A January Meeting with Sakura Yagi

(Originally posted at GohanSociety.org)

On a walk through New York’s Japan Town in the East Village, you will stumble again and again upon restaurants of the TIC group (“Enjoy Japan Without the Airfare!”). Each specializing in something different (rice burgers, Japanese café culture coffee and eats, soba, teas…the list goes on!), they offer a diverse array of gustatory glory. Bon Yagi, the founder of these delights, is a renowned name in the field. He was one of the trailblazers, bringing authentic flavors of Japan to our shores throughout the seventies, eighties, nineties, and into today. Thanks to efforts like Yagi’s and others, elements of Japanese food are becoming more widely accepted in the United States and the restaurant scene is thriving.

Now, the younger generation is beginning to build upon the work of their predecessors. In the case of the TIC group, Yagi’s daughter, Sakura, is leading operations and commanding the helm. Sitting down with her one cold, rainy afternoon in January, we met at TIC’s East Village headquarters, just a stone’s throw away from three or four of the group’s restaurants. Surrounded by the staff quietly going about their business, boxes coming in and out, and discussions distantly in the background, you feel part of a smart ship crew. With an adept captain and first mate, TIC, Bon, and Sakura seem to navigate the constellation of restaurants through their New York galaxy. This office is the command room. Sakura begins by prefacing that she did not start off with dreams of being a restaurateur or even going into the family business.

“My father always encouraged me to do something he couldn’t have done,” she explains. “He wanted me to have the freedom of choice. You know, like a doctor, or lawyer.”

Graduating college with a degree in International Relations with a focus on China, Sakura worked in public relations before fate intervened and she joined the TIC group while her father while he was recovering from an illness. Rolling up her sleeves, Sakura dived into a familiar yet unknown world. While she had grown up encased by the restaurant world, she admits, “It was all very new to me.” The deeper she delved, the more she realized how she could be of service to this traditionally mom and pop industry. “I have different skills that I bring to the job.” One of them was interest and know-how in technology. “I’m good at problem solving, and having technology makes things easier and streamlined.”

Sakura admits that overhauling certain internal elements and inserting herself into the business had its challenges. Especially as a young female. Yet, time and experience has given her the confidence and voice to contribute to and navigate TIC.

“Communication is key. Especially with family,” she says. “My mother, my father, my brother – we all love each other and don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. It was a learning experience in the beginning; learning how to be a strong family while also being good business partners.”

Sakura is undeniably making her mark. She’s bringing TIC into the digital age, both online and behind the scenes. She’s also encouraged the expansion of the business into a new arena – space rental. A private rental space called Chakura above Cha-An in the East Village has recently opened for business. So far, it seems a success.

As TIC continues to expand, Sakura remains aware of their role in the community. The East Village has always been a particular sort of melting pot, one that she wants to encourage to grow and blossom. TIC regularly partners with other long-time community restaurants such as Velsaka, the famous Ukrainian establishment just a few blocks away. Every year they cater the precinct police annual dinner. Once or twice a year, neighborhood kids are invited to learn how to make soba. “At first they aren’t paying attention, but once they see the chef at work, they all want to give it a try,” she says.

Continuing the spirit of inclusion is important to Sakura. If it weren’t for the neighborhood’s welcoming and understanding of her father’s business many years ago, the East Village would certainly not shine as brightly as it does now. As one who has spent most of her life growing up in and around these blocks, Sakura considers herself a New Yorker before anything else. She feels that neither Japan nor the United States can be home. It’s here in these blocks, islands, and boroughs. It’s the spirit of the city that brings out her true nature.

Sitting with Sakura and munching on burdock fries, it seemed to me that she and TIC were destined for great things. It is in the hopes, dreams, and ambitions of people like her and her family that we can continue to grow and evolve. The reality and struggles that Bon faced when he came to New York in the seventies may not be that far removed from what faces new arrivers to our city today. Yet the story of this family and their strong bond proves to me that with the right spirit and effort, slowly and over time you can create something special and beautiful, passing it on to the next generation.

The Gohan Society is honored to have Bon Yagi serving on our Board of Directors. The TIC group operates thirteen Japanese restaurants throughout Manhattan, most of them concentrated in the East Village. Please visit their website to learn more!

Mid-Winter at Bessou

It was the night of the Winter Solstice, the darkest, longest night of the year. Yet, at times like these we celebrate the light, bright, and beautiful.

There is one light that has shone this year for Gohan Society, and that is of Ms. Maiko Kyogoku, restaurateur. I first met her toward the end of 2015 at the I Love Japan event at The Sea Grill. There, she told me there that she was mulling over the idea of opening up a restaurant. As 2016 blossomed, the next thing I knew she was searching for a chef, deciding on a restaurant name, and hosting Test Kitchen Parties. The fire had been sparked.

Winter turned to spring, and turned to summer. It was exhilarating watching someone create a work of love from afar. I admit, I’ve never had a friend to open a restaurant before, and the metamorphosis is a journey for the onlookers too. It was world building. Creating something out of nothing. What would be decided on for the spelling of the name? The color scheme? The menu?

All these thoughts and wonderings at last culminated on December 21, 2016. Although the restaurant had opened during the summer, I was unable to visit sooner. Yet, it was worth the wait. All those times reading the menu online, liking the Instagram photos, and hungering for their specials, and I was finally able to experience the real thing.

It was an unexpectedly busy night. Still, so close to Christmas and on the Winter Solstice, there was a particular sense of merriment. Seated in a back table, Susan Hamaker, Executive Director of Gohan Society, and I drank cup after cup of mugicha before enjoying an effervescent bottle of nigori. While we awaited our order, I drank in the details. Everything artfully arranged in shades of blue, white, and muted earth tones. It was old yet new.

The food came quickly. The Charred Eggplant Caponata with lotus chips was full bodied and meaty, and perhaps my personal favorite of the meal. Next came Octopus a la Plancha, chewy and tender, complemented with sesame, seaweed, and cucumber. Savory, yet refreshing, the combination was wonderfully unexpected. The dishes at Bessou are certainly Japanese-inspired, but by no means your traditional fair.

Perhaps the dish that both Susan and I had been most excited about was the Inaniwa Udon. It being the Winter Solstice, opting for the “hot option” seemed suitable. Served in a slightly sweet dipping sauce, we enjoyed the seasonal tempura of mushrooms, beet and assorted root vegetable kakiage. Although we could have certainly eaten another course completely, we had to save room for dessert – especially when a “Tokyo Banana” Split was on the menu. Served with their signature ice-cream and a particularly delicious cherry on top, it was a satiating finish.

The meal was a particularly nostalgic one. The flavors reminiscent of Japan, but decidedly New York. Mulling over my sake and then my hojicha, I thought back over 2016. How much things can change in a year! Good and bad, sweet and bitter, we continue to grow and overcome. As we enter 2017, no matter the challenges, I hope we ultimately strive to make something unique, our own, and to bring joy to others. I think that Ms. Kyogoku has done that, for I certainly left Bessou smiling.

 

Chopped Parsley: Uptown Soul

A decidedly autumnal day in early October, I made my way up Sugar Hill at 145th from the A Train, heading west. My destination was Chopped Parsley, a relative newcomer to the uptown Japanese scene. This small cafe is quickly becoming a neighborhood staple, and, I imagine, won’t be a secret to Harlemites for much longer. Already, their front door proudly blazes that hallmark – “People Love Us On Yelp.”

I chanced upon this restaurant one cold February night, its warm lights and cozy wooden interior beckoning me in from the frosty streets. Not having much appetite, I ordered houjicha – roasted green tea, great for the stomach and a comforting pick-me-up. That was only a few months after the cafe had opened in November 2015. Although life eventually got busy in spring and summer, I kept thinking about this little Japanese restaurant located in the heart of Hamilton Heights. I knew that there was something special to this small, authentic alcove.

At last, I returned. The restaurant had grown even more homey and welcoming, if that was possible. Newly made wooden tables – rustic and hand-constructed firmly anchored the seating arrangement, where there once there had been only small tables. I was happy to see seasonal specials too (salmon skin donburi). Things were going well. I was eager to learn the story of the owner, who somehow, I got a sneaking suspicion, was not your typical restaurateur.

I was right.

Yumika Parsley, as she goes by, is the New York story for so many. Driven by her artistic passion for music, she left Japan to persue her craft in the States. Coming to New York in the mid-nineties, she worked in the music industry for decades. Singer, songwriter, and music producer, her life has been intertwined with the sounds of the city. She came for the hip-hop and R&B scene, which was flourishing then. “Japan has no soul for that type of music,” she said. Parsley wanted to come where people created something new, not just copied trends and styles.

Growing up in Hakodate, Parsley knew she wasn’t your average student. She taught herself “real” English watching Spike Lee films and listening to R&B. You can almost hear that, in the way she talks. Even her name, Parsley, has a unique story: It’s a stage name that she has carried for decades. Born from the Sapporo independent music scene where it was vogue to have food-themed artist names, she chose Parsley. It does have a nice ring. When it came time to start a restaurant – even though Japanese food does not traditionally carry this leafy ingredient – she couldn’t help but pay homage to her musical past. “This is my restaurant. So, there’s a piece of me in the name.” Chopped Parsley it is.

Over the years, Parsley’s worked in the restaurant industry – coming to know the ins-and-outs of what it takes to make a successful venture. Two years ago, she decided to begin a new venture in food. There were some hiccups along the way – from delays in construction to negligent contractors. Still, with ingenuity and grit Parsley has made her mark.

Chopped Parsley is located in Harlem because that’s where Parsley has lived for decades. It’s her home. When she first moved to the neighborhood, “There weren’t any white people here. Or Asian, for that matter.” That was fine with her. She had moved to New York to embrace the afro-soul musical roots. Her familiarity with the neighborhood served her well, allowing the opportunity to see possibility like a local. Unlike the smattering of ramen shops that have appeared uptown, Chopped Parsley offers something a little different – soul food with more of a homemade shokudo feel. This ambiance is an eclectic intermixing of cultures, sights, and sounds. With the neighborhood’s continued support, this cafe is well on its way to being a bastion of Japanese food.
 

Sitting down with Parsley in the fading light of an October day, I could feel her heart poured into this store. There is a quiet pride. Through determination and ingenuity, she is able to offer a little piece of herself – not only through food, but through the soulful and unique atmosphere she has created here. It’s unabashedly a mix of East and West, full of uptown funk and determination. Go uptown and taste for yourself.

Chopped Parsley
500 West 146th Street
NY, NY, 10031

SEASON-INGS: Shaved Ice and Summertime Meetings

Adjacent to the verdant Jefferson Market Garden in the West Village lies the unassuming restaurant Saikai Dining Bar.  As a name, Saikai is poetic and evocative. Meaning reunion or meeting, it is an apt locale to enjoy an epicurean yet unpretentious dining experience.

Highlighting the flavors of the year, the menu remains in a delightful state of flux. While dishes such as smoked duck breast with foie gras or grilled maitake mushrooms serve as standards, invariably every few weeks there are new offerings. Amongst the concrete walls that make up our fair city, discovering such a perennial menu, is akin to spotting the first crocus of spring hiding beneath greying snow, or peeping the flash of orange among the green leaves of a fading summer.

Currently, as the heat from the pavements casts the city into an undulating mirage-scape, we find blissful solace in Saikai’s Japanese-style kakigori, or shaved ice. Infinitely more refreshing and refined than a curbside Mr. Softee, these floating visions are sweetened haystacks of delight. Gone are typical flavors and colors, no more blaring red cherry or neon green lime. Instead, we savor flavors like yuzu, fresh strawberry, kuromitsu, and the most intriguing of all – purple sweet yam.

These diverse flavors and foodscapes are led by Hong Kong native Chef Siu W. Cheng. The chef spent his formative years gaining an appreciation for seafood thanks to his father, a fish farmer who raised sea urchin and kanpachi.  (Infact, Chef Cheng’s favorite dish to this day is a steamed fish, simply flavored with vinegar, if necessary.) In the early nineties Cheng’s family retired to Langford, Colorado, and it was there he began working in kitchens. Arriving in New York eight years ago, Cheng has worked with the likes of Masa Takayama and other heavy hitters.

Part of the founding team of Saikai, Chef Cheng’s international experience has helped to guide the menu. Not limited by geographic constraints, he draws inspiration from across Asia. In particular, dishes and ingredients that have gained popularity abroad yet haven’t yet made a splash in the United States most intrigue him.

Saikai also hopes to make fine dining within reach for the everyday restaurant goer. Ingredients such as truffles, uni, foie gras (see delicious photos below, courtesy of Saikai), as well as other seasonal delights such as mussels and scallops are offered at a price none to shabby! Complementing these delicacies, in the coming months of August and September you’ll find corn, sweet yams, and asparagus heralding the joys of a deepening summer.

In the meantime, if it’s the kakigori that’s got your attention, be sure to swing by Saikaiduring the month of August! September will bring new refreshments.
 

What School Lunch Could Be

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A recent study by Harvard University doctoral candidate Caitlin Daniel found that some low-income parents can’t afford wasting food by buying products that their children may not eat. According to Daniel, it takes about 8-15 times for a child to accept a food they initial didn’t like at first. That's 8-15 times of complaints at the dinner table and, most likely, food in the trash. When your budget is tight, those are literally dollars down the drain.

Now that there are some major positive changes afoot in the American school lunch scene, we can now begin to look at the American lunch tray as a tool. School meals can ease the burden for parents and offer an additional opportunity for children to come into contact with new flavors on - and here's the important part - a repeated basis.

Getting children to eat something is not easy. But it becomes easier  the more they are exposed. Through encouragement and vigilance, educators and aids can help guide children to a new understanding and relationship about what’s on their plate. Yet, what it boils down to is this: mealtime isn’t always about eating what you want. It’s about eating what is good for you and what will healthfully support your body and development. Sure, we indulge in what we truly want to eat - but if we gave in all the time the world would be a nation of butterballs and the environment would be destroyed. 

As is often the case here, I think about how other countries tackle the age-old problem of kids being finicky eaters. Japan, despite being one of the largest economies in the world with a healthy middle class, has families living at or below the poverty line just like America. I imagine that for those parents - the cost of school lunch aside - on some level they are grateful that this burden of acclimating their children to less enjoyable vegetables is lifted from their shoulders and from their pocket books. 

SEASON-INGS: Foraged Flavors All Around

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No matter the time or place, market days have always been a way for city-dwellers to connect with the land. The multi-colored stalls offer a tangible vehicle to our agrarian heritage. The fresh baked bread, the luscious heirloom tomatoes, crisp apples, and bright tender greens! They are transportive morsels that in a single bite find us among the fields and orchards of simpler times.

However, growing alongside these State Fair bumper zucchinis and prize-winning rutabagas lie an oft-forgotten heritage that offers seedy and spicy flavors of the meadows and forests. Found in glens and amongst the brambles dwell the wild herbs and edibles that for centuries served as an important source of food and flavor.

Most every country has their prized wild edibles. Although not often on the menus in Asian restaurants in the United States, China, Korea and Japan have a long tradition of including delectable wild delicacies to every season. In the Korean tradition, you often find aster scaber incorporated into savory side dishes. (For more complete reading, here is an interesting academic paper on wild edibles on Jeju Island, Korea.) Japan has its own seasonal traditions including sansai tori, wild greens picking, ortakenoko tori, wild bamboo shoots hunting in the springtime. These ingredients are renowned for their flavor and, often, health benefits.

Here in the United States it seemed as though consuming wild edibles has been overlooked for decades – something relegated to an alternative and unplugged aspect of society. Now these tasties are on their way to becoming welcome additions on the plate as we reexamine heritage ingredients and flavors. Restaurants such as Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, are some of the movers and shakers behind this trend.

Yet behind every chef interested in diving into these new/old flavors is the person who sources the ingredients. It is these people who truly lie on the forefront of culinary exploration. Perhaps one of the most famous champions of this cause is Tama Matsuoka Wong, a lawyer turned forager and environmental steward who embraced the wild side!

Raised in New Jersey, Tama admits that she did not have a green thumb. In fact, it was her decided lack of gardening skills that caused her to reexamine those persistent “weeds.” Surely, they couldn’t be so bad… And, as it turns out, they aren’t. Actually, some plants are decidedly edible. Some also taste like cardboard, it’s true. However, there is a small percentage of wild plants that offer vibrant flavors unlike anything found in grocery stores. They are bright and bitter, bold and tangy, mild and meaty, and so on…

Determined to learn more and taste these flavors ourselves, The Gohan Society embarked on its inaugural fieldtrip on a rainy, misty day in early May to New Jersey. Driving through well-maintained farmland and preserved forestland, you can tell there is a deep-seeded pride of home and love of nature all around. A similar spirit is found in Tama’s beautifully restored farmhouse. Yet, it wasn’t the indoors we had come to see – we came to discover the magic that lay just beyond the porch steps.

Read the entire article here.

SEASON-INGS: The Dandelion Blooming in Upper Manhattan

There’s no doubt about it – ramen has taken the city by storm. With shops opening up from Brooklyn to Bayside, it seems like New Yorkers can’t get enough of the winning noodle-broth combination. While it’s the crowded streets of the East Village and Brooklyn that seem to be the site for much of the steamy action, one ramen store has appeared in the northern wilds of Manhattan like the harbinger of spring.

Enter Tampopo Ramen: an exciting newcomer to the Washington Heights restaurant scene. Under renovation for much of last year, Tampopo arrived just in time for Christmas 2015. Since then it’s been stacking up favorable revues on Yelp, offering a streamlined yet robust dining menu. Recent months have seen further additions, including an exciting sake and beer menu. It’s a sunny gift to the neighborhood – offering a refreshing alternative to Dominican and diner fair these uptown blocks are known for. Founded by longtime neighborhood residents Josh Frank and Nanae Mameuda-Frank, this restaurant is tucked away down a side street off of 181st street between the 1 and A trains.

Cozy and bright, Tampopo is just big enough for bar side eating and a few tables to spare. Immediately it brings to mind the opening scene of the movie Tampopo – the restaurant’s namesake, and the Japanese word for dandelion. Tampopo the movie, for those who haven’t seen it, is a classic film which tastefully blends comedy, drama, food, and suspense. (A cult classic, it’s surprising that no other ramen entrepreneur in New York City didn’t scoop up this name sooner!)

Now, with spring blooming full force, the owners are beginning to craft a summer menu. They’re hoping to offer hot-weather staples like hiyashi chukka or zaru soba. If you are in the mood for pork-based broth, look elsewhere! Tampopo offers the brighter, clean flavors of chicken- and vegetable-based ramen - and keeps it simple with Shio (Salt), Shoyu (soy sauce), and Miso broth. Yum yum!

Josh and Nanae’s road to Tampopo is a true New York story. As two life-long “foodies” they first got interested in the business about five years ago. Josh, a trumpet player with one foot planted firmly in the music world, snatched the opportunity for him and his wife to run the café at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. Over the course of several years at DiMenna, the couple honed their craft while scaling up their business. During this time, they also opened onigiri (riceball) stands at farmers’ markets – helping them to garner a taste for New Yorkers’ palates.

The transition to the ramen world took place relatively recently, although the two have experimented for years at home. When they decided to take the plunge into an official brick-and-mortar, fate presented a small neighborhood establishment. As residents of Washington Heights for almost a decade, it made sense to give back to their neighborhood. The timing was good, too. With lots of young professionals moving north of the George Washington Bridge, there’s a need for diverse eating options in the Heights. So, adventuresome New Yorkers, take a trip up the A or 1 train and taste this new neighborhood treasure for yourself!

Learn more about Tampopo Ramen here.

SEASON-INGS: All Within: Tableware and Aesthetics in New York

Kumiko Jitsukawa came to New York City 15 years ago. Among the contents of her suitcases were a few special ceramic bowls from the kiln called Kichu-yo in Kamakura, Japan. Beautifully and carefully crafted, the gifts were from a longtime friend who had married a master ceramic artist. (The kiln once belonged to the renowned artist and epicurean Rosanjin Kitaoji.) These striking cups and bowls, as Kumiko explained, “Made everything taste better.”  

For her first several years in the New York, Kumiko had a fast-paced life as an architectural lighting designer. Friends and colleagues were always peppering her with friendly questions about her heritage. “One thing,” she revealed, “is that people kept on asking me if I knew how to make sushi!” Kumiko admitted she found the question rather odd. Sushi isn’t usually something made in the house; rather, most people in Japan eat out or have sushi catered for special occasions. Still, colleagues and friends kept asking, and gradually Kumiko began to throw casual dinner parties.  Trained in kaiseki cuisine, her cooking immediately impressed. Yet, it wasn’t just creating delicate and beautiful meals that gave her joy. “There’s something about making food for people,” said Kumiko, “The food you make for others, especially for ones you love, will always be the best food you make.”
 
Still, the dining experience didn’t seem complete without the right tableware. The beauty of the vessel somehow transcended the routine act of eating. A meal became spiritual. A ritual. There was a spark of inspiration in that idea. As a lighting designer specializing in hospitality design, Kumiko loved to “set a mood.” Why not use her skill and imagination for the dining experience? Her work overseeing high-profile projects such as Jean-George Vongerichten's restaurant "Jean-Georges” had given her the experience and know-how to embark on a new adventure.
 
And so in 2014 Kumiko founded Ki-Chu New York. A unique concept, her business offers an inclusive and sensory dining experience. Crafting an atmosphere and tableware to match the food, Ki-Chu New York elevates dining in a way not normally seen (or tasted) here in the United States. Importing most of her ceramics from the namesake Kichu-yo, Kumiko takes pride in teaching her customers about the pieces from which they are eating, the history and her culture.
 
Now with spring’s arrival, fresh flavors with which to fill the bowls are on Kumiko’s mind. Its ki no me to which the season harkens. Literally the “tree-bud,” ki no me is most commonly associated with the new leaves of the Japanese pepper plant (Zanthoxylum piperitum), recalling a piquant spice and zest. Often garnishing grilled fish and soups, these buds have a distinctive flavor which is not to the liking of everyone – especially children. Yet, it was from a very young age which Kumiko claims her first memory of the flavors. Although notoriously hard to find in the United States, she takes solace in her regular journeys to Japan and the opportunity to eat them fresh during the season. When stateside, she enjoys the flavor of ki no me through its alternate and better known name – sansho. (If you want to try your hand at growing one of these plants yourself, click here.)

With spring truly on its way, it’s a busy time of year. Kumiko recently held a public educational event for children entitled  and is planning a “learning experience assembly” for people to gain a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of Japanese food. In the future, she hopes to bring her customers to Japan as well. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Ki-Chu New York throughout the seasons, and you’ll be sure to find something of delight.  (If you would like to subscribe to Ki-Chu New York’s newsletter, send a request to: info@kichuny.com)

SEASON-INGS: Pastel Shades of March

By Alexis Agliano Sanborn

「春一番コロッケ買ひに街へ出る」~濱上こういち
“On the first gale of spring, I set out to town to buy a korokke.” - Hamaue Koichi

March is a time of transition. Often characterized by blustery and tempestuous weather, this month hails the start of a New Year according to the lunar calendar. With any luck, the greys and browns of winter are replaced by the varied hues of greens as new growth awakens after its dormancy. In fact, the first week of March is known in the seasonal calendar as: 草木萌動(そうもくめばえいずる)Soumokumebaeizuru – the time when plants show their first buds.

What’s on our tables begins to change as well.  Fresh and bitter flavors of new greens and herbs begin to sneak into our dishes, causing us to sit up. Yes, spring is on its way! It’s neither potatoes nor onions of winter, nor salads and sunflowers of summer – but somewhere in-between. What we enjoy in March are the most virgin flavors that nature has to offer. Flavors that have not even come into being. Such is the newness of March.

In Japan, during this time of year sansai tori begins – or the picking and foraging of wild greens. Though tormented by storms and gusts of wind, this new growth rises persistently. We now find itadori, or Japanese knotweed, nobiru a variety of Japanese hardneck garlic,tsukushi – the fertile shoot of the field horsetail, bracken (warabi), fiddleneck fern fronds (zenmai) and taranome or the new growth from the Japanese angelica tree. Often full of astringent tannins, the Japanese deep fry or blanche these greens to retain the lively flavors.

Growing up in Aichi Prefecture, Misako Sassa, contributing writer at Chopsticks NYC, About.com, and owner and chef of Japanese Culinary Studio NYC, spent many a day in late March and early April searching for the spring greens with her family.  Even here in New York City, she has managed to find her own seasonal delights growing wild in the parks near her Washington Heights home. Yet, for her the month of March conjures up the pastel hues of Girls' Day, or Hinamatsuri: the varied array of subtle pinks, yellows, and greens found in chirashi sushi (vinegared sushi), hina-arare (pastel rice crackers), and clear soup with clams. Incidentially, clam shells are a symbol of a united and peaceful couple, as their pair of clam shells fits perfectly, and none but the original pair can do so. A symbol of luck for young ladies who may become future brides, they are a staple of the season (Check out her clam soup recipe below!)
 
These days, as the weather warms it is not Hinamatsuri dishes that she longs for, but of the sawara or Spanish mackerel. “It isn’t spring without sawara,” says Misako. Sawara is readily found around New York. “You just have to know where to look.” Misako’s frequents the farmer’s market at Union Square, but if none can be found she suggests visiting Chinatown. “You might have to go to a few places – not every fish store has the same quality. Some are good for some kinds of fish, and some for others.” One of her favorite ways to cook this fish is by salting and grilling it, known as ichiyaboshi. “Leave the fish uncovered overnight,” she advises, “So that the skin can get nice and crisp.” A simple broil in the oven, and served with yuzu or lemon and a bit of grated daikon is all you need for this refreshing and satisfying meal.

Whatever the taste of springtime, as the days lengthen and warm, something stirs within us. We hope that by the end of the month you can take to the fields and streets and find the budding joys of spring. For now, keep an eye out for those first treasures of the season.

Misako’s Clam Soup with Broccoli Rabe
 
Ingredients: 
4 clams (small size cherry stone clams)
2 cups water
3-inch long konbu kelp
6 tips of broccoli rabe
2 thin sliced of ginger, julienned
1 tsp light soy sauce
Salt to taste
 
Directions:

  1. Soak konbu kelp in two cups of water and let sit for at least one hour.
  2. Wash clams under cold water using a brush.
  3. Cook broccoli rabe tips in boiling water for 1 minute and quickly put them in an ice bath to cool. Drain well and set them aside.
  4. In a small pot, pour in konbu soaked water along with konbu and add clams.
  5. Bring it to a boil, and then take out the konbu.
  6. When white foam starts coming up on surface, skim them as much as possible using ladle to keep the soup clear.
  7. As soon as a shell opens, remove it from the pot and set it aside. (Don’t wait for all shells to open.)
  8. Season the soup with light soy sauce and taste. Add salt if necessary.
  9. Place clams and broccoli rabe in an individual bowl and pour in soup.

Garnish with julienned ginger and serve while hot.

Cookbook Updates~!

In a little over a month, I have completed a total of 9 complete school lunches for my "seasonal" chapter. Here's my current tally:

SPRING

Blossoming Hills Lunch
Verdant Lunch
Warming Days Lunch

SUMMER

Tangy Colorful Lunch
Vegetable Patch Lunch (coming soon)
Balmy Breeze Lunch (coming soon)

AUTUMN

Field and Forest Lunch
Autumn Chill Lunch

WINTER

Alpine Dreams Lunch
Winter Delights Lunch
Warm and Toasty Lunch

 

SEASON-INGS: Hanamizuki Cafe

Founded only two years ago, Hanamizuki Café is a staple of the culinary New York landscape. It is a restaurant for all seasons. The simple yet indulgent menu keeps its patrons returning through wind, snow and rain.

As owner Jumi Fujiwara explains, Hanamizuki Café was born from a common problem – how does one provide tasty, fresh, and healthy meals at an affordable price? As one trained in beauty, aesthetics, and health – Jumi wanted to create meals that would delight the palette without guilt. The answer came in the form of riceballs (onigiri), which she used to make for the staff at her beauty salon.
You will find none of the unadventurous tuna-mayos and umeboshi riceballs so common elsewhere. Hanamizuki’s flavors range from homey spam musubi to satisfying sukiyaki.Even their plum and seaweed riceballs have a twist. It is the attention to detail, health, high-quality and unique ingredients that makes Hanamizuki blossom.

The plum riceballs are an excellent example. They use two types of umeboshi, pitted and unpitted. Rather than buying only pitted varieties, Hanamizuki prizes the taste and acidity that only unpitted umeboshi can bring. Add to this dill and nozawana-pickles (a type of leafy Japanese style pickle) to further the dichotomies in flavor. It’s not surprising that their dashi is top-notch, too (Kanoyama Dashi). These delights were crafted by none other than Chef Kiyo Shinoki, formerly of Bohemian, who designed a playful balance of savory and sweet, mild and bold.

It being the end of January when I spoke to Jumi, perhaps the coldest time of the year, she shared with me her favorite ingredients of the season. During winter she finds herself drawn to the bright, sunny, zesty favor of yuzu. Yuzu, sometimes called citron, is historically associated with this season. The taste has been described as “tart, but not bitter” with an incredible ability to refresh the palette. Jumi includes yuzu zest in rice, and regularly uses yuzu vinegar and yuzu shio-kosho. For her, the pungent flavor drives the wintertime chill away.

Another seasonal favorite is azuki. Truth be told, Jumi loves azuki all year round. Not only are azuki (red beans) healthy, their sweetness is irresistible. “If I had to choose, I’d choose azuki over chocolate,” the restaurant owner boldly proclaims. At the café you can find an unusual combination of azuki and coffee in their special pudding. It uses Columbian coffee jelly, milk jelly, azuki and a drop of Grand Marnier. “It’s a dessert you don’t feel bad about eating.” However, she cautions, it tends to sell rather quickly.

Whether its coffee jelly or tasty riceballs, Hanamizuki has something for everyone. And they are continuing to grow – with evening service and two new riceball flavors just added to the menu (curry and egg/cha-shu pork). As we greet February with its ice and snow, we know that spring with its gusts and gales and warming days lies just around the corner. In the meantime, let’s take solace in the joys that only cozy nights and comforting meals can bring.  

SEASON-INGS: Toshikoshi soba: The Year in a Bowl (January)

Calendars. The things we keep on our pockets or in our heads. The reminders that pop up on our phones or hang from the refrigerator door. Time has become the days that pass – filled with festivities, deadlines, meetings, and birthdays.  We obsess about how to save time and how to use it best. Yet for all this exertion and maintenance, appreciating the passage of time is often overlooked. Though life may seem a hurried list of appointments and to-dos, the observations and traditions associated with the natural world offer perspective and inspiration no matter the season.

Around the world we celebrated the New Year. Contrary to the gaiety and festivities found in Western culture, in Japan the New Year is a quiet time for family – usually spent eating and relaxing once the year-end preparations and traditions are complete. It’s a hazy and introspective period– the time for quiet reflection on cold nights. If there is one dish that sums up the year and inspires nostalgic revelations – it is surely a bowl of Toshikoshi soba – or buckwheat noodles.

Eating toshikoshi soba was a custom that began in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Toshikoshi literally means to “pass the year.” The verb kosu is active – meaning to cross, go over, or through. As we all know – getting through a year is not a passive endeavor! At times it’s a down right struggle, and at the end of all the hustle and bustle something simple and satisfying seems best. Soba (or buckwheat) noodles are the epitome of modest fair. A good word to describe soba in Japanese is soboku (素朴) – which can be translated as simple, natural, and elegant in an unadorned way.  Given all the parties and celebrations that we inevitably find ourselves in during December – a humble end and fresh beginning seems appropriate.

Toshikoshi soba is a yearend tradition not only because of soba’s rustic simplicity, but its adopted meaning. Inspired by texture, nature, and tradition, the dish has an artless appeal. One of the most common beliefs associated with soba are their ability to sever one from the past. The noodles break easily when bitten and therefore became an analogy to ‘cut ties’ from the hardships, debts and burdens of the prior year. This is a comforting thought. Also, the noodles ability to stretch is associated with longevity, and their hearty nourishment was believed to cleanse toxins from the heart, liver, spleen, kidney, and lungs. 

Another association linked with soba is strength and resiliency, which can be found in the plant itself. Originating from the cold extremes of the Tibetan Plateau and Yunan, China – soba has the uncanny ability to survive severe weather during its growing period. It can thrive even in the shortest of summers, establishing its roots quickly and rising above the summer weeds. These characteristics served as inspiration for strength and resiliency. One more unique association of eating soba is its belief to attract money. In olden times metal workers used to scatter soba flour as a means to help them collect gold dust. Through that tradition, it came to be believed that soba attracted money.

While we all have our own unique yearly food traditions, for me the thought of toshikoshi soba is particularly attractive. Toshikoshi soba is not the promise of a better diet and exercise, nor preparing for the last hurrah of decadence before resolutions kick in. It is merely a dish of reflection and remembrance. As one sits over the bowl of hot noodles and observes their reflection in the broth – what memories of toshikoshi soba past fill the air? Food for thought, indeed.


Gohan Society Newsletter December 2015: Zenzai Mullings at the Close of the Year

Zenzai Mullings at the Close of the Year          

The closing of the year always seems a time of opposites. While the weather grows colder, the days darker, the nights longer, our seasonal traditions stand in defiance of the wind and cold that knocks at the door. Illuminations, parties, feasts and festivities seem blissfully unaware of the cold, long winter ahead. There is a wholesomeness to the season. Hot, filling, hearty fare now decks the table. In Japan, now is the season where the scent of roasting sweet potatoes fills the neighborhood.

With the nippy weather comes the desire for something hot and sweet to warm the body. In Japan, one of the ways this craving has traditionally been satisfied is by a red bean soup made up of variations of azuki bean and mochi called shiruko or zenzai – depending on the consistency of the beans.

Red beans eaten during the winter time, like a fruit cake or Yule Log in the West, have an inherent festive connotation. Ancient records note that the Chinese ate azuki beans on the day of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to ward off evil. The custom eventually spread to Japan, and before long it was common to eat this type of bean on special occasions.

While the Japanese eat red beans no matter the time of year these days, to me the seasonal connotation of red beans is particularly strong in the winter time. Perhaps this stems from its inclusion in the traditional New Year’s dish sekihan and the prevalence of warm azuki bean beverage and soups.  There’s also the color itself – red –seen as a color to ward off evil, and as a symbol of good luck. Its shades are worn by the gods, deities, and other protective spirits.

Indeed, red, white and green are the traditional holiday colors in Japan as well. In the West, green was the original color the season – boughs of holly, ivy, and evergreen decorated the house to represent long life, peace, and good luck – as these hardy plants can survive winter’s gales. Later, the color red became associated with the season – stemming from the red apples found on the tree of Paradise, and later, the blood of Christ. White, despite its snowy prevalence, came last – and was seen as a color to invoke purity. Japan has their own special traditions -  green of bamboo or pine – which represent longevity and prosperity, the white of the rope and paper which marks a sacred space, and the red as describes above.

It’s easy to get distracted with the hustle and bustle, lists, to-dos and parties. Nevertheless, should you have a moment, I recommend buying the few simple ingredients needed for zenzai or shiruko, and while gazing over the steamy brim to take a long and nostalgic look back at the year, and feast on the future to come. 

Gohan Society November 2015 Newsletter

On October 13, Gohan Society paid a Midtown visit to the Nichibei Exchange group to listen to a presentation by Ms. Alexis Agliano Sanborn, one of The Gohan Society's fantastic volunteers, about the Japanese school lunch system. Wait, school lunch? You mean that nasty stuff kids are forced to eat in school? Actually, Japan’s school lunch is quite the national treasure – and it tastes good to boot!

Even those well-versed in Japanese food and culture often overlook the charm and insight to the country’s institutional meal system. For those Americans among us, school lunch does not usually yield positive memories or connotations. Many of Japan’s baby boomer generation would agree! They associate their lunch time with memories of powdered milk and flavorless bread. However, most Japanese kids today are blessed with healthy, fresh, flavorful and well-balanced daily meals.

Currently, school lunch, or (gakkoukyushoku, is a public system in place at 92% of elementary and middle schools around the country. It is maintained locally but governed nationally, influential in the regional economy and society.

As Ms. Sanborn noted, school lunch has had a long history in Japan. The country boasts one of the oldest school lunch systems in the world, beginning in response to a poor economy, stressors of modernization and natural disasters of the late 1880s and 1890s. School lunch’s early advent is thanks to Japan’s communal spirit and modernization efforts, spurring a movement for youth to be reared healthy and capable.

In the postwar, the piecemeal system was transformed by the influence of America – and the lunch-lineup heavily adopted Western flavors. While the flavors and taste may have suffered throughout the 1950s and ‘60s as Japanese chefs grappled with a clash of cultures, strong systemic foundations were erected.

Systemic foundations? What does that mean? Well, simply put, the local and national government helped to establish the operational rules and guidelines that over the years have contributed to school lunch’s resounding success. Sounds confusing, but really it’s quite simple. Beginning in the 1950s, the Japanese government decided to structure the system in a uniquely Japanese way. It took elements from its own culture – the ideas of group labor, perseverance, endurance, cleanliness, humility, gratitude and comradery – and encapsulated them into a daily ritual. This ritual was to become the school lunch system, one that heavily relies on student participation as its key to success.

Students are expected to participate and engage in practically every aspect of the meal – that is, besides making the food themselves (although, from time to time they do that too!). Every day right before the lunch hour, students dutifully don masks and aprons, clean the classroom floors, rearrange the desks, transport food from the kitchen, judiciously measure and serve, and then carefully clean. Over the years these daily formalities instill all manner of manners! For example, children learn to extend and appreciate the efforts of the meal’s benefactors (i.e., the lunch ladies). Other lessons include understanding the importance of cleanliness, sense of community and society, strength, justice, and morality. Heavy stuff for lunch time.

During a brief video which followed the school lunch process from start to finish, many of the Americans were amazed by the diligence, care and manners instilled in these children through the daily process. As one commentator put it, “Everything about Japanese society you can see through lunch.” It’s true!

What about the food then? Well, despite the blips and burps of the 1950s and 1960s, the food scene really began to take off in the seventies and has had a recent renaissance in the 2000s. Gone away are the processed and canned foods. Today, most schools have their meals prepared fresh daily– even down to chopping the vegetables. As for the menu, although bread used to be the principle staple in the days of yesteryear, today rice is definitively served at least three times a week. For the Japanese school lunch has become a vehicle through which to experience elements of the world around them – from the global to the local. Children learn about the principles of washoku as well as the various types of yoshoku, and international foods from across Asia. By utilizing local sourced ingredients and specialties, children also learn about the local food economy, as well as the seasonal ebbs and flows which have defined the Japanese culture for millennia.

All in all, the presentation showed us that there is a lot more to Japanese school lunch that meets the eye.

Japanese School Lunch: It's Not Just About the Food (Food Tank)

No longer cloistered in the cafeteria, school lunch is everywhere. It’s on television. In the newspapers. On the internet. Even BuzzFeed. It’s gone national—international, even. Delving deeper into the subject will lead to authors and eaters that refer to Japan as pinnacle of school lunch providers: the country has one of the freshest, most seasonal, most healthy, and—honestly—most aesthetically appealing programs available. Yet, as amazing as the Japanese school lunch system appears, wholesale duplication just isn’t possible in the United States. The U.S. has a whole myriad of problems to deal with before getting anywhere close to the Japanese model. All is not lost, however. Even without ideal ingredients, specially-trained servers, or a system and policy on par with Japan’s, schools in the U.S. (and worldwide) can apply aspects of the Japanese curriculum—now.

One of the most comprehensive changes the U.S. can make is to turn food into a modern learning tool. It’s all about attitude; even dishes like pizza or kimchi can become the medium through which students study history, biology, economics, art, and chemistry. (Think about it: examining the fermentation and pickling process of kimchi, or studying the trade route of peppers and tomatoes—and their eventual transformation into culinary staples!)  Likewise, in many elementary and junior high schools around Japan, students learn to relate to food as a symbol of national identity. In the U.S., this can translate into a celebration of ethnic diversity, as children trace the origins of their favorite food—curry and naan for India; pizza and spaghetti for Italy; cheese and baguettes for France; rice and noodles for China. Simple and stereotyped, yes; but the lesson is a foundation for global competency, as well as cultural tolerance and appreciation.

In addition to instruction on food origins, ingredients, and nutrition, the act and process of eating serve as teaching methods. Educators can show children that meals are not about scarfing down lunch to escape to the schoolyard, or playing with dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets; meals are not about eating on-the-go. (At least, not all the time.) Instead, educators emphasize meals as a time for reflection and appreciation: not only savoring the food itself, but a time to meditate on the events and lessons of the day. The key is to create the right environment for this to flourish—and, when it comes to kids, discipline, to some degree, is needed. In Japanese schools, students take lunch in the classroom, not in the cafeteria or on the playground. The classroom is a structured environment, and although some of the customary rules may fall away during meal time, in this space the lunch hour maintains a continuous learning environment.

So what goes on during classroom lunch in Japan? Noontime broadcasts perpetuate the educational atmosphere. Schools conduct these daily segments, usually run by student volunteers, over loudspeaker. The broadcasts offer a funny stories, popular music, and school-related announcements; more importantly, regular segments feature the school lunch menu and provide information about the history and origins of the meal, often touching on society, geography, economics, culture, environment, and trade. If school administrators in the U.S. promote a meal’s narrative, students may take an active interest in the food itself.

What else can enhance these complementary education programs? Plant gardens: green, brown, messy, fascinating gardens. Many schools in the United States have already begun their own green efforts. For inner-city or poorer schools, or schools where authorities will not invest in a garden plot, alternatives exist. In Japan, it’s quite common to see small plastic buckets of plants adorning elementary school classrooms. Usually, students grow rice, occasionally taking on cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, or sunflowers. In a literal field trip, classes visit nearby farms to help with the planting, weeding, and harvesting of a specific crop.

Whether grown in the classrooms or out in the field, the year is not complete without a communal meal, prepared by teachers or staff. Yet, more often than not, students have special time set aside for them to learn how to cook and eat just what exactly it is they’ve grown. “Home economics” is still alive and well in Japan—and children learn its principles from a very early age. Elementary school classes learn to cook eggs, vegetables, soups, desserts, and even simple breads. Often, these dishes require only a few ingredients and minimal knife work. These experiences instill respect, interest, and practical life skills. They also teach children not to be afraid of cooking—often a daunting task when kids don’t know where to start.

Lastly, there is the concept of impartial service. In Japan, students distribute and serve the food that the lunch staff prepared. Student lunch services teach teamwork, strength, and determination (e.g., students often have to lift heavy containers), as well as the importance of preparation, punctuality, and cleanliness. Equal servings are a must, so favoritism or bullying cannot influence the meal. Adding a service component of regular mealtime responsibilities may encourage students to interact outside of cliques, and may help lessen classroom fractioning and drama.  

While the Japanese school lunch system is undoubtedly enviable, these social and behavioral elements, apart from the food itself, are what really offset the whole story of the meal system. Lasting change can come from changing minds by altering the ordinary in small, but meaningful, ways.