January 26th, 2012

Fish bits

My husband doesn’t like seafood, but at least, he always tries.  He finds a few things here and there that he doesn’t mind , with ‘doesn’t mind’ meaning he wouldn’t go as far as saying he likes it nor would he order it by choice.

I noticed that most American fish dishes are fillets, so not only my husband, but also many of my sushi loving American friends are not big fans of seeing an entire fish on a plate, head and all! For Japanese people, ordering fish and receiving an actual, entire ‘swim ready’ fish is as normal as getting a pizza with pepperoni on it.I have news for you.  If you think an entire fish is disgusting, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Let’s take a look at what I ate lately.
Mentaiko, spicy cod roe, is a Japanese favorite. As a matter of fact this is always on top of our “what do you want to eat with rice?” list.  It’s kind of like cod roe kimchi without the pungent smell, and it makes both a great pasta sauce and fantastic drinking food.We don’t discriminate when it comes to odd fish parts.  Besides eggs, we’ll gladly eat fish milt as well.  Even better is cod milt, shirako grilled on a bamboo leaf.  Its cheese-like, creamy texture melts in your mouth and can be better than foie gras.

Speaking of liver, this is ankimo, which is a monk fish liver, salted, steamed, cut and served in ponzu.  American sushi places started serving this over the last few years or so.  Believe it or not, it’s actually a seasonal thing and best between November and February when water is cold and livers gets fat.  Just like foie gras, it’s basically fat…creamy, delicious fat.

If my husband reads this, I think he’ll dislike seafood even more.  He’s barely past fish and chips.  Oh well, one step forward, ten steps back.

January 24th, 2012

Japanese comfort food

“Eat as much seafood as you can!”  That, and “I love you,” were my husband’s parting words, when I left for Tokyo. What thoughts led to his advice? At least one, but probably all of these: if she eats lots of seafood in the land of seafood,
1) she won’t come home craving more.
2) I don’t have to hear her say “Let’s go for Japanese tonight!”
3) I don’t have to see/smell strange fish products in the house like this;
4) While she’s eating all of her favorites, I’ll eat as much American food as possible!

He’s wrong on 1), 2) and 3), but after seeing a breakfast picture he sent, looks like he’s right on the money for 4).
We all enjoy our comfort foods, but what do you imagine when you hear ‘Japanese comfort food’? It may be ramen, curry rice or macaroni gratins (Google it! It’s the Japanese answer to mac & cheese). Contrary to what you might guess, not all Japanese foods are healthy and based around seafood. Japanese cuisine does include some heartier dishes that people grow up with, that are as delicious as their American counterparts. But today, when looking for my comfort food, I wanted salt, not heavy.  So what was on the menu?Here’s what my mother prepared: from bottom left-counterclockwise: a bowl of perfectly cooked white rice; miso soup with daikon; squid in salted fish guts; spicy cod roe; and Japanese pickles.  It doesn’t look like much, but it’s truly an art to cook rice perfectly. You don’t just throw grains into water and boil.  You have to start with good quality rice that’s washed carefully. Then, the quantity and quality of the water and the method you cook and steam it comes in to play. Granted, the last two parts depend largely on how good your rice cooker is, but I’ve never had rice half good as this in America.

I’ll tell you more about awful sounding fish dishes tomorrow.  Until then, have another bowl of rice!

PS: PS: Do you remember what Iron Chef Morimoto requested for his last supper on episode 15 of Top Chef All-Stars?   If Antonia cooked something like my mother prepared for me, she would have won the competition.

January 7th, 2012

When size meets taste…

A friend of my husband’s sent him this photo.

It’s a hammered pork sandwich from a restaurant in Las Vegas called Hash House a go go.  What made a mere sandwich so noteworthy?  The plate is as big as 3 adult faces!  On a recent trip to Japan, this one picture helped bridge the language gap as my non-Japanese speaking husband was able to ‘wow’ my Japanese friends and family with it, as they marveled at the sandwich’s size.   Both amused and appalled, Japanese people already think American portion sizes are huge, but this picture was beyond their imaginations.  Immediately, they asked if this was something we ate in the States everyday.  I knew the answer they wanted to hear, was ‘yes’, as that pretty much goes in line with how they already picture America–huge EVERYTHING, but the answer, as you could guess is a realistic ‘no’.  Sure, compared to Japanese food, American portions are usually twice as big, but to find truly huge portions like that, you have to do a bit of searching.

When we were in Las Vegas, my husband suggested we go to Hash House a go go, for breakfast.  I was reluctant because usually the best part of a big portioned meal is its size and not its flavor.  Also, call me a snob, but who’d believe a restaurant found in a dingy casino on the strip would be good?  As we walked over, I was thinking, “There are many, many great places to eat in Vegas, but marriage is a give and take.”  Since he took me to a four star restaurant the day before, I should let the next meal choice be his, right?  My stomach clenched in horror as I realized that my next stop would be home to something I’m still learning to appreciate, big portioned, hearty American food.

Talk about surprises!  Oh my goodness.  Fried Chicken with bacon (!!) waffles, where the waffles and chicken were bigger than an adult male’s enlarged heart.  But what about the taste?  The waffles were delicious; very dense, yet fluffy, and not airy at all.  It tasted great with the fried leek garish that came with it.  The fried chicken was delicious, with a moist inside and crispy outside, and as an added plus, it was kindly de-boned!!  Sure, having actual strips of bacon instead of bits, baked into their waffles and preparing well seasoned fried chicken shows that the chefs cook with care, but serving de-boned chicken demonstrates that bit of extra love that’s so often lacking.  Without a doubt, I can say that this is possibly some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.  I’d never thought I’d say this, but I’m so glad my husband took me to that diner in that run-down casino!    Since we got back, I’ve semi-seriously suggested several times, that we drive to Vegas just for one more taste.  I found there’s the original location in San Diego, which is shorter drive from Los Angeles… totally doable.

Sure, they might laugh at a picture of what I’ve just described, but would Japanese people actually like this dish?  The one hurdle to overcome is the combination of sweet and savory, which Japanese people usually don’t like.  In this case, serving fried chicken alongside maple syrup might seem scary at first, but with a dish like this, I’m confident that this huge plate of food will please their senses of taste as much as it dazzles their senses of sight.  Viva America!

December 25th, 2011

Christmas food

As my brother and I got older, we graduated from KFC to sushi for Christmas.  Nothing traditional about that.  Japanese people in general, like to eat something special on Christmas; it could be paella, it could be tandoori chicken.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this survey I saw in a Japanese magazine!

Like I mentioned yesterday, the number one food Japanese people want to eat on Christmas day is fried chicken, followed by: #2 Roast beef, #3 Pizza, #4 Fried potatoes, #5 Sushi, #6 Tandoori chicken, and finally, #20. Garlic toast.  Pretty random, isn’t it?  As a Japanese person who has been living in America most of my adult life, I don’t understand this list either.  By the same token, as a foreigner living in America for over 20 years, I don’t understand why people eat the same food on Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are both within a month of each other.

My husband is Jewish, so this year, we decided to go for a traditional Jewish Christmas dinner, Chinese food.  This year, we were in New York City on Christmas day, so we hopped in a taxi to my favorite Chinese joint, Congee Village restaurant.  Turns out our plans weren’t all that unique.  When we arrived, we were told the wait would be 45 minutes, but after converting ‘hostess’ time to real time, our wait turned out to be an hour and a half.

I asked my husband what I thought was an obvious question: Did you grow up eating Chinese on Christmas? Surprisingly, his reply was a simple “no”. While he knows the stereotype, Jewish people eating Chinese food on Christmas was something he never experienced first hand; only on tv. But then again, he doesn’t like spicy mustard, so maybe he’s not completely in line with all the Jewish customs.  It must be a tradition as there’s even a 1992 study of Jewish people and Chinese food by sociologists!  Plus, the Chinese Restaurant Association officially thanked Jewish people for their patronage on that special day of the year!  It must be true…I saw it on Facebook!
Maybe my husband’s Christmas tradition is tainted by the fact that he prefers anything to Asian food. As for me, I hope this Chinese food on Christmas tradition will continue because I love those ultra-rare occasions when my husband enjoys Asian food with me.  At least I can eat well ONE day out of the year!  Happy holidays!

December 24th, 2011

Christmas in Japan

I wrote to Santa every year with a simple, easy gift request: a 5 bedroom house.  It looks like my letter was lost somewhere between Tokyo and the North Pole, but even still, that didn’t stop me from enjoying Christmas, growing up in Japan.  What better to decorate a small fake tree with, than fake snow?  Christmas dinner was special too.  Besides the excitement over my mother’s homemade strawberry short cake, there was something even better to look forward to: picking up a traditional Christmas dinner– Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yes, you read it right, KFC.  For Japanese people, Colonel Sanders may be the bearded man that brings the most Christmas joy, as KFC has been THE Christmas dish for Japanese people for many, many years.

My recent trip to Tokyo confirmed this trend.  At the Aoyama location of KFC, where they allegedly started the “fried chicken on Christmas” tradition, there were signs for Christmas dinner reservations everywhere.  According to KFC Japan website, foreigners came to this location about 40 years ago to buy fried chicken because there was no turkey (and apparently no whole chicken) available.  Capitalizing on this, the store manager came up with the “eat fried chicken on Christmas” advertising campaign, which apparently, became one of the most successful ones in recent memory.

This is the Christmas menu from a Japanese KFC:

Combo of 8 chicken pieces, a bowl of salad and a “glocage chocolate” cake.  All for 3940 yen (approx. $50)!  There was also the Premium Roast Chicken ($70) — a roasted whole chicken called Gokoku Ajidori, which is raised on a special diet consisting of a combination of 5 different grains including soy and brown rice.  In addition, no KFC meal would be complete without raisin bread with liver paste.  Is it me, or do these ‘fast food’ menu items sound like they belong in a fancy restaurant?

As you can probably see, as I’m finally getting used to turkey on the holidays, I’m now fascinated by non-turkey people.  Fried chicken in Japan makes sense, having no other options, but what’s with the holiday ham culture here in America.  I love it in a sandwich, but as the star of a holiday meal?  Why not holiday bacon?  Chew on that…until part 2, tomorrow…

November 30th, 2011

Game day food

I remember seeing my father watch the Tokyo Giants baseball game every night during the season, but thinking back, I can’t remember whether or not there was a special game-time snack he’d typically enjoy.  Why am I thinking about this all of a sudden?  Let’s just say I’ve noticed that things are a little different here in the U.S. when it comes to sports.  Here, people treat ‘the big game’ like the Fourth of July.  No game-day celebration seems complete without multiple varieties of chips, dips, wings, and burgers.  Seeing a real American tailgate party looked like a lot of fun.  (the food that is, not the sports-watching).

My husband is not a crazy enough sports fan to paint his face (thank goodness!), but there are a few games that he’d hate to miss.   I’ve sadly learned that in the fall, Saturdays have to be planned around college football.  On the most sacred Saturday of them all, Los Angeles is split in two, as sides are taken for the big UCLA vs USC game.  Last weekend was that very Saturday, and like all true sports fans, my husband wanted a snack.  My solution–an open faced mushroom ragu sandwich.  He liked it, but confided in me that he was craving a continuous series of little snacks.

Continuous?  Although I immediately thought of buffalo wings, I remembered that our Thanksgiving dinner was not that long ago, so maybe those wouldn’t be the best choice.  Hot dogs?  Continuous hot dogs would probably kill you, so maybe that’s not an option either.   Finally, I came up with the perfect plan:  mini corn dogs.  I grew up loving corn dogs, except back home in Japan, we called them “American dogs (American doggu)”.

To prepare the small snacks, I used a Japanese takoyaki pan (similar to this half sphered pan from William Sonoma), which was nice, because it let me avoid frying.  The ingredients were simple: wholewheat pancake mix and chopped organic hot dog meat.  I can’t claim that it was entirely healthful, but as far as continuous snacks go, I think I did o.k.

Did he like them?  Well, this year as a UCLA fan, his only smile came from the snacks!  A 50-0 loss! Ouch!  There’s one more game this Friday.  Will he root for the UCLA Bruins or the American Doggus?  We’ll have to wait and see.

November 25th, 2011

The day I acutally enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner

I must have done it right, because It’s the day after thanksgiving, and I’m still full.  Sure, half of America is saying that right now, but for me, it’s the first time I’ve ever uttered those words AFTER Thanksgiving.

You see, I don’t like turkey.  Let me rephrase that, I used to not like turkey.  For some reason, every time I ate it, there was this strange “turkey” flavor that I couldn’t get over.  But, something happened at dinner yesterday that not only changed my long-standing opinion of turkey, but actually made me say the following four words, “I love this meal!”

There are millions of restaurants out there, but how many of them do you go back to over and over, every time leaving happy? Not many.  Stefan’s at L.A. Farm is our exception.  We always leave satisfied.  It’s hard to believe that from one restaurant, I’ve discovered so much great American food.  Now, I can proudly add Thanksgiving dinner to that list.  While the entire meal was delicious, a few dishes, on their own, actually changed my opinion on Thanksgiving dinner.

As I explained yesterday, my husband picked Stefan’s for our first ‘restaurant’ Thanksgiving dinner from just looking at their menu.  Why did he pick Stefan’s?  The menu offered the straight forward, classic Thanksgiving meal he was hoping for: roasted turkey, gravy, stuffing, yams and yes, mashed potatoes, which he believes is a must dish for Thanksgiving.  Judging from their regular menu, I was expecting a good meal, but I have to admit, I was reluctant that I had to eat turkey as a my main dish.  As we were driving to the restaurant, I even said to my husband “if I don’t like the turkey, we’ll just stop at a Japanese noodle shop later.”

Surprise, surprise, I actually loved turkey!  Instead of that strange taste I was expecting, I enjoyed only flavorful tender meat.

Another dish I don’t like is yams.  It’s usually served either very, very sweet, and/or too watery.  The texture of the marshmallows placed on top usually doesn’t sweeten the deal for me either. With a combination like that, you can imagine that the idea of candied yams is not at all appetizing for me.  But tonight, Stefan’s baked yams with marshmallows completely won me over.  The marshmallows were slightly crunchy and the yams were cooked sweet, but in a very delicate degree.  Finally, it made sense that these two should be served together, or should I say, three, as the dish went well with the turkey!

It’s hard to believe that it took me a quarter of a century to truly appreciate the Thanksgiving meal.  So to honor the tradition of Thanksgiving, let me say how thankful I am that my husband insisted on picking a restaurant with mashed potatoes.  I’m also thankful for Chef Stefan and his staff who always treat us like family!

November 24th, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Every year, as if he forgot, my husband asks: If we were in Japan during November, would I be able to cook a traditional Thanksgiving meal?  My answer, ‘yes, and no’.  The side dishes would be a snap, but the turkey itself, would be a more difficult issue.  Japanese people don’t really eat turkey, and finding it in Tokyo would probably earn me a long trip to what we jokingly call ‘Americatown’, where restaurants and stores are mostly geared to tourists who need that quick burger to re-energize before exploring the rest of the city.
Even though I’m not the biggest fan of the taste of turkey, I have grown to love cooking the traditional Thanksgiving meal.  My husband proudly states that Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday, and when asked to explain, will offer you three points:  you get a great meal, there’s football on tv, and if you’re a guy, somehow, you get out of cleaning up.  He does make a solid point.  As if I needed more convincing, he adds that during his bachelor days, there was an added advantage: you get all the leftovers!  He’s lucky he married someone who loves to cook, because now his leftovers are already in the fridge, with three exceptions: cornbread stuffing, wild rice stuffing and pumpkin mac and cheese.  There’s an old rule of cooking that states that in order to have leftovers, you must actually leave some over.  That just doesn’t happen, as we devour these three sides every year.  At least stuffing is good for you, right?

This year, though, would be different.  With his parents out of town, we decided on our first ever ‘restaurant Thanksgiving’.  I carefully picked a few restaurants to choose from, with a few guidelines in mind.  Since it’s an American Holiday, I avoided Italian and French, and steered towards chefs who cook American cuisine.  And since this is the one holiday where eating two desserts is seen as a badge of honor, I had to find a place that would offer more than just a slice of pumpkin pie.

I finally found a few places to choose from.  So he wouldn’t be biased, I covered the names of the restaurants, and just showed him the menu.  I was surprised as he immediately rejected half of the restaurants by uttering this question, “No mashed potatoes?”  There it is.  I never realized mashed potatoes were such a crucial component to the Thanksgiving meal.  As long as there’s cooked turkey, cranberry sauce and some kind stuffing and yams, isn’t the rest optional?  Apparently not.   What do you think?

Maybe I just watched the wrong American movies growing up, because I also, mistakenly thought that mac and cheese was a popular and traditional holiday menu item.  When I made it each year, people loved it, but, while checking a few menus, I saw that almost none of the restaurants offer mac and cheese.

So, after multiple mashed potato and dessert dilemmas, we ultimately decided on our tried and true favorite spot where the people are friendly, the cocktails are strong, and most importantly, the food is delicious.

(I’m secretly going to be mad if he doesn’t eat his mashed potatoes.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 1st, 2011

Grilled cheese and tomato soup

Burgers and fries, cookies and milk, bacon and eggs…some foods are just meant to be in relationships.  While there are many classic food duos in American culture that I love, there is one that I just don’t understand: grilled cheese and tomato soup.  Now, as a Japanese person, I have nothing against soup; I grew up eating Miso and still love it.  But what makes tomato the soup of choice when the sandwich option is grilled cheese?  Wouldn’t chicken noodle or cream of broccoli work just as well?
I was excited when we had lunch at Bar Bouchon in Beverly Hills, and I saw the grilled cheese/tomato soup combo on the menu.  While the BLT with the sunny side up egg on top sounded great and would surely lead to lunch satisfaction, I had to do the research on the grilled cheese/tomato soup duo for you, my reader.  Not a problem though; how could I go wrong either way, eating at Thomas Keller‘s place in Beverly Hills?  So while I sacrificed the guaranteed pleasure of bacon and egg for the sake of research, it was with mixed feelings when the server asked my husband what HE wanted, and his reply was, “The BLT.”  At least I would still get to try it!
The problem I have with Grilled cheese and tomato soup is the soup part.  I’ve just never cared for tomato soup.  I think it’s too tangy having a taste that to me, is somewhere between watered down ketchup and tomato juice.   Would the great Thomas Keller be able to change my opinion?  Drum roll please….  Unfortunately, no, even with the Thomas Keller stamp, tomato soup was still tomato soup…not for me. In Keller’s defense, it was better than watered down ketchup, but still, no server will ever hear me utter the phrase, “Tomato soup please,” in the future.  My American food guide, my husband, tells me that the proper technique is to dip the sandwich into the soup, which is why the sandwich is typically dry.  I don’t know if I agree with his logic, but he was right about the sandwich being dry.  I did remember the menu stating that the cheese was aged two years, but after my first bite, I was wondering if they aged it inside the very brioche I was holding.Taking my husband’s advice, I dipped the sandwich into the soup.  It was better than eating by itself, but still, didn’t make me appreciate the combo. My husband went on to explain that grilled cheese and tomato soup is a nice, warm comfort food for kids on a rainy day.  I can see that, but still there’s the issue of the taste.  Of course, he has a theory on that too.  According to my husband, kids love pizza.  Grilled cheese and tomato soup is just another form of that flavor profile.  Think about it; melted cheese on flat bread with the taste of tomato sauce all in the same bite.  Did that help?  Well, no, considering I am not a huge fan of pizza.

So the grilled cheese/tomato soup combo is lost on me.  Somehow, I’m sure I’ll find something else to eat and write about.

Aren’t you lucky?

October 30th, 2011

Halloween candies

I moved into my husband’s house on a significant day in American culture, Halloween.  Of course living together would mean lifelong lessons on sharing and compromising, but before all of that could start, my first lesson would be that strange American tradition known as trick or treating.  Sure, I’ve seen Halloween come and go, having lived in America over twenty years, but having lived in apartment buildings where any cobwebs hanging on the wall would have been reported to management and removed immediately, I never really experienced the actual costumed trick-or-treater.

So as you could imagine, I couldn’t wait for our first doorbell ringer, though I did have a few questions for my resident expert on American culture, my husband. My questions?  Where should I begin?

-Can’t we give healthy snacks?
-Can’t we give out homemade treats?
-Can’t we just leave a bowl full of candy out front with a sign saying ‘take one’?

My husband laughed.

Healthy snacks?  Seems obvious, right?  That is, until my husband explained to me the concept of T.P.-ing a house.  Japanese people are supposed to be good at math, but I never learned the equation that states that the amount of vandalism your house experiences is inversely proportional to the quality of the treats you hand out for Halloween.  To the laymen, that means, “Give away snickers and your property is safe.  Give away organic nuts and plan on spending November first cleaning shaving cream out of the mailbox.”

Homemade treats?  What could be better than something homemade?  Oh, razorblades, really?  Has that ever really happened?  Probably not, but why chance it.  Besides, I know MY kitchen is clean, but who knows about that neighbor who’s smoking while she cooks, letting the dog lick her finger as her cigarette butt falls gently into the mixing bowl.

Take one?  Oh yeah, for a minute there, I forgot that I grew up in Japan, where kids don’t learn the law of the American playground, “Finder’s keepers, losers weepers.”  In my mind, I’m imagining a pumpkin shaped candy dish with a bowl of candy or even pennies, with a nicely drawn sign reading, “Take One,” in front of which, well mannered children happily wait in line to pick a treat at random, before merrily skipping away.   My husband reminded me that this most likely won’t work, as the first, ‘entrepreneurial’ kid would get the idea to dump the entire contents into his bag before some bigger kid pushes him down to take it away.

The last lesson on Halloween is the hardest of them all.

-Never buy candy you like, to give away.

Some rules are made to be broken.  I bought a huge bag of candy contains as much as caramel and toffee bar as possible.

Happy Halloween!