Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas Holiday Dish with Sake

It has been long time since we've updated our blog....but we have a very good reason. We've been a bit preoccupied with the launch of our store, SAKAYA, NYC's first sake-centric shop which opened December 8. The reception has been phenomenal and we've been extremely fortunate that New Yorkers have so enthusiastically embraced it.

After a busy Christmas Eve, we were grateful to have Christmas Day off to relax and cook at home. Although we were not in the store, Hiroko was still thinking about new ideas for pairing sake with food. We would like to share her one of her inspirations, a carmelized onion tart which paired perfectly with Hatsumago Kimoto Junmai.

Carmelized Onion Tart
in 8 inch tart pan

2 onions
1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil
1/2 cup Madeira
1/2 cup shredded Gruyere
salt and pepper

Pie Dough for 8-inch tart pan
1 cup flour
5 tablespoons butter
3 to 5 tablespoons ice cold water

Make the Dough:
1. Cut the butter into cubes. Wrap in plastic and freeze. In the large bowl, sift the flour, and combine the flour and salt. Put the flour mixture into a freezer to chill.
2. Dump the cold butter into the cold flour, and cut the butter using pastry cutter.
3. When the mixture gets coarse like oat meal, sprinkle the ice cold water 1 tablespoon at a time to incorporate the mixture, using fork or hand. As the dough begins to form clumps, you need to test it. If you can gather it up to form a ball, it is ready.
4. Gather the mixture into one ball, and wrap it in plastic wrap to chill for at least 1 hour.

1. In a large skillet, met the butter or oil. Add the onions, and cook over moderate heat until softened about 10 to 15 minutes. Uncover the skillet and cook until the onions are very soft and browned about 45 minutes or longer. While the onion is caramelizing, add the 1/4 cup of Madeira. When the onion is caramelized, add the rest of Madeira and cook until the liquid is evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll out the dough and place it in a tart pan. Prick the bottom of the shell with a fork and freeze it until chilled.
3. Line the tart shell with foil and fill with dried kidney beans (or pie crust weights). Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, and remove the foil and beans and bake it another 10 to 15 minutes, until the shell is golden color.
4. Sprinkle the Gruyere into the baked tart shell and spread the onions on the top. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the tart is browned. Let cool for 15 minutes.

Monday, December 10, 2007


It has been nearly two years since we returned from our first trip to Japan together with the commitment to our dream of opening NYC's first shop dedicated exclusively to sake. On Saturday, December 8, we finally opened the store! It was hard to believe that the day had finally arrived...the time had come for our dream to be realized. Since that day, we have experienced an enthusiasm for sake that has exceeded all that we had ever imagined. The days have flown by and have been filled with eager-to-learn visitors, not only from NYC, but from all over the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Italy, Russia, and yes, Japan. We've even been honored by a visit from the Japanese Ambassador to the UN!

For more information about SAKAYA, upcoming events, and media coverage of the store opening, please visit and click on "visit our blog."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Paella with a new Accent

Every country has its own rice dish. Italy has risotto, Middle Eastern countries have their pilafs, India has biryani, China has fried rice, Japan has takikomi gohan, and Spain has paella. Paella was traditionally considered to be a working man's dish, a way to use up leftover ingredients. The word Paella means "pan" in Valencia originating from the Latin "patella," which means "pan." Traditionally in Valencia, paella was cooked over a fire in the field and usually included chicken, duck, rabbit, and snails, not seafood a rarity in Valencia.

On recent rainy day, Hiroko wanted to make a one-pan meal and decided it was time to make her first paella. And so following the original working men's dish tradition, we used whatever remained in the refrigerator...a reflection of Hiroko's flair for economizing. Rick searched through the crowded refrigerator and found some homemade chicken stock, a chicken breast, Spanish chorizo, tomatoes, and a half dozen or so unused fresh shrimp from previous day. Hiroko consulted Mark Bittman's recipe for paella, and set to work sautéeing the chicken. Once it had browned, she added minced garlic and onion, and cooked this mix until the vegetables were soft. She then added the chorizo, along with tomato paste, saffron, smoky Spanish pimenton, and....."just a bit more" paprika (Nigerian in this case) than the recipe called for. In fact, as Hiroko shook the paprika container (accidentally using the large rather than the smaller shaker-holed opening), a huge amount of the spicy powder spilled into the pot. The saffron tinted mix had morphed into a fiery red! "Whoops!" Suddenly, it had become an entirely new dish, paella a la Lagos!

Regaining her composure, Hiroko added the arborio rice, sautéed it until shiny, then added the stock and shrimp, and stirred all to mix the combined ingredients. Next, she placed tomato wedges on top of rice and put the pan in the oven to roast for 30 minutes.
When the rice was done, she turned off the oven, leaving the pan of rose-tinted paella inside to "rest" (and steam) for another 10 to15 minutes. Meanwhile, Hiroko prepared a salad while Rick selected a wine to accompany the meal. Just before serving, a sprinkling of chopped parsley was added and... it was time to eat.

The dish was wonderfully smoky and of course, spicy! The amount of Nigerian paprika didn't ruin the dish as we had feared, but it actually added a new dimension to it. The edge of the pan was nicely caramelized and resulting "burned" rice was toothsome and tasty. Rick chose a Licia 2006 Albarino from Galicia which offered a great balance of minerality, acidity and green apple fruit to compliment the acidity of the tomatoes and the smoky pimenton-influenced spicy flavor of rice.

We love spicy food and often seek it out both when we travel and at home. However, little did we expect that an "accidental overdose" of a spicy seasoning would result in the delicious discovery of a new way to make and enjoy an traditional, time-honored dish like paella!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Sake Day with Friends

October 1st is Sake Day or Nihonshu no Hi in Japanese. Sake Day originated in 1978 when the Japan Sake Brewers Association declared it as a day to celebrate and promote the enjoyment of sake. The Chinese character for Sake is 酒, which is very similar to the Chinese zodiac sign for the Rooster, 酉. This Rooster sign is the 10th sign. Hence, as the beginning of the tenth month, October 1st became Sake Day.

There are a number of sake tasting events taking place in NYC around Sake Day. Some are solely for the restaurant and retail trade but there are also several open to consumers. The largest and most comprehensive sake tasting opportunity for sake professionals, devotees, and neophytes was the annual Joy of Sake on 9/27. Created by Chris Pearce, the founder of World Sake International Imports based in Hawaii, the New York version of the event was held for the fourth year at The Puck Building in the East Village. This year, an amazing total of 302 sake from 142 breweries was presented. Of this total, about 100 were not yet available in the US. Confronted with this "surfeit of riches", we decided to first focus on the floor featuring the non-available sake. Even though this reduced our tasting universe by 67% we were still faced with a serious sake sampling to strategically approach this and gain the learning that we were seeking? We paced ourselves by segmenting our efforts to first taste the "gold award" winners (judged by a panel of experts prior to the event) and intermittently chatting with friends and new acquaintances who share our enthusiasm for nihonshu. We were delighted to see them and be in the company of so many other New Yorkers tasting and embracing sake for over three hours on a beautiful fall evening.

Coincidentally, our friend Melinda from Tokyo Through the Drinking Glass was visiting New York during the same week and we were fortunate enough to spend time with her. Along with recently annointed Sake Samurai Tim Sullivan from Urban Sake, we headed to Sake Bar Decibel for a midnight drink after dinner one evening. Even with full stomachs and a well fueled buzz, we still had the thirst to drink sake like salarymen in Tokyo. The fact that he had to work the next morning didn't dissuade Tim from joining us in the late evening hours for some of his favorite brews! Otsukare, Tim!

On the last evening of Melinda's visit, we had a dinner party for her at our favorite Greek restaurant, Snack Taverna in the West Village. Along with several of Melinda's other New York friends including Tim, we enjoyed the restaurant's gracious hospitality and an abundant feast of food and drink. Our most grateful thanks go out to our friend Adam Greene, the owner of Snack Taverna, who generously arranged the delicious assortment of mezedes, Greek salad, saganaki, and country sausage, followed by the restaurant's uniquely Greek style preparations of branzino, roast chicken, leg of lamb, stuffed peppers, baklava, sheep's milk yogurt, and rice pudding. As you might imagine, no one left hungry!

With or without sake, sharing drinks with friends is the spirit of Sake Day. We were fortunate enough to have the best of both worlds in celebration of Sake Day 2007!

Monday, August 13, 2007


Hiroko's love for Kewpie mayonnaise is no secret to anyone. She loves it so much that she will eat Kewpie on and in almost anything. In fact, as far as she's concerned, it doesn't really need a "delivery system"...straight from the bottle is fine too!

Last week, we celebrated Hiroko's birthday. She is pictured here wearing her favorite gift...a special custom made Kewpie T-shirt sent by a good friend of ours, Tim from Urban Sake.

Thank you, Tim! You are the BEST!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Our Sake Shop, "Sakaya"

We're tremendously excited because we recently received the NY State Liquor Authority Board's approval of our liquor license application for our sake shop, Sakaya, which will be on E. 9th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues in the East Village. Our goal is to be open for business in early October. Please visit the Sakaya website homepage for a link to our pre-opening blog where we will post regular updates on our progress.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


What is yuba? It is the membrane-like skin that forms when soy milk is warmed. It is then eaten warm or dried (like pasta) for later consumption as a wrap for spinach for example. It is fairly common in Japan but very difficult to find in the U.S.

As you may know, baking is quite different from cooking. It is a combination of science and the test of one's patience. Yuba making is the same way. It is very important that the soy milk should not reach the boiling point however its temperature should kept at a constant 165 degree F. The best method for achieving this delicate balance is through the use of a double boiler. Bring the water to a boil, gradually warming the soy milk until it reaches the desired temperature. When the yuba begins to form on the surface, you'll be tempted to immediately scoop up the sheet. But, exercise restraint because the membrane will initially be too thin and soft to successfully be able to lift it. Wait.....until the surface becomes thick enough to form a perfect sheet.

The key to making yuba as we said is patience. On one hand, we were excited and ready to scarf down own homemade yuba, yet at same time, we knew that our palates would be amply rewarded by holding off for just a few minutes more. As we said at the beginning of this post, this is the toughest part of making yuba (aside from making the soy milk from soaking dried yellow soy beans). We don't know if we'll make it again anytime soon, but when we do, it will most likely be a special occasion. And believe us, this special treat is well worth the wait!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Virtual Sake Tasting

About two months ago, our friend Melinda who we met at John Gauntner's Professional Sake Course in Tokyo in January, very kindly invited us to participate in her second "virtual sake tasting." Since then it has taken some time to pick sake that all in the tasting panel (particularly we in the "deprived" part of the world) could purchase that allowed us to meet the objective of comparing sake of two different (rice milling)classifications by two brewers . Ultimately, we were all able to acquire the Hananomai and Suigei offerings that came close to conforming to our goal. The panel's participants are Melinda, Etsuko, and Robert-Gilles from Japan, with Valerie, and Tim, joining us from the U.S. Check in with each of their blogs too to get the full global perspective on these sake and then, go try them yourself! Here are our notes and overall conclusions....

Hananomai: Junmai Ginjo vs. Junmai Daiginjo

The Junmai Ginjo had a pale straw color, with a nose of toasted rice and faint notes of roasted meat. Its flavor profile was dominated by lactic acid combined with a bit of sweetness on the mid-palate and a fairly rich texture. The flavors didn't linger in the mouth too long, but it had a richer finish than the Daiginjo.

In contrast, the Junmai Daiginjo had a hint of sweet vanilla aroma with more lactic acid induced vanilla yogurt flavors than the Junmai Ginjo. The finish wasn't particularly long nor was it short either, but strawberry flavors filled the whole mouth at its conclusion. While just a tad rich, it was a surprisingly simple and straight forward sake.

Suigei: Tokubetsu Junmai vs. Junmai Ginjo

The Tokubetsu Junmai had a faint aroma of mushroom and an anise flavor. It was richer than the Junmai Ginjo, and had a dry, slightly longer finish with a hint of caramel vanilla flavor.

The Junmai Ginjo's nose reminded us of fruit blossoms and its taste of fruit matched that promise. Its acidity and tartness were prominent, but well balanced and the overall character was rather dry. It was not as complex and multi-layered as the Tokubetsu Junmai, but it did have a very clean finish with sweet strawberry flavors that linger in the mouth.

Overall, we liked Suigei's high acidity level, which delivered a pleasing balance of sweetness and dryness. Hananomai to us was a little flat in the flavor department.

Our overall rankings:
Hiroko: 1. Suigei Junami Ginjo 2. Suigei Tokubetsu Junmai 3. Hananomai Junmai Daiginjo 4. Hananomai Junmai Ginjo

Rick: 1. Suigei Tokubetsu Junmai 2. Suigei Junmai Ginjo 3. Hananomai Junami Ginjo 4. Hananomai Junmai Daiginjo

Just for a fun experiment, we paired these sake with three cheeses: (a very inexpensive) fresh goat cheese from Spain, an Australian cheddar (mild), and Roncal, a sharp sheep's milk cheese from Spain.

These cheeses were not necessarily the "perfect match" for the sake that we were tasting but we like to subject all sake that we taste to the "cheese meter." The overall best match was the Australian cheddar with Hananomai Junami Ginjo and Suigei Junmai Ginjo. This Australian cheddar is not a sharp cheddar, but it paired well with both Junmai Ginjos. The creaminess of the cheese found its compliment in the acidity and tartness of these two breweries' JG offerings. The Roncal was a bit sharp for the sake, but if we had to pick one, our vote would go to the SuigeiTokubetsu Junmai, which had the tartness and body to stand up to it. With the goat cheese, the sharpness was well matched with the Suigei Tokubetsu Junmai.

Well, that's it for the moment but it's now time for dinner and we still have lots left in the bottles to try with our Asian tuna ceviche, kanpachi sashimi, ginger sauteed green beans, and daikon with mentaiko sauce....

Monday, April 30, 2007

Australian Sake

Australian sake?

Our sake friend Trevor from Australia, who we met in Tokyo while there for John Gauntner's Professional Sake Course, came to NYC for the Asian Art Fair recently. He works for Japanese art dealer, Kehoe Art Gallery, and he introduced us to Australian sake, which he was serving at his booth.

The sake is Goshu 40 Ultra Premium Genshu Junmai Daiginjo made by Sun Masamune in Australia. Sun Masamune was founded by the Japanese company Konishi Brewing in 1996. Currently the head brewing master is Hirofumi Uchiyama, who used to work in the Nada district (famous for sake brewing) for 30 years. Their sake is made from Australian Japonica rice and their own special yeast.

Trevor offered us a choice of sake cups from their display. All were colorful egg-shapes made by Kiyomizu Studio in Kyoto, and most of what they had brought had sold for $95 apiece.

We tasted the Goshu 40 which is milled to 40% and had a moderate alcohol level (particularly for a genshu brew) of 16%. There was a hint of the yogurt-like flavor of lactic acid combined with a smooth, round finish. While it didn't have the sophistication of the Japanese Junmai Ginjo sake we have tasted, it still possessed some lovely light rice aromatics, filled the mouth with its richness and lengthy finish. As the flavors danced on our tongues, all agreed that it was perfect experience to brighten the early spring afternoon, served up in a whimsically designed, colorful cup!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Laos -- Luang Prabang, March 5 &6, 2006

From Vientiane we flew north to Luang Prabang. Surrounded by mountains and nestled between the Mekong and Khan rivers, it was the capital of Laos until the Communist take over of the country in 1975. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995, its colonial legacy, French influence, and Laotian tradition, have been woven into the fabric of a town that is a perfect reflection of the Lao culture. Luang Prabang is small, and just about everywhere worth checking out can be reached on foot.

"So pretty!" was our first reaction when driving into town from the airport. Seemingly frozen in time with its quiet beauty and tranquility, Luang Prabang is both relaxing and serene. The entire town is the epitome of "zen," no surprise since the town center is dominated by about 33 temples, home to nearly 1,000 monks and novices. They are so ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to go anywhere without the sighting the familiar saffron robed devotees of Lord Buddah strolling or sitting by the temples.

Mornings begin very early in Luang Prabang, where locals are awakened by the bells and gongs from the temples, and a procession of monks and novices circuits the town to collect rice for the daily meal. The first gongs sounded at 4AM waking the normally somnambulent Hiroko . When they resumed their call at 6AM from the Wat Xiengthong, Hiroko was already standing on Sakkarine Rd. to witness the endless stream of saffron.

Hiroko's return and Rick's hunger motivated the early morning trip to the morning market by our guest house. By sunrise merchants had lined Manthatoulat Rd along the Mekong River, their intricately designed hand-loomed textile cloths spread before them filled with vegetables, fruits, chili, fish, and meat. There were numerous stands offering cooked food too. Flies were everywhere, particularly attracted to the meat and fish however, this seemed to bother no one... the merchants simply make a practice of waving their hands to keep them from alighting on the food. We were very tempted to try some of the delicious looking sandwiches or grilled chicken, but we had another mission in mind for our breakfast....kao soi noodles!

So we set off in the intense morning sun from the town center to visit a famous kao soi noodle place. It was about 30 to 40 minutes walk from our guest house, and even before 8AM, it was quite hot. The road leading out of town, although relatively empty, was still quite dusty and once outside of central Luang Prabang, there were only a few small guest houses along the way. We finally arrived at what we hoped was our destination, a shop where the tables were filled with people slurping away their faces buried in bowls of spicy noodles. There was no sign (which we wouldn't have been able to read anyway but this sight confirmed for us what we knew without asking....that we had reached our destination!

We sat and ordered "kao soi," but weren't certain that our server understood us. But a few minutes later, we were thrilled to see her arrive with two bowls of kao soi noodles and a plate full of local basil and bean sprouts. We squeezed the juice from the accompanying limes, added a copious quantity of basil and bean sprouts, and immediately began to eat the noodles before they cooked too long in the broth. The Thai version of Kao Soi has coconut milk in it, but the Lao variety instead uses a sort of local spicy miso-like paste similar to that used in pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup. It was so addictively spicy that our faces remained buried in our bowls until nothing remained.

After breakfast, and visit to a nearby wat, we picked up the sandwich at the market for a picnic lunch at Kuangsi Falls. These gorgeous waterfalls are about 16 miles (a one hour drive) from Luang Prabang. We hired a driver who adroitly navigated the dirt road to the waterfall. It was extremely hot, and the van's air conditioner hadn't worked in years. And, as badly as we wanted to open the windows, the "dust storm" kicked up on the dirt road was so severe that we didn't dare open the windows for fear of asphyxiation.

Having survived the sweltering drive, our joyful foray into the wooded area near the falls brought us face to face with several young tigers which were kept in
a fenced-in area. We were told that this was a sanctuary for tigers which are still illegally hunted. Following the signs to the waterfall, we came upon a clearing where the silky water of the river flowed into a beautiful turquoise pool. Too inviting to resist, we took off our shoes and waded in. The water was cool and refreshing and a welcome relief after the ordeal of our "sweat box" van experience. We just sat on the rock and luxuriated in the tropical paradise-like surroundings as the cooling effect of the pool reinvigorated us. Refreshed, we picked up the trail again and followed the stream uphill where in another clearing we encountered the majestic waterfall directly in front of us. We found a bench nearby and unpacked our lunch. As we sat there in the spray of the falls eating our freshly made sandwich we drank in the surrounding scene which was as idyllic as anything in our previous experience .

After returning to town, we strolled the streets, then climbed Phusi mountain to view panorama of the surrounding countryside from its peak. It was a breathtakingly beautiful view in the dusky haze of twilight. Sunset was near, so we strolled down by the Mekong River to enjoy the spectrum of blazing color as the sun seemingly dipped into the river.

Laos, as experienced in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, was our favorite country of all that we visited on our month-long trip to Southeast Asia. Because of its rural economy and lack of industrialization, it was the country that seemed most untouched and unspoiled. We loved its tranquility, warm, friendly people and of course, the amazing food!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Laos--Vientiane, March 3 & 4, 2006

Last year, we traveled to Southeast Asia. Since we have fallen a bit behind in posting our trip, and before it disappears completely from our "rearview mirror," we wanted to post some pictures and report on some of the highlights that we failed to get to when we returned last Spring .

Among our most memorable experiences was the capital city of Laos, Vientiane. Laos is a socialist republic in Southeast Asia bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand. In its more recent history, it gained independence from France in 1949, but civil war continued until the Communist party took over the country in 1975. Private and foreign enterprise started in 1987, but the country is still among the poorest in Asia.

Located along the banks of the Mekong River, the old colonial city of Vientiane is the capital of Laos. With dusty streets and crumbling sidewalks, it feels as if it has been in a sort of suspended animation since the early '70's. Yet, it has a distinctive charm about it because of its rusticity and lack of urbanity. It can easily be covered by foot (or better by bicycle) in a day.

One of our first stops was Pha That Luang, the Great Stupa, the national symbol of Laos. The construction of the stupa is known to be started in 1566 on the site of former Khmer temple. A Thai invasion followed by a Chinese invasion in 19th century severely destroyed the temple until France took the control of Laos in 1893. With the help of France, in 1930 the temple was rebuilt.

We rented bicycles for a day for 20,000 Kip, approximately $2 ($1=10,600kip) to visit temples and shops. Since the climate was very hot and humid, we kept our sightseeing activities to a minimum during the midday hours and took the opportunity to rest at a cafe, eat, and drink some of the delicious freshly squeezed local fruit juice.

We found a wonderful sandwich shop, Nampou Coffee near our hotel. During breakfast hours, local people were eating a noodle dish like Vietnamese Pho, which we decided to give a try. We also found that in Laos people eat Vietnamese Banh Mi like sandwich as well. The sandwich was filled with pork, cucumber, and sauteed onion and carrots with mayo and was perfectly matched with Beer Lao. We tried three different sandwich shop, and concluded that Namphou Coffee's sandwich was the best.

For dinner, one evening we feasted at a small family run place, Vilayluc, which we found via a Japanese guidebook. It looked like someone's home turned into a restaurant. The proprietor was very friendly, and we ordered her recommendation of laap (like laab in Thai), spicy curry and a dish she called "waterfall beef" (also similar to aThai dish). Since their history is so intertwined it is no surprise that Lao food resembles Thai, though like Vietnamese food, not as spicy. Lao dishes are filled with herbs and fresh vegetables, and you eat them with sticky rice. Khao Niaw, as it is called , is eaten with your fingers, molded into a ball and used to mop up the juice of the dish. We still remember the dinner at Vilayluc as one of the best that we had in all of Southeast Asia.

Namphu Coffee
57 Pangkham Rd., near the corner of Samsenthai Rd.

behind Wat Ong Teu

Other Restaurants & Sandwich shops:

turn left on Samsenthai Rd. on the road to That Dam

344 Samsenthai Rod.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


"The Nabe pot is here!" These were the words we've been anxiously waiting to hear (or say) for two months since our return from Japan. Although we had purchased it at a shop in Denenchofu, Tokyo when we were there in late January, because of its weight and size, we asked Hiroko's parents to ship it to us via sea, the least expensive (and slowest) postal option.

Nabe is the quintessential winter Japanese dish, which is prepared in a hot pot at the table. It is sort of like a healthy fondue in that the cooking medium is not oil, cheese, or chocolate but a type of Japanese stock made from water, kelp, and/or dashi depending upon the type of nabe. Popular types of nabe include the familiar Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu, as well as lesser known (to U.S. eaters) dishes that are enjoyed in the various regions and families of Japan. The only rule for nabe is that you cook anything that you like in the pot at the table and that it be shared with your family and friends.

A nabe pot can be anything from ordinary to artistic. The "ordinary" variety can be easily found at Mitsuwa Marketplace in New Jersey or other Japanese grocery stores in New York area. We wanted something unique and special, so we waited until we were able to buy the beautiful black one that we had fallen in love with while looking through The Nabe Cookbook (purchased in Matsuyama on our winter '06 trip). Hiroko's always expert research located Doraku, the small family run pottery shop where it could be purchased.

"This is it!" we exclaimed after walking into the charming shop that was the first place we visited after our arrival in Tokyo. The Denenchofu area of Tokyo is an affluent neighborhood modeled after a similar section of London. Run by the Asami family, the shop was small and a little cluttered, and focused on artisan yakimono. Mrs. and Mr. Asami love yakimono and are quite proud of their shop's selection.

Mrs. Asami excitedly showed us the nabe that was the object of our visit. It is made by Shiro Yoshii in Kyoto, and is surprisingly light weight. She explained to us that this nabe was individually handmade and that it needs to be well cared for. She was ecstatic when we told her that we were from NYC and had learned about her shop and the nabe from the Nabe Cookbook. We happily purchased it, and told her how much we adored it. Our excitement made her even more excited so much so that we were thanking each other until we left the shop (in fact, they followed us out of the shop while continuing to thank us!).

Remembering our visit with the Asamis at their shop, we opened the long-awaited package from Japan. The nabe was wrapped meticulously and with lots and lots of padding. There was no damage to our nabe, no scratch or broken pieces, it is as beautiful as the first time we saw it. We were so excited to see our NABE finally sitting on our dining room table, and wasted no time in inviting friends over to put it to use immediately!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Junmai Ginjo Sake Tasting

Since we began keeping a record in 2004, we have drunk over 150 different sakes. But "drinking" and "tasting" are dramatically different activities. "Drinking" is done for pure enjoyment, usually (but not always) involves eating, and social interaction and/or camaraderie. "Tasting" is a more serious, scientific/analytical process requiring concentration to identify the characteristics of sake e.g. it's aromatics, flavor profile, etc. The first time we seriously "tasted" sake was during John Gauntner's Professional Sake Course in Tokyo earlier this year. The experience was eye opening for us, and we vowed to do more "tasting" when we returned home.

The limited selection offered by NYC wine shops defined the bounds of our comparison, but undaunted, we settled on three Junmai Ginjo sakes available in 300 ml bottles....Hakkaisan from Niigata, Tenryo Hidomare from Gifu, Meisousui from Miyagi. All three met the minimum (seimaibuai) qualification of having at least 40% of the outer shell of the rice used, milled (or polished) away and had similar levels of acidity. Each had been brewed using different rice strains and yeasts (for more details, click on the link at the end of this post).

The findings: (1) Hakkaisan had a rich woody and nutty flavor with hint of yogurt, which matched well with foods that have a salty and/or miso component as well as with a peppery green like argula. (2) Tenryu had a bright floral flavor with a hint of strawberry, which goes well with creamy flavors like mayonnaise or risotto, and tuna confit. Mustard flavors in food brought out the sweetness of the sake. (3) Meisousui had a very light and bright flavor. As the name suggests(Meisou means meditation), this sake was a very relaxed, quiet sake (in contrast to the boldness of the Tenryu), and it matched well with tomatoes and mayo flavors, but an even better pairing was braised daikon. The sake is very delicate that it maybe the best to drink it by itself or with a light dashi-flavored dish.

More detail on the tasting,
click here for the tasting note.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Our friend recently told us how much he enjoyed eating at Eleven Madison Park, one of Danny Meyer's famous restaurants. When we think of Eleven Madison, our first thought is the delicious gougeres that we were served in lieu of bread on our last visit (which sadly was some time ago).
Rick excitedly suggested trying to make them "ourselves" at home. Hiroko's reply was "WHO will make them?" Of course, we knew the answer... Rick went to buy the cheese and Hiroko whipped up the choux...

makes about 20
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1/2 cup or more freshly grated Gruyere, or sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup or more freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 425F.

Combine the water, butter, and salt in a saucepan; turn the heat to medium high and bring to a boil. Cook, stiring, until the butter melts. Lower the heat, and add the flour all at once and cook, stiring constantly, until the dough holds together in a ball, about 5 mintues.

Remove from the heat, and add the eggs one at a time, beating hard after each addition. Beat the mixture until the dough is glossy, about 3~4 minutes. (This is a little bit of work if you are mixing by hands.)

Using a melon scoop or a teaspoon, drop the mixture onto the baking sheet and bake until light brown, about 15 minutes.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Cha Ca Fish

Lately, we've been doing a lot of dining out so, deciding that we needed to go "light and lean" for a day or two, we visited Fish Tales, our favorite local fish store. There on display we spied some basa, or Vietnamese catfish. Sparking our sensory memory, we thought that a Vietnamese dish would be a perfect for our spice seeking palates! We then recalled how much we had loved the dill, tumeric, and fish sauce-perfumed dish, cha ca fish, prepared by diners at their tables at the eponymously named Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi last winter. With the key ingredient in our possession, our subsequent search led us to a recipe on the Washington Post website.

With Hiroko's skillful preparation, we found the result to be so thoroughly authentic that we were momentarily transported back to the dingy but festive, smoke-filled restaurant in Hanoi. Only the owners' faded family portraits on the walls and 16 oz. bottles of Ha Noi beer on our table were missing!

Cha Ca Fish with Dill

Dipping sauce

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce

3 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons water

Juice of 1 lime

For the fish

2 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon finely minced ginger

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 pound firm fish fillets cut into chunks

8 ounces thin dried rice noodles, softened in warm water and drained

2 cups coarsely chopped dill

5 scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths

3 cups shredded lettuce leaves

1 cup mint and cilantro leaves

For the dipping sauce: In a small bowl, mix the garlic, sugar and chili-garlic sauce to make a coarse paste. Add the fish sauce, water, and lime juice, stiring to dissolve the sugar. Set aside.

For the fish: In a bowl, combine the fish sauce, 1 tablespoon of oil, the ginger, turmeric, and salt, and mix well. Add the fish and toss to coat. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the remainig oil and heat, and add the dill to the pan to sizzles at once. Add the fish and cook on one side for about 2 minutes. Turn and cook 1 minutes. Add the remaining dill and the scallions and cook for another 1 mintues.

Divide the noodles among the serving bowls. Add the lettuce and mint and cilantro. Top each bowl with pieces of fish, and drizzle with the dipping sauce.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Kappabashi Dori

We just received the package from Japan containing the bowls and plates we purchased in the Kappabashi neighborhood of Tokyo. We were as excited as children on Christmas Day when opening it to see what we had actually bought three weeks prior. Kappabashi-dori is known as the "kitchen street," where more than 170 restaurant and kitchen supply shops line an 800 meter stretch between Ueno and Asakusa. Anything you can think of (and much more) relating to the kitchen and food is found there in an almost infinite variety of sizes, colors, fabrications, etc. Looking for those plastic examples of food for your restaurant window? You can find them here. Chef uniforms, knives, pots and pans, plates, signs and banners, kitchen equipment of every imaginable type.. it's all found in Kappabashi!

We were looking for plates and bowls...something attractive, but not too expensive. Ideally speaking, we wanted different plates for different types of dishes. Unfortunately, the reality that we have to deal with is that like many other New Yorkers, we are "space challenged" i.e. where to store so many different kids of dishes?
Our first stop in Kappaboshi was Dengama, a discount yakimono shop for Japanese pottery like Arita-yaki, Kutani-yaki, Masiko-yaki, Mino-yaki, and Shigaraki-yaki. After brousing for about an hour, we settled on some noodle bowls, small plates, and large platter...all for one-half their original price. Fortunately, shipping came via the generosity of Hiroko's father!
We've enjoyed a number of ramen lunches in the bowls (which can also be used for serving), served hors d'oeurves to guests on the platter, and have found the small plates to be perfect for....well..."small plates."

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sushi at Araki

Since we rarely eat it at home, we wanted to indulge ourselves with a special sushi experience in Tokyo. We asked our friends living in Tokyo for their recommendation and without hesitation they replied, "Araki." Araki is not in Tsukiji or Ginza where there are a great number of sushi restaurants which open their doors to customers from all over the world. Rather, it is off the beaten track in the residential town of Kaminoge, about 20 mintues west of Shibuya station by train, where its devotees must travel to prove their desire to eat the very best . Our friends warned us that Araki would not be easy to get to via public transportation. But, from our dining experience, that's usually a good sign. The more remote, the more interesting the place tends to be.

After getting off the train from Shibuya, we left Kaminoge station at 5:45PM with map in hand. Our reservation was promptly at 6PM, so we had little margin for error. We walked for about 10 minutes, winding our way through a network of dark, quiet residential streets. At about 5:55PM, we arrived at the location where the restaurant was SUPPOSED to be. We looked around, but saw no sign of Araki. Hiroko asked a couple who appeared to be waiting for a bus, if they knew where Araki was, and they pointed to the door directly behind us!

At 6PM, the door opened. By that time, the 10 people who had congregated outside practically stampeded through the door and quickly claimed their seats at the counter. We took the two remaining seats at the end and we all sat and waited for our chef to emerge from behind a curtain....After our drink orders were taken, he took his place behind the simple wooden counter. A serious, stern-faced man in his late 30's, he was assisted by an equally stoic, extremely adept young woman in her 20's.

The atmosphere was somewhat solemn, and we felt a bit like we were in a karate dojo where the sensei demonstrates his moves and the pupils observe in silence. Noticing a few exchanges of familiarity between the other customers and chef, it became obvious that they were all regulars. We were the outsiders, and though the staff was cordial (and spoke English to Rick), it was clear that this was to a certain extent, a club. The master chef would allow himself a slight smile now and then, but he never laughed. When he spoke (infrequently) it was curt phrases uttered in a soft voice. He was a man of a few words who was completely focused on his craft.

After painstakingly careful preparation, each offering was individually presented. We started with a variety of sashimi including hamachi, abalone, uni and iIkura, and aji (horse mackerel). The hamachi was so fatty and tender that Hiroko couldn't contain herself and after putting it in her mouth, broke the reverential silence with an exclaimatory "oishii!" The uni was sweet like panna cotta or custard, and it was the perfect compliment to the slightly salty ikura that it was paired with.

Following the sashimi we were served a succession of sushi; three different grades of tuna (maguro, chutoro, and otoro), river fish, shirako (everyone's favorite, codsperm), shrimp, squid, and at last anago. Everything that we put into our mouths was sublimely delicious, perfectly prepared and proportioned. And the shari (sushi rice) was the best we've ever tasted!

Alas, at precisely 7:50PM our "shift" was over. And, as the 8PM reservation group arrived and we prepared to retrace our path back to the station, all we could do was agree that Araki was without question, the perfect sushi experience we had sought.

Kaminoge Little Town 102

4-27-1 Nakamachi Setagaya-ku Tokyo



東京都世田谷区中町4-27-1 上野毛リトルタウン102

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ramen in Ebisu

Unfortunately, we have yet to find a ramen place in NYC that meets Hiroko's standards. So, of course we were determined to eat ramen while we were in Tokyo. While exploring the Ebisu area, we headed for one of its most famous ramen-ya's, a place called Chorori. Spartan in its decor (or lack thereof), Chorori is extremely small with just a couple of communal tables. With its reputation, as you might expect, it was packed with hungry lunch patrons! We found two seats next to two young women who were clearly savoring their ramen. On our other side, a young man was waiting for his order, while across from him an older man was smoking his post-ramen cigarette. The atmosphere only exacerbated our anticipation of what lay ahead for our noodle-craving stomachs.

We ordered a shoyu and a shio ramen (which we were advised to be the standards) from the manager, a 40ish man was busily running around taking orders and clearing tables. Within 5 minutes, our ramen arrived, and before the noodles could soften (horrors!) , we joyfully dug our chopsticks into the bowl to capture and slurp the first few strands of noodle. The noodles were medium thin, a little curly and white, with a perfect chewy, al dente texture. The shoyu ramen soup delivered a deep, rich mouthfilling flavor. In contrast, the shio ramen soup was light, yet also flavorful and loaded with "umami." Toppings were simple; a slice of roast pork, crunchy fresh bean sprouts, and snowpeas. The belly-soothingly hot ramen made our noses run and caused us to break a light sweat as we happily slurped away until sadly, we caught sight of he bottom of the bowl.

4-22-11 Ebisu Shibuya-ku


Yuba Udon Noodles

As we were walking around the Shirokane area of Tokyo, we found an old house just off a main street that had been turned into a restaurant named Sakura Sakura. The restaurant specializes in Kyoto-style dishes serving "yuba udon noodle" during lunch hours and kaiseki for dinner. It was just after 1pm on Sunday, and since both of us love and cannot get enough of yuba in any form, we immediately jumped at the opportunity.

We sat at a corner table with a space heater conveniently situated at our feet to keep our seat warm. The menu was a "build-your-own" style with a choice of noodles served either hot or cold, in soup or with dipping sauce. Plus, it also offered their special dish of noodles in sesame soup. There was also a long list of toppings to choose from, about 15 or so, ranging from scallion to tempura to slices of duck. Each order was accompanied by a bowl of mushroom rice and Japanese pickles.

Hiroko ordered the noodle in soup with scallions. Rick ordered the special noodles in sesame soup with scallion. Made from a mixture of yuba and flour, the noodles were thinner and not as springy as sanuki udon. They were delicate and soft and the soup broth was rich and aromatic...ub a word (Hiroko's) "beautiful." With hints of bonito and kelp flavors, the soup was light on salt and shoyu but delivered an abundance of dashi flavor. This "light flavored" soup is what Hiroko calls "Kansai style" (versus Tokyo or Kanto style which relies more heavily on shoyu).

Not to be overlooked, their rice was delicate and tasty as well. We devoured our lunch and then sat and savored it for a while longer over a nice cup of green tea. Through our visual sense, we had discovered a beautiful old house which yielded an equally beautiful sensory experience for our tastebuds, a bowl of yuba udon.

Sakura Sakura

5-15-10 Shirokanedai Minato-ku Tokyo





Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Soba for Breakfast?

When you were a child, did your parents always tell you that "breakfast is the most important meal of the day?" If you want to see what people on the go eat first thing in the morning, the best place to in Japan is the train station. In NYC, it will most likely be coffee and bagels or muffins. In Japan...well, let's just say that we would never have guessed that what we found would far and away be the most popular breakfast...

At about 6:30AM at Shinagawa station in Tokyo, we searched for a bakery to buy our breakfast. Bakeries are as ubiquitous in Japanese rail stations as hot dog vendors on NY street corners. But at this hour, no kissaten (coffee shops) or bakeries were found to be open at such an early hour. At first our sole choice seemed to be a convenience store selling onigiri, sandwiches, and juices. Not thrilled with the prospect, we decided to take one more look around. It was then that we spied a soba stand that was not only open for business, it was packed with early riser salarymen. Well, nothing beats a bowl of steaming hot soba noodles in cold morning! Sleepy eyed salarymen were busy slurping the soba, their concentration focused inside of their closely held bowl. We bought the coupons at the door, and waited at the table to be served. Service was quick, we wordlessly and happily slurped our order, and we were out the door on our way to our train in 5 minutes.

We had learned the salaryman's secret for starting the day...soba is the "breakfast of champions."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Hida Beef

Last year, thanks to our friend Yoshiko, we had the opportunity to enjoy our first Kobe beef (check previous post) "experience" in Osaka. On our most recent trip to Japan, we had the opportunity to taste Hida's variety in Takayama, Gifu prefecture, which is also famous for its beef. There, steers are raised in the meadows of the Hida plateau for more than 14 months. As with the product from Kobe, Hida beef is known for its fatty tissue and rich flavor (although from our limited experience, it isn't quite as rich or buttery as its Kobe counterpart).

In Takayama, we went to a small izakaya, and ordered Hida beef sashimi. The ultra-thin slices of fat-marbled raw beef were served with both salt and soy sauce for dipping. Tender and very fatty, the taste was not unlike chu toro, medium fatty tuna.

The following day, just before leaving Takayama, we came upon a shop selling Hida beef sushi. How could we not try it?! Each piece consisted of a slice of beef cooked briefy with a blowtorch and carefully placed onto sushi rice. It was a simple yet unbelievably delicious treat..the buttery fat perfectly mingling with the vinegar flavored sushi rice.

Needless to say (but we will anyway), Takayama left a great taste in our mouths!

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ainokura -- World Heritage Site

Ainokura is in the Gokanyama district where villages of centuries old-style houses are scattered along the main route through the mountainous region of Toyama prefecture in north central Japan. Here in the village of Ainokura, nature is preserved and time is as frozen as the ground beneath the two-foot deep snow in winter. We found the village to be extremely authentic and well preserved owing to its status as a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1995. The style of houses found here called Gassho-zukuri, comprises an "A" shaped thatched roof made from straw. Currently there are 21 Gassho-zukuri houses nestled in Ainokura village.

Getting to Ainokura was quite a challenge. It required two trains and two buses from Tokyo to Nagoya, Nagoya to Takayama, Takayama to Shirakawa-go (another World Heritage Site), and finally from there to the remote village of Ainokura. Since it is an especially small village, Ainokura has very limited bus service. If we were to miss one connection in the chain, we would miss the only bus available to get us there. Knowing the precision needed in making our connections on time, we left Tokyo at 7am by the Nozomi Shinkansen (fastest bullet train in Japan) and transferred to the train from Nagoya to head north to Takayama, the largest city in the middle of Gifu prefecture. The Nagoya train to Takayama was delayed by 30 minutes, which nearly gave Hiroko a heart attack. Fortunately, the first bus that we needed to get us to Shirakawa-go waited for our late train (unbelievable for Japan). Fortunately for us, we were then able to successfuly make the transfer to the bus from Shirakawa-go to Ainokura. It was almost 2:30pm when we stepped into the gassho-zukuri house in which we were to stay the night.

We stayed in one of the oldest houses, Yusuke, which was built 1868. Now inhabited by the 5th generation of the same family. Shigeru Ikehata, a well-traveled professional photographer, runs the inn with his wife. As we were the only guests for that night, Ikehata-san regaled us with his fascinating stories, making our experience more of a homestay than that of just typical ryokan customers.

It was about 32 degrees outside, with 2-3 feet of snow covering the ground, so the house was cold. In Japanese houses past and present, there is no central heating system and in this rustic case, the only heat source was from Irori (fire in a central hearth). After our explorations outside, all we wanted to do was sit by the fire, drink hot tea, and bask in our before-dinner ofuro (Japanese hot tub, to simplify things tremendously).

That evening, dinner was served in front of the Irori. We were treated with dishes filled with different combinations of mountain vegetables, koi sashimi, and a river fish called Iwana. When futon-time came, we were handed bed warmers and retreated the refrigerator-cold room with freezing cold futon. We quickly got into the bed and hoping that the bedwarmers would do their job...which they did!

When morning came, the room was even colder. Hiroko (somewhat) jokingly said that her hair was covered with frost. We tucked our clothes under the covers of the warm futon to warm them up before putting them on our bodies. And, we quickly dressed and headed for the irori. After a breakfast of warm tofu, miso soup, rice, tsukemono, it was time for us to leave. We thanked our gracious hosts for their generosity and headed off into the early morning mountain mist for the bus stop to catch the bus to Shirakawa-go.

Our Sake Journey

Almost exactly one year later, we returned to Japan. This time, our primary reason was to take John Gauntner's Professional Sake Course, an intensive 3-day affair of lectures, tasting, and eating dinners accompanied by a number of different sake.

Sake is very much a reflection of Japanese culture, where "aimai" or ambiguity is deeply woven into lives and personalities. Vagary rules. When it comes to gastronomy, anything goes as long as it sounds and tastes good. That's what we deal with in the world of Sake when it comes to both tasting and understanding the industry.
Junmai-shu (sake) has its own specific general aromatics and flavor profile characteristics, but there are always exceptions to the definition, which we all seek to make it easier for us to grasp and understand. To understand Sake is to understand Japanese culture. John taught us not only the technical side of sake brewing, classification, and tasting, but also the cultural aspect of sake drinking in Japan.

Tasting sake requires an immense amount of focus and concentration. There are aromatics, flavor profile, and texture to consider. With acidity, sweetness, bitterness, umami, aimami, and koku to ferret out with each experience, we had to focus on our tongues and mouths to isolate each quality and identify the flavor. Light and "feminine" or sturdy and "masculine?" Intensely fragrant or delicate? Viscous or etherial? Notes of mushroom, rose petal, banana, strawberry, apple, or pear? Simple, dry, or complex? As with wine, there is no end to the subtleties, nuances and the the adjectives to describe each uniquely created sake!

We tasted by yeast type, rice type, brewery, by classification (i.e. yamahai, honjozo, junmai, ginjo, daiginjo, etc.), age, serving temperature, and geographic region of origin. What we found fascinating was how variation in serving temperature can produce a transformation in aroma and flavor. A perfect illustration of this was a particular kura's Yamahai (a sake made by an ancient labor intensive method), which seemed to be everyone's favorite. Chilled, this sake was very strong with a nose of dried mushrooms. (Hiroko who hates dried shiitake mushrooms could not truely enjoy it). Remarkably, after warming, its flavor was transformed from the shiitake mushroom to that of a less intense (and for Hiroko, preferable) enoki mushroom. Although we'd read about the enjoyment of heating premium sake to various temperatures, this was our first actual tasting experience and it was definitely an eye opener!

Sake styles and types are as diverse as Japan's 47 prefectures, multiplied by the approximately 1,400 brewers, and compounded by the specific water of the brewery locale, yeast and rice types used, and proprietary brewing methods, just to name a few of the get the idea. If you're interested in learning more please either write us or check John's website for the most comprehensive resource on sake!

Sake World by John Gauntner