Friday, November 27, 2009

Getting an engineering degree in the Peace Corps

The annual report from Michigan Technological University's (MTU) Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics (ME-EM) department ended up on my desk the other day. Since I know a few alums from that department, I took a look inside. No news about my acquaintances, but I found an interesting story about a collaboration between MTU and the Peace Corps and one of the projects undertaken as part of the program.

MTU has the first and only collaboration like this, where a student takes classes on campus (including classes on field engineering and rural development), works a standard Peace Corps tour of duty (training + two years), and then returns to MTU to write a report and give a oral presentation.  Upon completion of the requirements, he or she receives a master's degree from the ME-EM department. Although MTU is unique in its offer of a degree, the school is not alone in its interest in the developing world: dozens of engineering schools have students who are using their education to help solve problems in the developing world. Engineers Without Borders, for example, has chapters at almost 200 colleges and universities; they also have chapters for working engineers.

For a senior design project, a group of Michigan Tech students built a human-powered machine that could be helpful to a grain farmer in a developing nations. According to an article in the annual report (pp. 8-9 in this PDF), in certain African countries, subsistence farmers harvest their crops by hand and need to walk over 10 miles to get the grain processed. And then – to make matters worse – the grain mill fees can eat up more than 30% of their annual income.

Knowing of the need for a small-scale grain mill – and subject to many constraints, such as lack of electricity, low costs, a need for simplicity, and a high degree of ruggedness – the students tried to find an appropriate solution. With many rural villages lacking reliable supplies of electricity and with small internal combustion engines prone to failure in harsh tropical conditions, the students designed their grain mill around human power — more specifically, a bicycle. As the video below shows, while someone pedals, grain goes into the feed tube and comes out as flour. If the device can be deployed in villages that need it, the villagers will reduce their dependence on outside vendors, while also having more time and money to spend farming or educating their children.

(If the embedded video doesn’t work, here is the YouTube link)

Although Big Ag, many NGOs and other groups (e.g., the Gates Foundation and segments of the U.S. government) continually stress that the top three solutions to Africa's hunger problem are 1) more yield, 2) more yield, and 3) more yield (with additional U.S. food aid running a close fourth), Africa’s farmers have a lot more to worry about than yield. To be sure, increasing yield can be helpful, but the typical metric of the kilograms of crop per square kilometer isn't enough. If a bumper crop can't be processed economically, or if rats eat much of it (see this article in the S.F. Chronicle about the winner of a rat killing contest in Bangladesh, a place where rodents destroy 1.5 million to 2 million tons of food each year, while the country imports 3 million tons per year), or the farmer can't get it to market because the roads are washed out, a 20% higher yield is not much help. Designing and building appropriate technology – where the users’ many needs are taken into account before design begins – isn’t going to do much for corporate bottom lines, but elegant designs like the bicycle-powered grain mill might be a better place to direct development aid, instead of on GMOs and other projects that do more for corporate profits than for Africa.

Cross posted at La Vida Locavore.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dining in a tofu restaurant in Tokyo, Japan

Photo from meal at a tofu restaurant in TokyoMost Americans have one of two opinions about tofu: 1) it's an abomination, 2) it's a convenient source of protein for vegetarians but not much more.

In Japan, however, tofu is appreciated as a special delicacy. Across the nation, you'll find entire restaurants that are devoted to the many incarnations of bean curd and soy: its soft, velvety form as a custard; as firm chunks that have been grilled and slathered with a savory paste; in a slightly elastic, delicate material known as "yuba" (a.k.a. tofu skin). On my most recent trip to Japan, my family had a meal in one of these tofu restaurants.*

But first, a few words about tofu in Japan. Donald Richie, in his evocative and informative "A Taste of Japan," says that Japanese envoys brought tofu back from China in the tenth century (where it had been invented many centuries before). The earliest document that contains reference to the food (1183), shows that it had become a normal part of Japanese food culture. A few hundred years later (1782), a book was published in Osaka called "One Hundred Rare Tofu Recipes." It was a huge seller. Just one year later, "One Hundred More Rare Tofu Recipes" came out. One reason for these two hundred recipes is that although China generally considered tofu to be just an additive or an enhancement, Japan considered tofu to be a delicacy in its own right, leading to much experimentation**.

Photo of yuba from meal at a tofu restaurant in TokyoThe meal began with a small bowl of yuba strips that had been cooked (steamed?) and lightly seasoned. To make yuba, a shallow container of soymilk is heated to nearly its boiling point, whereupon a skin forms on the surface. The skin is carefully removed with a skewer and hung to dry (here is a picture of yuba being made at the new Hodo Soy Beanery facility in Oakland). The duration of drying depends on whether the yuba will be sold fresh (as Hodo does at Bay Area farmers markets) or dried (as you'll find in Asian grocery stores). Apparently, the meals at some tofu restaurants in Japan include table-top yuba making, as this advertising photo at the Modi Center in Machida, Tokyo illustrates. (A detailed history about yuba can be found at the SOYINFO CENTER.)

Photo of fu on skewers from meal at a tofu restaurant in TokyoNext came two "fu pops"*** — pieces of fu, a paste made from wheat gluten and rice flour, that had been grilled and topped with a sauce. One sauce was probably made from green tea and miso, the other was white miso; both were garnished with white poppy seeds. Since this fu contained rice flour, it had the chewiness and elasticity similar to mochi, but not so much as to be unpalatable. (Much more on fu at the Washoku Food blog.)

A tofu-egg custard followed the fu. This was cooked in a ceramic bowl, a delicately-flavored custard hiding pieces of vegetables and scallop. My memory is hazy about the temperature of the custard, but I think it was room temperature.

Photo of soymilk hot pot from meal at a tofu restaurant in TokyoThe 'main course,' if such a term can be used, was a hot pot where meat and vegetables were cooked in soy milk on the table-top. The staff brought plates of vegetables — shavings of burdock root (gobo), daikon, carrot — a special type of pork, and two dipping sauces (a superb sesame-vinegar sauce and a basic bonito-kelp dashi). Diners would drop a few pieces into the pot, wait until they were cooked, and then dip them in one of the sauces before eating.

When we were done with the vegetables and meat, the staff came back with rice, pickles and miso soup (miso soup is typically served at the end of the meal in Japan, not the beginning, to give the diner a sense of fullness). Instead of simply giving us each a bowl of rice, the staff put the rice into the hot — and meat and vegetable infused — soy milk, making a porridge.

Finally, there was a small dessert. Some were very Japanese, not terribly sweet, with subtle flavors and seasonal ingredients (chestnuts, for examples). Others were Japanese influences on imported ingredients, like green tea ice cream.

Overall, it was a splendid tour through a small part of the world of tofu and soy-based foods, increasing my appreciation for this much maligned ingredients.


I haven't done much research on this, but in my food-media wanderings I have come across only restaurant in the U.S. that could call itself a "tofu restaurant, " Umenohana in Beverly Hills. On KCRW's Good Food in 2005, regular guest Jonathon Gold (restaurant critic for the L.A. Weekly ) talked about the restaurant, which he reviewed in the L.A. Weekly. However, the restaurant has since closed, according to Slashfood. Apparently, Umenohana is a Japanese chain with over 70 restaurants in Japan; the Beverly Hills location was their first foray into the U.S. market.

* Unfortunately, I forgot the name and exact location. What I remember is that it was attached to a hotel that occupied the upper floors of an office building near the Machida train station.

** The New Yorker's 2005 Food Issue contained a fascinating article about the old ways of making tofu in modern Japan (only the abstract is free, sub. req'd for the full article).

*** Variations of these "pops" are made from tofu and called dengaku (according to Richie's book); I'm not sure what they are called when they are made of fu and other non-tofu ingredients.

Random link from the archive: Noodles in Indian Cuisine
Technorati tags: Japan : history : Food

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gyoza and tabletop show cooking: a bit of Japanese food history

Photo of gyoza in Hakone, JapanLast weekend, I went to a series of talks about Japanese food and culture at UC Berkeley. The forum was held to celebrate the 50th annivesary of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University, with five distinguished scholars from around the world touching on various topics in Japanese food culture and history. Academic talks can easily veer into the obscure corners of a specialist, be full of impenetrable jargon, and require a significant foundation. These were not like that, but were clear, understandable, and fascinating.

Professor Katarzayna Cwiertka of Leiden University (in the Netherlands) talked about restaurants in Japan before, during and after World War II. In 1944 there was a ban on most restaurants, and so, like speakeasies during the prohibition era, some restaurants went underground, drawing their curtains shut and hanging a closed sign on the front door, while preserving another entrance. Some underground restaurateurs suspected that their phones were bugged and used codes to indicate whether they would be serving on that day.

Cwiertka's talk included this surprising item: gyoza (dumplings) — which are one of the most popular foods in Japan today — were virtually unknown in Japan before WWII. Until then, most of the Chinese culinary influence on Japan came from the southern China, where dumplings are not so prevalent. After the war, according to Cwiertka, three factors helped make gyoza part of the Japanese diet. First, repatriation of Japanese from the dumpling-eating areas of northern China brought dumpling making skills. Second, a shortage of rice made foods that used other grains — gyoza have wrappers made of wheat — more important. And third, all sorts of outside markets opened up, with most having food stalls that served simple food like gyoza.

Another interesting post-war creation was the "show" style of cooking popularized in the U.S. by the Benihana chain. Although Japanese restaurants were theoretically off-limits to the occupying American soldiers, the rules were frequently ignored. Apparently, there was this place in Kobe called Misono where cooking was done on large griddles, the kind of place where such things as okonomiyaki (a pancake containing some combination of vegetables, meat and seafood, pictured to the left) and yakisoba (noodles cooked with various vegetables, meat and seafood) are made. American servicemen didn't much care for okonomiyaki, yakisoba and other the standard offerings, but the owner of Misono created some recipes that they did like, recipes involving lots of beef cooked on the griddle. Soon, he had a hit.

Eventually the "show" part of the experience was added and the Benihana restaurant took off with the idea in the U.S. (These adapted restaurants were so strongly associated with Westerners that they were listed in the "Western food" section of Tokyo restaurant guidebooks in the 1950s and 1960s.) I think that Professor Cwiertka has written some of this history into papers or books, and I'll need to look them up someday to get the full story.

The top photo is from my family's visit to the Gyoza Center (written up in most guidebooks) in the Hakone region of Japan, a short walk from the outdoor museum. The second photo is from a teppanyaki restaurant called Botejyu, which has dozens of locations in Japan, one in China, and several in Singapore.

Random link from the archive: Bitter Melon Greens
Technorati tags: Japan : history : Food

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Snapshots from Japan: Seasonality and urban farming

Continuing post-Japan-trip blogging, a few photos and comments about seasonality and urban farming in Japan.

Although the Japanese can get any food at any time, seasonality still plays an important part in their food culture. I was there in October, which is apparently chestnut season, as advertisements for chestnut ice cream and other chestnut delicacies. This first photo is an advertisement for chestnut ice cream at the dock for the boat across Lake Ashi in the Hakone region (1.5 hours south of Tokyo). I didn't get a chance to try this version, but later had a scoop from a place in the Machida Odakyu line train station. It had subtle chestnut flavor and the right amount of sweetness, making it the best chestnut item I had while in Japan.

Chestnut ice cream in Japan 8315

Chestnuts also make appearances in the fancy foods that are sold in specialty shops and in the food floors of shopping centers. This photo shows examples from the Nanjuya Nanohana store (that name might not be correct, it's my best recollection) on the main shopping street of Hakone-Yumoto (the terminus of the Odakyu "Romancecar" line from Tokyo). I'm not completely sure what these sweets are — probably chestnuts or chestnut paste in a rice-flour based wrapper, and probably a dose of sweet bean paste for good measure. As much as I love Japanese food, I haven't taken a liking to many of the sweets.

Japanese chestnut delicacies 8439

Urban Farming
Japan is a relatively small island with a large population and mountainous terrain. Therefore, to help the nation increase its food self-sufficiency, agriculture must go wherever it can.

Th next photo is from the city of Kawasaki, which is directly south of Tokyo. It shows two lots dedicated to growing vegetables in the middle of a dense single-family housing development. There were several of these between my brother's house and the train station, most growing row crops and one having a small persimmon orchard. My brother didn't know the status of these lots, whether they were being farmed because the developer couldn't make a profit building on the land, or whether something else was going on, like a legally required set-aside for agriculture.

Suburban farming in Japan 7976

Alongside the train tracks in the regions south of Tokyo (the Japan Rail Yokohama line, the Odakyu line to Hakone), numerous farms dot the landscape, many of them visible from inside the train. The two photos below were taken inside the train on the JR Yokohama line, a line that connects Hachiƍji (a western Tokyo suburb) with Yokohama (and the train that goes to the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum), and an area completely surrounded by the Tokyo-area megolopolis. I don't know the history behind the sites, but I suspect that some of the land is devoted to farming because it is in the flood plains of the nearby rivers. Flood plains, of course, make a risky site for offices, factories or housing, while potentially having rich soil. There were a variety of configurations, with some land (like the first photo below) devoted to row crops, and others (like the second photo below) also having greenhouses and orchards.

Farming alongside the JR Yokohama line in Japan

Farming alongside the JR Yokohama line in Japan

Unfortunately, there is a lot that I don't know about these urban and suburban farms. How are the lands farmed? How much food is produced? Do shoppers prefer to buy locally grown? Perhaps someday I'll find the answers to these questions and more.

Cross-posted at La Vida Locavore

Random link from the archive: Bitter Melon Greens

Technorati tags: Japan : vegetarian : Food

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Two simple snacks from the 100 yen shop in Japan

When looking for souvenirs in Japan, the 100 yen shop is a great place to visit (100 yen is about $1, so these are the equivalent of the "99 cent shop" or "dollar store"). They have all sorts of interesting pieces of Japanese culture, like cute glassware, notebooks with interesting inscriptions, and a fun variety of snack foods.

We happened to find a five-story version (called "Daiso" and apparently one of the largest 100 yen shops around) near the Machida train station on the outskirts of Tokyo. I was feeling a bit hungry, so I started looking in the food sections for something interesting. I found two items, but wished I had looked at the labels more carefully.

Much of the food at the 100 yen shop is snacky stuff — candy, nuts or cookies* — and so when I saw the item in the photograph below, I hoped that it might be some kind of chestnut candy, perhaps a chestnut caramel or some other interesting variation.  Alas, it was not.  The photo in the lower right corner of the package is an accurate representation of the contents: steamed and unseasoned chestnuts.  They were reasonably tasty and in tune with the season — we saw special chestnut items wherever we traveled (ice cream, distinctive sweets, and even a chestnut cake at McDonald's).

The next item is similarly clear about what it contains — especially after my experience with the chestnuts. The attractively designed package holds pieces of cooked sweet potato — not the sweet potato candy I was hoping for when I saw the package and somehow ignored the clear photos of sliced sweet potato. Next time I will study the packages more carefully before making the 100 yen splurge.

* Or the ever popular "Almond Fish," which consists of roasted almonds and dried anchovies.

Random link from the archive: Olallieberries, goat cheese and beans in Pescadero, California

Technorati tags: Japan : vegetarian : Food

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A visit to the Ramen Museum in Yokohama, Japan

The Shinyokohama Raumen (sic) Museum

Real ramen — not the factory-produced product with instant noodles and a powdered flavoring packet, but fresh noodles and painstakingly prepared, flavorful broth — inspires strong feelings. It's inspired two movies, the delightful Tampopo (1985) and the poorly written and overacted The Ramen Girl (2008), and at least one museum, the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum in Yokohama, Japan.

While in the southern part of the Tokyo area last month (Kawasaki), my family had one day that could be devoted to tourism, and because of our curiosity about a noodle-focused museum and the museum's geographical convenience, we picked the ramen museum as our destination.

Getting there was the first challenge. It was simple enough — only two train transfers, one within the Odakyu system and one to the Japan Rail (JR) Yokohama line, and then a short ride to the Shin-Yokohama station. Fortunately, enough train station signs are in English that it's possible to find your way through the train station mazes without knowing Japanese (but writing down the Kanji — the complicated Chinese characters that make up part of the Japanese writing system — for Yokohama and Shin-Yoohama might be a good idea because some of the maps that show fares — like this one at the Kita-Kamakura station — are only in Kanji).

The next step — finding the museum — could have been quite difficult, as most cities in Japan don't number their buildings or streets with a system that is familiar to Westerners, but the museum's website has some of the most incredibly detailed directions that I have ever seen, with nearly each turn or choice illustrated by a small photo. Frequently consulting the photo instructions (steps 2 and 3 were the trickiest), we made our way through the maze of passageways beneath the streets of Shin-Yokohama to find the proper exit and then went a few short blocks to the museum.

After paying a small admission fee (¥300 or so, less if you use the on-line coupon), we entered the exhibit and gift-shop area of the museum. Alas, the exhibit area was quite small, and (understandably) all in Japanese. There was a display of the various kinds of bowls used to serve ramen, something that was probably about the varieties of salt used in raman recipes, a video showing the production process, and a mock-up of a ramen preparation area.  The gift shop had a collection of Ramen-related merchandise, including some unique noodle bowls, sample packs for home preparation, and the displays of one the instant noodle industry's latest creations: New Orleans Style "Gumbo" instant noodles. (I'm not an expert on gumbo but have a strong feeling that adding noodles to gumbo would be close to blasphemy in New Orleans.)

Gumbo noodle cups at the ramen museum

The highlight for us was the basement, where the museum has created a 1958 Tokyo streetscape — 1958 marking the year of the introduction of instant noodles in Japan — complete with architectural details and movie advertisements from the era.  Around the two-story recontruction are nine small ramen shops, a smoking room, a few more gift shops, and a drink stall or two.

Inside the Ramen Museum

The nine shops were chosen by the museum because of their quality and also to provide geographical diversity — ramen from Hokkaido differs from Tokyo-area ramen, which differs from Kyushu, and so on (a page at the ramen museum's website explains the offerings).

After making our decisions — my sister and I went to the Hokkaido shop on someone's recommendation and my parents went to another shop  — and re-reading the directive that "each person must order at least one bowl of noodles," we placed our order at a vending machine outside the restaurant, and waited in line for a few minutes. (Using vending machines for food ordering is fairly common in Japan, as it eliminates the need for restaurant staff to handle money. For the non-Japanese-speaking tourist, it offers the additional benefit of reducing the language barrier.) When we were seated, we gave the ticket from the vending machine to our server and within a few minutes, our two bowls of steaming noodles had arrived.  We tried their soy-laced and miso-laced versions of the basic noodles, and agreed that the miso broth was much more interesting. Both were delicious, with wonderful noodles, if a bit salty*.

The "each person must order a bowl of noodles" rule is understandable, but makes it difficult to do much sampling. In recent years, therefore, the ramen shops have been offering half portions (priced at ¥550 vs. ¥800-1000 for the full size). A good idea, but we found that even the half size was more than half a meal, and didn't end up visiting another restaurant. It would be nice if they had even smaller bowls to allow more tasting.

Despite the flaws, the ramen museum is definitely worth a visit if you're in the Tokyo/Yokohama area. The detailed recreation of 1950s Tokyo, the unusual merchandise in the gift shop, and the distinctive ramen offerings make for a fun afternoon or evening (the museum is open until 11 PM, with last orders around 10 PM).

* The soup broths in all of the shops are made using various meat products (pork, chicken, and/or fish), so strict vegetarians are left out of ramen sampling here.

Random link from the archive: Torta verde: a savory pie from Italy

Technorati tags: travel : noodles : Japan : ramen : Food