Friday, December 2, 2011

Food Sake Tokyo

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Little kid and drying fish in Ameyoko

As soon as I got my ticket to Japan, grand ideas started forming in my head. I’d learn some rudimentary Japanese. I’d memorize words for menu items. I’d read guidebooks and plan itineraries so as not to miss anything. I’d read novels that took place in Ancient Japan and modern-day Tokyo, to steep myself in the culture.

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Warning: these mushrooms are plastic. That makes them poisonous.

But, as it always does, time slipped away. Suddenly it was just a few days before my departure and the Berlitz Japanese book hadn’t been cracked. The only things I could say in Japanese were arigato, konnichiwa, ichi, ni, and sayonara. As far as food words went, miso, tofu, ramen, soba, and udon  were the extent of my skills.

I also had no itinerary planned, and the pile of Japanese novels on the bedside table did little more than threaten to topple over my dusty water glass.

The one smart thing I did, though really it was pure dumb luck, was to buy this book:

Food Sake Tokyo, by Yukari Sakamoto, is one of the Terroir Guidebooks. Incidentally, she also writes a Food Sake Tokyo Blog, which I wish I'd found sooner. The series so far includes books on Italy, Rome, Budapest, France, and Burgundy. To show you how unprepared I was for my trip, everytime I looked at my book I kept thinking the second word rhymed with bake. It made sense to me—‘Oh, for food’s sake!’

But the European guides are called Food Wine, not Food Sake. I finally figured out the second word referred to the rice-based alcoholic beverage. As any halfway intelligent person would have realized instantly. What can I say. For the first third of my life I thought there was a saying that went ‘that’s mighty wide of you’. 

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A shrine next to fish market in Ameyoko

Anyway.  Food Sake Tokyo turned out to be a great companion throughout Japan. On the one hand, it’s a guidebook to restaurants, ramen joints, pastry shops, tea shops, and candy stores.

ningyo yaki 1
Ningyo-naki stall in Asakusa

It also lists food-centric tourist itineraries, some of which I followed into market stalls under train tracks, through chopstick stores, and around markets and shrines.

ningyo yaki 2

These are the ningyo-yaki sold by the Asakusa Shrine. The little cakes are made in stalls, some with extremely mechanized machinery, others by hand in old griddles.

The finished products look like this:

ningyo yaki 3

You know what they say. A bird in the hand…

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The cakes come with different fillings, but we only tasted the chestnut.

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I also visited the stores that sell the amazingly realistic plastic reproductions of restaurant items.

plastic food 3
This food is plastic. Do not eat.

But Food Sake Tokyo is more than a tourist guidebook.  Chapter two, ‘Food’, takes up nearly a third of the book.  All those Japanese words I meant to learn—and some that I never imagined—are listed here. The seafood section lists 41 seafood preparation terms, and the names for 144 different types of seafood.

drying fish

The sections on produce, noodles, sweets, and meats are similarly thick. What a treat to be able to find out the English words for foods I might come across.  Not that it always helped. Knowing Fuki was a ‘giant butterbur’ and seri  is ‘water dropwort’ wasn’t that helpful to me. Some translations were unnecessary, or even meaningless.  Who knew mizuna is ‘potherb mustard’? I’ve only seen it called mizuna. 

Finally, there were times I really wouldn’t have wanted to know the translation.  Komekami and nodomoto come immediately to mind: temples and throat. Offal has never been my favorite, which I know is a shortcoming. Pavel did me a favor and saved his visit to the innards restaurant for his next trip.

Best of all, though, Food Sake Tokyo explained the tricky Tokyo address system for me. Other guidebooks do this as well. But here the maps also showed the block numbers—without those, I would have been lost. Ok, full disclosure. Even with them I was often lost. But that never mattered. I was happy just wandering.

Yukari Sakamoto's blogs:

Food Sake Tokyo Introduces readers to Tokyo food shops, a travel guide for curious eaters.

Japanese Cuisine-Cooking Japanese Food at Home Recipes for foods she eats at home and resources for Japanese food.

Friday, November 18, 2011

My Tastebuds Study Japanese

I’ve traveled a certain amount over the years, but going to Japan was something new.  In the past, I’ve always been able to at least read a menu.


When Pavel took this picture of a menu a man at the next table laughed.  “It’s upside-down” he said, and then immediately added, “I’m sorry.”

That interchange summed up much of our trip—shocking cluelessness (that would be us), and people quick to come to our aid with extreme politeness (the Japanese).

Going to a country where I didn’t know how to say any important words (such as pork, beef, ice cream, apple, fig, potato, or cake) was a little frightening.  Realizing even if I could say them I couldn’t read them didn’t help.  But it was also extremely liberating.

ramen 1

Fact is, I know next to nothing about Japanese food—or any Asian food, for that matter.  It shows in my chopsticks skills. Or lack thereof.  That was one reason I was happy to eat ramen in Tokyo—it was cheap (a gift in Japan), satisfying, and you’re supposed to slurp up the noodles.  Turns out I’m good at slurping. Who knew my childhood skills would come back when called upon?

chopsticks 2
 You see, I had to close my eyes and concentrate
Since I know so little, everything was new. Taro root? Not my favorite. Shiso? Love it. I gained a new appreciation for tofu (I know, I should have eaten plenty, but never cared for it before). My innocence meant that flavors landed in my mouth with no baggage—nothing to rate them against. It meant I could just eat and enjoy the new flavors.


Or not. There were plenty of things I didn’t love.  Uni (sea urchin) is considered a delicacy in Japan.  To me it tasted oddly sweet with a bitter aftertaste, and had a soft, slightly grainy texture.  Not my thing.


Actually, I liked this: peanut tofu with kudzu powder, wasabi, fuki shoot. Could have lived without the uni.
The textures were often tricky for me.  Bland and gelatinous starches (I’m talking to you, taro root compositions) were the hardest.  Funny—somehow I can’t find a photo of taro root.


My glass of Birru (see, I did learn some Japanese!) was a lifesaver, helping me wash down the offending bites.  You can see how far I am in the meal by checking the amount of beer left. At this dinner I was very careful not to run out until I knew there was no more taro root coming my way.

Or any of the questionable fish in the middle of the photo below. It had some sort of crisp topping that reminded me of the worst kids’ brightly colored sugar cereals. I have to admit I don’t know what it tasted like!

questionable salmon

Other foods, though, that I’d always considered bland, such as tofu, I learned to appreciate.  It seemed that much of the food was more delicately flavored than what my Euro-American centric tongue is used to.  

Once I accepted it, I learned to appreciate a depth of flavor that I never suspected existed.  As if the flavors play on a different plane than the ones I’m used to.


That's kelp wrapped beef and burdock, lotus root, ginkgo nuts, and miso-rubbed chicken
The Japanese love of aesthetics is well-known.  Occasionally I found that concern for it superseded a concern for flavor.  Nearly all food I saw was beautiful.

aesthetics 2

How about this sashimi plate with shiso flowers?

Fruit in the grocery store looked perfect, food on the plate as well.  But I didn’t taste a truly delicious apple ever, and some of the beautiful, carefully composed dishes were only that.

girl and boy glasses

There’s also lot of cuteness running around.  Hence Pavel and my water glasses at one ramen spot: pink for me, blue for Pavel. Keeps things clear.

Happily I ate many meals, at restaurants and in homes, where aesthetics, flavor, and pleasure came together. And what wonderful meals they all were.  More on that to come.
ramen 2

And when all else failed, there was always ramen.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

People Watching in Tokyo


Couple picnicking behind the Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa

For the last 11 years Pavel has been traveling to Japan at least once a year.  And this is the first time I’ve ever tagged along.  What was I waiting for?

Before I arrived I thought that the sheer mass of people here would be hard to take.  There are apparently about 35 million people in the metropolitan area.  I’ve never been invited to such a big party.

It turns out that watching people moving back and forth is actually kind of mesmerizing.  I’ve had breakfast a couple of mornings at the Dean and Deluca at Shinagawa, our local train station. 

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It’s close to Pavel’s office here, so we can grab a quick bite before he leaves for a long day of work and I set out to explore Tokyo.

It’s a wonder I leave my stool at Dean and Deluca.  I could stare out that window for a week without getting bored.  The men are mainly in black or dark grey suits, but there is a surprising amount of variation in hair styles, from closely cropped to Beatles mops. 

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Walking through the station is a bit of a trick. You don’t hear people’s voices much, but their feet come across loud and clear. Pavel tells me that as it gets closer to 9 AM the steps are much faster. The first day I waited too long to cross the mass to the exit. I did something like a 3-point exit, looping backwards and then accelerating determinedly across a few hundred people.

Morning commute at Shinagawa Station

But you’ll be pleased to know I haven’t spent the whole time in the station.  I’ve spent a lot of time on the train too. 

The Tokyo subway system is a massive and well-oiled machine.  I’ve only waited more than 4 minutes once for a train, and then only because the first train that came was too full.  Tokyo style too full that is.  Which is Portland style ‘Oh my god—I need space!’.

Since the city is so big, going most places seems to take at least 20 minutes.  But that’s no problem.  Watching people is endlessly fascinating.

They nap on their way to work…

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They curl their eyelashes…

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They read. (The book seems to be alive and well in Tokyo.  I’ve stumbled into two different 6-floor bookstores—without even looking for one!)

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They socialize on their way home from school.

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They show off all sorts of styles

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They practice dances, following lessons on their phones…

Practicing a dance

They nap on their way home from school

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And then they wave good-bye one last time to their friends…

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And they sleep on their way home from work at midnight.

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And look…when you get off the train, you can take a bus.  And it’s striped!

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I’ll try to post again soon and let you know where I’ve been exploring on all those trains.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I Like Cake

Make no mistake. 

Last week started off poorly.  Nothing particularly awful, but nothing quite right either.  When my cell phone deleted all my contacts, I began to think some cake would be nice.
Times like this I always remember a Kim Severson tweet from nearly 2 years ago: “Great advice from a 77-year-old Alabama cook: When you're feeling down just get in the kitchen and bake someone a cake.”

I follow this advice now and again, though the someone in question often (okay, usually) ends up being me.
But I do share!

Wednesday afternoon the mailman came.  He brought a package.

 Do you remember the end of my last post, where I wrote about the Maira Kalman t-shirt, ‘I like pie and that’s no lie’?  I mentioned that there should be a companion shirt, ‘I like cake make no mistake’. 

  This is what I found inside my package:

cake 1
Funny, you’d think the sun would shine for a shirt this great
No note, but I had a pretty good idea who it was from.  Suddenly things seemed just fine. 

So I got some butter out to soften.

The next day the butter was still softening.  It would be 3 days before I actually baked the cake.  But finally I did bake the cake, make no mistake. 

My phone (which has since apologized and allowed me to recover my contacts) also somehow lost the photo I took. But you can imagine it.   When I just want a piece of cake, I like a plain yellow two layer with chocolate frosting.  And maybe a glass of milk.  And a husband, kid, or friend to share it with.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chez Panisse is 40

book bday

I have a funny connection to Chez Panisse.  Many of the people who came to celebrate the 40th worked there for years, cooking or waiting tables, growing lettuce or berries, baking bread, washing dishes.  I actually did work in the Chez Panisse kitchen, early on.  It was the summer of its 3rd birthday, the summer that Nixon resigned, the summer I was 11 years old. 

I was more an arranger than a cook.  I worked lunches, putting together the hors d’oeuvres plates.  For the pâté plates I sliced cornichons not quite all the way through, and fanned them out next to a thick slice of pâté.  A spoonful of mustard and a little greenery—was it parsley?—sat on the other side. Sliced baguette accompanied the plate.   There were also cold artichokes or hard cooked eggs, served with house made mayonnaise.

It was a lot of responsibility for an 11 year old, and on a bad day I can still feel how it smarted when Susie, the head waitress, brought a plate back to me, saying it looked a little ‘funky’.  Later, in my early 20s, I worked in the office.

But then I left: married, moved to Portland, and concentrated on raising my own family.

Last week, along with a few hundred others, I went home to Berkeley and to Chez Panisse. I’ve been away for longer than I was there in the first place, and consider Portland my home now.  This weekend I got the chance to think about what Chez Panisse has meant to me.

The visit was a bit like touring a childhood home—which, incidentally, I also got to do.  You think you know what you remember, what it meant to you. But then you’re surprised. In the case of the childhood home, seeing my bedroom was fairly anticlimactic. But going into the basement and seeing the cupboard where Mom stored her pear marmalade and applesauce (made with fruit from my grandparents) took me instantly back to breakfasts 40 years ago. 

Our backyard was largely changed, but Mom’s pear and apple trees are still there. And her Meyer lemon tree, heavy with fruit, is still against the back fence, the one that separated our yard from Mrs. Bertolli’s. Her fava beans used to twine between her side and ours.  I loved to open them and see the beans wrapped in their bright green sheets,  resting in their cushioned beds. Those beans ignored the divide between our yards.  Later, lettuce for the restaurant grew in Mrs. Bertolli’s yard, beyond the fava bean fence.

meyer lemon tree 3

The separation between Chez Panisse and our home and family was similarly blurred.  I was 8 when it opened; it’s been around for nearly my whole life.  I suppose my forgotten formative years weren’t directly touched by it. 

But maybe they were.  Perhaps in my earliest years the restaurant was a gleam in my parents’ eyes (and especially in Alice’s eyes).  But the kind of gleam that gleams used to be, before the era of high-tech family planning and businesses started only after properly laying the groundwork: business degrees earned, business plans written. 

Those were real gleams in the eye.  Sparkles of passion, desire, curiosity, and interest, but without a clear vision.  Just a calling, one you followed, blindly.

You probably wanted to hear about the actual festivities. So I will add some links below. Do check them out—there were many things to see, touch, and of course to taste all weekend.

menu 1

But for me, the weekend was about going home. Friday night (after the exciting cocktail party at the Berkeley Art Museum for the unveiling of Alice’s National Gallery portrait) I had dinner at the café with Pavel, my parents, and my sister and her husband. My brother couldn’t make it. It was rodeo weekend, as important a part of his family’s life as the restaurant is.

fruit bowls

You think Chez Panisse is all about the food, but it’s also all about community.  I have no idea which comes first—it’s like the chicken and the egg. At Chez Panisse, the food and community are completely inseparable.  You can’t have one without the other. You wouldn’t want one without the other.

after party

Sunday there was an after-party for people who’ve worked at Chez Panisse.  People came from far away—from France, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands.  There were people like Steve Sullivan, who started out as a teenaged busboy, then started baking the bread, and now runs Acme Bread.  People who have worked at the restaurant for more than 20 years.  The amount of loyalty the restaurant fosters is startling. And the affection.  So soon after my 25th wedding anniversary, it’s also inspiring. 

It doesn’t take a genius to see that Chez Panisse is a very similar—though much larger—community as a family.  Which means it’s also got its crazy uncles and eccentric aunts, as well as its black sheep.  But that’s families for you.

And then there are the family members who are gone, but not forgotten. I thought of them often this weekend, of Helen and her tea; of Jack, the dishwasher who spent his breaks smoking Gauloises and quoting classics; of Craig and Clay, assistants to my mother; of Lisa who was like a second mother to me, of Alexandre, and of course of Tom, who had the kind of heart that makes his presence still palpable, even 20 years after his death.

I wonder how much I learned about family from my own parents and grandparents, and how much came from Chez Panisse.  The desire for a central gathering place: the kitchen or dining table in my own home, or at family, friends, or Chez Panisse. The truth is, I rarely eat there.  I hardly ever even visit Berkeley any more.  But when I do, walking up the stairs of Chez Panisse I feel instantly at home.

One last thing. This fall, the Chez Panisse Foundation will become The Edible Schoolyard Project.  A few artists (Maira Kalman, David Byrne, Dave Eggers, Sofia Coppola, and Alice Waters) partnered with Levi’s and designed t-shirts for the Edible Schoolyard.  At Friday’s portrait unveiling, I was surrounded by people wearing the Kalman shirt. ‘I Like PIE and ThAT's No LIE’ (I did buy one, and you can too).

                 cake 1cake 5  cake 4
          cake 3
Since this was, after all, a birthday, I think there should be a companion shirt. ‘I Like Cake Make No Mistake’.  But at least there was cake, at the after-party. More than 40 cakes, I think, baked by various people. 

Therese cake
                           Photo and cake © (and copybake) Thérèse Shere 
A few links:
The book: 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering—with contributions from everyone from Calvin Trillin to Scott Peacock (who, by the way, I got to meet. He is maybe the nicest man there is).

Chronicle articles

Food Republic: An Insider's Look Back at Chez Panisse

Edible Education 101, the UC Berkeley course. You can watch all the lectures (by people like Carlo Petrini, Marion Nestle, Raj Patel, and many more) here.

Alice’s interview on Fresh Air

Alice serves lunch in Maiden Lane

Videos of the parade and Alice’s speech for the Edible Schoolyard Foundation.

OPENrestaurant’s website, with info about their OPENeducation event at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Some accounts of the weekend from SFGate, Ruth Reichl, David Lebovitz, Lettuce Eat Kale, Berkeleyside.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tomatoes with Green Goddess Dressing

A Silver Anniversary Celebration


Tomatoes with Green Goddess Dressing at Thistle

Last week was Pavel and my 25th wedding anniversary.  It kind of snuck up on us, so we didn’t have a big party, or go on a trip to Florence. Which might have been fitting, since that’s where we honeymooned.  Florence, Oregon, that is. So really it wasn’t that surprising a choice to spend our anniversary in McMinnville, Oregon. Especially since we were going to eat at Thistle Restaurant.


Thistle's Menu Board, Blurred

Turned out Thistle was the perfect choice.  We walked in, looked at the menu board, and there it was: Heirloom Tomatoes, Pole Beans, Green Goddess.  When did you last see tomatoes with Green Goddess dressing on a menu? The thing is, the last time I saw it served in a restaurant was…yep, exactly 25 years ago. At our wedding reception, at Chez Panisse.


Two of our favorite things:rosé and stripes

Our wedding dinner was made by friends and family, and had all the things we most love: devilled eggs, ham and biscuits, beans and cornbread, salami, gravlax…you get the picture. When we were planning the menu my mom said to me, “why don’t you have tomatoes with Green Goddess dressing?” So we did. Because when it comes to matters of food and heart (and just about everything else) my mom always knows best.

And Thistle’s tomatoes with Green Goddess were perfect. The dressing was  thinner (with the lemon juice) than it often is, the tarragon and chervil still present.  And I was just so pleased by the symmetry of it all. 

I’d spent the last few days going through wedding albums, and was enjoying being reminded of old friends who we’ve lost touch with, and family and friends who are no longer with us.  It was also fun being reminded of how exquisitely young we were.  Such promise—so much hope!  I’m pleased to say our marriage has given us exactly what we most hoped for: children, community, a happy life. 

At the same time, there’s been so much to read about Chez Panisse’s upcoming 40th birthday.  I’ve felt a bit out of time, stuck back in 1986. It’s been a happy visit.

Beet Salad with Sorrel Love Letters

Back to 2011.  The whole dinner was perfect.  We also had a beet salad with wood sorrel, the sorrel leaves looking like folded heart-shaped love letters, and tasting like childhood—remember eating sour grass? 


For our main courses Pavel had some perfectly cooked tuna, served simply with basil and squash.


And I had the gnocchi—little pillows of potato dumplings, resting amongst halved cherry tomatoes, and bright green fava beans.

cake 2

No wedding cake for us this time (the first time around we had two types: bourbon pecan and chocolate, with vanilla ice cream).  Our waitress came to our table after the main course. “Here at Thistle we have just one dessert each night. Tonight’s is berries with whipped cream.”


And they were perfect—raspberries and blackberries that had never seen the inside of a refrigerator with barely whipped cream.  (The cream wasn’t really pink; I just hate using a flash in a restaurant).

I can’t wait to go back to Thistle. I just hope the next quarter century passes by a bit more slowly. But I know it won’t, so I’ll be sure to taste everything as the years flash by.
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