Monday, June 18, 2012

May 29, 2012. The Hawthornes Have A Most Excellent Repast. At Koi In Nashville.

The Hawthornes made a 
through Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas,
to Nashville, Tennessee,
where we met up with our friend, Zzzadig,
a true culinary visionary.

Whenever I can get in
a Living Color video
I will.

I called Zzzadig
and told him of the Hawthornes' imminent arrival.
Where would he recommend we meet for lunch?

Zzadig picked the ultimate place for us.
Koi Sushi and Thai
in Nashville, Tennessee.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Z. was unable to join us.
Damn pesky work.
Hate it!

But on the good side,
this was the best meal we've had yet!
And the best part about that,
it was stuff I'm not used to.
Rosie had an out-of-the-envelope experience.
You might say,
"I pushed my box."

Mr. Hawthorne had a salad with miso/ginger dressing.
He's into miso now,
even though I've been serving it to him
for the past 6 months and he never realized it.

Zzzadig ordered oshitashi, a spinach salad appetizer -
wilted spinach in sesame oil
with toasted sesame seeds sprinkled atop
and probably some mirin.
Zzzadig added lemon juice and soy sauce.

We all partook.
I've made this several times since arriving home.
Love it!
Of course, I like to add in some butter.

This was exquisite.
The best thing I've put in my mouth for quite some time.
It's hamachikama,
and it's not on the menu,
and Zzzadig knew to ask for it.
It's yellowtail tuna jaw.
You need the chopsticks
to bore into the cavities
to pull out some of the sweetest meat 
you've ever had the pleasure of eating.

Living where we do,
I'm going to ask some of my
world-class fisherman friends
to supply me with this delicacy.

Else, I'll just go to the docks
when the boats come in
and beg/buy the heads.

Mr. Hawthorne had some type of curry shrimp dish
with red and green peppers, broccoli, carrots,
and baby corn.
He liked it.
It was "different,"
 in the sense that he'd like to recreate it.

The sauce was interesting.
Delicate hints of flavors.
Peanut butter here.
Five-spice powder there.

I got his corn and egg roll.
Not on his diet.

I started out with a soup -
Nebeyaki udon
with a deliciously succulent shrimp tempura.

A udon hot-pot -
a simple one-pot dish 
filled with chewy udon noodles,
 vegetables, and chicken.
A heady broth - dashi  -
with radishes, scallions,
spinach, udon noodles,
and a lot of fleeting flavors I'm not used to
and couldn't put my finger on.
Could have been the dashi.

The shrimp tempura was incomparably light and crisp.

An egg in my soup.

A note on dashi:

Dashi is the classic Japanese cooking broth
and is considered fundamental to Japanese cooking.
"Many substitutes for dashi are possible,
but without dashi, 
dishes are merely 'a la japonaise'
and lack the authentic flavor."

I've been reading Jeffrey Steingarten's
The Man Who Ate Everything
And Other Gastronomic Feats,
Disputes, and Pleasurable Pursuits
and  Steingarten states,
"Every Japanese dish or its dipping sauce
is flavored with soy or dashi or both."

Like you, I want to immediately learn about dashi.
What is dashi?
What is its story?

Steingarten asked,
"Why doesn't everybody in China
have a headache?"
After polishing off a happy lunch at
the Mei Long Zhen restaurant in Shanghai,
Steingarten sensed a deep and blinding insight
taking shaping somewhere inside him.
He visited the kitchen and each chef stood
before a wide black wok set into a ceramic counter
over a fierce fire.
Alongside each wok was a table
holding a dozen or so flavorings and condiments
into which the chef would dip his ladle
as he prepared each dish -
light and dark soy,
salt, sugar, hot chili oil,
ground dried red pepper,
white and black pepper,
finely chopped garlic,
ginger, scallions, cornstarch,
and finally a bowl of white Gourmet Powder.
Gourmet Powder is the name for MSG or monosodium glutamate.
There was not one kitchen Steingarten went to in China
that did not have an amply supply of Gourmet Powder.
As Steingarten left Mei Long Zhen,
it fully and finally struck him:
"Nobody in China has a headache!"

Could it be that the 90 some million souls in America
who complain about the effects of MSG -

are nothing but crybabies and hypochondriacs?
Does Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
not exist in China, a nation long noted
for its large number of Chinese restaurants?

Steingarten took it upon himself
to embark upon a series of interviews
which included 6 subjects at his hotel
who could speak English.
He asked them whether they had eaten lunch
and if they had a headache.
The answers were "yes" and "no," respectively.
After obtaining this information,
Steingarten, boldly extrapolating,
scientifically concluded that no one in the
entire Shanghai province,
 the largest Chinese settlement in the world,
had a headache, despite the profusion of
Gourmet Powder on practically every street corner.

Giddy with this knowledge
(Not an unbiased observer,
Steingarten is a fiend at rooting out
phony food allergies and intolerances.),
Steingarten is happy to point out
that the fear of MSG strikes him
as particularly odd,
since the same chemical in its natural form
has been used as a flavor enhancer since at least the 8th century.

According to Steingarten,
in 1908, Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at the University of Tokyo,
studied the flavor inherent in a traditional Japanese broth
which comes from kombu.
Kombu is a seaweed
or giant kelp, a plant growing up to 30 feet long
in the northern islands of Japan.
Harvesting of the kombu was first recorded
in A.D. 797.

Ikeda discovered that  glutamic acid
is the active taste ingredient in kombu.
He identified the brown crystals
left behind after the evaporation of kombu broth
as glutamic acid,
which, when tasted,
reproduced that richly savory taste
and harmonizing of flavors,
associated with many foods, but especially in seaweed.
Ikeda named this taste "umami,"'
the Japanese word for "deliciousness."
In the following years,
Japanese scientists would prove to their satisfaction
and to that of many Westerners,
that umami is a basic, independent taste
right up there next to the accepted quartet
of salty, sweet, sour, and bitter.
Professor Ikeda then patented a method
of mass-producing a crystalline salt of glutamic acid,
or monosodium glutamate - MSG.

  Giant kelp has the highest concentration
of free glutamate - naturally occurring MSG.
Parmesan cheese contains the second highest concentration,
with sun-dried tomatoes and tomato paste
in third and fourth places.
Have you heard of PIS, the Parmesan Inspired Syndrome?
or STIH Happens?
Sundried Tomato Identified Hypocondriac?

A few years after Ideda's 1908 discovery,
another umami substance was discovered -
inosinate, or IMP for short.
I was wondering where the MP came from.
Apparently, inosinic acid is inosine monophosphate,
hence the MP.
This discovery explained the taste of savory Japanese broths
made with dried bonito flakes.
It wasn't until 1960 that a third umami substance was discovered -
guanylate, or GMP.
Guanosine monophosphate.
GMP is found in high concentrations in shiitake mushrooms.

MSG, IMP, and GMP were all once thought of as
"flavor enhancers or potentiators."
They have not been shown
to intensify any of the other four basic tastes.
Instead, when you add these "potentiators"
to other foods,  the small quantities of natural umami substances
 already present in the food itself
are greatly intensified and enhanced.
"... when tiny amounts of glutamate and IMP
are mixed together,
their flavoring power is increased 16 times."

The power of umami
explains a number of gastronomic phenonmena -
Umami and glutamic acid
are why we love pizza.
Ditto to sprinkling Parmesan on pasta.
Would you like ketchup with those fries?
Ketchup on that burger?
Soy on that Chinese?
Umami and glutamic acid at work, my friends.

This all leads back to dashi.
This Japanese broth is used to prepare nearly
all boiled dishes and to flavor sauces and rice.
It is made from both dried bonito flakes (IMP)
in combination with dried kombu (free glutamate)
and sometimes a few slices of shiitake (GMP) floating on top.
In a country that has raised comparatively little meat
until well into this century,
the deeply savory dashi
has been fundamental to the preparation of almost all food.
Connoisseurs are said to judge a Japanese restaurant
by the quality of its dashi.

According to Steingarten,
this proliferation of free glutamate, IMP, and GMP
explain why fermented fish sauces
and intense extracts of meat and vegetables
have been held at high value for at least 2000 years.
Huge amounts of glutamate
are contained in the nuoc nam sauce of Vietnam,
a fermented fish sauce,
along with the Roman garum,
a fermented fish sauce,
and the Thai, nam pla,
a fermented fish sauce.
Other sources of glutamate:
Worcestershire Sauce,
British beef tea, Bovril,
Vegemite, and Marmite.
All have huge amounts of free glutamate.

Steingarten continues:
"Young peas contain more free glutamate
 than the mature vegetable,
 but ripe tomatoes contain much more than pale pink ones,
 which may explain why we love young peas and old tomatoes.
  And like tomatoes,
 young cheeses contain far less glutamate
 - and far less flavor - 
 than fully ripened specimens.
Oysters have the highest glutamate level 
in February and March,
and the lowest in August,
when we are not supposed to eat them.
As Iberian ham,
the most splendid in the world,
undergoes its 18-month cure,
the amino acid that increases most
is glutamate.
Remove the free glutamate from crab,
and it loses it crabby taste entirely.
Free glutamate is most commonly found in vegetables,
inosinic acid in food derived from animals.
So, there is a synergistic effect when we 
cook or eat meat and vegetables together,
intensifying the savory umami character of both.
Mother Nature or God,
whichever you prefer,
designed our taste buds 
to find a balanced diet more delicious
than a lopsided one.

Steingarten is at dinner at Chihana (A Thousand Flowers)
in Kyoto, presided over by Mr. Nagata,
 the seventy-five-year-old chef-owner.
 After eating his way through numerous offerings -
... a series of tiny appetizers:
a little cup of gelatinous junsai delicately flavored with dashi, soy, and vinegar (the first time I saw the point of eating junsai), plump raw clams with seaweed; the tenderest cold octopus, stewed for three hours in dashi, soy, and sake; sea trout grilled in salt with a sauce of ume, soy, and salt (ume are called plums but are really apricots); and barely cooked broad beans with a loose white rectangle of something called children-of-the-clouds.  This is a welcome euphemism for the sperm of a fish, often cod but in this meal tai sperm.  Its flavor is bland and difficult to describe, except to say that it does not taste like fish; its texture and appearance resemble tofu or unset custard.  I do not expect to find children-of-the-clouds stands popping up in minimalls across America.

Steingarten recalls his experience with the clear soup:

Now came the moment for clear soup and sashimi, 'the test pieces of Japanese cuisine ... the criteria by which a meal stands or falls...  The soup and raw fish are so important that the other dishes are merely garnishes.'  The fish instantly reveals whether the chef sets high standards for freshness and seasonal perfection.  That I can readily understand.  But a bowl of clear soup as the centerpiece of a complicated feast.  This is the course I listlessly sip at Japanese restaurants in New York or Los Angeles, if I touch it at all.
I lifted the lid and was lost in a cloud of aromatic vapor, familiar but intense.  I briefly noticed a cube of tofu, a shiitake mushroom, and a sprig of kinome in the broth, and I began to drink it.  The basic flavors were a summing up of the Japanese concept of umami, of savoriness, meatiness, mouthwateringness, the bliss-point of any food.  Umami is the Japanese fifth taste (our textbooks tell us there are four), and dried bonito, kelp, and shiitake all offer a concentrated dose of umami. 

In his book, Japanese Cooking:  A Simple Art,
Shizuo Tsuji, the renowned Japanese chef whose cooking school in Osake - Ecole Technique Hoteliere Tsuji - is the largest and most important in Japan, writes about dashi:
If the soup is good, it proves that the chef knows how to blend his bonito stock - the flavor of all the dishes to come."

Steingarten explains:
On the way to the Osaka airport, I bought another copy of Mr. Tsuji's "Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art" and read it all the way home as though it were a thriller.  The mysteries of Mr. Nagata's soup were easy to solve.  You begin with a piece of kelp, a dense block of dried bonito fillet, and a quantity of good water.  (Giant kelp is harvested from the subarctic waters off Rebun Island, in Hokkaido, and dried in the sun until it becomes amber brown and mottled with a white powder that bears much of its flavor.  Bonito is dried in both shade and open air in a complicated process that takes six months.)  You place the kelp in cold water over a medium flame and remove it just before the water boils.  Then you shave the bonito into thin ribbons, using a special blade mounted on a wooden box, and add them to the broth.  Bring it to the boil again, and turn off the heat.  A minute later, when the bonito has settled to the bottom, strain the dashi.

To make a clear soup, you add a little salt and light soy sauce to the dashi, heat without boiling, and pour it into bowls with three or four little pieces of solid food.  Cover the bowls immediately, or the precious aroma of the dashi will be lost, and serve within thirty seconds.

That's it.  The entire process takes twelve minutes.  But only the most expensive restaurants in Japan still make dashi this way and my newly educated taste buds have not detected its presence in New York.  Most places use instant dashi powder or at best a plastic bag of commercial bonito shavings.  Mr. Nagata's simple, flawless soup sums up a traditional way of life in Japan that grows more remote with every passing day.  Many modern Japanese  have never tasted this  central essence of their own cuisine.

Faux crab, cream cheese,
and some other stuff
with pickled ginger and wasabi.

Speaking of wasabi,
most people, even Japanese,
have never tasted real wasabi.
Wasabi is a long root which grows only
along the marshy banks of cold, fresh,
free-flowing streams 
(and, apparently only in Japan).
The best wasabi is grown on the Izu Peninsula,
southwest of Tokyo and is very expensive.
It should be grated right before you use it.

According to Steingarten,
"True wasabi has a mellow, sweeter flavor
than the acrid paste we get in this country 
(and in much of Japan)
which is mixed from a powder or squeezed out of a tube 
like toothpaste and contains very little wasabi." 

I just checked the ingredients list on my
wasabi jar:
"powdered horseradish,
mustard, and artificial color (including #5)."

These are the Salad Rolls -
faux crab, shrimp, avocado, wrapped in cucumber
in a mirin/soy sauce/rice vinegar.

I don't know what Steingarten
would say about this meal,
but I liked it.
So that's the bottom line.

I do like what Steingarten wrote later:
In M. F. K. Fisher's introduction to Mr. Tsuji's cookbook, she reveals her difficulty returning to Western food after several weeks in Japan.  My reaction was similar. The thought of a whole grilled chicken lying on a big round plate to be dismembered by metal weapons seemed repulsive.  I tried a few favorite Japanese restaurants in New York but missed the aroma of true dashi and the taste of real wasabi, the sprigs of kinome, and the silkiness of sea bream.  For an entire afternoon, I lost my appetite completely.  One day I went out looking for a bonito shaver and came back with a sack of Japanese rice.  Mr. Tsuji jokes that it takes twenty years to learn how to boil rice, and I am counting the days until the year 2011.  But my first try was not a catastrophe.
Finally realizing that there is no way I can eat as I did in Kyoto, I slowly nursed myself back to health.  I began by taking a spoonful of creme brulee now and then, a bit or two of pastrami on rye. Now, several weeks later, I can eat an entire small Western meal without much difficulty.  But after dinner, I still feel a longing for a bowl of rice and two or three slices of fish.
September 1991
Jeffrey Steingarten

I like eating pretty food.

Thank you,  Zzzadig.
A fine choice, indeed!


Anonymous said...

vacyngl 33-48Oh, Rosie! You have such great food adventures. You really get focused on the heads of critters (Celine and your recent fish jaw experience). I am not nearly as courageous as you, but I enjoy reading about it.

Anonymous said...

Whoops! My comment included my "not a robot" code!

Rosie Hawthorne said...

NMOAC, if you ever get a chance to try the tuna jaw, go for it. It's delicious! Same goes for the mountain oysters too. Be brave!

SweetPhyl said...

Wow Rosie, that looks amazing! I can imagine becoming a Japanese food addict and losing a taste for Western food. I so often crave those delicate Asian flavors, that I'm sure my head would explode were I ever to sample authentic dashi and perfectly steamed rice. Can't wait to try tuna jaw! Kudos to Zzzzadig!

Marilyn said...

That food does look lovely. Glad you had a good time.

zzzadig said...

If you have been making the oshitashi @ home, add dried bonito flakes on top. The post was an excellent education, and your visit was much fun indeed.