Archive for the ‘Cultures and Cooking’ 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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September 27, 2015: Tri-color “Salt” Potatoes

September 27, 2015

Tri-Color Salt PotatoesOne is never sure what will work. Sometimes, what can seem at first mundane, is virtually unheard of to the world at large.

Back in December of 2010, I was stuck for a topic/food/recipe for the blog, and I got a brainstorm: I had never seen a recipe for “Salt Potatoes” in any of the sundry food blogs and magazines I subscribed to. At the time I thought that was because I couldn’t imagine anyone documenting such a common dish.

How wrong I was.

Growing up, salt potatoes were at least a weekly dish. We kids didn’t mind. Salt potatoes are tasty, go well with many meals, and with eight kids to feed…cheap and plentiful! Having an Irish woman as a mom probably added to the frequency with which she added them to the weekly menu.

Writing the original article, what I didn’t consider was how common this dish is to my locale and why. You see, I hail from Syracuse NY, which in an earlier American history was where much of our salt came from. The natural deposits of primeval salt in the local lakes made salt production easy and cheap. One main street of Syracuse is named “Salina Street” due to the impact the industry had for residents.

So, with cheap salt supplies and Irish workers digging the nearby Erie Canal, salt potatoes were pretty common. They are still often sold at open markets and fairs, often replacing french fries as the potato treat of choice.

So, I was pretty surprised when my (to my mind..a very, very basic) recipe was picked up by a national food blog! The recipe was “featured” as best recipe of the day and yielded my best day for the blog, with a total of 125 hits!

My sister Mary Lou, happened to call that day and I was excited to tell her the news. When, knowing my range as a chef, she asked what recipe was featured, and I told her…there was long pause. “WHY?” she asked! Turns out what a native Syracusan considers commonplace was not so for the rest of the world!

Salt Potatoes are indeed so basic, it is hard to improve them, but recently I picked up these tri-color baby potatoes in a local farm stand and these upped the ante! As well as color, each potato had its own individual taste, and I was surprised to find the inner part tinged with a slight color of the outside. The one that appears black, is actually a dark purple like a beet, so the inner potato had light purple color!

A good chef is always looking to improve on even the most basic recipe! Adding this one to my repertoire of cheap, easy, aesthetic, fun, and unusual dishes!

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June 07, 2015: Japanese Dinner for the Family

June 7, 2015

Family @ Sushi BarStory is king.

As an part-time chef and storyteller, it is not unusual for me to use food as yet another medium (to try, at least) to connect to my fellow-man, to make a bridge between thought and reality.

What experience should have taught me is that be it photography, literature, film, or food, you gotta play to the right crowd.

JoanneI have been known (sadly) to talk endlessly about how Joyce is sentence-by-sentence, the best writer of the last century…how Thoreau the most important and original. I can go on forever about my reasons for photographing the dolmens and burial tombs of Ireland…of how the interplay of light in nature may move me to almost ectasy…and how Japanese food is challenging, time-consuming and complex…and yet, at it’s very essence…simplicity and subtlety personified. I have to remind myself, that ‘tho I’m very passionate about all of these, it often means very little to your average person.

Jonathon

A couple of weeks ago, I got a birthday party invitation from my niece, Bryna’s 40th birthday. I haven’t cooked a big meal in a while so I offered to make a Japanese meal for the family as a gift. I knew this to be a substantial challenge as, my family would have little (if any) connection to Japanese food. However, I have been making dishes for the blog for a few years now, so I felt pretty sure of my limitations, as well as my strengths. I also had my ace-in-the-hole: Yoshio, and no one is better than bridging the East-meets-West cultures than him.

So, I dug in and created a menu that I thought would show Japanese food at its best, while catering (as best I could) to the Central New York palette.

Japanese Meal for the Family

Yoshio’s Salmon Ribbon:  a piece of salmon, wrapped around a shiso leaf (sesame leaf) a little lemon zest, fresh dill, salt and white pepper. This is all wrapped in a won-ton noodle,which is then fried and covered in a raspberry jam/lemon juice/Grand Marnier sauce and topped with fresh raspberries.

Sliced Cucumbers: Small English cucumbers sliced thin with a dressing of mirin, rice vinegar, and sesame oil.

Broccoli and Lime-Mayo: Blanched and chilled broccoli crowns in a mayo, yoghurt, mirin, and lime sauce with fresh dill weed.

Tamago Roll: an egg omelette sweetened with mirin, fried, rolled and topped with chopped scallion.

Age Dashi Dofu: Tofu, dusted in corn starch and fried, in a broth of wakame and shiitake mushroom, topped with shredded scallion, daikon, and carrot.

Kushi Katu: small pieces of salmon, shrimp, chicken, beef, sweet potato, crimini mushrooms, onion and asparagus, on a stick, covered in a batter of panko and fried.

Temaki Roll: a cone of nori wrapped around sushi rice, with matchsticked carrot, scallion, daikon, crab meat, and cucumber.

Temari Zushi: a ball of sushi rice, covered with strips of avocado. Topped with grated carrot, daikon and toasted sesame seeds.

Macha Ice Cream: vanilla ice cream, slightly melted and mixed with powdered macha green tea and re-frozen.

Yoshio's Mikan Cocktail: Plum Wine, Champagne and Cherry+Mandarian Orange

Yoshio’s Mikan Cocktail: Plum Wine, Champagne and Cherry+Mandarian Orange

The salmon ribbon was the appetizer, served with Yoshio’s “Mikan Cocktail” (champagne with a little plum-wine, garnished with a cherry and a slice of mikan [Mandarin orange.] ) We also had sake and green tea as well as a Japanese beer, rice crackers, and edamamae.

I had brought authentic Japanese music and my brother-in-law, Steve was kind enough to set it up on his music system. Both Steve and my sister, Mary Lou went halfsies with me on the meal, as a gift to Bryna and both did considerable prep-work for all the dishes.

A week before the meal, I met with Yoshio to concur with him on the menu. He approved and fine-tuned the dishes with good advice and a demonstration or two, to improve my technique. During my stay, he made a few dishes for me, one of which was a cold, silken tofu, garnished in shaved ginger on a bed of sauce that he made up on the spot. This dish was everything I wanted my family to experience: fresh, simple, unique and delicious.

Yet, I knew there going to be problems reconciling the Japanese diet with that of your average CNYorkers: for instance, the delicious silken tofu dish Yoshio made, would never fly with my folks. In fact, tofu was completely off the menu, until my niece told me that she loves tofu, so I included the age dashi dish (which only Bryna and I enjoyed, as the rest of the folks finding the idea of tofu repellent.)

Age Dashi DofuI also knew that I had not the training for, nor would the folks find appetizing, raw fish for the sushi. I actually brought a tube of wasabi, but as soon as I started serving food, I knew that wasabi would only detract from the experience.

I had a few surprises of tastes that I now take for granted that I should have considered to be rather foreign to my family: green tea, for instance. No takers on that one (except, once again, my niece.) Sake, also was rather strange to them. A few people tried the warm rice wine and expressed surprise that it only had only the alcoholic content of wine (they all thought it was a liquor.) Any form of seaweed was right out: my sister tasted a seaweed rice cracker and pretty much retched at the taste. Anything wrapped in nori was not eaten.

Tamaki IngredientsA big surprise was the disappointing response I got to my macha ice cream. I have made this a few times before and have gotten a favorable reactions from those that had never had it before: it’s only slightly sweet, but balanced by the slight bitter of he pulverized green tea mixed in. I caught my sister making a face after one spoonful, then she proceeded to lather the raspberry sauce from the salmon ribbon over the ice cream. In her defense, she is used to her very rich and sweet desserts she makes every Christmas, to great effect with her guests…so it stands to reason the subtleties of a Japanese dessert (which are invariably not as sweet) are lost on her.

Nicky & TysonMy own mistakes did not help at all: I have forgotten that even ‘tho I’ve made all these dishes to perfection before, these Japanese dishes take practice! Although the taste was perfect, the shape and presentation of some of the sushi rolls could have been much better. I also could have done a better job with mastering my sister’s stove top (a technology I am not used to) better. The oil temperature was way too high.

Still…bless their hearts, my family showed up and took a leap and could very much appreciate the work involved in such a meal. Perhaps I should be most surprised that some of my dishes were tasted and appreciated! Sadly, those that were appreciated were mostly the creations of others (all of Yoshio’s recipes were liked, as well as Baba’s Temari Roll.)

Temari ZushiThe world is an ocean of wonderful tastes, some from strange and foreign lands, just waiting for the stout sailor to brave the new horizons of culinary experience.

Thanks to my family for attempting this brief journey with me for an afternoon’s mini-adventure! I’ll be back with more delicious food (albeit more traditional fare) the next visit!

[One of the best things about a big meal like this is that I always end up relying on the contributions and input from others. Thanks to Steve and Mary Lou Swasey for being perfect hosts: their time, effort, remarkable prep-work skills…down to their ornamental china, which was perfect. Thanks to Steve for the photos of the day. Thanks also to Chris & Sara for their gift of the *best* sesame oil from the Saratoga Olive oil Co. and to Regan for the gift of dried shiitake mushrooms, and especially to Yoshio, for his recipes, good ideas, guidance, and for providing the rare supplies for the meal.]

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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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August 26, 2013: Irish-American Cuisine at Showa

August 27, 2013

Showa 08.26.13Today was the third presentation of Irish-American food for Japanese students at the Showa Institute of Boston. Yoshio and I created a range of foods that show the assortment of influences on Irish-American cuisine.

I made a translation problem for Yoshio by spontaneously using the word “goofy” to describe St. Patrick’s Day celebration by Americans, compared to the Irish tradition of climbing Crough Patrick…barefoot, to honor the saint.

As in previous years, Yoshio made his wonderful Corned Beef and Cabbage. This year he omitted any additional salt and just let the corned beef  season the stew of potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and onions. Tasting the veggies and broth, this was just perfect!

I made Irish Soda Bread and substituted craisins for the normal raisins for the New England touch. I also made Coddling Cream with Gala apples stewed in port. My Colcannon (mashed potatoes, leeks, and kale) was a little less smooth this year as my big mixer was broken, and was too tough for my hand mixer.

Some students surprised me by actually liking the taste of buttermilk that I usually have leftover from the soda bread recipe.

Our original recipes can be found here.

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January 21, 2013: Here There Be Dragons

January 21, 2013

Brussel Sprout & Miso-WalnutI suppose, all in all, I have had my few brave moments. I did manage to get the “highest initials in the oak tree” (our childhood game/challenge) when I was a younger. True, I was lighter than most of the boys in the neighborhood, but I reached those top, thin, swaying branches on pure guts. Then, in college, there was rock-climbing. I was always the first one up…and off, the cliff. These days, with my precarious economic condition, I suffer a kind of enforced day-to-day bravery, so I find I tend to seek less challenges. There is, however, a built-in safety net with cooking. Food, to me, is a kind of mini-adventure: it will most likely not kill you unless you do something really bad, so I am more apt to try more weird stuff.

Last weekend I was dying to try my miso-walnut sauce once again, and having all the ingredients, it was just a matter of finding another worthy vegetable. My first choice was pearl onions. I suspected that the natural glossy texture of these onions would not hold the sauce as well, but I wanted to give it a try. I still think this could work, but after the holidays my store no longer stocked pearl onions. Rats. I guess I was still in “small, round, veggie mode” because what I finally settled on was Brussel Sprouts.I know that I have lost about half of you right there because I am aware that Brussel Sprouts are a bit of an acquired taste. I knew it would be a weird East-meets-West combination, but I also thought it just might be weird and wonderful East-meets-West combination.

Brussel Sprouts with Miso-Walnut Sauce
The brussel sprouts are the easy part of dish. I took a bag of frozen sprouts and put them in boiling, salted H2O for about three minutes. Drain and add Miso-Walnut Sauce. I topped this off with toasted white sesame seeds and toasted nori crumbles.

Miso-Walnut Dressing:  Toast 1/2C. walnuts in pan on stove top on low-medium heat, turning often until toasted, but not black. Grind walnuts in suribachi or any other mortar and pestle (or grind in food processor) until smooth-ish. Add 3 Tblsp. dashi or veggie broth; 1 Tblsp. mirin; 1 Tblsp. sweet white miso; 2 Tblsp. shoyu; and 1/4 teasp. sal de mer. Whisk.

I was fairly pleased with the combination. I think the onions might have been a better mix overall, but this recipe was indeed a weird and wonderful second. Last weekend, I got a very nice visit by my good friend Teja, who grew up in Japan, so I wanted to give him a taste of my latest concoction. Poor Teja. One taste and he almost gagged! As he is handing back the bowl, he said “Sorry.” and I replied, “No…no. For years now, I’ve been begging you guys to give me good feedback on how my recipes are coming along, and I just got the most clear opinion ever!” But now comes the hard part: Why didn’t he like? At first, I thought it being a “leftover” may have changed the taste, but no…the sauce had separated somewhat, but the taste was fine (to me.) “Are you just unfamiliar with brussel sprouts” I asked him. Turns out, that he regularly grills sprouts for the girls, so that wasn’t it. So, then I asked him to taste the sauce alone, and that was it! He thought the combination was just awful! The sauce…while certainly my variation, was derived from a bona-fide Japanese recipe. Now, Teja will freely admit that despite growing up in Japan, he like most people, limited himself to the food there that he knew but he certainly knew that my dish was not for him!

I feel bad for making Teja into a guinea pig in an experiment where it all goes wrong for the pig, but I really think that in this case it is was just a matter of individual taste. The one thing a cook cannot control. To Teja, whom I’ve made many, many delicious feasts, I promise to do better the next time, for you. I however, really enjoyed the leftovers!

Here There Be DragonsLook, if you are a cook and you want a safe recipe, make chocolate cake. I’ve tasted all sorts of “bad” chocolate cakes in my day…dry ones, squishy ones, even vegan ones and all of them were just fine and more than edible!

But the cooking world needs pioneers. People who stir the pot (metaphorically and actually) the other way. It’s like that (probably apocryphal) story of the cartographer’s map from the ancient mariner days which read “Here There Be Dragons” when the charts were unknown. The explorers who went ahead anyway, you read about in eighth grade history. The rest, turned back to the harbor and to obscurity, presumably munching on their chocolate cake (OK…it was more like a chocolate biscotti, back then… a chocolate hardtack if you will, but you get the point.) It’s also like the moral to the old Aesop’s fable, “Do Bravely What You Do At All.”

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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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