July 2011


Food and Food: Asia and Travels23 Jul 2011 05:16 pm

Going to visit my mom in Bangkok this May was a game changer for me. Not everyday has been a party this first year in Okinawa, and I was in a pretty low place when I went on a last minute, parent-funded trip to Bangkok over “Golden Week” here in Japan. Mike was very kind and held the fort down alone as rainy season started.

Bangkok is kind of my home base in the east, and comforting in its chaos. I had no particular plans – do some shopping, hang out with my mom, work out, take some photos, sit in the sun … and eat, of course.

My parents have chosen a place near to one of the most famous food streets in Bangkok as their home the past two years – Soi Convent. It is not a long stroll to go up and down as it is just one long city block, and takes about 10 minutes to walk. But you can get a little bit of everything on or around this street at all hours of the day – in actual restaurants or carts that appear.

You can get breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. From Starbucks coffee, Mexican, Japanese and Irish food to baked goods, fruits, noodles, spicy som tam salad … it was so inspiring I wanted to do a post just dedicated to the sights along it.

Carts sleeping during the day

Taxis and tuk tuks whir up and down 24 hours a day, security guards for the hospitals and schools laze in the shade. Street sweepers work up and down with their oddly useless but effective wood brooms. Clientele ranging from ancient grannies to young school kids and nuns, expats living in near by skyscrapers and neatly dressed Thai office workers mix with the late night party crowd.

It is god damned magical.

Durian cart

Mangosteens were also in season

Hand squeezed nam som, or orange juice.

I made a point to walk up and down it at all hours and reveled in the different vendors and people. Early morning, with the blenders somehow plugged in somewhere to make fruit shakes, fried banana stands, coffee and Thai iced tea vendors.

 

Afternoon brings noodle carts, and fruit selllers with their icey sweet pineapple, crunchy green mango with spicy salt sugar mix and deep orange papaya.

 

As the blazing sun falls out of the sky, seafood platter makers appear, as do ka-nom producers with their hot pans for making sweet coconut and banana desserts or roti.

People drink, talk and eat sitting on plastic stools as tourists and Bangkok residents walk through the kitchen of the “restaurant” they eat at. I am certain if you sat here for long enough, you might see everything. Just like this guy, who I saw every day and is a fixture on Convent, with his big beer belly and, well, beer in a wine glass. Breakfast of champions.

My personal favourite stand is the southern Thai fried chicken lady that I have been visiting for over a decade. It has expanded from one lady who used to marvel I knew how to say simple phrases in Thai, to a fully staffed family operation with an English sign. Here they are, just setting up at about 4 in the afternoon.

In motion while arriving…

…in operation…

…in digestion.

Incredible.

I implore you to visit Convent when you are in Bangkok.

Nearest BTS station: Sala Daeng.

japan23 Jul 2011 11:03 am

Although it was not always the case, this blog has effectively become food centric. As such, I often feel odd writing non food posts – even though it is my own blog! They just do not feel right for the tone of the blog sometimes.

However,  I recently had an experience that I thought would be good to post up on here. It is mostly photos – but I can answer questions in the comments if you have any.

A short intro: the sprawling Nakagusuku Kogen hotel was built in the mid 1970s next to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a few explanations for what happened to it, spanning the gamut of absurd (built too close to ancient burial ground) to realistic (ran out of money, government was angry it was so close to a historical site and shut it down) but the place fell into ruin.

Apparently there are periodic discussions about tearing it down but it simply remains, the jungle slowly encroaching on the concrete structure, with visitors and typhoon season after typhoon season slowly destroying it a little more each year.

We approached via the jungle, which in retrospect was a bad idea. It was chock full o’ palm sized spiders and mosquitos.



My favourite photo is this stitched panorama of the “art gallery” at the hotel. It is a room with 5 panels making up a mural that is about 8 feet tall and 60 feet across – maybe more. Click to embiggen it.

If you are interested in learning more about haikyos (abandoned ruins) and exploring them, in particular this hotel, visit this site or the Japanese Wikipedia article on it.

Food: Asia and Food: Home Cookin' and japan and simple japanese pleasures16 Jul 2011 01:16 pm

 

The words “wagyu” and “Kobe” incite many reactions in people. For some, it is the epitome of fine food. Expensive protein that is hand massaged, fed beer and lives a life of luxury so that it has the highest fat marble content around, all to make it better to melt in your mouth. For yet others, it is a waste of time and money – moment on the lips, forever on the credit card slips?

Diners are cautious because the high prices of this cattle have spawned many imitators and expensive but not legit knock-offs. Luckily, this does not happen as much in Japan. The Japanese dining crowd is extremely discerning and demanding, and there are a series of pieces of evidence that can be used to show a piece of wagyu’s legitimacy, including chips and barcodes.

Wagyu is a name applied to a wide range of about 130+ breeds of cattle, most of them named after the area they come from, such as Kobe wagyu. Wagyu just translates to “beef from Japan” but it is a title that is only bestowed upon cows that are 100% born from wagyu cattle and raised in Japan. That is why some beef in the States is “wagyu style” or “Kobe style” – it may be from a Japanese breed and raised in the same style, but it was raised outside of Japan. Very little of this beef is actual proper wagyu shipped from Japan. There are a number of other breeds that are not as well marketed in the west that some people say are better than Kobe. One of them comes from a little island not far from where we live, very close to Taiwan. It is called Ishigaki, and it looks idyllic.


{source}

Here, the cattle eat very mineral rich grass (Ishigaki is very famous for salt, as well) and live lives of beachy luxury until their number comes up and they are served to mainland Japanese tourists eager to try some fine beef. I cannot state enough how huge food tourism is in Japan. Every area has a famous sweet, famous noodle style, even a very specific food item. So it is big business…a cash cow, if you will.

Mike had been craving a big old steak for a week or two now. We recently bought a grill to do chicken sticks and veggies on but he was eager to give beef a try. Normally I would think it ridiculous to home grill a piece of meat of wagyu caliber at home, but here it is actually feasible because the prices are okay instead of insane. However, the biggest problem was finding it. Most super markets sell very fine beef in very thin slices suitable for beef bowls, sukiyaki or at home yakiniku grilling, but very little is available in big American sized chunks. And if you do find it, it is most likely going to be Australian.

So I took to Google to find a butcher willing to help us out, and found a video posted on YouTube of a local butcher in a very touristy market in downtown Naha, Okinawa.

This gave me pause, since we had eaten at this market and it was, unfortunately, a real tourist trap. But, the meat looked like what we wanted and I had no other leads, so we gave it a try.

Maruichi turned out to be intimidating. They had huge chunks of meat that looked like they might be able to be cut to order, but we still lack the language skills to ask for that. Dejected, we wandered to the nearby Makishi Market to see what they had. Makishi is kind of a place people go to take photos at. They eat upstairs at the terrible restaurants, take a photo with a pickled pigs head and go back to their hotel.

Things seemed over priced and it just was not the same as other Asian markets I have been to. When we arrived most of the fish stalls were cleaning up for the day, but in the corner we found a meat stall. There, pre wrapped hunks of well marbled meat labeled with prices and Ishigaki tags. Cha-CHING!

I am not sure if the meat was frozen or not, and we did not ask on this trip. Chances of it being frozen are about 50/50…Japanese transport companies are amazing, and able to ship both frozen and chilled items to arrive the same day, so it could also have just been chilled since Ishigaki is a short plane ride away from mainland Okinawa. It came from a supplier called Yaeyama / 八重山 and they seem to be a big supplier of beef from Ishigaki.

We picked out some steaks and the guy shot the shit with us the best we could in our Japanese. He said he was surprised we were taking the steak home – most people eat it upstairs (at the restaurants who cook items from the market) he said.

We paid about $30 for 200g, and took our carefully cold packed meat home with us after stopping at a grocery store for some vegetables. On the label you can see the code used to identify the company and perhaps even the very cow the cut came from. They take this stuff seriously.

Mike did all the prep and grilling, which I appreciate. Perhaps he will chime in on his technique in the comments.

He coated the steak in salt using a new method he read about online. Luckily the butcher had given us some omiyage, or a gift, of Ishigaki salt. It was very fine and powdery.

Ishigaki salt

After the grilling came the hard part – the resting. Finally, I sliced into the steak with a butter knife and sat and savoured in silence. I could barely speak. It was tender, buttery, meaty… wonderful. I found the fat rind around the edge a bit overwhelming, but I did eat most of it in a gluttonous way.

The veins of fat throughout the meat had dissolved into the protein, and it was light and buttery, not heavy and greasy. I have found Kobe to be overwhelmingly fatty sometimes, but not so with Ishigaki. Maybe it is Okinawa pride speaking, but I do think it is the superior meat. I have had it at restaurants and at home now, and it is wonderful.

Looks kind of grainy and maybe even tough in this shot, huh? It wasn’t. The fat rind is closest to the camera in this photo.

Sauteed some mushrooms and grilled some zucchini, okra and eggplant on the grill after.

Here is a video cut I made of us slicing through the meat. Meat porn!

We grilled some of the remaining fat up on the grill afterwards to char it a bit more. Fat popsicle, anyone?

 

 

Food: Asia and japan and simple japanese pleasures15 Jul 2011 12:48 pm

Japan, especially Okinawa, has a strong drinking culture. There are countless pubs, bars and restaurants in any neighbourhood to cater to work groups, friends and family looking to gather together and be social while drinking and eating. But, sometimes drinking out can be expensive. Hell, even beer at the grocery stores in Japan is quite pricey because of the taxes imposed on the higher malt content of the beverage. So what to do when you just want to have a drink after work, but not think too hard about it, or spend too much money?

My friend, the chu hai/chu hi is waiting for you at your corner store.

Chu hais are a kind of cocktail that get their name from combining shochu and high ball. Shochu is a kind of Japanese distilled alcohol. It is not quite as strong as vodka and has a bit more flavour, but is similar in many ways. You can drink these cocktails in many flavours at izakayas, but much easier and faster is the canned version.

Keeping to the high ball formula, chu hais come in many flavours and are mostly carbonated and fruity. Their alcohol content ranges from 3 to 9 percent (STRONG varieties feature higher booze numbers) and can be night destroying if you drink too many of them, especially from supercans. There are sugar free versions, those combined with favourite sodas, seasonal kinds… the flavour possibilities are endless.

In the photo, a variety of chu hais including two only in Okinawa summer limited edition flavours, pineapple shikwasa (a kind of citrus found on Okinawa) and acerola pineapple (acerola is a tart berry.) Back in the white can is a white soda chuhai, one of my favourites. It is a kind of tangy milky yogurty flavour. All very refreshing on a hot day.

Click here for more simple Japanese pleasures.

Food: Asia and japan and simple japanese pleasures12 Jul 2011 03:08 pm


Ice Zenzai from Fujiya

 

I should really rename this entry “simple okinawan pleasures” because iced zenzai is a very Okinawan thing. People often note the similarities between Hawaii and Okinawa – both are part of a bigger country, but maintain a very different culture, identity and lifestyle than their mainland. They also have very special food items, their own language and lots of beaches. The list goes on, actually.

Perhaps because of these similarities, Hawaii and Okinawa have shared a lot over the years. I have heard that many of the somewhat rare Japanese expats are from Okinawa and live in Hawaii. So there has been a lot of cross over between food and culture over the years. One of those things is shave ice, which may be thought of as being Hawaiian, but is actually rooted in Japan.

Zenzai is a sort of strange dessert common in Asia. It is a bit savoury, sweet and full of strange texture. It is also very filling due to it’s fiber content. Zenzai is basically red azuki beans served in a sweet syrup, usually eaten hot and sometimes with mochi, or pounded rice balls. Okinawa has combined shave ice with this classic Japanese winter dish called zenzai and made a power house of a dish, I think.

It is nice hot, but I LOVE it over shave ice as a summer treat. It is refreshing and savoury and sweet and cold and chewy and crunchy and filling and… well, it is a simple (but complex) pleasure one can only find on Okinawa.

Fujiya is a very famous iced zenzai producer, and they ship all over Okinawa and Japan. It comes in little cups that look like Cup Noodles, not quite as pretty as the above picture.

Here is a cute Fujiya refrigerated zenzai delivery truck I saw on Sunday.

Click for more from the Simple Japanese Pleasures series

Food and Food: Asia and Food: Home Cookin' and japan10 Jul 2011 02:36 pm

 

We tend to eat sushi out once a week at our favourite easy kaiten (belt) sushi chain restaurant, and it is excellent for the old favourites and some maki choices, but sometimes you like to eat your own creations full of your favourite ingredients. Also, maki sushi is quite different from the nigiri sushi that is often at these restaurants, as it combines many ingredients.

One of the best things about the local supermarket is the fish section. It is stocked with various cuts and preparations of the many kinds of fish, from classic favourites to seasonal varieties. There are packages of pre cut slices for sashimi or nigiri sushi, long pieces for grilling… you can really go to town.

On this occasion, I bought a few things:

  • two kinds of nori seaweed, one for hand rolls and one for the longer maki rolls
  • premade rice (almost as fresh as homemade, but more convenient)
  • salmon, crab and maguro
  • burdock root, and some vegetables

Crab sticks. Not imitation, although that is also available.

Burdock root, or gobo

This mixed pack of sushi grade maguro tuna and salmon was about $5.50

At home I already had what I needed to flavour the rice, as well as cream cheese and various kinds of pickles and other fillings to put in the rolls.

 

As I have mentioned before, I think the rice is one of the best things about living in Japan. My favourite is sushi rice with a lightly flavoured taste of vinegar, sake and sugar. It is tangy and delicious.

I made my own sushi vinegar to add to the rice by combining these items:

  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar (you can use rice vinegar too)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 table spoon of mirin or sake/nihon shu
  • 1/2 tablespoon of salt

Combine these in a small pot on the stove until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Will flavour about 4 cups of rice.

Combine into warm rice by folding it in, being careful to not crush the rice.

Buying rice is a bit of a cheat since the flavour is better when the rice is turned into sushi rice when it is warm and fresh.
You cannot substitute any other kind of rice, or turn arborio or Thai sticky rice into sushi rice by making it gooey and mushy, so please do not do this.

 

Assembly is easy. I did not want the rolls to be too filling because we wanted to try many different combinations, so I did not push the rice to the edge of the nori. Normally you would, otherwise you get…

…sad looking rolls like this. These deflated looking things were really good though.

You can mix and match each rolls. Here, toro chopped and mixed with soy, negi or green onions, crunchy Niigata Prefecture miso daikon pickles that were a present from our Japanese tutor, burdock root dipped in the same sushi vinegar mix I made for the rice and a cucumber. You want to combine the things you like, thinking about taste, smell, texture (crunch!) and color.

There are sushi mats you can use to roll up rolls, like inside out California rolls, but I just hand rolled these nori wrapped rolls. The sushi mats help the rice from sticking and keep a uniform size and look, if presentation is important. But we are rustic here at the ZeeCall household, and we are not so picky.

I also made some salmon, negi, cream cheese, sesame seed and cucumber rolls.

Finally, even more customizable, the hand rolls. You just stuff and fill the little squares of nori with rice, then the fillings you want, roll up and eat.

Crab, cucumber, negi and cream cheese.

Fun and easy!

 

 

Food: Asia and Food: Home Cookin' and japan and simple japanese pleasures09 Jul 2011 03:07 pm

 

I have decided to start a new series of posts on simple pleasures I find here in Japan. Most are food related, but not all. There are just so many interesting somewhat single use experiences that are relaxing, enjoyable and often delicious in their own right, so I thought I might expose a few of them to you.

First up is a food item often found at yakitori restaurants. Yakitori is almost always completely protein based – there are very few vegetable or rice dishes, so they are more of a drinking place with meat on sticks as opposed to a dinner location. Although we have definitely turned our stops at these places into meals, for sure.

To balance this out, there is usual a token item on the menu – yakisoba for instance, or fried rice. But my favourite is the simple grilled onigiri, or yaki onigiri. Onigiri are pressed cooked rice balls – round, triangular, square – they come in all shapes and sizes. They sometimes have fillings, or a nori seaweed wrap. They are a quick and easy snack if you need something while on the go.

Yaki onigiri are a plain pressed clump of rice, grilled over dry heat til it gets a crispy shell, then it is brushed with tare (sauce, usually thick and kind of sweet) or butter and salt. We recently got a grill for at home (more on that later) and we can now make these babies on our own.

I often thing about the food thing I will miss most when I leave Japan, and I think the answer is easy – the rice. Even prepared in such a simple manner, it really stands out. Especially in yaki onigiri.

Click for more from the Simple Japanese Pleasures series

Food: Home Cookin' and japan01 Jul 2011 10:10 am

 

Generally, because it is so accessible, we often just eat Japanese food while we are out. However, because I have such seriously easy to access to some Japanese ingredients I may never see again in my life, I have decided to try cooking more Japanese food at home.

I already have a good yakiudon recipe and Mike knows how to make gyoza, or potsticker dumplings, but beyond that the choice is overwhelming. So I started with an ingredient that I want to use more, but am not sure how to.

Shirataki noodles are made of konjac, a very starchy plant. They are really low calorie and high fibre, so they are a popular diet food here. I remember a source referring them to “stomach brooms” for their ability to, ahem, “clean.”

Konjac does not taste like much however, so you have to use seasoning to help it out.

The noodles come in a big bag, and are available in many different diameters. They kind of smell funny when you open them, and they should be blanched to take away the bitter taste that may exist. They are super slippery and kind of get tangled, but do not really break down when you boil them.

They just look like any other kind of noodle, right?

I wanted to make a variation of a healthy Japanese dish called chirashisushi, or “scattered sushi bowl.” It is basically raw ingredients on top of rice. Pretty easy. I picked up this really nice looking salmon specifically made for chirashisushi at the supermarket for a few bucks. It is a little thinner cut than most sashimi you can get.

I also made a citrus soy ginger dressing with some new soy sauce. I let the noodles soak in this before we ate, to give them some flavour.

I added some shiso sprouts for peppery flavour, various vegetables (cucumber, avocado, cabbage and grated daikon) and we ate. A super fresh light summer meal, and healthier than the same dish made with just rice.