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One small importer's perspective on the Dubai Ports World soap opera

jason

I usually eschew political monologue here since it is so rarely relevant to my post-Microsoft life as an importer, food aficionado, and struggling business owner. In college, I wore my progressive and occasionally radical politics on my sleeve, but I’ve mellowed out considerably over the years, even if I maintain a relatively similar belief system. I promise I’m not going to turn into my relatively unread blog into a political soap-box, but I do have something I must gently rant about.

I have been increasingly frustrated by the thinly veiled anti-Arab, xenophobic reaction to the news that Dubai Ports World is buying out another foreign company that manages terminals at a half dozen ports around the U.S. With a few exceptions, progressives, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, have responded in a completely reprehensible, opportunistic fashion. At the same time, the administration’s own handling of the eruption of controversy is also laughable, with the “we didn’t know anything about it, but really it’s fine with us” performance worthy of a cameo appearance by John Kerry.

The hostility toward this deal is full of opportunistic misunderstanding about how ports work, and the fuel for this uproar is equivalently opportunistic hostility and fear of Arabs and the Muslim world. Why react intelligently when you can create a fire-storm?

This is not about ceding U.S. control of our ports infrastructure to foreign companies, as Dubai Ports World has only gained control of a lease allowing them to operate terminals at US ports. This gives them the power to hire US labor to do such low-margin work as unloading shipping containers, and passing paperwork from one company to another. For their efforts, they will have the power to repeatedly touch high volumes of money that produce very low margins. Only an Arab buy-out of a municipal bond hedge fund could possibly be more uninteresting.

The way ports work is not a big secret; thanks to British trade practices dating back hundreds of years, almost every port in the world relies on the same tedious paperwork with un-memorable acronyms designed to squarely clarify title and liability for every piece of cargo and every set of hands that might touch it. The operational side is pretty much the same worldwide, except for variations in things like union-negotiated restrictions on which job description is allowed to do what kind of work. “The terrorists” aren’t going to gain substantially more insight into our security weaknesses than they could by working at a any port closer to home for a few weeks.

Security is still firmly the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard (for seaports) and the TSA (for airports), in addition to other agencies such as local police forces and local port authorities. The terminal managers are usually only responsible for securing their own facilities, an interest which all for-profit enterprises share; Dubai World Ports is no more interested in allowing terrorists to rifle through its paperwork or sneak into its warehouse facilities than any other company.

The United Arab Emirates port of Dubai is the only Arab port participating in the innovative Container Security Initiative, which improves container security by stationing U.S. customs personnel at the port of origin, enabling risk assessment and security inspections as early in the supply chain as possible. Aside from the obvious benefit of early detection, this expedites cargo release on the U.S. side, since Customs merely needs to be satisfied that the freight containers have an intact seal before releasing cargo to the consignees.

UAE also subscribes to maritime security treaties and has a solid record of cooperation. The US Navy trusts the maritime infrastructure enough to regularly dock and service its ships at Jebel Ali, all managed by Dubai Ports Authority, closely tied to Dubai Ports World.

By buying the U.K. company which previously held these port leases and various small offices around the United States, DPW is tying its success to the future of U.S. trade. This is a textbook example of how the U.S. could improve relations with the Arab world through constructive engagement. Aside from this, Dubai Ports World’s executive staff is as multinational as any other conglomerate. Their (soon-to-retire) Chief Operating Officer is an American, their Head of Business Development and commercial business unit’s Senior Vice President, and their Chief Counsel are all American. Most of their other executives are Indian or European. Although executives are replaceable, the current management’s success is clearly not tied to an Islamist extremist future.

Some people complain that DPW is state-owned, but UAE’s government is also no friend of Islamic terrorists; they do have some human rights problems that merit concern, but this is not particularly relevant to the security of U.S. ports. Singapore’s Neptune Orient Lines can be accused of the same, and they lease a terminal in Oakland, CA; a number of Chinese state-funded enterprises lease terminals and smaller facilities at ports around the U.S. The only reason why DPW would merit special consideration is the fact that they are based in an Arab country, and the only justification for such concern is racist or anti-Islamic fear.

The security of ports in the United States is not going to be determined by the country in which the corporate parent of the shipping and logistics vendors operating in our terminals is based. It’s going to depend on the quality of the people working at those facilities, most of which are meagerly paid U.S. citizens, Hispanic immigrants, and so on, much like any number of other foreign companies operating in the United States.

Additionally, security is going to depend on the amount of resources available for inspecting incoming cargo, the biggest hole in the equation. This is about a $2 billion dollar problem, with 9–10 million containers entering the United States each year. If customs had 30,000 people whose full time job was to inspect every container that came in to this country, it would cost $1.4–2.0 billion, assuming a roughly $50–65,000 average annual cost per employee. This would add about $250 to the cost of every shipping container. That’s a lot of money from an importer’s perspective (our margins are thin, too) and I certainly would like to avoid having to pay for it, but it would do far more than disallowing companies that come from parts of the world that scare us to handle stevedoring and paperwork.

The concerns about foreign control of U.S. shipping operations are also completely misplaced. The reason why some 80% of U.S. shipping terminals are operated by foreign companies is that most U.S. companies aren’t interested in that kind of low-margin money. Imagine trying to wow shareholders of a public company with single digit profit margins, even in good years with double-digit revenue growth, as DPW has achieved through strategic acquisitions. At the same time, you have high operating costs, rapidly depreciating, expensive fixed assets (airplanes, empty containers and ships) and completely virtual strategic assets (leases and contracts).

What does that get you? A reliable source of modest income. For companies from developing countries, or countries without a lot strength in intellectual-property driven enterprise, that’s potentially compelling. But for anyone else, you could buy a mutual fund and get the same thing without all the headaches.

Cooler heads:

Technorati: Dubai, Dubai Ports World

Kyou no Thema ha, Kabocha Desu!

jason

I’d like to say that I took this long weekend to do something relaxing, like a little overnight trip to Ocean Shores or a little jaunt to the Columbia Valley wine region. But I don’t get to do that very often. I had the pressing need to reshuffle things in my office, as I’ve decided to consolidate the two spaces I have at ActivSpace into a single space, all in the room I was using downstairs, now serving both my warehouse and office needs. My daytime contracting gig makes having natural light in my office less valuable, and the monthly difference in rent will add up after just a few months.

Having two spaces available encouraged sloppiness, anyway. I only got around to buying enough shelving to keep my sanity a few weeks ago, and I had a rather embarrassing level of chaos in both my office and my storage area. Now the arrangement is fairly rational, although space is a bit tight.

We did get a little leisure in yesterday. Hiromi got to see the Fremont Sunday Market for the first time, and we actually ate out at some unmentionable U-District bar on Friday night, Sunday at Jai Thai for lunch, and today we had an early dinner at Hosoonyi in Edmonds. Saturday we were homebodies, with a nice homemade pizza at lunch and some sundried tomato dressed pasta at dinner.

Sunday night we were all set to serve ourselves an “Iron-Chef” style themed meal, complete with three courses of kabocha-based dishes. But we were way too full after just two of the courses… that’ll teach us to eat a large restaurant lunch, follow it with a late afternoon coffee and snack, and then go home thinking we could possibly have room for more heavy food.

But we finally got our dessert course in tonight, a few hours after an early Korean dinner with soon dubu jjigae (soft tofu soup). So today, I present you with what is likely my last squash of the season…

Homemade kabocha gnocchi with kabocha cream sauce

Kabocha gnocchi

I can’t remember how many years ago I first had this dish, but on one trip to Japan, a friend of mine took me to a hidden Italian restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo, which she explained her parents had often visited on dates. They served us something resembling this kabocha gnocchi. It was the height of simplicity, and improbably both unfamiliar and comforting. Ever since then, I have regularly and shamelessly stolen the concept: squash gnocchi with a simple squash cream sauce.

I used Japanese pumpkin and potatoes to construct the gnocchi, using enough flour to hold the dough together, with a hefty pinch of salt. The dough needs to be handled while the potatoes and squash are still fairly hot, about 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This time I pressed everything through a sieve for a consistent texture, but I’ve sometimes resorted to a fork when I felt a more rustic approach would work for me. I let the dough relax about 20 minutes before forming the gnocchi, after which I boiled them in briny salted water.

Next, I used a bit more kabocha to prepare a cream sauce. I also pressed the squash through a sieve, and added a fair amount of cream, enough salt to bring out the flavor of the kabocha, and mixed everything together until it was consistent. I melted butter in a saucier, then added the kabocha cream and whisked it on medium heat until thick.

Iyokan Kurosu Salad with Kabocha-no-mi

Kurosu salad

We went an even more wafuu route with our salad, using some Saison Factory Iyokan Kurosu to make a vinaigrette. Kurosu is Chinese-style black vinegar, which is all the rage in Japan as a functional food; Saison Factory has made it more palatable to the Japanese tongue by blending it with iyokan juice, an orange-like citrus fruit. It’s meant to be consumed diluted with water, as “nomi-su”, or drinking vinegar. But I thought it would also make a nice base for a salad dressing, and it worked out quite well.

I rescued some of the seeds from the kabocha and roasted them, later seasoning them with mirin and soy sauce, as well as a bit of salt. Unfortunately, about half of the seeds suffered from burned soy sauce, so many of the seeds were sadly too bitter.

Kabocha pudding

Kabocha pudding

As I mentioned, we never found room for dessert yesterday, but Hiromi made this lovely kabocha based flan Sunday morning which led us down this squash-laden path.

I contributed by boiling sugar to hard crack stage with light caramelization. The results of my own attempts at making sugar lattices were miserable failures, although I did manage to create a fair likeness of an Olympic ski jumper, and perhaps a mermaid or a carrot, depending on your perspective, and your sense of charity. Hiromi had far more impressive results, and so we used hers instead.

Unplanned Valentine's Day Dinner

jason

We had a couple of expensive grocery shopping days at Whole Foods and PCC this weekend… on a whim, we made an extravagant cheese fondue on Sunday night, full of cave aged gruyere, good appenzeller cheese, and a less noteworthy but still essential emmentaler, built upon a Swiss white wine and kirsch. We served it with some rye bread, some Granny Smith apples, red bell pepper, and blanched asparagus and lotus root.

This would have been a nice Valentine’s Day dinner. But it was still Sunday.

On Monday we picked up a few more ingredients to put together a Japanese-style rice casserole called doria, and we gave some consideration to Valentine’s Day dinner but never really settled on anything in particular. We decided we would make a chocolate fondue with various fruits and some sugar cookies, but the savory course never quite rendered in our imaginations.

When I got home that night, I tried to think of something that would make sense without requiring another trip to the supermarket. Somehow, the thought of a calzone fritti popped into my mind, as unromantic as it might seem. I proposed a few alternate options to Hiromi, but that one seemed the most interesting to her. I incorporated marinated artichoke crowns, olives, cheese, and a quick marinara sauce into the filling; the outer layer was a simple wheat dough. The whole pastry is deep-fried, producing a crispy but thin exterior.

Calzone Fritti

Calzone fritti

When Hiromi woke up this morning, she prepared the dough for some green tea sugar cookies or shortbread, made with matcha, and when I got to work on dinner, she started rolling out the dough and cutting it into shapes. These would serve as one of the dippables for our chocolate fondue.

Matcha sugar cookies

Matcha sugar cookies

The chocolate fondue featured a fruit selection of blood oranges, Granny Smith Apples, banana, and kiwi. We meant to include some kinkan, or kumquat, but I became a bit distracted and forgot about them entirely.

Chocolate fondue-destined fruits

Fondue-fruit

The chocolate wasn’t completely melted in any of my photos, so I’m purposely avoiding highlighting it. Besides, it was Valentine’s Day, so I should leave some things to the imagination.

Gifts for Hiromi

Hiromistash

This was my little gift to Hiromi for Valentine’s Day: Her favorite shaved chocolate from Fran’s, for making hot chocolate; Fran’s decadent hazelnut and chocolate stuffed figs; and 5 raspberry heart truffles and one lavender truffle from the soon-to-be legendary Bellevue, WA based chocolatier, Fiori. The heart-emblazoned guilt-free-plastic duckie complements our large collection of devil ducks. Since the Japanese custom is for women to give chocolates to men rather than receiving gifts on Valentine’s Day, this is something of a first for her. Of course, there is a Japanese reciprocal custom a month later, but the couples-ness of Valentine’s Day isn’t quite practiced in Japan… That’s what Christmas is for.

As my 15–year old rotary coffee grinder turned spice grinder went to its final resting place about a week ago, Hiromi’s Valentines gift to me was a more pragmatic one: a well-componentized rotary coffee grinder destined for the same spice-grinding labor.

The dangers of hiding for a week

jason

I’ve somehow felt a little overwhelmed the last week… The last gasps of a cold still had a bit of a hold on me, and I usually had no energy left after dinner. I somehow managed to keep up on internet orders, but I’ve been avoiding the telephone for the most part, because I either coughed at inopportune moments or, in my better moments, sounded like I was choking on a frog.

That being said, I did my best to eat reasonably well, though weeknights were rather minimalistic.

Last Sunday, though, during the Superbowl, two of Hiromi’s former coworkers who had flown in from Japan on a business trip, came to visit us, and another friend of mine dropped by. They chatted and watched the game while I spent most of my time in the kitchen, which is probably how nature intended things.

I made a few of my signature cocktails, and a fair amount of starchy and oily nibbles. We didn’t stop for photos, but I made some fried yucca root served with a homemade mayonnaise-like sauce, made with freshly grated horseradish; some roasted potatoes with shiso; a little grilled halloumi with quince paste, olives, Marcona almonds and baby spinach. For a Seahawks-ish theme I served blue corn sesame tortilla chips with a homemade guacamole. I probably brought out a couple of other things, but I’ve quickly forgotten. My head was in a bit of a fog anyway, hopped up on Theraflu as I was.

After the game ended I also made dum ki ghom, a sort of mushroom curry with ground cashews and tomato paste, and a sort of pseudo-naan baked on a pizza stone. I also threw together a simple olive oil and cheese pizza topped with marinated fennel… These are almost all things I’ve made before, and I wasn’t in the mood to be terribly consistent with any culinary theme, save for the predominance of high carbohydrate, high fat options. It was, after all, an American event, surrounding a TV.

Here are some of our weeknight meals from this week.

Tagliatelle, broccolini, portabello in garlic cream sauce

Tagliatelle broccolini and portabella

Quick, simple, basic, comforting.

Karashi-na to nagaimo no oyaki

Oyaki-take2

Although I’ve made oyaki a few times before, I considered it a bit of an experiment. Now I’m fairly comfortable with the process, and although they still aren’t as consistently shaped as the ones I find at roadside venues, they taste at least as good. This time I used karashi-na (mustard greens) and coarsely grated nagaimo (a starchy tuber), seasoned with the typical miso-shouyu base.

Toufu no shouga-miso yaki

Miso shouga tofu

The same night we figured we needed a bit of protein to accompany our vegetables, so this is what emerged as an afterthought. This is not a typical Japanese side dish, but I was too lazy to make a proper neri-miso for dengaku-toufu. So after pan-grilling some tofu for a few minutes on each side, I added some slightly mirin-and-sugar-sweetened miso with a hefty dose of freshly grated ginger.

Eggplant and sweet potato sabji

Nasu to satsumaimo sabji

One night Hiromi was craving spicy food, and we had some nice little eggplants that begged for attention. I decided to riff off of an eggplant and potato based dish featured in a Japanese-language Indian cookbook, but we only had a sweet potato or squash handy. I substituted the regular potatoes suggested in the recipe with sweet potatoes, and it worked out very nicely.

Black daal

Black daal

The black lentils I picked up at Trader Joes recently proved useful for the daal to accompany our meal. I made this with tomatoes, onions, a stick of cassia, fresh turmeric, and other spices. Homemade ghee for the chaunk added a nice roundness to the flavor.

Leek quiche with hedgehogs, fennel with yuzu

jason

I think I might be repeating myself, but I usually refer to vegetarian quiches as “tartes”, on the advice of a French neighbor of mine during my student days in Germany. Apparently she considered a hamless quiche a savory tart.

Call it what you like; the resemblance to the classic version is faint… I’ve taken a page from my mother’s version of this dish, completely eliminating the usual wheat-based pastry. In its place, I use some shredded potatoes and onions, soaked briefly in acidulated water and squeezed, then tossed with butter, salt, and recovered starch from the soaking water. This is baked until somewhat golden, then filled and baked again.

Quiche with leeks, chevre and hedgehog mushrooms

Quiche/tart with leeks, hedgehog mushrooms, and chevre

This variation features some sauteed leeks and hedgehog mushrooms, and some soft chevre and a milder Gruyere cheese.

The side dish is something that I know 5 years from now I’m sure will be as ubiquitous and passe as balsamic vinegar dressed salad. It’s a simple dish of shaved fennel, tossed with coarse salt and yuzu juice. We ate it right away, but it tastes even better marinated for an hour or overnight.

Yuzu marinated fennel

Yuzu marinated fennel

I started making this two or three summers ago, and, despite a couple of attempts to make a more dramatic version with more ingredients, simplicity absolutely wins. It does make a nice topping for pizza, however, and lemon works almost as well.

Kuromame and satsumaimo ice cream

jason

Don’t be fooled. This is not your usual vanilla and chocolate ice cream.

Kuromame to satsumaimo ice cream

It’s very wafuu and hip. I’m a trendsetter, I promise.

Actually, I’m a follower, because both of these flavors have been popular in Japan for a fairly long time. But if I bring them to the U.S. first, that makes me hipper than Nobu, right?

On the left is satsumaimo ice cream, one of my perennial favorites. When fall and winter roll around, and Japanese-style sweet potatoes appear, it’s one of the first on my list for seasonal ice creams. I’ve been making it nearly every year since I first got my nifty ice cream maker back in 1999 or so. I don’t have a precise recipe, since the requirements change depending on how sweet my particular sweet potatoes happen to be. But rest assured, you can do it too: cream, milk, cooked (mine were baked) Japanese sweet potatoes (but your yellow ones will do in a pinch), sugar, a hint of vanilla. Use enough sugar so that it’s just a tiny bit sweeter than you’d like to eat at refrigerator temperature, and the frozen result will be just about right. The sweet potatoes should be fork-mashed when their internal temperature is a bit shy of 160 Fahrenheit.

On the right is my deferential nod to the grand inexplicable “kuromame cocoa” (black beans and cocoa) trend in Japan of the last three years or so. I saw several companies promoting products with that flavor at the last two FoodEx shows. Many years ago I saw black sesame cocoa, or kurogoma cocoa, meant to be blended with milk and sugar, which I related to instantly, but koromame cocoa was a bit of a surprising concept for me at first glance. The contrasting flavor bodies against a common element of slight bitterness produce a pleasant, mellow result.

Of course, in the drama-obsessed food culture of the United States, where hitting you over the head with flavors is prized far more than subtlety, it probably will only draw reactions of perplexion from the average food critic, and it will only sell with the truly adventurous on even the trendiest of New York or San Francisco Japanese restaurant dessert menus, but I promise you, it’s a fine combination. It’s as good as the far more ubiquitous “red bean” and far more suitable for surrealist cuisine, which is important if you are into postmodern culinary deceptions.

And why shouldn’t you be? You’re beating the Japanese ice cream manufacturers by at least one food trade show’s worth of flavor development.

As ice cream, it’s also an excellent excuse to use up excess kuromame from osechi season. We were pleased.