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.

On dinner parties and not traveling light

Saturday, March 20, 2004

This morning I packed up my larger suitcase, which is now full of product samples and related pamphlets, in preparation for an early Sunday departure to Kansai airport. I think there’s a little bit of clothing somewhere in there as well. Actually I have little desire to carry this overweight suitcase with me, so I made arrangements to deposit it at the Yokohama area hotel where I’ll be staying on my return.

The hotel in Yokohama is near Bashamichi, where Hiromi and I wandered around last Saturday. It’s a little dodgy… although it’s a full service hotel, it’s at the low end of the scale; a sign at the front door advertises short-term rates for those who might need a room for a few hours in the afternoon. The lobby lounge is occupied entirely by Russian guests who must have discovered the place in a guidebook. My friend Hiromi found the place online, but it doesn’t offer the usual amenities, like a credit-card secured reservation over the telephone, so I also made advance payment on the room for next week while checking my baggage.

We had lunch at a little kissaten-style place nearby which has dozens of varieties of tea and a few interesting tea beverages, but we’re in a bit of a rush, so we order only a couple of simple dishes (a Japanese style dish called omu-raisu, which is an omelet with seasoned rice, in this case made with various mushrooms; a spaghetti arrabiata, described in Japanese as an “angry Italian” dish; soup and salad) and then we move on.

Afterward, we meet Hiromi’s friends, both named Sanae, and go shopping in preparation for nabe dinner party. Nabe is the kind of dish that is nearly always ignored by U.S. Japanese restaurants; it’s a very rustic, humble, communal one-pot meal that is for Japanese in winter what outdoor grilling is for Americans in the summer, except, perhaps, without the heroic grill-meister bravado.

In this case, we were having a miso-seasoned nabe filled with various mushrooms, tofu, a kind of translucent noodle, and greens, with a little bit of kiri-tampo (toasted mochi).

I contributed by making a hijiki (black, noodle-like seaweed) dish with renkon (lotus roots), carrots, and sora-mame (fava beans), and a little dessert of oboro-doufu (very soft, custardy tofu) with boiled sweetened azuki beans and a ginger syrup.

The Sanae whose home we were visiting has a 5-year old boy and an approximately 2-year-old girl. The girl was a bit of a fan of the renkon in the hijiki dish and said “daikon choudai” (please give me some daikon) to her mother a couple of times… she hasn’t quite learned the word renkon yet. Another one of Sanae’s friends also made use of the blanched renkon and carrots I had leftover by pan-frying them in a little butter with a sprinkling of salt, making an elegant and simple appetizer or drink accompaniment.

Everyone was fairly sleepy after dinner and I was one of three people who dozed off occasionally near the couch. I need every bit of rest I can get, as I only have time for about four hours of sleep tonight.

Bewitched in Japan

Today I didn’t feel very productive, but I did get my account with Yamato Transport established and I got a confirmation on an appointment with a soap company I’m very interested in buying from.

Other than that, I sent out a few inquiries and replied to a few other messages. My major accomplishment was taking care of a couple of loads of laundry and initiating some packing; tomorrow I need to move some of my belongings to a temporary storage place; lugging my larger suitcase, now full of product samples and literature, to Osaka for a few days starting Sunday, is not my idea of fun..

Lunch was leftover baguette from breakfast, with lettuce and some relatively cheap (for Japan) Brie. Actually I really wish I wasn’t closer to department stores than to a known grocery store, because for one thing department store foods start out more expensive, and they tend to offer more western foods.

I’m perfectly capable of cooking with Japanese ingredients, but collecting them at department stores is often far more expensive than I’d like. Of course, somehow, everything that I cook here tastes more Japanese than European or American, but I think that’s mostly a matter of scale. I decorate small plates of vegetables with a little cheese… or I cook one medium potato, one carrot, and half an onion, using whatever seasoning is convenient, and I serve it to two people as one of three simple dishes, rather than buying a mess of potatoes, a bunch of carrots, and a ton of onions and garlic and turning it into a huge mass of home fries or Bratkartoffel.

Dinner was, in fact, such a potato dish, plus a dish of seasoned soybeans, blanched greens and half an onion, and a sample of udon from the FoodEx show I have been refrigerating since last week. The udon were unusual because they are made with sato-imo (small taro-like roots) and yamaimo (a starchy tuber). The udon noodles are quite nice; the included tsuyu, or dipping sauce, is overly sweet, even though the packaging recommends using the tsuyu as is, undiluted. We switch to a bottled tsuyu that Hiromi bought last week, which was much less cloying.

The afternoon was fairly cold and windy, although out my window everything appeared sunny and pleasant. I went out for tea in the afternoon, walking as quickly as possible to escape the weather. Apparently someone else had the same idea... I noticed a woman who had fallen asleep in one of the comfortable chairs, oblivious to a half-consumed latte.

Tonight after dinner I had the surreal experience of watching on TV a Japanese reprisal of “Bewitched,” this time set in 2004 Japan, but with the same basic storyline. This episode is when the Japanese equivalent of Darren inevitably discovers that his daughter has magical powers, around the time that he brings his ad agency boss and some clients to his unbelievably large Japanese condo. It’s amusing to see this very sixties-style show re-enacted with 2004 Japanese fashion sensibilities, but fortunately, the mother-in-law with the funky hairstyle is dutifully preserved.

Japanese-Indian, French pastries, and comfort food

I spent most of the day writing email messages to various companies, and responding to a couple of incoming messages. I occasionally took short breaks to finish reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, It must have been something I ate. I actually read more than half of it on the airplane ride over to Japan, but I’ve only been reading a chapter here and there since I hit the ground. I usually enjoy reading about other foodies’ adventures and idiosyncrasies. Of course, I can’t believe he wrote an article about espresso without visiting Vivace’s in Seattle; David Schomer’s obsession with the technical minutiae of the ideal espresso would have been the perfect supplement to Steingarten’s haphazard experimental efforts.

The weather was a little less pleasant today, so I didn’t really look forward to stepping out for lunch. I ducked into a little “curry-ya-san” that is slightly more Indian than the usual Japanese roux-thickened interpretations but still catering to mainstream Japanese tastes. I had a dish of dal, some ambiguous vegetable curry with potatoes and disintegrated greens, an egg, and pickles with a little rice and nan. Everything was sort of the quality that you would expect from a buffet in an Indian restaurant in the U.S., by which I mean edible and more pleasant than the average fast food chain but not particularly special.

In the early evening I wandered around and found a café in Lumine that was offering a mille feuille pastry with strawberries and a custard cream, so I stopped there and had a 600 yen serving of the cake and a 400 yen espresso.

My friend offered to make a vegetarian version of nikujaga, which is normally a beef and potato stew a la japonaise, for dinner tonight, so this is the first day I’m neither cooking nor am I eating restaurant fare for dinner. With a limited kitchen, a one-pot meal is a pretty good idea, and it’s a little cold today, so it was comforting.

Eating Italian in Japan; where else?

Today I met with a representative from a company that makes yuzu drink “marmalades” in Korea and we talked for a couple of hours about products and selling strategies. Actually I can get customized labels and even packaging, so that will be beneficial. Prices seemed ok, but I don’t have much to compare against.

It turns out I can also get a customized drink product created to my specifications, and if I can do that, I could introduce a product very compatible with my company name and pretty distinctive in the US market. I thought this was pretty cool. The turnaround time could be pretty fast: one or two months.

This representative took me to a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki place opposite Starbucks in an area on the west side of Shinjuku station, and we had a simple lunch followed by coffee. I had appreciated our previous conversation at FoodEx but actually this discussion made me more likely to work with his company, since they seem to have more options for product development than I expected and pricing could be quite reasonable.

I contacted Yamato Transport’s Seattle office by telephone and talked with them about their shipping logistics services and pricing. They should be able to provide pretty simple support for my ceramics shipments from Mashiko, so that made me happy. They can of course also do shipments from Hong Kong, Taipei and Korea.

Today I also got responses from almost all of the companies that I have been waiting on, including the Taiwanese tea company and the soap company. So now I just need to meet with the companies I can see while still in Japan, make a few more logistics arrangements and I can go back well-armed with a product line and a lot of samples for demonstration. I’ll also go back to Mashiko to make a few small orders. I guess the next step is sales… That’s the scary part for me…

I tried to find a way to reach a couple of companies I expect to be dealing with in the US but was reduced to using their online feedback forms. I don’t expect much to come out of that, but I’ll have a better chance of getting to the buyers when I can go and knock on their doors back home.

For dinner I went to La Manina, an Italian restaurant on the top of Takashimaya in the area south of Shinjuku station. It’s very corporate and large and dramatic, but has pretty decent food, so I’ve been there on several business trips in Japan. I broke one of my own rules and we ordered some tomato-based appetizer in March… and we had pizza with pesto Genovese and mozzarella, and nice gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce. After dinner I had a limoncello digestif and my friend ordered flaming Sambuca anisette with a few coffee beans floating on top.

Kamakura and a day of serious snacking

I got a bit of a late start today, even though I woke up at a reasonable hour.

Around 11am Hiromi drove us to Kamakura. After finding parking, we headed to a place that serves purple sweet potato soft ice cream. We ended up noshing at various streetside vendors… some over-salted senbei (rice crackers), and dorayaki with sweet potato paste in the middle (sort of a stuffed pancake).

Sometime around 3pm we stopped and had a sort of baked rice (kamameshi); mine was made with bamboo shoots. Normally the place we went to is a drinking spot, but we came for the food. It turns out to have pretty nice food. The regulars there all buy whole bottles of shochu (actually Korean soju), whiskey, or other spirits, and they keep the bottles on a shelf labeled, each bottle carefully labeled with the customer’s name.

We stopped at one temple toward the south end of Kamakura and took some photos, and saw some early cherry blossoms and other blooming trees. We also briefly visited one side of the temple leading from the station.

Since we did a lot of snacking and had a late lunch, we weren’t hungry at any normal dinner. Later in the evening we went to an izakaya for a late dinner in Nishi-Shinjuku. We ordered a bitter melon dish made with eggs and tofu, a pretty spicy tofu salad, some “fuki” tempura, and some fried nattou and yamaimo wrapped in nori, and a not very sappari mozuku. We both ordered pomegranate sours, and Hiromi ordered a umeboshi sour and I had a lime one. The pomegranate sour was nice. I’d definitely repeat the nattou dish… it seems like a great dish to confound people with at parties.

Slacking in Yokohama and Omote-Sando

I suppose I could say I took the day off today. Hiromi and I went to a crepe shop in Omote-sando which is famous for its soba (buckwheat) crepes. I ate most of a carrot soup, and I ordered a buckwheat crepe with fresh fava beans, various vegetables, an egg, and a relatively young gruyere. She ordered one with an aged soft chevre topped with mixed greens and walnuts. For dessert, we ordered a buckwheat crepe with rhubarb-orange jam. We also ordered coffee. She had a “Bretagne Irish Coffee”, an espresso drink served with some caramel liqueur and a little cream. I had espresso with calvados.

Afterward, we headed off to Yokohama and wandered around the Daisambashi (大桟橋) pier, which is sort of a boardwalk jutting out into the bay. It’s an international port, but also doubles as a place for parents to bring their small children to play, and functions as a date spot for an uncountable number of couples. On the way there from the station, we see a few quirky little restaurants, the storefront of a vacationing reflexologist, and a couple of stores that sell hemp products or various other things that might appeal to twenty-somethings.

Basha-michi road, nearby, features a red brick building called Akarenga (which, not coincidentally, means "red brick building", if I am not mistaken) that is filled with various shops and chain stores, and is so shopping-mall-like inside that I would probably see it as a destination of last resort if I were back home, but it’s kind of interesting to see how stuff is being sold (and bought) here. Some of the shops are hipper than the usual shopping-mall fare. It kind of strikes me as similar to University Village in Seattle.

We stopped at a department store for some grocery items for dinner. I picked up some mushrooms which are similar to cauliflower-mushrooms, a little bunch of spinach, some already-grilled-tofu, and some things for breakfast. For dinner I cooked the remaining bit of penne with a sauce of butter, garlic, pine nuts, the grilled tofu, spinach, the mushrooms, and some of the tsuyu from yesterday’s noodles, then topped with some pecorino romano. The mushrooms turned out to be a little fragile and shouldn’t have been cooked more than a few seconds. The sauce was pleasant enough, but as I’ve come to expect from the pans I have in my rental kitchen, I couldn’t heat it through again in the uneven fry pan quickly enough to avoid slightly overcooking the pasta.

Hoteres, Day 2: Nifty equipment and ceramics

I decided after all to go back to the Hoteres show, which turns out to have been a good idea. I found a lot of suppliers of ceramics mostly focusing on restaurant clients, one of which can also serve as an export agent for products from a potter I like in Takayama. Beyond that, I found the company behind an extra nifty cedar soap line, which is the same product that my friend Hiromi told me she uses religiously for her face. I also found another producer of a similar product, and a company that markets private label soaps to spas and hot springs and hotels in Japan, including a yuzu soap, a green tea soap that unlike Elizabeth Arden’s hyped product actually smells like green tea, and several “massage soaps” which include some kind of exfoliating ingredient.

In the “interesting kitchen equipment” category, the coolest thing I saw was a fryer which is promoted as a “clean fryer.” In a floor demonstration, one of the promoters asked an audience member to pour a glass of water directly into the hot oil, which was frying some tonkatsu or croquettes or something similar, with her hand directly above the oil. When she poured the water in, it simply disappeared; this was followed with someone tossing in an ice cube. The water, according to the demonstrator, had simply moved to the bottom of the fryer.

Another interesting machine was a countertop device that produces nigiri-sushi shaped rice in precise portions. In a similar vein, there was an automatic gyouza stuffer for countertop use. There were a couple of interesting conveyer-belt products which looked surprisingly elegant; two of them didn’t even have obviously moving belts.

I talked to one small company that manufactures oshibori wetting, disinfecting and warming countertop machines. Oshibori are wet napkins used in Japan usually instead of paper napkins, and are kind of an alternative to running off to a washroom to clean one’s hands before a meal. After the president told me everything he thought I could understand, he introduced me to his secretary, who is also his daughter. She used to study in New Zealand and had a kind of New Zealand Japanese accent. Apparently they are trying to sell a version of this in Hawaii later this year, and I suggested if they have a 110 volt version, it’s worth exploring the West Coast of the US in general, and to please let me know when it’s going to be released.

During these four days, it’s been kind of amusing how many people comment on my company name (Yuzu Trading Co. LLC). It seems to instantly establish some rapport, since it’s obvious to them I’m influenced by Japan; referring to Yuzu in my company name strikes some folks as surprising, leading them to think of me as not your usual run-of-the-mill gaijin.

I left the show around 3pm and came back to my apartment. I managed to sort through most of the papers I’ve accumulated over the last few days, organized by their relative importance to me (products I’m very interested in, products I was attracted to, companies that might be good sources if someone comes to me looking for something in particular, and companies which I don’t think I have much likelihood of being useful for me). I still have to sort through at least several dozen business cards I’ve received as well.

Tonight I cooked some of the yuzu-flavored udon I picked up last weekend in Nasu-Shiobara. I made a couple of simple side dishes… I have some leftover nanohana (canola greens or rapeseed greens), garlic stems, and one eringi from a few days ago. So I just blanched the nanohana in lightly salted water and served it with a drizzling of a white tamari sample I got from FoodEx. I also sauteed the garlic stems and browned the eringi, seasoned with some salt and the white tamari, then topped with some toasted pine nuts and pecorino romano cheese. The yuzu udon I just boiled and served cool with some store-bought noodle dipping sauce. The yuzu flavor isn’t very strong, but is at least noticeable and pleasant.

FoodEx Day 3 and on to Hoteres

I had a pretty interesting conversation with a Sri Lankan tea company director… They have a pretty decent upscale tea that they mostly sell in England, and they aren’t very happy with their U.S. distributor, which has started to focus on its own branded tea. They sell single-estate teas

Anyway, he’s interested in doing a line of “healthy” teas and could source organic single-estate products, and says he could contribute some kind of marketing effort for this line; some kind of high-profile tasting event, for example, which they have done in London. They’re also creating a sort of prefab tea bar concept, which is a British-style presentation, but kind of interesting. I could actually start with relatively small shipments with them, which may be compelling; they also have a reasonably interesting story (163 year old company, bought back from the English by a Sri Lankan family, and their tea line is all single-estate, they’ve got a standing deal with the Queen of England, etc.) It’s not necessarily in the “pacific lifestyles” category, but with an organic product line I think I could be happy.

Beyond that, I noticed a couple of gems that I had previously overlooked in the Japanese food sections. I was kind of frustrated that I hadn’t seen many products from Japan that I thought were must-haves… I still don’t know that I’ve found a must-have item, but I did discover a nice natural aromatic vinegar line and some interesting grain-based tea beverage products, including an azuki bean tea similar to mugicha.

In the afternoon I went to another trade show at Tokyo Big Site in Odaiba, the big artificial island in Tokyo Bay. That show was mostly food equipment and furnishings for hotel, hospital, and restaurant businesses. I think I don’t really understand food equipment well enough to operate as an importer for that kind of thing, but I did see some cool stuff… there was a product that takes a small block of ice and turns it into large spherical, soccer-ball-shaped, or other novelty shaped large ice “cubes”. Another product in the same vein makes ice bowls for serving food, and produces the sort of ice you’d expect to serve oysters atop. Beyond that, I spent a while talking to a guy whose company produces a product for making fresh oborodoufu (custard-texture) tofu at the dinner table, for home or restaurant use. The device could be used for other recipes as well, but they have a companion product which is soy milk mixed with nigari and some other ingredients, and has a fairly long room-temperature shelf-life. I think it could sell to certain Japanese restaurants and maybe to Asian shops in the west coast; the tofu it produces is actually pretty decent.

The other cool thing was an ozone-generating hand dryer that operates with the mythical (by which I mean often overstated… another story) Japanese efficiency… very high powered air. Unfortunately, none of the companies producing these devices have a 110 Volt product yet, but if they did, it would be really cool as an alternative to the paper-towel heavy solution that health departments in the US seem to prefer. One of the companies producing them has one that’s been marketed mostly to medical institutions and outperforms alcohol-based hand sterilization using a combination of heat, high air pressure, and ozone. I got a non-specific invitation to go out for drinks with a representative from one of the companies making these before I leave Japan.

For dinner, I went out with Hiromi to Okonomiyaki at a family-restaurant style chain in a Shinjuku department store. The okonomiyaki was average, as would be expected; I’ve been there before, but we were at a loss for interesting okonomiyaki restaurants in Shinjuku, which is dominated by expensive corporate concepts and chains.

The main selling point of this okonomiyaki restaurant is the cheap drinks… a grapefruit and cassis drink went for 280 yen, and another drink made with lychee liqueur and a self-squeezed grapefruit half went for 380 yen. By way of contrast, afterward, I ordered a small pot of tea at a popular cake shop, Comme Ca, for 600 yen, with a couple of slices of impressive-looking cakes for 700-800 yen each. 90% of those attending the cake shop were women, and maybe more than 95% of the male customers are there with dates.

I haven’t decided what to do tomorrow… I’ve seen nearly everything possible except some seminars at FoodEx, and I’m not sure that the rest of the Hoteres show will be that valuable for my current business direction, though I’ve only walked through half of the exhibition area.

FoodEx, Day 2: Sweets, tea, and soy

Today I was blown away by a Hong Kong confection that’s sort of like a grown up version of cotton candy with a nice crunch, nice flavor, and beautiful packaging. I think it was the most compelling item of the day… they have no agent in the U.S., and it’s definitely a top candidate… it has a compelling story (a 2000 year history, supposedly), it’s handmade, it’s usually not available outside of the area where it’s made, and it has great packaging.

I also tasted some truly amazing oolong tea, and my enthusiasm seemed to carry over to the booth organizer, who gave me 5 packages of tea that were being sold at the show for 2000 yen each (a little less than $20/100 grams). The aroma on the prepared tea sampe was very complex, almost fruity… completely unexpected. It’s a Taiwanese product, organically grown, and mostly sold in Japan.

I talked to one Japanese guy who spent some time in Portland and worked as a buyer for Costco in a previous life, and we discussed importing some Korean yuzu tea and jujube tea into the US. The quality of their yuzu and jujube teas is very good, and they have some other stuff like Aloe drinks and thin yuzu-flavored drinks I was less excited about. We’ll probably meet again before I leave. He’s very interested in expanding the market outside of Japan, as it’s apparently struggling here.

There was a mae-sil cha and red shiso cha concentrate from Korea that was pretty nice… nothing artificial about them and a nice pleasant flavor.

I looked at a lot of Korean and Thai products… the highlights for me were definitely this Hong Kong confection and that oolong tea. I even found some nice ceramics from a Taiwanese potter… It’s rare for me to find Chinese-style pottery that I have much enthusiasm for, but the tea ware he was selling was quite stunning coming out of a high-production studio.

When I got home, I noticed a message from a Japanese soy milk producer that I talked to yesterday; they produce a yogurt that tastes very normal… not very soy-like. They have some very milk-like soy milk also, which I was less enthusiastic about; I actually like soy milk to taste like soy beans, unlike most Americans, but I have until now never been a fan of soy-based yogurts. The texture is sort of typical for Japanese yogurt interpretations… very custardy, rather than the European smooth texture, but still nice. Anyway, it turns out that if I find some sort of export agent they may be able to work with me; they don’t do any direct exports and they don’t have a huge production capacity as yet.

I ate with my friend Hiromi tonight at an izakaya-type place and had some nice early-harvest grilled bamboo shoots, some soba-based gnocchi with butter and a little shiso, and some croquettes with embedded crunchy soba groats. Also we had dashi-iri tamago-yaki, which are sort of thick omelets with soup stock in them. Not so exciting were yakimiso (I love Takayama’s hoba-miso specialty… this wasn’t it), and some soba-gakki (sort of soba dumplings) with camembert inside, which were a little dry.

I think I’ll go to FoodEx in the morning and then go to the Hoteres show in the afternoon tomorrow. I’ve probably covered most of the floor at FoodEx by now, though I think I missed a few things in the center. Anyway, I have a few candidate products that I really feel impressed by that want representation in the US, so I think I have a place to start.

FoodEx trade show, day 1

Today was the first day of FoodEx and I must have visited several hundred booths and talked to people at several dozen. The experience was truly dizzying. Some 2,300 companies are exhibiting, catering to manufacturers, restaurant and food service, intermediate companies (which is the category I fall into), and retailers (these booths occasionally have some relevance to what I’m handling).

I wandered around for about 6.5 hours and talked to a whole bunch of people. The highlights for me were some tea-related products, some yuzu ponzu from Ibaragi prefecture that was surprisingly nice for a packaged product, and various green/organic products which are still slightly uncommon in Japan.

Tonight after the show I met a friend and we tried to find vegetarian options at a Korean restaurant, which was interesting because this is far less trouble in Korea than here. There were whole clams in the kimchi tofu jjigae, which the waiter said had no meat in. I just worked around them and my friend at them. There were also bits of meat in a chijimi that was described as meatless.

When eating out I usually try not to concern myself with most kinds of soup stock or other things that are too much trouble to worry about, even in the U.S. where restaurants cater to every dietary whim, but being vegetarian in Japan is always complicated.

Yesterday I was a little too tired to write. I did some research in the morning and met with a couple of friends, but I didn’t really do anything that impressive. I did cook a half-decent penne with a cream sauce, garlic stems, and maitake mushrooms with some coarsely chopped pecorino romano and pine nuts. It took far too long in my weekly apartment’s kitchen, which has one burner, a warped frying pan that only cooks in one spot, and a tiny saucepan that isn’t really big enough to boil any amount of pasta in. I also made a frittata-like thing for dinner using nanohana (the greens from the canola plant) and eringi mushrooms, served with some whole grain bread I found. I got home too late to cook rice.

I realized that some people might see my half-finished web site for Yuzu Trading Co. now that my business cards are in the hands of strangers, so I fixed the layout and altered some text so that the work looks less unfinished, hopefully. I wish I had spent more time on this, but I have some ideas on how to actually make it useful later.

Somehow I’m awake much later than I should be. I should go to sleep. I’ll have time to be more reflective later …

 

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