November 15, 2014

Juri Dreams of Bringing Japanese Deliciousness to America

When you travel in Japan, one of the things you notice is how much extraordinary food there is, and how so much of it never makes it across the Pacific to our market shelves.

I realized this anew while researching this article about the wonderful products of Saga City, Japan. Yuzu kosho, a beautifully aromatic form of preserved citron chili pepper, is one of Japan's most distinctive condiments, and I tasted the best I'd ever sampled in Saga. There were fantastic sesame seeds, oils and biscuits, delicious green tea, nori, and kasuzuke: clams, squid and udo (a root cousin of ginseng) that had been marinated and pickled in a sweet, pungent and addictive paste made of sake lees.


Although the makers of these products have traveled to New York several times to showcase their goods at food shows, none have yet to appear in stores here, or are even available online to international customers. The versions of them that do exist tend to be wan substitutes made by large food corporations.

This is where an intrepid young woman named Juri Kumagai comes in. She's working toward her masters in the NYU Food Studies Program, and one of her goals is to promote Japanese foods in America through market research and branding expertise.

One of the barriers to the import of Japanese artisanal foods, says Juri, is that often Japanese producers don't understand food trends in the U.S. and so are unable to adapt their products sufficiently. For example, the demand for gluten-free products in America has reached the point where, according to one survey, as many as a third of Americans are trying to avoid gluten. Juri points out that there are many Japanese products, such seaweed (nori, hijiki, wakame and kombu) or rice crackers, whose makers could brand them as gluten free to attract some of that large market.

Another example of the potential benefits of branding expertise for artisanal Japanese food producers came up recently when I spoke to sake sommelier Chris Johnson. He pointed out that sake is free of gluten, sulfites, histamines and congeners (byproducts of fermentation that can cause hangovers). For certain customers, many who might otherwise have no interest in sake, knowing this is what will make them try sake.

Juri's interest in promoting Japanese foods began when she became aware of the power of Japanese food to serve as a cultural bridge. As exchange student at the University of British Columbia she discovered that all her friends loved Japanese food. She became the go-to person for supplying sushi rolls for parties. Back at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, she wrote her graduate thesis on cultural interactivity and the sushi boom. She returned to the States and took a job at the Japanese consulate handling scheduling for visiting ministers and Diet members. Here, she saw Americans' interest in the foods of Japan expand to include expensive ramen (an oxymoron in Japan) soba and even vegetarian kaiseki cuisine.

As an aside, while she loves that ramen has become another cultural bridge between the two countries, Juri shares her compatriots' surprise that Americans will happily fork over $15 plus tax and tip for a bowl of would typically cost 700 to 800 yen ($6-7) in Japan.

For an NYU course on food and culture, Juri wrote a paper on the Japanese school lunch program, and how it is an important tool in teaching young children Japanese values and social skills, from group harmony and loyalty to how to serve food to others. Kids learn about table manners and expressions of gratitude, and traditional seasonal foods are incorporated both into school lunch menus and class lessons.

Today, fewer and fewer Japanese school children are learning about such traditions at home, Juri says, and in fact "school may be the only place they learn about it." Parents are busy working, and perhaps not interested in the ways of older generations. The tradition of multigenerational extended families is also breaking down, so there are fewer families in which grandparents might pass cultural traditions down to the children of the family.

This is true of other traditional skills, too, such as brewing green tea or washing and cooking rice. Many young Japanese children have never even seen a teapot in the home, since canned and bottled teas are sold everywhere, and so much more convenient.

When I asked Juri if she was worried that, in order to cater to perceived American tastes, Japanese artisanal producers might end up turning their products from superior to average or mediocre goods,  she responded, "I think Japanese producers need to make their products somewhat palatable for the U.S. market if they want to make a profit. But I do not think they have to make their products fully 'Americanized'" in order to be successful here.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with chef Yuhi Fujinaga about his former restaurant on Sixth Avenue, Bar Basque. When he made his plancha-grilled Chatham cod with pil pil the way he loved having it in Spain, his Spanish customer were thrilled, but his American guests less so. You can guess which version won out.

Though I hate the idea of any great dish having to be watered down to suit the masses, if much wiser and more practical marketing minds than mine (that's you Juri!) can help small Japanese producers find a market here, I'm all for it. Many of them see expansion overseas as a dire imperative, and we need to do what we can to help.

I hope that Juri is successful in her endeavors and that one day we will see more of the thrilling variety of regional, artisanal and unusual food products of Japan in our favorite markets in New York and across America.











October 17, 2014

San Francisco Asian American Soul Food: Hog & Rocks, Kin Khao

Chef Robin Song's housemade Korean pickles
at Hog and Rocks

Living in New York City, we’re pretty spoiled when it comes to food. But after a long weekend in San Francisco, it’s clear the hilly city by the bay gives even Brooklyn a run for its money in any DIY/small batch/pop-up/locally-sourced throw down.  Add the unfair advantage of year-round great produce, and all of New York City (of the bleak mid-winter farmers market) is really on the ropes.

You can barely turn around in the Bay Area without bumping into something good to eat. You walk into a store to get change for San Francisco's annoying parking meters (only about a quarter of them accept credit cards) and it turns out it’s Gourmet and More, home to a pop –up fresh pasta shop spread out in the back patio room. Just the fact that there is a “back patio room” is enough to make me want to live in SF. 

A small portion of the cheese cave at Gourmet and More,
in the Hayes Valley neighborhood.

Mattarello's uova da raviolo: if only there had been
a pot of boiling water in the back patio!
Then the Mattarello pasta people, John Pauley and Anna Li, who learned how to make San Domenico-style uova da raviolo from a Bologna master, tell you you have to walk across the street to taste one of the best cakes in the city, 20th Century Cafe’s Russian honey cake. Hypnotized, we did just that. At that point we felt like we had to get off the street fast or the hand-crafted food would never stop flying at us.  

20th Century Cafe baker-chef-proprietor
Michelle Polzine's Russian honey cake.

So we had much stand-out food and drink of all varieties, but I’ll fill you I on just two more places, since they fall into that most beloved (by me) of categories, Asian American soul food. Since writing this story about that stinky, spicy and delicious category I’ve seen the trend get bigger and more ubiquitous. 

Technically, though, I don’t think that one of the two places, Pim Techamuanvivit’s Kin Khao, really qualifies, since the proprietress of this self-described “Thai eatery” was born and raised in Bangkok, and her food shows no signs of Americanization. But after tasting the restaurant’s burnt eggplant salad with soy lime dressing, toasted coconut, shallots, mint and cilantro; its elegant green curry with rabbit loin saddle and meatballs, and a gutsy pad kee mao with ground pork, bird’s eye chili, bell peppers and holy basil, we begged Pim to bring her show to New York. I’m saying it again, Pim. Please.

Looks like confetti but it's really delicious sashimi.

The next night there was no doubt we were in AA soul food territory at chef Robin Song’s Hog and Rocks in the Mission District. You might think the place is a run-of-the-mill, albeit handsome, sports bar until you taste the grub. Excited Giants fans watched their team shut out St. Louis for the first game of the National League’s championship series, so the mood was festive to begin with. We relied on Song’s unerring aim for the spicy-sour-sweet pleasure receptor zone to put us right there alongside the stoked Giants fans, but in a baseball-free way. The first clue that we weren’t in the Double Play Bar and Grill came when a dish of freshly caught Channel Islands yellowtail sashimi showed up accompanied by roasted purple yams and dressed with, among other things, sudachi, the mouth-puckering citrus fruit that originated in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan.

Song sprinkles his food with a hiker’s backpack full of interesting fruits, vegetables, herbs, and says his plates are designed to complement bartender and Brooklyn native Michael Lazar’s exciting cocktail list.
One of my favorite dishes at Hog and Rocks:
hay smoked beets with buttermilk avocado
 dressing, on one of Song's hand-thrown plates.

The yellowtail, for example was also dressed with yuzu, jalapeno, radish and wild coastal agretti, a bitter/salty accent that served as a bridge connecting the dish with a super-herbacous Coastal Collins. The ultimate locavore cocktail, the Collins is made with Alameda-based St. George Terroir Gin (distilled with an assortment of botanicals gathered from nearby Mt. Tamalpais), lemon, pickled huckleberries and bay laurel. Song does spicy well, too: his salt and pepper wings, which pack a delightfully punishing lime and pepper-laced wallop, found their cocktail counterpart in Lazar’s version of Carter Beats the Devil, the potent mescal, reposado tequila, lime, agave and chili tincture mixture. 

Highly addictive: Chef Robin Song's spicy fried rice cakes
 and Korean blood sausage. 

Besides the menu’s “hogs” (country pork pate, jamon serrano, prosciutto and the tater tots-with-attitude that Song calls “trotter tots”) and “rocks” (oysters including Kusshi from British Columbia and Church Points from Washington), the chef has been experimenting with a weekly Korean pop-up menu that starts after hours on Thursdays. We sampled an array of pickles that he makes for the pop-up, including napa cabbage, beets, anchovies and turnips, and a delicious plate of spicy fried rice cakes, blood sausage and fermented chili topped with a slow-cooked egg. The glutinous rice for the cakes is made with dashi to add extra depth, and the spicy, sweet, sour, sticky and addictive dish possessed all the attributes of Asian American stoner food.

A cook who found his path in life after trial runs as a successful drug dealer (until, he says, “I grew a conscience”) and apprentice sound engineer, Song says it was a stint with chef Daniel Patterson’s Plum Bar + Restaurant in Oakland that made him realize he wanted to find a truer expression of himself in food. He also gave up bicycle racing and now throws clay on a pottery wheel instead. Plans are afoot to open a new, two-part Korean establishment: one portion called Junju, an extension of his pop-up serving fast, casual Korean pub fare, and a smaller counter serving Song’s take on Korean barbecue in the form of a tasting menu.  

My one regret: not making it to Thai American chef James Syhabout's Oakland side of the bay, where his mini-empire of restaurants has doubled in size since my last visit. Next time!


September 19, 2014

Sake's Turn to Sashay Down the Runway

If last week was fashion week, this week it was sake’s turn to sashay down the figurative runway, at the annual Joy of Sake celebration held last night at Chelsea’s Altman Building.

Shuji Abe, of Kokusai Sake Kai, left, and Yasuyuki Yoshida
of Tedorigawa Masamune brewery welcome guests.

About 600 guests ogled and tasted an impressive 370 sakes from 159 breweries throughout Japan. The event, now in its 11th year, was inspired by the Honolulu-based Kokusai Sake Kai (International Sake Group) which in 2001 launched an informal annual sake appraisal to help promote Japanese sakes to the West. (Judges don’t rank the sakes, but offer gold stars to the ones they like best, and silver to the next highest rated sakes.) From there, it was a natural step to take the sakes they had judged on the road. This year’s road trip started in Hawaii in July and from New York will travel to Tokyo, giving over 3,000 people the chance to taste the best sakes from Japan, some of them not available outside their mother country.

Haneya Daiginjo

The sakes set out at the Joy of Sake included aromatic, gold-starred daiginjos such as the Kariho Kaei from Akita Seishu Brewery,  and the Haneya Daiginjo from Toyama’s Fumigiku brewery 

As the doors opened to guests, Chris Johnson, sake consultant and self-styled “sake ninja” who created the sake list at branches of the recently opened Cherry in Chelsea and Williamsburg, gave a few words of advice. Noting that many would want to crowed the tables bearing the most expensive daiginjo bottles, ranked A and B according to the percentage of the rice kernel that remains after polishing (the more polished the higher the grade), he suggested that the tables bearing the ginjo and junmai styles should be mined for their many gems as well.  As Chris Pearce, the organizer of The Joy of Sake, noted, "Many newcomers to sake go for the daiginjos and ginjos first because of their fruity aroma." They can understand them as they would wine, while the junmais, which Pearce said are often more about texture and crispness, can be harder to relate to. "Over time though," he added, "many people gravitate to junmai labels."

Not all premium sake needs to be served cold:
this Toyo no Aki Junmai dry sake benefits
from a little warming up.

Pearce and many of the sake makers were on hand for another blow-out sake event, held the night before at chef-owner Marco Moreira’s Union Square-area restaurant Toqueville. There, guests dined on a ten-course menu with sake pairings including a pristinely fresh series of nigiri sushi by chef Masato Shimizu. The most unusual pairing was a rich aged sake from 1997, Kamoizumi “Sachi,” known as a koshu or “old sake.”


Tasting notes at the Toqueville sake dinner.
(Photo courtesy of One Five Hospitality)
Food featured in a fine way at the Joy of Sake event as well. Since sake is best tasted along with some delicious bites, cooks from 14 New York City restaurants were on hand to supply them En Japanese Brasserie provided the perfect foil to the supremely balanced sakes with a delicious Italian black truffle chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), while Sun Noodle Ramen Lab went for a more assertive izakaya-style chilled tantan ramen with spicy pork and sesame sauce, ideal with the junmai sakes.


En Japanese Brasserie's black truffle chawanmushi.


Wylie Dufresne, chef of wd~50, put the finishing touches on his sunflower miso, shiitake, daikon and tonburi tasting, reliably bringing the most exotic ingredient to the party. The tonburi,  also known as firebush or common red sage, has seeds that look and crunch like caviar but taste a little like artichoke.  A big fan of sake, Dufresne said, “it goes well with food at both restaurants (wd~50 and Alder) because they’re brighter and not super-heavy.” Sakes, in fact, he added, are a lot like his own food:  “clean, well-balanced and with a good use of acidity.”







August 25, 2014

Choice products from Spain's Growing Organic Movement


The best kinds of trips are those that continue to yield pleasures and surprises long after they are over. Our March break trip to Spain turned out to be exactly that type. Last week, five months after our return, a connection made in Spain boomeranged back into my life in a happy way.

The  story centers on chocolate, a delicious dark organic chocolate made with olive oil by a boutique company in Madrid, Chocolate Organiko. I came upon it at a small shop in the enchanting Barrio de las Lettras neighborhood of Madrid. It was meant as a gift but you know how it goes--I ended up devouring it before I could bestow in on another, and fell in love.

Chocolate Oganiko started in 2006 when husband and wife Carlos Ortiz and Eugenia Pozo set up a small chocolate workshop. The venture may have been an expression of Carlos's genes, or at least of the family's underwear: his grandfather bought and sold products from the Spanish colonies, roasting his own new world coffee beans and transforming his cocoa beans into chocolate. His grandmother, meanwhile, made underwear for her children out of the soft sacks used for cane sugar, cocoa, and coffee beans.

Ortiz and Pozo decided their product would be completely organic, sourced Trinitario cocoa beans from small growers in the Dominican Republic and Trinidad, and set to work. When I tried to find out if I could buy the brand in the U.S., I found one of the company's European distributors, Inés Arteaga. While her Barcelona-based company, Organic Gourmet, will ship to the U.S. only for special requests made by snail mail, she informed me that the online shop La Tienda does handle online U.S. orders. (I've since found an even more complete selection of the Organiko line at ChefShop.com.) Inés and I  struck up a friendly correspondence, and I gave her some advice on jazz clubs in New York for a trip she was planning with her family.

This week, I met the Arteaga family at the Metropolitan Museum: Inés, husband Manel (Manuel in Catalan), daughter Clara and son Pablo. Inés's passion for organic products stems from her upbringing in Navarra, in northwest Spain. Her father tended to a small organic farm, but instead of following her love for the land, Inés at first pursued careers as a pharmacist then winemaker. It was after those experiences that she decided she wanted to return to the ideal of organic farming, but on the retail end. Her Organic Gourmet mail-order business, launched in 2012,  is dedicated to promoting and selling the finest organic products of Spain.

As in the U.S., many conventional farmers in Spain are gradually going organic. But while the rich agricultural soil of Spain and the know-how of its farmers has made it the number one producer of organic vegetables in Europe and the fifth in the world, almost all of the country's organic bounty is exported. It's a little like what writer Paul Greenberg has been telling us America does with its high-quality wild fish catch.

In Spain, the growth and export of its best organic produce is driven by two factors: outside consumer demand from wealthier EU countries, and a Spanish economy that has been in crisis for the last six years. Unemployment hovers at 26%, and if we think millenials have it bad in America, the unemployment rate is 50% for the 6 million Spanish youths under 24. Buying organic is not in the average person's budget in a country where everyone from PhD holders to sex workers have had to leave the country to find work. While we were in Spain, protests erupted in Madrid, and everywhere we saw the graffitied slogan "22M Marcha a Madrid" raising awareness before a March 22 "March of Dignity" to protest austerity measures, evictions, unemployment and widespread poverty.



So you can see why Inés's business, which is supporting small producers who are trying to help their country go green, might have had a rocky start. In any case, her excellent products are carefully selected for quality and taste, from jamón ibérico, honeys, olive oils and vinegar to seaweed chimichurri salsas, these delicious sweet and savory biscuits from Paul and Pippa, and of course Chocolate Organiko. If you are living anywhere in the EU, check out the website and do your part to invigorate Spain's economy!




July 25, 2014

More Things on the Menu in Calgary

If you liked reading about what people are cooking and eating in Calgary in my last post, I applaud you (non-Canadian) readers for your broad interests and offer all of you another look at the scene there.

The one Japanese-owned place I tried, Carino Japanese Bistro, was hardly traditional and in fact pretty quirky. Owner Toshi Karino is a wine lover who's worked in the local restaurant business for years and leapt at the opportunity to take over a wine bar located a short drive north from the city center.

Toshi Karino, in front of his bistro's logo;
he's really more welcoming than his t-shirt.

Small and friendly, the place feels like any number of eating and drinking establishments you'd find throughout Japan: an abbreviated bar, an equally small dining room; this is a joint you'd feel comfortable dropping in on every night. Unlike most Japanese places, though, it comes with its own back story: "Carino" is an Italinization (I may have made this word up but you know what I mean) of Karino's last name, and the logo he selected involves  the silhouette of a traditionally dressed Japanese woman--complete with elaborate hairdo and flapping kimono--zipping around Roma on a Vespa.


Duck! Duck!! Duck!!!

As in many a Japanese casual restaurant, you'll find some great Japanese-Italian mashups, although here perhaps pumped up several notches to satisfy our extreme eating times. There's mentaiko ravioli gyoza (made with pork and spicy pollock roe), a wagyu burger with your choice of a traditional or all-rice bun, and pizza harumaki (mozarella and basil spring rolls). I loved chef Asae Yanagisawa's Duck! Duck!! Duck!! dish, which takes its name from the tale of a medieval Catholic bishop on his way to visit the Pope in Rome. The cleric sends an emissary ahead to source the best wine along his route, and when the underling identifies superior wine at a Montefiascone inn, he excitedly scrawls "Est! Est!! Est!!" on the inn door to mark it for his boss. Air Canada's in-flight magazine, En Route, an influential arbiter when it comes to dining, had the same enthusiastic reaction to Carino's duck dish, which helped land the restaurant on the magazine's list of top new restaurants for 2013.

Karino noted that the dish was several incarnations into its life on the menu, this one involving a crispy confit leg, a ramekin of silky gnocchi studded with duck and foie gras, and rosy slices of duck breast. The most Japanese element of the dish, the breast, is seared well on the skin side  to crisp it, then finished in a steamer over a mixture of soy sauce, sake and mirin.

At CharCut.


Pig head mortadella cross-section.

At the downtown magnet for adventurous carnivores CharCut, the star of the evening was co-chefs and co-owners John Jackson and Connie DeSousa's beautiful pig head mortadella, which is shaved paper thin and served with a miniature cast iron skillet filled with whole-grain mustard. Local lore has it that DeSousa can debone a pig's head in no time flat (helpful, considering how good and in-demand this dish is), and she thriftily uses the skin as the casing for her mortadella. Head and shoulder meat are ground, mixed with spices, truffles, and pistachios, brined for twenty-four hours, stuffed back into the skin and then steamed for another nine hours. It's pretty wonderful tasting.

Farm sandwich: Ewe-phoria!

Some stuff you can't get in the U.S. at Janice Beaton Fine Cheese.

I can't forget the charming spot Farm, which does a great roast chicken sandwich with cilantro slaw, pickled jalapenos, aged cheddar and chipotle garlic mayo. The chicken comes from a place called (somewhat painfully) Ewe-nique Farms in Champion, Alberta, which is better known for its lamb. Farm the restaurant is co-owned by Janice Beaton, whose adjacent shop Janice Beaton Fine Cheese must be a province-wide beacon for cheese lovers. The pretty shop is an impressive showcase for Canadian and international cheeses, and worth a detour if you're anywhere near the city of Calgary.

I've run out of time and space haven't even mentioned Banff! That will have to wait for another time and place.









July 19, 2014

What's on the Menu in Calgary

I'm in the vast and varied Canadian province of Alberta now, taking in some great sights, food and drink. Our first stop was Calgary, a boom town set between the prairies and the tall peaks of the Canadian Rockies.

Perhaps predictably, in a hard-working, hard-playing town full of cowhands (this year's Calgary Stampede ended just before we hit town), ranchers and oil and gas tycoons, you'll find ambitious and adventurous chefs who are feeding them. 

At Catch, 34-year-old executive chef Kyle Groves tends to a rooftop garden, a beehive and a network of local farmers and seafood suppliers to create seasonal menus built around the daily catch. It seems foolhardy to create seafood-themed restaurant in a landlocked province, yet when it opened 12 ago under chef Michael Noble, Catch was named the best new restaurant in the country. Since then, it has retained its edge and become something of a factory for up-and-coming kitchen talent, all while weaning Calgarians off their beef-centric diets. 

Chef Groves shows off  beautiful Lethbridge shelling peas.
The night we visited, Groves, a native son of Calgary who trained in Scotland and at two Michelin-starred restaurants in London,  had on hand fresh, sweet shelling peas from a farm in nearby Lethbridge. One of his favorite ways of serving them is grilled and salted, to be eaten out of hand edamame-style. He also loves the organic Lethbridge rhubarb he gets. One favorite use is to juice them with a bit of lime, combine with sliced jalapeno, balance with a little honey, and throw in some fresh humpback shrimp, scallops and hearts of palm for a delicious ceviche.

All the seafood Catch serves is certified by the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise sustainability program, similar to America's Marine Stewardship Council's designation.  Oysters are flown in from both East and West coasts, and Catch has started to share its daily shipment of seafood with customers. Arrivals are posted each week day on Twitter, and customers can call in to place their order, which will be filleted, de-boned, or de-bearded before pick up. Like any good fishmonger, they also offer cooking suggestions and answer questions. Over the years, Groves has seen locals' growing willingness to venture beyond the safe choices of salmon and halibut to embrace more challenging sea fare like gooseneck barnacles, octopus and razor clams.


Edamame-style grilled shelling peas, smoky and delicious.

Mushrooms every which way!
Mushrooms in Alberta are some of the best we have tasted, and sous chef Jenny Kang impressed us with this dish of grilled king oysters, morels braised in clarified butter and tempura-stye deep fried shiitake, served with little orbs of Fairwinds Farm goat cheese ricotta and a fresh pea puree. 

Oh, and for a chef, here's the joy of living in these northern latitudes, where at the height of summer it can stay light until close to 11 pm: After dinner service,  Groves can go for a 10K run along the Bow River. I didn't have the heart to ask how it fares through the short days and long nights of winter! 

Stay tuned for more on Calgary and beautiful Banff...