Monday, March 30, 2009

Last Night in Tokyo

Wandering through Ginza on our last night was like being in Barcelona: a drink and a skewer here, a beer and a chicken ball there. First we went to a place that had exactly enough seats for all of us, and had some skewers of pork stomach, pork belly, and pork intestine, and really tender braised tripe, the leanest meat I’ve had so far on the trip, which says a lot about the richness of Japanese meats. I’ve really garnered an appreciation for meat fat here that I didn’t have before. I hope I impressed my chefs!Then off to a second place with a very strict mama-san (we didn’t have Jiro around to warm up the Mama-sans any more and we all missed him sorely) who spoke great English and served some tender chicken tail (a part of the chicken I never even knew existed), and some little peppers that were like Friuliano peppers that we’ve been seeing the whole trip. The place was literally built into the bridge that the city train ran over, so every time a train passed overhead (about every 2-3 minutes), it sounded like there was a taiko drum festival in our honor.
After that was sushi: the first time we’ve eaten sushi since arriving in Japan (I’m not counting the sushi we ate in the kitchen at “Grand Chef Suzuki’s” tasting a waiter, and I think as a chef, food eaten standing up doesn’t count. Which is probably why we all pack a few more pounds than we might need to.). I think Sho-san really wanted to impress upon us the fact that JAPANESE CUISINE DOES NOT EQUAL SUSHI, and we got it. We really did. This trip has completely changed the way I look at food, though it’s too close to the trip to really say how just yet.
The best sushi (I thought) was the uni, which tasted like fresh, refined sea water, but super creamy. We also had a crazy red clam that was moving, and a white fish that was blowtorched and squeezed with lemon (TACHIUO, ‘scabbard fish’), not to be eaten with soy sauce. Also great and really fresh was a sardine.

One thing that's really interesting about this part of Ginza is the little streets and places full of character that when viewed from the outside lend this crazy party atmosphere to the streets. They’re all festively decorated and there are lots of people going in and out, and the energy of people eating and drinking and having a good time surrounds them all. Then, when you (literally) duck in, it’s a different world, and much more approachable. Real people, doing their after-work thing, and you could never even begin to try the food at all of them, though we did our best. We ate at least four meals a day, every day in Japan and most days we had a full dinner at one place and then went to another for a second dinner.

It’s been really great listening to all of these chefs put their heads together and talk about different projects they could potentially do after being so inspired by this trip. Getting to see and eat all of the things we did, things that no ordinary tourist would ever even dream of doing, was an experience impossible replicate. As a travel writer, and someone who travels a lot even when NOT writing about it, it’s very rare that I get to just sit back and not make any decisions, and to have had a trip of this caliber without having planned any of it myself...I was REALLY impressed. And it was many of our first time to Japan.

The kinds of conversations the chefs were having about food almost seemed to make the world smaller. Think about it: cross-culturally, the heart and soul of food is the same everywhere. Things are skewered, they’re stewed, they’re stuffed. One thing we’ve all really liked about the back-room, family-style food we’ve been eating in Tokyo has been that that food has not taken the foreground. We’ve all been eating constantly, obvio!, but the kind of food we’ve been eating: simple, soulful, smoky (the “smoky” restaurants Sho-san referred to in an email early on was not regarding cigarettes, but rather the wood smoke filled with meat smells and pork fat that permeates everything), has not evoked the restaurant critic in any of us. Rather, it’s provided a great background for conversation and the ambiance of the evening and great fuel for creative thoughts that obviously revolve around food.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ichinokura Sake Brewery

Growing up in Northern California, one has a pretty good grasp of how wine is made. I was glad to have this background when visiting the Ichinokura Sake Brewery on our third day in Sendai City, because I would have felt a little lost in this huge plant. For many Americans, an introduction to sake came while dining at a sushi restaurant. A ceramic pitcher of hot, high-alcohol sake arrived, it washed down the sashimi and the nigiri in little cups, and we thought that all sake was the same. That’s a little like drinking a glass of white zinfandel straight from a box and thinking that all wines are pink and sweet.Sake (which is technically a beer, because it’s brewed and is derived from a grain), is often compared to wine because of its alcohol content (higher than a beer at around 16-20%) and because it works so well paired with food.
Sake’s flavor elements come from simple ingredients and a complicated process. The biggest factors that influence the finished product are water, rice, and yeast; other factors that have a hand in the sake’s flavor are weather and geography.
Sake is produced by fermenting rice. First, the rice is polished to remove the exterior of the rice grain (where protein and oil live), and the “pure core” of the rice is fermented. The more rice is polished away, the more high-quality the finished sake will be.
The rice is then soaked and washed, then cooked and fermented by adding koji and yeast (which change the starch into sugar, and then the sugar into alcohol) for several weeks. Koji is a mold that converts the rice’s starch into a simple sugar, which feeds one of many varieties of sake yeast to begin fermentation. The fermentation is often slowed by lowering the temperature; either by refrigeration or in snowy winter climates.After the rice ferments, it is pressed, and the liquids separate from the solids. Some sake has distilled alcohol added: this sake is called honjozo-shu, and is the cheap warm sake that many Westerners remember as their introduction to sake. After filtration, the remaining lees are removed (except in the case of nigori, where it is left in the sake to add a sweet taste and a creamy texture), and the sake is filtered and pasteurized (in most cases). Then, the sake rests and is diluted with water to lower the alcohol content and is bottled and drunk.

There are several different classifications of sake, with the most important being:

Junmai-shu. This is "pure rice sake," made from only rice, water and kōji, with no other additions.

Ginjo-shu is made from rice polished to 60% or less of its original weight. Sake made from rice polished to 50% or lower is called daiginjo-shu.
The term junmai (“pure rice sake”) can be added to ginjo or daiginjo, resulting in junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo.
Sake can be served chilled, at room temperature, or heated, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake, and the season. Hot sake is usually drunk in the winter, and high-grade sake like junmai daiginjo and junmai ginjo are not drunk this, because their delicate flavors and aromas will be lost through heating. Sake is often heated to hide the flavor of low-quality sake.
Aside from being served straight, sake can be used as a mixer for cocktails, like a “saketini” or a “sake bomb.”

Sake is best consumed within 2 or 3 hours after opening the bottle. It can be stored (in the refrigerator), although it is generally recommended to finish the sake within 2 days.
Needless to say, we drank a LOT of sake in Japan. 

Current Obsession: MUJI

Japanese minimalism and perfect design meets sustainability
I’m currently obsessed with the minimalist eco-designs from MUJI, which translates from the Japanese into “No Brand.” I first discovered it in Sendai City on a food tour with a bunch of chefs. We’d been out to a super-homey yakitori (skewered meats roasted over an open charcoal grill) restaurant the night before, and our host had pointed out the groovy aprons that the yakitori chefs were wearing (in addition to dish towels wrapped around their heads, a standard here in Japan).Sho-san (our Japanese host, who lives and works in San Francisco) told us he’d take us to a place where we could get the same aprons for cheap, and the next day we went to MUJI, on the ground floor of a shopping mall (where it seems everything cool in Japan is located). MUJI is like a Japanese Ikea but with clothing: everything you could possibly need for home, body, and travel, but designed well, and it’s all made out of organic cotton and other sustainable fibers like bamboo.
At the end of the food tour, after our flight home from Tokyo to San Francisco was unexpectedly cancelled, we realized that we’d all brought just enough clothes to last us for an eight-day trip, not the nine-day trip we were suddenly faced with. Most of us had been wearing the same clothes juuuust enough to keep the funk at bay. The chefs didn't really care; a couple of them had bought a new pair of socks  or a new t-shirt (stinky boys!) but I couldn’t face the thought of wearing the same clothes for the (x) day in a row.

As the chefs were tucking into yet another fried meal in a mall (this time in Tokyo), I noticed another MUJI. We'd blown through the first store in a whirlwind, picking out aprons and chopsticks with a determined speed, and while I had bought my aprons with the intent of wearing them as modified dresses when getting back to San Francisco (they’re cute and well-designed, two hallmarks of Japanese culture that I’ve discovered, and fell in love with this week), I hadn’t really taken a look at all that MUJI had to offer.

I could have stayed in there for much longer than the hour it took for the chefs to come wondering where the hell it was I’d got to. The clean lines and lack of any distinguishing labels brought to mind the understaded chic of Yoji Yamamoto, and the amount of things available was mind-bogglingly typical of the quality of goods that the Japanese consume on a regular basis. What drew me in first was a series of well-cut striped shirts, and a linen shirtdress with a pintucked tuxedo front fit just right.
MUJI's prices are low: for $160 USD, I left there with the shirtdress and tights, a pair of grey leggings and a pair of striped socks, a striped longsleeve T, a pair of flat black booties with round toes and only four shoelace-holes that I don’t think we’d see the likes of outside of Japan, and those were only the clothes. 

MUJI also equipped me with a selection of travel accessories that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else and have been looking for in all one place for years. Sure, there’s the Eagle Creek packers and the Rick Steves luggage dividers and the racks of German-made ergo-design stuff that you’ll find in the outdoors-equipment stores, but MUJI’s toiletries bags and packing inserts are made of the finest, lightest-weight nylon that squeezes down into wispy little balls of nothing yet can zip tightly around six pounds of dirty laundry (I know, I squeezed all mine in the second I got my brown-paper recycled MUJI bags back to the hotel’s concierge, where all of my luggage had been in stasis since we returned from our futile journey to the airport the day before).

Maybe I’m just an organizational freak, but a frequent traveler often has their rituals and their weird little tics that they can’t live without: mine are an oversized pashmina scarf, a series of earphones, eye-masks, and writing materials and several little bottles of in-air moisturizing liquids that keep me from suffering and prevent jet-lag once I’m on the ground. All of these are now neatly arranged into easily accessible little corners of my purse in black-and-white checked bags that weigh under an ounce each and are designs worthy of the Comme des Garçons label.

There’s a few MUJI stores in New York City, but the across-the-pond prices have inflated and there was just something about buying it all in Japan that really satisfied that “I got something that’s completely utiliarian and that I can’t find anywhere else in the world” itch.
Wait, am I the only one who has that itch?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Nice Lunch

Today we had one of the best meals we’ve had the whole time in Sendai City. After the food tasting we had yesterday (several different cuts of several different preparations of ueber-rich Sendai Beef and several different types of Nigiri sushi, and a camera crew) by the time I sat down at the table for the tasting menu the hotel’s executive chef had prepared for us, I wasn’t hungry in the slightest. That meal was an assault on our stomachs; large portions of in-season produce, fishes, and beef that just kept coming and coming--ten courses later I felt like I was going to die from too many calories; and I’d only had one or two bites of every different dish that was presented to me. There were only two chefs that ate every bite: Damon, and Ravi, and Shotaro did his best but by his last dumpling he was sweating and couldn’t eat dessert. But the presentation was lovely and I really enjoyed opening little bowls to see what was inside, especially the the main course, several pieces of thin-sliced Sendai beef that had been wrapped around different vegetables and steamed inside a bamboo tree trunk with river rocks that kept the beef elevated above the bottom of the slice of trunk so that the fat could drip down.So when I got on the bus today for our excursion to the sake brewery and then to the oyster farm, I hadn’t eaten anything and I was still feeling uncomfortably full from the day before (we had attended a ‘processed seafood tasting’ where we had to give feedback on several different kinds of frozen, smoked, dried seafoods; then we’d gone to a panko place and eaten fried things for hours; Bruce and Damon and I stopped after 9 or 10 skewers but the others went on and ate 17 skewers) and I was nervous about the meal. Yesterday was kind of an overwhelming day, food-wise, with a traditional Japanese breakfast in the morning, then that killer lunch that went on for hours and then all the fried stuff. I was not feeling well.The lunch we had was the perfect size and all the flavors were great. I was honestly scared of eating! but the sashimi was so fresh and the flavors were so perfect that I ate almost everything presented to us. There was a sashimi course, some pickles, miso soup (with seaweed from the lake that we were sitting on), local Miyagi rice which was amazing, for a bowl of plain white rice it had so much character and was really tender. The main course was miso-glazed mackerel that had been cooked for a long time and had a butter burr, sancho and miso paste on top and a little bite of cherry custard to the side.I loved the custard dish Cha Wan Mu Shi, which was egg and dashi steamed inside a teacup; with a little hidden piece of something (yesterday it was a shrimp and a piece of chicken, that custard was broken and the serving was too large) inside of that. Then we had slices of a delicious little thing, a couple pieces of fish wrapped in a shiso leaf and then wrapped in a skin of rice flour and egg yolk and deep fried.Dessert was a tiny scoop of cherry-leaf ice cream that had been flavored with strawberries as well. Sendai strawberries are some of the nicest I’ve ever had.

Maguro Bidding Market

This morning we were on a tuna battlefield! The bidding market was amazing. I rolled out of bed late, after having slept less than two hours and having drunk all of the beer in my mini fridge and stumbled down into the lobby with my sunglasses on at 5:45am. We got into our bus with doilies (all of the vehicles here have doilies on some parts of them, our bus has doilies where people’s heads rest) where the mayor was waiting for us. We arrived to the market and changed into our white rubber boots and flourescent pink trucker hats that had “Sendai” printed on them and walked along a catwalk above the bidding. I wish I had better words to describe how the auctioneer and the bidders sounded: an auction sounds funny in one’s native language as there’s a very specific intonation used by the people Japanese it sounds even funnier because the noises are so different. And I think Japanese sounds very ‘cute’ anyway, I like the short sounds and the way that vowels are drawn out, and the “HAI!” of agreement. It seems like people say things with as few words as possible, which seems very efficient to me. Down on the bidding floor, I was very happy to have been issued the flourescent pink hats (though sadly I was not allowed to keep mine, it would have been an awesome souvenir) as there were hundreds of people milling about, all with white boots, all looking at the fish as intently as we were. I enjoyed especially identifying some of the fish we had eaten the night before, and looking at the cuddly-looking Fugu swimming in shallow pans.This is a wholesale market, so it was interesting to see where the fish that consumers see in the fish market or the farmers’ market comes from. There were big prawns with their heads on and eggs in many colors stuck to their legs (some had green eggs, some had yellow eggs), and the huge tuna all lined up on the floor, that would be hooked through the mouth and wheeled away when they were bid on.Each tuna had a number painted on it, and potential buyers got there very early before the auction even started at 6am (they arrived at 4:30 am) to check with their own eyes the fish before bidding on them. The fish were absolutely gorgeous, all had their tails cut off, I think so potential buyers can see grade of the meatIKIJIMI is the method used of killing the fish, in which the gills are cut after the brain is spiked and then they cut the tail off to grade the meat. This method of killing stops all movement in the fish, so the meat does not get bruised by flopping around. Also tuna is the only warm-blooded deep sea fish so getting the blood out quickly keeps the meat from producing enzymes after death that would turn it brown.
After the tuna are sold, they are brought to the maguro cutters who are employed by the wholesalers (their representatives are the ones doing the bidding, the brokers) and the tuna is sliced into loins. We visited a cutting table that had one man who had been cutting for 30 years, his boss had been cutting for over 40 years. Watching him cut with the two different kinds of knives was interesting; he de-boned an almost 200-lb bluefin tuna (the biggest at the auction was about 220lbs) with an effortless grace that belied the fact that he was basically wrangling a barrell.
We had a really special treat: the maguro cutter sliced off pieces of tuna for us right there and somehow chopsticks and soy sauce and a plastic plate appeared, and us carnivores dug right in and felt as though we’d hunted something.

Sendai Beef

There are five thousand heads of cattle at the Hikadami Ranch. The beef is marked “Level A5” by the Japan Meat Grading Association (the highest grade possible) and is called “brand beef.” Sendai beef is considered to be the highest-quality beef in Japan. The cattle are grain fed for three years. Their primary food is corn and soybeans.There are 12 scales in marbling standard. The beef are a cross between Wagu and Japanese Black Angus, so all the cows are jet black. The meat is not graded until the beef is slaughtered, it’s like maguro: you have to look at the cuts of meat before it can be ranked.These are like the Ferrari of beef, very expensive but you’re purchasing a “hand made” steak. It costs a lot to raise these beef for three years. The cost of Sendai beef is five to ten times higher than normal beef; it costs about $50/lb.It’s a myth that the cows are massaged, but they are fed beer if they’re not feeling well to give them energy.In 1973, growth hormones were banned in Japan. If growth hormones are used, the beef grows too fast to have a lot of fat marbling. It smells good at the beef ranch. There’s cedar sawdust on the floor and the beef (all male, all with their horns) are very calm as they greet us. They are not agitated like American cows and they kick their poop out of the back of their pens. There are five beef per pen and they have plenty of room.When my (now) ex-boyfriend was visiting me in California for the first time, he and I drove from San Francisco up to Healdsburg for the weekend to meet my family. He’s Argentinean, and his family had a large estancia where he spent weekends and summers growing up. As we drove through southern Sonoma County, where the dairy cows are kept, I rolled up my window as normal to block out the rancid cow smell.Che nearly gagged at the smell coming through the closed air-vents. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “We’ll be through this area in just a few minutes. It doesn’t last very long.”
“What IS that?” he asked me. I told him it was cows, duh! hadn’t he ever smelled a cow before? and he rolled down his window to get a better sense of the smell.
“Ellita,” he said. “That is NOT what a cow smells like. Those cows smell poisoned.”
I realized that the beef we know in the US is, in fact, poisoned. I’d never thought of it that way before. The beef in Sendai is not like that.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Miso Pretty

This trip is such a whirlwind of information and eating that I'm surprised my brain hasn't short-circuited from all the ingredients I'm learning about and that my stomach hasn't short-circuited because of all the never-before-consumed foods I'm putting into it.

Yesterday we visited a miso-production factory and a Sendai beef farm. The miso is the same red miso that's produced for the label Eden Organics, and the moment our bus pulled into the parking lot an hour outside of Sendai city, the warm comforting smell of miso pulled us in.

We were given a presentation on miso's origins (made in this spot under a feudal lord for centuries, then 400 years ago was 'liberated' to the public) and on how it's made (soybeans are cooked and koji mold and salt are added, then the starter ferments for different lengths of time: white miso is the mildest and ferments only a few months, while at the other end of the spectrum black miso has an incredibly extracted taste after 2.5 years of fermentation).

Interestingly, Japan can't grow enough soybeans for its miso production, so imports soybeans from the USA and uses them to make miso (in combination with soybeans grown in Japan). We tasted two different kinds of miso soup: one was made with American soybeans and had been prepared for us with spinach and bacon (!!) and the second was a traditional miso soup with seaweed and tofu, made with milder Japanese soybeans.

Everyone scrubbed up (white suits and white hairnets) and trouped onto a catwalk to peer through the windows onto the floor below, where we unfortunately weren't allowed. 
The factory was almost reminiscent of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, complete with 24-hour-a-day automated machines to monitor the bean paste's fermentation and beeping machines belching out strange brown pastes.

One of the best things about traveling with a group of talented chefs (and there are many) is that every conversation turns into a think tank. Listening to them talk about different ways they'd use miso was fascinating--making a meat jus with miso and red wine or swapping out the anchovy in a puntarelle salad with miso were just a few things that probably wouldn't occur to us ordinary mortals.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Somehow I've gotten lucky enough to be selected as the media person that accompanies several well-known San Francisco chefs on a food tour of Miyagi prefecture, Japan.

I'm getting paid to travel to Japan for a week, eat a few bites of perfectly formed; perfectly presented Japanese food over several long meals, and write about it. I'm writing this blog post from my hotel room, where there's a nightie provided, in Sendai City. 

Sendai City is the capital of Miyagi prefecture. Sho-san, the executive chef of Yoshi's in San Francisco, recommended me as the media person to accompany this tour of Japan, a trip meant to introduce regional Japanese ingredients to people who matter; a.ka. San Francisco chefs, and I'm here to record the experience.

Here's who's on the trip:
Shotaro "Sho" Kamio, executive chef of Yoshi's in San Francisco and Oakland.

Ravi Kapur of Boulevard, a friendly acquaintance of mine since a few years back

Bruce Hill of Bix and Picco, and one of the calmest, kindest souls I've met in the food industry. He's been my go-
to for what to expect and how to act in Japan since I met him last week at a sake tasting.

Paul Canales of Oliveto; one crazy mo-fo who is always wearing a beret and always down for any kind of adventure. I've known Paul for three days and I already would trust him with my first-born.

Staffan Terje of Perbacco, a fellow northern European, with whom I can discuss rigid social customs and love of raw fish with; with no fear of judgement. He's also the only person on this trip who's taller than I am.

There are also some culinary school instructor-chefs, who I have not yet gotten to know as well as I should have as, I've been busy gossiping and eavesdropping on the SF chefs. Scott Saunder and Lars are representing Greystone in Napa (where I just spent an amazing week at the wine writers' symposium, and Damon is a chef-instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco.

Dinner at Sho's family’s restaurant last night was one of the most amazing I’ve ever eaten. It was all served family style, with were huge steaming hot-pots on the table (long enough to accommodate about 25 diners, we only filled up about half the spaces, the other half which were filled by a rotating cast of Sho’s friends and family that stopped by here and there).

The menu, copied from my Moleskine pocket notebook (Chef Hill asked me "How many of those do you use a month? Because it looks like you're BLOWING through that one"):

Sea pineapple, a “sea squirt” only found in Miyagi. It is kind of like a big, orange oyster that is extra slimy and tastes like cucumber. They grow whole on rocks, two meters down. There are two polyps on top and to cut it open, you stab a knife first in the polyp with the + sign, then the one with the - sign.

Mackerel sashimi. The best I’ve ever had. 

Pickled pig ears with kim chee.

Skewers of beef and beef tendon with hot mustard. They were boiling in a big square metal pan 

that was connected to a gas outlet. Delicious!

Pickled pig skin in strips with grated daikon. The daikon here is not spicy, it's fresh and grated.

The textures were what really wowed all of us. In the same dish, there was chewy, slimy, crunchy, and every flavor delicious.

There were whole cabbage leaves cooked in hot-pots. There were four different kinds of
 hot-pots that started out with raw ingredients and were cooked by the time our second courses arrived on the table...unfortunately I was only able to taste two as my stomach is not as big as I wish it was.

All the food is local, and the ingredients are surprisingly similar to what we find in San Francisco (Sendai City is actually on the same latitude).

The food kept coming and coming. Luckily I've been in the business long enough to only swallow what really appeals to me...unfortunately everything appealed to me last and I already have a stomacheache from eating too much.

Here comes a chicken wing.

The crowning glory of the evening was the two platters of horse sashimi that were brought out as our last course. Tenderloin, vein, ice-cold liver, and the neck fat from right underneath the mane were on the plate.

The pure flavors, the richness, the textures...the food here is almost overwhelming, but not quite. It's deeply satisyfing. I din't know if I could have been this open to strange foods if I wasn't already a 'food person.' I mean, pickled strips of pig ears and pig skin? tripe? weird chewy things that I have no idea what they are but am pretty sure they come from the inside of a pig? I've only been in Japan for three hours and I'm already obsessed.