Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fish Heads, Fish Heads

I'd like to share with you a classic Japanese home recipe that is cheap, delicious, exotic, and perhaps a little disturbing. Right up front, I'm going to call for help, though: the main ingredient isn't usually available as such in America, at least not on the East Coast, so substitution is necessary.

Brace yourself, some of this may get a little ugly.

Tai no Ara Taki (鯛のあら焚き): Bream-Bits Kindling

Tai (), or sea-bream, is the king of fish in Japan. It's got a distinctive sweet taste, and it holds up well in an enormous range of different cooking types: raw, poached, broiled, simmered, etc. Its many parts are generally good eating as well, and to top it off it's pretty. This one looks rather small; the big ones are a good 2 feet long.

Once you've gracefully removed the fillets from the bones, though, why waste a good thing? What you have left is the ara, the bits: head, collar, fleshy backbone. There's good flavor there, and firm meat, so let's make something good out of it.

The name of this dish, the bit about “kindling” (
taki), comes from the way it's cooked. Not that you light it on fire, but you put it on a bed of sticks of gobō (burdock) that look kind of like a pile of kindling. And then you simmer the heck out of the fish bits.

The end-result is a plate of bits with the head-halves on top, with a little
gobō as a garnish, in a puddle of thick, rich, brown sauce. You sit there with chopsticks—and pretty soon your fingers too—and pick all the succulent parts out of the bits.

Sound gross? You'd be surprised. It's delicious.

What's more it's cheap, easy, and fairly quick.

The Fish

The first step, of course, is to acquire your fish.
Tai aren't cheap, if they're any good, being the king of fish and all that. A big good one can run you more than $100 here... a lot more. But a decent one can be down around $25. You have to remember, from this you're getting two fillets as well as the bits for making this dish. One fillet you make into slices for the nabe pot, and the other you trim as sashimi, and all that's left is the bits, which you now turn into this wonderful side-dish. Here's one presentation of tai sashimi, which I had at Roan Kikunoi.


Of course, in America you can't get tai off the West Coast, at least not that's really worth eating. Certainly I wouldn't make sashimi out of it. So you've got two basic choices: buy a whole comparable fish, or convince the fishmonger to sell (or preferably give) you the heads.

I'm betting that if you cozy up to your fishmonger, he'll just give you the heads, as they're garbage to him. If we all can figure out an appropriate few fish for the purpose, this makes the dish dirt-cheap. In Japan, you can buy heads and bits for this purpose, but in the U.S. they throw them away as a rule.

Which fish? Err... that's where it gets tricky.

You need a firm, white-fleshed fish: salmon (red) or mackerel (blue) won't work. Salmon doesn't have enough taste, and mackerel has too much. You want a head that has lots of bits of meat and flesh to eat, and here my encyclopedias and such are no use, because they don't talk about this very much. Maybe a relative of the sea bream (Pagrus major, red Pacific seabream)?

I don't know. I'm going to proceed from here as though you have a
tai on hand, and hope you'll try it with what's local and let me know.

The Head

So now you have a fish head. Ick!

No, wrong answer. The right answer is, "split it." Here's how:


You now have your fish-head, split, possibly cut into medium chunks.

If you have a meaty backbone, shear off the part that still has skin up at the top and bottom. Then cut the backbone into chunks.

Put a big saucepan full of water over high heat and let it get close to a simmer, i.e. when little bubbles are definitely forming on the bottom of the pan and there is real steam rising. This is the point when you think, “it'll boil any second now,” creating the adage about a watched pot.

Drop in the fish, bring to a rapid boil over as much heat as you can, and then move the pieces into a big pot of ice water.

Once the fish is definitely cool, even cold, feel the surfaces all over for any blood clots or remaining scales. This is your last chance to scale, so make good use of it. A few scales are okay in this dish, but the fewer the better—and no scales is definitely excellence.

The Kindling

For one fair-sized tai head, you need one big or two medium stalks of
gobō (burdock), which you can get at a surprising range of stores these days. If unsure, get it from an Asian market, which is sure to have it. It should be cheap: it's a destructive weed in America, so eat lots. It looks like this.
和風牛蒡絲 (Japan Burdock)

Scrub the burdock, preferably under running water, with a coarse plastic scrubber like you'd use for a nonstick pan. You want to get all the dirt off, and it can be pretty deep.
Cut the burdock lengthwise into quarters, then in about 2-inch lengths.

Rinse well in water and drain. Pour into a big, deep skillet or wide saucepan.
Arrange the fish bits on top, with the eyes upward.
At this point you can stop, cover the skillet with plastic, and refrigerate for a good 12 hours or so. Fish heads are perishable, of course, so you don't want to go too long, but this isn't a fine-detail sort of dish.

Cooking the Dish

About 60 minutes or so (and there is considerable latitude here to work earlier) before serving, add 400cc water and 400cc of drinkable sake. It doesn't have to be anything grand, but salted cooking sake is out. Put on a drop-lid, which should cover everything and be slightly covered with liquid. Add water if necessary.

For this I've used a folding drop-lid available at any hardware or home-good store here for about $2. You could also use a smallish pot-lid, a dinner-plate, or even a couple of sheets of paper towel. The dinner plate will be hard to lift, and the towel even more so, but all of these things work. The point is that this will hold the stuff under the liquid for a preliminary cooking.
Now bring the heat to medium and wait until the stuff comes to a true boil—not just a simmer, but a proper boil. Remove the lid—you won't use it again here.

Skim the white scum.
Add 5 generous Tb sugar and 50cc mirin; if you cannot get real mirin, as is likely, use 45cc sake and another Tb sugar—brown sugar would be lovely here. Shake the pan around a bit to distribute, and baste the fish with the liquid. Boil fairly rapidly—medium-high heat—until the liquid is reduced by about half, basting now and again.

Add 60cc soy sauce, or preferably
tamari, but either will do fine. Keep boiling until the liquid is starting to turn into a syrup, basting fairly often.
Before it gets there, grate a big chunk of peeled ginger on the finest grater you've got, held over a bowl. Squeeze the gratings over the same bowl through a fine-meshed strainer. You should have fair bit of ginger juice.

When the liquid is turning to syrup, the bubbles will start getting fatter, the sound of the pan will change, and when you lift the pan and shake a bit, there won't be all that much liquid left.

Add the ginger juice and shake it around a bit, then baste vigorously as the sauce gets shiny and, well, sauce-like.

When it gets to this point, remove from heat. Put the bits in a soup plate or the like, garnish with a bunch of the burdock on the side in a clump or something, and then pour on the sauce.

Yum! Fish Heads!
To eat, just pick up an appetizing-looking bit and eat anything that isn't bone, munching and sucking as you go to get all the goodness out.

I know, sounds gross, but honestly it's wonderful. And if you can get fish heads for free or very, very cheap, as I suspect you can, you can make this dish for very little. What's more, it can sit for days and be picked at cold, lukewarm, or nuked-hot; it won't be as good as freshly-made, but it'll be good.


Now I want all of you to run right out and try this. The big question is the fish: what's white-fleshed, firm, flavorful, and fairly local? If there's a choice, what will the fishmonger give you for free? Now make the dish and tell me how it tastes, and whether the flesh is still firm enough to make it worth eating. I want you to figure it out, because I'm going to come back to the East Coast and want to make this (my wife loves this), and I want somebody else to have done the experimenting to figure out the right fish for the purpose.

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Very Expensive Willy

I don't know why, but suddenly this idea bubbled up, and I tricked my wife into translating the middle two lines (the first and last I could do myself):

ウィリー、ウィリー、Willy, Willy,
魚大きい sakana ooki!
とろのよう, toro no you,
うまうだよ umai da yo!

Willy, Willy,
A really big fish!
Just like toro,
Very tasty!

(Sing Japanese lyrics to the tune of "Flipper")

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Fancy Fish

Today it hit me that I have been talking, thinking, reading, and generally mucking about with food for months without cooking anything especially interesting. In part this is because I have to feed the kiddies, but mostly I've just been focused on other things.

Then I went into Tavelt for the first time. This is the food court supermarket underneath Fuji Daimaru department store. I was stunned: good prices, wide range, all kinds of great things. So I just sort of grabbed, thinking vaguely in the back of my head what sort of stuff I might do with it all, and ended up with a pile. Some is in the fridge for tomorrow, but a lot got used tonight.

Now first of all, I reheated yesterday's leftover spaghetti with homemade meat sauce, which Sam had inhaled. Garnished with lots of grape tomatoes and a hefty grating of real Parmesan, it looked like this:
Here's what Sam thought of it:
So that was him sorted out. I saved some pasta and tomatoes for Maia, no problem.

For mom and dad, I had two things that looked particularly excellent: buri toro and hamasa loin. In English, that's the fatty cut of yellowtail (buri) and the loin of amberjack. Total cost, about $10US for a lot of meat. (Told you Tavelt has good prices!) All of it was marked otsukuri-yo お造り用, i.e. "good for eating raw in slices," so I figured I could do what I liked.

I also got a pile of something akin to tatsoi, some kind of little greens, and then those little tomatoes, and I have shallots, and then some karami-daikon, which is a sort of spicy daikon radish that is a special seasonal thing in Kyoto (and infinitely superior to regular daikon -- just a hint to anyone who just might possibly be growing organic vegetables in a cold climate). So I made a tossed salad out of all this stuff, slicing much of it thin with my brand-new toy:
(Note wine bottle for size comparison.) A 270mm Masamoto gyuto, the most spectacular knife I have ever held in my hand and one of the finest gyuto in the world, no question. This was my very belated holiday present. (The lateness is me agonizing about what to buy.)

I tossed the salad with olive oil, a spritz of lemon juice and a dash of red wine vinegar, lots of fresh-ground black pepper and a hint of salt, and a bit of grated Parmesan.

For the yellowtail, I decided that I would do half as raw slices and half in a tartare. I cut half the fish into coarse cubes, and then hand-minced it fine with the heel end of my whacking great 200mm deba knife:
To this was added some of that spicy daikon, chervil, tarragon, lemon juice, salt, pepper, chiffonaded shiso leaves, and super-fine-minced shallot. Mince some more to mix, pack into a small bowl, cover tightly with plastic, leave on the counter for a few hours (the house is pretty cold, and what's going to happen to it anyway?). I served the tartare in a sort of coarse cylinder, since the cylindrical molds I have are either way too small or way too large, and garnished with thin toast. I plated this with the salad and the rest of the yellowtail cut in slices. The results:
For the amberjack, I coated the surface with minced chervil, shiso, scallion, salt, pepper, and a lot of koji-miso, which is a chunky kind of miso that is especially good roasted. I wrapped it tightly in plastic and let it sit for several hours. Then at the last minute I put it on my stovetop wire grill over super-high heat, barely 2 minutes a side, let it rest a minute or two, and cut in fat slices. I served it with shredded daikon (I cheated and used the stuff that came in the packaging of the fish -- nobody eats the stuff anyway), fresh shiso leaves, a dip of soy and grated karami-daikon, and a little fresh-grated real wasabi. Looked like this:
General opinion was that this meal was pretty terrific. I'm proud of it, really: I didn't use recipes, just made it up on the fly, and it was very, very good. Of course, 90% of the quality came from the wonderful fish, but I suppose it's that last 10% of bringing the ingredients forward that makes the difference.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Home Delivery

On the other hand, back to food...

We ordered in the other night, and you have to check this out.

When you order in food in Japan, they often bring the stuff in actual dishes. When you're done, you wash the dishes and they pick them up the next day. Neat, huh? No charge.

Now we've ordered all kinds of things -- noodles, sushi, whatever. But this time we ordered rice in a kaman, which is an old-fashioned pot. When you do this, you get individual kaman with slightly flavored rice and stuff on top. We had this way up north, in Tsukuba, and that inspired us to order it here in Kyoto. It's good cold-weather food.

Here's what you get:
A wood-lidded kaman in a box, a bowl, a dish with pickles, and a triple dish with condiments (wasabi, nori, and minced negi). Each serving comes on a tray, and has a little shamoji, a sort of rice spatula. You also get a pitcher with hot dashi stock for everybody.
What you do is, you scoop out a serving, eat it, scoop more, and so on. When and if you want to, you scoop more and add dashi to make a sort of soup, which is how you finish up what's in the kaman.

My version was vaguely Korean bibimbap: soft-boiled egg, kimchi, scallion, bits of shredded beef, and so on.
Mom got chicken and stuff -- pretty basic:
And Sam got fried chicken, weenies, and a hard-boiled egg that he devoured before I could take the photo.
In the event, the fried chicken was terrible -- that's a surprise, really, because usually it's wonderful here -- but the weenies were excellent, like good American hot dogs rather than Japanese-style crunchy wieners. For adults, I'd say the weenies were mediocre, but Sam prefers non-crunchy hot dogs and did fine with this. Mostly he ate rice and egg, which is no sin.

Mainly, I just think it's cool that this stuff was all delivered for less than the cost of two big pizzas at home. (Of course, one of these days I'm going to blog what happens if you order pizza here and don't ride herd on them -- the combinations they come up with are very, very disturbing. But that's another post... one labeled "horrors.")

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Feelthy Peectures

Okay, those who are easily shocked, or remotely prudish, please don't read this.

It has nothing to do with food.

It's tacky.

Nothing whatsoever to do with food.

And REEEAALLLY tacky. As in sleazy.

But I couldn't resist.

No, really, this is not family viewing.

Please, just skip, okay?

Still here?


So as you know, I recently went to Lotteria with the crew and had burgers.

Now across the street was a place that sells really cheap, junky clothing, including some kids' clothing, and we figured we might be able to pick up some stuff for our rotten daughter Maia who refuses to stop growing out of things, the little pig.

I was, predictably, bored senseless.

The place is geared for women, so there's nothing for me to do, and the toy selection was so awful that even Sam wasn't deterred for long.

But, because of Lotteria, I had my camera.

And I spotted some tacky things.

First of all, the lingerie display:
Isn't that elegant? I knew you would. Here's an up close and, um, personal:
I'm particularly impressed by the brown fuzzy bra on the far side.

WARNING -- my blog entry gets ugly at this point!

And then I thought, okay, there must be some really dreadful Japanglish T-shirts for kids, right? There were, but my eye was caught by the dreadful Japanglish underpants for little boys.
Here's one:
Be careful where you stick it out!

And another:
Where are you, Michael Jackson?

See, I told you it was tacky.

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A Passable Attempt

Okay, still on the subject of hamburgers after the Big Boy Hall Of Horrors, to say nothing of the Mos Burger Visitation Of Evil, the other day Sam decided he wanted a hamburger. (For Japanese readers, a reminder: that's a hamburger, not a hanbagu -- see the Big Boy post.)

See, I got fed up, and then I spotted a sale on cheap-o shaved beef for sukiyaki. I bought a kilo, brought it home, and spent 20 minutes with a big, heavy knife mincing it fine by hand. I made patties, we bought decent rolls and an acceptable couple of tomatoes, and the result was the best burger we've had in Japan. Sam loved it... and decided he wanted another one in a few days. Sale wasn't going, so that'd be expensive. Besides, I didn't have the time or inclination to spend half an hour mucking about with a whacking great knife.

So we tried another Japanese chain: Lotteria.

My basic opinion: surprisingly decent, functional hamburgers. But don't get fancy.

On this first go-round, I had a bacon-cheeseburger. Decent, but teeny, and the bacon of course is not cooked thoroughly, and the cheese is some sort of liquid gloop.
The wife had a teriyaki thingy, which she said was fine but looks very dubious to me.
Sam had a basic cheeseburger, which was the right choice.
Maia was given a deep-fried rice ball, but she mostly ate fries and ketchup instead, which I think was the right choice.
And then she drank the ketchup...
...with predictable results...
Since these photos were taken, I tried Lotteria's "straight cheeseburger." YES. That is the correct choice: go straight. Keep it simple. It had lettuce, onion, tomato, pickle, and ketchup, together with a functional fast-food burger (way better than McDonald's, for example), basic plastic cheese, and an acceptable plain bun. It looked surprisingly like the ad copy here.

So far, this is the best burger in Japan... except for me hand-mincing and going nuts, which was fabulous but expensive and time-consuming.

On the subject of homemade burgers, there are those who would tell you that it would be much, much better if I'd used wagyu beef, but it would cost a fortune and I'd have to start with about 1/2 pound per patty because so much of it would render out -- it's mostly fat, you know. Next time there's a sale, maybe I'll blog the process -- fun with knives!

Anyway, Lotteria gets a (somewhat surprising) thumbs up.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

At Least Some Things Don't Change

Ah, New Orleans, just like I remember her....


Cafe au lait and beignets...


Note that these are "mini-beignets" -- they don't have the regular kind.

Sam likes them, though:


Maia seems less impressed:


Yes, Cafe du Monde, Osaka. Just like New Orleans, really, except for the food and the people and the weather and the atmosphere and the music.

Not like the Cafe du Monde in the Kyoto main train station, though: despite the sign, they don't serve beignets.

And in case you were wondering, the franchise is owned by Mister Donuts (Misdo, as it's known here):

Mister Donut

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