Archive for the ‘Beyond Sushi’ Category

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December 01, 2015: “Rice Noodle Fish”

December 1, 2015

RNF_Cover_smOne of the joys I have these days is the occasional contact from some of my students from my old job that choose to stay in touch with me. Not only is it a pleasure to see these fine people as they progress through life, but it makes me think that I just may have done a few things right in my old position.

Sometimes it’s fielding Facebook posts from Sarah on her career as one of the finest wedding photographers in New England. Once and a while I’ll get a very entertaining Twitter from Regan’s son, Mason…or perhaps a spirited comment here from her mom. Sweet Emma will chime in on FB, from time-to-time, with news of weird weather patterns, and even weirder wildlife from “the land down-under.” True to form, Isaac may suddenly show up out of nowhere to “kidnap” me to go see a movie, or like his last contact: a phone call to announce the birth of his son!

A couple of weeks ago, Regan sent me a link to an article on okonomiyaki (the comfort food that Yoshio has published a book about, and where this blog gets its name) that she thought I would like…and she hit the proverbial nail on the head! The story was about everything I try to write about in the blog: making good Japanese food in the most authentic way possible, while trying to explore Japanese culture as best a Westerner may. RNF_insert_sm

The story was about a Guatemalan chef who emigrates to Hiroshima to make okonomiyaki…something almost unheard of, as the Japanese can be wary of gaijin (foreigners) and almost never would accept a gaijin cooking what is considered to be Japans’ most hallowed comfort food! The first thing I noticed was the article was very well written: a story/tapestry of  history, Japanese food, travel, cooking techniques, the pursuit of excellence, all wound around a personal story of daring and success! Needless to say, I loved the article, but towards the end of it, I had one of those, “Hey! Wait a minute!” feelings.

Back up to a week and a half before. I’m at my local library, checking out films and asking for help with research on a piece I’m working on. I’m striding to the checkout desk with my usual brisk pace, when a book practically leaps out from the shelf at me!

This has happened a few times in my life, and it always has served me well to follow the instinct: one time, it was a rare book from a former teacher of mine that did the “leaping” and I still cherish that book to this day. So, whenever this happens, I just roll with it.

The leaping book was “Rice Noodle Fish” (Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture) by Matt Goulding. “RNF” is published through Roads and Kingdoms (an independent journal of food, politics, travel, and culture.) The book seems to be strongly attached to Anthony Bourdain, who I gather is some sort of celebrity chef of some sort. I could not be less impressed by this part of it, but if this attachment got the book published… fine, but the writing (and some of the photography) is Matt’s.

My “Waitaminute!” moment was one of perfect synchronicity: Regan’s article to me was from a part of “Rice Noodle Fish” that I hadn’t gotten to read just yet. RNF Food Groups_smWhenever I pick up a new book, I look to the dedication. To my mind this sets the tone of the book, and Matt Goulding has nailed the right tone (and my interest and trust) with his:

“To the shokunin (artisans) of Japan, pursuers of perfection, for showing us the true meaning of devotion.”

With this measure of respect, one can continue, and the rest of the book is just pure fun: it is part travelogue (Matt divides the book into the separate regions of Japan); part etiquette book; and part history book. But the main focus is on the variety of the people and food of Japan. Best of all (for us) Matt’s perspective is from a Westerner, but one who is thoroughly open to Japan’s people and food. Like most of us, Matt freely admits he will never completely understand the myriad of subtleties of Japanese culture, but offers a handful of guidelines, tips, directions, and even some language, to smooth the road for the open adventurer who is looking for a taste of the unfamiliar.

Roads and Kingdoms have made portions of the book available online. It also offers some tips for those traveling to Japan: roadsandkingdoms.com/japan

[Much thanks to the Randall Library of Stow, Ma. for having stocked such wonderful leaping books and for my extension on my loan to complete my article.]

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June 15, 2014: “Green Brain” Sushi

June 15, 2014

%22Green Brain%22 SushiTwo weeks ago I helped Yoshio cook for his daughter’s wedding. Yoshio had a tough job as he had all the responsibilities of a father of the bride plus he was also food designer and had to make sure his creations were made to his specification…all this for close to 100 people! It was also a tough job for the wedding couple, Katrina and Jonah, also to whittle down Yoshio’s immense list of food options to what they wanted. They did a fantastic job choosing dishes that were personal, as well as visually pleasing and delicious!

My job was to help organize the food and do as much prep work as possible. The true star of the food crew, ‘tho was Baba Takashi. A friend of the family, Baba was imported from Japan by Yoshio as a sushi chef for the reception. Yoshio had ordered all the sushi supplies, including the fresh fish, which arrived on ice just before Baba himself arrived from Japan.

Baba and I worked together for almost eight hours, the day before the reception. I can’t tell you how hard it was to work with a master sushi chef in the room! All I wanted to do was to watch every move he made, and it was only my dedication to Yoshio, the wedded couple, and to my obligations, that kept me from doing just that! The great part of working with a sushi-master (and a kind and generous one at that) was being offered a few of his creations as the evening progressed. Every once in a while, Baba would come over with one of his unique (vegetarian) sushi variations. Not only was each piece visually stunning, but absolutely delicious!

One of my favorites of Baba’s sushi I nicknamed “Green Brain” sushi.This was thinly sliced avocado wrapped around sushi rice. Simplicity itself…right?

Not so simple when I tried to make it for myself. Remember what I said about wanting to watch Baba? Well, I never got to see how he created “Green Brain” sushi. It took me several trials to get the thickness of the avocado right. Then, when I formed it, it was a decent effort, but not even in the ballpark of correct.

I got to catch up with Yoshio this weekend. We were so busy working the weekend of the wedding, we never got to visit. Between sips of a very good bourbon, delicious cheeses and  frites  truffe (truffled french fries…made the correct way by Yoshio) he was able tweak what I had done wrong and to shorten the road to my making Baba’s sushi better. My second effort came closer to what I wanted….not perfect, mind you, but better…thanks to Yoshio’s input.

The day of the reception, I was very busy, but I occasionally caught glimpses of Baba’s work: Every one of his creations a masterpiece! The queue of guests waiting to partake of his sushi was wrapped all around the yard! At one point, just about every guest was chanting his name! If any sushi chef ever came close to rock-star status, it was Baba!

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I only wish I was able to flatter Baba more. I only hope that sometime in the future I can get the chance to see Baba (my new rock-star friend) in action again!

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December 08, 2013: Sushi Class and Flamenco

December 8, 2013

Yoshio Teaches Sushi LCHCEarly this week, it was my honor and pleasure to once again don the uniform of a “Okonomy” sous-chef. “Okonomy” is Master Chef Yoshio Saito’s catering restaurant and is what this blog is named after. This week, it was to assist Chef Saito in teaching a sushi class at the Lowell Community Health Center in an effort to promote healthier options for diet. There were two classes scheduled with an expected 60 people per class, so we had our work cut out for us!

There is a saying in the East: “Give a man a fish, and he will stave off hunger for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will stave off hunger for a lifetime.” My experience with Yoshio and Okonomy, up to now, has been more of “giving of a fish” (literally and figuratively) to patrons. This time, it was a “teaching to fish” kind of affair. Okonomy was to provide all the materials ready to make temaki roll. This is sushi in a cone wrap of nori (seaweed sheets.) Yoshio would teach history, techniques and procedure to allow the health center administrators to learn the hows and whys of making sushi and then (best of all) teach them to make their own delicious combinations!

Considerable preparation was needed to buy, cut, package, and store all the separate elements of the temaki roll Yoshio was teaching. Those items were:

Nori Wraps             Toasted Sesame Seeds               Trefoil (or Beefsteak) leaves
Cucumber               Brown & White Sushi Rice         Shoyu (soy sauce)
Natto (fermented soybean)      Pickled Ginger         Daikon (Japanese Radish)
Fried Tofu Sheets          Scallions              Wasabi (Japanese Horseradish)
Imitation Crab             Avocado

Yoshios Sushi Rice

Brown Sushi Rice from Rice Cooker Photo: Y. Saito

Most troublesome to Chef Saito was the huge quantity of rice (we ended up with close to eighty pounds, between the white and brown) and most important, to keep such a huge quantity consistently warm until serving. Yoshio came up with  very clever technique of putting the rice batches in huge sealed bags and keeping them in a large thermos with hot water bottles. Yoshio flavored the rice with his special mixture of seasoning, stirring each batch under a fan to cool the rice to the proper temperature.

Chef Saito also made his home-made wasabi, which is much more hot (as well as more flavorful) than store-bought brands. [I observed more than one patron with watery eyes after applying just a tad too much!] Yoshio tempered such heat in the temaki rolls with the cool, bright, and tangy trefoil leaves, as well as the slightly sweet daikon and pickled ginger. He rounded out his temaki with the nutty toasted sesame seeds and salty shoyu.

The most delicious cucumber soup ever!

The most delicious cucumber soup ever! Photo: Y. Saito

Cooking with Yoshio is always such a positive experience in so many ways: not only is the work a lot of fun, but I learn so much every time just by being around a master and asking questions (which Yoshio is always pleased to answer.) It certainly helps to work for a master chef around break time. For dinner, he took the leavings from the cucumbers I was working on and whipped up a wonderful cucumber soup on the fly! He combined the cucumber with stock and milk and topped it of with white truffle oil, finely chopped trefoil, and crumbled feta cheese. I can honestly say it was one of the most spectacular soups I’ve ever had!

During an earlier break, Yoshio played a flamenco piece on his guitar (something I didn’t know he was training for) to perfection, but I was curious, “Why flamenco?” Actually, this style of playing from Southern Spain has more schools in Japan than Spain! It seems the flamenco style is hard on guitars and that guitar makers consider a flamenco guitar as “disposable!” After prepping was all done, Yoshio treated me to my favorite bourbon as we watched “Toast” which I was happy to find that Yoshio and his wife Dorcas liked as well as I.

Temaki by Mark; Photo: M.Raymond

Temaki by Mark; Photo: M.Raymond

As not as many people showed up as expected to both classes, Yoshio sent me home with a few leftovers. As I had lost a day at work, I thought it only fair to share the sushi fixings with those at work. The guys at work were making perfect tamaki rolls by their third go-around and we enjoyed a varied, healthy, tasty lunch, while taking pride in developing our make-it-yourself  skills!

Preparing Sushi; Photo: M.Raymond

Preparing Sushi; Photo: M.Raymond

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December 05, 2012: “Jiro…” Revisited

December 5, 2012

jiro-banner_typeBack in April, I mentioned a movie that had just come out that I thought readers should be aware of: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Going to movies (and other luxuries) have not been part of my life plan for a while now, due to a very limited budget, but I was very much wanting to see this. Luckily for me, the best little library in the world, the Hudson Public Library, generously lobbed a lazy pop-fly to my part of the field, and “Jiro…” landed right in my glove!

I want to re-emphasize a thought I had when I first heard of “Jiro…” I thought it would be a great date for people to see the movie and go out for sushi after. Having seen the film, I can tell you that if you at all open to sushi, you will not be able to see the film without craving sushi…so fair warning. I was immune, as a vegetarian the only pieces that are made in the film I would be able to eat are the tamago (egg) and gourd ones. I would normally prefer other veggie sushi varieties, so I was free to scrutinize the techniques of not only the film, but the food artists portrayed in the film.

Jiro Ono is rare is in many ways, but the most unusual (at least to the Western mind) is his complete and utter devotion to the one craft of making the best sushi in the world. To all accounts (having  been awarded three Michelin stars…the highest honor afforded any chef) he has already achieved that goal, but having perfecting his craft for almost 80 years, Jiro is far from done. As the title suggests, sushi-making invades Jiro’s dreams at night, informing his artist’s mind on ideas that could improve, still, his craft.

Jiro has had a fairly tough life. He was practically on his own at age seven, when he started his apprenticeship in sushi-making. It takes ten years to be labeled as a bona-fide shokunin (sushi master.) That’s essentially a doctorate of sushi! Eventually, Jiro purchased his own sushi restaurant, the same one he has today, that is located in a Tokyo subway station and has only ten seats for diners! Needless to say, his restaurant is sometimes booked months in advance from people from all over the globe, some who travel all the way to Japan just for Jiro’s sushi!

“The reward is the craft,” says Jiro. Clearly, this kind of dedication is not solely about money. It is this very human quest to be the best at what you do, with absolutely no compromises, that I found the most inspirational about Jiro’s story. I’ve known individuals who have a great deal of this desire, and I certainly have it in myself, but I know of no one who has literally dedicated their entire life to one goal (‘tho Yoshio comes very, very close, but he is 20 years younger than Jiro.)

I was surprised that Jiro was not the only master portrayed in the film. It also looks into the lives of his two sons, both, in their own ways following in their father’s footsteps and the film addresses how being the son of a master affects them. The film also interviews a fish-master and a rice-master and all three masters point out the balance of fish and rice qualities that are needed to achieve unami or “perfect experience” when sushi is prepared just right.

I learned a number of things about sushi preparation that I didn’t know: that rice must be body temperature; that the fatty tuna the West values so much are considered “too strong” for the Japanese palate; that the quality and temperature of the rice cannot be understated, as rice is the foundation for sushi. At the beginning of the film, I noticed that the chefs were painting a liquid on the sushi and I was very curious to what it might be. At first, I thought it was a glaze of sorts, but later it was explained that the chefs apply the correct amount of shoyu to each piece of sushi, not allowing the diners to smother shoyu on pieces like they do in the West!

Jiro’s tenets of every great chef are worth noting:
1. They must take their work seriously.
2. They must consistently perform at their highest level.
3. They must aspire to improve their skill.
4. Cleanliness is tantamount.
5. They must have both impatience and stubbornness at having their own way.
6. Passion for their craft is essential.

The film-making of “Jiro…” is interesting as well. Director David Gelb was allowed much more access to not only locations, but also ideas, by virtue of  his foreigner status. He was also given the Japanese politeness of “extras” not staring at the camera. His ability to get such good photography in really tight places was very impressive. If you are interested in Japanese culture and an East-meets-West comparison, it is well worth seeing the film a second time with the director’s commentary.

Although there are many good quotes from all the masters portrayed in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” the one that sticks with me, and that I think defines every artist’s pain is from the fish-master,

“Just when you think you know it all, you realize that you are just fooling yourself…then you get depressed.”

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July 18, 2012: “The Banzai Chef” by Dave Barry

July 18, 2012

Just read this chapter from “Dave Barry Is Not Taking This Sitting Down” and I thought I would share. This is courtesy of Dave’s official website and the chapter is called “The Banzai Chef” Very funny, in Dave Barry-style humor. Yes Dave, making sushi is much harder than it looks!

I also enjoyed his book “Dave Barry Does Japan” which is Dave trying to reach across the gulf between cultures and landing in a strange place of his own, somewhere in the middle!

When I read Dave’s stuff, I always think “How cool would it be, to have Dave over at a cookout?!”

Dave, the invitation is always there, but (from one West-trying to meet-East guy to another) I ask one concession: I will serve at least one WOO recipe. Your choice, and that way there will be no “prank food,” I promise. I think there is yet hope for you and Japanese cuisine!

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April 25, 2012: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

April 25, 2012

Not a review here, as I haven’t seen it yet, just what looks to be a fine recommendation from a friend (thanks, Mark) for all the foodies out there, lovers of perfection, Japanese culture, and sushi.

The documentary by David Gelb, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” revolves around Jiro Owo, who is master sushi chef and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro” a 10-seat sushi bar in Toyko. Jiro, 85 years old, has devoted his life to the perfection of sushi preparation and still pursuing that goal!

I don’t have the money, right now for this kind of date, but if I had, I would buzz off to Harvard Sq. to see the film, and then visit a sushi bar! If anyone takes me up on my suggestion, let me know what you think of the film!

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November 12, 2010: Hiroshima Okonomiyaki

November 12, 2010

Yesterday, Yoshio and I shot the 20 step process to making Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki. Shown above is the final step with Chef Saito finishing off the okonomiyaki with a sweet mayo on top of the okonomiyaki sauce (an apple-based Worcester sauce.)

These treats are very popular in Hiroshima, where on average, a person might have them twice a week. It’s considered “fast-food” in Hiroshima, but it is made fresh and to order with hundreds of combinations of meat, seafood, egg, cheese, fried noodle, cabbage, bean thread, and topped off with sauce/mayo over the okonomiyaki “crepe” made with fish stock and flour.

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