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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