April 27, 2012

A Taste of Hawaii in Torrance

On my recent trip to California, Vicky Murakami-Tsuda of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles suggested meeting for breakfast at The Local Place in Torrance. Little did I know that she was about to trigger a little memory cascade. It turns out that the cafe-bakery with the very humble name is owned by King's Hawaiian, whose fluffy Portuguese sweet bread was a ubiquitous part of growing up in Japanese American Southern California. It comes in single round loaves or pull-apart rolls, is great toasted with butter, and, along with those Portuguese-style egg custard cakes sold in Chinese bakeries, has to rank among Portugal's great culinary contributions to Asia and now America.

I knew that the bread was popular in Hawaii, where the company is based, but until Vicky pointed me to this article on DiscoverNikkei.org, I didn't know that it was started and owned by an Okinawan American living in Hilo named Robert Taira. Here's a picture of the original Honolulu coffee shop and bakery in 1968, which hangs on the wall at The Local Place.

The cafe/bakery is the smaller offshoot of the first Torrance King's Hawaiian, but features the same Portuguese sweet bread French toast, as well as Japanese American classics such as Spam-and-egg musubi (rice balls). Spam is in fact featured in everything from breakfast sandwiches to burritos, and is evidence of the Japanese American culinary version of Stockholm Syndrome: you grow to love the food your budget and upbringing put in front of you. There are also great Hawaiian Japanese combinations such as The Local Scramble, scrambled eggs, char siu pork, kamaboko (bamboo shoots), green onions and cheese. 

The Local Place and King's Hawaiian are also famous among Japanese Americans for their Hawaiian Paradise chiffon cake, layered with guava, passion fruit and lime filling and frosted with whipped cream. I had to take one of these home with me! 

April 9, 2012

Elizabeth Andoh Pays Culinary Tribute to the People of Tohoku

The esteemed Japanese cookbook author Elizabeth Andoh made an appearance tonight at The International Culinary Center in Soho to talk about her new e-book, Kibo, a culinary tribute to the people and foodways of Tohoku, Japan.

The area is still reeling from the quake-tsunami-nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011, and Andoh will be donating half of the proceeds from the book to relief and recovery efforts. "Food and culture disappear under stress," she told the audience, and so she wanted to capture the food culture of the region "before it morphed into something unrecognizable."

I had never met Andoh before, even though I was a religious reader of her Japan Times column when I lived in Tokyo. I vaguely recall someone telling me that although she is a Caucasian American, forty-plus years in Japan have given her a somewhat Japanese appearance. She did indeed seem Japanese, not just in manner and clothing, but physically as well, perhaps because of the way she pulled her hair back in a bun, or her extreme graciousness.

Some of the truly distinctive Tohoku dishes Andoh introduced were a shiso maki, thin, cylindrical shiso leaf packets stuffed with a walnut-miso paste; a salad made of dried yellow chrysanthemum petals and enoki mushroom; a sweet shira-ae, of fresh apple and dried apricots and cranberries dressed with a pine nut-and-tofu mixture, and what she described as a "funky, funky"  ika ninjin, or squid jerky and julienned carrot strips simmered in vinegar, brown sugar, and hot pepper. All of them were delicious, and completely different from versions of these dishes that I grew up with.

To pair with these tantalizing morsels were three impressive saké samplings that Timothy Sullivan of UrbanSaké.com (he was a great source for my Edible Manhattan saké story) introduced: Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai, Daishichi Kimoto Junmai and Urakasumi Zen from the disaster-affected prefectures of Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi.

Andoh noted that her Japanese cookbook colleagues were puzzled by her desire to talk to the devastated people of Tohoku about their food traditions, and later told me that their incomprehension "made me realize how American I am." It's also in her nature to want to study these things; she was trained as an anthropologist at the University of Michigan before, on a lark, applying for a scholarship to study in Japan, a country she knew nothing about.

Thanks to Yukari Sakamoto, author of the wonderful Food, Sake Tokyo for alerting me to tonight's event!

April 5, 2012

Japan Has Always Been About Seasonality

On my recent trip to Japan I was once again enthralled by the joy everyone there takes in the newest produce of the season. American chefs and dedicated eaters like to talk about "seasonality" but in Japan the love for what's at its peak is embedded in the culture. There's even a term, hatsumono, for the first harvest of the season, specifying foods to be delighted in and gorged on for those first days when they are at their peak.

In summer the craze is for first-harvest white peaches, in August for new rice, and in fall for persimmons. When I was there in late March, I saw ichigo daifuku, or azuki bean-filled rice cakes filled with delicious new strawberries everywhere (the strawberries in Japan taste different from U.S. varieties, smaller and more intense in flavor). The country was also starting to vibrate in anticipation of the annual cherry blossom season, which is celebrated in drink, song, blossom-viewing parties and all manner of sakura-themed and -flavored foods.

There was my favorite sakura-mochi, another type of rice cake tinted pink and wrapped in a salty preserved cherry leaf. I had a wonderful, pinkish sakura soba at the luxurious hot springs resort Hakone Ginyu, to which powdered cherry petals had been added. Even Krispy Kreme Japan got into the act, advertising its "Sakura Dozen" doughnuts with pink-tinted icing.

My favorite hatsumono, though were the freshly dug bamboo shoots (takenoko) that appeared everywhere. At once delicate, crunchy and mildly aromatic, new harvest shoots are far superior to the hard, metallic-tasting canned variety. One of the most delicious preparations I tried was at Sakagawa restaurant in Kyoto's Gion district. There, very large rounds were cut into wedges, basted with a tare, or soy-saké-mirin grilling sauce, cooked in front of counter guests over a clay hibachi, then garnished with aromatic kinome (Japanese pepper) leaves.

Buddhist vegetarian feast, with bamboo shoot at upper left.

Then there was the unbelievably fresh bamboo shoot I had as part of this Buddhist vegetarian shōjin ryori lunch at the ancient Zen temple Tenryū-ji. When I complimented the cook, she beamed and told me it was freshly dug.

Look hard, takenoko in upper right-hand corner!

Takenoko  showed up in my Japanese -style breakfast at the Westin Miyako hotel, in a warm crock of simmered tofu (yudōfu). 

Easy to spot here.

Finally, there was this lovely, steaming bowl of simply prepared soup at the kaiseki restaurant Jiki Miyazawa: a clear broth with wakame seaweed and beautful bamboo shoots, garnished with the ubiquitous kinome leaf.

Now I'm hankering to visit Japan in the fall, to enjoy a whole different set of hatsumono.  


April 2, 2012

Charcuterie at Epicerie Boulud

One of the Manhattan places I most wish I lived next door to is Épicerie Boulud, the Upper West Side shop that, like my favorite Vancouver patisserie/chocolaterie/ café , Thierry, transports the visitor to Paris immediately upon entrance. Épicerie, as its name implies, is even broader in scope than Thierry, offering a full line of take-out food and catering for anything from a  picnic in Central Park to a swanky penthouse party. Among the highlights of the shop's offering are the amazing creations of master charcutier Gilles Vérot.

Vérot and his boss, chef Daniel Boulud, were on hand today to introduce their spring "collection" (the aspirational term for runway-worthy edibles) of charcuterie. Among them is a springtime Rillette Provençal with pork jarret (knuckle), tomato, zucchini, eggplant and basil. (Quick primer: pâtés are mechanically ground and sometime wrapped in a rich pastry to make them en brioche; terrines are coarser, featuring hand-ground meats, while the rillette contains meat that has been cubed or chopped and is usually cooked slowly in fat.)

To make his spring rillette lighter than its winter counterpart, instead of cooking the meat in its own fat, Vérot replaces the pork fat with a mix of juices from the meat and olive oil. He suggests pairing a slice of the  Rillette Provençal with a mesclun or other green salad and eating it as a main course instead of as the first course of a heavier wintertime meal.

A third-generation charcutier, Vérot also runs two Paris charcuterie boutiques with his wife Catherine, supplying individual customers and a select group of restaurants, including the very popular wine shop-restaurant Le Verre Volé. He and Catherine have a cookbook coming out in the fall, too, both in French and English. When I left l'Épicerie, Vérot was holding forth on how to make fromage de tête, or head cheese, of which he has been named the French champion maker. So if this is next on your DIY list, queue up and look for his book come fall!

Épicerie Boulud
1900 Broadway at 64th St.
New York, NY 
212 595 9606