Tuesday, July 20, 2010

ポン酢 (Ponzu) Recipe

Left: The sauce before being strained.
Ponzu is a kind of sauce that has a base of soy sauce and some kind of citrus juice, to which other flavorings are added, which is then allowed to sit and mature. It is probably my favorite sauce in all of Japanese cuisine; it is strong and sour and a perfect match for food simmered at the table, mushrooms, fish paste cakes, bonito, crab, etc. You can buy pretty good brands at the store, but just like anything, if you make your own the flavor will be much deeper and complex. It is easy to make and stores forever in the fridge, so even newbies to Japanese food can try this out if they have access to an Asian food market. My basic recipe is from Tsuji's Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art.

1 cup lemon juice or other sharp citrus juice such as a mix of lemon and lime juice or sudachi juice. (Fresh-squeezed is miles better than the preserved store crap.)
1/3 cup plus 2 T rice vinegar
1 cup dark soy sauce
2 T tamari sauce
3 T mirin, alcohol simmered off (this step reduces bitterness in the sauce)
1/3 or 10 grams (a handful) of dried bonito flakes (hana-katsuo)
2-inch (5-cm) square of konbu, wiped

Mix all ingredients and let stand 24 hours. Strain through cheesecloth and mature 3 months in a cool dark place, or refrigerate. Keeps indefinitely, but should be used within 1 year for best flavor.

レモン汁:1カップ (すだちとかでもいい)
酢:1/3 カップ+ 大さじ1


Monday, July 19, 2010

Official Announcement

The time has come for me to hang up my professional coat, for a while at least. The intense and unrelenting stress of the job was breaking me down physically and mentally, and doing little good for my marriage. As of Saturday I am officially unemployed and loving it.
Not that I'm going to be just laying around. In fact, I'll be nearly as busy as before, but it will be working towards my own benefit instead of my boss's.
We are in the process of searching for a house with a downstairs that I can open a small restaurant in. The year I plan to take off will be spent polishing my Japanese, researching, developing, and testing recipes, and later on, setting up my first restaurant.
Ironically, this will mean that this blog will be getting a lot more attention than before. I'm still a chef in Japan dealing primarily with Japanese food, and anyone reading this will get the full experience.

Friday, May 14, 2010

鯛 (Tai); Red Snapper

In any cuisine there are certain dishes or ingredients that automatically elicit respect. If what's in front of you has anything to do with foie gras, foam, Belgium, molds, whole animals, or a named blue cheese, even the non-foodie is going to view the dish on a different level than football-night buffalo wings. What's interesting is when you start crossing oceans and cultures and are proudly presented with food that might provoke emotions ranging from disbelief to horror in your own culture.
Japan is big on fish. You heard it here first. Fish get a respect that transcends their actual role as a foodstuff in a way that chicken and pork will never have, no matter how big of a role they play in the modern Japanese diet. In addition, the more a fish looks like it just leapt out of the ocean and onto your plate the better. A sanitized, cooked fillet is the lowest rung on the fish latter, 活け造り (ikezukuri, a fish filleted alive and presented still gasping), the highest. Fish guts, testes, eggs, and heads are all eaten with gusto. The guest of honor is traditionally presented with the head of the fish being served.
Tai (red snapper) in particular has been a celebration meal staple for a long time. The god of luck/happiness Ebisu (dude on the Ebisu beer cans) is pictured holding a tai. It is a pearly pink color, and red also being a symbol of good luck, it is often the main course at weddings, birthdays, etc. One popular dish that my restaurant just did a run of is 鯛飯 (tai meshi, red snapper rice) in which the rice is cooked in fish stock rather than water and served with the tai on top. The less deconstructed the tai the more high-class the dish; so a really expensive place might serve a whole, non-filleted tai. Other methods (listed in progressively less awe-inspiring order) are splitting the tai in half, using just a fillet, or mixing shredded meat into the rice.
I believe the average American would be pretty horrified at opening the lid to find an open-mouthed fish staring up at them (by the way, the eyes turn white and pop out of the sockets when heated, and if you're not careful, disconnect from the head and roll into the rice; very uncool presentation). The dish itself is nice, but to the disinterested palate a bit underwhelming considering the hype surrounding it. Tai is a good fish. So are a lot of other cheaper and easier-to-cook fish. But this works both ways; a former Japanese teacher confided in me that when she went to America and saw a whole Thanksgiving turkey squatting on the holiday table, she felt physically ill. There's a whole lot of culture and expectation dictating how we feel about a meal. Food isn't just about taste.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Doing it Yourself

In America, every restaurant I worked at had professional cleaners doing their laundry. I'm not talking about issued T-shirts or hats that you might be expected to wash yourself, but the napkins, towels, aprons etc were as a matter of course picked up, washed with industrial bleach, and returned to the restaurant super-starched.
Maybe it's because the restaurants in Japan tend to be so much smaller- instead of the average restaurant seating 200 people, it might seat 20-50, 100 if it's really a good-sized chain. This is naturally much more noticeable in Tokyo. In any case, most restaurants do laundry themselves, usually aided by an ancient-of-days rickety washing machine usually located outside, and the wet things line-dried since owning a dryer in Japan is an almost unheard-of luxury. The restaurant I'm in now professionally launders the 白衣 (hakui, chef's whites), but we have to wash and dry the towels ourselves. I'm sure that would be violating all sorts of health codes back the States but it's actually nice to be able to control how many dry towels you have on hand. All the other restaurants I used to work at were nazis about the distribution of towels. On the other hand, during Japan's rainy season, there's no such thing as dry anything.
The washing machine's water is shut off with a little standardized key that you can get at a 100-yen shop. We also leave the washing detergent beside the machine, just off the street. I wonder if the bums have figured this out yet.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Squidward's Revenge

I don't know why me and squid just can't seem to come to terms. This is what I found in the last squid I cleaned, and as I pulled it out of the dead bundle of rubber and ink and slime you can bet I got the willies. The complete scrub-your-hand-on-your-hip, little-shudders-running-down-your-spine, hairs-standing-on-end heebie-jeebies experience. I am proud of the fact that I didn't audibly yelp when I discovered that face-huggers infect more than just humans. After I regained control of myself I set it on top of a fridge to show the other cooks later and forgot about it; it dried out for a few days and I found it again. I stuck it in my bag to take home and show my SO and it stunk my bag up terribly and attracted my cats and I had to throw it away before anyone but Fugu Senpai saw it. This blurry photo is the only evidence remaining to prove that the alien invasion is once again underway.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Using Your Noodle

Noodles are a big deal across Asia and Japan is no exception. The two most popular varieties are 蕎麦 (soba; buckwheat noodles) and うどん (udon, wheat noodles). Soba is the snobby northern noodle, thin and grey, and udon the cheaper, more laid-back southern variety, thick and slippery and white. Japan newbies often take to the chewy udon noodles more quickly, but they are devilishly tricky to eat with chopsticks; they slip away, slither around in the bowl, and if you get them hot, splash broth all over you in retribution. I've been witness to a visiting friend grab an escapee noodle and hide it under the table cupped in her hand because the waitress was approaching and she couldn't get it into her mouth with the chopsticks in time.

Udon, containing more gluten than soba and thus forming a stronger dough and less fragile noodle, is easier to make than soba and so the noodle novice starts there. The dough is formed from a medium-strength flour (less gluten than bread flour but more than cake flour). You start by mixing flour and salt water in a large lacquer noodle bowl, let it rest a while, then through that shit on the floor in a plastic bag and stomp all over it for a while. This is very therapeutic in addition to kneading the dough. Rest, repeat for a total of three times, then roll it out using a special technique that forms the now very-stretchy dough into a square.

This is scattered with flour and folded over, and now true skill comes into play: cutting the noodles by hand. Noodle knifes are wickedly big and heavy and look like a massive cleaver with the handle over the blade instead of to the side so that your weight is evenly distributed along the blade and you can cut straight, sliding a board across the dough with your left hand to guide it.

Fugu Senpai let me use his new blade; it set him back $800.

My first try, closely supervised, went pretty well. I've been chopping enough vegetables to have achieved a lower-level zen with my knives and this was basically the same movement even though the shape of the knife was different. My noodles were mostly the same size and didn't break. My keepers were pleased.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Modern Conveniences

A counter restaurant's main visual feature is, not surprisingly, the counter, a long bar of wood that guests sit at while the chefs work directly across from them. Although we have tables and a tatami room too, the counter is definitely the focal point. Unlike Western cooking, where the atmosphere of a nice restaurant is concentrated on providing a sterile environment where servers melt in and out bringing dishes from the magical faraway realm of the kitchen, counter chefs work right in front of you, trying to accomplish inherently messy jobs with elegance. One of the reasons for the popularity of this system must be because so much Japanese cuisine is served raw or with minimal preparation.
One common denominator on both sides of the Pacific is the fantasy that chefs prepare all the food from the dirt/ocean up; guests like to imagine chefs visiting farms and selecting individual vegetables, buying whole fish directly from the fishermen, creating all the sauces from scratch. The reality, which sometimes needs to be concealed to keep up our cool image at the counter, is that all restaurants rely at least partially on pre-prepared foods. I was let in harshly on that fact back in the States when I went on a hunt for the recipe for my favorite restaurant's best dessert sauce, only to find out it came in a bag.
Japanese cuisine is no different. One of the things that surprised me was the fugu situation. Fugu requires careful, time-consuming preparation by a licensed chef, and it's not practical to do it yourself when you're putting out the volume we are. It turns out you can order your fugu already disassembled and skinned with all the little bits wrapped up and boxed. Each fugu has a license number (in case we end up killing someone after all), and all we have to do is get it out of the box and cut it up the way we want it. We just take care to unpack the fugu when nobody is in the restaurant so the guest can still imagine his chef choosing each fugu carefully at the fish market and we can actually get our work done, and everybody's happy.