Archive for August, 2012


August 27, 2012: Taste there is just no…

August 27, 2012

Call me “radical” ‘diplomatic” “bi-polar” or even just plain “odd,” but I love the alternative perspective. The concept that the ideas and things that I accept as a truth (or rather, the habit of truth) might have another viewpoint worth listening to, I feel is not only a healthy one, but fascinating. Whether it’s inside looking out, or outside looking in, the ability to be flexible and accepting of perspective is the font of knowledge and growth of thought. Of course, that’s when it applies to thought. In action, however, I tend to be more of a “Think before you leap” kinda guy. I have this crazy idea that if we just thought about the foods we eat, before actually eating them, it might help curtail our dietary excesses, and that possibly seeing what we eat through another viewpoint might help us stop and think, before consuming.

Outside Looking In: No Chocolate-mint for Japanese Students
Two years ago I was helping Yoshio teach his classes at the Showa Institute. Yoshio does this really clever thing by teaching American culture through our foods. He covers all the sundry styles of our cooking, and the Japanese students pick up a lot about American history and cultures through his class. Yoshio was taking a group of them around one of supermarkets, which was entertaining in itself, as the large grocery stores we have in America don’t exist in Japan. The group of students were hovering around the cookie aisle, and I boldly recommended my favorite cookie, the Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano. After Yoshio translated my enthusiastic praising, I was disappointed to have the students (every single one of them) pass on the Milanos as they bought other cookies. Later, I asked Yoshio why and he replied that Japanese detest the chocolate-mint combination. “Buuuut….why?” was my incredulous response. Yoshio thought for a moment and said “To them, it’s a little like brushing your teeth with a mint toothpaste and then reaching for a chocolate bar.” I’ll never stop loving the chocolate/mint taste mixture, but it’s fascinating that pretty much an entire culture cannot even fathom it!

Inside Looking Out: No Vegemite for American Rodents
A number of years ago I had an exchange student from Australia. Emma was a bit of card, and through her I got a good representative of the outrageous Australian humor, which entailed a lot of “taking the piss out” or as we say, “yanking the chain” of her hosting Yanks. Emma decided she would introduce us to that uniquely Australian “delicacy,” vegemite. Made of brewer’s yeast, salt, and mashed into a brown paste, Australians generally put vegemite on toast with a little butter as a breakfast food. When she passed it out to us all, I kinda got that Emma was going to enjoy our reactions to vegemite a little too much, so after a bite, I told her, “Well, it’s definitely an acquired taste!” Inside I was screaming, “OMG, that is the most VILE thing I have ever tasted. It tastes like what the bottom of a garbage can smells like!” Emma said that perhaps I had applied a little too much on my cracker. All I know, is that we had a mouse harboring itself in our basement that winter. The last person trying the vegemite, on Friday, left out the crackers with the vegemite. When I came in the next Monday, despite the temptation of tasty, unguarded crackers, the mouse came nowhere near! I was convinced it was the smell of the vegemite that drove him away.

The Tongue of the Beholder:
I was telling the vegemite story to my friend Miquel recently and he replied “Well, you like cheese don’t you?” The Chinese think that cheese is just disgusting! Think of how they must see what cheese actually is!” I thought to myself, “Oh, right: curdled, congealed bovine milk.” I once had a friend who hated tomatoes. “How could anyone hate tomatoes!” I asked. “Really, what is there to like?” my friend replied. “Seedy, watery bags with a semi-solid, pudding-like skin on the outside, with almost no flavor.” I still enjoy tomatoes (particularly fresh from the garden) so this perspective doesn’t stop my liking of tomatoes, but I do think about my friend’s opinion every time I cut into a tomato. Talking to my sister recently about a tofu-based dish I had created, her instantaneous reply was “Tofu….oh, yuck!” I didn’t pursue this as I could easily see tofu from her perspective as a flavorless, watery, protein sponge. If I had pursued it, I could have said that a mark of a good chef is a someone who can make even tofu taste good!

So that got me thinking about foods Americans eat and don’t ever consider how an objective eye might look at them. I’ve already done Fluff, so I’ll leave that off the list, but here’s a few others:

“American Cheese”:  Essentially, make a facsimile of a slice of cheese. Mix milk, whey, sundry protein concentrates. Remove most nutrients. Add yellow #6 to put in some color that resembles cheese. Liquefy to make a pourable product. Add aerosol to spray it. Legally cannot be called “cheese” as there is no actual cheese present. As an aside, the term “whiz” should never, ever be paired with food. Just saying.

Pickles:  Take a perfectly good small cucumber and boil just enough to remove most nutrients. Bottle in a salty vinegar with spices. To fully negate any of remaining nutrients left, add sugar.

Jell-O:  Take the bones and hides of various animals and boil them down. Remove water. Grind to a powder and add sugar and food coloring the shade of neon.

White Bread:  Grind wheat down and remove the healthy fiber  and any nutritional part. Bleach. Add yeast, water, salt and a little sugar. Pump artificial nutrients in to replace the ones you originally took out. Bake.

“Cheeze-Balls”:  Take corn and make into a mush. Blow air into the mush and bake into perfectly identical marble-shaped spheres. Coat with an iridescent cheese-flavored powder the exact color and luminosity of certain glow-sticks.

Smores:  Take a sugary cracker, add a block of chocolate, top with more sugar (in the form of a marshmallow) and top with another sugary cracker. Toast over an open flame. Have Bactine handy for the singed digits from flames and drips of molten chocolate and sugar.

“Buffalo” Wings:  Cut wings from chicken, keep fatty skin attached. Add more fat by frying wings in oil. Add even more fat with a butter and pepper sauce so hot that it makes the eater sweat, wince, and eyes water.

“Salad Dressing”:  Make a facsimile of mayonnaise, lowering the fat content by reducing egg yolks and add more sugar. Have endless debates with the mayonnaise crowd about the relative “values” of two fatty, largely tasteless condiments.

“Crab Rangoon”:  Take faux-crab and mix with cream cheese and wrap in a ravioli. Further increase the fat content by frying this in oil. Give it a faux Chinese-sounding name even ‘tho your average Chinese chef would shake their head at the mere thought of such a recipe.

Spam:  Chop and blenderize various pig parts with potato starch and sodium nitrate. Can. Import to Hawaii during WWII to make it a national meat of the islands. Cement Spam forever into popular culture by having Monty Python write a sketch about it. Further add to the odd ubiquitous history of any other processed meat product by naming unwanted email after it. Add with pineapple onto a pizza to create what is known nationwide as a “Hawaiian Pizza,” possibly the most bizarre American concoction ever.


August 22, 2012: Grilled Haricot Vert (French Green Beans)

August 22, 2012

When I was working for the French restaurant, I was told to make their version of haricot vert (French Green Beans) and I understand that it was a business and all, but each time I made them, I could come up with about ten ways to make them better. Here’s one:

Grilled Haricot Vert  (French Green Beans):

Wash and clip ends of your green beans. In a hot grill pan, dribble veggie oil and add beans. Try to keep the beans at an angle (45° is the most visually appealing) to grill pattern as if they fall parallel and between the grill pattern they will cook too quickly. Toss often with tongs. When the beans are close to being done turn off heat (but with pan still over heat) and add 1/2 clove of diced elephant garlic. You want just a hint of garlic, and as the elephant garlic is milder, it is perfect for this. You want the garlic to cook, but just a little, hence turning off the heat. Serve beans with tongs. If you include a piece of garlic here and there, fine, but they are for seasoning, not necessarily to eat. Splash a couple drops of lemon juice on top and a grind of pepper.

An easy, fast, delicious, healthy side….and better than a French restaurant!


August 20, 2012: “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa

August 20, 2012

Every Summer my superb local library (Hudson Public Library) puts out a cart they call the “Summer Reading List” which are suggestions to young adult readers about what the librarians think would be good reading material. I call it “The Treasure Chest” because, over the years, I have found such good reading material that I otherwise might never have found. A couple of weeks ago I found there “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa, which is the shiny gem in this years chest.

The gem that is “Obasan” is the semi-autobiographic novel about the internment of Joy and her family in a series of relocation camps in the interior of Canada during WWII. I have written about this topic before, and quite possibly will do again, because I still can’t quite believe that a nation would intern its own citizens, even under the threat of war. Unfortunately, we are still seeing such discrimination in our own country, even up to the last administration. For those that are unaware of our own sad history, at the beginning of WWII, Americans of the United States and Canada of Japanese decent, were relocated into camps in the interiors of both countries. Many of these people, particularly the children, as the case was of Ms. Kogawa had never even been to Japan, and almost all were nationalized citizens of their adopted countries. Families were separated, some members being shipped back to Japan. Many of the internees had their homes and possessions stolen from them by the government, even to the hand-made fishing boats, that were the heart of their family’s economy. Some died in the camps. All were discriminated against and betrayed by the very country they had travelled so far to immigrate to.

“Obasan” is a very real portrayal of a dispossessed people by a woman who lived the events. “Obasan” is very much a woman’s book. Men certainly are present, but largely take a back seat to the feelings and actions of the women. Obasan means “aunt” and one of the main characters is the somewhat complacent, quiet aunt of Naomi, the narrator of the story. Opposite Obasan is another aunt, Emily, who is a whirlwind of vocal protestations and militant-like written proclamations against the Canadian government addressing the abuses done to her, her family, and her fellow internees. As such, Naomi is caught in the middle between silent obsequiousness and militant activism, a position that itself, speaks volumes of what most American-Japanese must have felt going through this. Caught between their Eastern culture and Western discriminations. Caught between respect to a country, at the same time with that country failing them in the most miserable way possible. Caught between the duty to obey orders and honor for oneself and family.

The Kogawa Family (with a camp minister) in Slocan Relocation Camp; 1940’s

Like Naomi, reading “Obasan” I felt caught between as well. “Obasan” is extremely well written with clutches of prose so beautiful, they can only come from a poet, and yet that beautiful language only reinforces the perpetual sadness that saturates every page. I loved the words but hated how they made me feel. After one chapter, I felt compelled to find another book to “cut” Obasan” with, to get some relief. I chose its polar opposite: “Why We Suck” by Denis Leary, being not only the perfect foil in humor to the sorrow of “Obasan” but also reinforced that yes, any country that can commit crimes against its own citizens does in deed “suck!”

Another issue I had with the book is that much of the Japanese language and terms often go untranslated or undefined. I happen to know what a koto is because I’ve had the benefit of seeing and hearing one played. I’ve (obviously, if you follow this blog) been exposed to good deal of Japanese foodstuffs and know the Japanese words for them, but again that has been my privilege of experience. I sincerely doubt that your average young adult in America would have the same experience. With that in mind, I think that “Obasan” would be a wonderful (and even necessary) book for young adults. I do also regonize that “Obasan” could be a potential drag to students, so I offer the following recommendations to teachers:

  • “Obasan” should be taught by teacher that had a good knowledge of Japanese culture, language and history in America.
  • It should  be broken up with another, lighter, piece of literature.
  • Don’t expect a lot of the males to be captivated by the book as it has little, by way of strong characters they could relate, to hold their attention.

August 17, 2012: Summer Squash Salad

August 17, 2012

I have one single measure if one of my recipes is blog-worthy: if I have to make myself stop eating it, I know I have a winner! Here is another that I may add to the list: Summer Squash Salad. I stopped eating it not because I was worrying about gaining weight. Like most salads, this one has very few calories. No. I stopped because it was soooo delicious, I wanted to make sure I had some left over for lunch! This time of the year, I can’t get enough of the summer squashes. It doesn’t hurt that the produce department is practically throwing them away in the reduced bin. Sure, they may have few blemishes, but I’ll take ’em…if the end result is a healthy, guilt-free, and tasty salad like this one!

This is cool salad, but to get the squash to the right texture, you have to steam them for a couple of minutes, so a bit of prep ahead will put you in good shape when it comes time to assemble.

Summer Squash Salad:
Wash well, enough squash to fit in your steamer. For me this was two small green squash and a large yellow. Cut the ends off, and slice squash 1/2″. In a pre-boiling steamer, steam no more than 5 minutes with the bigger pieces added first. You don’t want the squash to wilt, just barely cooked. If you have to make an error, do so on the raw side, not the wilted. As soon as they are done, immediately immerse in cold H2O, drain, and immerse again and drain well. Put in fridge to chill. Every once and while, tip the squash over to drain further. You want the squash not to be soaking wet.

Wash 4 scallions and slice off the root end and the top third of the green part. Slice in thin pieces at 20° and chill. When all veggies are chilled, make dressing (or you could make ahead of time and chill also.)

Summer Squash Dressing:
3 Tblsp.Shoyu+3 Tblsp.Mirin+1 Tblsp. Rice Vinegar+1 Tblsp. Shaved Ginger+1 Tsp. Sesame Oil

Just before serving, add dressing and scallion to squash. Top with a sprinkling of Crushed Pepper. Serve and enjoy! A delicious side or a great light lunch!


August 14, 2012: Suzumushi: Sound of Wish and Longing

August 14, 2012

“The Cricket and the Gourd” by Qi Baishi 1864-1957

We gauge the slow change of seasons with all of our senses. Probably our most subtle sense, and perhaps the one that we most take for granted, is that of sound. Delegated to “background” most of the time, it takes a truly aware and focused individual to track the nuances of sound in our lives. Take now, this slow slide from high-summer to early-fall. Are you listening to the changes? Have you noticed the absence of sound at dawn? The early cacophony of birds is now over for the year. Cicadas scratch their rasping song in the high arbors, while their more earthy cousins, the cricket, chirp their hopeful longing below.

We, in the modern West rarely if ever, take the time to even think about the cricket chirping just outside our front doors, yet to our European ancestors it was thought to be very good luck if a cricket inhabited your dwelling. Consider the lovely Irish “Gartan Mother’s Lullaby” in which a young mother seeks to cocoon her child with all the forces of safety she can think of…from the local gods, fairies, to nature herself…that which the cricket symbolizes.

“…A leanbahn, o my child, my joy, my love and heart’s delight
the cricket sings you lullaby, beside the dying fire…”

Probably the most popular cricket pictured in Western culture is the cricket from “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi in 1883. In the story, the cricket is shown as a kind of guardian angel for Pinocchio, warning and advising him to better himself, in order to achieve his goal of becoming a real boy. The cricket is an emissary of the “Blue Fairy,” Pinocchio’s mentor and guardian.  Disney portrays the cricket in the 1940 animation as “Jiminy Cricket” who in addition to his sage-like character is drawn as a kind of dapper gentleman who can not only speak, but sing.

Still in Disney-mode, the cricket-as-sidekick is again portrayed as the character “Cri-Kee” in “Mulan” (1998.) Still wise, still helpful, still “lucky,” thankfully, in this version the cricket is portrayed unclothed, un-vocal, and very recognizable as a real-life cricket. “Mulan” does a pretty good job showing how venerated the  cricket has been in the East. Generations of people from Eastern history have kept crickets as pets. In China, Japan, and much of the East, crickets were captured and sometimes kept in elaborate cages, usually made of wood, but some went so far as to house crickets in cages of gold. For most, in the Summer crickets were kept in ceramic jars and were moved to gourds in the Autumn. Crickets were kept for their song but were also bred for fighting. Males crickets will fight one another. The cricket is an omnivore, loving cucumbers and squashes, but will eat available protein. Curiously, if you feed protein to a male cricket it actually reduces his urge to fight!

Another major contribution to literature of the cricket is in the “Tales of Genji” (1000-1008 AD) which is considered, by some, to be the first novel. One chapter is devoted to a cricket hunt by the characters.

Many expatriated Japanese mourn the loss of suzumushi, the “bell-cricket” of Japan. It’s sound is said to be unique, and as import-export regulations prohibit its transportation, the suzumushi can only be heard (live) in Japan. Those visiting Japan in the Kyoto region, can hear suzumushi, en masse, at the  Suzumushidena Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple. Look for the stone temple guardian with straw sandals. This is Kofuku Jizou or “Happy” Jizou. In the temple are thousands of suzumushi and (according to tradition) surrounded by their song, if you bring something the color yellow you may make one (only one) wish that will come true.

So, in the nights ahead, take a moment. Sit on the porch or on the deck. Drink in the peaceful, soothing sound of the cricket…and, why not? Make a wish. Just one.

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