simple japanese pleasures


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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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