Sunday, April 30, 2006

Perdue Never Knew....

When we visited Hiroko's father in Kagawa-ken, he took us to his favorite chicken joint, Ikkaku in Marugame-city. When he was a young salaryman in the 70's, he and his co-workers had made it their payday ritual to meet there to eat, drink, talk about the stresses of their job and unwind. Since it first opened in 1967 this izakaya has become so immensely popular for its signature dish, that it has spawned branches not only on its home turf, the island of Shikoku, but also across the country in Yokohama City (near Tokyo) and soon in Osaka as well.

Now, about that signature dish.....Hiroko's father awkwardly warned us in advance that Ikkaku's chicken is "nothing like that ordinary tender grilled chicken. This chicken is much chewier and so much better." We didn't quite know what to expect, but told him we were game to try it...after all if it was little chewy but more flavorful, why not? Well...

Ikkaku's menu is short, simple, and straightforward consisting of "Oyadori" (adult chicken), "Hinadori" (young chicken), and a few other small dishes like edamame, salad, chicken rice, and soup. Needless to say, this simple kind of food was meant to be eaten with continuously flowing beer, sake, and/or shochu.

At Hiroko's father's insistence, we started with a beer and the Oyadori (adult chicken). A plate bearing a chicken leg and thigh arrived in front of each of us. The chicken was redolent of garlic, oil, and a blend of black and red pepper. It looked and smelled delicious. The scent of the glistening spicy grilled meat made us salivate immediately. Rick bit into the chicken. The meat didn't budge from the bone.. It became apparent that Hiroko's father's warning was no understatement. This Oyadori was not the least bit tender at all; and was just the kind of "tough chicken" that would make a tender man of Frank Perdue (or at least be his nightmare). But, the flavor of the chicken was so irresistably tasty and toothsome that it was next to impossible to stop attacking and chewing the meat....maybe it brought out the deeply buried primeval satisfaction of the early carnivores. Our fingers were covered with juice and our lips were happily buzzing with spices from the marinade. We had to keep licking our fingers, it was senseless to continue to try to use napkins.

Hiroko's father believes that once people have the Ikkaku experience, it is difficult to go back to eating tender is almost as if tender chicken does not have the flavor or provide the satisfaction that should come from eating this farmyard (or probably freerange in this case) fowl. And, as we cleaned the last bits of meat from the bones, we could clearly understand why he felt that way. After the Oyadori, we ordered some "Hinadori" (young chicken) for comparison...yes, it was juicy and tasty, but somehow now it just seemed ordinary.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Meyer Lemons

Our friends Lumi and Eric recently brought us some Meyer lemons from her mother's tree in California. The Meyer lemon, originally from China, is thought to be a hybrid of lemon and mandarin orange was introduced to the U.S. in 1908 by Frank Meyer who worked at Department of Agriculture.

These meyer lemons were ripe and ready to eat, so Hiroko didn't waste any time putting them to use. After immediately Googling meyer lemon recipes, she decided to bake a Flourless Orange and Ginger Cake, substituting meyer lemons for oranges and further modifying the recipe a little bit.

Flourless Meyer Lemon and Ginger Cake
(7 inch springform pan)


3 Meyer lemons
6 eggs
1 cup sugar
2cups Almond Meal/Flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1~2 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
6~8 pieces of candied ginger, chopped
Butter for greasing the pan
Parchment paper

Lemon juice: 1 lemon

Lemon zest: half lemon
crystalized sugar or crushed unrefined sugar cube

Scrub the lemons well. Place in a medium sauce pan covered with water. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook the lemons for about 2 hours. Add more hot water as necessary when the water level gets low. Drain and cut lemons in half removing the seeds. Place them in blender or food processor to puree.

Preheat oven 375F/190C. Beat the eggs with sugar. Whisk in the lemon puree, almond meal/flour, baking powder, fresh ginger, and candied ginger, and mix well.

Butter the pan and line with parchment paper. Pour the mixture into the pan and bake for about 1 hour until golden on the top. Let cool for a few minutes while you make the frosting. In a small bowl, mix lemon juice, lemon zest, and sugar. Remove the cake from the pan and pour the frosting over the cake. Let cool it before serving.

The resulting cake was wonderfully moist with intensely concentrated flavor. We served it after dinner that evening and ate it again the next morning was just as moist and delicious!

This recipe was not work intensive and was easy to make. Use as much or as little ginger as you like. We love ginger, but in this recipe, its flavor does not stand out. Its role is to simply amplify the fresh sweet, piquant flavor of the Meyer lemon (or orange) If you don't like it, omit the ginger.... the cake will still be quite tasty!

Monday, April 10, 2006


With our apologies to the Declaration of Independence, all Udon are not created equal. There are all other udon noodles and then there is Sanuki Udon. Sanuki Udon is the ultimate udon noodle, according to Hiroko, who was born and raised in Kagawa-ken, the birthplace and ancestral home of udon (think bagels and New York).

Sanuki Udon is different from the udon noodles from other places in Japan. It is shinier and silkier in color and more springy in texture. While we were driving around town, udon noodle shops (small restaurants) were as ubiquitous as nail salons in Manhattan. Most of these shops are quite small and many of them are self-service.

The way to order sanuki udon is:

1. Order the type of udon noodle dish (i.e. the preparation)...Zaru Udon or Kake Udon, etc.
2. Specify size/quantity i.e. small, medium, and large.
3. Wait patiently (for usually a minute or two) and recieve the bowl of noodles.
4. Choose from a selection of toppings e.g. vegetable or shrimp tempura or fishcake for the noodle (if desired).
5. Pay the cashier (a little over a dollar).
6. Find a seat
7. Eat!

On our visit to his ryokan in Kotahira (a town at the foot of the mountains in Kagawa-ken prefecture), Hiroko's friend's brother drove us to "Yamagoe, "the most popular udon shop in Kagawa. Located about 40 minutes from the town, it was easily identifiable as it was surrounded by nothing but a rice field and parking lot. Despite what sounds like an obvious location, what really made the place easy to spot was the line of people standing outside the entrance waiting to order their noodles! Yet even after arriving during a snow squall and taking our place in line on this blustery cold winter day, we had placed our order and were seated at a counter happily slurping our sanuki udon in less than 5 minutes! After having our faces buried in our bowls for the ensuing 5 minutes, we exchanged grins, our tastebuds were smiling and our bellies full!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

If Your Friend Tells You That She's Dating a Guy From Kobe...

While we were visiting Osaka, Hiroko's friend Yoshiko-chan invited us for a Kobe beef dinner at her small apartment. The city of Kobe is internationally famous for their very particular method for raising cattle and producing a uniquely rich flavored, buttery textured, tender, and expensive style of beef. It has a distinctive "striated" appearance...beef which is well-marbled with fat that practically "melts" into the surrounding meat when it is cooked. It was our good fortune that Yoshiko-chan was dating a guy from Kobe at that time, and as a connoisseur himself, he brought several pounds of Kobe beef from a butcher in Kobe....the same butcher that serves the Japanese Royal Family!!

This butcher, Oi, has 130-year history, has the reputation of being the best Kobe Beef butcher in Kobe. The sirloin steak range from 2100 yen to 5250 yen for 100g. We did the math at the prevailing exchange rate came to $200 per pound!

From his bag he pulled three packages, each a better grade than the one prior. After slicing the meat from the first, we began grilling the meat on a tabletop "hot plate"( yes, that is the Japanese term). It was remarkably tender and tasty...oishii ne (soooo delcious)! He then opened the second package, sliced and grilled it. OMG! It was even better! The third one...yes, you guessed it... was the best....sublime! The meat literally melted in our mouths. It was an unforgettable experience! We still remember the texture of the meat even after three months. It was the most AMAZING meat we've ever tasted! Never before had either of us ever had anything like it. We only wished that we had had the time to go to Kobe after that to eat more Kobe Beef! We have to thank Yoshiko-chan not only inviting us for dinner but moreso for dating a guy from Kobe!

Butcher Information in Japanese
Oi Nikuten

Sake and Nabe in Osaka

While in Osaka, we visited Daimon Sake Brewery for a tour followed by a tasting and then lunch. Daimon Brewery is actually located east of the city, about 45 minutes by train from Osaka Station. Founded in 1826, the kura (brewery) is situated in a small village bounded by a mountain range to the east from which it draws an abundance of clean water. Long ago, during Edo period this region between Osaka and Nara (the ancient capital prior to Kyoto) was populated with as many as 1,600 sake breweries. Currently, only a few remain.

Yasutaka Daimon, the director and 6th generation of the Daimon brewing family, began with a brief introduction to the process of sake-making and then led a tour of the brewery. After learning about how the product was made, we tasted six different varieties that Daimon makes ranging from their fresh namazakes (unpasteurized) to their Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai Daiginjo nihonshu (sake).

After the tour and tasting, it was time for lunch. We were led to their small restaurant upstairs from the brewery and seated at a small shin high table. The lunch served was Sakekasu Nabe with Salmon paired with our choice of sake.

For those of you who may be wondering what Sakekasu Nabe is, here is the explanation.

Sakekasu comes from the process of making sake; when rice, koji (mold produced when rice is affected with yeast), and water is fermented, the liquid part becomes sake and the solid residue from that process is sakekasu. Nabe is a "hot pot" dish (think fondue with a broth cooking medium) that is very popular during the winter in Japan. Nabe simply means "pot," which is usually made from clay. The nabe (pot) is usually prepared over a gas burner on the dining table. Beginning with dashi (bonito flake based) stock, various ingredients like vegetables, mushrooms, meat or seafood are added to it once it comes to a boil. There are many regional varieties to this dish, and there are really no rules about what to put or not put into the nabe. It is a very social dish, and it is common for family and/or friends to gather around the nabe and drop fresh ingredients in the hot pot while they eat, drink, and talk at a leisurely pace. We observed four men enjoying their sake and nabe experience so much that their glacial eating pace necessitated some gentle nudging along by the servers when all other diners had finished. This is the way it is meant to be!

The server brought us a big clay pot filled with dashi mixed with Sakekasu and placed in on the stove in the center of our table. While the Sakekasu dashi bubbled, we dropped the fresh vegetables and salmon into the hot pot to cook our meal. Sakekasu has the fragrance of sake... it was mild and not as sharp as miso flavor. The rich salmon was great compliment to the mild sake flavor. To go with this we ordered a nama (just-made fresh sake) to go with our lunch. It was the perfect meal for a cold winter day!

We left Daimon with our very own bag of sakekasu, compliments of the brewery. And although we had many more travels ahead of us, we were already thinking about making Sakekasu Nabe in Brooklyn.

More photos of eating in Osaka? Click here!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Miracle at Soujiki Nakahigashi

Our friend Harris Salat has visited Kyoto several times, so we asked him to recommend where we should eat there. Without hesitation, he immediately responded with "Soujiki Nakahigashi." He urged us to make a reservation quickly since the restaurant is very popular. So, Hiroko picked up the telephone (one day in early January) and called the restaurant from our home in Brooklyn.

A woman answered, and Hiroko requested a table for two on Feb 2 at 6:30PM. "See you then," she said, and hung up. Great! We had a reservation. Easily done!

On Feb 2, we went to the restaurant. It was a cozy place with a counter that seated 12, and two additional tatami rooms. There were already 7 customers sitting, waiting to be served, and two more arrived shortly after. After greeting us and chatting briefly (we learned that Masa, yes "that Masa", had made the trip to Kyoto to his restaurant), Chef Nakahigashi-san presented each dish to each member of what quickly had become a friendly group, explaining what it was that we were to be tasting and how it had been prepared.

Every bite either elicited the ultimate compliment of "oishii" (delicious) from everyone or rendered them speechless as they reveled in the flavors and textures of this masterfully conceived and prepared kaiseki meal. Despite the chef's descriptions, the food was so incredible that we don't remember sorry but notetaking just didn't seem right! Chef Nakahigashi-san uses nothing but organic and seasonally available ingredients. It was an experience that was pure and sensitive, and simple and straightforward. His deft use of seasoning ensured that it never interfered with the natural flavor of the ingredients. Sugoi!

A woman from Osaka seated next to Hiroko asked us if we had been to the restaurant before and when we had made our reservation. The gentleman next to Rick inquired if we knew the chef and if we had arranged our trip intinerary around the date of the reservation. At first we were amused by their questions, thinking that they were very friendly people who love to talk to foreigners. However, what we then realized was that they were curious because the restaurant is known to be extremely hard to get a to impossible according to them. In fact, they were wondering how WE living in NY managed to get a reservation at all on such "short notice!"

They described to us how many of the restaurant's customers, while there, make their NEXT reservation 2 or 3 months ahead. The woman next Hiroko told us that she made a reservation for July, 5 months ahead; the man next to Rick told us that he comes to the restaurant every 3 to 4 months. That's how they make reservation, not calling them, but eating at the restaurant! As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for anyone other than regular customers to get reservation...even among people living in Kyoto.

And yet somehow, even though we called from NY, actually had someone pick up the phone, and easily made a reservation only one month advance for the week that we were already scheduled to be in Kyoto, and for the day we wanted???!!! How? Mystery or Miracle?

Soujiki Nakahigashi
Phone: 011-81-75-752-3500
Information on the restaurant in Japanese
(they do not have their own website.)

More photos of dining in Kyoto? Click here!