Grilled as you like it

Ivan Ramen May 22, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Japan — laurel @ 10:07 pm
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shoyu ramen

On my second try I made it to Ivan Ramen, the Tokyo ramen shop owned by transplanted New York chef Ivan Orkin that has received lots of favorable attention from both bloggers and newspapers such as The Japan Times and even New York Times. So why was it my second try? Well, the first time I went, I showed up in time for dinner on a Saturday, only to find that they’re only open for lunch on weekends. So next time I was in Tokyo I was sure to get there at lunchtime. And I wasn’t the only one. There was a line of hungry customers stretching back into the adjacent alley. As we waited for a seat at the cozy counter inside, we passed around a menu to whet our appetites. With just 10 seats around the bar, it was sure to be a long wait, and my stomach was really rumbling by the end.

Once seated, I ordered the slow-roasted garlic mazemen and Alex got the shoyu ramen. We also split the roasted tomato meshi, which was more food than we needed, but it looked so good that I really wanted to try it. Ivan was really friendly, chatting with us while he made our ramen.

slow roasted garlic mazemen with everything (charshu, hanjuku tamago, onions, and ao-nori)

Mmm… A taste of these delicious dishes revealed that it was worth the wait, but next time I think I’ll try to show up a little earlier to beat the crowd.

roasted tomato meshi


Nakiri-bocho April 20, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:50 pm
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I picked this bad boy up in Kappabashi last summer. It’s a nakiri-bocho, or vegetable cutting knife. At first, it might not sound so useful because it’s just for cutting vegetables… not as versatile as a chef’s knife. However, I find that I use it almost every night. Vegetables are probably the thing that you cut most, and this knife does it well. It’s super sharp and thin, so you can get nice, even slices. It does a great job cutting crisp vegetables like lotus roots that tend to split when you cut them with a thicker chef’s knife. And the lightness and flat cutting edge allow you to get into a really fast cutting rhythm (just watch your fingers). It really shines when cutting an herb chiffonade or whisper thin rings of green onion. The thin blade, however, means it’s not for cutting really hard things like kabocha or other winter squash. I also reserve this knife just for fruits and vegetables (though I don’t thing the shape would be very good for cutting meat anyways).

Since I only cut fruits and vegetables with it, cleanup is just a quick rinse and dry. Even though it’s “stainless,” it can’t be left sitting around wet or with vegetables stuck on it, as it will rust on the cutting edge. But with just a little care, it stays in fine condition. I also take time to sharpen it on a whetstone occasionally (about once every month or two). A regular high-carbon steel knife will have more of a tendency to rust, so it is even more important to wash and dry it right away after using it.

Another benefit of a nakiri-bocho is that unlike many Japanese knives which have single-edged blades, the nakiri-bocho is sharpened on both sides, so it can be used by both left- and right-handers (which is handy in my kitchen since I’m left-handed and Alex is right handed).

I bought mine at Kama-Asa Shoten in Kappabashi. As a service, they’ll also engrave your name on your knife. My knife is 速月桂樹 (hayai-gekkeiju), which is my last and first name translated into Japanese. My students always get a good laugh when I tell them they can remember my name as hayai-gekkeiju; I suppose the mental image of a branch of laurel running by quickly is pretty funny.

So if you’re looking to add a traditional Japanese knife to your collection, I highly recommend a nakiri-bocho.


Miso in the mail April 15, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Eating,Japan — laurel @ 10:49 pm
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If you live outside Japan, you might be tempted to believe (due to the selection that’s available at most stores) that miso comes in two varieties: white and red. Well think that no more. Miso, a fermented paste of soy beans, salt, and koji (a special kind of mold that is usually used by inoculating rice or barley), is a delicious and many-flavored thing. There are so many different varieties that vary by regional tastes and traditions. Basically, Kyushu is home to mugi miso made with barley, different varieties of kome miso made with rice are found across Honshu, and Nagoya is the birthplace of the slightly funky-tasting all-soybean Hatcho miso. In addition to color (varying shades of brown, but usually described as white or red) miso can be classified by it’s texture, level of sweetness to saltiness, and flavorfulness. Many misos are associated with the region they originated in: Saikyo (Kyoto), Echigo (Niigata), Edo-mae (Tokyo), Akita, Shinshu (Nagano), Sendai, and the list continues. Most families keep at least two types to mix their own special blend, called awase miso.

A glowing review in the Japan Times led me to Sano Miso in Tokyo’s Kameido neighborhood. I love seeing their rows of miso barrels with their conical lids, ready to be lifted for a whiff of the miso’s fragrance. The sales staff helpfully made recommendations and would mix up quick cups of miso soup so that I could taste and compare the flavors. There are so many varieties, so it’s really necessary to taste a few before you make your decision. In addition to miso, the store stocks other pantry necessities like dried kombu, katsuo flakes, soy sauces, vinegars, and so on. I highly recommend the giant, delicious, and not too sour umeboshi and the jidai mame, peanuts with a sweet, crunchy coating.

At first, I would stop in when I was in Tokyo on other business, but the train ride out to Kameido and back wasn’t exactly quick. On my last visit, I asked if I could get my miso by mail order. What luck, they gave me their catalog and their web address. Not only can I have my miso delivered right to my door, but with shipping all over Honshu just 290 yen, mail order costs less than a round trip on the train. How wonderful!

After poring over the descriptions of each miso (and finishing the miso that I still had from my previous visit to the Kameido store), I prepared my order. I settled on 500 grams each of red Kogane miso, white Kogane miso, Nagasaki mugi miso, and Sendai miso, along with a case of amazake and a few bags of jidai mame. My order arrived just a few days later with a bill to be paid at the convenience store. And the miso? Fantastic–my favorites are the red Kogane miso and Nagasaki mugi miso, both of which are sweet and flavorful. (I have been very happy with all of the miso that I’ve bought from Sano Miso, with the one exception being their Saikyo miso, which seemed too mild and a bit floury tasting.)

500 grams each (left to right) of white Kogane miso, Nagasaki mugi miso, red Kogane miso, and Sendai miso.

I store my miso in 450 mL glass storage jars from Muji (the stackable rectangular shape fits in the refrigerator more efficiently). I was surprised that I could fit 500 grams of miso in a 450 mL container (with room to spare) until I realized that the salt used to produce the miso makes it somewhat more dense than water. Not surprisingly, the saltiest of the four, Sendai miso, takes up the least space.

If you’re interested in ordering some miso for yourself (in Japan of course), start from Sano Miso’s website. Even if you’re Japanese isn’t quite up to snuff, you can do it easily with some help from Google Translate.


Tsukiji market tuna auction closed to public until May April 14, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:57 pm
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Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Central Wholesale Market, the center of the world’s seafood trade, has closed the famed tuna auctions to tourists until May 8th (see the story in Mainichi Daily News). Although the market has closed the auctions to tourists during the busy New Year’s season, this is the first time that they have been closed outside of that time period. It’s too bad, but on my last visit I did notice that the long lines of (slightly clueless) tourists were in the way and some of the workers at the market seemed frustrated with their mere presence. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the market is completely closed–you can still enjoy a delicious sushi breakfast in the outer market and peruse the shops there. Once the auctions reopen, if you go, stay out of the way of ongoing business, look out for those turret trucks, and don’t touch the fish!

turret truck traffic


Cook this Hot Pot! January 30, 2009


A while back I was browsing some of my favorite Japanese food blogs when I came across a call for recipe testers for an upcoming book on nabe, or Japanese hot pots, titled Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals at Japanese Food Report. Well, I love nabe, I think it’s a great winter meal that allows everyone to gather around the kotatsu and enjoy a simple meal from a communal pot, so I couldn’t resist.

Usually a nabe dinner at my house is an overflowing hodgepodge of meats and vegetables (the more the merrier) cooked in a broth of dashi, soy sauce, and mild kimchi. I love our kimchi nabe, but I was definitely looking forward to trying out some new recipes.

Here are some pictures of the recipes we tested:


Our favorite recipe was definitely this Korean influenced lamb shabu-shabu served with a spicy black sesame dipping sauce.


Next we made Negima Nabe – or Old Tokyo Tuna Belly Hotpot. At first I was intimidated by the recipe, which called for a pound of toro (fatty tuna belly). Luckily, I found a small fish monger near my house who sold me the cubed chu-toro that was too small or sinewy to be sold as toro for sushi. He even gave me a little extra discount, so I got about two-thirds of a pound of tuna for just 400 yen!


Finally we made Momiji Nabe, which was venison and vegetables in a wine and miso broth. Getting the ingredients for this nabe was a little challenging, since venison isn’t sold at most grocery stores in Japan. In the end we had to go to Tokyo to find the meat, but I was able to discover two great international markets there. I highly recommend Nissin supermarket in the Azabu-Juban neighborhood of Tokyo; they had an amazing selection of meats along with lots of other international groceries. We were also impressed with National Azabu in the Hiroo neighborhood.

Check out Harris Salat’s Japanese Food Report to learn more about nabe or Japanese food and ingredients. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for his hot pot cookbook too.


Kappabashi April 30, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 7:30 pm
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the evolution of a knife from formless steel to a fine blade, at Tsubaya knife shop in Kappabashi

After Tsukiji, we headed to Kappabashi. Kappabashi is the restaurant supply district in Tokyo; you’ll find it midway between Ueno and Asakusa. T wanted to check out some knife shops that had been recommended to him and I wanted to pick up a suribachi that I’d been eyeing and get a new donabe since my old one (a plain but trusty nabe that we picked up at the mom and pop housewares shop in Maebashi) had suffered an unfortunate end, tumbling off the dish rack onto the floor a few weeks earlier. Kappabashi has a great array of shops selling everything you might need for your kitchen, including kitchen tools, knives, ceramics, cast iron, enamel ware, and plastic food models. It was raining off and on and we were feeling pretty tired, so we didn’t take very many pictures, but I’ll try to get back and put together a really good post about Kappabashi sometime in the next few months.

Niimi kitchenware store has cup and saucer-shaped balconies – the golden kappa of Kappabashi – another Niimi store across the street, topped with a giant chef’s head

T needed a saya for his old knife and a pair of moribashi, so our first stops would be the knife shops. We stopped on the into a few of the enamel shops that sell fancy bento boxes and bowls for miso soup, rice, and side dishes. We went to the shop (whose name I forget) that sells cast iron and knives. They had a good selection of moribashi too. Dad bought a teapot. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was the same one that we have here at our house. I asked where we could find Tsubaya, which T was looking for. The shopkeeper said, “It’s down the street, but you’ll pay 50% more there for the same knife you can buy here.” He took out a knife and showed me. Apparently, many of the shops buy from the same suppliers and have the knives stamped with their shop name so it’s “original.

We headed down the street and back up the other side, stopping at Tsubaya. The first shopkeeper had been right, the knife he showed me was 50% more there, but the Kyocera ceramic knife was less. So I guess you just have to shop around at all the stores if you want to be sure to get the best price. In any case, T was looking for a saya here, not a knife. Next, we headed across the street to Union, where T admired the deba bocho display and I admired the soba knives (not that I actually know how to make soba, so there is really no need for me to own that kind of a knife).

We left and continued walking down the street, but a few stores down T stopped and counted his money, then headed back to Union. While he bought the deba, I headed across the street to buy the donabe that I had seen earlier. After that, we headed back to the cast iron and knife shop and he bought a pair of moribashi. Finally, we stopped into a big shop with a wide selection of western cookware and also a Japanese style section on the second floor in the back. Here I picked up the suribachi that I’d been thinking of since my last trip to Kappabashi. Now I just need to get back to Kusatsu to buy one of those sansho wood surikogi that I saw last time I was there (and they were cheap!). While we were here, T bought a small suribachi that was pretty enough that you could make and serve a small batch of dressing or sauce in it. Dad bought a lovely but expensive copper cup too. Finally we had everything we needed.

T and I stopped back into a couple of the enamel ware shops to consider buying a jubako, but decided against it. Maybe next time. I also looked into a ceramics shop that I’d never noticed on my previous trips to Kappabashi. Perhaps they’re always closed on Sunday, which is when I usually go there. It was unfortunate that I’d already bought a donabe, because they had a lovely maple-patterned one on sale. I just can’t get it out of my mind. Perhaps next time…

Shopping with T in the restaurant supply district was a ton of fun. I definitely don’t feel like a kitchen-obsessed weirdo when we’re together, because he loves knives as much as I love kitchen tools.

My new suribachi – kimchi nabe in the new donabe

For dinner the next night, we took the new donabe for a test drive, making kimchi nabe. It’s plenty large enough, but it did get some kimchi stains. I guess the only way around that problem is to have a dark, reddish-orange donabe…


Tsukiji April 29, 2008

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:58 pm
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Morning at Tsukiji fish market

On March 31st we went to Tsukiji’s wholesale fish market. This was the first opportunity that I’ve had to come to Tsukiji because it’s actually closed on Sundays and holidays, which are usually the only time I would be in Tokyo by 5 in the morning. Since we were taking some time off over spring break to spend time with visiting friends and family, we were able to come to Tokyo on Sunday night so that we could visit the market in the morning.

We woke up early and walked to the market, arriving around 5:00 am. It was a cold and rainy morning, but the inner market is covered, so we left our umbrellas at the entrance and entered the market. The first thing we saw were many many doors and just as many signs that read “Do not enter.” There were so many, in fact, that I began to wonder if the whole market had been closed to visitors and I just hadn’t gotten the memo. Three-wheeled, flatbed delivery trucks (see above) whizzed around everywhere, barely missing the stacks of styrofoam fish boxes, other trucks, and me. Finally, we found the visitor area and went inside. The visitor area was a roped-off corridor through the middle of the frozen tuna auction room. The corridor was filled with tourists, mostly foreigners who had come to see the auction, just like us. As the garage door opened and closed to let the wholesale buyers come in and out, tourists would “accidentally” wander in through the open door into the auction area, while those of us who had read the signs were stuck in the tourist corral. Every once in a while, someone would come over and tell the lost tourists to get back to the visitor area, but mostly they just went about their business.

frozen tuna at the auction – auctioneers at work

At 5:30 the auctions began. Each of the auctioneers for the wholesale houses would ring a bell to attract the attention of the buyers. Then he would begin to shout the number of the fish being auctioned and the buying price. The buyers gathered around would bid for the tuna, and soon the auctioneer was on to the next one. Sometimes there were several auctions going on simultaneously for the different auction houses. It must be tough to be a buyer. After the auction concluded, the auctioneer would pack up, and another man would come through with paper tags with the name of each fish’s buyer. He would dip the tag into a bucket of water and throw it onto the frozen fish. The wet tag would then stick to the fish until the buyer came with a dolly or truck to take it away to the inner market.

slicing frozen tuna on a band saw – slicing fresh tuna with a huge knife

After the auction, we headed into the inner market. Here, we probably say every type of seafood that was fit to eat. There were tanks with live fish, and boxes upon boxes of not-live fish. Octopus, shellfish, blowfish, you-name-it. There were also vendors with other foods like produce, tofu, seaweed, bonito, and so on. The corridors in the inner market are narrow, and it’s business, not a tourist attraction for most of the people here, so you really have to watch your step and keep it moving or you’re going to get wet!

T was looking for the Aritsugu knife shop, so we got directions and headed to the outer market, where Aritsugu is located.

T looks for the perfect knife – sharpening the knife – deba bocho

The outer market has many shops and restaurants, and is probably better suited for tourists and casual shoppers than the hectic inner market. There were actually three knife shops, so of course we went to all of them. T finally settled on a 30 cm blue steel yanagiba at Aritsugu. After he picked out the knife, the shopkeeper let him choose the piece of horn that holds the handle firm over the blade. T chose a lovely ivory and brown one. Finally, the shopkeeper sharpened the knife to perfection.

Tsukiji’s outer market

After we finished our shopping, we wanted to have a sushi breakfast, since we’d all heard that Tsukiji offers the best sushi anywhere. Since it was so cold and rainy, we headed right to the first sushi restaurant that we could all sit down at right away. Some of the other shops had lines out the door. The restaurant we picked only offered sets, so I had the ladies set, Alex had the deluxe set, and Dad and T had the chirashi. The fish was deliciously fresh, but the chefs were a bit hurried, so the presentation was nothing special and some of the nigiri had way too much wasabi. I can’t handle too much wasabi, so my sinuses were burning and my eyes were watering as I struggled to chew without letting the wasabi touch my tongue too much. Ouch!

chirashi-zushi with uni, ikura, maguro, firefly squid, tamago, hamachi, saba, and more

Although on a sunny day it would have been nice to wander the market some more, we were getting pretty wet and cold, so we hightailed it back to our hotel for a hot shower and a nap before heading out for the rest of the day.

tamago, ikura nigiri, and firefly squid nigiri

I highly recommend a trip to Tsukiji if you’ll be in Tokyo on a weekday or Saturday early in the morning. If you’ve just arrived in Japan, it will be great fun because you will probably be wide awake from your jet lag at this time anyways. If you go, I recommend getting a map of the outer market (some of the shopkeepers have old ones that they’ll give you for free), it’s in Japanese, but there’s pictures to help you find the shops you’re looking for. Follow the signs (don’t pretend you can’t read English and sneak into the “Do not enter” areas, that’s not polite). And finally, be careful! There’s lots of trucks, dollies, bicycles, and slippery floors around, so watch your step!

For more info, check out the 24 hours at Tsukiji Market website.