Thursday, March 31, 2005

Pho+? and the mystery of Google Ads...

No, the two topics above have nothing to do with each other... Faithful readers will know that my blog has gone through various updates and make overs recently, with one of these changes being that you now only see one post at a time. My photo essays were taking too much space, and the pages were getting longer and longer, making it more and more daunting for work-time browsing... Let me know if you like/dislike it!

Another thing that was added mid-March was the Google ads on the side bar. I started this as a way to keep track of how many page views I was getting, and thanks to you all, my dear readers and generous referring sources, my numbers have gone up a lot in the past couple of weeks! Yippe! I wonder if Google is going to come after me if I post what I am going to tell you next... Well, if you no longer see Google ads here, you'll know that they booted me out of their system... Anyway, here's the Google ad mystery.

Since adding Google ads to my blog, Google has been keeping track of how many page views and how many 'clicks' on ads I get per day. I get paid per click, or so I thought... But some days, I get 32 cents per 2 clicks. Other days, I get 5 cents per click. My highest gross was $1.13 for 7 clicks in one day, although I've had days with more than 10 clicks in one day. I only got 74 cents for 10 clicks on one day, even though on a different day, I made $1.05 on 4 clicks. This is all with approximately the same number of page views. Mysterious. If any of you advanced bloggers have any insight, please let me know!

OK, so that was the Google Ads mystery part. Now, onto the grub!

Since I've already told you a little about pho+?, I won't bore you with the basics. I was trying to remember when I had my first bowl of pho+?, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't think of when or where I had that first bowl. My most memorable bowl was the one my wild and crazy Vietnamese friend, Cindy, made in NC. It was a warm bowl of beefy noodles, but it was a bit too beefy and a bit too star-anise-y for pho+? novices. Unfortunately, this bowl was too intense for my best friend (the very advanced Sushido Ikkyu practitioner, the Mogu Mogu) and the Mogu Mogu was seen eating raw octopus before he would touch another bowl of pho+?... I was already at least a mid-ranking pho+? connoisseur at the time, so I must've had my first bowl a lot earlier... Perhaps it was my sister, the Unchipu, in NYC who introduced me to it.

Regardless of what my past pho+? experiences may be, I now love a steamy bowl of pho+? over either the ramen or the udon. This is nearly sacrilege as a Japanese, considering the ramen and the udon are often placed in the top 10 culinary achievements by the Japanese. But to me, pho+? has the best of both the ramen and the udon worlds. Pho+? has that tasty land-animal strength in its soup that udon doesn't have, but lacks the overpowering oil and richness that ruins ramen for me. I can even feel somewhat healthy eating pho+?, since I can add a ton of bean sprouts and herbs. And to top it all off, pho+? (almost) NEVER costs more than $6 and comes to your table almost always within 5 min of ordering. How much better can it get?

My current favorite pho+? place is Pho+? Ao Sen in Oakland. This place has one of the best bowls of pho+? I've ever had. And I've had quite a few now. They have a wonderful - absolutely wonderful - broth of pure beef goodness with no gimmicks - not a hint of artificial sweetness to distract from the strong beef flavor. The noodles are chewy and retain their texture all the way through to the end. This bowl is absolutley worth the drive from almost anywhere in the Bay Area. I have not found a better bowl of pho+? anywhere, even in San Jose...

If you have any suggestions for other pho+? shops, let me know. My friends will vouch for this - I travel for good food!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Whipped cream puffs...

No, no, this wasn't my WED treat this week - I had something very, very good tonight for my WED treat, but I'm saving that post for the weekend when I have a little more time to play around with my pictures. It's going to be a good one with yummy looking Japanese food, so check back this weekend!!

Today, I'm breaking my savory food streak to share with you my very tasty petite cream puffs. My aunt LOVED the petite cream puffs from the local NAFUKO grocery store (oh, the memories!), and we always had them around when I was growing up in Nagoya. I never liked custard all that much, so naturally, I rarely ate those cream puffs. But then, as I got older, I kinda missed them. I'd go on about how they were filled with cream that bursted in my mouth - because they did - but the Papa Bear might try to imply that I was saying dirty things, so I won't go on. That dirty old bear. Anyway, as I got older, I decided that custard was pretty tasty and that cream puffs were awesome. I'm not sure whether my advanced taste buds of adulthood let me appreciate these treats or if my fading memory of childhood days make me enjoy them... Regardless of the reason, I now love cream puffs and eclairs.

The recipe I have for the skin is incredibly simple and they always - I mean, always - puff up nicely as long as you bake them enough. I got the recipe from a Japanese every-day cooking magazine called Orange Page. I literally just now - as I was typing Orange Page - realized that perhaps Orange Page is a play on the Yellow Pages, but that they forgot to make it plural (common Japanese grammatical error)...

Since it is a Japanese recipe, everything is in the metric system and you will need a kitchen scale to make the recipe, but here it is:

Milk 60 ml (~1/4 US cup)
Water 60 ml
Unsalted butter 55 g
Sugar 1/2 tsp
Salt 1/2 tsp
Flour 70 g
Egg 2 mediums, well-beaten

I specify that the 1/4 cup of liquids are US cups, because the Japanese cup is sneakily 50 ml less than the US cup. Strange, huh? I learned this the hard way when something I was making had waaaaay too much liquid when I followed the Japanese recipe with US measuring cups...

Basically, you just mix in everything but the flour and the eggs in a pot, heat it up until it comes to a slow boil. Then add the flour, mash it all up, heat that until the batter/dough slides off of the bottom of the pot, leaving behind an "oily streak of residue" (this is a literal translation of the Japanese instruction - surely doesn't sound appetizing, I know). To this hot batter, slowly introduce the well-beaten eggs. Pour into a zip-lock bag or a pastry bag and form soft-serve ice cream type twirled mini-towers (approximately 2 inch diameter). Lightly smash down the towers as you pat tops with leftover eggs from the bowl it was beaten. Bake in 400F oven for 25 min, then in a 375F oven for another 20-30 min until golden. If you take them out before it's golden all over, it will get flat once you take it out of the oven.

This soft-serve ice cream shape - I don't know how else to call it in English - always makes me laugh a little, because it is the shape of poop in Japanese cartoons. I tried to look for interesting looking images to link to for the poop, but I ended up finding unspeakable images...

I was too lazy to make custard to fill these with, so I just filled them with whipped cream and added some strawberries for color. Petite cream puffs. So cute, so tasty, and somehow so Japanese to me. Maybe because we Japanese like to make everything small and compact, and food is no exception.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Sushido Promotion test continues...

Are you all about to jump out of your seats in anticipation of the Papa Bear's promotion test outcome at Kiss Seafood??? The Papa Bear sure is. He doesn't know if he's been granted the Ikkyu rank or not yet, and he's asked me on more than one occasion. By the way, if you missed Part I of the Sushido Promotion at Kiss, I highly recommend you read it first...

If we had stayed with the standard course, the Nikyu promotion sushi plate would have been the second to last dish with a bowl of miso soup as the finale. But the Papa Bear and I are hungry bears, so we had The Chef add two more dishes and a couple of sushi pieces. The first of the two dishes The Chef added was another knock-out punch of tender, delicate flavors. The fish was definitely sawara, as the softness of the flesh, typical of sawara, was very memorable. The salt from miso marinade added firmness to the fish while bringing out the natural sweetness.

We were wowed by the miso-marinated sawara and its fragrant grilled aroma. The marinade acted as a casing for the scent-filled steam that rose right to our faces when we picked the fish apart. The Papa Bear was sufficiently impressed, and any beginner sushido practitioner would be blinded by the sublime quality of these cooked plates to taste and discern the true quality of the sushi...

Then came the ikkyu promotion test: kohada and saba sushi. These are vinegar marinated fish that pack a punch, and it takes some advanced sushi appreciation skills to fully enjoy the tenderness and the powerful flavors. I personally _LOVE_ these pieces. These were well-prepared and incredibly well executed. The dishes at Kiss really shines when The Chef tackles the ingredients head-on. The vinegar marinade was excellent, and the flavors of the ocean was sealed in the fish by the vinegar. I thought they were wonderful. I glanced at the Papa Bear, and unfortunately, he didn't quite have that blissful look to win his ikkyu promotion. He complained of the pieces being 'too fishy' and requiring 'getting used to' the onslaught of scents and flavors.

Alas, the Papa Bear is not ready for his ikkyu promotion... He didn't quite make the cut to obtain his ikkyu, since he couldn't quite enjoy the advanced sushi he had not been exposed to previously... Sorry, the Papa Bear, maybe next time!

We finished the evening with a dobin-mushi, which literally translates to claypot-steamed. These are clear broth soups filled with various goodies, steamed in a claypot kettle. Most famous for matsutake versions, dobin-mushi becomes ubiquitous during the Fall when matsutake season is in full swing in Japan. I was a bit surprised that he made a dobin-mushi at this time of the year, but the broth was so serenely sublime, I didn't complain.

I actually think The Chef brought out the dobin-mushi as a photographic opportunity for me. The little serving cup to which we fished out the goodies and the kettle provided me with a wonderful Zen-like ambiance, wouldn't you say?

One thing about Kiss is that the animal protein here is all fish. There is not an ounce of chicken, pork, or beef. It stays true to its namesake: Kiss Seafood. The food is prepared with so much love for the culinary arts and its ingredients, you won't miss the land-animals on your dinner plate. It is truly a pleasant experience that leaves you fulfilled without pretense, satisfied without oversatiation, peacefully content. Truly, a pleasurable experience.

The final result: the Papa Bear is awarded a Nikyu in Sushido.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Will the Papa Bear win a Sushido promotion?

I told you I'm on a savory kick! Here's another savory Japanese food post.

Today's post is about the Papa Bear's Sushido (the way of the Sushi) promotion dinner... Sushido uses the same ranking system as many martial arts disciplines, and I, as the founding matriarch of Sushido, have 100% rank-granting powers. Currently, my sister is the highest ranking sushido practitioner so far with a sandan/3rd degree black belt, and I consider myself only a shodan/1st degree black belt compared to her. If you want to be ranked, you'll have to take me out to a sushi/Japanese restaurant, and I will find a challenge during the dinner and promote you to the appropriate belt...

For the Papa Bear's Sushido promotion test, I decided to go to Kiss Seafood in SF, which until I discovered Yuzu, was my favorite Japanese place. Yuzu and Kiss are totally different experiences, specializing in completely opposite spectrums of Japanese food, with the price range as one of the only similarities... Oh yeah, and for me, the length of the drive from Dublin... I shouldn't be comparing apples and oranges (or yuzus - ha! I'm so funny sometimes), but for some reason, when I started going to Yuzu, I stopped going to Kiss. I think I'm just in a more sushi phase right now...

Anyway, The Taisho-san (The Big Leader - used to address The Chef when you don't know his name) at Kiss is a master of the dashi (Japanese broth used as a base for many dishes). His dashi is so deep with delicate flavor, it literally makes me pause to enjoy a moment of serenity. His restaurant is very small with five counter and two, three tables. I seem to gravitate towards smaller restaurants, especially for the personal interactions and often educational conversations I enjoy with The Chef. Kiss' strength is sublimely cooked, delicately seasoned food that brings a breeze of Kyoto in me.

We started out the evening with a small bowl of Hijiki, a Japanese seaweed, simmered in a sweet/savory sauce for a long, long time. My grandpa always told us that he used to eat buckets of this stuff all the time to prevent balding, because my mama told him he wouldn't be allowed to attend her wedding if went bald. He had a full head of hair at his funeral, so it must work... My pictures of the hijiki was uninspired - I msut've been too hungry to focus my thoughts on food photography...

We moved on to the very fragrant cucumber/myoga topped soumen with sumiso. Myoga is a bulb-like plant that is harvested while the plant is still growing underground. It has a refreshing bitterness and a nice crunch. It is also known for making people forgetful. There are countless Japanese manga's that evoke the myoga for its forgetful properties - almost as much as the tripping by the notorious banana peel... Soumen is the skinny cousin of the udon, which in theory is supposed to be hollow in the middle. I can't vouch for the authenticity of this claim, since I have never bothered to check. And finally, sumiso is literally vinegar-miso, which is a sauce made by cutting miso with dashi and vinegar. As you might guess, this dish conveyed Summer to me, and I could almost hear the cicadas and the warabi-mochi (this will be featured sometime soon... I'll save the explanation for that...) guy with his push-cart... except it was pouring rain outside and about -5 degrees Celsius outside...

OK, if I keep explaining each dish like this, this is going to be waaaaaaay too long for anyone to read on their lunch breaks! I'll speed it up now... Next up, a sashimi plate with the usual suspects. It was all very tasty, but I have to say, now that I know of alternatives, the sushi/sashimi genre is not why I go to Kiss...

What followed was a succession of dashi-powered dishes that encompassed Zen-like serenity. The dishes were created from well-selected ingredients that were given careful attention. The Chef danced around his small kitchen with perfect precision and flowing ease.

This sawara-daikon (I think it was sawara, but the myoga must've affected my memory!) was absolutely divine. The daikon was extremely tender with its flavors being brought out to the maximum by the sawara-infused dashi. The dashi was so clear, we could see our sawara-daikon reflection in it. Gorgeous.

Next came the Chawan-mushi, which literally translates to Bowl-Steamed. It is a dairy-less savory custard that gets steamed in its bowl. The fish creme brulee I had in Paris must've been a French version of this dish. The similarities were uncanny. Chawan-mushi shines when the dashi is good, and this one was excellent. The texture was borderline too soft for me, but the flavors came together nicely with big chunks of snapper. Usually, these things have chicken in them, but I love the fish-only commitment by The Chef.

We were now ready for the promotion test. The Papa Bear had been impressed thoroughly with the wonderful dishes he had been presented with - the question was how he would interpret the sushi dishes...

Again, there was nothing striking to the selection. The Papa Bear looked at me with a slight disappointment - one point for the promotion! He ate one and mumbled something about the rice being too sticky - another point for the promotion!! He then complimented the ikura - the special fresh ikura!!!! Promotion to Nikyu Granted!!

The ikura was luscious. Luscious. I could faintly see the red/orange of the ikura peeking through the nori. How seductive! Fresh ikura has all the sea-scented flavors with none of the edge of soy-marinated ikura, and it's got to be one of my favorite foods in the world. I must try Ino Sushi in SF, as it's been recommended to me as the Ikura Spot...

Although I had granted the Papa Bear his Nikyu promotion, I had the exact same impression as the Papa Bear, so much so that I was considering an Ikkyu promotion... For those of you not familiar with the Japanese belt system, most often used in martial arts schools, ikkyu is a step before the prestigious Black Belt. An ikkyu promotion would mean that the Papa Bear was only one step behind me in Sushido... We decided to tack on some more dishes, and included in there were two pieces selected to act as the Ikkyu Promotion test...

Will the Papa Bear win his Ikkyu promotion? Come back tomorrow for Kiss Visit Part II & the outcome of the Papa Bear's quest to obtain his Ikkyu status!!

Sunday, March 27, 2005

My childhood memories...

When I was growing up in Nagoya, Japan, I lived near an Old Spaghetti Factory. It was one of my all time favorite places to eat, and I even had some of my birthday parties there. I LOVED it. It always smelled great with the seductive aroma of fresh baked bread permeating the air, the grown-up atmosphere with dim lighting, fancy chairs with velvet seats, pretty waitresses with their hair nicely done in a bun, a scoop of strawberry ice cream with plump strawberries waiting for me at the end of the meal... The taste of the spaghetti itself is less memorable, although the four-sauce plate always seemed like such a luxury - four sauces in one plate! What more could a ten year old girl ask for?! Over the years during my short visits back home, I always longingly stared at the Old Spaghetti Factory by my house, but could not quite justify going out for spaghetti when I was in Japan for only 72 hrs or so...

So this is why I jumped with joy when I saw an Old Spaghetti Factory on my way home from Lake Tahoe a couple of months ago. Unfortunately, on my first ride back, we'd already missed the exit by the time I spotted its trademark sign. It was an amazing coincidence when we drove by it, since I was telling my ski mates about how I'd had birthday parties at Old Spaghetti Factory just a few minutes prior to driving past one. My heart literally skipped a beat when we drove by that sign.

Just last weekend, we made another trek to Lake Tahoe, and this time, my buddy Charlton and I made a conscious effort to remember which exit led to the Old Spaghetti Factory. There were two of them on our way to Lake Tahoe from Dublin, and we noted both with careful attention. And on Sunday evening, we made sure to eat dinner at one.

The first Old Spaghetti Factory we stopped at was in fancy mall and it was bustling. I walked in, almost skipping with joy, my heart beating fast with anticipation. When I saw the interior, it almost brought a tear to my eyes - it was essentially the _same_ restaurant as the fancy, grown-up restuarant of my childhood. I stood a bit in awe as I stared at the 'antique' lamps and the train car in the middle of the restaurant.

Unfortunately, there was a 30 min wait for a table, so we decided to move on to Old Spaghetti Factory #2. The drive to the next one was only 45 min or so, and I waited patiently, quietly reliving my childhood weekend meals with my sister and my mother.

Old Spaghetti Factory #2 was not in a fancy mall. It had dubious neighbors - something like a Super Motel 8 and a West coast version of Denny's whose name escapes my mind right now. I have to say, at this point, I was kicking myself for not waiting the 30 minutes at first one.

When we walked in, we were told to wait ten minutes or so for a table, which we agreed to do. The ten minutes was more like twenty, even though less than half of restuarant was full. To put it nicely, the interior in this Old Spaghetti Factory was a lot more Factory than either the first Old Spaghetti Factory we stopped at or my childhood Old Spaghetti Factory. The chairs were just wooden chairs - no velvet cushioning to treat my bum with - and even the 'antique' look wasn't working here - it looked like things were made by Walmart.

I shook off the initial disappointment and looked forward to our meal. My excitement wore off fast, since our server took another fifteen minutes or so to come take our order. We saw very little of our server, except for when it was time to pay the bill - he was there instantly for that. Strange, since by then, we'd alrady made up our mind on how much to tip him...

When we finally got our fresh baked bread, it was warm, bringing a light of hope...except it was just re-heated warm, not fresh baked warm. The center was still cold, and the aroma just wasn't there. And it was SOURDOUGH. Sourdough! I know I am near San Francisco, but sourdough????? I SOOOO wanted my childhood "French" bread with its light yet chewy, salty flavorful innards and crust so crunchy that I always felt like it was almost going to cut my mouth open. Not this limp, half-cold, half-hot (not even luke warm!) sourdough bread...

I hid my disappointment and tried to continue with my meal. After all, I had dragged my ski mates to here... And when my four-sauce Potpurri plate came, I was almost recovered, as it looked just like I had remembered it...

But sadly, the similarities ended there. The cheese sauce was too salty, the clam sauce was off (something wierd going on with this one, but I couldn't pinpoint it), and the mushroom and meat sauce reminded me more of the pasta bar from our college cafeteria than of the luscious experience at my Old Spaghetti Factory in Japan. Sad, sad, sad. They didn't even have the strawberry ice cream I was looking so forward to devouring...

I am going back to Japan in April. Maybe I will make a special request to my mama to take me to the Old Spaghetti Factory this time... Although, I ought to know by now. A trip down memory lane is dangerous...

Friday, March 25, 2005

Yet another sushi post...

It seems that I am over my sweet tooth, and I am now on a savory kick... The taiyaki and the anko cupcake sort of did me in and I'm done with sweets for a while...

Today, I have a secret to confess. I'm not always faithful...when it comes to sushi restuarants. I love Yuzu and really enjoy myself there, but because of the 45+ min drive and the budget considerations, a Yuzu dinner is not always an option... Enter Mitama in Oakland with its proximity and reasonable prices and you have a very unfaithful Alice... Well, itt's not exactly infidelity... It's like having different friends for different activities - the work friend, the drinking friend, the dancing friend, the karaoke friend, you know how it goes...

I've been to Mitama in the Rockridge district of Oakland twice now, and I had a very pleasant dining experience both times. The first time we were there, I wasn't quite prepared and didn't have my camera, but the experience was tasty enough for me to lug my camera there for a second visit. On both occasions, the fish was very fresh and flavorful, although we noted a distinct difference in the quality of the rice in the two visits. A sushi chef once told me that having consistently good sushi rice is extremely difficult, since rice changes so much with temperature/age. I do notice that with my rice at home as well - as my rice stock ages, I have to adjust the amount of water I add to cook the rice.

The first time around, we got there close to closing time, and we were able to interact with the sushi chef a lot more. He made us a sashimi plate and then we enjoyed a number of sushi options afterwards to fill up. He also shared some of his 'hashi yasume' (literally means chopstick rester, but it's just a small plate/dish served in between main dishes), which was very enjoyable. On our second visit, the restuarant was PACKED and I didn't want to trouble the kitchen too much by ordering off the menu, so I just asked the waitress to give us ten of the best sushi pieces that The Chef had to offer. I find that this is the best way to order sushi at a restaurant to get a feel for the place...

In addition to The Chef's choices, we ordered these rolls, since we were really hungry and just wanted to get something fast. I really liked the combination of the tender scallops with the crunch of the deep-fried asparagus. The asparagus itself retained its crunchiness, and along with the crispiness from the deep-frying, it offered quite a texture. The scallops were the yin to the yang of the asparagus, and was moist, soft, and voluptuous. The scallops were so good that we ordered it as a nigiri...

One of the things you will notice in these pictures is that the nori (seaweed) is very crisp and full of vitality at Mitama. The nori almost crunches as you bite into it, offering a very pleasant contrast of textures to the soft rice inside. Since this contrast is one of my favorite things about the gunkan-maki, all goodies that come in the gunkan-style gets my stamp of approval.


And of course, the King of Gunkan-maki is the Ikura in my mind...

My mother always told me that I have to try the egg slice at every sushi restuarant I go to, because the treatment of the egg speaks a lot about the restaurant itself. Making a good egg slice is not as easy as it looks, requiring a supreme dashi (broth), a fine-tuned control of salt and sugar, both of which need to be in perfect balance with the dashi for the egg to be good, and the ability to form multiple layers of egg - it is not supposed to be a giant block of egg as I have seen in some places, but rather a mille-feuille of egg layers. The egg slice is a good indication of the skills in the kitchen, and a kitchen that can produce a tasty egg slice will likely be very good. My mother also swears that no matter how good the expensive items may be, a place that neglects its egg will not flourish, since they are willing to serve something to the customers that is not their best effort. So, of course, I had to get the egg at Mitama too...

One of these days, I will do a Bay Area Egg Slice Comparison, so I will save my impression of Mitama's egg for that report...

Mitama fills a different niche than Yuzu for sure, and it has a very different ambiance. The Chef didn't quite give us ten pieces but cut us short and started asking us what we wanted to eat as the restaurant became less busy and he had enough time to speak to us. Because I like all kinds of fish, I never know what to order and prefer The Chef to choose his best for me. But since Mitama is a fairly large restaurant, it is a little more intimidating to make off-the-menu requests and we just ordered some more stuff from the menu that sounded good. Everything here was quite reasonable and definitely tasty. I prefer this place over Kirala in Berkeley any day.

The proprietor came over when he saw that I was checking out his sushi with too much attention for a regular diner, and we had a short chat. He clarified to me that his restaurant was named after Three Balls/Spheres rather than The Spirit, both of which are pronounced Mitama in Japanese. His choice is based on the fact that he has three daughters, each sphere representing one of his daughters. A very sweet story to end the meal with, indeed.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Can I get included too...?

While I was having my lunch, I noticed that two of my favorite blogs, Gastronomie and Spicetart, had cupcake recipes and a reference to IMBB... IMBB - it sounded so familiar... I followed the links on both pages and found that there was a cupcake event going on at i was just really very hungry. What a cute name for a blog, by the way...


So then I felt kinda left out for a little bit, since being a newbie, I didn't know anything about it and the deadline for cupcake posting was Thursday, March 24th. Does that mean today at midnight or does that mean have it posted by 12:01 AM, Thursday???? I don't know... But hey, it never hurts to try to join the bandwagon, even if it's started moving already...

I actually hadn't planned on making anything until I got home and started cleaning. Cleaning vs cupcake recipe creation - the choice was easy. Cupcakes. I still had anko left from last night's taiyaki adventure, and Shan had been talking about green tea cakes at work lately (she had planned to bake one for St. Patrick's Day, but missed it since Google didn't give her a one day warning...). I set my sights on anko-stuffed (green) tea cake and started scheming.

The problem was that I didn't have any matcha powder, a key component in any green tea cake I know how to make. And since I love challenges and spontaneity, I decided I'd tackle making a tea cake without a recipe (don't worry, I measured as I created the recipe below at the end). I started with a backbone recipe for a chocolate cupcake from Cooking Light, from which I used only the measurements for butter, sugar, and eggs. To this, I added genmai-matcha mixed tea that I brewed dark, but it didn't quite have a strong enough tea flavor. So then, I dumped in some tea leaves to give it some more tea power/energy. Still not quite enough bitterness. I brewed some seriously super bitter jasmine tea to add, and this stuff was potent!! After the jasmine tea step, I was happy with the wet stuff.

I then went onto the dry stuff. The Cooking Light recipe called for 1 cup flour and 1/4 cocoa with 1/2 tsp baking soda, but I had added a lot more liquid to the wet stuff already, so I increased the flour proportion. I also thought that the tea might be too basic for the soda to work efficiently (must check this in Lab tomorrow - I have no idea if tea is basic or acidic, but I do know that the pH of Coke is the same as battery acid... eeeeew!), so I added baking powder to the recipe. I probably should've just replaced the soda with the powder all together, since soda goes flat quickly and filling the cupcakes with anko took longer than I thought - these cupcakes probably suffered some deflation because of my poor timing...

Anyway, I added the dry stuff to the wet stuff, filled each cupcake section half-way with the batter, added a generous droplet of anko, and then filled the mold with more batter. The little guys went happily into the oven (350F) for ~25 min and came out with a big smiley face!


These turned out very nicely, considering they were a spontaneous creation! The filling gave an adorable smiley face look to both cupcakes that were sliced open (unintentional smiling is always welcome at my place), and the tea flavor was well-infused without being overpowering. I would reduce the butter next time, since I could easily get away with less and reducing it would probably let the bitterness of the tea come out more. The tea leaves weren't all that noticeable texture-wise, but added quite a bit to the background scent that went very well with the anko. I declare it a success!

3/4 cup sugar
5 tbl butter
2 eggs
1/2 cup super strong genmai-tea with matcha-added (found in Japanese stores)
2 tbs jasmine tea brewed so bitter you can't possibly drink it
1 tbs shredded genmai tea leaves
1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350F. Blend wets and dries separately. Bring wets and dries together. Quickly fold batter together. Fill muffin cups half way, add about 1 tbs of anko, fill muffin cup to top. Bake ~25 min. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Taiyaki Adventure WED & an announcement!

Announcing the first Food Blogger's WED Night at Yuzu!!! It's actually not my idea, but the brilliant Fatemeh of Gastronomie made the wonderful suggestion to have our next WED event at Yuzu. Because I think sushi is SOOOO photogenic and a fun challenge to photograph and describe, I think this is a perfect WED Food Blogger's event! Come and enjoy the food and company and get some new material for your writing and food photography!

March 30th, 7:00 PM, Yuzu in San Mateo; I think something like $50 per person for food, not including drinks, would get us a nice assortment of The Chef's recommendations. If you are interested in joining us, please send me an email or post me a comment, so I can RSVP with the right number!


This is the first time I am actually writing about my WED event on Wednesday! Tonight, I made taiyaki for the first time and it was so much fun!!

This all started out with a post I saw on Chowhound - someone by the name of "Ume" looking for a taiyaki pan... A taiyaki pan!! What a strange object to be querying about and even stranger, the same object has been sitting idle in my kitchen for the last several years unused! I instinctively posted back to the Mysterious Ume, replying that I was willing to part with my taiyaki pan if s/he would allow me to take pictures of the taiyaki pan in action before the hand over. A few moments later, I start to wonder whether this was a really bad idea - what if this Ume character is just out to cause trouble, secretly plotting to slice pieces of the owner into their taiyaki pans... I mumble to the Papa Bear my plans later in the evening and find myself greeted with the same skeptic response, consisting of "You are going to where with who that you met where?!" I soon decide that this may have been a really naive, typical Alice move, and I vow to not tell anyone else about it until the event takes place. Of course, in retrospect, I probably should've told everyone where I was going to be - in case the Mysterious Ume actually is a taiyaki-obsessed serial killer, I would want everyone to know where I was...

Well, the Mysterious Ume was also weary of the strange Alice offering her a free taiyaki pan. The Mysterious Ume turns out to be a very charming foodie, Melissa, and she confessed to googling my name to make sure I wasn't some taiyaki pan-totting serial killer. She graciously offered her kitchen for our taiyaki adventure, and we had a absolutely lovely time exploring the complex and ever-changing taiyaki operation.

I brought my Japanese taiyaki batter recipe, consisting of:

1 egg, beaten
30 g sugar
200 ml whole milk
160 g flour
2/3 tsp baking powder

The ingredients were added sequentially in the order listed above and beaten well between each addition. We used commercially available "anko" bean paste that I've also had in my kitchen for a while. We greased the pan for the first try, but we ended up not greasing it afterwards, as it did not seem to make the slightest difference whether we greased the pan or not.

We heated the pan on low heat until water 'danced' and sizzled when dropped into the pan. We then filled the pan half way with the batter.

And then we followed it with anko. The trick, we later found out, was to have pre-rolled single-serving clumps of anko, which could easily be added to the mold right after pouring the batter.

We quickly poured more batter to cover, closed the plates, and flipped it over to cook the top side first. Since the bottom side had been heating a while, the pan must have been hot enough to maintain browning - the bottom side was almost always a beautiful golden color at the end.

The taiyaki batter, much like the Belgian waffle batter, puffs up and rises as it cooks, pushing the pans apart. We knew our taiyaki's were close to being ready when we saw them playing peek-a-boo...

We had some beauties jumping out of the taiyaki pan, including one that had the most gorgeous gradations of color at its belly, just like the real snappers...

And generally, these were filled perfectly with abundant anko to be a luxurious snack.

We had one with a neural tube defect... Ladies, please remember to take your folate supplements...

By the end, Melissa had the process down with complete efficiency and the confident assertiveness of a taiyaki master. She whipped out a number of perfectly browned, lusciously plump taiyaki's.

Our very flattering tasters, Lana, Jaya, and the Papa Bear, gave very rave reviews, and I have to agree - these hot-off-the-pan taiyakis were excellent!! They were just as good, if not better, than the taiyaki treats I had as a child at the street fairs in Japan!!!

One question I didn't know the answer to was the significance of the tai (red snapper) shape, so I goggled and found an answer (in Japanese). Taiyakis are modeled after tai, because tai was a luxury item that few ordinary Japanese citizens could afford in 1881, when the first taiyaki was introduced by the son of a banker from Osaka. He initially sold the anko packed cakes in the shape of turtles, but switched to the tai, long considered a symbol of prosperity and luck, because frankly, the turtles just weren't doing it for his business. The rest is history, with the taiyaki commanding respect even across the Pacific in San Francisco. I find it rather ironic that the tai, once too precious to land on most dinner tables in Japan, is now far more common than taiyaki in most US cities...


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The weekend treats that keep me going...

Have you noticed how I make it a point to spoil myself? A while back, I realized how easy it is to get caught up in being busy with demands from work, housework, and other basic demands that I was forgetting to do the things I enjoy. I would hate to look back 30 years from now and say, "Why, yes, I always met the deadlines at work three days in advance, got the laundry done on time, and my house was spotless, but yikes, I was so busy being busy, I spent my life being busy!" So now, I constantly remind myself to periodically turn down the noise in my life - whatever non-essential that may seem so essential when the mind is in 'busy' mode - and take time out of my life to do the things I enjoy doing.

Going out for a un-hurried weekend brunch/lunch is one of those luxuries I love. Because of my work schedule, I usually eat lunch infront of my computer. Although I value this break in my day to read my favorite food blogs and Chowhound posts, it's just not the same as taking a full hour or more to savor lunch. Those relaxing brunch/lunch moments are saved for the weekends.


I recently had a wonderful weekend meal at the Hog Island Oyster Co. in the Ferry Building. They have outdoor seating that faces the Bay, and although it was a cloudy day, it was warm enough under the heat lamps to sit on their long wooden benches and enjoy the breeze. It's a great place to rest after visiting the (overhyped - ops, did I say that?!) Farmer's Market.


We devoured a plate of Kumamoto and Sweetwater oysters to start our lunch. The smaller Kumamotos are my favorite, since they have a delicate flavor that flowers inside my mouth. It's only in the last several years that I started appreciating oysters, and the big ones still intimidate me with their potency and overwhelming sea-scent. I like my oysters with just a tad bit of lemon and that's it. Oh, I take that back. I think a well-made ponzu with just enough momiji oroshi (hot-peppered daikon) to bring out the sweetness of the oysters is right up there with the splash of lemon as the best oyster condiment. Do you think I am too Japan-centric when it comes to culinary preferences?

Lunch was soups and salads for everyone, and everything looked great. I liked the stew/broth component of my seafood gumbo very much with all the seafood essence blending together nicely with the spices and the sausage flavor. The consistency of broth was thick without being creamy and deep without heaviness. The dish was overall light and fresh, but with enough punch and sustenance to leave a bold impression. Molly seemed to enjoy the sausages themselves more than I did - I liked sensing the faint shadow of the sausages in the broth, but the actual sausages themselves didn't do it for me. But then again, sausages don't do it for me very often...

The New England clam chowder looked nothing like what I expected when it came. I'd never seen a New England clam chowder that was a thin soup with clams still in their shells. I'll have to bring my ex-Bostonian, Anne, to see what she thinks of it next time I'm up that way.

These weekend moments are the only time I miss that glass of wine, that pint of beer, that elation from a mid-afternoon drink. Sitting there, though, I realized that I am better able to enjoy my moment of calm and happiness in my life because I'm fully aware of what is around me - a sensation that was so elusive after my drinks before. I am more cognizant of the colors that surround me, the scents that excite me, and the joy that is present. These weekend afternoons are treats to remind me of how fortunate I am to have such wonderful richness in my life and friends to share these special moments. I come out of the weekend with a reaffirmed conviction to live my life to the fullest...


Monday, March 21, 2005

Oh-so-very Japanese...

In general, I don't think of myself as a traditional Japanese girl. I am very assimilated, and most people I meet don't realize that I was born and raised in Japan. But my culinary preferences speak loudly of my origin - I cook Japanese food when I cook for myself.

By Japanese food, I don't mean the sushi's, the teriyaki plates, and the tempura's. I mean Japanese food made every day in the homes of Japanese families today. Modern Japanese cooking is a true blend of culinary influences that were incorporated and adjusted to suit the Japanese taste buds.

Tonight, I was trying to think of a quick and easy meal to make - either quick to make or with minimum hands-on time. I chose the minimum hands-on time approach, since I was eager to get back to finishing work I left off. And this is what I ended up with:

Doesn't look like Japanese food to you? It is very much Japanese. This is a typical example of what we call "Wa-fuu (Japanese-style) XXXXXX", where the Xs are filled in with the names of the authentic versions. This one happens to be a Wa-fuu risotto with brown rice. It's a lot soupier than the Western risotto and slightly closer to porridge, but let's not sweat the details.

You might be wondering what's Japanese about this dish - well, the dish is definitely in the spirit of Japanese fusion cuisine. Fusion sounds so trendy, but that's really what it is. We mix and match what we like about any food and make it ours by using our favorite seasonings and ingredients along with the original ingredients. We take what we have and modify the original recipe to accommodate the ingredients available to us. If authenticity is lost in the process, heck, we don't worry about it!

This is a super-speedy dish that took me maybe ten minutes of hands-on work. I always save the broth after we have shabu-shabu or other hot-pot dishes at home or when I boil meat balls. I have bags of frozen broth in the freezer, and whenever I make risotto, porridge, or anything else like that, I just thaw the bag of broth and start adding stuff into it. Today, I cooked the brown rice in a post-shabu-shabu broth with some dried shiitake mushrooms and sake (I don't drink it anymore, but I use it liberally in my cooking!), added some more mushrooms to it, and then finished it off with a bunch of various vegetables I got at the Pleasanton farmer's market this weekend. I seasoned the risotto/porridge with soy sauce right before serving. I also added grated roasted sesame seeds right before I started eating.

Doesn't sound like the typical Japanese food? Stay tuned for more reports on these kind of home-style Japanese dishes!

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Food photography and why I blog

I've been doing too much restaurant review-ish kind of work lately, so I've decided to stay away from writing about more places to eat this weekend. Instead, I'll muse about why I blog and enjoy food photography, and share some of my new food photos with a little blurb, which is something I have chosen not to do too much of until now.

Where should I start? I stumbled onto the world of food blogs via Chowhound. Some of my favorite 'hounds had links to their blogs along with their posts, and I started reading through them. Many of them had beautiful pictures, and it brought back memories of my earlier days as a photo-journalist-in-training for a weekly online publication in college.

I'd gotten into photography because of my sister. As with all little sisters, I emulated my sister a lot and wanted to do all the cool things she did. When I was in grade school, she was in high school, doing the photography-thing. She had a nice Canon SLR, and boy, did I want one too! So, when I became old enough to save enough allowances, Xmas, New Years (Japanese tradition), and birthday gifts, I got my very own Canon SLR. It was called the EOS Kiss in Japan, which Canon named EOS Rebel when they brought it to the US. It's sort of interesting how the camera has a very 'cute' name in Japan and a very 'strong' name in the US... I wonder what the marketing strategies are behind that change...

Anyway, I started with the EOS Kiss, eventually upgrading to the EOS 100, also named differently in the US (no ideas on that one). I enjoyed taking pictures of various events, people, things, but never really had a theme. I dabbed with color some, but never got much beyond the typical high-school obsession with black and white photography... Then, came the digital photo age. I, being Japanese, love gadgets, and I upgraded my film SLR to a digital SLR, only to find myself not doing much with my digital SLR. All my lenses for the film camera work with my digital camera, and I had no excuse not to go out there and be creative with my photography. The problem was my lack of a "theme" - that drive to explore - that curiosity to look at life through the view finder for a more careful look at the world of colors, angles, and all sort of other visual stimulation...

My camera sat idle for a while, waiting for me to feel the love. And then, it happened. I went to Paris. My desire to capture the beautiful medley of colors was re-ignited. I was challenged and stimulated by the dishes I encountered in Paris. They smelled and tasted so good, but the peak of their performance was short-lived. Food, especially those culinary treasures we as a species have cultivated, have a relatively short window of time when it is best. Cold foods need to be consumed while cold, and hot food need to be consumed while hot. Even salads need to be eaten before the dressing unnecessarily wilts them! And the window for food photography is even shorter... I refuse to become so consumed with the photography aspect to neglect the food and miss its peak performance. Besides, food is most photogenic during that peak period... What a challenging and exciting art!

I blog to chronicle my experiences and discoveries with food, but the driving force behind my blog is my joy for food photography. I don't want my pictures to be simple snap shots of what I ate. I want my pictures to speak for themselves on how the object depicted stimulated me. I want them to recreate the sensation I felt when I encountered what you see in the photographs. And my words are here only to play a supporting role in that experience... So far, I've chosen not to directly describe the pictures in too much detail in my posts, since I wanted you to have an un-biased opinion/impression, but today, I'm trying something different...

So, with that, here are some recent shots from Yuzu in San Mateo...

When I go to Yuzu, I always start with a sashimi platter. I find a meal with only sushi to be too filling to try the variety I'd like, so I get a sashimi platter with Chef Arima-san's recommendations. You see here a wide selection of seafood choices, including toro (fatty tuna), amaebi (sweet shrimp: raw shrimp), ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin), kampachi (which is not the same as hamachi, as some websites will try to tell you... Even if you can't read the Japanese, you can see that these are two different fish from the pictures and the fact that they have different species names), tai, etc, etc. Although sashimi has a wider window of time for me to tinker with the pictures, the lack of a center piece/focus point, makes it hard for me to decide what I want to say through my sashimi pictures. This first one is about the luxury of choices.

This second one is because I love ikura and these amaebi were particularly good that evening. This is more of an artistic food photo than a communicative food photo. I just thought the colors of the ikura, the shrimp, the daikon tsuma, and the shiso leaves were too gorgeous to not capture.

Then, here, we have the extra-succulent, tender sea scallop skewers. It had a layer of garlic paste and a nice grilled flavor to it. The fresh shiitake had the same texture as the scallops and they were luscious together. The sourness of the lemon put the various flavors right in focus, while also adding a splash of color to this picture.

Here, we have the sizzling seafood hot pot in a bimbinbap bowl. These Korean bowls retain heat extremely well, allowing for the soup to stay hot the entire time. Although this dish has a lot of tasty seafood, the true star is the broth, which contains the various essence of all the ingridients in it. I could've dug out the ingridients more for the photo, but I captured the soup as it was presented to me - the soup sizzling and starring in the photo as the main character.

Once we finished the soup, they took the bowl back, filled it with rice and some more soup, and cooked it for a while with eggs for a zousui (porridge) finish. The key player of this dish is each individual rice grain, soaking in a hot bath of the tasty broth with eggs as its only companion. I tried to highlight each grain in its unbroken, wholesome state, shinning proudly as the closing act for the meal.

The true finale for my sushi visits, though, is always the ikura sushi. I can't go home without having a serving of ikura. Ikura is so beautiful - they are breath-taking in their deep glittery red, with a wonderful contrast against the black nori coat. This ikura sushi looks particularly intriguing, showing just a tad bit of its pale, white tenderness underneath the nori. This style of sushi is called a gunkan-maki (battle ship roll), since the tight nori wrap resembles battleships. Not in this case. This one hardly looks like a battleship, but rather, has the coquettish look of a Japanese high school girl in her black, red, and white uniform... Oh, I better stop that line of description before the Papa Bear accuses me of being 'dirty' again...

That's my two cents on what I tried to convey with my pictures.