Monthly Archives: February 2011

Hamburger, Hambagu, Hanbagu… Who Cares? It’s Smothered In Sauce and Delicious.

Denny’s in Japan is not the home of the grand-slam breakfast, chicken fried steak, early bird specials and caloric overload. It is a place to go when you’re in the mood for yoshoku or Japanized Western food. Favorites such as “American” club sandwiches, crab spaghetti, grilled winter vegetable curry and hamburger steaks are served to diners in the mood for something “Western”.

Slide into one of their booths in the morning and you won’t be offered stacks of chocolate chip pancakes, skillets of hash and burritos the size of a serving platter. But perhaps you’d like to order the Choose a Salad Morning. Your choice of a salad accompanied by a stack of small pancakes, toast or rice. For the Japanese breakfast lover, there is Denny’s Balanced Japanese Breakfast: rice, miso soup, an egg and a tofu salad. Unfortunately the Grand Slamwich—egg, cheese, ham, bacon AND sausage busting out from between two slices of bread and served with hash browns—is nowhere to be found. However, you can try to satisfy that craving with the vegetable and egg sandwich to be enjoyed with a bowl of yogurt and fresh fruit.

If you’re an expat desperately needing a greasy American breakfast to dilute the alcohol in your system, your best bet is the Denny’s Morningone slice of toast, two eggs, one slice of bacon, a small sausage and a salad. You may have to order two or three of these to obtain the desired results.

As a kid in Japan I often ordered the Japanese version of a hamburger patty. Served with rice, pasta or French fries but never between sesame seed sprinkled buns. Other than the shape, they are pretty different from what Americans think of when they hear the word “hamburger”. If you order off the kid’s menu your patty comes adorned with toothpick flags. I don’t know why there are flags or what sort of marketing tests recommended them, the idea probably originated in a posh Japanese office filled with old men. Over the last 20+ years the flags have migrated from the hamburger to a the nearby rice but they are still present.

The Japanized hamburger or “hanbagu” is enormously popular. Variations make up an entire section of Denny’s Japanese menu. Below is my version of this yoshoku classic. Try to buy ground beef containing at least 20% fat (health freaks, it’s the fat that keeps the patty moist).

Feel free to celebrate successfully conquering this dish by stabbing a flag of your choice into the succulent mound of meat.

Hamburger Patties:
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1/3 cup milk
¼ onion, minced
1 pound ground beef
1 egg
salt and pepper

Mushroom Sauce:
½ onion, diced
10 shiitakes, stems removed and caps sliced
½ tsp. of salt
2 tsp. flour
1 cup mushroom stock*
1 cup beef stock
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. ketchup
1 Tbs. tonkatsu sauce (or Worcestershire sauce)
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. sugar

  • Preheat the oven to 375°
  • Pour the milk over the bread crumbs. While that softens, mince ¼ onion.
  • Place the bread crumbs, onion, ground beef, and egg into a large mixing bowl. Season generously with salt and ground pepper. Mix with your hands until just combined. Shape mixture into four hamburger patties.
  • Heat a skillet over high heat, add oil and sear the patties on both sides. Transfer to a plate. Add the onions, mushrooms and ½ tsp. of salt to the hot beef grease. Sweat for three minutes over medium heat. Sprinkle in two teaspoons of flour. Cook altogether for another minute.
  • Add the beef and mushroom stock. Stir. Add soy sauce, ketchup, tonkotsu sauce, mustard and sugar. Let it come to a boil while you continue to stir. Turn the heat down and let the sauce reduce by 1/3.
  • Place the hamburger patties in a deep baking dish and pour the sauce on top. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
  • These hamburger patties can be served with rice, potatoes or pasta so long as they’re plated up with a generous spoonful of the mushroom steak sauce.

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*Mushroom stock: when you bring shiitakes home from the market remove the woody stems and put them in a pot with 3-4 cups of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and put in a container. You now have mushroom stock for stews, sauces, and anything else that calls for vegetable stock.

Caution: Smoking Pot May Cause Inability to Invent a Cuisine

To me vacationing in Western Europe means sitting atop a cliff in Majorca surrounded by the deep blue Mediterranean, feasting on prawns the length of a man’s hand, split from head to tail and grilled over an open fire. Dressed with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Digging into crisp bottomed paella, bright yellow from saffron, loaded with spicy chorizo and briny shellfish.

Enjoying a leisurely lunch at a sidewalk bistro in Paris. Tearing off a hunk from a still warm baguette and generously covering it with rich liver pâté. Hands hovering over a wooden board loaded with cheese, pickles and charcuterie. The hardest decision of the day is trying to decide between the duck mousse and rabbit rillettes.

Pausing at a hill town in Tuscany to savor a plate of delicate potato gnocchi covered in the most beautiful blanket… shaved black truffles. Dizzy from their pungent earthy charms I begin to fantasize about cashing out my 401K, buying a villa, (in my delirious state my meager 401K has turned into millions) and spending my days staring out at the rolling hills and statuesque cypress trees.

This is the Europe of my past trips. So, when the chance came to spend a week in Amsterdam, I booked a flight immediately. I had been warned that the term “Dutch cuisine” was an oxymoron, but wasn’t too worried. After all, Amsterdam is a short train ride from Brussels and Paris. Surely the French managed to slip some culinary secrets their way. Besides, Amsterdam is famously known for its liberal stance on legalized pot. A city with a perpetual case of the munchies—I reasoned—is bound to have some fairly decent late night snacks.

I was wrong.

If I were using very simple word association to describe cuisines, I would say Korean … garlicky, Indian…complex, Vietnamese…herbal, Dutch….flat. The Dutch food I encountered completely lacked distinct flavor—no acid, sweetness or spice. Above all, it was seriously missing salt. Your palate lies limp. Like a bad marriage bed, it’s present for the act but secretly hoping for a premature end.

I was excited to try the French fries in Amsterdam, but it would seem that French potato magic didn’t make it past Belgium. The Dutch fries are cut thick and smothered with mayonnaise. I don’t know how you can make garlic-herb mayonnaise flop, but they accomplished it with their overly sweet goop.

I couldn’t bring myself to order the popular deep fried skinless meat sausage or breaded meat ragout after the disappointing Dutch fries. Ground meat mixed with flour, breaded and fried like a croquette must be the answer to midnight munchies. On the tourist filled street Leidsestraat, an entire shop consists of hot snacks that can be purchased out of vending machines. A large fry station in the back of the establishment keeps the front machines filled. While this is may be a brilliant answer to dealing with the annoying, stoned tourists, a culinary treat it is not.

Perplexingly, the Dutch don’t lack for quality ingredients. The local market displayed some of the most beautiful seafood I’d ever seen. This left me to speculate on the unfortunate events that must occur on its trip from the market to the dinner plate.

However, all is not lost. If you do find yourself in Amsterdam, and in desperate need to arouse your palate head over to the Peruvian restaurant, Casa Peru. Their lomo saltado— strips of savory beef pan-fried with fries, tomatoes, onions, ginger and cilantro—was the most flavorful plate of food I had while I was there. It had everything other dishes were missing: acid from tomatoes, sweetness from the caramelized onions, punchy ginger and herbal cilantro.

The fluffy homemade bread is served with an olive and sun dried tomato tapenade. You will be fighting with your dining partners for the honor of licking the bowl.

If you’re in the mood for French food—and don’t want to blow a month’s rent for dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant—visit Cote Ouest. Seared duck liver with stewed prunes required a couple generous shakes of salt, but the sweet prunes balanced the liver nicely. Together they make a luscious spread for slices of baguette.

The mussels could use a boost of flavor, perhaps they’ve been muted to suit the Dutch palate. But the French fries are thin, crisp, and thankfully someone in the kitchen knows how to make a good mayonnaise. The classic sole meunière, aided by a lemon wedge and saucer of melted butter, is simple but pleasant. Initially you may find yourself reaching for the saltshaker, but once you adjust the seasoning everything is quite satisfactory.

Perhaps I shouldn’t judge the cuisine before having a chance to enjoy a true Dutch delicacy—herring. I find the thought of buying a raw herring from a fish stall, covering it in onions, cocking my head back and chowing down like a hungry pelican both fascinating and terrifying.

Amsterdam is not a food vacation spot. However, its gorgeous architecture, canals, and people watching make it a fabulous city worth visiting. I will definitely return. However, next time I’ll be sure to tack on a few days at the end of the trip to fulfill some culinary fantasies… in France.

Shall We Dance?

Movement in the kitchen is a carefully choreographed dance. Your dance floor may be 50 square feet or 15 square feet, but cooks must always be aware of where their “partners” are. In addition to the other people, you have to dance with props. As anyone who has actually performed with a hat, fan or umbrella knows—it’s a lot harder than it looks. In the professional kitchen your props are searing hot pans of braised meat, pots of boiling stock and sauces, knives, ovens, skillets and food of all sorts. Oh and let’s not forget fire.

A serious failure by a clumsy cook is akin to a dancer failing to execute a complicated lift… someone will be hurt, another will stand there like an idiot, the choreographer (Chef) will be yelling, and there will inevitably be someone laughing. But the worst part is— the performance will be brought to a grinding halt.

Luckily, there are lots of simple verbal cues to signal impending moves to your dance partners.

“Behind”: Stand where you are, someone is executing a tricky spin behind you. When you hear someone call this out in your vicinity, it means that it would not be prudent to turn, knife or cutting board in hand. It is also not the moment to take a large step backwards or stretch you aching muscles.

“Below”: Take a step to the side or turn your body just enough to allow your fellow cook access to the drawer or low boy under you. Failure to do so may result in a drawer or door to your most sensitive bits.

“Below” and “behind” may also mean that someone is crouched down behind you… the perfect position to take out your knees. Stepping back into them would result, at the very best, in a back flip. However, the kitchen dance is more similar to a high-speed, multi-partner waltz, not a B-boy street competition. Flips will not score you any points.

I learned the importance of properly signaling my moves after failure to do so resulted in a second-degree burn to the forehead. I bent under the flattop to retrieve a blender. As I stood up the cook behind me took a step back. My forehead kissed the stove’s scorching stainless steel border… instantaneous blister. That was also the day I learned a new use for the kitchen dunce caps, hiding the battle scars from one’s stupidity from Chef.

“Corner”: One cook is carrying a 22-quart container of chicken stock down the stairs on his way to the walk-in. Another cook is bringing up his ingredients to start prepping his mise en place for the night: delis, c-folds, a gallon of milk, five shallots, a bundle of herbs, vegetables, a bottle of white wine and ten eggs are precariously balanced in a hotel pan. Were these two to occupy the same space and time unexpectedly, the results would be akin to a collision between two scooters returning from a family trip to the local market in Bangkok or Kaohsiung (anyone who’s lived in Asia and witnessed a family of four piled on to one scooter—papa steering with handlebars laden with produce, while mama holds on to a toddler and junior on the back balances a chicken and piglet for dinner—knows what a major disaster this would be). So, to avoid a serious spill smart cooks will call out “corner” when coming around a blind turn baring a full load.

The shin tap: This is a Chef specialty and an extremely effective silent maneuver. Rather than saying “below” he’ll tap a side of your shin or ankle. Translation—take a quick side step in the opposite direction.

The pace of the dance quickens once service begins. There is less signaling; at this point you are expected to anticipate your partners’ moves. Often two or three cooks will be plating delicate, multi-component dishes at once. The dance begins to have strong similarities to an advanced game of twister on fast-forward. Learn the moves or get out of the game.

I almost took myself out of the game… when I burned Chef (yes, I lived to tell the tale). During service, I stand to Chef’s left and sometimes use part of his station to plate canapés. Disaster struck one night when I approached from behind carrying a soufflé on a sheet tray straight out of the oven. As I went to put it down, Chef slid his hand left. The scalding tray came down on his knuckles. In that second I saw my culinary career flash before my eyes. It was not promising. In fact there was nothing much but panic and blackness. Chef was pissed (obviously), but surprisingly he didn’t boot me out of the kitchen. Although he didn’t let me forget my transgression… nor did the general manager, sommelier, pastry chef, souf chef, line cooks, dishwashers, or anyone who caught wind of my crime.

Chef said that I was the first person to burn him in his 20+ years in the kitchen. “Someone once threw a hot skillet at me, but I dodged it… no one’s ever burned me before”. The best way to describe that experience would be utter humiliation. But now I never fail to call out “hot behind” when approaching anyone who has his or her back to me.

If you plan to step foot into a professional kitchen learn the basic moves above if only so that you can avoid a fate like mine… going down in history, unlike the hot skillet thrower, as someone stupid enough to successfully injure their chef.