Tuesday, May 31, 2005

North Carolina Dining: Elmo's Diner

When I left NC after finishing my graduate education, I knew there would be some places I would miss. Although it was likely that I could find almost anything in the Bay Area, there are places that are special just because it's special. Of course the food is great, but it's beyond the food - the memories associated with the place makes it impossible for any other restaurant to match it...

Elmo's Diner is one of those places. It was our weekend brunch spot to nurse our hang-overs over a cup of coffee and plate of grits. It was our low-key lunch spot when the Mogurin and I could both get away from campus for an extended lunch. They were always open, and it was where we went out for a holiday meal when all the other restaurants were closed.

And that's what we did yesterday. It was Memorial Day, and we weren't sure where we could go for dinner. I had just flew in and I was tired from traveling all day long, and Elmo's was the perfect spot for dinner on evenings like that.

I always start my Elmo's meal with a cup of their Creamy Tomato Basil soup.

It's tangy, creamy, and refreshing. There's chunks of onions in it that provide some texture, but over all, it is a smooth, smooth soup.

I had a craving for this soup several months ago and tried to re-create it. It involved cooking a whole bunch of tomatoes with some onions and milk with a little bit of Japanese dashi and miso to add depth. I don't think Elmo's uses dashi or miso, so I wonder what they use to create the rich umami taste. As I've told you before, tomatoes are full of umami, so maybe they just use more tomatoes than I did...

Seth and I both had the Carolina BBQ plate. BBQ around here is nothing like BBQ in CA, or in New England for that matter. BBQ does not equal grilling out. Grilling out is grilling out, BBQ is Q, and Q is pulled meat in a vinegar-based spicy sauce. It is traditionally pork, and pork Q sandwiches are a NC treat. Full of flavor with tasty chunks of meat stuffed between a bun, it's hard to find another sandwich that fulfills the primordial desire for meat.

Unfortunately, Elmo's wasn't serving pork Q. They had chicken Q, which in my opinion, was only OK, partly because I am not a terribly big fan of chicken. But knowing that I only had a few days in NC, I had to get a Q dish. It was spicy and tasty enough, but eh, I wouldn't get it again. Elmo's pork Q sandwich they used to serve is SOOOO much better.

Mark had the chicken and dumplin's, which is SOOOOO not what you think of as 'dumplings' in the Bay Area. The dumplings are actually boiled dropped biscuit dough. And no, there is no filling in the dumplings. In a rich, creamy chicken broth, this dish is more stew than soup. Alongside big Southern style biscuits, this plate is full of simple goodness.

Elmo's food is not flashy or fancy. It's just plain old good. And it's where I can go in my PJ pants and a fleece pull over and fit right in. And sometimes, I really miss that simple, unadorned style...

Monday, May 30, 2005

The stinkiest ice cream ever II

I guess this one was too easy for the Bay Area folks... Yup, the answer was Durian! That Durian ice cream had all the stinkiness of the most ripened durian! It was so strong that all five of us moved away from the Papa... We were relatively subtle about it, moving away from him slowly and gradually, but the Papa realized we were avoiding him when he noticed that we kept drifting from one corner of the store to another.

In fact, the Durian ice cream is so stinky that it didn't even make it on the list of flavors on the Polly Ann Wheel of Flavors. This wheel is great for less decisive or the truly adventurous! As you can see, there are numbers on the wheel and the numbers correspond to the flavors on the menu. The ice cream scoopers will spin the wheel for you and you get the flavor luck throws at you. There are 'free cone' spots as well, although I'm not sure if you get to choose the flavors or if you get a second spin to decide what the flavor of the free cone will be... And what if you get ANOTHER free cone in the second spin????

Anyway, if you look closely at the flavors list, you'll notice that the plaque for durian doesn't have a number associated with it! The store must have decided that the durian was really too much to be put on the list...

Some of the more interesting yet tame flavors were Sesame, Green Tea, and Ginger Peach you see here. With these fun and different flavors, if there were a Polly Ann shop near by me, I'd definitely stop by regularly!

For the remainder of the week, I'll be on travel, but I hope I can find time/access to blog regularly... I'll be posting tomorrow about some of my favorite Southern places, so check back tomorrow for sure!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

D&D: Queen of Cuisine - Mama Ly

Speculations fly as to which mystery flavor led to the Papa Bear being ostracized, but today, I'm taking a detour from the answer and sharing with you a very special post. As a part of The Delicious Life's Dine and Dish: Queen of Cuisine, I'm going to feature the Queen of Vietnamese cooking and my Vietnamese cooking teacher, Mama Ly.

Mama Ly is my friend Arik's beautiful mother, and she has taken me in as her student in Vietnamese culinary ways. She has graciously cooked many meals for me and taught me many recipes. I now have the skills to concoct wonderful shrimp paste dipping sauce (mam nem), good enough to rival the Vietnamese restaurants frequented by Vietnamese locals in Oakland or in San Jose. I can also turn out crispy savory Vietnamese crepes (banh xeo). When I read the Dine and Dish theme, I knew exactly who the Queen of Cuisine was in my mind for my sphere of dining - Mama Ly. I sent Arik an email, asking him if he would be so kind to share his mother's delicious dishes for me for this post. Luckily for me, this proved to be another fortunate excuse for me to impose on Mama Ly to feed me again! And she, unknowingly, made my favorite Vietnamese dish!

I've had banh hoi, the flattened noodles you see here, four times before this, and each time, I am impressed by the texture. The noodles are firmly packed into sheets, but as soon as you bite into the squares, they fall apart in your mouth. It is truly pleasurable to feel the dissociating noodles on my tongue. It tickles the inside of my mouth while spreading the flavors of its accompaning meats and sauces.

Banh hoi is wrapped inside either lettuce leaves or both lettuce leaves and rice paper sheets (banh tran), along with various meats and herbs. I've always only had one choice of meat to wrap with my banh hoi in the past, but not at Mama Ly's! She knows how to take care of hungry kids like me, and she had prepared THREE kinds of goods to go with the banh hoi.

My number one favorite was the fried spring rolls (cha gio). The crunch of the spring rolls with the soft noodles and the refreshing bitterness of the herbs was nothing short of perfection. The balance of the various textures, the richness, the softness, and the bitterness was amazing. As the noodles dissociated with each bite, the flavors mixed into a perfect harmony of textures and tastes.

The cha gio contained another layer of texture and flavor, as I bit into the rolls and my teeth felt the soft center filled with shrimp. I could've eaten a hundred of these alone, two hundred with the banh hoi!

Equally amazing in the flavor department was the shrimp with sugar cane (chao tom). Minced shrimp was slathered onto juicy sugar cane sticks and grilled to a golden finish. The shrimp took on a slightly sweet touch from the sugar cane and the savory-sweetness of this dish added a new dimension to the banh hoi.

Finally, we also had a copious amount of minced marinated pork in a sausage/ham like patties (nem nuong). These patties also had a touch of sweetness which provided a depth to the banh hoi in the rolled state.

What ties all of these dishes beautifully is Mama Ly's fish-based dipping sauce (nuoc mam). Her nuoc mam is far better than anything I have had at any of the Vietnamese restaurants I know. She has the perfect balance of sweetness, tartness, and saltiness, and her use of garlic and pepper is sublime. It is flavorful without any hint of overagressiveness. It supports all dishes in the most motherly and warm way, bringing out the best in the foods that gets dipped. She has mastered the ultimate skill of balancing and giving each component of the dish a role to play. In her hands, each ingredient performs at their best, working together to create true epicurean pleasure in the diner.

Mama Ly inspires me to cook with style and grace, creating food that nourishes the body and the soul. When I walk into her kitchen, I know it is a well-used, well-loved, well-run site of numerous operations with many laughters and many joyous dining. To me, there is no one more deserving of the title, "Queen of Cuisine" than my dearest Vietnamese cooking teacher.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The stinkiest ice cream ever

I've been so busy at work that I haven't been having too much food fun lately to the point that I am finally going through some stock footage from several months back! I guess that's what stock footage is for... These are mostly pictures of my favorite foods or foods I consume routinely, which means I can write about them months after I take the photos - my memory either very fresh or my experiences so firmly engraved in me that i don't need a refresher on how it tastes, smells, or feels.

The pictures here are an exception. I've only been to Polly Ann Ice Cream Parlor once. I just didn't get around to posting them right after I took them, since I had so much other 'timely' material I wanted to post. But, goodness, my memories from Polly Ann's is SO vivid, I can share with you what I felt and thought two months later... ...it was the Papa Bear's ice cream that twisted my nose like no other ice cream ever has.

Yes, stinky ice cream. Mind you, I usually like stinky, pungent things. I love the Japanese fermented beans, natto, and I prefer wash-rind cheeses over their fresh counterparts. I enjoy the Vietnamese fish sauce and the more 'advanced' shrimp paste. BUT, oooooooh boy, the ice cream the Papa Bear had was beyond me. It S-T-U-N-K. It stunk so badly that all five of us who were there moved away from the Papa Bear - we left him in one corner of the store, while we congregated on the other side...

Can you guess what flavor it was?

Here is a hint:

Check back later tonight to find out what flavor it was and more description on Polly Ann's!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Bantams are tasty

The Mogurin and I ate our college mascot... Well, kind of.

Although I'll be making more trip-inspired dishes, this is the very last of the trip-report posts from my last trip to Japan. Today, I'm going to share with you the details from my very first dinner back in Nagoya, our Shamo (Fighting Cock aka Bantam) dinner at Gotetsu.

Gotetsu is conceptualized and owned ('produced' as the Japanese say) by the 8th generation owner of the very famous Tamahede in Tokyo. Tamahede is THE place for Shamo cuisine, and my mother was very keen on trying Gotetsu. Seeing that Nagoya is famous for chickens of their own (Nagoya Ko-chin - yum!), my vote was to go for the local chickens. I don't quite remember how, but she convinced me that Gotetsu was worth a try because of the Tamahede connection...

I have to say, this might have been one of the only disappointing meals in Japan. Disappointing might be too harsh, but it sure didn't win me over instantly like the other foods I had during my trip. The food lacked that feeling of delicate care and attention that the other places packed into each bite.

We definitely had a big chickeny dinner, though! We started with some appetizers of pickled chicken liver and moved onto chicken pieces teriyaki grilled, skewered and salt-grilled, as well as deep fried. Unfortunately, I don't remember the shamo itself being all that spectacular. Yes, it was flavorful with a good texture, but so is my organic chicken here in the US!

Our interlude between the dry chicken and a soupy dish (always gotta have some soup dish if it's a true Japanese meal!) was the Fukaya Negi skewers. Fukaya Negi are brilliantly named negi (green onions) from the Fukaya region. They boast a sugar content equal to tangerines! These were tender and flavorful, full of steaming - I mean, STEAMING - green onion juices.

Our main dish for the evening was the cooked-at-your-table hot pot, which involved cooking chicken in a rich, strong chicken broth. The broth was bubbling violently and continued to do so until we were done.

A striking contrast was the peaceful silence the broth and the ingredients took on when we plated the cooked items. These two pictures seem to highlight the Japanese concept of "動" (Dou, movement) and "静" (Sei, quiet). The yin and yang, contained within the table, poetically enticing us to eat.

The true value of Gotetsu, however, is not to be judged by these dishes, I'm told by my mother. It is in their Oyako Don (Parent-Child Over Rice). If you recall, I made a seafood Oyako Don a while back, but traditional Oyako Dons are always made with chicken and eggs. Some people add onions and various other goods to it, but at Gotetsu, it's just the parent and the child - nothing but the chicken and egg, relaxing over the rice. Unlike other versions I've had in the past, this Oyako Don was one rich beast. There was no egg whites used, and the entire blanket of egg was made by briefly cooking deeply orange, almost overwhelmingly flavorful, potent yolks. Topped with a raw egg, this was one hell of an eggy dish!

If you are thinking - "eeewwwweeee, raw eggs????" - we eat a whole lot of raw eggs in Japan. The eggs and their parents are routinely tested for Salmonella and other egg-borne pathogens to ensure that these eggs are safe to eat. If you like spaghetti carbonara, you'll like raw eggs! Raw eggs pack that super creaminess without the dairy butteriness.

We mashed the raw egg into its siblings in the omlette-like structure on top of the rice, and let the egg intertwine nicely with each rice grain. There was just enough salt to cut the richness of the eggs. Now, I am not a particularly big fan of the potent egg-flavor, but I liked this dish. The main difference between this dish and just eating concentrated eggs is that the lightly cooked eggs here had dashi in it - the eggs were infused with a broth that provided the perfect balance of umami.

Although there is NO WAY I could eat more than a small bowl of this Oyako Don, Gotetsu redeemed itself with this dish. It surely was original as it had never occurred to me to make Oyako Don with just the yolks with dashi and chicken bits.

So.. I ate the Bantam, our college mascot. ...but only sort of. Pure-bred Shamo is considered a Natural Heritage Treasure (or how-ever I am supposed to translate 'tennennkinenbutsu'), which basically means that the government decided it was a special cultural and biological icon that we shouldn't eat. All chicken labeled as 'shamo' for eating are only 75% Shamo or less, and usually crossed with other kinds of chicken (and then sometimes back-crossed with Shamo for you genetics buffs!). Now, whether or not the eggs in the Oyako Don were Shamo eggs or not remains to be solved...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

My dear Sophie

One of the first places I went in San Francisco was the Japantown. At the time, I was still a graduate student in North Carolina and the Mogurin and I were visiting San Francisco for my American Association of Cancer Research Annual Conference and interviewing at the Lab. This was over three years ago now. It's scary how time flies.

It might sound strange that Japantown was the first place I wanted to go, since I, obviously, grew up in Japan - you might even ask, "Why? You know what Japanese things are already - why didn't you want to explore what's unique to San Francisco?"

Well, I was CRAVING anything and everything Japanese then, since I had been living in a Dead Zone of all things authentically Japanese. Chapel Hill is a beautiful place with wonderful infrastructure for organic and/or sustainably produced foods, but it is not exactly the center of any kind of Asian culture. The fact that the Bay Area boasts two Japanese bookstores - one in San Francisco and one in San Jose - played a MAJOR part in my decision to come out here after graduate school.

During that conference/interview trip, one of the first things I ate in San Francisco was Sophie's crepe. Sophie's Crepes is located kitty corner to Kinokuniya Bookstore, my favorite place to be in San Francisco, in the Kinokuniya Mall in Japantown. Walking around the Kinokuniya Bookstore and then taking a break with Sophie's crepe is a epitome of a perfect lazy afternoon for me.

Seeing Sophie's colorful sign makes my heart giddy with delight. I can almost smell the sweet scent of the crepes just looking at her sign! Sophie's little shop has a special place in my heart. Practically every time the Mogurin and I were in San Francisco after moving out this way, we went to get crepes at Sophie's. The lady making the crepes, who we started calling 'Sophie' although we have no idea whether or not that's true, was always there, always hard at work, never pausing a moment as she turned out beautifully thin, crispy crepes.

Her crepes were always so delicious and so reminiscent of the Japanified crepes that we got from the outdoor stands at the Summer Festivals at shrines and temples back in Japan. Those crepes felt so precious and special to me when I was growing up, not only because I've always loved how they tasted, but also because I could only get them at the outdoor stands during festival season. There were several permanent storefronts selling crepes in my hometown, but they were not conveniently located for my family - I've only been to each one ONCE in my entire time in Nagoya.

Japanified crepes are super thin and crispy. I, unfortunately, could not fit crepes into my 72 hrs in Paris last Fall, so I can't speak with any kind of certainty, but if Ti Couz in San Francisco is any indication, French crepes seem thicker and much more moist than Japanese crepes. Japanese crepes flake and crunch, providing a sharp contrast to the softness of whatever gets put inside. The crepe dough is sweet without being overpowering so that the same dough can be matched with both savory and sweet innards.

My favorite crepe at Sophie's is Nutella with Mixed Fruit. I've tried a few other varieties, but I always come back to this one. Sadly, last time I went to Sophie's after a long absence, Sophie was no longer manning the station and a man had taken over her spot. Luckily, I detected no difference in his and Sophie's crepes. He worked just as efficiently as Sophie, turning out gorgeous crepes just like his predecessor.

A lot of other things have changed with time as well, and the last time I was in Nagoya, I spotted a crepe shop right outside of the central train station in Nagoya. Again, my short trip didn't allow time (or space in my stomach) to fit a crepe, but that was probably for the better. As more and more things become plenty and available any time of the year, it's easy to lose the sense of seasonality and special longing for certain foods, memories, and special occasions. My crepes are best kept as a special treat during summer festivals and lazy afternoon visits to San Francisco...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

How to enjoy a Saturday night: Grasshopper

OK, so how many of you with newly acquired Japanese skills think my title from yesterday referred to strawberries (ichigo)?! I bet yesterday's post will be getting some google hits from people looking for Japanese strawberry recipes!

Anyway... this past Saturday, I spent a lovely evening with my friends, Chris and Anne. I had a VERY long week with various things stressing me out in all aspects of my life, so I needed a drink bad! ..except I don't drink anymore. So I scouted around for a place that might be adventurous enough to have some tasty virgin cocktails - any place boasting a strong wine focus was totally out of the question. I was looking for a place with a playful spirit and relaxing ambiance all at the same time...

Grasshopper, a small plates place with an Asian-inspired fusion-ish menu, sounded like the perfect choice for the evening. The food seemed like what I like and make at home - Asian fair with a touch of the West - and the description sounded like a hipster-place with various swanky cocktails.

Although we had no reservations, we managed to score the best seats in the house - bar seats right by the grill!! As you know by now, I'm a counter-seat kind of girl, so this was absolutely perfect for me. Conveniently, the bar also had a nice curve right around where we sat, allowing the three of us to sit comfortably with all of us facing each other.

The first thing I said to our friendly waitress was, "I've had a really, reALLY, REALLY bad week, and I need a drink very badly. But I don't drink. Can you recommend me a tasty virgin drink?" She paused for a second, but flashed me a beaming smile, saying, "I've got the perfect thing for you! How about a Virgin Mojito?" Mojitos conjured up images of refreshing mints and tangy sourness with just the right tingling sparkle - it sounded PERFECT.

And it was. I don't think I've been so happy with a drink in my life! My friends will vouch for me - I've had a lot of drinks in my life! And this was one of the most satisfying drinks! Heightened by my non-drinking status, the choice of a drink became more difficult and the exciting drink more elusive. But the Virgin Mojito had enough sassiness to take my stress away and remind me that, after all, I'm still just a twenty-something gal, out looking for fun!

So, the three of us dove into our food and feasted on a bunch of grilled treats. The skewers and meats were grilled right infront of us at the grill station, and the aroma from the grill was irresistible. We ordered practically everything on the grill menu and ate every last bite of it. Interestingly, most of the items on the grill menu were Japanese with a few Chinese options.

The beef in this misoyaki (grilled steak with miso sauce) was so juicy and wonderful, I don't remember the miso part at all. I'd definitely get it again for that primordial pleasure of ripping into a juicy, dripping piece of flesh.

I'm not a chicken fan, but the chicken satay was good, even for me. Tender and yet flavorful, this was one tasty skewer. I'm not so sure what part of it was the 'satay', since the sauce it came with was a sweet soy-based sauce, more like condensed teriyaki than what I think of as 'satay' sauce. Chris seemed to also wonder the same thing, but who cares what it's called? It was good!

The salmon misoyaki was also a winner with the salmon grilled to perfection. It had the right amount of scorched browning to give it a toasty aroma while being moist enough inside to be juicy. The seasoning was a sweet-salty miso paste, which went well with the jasmine rice.

We had a whole slew of dishes in addition to these, sat around for a few hours with me pounding my mojitos. I loved every last sip of it! It was a very, very lovely evening. Nothing like a weekend night out with my friends to pick my mood up - and thanks to Anne and Chris, I now know I can still go to swanky places and enjoy my drinks!

Turns out Chris happens to know my partner-in-cooking, Melissa! What a small, small world...

Monday, May 23, 2005

Ichigo Ichie: the Spirit of Japanese Cuisine


I'm feeling pensive. Maybe it's because I'm finally done with the rough draft of my prostate cancer proposal... Thank goodness grant season is over until the new season begins in October and I can actually focus on work I am already funded to do... Three proposals in five months make for a cranky Alice.

I was going to post about the Yuzu One Year anniversary today, but I got a little bit pensive after reading Responsibility thread at Food Blog S'cool. I've been thinking about this some since reading this post.

As you guys all know by now (as evident by the fact that my sister was going to treat me to a Yuzu dinner for my b-day, even though she lives in NYC and has never visitied Yuzu herself!), I talk about Yuzu a lot. I write about them a lot because I really like the place and enjoy the food there. But I'm also a regular there, who never orders anything and only gets the dishes directly recommended by the Chef, Armia-san. So, would someone else, esp. a non-Japanese speaker, get the same dishes I get and have the same experience as I do on their own there? I'm not sure. I speak Japanese and the Chef asks me a whole lot of questions as he prepares my food. And no doubt he'd do that for anyone else, but someone who dropped in for the evening might not know to push themselves to the counter seats or to express their sincere desires for good sushi like I do.

To really enjoy a sushi restuarant, sitting at the bar and getting to know the Chef is the ONLY way for me... If you go to Yuzu and order off the menu without talking to the Chef once, you'll probably have a very different experience - so much so that you'd probably think that I was pumping up the restaurant just because I'm a regular there and get special treatments!

But my relationship with Yuzu is one that developed as a result of my frequent patronage. It's not because I knew the Chef before hand, and it's not because I get any kind of kick-back for writing about it or bringing my friends there. I write about Yuzu because I think it's a really good Japanese restaurant with an authentic atmosphere. Yuzu has had ups and downs in the food quality, but do I write about my less than perfect nights of dining? No. Does that make me a dishonest reporter? I don't know.

Why I don't think I am dishonest is because I always - I mean, ALWAYS - have a good time there. Sure, some days the sushi rice is a little bit too hard. Or the fish is a little less smooth. Or the salt is a little bit too strong in the soup. On those occasions, I let Arima-san know. I also let Arima-san know when the shima-aji is stellar. Or the egg is done just right. Or the salt in the grilled scallops is perfect. Do I report every exchange I've had with him? No. Besides, how do I really know if what I consider good is really good?! Maybe I just didn't sweat as much during my run that day and didn't need as much salt, or I was just too tired to appreciate food appropriately...


Do I think my readers visiting Yuzu on my recommendation will be disappointed? I hope not. Yuzu is definitely a very authentically Japanese restaurant with solid food. And any Japanese person understands that the quality of every fish can't be perfect every night - particularly in the summer when fish are a lot less plump. But Arima-san will take the strengths in his kitchen on that day and present to you his best effort if you allow him to do so by ordering 'omakase' (Chef's recommendations).

And no omakase menu at any restaurant worth eating at is set in stone. I always add or subtract whatever I want, asking the Chef about his recommendations and how to best enjoy certain ingredients they have that day. The goals of a Japanese chef is to accommodate their guests to the best of their ability. This spirit of doing the best - Ichigo Ichie (一期一会) - is rooted in the thought that each time a hosts has a guest, that may be the last time for that opportunity. It sounds to me like an awfully Bushido (the Way of the Samurai) spirit of ephemeral life, but it is a spirit that every Japanese chef is expected to have. And chefs and restaurant owners who have forgotten the spirit are unfortunately no longer serving authentically Japanese food, lacking the spiritual backbone.

Yuzu is one of the few Bay Area restaurants that I feel really lives up to the Ichigo Ichie spirit. They recently celebrated their one year anniversary, in which Arima-san prepared a lovely omakase dinner combining the best of his fish components with the cooked dishes from the kitchen. The anniversary dinner was the first time I tried the dishes by their new backroom kitchen chef. I was impressed. I could feel the attention and focus - what we Japanese call 'kiai' - in each dish. (By the way, that word doesn't mean the unnecessarily loud screaming insisted upon by many US martial arts schools... It simply means focus. And when we focus on power, we naturally let out an exhalation with a exclamation mark. That's what a 'kiai' originally is in Japanese...)

And the final product of his kiai? This picture speaks for itself. His tempura was smiling with delight, joyous with deliciousness. Yuzu has gained another member to tackle the daily challenges of providing Ichigo Ichie every day.

Happy One Year Anniversary, Yuzu!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

IMBB: Wafuu (Japanese-style) Green Tea Parfait

Remember how I was telling you about the Japanese obsession with parfaits? The summer is parfait season in Japan with practically every cafe doing some sort of a 'Parfait Fair', featuring gorgeous glasses filled with ice cream, jello, syrups, and sugary goodness. Ice creams and parfaits rule Japan in the summer, and a recent report from my favorite Japanese blogger in Japan shows us how much more advanced the Haagen-datz in Japan is compared to the simple scoop-shops we have here in the US. Ice cream kaiseki! Amazing.

So when I saw this month's IMBB theme, "Has my blog jelled?", hosted by Elise over at Simply Recipes, I knew exactly what I was going to make. Nothing like a cool, refreshing jello/jelly/kanten parfait treat on a hot summer day! Green tea kanten jello parfait!

"Kanten?", you might ask... Kanten is agar, and agar is a seaweed-based coagulant. And yes, biologists. We eat that stuff in Japan. (For non-biologists, we, in the lab, use agar as a solid surface to grow all kinds of bacteria. It's usually mixed with yeast extract, and the stuff smells B-A-D, especially after we've grown some funky E.coli on them...) Agar itself has very little smell and hardly any detectable taste, which is why it is so great to work with in the kitchen!


When I was back in Japan, I came home with some very nice high-quality kanten. Unlike the blocks one gets in the stores around here, my kanten was in fine threads. And it took a lot more work to prepare than the regular kanten, starting with a 8 hr soak in water!

Once the kanten (5 g) was ready, I cooked it in 1 cup of water over low heat for 15 min or so. I saw little chunks of kanten undissolved, and I probably should've followed the traditional method and strained it at this point, but I didn't. Oh well. It added an interesting texture to the final product!

While the kanten was simmering, I made extra strong green tea with my trusted cha-sen, a beater used ONLY for green tea. You see, it's all about specialization in Japanese utensils - a cup to measure rice and only rice, a beater to make tea and only tea... I combined 1 cup of the green tea with 1 cup of the kanten mixture, and let it solidify in the refrigerator for several hours.

Then, the fun part! Assembly!

Since I still have some wonderful wasambon hand-crafted artisan sugar, I knew my sweetener was going to be kinako-sugar powder. Kinako is to soy beans as cocoa powder is to cacao beans. Kinako is a delicate powder full of condensed soy bean taste with a tender nuttiness (as in nut-like, not crazy). With the wasambon sugar, the combination is an airy, heavenly sweetness, rarely found in any other treat.

I cubed the jello and layered kinako-sugar powder, and topped the parfait with soy milk ice cream to match the kinako soy theme. Ice cream is an obligatory component of any Japanese parfait, and voila! A home-made Wafuu (Japanese-style) Green Tea Parfait!


Kanten mixture:
5 g kanten
1 cup water

Green tea:
2 tbs green tea powder
1 cup water

1/4 cup kinako
1/4 wasambon

Soy milk ice cream

Yes, this is the same jello I made for my Kyoto-inspired dinner!

Here's a link to the round-up!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

SHF: My Day-long Rhubard Grapefruit Orange Jam

This week's Sugar High Friday is over at another Alice's blog, My Adventures in the Bread Box. I think it's pretty neat that we have two things in common: Alice and a blog that starts with 'My'. Her theme was Citrus, so today, I'm going to tell you about my recent experiment in jam making!

When I went to Japan last month, my plan was to take a case of Loulou's Garden Rhubard Grapefruit Jam with me as gifts for my family. Loulou's jam is so absolutely wonderful with its subtle sweetness and luscious organic fruits, and jams like that aren't as readily available in Japan. It seemed like the perfect thing to bring to a country that is overflowing with everything else. Sadly, when I went to the Berkeley Farmer's Market a little late that Saturday before I left, to my surprise, no Loulou! Her usual stand was empty!!!!

I'd already made up my mind about bringing my family some really tasty organic jam, so I wondered for a little bit as to what I should do - go find an alternative source? I thought about running over the the SF Ferry Bldg Farmer's Market on Sunday, but I didn't have the energy for that... I really, really, really loved the supreme combination of grapefruit and rhubard, and knowing how much my Mama and my Aunt loves grapefruits, I knew there was only one solution. After a few moments of pause, I knew exactly what I had to do: make it myself!

I've never really experimented with making jams at all. I've boiled down some frozen berries before with sugar to make a fruit spread to go with my biscuits, but jam from scratch? I had no idea if I needed special ingredients like 'pectin' and other jam-related things I hear about. But when I looked to Loulou for inspiration, her ingrediented listed none of those things. What I gathered was that I should be able to make my jam from three simple ingredients: rhubard, grapefruit, and sugar.

Always an experimentalist and never one to hesitate, I bought a humongous amount of grapefruit and a pomello (I wanted to see if there was a difference in taste - the conclusion: a big difference in texture!), along with my usual 10 lbs bag of oranges, a few stalks of rhubard, and went to work. After peeling a few grapefruits and a pomello, I was wiped out. Tired. My hands were sore. I was whining. The Papa got tired of hearing me whine and came to peel some more grapefruits. A few moments later, he was whining too.

Somehow, we got through six giant grapefruits and a pomello, and I started what would turn out to be a whole day adventure - cooking. There was enough grapefruit juice to boil the fruit in, but I added some sake for good measure. Sake. Makes the world go around. (Just ask Anne!) I chopped up the rhubard, added it to the pot, and started cooking!

I learned that fruits also produce that gunky stuff you get when you boil meat - that bitter stuff that floats to the top? We call it 'aku' in Japanese, not to be confused with the other 'aku', which means evil - although I'd say that the gunky stuff is pretty evil. I stood infront of the stove for what seemed like hours clearing the fruit juice of all its gunk. I hate aku!

I cooked the juices down to a jam-like consistency, about 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 hrs later. I lost track of time. It was just me and my soon-to-be-jam fruit juice, meditating on a Sunday afternoon, sitting by the stove, scooping up aku, day dreaming about onsens and Kyoto... The jam looked very good. Very Loulou. Since Loulou listed sugar as one of the ingredients, I figured I'd better add some too. In my case, I added honey, since I don't like refined sugar very much.

With anticipation, I had a spoonful after I blended the honey...


It was terrible! It was too sour to the point of bitter with too much rhubard flavor and not enough of anything else.

With a tear in my eye after spending the entire day nursing this pot of jam, I went to repair work. I peeled about 5 oranges and added them in. I poured in some more sake, because... well, it makes the world go around. I also added more honey in it and prayed that it would be edible next time it cooked down.

The Kitchen Gods must have heard my prayers. The next bite after it cooked down to jam consistency (after some more aku scooping) was nothing like the first bite. The jam was fruity with a strong orange top note, followed by the subtle bitterness of the grapefruit, finishing with the tart aftertaste of rhubarb. I don't know where the pomello went, but I didn't care. There were orange rafts of pulp gliding along the red-pink grapefruit-rhubard ocean, since the oranges hadn't quite cooked for as long as the grapefruit and rhubard did. Rhubard chunks were also present, flaking apart when I spread them onto bread. There I had it: my Rhubarb Grapefruit (Pomello) Orange Jam!!

Boiling the jars for sterization and soaking the lids in 100% ethanol were another adevnture in itself, but in the end, I managed to end up with five 8 oz jars of organic, homemade jam.

I saved a jar for myself and took the rest with me to Japan. I enjoyed my jam with croissants, toasts, and in the Papa Yogurt. My Mama and my Aunt were big fans and raved about it over and over! My Mama said how it was more like eating fruit than jam and how she enjoyed the combination of natural sweetness with tartness. My Aunt told me that my Uncle enjoyed it so much, they finished the jar in a few days - she even asked me for the recipe! Not bad, considering I thought this was a total failure at one point!

And you know the funniest part of all this? I'd never had rhubard jam before trying Loulou's, but I was surprised to see "Rhubard Jam" as one of the topics my favorite bread baking boys at "Yakitate Japan" are tackling in the latest issue!

Bay Area folks: don't forget to check out the Launch Parties going on this weekend! Owen from Tomatilla! and Paper Chef fame is organizing not one, but two, open-invitation Launch events this weekend for his book, Digital Dish. You can find a pdf file of the Introduction, where Owen lists all the contributors to Digital Dish.

I'll be going to the Saturday one at 11:30 AM at the Berkeley Farmer's Market to meet Dr. Biggles, who may be the second funniest blogger on my blog roll. (Can you guess who the funniest is?) I think it'll be so much fun if we can make this into a Food Blogger's Day Out at the farmer's market and actually really meet (as 'in person'!) all the wonderful writers, cooks, and friendly bloggers and blog readers I've "met" over the last few months! I hope to see y'all there!

If you miss it on Saturday, you can catch the same authors at La Fayette at 4 PM on Sunday. More details here!

PS: Check out the round-up for this SHF here!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

WED: Beef Noodle #1 is #1

I have a new favorite pho+? shop. Pho+? Ao Sen has been unseated...

Today, I had the most amazing bowl of pho+? at Beef Noodle #1 in San Jose. Yes, the name of the store really is Beef Noodle #1. And they are #1.

The soup combined the best parts of Pho+? Ao Sen and Pho+? Y. It was motherly yet powerful, nourishing while packing a punch. It was the perfect bowl of soupy goodness.

The small bowl seemed like it was on the small side, but that was because I ate it so quickly since it was so good. I slurped the entire bowl within minutes of starting, and I left no drops of the soup behind. The noodles had just enough chewiness to provide a lovely presence to the soup, and the noodles wore the soup like Donatella in her best Versace dress. The meats (my standard tai nam gau) all had different textures that added pure joy to the already delicious package.

It was exactly what I needed to power me through for the rest of the week... I haven't had a Wednesday Epicurean Debauchery (WED) post in a while for various reasons, but this was a bowl fit for a WED post. My bowl of pho+? was lusciously delicious!

Beef Noodle No 1
(408) 270-0600
1611 E Capitol Expy
San Jose, CA 95121

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

What I crave right now

I've had a very, very, very busy day so far. This hasn't exactly been my best week so far! I'm longing for a bit of comfort right about now, but unfortunately, living in the epicurean desert that is the Tri-Valley area, I don't have a whole lot of options... I'm taking a quick breather between writing and reading, but as soon as I finish fantasizing about what I wish I were eating, I've got to get back to work...

My fantasy right now? One of these:

Not just any bowl, but one with chewy noodles like this:

And the meats... don't forget the meats...

I've always had a weakness for soupy noodles, ever since I was a little girl. I loved udon, soba, ramen, and all sorts of noodles in soup. One of the best treats on a weekend morning was - as scary as this sounds - Cup-a-noodles. Japanese Cup-a-noodles are nothing like the "just add water" variety in US grocery stores - they have multiple packets of soups, powder, and freeze-dried vegetables, and they come in bowls big enough to be called "Bowl-a-noodles" And the noodles! The noodles are SOOOO good, you wouldn't believe that it came from a plastic bowl if I were to take it out and replate it in a real bowl. Almost every weekend from 2nd grade to 6th grade or so, I would look SO forward to getting up and making myself a bowl of instant noodles while I watched the cartoons. There was one I particularly liked with a buddhist myth-theme (as wacky as that sounds), where they would chant mantras to attack evil. I don't remember much about it besides that I found the combination of that Buddhist Cartoon and my bowl of noodles was the definition of a weekend for me.

I'm surprised all the MSG didn't kill me, but I will say this - my sister never ate much of the instant stuff and has practically no allergies. I, on the other hand, have a respiratory system that seem to be allergic to everything under the sun. As they say, kids raised on pre-packages/instant foods - their immune systems are just not the same...

But knowing what I know now, would I still eat my Bowl-a-noodles with my Buddhist cartoon? Yeh, probably! Do I eat the stuff now? Yup, occasionally! I've learned moderation is the key to enjoying all sorts of goodness (and badness) in life...

Pho Y
1660 E. Capitol Expwy.
San Jose, CA 95121

(although I really prefer one from Pho Ao Sen...)

Monday, May 16, 2005

Soy bean coffee...

I'm almost recovered from being depressed for close to 24 hrs. I got some 'get happy' emails sent my way from friends and family, and they made my day!! Thank you!!!

As you can tell from the title of the post today, the answer to Sunday's "Guess Me" post was Soy Bean Coffee! Clea, my favorite French blogger who is currently living in Japan, was almost right, but I think I might have misguided her with my hint. I thought it looked a lot like chocolate nibs when I first opened my bag of soy bean coffee.

I picked this up at the market in Kyoto with all the bean-related products. And let me tell you - soy beans make great coffee. The soy ground was assisted by a small amount of Brazilian coffee beans (according to the package), but the scent of the fresh brewed soy coffee was predominantly soy.

Brewed as recommended, soy bean coffee was fragrant and distinctively lighter in shade than regular coffee. It was also a bit more murky. There was no hint of bitterness. The general impression was a gently, warm drink with a roasted soy bean aroma - very nourishing and motherly. The chicken soup of the coffee world.

Unfortunately, I've used up my Kyoto stash of soy bean coffee, but I just found out that there is a US retailer specializing in soy bean coffee!!! I was wrong in reporting earlier that I thought Kyoto was the only place one could get this stuff... I think I'll order a batch from Well Bean Coffee and see how it compares to the Kyoto stuff. Stay tuned for an update!!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Baking Therapy

I was going to post the answer to my quiz question, but something bad happened to me today and I needed to bake. Since this blog is my way of creative expression in a way, I figured I'd deviate from my original plan and write about it.

I switched jobs last year and in the process incurred the wrath of my old boss. Many reasons contributed to my decision to leave, including uncertainty in funding and my general lack of interest in pursuing that avenue of scientific research. I also felt like I was not learning new techniques or being exposed to the new advancements in biological research, since I was doing very classical experiments with very little room to grow. I was doing essentially the same thing that I was doing in graduate school and I was burnt out. When I was offered a position in a different division, doing research that took full advantage of the human genome sequence and cutting edge technology with a vision that is fully integrated with the current structure of the organization as a whole, I took the job and moved labs. My old boss took my decision to leave his lab very personally and has been making his disappointment known in every possible instance.

Today, I received my performance appraisal from him for the three months I worked for him last year, and it was basically a two page list of how I failed him in every possible way. It made me sad that what he could remember of me were all negative and how his last impression of me was that I was an irresponsible person who let him down on every possible occasion. We had two good years together, and now, all that has faded in his memory.

So I baked him some pumpkin muffins. I could have written a response to his appraisal, pointing out the inaccuracies. I could have detailed all the problems and issues I had about him and his management style. But what would that have accomplished? In the name of 'standing up for myself', I would have made a sad situation worse.


I plan to bring him these muffins with a note thanking him for the time he took to write my appraisal and leave it at that. I have been doing very exciting work with my new boss, and she knows my value. And I know mine.

Yes, this means you all have another day to try at my Guessing Game!

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Guessing game time

I'm SOOOO swamped with work this weekend, and the Muses are not coming down to help me write my grant proposal or my progress report! Yes, that's right. By the end of this weekend, I am supposed to have a 5 page grant proposal written AND a 2 page progress report done. Guess how many pages I have so far? Yup, that's right - Z-E-R-O. I have wonderful ideas, but my composition is really off today, and I can't seem to write anything that flows well. The theme is prostate cancer this time - and I might just have the solution to conquering the last nemesis in prostate cancer control if only I can get some $$$ to test my ideas... Any independently wealthy readers out there willing to put your money towards funding my research?!

Anyway, in an attempt to do something fun to rest my fried brain, I figured I'd try something my food blogger friends have been doing: a "Guess what this is?" quiz. Last weekend's guessing game proved to be a lot of fun for my friends, and I'm continuing with that theme... I'm sure you guys were all itching to play my games when you read about them this past week!

And yes, there is a prize! And it's a good one!! But as with all prizes, remember to read the fine print... The first person to guess this right will win a dinner with me at Yuzu! You think that's not so exciting? Molly can tell you all about the advantages of having me with you at Yuzu!!!*

OK, now that you must be jumping with excitement, are you ready for the challenge?

Can you guess what this is?

Here's a hint: it looks suspiciously like something else that it is not. OK, another hint. I got it at Kyoto, and Japan is probably the only place where one can buy this.

Anne, the Papa, and the Mogurin can't apply, since you guys know what the answer is...

Oh yeah, the deadline is Sunday at midnight!

*Dinner not included; chaperone included

Thursday, May 12, 2005

3 o'clock snack: Sanji no Oyatsu

Japanese kids all beam with delight when 3 o'clock rolls around in anticipation of Sanji no Oyatsu, which literally translates to 3 o'clock Snack. Snack options in Japan is amazingly diverse and kids and adults take great pleasure in snacking. Some snacks are more healthy than others, but the best treats for me were always the Western-style pastries in the numerous cafes in Japan.

One time, I was out with my friend, shopping around downtown Nagoya when we stopped in a cafe for a 3 o'clock snack. The offerings there were SOOOOO good, I literally ate two full plates of desserts. And these weren't any old desserts like a single cookie or a brownie. These could have been served as desserts in the finest of fine restaurants. I can't remember the dishes or the name of the cafe, but I remember the look on the waitress' face when I asked for a second dish... I was probably 12 yrs old or so, and my hearty appetite was already in full force then.


During my last trip to Japan, I explored the parfaits at the cafe in the Nagoya Marriott. Interestingly, unlike the Marriotts here, the ones in Japan are really upscale. And the cafe boasts a French-trained pastry chef, whose specialty is parfaits.


These parfaits were really works of art. They were breathtakingly gorgeous with white chocolate wings and milk chocolate swirls proudly topping each parfait. What we thought was ice cream on the white chocolate topped 'caramel parfait' was actually a flan-like custard, an interesting twist indeed. Layered with pound cake cubes and whipped cream, along with scoops of ice cream nestled in the center, these parfaits could have been meals.

But the winner dish for my Sanji no Oyatsu was the Mont Blanc. I grew up eating these Mont Blancs, calling them Monburan, never knowing that they were French. So much so that when I ordered a Mont Blanc at Angelina's in Paris - just because that was the dessert they were famous for - I didn't know what I was getting until it was delivered to me and I had a bite. It was a light bulb moment when it finally clicked that a Monburan was a Mont Blanc!

The Mont Blanc at the cafe in the Marriott was very good. Very, very good. It was full of chestnut aroma with creamy smoothness to gently satisfy me. Along side the cup of coffee, I had a moment of epicurean debauchery, fulfilling my desires with a sense of almost sinful luxury.

As I mentioned before, the Japanese are serious Francophiles, and the culinary culture greatly benefits from the French influences. While the traditional sweets of red bean paste and rice cakes, like sakura mochi, are still very much present and loved, the options for 3 o'clock snacks are enriched significantly by the French culinary tradition of exquisite desserts. I haven't quite successfully fulfilled my love for these treats in the Bay Area yet, but I'm constantly exploring. I should stop by Justa Bite again sometime soon! And please, let me know if you have a favorite dessert destination!!!!