Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fearless Eating

I don't know how I managed to get through nearly 7 years of living in Japan without discovering tamago gohan but, tragically, this was the case. Tamago means egg and gohan means rice and that is about all there is to the dish. We ordered it for the first time at Kokekokko (コケコッコ - it's what Japanese roosters say), a lively Showa-retro fashioned izakaya near the south entrance of JR Asagaya station. The waiter brought us a biggish bowl of steaming rice, a bottle of flavored soy sauce, and a bowl of eggs. We were invited to select as many eggs as we liked (two is the standard number). We cracked the eggs into a smaller bowl, whipped them up with a tablespoon or so of the soy sauce, then stirred the mixture in with the rice and a bit of chopped leek and some shredded dried seaweed. Oh man! A new favorite instantly entered the Sorrells/Vroman comfort food cornucopia.

Yes, the eggs were raw and they had been sitting unrefrigerated on the counter, perhaps for several hours. This idea has a very high ick factor in the US where we have become conditioned to fear contact with raw eggs. They are vectors of all kinds of nastiness picked up in the chicken factory and you are supposed to cook the hell out of them to kill the contaminants if, indeed, you are going to eat them at all which you probably shouldn't. The raw eggs I've eaten here (in sukiyaki, soba, and ramen as well as gohan) have bright orange yolks and taste rich and slightly sweet. And, yes, I'm still alive.

Japanese eggs are typically unrefrigerated at the supermarket, too. At more upscale markets, where 10 eggs can run $4 or more, it is not uncommon to see pictures of farmers cuddling their hens, presumably the mothers of the eggs on display or close relatives. We only buy the $2 variety so we don't get the family portrait with our purchase but we trust that our eggs come from very clean homes. Same with chicken, beef, organ meats, and other animal products which are also commonly eaten raw or nearly raw.

What accounts for this relative level of food safety in Japan? Better inspection? Smaller farms? More independent craft farming? I will look it up and get back to you.

Kokekokko (03-3220-7922) is located in Asagaya Minami 3, a few minutes' walk from JR Asagaya station, in an area filled with bars and yakitori joints. Turn right when leaving the station, follow the street that runs along the tracks for a couple of blocks and you'll bump right into it. They feature a lot of tasty and fun variations on traditional Japanese pub fare and a wide selection of shochu. They also hand out gifts to every customer: bath salts for the ladies and rice flavoring packets for the gentlemen.


Sunday, May 17, 2009


Peace dropped from the sky on August 6 and 9, 1945 in a cataclysmic rain of terror, death and destruction. Six days later the Japanese surrendered and a nation at war was suddenly a nation at peace. Of course, this peace did not come easy. Several years of military occupation and martial law imposed it. The rebuilding of a society took its time. But Japan has since enjoyed an unprecedented nearly 64 years of relative peace.

In the early 50's, as Japan was jump starting its "economic miracle," the great American industrial and graphic designer, Raymond Loewy, was invited to redesign the package of Peace cigarettes. Unlike his simple tweaking of the Lucky Strike logo - creating the most iconic* of American designs, with its clean simple typeface; its red, white and er... gray target; and its straightforward American-ness - Loewy had the chance to begin anew with a completely fresh design.

Peace cigarettes tend to bring chuckles to the foreign traveler in Japan. Who would name a cigarette Peace? Or Hope, another long-running brand? And why? One may ask why name cigarettes Now or True? Peace, the cigarette brand, had been around for a while. The whims of marketers are sometimes hard to fathom.

Loewy turned his imagination to an iconic, yet troubling, image of the dove of peace. As the hope and promise of peace was being embraced by a destroyed nation, Loewy made a beautiful, modern and streamlined representation of this ancient symbol. Steamlining and modernity were Loewy's M.O. His dove represents the inviolable march of the future - the modern world of no nonsense, no frills, no embellishments, no sidetracks. Modern design equalled honesty in his eyes. But a closer look at the design reveals a complex undercutting of the basic iconography of the image - the image of peace. The dove itself is plummeting downward. it looks almost like an airplane, or more specifically, a bomber. The dove is not falling from the sky. It is diving toward the earth. Strange behavior for the symbol of peace. The tail, feathers shaped in a V, the Great War's symbol for victory**, adds yet another layer of metaphor to the iconography. What does this dove represent anyway?

Perhaps it's the image of the allied victory over Japan. Peace from above, enforced on a nation that lost, printed on a cigarette package. In the immediate post-war period, cigarettes, one of the cheapest and most easily consumable of items, lacked the deep stigma of cancer death and health nuisance of contemporary times. In fact, cigarette smoking is still generally accepted in Japan without the social hectoring that accompanies it now in North America. The ultimate victory over Japan was the opening of new markets to the western world. The Japanese have had their moments of turning the tables on market capitalism, but in the current global recession, all nations seem to be in the same sinking boat. Nonetheless, the ubiquitous image of peace remains in the marketplace. And at about 3 bucks a pack, Peace comes pretty cheap these days.

Peace, the logo, seems to show up as a common name/theme for numerous kissaten, the classic coffee shop of Japan. In their 1960s heyday, these often homely places added a pretense of western sophistication in their third place-ness, by not only serving up a strong cup of Joe, but also by being the venue for serious jazz listening and general hanging out. Occupying a seat for hours over a single cup of coffee is not merely an instance of western imperialism of the coffee place, it's a welcome respite in keep-it-moving culture of Tokyo. And coffee and cigarettes go hand in hand. At least they used to.  Near the Bic Camera store outside Odakyu Line west exit is a lovely old fashioned kissaten that goes by the name of Peace.

The Tobacco and Salt Museum's current exhibition (until 5/29/09) is about the history of cigarette package design in Japan. Click here for more information. 

*Other classic American cigarettes, Camels and Marlboros, are much less "American" in their concepts and designs. Camels refer to the exoticism of the Middle East and Marlboros tend toward a elitism, despite their rebranding in the 60s as a cowboy smoke. Marlboros in package design and original intent speak of high class pleasures. Though it should be noted, despite image, all American cigarettes were and are marketed to the lower and middle classes.

** The index and middle finger displayed in a V sign during and after the WWII years represented victory. The image was changed by the student protest movements of the late 60s and early 70s into a symbol for peace. Nixon tried to reclaim the image as one of victory, but managed only to make of joke of it and himself. The current generation of Japanese have managed to render the symbol totally meaningless in usage in its constant display posing for snapshots.


Friday, May 1, 2009

In Praise of Korokke

Our good friend, Kiyo Marsh, is publishing a cookbook - tentatively titled  Goddesses in Grundens . The cookbook relates her experience cooking in the galley of a crab boat that she and her sister, Tomi, ran off the coast of Alaska a few years ago. Anecdotes, peppered with recipes, lore and a healthy respect for the legacy of the comfort food (fried baloney with soy sauce, anyone?) she grew up with in a Japanese-American household are the heart and soul of her new book.  She wrote us the other day asking for some background on korokke (コロッケ) - potato croquettes - one of the great and simple crossover food pleasures found throughout Japan. 

So, the Ajimi team did a little research. 

Its history in Japan is not very precise. At first thought we conjectured that it may have been introduced along with tempura by the Portuguese in the mid 16th century. But it doesn't appear to have been.

Most online sources put its introduction to Japan in the Meiji era (1869-1912). Apparently a recipe for korokke appears in an 1895 cookbook. Takaoka, a city in Gifu prefecture is making a bit of a claim as the place where where Japanese korokke started. There's a local chain there promoting Takaoka korokke and they have a winter festival at their main temple where one of the featured foods is the daibutsu korokke (the big Buddha korokke). According to the Takaoka Korokke (the chain restaurant) business website there is a reference in a newspaper dated 1900 of a western-style restaurant selling korokke - on the second floor to be exact. It makes a bit of sense as Takaoka was an important port during the early industrialization of Japan. Seems like things western could have been easily introduced there.

Moving into the Taisho era, there was a novelty hit called "The Song of the Korokke" in 1917. The song's popularity led to a popularity of consumption. This hit simultaneously with the introduction and popularization of kare risu and other things from beyond Japan's borders. We haven't found the original recording of the song, but here's a version -

Like many humble foods, there is an essence of the sublime in these mashed potato fritters. The Japanese stye can be perfectly simple or enhanced with either shrimp, crab or meat - often served with a squeeze of Bulldog Sauce, the sweet thick soy variation favored with fried foods. A personal favorite is korroke pan - your basic bun with a couple of korroke in it. We love our potatoes and bread.

Of course, we at Ajimi love our mashed potato fritters in many styles, not just the Japanese way. Noted are cuchifritos, the great Puerto Rican fast food we've found wandering the the Lower East Side in New York. Rellenos de papa (a tennis ball sized fritter of spiced meat covered with potato mash and breading) and alcapurrias (made with taro) are a couple of favorites. 

And then there's this place in Madrid that we were told had the best croquetas in the city. It's a funky little bar on the Calle de Esparteros, near the Plaza Mayor, where a copa and a plate of fritters come cheap. Little fingers of breaded bechamel creamed spuds are all they are. And yes, they are the best.