Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pricey, Ain’t It?

Japan: lovely food, lots of nice things, but boy howdy is it expensive.

Take this for example.

I made a big pot of clam chowder, and the next day I served the leftovers with a light spaghetti dish. To do this, I used:
2 pounds teeny live clams
1/4 pound mild bacon
1 onion
half a beautiful carrot
sprinkle of thyme
a cup or so very fat whole milk
2 pounds small potatoes
1/2 pound spaghetti
3 Tb butter
2 cloves garlic
1 generous cup fava beans
8 fat shiitake mushrooms
1/4 pound unsmoked salt-cured bacon (prosciutto)
some Gruyère cheese
1/4 pound sweet cherry tomatoes
2 bottles white wine (one for each evening)
1 perfect crusty French baguette

And then 5 kiwi fruit and 1 fat grapefruit for dessert
The total bill was $30. Rough, huh? Gee whiz.

No, but seriously, food is now so expensive in the US, and given that I walked to these stores within less than 15 minutes total (and thus didn’t pay for gas), I find it disturbing that this very expensive country seems to be so cheap by home standards. What’s even more disturbing is that this total bill includes $13.50 for the wine, and Gruyère is insanely expensive — I just didn’t use much.

Admittedly, I’m mostly gloating, but here’s the recipes:

Clam Chowder
Slice the bacon crosswise in thin strips and put in a big pot over medium-low heat until they have rendered most of their fat. Add 1 onion and half a fat carrot, chopped medium. Stir occasionally until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add 2 pounds small potatoes cut in small cubes, stir-toss until coated with fat, and add enough water to cover by an inch or so. Bring to a strong simmer, then add a generous sprinkle of thyme, reduce heat, and simmer gently about 30 minutes, until the potatoes and carrots are just tender. Add 2 cups very fat milk or half-and-half and bring to a simmer. Add 2 pounds well-rinsed very small live clams (the ones I used are about 1/4" across; if you must use larger ones, scale up the weight). Cover the pot and bring to a strong simmer, then cook about 5 minutes, until all the clams are open (shake the pot to convince any last recalcitrant ones to give up the ghost). Correct salt, and serve with lots of black pepper, some good crusty bread, and a coarse white wine.

Spaghetti Portale
I call it this because I got the basic concept from Alfred Portale, chef and author of The Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook. His recipe calls for pea shoots or arugula, which I didn’t have, and for which I substituted the fava beans and shiitake mushrooms. You need to use very low-salt prosciutto to make this work really well, but for ordinary cooking a decent ham or blanched bacon will do just fine.

Take 3 Tb or so sweet butter and leave it on the counter for an hour to soften. Mince 2 cloves garlic very, very fine, or purée with a knife if you want. Mash the garlic into the butter evenly. Scrape the butter into a mildly heatproof serving bowl. Add to the serving bowl 1/4 pound quartered cherry tomatoes, 1 generous cup just-cooked fava beans, 1/4 pound prosciutto cut in thin strips, and about half a cup shredded Gruyère cheese. Remove the stems of the shiitake, then cut the caps in quarters. Sauté in olive oil over medium heat until they release their liquid and then reabsorb it and begin to fry again. Remove from heat and set aside. Bring a lot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add half a pound of spaghetti and boil until just barely al dente. As it is nearly done, turn the heat back on under the mushrooms. Spoon off 1 ladleful of liquid into a cup, then drain the spaghetti. Put the spaghetti and the mushrooms in the bowl with everything else. Toss, adding the reserved liquid a little at a time as you go, until you have a creamy sauce and everything is mixed in smoothly and fairly hot. Serve immediately with black pepper and, ideally, fresh-grated Parmesan (which I didn’t have), and a coarse white wine on the side.

Grapefruit For Dessert
I adore this trick, which I got from Jacques Pépin.

Cut both ends off a grapefruit, then slice off the rest of the skin and pith by cutting from one cut end to the next in fat slices. Hold the grapefruit in your off-hand, horizontally, so your thumb can rest on one end. With a paring knife, cut just beyond one bit of section-skin, down to the core, then cut on the near side of the next bit of section-skin. Remove the section. Now cut on the far side of that second bit of section-skin, but when you get to the bottom turn your hand so your knuckles come toward you and scrape the section off the skin. Do it again on the next section, and the next, and so on. The more often you do it, the faster and smoother it will get. The result should be a pile of perfectly clean grapefruit sections. Make a pretty fan-circle of these on the plate. Mound up some berries, diced fruit, coulis of fresh fruit (put fruit in the processor with a pinch of sugar and whiz until smooth), etc. in the middle; I just chopped some peeled kiwis very fine. Squeeze the remainder of the grapefruit, i.e. all the section skins, over the top. Serve immediately. Chocolate is a nice accompaniment, of course.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mexican My Way

We recently discovered that Daimaru, a big department store not far from us, has cilantro in its basement food court. Not pricey, either. I am still very confused about how difficult this is to find, but at least now I can get it. While there today, I also discovered that they stock fresh thyme, sage, and the like, so I am no longer so stymied on basic herbs.

I had decided to make Mexican food tonight, using some nice recipes from Diana Kennedy. Before I get to what I made, and how, and like that, let me continue my musings on odd absences and gaps in Japanese food availability.

Why No Mexican?
As I discussed recently, I find it mind-boggling that you cannot get basic Chinese ingredients without an extensive search; we ultimately did find things like fermented black soybeans at a Chinese specialty shop, but I still wonder why you can’t get them in an ordinary store. With Mexican foods, I understand that there is no established connection the way there is with China, but I nevertheless find it strange that this cuisine has so little presence here.

If you think about real Mexican food, not Tex-Mex, you note that it’s dominated by a number of basic ingredients: citrus, fresh herbs, tropical fruits and vegetables, rice, corn, pork, mild dairy products, and an enormous amount of seafood. According to Kennedy and other experts, Mexicans who are into food tend to be quite bonkers about seafood: fresh, local, and all that. Some Mexican foods are of course very spicy, because of the use of chiles in various forms and of many kinds, but this isn’t true of all Mexican food by a long chalk. In fact, it’s quite common to use some of the more intensely-flavored chiles only for flavor, not heat: in many Yucatán dishes, for example, you take habanero chiles, whole and uncut, and let them sit in a hot sauce for a little while, just to infuse the flavor but not to make the dish spicy at all.

Now the only thing I can see many Japanese people objecting to about this cuisine is the spicy thing. Not that there aren’t Japanese spice-maniacs, but certainly the majority of the food here is very mild on that score. Otherwise, this strikes me as exactly the sort of thing Japanese people would love: lots of fresh seafood and tropical vegetables, rice, mild cheese and cream, a little pork or chicken here and there.

But it’s not here. There are Mexican restaurants, but not many, and from the various reviews and descriptions I have read, they tend to be pretty mediocre. As far as I have found, there are something like five or six Mexican restaurants in Kyoto, grand total — and this is a city where restaurants pretty much dominate all other kinds of shops.

So if you’re reading this and you’re a serious Mexican chef, let me suggest that you could get in ahead of the wave. You focus on fresh seafood, you put occasional markers on your menu when something is spicy, and you avoid the things that have become American Tex-Mex commonplaces. Somebody is going to do this, and it’s going to be the next hot thing, the way Italian was quite recently. Go ahead: I bet you could do very well. If you make a fortune, cut me off a piece of it, okay?

Mexican At Home
Based on what’s available and fresh — and what my son will eat — I decided to do two dishes and some little sides. I’d do a chicken-rice-vegetable one-pot thing, a great deal like what the Japanese call a zosui but with very different herbs and spices. I’d do a broiled sanma (Pacific saury) briefly simmered in a green, somewhat spicy sauce. And then I’d do some basic salsa, guacamole, and the like to use as salad/garnish.

The most interesting dish, and in some ways the most successful, was the fish.
sanma Mexican
Kennedy’s recipe calls for a mild, firm-fleshed white fish, like a sea bass. She has you poach it until barely done, use the stock to make a sauce, and then cook the fish in the sauce to re-warm and marry the flavors. I thought the fish would probably be overdone this way, and I don’t really like poached fish. So I decided to try a merger of Mexico and Japan.

First I made stock: I took the head and frame of a red snapper I had in the freezer from earlier this week, added some frozen vegetable trimmings from my box that I keep for the purpose (carrots, bits of tomato, onion, scallion, etc.), then added a bay leaf, a generous sprinkle of oregano, and half a yuzu, which is a very sour but floral local citrus fruit. I covered it with water, brought to a very gentle simmer, and left it there for an hour or so. Then I strained coarse, then fine, and had good fish stock. (Red snapper, or sea bream, Japanese tai, makes fabulous stock.)

Then I got a sanma (Pacific saury). I got it at Daimaru, rather than my local grocery store, because I was there and besides I wanted something really good. It had already been lightly salted, so I just rinsed it off.

To make the sauce, I put a bunch of stuff in my immersion blender jar and processed until smooth. (See recipe below.) About 15 minutes before dinner, I sauteed garlic, added the sauce and simmered rapidly over medium heat. Then I cooked the fish.

To do this, I used the Japanese shio yaki style. I rubbed the fins with salt, then put the fish under the broiler until very brown and crispy on one side, flipped the fish with chopsticks, and broiled the other side. I now put the fish onto a plate, remove the whole garlic cloves from the sauce, and poured the sauce over. You can see the results: visually pretty cool, I thought.

The flavor was excellent. I think the shift from a mild fish to a dark-fleshed one required more chile and perhaps more cilantro — certainly it needed a bit more salt in the sauce to stand up to the salty fish. Other than that, it was very good. I did think the sanma liver (you grill these things whole, ungutted) was rather bitter, but I am informed that this is usually the case and not my fault.

I’d do it again, no question. But I think I’d use (a) a milder white-fleshed fish, like a small red snapper, (b) more cilantro and salt, and (c) at least double the amount of chile. Then I could serve it with plain rice and something mild for salad and have a pretty wow dinner.

I do think that if I didn’t do the extra chile, the resulting dish would be very much to the taste — visual as well as palatal — of a lot of Japanese people. The sauce is exciting and complex, but it doesn’t overwhelm the fish at all, which would be the big objection. I think it could have been garnished with a little minced tomato, in a line down the fish, for prettiness’ sake, but the intense green and the crispy whole fish made a great combo.

One thing I do need, as you see, is better dishes: this should not have been put on a blah round white plate. Oh well — I am, after all, in Japan, where beautiful handmade dishes are surprisingly inexpensive. So maybe soon I’ll start upgrading my presentations.

The Recipe
[To serve 2 as a main course with salad and rice]
Ingredients
1 pound fish frames for stock
2 cups stock vegetables: carrot, turnip, onion, tomato, celery, etc. trimmings
1 tsp dried oregano (or 3 sprigs fresh)
1 bay leaf
1 large wedge sour citrus, preferably lime or similar
2 smallish whole fish (Spanish mackerel, trout or bass, whatever looks good)
1 cup coarse salt, e.g. kosher
1/4 cup blanched, peeled almonds
1-2 whole hot chiles, e.g. serranos
2 Tb capers, drained
1/3 cup unflavored bread crumbs
4 lettuce leaves, torn coarsely
1/4 cup onion, chopped
10-15 sprigs cilantro, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 Tb cooking oil
salt and pepper to taste

Method

Put the frames, vegetables, oregano, bay, and citrus in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring slowly to a simmer, and simmer gently for 1-2 hours, skimming any scum that rises. Strain coarsely, then very fine, and reserve. You should have about 2 cups.

Rinse the fish and scale if necessary. Rub all surfaces lightly but thoroughly with coarse salt and let the fish sit on a countertop for about 30 minutes.

Put the almonds in a blender and process until as smooth as you can get them. Add 1 cup of the reserved stock and process again, scraping as necessary, until very smooth. Add all the remaining ingredients except for 2 cloves garlic and puree until very smooth. If it seems very thick, add 1/4 cup more stock and puree. Salt generously to taste.

Rinse the fish all over and dry well with paper towels. Rub all the fins, the head, and the gill flaps generously with coarse salt.

Put the oil in a wide saute pan and heat. Add the 2 reserved garlic cloves and saute until just golden. Add all the sauce, plus another half-cup stock, and stir gently. Let simmer 15 minutes; if it gets too thick, add more stock.

While the sauce simmers, turn the broiler on full-blast. Set the rack to be about 5 inches from the flame, and oil the rack very well. Put about 1 cup water in the bottom of the broiler pan, which will help with the cleanup immensely. Put the rack under the flame for a couple of minutes before adding the fish.

Put the fish on the rack, lying on their right sides (if the head is to the left, the belly should be toward you). Broil 3-4 minutes, until the skin is very brown and crisp, and bubbling up in places. (Adjust the rack distance to get this effect in this time.) With chopsticks and/or rubber or wooden spatulas, gently turn the fish over — tongs don’t work. Broil another 3-4 minutes on the other side, until brown as before.
sanma shio yaki
Turn the fish again and remove, with a wide spatula or two, to serving plates. The sauce should be ready: remove the whole garlic cloves and pour over the fish. Serve at once with plain rice and a simple, fresh salad. Chips and fresh tomato salsa are an excellent side with this.

Total cooking time: 3 hours, including stock-making, which can be done a day in advance
Total active cooking time: 30 minutes

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Birthday: Down and Then Up

It was my birthday on the 18th, and for once I didn’t have to spend most of the day running after my kids. So I meandered off for a nice lunch in the areas around the river (Pontocho and Gion).

Down With Gion
The weather wasn’t too bad initially, but it soon became so humid that I felt like I was swimming. So when I reached a lovely old street in Gion on which is a restaurant I’d had recommended to me, I thought, “this is just the thing.”

Nope. “Sorry, reservations only.” I got a nasty feeling that what they really meant was, “sorry, no sweaty foreigners,” which happens quite a lot in that area. But okay, fine, I’ll go a solid step down-market.

Nope. Turned away again, same thing. I was now getting irritated. Another place? Nope.

Okay, you’re thinking, these places were busy, they didn’t have space. Are you kidding? One place that turned me away was empty. I mean, like empty. One couple at an end table, otherwise deserted. “Sorry, reservations only.”

I was now sick of Gion. Pretty, yes, but yuck. Back over the river, I found that there was some kind of school holiday going on, and a zillion 12-year-olds in uniforms were crashing around everywhere making a hell of a ruckus. Scattered among them were a huge number of foreign tourists, which meant that I could tell what ordinary Kyoto-ites were thinking when they saw me: “damn foreigners.” I was distinctly annoyed, hot, and tired — nice way to spend my birthday, I don’t think.

Okay Lunch, Blah Day
Finally I wandered to Rokkoji just east of Karasuma, where tourists don’t usually go, and had a nice lunch at a place called Little Bean House [小豆家, I’m not sure how it’s pronounced]. Curry with mysterious but tasty things, raw pickle salad, tofu, cooked pickles, rice, miso soup. Quite good, not expensive, and in general a positive conclusion to a dispiriting morning. I then gave up and went home.

To be fair to Gion, it’s pretty. No, but actually I do think that these places meant what they said: reservations only. Turns out that the way these places do kaiseki, they make exactly X number of each dish, so they have to know well in advance how many people are coming. If you show up without a reservation, they don’t have food to feed you.

Anyway, I have decided that it’s healthier to believe this than that I was turned way for being white — which is entirely possible. But the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, as it were (not to be snide about Little Bean House, which was perfectly good).

Up With Pontocho
The next morning, forewarned, my wife called ahead to make reservations. No problem: we got a reservation at Roan Kikunoi (露庵 菊乃井), just south of Shijo on Kiyamachi. It’s a slightly informal version of the very high-end kaiseki (or technically kyo-ryōri) place Kikunoi 菊乃井, which is much celebrated and often considered one of the best in Kyoto.

It was raining, because the edge of a typhoon is brushing the area, but at least it was passably cool. We dressed up a bit — I wore a black suit, but no tie, and we figured that though we might be taken for tourists, we’d at least be high-end tourists, which means a lot here.

(On this score, Kyoto reminds me of Florence. If you’ve been there and had waiters be nasty to you, chances are you were dressed like a shlep. If you go to Florence, wear a suit and tie, and eat when civilized people eat. Oh, and remember of course that the Florentine definition of “civilized” is “Florentine,” so eat when they eat, like 8:30 for dinner. You do that, you’ll love it. If you fake a few words of Italian as well they’ll adore you, because you’re showing how wonderful you think they are, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.)

In any event, we got there. Roan Kikunoi is a neat little place jammed behind a large and especially ugly McDonald’s, and I must say I had a nagging worry in the pit of my stomach that this was not going to go well.

Bracing ourselves (well, I was), we came in and sat down at the bar -- definitely the way to do this, by the way, because the chefs make things on the other side of the bar and then hand them to you direct. We ordered some sake, took a deep breath, and ...

WOW. Okay? Wow.

I took photos of most of the courses, once it became clear that the chefs weren’t concerned about foreigners one way or another. My wife was being all chatty in high-speed Japanese, which meant they could be their own chatty selves back, and the older chef who seemed to be in charge was cracking jokes with us and other customers at the bar, lending the whole thing an informal, festive atmosphere. He did ask that I not use a flash, I think because he’d be blinded by it, but I find my camera takes horrible pictures with a flash anyway so that was no biggie. Besides, the Japanese love taking pictures of their meals, so I was pretty sure he didn’t care.

But before I get to the food, there’s one other little thing. I kept thinking that the older guy, who plated several of our dishes and was generally bounciest and most talkative, looked familiar. Then my wife noticed that unlike everyone else, his jacket had no name-tag. Then it hit us: that was Murata Yoshihiro, the Kikunoi chef, the man himself. The guy who plated my sashimi. The guy who, when we asked what one of the fish was, told us it was katsuo... which seemed odd, since it didn’t look much like katsuo, but... and then went, “oh, sorry, wait, no, I’m mixed up. That’s baby hamachi [called tsubasu].” The next course was katsuo, and when it arrives I say to my wife, I thought pretty quietly, “now that is katsuo,” at which point Murata, six feet down the counter, bursts out laughing and says, “right, katsuo, whoops!” Hard to explain, I guess — you had to be there — but it’s sort of like sitting at the bar in, I don’t know, Daniel, and realizing that the guy making jokes and giving you a little appetizer he’s just whipped up behind the bar is Daniel Boulud. If that makes any sense.

Another thing I found remarkable was how every chef did everything, sort of in a rough rotation. You always had one chef standing behind the counter looking on unobtrusively, so when you finished a course he was ready to get you the next. There were several very young chefs on the line, getting what appeared to be helpful, generally positive constructive comments from the older guys. One young guy was cutting a sheet of daikon — a classic technique you have to master, where you take a usuba (honking big straight-edged knife) and shave around and around a daikon to make one huge translucent sheet — and I could see that he wasn’t all that great at it, though the results were fine. As he went along, an older chef came over and gave him some pointers. Our impression is that Roan Kikunoi is where Murata does some of his training of younger chefs, who might move up to Kikunoi when they’re ready. Again, this gave the whole thing a pleasant, cheerful, family sort of atmosphere — relatively speaking: it’s a very high-end place. It was also interesting from a cooking standpoint, because in most Western professional kitchens (at least in America) most of the line chefs do one station and stick to it: they may or may not be able to do other stations, but on a given night a sauté guy is a sauté guy. At Roan Kikunoi, and my sense is at most serious kaiseki places, stations aren’t the system.

Anyway, what did we eat? We got the mid-grade lunch (you pick low, middle, or high; what’s more, you decide when you make the reservation, not when you get to the restaurant):

A Light Lunch at Roan Kikunoi
1) Sakizuke (amuse-gueule): Walnut tofu with very small grapes. No picture: we weren’t yet sure if it was okay, and didn’t want to be those sort of foreigners. If you buy Murata’s book, he’s got a picture there. (And a recipe: good luck with that. Honestly, the recipes aren’t difficult as such, but there’s no way you’re going to reproduce what he serves. I’ll come back to this in a later post.) It was sweet, cool, and at the same time lightly spiked with wasabi. My wife's comment was that she gets the seasonal thing here, because it's cool and pleasant to eat when it's still hot out, and wasabi seems somehow really tasty when it's summer, but at the same time it's getting to be fall, time to eat nuts and grapes and stuff. I couldn't have put it better.

2) Hassun (a sort of overture, setting the palette for the meal): gingko nuts, hamo eel rolled around gobo and rice, simmered-roasted chestnut, simmered mackerel (? we're guessing -- too many things at once to remember perfectly), salted ayu entrails with trout roe in a hollowed-out yuzu citrus, crunchy sweet potato shaped like a gingko leaf, pine needles made of roasted soba noodles. I’d never had gingko nuts, but my wife has: she remarked, “I’ve never had them this big or this good.” They were slightly sweet and great, simmered gently in sake and lightly salted. The whole show came under a little wooden cricket cage (some sort of cage, anyway); again, if you want to see it that way, look at Murata’s book. (Actually, he’s written several, but I mean the one that’s been translated as Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant.) The entrails thing didn't sound great when I read the recipe some months ago, but it was terrific, sort of like mildly fish-flavored tofu or yuba with a more complex texture, and the trout roe (which was like firmer salmon roe) really set it off, as did the intense floral aroma of the yuzu. I would never have expected that of all the things in this course that one would be my favorite, but it was spectacular.

3) Mukozuke (sashimi): tai 鯛 (sea bream) and baby hamachi (not katsuo!), garnished with chrysanthemum leaf, pickled chrysanthemum petals, and corkscrews of shaved cucumber and carrot. The tai was much firmer than I’m used to, which gave it a distinctiveness that I often find ordinary sashimi lacks.

Sea bream is one of those things that the Japanese get very worked up about. Tai is sort of the ultimate fish here. I've never really gotten this, and to be honest, I still don't. It was lovely, yes, but I confess that I didn't see why it deserved the big deal people make of it. I do think that I'm starting to develop some sense of a palate for sashimi, which is probably unfortunate, given that when I get home I'm almost never going to have the good stuff.

4) Yakimono (grilled dish): katsuo (bonito) tataki, which means it’s beaten to soften it up, then marinated and grilled very hot and left raw on the inside. Served with ponzu (citrus-soy) and red grated dashi. I’ve had this dish before, here in Kyoto, and I found myself thinking that this was a completely different dish, just utterly unlike what I’d had. I had thought it a bit fishy and with a somewhat problematic texture: flaky outside, raw inside. I have also long thought ponzu overrated. But this was fabulous. If you've ever had katsuo you now see why I identified it so easily: this triangular shape with the deep red is what it invariably looks like. It's meaty and in some ways more interesting than tuna, I think. I'm not sure why I don't see this at US sushi places, because given how popular tuna is -- and how much cheaper katsuo is -- you'd think it would be perfect. Maybe it doesn't keep well? In any event, really good ponzu, really good katsuo, the latter perfectly treated -- yum!

5) [not sure -- maybe a sort of palate-refresher like naka-choko?] : hamo eel-bone crackers. Very lightly salted, served with no sauce or anything. Crunchy and delicious, a great light thing after the meaty katsuo.

Eel-bone crackers I've heard about a lot of times, and I've seen pictures in which you get an entire eel backbone fried in a sort of coil. I've always thought it looked pretty but also rather unappetizing, even in the pictures I've seen from Nobu: it looks like what it is, in fact, i.e. a fish skeleton. These little crunchy nibbles were like nothing so much as cracklings: sort of the most ultimately high-end pork rinds ever. What's more, they make you sit up straight, because they're all calcium! I can't get over how these little munchies were such a great thing, so homey and everyday and yet totally unfamiliar.

6) Futamono (substantial soup, usually nimono): harvest soup with hamo covered in toasted rice, egg “tofu” cut in a moon shape for moon-viewing season, and Tamba shimeji mushrooms. You really taste the dashi in this, and it’s quite true what they say: it offsets and elevates everything, providing an almost silken background. We joked with Murata about the fact that he sometimes serves this dish with matsutake mushrooms instead, which cost a fortune; he ruefully laughed with us. (When I say they cost a fortune, I mean that, for instance, I recently saw some very nice ones at Nishiki market, priced at 38000 yen for a box of 8 fat ones. That's about $40 US per mushroom. And you can go well up-market from that if you want to. They're the truffles of Japan, at base.) These Tamba shimeji (i.e. from Tamba) were terrific, though: I don't know whether it was just the mushrooms or something in the preparation, but whereas I usually find shimeji just fine but a little bland, these were earthy and rich and intense.

7) Shiizakana (assorted dish with multiple elements): grilled or broiled suzuki (Japanese sea bass) with some finely-grated green herb we couldn’t identify, which was also in the daikon “dip” on the left. I liked this fine, but I found the herb too mystifying to make sense of the whole dish; suzuki also doesn't have any particular associations for me -- it's just mild white fish, a lot like good sea bass from the Atlantic. Given how excited people in Boston get about bass, though, I'm guessing this is something pretty meaningful for the locals.

If anyone out there has any guesses what this green stuff might be, I'd be grateful for an explanation. It had a light, grassy sort of flavor, and somehow the whole dish, although it came together, just didn't seem to me to stand out very well. Maybe it's also that I am not the biggest fan of grated daikon (I don't hate it or anything, but I don't really get the fascination with it. Now boiled daikon, boiled until mushy -- that one I can't stand.)

8) Gohan, konomono, tome-wan (rice, pickles, and soup): grated lotus-root soup (what they call here a vegetable potage -- that's the French term) with a kind of mochi ball (pounded glutinous rice, in this case not sweet); pickled daikon, eggplant, and kombu; and uni rice. See those chunks of orange? That’s sea urchin: uni 海栗. Lots of uni. Really a lot of uni. Did I mention there was uni? What’s more, the young chef who presented this one tossed it in a kaman 釜 pot right there, and they made enough that we could have seconds. We did: my wife joked that I should know how to say “okawari,” which means “more please,” because we’ve taught Sam to say it at his nursery school — the chef who dished up the seconds thought that was pretty funny (my impression is he has kids). There was some more left, too, so he made it into nigiri balls and wrapped it so we could take it home. Now that’s my idea of a good late-night snack: uni rice nigiri made by one of the finest kitchens in Kyoto. Oh -- the soup was great, as were the pickles. But... did I mention about the uni rice?

9) Mizumono (sweet): sorry the picture is blurry, but I was a little dazed after the uni rice. Walnut ice cream and a creamy caramel flan sort of thing — a little different from the usual Western version, but in subtle ways I can’t explain coherently. As we were finishing up, the chef chatted with my wife about where we were from and so on; his judgment was, “Boston? Good fish there.” They also discussed lobster.

We staggered out, replete, to find Chef Murata waiting. He said polite things, thanked us for coming, and saw us to the door with lots of bowing. I mean, yes, they’re supposed to do that, but it’s pretty cool to have a super high-end chef seeing you off in classic formal style.

For the next hour or so, we just wandered around the general area, because we couldn’t face doing anything else. The only problem was, you’d pass restaurants with all these appetizing photos of their food outside, and think, “you’ve got to be kidding: I’m not eating that.”

The last thing the other chatty chef (the one who talked about Boston and lobster) said to us was that a lot of nice fish is just starting to come in around the Japan Sea, which was a polite way of suggesting that maybe we should come back again in October. I think we will. And maybe the next month too....

So now I’m wondering: what would have happened if we’d had the top-level lunch at Kikunoi, rather than the mid-level lunch at Roan Kikunoi (which is cheaper). Would it have been as stunning? Would it have been as much fun? What about dinner (which starts at about $300 US per person — ouch)? Right now, I find it hard to imagine. That was one of the best meals I have ever eaten, not just because the food was stunningly terrific (which it absolutely was) but also because of a wonderful atmosphere that actually made me feel welcome: they all genuinely seemed to care if I liked what I was eating, every step of the way.

Technically, it was still my birthday, at home on the East Coast anyway. A nice way to turn 38!

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Chinese Weirdness

I was getting rather tired of Japanese/French semi-fusion food, which I have been doing for the last few days. I think I first realized I was getting tired of it when I plated a sanma (Pacific saury, very similar to a small mackerel or a large sardine) tartare in a perfect cylinder topped with an even layer of salmon roe, garnished with a vinaigrette sauce adorned with capers and chopped hard-boiled eggs, and thought I should probably photograph this for the blog---and then thought, "ah, what the hell, too much trouble." This despite the fact that I got this recipe from Le Bernardin's cookbook (the 4-star fish restaurant in New York), made some fairly clever substitutions based on availability in Japan at this season, and all in all made something that was perfect for blogging. Turns out, I was getting tired of this. Why?

All that protein, I guess. I mean, you've got fish, and more fish, and eggs, and then vinegared stuff to brighten the flavors... but where are the veggies? Turns out, the Japanese are on the whole kind of bad about this. They do eat some vegetable superfoods, like fresh soybeans (edamame) and various seaweeds, but they're really not great about fresh vegetables in general. They'd rather pickle them, which is fine but gets us right back to the vinegar and salt thing.

Well, since I now have a passable sense of what I can get in the local market, produce-wise, I went to my cookbook collection (which has now arrived, thank goodness). I was sort of idly turning pages, flipping through different books, but nothing seemed very appealing. And then... my eye happened on Barbara Tropp's wonderful Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Oh yes---Chinese stir-fry! Bright flavors, handled quickly and intensely. And I should be able to get everything very easily, this being East Asia, after all, where the influence of China has been almost overwhelming for a very, very long time.

So I went on a shopping expedition and found...

Huh?

Wait just a second. I'm in Japan, right? I'm in what is probably the culinary center of Japan, where every other shopfront is a restaurant and people are absolutely stark, staring bonkers about food. I'm in a place where people will pay as much at a good Chinese restaurant as they'd pay at a good French restaurant.

But I can't get cilantro. I can't get black soybeans. I can't get Chinese-style roasted sesame paste. I can't get Chinese wine. I can't get hoisin sauce. I can't get Sichuan peppercorns. What the hey?

A Little Rant
If you don't know much about Chinese cooking, or about Japanese history, you may not see why I think this is quite as bizarre as I do.

The first point is that almost everything in Japanese aesthetic history really starts with China. You constantly see all sorts of stuff about how distinctively Japanese is that stuff about empty space, simple wooden architecture, paper shoji screens and tatami mats, and so on. But all of that is very closely patterned on certain dominant aesthetic trends in China in the Tang dynasty, when the Japanese first had really extensive and intricate intellectual exchanges with China. In theory, this is when Buddhism came over to Japan; almost certainly it arrived earlier from Korea, but from the Japanese perspective it's all China. The same thing goes for the writing system: the Japanese writing system is adapted from the Chinese, using the same characters (kanji) plus a series of wildly simplified characters that serve as a syllabary (the kana).

The second point is that many of these ingredients are not only common in Chinese cuisine, but elsewhere. Cilantro is native from southwestern Asia to north Africa, but it has been spread around the globe. Wikipedia notes, correctly, that cilantro or "coriander is commonly used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Indian, South Asian, Latin American, Chinese, African and Southeast Asian cuisine." Note the odd man out: Japan. Yet beyond so-called traditional Japanese food, some of the most popular kinds of restaurants in Japan are Chinese, Mediterranean, Indian, and Southeast Asian. What's more, there is the longstanding connection between Japan and Brazil, where once again cilantro is very popular (it is essential as a final garnish on feijoado, the national dish).

Beyond cilantro, let me note that Sichuan peppercorn is actually the same plant, so far as I can tell, as what the Japanese call sansho, the only difference being that the Japanese generally use the green leaves while in Sichuan you use the dried berries in their husks. If you're cultivating the plant, why isn't it available?

A really irritating example here is fermented black soybeans. The Japanese love fermented soybeans--see my experimental discussion of nattō. The Chinese black beans are prepared a bit differently, but I cannot imagine that many Japanese would not like the taste. In fact, I know for certain that seafood steamed or stir-fried in black bean sauce is extremely popular in Chinese restaurants here. So why can't I get the stuff?

I could see it if I were talking about ingredients that don't keep well or something, and perhaps that is part of the problem with the cilantro, though I rather doubt it. But everything else I'm talking about keeps for years. Literally: you can buy a vacuum-sealed package of black beans and not open them for a couple of years, and they'll be just fine.

Now I'm sure I could get Chinese wine (Shaoxing wine, for example) if I wanted it, if I just scoured the local liquor stores. But this is easy to substitute: if you're not using very much, sake will be perfectly acceptable. But the other things are not something you can work around: you cannot make something steamed in black bean sauce without black beans.

I decided to say what the hell and make what I could, with some appropriate substitutions insofar as I could get away with it, and the results were pretty good. But I remain mystified.

If any reader can tell me what's going on here, why I cannot find the most basic Chinese ingredients after searching several fairly large grocery stores, I will be very grateful!

Chinese Dinner At Home
For some reason I haven't been in the Chinese-cooking mode for a while now, and I'd forgotten how much fun it is. You can do almost everything difficult well in advance, and you plan around what burners and stuff you have. At more or less the last minute you whip it together, with lots of panache and clanging and general fun--if you're stir-frying in a wok over very high heat, you can also get some nice flare-ups which are exciting to watch--and you can quickly dish up a whole bunch of different things. What's more, almost everything keeps, and can be eaten cold, or reheated, or whatever; if there's something that doesn't reheat (like clams or something, for example), you just tell your family they have to finish that one off.

My only disappointment with cooking Chinese now is that Sam won't eat things that are spicy, which puts a damper on my enthusiasm for Sichuan and Hunan cuisines--an enthusiasm shared by Tropp, which is another reason I adore her cookbook. (Tropp died tragically young in 2001, and so far as I know only completed two cookbooks: The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking and then the China Moon Cookbook. If you don't have the first one, get it!)

Still, I managed a few dishes, despite all: Don-Don Noodles, Ma-La Chicken, Wine-Explosion Vegetable Soup, and fry-steamed Jiaozi dumplings (for the latter, I used frozen premade, I'm afraid, and they turned out to be not great).

Don-Don Noodles
I love this kind of flavor: bracing, intense, and complicated, with a heady waft of spice. It's typically Sichuan, I think, and couldn't be easier to make. In fact, I made the entire shebang in advance, then nuked it, because I didn't have an extra burner to use.

There are two components: noodles with carrot shreds and peanut sauce.

I used udon noodles, which are good and plentiful here (and I had a zillion packets of really good ones in the freezer), but at home I'd go with the Chinese preference for fresh egg noodles. Whatever you use, you need it to be firm, bouncy, and preferably a little assertive, but don't worry if they turn out a bit wimpy: no self-respecting noodle is going to stand up to a sauce like this. I boiled the noodles until a bit underdone, then drained and rinsed in cold running water until quite cool, then drained again. Then I added 2 Tb toasted sesame oil (you need the Chinese or Japanese stuff, which is brown, not the "cold-pressed" or middle-Eastern stuff that is more or less clear) and tossed until all the noodles were coated. I took two medium-fat carrots, peeled them, split them down the middle, put them cut-side down on a board, and then used a vegetable peeler flat to the board to shave them into thin slices. These slices I stacked and set up more or less parallel, and with a knife cut them into fine julienne. I tossed the carrots with the noodles, covered with plastic, and refrigerated. You can leave them like this for 24 hours or more without any problems at all. To reheat, I just nuked them on medium-high power until they were warm-to-hot throughout.

To make the sauce, put 10-12 fat cloves of garlic (peeled) into the food processor and whiz, scraping down a couple of times, until semi-fine. Add about a bunch of mitsuba and some shiso leaves, all chopped up coarsely; in a sane world, just add a medium bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped. Whiz on pulse again, scraping down often, until the whole thing is pretty fine. Now add half a cup of peanut butter (the organic kind that separates is infinitely superior) and whiz briefly to combine. Add half a cup of good soy sauce, a few Tb sugar, a small dash of sake (you should use Shaoxing wine, or maybe good dry sherry, but again...), and a couple Tb hot chili oil (try to get the kind that has scary red goo on the bottom of the jar, which I find tastes and mysteriously keeps better). Whiz, scrape, whiz, scrape, and continue until it's all pretty smooth, which doesn't take long. Taste: if it's intense but not exciting, add another Tb sugar and whiz again. Don't overdo the chili oil, as it will get hotter as it sits. Scrape the mix into a small bowl, cover with plastic, and let sit on the counter for a couple of hours. Refrigerated in a sealed tupperware, it'll keep for a very long time, but be sure to let it come to room temperature before serving.

To serve the dish, just plop the noodles down on a plate and top with the sauce, or have your guests add as much as they like. To eat, you sort of toss up the noodles and sauce (and carrots, obviously) with your chopsticks until it's all more or less combined, and then eat. If all has gone well, it will seem very mild-mannered for a bite or two, and then creep up and belt you one between the eyes.

My version was just fine, but lacked that high fragrance of the cilantro. I also thought the chili oil was wimpy.

Ma-La Chicken Cold chicken salad garnished with special hot-spicy-numbing oil. Came out a treat, I thought, and again, couldn't be easier. The only pain is the plating, and you don't have to go in for the silliness I did -- I just felt like it, okay?

There are four components: cold raw veg (usually cucumbers), cold blanched veg (asparagus, green beans, longbeans, whatever -- usually green, though), cold moist-poached chicken (breasts are better for this, but it really doesn't matter much), and the special oil. Then you have some dressings, for which my favorite is a sesame-paste one or the coriander dressing I used in the noodles (make extra and these two dishes are easy -- but a little repetitive).

The cold raw veg is... cold and raw. That was hard. Just slice and arrange.

The blanched veg: I used asparagus, as I say. Cut the pieces about 1-2" long, preferably at an angle, rolling a quarter-roll around between cuts so the ends are not parallel. Blanch asparagus about 1 minute in very fast-boiling water, beans maybe 90 seconds, and so on, just until barely cooked but very crunchy. Immediately shock in ice water, then drain and chill until serving time. To serve, put in a wide mound in the center.

The sesame paste sauce is a breeze with an immersion blender. Put a few Tb Chinese sesame paste (which is brown) in a small bowl. Add a Tb or so sesame oil, soy sauce, tamari (only the best brands -- check, because many are not tamari at all but rather colored pseudo-soy), sugar, and hoisin sauce, and a generous dash of hot chili oil. I replaced the sugar and hoisin sauce with a couple Tb tonkatsu sauce, which is sort of a mediocre variety of sweet hoisin -- this is kind of like replacing canned tomato sauce with ketchup, but it works. Whiz the whole works until smooth, add a tiny dash warm water and whiz again, and then taste. It should be thick but pourable. Let develop, covered, on the counter for a few hours. Keeps more or less forever in the fridge, but again, bring back to room temperature before using.

The chicken is a special Chinese trick. Get one chicken breast, on the bone, with skin. Take some slices of ginger, preferably spanking them firmly with a cleaver-side or tenderizer to open the pores, and put them in a little pot. Add some scallion chunks, spanked. Add some Sichuan peppercorn if you can get it, which I can't, as you know. Garlic doesn't work here, I'm afraid. Fill the pot up about 1" from the rim, cover, and bring to a rapid boil. Meanwhile, go over your chicken breast and remove any bloody bits or other nastiness. When the water is boiling fast, turn off the heat and immediately slide the chicken into the water. Poke it under with a fork or chopstick or something and cover the pot. Leave for at least 2 hours. When you're ready to serve, pull out the breast, peel off the skin, and peel the meat in one piece off the bone (it will come pretty easily). Put it flat on the board and slice at a steep angle against the grain into thin slices. The meat will be just cooked through and extremely moist. Mound it prettily on the asparagus or whatever.

Before you actually start slicing anything, though, put a few Tb each plain cooking oil and roasted sesame oil in a very small pan. In a small prep bowl, put a few coins of fresh ginger, a tablespoon or so of scallion rings, a dash of Sichuan peppercorns (I used powdered sansho), and some dried chili flakes or a couple of whole dried chilies. Swirl the oils to mix, add one ring of scallion to the oils, and place over medium heat. When the scallion starts to sizzle pretty well, remove the pan from heat and add the contents of the prep bowl. Shake-swirl to mix it up, and then put the bowl off heat somewhere to develop flavor. When the salad is all plated up, the oil should still be warm but not broiling hot. Remove the ginger coins with chopsticks, add a small dash of soy sauce and swirl to mix, and then immediately pour the whole mixture gently over the top of the chicken, making sure most of the various chunky things in the oil remain on the chicken.

My version was pretty decent, but the chili flavor didn't develop well. I think I didn't really heat the oil enough, for one thing, and next time I'll also break open those whole chilies and shake out the seeds, to see if that works. The special Sichuan peppercorn flavor wasn't there, but that's the fault of Japan. The sesame sauce was pretty decent, I thought, but there wasn't enough of it. I didn't like the mustard sauce I made, so I won't give a recipe.

Soup
Was soup. Good soup, but soup. Basically what you do is you prep all your vegetables, and divide them into those requiring more cooking and those requiring less. You have good chicken stock on hand, and you whisk up 4 Tb cornstarch in 6 Tb cold stock or water for every 6 cups of stock in the soup; that is, for each cup soup stock, mix 1 Tb stock and 2 tsp cornstarch. Leave the spoon in the mix, as it will quickly settle out again. Whisk an egg white, whole egg, or two egg whites (up to you: it depends how much egg thread you like) in a small bowl, just until more or less smooth, not frothy.

Heat a big pot quite hot over medium-high heat. Add 1 Tb or so oil and swirl to glaze. Add a few Tb rice wine (I had to use sake, which is much too mild for this, but what the hey), which will immediately flash into a boil. Instantly add all the plain stock: I used about 6 cups. When it boils, add the veg for long cooking, bring back to a boil, lower heat, and simmer a minute or two, stirring occasionally. Add the veg for shorter cooking, stir, and cook a few minutes more. Turn the heat very low. Taste for seasoning, and add salt as needed. Add sugar too: if the flavor seems flat, add sugar to brighten mediocre vegetables. Whisk up the cornstarch mix again and add it, then stir constantly and gently for a couple of minutes until the soup turns glossy and just a bit thick -- it won't really clarify, but you'll notice its texture changing dramatically. Now pour in half the egg in a gentle circle, wait a second, stir gently, then pour in the rest the same way, wait a second more, and stir again gently. You should now have floating threads of barely-cooked egg. Serve the soup immediately, garnished maybe with a little finely-cubed ham.

Personally, I think this soup was a little blah -- the blurry photo does it justice, I guess. Maybe I didn't add enough sugar, but I think it just wasn't cool enough to hold its own against the noodles and chicken. I think it maybe needed something with a little brightness, or maybe just a dash of soy, or... maybe decent Chinese rice wine instead of Japanese sake? Could be: the sake just seemed insipid and bland, whereas nobody ever called Shaoxing wine, even the really cheap stuff, bland. I do think a generous sprinkling of white pepper might have lifted it, but Sam wouldn't have touched it. To be fair to the soup, he did eat quite a fair helping of it, so I guess maybe it's a matter of taste.

Concluding Request
In any event, this is a serious cry for help, as Bernie the Agent said to Kermit the Frog. Can somebody please explain to me why the hell I can't get basic Chinese ingredients in Kyoto?

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Terror Sushi!


{offstage knocking}

Nakagawa: Come in!
Oumu: Hello! You are Mr. Nakagawa, owner and proprietor of the Whizzo Makizushi Company?
Nakagawa: I am.
Oumu: Right! I am Inspector Oumu, and this is Constable Yinkaku. We’re from the Hygiene Squad, and we’d like to have a talk with you about this box of your sushi called the Whizzo Quality Assortment.
Nakagawa: Oh yes?
Oumu: Now what’s this one, then? It appears to be a squodgy egg surrounded with unidentifiable vegetable bits, rice, and then ... is that pound cake?
Nakagawa: Ah, that’s one of our specialities! Egg Cake Surprise! You bite into a nice egg-covered thing, and discover dessert and dinner rolled into one!
Oumu: I think it would be more appropriate if the box bore a big red label, “Warning: Pound Cake!” And what’s this one... ah yes, Crunchy Frog. What sort of makizushi is that?

{... ad nauseam}

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Simmered Mackerel -- Saba no miso-ni

Before I left the US, I'd already decided I was going to do this blog, so I asked some people what they might like to see in it. A couple of people said "recipes!" pretty forcefully, so here goes.

Mackerel is very popular in Japan. Technically most of it, called saba, is Spanish mackerel, which is considered by Western gourmets to have a milder, more delicate flavor than its Atlantic cousin. It's a fairly small fish, perhaps 18 inches long and quite narrow. It's got dark, somewhat oily flesh, and you have to be a little careful to avoid it becoming "fishy" in the unpleasant sense. The most important part of that, of course, is to buy it extremely fresh, which isn't difficult to do here as its prime season is August-October.

You can eat it raw, but it's unusual to do so; when you have it as sashimi, it's normally very lightly pickled, which is to say you fillet it, peel off the outer skin, and rub it with very mild vinegar and a little salt. 15 minutes later, you rinse it off and it's ready to slice. If you've had mackerel at a sushi restaurant--which you probably have if you've had much sushi, as it is not expensive and it holds up to cold-storage quite well--you've had it in this pickled form, though probably it was pickled longer and harder than this.

What people do at home, though, is different: you make saba no miso-ni (鯖のみそ煮), which is simmered mackerel in miso. When I first spotted these things looking great in the market, I had my wife look up what to do with it, and she found more than 100 Japanese recipes online... and then discovered that almost all of them, like literally 85-90 of them, were for this dish.

I decided to serve this with fresh tofu and yuba (湯葉 soymilk skin) from the local tofu-maker I just found, served chilled with garnishes (hiya yakko); rice (always); and then a stir-fry of okay-looking broccoli because I thought we ought to have some veggies.


Here you can see everything that went into dinner. Front and center is the little plastic dish of yuba, still in its protective bath of soy milk. Clockwise from this, the broccoli stalks sliced medium-thin, cut bite-sized; my mediocre vegetable knife that I use for everything because I haven't got anything better; the tofu (silk style, very soft), cut in cubes and bathing in ice water. In the metal bowl are the chunks of mackerel fillet, which I've blanched very briefly and then are soaking in ice water. Soy sauce, the broccoli florets, a mixture of miso and mirin (sweet cooking sake), julienne negi (giant scallion/leek) for garnish, a bowl of julienne ginger and chunks of negi (which you can't really see here), and then a bowl of shimeji mushrooms. Behind the yuba are, left to right, two cloves of garlic, a shiso (perilla) leaf, a stub of very young ginger, and some thin rounds of negi. In the very back you can see Maia's bum, which did not go into dinner.

Miso-Simmered Mackerel (Saba no miso-ni)

Ingredients

To make the mackerel itself, you need (for 2 people) a medium-sized mackerel. This dish is quite filling, especially as you're serving it with rice, and it's really not necessary to use more. But on the other hand it is extremely easy to make, so it's a good thing to serve to a small crowd if you can get the mackerel filleted. I bought bone-in and filleted it myself, functionally but not well--I'm working on that one.

Then you need:
1 knob ginger
1 negi (giant Japanese scallion/leek)--I'd substitute 4 fat scallions
a cup or two of mild but firm mushrooms, like shimeji, shiitake, etc. (optional)
600 cc (3/5 US cup) water
2 Tb sake (cooking sake is adequate for this)
1 1/2 Tb sugar
1/2 Tb soy sauce
2 Tb miso (use the medium-amber stuff, not red or brown)
1 Tb mirin (sweet cooking sake)

(The mushrooms are an optional addition to the mackerel. You could also use various other similar things that will stand up to serious simmering and retain some flavor and firmness. You don't want greens or anything else that will strongly flavor the sauce, which is why again mildly flavorful mushrooms are perfect. I bet you could find a way to do it with eggplant chunks, too, though I've never seen this.)

All of this is easily available in grocery stores all over the US, even in rural Vermont, because it keeps well. The only thing that may be troublesome is miso, but if need be you can order this on line. It stores almost forever in the fridge so long as you keep the surface covered with the plastic that comes with it and the lid on the box.

Preparations

To prepare, cut the mackerel fillets into large bite-sized chunks, about the size of a piece of nigiri sushi, if that helps. Cut an X about 1 inch in each direction, just barely through the center of the skin, to prevent the fish from curling as it cooks. Bring a medium pot of water to a rolling boil, and set up a big bowlful of ice water next to the stove. Put one or two pieces of fish skin-side down on a wide slotted spoon or spatula (a spoon is easier) and dunk the fish into the water for about 2 seconds, then immediately drop into the ice water. Repeat until all the fish is in the ice water. This process helps remove any lingering fishy smell.

Cut a bunch of 1 1/2-inch julienne of the white of the negi, for garnish. Cut the rest of the negi into 1 1/2-inch lengths. Cut the ginger into a skinless block, then cut planks with the grain, then stack the planks and cut into fine julienne. If using mushrooms, clean and cut or tear into bite-sized pieces.

In a fairly small heatproof (e.g. Pyrex) bowl, put the miso and the mirin and stir until more or less smooth.

At this point you can leave everything for a while, but you really ought to cover the negi and ginger with plastic and put into the fridge. If you're fast with a knife, it would be better to cut these aromatics at the last minute. The fish can wait in the fridge, under the cold water, for a couple of hours.

Cooking

Put the water, sake, and sugar in a saute pan or saucepan, ideally just wide enough to hold all the mackerel in one layer. Put the bowl of fish, a dish with the soy pre-measured, the bowl of miso/mirin paste, and the bowl of negi chunks and ginger (and mushrooms, etc.) within easy reach. Have ready either a curved lid for a pot one size smaller than the saute pan, which can therefore sit easily on the bottom of the pan, or a circle of parchment paper that again will fit inside the saute pan; if you're used to using parchment lids for braising, note that it is not necessary to make a vent in the center. You also need a smallish ladle and a big slotted spoon. Pick out a deep serving dish and put the negi garnish next to it.

Put the pan over high heat and bring to the boil. Add the mackerel, skin-side up, and boil about 5-10 seconds. Add the soy and shake gently. Turn off the heat. Tip the pan a bit, and scoop a few ladlefuls of the hot liquid into the bowl with the miso/mirin paste. Stir this paste mixture thoroughly, dissolving the miso completely. Pour over the fish in the pan. Add all the negi chunks and the ginger, scattering them more or less evenly over the fish. Turn on the heat to medium-low, put the lid over the top of everything, and let simmer 10 minutes.

Note that this whole process should take very little time--the quicker the better. Once you understand what's involved, you'll see that the whole procedure can be done in under a minute without much trouble. It's not a problem if it takes a couple of minutes, but the fish and liquid must not be allowed to cool significantly.

Remove the fish with the slotted spoon and put in a shallow mound in the serving dish. Cover this with the negi chunks, ginger, and any mushrooms or whatever that you may have added. Pour the liquid gently over the top. Garnish with the white negi julienne and serve immediately.

Serves 2 people. Total cooking time, 12 minutes. The dish multiplies well.

Note that this technique of dropping a lid into a pot is very common here, because braising on top of the stove is an extremely popular technique (dishes made this way are called nimono). Traditionally, you use a wooden lid just a hair smaller than the pot, and float it on top.

Cold Tofu (Hiya Yakko 日や奴)

Personally, I wouldn't bother making this at home, because the tofu is almost always dreadful, but some people like it--and some probably have access to truly fresh tofu. It couldn't be simpler: ice-cold silky-smooth tofu with a little garnish.

Ingredients
1 pad super-fresh silken tofu
best-quality soy sauce
negi cut in fine slices
fresh-grated ginger
small wedges of very sour citrus (yuzu, sudachi, kabosu, lemon, lime...)
mild aromatic leafy herbs, in chiffonade (shiso, parsley, perhaps basil...)
white sesame seeds
high-quality bonito flakes (katsuo bushi), shredded

All you need is the tofu and the soy. Pick as many or as few of the rest as you like, based exclusively on what is very fresh and perfect.

Method

Fill an attractive serving bowl with ice-cold water; it can have some ice in it, but not much and not big cubes. Rinse the tofu very gently in cold water (if it's really super-fresh, made in the last couple of hours or so, just remove it from the water it's in) and place on a plate or a plastic cutting board and cut into medium cubes. Transfer the cubes carefully to the ice water, which should just cover the tofu. Place in the fridge until ready to serve.

Each guest gets a pretty saucer. Within reach should be some sort of attractive dish with all the garnishes, carefully separated and nicely presented. Put the tofu in the middle, in its water, and provide a wide, shallow spoon, ideally finely slotted, to serve. Each guest takes a piece of tofu, puts a little soy on it and sprinkles on a little of whatever garnishes he feels like, then eats it.

Note that I only have mediocre-to-bad dishes, so this doesn't look nearly as good as it tasted.

If you have ultra-fresh high-quality tofu, this is lovely. If you have the usual stuff I can find outside the Asian markets at home, this is pretty mediocre, shading toward nasty. If your choice is between super-fresh firm tofu (the usual Chinese preference) and the stuff in a box or made by some hippy-dippy moron and packaged two weeks ago, go with the firm stuff. All tofu should be labeled to tell you when it was made. If it wasn't made in the last couple of days, skip it.

Chances are, if you're horrified by this dish and thinking, "that's nasty," you've never had halfway decent tofu. It's not so easy to come by in the US.

Additions

I just found our local tofu maker, and I bought some tofu about two hours after she'd made it. I also bought some yuba, which is soymilk skin (on the left in the picture above). Let me explain.

You make tofu by making soy milk, heating it, and adding nigari, which is actually a general term for a number of different chemical compounds (ideally the naturally-occurring forms, but it's all pretty harmless and used in very small quantities). This makes the milk curdle, like cheese. You drain the curds and press them in a cheesecloth-lined box, and this makes tofu.

Now when you heat soy milk, it's just like milk: it tends to form a skin on the top. So what you do is, you very carefully lift this skin off like a sheet, and you hang it briefly to firm up, and then you fold it or roll it and put it in a little cold soy milk so it won't dry out. This is yuba.

Kyoto is sort of the center of the universe when it comes to yuba. I mean, Kyoto-ites will tell you they're the center of the universe for a lot of things, of course, but even in Tokyo everybody knows that the best yuba is in Kyoto. There are shops that specialize in the stuff! I just bought it from the tofu maker, but it was really good. It's soft enough that you can sort of cut it with chopsticks, and then we ate it pretty much the same way as the hiya yakko. Wow!

Stir-Fried Broccoli (ブロコリのスターフライ)

Ingredients
1 fat head broccoli
2 Tb canola oil, in all
1 Tb soy sauce
1/4 cup water
pinch salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
a little sesame oil

Method

Cut the florets off the broccoli. Cut the stalks into medium-thin planks, then cut in half or so to produce bite-sized pieces. Heat a wok or an unlined skillet over maximum heat until very, very hot. Add 1 Tb oil and swirl around. When it smokes, in a few seconds, add the sliced stalks. Toss constantly for about 30 seconds to a minute, until you start to see a little browning happening. Add the soy sauce and the water in one go, swirl the pan to distribute, and let it alone. In a minute or two, when the water has almost completely boiled off and the broccoli is starting to fry, add the remaining oil and toss to distribute. Add the florets and a pinch of salt. Toss constantly for 30 seconds or so, until very bright green. Add the garlic and toss for another 15-20 seconds, until very fragrant. Pour into a serving dish and garnish with the sesame oil.

If the broccoli is fresh, this is wonderful. You can also add a pinch of dried hot pepper flakes with the garlic--I love that, but then my son Sam wouldn't touch it. Oh well.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Uosue Lunch (うをすえ)

Today my family were off at school, doing errands, and whatnot, so I had lunch alone. I decided to try Uosue, a little hole-in-the-wall kaiseki place just east of Karasuma-dōri, one block south of Shijo. It’s a little hard to spot if you’re not looking for it, it’s so small, but we’d heard that it’s very good and has an inexpensive two-level lunchbox set (niju bento). You can also order a full-on omakase meal, where they prepare what they think is good today, and that’s 3950¥, but the lunchbox set is only 1050¥, just a hair less than $10 US.

The atmosphere in this tiny place is very homey and informal. The guy at the end of the bar was cracking jokes with the fish-cutting guy, and the businessmen who came drifting in for lunch were treated politely but warmly, which doesn’t go without saying around here. They were nice to me, and welcoming. It all seems to be one family: the fish-cutting guy and the older lady in the back appear to be married, and the young guy who was making dashi referred to the old lady as “mother,” and so on. I think there’s a brother in the back doing hot things. So it seems to be pretty much a little family business, and it’s very good: unpretentious, friendly, informal, but with excellent food.

You can see what I got in the picture. One level is rice, and the other has (clockwise from the front) a little sashimi, some nimono (煮物, vegetables simmered in flavorings), and a little pickle. In the back, in the white cup, is chawan mushi (茶碗蒸し, steamed teacup), which is a sort of light savory custard, made of egg and dashi (出汁), steamed in its little cup. In the black bowl is miso soup.

Eating this meal and thinking a bit about blogging, it occurred to me just how difficult this is going to be. I mean, you can’t really say, “I had sashimi.” It was sashimi, yes, but what fish? Having seen him cut it, I’m pretty sure it was katsuo (
, bonito, or skipjack tuna), but if I hadn’t seen him I’d be guessing unless it was something obvious like maguro (, tuna steak). I have an awful lot to learn—but I do have some time!

(Incidentally, I should perhaps note in passing that I am providing a lot of kanji, Chinese characters, for things I eat. This isn’t showing off—I get the stuff from dictionaries, not from memory, mostly—but on the other hand it’s not really how Japanese people do this. If you see maguro for sale, almost invariably you will see it written
マグロ, ma-gu-ro, instead of as . The thing is, I did Chinese for a while, and it’s in many respects easier for me to deal with the characters. What’s more, the characters translate across East Asian languages pretty effectively, which the syllabary doesn’t. I’m also indicating my little private protest against the de-kanjification of Japan. Anyway….)

Okay, so the sashimi was very good, and the wasabi (
山葵, a character-pair I have not seen yet in Japan, but which means “mountain hollyhock”—what’s so hard about that?) was the real thing. As you may not know, the green wasabi paste you get in any but the highest-end sushi places outside Japan is not in fact wasabi at all: it’s horseradish dyed green. Wasabi itself is very expensive, because it only grows in clean mountain streams and requires intensive cultivation. You can get it here in the supermarkets if you look, but it’s pricey, and the root is about half the size of a horseradish root. You don’t use much, and you grate it immediately to order, and I’m told it doesn’t store well—all of which are good reasons why ordinary folks even in Japan don’t generally shell out for it. If you have it, you’ll know, because (a) the texture is not completely smooth, since it is hand-grated, and (b) it has a milder, sweeter taste than horseradish, to which it is not related. In any event, the shiso leaf underneath, which you can barely see, and the shredded daikon underneath that, were the usual. Yes, that is curly parsley, I don’t know why.

The nimono... this is the tricky bit. What were those lovely things? I can identify some of them, but with others I’m guessing a bit. Okay, so let’s start with the long skinny thing. I think this was very young bamboo shoot, though I’ve never seen it this thin. It had that mild, slightly creamy flavor, though, and was just yielding. Due south of that is what I thought was a circle of eggplant (the little narrow kind that are very popular in Kyoto in this season), but it turned out to be sato imo (
里芋), the white taro I had as tempura at Honke Owariya. It was good, I thought, but not especially remarkable to my unsubtle palate. Southwest of that is a little red square. This was a cube of something firm and gelatinous, like very rubbery Jell-o. If this were China, I’d have been absolutely sure this was a cube of gelatinous pork blood, but this being kaiseki in Japan I knew for damn sure that wasn’t it. In the end, I have no idea what it was. It was good, flavor-wise, but I have never been a big fan of the rubbery gelatin thing, so the texture didn’t work for me.

Continuing around clockwise, there is a little cake. I am pretty sure this was primarily kinpira gobō, i.e. burdock root and carrot simmered a long time together, somehow made into a cake and simmered some more, like the fish balls in oden. I’m also pretty sure this was not a fish ball, but it might have been so subtle that I couldn’t tell. Now kinpira gobō has never been a favorite of mine, and you may recall that my wife’s kinpira rice burger at Mos Burger still leaves me in a cold sweat at the memory. But this was wonderful. I’d eat five more of these in a heartbeat. I’m just hoping this is something you can get in oden, because once the weather turns cold I’m going to Nishiki market to see if I can find these things. Wish I knew what it was....

Next up, a perfectly-turned little potato. I’ve never actually seen a perfectly-turned potato outside of photographs. This is something that people like Jacques Pépin had to learn to do when they worked at the highest-end Paris restaurants, but nobody does it much any more. Well, here they do. As to flavor, it was very mild. I was expecting something stronger, because since potato has very little flavor of its own I’m used to having it “spiked,” as it were. But I did actually get some rather refined potato flavor from this, which was rather pleasant and home-like.

Above that, in the corner, is a piece of eggplant with some kind of slightly sweet sauce on it. Wow! Along with the kinpira cake, this was my favorite. Soft and yielding, but still with a little bite—perfectly cooked eggplant. The sauce was I think mostly miso and mirin or sake, with a small amount of sesame on top. You usually see this combination broiled: you split an eggplant, put it on a flat stick that’s like a bamboo fork, spread thinned miso paste on the top, and run it under a broiler. This was much the same flavor, but simmered. Excellent!

Top right, a roll of tamago yaki, the rolled egg omelet. I used to hate this, because it’s usually sickly sweet, but in Kyoto they just use dashi and no (or very little) sugar. It was good, I thought, but I can’t say it knocked me over. Just in front of that is a piece of fish that I cannot identify. Mackerel, maybe? Saury? I don’t know. It was nice, whatever it was. And on top of that is a little rainbow-striped leaf-shaped cake of this spongy stuff I’ve seen several times here, which turns out to be kōya-dōfu (
高野豆腐), a kind of freeze-dried tofu invented centuries ago at Kōyasan.

The pickle in the back right corner was actually a bit spicy, and I suspect it was the local green pepper which, unlike most Japanese peppers, is mildly hot. But I’m really not sure.

The chawan mushi was truly excellent. I’ve never entirely understood this dish until now. Basically it’s just dashi with egg whisked in thoroughly, steamed gently until the egg is just barely set. You put a few things in the bottom, like maybe a shrimp, a little vegetable, or whatever, and then as you eat the custard you keep turning up these little treasures. Now I’ve had this a number of times before, and I’ve always thought it was sort of mediocre: salty, bland, and pointless. Today I figured it out. The whole thing is about the dashi, not the egg at all. The egg doesn’t taste like much, and the little treasures are pretty simple, but the whole point is that everything is offset by the dashi. In a way, it’s a method of showcasing the flavor of dashi, whereas usually dashi is used to help amplify the flavor of something else. Because Uosue is a real kaiseki place, albeit an inexpensive one, they’re quite hard-core about their dashi. As a result, their chawan mushi is fabulous. Of course, the texture of the egg was creamy and all that, and the little pieces of kamaboko (fish cake) and some sort of unidentified fish were perfectly good, but the dashi was wonderful. I finally got it!

The miso soup, just to finish up here, was perfectly good, but I didn’t notice anything particularly special about it one way or another. It was the usual kind, with a little wakame seaweed, not clam or something like that. I liked it, but after the chawan mushi and some of those nimono, it was pretty unremarkable.

All in all, I’d give Uosue a big thumbs-up. I got a fabulous lunch, which incidentally was much more filling than I’d have expected, for under ten bucks. Each little thing was very good in its own way, and they also went together very effectively. One of these days I’ll come back here and try an omakase dinner for 3950¥, and I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

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