Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Japanese dinner with Elizabeth Andoh at Medicine Eat Station in San Francisco

Last week I attended a special program arranged by the Japan Society that was a collaboration between cookbook author Elizabeth Andoh and the Medicine Eat Station in downtown San Francisco. The inspiration for the event was Ms. Andoh's new cookbook, Washoku. But after hearing her speak, I think the word "cookbook" is too limiting, as Andoh seems to be presenting a way of thinking, a way of moving, a way of organizing in the kitchen and beyond. After a few diversions, I'll get back to the event.

In an interview in the SF Chronicle, Elizabeth Andoh explains washoku:

It [washoku] has several meanings. Washoku is written with two characters. The first, "wa," has two meanings. It can mean indigenous to Japan, so when it is used before another word, it means Japanese. "Shoku," the other character, means anything that is consumed. So washoku means the food that is indigenous to Japan. Western food would be yoshoku. The second meaning of the "wa" calligraphy is harmony. So washoku is also the harmony of food. If you layer those together, you have the harmony of food that is indigenous to Japan.
For more Elizabeth Andoh on-line, consult her writings at the Tokyo Food Page, or her Taste of Culture website.

I was initially put off by the restaurant's name of Medicine, because to me that word is something to be avoided---it's what you take when you are not well. But the more I think about it, the more the name makes sense. The food system in the U.S. is clearly not well, and it needs serious treatment. The sickness goes across the entire span from the farmer (overuse of pesticides, agribusiness overconsolidation, GMOs), to the marketers (gimmicks and junk), to the consumer (obesity, forgetting where food comes from). With this in mind, a healthier, more sustainable way of eating---or "loving kindness to your body", as the Medicine motto goes---would be a step towards recovery.

The event was a multicourse vegetarian shojin-style meal, in which Andoh had collaborated with the restaurant staff to create an appropriate menu. Jennifer of Life Begins at Thirty wrote an excellent description of the event and the washoku philosophy at the Bay Area Bites blog. Her description of how groups of five define washoku is quite good (color, ways of cooking, tastes, senses). While browsing through my copy of Donald Richie's A Taste of Japan (for his thoughts on "negative space" in Japanese cuisine), I found yet another group of five:

There are five types of arrangement (moritsuke) of food on dishes. The most common is yamamori, a mountainlike mounded arrangement. There is also sugimori, a standing or slanting arrangement, like the cedar (sugi) that gives the style its name. There is also hiramori, a flat arrangement used for foods such as sashimi. And there are ayamori (woven arrangements) and yosemori (gathered arrangements) as well.

If you're a vegetarian living near or visiting San Francisco, be sure to visit the Medicine Eat Station for a delicious and nourishing meal that blends old and new styles of Japanese cooking.

Photo notes:
  • Top photo: a bottle of "Big Mountain" Ohyama Sake from Yamagata prefecture (a tokubetsu junmai). For explanation of sake terms, visit True Sake's learning pages or Sake World's Glossary
  • Middle photo: the Chikuzen Daki, vegetables and konnyaku simmered in a shoyu-based broth.
  • Bottom photo: nine-grain rice, fresh pickles, and miso soup with enoki mushrooms.

Indexed under Restaurants : Japan

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Curry, Japanese Style

"Curry rice" is everywhere in urban Japan: in the train stations, in the grocery store, in office cafeterias. Curry has been known in Japan for almost 150 years, but has only been a staple since about 1931. The Lonely Planet World Food Japan book recounts some of the history of curry in Japan. One of a group of Satsuma military officials who were traveling to France on a French warship in 1863 watched some Indian passengers cooking what was described as "aromatic mud." During the Meiji period, Japan opened up to the West, and curry is one of the items that flowed in. Initially, curry rice was a luxury food, probably because of its foreign and exotic nature. In 1931 the British company Crosse & Blackwell began selling a mass-produced curry rice mix in Japan that became a great success, and by the early 1980s the average household ate almost 2 kg of curry mix each year. (Some notes about the origin of the word "curry" are in my archive)

I spent quite a while searching on the internet for a recipe for curry rice from whole spices and unprocessed ingredients, but was unsuccessful. Every article or blog-post about curry rice relied on pre-packaged "curry roux" to make the sauce. Perhaps this is only logical, since curry rice is just a simple convenience food and not something to be appreciated like a fine Indian stew.

The package contains a block of reddish-brown paste which is made up of dehydrated vegetables, curry powder, various oils, and other flavorings. I used 4 ounces cauliflower, 4 ounces of carrot, 1.5 ounces broccoli, 12 ounces of potato, and 7 ounces yellow onion, some vegetable oil, some water, and one box of curry mix to make a batch (Unit conversion page). I sauteed the vegetables in oil for a few minutes until they were lightly browned, added water to cover, then put a lid on the pot and let it simmer until the vegetables were tender. To finish the dish, I added the contents of the curry package to the pot and gently stirred the mixture for a few minutes until a smooth sauce had formed.

The Japanese-style curry was easy to make, but I give it a pretty low rating in terms of flavor and nutrition. The sauce was smooth---thanks to the industrially ground curry powder and other additives---and had a rich, pleasant flavor. But even though the box was labeled "medium hot", I found it to be rather bland. Finally, the mix was full of nasty ingredients like palm oil and MSG. I definitely will not buy this type of curry mix again. With a little bit of experimenting with the spices in my cabinet, I'm sure I could make a similarly flavored curry sauce using a freshly-ground masala, and a freshly made roux of flour and oil to create a smooth sauce.

Photo notes:
  • Top photo: a display case outside of a curry restaurant in a train station in Tokyo.
  • Middle photo: the ingredients for my Japanese-style curry.
  • Bottom photo: Stacks of curry mix at a discount grocery near Ueno Park, Tokyo.

Indexed under Japan

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Two Vegetarian Friendly Restaurants in Tokyo

This post is about two of my better experiences as a vegetarian in Tokyo: a lunch at Nezunoya restaurant and a dinner at Fujimamas (the author of the blog In a Fancy Glass on the staff).

Nezunoya is one block from the Nezu Subway Station on the Chiyoda Line. It is only open for weekday lunch, 11:30 to 2:30. The menu has just a few set lunches, each with side dishes that change through the seasons. I don't remember if they have an English menu. There is the daily set lunch (which I tried), a natto set lunch (for the daring), a vegetable curry-rice plate, and one or two more options.

The set lunch (1050 yen) served during my visit was simple and satisfying. It consisted of a bowl of brown rice and millet, a plate of pickles, a mixture of lotus root and carrot in a light soy sauce, sauteed tofu and bean sprouts, and some blanched potato topped with a dollop pickled plum (umeboshi). Brown rice is rarely seen in Japan, and also rarely seen in my kitchen, even though my pantry contains at least six kinds of rice (basmati, plain long grain, jasmine, arborio for making risotto, Italian long grain, and Japanese short grain). The lunch at Nezunoya reminded me how satisfying a bowl of brown rice can be with its pleasant toothiness and complex flavor. The pickles (in the center of the top photo) were thinly sliced cucumbers that had been quick-pickled and had a mild vinegar taste, almost like "fresh pickles." The lotus root dish (upper left in photo) consisted of sliced vegetables that had probably been simmered in a broth of water, soy sauce, sweet sake (mirin). The flavor of the vegetables came through the light sauce, and the topping of toasted sesame seeds added some brightness. The miso soup (lower right) was basic, with a few pieces of scallion and seaweed. The 'main dish' was the tofu saute (upper left), a jumble of very fresh tofu of medium firmness, mung bean sprouts, long pieces of scallion, and carrot, in a light soy-based sauce.

The interior is warm and comfortable. It has a traditional Japanese feeling, with wood floors, exposed wood beams, rough-hewn wooden tables, and some Japanese art hanging from the walls.

Location: 1-1-14 Nezu, near Nezu subway station. From the station, walk towards Ueno Park and look for it behind a health food store, below the Tea Shop Amber (see photo in this post).
Hours: Monday to Friday 11.30 am to 2.30 pm

Fujimamas Restaurant is located in the cosmopolitan and trendy Harajuku district of Tokyo, housed in a building that was originally a family home and later a tatami-mat factory. The interior is blend of old and new Japanese style with a variety of seating area shapes. The menu (printed in English and Japanese) has quite a few vegetarian options in each section, with little green leaves on the menu denoting the vegetarian dishes (example menus here). The leaves were very comforting to me after many meals in which I couldn't even read the menu (fortunately, I was with Japanese speakers/readers). Lauren Shannon, who is on the staff, informed me via e-mail that the vegetarian soups have vegetarian stocks.

We started with a Thai-style hot and sour soup and an seared asparagus salad. The soup was delicious, a thin tomato-broth infused with lemongrass, lime leaf, and chili with pieces of fresh tomato. The asparagus salad, featured wok-seared asparagus spears covered in a huge pile of onions and red peppers. The onions were mild, but still overwhelming to me (I don't really care for raw onion), but the asparagus was divine, with sweet and smoky notes from the wok searing. For our main course, we had hand made Chinese noodles with wild mushrooms and truffle oil, and a plate of spicy Asian noodles with bok choy. Both noodle dishes were flavorful and hearty, perfect for a cold winter night.

One of the desserts we ordered had a phenomenally delicious chocolate-nut waffle. It was topped with some ice cream and sauces, but the waffle was so good---crispy, bursting with chocolate flavor---that I forget the details. The other dessert was so-so, an oreo mousse with various sauces.

Fujimamas Restaurant
Location: Behind the Lacoste store on Omotesando-dori in Harajuku (map and directions).
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (last order at 10 p.m.), lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (11 a.m. - 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays) and dinner menu from 6 p.m. until closing.

On my next visit to Tokyo I will do my best to fit Nezunoya and Fujimamas into my dining schedule.

And finally, a local angle. If you live in the Bay Area and want to try Japanese vegetarian cuisine, there are (at least) two purely vegetarian Japanese restaurants around. Cha-ya in Berkeley is a tiny place with a big menu (and big waits for a table). Medicine Eat Station in San Francisco is inspired by the cooking of Japanese temples.

Indexed under Restaurants : Japan

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

On Being a Vegetarian Tourist in Tokyo

Japanese vegetarian cuisine can be truly amazing. In a fancy multi-course meal, the combination of careful preparation, high quality seasonal ingredients, and a variety of flavors and textures create a dining experience that is hard to top. Some of my finest restaurant meals have been in Japan (including tempura at Ten-Ichi, and a shojin ryori meal in Kamakura); and even the simple dishes, like a plate of pickles and a bowl of rice can be delicious.

Reminds Me of Spam
However, it is difficult to find such food. Unless you speak very good Japanese and have some good contacts, being a pure vegetarian tourist in Japan is nearly impossible. After finishing my sixth visit to the country, I find it hard to imagine a visit without often encountering a little bit of fish-based stock, meat broth, or some fish flakes hidden within a vegetable item or sauce. For example, at a department store stand specializing in tofu (somewhere on the main street in the Ginza district. Matsuya?), I bought an item that was two cubes of deep-fried soft tofu topped with braised mushrooms and shiso leaf. It seemed like a good vegetarian choice, but it turned out that the mushrooms had been braised in fish-based stock. At another place, the staff "converted" a miso soup from non-vegetarian to vegetarian by removing the mussels that had cooked in it, and replaced them with pieces of mushroom. These events remind me a bit of the legendary Monty Python spam sketch (audio here) (video here):
Wife: Have you got anything without spam?
Waitress: Well, there's spam egg sausage and spam, that's not got much spam in it.

A classic technique for tourists is to use the plastic food displays as an impromptu menu---i.e., bring the waiter to the display and point at what you would like. But even though these models are fairly lifelike, it can be challenging to identify which items contain meat, and even harder to figure out which have meat-based stocks or sauces.

Some Easy to Find Options
Despite the pessimistic tone of the last few paragraphs, do not lose all hope! There are many vegetarian items that are relatively easy to find in Tokyo (and elsewhere in Japan, of course):
  • Maki rolls - a filling, and a layer of vinegared rice wrapped in a sheet of dried seaweed (nori) - standard fillings are cucumber (kappa maki), umeboshi (pickled plum), and kampyo (pickled gourd). See photo at the top of the post.
  • Inari zushi - a piece of deep-fried tofu skin stuffed with vinegared rice with sesame seeds (pictured above).
  • O-nigiri (rice balls) - frequently wrapped with sheet of nori (dried seaweed), some have a filling of sansai (Japanese mountain vegetables, the kanji for sansai are at Wikipedia), kampyo, or umeboshi.
  • Pickles (tsukemono) - most grocery stores and department store food floors have a wide variety.
  • Rice and etc. - some department store food floors have a rice counter with several varieties of rice and vegetable combinations. For example, rice and adzuki beans.
  • Bakeries - they are all over the place, and they offer textbook French and Danish pastries. Note that brioche is popular, so vegans should be careful. Also, look closely at the item before you pick it up, as hot dogs and sausage have a way of appearing in the baked goods.
  • Yakitori restaurants - they have a variety of vegetables like shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, potatoes, small Japanese peppers.
  • Zaru soba - a plate of cold buckwheat noodles served with a dipping sauce (which usually is fish-based), some grated wasabi, and minced scallions. Buckwheat noodles are a Japanese specialty, and can be sublime.
To help you plan your visit and find some vegetarian restaurants, a list of some on-line vegetarian resources:
Next Time - Two Restaurants with Vegetarian Options
My next post will visit two Tokyo restaurants which serve vegetarian meals: Nezunoya and Fujimamas (the author of the blog In a Fancy Glass is on the staff!).

Saturday, March 11, 2006

As you like it - Okonomi-yaki, a Japanese pancake

Cook What You Like, As You Like It
Okonomi-yaki literally means "cook as you please" or "cook what you like," and the restaurants which serve this dish are a fun place to have a meal, some drinks, and conversation. Some okonomi-yaki shops have one big counter skillet where everything is cooked by the staff. They frequently have some seats at the griddle and also tables around the rest of the room. But most okonomi-yaki shops have individual skillets at each table so that you can cook and season the food yourself---the cooking, after all, is part of the fun. (But the large number of cooking surfaces can lead to you taking home an "aroma souvenir," so to speak, and your clothes smelling like oil.) The remainder of the post describes my visit to an okonoymi-yaki restaurant in a city to the west southwest of Tokyo. I have not seen such restaurants in my travels in the United States, but recall reading about a place somewhere in Los Angeles County.

Pancakes and Noodles
Okonomi-yaki restaurants specialize in pancakes and noodles. The pancakes are mixtures of various varieties of vegetables, meat, seafood, egg, flour and other seasonings. Somehow they acquired the nickname "Japanese pizza," but the only real similarities are that both are round and flat, and both are relatively inexpensive. The noodles are a mixture of various vegetables, seafood and meat, and are usually called yaki-soba. Sometimes the noodles are layered with the pancake batter to make amazing combinations (see Joyful Hiroshima's diagram, for example).

Once you are seated, the server shows you the menu and turns on the griddle at your area. When you are ready, you order a few items. Soon after you order, the ingredients for a pancake will be brought to you in a bowl, unmixed. You mix it up, put it on the griddle, add some seasoning as you go---powdered seaweed and "special sauce" are popular---and cook until it is done. Before the pancake is cut into wedges for serving, it gets another topping of the "special sauce" and some mayonnaise. The end result is bold and salty, with a variety of textures, and interesting morsels of flavor waiting to be discovered as you eat.

One of the nearly vegetarian versions that was on the menu contained cabbage, mochi (rice paste), pickled ginger, green onion, an egg, a premixed dough paste, and konnyaku (a yam-based noodle-like substance, the grey stuff on the right side of the bowl). Although the menu implied that this particular okonomi-yaki was all vegetable, the ring-shaped objects in the bottom part of the photo above are some kind of seafood, and we removed those before mixing it up. The pickled ginger was nicely dispersed through the pancake, and the mochi offered me a surprise as I learned what happens when mochi is heated: it softens and gains elasticity, providing a challenge to the diner.

Okonomi-yaki pancakes exist in countless varieties, including what one of my hosts called a "Tokyo-style okonomi-yaki." This regional specialty involved a drawn-out process of arranging the dry ingredients into a ring, pouring in the liquid that remained in the bowl, stirring it around, and so on, until it became a messy, gooey pancake that my hosts had trouble pulling off pieces to eat.

The Dangerous Life of an Accessory
Being an accessory in an okonomi-yaki restaurant can be a tough life, as the instruction manual and timer pictured below illustrates. But for a diner, it is an enjoyable way to have a casual and leisurely meal with enough variety to make almost anyone happy.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Meal, One Small Piece at a Time -Tempura at Ten-Ichi, Tokyo

In a world of "faster, cheaper, newer," he stands for tradition. He still believes in the old ways, believes in concentrating on a single task and doing it right. He is the chef in a tempura restaurant. His focus is on small tasks: preparing the batter, dipping the vegetable or seafood morsel into the batter with just the right motion and duration, and then deep-frying the item until it is perfectly cooked. The diner is in his hands, and eats when the chef places the next selection on the serving plate.

The photo above captures some of the chef's constant motion as he attended to the details of the batter (making new batches every 20 minutes or so), the heat under the oil, ingredient preparation, dipping, and cooking.

In February, I went to the Ten-Ichi restaurant in the Ginza district of Tokyo. Ten-Ichi has been around for over 70 years and now has over 30 restaurants and 40 take-out shops, primarily in the Tokyo area (consult the December 2004 Saveur for more history about the Ten-Ichi company and its members). Its name is a combination of the character for tempura ("ten"), and number one ("ichi").

Before I continue with the meal, a bit of tempura background from Donald Richie's marvelous "A Taste of Japan" (the book is out of print, but copies are still available on the internet). Although the Japanese have been deep-frying since around the eighth century, tempura has only been part of Japanese cuisine for a few hundred years---most think that the Portuguese brought it to Japan in the late 16th century.

The origin of the word tempura is unclear. Some think it to be the Japanification of the word templo, Portuguese for "temple," because the Portuguese Catholics often ate deep-fried fish on Fridays, and thus the Japanese associated battered foods with religion. Richie writes that this is "[a] most suspicious etymology," and believes that a more plausible explanation is the word tempora, "lent." The Lonely Planet World Food Japan book (p. 112) offers several additional theories related to poetry, nicknames and wordplay that go back to before the year 1000.

Returning to the restaurant...After handing our coats to the staff at the front desk, we were led into a room with a C-shaped counter that surrounded the chef's cooking station. The chef had an area with his raw ingredients (seafood and vegetables) nicely arranged on a bamboo mat, a bowl with the batter, a small cutting board (rarely used since most items were prepared behind the scenes), and the big wok full of hot oil (a blend of corn and sesame oil, with the proportions a carefully guarded secret).

Our places were already set with a small salad, cooked-green vegetables topped with bonito (fish) flakes, a small dish with salt and a lemon wedge, and a small bowl containing a mound of grated daikon (white radish). We poured sauce into this last bowl to create one of the flavorings for the tempura. To drink, our party of six had beer, Japanese whiskey, shochu, and a wonderful junmai dai ginjo sake (for explanation of the terms "junmai" and "dai ginjo", visit True Sake's learning pages or Sake World's Glossary).

After we settled in with a drink, the chef started to work. My hosts had arranged for an all vegetable meal for me, and it included such standard items as shiitake mushroom, asparagus, small onions, tiny Japanese peppers, and Japanese sweet potato. The new items for me were ginkgo nuts (ginnan) on a skewer with a small piece of green bean, very tiny eggplant (sliced and fanned out slightly before cooking), lotus root, and taranome (the bud of the angelica tree, photos here). They also offered fukinoto, a flower bud that symbolizes the beginning of spring (photos here and here). However, I had tried it the night before without knowing its symbolic importance, and found it to be painfully bitter. Doubting that knowing about its symbolic importance would change my palate's response, I passed on the fukinoto. In the end, my favorite items were the ginkgonuts, the little eggplant, and the taranome.

Each piece was perfectly cooked and because the pieces came to me right out of the oil, one at a time, I was able to eat each piece at its peak. The batter formed crispy, gauzy coating around the vegetables with a light golden color, and the vegetables were hot throughout and tender. It was far superior to the usual basket of several lukewarm items. Following the tempura course, we were served a miso soup, a plate of pickles, and a bowl of glistening white rice. For dessert, the choices were fresh mango or fresh papaya, a fittingly simple offereing. Finally, we had two small cups of green tea (o-cha) to end the meal.

One small piece at a time, each one cooked to perfection...a great way to dine in Tokyo.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Tokyo - City of Culinary Marvels and Mysteries

My blog has been dark for a little while because I was on a trip to Tokyo, Japan. I have quite a few posts planned over the next few weeks, including surviving as a vegetarian tourist in Japan, tempura at Ten-ichi, and curry rice. In the meantime, here are some images and words from my trip to whet your appetites.

Vending machines are everywhere, and have hot and cold drinks (and even canned soup). I am a big fan of the Coffee Boss character. Although one commentator thinks he looks like Stalin, I'm reminded of Fred MacMurray, especially his ethically-challenged character in The Apartment (one of Jack Lemmon's best films). Some of the names and logos also entertain me: "Wild Drip", "Aroma Black", "Velvet Touch." The taste of the canned coffee, however, is not as entertaining, as all of the wonderful volatile components dissipated during the manufacturing process, and the coffee is never quite hot enough for me. The canned milk tea, on the other hand, is decent.

The basement of most large department stores is a wonderland of food. Called the "depa-chika" in Japanese (= department store basement). See this article from the Asahi Shimbun or this blog post from Watashi to Tokyo (Me and Tokyo) for more. The depa-chika is a feast for your eyes, nose and tastebuds: a seemingly endless matrix of small stands with different specialties. For example, stands specializing in green tea, pickles, sushi, yakitori, French pastries, or traditional Japanese gift foods (lots of mochi, lots of sweet bean paste). The packaging of the gift foods is quite beautiful, especially now just before cherry blossom time (hanami)---pictures of cherry blossoms were virtually everywhere.

A gift package for cherry blossom time
(I have no idea what is inside)

Some small packages with unknown contents

The pickle (tsukemono) stand (at the Shinjuku Isetan, I think)

Plastic food is everywhere, and sometimes is quite life-like. The photo below is from a curry shop in one of the train stations (Shinjuku, I think, but I'm always so disoriented in the bigger stations that I may be wrong). "Curry rice" is an immensely popular convenience food in Japan, with the average person eating curry rice a few times a month. Yokohama even has a museum devoted to the dish!

I don't know if wasabi is available year round, but it was in the markets during my visit. The photo below shows some of the roots, which were priced between 500 yen and 1000 yen per piece. In general, they are about 1" in diameter and 6" long. Unfortunately, on this trip I did not have the pleasure of sampling it.

That's it for the appetizer...check back for my Tokyo posts. They will be served in small portions like a meal at a shojin ryori.