Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Inspirational Melons

Words of encouragement at a fancy fruit boutique

I did not think melons could make me cry. 

The kids and I have moved back to the States, while the Professor remains in Tokyo a little while longer to wrap up our belongings and our affairs. We miss him, we miss Japan. And we miss a people who express their indomitable spirit through fruit. The message, "Ganbarou Nihon," means "Do your best, Japan." A clumsy translation, but it's what we cheer at the Olympics, and it's been posted on signs all over Tokyo since the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. 

And they didn't just write it on the melon with a puffy paint marker--the veins on the surface of the fruit have been grown to spell out the characters, then painted over all sparkly. These are the jillion-dollar melons of Japanese food lore, lovingly raised to be symmetrical, platonic ideals of fruit, wrapped in tissue and given as luxury gifts--and when I saw them in the window of a swank fruit parlor in Roppongi shortly before we left Tokyo, I teared up. Son of Z could read the writing, but he doesn't really understand what's going on, which, for now, is a good thing. Nor does he get how this tiny act of ingenuity, patience, and perfectionism gives me hope.  

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Choux cube!
When the Professor brought these home, there was a collective gasp, then silence. It was like looking at alien technology. Choux Cube. Of course. Japan, the land of French pastry appropriation, had taken the magical, cumulus cream puff, once so Marie Antoinette voluptuous, and contained it in the strictest 90 degree angles, like a slick Noguchi sculpture. Dang.

The pastry was still airy and tender. Inside, the cream was that alchemical mix of whipped cream and custard. The strawberry had little bits of fruit folded into the filling, and the lightest whiff of berry in the white chocolate glaze. The vanilla had the requisite flecks of bean inside, and actually the best of the glazes for its vanilla fragrance. Turns out, vanilla is all you need to convert me to white chocolate. The chocolate filling was lovely, of course, and not as heavy as you might think. So I think maybe I get minimalism now, because I suddenly want to wear all white and empty my home of everything but a few square pillows and a potted orchid. And boxes and boxes of cream puffs.

Look at them--like little office worker in their cubicles. Except you can eat them.

Friday, July 1, 2011

La Granata

Fresh tagliatelle with duck ragout--meaty ribbons of deliciousness!
I spent two phenomenal weeks in Rome and Venice on my honeymoon. With my in-laws. Most people would think that's a drawback, but most people don't have in-laws that know Italian food like mine do. The Professor's Sicilian mother was like a culinary sherpa, leading us from one life-changing meal to the next. So taking them out for pasta is a bit daunting, especially in Japan. Italian in Tokyo is often criticized as being too Japanese--loosely translated, that means not enough garlic, too light, and refined to the point of prissiness. Not so at La Granata. I took Mom and Dad to the Ginza branch last time they were here.

Uni cream pasta. Dreamy, dreamy, dreamy.
Long had I regaled my father-in-law with tales of sea urchin and cream pasta, and it didn't disappoint. The fresh uni is tossed with the pasta in buttery cream sauce, not cooked, so it maintains its flavor. (I actually went here alone last year to have this dish--to be alone with it.) Dad was already reeling from a plate of garlicky octopus salad and crusty bread dredged in said salad, but he cowboy-ed up and cleaned his plate.

Campanelle with mushrooms and grilled foie gras
Mom ordered the duck ragout over fresh tagliatelle, which was fantastic. The duck was all roasty and falling apart in the sauce. And you cannot beat those big, springy ribbons of pasta. I know because I forced her to switch plates. She'd been on the fence about the foie gras and mushroom campanelle, so I ordered it. I know. It was like throwing myself onto a grenade...a delicious grenade. It was revelatory. The foie gras was grilled and just the teensiest bit crisp at the edges, but creamy and tender inside. The butter, the cream, the mushrooms--all of it was amplifying the richness of the liver. This was the meal Mom was supposed to be having, and to eat it all myself would have been tampering with destiny.

I know foie gras is terribly cruel to produce, but must it be so? In the land of pampered Kobe cattle, couldn't we find a way to fatten a duck or goose that's more fun for the animal? Elvis died with a pretty fatty liver, so I'm thinking fried peanut butter sandwiches, biscuits, and vanilla cokes. We need to get some 4-H kids on that stat, because now that I've had it like this, I don't know if I can live without foie gras now.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Little Baum Tree: Cake on a Stick

First, apologies for this blurry photo--my hands tremble in the presence of portable cake. It's not a cake pop, which, while a great idea, is a little to little for me. No, this corndog-esque delight is actually baumkuchen, a German goodie that has made it big in Japan. Usually, it's a big cylindrical thing baked on a kind of turning spit on which layer upon layer of batter is poured. The result is a pound cakey tube that, when sliced, shows its rings like the stump of a felled tree. A delicious, tender and rich stump that you want to have with a cup of tea.

Factory fun!
The miniature baumkuchen are baked in this crazy oven. They turn and rotate up and down, which is mesmerizing when you are standing on line in a cloud of buttery aroma. The chocolate ones are great, too. If you're like me, you'll peel and eat the layers as you go--every one has that brown-edge-of-the-pound-cake flavor.

The shop is actually located inside Shinagawa Station. This is how you get people to take mass transportation and leave the car at home. Wait, can cake save the planet? And then there's the package, which I know is speaking directly to me: "Little Baum Tree. A little Baumkuchen made especially for you."

Yes. Yes it is.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

From the Block

Grill a chicken thigh with salt and pepper till its skin turns a crispy amber, and I WILL SHOW UP.
If you are worried that Japan has forgotten how to have a good time, it hasn't. Shortly after our return, we went to a Children's Day festival in Takanawa. Lots of stalls with food and toys. This meant all kinds of begging from the kids. And me. The Professor gave in, needless to say. First came the ridiculously juicy and crusty chicken.

There is no way to do this at home--it has to be a big, sketchy grill.
Then the toys. Son of Z. talked his way into a ray-gun that lights up and makes a very loud noise that is the precise sound of parental buyer's remorse. Mini Z. went for the traditional mask.

It's a mask of Hello Kitty wearing a mask of Ultra Man. Very meta.
 Then more chicken. This time from the lovely little Portuguese place down the street. Several restaurants from the neighborhood set up stalls with all kinds of goodies. The Portuguese chicken was more garlicky and charred--very nice. The same restaurant had a guy carving prosciutto from one of those stands. In my dream home, there is a similar set-up on the coffee table, right next to the remote.

Delicious chicken--but what to do with the one skewer?
Street prosciutto! I can't believe we beat New York to this.
Baby octopi on a stick!
Big 'ol tub of margarine--not butter--at the hot potato stand.
 Then I saw the cake van. CAKE VAN. Why can't I be abducted in one of these?

Tragically, they were out of cake. Really. I was forced to look longingly at photos of their usual selections. So now I have to get all stalker and track them down at their next venue, when the whole point of the cake van is that the cake comes to you. Damn you, cake van.

Pumpkin cheesecake, chocolate torte, baked cheesecake, and what, some kind of custardy thing? Curses!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


A few months ago, before the quake, I had an amazing meal at Robata over by Yurakucho station (1-3-8 Yuraku-cho). Jane Hirshfield, poet, essayist, translator, and foodie, was in town for a reading, and the infinitely connected Leza Lowitz suggested this place, which has been host to Allen Ginsberg and Octavio Paz, among others. I've actually passed it for years, wondering how a crooked, blackened little building like that managed to survive. Who knew?

Inside, the place is an absolute warren, with tables tucked into nooks, and a counter covered in gorgeous plates of food, from which your meal is chosen for you. The proprietor, Inoue-san, is beyond old-school in his kimono and round glasses, and he speaks so softly I had to ask him about the dishes over and over. And yet he is no strict traditionalist--the cuisine is a mix of Japanese and European flavors, but without the showiness of the usual fusion. The plates are a carefully curated collection, some of which are made by the master craftsman Morioka-san, who Leza tells us is something of a wild mountaineer. I still can't believe I didn't break anything.

The first platter was like a Japanese antipasto, with grilled asparagus, tofu and goya (bitter melon), smoked salmon, cured mackerel, kabocha salad, and something like an eggplant caponata with sweet caramelized onions. We grazed until there was nothing left but a streak of tofu cream.

 Asari clams, potato, and shimeji mushrooms cooked with garlic and wine.
The dishes kept coming. Jane said it was the Chez Panisse of Japan, which was not crazy talk. The clams and shimeji mushrooms had something French going on with the wine and brine, and the oyster risotto had a little Venetian vibe, but everything retained a Japanese character with the local ingredients, like sweet, melt-in-your-mouth daikon radish.
A creamy risotto of oysters and mushrooms--just a little sweetness

Bonita sashimi with daikon, shiso sprouts, and little yellow pods that evidently grow into trees if they aren't tossed in a light ponzu dressing and gobbled up.
A crispy fried fish covered in a sweet and sour sauce, sauteed vegetables, and raw apple slivers.
The fruit over the fish was amazing, and the sauce was made with black vinegar. We picked the bones down to Smithsonian cleanliness.
Wagashi sweets to end the meal
More wagashi studded with pistachio
The dense little sweets were a perfect ending. We were full and swooning already when we heard that a very statuesque woman at the next table was William S. Burroughs' daughter. Is that possible? I think I misheard, but I like imagining how that might have been possible. Upstairs, we took a little tour of the salon where there are sometimes readings, special meals, and such. You know, like with artsy types. Every corner was crammed with books, paintings, and drawings--even a little sketch by Juliette Binoche. What? She's artsy.
The third floor salon
Inoue-san and Jane upstairs
It was a marvelous evening of lingering over each dish. We thanked Inoue-san for taking such good care of us, and stumbled back into the street, happy and amazed.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Yuzu Ramen

The yuzu zest is ground to near invisibility.
Things got back to normal in Tokyo pretty quickly, even when they weren't quite normal yet. We are back to work, drinking the water, eating the vegetables, and done hoarding. The food supply is safe, which is good, because even if it was glowing with radiation, we would still probably be eating the ramen. Which actually sounds like the start of a good superhero comic book.

The line starts early, and the pressure to rush is strong. Resist.
The Professor took me to a place near Yurakucho station--just across the street on the Ginza side, in a run-down basement. He had me at "run-down basement." It's one of those wood-paneled shopping corridors under an office building where only the elderly seem to shop. Camera repair, musty stationery, blouses with rhinestone-eyed cheetahs. The ramen shop's lilliputian layout is enough to impress, but the line that forms before it opens at 11:30 tells you it's going to be special.

The master at work in his micro-kitchen
The soup is a light shoyu broth, and the pork is a substantial half-inch slab of belly. Indeed. Every person at the counter ordered the house special, yuzu ramen, with a little scoop of grated citrus rind tossed into the bowl along with a little mitsuba. The result is bright, without adding any sweetness. Has a ramen ever tasted this new without being gimmicky? (I worry about the gimmick potential of yuzu--every time I read about a new restaurant in New York, someone is shaving yuzu over something and I am afraid it's going to go the way of the swan-shaped cream puff.) It is such a truly Japanese fragrance. Afterward, you have that warm ramen-tummy satisfaction, but with a little zing on your tongue. This might be the only bowl of noodles I will dare to eat hot this summer.

The shop's teeny-tiny ticket machine--if this was New York, somebody would have walked off with it by now.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Memory of Miyagi

Quietness, bamboo forest and lantern, Miyagi Pref.

By now, you have seen footage of the coastal towns of Miyagi Prefecture being swept away by tsunami. There is little I can write to make anyone, including myself, comprehend any better the homes and people utterly lost, or the unmooring heartbreak of the survivors. The beautiful country there, and all the towns that dot the rocky, forested coast are now defined by their destruction.

My mother is from Sendai, a city in Miyagi that was a small town when she left it. In the 90's, she went back with my brother and I for the first time in decades. It looked a little like Northern California, with pines growing on the beach cliffs, lush greenery, and fog. I had visited as a child, and I have a memory of going out into a forest in the drizzling rain to pull baby bamboo shoots--I slipped and fell pulling one, and cried in the mud, to the amusement of all. The bamboo forests this time were tall and lush. And less muddy.

We visited her aunt, who lived alone after the death of her husband a few years earlier. We met her at the train station and she hurried us up the winding, stone walled roads to her house. She had ordered some sushi to be delivered, and was concerned the neighbor's cat might find the big, lacquer tray on the doorstep. We beat the cat to the fish, and had a lovely lunch. She showed us around the house and all the souvenirs she and her husband had collected from around the world. He had been a scientist, and he'd taken her to all his conferences, which was quite unusual. They had a dagger from Turkey that she was very proud of.

Not many Japanese people of her generation drank coffee regularly, but she and her husband had a standing coffee date at home every day of their marriage. They collected cups and saucers in pairs, and every day they would choose a set and sit down for coffee together. She offered us some, and we went to the cupboard and chose our own cups, as well as one for her husband's shrine, which was against the living room wall, like a little mahogany cabinet with his picture inside. The custom was not new to us, but her affection for her late husband was so strong--not her grief, but her love of him, something the shrine gave her a way to express. She passed away a while ago, and I am still moved when I think of her pouring his afternoon coffee into a green-banded china cup, smiling to herself, and to him. My mother was carrying the cup to his shrine, when her aunt called her back. She had forgotten the sugar.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Well, This Is Awkward.

 Valentine's Day is actually a thing in Japan, though with a twist: it's the day when women give men chocolates. I know. A month later, we have White Day (why stop at one made up holiday?), when men give women chocolates and/or gifts. The problem is that the Valentine's stuff is clearly more interesting, particularly since white chocolate abounds for White Day, and I am not so into it. Plus, it gives men the upper hand--if you already know what her gift is, say, a month in advance, then you can match it without worry. No risk of going overboard or looking cheap. Even though girlfriends might score some goodies, wives routinely get ripped off, which is just wrong. Call it a cultural difference if you want to, but when a woman is denied gifts of chocolate, I call that oppression.

I like the idea of conversation hearts, but not the taste. So I made these awkward conversation heart cookies. I feel like they would actually be helpful in some situations. Although in some cases, you are going to need a much bigger cookie.

And now some uncomfortable moments brought to you by the sweets aisle at the convenience store.

Where to begin. They are actually kind of a cookie coated with a Nestle-crunch-type chocolate. The Crunky bar is basically crispy rice and milk chocolate, and I think the name is meant to suggest crunchiness, as opposed to Mary J. Blige's "Doesn't matter if you're white or black/Let's get crunked 'cause Mary's back." But what the unfortunate choice of "Nude" is meant to tell us, I have no idea.

Speaking of racial politics. That's a chocolate melon pan-- a sweet-crusted bun--that shows through the package as a fro. (Oh, and for a great poem about Afros, check this out.) I actually think there should be more Black Power snacks.  And this one is so Mod Squad. And tasty. What bothers me is the idea of eating something that doubles as hair on the package. See what I mean? Awkward.

Friday, February 11, 2011

They Are Not Playing Around at the New Mitsukoshi

Lurid piles of kimchee and other Korean delights at the new Mitsukoshi
Department store basements in Tokyo are a cornucopia of yumminess from all over--iterations of foreign and Japanese foods spill forth from the stalls, many of which change week to week. The hawkers (upscale hawkers with nice clean aprons, mind you) often ply one with samples on little plates or proffered toothpicks. Mitsukoshi, that famous department store at the main intersection in Ginza, has incredible "depachika" floors, as they are known (depa= department, chika=underground), and may forever ruin your enjoyment of weekend samples of frozen taquitos at Costco. The new Mitsukoshi branch is just around the corner from the original, and is something like a Death Star--not a real planet, but capable of tremendous things.

About those samples: I am powerless before them. Note the little cups of picks in the lower left corner of the kimchee photo. This is a system that relies equally upon honor and an assumed sense of personal shame. Sometimes this stymies me--how many varieties of pickles, or chocolate, or ham, for example, can one nibble at one stall before one is obligated to either purchase something or slink away? Luckily, I have plenty of experience feeding my feelings, so when I get nervous, I just buy something tasty. 

Mom's favorite--satsuma-age--mild, fluffy fish cakes. These here are made with onion and bacon.
More fried goodness: shimeji mushrooms and pumpkin.
And yet, the sample is a double-edged sword. Or toothpick. Because you also need to be strong in the face of samples you do not want. That whole thing about the Japanese being non-aggressive falls apart here. You don't colonize half of Asia without being a little pushy, folks. Once, when snacking my way through a depa-chika with a Canadian friend, I was presented with a stewed grasshopper on a toothpick. The little old lady had jammed the toothpick in my hand saying, "Inago! Oishii!" At that time, I knew oishii meant tasty, but the very important noun before it--not so much. It was almost in my mouth before I realized what it was. I couldn't insult the lady, and I was not about to back down in front of a Canadian. The grasshopper was not bad, after all--something like the small, sharp-shelled shrimp cooked in heavy soy sauce and sugar for new year's--but I didn't feel the need to bring any home.
Italian delicacies, including breaded cutlets and tripe
Ham and cheese rolled up, breaded, and fried. The Professor calls this "haute trailer."
Nothing beats a bag full of depa-chika treats when you don't feel like cooking. It's a game changer, since all the delights you are never going to cook at home (deep frying? whole duck on a hook?) suddenly become options for a weeknight. 
Char-siu pork and roast Chinese duck
Um, those are huge sushi rolls wrapped in plump, succulent, cooked and shelled crab legs.
The gentleman above is working in a plexiglass booth, like a culinary David Blaine, but not creepy. This draws a crowd now and then, since rolling up those massive crab futo-maki is a feat. It's engrossing watching someone truly skilled up close. I once stood in a supermarket with a crowd of housewives watching a whole tuna being filleted with what could only be called a sword. Now that was a show.

A sandwich shop's open-faced display case
Spicy ham and cheese baked in french bread
Over-specialization is not a problem for me. The shop below deals only in sweet potatoes, which are displayed on a bed of hot stones in a glass case. Some are yellow and chestnutty inside, and some, native to Okinawa, are a crazy, bright purple.  They sell them baked, or in the form of puddings, yokkan (blocks of pureed bean or potato cooked with sugar), and tiny, dense cakes that are moist like cheesecake, but even less Atkins friendly.
Yakimo! A high-end display of the baked sweet potatoes often sold from trucks.
Sweet potato confections
When it comes to pastry, French is king in Japan (sorry, Italy and Austria). And like so many things, Japan has taken the refinements and the presentation and run with them, sometimes surpassing the original. (Sorry, France.) The little individual cakes, puddings, and tarts are like jewels under glass. Pretty, pretty, pretty. Who could not feel joy looking at all those little pastel macaroons? Of course they get a Japanese twist, with flavors like green tea and yuzu citron. Watching Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, which was a huge hit with the ladies here, it occurred to me that a life spent eating colorful desserts and trying on endless pairs of shoes might actually be enough to make me happy. In that moment, I knew the depths of my shallowness. Thanks a lot, Sofia.

Meringues! Mont blanc! Strawberries and spongecake!
Let them eat macaroons! You know, the whole "let them eat cake" thing was only mean because she didn't actually come through with the cake. Seriously, a basket of muffins. Something.
Double-cream puffs with whipped cream and airy custard; delicate roll cakes filled with fruit and cream