Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Sichuan Lunch

A couple of weeks ago, my wife picked up the latest edition of meets regional magazine, which seems to be aimed at semi-hip young men in the Kansai region. Just like me! No, actually for men quite a bit younger than me, who listen to cool music, dress funky, and like to eat a bit wild. I squeeze in because I’m male, in Kansai, and eat anything.

This issue was about spicy food. Now as I noted in passing a few posts back, the usual word for “spicy” is karai (辛い), which does mean “spicy” but not necessarily hot-spicy. So all kinds of Indian food qualify, as would pretty much any American barbecue, as does some very salty food like salt tempura. But mostly it does mean hot-spicy, and thus most of the restaurant reviews are of Korean, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Carribean, and so forth places that do fiery dishes.

This being a magazine for hip Kansai men, most of the entries are for Osaka, but there are some in Kyoto and I carefully copied out the addresses and found them on my little pocket atlas. (No mean trick, this: Japanese addresses can be pretty difficult to find anyway, but Kyoto addresses are often exceedingly difficult—so much so that our address for the post office isn’t the official government address, because it doesn’t include enough information to find us without having a good map and knowledge of the city, something apparently the government lacks. We spent an hour waiting for the guy in the ward office to figure out our official address, and in the end he got it wrong. But I digress.)

A week ago or so, we tried PURUDA, a Korean place up on Rokkōji-dōri, which was quite good but I forgot to take photographs. We only had lunch anyway, and you have very limited options for the lunch menu. I’ll go back sometime for dinner, maybe, although I’ve seem some much cooler-looking Korean places.

Today we went to the zoo, which is near Heian Jingu (平安神宮), the enormous shrine and garden up in the northeast. At the corner between the shrine and the zoo, just up from the main road, is Dragon Gate Chinese Restaurant (中華料理龍門, which I’d guess is locally read chuka-ryōri ryūmon), a Sichuan (四川) place with several branches, one of which turns out to be very close to our house.

Following the recommendation of meets magazine, I had the spicy beef noodles. My wife had a mapo doufu set lunch, which included a little soup, rice, and pickle, as well as a little deep-fried meat thing that we cannot identify. Sam was tricky here, because he said he wanted soup and rice, but they didn’t have any soups we thought he’d like much; we got him a slightly crab-flavored egg-drop soup, and that seemed to work out more or less fine. We also got some gyōza, steam-fried potsticker dumplings.

The noodles were excellent, and very good value. For 900¥ ($8.25) you get this big bowl of noodles with lots of pieces of meat, some vegetables, and a thick soup-stew. It’s very intense, spicy in the classic Sichuan fashion, based on a combination of dried chiles, black and white pepper, Sichuan peppercorn (花椒, Jap. 山椒 sanshō), chile oil, ginger, garlic, star anise, and salt. Sichuan peppercorn is slightly numbing on the lips, and somehow that helps make the chiles and the complex spiciness of Sichuan dishes more fragrant and exciting. As you eat these noodles, you keep thinking, “this is really awfully rich and heavy, and boy it’s spicy, and there is no way I’m getting through this whole bowlful—I’ll just have one or two more bites.” Then you do it again, maybe after having a little beer in between. This is brilliant college-student food: cheap, filling, and intense. For me, it’s great too, but I really shouldn’t do this often: it’s quite rich, and I don’t really need to get fatter, and besides, well, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s going to be kind of spicy-hot several hours later, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

The mapo doufu was good, I thought, though not the best I’ve had. The tofu itself was of course soft and creamy and flavorful, Kyoto being one of the centers of the world of tofu. But the sauce and garnish were also rich and complex, the whole Sichuan mala thing (numbing-spicy, 麻辣). I thought it needed something, but I’m not sure what, since the noodles were a lot to be getting on with and thus I didn’t have very much mapo dofu. We are not at all sure what the little bit of fried meat just to the right of the mapo dofu was; it was perfectly decent, whatever, but I'm a bit lost on this one. The soup was egg-drop (卵花), and the pickles were a fairly mild example of a classic Sichuan pickle that is a lot like kimchi but I think is made from the stalks of mustard greens, though I'm never sure whether terms like "mustard greens" really mean the same thing as what I know in America or are some sort of odd but standard translation-cum-paraphrase. In any event, the set lunch was good, but I'll have to try it (or at least the mapo dofu) again before I can make any pronouncements.

Sam claimed the crab soup was spicy, but I thought it was very mild, creamy, and elegant. Of course, there was no way I was going to be able to detect subtle spiciness in this, with what else I was eating, so I’m probably not the best judge. I’d guess it had a little more white pepper than he wanted. Certainly Maia liked it, squodged up with a bit of rice.

The gyōza were good, but nothing to write home about. I did find it interesting that the dipping sauce consisted solely of garlic, hot chile oil, and vinegar (rice, I think), with no hint of soy. In my extensive experience of gyōza (which I, having lived in Taiwan for more than a year, will always think of as jiaozi), soy is always sort of the foundation of the sauce, so this was new to me. Of course, on the bus home, it occurred to me that maybe you were supposed to add soy to this, as you have a soy sauce thing on your table already. I don’t know. It was fine, regardless, but as I say, nothing to write home about. You’ll note from the picture the standard Japanese way to serve them: you cook five or six pressed closely together in oil on a small nonstick fry pan, then add water about halfway up the sides and cover, and when the water boils off you pick them up, stuck together in a line, and serve them crispy-side up on an oval plate. I’ve never seen this in Taiwan, but everyone does it in Japan. I include here an example that wasn't from our lunch, but rather from "su-lin" photostream at Flickr, which is a pretty good representation of how they're usually presented at Japanese restaurants.

All told, Dragon Gate gets our thumbs up. It’s good Sichuan food, done well, at very reasonable prices. I’ll have to go for dinner some time and see whether the menu gets more extensive then, as is common, because I did think that the menu we saw was a bit short. In any case, if you like Sichuan food and are in Kyoto, they have four outlets, so try one.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

An Evil Experiment

I seem to be alternating here. First a thing about pretty decent food, then one about bad food, then good food, so maybe it’s time to talk about bad food again?

Let’s talk about nattō (納豆), shall we?

Nattō is fermented soybeans, which you stir up with rice, mustard, and sliced negi scallions, as well as sometimes other things like raw egg, bits of raw fish, and so on. I don’t mind fermented soybeans in a number of their forms, but this stuff is nasty and has a truly unpleasant texture, since when you stir it vigorously it develops slimy strings that resemble what comes out of your nose when you have a very bad cold.
In this photo (from “jasja dekker” photostream on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons), you see that snotulosity that appears to be sauce? It’s not snot: that’s what nattō is like, because it’s essentially soybeans (the bean-looking things) that are fermenting to produce squidgy horror on the surface (the snot). Remember the movie Aliens, where all the aliens were covered with this gooey slime? Like that, only less carnivorous. I cannot imagine why both adults and children love to eat this stuff for breakfast. I mean, bad enough anyway, but seriously not something I want to face first thing in the morning, you know what I mean? Ugh.

Now here, in a photo from the photostream “whalt,” you can see what happens when you stir the stuff up.

Isn’t that delightful? Knew you would. If you are interested, search Flickr for "natto" and see what beautiful, horrible photos turn up (jasja dekker's photo is an especially lovely example).

The funny thing is, before I got here, I had an interesting experience with a Chinese-style hotpot dish I’d never had, in which the dipping sauce was made up of a whole bunch of weird things. Soy, sake (because we couldn’t find Shaoxing, the yellow rice wine), sesame oil, pungent shrimp paste, some kind of very spicy fish paste, and chunks of very-fermented tofu. You stir this up into a medium-thin paste and dunk your food in it. It was good, but I decided I didn’t really like the shrimp and fish things, so the next time around I did soy, sake, sesame oil, hot sesame oil, and the fermented tofu, and it was excellent. I ended up with jars of the makings, so I started putting this sauce together late at night as a snack. So my wife and I thought, “hey, if Chris likes this stuff, which is pretty pungent and basically nasty, he’ll probably like nattō.”

No such luck, it seems.

So… time for experiments. Maybe I just don’t like what the Japanese do with nattō, and think it could be done better some other way, right? Let’s try it: soy, sake, sesame oil, hot fermented bean paste (ladoubanjiang 辣豆瓣酱), and nattō, all whisked up together. We’ll try it with and without seafood pastes, for which in take two I’ll try karatarako (辛鱈子), which is semi-spicy salt-preserved pollock roe.

Here goes: my step by step in-process photos!

First, the fixin’s. Front and center, the nattō in its three-tiered supermarket package. Then, clockwise around, the karatarako, sesame oil, soy sauce, cooking sake (I’m not wasting good stuff on an experiment this dubious!), and doubanjiang.

Now let’s take a good look at that yummy nattō! Open up the package and take a little stir….


Okay now that our appetites are whetted, let me point out that nattō has a distinctive smell, not one that a whole lot of people outside Japan find attractive. Some say it smells a bit like blue cheese, and there’s a bit of truth in that, I suppose. Mostly I think it smells like itself, which I realize isn’t the most helpful thing to say. It’s pungent, a bit cheesy-musty, a little like overnight-soaked beans, and at the same time just a little bit nutty. If you can imagine that, I’ll bet you’ve had nattō already, because it’s not much of a description.

Now in this photo, I have added a medium dash of soy, a small dash of cooking sake, a splash of sesame oil, and about 1 Tb of doubanjiang, and then stirred vigorously. Looks unpleasant, doesn’t it? See those nice bubbles of gross sliminess, now special Chinese-style spicy gross sliminess?
Here’s some bar food to eat with this delicious dish: deep-fried vegetable dumplings, kara age (fried chicken chunks), salty edamame beans boiled in the shell.
So what’s the verdict?

Actually, it’s not bad at all. It’s kind of pungent, and my wife insisted that before I go to bed I have to eat the last bit, because she doesn’t want the house to smell like nattō when she gets up in the morning. But suddenly it is transformed from slimy pungent stuff that has almost no good qualities to something that has a few unfortunate qualities (slime!) but is really quite decent. You wouldn’t want to eat a whole lot of it at once, I think, but a little bit is fine. The sticky slimy stuff turns into something almost resembling sauce, and it’s pretty good when you dunk the fried dumplings or chicken into it. The whole beans retain their firmness, and the sesame oil enormously complements the subtle nuttiness of the nattō.

So my conclusion? A couple things first….

For one thing, you have to take into consideration the fact that I used very low-end ingredients at every level, in the sense that whereas the soy is sort of mid-low grade, the nattō, sake, sesame oil, and doubanjiang are all rock-bottom basics. If I went with the best I could get, everything would be much improved, I am sure.

You also have to recognize that I have not yet tried the kara tarako (spicy Pollock roe) in the mix, and my current feeling is that there is something, some other pungent-rich flavor, that’s missing. My guess is that the roe will be perfect, although there are other things you could use (shrimp paste, uni, grilled eel liver, whatever), each of which would have its own powerful flavor to deepen and complicated the mixture. I will try this soon and keep you posted.

In the meantime, my conclusions?

Nattō isn’t half bad, and in fact can be quite decent in its way. The problem is that in my opinion, the Japanese don’t know what to do with it. They are under the impression that its worst qualities are its best, and they don’t understand that the pungent intensity of nattō requires other kinds of pungency to bring out its best qualities. As far as I’m concerned, nattō should be bar food: salty, pungent, spicy, and a bit rich, and served with cold beer. Eating it in the morning is bizarre.

I can see using mustard instead of doubanjiang, but I think the nutty fermented flavor of the latter helps develop the good side of the soybean flavor of the nattō. I like the sliced negi with the dish, and may try adding that when I also add the roe. I can see why you'd want to add the richness of egg, but I think it's slimy enough without raw egg, thanks very much, so I'll stick to sesame oil and perhaps the rich roe.

If you like nattō already, you are probably shocked by this conclusion. If you like nattō already, though, I can’t help you: it’s too late. If you don’t like it, you would possibly be pleasantly surprised by my concoction, and if you are ever under the gun to eat a big serving of the stuff I hope you will remember these principles. If you’ve never had it, I strongly recommend that you skip it.

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Soba Out, French In

Owariya Soba

Today we went a little ways north and tried Honke Owariya (本家尾張屋), a soba restaurant that's been open since 1465.

I first learned about this place from Kyoto Foodie, where you can find some lovely pictures that more than make up for the lack of quality in mine.

Sam, of course, suddenly decided that he wanted chicken instead of noodles, so he had an oyako donburi (親子丼), which is chicken and egg (oyako: mother and child) on rice. It was excellent. I must say that I do not usually like this dish all that much. It's fine, I guess, but I've never really understood why it's so popular. Owariya's version—hardly their specialty—made some of this clear to me. The chicken was juicy and tender, the egg just barely cooked and thus beautifully soft and moist, and the rice perfectly complemented the whole.

I had Kyo-yasai Ten Seiro (京野菜天せいろ), which is cold soba (zaru soba) with tempura-fried Kyoto vegetables. Kyoto has these special vegetables, known as Kyo-yasai (京野菜), which are slightly different—and in some cases really a lot different—from their counterparts elsewhere in Japan. As you can see in the tempura dish, I had (clockwise from the front) myoga (茗荷), local peppers, a mushroom cap of a type I didn't recognize, lotus root, some kind of yam, and some local variety of sato imo (里芋), which is a sweet white taro that's a bit mealy-textured by comparison to what we call a sweet potato in the U.S. All were really excellent: crunchy but not excessively so, moist and flavorful on the inside. The soba was spectacular, but I cannot possibly explain why: I simply don't have the vocabulary for it, not having eaten enough decent soba in my life. This will change, I assure you, especially since Owariya doesn't charge noticeably more than any other decent noodle shop: my elaborate lunch set me back about $14, I think, and a more ordinary dish like Sam's or my wife's was more like $9. All I can say intelligently about the soba is that it had its own flavor, it was firm and bouncy but yielding, and it didn't seem to collapse in the mouth the way some soba does (because of the lack of gluten, I think). Since there is a free playspace nearby for little kids, I will probably be taking Maia fairly often on days when she doesn't have daycare, and we will probably eat lunch at Owariya. As you see from this photo, she's a big fan of soba... and I assure you, this is in no way a posed photo, but rather a fat little hand reaching into a photo.

Sarah had soba and egg in soup (玉子とじ), and thus got to try the famous dashi. It was certainly very good, but I really have not developed the sort of palate that can tell that this was as spectacular as the Kyoto Foodies say (and I believe them). I apologize that this picture is a little blurry.

All in all, I'd say Owariya is wonderful. You can see what the room we ate in looks like in this photo, and there were many other rooms with ordinary tables. We chose to eat on tatami mats at a low table because this allows Maia to crawl around rather than be strapped to something. A bit of a pain chasing her sometimes, but it wasn't crowded (as you see) and she had a great time.

Thanks, Kyoto Foodies!

Bocuse At Home
For dinner, I decided to make use of things on sale at my local grocery store: potatoes, cod roe, chicken bits of various kinds (as I think I've mentioned before, you can't readily get a whole chicken around here), tomatoes, local green peppers. I decided to make some recipes I found on Paul Bocuse's website. I figure if Bocuse likes it, it must be good.

First, classic Vichyssoise, the cold potato-leek soup invented at the New York Ritz a long time ago. I won't give recipes for this or anything, because they're posted for free. Here's the soup recipe. I used negi, the giant Japanese scallions, instead of leeks. They were mysteriously expensive today, so I didn't use as many as I should have, and so it came out more of a negi-potato soup. But it was certainly good. Needed more salt. That's one thing about cold soups: you have to salt them while they're hot or the salt won't dissolve easily, but salt loses its savor when it's cold so you have to oversalt. I didn't do enough.

Second, I did Basque-style chicken (poulet basquaise), which is a chicken fricassee cooked with garlic, flavorful green pepper (mild poblanos would work much better than the usual supermarket green peppers), ham, with a tomato-onion sauté base. If you like chicken fricassee at all, it's very good. I did have a little trouble with my pans, because my range is so small that I couldn't readily get the pans to sit on their burners at the same time, which made tossing the contents more than a little tricky. But it worked. Sam liked this, although he didn't touch the green peppers (as I knew he wouldn't).

Third, herbed fresh cheese (cervelle de canut). I used most of a package of Australian cream cheese and a little cream to make the fromage blanc, and I used every herb in the house instead of the ones he recommends. Thus I used shiso (紫蘇, perilla), shungiku (春菊, a parsley-like herb), a little negi scallion, and basil, as well as all that garlic, of course. I did not use a garlic press as suggested here; I think these recipes must be dumbed-down a little, because I've very rarely seen a serious European chef recommend one of these things. I used a technique I got from Jacques Pépin: you chop the garlic pretty finely with a knife, sprinkle with a little coarse salt, and then essentially spread the garlic on the board with your knife. After each spread, you scrape up all the garlic on the inside of the knife-blade and do it again, and again, and again, pressing down hard. Very quickly, you have perfectly pureed garlic. Incidentally, when you chop garlic fine, the trick is occasionally to wipe the outside and then the inside of the knife-blade (the right and then the left, if you're a righty) on the pile of garlic on the board. If you do this right, the two passes leave you with a tidy pile of garlic in the middle and just a little still attached to the inside of the blade, which is where you want it anyway. With practice, you can do this very fast, and it is very close to the spreading motion that makes garlic puree, so you can have the one flow into the other with just a left-handed sprinkle of salt (which helps bring the moisture to the surface and make the stuff spread, in case you were wondering). I cut some of the local pseudo-baguette into sticks and toasted them in the toaster oven, and they dunked in the cheese very well. I recommend this recipe highly.

Finally, I did a little cod roe persillade, for which I got the recipe from Jacques Pépin's website. I did not use fish liver, as it wasn't available without a search, whereas cod roe is pretty ordinary stuff around here. I think his recipe is intended for much larger roes than I was using, because it was just a little tougher than I'd have liked. But the flavor was excellent, and given that roes are constantly available and often very inexpensive this is certainly a dish I will experiment with. I think these little roes ought to have been poached in beurre monté rather than cooked brown on the outside first, and then you'd pour off most of the monté sauce before adding the garlic and parsley. I used a local citrus instead of lemon, but as the thing I used (sudachi, I think) is quite sour and good-tasting, it was a minor and positive adaptation.

Those with small children may be interested to know that Maia liked the roe, and that Sam pretended not to like it because (being 3) he was in one of those moods. Maia also liked the Vichyssoise, which Sam did not. Both of them liked the cheese—in fact, at one point we couldn't figure out why Maia was being such a pain, and it turned out she wanted to be fed more cheese.

All in all, I'm rather proud of myself doing all this in about 3 hours flat, much of which time I was doing other things as well. All the dishes were good, and in every case I can see pretty clearly how to improve the next time. Of course, it helps to be using recipes from two immensely respected world-class French chefs, but hey, I'll take the credit.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Review: Mos Burger

This evening we went to Mos Burger, which I believe is supposed to mean "MOSt delicious Burger," if you follow. This is one of Japan's more successful fast-food chains to challenge the global hegemony of McDonald's, Burger King, and the like.

My basic opinion: it's rotten. Don't bother. Each burger is about $3 (¥320, give or take). The menu can be found at this website.

Now Sam wanted a hot dog, Sarah wanted a kinpira rice burger, and I decided to go for the Spicy Mos Cheeseburger. Here's what we got.

Here is the Spicy Mos Cheeseburger. It's quite a bit nastier than it looks. "Spicy," I take it, is used in that broader sense of karai (辛い) that means salty and/or odd-flavored. The goo between the tomato and the cheese is unidentifiable weirdness, some sort of glop that they insist on calling "special sauce." I hope the ingredients are secret on this particular special sauce, because otherwise they could probably be prosecuted. Imagine that you found weird pickles in the back of your fridge left over from who knows when, chopped them fine, stirred them into that jar of ketchup that somebody gave you when they were moving out ten years ago, and then for good measure you decided to add a little vinegar. The cheese wasn't, let's just put it that way. I mean, McDonald's cheeseburgers have plastic that resembles cheese a lot more than this. The burger was essentially a circular slice of meatloaf, without any flavoring whatever, which meant that it had that strange smooth mouth-feel you get on over-processed meatloaf, but without the possibility of flavoring that usually is the saving grace of over-processed meatloaf. I should note, in passing, that they seem to love over-processed meatloaf here, and indeed serve it with a thick goo they mislabel "demi-glace" sauce, the result being hanbagu (as opposed to hanbaga, which is a hamburger). So I'll pass on Mos Burger's Mos Delicious Burgers.

Then we come to the kinpira rice burger. Kinpira gobo is stir-fried burdock with various flavorings. The "rice" in the rice burger comes from the bun, which is basically a soft rice cake. So you put the one inside the other, and you have the kinpira rice burger. Now this, as the inspector said to the maker of Crunchy Frog, is extremely nasty. I had a bite, disliked it intensely, and then as I reached for my ginger ale got a truly horrendous aftertaste. I don't know what they're putting into these things, but it's foul. See all that yummy carrot and stringy brown stuff? The brown stuff is gobo, and the carrot is cooked with it to be sure that it has no flavor of its own, and the whole thing is wet and gloppy and has a strange acid-sweet taste that resembles low-quality Southeast Asian fish sauce more than anything else I can think of. I think if you wanted to make this at home, what you'd do is you'd take a plain rice cake, cut it in half horizontally with a thin knife, and then leave it out in a humid place for a couple of days to get nice and squodgy. Then you'd take thinly-sliced carrot, burdock, onion, and pencil shavings, and boil them in soy and fish sauce until good and slimy, and then leave this mess to drain overnight on the counter so it takes on a delightful "leftover" flavor. Sprinkle with stale black sesame seeds, toss with a tablespoon or so of corn oil, salt heavily, and you're in business.

Sam's hot dog was really not at all bad, albeit very much unlike what Americans think of as a hot dog, and with far too much ketchup. The dog itself was certainly passable as a mild sausage, with some bite to the skin, a little hint of spices and actual pork in the meat, and a distinct juiciness. I was sort of impressed on this one, I must admit. The onions weren't as fresh as they might have been, and the mustard had minimal flavor, and the bun was simply bad, but all of those things were well up to the high standards of, say, Wendy's or Burger King. If I had to eat at Mos Burger again (please God, no), I'd order a plain dog and fries. The "spicy" dog apparently has sliced jalapeños on it, which sounds rather a good idea, but I'm not going to chance it, I think. If I could get the hot dogs by themselves at the supermarket (probably I can, but I haven't tried), I would make this at home much better than they do at Mos Burger, and I'm not being immodest in saying so.

I was still hungry, despite the mediocre, rather limp and overly hot fries to go with my hideous Spicy Cheeseburger, so I decided, what they hey, why not try the new Teriyaki Chicken Burger? Honestly, how bad can it really be? Can it possibly rival the Spicy Cheeseburger or the Kinpira Rice Burger for vileness? How dreadfully can you make teriyaki chicken, anyway? Actually, it wasn't nearly that bad. Bad, yes. Unpleasant, slimy on the outside and dry on the inside, flavored in a trashy chemical sort of fashion and without any saving graces. But at least it wasn't actively awful. I mean, unlike the Spicy Cheeseburger, it didn't leap out and say, "Hi there, I'm really vile." And unlike the Kinpira Rice Burger, it didn't actually follow your shuddering palate as you sat up in horror and say, "Hey, you didn't get enough noisome evil!" I could eat it without more than a grimace. Why they feel the need to chop the chicken into small chunks, making it impossible to eat this as a sandwich without dropping bits all over, is beyond me, but perhaps the executive chef types who are responsible for Mos Burger were thinking, "gee, this really isn't all that bad; how can we do something inexpensive to undermine any sense of quality here?"

Certainly I think whoever is responsible for this hideousness known as Mos Burger deserves a good slapping, and should never again be allowed anywhere near the food industry.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

After Some False Starts...

... I’ve finally gotten ready to start putting this blog up.

As it says in the description, I’m an academic, foodie, and passable home cook. I’m on sabbatical this year in Kyoto, along with my wife, who speaks Japanese (which I don't) and is teaching this year; my son Sam, who’s 3 and will be in nursery school; and my daughter Maia, who’s not yet 1 and will, we hope, be doing some daycare. So I have quite a bit of time on my hands, and I thought I’d indulge myself and get serious about cooking and eating.

(As you can see, Sam and Maia both like the local cuisine.)

Kyoto is often said to be the culinary heart of Japan, although these days Osaka has a pretty strong claim. The deal is, according to Kansai-area foodies, that Osaka is great for earthy, robust food, and Kyoto is more about subtlety and elegance. So this is where you get things like kaiseki, the rarefied cuisine of lots of little tiny dishes delicately prepared and subtly balanced to harmonize with the seasons and so on. I’ve never been a big fan of the whole simplicity thing, as you’ll discover, so this is a good opportunity for me to break some habits and learn something new.

Now on the subject of false starts, the first thing was that our rented machia house (at the end of this street, on the left) came with almost nothing: a really horrible knife, two battered nonstick pans, and some mediocre dishes. So we headed out to buy stuff. The problem was that nobody seemed to know where to go. The staff at my wife’s office said to try Daimaru, a local department store that’s supposedly having some sales, but we were appalled by the prices. I mean, seriously: who’s going to pay $250 for a basic soup pot? — and, no, it wasn’t anything fancy either. Rubber spatula for $30? You've got to be kidding.

Then we heard about Muji (無印), or “no-name,” which we did. Things were a bit pricey, on the whole, but the quality seemed good and we found quite a lot of good stuff. The 100-yen shops had some really rock-bottom basics, too, but I still didn’t have a curve-sided pan or wok, for example, or a lot of other things. Finally we heard about Kawabata Nikku (川端ニック), which is up in the northeast, and that covered almost everything. So it took a week or so just to get some basics.

Turns out, incidentally, that restaurateurs don’t do what we did at all. In Tokyo, they go to Kappabashi, between Ueno and Asakusa, but there isn’t anything like that in Kyoto. But in Osaka, it seems, there is something called the Dōguya-suji Arcade (道具屋筋), right up from Den Den Town (where you get electronics of all kinds), and this is where you buy everything from plastic food displays to pots to whatever. Of course, if you want the best, you can buy in Kyoto from Aritsugu (有次), in Nishiki Market, but that’s all handmade craftsmanship and you can imagine what the prices are like. You’ll hear more about them when I get around to buying some of their beautiful (and expensive, but worth it) knives.

In passing, let me include the images I used for my header. Here you see some images of Nishiki Market, from the Flickr photostream “One Man’s Perspective,” and one of some Aritsugu knives, from the photostream “Ever Jean.” All these images are Creative Commons licensed for adaptation and the like, and I hope my use is kosher.

Well, anyway, now that I have equipment, I can make food. But my cookbooks are still in transit, so I have to do it all from memory and a few things I can find online. I did some basic Mexican, since avocados are cheaper here than at home (why?), but I had to substitute for cilantro since for some bizarre reason I can’t find any here. I did a very nice miso-cooked mackerel, quite a famous dish, but I forgot to photograph it. And tonight, I’m doing Pacific saury (sanma さんま) sort of en colère, albeit I sort of hacked up the fish and besides it seems rather bony for the approach. On the other hand, I’m making pumpkin (kabocha) cream soup with the local very, very full-fat milk, and there’s mac and cheese for Sam, so all should be fine. I’m also doing a basic Caesar salad, since the eggs here are quite safe for raw use, and besides Sam (the one we’d worry about) doesn’t eat lettuce.

Rather than explain how to hack a fish to bits badly, I’ll end with a quick recipe for pumpkin soup. Next time, with any luck, I’ll manage to document something worth documenting, with photos along the way, and so on.

Pumpkin Soup
You need a couple of cups of skinned, seeded, coarsely chopped pumpkin, yellow squash, acorn squash, or whatever seems fresh. Add some mild stock to cover this; I used fish stock, which I made from the saury bones. Bring the mix to a rapid boil, cover, and simmer fast for 20-30 minutes or so, until the squash is falling to bits. Puree well (I’m using my new toy, an immersion blender), and strain coarsely in case you missed some stringy bits. Bring to a strong simmer and add a cup of fatty milk or cream and a dash of cayenne, whisk thoroughly, and reduce the heat to a medium simmer. You really should then whisk in ½ cup of crème fraîche, but I haven’t seen it yet in Japan so I’m going to use a small amount of warm, finely-cut brie cheese. Add salt and pepper (preferably white) to taste, and serve. You can keep it warm for quite a while, but do not let it come to the boil or it will probably break.

Here’s how dinner came out. The soup in the large bowls is garnished with a little seared sliced mushrooms. The mac and cheese is homemade, but cheese is not readily available in anything resembling quality, so I had to use something labeled "camembert" that tastes like American cheese --- Sam didn't mind. The wine is cheap Euro-plonk from Spain. As you see, I didn't bother with en colère this time (that's where you pull the tail of the fish through the mouth and saute that way), because I'm pretty sure the sanma'd have fallen to bits ; I just floured lightly and seared in a small amount of oil. Tasted good, if a bit bony here and there.

Next time, well, who knows? I'll try to do some restaurant reviews and photos, decent recipes and the like, documentation of my kids eating their way through Kyoto, and of course periodic rambling about Japanese food culture -- and homemaking culture, really, since that's what I'm doing. But I've got no clear plans, exactly. We'll see.

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