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  • Michael Krakovskiy 3:27 am on October 3, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Bento, , , convenience store food, county fair food, , festival food, festival junk food, , , food pyramid, , , junk food overlows, , Miso, , Ramen, Sashimi, , Squid, , Tempura, , , Yƍshoku   

    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).

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 8:58 am on June 27, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Fish market, gas-burning engine, , Sashimi, , , , Tsukiji, , ,   

    Deadprogrammer Visits Japan Part IVa : Day of the Tentacle 

    Tokyo has an awesome tourist attraction for those suffering from jet lag – Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market aka Tsukiji fish market. New York’s Fulton Fish Market used to be a similar tourist attraction, but now it moved to South Bronx, and I am not even sure if it’s still open to the public.

    Basically Tsukiji is a labyrinth of hangar-sized buildings and outside stalls surrounded by a sea of traffic.

    You are surrounded by running people, zipping bikes, scooters, trucks, forklifts and funny little vehicles propelled by a gas-burning engine of some sort.

    Some prefere a more old-fashioned method of transport.

    The heart of the market is the famous tuna auction, where buyers bid on giant frozen tuna carcasses. We arrived after it was already over. Sadly, the auctions were closed to the public in 2005, so it seems I missed my chance to see it.

    I did get to see the aftermath of the auction – floor littered with 300-500 pound frozen fish that fetch about $20/lb (wholesale). I guess there’s a few hundred thousand dollars worth of sashimi in this picture here.

    The fish get picked up by dealers

    and taken to be cut up. They are frozen solid, so they can use woodworking saws to cut them up into blocks.

    Once thawed, tuna looks much more appetizing.

    In fact, big chunks look like giant rubies.

    Even the smaller pieces get special treatment.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 5:07 pm on May 17, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Fish products, , , food police, Food safety, , John Titor, poisoned food, processed food, Sashimi, , Street vendor food, ,   

    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.

     
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