Tuesday, January 28, 2014
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
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
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!