irritated, she demands the money: 500 yen. $5 and change. Er, okay lady, sure. $5? Hell yes. I pay and depart, still wondering what her problem is. Oh well.

The duck was pricey. Everything else was pretty cheap. So all in all, it came out fine.

Oh, and all that miso? $15 even.

Making Dinner
So after picking up Sam at nursery school and waiting interminably for a late bus, I’m a little behind and have to work quick and clean. I also ding myself on the corner of my petty knife, which is annoying because (a) it slows me down and (b) it’s so sharp that the cut bleeds like hell. I ask Sam to get me some toilet paper to wrap around it after I wash, because every time I lift my hand it’s dripping blood, and he very slowly and carefully gets me two sheets. One of them ripped in half. Can you spare it, kid? Anyway, I manage.

The slow stuff at the start I photographed assiduously, and I was planning to keep doing it right through the meal. But then crunch-time hit, the kids were being bonkers, and photos stopped happening. I don’t know how other food-bloggers do it. Do they make everything in advance? Or just make one dish at a time? Or do they get a friend or spouse or somebody to take photos while they’re cooking? If I’ve got three burners going and am cutting and finishing all at once, photos are just not on the cards. Still I’ve got something for show-and-tell.

The first thing after making dashi was to make tosa-zu, which is a special kind of vinegar for light pickling dishes. Unlike regular vinegar, you’ll be happy to eat this. Basically what you do is you mix vinegar, soy, sugar, and dashi, heat it almost to a boil, and then throw in katsuo bushi flakes and shut off the heat. When it’s cool, you strain it. It tastes fabulous, I don’t know why.
Next, I peeled and diced my half-kabocha, which incidentally is not a small thing to do. Raw kabocha is so hard that if you cut it with a traditional Japanese vegetable knife, you can break the blade. So you use a big honking thing called a deba, which fortunately I have. But it’s still work. I heaved this in a big pot, covered it with water, and left it alone for later, when I boiled it until very tender, drained, mashed the hell out of it, added... well, I’ll get back to that.
I cut nice even rectangles of red carrot (a local specialty) and daikon radish, and dropped them in a bowl of very salty water to pickle lightly for later.
I also put my cleaned sardines in salt water for later, to draw out the fishiness.
Then I blanched the mitsuba and cut the stems in 1.5 cm lengths.
And I peeled and simmered the chestnuts. Now this turned out to be much more irritating than I’d expected. I knew that Julia Child says to cut off a 1/8-inch strip of the shell, drop them in cold water, bring to a rapid boil, boil 1 minute, and then dip them out and shell. Sure, but the inner shell doesn’t come off for love or money. I found in the end that the best way is to shave it off with a very sharp little knife. (No, this isn’t how I cut myself.) But it took a while. Then I dropped them in a simmering liquid and started simmering. I cooked them 15 minutes, found them hard, and needed the burner. So I put them in the microwave in the liquid and nuked them on low power for 15 minutes, covered. Later on, it turned out they were still rather hard for my taste. Then again, I don’t much like chestnuts to begin with. Oh well.
After that, crunch time came, so no more photos till the end. Here’s what happened, more or less simultaneously:

1. Score the duck skin in a diamond pattern and cook gently over medium heat, skin down, until just golden, rendering out most of the excess fat. Put the duck to one side, and the fat to another.

2. Boil the hell out of the kabocha, 25 minutes, until super-tender, then drain and mash with butter, fatty milk, and the rendered duck fat (yum!).
3. Mix up a combination of sakura miso, Saikyo white miso, sake, egg yolk, and sesame paste, and cook it over low heat, stirring constantly, for 15 minutes, until quite thick. Reserve.

4. Slice the duck on the bias and keep aside.

5. Soak two magnolia leaves.

6. Hollow out 3 persimmons, discover that they’re a bit unripe and full of hard seeds, peel and slice a fourth in neat rectangles. Put these rectangles, the mitsuba stem pieces, and the drained carrot and daikon rectangles in a mixture of the tosa-zu, fresh-ground sesame seeds, mirin sweet cooking wine, and soy. Let soak a while, then portion into the hollowed-out persimmons.
7. Put the sardines in a little hot oil to brown on one side along with a lot of sliced ginger, then turn over, cook briefly, and add half a cup of cheap sake. Put a lid over it sitting on the bottom of the pan, cook until the sake is reduced by half, then add a few Tb soy sauce and cook uncovered until the sauce is thick and sticky. Put the sardines on a plate and pour the sauce and ginger over the top. (I got this recipe from the Kyoto Foodies again.)
8. Put a soaked magnolia leaf on my brilliant wire-mesh grill thingy, cover with a big dollop of the miso mixture, add a couple of chestnuts, and top with several slices of duck and a pinch of julienned negi scallion white. Turn on the burner and wait.
9. Cut carrot and onion fine, cook with butter, add half the matsutake cut in small chunks, cook until browning, add a bunch of water, cook until thickening, add the remaining matsutake, cook until just done, season to taste, serve.
So there you have it: Thanksgiving dinner.
The Results — The Envelope Please...
The persimmon thing was spectacular. Also easy. I will do this again. My wife had two and could have had more.

The mushrooms were lovely: fragrant, tender, and just right. A quiet, mild dish that I thought sat nicely next to exciting things like the persimmon and duck.
The duck thing is excellent, but tricky. You’re supposed to cook it on a grill that sits at the table, which I don’t have, and when you move the leaf the miso thickens unpleasantly. The duck has to be absolutely paper-thin, too, or it overcooks on one side while remaining blood-rare on the other. This technique is very simple, but it’s not as simple as it looks. I will experiment with it, without the duck, until I get it right: just mushrooms and miso is pretty wonderful. The thing is, the miso gets this roasted, smoky taste going on, and also it caramelizes a bit. I still don’t like chestnuts very much, despite the effort, and I won’t put that effort in again.

The sardine thing is very good, but overpowered by everything else here. I’d do it again, though, especially given how cheap it was (200 yen for 6 sardines is pretty impressively cheap). No, that's not a magnolia leaf as far as I know, it's just something Sam decided he had to bring home from nursery school.
The mashed squash was lovely but rather bland. But that was the point, after all. The hint of duck from the fat was certainly a good thing, but it was mostly a kind of background minor dish.

Dessert was supposed to be cake, which I bought and had on hand, but everybody was far too full, so we’ll have it tomorrow.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ryugetsudo Coffee Shop (柳月堂)

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been wandering around looking for a good coffee shop. There are a zillion coffee shops in Kyoto, in wildly varying styles, prices, and quality. So I’ve been looking for a good one to spend several hours reading. (I’m an academic, and I’m supposed to be on sabbatical doing some research as well as enjoying myself, after all.)

After trying a bunch, I have found that I have pretty specific requirements. I used to not care much, but I guess I’m getting old. These days I want the coffee to be decent, though I’m not a nut about this. I want a quiet atmosphere, comfortable chairs, music I like or at least don’t really hate (preferably not with singing in English, which breaks into my concentration), and no great sense of pressure to order something or give up the table. Oddly enough, I have found a great many that meet every requirement except the music: usually you get your pick of J-pop, muzak, various irritating styles of mediocre American pop, or every now and again a place with a huge range that plays it all randomly. But I have also increasingly found that it is the music that makes a place impossible: for example, I found one place that is very nice in most respects, except that they play continuous 1950s American doo-wop sort of stuff, and after an hour I feel like my brain has been blenderized.
Ryugetsudo 1
So, with some reservations, I decided to check out Ryugetsudo, an old coffee shop founded in 1953 as a sort of temple to European “classical” music.

Rules Of Sound
The first thing you have to know is that this place has definite rules. No talking, no cellphones, no typing, no anything that could disturb people listening. If you buy a pastry at the bakery downstairs, you may eat it, but you must unwrap it in the hallway before you enter the main room. Everything is organized around the music.
Ryugetsudo 6
This is also true visually. All the seating is arranged in rows facing a low dais with a piano, above which, to left and right, are large speakers made more attractive by some beautiful wooden things that spread the sound. Along one side are a lot of books and the huge record collection (records, as in vinyl, if you even know what that means any more!), and the books are basically reference works about music: work catalogues of major composers, reference works on opera, and so on.

If you wish, you may sit at a table in the back and pore through the four-volume handwritten catalogue in binders, organized A-Z by composer for three volumes, plus one volume for nothing but Mozart and Beethoven. Having found something you’d like to hear, you write the disc number and the album title (in Japanese katakana transcription) on the next open line in the music-paper notebook that sits open, and when they’ve played through to your selection you’ll hear it.

I said I had reservations, right? First of all, it’s quite a hike for me, up by Imadegawa Eiden train station, north of Kyoto University. No big deal, really, but irritating. Second, it’s expensive: you pay a “seat charge” of 500¥, so that your first cup of coffee is 500¥+550¥ = $10.50. If you have more coffee, the price per cup drops because you don't keep paying the seat charge, but that’s still an awful lot in my opinion. Third, I kind of get the heebie-jeebies about this kind of “temple of high art” stuff.

Anyway, I went.

Entering The Temple
Ryugetsudo 5
My first reaction was that the room itself is surprisingly comfortable and pleasantly studious. Most of the customers were men, which amazed me; over the course of a few hours I began to realize that most of them must be Kyodai faculty: what other group of middle-aged men in suits would sit in a classical music coffee shop for two hours on a weekday afternoon reading a book? And there aren’t a lot of women, I presume because (a) they can’t talk to each other, which is what women do at coffee shops here and probably everywhere, and (b) there aren’t almost any Kyodai faculty women, which is a disgrace. I will say that walking in and hearing a warm, vibrant recording of a Mozart piano concerto was no bad thing either.
Ryugetsudo 7
My next reaction was amused enjoyment of the service staff. They are all passably pretty young women, and they wear very soft shoes (to dampen noise), tidy white blouses with black v-neck sweaters, and pleated black skirts. They look, in fact, sort of like Japanese schoolgirls grown up and wearing a young woman’s version of the same uniform. They bring coffee and water, put it down silently, bob a curtsey, and disappear silently. Nice! (Another reason, I suspect, why the clientele is primarily male: this kind of service is not especially unusual in Japan, but when combined with monastic silence it feels slightly servile in a way that is not unpleasant for a middle-aged man like me, pleasant probably for many of them, and may perhaps feel odd for younger men and for women in general. Just a guess.) The fact that they are all young and fairly pretty makes me a little suspicious that the management are deliberately aiming at their audience, but I’m not really going to argue about it: they're not ogled or harassed or anything.

My third reaction was confusion. I decided, you see, that I should take a look at the big catalogue, because I figured this was probably a pretty good place to hear Tōru Takemitsu’s music. Takemitsu (武満 徹) was the dean of Japanese composers working in a more or less “classical” idiom. So I flip through, and there he is: one work, the Requiem for String Orchestra of 1957. Eh? This predates all his really major compositions, his leap to fame and importance in the international music scene, and all that. And he was quite prolific, too! Nothing else? And how come this hand-written catalogue still lists his dates as 1930–, when he in fact died in 1996; does this mean that nobody has called for the work in more than ten years?

This led to my fourth reaction: a mild disillusionment that coincided perfectly with my reservations about a temple to music. With a sinking heart, I turned through the pages. Yes: not a single entry for Schoenberg, Berg, Webern. Only three entries for Stravinsky. The holdout late-Romantic tonalist Sibelius, yes, some, but almost none of the only slightly more radical Richard Strauss. Lots of Shostakovich, that overrated Stalinist reactionary composer. In other words, this isn’t a temple to music, but a temple to everything Theodor Adorno described in a famous essay called “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (“Über den Fetischcharakter in der Musik und die Regression des Hörens,” 1938). All that might disturb the beautiful surfaces of the music is removed, and along with it any remaining possibility that this same beautiful music might actually challenge, disturb, shake the listeners.

Planning Pilgrimages
For all that, it’s a lovely place to sit and read Adorno on music. He would, I think, have thought this delightfully ironic, and after all he was never one to pass up the opportunity to listen to Beethoven and Mozart. I plan to spend a lot of time here, reading and listening, because despite its imperfections it is far and away the closest approach to my ideal that I have yet seen. (It also helps that if you plan to come often, you can buy a book of tickets for seat+coffee, reducing the price as much as 25% for that first cup.)

But next time I’m there for a few hours, I’m putting on Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. That'll show 'em.

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