Monday, September 28, 2009

Food Evolution - For Better or For Worse?

Imagine a critical moment in time when a nation goes through a major overhaul in political and social structure, affecting the lives of so many of its people, in so many different ways…including their jobs, dress/ hairdo styles and yes, even the food they eat.

Such a time took place, in Japan, during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), as it began to engage in a transformation from a feudalistic society with a hierarchical social structure to a modern, industrial, capitalist nation. It was an era of change in the fast lane, as the last Shogun was toppled and a young, new Emperor took control of Japan, in an attempt to modernize and westernize this nation.

Although a fictional tale, loosely based on some actual characters and events, but not intended to be a duplicate of history, the movie The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, gives you some perspective on the background and time frame, strictly in an entertaining manner.

The film’s plot is based on the earlier part of the Meiji Era as the new government establishes trade-friendly policies, and adopts Western technology and weapons under the leadership of the new Emperor, who attempts to abolish the Samurai. And, as the government tries to eradicate the Samurai, it confronts violent rebellion from a group of them who oppose the modernization, resulting in uprisings.

So basically, it was a critical time, especially for the Samurai, who had their previous, elite status abolished. Some fought back and chose death, while some struggled with unemployment and poverty. But some adapted and became military officers in the newly formed Imperial Japanese Army or found themselves making the transition, into a new elite status, by joining the government bureaucracy. Still others simply made a living as school teachers and such.

But it wasn’t just the Samurai who had to deal with modernization. The commoners also had to adapt to a new wave of change as well, and one of the transitions they had to deal with was the close encounter of the edible kind, in this case, the entity being…Unfamiliar Food Objects.

Some significant factors came into play prior to and during this era. First, Japan had just emerged from 200 years of self-imposed isolation. It did have some contact with the outside world, albeit restricted, namely with the Dutch and the Chinese, at limited locations, during the isolation period, until Commodore Perry steamed into Tokyo (formally Edo) Bay requesting the opening of trade in 1853. It wasn’t until a few years later that a treaty, for trading rights, was finally signed between the United States and Japan, followed by treaties with other western countries, resulting in the opening of Japan’s ports.

There’s a story about a group of Japanese being invited to one of Perry’s ships during a visit to Japan. On board, they were offered some wine but when they saw the reddish liquid being poured into a glass, they thought is was blood, freaked out and ran away. I don’t know the level of truth to this story but things like this can happen when humans encounter...Unfamiliar Food Objects.

In any case, after a little over 150 years since the end of its seclusion, who would have thought that Japan would have the largest number of McDonald’s restaurants operating next to the United States?

Another interesting fact is that the prohibition against eating meat, which lasted for 1,200 years, was lifted. During this taboo, for the most part, the Japanese diet consisted mainly of rice, vegetables and seafood. It is generally understood that the Buddhist influence played a role in this taboo, but perhaps the scarcity of animals for human consumption and other cultural aspects may be responsible, as well.

But the new Emperor Meiji encouraged Western dietary habits and is said to have made an example by eating beef and drinking milk, himself. As a part of this modernization, he hoped to make his people nice and the Westerners. So, it wasn’t like the majority of Japanese were eating Kobe Beef and Teriyaki Chicken Bowls for thousands of years!

Along with these factors, the government, media, academics and advocates campaigned and promoted Western cuisine and urged the public to eat...Unfamiliar Food Objects. Supposedly, there was even an anti-Western food riot…we can only imagine the intensity of this movement.

The Meiji Era not only, quite rapidly, changed the face of Japanese political, economical and social structures, but it also made a significant impact on its food culture. What’s significant here, is how the cooks and society, in general, adapted to this movement. Obviously, people’s food habits and acquired tastes can’t be changed that easily, in such a short time.

The public made an effort, for the most part, to adapt to the situation by taking the Unfamiliar Food Objects and incorporating flavors and cooking methods the Japanese were familiar with. For instance, meats were prepared and seasoned with traditional ingredients to satisfy their palates, and often to match their main staple, rice.

Some Western foods sustained pretty much their original form but some transformed into a slightly different dish, where the term Japanese-style Western Food is more appropriate. All in all, these are typically referred to as Yoshoku (洋食), which basically means Western-style Food in this case. The word shoku (食) suggests food or cuisine, and in contrast, Washoku (和食), refers to Japanese Food. It is said that approximately 30% of the Japanese diet, today, consists of Yoshoku and most importantly, it is an essential part of Japanese food culture.

Then, you have dishes that transformed so much, that they became uniquely Japanese in their own right. One such dish, which happens to be one of my old-time favorites, is Tonkatsu. The English translation of Tonkatsu, in many cases, is Pork Cutlet. The word Ton (sounds like “tone”) refers to pork and Katsu is short for Katsuretsu, which is basically Japanese for Cutlet. So, in terms of word games, the translation is not that off.

But what’s missing here, in the translation, is of how this Western-styled Pork Cutlet morphed into a uniquely Japanese dish, where after some serious debates, it is considered more Washoku than Yoshoku. You see, this transformation didn’t take place overnight. It was a result of due process, which happened through a series of human and cultural interactions, making it become original in its own way.

The Story of Tonkatsu in a Nutshell:
The root of Tonkatsu begins towards the end of the Meiji Era. A French restaurant, owned by a Japanese national, called Renga-Tei opens its doors to the Tokyo public in 1895. I can only imagine that the cost of beef, at the time, to serve such dishes as Cotelette de Veau (Veal) and the ingredients used in traditional French meals did not sit well with the average Japanese customer.

In a struggle to meet the customer’s tastes, Renga-Tei adds Pouku Katsuretsu (Pork Cutlet as we know it today) to their menu in 1899. A thin slice of breaded pork was fried and served with bread and cooked vegetables. A few years later, due to the shortage of kitchen staff that was drafted into the Russo-Japanese War, cooked vegetables were replaced with shredded, raw cabbage (less labor-intensive). This turned out to be a good match and the customers loved it. There is mention that a restaurant employee, on break, was observed eating rice by a customer, who then requested some with his order. Thus, according to these accounts, the current form of Katsuretsu served with shredded cabbage and rice was born.

Another restaurant owner started serving Katsuretsu with rice, but unlike Renga-Tei, chopsticks were used instead of forks and knives. The pork was sliced into bite-sized pieces, prior to serving, for easy chopstick eating. The owner had worked for the Imperial Household Agency, as a chef, specializing in Western cuisine and in his case, the idea of Katsuretsu was inspired from the traditional Austrian dish, Wiener Schnitzel. Once again, initiated by a comment from a customer, this restaurant owner later started using thicker cuts of pork (1~1 1/2 inches) for his Katsuretsu. According to one theory, among a few others, it’s said that this thick version of the Pork Cutlet, was named Tonkatsu.

So, from what I understand, the origin of Tonkatsu, as we know it today, can be traced back to European dishes such as Cotelette de Veau (Veal Cutlet) and Wiener Schnitzel, combined with the frying method that the Japanese were familiar with at the time (such as the deep- frying method used for Tempura, for instance), which was used to cook vegetables and seafood. Along with this, a special sauce was refined to compliment the rice.

It wasn’t until DECADES later, in the 1930s, that Tonkatsu became popular among the Japanese population, and that restaurants specializing in Tonkatsu started to appear. Speaking of Tonkatsu specialty restaurants, I always make sure to visit one while I’m in Japan. Even though I live in an area, in Los Angeles, where there are various types of Japanese restaurants available, a restaurant specializing in Tonkatsu is close to none.

There are certain foods I prefer to eat at restaurants. When it comes to Sushi, Tempura and Tonkatsu, I choose to let the specialists do the work. As simple as it may sound, slicing fish and frying breaded seafood or pork can often require experience and expertise, to really enjoy and appreciate these dishes. When it comes to Tempura and Tonkatsu, the combination of the perfect doneness of the ingredients and the crispiness of the breading…is key.

So what does a Tonkatsu lover do when there is no Tonkatsu restaurant available? Well, maybe you just want to get messy and do your best by making it yourself. We may never reach the level of specialist…but we can always try. With a little luck and a lot of passion, we may surprise ourselves. So, let’s get started.

The Pork

If you have access to a Japanese grocery store, I suggest you get your pork there. Many of them have cuts of pork available especially for Tonkatsu. Check the labels.

Typically, the Loin Cuts are used for making Tonkatsu. Loin Cuts are from the upper portion of the pork beneath the Back Fat, between the Shoulder (Shoulder Butt/ Boston Butt) and the Rump (often referred to as the leg or ham). To be a little bit more specific, the Loin basically consists of three parts. The middle part of the Loin, which is called the Pork Center Loin, often scores high points for being moist, tender and flavorful. The part closer to the Shoulder is called the Blade End (where Pork Chop end cuts come from) and it tends to be fatty, which is not such a bad thing for some Tonkatsu lovers, and then you have the part called Sirloin, located towards the Rump but just as flavorful. So basically, any of these parts from the Loin will do and is just really up to your preference.

The boneless slice (typically 1/2 to 3/4 inch in thickness), usually with slight fat attached, from the Loin Roast is often referred to as Rousu Katsu (ロースカツ/ Roast Katsu – perhaps the Japanese had trouble picking up the “t” sound).

If you want to go even leaner, perhaps Tenderloin is your choice. Not only is it tender, as the name suggests, it’s also lean. It’s the muscle that lies on both sides of the spine against the ribs, at the distal end of the Loin and is shaped like a cylinder. According to the National Pork Producers Council comparison chart, Tenderloin is nearly as low in saturated fat as chicken breast. Not only that, according to the National Pork Board, Pork Tenderloin has almost 1.5 times the iron, twice the zinc and 10 times the amount of Thiamin/ Thiamine of the equivalent serving of chicken breast.

This is typically referred to as Hire Katsu (ヒレカツ/ Filet Katsu) at Tonkatsu restaurants because Pork Tenderloin is also called Pork Filet (Filei – Hirei; get it?). Whole Pork Filets are long (and some can be really thick, also) so slice them into thinner, smaller pieces.

If the cut is too thick, it’s going to be hard to get the meat cooked through without burning the breading. At the same time, you don’t want to overcook these guys – they tend to loose their tenderness. This is the difficult part.

But if you prefer chicken to pork, no problem! Just get a nice Breast of Chicken instead of a Pork Loin. Katsuretsu made with Chicken is simply called Chicken Katsu.

Now, while you’re shopping for your pork or chicken, make sure to get some wheat flour, eggs and Panko (“paw” not “pan”). For those of you who don’t know what this is, it’s a type of breadcrumb used for breading Tonkatsu and other Japanese-styled fried foods. Its popularity
and usage has spread and can be found at most major U.S. supermarkets.

And last but not least, you need cooking oil and a frying pan to deep fry the breaded pork. If you’re a deep-frying virgin, here’s a tip. First, deep-frying means submerging food in hot oil, so you basically need a pan deep enough for the food to go scuba diving in. Yet, you don’t want to pour the oil all the way to the top of the pan. There’s going to be a lot of bubbling action and it can also be very dangerous, so make sure the oil is less than 3/4 to the top (safety measure).

Next, like many other deep-frying food projects, you want to choose a light, refined oil such as Canola, Sunflower, Corn or Peanut. These guys will give you a higher smoke point, which basically means that they can take a higher temperature before they start smoking. You don’t want oil smoke ruining your food. Also, if it makes you feel less guilty, Canola oil has the lowest saturated fat content among the oils mentioned above (almost 1/3 of Peanut oil and 1/2 of Corn and Sunflower oil).

Some people mix in some Sesame oil. Prior to WWII, Sesame oil was used for deep-frying in Japan. The smoke point is lower compared to the oils mentioned above, but it’s still in the normal deep-frying temperature range. Some suggest that if you mix in some Sesame oil, the breading turns out crispier. I personally don’t do it, but if you have and like the flavor of Sesame oil, give it a try.

Now that we’ve got all our stuff, let us commence operation Tonkatsu Dive.

Preparing the Pork for Tonkatsu:

Clear off that counter or kitchen table and get the following ready in order to prep and dress the pork.

Container with cuts of pork. Now, my cuts of pork have been soaked in Beer and Sake (as usual!). They’ll help to tenderize the pork. Some people even pour a little bit of vinegar on the pork to tenderize it. It’s your call. Still others also pound the pork with a meat mallet and/ or trim the edges to prevent the filet from curling in the oil, but I usually eliminate these steps. To me, making Tonkatsu is already such a big hassle that I try to cut corners wherever possible. Wipe off any moisture with a paper towel and do a little salt and pepper action on them

The wife will NOT be happy if I don’t mention this. Please wash your hands thoroughly with, soap and hot water, after handling raw meat (before touching anything else – even the salt and pepper…whew! I think I’m safe, now). Safety comes first, especially when dealing with raw pork and chicken.

Sift the wheat flour into a tray, enough to cover all the meat. You’ll need a bowl for whisking the eggs. It depends on how much Tonkatsu you plan to make but for 2~3 people, I usually use about 3 eggs. I even add some Beer or Sake to the mix, or even both, to make the batter a little thinner. A small disclaimer here – some people have their own little secrets but this is how I do it…add water if you don’t have any Beer or Sake. For me, it just seems to work better if liquid is added to the mix. Whisk and mix well, and let it sit for at least 30 minutes. Pour the Panko into a tray, again, enough to cover all the meat. Prepare a clean plate/ tray for the dressed pork.

Pre-heat the cooking oil to around 320 degrees F (160 degrees C). I don’t have a thermometer but through my experience with my electric stove, I set it between the numbers 6 and 7 on the gauge. For your reference, my gauge number goes up to 8, followed by the maximum indicator, of High. Some people deep-fry their fish fillets or turkeys anywhere between 350 to 375 degrees F, so I’m guessing that the temperature for Tonkatsu is generally a little lower. It also depends on the thickness of the cut and other elements. This is where you need to acquire the experience to achieve the right doneness of the pork and the crispiness of the breading.

Okay, let’s get messy. First dip the pork into wheat flour and give it a nice, cover-to-cover, powder treatment. Once it's coated with the powder, let it soak in the egg mix and enjoy the treatment. Finally, take it to the Panko room and coat it well. After the Panko treatment, gently place it onto another tray for stand-by.

Now it's time for some deep-frying action! Try not to over-crowd the pan with breaded pork. Too many scuba divers can lower the temperature resulting in a greasy, soggy piece of swine. It obviously depends on the size of your pan, but if it’s a steak-sized cut, I usually do one at a time.

Once submerged, the breaded pork will go through some bubbling action. Using a fine-scoop net, get rid of any layers of extraneous stuff that forms on the surface of the oil. As it starts to float up to the surface, it’s pretty much done. Carefully turn it over once and let it cook for just a little while longer. The breading should be slightly dark brown and crispy. After cooking the other side, check the color and texture of the breading with a utensil, and if appropriate, scoop it out and place it on a rack. Let the excess oil drain (let it stand on one of its side edges so both flat surfaces have a chance to drain the oil) and then slice it into bite-sized pieces, while still hot.

Scoop out any remaining residue at the bottom/ surface of the pan before diver #2 takes the plunge!

It is this deep-frying action that is one of the key factors in making good Tonkatsu. By this, I mean the combination of the right doneness of the meat and the crispiness of the breading. Some people turn the heat up during the final stage of cooking to get the right crispiness.

I also know of a Tonkatsu specialty restaurant, in Japan, that uses two frying pans. One is set at 302 degrees F (150 degrees C) and the second pan is set at 338 degrees F (170 degrees C). Anyway, at this restaurant, they let the heat go through the breaded pork at the lower temperature and then remove it to the higher temperature pan for the finishing touch (crispiness). If you have the resources to do it this way, fine, but otherwise, get closely acquainted with your gas or electric range, and become a master of frying Tonkatsu through experience.

Speaking of experience, I once asked a seasoned Tempura chef about the secret behind deep-frying Tempura. He told me that he relies on his ears and figures out when it’s ready, simply by the sound it makes. The perfect crispiness of the breading and the impeccable tenderness of the shrimp, in this case, can only be acquired by experience. So don’t be too discouraged if your first Tonkatsu turns out to be less than what you expected. It is, by no means, a simple dish, and in my humble opinion, it’s actually pretty DEEP.

Chow Time
In a typical Tonkatsu meal setting, you’d have rice, shredded raw cabbage and Tonjiru (豚汁), a Miso Soup with chunks of pork, among other ingredients. Other elements such as lemon and Japanese-styled mustard, called Karashi, can be part of the mix, but most importantly, a sauce condiment, conveniently called Tonkatsu Sauce (とんかつソース), is the big side-kick. It’s this thick, vegetable and fruit-based sauce, that has been refined over time, that gives Tonkatsu its unique taste.

It’s similar to BBQ Sauce in the sense that the overall experience just isn’t the same without it. Like many BBQ establishments, Tonkatsu specialty restaurants make their own secret Tonkatsu Sauce and quite similar to BBQ Sauce, there are a variety of brands available at Japanese grocery stores. Some brands are available on-line, including our store, so check it out.

You can use the sauce to dip or pour onto the Tonkatsu. The sauce is so critical that if I had everything ready for this special Tonkatsu moment and found out that I’d run out of Tonkatsu Sauce, I’d go totally berserk! In my opinion, there’s really no substitute for Tonkatsu Sauce, especially when it comes to this typical setting.

But, if you can’t get any Tonkatsu Sauce for whatever reason, don’t worry. Grated Daikon with Shoyu (Soy Sauce) or Ponzu goes pretty well in this setting, as well. In fact, some people prefer it to Tonkatsu Sauce. By the way, the pork (above photo) may look a little too pink for some of you, but it's thoroughly cooked through. Believe me, the wife wouldn't eat it, otherwise.

No Tonkatsu Sauce? No Daikon with Shoyu or Ponzu? Well then, I’d probably change the setting altogether under the circumstances and seek other sauce alternatives. After all, the history of Tonkatsu is all about adapting. It’s just amazing how Tonkatsu goes well in different settings, with different types of sauces. Here are some examples.

One alternative setting is Katsu Kare (Curry with Cutlet). Curry is also said to have made its appearance in Japan during the Westernization period, supposedly through the British, and has become a very popular meal known as Kare Raisu (Curry Rice). Tonkatsu, as a topping for Curry Rice, became so popular that you’ll often find Tonkatsu or Chicken Katsu Curry served in Japanese-styled Curry restaurants.

Now, for some of you, making or acquiring Curry Sauce can be just as difficult as finding Tonkatsu Sauce. So, let’s go for a setting that’s more Americana. How about a Tonkatsu Burger? This is my version. Ketchup works well, here, but it even goes quite well with BBQ Sauce, in my opinion! This was a Hungry-man meal, let me tell you!

Okay, since Tonkatsu can work with BBQ Sauce, what about Taco Sauce? Well again, if you change the setting, why not. How about a Chicken Katsu Taco?

Tonkatsu Burrito anyone?

A Loco Moco lover? Why not Tonkatsu with gravy and eggs?

Here, I present to you, Tonkatsu Spaghetti! Both the Rousu Katsu and the Hire Katsu versions!

Some people love Pork Loin Rib Chops, you know, with the bone? Boneless Pork Loin is the norm for Tonkatsu, but why not try the bone-in version? Here’s a Rib Chop (thin-cut) Tonkatsu served with garlic-fried rice. Sauce? I used Tartar Sauce mixed with Wasabi! The wife thought this dish was da bomb!

And last but not least, why not go back to the roots for a bit. A hybrid of Wiener Schnitzel and Tonkatsu! That’s right, I pounded away at a Pork Loin Sirloin Chop, gave it a nice Panko treatment and deep fried (even added some Sesame oil to the Vegetable oil) this baby. I’m no Wolfgang Puck but this is my version of fusion food. I suppose, in this case, the lemon is the sauce. So good, let me tell you.

As you’ve just witnessed, Tonkatsu can be vastly versatile. After all, it went on a journey of being inspired by Western dishes, then being modified into Yoshoku, and eventually evolved into Washoku, joining the ranks of some of the most popular dishes in Japan, today.

Although the Meiji Era has influenced the modern Japanese food scene, I believe that the Japanese always had their ways of adapting and modifying foods and ingredients, whether they came from other regions within Japan or other countries. And, significantly enough, the adaptation and modification processes often took place simply as a means of survival.

In my case, JapaneseFood@Home basically represents survival cooking and dealing with what you have or with what’s available, and trying to create the best scenario or setting for it.

Tonkatsu is just one, small example and I suppose the evolution and journey of Food Culture will continue as long as humans strive to accommodate their needs, cravings and curiosities.

Whether a social or political structure requires you to do so or not, food has the potential to adapt to different settings and circumstances, feeding our needs and imaginations.

So, for better or for worse, Food Culture, as a whole, is on a journey that is still evolving.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Join the Food Evolution

Sorry for the long interval, folks! Been trying to deal with everyday life while thinking about the next topic. Now, does this (photo) have anything to do with Japanese food? You'll find out...
this post is coming to you soon, at local computer screens everywhere!

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Salmon Says...Fisherman Knows Best!

As a kid growing up in Japan, one of my passions was fishing. I was so into it, I read all three, major fishing magazines from cover to cover every month. A nation surrounded by rich seas, Japan has one of the best fishing grounds the world can ever offer. The offerings, of the types and varieties of fish, are so expansive that I couldn’t tell you what the correct English translations are for many of them. Greenling, Goby, Silver Whiting and White Croaker may be some of the less known fish. Alfonsino, Rock Fish, Sea Bass, Mackerel, Barracuda, Jack and so on may be more familiar.

And the gear, equipment and techniques that have been developed for every method and purpose of fishing are astonishing, to say the least. If you’re a fishing buff and plan to visit Japan, definitely check out a tackle shop. Along with the different methods of fishing for various types of fish, you’ll be amazed with the multitude of gadgets available…from hooks to poles and so on. The attention to detail and craftsmanship, along with the technology involved are all pretty amazing, indeed, if you ask me.

As a young fishing enthusiast, learning about the fish, preparing the rigs and planning for the expedition was as much fun as the actual experience of fishing itself. But there was another exciting aspect to it all. Eating the fish! IF, I was lucky enough to catch any, that is.

My only problem was, I often had to clean and prepare the fish myself. Some of the fish I caught weren’t the ordinary kind that you find at your local supermarket, and my mother was clueless in terms of what to do with them, or perhaps just pretended to be so to make me do the stinky work. In any case, I attempted to learn how to prepare and cook certain fish from the real experts, the fishermen...unless the fish could talk.

Whenever I hopped on boats to go on a fishing expedition, I made sure to position myself near the captains, who were often retired fishermen and old-timers. I often idolized them for their knowledge and the respect they have for the ocean. Typically, they talked rough, stared down at me with their tanned faces and treated me like an amateur punk from the city.

When the sea got really rough and most of the people on deck were busy losing their breakfast, I’d be calmly eating my Onigiri (rice ball) and continue to fish. This was typically a moment when I’d get a little recognition from the captains and some advice on my fishing tactics. By the time we were heading back to shore, I’d be asking about the best way to prepare and eat the fish that I’d caught.

A few of them were kind enough to demonstrate some of the basics. Depending on what type of fish it was, they’d demonstrate how to prepare the fish for Sashimi, Stews, Grilling, Pan-Frying or for Tempura. Despite the different methods, I discovered a common theme. They were all simple and practical. Since they were prepared and cooked on board or on the beach, there were no fancy cookware items, measuring cups or utensils except for a knife and Hashi (chopsticks). In terms of seasoning, mainly salt and/ or Shoyu (soy sauce) were used and on some occasions, Sake and Miso (soybean paste) were added to some of the dishes.

As a kid, I was introduced to the bare minimum or the survival mode of cooking. It’s plain, simple, fast, effective and very, very unsophisticated and even rough at times, but the truth of the matter is, I’ve never tasted anything like it since. They were all so awesome I would give anything to re-live those moments. I’m sure the hunger pangs and the ambiance of being out in nature had a lot to do with the eating experience/ taste but above all, these guys really knew their fish!

Chan-Chan Yaki
So when it comes to cooking fish, my first instinct is to learn from the front line…fishermen. In this posting, I’d like to share a fish dish that was started in a fishing village in Hokkaido (a prefecture/ region on the northern tip of Japan), supposedly by fishermen. With the benefits of Salmon and veggies all in one, it’s not only simple but it’s healthy and quite awesome. It’s called Chan-Chan Yaki.

The word Yaki, in this context, basically refers to cooking food over direct heat (usually), typically by grilling or using a griddle. You may have been to Benihana or other similar establishments, often called Japanese Steakhouses, where the chef cooks and performs right in front of you. Generally, this is called Teppan Yaki as iron plates (Teppan) are utilized.

As is often the case, nobody knows for sure how the term Chan-Chan came about but one theory suggests that it got its name because of the sound it generates. Chan-Chan Yaki is often cooked outdoors on a Teppan and as you use the utensils to stir and flip the ingredients, the metallic sound of Kachang, Kachang can be heard.

Chan-Chan Yaki (the "a" in Chan sounds like lawn) is not something you’d find on the menu of your average Japanese restaurant, nor is it considered a typical Japanese dish. Chan-Chan Yaki is more often classified as Kyoudo Ryouri. Like many other cuisines, regional variations and styles exist throughout the country of Japan and local specialties are often referred to as Kyoudo Ryori. Kyoudo (郷土) means region, locality, hometown, etc., and Ryouri (料理) basically translates into cooking or a food dish. In a broader sense, Japanese food is called Nihon Ryouri (日本料理), and Nihon obviously means Japan.

Japan, which is almost equivalent in size to the state of California, in the U.S., consists of 47 prefectures but can be divided into 8 main regions or districts. From a southern resort area to a city that hosts the Winter Olympics, the natural environment and climate surrounding the regions can be vastly different and unique. Obviously the environmental and circumstantial elements often account for differences in customs and lifestyles, and traditionally, they also impact the food sources that are available and therefore, the food culture itself.

In short, Kyoudo Ryori is all about experiencing seasonal food using fresh local ingredients, prepared in a manner that reflects the regional/ local way of life and culture. The term Local Favorite may be applicable, here. One such example of Kyoudo Ryouri is Katsuo-No-Tataki, from the Shikoku Region of Japan. It’s basically a seared Katsuo (Bonito) but the locality and seasonal elements associated with the type and characteristics of the fish are deeply connected to the dish, as well as, the way it’s prepared and served (i.e., seasoning, etc.). For more on Katsuo (Bonito), see Surf and Turf Gone Asian posting.

In 2007, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) selected three dishes as Hokkaido’s Kyoudo Ryouri and one of them was none other than the Chan-Chan Yaki, securing a solid status as one of Hokkaido’s eminent local food dishes. A simple dish created by fishermen finally gets the spotlight and the recognition it deserves.

Now, let’s begin our journey to encountering one of Hokkaido, Japan's Kyoudo Ryouri - the Chan-Chan Yaki. You don’t need a passport this time around, for this trip, but you may want to have the following readily available:

The Fish
Although it’s been said that a fish called Hokke (Arabesque Greenling) was originally used in this dish, Salmon is the featured ingredient for Chan-Chan Yaki today. Get yourself a nice fresh, boneless cut of Salmon (fillet/ side of salmon).

Use a paper towel to wipe off any moisture on the fish and sprinkle some salt and pepper on both sides of the fillet. We’ll be adding a sauce/ seasoning to it during the cooking stage so go easy on the salt, folks.

The Veggies
Typically, cabbage, green pepper, onion, carrots and bean sprouts are used in this dish. Broccoli and other veggies can be included in the lineup, as well. As long as it matches the taste of fish, perhaps the more the merrier. I just have to have my garlic in the lineup. I'll toss him into the sauce/ seasoning.

You basically want to cut up the veggies into bite-sized pieces. You may want to slice the carrots somewhat thinly so they cook easier. Other than that, just remember that this is a fisherman’s dish. You can chop them up any way you want and not sweat the small, little details!

You don’t have to get carried away and chop up the bean sprouts. I just give them quick rinse and strain out the moisture.

The Sauce/ Seasoning (condiments)

Miso (soybean paste) plays an important role in this dish. This is one, good example of using Miso for something other than soup. It not only goes well with fish and veggie dishes, it provides excellent nutritional value that is essential to your health. It’s high in vitamins, minerals and proteins, and low in calories and fat. It can help strengthen the immune function, protect blood vessels and bones, and with its anti-cancer properties it’s even said to reduce the risk of breast and other cancers.

But, purchasing Miso can be a little confusing for first-timers, especially if you were to shop at a well-stocked Japanese grocery store, where different types and varieties are available. The most common type is referred to as Kome Miso and is made from white rice and soybeans.

Other varieties include Miso made from brown rice, or barley and soybeans, or just soybeans alone. In the case of Kome Miso, the amount of salt and the ratio of soybean to rice used, determines the saltiness and the sweetness. The processing of the soybeans (steaming vs. boiling) and even the duration of the fermentation has an effect on the color of the paste.

A lighter colored Miso known as Shiro (white) Miso is what we want to use in this case. It’s sweeter than the darker colored Aka (red) Miso. Shiro Miso uses boiled soybeans whereas soybeans used in Aka Miso are steamed, which also contributes to giving it that darker color. Since Aka Miso is saltier and stronger in flavor, I prefer to use Shiro Miso for this dish. It doesn't overwhelm the taste of the Salmon.

Here comes the tasty part. Miso alone could work just fine but I personally add some, what else...Sake and grated garlic. Take a couple of spoonfuls of Miso paste and stir in a shot (or two) of Sake, along with some freshly grated garlic. Some people add other condiments such as sugar, Mirin (sweet cooking rice wine), butter and so on to the mix but that’s your call.

Mix up the ingredients. You could use a saucepan and apply heat to combine the ingredients but be sure to treat it over low heat. You wouldn’t want to over cook, or worse case scenario, burn the Miso! The idea is to simply get the adequate consistency and not to cook the sauce. But then again, this is a fisherman’s dish. It doesn’t have to be fancy and sophisticated. You can just stir it up without using any heat…keep it simple!

Bring on the Heat

Now that we have the ingredients and seasoning all set, we’re ready. Some people do the cooking process slightly differently but my idea is to keep it as simple and easy, as I believe it was intended to be. I’m sure the experience would be much more sensational if you were to cook Chan-Chan Yaki outdoors by the ocean, with a Teppan plate, but we’ll settle for the home-style version.

I use my portable gas range and do the cooking on the dining table. I just bring everything to the table (including my drink) and conduct operation Lazy Man’s Cooking. These portable ranges come in really handy. If you don’t have one of these, you may want to get one. You can use them for other Japanese dishes such as Sukiyaki, Shabu-Shabu, Nabe and so on. Check out my on-line store if you can't find one near you.

Preheat the skillet on medium. Pour some cooking oil into a large skillet (personally I also add some butter, too) and place the Salmon, skin-side down, right in the middle. Place the veggies around the Salmon and turn the heat up to high. Then immediately pour in some Sake. Although I pour in a lot more, a quarter to half a cup or so will do, depending on the size and amount of your ingredients.

Bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer. Put a lid (aluminum foil works just as well) on the skillet, let it simmer and steam for about 15 minutes. Sit back and relax. Have a drink or two. After catching a slight buzz, place the sauce/ seasoning over the Salmon.

Put the lid back on and let it simmer for at least another 5~10 minutes. Once the Salmon turns a whitish pink, it should be done. If you’re not certain, just break off a piece of fish and see if it’s cooked through.

Personally, I don’t want to over cook the fish and veggies but you can be the judge of that. And, as long as you have enough oil and Sake in the skillet, you can continue to have the heat on low to keep the dish warm.

Also, once done, some people mix up the ingredients right there in the skillet. I just leave it as is and let people pick their own portion from the skillet. Remember, Lazy Man’s Cooking is still in effect. What’s good about the fillet or the side of Salmon is that it’s boneless. It’s especially easy for kids and the elderly to eat, and you don’t have to pick out the bones like many other Japanese fish dishes, so it’s pretty much hassle-free.

If the Miso is too strong for you, incorporate it into the liquid (in the skillet) and then pour it all over your portion. The wife likes it better this way. She says that it actually soothes her soul...imagine that.

Well folks, that’s it. It’s easy, it’s nutritious and the flavors will leave you wanting more. Oh, don’t forget to eat the skin, too. There's all that good fat (Fish oil! Omega-3!) between the skin and the flesh, so you don’t want to waste that. Besides, in Japanese cooking, Salmon can be eaten from head to tail. Nothing goes to waste and shouldn’t. Also, if you end up not using all the veggies cook them exactly the same way, without the fish, the next day or two.

Hey, don’t be shy to add other ingredients to the dish. I add Shiitake mushrooms to my mix when I have them. Now, I haven’t gone there yet, but other mushrooms may work just as well. Try using what’s available in your area and create your own version of Kyoudo Ryouri, and share your experience with us.

So, fisherman or not, if you like fish (Salmon in particular), this is definitely worth trying. Salmon says…eat me!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Chatting Chopsticks

In today’s life, we have become obsessed and overwhelmed with goods and materials. Like when my washing machine broke down, in the middle of the wash cycle, a couple of weeks ago. I threw my hands in the air, stared at the ceiling and cried out for mercy. I couldn’t even imagine how I’d react if my refrigerator went on the blink. Knock on wood!

We’ve become so dependent on and suckers for, devices and machines that make our daily lives comfortable and convenient. I feel vulnerable and naked when I leave home without my cell phone, and what strikes me about this, is that I hardly use the darn thing! At the same time, we tend to take many things, in life, for granted - whether it’s our health, relationships or the food we eat. Too often, we show little respect or appreciation for these things until we suddenly lose them.

One example of this, on a much lighter note - suppose you just moved into a new place, only with your minimum belongings. No furniture, no kitchenware…nothing but your clothes, toiletries and wallet. It’s late at night and you’re hungry, and want a warm meal. So you call a food joint and have some food delivered. You pay and tip the delivery person, and carry the package to your empty dining room.

While you go clean yourself up and get ready to eat, the awesome aroma of the Meatball Spaghetti, Soup and Grilled Garlic Chicken Caesar is just killing you. You’re psyched to grind and as you retrieve the food containers from the package, you start to notice something seriously wrong with this picture. No @#$%* utensils! Your anger mode has entered the Yellow Stage. You call the food joint in an effort to have the missing utensils brought over immediately, but there’s only a machine recording - they’ve just closed for the night. Your anger mode has now officially reached the Red Stage. Nearby stores are closed and you have no means of transportation. What do you do?

A) Use your hands/ fingers
B) Wake up your neighbor (a stranger in this case) & borrow some utensils

C) Cry yourself to sleep

D) Call your lawyer

Well, I suppose there’s no correct answer to this, but I’d go outside and look for tree branches that resemble chopsticks; I’d even climb a tree in the middle of the night if I had to…desperate moments call for desperate measures. Been there, done that. Definitely a suspicious act in the middle of the night, but man has got to do what he has got to do…to eat!

Hello! We’re talking about Spaghetti with Meatballs, here! One of my all-time favorites, so of course, I’d want to have the best dining experience possible! Utensils, please…!

Then again, I suppose I could always use my fingers if I didn’t have any luck finding a utensil substitute. I read somewhere that around 44% of the world’s population uses its fingers/ hands to eat. Fork and knife, and chopstick usage account for around 28% each. Now, despite the question of accuracy (current stats), these numbers do give us a general idea of the ways in which humans consume food.

Whether you use your fingers, forks or chopsticks, in most cases food is typically prepared with the manner of eating in mind. Although, even in utensil-dominant cultures, fingers/ hands are used on occasion. As featured in my previous posting, Onigiri (or Omusubi) is meant to be eaten with one's hands, similar to sandwiches and tacos…you basically don’t need any utensils. Sushi can also be eaten with your hands but when it comes to eating Sashimi in a civilized manner, you may want to consider using the Hashi (箸), Japanese for chopsticks.

Hashi or Ohashi (a politer way of saying it – see previous posting for the meaning behind "O") is another item that some of us take for granted. Although it has recently become a familiar utensil worldwide, it’s still mysterious to some. Most Japanese food dishes are prepared with the usage of the Hashi in mind, thus the relationship between the two are profound and interconnected. Let’s check out some of the basic roles of the Hashi with my professional Pitchman friend, Willy Inyo Faze. One thing about these guys...they know the art of selling.

Okay, enough of that…I think we get the point. Thank you, Willy, for sharing your professional insight with us. Loud and intimidating, Willy is one of those who could sell ice to Eskimos, and although I respect his sales pitch and presentation skills, I often have to say “Not! No way!” to some of the demonstrations. As questionable as some of the claims may seem to be, I think that some sales pitches are not totally untrue. They are, perhaps, just a little exaggerated. But in order to get one’s attention and the point across, I suppose you need to amplify and boost the message to a certain degree. They're not called pitchmen for nothing, after all.

Sure, it’s quite challenging to pick up a softball (or even a hardball) with the Hashi, but with the right Hashi, combined with the proper handling of it, you may just be able to. I think that’s what my friend Willy was trying to communicate.

It would be very difficult to pick up a softball with a regular-length Hashi. But if you use the longer ones, which are often used for cooking, perhaps it can be done. These longer versions can be very effective when you’re handling foods and ingredients in very hot situations such as frying Tempura, for instance. The longer reach helps keep your hand further away from the heat.

Along with the proper tool, the proper handling of the tool is essential. I’ve been instructed and scolded numerous times, during my life, for my poor handling of the Hashi. Each and every time, I ignored the instructions of my parents and mentors, and continued on in my own style.

I suppose there's a reason why there is a so-called proper way of using the Hashi. When you think about it, thousands of years of trying to perfect its usage has resulted in how we use it today. There's usually a reason behind it all.

Proper handling of the Hashi has its social implications, as well. One may be judged by how one handles one’s Hashi, quite similar to the etiquette of the fork and knife. Sure, you wouldn’t want to be labeled a barbarian when dining with your fiancé’s parents for the very first time or with a client who could bring you that multi-million-dollar contract!

But the reason for the proper usage (or form if you will), in this context, is about maximizing the proficiency. Proper handling of the Hashi should give you maximum leverage and control, with minimum strength and effort. I must admit, when I do see someone using the Hashi properly and skillfully, it does leave quite a good impression of that person. So, in essence, proper usage of the Hashi is not only functional, but aesthetically beautiful as well. It’s sort of like a martial arts expert doing the Kata (form), if you know what I mean. I should have listened to my parents and mentors when I still had the chance!

What is the so-called proper way?

I’m just a Transparent Belt (not even a White Belt, folks!). However, this is how I’d probably be instructed by a Hashi Sensei. Wax on, wax off...

Naughty Naughty Use of Hashi

In Japanese culture, people lift the bowl of rice or soup in one hand and bring it towards the mouth, to take the food in. Other cultures that use chopsticks may not practice this eating style.

So when speaking of manners and etiquette, I’m referring to the usage of Hashi (Japanese culture) and not to the chopstick culture in general. I mean, the languages they speak are entirely different, and despite some similarities, the food culture in each is generally different, as well. You may also note that even the chopsticks are slightly different amongst these cultures. For instance, the Hashi tends to have a sharper tip and is slightly shorter in length than Chinese chopsticks. Different food culture, different customs - I wouldn’t expect all chopstick cultures to have the exact, same dining etiquette.

Honor and respect other cultures that utilize the chopstick and their practice/ dining etiquette of it.

Speaking of etiquette, some customs can throw you off, especially when encountering norms that are totally opposite of your own. An example of this is when you eat Japanese noodles, such as Soba, Somen and Udon. Yes, you use your Hashi to pick up the noodles. No, you do not need to curl the noodles around your utensil like some do with Spaghetti. Then, you slurp up the noodles and hey, go ahead and make noise. Interestingly enough, the noodles just don’t seem to taste as good without the sound effects.

There’s a scene in Mr. Baseball where Tom Selleck is served noodles at his Team Manager’s house and confronts this eating practice. Perhaps a little exaggerated, but it does portray the noodle-eating situation.

Then we have the premise that sometimes dining etiquette is just basic, common sense. Like, not pointing at people with your Hashi or holding it like a weapon! Let’s leave that to Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, shall we.

Also, piercing food with your Hashi may not be a good idea either. This act seems to denote the use of weaponry or the stabbing of someone.

Some styles (etiquette) of eating are simply based on religious or social customs and traditions. For example, sticking your Hashi into a bowl of rice. This is a religious practice, done when someone has passed away. If done at any other time, it’s considered to be quite ominous. It's considered to be so ominous that the wife (Japanese-American from Hawaii) wouldn't allow me to shoot the actual image of the Hashi stuck in the rice. Kind of like how some people wouldn't get married on Friday the 13th.

Also, if someone is trying to serve you something with the Hashi, allow the person to place the food on your plate. You shouldn’t try to receive it with your own Hashi. This is said to resemble the ceremonial rite of picking up the bones, of a cremated person.

Clinking bowls or china with your Hashi carries the superstition that evil spirits will arise. Yep, we may want to stay away from that, folks! We've got enough problems, as it is.

It may be wise to not hover over food with your Hashi like an LAPD helicopter searching for a suspect, or to go digging around inside that bag looking for your favorite-colored M&M. These moves can be considered annoying. Make up your mind before choosing what to eat and go straight in for the kill (choose from the top of the pile, in this case). Decisiveness counts, it seems!

Here’s one more for the road. Slicing or cutting into your food with a Hashi in each hand should probably be avoided. I guess it just doesn’t look good, especially if you’re at a $100-plus-per-head, high-end Japanese restaurant.

Well, the list is even longer, but I suppose that these are the bare minimums you may want to remember, so as not to offend anyone (or embarrass yourself) while enjoying a pleasant or important meal. Again, these are based on the Hashi (Japanese culture) and may not be applicable to the chopstick culture, in general.

The disposable Hashi (Waribashi) has made its presence known. This Japanese-influenced invention is so widespread, that even people in Hawaii view it as an everyday thing. A lot of it has to do with sanitation…cleanliness. We all want to maximize our eating experience as much as possible. I guess it's just human nature. You probably wouldn't want to eat your dinner in a public restroom, would you, if you could help it?

It’s kind of like how you wouldn’t want to share a toothbrush with strangers, even if it’s been totally disinfected. But some view these disposable types as a waste of a natural resource and carry their own reusable ones, A.K.A. My Hashi, whenever they eat out. I’ve witnessed this noble practice, while living in Japan. Knowing myself, though, I’d probably forget My Hashi every time at the food joints (especially if I’ve had one too many beers!). That’s a lot of non-disposable Hashi waste, if you ask me. My forgotten My Hashis would litter the garbage cans of many an eating establishment! Wouldn't that be considered taking two steps backwards??? I don't know...

If you believe in this movement, get yourself a My Hashi. A Hashi carrying case can be purchased as well. You can check out my online store if you live in an area with no Japanese retail establishments.

I have a little suggestion for those of you who are dating. If you plan to take your date to a nice Japanese restaurant, buy your companion a portable Hashi set with the carrying case.

Show your companion how to use the Hashi and give the Hashi set as a gift. This way, even if you get dumped, at least your companion will always remember you for teaching him or her how to use the Hashi, to maximize the Hashi-eating experience. Sometimes that's better than you-know-what. Happy eating!!!

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