Let me be honest with you: As much as I love Japanese food, I hate osechi ryori. It is – oh, how diplomatically can I put this – really boring and expensive (if you buy it rather than have it made for you by your grandmother/aunt/mother-in-law), which I’m sure you’ll agree is a horrible combination of traits for food. This is why I was so happy to wake up to what I found on our table this morning:
The makings for “khanom chin”
That’s a bowl of sliced pineapple in the middle (think of it as the center of a compass). To it’s West: Ground shrimp meal. NW: Limes. Further NW: Sauce for the steamed fish (shown in photos below). N/NE (at top of table): A fully prepared bowl of khanom chin. NE: The “soup” base, coconut milk with pork bits submerged and out of sight. E/NE: A ladle on a plate, yo. E: Sliced ginger. Further E: Rice noodles. S/SE: A bowl of sliced garlic and chilies soaked in nampla. SW: Another fully prepared bowl of khanom chin.
So how does the fusion of all those flavors taste? Do they work together, or move awkwardly in opposing directions?
Well, let me explain it like this:
Khanom chin: Like toshikoshi soba on steroids
It was sooooooooooooo good. It’s like sweet, savory fire sliding down your throat and warming your entire body from the inside out. Seriously. It’s so good, I thought up a new year’s resolution on the spot: More foodblogging. I’ve even started a new category in its honor: Food.
Oh, by the way, khanom chin is served room temperature, and it wouldn’t taste good any other way, I suspect. Chilling it would suppress the (delicious) funk, and warming it would overstate the spicy and sweet components.
Steamed Nile Tilapia
The other main dish on the menu today was steamed fish, simple and sweet.
All dressed up!
The sauce was sweet and peanut-based. The sweetness of the Chinese cabbage and lettuce brought out the meaty taste of the fish and was nicely accented with fresh mint and coriander leaves.
It tasted just as good as it looks.
I guess I was somewhat disappointed to find out that this isn’t typical new year’s fare, and that in fact there really is no such thing here. I guess I’m just going to have to insist on it being a tradition in this household!
Two good links today:
One for the Road: West Virginia’s Roadkill Cookoff
Bitter cold spurs dumpling madness
Go check out the Evil Sandmich’s continued writings on his adventures in Japanese cuisine last year: LINK
One morning they had a little hit of ketchup with the Japanese omelet (which I never got tired of, the omelet or the ketchup) and I was as happy as a brain eating zombie (I was quite tired and didn’t realize it, but my wife said that I was sucking the contents out of the packet). I got the definite impression that the Japanese don’t make a habit of coating their food with anything (ketchup, BBQ sauce, gravy, or even wasabi).
The relative lack of condiments is something you get used to, or if you’re a condiment/spice/topping addict, deal with by carrying around your own. Actually, condiments are a lot more prevalent than they were in years past. It used to be damn near impossible to get ketchup with your fries – at McDonalds!
Japanese Condiment Factoid o’ the Day: Up until about five years ago it was common for restaurants (even large chain or “family” restaurants) to refill partially depleted Tabasco bottles – with soy sauce! The resulting mix looked like uranium sludge, and tasted about the same (and no, it wasn’t that the Tabasco was just old, either). I assume this vile dilution was carried out by the restaurants as a cost-savings measure, but I have no proof – maybe it was a ploy by the Tabasco distributors to create a more “localized” flavor for the Japanese market (and if Tabasco adds an “Oriental Pepper Sauce” to their lineup, you will know where they got the idea).
Also on the beef night, I had something for the first time during the trip – raw squid. Now I don’t mind the cooked kind, and the flavor didn’t bother me, but the texture…. The most polite way of putting it is, imagine if a stranger hocked up a big, thick, mildly fishy loogey and put it in the fridge, and the next night you accidentally dined on it.
Raw squid is best when it’s very fresh and is called “ika sashimi”; even when refrigerated, it starts degrading rapidly and after a short time becomes what I usually refer to as “bait.”
Also, the phrase “mildly fishy” never fails to evoke terrifying memories of a certain teacher I had in junior high who had recently immigrated from Germany. Her impressive bust and fondness for wearing tight, short-sleeve summer dresses was set off by the fact she had the hairiest armpits I’ve seen in my entire life, which dripped sweat in the summer when she raised her arms to write on the blackboard. Just thought I’d share that.
To add insult to injury, they were served in a bowl with cold, greenish noodles that were about the same texture as the fish (sans eyes of course). I hesitantly ate my ‘snot noodles’, but I couldn’t bring myself to choke down the fish snot sitting at the bottom of the bowl, it makes my stomach light just thinking about it.
Heh. Damn, this brings back memories from when I first came to Japan. Yep, there were some “delicacies” that I wouldn’t touch with a stick back then, although I got used to most of them quickly. There are a few things I still don’t like, but there isn’t much I haven’t tried or given a fair shake, even the stuff mentioned in the story below:
Some years ago, I took some clients from the US out for dinner, and one of them, was adamant about trying every “strange” dish possible.
Thus challenged, I ordered accordingly. I have to admit that he seemed to be genuinely enjoying everything that came until I pulled the trump card and told him the next dish was a specialty of the house, and I bet he couldn’t tell what it was:
CLIENT (pleasantly surprised): “Mmm, it’s creamy.”
ME (factually): “Yes, and it’s white, too.”
CLIENT (savoring a larger bite): “It’s kind of sweet.”
ME: “Dude! Your mouth is full of COD SPERM!”
What can I say? I am here to serve.
Shinsekai means “new world”, and I can only imagine how striking this area must have been when it was new, a long, long time ago. Giant puffer fish(not called fugu in this area) lounge around a dense arrangement of lights, some street looking Japanese people hanging around, dark alleys cutting between the subdivisions on the block, and attractions reminiscent of carnivals in their heyday. Glare and inky darkness create a dystopic atmosphere in Shinsekai, bringing back snippets of Chinatown, Blade Runner, The Replacement Killers, Idoru (William Gibson), and other Noir works. I wonder how the food was in those world’s back alleys- Either Gibson or Stephenson wrote that most of the food available in his Shinsekai-like neighborhood was made of processed krill…
There must be about 10 different joints where they serve kushiyaki (skewered-fried food in the same family as shishkabobs and corndogs, but of different parentage) under the gaze of Tsutenkaku Tower, but the best looking one was the one where all of the locals were waiting to get in, right down this street. A huge counter surrounds the kitchen that runs down the middle of the length of the izakaya. The kushiyaki runs from 80 yen (regular fried pork cutlet and beef tendon- this item isn’t kushiyaki- stewed in a miso stew) to just over 200 yen per skewer (for more expensive stuff). You can sample so much for quite a reasonable price. The majority of the kushiyaki are prepared by frying them in panco, the bread crumbs that are used to coat tonkatsu.
It is unusual in Japan to have one of those food experiences where you wonder “Is it safe and sanitary to eat this?” (unlike the typical uninitiated gaijin question “Isn’t it supposed to be cooked/ not rotting/ dead when they serve it?”). Japan is typically the land where they will thourally package everything at least four different ways and use disposable wetnaps for every meal. Here, in the kushiyaki joints, the dipping sauce is shared in communal troughs with strangers and friends alike. Pools of swirling oil shimmer on top, and other random detritus can be seen floating, suspended in the collodial middle of the sauces thermoclamatic strata, or felt on the bottom by probing the benthosphere.
Like all wonderful late night culinary adventures, this place is best enjoyed over several mugs of beer. Beer tastes better with kushiyaki, and vice versa. And if you have any urge to satisfy your curiosity regarding something you would usually never eat, the beer will help you to go for it, and also serves as something to wash a bad experience past your mouth and into your gut. Using this very method, I was able to overcome killing, cleaning, and eating a live shrimp that quivered as it was digested inside my stomach, eat pig’s feet (the best thing I ate in Okinawa BTW) and other parts of the hog in their recognizable states that are usually reserved for the production of sausage, develop an appreciation for hormone (intestines) and every other type of innard prepared the proper way (I will never like cooked liver or kidneys, ever), and started to crave basashi (horse sashimi), grilled horse meat, and basashi liver. If you are content with eating exclusively out of McDonalds and convenience store food and have a need to use wetnaps before and after every meal, you will probably never understand what I’m talking about.
Oh, and just in case:
*Basashi should be enjoyed by wrapping it in a shiso leaf with paper-thin slices of tamanegi (onion) and dippped into shoyu with shoga (ginger) mixed into it. Wasabi is optional.
*Basashi liver is best enjoyed with paper-thin tamanegi slices dipped into shoyu with a few drops of goma-abura (sesame oil, the reguar stuff), and wasabi is optional.
*Like any other type of food, there is high-quality hormone and low-quality. If you eat bad hormone you will definetely know it, and the same is true of the good stuff because it will taste pretty good.
*Thanks to J for pointing out the mistakes in this entry.
Check out this article on Slate today:
“While a Medieval Times castle seats anywhere from 900 to 1,500 people a night, and the Excalibur’s Tournament of Kings about 2,000 (a thousand at each seating), no present-day medieval feast comes even close to approaching the enormity of some of the Middle Ages’ heavy-hitters. We don’t know exactly how many people attended the marriage feast of Henry III’s daughter in 1251, but we do know that they gorged on 1,300 deer; 7,000 hens; 170 boars; 60,000 herring; and 68,500 loaves of bread. Feasters at the enthronement party for England’s Archbishop of Neville in 1465 consumed 1,000 sheep; 2,000 pigs; 2,000 geese; 4,000 rabbits; and 12 porpoises and seals. No less than 11,000 eggs were eaten at a 1387 feast for Richard III.”
12 porpoises and 12 seals, or 12 combined? Greenpeace demands to know.
This isn’t a good picture, but you can clearly see why I hate ordering draft beer in Japan sometimes. Where many would argue the aesthetic value of a 70/30 (in this case 50/50) beer to head ratio, I would say that it looks good in a commercial but otherwise I want a full glass of beer. If I saw this in America, I would conclude that the bartender set the CO2 pressure on the tap too high and ask for another. Whoever poured this beer needs to learn how to tilt the glass sideways when they’re pouring, or be put in charge of working the bottle opener.
Creamy wasabi dipping sauce??? No thank you.
I just wrote an entry about kyushoku, or school lunch, on Higo Blog. I would have to say that the school lunches that I had in Ubuyama were much better than the school lunches back in SoCal, but you can’t really compare soggy burgers wrapped in foil paper to rice and a broiled slice of mackerel. Then again, in high school I could buy personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut. Those pizzas were about the same size as Japanese pizza, more filling, had real pepperoni and sausage (instead of this mayonaisse and corn bullshit! WTF is up with that???), and cost only 3 bucks!
The worst things about school lunch in Japan that I have experienced:
The small candied fish served on top of rice.
Pickled hotaru ika (firefly-squid).