Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Future of Rice in Japan

This is a longer version of an article I wrote for Food Tank. The Food Tank version can be found here.

12/7/2014 - The piece has been picked up, with a slightly more sensational headline, by the Christian Science Monitor. You can read it here.

I usually buy my rice at a local rice vendor. In his dilapidated shop he sells a fair array of rice from all over Japan. I go for my usual, tsuyahime - a decent, not too expensive rice from Yamagata. He often chides me when I ask for it unmilled, left in its brown rice (genmai) form. Most of his customers have the outer husk removed, which he does in one of the old, loud electric mills that occupy a fair amount of the floor space in his shop. It’s about 30 bucks for a 5-kilo bag. That’s about $2.30 a pound.  I was once fairly shocked at the price, but have become accustomed to the high price of rice here, chalking it up to the general high cost of living in Tokyo.

I pedal home, steam some up, looking forward to settling down for my yorugohan (dinner). But even as I enjoy the simple pleasure of a humble bowl of rice, I am reminded there’s a story of politics, misplaced initiatives and a battle for the very soul of Japanese agriculture with each and every bite.
As Japan began reconstruction after the end of World War II, the paramount issue was to feed a nation of hungry people. Infrastructure was ruined, farmland abandoned. Agricultural reforms, initiated by the occupying forces, compelled landlords to sell off their large land holdings to tenant farmers who worked them. This not only broke up an old, nearly feudal system, but newly incentivized farmers quickly brought the agricultural sector back into production of rice, fruits and vegetables.

Japan, a relatively small island nation with a lot of people, isn’t blessed with a lot of arable land. But in the late 20th and early 21st century, it’s been doing all right for itself. In terms of total volume of food produced, it’s number 5 in the world. It’s a nation obsessed with food self-sufficiency and food security. And though its rate of about 65% self-sufficiency is a cause of anxiety for many a citizen of Japan, in regard to keeping its people fed, Japan does pretty well.

So, a nation that supports its small farmers, produces a fair amount of food and keeps policies in place to maintain a certain quality and status quo, you might think has got it pretty much figured out. But, with the distorting forces of the global economy, a graying population of those who till the land, a huge agricultural cooperative that may not be representing the true needs of its constituents and a ruling government party that actively opposes it, Japan’s going through some huge changes in the very way it thinks about agriculture.

At the center of these issues is the JA Zenchu (Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives), a mammoth organization that not only represents the interests of 47 prefectural agricultural co-ops, but also controls a huge insurance company and one of Japan’s largest financial institutions, the Norinchukin Bank. The insurance and banking concerns, originally set up to help farmers, are now available to anyone in the nation. JA Zenchu has been steadfast in supporting tariffs on foreign rice (up to nearly 800 percent) and has been opposed to Japan joining the TPP. They have a huge amount of clout. And they use it.

And then there’s the current government, controlled by Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP isn’t so liberal as its name would imply. Abe and his allies would love to basically break JA Zenchu, opening farming up to bigger business concerns, cutting tariffs, becoming a bigger player in international commodities markets and stopping subsidies to farmers that essentially pay them for not growing rice (which helps keep rice prices high).

In the current battle between JA Zenchu and the LDP, the LDP seems to be winning. And it’s not just on the political front. Market concerns are changing the roles of middlemen, unions and wholesalers. For example, the huge grocery store chain, Aeon, is beginning to buy rice directly from producers. And new, young farming entrepreneurs, though still a small scoop out of the big rice bowl, are buying up and consolidating fallow plots of land and using high tech methods to increase rice production.

And then there are the farmers themselves. An elderly lot – average age around 66 – many of them are now pretty much part-timers. They’ve long depended on the advocacy of the JA Zenchu and protectionist policies of the government. These policies may be on the way out. But even parties like the LDP still depend on rural turnout during elections and even though they’re pushing reform of national policies, they want to keep the folks on the farm happy. Consequently, they’re pushing for an end to production controls by 2018 but still subsidizing farmers who switch to other crops or produce rice for livestock. Perhaps the government is just biding its time for a generational shift to do its business for it.

Japan’s issues with sustainability, food self-sufficiency and food security find their perfect metaphor with rice – a staple not only caught up in tradition and national mythology, but in the ever-changing world of global economics.

On one hand, a system is in place that, on the surface, supports small farmers and, theoretically, crop diversity (there are many different kinds of rice produced in Japan) on small land holdings. But the coop that protects these farmers seems to have lost sight of its original mission. There have been instances of individual farmers’ co-ops going against JA Zenchu’s orders. And there’s the current right wing government trying to push Japan out of its decades-long economic slump through monetary policy and a rush to corporatize farming while trying to build Japan’s clout in the world food commodities market. How it’s all working and whether it should be the direction Japan takes remains a discussion among the political elite, without much input from the consuming public. Recent economic reports show Abenomics is not doing well at all.

How all these changes will shake out remains to be seen. In the meantime, there are millions of Japanese depending on their daily rice, expecting its sourcing, its quality and availability to remain stable and not beyond any of their basic concerns.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Itty Bitty Fishies

I remember hanging out in Bilbao's San Francisco neighborhood. This was long before the Guggenheim Museum was even an idea. There was a place not too far from the Rio Nervion where I used to get angulas. A funky little place. Acrid air filled the streets, wafting up from the river. It was a favorite place to sit down with a txikito of ardo beltza and a piece of toast laden with angulas - warm baby eels - their little bodies a-tangle, their eyes looking every which way. Those were the days. When even the most run down and dangerous area of town had little culinary oases where one could relax and enjoy what are now the province of rich gourmands who take a special pleasure in devouring all things endangered and unsustainable.

I don't eat angulas now. I don't even eat grown up eels. Not because I don't like them. I do. But eating does involve some moral choices. It's not all about having that final taste. Being the last person to remember. I'm reminded of the old man at the end of Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo. The one who tells Redmond that yes, he had seen Borneo Rhinoceroses. In fact he had killed a few. Will I be like that old man in a few years, telling some young guy that yes, I had eaten angulas? In fact there were a hundred or so on that piece of toast.

Now they make fake ones. They're called gulas. They're made of surimi, with little spines and eyes painted on them with squid ink. Rumor has it that low-paid Mexican workers paint them. They taste like you'd expect. And the eyes aren't really all that realistic.

Which brings me to shirasu - the whitebait of Japan. Baby anchovies or sardines. They're ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine. A classic is oroshi - grated daikon topped with dried shirashu. You eat it with a dollop of soy sauce and well... it's food. There's a bit of protein in those vaguely crunchy fish things. They're right up there with gulas!

But then there are the fresh ones - nama shirasu (生しらす). Not too far from Tokyo is the Shonan Coast. It borders Sagami Bay. This is a great breeding and fishing ground for anchovies - and thus, shirasu. Most of them are quickly blanched in salt water, dried and shipped throughout Japan to add a dull bit of briny fishiness to dull foods. However the closer you get to the source, the closer you get to the fresh stuff. Which is where it's at.

A favorite place for the Ajimi team to gorge on nama shirasu is a little fish shack near the tiny fishing port of Kotsudo, just over the hill east of Kamakura. It's called Yuuki Shokudo. They serve up the little critters in huge mounds. Doused with a little shoyu and a sprinkle of green onions, they stare you down, daring you to eat them. And eat them you will. And you will love them.

Just recently the Ajimi team found themselves exploring Noge-cho, a neighborhood of Yokohama. It's a wonderful warren of streets filled with old fashioned izakayas, yakitori joints, informal western-style restaurants, sakanayas, jazz clubs, sunakus and so much more. It borders the Ōoka River (or the Ōokagawa - 大岡川). River air drifts lazily through the streets. We stopped in at a nicely appointed washoku restaurant where we came across nama shirasu on the daily menu. Whenever the Ajimi team comes across nama shirasu, we've got to order it. Or at least one of the members has to. And a lovely little bowl arrived, little eyes staring. A taste of sweetness and brine. For a moment, it took me back a bit to the old days in Bilbao. Yes, I remember shirasu. In fact, I ate a lot of them once.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

You want to go WHERE?

Occasionally in our hunt for early 20th-century kimono and haori -- meisen in particular -- we come across something so unusual that we can't pass it up.  On our most recent flea market visit, we found a child's kimono that offers a fractured lesson in world geography.  It was probably cut down from a larger garment and the fabric feels like wool muslin.  What's interesting about it, however, are the names printed on it.  Have you been to any of these places? Doitu?  How about Perurin?  The first is "Doitsu," or Germany in Japanese, made incomprehensible by the Nihon-shiki method of transliteration which renders the "tsu" sound as "tu" --- and "shi" as "si" --- in romanized letters, to the confusion of generations of foreigners trying to find their way around Japan.  It took us a while to realize that "Perurin" must be Berlin.  "Yashinton" was easier to figure out, coming as it did right after "Amerika."  "Furansu" is France of course, with its capital "Pari" and secondary city of "Rion."

This kimono is in the spirit of other Taisho/early Showa textiles which celebrated Japan's rapid modernization and internationalization. They often featured images of streamlined automobiles, airplanes, trains and other modern contraptions that were flooding into the country.  The inclusion of the names of foreign capitals -- even if written in a way that would leave their own residents scratching their heads -- probably bestowed upon the original wearer a cosmopolitan panache.  And left the child who inherited the kimono unable to find any western capital on a map.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Do You Like Your Lungs?

When you put the words lungs and smoke together, an image comes to mind. Probably not of the culinary kind. However, the Ajimi team was out one October night in Shimbashi, one of Tokyo's best stops for the odd, the old-fashioned, the delightful and the sometimes terrifying when it comes to dining. Shimbashi still has a little, or maybe a lot, of the kind of shitamachi dining pleasures that are falling more and more to the wrecking ball and the misplaced desires of the government and developers to make Tokyo a more modern and generic city.

We stumbled onto Tamaya (玉や), a corner restaurant tucked into a warren of alleys just across the plaza on the west side of Shimbashi station. Yakiton is the place's speciality - and they yaki up a mess of pork parts, in addition to things like a soulful and simple tofu suji nikomi - a big block of tofu in a broth, lightly thickened with bits of gelatinous beef tendon - and a wonderfully crisp tempura that encased squeaky hunks of erengi mushrooms.

We were just about to leave when we noticed a big yellow sign. On it was written the word fuwakun (ふわくん). At 480 yen, whatever it was, it was cheap. The word fukuwan does not refer to a familiar way to address someone who blindly follows others (付和). Nor is it about someone over 40 (不惑). Nope, it's a friendly way to describe smoked lung. That's the lung of a pig, smoked and cut into bite-sized pieces for your gustatory pleasure. Of course, we had to stick around and order some up and a couple of rounds of Hoppy to either compliment or cover up the taste of this porcine pulmonary delicacy.

Now lung does show up in Filipino and Southeast Asian cuisine. It's also one of the things you stuff into your basic haggis. Lungs are banned in the USA - as food that is. They really don't show up that much in Japan, so we were looking forward to something rare indeed.

It looked great - a sort of brickish corned-beef color with little white bronchioles. Tastewise, not all it was set up to be. The smoke, undetectable. The texture, a little better than cardboard. The bronchioles a little gristle-like. The taste, give me a haggis any day. At least the Scots like to use a little spice. The Hoppy though, was great. Next time, we'll stick to more familiar organ meats.  We'll pass on the pig lungs.

As we left, we did notice a piggy plush toy hanging from a ventilation grille in the ceiling. Is this how they smoke 'em?

Shimbashi 4-18-7
Minato-ku, Tokyo


Friday, October 10, 2014

Flea Market Pharmaceuticals

Japanese pharmacy boxes or kusuribako (薬箱)are a frequent find at flea markets.  However, they are usually empty when we come across them.  I've been looking for boxes for storing thread and other sewing notions, something with more character and kinder to the environment than the typical plastic thread organizer.  This box with its cool tiger and eagle motif caught my eye.

And it came with a bonus supply of medicaments that could come in handy in an emergency.

I don't think you need to be able to read Japanese to figure out what this one is for.

Ahhhh...that feels good!

This is apparently good for exorcising demons.

And this will alleviate pain almost anywhere in the body.

But it could cause you to expire.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

It's in the Water

When we're talking about booze, we're talking about a few simple ingredients - alcohol, water, sugar, flavorings, maybe yeast and carbon dioxide with beer and champagne, maybe some other trace elements. Of course how that becomes something delicious and transporting is a mix of art, science and alchemy that humankind has been working on ever since wild yeast first dropped into something sugary and somebody drank it and said, "Ah ha!"

But for most alcoholic potables, seems the main ingredient is just plain ol' water. It's the turning of that water into liquor is where the magic lies. One of Jesus's most inspired and truly magic moments happened when he turned water into wine. He could have done the conventional thing - gotten some grape juice and let it ferment, but I guess he liked the theatre, was working on a tight schedule and knew he had a good trick up his sleeve.

Around the time Jesus was doing his thing, distilling was born. It became the purview of alchemists for several centuries in their magical and mystical attempts to transmute chemicals and elements. Their experiments led to concoctions that had a more secular effect of transmuting the drinker into more mystical states of drunkenness. And the grand love affair continues between us mortals and alcohol - and the water!

Notwithstanding the old joke -

A Scotsman walks into a bar and asks for rare 30-year-old Macallan. The bartender asks him if he     wants it neat or with a splash of water. The Scotsman howls at the bartender, "Why would I want water in it? We spent 30 years trying tae gie the water out!"

But even the Scotsman's drink neat was something like 57% water!

Which brings us to maewari. It's a speciality of Kyushu - and it's based on a pretty simple idea. You take about 4 parts shochu and mix it with 6 parts water and let it rest for a few days. Time turns the mixture into a slightly unctuous, smooth, yet gently spicy cocktail.  Something magical.

If your bartender just poured some water into some shochu and served it to you, it would not taste half as good. Probably not bad, depending on the shochu, but not at all the same.

The Ajimi team was out with friends in Nakano the other night where we stopped in at the Kamakura Saketen, just south of the JR station. It's an unassuming stand-up bar that has huge ceramic pots filled with different shochus, some of the best yakitori in Tokyo, a continuously steaming pot of motsu by the door and some of the cheapest prices in town.

Two pots behind the bar are simply labeled mugi (麦 / barley) and imo (芋 / sweet potato). Both hold the fabled maewari. The folks here mix their shochu with water from Kumano, on the Kii peninsula about 100 km south of Osaka. Speaking of mystical, it's a place of shrines and temples sometimes known as the land of the dead. Kamakura Saketen has certainly got the good juju working for them in their delicious mixes. The mugi version has a light spiceness floating in very soft water. The imo version tends toward clear perfection. It's like a dream of water, flying.

Much of that magic - it's in the water.


Kamakura Saketen
2-30-14 Nakano 


Thursday, September 18, 2014

A meeting of cultures at the Mingeikan

Indigo-dyed cotton takes on a soft, luminous quality as it ages that's almost like velvet.  That characteristic isn't apparent in historical black and white photographs of people wearing garments made of indigo.  Experiencing the beauty of old indigo is just one of the reasons to visit Kantha and Sashiko - Needleworks from Bengal and Tohoku at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum or 日本民芸館.  The show features embroidery from two very different cultural traditions which both demonstrate the amazing creativity that can emerge from humble materials.

The indigo garments come from Tohoku, northeastern Japan. Cotton only became a common clothing material there fairly recently, perhaps 150 years ago.   But once it arrived people made the most of it, embellishing everyday objects with meticulous stitching known as sashiko (刺し子).  The designs range from simple lines of thick, white thread inching across a blue field, to wonderfully intricate motifs in threads of many colors that must have required countless months of work to execute.

Bengal is represented by kantha. Colorful imagery spills across large fields of cotton and, occasionally, silk.  Rivers teem with happy fish.  Elephants, horses, birds, lions and birds surround scenes of human festivity.  The stitching gives the figures a nice 3-dimensional quality.  Some of the pieces reminded me of New England samplers, slightly crude but highly expressive in their execution.  Great joy emanates from every piece.

This show is exceptionally fine, but I will go to almost anything the Mingeikan puts on.  It has a huge collection of wonderful objects with a rich history and the building itself is a delight.  It may have the best museum shop in Tokyo.

I do have two gripes, however.  First, the English interpretation leaves something to be desired.  There was a good, concise English description of the show in a flyer we received as we entered.  But beyond that, the only English to be found was in signs saying, "Don't touch."  This is not only a problem at the Mingeikan: Japanese museums and public places in general are pretty poor at explaining things in English.  I hope as the 2020 Olympics approach venues of all kinds will work harder to meet the needs of their foreign visitors.

Then there is the photo issue.  You can't take any photos in the Mingeikan. This, again, is typical of Japanese museums - and fabric stores, too, for some reason.  I can understand a "no tripods, no flash" rule, but most US and European museums I'm acquainted with allow visitors to take photos, perhaps since they're aware that pictures posted on blogs and social media are a great source of free promotion.

A little background on the kantha pieces on display.  They come from the collection of Hiroko Iwatate, who also runs the Iwatate Folk Textile Museum in Tokyo's Jiyugaoka neighborhood.  The museum is small but her collection is massive.  When we visited a few months ago, she told us her South Asian collection alone contains several thousand items.  If you are lucky enough to visit on a day when Iwatate-san is there, she may describe for you, as she did for us, in English, the history and composition of the pieces on display.  You might be able to touch them and, yes, take photographs.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Semamori Story 背守り物語

Shortly after I posted my review of the semamori exhibit at the Lixil Gallery, I came across this little beauty at a shrine sale.  I'm guessing it was once worn by a girl around 4 or 5 years old, but only occasionally since it's in remarkably good shape considering parts of it could be over 100 years old.

It's pieced together from remnants of other kimonos, striped silk for the body and sleeves and blue chirimen on the chest and upper back, with a soft black velvet collar.

Look carefully at the details on the chirimen:  are those people, puppies or pupae climbing up the ropes?  Then there's the semamori, the little red knot of cloth sewn onto the back to protect its wearer from evil.   Did it work?  Have its powers kept this kimono intact since the Taisho era?

The lining appears to be of raw silk, a rather lavish feature for a modest child's kimono.  It's probably not the original but even so it bears a nice patina of age.  The newest addition is undoubtedly the striped chiffon belt, so delicate I can't imagine it would withstand more than a couple wearings.

We'll never know the fate -- or the identity -- of the lucky little girl who once wore this piece or the occasion for which it was made.  But the garment itself tells its own tale of a long-ago community that took care to preserve and pass down beautiful objects.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Hatanaka-san and his Balalaika

Of course, whenever the Ajimi team runs across any signs of balalaikas, they have to follow. One of the team spent many a year of his well-spent youth playing balalaika and domra in the Seattle Balalaika Orchestra.

In most of the world outside of Mother Russia, the balalaika is not a big thing. Nor is it in Kyoto. But that's where a bright and friendly sign hanging in front of an out-of-the-way alley beckoned.

It had a sweet little illustration of a matryoshka doll cradling a balalaika, and the simple word "バラライカ" (Balalaika). And down the alley we went. 

At the end of the little mews was Balailaka, ostensibly a coffee shop, but rather more like a forgotten and abandoned storefront with things you don't really want to know about going on behind its closed door. As we were perusing the sun-faded menu, out popped Eisuke Hatanaka, the proprietor of the place. Lanky, silver-haired and balding, with elfin features and slightly desperate smile, he invited us in. The place was a small mess, with little evidence of coffee having been served over the last few years. A particularly scary bottle of once preserved, now rotting, plums stood front and center on the old counter strewn with papers, cups and whatnot. Shoved onto the shelves by the door were various Russian tchotchkes, including a few matryoshka dolls. 

Hatanaka-san proceded to talk our ears off with his singular story of being a bit of a balalaika-playing star in his youth. He pulled out an oversized self-published book - a tome, actually - called The Balalaika Anthology (バラライカ名曲集). Along with the masses of sheet music (lifted directly from Russian editions), contained within its pages were several copies of articles and photographs of young Eisuke, balalaika in hand, amidst serious-looking Russian guys in suits, largely set in academic settings.  The serious endeavor of studying the folk music of Russia, in Russia, was Hatanaka-san's old milieu. I was struck by one pic of Eisuke, with a full head of dark hair, surrounded by older scholars, staring intently into the camera. It looked like something from the 1920's, but was probably from the 70s. 

Apart from playing the balalaika, we found out that he was a sometime counselor, magician and collector and seller of Russian goods. I think he had a few other things under his belt. And he had also published a couple of other books. He opened his balalaika case and pulled out a well-used, but obviously loved - and lovely - instrument and asked for any requests. I suggested and old boyevoy kon called Vo pole bereza stoyala (In the field a birch tree stood).  He quickly found the music in his book and between breaks in his constant monologue, played a few bars of it.

Hatanaka-san could have kept us there, talking for hours on end. I imagine he doesn't get all that many visitors. He is a fairly eccentric fellow. We made a flimsy excuse to cut things short and made our exit. But there's something about folks who follow their passions way down the rabbit hole. They may be weirdos, but they're our kind of people. The world would be a much lesser place without them. Here's to you, Hatanaka-san. Tebia shastia!


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Fight of the Century

The Ajimi team has always loved Albariños. But being a bit locavorish, we've been following, over the last half dozen years or so, the Japanese wine industry. One thing we've been seeing is better and better interpretations of Koshu - the vinifera grape that's more or less native to Japan. Once upon a time Koshu wines were sweet, cloying and downright bad. There was some idea of making them appeal to some sort of "Japanese taste" - whatever that might be. Now, several winemakers are crafting quite tasty, dry Koshus - trying to pull the best out of a very singular grape. When made well, Koshu takes on a platinum tinge - perhaps one of the most beautiful wine colors the Ajimi team has seen. Tartness is at the heart of Koshu. Untamed, it becomes annoyingly mouth-puckering. In a good Koshu, a careful balance of fruit will turn tartness into something refreshing. It can be a perfect summery wine. 

So, we thought it was time to contrast and compare. We invited about a dozen folks (a few Basques, some Japanese wine-lovers and a Canadian expat) over for a bit of taste-off - with some appropriate foods and a bit of hyperbole to go with them. Here's what went down.


The Fight of the Century




In one corner, we have Albariño, a tough contender.  Well respected in the world of wine, Albariño's got the chops, and the experience that makes it a first class player. In the other corner, we have Koshu, an up-and-comer. Koshu's been working out hard, getting leaner and more feisty over the years. May the best wine win!

1st Round
Soryu / Katsunuma no Koshu (勝沼の甲州) / 2013

Served with a Trio of Pintxos

Ishikawa-ken mame aji en escabache /
Remolachas con miso y queso crema /
Beets with miso and cream cheese /
Tokoroten with cold-smoked Alaskan troll-caught king salmon /
Tokoroten con “king” salmón ahumado de Alaska /

2nd Round
As Laxas / Val de Sosego Albariño / 2011

Served with:
Ceviche of cod marinated in shikuwasa juice /
Bacalao ceviche en zumo de shikuwasa /

3rd Round
Soryu / Citrus Scent Koshu / 2013

Served with:
Salad of Japanese greens with katsuo mojama /
Ensalada de verduras japonaises con mojama de bonito
Mizuna / 水菜 / Brassica juncea japonica
Pardama (Okinawan Spinach) / パルダマ / Gynura bicolor
Tsuru murasaki (Malabar Spinach) / つるむらさき / Basella alba
Unnan hakuyaku (Heart-leaf Madeira Vine) / 雲南白藥 / Anredera cordifolia

4th Round
Coto de Gomariz / Gomariz X Albariño/ 2012

Served with:
Olla gitana with buta kakuni /
Olla gitana con carne de cerdo braseado

June 29, 2014


Truth is, the Albarños kinda won out. But these are wines that have nearly a couple of centuries of tradition behind them. Many of their kinks have been worked out. And nobody really complained about the koshus. Yeah, Albarño's certainly got more finesse, but Koshu's a contender.


Tasting Notes - The Wine

Soryu Citrus Scent

We ordered some wines from Soryu, a place that we visit every year. They make among the best affordable koshus in Yamanashi. Lemony citrus and nettles. A tarty little tart of a wine.

As Laxa Val do Sosego

Slight smell of salt air flowing through the peach orchards. A hint of lemon in the well-rounded taste.

Katsunuma Wineries Club katsunuma no koshu

Imagine this. Celery, green beans and a bit of greengage plum in the nose. Tasting dry with a bit of vegetal funk, but in a good way. A slight tartness, but not with the  sourness fatigue that far too many koshus leave.

Coto de Gomariz Gomariz X 2012

Very austere. Grapefruit, hints of apricot, minerals. The winemaker behind this, Xose Lois Sebio is an interesting cat who has his own line of wines.

Some our guests brought these wines

Soleil van blanc fin de koshu 2013

A nice bright clean koshu with a lingering taste. Despite their slight tweeness and French pretentions, winemakers Tsuyoshi and Junko Suzuki are showing themselves to be among the finest in Yamanashi

Kai Sur Lie Limited Lot 3770 2012

Winemaker Kazama Soichiro is a nice guy and has a pretty cool winery - in an old traditional farmhouse - but this wine had some definite off notes and was pretty undrinkable.

Tasting Notes - The Food

Ishikawa-ken mame aji en escabache

These little mame (bean) aji (horse mackerel) were given the escabeche treatment to give them a little Spanish flair. A common dish here, nambanzuke (southern barbarian pickle) is a similar variation to escabeche. It was brought here by the Portuguese. The little fish in question took well to the sharp vinegary pickle, onions and olive oil.

Remolachas con miso y queso crema

The beets were sweet and full of umami. Choppped up with celery, mixed with dark salty miso (yet more umami) they were served on little tostas spread with cream cheese and topped with the beet mixture.

Tokoroten with cold-smoked Alaskan troll-caught king salmon

I happened to be at the Olympia farmers' market the week before where I picked up a nice piece of Pacific Northwest style cold smoked salmon. Down the street from where we live there's a little shop that makes tokoroten - best described as agar agar noodles. With a a traditional shoyu and vinegar sauce, the snappy clean clear "noodles" were great with the salty, smokey, dare I say amazing salmon.

Ceviche of cod marinated in shikuwasa juice

Again a nod to some cross-cultural ideas influenced by available ingredients. Cod is one of the few reliable fish found in Japan. With tart shikuwasa (an Okinawan citrus) juice, red peppers, onions and shizo, it suggested a possible Pacific Rim crossover.

Salad of Japanese greens with katsuo mojama

I took a small loin of bonito, salted it for a day and then air-dried it for a month to create a Japan-grown version of Andalusian mojama. Thin shavings of it peppered a salad of mixed greens that ran the gamut of tastes reminiscent of spinach to the vaguely medicinal.

Olla gitana with buta kakuni

A fairly traditional garbanzo and pumpkin (I used kabocha) stew, offset with a different tradition - pork belly long-simmered in shoyu, mirin and sugar. They worked together perfectly.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Got your back, baby!

For a short time when I was a young Catholic, or pretending to be one at any rate, I wore a scapular, two commemorative-postage-stamp sized bits of cloth held together with cords. It hung around my neck, hidden beneath my clothes.  It was supposed to protect me from danger in this world, and shorten my time in purgatory on my way to the next.  I think my scapular contained some microscopic fragment of the garment of a minor saint, not a relic in the class of a remnant of the true cross, but enough of one to make it officially holy.

Scapular memories came rushing back today when I visited the Lixil Gallery in Kyobashi.  On display are semamori (背守り), literally, "back protector," amulets and embroidery that were once routinely affixed to the garments of children to keep them from harm.  The designs themselves were interesting enough, ranging from simple lines of colorful stitching to elaborately carved netsuke-like objects.  But the garments were also gorgeous, particularly the patchwork kimono.  The love and care for the children that the semamori represent was underscored by the exquisite piecing together of remnants of clothing that I imagine was handed down from loving adults.  It's a small show, but every piece in it is a gem.

One curiosity - a thoroughly modern-looking kimono from 1925 bore the roman letters "JOAK."  These were the call letters of NHK's predecessor radio station.  The letters didn't stand for anything in particular - according to the NHK website, O and K were chosen for their "bright sound" and A because it was the first letter of the roman alphabet. The show runs through August 23.  It's a must-see if you love Japanese fabric.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Enjoy Your Sushi!

Above is a pic of an average sushi tray from a big chain hereabouts, Chiyoda Sushi. This is their chiyo ori ou gi (chiyo mystery box) selection. It costs 690 yen. There might be some changes as to what you get depending on the season, but most likely not. This is pretty standard fare - all year - these days, when you pop into the shop after a long day at work and you just want something to scarf down with a cold beer.

Here's what you get.

Top left, maguro (bluefin tuna) - unsustainable. In the wild it's being overfished. And when it is fished, there's often a lot of bycatch - things like sea turtles and sharks that just get thrown away. There are other bluefins that are being "ranched" off the coast of Mexico in ecologically unsound ways. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch says "Consumers should "Avoid" all bluefin tuna." If you were to eat this morsel, you might accidentally be doing the right thing, because a lot of maguro being marketed in Japan these days is actually not real maguro. It's often some other kind of tuna. Did you know that by putting your basic tuna flesh in a CO2 environment it will turn deep red? But if you're hell-bent on eating up the last of great bluefins, you may be disappointed in that the stuff that's hitting the bottom of the food chain (places like Chiyoda Sushi) is often pretty bad quality. But, on the other hand, it's probably got all those PCBs and mercury that your body's been craving.

Top, second from left, buri (Japanese amberjack or yellowtail) - unsustainable. I personally like buri. It's mild, meaty and toothsome. However, almost all of it comes from fish farms on the inland sea. Their feed is made from inordinate amount of wild-caught fish and and there are serious concerns around water pollution and parasites. I think I'll pass. I suggest you do too.

Top, center, salmon - unsustainable. Yep, farm-raised salmon, either from the Atlantic, off of Chile or New Zealand. Everyone knows not to eat this stuff. It doesn't even taste like salmon.

Top, second from right, hotate (scallop) - sustainable! Hooray! And yes, a good, fresh hotate in winter can't be beat.

Top right, ebi (shrimp) - flip a coin. There's a chance that this baby may be sustainable, caught or farmed in local waters, but I wouldn't count on it. There's a mess o' shrimp being imported from Southeast Asian waters - mainly Thailand - that (not to blame the shrimp themselves) are being raised in open farms that just kinda pollute everything around them. Plus, mangrove forests are disappearing as shrimp farms take over the coastline. There is such a thing as sustainable shrimp farming, but you'll never find out where this one came from. Oh, and the mealy overboiled specimen from Chiyoda may make you pause before eating.

Bottom left, anago (sea eel) - the verdict's still out. As you should know, don't eat the unagi (fresh water  eel). They're farmed in horrific conditions and their "seed" - baby elvers - are taken from regular spawning grounds without being given any chance to replace existing populations. As for sea eels, scientists just don't know enough yet. So, ya takes yer chances. Good luck, sea eels!

Bottom, second from left, ikura (salmon roe) - depends. If your roe comes from some good Pacific salmon, it's OK. If it's from Atlantic farmed salmon, just don't even think about eating it. Of course, you never know, but at a low-budget place like this, assume the worst.

Bottom center, negitoro (tuna belly chopped with Japanese leek) - ?  Could be it's made from leftover maguro, could be from lesser and more sustainable tuna species. They'll say it's from the best, in which case, don't eat it.

Bottom, second from right, ika (squid) - who knows? After all, it's a humble squid. But news is that the stuff from Thailand is way up there in the unsustainability ladder. And again, who knows where this one's from. However, the soapy taste and the chewy mouthfeel of cheap raw squid is an acquired taste at best. Mmm!

Bottom right, tamago (Japanese omlette) - eat it up. It's safe and sure - even if it is a little dull.

Enjoy your sushi!

All references regarding the sustainability of the fish in question are from Seafood Watch - http://www.seafoodwatch.org/


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Found: The Worst Cocktail in the World.

OK, admittedly, the Ajimi team was not at their most bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after a long and really boring flight from Tokyo to NYC. But when we finally saw the Empire State Building - all lit up like a Christmas tree - our second wind came as we whooshed down 6th Avenue to meet up with our friends, Kiyo and Peter. We wanted to eat oysters! That's all we wanted to do. So, uptown to the most touristy, most New Yorky of all places, the Grand Central Oyster Bar. 

It's a tradition for the Ajimi team, whenever hitting US soil, to go directly to someplace that has raw oysters. 

We settled into the bustling place. The experience was classic old New York. Serving us were some of the most inept and rude older waitstaff, whose asses were covered by younger, hungrier, nicer, more professional workers. One of the  younger guys came by to start things off. Kiyo and the more flighty Ajimi teamster, caught  a bit off-guard, perhaps just relishing the whole silliness of the experience, or caught up in the magic of the moment, ordered the special oystertini - a vodka martini with a raw oyster plunked in it, a bit of oyster nectar to replace the vermouth, with a rosemary  garnish. What were we thinking? More to the point, what were the bartenders at the Oyster Bar thinking?

The worst cocktail in the world!


The server arrived with the drinks in question, and with a flourish served us the vaguely gray-green concoctions that we ordered. The sprightly sprig of rosemary added another layer of green to the brackish viridescence of the drink. It was one way wet and spectacularly dirty martini. Whatever cleanish vodka edge we expected to accentuate the brine of the oyster was lost in the murky tide-poolish taste that washed over our taste buds at our first sips. Now I like tide pools as much as anyone. But I don't like to drink them. The piney taste and usually enchanting fragrance of the rosemary added only a bit of nausea-inducing headiness to the already awful misconception of a cocktail. Perhaps if it were something like a roast lamb-tini, the rosemary would have been a wonderful accompaniment.

I sucked down the thing as quickly as I could, choking down the anesthetized bivalve lying dead at the bottom of the glass and ordered a yummy beer, which went perfectly to the oyster feast that would soon follow. Hog Islands from Rhode Island and Caraquets from New Brunswick were just a few standouts from a wide selection of East Coast oysters that chose. Plus a couple raw littleneck clams reaffirmed that we were genuinely in New York City and banished, for the moment, the memory of that poor little oyster drowned in alcohol.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Food Nuggets / Japanese Rice

In the Lonely Planet publication, World Food Japan, the section on rice begins, "The Japanese don't just consume kome (rice) all day, every day. They venerate it." Wrong! Totally wrong! The Japanese don't consume rice "all day, every day." It's filler at lunchtime and maybe an afterthought at the end of a meal. And it's treated more like Wonder Bread than something that's venerated. Which is not to say white bread, or Japanese rice, shouldn't be venerated. But to each his or her own object of worship.

There's  a lot of hype shoveled about around rice hereabouts. Most egregious is the idea that Japanese people can only eat rice grown in Japan. Their delicate digestive systems can't handle other rice. Balderdash! Definitely a ploy to keep folks eating the local stuff. Which is not a bad idea, if the stuff lives up to the hype. 

There's also a fetishism around particular varieties of rice and where it's grown. One can find these grains, pay top dollar for them and find that they basically taste... like rice! Though I've always been intrigued by Shishido Joe's rice-huffin' assassin in Branded to Kill. His fetish made sense. But maybe the rice was better back in the 60s.

And there's even a cute mascot, Gohanchawan (pictured at the top of the post), to promote rice consumption among kids. All well and good. 

But after a few years of choking down gummy, dull starch - more as a duty, rather than a gustatory pleasure - with many a meal in Tokyo, I'll say it. Rice in Japan sucks!

I once thought it was my curmudgeonly attitude toward food culture here (not the cuisine, the food - or rather the quality of it - itself) and my general dislike of short grain rice. Give me basmati or jasmine rice over a sticky bowl of insipid Oryza sativa any day. It's essential for making sushi and onigiri. Great for risotto and paella. I'm not so fond of it for general eatin' - a personal preference. And the proof is in the pudding - which must be made with short grain rice.

However, a recent article in the New York Times, bolstered, if not justified, my gut feelings about rice in Japan. The article in question, Japanese Begin to Question Protections Given to Homegrown Rice (by Hiroko Tabuchi, Jan. 9, 2014) makes a pretty clear point, among other interesting insights into rice production in Japan, about the decline in quality of Japanese rice over the years. A mix of factors have led to its current sorry state. Find out more by reading the article.

I was right all along.

And as Japan is getting more interested in pushing its food products more and more into the global market, it's got a long way to go to compete with generally superior food products, not just rice, that many other nations have been making better and tastier for many years. Get to work Japan. Ganbaremasu!