Thursday, June 30, 2005

Sansho & Fate

There is a word for the situation whereby something stumbled across for the first time appears on a seemingly frequent basis thereafter. I can't remember it. I will call it "sansho".

Sansho is the name of the herb pepper that we had with Unagi recently ... later, that same day, across the other side of town we came across a sprig of the original - from the kinome shrub.

As if in a scene from a culinary Yimou Zhang movie, the kinome sprig is caught midair by the deft hand movement of Steve's dining companion ...

A little bit more digging revealed that the kinome shrub actually produces szechuan peppercorns (these are the shells surrounding the seeds). The uwajimaya site explains the taste as "being reminiscent of mint, basil with a hint of anise" - I would say more than a hint. It also reckons that the pepper has a lemon-like flavour.

That's sansho for you!

p.s. if anyone knows the name for the sensation mentioned in the first line, please mail me...

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

inagi, unagi ... we all nagi

It’s hot in tokyo today. 88 degrees F with 58% relative humidity. The heat index is at 94f (10 degrees away from a dog heat stoke). We decided to shelter our meteorologically fixated minds in an unagi (eel) restaurant.

Although eel does not feature on the world’s healthiest foods site, it is regarded as summertime healthy in Japan. Three reasons abound:
- It is a good source of protein, calcium and vitamins A and E.
- Less scientific, but far more romantic, lore has it that eels are strong in order to make the journey from ocean upriver in order to breed – the things we do.
- Either way, it is thought to improve stamina and as a result it is most often eaten at the hottest times of the year. In fact, doyo-no-ushi (complicated, but something like 18 days before fall) is the day that the japanese traditionally eat eel. On this day food beginning with “U” is considered good for our health (ok, the least scientific of all reasons).

Grilled eel is a specialty in Japan. We didn’t see the cooking, but it seems to consist of 3 stages – over charcoal, steamed to remove fat and finally seasoned and grilled. We went for the typical unajuu or unagi donburi or unadon (basically anything you want). It is served on a bed of rice with teriyaki sauce over the fish. Much like the 4 steps to happiness that cocoichibanya recommend, the waitress recommended an interesting 3 styles to eating the unagi (she may have been getting revenge for having to cook the thing in 3 different ways):

Style 1: unagi with sansho

Actually, we didn’t know what sansho was. Thoughts ranged from fish salt to herbs. It turns out to be a powdered aromatic pepper.

Style 2: unagi with onions, seaweed and wasabi

Not the best photo that was ever taken in Japan, but this was my favourite (syle not photo).

Style 3: unagi soup

Disturbingly enough Taro called this tea.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Tsukiji Cart Racing

Ever since my first visit to Japan back in October, I’ve wanted to get to see the famous fish market; Tsukiji. The hours of business (5am to 9am) have mostly precluded any visits. We were fortunate that a recent world cup qualifier (Japan vs. Bahrain) ran until 3am. A quick detour for Karaoke in Roppongi meant that we arrived at the market at about 6am … the sacrifices we make for our food!

The central wholesale market is the largest in Japan. It is a market for all food related products; fish, fruit, vegetables and kitchen utensils, but it is most famous for its fish. It is located in central Tokyo. It is one of the world’s largest and handles over 2,000 tons of fish everyday. Note: there seems to be some debate as to the largest in the world, we have given the award to Tsukiji. Fish comes off trawlers directly to the market and is sold out to the restaurants for the day’s dining.

Admittedly the timing may not have been best to capture the full culinary delights of the market. Nevertheless the alcohol in our veins made the adventure suitably surreal. A warning on the Japan guide website states that it “is a site where serious business is conducted, it is important for visitors not to interfere with the action by not bringing any large bags and not obstructing traffic along the narrow lanes”. The sight of 4 karaoke revellers weaving through the narrow lanes and dodging the trucks was probably not the most welcome to the local tradesmen. It was a good job that we didn’t read this prior to our trip. Being forewarned would have inevitably meant that we would have been far more likely to be injured.

Trucks at Tsukiji – courtesy of japan-guide. I would have taken a photo myself, but for the rush that I was in to safety.

We spent some time moving from stall to stall. I managed to buy a Japanese mandolin (the slicing kind) and tacky sushi teacup … you know, the typical drunken purchases you make a large fish markets. Taya had her photo taken with a bear while Taro and Matt played chicken with the Tsukiji carts. The trip reads like a hallucinogenic fantasy. The carts are fantastic; alone worth the visit. There is a junction in the middle of the market where all the local tradesmen seem to congregate in order to race each other. There are no traffic lights. Crossing this junction on foot feels like walking in between burning oil cans being wielded by demented tramps … with 2,000 tons of fish on their backs.

The revelation of the trip was the tuna. Although we didn’t get to see the tuna market (it is off bounds for tourists at this time of the year – thank god!). We did manage to see into the cargo-in bay from a safe distance. Blue Fin Tuna will grow to approximately 6 ft (2 m) and weigh about 300 lb (135 kg). It can live up to 40 years, but is mature at 8. They can be found in both the Atlantic and Pacific in waters as deep as 3000 feet. The can swim at up to 45 mph, meaning that they could cross the Atlantic in 60 days. The meat is prized and can sell for as much as $30,000 for a large fish.

Frozen tuna being slides – courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are many interesting facts about tuna (courtesy of wikipedia). It is one of the few fish that is warm blooded. Most fish are cold blooded and as assume the temperature of the water surrounding. This gives them very little range in terms of their ability to travel. Tuna has a higher oxygen carrying ability than any other fish species. As a result, the flesh of tuna is pink (unlike most white flesh ocean fish). Bluefin can use muscle activity to actually increase their body temperature above the surrounding waters.

We had what is rumoured to be the best sushi in Tokyo; breakfast at the market. For 600 Yen I had fantastic tuna steak with tea. At this point we were all beginning to feel a little worse for wear by the end and decided to leave at about 8am.

The parting shot – leaving the market with shopping and heads in our hands. This is the only photo we managed to take (at least that I'm allowed show) ...

Sunday, June 05, 2005

the steve beater

Fish chowder with aioli (or, a study in the male ego; or, Saffron Scented Seafood Soup with Fennel and Aioli).

there is pain in that aioli ...

Preparation of Aioli…

B: “Steve, can you mix the eggs; use the electric or do it by hand”
S: “Sure thing, step aside little lady, I can do this by hand”
Steve starts beating. Holding the steel bowl awkwardly at an angle and struggling to make either a circular motion or a to and fro motion, in fact not knowing what motion to make.
B: [from the cellar] “I can hear that you’re not mixing correctly”
S: “You’re the cook – show me how”
Blanca demonstrates a very similar motion. As with most things, with the desired result
B: “OK, we’re ready for the oil, are you sure you’re ok?”
S: “Yeah, no problem, I’ve gotta learn how. Start adding baby!”
Blanca starts dribbling oil into the bowl
S: [inner voice] “Jeez, this is surprisingly sore, how much longer must I go on? I can’t ask Blancs, she does this everyday. Keep mixing Steve, I’m sure we’re nearly finished”
B: “MIX. FASTER. Stop holding the bowl at the angle, just MIX”
S: [inner voice] “It hurts. My arm is sore”
Steve’s face is red, his pace is visibly slowing. A strange whimpering noise is coming from behind his gritted teeth
B: [most likely feeling sorry and not wanting her husband to have a heart attack] “You’re doing great, this is going really well. Do you want me to take over?”
S: [weakly] “No I’m fine”
B: “OK, last phase, I can add more oil. Keep mixing”
S: “I want my mummy”
All pretence is lost
B: “That’s great, OK stop mixing”
Blanca has to coax Steve from his mixing. Gradually his arm stops moving and his jaw slackens. He hasn’t taken a breath in the last minute. He holds his head up high. Once out of sight his arm raises above his head, he holds it feebly with his left arm. He should have read the science before dismissing the kitchenaid.

The Science behind the Pain

You will remember there are (somewhat controversially) 5 mother sauces; brown, veloute, b├ęchamel, hollandaise and mayonnaise. Briefly, the former 3 are cooked with roux and the latter 2 are emulsions. Of the latter 2, mayonnaise is made from cold and hollandaise (made from butter) is cooked. Aioli with French / Catalan origin is really a variation of mayonnaise, the recipe that we used is as follows:

- 2 organic egg yolks
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp white sugar
- 150 ml sunflower oil
- 150 ml olive oil

Emulsion comes from the Latin “to milk out”, as McGee states, this can be associated with the fact that the end product will deflect the path of light through the sauce and thereby give a milky appearance. These sauces are formed by the mixture of two liquids that do not normally collide. The most common emulsions are made of oil and water; mayonnaise and milk for example differ in the proportion of oil (70% to 4%).

Oil and water, when mixed together will always separate in order to reduce their surface tension. These can be forced apart, but will naturally return to separated positions in order to again reduce the tension. Egg has the key role in maintaining this separation (we call them emulsifiers in this role). Since the 17th century, it has been recognised that egg yolk will surround the oil molecules and thereby reduce surface tensions.

To the preparation – the quantity and timing of the additions is key. Make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature. Place a bowl on a cloth to prevent slipping. First whisk the egg yolk, mustard, garlic, salt, sugar and lemon juice into a thick and creamy emulsion (of the water / fat content in the egg) and season. Mix both oils in a jug. Next add about one quarter of the oil drop by drop (dribbled) and beat vigorously. The timing here is important but simple – it is easier to separate “oil-in-water” if starting from a lower proportion of oil relative to water. At the point that your arm feels like it is about to fall off, you are ensuring that the oil is not rising to the top, but instead forming small droplets below the surface of the sauce. This is usually achieved where the volume of the oil is similar to the original water. What is happening is that the droplets have formed in such size beneath the surface that they in fact impede each other from rising to the surface and forming an oil pool. Taste and check the flavour – adjust as required.

You can then add the remaining oil in larger quantities (tablespoon amounts). The tiny droplets beneath the surface act as a mesh and breakdown the incoming particles to dimensions of their own size. The latter stage need not require as fierce mixing as the main purpose is to distribute the oil amongst the mix.

photo came blue ... not very artistic or appealing, but you get the drift ...

Aioli is a perfect companion for fish soup. We had family staying with us recently; joyfully we substituted a night of home cooked food for a night at some dodgy musical. Cooking from books for cooks volume the rest of the soup is fairly straightforward:

- 4 scallops
- 8 tiger prawns
- 125 g monkfish tail
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 onion chopped
- ½ fennel bulb chopped (diced)
- 1 small carrot, chopped
- 1 glass white wine
- 750 ml fish stock
- 2 ripe tomatoes, seeded and finely diced
- 1 potato diced
- Large pinch of saffron threads
- 4 tbsp lemon juice
- Salt, pepper, cayenne pepper
- Fresh dill for garnish

Warm the oil in a pan over med heat, add the garlic, onion, fennel and carrot and cook stirring until soft. Pour in the wine and reduce. Add the stock, tomatoes, potatoes, saffron, bring back the boil, then simmer until the vegetables are tender. Stir in lemon juice and season with salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. While the soup is simmering make the aioli. To finish adjust the heat so that the soup is barely simmering. Add the fish to the hot broth and poach very gently for approx. 5 minutes. Ladle into warmed bowls, making sure the shellfish is evenly distributed (a slotted spoon is very useful for this).
Serve at once garnished with dill sprigs and heaped spoon of aioli.