Time to Fish

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to get on a boat, to challenge my sea legs and to test the tensile strength of the combination of rod + reel + spectra / mono / flouro lines + swivel + barbless hook on a (approximately) 20 pound king salmon. Though the bite wasn’t hot in Avila Beach last Friday, we manged to snag one using a black and white apex, down 60 feet (for some reason, not many people mooch this far south, preferring to troll instead). As there were few birds to indicate where the bait balls were hanging out, we had to rely on the location of other recreational boats and fish finder to put the lure in front of this:

adam.chinookKohei and I split the fish, and ended up with a decent amount of ruby red fillets and collars to grill up. We did a misoyaki prep for the collar, letting it sit for 3 days. For the fillets, we used salt, pepper, butter, oil, garlic and lemon juice and cooked them on cast iron for 5 minutes on high heat, then for 6 minutes in the oven at 450 degrees. I don’t think there’s much better than a cast iron skillet for evenly distributing heat, and for imparting a nice seared crust that is hard to beat.

Hopefully the bite up in Monterey picks up, and I can go get some more sustainably caught wild Chinook salmon. Fish that you catch yourself is, by definition, the best you can get because it is so fresh that you can literally still eat it when it’s alive (if that’s your thing- I wouldn’t because I would want to put it out of its misery first, and salmon have parasites that easily take up residence in us unless properly prepared), you can release any non-targeted species quickly and give them a reasonable chance to survive, its fun (though expensive), you get a nice tan and get a little exercise to boot. The only problem is that it’s hard to eat store or restaurant bought fish after successfully catching and eating fresh fish.

There’s only one solution: I need to catch more fish, which means that I have to go fishing more. I guess that I’m willing to make that sacrifice, for health and ocean conservation!

Hammer Time! Making Mochi

Once upon a time in Japan, the making of mochi was not performed by automated machines, but rather by people using large wooden mallets/hammers to pound rice in heavy-duty granite bowls. Pounding was performed to a rhythm, pulverizing the rice into delicious submission. Though mochi machines now exist, my family continues the old tradition with the start of each new year because pounding your food with huge wooden hammers is awesome. And besides, as any rice cake connoisseur worth his shoyu will attest, mochi tastes better with a bit of sweat and little wooden slivers in it.

DSC_8523The hammers are made of wood, and soaked beforehand, though if they make contact with the granite bowl, they will splinter. Breaking the handle is also easy to do, if it strikes the bowl. You can see the rice steaming in an old school wooden box in the background. Doneness is ascertained by smooshing a grain of rice between the fingers to check hardness.


Pounding must be done in coordination with your partners, and usually the tempo is controlled by he who wields the shamoji.



In olden days, the maidens of rural Japanese households were expected to take up arms against any enemies who threatened the village while the men were away. It is said that blood ingrained into the mochi hammer helps to impart a desirable quality found only in the highest grade of rice cake.





She missed the bowl completely shortly after this was taken.







This is a chance for fathers to show their sons how manly they are. Loud grunts and smacks = good parenting.



I have no idea how my aunt was able to swing the hammer so hard while laughing. For some reason, I find this terrifying.






My dad putting the smack down.


Yumi and Kohei making the big wad of rice cake into smaller cakes.


This is the son’s chance to play whack-a-mole with the father’s thumbs!


Maybe we should give the little ones quarter sledge-sized mallets, but until that time a tandem session will have to do.


Here’s Wes, about to bring down the wrath.


These brothers efficiently assault the mochi. As Sean bludgeons away at it, Susumu taunts the rice cake. Susumu’s other job in this process is to reach in the bowl and position the bolus of smashed rice in such a way that it is exposed to maximum blunt force impact from the hammer. As the cadence of the blows can reach a fevered pitch, I am amazed that his hands remain unblemished, and the mochi white.

And as the last of rice is dispatched of, we all head in and pig out on amazing food and share in good company. Happy 2013, everybody!

It all starts with butter…

…or a cube of beef fat into a big, hot pan, followed by thin, delicate slices of well-marbled beef. Then comes the vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, scallions and yam noodles. Toss on some sake, mirin, shoyu, dashi and sugar and let simmer until the meat is just done and the veggies are tender. Scoop up on to a bowl full of rice, dip a morsel in raw egg and enjoy.

This dish is best enjoyed with a cold beer, with feet under a hot kotatsu table and a good movie.

Sukiyaki on a cold, dark night reminds me of living on Awajishima with Justin. Max and Mina, I will have to cook for you when we next meet…

Fort Ross and Stillwater Cove

It turns out that there are a lot of camp sites available in the Fort Ross area of the California coastline, and the beginning of September during the mid-week is an ideal time to get a place to yourself. We returned to a place that had yielded some pretty good results on a previous trip at Stillwater Cove, in Sonoma:

View Larger Map

As with most of our trips, we tried to find new spots that people were less likely to access, as we found out that one cove over from the main beaches was much more productive than the well-picked-over waters closer to the road-side parking. Recently, we’ve been seeing more and more people who don’t seem to be very comfortable in the water diving for the snails. Luckily for us, we are a bit more comfortable scrambling down areas that are not as accessible, going for longer swims and able to dive a bit deeper.

Here’s a picture of the cliff we went over–this is not easy to scramble down so we usually end up chucking our gear over the edge first, though we’re still wearing 20 pounds of weight and 7mm wetsuits:

Stillwater Cove Cliff

This is what it looks like going down. The rock was rotten sandstone, and it was not easy to climb down, and thus there should be plenty of abalone…

Stillwater Cove Descent

Here’s a video of the entry into the water:

In this particular spot was apparently perfect for prickly sea urchins (which we were very careful to avoid, but if you like uni this is the spot!) and though we saw two abalone, they were both nowhere near legal size and crammed into deep, well-concealed crevices. On another trip, we had discovered that the channel between a group of rocks jutting out of the ocean and point on land was super-productive, however it is only safe to go in on the calmest of days. This day, though there were no huge waves, was not doable, so we had to dive the spot that everyone else goes to pick their abalone. Notice that this descent is easier, but still requires a rope to get down to the bottom when in full diving gear:

In order to find decent sized abalone, not just ones that were barely of legal size, we swam further out into areas where the surge was stronger and where the water was deeper. Luckily, this spot was nice and sunny, so we saw things like this (usually, it is cold and foggy which makes you appreciate the warm and sunny days):

Here’s an abalone, in situ:

The Tyrannosaurus Rex of echinoderms, the sultan of sea stars: the mighty sunflower star

Sunflower Star

Abalone and a giant green anemone:

Abalone and urchin

Smaller, orange anemones:

And we had a visitor as well:

Mr. Harbor Seal

Once that was said and done, we found a spot about 30 feet down under a submarine ledge with a number of decent sized abalone:

Abalone cluster

It took me a while to select three to pull, as thirty feet is about as far as I can comfortably and safely dive right now. This is an improvement of the first time I went, when going down 15 feet was really challenging. Here’s a shot of me at the bottom. The yellow line is attached to my ab bar and gauge one one side, with my MacGuyver’d float (made out of two children’s PFD’s, rope, zip ties and a carabiner) 30 something feet at the other side:

…and at the surface, putting one away:

Here’s a shot on land. You have to tag the abalone right away once you get on your boat or come onto land, otherwise you potentially face a stiff charge:

Unfortunately, Heather didn’t bring her abalone card with her, but luckily for us, this meant that she could play around with Mika’s new Canon Powershot D10, which is rated to go down to 10m.

I don’t have any pictures of our campsite, but you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you that it’s worth getting out there in the off-season. The sites are well-maintained, there seems to be a lot of areas to go hiking, diving and fishing, and if you pick the right site, you can end your dive with a nice hot shower!

China Bowl: The Best Al Pastor?

On the way up from Huntington Beach, Kohei and I picked up some fresh, wild-caught shrimp in a small town right before we reached Santa Barbara. If you are familiar with that stretch of coast line, it’s the place that used to have the banana plantation back in the day.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures, but the place selling the shrimp was like something you might encounter in Mexico or a rural coastal village in Thailand. I saw no signs advertising their shrimp, only a broken down taco truck converted into a produce stand, which also sold long skateboards.
Kohei inquired if they were the place that sold shrimp, and the young dude cleared some lettuce off of a battered box, and removed the lid to expose some really fresh shrimp. It still had bright pigmentation, and the only smell was of fresh sea water.
I drove off with my mind blown that such a place could exist, hidden from everyone other than the locals right next to the 101. This is what I had grown addicted to in Japan: finding places that no one else knew of that were extraordinary. Since returning, I’ve found such places, but not nearly as frequently as I did in Kyushu and Kansai.
What was the chances of finding 2 places that surprised me in one day, covering a stretch of California that I have driven through countless times? Well, it was pretty good that day.
“What do you recommend for lunch?” is a question I’ve asked Ko on many occasions, and he has never done me wrong. Tri-tip burgers in Long Beach, Pink’s Hotdogs, and the best chili fries in L.A. are only a few things that we have enjoyed on an afternoon. This guy knows good food, but I was still more than a bit confused when he recommended a Chinese place for Mexican food.
We walked into the restaurant at about 2pm, and there was no one to show us to a seat. Instead, we walked up to a window next to the kitchen, wrote down our order on an order pad. We summoned the cook, and he shaved a seemingly insignificant portion of meat off of the stack, serving us 3 tacos apiece.
This beautiful ball of sizzling pork reminded me of all of the great chunks of roasting meat I’ve sampled, notable those of the kebab places in Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, of tacos in Mexico, and of Churrasco in Kobe.
The salsas and condiments were top rate as well. Notably, they served their tacos with a side of canned pineapple that perfectly complemented the tacos. Pico de gallo, cilantro and onions, jalapenos, sliced radishes, guacamole, and other toppings rested underneath two Shisars, a lacquered hyotan, and a samurai helmet display. Could this place be any more awesome?
The owner clearly liked fishing and hiking in the mountains, as he decorated the restaurant with mounted fish and family pictures in the Sierras. I have no idea about the history of this restaurant, but I intend to return and find out. It will give me a good reason to go back and enjoy some of the best tacos I have ever tasted!
On the China Bowl website there is no mention of tacos, but take my word for it: it is well worth your time to stop by this place if you find yourself passing through Santa Maria. Long live Chinese tacos!

Cooking With Green Butter

Avocados are only 100 yen right now, and so I have been using them a lot lately. My favorite ways to eat them are sliced with shoyu (California-nisei style), as part of a sandwitch/cheeseburger, or as guacamole. Fresh tortillas are worth their weight in silver over here, but tortilla chips are abundant and cheap and go the best with the guac. I will be experimenting with various indiginous Japanese foods to see if any go well. Here are some proposed dished:
nato, guacamole, and yamaimo with ice cold soba
sushi with a pad of guacamole under the bullet of fish instead of wasabi
grilled, salted salmon with guacamole
curry with pork cutlet and guacamole
basashi (horse sashimi) and guacamole
miso soup with essence of guacamole
guacamole soft cream (soft serve)
guacamole with asse
tantanmen with guacamole topping
Vietnamese spring rolls with rice vermicelli, sweet grilled pork, Vietnamese pickles, fish sauce, and guacamole (this is not Japanese, but I think it is one of the more promising combinations).
Some are destined for greatness, while others will be fed to unsuspecting friends. I used only ingredients that were readily available and cheap in the middle of Kyushu. Here’s my take on guacamole:
2 hass avocados
1/2 tsp. of fresh lemon juice
1 small tomato, diced
1/2 small onion, minced
2 cloves of raw garlic, minced
garlic salt
cajun seasoning
tapatio sauce
I ate this guacamole with pack of Pringles (sour cream and onion flavor), because sometimes they don’t have tortilla chips at the supermarket.
This is a very simple recipe and very easy to make. Caution: using raw garlic makes the guacamole spicy, and will result in breath that would cause one embarrassment in a kimchee factory in Korea.

Cooking With Goya

This weekend I cooked with goya(bitter melon) for the first time, and it turned out awesome! I first tried goya in Okinawa as a component in a chop suey-like dish, and made it with the help of a friend. After you try this dish, you might grow to love the bumpy-cucumber-like hunk of bitterness.
Goya Champura
1 goya, cored and sliced thin into half-rings
1 onion, cut into (half) rings
a few cloves of garlic, minced
one half a loaf of SPAM, chopped into thin slices
one block of firm tofu, cubed
four eggs, scrambled
one teaspoon of sesame oil
one teaspoon of olive oil
two heaping tablespoons of miso paste
one tablespoon of toubanjan (red chili paste)
Fry the goya, onions, and SPAM in the oil on high heat, until the onions become translucent and then add the garlic along with the miso and toubanjan and cook for a few more minutes. Add in the tofu and the eggs with some salt and pepper and cook until the eggs are done.
This dish shows off the versatility of spam, in its ability to tame a food as bitter as goya. Like it or hate it, but above all, respect the SPAM.
Due to the high sodium content of SPAM, I suggest going light on the salt. If you want to get seriously Okinawan, then you should eat this with a slowly stewed pig’s foot (this is so f*cking delicious that all negative connotations of pig’s feet will disappear once you eat it), grilled lobster and steak, a small, deep-fried red snapper without its filets (basically the head, bones, and tail), and some awamori, aged 20 years (100% kusu, of course!).
For more info on goya, and another goya champura recipe, check this page. Mmmmm… Goya Beer…

A Gaping, Unfilled Niche

There are a few things that I used to depend on for everyday cooking and I still use many of them over here, but I sorely miss Mexican food ingredients. I miss the abundance of tortillas, both flour and corn (I can get flour tortillas at Costco in Fukuoka periodically, but it is a pain in the ass). Good cheese is also hard to obtain, because it is prohibitively expensive (except for at Costco, once again). If you want cillantro, you must grow your own, and it will not survive the cold winter of Ubuyama without a heat source (you can obtain it at the Kuju Hana Koen, labeled as “italian parsely”, as a potted plant). I also miss frijoles and canned chilli. These are the ingredients that helped to get me through college.
I was excited to find all of the components for making tacos, including cheap avocados, but there was one ingredient I couldn’t find- tortillas. I tried eating the taco ingredients on top of rice, but rice sucks as a substitute. The only worse thing I can think of is putting the taco ingredients on a slice of toast! I was so disappointed that I thought about making my own tortillas, and found these instructions. Sorry, that’s just too much work for something that I’m used to shelling out 39 cents out for, for a ten pack.
Maybe that’s what made eating Mexican food so great when I came back home last Christmas. I love eating tacos, enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas, chimichangas, taquitos, nachos, and everything else that you can get at a taco truck, Tito’s tacos, Alerto’s, King Taco, and the other mexican restaraunts and taquerias that I remember.
I’m not sure about the rest of Japan, but Kyushu has almost no Mexican restaraunts that I know of, except for Plaza Del Sol in Kumamoto City. This place is pretty good, and the prices are reasonable, considering the rarity of many of the ingredients that they use. THey make decent tacos, burritos, nachos, and other dishes and the cooks are Mexican- again, something truly rare in Japan but not worth mentioning in California. One thing that did surprise me was their pickled vegetables (I forget what these are called in Spanish, help Dad!). The slices of carrots, jalapenos, and whole cloves of garlic are the best I have tasted anywhere.
If you are coming to Japan, and love Mexican food as much as I do I suggest you do two things:
1. Bring your own industrial sized bottle of El Tapatio (or Cholula for all of you rich people).
2. Eat AS MUCH Mexican food as you possibly can for the two weeks preceeding your departure.

Lost Bread Topped With Fried Bananas

Everyone knows how to make French Toast, but I consider my version to be top shelf. My favorite thing about FT is that I almost always have the ingredients, and it is a quick meal. Try this version out:
bread, left out from the night before or toasted to get rid of moisture
whipping cream
peach schnapps or kahlua
bananas, sliced
maple syrup
confectioner’s sugar
Scramble the eggs and add some whipping cream. Also add peach schnapps or kahlua, sugar, and cinnamon. Dip the bread on both sides, allowing it to soak in the egg mixture. Fry on both sides with butter (this is important!) on medium heat (you want the sugar in the FT to brown nicely, but not to blacken- there is a thin line between carmelization and carbonization. if it starts to smoke, you’ve cooked it for too long or used too strong of a flame).
Next for the topping. Add a generous tab of butter to the pan, and keep the flame at medium high. Carmelize the banana slices on both sides, making sure not to burn them. If you do it just right, they should be a deep, crispy shade of brown and will taste awesome! Powder the FT with cinnamon and powdered sugar, hip up some fresh whipped cream and top the FT with it, along with the bananas and some maple syrup.
This recipe was inspired by my mother, who used to make fried bananas for me and my siblings when we were little, and who also stressed the importance of using butter to cook with. Olive and canola oil have their time and place, but using margerine or some other butter substitute is unacceptable. And don’t get me started on the butter-flavored lipids that they squirt onto movie theatre popcorn! Margerine wasn’t meant to be eaten in the first place- it was developed to be mixed with gasoline along with other components to make Napalm (I’m pretty sure, but I can’t find any sources on the net). Mmmmm… Napalm…

Ode To Inaka Ninniku

On a routine after-work drive, deep in the country I spotted an unattended shack with a sign that read “yasai (vegetables), 100 yen”. Nestled among the daikon and shiitake mushrooms was a mesh bag containing two choice clusters of garlic. For some reason, the garlic caught my eye, and so I dropped my 100 yen coin into the rusted steel tea cannister (tink!) and drove away satisfied with my transaction.
This is the setup I’m talking about. These daikon (giant Japanese radish) are not only ridiculously cheap, but are also fresher than anything you will ever find in Jusco.
Where else in the world can you find high quality produce by the side of the road and buy it based on the honor system? If this was Orange County, or even Kumamoto City, the cash box would be stolen at the very least and the vegetables would be thrown at the passing traffic! When theft does occur out here it is a big deal like it should be, and the cops come out and spend much time and effort trying to do everything they can to help. Out here is one place where I don’t harbor negative feelings about the police. It is in their best interest, as part of a tightly woven community of country folk, to do their best job and to be friendly. I understand why cops back home can be (and sometimes have to be) such assholes, but as a result I tend not to like them. It still makes me laugh when I remember going to Baja Fresh with Justin, hearing the worker ask the police officer “would you like beef or pig?” tacos.
Enough on cops, lets get back to garlic. This garlic that I bought was special. It was about the same price as garlic in the supermarket, but it was much superior. One thing that you can count on about country grown produce is that the farmers plant very good varieties because they are eating what they produce. Producing one’s own food is such a foreign concept for many people living in places like the U.S. or in big cities, as we are all disconnected from where it comes from and how it is made. My neighbors grow all of their own rice, vegetables, and in some cases chicken, eggs, and meat that they need, and surplus. It is this surplus that they give to their friends, barter, or sell in the booths. So the garlic that I bought from the stall is the same variety that some country family is enjoying as well.
What strikes me about this garlic is that it is so powerful. When I chop up onions nowadays, it is rare for my eyes to water from the fumes. However, when I mince my garlic up into tiny cubes, my eyes sting and well up, despite me wearing glasses. It hurts, but I know that the pain is worth it. The flavor of the garlic is rich and strong and full bodied, but not in an overpoweringly stinky way. Maybe it’s just a placebo, but I feel more healthy after consuming it. One more special thing about this garlic is that the skin peels away from the cloves without any fuss. Whoever developed this particular cultivar of garlic knew what they were doing, and did it well.
Talking about cultivars and heirloom species reminds me of listening to Professor David A. Cleveland from U.C.S.B. lecture about the effect of cultivated plants on society and the environment. Professor Cleveland regularly went all over the world deep into the countryside, where people had developed intimate relationships with the crops that they harvested, from Oaxaca, Mexico to Syria. He was quite passionate about the importance of preserving these cherished species not because he anthropomorphisized them in any way, but because these specific cultivars have very useful traits that have been engineered over thousands of years by farmers, specific to their locations and needs. Companies like Monsanto and other biotech firms go into the countryside and get samples of these plants, often giving nothing back to the farmers in return and exploiting this resource, making a huge profit. Why is this a big deal? Because the farmers in these areas are getting doubly screwed. It is because of the farmers and their ancestors that these strains exist, and it has taken them great time and effort to develop and maintain these. The cultivars and their DNA are rightfully the intelectual property of the farmers who developed them. In addition, these big companies sell the bioengineered strains to these farmers, driving many to develop a dependence on them. This leads many farmers to abandon the very crops that the engineered strains might have been developed from, since they tend to be high yield varieties that in the short term out perform the local crops.
The local cultivars are there for a good reason. They are ideally suited to that specific environment and that specific microclimate, and have allowed farmers to produce the maximum yield sustanably over an indefinite period of time. The strain of corn in one village might be completely different from the strain used the next village over due to subtle, yet important differences in hydrology, geology, temperature, or any number of variables.
With the adoption of commercial, all purpose seed, these cultivars are being lost. Unique, valuable genetic sequences that took countless generations to create vanish, all for the pursuit of maximizing profits in the short term (and creating a dependence based on petro-chemicals, depleting the soil, and creating other environmental and socioeconomic problems in the long run). One of the most tragic things about monoculture using the same seed is that it takes away the variety from food. Instead of countless choices, it all becomes the same. I find this loss of flavor, texture, and uniqueness to be truly disturbing.
Luckily, the fields in my neck of the woods are small, ununiform, and terraced. The farmers grow an assortment of different crops, and the people value their favorite strains of vegetables, fruits, and mushrooms. I mean, the farmers do depend on petro-chemicals to raise their crops and produce rice and other products for the mass market, but they also grow the old strains for their personal consumption. I am pretty sure that the future of the wonderful garlic that I ate will be safe in the hands of these country farmers, deep in the heart of Kyushu.