Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

Two breakfasts

We’ve been on something of a Japanese food kick of late, and this has extended into breakfast.

Yesterday, we had an instant suimono (clear soup) made from magically expanding dried fu, a puff of wheat gluten. This is from a fancy gift set that Hiromi received as a farewell present on her way here.

Ofu no suimono

This morning, I made two pancakes, which I turned into dorayaki by adding anko (sweet red bean paste) and returning the first pancake to the pan before the second one was completely cooked, creating a “sandwich”.

Dorayaki

When made on a suitable pan, or with 3–4” pancake rings, the portion size is just about right for one serving, but these were made with an 8” omelet pan and needed to be cut into wedges.

Usually dorayaki are made with lots of honey and more eggs than normal pancakes, and tend to be almost too sweet to enjoy without the aid of some accompanying tea to provide some slightly bitter notes. I made mine with some honey, but a lot less sweet than normal dorayaki, making them suitable for breakfast instead of an afternoon tea snack.

Charcoal man sober, dinner in Yokohama

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Michiko and I had made arrangements to speak with Takeshi-san again today to arrange for some product samples that he had promised while slightly intoxicated. In the morning he was pleasant but a little different in demeanor than the previous day, and so we weren’t sure what kind of quantities would be acceptable to ask for.

Actually, he did get in touch with a couple of his colleagues, one representative of the company that does the actual manufacturing for the charcoal pellets for growing plants, and one from the soap company. So he was attempting to be helpful, but we started to feel a little uncomfortable with him for various reasons that are hard to articulate.

We spend the afternoon chasing down the Japan office of the freight company that I had opened an account with in Seattle. They were raising all sorts of issues that I had been assured would not be a problem by the Seattle office, and a sales representative came to meet us in the afternoon in Ginza. He was worried because we have multiple suppliers for ceramics all inexperienced in export, and none of them wanted the slight complication of preparing export documentation. I got a quote for an approximate quantity of ceramics that I expect to ship, and an agreement for the carrier to act as the exporter of record for the relatively small initial order. I was trying to avoid export agents for the ceramics products because they always get a substantial percentage of the transaction for relatively little work; in this case, I was tracking down the suppliers by myself, so they would be doing little more than document preparation… in fact, just document assembly. Anyway, I was relieved that something which sounded like it could have become extremely complicated was resolved quickly and inexpensively.

Lunch was at an Indian set-meal type place and was decent… fresh-tasting, pleasant, inexpensive.

I met Hiromi for dinner and we ate close to her home at Torafuku, a well-funded three-unit restaurant in some recently remodeled building near the station. The food was good enough that very few people were smoking, even at 9pm. We had a fresh tofu dish with three “flavors” of tofu including one with yuzu and one which was actually gomadofu (sesame tofu). We had some freshly-skimmed yuba. We had yasai no sumibi-yaki, charcoal grilled vegetables. We also had some takenoko (bamboo shoot) rice. We drank tea and I had a glass of yuzu-infused sake (for me) and Hiromi had a kabosu drink with sprite (kabosu is a citrus fruit which, like lime, is typically used unripe) and presumably some Japanese shochu (a neutral spirit). The meal was all very sappari… no flavors were very strong, but the natural flavors of each of the ingredients were highlighted. I’ve probably had more impressively sappari dishes, but overall it was fairly pleasant food.

Tomorrow I have little on my calendar, so I’ll just take care of sending some email and doing a little research.

FoodEx 2005, Day 2: The Japanese section, and business dinner

I managed to get a little misdirected on the train this morning, but I wasn’t the only one confused by the ambiguities of the Keiyo-sen; a Japanese couple opposite me was equally bewildered to be moving nowhere closer to Kaihin-makuhari station. I think I had this problem once last year, so I should know better, but it was comforting to know it was easy to be confused.

The other couple turned out to be running a wine importing company, so we chatted a little bit about our businesses and exchanged business cards. They seem to mostly sell German and French wines, at wholesale and in a little retail shop.

Since I focused on the Japan section today, I got to see that in fact the Japanese specialty food trade doesn’t change nearly as rapidly as I had previously thought. In spite of an apparently neverending stream of variations of bottled drinks, most of what I saw this year was, in one form or another, in last year’s show also. But I did see some good stuff, including a vinegar manufacturer and some nice foods from Hokkaido. I was kind of interested in a sea vegetable called “umi-budou” (sea grapes) which have a unique briny taste; alas, they don’t travel well. Some of the local producers of foods might have some potential with high end venues in the U.S., though sometimes the packaging isn’t quite hip enough to reach a mainstream audience.

I think I’ve still only seen about two-thirds of the show, but I hit most of the areas of interest to my company; I’d love to spend a little time looking at some of the European products, just out of professional, and culinary, curiosity. But tomorrow I think I’ll spend a full day at Hoteres and decide how to divide up my Friday thereafter.

A representative from the trading company that’s helping me source yuzu products took me out to dinner with a business acquaintance of his and invited Hiromi along. We had a nice fully vegetarian meal at a restaurant near Tokyo station. My contact’s wife was actually vegetarian, but he said she has unfortunately passed away… Anyway, with a day advance notice, that restaurant can make everything vegetarian. We had a kind of omakase menu, featuring some regional varietal of thin leek blanched and dressed in a mustard-miso based dressing; some hiya-yakko style gomadoufu; a little tounyuu nabe (soy milk hot pot) which had some yomogi (mugwort)-seasoned konnyaku and Japanese leeks. Some boiled glutinous rice, almost fermented like South Indian idli, served as a bed for a nimono of spring bamboo shoots garnished with a cooked cherry blossom. We had some nice parcels of yuba fried in a dough made from soybeans, accompanied by tara no me (a kind of wild mountain vegetable common in springtime) tempura; these were simply offered with salt for dipping. We had some sakura udon, house-made udon colored with crushed cherry blossoms, in a vegetarian kakejiru (soup base). And finally we had a bit of rose-infused ice cream.

Along the way we tried some imo-jochu (Japanese sweet potato vodka), regular grain-based shochu, and two kinds of cold sake. Mr. Hiba indicated that he prefers to have a variety of drinks to taste during a meal… It’s a good thing I don’t drink heavily or this could have been very treacherous.

I’m a little sleepy, and I’m up a little late, but I hope to make some good use of time at the Hoteres show tomorrow.

Elevating the American food scene

Hillel of  Tasting Menu has issued a bit of a challenge to himself to elevate the average quality of U.S. dining experiences. It's a frustration I share... I know a few places in Seattle that make me very happy, but most of them are out of the reach of everyday dining prices, and it's incredibly hard to find things that do a few simple things very well, and make me want to go out of my way to get a modest lunch or dinner there.

In Japan, countless television shows will obsessively document what it takes to make the most perfect omelet, which soba places do the best job of making buckwheat noodles (a fundamentally simple, but deceptively challenging task), or which ryokan is best taking advantage of their local ingredients. In the U.S., the closest thing we have to that mentality on TV is Alton Brown, and maybe Cook's Illustrated in print. In Japan, it's pervasive.

In the U.S., we are more excited by drama than by perfection. That's why people like Emeril, unfamiliar towers of incongruous ingredients at trendy fusion restaurants, and big fat California rolls. In Japan, more often than in the U.S., the pursuit of perfection is the drama.

In my first few years cooking regularly, during college, I followed a predictably American pattern of rebelling against bland foods from my childhood and I overseasoned absolutely everything. It was an improvement over what I had eaten before, but it's not necessarily worthy of much praise. After 8 years of regular visits to Japan, I increasingly strive for minimalism, trying to find ingredients that do most of the hard work simply by being wonderful and fresh.

Often enough, when I give an example of this, it's something as simple as a blanched spinach dish with a little freshly grated ginger and a splash of good quality Japanese soy sauce. When I explain it, it doesn't sound interesting, but when it's done right, it's easy to understand its simple poetry.

To elevate the U.S. dining scene, we have to give appropriate due to small places with short menus that get the food right, and take what they are producing very seriously. I can point out a few examples in Seattle, but mostly in a liquid context: Vivace and Victrola coffee, Sambar's signature cocktails that often feature house-squeezed juices and purees, tea at Floating Leaves.

Every Japanese restaurant in Seattle seems to feel obligated to offer sushi, tempura, donburi, and an assortment of over-sized side dishes, all in the same place. Nobody does just ramen, just okonomiyaki, just soba, just kushiyaki, or just udon. It seems like there's some sort of unwritten law that, even if you've hired 3 decent sushi chefs at $80,000/year each and contracted with a first-class interior designer, the restaurant has to devolve into some sort of family restaurant style of having something mediocre for everybody.

And I can pick on most cuisines in this regard: we torture Italian food the same way, not to mention Thai, Mexican, and others. If I'm in Japan, I don't think "I want to go to a Japanese restaurant," I think "I want to go to an izakaya", "I'd like some good soba", or "I'd like to have a teishoku lunch at that little vegetable shop near the office for lunch."

We need to reward the places that are obsessive about getting details right, from perfectly cooked pasta sauced with just the right amount of liquid, to serving just the amount of food that makes you wish you had just a little more, rather than making you feel guilty that you don't want to take the inedible leftovers home. Japan does have a certain level of uniform expectations that means there's far less variation in what's considered "perfect", and the benefit of generally high population density, but in the U.S. we usually have lower rents and more tolerance for idiosyncrasy, so the restaurants can be more maverick-like if they build a passionate audience.

Japanese cooking shows typically show professional cooks as careful, serious, diligent and avoiding wasted motion, respectfully repeating orders and executing them, and the guests are the ones who get all excited. In the U.S. the same kinds of shows have clanging pots, chaotically moving employees trying to avoid bumping into each other, kitchen staff telling jokes of questionable taste, and often haphazardly tossing food onto plates, often portraying the dining room is an ocean of calm customers. We want our celebrity chefs to be exciting; Japanese would rather the food and the guests do the talking.

Restaurants also have to get better at telling their own stories, explaining why they don't have 300 menu choices and why they serve their zarusoba with just a little bit of dipping sauce and a few pickles. The story-telling is part of what makes unconventional restaurants succeed in the U.S.; they have to teach their guests to do their marketing.

We can improve the taste of average restaurants by expecting better... When one place starts making the perfect taco, stop spending so much money at the big-as-your-head burrito place. More realistically, I imagine we will have to take more incremental steps, since we might be trapped in a part of town where we don't have better lunch options... So I'll give more money to places that make me happier, even if they aren't flawless.

And hopefully the occasional web rant or rave will help people find better food, so I'll spend some time writing about the good stuff...

The Big Buddha: Off to Wakayama and Nara

Awakened by about four alarm clocks after a short night’s sleep, I found my way to Haneda airport. My confusion transferring at Shinagawa meant that I only had a minute or so to spare when trying to transfer to the express Keikyu line. I ended up eating far too much for breakfast at the airport, but I managed to sleep a bit on the airplane.

Of course, somehow my brain wasn’t working entirely correctly when I told my friend I’d be leaving at 7:30 and arriving at 9:30. It’s actually only an hour flight to Kansai airport from Haneda, and although I did know this, somehow I confused myself into thinking I was scheduled to arrive at 9:30. Anyway, when I arrived, I called my friend Sachi, who was surprised that I had arrived hour earlier than she expected. I apologized for being confused. She came at the originally planned time; I waited in an airport Starbucks.

Sachi had arranged to have a couple of her 50-something coworkers drive us to Nara in a big van. When stopping at a rest area, she said, “don’t you think they look like yakuza?” Actually their faces are very rough-looking and they speak with thick Kansai accents, and if you looked at them from across the room you would probably not imagine it was a good idea to pick a fight with them. But they are very gentle, pleasant folks.

This was the first time I’ve been to Nara, so I took various pictures of deer at Nara park, parts of the Daibutsu (big Buddha) temple.

This is a group whose priorities I can appreciate. At the rest stop, we ate tai-yaki (fish-shaped waffles with bean paste in the middle), and Sachi picked up a cake to share in the car. We arrived in Nara not terribly long thereafter, and, after walking around a bit, they started plotting lunch. We did manage to feed “kiza-senbe” to various deer at the park, then walk around the Daibutsu, before actually committing to lunch, which was at an udon/soba/donburi-focused place targeting tourists. Sachi even made a second order for herself after a craving for curry rice overcame her. Within minutes after lunch, we were already eating again; from a street vendor, Sachi bought four sticks of dango (rice dumplings) seasoned with a lightly sweetened soy sauce and divided the spoils. It wasn’t 5 minutes after that when she had us buying freshly-made senbe (crispy rice crackers) with various seasonings.

We visited the 5-storied pagoda nearby, and then headed back to the car. Sachi made a destination stop at a shop which apparently has some of the nicest Warabi-mochi (a sticky, soft Japanese sweet rolled in toasted soybean flour) around; her companions bought obscene numbers of boxes of them. I would have bought some myself but they only stay fresh for a couple of days and I won’t be back in Tokyo to share with others until late Tuesday night.

On four hours of sleep I tended to nod off in the car on the way to Wakayama, and I wasn’t the only one. Sachi was driving on this leg, but her colleagues fell asleep in the back seat soon after digging into the warabi-mochi. I was seriously drowsy; I fell asleep before even getting a chance to try them.  Fortunately, I did get a chance to taste them when we arrived in Wakayama; Sachi and her colleagues stopped to give some to some Thai friends of theirs in town. When Sachi’s friend was curious about the contents of a plastic bag in one of the Thai women’s basket, she claimed to have “etchi no video” (dirty videos) and was going out on a date… This opened the door for him to make a dirty joke after the woman reluctantly tried the warabi mochi, as she commented that she doesn’t like to eat soft things. Apparently they already know each other pretty well, or this is just a regional variation on acceptable behavior, as I’ve rarely seen this kind of interaction between men and women I know in the Tokyo area.

The food didn’t stop. We ended up at a popular local family restaurant, a few notches above the Japanese version of Denny’s, less than an hour after this stop, and we had a private room to celebrate Sachi’s coworker’s birthday.

The vegetarian or almost-vegetarian items included some dengaku-nasu (grilled eggplant with a sweetened miso topping), tofu salad, daikon salad, inari-zushi, and some egg white tempura. They also ordered a few things for the pescevorous. We shared half a fancy strawberry birthday cake from a local French-style cake shop. I probably shouldn’t have eaten so much today, but there was always something there…

If Sachi eats like this everyday, it doesn’t show on her waistline. While not rail-thin, she’s reasonably slim. I suppose her secret is that she keeps on sharing a substantial person of whatever she’s eating with whoever else happens to be around.

When I came back to the hotel I had a complication due to unavailability of a usable internet connection in my room; when my friend called last week to ask if I can connect to the internet in the room, they said, oh, yes, you just plug in and you’ll be fine. Apparently that means you can disconnect the phone and dialup to your usual Japanese internet service providers; I’ve gotten spoiled by in-room broadband, and I don’t have access to the convenient Microsoft dialup system on my new company’s laptop. The hotel tried troubleshooting for an hour or so before we mutually realized this was a communication problem rather than a technical problem. I tried mimicking the settings on the lobby computer and taking advantage of the wireless network down there, but apparently nobody knows how to log in. I found the WEP key in the registry but was stumped by the PPPOE password. After a while, I gave up and did what I could do with Hotmail and the horrible web-based email interface that my provider for yuzutrade.com offers.

FoodEx Countdown

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.

Spicy lentil-potato patty on flatbread

I like piadina, the lard-enhanced soft, cracker-like flatbread of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. But I don’t use a lot of pork lard in my vegetarian kitchen. On the other hand, the toasted ghee I made last week stands in just fine; in German clarified butter is actually known as Butterschmalz, and other kinds of rendered fats are known as (Animal-)schmalz. So I always thought it would work as a fair alternative if I decided to make a piadina- or crespelle-like flatbread at home. The ingredients are functionally equivalent, though the flavors are certainly not the same. It's definitely a respectable fat.

Lentilflat 019-640w

I wasn’t really trying to make something particularly Italian, though; I just wanted a nice thin crispy-soft flatbread. Given my tendency to cook vaguely Indian food over the last few days, I actually thought something with the nuttiness of chapati would actually be nice, but I wanted something closer to the texture of piadina to hold up to my filling. So I balanced the two concepts by using a 50–50 ratio of whole wheat to white flour, as would be fairly typical for chapati, I blended in my toasted ghee, then added some water until I had a stiff dough.

My lentil cravings haven’t quite disappeared, but I didn’t want something as dense as my koftas, so this time I made a big lentil-potato pancake. I incorporated parboiled potatoes into a spiced ground lentil mixture. I made patties and cooked them in a substantial amount of oil. I browned it on both sides. The patty took a fair amount of time to cook, along the lines of a Rösti, but had a nice texture, flavor and color. Even with the lengthy cooking time, I’d definitely recommend finely grinding lentils for this kind of application rather than using cooked lentils.

I placed this lentil-potato “patty” between two layers of the flatbread with some sliced tomatoes, sweet onions, and raclette cheese.

Lentilflat 002-640w

I served this with a signature salad of mine, mixed greens with a yuzu-honey vinaigrette.

In the morning I made buttermilk waffles with some Hawaiian coconut syrup I got at the Beaverton Uwajimaya. It’s full of saturated and trans fats and has a very nice coconut flavor. It doesn’t look like it would photograph well when plated, so I didn’t try.

I got a late start doing business-like things. I should have worked harder today, but Monday seems to be the one day I give myself the luxury of working a little slowly… But I didn’t come home to make dinner until about 8pm, so I ate fairly late. But I sent off oustanding orders.

My car’s brakes have been making disturbing noises recently, so I am afraid I’ll have to get them checked… another irritating expenditure.

Half day trip to Icheon: All about the rice

Hiromi and I met in Seoul late at night Friday, and woke up insanely early (6am) after too little sleep. After a breakfast of al bap for Hiromi (tarako or cod roe on rice) and cool bibimbap for me, we got on the bus to meet an eGullet acquaintance in Icheon, a town I've only previously visited for its biennial pottery festival.

Bus to Icheon

And we're off...

Hiromi en route to Icheon

Our driver gets caught shoulder-driving and passing on the right...

D'oh! Pulled over...

He gets a little scolding.

Polite conversation between two professionals.

Finally, we make it to Icheon, which, in addition to being a pottery destination, is also a major rice producing area. At Cheng Mok restaurant in Icheon, it's all about the rice.

 Hot bowl of fancy rice

Apparently, this particular rice and preparation, ssal bap, was considered suitable for royalty. But you might want a few things to accompany the rice...

A few side dishes to accompany our meal

Some simple pajeon (scallion pancakes)...

Pajeon

Ssam (lettuce and other leaves) for wrapping various treats...

Ssam

Gratuitous gimchi (kimchi) porn... 

Kimchi (gimchi)  

 Hobak (Korean zucchini)

Dwaenjang (miso) soup with cabbage.

Grilled fish (for the carnivores in our party)  

We leave fat and happy...

 

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Hummus in asparagus season

Continuing on with my recent run of extreme simplicity, I made a dinner that looks far more time-consuming than it actually was.

Hummus on Baguette

This toasted baguette has been baked with a bit of garlic butter (minced garlic, salt, butter) and topped with a warm homemade hummus.

Sounds complicated? Not at all. I used canned chickpeas and suffered very little. The garlic was cooked with a bit of olive oil until it had slightly mellowed, then I added the can of chickpeas and brought it to a simmer. After a few minutes I tossed the results in a blender and added a bit of tahini (ground sesame seed paste) and some Meyer lemon juice. That might sound like a waste of good Meyer lemons, but my regular lemons had already been claimed for something earlier in the week. It worked out...

The still-warm hummus is drizzled with extra olive oil and sprinkled with some chili powder.

Roasted golden beets and asparagus

This simple dish of roasted golden beets and asparagus was prepared the usual way, with a few small adjustments... olive oil, pepper, and a little porcini flavored salt. I waited to add the asparagus to the pan until the beets were pretty soft already, so that I could avoid over-cooking the asparagus.

I meant to eat about half of this side dish and reserve the rest for another day, but I greedily ate every last bite.

Not bad for about 10 or 15 minutes conscious preparation work...

 

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Sometimes a little homemade falafel does the trick

My little falafel adventure

My falafel

From 1994–1996, Imbiss falafel was one of my staple starving student lunches in the city of Marburg, Germany. Most of the Turkish restaurants in Marburg served falafel on wedge of a large round dough which they called pide, but has more in common with focaccia than the standard pita. The usual cost for such a lunch was about DM4 (give or take 50 Pfennig), or about $3, making it one of the most inexpensive lunch options in town.

I don’t know why I never make falafel at home; perhaps the relatively ready availability at various quick-service Mediterranean restaurants around Seattle is a bit of a distraction. But I can usually hope for no better than uncharismatic, flabby pita when I go to such an inexpensive place, although there are some notable exceptions when I am willing to spend a bit more for a full-service meal, such as at Mediterranean Kitchen (Bellevue, Seattle).

But at home I have the power to escape the travesty of stale or flavorless pita bread; I can make my own, and serve them just seconds after they leave the oven. It’s surprisingly easy to make good pita, as the more familiar variety requires only a quick knead and is a fairly moist, easy-to-handle dough. Rolling the dough out evenly is the most difficult thing, but is a surmountable challenge.

Falafel, too, sometimes suffer from the flaw of premature frying, to save some effort on the part of a harried staff far more concerned with pushing out orders than getting the best possible flavor. Unfortunately, falafel set aside for an hour or so and microwaved tend to be displeasingly dry. It is, alas, a fairly common strategy, but again, home cooking comes to the rescue. I soak dry chickpeas and fava beans for a few hours, chop them in a blender, add onion, various seasonings, and salt, then shape into small balls and fry.

In this case, since I was making dinner and not eating on the run, I served the falafel more like a salad, and used the pita as a utensil. I made a little yogurt sauce with a little garlic and salt, which should actually probably be served with the cucumber, but which mysteriously snuck onto the falafel itself, in addition to coating the salad.

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