Monday, December 29, 2008

An Acquired Taste

It's a typical Friday night in an typical neighborhood izakaya. The man next to me asks if I like sushi. He acts genuinely surprised when I say yes. He asks about natto  (musty tasting, gluey fermented soybeans). 

I say, "it's OK, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it."

He smiles. "Shiroko (steamed fish milt)?"

I answer the same, having spent a week last February accidently ordering it in restaurants over several days and finding it not so unpleasant.

He hopes to catch me. "What do you think of shiokara (salt pickled squid, guts and all)?"

Japanese rightfully pride themselves on the amazing permutations and variations of their cuisine. From many a Japanese point of view, a measure of cultural difference is the stuff they eat. Quite often, among less worldly folks here, there is an assumption that only Japanese like - and can eat - Japanese food. What makes the outsider truly different is that they will never like the food from their world. And the litmus test is how the outsider reacts to the ostensibly difficult foods - from the raw, to the sticky and slimy, to the obscure, and to the fetid.

When the Ajimi team first began flirting, a true "ah ha, this is a woman who can rock my world" moment came in a missive in which Virginia stated "we will sing for our supper at a local Japanese restaurant (try the fish innards)." A complex and brilliant seduction was underway. Appealing to our mutual desires of making music and being in the spotlight together opened up a door. But fish innards were a key to my heart and soul. I soon flew from Seattle to Japan to spend some time with this woman whose taste for culinary adventure was boundless. Our first night together in Japan took us to what would become a favorite restaurant, Kawacho. At this small, neighborhood joint hidden on a back street in Bakurocho, we ordered a small plate of house-made shiokara. As I offered the first taste to Virginia, she declined, saying she actually really didn't like the stuff. At least she had tried it before.

The rough handmade dish complimented the silky bands of squid. A beautiful mahogany colored sauce caressed the off-pink strips of perfect briny cephalopod. I picked up a glistening bit of squid in my chopsticks. The moment had finally come. I ate my first bite of shiokara.

It was awful. It was just how one might expect several days-old squid to taste - sour, rubbery, rotten.

Two years have nearly passed since our first outing in Japan. Since that time I've had the opportunity to eat shirokara often. It's a recommended snack to compliment one's sake. As time has passed, I've actually grown to like it. At a recent Slow Food dinner several bowls of potatoes slathered in shiokara appeared. They were great.

I turn to the man in the typical neighborhood izakaya. "Actually, I really like shiokara."

He looks at me quizically, then lets out a hearty laugh. We toast to our mutual likes. Virginia joins in, though she passes on the shiokara.

If you want to make your own shiokara there's a recipe at this link.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Ajimi Team in the Press

We've been busily writing over the last few months about a variety of topics, from music to wine to chocolate to coffee. This month the New York Times published our piece about the music scene in Koenji. We'll have articles in Wine Enthusiast Magazine about the Japanese wine industry (November) and boutique chocolatier Claudio Corallo (January or February). Finally, Fresh Cup Magazine will run a piece about roast-to-order coffee merchants in Tokyo in its February issue.

We hope you enjoy reading these articles and we'll keep you posted on future developments.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

We Got the Beets

A few years ago, my then-neighbor Adrienne bought a juicer and began making juice out of everything she could lay her hands on: garlic, carrots, apples, ginger, celery, spinach...all were drawn into the vortex. But one vegetable eluded her: beets. It seemed that she could not find a beet anywhere in Tokyo, at any price. I had not given much thought to beets in many years but began to keep a sharp eye out for them whenever I went shopping. And, indeed, beets were nowhere to be found. A few months ago we did spot some at the Kinokuniya supermarket in the basement of the Bunkamura building in Shibuya...puny things for about 3 bucks each! We wrote beets off and moved on.

But Christmas is the season of miracles. On Friday night we attended a bonenkai party where we met Alex the Russian. Nick's first question: where the heck do you find beets in this town? Alex scores his -- affordably -- at the OK Market near Yoyogi Uehara station. He even makes a sweet liquor infusion out of them. But then, the following night, we attended a Slow Food party at the Shinjuku Kumin Center and what to our wondering eyes should appear but a boiling cauldron of home-made borscht! Synchronicity! One of the organizers, Noriko, orders her beets from a food co-op and the resulting soup was served with fresh cream and yogurt. The borscht had a special Japanese touch: a dash of Awamori, high-octane Okinawan rice liquor, to give it a special zing.

The party was a very yummy affair with guest foodies from all over Japan. We met Narita-san, a master soba maker from Tokyo; Meero-san, an international food consultant from Hokkaido; seed savers from Osaka; and Masu, who throws monthly fruit, music and art parties in Aoyama (reservations in English and Japanese at Most of the guests had arrived before noon and spent the day cooking together in the well-outfitted kitchen-cum- function room overlooking Shinjuku Gyoen. We dined by candlelight with the lights of Shinjuku glowing in the distance. As we left around 9 pm, people were still arriving to share food and comradeship. We received a large, lovely beet as an early Christmas present.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Uguisu Droppings

Here is an example of how a little curiosity -- combined with confusing information -- can be a dangerous and wonderful thing. We were riffing the other night on the meaning of the names of stops along the Yamanote Line, that roughly oval train line that circumscribes central Tokyo. Many of the stations along the Y are named after natural or historic features that were obliterated in the urban expansion. Take for example Uguisudani -- Valley of the Bush Warbler -- the stop north of Ueno on the city's east side, now noteworthy for the sharp contrast between its 20th-century love hotel district and Sasanoyuki, one of the city's most revered tofu restaurants dating back 200 years or more.

So, like, today, Nick picked up a wee treat at the local konbini, a pastry filled with green bean paste. It was called "Uguisupan." The penny dropped and we started thinking that there might be some connection between the pastry and the place. The pastry was a classic an-filled bun, but instead of the traditional red bean filling, there was a sweet mild green beany paste. We hit the Internet, with its problematic auto-translation, to assist our limited Japanese. Several false leads later, we finally came upon a site that had a recipe for uguisuan - the mildly sweet paste filling. Voila! The secret of the paste was endomame - peas, minus pods, cooked with sugar to create an enjoyable sweet spread. But where did the bird fit in? Was the treat named after the color of bush warblers? Their droppings? The sound of steaming bean paste mimicking their love call? Or what?

Uguisuiro -- or "bush-warbler color" -- also translates into olive green. A quiz of some Japanese friends revealed that the names of many colors - or at least the more appealing ones - come from their resemblance to the flora and fauna of Japan.

The uguisu is also sometimes referred to as the Japanese nightingale, although it never sings at night. A web search followed for the term "Japanese nightingale." And what should turn up first but a reference to the use of Japanese nightingale droppings as a component of a beauty cream used by Victoria (Posh Spice) and David Beckham. This wonder product apparently contains an enzyme that lightens skin, cures acne and could enhance your career as a kabuki actor.

Alas, the little mystery of the origin of the pastry name remains unsolved. Is the green bean paste known as uguisuan because of its resemblance to the bird or its droppings? It's a sticky subject we've come to - and maybe not just metaphorically. When you open the door and a little uguisu darts in, be prepared for a few flights of fancy and some potentially profitable cleanup.

The wikipedia entry on the bush warbler - adds another layer of lore and uguisu usage for your pleasure.

NV and VS