On Sharpening the Japanese Way

One of the many benefits of being my co-worker is that I sharpen kitchen knives to a hair-splitting quality on request, no matter how beat up or crummy the knife is. Sharpening knives is a source of relaxation, a meditative process for me. I own only a few knives myself, so I constantly ask my co-workers and friends for knives to sharpen.

I can track my fascination with sharpening back to the Soviet Union, to the period in 1988, during Perestroyka, when we got a glimpse of foreign TV shows. As a part of “opening up” instad of the usual 3 channels with nothing on we got a major treat – several “weeks of foreign TV.” The show that stuck in my mind forever was from the week of Japanese TV. There was a one or two hour segment about Japanese craftsmen that paired people who made tools with people who used them. There was a segment about a maker of fishing rods and a fisherman and maybe a few other segments. The one segment that shocked me was about a sharpening specialist.

The point of the segment was to bring one of the best Japanese sharpening stones to a sharpening specialist and see what he could do with it.

Japanese blade technology and sharpening methods developed separately from the European ones. Japanese blades are ground to have a complex asymmetrical geometry with one convex side and one flat/concave side. This flat side allows for a level of sharpness similar to a double concave geometry found in European-style razor blades (which are impractical for anything other than shaving), while making the resulting blade much more sturdy. Thousands of years of trial and error also found the ultimate tool for sharpening Japanese steel – a range of soft sedimentary stones formed under tremendous pressure in ancient mountains. There are man-made sharpening stones made of clay, various oxides, and even diamond dust, but the grain size is too consistent – for a variety of reasons nothing can beat a high quality natural stone.

In the TV show that I mentioned earlier they went to a producer of very high quality stones 1. Natural stones that are large enough and don’t have any inclusions of wrong minerals are rare and expensive. A top quality stone might cost many thousands of dollars, maybe even tens or hundreds of thousands 2. The stone merchant/manufacturer produced a family heirloom – a huge and priceless top quality stone which was taken to the sharpening specialist.

The sharpening specialist was amazed at the quality of the stone. He spent a while examining it and making a fuss about the size and the quality. Then he said that he would sharpen a plane blade so that the wood shaving taken with the plane would be completely transparent, only a few micrones thick. He used a series of rougher stones 3 and then switched to the super-stone. Before he started, he needed to prepare it. He used a smaller stone to build up a slurry, and after a while the surface of the large stone became so smooth that the small stone stuck to it and had to be removed with the help of a splash of water. The molecules of the two stones actually intermingled and were held together by Van der Waals force.

Then the craftsman sharpened the plane blade to the point that the flat side of it stuck to the stone the same way the small stone did before. Molecules of metal seeped into the super-flat surface of the stone, and again the craftsman had to splash some water on the blade to separate it from the stone.

The knife was placed into a plane, and the resulting wood shaving was transparent: you could read a newspaper through it. But the craftsman was not satisfied – he resharpened the knife again, and took off an even thinner shaving.

Many years later I purchased a set of Japanese waterstones and a few Japanese knives. I also bought a Western book about Japanese waterstones that was full of misinformation. I only learned how to use the stones properly when I started working at 7 World Trade Center. There is a small restaurant supply store called Korin that is partially owned by a master knife sharpener, Mr. Chiharu Sugai. He has a full sharpening workshop set up in the store and sells a DVD about sharpening. Only after watching the DVD and watching Mr. Sugai work during my lunch break did I get a bit better at sharpening with water stones.

I don’t have a workshop, but I have a healthy collection of man-made stones (same ones that Mr. Sugai uses). I use a wooden board that fits over the sink to rest the stones on, which is easier for me than sitting correctly. These days I can sharpen a knife to a point where it can split a hair held by one end. My technique is far from perfect, but I am getting better. Sharpening provides an extremely calming activity for me, there’s something meditative in ultra-precise repetitive motions that require a lot of focus.

I think the source of my fascination with sharpening is philosophical. You start out with a piece of metal that isn’t that sharp and a piece of stone that is completely dull, and through a very precise set of actions produce a piece of metal that has an edge only a few microns thick that is capable of breaking inter-molecular bonds, of cleaving solid matter.

Having a well-sharpened knife in the kitchen is amazing. I personally believe that it’s not only easier to cut food with a sharp blade, and not only food cut cleanly looks better, but also that it tastes better. A salad cut with a sharp knife is somehow tastier, and so is meat and fish.

The old bromide about a dull knife being more dangerous than a sharp knife is only partially true. A sharp blade is very dangerous and needs to be treated with respect. If you’ll place a sharp knife into a sink and then reach for it with your hand you’ll get a deeper cut. If you force it past a tough vegetable into your hand you’ll also get a worse cut. The thing is, if you do dumb things with any blade you’ll get hurt, and a sharp blade with cut better. But sharp blades inspire respect: you will simply stop doing stupid things like leaving them in sinks or cutting towards any appendages that you want to keep. 5.

*****

1. These are known as “tennen toishi” – “natural sharpening stones”.

2. I don’t remember prices quoted, but I have not personally encountered a stone worth more than $8,000. The point is that large natural stones are way expensive.

3. Thre are many grades of stones based on their grits, but three main categories: ara-to (rough), naka-to (medium), shiage-to (finishing). The large stone was a very high quality shiage-to.

4. The small stone is known as “nagura”.

5. You really should watch Jamie Oliver explaining knife skills.

Here I’m getting a little tutorial my Mr. Shotaro Nomura of Sakai City at CIA event organized by Korin

mr-shotaro-nomura-sharpening

Mr. Nomura demonstrates the difference between a Japanese-style and Western-style blade geometry (in a very simplified schematic)

japanese-and-western-knife-grind

A knife sharpener in Tsukiji fish market – he has a standing setup similar to mine
knife-sharpener-tsukidji

Marzipan

When faced with a lot of stress I employ several coping techniques. There’s collecting pens ala officer Sorenson, watching New York’s pigeons(overweight and disheveled they remind me of myself), meditatively looking at cornucopias of goods in various retail store layouts and fixtures, and then there’s food.

Happiness derived from material things is fleeting, especially in the pursuit of the American Dream. But I grew up in the Soviet Union where the Socialist economy greatly restricted variety and quality of just about everything, and I have a slightly different perspective on materialism.

My friends who visited Cuba told me that people there are much happier than in the US: they have very little to aspire to in material goods, and thus live a life that is much less busy, and as a result much more relaxed and happy.

I frequently quote a paragraph from a letter by Carl Steinway to his brother Theodor in Germany:

“I cannot advise you to come here if you are able, by diligence and thrift, to make a living in Germany. People here have to work harder than abroad, and you get so used to better living that you finally think potato soup tasted better in Germany than the daily roast here.”

Carl and Theodor are two of the “Sons” in Steinway & Sons. Steinway Tunnel is named after the third one.

The variety of food that I had access to growing up was not that great, but I certainly had better fruit and vegetables than the majority of Americans have these days. I’ve asked my younger co-workers, and they are sure that strawberries sold in American supermarkets taste like strawberries. It’s a bit of a Matrix moment there (supermarket strawberries absolutely do not taste like real strawberries).

I had a childhood in which I only experienced hunger when dieting and cold when fishing in bad weather. On the other hand, my grandfather, who went through WWII, remembered the real hunger and the real cold. He was very glad that me and my father never had to experience hunger, and every time I would refuse to eat kasha, he would say – “so, you don’t want to eat kasha that your grandmother made you – what do you expect – marzipan”?

I would ask him what marzipan was, and he’d say – oh, it’s a very tasty French candy. He must have remembered marzipan from NEP times or maybe from his early childhood before the Revolution.

I always though that marzipan was something amazing and heavenly, the tastiest treat possible. I was also pretty sure that I’d never taste it. It was the gastronomic equivalent of the “sea rooster” fish (a very rare fish that I dreamt of catching in the Black Sea).

These days I mutter curse words when I catch “sea roosters” – they are considered a throwback fish in NYC. And marzipan – well, it turned out to be yucky concoction of almond paste and sugar that appears on store shelves around Festivus. I buy it from time to time to remember my grandfather.

marzipan

And when I want to taste a tomato or strawberry that tastes good I have to spend a lot of time and money at farmers markets or take a trip to my hometown.

Sweet Lemon QWERTY

My daughter’s design and marketing portfolio grows.

Recently she received an unexpectedly interesting assignment at pre-k: to come up with a name for a restaurant, ant then decorate a box with pictures of food cut out of magazines inside and the name outside.

This is not a ransom note, this it the restaurant name. My wife helped her a little by writing out the name, but I think the really creative part is the name itself which Natalie chose entirely on her own: “Sweet Lemon QWERTY”.

Also noteworthy:
Natalie’s train design calls for a flat panel tv in every train car:

Are Tables Important?

I was talking to a former co-worker about Inc Magazine’s cover story about Markus Frind and his very profitable, but godawfully ugly dating website plentyoffish.com.

My co-worker (a programmer) loaded up the website. He took a quick look around and opened the source of the ratings page. Giggling like Bevis he could not believe what he saw: a gradient bar that was coded as [gasp!] an HTML table with bgcolor attributes.

It looked like this:

And was coded like that:

<table border=0 cellspacing=0 cellpadding=0 width=100%>
<tr height=5><td bgcolor=#204080><img width=1 height=5 border=0>
</td><td bgcolor=#202F70><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#3F2060><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#5F2050><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#7F1F4F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#90103F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#B0102F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#CF0F1F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#E0000F><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
<td bgcolor=#F00000><img width=1 height=5 border=0></td>
</tr></table>

He was going on and on and on about how tables are bad, and mwu-ha-ha-ha — look at this.

I was fully expecting him to take umbrage at the logo, the overall look and feel of the site, at the grotesquely skewed photo thumbnails. But no, all he was seeing is that Mr. Frind “used a table”.

I tried to tell my co-worker that despite “tables” or ugliness this website generates tens of millions of dollars of profit to its creator, that it has as much web traffic as Yahoo while being served a small handful of very powerful servers, that it was created and maintained by a single person who gets to keep most of the profits – but to no awail. The kid could not get over “tables”.

A famous hacker JWZ once was asked about his feelings about “an open source groupware system”. In a famous rant that followed he produced some of the best advice importance that I’ve ever seen:

“So I said, narrow the focus. Your “use case” should be, there’s a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?”

While I’ve never heard of HTML tables (not the furniture kind) playing any role in getting laid, plentyoffish.com must have resulted in a mind boggling amount of action.

Plentyoffish.com, being a technological and aestetical abomination that it is, is firmly rooted in the lower, fundamental layers of Maslow’s Hierarchy and my Web Heirarchy.

At the most basic people need oxygen, water, food, to take a dump/whiz, sleep, sex, and a predictability in environment.

On the web people need hypertext, images, search, speed, and community features. If you provide all of these for a topic that is important to people, you will be successful. Start thinking about “html tables vs divs” first, and likely you won’t get to the important stuff.

Doing it another way – saying, look, I’ll do a site just like plentyoffish but prettier and without HTML tables does not work very well: Frind’s competiors at okcupid.com who set out to do just that are not succesful in toppling plentyoffish.

Ugliness for the sake of ugliness is not a good thing. In the long run people want things to be pretty, like Apple products and not ugly like Microsoft products. But taste, being pretty high up in the pyramid of needs only becomes a factor after all the basic needs are met.

Entrepreneurship Heros II: Night at the Museum

If the Seal of New York City were designed today, it would not have a sailor and a Native American on it. It would have a cab driver and a food cart vendor.

Cab driving and food vending wood seem like the two of the most democratic enterpreneurial options, the foundation of which is the public streets New York City: you just wheel out your vehicle and try to make some commerce happen. The only thing that you need is a license. The one for cab driving is called a “medallion”, costs $766K, and as an investment vehicle outperformed just about any commodity and stock index. The food cart licesnses are also very expensive. Plus you are hounded by NYPD, Department of Sanitation, and who knows what else. Cab drivers and food cart vendors are some of the hardest working and most prosecuted businesmen in the city, but sometimes they have their own victories, big and small.

You don’t need to go any further than the Metropolitain Museum of Art to see two interesting examples. Right in front of the museum there’s a collection of food carts. They all are very typical carts, none of them are of the fancy variety. There are two types represented – the basic “dirty water hot dog” cars and “street meat” carts. But there’s one important difference – they all have stickers that say “Disabled Veteran”, and there’s usually an actual veteran somewhere nearby.

In the past years the space in front of the museum was either empty or occupied by one or two carts licensed by the Department of Parks. Then one day Dan Rossi, a disabled veteran, discovered a 19th century state law that allows disabled veterans to sell food in areas that are off-limits to others. The location in front of the museum is particularly lucrative because there are no affordable restaurants as far as an overweight tourist can walk. This hack is a small, but significant victory for food vendors. They are still ticketed mercelesly by NYPD, have to work crazy hours, and deal with the need to urinate in some kind of a miraculous way. At least they got an article in the New York Times written about them.

Across the road from the veteran’s carts is a mansion that belongs to billionaire Tamir Sapir, a former cab driver.

Mr. Sapir’s legend starts in Georgia, USSR. He found an interesting niche business: filling out complicated emigration forms for the Soviet Jews. At some point he was persuaded by his mother to give up his excellent life (it was a very lucrative business, from what I understand) and emigrate to Israel himself. He found himself in the middle of the Yom Kippur War, and quickly emigrated to the United States. He worked hard to earn enough money to leave rural Kentucky for New York, and then even harder to buy a cab medallion (which was a lot more affordable in those days). Then he risked everything again by putting up that medallion as collateral for a loan that he needed to open up an electronics store with a partner.

In the 80s there was a bit of a thaw in Sovet-American relations – Perestroyka and whatnot. There was a significant amount of people visiting the US – diplomats, scientists, sailors, and those invited by relatives. These people were allowed to exchange a small sum of rubles into dollars at the official rate – if I remember correctly, 60-something kopeks to a dollar.

What these lucky tourists wanted the most was electronics. In particular – vcrs, doule deck cassette players, and Walkmen. They had the money to buy these things, but here’s a problem: they needed 220 volt round plug devices, and more than that, VCRs needed to support the SECAM standard. You could not just walk into any store and find these: American market was all 110V and NTSC.

Every child in Odessa back then knew all of this, as well as that if you found yourself in New York City with some money, all you needed to do was trudge over to Timur’s (this was before he changed his name) store in Manhattan and find 220V SECAM VCRs.

Mr. Sapir was making a mint, but more importantly he was making connections with the Soviet ministers, diplomats, and future oligarchs. A little later he was invited back to the USSR, and made more connections there. These connections allowed him to play on the Soviet deregulation arbitrage market.

You see, when the Soviet Union was transitioning to the market economy all prices were regulated except those for commidities like metals, oil, and fertilizer. Those with connections could buy these commodities for already devalued rubles and sell them abroad for hard currency, making millions of dollars. All you needed was connections, which Mr. Sapir had.

He made millions, but the game became very dangerous as people tougher than NYC cabbies entered it. Mr. Sapir did not continue his career as a commodity exporter. Instead he invested his millions into New York City skyscrapers. The real estate market bottomed out, and you could buy a whole skyscraper for 10 million dollars or so. He bought a whole bunch of them. The price of Manhattan real estate exploded, and he became a billionare.

He bought a mansion across from the Metropolitain Museum to house his collection of carved ivory (for some reason this was a very popular area of collecting in the Soviet Union), has a yacht that used to be stuffed with a collection of exotic animal taxidermy that could rival Mr. Burn’s wardrobe or Amy’s car from Futurama.

Well, the two lessons here are: 1) you have to take risks and 2) you have to find a niche. The rest is luck.

My Advice to Russian Bride Hunters

I recently received an email from a reader who wanted advice about seeking a Russian bride. I decided to post my snarky, although relatively detailed reply here. After I sent the email, I realized that there’s a book on the subject

that according to one review is “simply ‘excellent’. It is factual without being offensive. It’s helpful without being overbearing. It is instructive without being condescending.” I don’t think I managed any of these feats, but here’s what I wrote:

Ancient Odessa, coin, erotic scene. II-III century BC.

Hey, ….. .

Your potential mailorder bride is most likely a scammer. I am about to give you and those like you some advice, which might turn out useful to some and entertaining to others (I plan on posting my reply on my blog).

Seeking a foreign bride is not a simple, risk free, or casual process. It is not impossible though: one of my female friends married an Australian, another a Briton. These two pairs are extremely happy together.

You claim that you are having problems finding a “normal chick to settle down with.” I think I know what you mean by that, but I am not sure that you do. In my interpretation you blame your inability to find a mate on the quality of the pool of potential dates available to you.

By definition, “normal” means standard, usual, average. Since the majority is never “not normal” (unless you are in a psychiatric institution), there must be another explanation. It’s probably a combination of your high standards in selecting a mate (model looks, high paying job, domestic excellence) and your lack of same qualities. In short you are looking for a girl out of your league.

So here you think: there are these places where the girls are super hot, live in poverty (and thus aren’t spoiled) and will jump at a chance of snagging a knight in shining armor who will whisk them away to America. Your thinking is correct. Being American with some money will let you fish in the deep end of the gene pool in many a foreign land.

Russian and Ukrainian cities are teeming with ultrahotness: Slavic female beauty is world famous. There is no obesity epidemic there due to superior quality of food, so sometimes it looks like city centers are overrun by hordes of supermodels. The ubiquitous blond hair and rare eye colors are a part of the local genetic markup.

Meanwhile, widespread alcoholism in men is far from being an untrue stereotype, and there are many men wearing purses in the street and speedos at the beach. Simply not being an alcoholic and having a modicum of fashion sense are great assets there. Basic hygiene is also not really a default in men there. Boldness and fatness is not as repulsive to women in those parts of the world, and an American citizenship is an outright aphrodisiac.

So, those are all the advantages that you have there. What about disadvantages? A shared background is a cornerstone of a healthy relationship. You and your potential bride grew up speaking different languages, reading different books, eating different food, watching different tv shows. There might be some overlap in music, but the overall experiences that the two you of had were vastly different. That gap has to be bridged somehow, and it seems very likely to me that you will leave this burden to the girl. She will have to suffer the tremendous cultural shock upon arriving in the US (I know I have), she will have to speak English. Based on your spelling and grammar you do not strike me as good with learning languages, and Russian is a difficult one to learn. You also show a good level of ignorance of Russian culture, geography and history. That is a big handicap.

So, yes, there are millions of “normal chicks” there, but you are limited only to English-speaking ones, of which there aren’t too many. Most “normal chicks” find it as hard to learn a second language as you are. So in practice the pool of girls that you are looking mostly consist of girls that have unrealistic expectations of life in the US, scammers (some of which are not actually girls), and those girls who can’t find “normal dudes” because of one issue or another.

Even if you get through all the logistical and bureaucratic nightmares, there are some tough odds to overcome. Imagine yourself in a freshly minted mailorder bride’s place: being a stranger in a strange land, feeling exploited and locked into a marriage, no old friends to lean on, having to speak English 100% of the time, homesickness etc, etc. That is some tough situation. If you are not god’s gift to women where you live, your foreign bride stressed by all the changes will probably not like you much better, but will be locked into staying married to you for a good while. It’d be exploitative of you, wouldn’t it?

The scammers are sometimes crude, sometimes very sophisticated. A friend of mine mentioned a girl that communicates in the way that you described with dozens of men, with the intent of scamming them. “She doesn’t ask me to send money, to go visit, or anything else like that.” That is a good sign, but this usually does not last: a good scammer does not want to set the hook too early. The fact that she does not own a tv or a computer and uses a friend’s computer at work seems suspicious to me. Her story – too smooth. You can’t be too careful in these situations.

Remember I mentioned my two friends who made their relationships work? The guys they married are very good looking, hard working, and have outstanding personalities. One pair met in an online game (true story), another at a university. Both girls spoke near-flawless English (the men did not learn more than a few phrases in Russian, very typically).

So here’s my final bit of advice: if you do want yourself a beauty from the former USSR — learn Russian, at the very least read everything you’ll find in Wikipedia about the places where you’ll be looking, but better thoroughly educate yourself about Russian and Ukrainian history, politics, current affairs. Then do some traveling. Then you might be ready for something like what you are attempting. If you will learn enough Russian and will travel there, you can get laid with impunity without having to go through with the whole marriage thing, unless the “sex tourist” label bothers you.

Ostrich Egg

A new Whole Foods store opened right near my work. Whole Foods is an overpriced, somewhat organic supermarket, with a somewhat-premium selection. The problem with normal supermarkets is that they sell a mind-numbing variety of food that ranges from unhealthy to the point of poisonous, to very untasty at low, low prices. Whole Foods sells decent, and sometimes even healthy and delicious food, but at a budget breaking prices. They also sometimes have exotic products, and because of that provide me with material for Gastronomic Adventures.

Today on the menu: ostrich egg. It cost me $29, and apparently it was a pricing mistake – it now cost $39. Even though they are big, they are fricking expensive. Notice the “local” tag. Eating local food is all the rage these days thanks to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and apparently there’s an ostrich farm somewhere in New York.

As tempting as the microwave experiment looked, and as high as the novelty value of the Scotch ostrich egg is, I decided on a more conventional recipe.

After taking a hammer to the egg, I fried some up and baked the rest.

While the taste was similar to chicken eggs,

the texture was completely different. The fried egg white felt stringy, almost like noodles, and very, very tasty.

The baked yolk was creamy and without that sulfury taste that chicken egg yolks sometimes have. The whole thing was very tasty. If not for the price, I’d be eating ostrich eggs much more frequently.

Iron Chef Knife Set 7-pc.

Iron Chef is an innovative cooking competition from Japan. Originally produced by Fuji TV, Iron Chef combined the excitement of a one on one sports competition with gourmet cooking. The title Iron Chef comes from the original Japanese title, Ironmen of Cooking.Nothing is more frustrating than trying to prepare a gourmet meal with knives that can barely slice through warm butter. So why not arm the head chef in your household with cutlery that’s designed to turn food prep into a breeze! The 440 stainless-steel blades on these knives provide an effortless slice, allowing you to dice and chop with a professional touch! And this set has an added bonus: the knife rack also holds a handy wooden cutting board, so you always have a board when you need one. Makes a perfect gift for the Iron Chef fanatic!Set includes:7-in. Professional Chef’s Knife6.5-in Hollow Edge Santoku Knife6.38-in. Usuba Knife6-in. Gourmet Cleaver5.31-in. Hollow Edge Utility Knife13x8x2.25-in. Knife Rack13x8.5-in. Cutting Board

Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art

When it was first published, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art changed the way the culinary world viewed Japanese cooking, moving it from obscure ethnic food to haute cuisine.

Twenty-five years later, much has changed. Japanese food is a favorite of diners around the world. Not only is sushi as much a part of the Western culinary scene as burgers, bagels, and burritos, but some Japanese chefs have become household names. Japanese flavors, ingredients, and textures have been fused into dishes from a wide variety of other cuisines. What hasn’t changed over the years, however, are the foundations of Japanese cooking. When he originally wrote Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, Shizuo Tsuji, a scholar who trained under famous European chefs, was so careful and precise in his descriptions of the cuisine and its vital philosophies, and so thoughtful in his choice of dishes and recipes, that his words–and the dishes they help produce–are as fresh today as when they were first written.
The 25th Anniversary edition celebrates Tsuji’s classic work. Building on M.F.K.Fisher’s eloquent introduction, the volume now includes a thought-provoking new Foreword by Gourmet Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl and a new preface by the author’s son and Tsuji Culinary Institute Director Yoshiki Tsuji. Beautifully illustrated with eight pages of new color photos and over 500 drawings, and containing 230 traditional recipes as well as detailed explanations of ingredients, kitchen utensils, techniques and cultural aspects of Japanese cuisine, this edition continues the Tsuji legacy of bringing the Japanese kitchen within the reach of Western cooks.