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Foods needing improvement, some things needing none

jason

Nothing puts fear into the hearts of perfectly capable cooks as the thought of making Hollandaise or Bernaise sauce.

I occasionally get Hollandaise sauce spot on without really trying. A few weeks ago, for the first time in months, if not years, I made a hurried attempt at a Hollandaise sauce that worked out spectacularly well: not too thick, not too thin, and not curdled or otherwise compromised. I made good use of it with some poached eggs on an English muffin with a little cheese, for a truly heart attack-inducing weekend morning calorie bomb.

But in my post-jetlag fervor, not to mention a serious craving for butter in the immediate wake of my Japan trip, I revisited the idea again, and it was a disaster. I was a bit short on time, or maybe it was actually eggs, otherwise I would have rescued the sauce, but instead we just suffered through my un-emulsified butter-laden travesty.

Attempt three, and I was more attentive. Hiromi found this lovely orange cauliflower at Sosio’s in Pike Place Market, and after a week of elaborate meals and occasional extravagant pieces of fruit, $4 for a head seemed perfectly reasonable; we weren’t at all distracted by our awareness of perfectly serviceable cauliflower at half the price.

Orange cauliflower with thin Hollandaise

Cauliflower in hollandaise

Alas, I got a bit distracted when trying to combine the sauce with the cauliflower; some of the water content from the cauliflower turned the Hollandaise a bit thin. If I were smarter, I would simply have poured the sauce on top of the plated dish.

As the first weeknight after returning from Japan, complete with a full work day and then some, I got home a little late. I wanted something else simple but attractive, so I grabbed some lavash from Trader Joe’s and made a pseudo-pizza.

Lavash pizza

Lavash pizza

Garlic, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke crowns, olives, and some basil, with a bit of mozzarella and parmesan, made a suitably indulgent, yet not terribly heavy accompaniment to our cauliflower.

Eggs Florentine

Eggs florentine

I didn’t give up on my Hollandaise fix… Somehow I felt the need to convince myself that the success from a few weeks ago wasn’t a fluke. I was, of course, tempting fate. It predictably curdled. Fortunately, I had another egg handy, and I just started over again warming the egg yolk and rescued the sauce. For a flawless result, I should have melted a bit more butter, as the extra yolk made for a very thick Hollandaise sauce, completely unnecessary for a poached egg.

Served with baby spinach on a crumpet instead of an English muffin, this slight tweak to brunch standard made for a luxurious, if slightly unimpressively executed, Tuesday morning breakfast.

A Little Respite in Gunma-ken

jason

We departed Japan on Sunday, but not without a valuable trip to Takaragawa Onsen, a hot spring ryoukan in Gunma prefecture.

After a quick lunch at a Meguro-station cafe on Saturday, Hiromi drove us through a mysterious maze of toll highways about three or four hours, but I managed to sleep through about two hours of road time, oblivious to my surroundings. Only when traveling internationally do I seem to magically acquire the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.

For me, a stay in a ryokan is an opportunity for an extravagant simple meal, but it also offers an ideal bathing experience…

We stopped briefly at a highway service area for a snack, and after resting a bit upon arrival, we made a quick trip to the rotenburo (outdoor hot springs bath). This hotel’s rotenburo is one of the largest konyoku-buro (mixed baths). Although in other konyoku-buro, people generally enter the onsen naked, people at this onsen are advised to cover themselves with a towel (men with a tiny towel, women with a larger towel), as one sign indicated, so that “nobody has to be embarrassed” using the konyoku-buro.

We didn’t feel comfortable really photographing the baths themselves, of course, but here’s what we found along the way…

Lukewarm spring water

Nuruisen

The irouri as ashtray

Irouri-ashtray

In old Japanese houses, people sat around the irouri to share dinner and discuss the day’s business. For the contemporary onsen-goer, it seems to be a destination for an ippuku (rest, but actually a euphemism for a smoking break).

Tengu

Copper tengu

This hall is filled with tengu and tanuki, mystical creatures with exaggerated body parts.

In the ryokan eating area

Jasonatryokan

After soaking a bit we sat down to dinner. In this particular ryokan, most floors have two or three eating areas, at least in the steerage class, although in the most expensive rooms they serve fancier meals in the room.

Shokuzen-shu

Shokuzenshu

The apertif seemed to be some sort of shiso-based shochu infusion, heavily sweetened and only lightly alcoholic.

Kinoko sumibi-yaki

Kinoko no sumibi-yaki

Sumibi-yaki, char-grilled foods, seemed to be the theme of our stay. For a spring meal, the selections we were offered were surprisingly full of various “wild” mushrooms, but we had some fresh spring bamboo shoots as well.

Mmm-flames

Each table has a small shichirin, or clay grill, placed atop a concrete trivet with a wooden base to buffer against heat damage to the table.

Note to us

Ryokan-notetous

Each diner receives a note describing tonight’s menu. You can see from the “yamame” (small fish) and “joushuugyuu” (local beef) items that this is Hiromi’s menu.

Mame

Mame, slightly savory

A rare sweet-savory bean side dish, apparently typical for this area. Most of Japan prefers beans as a dessert, but this dish is prepared with enough salt to make it a pleasant side dish for a savory meal.

Maitake no itame-ni

Maitake-itameni

Several standard side dishes, such as ohitashi (blanched vegetables), pickled vegetables (nozawana, for example), and other obligatory ryokan fare, such as nabemono, were also featured. I had a cold dish with a kind of abura-age in clear soup, as well.

Sleepy Hiromi

Hiromi sleepy

After the meal, Hiromi became a bit sleepy.

On the banks of the river

Onthebanksoftheriver

We somehow managed to fall asleep around 9 in the evening, but the next morning, we awoke to this view outside our room’s window.

The bridge to the hot springs

Takaragawa bridge

We took advantage of the hot springs once more in the morning… a bit of snow started falling upon us while we were bathing.

Breakfast

Asagohan-takaragawa

Breakfast included miso soup, salad, bamboo leaf-wrapped nattou (fermented soybeans), more of the sweet-savory local beans, yogurt, an orange segment, and a soft-boiled egg, as well as some pickles and nori, not pictured.

Grilled potatoes, green beans and carrots

Youfu sukiyaki

This marks the first time I’ve been served ketchup at a ryokan, but my breakfast featured a sort of Western-themed sukiyaki, in lots of butter, meant to be dipped in ketchup.

Shake no sumibiyaki

Shake-sumibi

Salmon for Hiromi. We had a lot of fire at our table.

Breakfast window view

Breakfast snow

From our seats at breakfast, we could see the tall winter accumulation of snow that hadn’t yet sublimated or melted.

Display hearth

Display irouri

I’m guessing this irouri, not terribly well ventilated, doesn’t get much use in practice.

Goodbye!

Takara onsen

We had to rush back to Narita airport, where we met Hiromi’s parents one last time, and started the long journey back home.

Some indulgences, part 2, Tokyo, March 2006

jason

Hassaku Orange

Hassaku orange

A somewhat dry-fleshed, thick-skinned orange, possibly from Ehime prefecture, popular for its sappari or refreshing taste. It’s a bit bitter and perhaps a bit similar to a Seville orange.

Matcha madeleine

Matcha-madeleine

Not quite shaped like a traditional madeleine, this was a conceptual sample from one of my green tea suppliers made with a madeleine-style batter.

Matcha cake

Matcha poundcake

This matcha dessert was more of a pound cake style.

Zundamochi and Ayamemochi

Zunda-mochi

Zundamochi are daifuku made with edamame paste. They’d probably be more impressive in cross-section, but we were hungry already. We found them at Mura-kara-machi-kara-kan.

Smoked egg

Smokedegg

One of our smoked eggs, before peeling. We ate the smoked eggs for breakfast in the hotel.

Okayu

Okayu

A few years ago a chain of okayu restaurants sprouted up around Tokyo, even offering brown rice and multigrain versions. With modest 200–300 calorie portions and optional add-ins, the restaurants are popular with women in their 20s and 30s. There are no unaccompanied men in most of these, and I was one of perhaps two in the restaurant. Hiromi had the yuba and greens okayu in the foreground, which had 5 grains; mine was a brown rice okayu with fried onions and greens, with an add-on onsen tamago (soft-boiled egg).

Kabocha mushi cake

Kabochamushi

I’ve forgotten what they called it, but this is essentially a steamed cake with chunks of kabocha, and ever so slightly sweet. It’s actually in the “yum-cha” or dim-sum part of the okayu shop’s menu, rather than their dessert section.

Annin-doufu

Annindoufu

Almond “tofu”, a flavored gelled dessert.

Sakura ice cream

Sakura ice

Cherry-blossom ice cream, from an old-school kissaten near Meguro-station that serves average quality vacuum-pot coffee and various sandwich-like nibbles. The ice cream appears to be a lightly-flavored cherry ice cream served on a cherry leaf and topped with shiozuke, or salt-pickled cherry blossom. This one wasn’t terribly salty, so they may have rinsed it first.

The dangers of Yurakucho

jason

For people who appreciate food and would like to take a bit of Japan home with them, Yurakucho (Yuurakuchou) is a dangerous place. It’s home to the regional food specialty shop Mura-kara Machi-kara Kan, which features fresh and packaged foods from all over the country, as well as alcoholic drinks, and Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza, which features lots of treats from Hokkaido. A short walk from here will take you to another shop that focuses on all things Okinawan.

If you’re easily tempted, it might be best to avert your eyes as you walk by these shops.

Yuurakuchou-shopping

We left with soba karintou (buckwheat sweet crackers), haru yutari karintou (a wheat snack), black sugar peanut crunch, a shiso drink base, yomogi senbe (mugwort-flavored crackers), Hokkaido Tokaji wine caramels, Hokkaido hascup caramels, Hokkaido’s famous raisin butter cookie sandwiches (not from the most sought-after brand, but still quite tasty), murasaki-imo senbe or purple sweet potato senbe from Okinawa, another purple sweet potato snack also from Okinawa, some yuzu-flavored konpeito (hard candy), shiikuwasaa kokutou (Okinawan citron flavored black sugar), shiikuwasaa Calpis, some snackable salted konbu (kelp), kiritampo (rolls of mochigome toasted sort of rotisserie style, often used in nabemono or hotpot meals) from Akita, some heart-shaped cookies, umi-budou (sea grapes) from Okinawa, smoked eggs, yuzu-miso, yuzu kanten, yuzu-sake, ume-shidzuku (chewy Japanese apricot kanten candies) and two bottles of yuzu juice. Hiromi also picked up some drinking yogurt from the Hokkaido shop flavored with hascup berries, but we drank that before even getting back to the hotel.

Most of these items found their way into our luggage, but the Hokkaido raisin butter sandwiches have long since disappeared, because, of course, they are so perishable and we couldn’t possibly keep them…

For the most part, these shops carry items that are not widely distributed even inside Japan, so if you want to suprise someone with a little gift with minimal probability they will find the same thing in their local Asian market, this is the place to go.

FoodEx 2006, Days 3 and 4

jason

I got a late start on both Thursday and Friday, but considering the pain my knees are causing me right now, it was probably for the better. Although I’ve been waking up reasonably early, we sometimes don’t leave the hotel until fairly late, and our relatively long distance from Meguro station means that it takes about 15–20 minutes just to get started on the long journey to Makuhari Messe in Chiba.

Thursday I met up with a the Japan forum manager from eGullet and spent most of the time in the international section, where I found most of the products I was most interested in importing were from companies I’ve seen in the last two years. My favorite discovery was a special gochujang from a medium-sized Korean producer, though I’m a bit afraid I’ll be beaten to the opportunity after they exhibit later this year at some big food trade shows in the US.

The most rapidly spreading single ingredient this year seems to be salted cherry blossoms and pickled cherry leaves, represented by all sorts of Japanese companies either as an ingredient or as a part of a packaged food, and exhibited by Chinese suppliers as well. If I hadn’t attended FoodEx for the last three years, I might haved assumed that presence was seasonally-driven, but I never saw such a presence of the ingredient in previous shows. In Japan it’s mostly used for sweets such as the classic sakura-mochi, but some companies even incorporated it into nattou or other savory foods.

Okinawa-based companies had, for the last two years, run a retailer-targeted booth that showed all sorts of Okinawan packaged foods, which probably explains the three or four Okinawa-themed gift shops I’ve run into since Tuesday without really trying. Now, most of the Okinawa presence this year seemed to be booths from specific companies, such as a company that produces a deep sea water-based soda drink and various bottled Okinawan fruit juices in hip packaging.

In the international foods section, I didn’t notice as much in the way of organic food products as I had in the Japanese area, but a Korean company had a huge assortment of organic products that, if I were comfortable importing refrigerated containers of products, I’d be very excited to bring in to the U.S. Right now, though, I don’t have the facilities or the distribution network to make that work very well.

Thursday night I met with the CEO/President of a Japanese tea company that produces incredible hand-tied flower ties primarily for wedding and banquet markets, but increasingly for the gift market as well. I first talked to her last year at the Hoteres trade show, and she wanted to make sure we met up before I left Japan this time. I think I’d really like to bring their products in to the U.S., because they are particularly innovative in the domain of flower teas, with unlikely shapes and some unusual designs of their more conventional tied teas.

Friday I had to fight with some heavy winds that caused train delays going toward Chiba… we caught a train that didn’t depart until about 80 minutes after its scheduled time, or about 30 minutes after we entered the train. It moved at half speed to avoid being derailed, and took more than an hour to arrive, about 30 minutes longer than normal… So I was expecting to be at the show around 1:30 on Friday, but didn’t arrive until 3:15, for a bit more than the last hour.

Fortunately, that was just enough to see the sections that I had previously neglected, mostly in the Taiwan section. Hiromi also got a chance to check out the shochu section, but of course, we both left relatively unaffected. For me, the most interesting shochu was a 3–year aged brandy-like shochu, but Hiromi was partial to a kind of imo-jochu that she discovered, and we talked with that company a bit, even though shochu is more complicated to import than I’m willing to handle right now. It never hurts to have an interesting supplier contact, though.

I’m off to restore my body in Gunma-ken tonight. Hiromi’s driving about three hours and I’m probably going to fall asleep in the car…

Some indulgences, part 1, Tokyo, March 2006

jason

Biwa

Biwa1

Mountain peach, loosely. A bit out of season.

Sakura kintsuba

Sakura Kintsuba

Wagashi filled with cherry blossom seasoned shiro-an.

Nagare-zakura

Nagarezakura

Painted, sculpted shiro-an with a cherry blossom theme, filled with koshi-an.

Three kinds of umeshu

Umeshu-nigoriKokutou umeshuRyokucha Umeshu

Nigori (unfiltered) umeshu, kokutou (black sugar) umeshu, ryokucha (green tea) umeshu. No, I didn’t drink them all; we went to a restaurant in Futako-Tamagawa, Tama-no Baiken, that featured a lot of house-made umeshu variatons and each of us ordered a different one. Mine was the nigori on the far left, and I stole a sip of Hiromi’s kokutou, both of which I would recommend.

Umeshu, frequently mistranslated as plum wine, is made by infusing a kind of green Japanese apricot in a neutral spirit such as shochu or vodka.

Nanohana and hamaguri

Nanohanatohamaguri

Hiromi and her mother ordered this clam and nanohana (rapeseed plant) dish.

Haru no yasai no tempura

Haru-no-yasai-no-tempura

Fuki, bamboo shoots and other spring vegetables, prepared as tempura.

Kuromame tounyuu toufu to yuba no nabe

Kuromamenabe

Black bean “soymilk” hotpot, with custardy tofu, yuba, leeks, and greens. We were wanting the benefit of some yuzu-koshou to enhance the experience, but this is basic Japanese homestyle comfort food with a bit of a twist.

Kisetsu no nimono

Harunoyasai no nimono

Spring vegetable nimono (simmered vegetables), with some not-quite-so-seasonal kabocha and satoimo.

Agefu

Agefu

Deep-fried wheat gluten.

Tsukemono no moriawase

Tsuke-moriawase

Pickled napa, Japanese cucumber, mustard eggplant, aka-kabu (red turnip), daikon.

Nama-fu no dengaku

Dengakunamafu

Broiled “fresh” wheat gluten, with a sweetened miso sauce. On the far right is one with yomogi (mugwort) and a dark miso. 

Hoteres 2006, Day 2

jason

In a break from the pattern I set a couple of years ago, I went to the Hoteres show on the second day of the FoodEx/Hoteres pair of trade shows; in past years, I usually went on day 3.

Hoteres focuses mostly on restaurant and hospitality industry needs, and this includes equipment, smallwares, guest amenity products, spa and bath, and foodservice products such as frozen pastry doughs for all of those fancy-looking bakeries all over Japan.

I missed most of it while touring the rest of the floor, but apparently some sort of Japanese national barista championship was going on in the food demo stage this afternoon. I managed to catch one contestant show off his skills producing Seattle-style latte foam patterns, a simple pulled shot, and a signature drink/dessert that I’d be tempted to attempt myself. His signature drink was, like most drinks that move beyond the basic latte/straight espresso/con panna pattern, more dessert than coffee, but instead of producing a dessert masquerading as coffee he embraced the idea that a barista could produce a savvy, elegant dessert. Within a strict time limit, he made a whipped cream flavored with chocolate and maybe some espresso, which he piped into a rose shape, then  placed in a wide serving cup. He created an infusion of orange peel and milk, simmered briefly, then he whipped an egg or two with some sugar. He produced maybe four shots of espresso which he combined with the strained orange-infused milk with perhaps a bit of chocolate sauce, and he worked the milk into his egg-sugar mixture, creating a kind of liquid custard. He carefully poured the custard into the cup, enabling his whipped cream rose to survived the violent heat of his custard.

The usual assortment of espresso machines, ovens, gas ranges, automatic sushi-making and gyoza-filling machines took up a fair percentage of floor space in the equipment show halls. Hiromi noticed a vendor producing a machine that automatically measures and serves portions of rice into a bowl for donburi-mono, which sounds preposterously unhelpful unless, of course, you happen to run a donburi shop that has huge lunch crowds and want to shave off several seconds per customer to squeeze in as many people as possible without over– or under-portioning.

My favorite fryer company from two years ago was back this year, demonstrating their clever “Clean Fryer” system that filters out liquids and debris into a collection tank at the bottom of the machine. Instead of creating a clogged grease trap, restaurants just need to empty out the slightly dirty wastewater that gets collected below. The gimmicky demo I saw two years ago featured ice cubes and other potentially explosive foods dropped into the fryer without disastrous after-effects; the water gets absorbed by their filtration system, rather than creating a burst of pressurized steam erupting through a batch of hot oil. The wastewater collection area is apparently stable enough to sustain life, as this year’s demonstration gimmick featured tenkasu-fed goldfish swimming obliviously in the glass-walled collection tank.

I’m sure it’s useful for oden-making companies, but I was a little surprised to see a machine that automatically and precisely peels boiled eggs…

For the Japanese spa market, the most amusing product I saw was a variation of the classic “Ashiyu onsen”, or hot spring foot bath. The typical ashiyu onsen is just a small publicly-accessible covered bath that people can take advantage of to get a bit of a respite in a hot spring town. The product we saw was basically a foot bath with a picnic table mounted over the bath, and bench seating… you can imagine a small outdoor restaurant serving simple foods as people relax with their bare feet warmed by hot water, perhaps operating deep into the winter.

The coolest piece of equipment I saw this year was all gimmick, but potentially interesting as a foundation for a franchisable business concept that would give Cold Stone a run for its money: the teppan ice cream maker. The idea is modeled after a teppan, or teppan-yaki grill, but meant to produce cold foods. A shop would use the machine to make made-to-order ice cream, sorbet, and so on, with a -30°C chilled plate, enabling completely custom, made-to-order custom frozen treats. The operator pours sweetened liquids (a gelato or ice cream base, or sorbet base), and can add fresh fruit or other items at the customer’s request, and scrape everything together teppan-yaki style to produce a scoopable, lickable treat. I think it would translate readily to the U.S. market, even if nobody gets the reference to that style of cooking, just because it’s so dramatic to watch ice cream made before the customer’s eyes in just a few seconds.

I didn’t spend as much time as I usually do in the smallwares section, since my knees have been giving me a lot of trouble, but with my current business objectives, I’m thinking any substantial mass-produced ceramicware that I might import won’t be possible to kick off until next year, at the earliest. I’d love to offer some more stylish wafuu ceramics and lacquerware than the larger U.S. importers are doing, but I’m going to continue to keep these kinds of companies in my back pocket rather than invest a lot in buying inventory from them right now.

As I had originally planned for today, I met with a company that makes some really cool hand-tied flower teas, mostly for the hotel and gift markets in Japan, designed in Japan and made by Chinese tea companies. They’ve moved beyond the already innovative flower teas I saw last year that have different stages of expansion, and now have some novel shapes such as ducks, fish, and stars. It may sound a little funny, but the effects can be quite visually stunning to watch.

Tomorrow I’m going back to FoodEx for Day 3, but I have another late night ahead because of another vendor meeting, so I may not get as far as posting photos I’ve taken outside of the trade shows.

FoodEx 2006, Day 1

jason

After three years attending the same insanely large trade show it would be easy to become a bit jaded… in fact, it’s surprising how little changes from year to year, but the event is still somehow exciting.

One of my goals for this trip was to find some artisanal soy sauce, vinegar, ponzu and tsuyu, hopefully to bundle as some sort of gift package for YuzuMura and then perhaps to offer as a limited-time-only kind of product through my retail client base. Hiromi also steered me toward some specialty udon and soba makers, which I’ve tended to ignore on previous trips, in spite of a personal affinity for such items. I found a fair amount of regional vendors offering products that fit this bill, and I’m hoping one of the companies I met today will work out.

We saw some interesting seasoned nori products from a Japanese company that might be another limited edition product or possibly worth test marketing at higher end retail venues. I know of an insane number of Korean companies doing this, but we found a rare Japanese maker of these products with choices of cute or rustic-gifty packaging, depending on the target customer.

I spent most of my time in the Japanese section of the hall today, taking advantage of Hiromi’s presence to extract more information than I have historically been able to do at this show, and I tried to look at the products with a slightly more opportunity-conscious eye than I have previously done. Of course my eyes were always open at previous shows, but this time I have a better picture of what’s possible in the U.S. market thanks to a fair amount of customer interaction and the benefits of a couple of years of experience. I’d say I have a better understanding of what products can work in the US at price points typical in Japan compared to my first two visits to this annual show.

I met with a couple of my contacts from a Japanese tea company and a “functional foods” ingredient company that I previously worked with to try to get yuzu products for the U.S. market, which continues to be a challenge due to supplier capacity problems. I’m looking for alternate suppliers of Japan-produced matcha as my client’s matcha-focused business grows, and hopefully a few sources of very high quality organically-grown and estate-grown teas.

In a lot of Seattle coffee shops, the owners are increasinlgy demanding organically-grown teas even if it means relying on expensively priced low-grade teas from ubiquitious companies that I shall not name. If you know tea well you know at least one brand of miserably hard to drink organically-grown tea with solid name recognition. Chances are that’s one of the companies I’m thinking of… and I’m rather tired of that kind of expensive mediocrity. I’ve talked with a couple of Japanse tea companies to see if I can find some better options, and I probably have at least one promising candidate for good green tea.

My jetlag is still pretty powerful and I’m not sure I can hold on much longer, but I’ll write a bit more tomorrow on FoodEx. I should be at the Hospitality-focused trade show, Hoteres, most of Wednesday.

Jiyuugaoka, A restless kind of leisure

jason

Last night Hiromi’s parents picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel near Shirakanedai station, and treated us to dinner at a kind of izakaya-like spot at Meguro station called Himono-ya.

Himono-ya is one of many basement restaurants in Tokyo, a class of restaurant that occurs primarily in extremely urbanized parts of the U.S. but is fairly ubiquitous in Japan. I recall most German city hall buildings even in moderately small towns tended to have a restaurant, often called “Ratskeller” (City hall basement, unpoetically rendered in English), which tended to serve standard bourgeois German fare. Most of the U.S. restaurant scene prizes street level space and ignores all other options, which means that we don’t spend a lot of time eating underground.

Anyway, we had a pleasant meal that, after 10 hours in an airplane, might have tasted much better than it really was. We had a plate of variously dressed hiya-yakko (cold tofu), an assortment of grilled vegetables with simple condiments, a kabocha salad (more salad than kabocha), and a couple of grilled fish dishes for those who were eating animals. I started falling asleep toward the end of our meal as I didn’t rest on the plane at all and only had 6 hours of sleep the previous several nights.

Today we woke up around 5am and nibbled on whatever we had smuggled into the country with us. We ate some slightly less than agetate curry pan at a Meguro deparment store, and then made our way to Kobeya bakery, where we indulged in some more carbohydrate laden fare.

Satsumaimo Boat

Satsumaimo-boat

Behold, a “Sweet Potato Boat”. This is a crumbly cake with nutmeg and cinnamon and serious sweet potato chunks.

Sakura danish

Sakura danish

A bit more seasonally appropriate, we had this star-shaped sakura (cherry blossom) danish, full of buttery decadence and featuring bits of presumably preserved cherry blossom seasoned bean paste. Nearly cropped out of the frame are some mochi-mochi mini cheese-filled buns, which we would also recommend.

Tribute to Roboppy

Crumbs

These crumbs are all that were left.

We headed to Jiyuugaoka, not far from Shibuya, for aimless shopping (really, market research). We have some very cool booty from a 100–yen shop and some more extravagant minor indulgences which we’ll post later when we are less completely jetlagged.

I’d like very much to highlight our lunch, but the low lighting conditions in the restaurant meant that our meal was represented sufficiently blurrily as to be unrecognizable. We ate at a restaurant which focuses on negi in all its guises, from scallions to Japanese leeks and perhaps some European varieties. Hiromi had some kind of unagi-topped rice garnished with scallions and served ochazuke style, with tea. I had tororoimo with negi served over brown rice with some pickled konbu, sweetened miso and tarako as accoutrements, along with a nice springtime nimono of simmered bamboo shoots and lotus root, along with a sweet dashimaki tamago with scallions. We both had a nice wakame soup with spiral o-fu (wheat gluten) strips.

Late afternoon we made a pilgrimage to a tea shop operating out of an old house, where we ordered two very Japanese confections.

Anmitsu

Anmitsu

Anmitsu is a dish of fruit and anko (sweet red bean paste), often served with a black sugar and honey syrup called kuromitsu. In some cases it may be augmented with ice cream, though the shop where we went serves it fairly simply. Anmitsu is the main reason I keep coming back to Japan on a regular basis. (OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration…)

Thick matcha and zenzai

Matcha-zenzai

Zenzai is usually little more than anko  and shiratama, but this nifty version is elegantly bittersweet, slightly covered with thick matcha. I feel a need to replicate this in my own kitchen.

At night we met up with an old friend of mine from my Microsoft days, and a friend of Hiromi’s, whom Hiromi has known since elementary school, dropped in after a late shift at a hospital. We ate at Meguro’s Tuk Tuk, a clever Italian-Thai fusion restaurant that plays it safe on some things, and does a few innovative things. We kept our dishes primarily in the single-metaphor range, and had fairly nice results, by the end of which our jetlag started winning the battle for control over our minds and bodies.

Last breakfast before leaving home

jason

When going on a trip of any duration, I feel compelled to make the best use possible of whatever ingredients remain in the refrigerator. But we ended up eating at Sofrito Rico, a Ballard Puerto Rican restaurant, on Friday night, due to various last minute errands, deliveries, and shoe needs.

So my last chance to use up things before departing was breakfast. Some brown mustard seed and garam masala seasoned potatoes leftover from a night of vaguely Indian cooking caught my eye, as I considered how to use up a bunch of eggs and a bit of remaining fresh mozzarella. The onions and garlic in the potato masala seemed a natural fit.

Aloo Frittata?

Indo frittata

If I ever again find myself in the possession of some leftover potato masala, this tweaked spanish omelet/frittata will probably be at the top of my list.

Departure

jason

One of the things that distinguishes Tokyo from Seattle is the amount of attention that people pay to each other’s feet. In Seattle, it’s perfectly acceptable to wear a pair of sneakers that you picked up at a rummage sale or flea market 5 years ago, even if they have clearly worn out their welcome, in polite company.

I don’t wear tennis shoes or sneakers save the pair of running shoes I use when exercising, but I’ve been walking around wearing some very sad, past-their-prime shoes that not only have lost most of their structural integrity, but have a small yet noticeable circle of damaged leather at one of the toes on the upper. I had planned to replace the shoes for about 5 months or so, but I moved from being a bit too low on resources to take care of such things until they were actual emergencies, to being completely overwhelmed by an insane schedule, and it just became impossible.

But I decided I didn’t want to wear such sad shoes on my Japan trip, partially because my knees aren’t very happy right now and I’ll be walking constantly next week, and partly because I don’t want to have kawaisou na kutsu (sad shoes, roughly… but please don’t reuse the Japanese term without a heavy dose of irony attached). On my first trip to Japan I realized having holey socks was more than a little embarrassing, and I’m sure that it can’t be much better to wear sad shoes.

In order to avoid pity and amused glances, I made a quick last minute stop to replace now decrepit everyday pair of shoes.

I started wearing Ecco shoes after a knee injury a few years ago. I’ve run into other people that wore exactly the same model of shoe and they were fiercely loyal… one man had about four pair that he had accumulated over time, because he didn’t want to go to replace them and find out that he could no longer get the same shoe. I, too, have bought about two pairs of the shoes, but I didn’t feel a need to hoard them… Alas, after today, I somewhat wish I had… the new variants of that model now cut against my ankle unpleasantly, and I ended up switching to a slightly less convenient laced shoe instead of the loafer-like design I had before, solely to avoid the miseries of excessive friction.

At least my feet won’t be an embarrassment.

FoodEx Countdown

jason

I’m going to FoodEx for the third year in a row next week, the insanely huge Japanese food trade show, where I will go hunting for interesting Asian food products. I’ll also go to Hoteres, a hospitality industry focused trade show.

My business focus has gradually shifted to be less focused on importing itself and more on building the web retail customer base, even if I use other U.S. importers as my vendors for that project, but I am still trying to keep connected to a network of suppliers so that I’m able to move on new opportunities. Also, one of my customers has now dramatically increased their volume requirements, and I need to get in touch with a supplier in Japan to see if I can gain some advantages by working with them.

Hiromi and I have been gradually preparing for our departure on Saturday, but I neglected to snag a reservation at the hotel where we originally planned to stay. It’s probably for the better, because I am really tired of staying in Shinjuku, where the other hotel was located. Instead, we booked a reservation at an even better hotel near Meguro for almost the same price.

I have two days that aren’t fully booked yet, but one of them is on the weekend… I’m not sure if I am going to go to Mashiko to hunt for pottery, or maybe just do something a little more leisure-focused. I’m not sure I can buy any crafts on this trip, although it’s a little less crazy from a cost/margin perspective to import small amounts of pottery than small amounts of food. It does take a bit longer to sell artisanal pottery, though.

We’re only gone for 9 days, departing this Saturday and returning the following Sunday. This is probably the shortest trip I’ve made to Japan in a long time, outside of weird 2–day weekend trips I made bordering other business trips to Asia when I worked for Microsoft. But my contracting gig limits how much time I can spend traveling, and even if I weren’t doing that right now, I’d be a little concerned about the insane costs of spending a couple of weeks in Japan. Of course, the cost of 2 weeks isn’t very diferent from 1, but the distraction from my business is pretty painful.

This time I’ve got some meetings planned with some companies that I think will be interesting to work with, and I look forward to opening some new doors.

Carbohydrates and other booty

jason

This week was somehow maddening… I just had an insane amount of stuff to do. Last weekend we ate out with people Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, which sounds a bit like leisure, but mostly contributed to waistline expansion and lighter wallets. Beyond that, with a fair number of days when we have been underway at the dinner hour, we’ve just eaten rather haphazardly.

We did have a fun dinner a week ago Friday night, since when I’ve been too distracted to post about, but Hiromi described the menu in Japanese. It basically involved an eclectic mix of dishes that I frequently make for parties, with a few variations and minor innovations. We had some visitors mostly attended by people connected to the International English program at the University of Washington. Probably the most interesting dish is the one dessert I made, which I adapted from a smart, elegant cookbook by a Jewish French Moroccan woman, Nadine Abensur, called Secrets from a Vegetarian Kitchen. That beautiful book is now out of print, but the essence of the dish is grilled, caramelized figs and kumquats, with a light sauce based on wine that, in my variation, I thicken slightly with katakuriko, and then garnish with mascarpone mixed with a small amount of finely chopped candied ginger.

We did have a bit of home cooking midweek and on the weekend, but nothing terribly spectacular… some penne with pesto made from slightly sad basil, and various repurposed ingredients or leftovers from the party, such as a minestrone with mustard greens.

Penne pesto

This weekend I had a bit of a reunion with some former colleagues, as Hiromi was invited to a dinner in Redmond featuring various members of MSN’s international products group, including several visitors from the Japan office. Yesterday she went snowboarding with a few of them while I ran business and home-related errands, and we ate out again at Seven Stars Pepper in the International District, after some abortive attempts to get a table at some more Northwesty restaurants.

Tonight we ate at home, but kept things simple. I made quinoa with asparagus, onions, a bit of rosemary, and a topping of heavy cream…

Quinoa-aspara

One of our guests from a few weeks ago, who visited us on SuperBowl weekend, sent a care package with nifty snacks back with her visiting coworkers…

Booty

Matcha mousse pocky, Cha-dango (tea-flavored dango or small dumplings), Girl’s Day sugar coated dried peas, and spring-themed Sakura Kit Kat… the Kit Kat bar has a taste vaguely resembling salt-preserved cherry blossoms or cherry leaves.