uni

Did you know that you can buy a whole wooden box of uni for 15.99 in K-Town? Uni is sea urchin “caviar”, the creamiest ingredient in the world, the second most oohed and aahed over thing on the original Iron Chef show (after “broth of vigor” aka dashi), the thing that you overpay for at the fancier sushi restaurant where it is doled out in smallest portions ever?

Well, you can. It cures a mild bout of depression if consumed in one sitting, with good quality soy sauce and guttural cat-like growling.

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.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part VIa : Japanese Food

You know that a have a japonophiliac streak in me, but I can’t honestly say that Japanese cuisine is my favorite. In fact it holds a shaky fourth position, after Vietnamese, Korean and Thai cuisines (in that order). Sushi, sashimi and kushiyaki (stuff on skewers) are great comfort food, and not many things achive the perfection of high quality sashimi (especially if I caught the fish) and fried smelt is probably one of my top 10 favorite foods. But overall, I think Japanese cuisine is all that great, but I still like it better than French and Italian.

Let’s start at the base of Japanese food pyramid. The fast food. I am not going to get into details about Japanese McDonalds and the like. Calling it Macdonurado and making the clown hot and female does not change it much.

Let’s start with the first meal that you might encounter – the bento, the boxed lunch. The sell these in most trains and train stations. The variety of bento is amazing, almost always reflecting the season and featuring fresh local produce. It’s probably the perfect and the best fast food in the world. Sadly, obentos are not popular in the US, which I think might change in the future. The thing that most resembles the bento, the tv dinner, is terrible and thankfully extinct.

Here’s a group of Japanese businessmen enjoying their bentos in a shinkansen. One of my favorite features of Mainichi Daily News is a special feature about bentos written by Shinobu Kobayashi. A bento usually cost about $10. My favorite part of bentos is the little exotic pickles, from lotus root to stuff I can’t even identify. They are like a little surprise – you never know how they’ll taste.

A whole separate category should be devoted to festival junk food. Think the Japanese version of American county fair food.

First, there’s takoyaki, which should be familiar to all I Love Katamari players. Takoyaki are greasy balls of fried batter, filled with chunks of octopus and drenched in mayo, served searing hot. Unhealthy as hell, but great with beer.

Okonomiyaki is sort of Japanese take on pizza. They are also hot and greasy beyond belief, and again, a great drinking food.


Grilled squid on a stick is a popular festival food.

Mitarashi dango are sticky rice flour dumplings on a stick. They are very filling, but not particularly tasty. I liked mochi a bit more.

Fried foods are very popular in Japan, and the idea of deep frying was introduced by Portuguese missionaries. I always thought that it were the Dutch and the word “tempura” refered to “temperature,” but Wikipedia article tells me that it’s from “”ad tempora quadragesimae”, meaning “in the time of Lent””. In any case, tempura is only good when it’s made in front of you, and even then too greasy for my taste. I had a good tempura meal in a moderately expensive tempura place (it set me back something like $50) and I am still underwhelmed. Tempura here in New York is outright horrible.

Japanese cuisine is at its worst when it tries to emulate western food. There’s this class of meals called yoshoku, which means western-style japanese food, and it’s usually horrible. What it reminds me of the most is medieval artists trying to depict elephants and rhinos having for reference only pictures made by other medieval artists who also haven’t seen the real thing. Here’s an gratin of some sort that my wife had:

The variety of convenience store food boggled my mind. Even the most basic student staples like ramen soup are exotic there: here’s one that has real clams in it’s fixin’ package:

While junk food overlows and is dirt cheap, fruit and vegetables generally are very expensive. To make up for enormous prices, they are often local, hand picked, meticulously packaged (sometimes with an autographed photo of the farmer), and of great quality. Here’s a moderately cheap grocery store – those tiny little watermelons are $20 each.

For all the corruption of the west, traditional meals are great. I already covered the phenomenon of the “morning set” in a previous post, so here’s a photo of a traditional Japanese breakfast that I had in a ryokan. It consted of fried salmon, rice, miso soup, seeweed salad, pickles and interestingly shaped egg omlet.

Traditional dinner at ryokan was also great – sashimi, two kinds of seafood salad, pickled shrimp, miso soup, rice and sake. The little pink flower-like thingy is a slice of a special boiled fish cake (I think).

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part IVc : Day of the Tentacle

Of course, seafood is not the only thing that’s sold in this gigantic market.

You can buy just about everything seafood related around there, rubber boots, for instance.

There are a lot of knife merchants around that sell mostly Japanese-style knives. I already have a decent set of Japanese Deba Hocho knives, but I just had to buy a souvenir gaff, a miniature version of a hook that everybody in the market used to grab boxes and fish (they are on the right of this display box.

Here’s a merchant sharpening a knife on a waterstone. I have one of those too. Because of their single-sided concave edge, Japanese-style knives are significantly sharper and easier to sharpen than Western knives. Still, getting a really sharp edge is a bit of an art.

There are numerous food stalls around the market. Here’s one of the cooler ones, with a giant steaming pot of something and a dude with a yakuza-like pompadour haircut. This was one of those few places in Japan that refused to serve us, gaijin.

Instead, we went to a sushi place with slightly disturbing decoration: a doomed fish in an aquarium that watches you as you eat. The sushi was very fresh and reasonably priced, but not significantly better than what I am used to in New York.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part IVb : Day of the Tentacle

The variety of smaller sea creatures sold in the Tsukiji market is mind boggling. Here’s a small sampling of the pictures that I took.

First of all, there are many, many different tentacled monstrocities.

These seem to be destined for sashimi.

Live tiger shrimp.

Deep red color occures more in fish here more frequently than I am used to.

I think this is some kind of sea robin.

This seems to be Alfonsino.

All kinds of unfamiliar bivalves.

There’s stuff that I can’t even identify.

And then, there’s stuff that I, sadly, can identify. This is whale meat. The price tag, if I read it correctly says 3800 yen per kilo. That’s about $20/lb.

Japanese whailing is a highly controvercial practice, and I highly disapprove of it. Having said that, I have to mention that I’ve had whale meat a few times. In the Soviet times whale meat was sometimes sold in stores. People bought it not because it was particularly tasty (it wasn’t), but because regular meat was not available. Fried, it was very tough in texture, and in taste it was like a mix of pork and beef, yet with a fishy aftertaste.

Homemade Sashimi

I did not get to go fishing as much as I wanted to lately, and a recent winter flounder trip that despite amazing weather resulted in only one keeper fish is not a highlight of my fishing career. But the flounder sashimi that I made out of it was absolutely awesome.

Fluke Sashimi

Here’s a picture of striped bass sashimi that I made a few years back. I’m told that the dark brown (looks red in the picture for some reason) meat should be removed from fillets. It was very tasty anyway.

Striped Bass Sashimi

Food safety is not something to be taken lightly, of course. A lot of people gasp – homemade sashimi? That’s suicide! But if you ask me, food police, fear of lawsuits and American germophobia goes a little too far.

Over the years I ate a lot of potentially deadly stuff. Street vendor food, for example. Did you ever wonder how those guys go to the bathroom? Cafeteria food. Oh, and not only American street vendor food and cafeteria food. Soviet too. I ate a lot of sushi and sashimi. I’ve had raw Korean beef. A lot of oysters, some rare steaks (usually I order medium-rare). In Ukraine I liked to snack on raw chicken eggs. I ate fish that I caught in the uber-polluted Black Sea. I even ate raw mussels (and they concentrate all the bad sea crap) there.

And you know what? While long term health effects of my omnivorous eating are not known yet, I had a very mild case of food poisoning only once. From a reportedly unexpired can of Alaskan salmon.

Alleged time traveler John Titor wrote this about American food:

“What are people thinking? You willfully eat poisoned food. It’s very hard for me to find food here. It all scares the Hell out of me. I am amazed at the risks people here are willing to take with processed food. All of the food I eat here is grown and prepared by my family or myself.”

I am scared myself. Food here for the most part does not taste right. The large scale growing and processing does something to it. I highly suspect that it’s one of the major contributing factors in the obesity epidemic.

In any case, I remember watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” where he sat in a French bistro and pointed out half a dozen things that would be completely illegal in an American restaurant, but actually make a eating in that bistro amazing.

As far as homemade sashimi is concerned, I hear a lot of talk about freezing fish overnight in a freezer to kill parasites before eating it. I’ve tried this, and it makes the texture of the fish mushy. I am not sure about this, but it seems to me that the only fish that gets that treatment is tuna – I’ve seen huge frozen carcasses in the Tsukiji fish market. In any case, raw fish that I caught myself if probably the freshest that it can be. The only way this sashimi could be any fresher is if I cut and eat the still alive fish right on the boat.

Japanese Convinience

In one of the stories of the late genius science fiction writer Robert Sheckley, the main character needs crazy and exotic items to cast a spell. Bat wings, eyes of newt, etc, etc. Seemingly hard to find items, yet the character did not have any problems finding them. Why? Because he lived in Manhattan. You can find the most obscure, impossible to locate items in New York. Dried parasitic fungus that feeds on caterpillars? I had no trouble finding it.

A couple of days ago I made a happy discovery. It looks like Manhattan has it’s own chain of authentic Japanese “konbini” – convenience stores. When I visited Japan, I really liked konbinis. They have 7-Eleven, just like we do, but also Ministop, Lawson, Sunkus and FamilyMart.

So, what’s different in a Japanese konbini? The variety and quality of junk food that they sell is a lot better. They are stocked with a humongous variety of snacks. Dozens of types of dried squid and fish for beer, Japanese sweets, nuts, edamame, sashimi quality fish, japanese pickles like umeboshi. The variety of soft drinks and genki drinks. They also have Japanese shampoos and skincare products. In short, they are stuffed with Japanese goodness of overpowering variety.

I’ve been to SAM BOK store at 127 West 43rd Street before. It was nice but not the same as the real Japanese kombini. Also there’s a big Chinese supermarket in my are which has a lot of Japanese stuff. Not the same either. But then I found JAS MART. It even has 3 locations!

35 St. Marks Place, (Bet 2nd & 3rd Ave), NYC
212-420-6370
Sun – Thur: 11:00 AM – 11:00 PM
Fri & Sat: 11:00 AM – 12:00 AM

34 East 23rd Street, (Bet Park & Madison Ave), NYC
212-387-8882
Mon – Fri: 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM
Sat & Sun: 10:00 AM – 9:00 PM

2847 Broadway, (Bet 110th & 111th St), NYC
212-866-4780
Mon – Sun: 10:00 AM – 10:00 PM

They even have genki drinks and Coffee Boss coffe! I’ve been to the one on 23rd street and promptly loaded myself up with goodies. Unagi eel, unagi sauce, roasted rice tea, sencha tea, several types of dried ika and fish, umeboshi, edamame. It’s a little expensive, but hey – beats buying tickets to Japan.

Coffee Boss is a brand of Japanese canned coffee drinks with a J. R. “Bob” Dobbs-look alike mascot. They are sold in Japanese style soda machines which look rather different from the US Coke/Pepsi machines. They can serve the cans hot or cold. I wonder why somebody doesn’t bring some of these to Manhattan – it looks like the design of soda machines hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years!

Pocari Sweat is a brand of Japanese sports drink, and despite the name rather tasty I might add. Notice the recycling can next to the machine – apparently the Japanese etiquette requires you to finish drinking your soft drinks next to the machine and not walking around with them. Almost every machine sold unsweetened green tea, in many cases Coke or Pepsi-branded.

Deadprogrammer Does Japan: Morning Set

Let’s face it, my week and a half trip to Japan was a major highlight of my miserable cubicle existence, and a major picture taking opportunity. In fact, it wore out my old camera. Still, I wrote up maybe a tenth of what I wanted to write about. Part III of the extensive posts still sits unfinished somewhere on my laptop. Writing long articles kind of wore me out, so I’ll try my hand at small Scobel-esque little bunny poop postlets focusing on tiny aspects of my Japanese experience.

Any good Japanese guidebook will tell you that food is very expensive in Japan with one major exception: morning sets. Morning set (I think it’s pronounced “morningu setu” or something like that) is a cheap breakfast menu. The average price is about 500 – 600 yen, or about $5. Paying for breakfast with a single silvery coin is rather cool.

As we all know, Japan is all about dainty stuff. Morning sets are chock full of kawaii. Your coffee is served in a nice cup, you get a cute little salad, a small scoop of potato salad, a croissant, a cup of yogurt with floating bits of fruit. Notice the cutest little stirrer-spoon.

Although Japanese-style morning set exist, Western ones are more popular. Me and my wife had this particular breakfast in a little French-themed cafe right near our hotel. There was Mozart piped in from the speakers, but friendly service was most un-French.

Here’s an American-style morning set. A tiny cute little omelet, a tiny cute little piece of bacon and the most manly toast. Morning set toast is super thick, reaching a few inches in cross section.

The interesting part is that Western-style morning sets are way more exotic and Japanese in nature than the traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, miso soup and fried fish. Beware of Western-style restaurants in Japan – they often suck, but definitely do not eat breakfast in hotel restaurants, but go for morning sets outside.

I added my photos with a Flickr tag “morningset“. Maybe the collection will grow.


Ad:
I thought about including a nice Japanese guidebook in this ad, but that’s boring. Katamari Damacy aka Katamari Damashii on the other hand is the most amazing weird Japanese video game. You control a tiny little alien who is rolling a ball called “katamari” around various settings. Objects stick to katamari, making it bigger and bigger, allowing you to pick up larger and larger objects. You’d be surprized at how addictive this is.

Wikipedia explains the meaning of the name: “Katamari means “clump”, Damashii is the rendaku form of tamashii (soul or spirit). Therefore, the whole phrase approximates to “clump spirit,” or, somewhat more loosely, “clump of soul.” It might also be considered a pun — dama means ball while shii can be translated as circumference, and the two kanji that form the name look nearly alike in a kind of visual alliteration.”

The objects that stick to katamari range from pencils and erasers, to takoyaki to giant squids and fishing boats. When I had my first ever takoyaki in Japan, all I could think about was this game.

Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto

I am thinking about going to Japan for my next vacation. Time to tally my knowledge of Japanese. Let’s see…

Nippon – Japan
Sushi – Raw fish with rice
Sashimi – Raw fish
Sake – Alcoholic drink. Some call it Japanese vodka or rice wine, but what do they know. It’s technically a rice beer.
Yakitori – Kebab
Tempura – Stuff fried in batter
Nori – Seaweed for sushi
Wasabi – Pickled radish
Agari – Green tea (in sushi restaurants)
Miso – Soy paste soup
Mochi – Ice-cream (or other stuff) in a dough shell
Arigato – Thank you
So Des – So it is
Godzilla – Big radioactive lizard
Sumo – Along with competitive eation, one of the few sports involving a lot of fat people
Yokozuna – A champion wrestler. Tend to be overweight
Sarariman – Office worker, formerely a Samurai. Probably.
Samurai – A Shogun’s report
Shogun – Samurai’s supervisor
Bushido – Samurai’s Rules and Regulations Manual
Geisha – A woman who entertains Yokozunas, Samurais and Shoguns. As well as Sararimen with a good sarary.
Sensei – Teacher
Kohai – What Wall Street types call a Rabbi. One who helps out somebody less experienced.
Sempai – Someone who has a Kohai.
Karate – Pronounced Kara-tey.
Something-do – Way of something.
Kendo – Way of the sword. Somehow really means fencing dressed skirts with bamboo sticks.
Robot-san – Mechanical human being. Some take Samurai or Geisha form.
Kinokuniya – Japanese bookstore chain
Ringo – Apple
Ringu – Ring
Waifu – Wife
Chambara – Japanese movies about Samurai
Manga – What Americans call Anime
Jedi – Another word for Chambara; also a person with high midiclorian count
Terevision – A device for watching Chambara
Harakiri – A suicide method very popular in Chambara
Kamikaze – A suicide method not very popular in Chambara. Also a drink
Kohee – 8 dollar coffee
Yakuza – Legitimate businessmen with a lot of tattoos and missing pinkies.
Meiwaku – Trouble, disturbance.
Kawai – Cute
Pokemon – A very kawai little critter
Makdonurado – A fast food place where sometimes you get a toy Pokemon with you meal and your food tastes like it’s made out of Pokemons.
Katana – A type of Samurai’s cutting sword. Also name of Larry Ellison’s giant boat.
Katakana – One of sets of Japanese characters. Either the one used for foreign words, or the other one.
Hiragana – Same as Katakana.
Hai – Yes
Beero – Beer.
Ebisu – God of something good, maybe beer. Also a type of beer.
Kappa – Demon of some kind, I think lives in water. Also a character in Mario Bros. games.
Tanuki – A smart shape shifting demon with huge balls.
Futon – Bed
Tatami – Rug

Uh… Yeah, I think I am done.

Japanese Grocery

I’ve found a really nice Japanese grocery on 43d street between 6th and Broadway. It’s a bit on the expensive side, but the selection is really good. They have raw fish for sashimi, a dozen different types of umeboshi, huge selection of teas, condiments and many other things any japanophile can appreciate. They even have Japanese cigarettes. I’ve purchased the tastiest green tea ever, Kikkoman “extra fancy” soy souse ($3 for a tiny little bottle), some umeboshi, bonito flakes, bonito soup base and a few other things.

Sam Bok Groceries
127 West 43 Street
New York, NY 10036
212 221-0845
10am – 9pm Mon-Sun