Sunday, September 30, 2007

...and we're back! Part 2: Engrish and Other Funny

I guess since the last post was 'Part 1' I left myself the responsibility of making another one, even though there's not much else to share except the random Japanese cuteness and Rost in Transrations that provided unlimited entertainment. However, it is Sunday evening, and I have a pot of soup on the stove, so this will smack a bit of half-assedness.

At any rate, here it is.

Delicious $5 sushi in a department store basement, made only hours earlier from fish caught that day. Juxtaposed by...

$30 grapes. I mean, they were tasty, but $30?

"Oh you are, are you?"

Onigiri truly is filled with Mother Love.

A storefront in Akihabara

As if the cuteness of the storefront wasn't enough, here is a random sidewalk, also in Akihabara. I love robots.

Over-Under on Threadless making this a t-shirt design? The sign warns against going into the train tracks to retrieve items, and is one of the coolest I've seen.

Super Potato, where we picked up vintage games that were never released in the US (and will never really be able to play since we can't read Kanji or Katakana, but whatevs). I never really do the peace sign in photos (or ever), but "when in Rome," I guess. I love how my bag matches the entire store.

Oh, Mr. Donut. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

We saw these cigarette girls standing and talking to whom we assume is their boss/pimp, and when I asked "shashin o totte mo i desu ka?" ("may I take a photo?") they looked at each other nervously, then looked at their boss/pimp, and he says to me in English, "yes, it's okay". They instantly switched to "on" and posed for me.

It wasn't the only one I saw, but it was definitely the biggest. And at least it was the outside of the window.

Get crunk. Ice for your grill not included.

This one doesn't really need an explanation, methinks.

Meh, I guess that's it. I'm a bit tired of looking at/explaining all of these photos by now anyway, and I still hafta put together a PowerPoint for work.

Monday, September 24, 2007

...and we're back! Part 1: A Gastronomic Survey

Wow, what a whirlwind. We got home Sunday morning at around 9:00am, and since we'd been tying one on while enduring the 10 hour flight, we saw fit to keep drinking until we fell asleep (oh, don't look at me like that - it was midnight our time). We slept off and on all day, periodically taking breaks from napping to order a pepperoni pizza and hot wings from Rovente's, and then to wander over to the Stone for some Maker's and Diet Cokes with a plate of nachos the size of a toddler. Norman Rockwell's America, it was.

Not that we had been desperately missing western food - I mean, the food in Japan was fucking amazing. Sure, we had a coupla duds (fast food and some bar food failed us - why am I not surprised?), but one place was so great that we even went back a second time on our last night.

Honjin looked like a little hole-in-the-wall from the outside (it was in an alley), but was our first exposure to sitting on the floor, shoes-off dining and to motsunabe - a hotpot of cabbage, scallions, tofu and some grisly nasty bits of chicken. The first night we went (our second night in Tokyo) we were undaunted by the katakana-only menu and simply said, "omakase shimasu" ("we're in your hands").

The guy ended up bringing us 6 different things:

Clockwise from the top:
nankotsu sumibiyaki - charcoal-grilled chicken breast and crunchy cartilage, smoky and delicious.
hakata hitokuti gyoza - we ate this the second time too, but I still don't know what was in that gyoza (anyone translate for me?). The crust on it was incredible.
jidorino tataki - seared rare chicken, in a lime juice and shoyu dressing with red onions, chives, and what I think I identified as shaved fennel. We thought it was duck at first because it was so rare, but no signs of salmonella yet!
"Honjin salad" - not very Japanese-sounding, but it was a salad of julienned daikon, red and yellow bell pepper, and a shoyu-rice vinegar dressing, with a little mizuni greens. Very refreshing.
motsunabe (obscured in photo, but you can see it in the first pic above) - we chose ours with miso broth, and the second time there we realized we could order noodles for slurping up the last of the unctuous broth. I will definitely make this at home.
karashi mentaiko - spicy, pickled, salted cod roe. Very intense. "Maa maa" - not my fave, but Scott liked it (I'd wished I'd had some rice to chase it!).

(apologies for poorly-exposed and attempt-at-fixing photo)

The amuses bouche were a beautiful ceviche baby squid with seaweed and glass noodles in a slightly acidic, sweet and salty dressing, and a little dish of octopus tentacles with masago. The second time we were treated to a simple egg salad with excellent remoulade.

Our second favorite meal was not so much about the food (which consisted of excellent yakitori of duck meatballs and pankoed and fried soft-boiled quail eggs, but bland shabu-shabu) as the atmosphere. It was located in Shibuya, and served as our respite from the harrowing heat and frenetic pace of Tokyo rush hour. We wanted to kill some time before attempting the train ride back to Shimbashi Station, and ducked down into a small place whose name was sadly never established for lack of any Romaji signage.

When we entered, the front counter was occupied by one elderly man in an expensive suit, surrounded by an entourage of middle-aged men in similarly expensive suits, all standing around protectively. As soon as the older man finished his food and stood, they all turned and followed him downstairs. Scott and I of course assumed that they were Yakuza (it was likelier just a boss and his employees, but that's no fun, is it?). The subsequent clientele were all senior citizens who went directly downstairs, where we assumed the non-smoking section must've been located. The old timer behind the grill complimented my Japanese, which was very gratifying.

Another place worth mention is also tragically nameless due our illiteracy in Kanji and Katakana. We had just befriended a Korean traveler over mediocre sushi who reluctantly agreed to come drinking with us, and we found another gorgeous little basement joint where no English but ours' was spoken.

Karam spoke better English than he did Japanese; in fact, I think my Japanese was actually better than his, which I find sort of amusing.

We had only been looking for a place to drink reishu and maybe peck a little, and instead stumbled into a place perhaps a bit out of our league. Never fearing a challenge, we settled in for what ended up being a flight of premium cold sake presented by an apparent sake sommelier. He was an uncanny Japanese doppelganger of Stephen from Top Chef Season 1, which put me and Scott into peals of giggles. The chef and apprentices were prepping for dinner, and our seats at the bar gave us a perfect view of my favorite form of entertainment - the kitchen's ballet.

The clatter of a dropped pan instigated a knee-jerk "otto!" ("oops!") to come rushing out of my mouth, and appalled at what I feared had been glaring disrespect, I looked up in time to see the chef smiling and shaking his head. Phew! Disaster averted. He wasn't offended at all, and in fact treated us to a free sample of the kobe beef he was gracious enough to allow me photograph.

I'm sorry, but the marbling on that masterpiece makes my panties wet. A quick sear was all it took, and slivers of beef that can only come from cows that are massaged daily and fed sake melted on our tongues.

Other foods were photographed but dashed what were perhaps unrealistically high hopes. Okonomiyaki was tasty enough at the time, but looking at the photo now kinda turns my stomach.

Pork and noodles were probably the better choice over seafood, but the cloying barbecue sauce left an icky aftertaste. Many glasses of reishu were required.

Worse, takoyaki wasn't even tasty at the time, and the mere thought of it now makes me puke a little in my mouth.
I was expecting crispy little hush puppy-type dumplings with tender nuggets of octopus, but was instead met with a mushy exterior and an interior of raw batter and tough hunks of cephalopod, all topped with the ubiquitous barbecue sauce, kupie mayo, and bonito shavings that writhed and squirmed as they melted in the steam. We couldn't drink our beers fast enough to overwrite the experience.

These were the notables (and unmentionables) of our culinary adventures in Tokyo. Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Oh shit we are in Tokyo!

Scott and I are in Tokyo celebrating our first anniversary. We got here Friday night (Saturday afternoon Tokyo time), and we've already managed to see some pretty cool shit. And our lungs are starting to get used to the heavy air. Here's the morning view from our hotel:

We ate at Tsujiki fish market today, but instead of having sushi (I know, wtf were we thinking?) we ate something that I just can't identify. It was like some fish cake-type texture (probably thickened with rice flour?) like the size of a burrito, and had carrots, shitake mushrooms, ginger and corn in it. It reminded me of that hot pink fish cake that comes in ramen (what is that stuff called?). It also came with some little dumplings on a skewer and a sausage-shaped thing that had either thinly shredded daikon or some noodle in it. And there was also a little pancake of the same texture and vegetable combo.

(We had already eaten some of it before I thought to take a photo)

Kore wa nan desu ka?? I forgot to ask the guy at the stand. Does this look familiar? It was about 1000 yen (~$10) for the little box of all of those things, and it was enough to feed myself and Scott with leftovers to spare. I'd love to know what it is so I can try it again at another joint or try to get a recipe.

Other random neatness:

At first I thought nobody locked up their bikes, but actually they use handy little back-tire locks instead.

A lovely bonsai in the middle of the city at Hama-rikyu Gardens.

Even the manhole covers are pretty (although some emit rank sewer gas).

I think this is a bowl of soup cozying up to a fried prawn. I guess they're probably in love.

This building, perhaps the coolest I've ever seen, looks like a very geometric Antonio Gaudi work. Or a giant game of Jenga.

We're in the room now drinking cheap shoju mixed with pear nectar and watching bad Japanese daytime television. I hafta admit that Japanese television is kinda disappointing. It seems to be mostly infomercials and sports. Dietary aids seem to be very popular.

After the feet rest up a bit and the sweat dries (it is like 90 degrees and 70% humidity), I want to find some good soba. I think there's a place just around the corner from us. Last night we ate in a bar, and had some octopus croquettes, octopus sashimi, gyoza and
cranberry-flavored malt liquor beverage. No one there spoke English so we really had to bring our A-game, and I think we did okay. I really want to meet someone to drink with, but we're so not there yet with our language skills.

Update later. Matane!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Paper Chef 25

Wow, I am so excited to enter the world of Paper Chef! (link at Tomatilla! on my sidebar). This friendly little competition among food bloggers is just the type of thing to get me through the busy harvest season and the damp winter that follows. This is how it (usually) works: once a month on a Friday, 3 ingredients are revealed and by the following Wednesday you must incorporate those ingredients into a dish and then blog it. (This will also give me a much-needed kick in the ass to keep my blog current.)

This month's ingredients are: eggplant, chili peppers, smoked swordfish (or other smoked fish if you can't obtain smoked swordfish, or other smoked food if you can't hang with seafood), and this week a fourth ingredient was added: something you already have in your house. This month's theme was "Home."

To me, home-style foods are usually of the soup, chowder, or stew variety. This is also poor folks' food, which is what I grew up eating. As an adult, I've found ways to class-up the food my mom prepared while attempting to make ends meet. I still think the reason Scott proposed to me is that he could taste the home-made chicken stock in my corn chowder (he denies this, but I believe the old adage holds true).

And so, for my inaugural entry into Paper Chef, I present to you:

Smoky Green Curry Seafood Chowder

Ingredients (broken out into steps of prep):
1 medium-sized Asian eggplant*, mandolined or sliced very thin (on the bias)
2 c chopped fresh tomatoes (canned would work in a pinch if drained)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced*
3 small, mild green chilis such as fresh pepperoncini*
1 small onion, diced
1 shallot, minced (about 3 tbsp)
3 or 4 cloves garlic, minced
3" piece of ginger (the younger the better), julienned
1/2 c chopped baby haricots verts (or other tender green bean)

1 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp caraway seed
1/2 tsp cumin seed
1/4 tsp garam masala
coupla fat pinches kosher salt
6 or 7 cracks pepper

5 c fumet or fish stock*
3 or 4 squirts fish sauce (nam pla)
1 can (13.5 oz) coconut milk
1 cup chopped fresh basil (reserve a few sprigs for garnish)
1/2 c chopped fresh cilantro, stems and all (reserve a few sprigs for garnish)
1/2 tsp red chili flake (I like the Korean kind, which is a little sweeter)
juice and zest from half a lime

1 tin (3.66 oz) smoked mussels*, drained
1 lb mild white fish fillets (such as halibut, flounder, tilapia, etc.), cut into bite-sized cubes
8 baby octopus or squid, cleaned, tentacles left whole and bodies cut into bite-sized pieces
12 or 15 medium-sized prawns (~8 oz), peeled and deveined with tails intact

*These are the key ingredients of this week. For the "something you already have", I used fumet (see the "We Went to the Beach and Shit" post for the story of my shitload of fumet).

Heat oven to 350F. Spread thinly-sliced eggplant in a single layer on two lightly-oiled cookie sheets (or on a silpat on top of the cookie sheet). Spread tomatoes into glass or ceramic baking dish in an even layer. Roast eggplant for 15 minutes until browned and a bit crispy. Peel eggplant off while still hot and set aside. Roast toms for an additional 15 minutes (30 minutes total) until slightly browned, sticky and slumpy. You can kick the heat up a bit after the eggplant comes out if you want to expedite this step.

In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute the jalapenos, pepperoncini, onions, shallots, garlic, ginger and haricots verts for 5 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon (important utensil for home cooking). While this is happening, heat a small pan over medium heat and toast the coriander, caraway and cumin seed until fragrant. Remove from heat and grind in mortar and pestle or spice grinder until you get a fine powder. Add ground spices and garam masala to sauteeing veg, and add salt and pepper.

When veg is beginning to get a little golden, add fumet, fish sauce and coconut milk. Drop heat to medium-low and stir. Add basil, coriander, chili flake and the lime zest/juice. Simmer for like 10 minutes. Add the eggplant and tomatoes, smoked mussels and the fish, and simmer another 10 minutes or so, until the veg is al dente and the fish is looking opaque. Avoid stirring too much here so you don't break up the fish. Add the octopus and prawns, and turn off the heat. The latent heat will cook the octopus and prawns without overdoing it.

Ladle into warm bowls and top with sprigs of basil and cilantro (or chop the sprigs up and sprinkle on top). Serve with crusty baguette (not as weird as you'd think; since Vietnam was colonized by the French they learned some nice baking skills from them). Enjoy with a nice Pinot Gris (we have great ones in Oregon), which compliments the seafood and cuts the spiciness.