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Friday, August 24, 2007

More On Japanese Grilling:

Japanese people love to grill. Yakitori (literally means grilled bird) is the most famous type of Japanese barbecue, but it is not the only thing we cook this way. We also love to grill all kinds of seafood, from scallops in the shell to a whole fish, squid and eel, plus beef, rice balls, and the list goes on and on. While I was in Japan, I had some great grilled food. In Hokkaido, the northern island, I had grilled herring. Herring roe is known as Kazunoko and is considered to be a delicacy (and very expensive!!!). The photo below shows whole herring being cooked over a charcoal grill at a cafeteria in Otaru, a city about 25 minutes by bus from Sapporo.

The fishermen in this town used to harvest more than a million tons of herring per season, but due to overfishing this decreased to only 100 tons by 1955. Still, Pacific herring come back to Hokkaido every spring to spawn, and people love to eat them grilled. At this cafeteria, they grilled all the seafood to order.

Here are some botan ebi (giant crayfish), scallops in the shell,
and tsubu kai (small conch) being grilled.

Three waitresses putting seafood on the grill
as customers order it.

Normally we eat grilled food with just salt on them, or a little bit of soy sauce. No heavy BBQ sauce. We love simple seasonings to get the most out of the taste of seafood. The tsubu kai looks like a turban shell, and you have to pick the meat with toothpick. I know they do not look so appetizing, but who cares about how they look? It tasted a little bit like something between clam and octopus, if you can imagine the taste. Maybe not... But I really liked them. I knew that they were fresh out of ocean, grilled to order, with just a little bit of soy sauce, and they were hot when they came off the grill.

How could you resist them?

The other place I went during my visit to Japan was this yakitori place, near Iidabashi station in Tokyo. One of my best friends took me there. The place was very tiny, with just a counter and 4 tables. The restaurant is also a butcher shop, and all of the meat on the menu is from their store. When Japanese grill a chicken, it’s not just meat that we eat. We eat the organ meat and nearly everything but the feathers.

The top two skewers are kidneys, the bottom two are hearts.
It was very hot that day, so that draft beer tasted really good.

A typical yakitori-ya (-ya means a house) offers a variety of grilled meat and vegetables, and we order them by the skewer as we drink and enjoy casual conversation among friends about work and relationships. The seasoning is usually either just salt or tare, which means a sauce, similar to teriyaki, made with soy sauce, sake, sugar, and some other secret ingredients special to that particular yakitori-ya you are at. At this place we went in Tokyo, everything we ate was seasoned with just right amount of salt. Personally I prefer salt to sauce, because sauce tends to hide the taste of whatever I am having.

The next dish was two each of:
foie gras , quail eggs, tails, and the gizzards.

Next we ate the cartilage from the center of the
breast bone. This is a particular Japanese thing that
I really love grilled with a little salt!

Yes, we eat chicken tails! The tail is nothing but skin and fat. The skin was crunchy, and it was pretty tasty. It is funny to see many Americans trim these fatty parts and throw them away. They trim chicken fat, beef fat, and the fatty part from salmon and swordfish. The fatty part on the fish is usually the belly part, and that’s actually the best part you can have healthwise, but many Americans don’t realize this. They always like to go low fat, then eat an entire pound of whatever they ordered, totally overeating and that’s why there is this epidemic of obesity. Anyway, if you consume everything in moderation, you would not have to worry about the fat content too much. Besides chicken fat is very tasty (think schmaltz). Anyway, I had a great time with my best friend, drinking beer, eating yakitori and talking about life….

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Raw Food Diet

I was back in Japan for about 12 days and had a great time with my friends and family, enjoyed great seafood, and I would like to write about my food experience. I flew to Sapporo, a city in Hokkaido, the northern island, to see my sister who was transferred there for a year. If you don’t know about Hokkaido, for many Japanese it is a special and kind of exotic place to visit where lavender blooms during summer, with great seafood such as wild salmon and king crab. My sister, who loves great food, took me to all sorts of places where the locals go to eat. On the night I arrived, she took me to this great izakaya, a sort of Japanese tapas bar, where you order drinks and many different kinds of small dishes to eat. We ordered tons of seafood and ate it all raw.

Even though I am Japanese, when I go back to Japan, it always surprises me how much raw food is offered. If it is fresh, we eat it raw. Not only seafood is served raw, but also eggs, horse meat, chicken, beef, you name it Japanese will eat it. Anyway, at this izakaya, I had great raw seafood, especially a Pacific fish called sanma in Japanese (the English name is saury but I don’t think it is well known in the west). Sanma is normally grilled, and I had never eaten it as sashimi until this trip. When I put a piece of sanma sashimi in my mouth, it literally melted. The taste was actually similar to yellowtail (hamachi). It was very fatty, and had a little bit nutty flavor. The eyes of the fish were so clear and skin so very bright and shiny, you could tell that it was caught on the same day it was served. That sanma was the most memorable raw fish I had that night.

Then there were of course scallops and shrimp, which are famous in Hokkaido. The special Hokkaido variety of shrimp, called Botan ebi, is very sweet and normally served with its head on. You are supposed to suck out the green stuff from the head and also eat the eggs on its belly if you are lucky enough to have it. It actually looks like a giant Maine shrimp, with a bright pink shell and transparent body. The one I had that night was about 20cm (8 inches) in length. The meat was plump and very sweet. The head had an intense flavor like concentrated fish stock. If you have ever had pasta with squid ink in Venice, you can imagine a taste similar to that. Not fishy at all, just very flavorful.

Botan ebi, tuna, salmon, scallops, and a local clam called Hokki kai.

The scallops from Hokkaido are known for their large size. They were delicious, and of course very sweet. That’s it for now. I will keep writing about other great food I had in Japan for the next few days. Stay tuned….


Monday, August 20, 2007

Barbecue Japanese Style

Chiko is working on a major post about her trip to Japan, but her work schedule is cutting into her writing opportunities. As an interim post, I'll share one photo and a memory of trip we took to the northern island of Hokkaido a few years ago.

Hokkaido is Japan's answer to Alaska, a remote land of ice and snow; cold waters teaming with seafood... the "last frontier". In the summer, one can stroll along the ocean near the fish markets and buy grilled seafood fresh off the boat. Ten years ago, Chiko and I were traveling in northern Japan and crossed over to the southern tip of Hokkaido for a few days. The first morning we woke up early and wandered the "asa-ichi" or morning market down near the docks. A man with a charcoal grill was selling fresh scallops in the shell which he cooked until they popped open before seasoning them with a dot of butter and a dash of ginger flavored soy sauce. Heaven in your mouth! Live scallops in the shell are hard to come by around here, but I do the same dish with a medium sized local clam (topnecks or cherrystones).

Monday, August 13, 2007

Purifying the Blog

I have a habit of getting off on a tangent, so I decided to start an alternate blog for anything that is not strictly Japanese food related.

The name Jon from Connecticut is a reference to my call in name on the Martha Stewart channel of Sirius satellite radio. I mainly call in to Morning Living with Dean Olsher and Betsy Karetnick, but I've also appeared on a few of the other shows like Living Today, Everyday Food and Eat Drink. For serious foodies, there really is nothing better than Martha's channel as a live, interactive medium for exchanging ideas.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Detour on the Road to Japanese Home Cooking

Chiko is still in Japan, enjoying the bounty of the ocean and the wonderful seasonal vegetables. She has been up to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido to visit her sister, and is now visiting her dad and high school friends in the vicinity of Tokyo. She assures me that she has been taking tons of food photos, but amazingly enough in a country as technologically advanced as Japan she has found it virtually impossible to find wi-fi hotspots for her laptop (apparently Japanese people primarily use cellular connections rather than the "Wireless G" that we use in the U.S. and Europe).

Ten days alone in Connecticut with no one to cook for but the dog, and I was getting a little bored. I've been baking bread several times a week, so I had a batch of multi-grain Ciabatta/Pizza dough already made that I decided to turn into something special. A few weeks ago I called in to Morning Living and was speaking with Dean Olsher about Pasticcio, an Italian baked pasta pie. I adapted this recipe from something Mario Battali did on

Mario makes this with a butter crust, which I have also done and it is fantastic but a little on the heavy side. Using a yeast dough yields something a little more rustic and not nearly as greasy. For the filling you can use pretty much anything, as long as you start with a filled pasta (tortellini is traditional, but I have also done it with ravioli). I always alternate a ground meat product (cooked meatballs or sausage) and a vegetable (kale is great, but today I was in the mood for mushrooms).

Everything starts with mis en place.

In this case, I have a spring form pan lined with parchment paper, bechamel (Italian cream sauce flavored with nutmeg), cooked tortellini, slices of cooked Italian sausage, sauteed mushrooms and shredded cheese.

Line the pan with rolled out dough, ladle in some
and a layer of tortellini.

Layer with sauteed mushrooms.

Add a layer of sausage.

Cover with more bechamel and a layer of shredded cheese.
Repeat the layers lasagna style, until you reach the top of the pan.

Top with a layer of dough and crimp edges.

Bake at 450 for 1 hr 20 minutes.
Unmold and cool completely on a cake rack.

Slice with an electric knife and enjoy.

This is a very dense pie which is a complete meal in itself. Slice it very thin and serve with a little simple tomato sauce. Chiko's coming home on Monday, so we should be back to Japanese cooking next week!

Monday, August 6, 2007

A Bowl of Rice, A Piece of Fish and Thou....

Chiko is off in Japan visiting her dad and sister this week, but she took a minute to send me a picture of her breakfast.

Rice, miso soup, broiled fish and takuan (pickled daikon radish).

These days, many Japanese have fallen into the habit of jumping out of bed and running to catch the bus, subway, etc. without breakfast or they grab a piece of toast, a donut or whatever. When the weekend falls around or if they happen to be staying in a resort hotel or Ryokan (a Japanese style B&B), the menu will revert to a traditional Japanese breakfast. It doesn't get much simpler than this, and yet it is hearty, filling and totally Japanese. If you prefer eggs for breakfast, try medamayaki (fried eyeballs). Take a non-stick pan and melt a little butter in it over medium heat, add an egg and cook it sunny side up. When the white begins to turn opaque, drizzle the egg with a little soy sauce and put a lid on the pan. Cook for another minute or so, steaming the egg to your desired amount of doneness.